For Juuni Kokki 20+ themes #17: A moment of happiness.
It was only in Sui Province that the boat races were held. They were an import, brought to Tai by immigrants from more southerly kingdoms like Kou and Kei. The festival had taken root in Sui, where the outlanders settled, but had never spread to the north. Gyousou told him these things on a clear day in June as they walked the curve of a stone balustrade, above the harbor, almost level with the coasting gulls whose bellies flashed diamantine in the light. Wind from the waterside carried sea smell, drum thunder, the roar of steersmen, ululations from the cheering crowd. Pennants hid the boats themselves from view, lashed the air into a froth and curled like dragons' tails.
The drumbeats goaded Taiki's heart to eager paces. He leaned over the balustrade, into the wind, lifted a hand to catch strands of mane that riffled across his eyes. "It looks crowded," he said.
"Half the city's down there, I expect."
"You can hardly see anything from here, with all the flags."
"Shall we have a closer look," said the king, with the smile of a man who knows the answer to his own question.
Crowds parted for Gyousou, even among the crush around the piers. To Taiki this seemed so natural that he hardly wondered at it, or thought to suspect the martial stride and the sheathed threat of Kangyoku in its scabbard as the cause, more than any instinctive homage from the masses. He walked in the wake his master left, in close reach of trailing sleeves. The sea smell had deepened to pungent salt, like sweat--fishy, not pleasant--but Taiki found himself breathing long draughts of it, as if seeking some confirmation or trying to discern a single line of scent from the tangled brine. Gyousou forged on unerring. Without warning they broke through to the edge of the dock, where only ropes of weathered hemp barred them from stumbling into the sea.
Taiki peered around his master's shoulder. The water under the pier slithered silken, brown-green. Gyousou's hand touched his back, eased him forward. With the other hand Gyousou gestured toward the boats.
"Twenty men to row." His voice was pitched for Taiki's ears, low and tutelary. "Another to drum, one more to steer."
Attentive, Taiki observed the painted scales, the fanged heads that reared from each prow, the rowers' bare arms flashing tanned and wet as oars plunged to furrow the water, but within him there was room for keen consciousness of only the drums throbbing, the hand pressing against his back.
In their room that evening he sat between his master's knees, his belly full to tautness after dumplings of sticky rice and dates. From the veranda washed the dank blue smell of low tide. At full dark there would be fireworks, the innkeeper had said, so Taiki kept his eyes on the harborward sky. The drums of the day's races beat on inside him, untiring, until he thought their tumult would eclipse his pulse. He leaned and stretched and asked whether his master had ever seen a dragon, since they were real in this world, the great serpents that coiled under sea and over cloud.
"Once, in the Yellow Sea. At a distance. There was a great deal of lightning." Gyousou paused in filling his pipe. "They eat demons, men are nothing to them. Gnats. But I was happy not to be any closer to it than I was."
The admission startled Taiki like a windfall. He gathered it up to his chest to cradle it. "So there are things Master Gyousou's afraid of."
"Oh, I have my share of fears."
He laid his arms atop Taiki's, closed his palm around Taiki's wrist to circle the new bracelet there. Proof against illness, the seller on the street had sworn--her own sons wore them--healthy as horses all. Gyousou fingered the beaded threads. "Never think I don't," he said, and rested his chin on the crown of Taiki's head.