The boisterous music and chatter of the celebration trailed after Jimaya like flower petals on the wind. Even closing the great courtyard door barely muffled it, and she smiled and shook her head as she turned for her bedroom. Her shoes were fine for ceremony but not for dancing, and if that was where the night was headed she wanted to be prepared. Kouda had stood up before the thought had even formed fully in Jimaya's mind, but Jimaya was too quick: she'd darted to the door before Kouda could volunteer. Their former nanny deserved a chance to relax tonight, too.
With nearly every officer, valet, and courtier relieved of their duties to enjoy the evening, the palace halls stretched empty and shining, golden lamps burning merrily in each alcove. There was a tiny thrill in having the palace to herself, even just for a short errand. It lightened Jimaya's step as she swung around the first corner, and by the second she was all but skipping, the evening's cheer at her back.
On the third, she nearly ran headlong into the Counselor's son.
Jimaya startled, relieved she'd held onto her poise despite the unexpected intrusion on her solitude. She instinctively inclined her head to acknowledge his bow only to realize a second later that he hadn't bowed in the first place. Instead he regarded her from where he leaned against the wall, silent, until he broke his stare to return his attention to fingernails. Indifference before a Princess of the Empire was a bold display of arrogance all on its own, and that was to say nothing of the swift expulsion from the celebration that he and his father had received hardly an hour ago. She scowled.
"What are you still doing here?" she asked sharply. "Where's your father?"
He didn't look up but nodded his head in the vague direction of the other end of the long hallway. "In a meeting."
"A meeting?" Jimaya's frown deepened. "We told you our business had concluded."
He raised his eyebrows, then his gaze. Amusement had lit faint but unmistakable in his dark eyes. "Oh. Someone should tell him no business can be conducted in this kingdom without the royal family's explicit permission."
So he was doubling down on the arrogance, then. Fine. Jimaya drew herself up imperiously. "Your name's Rensai, isn't it?"
This time he did bow, one hand laid carefully over his heart. It wasn't worth the wait: she'd never seen such a mocking gesture in her life.
"Well Rensai," she said heatedly, jabbing a finger down the hallway, "you can go collect him and leave as you were ordered or I shall do it myself."
"It's in your best interest that they finish their conversation."
"I'll take that as your refusal." Jimaya brushed past him to march down the hall, but his hand closed tight over her arm and held her fast. She rounded on him furiously to find his amusement had vanished.
"Jimaya. I mean it."
Jimaya seized him by the wrist and twisted hard. He hissed as his elbow was bent painfully underneath him, and his grip weakened enough for her to snatch her arm back.
"It's 'Your Highness' to you," she spat, her pulse racing, "and if you touch me again I'll have you both banished."
She whirled around again. But he caught her once more, gentler this time, and she froze. His grip slid from her wrist to her hand, then lingered.
"I'll take the risk. Your Highness."
He held still too, maybe waiting for her to lash out again, but after several long seconds had passed without a reprisal he tugged lightly and pulled her back in. She let it happen, poised to snap once more. But instead of angry or even derisive, Rensai looked drawn and tense. He still hadn't let go of her hand, nor had she pulled it back. She glanced down at it and back up again.
"What's so important that you would risk banishment?" she asked warily, not that she counted on the truth. Watching him choose his words like arrows from a quiver solidified her suspicion.
"Progress comes at a cost," he said. "We're just searching for a buyer."
"If you won't speak plainly," Jimaya began, but Rensai cut her off, his gaze unsettlingly fixed on hers.
"Peace is more expensive."
Jimaya snatched her hand back. She clutched it against her chest as though his touch were responsible for the icy, prickling fear that had begun to seep into her veins. "Is that a threat?" she whispered.
Rensai sighed and straightened up. He scowled at the other end of the corridor. "You'll interpret it as one no matter what I say."
The muted, joyous music of the celebration in the courtyard made a sickening match for every second of silence that stretched between them. Rensai looked conflicted, though that did little to ease Jimaya as she struggled to keep her head above the rising swell of anxiety within her.
A liar would have said no. A liar would have called it a warning, or maybe found some other way to delay her without having to answer. He was difficult to read behind all that sharp, peaked Denborn warpaint, but there was a line in his brow that a brush hadn't put there and Jimaya found herself clinging to it like a lifeline. If there was a chance that he was concealing any measure of sympathy, if she could appeal to his emotions––
She seized his hand again and he jerked back to her, alarmed.
"Please, Rensai." She squeezed his hand and called up as much quiet, desperate urgency as she could reach. It wasn't difficult with so much genuine fear to draw from. "If it's not a threat, then tell me what you mean!"
He tried to pull his hand from hers but Jimaya only held tighter. "I can protect you," she offered hastily. "Both of you, if you need it. If your Chief has been planning something––"
Rensai snorted. He quit trying to escape and frowned down at his hand in hers. "There are always plans, Your Highness. That's how alliances work. Plans and contingencies and negotiations. I hope it comforts you to know that planning isn't the Chief's strength."
"Is that why he keeps a Counselor?"
She realized the danger in her question the moment Rensai's eyes snapped to hers. There was something there – something calculating, evaluating, and to her shock the barest smile lifted the corners of his mouth. He passed his thumb gently over her knuckles. A shiver raced up her spine.
"My father would be flattered. When he's finished, I'll tell him you asked."
"Don't," Jimaya urged him, gripping Rensai's hand as though she could seal the question between them. Suggesting the Denborn Chief or his Counselor would consider treason just because the Counselor's son had played coy about the subject of a meeting... the diplomatic implications sickened Jimaya to consider. Where she had once felt she'd been standing on stone, she now felt up to her ankles in shifting sands.
"I'll keep your secret," he said easily. She'd given him the upper hand and he knew it. "Will you keep ours?"
"You haven't given me a secret to keep. Tell me what they're meeting about."
"I don't know. I'm out here with you."
He was pulling her closer. She couldn't look away from the curve of his lips. That was where he'd give himself away, she told herself over the thrum of her heartbeat. That was where he'd betray it, so she had to watch.
"Tell me," she repeated. "Please. If you wanted to lie to me, you'd do a better job of it." Probably. Hopefully. Jimaya had no idea.
"True." He brushed her cheek with the back of his free hand. "I must want something else."
A sharp clack of wood on wood skewered the silence. Rensai went rigid, his attention yanked back to the other end of the hall. He cursed under his breath, turned back to Jimaya, and dragged her into a kiss. Her shock held her in place, then a blossoming heat. It drew her breath from her lungs like water from a well, hand over hand and second by second, but just as she closed her eyes he tore himself away. Her awareness collided with her body again, leaving her dazed and reeling.
"What was that?" Jimaya asked breathlessly, but she realized too late that she'd leaned against his chest to stabilize herself. His arm closed around her, firm and steadying.
"They've reached a decision." He was already looking past her, down the hall and away, as though it hadn't happened, as though he weren't holding her flush against his bare chest, and her senses surged back to her.
"No, what was that?" she demanded, shoving him away. Rensai stepped back with an impatient sort of annoyance. "What do you think this is, what do you think you're doing?"
"That was a kiss. Have you had one before?" His focus was still pulled anywhere but towards her.
"What–– of course," Jimaya snapped.
"Oh. I couldn't tell."
Jimaya took hold of one of the straps at his collar and dragged him into an alcove, pushing his back against the wall with a hand to his chest. His breath came out in a huff and he watched her, irritation shed in favor of interest. He raised his hands in surrender.
"I apologize, Your Highness. I must have misread you."
"You did," Jimaya shot back with almost enough conviction to convince herself. "Egregiously."
"I'm sure you're very adept at kissing, I didn't mean to suggest––"
"You misread my interest," Jimaya hissed as though her blood didn't protest with every syllable. She fought to stifle it.
"Really? You held it for a while."
"You held me there!"
"Oh, I see." His smile was sharpened at the edges. "You only save that tongue of yours for rebukes. That's a terrible waste."
He eased off the wall and she yanked her hand away from his chest, but there wasn't far for her to go in the narrow alcove.
"You should go," he said, "unless you want to be caught with me. I'll leave it up to you – I fear to make any more assumptions about what you want."
"I'll get caught with you," Jimaya said flatly. "I don't care."
She folded her arms stubbornly over her chest. Rensai raised his eyebrows.
"I'd rather dispel a stupid rumor than let you and your father get away with whatever shady deal is happening at the other end of that hall. I'll see who he's meeting with soon enough. And," she added, pointing a finger in his face, "your father might not be so pleased to see you with me. What might you have betrayed, hm? What could you have told a princess who spared you a moment's attention?"
She felt the ground shift back to her favor. That calculating look was back.
"Any number of things, I imagine," Rensai replied. "But none of them are going to be very believable if all you're doing is holding me hostage. They know me too well." He slid his fingers into his hair and gave it a vigorous ruffle. His dense, dark mane came away artfully tangled and he nodded at her. "You should do the same. Maybe loosen those robes a bit."
Jimaya flushed. "Absolutely not."
He gestured at his hair. "Well, the damage is already done. Though now it looks more like you threw yourself at me."
"Then just––" Jimaya let out a frustrated growl and stood on her tiptoes to comb the tangles out of his hair with her fingers. "Don't smile like that," she hissed, avoiding his gaze and the sharp little grin that accompanied it.
"Be gentle, won't you?" Rensai caught her hand in his and touched a kiss to her wrist. Her pulse leapt to life beneath his lips.
Jimaya yanked her hand away. "You're lucky I'm not as rough with you as you deserve," she said lowly, but his arm slid around her waist again and with a lurch in her stomach she noticed his eyes had lit up.
"Your Highness." He leaned close, his voice was a low purr in her ear. "I'm surprised. I think I like you."
"It's not mutual."
But Jimaya turned her head and kissed him. She wanted it to feel like a curse, a bite, something as keen and edged as her aggravation, forceful enough that it punctuated her words rather than contradicted them. It was a ridiculous thought. A justification as performative as every other that had kept her in that alcove with him thus far. She knew it and willingly let the thought slip from her grip. The rest of her objections fell away too, so she held onto Rensai instead. She was still clutching him when they parted.
"If you wanted to lie to me, you'd do a better job of it," he repeated back to her. He was lingering close and all Jimaya wanted to do was cover his mouth with hers so she didn't have to look at that infuriating smile anymore. But he beat her to it and held her in a deep, heated kiss, and she let it pull her under.
He'd pressed her against the wood paneled wall – Jimaya became vaguely aware of the sudden support behind her but it was such a lesser detail compared to the searing kisses he laid on her throat or the sharp nip of his teeth at her ear. A gasp escaped her; Rensai hummed his appreciation and nudged her legs apart with his knee. She ground shamelessly against him – she couldn't decide what to do with her hands so she reached for every part of him she could reach. His face, his shoulders, the straps at his collar, whatever it took to keep him close. Their fingers laced together and he pressed them against the wall, too. Jimaya whimpered into his mouth. There was no escape from his smile: she couldn't see it anymore, but she could feel it.
"We don't have long," Rensai whispered in her ear. It would have sounded like a warning if not for the way he slid his hand down her thigh, then pulled it firmly upwards so he could fit their hips together, pressing her harder into the wall.
Her eyes flew open. He was growing hard, she could feel it, maddeningly obvious even through the layers of silk and leather between them. Jimaya rocked her hips helplessly against his. It didn't matter how long they had. She had no mind for what she'd do if they had one minute or a thousand – if she thought too long about anything her senses would come back to her and she'd have to stop focusing on how good it felt to have him so close. The heat and weight of him made her head swim and she held him all the tighter. A wave of pleasure shook through her.
"Your Highness," he began, grinning. "Are you––?" But his eyes fell to their hips, then widened and met hers once more.
"Shut up." She buried her face in his chest and dug her fingernails into his back. "Just…." She had the words but couldn't say them, refused to say them, and pulled him into another kiss instead. He met her with feverish intensity but pulled back after only a few seconds; Jimaya seethed with frustration.
"Just what?" He cupped her face and brushed his thumb over her lips. His touch was so gentle. Jimaya had never wanted so many things all at once: for more of this, for him to be ruthless, for him to intuit everything, for him to make her say it aloud, to never have spoken to him, to have had the chance to do this differently and better and more and sooner–– She squeezed her eyes shut.
"Just don't stop."
Rensai let out a ragged breath and hauled her off her feet. He pinned her to the wall with his body and ground into her, and Jimaya gasped out, both arms wrapped around his neck and her legs crossed around his waist.
"If we were anywhere else," he whispered roughly as he moved against her. "If we were anyone else."
He didn't finish the thought and Jimaya was glad for it. All she could bear to focus on was the steadily building pleasure inside her, every wave of that he wrung from her body. At last it burst forth in a single violent, coursing rush. It raced through her and she only just managed to clap a hand over her mouth and stifle her moan. She held it inside herself, clung to it, clung to him, and for a fleeting, hazy moment as she caught her breath, she wished she were holding Rensai inside herself too.
He let her down slowly. One foot touched ground, then the other, and she might have swayed if Rensai didn't catch her in another – surprisingly tender – kiss. They were both panting when they parted, but Rensai's jaw was tight beneath his smile. His erection pressed stubbornly against her lower stomach and he let out a tense sigh.
"I'll think of you later," he promised on a growl.
"How?" Jimaya whispered. She'd leaned her head back against the wall and gasped at a sudden nip of his teeth at her throat. He hummed, considering.
"With me. In my bed." His hands found her hips, thumbs massaging in slow circles. Jimaya closed her eyes and tried to imagine what a Denborn bedroom might look like. What his bedroom might look like. A wide bed to sleep off hard training. Light covers for the Mountain's heat. Lamps turned just low enough to make out the very edges of tattoos.
"Hours and hours ahead of us," Rensai went on. "No one to interrupt or overhear. None of this regalia of yours to get in the way." He dug his fingers into her sash and pulled her closer still. "And you," he breathed. "Hair undone. Desperately wet. And you scream my name when you come."
Jimaya let out a shuddering breath. She wanted that. It was difficult to imagine herself like that but she wanted it anyway, she ached to be the sort of person who could live that with every pound of her pulse. Whatever impossible fantasy he was describing, she wanted to fill in the missing details with her own imagination until they'd woven a scene so complete that the complications of reality didn't matter.
If we were anyone else.
The sharp wooden clack sounded again, twice this time. The heady closeness between them evaporated. Rensai pulled her arms from around his neck and gripped her hands tightly in his, his gaze suddenly sharp.
"The weather is bad tonight," he told her lowly. He was hardly recognizable from the teasing, presumptive instigator she'd pulled into the alcove just a few minutes ago, now icy with tension and too-calm seriousness. His eyes didn't move from hers. "Watch for gathering clouds in the west."
"What are you talking about?" She asked the question but didn't want to know its answer. She leaned in again and Rensai met her with another burning kiss, but it was brief and tasted of urgency.
"Watch the west," he repeated. "Stay out of sight."
He was gone in a breath. He swept out of the alcove with an easy toss of his hair, a hand already lifted in greeting, and Jimaya could hear the Counselor's familiar gravely voice from the other end of the hall. Stay out of sight – had he meant now? Their chance meeting had escalated too wildly for her to feel anything but paralyzed either way. Every nerve still hummed with the memory of his touch. Her fingers were shaking.
Jimaya lingered in the alcove, frozen, until long after their footsteps had disappeared.
She'd forgotten to figure out who the Counselor had met with. She'd forgotten the change of shoes she'd gone to retrieve too, until she was already back in the courtyard and Omare laughed at her. He elbowed her in the ribs – she stumbled and heard her own laugh rather than felt it, too distracted to react properly.
She looked up at the sky. It was perfectly clear, and the stars shone brightly even despite the brilliant lights of the celebration. Not a cloud to be seen.
When the first flaming arrow arced over the courtyard's western wall, she understood.
The weather is bad tonight.
She piled herself with furs and a blazing fire roared at the center of the hut. But the wind howled its icy call outside, and even their Mountain Tribe hosts commented on the unseasonably vicious chill. She squeezed her eyes shut and told herself she didn't hear his voice on the wind.
Watch the west.
They did. They made the west their entire focus. Whether they were battered by sea, sand, sky, or snow, their target remained fixed as she led them in a determined march. When her energy waned, she looked behind. The sight of her nanny and valets staggering in her wake always managed to call up a fresh reserve of strength. Their loyalty fed her, her conviction fed them, and they pressed on. They never asked what made her so decisive, why they should head towards the Den rather than away from it, and she was grateful for that. They wouldn't understand the ally she dared hope might await them there.
Stay out of sight.
Nearly impossible. At her best she called it bad luck and at her worst she cursed him for such ridiculous, hypocritical advice. Stay out of sight, he'd told her, after rumpling her vivid scarlet and gold robes himself, knowing exactly what she'd have to hide from. Knowing that if she did manage to escape, she'd blend into the mountain or forest scenery about as well as he blended in with polite company.
He didn't have to warn her. She'd reminded herself so many times that it felt permanently carved in her skull. He didn't have to warn her, but he could have warned her better. She'd twisted their entire encounter this way and that in her mind, replaying it over and over and over, scrounging for any possible nuance or hint she might have missed. Some tiny detail that might have saved her parents at least, if not her palace or her kingdom. That would have been enough.
She always came up empty handed. Maybe it was better that way. She couldn't stand the thought of a detail she'd deliberately pushed aside just for one more moment beneath his lips. Jimaya balanced her chin on her knees and frowned into the fire, watching the embers Omare idly prodded flare to life and disappear.
"But Rensai was the worst by far," Capo was saying in low tones.
Jimaya jumped. It was the first time she'd heard his name spoken aloud since the siege. She covered up her surprise by inching closer to the fire. Dread pooled cold and viscous inside her.
"You could tell he liked it. He visited too often to be normal," Capo went on. "Never wanted to get his own hands dirty, but he was all too happy to make sure you heard him give the order whenever he left. And sure enough you'd be passed over for water that night or dragged off at dawn to 'observe construction.'" He shook his head, jaw tight. "I'm certain I was next on his list."
"He always asked how I was doing," Kouda said with a shiver. "Calm and polite as could be, like he wanted to hear me say it. But I never answered," she finished proudly.
It was a chilly night under the stars, but Kouda sat furthest from the fire of them all. It's too soon, too similar, she'd said, waving away the smoke, and Omare and Capo had nodded with a grim understanding that had made Jimaya feel sick.
"Ruthless," Omare spat. He poked the logs too hard and they shifted, sending up a shower of sparks as they exposed their golden bellies.
Kouda hushed him gently and cast a glance beyond the ring of light. The brothers they'd rescued from Rensai's mill were there, finally asleep after their wounds had been tended by the Forest People and their best healing herbs. Past them a few smaller fires illuminated the drawn faces of other Imperialist refugees, plus a few Mountain Folk and their Forest hosts, all of them bound together by resilience, empathy, and the cold inevitability of what the next day would bring. Omare followed Kouda's gaze for a long moment, then turned back to the fire.
"I'll kill him," he said bluntly. The firelight cast his face in unnaturally sharp peaks. "Or maybe just his father. Then he'll know what it's like."
For a horrible moment the only sound was the crackle of flames. Jimaya couldn't bear to look at him. Omare didn't mean it. He couldn't. He might want to mean it, but she couldn't picture a world in which Omare took someone's else's life. No amount of suffering could change that about him.
But she knew she'd heard only a fraction of what had gone on in the Den.
"Nature wields revenge with greater strength than human hands," Tsulemon began sagely, but Jimaya got to her feet and cut him short.
"I'm going to sleep," she mumbled, breaking tension before Omare could snap at him. Immediately worried, Tsulemon took her hand and made to stand but Jimaya shook him off.
"It's okay." She winced a smile. "Just… give me a little while."
She bid her goodnights, and with Tsulemon's concerned eyes at her back, trudged towards their shared hammock alone. She picked her way through the trees, ducking beneath hammocks and sidestepping bedrolls – the Forest People had been endlessly gracious, but every fitfully resting body Jimaya passed reminded her of what they'd endured while she'd been off hiking up mountains or flitting through the forest, making friends wherever she went.
She was being unfair to herself, she knew. But their suffering felt real and close at hand. Hers was scattered behind her, left behind in pieces on craggy cliff faces or lost beneath ocean waves, too mismatched and fragmented to string together now. In little more than a month her own twin had learned to speak death threats in a tone even Jimaya had never heard before – how could she possibly compare his suffering to her own? How could she compare when she'd been warned, when she'd been told something would happen and still she'd done nothing?
Jimaya swiped the heel of her hand beneath her eyes as she crawled into her hammock. It swung gently under her weight but all she could think about was a too-small boat pitching on a stormy sea. She gripped her shoulders, curling into her own protective embrace.
Watch the west. Stay out of sight.
Rensai's warning echoed in her head, a deep reverberation, but after a few repetitions the urgency in his voice thickened into a purr, dark and warm, made breathy by his lips against her skin.
Your Highness. I think I like you.
She'd believed him. And he probably had been telling the truth then, just not in the way Jimaya had wanted. What a fun game she must have made for him, what an easy conquest, a momentary distraction while his father finalized whatever plot had burned Jimaya's entire life to the ground. She'd spent a month of sleepless nights remembering how gently he'd touched her, how he'd spoken to her like she could be someone else if she wanted, how torn he'd looked at their greeting and parting. Whenever doubt crept in she'd shoved it aside in favor of hope, wrenching his teasing, sharp little smile back into the conflicted grimace he'd worn before their last kiss.
She'd even let that hope carry her towards the Den, towards him, no matter the danger, because at least it gave her the certainty of a destination. And on her loneliest nights she'd imagined him finding her, worn from her journey but stronger for it, and taking her into his arms.
But now all she could imagine was his grin, his voice, his ease, on the opposite side of a cage in a dimly lit cavern.
Kouda. How are you this evening?
Jimaya's stomach heaved with shame. She clutched herself tighter and gulped back a sob. What could she have done? What could she have said, in the hour or so Rensai had granted her between their final kiss and the first arrow, that would actually have saved them all? Nothing. He'd given her too little to work with. It was just another game, and her brother and nanny and court jester and kingdom had been the pieces.
Her own voice called back to her this time.
If you wanted to lie to me, you'd do a better job of it.
He'd done a better job than Jimaya could ever have feared.
Jimaya woke with a jolt and her eyes flew to find the arm that held her. Still Tsulemon's. Just like it had been the three times before. She let out a shaky breath. It had been a fitful night.
Maybe she would have slept better if she'd been alone. It was common for the Forest People, even for new acquaintances, but sleeping so close to someone she hardly knew called up more unease than comfort. On the first night Tsulemon had kissed her fingers and promised to keep her warm. He had, and that was all. He was a protective, steady presence.
But if she were alone she wouldn't have to wake up blind and panicked and wondering who was holding her. And worse, when the unease subsided, enduring the sinking in her stomach that felt too close to disappointment.
She didn't want Rensai. She didn't. She didn't even know him.
Jimaya slipped out from under Tsulemon's arm. Chilly mist parted beneath her feet and she hugged her arms close as she padded back towards last night's fire, hopeful that someone had awoken before her and rekindled it.
You're up early, Your Highness, he'd probably say in the sort of tone that was both an observation and a dig. He was probably a fair cook. He'd have tea ready and breakfast roasting on a spit – squirrel or rabbit or whatever it was they ate in the Den. They'd sit in silence as the day warmed around them.
But no one else was awake. The fire pit lay stone cold, the stick Omare had used to prod it discarded a few inches away. Jimaya wondered how long they'd stayed up trading horror stories. She managed to bring a struggling fire to life and she huddled as close to it as she could. Ashes dusted her robes, but she didn't care.
Not much call for survival skills within those gilded walls of yours, I suppose.
Jimaya's shoulders tightened. The voice she gave him probably didn't even sound like the real Rensai. She'd spent nearly all their time together telling him to shut up, so the idea that she'd remember it accurately was comical even to her.
But his memory had been a consistent companion on her journey, more than her valets, even more than Kouda. He'd gasped and flopped on his back, chest heaving, when the storm delivered them to the beach at last, then wrung out his hair like he might a wet cloth. He'd waved her impatiently along forest paths as they made their winding way west, always a few steps ahead. He'd laughed when her footing slipped on mountain crags, then extended a hand to pull her onward.
You're lucky you have me.
It was a pathetic game she played with herself. A childish attempt at self-soothing. But if he had been at his best when they met, if he'd really done everything he could to warn her, then it wasn't so hard to imagine him doing all the rest. If he'd done his best, that meant she had too. She wasn't wrong to keep his warning to herself, then or now.
That had been much easier to believe before she'd learned what she had the night before.
"You're up early, Your Highness."
Jimaya startled and whirled around. Capo had a hand raised in greeting but he dropped it to mask a massive yawn. "Forgive me," he added with a respectful inclination of his head. "Restless night."
"That makes two of us." She gestured to the spot beside her, grateful for the company.
Capo's was the sort of presence that lifted any gray dawn into a light golden glow. With only a few moments' attention he'd brought her feeble fire to a comforting blaze, then set about rummaging through a few sacks of provisions Jimaya had been too glum to notice. He tossed her two apples, a pear, and one spiny fruit Jimaya had never seen before and couldn't even guess how to eat. Capo dug his thumb into the thick peel and pulled it back to show her the fragrant white flesh inside, then handed it back to her.
"Who will stay with Kouda?" Jimaya asked quietly. She still didn't know how to approach the spiny fruit so she settled for the pear instead, but even one bite felt like too much for her anxious stomach. "Today, I mean."
"The Mountain Tribe aren't much for fighting," Capo said. The warmth he'd brought with him dimmed a little. "We're lucky to have them at all, truth be told – they make it down from the summit so rarely. A few of them are out scouting ahead now, and when they return they'll be here to tend to the weapons and… and whoever needs tending."
The wounded. Jimaya looked away. Her thumbnail punctured little crescents into the skin of her pear.
"Will be where I'm meant to be," Capo said firmly. "At your brother's side, and yours."
Jimaya smiled gratefully. His sentiments were echoed by others in the camp as it began to come to life around them: the Mountain Tribe were habitually early risers and came to the fire bearing several freshly snared rabbits. Omare came next, rubbing his eyes and looking drawn, but after getting some food in him it became clear that a good night's sleep had done him well. When Kouda arrived she made it her business to ensure even the most taciturn Imperial officers ate all they could – reluctant to be a burden, they'd refused the meat at first, but they soon caved under Kouda's insistence and the Tribe's irrepressible generosity. The Forest People began filtering in around then, adding a burst of color and cheer that bore a striking resemblance to Capo's, and for a moment Jimaya could pretend there was no battle ahead. They could all just be there around the fire, together, sharing. Tsulemon looped his arms around Jimaya's shoulders, pressed a kiss to the top of her head, then joined her on the ground to dig into one of the spiny fruits.
For them, she thought, she could face anything.
And when the day's objective could no longer be ignored, after the cheerful morning chatter had hardened into brusque words of encouragement, she carried that feeling with her. She glowed with pride as she and Omare addressed the patchwork crowd of newfound allies. Those with armor pounded their chests, those with weapons raised them and cheered. There were fewer of them than anyone would have hoped, under-resourced and poorly armed, but they burned with a golden intensity bright enough to blind.
"Let's see the Denborn match that," Omare said with a grin, emboldened by the rallied army at their backs. Jimaya held her brother's tireless optimism against her heart as they marched towards the battlefield.
But when they arrived, her grip faltered. She hadn't expected to see Rensai leading the vanguard.
Apparently neither had Omare.
The Imperial line surged forward, led by Omare and Capo, fists raised and eyes alight with vengeance. There was no reading the Denborn. They were a single, inky mass of charging spearmen as arrows rained down from the cliffs above. A single glance was enough to tell Jimaya they were dangerously outnumbered and egregiously underarmed. Arrows studded the ground and Jimaya shouted the army forward – they'd be within range, but the Denborn would be hesitant to fire on their own. Color shot through the black ranks of the Denborn as the Forest People threw themselves into the fray, blocking and disarming so they could throw weapons to their allies. Jimaya, Omare, and Capo barreled through the resulting gap.
Rensai was shouting orders at the center, bound tight in armor that might have contradicted his typical informality if he didn't look so at ease in it. The sight hit Jimaya like a blow to the chest – this wasn't the person who'd slouched in alcoves and waited boredly for his father to finish business. Here was the pedigree that molded his manner. His soldiers took their orders and dispersed dutifully, and when Rensai turned his eyes lit up to see who had broken through the line.
"The prince and his fool." He greeted them with a mocking bow but when he rose again his gaze had gone flinty. He spared only the briefest glance for Jimaya. "Have you missed your accommodations?"
"You're going to pay for what you've done, Rensai," Omare growled, dropping into an attack stance. Capo did the same, but a nod from Rensai saw Capo tackled by no fewer than three spearmen at once. They clung to his limbs, dragging him down, and Capo roared as he spun and fought to fend them off. With a cry Omare dove to Capo's defense. But Rensai had already seized a spear and charged.
Two invisibly swift strikes to Omare's shoulder and ribs sent him reeling back to regain his footing. Rensai aimed a thrust but Omare was too quick: he twisted out of the way and came back with a kick to Rensai's jaw. He staggered and Jimaya saw her opening. She darted forward and pressed her back to Omare's, mirroring his stance, eyes and fists trained on Rensai. But to her shock Omare shrugged her off.
"Leave him for me, Jimaya," he snarled, shaking the sweat from his eyes. "I owe him."
"So do I," Jimaya said lowly, unmoving.
But Rensai had recovered. He lunged again, separating the twins with his spear and sending Jimaya sprawling to the ground. She rolled to her feet, bracing for an attack, but Rensai had rounded on Omare instead.
Indignance shot hot and poisonous through her veins as she watched the pair circle one another. Whatever he'd done to Omare in the Mountain Den, Rensai had wronged her first. He should have paled to see her alive, he should have begged her forgiveness or attacked her to finish the job. In none of the fleeting visions that had torn through her dreams last night had he outright ignored her. She gritted her teeth and let perverse, jealous anger launch her back into battle.
An arrow whizzed past her hair and she yelped, whirling around. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted archers leaping down from the cliffs for a better shot, and the Imperial allies couldn't have presented brighter targets.
"Omare!" Jimaya shouted. "Get down!"
She turned frantically for him, but the pair had disappeared. There was no seeing through the melee so she charged into it instead, dodging strikes and beating back any spearman that dared engage her. At last one crumpled beneath a final kick, and with him out of the way she managed to spot her brother locked in combat not with Rensai, but with some other anonymous warrior. Relief swept through her – he was still alive. Had Rensai fallen?
Another arrow buried itself in the ground beside her foot. Jimaya snatched up a discarded spear and broke into a sprint, running a wide arc towards Omare and back out of the archers' range. She was just about to reenter the fray when a colossal force slammed into her body and sent her tumbling off course. Panicked and dazed, she tried to roll to her feet. But to her horror the ground didn't catch up with her. She was falling.
She tucked her body tight and barely managed to finish the rotation, crashing to her hands and knees on rocky ground. She hissed in pain but sprang back to her feet, casting around wildly.
But there was nothing and no one. Panic crept into her chest and she fought to stifle it back down. She could still hear the sound of battle over her thundering heart, but it came distant and muted, the sunlight dim and filtered. Jimaya threw her head back: a narrow strip of sky cut through the wide rock walls around her. She'd fallen into a shallow crevice. But its walls curved outward as though scooped out, and the ground was unnaturally flat.
A Denborn tunnel. Dread flooded her insides. She'd heard about them before, stories of spearmen crawling from the very earth to ambush the unwary or drag them back to their mountain, never to be seen again.
Rocks shifted behind her. Jimaya kicked the spear back into her hand and turned, ready to strike.
Rensai dusted off his palms as he straightened up. He cast a look up at the top of the crevice – had he jumped? – then laid a hand on the wall to catch his breath. He nodded a greeting in Jimaya's direction.
"Your Highness. I'm glad to see you're all right."
She'd prepared a hundred reactions to a hundred different meetings. Every single one of them was useless in the face of his offhand informality. Less than a minute ago they'd both been prepared to kill or be killed, and now here he was, calm beyond comprehension, as though he'd just wandered in on a whim. He might as well have said he was glad the weather had held out.
Her rage boiled to the surface and she jabbed the spear at his throat.
"Glad to see I'm all right?" she snarled. He scowled irritably at the spear and made to brush it aside, but she swung the shaft around and struck him behind the legs, knocking him to the ground. He shook his hair out of his eyes, seething, but Jimaya kicked him back before he could stand. She held him there with her foot to his chest, spear trained on his neck.
"I know what you did. I know what you did to my people, to Capo, to my brother."
Her cheeks were running hot, her vision blurring at the edges. She hated herself for it but there was no stopping it now – every hope she'd clung to, every excuse and justification she'd made lay pinned beneath her shoe, insultingly corporeal and ordinary. Just a man. It cost all her strength not to run him through.
"And me!" She blinked back the threatening tears and jabbed the spear closer. He flinched. "You let me trust you! You told me just enough to make me sick with guilt and keep me powerless, all to make me part of your war game!"
"You assign me a great deal of credit," Rensai rasped, his eyes burning. "If this were a game, I would have made sure I won."
"Didn't you?! What part of this hasn't gone your way? From the moment you spoke to me you–-"
Rensai gripped the spear in both hands and jerked it aside. Jimaya tumbled to the ground with a cry and Rensai rolled them both over, pinning her to the ground with his body, his forearm held against her neck. The spear clattered far out of reach.
"I didn't want a war, Jimaya. I tried to keep you from starting one."
Her name hit her like a shock to her system. How many times had she imagined him using a form of address, deferent and respectful? And worse, how many times had she imagined him in situations far too intimate to merit it?
"Liar!" she cried, thrashing against him. But his weight was too solid and any struggle added to the pressure against her throat. He let out a frustrated growl and backed off, laying a hand to her cheek instead. She stilled.
"Are you going to listen to me or are you going to fight me?"
Jimaya glared up at him, silent. He sighed.
"I'll prepare for both, then."
He sat up and tightened his legs at her waist, holding her in place as he transferred his grip to her forearms. He leaned close to press her wrists into the ground. Jimaya's blood was pounding in her ears, her breath still coming quick and shallow. For what had to be the thousandth time Rensai's voice echoed in the back of her mind.
If we were anywhere else. If we were anyone else.
"My father and I visited your palace as peacebrokers," he said. His clipped tone was a strange match for the way he held her, the way his hair fell over his shoulder and into her face, closing her in. "Not very good ones, I'll admit. A revised trade agreement in exchange for a ten year extension of the treaty. When the Emperor saw what we had to trade, I imagine the treaty became the last thing on his mind, which my father had anticipated."
"That's not trade. That's extortion and warmongering," Jimaya spat. "You set impossible terms and attacked when we refused!"
"Which is why, Your Highness, you and I were so fortunate to run into each other," Rensai went on impatiently. "I insisted my father take another meeting with your Minister of Commerce and hoped they'd reach some sort of agreement. Even half of what we'd proposed might have been enough to stay the Chief's hand. As long as a certain Imperial princess didn't interrupt negotiations."
"Liar," Jimaya repeated, but doubt twisted horribly in her stomach. It was the same awful, fluttering uncertainty that had kept her in the alcove with him, desperate to convince herself that he was honest and safe. Then and now, there was so little to be gained by lying. He must have noticed some of the fight go out of her – he loosened his hold by a fraction.
"Why should I lie? I don't expect this rendezvous to go nearly as well as our first."
She flared again. "Then you did...!"
"Did what?" Rensai studied her, then his eyes lit up with delight as understanding dawned. "Oh, Jimaya. Please tell me you're going to accuse me of seducing you."
Jimaya flushed and looked away, held tighter now by the sharp smile and tender name on his lips than his grip on her arms. Rensai laughed and, satisfied that she wasn't going to lash out again, released her and sat back on his heels.
"Be careful. The alternative is admitting I didn't have to."
He touched her cheek again, then looked pointedly at the way he straddled her thighs and grinned. At last he swung a leg off of her to let her up, and with the bizarre spell of his closeness broken, Jimaya scrambled to her feet and shoved aside the unsettling sense that she felt too light without him.
"What you told me. Your warning."
Rensai had picked up the spear and was making a show of inspecting the tip. "What about it?"
"Why did you bother?"
"I've already told you," he said calmly, lowering the spear. "I didn't want a war."
Jimaya shook her head. "Nothing you said to me could have changed the outcome of that meeting."
"No, but it might have changed how the outcome affected you."
"But why did that matter?"
Rensai frowned at her, bemused. "I told you that, too. I like you."
"Then why didn't you say something more?" she demanded. Anger trampled a fleeting rush of satisfaction – she'd imagined him telling her precisely that so many times, but the reality was too cold and blunt. "Your warning was useless, cryptic to the point of incomprehensible! What did you expect me to do with that?"
She could have sworn she saw him flush behind his warpaint.
"You're alive, aren't you?"
"No thanks to you. I'm alive, my brother is alive, but by our own power, not yours. And meanwhile my people are homeless and my kingdom is in ruins. Even now they fight and die for a home you took–-" she cast a hand overhead at the edge of the crevice–– "because they have nothing else left!"
"You would ask me to betray my people over fifteen minutes in a hallway?"
His barbed words sank deep between her ribs. She readied her own.
"I didn't have to ask," Jimaya said coldly. "Your Chief is dead. What greater betrayal is there? You did it all on your own."
Rensai had no reprisal for that. He glared at her, a piercing bastardization of the evaluating look he'd given her at their last meeting. Recognizing her advantage, Jimaya pressed on ruthlessly.
"You could have stopped the attack. Stopped your father. But you did nothing."
"You don't know what I did," he growled. She'd touched a nerve.
"I know what you did afterwards," Jimaya said lowly. "And I know how much you enjoyed it."
"Oh yes, you must have heard quite the tale from your brother," Rensai snapped with such sudden acid that Jimaya faltered. "While he was singing stories of my cruelty, did he have time to tell you what he took from me?"
Rensai's relentless focus on Omare on the battlefield came back to her, keen as cold as an arrowhead. But alongside it came the twisted, hollow bitterness that he'd barely spared her a glance.
"Omare wouldn't take anything from you unless he was sure you didn't deserve it," she said. "And I'm certain he was right."
The barest flicker of hurt passed over Rensai's features, too brief to be an act. He thrust the spear out to her. Jimaya startled.
"Well. You have me good and cornered now, don't you? You seem to have made a conclusive assessment of my character. What will you do about it?"
Silence pulled taut between them. The distant, muted clash of the ongoing battle passed over the top of the crevice like the rumble of an oncoming storm. But Jimaya was all but deaf to it as Rensai watched her, level and calm, as though they were the only two people in the world. She hesitated, flicking her eyes from him to the spear.
"Nothing now." Jimaya fought to keep her voice steady. "We'll win, and then you'll stand trial."
"What a diplomat," he sneered. "I hope whichever nation prevails has time to commend you."
He seized her by the wrist and yanked her close against him. Jimaya gasped and tried to pull back, but to her horror he forced the spear into her hand and held the blade flat against his throat.
She froze. A quarter turn and a decisive slice were all it would take. He was so near and warm. With a wave of revulsion Jimaya imagined the heat of his blood spilling over her hands, slickening the spear, how he'd grow pale beneath his tattoos and crumple to his knees. The spear tip rose and fell with his breathing. She could all but feel his pulse through the shaft.
"Do you want me dead?" he asked.
Jimaya shook her head, wide-eyed. She wished she could bring herself to look anywhere but at him. Rensai's hand tightened on hers, clamping her grip even more firmly around the spear.
"Would your family be pleased to know you had the choice and let me live?"
Jimaya swallowed hard. "They wouldn't want me to have to kill any––"
"If they knew what you do about what I have done," he cut her off with a growl, "and what more I could do if I were to survive, would they be pleased?"
She shook her head again.
"Would your people?"
"But still you wouldn't kill me."
"No," she whispered.
Rensai leaned closer. His presence folded around her, swallowing her up.
"Then maybe you can find it in your heart to forgive me," he said softly, "for the cardinal sin of being just as weak."
He released her. Jimaya stumbled back, stunned, clutching the spear for support. But he only cast her a final, unreadable look and strode away. For the first time she noticed a recess carved into the wall of the tunnel a little ways down: Rensai stopped there to rummage through its shelves.
"You have a very poor record," he said as knelt down to lift the lids of two heavy clay pots, "but if I tell you to stay here, will you listen?"
"Are you going to tell me why this time?" she asked peevishly, still too rattled to strip the petulance from her tone. As he pinched his fingers together to taste one of the pots' contents, she caught the hint of a smile.
Something in the way he said it rolled through her like a wave, a sudden weight and pressure that squeezed her ribs together.
"Then I won't."
Rensai flashed her a grin. "What if I beg?"
But it was gone again by the time anxiety exploded to life and colored her cheeks, and Rensai had already resumed his search. Jimaya edged closer and craned her neck to peer over his shoulder, suspicious, but he straightened up before she could see what he was doing and pushed the pot back into its place with his boot. A leather pouch hung from his belt.
"It's a shame we met when we did." He plucked a flint from another shelf and, satisfied with a test spark, pocketed it. "I maintain that we would have gotten along under other circumstances."
The swirling anxiety inside her vanished. She stood, suddenly empty, and stared at him.
"You're going back out."
He nodded as though the whole thing were very tedious, but there was a tension in his face that Jimaya recognized from their first meeting, carefully concealed behind his warpaint. After accusing him of lying so many times, Jimaya was finally beginning to recognize the signs. He was frightened. He looked past her. His eyes traced the path out of the tunnel, towards fate, and away from her.
"As much as I love hiding away with you," he began.
But he didn't finish the thought. His smile faded from his lips. His hand twitched as though he might reach for her.
A sudden, violent hatred for the space between them filled the void anxiety had left inside her. Jimaya wanted to throw herself into his arms, wrestle him to the ground, beat her hands against his chest until he promised not to go. She wanted to burst from their hiding place with a force so great and blinding that it scattered every part of the war from the face of the earth, every wasted life, every pathetic prejudice, every unjust injury restored and undone. The unfairness of it all gripped her heart, tearing a cry of anguish out of her as she threw the spear to the ground.
"I hate this," she cried, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes and turning from him. "I hate this, I wish this had never happened! I should have done more! I should have changed it! I wish you and I were just people and none of this would ever have––"
His arms were around her before she could draw breath. He pressed his lips to hers and she rocked into his body, clinging to him, desperate for him, the only person who had failed her as deeply as she'd failed her people. They broke apart and he cupped her face in his hands.
"I'm sorry, Jimaya."
His voice came rough and choked but Jimaya shook her head furiously and kissed him into silence again. She didn't want to be Jimaya and she didn't want him to be Rensai – she wanted to be away, in another world apart, oblivious to whatever unknown disasters unfolded down long hallways or at the feet of mountains. She didn't care if he was a liar or an enemy or anything else: if she closed her eyes and held him tight enough he was only the person whose shape, smile, and voice she'd assigned to all her hardships. He was the person who'd washed ashore with her, trekked up mountains with her, fallen asleep with her. He was better and she was braver and there was no war, only hands and lips and mirrored heartbeats.
They crashed into the curved tunnel wall. Rensai's footing slipped and they slid to the ground in a tangle of limbs, but he held her firmly atop him with an arm around her waist. They kissed again, Jimaya slid her hands up his chest but whined in frustration at the armor that kept him from her.
He guided her hands to his left side. She found the cords holding his armor closed and yanked them loose, satisfied to find how easily it slipped from his shoulders. Denborn armor was flimsier than she expected. But Jimaya hardly had a second to consider it before he was kissing her again, settling her in his lap, moving against her.
They'd been short on time the first time she'd found herself under Rensai's touch, but this impatience was different, shot through with desperation not for haste but for affirmation. She felt it in the way his hands couldn't keep still, fingers pressing deep and hard before moving on to map the rest of her, and in the way she clung to him as though pressing against him would make him more real and everything else less so. She rose up on her knees and together they pulled her sash looser and her leggings out of the way. Her robes hung from her shoulders in thick folds; Rensai touched a kiss to her sternum as he pressed a finger inside her.
Jimaya whimpered a sigh and arched into him, and his breath grew hot on her skin as he worked his hand beneath her. He kissed her breast, then her nipple, swirling his tongue just as he slipped in a second finger. She could feel his eyes on her but she couldn't bear to meet them, she squeezed her own shut and leaned her head back as she rode his hand.
No. Not enough.
Her own body protested as she laid her hand on his and pulled it away long enough to strip her leggings the rest of the way off and fling them out of the way. In the space of a heartbeat she was back on him, locked in another heated kiss, squeezing his hips tight between her thighs. She could feel him again, hard and fighting impatience, just as she had in the alcove. Swallowing a nervous self-consciousness, she laid a hand on the buckle of his belt.
But apprehension gave way to frustration when all she found was layers. She yanked a second belt open, pulled down the waist of his leather skirt, only to be met with a pair of laced pants – she growled in aggravation and Rensai laughed.
"Now you know how I felt when we met."
Long fingers flicked easily through the laces at the front of his pants and Rensai took out his cock. Jimaya's eyes widened and she hid her flush behind a hasty kiss – it had laid dark and heavy in his hand and she couldn't shake the impossible feeling that it was for her, he wanted her, exactly as she was and in these incomprehensibly bizarre circumstances. She curled her fingers around it and somehow that made it feel easier to manage and understand. Better yet, Rensai went weak beneath the gentle squeeze of her hand, sighing and drawing her into another soft kiss. She moved her hips in tandem with her hand, but before long she released him and ground against him all on her own, lips parted and and astonished at the peek of his tip between her hips as she moved and the dizzying pleasure it stirred up within her. Just a few inches and he'd slip inside her, she could feel it, she wanted it, and she buried her face in his shoulder.
"Rensai," she breathed, eyes squeezed shut. "I–– I've never––"
He let out a ragged groan against her skin. A flash of anxiety nearly overwhelmed her but the heat of his next kiss blotted it out like ink in water – maybe he was proud to be her first. Or her last. In that moment she too was grateful to be either, to be this close to someone else in the thick of a war that had divided so many, and Jimaya ground down again, shuddering a sigh as she rocked against his length. His cock was slick beneath her.
"Now is your chance," he said in her ear. "So?"
Jimaya nodded feverishly. He could have said anything and she would have agreed to it, anything to feel more of this, more of him. He laid a firm guiding hand at the small of her back.
But he stilled. Jimaya turned her face away. Her confidence hinged on their pace, if they stopped she'd have too long to examine the absurdity of what they were doing.
"No. Look here."
Reluctantly she dragged her eyes to his and her thoughts abandoned her. Rensai wasn't laughing. With a jolt she was reminded of his warning and the serious, desperate intensity he'd worn then, but this was different. It burned deeper, darker and reassuring, like the soft expanse of black beyond the warmth of a campfire. Jimaya hung suspended there, unable to do anything but stare back. She felt her lips part, but if she'd meant to speak the words were driven far out of reach when he leaned in and kissed her. Light. Lingering. He eased her down.
Jimaya broke away to gasp out. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed, pressing her face into the crook of his neck. It was tight, she felt stretched, pried open in a way she'd never felt before, but to her shock there was no resistance: her grip on him slackened bit by bit, until at last some final threshold inside her gave way and she relaxed around him. Their hips met. He was inside her. Rensai, the Denborn Counselor's son, was inside her, hot and alive and near. She stayed there for a few shaky breaths, stunned at the impossibility, unable to face it yet, panting in his arms. His breathing matched hers. His hand cradled her head against his shoulder. When had that happened?
She pulled herself back just far enough to speak, but his hand slid to her cheek and turned her into another kiss before she could find the words. Jimaya melted against him again, folding them closer, pouring herself into him with a needy roll of her hips, and his kiss grew sharp as he began to move. Her fingernails dug into his back again – it felt foreign but so good, and it awakened a viciousness inside her that she didn't recognize. She set her teeth against his throat until he groaned and drove himself deeper.
"Fuck," she breathed, at a loss for any other reaction, and this time Rensai did laugh.
"Your Highness," he purred, "I didn't know you had it in you."
"Don't start that now," she managed tightly, but her tone lost its bite when his breath came hot on her ear.
"Jimaya, then," he said softly. "Jimaya."
He leaned her back in his arms. The change of angle sent a shudder rippling through her body. After the forced silence of their first encounter every gasp, then whine, then moan felt like its own liberation. Jimaya let him pull them from her freely, her shame long cast aside like her spear. She'd wanted this, she recalled through the haze of steadily building heat and pleasure. To be the sort of person he'd picture like this, want like this, remember like this. For however long they had.
"Rensai," she gasped as another surge of pleasure raced through her. Surely her fingernails were digging marks into his back by now. "I'm––"
"Again," he said with an insistent thrust. "Say it."
With a shock she remembered that, too.
And you scream my name when you come.
"Rensai," she repeated, throwing her arms around him and holding him close, eyes screwed shut as she met him with every desperate movement. "Rensai, Rensai, Rensai!"
Pleasure burst inside her in a wild rush of heat and she cried out, back arched and rigid as it raced through her every nerve. His arms tightened around her waist, holding her in it until she sank back down into his welcoming embrace. He kissed her through it, held her through it, fucked her through it, until he came too, deep inside her and pressed tight against her body, her name groaned against her throat and smoothed over with feverish kisses.
They slid back to earth in an exhausted heap. Jimaya didn't notice that he'd laced their fingers together until he tugged them away so he could cup her face in his hands. He kissed her briefly, gently, then a second time as though the first hadn't been enough. She held him there as the seconds slipped by one by one, delicate and unrushed as a blooming flower.
"You are exactly as I imagined," he whispered.
Jimaya nearly laughed aloud. She was so overwhelmed by the reality that she could hardly remember the Rensai she'd spent so much time imagining. Crueler, colder, kinder, softer. All four at once. She was too tired to think about it.
At last they parted. There was an intangible sense of finality to it, and the glowing warmth within her dimmed. Rensai touched his forehead to hers. He wove his fingers into her hair and let out a steadying breath, too close for her to read his face anymore. But she'd already seen it. She could feel it in the crease of his brow.
She knew that grimace.
"Rensai," she began softly, but the rest died inside her. His frown deepened.
"Don't. I don't want to hear it like that."
He kissed her again. It swept Jimaya up enough that she hardly noticed he was drawing away until she found herself suddenly cold and empty absent his touch. Dazed, she opened her eyes to find him refastening his pants, pointedly avoiding her gaze as he reached for his discarded armor.
"Rensai," she tried again, more firmly this time, but he only looked more pained. He tossed her her leggings. They landed in a heap in her lap and she balled them up in shaky hands.
"Whatever you're about to say is naive, so you may as well save it." He slid his armor back over his shoulders and motioned to the cords at his side. He still wouldn't look at her. "Would you?"
"Stop it. We'll–– we'll go out together and call for a truce." She snatched frantically for a strategy but he was already shaking his head. "Even Omare won't attack you if he sees you with me."
"My people won't accept a truce."
"Why not? If you're the one to––"
"If you're coming out with me, your options are to do it as a prisoner or to announce your surrender," he cut her off. "Anything less will cost you an arrow through the ribs or worse."
"Then explain to them!"
"And what do you recommend I tell them?" Rensai snapped, turning a glare on her that ran her through like a lance. "That I fucked you and now an entire war's worth of harm is undone? I know it was your first time, but the world around us is exactly the same as it was before you came. Maybe you should have set more realistic expectations."
The empty tunnel reverberated his cold insistence back at them both.
"Now you're just being a coward," Jimaya said softly. His words had stung harder than he'd intended and they both knew it: he was avoiding her eyes again, his lips pressed tightly together as he fiddled with his armor. Eventually he cursed and gave up, casting it aside and getting to his feet. Jimaya stayed where she was.
"Tell yourself whatever you need to," she said. "I'm not letting you go out there alone."
"You are completely insufferable," he muttered. He massaged his forehead as though her concern for his safety were triggering a migraine. "What have I done to make you resent listening to me so much? The only meaningful thing I've ever told you was to stay out of sight and yet here you are, bright as blood on a battlefield, until I have to drag you off myself. And now you insist on going back."
He scoffed a bitter laugh and Jimaya started. The force that had slammed her into the crevice and out of the fray, his focus on Omare–– no, not a preoccupation with her brother. An unwillingness to attack her.
He must have noticed her realization because he sneered as he extended a hand to pull her to her feet, but he tugged hard and she stumbled into his chest. When she looked up she found that he'd softened again. Regret and resignation clouded his expression.
"Insufferable," he repeated, and took her chin in his hand. Jimaya closed her eyes.
"Last chance to kill me." He made the offer one final time when there was no delaying the inevitable any longer. Jimaya had pulled her leggings back on and his armor still lay forgotten, but he'd retrieved her spear from where she'd discarded it. He held it out to her again. "If you don't, someone else might, and if it's your brother I'll make certain neither of you know peace for the rest of your days."
Jimaya shook her head. "I'll risk it. Call it your incentive to stay alive."
"Fine." He gave an easy shrug and to her surprise lay the spear against the tunnel wall. He motioned for her to follow. "But keep your distance. Wait for me to clear a way, then find your brother."
She trailed behind him uneasily as he led the way up the tunnel's gentle slope. After all his protests for her to stay behind, he was pressing on with less than half a plan, unarmed and unprotected. She had no idea how he meant to clear a path through anything, much less a raging battle.
Her apprehension magnified tenfold when they emerged from the tunnel and caught sight of the fringes of the fight.
The archers had abandoned their posts on the cliffs, their quivers long emptied into the field below where arrows peppered the beaten earth. Their numbers added to the Denborn forces on the ground, and from her distance Jimaya could only spot the barest flickers of color that indicated the Imperial allies. A punctured surge of hope swelled inside her. As long as there was fighting, they weren't defeated. Not yet.
"Well," Rensai sighed. His gaze followed hers across the expanse. But after a long moment's pause, he passed her a sharp little smile that snagged her senses like a burr. "Let's make it right."
He took off. Jimaya barely had a second to react before his long legs had carried him nearly halfway across the field.
She tore after him, dodging arrow shafts and leaping over the fallen –– not now, not now, not now, she told herself fiercely, and the effort of suppressing her horror propelled her forward. She stayed singlemindedly fixed on the shrinking target in front of her: apparently he was eliminating any possibility that she might defy his order for her to keep her distance.
She wouldn't have it. She'd protect him, protect her people, and put an end to this war. There would be no more loss of life on her watch.
Rensai's figure slipped between the teeming clash of bodies and Jimaya lost sight of him, but as she neared the edges of the battle she found it looser than she'd left it. Not because there are fewer warriors, she insisted inwardly as she pushed inside. Not because so many have fallen.
But they'd entered the battle with impossible odds, and looking at who remained, Jimaya felt the first surge of hope she'd felt since that morning's rally. Forest People were taking on two spearmen at a time nearly everywhere she looked, twisting out of reach of every blow. Imperial officers met their foes with ever immaculate technique, determined to best their opponent with unyielding precision or not at all. She even caught sight of a few Mountain Tribesmen, their fur hats out of place on the battlefield but their long, ivory-tipped spears reaching far beyond any Denborn weapon. But after a few moments' survey, panic began to creep into her chest. Where was Omare?
She sidestepped every swipe of a spear or bellicose call to engage her, weaving through the melee towards the center. So much for Rensai's cleared path, she thought angrily. He was nowhere in sight either. But the thought was knocked clear out of her head as she was seized around the middle and dragged in the opposite direction.
"Your Highness!" Callused hands moved to her shoulders and yanked her into a desperate embrace.
"Capo!" Jimaya's heart threatened to explode with relief. She clutched him back but pulled away just as quickly. "Omare–– where is he?!"
"Fighting when I saw him last. We need to get you out of here, give the retreat order, we need to regroup."
"Not without Omare."
"Your Highness, we can't afford to lose––"
"You'll lose both of us or neither of us," Jimaya said fiercely, wrenching herself out of Capo's grip. "Where is he?"
Capo bit back his protest and nodded over Jimaya's shoulder. She whipped around and scanned the battlefield until there, she saw him, beyond four pairs locked in combat and squaring off against––
Honestly, she hated Rensai.
She darted towards them and threw herself at Omare in part tackle, part embrace. They fell to the ground in a heap; Omare reared up, snarling about the rules of engagement, but his face broke out in relief when he recognized her and he threw his arms around her.
"Jimaya! You're all right!"
"Come on, get up, we need to get out of here."
She glanced back at Rensai and found him rolling his eyes.
"Don't look like that, you're the one that took off!" she snapped, hauling Omare to his feet while he glanced between the pair of them, bewildered.
But the Imperial Twins together made too perfect a target.
All around them, Denborn abandoned their fights to close in around them. A dark ring of leather and iron tightened like a noose, spears jabbing in from all sides, and with a sinking horror Jimaya realized they expected them both to face Rensai.
She turned. Rensai was shaking his head.
"You're lucky you have me," he said, just audible above the jeers of the other Denborn.
Jimaya's eyes went wide. "What did you say?" she whispered.
He reached for the pouch at his belt and the taunts changed tone. The spearmen began stumbling back in alarm, scrambling over one another to get away. Omare didn't notice – he jerked out of Jimaya's grip and lunged at Rensai, but Rensai sidestepped him easily. She dove after her brother, casting a look over her shoulder at Rensai, panicked and confused.
"Look away," he said.
He didn't wait for her to obey. Rensai struck his flint and the world went white.
Chapter 4: Epilogue
Guilty pleas needed no defense, he reminded the assembled. "Or have your laws changed since your ascent to the throne?"
"Not yet," Omare said through gritted teeth.
"Well let me know when they do," Rensai said indifferently. "Until then, guilty is my final word."
Omare wasn't satisfied. It didn't make sense – Rensai had resorted to a method as dangerous as firepowder in a battle he was all but certain to win. Members of the High Council put forth a number of explanations as they deliberated. He hadn't known what he was doing. He didn't trust his skills against both twins at once so he resorted to drastic measures. He'd wanted to humiliate the Imperialists by defeating them with the very thing they'd rejected at the war's start. But Rensai stood in stubborn silence before both new sovereigns and the entire assemblage, and eventually Omare had no choice but to relent.
"There is no winning against men like him, Sire," Capo said darkly once the rest of the room had emptied. "Not in the way you deserve. You'll have to let it go."
"But you deserve it too!" Omare protested. "You and everyone else he's hurt!"
"He knows he did wrong," Jimaya said. She felt her brother's eyes fall on her but she couldn't bring herself to meet them. She removed her crown and shook her fingers through her hair. It was the same one she'd always worn, but it felt so much heavier now. "That may be the only satisfaction you get."
"That, and the satisfaction of upholding the law as your parents would have," Capo said gently.
A somber stillness fell over the room. At last Omare relaxed his grip on his frustration.
"That's true," he sighed. "At least he's blind."
"Force a retreat," Rensai told Jimaya when she asked. Her certainty that he was telling the truth came as a shock, but thinking back he actually did it quite often. "Notice that not a single one of your High Council even considered that possibility. That's either prejudice or inexperience at work, and neither is the sort of trait you want to encourage at such a high level of––"
"Are you seriously lecturing me about the quality of my advisors?" Jimaya interrupted, confounded as ever by Rensai's ability to withstand even the tensest of atmospheres, and he gave an amused sniff.
If his cell bothered him, he didn't show it, but then again he couldn't see how depressing it looked. Or maybe he did have an idea and the Denborn prisons were so much worse that he saw no reason to complain. He perched on a stool, one leg drawn to his chest, walking stick leaned against his shoulder as though this were the most casual of meetings.
"How would that have even forced a retreat?"
"I knew every Denborn would recognize what was about to happen, and I knew yours wouldn't," he said. "It was the only way to separate the two sides without risking more loss of life. I had intended for you to be well clear of it, but unfortunately you hate to listen and your brother is an idiot. He was on me the moment I reentered the battle."
"If you hadn't pleaded guilty, you'd be facing a death sentence. Several, in fact."
"But I did, so I'm not. Alive is never enough for you." There was no malice in his tone. If anything, something close to admiration warmed each word. Even in the dim torchlight she could see the tug of a smile at the corner of his lips.
"But you're blind!" Jimaya burst out. She couldn't keep it in anymore, his ease with it all was wholly absurd. She strode forward to clutch the bars of his cell as though glaring at him harder would force him to make sense.
His head turned more in her direction. He grinned in earnest, and a faint crease appeared in his blindfold.