Goushou king of the southern ocean wrote to Pipang of Tsaomei'kang
Silk-clad courtiers throng the painted passages
Their heavy robes whisper like dried leaves stirring.
I think of wind moving in the acacia branches
And the sound of water falling throughout the long night.
Pipang wrote back
None but wild geese visit my empty mountain
At dawn I hear the creaking of their wings overhead.
They fly away south and I watch them depart-
Only the sound of water falling through my days.
Receiving this, Goushou made his decision.
The rounded grey-green form of Tsaomei'kang at last reared below him and he swooped down towards the waterfall on its western face. Undifferentiated foliage turned into individual trees, sharp-edged splotches became rock outcroppings, and the reddish patch on the mountain's side was at last visible as the tiled roof of Pipang's house. The garden in its bamboo walls was pink and green and grey. Among the flowers was a form that stood out from them because of its height and blended with them because of its colour. Pipang was looking up towards him and marking his course through the sky. Goushou's heart expanded in happiness and his wings drove more strongly. And then he was on land and into his manform, and Pipang was running to open the gate for him and clasping his hands in welcome. They stood smiling at each other in silence, then kissed on the cheek like kinsmen. Pipang loosed one of his hands but held the other tight as they walked into his house.
"I did not look to see you this month," Pipang said, "until after the festivities for Kaishou-sama's hair-binding were done."
"I am playing truant," Goushou said. "I must return tomorrow, but I found I could not do without the sight of you."
"Ahh," Pipang said. "Come wash the weariness of the journey from you, and I will see to your refreshment after." He called Laofang from the back garden. "Goushou-sama will be spending the night." The old green dragon bowed and went to make preparations for the guest. Pipang drew Goushou into the neighbouring room with its carved bedstead and camphorwood clothes chests. He brought out two light cotton bath gowns for them to wear, then turned to unfasten the closings of Goushou's robe. It came to Goushou that in this place he and Pipang could be alone together, just the two of them, as Goushou had not been alone with anyone since his days in Heaven. The discovery made him smile in delight as he reached in turn to unfasten the buttons of Pipang's robe. He'd never disliked the abbreviated service of the army as much as his older and younger brothers had. In its way it was a relief to have only a few people about him and to be spared the bustle and cares of a large household. And when the one person with him was also dear to his heart, the near-solitude had been the most exquisite happiness.
So now, as he drew Pipang's shirt over his head. The warm smell from Pipang's torso hit him like a blow and set his blood on fire. Pipang glanced at him.
"Perhaps you'd rather wait to bathe?"
"No," Goushou said, aware of the gritty dust that had blown onto him in his journey across the southern lands. "I am no fit guest for your bed in this state. Water will refresh me, and cool me as well."
Pipang smiled then and helped Goushou finish undressing beneath his chamber robe. With hair unbound they went out into the golden evening sun, and around the back of the guest lodge to where the waterfall chattered down to the rocks below. On a rock shelf beside it were placed the bathing utensils: several bowls that had filled up with water, coarse hempen cloths, pumice stones, washing bags full of astringent herbs, and a stoppered jar of distilled flower essence for the hair. In the narrow space behind the waterfall the drops fell in a thick mist. Goushou turned about in their spray, feeling his hair go heavy and dripping down his back. When he was wet through he took a bowl of water out into the air, with a cloth and a washing bag, and proceeded to rub himself clean. Pipang crouched beside him and did the same.
"Let me wash your back," Pipang said, and Goushou shifted about. Pipang scrubbed him hard with the herb bag. The friction warmed his well-worked muscles and made him feel loose again, while the sharp smell of the herbs cleared his head. He turned to do the same for Pipang, if more gently, for the Sage liked a light touch. Up and down the gleaming body, the smooth colour of sunset jade-- the smooth feel of jade as well beneath his fingers. Without his quite intending it his hand slid down in front and touched Pipang's sheathe- touched his half-emerged manroot that came fully into his grasp. Pipang drew a sharp breath even as Goushou's own root grew hard. He pressed close to Pipang's back, his other arm about Pipang's labouring chest, and craned to kiss the curving ear, the scaled cheek, the edge of Pipang's eye...
"Goushou-sama," Pipang said in a strangled voice. Goushou strove to collect himself. Stop this, fool. Not yet-- Though how to stop was the problem. That was the one advantage of servants, or at least of bathmen.
With an effort he let go and drew himself away. His sight and nostrils were full of Pipang's sunset warmth, but he wrestled his mind to the words of his mantra. They came to him cold and empty, desolate as waking from a dream, but after a moment his body responded to their accustomed influence. His breathing calmed and his sight cleared. Shortly he was sufficiently master of himself to be able to start a verse.
Clouds come home to your evening mountain,
red in the fast-declining sun
Seeking a shelter before the night falls
and a friendly lamp to light the dark
Pipang answered, looking at the ground:
When darkness covers my sleeping mountain
friends may stay waking two by two.
We will drink wine and watch as the stars appear;
watch till they fade into day again.
Goushou took an anxious breath. Surely Pipang still desired to company with him? He'd been all eagerness those few days at the Southern Ocean, but maybe he felt differently here on his own mountain...?
When the moon rises tonight in the poplars
that rustle softly in the night breeze,
will I find a flute in the shadows
to play a tune to their counterpoint?
Playing a flute as the moon rises
with the world gone to silver or black
I hope to hear a voice in the shadows
more welcome than rustling poplar leaves
and turned his head to give Goushou a sweet smile. Goushou smiled back in rueful relief.
"Your pardon, dear friend. I was unmannerly."
"And I was more so, for half of me wished you would not stop."
"No matter. Decency has been preserved." But prudence suggested a little distance between them. He went back to the waterfall, filled his bowl repeatedly and dumped water over his head until his mane was soaked through. Then he knelt and worked the flower essence into it. Washing his own hair was an unaccustomed task; even in Heaven there'd been servants to do this for him. The unforeseen difficulties of the operation focussed his attention marvellously. At length Pipang came to shampoo the lower half for him, then rinsed it out with bowl after bowl of water. Goushou was glad to relax his tired arms. Bathing in a waterfall turned out to be not unlike swimming in the ocean; certainly he could have been no wetter had he been sporting in the waves of his own sea. Pipang began to squeeze his mane dry. But the nearness of Pipang naked beside him, Pipang's strong hands in his hair, pulled the string of lust tight again through his body. He focussed his breathing and concentrated on his mantra until the weight of water was gone from his head. Then he rose, shook his mane a last time and put on his robe, keeping his back to Pipang the while.
There was a touch on his arm. He turned. In Pipang's eyes glowed the little flame he'd seen so often during those day at the Southern Ocean. Goushou's hand reached out unthinkingly, to meet Pipang's coming towards it. Hand-clasped they ran lightly back across the mossy rocks into the house.
In the bedroom their arms went about each other and their lips came naturally together like a wave to the shore. They subsided onto the bed and Goushou forgot himself for a space. Pipang's mouth was so sweet, Pipang's skin was so smooth and warm, Pipang's compact body fitted so exactly to his own-- Pipang was happiness itself given flesh, and Goushou felt he had nothing more to desire in the world than the tenderness and beauty in his arms. Eventually the kissing and caressing brought a gentle fulfillment, like a small wave breaking, first to Pipang and then, more strangely, to himself. It was as if some of Pipang's innocence had rubbed off on him, undoing his training and his years of experience.
And that is probably as well, he thought. Pipang's knowledge of this world was only a handful of days old. Goushou feared always lest he go beyond what his friend would or could bear-- the more so as Pipang was slow to speak his feelings, seeming to think that a measure of pain and distress was inevitable with these exercises. Goushou knew how to avoid injuring a boy's pride during training, as anyone with a decent Older of his own must do. But he could not address Pipang as a boy, even though Pipang had still a boy's shyness and modesty in these matters, as well as a shamed sense that his modesty was out of place. Goushou wondered at times if a brisk no-nonsense attitude from himself might not be easier for his friend to bear; but the sight of Pipang's blushes and moist eyes caught his heart and determined him to take things slowly. The difference in their experience could not be helped; but for the sake of the Sage's self-respect it was better to let him indicate his desires than for Goushou to be always taking the lead. So now, the first edge of lust sated, he waited for Pipang to speak.
Pipang ran light fingers over Goushou's left horn, and smiled as Goushou shivered with desire. "Dear friend, will you not now do what you would have done before? For be certain this time I will not stop you."
Goushou held Pipang closer, pressing against his half-emerged root below. "Before I would have used the hand forms because one may do them sitting, and the water would have kept you from discomfort--" for Pipang's skin had proved more than usually delicate, needing a gentle touch and much oil. "If there is some balm we might use instead--"
"Ahh," Pipang said consciously. "I have no such thing in the house."
"I should have brought some with me. I'll remember for next time. But since we're lying here together will you not let me have the taste of your body instead?"
Pipang flushed lightly but nodded. There was still a small constraint in his voice as he said, "How--?"
"Whichever way you prefer."
Pipang's colour deepened to full crimson and he looked away, then to Goushou's delight turned onto his belly. Goushou's slid the skirt of Pipang's robe up enough to show him what he wanted, then lowered his head to kiss the two roundnesses of Pipang's buttocks. His tongue moved over the smooth flesh, playing Around the Hills, and nibbled where he remembered Pipang liked it best. Pipang caught his breath and groaned. A pity, yes, about the oil. At the Southern Ocean they'd begun the earliest forms together, the Ring and the Hummingbird's Beak that gently open the body of a youth and prepare him for copulation; and which in Pipang's case brought an almost invariable fulfillment as well. It would have been nice to continue that part of his friend's training, to see Pipang sweating and colouring and losing his self-possession merely from having Goushou's finger inside him. But for now there was only his mouth to use, though his mouth doubtless was good enough.
Goushou gripped the peony-red hips more firmly, for he knew how Pipang thrashed when he performed Between the Hills. And so Pipang did, arching his spine and writhing in Goushou's grasp. The sound of his muffled and weeping voice brought Goushou the sweetest delight, but an unaccustomed pang struck his heart. I am not so very different from other men after all. I love to put him on his face and undo him with pleasure, and I love the shame he feels at not being able to hide it from me. That is unkindness in me, but I do it for his delight as well as my own and I hope he will forgive me.
Goushou raised Pipang's hips higher, drawing a sob from him thereby. Slowly he licked at the under edge of the sheathe. Pipang rocked on his forearms, conforming to Goushou's rhythm, and his gasping breath changed tempo as well. Back and upwards Goushou moved, tasting water in the crannies of Pipang's groin, and the faint odour of the washing herbs, as he came closer to the apricot stone. His own head was swimming with desire and it was becoming hard to concentrate. With the lightest of touches he felt in front to find Pipang fully emerged, his fulfillment close but not immediate. If he stopped now... if they stopped now, they could---
It was terribly hard to do but he did it. Raised his sweating face and laid it a moment against the smoothness of Pipang's hips.
"Dear friend," he said, breath heavy in his chest, "dear Sage, embrace me."
Beneath him Pipang turned to his side and then to his back, but Goushou put out a hand. "No. Let us do it as companions do, with you above, for that way the pleasure will be greater for both of us."
The flame leaped high in Pipang's eyes, but he said only, "Goushou-sama... I am all unskilled in this exercise..."
"The only way to become skilled is to practise," Goushou reminded him. Still there was a pause in his heart as he got to his feet. It always took him like this, the first time- with Konnan, with Gouen, with anyone but his ani-ue. Something between excitement and fear, as though he was standing on some kind of threshold and knew that the world might change hideously and irrevocably once he was across it. That obscure terror spurred his arousal, and he bent over and put his weight on his forearms.
"Goushou-sama," Pipang's voice said, oddly strained and tight. In the red mists that surrounded him Goushou came to himself. And why should it be any different for Pipang than for himself? He turned to look over his shoulder.
"Dear friend, be strong of heart. Come, it is easily done. Take hold of my hips and bring yourself to the gate. Then push. After that your body will know what to do of itself."
"Truly--" Pipang said with difficulty, "truly this is what you wish? I would not dare to do such a thing unless you asked it of me."
"I ask it of you. I would be as near you as I might be, and this is the way that gives me the most pleasure."
Pipang's fingers dug into the skin of his hips. There was the blunt nuzzling feeling he knew so well. And then- and then- a push and another push, unlike anything before, and Pipang was hard up against him and Pipang was solid inside him and Pipang's gasping breath was above his head.
Pipang began to move- his body did indeed take over for him- but the rhythm was none that Goushou knew. Too late he remembered that Pipang didn't know the songs that dictate the measures of copulation. I should have--- but the thought never finished itself, for sensation came when he wasn't expecting it and caught him off-guard. He could not prepare himself for Pipang's thrusts, for they came at their own tempo and with increasing speed. There was no song in his head for this, only the feeling of his body, and his body was being carried away as if by flood-water, strong and determined and going only where it would. For the first time since his youth he lost himself completely in what was being done to him. He was in a black night sky with no stars above him or lights below to guide his course, with no bounds or limits to his journey, blindly headed he knew not whither: but the exultation of his powerlessness was a great wind that carried him there by itself. He half-knew himself crying aloud with it all, pleasure akin to terror and all rushing up from him and crashing down on him at the same time. Fulfillment shook his body high into the sky and dropped it again like a broken-winged bird, many many fathoms down into the sea.
He came awake with a gentle touch upon him and the smell of lemons as Pipang washed him behind and straightened his robe. He rolled over onto his back, body heavy as lead in the aftermath of his pleasure. Pipang had moved away to the chafing stand, turned away from Goushou as he washed himself. Then he was back, lying down wordlessly and ducking his head to hide his face against Goushou's neck. It seemed to take all Goushou's strength to bring an arm up to hold him. His fingertips stroked the pale red mane-- the smallest of movements, fern-fronds stirring on the river's surface. He closed his eyes. The Pipang smell surrounded him, warm and cinnamony and mixed now with citron. Goushou felt himself floating in a sense of comfort and happiness buoyant as the ocean: here in Pipang's house, here in Pipang's bed; and at last words came to express his feelings.
Silver and black, the colours of the night,
Out in the hills, out in your silent garden.
Yellow and red, the colours of the day
Where in your house the warming fire burns.
Pipang stirred. After a moment he said in a low voice,
My house is dark beneath the far-off moon.
The garden grows untended, wet with dew.
Unless you light a fire on the hearth
Nights in these hills are comfortless and cold.
Goushou held Pipang tighter. His lips sought Pipang's skin under his mane and after a minute Pipang turned to him and gave him his mouth. Goushou kissed him gently, for the touch of lips upon lips alone, and Pipang moved closer so that their bodies pressed together. Goushou's hand slipped beneath the Sage's robe and across his hips, and Pipang gave a small moan.
"That is not true," Goushou murmured in his ear. "There is fire all through you, as in the earth where hot springs flow, and any man would be happy to warm himself here."
"The fire is yours," Pipang said. "You whom the phoenix kissed bring flame to my house where none was before, and thus I may burn as well."
"And when I go I leave only cold ashes behind me?" Goushou asked, stricken.
Pipang caressed him in silence while Goushou's distress grew.
"No," Pipang said at last. "When I am with you I am consumed in your fire, and the Sage of Tsaomei'kang is nowhere to be found. The ashes of him dance in the air like falling blossoms. When I am away from you I become myself again; I read my books and write my letters and wander my mountain. But there is a space between those two states when I am neither one nor the other; and then I grieve for the fire I have lost."
"Ahh," Goushou sighed. That he understood only too well. "Creatures of earth and water cannot live forever in flames. Either they cease to be entirely, or the fire itself loses its heat. Only the phoenix, the king of birds, can live forever in that perfect moment of consummation: and we are merely dragons."
"Yet dragons of fire," Pipang reminded him, smiling at last. "May I hope that we can play longer in the flames than others can?"
"As long and as often as you wish," Goushou said, kindling once more. "I feel I shall never have enough of you, and I know only a fraction of what I would. What will you have this time? Will you embrace me again or would you prefer some other form?"
Pipang's colour deepened. "Embracing you is-- I know nothing like it. It is so wonderful and terrible that I am half-afraid of it. It melts me like silver in the smith's furnace. I thought this time Pipang of Tsaomei'kang would truly cease to exist. In all honesty, dear friend, do you never desire that pleasure for yourself?"
"No. In all honesty, the pleasure in lying below is so great that it overshadows the other for me. Some day--" Goushou's hand stroked the swell of Pipang's buttock-- "some day when your body is ready I will lie above you so you may judge of it for yourself. But that time is not yet, and for now I would still know your touch." His hand moved between Pipang's legs and fingered the edge of his sheathe so that Pipang's breath grew ragged.
"I would look on your face though," Pipang said. "Will the Serpent's Coils be enough for you, or--?"
"Enough indeed," Goushou said. He pushed the skirts of his robe aside and pressed against Pipang as their arms went about each other. They kissed slowly and twined their legs together so that the stroking sensation was right for each of them. Pipang's hands moved down Goushou's back over his robe. Goushou arched, sighing. The ache within him from their previous joining spurred his desire, as it had when he coupled with Goukou in their younger days. The feeling brought an odd nostalgia with it. It is long since my body last burned like this. Ani-ue has grown older in skill and my own tastes have changed. But still it is no bad thing to do once in a while. He nuzzled Pipang's ear, bemused by the contrast between Pipang's delicacy and gentleness and the unwitting violence of his copulation. I suppose I must instruct him eventually, but... But who knew what unexpected things he might yet experience because of Pipang's innocence? The thought made him smile with an odd exhilaration and his attentions became more ardent until he reached his fulfillment, and his friend shortly thereafter.
They lay in a sweaty sex-smelling embrace, half-asleep and loathe to let each other go. But Goushou became aware of an internal pressure, and drew himself away. Pipang opened a languid eye.
"I go to visit the persimmon tree," Goushou said, and Pipang smiled and loosed him.
Goushou relieved himself in the earth closet outside, cleansed himself and his hands with the water laid by, and turned back to the house. Laofang came out from the kitchen shed with a questioning look on his face. Goushou raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
"Will the Master desire tea to be served soon, my lord?" the old man asked.
"Yes, as soon as may be," Goushou said, and realized suddenly that this was the first time Pipang had ever companied anyone at home. Small wonder if his servant was unsure what protocol to follow. And speaking of protocols, today had been Pipang's first proper Lying Above, which normally required... Goushou could feel his lips twitching. I am going to shock this fellow enormously, he thought, but no matter. Let us observe what formalities we may.
"Do you have the ingredients for Cave Master Tea?" he asked. Laofang blinked twice before he managed to say, "Y-yes, I believe so, lord," but his face held a natural question that he could hardly put into words.
Goushou gave him a serene smile. "We must celebrate when we can, for your master has been deprived of the ceremonies that should have been his."
"Yes sir," Laofang said automatically. Suddenly his eyes ran over with tears; Goushou watched in amazement as he raised his sleeve to hide them.
"Forgive me, lord," Laofang said in a muffled voice, and quoted the old poem:
Wide the seas and broad the billows--
Large of heart are the ocean kings.
Vast their kingdoms under water--
The ocean lords give without grudge.
Touched, Goushou laid his hand briefly on the man's shoulder. "It requires no great generosity from me to company with your master. There are many men who would happily be in my place." Laofang only bowed in silence and turned back to the kitchen, sleeve still at his eyes.
Pipang lay on the bed, expression gone faraway in the sunset dimness. He stirred and sat up when Goushou entered.
"It's growing dark," he said, sounding surprised.
"Mnhhh." The little fire under the chafing stand was nearly out. Goushou added more tinder and blew gently at it so that it began to burn merrily. Pipang came up with a white paper spill. He poked it into the flames till it caught, then went to light the moonlamp by the window. By its quiet glow they washed each other a last time and changed into fresh chamber robes. As Goushou was tying Pipang's sash there was a scratching at the door and Laofang came in with the tea things, which he placed on the bedside table. He poured out a cup for Pipang first and a second for Goushou. Then he bowed with hand clasped before him.
"My lord, accept this person's felicitations on the happy occasion. Your servant rejoices that he has lived to see this day."
Pipang's eyes were wide with astonishment. "Why, Laofang, this is not like you at all. Whatever do you mean?"
"When a man first lies above in form," Goushou said, "it is customary to drink a special tea afterwards in celebration." He took his cup and raised it in salutation to Pipang.
"Oh," Pipang said, flushing slightly. "Cave Master Tea. This is it...?" He lifted his own cup to sniff the aroma, then took a sip. "Ahh," he said, savouring it. "It has a splendid taste indeed. Thank you, little father." He smiled at the old man. "You have waited long to brew this for me and I am happy for your happiness."
Laofang smiled back at him. He bowed again, to Pipang and then to Goushou, and took his leave. Pipang drank his tea, a smile lurking in the corners of his mouth. He put down his empty cup and came to nestle against Goushou's shoulder.
"Thank you for your thoughtfulness, dear friend," he said. "You've made Laofang very happy."
Goushou caressed Pipang's loosened hair. "Only Laofang?"
"Ah, I did not mean it to sound like that. But--" He hesitated. Goushou waited.
"The forms and all that goes with them," Pipang said slowly, "for you they're so natural as not to require thought. But I know of them only through hearsay-- like the Jade Emperor's court, where you are at ease but I have never been, nor indeed ever thought to go. I am untaught in the ways of your everyday world. Forgive me then if I do not feel what I should."
"It's no matter," Goushou said, obscurely disappointed. "Certain ceremonies are observed at certain times, and feeling rarely enters into it. Cave Master Tea is served after one first lies above, however it may have gone for those involved. I too was glad just to have the thing over and finished."
"No no," Pipang said in distress. "You misunderstand me. It matters to Laofang that we celebrate as is proper, for I know he grieves that I was kept from the world he lives in. But for me-- all this is still so new to me that-- that I--" He searched for words, frowning a little, then burst out,
Why calculate the height of Kunlun Mountain
Or count how many steps from base to peak,
When in its silent woods strange lichens glow,
And forms not mortal walk its twisting paths?
Goushou frowned. "I'm sorry if the formalities seem unimportant to you. I wanted only to give you what I might of the things life has denied you, the small as well as the great. I cannot now give you your hairbinding ceremony or your First Crossing feast, but I thought we could at least drink Cave Master tea in season."
"You are kind to see that all is done as it should be on the occasion, and I am grateful, truly, but--" Pipang blushed again- "my spirit is still too astonished by-- by the occasion itself," he continued doggedly, "to think of anything else. I have looked at the sun and the rest of the world is invisible to me for a time."
Delight overwhelmed Goushou then and he threw his arms about Pipang. "Dear Sage," he said, "dear friend, I cannot tell you the joy you give me. You make the world new again for me," and he kissed Pipang with gusto. Pipang was momentarily taken aback but recalled himself enough to return Goushou's kiss.
"I am glad if that is so," he ventured. "Your world is all new to me and I fear you will weary of my inexperience--"
"Never," Goushou said with energy. "What you said is true.
Up and down Mt. Kunlun, eyes only on the path
Counting my steps and thinking 'how much farther?'-
You plucked my sleeve and pointed to the woods
To show me wondrous forms within its mists.
The world I thought I knew from end to end has unsuspected marvels in it when I share it with you. My only sorrow is that I must spend time from you at all."
"There is still the rest of this evening and tonight," Pipang reminded him. "Let us have supper and watch the stars a little over our wine, and then--"
"And then?" Goushou said smiling, when he fell silent.
"Then we shall do as... occasion serves." Pipang got up in a business-like way, not looking at him.
"We shall indeed," Goushou agreed in great amusement. He took Pipang's arm and they left the room together.
It was full night and the simple dinner was long since done. Pipang and Goushou lay in bed with the shutters open on the night sky, where a slice of moon like a disembodied smile lay close to the horizon. The cool breeze of late summer ruffled the trees. From back of the house came the sound of Laofang's erhu, playing a simple melody that managed somehow to be both melancholy and glad at the same time. As if reading Goushou's thoughts, Pipang's hand found his among the bedding and pressed it.
"I shall miss you when you go tomorrow," he said. "Yet your going will only make me happier when you return. So I cannot grudge your leaving even though I wish you would stay. Isn't that odd?"
"It's not unheard of," Goushou said. "I have wished daily that I might find you in my chambers when I return there after the festivities and ceremonies of this season. Yet were you with me at the Southern Ocean there would not be this refuge here at Tsaomei'kang for me to come to."
Pipang sighed. "Our sorrows would seem to be half joy, yet our joys are ever tinged with sorrow. Is love always so strange?"
Goushou thought a moment. "I think it is when such as we love, who are out of the ordinary run of dragons. For we live in a world different from theirs, and I suppose our love must differ too.
On the mountain's top grows the immortal flower
Through toil and struggle we come to that height--"
He stopped, for Pipang had given a quiet laugh. His friend finished the quatrain:
"Yet even if by pain you reach the summit
Not every man will see the flower there.
I will not complain of the strangeness and the sadness love of you brings me, if I may also have the wonder of it as well."