Gouen was conducted to his rooms where he changed from formal robes into a chamber gown. The western servants sponged him down and brought tea which Tsuuran served him. Gouen sipped it, sighed, and put it aside.
"Company my rest," he said. The servants moved swiftly to bring Tsuuran a lined cotton gown and help him change. Tsuuran dismissed them and himself turned the bedclothes down for his master. Gouen stretched out with another sigh as Tsuran settled beside him.
"I think Shantsu-dono is on my side, and may persuade his father to my way of thinking. But Shanten-oh was firm in opposing my desire for Yinkuei. It may be that we'll have to settle for Yintai after all."
"A grandson of Shanten-oh is still Shanten-oh's grandson. His parts may not have shown so far because his older brothers are so notable in their own ways."
"True. But still I would have Kaigon trained by a gold dragon, for those have a natural grace and assurance of manner. If he can pick up the knack, it will hold him in good stead when it comes to dealing both with his cousin and his younger brother." He shifted discontentedly. "And Yintai is a red dragon. His grandfather hinted that he has the natural restlessness of such."
"If that were a serious problem, would Shanten-oh promote him to your Majesty at all?"
"Perhaps not. But still he thinks Yinkuei the lighter-natured of the two. I wonder if he has a prejudice against him? And there's the matter of their colours. A blue dragon with a red older must ever appear to disadvantage."
"If my lord will excuse me, in my experience it's easier to match blue and red if blue predominates. Red robes with blue trim are the real problem."
"As Second Brother has always said, yes." Gouen sighed yet again and turned to his side. "Well, we must wait on Shanten-oh's will in this." He signalled over his shoulder. Tsuuran came up against Gouen's back and put an arm about his waist.
"Sing to me a little," Gouen said. "One of the old songs." He closed his eyes. Tsuuran began to sing:
In the south there are fine fish
In multitudes they leap
The lord offers wine:
The good guests feast and rejoice.
In the south there are fine fish
In multitudes they glide
The lord offers wine:
The good guests feasts and are merry.
"That will do," Gouen said, displeased. He pulled himself free of Tsuuran's embrace.
"Forgive your servant. I was thoughtless."
"You were. We are in the west, and I have no wish to hear of the lord of the south. Leave me."
Tsuuran got up, bowed, and backed away from the bed. Gouen was half-minded to recall him but stayed silent. Tsuuran would not take his dismissal or his master's anger greatly to heart. Gouen turned to his other side, a sullen irritation burning inside him. There was a lattice-work window in that wall; the blue sky of the Western River showed through its white jade fretting. A sudden wave of sadness drowned out his anger.
'I came here first when Kaiei was born', he thought, 'and here I found the world of my dreams. In Shanten's court love, companionship, learning and poetry flourished like flowers-- all the things that keep the senses in tranquil balance and lift the heart to creativity. How much was suddenly possible in this company: those heights I'd only yearned to climb, I found myself flying easily above. I thought I would find that peace again to console my present grief.'
'But the shadow of the departed is everywhere, and the happiness they left behind is like a ghost at the table. How does Shanten-oh bear it? He has lost his heart's brother, and not for a space only as I have done, but forever. I am ashamed to ask him to ease my pain. How can a man with a scratch to his ribs complain to one wounded who has been run through the heart?'
His own heart grew heavier, a stone in his breast. 'Nothing comes as it came before. Change is the measure of the universe-- change is the nature of a dragon-- the clouds in the sky and the waves on the sea keep no shape nor place. Then why can I not cease to regret the changes that have come upon me? The sky above the sun and stars is always there, and if we put our trust in it it will not fail us. How little I knew when I spoke those lines. There is no kindness in the Heavens nor constancy on earth. Ani-ue, Second Brother, Third Brother-- all changed and gone from me, each in his way. Third Brother may come back to me but not as he was before. If my brothers in their own oceans can become strangers, what will happen to Third Brother in his years among the youkai of earth?' A flash of anger went through him at the word. 'If he *is* among the youkai. If my lying uncle showed me a true seeing---'
He turned to his other side. I will not think of that. I've been about it and about and my thought goes nowhere and does me no good. I will sleep and think only of Shanten-oh's past kindness to me. He closed his eyes and repeated his mantra until his senses slipped from him.
After the siesta Shanten-oh took Gouen to his library. The two spent the afternoon looking at various manuscripts the king had received from his friends among the poets of the continents, containing copies of the poets of old and records of their own verse.
"And here," Shanten said, bringing out a small volume, "are the poems I've had copied from the letters of one of my correspondents, a man who is legendary in our land. You may have heard of him-- the recluse of Tsao'meikang?"
Gouen's heart jerked. "Pipang! Ah, of course you'd know him. Have you too gone to visit him at his waterfall?"
"I would not intrude my state on his solitude, though we correspond often. But should I take it you've met him yourself?"
"Yes," Gouen said wryly. "I did intrude my state on his solitude, though I went incognito. We spent an evening exchanging verse. Indeed..." He sighed without thinking. "Indeed, his verses inspired me to heights I rarely achieve."
"I can imagine. They possess an ethereal delicacy that's as rare as the Sage's own colour."
"Yes. He has much of the air of an Immortal to him."
"True, he's not entirely of this world. Not surprising in view of his upbringing."
"The story isn't generally known, though I'd heard something of it before he told me. His parents were of the common run, and having born so rare a son were perplexed to find an Older worthy of him. They had no acquaintances among the scholarly and noble; their own relatives they considered unsuited to train one of such delicacy. So the decision hung in dispute from one year to the next, and finally, when he was fifteen, Pipang left his mother's house and took the waterfall of Tsao'meikang as his own."
Gouen stared. "Are you saying-- do you mean he never had an Older?"
"Exactly. Strange as it seems, he never learned the Forms. Yet he seems not to have missed their instruction and consolation, but finds calm and sustenance in the rocks and streams of his mountain-- exactly like the Immortals who need no food but subsist happily on air and dew."
Shanten glanced at him. "I thought, if you'd visited him, you might have wondered."
"I did." He looked down at the tea cup in his hand. "But did you know the Sage recently spent five days at the Southern Ocean, companying with my brother?"
Shanten raised surprised eyebrows. "Did he indeed? Well, well. I'm glad to hear it, though I must wonder how far their companying went. But Goushou-sama is also a red dragon, and likely to be sympathetic to one of the Sage's delicate constitution. I think he has ever had a tenderness for the wounded and afflicted."
"Yes, that is so. The Marquess held his affections for many years, and his leaving grieved him for at least as long. Ah well. That explains that, then."
"I'd heard that the Sage was of a surpassing beauty," Shanten said, "though I've always wondered if that opinion was an effect of the rarity of his colour."
"His colour, his delicacy, his talent, his wit and his unworldliness-- it's all those things together, I think. But the result is to make of him one well-nigh irresistible." Gouen hesitated. But Shanten-oh had already seen through to his heart. No point in keeping silent from pride. "I regret him. Indeed I regret him more and not less with the passing of time. But at least now I know the reason for his refusal of me. Let us speak of something else, Uncle."
Shanten at once turned the conversation to other poets and Gouen followed his lead. The afternoon passed and dinner followed, and he and Shanten found themselves at last sitting over tea as the red sun set behind the mountains. Gouen watched the brilliant colours of the sky, fiery red below the pale blue. He turned his head eastward and saw black night coming on; looked back and found Shanten watching him. He steeled himself for the coming ordeal, knowing that in his present heaviness of soul he could never match Shanten's verse-- could barely acquit himself with honour, if that.
But it was no matter. When Shanten saw how clumsy his junior's efforts were, he'd find a tactful way to cut the evening short. That thought made his bitterness redouble.
Your well is deep,
filled with night and black water.
A pebble falls.
No sound disturbs the silence.
Gouen's head was empty. After a moment he heard his voice answering without thought:
My sea is deep,
its waters black and lightless.
The rain still falls,
salt water on the brine.
He put his sleeve over his face to hide the tears that suddenly flushed his eyes. There was a rustle of silk robes and the warm touch of Shanten-oh's fingers on the back of his free hand. He turned it to take hold of Shanten's, grasping the age-softened skin until he had himself under control.
"I'm sorry, Uncle," he said at last. "The happiness of the past is too clear here, and it makes the present that much more bitter to me. Forgive me. I have no heart for making verse these days."
"It's hard to lose the only respite from grief one has," Shanten said. "Yet that's so often the way of it."
"It's not the only respite," Gouen said, and looked him in the face.
Hands still clasped they stood and went into the inner chamber. Shanten's servants disrobed them and wrapped them in wadded gowns against the chillness blowing from the mountain ranges. Gouen slid into the sheets of the King's carved bed, rougher than those of the eastern and southern lands but warmer as well. Shanten was beside him; Gouen turned eagerly towards him in the room's half-light, clasping the smaller slender body in his long arms.
Shanten's fingers began to move across Gouen's horns, delicate strokes that made his breath come short. Shanten's lips worked over Gouen's eartips, impossibly arousing. Gouen gladly gave up the struggle to remain himself: no choice but to submit completely to Shanten's mastery. The phantom lover touched him here, touched him there, made his eyesight go dark and his breath choke in his throat. He was swimming in the rough dark waters of his northern sea: invisible waves battered him, unseen spray blinded his eyes, and his spirit roared its exhilaration. The touch of a talon on his sheath, pinprick sharp, and Gouen groaned aloud. Then a soft touch lightly enveloped him, moving in spirals up his length: the pattern of the Convolvulus without the strength. It was too much. Gouen went under in a sliding wave of pleasure.
His hands automatically felt for the body beside him. He kicked the coverlets away and raised a leg. His apt and silent partner came at once above him: hooked Gouen's other leg over his shoulder and pushed both legs backwards over Gouen's head. Swift and smoothly he moved, and was within Gouen before Gouen knew what was happening. Then he rocked, and rocked, a sublime stroking such as Gouen had never known. Worlds opened inside his head; his mouth opened and sang, sang the deepness of the seas and their weight of water and the huge surging power of the waves that move over and under them until they crashed on the shore.
The servants came and went, leaving them washed and clean. Gouen lay curled on the bed with the beating of Shanten-oh's heart against his ear. Large slow-moving clouds of emotion filled his mind. He left them unexamined, happy only to be in this calm back-eddy of pleasure removed from his present world. Shanten-oh's fingers played gently with Gouen's sidelock hair.
"I have much to learn from you," Gouen said at last. "Never have I met with such perfect mastery."
"Some to learn, maybe, but not from me. What skill I have is but the effect of my years. If you've never found it among your other partners, it's because none of them are of your grandfather's generation."
Gouen gave a rueful laugh. "A pity that men may not learn from their true masters until they come to middle years. I am lucky to be your disciple and enjoy a pleasant instruction denied to others."
"It seemed to me that you did indeed find enjoyment just now, with much less labour than the last time we joined here. 'Swimming through the depths, deeper than a fish/ Flying in the heights, higher than the birds' as the poem says. I am glad of it, Gouen-sama. It is no happiness for me to cause you pain."
"That's a thing you've never done. The first time we coupled your verse carried me beyond the limits of my body and I became more than myself. And the light I found in the sky where we joined shines still when I couple with you."
Shanten's mouth curled. "Now as I recall, it was night when we made our poem together and the sky was as black as you are, for the moon was barely waxing."
"It was night and the moon was a talon paring that cast no light; but for me the noonday sun and the moon at full and a myriad stars all together filled my heart and soul and mind."
This time Shanten laughed. "Small wonder all men find you irresistible, Gouen-sama. When you speak the stars themselves lean down to listen."
"I say only what is in my heart. Care and sorrow drag me elsewhere, but you are always sunshine to me."
"And how powerful is my sun? We made no poem this night to carry you away. Is it that the door is open now that was so long shut to you?"
Gouen sighed. "It is open, but only with you is that a happiness. Otherwise---
The one I would drink with is far from the banquet:
The wine long desired proves bitter in the cup;
The one I would dine with is far from the banquet:
The feast long preparing is ashes when I eat.
The one I would bide with no longer knows his brother:
Sour though the wine is, I must drink it up;
The one whom I mourn for has found him another:
I must fill my stomach with poisoned drink and meat."
"Who is it you dine with these days, Lord Goujun being gone?"
"My ani-ue, who requires me to take his place. He would have me act as his younger's younger and chooses to ignore that I was never that."
"Surely he hopes only for your mutual consolation, since you have lost your Older and he his younger brother?"
"He may believe that's what he does but he should know better. I've told him often enough. He acted as a father to me from my earliest manhood and thus I thought him. It's too late now for him to be only my oldest brother."
"That's hard for you indeed."
"I'm glad to hear you say so. The world is more likely to agree with him-- that we are indeed brothers, and that I insult my father's spirit to think of my ani-ue in his place. But that doesn't change the past. Ani-ue was all the father I've had since the age of twelve. I danced my Final Dance with him. It is bitter beyond saying that my love for him is forced into another form, and one that I feel to be wrong."
Shanten was silent a moment in thought. "When the need is great enough, surely love and reverence may compass an action that seems wrong? The more so if it brings ease to a king and a brother."
Gouen looked up sharply, suspicion leaping in his breast.
"Gouen-sama?" Shanten said in startlement.
Gouen loosed a shaky breath, heart thudding. "I wondered if you knew: if maybe Ani-ue told Shantsu-dono of the matter, and he told you."
Shanten shook his head. "No. Should I ask what it is you speak of?"
"You will despise me, but no matter. I will tell the truth to you. My second brother does not lie above, as I do not-- did not-- lie below. So for many years it was our custom for me to lie above him at need." He looked straight into Shanten's face. "What do you think drove Ani-ue here in such rage just after Third Brother's death?"
"Ahh," Shanten said, nodding. "I see. I see. So it was Goushou-sama you meant just now, who had found himself another?"
Gouen felt sudden heat in his face. "No," he said automatically. "I was speaking of-- but indeed, it is true of Second Brother too." He gave a bitter laugh. "I complain that my Ani-ue wants too much of me and my second brother not enough. I am indeed hard to please."
Shanten shifted onto his back to lie at Gouen's side.
"I think it is rather that life is complicated. Our laws and customs indicate the way we should go, but we must tread the road there ourselves, and the path is beset with difficulties unlooked-for--
Boulders block the river's course; it chokes in sandy shallows.
Its waters still will force their way out to the welcome sea."
Gouen sighed and answered:
"The sea spreads out on every hand, pent by the far horizon.
Its waves move only back and forth, unpurposed as the birds."
"Swift enough my river runs, and deep enough I think it.
But oceans move as heavens do, with depths I cannot plumb."
Gouen turned his head away.
"My ocean's depths are dark and cold, no light for man to see by.
And that which swims within them is too distant from the sun.
There's more to this than what I've told you." He shifted away. "The first time I coupled with Ani-ue too, I was more than myself. I had called challenge on him and he defeated me in the skies. Yet even when I returned to earth the sky above the clouds filled me with its vastness and coldness. It was Second Brother who brought me back; without him I might still be there. But now when I am with my ani-ue I feel the breath of the Blue Dragon's Vanquished chill on my neck. I see the cloud-fields, I see the great bowl of the sky, and in my head I hear the thoughts of the man who would have slain his older brother. Each time I force myself to do as Ani-ue wishes I feel I am inviting him back again."
"And have you said this to the King?"
"Then perhaps you should. He too has tasted the power and terror of the skies. He will understand your fear."
"I doubt it. He was Victor. What terror have the skies for him?"
"The same as you: the terror of being other than himself. I know the King is troubled by what happened to him there, for he said as much to me at your honoured brother's funeral."
"Did he so? Then he should understand my reluctance."
"I think he seeks to be close to you as brothers are close, in friendship and fellowship and the joining of your bodies, and with that common and familiar intercourse to combat the strangeness of the skies. Can you not use the same talisman for yourself?"
"No. It was never common or familiar to me, but only a pain to be endured. I have no memories to be called on."
"I'm sorry for it, and glad at least that you find some happiness with me." Beneath the covers his hand stroked the length of Gouen's underthigh, and Gouen drew his breath in deeply. That touch seemed to loose the sinews along his back, the unconscious stiffness in his shoulders, and he gave himself over to it, crooning in his throat.
"You would not plumb the dark depths of your ocean just now," Shanten murmured. "Would you care to fly the heights again, higher than the birds?"
"I would, but not alone," Gouen said, and quoted the old poem:
"Weary the kestrel that wings by its lonesome.
Happy the petrel that flies with his mate."
Shanten smiled and added a new verse:
"Old wings must rest a while before they fly the winds' road
Let the gallant petrel take the air alone."
His hand moved beneath Gouen, light but constant, so distracting that Gouen lost the will to express his protest. Shanten never touched his sheath directly, much less his emerging root, but his fingers were always here, there, touch, stroke, until Gouen near-wept from desire and an obscure loneliness that muffled his soul like night. Shanten's hands urged him to his face, casting away the covers. That was right, that was almost as he wanted to be, but it was Shanten's mouth that moved across his buttocks and that was not to be borne.
"Uncle," he said, "uncle, stop a moment." He panted, wiping his sweat-damp face against the sheets. "Is there no way for what I want?"
"We might go to the heights indeed," Shanten said in his ear. "Some things are easier there than here."
"Then let us go," Gouen said.
Shanten's weight left him. Gouen rose off the bed and pulled his robe to rights. He took Shanten's proffered hand. They stepped out to the terrace and so into dragon form, and the skies of the western continent received them. Together they winged above the chill river to meet the draft of some warm breeze of the upper air. A wordless song came into Gouen's head, woven of that long ago and happy night and of his present restless unhappiness. He moved to that music and saw, surprised and not surprised, that Shanten was following in response.
For a timeless time his wings beat in a pattern his body knew and he did not, and the blue dragon moved in slow coils about him. The words of the song-- he knew the words would come in a minute, if he danced long enough. Between an ache to have the poem fixed and finished in his head and the lifting certainty that he would have it soon-- the next moment or the next-- he turned and winged and fell, aware of the other body near him in the air as he was aware of the words just at the edge of his mind.
And then for a space there was no him, no Gouen, and no Shanten and no Western River either-- only lights in the sky with no name, and a chillness far below and a coldness far above, and between them the heat of the dance that was all his world. Closer and closer he came to that which was his desire. Their necks entwined and their heads moved now up, now down, to suck the other's horns, far above the winging bodies that held them in the air. When it was right they separated, all but their mouths and horns. Gouen turned himself about and raised his tail, curving his neck back over so as not to lose the other's touch. And then it was all right: then everything was finally as it should be.
And as he was filled up, and his tongue wound slowly about the horn in its mouth, words finally came into his head. He watched the picture they made with the eye of his mind until the eyes of his body saw no more.