Note: It's been a while since I watched Twelve Kingdoms, and though I refreshed myself with wiki articles, I may have missed out on some details while writing this.
Cover art: Not sure where it's from… It was submitted by Gosc on this page – img. kyon. pl/img/4881,Juuni_Kokuki,Youko_Nakajima%20,Keiki,. html
Disclaimer: Twelve Kingdoms is the product and property of Fuyumi Ono. For that, she is also my hero.
Youko didn't find her palatial quarters to be the most private of spaces. People barged in when she was yet buried in the covers, bleary-eyed and not entirely present. However, when the doors closed at night (the click of the lock resounding through the corners of the room and the sigh of a day's conclusion leaving her lips), there it was. Peace, if only temporary. One she could only find with her Kirin, like the uneasy truce between warring countries. And to a newly-crowned Youko, that wasn't even an empty metaphor anymore.
As the charismatic warrior queen of a burgeoning kingdom, Youko was well-watched by her fragile populace and by the crotchety old men who claimed they did most of the running of Kei. Councilors, they were called. She'd been forced to sit through a one-sidedly awkward conversation at the start of her reign that conveyed the expectation of her… restraint in personal matters during the first tender years. Celibacy—Youko had interpreted with heated ears.
As though I didn't have enough on my mind, she had said.
That was the problem, they had replied. Most monarchs do so to take their mind off things. Consequently, she wasn't allowed to welcome men, alone, in her quarters. They'd threatened to make it constitutional.
Keiki had watched the proceedings with veiled eyes and blank expression, as was his default. Youko wondered whether he was truly pondering the Council's imposition at the time as they'd both had no qualms with sharing rooms during the last few moons. It had started out with necessity, of course, since Youko had just conquered one of the most unstable kingdoms of the realm, and it was natural to consider her safety when she slept in her newly regained palace. So he watched over her. His sombre nature had him either reflecting on the next day's agenda or staring dolefully at the moon from a window, anyway. Youko monopolised the bed.
Nevertheless, Keiki had trailed after her that night, watched uninterestedly as maidservants closed the chamber doors, and stared back as Youko cast him a pointed look.
"So…?" she prompted.
A long pause.
"Is there anything you need?"
He was playing it that way, was he? Youko was careful to consider her answer.
"Though I don't mind—I really don't—maybe there is some wisdom to the counsellors' advice. Your last queen had... fallen in love with you, after all." She didn't mean to accuse, and she thought she did a good job of not sounding like it. She figured blunt straightforwardness was the best approach with Keiki.
He seemed to go into himself as he thought of this.
"You are not Joukaku," he stated, finally.
"No," she acceded. "I'm not."
"And I am not truly a man."
After a confused moment, Youko gathered this referred to his divine nature rather than his being a woman. "Understood."
"It is convenient for me that you remain in sight at all times."
"Will you fall in love with me?"
She had guessed that he would ask that and so wasn't terribly unsettled, though hearing it out loud still caused her heart to jump. She was, after all, the same Youko not a year from being abducted from her high school in Hourai, and used to hear of her classmates hooking up after the most dramatic after-school confessions. Never did she imagine having to cross dimensions and usurp a false queen to enter into conversation about love.
In keeping up with her wish to be honest with Keiki, she had shrugged. I don't know, her gesture expressed, unsaid.
Keiki had looked at her a long moment, and not for the first time, Youko had no idea what he was thinking. Unlike the first time she'd met him, however, it wasn't something she feared. His silence had long failed to frighten her anymore, so she patiently held his gaze, waiting for his judgment. He nodded.
And that was that. Her councilors either dared not disagree, or were simply ignored.
Of course, it was unresolved—there's no getting around that—so it seemed likely the issue would continue to hang over their heads until forced to be addressed later. But since then, Keiki had stayed with her when her doors closed at night, and remained there until morning. He did the same things as before: paced, read scrolls, stared at the moon, or simply stood stock still at one of the dark corners as she slipped into the heavy linens. Youko knew Kirin weren't so magical that they didn't require sleep, so she figured he did at some point, somehow. She always imagined he slept standing up.
Indeed, Youko didn't find her palatial quarters to be the most private of spaces. Instead, a good brood always required the gardens.
The palace gardens at the time of her ascent to the throne were—lacking better words—feral. Remaining unkempt since the latter weeks of the war up to present times when finances, labour, and precious water were poured into more urgent projects, they looked all but abandoned.
They weren't, though. Not on certain nights. Not when another village was swept away by flash flood. Not when the country was in the throes of revolt and Youko couldn't even find the energy to sleep, ironically enough. It was on these nights that the garden came to life under her green gaze, vines and brambles blanketed by moonlight and breathing with the wind. Keiki knew of these rare eschewals of hers, of course, when just about the entire palace was fraught with worry over her sudden absence. He knew of the gardens and knew what it took to send her escaping for a few hours. He knew her enough to remain in her room, warding off the worst of the frantic inquiries.
She supposed that her garden retreats were one of few forms of solitude she could grasp these days. It was only then—in the company of the strange plants and strange view of the city that was a mere fraction of the strange country that she now led—that she would withdraw into herself, calling back some of the shy, indecisive shadow of a girl she used to be. Hugging her knees to her chest, staring out at the lights of the capital, she would remember evenings on the hill of her neighbourhood, looking down at the flickering commercial district. Back then, there was a point at which she had stopped making plans for herself. Clubs, cram school, universities, careers… even looking as far as a week ahead had given Youko the feeling of staring into a gaping maw, an endless void that swallowed her into meaninglessness. It was suffocating, but she had kept on.
It wasn't always so morbid, being alone with these thoughts. Her life in Hourai wasn't a complete tragedy, after all. Her parents had loved her in their way, and summer days and childhood friends weren't lost to her when she was younger. Sometimes the pure wistfulness of an age gone by (and for a lost innocence) was enough to send her consciousness far away, and upon returning, colour her appreciation for this time and place with a sort of awe and gratefulness.
It was funny to think that now, others were making plans for her. Most prominent of all—though he tried not to so much—was Keiki. Which brought her to thinking about the only other form of solitude she encountered these days, and back to thinking of her quarters.
At the end of each day, and the doors closed with the sound of solemn finality, she and Keiki carved a routine between them. It mostly consisted of Youko wandering about, straightening curtains, repositioning plant pots and generally fidgeting, and Keiki watching. Though to anyone else it might seem like the nervous energy of one who was alone with a man after an entire day with too many, they both knew it was her peculiar, royal way of dealing with the stress. Youko suspected the other rulers had theirs, the whole lot of them. She would bet Shouryuu did embroidery, or flower arrangement... some massive demotion from his usual masculinity. Afterwards, she would settle down to change, then perhaps slump in exhaustion at her desk.
This type of solitude was only possible with the intrusion of her Kirin, or rather, with his entire lack of doing so. Already a quiet, brooding presence, Keiki was unobtrusive at these times and yet managed to make his presence well known. So palpable was his silence that as though by it, he could fill up the most pregnant pauses, the vastest space. In other words, with the two of them alone, Youko never felt alone. And it was in this odd isolation that the Queen of Kei found her second form of solitude.
She often mused that it was sort of sad to think that he was the closest thing to a "best friend". Most times, he didn't understand her. That led to many a humorous circumstance in the past, but there were times when it simply got in the way of communication. She couldn't stop herself from comparing the two of them to other monarch-Kirin partnerships when this happened, for it seemed a cruel cosmic joke that the coldest, most businesslike of the Kirin should be matched with a bumbling, inexperienced girl like her. He ought to have found a righteous and seasoned man after the tragedy that was Joukaku, one that could lead with an iron heart and command respect for himself and his Kirin. After everything, Keiki (and the country) deserved it. Inversely, it would have helped her a good deal to have a kinder, gentler guide that didn't so abruptly shove responsibility and a sword into her trembling hands. Preferably, this Kirin would have been a woman, too.
No, the gods and universal forces deigned that Keiki should choose her, and it was so. She found that she didn't truly want Keiki to be someone other than who he was, especially now that she knew him more deeply. But damn if he simply didn't understand her sometimes.
To be fair, that didn't change his allegiance in the slightest. He didn't understand, but he stayed. She didn't try to wonder so much whether it was because of his personal regard for her or it was simply from an instinct to do so.
Sometimes, she couldn't help thinking that it really wasn't enough, but most times, she accepted that it was. He was. Since she'd never had a best friend before, their relationship could be entirely appropriate for the term, for all she knew.
Still, she didn't think so. It failed to capture so much, somehow. She felt a kinship with Keiki that was furthered by his complete and utter constancy to her, and though he may never come to predict the turnings of her mind, she knew he would stick around to try anyway. If they were truly ruler and Kirin to bring prosperity to Kei, they would live for thousands of years—or more. He at least would have the time to figure her out. And she would have the time to make him proud someday.
And so it was, night after night, that Youko found respite from the daily troubles of a monarch learning to stand on her own. Sometimes she and he shared a desk late at night, chairs at opposite ends, heads bent, and quills scratching. Keiki would be working on his own governance of Ei as his Queen drafted laws in formal wording that felt out-of-place with her night attire. It always felt like an unfolding of herself, somehow. Like a bud, beginning to blossom. Her reflections at these times differed entirely from those she succumbed to in the maze of her gardens. Just as easily, her thoughts would swell and whorl around what lay ahead, unbidden and immense. As was natural, she supposed, as Keiki would not have her thinking any other way.
His silences during the times she'd fuss around the room, each time after the doors were closed, were bound to be interrupted as soon as she subsided, with a purposeful huff of:
No, indeed; the path that lay ahead didn't always seem welcoming, or hopeful, or manageable. Not when she had paperwork to finish up until the very hour of her retiring. Most times the thought simply gave her headaches.
Glancing across from her, however, realizing how deeply embroiled they both were in their work one night, Youko had to smile. She had to make sure these nightly ruminations didn't get ahead of her just yet. Sure, it was his fault she was getting them, but she found she didn't mind so much. After all, her future was not just hers anymore, but somehow belonged to him, too.