It takes him years to understand how different he is from the others, from the golden ones. That not only color sets him apart, or history, or the way he helped bring his kingdom to ruin only to help restore it again, or the way he has once witnessed the death of a man and felt no pity at all, not even regret. He is different also in how he loves. The others variously love their kings, and are variously beloved, but not the way he does, and is.
He has yet to understand why this should be. It may be just another flaw in him; whatever niceties people recite about rare and precious and auspicious, he has never been a proper kirin. For a time he was an "ordinary person," cut off from the purview of Heaven. The trouble can't be merely his upbringing in the other world (where birth and love and death are messier things), or the kirin of En would be like him, too, and Enki is not like him. For a long time he was unsure, until once in conversation it came clear that Enki took a low view of men's so-called needs, which in this world were not needs but pure indulgences, and when Taiki dared to ask, halting, "So you don't...you never," the answer was a grimace and an "Ugh, are you kidding? His problem, not mine. Anyway, that's what brothels are for."
Not what kirin are for. But Taiki is different, and if the question is one of needs, he has his share of them, though not the same share as a man. He spent so many years apart from his master that longing became so ingrained, so indelible a habit that he has found himself unable to break it, even now that the king is returned to him. As if he spent so long in the cold and was so thoroughly frozen that sitting by the fire no longer warms him, not to the marrow. He goes on shivering. To be warm he must lie down among the flames.
There are no stories of such things in the kingdom's annals. Love is the sort of detail historians elide. Because of this--and because Taiki can bring himself to speak of it to no one--he is unsure whether and how much to conceal. His master seems to both conceal nothing and reveal nothing. In the palace in Tai there is no hiding, or if there is, it is in plain sight: they live together in Seishin, the king's residence, and no one says a word. After Asen, the kingdom on the whole is grateful enough to have its true king on the throne that foibles can be overlooked. But Taiki wonders what would happen if the others knew--the other kirin, or his friends abroad.
For a time he forgets to let it trouble him; he and his master and Tai have greater troubles to occupy them, and he sees the others rarely enough. The years pass. When his wounds and the kingdom's have begun to heal, his master proposes a trip into the Yellow Sea, ostensibly to hunt for suugu, in truth to hunt for shirei--or perhaps in truth to have some quiet time in one another's company. Taiki asks whether they may break their journey at Mount Hou, to visit Hourou Palace, and they do.
The evening meal among the sages is boisterous with talk. They are delighted to see him, Youka most of all. They devour his news of Tai, praising his steadfastness and the beauty of his mane in nearly the same breath, as if the two are of equal virtue. They despair at length and loudly of their current charge, the young kirin of Kou, who at fourteen is grown, they say, wholly unmanageable: she has given up receiving pilgrims, since her king has yet to appear, and she will keep haring off to Kou alone, never mind she is too young for it. If only Taiki might say a word to her about patience, obedience! But he shakes his head and tells them he could never scold her, not when she is searching for what her heart demands.
After the meal Gyousou takes his leave, saying Taiki and his friends must have further catching up to do, and his presence will only impede them. Taiki is baffled by this until one of the sages rises to escort the king.
He knows better than to make a scene. Instead he waits quietly, and asks Youka when they have gone: "Where will he stay?"
"Why, Tankei Palace," she says, as if this were a matter of course. "No other palace would be suitable for a reigning king."
"I see." And he is to stay here, in Rosen Palace, as he did when he was a child. The king in one hall, the kirin in another. He smiles a little wanly, a little crookedly, and asks to hear more of Kourin.
As the hour grows late one by one the women bid him good night. Youka is last to leave, and promises to see him off in the morning. He waits for a time after her departure before putting out the light.
Rosen Palace has no doors, and no one tries to detain him as he steps out into the night. There is enough moon to do without a lantern. The air is mild and fragrant, quiet around him as he walks. He has gone only a short distance up the path before he sees a dim figure ahead, and must suppress the guilty impulse to transform and dash into the sky to escape from sight.
The figure is Youka, her face pale with surprise. "Taiki?" she calls out. "Is anything amiss?"
He hears the unasked question, too. It would be easy to dissemble, to tell her he was in a mood to take the evening air, or wander old paths amid the labyrinth, or observe the moon.
"Nothing's amiss," he says. "I'm going to Tankei Palace."
Her face clears. "If there's a message, please permit one of us to deliver it--"
"No, there's no message." He pauses, allowing his gaze to drop to one side, as if with helpless shame. "...I know it's foolish, after all this time, but I don't like to be apart."
When he looks up again, her eyes are brimming, her hands clasped into a knot at her breast. "Of course, of course you don't. Oh, I should've realized. We only thought you would be most comfortable in your old rooms--I'm so sorry--"
"It's all right. It's no trouble."
"--but there are plenty of rooms in Tankei Palace. I'm sure you'll be comfortable there."
"I will," he says, and offers her a smile. She hastens forward and presses something small into his hands.
"I came back to give you this. No, it's really nothing, just a trinket, only I was so pleased--" she breaks off with sheepishness of her own. "Shall I walk with you?"
"I know the way," he says gently. "Thank you, Youka."
"Of course. Good night."
He listens to the shushing of her long skirts as she hurries away. In truth he doesn't remember the route to Tankei Palace, and has to summon Sanshi to guide him. Better Sanshi, who knows the truth and asks no questions, even unspoken ones. He follows her pale shape through the dark maze of stone.
At Tankei Palace a trail of lamplight shows the way to the rooms given to the king. One of the junior sages, whose name he does not know, has stationed herself outside the bedchamber. She looks up in mild astonishment to see Taiki there, but is too well-schooled to remark, and returns his greeting with a deep bow. She does insist on announcing him, officious as a herald, so that when Taiki enters the room, any surprise that might have shown on Gyousou's face is already gone.
The young sage bows herself out. Taiki halts inside the doorway, hesitating.
Gyousou raises his brows.
Defeated, Taiki ducks his head and smiles downward. "I shouldn't have come, should I."
Gyousou gives a slight shake of the head and beckons him nearer, toward the divan by the window where he reclines. "If you wished to, that is reason enough. You are the authority here."
There is room on the divan by the king's feet, enough for Taiki to sink down with his hands in his lap. "I don't feel very authoritative."
"One does remain wary of sudden thunderbolts," says Gyousou, not quite under his breath. Not quite laughing. "But until the Queen Mother manifests and orders you back to your bed, I believe you are safe." He eyes the wrapped packet in Taiki's hands.
"A present," says Taiki, lifting it. In his distraction he had half forgotten. "From Youka." The paper is beautiful, handmade, immaculately folded. He unfolds it to find a comb carved of white jade. He cups the comb in his palm for a moment, weighing it, feeling less and less worthy of the care behind the gift, until Gyousou extends a hand.
"Give it here."
He obeys without a thought, and then holds himself still as Gyousou tucks the comb into his mane, pinning a generous handful of strands above and behind his ear. When the deed is done Gyousou leans back against the divan and surveys his work, with the air of a general satisfied by the outcome of a skirmish. Taiki settles under his gaze. He lets the approval in it instruct him, assure him that he wasn't wrong to come. Wasn't wrong. Isn't wrong at all. He feels--as he has felt from the first--that Heaven will not rebuke them for this, for what they are to one another, now or ever.
If Heaven does not then the sages and the denizens of all the kingdoms may hold their tongues.