Questing for Dragons
"Kanzeon Bosatsu, you have a visitor from Down Below."
"A umh dragon."
"Ohh-hohh. One of ours?"
No indeed. A green-skinned dragon in all-green robes, like a jade statue given life. Leather baldric about his chest, curved white claws on the shoulders, and a discourteously broad sword at his hip. Warrior, the outfit said. Beast-slayer. Not one of you.
Fine, fine. Point taken. Kanzeon smiled into the flat red eyes. The man bowed briefly from the waist.
"This person is Kinshou, of the army of the Eastern Ocean, and I bear a letter from the Blue Dragon for the Bosatsu Kanzeon." He held it out in both hands.
Kanzeon broke the seal and glanced over the brief message:
Goukou the Blue Dragon, king of the eastern waters, high king of the dragon tribe, to the Bosatsu Kanzeon, ruler of the world, symbol of mercy and compassion, greeting. Our thanks for the Bosatsu's consideration on the recent occasion of our brother Goujun's death. We are most sensible of the kindness You have shown us.
Very nice. A model of correctness and courtesy. Not an inkling of a conciliatory attitude towards the kami, should anyone's spies be looking for one.
Kanzeon raised an eyebrow at Goukou's emissary. "And?"
The man didn't even blink. "His Majesty adds this message for the Bosatsu's ears alone. 'If matters stood otherwise between Heaven and ourselves, we would thank you in person for the great favour you have done my family. The kings of the Southern and Northern Oceans add their gratitude to mine. That Goujun has been spared to us is a blessing unlooked for. My race however is unaccustomed to the process of reincarnation and we are ignorant of its particulars. It would ease our hearts if we might be given some knowledge of our brother's current situation.'"
"His situation? He's Down There, on one of the continents."
"Then his egg has already been hatched?"
"He's been born, yes."
Blank red eyes looked at hir. Kanzeon had a good idea what was going on behind them. Wait till he asked the obvious question? That would be unkind: dragons dislike asking questions, especially obvious ones. Nothing wrong with unkindness, of course, especially when it served a purpose. But I can do better than that. Kanzeon smiled.
"Tell Goukou to relax. Goujun's what he always was, a white dragon. But don't go looking for him in either of his forms. You really won't recognize him as he is now."
"So there it is," Goukou said.
"I see. My thanks, Kinshou-dono. And to you, ani-ue. You've been most thoughtful of your worthless brother and his fears. I hope the information didn't cost too highly."
"It cost nothing. Kanzeon Bosatsu doesn't bargain. Our position with respect to Heaven is exactly as it was."
"That's good," Gouen murmured. Goukou looked at him sideways.
"You have some doubts?"
"I... have the doubts I've always had of Kanzeon Bosatsu. Hir ways are not as our ways and hir thoughts are not as anyone's."
Goukou shrugged. "Se is a force, like the winds. One must go with hir as one does with a tempest, for there is nothing to be gained by battling either."
"That is true."
"So, if your mind is at rest, will you be returning to your ocean now or can you stay a few days more?"
"I'll gladly stay if you want me to, but I had some thoughts of paying a visit to our uncle and cousins before I went home. Seeing them at the funeral made me realize how little we've met these last years. They're men and fathers now, before I even knew it."
"Too true. Go then, and give my greetings to our uncle. I can't spare the time to visit myself with the kami so importunate, but tell him I'd be glad to see him should he have the leisure to come here."
"I will tell him so." And I am not lying. I *was* surprised at how Goumin has grown, and how his poetry has progressed. But that is not why I go to my uncle's house.
Gouen greeted his uncle Goushun courteously and his cousins in friendship, delivered all the news of his own family and inquired minutely after that of his uncle. He spent a pleasant afternoon with his cousins Gouhei and Goumin, drinking tea and making linked verse. Goushun listened with enjoyment, occasionally putting in a word during the discussions after. His uncle had a good taste in poetry though he rarely composed himself; it was he as much as Goushou who had encouraged Gouen's own first efforts in childhood.
The pleasant afternoon was followed by an excellent dinner, and afterwards by a relaxed evening of drinking together and more verse-making. Mellow with wine and poetry, Gouen looked over to make certain that Goushun was in a similar mood and then said, "Uncle, there is a matter about which I hoped you might instruct me."
"Happily, if I can. What is it?"
"I know that your younger brother resigned his duties and offices and took himself to a hermitage somewhere here in the eastern sea. The poem he sent us during Third Brother's mourning period has lingered in my mind, and I have long had the desire to speak to him myself. What is the way to the Hermit's dwelling?"
"I cannot say," Goushun replied shortly.
Gouen felt heat in his face. "Forgive me if I asked what I should not have."
"You didn't. I cannot say because I do not know. He never told me."
Gouen's face grew hotter and he fell silent. Too late he was remembering that Goushun's younger brother had quitted the world just after the death of Goushun's older brother, their father. Goushun had been abandoned at a stroke by his two closest kin, and it would seem the living one had done it as finally as the dead.
Goushun was looking down at his wine cup. In a low voice he quoted the first lines of the Hermit's poem:
Waves on the ocean's face
vanish in an instant.
Salt spray flies upwards and fades into air.
Gouen answered, changing the second couplet:
Though gone, I remember the shape that those waves wore;
Still on my face feel the salty wet spray.
Goushun looked up then, pondering. At last he said, "It's possible you might find his dwelling place though no-one else has. There is that in you that resembles him, though you are so much your father's son in most ways. Make the search and see what comes of it."
Gouen flew above the wrinkling blue waves of the Eastern Ocean. There were islands scattered here and there in the vast expanse, but Gouen was making for no place in particular. Whether the Hermit was on sea or on land he didn't know, though the sea must surely be more likely. He sent his thoughts out, vague and questioning: the Hermit... Uncle... Gouen Gouerh's son seeks you... and waited for an answer of some kind. But the miles passed with only the emptiness of blue sea below and blue sky above, and above that the hot sun sinking now towards the west. A hot place, the Eastern Ocean, its bright colours those of his childhood and youth, now seeming to belong to an immensely distant past. His mind began to slip back to the more familiar thought of home: the cold waters of the Northern Ocean, the swell of the grey-green waves enormous and moody: silver light filtered through black clouds, sharp rains lashed by harsh winds, the harsh caw of sea birds. His mind's eye watched the glassy waves form and unform below him, and about him blew the keen air of the place he loved above all others.
And as his heart swelled with that sense of love and belonging he found himself, without surprise, in a corner of his past, flying above his ocean with Goujun winging a little in front of him. Gouen stilled his heart lest feeling take the vision away; held his soul's breath and watched the huge white wings beating against the grey sky with the purpose and energy that had always meant 'Third Brother' to him. The long neck turned as Goujun glanced back at him; Goujun's mouth curved in a smile of exhilaration above his white chin beard. The sight of the vanished face stabbed Gouen to the heart. With a shock he returned to the present. The bright colours about him ran together with the tears that filled his eyes, and he spoke his grief aloud.
Above me the black night
of heaven's height;
Below me the blue waves of the deep sea
The sky goes on forever, and my spirit flies in bitterness;
Even in dreams I cannot cross the mountains that divide us.
Something caught his eye below, white amid the darkening blue waves. He stooped and dove towards it. It was long, like an eel-- but not an eel. An arm, a manform arm, of some human thing turned victim to the sea's violence. Carrion. He was about to fly away when he saw the hand beckoning to him. No, the fingers were moving in the water, that was all. No. The hand moved, beckoning him. He dropped down from the sky as the thing began to sink below the water. Without thinking he dove in after. The arm moved downwards before him and he followed, between intrigue and disgust, down and down the depths to the ocean's floor. It grew darker and colder and he lost sight of the whiteness; then brighter and warmer and there it was-- or rather, there he was. A white dragon in manform. A dragon who could descend through the waves in his tiny manform body.
Caution tapped at Gouen's spine. This was undragon magic, and dangerous. This is how death came to my father, in the pursuit of a white snake. Could this even be one of the same tribe? And worse- might it be bent on avenging that other one they had slain?
They reached the bottom of the sea. There indeed was a house, as one would expect of a dragon. It was no palace-- indeed was not much more than the cottage of a common man. Gouen's wary eye noted that it could not accommodate many dragons in their natural size. The stranger was standing by the gateway, waiting for him. Gouen changed form, ready in a moment to change back if it chanced there were no wards in place to keep him anchored. But he was as heavy in manform as in his dragon one and he walked steadily forward to stand a safe distance from the seeming dragon. The man's robes were all white, which was not unknown; but he wore no headband and his white hair fell unbound about his shoulders. Gouen eyed him narrowly, trying to get some feel for his nature, but the disorder of his own heart and his present suspicions were too loud in his soul.
The man addressed him in verse:
Midway in his journey the traveller goes astray,
Amid the loud confusion of the storm.
Dark unto death the clouds in the troubled heavens.
How will you find the straight path to your home?
A storm-cloud I, storm-driven by the gale
Under the darkness of the mantled heaven.
The winds blow strong and night encompasses me.
Unseen, a steady star still guides my way.
The man inclined his head. "I'm glad to hear it. But maybe you'd like to rest a little from your journey? My house is at your disposal if you care to enter."
"Will I not regret it if I do?"
"Why would you?"
"Because I think the shape you wear is not your own. You are like no dragon I have ever seen, and very like something that bears much ill-will to my kind."
"It's true I'm not quite as I look, but I have no ill-will towards you. I heard the sound of your heart as you flew and your sorrow touched me. Believe me, I and my house intend you no harm."
Gouen was old enough to know that a master of poetry could still be his life's enemy, but the strange echoes of the man's verse intrigued him. Doubly on his guard, therefore, against danger without and carelessness within, he bowed his acquiescence and walked through the gate.
There were no servants inside the simple room. 'Could this place itself be an illusion?' Gouen wondered as the man brewed tea and placed the fragrant cup before him. Gouen waited while his host served himself. The man sat back and regarded him. Gouen waited still. Unperturbed, the man took a sip, and then Gouen too drank. He placed his cup on the table and waited to see what the white dragon had to say.
"You must be looking for something important, that you send your spirit so wide about the airs of this ocean." Gouen's skin pricked. Only the highest-ranked kami had ever spoken to him in this fashion. The man used the plain forms of speech though Gouen was now his guest, and dispensed with all but the most ordinary flourishes of courtesy. More oddly, he displayed no reaction to Gouen's own court-tinged language that showed clearly enough whence he came. Yet there seemed no intention of offence. It was as if the man just had no notion how well-bred people normally spoke to each other.
Certainly this is no dragon. Yet whatever he is, I cannot think him stupid. Had he taken on this guise to entrap me he would feign better. So, let us play this game out.
"I seek a man I may not be able to find."
"To find a man I may not wish to meet."
The other did not so much as blink, but after a reflective moment said:
"Seeking a cloud breathed up from the waves' face
You range the wind's twelve quarters without rest.
Your journey takes you in and out of cloudbanks:
That cloud you seek, seeking you pass it by?"
"So it may happen," Gouen answered, "for the first man I have not seen since my boyhood and the second is altered from what he was, and I am told beyond my recognition. But if you are native to these waters, perhaps you have heard of the Hermit of the Eastern Ocean?"
"I have heard of him," the man said, "but cannot say where he dwells."
"None can, even the brother he left behind. Thus I roam the ocean until he chooses to find me."
"I see. And he in turn will know where this altered friend of yours is?"
"I am hoping he does, for I hear that the winds tell him all the news of the world. My brother is on one of the continents, and only the winds have speed and leisure to search those peopled nations."
"Ah, a brother, is it? Yes, the love of brothers is unsettled as a spring gale; no wonder it tosses you about so."
"You must have a low opinion of it, to speak so slightingly," Gouen said, keeping his voice mild. "It is different for us. The love of my brothers is the wall that has sheltered me from the storm all my life, and when the nearest one to me is gone I feel the wind strike cold upon my back."
"Mhh," the other answered.
"You follow the black clouds and tempest rain
Moving forever above the piled waves.
Why is your spirit fixed upon a cloud
That changes even as you watch it move?"
"You sound like the kami of Heaven," Gouen observed, "who assert that what changes is illusion and should be disregarded. But we dragons know better. We shift and change as the weather does, yet we are more lasting than the earth and sky. It is the thing that cannot change that one must be wary of.
Clouds and black rain fall on the ocean waters,
Start and stop, blow away, but still are 'rain' and 'cloud'.
This self of mine is made of brume and tempest.
What should it love more than a changing cloud?
"Then why are you reluctant to meet your brother, now that he's different from before?"
"It's for his sake, not mine, that I hesitate. He was once a king. Now he is of necessity something meaner and may be ashamed to be seen. I hoped to find one who might have tidings of him, that I may know what is best to do."
"Ahh." The man looked away. "I won't ask how a king came by such ill fortune, but I assume Heaven had a hand in it somewhere."
To Gouen's mind the bitterness in those words made his host sound for once like a true dragon. But he reflected that dragons were not the only ones who suffered when the Jade Emperor took power and abandoned the old ways. The fox-spirits and badgers were persecuted by the charms of Buddhist holy men, the demon beasts were driven from their holdings by Heaven's armies, and the serpents, wise in magic--- Yes indeed, the serpents held the court in special enmity. Odd, if this were one, to find himself in sympathy with the race that had slain his father.
"Heaven was indeed involved, for both ill and good. Have you yourself had experience of their ways?"
"Experience enough. It was they who first opened my eyes to the truth of the world, not through their preaching but through their deeds. And so I achieved what they would call enlightenment, and I suppose it is not dissimilar to theirs. For I too have found that attachment is the beginning of misery." He fell silent, looking at Gouen with a considering expression, then said:
Unhappy man, cease now from yearning.
What you see has gone, is gone.
Never more that day returning
When the happy sunlight shone,
When you, and your comrade by you,
Shared the dawning and the night.
One in heart and blood and sinew
Bravely coursed the skies in flight;
One in body and desire
In the silence of your bed
Slaked anew the age-old fire,
Followed where the other led.
That time has gone: seek not to follow
The thing that would not bide for long;
Nor live forever sunk in sorrow
But be as stone, endure, be strong.
No remembrance, no repining
No thought of him who now is gone.
The world is wide past one man's finding
And turns to greet each new day's sun.
Gouen was silent, feeling himself split in two and the two halves warring within him. At last he said, in a voice that sounded too thin even to his own ears, "I have never heard that metre before. Is it of the continents?"
"No. My own invention."
He winced. "Then you are a master of verse and I am not worthy to partner you at all. I apologize for my clumsy attempts earlier."
The man shook his head. "Prince, you have both too much sense and too little. There is nothing clumsy in your verse. If it lacks something to your mind, be assured it's not technique. But those of high rank live within invisible walls, piled with invisible chains. There are things you may not do or feel because your position does not allow you to, and that constriction is going to affect your poetry."
Gouen clenched his hands beneath the table. "Perhaps," he said. "But the realm of verse has always been a place of freedom for me. When I meet a great poet my rank no longer matters, and I am merely a learner who sits at his master's feet."
"And how often does that happen? How often do you cease to be the son of a royal house and become no more than a man, the same as any other, who sees the world as it looks to any other man?"
"It has happened now."
"And you are finding it hard to bear."
"I admit it. But that is because I cannot agree with your poem, not because I think I am-- in any way your equal."
"Then answer my poem."
"I cannot," Gouen said in bitterness. "Your superiority silences me."
"But you must answer it or your heart will not be at peace."
"Yes. But still I cannot. I am ashamed even to make the attempt."
"Then I am your master and you will learn from me. And what you must learn is to cast down the walls of custom and break the chains from your soul. It's only when you're free of them that you will gain what you most desire."
"Easily said. But how am I to manage it?"
"Easily done. Come lie below me."
"I do not lie below," he said automatically. "No, it is not my rank or anything like that. I am one whose body remains closed and will not relent."
"That too is a fetter of your soul's. Cast it from you."
"It is not subject to my will," Gouen replied, nettled. "You should know how it is. My affliction is not unusual-- many men share it-"
"And all of you are bound by the chains you've laid on yourselves, in the darkness of your hearts where you need not see yourself doing it."
"That is not the way of it! Do you think I would not have had it different? The brother I seek was the nearest to me- he was my Older, and the stubbornness of my body was ever a barrier between us. My training was not the joy it should have been- the service I would have given him was never possible- I could never be as close to him as I would have been. Do you think that was not a grief to me, and is not still a grief now he is gone?" He blinked the tears ferociously from his eyes.
"Poor prince," the man said after a moment. "Then perhaps we must try something else." He got up and went to a cabinet that stood by the wall; unlocked it with a key that hung from his belt and took out a chest of carved dark wood which he brought back to the table; unlocked that with a second key and took out a tiny filigree box of pale red stone, that he cradled carefully in his hands. "You need three keys for this. Two for what surrounds it and the third within the box itself. It's the seed of a rare plant from a far ocean and its property is to open the body, the mind and the soul to things beyond ordinary imagination." He smiled for the first time and his pale face changed beyond recognition. Gouen seemed to catch the glimpse of a far-off land, all green and wonderful, in that look. "I can attest to its powers from my own experience." The smile went as quickly as it had come, leaving Gouen strangely short of breath. "But you must let me put it within you, for only the seed of another's body gives it effect. So what do you say?"
There could be only one answer to that. "I say yes."
The man took him into the small bedroom adjoining. Gouen had to undress himself, down to his shirt, for no servants came and no robes were laid out for him. It didn't matter. It seemed an age since he'd encountered mystery and adventure like this. Ruling, fatherhood, their service in Heaven, all had made his life a pattern of the commonplace, devoid of wonder. His mind still murmured ironically about the obviousness of the ploy, the romance cobbled together in order to have a chance at a dragon king's arse. But that was no more than a reflex, an offering to the bad luck demons to keep them satisfied. In his heart was the image of his host, dragon-seeming yet so undragonish, with his waving hair and odd speech and those things past imagining that had shown for that one moment in his face.
Would this magic bring him empty visions or would he see reality? When his body and soul were opened- If, he told himself, if,-- would he find-- What would he find? 'What you most desire.' Third Brother, he thought at once. He'd know where Goujun was, see him, maybe talk to him again, and know the relief of certainty, even if they must meet as strangers.
And when he'd seen Goujun again, he realized, he would be able to answer his host's last poem. Its strange metre and comfortless words still echoed in his head, demanding a response. To fashion verse like that, but to counter the deadly sadness of it with fitting words-- to oppose the sunlight of his own love and devotion to its vision of indifference and despair- if he could do that it would be worth any price he had to pay.
And so it was no hardship to go to his face on the narrow bed and raise his hips, and feel the cold narrow finger slip inside him. He breathed deeply in and out, waiting for the pain that must come after. There was an odd smell in his nostrils, from the bedding perhaps, or from some incense burned here before, still drifting on the air. Hands on his buttocks, and the first tentative nudging, and his vision going dark because the light was leaving, how odd, because his eyes were huge and huger, his lungs were breathing deep and deeper, and a memory of a memory was trying to grow clearer in his head-- this feeling, this feeling, where had he known it before? the skies wheeling within his head, his wings working mightily, another body turning into his own, the Great Dance was it? but when had he danced in the daylight, when had he danced as a female filled with-- filled with-- the thing that made his heart soar and every muscle in him swell and his neck arch to scream triumphantly to the four corners of the world--
A voice said- his voice said- a voice inside him but yet not his voice said-
Fleet in the waving forest
Dark in the cold valleys
Sight of the hunted flits and is gone.
Bright the glimpsed vision,
All that one might desire
Wrapped in one form
and then that poem became all the world about him. He was in a dark underwater forest, in manform, yet he was able to move easily through the great clumps of seaweed that waved somewhere above him. A white form flitted in the gloom up ahead. I must follow you again? he wondered, even as he paced to keep sight of it. The wind blew one sidelock into his eyes, and he pushed it back--- The wind? There is no wind beneath the waves-- He took breath and realized he was on land, under trees somewhere- under many trees, in what Under Heaven called a woods. He felt the crawling unease that land forests always gave him, cut off from the sky by things that would not bend to his passage as waterweeds did, should he try to fly upwards.
Then he understood. Goujun was on one of the continents. He was being led to where his brother was.
His heart gave a bound of joy, and he pressed on with a good will. The flitting white thing came and went in his vision. It was no longer the dragon; indeed it looked to be the white arm he'd first seen in the ocean. He smiled a little. White stranger, I happily admit your power, but your taste is best not spoken of. And at that the white form disappeared entirely. In alarm Gouen broke into a run. The trees ended all of a sudden and he was in an opening under a full moon. He looked about him with a pounding heart. There was a small campfire before him, with baggage and some wagon-like thing beside it, but the white arm was nowhere to be seen.
"What do you want?" a voice said, light-toned but authoritative. He whirled and found himself facing a kami, short and soft-featured as they all were. In the same moment he saw the mortal light that shone in its soul. A human, then. Only... Gouen blinked. The man's aura was wrong for a human. Gouen looked in puzzlement at the thin unremarkable body, wondering what his senses were telling him. The man had his hands up in an odd position, as if cradling an invisible ball. His right eye was obscured, seeming to reflect light rather than take it in, but the other blinked at him in growing surprise.
"You're not-- a youkai. Are you?" the reedy voice said.
Gouen's eyebrows rose. "No."
"Oh." A polite smile as his arms relaxed to his sides. Gouen had a moment's disorienting déjà vu, a conviction that all this had happened somewhere before. In growing confusion he ran his eyes back down the stooped-shouldered body, to the feet in their worn leather shoes, and froze. The man's shadow showed black behind him, caught in the sun of some other time but perfectly clear to Gouen's eye. It was tall, taller than the man was, and broad-shouldered, and sharp curving ears stood out on either side of its head. Gouen looked to the one shadow hand that showed. Talons, yes, a dragon's claws.
"You-" he said, voice strangling with shock.
"Oh yes," the man said, an odd edge in his voice. "*I* am."
His mouth was dry. "Are what?"
What? Gouen looked at the shadow again. No horns. Not a dragon. A youkai. Relief made him weak. This wasn't Third Brother. Naturally. The Bosatsu had said Goujun was a dragon. Hadn't se? Suddenly Gouen couldn't be sure. Had se said it or had he only hoped se would? Se had said- se had said- he heard Kinshou's voice: 'I asked the Bosatsu if Lord Goujun's egg had been hatched. Se said 'He has already been born.''
His breath caught in his chest. The one detail that had slipped past them. Not delivered, not hatched. Born. Born as this youkai that Limited into the shape of a man? 'Don't go looking for him in either of his forms. You *really* won't recognize him...' Oh yes, and se would have smiled as se said it.
The air shimmered in his sight. Anger, smouldering in his soul, wanting to burst out in gouts of flame. He held it in. Se *did* say he was a dragon, a white dragon. There must be a mistake.
The man's voice reached him. "Is something the matter?" Gouen dragged his attention outwards. The man's tone and his look was calm, remotely concerned, not in the least afraid. He was as unmoved as Third Brother would be at finding a wild-eyed stranger suddenly appearing in front of him.
"I do not know," he stammered, mind split between his dilemma and the man before him. "Who are you?"
"Cho Hakkai. And who are you? Or should I say, what?"
The name meant nothing. How could it? And the tone-- Was that his brother recognizing him by some unknown instinct and speaking as his Older might do? Or was it the arrogance of a youkai, unknowingly aping the ways of the dragon kin it no longer remembered it had?
"If you don't know that," he said carefully, "there's no need my telling you."
"Oh, but I think there is." The cheerful smile and unmoving gaze, so at odds with each other. "Because there are other dangerous things in the world beside youkai and, you know, you might be one of them, yes?"
The steadiness of the tone, the steadiness of the spirit beneath it, the mild edged amusement in the eyes. Gouen was in a moment of his past--
"...wasting our time in Heaven's service!"
"We don't waste it."
"None of us wants to be here but here we are. We'll make use of the fact."
"For *what*? What can a civilized man *do* in a place like this?"
"Learn. Find out how these kami think and what they feel, see with our own eyes what they're really like. Where are their loyalties? What are the strong and weak points in their system? What might those mean if the cycle turns again?" The sideways smile, the mild edged amusement in his eyes. "You're a warrior as well as a king, Gouen. Be a warrior in the service of these kami, so that the king may know what to do when the time comes."
He blinked. Goujun's face with its small smile melted into the smiling face before his eyes.
Suspicion went to horrible certainty. Kanzeon had lied. Lied like a kami- lied as the Emperor had lied to their grandfather, and spat on their trust as the King of Heaven had spat on their ancestor's.
The flames of anger roared before his eyes. Betrayed! they bellowed. Betrayed again. Heaven has done *this* to my brother. Not just betrayal but humiliation. My grandfather is at least a great mountain that blocks the sun above the imperial city, but my brother has been made one of the common youkai of earth, dung-born as the legends say.
The wrongness was too great. It had to be ended. A moment of clarity, sharp-edged as a dagger, showed him what he had to do.
"Third Brother," he said, "forgive me. I do this to free you from the injury and insult of Heaven." He drew his sword and raised it for the stroke--
--and from nowhere a white fierceness attacked him. Wings batted his face and struck his arm that went numb with the force of the blow. His sword fell to the ground. He leaped backwards, raising his useless right arm in protection as he made to retrieve his weapon with the other--
--saw enraged red eyes and white feathery neck, saw the white wings raised to strike again, saw the fangs in the open mouth that cried Mine he is mine you do not touch him!
Gouen's knees hit the ground even as his head whirled. I am not seeing rightly- he is leagues away, so small, how can I hear him so clearly--- The youkai had come running up, crying 'Hakuryuu!'-- they were standing together, and his brother was tiny, a fraction of the man's size, he whose wingspan could cause gales to blow. So small- so *small*-- disoriented, unbelieving, Gouen could only stare into the enraged eyes that no longer knew him-- that saw him only as an interloper in its domain.
Submit, the high-pitched voice said. Dumb with emotions that had no name he bent and put his forehead to the ground. Above him he heard the shrill cry of triumph. And that was the last he knew.
He woke, though he hadn't been asleep, and saw above him his own face. It wasn't his own face- longer in the jaw than himself, the mouth different- and it wore no hairband of any colour. He sat up and looked at the black dragon across from him.
"I see you left the ways of dragonkind behind when you abandoned your kin." It was a slap to the face: no decent man talked thus to one of his father's generation. But it was the simple ugly truth, a part of the shameful ugly world, so he did.
"Not entirely." His uncle dropped something between them. A white piece of paper folded in half and cut in the shape of a manform dragon, tiny horns showing above the spiky hair.
Gouen regarded it a long moment. "So this is what you use for servants. The one you sent to Third Brother's funeral, was he another?"
"That was one of my disciples. I have disciples," he said to Gouen's look. "I left my family and the state of a prince but not the ordinary pleasures of life. And that is how I count the bodies of young men."
"How fortunate that I am not a young man. I might have found myself coupling with my father's brother."
"You're angry," his uncle observed.
"Am I to rejoice at being made a fool of?"
"I don't recall anyone making a fool of you. If you feel a fool it might be your own doing."
Gouen's eyesight went red. "Take care. Once you leave the ways of dragonkind you lose their protection too. It is the king of the Northern Ocean you mock, and I do not take it kindly."
"I do not mock you. Why do you think I do?"
"And still you do it! You concealed the truth from me and laughed that I did not see through your deception. You tempted me to an act that would be shameful with a stranger, let alone a kinsman and a king, and now you say it is my own fault that I feel betrayed. What do you call that?"
"Not mockery. I dealt with you fairly and gave you the thing you wanted. Why then are you angry?"
"You lied to me!!"
His uncle shrugged. "I met you as a stranger because we *are* strangers. I wished to see what kind of man you are without the habits of custom that kinship carries. And I did. The white dragon you first met, you doubted was a dragon. You had every reason for caution, but once we began making verse you relaxed your guard; once you started worrying about your poetry you forgot it entirely; and thus you became naked to one who could have been your life's enemy. Don't complain if the result isn't to your liking. It could have been much worse."
Gouen chewed on that for a while. "Father?"
"But Father-- it wasn't carelessness that led to his death--"
"Do you know how he died?"
"As much as you do," Gouen said impatiently. "He went hunting and was slain by a white serpent--" His uncle's face stopped him. "Are you saying that wasn't what happened?"
"How did he come to be slain by a serpent, he who was the greatest in arms and strength of our whole tribe?"
"The cunning of the snake is well known--"
"To him as well."
"We know that. He was beguiled or ensorcelled somehow, but none was there to see it done--"
"I was meditating and found myself with him when he met his enemy."
Gouen's heart stopped. "You saw it--?"
"As clearly as I see you now."
"Why didn't you say something?! My uncle- my brother- they've troubled themselves for years how it might have happened. And you never told them!"
"Then you will tell me now. What magic did the serpent use on him?"
"What makes you think he used magic?"
"Cunning then," he said impatiently, "or drugs, or the enticements of the flesh--" His uncle was shaking his head. "He must have!" Goujun insisted. "How else could my father have been slain?"
"How did Goujun come to die?"
Gouen checked. "He was betrayed." His uncle played games. Maybe the only way to get an answer from him was to be as sideways as he. "In Heaven they scorn to do their own slaying, so they have servants to do it for them. This one was ordered by its master to kill Third Brother and it obeyed before the order was scarce out of the man's mouth."
"Alas that Goujun was without his sword."
"Alas that Goujun thought he could not be killed because he was in Heaven, though there is nothing about Heaven that stops a man from being killed there."
"There is Heaven's law. Goujun trusted in that--"
Gouen's heart hammered. "You mean Father too was over-confident?"
"Overconfident- unthinking- deluded. Whatever you want to call a man who believes the world conforms to his notions of it and not the other way round. What is, is. The universe is not your father's 'what I will it to be' nor your brother's 'what it should be' or even your own 'how interesting if it was'."
There was a long silence. "I have nothing to say to that." He stood up. "I have been lessoned and rebuked and I will be more careful in future. Had you still the right to take an uncle's part with me I would thank you for this correction. As it is, I take my leave."
He picked up his clothes and walked, naked as he was, through the door and out of the house, and no one called him back.
It was a long flight to the northern ocean. Gouen travelled straight through the night until well into the morning, not pausing for rest. His attendants flocked about him at his arrival. He ordered a bath and the services of his masseur, and lay long under the man's ministrations, eyes fixed on nothing.
"Forgive me, my lord," his masseur said in distress. "Your servant's best efforts seem unable to ease the tightness of your Majesty's sinews. Your servant begs pardon for his incompetence--"
"No matter," Gouen said. "My trouble is not one to be solved by your hands. You have leave." He sat up and his steward wrapped the chamber robe about him again. Gouen remained unmoving, hands curled on his thighs. His feelings roiled within him, muddy and unclear but stinking like a poisoned river. "Send for Tsuuran."
Tsuuran, arriving, took one look at his lord's face and allowed the servants to disrobe him in silence. He knelt and put his forehead to the ground, as one who asks pardon. A little of the tightness eased in Gouen's chest.
"You need not ask forgiveness. You are not at fault, though it is you who must bear my anger. Lie down and let me hear your tears, for that alone will bring my heart relief."
"Your servant is honoured to give ease to his lord." Tsuuran climbed onto the bed and raised his hips without prompting.
Gouen entered him roughly, rejoicing at the gasp he drew forth. He rode the slender body hard, listening to the grunts of pain beneath him, and thought of those he hated. His cold unnatural uncle who'd played with him and called it a kindness; twisted Kanzeon who'd played with them all and called it the same; the youkai that Goujun had chosen against himself; himself most of all, for being deceived by all of these. He called back the rage he'd known in his vision, hoping to find his misery again consumed by that fire. But it didn't happen. The happiness about his root, the warmth beneath his hands, the familiar smell of Tsuuran in his nostrils: these things were too close and familiar. The red anger damped and died in the face of them. However much his heart wanted to give pain his body would move only for pleasure. He found himself working more slowly and carefully, heard Tsuuran's painful breaths turn to a sweet keening, and so eventually reached some form of release.
His body emptied itself in a long wave, and at once despair rushed in to take its place. He lay in the darkness of his heart, muddy with humiliation and self-loathing, and felt sorrow weigh on him like a stone coffin lid. Third Brother. Third Brother. There is no help for either of us in this world. I must endure my knowledge as you must endure your present fate, and hope that some day all will be over.
Tsuuran started to get up to fetch the washing cloths. Gouen put out a hand to stop him, afraid to be alone even for a moment. Tsuuran's robe had shifted aside: Gouen noted with half an eye that their previous copulation had left him emerged. His mind was blank as a moonless night. He motioned Tsuuran to his back, threw a leg across his torso and lowered himself onto his root. He prayed that it would hurt him as it had always hurt before, in the last small hope that everything he'd known in his uncle's house was a dream. But it didn't. He slid easily down Tsuuran's length and the feeling was like nothing he'd ever experienced. The spell had worked and he was changed for good.
That struck his heart like the final pain. He wanted to cry out in sorrow-- but it was Tsuuran who cried out, muffling the noise with desperate hands. Gouen gave him a startled glance. Carefully, experimentally, he raised himself and descended again, grasping Tsuuran's shoulders for balance. Tsuuran's arms were flung across his face and over his mouth, but his chest echoed with weeping moans. How strange. Tsuuran was always discreet and contained in his pleasure, almost to coldness. Gouen rode him, finding the position taxing to his long legs, but still-- it didn't hurt, amazingly it didn't hurt, and the effect on Tsuuran was...
He pulled Tsuuran's arm away, the better to see his face. It was twisted with some emotion, eyes gone great and staring into his. Tsuuran turned his head to the side, to flee the reach of Gouen's eyes; and in the same moment his hips bucked beneath Gouen's weight and he reached his release. Gouen slid off and laid himself down by Tsuuran's side. The silver body vibrated imperceptibly beneath him, like a bell when the stroke begins to fade. The aftermath of pleasure? But Tsuuran's face was still turned from him and Gouen realized what it was. Tsuuran was weeping inside, without sound and without tears.
"Tsuuran- dear friend--" he began in consternation. Tsuuran's body jerked convulsively. In real fear Gouen threw his arms about him and held him close. "Dear friend, I have hurt you more than you could bear. Truly that was not my wish--" Tsuuran shook his head, face still invisible.
"No, my lord. No." He loosed a shaking breath. "It is no such matter--"
"Then what is it?"
"My lord-- my lord is too gracious to his servant. I have done nothing to deserve the favour my lord shows me, at s-such cost to himself--" Tsuuran bit his lip to stop himself from sobbing aloud.
"Cost? I have done noth--" His slow brain caught up with him. "Oh. Oh, that." He drew a deep breath. "No, that was no cost to me." He shrank from speaking of it, but to reassure his servant-- "Something has happened and things have changed... things have changed with me past believing-- but I have no desire to discuss that, now or ever. Take it only that..." His heart closed in misery- "I am become as any other man."
Tsuuran turned at last to look at him. He asked no questions, did not so much as change expression, and Gouen was bitterly glad that of all his favourites it was Tsuuran he'd called for.
"That is not so." Tsuuran's voice still sounded rough. "My lord is not as any other man."
"It does my heart no good to hear you flatter me."
"When I am summoned for a whipping I do not expect to be caressed. When my lord says he is angry I do not expect him to be kind. Such is not the way of the world. Yet my lord put aside his anger and his perturbation of soul to be gracious to me, and so I will make bold to say that he is different from other men."
"You think you know the way of the world?"
"I see what usually happens, lord, as does any man. When it differs I am grateful if it is good, or resigned if it is evil. What else may one do?"
In silence Gouen turned to his other side. 'Resigned?' he thought. Maybe I can be resigned to what was done to my body, for I did indeed consent to it, deceived though I was. But what was done to my brother's-- no. His heart panged. I cannot accept *that*- Third Brother bereft of majesty and power, turned into a youkai's pet and watchdog. That is wrong: that should not be: and I cannot even speak that wrong aloud lest his shame be known and my older brothers grieved.
No, that wasn't true. There was one person he could speak it to, and rightly. It may change nothing- no, it will change nothing- but still I will tell hir that I know the wrong se did us.
Aloud he said, "I must find a way to get to Heaven."
"Heaven? That will require his Majesty's permission."
"And I have no confidence that I will get it, but still it must be done. There is a matter there that cannot rest."
"Say as much to his Majesty--"
"I will not. He would ask what it is and I have no wish to tell him. I must persuade him some other way."
"Perhaps I speak out of turn, and if so forgive me. But it seems to me that my lord now has one means of winning his Majesty's favour if he wishes to use it."
Gouen blinked. "Yes," he said, countering his automatic instinct to denial. "Yes, I suppose I do. And I think it would even make his Majesty happy. He wishes- he wishes me to take Third Brother's place while he is gone--" and at that his eyes filled with tears, taking him utterly by surprise. He blinked them away but they would not stop. Like spring rain they kept coming, until they turned into a flood that whirled his soul away. Tsuuran pressed closer behind him, like an anchoring rock. Tsuuran's hands stroked his back, and evidently with more skill than the masseur possessed, for the heavy pain seemed to ease at last from his cramped shoulders.
"Ohh," he sighed, mopping his eyes with a wet hand. "I am not the man I once was. I am a black dragon, one with the clouds and rain, and I used to revel in change. But since Third Brother's death I fear it. I cling to the past that has gone and so am become this miserable creature you see here."
"There is change and change," Tsuuran's somber voice said. "The change from winter to spring is slow and gentle, and it happens again and again. But the sudden change from what always was to something different is like a storm breaking. It may clear the air and bring refreshment after, but it is violent and disconcerting when it happens."
"Ahh." Gouen contemplated Tsuuran's words. "I thought you enjoyed what we did just now."
"I did. I do not mourn that my lord takes his pleasure with me in a new way."
"What troubles you then?"
Tsuuran was silent, while some obscure struggle happened in the far reaches of his soul. At last he said, "It is a thing that I would otherwise have kept from my lord for both our sakes. When I entered my lord's service, my father gave me this counsel: 'You are the King's man from this day onwards and all that you are belongs to him. Your body is his: do not grudge whatever he is pleased to ask of it. Your wit and skill are his: use them to your utmost in the tasks he assigns to you, whether he sends you on an embassy or sets you to washing the pots in his kitchen. Any service done for the King is an honour. Body and soul, hands and wit, all of you is for the king. Except one thing. Keep your heart for yourself and do not let it incline to your master. You cannot serve the king as you should if you love the man.' And that counsel I have lived by until this day, but now my lord's graciousness has made it impossible for me to keep to."
Gouen found himself smiling. "Why, will you find it harder to serve me from love than from duty?"
Tsuuran sounded rueful. "Will I not? For my service must ever be tainted by hope now, and become less impeccable thereby."
"I do not count that a loss," Gouen said. "I have sometimes wondered what fault there was in me that you did not love me as others do, and what virtue your own favourites possessed that I do not, and could only conclude that you are one who finds his best pleasure in lying above."
"Have I truly been so clumsy?" Tsuuran sounded stricken. "My lord is skilled enough to bring me pleasure in whatever he does, and I have never had any complaints about lying below. And now-" there was still a note of regret in Tsuuran's voice "-I will be happy to do what my lord pleases because it lets me be near him and not for the sake of the service itself."
"I think you will not find the change so bitter as you fear." The first contentment he'd known in days filled Gouen's heart. "Tell me, how great is your love of me?"
Tsuuran half-turned away. The question was clearly as little to his liking as Gouen had expected it to be. "My lord knows that I am not a man of words. Let him command me and I will show him by my deeds."
"Dear friend," Gouen said again, and felt with delight the little start of happiness that Tsuuran could not suppress, "this is not a time to speak of commands. I have no desire to push you beyond what is pleasant for you. But to be plain, if I am... let us be vulgar and say, to seduce my ani-ue as you suggest, I shall need some practice, for my training was naturally curtailed in those areas. So- is your love great enough to provide it? for you must see, there is no one else I may ask."
Tsuuran looked back. One of his rare small smiles touched his face.
"I am happy to serve my lord in all things."
Taking only two retainers, Gouen flew to the Eastern Ocean. There he found his second brother also paying an impromptu visit. This was unlooked for, but all to the good. It will save me telling the tale twice, and this may go more easily with Second Brother here.
He knelt at Goukou's feet and put the High King's hands to his forehead.
"Ani-ue, grant me permission to visit Heaven. There is a thing I must do there."
Goukou frowned. "We have cut our ties with Heaven. How then can you go crawling back as though it still had a claim on us? Send a messenger if the business is so important, but you may not go yourself."
"I must go myself, whatever the cost."
"I just said no."
Gouen held Goukou's hand tighter. "I will resign all rights to my kingdom, both for myself and all my generations, and leave the throne to you to bestow where you please. If you wish I will commend my sons to your kindness and give up my life for having crossed your will; but I must go to Heaven to speak with the Bosatsu."
"You are making me angry. You speak idly, or worse, with craft, knowing I cannot suffer the loss of another brother. What is so great a matter that you must speak to Kanzeon directly about it?"
"It lies too heavy on my tongue to tell." He took a deep breath and looked up. "Take me to your bed, and Second Brother with us, and maybe then I will find the freedom to speak it."
Goukou frowned in surprise. After a minute he said, "Come then."
They went to Goukou's chamber and disrobed. Gouen was aware of a small tension in his gut. He'd never partnered with Goukou in any but the simplest hand and mouth forms, such as a man uses with an extreme junior. The thought of doing more still brought a dragging reluctance with it. He forced it from him. It was Goukou's wish that he act as younger to his oldest brothers, and it was in his own interest. Therefore...
He saw to his oldest brother's arousal, then took a deep breath. "Ani-ue, will you permit your foolish younger brother to request a form?
"Then let us perform the Drum Bridge, and I will take the middle role."
"There's no need to go so far," Goukou said at once. "I am not angry and have no intention of punishing you."
"You will not. Come above me and see how matters have altered with your brother."
Goukou and Goushou exchanged puzzled glances.
"What is this, Gouen?" Goushou asked. "Surely you haven't been in the skies again?"
"No. Beneath the sea."
"And you will see what I found there."
Goukou was looking at him narrowly. "Is this truly advisable?"
"Yes," he said, "truly," and put the ring of certainty into his voice.
Goushou still seemed unsatisfied but Goukou said, "Very well." So they arranged themselves: Goushou seated on the bed with Gouen arched above him, and Goukou behind Gouen. The smell of Goushou's skin was reassuringly familiar amid all this newness. Which was as well, because Goukou's hands cupping his buttocks made his heart lurch wildly. This is wrong, his mind insisted. My ani-ue is as a father to me--
Quickly he put his mouth about Goushou's root and concentrated on that to keep his mind from what was happening elsewhere.
"Prepare yourself," Goukou's voice said. "I'm coming in."
No! said all of Gouen's reflexes. He yanked his attention to the front of his mind: 'glow-worm crawls': flatten the tongue and draw it up the lower edge of the shaft, 'petals curling': close it at the top, 'day's eye': bring the point in a left hand circle about-- about--
And then his mind wouldn't work any more. Hugeness was coming into him, greater than himself, like nothing he'd known ever: his head felt as if it was opening up, peeled open like a tangerine, and he saw the great blue vastnesses of the sky there, no end to them, felt the strong winds blowing upon his wings and the knowledge of freedom, knew again what it was to be out of his tiny self and once again the lord of all the domains--
Panic like a lightning bolt jolted through him and was gone. Dazed, split in two, he had no time to wonder what peril his soul sensed. The skies called to him and the winds sucked at his soul, pulling him out of himself. Instinct alone made him throw his arms about the body before him and cling. He closed his eyes tight, tight, so as not to see the blue caverns about him; his face sought the hot darkness and the smell of familiar flesh and the thin line of memory it carried, memory of-- memory of-- So hard to keep the memories of earth when that endless freedom was trying to fill his head--
"Gouen." A voice in his ear, like a strong woven cable. He took his mouth away and answered.
"Second brother." That was easier. "Second brother, hold me--" Strong arms closed about his head and neck and Goushou's concerned voice said: "This is too much for you--"
"No," he answered, "no--" It couldn't be too much. Open as he was now to his oldest brother's body and majesty, so was he open to the language of the skies. There was something there he needed to know, if he could only see it rightly-- if he didn't lose himself there as he had before, up where immense unvoiced feelings boomed on the wind and echoed in the pulse of his blood. His second brother was here to anchor him to the earth, so he opened his eyes and tried to see that world as himself, as Gouen, king of the Northern Ocean.
For an endless time the skies pounded about him as his heart pounded in his chest and the largeness inside him pounded at his vitals. It seemed he would shiver apart with it, but Goushou's arms held him together until it was over. He felt his body become empty again, his huge self shrink to mansize, and the overwhelming sensation flow away like a wave returning to the sea, leaving him small and desolate behind.
Someone helped him up and onto the bed. He curled up with his hands over his face, knowing vaguely that there was something he should be doing but not what. His innards were shaking inside him. He despised himself for that weakness but couldn't make them stop.
"That wasn't necessary," Goukou said behind him, a settling hand on his back. "Why did you force yourself to it?"
"I didn't," he said. "It's not the same--" He opened his eyes and saw Goushou stretched in front of him. He was lying between his brothers, as in childhood, but only with the two oldest. The dearest of them was no longer here. He put a curb on his soul before that memory could make him weep. "It only happens with you, ani-ue," he said, but still heard the tears in his voice.
"I have no wish to cause you pain, you know that-"
"No. Lying below no longer hurts me. It's the memories that undo me."
"Why, are they so unpleasant?" Goushou asked.
"No," he said, annoyed. "The memories of the sky- to remember what it's like when the wish of one's heart is all there is."
"Ahh," Goukou said. "I remember that, and better than you I think, since I was Victor in our battle. It's a hard thing indeed, here on the ground where it's no longer true."
"I wouldn't know, of course," Goushou said. "What interests me is this little detail you mention. Why does it no longer hurt you to lie below?"
Gouen drew an angry breath at his second brother's tone. Then something turned over in his mind, like coming wholly awake from sleep. Goushou always brought him back from the skies, and he did it by being utterly of earth. A swell of love washed him: and in the same moment he remembered what he should be about. He sat up.
"Your pardon, ani-ue. Let me get the cloths to clean us--"
"It will wait. Answer your brother's
question. What caused this change in you?"
"Ahh." He stopped, then drew his knees up and hugged them as he started to speak.
"This is the way of it then. I went looking for the Hermit of the Eastern Ocean to get news of Third Brother's whereabouts. And I found him."
"Indeed. Is he well?"
"As well as he can be, I suppose."
Goukou looked perturbed. "What does that mean?"
"I doubt the Hermit finds anything to complain of in his life. He is one very pleased with himself--"
"You speak of our uncle," Goukou said heavily.
Gouen made his breath draw evenly before he answered. "With respect, ani-ue. I don't know how well you knew him before he left our world, but I'd suggest that-- possibly, he's no longer the man you knew."
"And you say so, why?"
"It pleased him to toy with me. He deceived me, hiding behind a spell shape so I wouldn't know who he was. We began making verses- he's a good poet, I do not deny it. No. He's a great poet, and that was what undid me. When I could not answer his verse he offered to give me a herb. He said it would open my body and my soul alike and take me past their limitations. I believed him, fool that I was. I thought he was promising me my heart's desire, but evidently he wanted only to instruct me in the perils of being overly trusting. If he enjoyed humiliating me in the teaching- and he did- so much the better." He looked up at last. "Do you know, ani-ue, what has come clear to me? It is the true nature of our ancestors, for I have seen their ways living on in the Hermit."
Goukou made a noise of disgust. "Don't be ridiculous. Our uncle is not violent or lustful in any way."
"That's what I realized just now, when I saw the skies as they look to a man in his right senses. It's not our ancestors' deeds but their thoughts that mark the difference between them and us. All that mattered to them, in the skies or under the seas, was the wish of their hearts. And that is how the Hermit is. Nothing stops him from doing as he pleases. He lied to me, and shamed me, and brought the greatest grief to my soul, and felt no compunction in doing it. Whether that indifference to decency is a result of his withdrawing from dragon society, or if he withdrew in the first place so as to be free of our laws, I do not know, but I have my ideas."
"You are wrong," Goukou said. "I'm certain you're wrong. He is a man of much sensitivity- too much, perhaps. It was Father's death that drove him into retreat and nothing else."
"As you wish, ani-ue. I saw what I saw, and I am glad you did not."
"But still," Goushou intervened, "this herb worked as he said it would. Your body is open--"
"It worked as far as it went. My body has opened and I may lie below as I please."
"And what of your verse?" Goushou asked.
"I have no heart to make verse any more."
There was an appalled silence.
"Gouen, what happened?" Goushou said.
"When he gave me the herb it was followed by a vision unlike any I have ever known, in dream or meditation. I was on the earth and I saw one who seemed to be Third Brother. But now I do not know if that vision was true or not. The Hermit deceived me in other things, and he may have deceived me in this- the better to teach me not to open my heart too easily." He looked at Goukou finally. "That is why I must ask Kanzeon. I cannot send a messenger. I must go myself and see hir face as se answers, because now- now I no longer trust anyone to speak truth to me."
"But what did you see?" Goukou said urgently.
"Forgive me, ani-ue. Some things are not for the telling. Even if it was a false showing I do not wish to leave you with the image of him that I saw."
Goukou looked stricken. "But he was still a dragon, yes?"
"Yes," Gouen said, "be easy on that score. He was still a dragon."
"Kanzeon Bosatsu, you have a visitor from Down Below."
"A umh dragon."
"Ohh-hohh. One of ours?"
"Uhhh--- well, as to that..."
Oh. No indeed.
Tall and black in his black robes, and hard as an obsidian statue. Black hair, black face, red eyes burning in them with a pitiless light. Nothing here of the gallant poet and warrior he'd been during his service in Heaven. He looked down at Kanzeon in silence. His lower lip curled a fraction, rather as Goujun's used to do in stray moments when his weariness and impatience with the ways of Heaven were allowed to show.
"Well, Gouen? What's up?"
"I have seen my brother. What were you thinking of, to give him that form?"
"Convenience. It lets him be a dragon among humans without knocking them over every time he turns around."
"Humans? He sorts with youkai now."
"One that was a human," Kanzeon said, "but rest his soul he's transformed."
"Not an ordinary youkai, is all I'm saying. Sit down, Gouen. I get it, really I do. You don't have to go looming over me like that."
Gouen sat, expression unmoved, but his words rumbled with anger.
"You could have sent my brother to one of our kingdoms on the continents. Lacking memory he could have been anything there and no shame to him: a courtier, a guardsman, even a husband. He could have lived out this new life of his with dignity. But you chose to make sport of him- making him the size of a dog, turning him into a youkai's pet. What do you think to gain from insulting us like that?"
"The size was purely practical, as I said. And karma decides who he hangs out with, not me."
Gouen's head went back in instinctive disdain. "Dragons have nothing to do with karma. We both know that's true, whatever Heaven likes to pretend otherwise."
"Now you're not thinking. I know dragons aren't on the Wheel: you only have one life. But Goujun's the exception. I caught his soul and sent it into a new body. Ergo he was reborn. Ergo he's on the Wheel. Ergo he's subject to the laws of karma, where the weight of deeds from one life sets the path of the next. And just for your information, those laws are outside my control. The attachments of his life up here were what decided where he ended up down there. Any problem following that?"
"His attachments are to us, his family-"
"It wasn't his family he was thinking of when he died. Sorry. His mind was all on protecting his men. That's why he goes on doing it Down There."
"Marshal Tenpou, mostly. That's the youkai you saw with him. I think you met him up here once or twice?"
"Yes." The clipped monosyllable spoke volumes.
"And what did you think of him?" Kanzeon prodded.
There was silence. "I thought him different from the run of kami. I thought him dangerous. I believed he threatened to take Third Brother from us. I was right on every score. We should have had him killed."
"Good thing you didn't. Think of the position you'd have put Goujun into. You might have lost him for good instead of just temporarily."
"Is that a threat?"
"You're being unusually unintelligent today, Gouen. I suppose it's the shock. You know how seriously Goujun takes his responsibilities. You'd have made him choose between his honour and yourself if you'd touched one of his subordinates. How do you think that would've ended?"
"Even now. He doesn't remember who he is, he doesn't remember who his men were, but he'll still attack anyone who tries to harm them. That's how strong his sense of duty is."
More silence. "That is Third Brother's nature," Gouen said at last, and turned his face away.
"Yes. He keeps his oaths, even past the bounds of death."
Gouen's clenched hands showed pale at the knuckles, and grief and anger rose from him in waves. Kanzeon regarded him with sympathy not unmixed with impatience. One couldn't pat a dragon king on the back and say 'There there.' What one could do... One could... Se sat back in hir chair and thought a moment. Not hir forte exactly, but still--
"If aught we say or feel or do
can please the silent spirits gone
-the sighs and tears with which we moan
old friends, and make them live anew-
be certain, if your brother knew,
within the darkness where he lives,
the sorrow that his absence gives,
the grief his fate has brought to you--
his present state must pain his heart much less
than knowledge of your love bring happiness."
Gouen's head jerked around. His face showed surprise and a kind of anger, and the beginning of something else. The something else was what Kanzeon counted on. Se tilted hir head to watch. And, like dawn light creeping into the night-time world, Gouen's expression changed. Dragon eyes are unreadable so it was impossible to say if he were still looking at hir or at something else entirely. He began to speak, but with an odd look on his face, as if he couldn't quite believe what his mouth was saying:
The waves of oceans and the waves of men
The twisted mountains and the wooded plains-
I passed them all and came at journey's end
To greet you, o my brother, once again.
Hard fate has rapt you from your brothers' side
And turned your heart into the stranger's path.
No deed of mine can stem that changing tide
No tears or pleas avail, no kingly wrath;
I look on you, who do not know my face,
And speak to you, who keep me not in mind
And turning, leave you in your present place
With the time-honoured parting of our kind-
'Hail and farewell' until the chance avail
That I may say to you, 'farewell, and hail.'
"That's... not bad," Kanzeon said, impressed in spite of hirself. "Where did you learn to write sonnets?"
"Sonnets. What you just composed."
Gouen looked at hir blankly.
"Gouen, are you all right?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes." Wheels were turning in that dragon brain but it wasn't likely se would hear the results of his cogitations.
"Sonnets, you said?"
"Ah." He rose to go, not bothering with parting formalities. At the door he glanced back, absently, and said, "My uncle taught me," and was gone.
Aug '05- Feb '06