"What's it like?" she asks offhandedly. He won't notice how carefully she's arranged the teaware on the tray, and he probably wouldn't care if he could. But she does it anyway.
"What is what like?"
"I heard losing one sense sharpens the others." Jimaya hopes the delicate clink of ceramic punctuates the casual tone she's working so hard to strike. "Is it true?"
She's grown good at reading his lips. There's nothing to be gleaned from his eyes, not when they're hidden behind his blindfold, but she gets plenty from the way his mouth tightens at the corners.
"That's a very personal question," Rensai says lowly.
"I'm just curious."
"This is a loss, not some kind of fun experiment."
She sees teeth in that one. She pours the tea to give her something to think about other than the sudden tension pulling the room taut between them. Whatever Rensai says, she's pretty sure she's right: she's not looking at him now, he couldn't look at her if he tried, and yet she's certain he's glaring at her. It feels plenty sharp.
"I'm sorry," she says, and means it. He turns his face away and ignores the tea she slides across the table towards him. "I didn't mean to offend."
"Hm." It's a few pointed moments before he reaches for the teacup: his hand skims the tabletop until he catches the side of it with his pinky. He sips, and the chrysanthemum steam seems to soothe him a bit. "It's not a matter of sharpening," he says at last. "There's just more room to interpret everything else. I don't have to see your face to know you're letting your tea sit because you feel guilty for prying, for instance."
Jimaya sets her teacup down decisively just to prove him wrong. The edged corners of his mouth curve up the slightest bit.
"Don't you close your eyes to better appreciate your tea?" he goes on. "Don't you prefer quiet when you read? Those senses are not sharper, you're just paying better attention. Apply a little critical thought next time and maybe you can avoid asking insensitive questions."
"Sorry, are you lecturing me about empathy?" Jimaya asks loftily. This time Rensai smiles in earnest.
"Go look in that drawer." He sips again and nods in the vague direction of the other side of the room.
There's a small chest against the wall there, and Jimaya abandons her cup to pull open the top drawer. Simple lengths of black cloth lay inside, each carefully folded.
"Take one and come back here."
She chooses a blindfold and returns to the table, but when she makes to take her place across from him again Rensai shakes his head.
Jimaya scowls at him, wary, but reluctantly joins him on his side. He turns to face her as she folds her knees beneath her.
"Now put it on."
"Absolutely not," Jimaya says promptly.
Is it possible to leer while blindfolded? She suspects yes, because Rensai's smile takes hold of her insides in a way that at once pulls her nearer and makes her wish they still had the table between them.
"Don't you trust me?"
"Of course not."
His grin grows. "Then don't you want to test that empathy of yours?"
He holds out his hand. Jimaya all but slaps the blindfold into it with a huff, but he's not discouraged as he stretches the fabric out, folds it neatly in half, then crooks two fingers to beckon her closer still. She inches forward. Something's to blame for making her comply. Stubbornness or spite or pride. Maybe all three. But she's at least sure it's not the new, needling buzz at the very ends of her nerves.
She blames those same nerves when Rensai's hand meets her shoulder and she jumps. He follows the curve up past her neck until he's cradling the back of her head, then leans in to thread the blindfold around her. The last thing she sees before her world goes black is how alarmingly close they are, his arms looped around her, enclosing her in a ring. But the knot cinches tight and he draws away again.
"Now. Take a deep breath."
He inhales with her. Somehow having a partner in it helps calm a fraction of her apprehension. Jimaya rolls her shoulders a little as she breathes out again, and with it she shakes off the thought of his hand at the nape of her neck.
"What can you hear?"
She tries to focus. At first it's just her own heartbeat, elevated and self-conscious, and she frowns and gropes for more.
"Don't answer aloud," he says as if on cue. "Just catalog it."
The crackle of the hearth. Her own breathing. The tic of the settling cottage. The windows are thrown wide to let in the summer breeze – the wind carries the foot traffic and chatter from the street below on its back.
His voice. Deep, rich, accented. The thrum of her pulse quiets on her exhale.
"What can you smell?"
Humid summer air. Not so much a smell as an added weight to her lungs, heavy with the threat of rain. The spices Rensai keeps in his pantry, fragrant Denborn seasonings with tastes she recognizes but names she never remembers. The faintest whiff of their forgotten tea.
Leather polish. Clean smoke. A bare hint of incense, as though drifting in from another room. Him.
His hand settles on top of hers. Jimaya startles.
"What can you feel?"
Hesitantly, she shifts her fingers under his and over her silken skirt. It's cool, smooth, the threads plush and pliable on the embroidery. Jimaya traces her finger along one pattern's outline – a peacock tail, she thinks, or a cascade of blossoms. She can't remember which. Her touch slides down in the direction of the threads, then catches slightly as she strokes against the grain.
His hand departs from hers, trailing featherlight down her fingers to trace a golden swirl of thread at her knee. Jimaya stills to match her lungs. Rensai lingers there for a moment, then spreads his palm flat against her leg, a firm but unpossessive pressure. He thumbs her thigh absentmindedly. It's such a tender, intimate gesture that Jimaya barely has time to string together a coherent reaction before he's moved on again: he takes her hand once more and turns it over in his. He ghosts over her palm, mapping each line, the length of each finger, and at last Jimaya breaks free of her paralysis enough to curl her hand in his. She can feel calluses, long, strong fingers – gentle as his touch may be, it's impossible not to think about what these hands have done. What they've created and destroyed.
But the air shifts and his other hand cups her face. It coaxes her back to the present and she follows willingly, unable to bring herself to do anything but sit still, lightheaded, under his touch. Rensai traces her ear, tucks her hair back, passes his thumb over her cheek and then, so lightly she almost thinks she imagines it, her lips.
There's one sense left. Her eyes fly open.
She knows with every part of her that he's close. Her heartbeat feels like it's echoing off him, as if she's somehow feeling his too. His hand still rests over hers in her lap. His breath is warm on her lips. When did she part them?
"What can you taste?" Rensai asks softly.
She can't see anything through the blindfold. Jimaya closes her eyes anyway.
Tea prepared from chrysanthemum flowers produces a delicate herbal tea with numerous health benefits, including strengthening the immune system, stabilizing blood pressure, and improving sight acuity.
She was late. But he was late to nearly everything just for the show of it, so it didn't bother Jimaya in the slightest as she rounded the final corner to Rensai's cottage. It was still bizarre to see the lamps lit before she arrived. After so many months of having to light them herself, the warm glow from within still felt more out of place than welcoming. Like someone else was waiting for her inside instead of the erstwhile enemy she'd come to tolerate.
An excited little shiver raced through her and she picked up her pace to match her pulse. Maybe he thought she'd forgotten. Maybe he wondered what important royal matters might have detained her, or how he measured up against all the other demands on her attention.
Jimaya had never seen Rensai self-conscious but she'd pay dearly for the opportunity.
Even she noticed the self-satisfied flush in her cheeks when she rapped her knuckles against the door. To her delight he whipped it open hardly a heartbeat later.
"Rensai," she sighed, smiling magnanimously. "I'm glad I'm not too late. I only just found the time––"
"Get in here," he growled as he dragged her inside by the arm. The slam of the door cut off her affronted yelp.
"What do you think you're––"
But he muffled her indignation with his lips on hers, hard and insistent. She swallowed the sound, her eyes wide, but he deepened their kiss and she could do nothing but melt against him. He sighed to feel her relax and pressed her up against the door.
"You risk a great deal treating your Empress so roughly," she managed when at last they parted. But it came out breathless; the words flitted like moths between reaching fingers. He stroked the back of her neck as he studied her mouth. Their bodies were flush. She wondered if he'd ever looked this hungry when his eyes were hidden behind their blindfold.
"You can handle it," he said lowly. "And you kept me waiting." He kissed her again, gentler. Teasing. He lingered close. "Shall I be sweeter?"
A setting lay atop the table. She noticed it when at last he took her hands and guided her to his bedroom. The kettle still rested in the hearth above the glowing remains of a fire gone low. But by then she was dizzy, they could hardly make it a few feet before coming together to kiss again, and Jimaya had no thoughts to spare for forgotten tea.
The lamps he'd lit illuminated the blaze in his eyes.
Denborn tea is typically served at cooler temperatures to offset the frequent dry heat of the Mountain Den. The Denborn saying "patience cools and sharpens" originates from the unique preparation that affords the tea its characteristic bite, but more often the phrase refers to military strategy.
"That can't be comfortable."
Jimaya's stretch unfurled her to the very tips of pointed toes, then curled her back inward as she settled her head on her arm. The hearth burned steady and pleasant before her. "Neither are you, but I put up with you too."
Rensai smiled to himself and turned his teacup between his fingers. She'd arrived sleepy – another long day at court – and he supposed the tea hadn't helped. Maybe he should have planned better. But he liked her like this too, warm and relaxed and pliable. He finished his own tea in a swallow and joined her on the floor before the fire.
"Are you sure?" he said in her ear as he laid down beside her. She shivered and cringed away, smiling despite her best efforts. He wound an arm around her waist. "Either you're lying or you have remarkable endurance."
"It's the latter." Her eyes were already closed, her voice sticky with fatigue.
"Then it's your best quality."
Jimaya turned over in his arms and blinked up at him. The firelight set her skin and hair to a glowing gold. "What are the others?"
"Don't you spend all day on the receiving end of compliments?" His hair spilled over his shoulder as he bent to kiss her neck.
She sighed contentedly and pressed closer against him. "I don't care about theirs."
Rensai nipped gently and she sucked in a breath. "Hm. Clever." Another kiss. "Resilient." Another. "Compassionate. And luckily for me, endlessly forgiving."
Jimaya made a prim sound of agreement. "Very luckily," she said, and tilted her head up to kiss him. Just the once, lightly, but he held her in it until it unfolded moment by moment in a slow spread of honeyed warmth. He came away breathless; she came away flushed.
She shifted her hips against his, a weak little demonstration of impatience. It took everything in him not to pin her to the floor in another, decidedly less tender kiss. But she sighed. "I'm too tired, Rensai."
"I know." He dragged himself away from her neck and buried his nose in her hair instead, heaving a sigh as he relaxed back beside her. "Playing half an Empress must be exhausting work."
"Half?" Jimaya summoned up enough energy to sound indignant. Rensai nodded into her hair.
"You're so small. Maybe if you stood on your brother's shoulders you could measure up to one whole monarch."
She elbowed him in the chest and he coughed a laugh, squeezing her all the closer.
"Don't worry, I like it."
"I don't care what you like––"
"I like that too." He'd omitted 'argumentative' from his list of Jimaya's best qualities – she wouldn't have been happy to hear it – but it was one he held nearest to his heart. She was a little twist of aggravation in his arms. "Come on. To bed?"
"Yes, I should. Tomorrow I have to–– hey!"
Rensai scooped her into his arms and stood in one fluid motion. The fire had heated her robes hot enough to match her blush. Contradictory. Another one of her best qualities. She fumed at being carried even as she laid her head against his chest.
"I can walk," she mumbled.
"I want to hold you. Let me be selfish for a moment."
"You're selfish every moment."
Rensai laughed again as he carried her to the bedroom and laid her gently down on the bed. "Listen to you. So irritable." He sat down beside her and helped her shrug out of her outer robes – he was just setting them aside when she hooked an arm around his neck and pulled him into another gentle kiss.
He lingered close when they parted, one hand at her cheek. "If you didn't kiss me like that, I'd worry you hated me."
"Maybe I do."
"Well I love you."
"Rensai." She pulled back and glared up at him seriously. "I told you not to say that unless you meant it."
"I'm sorry." He hid his smile behind another kiss, confident that she would forgive him, and confident that one day she'd realize he meant it every single time.
Chamomile tea lacks caffeine, acts as a gentle relaxant, and is used as a popular sleep aid.
Rensai leaned close, whispered to her, then touched a kiss to her ear.
"I know, I know, go on." Jimaya waved him off. He smiled as he got to his feet, bowed to Omare and Yujin, then followed the valet from the pagoda. Her breath followed him across the lily pond.
"The myriad demands of Chief Engineer, hm?" Yujin mused playfully.
Jimaya nodded and pretended to notice her tea for the first time, hoping to steer conversation elsewhere before Omare could gripe about Rensai's appointment again. She sipped. "Oh. Did you use the––"
"Oh, Jimaya." Yujin laced her fingers under her chin and propped her elbows on the table to peer across at her. "Look at you. You're glowing."
Jimaya's flush deepened. "No I'm not."
"Yes you are. Omare, look at her, wouldn't you agree she––"
"This tea is very good," Omare announced gracelessly. Yujin rolled her eyes.
"You two are impossible. The three of you, come to think of it. All cut from the same cloth."
Omare's jaw dropped in outrage but the two women looked at him, then one another, and shared a hidden smile. Jimaya was ever appreciative of Yujin's solidarity.
"Don't know what you're talking about," Omare was grumbling irritably as he seized another hard boiled egg with a vengeance.
"Right, because Rensai has never been known to be stubborn."
"Or willfully ignorant," Jimaya added lightly. She and Yujin met eyes again and dissolved into giggles as Omare glared at the pair of them.
"I'm shocked at how willingly the pair of you let go of the past," he said with as much haughty authority as he could summon up. "It's an impressive feat, considering how much there is to set aside."
"And I'm shocked at how willingly you dismiss my feelings," Jimaya returned more coolly. "If you still hate him that much, then I will take meals alone with him instead of with you."
"I like having him here." Yujin swept to her defense before Jimaya's threat had time to do too much harm, and Jimaya's tension gave way to gratitude for her friend. "He keeps things interesting, and he's so much milder here than he was at home. You've worked some kind of magic on him, Jimaya."
"Of course he's milder," Omare began heatedly, "he doesn't have the resources to––"
"Have you tried this yet?" Yujin dunked a dumpling into a powerful chili sauce and stuffed it into Omare's mouth. "It's from home. Careful, it's spicy."
Omare's muffled protest was overtaken by coughs and Yujin pretended to look confused, patting him on the back and asking if he was all right. Jimaya smiled to herself, first for Yujin's help and second at the pleasant warmth she felt at the thought of having some hand in softening Rensai.
She flicked a glance back across the bridge that led back inside the palace. He wasn't that different. She couldn't reasonably take too much credit. He just responded well to a clear goal, and she supposed his new one was––
Omare was reassuring Yujin that he was fine, but really, how did she keep forgetting that he didn't care for spicy food? Jimaya didn't take much notice as she swallowed and returned to her breakfast. Rensai's parting words were still humming at the back of her mind.
"Do you know what I would do for you?"
He asked it often. Usually in bed, usually while propped up on an elbow and looking at her as though he'd never seen anything like her before in his life. As though she were some marvel he never expected to see again. He'd smile, lean close, and punctuate the answer with kisses.
"Anything. Anything. Anything."
Only the finest leaves are harvested for white tea, plucked just once annually and left to dry naturally in the sun. Delicate and rare, white tea is highly prized in the Mountain Den where agricultural resources are limited. It is often imported at great cost from the Empire.
Jimaya crept into her bedroom much later than expected. Some Minister's dinner gone far too long. She'd told him about it when she bid him goodbye but now, hovering just at the edge of sleep, Rensai couldn't have remembered if she'd put a sword to his throat. Much as he hated to admit it, the beds in the palace had a way of diluting the details of any day.
Silk slipped over skin as she changed for bed. Jimaya yawned and Rensai's more ambitious plans for the evening quietly filed themselves away again. He could save his distractions for morning. She could tell him about her evening and he'd kiss away the tedium and tell her all the ways he would have made better use of her time. Maybe demonstrate a few of them. He turned over and pulled her close when she slid into bed beside him.
"Ah. You're supposed to be asleep." Jimaya made to kiss his cheek but he caught her lips instead.
"I sleep better when I'm with you."
She snuggled against his chest and tucked her head under his chin. "I could sleep anywhere after that banquet. Seven courses, and then they insisted on dessert. I could see why they didn't invite you. You would have hated it. Imperial decadence," she growled in an exaggerated imitation of his voice. Rensai punished her with a nip to her ear.
"Your accent needs work."
"But the tone is dead on."
He chuckled and closed his eyes. "How did you manage it? To be raised in all this ridiculous flash and frivolity and come out so…" There were words. He'd used many of them repeatedly. But they all felt just out of reach as Jimaya pulled her fingers gently through his hair.
"The same way you came out of the Den with just enough appeal to offset the acid." Her hand stilled and she pecked a last kiss to his chest. "A miracle, I guess."
A thick, easy silence settled over them as their breath fell into a shared rhythm. Rensai hadn't been lying. He did sleep better next to Jimaya, and with her warmth finally tucked so close against him it was only a handful of long, comfortable minutes before he gave into weariness's insistent pull at his limbs.
"I love you."
Softer than a sigh. Jimaya's breath carried on, so relaxed and steady that Rensai was nearly certain he'd dreamed it, some lucid flicker at the very edge of sleep. He hardly dared hope otherwise.
He pulled back to stare at her. Her face was closed in the firm, stony determination of feigned sleep.
"What did you say?" he whispered.
"Hm?" She made a show of settling more comfortably. She didn't open her eyes. "Oh. I thought you'd fallen asleep."
"Jimaya." He came close again, at an utter loss for what else to say or do. He could ask again but his mouth had gone dry, and besides his lungs had stopped working, maybe had all their energy diverted to keeping his heart thundering so loudly in his ears. He could beg her, but even that single word wouldn't come to him. Her name was all he could manage, all he could cling to, an endless and echoing repetition in his chest, certain as his pulse. Shakily he took her face in his hands. At last Jimaya blinked at him reluctantly, then away.
"I said I love you," she mumbled. "I tell you sometimes when you're asleep. As practice."
"Practice?" he croaked. Jimaya nodded. Her blush threatened to burn his hands.
"So when you hear it, you'll believe me."
Rensai let out a shuddering breath and kissed her deeply, desperately, as relief crashed over him in an enormous wave. Relief to match a fear he'd held at arm's length for so long: that she might always fall just short of matching how much he'd come to care for her.
She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him back. This was what it meant to be whole, he thought. Whole and forgiven and accepted. He wanted to fold her into himself, a hearth for a brilliant, blazing flame. One empty and one homeless without the other.
Hibiscus flowers produce a tart, sour tea. Its strength and bold color makes it popular in blends: mixture with other teas tempers hibiscus' distinctive taste while lending its deep, gemstone red color.
Yujin laid one hand atop the other. Several years had passed since she'd been on the receiving end of such disquiet from Rensai, and those memories weren't particularly pleasant. A lot of impatient words and flinty eyes, all slicked smooth and dark under a thick varnish of bravado.
No traces of bravado remained now. He was all anxiety, drawn tight as a bowstring, and it was a little hard not to smile to see him in such a state, especially sitting in the spring sunlight of the palace's quietest garden. He was the precise opposite of his peaceful surroundings.
"Why don't you have some tea?" Yujin invited him with a gentle gesture.
Rensai nodded, uncommonly stiff as he he poured Yujin's cup first and slid it across towards her, then his own. She watched him through the lifting steam.
"So." She offered him an encouraging smile as she sipped. "You said you wanted my advice about something?"
He raised his eyebrows. "No time for niceties even between old friends, I see."
Yujin laughed. She couldn't really dispute the word "friends," but nor did it feel particularly fitting. Too much had happened for them to be close, but they'd shared far too much more to be kept apart. Maybe the Forest People had a word for that peculiar kind of intimacy.
"You only take your time when you're in a good mood," she said. "Forgive me, but you seem a bit tense."
"I'm never tense," he said automatically, but he seemed to recognize the absurdity of the claim as clearly as she did. He waved a hand at the objectively beautiful garden and scowled into his tea. "It's the setting."
"I thought you were used to it," Yujin said carefully. "You certainly spend a lot of time here, esteemed Chief Engineer."
"And for her."
His mouth had gone tight to ward away a smile and Yujin beamed at the sight of it. Love looked good on Rensai. She'd seen him fight for it before, taking on and off whatever affectionate pretenses he thought might suit the situation, but the real thing was quite different. It came much easier to him. It made him so much younger, so much softer – she almost wanted to tell him so to see how he'd react. But his expression flickered back to blank.
"There is a chance," he said, measuring each word as he turned his teacup between thumb and middle finger, "that I may need to spend more time here than I would otherwise like. Or would have planned."
Yujin sipped her tea as neutrally as she could manage. "You may need to," she repeated. "That sounds serious. Has this necessity been forced upon you, or have you volunteered for it?"
"Neither yet. But it would be voluntary."
Yujin hummed thoughtfully. "And I imagine it would be for a long period of time."
Rensai nodded. "Most likely."
She couldn't contain it any longer. She put her teacup down, certain she'd drop it no matter his answer. "Do you intend to spend your life with her?"
The twisting, stifled smile was back. "If she'll allow it." At last Rensai met her gaze. "Yes."
It was the only logical answer in the world but Yujin gasped delightedly anyway. "Oh, Rensai!" She clasped her hands over her heart, beaming and seized by the impulse to embrace him. The absurdity of the idea barely held her in place. "This is wonderful news, Jimaya will be thrilled––"
He hushed her, his eyes darting around the deserted garden, but he was losing his own battle to smother his relief at Yujin's reaction. "I thought you'd be happy. But there's the matter of her brother, and a wedding––"
"Yes," he hissed her quiet again. "She'll want a proper one. I've put enough strain on her with the current arrangement and she's already done that once before."
Arrangement. Rensai was so strange. As though he and Jimaya had shaken hands over it in secret and agreed never to speak of it again, even long after they had become public. But Yujin had forgotten about Tsulemon and what that had done to Jimaya, her constant loop of hope and disappointment that the Firefly Boy could adapt to royal life and the painful farewell that had followed. Those days felt so distant now, especially since Forest People seemed incapable of holding onto unhappy memories for long: Tsulemon still flitted into court every once in a while, colorful and upbeat as ever. Those wounds had long since healed, but even Yujin knew Jimaya preferred to avoid the scars. And pleasant though it was to think about Rensai plagued by his concern for Jimaya's feelings, the picture was beginning to come together. Yujin's smile faded.
"Ah. And by 'proper' you mean––"
To his credit he didn't spit the word like he usually did when the twins weren't around to hear it, but this was somehow worse. Yujin recognized the fixed, resigned look on his face. He'd worn it during his pardon years ago. Like he'd been handed a death sentence.
"It's not as bad as you think," she said gently.
"No," he grumbled. "It's just living like them, eating like them, being like them, all under their watch."
"I don't feel like I'm under their watch."
He didn't even dignify that with an answer – he stared flatly at her, and Yujin knew what he meant. Their reputations were nothing alike. She tried again.
"Am I any less Denborn just because I live here?"
Rensai's eyes passed over her distinctly Imperial robes. If he was skeptical, he didn't dare voice it.
"They can't peel off your tattoos, Rensai," she pointed out quietly. She reached out across the table and touched his hand: his stiffened, then relaxed. "You are who you are. More so than most, to tell the truth. I suspect that's why Jimaya loves you."
That did the trick. He drew his hand back to take up his tea again, but Yujin recognized the ground she'd gained in the line creasing his brow. She pushed forward.
"You don't seek other people's advice. You're not very good at it. You make up your mind and then you announce it to everyone else so we can all deal with the consequences." His scowl had turned sour and she tried not to smile. "Maybe if you were better at it..."
"You've made your point," Rensai said waspishly.
"So if your mind is made up, why are you coming to me about it?"
Rensai's glare deepened when he noticed how amused she was. "Omare has made you insufferable," he muttered.
"And Jimaya has made you tolerable," she returned brightly, and he snorted despite himself. She leaned closer so he couldn't avoid her gaze. "This is the best decision you've ever made, Rensai," she said, kinder. "I look forward to the consequences."
The wind pulled its fingers through the willow tree branches and, at a loss for what else to say, both of them turned to watch. Yujin wished she could ask him what Jimaya gave him that made him willing to risk every part of himself. Validation, probably. A challenge. Reassurance. But to ask would be too personal and to guess would be too cruel. That was for them to know and hold close, just as Yujin held her own reasons tightly between herself and Omare. They settled for quiet instead, their thoughts tugged elsewhere by the wind.
"Thank you, Yujin," he said at last.
"It's my pleasure." She refreshed both their teacups and sat back, tapping her finger thoughtfully against the rim. "Rensai and Jimaya," she sighed. "I wonder what your father would have said."
She ventured a glance at him and was relieved to find him smiling. He leaned back on his hands and looked out into the sunlit garden.
"I don't know. I suspect he died just to avoid seeing me finally get something right."
Sweetening tea is considered a somewhat childish choice in the Mountain Den. Around eleven or twelve, most children swear it off in hopes of appearing more adult. But in higher tea ceremonies, tea is occasionally lightly sweetened as a gesture of welcoming to guests, particularly old friends, as a reference to length of the relationship.
"I know this is what you do for her," Omare said lowly. "Prepare some sort of fancy to-do whenever you have something to apologize for."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You always say that," Omare growled, "and you always know exactly what I'm talking about. I hate it."
Rensai raised his eyebrows, nonplussed. "Then maybe I've made a mistake and just haven't realized it yet."
"Your first one was asking me to take tea with you."
"And your first was accepting," Rensai returned with a flash of teeth that barely passed for a smile. "But now that I have you, you might as well stay. If not at my behest, at least at hers."
Omare folded his arms sulkily across his chest. He loathed the idea of Rensai having any sense of what Jimaya wanted. "What's all this for, then?" he muttered with a jerk of his head at the tray that rested between them.
"Don't you think we should spend a little more time together?" Rensai pushed his hair over his shoulder as he settled back to let the tea steep. Omare stared at the teapot like it were a firework liable to explode in his face at any moment. At least five minutes with nothing for him to do but wait, and Omare would rather have spent them with anyone else on earth. "Given my relationship with––"
"No," Omare cut him off shortly. "I think we spend the perfect amount of time. Too much, in fact."
Rensai gave a small sigh that would have sounded disappointed on anyone else. "At some point you're going to have to put the past behind you, Omare."
"Your Majesty," Omare corrected him on a growl. But Rensai shook his head.
"No, I don't think you'll ever need to call me that," he said with an airy wave of his hand. "It's Emperor Consort, isn't it? Or is it Lord?"
Omare went very still. "What are you talking about?"
"My people don't set nearly as much store in titles as you do, but I have to admit Lord Rensai sounds very good."
"Tell me straight, Rensai," Omare said lowly. Horror and fury were churning to a thick boil in his veins. "Or I will rip it out of you."
"I intend to marry your sister, Omare." Rensai's gaze was flat and calm. "I thought I should tell you myself."
Omare watched for a smirk, any scant sign of some nauseating joke.
Omare swiped the tea tray aside. It crashed to the polished wood floor as he dove across the table at Rensai, but Rensai was ready: he dodged the tackle and rolled to his feet, the ghost of an exhilarated laugh alight on his face. Omare let out a snarl of rage and swung a kick at his side. Rensai just managed to block it and stagger back.
"I didn't think you'd take it this badly," he grinned. "I've never particularly wanted a brother, but I thought you might."
All Omare could manage was a roar as he aimed strike after strike at Rensai. At last a punch landed and a follow-up kick to the solar plexus sent him sprawling to the ground. Omare planted a foot on top of Rensai's chest and pressed down. Rensai panted and glared up at him, his smile long gone.
"Does this make you feel better?" he rasped. He looked murderous but still made no move to fight back. "You should get it out of your system now, before it becomes fratricide."
Omare stomped down hard on Rensai's chest. "You are not," he snarled, aiming a kick at his ribs, "my brother!"
Rensai wheezed and scrabbled back to pull himself to his hands and knees, hair hanging lank in his face. Shame seized Omare's insides. There was no honor in attacking an opponent who refused to even defend himself. His fists relaxed fractionally but his breath still came hot and short as he watched Rensai turn over and press a hand to his ribs, wincing.
"I knew you wouldn't treasure the news," Rensai panted. "But it would have hurt her more to see you react this poorly had she told you herself."
His words connected with Omare's chest as decisively as any physical blow. Rensai was right, and Omare despised him all the more for it. He and Jimaya had had countless arguments over it. Eventually he'd been forced to pivot to pretending it wasn't happening or risk damaging his own relationship with her. Even when so much as sharing a meal with Rensai made him feel sick. Even when watching him whisper in her ear made Omare simmer with hate. It didn't matter what he thought. Jimaya blushed and leaned into it either way.
"So she's agreed?" Omare asked, eyes narrowed.
"Well I forbid it."
"I won't give my permission."
"It's not yours to give."
Omare gritted his teeth. Even beaten and bruised, Rensai still had a way of radiating that wretched, poisonous calm of his. He hid behind Jimaya's authority like a shield.
"I won't give my blessing," Omare said. His last bargaining chip.
"We don't need it." Rensai heaved a pained sigh, and with a flash of vindictive pleasure Omare realized he was actually annoyed. "But she would like it."
Bastard. How could he dare invoke what Jimaya would like as though he knew it better than her own brother? The gall of it revolted Omare to his core, and for Rensai to do it with such sincerity – assuming he was actually capable of it – made it all the worse. Yujin had joked that Jimaya had worked some magic on Rensai, but it had to be the other way around. There was no other explanation for how things could have gone so abhorrently wrong.
He wouldn't believe Rensai no matter the answer, but the question found its way out anyway, quiet and just shy of hoarse.
"Is she happy?"
Rensai's expression changed. He wore it strangely, as though it didn't come often or naturally to him. Omare fixed him with a suspicious glare. Rensai had actually softened.
"Yes. Very," he said.
It was a long, tense moment before Omare let out a heated snort. "Here."
He extended his hand and scowled pointedly in the other direction, but he could still feel Rensai watching him warily. At last Rensai clasped his forearm and Omare hauled him to his feet. He regretted it immediately and jerked back, set on edge all over again by their difference in height.
"I'm going to verify that with her," he warned Rensai, pointing a finger in his face.
"Please do," Rensai said. He'd already slipped back into gracious ease, as though they weren't both standing amid the wreckage of Omare's outrage, as though he hadn't just taken a beating for professing his love. Omare might have almost been grateful for it if Rensai were anyone else in the world.
Rensai stepped back. Ceramic crunched beneath his boot; he cleared his throat and pretended not to notice. "I'll tell her you were tentatively open to the idea."
Omare's head was teeming with threats, insults, and everything between. Deep down enough that he didn't really have to acknowledge it, he feared Rensai didn't quite deserve many of them.
"See that you do," was all that came out instead, and with a final glare Omare stomped back inside the palace.
Imperial superstition dictates that tea that has steeped too long should never be served to guests. A fresh pot must be brewed or or else the conversation will go bitter to match. Grudges are often likened to bitter tea: old, distasteful, and long gone cold.
Yujin nearly always knew what was going on before everyone else. Jimaya asked where Omare was and Yujin said he'd already retired for the night, then gracefully mentioned that it was a lovely evening for night-blooming water lilies and excused herself to the water garden. Grateful as ever for Yujin's tact, Jimaya motioned to a valet.
Jimaya let herself quietly into his room a short time later, tray in hand. "Hey. I brought ginseng."
Omare was sitting cross-legged on a heavily embroidered sofa, altogether far too tense to actually be absorbed in the book he was holding. The peace offering was obvious: their parents used to bring them ginseng tea when they quarreled as children. "To soothe and strengthen," their mother used to say, though at the time they didn't really know or care what she meant by it. It dawned on them many years later that the habit probably wasn't just a way to intervene and calm them down, but rather a reason for them to come together again, quietly and appreciatively. Regardless of Omare's mood, it was nearly impossible for him to turn down.
"Oh. You can put it there." He nodded sulkily at the end table closest to him.
Jimaya slid the tray onto the tabletop and Omare muttered his thanks as he reached for a cup. He waved at the other end of the sofa to spare Jimaya the discomfort of asking permission to join him.
"I suppose he told you how this afternoon went," he said.
"In a way. He didn't give very many details." Jimaya looked down at her hands in her lap. "...He winced when I hugged him."
"Odd," Omare said flatly, nose in his cup.
A hundred thoughts were jockeying for space in Jimaya's mind, and far more than half of them began with "I'm sorry." She spoke as carefully as she could manage. "I know you're probably not happy––"
"I would have preferred to hear it from you," Omare interrupted, fixing his eyes on her. "I don't like being ambushed in my own palace. It turns over unpleasant memories."
Jimaya looked away, wounded. "I was going to tell you myself. But we decided maybe it was an opportunity––"
"I am so sick of everyone giving me opportunities," Omare snapped. "You, Yujin, and now Rensai too? I'm not a child, I don't need to be spoon-fed lessons on acceptance, least of all from someone who's committed war crimes."
Jimaya drew breath to speak but nothing came out. Her hands were shaking in her lap. She could feel Omare watching her until he huffed and looked away.
"You'd feel the same if you'd been down there instead of me."
"I know," Jimay said quietly. "I think about that often."
She did. It haunted her: the fact that there had been plenty of room on the boat that had carried her to safety, and if it hadn't been for the heave of the sea or if her grip had been just a little bit stronger, he would never have been captured at all. Or if she'd fallen instead, maybe she would have been dragged to the Den and met Rensai there. Maybe he would have filled Yujin's role, and there would have been no need for a Den coup.
Maybe he wouldn't have. But she couldn't bear to think like that.
"No–– stop, that's not what I meant." Omare's voice shook her from the litany of horrible alternatives. He sounded agitated. "I didn't mean you should have or that you have to linger on it. Just that… it is very, very hard for me to understand how you could…."
Jimaya wilted. He couldn't even say it. "Love him?"
Omare nodded, eyes down.
"You can be angry with me," Jimaya offered dolefully. "But please don't be angry with him. For everything else, fine, I could never tell you when or how to heal from what he's done to you. But don't be angry at him for this. He hasn't trapped me or tricked me or–– or whatever else you think he might have done."
"He's taking you." Omare's voice broke on the word and Jimaya's heart did the same. "He took our parents and now he's come for you too."
Jimaya's throat locked tight. There was so much nuance missing from Omare's summary but Jimaya couldn't bear to correct any of it. That Rensai had discouraged the siege as strongly as his position had permitted. That he hadn't fired a single arrow. But all Omare knew was the person that had imprisoned him, threatened his life, and shackled Omare's subjects alongside him.
And as much as Jimaya loved him, both of those versions of Rensai existed at once.
"He's not taking me," she said shakily. "I promise. You don't have to understand it. But please, Omare. Please just try to accept it. I'll put off the wedding as long as you want, I just…." Tears were pressing hot against her eyes and she looked at the ceiling to hold them back, but there was no stopping them: she dropped her head again and they spilled onto the folds of her silk dress. She watched them roll light and silvery over the fabric. "I'm sorry it's him," she choked out. "I think of it every time I see you together, about how much you hate him and wish he were anyone else. Sometimes I even wish he were someone else, so this wouldn't be so horrible for you. But no one else…."
Spoke to her like him. Held her like him. Looked at her like him. Took away the day like him. Every burden of royal life was lifted with a single half-smile or an absentminded twist of a finger in her hair. He took his face in her hands, touched their foreheads together, and his hair fell around them in a curtain that blocked out every pressure and obligation. She was only herself in his arms. The least important person in her own world, and the only one in his.
She couldn't finish. Omare couldn't understand. She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes.
"Is he kind to you?" Omare asked quietly.
Jimaya sniffed and nodded.
"And gentle? Generous?"
"And he thinks of you?"
Jimaya laughed thickly. "Sometimes I worry I'm all he thinks about."
She could feel Omare grappling with that information. The idea of a gentle Rensai was probably inconceivable to him. She was wiping her eyes again when Omare pulled her into a hug.
"I trust your judgment." His voice came brittle but determined. "And I'll try."
She gripped him back and tried to pour everything she was feeling into him, regret and relief and mourning and gratitude and deep, enduring love. He drew back and placed his palm against hers, and she sniffled a laugh when the tips of his fingers curled over hers. As children they had been near mirror images – they'd press their identical hands together and try to mimic each other's movements, slowly at first, then faster and faster until they both collapsed in a giggling heap.
They were too big now. Their hands didn't match anymore. But they remembered.
"I'm with you, all right?" Omare shook her hand reassuringly in his own. "Always."
Ginseng tea has long been associated with the Imperial royal family. Some say the first of the dynasty was simply fond of it, others say there is some greater meaning only known within the family itself, but the most likely case is that it's merely based in long held tradition. It has remarkable calming and healing properties.
He keeps a very long list of things he would have done differently. He would have practiced his archery more. He would have cultivated a deeper appreciation for meditation. He wouldn't have taken the Den's hot springs for granted. He would have spent more time making friends and less time making contacts.
He would have taken better care to preserve his mother's memory. He would have listened to his father. Or maybe he would have listened less. He didn't really get the hang of either until it was too late to make much difference.
He would have worked harder to refine the components of firepowder.
He would have done more to impede the siege on the city.
He would have pretended not to see Yujin free Omare from his cage.
He would have paid closer attention the first time he laid eyes on Jimaya. Even just one or two extra seconds to take her in would have been enough, the fiery flash of scarlet and gold, the conviction in her eyes, her exact stance on the battlefield. He didn't know then how long it would be until he saw her again, nor how different the circumstances would be when he did. Nor how much he would look forward to it.
He would have kissed her sooner.
He would have tried to wake up a bit earlier so he could have more of those soft, warm moments when the night's closeness still lingered but the day's obligations still felt like anyone's concern but theirs. The world was so small then. Four walls, two bodies, one bed. That was all. Jimaya's lips parted when she slept, her hair golden and tangled as spun sugar. She was his in that handful of pre-dawn moments. Not her family's, not her court's, not her empire's. Just his. He would have lingered there longer.
He would have broken the news to Omare with more delicacy. He would have thanked Yujin earlier and more often. Those two regrets, at least, he still had some time to amend.
So when he turns to face her, Rensai is certain only an unjust world would permit him to see Jimaya like this.
She's swept up in folds upon folds of shining crimson and ivory, all held together by a war's worth of golden stitching and delicate embroidery. Her hands are clasped in front of her, hidden beneath long silken sleeves. Impossibly delicate pins and glass beads tuck her hair in the perfect state of not-quite-undone. But she notices him staring and drops her head with a smile, regal poise set aside, and beneath all the finery he recognizes the Jimaya he loves most. The one he met in a quiet, bare bones cottage at the opposite end of a tea tray, first by voice, then by face, then by heart. He closes the space between them breathlessly.
"Jimaya." It tastes more like a spell than a name. He draws one of her hands out from hiding and kisses her fingertips. He notices his hand is shaking so he grips hers tighter. "You are…." There are words to describe her. Beautiful. Radiant. Perfect. Every one of them is lost to the overwhelming gratitude of seeing her at all.
"Speechless," she remarks. Her tone is teasing but he can read her own nervousness in the shine of her eyes. She squeezes his hand back. "That's so unlike you."
He guides her face gently towards his and kisses her properly, lightly, careful to preserve her scarlet-brushed lips. It's several long seconds before the ground beneath his feet feels still again. He lingers close. "I was going to say taller."
Her laugh calms both their nerves. "They're traditional." She gathers a fistful of skirt and lifts it a few inches to reveal platformed sandals nearly a foot tall. She drops them again and fingers the crimson trim on his vest, a striking match for her own. "And so are you."
"A bit. For you." He places his hand over hers and laces their fingers together to follow the path of her touch. Jimaya suddenly flushes and Rensai wonders whether she too is thinking back to another time, another life, when they traced Imperial embroidery together. He kisses the inside of her wrist. "Would you do the same for me?"
Jimaya nods wordlessly and he reaches for his belt, a woven sash from the Den, vivid and heavy with formality. He draws out a thin length of scarlet silk and Jimaya's eyes go wide. Rensai hesitates, curious, but she shakes her head and waves him on hurriedly, her lips clamped tightly together.
"In the Den," he says, taking her hand again, "we say two lovers are joined by an invisible string. Slowly but surely its length tightens, drawing them together." He loops the ribbon around her pinky finger and ties a small, tidy knot. He offers Jimaya the other end to ask her to do the same for him, but she takes it into shaky hands and ties a perfect knot on her own. The ribbon hangs like a bridge between them.
"It pulls them across time, distance, sometimes nations," he goes on. "And when they finally find each other," Rensai draws a ceremonial dagger from his belt, "they sever it. Because once they've found one another, they'll never lose each other again."
He presents the dagger's hilt to Jimaya. And waits. But Jimaya drops her head and shakes it. Just as anxiety tightens a grip on Rensai's insides, she looks up again, her eyes are agleam.
"I wanted to make sure you had something of your own." Her voice is drawn tight with emotion. "So…." She smiles as she reaches into her sleeve and pulls out her own length of red silk.
Rensai drops the dagger. He pulls her against him and she shrieks a laugh as their arms are pinned between their chests, the ribbon too short to allow for a proper embrace. But his other hand has found her waist and he folds her in, burying his face in the crook of her shoulder.
"I love you," he whispers. It feels like not enough and everything all at once, both the most perfect, succinct summary and an utter failure of human language. She melts into him.
"I love you," she returns on another laugh as she loops her arms around his neck, and Rensai can do nothing but marvel at how irrepressibly joyful her love is, how easy and light. She pulls back just enough to kiss him.
"Are we allowed to tie both?" Jimaya asks when at last they part, and Rensai nearly laughs himself at the idea that any force on earth could prevent them from doing exactly what they want ever again. He holds out his hand. The two ribbons cross in the center, twined together. They join their hands, foreheads close, and share a deep breath.
They grip the dagger together and pull.
Blinding sunlight floods forth when they throw the palace doors open. The courtyard erupts in cheers, bursts of flower petals rain down from above, and the musicians sweep into a new pinnacle of passion. Across the teeming courtyard, past officers and Ministers, Forest People and Mountain Folk, Imperialists and Denborn, Omare and Yujin await them beneath the tasseled wedding canopy. Tears of joy already streak Yujin's face, Omare's hand gripped tightly in both her own. And when Omare lays eyes on his sister, he is powerless except to beam.
Jimaya looks up at Rensai, gives his hand a squeeze, and he smiles. The two proceed, hand in hand, twin pairs of scarlet ribbon trailing behind them.
In both Denborn and Imperial traditions, formal tea ceremonies close with a bow, though the proper order must be observed closely to avoid insult. In the Denborn style, the guests bow first to express their appreciation for their host's skill and hospitality. In the Imperial style, the host bows first to thank their guests for sharing the time together, a unique and inimitable journey.