"Your Majesty's brothers are without in the forecourt. Lord Goujun and Lord Gouen."
Goukou raised an eyebrow at his chamberlain's expression.
"They are in the company of four guards from the borders of the northern crevasse. It seems," the man's eyes shifted, "they were attempting to enter the region without authority."
"The region is off-limits to anyone until the disturbances there subside. That was proclaimed yesterday."
"Yes, your Majesty."
"Call Lord Goushou to me."
"And let my brothers wait where they are."
"They went to the northern crevasse? Are they mad? What could they have been thinking of?"
"A good question. What do you know of this, Goushou?"
"Nothing, ani-ue. How should I?"
"They are your younger brothers. You are responsible for their actions."
Goushou's face went still.
"Yes," Goukou said, reading his thoughts. "Father is dead and I am king in his place. You are next eldest, and the responsibility for the youngers devolves on you."
After a moment Goushou bowed. "As my ani-ue decrees. I will bear the punishment for my brothers' misdeeds."
You thought life would be easier now, Goushou? Welcome to adulthood. Aloud he said only "Have the guards bring them in."
"So? What explanation do you have to offer?"
He looked down at Goujun and Gouen before him, kneeling on one knee, right hand to the ground and left hand at their waists as was proper before the high king.
"Your pardon, ani-ue. We wished to see the creatures brought up from the ocean's depths by the tremors." Goujun's voice was unmoved as ever.
"You wished to be swallowed up when the entire region collapsed? You wished to be caught in a tsunami and rendered unconscious to drown?"
"We knew the risks, ani-ue. But this sight comes once in a lifetime only. We thought it worth the danger."
"And you wished to be punished for openly disobeying the commands of your brother and your King?"
That made them tighten their shoulders a little. "We knew we would incur your anger, ani-ue," Goujun said, and his voice too was a little tighter. "We thought it worth that danger as well."
"If we had seen the sea monsters," Gouen said regretfully, and Goujun hissed "Be quiet" at him.
Goukou regarded them for a long moment, then spoke to the guards. "Escort their highnesses to their apartments for now, and bring them to my study after dinner. You two will go without," he told his brothers, and added bleakly, "You will bear what's coming more easily on an empty stomach."
When they were gone, Goukou crossed his legs, rested his forearms on his knee and his chin on his clasped hands, and pondered. Goushou stood beside his throne, a small disquiet running through him like electricity.
"Both of them are of years," Goukou said at last, "even if Gouen has only just bound his hair. It is coming on time that they began to take responsibility for their own actions. This once, Goushou, I will ask you to shoulder an older brother's responsibilities." His eyes slid over to his brother's listening face. "You will find it hard, harder even than you think. But if we do it right it will not be necessary again."
"I am the king's servant to command," Goushou said without expression.
"Ah," Goukou said. "I see. Then I must find another way."
Goushou loosed a breath. "I am your brother, ani-ue," he said. "I will second you in all you propose." He looked unhappy. "I suppose I too should fast this afternoon."
"Yes," Goukou said. "You've known Father's rod. You know what to expect. I will ask much of you today, Goushou. I gamble with your love. Be one with me in this and do what I ask without question. Can you do that?"
"That is a younger brother's duty, ani-ue, and I am your younger brother. You should not have to ask."
"You are also Lord Goushou, king of the southern ocean, and a fire dragon. Even an older brother must make allowances for the pride of a fire dragon and the pride of a king, to say nothing of the pride of Lord Goushou."
Goushou gave him a sudden grin. Duty was a foreign concept to Goushou, something he strove with difficulty to understand and adapt to. The iron necessities of must and should drove him to a frenzy. But give him just a little space, pay the proper respect to his feelings, and he became as tractable as one might wish.
"I am yours, ani-ue. Tell me what to do."
Goukou smiled back.
"Make the usual preparations, then, for a start. And have some poppy draught ready. We'll be needing it," he added grimly.
The two delinquent princes were escorted into their brother's inner room. Gouen looked tense, Goujun resigned.
"Goujun, go ask Jade Casket for the rod and bring it back here." Goujun bowed and went to the outer office. "Goushou, take my chair. Gouen, you first. Lower your trousers and bend over your second brother's lap."
When Goujun came back he found Gouen bent double, his arms crossed on Goushou's lap and his face in his arms. He held the bamboo rod out to Goukou in both hands.
"You will deliver your younger brother's punishment. Thirty strokes."
"I--?" For once Goujun looked taken aback.
"You. You are his elder. It is your duty to instruct his youth and ignorance, to deter him from wrong-doing and to punish him when he offends."
Goujun's gaze dropped. "Hai, ani-ue." He turned reluctantly towards Gouen, raised the rod and brought it down.
"Harder," Goukou said.
Goujun's shoulders tensed. He struck his brother again.
"Harder," Goukou said. Goujun's fist clenched. "You show him no mercy by holding your hand. You will beat him as I would or you will do it over again from the start." Goujun gave him a drawn look. "This is not meant to be easy for either of you," Goukou told him.
Goujun took a deep breath. "Hai, ani-ue." He raised the rod and brought it down, a third stroke and a fourth and a fifth. The bamboo sounded heavily on Gouen's flesh, and Gouen began to make noise, little grunts as each blow landed. Goushou held him tighter. Gouen cried aloud on the twelfth stroke. Goujun's face twisted. With Gouen's dark skin it was hard to judge where the earlier blows had landed, and at this point it was almost impossible not to hit him in a place where he had not been struck before. He cried again on the thirteenth and then his voice became muffled. He must have put his fist in his mouth. The fourteenth, the fifteenth--
At the twenty-first stroke Gouen's head came up. "Second brother- second brother, I'm going to be sick." Goushou loosed him. He fell to his knees with a hand to his mouth. Goukou nodded at the basin on the table and Goujun quickly brought it over. Gouen retched dryly into it, shaking uncontrollably. Spasmed and retched again, with nothing to bring up. Goukou poured a cup of water.
"Here," he said and held it for Gouen to drink. Gouen took a mouthful, swallowed, and at once vomited fluid and bile. Did it again until his stomach was empty.
"Rinse your mouth." Gouen did so, and spat into the bowl. Goukou nodded to the door. Goujun took the basin away and gave it to one of the servants without. He came back, looking grey about the mouth. Goukou indicated the rod that he'd let drop.
"Continue," he said. "Gouen, back over." Gouen gave a moaning gasp, but he rose and bent again over Goushou's lap. Goujun made as if to pick up the rod, but instead threw himself himself full length at Goukou's feet, and put his forehead to the ground. "Ani-ue. Have mercy," he said. "I beg you."
"Your mercy, older brother. I beg you."
"Get up, Goujun."
"You will get up. You will finish your brother's punishment. If not I will do it myself, and I will double the strokes remaining."
Goujun got up. His expression was fixed. He picked up the bamboo and struck Gouen. Gouen screamed. Goujun's hand shook. For a moment Goukou thought that would be the end of it, and Goujun would do something unforgivable. But Goujun raised his hand again and delivered the last eight strokes, mechanically and efficiently, and Gouen made no further noise.
"Done," Goukou said at the final one. "Have them send a litter for your brother." Goujun moved woodenly away to convey the order. Gouen had dropped to his knees, face still hidden in Goushou's lap. Goushou put his arms about his shaking shoulders and bent protectively over him. There was no other sound in the room but the muffled noise of Gouen's weeping.
Goukou poured out a little of the poppy mixture into the cup Gouen had drunk from before. He knelt beside the other two and put a hand on Gouen's trembling back.
"Gouen. That was bravely borne."
Gouen raised his head. His face was streaked with tears and sweat. Blood welled from his hand where he had bitten into it. Goukou heard Goushou's drawn breath.
"Can you drink without spewing? Take a sip of this and hold it in your mouth first." He brought the cup to Gouen's lips, who drank a little. A tremor went through him, but after a moment he swallowed. Goukou gave him to drink again, and a third time. "Good. Good," Goukou encouraged him. "This will dull the pain, and you will be asleep soon."
"Thank you, ani-ue," Gouen whispered. His breath was coming more evenly. "I'm sorry."
"Yes, you should be. Your disobedience makes us all suffer, not only yourself. Let us not have to do this again, Gouen."
"The litter is here," Goujun's voice said behind them. Goukou helped Gouen to his feet, and Goushou tied his trousers loosely about his waist. He gave Goukou a shuttered look and slipped his arm under Gouen's shoulders. Goukou let him be the one who walked their brother to the door and put him in the litter outside. He heard the shocked exclamations of Gouen's younger retainers and Goushou's low voice talking to the old grandfather who had come with them. Goujun stood across the room, silent and unmoving, like a pillar of salt. Goukou waited. Goushou returned.
Goukou put out his hand. Goujun gave him the rod and went over to the chair.
"Not you," Goukou said. "Goushou, your turn. Goujun, you will watch."
"Ani-ue!" It was Goujun's protest but Goukou's eyes were on Goushou. This is it, Goushou. Do not fail me now.
There was the tiniest of pauses. "Hai, ani-ue." Goushou turned and began to unfasten his trousers.
"Ani-ue, do not do this. This is wrong. It is against nature."
"Your brother is responsible for your actions. When you disobey me, he suffers for it as well as you. You do not take that into account, thinking only of yourself. 'My brother will beat me for this but I don't mind. I can do as I please.' This time you will see what your selfishness does to others, and maybe it will make you think twice in future."
"Ani-ue, I own my guilt. I will take my second brother's punishment as well as my own. But do not make me witness my older brother's shame. I beg you."
"You will watch. That is your punishment. Do you pit your will against me in this as well, to find fault with my judgment?"
Goujun seemed to shrink in on himself. "No, ani-ue. Your pardon."
Goukou looked at Goushou, who turned towards the chair and began to bend over it. His instincts were alert for anything out of the usual. There was no telling what if anything Goujun would do when pushed this far. He was still almost too late. In a single motion Goujun took his knife out and thrust the point at his own eye. Goukou caught his wrist and stopped the blade a bare inch from its target, holding it with difficulty because Goujun's full strength was intent on pushing it in. And then he realized his mistake when Goujun's free hand came up with the fingers curved to take out his other eye. Goukou kneed him hard in the belly. Goujun bent over with a strangled gurgle. Goukou kicked his legs out from under him and went down on top of him when he fell.
"Goushou-- Get his hands--" Goushou was already there, quick in response as ever, trying to pin Goujun's hands and barely managing because Goujun was fighting them both silently and ferociously. Goukou hit him in the belly again so that his mouth came open, and got the edge of his wrist inside so that Goujun was unable to bite out his tongue. At this point Goujun seemed capable of anything.
"Goujun. Stop this. Obey me, brother."
Goujun stopped fighting, but the resistance remained in his body. Goukou took his hand away, ready to shove it back in at need, and regarded his second brother. Goujun's expression was blank and closed as a wall.
"I will not witness my older brother's shame," he said. "I will take my eyes out first. And if you hinder me from that, I will do it after. I know I oppose your will, ani-ue, but there are things I cannot live with the thought of."
"You are stubborn and headstrong and disobedient. You are young and untutored and ignorant. You are only a boy but arrogant enough to think you can lesson your older brother. How do you dare?"
"I am all the things my ani-ue says. It would be best if my ani-ue slew his worthless brother here and now, lest I grieve him more in later days. Do that and I am content."
Goukou straightened up and got off him.
"And the one thing you will not do is obey me."
"I am sorry, ani-ue. No."
He nodded to Goushou, who loosed Goujun's wrists.
"Get out," Goukou said.
Goujun sat up, wary.
"Out." Goukou jerked his head at the door. "Don't let me see your smug and willful face again today."
Goukou struck him hard across the face, so that he fell onto his side.
"Hai, ani-ue." He pulled himself to his knees, put his forehead to the ground, got up and staggered to the door and out.
There was silence when he was gone. Goukou remained sitting on the floor. He put his elbows on his knees and his hands over his eyes for a moment. Then he rested his chin on his crossed arms and looked at nothing.
"Father's way was easier to do," he said at last. "For him, at least. Maybe when I have sons..." He let the sentence trail off.
"Father's way was easier for us to bear," Goushou said. "Why do not you use it?"
"Because," Goukou said. "Because. It is right that sons should fear their father and hold him in awe. But my brothers that I grew up with and partnered in the forms... Would you really rather tremble before me, Goushou? Would it make you happier to have that distance between us?"
"But still you are the oldest," Goushou said, "and still you are the high king, and we must tremble before you whether you like it or not. Gouen will be wary of you from now on, after such a beating."
"You thought me too hard with him? You had as much from our father at that age."
"Only for my own trespasses, not for being persuaded to yours. And you have let Goujun go without a single stroke for his wilfulness, much less for putting the youngest of us into danger. I say nothing against your justice, ani-ue, but I do not understand it."
"Truly not? You think it was Goujun's doing, that they disobeyed me?"
Goushou's eyebrows rose. "You think it wasn't?"
"I know it wasn't. Goujun is not one to act out of curiosity. If he had wanted to see these monsters for himself, he'd have gone alone. Certainly he would never have taken his younger brother into peril. It was Gouen's idea, and Gouen who persuaded Goujun to it, perhaps- or more likely, determined to go and would not be dissuaded from it. Goujun went with him to see that he was safe."
Goushou looked down at the floor and made no answer.
"I know how you love our youngest brother. We all do. But it's too easy to indulge one as lovable as he is, and if we do that his nature will grow crooked. Goujun should have told one of us what Gouen planned, or used force to stop him. He would not. I wanted him to see what harm comes to those he loves when he gives in to their willfulness." He smiled a little bleakly. "He needs to learn to stick to his principles as firmly with Gouen as he does with me."
Goushou snorted. "You don't think it a blessing that there's one person he'll bend a little for?"
"Not if he does it like this."
"Anh." Goushou ran a hand through his red hair. "Are you going to whip me, ani-ue? I'm tired and more than a little hungry, and would like to have it over."
"No. Go see to Gouen. I know your heart is with him. Thank you for your help today, Goushou."
Goushou got onto one knee and refastened the ties of his trousers properly.
Goukou looked up at him. There was silence for a moment.
"Give me today to be angry in, ani-ue, even if I have no cause. We will be friends tomorrow."
He nodded. "As you will, Goushou. Have good rest."
"My brother will be going to bed soon?"
"Not yet. I'm expecting a visitor. Leave the door open when you go." He got up so that Goushou could say his farewells properly, and watched him leave.
Like speaking a foreign language, he thought. Like seeing the world through unfamiliar eyes. Interesting, yes, but tiring as well. I could speak my own language and expect them to learn it, as has always been done before. But this way... this way is my way. It will be easier once I learn to do it properly.
He sat in his chair and watched the room grow dark. His page came to light the lamps, but Goukou sent him away after. At last there was a step by the door and the sense of someone standing just inside the room. Gokou didn't turn to look at him.
"Forgive me, ani-ue. Your worthless brother cannot obey you even in this."
"Has my worthless brother considered that he may be provoking his own death?"
"The trouble of the matter, Goujun, is that you mean that. You think in extremes. Being prepared for the worst is perhaps a virtue, but one needn't assume it automatically."
"I have angered my ani-ue. What should I assume but the worst?"
Goujun walked across the room and knelt by Goukou's feet. There was nothing to be seen in his face. Goujun's curse. If it was Goushou his misery would have been tangible, roiling the atmosphere around him. If it was Gouen there'd have been tears in his eyes, and the look that said Don't be angry at me, I can't bear it. Goujun couldn't do that. His feelings stayed locked inside him so that it was easy to believe he had none. There was only one time when they showed clearly, and this wasn't it.
"What did you come to say to
It took him a moment to be able to speak the words. "Why will you not punish me?"
"What do you think I've been doing?"
"You have been indulging me as if I was six years old and unable to take responsibility for my own deeds. I should not get off more lightly than Gouen. He's only a child---"
"It's you who have been indulgent where you should have been strict. You indulged Gouen's whims and supported his willfulness instead of telling us what he intended." He felt the surprise in Goujun. "Oh of course I knew, Goujun. Your brother isn't a fool."
"Forgive me, ani-ue."
"It's as I said this evening. You pay no mind to blows. Do you really think you got off lighter than Gouen? Because I do not. If I had whipped you bloody, would I have made you as unhappy as you are now?"
"Very well then. You have had your punishment. Shall we be friends again?"
"Please." Goujun took Goukou's hands and held them to his forehead.
"Good. Come spend the night with me."
"Ani-ue-" Goujun looked up in surprise, his face for once open and readable. "Thank you, ani-ue." The little flicker of happiness, no sooner seen than gone, but nonetheless there. Goukou stood up, took Goujun's hand and pulled him to his feet. Hand in hand they went out into the corridor that led to Goukou's bedroom.