An unborn dragon within the egg requires the attention of both parents in order to grow. Without the rites of the two hundred days it will shrink and shrivel and never attain life at all. The pleasure of the female parent and the attendant pulsing of blood through her body imparts vitality to the worm. The physical and mental satisfaction engendered by the Forms harmonizes her energies, which harmony in turn stabilizes the energies of her child. Therefore a female will seek a male who is both accomplished in the Forms and attentive to their practice, and a male in turn looks for a partner who will inspire him to his best endeavours. But among the high-ranked, both parties will wish also for someone large of soul and free of rancour, since one or the other of them must necessarily be disappointed when the egg finally breaks.
There are other considerations which are less openly spoken of. No one truly knows what determines the sex of a child. The vulgar believe that it's decided by whichever parent brings the strongest will and determination to the event. The learned may laugh at this notion as flatly contradicting the principle of harmony on which conception is based. The courtly reject it out of hand as promoting an ignoble emulation between partners, one that must upset the vital process of nurturing the unborn dragonlet. But the little seed of doubt will linger on, posing what might be called an ethical dilemma for people of culture and sensitivity.
And sometimes, though no one speaks of this at all, there may be problems of a totally different sort.
Chifei, Third Prince of the Western Continent, sat in broody displeasure, opening and closing her folding fan with sharp snaps. Her chief counsellor, Haimin, remained with hands folded in her lap. The go-board lay neglected between them, its game half-finished, victim to the black mood that had come over the Prince at Haimin's quite ordinary observation that evening was approaching. Evening, and evening's customary pastimes, had long been a source of dissatisfaction to her master, which fact Haimin reproached herself for having forgotten.
"It passes my understanding that Lord Goushou doesn't put forth more effort," the Prince said. "I may even now be carrying his heir. Doesn't that consideration weigh with him at all?"
"Lord Goushou has twice gotten daughters," Haimin mentioned. "It may be he despairs of a male child."
"Despairs? After only two dances? There were two male children born between Second Sister and myself. Did our mother despair of having more offspring? Don't be ridiculous."
Haimin didn't argue. The information she'd gathered before the opening of formal negotiations suggested a degree of emotional volatility in the Ocean King's character, which might turn to either good or ill in the event. Heightened sensibility was what one hoped for, an expectation fostered by the King's poetry; but by-tales from his childhood said moodiness was an equal possibility, which one trusted the Forms to keep at bay. One's hopes seemed to have been disappointed, though Haimin herself observed nothing but courtesy and affability in the King. Evidently courtesy and affability were not enough for her master, but that might still not be Lord Goushou's fault.
The Great Dance by its very nature returns a dragon to the spirit of her ancestors. That fierceness takes some time to wear off, even with the aid of the Two Hundred Day Rites. A woman who is customarily settled in disposition and wise in diplomacy can become high-stomached and arbitrary when the breath of the upper air blows in her soul. The discomfort of carrying, though an additional source of annoyance, might in the end be nature's way of regulating this wildness of spirit, as making a ruler less likely to go to war against her neighbours: though there were ancient stories, unpleasant and only obscurely recalled, of great-bellied dragons clashing in the skies and ripping the unhatched eggs from their enemies' bodies. That shadow from the past added to a minister's instincts made Haimin chary of words. The Prince's previous pregnancy was no more tumultuous than any other, but it had had its stormy patches; and now it would seem they were into the squalls of the present one.
"The son of the Silver Dragon cannot be so small of spirit," the prince was saying. "Consider his reputation as a poet: consider his ability in arms, which is beyond the average for a male. He is a man of parts. Yet he derives no pleasure from the Forms that I can see." She got up and began to pace.
"Disturbing, of course: but is it so different from a consort who only brings ardour to the exercise in the hopes it will be a son?"
"I wouldn't know: Wenlin of the Yellow River was not so mean a man. Yet even such a one must have a motive to bestir himself, which has to be more satisfying than no desire at all. Lord Goushou doesn't lack skill; he lacks *interest*."
"Your servant is slow of understanding. If it's apparent that the king lacks interest, it can only be because he lacks skill. If his mastery of the Forms was complete--"
"However complete a man's mastery, it cannot conceal the fact that he fails to experience the activity's most basic satisfaction."
Haimin raised mental eyebrows. "That is indeed unusual. But forgive your servant, Highness- there are those who will ask if this is truly a problem. Lord Goushou is skilled, you say, so that your own pleasure is assured. And if he's indifferent to the outcome--"
"That thought does credit to neither your spirit nor your sense, Counsellor. Do not make me think I was mistaken in giving you your position. If I alone am satisfied, I might as well be copulating with a favourite. Such one-sided pleasure cannot nurture my child. All the worse if Lord Goushou's indifference gains me a daughter and an heir: she must surely fail to thrive if neither the King nor I are truly satisfied."
Haimin lowered her eyes in thought. "It might be that the King is missing someone from home. If I remember rightly, his favourite..."
"...is too low of rank to be brought to my mother's court. A marquis, isn't it?"
"He could have come as the king's body servant, as is common even with the well-born."
"But he did not. This marquis has had the King's favour for some years now. It can't be longing for him that causes Lord Goushou's lack of concern."
"Yet if one thinks on it, ocean favourites rarely endure for such a long time," Haimin pointed out. "The King would seem to be devoted to the man for some quality he possesses, that the world knows nothing of."
"Maybe only that he can endure the air of Heaven: the King cannot have too great a choice of company there. Or Lord Goushou seeks to emulate Shanten-oh of the Western River. There are close ties between the two families and Lord Goushou is a poet as well." She shrugged. "Maybe he too plays at having a legendary love."
"Maybe," Haimin agreed abstractedly. Her mind, worrying at the oddity of the king's long-enduring favourite, had stumbled on an idea that made her frown in perplexity.
"But the present situation cannot drag on for another eight months. I must do something, and soon. Maybe in the end I'll suggest that Lord Goushou summon this Marquis of his. Unless you can think of another course." Silence from her counsellor. "Haimin!" the prince said sharply.
"Forgive me, Highness. I had a thought in my head, but..."
"Well, let's hear it," Chifei said when the Counsellor fell silent.
Haimin began, with an odd hesitation: "My prince recalls ' the slender pear tree'?"
"I cannot reach so high; the branch must bend/ Down to my hand or else remain untouched," Chifei quoted automatically, brows knitting. "What of it?"
"Your Highness remembers why the poem was composed? The Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom became enamoured of the beauty and parts of the brother of the King of the Eastern Ocean and ventured to address this poem to him; and the king in turn, being great of heart, acceded to his desires and consented to lie below him in acknowledgment of the excellence of his verse."
"I know all that. And so?"
"The story concerns an ocean king," Haimin pointed out. "It may indeed concern this ocean king."
"Very likely. I repeat, and so?"
"Could it possibly be that the king agreed to the Duke's request not merely because the poem is an impressive one, but because his nature inclined him to find the role itself congenial?"
Haimin had the rare satisfaction of seeing her master's face go blank with astonishment. "Impossible," she said immediately. "The ocean kings are too-- too-- No. I don't believe it."
"The King leaves his favourite at home, which suggests he finds sufficient pleasure in the Two Hundred Day Rites to dispense with the man's company. Yet he signally fails to find any pleasure at all. That seems suggestive to me."
Chifei plucked distractedly at the material of her skirts. "But with a marquis?? An ocean dragon--? You know the narrowness of ocean prejudices. It's not possible."
"With a marquis, in Heaven, where few dragons dwell. No servants, no gossip... It strikes me as more than likely."
"But if that's so..." The Prince's mouth crooked, miserable and angry in equal measure. "Then I must press him to send for his favourite. If the King is at least satisfied at other times, maybe he'll have more will for the Rites with me."
"I will be blunt, Madam. If the king prefers to lie below, let him lie below my prince."
Chifei raised exasperated hands. "We're speaking of an ocean king, Haimin! Touchy in their pride and prudish in their ways. How do I even broach the subject to him without offence? We're not talking about a mere river flooding, bad as that is. If the King is angry enough, my aunt of the Southern Continent could lose a whole portion of her coast!"
"We're speaking of an ocean king who may well be different from other ocean kings."
"We don't know that--"
"We find out."
"In the name of all power, *how*?"
"In the ocean fashion. Tonight we serve him pears for dessert." She struck the bell.