There is a story where a king disguised himself as a beggar for a day, to walk among the poor of his kingdom. He took with him a slave to guide his steps through the city, to whisper the right words that would get them into the darkest places and narrowest corners. For a day they walked together, shoulder to shoulder, and the slave guided his master’s steps without faltering. The king saw so many things that day: the dead, the dying, the hopeless — all the dirty crowded unhappy places that lay so thickly under the glittering golden rooftops of his city.
And when the day had ended, and the king had walked so long through the streets, he returned to the palace and ordered the slave’s execution.
“You have seen too much to bear,” he said, when the slave was brought before him one last time. “I will free you from this terrible world.”
The slave, kneeling on the hard marble between two silent guards, looked up at his king with sadness. “You do not free me from anything,” he said. “And you will not free yourself. You are simply binding yourself to what you fear. My death will not change that.”
But the king simply shook his head and wept, for he was a kind man, and when the executioner’s blade cleaved the servant’s head from his shoulders, the king turned his face to look upon his shining city — but all he could see was the dirty wounded underbelly, lying far below.
“I’m sorry,” Tsuzuki says. His eyes are downcast, and he fiddles with the air itself between his fingers. He keeps his shoulders hunched, as though he’s just barely holding up under immense weight.
Knowing Tsuzuki, perhaps he is.
“I’m sorry,” he says agian, and then it all comes out in a babbled rush: “It was unkind of me to ask that of you, I know you’re bound to obey me, but you’re also supposed to protect me, it was unkind of me to ask. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. I–”
Touda lifts a clawed hand. He curls his fingers just so, a hairsbreadth from Tsuzuki’s cheek. “It was what you wanted,” he says.
Tsuzuki sucks his lower lip into his mouth and chews on it. “I’m not — you shouldn’t–”
“You are my master,” Touda says. He ghosts his fingers up, still not quite touching, so that the tips of his claws just barely part the long strands of Tsuzuki’s hair. “That alone is enough.”
There is a second, lesser-known part to the story.
It’s said that every night, at midnight, the slave would appear in the king’s quarters, standing by the windows that looked out upon the city. And though the king begged and wept and threatened, the slave said nothing: he would simply stare at his king with sad eyes, the blood dripping from a ring round his neck, silent and pale until the witching hour passed.
Finally, one year to the day when the slave had been killed by the king’s order, he appeared and the windows opened behin him. Over the mad wind that sprang up at the same time, he said the first words since his appearance: “My king, I am still bound. Is this what you wanted?” He spread his arms and there were tears on his face and blood on his mouth and the king could only stare in dumb grief. “I did this for love of you, and I would have done so had I not been your property; my love was given to you freely.” As he spoke, blood came from his mouth, and flowed in rivulets to the foot of the king’s bed. “See what I am giving you, and how I am bound.”
In the morning, when the servants came to tend to their king, they found all the glass of the windows shattered and the king dead upon the floor, his face wet with tears.
Touda uses the tips of his claws alone to brush the hair from Tsuzuki’s eyes, and his touch is delicate as possible as he tucks it behind one ear. Tsuzuki’s eyes are shining, on the verge of tears again, and Touda thinks that he is very tired of all of this: of Tsuzuki’s unrelenting grief and guilt and all the other heavy things that time can’t undo. He could offer forgiveness like a benediction, for whatever it was worth, and he knows it would simply wash over Tsuzuki and then away, taking nothing with it.
“I’m sorry,” Tsuzuki says again. He catches Touda’s wrist suddenly, and Touda holds still as Tsuzuki presses into his palm, nuzzling. His master is warm and fragile and shaking, and Touda thinks it would take less than hellfire to destroy him. “Touda, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked–”
“Whatever you want,” Touda says, “it’s yours for the asking.” He shifts his hand just a little so that Tsuzuki tilts his face up.
This is no king, this is no Emperor on his golden throne, this is hardly even a man, all cobbled-together unhappiness and thin skin, and Touda sighs.
“You don’t even need to ask,” he says, and he leans down, his forehead to Tsuzuki’s, counting the breaths that come soft and fast against his cheek. “I will give it to you.”