The end of a dynasty in Kou.
Kouwa he named her, with the word for their kingdom's name and the word for softness, for peace. He had half a mind to write "kou" with the word for light instead, he said, lifting a hand as if to lay it on the gold of her mane, that palest gold, the color of sun seen through glass in the early hours. Then his hand fell without touching, and she bowed without speaking, but later, when she was alone, she folded her hands against her breast, closed her eyes, and smiled, smiled until it felt like her heart might brim out of her body.
He never touched her, not even to clasp the bracelet that was an imperial treasure around her wrist. Instead he sent it to the Hall of Profound Compassion in a gleaming box, in a servant's hands, and gave no sign that he noticed her wearing it, not even when she stood beside him on the terrace of the Inner Palace and lowered her arm to let it shimmer past the edge of her sleeve. She'd expected him to give it to his daughter, who was a grown lady and worthy of the gift. If his wife had still lived, he would have given it to her, surely, but she had passed away long before Kourin found him, before she knelt to him and raised him to the throne.
"You remind me of her," said the princess to Kourin one day. "My mother. She was quiet, always turning things over in her head, like you do. She wasn't as pretty as you, though."
"Oh, no, I'm sure..." said Kourin, but the princess crinkled her mouth and shook her head.
"How could she be?" Laughing. "She was human. It's a good thing..."
Her voice faded. Kourin waited, but an attendant appeared in search of the princess, and the princess took her leave. Kourin slipped one hand into her other sleeve and traced the bracelet's circle, wondering what the good thing might have been.
Kouwa he named her, but as years spun past he seemed to forget the name he had given. One morning as she entered the throne room, he greeted her with "Kourin," then turned to speak with the Autumn Minister, whose voice was urgent and strained. Kourin stood, staring, like a deer transfixed by the curve of a drawn bow. She didn't understand. But the assembly was about to begin, so she stepped to her place beside the throne and kept her gaze leveled ahead.
"Still no king in Kei," he said to her, as they went to take their noon meal after court. His eyes thinned with a terrible contentment. "Was there ever a clumsier kirin?"
"He may go to Hourai to search," said Kourin.
"Hourai?" The king stopped.
"The Taiho of En did, when a suitable person was nowhere to be found."
"To Hourai...for a taika?"
"No," murmured the king. "No, that can't be."
He strode on. Kourin hurried after him. Her stride was nearly as long as his: it should have been easy to keep up. "Your Majesty?" she asked, but he seemed not to hear.
"Find out," he said. "If he leaves to make the crossing. You must find out for me."
It was the last order from him that she obeyed freely, in ignorance, unpained. Later, when word came that youma were crossing the mountains into Kou, hunting and preying among the ricefields, the king blamed the rent between worlds for their incursion. Kourin knew better. In her master's presence her bones began to ache as if they might snap. He had forgotten the name he gave her out of gentleness. He had forgotten gentleness itself.
He never took the bracelet from her, never asked her to return it, even as he demanded everything else she held dear. Her shirei, one by one. Her trust in him. Her hope. As she lay behind the shroud of curtains in her sickbed, she thought of Kei Taiho, who had suffered the same under his mad queen not so long ago. She had pitied him, as a kirin pities all pitiable beings. She regretted that. If nothing else, his mad queen had loved him to the end.
When her king called to her for the last time, it was Kourin, Kourin, not the name she craved to hear, the name that would be carved across their single gravestone. She would never know what the good thing, the unspoken thing had been--whether she had been too alike, or not like enough to be forgiven. She spent all her strength to disobey him: in the plunge of the sword bloomed comfort, a darkening ease. Her wrist went slack. The bracelet dropped to lie in her wake, dull gold and still, like a fallen crown.