The Lord of the Sky
"Stop a moment."
I paused in my turning as the music died.
"Your arm like this, Highness. Softer- softer-" The Master of the Ceremonials pressed my arm into the proper curve. "Think water. Think waves upon the ocean that follow the moon's path. That is what you must be."
"Yes, my lord Ceremonials. Your pardon." This was the third time I'd needed my arm's positioning corrected. Water- waves upon the ocean- I saw them in my head, slow tides obedient to the motion of the heavy body far above them. I fixed the feeling in place, concentrated on making myself and the image one.
"Continue," Ceremonials said to the musicians, and we began the steps again. Across the court Lord Suishou my Older danced the Father role. I kept my eyes on that yellow and green figure whose actions my own must follow- the Father who patterns my steps, the gravity that pulls my heavy swell- moving in my narrow space to echo the sweep of Lord Suishou's larger path- the great wind that draws me after it, my Father--
As I turned outwards a third time, I sensed someone standing in the entrance way. Barely discernible, a solider shadow in the black shadow of the gate. Men who come to watch my practice usually stand well out of the way lest their presence prove a distraction. But this was different. The height, the stillness, the sense of focussed attention. The King had come to watch me. Again. Water- I thought. Waves upon the ocean. My mind empty, I came round full circle, thinking only of the measures of the dance for I will not feel uneasiness lest I increase my Father's trouble thereby.
But in the bath afterwards I thought hard on the matter. Why did he come watch me so often, and at a time when I knew he had business elsewhere? Why did he hide himself as if trying to avoid my sight? I couldn't understand his purposes. There was something wrong here and the wrongness, I felt, had been going on for half a year ago now.
Second Uncle's death was calamitous enough, but what defeated me was the way its unlooked-for aftereffects never seemed to come to an end. The water of our lives went on rippling unnaturally long after the first stone was tossed in. True, the main event had been more of a mountain crumbling into the ocean. A royal dragon dead, a dragon of the blood murdered: and *now*, in this latter age, not in the far-off days of our ancestors. When the laws of nature are wrenched so violently out of true it's no wonder that other calamities ensue, as tsunami follow earthquakes out to sea. Yet what followed on this was no outright disaster, just an accumulation of odd events that added up to an undefined sense of menace.
It was one of Third Uncle's men who brought us the news, the impossible news, that Second Uncle was dead. I looked blankly at my father and saw his face become like lapis, as if the shock that seemed to clamp me in its vise had turned him to stone as well. Yet in the same moment he began to give orders, short and to the point: sent for First Uncle from the Southern Ocean; commanded a crystal sarcophagus to be prepared within a day; instructed the Chief Steward to oversee the servants' change into mourning, and sent each man to his business. Next day he assembled his household and family about him, and went out onto the battlements to greet his two youngest brothers, the living and the dead.
Seeing that the King could lay aside his sorrow and anger to do what must be done, I too put a rein to my emotions. I was nearly a man: there remained only a half-year till my Final Dance. There was no place for the childish self that wept in my heart and would not stop. One should not presume to choose among one's elders, but it was Uncle Goujun that I loved best among my uncles. He was quiet and reserved, the unnoticed middle brother, never as demanding as First Uncle nor as brilliant as Third: but I secretly looked on him- and felt that Father agreed- as the steadiest and most reliable of the three. I was more at ease with him than with any of the previous generation and found his conversation the most instructive and useful. Bitter irony then that he was the one to bring such a calamity on our family.
Second Uncle's body was already growing heavy. It took four men to carry him into the palace and lay him in state in a side chamber. They closed the crystal lid over him and my father and uncles sang the first of the farewell dirges. The regulated cadences of the song crept about my heart and for the first time the weeping child there was still. Maybe that's part of what the ceremony is for: to impose an order on the chaos of death and thus make life easier for the living.
I took charge of my brothers again that night, seeing to their baths and bed and heartening them with my company. Little Kaimyou was upset all over again by sight of Second Uncle's body, while Kaisou was angry and miserable. When we had Kaimyou asleep, I had recourse to some of the early forms to ease the turbulence of Kaisou's feelings, for my Older said that all training must be suspended during the forty days of mourning. At length I went back to my own rooms to bathe with Lord Suishou, for he would not leave me by myself at this sad time. I meditated for a space and then joined him in bed, fortified against the demands of the morrow.
But in the morning there was a new trouble. When we came to breakfast my father's place was empty. 'The King left last night,' Third Uncle said, and said no more. First Uncle stayed in his chamber and didn't appear that day. For once the retainers kept what they knew or guessed to themselves, for the Lord Chamberlain and the Chief Steward were quick to suppress all idle talk. That fact was worrisome, the more so in light of the bruises on First Uncle's face when he came at last to table. My father is not a man for violence but he had been violently angry when he quitted his palace.
There was another storm of tears and distress when my brothers found that our father had disappeared as suddenly as our uncle. I had much ado to calm them, but the effort made me think and thus I hit upon what felt like the answer.
"Consider," I said to them. "This is the second great wrong Heaven has done our family. In ancient days the Jade Emperor warred with our great-grandfather and turned him into the black mountain that stands outside his palace: and there was nothing we could do to avenge him, then or ever. Now Heaven's renegade has slain our father's own brother and once again Heaven will make no amends. Indeed, we don't even know if the Jade Emperor still rules, for Third Uncle's man said the palace is in chaos from the slaughter that took place there. I believe this new wrong added to the old has driven our father to fury, but there is none he may rightfully take out his anger upon. So he went away to calm his spirit lest it lead him to injustice."
"So he has gone to Heaven to revenge our uncle?" Kaisou asked eagerly.
"Surely not. He is a wise and prudent man, and would not attack Heaven with only six men. He knows what ills fall on the land when the king dies suddenly- knows it from his own experience, for his own father died in that manner. Our father has had many sorrows in his life, and this is the latest and least looked-for. His anger overwhelms him and he goes to deal with it in some safe place. He may be hunting; he may be meditating. He will come back calm and able to face the duties of this hard time."
Kaisou looked dissatisfied, but I became increasingly convinced that my guess was right. First Uncle kept his countenance when in the family's company but he couldn't conceal the deep disturbance of his soul-sense: indeed he barely even tried. He ate little at mealtimes and usually kept to his chamber. The preparations for the funeral went ahead under the smooth direction of Third Uncle. The castle took heart from his unruffled manner, that returned a feeling of normality even to this unparalleled situation. I was not so reassured. I once heard a servant say how hard it is to read a black dragon's moods from his countenance, and Lord Gouen's in particular, and thought it odd. I have no such difficulty, but perhaps it's only my own experience that tells me what tightening here or quirk there means anger or diversion. Third Uncle kept his face too still: there was a trouble he hid from us. The king my father is measured and just but for all that feeling runs strong in him. That is what makes him so redoubtable a warrior and so formidable a hunter. I became more certain that his anger and grief had broken their bounds and become as an autumn tempest in the oceans, lawless and destructive. One knows such storms can happen and trusts them to have an end: but those who experience their ferocity at first hand have reason to be afraid.
The king was gone for a whole ten days, and long enough I thought it. He came back in the evening after I was abed; I only learned of it when my valet woke me next morning. It disturbed me that the uncles hadn't thought to call me forth to greet my father. Did they fear his moods so much that they wished to shield even his oldest son from them? Hadn't they realized it would seem a deliberate slight on my part and rather give him cause for anger? I went to breakfast with no happy expectations. But the King was his usual self, if thinner and inclined to shortness. He was indulgent as ever to us his children but I thought I saw a shadow on him when he spoke to the uncles. Clearly the waves still heaved in the wake of the storm. I went to my studies, hoping all would be well.
It was mid-morning when a disturbance swept the palace. 'The King is in the sky, duelling with Lord Gouen!' I hastened out to the battlements and looked up at the startling sight: the two great figures circling far overhead, posed in unfamiliar attitudes of challenge and reply: my father dark blue against the pale blue sky, my uncle like a black thundercloud. I'd read of the battles of old between dragons; I had a vague idea of the protocols used; but as I watched I found within me a knowledge beyond words. I saw from their movements that it was my uncle who'd called challenge and my father who'd responded. I was certain of that though it made no sense at all. Then the first clash came and I understood, in the same wordless way, that this was no play practice or half-jest bout.
"They battle to the death," someone said beside me. The fear in his voice crept into my own bones and chilled them. What flew above me was not my father: what flew to attack him was not my uncle. It couldn't be them, but it was.
The two dragons sped to the upper air where our manform eyes couldn't follow. No one dared to go after. I waited below in a frozen world where time had stopped dead, and all the while a voice in my head said What has happened? This is all wrong. What has happened to my family?
They returned. They both returned, neither of them maimed, and vanished into the King's chamber, and what happened thereafter no man knows who was not there. No one spoke of it after, not even the littlest of the King's pages. Men had a strange look to them for the rest of the day, as if all walked with breath inheld. I attended to my own closest concern: asked my tutor's permission to go to the practice grounds, collected Kaisou from his distracted preceptor, and put him through two hours of close swordplay until he was ready to drop. That, I was confident, would get him through dinner without an outburst, however strange the meal turned out to be.
I needn't have worried. My father and my uncles came in cheerful and happier than I'd seen them since the first news arrived. Perhaps, I thought, when Father took to the sky with Third Uncle he'd only been doing what I myself had done that afternoon with Kaisou. Or rather, when Third Uncle took to the sky with *Father*... Finally it became clear. Third Uncle's challenge, the battle in the sky- they were designed to give my Father the relief he hadn't found in his ten days away, a desperate remedy for a desperate ill. And it worked, as Third Uncle's schemes always do. My father and my uncles were once again in harmony. I could only admire Third Uncle's resolve, and be grateful the matter had ended so well.
The days of mourning went by. The children grew used to the strange life we led during the period, and being young were distracted by the many notable dragons who came to attend the funeral. But I felt my sorrow returning once concern for my Father was eased. The story was that the Bosatsu Kanzeon had caught Second Uncle's spirit before it could make its way to the Dark Land, and sent it into a new body here on earth. Father said it was so and thus it must be so, but I could find no consolation thereby. When I visited him each day and saw that his body, the only form I knew him in, had gone entirely to jade, it did no good to imagine his return at some far future date. All I could feel was the pain of his silent absence. My Older seemed to know that I was in low spirits and counselled me to partner with him or my Third, Kazan. I found some relief thereby, and consequently took it on me to do the same with Kaisou occasionally to keep him tranquil, though I scrupulously- and with difficulty- refrained from correcting his technique in any way but example.
The day of the funeral came and went; I put off my mourning clothes and went back to the familiar black; but my heart still held a weight within it. That seemed natural: the grief of a kinsman's death cannot be assuaged so quickly. Forty days or forty thousand, it makes no odds; our ancestors chose the shorter period so that the duties of daily life might continue. But I had a new trouble burdening my soul, from the stage I'd reached in my training.
The disciplinary forms are the ordeal that presages the final passage to manhood. By their nature they pain the body, and for one of my rank, who must learn more to inflict than endure them, they pain the soul. I have a great admiration for my Third's sense and steadiness and a liking for him as a man. Kazan is the son of my father's Chancellor, though not the heir, which is why I trusted that his father and mine would spare him to me as my Third. I expected that sharing in my training would create a bond between us and make him willing to stay in my household afterwards. My early clumsiness in lying above must have caused him pain. I was sorry for it yet knew it was an inevitable part of being Third. The advantages of that position later in life must be recompense for his present discomfort. But now I was required to hurt him in earnest, to shed his blood and hope only that I wouldn't cause permanent harm either to his body or his affections. My Older was strict with me and allowed no shirking: neither did he hold back when demonstrating the forms on myself.
So it was that I found myself in some unhappiness of body and mind. I kept it from my bearing but it wore at me in a way that seemed excessive. All dragons endure the sufferings of this period, I reasoned. Why had I suddenly become so weak? I had never minded the hurts of combat or the pain of my father's correction. Had sorrow for my uncle sapped my spirit and my strength? That surely was natural, so much so that it might be wrong to try for indifference. But my trouble was like a wound that never stopped bleeding, and it dragged at me every hour of the day.
I wished more than anything for the company of my father and the certainty of his soul. But it seemed that he was withdrawing from me. Since I lower my eyes when we speak I'd not at once noticed that he too kept his gaze turned from me. If I glanced towards him when I felt his eyes on me, he looked away. Sometimes he called for my attendance during his rest time and then dismissed me with short words. I wondered what I'd done to earn his displeasure. But then I realized it wasn't anger, for when I made mistakes that merited correction he let them pass in silence. When I failed to check or forestall Kaisou's excesses, he rarely mentioned the matter to me.
He'd said once, early on, that he no longer trusted himself to discipline us, fearing that the strength of his feelings would make him more severe than was right. I honoured him for his justice but naturally assumed we would still have his guidance. Now I started to worry, for it seemed he no longer cared what went on in his family. I knew he could not cease to love us, his sons, but only a deep trouble could make him indifferent to our behaviour. I am ashamed at how long it took for the answer to occur to me. If I was weakened by my grief, how much more so must he be, who had lost his own brother. I reproached myself for having assumed that all was well with him when the evidence- when I finally had the wit to look at it- showed so clearly otherwise. With some misgiving at the impropriety I sought out his soul-sense, and found it all muddy and disturbed.
That was a shock and it drew me out of my lethargy. Through various disciplines I tried to make my own soul as serene as possible. I dared hope he might draw some tranquility from me if I could become steady enough. I meditated with more concentration, both the sitting form and the dance, and thrust from me all grief and soul-weariness. My father's well-being was all that mattered, and for that I would give up even the sadness I ought in duty to feel.
Things changed between us then, but oddly grew no better. My father went back to addressing me directly, to discussing the affairs of state that came before him and the duties of a king, but his attention made me somehow uneasy. A current moved beneath his words, something hidden and unknown. His eyes on me made my skin prickle. It was like flying beneath gathering thunderclouds, a breathlessness in the air and a crawling electricity that might at any moment spark a crashing thunderstone. Then in a moment it all vanished and my father would be my father once again- open, serene, certain.
I could make no sense of this behaviour, but my masseur gave me one clue. Like any bathman he's a font of gossip, privy to all the current rumours and happenings in the household, but he has a prudence and delicacy that's unusual in the profession. I fancy he works in consort with Lord Suishou's bathman or my brothers', to have their masters' attention distracted away from us when he has something to pass on to me. One night then, while my Older was receiving a vigorous pummelling from his own masseur, mine detailed the current liaisons among my father's servants and favourites. There were a surprising number: "but they find themselves now with much time on their hands, for their master no longer requires their services at night."
"The King has a new favourite?" I asked, that being the obvious conclusion.
"Not that I've heard of," he replied. I blinked. Did he mean that my father lay alone of nights?
But he was going on: "But there's no need for worry. His Majesty is hale as ever. Indeed, various of his Majesty's favourites have needed to be relieved from service for a day or several. It's hard for those on the ground to partner with those whose soul is still in the skies, for there the laws of the Great Dance hold sway and make a man more than man."
"Is it so? I wouldn't know, of course," I answered, hoping for more, but he went on a tangent then about the latest sons born to certain nobles.
He left me with much food for thought. If my father refrained from the Forms, it would go far to explain the unsettled nature of his soul. But the reason he denied himself was still obscure to me. It was three years since my father had last performed the Great Dance. Why should its laws affect him now? And why should the Dance make it difficult to partner with a male in the first place? The Great Dance brings the sexes to a state where they may copulate with each other, and that was all I knew of it. But then I considered what that might mean in practice. Women in general are much larger than men, and I believe the difference is more pronounced in dragon form. To impregnate one it might well be necessary to achieve an unusual size- to become in fact more than a man. If one were to remain in that state afterwards, partnering with a male would indeed be a problem. Maybe that's another reason why a man consorts only with the woman he has impregnated for the two hundred days afterwards.
But what had that to do with my father? He'd taken to the skies to do battle, not to dance, and battle has no such physical effect. Certainly none of my tutors had mentioned arousal as a side-effect of combat, and the duels I'd fought never wrought such changes in me. Only-- only-- I couldn't forget the strange archaic poses of my father and uncle in battle, the unfamiliar terms of challenge and response. A battle with a brother- harkening back to the wild history of our race- was that different? It may have been calculated on my uncle's part, but my father... I saw again his great blue figure stretching its wings in wrath- my father had fought in earnest. And that realization made the little unease crawl across my skin again.
Next day at dance practice we were reviewing the second last set of movements, the ones before the last paired duet. I was moving towards Lord Suishou, turn- step- turn- step, describing a parabola that must be calculated so nicely that at its end I would be standing facing him and a pace apart. I counted my steps, for with the constant twining in so small a space I couldn't judge by eye where my partner was. And then I felt my father's presence. He was watching me unseen, watching so closely this time that I felt as if he were by my side. I decided I would send my soul-sense out to him, to taste the sense that was coming so strongly from him. I put my foot down in the wrong position and stopped dead.
"Your pardon, my lord Ceremonials, Lord Suishou. A foot misplaced."
"Very well then. Back three paces and continue from there."
I backed up, took a deep breath, and continued.
I hadn't dared to touch my father's soul-sense. It wasn't a matter of respect or propriety. The very thought of doing it had sent a warning shock that jangled every nerve in my body. I was afraid of my father. As simple and as terrible as that.
It was done. I bowed to my Older and the Master and turned to leave. The entranceway was empty of all but my servants. I walked blindly onwards with them behind me. I fear my father. Why do I fear him? Because he's no longer the father I know, but I don't know what he has become.
After a moment one spoke at my elbow. "Kaiei-sama?"
"It approaches the hour of siesta."
"Ah. Yes." I turned my steps towards Kaisou's bedroom. In fact he wasn't there, but burst in a few moments later.
"Ani-ue- your pardon- I was at lessons--"
"Yes." Lessons had never held him before but I said nothing of that. "Let us sponge down and begin."
The servants moved to disrobe us but Kaisou chattered on.
"Ani-ue, is it true that the youkai of the continents are our cousins? It's not true, is it? Housan said that our ancestors did it with the fox-women of earth-"
"But ani-ue, it's not true, right?- I mean, a fox-woman- I mean-" His sentence petered out under my gaze. He was flushed- white dragons have that disability, that their shame and excitement show so easily, and he was both ashamed at and excited by the idea of the unnatural mating.
I turned away from him as the servant put the chamber robe about me and knelt to undo my drawers.
"Things were different in the far-off days. The customs of our ancestors are not our own. They were more lawless and more ferocious than we." I stopped, hearing an echo in my head, gone as soon as I felt it. "The legends do say certain of the dragons of old copulated with the creatures of the continents, in defiance of natural law, and begot the wild race of youkai. But remember that those dragons were driven from their family and kingdoms for so doing. Even in the olden days our race was governed by virtue and right-thinking."
"Now, are you ready? Good. Then we will begin with the third tune for the jade flute. Take three deep breaths before we begin, and remember this time to govern the timing of your breathing."
The day went heavily towards its end. The evening brought me no pleasure. I was set to enact Stripped Willow with my Third, and my spirit revolted from it more deeply than ever. I accomplished it only because I knew my Older would make me repeat it from the start if I failed, and I would not cause Kazan more pain than I must. At last it was over. I washed and went to bed, sore at heart, and was drifting off when I heard my Older's voice from some months previous.
"Today we begin the study of the final forms, the disciplinary ones. You will find them hard to learn and endure, as all men do, for they hurt and are intended to hurt. They are the last battle that you must win in order to be a man. Perfect your mastery of them so you may come to your final Dance a complete man, and then you may forget them." I must have looked perplexed, for he said in a different tone, "No person of feeling would use these practices with his favourites. We do not know how they came to be among the Forms nor what they were originally intended for. There are some," he said, and I heard a vague distaste in his tone, "who believe that in the most ancient past our ancestors used them for their own pleasure, but I am loath to believe it. The dragons of old may have been fiercer than ourselves but they were not mad. It is not in reason that a man would wish to hurt the one he loves."
I had thought no more on the matter, but now I felt a revolution in my head. Stripped Willow, Walled Badger- what if our ancestors had indeed found pleasure in such activities? If the giving of pain brought them delight? My heart pounded and a sort of unknown terror overtook me. I sat up, sweating and trembling, and strove to control my breathing.
"Kaiei--?" My Older had woken
"Your pardon, Lord Suishou. I go to visit the persimmon," and I slipped out of bed. When I came out of the earth closet he was asleep again. Silently I left the bedroom and went into my outer chamber. The night valet brought an overrobe at my signal; I took one of the junior chamber servants and a guard with me to light the way, and went out to the hallway.
There was no need of the torch. The moon was near the full and shone in a cloudless sky. I paced the outer corridors by its light, seeking the source of my fear, but it slipped away from me like one of the tricksy shadows that the moon cast through the stone fretting. Out on the ramparts I went with the night wind blowing my hair and sleeves.
Below me was the sound of waves crashing on the rocks out of sight: before me the vast expanse of the sea spread out to the horizon. The constant movement of its surface held my eye, line on hypnotic line crawling across a huge canvas. But my instincts turned from what lay below to what was above. The motion and noise of the waters would drown all thought, but in the still and empty sky I might find the answer I needed.
"I go to take the air," I told my servant. "Wait for me here." I went to the terrace's edge and stepped off, changing form as soon as the ground was gone from under my feet.
I turned my back on the white moon, too bright in the sky, and sought instead the spangled stars. The air was cool up here- the air of the skies is always cool, or maybe it's just that our dragon blood is colder than our manform one. Odd, I thought absently, that we should be so small when four-limbed and so great with two. The disparity had never struck me so sharply. Such a pleasure to be winging the sky again, with all the complications of landbound manform life far below. The steady sweep of flight was soothing as meditation and I flew and glided, flew and glided, one with the blackness of the black night. How good to look through my dragon eyes again, the many facets of them that see forward and sideways and even back without my having to turn my head, the way they see past and present and future happening all at once, flowing by me in a cascade of moments like the flow of the winds.
I let go of my spirit as I rarely do when flying alone. It's too easy to lose one's Self that way: there's nothing in the outside world to call you back if you go too far, as a hand to the shoulder or a brother's voice will draw you from deep meditation. In the upper air there's no There, no one place distinct from another, and the boundaries of one's own self can vanish likewise. You swim through the countless succession of years, you slip into the immense thought of dragonkind. You know what your ancestors felt millennia before you were born; you experience thoughts that come from your offspring six generations from now. In this boundaryless world one simply Is. The 'I' of a single man is lost in the 'all' of dragonkind.
So I flew through tatters of time like wisps of cirrus, brushed by stray scenes and random emotions, some of them familiar and many most certainly not.
the egg has hatched, my Lord
below me, catch him a blow with my right wing
(a moment when the world seems to unfold like a flower)
in so deep, into the flesh that opens and opens for me as far as I can reach
I will tear the scales from his body
(a brief shimmer of sadness like a line of thin rain)
weary as the albatross that flies the world without resting ever
I have been in the sky--
That was my father's voice. Suddenly alert, I turned to catch it and heard him say "Our ancestors were more lawless and more ferocious than we. When we repeat their actions we become for a space like them and unlike ourselves."
We become for a space like them.
Finally I understood what he'd been trying to tell me. I know now what the words 'like our ancestors' mean: I'd been learning it ever since. Like our ancestors who flouted nature to mate with the foxes and badgers of earth and got monsters on them. Like our ancestors who found pleasure in hurting those they loved and made it a formal part of our young men's education. Like our ancestors who fought their brothers to the death and returned to the ground stained with the blood of their nearest kin. That was what my father had become.
That time-worn phrase, 'the spirit of the dragons of old'- it's not just words but a real thing. It's what looks from my father's eyes when he watches me dance. It's the shadow that darkens his soul and the chain that galls his leg. Only for a space, he said, but any space is too long and dangerous for those of earth. The spirit of the ancient dragons had drawn him first from anger at Heaven to violence against his brothers, thence to harm upon his helpless servants, and finally, at the last, it had brought him to lust for me, his son.
I flew onwards in the tranquil night. Had I been on earth I must have felt- well, many things. But I was in the sky where there is only what is, not what should be or must be. I saw clearly how my earth-bound father, all that is right and noble and just and lovable, suffered from and struggled against the ancient urges that had come upon him in the sky.
We are two by nature, we dragons. We exist in two forms, we live in two elements, and we have two ways of being. These dualities meet in us but they must not mix. They'd become mixed now and I couldn't let that continue. The dragon of old who lived in my father had to be sent back to where he belonged.
I sent my thoughts before me as I flew down towards the palace. On the balcony outside my father's room I turned to manform and waited. It was not long before he came out. We stood and looked at each other in the blue and silver world, and he was not he and I, no doubt, was not I, for my mind still saw the emptiness and lawlessness of the darkness overhead.
"Why are you here?" he said. It sounded like someone else trying to mimic my father's voice.
"I have been to the skies."
He drew his breath in deeply; made a move to step forward and checked it. "Go," he said. "Leave me." That was my father; but it was not my father that I'd come to face.
"Your pardon," I answered. "I may not go until I deliver the message of the skies, and I may not do that while I stand beneath them."
"There are more things there than a man can see, even with his dragon eyes, and I would not have them hear what I must say."
He hesitated. "Very well," he said at last, and he turned and led me back to his chamber. The bed was empty. He did indeed lie alone of nights.
"What is this message then?"
I took off my over-robe and faced him in my sleeping gown.
"No," he said, but I took a quick step and stood next to him, a bare hand's width away. His arms came up automatically to grip me and pull me to him. I was pinned flush against his chest; I felt the trembling in his body and the terrible pounding of his heart. This was still my father's body, even if another dwelt in it. I couldn't bring myself to use any of the practices a man employs to indicate his willingness: I couldn't even embrace him in my turn, but I turned my muscles to wax and let him hold me close.
"I am here to do your will." He drew breath to speak or to protest, but I kept on. "My father is Goukou the Blue Dragon, king of the Eastern Ocean and high king of the ocean tribe. And you are not he."
"Then who am I?"
"You are the Lord of the Skies."
He put his hands to my shoulders then and held me away from him. The face was my father's but the eyes were not. They shone with the light of another place, the cold savage air of the upper heavens where no clouds blow and nothing shields you from the freezing stroke of the sun.
"You will regret this afterwards."
"I will not regret it. You trouble my father's soul. He wearies himself in combat with you and has the less energy for the burdens of this difficult time. My people must have their king back, for two former rulers have been taken untimely from them and we cannot afford to lose a third. My uncles must have their ani-ue back, for one brother has already been stolen from them. My brothers must have their father back, for there is no man able to take his place. What am I in the face of the needs of so many? No son will grudge his body or his life in return for his father's freedom, and I am prepared to give up both."
"And you really think that will be the end of it?"
"Yes. You have nothing else to stay for."
He pushed me away from him, but it was towards the bed so that I landed there on my back. I let him do what he would after that and he was quick and savage in doing it.
It hurt as much as my First Crossing. And yet, like the First Crossing, it was a pain different from any I've ever known, for something besides pain mixed within it. I'd expected to be rent apart. It didn't happen. There was room in me for him, large as he was- there was all the room of the skies within me. I lay on my belly, my face to the sheet, and it was as if I still flew the night air, with the silent peaceful stars above me and the gossamer touch of other men's memories on my brain, and the hurt of my body seemed to be someone else's too and not mine at all.
Towards the end it grew nearer to me. I heard myself grunting into the bedding. For all I know that sound of suffering and pleasure was what he'd been waiting for, for he finished a moment later and fell, heavy and hot, across my back. And there we lay for an unmeasured space of time while I thought dimly that I must get up soon, fetch the cloths, and perform the after-services for my father. I didn't know how I'd find the face to do it. You will think this odd in view of what I'd just done, but so it was.
"Kaiei," he said at last, and slid to my side. That ended the worst of my fears: that it was still not my father who covered me with his body.
"Chichi-ue." I tried to get up but he stopped me.
"Do not move."
"I must fetch the cloths--"
"Obey me." His hand on my back pushed me flat.
"Hai, chichi-ue." He left my side. I heard water poured into the bowl and then he was back. He washed me as if he were my gran'fer and I breathed deeply about the pain of it.
"You do not bleed," he said, and I could not read his tone at all.
"No. I have been in the skies."
"And what did you there?"
"I flew, and listened to the voices of the past, and considered the nature of dragons."
"And came here to lie beneath me."
"To lie beneath him. He would not quit my lord father until he had what he desired. That is the nature of the dragons of old."
"You try to shield me from my crime. I will not allow it."
I turned my head in surprise. "Chichi-ue? What crime?"
"You do not think this wrong, that we did? Have you too become completely lost to right-thinking?"
"Certainly it is wrong to lie with one's father, just as it is wrong to desire one's son. My father would never do such a thing. From that I concluded, with other evidence, that the man who desired me was not my father and I might rightfully lie with him. May I ask, with respect, does my lord father feel it was he who did these things, or another?"
He was silent a long moment. "I do not trust my feelings to speak truth."
"Then I beg my father to listen to the truth his foolish son feels in his heart. Six months ago my father took to the sky in the way of our ancestors, and the dragon he became in that ancient form of battle returned with him to earth. Your foolish son knows well his own ignorance: he has not danced the Final Dance, let alone the Great One. But I am given to understand that the Great Dance changes a man for a time: that taking to the skies to copulate with a female returns us to an older way of being. It's the way things are for us: up there we may fly into our own past as easily as into a cloud-- or, if we are not careful, a thunderstorm." His eyes were on me, listening with a startled attention. I went on, feeling my way, for I hadn't known this thought was in my mind when I began speaking.
"Copulation is followed by the ceremonies of the two hundred days that nurture the egg. I would guess that period is also designed to allow the effect of the skies to fade naturally. Perhaps I am wrong?" He shook his head. "Then maybe there was once a similar period and similar ceremonies after battles between kin, to banish the ill-will between them and the same physical effects. But all that was forgotten when we abandoned those practices that harmed our lines rather than strengthening them."
"Maybe in the olden days, if the Victor let his Vanquished live, it might have been necessary. But in my case I found that victory itself brought an end to ill-will. I held no rancour against Gouen nor he against me."
"It is not my father's nature nor Third Uncle's to be angry long. But did victory bring an end to the Victor?"
That struck home, as I could see.
"Then- there was something we should have done thereafter? Some ceremony to-- to pacify his spirit in me. Yet I can't think what it could be, and I am sure there are no records left to tell us what those ceremonies were."
"My father is the only man here who knows what he did when he first returned from the skies with Third Uncle. Might it have been something like that, repeated daily as one repeats the rites that nurture the egg?"
He snorted. "They're all the same thing. In extreme moments we have recourse to the forms, as by instinct." I blinked, for suddenly all came clear as the landscape below does when you emerge from a cloud. My father was going on, "So maybe I should have kept Gouen here and--" He stopped abruptly, looking stunned, then stared at me. "Kaiei!!"
"Yes, chichi-ue. I am a black dragon and your kin. With Third Uncle gone, where else might the Skylord have looked for the man he vanquished?"
My father sank back against the headboard. His eyes were considering.
"I see," he murmured. "I see." He took a deep breath. "And it's been two hundred days since then, or nearly. So-" he looked at me, "I may hope that it's over now."
"Your foolish son trusts that his father's ordeal is over, and finally. The world will rejoice at my father's returned ease of spirit." We looked at each other and I knew what was in his mind. "Then there remains only to dispose of the criminal who defied the laws of our people."
I slid to my knees and put my hands to the floor. "He was not my father but he wore my father's body. That should have been enough to deter a right-minded man; it did not deter your foolish son. That was a crime in him and he is fully prepared to pay the price of it." I laid my forehead to the ground and waited his judgment.
There was a silence. I felt his soul in turmoil, but he would not be the father I love if it were otherwise. At last he said, "Yet I am loath to lose the son who is dear to me when I have just lost the brother I loved equally well."
"Nonetheless, chichi-ue. Your son has shown himself unfit even to be admitted to the society of proper men, let alone to be a prince of his kingdom and your heir."
"Nor," he added, "do I think a scandal at this time will help my people's spirit."
"Your foolish son can contrive his own death without calling attention to it."
"Now your wit fails you, Kaiei," he said, and I heard a faint smile in his voice. "The death of a First Prince cannot go unremarked."
"In half a year, or a year, or when my father has new sons and the quality of those he has now can be more clearly seen. Or whenever it is that the King wishes this felon to die. Truly, father: your foolish son knows what he has done and knows the price that must be paid for it."
He said nothing.
"I did what I did by the law of the skies," I said deliberately, "but I must be judged by the law of earth. The two cannot be allowed to mix lest the one contaminate the other and we lose all the order it has taken us generations to achieve."
"What you say is true," he answered slowly, "but you forget one thing. The skies and the earth both exist, each with their separate laws, and a man who would rule one must be able to deal with the other. A virtuous king, a man of intelligence who follows the laws of our people and cannot conceive of the savagery of our ancestors- such a king as I once flattered myself to be- a king like that can be undone in a moment should the skies come upon him, for virtue and intelligence and prudence alone are not strong enough to guard against them. He must have a strain of the dragons of old as well, to give him the cunning and the boldness to deal with the things we have banished from our world, when they appear again. Raise your head, Kaiei."
I looked up at him.
"I could not wish a better son than yourself. Who else would dare do as you did for the people's good? Who else can I depend upon to take such careful thought for my kingdom and family when I cannot? Who else sees all sides of a thing with his dragon eyes even when in man's shape? You are truly a dragon of the dragons and my kingdom is blessed in you. And it is totally unbecoming for a father to say such things to his son. You are to forget all of it by tomorrow."
I blinked the tears in my eyes. My father is merciful- he'd stopped just before I broke down and wailed like an infant.
"Get to bed, boy; dawn comes soon enough and I want my sleep."
I reached for his hands and put them to my forehead.
"Then have good rest, chichi-ue."