At the end of forty days Goujun's funeral was held in the Eastern Ocean. Thither came dragons in great numbers to pay their final respects to the king of the western sea. First to arrive was Gouron, who had long acted as regent for his cousin, bringing Goujun's two young sons. Because of their ages the boys travelled in manform bound to the back of a dragon. Gouron himself bore Kaishou the heir and his second chamber gran'fer, also in manform. Gouron's chief minister carried little Kaifu and his gran'fer, while Gouron's son Kaizan flew beside them for extra security. After them came a great throng of retainers, bathmen, junior gran'fers and porters, some fifty dragons in all. Goukou went out to the battlements to meet Gouron's company and to greet his little nephews. Kaifu was nodding with weariness after the long journey and Goukou at once sent him and his servants off to their quarters, where baths and food were awaiting them. Kaishou he greeted more formally as befitted his ten years and position as Goujun's heir, but seeing the boy looking drawn and dark-eyed he soon sent him after his brother.
"Bathe and eat and rest yourself," Goukou said. "Your uncle Gouron will come to see you before you go to bed, and his room is close by yours should you need him for anything. Command my servants for whatever you require," he told Kaishou's gran'fer.
"I thank my oji-ue for his kindness," Kaishou said, with hands clasped above his forehead. "Oji-ue, my lord uncles"- he bowed to Goushou and Gouen- "have good rest. Uncle Gouron, my thanks and Kaifu's for your care of us this day and always." He had been well-trained in courtesy, but that was only to be expected of Goujun's son. Goukou watched him out of sight before turning to Gouron. "Cousin, I would have you dine with us this evening after you have bathed and rested. There are matters that must be discussed touching on the affairs of our kingdoms."
"Indeed," Gouron nodded. "I will happily attend my royal cousin at dinner."
That night the four kinsmen ate alone and informally. Then Goukou related the decision the brothers had taken, that Goushou adopt Goujun's sons as his own so that Kaishou should become heir to the southern ocean. Gouron nodded in silent acquiescence, but knitted his brows as Goukou continued.
"Goujun knew he was returning to danger when last he left for Heaven. At that time he said to me, 'Gouron is regent in my realm now. If you see fit to transfer the kingship to him I will make no complaint wherever I am, alive or dead.' You have borne the burden of rule in the western ocean these many years, so I would propose we follow Goujun's suggestion and declare you king in proper form."
Gouron frowned down at the tabletop. "Your worthless kinsman is not ungrateful for the honour you propose, but it is not possible for me to accept. If the Bosatsu spoke truly, and I cannot see how se would not, the White Dragon is gone but for a space. How will I be able to look him in the face when he returns and sees me claiming the titles that are rightly his?"
"We do not know how long that space may be," Goukou said. "The western ocean should not be without its proper lord."
"The Bosatsu said Goujun-sama would return soon as dragons count time. Let us rely on hir words. A hundred years or five hundred is still too early to be thinking of transferring the rule to a junior branch of the family. Add to which, it is not right for me to take precedence over a son of the main line. It is Gouen-sama who should become king of the western ocean, not I."
Gouen caught Goukou's eye and looked away. Goukou knew what he was thinking. Gouen was attached to his cold northern ocean with its storms and gales and would not relish a change to the peaceful, blander waters of the west. But solider arguments than that were needed if they were to overcome Gouron's evident determination.
"For the sake of peace and good government, I would have you both keep where you are. Gouen knows the peoples of the northern sea as you the peoples of the western, and I see nothing to be gained by setting up unaccustomed rulers in two oceans. If we raise you to the kingship we make you brother king with ourselves, and you are Gouen's elder, so there is nothing unfitting in your remaining in the western ocean."
"Yet still I would beg my royal cousin to reconsider. It is not my desire to take the throne and it will grieve me greatly if you force me to it. Let me continue to act as my cousin's regent and await his return as I did before, when he was serving in Heaven."
"There is also the matter of the succession," Goukou reminded him. "Kaishou will be living henceforth in the Southern Ocean. It would be unkind to separate him from his brother when he has already lost his father, so Kaifu too will live there as Goushou's son. Who then is to be heir to the western ocean?"
"Lord Kaifu is the heir, of course. The practices of government he may learn from his foster-father-" he nodded to Goushou- "and learn all the more happily for doing it in the company of his brother. Time enough after he comes to manhood for him to learn the conditions of his own sea. And before that Goujun-sama may well have returned to take charge of matters again. Until then I ask only to be allowed to care for his kingdom, and my son after me if by chance I should not be there."
"That is truly your desire?" Goukou asked him. "Your services to your cousin's kingdom and his sons, as well as Goujun's own will, qualify you for more than to be a steward all your days."
"That is truly my desire. It is my duty and my pleasure to be of use to my kin and to Goujun-sama, and the only reward I would hope for is your continued confidence in me, your poor servant."
"That you may be certain of. Then it shall be as you say. You have deserved too well of us these many years for me to balk you in your wish now," Goukou said. "But do you inform Kaishou and Kaifu of the changes we plan for them, so they have time to get used to the idea before the formal announcement.
"And that will be after the funeral?" Gouron asked.
"At the feast following."
They went to sing Goujun's parting song, Gouron now taking the western position. "No need to accompany me to my quarters, cousin," Goukou told him. "Let us say good-night here so you may look in on the boys before they are abed." He and Gouron exchanged kisses and the other two in their turn. Gouen and Goushou followed Goukou to the door of his apartments to bid him good-night there, but he nodded them inside and sent for their bathmen. After they had washed down and were relaxing in the hot water, Goushou said, "I always wondered if there was something between Goujun and Gouron. It must have been hard for them, meeting only at long intervals like that."
"Indeed?" Goukou raised an eyebrow. "I have difficulty seeing that somehow."
"Gouron is closer to third brother in nature than any of us," Gouen observed. "No wonder third brother was untroubled at leaving his realm for long periods- it was as if he left himself behind. Yet for that reason I think it unlikely his heart would turn to our cousin, for it is dissimilar natures that attract."
"Not always," Goushou objected. "Goujun was never one to make a display of his favourites, but those I know of were much like himself- quiet and steady and, if I may be honest, a little dull."
"He spent long years in Heaven," Goukou said, "where there are few of our kind. I don't think he could have had a proper favourite at all. Perhaps that was why in the end..." and did not finish the sentence.
"It was in Heaven I met the Marquis," Goushou pointed out. "If Goujun had wanted a favourite he could have had one. The fact is he didn't. There is no need to reproach yourself or think that neglect on your part made him turn to the kami. Goujun chose the path that led him where he is now."
"I do not want to quarrel with you at this time of all others, Goushou. I know you and Goujun were ever at odds and you had no sympathy for him. His feelings were none the less deep because he didn't show them to the world as you do."
"I never said otherwise," Goushou retorted. "I say only that he did as he wished in despite of us. It was not loneliness or his brothers' coldness that took him back to Heaven but his own desire for change and adventure."
Goukou's mouth tightened. "It is easier to blame Goujun than to mourn him, and doubtless that is why you do it--" Goushou stiffened in anger, but Gouen cut in before he could speak.
"Give me leave to speak plainly, ani-ue. If I am the only one who has blamed third brother for his rashness then I must beg both your pardons. I mourn his loss and I am angered at the carelessness of Heaven that would allow so monstrous a thing to happen. But I am angry as well that he chose to leave us and return there, knowing that he might well bring this sorrow on us. He took thought for his realm and his sons, but what thought did he take of us? I will greet him with gladness when he comes back, but were I his older brother and not his younger I would have some choice words to add to my welcome."
Goukou gave a snort of unhappy laughter. "I do not doubt it. I have some words of my own I wish to speak to him. But were he to walk in here now I think I would forget them all in my joy at seeing him again."
"Yes," Gouen said, and sighed. "It is wrong that he is not here. I thought it would be easier to bear with time, but it is not."
"I know," Goukou agreed. "When people consult me about details of the ceremony I keep thinking, 'I must ask Goujun which is better, the traditional white hangings or these new-fangled purple ones.' It is... vexing, and more wearisome than I can say."
"He is not dead as we know it," Goushou said, "and doubtless that is why your mind trips you up. Gone is gone and can be dealt with. But gone elsewhere and coming back in some uncertain future- that is neither one thing nor the other. Your pardon, ani-ue, for my temper earlier. This unsettled condition frets me as well."
"Yes. But you know we cannot afford to fall out now, for we are like men who carry an ague in their bones that may yet kill them if they do not keep from the cold and damp. It lacks only a few more days and then the worst of it will be over. Let us bear and forebear until then."
He rose and the other two followed him out of the bath. When their pages had put their evening robes on them Goukou dismissed them both, judging it better to leave them to each other's company rather than spend the night together as he had hoped. He turned back to his sitting room with a silent sigh. A few more days only, and they would be busy ones. Doubtless it was best that he sleep when he could.
"Bring me wine," he said to his attendants. "The rest of you may go." They bowed, and Shenzen wished him good-night for the others. There was a step beside him, the clink of metal on the table and the gurgle of wine pouring into the cup. He turned. Jourin was standing with eyes lowered and fist to breast, waiting dismissal. Goukou reached over and took one slim brown hand in his own. Jourin looked up in startlement, and all his heart was in his face as their eyes met. Goukou rose and in silence drew him over to the bed.
Other nobles arrived in their turn- dukes, princes, counts, barons and marquis. Each was assigned his rooms in the palace according to rank; each came before the high king in his audience hall to receive his greetings; each then went to the side chamber where Goujun lay in state to pay their respects to the dead king. Among the arrivals was a green dragon whose hair was bound in a plain black fillet and who said only to the guards on the battlements, "I come from the Hermit of the eastern sea with a letter for the high king." The guard captain in perplexity turned him over to a chamberlain, who would have lodged him in the general guest house until instructions came on what to do with this unknown person. But the man said, "I may not abide. I come only to deliver my master's letter. Please advise his Majesty that his uncle's messenger is here." Astonished and dubious, the chamberlain consulted the Chancellor's secretary, who spoke to his master, and received an immediate order to bring the green dragon into the king's presence while Hisui himself hastened to inform Goukou of the man's arrival. Goukou received him standing, with Goushou and Gouen by his side, and took the letter in both hands.
"My uncle is in health?" he asked.
"I thank you, he is well as ever."
"Our thanks for having brought his message," Goukou said. The man bowed from the waist, but not as a courtier would. Goukou opened the letter and perused it silently, then read aloud:
'Waves on the ocean's face vanish in an instant.
Salt spray flies upwards and fades into air.
Moment to moment, changes unceasing.
Formless, unstable, this world below.'
'There is no place on the ocean's surface where a man may set his feet. He must fly above the moving waters and fix his eyes upwards. For the sky behind the sun and stars is always there and does not alter.'
"Greet my uncle from us," Goukou said, "and thank him for having thought of his worthless nephews in the midst of his retirement."
"I will do so," the green dragon said.
Gouen caught Goukou's eye, asking permission. Goukou nodded and he spoke aloud. "Of your kindness give him this message in return.
'Waves on the ocean's face vanish in an instant
Yet return in the morning to their old shore.
Not the same waves but still the same water
Ruled and bound by the power above.
The sky above the sun and stars is always there, and if we put our trust in it it will not fail us.'"
The green dragon looked amazed, but bowed and said, "I will so inform my master," and took his leave.
"I wonder how our uncle learned of Goujun's death," Gouen mused, "for he lives out of the sight and hearing of the world."
"He has his ways," Goukou said. "You would not remember him well, I think, from when Father died and he withdrew from the world. But I was there when he spoke to our uncle Goushun of his intention. He is a black dragon like yourself, and he hears things in the rain and in the spaces between the clouds. They told him Father was dead before ever our messenger reached him, and he took himself to his hermitage the better to listen to those voices only he can hear."
"I didn't know that," Gouen said. "I wonder then how much the winds and clouds tell him. For they travel the whole surface of the earth and little can be hid from them."
"What are you thinking?" Goukou asked, a premonition crossing his soul like the shadow of a swift cloud.
"Have you not wondered where third brother is now, and in what form?"
"No," Goukou said, and only then thought it odd that he had not. "If you want to know that you should ask the Bosatsu."
"That I would not do," Goushou interjected. "I do not trust Kanzeon to have our best interests at heart, or anyone's."
"I trust hir to have our best interests at heart," Gouen mused, "as ani-ue has our best interests at heart when he chastises us. Learning of third brother's condition from the Bosatsu is not likely to be any pleasanter than that. I would rather have it from one of our own race and family, for the hearing is not likely to make me glad."
"Why not?" Goukou asked, surprised.
"He is in another body here on earth, and that body cannot be a dragon's. We are not upon the Wheel as men and youkai and beasts are. Therefore he must be one of those other things." Goukou stared in blank astonishment. "If he remembers who he is he will know shame, and if he does not remember he is no longer our brother in any way we understand. Knowing the truth can bring only pain. Yet the question of his whereabouts has troubled me for days now, and will trouble me until he returns."
His brothers looked at him in silence.
"You are not resigned to him being gone," Goushou said at last.
"How can I be, knowing that he is here on earth and that if I looked I might find him? It is that thought that will not let me rest." Gouen turned away from them. "I would know the worst," he said, "and then I think I could bear it more easily. But it will grieve third brother if I seek him out, if not now then when he returns to himself. And so--" His shoulders slumped. Goukou came and put his arms about him.
"Be at peace, little brother. The question cannot be answered right away. Put it from you for the moment and concentrate on your duties. Afterwards we will talk more of the matter. If need be I will ask the Bosatsu myself, and decide what is best to be done."
Gouen buried his face a moment in Goukou's shoulder. "Ani-ue, I am ashamed. I am a man and a father and should not require my oldest brother to stand between myself and that which I fear to hear."
"You were closest to Goujun and you feel his absence most," Goukou said. "Therefore it is right that I should take greater trouble to spare you pain. There is no need for shame that I still look after you like an older brother. That is what I am."
"I thank you for it," Gouen said. "But it seems not right that there is none to look after my ani-ue and he must bear my burdens as well as his own."
"That you are still here for me to bear your burdens is cause enough not to mind them," Goukou said.
"Ani-ue, be merciful," Goushou said. "You'll have him in tears if you keep on like this," and there was an odd sheen to his eyes as he spoke.
"Ah then, let us talk of other matters. Shanten-oh will arrive tomorrow, and then Gouen will be happier."
"And not I alone, I think," Gouen murmured.
Next day Shanten of the Western River reached the palace with a modest number of followers. All three ocean kings were out on the battlements to greet him. Goukou embraced him like a kinsman, for the memory of Shanten-oh's recent kindness was still fresh in his heart. Goushou saluted him as the father of his Older's Older and as a man esteemed among the cultivated for his accomplishments. Gouen bowed with clasped hands like a disciple to his master, but Shanten took hold of his shoulders and raised him.
"You have long since become my equal as a poet, Gouen-sama, and it is my pleasure to greet you now as a friend."
"You do me too much honour, my lord," Gouen murmured, even as he permitted the touch of Shanten's cheek to his own.
"You will be weary from the flight, Grandfather," Goukou said. "Your rooms are ready and my servants will look after your needs and those of your men. If you are rested tomorrow, I will ask you to join us at the morning meal and afterwards to discuss the ceremony."
"My thanks for your hospitality, Goukou-sama, but indeed we made an easy journey of it and stayed with friends the last three nights. I will attend on you whenever you wish."
Goukou saw him conducted to his chamber and returned to the formalities that these days demanded of him. Yet that evening after supper he sent to Shanten with the message, "I do not ask the King of the Western River to company with me after his long journey, but it would hearten me greatly if he would spend the night at my side." Shanten returned the answer, "Gladly" and arrived at Goukou's chambers shortly thereafter with his bathman. They bathed together and sat afterwards on the balcony while Goukou's pages served them wine and fruit. The moon was coming up in the pale blue sky, and the evening breeze blew off the ocean.
"I had no chance to thank you before for your kindness and care of me," Goukou said, "and indeed I lack words to express the gratitude I feel. For you and my Uncle did more than relieve my heart. You saved my family from the disaster I would have brought upon it in my grief and anger, and for that I cannot thank you enough."
"It was my honour to have been of use to so great a king," Shanten said. "Even in these sad days I may hope that things go better for you now?"
"Better, yes, in their way. I do not know if word of this has yet reached the continents, but it is so amazing a thing- and so scandalous a one too- that I fancy it must be common knowledge by now."
Shanten raised quizzical eyebrows.
"Ahh. So you have not heard? My people are more prudent than I had thought," Goukou said, sardonic. "This then is what has happened to Goujun-" and he related the whole tale of the Bosatsu's letter. Shanten exclaimed in amazement.
"Goujun-sama in another body... Truly, to my knowledge that has never happened to one of our race. What a strange thing. Yet is he a dragon still?"
"That we do not know. Gouen has had some thoughts on it: the matter troubles him greatly. He thinks that Goujun must have become something else- a man or a youkai or maybe even a beast- one who is by nature upon the wheel as we are not. That is a hard thought to bear."
"Hard indeed," Shanten said. "And yet..." He fell silent.
"Yes?" Goukou prompted him.
"It would be-- a great adventure, if nothing else," he said slowly. "To wear another body- to see through eyes that are not red but white or black. Goujun-sama was always intrepid of spirit. I think it not impossible that he might relish this experience."
"Indeed." Goukou's mind felt as though it wasn't moving properly. The idea of solid Goujun enjoying something so outlandish should have been laughable, but Shanten's words struck an odd chord of memory that his mind flinched from examining. "See if you can convince Gouen of that," he said instead. "He's taking this harder than I had expected."
"Ahh. I will speak to him, certainly."
The night was drawing in and the air growing chill. Goukou and Shanten rose and went inside. Goukou's pages held the coverlets of the bed open for them, covered the two kings, and withdrew in silence. Goukou stretched out, aware of weariness after the day's formalities. Shanten looked over at him. Their eyes met and Goukou moved over in the bed into Shanten's waiting arms.
"Truly, Grandfather, I do not expect you to company me."
"I know. You are more weary than I. But let me hold you till you fall asleep, for what comfort that may give you."
Goukou only said "Anh." The warmth and familiar smell of Shanten wrapped him in a sense of well-being like a cloak. He closed his eyes and hid his face against Shanten's neck, as Gouen had done with him only the day before. "I meant it when I said your company would hearten me. Thank you for coming, Grandfather."
Shanten stroked his hair, and Goukou didn't remember when sleep took him.
He woke what seemed an eternity later, to see the scales of Shanten's cheek beside him in the pale light of dawn. Shanten was still turned towards him and Shanten's arm was still about him. After a moment Goukou reached and kissed the sleeping mouth. He is my guest, not my brother or servant, his mind reminded him, but the thought was dim in the warm waking world of his bed. Clearer and more demanding were Shanten's carved lips, blue as Goukou's own, and the silver-threaded hair at his temples, and...
Shanten's eyes opened, and a moment after his arms tightened across Goukou's back. Strength in them unexpected, and the narrow ruby slits of his eyes looked almost a stranger's. And that was somehow right, for Goukou felt not wholly himself either. Shanten's mouth opened to his and Shanten's legs wound about his own, seeking to pull them closer, and there was no more thinking then. Goukou's mouth worked across Shanten's lips, his neck, his ears, marking all the blue skin with the seal of his possession. He sucked at the tips of the horns, and the body beneath him writhed and pressed hard against his groin. Kindness, courtesy, dignity, those were what he knew of Shanten-oh. But here now was something else: dark fire and passion, submission and supple will. 'I am here. I am yours. Take me.' Goukou was drunk with the sweet headiness of it and the feeling that he had never known anything like this in his life.
Shanten's fingers, his half-grown talons, gripped Goukou's buttocks as if to goad his lust. Shanten raised a leg and Goukou leaned against it, pushing the torso back to where he might have entrance, and came within. Came inside the body that wrapped its core about him in ways he had never ever felt, maddening ways that threatened to send him from himself. His eyes met the ones below him and he saw looking back at him a stranger who was yet friend and brother, a nameless presence that he knew as well as himself. Joy filled his soul like wind under his wings- You here, you here at last, how I have missed you. Joy made his body move in the hard heavy rhythm of troops going to battle, steady flight determined and purposed, wings down, wings down, in out, in out, steadily moving above the steady gaze that looked back at him until the goal was in sight-- and then sudden clouds came between them and blinded Goukou as he arched and thrashed and cried his accomplishment aloud--
---and fell the many leagues down to the unmoving grounding earth. He lay in the darkness, in the Shanten smell, and heard his own gasping weeping breath and felt scalding on his skin his own shame-filled tears. Shanten nuzzled the edge of his ear.
"Grandfather," he managed. "Grandfather- your pardon--"
"For what, my lord?" Shanten's voice, beautiful and musical; Shanten himself again, if he had ever been anything other. If this last half hour had been anything more than a product of Goukou's lust and the strangeness of these days. Shame burned him anew, hot as his tears, and Shanten seemed to sense it, for he continued, "Do not distress yourself, Goukou-sama. I company you here as I did at the Western River, in whatever way you require. It is an honour and pleasure to do so."
Goukou wiped his eyes. "Men need not speak of the greatness of soul of the ocean dragons when Shanten of the Western River outdoes us all in generosity. Truly, Grandfather, I am sorry to have behaved so outrageously to you-- "
"Goukou-sama." Shanten put a gentle finger over Goukou's mouth. "Listen:
'When storms beset your dark night road
and the cold rain beats down,
Even a hut, thatch pale with age,
will do to shelter in.
O traveller, do not hesitate-
strike flint and kindle flame.
Your fire will bring warmth and light
to that old house as well."
"I thank you for your kindness," Goukou said, moved, "but still-- I would not have done that were I... were I more myself. This last month... it has wrought changes in me..." He stopped, afraid to say more. Shanten took his hand.
"Goukou-sama, there is a thing I think you need to hear. Let me speak to you now not as a grandfather but as an uncle, and hope that what I say will not anger or embarrass you. You are the King of the Eastern Ocean and the chief of the dragon tribe, a warrior of renown and a statesman to be reckoned with. You exercise those roles with a wisdom and ability far beyond your years. But the fact is that your years are still few. There are things you have not done and will not do for some time to come. You have danced the Great Dance many times, but the Final Dance never."
Goukou frowned. "Why does that make a difference?"
"There are matters one comes to understand over the years, after the time of young manhood and child-getting. By rights you should have no reason to know any of it now, save that the role you act belongs to an older man, and the knowledge of an older man goes with it. Do you know what I am saying?"
"Not fully, Grandfather," he said, but even as he did he was remembering the supple body he had partnered with only moments previously, that seemed to have nothing to do with the man speaking to him now. He shifted, uncomfortable.
"My foolish son taught you the Forms well, though I say it myself, and your own nature has bettered his instruction. But the rules and practices you learned from him are only the outline of the thing itself. Experience fills in that outline, giving it shade and depth. It is like learning to dance, beginning with the separate steps that eventually one puts together into a series of movements, and then practises in sequence until they become second nature to the body. At that point you know the dance, be it the Moonset Dance or the Warrior's or some other. But there is a stage after that, when dance itself becomes second nature, and a man may move then as he will for his own pleasure and delight."
"One does not diverge from the Forms," Goukou protested, "at least, not with a guest--"
"Ah, at least you recognize that 'at least'," Shanten smiled. "One does diverge from the Forms, and the more as one grows older, for then one sees and acts upon the principles behind the practices. And that I think is why our ancestors in their wisdom counselled against joining with those in the generation above or below, and flatly forbade joinings that are two generations apart."
"Like ourselves," Goukou reminded him. Shanten nodded, unabashed.
"That is what I mean. Your body did what felt natural to it, as did mine, but now your spirit is uncertain. That is because your experiences have outstripped your years and your mind labors to keep up. Who of your age has lost grandfather and father and younger brother, and all to violence? Who has ever completed the practice you undertook in my house a month ago, or has needed to? And I who companied with you then because your need was so great cannot count now as an ordinary guest. That fact your body realizes, though your heart refuses to agree."
"My heart--" Goukou began, and stopped again. If only it were Shantsu by his side, it would be so much easier to say what was on his mind. "I would speak my thoughts to you but it seems wrong to talk of such things to one of my own grandfather's generation. Yes, even though I have companied with you and indeed lain below you. If I must take an older man's viewpoint, still I am a young man with the modesty that belongs to my age, and I would not do violence to that."
"Then do not so. Do what seems right to you and trust your instincts."
"My instincts are the one thing I dare not trust now," Goukou said. "Perhaps you have not heard what transpired here when I returned from the Western River?"
"We are far from the Eastern Ocean and word takes long to reach us. No, I have not."
"Gouen called challenge on me and we battled in the sky."
Shanten's brows rose.
"It was not his own wish," Goukou went on. "Well, not entirely," he added, honest. "He saw what was my desire and obeyed it. It was necessary, but it was a heavy thing to have done and we feel the weight of it still. I do not excuse what I did just now, but I tell you one reason for it."
"A heavy thing indeed, but perhaps not unexpected. No, I do not mean that in any sense that detracts from your honour. It is as I said- your experiences, and those of your honourable brothers as well, have been out of the common run. Three of your close kin have been slain young, before they could get the full number of their sons. It has been many thousands of years since that was common among our kind. Is it any wonder if your instincts hearken back to that earlier age when you see its conditions alive again about you? If your spirit tells you you are at war and calls up the fighting blood in you in response? I see nothing strange in it."
Goukou considered the idea, frowning unconsciously. "It is true," he said slowly, "that I do not understand the person I was a bare month ago, or know entirely why I did as I did. I seem almost a stranger to myself now. But it is a sobering and shameful thought, that I can cease so easily to be- to be the man I think I am and fall into the ways of our ancestors, and never know when it will happen again. You speak of enemies, but the enemy I most fear lies within me."
"Is he your enemy, or is he your protector? Our ancestors were as they were for a reason. We have left off their ways in the main, but it is no bad thing to have that heritage to draw on. No man will think the less of you for showing your blood when it is needful."
"No," Goukou said bitterly. "No man will do it now that Goujun is dead. He would have kept me honest."
"Mhh," Shanten said ambiguously. Goukou looked at him suspiciously.
"Grandfather, what are you thinking?"
"I knew little of Lord Goujun and so I am not qualified to say what kind of man he was. But had I to guess, I would have said he was closer to your ancestors than you might think, for he kept so strict a guard on himself and his actions. One who did not fear his blood would be more at ease with it." Goukou was silent in amazement. "I may be wrong, of course," Shanten said apologetically. "As I say, I did not know Lord Goujun well. But I have three sons, and the two younger have always been energetic and boisterous and quarrelsome. Their heritage comes out in them every day, in small ways here and there. It will never take them to the skies. If I feared that from any of them, it would be Shantsu, for the heritage is his but he gives it no play."
Goukou sought for a thing to say and found nothing. He was remembering that it was not tempestuous Goushou who had called challenge on him but quiet flexible Gouen. Goushou fought him always, and fought him on the ground. Yet still...
"I cannot believe that of my Older," he said with a sense almost of outrage. "If a man was ever free of our heritage, surely it must be he. And Goujun too. He was always so steady, so biddable-" Like Gouen, who bowed his head and yielded his will always, and who had taken to the skies as to his element.
"Then I am doubtless mistaken," Shanten was saying. "You know your own brother better than I do, Lord."
And do I know your own son better than you? Goukou thought. His heart was in turmoil, as if the world as he knew it was being snatched from him by some obscure and malignant enemy. Fear tightened his chest and anger filmed his eyes. And Shanten, quick as ever, must have sensed it, for he touched Goukou's hand.
"Your pardon, Goukou-sama. I hoped to ease your thoughts and I have only perturbed you more. Forgive an old man his rambling."
"Grandfather," Goukou said, after a moment's sharp struggle. "Grandfather, do not be *humble* with me. I cannot bear it. You have been as a grandfather to me indeed and I owe you more thanks than to make you answerable to my moods. But thus it is with me these days, and I suffer sorely from it. Come, hold me again and make me forget my trouble for a little while."
Shanten put his arms about Goukou and his lips to Goukou's horns, and Goukou let the sweet wet arousal of that drive all other thoughts from his mind.
They rose and washed. Then Shanten went in company with Goukou to the dining hall, where he was introduced to Gouron and to Goujun's sons.
"Shanten-oh begot the ruler who bore your father," Goukou explained to Kaishou, "and he is father to my own Older, so he is an old friend of our family. He has consented to be our sixth bearer." Gouron nodded, but Kaishou looked perplexed. "You are Goujun's heir and must bear the head of his coffin. But you are still far from a man's strength and growth and it is a long flight to the caves of the Kings. Lest you overtax yourself we have added an extra man to the usual five. Shanten-oh will be at the foot to balance the flight, while we three and Gouron will bear the sides."
"I see," Kaishou said. He bowed to Shanten. "My thanks for your kindness, Shanten-sama."
"The thanks is mine, Lord Kaishou," Shanten said. "Your father was a man of great courage who fought with distinction both in Heaven and on earth. I am glad to be able to honour his spirit."
Kaishou nodded unsmiling, as was his habit. Not merely the loss of his father but his own nature inclined him to a gravity that was most unchildlike.
"This afternoon we shall practise the formation so you will be ready for it on the morrow," Goukou said. Kaishou's features tensed a fraction but he bowed in obedience.
Goushou spoke. "With your permission, ani-ue-- this is Kaishou's first funeral and it comes long before he should have experience of such a thing. I think it best that I show him the necessary manoeuvres before time. If you can spare me this morning--?"
"That is well thought of. By all means go and practise after breakfast."
Kaishou's eyes sought his uncle's. Goushou looked at him kindly and said, "I think our cousin has told you of the change in store for you. It will be as well for us to become acquainted now, when we are still in our old relationship, for when we return to the southern ocean all will be new to you."
"I see," Kaishou said, looking down at the tabletop.
"Yes?" Goushou prompted. "Speak your thoughts, Kaishou."
"Will we- will we proceed directly to your ocean from here, Uncle?" Kaishou said carefully.
"No. Time is needed to prepare apartments suitable to you in my palace, and for your gran'fers to gather your wardrobe and possessions. You must also make your farewells to those of your father's servants who will not be accompanying you to the southern ocean. It will be a month at least before you come to me."
"Ah, I see." Kaishou said no more, but relief was clear in his body.
With breakfast over each went their separate ways. Goukou heard Hisui's report on the preparations for the morrow, all of which seemed to be proceeding without a hitch. The tailor came for a final fitting of his mourning clothes.
"I shall need to take a little in at the waist here. Your Majesty has lost weight even since last week."
"No doubt. I have no appetite these days. So long as they fit; I shall pray to have no need of them again soon."
"And so do we all," Hisui said.
After that there was the business of his kingdom to attend to and the paperwork that never seemed to grow less. In accordance with tradition dinner on the day before a funeral was always the simplest of meals, and not merely because the kitchens would be busy with the morrow's preparations. But from experience Goukou had given orders that luncheon as well be a cold pick-up affair laid out in the dining hall for the guests and any family members that wished it. Not unexpectedly, he found himself with no free time in the middle of the day.
"Have the kitchen send some cold pasty here. I shall be working through the mid-day meal." Thus he did, and his assistants too perforce, as he attempted to clear as much business as he could before the next day when he would have no time for matters of government, and the day after that when, his experience told him, he would have neither heart nor strength for it. It was early afternoon when Hisui said "Your Majesty" in the firm tone he used occasionally. Goukou rubbed his face and his dry eyes, looked at the last papers in front of him and sighed.
"Let us finish these and then I will rest for a bit."
Hisui's silence was deeply unencouraging. Goukou sighed again, but knew his chamberlain was right. There was another three hours' work there at the least.
"Alright," he conceded. "I will sleep for an hour, and then I must practise the flight with the others so that all goes well tomorrow. But first I will look in on Goujun."
One could never be alone with Goujun now, for the guests and dragons of the Western Ocean were ever in attendance upon him. Goukou felt a small sadness for the earlier weeks when he might visit his brother's body undisturbed and weep beside it if he would. In those days it was as if Goujun were still part of their family circle, whom his brothers might look in on at whiles; silent and gone, but somehow still theirs. It is selfish of me to think thus, Goukou chided himself. Your people who loved you have had little chance enough to say their farewells. But still- each day since your death seems to bring a new loss with it, brother, in ways I never expected; and tomorrow brings the last. And after that I will not see your face again...
He sighed and swallowed the tears that wanted to come to his eyes. Unbidden he heard Shantsu's voice in his head, quoting the Lament for Rinshuu- 'His footstep falls no more within my chamber, and in the courtyard sounds his voice no more.' His chest tightened suddenly and terribly. He turned and walked from the room, keeping his face expressionless even as the words of the poem continued in his mind-
The pillow where his head lay now lies smooth
His chair is empty at our daily board.
His brush lies long unused, his inkstone dry
No word from him will ever come again
He is in darkness now, and has forgotten,
While I in darkness still remember him.
His mind was full of memories of Goujun- Goujun fierce and remorseless at the hunt, Goujun prudent and reserved beside him in audience, Goujun frowning in impatience over the demands of Heaven, Goujun silent and supple in his bed. His body jumped at the thought even as fierce regret pierced him. If only their last time together had been different. If only they had done something, anything, other than what they did. He was remembering a younger Goujun, the one who happily put his will aside to partner his oldest brother. And so you did that time, to your grief and shame. Even if it was the means that preserved you to us, still, still, I would give anything for a chance for it to be different. How I would love you now if only you were here...
His heart was heavy as a stone even though his body sang with lust. He reached his quarters and nodded for Kenson to come disrobe him. Kenson like all his favourites had been chosen for his sense and modesty, and because he could accept the transient nature of a king's love. He would never be importunate but he was accustomed to attending to the King's needs as a matter of course. Whereas today... Today when his mind was full of Goujun...
Kenson wrapped the chamber robe about him and removed his trousers and underdrawers beneath it. He did not look at Goukou, but he could only be thinking one thing. He folded the clothes, laid them aside and waited for the signal to undress. Goukou reached out and lifted his chin. Their eyes met. Still half-undecided, Goukou made up his mind. He kissed Kenson's mouth, the most he dared to do at that moment.
"When I partner with you it will be with *you*," he said. "I will not seek my brother's ghost in your body. Go now and leave me with him."
Kenson bowed, but the tears had started from his eyes even in that moment. Tears for Goukou: Kenson was not one to weep for himself. That his servants wept for him seemed the last sorrow to Goukou's mind. He lay on the bed and gave himself over to grief, and to memories of Goujun, and when the spasm had taken him, to sleep.
The afternoon practice took a long time before he was satisfied that all was perfect. Kaishou aside, it was Gouron's first funeral, as was natural in a man still getting his sons. But it was only the second one for Shanten-oh, which knowledge sobered Goukou. Shanten's father was still alive, though he had resigned his kingdom and the cares of state many years earlier and now lived in retirement. The glimpse of how it might have been for his own family had fortune favoured them sent a pang of bitterness into his heart. But then he recalled whose funeral it was that had been Shanten's first; and remembered that men had died before their time in other houses than his own.
Goushou had drilled Kaishou well, but the boy was clearly tired after both his morning and afternoon practice with his elders.
"You did well," Goukou said, "and will be a credit to your father on the morrow. For now you should go to your chambers and rest. I will have dinner sent there for you and Kaifu so you need not come to the dining hall."
"I thank you, oji-ue. But this night I must stay up in attendance on my father's body, for tomorrow he goes beneath the waves."
This detail had escaped Goukou's thought entirely. "That is a man's duty and you are not yet a man. I would not do violence to your feelings, Kaishou, but what is most needful is that you carry your father's sarcophagus safely tomorrow. Tonight you must sleep."
"I obey my oji-ue in all things," Kaishou said with studied care, "but I hope he will not command me from my father's side on the last occasion when I may see him." Goukou said nothing- could say nothing, for he felt as if something hard had lodged suddenly in his throat. Kaishou looked at him bleakly as the silence continued. "Your pardon, oji-ue. I have angered you. But my duty to my father requires me-" and said no more, for Goukou had enveloped him in a crushing hug. Goukou buried his face for a moment in the boy's yellow hair, battling to speak with a steady voice.
"You are Goujun's son, and you speak as Goujun did when he was here." Yes, and you defy me without defying me just as he did. He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. He loosed his nephew's startled body and looked down at his face. "I will not keep you from him, but you cannot abide the whole night either and I, the high king, forbid you to do so. Choose. The first watch or the last will be yours."
Kaishou thought a moment. "The last, if you will, oji-ue."
"Good. We will send to wake you at the proper time. Now go and bathe and rest, and see you are abed early."
Kaishou bowed to his uncles and withdrew.
"If Kaishou takes the last watch, does he share it with me or do we leave him by himself?" Gouen asked.
"If you give him the last hours they must be his alone," Gouron told them. "It will wound his pride if one of us is there."
"He is a child still, however settled his nature," Goukou said, thinking of the loose hair down Kaishou's back. "Will he be able to stand the whole of the watch from just before dawn?"
"He will make himself do it. His constitution is strong and he is Lord Goujun's son in spirit. But with your leave, I would set one of my close companions among the honour guard during those last hours."
"That is well thought of. Then I will take the first vigil of the evening in your place. Bring little Kaifu to say farewell to his father. Goushou takes the one on either side of midnight and Gouen that of the shank of the night. You-" he signalled a page. "Inform the chancellor that the order has changed in this wise and that- what is your man's name?"
"Konsou. A silver dragon."
"Konsou-dono will be added to the last watch." The page bowed and withdrew. Goukou went to bathe before dinner, then joined his brothers and two eldest sons for the evening meal. It was simple enough- clear soup, rice, pickles and a boiled vegetable only, for no flesh is eaten the night before a funeral- and soon done with. Goukou drank his tea and then rose, and the others with him.
"I shall bid you all farewell for the night now. Tomorrow is a long day, so the more rest you get the better," he said to his sons. Kaiei and Kaisou knelt and put his hands to their foreheads, bade him good-night, and withdrew.
"You also," he said to his brothers. "I will see you at the next watch-" that to Goushou- "and you tomorrow," to Gouen. "Rest while you may." He turned to leave, but not fast enough, for Gouen's voice stopped him.
"Ani-ue." Goukou felt his back tighten, knowing what was in Gouen's thoughts.
"I must be by myself," Goukou said, not looking at him. "I would have the comfort of your company if I might, both of you, and I will be heartsore without it. But I am still not wholly myself. Rather than risk dishonouring my brother in death I will remain alone." The night before a funeral one refrained from flesh and wine and copulation. The first two were easy enough, for they belonged to the waking world; but his passage with Shanten-oh had left Goukou afraid of what might happen if he shared a bed with anyone that night.
"That will be hard for us too," Goushou said. "It is at times like these that brothers should be together, to share their sorrows, and I had looked to the consolation of being with those who knew my grief this night."
"Yet you know why that may not be," Goukou said. He did not add, 'It is as much your doing as anyone's that we must spend the night apart,' but he knew Goushou had taken the message from the way he frowned and dropped his eyes. There was no more to be said. Goukou left the room and returned briefly to his quarters to cleanse his hands and mouth and change into fresh mourning robes before proceeding to the main hall.
Just before sunset Goujun's crystal sarcophagus had been brought from the side room where it had lain for forty days and placed in the centre of the main hall. Candles burned in all eight directions and soldiers from the western ocean stood on guard in a great ring about it, their lances held point down towards the ground. The captain of Goujun's troops stood at Goujun's head. He saluted, fist to breast, as Goukou arrived.
Goukou took up his position at the side and looked down at his brother's body. Goujun was all jade now, a man of stone. The warm and breathing body he had known when Goujun was alive existed no more. The small white baby he had first held, dressed in its long robe; the silent child that had followed him and Goushou about until his older brothers had bound their hair; the slender serious adolescent he had helped Goushou train, murmuring words of encouragement and advice into the white ear and kissing away the occasional tear that Goujun, unwillingly, had let fall. Those were gone for good and would never come back, even when Goujun himself did.
And when he did- 'a body like the one he had before'- but not the same body, no. Not the one he had known and partnered and loved over the years. Wherever his brother's soul was now, the body that had been his was here, turned to jade; and tomorrow it went under the waves to lie beside their father's silver one in the caves of the kings. You are not gone for good, little brother; it is strange that I should grieve to lose only what was the shell of you. But so he did, and the sorrow of his loss wrapped about his heart like a chain.
So that he was relieved shortly after when Gouron came in with little Kaifu- and Kaishou as well, he saw.
"This is the last time we may say good-night to our father," Kaishou was telling his brother in a low voice. "We didn't often get the chance to do it before and after tomorrow we won't be able to at all, until he comes home again."
"I see," Kaifu whispered back. He bowed to Goukou as Kaishou did, a little clumsy still but more gracefully than Goukou's own Kaimyou could have managed. Gouron's training or Kaishou's? Goukou wondered, as he watched Kaishou take his brother's hand and lead him to the coffin's edge where they knelt together. Kaishou put his forehead to the crystal.
"Good-night, chichi-ue. Have good rest. I will come back to stay with you before the dawn." He straightened and nodded to Kaifu. Kaifu pressed his forehead to the glass in turn.
"Good-night, chichi-ue. Have good rest." He raised his head to look at Goujun's stern face for a long moment, as if trying to memorize what his father had looked like. He said to Kaishou, "Older brother, why does Father not come back now? Since he is here on the earth and not in the Dark Lands--"
"Be quiet," Kaishou whispered fiercely. "That is not a proper question to ask." Kaifu looked down hastily, mouth drooping. Best intervene, Goukou thought. He took a step forward to put a hand on his nephew's shoulder, and another thought came to him as he did so.
"Kaifu, your father has been sent into a new body," he said in a low voice, but loud enough that the courtiers and guards present could hear him. "That means he must begin his life over from the beginning. The egg he will be born from has not yet hatched. And when he is born, he will be as the kami who take on flesh down here and will not remember who he was. So I do not look to see him in these halls before the Bosatsu changes his form back and returns his memories to him."
"I see," Kaifu said hesitantly. Clearly he wanted to say more but fear of his brother prevented him.
"Yes?" Goukou prompted. "Speak your thoughts, Kaifu, and you too, Kaishou. It is well to ease your hearts at this sad time, here in the presence of your father's body."
Kaifu's eyes slid over to his brother's, who looked away.
"Oji-ue, will it be long before he returns? If we must wait until he grows up and- and grows old and-" His mouth trembled a little.
"I do not know. The Bosatsu said it will not be long as we count time. Some generations of men, no more. But the ways of the rulers of the universe are not our ways. They twist and turn and a dragon is hard put to follow them. I do not know how se intends to bring him back or by what means. But since it is thanks to the Bosatsu's favour alone that Goujun has been spared to us, we must wait on hir will in this matter."
"I see," Kaifu said again. Goukou wasn't sure he did, but knew that the surrounding guests would have taken the message. There would be no war on Heaven in revenge for Goujun's death, since Heaven was returning Goujun to them. He watched his nephews withdraw and took up his position again.
It was full night and the hall was lit only by the candles and torches flickering in the night breeze that made its way even through the closed windows. In that uncertain light Goujun's face seemed to be frowning at him. Goukou felt a twinge of embarrassment. I was not lying, he thought defensively to his brother's spirit, even if I wasn't speaking the exact truth. The last thing we need is a scandal about your whereabouts now... A wave of sadness washed him. Goujun, brother, what will I do without you to be my conscience? It had become a habit of his, almost unconsciously, to measure things against his brother's standards. 'What will Goujun say when he hears of this?' had got him safely through more than one slippery passage of diplomacy and intrigue that might well have harmed his integrity. A high king must be both politic and cunning at times, but his brother's unyielding standards had kept Goukou on the right side of honesty. And now- now I shall have to do it myself, for there are few who dare to judge the king to his face and your brothers are not among that number. He could hear Goujun's response to *that*. I know, I know- no bad thing that the father of four should learn to take responsibility for himself. But stay with me, Goujun. Leave your voice in my head lest I lose myself as I did before- lest I become as our grandfather and bring ruin on the dragon tribe with my feelings and my pride. Tears were in his eyes again, but he would not let them fall before the company. He composed his thoughts and steadied his breathing and watched the candlelight dance on the stone surfaces of Goujun's face.
An hour before midnight Goushou came to take his place, with a new guard of honour at his back. The mourners who had been there for the first watch also changed for later arrivals. Goukou and Goushou bowed to each other. Goushou went to stand by the side of Goujun's coffin and Goukou returned to his quarters.
Shenzen undressed him, sponged him down with citrus-scented water and wrapped him in his chamber robe. Young Taikan, the night servant, lighted him to the bedroom. One step into the room Goukou stopped abruptly. A tall figure rose from the floor at the end of the bed where it had been kneeling and turned to face him. Gouen.
"You may go," Goukou said to Taikan. Taikan laid the lamp on the table, bowed and withdrew. Goukou waited until the door was closed. "Why are you here when I forbade you to come?"
"Ani-ue." Gouen's dark face was hard to make out in the shadows but his voice was bruised and rough. "Your pardon. I could not bear to be alone--" he swallowed hard "--so I came here-- where I might have the comfort of the sense of you." He wiped at his eyes. "I did not intend to stay. I'll take my leave now. Forgive me my disobedience." He moved towards the door.
"Stop." Goukou took a huge breath and sighed the heaviness from his chest. "Tell Taikan to wake you in three hours and come get what sleep you can." He went over to the bed. Gouen held it open for him and covered him after, then disappeared into the outer room for a moment. He came back in shirt and underdrawers and made to lie down by the door.
"Get over here," Goukou said. Gouen came to the side of the bed and looked down at him in silence. "Don't be stupid," Goukou told him more gently. Clear in his memory was the Gouen he'd comforted the day their father had died, the thin little boy who'd cried into his chest as if the world was ending. "I could no more partner with you now than with Kaimyou. Get into bed. Tomorrow will come too soon."
Gouen lay down. Goukou pulled him over into his arms. Gouen burrowed his wet face into Goukou's neck. There there, little brother, he thought, and knew no more after that.
The next day was clear and fresh. A cool wind was blowing off the ocean, puffing fluffy clouds through the air. Today the whole palace would dress in white, from the king down to the lowest apprentice in the kitchens, and all had fasted from moonset on. Goukou sat up, alone now in his bed, and prepared himself to face the day.
Shenzen and his two assistants arrayed him in his formal garments, the complex series of robes and sashes and overrobes that were worn on two occasions only. His mind went back to the last time Shenzen had dressed him like this- on the night he'd danced with Chichao, Second Princess of the Southern Continent, and gotten little Kaishin, his youngest. But then his robes had been the formal black prescribed for the Moonset Dance, solemn but joyful. And now... Shenzen arranged the folds of his white cloak and stood back bowing, hand to breast. Goukou turned and walked through his apartments to the main door. Goushou, Gouen, and Shanten were waiting in the hallway without, each with three followers. All went to one knee and put their right fist to the ground. He gave no word to rise but as he passed them by, each man in his turn stood silently and followed him. They proceeded thus to the great hall where the guests were already assembled, drawn up in deep ranks on three sides.
The main doors had been opened and now looked out on blue above blue- the blue of the eastern ocean and the blue of the sky. Gouron and Kaishou stood one on each side of the coffin, facing each other over Goujun's white jade body. As Goukou took up his position at the coffin's head they turned and walked in equal time to the foot. Gouen and Goushou moved in to take their places, Gouen on Goukou's right side and Goushou on his left. Kaishou turned again and stood at his father's feet, in the western position, while Gouron continued five more paces to stand by the King of the Western River.
Goukou waited the count of ten. The wind brought the fresh smell of the morning and the tang of the sea to his nostrils, even here within the great hall. A fair day to send you under the waves, Goujun, brother, he thought, and his heart cramped in grief. He took a deep breath, put all thought of that away from him, and opened his mouth to sing the first of the Farewell Songs.
The songs rose and fell- himself alone, then mixed with his two brothers' voices and Kaishou's pure treble, and finally the great massed chorus of all the mourners together. Pages brought small cups of water to wet their mouths between whiles so they might continue with the next set of dirges. Logs were brought and laid down, and the sarcophagus rolled out into the open air for the last of the Farewell Songs. The coffin bearers' six voices rose together, then four, then two- himself and Kaishou. And then he fell silent as Kaishou sang the last stanza. Too young to sing all the dirges of Chief Mourner, it was still necessary that he as the oldest son of Goujun's body be the one to sing the Final Farewell to his father's spirit.
Fly safely to the Dark Land
Fly securely to your rest
You have earned your peace
You have earned your sleep.
I your son remember you
I do not forget you
I sing your name aloud
Though you have forgotten it.
And that indeed was appropriate, even if Goujun's spirit was not in the Dark Land.
The ropes were brought and run under the sarcophagus, and the great looped ends put round each of their necks, where they hung down to their knees. Their manform bodies could have slipped through them entirely, but when they changed in the same moment to dragon shape the ropes fit snugly over their shoulders. They moved their wings in time and rose slowly into the air, and the sarcophagus rose with them. Below the musicians played the farewell music, a solemn steady beat of drum and shrill of war flute, and to that cadence they winged in the direction of the Caves of the Kings. Before them was Goujun's honour guard, twenty dragons from the Western Ocean, including his captain and chancellor and the steward of his palace. Behind them came the chief mourners and guests of honour- their uncle Goushun and his five other sons, who carried little Kaifu and his gran'fer with them; Goukou's sons Kaiei and Kaisou and Gouron's heir Kaizan; the Dukes of the Maelstroms, the Counts of the Four Reaches, six lesser counts of the Western Ocean, and the aged Marquis Kinsan, famed as a poet and maker of songs. In the rear of these flew another guard of twenty of Goujun's soldiers. Eighty dragons in all accompanied the King of the Western Ocean to the Cave of the Kings.
It was an hour's flight to the place. Goukou kept a careful eye on Kaishou lest he show signs of flagging, but he winged steadily forward. At last Goukou saw the guards ahead slowing up and then turning about to form a half circle. They slackened their own speed and stood for a moment treading air while the guests behind them ranged in their own arc, and the rear guard came up to make the circle complete.
"Down," Goukou said, just loud enough for both Kaishou and Shanten to hear him. They drew their wings upwards together and let the weight of the casket pull them downwards to the water's surface and under. The crystal weight sank slowly and the four central bearers drew themselves close together to aid its submersion- Goukou edging nearer to Goushou, Gouron to Gouen. Goukou watched as the blueness of the water grew more intense about them. But the Eastern Ocean is clear here to the measure of a hundred fathoms and the caves of the Kings are visible from above. Goukou kept his eyes alert for the ten-fathom markers, and when they were thirty fathoms down he gave the order for wings down. Each spread an outside wing to slow the speed of their descent so that as the lintel of the great entrance came into sight they were once again bearing the full weight of Goujun's coffin. Then they swam through the gates and into the hall.
Phosphorescence rimed the edge of the stones and the edges of the coffins within so that all glowed in subdued blue twilight. The phosphorus that had been laid into Goujun's coffin shone from the sun of its journey and lit their way. There were glints here and there below from the body of a gold or silver dragon as they swam, along the length of the cave of the most ancient kings to where New Hall thrust off at an angle. And so partway down that until the line of sarcophagi ended. Gouerh's body lay silver below them. They stopped and trod water above the space next to it while they counted five heartbeats. Then Kaishou and Shanten dropped downwards and swam to the side so that the lengthmost rope was free of the coffin. Even under water Goukou felt the increased heaviness on his shoulders. The four of them let the coffin's weight pull them to a few feet above the ground. Gouron and Gouen jinked their necks downwards and slipped their rope free of the foot. Goujun's coffin tilted slightly and began to sink faster at that end. Goukou and Goushou put a talon each to their end and gently pushed so the coffin might remain nearly horizontal. Their eyes consulted each other, and just as they felt the coffin's foot touch bottom they turned to manform and pulled their rope free. A second later the head settled level on the ground.
Floating for a moment in their tiny manforms the six of them slipped free of the nooses, then resumed the dragon shapes whose heaviness and wings let them move at will under the sea. Goukou checked that all was well. Goujun lay at peace, the phosphorescence making his white features glow within his coffin. Goukou lowered his head and spoke a last silent farewell to his younger brother. The others followed in their turn with Kaishou at the end, who spread his wings a moment over the coffin in a final embrace. Gouron stood by him when he straightened up, and nuzzled at his neck in a brief gesture of comfort.
Goukou beckoned and the child moved to his side. Together the three brothers and their nephew went to make their reverences to Gouerh's body. Gouron and Shanten stood behind them in the attitude of veneration to a high king. Then at Goukou's signal they rose through the depths to the ocean's surface and took to the sky.
Two of the soldiers from the rear guard came to relieve Gouron and Gouen of the ropes they had brought back up, draped over their shoulders. They would be burned ten days later when they had dried out. Gouron shepherded Kaishou over to where Goushun's family waited and helped him mount onto the back of Gouron's second brother. His son Kaizan changed to manform as well and rode with Kaishou to keep him safe. It had been Kaishou's desire to fly back in dragonform but Goukou had forbidden it. "It is no easy thing to be a bearer, even for a grown man, and you must be awake and able to do your part during the feast that follows. The flight back will be a good chance for you to rest and recoup your strength." And indeed when they reached the palace of the eastern ocean Kaishou was asleep and had to be woken by his cousin.
Several hours lapsed between their return and the funeral feast. The members of the cortege went to their apartments to wash and rest. Goukou's older bathman, a masseur of great skill, worked on his stiff shoulders while the king half-dozed, his mind full of the memory of blue underwater caverns and the pale bodies of his father and brother gleaming in the depths. He rose at last, dry-eyed and not so much tranquil as unthinking, as if part of his soul had suffered the same change as Goujun, into jade. Shenzen came to dress him a final time in half-mourning robes, white still but bordered in his Older's colours, that he would wear for the funeral meal. And after that, this evening, he would change back into his usual colours. Too soon, he thought unhappily, as he had thought with his father. A mere forty days to show the sorrow of our hearts to the world, and then we act as if all has returned to the way it was before.
'But if a man dressed in white for as long as he mourned his father,' Hisui had said to him, 'he would not go back to wearing colours until his grandsons' children bound their hair.' He knew that was true, but even so it felt wrong. It was a matter of years before the worst of one's sorrow dulled. Surely that was when one should put off white and become part of the world again. 'The world will not always wait on our grief,' Hisui had said. And that was true as well. He sighed, and quieted the sadness in his heart, and proceeded with his retinue to the great hall.
There the guests were assembled, nearly two hundred in all, each standing in his place behind a series of tables ranged down the length of the chamber. Goukou walked through the throng to his seat on the dais. His uncle Goushun was to his right across the width of their table, in the place of honour. Directly below and in front of them was the table where Gouron and Kaishou stood facing towards him, with Goushou and Gouen at either end. Goukou looked beyond them at the company and spoke out, pitching his voice to reach to the ends of the hall.
"This day we have celebrated my brother Goujun's obsequies. The body of the King of the Western Ocean lies now in the Cave of the Kings, next to our father Gouerh. In the ordinary way of things we would now confirm his heir in his kingship. But this is not the ordinary way of things. Changes are afoot in Heaven and in the oceans, and many things that have never happened before have happened now. Not least of them is that my brother's soul has been rescued before it could depart for the Dark Land, through the intervention of the Bosatsu Kanzeon, ruler of the world, symbol of mercy and compassion. He is not dead as we know it, and in the course of time he will return to us. Therefore Gouron, our wise and faithful kinsman, shall continue in his position as regent of the Western Ocean until our brother returns to take up his duties. Cousin, we entreat your favour and good will as before." He inclined his head towards Gouron, who put fist to palm and bowed back.
"This person will expend his utmost efforts to be worthy of the trust the king has so graciously placed in him." There was a subdued stir of approval about the hall.
"Further," Goukou said, "at this time we shall confirm the heir to the Southern Ocean." Murmurs of surprise. "Our brother Goushou, being disappointed of a son gotten of his body, has petitioned to be allowed to adopt Goujun's son Kaishou as his heir. Next month Kaishou will proceed to our brother's palace and be registered as his son in proper form. We would not add to our nephews' sorrow after the loss of their father by parting them from each other, so Kaifu will also be under Goushou's guardianship, to be raised as his foster-son until Goujun returns. Goushou, we ask your good will and favour to our nephew." Goushou raised clasped hands and bowed to him.
"Majesty, your worthless brother thanks you for granting the wish of his heart." He turned to his nephew. "Kaishou, I who have been your uncle will soon be your father. I happily await the day you come to me as my son."
Kaishou put his own clasped hands to his forehead. "Uncle, your foolish nephew thanks you for the honour you do him and prays you will not be disappointed in him." There was another stir of approval at this graceful speech. Goushou was getting a prize there. The boy's manners alone, courteous beyond his years, were enough to make any man proud.
"Friends," Goukou continued, "we have laid my brother's body to rest. We will now eat flesh and drink wine at his funeral meal, not in token of the fact that he is gone from us forever, but in happy anticipation of feasting with him in the future that awaits us." Goukou sat, and the company followed suit. He caught a glimpse of Goushou's face, expression classically composed but with the admiring quirk to the mouth that said Nicely done, ani-ue. Indeed. Walking the tightrope of this funeral that wasn't a funeral, and dealing appropriately with the wrong and the favour that Heaven had done them simultaneously, had promised to be awkward, but he had determined early on to carry it off with a high hand. 'I shall be my grandfather for a space,' he'd told Hisui, 'and let people think what they will.'
Servers were placing the individual servings before the guests. In contrast to last night's frugality, the meal consisted of roasted meat of three varieties, savoury soups and spicy pickles, and was drunk with strong yellow wine. The food and drink on top of the fasting of the previous night and the abstinence of the day before loosened the mood of the company, as was intended. There was no bar to conversation, and the noise in the hall grew louder as men began to speak to their neighbours and recalled for the last time the one who was now gone. It was not uncommon at a funeral meal for half the company to be in tears by the end of it, weeping together in half-drunken grief. But here the tone was somehow lighter, and the banquet concluded in almost a light-hearted mood.
"Uncle," Goukou said to Goushun before he left, "this evening your foolish nephews will be meeting with our cousins in the family apartments, to drink wine and speak of my brother. It would give us great pleasure if you would add your presence to our company."
"I will come and gladly. Had you intended to invite the King of the Western River as well? for with Goushou and Gouen and my own Gouhei there I think the conversation will turn to poetry sooner rather than later, and Shanten-oh has so many ties to us he almost counts as one of the family now."
"I have already invited him," Goushou smiled. "He is indeed like kin to us, as both the lands and the oceans count kinship."
The night was mild and calm, and the three brothers, their uncle, and five of their six cousins assembled in an open gallery high above the waves that looked out to the night sky. Only Goushun's youngest, Gounen, was absent, being still a youth not quite finished his training, and indeed only a few months older than Goukou's own oldest son. Goukou placed his uncle in the seat of honour behind the central table that commanded a full view of sea and sky. He himself took the side to Goushun's right, and Shanten-oh the left. Goushou and Gouron shared the small table on his side, facing Gouen and Gouhei at the table by Shanten. Goushun's three middle sons made up the fourth side of the square, across from their father with their backs to the sea. The servants poured wine for the company, laid out fruit and savouries, and then withdrew, leaving the family to its own company.
Goukou raised his cup.
"I drink to my brother's spirit, wherever it is now, and pray he comes back to us soon." The others drank as he did.
Goushun raised his cup. "I drink to my nephew's spirit, and rejoice that he at least may return to us."
Goushou said, "I drink to my younger brother's spirit, and pray that when he returns, this time he will stay."
Gouen said, and did not look at them as he raised his cup, "I drink to my Older's spirit, for from my childhood he was the strong wall at my back, and I miss him beyond bearing." Goukou's eyes filmed with sudden tears as he drank, but he steadied his voice and said,
"The Marquis Kinsan has made a poem in honour of this day, which he sent to me this afternoon:
The young warrior has gone across the waters.
Why would he not stay for his brothers?
The east wind churns the waves to foam.
The young warrior has gone across the waters.
Why would he not stay for his sons?
The south wind racks the clouds on high.
The young warrior has gone across the waters.
Why would he not stay for his retainers?
The north wind calls the rain in torrents.
The young warrior has gone across the waters.
When oh when will the west wind blow?
There was silence a moment. "Ahh," Goushun said, "the Marquis' verse touches the old sorrow of my heart."
One went to the war; he came not back again
Long though we looked for him through the sad day.
One went to the hunt; he came not back again
Long though we waited until the sad night.
One went to his post; he came not back again
Yet still we wait for him through the sad months
Day and night, months and years, pass like a river--
Will its waters carry my sadness away?
At that Goushou spoke up unexpectedly:
Under the peaceful water lie the great kings
Asleep in the blue caverns, untroubled by the waves.
Outside the city walls stands the great mountain
Beaten by storms, a prey to the wind.
"That is indeed the way of it," Gouron said in an odd tone. Goukou had never seen his cousin intoxicated, for Gouron was abstemious as to both food and drink; but now there was a heaviness to his features and a congested look to his skin that was most easily accounted for by wine. Goukou frowned. That meant Gouron had been drinking in his own apartments, for he was sober when he left the banquet. But more surprising was what he said next, for he had never been one to compose verse that Goukou could recall, and certainly not verse like this:
For three seasons together storms have assailed
our mightiest oceans. What harms have they wrought-
the heavens above us rage as if mad
confusing the order of the world below
Savage the winds blow; the waves leap skywards
and break on the walls of the dragon kings.
In this darkness who knows which is up, which is down?
Where shall a man look for order again?
"Gouron," Goushun said in his mild voice, "I think you must be drunk to speak thus in the presence of your King and cousin, and at such a time as this."
"If I have been too round I will ask my royal cousin's pardon, and yours too, chichi-ue," Gouron said with lowered eyes.
Goukou intervened. "My cousin speaks as his heart prompts him, uncle. I pray you, do not chide him. Now is indeed the time to be open with each other, here among the family on the day my brother has gone under the waves."
"If you take no offence then I shall say nothing. But I would still have my sons keep to the right side of civility," Goushun said with quiet emphasis. Gouron continued to look down at his wine cup. Goukou contemplated him a moment, then made up his mind to ask for his company that night. They had been taking their patient, reliable cousin for granted- as I took Goujun's nature for granted- and it might lead to the same unexpected disaster if attention was not paid when it was needed.
It was Gouhei at the far table who broke the small silence.
Desolation of empty waters green to the sky's rim
Fish swim in their depths and nothing else besides.
Loneliness of empty sky blue to the sea's edge
Birds fly and clouds sail, but nothing else besides.
His brother Goumin answered it.
Above the world the blue sky goes on forever
Though I wander its ways a thousand years, will I find my friend?
Below the sun the green sea goes down forever
Though I thread its depths a thousand years, will he come to me?
Goukou looked over at Gouen, strangely silent through all this. But Gouen's face was still empty, and it was Goushou who finished the poem:
Do not seek for him in the oceans and skyways.
There abide only fish and silver-grey birds
But deep in the forests of the green mountains
There you may find one whose face calls him to mind.
"Do you think that is where he is he now?" Goushun said. "It is true the power of the Bodhisattvas sways the lands under Heaven but does not extend to the seas. So I suppose Goujun will be born of a land dragon somewhere. It's an odd thought."
"That indeed is the question, Uncle," Goukou replied. "We have spoken of this among ourselves and it troubles us. For land or sea, dragons are not upon the Wheel. We have ever held that our spirits come into existence at the same time as our bodies and grow from the same material. How then could Kanzeon send his soul into a dragon body that already has its own soul within it? Either our beliefs have been wrong, which I am loathe to accept, or else--" He did not finish the sentence. Goushun frowned.
"You mean he might not be a dragon at all? But that is-- If Kanzeon has done that to us, se has done us a great injury and no favour at all."
"With respect, chichi-ue," Goushun's third son Goumyou said, "if the price of my cousin's return is that he must cease to be a dragon for a space, I would not grudge it. He will be himself again when he returns, and surely that is enough?"
"But can he be wholly himself again, after being something else?" Gouhei asked. "To be something utterly different from what one was- surely that must cause a change?"
"How would we know, who have never experienced such a thing?" Gouron said slowly. "It might have no more effect than a fever dream or a nightmare. I have thought myself huge as a palace when ill, and woken to find myself as I ever was."
"Certainly we will not know until he comes back," Goushun said. "But there is one thing that has troubled me from the start, and that is that Kanzeon was able to do what se did in the first place- to take Goujun's soul and send it where she wished. I had not thought hir power to be so great, and the idea disturbs me."
Goukou knew he should say something here but the right words would not come to him, so it was Goushou who answered first.
"Hir power is indeed great and not to be underestimated," he said, "but in this case se had some help. There is a reason why Goujun's soul lingered in this world after his body died, though I may not say what it is. But that Kanzeon was then able to take hold of it gives me cause for hope rather than disquiet. If se has that power over a dragon soul se might well be able to manage something with a dragon body. Further, se said that se would change him over when he came back. I cannot see how a human body or a youkai one can be changed to a dragon form, so I will hope that my brother will be born as a dragon."
"Change him back?" Gouron asked. "How?"
Goukou looked at Gouen, but his brother seemed unaware of his glance. "Something called a Bath of Previous Incarnation," he said. "Gouen knows what it is."
"What is it then?" Goushun said to him. "How does it work?"
Gouen looked up at last. "It is- that the bodies of the kami are- are in accordance with their spirits," he said, with some difficulty. "How they look is how they are. So if they take on a different flesh down here, that flesh is-- is as a garment that the soul puts on, that fits it but that may be taken off again. The Bath transforms the temporary flesh of an incarnation to the real flesh that belongs the spirit."
"Anh," Goushun said with relief. "And since our flesh and our spirits are even more closely intertwined than the kami's, it seems likely that whatever flesh Goujun has now must still be a dragon's."
"Yes," Gouen said. "Yes, it would seem so."
There was a small silence.
"What is it, Gouen?" his uncle asked.
Gouen paused, then said,
Foam that rides the wave's edge, snow falling on the ocean,
No sooner here than gone, even as I watch.
White clouds sail away to the distant horizon
And I below stand gazing at the empty sky.
There was an aching silence. Goukou frowned his tears back. The simple hurting fact-- Goujun gone-- was still there under their talk and expectations; and what comfort could he find either for himself or for his youngest brother?
It was then he heard Shanten's voice for the first time that evening, calm and soothing as rain.
Your body we carried to the silent cavern
And laid to rest beneath the blue-green waves
Your spirit wanders in the upper world
Watching the sun through unaccustomed eyes.
White jade lies now in cold and shady peace.
Your brothers miss your voice within their halls;
But you, o traveller, on your brave new voyage
Will tell us wondrous tales when you return.
Gouen looked up at him then and he was smiling, though the tears made his eyes gleam like rubies. He tried to speak but could say nothing, and in the end only reached his hand across the space between them. Shanten took it in silence, smiling back. Goukou felt his soul relax in relief, and indeed in more than relief. Put like that- yes, that made sense.
"It is true," he said. "Goujun always had a liking for action, and the world of the oceans never seemed to give him enough of it. That indeed is one reason he stayed in Heaven. A tedious place and uncivilized, but it put him in touch with the human and youkai kingdoms where things are always happening, or likely to."
"And now no doubt he will be in the midst of all that," Goushou agreed. "It is not for a dragon to guess what goes on in a Bosatsu's mind, but somehow that *sounds* like Kanzeon- to give my brother the thing he always wanted without knowing that he did."
"That is why I for one am untroubled at the thought of Lord Goujun being reborn as a man or youkai," Shanten said. "It is only the disguise he is given, the better to take part in this adventure. For to tell the truth the dragon kingdoms of the continents are nearly as dull as Heaven, from what I hear told of it, and hardly the place I would send a man for action were *I* the Bosatsu."
There was general laughter. But Gouen's expression had lightened and he looked suddenly young again.
"A disguise! But of course. Third Brother could never go among the mortal kingdoms as a dragon. But as a youkai- even as a man- what might he not see and do? And"- he smiled wickedly- "how vexed he will be when he returns to himself and realizes what he was: for he was still always conventional at heart."
True, Goukou thought. And how like the Bosatsu that sounds as well.
"With luck this experience will settle his stomach for good," Goushou was saying. "I seem to recall that's why those on the Wheel are put there- to learn what they have no time to in the brief span of years that makes up their life. We dragons have longer to learn in, but some of us seem to need the intensive course occasionally."
Goushou was getting carried away by his own cleverness, and as sometimes happened then the flippant unlikable side of his nature showed forth in his words. Goukou sent him a glance to call him to himself before he could cause them embarrassment. Goushou's face darkened but he subsided. Meanwhile Gouhei was saying, with a comical expression, "I am trying to see Lord Goujun as a youkai lord. What will he do? Come to that, what *do* youkai do?"
"Wage war, for the most part," Gouen said. "They are a high-tempered and arrogant breed. But I think Third Brother would excel in battle: and probably acquire an empire before he knew what he was about."
Gouhei began a poem in the folk style:
"Brave Lord Goujun rode into battle
High were his spirits, and his mane streamed in the wind."
"But youkai do not have manes," his brother Goumyou objected.
"Their horses do," Gouen said. "'Mettlesome his horses and their manes streamed in the wind-'"
A ripple of merriment went through the company. Gouhei and Gouen continued the ballad of Goujun's future exploits until it ended with his storming heaven in company with his fifty sons and taking the Emperorship for himself.
Goukou wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. "I hope it never goes so far. I shall be content if Goujun merely returns to rule his western sea as before."
"Indeed," Gouron said. "And may that day be soon."
Goukou gave him a swift glance, then looked out at the sky. The moon was on the decline: it must be well after midnight. He said, "Friends, the evening grows late and today was a long one. It has been a consolation to speak with my kinsmen, but now I think it best we retire. Let us drink a last time to my brother's memory- no, to my brother himself, wherever he is." Goumin and Goutsui, the youngest there present, went about filling the company's cups, beginning with Goukou's and their father's. All stood and turned to the night sea. Goukou said, "We drink to you, Goujun, brother, nephew, cousin and friend. May you have a happy life in your new body but not a long one, for your kin and friends, your sons and your people, are here awaiting the day of your return." And all emptied their glasses.
"Cousin," Goukou said, turning to Gouron, "will you accompany me to my apartments? There are a few matters I would discuss with you alone."
Gouron nodded acquiescence.
"It may take some time," Goukou added.
"Understood. Then I will bid good-night to my father now."
The company arranged itself. Goukou and his brothers made their reverences to Goushun and said the night parting first, then Gouron knelt and put his father's hands to his forehead. Next Goushou and Gouen came to say goodnight to their older brother. Goushou's expression was clouded as he took Goukou's hands.
"Good-night, ani-ue. Have good rest." There was an unhappy note in his voice.
"You too, Goushou." He gave it the edge that said Gouron has more need of me than you do. Goushou looked away. Doubtless there would be a tempest tomorrow. Well, let there be. It was past time Goushou learned that there were other people in the world beside himself. Goukou pulled himself from his irritation to say a kind good-night to Gouen. Clear enough who it was he would spend the night with. Enjoy yourself, little brother. I rejoice there is one who may lighten your grief. He turned with a smile and exchanged bows with Shanten-oh, then kisses with each of Gouron's brothers. He left the loggia with Gouron following a pace behind him. The servants waiting in the corridor bowed and accompanied the King back to his chambers.
"Cousin," Goukou said to him when they had entered, "I and my family are deeply in your debt. I think there are things we know nothing of that you have borne for our sakes, and for once I would try to make some thanks to you for them. Yet I would not keep you from your brothers this night, for I know you do not see them frequently in the Western Ocean. I know also that you must be weary from the day's work. So I do not command you as your king or even ask as your cousin. I merely say as a friend that if you were minded to company with me this evening I would be happy to have you here."
"My lord..." Gouron looked totally flummoxed. The silence stretched on.
"Gouron, what is it? Say no if you wish to. I will not put you under any constraint."
To his amazement Gouron began to laugh, but it was the tight unnatural laugh of a man on the edge of tears or exhaustion. Goukou put a hand out, but Gouron had himself under control at once.
"My lord," he said, his mouth still twisting in a smile, "I thought you'd brought me here for a session of Glowing Stones or Split Peach--"
"--for certainly if you are not angry at me my father is, and I must face his correction in the morning. But what I said was indeed uncalled-for and I beg your pardon for it."
Goukou shrugged, pulling himself out of his surprise. "You only said what many have thought, and I myself on occasion. 'Why does the Blue Dragon not wage war on the Heaven that destroyed his grandfather and brother and make it pay for its crimes? Does he think the dragon race weaker than that of the Heaven-dwellers, who are so cowardly they will not shed blood?'"
"And do you, my lord?" Gouron said. "If I may ask frankly?"
Goukou turned and proceeded into the sitting room. He signed his servants to leave and nodded Gouron to the chair beside him.
"We were weaker in my grandfather's time, and Mount Kokuryuu still stands as proof of that. I do not know now, in a battle between us and Heaven, which would be the victor; but I will not shed more of our blood in so pointless a cause."
"Pointless? To avenge our grandfather and your brother?" Gouron's tone was as mild as his father's was wont to be, and it got the point across equally as well.
Goukou gave him a look edged with irony. "Try not to be angry at what I'm about to say. Our grandfather himself chose the path that led to his doom. He took a lover from outside his own race and would not give up his attachment even when their love turned to enmity and disaster stood at the door of his palace. Men were different in his day and honour weighed more heavily with them than duty. But the tide has gone out many times since then, and I put the welfare of my people first."
Gouron looked downwards and said nothing.
"As for Goujun," Goukou said more gently, "he too chose his path. We asked him to come home; he chose to stay where danger was. Perhaps it was duty that held him, the duty he thought he owed Heaven, or even a duty to his people, to be a hostage in Heaven for the rest of us. But I know there was more to it than that, for he said as much the last time we saw him. Something about the kami and their ways drew his interest or his curiosity, and he could not leave them alone. He wanted something more than the air of his own ocean could provide- difference, adventure, whatever it was. It is hard for us who loved him and wait for him, but still he bears responsibility in his own death."
Gouron still said nothing- not from sullenness, Goukou sensed, but from the turbulence of his feelings.
"You think me cold," he said.
"I think you the high king, who must take thought for all. But still-- Lord Goujun is gone from us through the violence of Heaven, and there is none I may blame for it or demand compensation from. Yet the spirit of my ancestors in me will not lie down so easily, and my anger and my grief are like twin snakes within my breast that torment me with their poison."
Goukou was silent in his turn. Gouron looked up, and the settled misery of his face made Goukou conquer his reluctance and speak of the thing his soul still shrank from.
"Shanten-oh was right- no, in something he said privately to me. I had thought such as yourself and Goujun untroubled by our heritage, but it only lies deeper in you than in others. Yes, those snakes within you must be appeased, as I found out myself. But I must counsel you to be wary how you do it. Anger born of grief took myself and Gouen to the skies, and though we came away not badly hurt in body we yet suffer in spirit, and shall for some time."
"I have found no outlet for my grief and anger these forty days," Gouron said wearily. "What cannot be mended must be borne, as I have always known. Heaven goes free yet again and there is nothing I can do about it. But this time I find the bearing of it grievous."
"You may only have to bear it a while. One reason I will not move against the Jade Emperor is that there are men enough in Heaven who will do it for me." Gouron's head went up in surprise. "The struggle has already begun between those who rule Heaven and those who would rule it. Both use weapons they do not know how to control: possibly, that they cannot control- these beings called itan. It was an itan that did for Goujun, but I cannot see that those above have learned the lesson of his death. Therefore I am willing to let the schemers continue to scheme, that all of Heaven may be weakened thereby."
"But one of them may succeed," Gouron objected.
"And then there will be a new Emperor, who may be well-disposed to us or may not. If we must strike, that will be the time to do it, when his position is still weak. But do not forget the itan either. They are treated as slaves, sent to battle Heaven's enemies and die, though they are stronger warriors than any kami. It would take only one of them turning against his masters to upset the whole order."
"I see," Gouron said slowly. "We wait for Heaven to destroy itself. But what of the Bosatsu Kanzeon? Will se sit by and let that happen?"
"Ahh," Goukou said slowly. "Kanzeon is a power indeed- perhaps what the Emperor was in his youth. But hir ways are not the kami's ways, much less a dragon's. Se has power and does not use it, and I do not know why-- unless indeed se too waits for the Emperor's fall. If there is one person to keep a wary eye on it is se. But so far se only watches and does not act, and so I will do the same."
"I see," Gouron said again, and there was heaviness in his voice.
"Cousin, you are weary after this long day. What say you- will you stay with me tonight or return to your rooms?"
"I will stay, my lord, and thanks."
"Then let us to bed." He stood and led Gouron into the robing room. Shenzen and Taikan undressed them and washed them down with citrus water. Goukou watched from the corner of his eye as Taikan sponged Gouron beneath his robe. The little flame of lust began to lick at him, exciting and disquieting; and suddenly he was unsure just how far he was master of himself.
Uncertain now if this was truly well-advised, he signalled Shenzen to withdraw before they were abed. The servants bowed themselves out, leaving the chafing stand heating the lemon water in the bedroom and the towels laid ready. Gouron waited silent beside him; Goukou could sense the tension under his outward acquiescence. He took Gouron into his embrace and felt him already emerged beneath his robe. Gouron's arms came about him in turn and Goukou's head swam with unexpected arousal. Gouron was nearly of a size with him and had the bulk that his young favourites lacked, to say nothing of slender Goushou and tall Gouen. That satisfying largeness filling his arms, that weighty body pressing against his own, began doing strange things to his spirit. He reached for Gouron's mouth and met Gouron's lips already coming towards his own. They kissed, mouths open, and subsided together onto the bed, then to their sides. Their robes pulled open from the waist as they moved against each other, legs twining and torsos rubbing together in the form called the Serpent's Coils.
Lust prodded Goukou into full emergence. The solid heaviness of Gouron's buttocks filled up his hands and filled his mind. The need to be within them was a near-agony, but he thrust the thought away as best he might and held stubbornly to the fragment of himself that was still Goukou. He was doing this to console Gouron, and Gouron did not lie beneath. He knew that well from their past partnerings. He will obey if I ask it--- but he knew he must not ask. Gouron's hands pressed against his own buttocks; Gouron's nature was as his own, though he could never fulfill it with his king. Yet as those strong hands, those large warm hands, gripped Goukou's flesh beneath his robe, his groin throbbed in unexpected response. Why not? a part of his mind said. Go to your belly, give him your arse. Time enough after to do the same to him.
He lifted his hands to Gouron's shoulders and pushed him back a space. "Cousin," he panted, "cousin- a moment--" He saw the blind lust in Gouron's eyes, saw Gouron's face go still as something worked in Gouron's soul, heard him say "Yes, my lord," and felt him begin to turn over.
"*No*," Goukou said, gripping harder to stop him. He is still on the ground. He does not see the world I see. *That* is why not. Gouron's naked thigh was beneath his. Gouron's heat and largeness spoke to him like wine in his blood. The will of your heart is all that matters, said the voice in his head, but still he resisted. He took a deep breath.
"I said we suffered from having been in the skies, and this is the place where it troubles me most. I would not scandalize you with the desires I have now." He had to stop speaking then for his breath was still tight, and Gouron said, "I am here at your will, my lord. Do what seems good to you."
"No," he said- was all he could say. "No. I do not desire you to lie below-" half of him lying and half knowing it to be true. He is still on the ground, he thought in despair. How may I console him or he me when we are as separate as this?
*Well* then, said another part of his mind. If you cannot go down, he must come up. He laughed suddenly. Gouron looked at him in surprise.
"Come," Goukou said, sitting up. "This bed and these bodies and this world are too small for men like us. Come dance with me, cousin, that we may take to the skies in friendship and perform the Serpent's Coils in our proper forms."
A moment's hesitation, and then Gouron's mouth curved in an unexpectedly beautiful smile. Gouron shook his braid forward and began undoing its leather thong. Goukou unfastened the even more complicated knot on his own. They unplaited each other's hair, working through the heavy mass so it fell loose about their shoulders. Gouron's touch was as light and dexterous as a bathman's, which surprised him somehow.
They stood up, took hands formally and went out onto the broad balcony off the bedroom. The moon hung low on the horizon and the sky above was black and spangled with stars. Turning they faced each other and placed right palm to right palm in the first position. Little Moonset- there could be no other, of course. A mental count of five and then they began moving to the silent music in their heads. One step together turning, one step together turning, left arm in a semi-circle, The King Goes to the Waters, one step forward, And Sets Out on the Journey, break clasp, Saying Farewell to his Kin, step, step, step, Many Days He Travels, half-turn, left arm sweep, And Sees the Goodly Land, right arm up and out, Which He Will Take for His. Turn again, right arm half-circles to balance Gouron's half-circle five paces away, and turn once more to face right as Gouron faces left.
The land flows with waters
The land runs with rivers
Birds nest by the waters
Fish swim in the rivers
Green grasses and rushes
Fringe the lake margins
Oh for the goodly land, oh for the kindly land
Made for the scaled ones, made for our tribe.
Left foot, step diagonal, right foot, step forward, left hand curved up and out, right arm half-circles down.
Long is the voyage, long,
Across the great country
High are the mountains
Crowned with dark clouds.
Green waterfalls thunder
White mist rises from the spray.
Here is a fitting home, here is a welcome home
Made for the scaled ones, made for our tribe.
Turn again, eight paces separate, a low circling sweep to survey the vista before you.
I pass the broad grasslands
I pass the great mountains
Far as my eyes can reach
Stretches the blue ocean
Far as my eyes can see
Waves wrinkle grey waters.
Oh marvel, oh wonder that such things exist,
Made for the scaled ones, made for our tribe.
Quicker and more imperious now- right hand out to one's brother across the ring of the dance floor.
Wind, cloud, and flying bird
Return to my country,
Tell my he-kin and she-kin
Of this glorious thing-
Make haste, oh my people
And follow here after me,
Here to the goodly land, here to the kindly land.
Made for the scaled ones, made for our tribe.
Faster and faster the rhythm as the mood becomes exalted and the dragon tribe hastens towards its new home.
They come to the oceans,
They come to the waters
Dive deep in their shadows
Build palaces above.
Here we abide now
For ten thousand ages
Our sons and their sons
And their grandsons in turn.
We enter the waters, we take our possession,
Establish our kingdom in power and pride.
This is our homeland and our new country
Made for the scaled ones, made for our tribe.
And at that last triumphant shout, silent though it was, Goukou and Gouron changed together and winged beautifully up towards the stars. The sky was cloudless and black, full of little pinpricks of light, a sea as vast as the one that sounded far away beneath them with its own little pinpricks glinting on the night waves. Oceans above and oceans below and vastness in both directions: the exultation of that hugeness and his own freedom drummed through Goukou's body so that he was close to losing all sense of himself. But here in the booming darkness was another body, the only other breathing warmth beside himself in the wide world. He sought that anchoring point as it sought him, and they wrapped tails and necks about each other and became as one. He spread his wings and glided on the currents, nuzzling the horn that was next to his mouth, feeling the wetness on his own neck. His root pressed against the warm fork of a body, insistent and not nearly enough. Inside, he thought, inside-- remembering even through the present soaring happiness that there was never inside enough for him, had not been since he was last in these skies. But the thought of what to do came to him even as it came to the one that danced against him. He smiled in delight and saw white teeth next to him smiling in the dark.
They untwined bodies and necks. The other slipped away and looped like an eel as he turned upside down. He himself curved over and sought the other's fork. Together, in the same moment, the hot branch came into his mouth and his root disappeared into warm sucking darkness. And then they were together indeed, the World Snake high in the skies.
Wings spread and tails lifted for balance they tucked their legs against their bellies, arched their long backs, and set their bodies to an automatic circling. Around and around they went, the slow steady rotation of a hoop turning in space. Glimpse of star-dotted sky out the corner of the eye, glimpse of phosphorescent sea on the downward turn. Up again, stars, down again, sea. Heat and fullness inside his long jaws, wrapped in his tongue. His own heat and fullness inside long jaws, wrapped by a tongue. Busy busy wetness working at his length, rhythmic flesh clasping the sensitive end of it; himself trying to swallow what would not be swallowed though his throat worked mightily to get it down him. Down and up, down and up; pulse of the flesh about him, pulse of his own gullet. Circling and moving as the stars circle and move, as the planets circle, as the tides go out and come back, faster and huger and not just themselves any more. We are the sea and sky, we are the stars and waves, they move as we move and we move as they move, faster and harder and faster and... harder--- where all reaches its form and centre, its meaning and fulfillment here- here-
---where stars explode and oceans crash against earth and everything rushes out of us and everything rushes in---
The whirling star-spangled world stopped. They drifted lazily down from the sky and onto the cold stone terrasse; turned into their manforms and ran back into the warmth of the bed. Still aglow from their dance and their fulfillment they lay kissing and caressing in the lazy half-arousal after copulation. Goukou undid his sash and Gouron opened his robe so that they might keep the sensation of flesh against flesh. Goukou's hands moved among the softness of Gouron's hair; Gouron's lips moved warm across his own. There was a difference to the feel of Gouron's kiss now, an easiness that lifted some obscure shadow on Goukou's soul. He nuzzled at Gouron's neck and felt the loose relaxation of his cousin's body. It gave him a sense of satisfaction, solid as the ocean; but as if that emotion brought him fully back to earth, next minute he was washed by a wave of sadness. The exaltation of the skies faded like a happy dream, and he was back in the hard reality of his earth-walking self.
His brother Goujun was gone from them. Goujun's body lay beneath the sea they had just danced above; that was why he had taken his cousin to dance there. He had consoled Gouron because in this aching world one had need of consolation.
He held Gouron tighter. His cousin's sorrows seemed the harder to bear just then, the more so because Gouron himself had never spoken them aloud. I grieve for you, cousin, he thought. I grieve that my brother went from you and that he did not love you as you loved him. I grieve that you must lose the children he left to your care, whom you cherished in his place. I hope some day you will have more reward for your service and devotion than I can give you, though I know you seek for no reward. Another thought came to him, one he could say aloud.
"Cousin, I am sorry you are at odds with my uncle and must bear his anger tomorrow. Would you have me ask pardon for you? for I feel that some blame for this attaches to myself as well."
Gouron smiled at him from sleepy eyes. "I thank you, but it is no great matter. My father is always more just than severe. And I would have him be easy in his mind, that his son knows when he has acted outrageously and is grateful for correction." The totally unexpected pang that gave Goukou must have shown in his face, for Gouron's arms tightened about him and he said in a low voice, "You are as generous as men say you are, taking thought for others when it is yourself who has had the most to bear. My father yet lives and sees his grandsons growing to manhood. My brothers are all in health, united in harmony and duty. My service takes me to my cousin's kingdom among my own kind and kin. Your servant has nothing to complain of in his lot. It is I who should seek to repay my lord's kindness, not the other way around."
Tears ran will-less out of Goukou's eyes. In his mind was the memory of the blue cave underwater, and the silver body and the white one lying side by side, glowing obscurely in the silent twilight. Loss seemed to fill up the world as water filled the oceans, so that for a moment he was dizzy with the pain of it. He buried his wet face against his cousin's neck and strove for control.
"My lord," Gouron said in distress, clasping him tighter, "my lord, this is an ill payment I have made for your goodness to me. I did not mean to reawaken your sorrow..."
Goukou shook his head and commanded his voice. "My sorrow has had to wait too often on ceremony and duty. It is no bad thing to give it vent on this night of all others, in the arms of my kinsman." Gouron kissed him through his hair. Goukou registered the comfort and nearness of his cousin, and the pain inside him eased. "For indeed I am not the one who has had the most to bear in our family. That is your father, who lost his own father and both his brothers, and endured the lonely years with none of his generation to support him. Compared with him I am blessed in my brothers and my kin. I rejoice that my uncle has got himself good sons who serve him in duty and love, and who will give him grandsons and great-grandsons to ease his age. I regret that we take you from him as much as we do, save that it eases my heart beyond saying to have your support." He raised his head a little to look at Gouron. "You have refused the throne that would have made you our brother king, but still you must be as a brother to us. Since it is you who acts for Goujun in all things now, be you also Goujun for me in my heart. Give me a younger brother's loyalty and love as I give you an older's trust and affection; and that way we may both endure the sad days until he returns."
Gouron could not answer for a moment. He blinked his eyes and swallowed hard and managed to keep his tears from falling, but his voice was rough when he spoke. "My lord, I thank you for this kindness. Your love and trust hearten me indeed. I-" He swallowed again, tried to speak, and then smiled helplessly. "I am not a man of words. Know only that all you wish of me, you have, with my whole heart."
Goukou smiled back, feeling a sudden gladness. "It is almost like having Goujun here again, you are so much like him. Hold me tight, cousin, and company my sleep, and that way we shall both sleep well."
Gouron moved close against him, and Goukou at last let his spirit free to seek the land of slumber.
The Royal Family
(At Goujun's Death- Rivers, Heaven, Kaiei)
Goukou Goujun Gouen Gouron
Kaiei 18 Black Kaishou 10 Yellow Kaigon 8 Blue Kaizan 14
Kaisou 13 White Kaifu 7 Red Kairen 5 Gold Kaimu 11
Kaimyou 6 Silver Kaimin 1 Copper 2 more sons
Kaishin baby Green
Goushun blue --- Gouron--- Kaizan 14, 4 yrs younger than Kaiei
--- Gounen 18
The Hermit black