"Here's the report of the latest incident," Tenpou said.
"Anh. Is that where you were today?" Goujun took it and ran his eye over it. "Five? That's a lot at one time."
"Mm-hmm." Tenpou, with his hands in the pockets of that lab coat he wore- Tenpou's version of undress uniform- was rocking back and forth a little on his heels- Tenpou's version of 'at ease.' Life as usual in Heaven. Goujun had only been back a few days, but the familiar details kept ambushing him as if he'd never seen them before. A trick of his mind. It would pass.
"Your reports have improved lately," Goujun remarked as he read. "More detail, and more punctual." Handed in on the same day, even, and not a week later.
"Anh," Tenpou said. He gave Goujun a vague and cheerful smile.
"Much more legible as well."
"Umhh," Tenpou allowed.
"Kenren," Goujun concluded.
"Nh," Tenpou admitted.
"Pass on my commendation. These beasts- give me your observations."
"Their numbers are increasing and have been for some time. There's been no change in the atmosphere down there or any factors I can think of that would cause an increase in birth rate, but there's undeniably more of them." Tenpou had gone in a moment from woolly to efficient. Goujun blinked, knowing it happened but still taken aback. "They're more ferocious in character, probably because they have to battle in greater numbers for the same resources. They've moved beyond their usual habitat to invade populated areas. They're a definite danger to the inhabitants down there."
"The suggestion was made to me-" by my oldest brother- "that this increase is due to the fact that, basically, there's nothing to reduce their numbers." Ani-ue... He put the thought aside. "No natural enemies of their own down there, and no Toushin up here who could effectively cull them. Your opinion?"
"And in the absence of a toushin..." Goujun tapped the desk with the report and considered. "We could perhaps draw them off by providing supplies for them, placed in their natural habitat..."
"They're carnivores. We'd have to give them meat."
"Which we cannot kill ourselves, and can't very well take from other predators down there. True. Then we can only maintain our containment policy. Though if we had an anesthetic that operated in a long term fashion--"
"You're talking about sealing them as if they were intelligent lifeforms? The energy needed--"
"I was thinking more of something that would keep them unconscious for a matter of days or even weeks."
"Mh. But then they'd starve to death. Unless they were killed by their fellows, being helpless and all."
"Yes," Goujun said neutrally.
"Anh." Tenpou rubbed his nose. "I might see what the labs can come up with."
"And I shall petition the Emperor again to appoint a toushin." He put the report into his tray for the secretaries to file.
"There's no available candidate."
"No," Goujun agreed, still neutral. If Tenpou hadn't heard that old and very dangerous piece of scandal, Goujun wasn't about to put him at risk by telling him. "If that's all for today, Marshal, you may go."
"And you, sir? You have some further engagement now-?"
"I'm returning to my quarters."
"The reception tonight?"
"I'm not going. The journey to the eastern ocean was very long, and I'm tired."
Tenpou hesitated for a moment.
"Would you mind if I walked you there, sir?"
Something he wanted to say, away from functionaries' ears. Goujun sighed inwardly. I made the decision to stay. It was the right decision, and the only possible decision.
But oh, I'm tired of this place already.
"As you will."
Tenpou walked beside him in silence. It seemed he'd have to ask the man in to his quarters, and he felt a slight distaste at the idea. It would remind them both of the unfortunate incident two weeks ago. Of course Tenpou's behaviour had been perfectly correct since then. Maybe a shade too correct, compared with his usual. Tenpou's attitude to him was one of complete respect, so it hardly mattered to Goujun if the expression of that attitude was somewhat less so. The casualness and the low-key familiarity were no problem, given the mutual esteem between them. But Tenpou's behaviour after ...that... had been different. The punctilio, the formality, the increased number of 'sirs' the moment they went from business to anything even remotely personal, pained his sensitivities. Tenpou was so very carefully not referring to what had happened that Goujun could hardly avoid being reminded.
He sighed. This was something he'd have to live with until things took themselves back to normal. Kami were different from dragons, softer and less resilient. To have experienced ...that... might have hurt his marshal in ways Goujun himself could neither judge nor understand. That Tenpou had seemed to him, when he was in his full dragonish mind, almost like a dragon himself, was an illusion prompted by the state itself-- unless indeed it was his own cowardice trying to shift the blame elsewhere. Whatever it was, there would be no more of it. They were now simply Goujun the commander of the western army, and Tenpou, his eccentric but reliable second-in-command. Those other two who had shown their faces, however briefly and almost disastrously a fortnight ago, must be regarded as no longer existing. And certainly that Goujun-- that Goujun--
He flew into his oldest brother's palace. The guards were about him when he changed shape, ready to cut off the interloper. But seeing who it was they knelt and offered him the proper reverence. "Send word to my brother that I am here and beg an interview." The chamberlain ushered him towards a chair and offered him wine, both of which he refused. His stomach was tight, and it was with difficulty that he kept himself from pacing. He hoped Goukou would ask him in, not--
But Goukou came out himself to greet him, smiling in delight. Goujun knelt, as was proper, but glad to postpone the moment that must come, even if by only a few seconds. The guards, the chamberlains, the pages in his brother's train- all these others were a nuisance. Goukou raised him, kissed him on both cheeks, then took him by the shoulders and smiled into his face. The smile faded as their eyes met. "Come inside," Goukou said. He turned, and Goujun followed after him. Goukou was going to be angry. He thought he'd been prepared for that. Goukou led him into his study, and waved an imperious finger that sent his secretaries and servants out and closed the doors behind them. Thank god it was here, and not in the openness of his throne room.
"And?" Goukou said.
"Ani-ue. Forgive me. I cannot come back."
There was silence. He waited for his brother's questions, for his anger or his arguments, for what would come. What came was only... silence. He looked up. Goukou's handsome face with the pale-blue skin, like his own seen underwater, Goukou's red eyes and long thoughtful mouth, stood before him like a towering thundercloud. Goujun bowed his head and shifted his torso into a posture of submission, telling himself not to be angry when Goukou hit him. There was more than disappointment to this, even a high king's disappointment. There were currents of intrigue and politics and understandings he had not been party to. He would have to explain and reassure-- He sensed the tension suddenly vanish. Goukou reached a hand and pushed Goujun's hair out of his left eye, an old caress from his childhood.
"I will send for the others," Goukou said. "We will not speak of it until then. And for now, younger brother, be welcome to my palace." He smiled, and the smile was real. "I am very glad to see you here again."
This is going to be hard, Goujun thought. But I knew that already.
Three days later they assembled in the central chamber. Goujun sat in his chair, gaze lowered, feeling the others' eyes upon him.
"Ani-ue, second brother- Gouen-" he nodded to each of them- "it was my intention when last we met to follow your examples and return to my ocean. I find I will not be able to do that. I'm sorry."
"Ani-ue, that is the one question I cannot answer satisfactorily, even to myself. But Gouen was right when he said I've become like the kami. Heaven has made me something other than I was. I can't say how, but I feel the difference in me."
"Come home then," Goushou said, "and change back. You'll be yourself again when you're in your own land."
Here it was. "I don't want to," he said flatly. "That is what the difference is."
The sentence sank into the silence like lead. He could sense the quick anger in Goushou and the small bewilderment in Gouen, but he was waiting for the weighty thing that was Goukou's mind to turn itself upon him. It was like standing beneath a mountain and feeling the heaviness of rocks and snow above his head, about to come down on him.
"Goujun, you have never lied to me in your life. Perhaps you have never lied to anyone. Have you?"
"No," he said, surprised. "Why would I?"
"Look at me then and tell me this has nothing to do with the kami Tenpou."
"Ani-ue-" he looked at Goukou. "I have never lied to you or to anyone. But I would like to lie to you now and tell you it has everything to do with the kami Tenpou, because that at least you could understand. It would be a lie, and it is also the complete truth." They were watching him, red eyes sifting his words. "I do not desire Tenpou. I do not wish to copulate with him. I did copulate with him. That is how I know I don't desire him. And that is how I know I am- no longer what I was. It was Tenpou made me realize I am not..." he made himself say it, "truly a dragon any more."
"That is surely overstating the case," Goukou said. "Your nature is not to change, little brother, and so you find change painful when it happens."
"Dragons do not change," Goujun said.
"When was the last time you shed your skin, Goujun?" Goushou asked.
"That's different," he said, suppressing irritation. "That's of nature. This that I feel now is... not natural. It pains me to be here, where I feel so clearly that I am no longer myself. I cannot go back and be what I was before, and I have not yet... become what I will be. Yes, if you want the parallel, it's like shedding one's skin. My old one is off but my new one has yet to harden."
"Always uncomfortable," Goushou agreed.
"And that is why I must remain in Heaven."
Goukou and Goushou exchanged glances. "Heaven may not be the best place for you just now," Goukou said.
"Though since Heaven and my third brother are both shedding their skins together..." Gouen murmured.
"May we speak of that, ani-ue?" Goujun asked stiffly, ignoring Gouen's little jab. "It seems there are currents there your foolish brother has ignored for too long."
"Don't mind Gouen," Goukou said. "And Gouen, you do not help matters. As for Heaven-" He sighed. "Since you're determined to return there, I can tell you now why I hoped you would leave."
Goujun raised an eyebrow.
"You are one who must be doing, little brother, and the promise of action alone would have made you want to stay. And action you will have." His expression became grim. "The kami grow restless. Our marshals, mine and Gouen's, are not men of great subtlety. It was clear that our absences were welcome to them and our presence a constraint. They were plotting something among themselves, and what could men of such rank be aiming for if not the rule of Heaven?"
"But--" Goujun began, and checked himself. "Forgive me."
"No, you're right. We who are rulers and warriors both, know what's necessary to each role. The kami do not. Our marshals are well enough as soldiers but could have no hope of ruling effectively. Their revolt would mean chaos in Heaven, and the present regime, ineffectual though it is, is preferable to that. Ordinarily we would have stopped them then and there. Only--" He looked at Goushou.
"You do not see the workings of karma as I do," Goushou said. Goujun nodded. The red fire dragons with their subtle and changeable natures sensed lines in the universe hidden to the rest of them. "There is one in Heaven now who was born to shake worlds. He has a karma working itself out in him stronger than even we can stand against. Damming a stream is one thing. Damming a river is another, and damming it in the spring floods-"
"Is a thing a wise man will not even try." Goukou finished. "We doubt he's part of this present revolt, but it makes no difference. The unrest it causes will create the conditions needed to act out his destiny. Or perhaps not. But he will shake Heaven sooner or later, however he does it, and since the earthquake must happen, we think it best to quit the house while the roof still stands."
"Who is he?" Goujun asked.
"That I will not tell you," Goushou said. He looked at Goujun levelly. "You might try to do something about him."
"Goujun." Goukou repressed him. "If you return to Heaven, you must become as those who live there: part of the pattern that works itself out. The laws of karma do not allow you to manipulate that pattern, dragon though you are, and I your brother will not allow you to try."
After a moment Goujun lowered his head in acquiescence. "Tell me one thing then. I will stay here or return there according to your answer. Is it Tenpou?"
Goushou eyed him. "No. And knowing that, what will you do?"
"I will return."
There was a thick silence.
"Very well." Goukou sat back in his chair. "I will say one thing for your comfort. The change you feel in yourself has happened before. It's foreign only to the nature of Goujun, not to all dragonkind. You are still one of us. Even if, as Gouen says-" he gave his youngest brother a weary look- "you need to be apart from your kind in order to shed your old skin. You will be welcome always when you come back."
"If he comes back," Gouen's quiet voice said.
"What?" Goukou's tone was sharp.
"The roof is falling, ani-ue. What if my third brother is under it when it comes down?"
Goukou opened his mouth, and then most uncharacteristically closed it again. He and Goushou exchanged glances. In irritation Goujun said, "Your older brother is well able to look after himself, Gouen."
"Yes," Goukou said slowly. "In the usual way of things, yes. But this may not be the usual way of things."
"I will take that chance. Ani-ue," he looked at Goukou's troubled face, "it takes work to slay a dragon. Who in Heaven could even begin to try?"
"Karma and fate," Goushou said unwillingly, "are like the upper and lower millstones. You will be between them both, Goujun, and in this case both are very heavy and will grind very fine. All may be well. Probably all will be well. Dragons are the universe's favoured children, and strong, as you say. Still I had not thought that your life might be in danger. Will you not reconsider your decision?"
"Second brother, you ask me to flee a peril even you think doesn't exist. What do you expect my answer to be?"
"I know. But--" He fell silent.
"You know how it is with us, Goujun," Goukou said. "We are four. If we lost you, there is nothing that could fill the place of you. Nothing. For eternity. That is a heavy thought."
"Ani-ue." He went and knelt at his brother's feet and bowed over his two hands. "You trouble yourself for no reason. Anything is possible in this world, and you yourself may be struck down by a thunderstone tomorrow morning. But somehow I don't expect it to happen." He saw Goukou's unwilling smile. "My affairs are in order. The son of our father's second brother is regent in my realm now. He will care for my sons if it happens that I don't come back. If you see fit to transfer the kingship to him instead, I will make no criticism wherever I am, alive or dead. Be content then."
"Content." Goukou's voice was bleak. "Goujun, Goujun. You truly don't understand."
"The thing you may know when your skin has changed."
There was no more after that. He took himself off and left his brothers to talk together. That evening Goukou held a feast for them, the four kings together in the high king's palace for the first time in many years, and possibly the last time in as many more. His brothers seemed to have put off their foreboding of that afternoon, and the occasion was very merry. Goujun relaxed, finding himself at last at ease. He could view his surroundings with a loving and even nostalgic eye, knowing that he would be leaving them soon. There was no harm in letting his guard down and being a dragon again, here among dragons. No-one to be hurt, and no need for regrets afterwards that this was the last time. His future was set and laid out. He was returning to Heaven, to command its western army; and a part of him was glad that something was afoot there, different from what had gone before. There would be upheavals in Heaven, something requiring action from himself, and that at least would keep him occupied.
Meanwhile he smiled as Goushou and Gouen played capped verses with each other, their rhymes and alliteration whirling dizzily nearly out of control. He laughed aloud when Gouen managed a triple pun in one line that also worked in a graceful compliment to their oldest brother. Leaning back in his chair he caught Goukou's eye, and they smiled at each other. A good evening, this one, and a good life he had had up to now, and would have for one more night. The page who served him was slender and graceful, a black dragon with the glossy black hair and ash-grey skin of his kind. His manners were of a piece with his appearance, and when Goujun looked him in the face he looked back, modest and reserved but without fear. Good then. Goujun would ask Goukou for his company that night. Something more to look forward to, before returning to the necessary celibacy of Heaven where there were none of his kind for this activity.
Finally Goukou rose, when the wine was drunk and the night growing late. He signalled them to accompany him to his quarters. Not for formal good-nights, though. Instead of pausing on his doorstep he passed through into the chamber, with Goushou behind him. Goujun followed. A private farewell among the four of them before the official one tomorrow. Then he saw the covered silver basin on the table by the bed, steaming gently with scented water, and the towels piled beside it. A sudden rush of tenderness went through him, followed to his astonishment by a wetness in his eyes. Goukou wanted his company for the night. That kindness was beyond anything he had expected or indeed had a right to. He blinked his tears away and schooled his face not to smile as he waited for Goushou and Gouen to speak their farewell.
"Goujun." It was Goukou. "You leave us tomorrow and none of us know when we will see you again. There is a thing we might do that would formally bind you to us and us to you, making a circle between us that resonates even in the upper heavens. It's a ritual of our early ancestors. It hasn't been used in many cycles of ten thousand years, since the world slowed and the chaos of the early days calmed, and now it has been forgotten. But Gouen found the spell in one of his books and spoke of it to us this afternoon. With your leave we would like to work it now."
"My leave...?" Goujun frowned. It was not for an older brother to ask his younger's leave. Goukou's eyes flicked towards the bed and Goujun understood. He bowed. "It has been many years since I partnered both my brothers- not since you first trained me in the sixty-four forms-" he smiled involuntarily as he remembered those days, when one would instruct and encourage and occasionally console him as the other acted the form with him- "but I will be happy to return to the position of my youth, if it pleases you."
"There are four of us," Goukou said without inflection. "The circle must be completed. You give something of yourself to each of us, each of us leaves something of ourselves with you."
Ice went up Goujun's spine. He held onto his soul and controlled his breathing until he could speak with the proper respect. His words still sounded thick in his own ears when he did.
"Ani-ue, you propose that I let my younger brother--" He couldn't say it. His vision swam with rage.
"It's necessary to the spell," Goushou said. "It's a very old ritual, Goujun, and our ancestors were not as we are."
"Our ancestors were animals of lust. They copulated with the fox-tribe of the earth and begot the race of youkai, to the eternal shame and regret of our kind. And you would be as them?"
Goukou's face hardened but Gouen spoke first.
"Third brother-" Goujun rounded on him with a dangerous expression. Unmoved, Gouen came and knelt at his feet, and bowed himself until his forehead touched Goujun's boot.
"Gouen..." The rage flickered inside him, dampened, dying. "Gouen." Gouen straightened, took Goujun's hands and placed the backs against his forehead.
"Third brother, I have always known your kindness and your love. It was you who taught me courtesy and respect in childhood, you who trained me in arms as a youth, and you who instructed me in the sixty-four forms when I reached manhood. I love and revere you, and what I ask of you now I do not ask lightly but because my love and reverence are as deep as they are. You go to an uncertain world, and you are yourself troubled in heart. We your brothers may not accompany you or stand at your side or ease your spirit in any way. Do this one thing- and it will soon be done and over- and give us the comfort of knowing we have done the most we can for yourself and us." He sat back on his heels, making no move to stand again.
Goujun looked at his older brothers, heart at war.
"It would calm our anxiety," Goukou said, "and ensure your return from the chances that may befall you."
"Why does my ani-ue not command me to it then?"
"Because I have no wish to earn your hatred. I only ask, knowing that even my asking puts obligation on you. Bear in mind that you aren't the only one who must put aside the natural order for this. Your older brothers will have to kneel to you their junior."
"My brothers have done that before-"
"When you were a stripling in your first training and to be indulged. You're a man now."
Goujun's hands clenched and unclenched involuntarily. He made them be still.
"Bind my eyes, then, so I do not see your shame and mine."
"That cannot be, third brother. You must be with us completely in this."
Goujun looked at Goukou and Goushou, waiting for his answer. Looked down at his younger brother, kneeling still. Thought of leaving the castle tomorrow with this undone, his brothers' request- Goukou's request- thrown back in his face. He wanted to say no, very much, and that fact itself shocked him. He wished to flout his older brother's will. He had no right to ask it of me, he thought, and another part of his mind said Since when does a younger brother decide what the older may and may not do?
I am changing, he thought in misery. It's different already, and it will be more different after I return to Heaven. If I can think like this now, the time may come when I have nothing at all left to unite me with my brothers. When I will see them as strangers and not wish to know them. The thought made him cold, like a great cloud suddenly blotting the sun. He shook his braid forward, unfastened the thong that bound it, and let loose his hair with both hands. There was a satisfied movement from the others. Goukou came over and put his arms around him. He hid his face briefly in his oldest brother's neck, among the thickness of his blue hair. Ani-ue, lend me your strength for this or else I cannot do it.
"I do this only that I may not lose you utterly," Goujun said to him. "And I pray it does not cause the very thing it was intended to prevent."
"So do we," Goukou said.
They undressed him before removing their own clothes. He suffered them to do it. It was Goukou who entered him first, and Goushou who had him in his mouth, in the form called Divided Branch. That he could bear. It was indeed the way he'd learned the form in adolescence. Goushou held his legs far apart to constrict him more about Goukou, since the position prohibited movement, and Goujun worked his rear muscles hard as Goushou's tongue brought him to release, so that Goukou reached the moment as they themselves did. Next was even easier, if he hadn't been dreading what was to follow- sitting on Goushou's thighs while Gouen's clever tongue worked at him. Gouen was good at this; Goujun had always loved the forms that made use of his younger brother's mouth. He needed no art this time to constrict himself within. It followed naturally from his arousal and climax. And then... he rose up off of Goushou. Gouen got to his feet and came behind him. Goukou came to stand in front of him, arms braced to support him for the beginning position. He had to bend forward once more, only once more-- He felt like he was falling, falling with no wings to hold him up in the air, falling as kami and humans and youkai fall, to their deaths. He leaned the weight of his torso on Goukou's forearms, strong and steady, his ani-ue who held the world steady for them all even when the world fell apart, as it had at their father's passing-- he entrusted himself to his brother's strength as impossibly Gouen took hold of his hips and thrust in where the other two had been before. Goujun's heart closed in bitterness. And then he was coming up as Gouen pulled him back against his body, and sinking down as Gouen sat down himself. Gouen's dark arms crossed over Goujun's chest and held him in place. He felt Gouen inside him but he wouldn't think about what he was feeling inside him, and then Goukou was before him, on his knees, and this is wrong this is wrong it's *wrong*-- He wanted to shut his eyes. He didn't. Goukou's deep blue hair, dark as the night sky and as beautiful, bowed itself as Goujun made himself watch, and the warm wetness of his oldest brother's mouth closed around him, and he wouldn't think about what it was he was feeling there either. He put his pride between himself and the thing that was happening to him like an invisible wall, secure and unbreachable. 'The form called Divided Branch requires the entered to bring the enterer to fulfillment without movement through exercise of the hind muscles alone and in conjunction with the involuntary movements of his own fulfillment--' He repeated the lesson in his mind and followed the instructions of the detached voice telling him what to do, coldly counting his contractions until the thing should be done.
"Goujun." Sudden shock blasted through him from his fork to the top of his head. Gouen's soft rain-voice murmured in his ear, calling him by name. His name, from Gouen's mouth-- "This is us. Know this for us. It is your younger brother with his manhood inside your buttocks--" Fury howled in Goujun's heart. His eyesight went red. But the unspeakable voice wouldn't stop. "It is your oldest brother who kneels at your feet. Do not hide, Goujun, do not deny what it is you do--" He screamed in rage, clawing at the arms that held him, and in that moment the universe exploded inside his head and from his body, fiercer than it had before, fiercer than ever in his life, a pleasure so intense he screamed again. This is death, his mind thought, as blackness fell and ended him.
There was warmth between his legs, and wetness. He opened his eyes slowly. Redness, the red of Goushou's loosened mane, the membrane redness of Goushou's skin as his brother washed him. Goushou turned his head and their eyes met. Goushou looked away, reached for something, and then soft cloth was on his thighs drying him. Goujun sat up, took the cloth wordlessly and dried himself in back. Don't speak to me, he thought, don't any of you say a word to me. They knew him well enough to obey. He dressed himself, not looking at them, and walked out, not looking at them, and said none of the things that courtesy required him to say to any of his brothers.
"Make the bath extra hot," he told the servants when he reached his room. He had the bath attendant wash him thoroughly, twice, and wash his hair as well, and then made him cut and trim his nails to the shortness of a kami's. The man was perfectly trained and obeyed without a flicker of hesitation. His calmness soothed Goujun's spirit. It took time to work through the thick horn of his talons and file the remnants smooth. His brother's leavings should have exited his body long before the task was finished, but it didn't happen. A spell indeed. They were in him and he in them, as Gouen had said. He refused to think of it any more then, but sent the attendant away.
"Tell the others to leave as well. I'll see myself to bed." He washed himself a last time, completely, as if it was a ritual that would make what had happened not be. Then he wrapped himself in his chamber robe, braided his still damp hair, and went out into the cool air of the bedroom. Gouen was standing by the bed's foot, patient and graceful, in a night robe of his own, as he had clearly been standing for some time.
Goujun's first instinct was to tear the robe from him and throw him out of the room, to make his way in naked shame back to his own apartments. Instead he took a breath, and another, and a third. He jerked his chin at the bed and Gouen turned the covers down and got in. Goujun extinguished the lamps by the door but left the one near the bed alight so that Gouen would see and remember everything that was about to happen to him.
The form called Split Peach is one of the more advanced, and always painful. Between acquiescent partners this can be eased in certain ways, but the form's basic purpose is disciplinary and meant to hurt. Buried deep in his brother's body, holding his buttocks in a way that would increase his pain, Goujun listened to Gouen's sobs and felt nothing. He knew the experience to be satisfying, both to his own anger and the requirements of justice, but the emotion of satisfaction was simply absent, just as the anger it was supposed to ease was absent. Gouen's gasps were turning into silent screams. He buried his mouth in the pillow to muffle them. Something stirred in Goujun's heart. Tenpou- Tenpou had made noises like that, yes, that time they had-- He stopped moving. Remembered with a sudden rush of shame the kami's blood that had stained both their bodies. He let go of Gouen's hips and slowly drew out of him as Gouen's body shook under his own. Then he lay down, chest against Gouen's back, face against Gouen's neck, feeling him trembling still as he wept. There were no words. There was nothing to say. Will it ever be right again? he wondered in the darkness of his spirit.
"The silly little kami move in their Heaven, following their silly little ambitions. One will come to shake them from their smugness and smallness, and past time too. Do you really think that was danger enough to justify doing what we did, or doing what we have done?"
Gouen swallowed hard and took a shaky breath.
"Your worthless brother does not fear for his older brother's life. As my older brother said in his wisdom, it takes power to slay a dragon. None could do it but the mightiest in Heaven, who may not do it in the first place. Your worthless brother fears for other things. I am a fool but my fears are real to me, and what we did has eased my heart, whatever the cost. I grieve only to have angered my older brother, and my body is still here to make amends for that. Forgive me, third brother, and be not angry at our older brothers that they were persuaded by me. I will pay for all of us."
Goujun rolled off him, sat up and snuffed the lamp by the bed. He brought the quilt up to cover them both and lay down next to Gouen's heat and dampness. There was silence.
"What do you fear?" he asked at last.
"Does my older brother know what the crime of our ancestors was?"
"They heeded the seductions of the fox women of Under Heaven, who are lecherous and insatiable, and begot the high youkai on them. In consequence the royal youkai own a magic that mixes dragon power and kitsune charm, and so violates the law of the universe that says kind must stay with kind in all things and not mix in any wise. They took the tanuki of Under Heaven beneath their tails, so that the next time the tanuki dropped dung the dung was alive and became the race of common youkai, who are of earth and filthy in their habits. Our ancestors flouted the great law and were banished from our kingdom for it, and their very names have been erased from our remembrance. But Under Heaven has been troubled ever since by the pride and violence of our bastard brothers, and we ourselves still bear the responsibility and the shame."
"So the story goes. But it is not the truth. The offspring of lust and seduction are weak, though the seed come from a dragon's loins. Were the youkai's origins as we say, they would have died out tens of thousands of years ago, the sterile products of different species mating. But instead they grow and flourish."
"So?" Goujun asked in puzzlement.
"Our ancestors were not banished. They left of their own will, to be with the ones they had chosen in Under Heaven. Their crime was not lust, older brother, but love. Love is very strong indeed, when it's a dragon who loves, and it can take a dragon from his home and his family."
Goujun frowned into the darkness. "What has that to do with me?"
"Nothing, I hope. Love only us, older brother. Esteem the mothers of your sons, indulge your favourites, love your brothers. But do not let your heart turn towards the kami."
"Gouen-!" He turned to look at Gouen where he still lay on his belly, face against the pillow. "You aren't- you can't be serious. For that- you perverted the natural order only for that?" He was shocked and furious, but at the same time he wanted to laugh. The idea was so preposterous he couldn't believe it was quiet steady Gouen saying it.
"The kami Tenpou is different from the rest of them. Forgive me, brother. You said you had copulated with him--"
"You fool! I did it because I was angry, no more-- I don't believe this. You're not this stupid, Gouen. You can't be."
"My brother is not one for strange tastes in flesh. Perversity is not part of his nature. Therefore you would not have taken the kami unless he seemed as a dragon to you, and one you might rightfully take. Is that not so?"
It was a blow to the stomach. He said nothing, and the silence went on, heavy and, it seemed, accusing.
"Your pardon, Gouen," he said through dry lips. "You are right. I suppose that is how it starts, with us. But I know the difference. I found it out. You need not fear for myself and Tenpou. I see too clearly the wall between us. It keeps us apart, and I know it keeps us apart."
"That is well, third brother."
Goujun put an arm about him and Gouen moved into his embrace. "I will not ask your forgiveness for what I did just now. It was needed to preserve the balance of the universe. One breaks the laws at a cost. But I regret that it was necessary on my part, and regret that breaking the laws was necessary on yours. Let us be kind to each other, Gouen, now the need for it is over."
"Thank you, third brother." Gouen nestled nearer and fell at once asleep. Goujun saw it with envy, wishing sleep might come as easily to him. But even as he thought it his spirit left him, and he was gone.
They reached Goujun's quarters. He could have it out with Tenpou here in the hallway if he liked. He didn't like. What had happened had happened, and he would live with it. He nodded the Marshal inside.
Tenpou's expression was woolier than ever. He chewed his underlip absently, giving Goujun a bright-eyed look indicative of pure brainlessness.
"Umm- I trust your brothers are in health, sir?"
"Thank you, yes."
"Did you hear anything at all about umm...?"
"I am a soldier, Marshal." His tone was crisp, one delivering a half-rebuke to a subordinate who should know better. "*I* confine my attention to the military. The government and the bureaucracy-" he gave Tenpou a look on the last word- "will do as it pleases. The army merely takes direction from them, and that includes the senior officers. That being how it is, I would suggest you take your problem to someone in the governing echelons if you need to know more." Supposing you know someone in the bureaucracy to ask.
"Oh. Yes. I suppose we must rely on the bureaucracy in that way."
"Good that you understand. Was that all you wanted?"
Tenpou blinked at him. "Ummm. No."
Goujun tensed. A premonition lifted the hairs on his neck
"Permission to presume on our relationship, sir?"
"Oh." Tenpou eyed him mournfully, crestfallen as a child.
"Marshal, enough of the play-acting. Say what you want to say clearly or get out. I warn you, my temper is short these days." Goujun gave him his least encouraging look.
"Um. Well. It was just--" Tenpou took off his glasses and twiddled them between his fingers, watching the light catch on the lenses. "I was wondering if you'd sleep with me again?"
"The last time, you know, I wasn't quite in a position to umm appreciate the experience properly..." So of course you will, won't you? his happy smile said.
Goujun stared at him. All the things he might say fell through his head, starting with what he should say which was No and Get out in that order, and what he heard himself saying was, "Marshal, what makes you think it's ever any different from that?"
"It isn't?" A gleam of pure interest came into his eyes, and- yes- intellectual excitement. The man was mad.
"You're not about to find out." Goujun turned away from him and sat down in his chair.
"Oh." Considered. "Isn't that rather painful, though? It is for us, I mean. Not for you?"
"Marshal--" That is none of your business. Now get out.
"What's the truth of the rumours about you and General Kenren?"
"They're true. Well, I don't know about all of them. It's true we umm-"
Tenpou looked sulky. "I'd have preferred another word."
"It's the word we use."
"Oh. Then I beg your pardon. I thought you meant that as a kami would."
"From the kami's point of view you are having a sexual relationship with your junior officer, which is a scandal, and you just proposed a similar relationship with me, which is both insubordination and an insult. You should be court-martialled."
"Yes sir," Tenpou agreed. "And umm, how does it look to a dragon?"
Goujun's voice was ice. "You are allowing your subordinate to mount you. Among our kind that would get you whipped and reduced to the ranks, if not dismissed from the army entirely."
"I'm not, you know."
"Oh." Goujun checked. Felt heat flush his face. "I beg your pardon. I was misled by the rumours." His face burned hotter. "I truly intended no insult, Marshal. Forgive me. Of course, if your relationship is run on regular lines--"
"Regular for dragons," Tenpou prompted.
Goujun caught himself before he could agree. After a moment he said in a measured tone, "Marshal, you know that accidents happen in our army. We do not shed blood but occasionally, unfortunately, people die. And somehow they're almost always officers who annoy their superiors or their men or both. You are remembering that fact, I trust?"
"Down There they simply say 'I'm going to kill you'" Tenpou remarked informatively.
"Down There they can say it. We're up here. Do not push me."
"No sir. I beg your pardon. Will you sleep with me?"
"Marshal, do not make me repeat myself. What are you playing at?"
"I'm trying to seduce a dragon. It's very hard work."
"Then give it up. I have no desire for you. I have no desire to copulate with any kami. I--" He stopped, simply too tired to continue. The fox women of Under Heaven who are lecherous and insatiable... They couldn't possibly have been like *this.* "You annoy me. Get out."
"Sir. With respect to the incident of two weeks previous, at that time this Marshal Tenpou requested certain compensation from you my commanding officer for mental and bodily anguish incurred during and for damages to esteem stemming from the aforementioned incident. This Marshal Tenpou now declares that in consideration of the prolonged disconveniences he has experienced in consequence of this affair he is not content with the recompense provided and requests- humbly requests certainly, but definitely requests and requests rather strenuously-"
"-that his commanding officer make further compensation in the manner described by me about two minutes ago."
Goujun gave it the count of five. "Disconveniences?"
"I wasn't able to appreciate the experience properly and I'm dying to know what it's really like." He looked at Goujun irately. "Don't dragons have any curiosity at all?"
"No," Goujun said. "We've seen too much." But never anything like you. "If you are pestering me to take you simply in order to shut you up-"
He checked. "If I never have to do it again."
"Fine then." Tenpou seemed pleased.
"And the details are not relayed to General Kenren's enthusiastic ears-"
Tenpou gasped in shock.
"Or made the subject of conversation in the officers' mess-"
"You know I wouldn't--" Fury beginning.
"And I hear no complaints afterwards--"
"You will hear no complaints." Tenpou's face was white with rage. Something clicked behind the glass-covered eyes. The corners of his mouth quirked up ruefully. "Oh. Yes. You told me not to push. Sorry."
Goujun acknowledged that with a flick of his eyebrow.
"No complaints then," Tenpou agreed. "Or- well, not to say complaints, but- if we could use some lubrication...?"
"Lubrication is-- lubrication." He scratched his head. "Like oil or cream or- something slippery to facilitate entry."
Goujun looked at him in perplexity. "Just how old are you, Marshal?"
Tenpou looked perplexed back. "What's that got to do with it?"
"If you--" Light dawned, very belatedly. "You do not lie beneath General Kenren. That means--" He felt the blood going to his face again. "Perhaps you've never lain beneath a man?" Worse than he'd thought even. Much much worse.
"I'm not entirely a virgin," Tenpou said, puzzled. "But it's not something I do regularly."
"I see. I must apologize again. We of course train for it from youth, and only young beginners use oil. It didn't occur to me that kami might be different."
"Of course, train. The activity is too dangerous for amateurs. As you have unfortunately demonstrated."
"Ah, well. We don't train, no. We use lubrication instead. If there's something suitable--?"
"I haven't said yes," Goujun said irritably.
"I'd point out that you haven't said no either, which means that the idea basically appeals to you, and something else deters you. What is it?" He heaved a hip up on the table, planted elbows on knees and his chin on both fists, and blinked at Goujun inquisitively. "My rank? My species? My-"
"-tendency not to bathe for several days running?"
"I had a bath before I came. I washed my hair too. I thought you might prefer it." He shook his hair, which was indeed shining and light. Goujun felt absurdly touched, and hardened his heart.
"Or the fact that no-one knows what goes on in that head of yours, and that you like to look the fool, and you aren't one, and that very belatedly I ask myself what or who your playacting is intended for."
There was a small silence. "I see. You don't trust me."
There was more silence. "I esteem you more than anyone in Heaven," Goujun said finally. "I do something even more unusual for a dragon, Marshal. I like you. In all professional matters I trust you implicitly. But in the areas outside those matters... No. I don't trust you at all."
Tenpou covered his mouth with his bent fingers and looked down at the floor.
"If I gave you my word, as a military man and a Marshal of the army of Heaven, that I've been pestering you in this admittedly annoying fashion for no other reason than the one I've said, would you trust me then?"
"You wish to copulate with me out of curiosity alone?"
"If you dragons have no curiosity you can't possibly know what a torture it is. Lust one can do something about. Love one can do something about, even if it's a little harder. But the need to know--" Tenpou looked at him with something like exasperation. "It's an itch that has to be scratched very specifically."
"Sir, what would happen if I attempted rape upon your person?"
"You'd have your neck broken. It won't be necessary. I will satisfy your curiosity this once only. I have my own reasons for that-"
"None of your business. Curiosity is not one of them." He looked at his marshal. "I want to see if something works."
Tenpou was enthusiastic as a child. It was like dealing with a very young and very badly trained page. He wanted to touch and explore everywhere, and he never stopped talking.
"They're smooth," he said, fingering Goujun's horns.
"Yes," Goujun said with difficulty. "And sensitive."
"Very. For judging the quality of the atmosphere."
"Oh. So I shouldn't touch?"
"Gently. Very gently. Or use your mouth."
He shouldn't have said that. Tenpou's tongue wrapped about him delicately and pulsed on him. Shock waves ran up from Goujun's groin and his eyesight went red.
"Stop there," he managed.
"Mhh." Tenpou gave him an inquisitive look, patently filing information away. Yes, Marshal, a dragon can reach fulfillment through his horns alone, and what use will you make of that information? None, probably. Tenpou just wanted to know. Tenpou's fingers moved down his hair and about the braid. "It's so thick," he sighed. "And long. Your skin-" hands slid across Goujun's shoulders.
"Is skin," Goujun said impatiently.
"But it's so different from ours. Thicker- resilient- like a thick-fleshed fruit..."
It was true the kami's skin looked paper thin when seen up close. Like a beast that should be furred but that had lost its pelt and walks naked and vulnerable to the air.
"Oh- it's actually scales. But so tiny---" His fingers moved testingly down Goujun's chest. "Who'd have thought they'd be so flexible. And smooth- mmhhh- OW!" He sucked a bleeding forefinger.
"With the direction of the pattern, Marshal, not against it."
"Ahh- sorry. Did that hurt?"
"It's not pleasant."
"Oh. Apologies. Is there anything else I should know about? To avoid, I mean?"
"None I can think of, but doubtless you'll find more as we proceed. As will I. Shall we get the rest of our clothes off?"
That led, as he'd been afraid, to Tenpou's minute inspection of Goujun's genitals. Goujun suffered his inquisitive touch, which brought annoyance and arousal in almost equal measure. Think of him as a child. Think of him as the rawest beginner, someone with no brothers or kin who's never even heard of the Forms... though the idea of anyone being so utterly alone was a little frightening. Not the formidable and intrepid Marshal of the western army, just a young boy. His mind stuttered. Could that be what caused Tenpou's unplaceable childishness? His marshal was an adult in so many things- an experienced soldier and something of a scholar- but sexually he was obviously very near to a beginner. The kami did not copulate for pleasure with their kin, seeming to prefer random encounters with strangers for that. Far from training, one wondered if they ever got a chance to practise at all. Even the common run of dragons who live with their consorts and who might, for all Goujun knew, mate with them for pleasure alone, partook of this activity from early youth. Copulation trained a man in adult relationships and responsibilities, but Tenpou didn't even have a wife. If the kami's odd manner of life meant a protracted and unnatural celibacy well into adulthood, perhaps it was no wonder that in the private area they were all like children. Well then. Goujun's task was clear, on this occasion at least. Older brothers instruct their youngers, nobles instruct their servants, and presumably senior officers instruct their juniors, when necessary. And since training begins with the basics...
"To business," he said. He motioned to his lap. "Here. Lie over. Arms here, legs there."
Tenpou arranged himself carefully. "You always start like this?"
"This is the first form, the Ring." He reached for the oil from the table, put some on his fingers and some between Tenpou's buttocks, and slipped a careful finger inside. Not as tight as a youth, no. "Since you're experienced, we can go at once to the third, Unfurling the Petals," and he moved his finger in a circular motion. The effect on Tenpou was immediate. He groaned, his body grew hotter to the touch, and his organ swelled to press against Goujun's leg. Interesting. The kami were amazingly sensitive. Goujun widened the circle a little and Tenpou's hips bucked against his hand.
"Commander," he moaned. "Commander... please..." Well well. Let's try the Hummingbird's Beak. He pulled his finger out and ran it along the ridge of flesh at the base of Tenpou's body to where it joined the testicles. Then he pressed hard. Tenpou yelled, actually yelled.
"Commander!" His voice was choked and gasping. "Stop-- I'm going to...." Goujun let him roll onto his back. Tenpou's face was deep red and running with sweat and his narrow chest heaved desperately. The huge dark eyes gazed up at his, trying to convey the message Tenpou had no breath to speak. It was the obvious one- Tenpou's sex so stiff it aimed up towards his chest. Normally he'd have attended to that first before using one of the entrance forms, since entry often decreased the entered's desire. Unless it was different for kami? Their thin skins, their narrow little bodies- the nerves that much closer to the surface- that could change everything.
He ran his hand up Tenpou's manroot, gently, but Tenpou still gasped and shook. "Like this?" Goujun asked. "Or do you want me inside you first?"
"In," Tenpou panted. He reached for Goujun's shoulders to pull him down as his legs opened and came up.
Goujun checked. "You want to be on your back?"
"That's a reasonably advanced form--"
"Oh, who cares?" Tenpou said, clearly at the end of his patience. "Goujun, for god's sake--"
Goujun's hand came up by itself. He stopped himself from striking the man by a hair only. "Marshal-" he said in fury-- but Tenpou's eyes, his huge all-black eyes, stopped the words in his mouth. Lightning blazed in them. This was his Marshal. Not woolly cheerful Tenpou, but the soldier Goujun had seen in action once or twice and quietly promoted over and again thereafter- the ruthless and efficient one who did what needed doing in the teeth of standard procedure and the rulebook. Even here, Goujun thought in momentary astonishment, and suddenly found himself smiling. "Alright," he said. "Up." He held Tenpou's legs under the thigh and pushed them back, kept them in place with an arm while he reached his other hand for a pillow, and slipped that under the small of Tenpou's back to angle his hips. He crouched above Tenpou- Tiger and Prey, his mind said automatically, while most of him was taking in the kami scents, the sexual smell of Tenpou's arousal, teasingly familiar and a little maddening, and the sharpness of the clear liquid beginning to leak from him... Tenpou's arm reached up to grip his shoulder and Tenpou's face said In, so in he came. Slowly and slowly, into the tightness, as Tenpou's eyes closed and his upper lip skinned itself over his teeth. Painful, yes, so it did hurt the kami, oil or not, care or not, and no wonder. Tenpou's breath came in little gasps, the noises one makes the first time even if it wasn't his first time, and his fingers clutched Goujun's shoulders as others' talons had done before at their First Entrance, suffering and enduring...
...the burning and ache because Across the Threshold is a form one uses before training is complete since pain is a necessary part of it. He hadn't understood why, his first time. Had borne it silently from Goushou, determined only not to cry aloud and disgrace himself, until it was over and he was allowed to curl up, shaking from his release, in his brother's consoling arms. Hadn't understood the process at all until it was his own turn and he'd seen the pain creasing Gouen's dark face and felt, sudden and shocking, an equal pain inside his heart hard as a knife thrust. My brother, I hurt my brother. The simple blank wrongness of it, to hurt one younger and weaker, to hurt them so much and so intimately and only because one intended them good. He had never loved Gouen more than in that moment when he knew he was hurting him. The knowledge had gouged a hole in his heart and grafted Gouen there, so that ever afterwards he had only to look inside himself to feel his younger brother's spirit. The tenderness, the pity, the responsibility- a connection made for life between their souls.
"Tenpou," he said, as he came fully in. Tenpou's eyes fluttered open. Tenpou gave him a wobbly grin.
"Ahh," he said. "It's alright now." He was breathing deeply. Not his first time, no, not even with Goujun, but still he felt like one unentered. Goujun's heart ached for him, for his pain and his bravery. He leaned down and kissed Tenpou's wet eyes. Kami tears tasted different. Poor naked little animals in their skin that bled and bruised and showed every hurt. A small people, and foolish for the most part, asserting their divinity and importance as a shield to their vulnerability. Afraid to shed blood because fearing to have their blood shed, and choosing other, smaller ways to wound. But some had greater hearts than that- some, like this strange and dauntless man whose legs were clasped about Goujun's back and whose arms held Goujun's shoulders and whose root was crushed against Goujun's belly. He smiled in tenderness and kissed Tenpou's mouth, finding Tenpou's breath very peculiar indeed. The mouth opened underneath his and he tasted inside it, an odd harsh taste like chewing a cinnamon stick. He moved his lips across the kami's cheek, rough from some invisible source, and nibbled the vestigial ear all kami had, which was soft instead of hard. Strange, the kami, put together all wrong, but this was his kami now, and the strangeness was endearing in its own way. Without thinking he moved his hips back so that Tenpou gasped. I hurt you, little brother? Here, this will help. His hand caught the stiffness underneath him and moved about it, the Convolvulus, as his own stiffness moved in and out of softness. Found the rhythm to balance the two movements and watched Tenpou's face, eyes enormous, mouth enormous, as he felt it happening. Heard the strange noises Tenpou was making 'Ahhh ahnnn ah' that were like little goads to himself so he began to thrust in time to them, pushing Tenpou up to the edge, pushing himself up the mountain, and smiling in wonderful terrible tenderness and satisfaction as Tenpou fell off and out of himself, and he went soaring into the endless blue after him.
He came to with arms about him, his mouth and nose buried in hair that smelled of odd things, flowers that weren't real flowers. He lay atop Tenpou whose face was invisible, but the strength and determination of his grasp, that Goujun knew well. Always thus, the first time, the need for another body to hold close, to console oneself for the suffering before and the loneliness after. Tenpou was breathing slowly and calmly. Carefully Goujun moved. His marshal was asleep, even though his arms had force in them. Goujun watched his face for a little, empty in sleep, somehow naked without his glasses, and looking young, terribly young.
I have made him one of my youngers, Goujun realized, and he doesn't even know it. And I'm certainly not going to tell him. What a comedown for a marshal of the heavenly army to find out that, on a dragon's scale, he ranks with my chief chamber attendant and two of my pages. The idea made him smile, picturing Tenpou's sulky and affronted expression. Well, and my younger brother. Good enough for you, Tenpou? Welcome to the family? No, not exactly. Still a kami after all, and outside, but less outside than he was. Goujun felt at peace. His feelings for Tenpou were the same, not really altered from before. Before there hadn't been a proper place for them in the dragons' world, and now there was. I do not leave you and turn my heart to the kami, Gouen; I take the kami into my heart, safely, with the rest of you. You may rest easy, little brother. Your spell works. So now we have another younger one in our family. Our adopted brother, Marshal Tenpou of the Army of the West. You'll find him a handful. Goujun yawned. Look after him, ne?