1. The Western River
With five attendants only he flew to the palace of the King of the Western River and there changed form. The guards frowned in perplexity- six dragons dressed in white, without personal colours or olders' markings. His spokesman stepped forward and put fist to palm.
"Goukou the Blue Dragon, King of the Eastern Sea, High King of the Ocean Dragons, greets his younger brother the King of the Western River and requests the hospitality of his house."
The guards dropped to one knee and saluted the Ocean King. One of them backed away and hastened off into the palace. Goukou waited the arrival of the chamberlain- he assumed it would be a chamberlain, for an unannounced and hence unofficial visit like this, unless King Shanten himself came as a mark of honour. But it was neither chamberlain nor king who appeared a few minutes later. It was a man dressed in white like themselves who walked quietly and gracefully out onto the battlements. Without thinking Goukou moved forward to meet him, not sensing the surprise among his servants. For the first time in centuries, it seemed, he knelt and put another man's hands to his forehead. For the first time in centuries, it seemed, he heard his unadorned name from someone else's mouth.
"Goukou. How good to see you."
"Uncle," he said. And said no more. Quite without volition his eyes ran over and his tears fell on Shantsu's green hands.
Shantsu raised him and gave instructions to the guards to see to the refreshment of Goukou's retinue. He made no move to kiss or embrace him, which was as well. Goukou felt himself a man walking with a wound in his side whom the slightest thing may topple. Shantsu took him to his own apartments, ordered wine served, and dismissed his servants. Then he sat by Goukou and held his hand while the tears ran out of the high king's eyes, silently and without end, as if his life-blood was draining away.
"Uncle," Goukou said. His voice was perfectly steady. This weeping seemed to have nothing to do with him personally, just a thing hs body was doing independent of his will. "I am ashamed to come before you like this." Shantsu pressed his hand. "Forgive me for burdening you with my grief when I see you have had your own loss. I hadn't heard. Who--?"
"The same as yourself," Shantsu said. "The ruler who bore Lord Goujun was begotten by my father, and to our thinking he was kin to me. We wear white for him too, my father and my brothers and our sons."
"Anhh. I see." He wiped his eyes. "I have to stop this. I must go greet the king--"
"Father does not expect it. Do not trouble yourself with courtesy, Goukou. You are my younger come to pay me a private visit. That's understood."
"No, but--" He wiped at his eyes again. "I'll make myself ill, carrying on like this."
"Cry your tears out. Even kings must weep at times." Shantsu's hand was warm and dry about his own. Goukou gave way, too tired to do anything else. It was like going back to boyhood, to the steady security he'd known during his training- his father still alive, and this gentle man beside him through his days and his nights. He leaned back against the cushions of the divan. "I don't know- I don't know how long I must trespass on your hospitality. I--" He closed his eyes wearily, and the water kept sliding out of them, hot and wet.
"My house and myself are yours for as long as you need them. I thought of going to see you but had no wish to intrude. Will you have a bath now? It was a long journey you made."
"Yes. Yes, that would be nice." He sighed as he sat up. "The silver dragon with me, he's my personal attendant--"
"He knows how it is with you?"
"Then I will look after you myself."
He was as good as his word. It was Shantsu who helped him undress, Shantsu who poured the water over him, and Shantsu who washed him all over. It felt strange at first. Shantsu was not his servant and Shantsu's touch was not a servant's touch. It was rather he who should be doing these services for Shantsu. But his tired mind was content to stay in that time when Shantsu's closeness was part of the everyday world, when Shantsu had touched him and embraced him with the familiarity of a grandfather. By the time he got into the hot water of the bath he was drowsy as if he had drunk poppyjuice. His eyes kept trying to close of themselves.
"Come, Goukou. You'll fall asleep there."
He got up and pulled himself together. "Uncle, here," he said, taking the towel from Shantsu. "Let me serve you in one thing at least, as is proper."
"As you will," Shantsu smiled, and allowed himself to be dried off. He got a second towel and did the same for Goukou. They helped each other into their chamber robes, tying the complicated flat knot for the sash, and returned to the bedroom. Goukou's legs were leaden. Shantsu went over to the bed and turned the covers down.
"Sleep now," he said to Goukou. "As long and as deeply as you may."
"Yes." Goukou lay down amid the sheets and deep pillows that smelled faintly and reassuringly of Shantsu. He looked up at his Older's face. The line of water that had stopped sometime in the bath crept out of his eyes again. Shantsu covered him, then came round to the other side of the bed and lay down next to him, propped on an elbow. His arm came across Goukou's chest, and Goukou caught his hand.
"I won't leave you," Shantsu said as if he read Goukou's thoughts. "Sleep well, little brother." Goukou closed his eyes and slept.
He woke much later to night dimness. A lamp burned on the far side of the room, its light muffled. There was the faint smell of lemons and hot water from a chafing stand nearby. Shantsu was sitting beside him, close enough to touch.
"Uncle, your pardon. I have made you miss dinner."
"No, I had it brought here. Will you eat now yourself?"
"No. I'm not hungry."
"Have you eaten at all these last days?"
"Yes. I do not neglect myself, Uncle. I have been-" Tears, running out of his eyes. He drew a breath of weariness and exasperation.
"You have been shouldering the world as you did when your father died, and easing your brothers' burdens." Goukou's body tensed automatically. There was silence.
"I should have come to see you, even if the forty days were not yet done," Shantsu said.
"No." He sniffed the tears into his nose. "No. I wouldn't have had here to come to then." Shantsu was warm beside him and the world smelled of Shantsu. "Uncle--"
Shantsu raised the covers and slid in next to him. Held him in his arms while his mouth played over Goukou's horns. Delicate, delicate the feather touch of his lips, and the warmth and solidity of him below. Goukou's arousal and fulfillment happened all in a moment, but distanced, sweet and remote in some corner of his brain. And then he slept again.
There was breakfast next morning, a bowl of fruit sliced over cooked grain. He looked at it and felt his stomach turn at the thought of putting it inside him. He handed it back to Shantsu. Shantsu dipped the spoon in the stuff and held it to Goukou's lips. Unwillingly he opened his mouth. It was sweet. He could eat it if Shantsu fed it to him. Willess, not by his decision, he ate, and went to sleep again.
Woke, and Shantsu was there. The dull pain that seemed to be a permanent part of him now, lodged somewhere just above his heart, eased fractionally. Shantsu was there. His mind could no longer take in the thought of a future but for now, right now, Shantsu was with him, and the rest of the world was elsewhere. He didn't think about it. Wouldn't. Couldn't.
Shantsu brought water and washed him where he lay. Goukou looked up at the tranquil face.
"Uncle," he said. "Will you enact the forms with me?"
"Of course. Which ones?"
"All of them. In order, from the start."
"As you wish. Now?"
"Lie over then, and let's begin."
And so they did, beginning with the Ring, as when he had been a boy and his hair newly bound. Unfurling the Petals, the Hummingbird's Beak, Peeling the Loquat. The Five Tunes, the Cataract's Roar, the Fruit Basket. Goukou's body responded, over and over again. It felt like it was happening to someone else. After the Spiral Staircase he fell suddenly asleep again.
It was like that. Sleep and wake, and Shantsu beside him when he did. Shantsu fed him as if he were an infant. Took him to the bath place and washed him, and brought him back to bed afterwards for the next set of forms. Sometimes the sheets smelled differently. Someone had changed them while he was away, but he never saw anyone in the room but Shantsu and had no desire to see anyone but Shantsu.
He bent his knees under him and raised his hips for the Mountainside Cave. Shantsu slid inside him, impossibly easily, impossibly deep. Some unknown sense woke in Goukou's brain. Shantsu stroked in and out of him, slowly and smoothly, and the touch of him was amazing, all new. Goukou's manroot emerged without help as it had never done in boyhood and he groaned into his arms. Shantsu's hand on his hips urged them gently higher, an angle that brought a sudden and wonderful feeling like golden light bursting in his head. Again and again and again it happened, a deep solid core of pleasure inside the almost-pain of Shantsu within him. Goukou's head swam and his fulfillment arrived like a golden dragon sweeping from the skies to take him in its claws.
There was a bit after that that he couldn't remember. When he opened his eyes, Shantsu was stretched out beside him.
"Can you stand for the Protracters, or shall we stop there for this evening?"
"I think I cannot stand, but--"
"We could go to the Bear Cub if you don't mind changing the order."
"No. We must keep to the order." Shantsu didn't ask why, which was good, because Goukou didn't know the answer. "Give me a minute."
Goukou reached out and Shantsu moved into his arms. Always to have Shantsu to hold, solid and warm and there, that was happiness unlooked for. A fixed point in a world that otherwise shivered apart and fell like rain. "Tell me of your family, Uncle. Tell me-- something ordinary." Even that hint of the everyday world made his eyes cloud. He put his face against Shantsu's shoulder as Shantsu told him, casually, about his sons. "Three of them I have. Yinchao my heir, a brown dragon, whose mother was Baiyu-"
"Ah, your pardon. It's a word we use from the female speech. The dragon who bears an egg is the mother. The female offspring of someone is a daughter."
"Oh. Yes. The kami use terms like that sometimes. I never understood." Mother. Daughter. How odd. "The dragon who gave birth to Yinchao- is she that Baiyu who is the- the 'daughter' of the King of the Long River?"
"The same. He has a gift for scholarship and a clear mind. Yinkuei the second is a gold dragon, got between myself and the ruler of Mt. Tsaomin. A breaker of hearts, Yinkuei, much sought after by the fathers of the nobility. And Yintai the youngest, a few years finished his training. A red dragon, temperamental of course, but with a warm heart."
Goukou shifted in Shantsu's arms. "I am recovered, Uncle. If you are ready, let us proceed."
"Are you in pain, Goukou?"
"No more than usual." He stood up, hiked his bed robe about his waist, and bent forward so that his arms touched the floor. Shantsu came behind him, took hold of his hips in firm hands, and entered him again. And again it was all so much simpler than he remembered. An easy thrust, an easy stroke, the exciting near-pain of it heightening the wonderful sensation of Shantsu inside him. Shantsu's movements were exactly what they should be- exactly what Goukou had done all his life with his own partners- but the feeling was totally different from what he had experienced as a boy. He was incapable of puzzling over it for long; the golden pleasure came again and took with it his self and his sorrow and everything else about him.
He came back to awareness at last, and the tears running steadily from his eyes, and Shantsu stroking his back consolingly. He fisted his eyes violently and sat up, though all of him shook with the feelings inside him.
"You seem upset, Goukou?"
"I am angry. That my spirit should betray me at a time like this I can understand." His eyes overflowed. He wiped them away again. "I am content to weep like an infant that cries day and night. These tears do not become a king, but they are fitting to mourn the brother who is lost to me. But that my body betrays me now, and in such a way-- That is wrong, and I do not consent to it, but I cannot stop it."
"Your body does not betray you, Goukou. It is natural. I lie above you as I would with an honoured guest, not as I did many years ago with my younger, the oldest son of the king of the oceans."
"Do you not recall, when you began to train Goushou, I told you there were certain things you had learned, and learned well, that you must avoid with him? And that when your instincts made you do them during the act, I would stop you and correct your technique?"
"Yes. Nor would you tell me why."
"Young men are insatiable in their natures and not likely to be ruled by wisdom. I was only afraid you would think of the reason for yourselves. What I never did with you and what I kept you from doing with him, were those things that make lying beneath a pleasure. It is the custom when one trains the sons of those in the highest positions. Had I not known of it myself, I had instructions from my own father so to do."
There was silence. "So this is what it's really like?" Goukou asked, and his voice sounded strange in his own ears.
"Then let us continue."
"As you will, Goukou. On your back now."
So through Tiger and Prey, and next day the Scissors and the Waterfall. Only when he bestrode Shantsu in the Bear Cub and the Galloping Boy was it the same as before, because then there was nothing for Shantsu to do. His appetite left him again, and he would not eat even at Shantsu's urgings, but lay in bed between the forms, eyes looking at nothing and body heavy as a stone.
Shantsu sighed. "We come to the forms that require three participants. What do you wish for that?"
"We shall do them, and I will enact the Middle," he said shortly.
"Is Hisui with you?"
"No. He is court chamberlain now and I could not spare him. Any of my men will do for it. Pick whichever you please." Shantsu said nothing. "Do not look at me like that, Uncle. Your quiet forebearance is driving me mad. Say what you think. You think I am desperate with grief. You think I have forgotten what I am. You think I am abandoning myself to my sorrow. You think-" He stopped.
"I think you are angry," Shantsu said.
"I have no reason to be angry."
"You have lost your brother to the outrages of Heaven."
Goukou put his hands to his face and wept. "Uncle," he said. "Uncle. You hurt me. Do not hurt me like this."
"I am sorry," Shantsu said, and embraced him. "Do what you must, Goukou. I will help you as I may. And now I will go arrange for our third." He left the room and was gone for a while, leaving Goukou alone for the first time since his arrival. Goukou curled up on his side, fighting the unreasoning desolation that filled him in Shantsu's absence.
When Shantsu came back Goukou sat up and took hold of his hands. "Forgive me, Uncle," he said in a low voice. "You were right. I am angry. I have reason for anger, only too much, but it is beyond my control. It eats at me like a festering wound and makes me mad with its pain. I am sorry. Do not leave me, because as I am now I cannot bear it."
"I will not leave you, Goukou, and I will not trouble you while you do what you must do. But it would make me happy if you would consent to eat something, however little. You grow thin, and your grief has already weakened you like a sickness."
Goukou sighed. "Very well, Uncle. I will eat to please you."
Shantsu had him brought light food- thin soups, jellies, sweet biscuits. He ate, and felt better for eating, though part of him resisted. His present weakness seemed now a refuge to him. Ahead of him, undefined, was a heavy shadow, the things he must do when he returned home. But even to think of them now was impossible. His mind turned to stone before he could even form the words in his mind.
"I envy my grandfather," he said suddenly.
Shantsu looked at him. "Pent in granite and feeling nothing?" he said.
"I had not thought of it that way. As he was in life. Certain of himself. Knowing his heart, knowing what must be done. Never questioning the way it is and letting no-one else question it either."
"It has been many ages since your honoured grandfather's time. Things have changed in the lands and in the oceans, and that I think both good and suitable. The old ways are not always the best ways, or even the most natural to us."
"I do not know what you mean."
"Were it not history, one would think it a fable. The dragon king of the oceans, who is now Mount Kokuryuu, and the King of Heaven, who is now the Jade Emperor, who met and loved in the springtime of the world. But each had his pride and each his position, and neither would consent to lie beneath the other. We are of water, we dragons, and should flow like the rivers and be large as the oceans. They are of air, the kami, and should be gentle as the breezes and changeable as the winds. But both became hard in their pride and their stubbornness, and their love became resentment and their devotion became suspicion, and in the end the two enemies met in battle, each thinking the other sought to break him utterly. Water cannot break and air cannot break, but stone can. Your grandfather's spirit had become granite, and the King only made his outer form match his inner when he transformed him into a mountain. And the King hardened in his triumph and his vindictiveness. He would not weep for the loss of his lover, as a cloud would that sends revivifying rain on the earth, but instead looked daily on the great peak outside the imperial city and said to himself 'I was right.' And so he became jade, which is a precious stone, but stone nonetheless, and without a heart."
Goukou said nothing.
"I always thought *you* the true dragon of the dragons. Like the rivers of our land, strong and steady and not to be withstood, but when a man steps into them, fluid enough to allow his body passage. In no way diminished, merely adaptable to the small changes of life. No, I am not trying to preach to you. I say what I have always felt but could not tell you when we were together. It would not have been fitting. But you are the younger who has always been dearest to my heart- quick and apt, sensitive and open, certain and clear. It was a joy and a privilege to have had the training of you. For that I thank you and have always thanked you, Goukou."
He passed a hand over his face, but his mouth was smiling nonetheless. "Uncle, now you are trying to make me weep."
"No no, not at all. Perhaps I should stop talking then--"
At that moment the door opened, without preliminary. Goukou looked up in surprise as Shantsu got to his feet. When he saw who it was he rose himself from courtesy. But the King of the Western River was alone, without retainers, and Shantsu was making no motion to kneel. Uncertainly Goukou stepped forward to greet his host, who came over more swiftly to his side.
"Shanten-oh," Goukou began, but the older man smiled and raised a protesting hand.
"I am not here as the king of the Western River, but as a private man come to greet his son's Younger." Shanten was famed for the beauty of his voice among his many other accomplishments, and its music had only deepened as he moved into middle years. His dark blue hair held lines of silver at the temples and there were small laughter lines in the kindly face. "Will you not call me Grandfather?"
"Grandfather," Goukou said, feeling a small warmth in his heart that threatened to bring back his tears. "I thank you for your hospitality, and for my Uncle's kindness. I don't know what I would have done-- had I not--" He took a shaky breath, unable to trust his voice.
"You are very welcome here, Lord Goukou. It is an honour to provide for your needs. But please, lie down again. There is no need for formality."
He did so, and Shanten sat beside him. Shantsu brought them wine and Goukou saluted his host with his cup before drinking. "I am ashamed that you should see me in this fashion. But my Uncle will tell you I am not myself."
"You have had a heavy loss to add to your honourable father's death. We are all sorely hurt by this news. My house is yours for as long as you need it, until your spirit may heal."
"Heal?" Goukou said sadly. "I fear it will be long before that happens."
"But you have taken the first steps to it, I hear? The pattern of the forms will soothe the worst of it for you, as is their function."
Goukou stared at him. "Grandfather, I do not understand you."
"You did not know?" Shanten sounded surprised. "The forms, when enacted in order and with concentration, are like the sword dances and the practices of a warrior. They set up a pattern within and without, to balance one's soul so that it may once again be in tune with the universe."
"Now you speak of it, it seems I did know that once, but I must have forgotten."
"Your soul remembered and brought you here," Shantsu suggested, "where you might most easily carry the exercise out."
"Indeed, it's not a common discipline," Shanten said. "It requires much devotion and patience. It is undertaken by those who seek to attain a harmony beyond the usual, or those who are in deep distress and cannot find their way back to calmness in any other way. I have completed it once myself. My dearest companion died of a lingering illness, and when he was gone I was like an empty shell. I went through my daily duties and attended to government, but my heart was dead. The poetry that had consoled me in all previous misfortunes would not come to my aid. Without my friend and my art I felt no wish to continue my life. An old old man told me to enact the forms in order, and though I was loathe to do with another what I had always done with my friend I took his advice. And at the end of it my gift came back to me."
"Ah," Goukou said. "That was when you wrote the Lament for Rinshu?"
Shanten nodded and looked a little away.
"'His footstep falls no more within my chamber, and in the courtyard sounds his voice no more...'" Shantsu quoted.
Goukou's eyes brimmed over. He held his sleeve before his face as he wept, out of deference to his host's presence, but Shanten gently put his arm aside and embraced him. Goukou held onto him, hard put not to squeeze tight like a small child seeking consolation from one of his chamber Gran'fers. Shanten's blue braid was before his eyes, the same colour as his own hair. Shanten's cheek was next to his face, the same colour as his own hands on Shanten's back. It was a thing he had never spoken aloud, for it seemed in some way unfitting; but whenever he had to do with another blue dragon he'd felt a secret kinship, almost like a bond of blood between them. Yet it was more than that with Shanten. The king's courtesy and kindness, his grace and urbanity, were like cool water soothing Goukou's unhappy heart.
"Grandfather," he said in a low voice. "When this is over- when I am myself again and the things I must do done- I would like to return and guest with you." Shanten took his hand in his own warm one. "I would count it an honour to be allowed to lie beneath one as generous and distinguished as yourself."
"It is I who am honoured by such a mark of favour from the King of the Western Ocean," Shanten said. "But have you not need of a third at present? It would happily assist you in this exercise you undertake, for the feelings that bring you to it are ones we share together."
Goukou looked up in surprise and delight. "Grandfather, my thanks to you. Your presence will indeed give me courage to endure to the end." He kissed Shanten, who kissed him back with warm dry lips.
"Uncle," Goukou said, turning to Shantsu, "you had best send to the man you selected and tell him-" The sight of Shantsu's expression stopped his words. After a minute he began to laugh. It was shaky and almost painful, so unused was he to it by now, but he laughed still while Shanten held him and smiled.
"Shall we begin now, then?" Shantsu asked. "Or will you wait until tomorrow? You look weary."
"I would perform the Bridge now, if my Grandfather is at leisure."
"My time is yours for as long as you have need of me," Shanten said. Goukou aided him to undress and Shantsu brought a thin chamber gown for him to wear. Shanten seated himself on the edge of the bed and Goukou knelt before him, as he often did when pleasuring his partners. But this was different-- nostalgic almost, as though he were fifteen again and in the midst of his training. He was content with that, to keep the King of the Eastern Ocean at bay while he became simply Goukou in the company of his Older and his Older's father. He opened Shanten's robe and laid his mouth between his legs, which smelled faintly like cloves. He kissed slowly up the inside of the blue thigh so that Shanten's manroot emerged at once, and then took him wholly in his mouth. As he lowered himself to rest on his straightened arms he felt Shantsu lifting his robe behind and the heat of Shantsu's body against his thighs. A moment, and Shantsu had come inside him. He drew a huge breath of surprise, squeezing his eyes shut. It felt as if Shantsu was standing in the very heart of him. The pleasure was so great he thought he would break with it.
Shanten's hands stroked within his hair and brought him a little to himself. The nails were blunt but with an edge to them. Newly cut. Cut for him. A wave of tenderness and thanks ran through his body and fell from his eyes as tears. Again. Sweet heaven, is there no end to this weeping? But still he could sense a difference, the seed of happiness and comfort lying inside the weakness and the grief. Shanten's dry hand moved over Goukou's cheek, wiping his tears away. Goukou smiled inwardly and recalled himself to what he was about. He wound his tongue slowly about Shanten and Shantsu began moving slowly inside him, and they moved together, achingly slowly and achingly pleasurably, a long steady climb rolling a heavy stone up the hill, until suddenly the angle changed and the stone moved of itself, faster and faster rumbling down out of control to smash gloriously at the bottom.
There was a moment at the end when all of them stood motionless together. Shantsu in Goukou, Goukou about Shanten, somehow become a single entity. So that's why it's called the Bridge, Goukou thought in obscure enlightenment. And then he was separate again, himself Goukou, getting up to perform the courtesies required. He took the cloth from Shantsu's hand and insisted on attending to Shanten first and then Shantsu himself, before allowing Shantsu to clean him. Shantsu raised an amused eyebrow- Recovering, are we? and Goukou grinned in response.
They went to the bath, and returned to a small dinner set out for them amid fresh robes and clean sheets. Goukou was sleepy but made himself stay awake for the pleasure of listening to Shanten's conversation. The company of others felt like a long-ago thing; he was surprised at how happy it made him. He hadn't the strength or desire to speak himself, but lay on the divan, sipping a little wine, and listened to Shanten's musical voice and Shantsu's responses. This was happiness, this serene and courteous world Shantsu and his father lived in and let him share. Like a dream of paradise... He brushed away the wetness that was trying to creep from his eye.
"Lord Goukou, I have kept you up too long. I will leave you to your rest now."
"One more, Grandfather. Let us do the Province before you go."
Shanten looked pleased but asked, "Have you the strength for it?"
"I shall find it," Goukou assured him.
"You are Middle," Shantsu pointed out. "Can you do what is necessary, Goukou?"
"I am as a youth again, Uncle, in the days of my training, and I do whatever you say I must."
Shantsu smiled and kissed him. "Come embrace me then." He went to the bed and braced himself against the mattress. Goukou took hold of the hem of Shantsu's robe and slid it up, his hand beneath to feel the smooth skin and muscle of Shantsu's thighs. High enough only to show him where he must be. His hand cupped the firm swell of Shantsu's buttock and he came fully unsheathed and ready. Gently then, very gently he came inside, with the arts Shantsu had taught him and those he had learned from his partners. 'Let it be for him as it was for me when I lay below.' At the same time he felt the old pleasue that lying with his Older had always brought. It was sweet to lie above Shantsu, so sweet it made him sad-- sad for Shantsu and sad for himself that such pleasures must be so rare for them. But at least there was one way it could be done, this one time at least. Then Shanten's hand was raising his robe, and Goukou had only a moment's dizzying thought No-one has ever done this to me but my Older-- before the King was inside him. Like magic, so easily, just like that. Goukou's head swam both with the feel of it and the realization that there were still aspects of this art he had yet to learn-- things he hadn't even imagined existing. Face against Shantsu's neck he began to smile. It was wonderful, it was all so wonderful, the world that had this in it was so wonderful a place he couldn't even think how wonderful it was.
He and Shanten exchanged a thought, silently, through the tensing of their bodies, and then they began to move together, the same rhythm, as if they had become a single body. Shantsu thrust against them in response, opening for their approach and clenching against their withdrawal. Though Shanten never left him, the changing angles of Goukou's hips at each thrust meant he could feel Shanten's hardness within him, touching areas inside he had never known of. He began to lose himself in the double rhythm, Shanten behind, Shantsu before. His sight went and he ceased to be Goukou at all for a space.
They washed him- vaguely he remembered that- and put the covers over him. He was already half-asleep and never knew if what he remembered at the end- himself reaching up to bring Shanten's blue face near for a kiss and a whispered Good-night, ani-ue- was real or part of the dreams he wandered in afterwards.
The time after that was happiness. Shantsu and Shanten surrounded him with kindness and care, cheerfulness and good company. It's going to be alright, he felt. The sun had begun to shine again and the clouds in his spirit to disperse. Soon it seemed he could face the prospect of going home. But there was no need to think about that ultimate goal yet. For now all his attention was needed for the architectural constructions of the threesome forms, and the satisfaction of bringing his art and skill to the service of the body's pleasure. And after that was still the challenge of the disciplinary forms to be overcome, a last but somehow necessary ordeal that he faced with confidence.
Shanten stood before him, arms braced to carry his weight, as Goukou leaned forward for the first position of Bent Twig. Shantsu took him behind and they sank down together. Shantsu's arms grasped him lovingly around his chest, and Shantsu's mouth burrowed beneath Goukou's braid to plant a kiss on the back of his neck. Goukou smiled. Shanten knelt before him and parted Goukou's robe. Shanten's mouth came down, warm and wet, to engulf the fork of his body so that Goukou's vision went blurry for a moment. In the back of his mind he saw white skin, marble white, and the redness of Goujun's root as Goukou bent his head to it, and heard Goujun shrieking in rage above him-- He froze. Goujun thrashing in Gouen's arms, his legs trying to close against Goukou's mouth. Goujun pale with fury and shame, not looking at them as he dressed, leaving without a word, the last Goukou had seen his brother save for the formal farewells next day. Goukou's stomach lurched and acid filled his mouth. We did that to him. We made him do that. Gouen-- /Gouen/ wanted it and I consented to let it happen-- His body was convulsing without his willing it, I have to get away, let me get away, at the same time as he knew he had to see this hideousness through to the end. He whimpered and groaned, the horror of it making him sick, and then finally the spasm happened below even as he pressed his hand over his mouth to keep the bile down. He was free, the arms no longer holding him in place. He stumbled across the room to the earthcloset in the outer wall, crouched and vomited his heart out.
Shantsu came to help him but he flinched from his touch. Cold and shaking he came back to the room where Shanten was. He couldn't look either of them in the face. Shantsu poured water for him to drink and he sipped it, trying to quench the bitter taste in his mouth while bitterness ate his heart. Shanten put a cool cloth into his hand and Goukou wiped his face. His face was already wet. Tears, unnoticed, running down his cheeks. Shantsu stood close by him, concern rising from his body like heat.
"Uncle-" he managed. "Uncle." There was nothing to say. He put the cloth down, feeling the weight of what he had done pressing upon his shoulders. "Uncle, let us continue," he said.
"Goukou, you are in no case for what comes next."
"I am. Now more than ever."
"I cannot think this a good idea," Shantsu said, but Shanten spoke up.
"This was only to be expected. Fetch what is needed, Shantsu." Shantsu bowed to him and left.
After a moment Goukou said, "Expected?" His mind was chill with impossible fears. Shanten couldn't know what he'd done, but he was terrified that he would hear the accusation from Shanten's mouth. You let Goujun's younger brother mount him. You persuaded him to what he knew was wrong. You countenanced the unnatural.
"Death brings more than sadness for one's loss. There are other things that must be addressed. Things done, things not done; anger spoken and anger unspoken. One only realizes that when it happens, but now it has happened to you. You will know yourself what weighs most heavily on you."
Goukou said nothing. The regrets of other men are as nothing to the guilt I carry. Who else would do what I have done, and be punished for it as I have been punished?
Shantsu returned at last with a lacquered box that he put on the table. Numbly Goukou went to the bed and lay down. Shanten sat at his head and held his shoulders while Shantsu raised his robe to his waist.
"Full weight," Shanten said to his son.
"Hai, chichi-ue." Goukou tensed involuntarily, though he knew Glowing Stones hurts less if one stays relaxed. The first strokes took him by surprise nonetheless. It was more painful than he had remembered. He was holding back because of my youth, for all he said he wouldn't. Consciously he tried to loosen his muscles, but the steady blows in their set pattern jarred at his concentration, and the sullen burning they left behind ate at his will. Only Shanten's strong hands holding him flat to the bed kept him anchored to himself. It was long- it was very long- and he began to grunt at each stroke. His buttocks were on fire, as fitted the form's name. Shantsu finished the circle, and Goukou drew a shaky breath. Then Shantsu struck again. He was going for a double round, such as Goukou had never used on anyone. Shortly he began to weep, and then to cry out. But even as he did so a part of him was fiercely glad. Yes, so. Harder. As hard as you can. The pain of his body swallowed the pain in his soul, and the fire in his flesh melted the frozen shame about his heart. It hurt abominably, but it was a relief to be able to purge the agony of memory.
He was crying helplessly by the end of it. Shantsu's hand reached under his hip. Goukou bent his knees under him and raised his buttocks. He flinched away from the touch of Shantsu's body on his sore flesh. That was the requirement of the form, but as he discovered it was also an unavoidable reflex. Shantsu was clever with his thrusts, sometimes holding away from him, sometimes coming flush against so that Goukou must constrict himself as hard as possible to avoid being touched. At the end it was impossible. Shantsu pressed against him and would not move, and Goukou bit at the covers until it was over.
Shanten loosed his shoulders. His warm hand stroked the back of Goukou's neck in a brief gesture of comfort, and then the sense of him went away. Goukou lay and felt the burning in his body, trying to think of nothing but that as the muddy guilt welled up in his soul. It had only been kept at bay for a space. Now it was back and felt as if it would swallow him wholly.
Soft voices spoke somewhere in the room. He turned his head. Shantsu and Shanten stood close together by the doorway, Shanten's hand on his son's arm. He talked quietly while Shantsu listened with bent head, nodding occasionally. Then Shantsu knelt and put his father's hands to his forehead to say good-night. Goukou looked away, stabbed by bitter misery. Chichi-ue, had you not died- had you lived to teach your foolish son his duty- none of this would have happened. Your worthless son has been the destruction of his family, and none of the amends I make will begin to blot out my responsibility. Why did you die when you did? He lay unmoving while the darkness of his heart seemed to fill the whole world.
Shantsu was beside him with wet cloths and herbals. Goukou endured the first but made a noise of protest when Shantsu went to apply the cream. Shantsu did not remonstrate with him but put it aside.
"I know this is not easy for you, Uncle," Goukou said to him dully. "Bear with me. I do only what I must."
"I know," Shantsu said. "For all you are my Younger, there are sorrows you have known that I have not. My father understands something of your trouble, but I can only grieve to see you suffer. I will do what is necessary to make it easier for you."
"Then let us go on to Split Peach."
There was only the faintest pause before Shantsu said, "As you will."
He woke stiff and aching next morning, and refused breakfast. Shantsu didn't argue but insisted on putting a numbing cream on his swollen flesh. "Pain will decrease the ease of your arousal, and that is what the Walled Badger requires to be effective." Shanten arrived, and they bound Goukou as was necessary. Shanten sat to keep watch, lest the exercise cause real damage, while Shantsu lay down next to Goukou and took him in his arms.
He used none of the usual methods of arousal, only held him close, arms across his back, face buried in his hair. Shantsu's love and concern came to Goukou's senses like tangible things, breathing up from the warmth of Shantsu's body, there in the touch of his fingers and unmoving lips. Tears filled his eyes, the endless dreary tears that seemed as much a part of him now as his hair and his horns. He wept into Shantsu's chest, while Shantsu's delicate mouth kissed the tips of his ears, kissed his horns, leaned down and kissed his overflowing eyes. Regret stabbed his heart. My Uncle loves me and I make him suffer for me. He gave me his best care in my boyhood and I requited him by becoming the fool and criminal who lies here. He wept at not having deserved Shantsu, and he wept because he must soon leave him; leave the warmth and trust of Shantsu and Shanten to return to the cold palace where his second brother's body lay, white and silent and accusing. He grasped Shantsu harder. Uncle, do not be tender of me. It hurts too much.
Shantsu responded by tilting his head up and kissing his mouth. Kindness and love there only. Shantsu kissed him again and again, gently on his lips as if making love to his mouth. Goukou couldn't resist any longer. He felt a wave of warmth take him, felt the tightness beginning below-- felt the dull discomfort as his manroot found its way blocked. He caught a startled breath. Shantsu's mouth went to his horns, Shantsu's hand to his thigh. Cool on the bruised skin, but inflaming in its gentle touch. Shantsu's tongue wrapped about the sensitive endings of his horns. Warm, wet, heavy his horns told him, we are swimming through a warm deep sea, water all about him as in some unimaginable long ago before dragons had consciousness-- long bodies swimming the oceans like riptides in the water, great winged shapes dancing through the clouds of summer rain, solidity only in the body pressed against him that he clutched with his arms, and in the pain like a burn between his legs growing stronger, growing stronger, unignorable now, the dragon churning the water to foam in its agony as it thrashed to be free, falling from the sky as the red pain eating its groin grew heavy as a boulder and pulled it down to its death-- He cried out at the sensation, the thing inside trying to burst through his guts and skin in order to be free--
A sudden jerk and the pain was gone. He lay shaking and gasping in Shantsu's arms as his released manroot shuddered its climax. Shanten had loosed the thong only just in time.
Shantsu stroked his hair, giving what comfort Goukou would allow. He collected himself and raised his head, but Shantsu spoke first.
"We can finish today if you like. Myself I would wait at least until tomorrow--"
"Today," Goukou said.
"Or until this evening."
"It will hurt you more than it should--"
Goukou shook his head. Shantsu let him go, stood up and went over to the lacquer box to fetch the bamboo. Shanten moved to sit on the edge of the bed. Goukou knelt beside him and laid himself across Shanten's lap. The king's warm arms came round him and Goukou hid his face for a moment against his side.
Grandfather, be for me the older brother I never had, the one who chastises and directs his youngers. I cannot carry this alone. Do you and my Uncle punish me for my folly and forgive me, because I cannot forgive myself, and unless someone forgives me I will die.
"Lord Goukou, I must tell you one thing. This will be hard, but if my experience is anything to judge by it will not be the worst. The worst is afterwards when nothing seems to have changed at all. You must endure, both now and then. Flowers begin to grow under the snows of winter, but it is hard to believe that when you see only ice and feel only cold. You must keep in mind that the spring will come eventually."
"Thank you, Grandfather," he said, though the words seemed to pass through him. Dread was beginning in his stomach as Shantsu lifted his robe and laid it across his back. Shanten's arms tightened about him. Then the first stroke came and he barely stopped himself from screaming. It hurt impossibly. The second and the third-- Shantsu held his hand with me before. No, even Father did- nothing has ever hurt as much as this. Without intention he began to struggle within the arms that gripped him, trying to escape the pain that seemed about to break his mind. He couldn't keep quiet. Screams tore out of him, like a child, like a criminal--- Pain, shame, there was nothing else in the red and hideous world about him where he struggled helplessly to be free of his torment. The blows stopped and he drew breath. Shanten's hands were laid on his buttocks, pain amid the pain, and held them open. He thought he would vomit. Shantsu's voice came to him. "These are the last eight. You must endure them, Goukou." He pulled himself together, gripped the coverlet in both hands and sank his teeth into his own arm. The small pain of that was all he could hold on to when the unthinkable agony started. He became nobody for a space, only a thing that suffered and hung on until it was over.
Shanten stood up, leaving the bed for Goukou to rest against. Fire ate at his body; he shook uncontrollably as his empty stomach tried to heave. Shantsu's hand touched his shoulder.
"Can you continue now, Goukou, or do you need time?"
"Continue," he managed. He would have asked for time, or even for the pain-killing salve, but a superstitious fear held him, that all would be for nothing unless he did this last form exactly as was prescribed. It was only a little longer, and a little more pain, that he needed to endure. A little more- but Shantsu's touch on his welted buttocks burned like molten metal, and Shantsu's entry seemed to cut him open like a knife. He shrieked soundlessly into the bedding. His innermost flesh was swollen and tender from last night, the rough repeated forcing of Split Peach, and the numbing salve from before no longer worked. This is the Hundred Knives, he thought, and his stomach lurched. The ancient punishment for unnatural crimes, to be taken by a hundred men one after the other-- Men had died of this alone, it was said, before the hundred strokes that followed. This is what is done to perverts. This is what it feels like. This is what they- and you-- deserve. He cried aloud, his pain and remorse as a brother mixed with a king's anger and outrage. *This* is the custom of our ancestors, an accusing voice said inside his head. Will you bring this back again as well, ani-ue?
Goujun. The pain in his body and the pain in his soul flowed together and blotted him out at last.
It felt he had been away for a long period of time, but Shantsu still leaned against him when he opened his eyes. Goukou lay unmoving beneath his weight, feeling the nothingness of exhaustion. The throbbing of his body filled the whole of the world and silenced any thing else.
"You are awake, Goukou?"
"There is one thing we omitted to do at the start of this, since I thought it would go better afterwards. You have not named the offence that requires me to discipline you."
His heart skipped a beat. He should have known that was coming. "I will tell you," he said at last in a low voice. "But it is a thing I may not name before your father."
"Father has gone. I am to tell you farewell from him. Speak freely."
He took a deep breath. Then he told Shantsu, coldly and precisely, what had happened on Goujun's last night at home and the thing they had persuaded him to. "He consented to it but it was too much for his spirit. We shamed him and he left us in anger. Gouen went after him- he said he had made it right between them. And when he bade farewell to us next day, Goujun seemed-- but you know Goujun. If there were bitterness in his heart he would not show it to us. I would have asked his pardon the next time we were alone. But..." his mouth twisted in grief, "there was to be no next time." He waited to hear what Shantsu would say, but all Shantsu said was "Go on."
"That is all, Uncle. Is it not enough?"
"There is nothing more on your conscience?"
"I see. Then tell me one thing. At this time of mourning, when you and your brothers should be paying honour to Lord Goujun's spirit with the songs of farewell and the Forty Day Rites, why are you here and not there?" He was stone. "Why do you speak of 'my loss', not 'our loss'? What has chanced between you and Lords Goushou and Gouen?"
His lips were very dry. "I would not speak of that, Uncle."
"Yet you must, Goukou."
"I am the King of the Eastern Ocean and chief among the Dragon Tribe, and already I have shown you too much of my own shame and that of my family. I will not say more."
"You are the King of the Eastern Ocean and chief among the Dragon Tribe, and I am your Older. You will tell me, Goukou. Not because I command it, though I do, but because you love me and came to me for healing, and the wound in your heart will never close until you tell me what I ask."
Goukou turned his head away and closed his eyes. He began to speak, slowly and with difficulty, the thing he had never meant to tell anyone.
"Gouen- Gouen brought his body back from Heaven. We laid him in his coffin and sang the first farewell. That night... they would have stayed with me, but I said I wished to be alone. I thought- Goushou and Gouen would do better consoling each other together. Without their oldest brother there to constrain them. But my thoughts would not let me rest. I could not bear to lie alone in my bed, and there was no-one else whose company I wanted. I went to Goushou's chamber. He had not kept his night servants, which I thought prudent of him. We should be alone with our sorrow. I went into his room. They were copulating. They-" He stopped, his throat closing on the words. Shantsu shifted atop him, waking his stripes into fiery life. He grunted. He made the pain in his body drown out anything else and said, "Goushou was lying beneath." His breath eased once that was out. "They stopped when they saw me. They looked at me. They looked at me- they weren't ashamed, they looked at me as if I was a stranger, they looked as if daring me to- to do anything." He shook in remembered anger. "I don't know what happened after that. I seized something, I began to strike Goushou with it, I was screaming that I would have him whipped, that I would- would sentence him to the hundred knives and the hundred strokes so that all men would know his shamelessness before he died. He didn't fight. He didn't look at me. Gouen came and put his body between us. I struck at him but he blocked my blows. He didn't resist me but he wouldn't let me at Goushou and he wouldn't let me knock him unconscious." He gave a grunt of bitter laughter. "He's learned to fight better than I'd ever suspected. I stopped and ordered him to move away. He did nothing. But Goushou got to his feet and stood beside him. There was blood on his face and he said, 'I am here, ani-ue, at your will. We are no longer four, so why should not we be two, or even one, if you wish it?'"
He stopped. "I cannot win against Goushou. You know that. In the end he always has the upper hand with me. I went to my rooms, I called my attendants. Dressed and left within the hour and came here. That is all. You may say what you like, Uncle. Call me unreasonable, say this is my reward for wilfully closing my eyes to what my brothers are like. Tell me I deserve this for having indulged them beyond reason all their lives. It changes nothing. I am angry. I cannot forgive them for what they did and I will not forgive them and that is the end of it."
Shantsu pushed himself up on his arms and rose off him. "You are right to be angry, Goukou. There is nothing I can say against it."
There was silence. After a long time he said, "Uncle, I think that is not what I wanted to hear from you."
"I cannot argue with you, Goukou. It was well enough in the past when you wanted me to persuade you from what you knew to be just to what you felt to be right. But now it seems to me that it is feeling that speaks loudest to you, as it does with Lord Goushou, and your feelings must be honoured. I will not present you with cold reason when your heart is so sore, nor counsel you to mercy if you do not wish to give it. Much less will I blame you for anything you have done. You must do what you feel you must."
Goukou heard him walk away towards the washplace. He lay on his belly, slow tears trickling from his eyes. Shantsu came back and laid a cold cloth on his buttocks, and he sighed as the fiery ache subsided.
"I no longer know what I feel. My heart speaks loudly within me but it doesn't speak clearly. I know only that they hurt me, and hurt me grievously, and I still cannot say why. But that hurt is like a poisoned cut in my heart, and I think at times I will die of it."
Shantsu dried him gently and began laying the winterbloom cream on his skin.
"We were four and now we are three, and we will never be whole again. Goujun is gone, and suddenly my brothers are strangers to me. Now I wonder if they were always such. Have they always hidden their hearts from me like that? I knew--" He had to stop for breath. "I knew Goushou prefers to lie below. Maybe I even knew-- he was so close to Gouen-- maybe I knew what they did together. But there was no need to-- to speak of it. As long as Goujun didn't know. He would have minded- he would have minded desperately. It would have killed him to find out. How dared they- how dare they do that when Goujun isn't here to mind any more?" And as he found the wound in his heart he buried his face in the pillow and wept aloud with a noise like the ocean roaring in its deepest depths.
2. The Eastern Ocean
Late that day they returned to the Eastern palace. As he swooped in he saw his brothers standing below, side by side, waiting for him. He had hoped to be spared having their first encounter before witnesses. No doubt they knew that, and that was why they were there.
He and his retainers resumed their manforms. The guards about them dropped to one knee in a single movement. Goushou and Gouen as well-- to both knees, and put their foreheads to the ground as men who acknowledge a fault and ask for pardon.
"Rise, brothers," he said. His voice sounded like the winter wind in his own ears, black and freezing. Not waiting for them he turned on his heel and went into the palace. They walked behind him until they reached the King's offices. His servants didn't need to be told to leave them alone: he saw them bowing and withdrawing as he passed.
He went and stood by the window with his back still turned to them. "We must endure each other's company until Goujun's forty days are accomplished," he told them. "Let me see as little of you as needs be during that time, and let me not see you again after that."
"As my ani-ue decrees," Goushou said. If he was relieved at his reprieve, if he'd ever felt any fear at all, none of it showed in his voice. "If it pleases the King, I had had some thoughts as to the succession in our realms. Have I leave to speak them?"
"I have no sons of my body, for my joinings with the land rulers produce only females. I would adopt Goujun's sons as the heirs to the Southern Ocean. Goujun's kingdom has long been under the governance of our cousin Gouron. In accordance with Goujun's will, I think it would be well to give the kingship to Gouron, in reward for his long and faithful service."
To promote Goujun's son to princes of the Southern Ocean- yes, not a bad idea. It solved the problem of Goushou's successor, that had long been troubling Goukou.
"Very well. But they will remain in the palace of the western ocean until they come to men's years." Which did not say in so many words I will not have them under your influence, but Goushou could take that meaning by himself. "If that is all, you have leave to go."
"There is also an emissary from heaven who has been here five days. He will not convey his message to any but yourself, and had instructions to stay until you arrived."
"I have no wish to see him or to hear his message. Tell the Emperor's servant that we have done with Heaven. Our service there has cost us overmuch."
"He comes not from the Emperor but from Kanzeon Bosatsu."
Goukou's shoulders tightened. But there was no help for it. The Emperor was the Emperor and dismissible. The Bosatsu was a power.
"Send him to me. And go."
"Hai, ani-ue." He heard them leaving. Together. He'd thought his heart could not become harder and emptier than it was now, but still it clenched at the thought. He put his hand to the window and leaned his face against it. This must be the way it would be from now on. He thought with brief and remote regret of Shantsu and Shanten. But that was not his world. This was. And this world was empty as dust.
You were wrong, Uncle. I am as my grandfather was, no different, and I understand now that he had no choice but to do as he did. Even the forms could not soften my anger and my pain. I leave my brother alive and unshamed because it was my indulgence that made him what he is. But I will not have the reminder of my folly before my eyes more than I must.
He pushed himself away from the window and sounded the gong. His secretary Kongyo appeared at once.
"I go to see my brother in his resting place. Have the emissary from Kanzeon Bosatsu wait for me when he comes." Kongyo bowed. Business. "Have all records pertaining to the arrangements for the forty days ceremonies together when I get back. I have cost us time with my self-indulgence and we shall be hard-pressed to make it up."
"Lords Goushou and Gouen took charge of the arrangements in your Majesty's absence and delegated the various duties here and there, subject to your Majesty's approval. Chancellor Hisui has had the main responsibility for them. He can give your Majesty the best summation of what has been arranged so far."
Goukou nodded. "Good. Summon him as well. Here, in half an hour," and walked past him out the door.
In the chamber off the great hall Goujun's body lay in its crystal coffin, turning to stone. The white face, beautiful as white jade in life, had already taken on the subdued glow of the real thing. Goukou looked down at his younger brother and tears ran from his eyes. Tears for Goujun alone, finally. Little brother, I shall miss you. I do miss you. The pain of your going will never leave me. We cannot be who we were without you. He leaned his body against the great sarcophagus. You will have a funeral gift greater than any ever known, for the good-will between your brothers goes with you into the Dark Land.
And if Goujun were alive, what would he say to that? Goukou frowned at the uninvited thought. He would be appalled. Ani-ue, I never asked for such a gift. You do me wrong, to break with my brothers over me. 'Then you shouldn't have gotten yourself killed in the first place,' Goukou thought before he could stop himself. He put a hand over his eyes. I am acting like a child. But things cannot be as they were before, and you, Goujun, bear some of the responsibility for that.
He could hear Goujun's reply in his head, as clearly as if his brother were standing by him. I bear my responsibility, ani-ue, and will repay. Do you bear yours. My spirit will grieve if you make me the excuse to lay your own guilt on my brothers.
"Goujun, do you intend to be my conscience even in death?" he said aloud, between grief and exasperation.
"If I might venture to say so," a diffident voice said behind him, "Goujun-sama's principles were so umm unshakable that it wouldn't surprise me if he were to do just that."
Goukou whirled. A kami stood behind him with an apologetic expression on its face. An older man, grey-haired with moustaches- vaguely familiar but unplaceable.
"I beg your pardon, your Majesty. I was proceeding to your Majesty's quarters when I stopped to pay my respects to Goujun-sama. I am Jiroushin, personal assistant to the great Bodhisattva, Ruler of the Universe, Symbol of Mercy and Compassion, Kanzeon-sama. Uhh- and I have a letter for you from hir."
"So I hear." He took the missive that Jiroushin presented to him. Purple paper, sealed with red wax. Only Kanzeon would write a letter of condolence on that. Goukou didn't move to open it.
"May I present my own condolences, your Majesty?" Jiroushin was saying hesitantly. "I admired Goujun-sama very much. Heaven won't be the same without him."
"I thank you," Goukou answered shortly. He felt a distant irritation that the kami should think its feelings weighed at all here in the dragons' world, but it hardly mattered. This man had felt something for Goujun, in his thin and watercolour fashion, and no doubt Goujun's death hurt him as much as he could be hurt by anything. Goukou waited for Jiroushin to go-- even in his own palace he wasn't about to dismiss the attendant of Kanzeon Bosatsu outright-- and Jiroushin waited too, for he alone knew what.
"Is an answer expected?" Goukou asked at last.
"Oh- no. I- that is- unless your Majesty has some questions--?" Jiroushin gave him a vaguely anxious smile, his eyes going to the letter.
Questions? About what? Goukou broke the seal, unfolded the paper, and read the brief message. Read it again. It made no sense. Somewhere far away, he felt, something very odd was happening. Obscure, uncertain. He looked up with a small frown. The kami- a nuisance, the kami.
"I have no questions. Convey my regards to the Bosatsu. And--" remotely he knew something else was needed- "my thanks," and walked past him back to his office.
What is this? It makes no sense. Has Kanzeon gone senile or is it just me? I need to talk to someone-
Hisui bowed as he came in. "Majesty, welcome back."
"Hisui." Goukou looked at him, frowning. "Get my brothers. I need to talk to them." He looked at the letter again. There was something wrong with his head, because the words still refused to convey any meaning. I've exhausted myself. Not eating like that- crying all day- my Uncle was right to chide me for not taking care of myself. And where were Goushou and Gouen now that he needed them? He paced impatiently about his study. Send for my brothers-- How easily he'd said them, the old words. My brothers: Goushou and Goujun and Gouen. His heart cramped painfully. Goujun wouldn't answer his summons any more. He lay turning to marble in his crystal sarcophagus, and his soul was winging its way to the Dark Land. And if the others were as far away as that? If Goushou lay now, turning to ruby in a transparent coffin... His stomach contracted. If I'd done what I said I would -- if I'd meant what I said then-- a worse thought came to him: if *he* thought I meant it. He went cold, seeing much too late the danger he'd invoked. He holds his life so cheaply. He wouldn't have waited for the shame I threatened him with. He took a deep breath to still his panic-thudding heart. Gouen would have stopped him. Maybe Gouen did stop him. Maybe-- The door opened again, Goushou and Gouen, entering with lowered eyes. Goukou still felt dizzy, not in control of himself. I can't ask them--
"Here," he said, holding out the letter. His voice sounded strange to him. "From Kanzeon Bosatsu. I can't make head or tail of it. What does it say?"
Goushou took it from him hesitantly. Looked at it. "'Yo, Goukou,'" he read aloud. "'Thought you might want to know. I've sent Goujun Down There for a spell. Don't bother looking for him, he won't remember you. He'll be back in no time anyway, as you people count time, and I'll change him over when he comes, so don't worry about going ahead with the funeral. However, if it happens I'm *not* around to do it, you want a Bath of Previous Incarnation. Ask anybody, they'll tell you how it's done. Cheers. Kanzeon Bosatsu.'" Goushou stood looking at the purple paper with the same blankness in his face that Goukou felt. His eyes went up and down the lines again, trying to find a meaning in them.
There was an odd sound. Gouen stood with a hand over his mouth, half-doubled over. "Gouen?" Goukou said in perplexity and outrage. He was laughing-- how dared he laugh? Gouen sank to his knees, shaking, still making those odd sounds like smothered laughter, except that tears were running down his face and the noises came out almost like pain.
"Gouen, what is it?" Goushou's voice was sharp. He crouched by Gouen's side and gripped his shoulder with his free hand.
"A-ani-ue," Gouen said. "Second-- b-brother. I- I--" He made an odd gurgling in his throat. Goukou finally realized what it was. He struck his brother hard across the face. Gouen took a huge gulping breath. He stared straight into Goukou's eyes. "It worked," he said, very clearly and distinctly. And then he hid his face in his arms and wept like a child, rocking back and forth.
Goukou grabbed hold of his shoulders and shook him. "Gouen, pull yourself together. What's the meaning of this?" A thread of fear underran his anger. Too much had gone wrong, too many impossibles had happened in the last fortnight, and now Gouen too seemed to have become demented.
Gouen looked up, mouth working. "Ani-ue," he said, "ani-ue-- Third brother- oh god--" He ran both hands across his face, trying to stanch his tears. He was shaking like a leaf. Goukou felt a touch on his shoulder. It was Hisui with a cup of the fermented brew of the southern lands. Goukou took it and pushed it under Gouen's nose. "Drink," he commanded. Gouen took a gulp, gasped, and took another sip. After a moment his shaking stopped, but his breathing still laboured as if he had flown two hundred leagues in a day.
"Kanzeon," he said. "Kanzeon Bosatsu-- has sent--" he stopped for breath. "Has sent Third Brother's soul- into another body. He's- he's on the Wheel." He looked at them as if this was supposed to mean something. "The Bath of Previous Incarnation- that's what gives kami back- the bodies they have down here."
Goukou stared at him. "He's been- incarnated? Like- like a human?" The idea was... impossible. Unfitting, even. Dragons didn't *do* that.
"Yes," Gouen said. "The bosatsu- Kanzeon Bosatsu must have-- have caught his soul before it could fly to the Dark Land, and-- I never thought it would work like *this*," he burst out. "You don't know how it's been -- ever since he died-- how I've hated myself. Reproached myself. For counselling you to it, for persuading him against his will-- and all of it, all of it for nothing." He broke down again.
"Gouen," Goushou said shortly. He put an arm around Gouen's shaking shoulders. "Gouen, you're drunk." Goukou watched them both with an odd detachment, as if drugged himself.
"Goujun is here on earth," he said, trying to make himself understand. "He's alive. He's not himself but he's alive?"
"So it seems," Goushou said, in a distracted voice. "Gouen, stop this, will you? You'll have us all howling in a minute."
Goukou held a hand out to Gouen. "Get up," he said in a voice that brooked no disobedience. Gouen took his hand and got to his feet, but he didn't stop crying. "Come," Goukou said, more gently than he'd meant to. He felt strangely at a loss, seeing calm Gouen falling apart so suddenly and so completely. "Pull yourself together."
"I'm sorry," Gouen said, "I'm sorry, ani-ue--" He put both hands over his face. "It's been--" He shook his head, and his voice came out muffled. "I'm sorry."
"I know," he said. And who am I to blame him for losing control of himself? "Can you walk to your own rooms or do you need a litter?"
"I- no, send for Ts- Tsuuran. He'll know what to do."
Hisui left the room. Gouen turned his back on them and stood hugging himself. There was silence except for the sound of his breathless sobs. Goukou started to sit on the edge of the desk, winced at the fire it awoke in his buttocks, and went to lean against the wall instead. Goushou was still down on the floor, not looking at anything.
I wish I could go to sleep for a month, Goukou thought muzzily. Maybe then everything would make sense. He had no idea what he thought or felt. His mind was like a withered limb that wouldn't move, wouldn't bear any weight on it at all. Time seemed to stop for a bit, and then there was a step at the door. A silver dragon came in, bowing low to Goukou with hands in sleeves.
"Tsuuran, at your service, your Majesty." Something vaguely familiar about the man. He must have been a long time in Gouen's service.
Gouen turned and came over to him, face still running with tears. Tsuuran's expression was classically composed, but the flash of apprehension in his eyes was unmistakable.
"We've had unexpected news," Goukou said. "Your master will tell you about it. Right now he needs to get to bed and to sleep." He nodded dismissal. "Look after him."
"Ani-ue," Gouen said shakily. "Second brother. I--" He took a sudden step over to Goukou, knelt and laid his forehead briefly to Goukou's foot. "I'm sorry," he said, as if that was all he could manage.
Goukou caught his arm as he rose and pushed him back to his knees.
"Say good night properly." Gouen took his outstretched hands and put them to his forehead. Goukou felt the tears on his skin.
"Good night, ani-ue." He sniffed and sighed. "Have good rest."
"You too, Gouen." He watched them go, Tsuuran's arm about Gouen's body. Time seemed to have become fixed in amber, moving slowly as honey dripping from a spoon. Goushou still sat on the floor, not looking at him.
"Are you going to stay there forever?" Goukou asked at last.
"Your pardon, ani-ue. I don't think I could stand up if I tried. I feel older than our Grandfather and every bit as heavy."
Goukou walked over and stretched out a hand to him. After a minute Goushou took it and pulled himself to his feet. He moved stiffly, as if he was indeed an old man. This close Goukou could see the faded bruises on his face, a purplish mottling against the lighter red of his skin. He looked thinner too, as though he had been sick for a long time. And he still wouldn't meet Goukou's eyes.
"I didn't mean it," Goukou said. "That was why I left."
"You meant it," Goushou said. "That was why you left."
"You made me angry."
"Evidently." A small silence. "I thought you knew."
"It's different," he said. "It's different when you're under the same roof as your brother's body. Can't you see that?"
"Ah. I wondered." He shrugged. "Your pardon."
"That's all you're going to say? 'Your pardon'?"
Goushou gave him a bleak look. "I've spent the last ten days preparing myself for my death. It changes one's perspective. I really don't care any more. What happens or what you do or--" he shrugged again, "--any of it."
He meant it. I'm tired. I'm too tired to deal with this now. He ran a weary hand over his eyes.
"And there's Goujun's farewell songs," he said as that occurred to him too. "They haven't been sung for ten days. We must make up for lost time, but-- Should we even go on with them, if his soul isn't going to the Dark?"
"We sang them each evening, Gouen and Hisui and I," Goushou said indifferently.
"Ah." He nodded his thanks to Hisui, silent by the door, who took a step forward.
"Majesty, may I speak?"
"Speak. You're probably the only one capable of thinking straight just now."
"Let us continue with the ceremonies in order. Whatever the Bosatsu has done or not done, Goujun-sama is owed his proper rites. What you choose to tell Goujun-sama's sons is at your Majesty's own discretion. But if I may speak for the rest, the doings of the kami are foreign to us, and unpleasing, and not to be trusted. They will not know what to make of the fact that Goujun-sama's soul has been sent into another body."
"I know," Goukou groaned. "I don't know what to make of it myself. I suppose I'm happy that he's not been wholly lost to us. That he's-- away, on a long trip. But."
"But," Goushou said. "He has changed already, and I cannot believe he will come back the same person who set out."
"Then we sing his farewell. Let's do it and get to bed. Goushou, who is your favourite now? Is he here?"
"I have no favourite at the moment."
Well, that might explain part of it. "Then I will keep you with me tonight. I am in no case to be doing anything," he said to Goushou's shuttered expression. "Rest easy for that." Goushou looked away again.
"As you please, ani-ue."
They went to the hall where Goujun lay. Goukou stood behind his head, the eastern point, Goushou on his left for the southern, Hisui on his right for the north. No-one to the west. When they had sung their father's farewells, Goujun had stood there, looking at him along the length of Gouerh's silver body. Tears came to his eyes, but he blinked them away so his voice would sound out true and clear in the chant for the twelfth day. Their three voices rose and echoed under the curving vaults of the ceiling, following Goujun's soul to the Dark Land. But if he's still here, Goukou thought, we should be singing out the windows. He thrust the ridiculous thought away and concentrated on the melody, aware of a sudden light-headed weakness.
Done. He need only get himself to bed... And sighed as he realized how long that was likely to take, under the circumstances.
"Hisui, your favour for a time. This evening I would have you act once again as my chamber majordomo. I feel a need for familiar faces about me."
"Gladly, if Your Majesty wishes it." Brief though it was, Goukou caught the swift question in his eye.
"I have been visiting with my Older," he said. "There was something I needed to do, and now it is done."
"Ahh. Lord Shantsu is in health, I hope?"
"He is very well. His three sons are grown now. I hadn't realized how quickly time passes." He sighed, and barely missed walking into the frame of an archway.
"The king's pardon, but might I suggest your Majesty hold on to my shoulder? I think your Majesty has not fully recovered from his illness."
"I have not been ill," he said wearily.
"When did you last eat, ani-ue?" Goushou asked suddenly.
He had to think. "Last night, but I threw it up again." He saw how that must sound. "Oh, alright. Lend me your shoulder, at least until we get there."
Hisui's strength steadied him, it was true. He let go only to walk into his apartments where indeed, as he had feared, his chamber servants were waiting for him with overly-composed expressions.
Shenzen his majordomo bowed at the head of the others. "Welcome back, your Majesty."
"Shenzen," he said, clasping his shoulder briefly, and nodded to the others. The littlest page, Green Cricket, was the only one whose anxiety showed plainly in his eyes. Goukou managed a smile for him, and the boy's skin went dark as he blushed. "I thank you all for your concern and attention. For tonight I shall remain alone with my brother and my chancellor. We will see to our own needs. You have leave, gentlemen."
They bowed and began to withdraw. "Ah, Jourin, a moment," he added as the brown dragon followed the others. Jourin made a reverence, hand to breast. Wondering what he'd done wrong, no doubt, since Goukou had never singled him out from the others before. "Fetch robes for my brother and the lord Chancellor." The young man bowed and obeyed silently. Hisui's practised eye followed Jourin's movements automatically. Well-trained, steady, not bad-looking either he was probably thinking. And in love with me, Goukou could have added, though he thinks it a secret. I could do worse than show him favour...
But that must be for later, whenever it was that later happened and however it turned out to be. Jourin fetched the robes from the press and laid them on the bed. Goukou nodded his dismissal, but let their eyes meet for a brief moment. The young man bowed with beautiful grace and took his leave with an invisible aura of gladness about his body. So easy to make some people happy. He closed his eyes in weariness, only too aware of Goushou silent and withdrawn on his other side.
Hisui said, "Majesty, will you not sit and let me take off your boots?"
"Anh? Oh. No. You'll have to do it like this. Goushou, lend me your shoulder." Wordlessly Goushou obeyed, and Hisui knelt before him, brows creasing.
"Majesty, if you will excuse my curiosity---"
"I have been performing the Forms with Lord Shantsu, in order. We finished this morning and right now, trust me, I will not sit if I may stand."
Hisui looked up at him in astonishment.
"It's a discipline," Goukou said, tired. "An ascetic exercise to restore tranquility to the soul."
Hisui lowered his head again. "Yes, Majesty."
"Say what you're thinking, Hisui."
"I have heard of the practice, Majesty. It's an extreme one."
"Yes." The monosyllable cut off further comment. Hisui undid the fastenings of Goukou's robe and drew it from him; took off his shirt and underdrawers, drawing a silent breath at the sight beneath, and wrapped him in his chamber robe. Goushou began undressing on his own, easily as though he was accustomed to doing without servants. He allowed Hisui to wrap him in his robe, with an indifference that looked nearly churlish.
The bath was no pleasure, light as Hisui's touch was. Goukou gritted his teeth and endured, aware of Hisui's distress and aware that Hisui was trying not to let him see it. "Do not trouble yourself, old friend," Goukou told him. "It's no worse than my boyhood."
"With respect, Majesty, it is. Your Majesty was never so bruised and cut in his youth."
"Ah well. I am a man now and my skin is tougher. A night's sleep and I shall be recovered." The hot water of the bath made him wince at first, but then it soothed him. He floated in it happily but the sleepiness it brought was too dangerous. He got out almost at once and waved Hisui back. "I can dry myself. Take your time." Goushou had made no move to get out at all.
The outer room was cool and welcoming. Robe loose about him he went and lay down on the bed, waiting for the other two. He must have drifted off, because he woke with a small start to Hisui's touch.
"Your pardon, Majesty. I must get some cream on those weals before they stiffen."
"Mhh." He lay still while Hisui did it. They throbbed at first, but then faded as the salve took effect. Hisui lowered his robe again, unfolded the coverlet and laid it over him. Silent Goushou got into the other side of the bed, not waiting for help.
"Is there anything more, Majesty?"
"Nothing, Hisui. Thank you for your care. You may put out all the lights. Good-night."
"Good-night then, your Majesty. Good-night, Lord Goushou." Hisui extinguished the lamps so that the room became filled with moonlight only; bowed, and took his leave.
Goukou shifted onto his side, found a bolster to hold on to, and made himself as comfortable as he could. Across the bed Goushou too lay on his side, back towards him. Goukou looked at the lines of his body under the brocade cover, then looked away. His eyes were as dry and empty as his heart and the night around them.
"Ani-ue," Goushou's voice said. "Are you awake?"
"It didn't work, did it?"
"No," he said. "Not yet."
"Not yet? How long does it take?"
"I don't know. Maybe until he comes back. Maybe it won't work at all for me."
There was silence. "I've always known that if you ever once became truly angry it would be the end of us. You did and it is. And now what am I to do?"
There was silence while he thought. "It's not the end," Goukou said at last. "We thought it was with Goujun and we were wrong. It's only a change. Had I known that..." his thoughts were coming slowly. "...I would not have forgotten myself so. This is not the end of us as brothers, just a change. Goushou, will you of all men blame me for letting passion and despair drive me to act outrageously?"
"It's not different. When you behave unforgivably, have I not always waited for you to return to reason? No, more, have I not courted you back to sweetness myself? I cannot do without you, brother, and if the price of that is to wait out your tempests and not blame you for them afterwards, then I have been willing to pay the price. Now our positions are reversed. Is my value to you so low that you will not do the same for me?"
Goushou shifted in the bed. "The stakes are higher with you. What have you to fear from me? Nothing. What have I to fear from you? Shame and stripes and death. It makes a difference."
"But in the end you are still alive, and which of us has suffered the shame and stripes, Goushou?" Silence. "I no longer expect you to burn the palace down when you fly into a rage--"
"Ani-ue! That was years ago--"
"--so you might allow me to say what I don't mean just once in my life."
"I didn't know you didn't mean it. Neither did you."
"And now we both do. You see how far I will go not to hurt you. I will fly from my wrath a hundred leagues or more and seek the one who will stand between me and it before I will let my anger do you harm. And since that is so, will you not forgive me, Goushou?"
Goushou said nothing. He was crying; Goukou could tell by the quality of the silence. He put his hand out across the space of the bed between them. Goushou reached behind him and found Goukou's fingers, and with that tenuous touch between them Goukou at last fell asleep.