Joasakura, who composed Goushou's parting poem
Tsuuran the silver dragon, close companion of Gouen the king of the Northern Ocean, was absent many months companying Ah-fan, the chief Councillor of the ruler of Mt. Hanchow. The child proved to be female so that he failed in the main purpose of his sojourn, but being of a pragmatic nature he was nonetheless satisfied. The reputation for courtesy and parts he'd established among the Hanchow courtiers would doubtless lead to further overtures from them or their kin, and thus eventually to a son. Furthermore he'd gained the good will of Ah-fan herself, and the favour of the well-placed is always a useful thing. He'd added to his store of acquaintance and experience, and done well even from the material standpoint. The Councillor presented him with rather more than the usual number of gifts from the child-rearing parent to the other, all of markedly high quality. Tsuuran thanked the Councillor in a manner both sensible and graceful; spoke his parting verse, over which he'd taken much care, to herself and her attendants; and with his twenty servants bearing the rolls of silk and brocade, the chests of silver bullion, and the ivory and jade in camphorwood boxes, he flew back to the Northern Ocean.
He did not expect his lord to be free for him when he arrived, for kings rarely sleep alone, and Gouen's attentions were much vied for by the dragons of the court. He was thus both pleased and surprised when Gouen summoned him to night duty the day after his return and welcomed him with an ardour and energy that were unusual in view of their long relationship. Even after enacting four Forms with him Gouen seemed undisposed to repair to the bath place and to call the servants to bring tea, but the necessities of the flesh required them to pause for a bit in their activities. Gouen lay stretched along Tsuuran's back, nuzzling the nape of his neck in contentment, while Tsuuran enjoyed his lord's amorous mood for as long as it might last.
"I hope I did not pain you too much just now?" Gouen murmured into his ear, sounding genuinely worried.
"Not at all, my lord. You never do."
"Ah. I was afraid your body might have grown unaccustomed to lying below if you refrained from the activity for the two hundred and fifty days."
"I have never noticed myself to grow unhabituated even when I lie above regularly, but in any case I lay below the Councillor often enough."
Gouen looked surprised. "In what fashion?"
"The marble pestles that we use in training our young the land dragons use likewise, with modifications, and ivory as well."
"The- well, let us call it the female end of the pestle is adapted to their forms so as to cause pressure in the right places when one puts her weight upon it."
Gouen frowned. "But how can she thrust so as to give her partner pleasure?"
"She cannot. But the action of thrusting itself is not what chiefly pleasures the one who lies below, so it makes little odds in that respect."
"Oh," Gouen said. Tsuuran repressed a smile.
"In all other respects however, I would assert that neither jade nor ivory is substitute for the sensation of flesh. It's hard to say precisely wherein the difference lies, but it is certain-" and he pressed his nether parts closer to Gouen- "that the feeling of a manroot is far more satisfying."
"So long as there *is* some satisfaction to be gained," Gouen said, sitting up. "But since you feel so, come above me and enact the Bearcub. Or is it the Galloping Boy you prefer?"
"Each has its pleasures," Tsuuran replied. "But I have not seen my lord for close on nine months and would look upon him now as much as I may." He rose and straddled Gouen's thighs so they were face to face in the position of the Galloping Boy.
"You need not post unless you wish to," Gouen said, lying back against the pillows piled against the headboard. "I have used you hard tonight and this is most comfortable."
"It is indeed." Tsuuran leaned forward a little so that the pressure inside him was where he wanted it, and rested himself against Gouen's shoulder. He began a rhythmic clenching of his inner muscles and set his body to continue them automatically, for he knew his lord's delivery would not be immediate. Gouen crooned happily in his chest and licked at Tsuuran's horns. Tsuuran caught his breath deeply.
"Ah, my lord- my lord- hold off a little, I beg you. I would not have my fulfillment too far before your own."
"Very well." Gouen ceased. "Speak to me then of something else. Did you meet anyone worth noting in the court of Hanchow?"
Tsuuran collected himself. "The councillor herself, who is a most astute person and deeply learned in statecraft. But the main business of that region is trade, and the courtiers' minds are perhaps more upon tolls and levies and the state of the roads than upon courtly accomplishments. However there was talk of one person, whom I myself did not meet though I would have wished to." And he told his lord the following story:
Near to Mt Hanchow is a lesser rise called Tsaomei'kang, and from the summit of that hill there is a stream that leaps the crags to become a narrow waterfall; and the dragon of that stream is called Pipang. He is renowned for his taste in antiquities and books, and for his clever invention in both prose and verse. He is of an eccentric and whimsical temperament. He stays on his hill, wandering its forests and conversing with its inhabitants both seen and unseen. Rumour has it that his knowledge has made him long-lived as a Taoist immortal, but only if he never leaves the sound of his waterfall. The neighbouring rulers have invited him to their courts but without success. He has never sired a son, or indeed any child. He has many friends among the land dragons with whom he regularly exchanges poems, and his verse is much celebrated by them, but he can never be prevailed upon to pay anyone a visit. It is necessary to call upon the Sage himself on his own mountain: and maybe you will find him in his little house there and maybe you will not. Not the least unusual fact about him is this, that he is that rarest kind of dragon, a pale red one, with skin the colour of the highest clouds at sunset on a fine summer's evening.
This story of the pale red dragon Pipang took hold of Gouen's imagination so that he at once determined to pay the sage a visit. His kingdom had become used to his absence during the days of his service in Heaven, and though his sojourn there had ended with the death of his brother, the king of the Western Ocean, he still left much of the government of his realm in the capable hands of his ministers. Thus it was, three days later, that Gouen and Tsuuran flew to the green sides of Tsaomei'kang and changed form by the gate to a small cottage hard by the waterfall.
"Greetings within!" Tsuuran called. "Is the master at home?"
There was a step in the garden that curved to the back of the building and a man appeared, strolling leisurely in their direction. His skin and his garments were the colour of a tea rose, with no other shade visible. He was of average height, slight of build and delicate of feature, with a merry face high at the cheekbone and pointed at the chin like an upside-down triangle. His mouth smiled in the same form, and his beaming eyes were triangular too.
"Greetings, friends," he said. "What would you of me?"
"If we might impose a little on the sage's time, for conversation and some talk of poetry, we would be most grateful," Gouen said.
"By all means, come in and partake of the little hospitality I can afford," Pipang said, unlatching the gate for them. "Men who have come from the far oceans will need refreshment."
"Our speech betrays us," Gouen said. "We are from the oceans indeed. My name is Gouen, and this is Tsuuran."
"Pipang, at your service," the rose-coloured dragon said, and led them through the peonies, the same colour as himself, that grew in thick profusion even up to the walls of his cottage. All was beautifully appointed within, the house of a scholar rather than an ascetic. There were dark rosewood chairs, three or four, and graceful tables carved in interlocking patterns. Pipang begged them be seated while he brewed the tea and poured it into plain white porcelain cups, thin as eggshells. The tea was a delicate jasmine, the colour of pale straw, and they drank the first cup in appreciative silence.
"Now," said Pipang, "pray satisfy my curiosity, for I am indeed amazed to see you here. How comes it that ocean dragons have heard of this humble person?"
"My friend was recently companying one on Mt. Hanchow, where he heard talk of your excellency and his abilities," Gouen replied. "Such a one as yourself is rarely found in this latter degenerate age, and I wished greatly to meet with you. I will own frankly to being a vulgar man in my curiosity for new things, and having never met a pale red dragon before I was taken with the desire to do so. I hope you will forgive me. But also I have some pretensions to being a poet, and your excellency's verse is said to be of a surpassing ability, and so I dared hope as well to have the experience of hearing it from your own lips."
"Certainly it is a pleasure to speak of poetry among friends and to make verses in agreeable company," Pipang said. "But it is an activity best carried on over wine and the hour is yet early for that. Let us have a simple game of matching verses suited to the afternoon. Tsuuran-dono, are you also a poet?"
"Alas, no," Tsuuran said. "But it will be my pleasure to record the verses you and Gouen-sama compose."
It was thus agreed. Pipang fetched paper and writing tools, and Tsuuran ground the ink on the inkstone and mixed it to the right consistency as he commonly did for Gouen. Pipang brewed another pot of tea, this one infused with spices to inspire the fancy, and they set about the simplest game.
Gouen began first, as the guest. "Wind," he said.
"Stars," Pipang responded, and then, "Black wind."
"Bright stars. Black wind blows," said Gouen.
"Bright stars cold. Black wind blows across emptiness."
Gouen's eyebrows quirked in pleasure. "Bright stars cold through fullness. Black wind blows across empty skies."
Pipang smiled delightedly. "Bright stars cold through full clouds," he finished the couplet.
"That was an innovation, to change the vowel pattern to e-i instead of o-i," Gouen said. "I was expecting the usual 'frozen skies,' or some such."
"But you were more inventive to modulate into the o-u levels. And alas, I could not find a suitable a-sound word to end the couplet."
"Rules are only guidelines, surely," Gouen said generously. "A good poet may break them at will if the poem demands it."
"Perhaps. But to me they seem like a goal one strives to attain as one seeks to master any art, by constant practice and constant failure, in the humble hope of one day succeeding. It seems too easy to cast the rules aside and do as one pleases."
"So you have no use for the Flowing metre?"
"I have used it on occasion but never, I feel, with complete success. It is the poems I make in conformity to our ancestors' rules that give me greatest satisfaction, poor as they are."
"Then let us continue with those," Gouen said, confident of his ability to handle the more exacting poetic forms.
Pipang poured more tea for them all, and they began a bout of Echoes.
"Green through the waves the ocean's restless stir
The white foam flies against the scudding clouds," Gouen began.
"Through scudding clouds I fly wrapped in white mist
The restless air above the world's green curve," Pipang finished it, and gave the next couplet:
"Wind beneath wings, above, the hidden sun
Warm on my back, a touch as light as love."
"So light my love and guide me warmly back
O hidden one to whom I wing like wind," Gouen answered.
Gouen began the third quatrain:
"Swiftly as thought and strong as albatross
Straight as the path the sun itself moves on-"
And Pipang answered:
"Moving along the path the sun makes white
Tossed by my longing thoughts I fly my way."
Tsuuran could not contain himself. "Bravo!" he said in admiration.
"Thank you." Pipang turned amused eyes on Gouen. "'Albatross' indeed, Gouen-dono. You are merciless."
"Indeed," Tsuuran chimed in. "I think you owe Pipang-dono a forfeit for that rhyme, Gouen-sama."
"Very well," Gouen said, not ill-pleased. "Let Pipang-dono set the opening couplets of the next two quatrains then."
Pipang smiled again and began:
"Afar, the shore, the mountains, and the land
Dark in my sight, that never move or sway."
"I move away towards the dark of night
Where the grand mountains tower o'er the stars."
"Where forests, lightless paths and shadowed trees
Conceal the way that leads where I must to go."
"But go I must the way that I shall feel
Will lead my shadow, lightless, to your door."
Once again Pipang smiled. "You are a courtier, I see, Gouen-dono, and I must think you one of rank."
"It is true I was raised at the court of the Blue Dragon," Gouen said, "but my rank I leave behind me when I sit down to poetry and conversation with gentlemen."
"Yet you do not leave your courtly manners behind you," Pipang observed.
"Do I not?" Gouen affected surprise. "Then you must conclude that what you see of me is truly myself, for what I may discard I do, as I remove my armour after battle and my court robes after audiences."
"True, a man's poetry must show his heart, after all," Pipang said. "Though it dresses well to carry out its offices of friendship and diplomacy, there must be a feeling body underneath the fine clothes."
"If the body is not there, there is no poetry," Gouen said, "only words that echo prettily."
"Since we feel alike, let us have another bout." And so they passed the afternoon in verse-making and challenges, discussing the poems afterwards and debating poetic theory together. Pipang served them more tea with almond cakes, and a concoction of wild strawberries steeped in sugar water, osmanthus and the fiery liquor of the northern continent. The sweetness and the warmth of this inspired Gouen to greater heights, and he and Pipang completed a series of four-line poems celebrating the view from Tsaomei'kang itself.
As the sun turned its steps to the west, an old green dragon, Pipang's one servant, came from the back quarters with wine and a meal of rice, mushrooms and okra, pickled burdock, and beancurd cooked in spices. Pipang apologized for the plain fare.
"My constitution is such that I cannot stomach meat, and I am loath to eat the friends who swim in my river. Pray forgive me that I have nothing more substantial to offer you."
"Such a meal as this would not be out of place in the courts of Heaven," Gouen said, with truth, for the simple food was wonderfully cooked and the wine was excellent. To him it was all exquisite perfection- this delicate creature secluded in the green woods, living on delicate fare in his beautifully appointed cottage, composing delicate poems in the most difficult metres. The gentle sound of the waterfall backgrounded everything he did and seemed to echo in his verse as well. From the moment he'd first heard of Pipang there had been a little flame in Gouen's soul, and the flame was growing stronger now like an oil lamp when the wick is lengthened at evening time. All was bright and settled in its light, and the way Gouen must go was clear before him. As the wine warmed his body and the poetry sang more strongly in his head, so did the light of love illuminate his heart, all seeming part and parcel of the same thing.
When dinner was finished the old servant set out a single clear moon lamp and left them to linger over the wine together. Outside the sun was setting in shades of deep rose, staining the small scudding clouds the same colour in the tender blue sky of summer. There was silence as they sat and watched the day's ending.
"This is my favourite time of day," Pipang said at last in a low voice full of feeling. "Often I have tried to capture the beauty of it in my verse, but never have I succeeded."
"Loveliness such as this inspires one to make the attempt," Gouen said, "even though the goal may well be beyond one's reach now and perhaps forever. Yet still one must try."
"Will you try now, Gouen-dono?" Pipang said, giving him a smile that made Gouen's head swim.
"Yes," he said, confidence welling up in him like a wave on the sea. "And I shall do it in the Ten Steps, a line at each step." He got up and stationed himself before the door, and though it is a certainty that his mind was empty when he rose from his chair, when he took the first step the words he needed were there, ready to his hand.
High in the westward sky a single cloud
Pursues its way and looks not left nor right
Nor up nor down, but joyfully and proud
It rides the wind towards the coming night.
Rose coloured as a conch's inner shell
And precious as the rarest tourmaline
It goes to darkness where it knows full well
Its colour soon must fade and not be seen.
Oh, but black night will know a joy like fire
When that sweet rose shall in his arms expire.
Gouen finished the verse in front of Pipang's chair. The cadences of it fell into his mind like ripples in a pool. It was good. It was better than good. It was the best thing he had ever composed. In the lamplight Pipang's triangular eyes smiled up at him, and little white flames were reflected in the deep redness of them.
"I cannot hope to better a verse like that," he said. "Let it stand as the end to our evening, and do we repair to bed."
"Willingly," Gouen said. Pipang arose and picked up the lantern. Tsuuran came with them to attend them at the bath. They followed their host through the back into a small cleared space behind the cottage. The song of the waterfall came from their left, and before it was a small detached building with a single window through which lamplight already shone. Pipang opened the door and led them into a single room, with a high bedstead in one half and a sitting room in the other. The chafing dish was already warming and the subtly heady scent of lemons filled the air. Gouen felt his pulse race. Pipang placed the lamp on the table.
"My home is a poor rustic place," he said. "For bathing I can offer you nothing better than my waterfall, but at least there is warm water should you wish it and a bed to ease your weariness. My thanks for your company this evening and your verse, Gouen-dono. I wish you and Tsuuran-dono pleasant rest." He bowed and, smiling still, turned and walked from the room. The door shut gently behind him.
Gouen stood for a moment only. Then he took a breath and turned so that Tsuuran might undress him. There were sleeping robes laid out, fine cotton soft as silk, that Tsuuran wrapped about Gouen against the night chill.
"Will my lord bathe?" he asked.
"No. Sponge me down, that will be enough."
Tsuuran did so, and dried him. Gouen gave no indication that he wished Tsuuran to attend to the state in which his verse-making had left him, so he was discreet in his handling of his master. Tsuuran held the bedclothes open for him to lie down and had turned to go to his own position across the threshold when Gouen flipped the other side of the coverlet up. Tsuuran undressed, washed himself with the remains of the water, and put on the other robe. He extinguished the light and lay down beside Gouen. Gouen turned on his side away from him, palpably prepared for sleep. There was silence.
"Was it so bad a poem?" Gouen's voice said at last, very low.
"No, my lord. It was excellent. It was the best poem my lord has ever composed, in this humble person's opinion."
"Perhaps the sage is not to be won by poetry."
Gouen turned to his side to face him. "How can that be? You heard his verse. It's magnificent. It sings in his blood as it sings in mine. How could he remain unaffected?"
Tsuuran was silent a moment. "There is the matter of his Older's colours," he said at last.
Gouen gave an unhappy laugh. "If he companions none but pale red dragons, his life must be ascetic indeed."
"Perhaps it is," Tsuuran agreed. "There is much of the ascetic about the Sage still, for all his accomplishments." There was another matter on his mind, more pressing than Pipang's odd indifference and very much the reverse of that, which he could not presume to mention. But Gouen was perceptive even in the midst of his chagrin.
"Come," he said, and reached for him. "If I have brought you to this state I can at least relieve you of it, my poor Tsuuran." Tsuuran moved into Gouen's arms with satisfaction, and had the consolation of Gouen's mouth to disperse his excitement, and did the same for his master, before the two fell asleep curled together with the muted music of the waterfall all about them.
The Sage saw them off in the morning, smiling and agreeable as ever. Gouen presented him with a charming poem of thanks, and he and Tsuuran took their way home. There Tsuuran discovered one reason for Gouen's attentiveness to him on his return from Hanchow. The court was busy with preparations for a visit from Gouen's second brother, the King of the Southern Ocean. Kaishou, the elder of the king's two sons, was due to bind his hair in a few months, and this would be the last time the boy would come as a child to his uncle's ocean to play with his younger cousins. Gouen of course would be occupied through the length of the visit in companying his older brother.
In five days' time Goushou and his train arrived at the palace of the Northern Ocean. Gouen and his four sons met them on the battlements, the three-year-old and the baby being held in the arms of their gran'fers. Gouen made his reverence, and his sons Kaigon and Kairen after him; then Goushou's two sons Kaishou and Kaifu came to bow to their uncle. Gouen raised them and kissed them on the cheek.
"Kaishou, you've grown out of all knowing. You are a man already."
"My thanks, oji-ue," Kaishou said with studied courtesy. "It is owing to my father-in-law's care." He spoke of Goushou as such, and not chichi-ue, because he was Goushou's adopted son and not the child of his body. He was a yellow dragon, but more taciturn than that cheerful race tend to be, and he was the son of Goujun the white dragon as well so that formality was perhaps to be expected of him. Gouen loosed him and turned to his brother.
"Come within, second brother, and let us refresh you after your long journey." He led them to the guest suite set aside for their use, and the servants brought their luggage after them.
"The bath is ready, cousin," Kaigon said to Kaishou. "Kairen and I will attend you there." Though Kaishou was two years his senior Kaigon had inherited Gouen's height, so that the two cousins were already nearly of a size. Equally Kairen, though only seven, had the assurance of all gold dragons and felt himself quite the equal of nine year old Kaifu.
"Will you join us, honoured father?" Kaishou asked Goushou.
"Yes, do," Kaifu said impulsively. He took Goushou's hand and held it to his cheek. "Baths with you are fun."
Goushou ruffled the child's hair, red as his own. "Not this time. Kaishou and Kaigon are growing towards manhood and my presence will discomfit them. Go with Kairen and enjoy yourselves. We will meet at dinner."
"Mnh," Kaifu said, not wholly satisfied, but loosed him obediently and went to join Kairen. Gouen and Goushou repaired to the main bedroom where their servants undressed them and attended them at the bath. Afterwards they sat in chamber robes drinking wine and eating a light late afternoon collation. Knowing his brother's propensity, Gouen had the two youngest children brought in for him to hold and play with, and answered all Goushou's delighted questions. When the baby began to fret for his supper, Goushou reluctantly handed him back to his gran'fer and turned smilingly to Gouen.
"Now you have fulfilled all your duties as a host, tell me a little how it goes with my brother."
Gouen touched on the state of his kingdom and his family and then, to divert his brother, told him of his encounter with Pipang. He was able by this time to make it an amusing story against himself, and Goushou laughed and smiled at it, but his eyes narrowed a touch.
"Let me hear your master poem," he said, and Gouen obliged not unwillingly. Goushou was silent afterwards.
"But that is good," he said. "Even for you, Gouen, that is..." Words failed him. "He must indeed be an Immortal and separate from the things of the flesh if such a verse could fail to move him."
"It would seem likely," Gouen said, "for certainly he never leaves his hillside. But there is also the fact that his robes are all one colour. If his Older was a pale red dragon like himself, it may be that he has a distaste for the more common of us. But it is a pity, for his poetry is remarkable."
"Anhh," Goushou said. "A pity indeed," and he turned the talk to other matters.
There was a banquet that night, and music and acrobats to divert the young ones. In the following days there were more entertainments, and the two oldest boys were taken hunting in dragon form by their fathers. Gouen's sons and Kaifu spent a few hours each morning with their tutors, but were excused from other study so as to have leisure to be with each other. Goushou himself still saw to Kaishou's lessons, which Gouen noted with interest.
"I will not be able to be with him so often after he binds his hair," Goushou explained. "Though I have never tried to stand in a father's place to him yet in the world's eyes that is our relation. Thus I must begin to put a distance between us. I'd hoped Goujun would come back before this and take that role instead, since it is rightfully his." He sighed, and went on. "Kaishou will rule my kingdom some day, and I wished to guide his development as much as I might before he grew too old to heed me."
"I would think the boy will heed you anyway," Gouen assured him. "He is much like third brother in his character."
"Exactly," Goushou said ruefully. "He is everything he should be on the outside, and he has a core that does not budge."
They were lying in bed together, in between enacting forms. These last two years Goushou's tastes had changed, imperceptibly to any but his youngest brother. Once Goushou would consider only the entry forms, preferring the more strenuous and often the more uncomfortable of them. Further, he always lay below; and Gouen, whose physical disposition as well as his emotional one fitted him more to lying above, performed that office for him in spite of right thinking. But lately Goushou had come to regard the hand and mouth forms equally as much, and Gouen sensed that his brother asked him to lie above only to satisfy Gouen himself. This change occurred after Goushou adopted Goujun's sons, and as such was a source of satisfaction to Gouen, as indicating a certain mellowness in his older brother's nature. The small regret he felt at the loss of what had certainly been a pleasure he kept to himself, being, he trusted, not wholly lost to propriety.
"That unbudging core has served him well, given what his life has been," Gouen observed. "To lose his father, to lose the position he was brought up to even though he exchanged it for a higher one, to leave the sea of his birth and come here, and all while he was a child, would have been hard for him otherwise."
"You have a fellow-feeling for him from having lost your own father young," Goushou said, "and I do not say you are wrong. I would have thought Kaifu had the harder time of it, but then I would, wouldn't I?"
Gouen smiled at him. "I always wanted to ask. Forgive me if the question offends you, but do you not find it strange to have a son of your own colour?"
"I dare not think of either of them as my sons," Goushou said. "They are Goujun's. He will find he has lost much when he returns, and I will not take from him his sons' love and respect to make them my own. It is no matter. We do better as nephews and uncle, no matter how we address each other."
Gouen felt a pang. He wound his arms about Goushou's neck. "Second brother, I still cannot reconcile myself to the fact that you have no sons. Fortune has given you children but your scruples will not let you accept them. I revere you for your consideration and your care of third brother, but still it seems wrong. I wish there were something I could do to make it up to you."
Goushou wrapped his own arms about Gouen's torso and kissed him. "You could enact Tiger and Prey with me."
"Really?" Gouen gave him a sideways look. "It is your consolation I think of, not my own pleasure."
"Really. I wish to expire again in the arms of black night. Your poetry may leave the Sage unmoved, but your brother is not so proof against it." Since the signs were clear that Goushou was speaking the simple truth, Gouen happily complied.
A little while later Goushou said in Gouen's ear, as they lay wrapped in each other's arms, "You must tell me how one gets to Tsaomei'kang. I think I want to see the man who could say no to you, knowing what he was refusing."
Goushou flew towards the round landmark of Tsaomei Hill, and saw from the air the little house by the waterfall surrounded by its pink peonies, and moving among them a figure that seemed but a larger peony given man's form. He alighted by the gate and changed shape, and stood looking over the woven wicker wall at the pale red dragon in his garden, who stood likewise looking back at him. After a moment the man smiled and came over to the gate.
"Greetings, sir," he said. "What may I do for you?"
"I would be happy for a little conversation with the Sage of Tsaomei'kang if you were at liberty."
"Gladly," Pipang said. "And who might I have the honour of addressing?"
"I am Goushou, king of the Southern Ocean."
Pipang blinked a little but recovered himself at once. "My lord is welcome to my humble dwelling," he said, and held the gate open.
"You are not one to be overawed by a man's rank, so I saw no need to conceal who I am," Goushou said as he walked through it.
Pipang's eyes twinkled. "Your majesty's brother was not of that opinion."
"It is only because he hid his rank that I know you have no care for such things. I apologize if his concealment offended you. He is the youngest of us and overindulged in the way of youngest sons. Please forgive him."
"Your servant has nothing to forgive," Pipang said. "But my lord is not alone, surely? Though my house is small I can still refresh your majesty's retainers--"
"I came by myself," Goushou said. "A private visit has no need for a king's state. And call me by name if you will, Pipang-dono. I grew accustomed to it among the kami in heaven and I prefer it to titles."
"Then pray come in, Goushou-sama." Pipang brought him to the cottage where he brewed tea and served it, and took his seat without waiting for Goushou's invitation. Goushou drank his tea, that was flavoured with oranges and cinnamon, and noted the difference from that which Pipang had served Gouen.
There was a silence which neither seemed minded to break. Goushou looked at Pipang curiously out the corner of his eye, and found Pipang regarding him in the same fashion. He pulled himself together. They might have agreed to ignore his rank, but courtesy required him to take the lead in conversation if his host were not minded to do so.
"I have not my younger brother's parts," he said, "and am no fit person to recommend myself to a poet of your ability. But Gouen's description of you piqued my curiosity, for you are not as ordinary men."
"Lord Gouen does me too much honour," Pipang said with composure. "He is a great poet and his approval is beyond my merits. I am only a trifler in the field and know my talents are not to be mentioned in the same breath as his."
"Ah, I see," Goushou said, wondering if modesty was perhaps the reason Pipang had refused Gouen's advances. "Yet poetry apart, you are still outside the common run, keeping to your hill and not mixing in the world outside. Are you indeed one of the Immortals who have turned their backs on the ways of dragonkind to gain the elixir of eternal life?"
Pipang laughed. "Not at all. I am merely a homebody. I love my little house and my stream and I have no desire to leave them for the bustling world at court. I am happy roving my woods and my mountain, talking to the inhabitants and to chance strangers, looking on the view and the changing seasons and composing verses. There are no magic properties to keep me young, only nature and poetry and freedom from care."
"And friendship?" Goushou ventured.
"And friendship," Pipang agreed. "The letters and poems of my friends are a great pleasure to me."
"Letters and poems," Goushou said slowly, "seem cold if that is as far as friendship goes. Myself I would wish for a familiar face at my table in the daytime and a welcoming body next to mine during the night."
"A king may have as much as he wishes of both those things," Pipang said, "but it is not so for all men."
"I had them once," Goushou corrected him mildly, "but that time was one of great happiness for me."
Pipang nodded. "And when they go, as go they must in this imperfect world, they leave sadness behind. That which was once and is no more becomes as a ghost in the house. Either a man seeks to find it again, and usually in vain; or its passing poisons the other smaller pleasures of life. It is better to do without, I think, and best of all not to begin."
Ah, so there it was. Goushou sighed, both for Pipang and for himself.
"One does without if one must, but it is impossible not to begin. One first tastes the joys of closeness with one's Older in youth, and after that it is hard not to seek it again."
"Doubtless that is so, if one has an Older," Pipang agreed.
"All dragons have Olders--"
Goushou's mind seemed to stop moving.
"But- but-- all dragons have Olders. How can- how can one be part of dragonkind without?"
"As I do," Pipang said. "I have my friends, my books, my cottage and my verse. Being unable to conduct myself properly in society, I do not go out in it." He looked in mild amusement at Goushou's stunned expression. "Pale red dragons are so rare that my parents would have me trained by none but the most excellent tutor. Only as no candidate ever seemed suitable enough for me, and they had indignantly rejected the offers from among their own kin, I reached my majority without a selected Older. Since the Heavenly Dragon himself did not appear to take on the role, well--" He smiled happily. "I grew to manhood still untrained and eventually bound my own hair, concluding that no-one could make me a man but myself."
"I see," Goushou said automatically. "But... But how sad that you should be denied what is every dragon's birthright."
"Sad? Not really. One does not miss what one has never had."
"Does one not?" Goushou said, and turned his eyes away. "Maybe not indeed. But the sight of others' happiness ..." He stopped. On his mountain the Sage would be spared that sight, and that was why he stayed here.
"Pipang-dono," he said, feeling a small heat in his face, "I have been unmannerly. Truly, I did not come here to inquire into the details of your life..."
"Of course not, Goushou-sama. I did not think you one who, hearing of the defect in my upbringing, would at once rush to offer to fill the deficiency. That is why I told you."
Goushou's face went hotter, and he thanked heaven that his colour made it unnoticeable. At the same time he could not repress a smile. "And you thought my younger brother would? Well, I do not say you are wrong, and for that reason I will not tell him either. I am sorry. He has a good conceit of himself that even the Blue Dragon of the eastern sea cannot amend in him."
"Lord Gouen has reason to think well of himself," Pipang said. "He is indeed a master poet, and I am sorry that I am not part of the world he lives in, that I might let him know of that in the usual ways. But there it is."
"There it is indeed," Goushou said. He looked at Pipang, and his brows knit together as he chewed on a thought that he could not find words for. Pipang looked down at his cup.
"It is I who must ask your pardon, Goushou-sama. Word reaches me even here of the doings of the Ocean Dragons. I had heard that the king of the Southern Ocean had no sons of his own and that he had adopted the third brother's children as his heirs. So I think you must know what it is to do without."
"Yes," Goushou said. "I know very well what it is to do without; and equally to be satisfied with the things one has."
Pipang looked up smiling, and his triangular eyes danced. "Just so. Now let me bring you some refreshment. The wild strawberries that grow on my hillside I am convinced cannot be matched anywhere else in the kingdom."
He served Goushou strawberries filmed in sugar and ladled over sponge cakes, and they discussed the personages of the world and the current relationships among them for a pleasant few hours. Pipang had a lively wit, and his correspondents kept him abreast of happenings in the four Lands, so that the time sped by in gossip and laughter. As the day turned towards evening, Goushou reminded himself that he must not expect the visit to end as it would with another dragon and rose to take his leave. Pipang walked him to the front gate. The long rays of the lowering sun flooded the garden, deepening all the pinks and greens of the peonies and outlining their edges in gold. Pipang seemed to glow against that background, and glancing down Goushou saw that the scarlet of his own sleeve was brilliant as the flaming ball of the setting sun itself. Pipang had turned his eyes a little to one side, for his gateway faced towards the west and he seemed dazzled by the brightness.
"Farewell, Goushou-sama," he said, with a smile. "My thanks for your company and conversation," and he recited an extemporaneous verse in the 'cut line' style:
Here at my western hermitage the sun sets
My guest from the southern oceans flies away.
Bright fire wings towards the lands of summer
While dark night settles on my autumn hill.
Goushou opened his mouth to reply in a similar style, but something stopped his tongue. Instead, and without intention, he spoke a poem in the common mode, set to an old folk melody:
My love sits among the peonies, oh!
Head bent to the pond reflecting the sky
He does not see my heart fall like the petals, oh!
No ripple disturbs the surface.
Then he turned and walked through the gate, changed to his dragon form and took to the sky. But it was not until he had flown several leagues that the blood left his face and he stopped blushing like a boy.
He changed form on the dark battlements of Gouen's castle and walked through the bowing night guard to the guest quarters. There he found Kaishou still up and dressed, though his eyes were heavy with tiredness, and the chamber servants about him looking apologetic.
"Kaishou, you should have been abed long since. I told you there was no need to wait my return."
"Forgive me for not following your instructions, honoured father. I told Kaifu I would wait up till you came back. It was the only way I could get him to go to bed himself, and even now I am not sure he is asleep."
"Anhh," Goushou said in comprehension. "You have been a thoughtful older brother then. It is true, Kaifu is still young and his fears spring from experience. But let Sanshin put you to bed now. I'll look in on Kaifu and set his mind at ease if he is still awake."
"Thank you, honoured father." He knelt and put Goushou's hands to his forehead. "Have good rest."
Goushou raised him and gave him an unaccustomed hug. "You too, Kaishou." Kaishou went with his chamber servant and Goushou, following after, stopped by Kaifu's room where a small lamp burned under the eyes of the night servant.
"Honoured father?" Kaifu's voice spoke from within the mosquito netting.
"Kaifu." He came in and sat down on the bed beside him. "I am back safely. It's long past time you were asleep. You will be dead tired during tomorrow's feasting."
Kaifu had taken his hand and was holding it tight. "Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?"
"Yes." He smoothed Kaifu's loose hair. Kaifu smiled in satisfaction, wriggled onto his side, and was asleep immediately. Goushou thought vaguely that he should get to bed himself. He'd had two long flights that day and it was several watches past midnight. But still he sat with Kaifu's smaller hand grasping his own and remembered something from long ago. A beauty and glory not of this world that had spoken to him once, that had kissed him on the forehead- the firebird he had seen when he was thirteen. 'Was that when I first began to want the thing I could never have?' he wondered, not for the first time. 'Or was that when I first realized that what I wanted would never be mine?' He sighed and wished his older brother was there to comfort him. Then he shook himself mentally. 'I am a man and a father now. What I cannot have I will do without.' He looked down at the sleeping Kaifu. 'And what I have is enough.' He disengaged his hand, kissed the child's sweaty temple, and made his way to his own quarters.
They returned to the Southern Ocean and life took up its usual routine. There were the preparations for Kaishou's hair-binding ceremony to be completed, the arrangements for lodging his Older and his servants during the next six years, and the usual routines of government- taxation and commerce, friendship and diplomacy. Goushou made himself attend to all these things minutely, but the only part that engrossed him was that which bore directly on Kaishou's affairs, now that the boy stood on the threshold of manhood and the brief closeness they had been allowed must change.
Kaishou was more civil and correct with him even than formerly. It would have felt like coldness and maybe have hurt him, but that Kaishou's behaviour recalled his father at the same age in a way that mixed pleasure and pain in almost unbearable measure. It's like having him back, Goushou thought with a pang, and then reminded himself firmly He *is* coming back. The Bodhisattva said so. Besides, it was clear enough that formality was Kaishou's way of hiding his uncertainty and anxieties over the great change waiting him. It would have been easier had he ever spoken his feelings openly the way Kaifu did, but in this Kaishou was exactly his father's son. And maybe, Goushou thought suddenly, Goujun too had been nervous about his training and hidden it under his stolid exterior. If I were twelve and going to have me training me, I'd have been nervous too, he thought wryly. Kaishou looked startled by the sudden change in Goushou's expression.
"It's nothing," Goushou said, stifling his smile. "I was remembering your father." He gave the boy a considering look. "It is not proper for me to speak too clearly to you about the passage to manhood, of course. But you have-" he checked before he could say nothing to fear. Kaishou would be mortified at the suggestion that he was afraid. "-much to look forward to in the next few years. The Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom is an outstanding soldier and poet, and his son has inherited his talents. Your uncle Gouen had a hand in his training and vouches for his ability. More than that I may not say in decency."
"Thank you, honoured father," Kaishou said. "I am sure Shinran-dono is all he should be, since my uncles say so."
"It is a pity that your cousin Kaiei could not undertake the role, now that we have quitted Heaven and the Blue Dragon stays in his kingdom. But the negotiations with the Duke were already settled and could not be changed without incurring rancour between our families."
"Yes," Kaishou said. Goushou waited, wondering if the boy would add anything further. After a minute Kaishou said, "It seems to me that training must always be easier when it is between members of the same family, but it is not the oldest son's fate to have the easy part."
"No," Goushou agreed. "And though family feeling may smooth some things, much depends on there being a similarity of temperament in the first place. Even brothers may not always be in sympathy with each other. A total outsider may sometimes have more understanding-- if he is, for instance, one such as Shantsu-dono of the Western River who united our houses in ties of friendship."
"I see," Kaishou said. He looked a little more at ease, so Goushou concluded that his encouragement had had at least some effect. He was turning back to the matter of Kaishou's role at the ceremony itself when there was a knock on the door and the voice of his chamberlain asking permission to enter.
"A messenger has come bearing a letter from the western continent and for certain reasons we thought it best to bring it to Your Majesty at once," and he handed Goushou a thin sealed paper.
"What reasons?" Goushou asked as he undid the seal and opened the message:
I look in the pond and see your reflection
Petals fall and ripple the waters
Yet when I look up I see the sky empty
My heart will fall as the petals do.
"The bearer is a pale red dragon and as such- Majesty?" Without thinking Goushou had risen to his feet, head and heart awhirl. Pipang- here, in his own kingdom--
"Honoured father?" Kaishou's tentative voice said. Goushou looked at him in surprise. Kaishou had risen as well-- Naturally, when the king does... Goushou checked himself and the impulse to hasten to the ramparts. He took a deep breath.
"This dragon is no ordinary person. He is the Sage of Tsaomei'kang. Conduct him to the best of the guest rooms and have Montan see to his needs." His chamberlain barely managed to conceal astonishment. Montan was Goushou's own majordomo. "Offer him refreshments- he does not eat flesh- and provide him with both tea and wine. Did he bring his servant?"
"Then prepare clean robes for him as well. He has come a long way. Tell him-" he put the pleasure from him with regret. "Tell him I will come to see him when he has bathed and rested and that-" he smiled suddenly. "That I am very happy he is here."
The chamberlain bowed himself off. Goushou sat down again, trying to calm the fever in his heart. It was a long flight from Tsaomei'kang. Pipang would want a bath, certainly. And I dare not join him there- I cannot answer for myself. He thrust the thought away. Kaishou was watching him with slightly troubled eyes. Goushou took himself ruthlessly in hand and made himself be calm. "Now, the ceremony itself is simple enough, as I say. You will meet Shinran-dono before the doors of the main hall, take his hand and enter at his right side. Together you will salute me at the dais, then you take your seat before me facing the company. I will comb your hair and put it in a braid and Shinran-dono will tie it. Then..."
As if it were an ascetic practice he made himself bathe properly and change into more casual clothes, and only then went with his servants to the guest chamber. His heart beat loudly but he kept his face serene. The chamberlain announced him. Goushou waved his retinue back and walked through the door alone. Pipang's hands were clasped in the sleeves of his chamber-robe and his face was invisible below his raised arms.
"Pipang-dono. I trust my servants have seen to all your needs?"
"Yes, your Majesty. My thanks for your gracious hospitality." Pipang's continental accent was charming here among the voices of the ocean dragons.
"That is well." He gave a sign to Montan who retired with his two assistants and left them alone.
"Do you drink wine now or tea, Pipang-dono?"
Pipang lowered his arms. "Tea, I thank you, your Ma-" Goushou smiled at him. After a moment Pipang smiled back. "Goushou-sama."
"Then let us drink together." He began to sit in one of the chairs by the table but saw that Pipang was still standing. "Pipang-dono, the other day when I enjoyed your hospitality I conceived a great affection for that little house on Tsaomei'kang. I would we were there now. But since that may not be, let us agree for the moment that while you are here these rooms of the palace are not mine but yours, an extension as it were of your own house, and let us enjoy the easiness we had the other day."
"As you wish, Goushou-sama," Pipang smiled. "And since you are my guest, may I urge you to take that chair while I pour you some tea?" And he sat as Goushou did and filled a cup for him which he presented with both hands. Goushou sipped it in the proper silence. He looked into his half-empty cup and said softly, "Is this really alright?"
"Yes." Pipang's voice was equally as low. "For once in my life I would be as other men. You took my heart with you when you left and I had no choice but to follow after it. It is the wish of my soul to be here, and for you to be the one I first lay my body to." Goushou looked up. Pipang smiled at him, but faint through it was, there was a constraint in back of his eyes. "Ignorant and untrained as I am, I am still a grown man. You need not be troubled about me. Do as you will, Goushou-sama, if you wish to make me happy."
Goushou put his cup down. He took a pear from the fruit basket, picked up a knife, and sliced it from the top with the blade. He laid the cut sides down on his plate and looked at Pipang. Pipang's face wore a small frown.
"You know what this means?" Goushou asked.
"I thought I did," he said hesitantly, "but--"
"It means I do not willingly lie above," Goushou said bluntly, "so I will not ask you to lie below."
"Ah," Pipang said. The colour flushed his face and receded, and the sight of it pushed Goushou near the edge of his control. "I see. Thank you."
"There is no thanks needed. That is my nature. But my nature is of fire and when the spark takes there is no stopping it. Already I begin to smoulder. This is the last time I can say this. If you have any doubts or hesitation, speak now and I will go. Know that I may still wound your pride or your body, for you are unused to any of this."
"Then I must learn," Pipang said and rose to come to Goushou's side. Goushou came to his own feet. He took Pipang in his arms and kissed him, his tender unpractised mouth and the triangular eyes. Pipang caught his breath. Goushou's hands slid inside the chamber robe and found the smooth warm flesh of Pipang's back. He stroked that as he kissed Pipang's mouth and Pipang, following his lead, kissed him back. He knows nothing, Goushou thought to himself, *nothing*. He is as innocent as a child of ten. His skin was clear and fresh and there was a clean smell to him, more like a child's than a man's. It felt almost wrong to be doing what he was doing. But Pipang was right- he was a man grown, of an equal stature with Goushou, and his body was a man's body.
Goushou drew him over to the bed and they lay down together. He undid the belt of Pipang's robe and opened it a little above the shining flesh of Pipang's torso. The skin was beautiful, a lovely pale colour like a jewel's. He wanted desperately to see Pipang naked, to see the full length of that glowing body against the sheets, but that would shame him past bearing. Pipang's hands grasped at Goushou, urging him down, and his mouth strained upwards to meet Goushou's. So they lay like that, Goushou's weight upon Pipang, exchanging kisses with their lips only. Beneath his thigh Goushou felt Pipang emerged, and he heard Pipang's breath catching in his chest. Pipang's arms grasped him more desperately, and then he arched and gasped and reached his fulfillment below. Swift as a boy of twelve- he knows *nothing*... Goushou pushed his own robe open and slid his hardness between Pipang's legs. "Hold me," he said, and strong muscles closed tight about him while Pipang's arms met above his back. Goushou put his head down to the petal skin, delicate as a flower's crushed beneath his chest. And will he still be himself when this is over, or will the peony hang broken on its stalk? But he had no time to think or regret more. His mouth sought the tenderness of Pipang's flesh, and his root thrust into the warm darkness below, and he knew himself held and consoled by a beauty so rare that few had seen its like in the world. He melted into happiness and a moment's non-being.
He came back to warm contentment, head lying beside Pipang's. He watched the other for a moment, the line of his profile, the half-open eyes looking at the ceiling, and the tears caught on his lashes.
"Dear friend," Goushou said, "I have made you sad, though not through my will."
Pipang brushed his eyes with his other hand. "No, my lord, this was not your doing but my own."
"How so?" Pipang did not answer but looked away. After a moment Goushou said, "I have been alone much of my life, and learned to keep my thoughts to myself. But once there was one who loved me and I learned in time to open my heart to him, though at first it was hard to speak to one I thought of as a stranger, not of my kin. Yet when I was used to it it became a pleasure. If in time you find you can open your heart to me in the same way, it will make me happy, and perhaps yourself as well."
Pipang was silent a moment and then said, "There must have been many who loved you, surely?"
"There were many who thought they did. But it is the fashion to love the king and seek his favours, so who is to tell if it was the king they loved or the man? But with my friend I had no doubt. I understood him and he me, and I knew he loved all the men I am, even the ones I care little for myself."
"Ah," Pipang said, and he sounded sad.
Goushou was loath to leave his arms, but he moved away and got up. He wrung a cloth in the scented hot water of the chafing dish and came back to the bed.
"Here," he said. "Let me clean you now."
"This is usual?" Pipang asked.
"In between forms, and before going to the bath, yes."
"And-- should not I be doing this service for you, Goushou-sama?"
Goushou grinned. "In the ordinary way of things, no doubt, but this is no place for the ordinary way of things. If it frets you, think of yourself as my younger and I as your Older, and then there is no problem. A man may do these services, whatever his rank, to show his younger how they are done."
Pipang smiled too, but there was a painful twist to it. "I knew I should be at a disadvantage here," he said, "but still I regret the impression I must be making."
"The impression you make is charming," Goushou assured him, smiling. "Yet you have my sympathy. It is a hard thing to be in a place where all is unfamiliar and people may look sideways at you for your ignorance. When we were summoned to Heaven to take command of its armies there were times I thought I should kill someone. For you must know the Heaven-dwellers are firmly convinced that their practices, which are barbarous, are the height of civilized behaviour and that all who do not conform are unenlightened heathen-" and he told Pipang a few stories that made the Sage throw up his hands in horror and laugh in amazed disbelief. Goushou rejoiced to see him more at his ease, and to keep him in that mood poured them both cups of wine and came back to lie beside him.
"It was a hard and comfortless time," he said. "The kami are indifferent go players, they know nothing of the Three Books, and they do not make verses at all. It is good to be back among my own kind and especially to be with one like yourself who excels in the poetic art."
Pipang's skin flushed deeply so that he was almost Goushou's own colour. Goushou thought it the effect of the wine, but there was an odd note in Pipang's voice as he answered, "Goushou-sama, I do not excel in poetry, as well you must know. There is nothing out of the ordinary about my verse. It is I myself who am out of the ordinary, and others then expect what I do to be as rare and unusual as the colour of my skin. But you have seen for yourself what I am- a man of no great talents, and untrained and uncouth into the bargain."
"You do yourself wrong," Goushou said. "My brother recited some of your verses to me, and they spoke of a rare wit and spirit that I do not find belied by the reality. Dear friend, do not listen to your fears, but listen to me. What you think of as uncouthness I think of as innocence of spirit, that some men carry even into adulthood if that is their nature. It is not unbecoming; and as I cherished it in the young men I have trained, beginning with my own brothers, so do I cherish it in you. It would be a pleasure to show you the ways of manhood."
"You are gracious indeed, Goushou-sama," Pipang said. "I think you are one of those who possess an innocent spirit themselves. And since that is so, I will make bold to ask you this- would I have taken your fancy so if I had been a yellow dragon, or a green one? Is it not my colour and its rarity that draws you to me?"
"No. For if we are being bold, I will say that what first intrigued me about you was the fact that you refused my youngest brother's advances. I have never met the man who could do that once Gouen began spinning his web of words about them." Pipang reddened a touch, which Goushou observed with delight and a return of desire. "Certainly I should like you as well were you yellow or green, but I like you no worse because your colour is rare and beautiful. That colour is part of who you are, as much as your horns and your eyes, and I will not pretend it doesn't matter. For ask yourself this, would I have taken your heart were I not a king of the oceans but an ordinary river dragon?"
"Yes," Pipang said at once. "It is not the fact that you are a king that drew me to you. Indeed..." and he fell silent, turning away.
"Indeed, it would be easier were I a man of the continents and not the ocean, and of the same rank as yourself," Goushou hazarded.
Pipang nodded. Goushou ran his hand down Pipang's slender back, and felt the shuddering response in his flesh. Pipang turned again and came wordlessly into his arms. His mouth sought Goushou's mouth with a fierce concentration and his arms clasped Goushou tightly. They fell back on the bed together. Goushou had a notion what the urgency was that possessed the Sage, and saw suddenly how difficult it made matters, that Pipang lacked even the words to say his thought, and would not understand Goushou were he to say it for him in the usual way. We start from nothing here, and I must contrive it in such a way as not to hurt his pride. The pearl does not rise into my hand from the ocean's depth, after all; I must still work for it; but that indeed makes the pearl the more precious to me.
"Dear friend," he murmured in Pipang's ear, "there is something your body desires of me, and I would happily give it save that I fear your heart may not be aware of it, or may be of a different opinion. Do you know what I mean, Pipang-dono?"
Pipang closed his eyes as if at war with himself. "I am not certain, my lord. I fear the things my body seems to be telling me, for I cannot know if my desires are fitting or barbarous. I am a man flying above a strange country, who knows not where he is or what the landmarks are to tell him the way he should go."
"That is hard for one as sensitive as yourself." Goushou caressed him. "I honour you for the courage that brought you to my door to brave this world you know nothing of. Will you entrust yourself to me for a space and let me help you to that which I think you desire? for truly, I desire it as well."
"I must be as a child with you, my lord, and ask you to instruct me."
"No," Goushou smiled. "Not a child- a young man, for this is a form one learns at seventeen. But first I shall play one of the tunes for the jade flute, and I think you will like that well enough." And without more ado he slid down and worked about Pipang's groin so that he came fully emerged at once. "Is this good?" he asked and Pipang answered with a groan. "If you can, invoke your mantra and focus on that. In that way I may continue this longer." Pipang took a deep breath and in a minute Goushou heard his breathing grow more regular. "Tell me when to continue," he said, and Pipang said, "I think-- now, my lord." Goushou lowered his head and began the second tune. Felt the war in Pipang's body, between desire and mind. His own desire was to continue, and it was hard to think what he should do. He is like a youth but he is not a youth. How many fulfillments will his body allow him? Yet the temptation was so strong...
"Lie over," he said, urging Pipang on to his belly. Carefully he played Around the Hill, mouth travelling the firm muscled flesh of Pipang's buttocks, and loving the sweet smoothness of Pipang's skin under his mouth. But Pipang's voice was sobbing into the sheets. He dared not do Between the Hills, let alone Split Apricotstone.
"My lord," Pipang was saying, "I cannot-- I cannot--"
"Come," Goushou said "To your back again." Pipang came round. His robe had hiked up beneath him and he was naked from the waist downwards. Goushou noted it all in delight- the well-made legs with their rounded calves, the stiff manroot, the flat smooth belly above it. His own root was stiff in anticipation. Yet still he must rein himself back lest he scandalize Pipang's innocence. "Close your eyes," he said. Pipang obeyed. Goushou straddled his torso, then braced his legs to keep his balance. Holding himself apart he lowered himself slowly onto Pipang's root. Pipang gasped at the first touch. Goushou leaned forward and put his hands over Pipang's eyes.
"Not yet," he murmured. "Not yet. Wait a moment..." He sank further down to where he felt the lovely nudge within him. Hastily he reached for one of the towels and covered his manroot with it, then let all his breath out. "There," he said. He put his hands on Pipang's chest. "There. There. Look at me now, Pipang-dono." But Pipang's eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and his arms came up to cover his mouth. Great gasps came from him that he tried to stifle. Goushou's control began to slip away. He clenched himself hard and heard Pipang give a high cry. After that there was nothing more he could do, only post up and down on the blockage within him as he drove himself to his own fulfillment. Somewhere along the way he heard Pipang cry aloud and terribly, and registered that the Sage had fallen from the skies, before the knowledge of that deserted him as well. His fulfillment was huge. It seemed to empty him, body and soul, so that for an undetermined space he had no idea who he was or why.
Pipang was holding him tightly, faced buried in Goushou's hair. Always thus, Goushou thought, the first time... He kissed the little bit of Pipang's ear that was next to his mouth. "Dear friend," he murmured, "it's a lucky thing to weep at your First Crossing. Don't mind it."
Pipang's voice was rough. "That was the First Crossing?"
"That was yours," Goushou smiled. "Usually done the other way about and in a different position, but such is not my nature." Pipang still seemed in distress. Goushou caressed his hair and murmured into his ear to soothe him. "Hush now, dear friend- dear Sage- the stroke of love is heavy and you come to it all at once. It will be lighter when you are used to it."
Pipang sniffled and pulled away a little to wipe his eyes. "I am being ridiculous. It is not I who has borne the worst of this."
"The worst? I do not think it that."
"My lord- Goushou-sama..." Pipang drew a shaky breath and turned his face once more against Goushou's shoulder. Goushou could only just make out his words. "All men know of the generosity of the Ocean dragons. I should have been prepared for it."
"Is it a problem?" Goushou smiled again, but Pipang did not smile back.
"I thought," he said with difficulty, "I thought I should come to you, and we would lie together, and you would be disgusted by my lack of skill and so I could go home again, knowing that this was indeed not for me. And instead you have been patient and kind with my ignorance. Your soul is large, and I am ashamed of the littleness of my own beside it."
"My soul is not large," Goushou said at once. "Make no mistake about that, Pipang-dono. My nature is to be selfish and willful, and my brothers have always had to fit themselves to my moods, even the Blue Dragon- no, especially the Blue Dragon. But once in a very long while I meet someone so beyond the ordinary that even I, unhappy man that I am, can forget myself and my own needs in their presence. You are one such- no, do not deny it," he said, putting his fingers to the lips Pipang had opened in automatic protest, "--kings are not used to being contradicted so- and I am honoured beyond telling that you are here like this with me."
Pipang gave a small shaky laugh and his body relaxed a little. "I shall not presume to contradict the King of the Southern Ocean, then. So," he hesitated, "I may take it the friend you told me of was one of those?"
"Indeed he was, though he seemed like everyone else to begin with. But acquaintance taught me how very unusual he was."
"I see," Pipang said, but there was an uncertain note in his voice. "And... the others?"
"Aahh," Goushou answered, and looked away. He had invited Pipang's confidences and must be open in return, yet this one thing was locked in his heart and he was reluctant to speak of it aloud.
"This?" Pipang touched a light brief finger to Goushou's forehead. Goushou went motionless. His eyes looked a question.
"It glows upon you and about you," Pipang said. "I saw it when you changed form outside my gate and it filled me with wonder, but I didn't know what it was and still do not."
Goushou moved slow lips. "A phoenix," he said. "A phoenix's kiss. It took a portion of my soul from me when I was thirteen..."
"Ohh," Pipang breathed. "Poor Goushou-sama."
"No. I could not have stayed alive otherwise, for I was burning in my own fire but never consumed. Eventually I would have contrived my own death to end the pain of it. But still..." he faltered.
Pipang moved wordlessly closer against him.
"...but still," Goushou said to his warmth, "a part of me is missing and I have always longed to find it again. I am not large-souled, Pipang-dono. What I see in you, what I saw in my friend, is the warmth and rarity that I first saw and desired when I was a boy. And now you know the smallness that is Goushou of the Southern Ocean, so you have no need to feel any shame at all."
"Do you think I see anything different when I look at you?" Pipang asked. "You wondered whether your courtiers love the King or the man. You did not wonder if any were drawn by the fire within you that is not of this world. But I was, and that is what I followed here. And now you know the smallness that is Pipang of Tsaomei'kang, and the final shame I thought never to tell you."
Goushou's lips twitched. "The shame is on us both then, and on neither. For if we are being fair, this fire you speak of- of which I myself know nothing, let me say- is a part of me, as your colour is a part of you. Yet it is not every man who sees it, of that I am sure."
"I see things others do not," Pipang said simply. "It is only that I often cannot tell if they are really there."
"Ahh," Goushou said in surprise. And then, "Oh. But of course. For a pale red dragon is still a red dragon after all, and the universe shows its secrets to our kind-- and maybe," he looked at Pipang, "more to you than to me."
Pipang blinked and smiled then, much like his old self. "Maybe indeed. For there are things in wood and water I have never heard others speak of, that are perfectly tangible to my senses."
"Wood and water," Goushou sighed, a thought coming to him. "You belong to the waterfall of Tsaomei'kang and I am thinking you must return there some day?"
"I must return," Pipang said, "and soon, for that is my place as this is yours. But I am loath to do so when there is so much I wish to know of this new land you show me."
"We have some time yet," Goushou said, "but it will be all too short. Yet for these few days I will stay with you and share your warmth. And afterwards- well, I have leisure, or can make it. If you will receive me at Tsaomei'kang..."
"My lantern will always be lit for you, my lor-- Goushou-sama."
Tsuuran occasionally received letters from the acquaintances he had made on Mt. Hanchow and from the Councillor herself, who asked after his health and kept him apprised of news at the Court. He answered in kind, for such communications are part and parcel of the web of diplomacy woven between land dragons and ocean ones. But he was surprised one day at a passage in one of the Councillor's letters, which said that the Sage of Tsaomei'kang had left his hill and gone no-one knew whither, until he returned five days later. And no word would he say to anyone of where he had been, but only smiled and turned the matter aside with a jest or a quip. Rumour said he had been to the western lands of the Immortals to renew his youth, for there was a sheen and freshness about him that could not be explained otherwise. Tsuuran raised mental eyebrows at that, and kept the matter in mind to relate to his lord when next Gouen should call for him. He did not expect that to be soon, for Gouen was deep in an affair with a visiting Count and devoted all his nights to the man.
But next day the king cut short his official business and summoned Tsuuran to his chambers. Tsuuran found him gazing out at the sea, a crook to his mouth.
"Divert me, old friend," he said. "I am out of sorts with the world today, and you are the only one who does not chafe me when I am in my moods."
"Or what passes for moods with my lord," Tsuuran said. "But if it is diversion my lord seeks, I have had interesting news from the Councillor of Mt. Hanchow. It seems the Sage of Tsaomei'kang left his hill for the first time in living memory and no-one knows where he went--"
Gouen laughed. "No-one save I. Pipang went to see my second brother and guested with him for five days."
Tsuuran was amazed. "With Goushou-sama?"
"Indeed. I had a letter from second brother telling me of it. The matter is confidential, so let it rest between the two of us."
"That redounds greatly to Lord Goushou's credit," Tsuuran said discreetly, keeping his thoughts to himself. Gouen caught his eye and his mouth crooked again.
"I am given to understand that the Sage sees some deficiency in himself that he thinks unfits him to guest with those he admires. 'But with an ordinary man such as I he feels no such constraints'- or so my brother phrases it." He sighed. "Pour me wine." Tsuuran obeyed and Gouen drank off half a cup. He looked down at what remained. "Second brother was always tender of my feelings. He is kindness itself and deserves to be happy. I have always wished he might some day be rewarded as he deserves. Now it has happened, and I must rejoice for him."
Tsuuran moved closer to him. "Yes, my lord."
Gouen looked up. "Come to bed," he said.
It was some time later, after they had enacted three Forms, that Gouen lay exhausted in Tsuuran's arms within the canopy of the mosquito net. The window shutters were closed against the day's heat and the room was plunged into the strange midday twilight of siesta time. Gouen took Tsuuran's fingers between his own and spoke in a low voice.
Black night and darkness in my eyes and heart
Confuse my flight. I cannot see my way.
Ocean and land, I know not which is which.
No star to steer my course or show the path
That leads to where my spirit may find ease.
Tsuuran knew himself no poet, but he answered:
Black night and darkness are the path I fly.
My eyes and heart see them and seek no more.
Ocean and land, I care not where they are.
The night itself is where I spread my wings;
Its touch alone can bring my spirit ease.
Gouen turned his head to look into Tsuuran's eyes. "I love to fly the night skies," Tsuuran told him, "for when I do it seems I have my lord all about me. Everything speaks of you then, and I fly with the sureness of your love beneath my wings. And I rejoice that others can see and share that beauty with me even though it means the night cannot belong to me alone."
Gouen gave a small smile. "How shall I lose my way with such a silver star to guide me?" he said. "I too will rejoice then, that the evening cloud rides to the sunset where it will glow more beautifully and not to the night where its beauty will be lost."
"A star, my lord, has no beauty or even existence except where the night is, and therefore I must ever hope to be close to you ."
"No fear for that, for it is stars alone that make the night beautiful, and I will not let you go even should you ask it of me."
Tsuuran smiled then and hid his face in his lord's shoulder, well-content.