At the beginning of the universe, Tentei, the Emperor of the Heavens, reached into the primordial void and raised up the Twelve Kingdoms from cosmic dust. For every kingdom, there was a kirin. For every kirin, there was a king. And through the Divine Will, a kirin chose a human and placed him upon the throne.
Entrusting not only your own fate but the fate of an entire kingdom to one person is a frightening prospect. Heaven may enthrone wise rulers – after all, every chosen king possesses the character and capacity to govern – but they can never escape their mortal roots. Once a king loses his way, his kirin is struck ill. If he does not reform, his kirin will perish. This is something Sougo knows all too well.
Even now, he cannot forget. After all, what is a kirin without a king? Presence can only truly be felt in its absence and Sougo feels the bitter edge of loss keenly. Without Yamato, he is a house without a hearth – wind blows through his shuttered windows, rattling up his insides and prying him open with frost-bitten fingers. People pass right through him and he stands there, ghostly still, waiting in tomb-cold silence for the sun to rise again.
My fault, he thinks.
Never yours, he can almost hear Yamato say.
He shuts his eyes and takes a steadying breath. Inhale, exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Between each heartbeat, the ellipsis of longing. Between each breath, the unquiet of loss. And still, his heart aches.
When Sougo opens his eyes again, the noise and color of Mt. Hou threatens to overwhelm him. As beautiful as its never-ending flurry of spring is, he misses the quietness of his homeland. To some, the steppe deserts of Hou are frightening - it's nothing but endless stretches of flat land as far as the eye can see. When Sougo first arrived at Hou, he too found it frightening - all is exposed in such vast emptiness. But now he takes comfort in its openness; in such emptiness, there are no expectations. All that exists are salt-white sands and the everlasting sky.
But here in the holy land of Mt. Hou, with eyes gazing expectantly at him, Sougo feels the familiar noose of anxiety tighten around his throat. Most kirins don’t get a second chance. He can’t afford another mistake.
(And then, the memory of a different time – starched linens and pressed shirts, the tense knot of his family name lodged inside his chest. His father bears down on him like a glacier, immovable and impenetrably cold. Don’t disappoint me again .)
But then, among the dozens of hopefuls, Sougo spots him amid under a bough of pearl blossoms – a boy with clear blue eyes that cleaves right through the crowd and in that moment, Sougo feels as if he was struck by a thousand arrows. In the boy’s eyes, Sougo can see the rise and fall of fortunes, the ebb and flow of time. The boy is both heaven and earth, the timeless pull of tide to sea, and with the tectonic shift of absolute certainty, the planes of Sougo’s existence center and realign. It doesn’t quite feel like home – Sougo isn’t sure anything ever will again – but the bone-deep rightness of it all is unmistakable.
He’s not ready, but he cannot deny his duty. He is only a servant of the Divine Will.
Sougo cuts through the crowd, pulled by the instinctive loyalty that binds all kirins to their kings. Every step feels agonizingly slow. Fear and anticipation sings through his veins, until he's as hollow and light as bird bones. When they are finally face to face, Sougo feels almost claustrophobic. The boy stares back, wide-eyed.
Sougo bows, his hair brushing dewy moss. He very carefully does not think of another time where he bowed before another man and pledged his fealty.
“Your Highness ... I swear to never abandon you nor disobey your royal decrees. I will never desert my post before your throne. I pledge my eternal loyalty to you.”
The night is cold. Above, stars glitter like tiny grains of sand. As Sougo rises to his feet, he smiles but his eyes are flat and faraway.
People say fortune does not come twice. Sougo sees no reason to doubt their wisdom.