Gouen the black dragon, king of the Northern Ocean, guested with Meikou, king of the Long River. The Long River is the mightiest river of the continent, and the Northern Ocean is the least of the four seas. Meikou was a man in the prime of life, with twelve sons of his own, and Gouen was the youngest of his brothers with none. So though an Ocean Dragon, Gouen bore himself meekly in the River King's presence. He smiled and spoke in a soft voice and made himself pleasant to his host and his host's sons. He memorized all their names and used them, he complimented the palace furnishings and appointments with sincere appreciation, and he kept himself from looking overlong at any of the young dragons about him. Meikou took all this as his due, which Gouen noted with minutely narrowed eyes. A sophisticated man would have turned his compliments back on him and subtly insisted on the Ocean Dragon's higher rank, which would then have led to a happy and familiar minuet of mutual deference. A large-spirited man would have dispensed with all of that and treated him as a companion and younger brother. Meikou did neither. Gouen possessed himself in patience. A youngest son learns to endure being least in all things and yielding to the desires of others.
The first night Gouen lay alone, to recover from his long journey. The second night he companioned King Meikou in the usual forms. If they were not particularly satisfying for him personally, Gouen knew he had at least performed them gracefully and with credit to his training. The third night he hoped he might be left to his own devices. His chamber servant was an accomplished and sensible man of his own age who had conveyed in a well-bred manner that he would welcome Gouen's advances. Dinner seemed to drag on forever. His host spoke of his hunting exploits past and present, while Gouen made appropriate comments of admiration and interest. The hot course and the cold one, the astringent course and the sweet, the spicy course and the cooling one, succeeded each other in a seemingly endless succession. At last came dessert, sweetmeats and fruit. The majordomo laid Gouen's plate before him. A pile of jellied candy, frosted with sugar; a bowl of peeled lychees; and a single pear.
Gouen looked at the pear as he took a lychee and nibbled at it. He was one who thrust with the point, not sliced with the blade. Only with his brothers did he lie below, and that only during his training. His second brother did not ask it of him and his third understood him well enough to know his distaste for the role. King Meikou was attending to his own plate, as was mannerly. A swift sideways glance revealed that there were no pears there.
The Long River is the mightiest river of the continent and the Northern Sea the least of the oceans, and powerful monarchs are not used to having their desires balked. A youngest son learns to endure being least in all things and yielding to the desires of others. He also learns, if he has any sense, how to get his own way without ruffling feathers.
Gouen picked the pear up in his hand and took a bite out of it.
King Meikou sent his regrets to his guest, apologizing that a sudden headache made it impossible for him to companion him that night, and trusting that the King of the Northern Ocean would find some solace in the poor replacement of his chamber attendant. Gouen did.
A son was born to Goukou the king of the Eastern Ocean, amid great rejoicing and many preparations for celebration. King Goukou sent messengers with the tidings to all the princes and dukes of the four oceans, and invited them to the feast to be held forty days after the child's birth. To his Older, Prince Shantsu, son of the king of the Western River, Goukou sent his own brother in token of esteem. Goushou, the most suitable for the office, was from home at the time, companying the ruler of the Misty Mountains. Goukou thought this a pity, for there was a strong tie of friendship between Goushou and Shantsu, but since there was no help for it he instructed Goujun to go in his stead. But the youngest of them all, Gouen the king of the Northern Ocean, put his hands in his sleeves and went on his knee to his two older brothers, asking to be allowed to carry the message himself.
"Ani-ue, Third Brother, forgive my temerity. It is true I was only a child when Lord Shantsu left this country, and I have not the ties to him that even my third brother has. But I would very much like to be the bearer of this invitation to the Western River. I beg you, indulge your youngest brother's desire yet one more time."
Goukou looked at him in surprise. But he considered that though Gouen had been a child when he knew Shantsu, Shantsu's gifts and gentleness were such as to make an impression even on a boy of eight. Maybe indeed Gouen had some lingering romantic feelings towards Goukou's Older that he was ashamed to own openly. The king gave his permission, repressing a smile. "If you have no objections, Goujun?" he added.
"None, ani-ue," Goujun replied in his phlegmatic fashion. But afterwards he said to Gouen, "I understand King Shanten is famed for his talent in poetry and his court is called a rose garden of the arts. Enjoy yourself, little brother." Gouen smiled at him and kissed his hand, for these two understood each other very well.
Gouen arrived at the palace of the Western River and was greeted with warmth by King Shanten. "I regret however that my son Shantsu is from home, companying the ruler of the northern hills. He will grieve to have missed the celebrations for his Younger's first child."
"That is truly unfortunate, my lord. But if your majesty's affairs permit, might your majesty himself have leisure to attend the ceremonies? The King of the Eastern Ocean will be sorry indeed if there are none from the Western River present at such a happy time."
"I am honoured by the invitation, Lord Gouen, and happy to consent." The business being concluded, King Shanten had Gouen conducted to a chamber where he might refresh himself. Shanten's third son Shan'yu waited on him, attending him in the bath and seeing to his needs. Shan'yu was a lively and good-humoured yellow dragon, not much older than Gouen's second brother, and the two got on famously together. Early on Gouen said to him, "You are brother to my oldest brother's Older, so we are kin in our way. This 'Lord Gouen' and 'Shan'yu-dono' is too cold a fashion for us. Let us call each other cousin," and Shan'yu agreed.
Shan'yu brought him to the dining hall where a feast had been prepared for him. Shanten would have sat Gouen in the king's place, facing the doors of the chamber, but Gouen would not hear of it. "Please do not treat me as an honoured guest when I am only the youngest brother of your son's Younger, or I shall feel uncomfortable. Pray take your proper place, your majesty, and let me sit beside you. Shan'yu-dono and I have agreed to call each other cousin, for we are as family, and family should not stand upon ceremony with each other."
smiled. "Then indeed you must stop saying
'your majesty''' and call me
"Gladly," Gouen answered, "if you will call me Gouen." And so it was agreed. Shanten ordered the tables to be moved closer together to form an open-ended square, so that all present might be near each other without any distancing by rank. He sat at the head with Gouen and his second son Shan'hao on the right side, and his favourite Rinshu and Shan'yu on the left. Rinshu was a bronze dragon with a calm and settled manner to him; as a poet his fame was inferior only to King Shanten's. Shan'hao was a red dragon, as clever and merry as his brother. It seemed odd to Gouen that these two should have the quiet settled Shantsu as their older brother, for they were nothing alike. It was King Shanten who most resembled his oldest son, and Gouen took great pleasure in his conversation.
Knowing that Gouen too
wrote poetry, Shanten began
a discussion of the principles of composition: whether the strict older forms
were best to express one's meaning, or if there was a place for the modern
looseness of rhythm. Shanten argued for the former and Rinshu the latter. Gouen
sided with Rinshu, by and large, but the examples adduced by Shanten gave him
pause and he was hard-put to think of counter-arguments and examples. The
discussion grew livelier but also more abstruse as dinner progressed through
the various courses
and the wine was poured. Shan'hao made sure Gouen's cup was never empty, but at
last Gouen put his hand over the top of it, for his head was becoming cloudy as
he tried to follow the point Shanten was making about an intermediate
The plates were removed and dessert brought in- trays of bean paste confections and bowls of fruit from which each might take as he pleased. The servant poured tea for Gouen and he sipped it as he listened to Rinshu's reply.
I may speak plainly, my lord, to me it seems that the Singing Cricket form is
inferior both to our fathers' stringent metres and the new Flowing style I
myself use. It is neither one thing nor the
other: it simplifies
versification for those who lack the discipline to write the old forms, but
still imposes rules to reassure the timid souls frightened by the freedom of
the Flowing style. It is a metre which is aimed at the poet, not the poetry,
and I cannot see how one can write anything decent in something so
Shanten laughed. "You are harsh as ever, Rinshu-dono. Singing Cricket allows of a simple verse style akin to the songs of the common people. It is like a kitchen pot- useful for what it is intended, even if no-one brings it forth to be seen by the guests at the banquet."
"Then let us have a challenge. Compose a poem for us in Singing Cricket that is honest and true in itself, and not just an earthen pot pretending to be white porcelain."
"Ah, but who is to decide whether it is honest or not?" Shan'yu asked smiling. "You are the only man who dares judge my lord father's poetry, Rinshu-dono, but in this case your prejudice must disqualify you."
"Surely Rinshu's partiality for the poet may be taken as balancing his prejudice against the metre?" Shanten suggested.
"If I am to be thus slandered," Rinshu laughed, "I will refuse the office. Lord Gouen, do you be the adjudicator."
"Pray excuse me, Rinshu-dono. I am the youngest here and lack the wisdom to judge the verse of one who has been called the flower of the four continents. Indeed, the very idea of my doing so is an impertinence."
"You are a poet yourself, and your View From Mt. Shantsin is the work of no mean talent. There is none better here, in my opinion."
Shanten gave his old friend an affectionate look. "You see what a plain man Rinshu is. He says what he thinks, without fear or favour. I agree. Your talents make you eminently suited to judge the work of others, Gouen, and I wish you would do so now."
Gouen bowed a little in his chair. "If it is my uncle's will, I shall do my poor best."
"You may be as blunt as Rinshu in speaking your thoughts, and indeed I will welcome it. You must know the difficulties a king faces in trying to get an honest opinion of his work."
"Now there I am fortunate," Gouen said. "I have three older brothers and am never short of honest opinions."
laughed at that. Shanten withdrew himself from the conversation for a space to
compose his poem, and the others spoke together in quieter tones. Gouen
considered how best to deliver his judgment. He was of Rinshu's opinion, that
Singing Cricket was a vulgar metre, but he knew a poet of Shanten's skill could
produce something respectable in it. That it would go beyond respectable he
very much doubted. Training told him to be courteous in expressing that fact to
his host and the father of his oldest brother's Older. Respect for Shanten as
an artist, and Shanten's own request, said he must be honest. He
sliced an apricot, chewed
the fleshy fruit meditatively, and decided to wait on the outcome. After a
minute Shanten said, "I think I have it." The others looked towards
him in expectation.
"Memories are like that moon above
Shining so near, and yet so far away
Much though you miss those vanished younger days
Turn your gaze down and trust to what will come."
felt a stillness in his heart. He was seeing, as if someone had put a picture
before him, himself at home in the eastern castle garden, hair loose about his
shoulders, playing knucklebones with Goujun in the early summer evening with
the pale moon rising in the lavender-coloured sky.
He could smell the sea anemones and lilies that grew in tubs about the
terrasse. Goukou and Goushou bent over a game of go. Their father sat on the
dais a little apart, watching them all with a smile,
talking to his favourite- Tenkon the man's name had been, yes, a white
dragon... He pulled himself together and looked at Shanten. He was a master. He
stood on the mountaintop while Gouen was still down in the valley, toiling his
painful way up the lower foothills.
Shanten was watching him expectantly, a half-smile on his kindly face. Gouen had no words to speak with.
He reached over and took the uncut pear from Shanten's plate. He sliced it vertically in half and laid the two sections flat on his own plate, and turned his opened hands outwards in Shanten's direction. There was a satisfied stir among the others. Shanten took his hand in his own warm one and Gouen looked up to meet his gaze.
"Thank you, little brother," Shanten said, and then, "Do not mind too much. All things come in time."
Gouen bowed, still in silence. He might have known Shanten would understand that what was sweet might still be painful, and that pain might still have sweetness in it, as this night would doubtless prove.
personfinallyCertainly tdid not the manbrownwasand cheerfulmarqui'foster an acquaintance with the mansophisticationsense
in the courts of Heaven both about
unkinddisturbmore than I havetookm by the
am not unhappy to see you
Gouen attended Goushou at dinner, which his brother took in his room. Goushou looked with indifference at the dishes presented to him and did not even pick up his chopsticks. "You begin," he said to Gouen who sat waiting for his brother to start before him. "Thank you, second brother," Gouen said, and obeyed. Goushou did not eat at all that night, but Gouen said nothing of the matter nor looked as if anything were amiss. It was the same at breakfast next day. Gouen began his meal when Goushou said he might and made no comment on the fact that Goushou took nothing but tea. At the end of it Goushou said, "You may stay longer if you are still so minded."
"Thank you. I am happy to be truant from Heaven for a space."
"I never thought you had so great a distaste for the place," Goushou said suspiciously.
"I didn't at first. It was all so different from home, and the kami and their ways can be fascinating. But when the newness wears off one realizes the drawbacks. It's like being on campaign always and living rough. No servants to speak of--"
"No meat," Goushou agreed.
"Unable to relieve nature outside one's own quarters-"
"Anhhh, the toilets," Goushou groaned feelingly.
"No poetry meetings, no conversation- one can barely get a decent game of go."
"As for that, it's no different here. I've had no-one to match me since--" He stopped. "Go now. I wish to be alone."
Gouen stood up. "I have tired you, second brother. Forgive me." Goushou had turned away from him. Gouen bowed and headed towards the door.
He paused and turned. "Second brother."
Goushou's back was still to him but he said, "Later on- maybe this afternoon- you can give me a game of go."
"I would enjoy that," Gouen said cheerfully, and took his leave.
So the day passed, and the next. Gouen kept his brother company when allowed, giving him the gossip of Heaven and talking of things from their childhood. When dismissed he took himself off to his room or the gardens where he engaged the palace dragons in idle conversation. From his chamber servant he learned that Goushou had not asked for anyone's bed service since Konnan's departure. From one of the old grandfathers dozing in the sun he heard that Goushou had not companioned any adult dragon since Konnan was declared favourite, and had even been chary in agreeing to train the younger dragons in his service. From various people he found out that a number of Goushou's servants were or had been in love with him, and all of them in vain.
Goushou said no more of Gouen's leaving. They played go or composed verses, and often Gouen read aloud while his brother rested. Goushou began to eat- soups and sliced fish, a little rice. Gouen asked to attend him at the bath, though Goushou insisted it was unnecessary.
"Indulge me in this, second brother," Gouen said. "Always from the time I was a small child you have looked after me most tenderly. When I was sick or in trouble with Ani-ue you stayed by my side, diverting or consoling me. I have had no chance to repay a tenth of your kindness. Let me at least pretend I am doing so now."
"As you will," Goushou said, and let Gouen wash his long red mane. But he would not let him wash his body or touch him otherwise. Gouen went about his task briskly, aware of the tension coming from Goushou like mist rising from a mountain valley.
"Second brother," he said in a low voice. "I am only the foolish youngest son of our family but I was well-trained by my older brothers. I am not so vain as to think I can fill the place of one my brother valued so highly." He went on shampooing Goushou's hair. Goushou said nothing, but Gouen felt him relax.
After that Goushou was more like himself and no longer kept Gouen at arm's length. But as his coldness eased his sadness was plainer to see. He would forget at times that Gouen was there, and sit gazing off into the distance with a look of blank misery on his face. Gouen's heart ached with a misery of his own. He wished Goushou would let him console him even a little. Naturally his brother wouldn't ask him to lie below, since he knew of Gouen's constitution; but Gouen was master of the mouth forms like the Five Tunes and the Cataract's Roar, and that Goushou knew well from having aided in his training. Yet it seemed he wanted no partner at all. It was as if all interest in pleasure had gone from him with Konnan's departure.
The only thing that brought some life to Goushou was the subject of Gouen's first son, now three years old and just beginning to talk understandably. Goushou pressed him for details about the child, and Gouen, who was after all a father, was glad to oblige. When he had described the boy's ways and answered Goushou's eager questions for a space, he said, "Second brother, even when you were little more than a child yourself you took better care of me than a grandfather could. You were meant to be a father. Forgive the question, but had you thought of contracting another alliance with one of the rulers?"
"No," Goushou answered shortly. "Three times have I companioned the ruling dragons, and three times I have gotten a female. It is a long labour for no gain and I have had enough of it. I shall adopt an heir when it is time, for it seems I am fated to have no son of my body."
"Three times is not so many," Gouen pointed out. "Our father begot eight children by the time he was your age, and two more afterwards."
"Our father took pleasure in companioning the land rulers and nurturing their eggs. Myself I find the process burdensome. I say nothing against the Great Dance, for that is a high matter and apart. But the seven months that follow are work that does not suit me."
"I see," Gouen said. "But still I think it a pity."
"So do not I," Goushou replied. "It is much pleasanter to be an uncle than a father. Fathers are ever strangers to their children, whose love is nine parts fear to one part affection. I would not have any child feel that way about me."
Gouen would have protested that it was not always so, but he held his tongue. A thought had come to him as they talked, light cast on his darkness, and the half of his mind was busy turning it over.
Shortly thereafter the majordomo arrived with servants bringing the evening meal. Goushou still ate in his room, simple collations of one or two dishes with soup and rice and fruit to follow. Gouen had become partial to the plain fare and to eating alone with his brother, their chairs set at right angles to each other and small tables placed before them. Every meal seemed like a picnic in its freedom and lack of formality, and he found it a pleasure to pour his brother's tea for him, or wine when he took it, and to see to his needs.
Dinner was a little more silent than usual. Goushou had retreated into himself and his eyes were far away. Gouen was thinking, his brow creased. As Gouen served the tea toward the meal's end, Goushou made an effort to be sociable, and Gouen met it cheerfully. But the thought that had come to him was hardening into a certainty and would not leave him alone.
"What will you have for dessert, second brother? There are jellied sweets and fruit and almond biscuits."
"I'll have some pear. Cut one up for me, will you?"
Gouen fetched a pear from the bowl on the side table. As if he had planned this long since he sliced it in half and laid the two parts flat on the plate, and put the plate in front of his brother. Goushou's face closed like a door.
"Is this a joke, Gouen?"
Gouen was cold to his fingertips.
"No, second brother. I am a man and a father, not a sniggering child who has just learned the ways of men with men." He looked straight into Goushou's bleak and flinty eyes, keeping the knowledge of his danger apart and separate where it couldn't reach him. He spoke on steadily before Goushou's anger could get free. "You know of my body's infirmity. Enough men share it that the idea is not unfamiliar to us. But what if there is a similar affliction, the opposite of mine, that no proper man will own to possessing?" He'd guessed right. He could see it in Goushou's eyes.
"And if there is? What of it?"
"Our ani-ue has invited you to visit him. Why do you not go? It would bring you ease to companion with him. You are like a man who does not eat or sleep, and your spirit suffers because you will not give your body what it needs."
Goushou's mouth crooked in an unhappy smile.
love and revere my older brother and partner him happily when he asks. But whether
it is his own nature or
because of his training- and I incline
to think it the latter, for he is all he should be in the neutral forms- it is
not in him to bring his brother ease."
Gouen frowned. "Training?"
"It is not advisable that kings' sons should find pleasure in certain roles. Thus we are trained not to make them pleasant for each other."
Gouen blinked, aware of heat in his face. "I have never heard any complaints from those I partner with," he said.
"Perhaps they had nothing to complain of. Tell me, do you do thus and so with them?"- and he named certain activities and techniques.
"And did you learn those from Goujun?"
His mind was full of surprise. "No. I learned them from my first partners. I thought-- it was not in Third Brother's nature to know such things..."
Goushou shrugged and looked away.
Gouen chewed his lip. "Second brother... it would not be impossible to teach these things to our oldest brother. If I could learn them from my partners, surely--" He broke off at sight of Goushou's unhappy smile.
"You are the youngest of us and adaptable as the youngest must be. You observe the nature of others and change yourself to meet their needs. That flexibility is not to be found in the oldest, and I do not look to find it. Nor do I think I will find it in anyone else. Konnan was an unusual man and now he is gone." Goushou spoke easily, but a world of misery came into his eyes on these last words. Gouen's heart tightened.
"What will you do then, second brother?"
He shrugged. "I shall do without."
Gouen stared at him, appalled. The vision he had of Goushou's life to come chilled him with its grey loneliness. He stood up swiftly, moved Goushou's table away and knelt by his side. He took Goushou's hand in both his own and pressed it tightly against his cheek.
"Second brother- second brother, this is not right. You have been kindness itself to me all my life. You have cared for me more than for yourself. You shielded me from my oldest brother's displeasure when I was young, more indeed than was good for me, and were mild in your own corrections. You have been my friend as well as my brother and I love you more than anyone in the world. One as good as you should not live alone and unsatisfied. You deserve to be loved and happy beyond the rest of us, for you have suffered more from your nature and your birth than we have."
Goushou caressed his hair with his other hand. "Thank you, little brother," he said. He sounded very tired. "But I think I was not born to be happy. You know what sorrow has come to our family through me. The laws of karma require that I pay for that. Yet be certain, if anything consoles me in my sadness, it is your love and company."
"Second brother," Gouen said slowly. "The laws of karma are the laws of heaven, and we dragons existed before either of those. Why must you be bound by them?"
"I am bound by them as I am bound by gravity. I see their energy before my eyes as I feel the pull of gravity in my body."
"And when you fly in the air, what happens to gravity then? You deserve to be happy, and though I am only your youngest brother I will move heaven and earth to see that you have what you need."
small snort of laughter.gave a small snort of laughter. "And
how will you do that, little brother?"
Gouen raised his head. "If you wanted me to lie below you I would do it, though it would cause my body pain. But that is not what you need. If you permit me I will give you what you require, though it pains my soul to do it. I say this knowing that I risk your anger and your hatred thereby, and both will be like death for me. But it is my love that speaks and will not be silenced."
looked at him and said nothing. Gouen waited as a man waits when caught among
thunderclouds,thunder to see if the
anger of the storm will strike him directly and dash him to the earth. At last
Goushou said, "You said you could not fill his place. Fair words should
have sincerity to back them, or they are no more than the buzzing of
do not think I can take his place. I can only lie with you to bring your body
what comfort it will have of mine, as a younger brother should. If it would
pain your spirit too much to do so, say no and punish me for my shamelessness
in asking, and for betraying your care and upbringing. I will bear your anger
and give you thanks for it afterwards
was another silence. At the end Goushou loosed all the
air from his body in a single
breath.air in a single breath"I do not say no," he said.