Goukou's training continued into the middle forms. Where once Shantsu had demonstrated the mouth and hand exercises upon him, now Goukou was more rigorously drilled in practising them upon Shantsu.
"Throughout your life your partners in the forms will be of lower rank than yourself," Shantsu explained. "Your training must thus focus particularly on the active role, since you will never have to take the passive one. But equally you will often have to partner dragons of high rank when they visit you- river kings and so on. Such are not accustomed to lie beneath and may resent it. Thus you first become adept at the neutral forms, which you will use with such honoured guests. Then at lying above, which you will use with your favourites and guests of lower rank. You will start to learn the entry forms about the time of your fifteenth birthday and begin with lying above, where ordinary dragons begin by lying below."
"Am I not to lie below at all then?" Goukou felt half relieved and half disappointed. His Crossing had left him with no desire to repeat the experience but there was no denying it had had its interesting aspects.
"Yes, but we will leave that to the last. It is only to help your understanding for when you later come to train others, such as the young nobles sent into your service."
"And my brothers."
"Your brothers too, but the same conditions apply to them as to you. As sons of the King of the Oceans they rank above other dragons, so the only partner Lord Goushou will lie under is you; Lord Goujun, Lord Goushou and yourself; Lord Gouen, his two next older brothers."
"Not me?" Goukou was surprised and hurt.
"If you both desire it when you are of man's years, yes, but not in the ordinary way of things. It is the next oldest brothers who train their juniors, so you will not be involved in training Lord Gouen."
"I see," Goukou said, considering this. "But if I start lying above in a few months, who is to be my partner? Goushou has only just bound his hair." He looked uncomfortable, and Shantsu smiled.
"The rules of daily life are eased during training, and that which is unbecoming ordinarily may then be done without shame. Though I am your elder I will occasionally lie beneath you, the better to train your technique. I am not your elder in blood, so there is no obstacle there."
"Ahh." Goukou took a deep breath. If I must I suppose I can.
"But to begin you will have a third, chosen from among your companions, to partner you while I observe. Again, most dragons would wait for that until they were sixteen or even seventeen, when they begin the upper forms which require three performers."
"Three?" Goukou's eyebrows rose. "How may that be?"
"Many ways. There is the Province, simplest of all, which is formed like the character for the same." He drew the character on his hand, three long lines and three short ones between them. "The Bridge, where the middle is on hands and knees while taking one partner in his mouth and the other behind. More advanced, there is Bent Twig, where the performer sits on his older's lap taking him inside, while the third works at him with his mouth. Then the World Snake form, which we have done together, may be performed with three or even more partners. But then it is best done in dragon form and flight, so that all may perform Split Apricotstone with each other as they form the circle. Among the disciplinary forms which you learn at the last-- yare yare." He looked quizzically at Goukou, who was in some difficulties. "Well, this will be good practice. Show me how you do the Columbine now."
"Couldn't you do it for me, Uncle?"
"I must not indulge you, Goukou."
"Yes, Uncle." Goukou began the winding movements of the form, and either because his technique was skilled or because he was envisioning some or all of the threesomes Shantsu had described, reached his fulfillment within moments. Shantsu cleaned him off, and continued.
"Look about you, among your
attendants, for a suitable partner. Let him be finished his training so he may
instruct you, and one who is comely to your eye so you will find it pleasant to
lie with him. It is best to have goodwill between you from the start since
inevitably you will cause him pain. Look for someone of an easygoing and
generous nature. If he is modest and sensible, so much the better. It would be
regrettable if you chose one who could not bear the duty you asked of him and
had to retire. It would cost him and his family face and might lead to
"This is a heavier matter than I thought," Goukou said. "Will you advise me when I decide, if you approve of my choice?"
"Yes, certainly; and more, I will test his abilities myself beforehand. Though a man's manners are all of a piece, and courtesy clothed will be courtesy naked, still it's as well to be safe. Some men's natures overwhelm their training, even among the best-bred."
Goukou nodded. The session being over for the evening, Shantsu called the servants to tidy the room while he and Goukou had their baths. Goukou was more silent than usual, his head full of many things.
Shortly thereafter he addressed Shantsu. "Uncle, before we begin the entry forms, I would like to lie beneath you one more time."
Shantsu cocked his head. "Now why is that?"
"If I am to lie above another, and especially if I am still learning the way of it, I should know what it is that he feels. The Crossing you said must always hurt, so I think you took no special pains that it should not. But I wonder how it is usually."
"And if I tell you that usually it is nearly as painful as your Crossing was, what will you do?"
"I would still undertake to understand how it is for those who must suffer it."
"Very well. You are correct in your guess. The Crossing hurts firstly because of the position, which is not one for beginners. Secondly it is due to the age of the younger, who has not attained his full growth or completed the habituation of his body. And thirdly, in your case, it comes from having partnered a man. The first we can change; the second has improved for you, though you are still some years from being an adult. The third remains the same. You will probably find it uncomfortable. And I will tell you, there are those whose bodies never adapt to entrance and who will always experience it as pain. You may be such a one."
"Oh," Goukou said, considering this. "Even so, I will do it. But when I partner a man, how may I know if he is one such? I can hardly ask him to his face, and after I have hurt him it is too late for courtesy."
"If you partner a man of high rank, you will break bread with him beforehand. The common usage is to serve peaches or pears among the fruit. You know you have been told never to watch a man as he cuts his fruit?" Goukou nodded. "This is why. If he is one who will not happily lie below he will thrust his knife into the side of the fruit. If he slices the fruit in half from the top and lays it cut side down on the plate, it means he is agreeable. Your chamberlain will observe this and tell you afterwards, so you may use the appropriate form."
"Oh, I see," Goukou said, much enlightened. "And when I choose my third, what do I do? Offer him a peach?"
"Training is different. When you have fixed upon a possibility I will approach the man myself as your elder and make the overtures to him. As for tonight, I will lie above you and give you a taste of what it is like."
Goukou approached the evening with mixed curiosity and trepidation. Shantsu observed him at dinner and sent the serving man to fill Goukou's wineglass a second time when he had emptied it.
"What is this, Shantsu-dono?" Gouerh asked in amusement. "Is there some cause for celebration?"
"Not yet, Majesty," Shantsu said. "But the prince has undertaken a difficult task tonight, and deserves the encouragement of wine beforehand."
"Ahh." Gouerh gave his son a sympathetic look. "Do your best then, Goukou. But do not drink overmuch lest you be unable to do at all."
"Thank you, my lord Father," Goukou said. Afterwards he said to Shantsu, "What did my lord Father mean by that?"
"That overindulgence in wine may make a man incapable of lying above."
"Oh." Goukou felt heat in his face. "Then my lord Father misunderstood what it is we do tonight." And you did not enlighten him, he thought to himself.
"Yes," Shantsu said unperturbed. "And well that he does, for the knowledge would trouble him and yet be beyond his cure. It is not decent for a father to know too particularly how his son's training proceeds. Yet this puts him in a painful position. He naturally hopes that all is going well but he may not ask for details. I have given him what news I might, which is true as far as it goes. He knows that you will be lying above shortly, even if not tonight."
"I see," Goukou said automatically, and then, "You mean you don't tell my lord Father how- what it is--" He faltered, and said, "But all my other tutors do."
"They do. And I do not. This that we do together is what will make you a man, and true manhood is something you must come to without your father's aid. The time will come, many many years from now, when your father will not be here to instruct and guide you. This is your preparation against that time, the one area of your life where your father may not come."
"It sounds so lonely when you put it like that," Goukou protested. "I had always thought-- we are together here, the two of us, and we are following the custom of our tribe since before time began, and so we do what every dragon has done before us, and- You see?" he said desperately to Shantsu. "This is something that should include us all, and instead- it feels as if I'm all alone."
"Goukou." Shantsu put an arm about him. "You come close to the truth at the heart of things. You are held within many circles. You have a father and brothers, you have friends and subjects, you are a King among the Ocean dragons and an Ocean dragon among dragonkind, and one of a race that goes back before the earliest beginnings of the world. These circles are like walls about a palace that keep it safe. But surrounded though you are by love and reverence, and close as your father and brothers are to you- close as I am even, who have been within your body- yet at the end there is a part of you that is and must be alone. It is not loneliness. It is the pearl at the centre of the palace that the walls are there to protect. Were there no pearl to guard, what use would there be in walls? If there were not a person called Goukou who is separate from everyone else, how could there be the Goukou who is son and brother and lord? You would be like floating seawrack that follows every eddy and current that comes by. And this is the first sign of your separateness, that your father who gave you your body and your life, knows nothing of what you do to become a man. Come, do not be unhappy. His love is with you even where he is not. And I and my love are with you now."
He kissed Goukou then, and Goukou moved into his arms. Shantsu's mouth played gently against his horns and Shantsu's fingers moved cleverly below, and very soon Goukou had forgotten his unhappiness and everything else. When he was straining towards his fulfillment, Shantsu stood up and helped him to his feet.
"You must stand here and put your face to the mattress." He laid a linen towel on the bed. "This form is called the Mountain Cave and it comes in two versions, male slope and female slope. This is the male, being steeper in angle." He caught a pillow from the pile and laid it above the towel. "Here. Hold on to this. You may do better with something to bite on."
Goukou obeyed him, bending over and clutching the pillow in his arms. It was unpleasantly like the position for a whipping, and there was a small tension in his stomach as he lifted his hips. But the aching in his groin drowned the feeling out, or rather, took it into itself so that he was unable to tell whether it was fear or anticipation that he felt. And the touch of Shantsu's warm hands on his buttocks, squeezing his flesh as they opened him wide, made his head spin in what was most definitely delight.
He felt the hardness of Shantsu's root pushing at him and then sliding in. Again there was that confusion in his mind- does this feel good? does it hurt? Black specks danced before his eyes. Shantsu was deep inside him, not moving. It was Goukou's soul more than his body that seemed to be trying to open wider, needing to make room for the new thing within him. Hurt? Good? He was making little whimpering sounds into the linen under his face. Shantsu's hand, hot and large, came about him in front. He'd forgotten about that somehow and started almost with surprise as the firm grip worked at him. The aching between his legs was dulled somehow by the insistent throb inside him in back, and he hung between them, not sure which way to fall, not certain if he could fall. It was so different, so different from everything else. Shantsu's other hand gripped his shoulder and Shantsu's voice spoke below his ear.
"Cry aloud. There is no shame in it. It adds to the pleasure for both." He did so, hearing the ahhh sounds from his throat as if someone else was making them. They went deeper, came from his belly, and yes, it helped, it gave him a place to be, deep in the centre of himself and pushing the sensation out of him until suddenly the explosion happened and relief ran through him.
And at the same time he felt the obstruction moving inside him. Dizzy with release, he had no way of registering how that felt. He felt it, and felt it, and it hurt and it didn't hurt and there were no words for what it felt like at all.
When he was done Shantsu washed himself and washed Goukou, front and, some minutes later, back. He called for the servants to heat the bath and prepare the room for night. Goukou sat with him on the divan, leaning against his chest and feeling the ache inside his rump that hurt and felt good both at once.
"So, Goukou. Have you a better idea now how it feels for the one who lies beneath?"
"No," Goukou said. "Not at all." Shantsu only nodded.
Next day he came to Shantsu. "I have decided on my third, if he pleases you."
"And that is--?"
"Hisui, who serves in my bedchamber," he said, a little more firmly than was necessary. Shantsu made no answer. Goukou looked up at him and saw the irony in his eyes.
"Uncle," he said in exasperation. "I know Hisui is a gold dragon and that everyone seeks his favours. But there are reasons why gold dragons are ever sought after. If everyone is attracted by their beauty, why should I be any different? Hisui pleases me, both as to form and manners; and if you find no fault in him, I would have him as my third."
"Very well, Goukou. I will speak to him."
Goukou looked at him sidelong. "What are you not saying, Uncle?"
"That those who seek the favours of gold dragons usually seek to lie beneath them, for it is in the nature of that breed to be purposeful and commanding and to take second place to none."
Goukou thought for a moment. "Hisui is meek and well-conducted with me, but if he were not he would not be able to serve in my chamber. Being my third may appear to him as just another part of his service, and he will put aside his natural preferences to carry out his duties." He saw a flicker of surprise in Shantsu's eyes. "You do not think that likely, Uncle?"
"I think it very likely, Goukou, and well thought of. I am glad you see it in those terms." He paused. They looked at each other.
"Well of course," Goukou said, trying for lightness, "it would also be convenient if he were nursing a secret passion for me and only too happy to act as my third. But-" he shrugged, very adult, "what are the chances, with a gold dragon?"
Shantsu was silent for a moment. "There are those who nurse a passion for you that they do not speak, and who would be delighted to act as your third. I can name three without trying-"
"Three?" Goukou said automatically. "Hanshin and Daiyuu and who else?"
"It would do neither of you good if I told you, since he has not caught your eye himself and takes care to hide his feelings, knowing them to be vain. Let it be, Goukou, and leave the man his pride. I will sound Hisui out and see what manner of man he is."
He found Hisui that afternoon in the garden, basking in the rays of the sun. His older's colour were red so that he glowed, hair and skin and robes, so bravely it was hard to look at him. Hisui opened his eyes at his step and rose to his feet, fist to chest and head bent. Graceful, and knowing he was graceful. Modestly waiting to be addressed, and knowing he was modest. Hisui sighed inwardly. Doubtless it was as hard for great beauties to be unselfconscious as it was for the sons of great kings. But Goukou manages it well enough... and stopped, feeling himself to be unfair.
"Hisui-dono, if I might have a word with you?"
"I am at your disposal, Lord Shantsu." Hisui made no attempt to meet his eyes, which was a little unusual.
"I think you know what it is I have to say to you," he said, and paused.
Hisui waited, head still a little bent before him. Well-trained, certainly, but given his birth he should be. Shantsu let the silence continue until Hisui looked up.
"Yes, my lord?" A neutral enquiry. If he knew or guessed, not a hint of it was in his face. So much for Shantsu's worst fears. This was no empty-headed beauty at least, thinking it so natural his prince's eye would fall upon him that the rest of the world must think it natural too. Still, he might be carrying that certainty within his heart and using courtesy to hide his thoughts. Which would make him that much more formidable: a beauty who used his head.
"Prince Goukou approaches the middle period in his training. He has named you as a possible candidate to be his third. What say you to that?"
"It is my honour and pleasure to serve his Highness in all that I may," Hisui said. The right words, the right intonation; nothing lacking there. Nothing present either. This was taking well-bred reserve a little far.
"Indeed?" Shantsu let a hint of quizzicality enter his tone.
"Indeed," Hisui agreed equably. No trace at all of the anger his tone should have sparked. So. Either superb training or a genuine maturity- and if they were very lucky, both. Shantsu smiled, and Hisui smiled back as if by reflex, a genuine smile of pleasure. And that was odd as well.
"May I ask for your company this evening?"
There was the very slightest hesitation before Hisui said, "But of course, Lord Shantsu. When will you want me?"
"His highness does not expect me tonight. At the hour of ten, shall we say? Come to my apartments then."
"I will be there." He put hand to breast and bowed. Shantsu nodded to him, and went on his way, musing.
Like playing go against an experienced opponent. Is it possible that you are in fact unwilling, or do you merely want me to think you might be? I'd give a lot to know what makes you tick, my young sir. Let me see if I can find out abed, because I do not think I will let you any closer to my prince until I am certain.
Hisui knocked quietly at his door at the appointed hour and was admitted by Shantsu's chamberlain. Shantsu motioned him to be seated next to him by the table. The faintest smell of herbal salts said that Hisui had already bathed, which was a good sign. Shantsu nodded dismissal to the chamberlain and bath attendant, who bowed and left. His page poured wine, brought small meat pasties to go with them, and laid out finger bowls and towels, all in perfect silence. The customs of Ocean dragons are different from continental ones- more old-fashioned in some ways, but much more to his tastes. At home servants chattered all the time, familiar as family. He had had to train all his pages out of the habit. Here it was never necessary. A flick of his finger served to dismiss the boy as well. He turned to Hisui who sat waiting, wine cup in hand.
Shantsu drank and Hisui followed his example. His movements were graceful, naturally so, though he would know Shantsu was observing him now. He kept his gaze lowered in a fashion perhaps more becoming to a younger dragon. Shy modesty was unnecessary in a man of twenty, unless this was a mark of deference to the Prince's Older. Shantsu put his cup aside and stood up. Hisui rose to his feet, took his proffered hand and walked with graceful dignity to the bed. Seated there Shantsu put a hand behind his neck, drew his face close, and kissed him on the lips. And raised mental eyebrows for a moment before all his thoughts fled in distraction. Hisui's lips were soft and full and melted beneath his own like sugar water. Hisui himself was pliant as wax warmed by a flame. Shantsu took hold of his shoulders and held him close against his body, kissing that amazing mouth while Hisui seemed to swoon in delight in his arms. Vaguely he knew that they must stop shortly and proceed to the forms, but not now, not yet. All he wanted was to have the sensation of warm firm flesh moving against his mouth, forever.
Hisui's hands twined in his hair and his fingers touched Shantsu's horns, light strokings delicate as a butterfly's wings brushing against them. Shantsu pushed him onto his back and lay upon him, his warm goldenness a smooth and firm delight in the places where bare skin lay against skin. And always, always, there was the fleshiness of Hisui's lips against his own, so perfect a sensation that he felt no desire to enter Hisui's mouth itself.
Pull yourself together, Shantsu told himself. Not since the last days of his training it seemed had he done anything so hard, and his heart was desolate at the very thought of it, but he made himself break off the kiss and pull away. Hisui's eyes were dazed and his hands tightened automatically on Shantsu's shoulders to keep him close. Then he took a deep breath and let go. His face had a sheen of sweat so that he seemed to be made of gold indeed, but the look in his eyes was unmistakable. An instinct deep in Shantsu's body, ancient as his blood, said put him on his belly, pull up his hips, shove it inside him hard as you can. Shantsu's hands moved automatically to grab Hisui, but his head still ruled. You are not here for your own pleasure. You are here in your Younger's service. The iron dictate of duty steadied him, gave him back his certainty. Besides, he thought with an edge of amusement, I can do better for myself than that.
He opened the skirts of Hisui's nightrobe wide, revealing strong slender legs. He raised them and pushed them back to Hisui's chest, and Hisui curved his hands back of his knees to hold himself up and open. Hisui was fully emerged. No pretence there, no technique, unless it was a technique beyond any that Shantsu had ever encountered before. Certainly his own body was convinced by it. Hisui wanted him, and his body ached to have Hisui.
He arched himself over the young man, controlling the urge to enter him at once. Hisui was trying to keep his expression composed, but his eyes were full both of need and of a wincing shame that Shantsu could see his need. Shantsu smiled, tenderly and terribly, at the sight of that shame. I am a tiger about to devour the prey I have brought down. Slowly he pushed inside as he stretched down to kiss Hisui's mouth again. Wonderful, the sweetness against his lips, the sweetness about his manroot. A sensation never met before in all the men he had ever partnered, the meltingness, the welcome of Hisui's body. The Great Joining must be like this, with a female after the Moonset Dance. Indeed it was impossible to think how the Great Joining could be any better than this. To have Hisui like this in dragon form would be ecstasy-- He lifted his head quickly, drew breath, and invoked the mantra he used to focus and collect his spirit before it could disperse. No, evidently one couldn't have it all if one wanted to have any of it. The pounding in his ears subsided, and he resigned himself to leaving Hisui's mouth alone. Instead he began moving, slowly, slowly, in and out of the honey-thick heat that surrounded him.
Hisui's eyes had closed. His head was moving from side to side on the sheet and his breath came moaning. Shantsu thrust, harder and faster, but Hisui's root grew only stiffer in response. So...? He pulled Hisui's fingers away from his knees and hooked the golden legs over his shoulders, then straightened up slowly so that Hisui's back arched off the mattress. Up and up he came until at the last Hisui was resting on his shoulders and outstretched arms alone, nearly upside down. The long golden lines of skin and muscle stretched downwards in Shantsu's sight, a waterfall of flesh that gave this form its name, ending in the spread pool of golden hair about Hisui's face far below. The Waterfall can be uncomfortable, and with an unskilled partner actually painful, but as Shantsu worked himself hard in and out of Hisui's helpless body he saw no flagging in his manroot and heard no sounds of discomfort. Hisui's talons clawed at the mattress, but not with pain, for his manroot shivered suddenly and released its rain onto his sweating face below. Hisui gave a whimpering cry, as one who would die of shame, and his arms came up to cover his face. That was too much for Shantsu, in spite of all his training. His own fulfillment closed upon him, and he gave way to its descent, feeling his soul flying from him on huge thundering wings.
He opened his eyes slowly. It was morning. Hisui stood by the bed, already dressed, attending his waking. Shantsu gave him a silent nod in greeting and got up. He went to attend to his morning needs, washed himself after, and returned to his room where Hisui helped him dress. At the end they turned to face each other.
"Lord Shantsu." Hisui did not look at him. Shantsu said nothing, waiting to see what the young man would say, himself not certain what it was he wanted to hear.
"Your servant offers his poor apologies. It is clear he is unfitted for the honour His Highness would so graciously have bestowed upon him. Your servant must beg in shame to be allowed to refuse the position." The tone was right- respect and regret, no more. His expression was right- grave and deferential, no more. His training had indeed been impeccable.
"If you refuse of yourself," Shantsu said, "you will have to withdraw from His Highness' service entirely. I would prefer not to deprive of him of a servant he values so much, unless indeed you insist."
"What alternative is there, Lord Shantsu?" Mild interest only. Shantsu felt a pang of regret. He had expected it, but still it hurt.
"That I tell him the truth, or as much as is advisable. Your sensibilities are too delicate and your instincts too sensitive to allow you to fill the role you would have to play."
"As seems good to you, Lord Shantsu," Hisui said civilly. Shantsu's regret increased, but he only inclined his head.
"Shall we to breakfast, then?"
Hisui bowed in agreement. They proceeded to the dining hall together, silent and grave, catching looks of wistfulness and envy aimed at both of them on the way; and Shantsu thought that no-one who looked at Hisui, a pace to his rear, would ever guess that the young man's heart must be breaking.
Hisui parted from him after breakfast to go on service in the prince's chambers. Shantsu took himself to the walled courtyards that were used for martial exercises. He went through a long set of forms, slow and graceful as a dance, emptying his mind and seeking harmony with the flow of the universe. Finished, he did a second set. Several younger dragons about his own age had come silently to watch. The white dragon in their midst he knew a little, and he asked the man to partner him in a set of push-hands. They danced together like mirror images of each other, hands and feet moving heavily and slowly as if they were underwater with the weight of the oceans pressing upon them. Shantsu bowed to his partner at the end of it, saluted the other dragons politely and went for a bath before presenting himself to the prince. And still his mind was not made up.
He knew what he should say to Goukou, and doubtless he would say it, but his heart could only chide him for the terrible waste of it all. Exquisite reflexes allied to exquisite technique, self-control matched with intelligence, and a truly astonishing maturity. Men of that age and rank, and gold dragons in particular, are accustomed to thinking that the world is theirs if they only stretch a hand out to take it. It was odd to find one who would resign his heart's desire without a murmur. Idly he wondered who had had the training of Hisui, for that man must have been a master. Hisui would be perfect for Goukou, if only-- Once again he wondered if he weren't making too much of a detail that in view of his other excellences might not even be a problem at all. But those reflexes of his, those quick and subtle responses he could not hide... Shantsu sighed inwardly and, still uncertain, made his way to Goukou's apartments.
The attendants left at Goukou's signal. Goukou served him wine and savories with well-trained grace and no hint of impatience in his manner. Once again Shantsu's heart smote him. Perfect...
"I spent the night with Hisui-dono," he said. Goukou's expression looked mildly interested, but the knuckles showed suddenly white on his hands. Shantsu glanced at them, and Goukou made them relax.
"Indeed, Uncle? And what have you concluded?" Very good. Serious interest, not boyish eagerness.
"He is a most superior young man. His training is of a standard I have never encountered." Goukou's face looked like the sun coming up. Then he met Shantsu's eyes, and the clouds rolled in.
"But there is some objection to him?" Goukou said.
"Alas. There is."
"May I know what?"
"It is nothing to the detriment of Hisui-dono himself, but I think it something he would prefer you not to know."
"Ah." Goukou went on looking at him. Not dropping his eyes in acquiescence as he normally would but regarding him with thoughts happening behind his mild expression. 'Well well, my prince- are you going to give me a fight at last?' Shantsu thought, while mentally chiding himself for his vacillation. Had he been settled in his purpose Goukou would not have divined the opening offered by his uncertainty.
"My heart is torn, Goukou. He is in almost every way perfect for the part you wish him to play. This one objection may not even be an objection; in its way it is only an excess of virtue in him. Yet nonetheless it stops me from giving my assent to your choice."
"I am sorry to hear it, Uncle." He sounded sincere, but his voice had also the settled tone of an older man. He paused, then continued, "This is the first time I have ever had to select a candidate for any kind of position. Naturally my judgment is not what it should be, but I must say Hisui seemed to me to be without reproach. For the sake of future occasions, Uncle, I would earnestly desire you to tell me what the drawback in him is, that I may be aware where my judgment falls short."
For the life of him Shantsu could not keep a smile from his face. Goukou looked surprised, with both anger and hurt very near the surface beneath it. Shantsu shook his head, still smiling.
"I do not mock you, Goukou. You are King Gouerh's son indeed, and I must smile when I see your lineage showing so plainly. As for Hisui-dono, I will tell you my objection to him, but the matter must remain strictly between us two. He has taken pains to keep it secret, so you must not let him know that you know." Goukou nodded. "Very well then. To be plain about it, Hisui-dono is in love with me."
"But everybody is," Goukou said, with such a sudden return of boyish frankness that Shantsu had to put his head in his hands to hide his mirth. "Uncle, you are laughing at me. I wish you would stop."
"Your pardon, Goukou. This has its humourous side, truly, which you will understand when you are older. I know there is a fashion among the young courtiers to sigh after me. I am Older to the oldest prince; it is natural. But Hisui-dono's attachment is serious, and the proof of that is that I had no suspicion of it until last night. It is hard to make the body lie. Not impossible, but hard, and he is not yet of an age to manage it."
"I see, but I don't quite understand. Why is this an objection?"
"He is your third. His will and attention and desire, if desire there must be, should be turned towards you, not to another. If I am there the attention of his body will be upon me whether his soul wills it or not."
"Oh." Goukou thought for a moment. "But are you certain this is a drawback? I was thinking last night. What I do with my third can bring him no pleasure and will bring him much discomfort, if not pain. It is a hard thing to ask of a man. But if he is in love with you he has his reward for the suffering I cause him, in your nearness and caresses. And if your presence arouses him, so much the better. It will distract him from the pain of lying below, as you were careful to arouse me each time you entered me. Is that not so?" he said, with the air of one producing an irrefutable argument.
"That is so," Shantsu agreed, with an odd tone in his voice.
"My conscience reproaches me. I should have been more firm of purpose and not thrust on you the burden of arguing me to the conclusion I wished to come to. Yet I was undecided, and I am undecided still."
"I am fifteen," Goukou said, "or nearly, and will soon be lying above. If I take on a man's role in bed, I must take it elsewhere. Is it so painful a thing, to be persuaded by me?"
"No," Shantsu said. "Not at all. But you are fifteen, or nearly, and at the age where things hurt more than they do later. Can you partner with Hisui-dono, knowing his affections are elsewhere?"
Goukou looked away. "That is what I was thinking. It is true I... am attracted to Hisui and wish his heart might turn towards me. But if it did I would fear to do what I must with him, lest I lose his love through my clumsiness. I must hurt Goushou at times for his own good, but he is my brother and will forgive me for it. Hisui is no kin to me at all, and might not." He took a deep breath. "Thus it seems to me, Uncle, that I cannot look for love from my Third. Our relation can be no more than that of an ordinary man and his prince, and he must bear with me from duty and not from love. That is Hisui. Yet I would have one who might find some pleasure in the office, though I cannot give it to him myself. That also is Hisui. Or do you think different?"
Shantsu sat back in his chair. "This morning, when I woke, Hisui-dono himself begged to be released from your request, saying he was not worthy to fill the position. That went one part of the way to making me determined to keep him. Now you are ready to renounce your dreams of him, like an adult and not a boy, and I am two-parts convinced. And for the last..." He looked at Goukou. "If you can tell me what that is, I will agree to your decision."
"The last part is that I am determined to have him, in spite of what you or he may say," Goukou said. Shantsu nodded, well pleased.
"Indeed it is. There, that is settled. You will not speak to Hisui-dono directly about this, of course. You will-"
"--tell him to slice me a pear lengthwise at dinner tonight?"
Shantsu sighed. "Did I say an adult? You will have your page take a message to him, commanding him to night duty, and add that he is to cut his talons short before he comes."
"With pleasure," Goukou said, and struck the bell.