Gouen of the Northern Ocean sent this poem to Shanten of the Western River:


Months and seasons are the waves upon my ocean:

Following forever, no sooner here than gone.

Storms in the black sky rain upon my ocean--

Tempest winds forever lash the waters of my home


Far in the west land beyond the still white mountains

The ripples of your river reflect the bluer sky.

By their gentle murmur, beneath the willows' shadow,

The teacher of my youthful years, how does he fare?


Shanten wrote back:


Clouds cross the blue sky, the sun begins to wester.

Evening calm and settled, a few cicada sing.

Dear friend from faraway, comrade of my past years,

Come and sit beside me and talk the night away.


           He arrived without state, bringing only Tsuuran and a porter for their small baggage. Shanten-oh was waiting to greet him. They exchanged the embrace of close friends and stood, hands still clasped, smiling at each other.

           "Uncle, how good it is to see you again. I hadn't realized."

           "Good indeed, Gouen-sama. Come bathe and refresh yourself. My sons are waiting to greet you." He conducted Gouen within.

           "The lords Shan'hao and Shan'yu are also at home? I shall be delighted to see them again."

           "And they you. Shan'yu has just returned with a second son that he is bursting with pride over. And your own new little one, how is he?"

           "Blooming in health, I thank you. Sons are indeed a consolation for life's troubles. I would have more of them; I mean to have a palaceful in time."

           "No monarch in the world would reject an overture from a king and scholar like yourself, my lord."


           Gouen bathed and changed his clothes, and was conducted to the terrasse looking to the mountains from which the Western River takes its source. Shanten and his three sons rose at his arrival. Gouen put his hands in his sleeves to greet the oldest of them, for Shantsu was Older to Gouen's own oldest brother; but he exchanged a cousin's kiss with the other two, for he had long been on familiar terms with all of Shanten-oh's family.

           "I trust your sons are in health, Shantsu-dono?" he said when they were seated and drinking their tea.

           "I thank you, they are most well. Yinkuei is currently away from home, companying the fifth daughter of Far-fields, but he will be back in three months. Yintai has just received his first overture, from Wen-chuan, and is considering of it."

           "Your family prospers indeed," Gouen murmured, and Shantsu smiled at him.

           "My father's genius attracts the notice of the great even to his poor descendants."

           "Your own parts and reputation do their fair share. Any family must be delighted to be allied with yours."

           "And thus I think we come to the point of your visit," Shanten-oh said. "You know that, all things being equal, we would consider it an honour to provide an Older to the family with whom we have such close ties of affection."

           "Your words are cold, Uncle," Gouen said unhappily. "Why do you talk of being 'honoured' by me, whom you were kind enough to call your equal in verse?"

           "I speak now to the King of the Northern Ocean, brother to the Blue Dragon of the East."

           "My ani-ue's feelings towards you are even warmer than my own, as well you know."

           "But your ani-ue has two sons already come to manhood. Surely he expects either Lord Kaiei or Lord Kaisou to be Older to your heir."

           "I'd be delighted if Kaiei could train my son, but it would mean sending my boy away to the Eastern Ocean. My brother cannot do without his heir for six years. Kaisou also must bide at home to see to little Kaimyou's training, that will begin two years after my son starts his. But I also am unwilling to part with my son for years at a time. When Goujun's first child was born, Ani-ue said we must seek outside the family for Olders. I made inquiries through my son's female-side kin but found no candidate to my satisfaction. And so I hope now to receive a favourable answer to the matter I first broached to you these many years ago."

           "Gouen-sama, I would not refuse you your desire, any more than I refused your father's when he did me the honour of asking my son to be Older to his heir. I've discussed this with my sons, and our only concern is lest we displease the Blue Dragon."

           "I cannot think but that Ani-ue will be overjoyed at a further tie between our family and yours. If you are agreeable, let us decide now which of your grandsons you will send to my heir."

           "So be it, then. Yinchao's rank and disposition fit him most for the position, I think."

           "Yet if I am unwilling to part with my oldest son for six years, I can't well ask Shantsu-dono to do the same. Nor would I wish to keep Yinchao-dono from his own growing children for so long."

"That is kindness in you. Yinkuei also has a son, which leaves Yintai, the youngest. He's certainly the most suitable in terms of age; he has a warm disposition, and I trust the experience of the Great Dance will give him what depth of soul he may lack now."

           "Is it right, though, to put the youngest of all ahead of his elders? Yinkuei-dono's son is still small. It must be a while before the boy requires a father's direction, and even that he may receive from his uncle. Further, Yinkuei-dono has that reputation for parts that I shall hope for in my son's Older."

           "He has charm and parts indeed, but I think he lacks the stability needed to company a prince. I will be frank, Gouen-sama. Yinkuei relies too much on his sunny disposition and ability to please, as gold dragons are wont to do. He lacks true solidity. I will show you some of his verses later, and that will convince you more readily than my words can do."

           "I must bow to your wisdom, Uncle," Gouen said, sighing within. "Let me think more on this, but for the moment we shall agree that Yintai seems the likeliest candidate."

           Shanten-oh gave him a look of sympathy, but he was clearly not about to yield the point. Now was not the time to press, so Gouen changed the subject.

           "How clear the air is here on the western continent. I've spent much time here in recent months, yet always it strikes me anew."

           "You were companying the Fifth Western Prince, of course? That court is perhaps not as refined as the Southern, but there is learning aplenty there. The Third Prince in particular is a poet of solidity and sense."

           "True," Gouen agreed. "She has a good wit and a deep understanding of the human heart. She was the go-between in my match with the Fifth Prince, and I rather fancy the idea was hers in the first place. I'd had no thought of an alliance at such a time, and in fact I was a bit shocked that an overture should come so soon after Third Brother's first year service. But in the end she was right. Those months in the western palace were a great relief to the oppression of my spirits."

           Shanten-oh nodded. "When death comes too soon, it's best to assert the presence of life, and nothing does that so well as the Great Dance."

           "It's not as if Third Brother is truly dead," Gouen said. "I know that, but still-- it will be years before he returns to us, and in his absence I find myself looking for remembrances of him." He added, apologetically, "They don't understand this at home, of course, but maybe you will. The truth is, I'm glad to have a child who shares Third Brother's blood on the female side. I don't know how much the female parent-- your pardon, mother-- contributes to a son's character as opposed to a-- a daughter's, but still... the connection is there, and such as it is, I find it a comfort."

           "The sages have argued that question among themselves to no conclusion. But the same father gets quite different sons, and the same mother bears quite different daughters, so it can't all be a matter of male pinciple dictating the character of male children and female the female. The mixing of blood must be a more subtle matter. For if we speak of the Western Third Prince, she had the same mother and the same father as Lord Goujun, but I see many differences between herself and her brother."

"Really? I thought them much alike, except that the Lady Chifei has perhaps more address than Third Brother, and expresses herself more openly. But again, my second brother holds her in high regard: of the several monarchs he's companied, she's the only one of whom he speaks warmly. Yet he was always out of sympathy with Third Brother, for their natures rubbed against each other."

           "That must have been hard, but it happens often enough. Brothers are not always in harmony with each other."

           "Yet they should be so, and would be so if all were at one with the universe as is natural."

           "So men say, but I wonder if it's true. If all were in sympathy, how should we eat? Certainly I try to bear a placid mind, lest my river overflow its banks and cause destruction on the plain. But I will end the life of a fish to make my meal, and my calmness of mind does that fish no good at all."

           Gouen looked at him, perturbed. "You think strife natural to nature? Do you disagree with the tenet that all is one?"

           "Not at all. All is one in its basic nature but in this world it exists in various parts, and those parts must necessarily rub one against the other. They may be held in balance as much by difference as by similarity and by repulsion as much as attraction. As an instance-- the joining of male and male in the Forms brings balance to the soul, as one would expect of like forces in harmony. Does that mean that the joining of different forces, of female and male, can bring none?"

           "No one would argue that," Gouen smiled.

           "Dragons contain the essence of nature and the universe. Yet we were never a peaceful race. We pride ourselves now on being different from our ancestors, ruled by law and reverence for what is right; but our ancestors in all their violence were more in tune with their basic natures than we. They denied themselves nothing and expressed the feelings of their hearts directly."

           Gouen found no answer to that, though his soul stiffened in resistance to the notion.

           "Ah, forgive me, Lord Gouen. I trouble you with my ramblings, as an old man will. And forgive me again, but an old man's nature requires him to devote his siesta to sleep. I shall have to leave you for a while, but any of my sons will be happy to company you if you like."

           "Thank you, Uncle. I think I shall sleep too. But I hope your sons, and Lord Shantsu especially, will vouchsafe me a little conversation first, for my ani-ue will ask me for news from him when next we meet."

           "It will be my pleasure," Shantsu said smiling, "after I have seen my father to his rooms."

"Then pray do not mind me, Uncle," Gouen said, "but go to your rest." They all rose and exchanged bows. Shantsu went indoors behind his father and the other two sat again as Gouen did.

           Shan'hao signalled the servant to bring fresh tea. As it was pouring Gouen asked Shan'yu about this new son of his, and Shan'yu answered with pleasure. "My last two Dances produced daughters, and it seemed my first-born would reach his Final Dance before ever he had a brother. But fortune relented, and now I have my little one by me."

           "It's a thing I've often wondered. Forgive me if I ask what I should not. The great river kings all have two hands' worth of sons and more. Yet the kings of the Western River, though allied to the greatest blood in the continents and the oceans, never have more than two or three sons each."

           Shan'hao and Shan'yu smiled at each other.

           "Our father's gifts and genius far outstrip his river's wealth," Shan'hao said. "We wait for offers from the rulers rather than making our own, for the presentation gifts alone would burden our treasury. When one of our family Dances, the others must wait to see the outcome before accepting overtures of their own, for if the child is a son much of our resources will be spent on the Other-parent's guerdon."

"And in turn," Shan'yu said, "the guerdon we receive for fathering a daughter goes out again as gifts to the mothers of our sons. Being poor in wealth we husband our resources, and cherish the sons we have all the more because they are few. Forgive me if *I* speak out of turn, but is it so different in your own family? The Ocean Kings have been woefully dealt with by Fate and Heaven, not by nature, but your numbers are still fewer than they should be. And perhaps your brothers are the more precious to you for that reason."

           "It is true," Gouen said, "and has been true for three generations. The Black Dragon and my father were both cut off before they could get the full measure of their sons, and by now it seems almost natural that there should be no more than four children of any one father. But my ani-ue and I hope to return to the old ways, as my uncle Goushou has done. In spite of the years lost to Heaven, the Ocean Lords will still have sons in kingly number."

           "Excellent!" Shantsu said, coming up on them. "I've long hoped to see my Younger with many children, as befits so great a king."

           "Then you will be glad to learn that even now he companies the monarch of Lushan, and in a few months more we will know the sex of the child."

           "That is indeed good to hear. Your honoured brother's death was an unforeseen calamity and I was uneasy for Goukou's peace of mind  afterwards. It would be wonderful if he too were to have another son, and of such a lineage."

           "And he will be glad to know that you may soon have another grandson, if Yinkuei-dono prospers in his present endeavour."

           "We shall hope he may, and have another little one to devote his attention to. Yinkuei is much sought after as a Dancing partner, but he may need to step aside for a bit so that his younger brother can have a chance at an heir."

           Gouen took heart from the remark. "Your father is severe upon his grandsons. I cannot think Yinkuei-dono as light of spirit as the King says he is, not with such a lineage behind him."

           "My father's wisdom has always corrected my own fatherly partiality. Otherwise I would have indulged Yinkuei too much, as all the world does, to his hurt and that of my other sons as well. He has charm, no one doubts it, but charm is not enough to qualify a man to instruct the first prince of an ocean."

           "It may be sufficient, if the prince himself is deficient in that area."

           "Your son, Lord Gouen?" red Shan'hao smiled. "That I find hard to believe."

           "Kaigon is steady and decided, and I think will prove a leader of men," Gouen said. "But he has little aptitude for the arts and lacks flexibility of spirit. I would have him gain those qualities, and soon, for his next brother is a gold dragon like Lord Yinkuei, and bids fair to outshine him in time."

           "Lord Kaigon sounds very much as your ani-ue was in youth," Shantsu said.

           "They're much alike even as my ani-ue is now."

           "And your ani-ue also had a brother who outshone him in the arts and in address of person," Shantsu went on. "Yet I cannot see that either of you repine over the fact."

           Gouen felt his cheeks warm. "You are kind. Still, Ani-ue follows the path of our father. He is a warrior and statesman, and men have always called him a worthy son to King Gou'erh. But Kaigon will forever be hearing 'What, the son of Gouen the Black Dragon, and cannot turn a verse or pay a compliment?' A little training in time will give him the aplomb to deal with that, and what serves better than a model close to hand whom he may pattern himself on?"

           "But it seems to me Lord Kaigon's main work will be to support the High King. A serious and practical nature is no drawback when dealing with either your brother or Lord Kaiei."

           "A lack of flexibility is. I would have my son learn grace, as I think my ani-ue learned it from you. For grace and adaptability is what distinguishes Ani-ue from our father, and what may have helped him avoid those pitfalls that were the undoing of both our father and grandfather. And I must say, now Ani-ue grows older, I see him turning into our father and growing settled and unmovable in his ideas. The men about him must win him through address, for plain reason and arguments no longer serve."

           "I am sad to hear it, but perhaps it's not unexpected. A man stiffens himself to bear the blows that fall, and if those blows never cease he will become harder in order to endure them. But even then I may hope it only a temporary response to Lord Goujun's death. In time, and especially after Lord Goujun returns, he may grow mellow again."

           "He may," Gouen said bleakly, "but I think it will be long before any of that happens."

           "Ahh." Shantsu gave him a look of sympathy. Gouen took himself in hand.

           "Forgive me. I'm a little low in spirit these days, but try not to yield to my moods. Perhaps I too should go take my rest."