8-7 A solitary beast, imprisoned deep within the fortifications of the palace, shackled within a thick wall of netting . . .
“ . . . a kirin.”
This is a kirin.
An animal with a translucent golden coat and a single horn on its head. The kirin’s slender legs, like those of some species of deer, were bound in iron chains. The kirin looked at Youko with its deeply colored eyes. When she approached closer, it touched her arm with its slightly rounded muzzle.
“Keiki . . . ”
At the sound of her voice, the kirin looked straight at her. It folded its legs beneath itself and prostrated itself at her feet. When she knelt and reached out her hand, it did not shrink back. She stroked its golden mane and it closed its eyes.
The other half of me. The beast who had delivered such a fate to her, who in that other world existed only in fairy tales.
Youko said, “I’ve been searching for you.”
The kirin brought its muzzle next to her knees. Several times, almost as if bowing to her, it nuzzled its head against her. Again, as she stroked its mane, she heard a hard noise at her feet, the sound of the chains binding it.
“Hold on. I’ll get those things off you.”
She stood and focused her attention on the shackles. Aiming the tip of the blade, she drove the sword straight down, severing the fetters. The kirin sprang nimbly to its feet but continued to chafe its head, specifically its horn, against her arm.
“What’s the matter?”
She looked closer and noticed a subtle pattern of designs on the horn, characters a hand’s breadth high in a reddish-brown color that looked an awful lot like dried blood.
“Where did this come from?”
Keiki went on scraping the horn against her arm. Youko couldn’t help but attend to this vexing behavior. Rakushun was a hanjuu and he could talk. In this world, where even the enchanted magical creatures could speak, should not the kirin, the preeminent of the sacred beasts, be capable of speech as well?
Now that she thought about it, she recalled the vision she had seen in the sword. Kourin had said something like, With its horn sealed, it cannot return to human form and cannot speak. When she lightly brushed her hand against the horn, the kirin calmed down. She scrubbed harder with her sleeve, lightly grazing the surface, but changing nothing else. Examining it more closely, she saw that the thin characters were etched into the horn.
A wound she could do something about. Youko took the jewel from her pocket. Applying the jewel and gently abrading the surface she saw the characters growing fainter. Repeating the process until the characters were almost imperceptible, she suddenly heard a voice at her elbow, a voice she hadn’t heard in such a long time.
The kirin narrowed its eyes slightly and looked up at Youko. “Yes. I regret any undue hardships that may have been inflicted upon you in my absence.”
Youko smiled. She’d even missed that cool and composed tone of voice.
“Are you alone?”
“The Imperial En is lending a hand. The Imperial Army of En is holding off the pretender’s forces.”
“I see.” He nodded, then called out in a strong voice, “Hyouki! Juusaku!”
The two beasts appeared, as if emerging from out of the walls. “We are here.”
“Go and offer your assistance to the Imperial En.”
The two beasts bowed deeply and slipped away.
“You are okay?”
“Of course,” the kirin said with a nod. His utterly unflappable voice was really quite amusing.
“So when your horn was sealed, your shirei were bound as well?”
The kirin answered with a self-conscious grunt. “You have learned a great deal. Yes, that is what happened. I am sorry for any trouble this might have occasioned on your behalf.”
“Jouyuu wasn’t bound so it didn’t affect me. What about Kaiko and Hankyo?”
“They are here. Shall I call them?”
“No, as long as they’re okay. But I’d like to meet them later.”
“That can be arranged.”
“Oh, come to think about it, I do have a request to make.”
“What is that?”
“I’d like you to reverse the order you gave to Jouyuu about keeping mum. I’m still not ready to do without him, though.”
The kirin looked at Youko and blinked several times. “You have indeed become a different person.”
“I have. Thanks to you and thanks to the hinman. Jouyuu was a great help. I’d like to say so personally, and there’s something else I’d like to ask.”
“A request you wish to make?”
“Yeah. How do you spell his name?”
The beast’s eyes opened wide. “A most peculiar request.”
“I suppose. But I haven’t really heard his real name. It’s been bugging me.”
As soon as Youko spoke, that unexpected sensation crept up her arm to her hand. Seemingly of its own accord, her finger wrote the characters in the air. “The Useless (Jou) Assistant (yuu).”
Youko smiled. “Thank you, Jouyuu, my Useless Assistant.”
The shirei serve the kirin, and by extension the emperor. There is no need to thank me.
Youko only laughed. Looking at her, the kirin narrowed its eyes. “You truly have changed.”
“Yeah, it’s been a real learning experience.”
“To speak the honest truth, I did not think we would ever meet again.”
Youko nodded. “Same here. Say, can’t you turn back into a person?”
“I surely do not wish to appear naked before you!”
Youko had to smile at the shocked tone of his voice. “Well, then, I’ll get you some clothes. It’s about time we headed back. Before returning to Kinpa Palace, we’re going to crash at Gen’ei Palace for a while.”
She grinned and the kirin blinked again. Then he knelt down before her. With every movement, his back radiated an extraordinary luster.
He said, “I greet Your Highness bearing the Mandate of Heaven.” He lowered his head and touched Youko’s foot with his horn. “I shall never part from thee nor disobey thy decrees. My fealty I hereby pledge in covenant to thee.”
The whisper of a smile came to her lips. “I accept.”
This was, for Youko, the real beginning of her story.