Gouen of the Northern Ocean sent this poem to Shanten of the Western River:
Months and seasons are the waves upon my ocean:
Following forever, no sooner here than gone.
Storms in the black sky rain upon my ocean--
Tempest winds forever lash the waters of my home
Far in the west land beyond the still white mountains
The ripples of your river reflect the bluer sky.
By their gentle murmur, beneath the willows' shadow,
The teacher of my youthful years, how does he fare?
Shanten wrote back:
Clouds cross the blue sky, the sun begins to wester.
Evening calm and settled, a few cicada sing.
Dear friend from faraway, comrade of my past years,
Come and sit beside me and talk the night away.
He arrived without state, bringing only Tsuuran and a porter for their small baggage. Shanten-oh was waiting to greet him. They exchanged the embrace of close friends and stood, hands still clasped, smiling at each other.
"Uncle, how good it is to see you again. I hadn't realized."
"Good indeed, Gouen-sama. Come bathe and refresh yourself. My sons are waiting to greet you." He conducted Gouen within.
"The lords Shan'hao and Shan'yu are also at home? I shall be delighted to see them again."
"And they you. Shan'yu has just returned with a second son that he is bursting with pride over. And your own new little one, how is he?"
"Blooming in health, I thank you. Sons are indeed a consolation for life's troubles. I would have more of them; I mean to have a palaceful in time."
"No monarch in the world would reject an overture from a king and scholar like yourself, my lord."
Gouen bathed and changed his clothes, and was conducted to the terrasse looking to the mountains from which the Western River takes its source. Shanten and his three sons rose at his arrival. Gouen put his hands in his sleeves to greet the oldest of them, for Shantsu was Older to Gouen's own oldest brother; but he exchanged a cousin's kiss with the other two, for he had long been on familiar terms with all of Shanten-oh's family.
"I trust your sons are in health, Shantsu-dono?" he said when they were seated and drinking their tea.
"I thank you, they are most well. Yinchao my heir now has two sons of his own; Yinkuei the second is currently away from home, companying the fifth daughter of Far-fields, but he will be back in three months. And my youngest, Yintai, has just received his first overture, and that from Wen-chuan. We are considering of it now."
"Your family prospers indeed," Gouen murmured, and Shantsu smiled at him.
"My father's genius attracts the notice of the great even to his poor descendants."
"Your own parts and reputation do their fair share. Any family must be delighted to be allied with yours."
"And thus perhaps we come to the point of your visit," Shanten-oh said. "You know that, all things being equal, we would consider it an honour to provide an Older to the family with whom we have such close ties of affection."
"Your words are cold, Uncle," Gouen said unhappily. "'All things being equal'? And you speak of being 'honoured' by me, whom you were kind enough to call your equal in verse."
"I speak now to the King of the Northern Ocean, brother to the Blue Dragon of the East."
"My ani-ue's feelings towards you are even warmer than my own, as well you know."
"But your ani-ue has two sons already come to manhood. Surely he expects either Lord Kaiei or Lord Kaisou to be Older to your heir."
Gouen had expected that objection and now girded himself for negotiation. "I'd be delighted if Kaiei could train my son, but it would mean sending my boy away to the Eastern Ocean for a long time. My brother cannot do without his heir for six years. Kaisou also must bide at home to see to little Kaimyou's training, that will begin two years after my son starts his. But I also am unwilling to part with my son for years together." He looked to see that the point had registered. "When Goujun's first child was born, Ani-ue said we must seek outside the family for Olders," he continued. "I made inquiries through my son's female-side kin but found no candidate to my satisfaction. And so I hope now to receive a favourable answer to the matter I first broached to you these many years ago."
"Truly I would not refuse you your desire, any more than I refused your father's when he did me the honour of asking my son to be Older to his heir. I've discussed this with Shantsu and our only concern is lest we displease the Blue Dragon."
"I cannot think but that Ani-ue will be overjoyed at a further tie between our family and yours. If you are agreeable, let us decide now which of your grandsons you will send to my heir."
"So be it, then. Yinchao is the oldest: both his rank and his disposition make him the most fitting for the position."
Too much to hope that Shanten would begin by suggesting the candidate Gouen had set his heart on. But he'd prepared his arguments here as well. "Yet if I am unwilling to part with my oldest son for six years, I can't well ask Shantsu-dono to do the same. Nor would I wish to keep Yinchao-dono from his own growing children for so long."
"That is kindness in you. Yinkuei also has a son, which leaves Yintai, the youngest. He's certainly the most suitable in terms of age; he has a warm disposition, and I trust the experience of the Great Dance will give him what depths of soul he may lack now."
"Is it right, though, to put the youngest of all ahead of his elders? Yinkuei-dono's son is still small. It must be a while before the boy requires a father's direction, and even that he may receive from his oldest uncle. And Yinkuei-dono has that reputation for parts that I shall hope to find in my son's Older."
"He has charm and parts indeed, but I think he lacks the stability needed to company a prince. I will be frank, Gouen-sama. Yinkuei relies too much on his sunny disposition and ability to please, as gold dragons are wont to do. He lacks true solidity. I will show you some of his verses later, and that may convince you more readily than my words."
"I must bow to your wisdom, Uncle," Gouen said, sighing within. "Let me think more on this, but for the moment we shall agree that Yintai seems the likeliest candidate."
Shanten-oh gave him a look of sympathy, but he was clearly not about to yield the point. Now was not the time to press, so Gouen changed the subject.
"How clear the air is on the western continent. I've spent much time here in recent months, yet every time it strikes me anew."
"Of course. You were companying the Fifth Western Prince. That court is perhaps not as refined as the Southern, but there is learning aplenty there. The Third Prince in particular is a poet of solidity and sense."
"True," Gouen agreed. "She has a good wit and a deep understanding of the human heart. She was the go-between in my match with the Fifth Prince, and I rather fancy the idea was hers in the first place. I'd had no thought of an alliance at such a time, and in fact I was a bit shocked that her overture should come so soon after Third Brother's first year memorial. But in the end she was right. Those months in the western palace were a great relief to the oppression of my spirits."
Shanten-oh nodded. "When death comes too soon, it's best to assert the presence of life, and nothing does that so well as the Great Dance."
"It's not as if Third Brother is truly dead," Gouen said. "I know that, but still-- it will be years before he returns to us, and in his absence I find myself looking for remembrances of him." He added, apologetically, "They don't understand this at home but maybe you will. The fact is, I'm glad to have a son who carries Third Brother's blood on the female side. I don't know how much the female parent-- your pardon, mother-- contributes to a son's character as opposed to a-- a daughter's, but still... the connection is there, and such as it is, I find it a comfort."
"The sages have argued that question among themselves to no conclusion. But the same father gets quite different sons, and the same mother bears quite different daughters, so the ultimate determinant must be a more subtle matter. For if we speak of the Western Third Prince, she had the same mother and the same father as Lord Goujun, but I see many differences between herself and her brother."
"Really? I thought them much alike, except that the Lady Chifei has perhaps more address than Third Brother and expresses herself more openly. But again, my second brother holds her in high regard: of all the monarchs he's companied she's the only one of whom he speaks warmly. Yet he was the one of us least in sympathy with Third Brother, for their natures were ever at odds."
"That must have been hard, but it happens often enough. Brothers are not always in harmony with each other."
"This I know. Yet they should be, and would be if the rule of nature prevailed."
"So men say, but I wonder if it's true. Certainly I try to bear a placid mind, in accordance with the harmony of the universe, lest my river overflow its banks and cause destruction on the plain. But I will end the life of a fish to make my meal and my calmness of mind does that fish no good at all."
Gouen looked at him, perturbed. "You think strife natural to nature? Do you disagree with the tenet that all is one?"
"Not at all. All is one in its basic nature, but in this world it exists in various parts, and those parts must necessarily rub one against the other. They may be held in balance as much by difference as by similarity and by repulsion as much as attraction. As an instance-- the joining of male and male in the Forms brings balance to the soul, as one would expect of like forces in harmony. Does that mean that the joining of different forces, of female and male, can bring none?"
"No one would argue that," Gouen smiled.
"Dragons contain the essence of nature and the universe. Yet we were never a peaceful race. We pride ourselves now on being different from our ancestors, ruled by law and reverence for what is right; but our ancestors in all their violence were more in tune with their basic natures than we. They denied themselves nothing and expressed the feelings of their hearts directly."
Gouen found no answer to that, though his soul stiffened in resistance to the notion.
"Ah, forgive me, Lord Gouen. I trouble you with my ramblings, as an old man will. And forgive me again, but an old man's nature requires him to devote his siesta to sleep. I shall have to leave you for a while, but any of my sons will be happy to company you if you like."
"Thank you, Uncle. I think I shall sleep too. But I hope your sons, and Lord Shantsu especially, will vouchsafe me a little conversation first, for my ani-ue will ask me for news from him when next we meet."
"It will be my pleasure," Shantsu said smiling, "after I have seen my father to his rooms."
"Then pray do not mind me, Uncle," Gouen said, "but go to your rest." They all rose and exchanged bows. Shantsu went indoors behind his father and the other two sat again as Gouen did.
Shan'hao signalled the servant to bring fresh tea. As it was pouring Gouen asked Shan'yu about this new son of his, and Shan'yu answered with pleasure. "My last two Dances produced daughters, and it seemed my first-born would reach his Final Dance before ever he had a brother. But fortune relented, and now I have my little one by me."
"It's a thing I've often wondered. Forgive me if I ask what I should not. The great river kings all have two hands' worth of sons, if not more. Yet the princes of the Western River, though allied to the greatest blood in the continents and the oceans, never have more than two or three sons each."
Shan'hao and Shan'yu smiled at each other.
"Our father's gifts and genius far outstrip his river's wealth," Shan'hao said. "We wait for offers from the rulers rather than making our own, for the presentation gifts alone would burden our treasury. When one of our family Dances, the others must wait to see the outcome before accepting overtures of their own, for if the child is a son much of our resources will be spent on the Other-parent's guerdon."
"And in turn," Shan'yu said, "the guerdon we receive for fathering a daughter goes out again as gifts to the mothers of our sons. Being poor in wealth we husband our resources, and cherish the sons we have all the more because they are few. Forgive me if *I* speak out of turn, but is it so different in your own family? The Ocean Kings have been woefully dealt with by Fate and Heaven, not by nature, but your numbers are still fewer than they should be. And perhaps your brothers are the more precious to you for that reason."
"It is true," Gouen said, "and has been true for three generations. The Black Dragon and my father were both cut off before they could get the full measure of their sons, and by now it seems almost natural that there should be no more than four children of any one father. But my ani-ue and I hope to return to the old ways, as my uncle Goushun has done. In spite of the years lost to Heaven, the Ocean Lords will still have sons in kingly number."
"Excellent!" Shantsu said, coming up on them. "I've long hoped to see my Younger with many children, as befits so great a king."
"Then you will be glad to learn that even now he companies the monarch of Lushan, and in a few months more we will know the sex of the child."
"That is indeed good to hear. Your honoured brother's death was an unforeseen calamity and I was uneasy for Goukou's peace of mind afterwards. It would be wonderful if he too were to have another son, and of such a lineage."
"And he will be glad to know that you may soon have another grandson, if Yinkuei-dono prospers in his present endeavour."
"We shall hope he may, and have another little one to devote his attention to. Yinkuei is much sought after as a Dancing partner, but he may need to step aside for a bit so that his younger brother can have a chance at an heir."
Gouen took heart from the remark. "Your father is severe upon his grandsons. I cannot think Yinkuei-dono as light of spirit as the King says he is, not with such a lineage behind him."
"My father's wisdom has always corrected my own fatherly partiality. Otherwise I would have indulged Yinkuei too much, as all the world does, to his hurt and that of my other sons as well. He has charm, no one doubts it, but charm is not enough to qualify a man to instruct the first prince of an ocean."
"It may be sufficient, if the prince himself is deficient in that area."
"Your son, Lord Gouen?" red Shan'hao smiled. "That I find hard to believe."
"Kaigon is steady and decided, and I think will prove a leader of men," Gouen said. "But he has little aptitude for the arts and lacks flexibility of spirit. I would have him gain those qualities, and soon, for his next brother is a gold dragon like Lord Yinkuei, and bids fair to outshine him in time."
"Lord Kaigon sounds to me very much as your ani-ue was in youth," Shantsu said.
"They're much alike even as my ani-ue is now."
"And your ani-ue also had a brother who outshone him in the arts and in address of person," Shantsu went on. "Yet I cannot see that either of you repine over the fact."
Gouen felt his cheeks warm. "You are kind. Still, Ani-ue follows the path of our father. He is a warrior and statesman, and men have always called him a worthy son to King Gou'erh. But Kaigon will forever be hearing 'What, the son of Gouen the Black Dragon, and cannot turn a verse or pay a compliment?' A little training in time will give him the aplomb to deal with that, and what serves better than a model close to hand whom he may pattern himself on?"
"But it seems to me Lord Kaigon's main work will be to support the High King. A serious and practical nature is no drawback when dealing with either your brother or Lord Kaiei."
"A lack of flexibility is. I would have my son learn grace, as I think my ani-ue learned it from you. For grace and adaptability is what distinguishes Ani-ue from our father, and what may have helped him avoid those pitfalls that were the undoing of both our father and grandfather. And I must say, now Ani-ue grows older, I see him becoming as our father was, and growing settled and unmovable in his ideas. The men about him must win him through address, for plain reason and arguments no longer serve."
"I am sad to hear it, but perhaps it's not unexpected. A man stiffens himself to bear the blows that fall, and if those blows never cease he will become harder in order to endure them. But even then I may hope it only a temporary response to Lord Goujun's death. In time, and especially after Lord Goujun returns, he may grow mellow again."
"He may," Gouen said bleakly, "but I think it will be long before any of that happens."
"Ahh." Shantsu gave him a look of sympathy. Gouen took himself in hand.
"Forgive me. I'm a little low in spirit these days, but try not to yield to my moods. Perhaps I too should go take my rest."
Gouen was conducted to his rooms where he changed from formal robes into a chamber gown. The western servants sponged him down and brought tea which Tsuuran served him. Gouen sipped it, sighed, and put it aside.
"Company my rest," he said. The servants moved swiftly to bring Tsuuran a lined cotton gown and help him change. Tsuuran dismissed them and himself turned the bedclothes down for his master. Gouen stretched out with another sigh as Tsuuran settled beside him.
"I think Shantsu-dono is on my side, and may persuade his father to my way of thinking. But Shanten-oh was firm in opposing my desire for Yinkuei. It may be that we'll have to settle for Yintai after all."
"A grandson of Shanten-oh is still Shanten-oh's grandson. His parts may not have shown so far because his older brothers are so notable in their own ways."
"True. But still I would have Kaigon trained by a gold dragon, for those have a natural grace and assurance of manner. If he can pick up the knack, it will hold him in good stead when it comes to dealing both with his cousin and his younger brother." He shifted discontentedly. "And Yintai is a red dragon. His grandfather hinted that he has the natural variability of such."
"If that were a serious problem, would Shanten-oh promote him to your Majesty at all?"
"Perhaps not. But still he thinks Yinkuei the lighter-natured of the two. I wonder if he has a prejudice against him? And there's the matter of their colours. A blue dragon with a red older must ever appear to disadvantage."
"If my lord will excuse me, in my experience it's easier to match blue and red if blue predominates. Red robes with blue trim are the real problem."
"As Second Brother has always said, yes." Gouen sighed yet again and turned to his side. "Well, we must wait on Shanten-oh's will in this." He signalled over his shoulder. Tsuuran came up against Gouen's back and put an arm about his waist.
"Sing to me a little," Gouen said. "One of the old songs." He closed his eyes. Tsuuran began to sing:
In the south there are fine fish
In multitudes they leap
The lord offers wine:
The good guests feast and rejoice.
In the south there are fine fish
In multitudes they glide
The lord offers wine:
The good guests feasts and are merry.
"That will do," Gouen said, displeased. He pulled himself free of Tsuuran's embrace.
"Forgive your servant. I was thoughtless."
"You were. I have no wish to hear of the lord of the south these days. Leave me."
Tsuuran got up, bowed, and backed away from the bed. Gouen was half-minded to recall him but stayed silent. Tsuuran was not the kind to take his temporary dismissal or his master's anger greatly to heart. Gouen turned to his other side, a sullen irritation burning inside him. There was a lattice-work window in the wall and the blue sky of the Western River showed through the fretting. A sudden wave of sadness drowned out his anger.
'I came here first when Kaiei was born', he thought, 'and here I found the world of my dreams. In Shanten-oh's court love, companionship, learning and poetry flourished like flowers-- all the things that keep the senses in tranquil balance and lift the heart to poetry. How much was suddenly possible in this company: the heights I'd only yearned to climb, that I found myself flying easily above. I thought I would find that peace again to console my present grief.'
'But what I see instead are the shadows of those gone, and the happiness they left behind is a ghost at the table. How does Shanten-oh bear it? He lost the brother of his heart, and not for a space only as I have done, but forever. I'm ashamed to ask him to ease my pain. How can a man with a scratch to his ribs complain to one who has been run through the vitals?'
His heart constricted in his breast. 'Nothing comes as it came before. Change is the measure of the universe-- change is the nature of a dragon-- the clouds in the sky and the waves on the sea keep no shape nor place. Then why can I not cease to regret the changes that have come upon me? The sky above the sun and stars is always there, and if we put our trust in it it will not fail us. How little I knew when I spoke those lines. There is no kindness in the Heavens nor constancy on earth. Ani-ue, Second Brother, Third Brother-- all changed and gone from me, each in his way. Third Brother may come back to me but not as he was before. If my brothers in their own oceans can become as strangers to me, what will happen to Third Brother in his years among the youkai of earth?' A flash of anger went through him at the word.
He turned to his other side. I will not think of that now. I've been about it and about and my thought goes nowhere and does me no good. I will sleep and think only of Shanten-oh's past kindness to me. He closed his eyes and repeated his mantra until his senses slipped from him.
After the siesta Shanten-oh took Gouen to his library. The two spent the afternoon looking at various manuscripts the king had received from his friends among the poets of the continents, containing copies of the poets of old and records of their own verse.
"And here," Shanten said, bringing out a small volume, "are the poems I've had copied from the letters of one of my correspondents, a man who is legendary in our land. You may have heard of him, given that you were here recently-- the recluse of Tsao'meikang?"
Gouen's heart jerked. "Pipang! Ah, of course you'd know him. Have you too gone to visit him at his waterfall?"
"I would not intrude my state on his solitude, though we correspond often. But I take it you've met him in person?"
"Yes," Gouen said wryly. "I did intrude my state on his solitude, though I went incognito. We spent an evening exchanging verse. Indeed..." He sighed without thinking. "Indeed, his verses inspired me to heights I rarely achieve."
"I can well believe it. They possess an ethereal delicacy that's as rare as the Sage's own colour."
"Yes. He has much of the air of an Immortal to him."
"It's true, he's not wholly of this world. Not surprising, I suppose, in view of his upbringing."
"The story isn't generally known. His parents were of the common run, and having borne so rare a son were perplexed to find an Older worthy of him. They had no acquaintances among the scholarly and noble; their own relatives they considered unsuited to train one of such delicacy. So the decision hung in dispute from one year to the next, and finally, when he was fifteen, Pipang left his mother's house and took the waterfall of Tsao'meikang as his own."
Gouen stared. "Are you saying-- do you mean he never had an Older?"
"Exactly. Strange as it seems, he never learned the Forms. Yet he seems not to have missed their instruction and consolation, but finds calm and sustenance in the rocks and streams of his mountain. Like the Immortals indeed, who need no food but subsist happily on air and dew."
Shanten glanced briefly at him. "I thought, if you'd visited him, you might have wondered."
"I did." He looked down at the tea cup in his hand. "But did you know the Sage recently spent five days at the Southern Ocean, companying with my brother?"
Shanten raised surprised eyebrows. "Did he indeed? Well, well. I'm glad to hear it, though I must wonder how far their companying went. But Goushou-sama is also a red dragon, and likely to be sympathetic to one of the Sage's delicate constitution. I think he has ever had a tenderness for the wounded and afflicted."
"Yes, that is so. The Marquess held his affections for many years, and his leaving grieved him for at least as long. Ah well. That explains that, then."
"I'd heard that the Sage was of a surpassing beauty," Shanten said after a moment, "though I've always wondered if that opinion was an effect of the rarity of his colour."
"His colour, his delicacy, his talent, and his unworldliness-- it's all those things together, I think. But the result is to make of him one well-nigh irresistible." Gouen hesitated. But Shanten-oh had already seen through to his heart. No point in keeping silent from pride. "I regret him. Indeed I regret him more and not less with the passing of time. But at least now I know the reason for his refusal of me. Let us speak of something else, Uncle."
Shanten at once turned the conversation to other poets and Gouen followed his lead. The afternoon passed and dinner followed, and he and Shanten found themselves at last sitting over tea as the red sun set behind the mountains. Gouen watched the brilliant colours of the sky, fiery red below the pale blue. He turned his head eastward and saw black night coming on; looked back and found Shanten watching him. He steeled himself for the coming ordeal, knowing that in his present heaviness of spirit he could never match Shanten's verse-- could barely acquit himself with honour, if that.
But it was no matter. When Shanten saw how clumsy his junior's efforts were, he'd find a tactful way to cut the evening short. That thought made his bitterness redouble.
Your well is deep,
filled with night and black water.
A pebble falls.
No sound disturbs the silence.
Gouen's head was empty. After a moment he heard his voice answering without thought:
My sea is deep,
its waters black and lightless.
The rain still falls,
salt water on the brine.
He put his sleeve over his face to hide the tears that suddenly flushed his eyes. There was a rustle of silk robes and the warm touch of Shanten-oh's fingers on the back of his free hand. He turned it to take hold of Shanten's, grasping the age-softened skin until he had himself under control.
"I'm sorry, Uncle," he said at last. "The happiness of the past is too clear here, and it makes the present that much more bitter to me. Forgive me. I have no heart for making verse these days."
"It's hard to lose the only respite from grief one has," Shanten said. "Yet that's so often the way of it."
"It's not the only respite," Gouen said, and looked him in the eyes.
Hands still clasped they went into the inner chamber. Shanten's servants disrobed them and wrapped them in wadded gowns against the chillness blowing from the mountain ranges. Gouen slid into the sheets of the King's carved bed, rougher than those of the eastern and southern lands but warmer as well. Shanten lay down beside him; Gouen turned eagerly towards him in the room's half-light, clasping the king's smaller body in his long arms.
Shanten's fingers began to move across Gouen's horns, delicate strokes that made his breath come short. Shanten's lips worked over Gouen's eartips, impossibly arousing. Gouen gladly gave up the struggle to remain himself: he had no choice but to submit completely to Shanten's mastery. The phantom lover touched him here, touched him there, made his eyesight go dark and his breath choke in his throat. He was swimming in the rough dark waters of his northern sea: invisible waves battered him, unseen spray blinded his eyes, and his spirit sang its exhilaration. The touch of a talon on his sheath, pinprick sharp, and Gouen groaned aloud. Then a soft touch lightly enveloped his root, moving in spirals up his length: the pattern of the Convolvulus without the strength. It was too much. Gouen went under in a sliding wave of pleasure.
His hands automatically felt for the body beside him. He kicked the coverlets away and raised a leg. His apt and silent partner came at once above him: hooked Gouen's leg over his shoulder and pushed the other backwards above Gouen's head. Swift and smoothly he moved, and was within Gouen before Gouen knew what was happening. Then he rocked, and rocked, a sublime stroking such as Gouen had never known. Worlds opened inside his head; his mouth opened and he sang, sang the deepness of the seas and their weight of water and the huge surging power of the waves that move over and under them until they crashed on the shore.
The servants came and went, leaving them washed and clean. Gouen lay curled up, listening to the beating of Shanten-oh's heart under his ear. Large slow-moving clouds of emotion filled his mind. He left them unexamined, savouring the present dreamy detached contentment. Shanten-oh's fingers played gently with the hair of Gouen's sidelock.
"I have much to learn yet," Gouen said at last. "Never have I met such mastery as yours."
"It will come in time, and naturally. What skill I have is the effect of my years. If you've never found it among your other partners, doubtless it's because none of them are of your grandfather's generation."
Gouen gave a rueful laugh. "A pity that men may not know these things are possible until they come to middle years. And lucky for me that our relationship allows me a pleasure denied to others."
"I thought you did find pleasure just now, with much less labour than the last time we joined. 'Swimming through the depths, deeper than a fish/ Flying in the heights, higher than the birds' as the poem says. I am glad of it, Gouen-sama. It's no happiness for me to cause you pain."
"That's a thing you've never done nor, I think, could do. For when we coupled that first time, your verse carried me beyond the limits of my body and I became more than myself. And the light I found in the sky where we joined shines still when I partner with you."
Shanten's mouth curled. "Now, as I recall, it was night when we made our poem together and the sky was as black as you are, for the moon was barely waxing."
"It was night, and the moon was a talon paring that cast no light at all; but for me the noonday sun and the moon at full and a myriad stars together filled all my heart and soul and mind."
This time Shanten laughed aloud. "Small wonder all men find you irresistible, Gouen-sama. When you speak the stars themselves lean down to listen."
"I say only what is in my heart. The joining of master and disciple produces more than the customary harmony and balance of the Forms. It minds me of the Great Dance: your spirit enters mine as your body does, and brings to life the poetry asleep within me."
"Gouen-sama, must I tell you that we are not master and disciple?"
"You may tell me if you wish, but your saying it will not alter the fact. I have ever followed your course through my own poor endeavours; your light showed me the land I wished to enter and the road that led there." He sighed. "Care and sorrow drag constantly at me these days, but you are still the sun in my sky. Do not take that away from me."
"I will not, if you find ease in thinking so, but I wonder how much power the sun can have over a rain dragon. We made no poems this night to carry you away from yourself, yet you found the experience not unpleasant. Shall I assume the door has opened that was so long shut to you?"
"It is open indeed," Gouen said bitterly, "but up to now the fact has been no pleasure to me. It was not my doing that caused it, and it happened in such circumstances that I could wish myself as I was before," and he quoted the old poem:
Reproof from a wise man is sweeter than water
Praise from a fool is sour as gall;
Pebbles from a true friend are better than rubies
Gold from a traitor is no gift at all.
"There is a story here," Shanten said. "Will you tell it to me?"
"Yes," Gouen said. "Yes I will, though it recalls my weakness and my shame. Maybe if Third Brother were here--" he swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. "--maybe then I would have told him and so relieved my heart. But as it is there's been no one I could tell the whole tale to, and I may be better for it." Yet his tongue was heavy and he hesitated as to where to begin.
"Third Brother-- I've wondered unceasingly where he is now, and in what shape. I do not trust the bosatsu to speak the plain truth to us; se loves to riddle and send men on the wrong path. So I thought me of my uncle, the hermit of the Eastern Ocean. I had heard-- it was said that he knows more than other men, for the winds speak to him and tell him all the doings of the seas and the continents. So I went looking for him, to ask if he had heard anything."
He took a deep breath. "And so, on the way, I met a white dragon who took me to his house beneath the ocean. We drank tea; we made verses. His verse was-- it was different from any I'd ever met, and surpassed anything I could do, which was bitterness to me. This dragon-- I had my doubts of him, for he appeared too opportunely, and there were other things that made me doubt his true form. But still, he was a master of my craft and as a master I needs must regard him. And he said it was my own doing that my talent did not rise to answering his verse-- that I kept my spirit closed through cowardice, and my body the same." His hands clenched on the coverlet, and the next words of the tale choked and died in his throat.
"And he said he had the means to open both for you?"
"How did you know?"
"I can guess. The Hermit would not let one of his family call on him without answering, and his knowledge is deep and not wholly of our world."
"You know him," Gouen said, surprised that he felt surprised. "Naturally you would, being of his father's generation."
"I knew of him, and read his poems. In those days a minor king of the continents would not approach an Ocean Lord freely."
"What manner of man is he, in your opinion?"
Shanten was silent a moment.
"Do not misunderstand me," he said at last. "Of all the Black Dragons sons, he is in some ways the one most like him, though he was none of the Black Dragon's getting. Your father and your uncle learned the lesson of their father's fate; I'm not certain the Hermit did, or could, and that itself may be the reason he took himself from the world of dragons. Yet I imagine he did what he said he would do."
"Yes, and turned it to ashes even as he did so," Gouen said in indignation. "He took more in payment than ever he gave; there was poison in the bottom of the cup he offered me. He gave me a drug to free my soul and body, and part of that freedom, I must assume, was that I saw Third Brother as he is now." He caught Shanten's look of inquiry. "It's not good. Not the worst it might be-- he's still a dragon at least-- but not good. I thought I'd be relieved when once I had certain knowledge. It was only later that I realized. The Hermit showed me Third Brother in a vision, but gave me no way of finding him again. Third Brother no longer remembers me-- his soul will not answer mine should I call. And so I think my state worse than when I knew nothing at all."
"And it is thus with all he did. At first I was happy with my new ability to compose. The unfamiliar forms of the poems challenged and pleased me. But now they sound leaden in my ear-- clever exercises that go nowhere and take me nowhere and lead to nothing. They have no inspiration. My poetry smells of his, and I can no longer bear the thought of it."
"It will do no good for me to say that this weariness and disgust can happen in the course of any poet's life."
"I know it can; it has before. Then I could overcome it by harder efforts and discipline, by reading the poems of the masters and by talk with men of intelligence. But now I feel the spring of poetry has dried within me."
"Yes, that too happens when the soul is assailed with grief and trouble, as your own has been."
Gouen felt his heart twist. He put his arm about Shanten's neck.
"Uncle, forgive me. I didn't wish to recall your own sorrow to you."
Shanten smoothed Gouen's hair. "My sorrow is an old injury that has silvered with time. You will not believe it, but these griefs are not forever:
The one I once drank with is gone from the banquet:
The wine that filled our goblets is dry in the jar;
The one I once dined with is gone from the banquet:
Dry are the meats that we two used to share.
The one who slept by me now lies in the dark land:
Still on my lips is the taste of his sweet wine.
The one who has left me lies yet in my heart's core:
The voice of his singing stays sweet in my ears.
Your grief is new, and a chance blow will open the wound again. The Forms it was that cured my first ill, and your new ability there must surely make their practice easier for you. I would advise you to undertake them all, in order, and see what that discipline can do for your soul."
"I know of that discipline; I know my Ani-ue undertook it here with his Older. But my Older is gone from me. Who shall I perform them with now?"
But even as he spoke he felt his thoughts arranging themselves in the lines of a poem, naturally and from the heart as his poems used to come to him. He hesitated for half a moment, doubting their quality. But he feared the bad luck in refusing the gift when it came, and so he recited the lines as they sounded in his head:
The one I would drink with is far from the banquet:
The wine long desired proves bitter in the cup;
The one I would dine with is far from the banquet:
The feast long preparing is ashes when I eat.
The one I would bide with no longer knows his brother:
Sour though the wine is, I must drink it up;
The one whom I mourn for has found him another:
I must fill my stomach with poisoned drink and meat."
Shanten stroked him comfortingly. "So who is it you dine with these days, Lord Goujun being gone?"
"My ani-ue," Gouen said bitterly. "He would have me act as his younger's younger and chooses to ignore that I was never that."
"Surely he hopes for your mutual consolation, since you have lost your Older and he his younger brother?"
"He may believe that will happen but he should know better. I've told him often enough. He took the father's part with me from my earliest manhood and as such I have always regarded him. It's too late now to be only my oldest brother."
Shanten shook his head. "That's hard for you indeed."
"I'm glad to hear you say so. The world is more likely to agree with him-- that we are no more than brothers, and that I insult my father's spirit to think of Ani-ue in his place. But that doesn't change what happened. Ani-ue was all the father I've had since the age of twelve. I danced my Final Dance with him. It's bitter beyond saying that my love for him is forced into another form, and one that I feel to be wrong."
Shanten was silent a moment in thought. "If the need were great enough, might love and reverence not allow you to do what you think wrong? And the more so if it brings ease to a king and a brother?"
Gouen looked up sharply, suspicion leaping in his breast.
"Gouen-sama?" Shanten said in startlement.
Gouen loosed an unsteady breath, heart thudding. "I wondered if you knew: if maybe Ani-ue told Shantsu-dono of the matter, and he told you."
"No. Should I ask what it is you speak of?"
"You will despise me, but no matter. I will tell you the truth. My second brother does not lie above, as I do not-- did not-- lie below. So for many years it was our custom for me to lie above him at need." He gave Shanten a straight look. "What do you think drove Ani-ue here in such rage just after Third Brother's death?"
"Ahh," Shanten said, nodding. "I see. I see. So it was Goushou-sama you meant just now, who had found himself another?"
Gouen felt sudden heat in his face. "No," he said automatically. "I was speaking of-- but indeed, it is true of Second Brother too." He gave a bitter laugh. "I complain that my Ani-ue wants too much of me and my second brother not enough. I am indeed hard to please."
Shanten shifted onto his back at Gouen's side and pillowed his head on his arms.
"Surely it's that life is more complicated than we expect. Our laws and customs indicate the way we should go, but we must tread the road there ourselves, and the path is beset with difficulties unlooked-for--
Boulders block the river's course; it chokes in sandy shallows.
Its waters still will force their way out to the welcome sea."
Gouen sighed and answered:
"The sea spreads out on every hand, pent by the far horizon.
Its waves move only back and forth, unpurposed as the birds."
"Swift and strong my river runs, and deep enough I think it.
But oceans move as heavens do, with depths I cannot plumb."
Gouen turned his head away.
"My ocean's depths are dark and cold, no light for man to see by.
And that which swims within them should not look upon the sun.
Shanten sighed and turned over. "I'm sorry for your trouble, and glad that at least you find some happiness with me." Beneath the covers his hand stroked the length of Gouen's underthigh. Gouen drew his breath in deeply. Shanten's hand moved back up, lightly, so lightly, and that touch had the same power as before. It loosened all the sinews along Gouen's back and melted the unconscious stiffness in his shoulders. He gave himself over to the sensation, crooning in his throat.
"If you will not plumb the dark depths of your ocean," Shanten murmured, "would you care to fly the heights again, higher than the birds?"
"I would, but not alone.
Weary the kestrel that wings by its lonesome.
Happy the petrel that flies with his mate."
Shanten laughed in his throat.
"Old wings must rest a while before they fly the winds' road.
Let the gallant petrel take the air alone."
His hand kept moving beneath Gouen, grazing his scales, so distracting that Gouen lost the will to protest. Shanten never touched his sheath directly, much less his emerging root, but his fingers were always here, there, touch, stroke, until Gouen near-wept from desire. Shanten's hands urged him to his face, casting away the covers. That was right, that was as he wished it to be, but it was Shanten's mouth that moved across his buttocks and that was not to be borne.
"Uncle," he said, "uncle, stop a moment." He panted, wiping his sweat-damp face against the sheets. "Is there no way for what I want?"
"We might go to the heights indeed," Shanten said in his ear. "Things are easier there than here."
"Then let us go," Gouen said.
Shanten's weight left him. Gouen rose off the bed and pulled his robe to rights. He took Shanten's proffered hand. They stepped out to the terrace and so into dragon form, and up into the skies of the western continent. Above the chill updraft of the river a warm current of the upper air reached down to cradle them. To Gouen's mind it carried the smell of the long-ago summer night when they first flew together. A wordless song came into his head, woven of that far-off happiness and of his present restless sadness. He moved to its music and saw, surprised and not surprised, that Shanten was following in response.
For a timeless time his wings beat in a pattern his body knew and he did not, and the blue dragon moved in slow coils about him. He turned and winged and fell, aware of the other body near him in the air as he was aware of words and pictures just at the edge of his mind, drifting past him in small scraps of colour and sound.
And then for a space there was no him, no Gouen, and no Shanten, and no Western River either-- only lights in the sky with no name, and a chillness far below and a coldness far above, and between them the heat of the dance that filled his world. Closer and closer he came to that which was his desire. Their necks entwined and their heads moved now up, now down, to suck the other's horns, far above the winging bodies that held them in the air. When it was right they separated, all but Gouen's mouth about Shanten's horn. Gouen turned himself about and raised his tail, curving his neck so as not to lose the other's touch. And then it was all right: then everything was finally as it should be.
And as he felt himself filled up, and as his tongue wound lazily about the horn in his mouth, a scene unrolled in his head. His mind's eye watched the picture, foreign, unknown, but somehow very familiar, even after the eyes of his body saw no more.
They drifted to earth, down to the stone terrasse and back to manform. Shanten leaned back against Gouen's chest, pulling Gouen's arms about him in front. Gouen laid his cheek against Shanten's hair. For a while there was no sound but the purling of the Western River.
At last Gouen spoke:
Far hillside forests gone to faded dun;
In empty valleys pile the drifting leaves;
Still lake reflects the shape of passing clouds,
But on the silent pathway no one comes.
He wasn't surprised when Shanten answered without pause:
The yellow aspen quivers in the wind
Scatters its bladelets in the long rank grass.
A silver shower and then sun again--
One lone cicada sings past summer's end.
Gouen's sadness sounded in Shanten's voice. Gouen grieved that they should be united in that way. He went on:
Deep in the mountains echo the monkeys' cries
Fruit falls, unpicked, and breaks upon the ground.
Is there a path that leads among these weeds
Or any sound of water in this land?
The oceans are a thousand leagues away,
The mighty rivers roll beyond the hills.
Wandering men and wild beasts must thirst--
Only a streamlet trickles from the snows.
Hidden and precious under dried out scrub,
Hidden and rare amid the clumps of snow--
Blue waters, will they flow from silent ice?
Green shoots grow tender where the sun can't reach?
We who once knew the wetness and the warmth
Now find ourselves in barren dry and cold.
Have left the changing water-world and clouds
For this still, settled, hard unmoving stone.
The mountains' talons reach to Heaven's face,
White peaks go grey against the fiery sky.
Through one small pass the summer world awaits,
A road leads downwards to the world of men.
And in that instant he knew, as surely-- more surely-- than in his uncle's house. He could see it. He could see. Shanten registered the change in him and turned to look back.
"He's here on the western continent. In the far west, travelling through the mountains-- on his way to the summer lands." The relief of certainty made him a little giddy. He smiled and smiled and couldn't stop, and in his happiness hugged Shanten-oh hard.
"Thank you, Uncle. Thank you. I would never have known but for you."
"You're welcome, Gouen-sama." Shanten patted his hand and loosed himself from Gouen's grasp. He stretched and sighed. Gouen, in the blinding sunshine of relief, caught himself and looked at him more closely.
"Have I made you sad, Uncle?"
Shanten shook his head.
"Uncle, you weep. How have I hurt you?" Gouen clasped him again in consternation. Shanten sighed again, then smiled as he looked up at the stars.
"I always knew not to seek for traces of what's gone, but it's out of nature not to welcome them if they chance to appear. I don't foreswear the consolation of the Forms because I'll never know them again in my friend's company. Their pleasure is and must be different, but is still a pleasure that brings balance and harmony to the soul. I don't cease from making verse because his verses will never again answer mine. Yet tonight I find myself with one whose verse is the equal of his, one who not only follows my lead but then leads where I must follow. I weep because that happiness is one I've not known for many years now, and because it's possible for me to know it again."
"Uncle, you do me too much honour. My verse is not the equal of Rinshu-dono's and never will be."
"It is the one you call master who tells you so," Shanten said mildly. "Will you dare to dispute with me?"
Gouen bowed his head, lips curving.
Shanten went on: "And I weep a little, if you must know, because you who were once my junior and then my equal are becoming my superior. But that is the way the world goes. Seasons turn, green grasses go to straw, new flowers come after the snows leave."
"Gouen-sama." Shanten took his hand. "Sadness is as much a part of life as joy, and both are theme for the poetry that feeds our souls. You must not let unhappiness silence you, but sing of it as you would of any thing else, the birth of a son or the moon in a cloud or the smile of a friend."
"I will," Gouen said. "Indeed, thanks to you, I can."
Shanten pressed his hand.
"Good. Let's go inside and bathe: I feel the need of water."
"I too. And then send for someone to record our poem, if you please. I think it may not be ended yet."
July '08- Jan '09