The room in which Kuda was housed in the Castle of the Stairway had a small balcony overlooking the ocean, facing southwest, at the back of the ancient and elegant building. Here the blind bard and Masu were standing, their faces caressed by the sun and a light breeze. Each had an arm around the waist of the other.
"A beautiful panorama, isn't it?" Kuda said, resting his head against the beautiful warrior's breast.
"Yes, it is beautiful, very wide, there's only sea and sky."
"Can you see where the storm rages? Where Ma and Fa wave their arms and legs?"
"It's just a darker line, slightly below the horizon," the warrior said, turning to him and caressing his face.
Kuda lifted his face, their lips met in a tender and passionate kiss; their bodies were touching as close as possible. Kuda gave a little sigh and shuddered.
"You want me, right?" the singer asked in a breathy whisper.
"Very much..." the warrior murmured, holding him and making him feel his erection.
"Bring me inside... Take me..."
"Do you really want that? Are you ready?" Masu asked, kissing his closed eyelids.
"Yes... Bring me inside..."
Masu felt much more excited than when it had been his own first time, nearly ten years earlier. He led the beautiful blind bard by the hand into the room. He stopped beside the bed.
"Are you happy to be here with me?" Kuda asked, while he started to loosen the clothes of the strong young man opposite him.
"And you, my Kuda?" asked the warrior, starting in turn to strip his companion.
"Soon you will make a man of me... a complete man..."
"And you of me too, my love..." Masu whispered, caressing the beautiful body of the other as he unveiled it to his eyes.
"Love... it's nice to be able to touch you so, to feel how beautiful you are..."
Yeah, "feel" and not "see", Masu thought. While he could enjoy Kuda's gentle beauty with his eyes, the other could only rely on his fingers and touch to enjoy his forms... When both were completely naked, Masu bent down, picked up in his strong arms the slender, well-made body of the boy he had fallen in love with so suddenly and with such incredible strength. He laid him gently on the bed and moved beside him, partly covering him. Kuda continued incessantly to explore his body with warm and delicate hands.
"You really are very beautiful, Masu," the bard murmured.
The warrior caressed him too, and kissed him endlessly. He was in no hurry to consume that union; on the contrary, he wanted to prolong the beauty of the encounter. Maybe because feeling totally in love for the first time in his life, either consciously or unconsciously he wanted this love to go on forever.
"Take me..." the beautiful singer pleaded with a smile of incredible sweetness.
Gently, almost spontaneously, their bodies moved into the right position to unite. The mighty warrior would never have believed to be capable of so much delicacy. His desire was strong, and yet he did not have to make the slightest effort to control it. For the first time in his life, while preparing to "take" the virginity of his beloved, in fact he was preparing to give himself totally to him.
"Take me..." Kuda whispered, when he felt the warrior's hard flesh against his untouched bud.
Masu took him in his arms, putting his hands under his armpits, and pulled his shoulders toward him, his pelvis moving closer.
"Take me..." the young lover whispered, shivering in expectation. He started to open to the desired union.
The beautiful warrior felt welcome in the warm, inviolate intimacy of his beloved, and slowly invaded him. He filled him, penetrated him all the way with a gentle push, without strokes. Despite his many experiences, it was the first time he felt welcomed with such complete acceptance. He felt that this was his place, that his whole body, and Kuda's whole body were created for this union. He felt that his whole life and his companion's life had been directed toward this miraculous moment.
He did not encounter any resistance, the slightest hesitation, the smallest reserve. The beautiful bard was giving himself totally to him, as he was fully devoting himself to Kuda. Masu felt that their union was not only natural, but also just, good and necessary.
When he was fully inside him, after a long and firm advance, Masu began to slide in and out in a sensual and wonderful dance of love. Both their bodies moved in unison and harmony. Masu was looking at the sweet and radiant smile with which the young lover was accepting him in himself, and regretted that Kuda could not watch him.
But at that moment the blind bard murmured: "How beautiful you are, Masu! How beautiful your smile..."
Astonished and moved, the strong and beautiful warrior stopped and asked: "How do you know that I smile, my love?"
"Did not I tell you that my soul and my heart have eyes that see what real eyes are not even able to see?"
"And what do they see, your secret eyes, my love?"
"They see the smile of your soul, and it's wonderful!"
Masu resumed to move inside his beloved, feeling happier than ever before, close to crying. Yes, for the first time he was really giving himself to someone. For the first time someone was totally devoted to him. They were really becoming one single thing, thanks to that rite of love, as old as the world and yet always new.
Continuing to move with tender virility in his beloved, Masu embraced him and kissed him. He wanted to join Kuda, more than two bodies are able to join, he wanted to overcome the limits of matter... Indeed, he felt that he was rising above them, he felt that their souls were truly merging and gradually becoming one single soul.
When, as a blinding light, the pleasure exploded in the two bodies, both tensed and then relaxed in a pleasant rhythm of quivers, giving to the other his core, reaching the climax at the same time. They froze for a few moments, almost amazed by the beauty of that moment. It seemed that the whole universe was immobilized with them, to enjoy with unbelieving astonishment the sublime beauty of their act of love.
Then, with a slight and happy sigh, they were lost in a tender embrace, vaguely aware that their breathing had become one breath that their hearts were beating in unison, chanting a single rhythm.
"I want to be yours forever..." Masu sighed, tenderly caressing his beloved's cheek.
"Toma told me that when there was the Lord of Lords, he, or his representatives, celebrated for two lovers a special rite of union. Something similar to marriage being celebrated today. But while marriage is little more than a civil contract celebrated before men, that special union was celebrated in front of the Gods. I'd whish that were still possible..."
"Yes, it was called the sacred fusion. In the ancient language the word marriage was sufi-laro', that is weft-and-warp, like in a cloth, but the sacred fusion was called ka-o-ichi. A cloth could be undone, could unravel, but two elements fused into one are no longer separable..."
"Would it not be beautiful?"
"Right now, if you want it too, we can only ask the Shiti of this region to join us in marriage."
"Right now, you say? But if there is no longer a Lord of Lords, the only one who could act as an intermediary between men and gods, it is no longer possible to celebrate the... ka-o-ichi, unfortunately."
"Would you like that?"
"With all my soul, my beloved."
"Me too, but we must be satisfied with a simple sufi-laro'..."
"We will content ourselves," Masu sighed, caressing his beloved.
So before leaving the castle, the two asked the Shiti to join them in marriage. Toma as well would have wanted to marry Ja, with whom he was more and more in love, but two people from different social classes could not marry. Masu and Kuda had been able to, because Kuda belonged to the Outsiders, that is to no social class, so the prohibition was not applying to them. After the ceremony was celebrated, the four resumed their journey.
Past the border of the territory of Mashi-Hikureeve' they went into the area of the under-pinky. They reached its capital, dominated by the castle of the Shiti, Zashi-Too-o'. A nearly perfect circle of walls, from which rose hundreds of tall slender towers, enclosed the city.
In fact, the city was built on a high, narrow plateau, which rose from a large, green plain. Not being able to expand horizontally, the capital had developed vertically. The castle of the Shiti was the tallest tower of all. The height of each tower was more or less proportional to the importance of those who lived there, while the richness of the sculpted decorations was an indication of their wealth.
They stopped in town for a few days, guests of a Teha, a Half-lord, who when he recognized in Kuda a blind singer, had promptly offered hospitality to the whole group. Kuda spent the days in the square next to the tower of their host, to sing parts of the epic of the Lord of Lords. Every day his audience was large and attentive, made up of people of all social classes.
After a few days, Masu said to Kuda and their friends: "I have now visited all the territories... We will have to go back, since I can not go north and enter the Machi-Sanisu', or I would be put to death."
Toma and Ja agreed, but Kuda said: "No, you have not yet visited Chuma-Hirosawa. You have not admired the Zama-Neto, the Castle of the Needle (or the Thorn), where the Lord of Lords used to live. Only then you can say you've seen everything."
"But who knows if it's still standing after more than five hundred and twelve years... It may be reduced to a pile of rubble. And then, nowadays the Chuma is nothing but a huge, dangerous and lifeless desert, inhabited only by dragons and harpies, beaten by sandstorms, without water or plants," Toma objected.
Kuda was sitting on a rock just outside the city and had his harp laid on his knees upside down, with the strings below and the case above, as he held it when he didn't play it. Masu was behind him and with a spontaneous gesture of protection he put his hand on his shoulder. Toma was standing in front of Kuda, and Ja was sitting on the ground, his back lightly leaning against his Lord's legs.
They were discussing some more, when they heard a hissing sound, thin but strong, and a zigzag line of violet light arose from nowhere and ran over the surface of the harp. From the wood of the case rose a slight trace of white smoke.
"Throw it away, it will burn you!" Toma shouted, while Ja sprang to his feet, startled.
"Away, away!" Masu exclaimed behind him.
Kuda smiled without moving: "No, don't worry, I will not burn. There is only a new stanza appearing. Do not be afraid, it has happened before, I am in no danger," he said quietly. His fingers felt the burned wood, while the beam of light and smoke continued to trace the mysterious signs on the bottom of the harp.
"But it is burning," Ja said, still worried, looking at that wonder with wide eyes.
The light disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. From the wood still rose some light plumes of white smoke. The fingers of the blind bard still hovered over those signs, light and sure.
Masu was lightly trembling, torn between the danger he feared his beloved was running, and the calm that Kuda showed. He touched the ruby dangling around his neck. Feeling it was cold, he calmed down a little.
The blind bard stopped to slide his fingers over the wood that was burned with the mysterious marks, turned the harp on his knees, and began playing and singing.
"It looks dark, cold and hard the way to adventure,
certainly many trials are waiting
for he who goes to the north alone.
But overcoming any fears,
strong for their love,
the loved ones with their lovers,
all united they go forward."
Kuda sang these words twice, then said: "You see, this is the answer to our uncertainties. We have to go north, all four together, and nothing will stop us."
Masu smiled: "Yes, I think this really is the answer. Let us go then. I'd like to see what remains of the legendary Castle of the Needle."
A little uncertain, Toma joined the proposal and all four set off.
Along the road, Ja asked Kuda: "Every time you have a problem, does that... thing, that kind of lightning, write the answer for you?"
"No, Ja. This mysterious fire doesn't burn, it just writes a new stanza, from time to time, on my harp. I don't know when and why, I just know that it is to complete the Epic of the Lords of Lords. This stanza, while on one hand it seems an answer to the four of us, is really a part of the Epic. "
"But then... are we four also a part of the epic?" the young slave asked. A sense of wonder made his voice quiver.
"Who knows, Ja? Maybe, maybe not. There are many things that a simple human being cannot understand or doesn't know."
Crossing the vast and fertile plain, they found themselves in a ravine between two rocky massifs, two tall and steep mountain ranges, increasingly barren as they proceeded northward. The road had disappeared for a long time now; evidently this was not the beaten path.
The gorge stopped abruptly at a cliff, beyond which lay a wilderness of gray sand dunes, vast as an ocean. It was so windy that thin veils of dust were raising from their tops, causing the dunes to move slowly, in a way that was not perceptible to the eye.
Looking down the cliff, Masu saw that there was actually a narrow walkway that went down toward the desert. It was very twisted, sometimes at the edge of the ravine, sometimes squeezed between high cliffs. The warrior started to go down. The wind became stronger as they went on, and now it shouted in a chorus of high pitched, unnatural, awe inspiring voices. It seemed that the lashes of the wind were hands that tried to seize them all, to throw them from the rocks to be smashed below.
Masu was holding Kuda's hand and guided him slowly, with great care. Ja clutched to Toma, who followed them, testing the ground and trying to stay with his body as close to the rock wall as possible. The descent seemed to never end. But when Masu looked up, saw that they were more or less halfway through that slow and dangerous descent.
A sudden, violent gust of wind caused Ja to lose balance, so that he was projected out of the narrow ledge, into the void. The boy screamed. Toma turned and managed to grab him by the wrist, lying on the ground. Now Ja was hanging in the air, looking at Toma with terrified eyes. Masu stopped, and made Kuda curl on the ground, his beautiful body pressed against the rock. He stepped over him, lay down on the ledge and extending an arm grabbed Ja's other wrist. Together the two friends managed to slowly hoist Ja back on the ledge, until all three were lying there.
Safe now, Ja threw himself in Toma's arms and burst into tears, releasing all the fear and tension he had felt. Toma rocked him, repeating: "You're safe, you're here, don't be afraid..."
Kuda's voice sang, at times attenuated, at times reinforced by the wind:
"Strong for their love,
the loved ones with their lovers,
all united they go forward."
When Ja had stopped crying and was calmed down, Toma kissed him and asked: "Do you feel like going on?"
"Yes, I will go wherever you go."
"And where I will go, I will always have you by my side," Toma said softly.
Cautiously they stood to their feet. Masu took Kuda's hand again and Toma that of Ja. Slowly they began to descend toward the desert.
The wind seemed to blow more and more angry gusts. The edges of the mantles of Masu, Kuda and Toma snapped in the air with sharp blows strong as whip lashes, despite the three trying to keep them tight around their bodies.
Finally they reached the foot of the cliff and stopped to rest a little and take a breather. Ja passed around the goatskin, from which everyone took a little water. As far as the eye could see, there was not a blade of grass, or a single living being. Behind them was the high wall of rock, and in front the vast expanse of sand. The sky devoid of clouds completed the scene. If it had not been a scene of lifeless desolation, it would have been even beautiful...
They decided to walk during the evening, night and early morning and to rest during the afternoon, because the sun and its reflection on the hot sand was relentless, especially on Ja's bare feet. Therefore during most of the day they were laying in a little hole they had dug in the sand, covering themselves with their cloaks, staying as motionless as possible to withstand the scorching heat. The nights were cold and Toma held Ja against him, both wrapped in his cloak. The best times were the early morning and late evening.
They were sleeping in their usual temporary shelter trying to protect themselves from the sun, when distant and very loud roars woke up them.
Masu immediately recognized those sounds: "Red Dragons!" he exclaimed, and drew his sword.
"You can do little with that sword," Toma said, "especially if there are many."
"They move slowly, probably we can just succeed in escaping," Masu said, without putting back his sword. Keeping it in his hand gave him a sense of confidence and safety.
They saw them come. They were many, advancing toward them in a wide array, clearly in order to surround them. To escape the encirclement, the four friends had to retrace their steps, but Masu was not sure it was worth it to retreat from their goal.
Behind them they heard high-pitched cries, some strong, others modulated. They turned to look and Toma exclaimed: "Damn, green dragons! We cannot go back."
"The green dragons are very fast, but their skin is tender. At least you can fight them with your sword, if they are not too many," Kuda said.
"And green dragons are the enemies of red dragons... If we are lucky, they will fight each other," Toma said.
"But we're in the middle... No matter who wins, they will make a meal out of us," Ja groaned.
The red dragons were approaching, slow and heavy. The green ones, though more distant, were quickly coming closer. A red dragon is big and heavy, round shaped except the neck with the large head and the long tail. In contrast, a green dragon is long and thin, supported by three pairs of short legs. They came hopping over the sand with only their slender neck erect, the small head with six eyes staring ahead, the small but fearsome jaws wide open to launch their screams.
Ja clung to Toma. Masu, his legs a little apart and the sword tight in his hand, looked first at the army of red dragons, then towards the column of green dragons. Only Kuda seemed calm; he was motionless but it was clear that all his senses were strained to capture and interpret what was happening around them.
The column of green dragons opened like a fan and rushed to attack the flanks of the line of the red dragons. Never before had Masu seen clash like this, and he observed the incredible scene with fascination. The red dragons were trying to defend themselves and to attack, either by launching their dual flames, or with powerful strokes of the tail. The green dragons rather tried to attack their opponents aiming for their head or tail.
Masu they soon understood the technique: while one green dragon confronted a red dragon from the front, dodging with deft twists it's dual flames, another green dragon stuck it's head into the red dragon's back hole, almost making it look like it had a second tail... The red dragon was rolling in the sand, screaming, while the opponent was tearing it apart from the inside. Then the other green dragon pulled its jaws open wide and began to devour it from the other side.
Masu quickly went to a trio of one dying red dragon and two green dragons that were devouring it from within. First he twirled his sword and cut in two the green dragon on the front, then ran to kill the other that was behind the dead red dragon.
His friends ran to him, while the other red and green dragons were still fighting among themselves. Sometimes a red dragon could hit a green one with its flames, who then writhed on the sand screaming. The red dragon would immediately attack with its jaws, tearing it to pieces and eating it. The stench was becoming unbearable.
The four were trying to stay away from those beasts, but they could not get away from the battlefield, because whatever direction they went, they would have been too close to one of those beasts. Occasionally Masu managed to kill some green dragons, but only when they were busy tearing the entrails of a red dragon.
The battle was drawing to a close, just a few dragons on both sides were still alive and able to fight; the stench was indescribable. Masu was watching in which direction they could get away, when piercing screams came from the sky.
"White harpies!" Kuda said alarmed.
"Can my sword kill them?" Masu asked.
"Yes, but they are too many..." Kuda said.
"Stay next to me, crouched on the ground and do not lose contact with my legs!" Masu shouted.
He saw them coming: they were like a flock of great white birds, with wings similar to those of huge bats, a long neck topped with a head with sharp teeth, and powerful claws. They circled for a while above the battle scene, and then came down headlong on the carcasses of dead dragons as well as on those still able to fight. Masu saw that when they attacked the dragons that were still alive, they were trying to fly down on their eyes, to blind them with their claws.
A few harpies tried to attack the four friends. Toma was defending himself well, despite only having his short dagger. Masu had already killed three harpies. Ja was throwing handfuls of sand at the harpies' heads, making them ward off, at least for a while. Kuda remained crouched between his lover's legs.
Sometimes some harpy managed to blind a dragon, sometimes a dragon could catch a harpy and tear it to pieces. A big red dragon, receding, gave a strong backlash, creating a rain of fine dust that nearly buried the four friends.
Suddenly Masu saw a vague figure coming towards them - it was a human being. He looked surprised and saw it was a man of average height. With the air flickering from the intense heat, the man's features were almost indistinct, but at times he looked like an old man, then again like a strong young man. Masu thought he recognized him as the magician he had met at the beginning of his journey.
The figure stopped at a short distance from them and made a gesture of invitation. Masu made Kuda stand up, called Toma and Ja and approached the ageless figure. As the four were going towards him, the man seemed to move backwards, so that their distance did not decrease. But soon they found themselves out from the encirclement of the wild beasts, and none of them seemed to be following them.
The young-old man disappeared behind a sand dune. When the four had climbed over it, he could not be seen anywhere anymore. But in a hollow they saw something dark, curled up like a cloak. They went down and drew near. With the tip of his sword Masu lifted it up, thinking of finding the magician under it. Instead he saw a basket full of food and a closed jar.
He touched his ruby. It was cold.
"Food..." Kuda murmured, inhaling the scent.
"Could it be a trap? Will it be safe?" Ja asked warily.
"They will eat without fear
the warrior with the lord,
and their young escort,
in the barren wasteland..." Kuda sang.
"Is that about us?" Toma asked.
"No, at least I don't think so, but it seems like it's written for us... It speaks of the sixteenth Lord of Lords and his faithful warrior, and the barren wasteland is that of the South, covered with snow, therefore barren until the next spring. For some reason it came to my mind."
"I can taste some of it, and if it does not hurt me, you can eat it too," Ja offered.
"Why you? We can all taste a little," Toma objected.
"I'm just a slave, and if someone has to get sick, it's better if it's just one of us," Ja said with a faint smile.
"I trust Kuda's words. I will eat first," Masu said, taking a piece of food from the basket.
"I am a Lord, so I decide! And I will taste it first!" Toma answered promptly.
Kuda was already chewing on something and interrupted them: "The taste is good and, at least for now, I don't think I'm getting ill..."
Everyone looked at him, and Masu said: "I hope you're right, my beloved..." his voice trembling of concern.
"It's okay, you can eat safely," Kuda said with a smile.
The food was good and the liquid contained in the jar was refreshing. When they had eaten enough, Ja wanted to take the basket with what was left, but Kuda made him put it back.
"When we need it, we will find other food," he said.
"Another of your stanzas?" asked Toma.
"No, just a feeling. I believe that our journey is predestined, somehow. Like our meeting was."
"Predestined? What do you mean?" Masu asked.
"It is just a feeling, I can not see yet clearly, but the feeling is getting stronger. It is like when you look at a landscape through a haze: the outlines are confused, you do not see clearly, but slowly the fog lifts and the picture becomes gradually clearer."
"What do you know of a scene with fog, you who can not see?" Ja asked, intrigued by the comparison.
"So it has been described to me. I think it is the best image of what I feel to explain to you, who have the use of your eyes," the young blind bard quietly replied.
They left the basket and its contents where it was and began to walk north. Ja, however, took the gray cloak and placed it on his shoulders to shelter himself from the sun.
During the day, while they were lying side by side in the hole they had dug in the sand, wrapped in their cloaks, Masu gently caressed Kuda's body.
"You know I want you, Kuda?"
"Yes, I know, and I also I want you. But we must have patience, my love. I do not think it would be appropriate right now... In this heat, the less we move, the better."
"I think you're right, unfortunately. Maybe we can make a stop during the night. Would you feel ashamed to do it, with Toma and Ja nearby?"
"I don't think so. Maybe they want nothing else. It would be too bad for them if they could not enjoy... I know they want to."
"Too bad for us if we could not enjoy... I know we both want to," Masu said to him, smiling.
"What do you think to do, after we have seen the Castle of the Needle?"
"I'll go wherever you go..."
Kuda chuckled: "Exactly what I would have answered if you had asked me... I'll go wherever you go..."
"Good. We will decide together, then. It does not really matter as long as we stay together."
"Do you mind not being able to go back to your land?"
"Maybe a little at first. But now I like this wandering, especially since you're here with me."
"Don't you think that sooner or later we will have to settle somewhere?"
"Maybe. Life will tell us. If, as Ja says, four blessings have already taken away four curses from me. I can now stay anywhere, I can spend all the nights I want under the same roof. Only the fifth blessing I still do not understand..."
"The one of the four problems to be solved, that will tell you who you really are?" Kuda asked.
"Exactly. Who am I really? I have always believed to be a warrior, although now without a master, since my Shiti sent me into exile. Who am I really?"
"You're my Masu, and this is enough for me," Kuda said softly.
Their hands fumbled for each other, their fingers intertwined. Surrounded more by the pleasant warmth of their love than by the intense heat of the desert, they fell asleep peacefully, physically united only through their fingers, but totally united in their souls.