"Goujun of the Western Ocean to his trusted regent and kinsman Gouron, greeting. You may expect my arrival some time within the next three days, as matters here permit. I cannot stay long but will take pleasure in seeing my kingdom and my family again."
I was finishing the afternoon's consultation with my secretaries when the page came. "My lord Regent, the White Dragon has returned and the officers have been summoned to the throne room."
I got up at once. Goujun would be bathing and changing his robes but he never takes long about it. There was just time enough for my servant to sponge me down and get me into my formal robes. The honour guard I use on ceremonial occasions went with me to the throne room, three before and five behind. The courtiers were already present, each man in his place. They bowed as I proceeded up the hall, like a rainbow wave rippling on either side of my passing -- yellow and blue, green and black, red and white. I mounted the steps to the throne, sat down, and commanded my expression. The King's return is always a happy occasion but his regent can't sit waiting for him with a grin on his face.
Some moments later there was a stir at the lower end of the room. The doors opened on both sides and Goujun's white figure appeared, striking amidst the colours of his guard. He walked forward between the courtiers, who this time knelt at his passing. I rose and came down the three steps: went to one knee, put left fist to breast and right hand to the ground.
"Welcome to my King."
"Greetings to our faithful regent." Goujun raised me and we exchanged kinsman's kisses.
"My lord's throne awaits him."
"We thank you for keeping it safely in our absence." My cousin ascended the steps and took his place, and the audience began.
It's always more ceremony than business: an exchange of greetings between the king and the chief ministers of his household, and the latter's report that all is well in the king's holdings. All is well: I see to that. The more detailed examination of the kingdom's state comes afterwards in the King's study.
Commander-like, Goujun needs a table in front of him to work properly and a number of secretaries ready to hand him the documents he requests. He brings with him an abstract of the reports I regularly send him and requires me to inform him more fully on the matters he's marked, or to tell him how such and such an affair is proceeding. His liking and memory for detail is astounding. If he were at home he'd have little need of a chief minister: and indeed the Lord Chamberlain has said as much to me on occasion. "At least with my lord regent, your servant may be something more than an amanuensis."
I like working with him over these reports, giving him all the details of his kingdom and palace. But it galls me to think how the talents of so gifted an administrator and dauntless a soldier are wasted in the service of foreigners. The kings dwell in Heaven now, commanding its armies: armies that fight nothing but beasts and that hold their hands even then, for killing is forbidden them. Goujun doesn't fight at all. He sends his celestial soldiers here and there about the earth as the emperor directs, reports back on what they did on their missions, and sees they are clothed and fed and paid. A secretary's work, a quartermaster's: and required of a king.
Heaven's favour, the Emperor called it when he sent his summons- and summons it was, however sweetly phrased. A diplomatic overture, the High King said: mending relations with Kokuryuu's grandsons in case Heaven might need their services again when faced with a real danger. Heaven's insult, I thought to myself, and think still. The Emperor grows old. I doubt his power now is strong enough to withstand us if we should attack. He knows the long memories of our kind and so wants the Kings kept under his eye, far from their realms and armies. His attitude to us hasn't changed. He thinks of us as a subject people; he gives our kings servants' work to do, and the real work of warriors he gives to those sports of nature called itan.
I said something of this last to Goujun much later, when we were finished with the secretaries and eating a small collation. He shrugged. "They think of it as a favour, not to make us kill and pollute our hands with blood."
"'Pollute'," I snorted. "How can they talk of pollution, who drop their very dung into water?"
"They're kami, Gouron. Another species."
"And just how often does one kill in battle anyway?"
"We've got the training and the traditions, and most of all the sense, to be able to avoid it. The kami don't have any of those. And they're weak- it's a shock when you see how weak they really are. Less strength than a child. You don't realize it until you see it happen. One bite of a beast's jaws-" he snapped his fingers "--and the man's dead. I couldn't believe it. I looked to see him get up again, wounded but able to walk. And he didn't. Half his head was bloody pulp. They carried his body away, cursing as they went." He fell silent.
"The death of a servant is hard," I said tentatively, for that seemed to be the case here, even if the dead man was only a kami. Goujun wouldn't be Goujun if he felt no responsibility for those under his command. "How did you revenge his death?"
"It was a beast that did for him, ferocious but witless. The men subdued it with sleeping darts and removed it to another part of the country. Heaven doesn't kill."
I couldn't believe it. "They *are* different from us if they had no desire to revenge their comrade. Weak indeed--"
"I didn't say they had no desire." Goujun sounded meditative. "One of them... I was sure he'd draw his sword and take the animal out. I waited for him do it: the urge to kill was clear as noonday. But he didn't. In the end he was a soldier under obedience and he obeyed." He took another skewer of roasted fowl from the platter, his sixth. He gets no meat in Heaven and so makes up for that deprivation, and others, when at home.
"That is good... I suppose," I said, reaching to fill his wine cup again.
"Good, yes. If they once started acting like us it'd be the end of them."
"An overstatement, surely?"
"Not really. Once you understand how easily they die a lot of things become clearer. Think of the dwellers in the fixed lands, the humans and youkai. We call them savage and brutal because when they fight, they kill. But it's not all due to ferocity."
"Really?" I know little of the two-legged races of the continents, but savage and brutal is exactly what they sound like to me.
"Really. Remember the war with the Duke of the Reaches? The Duke's fifth son slashed your chest open during your duel."
I grimaced. "Yes, and I had to yield the bout, though it was only a lucky blow."
"That blow would have been death to a youkai. You see? They can't afford the honour of combat and the duel to defeat. When they fight they have to kill or else they'll be killed first. That's what happens when you're so fragile. And I fancy that's the real reason Heaven forbids shedding blood. How else can the kami preserve their own lives?"
I thought about that. "So their weakness keeps them- and you- from real battle. But yet they *do* kill: through these servants of theirs, the itan. What of them? Are they somehow stronger than kami?"
"Hardly. They're unnatural in origin- anomalies of nature or the offspring of forbidden matings. Beings like that are never strong. They do Heaven's killing for a bit and then they die in turn, exhausted by their wounds, and Heaven appoints another itan in their place. If one's available."
"Of course. But it reassures the Heaven-dwellers, who fear and detest the servants who do what they dare not, that those servants are so short-lived."
"And what do they do when there's no itan?"
"They look over their shoulders and leave their realm only when they must. They walk very carefully on the earth and become just a shade less arrogant to the people of the continents. It galls them to be so humble, poor men." He smiled, the small smile of his that comes and goes as suddenly as a wave across the sea's face, and finally I understood.
"So how long will it take them to give the itan's work to us?"
"A little longer. Some hundreds of years. The emperor's memory begins to dim and he forgets the days of his youth and the ways of our forefathers. We help the memory fade, my brothers and I- such good servants, the dragon generals, punctilious and correct, who regard the law of Heaven as absolute. In time we'll be charged with fighting Heaven's battles, and then the Throne of Heaven itself is ours for the taking."
"And the High King will take it?"
Goujun was silent. "I wonder. Will he? Will he even want it? It's not a place for dragons, Heaven. But until we can be certain Heaven will leave us alone, we can't leave Heaven alone." He pushed his chair back. "Come, I wish to see my sons."
We went to the nursery then, where little Kaishou and baby Kaifu waited in the arms of their gran'fers. Kaishou was just beginning to speak in intelligible sentences. He answered Goujun's simple questions in his child's way, but often only after I'd repeated them first, and looked frequently at me instead of his father when he spoke. Kaifu was placid when Goujun held him but showed no signs of recognition-- little wonder, for he'd barely seen his father since his birth. After a bit he began to squirm to be put down. His gran'fer hastened forward but Goujun nodded him back, and watched with interest as Kaifu toddled alone about the room.
"He's steady on his feet," he remarked.
"Yes, your Majesty. An early walker, my lord is." The gran'fer marked his progress with an anxious eye.
"I hope he'll be as forward in his studies and his weapons. But I have no worries, given the excellent care you give him, and my cousin here. Kaishou, I shall say farewell to you for now. I'll come see you this evening before you go to bed." Kaishou carefully said, "Hai, jiji-ue," which made Goujun laugh as he kissed him good-bye.
"They thrive under your fosterage," he said as we left. "It sets my heart at ease."
"I do my poor best, but I know they would do better with their father here."
"That's not their fate. Nor was it ours, if you recall. Our fathers were often absent in our babyhood, companying the land dragons; yours was burdened with the cares of the kingdom when mine was away, and afterwards he was required to support my brother in the first years of his reign. We were orphans of duty, you and I, but with the support of our kin I think we turned out alright. I have no fears for my sons."
We continued walking about the palace with no set course. The King does this sometimes on his visits home and the servants have grown used to it. He stops to greet this man or that as he passes, or to inquire about some change or detail of the household: not looking for fault, merely as interest prompts him. I think it's not so much an inspection as a reminder to himself of what home is. He wanders into kitchens and storerooms, the smithy and the stillroom; he chats with the old gran'fers sunning themselves in the orangery and the young apprentices just learning to dress a carp or turn a seam.
And for that time, for however short a time it is- a few hours on a summer afternoon- I feel the palace of the Western Ocean become as it should be, a serene entity humming about its proper centre. All things work well when the King is away, but mechanically, like one of those wind-up clocks of the human lands. Only when he's here does the place live and breathe on its own. If only he'd come back for good so that his palace and his kingdom might be always thus: as is natural, as they should be. But then I remind myself, if he did- indeed, when he does- I'll return to my father's house in the Eastern Ocean and not be here to watch it happen.
The sense of order and contentment continued through dinner. One might expect a formal banquet to mark the king's visit home, and certainly the cooks would be glad of a chance to display their skill to their master: but Goujun has given orders that his meals be the plain sort a man has in the normal way of things. Braised fish and roasted seabird, seaweed salad and ocean apples, white rice and yellow wine from the continents. We ate in company with the king's chief ministers, and the talk was still of the affairs of the Oceans, for my cousin's interests lie in governance and politics more than poetry and literature. I had no complaint, for I too am a simple man. If the food and conversation are solid and filling, I am satisfied to do without the dressings and the dainties.
Afterwards we drank our tea out on the terrasse as the sun dipped low to the horizon, making the stonework glow in its rays. Goujun was silent, eyes on the waves crawling on the ocean's face out to sea. Thinking still of the government of his kingdom, I supposed; or perhaps fixing the sense of home in his memory to tide him over until his next return. I watched him discreetly, not to call his attention to myself. He was all golden in the sunset light, save for the red of his older's colours that glowed deep as blood. I've often noticed it with him- I suppose with all white dragons, but with him most of all- how his appearance alters with every shift of light. That old riddle: 'What colour is a white dragon?' Red by firelight, green in the water, blue under the stars; yellow in the morning sun, golden in the evening, silver beneath the moon. A thought came to me, one I'd have expressed in verse if I were any kind of poet. My cousin's body holds as many hues as a rainbow, but his soul is one colour only. His outward form is variable and changes constantly but his inner one never. I smiled at the conceit. He looked over then and his eyes smiled back at me.
"It's good to hear the waves of home," he said. "Heaven's such a dry place. It never rains and there are no rivers or lakes, let alone seas. Even a fire dragon grows weary of it. But sometimes the wind blows among the cherry trees with a roaring sound, and when I hear it at night in my bed I can believe it's the breakers of my ocean. And then I want to follow the wind of which I am made and sail the endless sky to wherever the wind may be going. Somewhere different from Heaven, maybe even different from here: a place I can't even imagine."
"Ah. I wondered if your service there ever fretted you as I'm sure it would me if I were in your place."
"Sometimes, yes. Don't you
feel the same here? You do the work of a king without a king's reward, far from
your father and brothers and friends. Small wonder if you felt as prisoned as I
do at times."
"Not at all. How should I?" His words shocked me: indeed, almost to distress. "I serve in a dragon kingdom, being of use to my family and my kings, and perhaps thereby to all my race. I enjoy the responsibility of being your regent and am honoured to be entrusted with the position. It's true..." I hesitated to say it but honesty forced me to it, "it's true that I might not be so content if I'd been sent to the Eastern Ocean, as the High King first suggested. I was relieved when my father took that post, that he alone has the wisdom and experience to fill. Here is best for me."
"Ah. I'm glad you're happy. I was afraid, a little, that you too might feel in exile."
"Exile? Of course not. This place has become like my home. I think I'll miss it when you return for good."
"No danger of that for some time yet." He gave me a rueful smile. "But look, the sun is nearly gone. Let's look in on our children while they're still awake."
We went to see little Kaishou put to bed, and then to the adjacent apartment where my own sons Kaizan and Kaimu were listening to their gran'fer telling them the tale of Jade Bee and Dragonfly in a rhymed version suited to their years. Kaizan greeted his uncle with proper ceremony: he does me proud, though a father shouldn't say so; and even Kaimu managed a proper bow for all his four year old chubbiness. Goujun spoke a while with Kaizan: I think he finds children more interesting once they've begun their studies and can converse somewhat more like an adult. He gave them a kinsman's kiss good-night and I a father's, and we repaired to the King's apartments for our baths.
I washed as I ever do but Goujun called for the full course, hair and talons and all. He grunted in satisfaction when at last he slipped into the deep water of the bath beside me.
"That's better. I haven't been properly clean since I was here last." He stretched himself out, head resting on the rim and body floating a little.
"Don't they have baths in Heaven?" I'd never been certain on that point.
"They have baths. They wash in them."
I blinked. "*In* them? Then how do they get clean?"
My nose wrinkled unthinkingly.
"It could be worse." Goujun sounded philosophical. "One good thing about not eating flesh is that the kami smell less than they might. You need to meet the folk of the continents to know how bad it can be."
"You endure much for our people," I said.
"My job," Goujun shrugged. "Our job."
"Some day you'll come home," I said, the only consolation I could think of.
"Yes, I suppose."
"I mean- yes. Of course I will."
An odd feeling touched the back of my neck. Goujun caught my eye.
"The kami," he explained. "The kami are children- powerful children and therefore dangerous, but children still. They need an adult to keep them from harming themselves, not to mention the rest of creation." He blew out an exasperated breath. "It drives me mad at times. It's as if they can't keep their minds on one thing for ten minutes together. Children, did I say? No, infants- chasing after bright lights and forgetting what was in their heads a moment ago."
I couldn't think of anything to say. He went on: "And that's why sometimes I think we'll never be free of Heaven. How can we let those babies go on as they do, interfering as they please with our world?"
"It's not our world they interfere with," I countered. "Not even the female kingdoms, but only those of the two-legged races, who live so short a time I imagine they don't even notice Heaven at work about them."
"The youkai aren't as short-lived as all that," he reminded me. "And Heaven does claim suzerainty over the dragons of the continents. Some day they may try to enforce it."
"Not good," I agreed. "If the Emperor reaches his hand out to the river and mountain dragons, for certain our turn will be next. But what chance has he of succeeding?"
"Small, perhaps, in his present power. But that's why it would be best to have a dragon performing his office for him. Suppose some kami should take the notion of seizing the Emperor's seat for himself? Younger, rasher, probably more powerful than the Jade Emperor and doubtless as ambitious as he was in his youth. Think of the turmoil and suffering that would follow before order was restored- if it was." He sighed. "Heaven is no place for dragons, but only dragons have the wisdom to rule it. If only Ani-ue..." He saw my face and didn't finish. "Well, never mind. This isn't suitable talk for the bath. It's all possibilities that may never happen. More likely the kami will eventually get themselves so tied up in their rules and paperwork that they won't be able to move at all, like a fish snarled in seawrack. Come. Tell me of the lighter matters of my court. Have there been any new children since Kaifu?"
With relief I turned to the subject of the King's courtiers. I told him what sons had been born to which of the king's counsellors, what young men were the admired beauties these days, who had danced their Final Dance this last year or had received overtures to dance the Great one, who it was I now had as my own favourites.
"Is Shiran still with you?" Goujun asked.
"Yes. I don't think I'll ever part with him, we've been together so long. Until you come back, of course"- for Shiran had been Goujun's favourite when the Kings were called to Heaven.
"Maybe not even then. I wouldn't think of parting so settled a couple. Except this night, if you don't mind."
My spirits gave an odd plunge, surprising in its vehemence. We usually have different partners the nights he's at home, for various reasons; but we're still together, and he'd never before banished me from his bed. He must be missing Shiran more than usual to want his sole company. "Not at all. Shiran will be overjoyed to spend the night with you--"
"No, no." Goujun waved his hand. "I meant, would you care to company me alone, without a third and fourth?" I caught the tiniest constraint in his bearing and understood the cause, but its little shadow was no match for the burst of sunlight in my heart
"Yes, of course," I said, feeling suddenly easy in my bones. "You know I'd be happy to."
The servants dried and dressed us. Tea and small cakes were laid out in the bedroom. Goujun took a sip but soon laid his cup by. I hadn't touched mine. He gave me a look and we went over to the bed together. I opened my robe and he his, and we pressed together as our mouths nibbled at horns and ears and lips. I knew what to do: my hand found his fork and began the movements of the convolvulus. He caught his breath and drew away from me, onto his back so that I had more space. I soon found the rhythm and pattern that worked. His eyes closed, his lips skinned back, his breathing grew deep, and his blind hands grasped and caught hold of me.
This is how he takes his pleasure always. I'd thought it simple consideration at our first couplings. It was natural for him to assume that I prefer to lie above; I'm his senior in our generation but he's the King, so we used the neutral forms as a matter of course, as when I partner the High King. But Shiran informed me, when I was sounding out his own preferences, that this is what Goujun truly enjoys. The hand forms for choice, the mouth ones occasionally, but the entry forms never, either lying above or below.
It's the one thing I truly don't understand about him. A man finds his supreme pleasure in the climax to the Great Dance, and the essence of that pleasure is being within the flesh of another. Thus with one's everyday partners as well, one naturally prefers those Forms that most resemble the rites of procreation. Even lying below is like the climax of the Dance, though it's the role a man cannot take there: which may be precisely why some men enjoy it so much. I've no great liking for it myself: without being one whose body remains closed, I find the activity so uncomfortable as to exclude pleasure almost completely. But there's more than one kind of pleasure to be found in copulation. The one who lies below may feel delight at having the loved one so near to him, almost a part of himself; and that satisfaction of the soul's is possibly greater than the body's. I don't know: I'm never likely to find out. But so it seems to me.
Yet Goujun seemingly has no wish to be so close with his partners. His desires keep them at a distance, allowing no more than the touch of the other's hand.
White cloud that sails the high heaven's wind
Too far and too fleet for my heavy wings to catch
as the old poem puts it. I don't think he intends to pain anyone by this. It may indeed be no choice of his own, but something his body insists upon without regard to his will, like those whose bodies wish to lie below whatever their hearts may feel.
So I tried not to repine as I gave my cousin the one enjoyment his nature seeks. My hands changed their movements to the Spiral Staircase and he groaned aloud. It wasn't the pleasure I might have wished, but it was pleasure still, and far better than our usual separate ways, he with his partner and I with mine. I had him within my hands; the whiteness of him, flushed to the colour of a pink pearl, showed at chest and legs where his robe had shifted aside; I felt the heat of his body upon my own skin.
He caught my hand and held it still, gasping, "Stop." I paused while he strove to master his breathing and levered himself up on an elbow. "Here, let me-- I won't be good for anything after--"
"No need," I said. "Let me finish this. There's all the night for afters." Our eyes met. He knows what I might desire in the silence of my heart, or thinks he knows; he knows that I don't expect to have it ever; and for an instant he let me see his regret that it must be so: that what is, is, and can't be changed. And I assured him silently that none of it matters to me at all. What is, is, and can't be changed: that's what our lives are about, we of the royal kin.
My hand was still on him. He reached both arms up and pulled me to him and kissed me on the mouth. His mouth is softer than ever it looks; white as the snow at the mountain's summit but the inside hot and wet as the volcanic springs below the mountain's roots. The touch of his tongue took me from myself: I fell upon him as he lay back, the rhythm of the form forgotten for the moment. Then I remembered and stroked him as I should, and his lips kissed me to the same tune, and he reached his climax, the groan stifled by my mouth upon his.
Later, after the servant who'd washed us was gone, we lay side by side in the great bed. The night breeze off the ocean fluttered the coverings of the windows and the room was filled with the noise of the waves. He was asleep, by the sound of his breathing, and I nearly so, thinking in dim content how almost perfect the present moment was. Here in his bed, which is empty month after month as the seasons go their round, in his room which is kept clean and ordered against his return, but empty too, in his palace which for this brief space swings in harmonious balance about its proper centre as the sun and moon and stars circle the blue-green earth. I let the sense of peace fill me: fill up the room and the world outside from the depths of the ocean to the distant stars.
Happiness is a fleeting thing, brief as the beauty of the dawn that gives way almost at once to the business and duties of full day. That is the state of being a man and a father, of being a king and a king's regent. But some day, I thought as I slid into sleep, some day maybe when the present noontide is past, when our sons are grown and we can take some rest from our work, we will be here again at the Western Ocean, two old men drinking tea in the late day sun, watching our grandsons and great-grandsons grow, with no cares to part us.
And then I slept and dreamed I was winging the skies with him, following the wind wherever it was going, past the uttermost west.
june 05-may 07