Heaven and Earth
Gouen woke feeling five thousand years old and half-petrified already. The heaviness in body and limbs and head-- and spirit as well-- made simply getting out of bed seem a major undertaking. He closed his eyes. I wish I could sleep for a year, or maybe ten. Or at least- his mouth crooked- make my excuses to ani-ue for this morning. Of course that was impossible, for many reasons; but just thinking of those reasons made him even more reluctant to move.
There was a stirring of the warm presence behind him and a light touch on his shoulder. Tsuuran, still in bed with him, not up before and awaiting his waking as was both etiquette and his habit. Tsuuran had somehow gotten him back to his apartments last night and washed him with the bathman's help, while Gouen sat unable to do anything but weep; had put him to bed afterwards and seen to the swift fulfillment that sent Gouen falling headlong into sleep. He reached back now and linked his fingers with Tsuuran's. There was comfort in that familiar touch.
"The news his Majesty spoke of last night," Gouen told him. "Third brother- god, how do I say this? It's never happened before." He sighed. "The bodhisattva Kanzeon has sent my third brother's soul into a body on earth. He's been... reincarnated." The word was unpleasant and the idea not much better.
"Reincarnated?" Tsuuran echoed behind him. "As what, my lord?"
"I have no idea. Se didn't say. I don't think I want to know." A man? A youkai? Surely not a beast of some kind...
"Will he then stay upon the Wheel from now on?" Tsuuran was adept at keeping his tone neutral, but the idea must be as appalling to him as it was to Gouen.
"No. He's coming back, se said. Some day." Soon, as you people count time. But dragons don't count time in anything like the way kami do, and there was no saying whether Kanzeon knew that.
"Ah, I see. That at least is good news. And now what will happen?" Pleasant, to have Tsuuran there beside him, warm and steady and sensible. "With the forty day ceremonies?"
"That's for his Majesty to decide. I'll hear about it at breakfast, I suppose." Breakfast. He didn't want breakfast. He sighed, shifted and made himself sit up. Tsuuran got out of bed and folded back the covers for him. Gouen sat and contemplated the light of day.
"His Majesty would seem to have forgiven us," he said. "Or at least, to have overcome the worst of his anger." Tsuuran should know he was in no imminent danger of losing his lord, since Tsuuran was one of the few people who knew the possibility had existed, even if he didn't know why.
"That's good to hear." There was silence. "My lord seems unwell this morning. Shall I send a message--"
"No. I can manage the morning greetings at least." He stood up and felt his aching limbs crack. "We aren't used to his Majesty losing his temper, any more than his Majesty is used to losing it. Best to walk warily for a time until we all know where we are."
He went to the earth closet, cleaned himself in the attached washplace, and came back. Tsuuran dressed him in fresh mourning whites, shirt and trousers and surcote, that his chamberlain brought out for him. They look like Third Brother's clothes, Gouen thought suddenly, and tears flushed his eyes. He brushed them away. Tsuuran's hands, busy with the many fastenings up the front, stopped for a moment. Their eyes met. Gouen grimaced and shook his head minutely.
Tsuuran bent his head and returned to his task. Tsuuran knew him, and knew not to worry over him, which was one reason why he kept returning to Tsuuran after his other liaisons were over. Gouen kissed him before he left, most unusually for him; but Tsuuran deserved some reward just for being Tsuuran, quiet and steady and dependable.
He walked from his suite towards the common halls. He hurt obscurely as if he had overextended himself hunting or on a long flight, and his heart was heavy for no reason he could find. The worst had been avoided. He'd told Goushou it would be thus, that their oldest brother had been carried away by grief into a rage that must have amazed even himself. The king's absence he took as a good sign; he'd felt quite calm on that score at least in those ten days Goukou was gone. Which was as well, because Goushou's moods had swung wildly between anger and black despair before settling into an efficient frozenness that Gouen distrusted almost more than the other two states. Himself he'd stayed busy, to keep his grief and guilt at bay- consulting with Hisui over the ceremonies and the preparations to lodge the funeral guests; keeping Goushou on an even keel and urging him- well, bullying him, perhaps- to do his part in the planning; communicating with their cousin Gouron over affairs in the western ocean and the state of Goujun's two young sons. They were still children, seven and ten, in the safe charge of their chamber gran'fers and all but strangers to their father after his long absences in Heaven. It had seemed wisest to leave them where they were, at home among their familiar attendants. They would be brought for the funeral, of course...
He entered the main hall and made for the side chamber where Goujun lay in state, as he did every morning, counting the days left to them. Only twenty-nine days more to see your face in, Third Brother, before we send you under the waves forever. He looked down at the marble stillness, the closed eyes, the stern mouth, and felt a wave of aching desolation that stunned him with its freshness. After a moment he sank to his knees and put his face to the cold crystal. His skin would dirty its purity, of course, but no matter. Dirt could be wiped away. He wanted only to be close to Goujun; this seemed to be the one place where safety and comfort lay for him. Tears were trickling from his eyes again. He felt naked, unprotected, as though he had shed the armour of his skin all in a moment. Why do I weep, Third Brother? The wrong I thought I did you has worked to our salvation. You will be coming back to us, and 'soon', whatever that may mean. And yet I feel as if I had swallowed a stone-- as if I could spend all the days until your funeral in tears and still not empty myself of my grief.
His mind moved slowly in the aching paths of his sorrow. It was as if Goujun were newly taken from him, or as if he'd only realized now that Goujun was gone and not coming back. It may not be long. It may be no longer than the time he spent in Heaven's business or getting his sons... But that was too much to hope for. Goujun was gone, not to the Dark Land but to somewhere here on earth, where one might even be able to find him. Yet somehow it seemed that the Dark Land was the nearer place of the two.
When he realized why it was like a knife in his heart. He actually cried out, a muffled noise of pain. Put his head down on his hands and fought his tears and the grief that choked his throat. After a bit he grew calmer, but the fit had left him with a leaden exhaustion. He sat back on his heels and wiped the wetness from his face. And saw, on the other side of the sarcophagus, his oldest brother standing and looking down at him.
He got up, stiff as an old man, and went to kneel and put Goukou's hands to his forehead. "Good morning, ani-ue. Did you have good rest?" The common phrases sounded strange in his roughened voice.
"Thank you, yes. Yourself?"
"My thanks, yes."
There was a silence.
"What's this about, then?"
Gouen swallowed hard so that his voice wouldn't break. "'Don't bother looking for him, he won't remember you.'" A tremor shook him.
"Ahh." Goukou raised him to his feet. "Yes," he said after a moment. "That is hard. But better than the alternative." Gouen looked down. "You don't agree."
"I agree, of course. But... In the Dark Land he would have known who he was and remembered us before he took up his long sleep. When I- If I went there, he'd be waiting. My soul would fly at once to his and sleep beside him." His mouth twisted, for all his efforts to keep it straight. "But now he is someone else who neither knows or remembers us. I have lost my brother completely, and how can I believe that I will ever see him again?"
"The bodhisattva has said we will."
Tears crawled down his face. He wiped at them with his hand. "Hai, ani-ue."
There was more silence. At the end Goukou said only, "Come," and turned away towards the dining hall. Gouen followed stiffly after.
Goushou was waiting for them with the turned-inwards expression that meant one must not trouble him. He didn't kneel at Goukou's entrance, so they must have spent the night together. I hope Ani-ue was kind to him. Gouen put fist to palm and bowed.
"Good morning, second brother."
"Good morning, Gouen." A small frown at sight of his face. Gouen went to stand beside Goushou as Goukou's three oldest sons came forward to greet their father and bow to their uncles. They took their seats at the table. Kaiei the heir sat across from them at Goukou's right hand, Kaisou beside him. Little Kaimyou stood in attendance, doing his six year old best to be properly solemn. The servants brought their fish and pickles and congee, served the tea and rice, and withdrew. Goukou picked up his chopsticks and they all followed suit.
Gouen took a mouthful of rice. It tasted like sand. He drank his tea, took a little soup, ate another mouthful of rice. It was useless. He cast a swift glance at his brothers. Goushou was eating steadily. Good; at least he was alright. Goukou was looking at the plate before him, frowning. His breakfast seemed almost untouched. There was no conversation, most unusually. All of them took their cue from the high king's mood and said nothing. Gouen looked away and saw Kaimyou's huge eyes and child's face full of apprehension. Saw in sudden flashback himself standing where Kaimyou was, hair childishly loose, desolate at having lost the company of Goujun who now sat, hair newly-braided, at the bottom of the table. The same constrained silence, their father's face stiff with displeasure; Goukou only pretending to eat, Goushou not even that- an expression like a wall and his face streaked with tears, and anger rising from him like heat from a stove...
"You do not eat, Gouen," Goushou said.
He jerked in surprise. "No, second brother. I have no appetite this morning. I am-- not myself, since yesterday." His voice roughened and he drank a little tea. "Ani-ue, may we speak of that here?"
"Why?" Goukou's tone was flinty. Had Gouen only imagined the relenting he'd shown them last night?
"The matter of Third Brother's forty days... I was wondering what you propose for them?"
"We carry them out. It is Goujun's body that lies in the great hall. That body is deserving of reverence, and will receive it."
Gouen bowed. Goukou looked at him, a considering and hooded look. He stood up, moving as stiffly as Gouen had.
"I have no appetite. Gouen, accompany me to my office. We will review the arrangements. The rest of you stay-" Kaiei and Kaisou had risen automatically, and Goushou a moment after. "Finish your breakfasts. You need your strength."
Kaiei put fist to breast and bowed. "Hai, chichi-ue. Have good morning."
"You too, Kaiei." He paused. "It's good to be back."
"It's good to have you home, father." They didn't smile at each other, but Goukou's expression became indefinably softer.
"Kaimyou, you may breakfast with your brothers since I am gone." Kaimyou's eyes widened in delight and he bowed his thanks with puppyish enthusiasm. Goukou ruffled his silver hair in passing as the servants moved to set a chair for him.
Hisui was called to attend them in Goukou's cabinet. They went over the list of guests, the arrangement for their lodging, the funeral meal, the relatives who must sing the last dirge, the coffin bearers...
"Kaishou is only ten, but he must be in attendance at least," Goukou frowned. "It would be scandalous if no son of Goujun's body helped carry his sarcophagus. Yet his size will unbalance the flight. If there were six bearers instead of five... Did Goujun have a favourite?"
"He was never at home long enough to choose one," Gouen said. His back ached from sitting and focussing on the business at hand.
"Perhaps Lord Kaishou's designated Older?" Hisui asked. "Or is that Lord Kaiei?"
"It would have been if I could spare him for so long," Goukou said. "But I thought I would be away for long stretches in Heaven, so I determined to keep him here and told Goujun to look among Kaishou's female-side kin for a candidate. Send a messenger to Gouron to ask who has been selected for our nephew. It's still going a little far afield..."
"If we're looking to the female side, we could stay closer to home," Gouen said. "Third Brother's female parent was gotten by Shanten-oh--"
"Of course," Goukou said. "Shanten-oh is the same as a grandfather to him. I will write to him myself and ask if he will carry Goujun's casket. We three and Gouron will bear most of the weight. Kaishou at the head will have little to do, and Shanten-oh at the foot can keep the balance. Good."
Goukou called for paper and ink. He wrote his letters while Gouen made preliminary dispositions of the guest chambers and Hisui began calculations of the foodstuffs that needed ordering. They were done by midmorning. Hisui took the letters from Goukou to give to various messengers for delivery. Gouen waited for dismissal, thoughts of his bed and sleep calling to him. Goukou gave him that hooded look again and said, "Attend me to my rooms."
Gouen's stomach folded on itself. So there was a reckoning coming. He sighed mentally. He hadn't really thought he and Goushou would get off as easily as that. Goukou must have settled with Goushou last night and now it was his turn.
Goukou dismissed his servants from his bedchamber and turned on Gouen. Gouen knelt and moved to put his forehead to Goukou's foot, but Goukou caught him by the hair and yanked him straight. He gasped in pain and surprise.
"What do you think you're doing?"
He blinked. "I- I have offended my ani-ue. I was going to--"
"You were going to ask my pardon. You were going to be mild and remorseful and oh-so-sorry. You were going to weep a little and say Don't be angry with me ani-ue, I can't bear it. You were going to do what you've done since childhood, the playacting you've always used to get yourself out of trouble."
It was like a blow in the stomach. He stared at Goukou, mouth a little open, unable to believe what he was hearing and unable to believe how much it hurt. His eyes suddenly ran over, and he saw Goukou's mouth twist in disdain. He couldn't move, couldn't think of anything to say. Then his training came back and he remembered to breathe, and his paralyzed mind stirred slowly from its shock. But Goukou was going on, "I was almost a man before you were born. If we were closer in age and order, if I had had a hand in your training, I might have known earlier what you are. But we are like different generations. I know nothing of your body, and I see now that I know nothing of your heart. That's past help, but the other I can do something about. Strip."
Gouen stood up, frozen fingers going to the fastenings of his cote. He dropped his eyes and turned his mind inwards to the words of his mantra. I am among the clouds, I am in the clouds, they blow about me and I blow through them, they are illusion and without body and I pass through them without hindrance...
He wrestled with the buttons on the sleeves, the many closings down the front, and drew it off. His mind was far away, watching the storm clouds open in chasms and gullies before him. Boots. Stockings. I am with the winds, they blow about me and I blow through them, they are illusion and without body and I pass through them without hindrance... Headband. Breeches. Underdrawers. Down to his shirt, he finally looked at his brother.
"That too," Goukou said.
He took a deep breath. They are illusion and without body... Pulled the shirt over his head and stood there naked.
Goukou held out an arm. Gouen undid his sleeve fastenings and the front closings of the cote, drew it off him and laid it by. Goukou nodded to his boots. Gouen knelt and pulled them off too. Kept his inner eye in the vision of clouds and the faraway world, let it surround him and keep him from the shame of his nakedness. Goukou unfastened his own headband and threw it over his cote. Held his arms away from his body so Gouen could remove his shirt as well.
"My robe." Gouen obeyed automatically, got it from the press and held it for Goukou to put on. Goukou was going to keep him like this, bare in the light of day. He let that fact fall away from him. He was among dark clouds, flat and black above him, moving in little black tatters below him, and the earth and all its sorrows was below even that, too far away to see. Beneath the robe Gouen unfastened the belt of Goukou's trousers and drew them off. Undid the ties of the underdrawers and removed those as well. They were streaked with drying blood. His mind jerked from its sky, confused, and plunged him back into his brother's room. He looked up to meet Goukou's cold eyes.
"I have been guesting with my Older and enacting the forms with him in order."
"Keep your concern for yourself, Gouen. The exercise has put me in no gentle mood."
"I know of that exercise," he said fiercely, because something was hurting his chest. "It is not undertaken lightly, but by those in pain and darkness of soul. Ani-ue, I never meant- I never wanted to do that to you--"
"Then why did you? To spit on your brother's body like that--"
"Be silent! What did you think you were doing? Or were you thinking at all? No-" Goukou's painful grip caught him as he tried to kneel. "Stand here and look me in the face and name your crime, so you may hear your own shame aloud. Or do you still think you have nothing to be ashamed of?"
Gouen's heart hammered so loudly he could barely hear himself think. This was horrible beyond anything he had ever known. His stomach was acid with nausea. Goukou's rage hadn't caused him anything like this turmoil; it had made him cool and certain, as if that were the natural response to his brother's violence. But this time Goukou wasn't enraged. He was angry as Gouen had never seen him, blue face like a thundercloud towering to the sky, and he was perfectly calm. And because of that Gouen felt as if the whirlwind had him.
"My crime," he began with a totally dry mouth. His mind wouldn't move. He could only say the truth. "My crime is that I do not know what my crime is. I know only that it isn't what it would seem to be."
"You think it no crime to overturn the natural order?"
"Not if it consoles my older brother in his grief and despair. Not if it is the one way he can find rest. If I thought it a crime I would not have done it."
"With your brother lying dead in the same house! With your brother's body there under the same roof. Did it never occur to you to think what Goujun would feel about what you were doing? Or didn't it matter? 'Oh he's dead. He's off to the Dark Land. Needn't bother about him any more.'"
Gouen controlled his breathing, in and out. Goukou's anger was a red flood that filled his head with noise so he couldn't think. But he knew he couldn't think and knew he must answer carefully while that noise was deafening him, because he couldn't be sure of what he was saying. Afterwards perhaps he would understand more clearly what Goukou meant, but for now...
"Well, have you nothing to say?"
"I have nothing to say in my defence, ani-ue. It is the truth. I did not think. I did not act in malice or disrespect to Third Brother, but I did not think."
Goukou struck him hard across the face so that he staggered. "Coward. Just as before. You will not fight me, you will not resist me directly, you will not meet me man to man. You will not do that because you'd lose. Instead you go soft and limp and-- biddable--" he spat the word out- "like trailing seaweed or a boneless octopus. You kneel to me, you kiss my foot, you say 'hai, ani-ue', and you follow your own will always."
Breathing, in and out. In and out. And no words because they would be the wrong words and he didn't know what his ani-ue was truly saying, only what he himself heard, and what he heard made his vision red and made it impossible to think.
"You disgust me. Were it my own choice I wouldn't touch you. But I've neglected my duty to you far too long. This once only I will teach you the way things are. Go over there and lie on your face."
Split Peach. He'd known somehow that was what it would be. How could it have been anything else? There was a pattern happening here. He went to the bed and laid himself down, and the hot heaviness in his chest rolled silently out of his eyes and invisibly into the covering of the bed. Third brother- he thought helplessly, a child again looking for his protector- Third brother... But there was no use calling on Goujun's spirit. He won't remember you. No use calling on his mantra to take him away from here, because he wouldn't be able to go. He must stay and see the horror through. Hope that his pain and blood would ease his oldest brother's anger, as it had eased his third brother's that last time they were together, and put the world back together again.
Goukou's heat was beside him. Goukou's hands gripped his buttocks and pushed the flesh up to narrow his entrance. Gouen took a deep breath, trying to relax himself as much as he could, but he couldn't relax. In this one area his body had never responded to his will. He waited for the pain. It didn't come.
"What is this, Gouen?"
"You resist me even now, knowing the cost?"
"I do not resist you by choice. It is my body's fear that I cannot overcome. Do as you will, ani-ue. I am prepared for this."
Goukou let him go. "I have no desire to see your blood. We'll do it the ordinary way. Up."
He hesitated. Tell or not? But Goukou would know anyway.
"It will make no difference. I am one whose body remains closed and does not conform to lying below."
A surprised silence. Goukou moved off him. "How did you get through your training then?"
"Third brother said I must endure, and I did. We used oil except for the last forms, and he was kind when he might be. He would demonstrate the form, then let me bring him to fulfillment so that he need not thrust into me."
"Why was I not told of this?"
The question took him by surprise. "B-because. Because. It's as my ani-ue said. We are as different generations. Through my youth it was you who stood in a father's place to me. It was you I danced with on the day when my training was done." Tears stung his eyes at the memory- himself so proud and so confused, dancing the dance of completion with his oldest brother and not understanding any of the complicated feelings he was having. "You're not supposed to," Goushou had told him afterwards, and that had been all he'd learned of the matter. "It would not have been fitting to tell you," he said.
"So you have never lain below anyone but Goujun?"
"With second brother once or twice during my training. A few others afterwards, at need."
He felt a huge reluctance to speak of these things to Goukou, but his brother had asked and he must answer. He is my older brother, after all; asking and knowing are within his rights. "The King of the Yellow River, when I was negotiating our treaty with him." Goukou grunted. "The Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom who once did me a great service-"
"Who is the Duke to be asking that of you?" Goukou sounded displeased.
"He didn't ask. He wrote a poem indicating that he would not say no were I to offer-"
"Let me hear it."
Gouen took a deep breath.
"Night of the full moon; summer sky blue-black
A slender pear tree; heavy silver fruit.
I cannot reach so high; the branch must bend
Down to my hand or else remain untouched."
Goukou said only, "Who else?"
"The King of the Western River," Gouen answered, more calmly than he felt.
"He is my master in verse and I lay below him in acknowledgement of the fact," Gouen said without inflection. Do not give me an argument on this, Ani-ue. His rank matters nothing next to his art.
"He is a master of more than verse," Goukou said, obscurely. "How was it with him?"
Gouen hesitated. He was even more reluctant to talk of that and wondered what it would cost him if he refused. At almost the same moment another thought occurred to him, one that left him gasping mentally. ...guesting with my Older... enacting the Forms... "I- He- he was--"
"He was what?" Goukou's tone was unencouraging.
"Must I speak of this, ani-ue? It is a memory I cherish and not- not one- Ani-ue, you are like a father to me," he said desperately.
"But I am not your father, and you will tell me what I wish to know."
No help then. He took a deep breath.
"He saw how it is with me and urged me to another form. But I wished to do what was fitting; to pretend, with him at least, that I am a proper man. So..." His mind went back to that night by the Western River. "He said, 'I have a thought in my head. Let us see how it goes' and he began the first stanza of a poem. I answered it. He took it to the next quatrain. We did that for- oh, I don't know- hours, it seemed. I didn't understand the purpose, but soon I forgot why we were there. He was- ani-ue, he is a master among masters." He began to smile, unthinkingly, at the memory of that night. "The verse he produced- the verse he drew from me in answer- I was dizzy with it, drunk. My soul was flying in the upper air among the stars. I- I know nothing like it, not the hunt or battle or love- doing something at the edge of one's powers, and doing it so well--" He looked up at Goukou, thinking to see an answering glow in him, but his brother's expression was blank and indifferent. He understood nothing of what Gouen was saying. The joy died in Gouen's heart. He finished flatly: "So then- as I spoke the final verse he took me by the hand and drew me out to the balcony. We changed form and flew into the heavens and there he joined with me; and if there was pain I did not register it."
Goukou grunted. "Who else?" he asked.
"None else." It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that he made me give him the dearest memory of my heart. The memory is still mine, and Shanten-oh's kindness is mine, and the poem we made still stands and is good, in spite of my ani-ue. And tried to believe it true.
"Why are you sulking?"
"I had no wish to tell you the thing I did." He kept his voice mild, without rancour. "It was precious to me and it means nothing to you, but you have taken it from me nonetheless."
"Then we're even."
"Ani-ue--?? What have I taken from you? What could I take from you?"
"You do not know even that." Goukou's face was like a wall, and yet behind it Gouen thought he heard some feeling different from before. "How odd. I always thought you sensitive to these things, but I was wrong. What is obvious to me- what would have been obvious to Goujun even- simply doesn't occur to you."
Gouen waited. Goukou would tell him in his own time, or not, but he could not ask.
"I am the only one of his brothers that Goushou should have lain below. I will not say the only man, because there are circumstances that dictate our acts beyond set rules, as you with Shanten-oh. But he was- he is my younger, and he is your older's older. That connection belongs to me, not you."
Gouen said nothing. The silence went on between them.
"I see you've stopped apologizing at least," Goukou said with bitterness.
"I would ask your pardon if you wished me to," Gouen answered slowly, "but it only adds to your anger. This worthless person has caused his brother suffering through his foolishness and bad judgment, and for that he grieves. I will make amends with my body as I did with Third Brother, if that is your wish."
"Yet I must satisfy your wrath somehow--"
"I must," Gouen insisted. "You do not wish to hear this but it is true- I cannot bear it when you are angry."
"You have no choice but to bear it. I am weary of being moderate and just. I am sick of governing my passions while none of you governs yours. Goushou sulks when he has offended and expects me to woo him back to sweetness. You weep when you are in the wrong and think I will relent. This time I do not. Weep as you will. You will wait upon my mood as any other man does, and do it gladly; and you will *not* think yourself ill-used because this time I do not dance to your tune."
"Ani-ue," he said desperately. "Such was not my intention, truly. You are my king and my brother and all the father I have had since I was twelve. When you are angry the earth feels unsteady under my feet and the sky about to fall--"
Goukou jerked his head in disgust. "Spare me your pretty words-"
"Hear me out." Without thinking Gouen spoke as he did in his own castle. Fury flashed in his brother's eyes, and Gouen's unhappy and uncertain thoughts suddenly came together like the exact words he needed for a verse speaking themselves in his head, complete and perfect. He sat up and looked down at Goukou, and smiled broadly and infuriatingly into his angry eyes. "I have a thought in my head. Let us see how it goes. Can you catch me, ani-ue, or are you too sore from lying below Shanten-oh?" He was off the bed and on his feet just in time to escape Goukou's sweeping arm. He ran, because Goukou was right behind him, not bellowing in fury but terribly and terrifyingly silent. Out to the balcony, into the air and sun, and changed in a thought from his tiny manform into his dragon body, huge and scaled and winged, that a moment later had launched itself into the endless blue and was racing towards the scattered clouds above.
Goukou was behind him and Goukou was bigger than he. Not in length so much as girth- mighty muscles working the great wings that cleft the sky. Gouen concentrated on his speed, sleek as a bolt of lightning, keeping his lead and gaining a little distance. You wish me to fight you, Goukou? Fight I will. Dragon muscles and dragon thoughts worked in him, taking him from the purpose he had had down below. But that purpose would play itself out in what he did now, even if now he had a different reason for it. He turned in the upper air and arched his neck high, taking up the challenger's attitude and screaming defiance. Goukou checked and took the pose of response, great wings spread wide and blue as the blue sky behind them, and his voice belled its answer through the air.
Slowly they circled each other, a broad space between them, like two planets on the same orbit. Goukou arched his own neck: I am your superior- submit. Gouen let a ripple of movement descend his body: I care nothing for that. I still call challenge on you, old dragon. A graceful beat of Goukou's huge wings: Upstart, youngling, I will fill your throat with my wrath till you choke on it. A flip of Gouen's tail: I will chew your wrath with my teeth and spit it out.
Round and about they went in the ancient movements of the challenge dance, gesture reflecting gesture, pose answering pose. Gouen had a dizzy sense of familiarity, as though he had done this so often as to lose count. Then he understood, and his heart swelled with happiness. This was like poetry. It followed the same rules, but with movement, not words. Their gestures mirrored each other like the parallel structure of a line, their poses played against each other like contrasting metaphors. The poetry that was his life was here as well, the underlying order that made the world beautiful. Gouen threw himself into the song with his whole soul, working himself and Goukou into the great and beautiful pattern.
They came to the end of the first movement. Now for the next stanza. Gouen curved himself and descended screaming in the attack, raking swiftly at Goukou's head with his feet while trying to avoid Goukou's jaws. Goukou missed him with those but caught him a stinging blow in passing with his tail. Gouen turned again, another swift attack. He had to rely on speed to balance Goukou's strength. In he came, talons first, trying for Goukou's wings this time. Goukou spiralled swiftly upwards to avoid him and slashed at his chest with his own legs, as his roar sent shock waves through the air. Then Goukou had curved and was coming at him like a stooping hawk.
Gouen winged high into the sky. Goukou changed direction with amazing speed and bolted after him. No clouds here to hide within and confuse his enemy. A little higher there were a few shoals, where he might disappear for a moment to emerge unexpectedly. He found them and plunged into the grey cold dampness, exhilarating and refreshing on his horns. Felt the vibrations of the air from Goukou's wings nearby and pounced out upon him. Dodged the edge of one great wing and thrust with his strong legs at Goukou's opened jaws. Goukou pulled away from the kick, over on his back, and his own legs came up with talons out, slashing at Gouen's belly.
So it went- attack and retreat, feint and thrust, bellowing the challenges and warcries of dragonkind at each clash. The blood pounded ferociously through Gouen's body and his mouth curved back to show all his teeth. He was fighting with all his skill and all his strength, with cunning he hadn't known was in him, and he had scored his opponent more than once. His body was cut and grazed in a dozen places but though he saw the blood drops flying he felt nothing but the great booming joy of battle.
His strength began to ebb. Soon he would be unable to manoeuvre as gracefully as he should. The poem would be spoiled. He reared his head skywards and trumpeted the sign of his last attack. The blue dragon bellowed his response. Gouen dove at him, to knock them both from the sky, or perhaps to be sent spiralling earthward himself, broken-winged or broken-backed. But the blue river of his opponent's body twisted away, incredibly, a moment before the impact should have come. He tried to turn his head to see where it had gone, and in that instant felt powerful jaws clamp about the back of his neck, holding him motionless. His body fluttered helplessly, a ribbon in the sky, as he was pulled into the upper air. Heat and strength covered his back, immensities of it, as though he wore a cloak of sunwarmed wind. He felt the great teeth against his skin, blunted but inexorable. I win, that grip said to him. You have lost.
With indescribable satisfaction he knew it to be true. The battle was over; they had made of it a thing balanced and complete. There remained only the coda to be written, his death or whatever it was his enemy intended. Mind peaceful and at ease he drew his will from his body. The jaws released him. He curved his neck and bent his head low as his own feet, lower, in sign of submission. Strong talons gripped his legs from behind and held him motionless. And then- and then- His self all fled to the top of his head because something else was boring into him below. So big, so solid, coming inside him forever and ever, coming in so deep...
And he remembered as if from another life, the Great Dance and the feeling of entering another with the full length of his dragonroot- in so deep, into the flesh that opened and opened for him as far as he could reach, so far that their two bodies became one for that moment when that which was most aware of himself was wholly inside the other's flesh. This was what it was like, this was that seen from the other side. He was becoming one with the great body that held him and fused with his. He raised his head, straightened his long neck and his body; arched himself like a bow and screamed his joy and triumph to the endless reaches of the blue sky.
They plummeted back towards earth and changed to manform as their feet touched ground. Arms, he had arms again, to grasp and hold the one he had joined to. A mouth he had, to find that other one that came to meet his own. So hot and close together, himself the vanquished and his blue victor, both known beyond knowing and beyond names.
"Get inside," a voice said in his ear. "You're stark naked."
'So?' some part of him wondered, a vague thought beneath all the other things in his head. A grip, not to be denied, took him by the arm and pulled him into the cool shade within walls. He had nothing to say. He was part of his victor now. Part of his victor and needing still to be one with him. He threw his arms about the man's body, close and close, the obscure ache between his legs burying itself against hard flesh. He saw triumphant eyes glowing still with their victory, saw the loving and unkind smile, saw in memory the white teeth like blades in the long jaw, the great red eyes below the blue mane. Then the mouth was on his again and he was being bent backwards, backwards, going to fall... and did, on soft cushions behind that made a place for him to lie. His legs pushed briskly up and back, over his head, undignified, leaving him wide open, and that too was part of being vanquished, so much so that he laughed aloud. Upside down and arse in the air- what a sight I must be. The blue face filled all his vision. He grasped his legs to hold himself steady for what was going to happen, felt the cushions give a little as his victor rested a knee on them and came at him with his manroot out, and pushed- and pushed--- He breathed around the bulk of the thing, the solidness where no solidness should be. Short hard jerks, into him and out, a drum rhythm IN-out IN-out IN, and his breath going out-in out-in in response. Not enough air, the need to scream and fill his lungs with it, and worst of all the need for something to hold his own root when there was nothing to do it. He wanted to cry because that aching part of him was alone, no-one to help it to release, unreachable because his hands were still occupied. His face twisted, his mouth twisted, he had to squeeze his eyes shut and skin his lips back over his teeth because- because-
The movement inside stopped abruptly. He opened his eyes in surprise. His victor was no longer looking at him: was looking up and over him at something else. Was saying, "Have you taken leave of your senses?" in a voice that made his skin crawl. He turned his head. Another challenger had come upon them, a red man, barefoot, clad in shirt and breeches. Not waiting the proper time, not calling his challenge from afar as he should. Fury roared in his head at the interloper-- But the red man was looking down at the earth, not up in defiance. His voice was low and without expression, and he was saying, "No, my lord. Rather I have come to my senses. I regret only that it took so long." He had pulled his shirt over his head, was pulling breeches and underdrawers off together, was kneeling and putting his forehead to the ground...
"You will regret more than that hereafter." Behind his victor's words he saw phantomlike the great blue dragon raising its snaky neck and screaming the master's cry Mine this place is mine all who enter here belong to me! But his manvoice said only, "You can make yourself useful for now. Your brother is in need. Come swim upstream with him." He had time to see no more, because his knees were abruptly pulled out of his grasp and hooked over the blue forearms. Then his spine was stretching, long and longer, as his victor straightened up and himself with him, until only his shoulders and neck rested on the bed. The thing inside him was bigger now and if possible deeper within, but all that was secondary to the weight and pain of his root thrusting stiffly into the air. Only then the red man had clambered atop him and was kneeling astride his face, and a hot wet mouth had taken him inside itself. He closed his eyes in a relief that turned swiftly to ecstasy. Felt the arms wrapped about the small of his back, steadying him; the other arms holding his legs on each side, and a double sensation in front and back. Tickling and wonderful before, steady and hurting now behind, both sensations bleeding into each other so that any thought of 'pain' or 'pleasure' was impossible. His hands found the hard buttocks just above his face and pulled them apart. They lowered a little and his tongue licked along the ridge inside, found the apricot's stone and darted at it in little flurries. Familiar, the taste and smell, very familiar, something he had known down on earth and long ago; but his mind had no space to register more than that because what was happening in the rest of him had taken possession of whatever it was that was him.
He gasped and groaned and clutched harder at the round flesh in his hands. He was falling though air, falling through immensities of sky faster than his wings could bear him up. He was resting on his back, chest heaving and eyes dazzled. After what seemed a long while his vision cleared. The blue man knelt now between his legs, looking at the red man. The red man knelt now at his head, head bent and looking at nothing.
"I was meek with you last night," the blue man was saying. "I was patient and humble, asking you to put aside your anger, as though you were the older brother and I the younger. But you were sullen and would not yield. You clung to your resentment and would not let go of it and now you can bear the consequences."
"I will bear them, my lord, as long as you please."
"We have been in the skies and are not wholly returned. You are still on the ground. You will bear with that too, and if it is hard for you, so much the better."
"I will bear with that too. That is why I am here." The blue man gave him a sharp look. The empty voice went on, "It is not right that the youngest of us should give up his body and soul to satisfy your anger when the fault rests with me."
"Indeed. What you would not do for me you will do for him. I am glad to know what it is you value." The red man bowed and made no answer. The other snorted. "He is not guiltless. He will pay for this morning's work with many days' soreness. Fetch water and oils for his wounds, and a robe for him." The red man bowed again and slipped away.
He moved to sit up but a hand pushed him back.
"Rest. You are hurt worse than you know."
"I am not hurt--"
"Do as I say. You do not open your mouth to me."
"Your pardon." He lay flat. "But what need have we of that red lackey? He has not cried challenge on you or battled you in the skies. Who is he to come between us?"
There was a silence. "He has battled me in his own fashion and I have won. You will understand that when your spirit returns to earth. For the meantime know only this. We are three. It is not I and you, or you and I only, but I and you and him."
He looked away, submissive and rebellious both, and let the view of clouds and sky in his head take him over. The sky where dragons battle, the endless proving ground of their bodies...
There was movement beside him and warm wetness laid to his shoulder. He opened his eyes to the red man sponging his body.
"I shall call challenge on this coward as soon as I may," he told his victor. "He has not yet battled *me*. Get him into his true form and I will tear his scales from his back and send him home naked to his dam."
"When your wounds are healed you may do whatever you please."
He shifted ill-humoredly, the urge for battle a small fever in his blood, as the red man washed his chest and smeared salve on it.
"Lie over, Gouen," the man said.
He glared. "What did you call me?"
"That is not my name."
"It is the only name I know you by."
"It is not my name."
"Peace," his victor said. "Lie over."
He turned. "It is not my name. My name is proud-fire-night-sky-consume- dark-cloud- fierce-ebony--" The syllables of his name rolled from his tongue, the song of his self. He crooned them in his throat, and their cadences mixed with the drumbeat of his blood and mounted to his head like wine. In the stormy skies of his mind he sang his name to the wind and rain, to the huge clouds that rolled past him: he was master of the spaces above the world and the waters below them and his name echoed in all those places. The hands smoothing oil across his back and buttocks were a nuisance. His root had grown hard again at their touch. In a minute he would grab the impudent fellow and teach him what happened to those who meddled with understand- whirlpool- roar- broad- face- heavy- judgment-soar...
"Your robe," the red man said, holding something white open.
He turned his head away in disdain.
"Put it on," his victor said. He sat up and obeyed, because it was his victor who commanded it, but he gave the red man a look that meant him no good. The other did not see it, bent as he was to tie the sash of the robe.
"Cringing fawning lackey," he said to the red head. "I call challenge on you. Come to the skies with me-"
"Enough," his victor said. "You will not challenge him. I forbid it."
"He disgusts me. He crawls and licks your feet. He is vermin." The red man was stiff with some emotion- fear, it must be, for he was too cowardly for anger. "I would strip the skin from his body and turn him back to the naked rat that he is--"
"I said, enough. It is you who will have the skin taken off your back if you do not obey me."
The dizziness of the skies warred in him with the knowledge that he was vanquished. He would have gone again against the blue man but it was not allowed. He would have done it anyway, but he could feel the lack of strength in himself. He would lose and this time he would be killed. But he was still lord of the rainstorm and not ready to give up tamely. A thought came to him, how he might have the better of his victor without openly opposing him, and it pleased him so much he had to smile. He jerked his head at the red man. "It is true, he is not worth the challenging. He cannot fight. What is he to you that you regard him at all?"
"Nothing you are in any case to understand."
"If he is one of us then he is the least. I will take him into myself as you have taken me, that we may all know that," and he gave the blue man a straight look to the eyes.
The blue man returned it. "A dragon of the dragons, aren't you? Who would have thought it? Not I-" and went on regarding him, some unguessable thing moving behind his dusky features.
With sudden joy he knew what it was. My victor is descending to earth. He will be weak when he gets there. But I will remain in the heavens and have the advantage of him, and then I shall tear his heart from his breast. But that was not yet. Not yet. The strength of the sky was still there in his victor's hooded eyes and his sudden smile. That smile was an unchancy thing, hiding something in the corners of the mouth, and it cast a moment's wary shadow on his own soul. "So be it. I give him to you. Goushou, to your knees."
If there was a hesitation in the red man, it was gone in an instant. He knelt by the side of the couch and put his face to the cushions.
Give him to me? No, I take him from you. I will make him rue the day he walked into this room and it will be done before you can stop it. He slipped down to the floor behind the cringing figure, seized his hip with one hard hand and held the red buttocks open with the other. He smiled and looked not downwards but at his victor as he plunged into the hot body and felt- So strange. The smell from him, from his skin and his hair, the smell of his sweat... The body beneath him was soft and open for him, no fight, no resistance, and he moved in and out so easily- It welcomed him. Welcomed him as someone known and-- He had no words for it. He laid his face down against the red skin, not understanding what this was, what ghostly thing was speaking in his head and moving in his body. But- here, like that, that's the way to do it, here, and my hand goes like this... It was as if he were someone else- no, as if his body were someone else and thinking its own ideas. The bright battle rage, the dark ferocious cunning, all that made him the lord of the skies was slipping from him. Something else was coming into him, huge and indistinct as a figure seen through clouds, and as the sweet fire of copulation took mastery of his soul he thought he could almost see its face. He strained towards that vision as his body strained towards its release. And then saw, and in surprise and shock and gladness fell whirling through the depths of the sky to the darkness at the bottom.
Gouen woke warm and comfortable and feeling he had slept for a month. He was on his back amongst cushions, and somewhere close by there were quiet voices speaking. He lay with his eyes closed, listening to his ani-ue and second brother, and felt the peace and security of his childhood come back. Lying in bed listening to the older brothers talking and feeling the world safe.
"--commend your courage and devotion, both of you, but the thought of what I might have done to you makes my heart cold."
"You would not harm us. You said so last night, and it is true."
A small pause. "The man who said that last night was not the man you faced an hour ago. You could have been badly hurt, coming unsummoned into my presence when I was already angry at you. Did you not realize that?"
"Yes, but I was prepared for it. It seemed I was to lose one or both of you through my own obstinacy, and if that was so my life was not worth the having."
Gouen came wholly awake with a start. He opened his eyes and sought the voices. He was in his brother's bedroom, on the divan, and his brothers in chamber robes were lying together on the bed. Hair loose, red and blue, still wet from the bath. Goushou leaning back against Goukou's shoulder, Goukou with his arms about Goushou's chest.
"You hold your life so cheaply, yet you have seen what an emptiness there is when one of us goes. Do you think it would make no difference to us were you not here?"
"I speak as it seems to me, ani-ue. My life is the least of ours. My karma has so worked that I have no sons and no favourites. I am alone, and without my brothers I am nothing."
"But now you have Goujun's sons to care for and raise against their father's return, whenever that will be. You must see them into manhood and train them as your heirs, and for that you must start to value your life and welfare more than you do. If you are lonely you have myself to console you, and Gouen- provided you are discreet about it," he added with asperity, but smiling.
"Ani-ue--" Goushou said with difficulty. Gouen's head was whirling with dizziness. He remembered now, but the memory was strange, like something he had read in a book. How Gouen the black dragon had challenged his older brother the high king-- He made a noise of utter disbelief.
"Ah," Goukou said. "It seems our dragon is awake. How do you, Gouen?" He made to put Goushou from him and get up but Goushou said, "Rest, ani-ue. You are hurt." His second brother slipped off the bed and came towards him. In panic Gouen started to sit up and gasped at the pain.
"Easy, little brother. Remember that you're wounded as well."
He looked down. There was a long gash across his chest that oozed blood, and his back was stiff and sore as if from a beating. Ani-ue's tail, yes, had caught him more than one blow, and Ani-ue's claws had...
"Can you stand if you hold on to me?" Goushou was asking at his side. Gouen sat in hideous paralysis, unable to meet his eyes. All the flames of his name seemed to be burning in his face.
"Second brother--" He couldn't possibly get to his knees in this state, and what else was he to do?
"Gouen." Goushou sounded amused. "Up, dragon king. Your brother commands your presence." Stiffly he slid his feet onto the floor and stood up by holding on to Goushou's shoulders. Standing was the worst of it. His bruises and cuts shrieked at the movement and then settled into a quiet grumble. Clinging to Goushou he made his painful way across the room and onto the high bed. Goushou's hands urged him back to the pillows, but it was impossible for him to lounge on his oldest brother's bed, impudently at ease, with all that had happened between them. He sat stiffly and painfully, eyes on the bedclothes.
"Ani-ue," he said, "second brother-- your worthless brother is utterly confounded." His hands clenched among the bedclothes. "I dare not even ask your pardon--"
"There's no need to," Goukou said. "You know what happens when we call challenge."
"We do not call challenge on our older brothers," Gouen said miserably. Much less do we mount them while the oldest of us watches...
"Do we not?" Goushou said, reappearing at his side. "Drink this, it will ease your pain." Gouen took the wine cup as Goushou came up to sit cross-legged across from him. "You are the scholar, not I, but I seem to recall many wars between brothers, and indeed, between fathers and sons."
"That was in the distant past. *I* do not call challenge on my older brother."
"You just did," Goukou pointed out. There was an unplaceable satisfaction coming from both him and Goushou that made Gouen feel even more constrained. "You are a black dragon, a dragon of the dragons, and the old melodies play more strongly in your blood than in ours. How else could it be that your body responds to the music and the dance when it does not answer to your command and desire?"
"Even so... What I did was--"
"You gave me a fight when I wanted one, as you lay above your second brother when he needed someone to do him that office. Give over, Gouen. You have been a faithful younger brother and devoted to your duty, and it matters not that you had to reach far into our past and deep into your own nature to do it. We have no fault to find in you."
"Ani-ue," he said, driven beyond endurance. His eyes went desperately to Goushou, who smiled at him with catlike satisfaction.
"Goushou, you are being smug," Goukou said.
"Ani-ue, I admit it."
Gouen looked from one to the other in misery and puzzlement and the beginnings of irritation. Goukou took pity on him.
"This morning your second brother, who should have had a better thought to his duty and the safety of his skin, was still nursing his resentment at my treatment of him before. But he offered to enact the forms with me because, as he said, our bodies are more honest than our mouths, and will tell the truth in spite of anything the latter may say. Which is true, as you have yourself demonstrated just now."
Gouen's face burned. He took a gulp of wine to cover his shame and mortification.
"It is no small thing to me that I could bring you down from the sky when even our Ani-ue could not," Goushou said. It was kindly meant and it merely made him wish more strongly that he could sink through the floor.
"Gouen," Goukou said. Gouen looked up. "Goujun is gone. Not for good, no, but gone for the moment. You are in his place now. It is not the two older and two younger any more, but we three. You and I have copulated. Think of yourself as my younger's younger, or of me as your older's older. Think of me even as your victor, if that helps. But do not think of me as your father because I am not. There is no need, and indeed no room now, for the distance and shame you have had with me before." Goukou leaned over and kissed his mouth. Gouen's body tightened automatically in resistance. He made himself relax.
"Better," Goukou said, and looked at him consideringly. "This would come easier to you were you only a middle child, as in the course of nature you should have been, and had younger brothers of your own. You were not meant for the youngest, so be happy at least that you have found your proper role."
"Hai, ani-ue." He looked down at his cup and drank again. They were watching him.
"Why not?" Goushou asked.
"Maybe I will be happy in time," he said, still looking down. "But change is a vexation to the soul, and I feel- I feel as if I had lost my father again. This last fortnight- it has all been loss on loss for me, and I cannot be happy at what has happened."
"You mourn for Goujun still, little brother, and all the changes his death has brought you," Goushou said, and came to sit next to him. "That is natural. No-one expects otherwise."
"But it is also a fact that now you are not our little brother any more," Goukou said, "and I think you mourn for that too."
There was silence. "Yes," he said at last. "I think I do."
"Yet you must cast that skin and put it from you as well. You are a man and a father several times over, and your spirit itself has long wished to be on a level with your brothers. You could not have done what you did otherwise, or done it so well."
He flinched a little, not at the words so much as the truth of them. He sighed. "You are right, ani-ue, as always." He leaned back against the cushions and let them support his aching body. "I shall try to reconcile myself to this."
"Think of it as only another Crossing the Threshold or Final Dance," Goukou said. "An ending and a beginning. Small wonder that it leaves you hurt and confused as they did--" He stopped, because Gouen was staring at him in astonishment. "Gouen?"
"The Final Dance," he said, as the idea tried to become clear in his head. "If indeed- if I am patterned as our ancestors were- if they responded to the Dance as I do-- then--" Goukou looked puzzled, but Goushou's eyebrow lifted.
"Indeed. In the far past we may well have copulated with our fathers."
"What?" Goukou sounded completely flummoxed.
"So put aside your hesitations, little- your pardon- Gouen," Goushou said smoothly. "You need not shrink from copulating with either of us. It is natural to your deepest nature."
Dizzy at the unaccustomed familiarity and frankness alike, Gouen was momentarily lost for an answer. But Goukou spoke instead. "Excuse me from that. I prefer not to lose skin to my bed-companions, and otherwise it is impossible for him."
"Poetry works just as well," Gouen reminded him, recovering.
"And I am no poet. Go to your second brother for that. Though I wonder if what works for you--" He looked at Goushou thoughtfully, who said at once, "I assure you it will not work for me. Even the Great Dance can take me only so far from what is my deepest nature."
"Truly?" Goukou sounded surprised.
"Truly. The music of our ancestors sounds only faintly in my blood. It's the reason I was never the poet you are, Gouen."
"That is not true--" Gouen began automatically, but stopped at sight of Goushou's sardonic smile. "Alright, yes, it is true. But it's not the reason, which is that you, second brother, do not work at your verse as wholeheartedly as you should."
"No more I do." Goushou sounded perfectly content. He smiled again, at Gouen and Goukou.
"You're happy," Goukou said repressively. "Have you forgotten that you are still in mourning?"
"No, ani-ue. That was what I was thinking. I'm trying to imagine how we're going to explain it to Goujun when he comes back and finds us as we are now." He looked at their stunned faces and said benignly, "More wine, ani-ue?"