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She has several attendants but only one visitor. It's easier to think of them like that. The alternatives are too unpleasant to face. Jailors. Captors. Enemies. They pushed her roughly from one set of hands into the next and eventually into a round metal cage, spears lowered threateningly as though she'd dare try to lash out. She didn't. And she doesn't now either, no matter how much her blood sings for it. It runs hot and loud in her ears every time the Counselor's son makes his rounds. Each time she tries to match the man to the boy she met once or twice before, but the pieces never line up properly. He's grown too tall and vicious. She didn't really know him then or now, but it stings of betrayal anyway.

"Please don't look like that," he says in a lower voice than she recognizes. He's brought her dinner, something he's done all three evenings she's spent in the Mountain Den, and she wonders if it's his job or if he just likes seeing an Imperial Princess imprisoned. "This is only temporary."

She accepts her meager meal begrudgingly – fuel for whatever future opening might present itself. But suspicion wins out over hunger and Jimaya's chopsticks pause over her bowl.

"What do you mean?"

Rensai massages the stiffness from whatever horrible work has tired his shoulders and nods at her cage.

"That cell isn't built for long term stays."

He says it so casually that Jimaya's stomach lurches. He asks her if she's sure when she returns her bowl half-finished.

 

––––

 

Her new cell is less like a cage, but it still has bars. Jimaya doesn't know what she really expected. When the door closes, the clang of metal echoes in Rensai's voice. Long term stays. Long term stays.

But there's a cot, and a small table, and room to pace at least a little. She fights back tears when the spearmen finally leave her be, unable to untangle her twinge of relief from the overwhelming onslaught of despair. She doesn't want to be more comfortable. She wants to be out.

"You see? More befitting someone of your station." Rensai smiles broadly when he drops by. Jimaya draws her knees to her chest and rests her forehead on her arms.

 

––––

 

He's examining his fingernails, picking soot or ash or whatever else out from underneath. Maybe a bad habit – whatever he does with his time must be oddly dirty work for someone so obsessed with his image. Or maybe he just really enjoys practicing a bored affect. Jimaya can't tell for certain. His fingers are long and mobile, like spiders.

"Why are you even here?" she grumbles. The spearmen bring her meals now. He has no real reason to visit. All she can think is that Rensai finds her sickly entertaining to watch, like a rabbit struggling in a snare. But he's not even really watching her.

"You're an uncommonly valuable prisoner. Someone's got to look after you."

"I'd rather you didn't."

"That's very cold," he says without looking up. "And after all the trouble I went to to improve your accommodations."

"That decision wasn't up to you and we both know it."

Rensai shrugs.

"How is this still fun for you?" Jimaya sighs, leaning her head back against her cell wall. "Hasn't this lost its charm? I don't have anything new to say and neither do you. Just leave me alone and be done with it."

He drops his hands and looks at her, a mask of surprise sliding seamlessly over his practiced disinterest.

"Jimaya. I could never."

 

–––

 

"What are you going to do when my brother comes for me?" She's glaring from the farthest possible corner of her cot.

Rensai snorts. He's brought a spear and a collection of fine ebony feathers this time. He sits cross-legged opposite her cell, leather cording held between his teeth as he ties the feathers one by one beneath the spearhead. "You think he's still alive."

"I know he's still alive."

"A twin's intuition?"

"You would have come to gloat ages ago if you'd captured or killed him."

He laughs. But nothing follows, no horrible confirmation of her worst fears. Hope flares to fiery life inside her.

"I mean it." She unfolds herself from her corner to watch him more closely. "What will you do?"

Rensai ties off his last feather and meets her gaze. It's dark and unreadable, and Jimaya has the distinct sense of being drawn inward. Her chest tightens with the effort not to look away.

"Would you like the truth," he asks, "or a bargain?"

Jimaya swallows. She doesn't trust him to make good on any sort of agreement, but an explicit illustration of the risk it would take to rescue her would skewer her first prickle of hope in days. She can't stand to hear it. Not in as much horrible, vivid detail as she knows he'll give her.

"A bargain," she says. Rensai smiles.

"If your brother makes it to you alive, I'll escort you both out myself." He gets to his feet. "Would you like to hear the truth as well?"

Jimaya shakes her head and he laughs again.

 

–––

 

"If I have to explain it," he says patiently, as though she's a child, "then you will never understand. You were born into your narrow worldview. Now you stand as its figurehead. You are shielded from reality."

"But we haven't done anything."

"Who is 'we'? You and your brother? Your parents? Your court? Or do you know your history so well that you can account for every moment that's led us to today?"

"No, but––"

"Your position has elevated you too high to see your own responsibility."

"What's your excuse?" Jimaya snaps. "Who are you? No one, and look what you're responsible for. Win or lose, will you be proud that you built your future on the broken backs of innocents?"

"No one here is innocent, Jimaya," he says, but his expression darkens. The way he says her name sends a shiver skittering over her skin. "Our hands are tied. This is a matter of survival. What can we do except follow the script your people have laid down for us?"

Her opening shines like a beacon. She shrugs and folds her arms, leaning back against the wall of her cell.

"You don't seem like the kind of person who can be made to do anything."

She doesn't know what it is, but she can see something in Rensai shift.

 

––––

 

He hasn't brought her dinner in what must be weeks by now, so when he hands it over to her with such a sour expression she knows it must be because he's using the visit as an excuse to avoid some other obligation.

"You're in a mood," she observes.

"I missed you, too."

Jimaya accepts the bowl he hands through the narrow opening at the center of her door. Curry again, thick and heavily spiced. She's secretly grateful – it's almost always hearty enough to put her into a deeper sleep than she usually gets. She watches the set of his shoulders as he leans against the wall opposite her.

"...Do you want me to guess what it is?" she asks.

"There's nothing to guess."

"I bet I can."

"It's not a bet if you have nothing to wager."

"Your father." It's an easy first guess – she knows Counselor Yoren from his visits to the palace on ambassador's business, and now she feels she knows Rensai. Sort of. And there was no way the sulky man in front of her didn't butt heads with his rigidly traditional father every once in a while.

"I'm not entertaining this conversation."

But if that were the case, he could just leave.

"Your chief," Jimaya guesses again, and this time he rolls his eyes. If Rensai didn't like taking orders from his father, he probably didn't relish it from the Chief Archer either. But that doesn't sound like it either.

"A girl?" Jimaya asks mockingly, returning her attention to her meal. Apparently Rensai didn't plan on providing any measure of distraction for her day.

But when he doesn't react her head snaps up again. He's glaring hard at the corner of her door.

"It's not a girl," she says in disbelief. A surge of interest yanks her to a proper stand, her dinner forgotten. No amount of mental acrobatics can bring the image of a heartsick Rensai to life. "You're lying."

"I haven't said anything," Rensai snaps with enough force to confirm precisely what her mind can't picture.

"Who is it? What is she like?" She strains to imagine the kind of woman someone like Rensai would fall for – tall probably, ruthless and whip-sharp clever. Someone with the skill to earn the spotlight and the deference to let him have it instead. Probably worships at his feet. Jimaya swallows a gag.

"It doesn't matter." He runs his fingers through his hair in agitation. "It's not you."

Jimaya chokes in shock and distaste. "Of course it's not me––"

"Oh. Then my father's plan for us never reached your ears," he says, locking his gaze on hers. His expression is unreadable again, the one that runs her through like a spear.

"You're lying," Jimaya repeats, scowling in search of any hint of a tease or trick, but she finds nothing.

"You sound certain."

"I am."

She's not. She wouldn't put it past Counselor Yoren. A union to forge an alliance, one that would have positioned his son in a great deal of power. And if the Counselor ever had put the idea forward, her parents surely would have shielded her from it. The memory of Rensai's handful of boyhood visits to the palace creeps forward, gray and sulky and brief. Rensai's lips twist.

"Eat." He slides down to sit against the wall opposite her, arms balanced on his knees. He doesn't speak to her again even after she hands her bowl back to him.

 

–––

 

"What's it like today?"

A question she asks often. It's one of few she can trust Rensai to answer honestly, since lying couldn't possibly benefit him and the range of possible answers is never exciting enough to embellish. He's theatrical about it anyway. Blazing hot, he said once, and his skin and eyes both shined, so maybe it was. He didn't stay long. Downpouring, he said a few days later. He breathed deeply as though soaking in the scent of rain on rock on her behalf. You can't even see the summit through the cloud bank, and the fog below seeps out into the forest.

"Lovely," he says today. "Fall in full flush."

It makes her ache. She can't decide if she wants the world to stand still or spin on without her, and the thought only makes her feel smaller. "I wish I hadn't asked," she mumbles.

At his next visit, Rensai brings her a fan of autumn leaves, all crimson and gold. Jimaya snarls at him for teasing her and dashes them to the floor.

After he's gone, she strains against the bars and scrapes the leaves back together in her hands. She lays them out in a neat array from darkest to lightest.

 

–––

 

He rakes his hands through his hair. She's never seen him frustrated with her before. It's bizarre.

"I have no idea what you think I've done, so I don't know what you expect me to do to fix it." She rests her chin in her hands, elbows propped up on the bars. "I've been here the whole time."

But that seems to be precisely the problem. He scoffs irritably. "What could you do if I told you? There is more at play here than you realize."

"Only because you won't tell me."

"You've had an entire kingdom to shield you from the realities of war. This should be a familiar comfort to you."

"Realities of war?" Jimaya snaps like a trap. "I am a prisoner of war."

"Yes, and not a casualty," Rensai says darkly.

"Do you want me to say thank you? Is that what you're here for? Thank you, Rensai," she sneers in the most twisted perversion of gratitude she can summon up. "Thank you for keeping me alive for whatever undisclosed reason. Thank you for storing me away until you can figure out some horrible thing to do with me – use me as target practice, lose interest and let me starve to death, wait for my brother to turn up so you can make him watch you kill me––"

Rensai rounds on her with such ferocity that she jerks away in alarm. He grips the bars of her cell, breath quick, sharp eyes searching out some weakness, some crack he can drive a wedge into and break her apart. After this many weeks, there are plenty of targets. She glares back, defiant and terrified and braced against the worst.

But no threat or retaliation comes. He lets his breath out slowly and steps back.

That can't be a retreat. He always has something terrible to say. Even as he shakes his head and disappears down the stone passageway in silence, she's sure he'll be back to torture her somehow. Or maybe he won't come back at all. Maybe he'll turn her back over to the spearmen, or put her back in the rounded cage, the one that's not built for long term stays.

Jimaya wishes she didn't give him the idea to starve her.

Her meal comes anyway while she dozes off her anger and anxiety. She doesn't notice until it's long gone cold.

 

–––

 

"Would you like to come out?"

Jimaya jerks her head up and glares warily from her cot.

"What?"

It's been days since he saw her last but he's still inexplicably annoyed with her: his shoulders are too tense as he rests his forearm on her bars, leaning close against them. Like he knows what casual is supposed to look like but for some reason can't achieve it.

"Would you like," Rensai repeats slower, as though it pains him, "to come out?"

Jimaya can't discern what danger or trick lurks in the question. He might as well ask her if she'd like to take a swim in a dark, bottomless lake. When she says nothing, he sighs impatiently and snatches a heavy keyring from a loop on his belt, jams a key into the cell door, and flings it open. It bangs against the opposite wall with an echo that rattles her bones. Jimaya stares, frozen.

"Well?" he barks.

She gets to her feet. His eyes follow her as she moves to the open door, evaluating. Calculating. But he doesn't block her way.

She steps out.

"If you attack me," he says lowly, just as her veins are thrumming with the electricity of the very idea. She's never been so close to him. "I might lose. Or I might not. But if you try to run, you will become lost. And no one else will be as kind to you as I have."

"You haven't been kind to me."

Rensai's jaw tightens and he turns from her.

"Come on. It'll feel good to stretch your legs."

They don't go far. Around the wide, expansive cavern she's been staring at for weeks or months or who knew how long at that point, then down a side passageway or two, the walls illuminated by flickering torchlight. And much to her aggravation, he's right: it does feel good to be up and about. She notices his long strides and tries to match them just for the challenge of it. Her muscles pine their protest first, then gratitude at the effort.

After some time he flings an arm out to halt her – every part of her goes taut, seized by the impulse to flee in the opposite direction no matter where it leads her. Somehow she traps the feeling in her chest until he relaxes again and beckons her to follow once more. She can't find the strength to ask what he heard. It might break the spell, and he'll realize what he's done and drag her back to her prison.

They cross a pair of heavy metal catwalks spanning impossibly deep chasms before she realizes he's heading back the way they came. She slows. She doesn't want to go back, she wants to get away, to find her brother, to be anywhere but here for a moment longer. Even this momentary taste of freedom was enough to intoxicate her, remind her that she had come from more and she wasn't fated to meet her end here. She couldn't be.

But even this short journey showed her that he's right. She could never escape this mountain without help. She'd be apprehended in minutes and maybe she is better off with him than any of the others. Maybe it's the best she could hope for until someone comes for her or she finds the courage to––

He notices the change in her pace and turns to face her.

"Jimaya," he says softly. He pins her with a grave look. "Don't."

She doesn't. Rensai holds her gaze for a long moment, that deep, searching look of his as though he were trying to see through her. At last he turns away again, and he doesn't speak to her again for the rest of the walk.

She hasn't seen her cell from the outside since the day she was brought there. Somehow it looks even smaller and lonelier than it did even then. Rensai pulls the door open for her and waits.

An invitation to imprison herself.

The cruelty of what he's done crashes over her. Throat and shoulders tight, she strides back inside with her head held as high as she can muster.

She curls up on her cot as Rensai closes the door behind her again. The lock clicks with a dull metallic thunk that hits her like a blow to the ribs.

He's watching her again. She can feel it. She cringes away from it and tightens her body around a sob.

He leaves her be.

 

––––

 

His visits have picked up again, and nearly every time they go for a walk. It gets to the point that Jimaya actually looks forward to the familiar tread of his boots on the stone passageway, which is a complicated snarl of an emotion that she hardly has the energy to untangle. It's stupid and pointless – he only does it to get her hopes up so the next time he can tell her no. She resolves to practice hiding her emotions better. At least then it won't give him as much satisfaction, and the idea of having one up on him makes her feel vindictive and superior. Those moments are hard to come by, and she clings to them when they do.

But her primary project is completing her mental map of the Den. It's difficult: every passageway looks nearly identical until it opens up into some wide cavern or another. That's where Rensai usually pauses, and Jimaya concludes that he's waiting to make sure they're alone before proceeding. Taking prisoners of war out to stretch their legs probably isn't a sanctioned practice. She almost wishes they'll get caught so she can see him get scolded.

Rensai leads her on the same silent route for several trips, a winding circle that loops back to her cell, but eventually he gets bored and branches out a little. Jimaya realizes it when she hears the dull, muffled clang of metal from the far end of a new passageway. The air is thick and warm – maybe the mines are in that direction. She shudders and is glad to turn her back to it. He takes her twice more that way, then never again.

Soon he's visiting nearly every other day, and each time their circle widens just a little bit. He doesn't even ask if she wants to go anymore: he greets her with a nod and his hand already on his keys. He never speaks to her on their walks, but even the conversations bookending the trips have tapered off, too. Jimaya's halfway to curious before she remembers that he almost never has anything pleasant to say anyway. Rensai's only quiet when he's upset. And bad news for him can only mean good news for her.

It's been so long since they've actually spoken that Jimaya startles badly when he curses and shoves her roughly behind him at the mouth of a cavern. She bites back a hiss, then freezes in fear when she spots the flashy orange of Denborn warpaint on the other side of Rensai's arm.

"Diyu," Rensai says smoothly. "Skipping out on training?"

The archer's laugh grates like a blade on a grindstone.

"On my way to the face. Scouts spotted a Tribe flying machine through cloud cover last night."

"It's not like them to hide."

"Your father thought the same, so we––" Diyu's eyes slide past him and widen. Jimaya shrinks back. "Flame's teeth, Rensai! That's not––"

"Ah, yes." Rensai steps aside and gestures blandly to Jimaya. "The Imperial princess."

"But she––!"

"I'm taking her for a walk."

Diyu stares from one of them to the other, then bursts out in another rash of harsh laughter.

"Like a pet!" he crows. "You're as cold as they come, Rensai. Do you thank him sweetly, Your Highness?"

He reaches forward to touch her cheek but Rensai's hand clamps down on his wrist. Diyu's leer vanishes.

"Yes. Like a pet," Rensai says lowly. He tightens his grip and walks Diyu out of the mouth of the cavern, back towards the yawning dropoff beyond. "And do you know me to be generous with my things?"

Diyu shakes his head wordlessly, then yelps when Rensai gives him a firm shake. His heels are nearly at the edge.

"Will you breathe a word of this?"

"No," Diyu gasps. "No, of course not."

"For all intents and purposes, the Princess is already dead to you. Do you understand?"

"Y-yes!"

"Good."

Rensai pats him roughly on the cheek and releases him. Diyu stumbles away from the edge and casts a venomous glare at Jimaya.

"Enjoy it while you can, Princess," he snarls, then turns tail and darts down another passageway.

Rensai waits for the sound of Diyu's footsteps to disappear before his shoulders sag in a sigh. He turns back to her.

"Come along. We should go back."

"I'm your pet, then." A tremor has hold of her throat but she doesn't care. Jimaya curls her hands into fists. "I'm your thing. That's what this is."

"You are my pet, my prisoner, my project, whatever you need to be. We were bound to run into someone eventually and we're lucky it was someone as malleable as Diyu. Now come along, or do you want to be caught by someone with actual sense next?"

She wants to cling to her anger but confusion tugs at her grip. Whatever she needs to be? Not whatever he wants her to be? Everything he said should terrify her but instead all she has are more questions and the odd sense that she's carrying a secret. He starts back the way they came before she can untangle her thoughts. Jimaya has no choice but to follow.

"You said I'm already dead to him," she says quietly. "Are you going to kill me?"

"No."

"No I'm not going to be killed, or no you won't be the one to do it?"

Rensai makes a sound that could be a laugh or another sigh. "You're getting better at asking questions."

The rest of their journey back is silent.

Jimaya pulls her own cell door shut shut. That had to be their last walk. Rensai won't risk it again. Whether it was some sick game like Diyu said, or he was just bored, or he actually was being generous, she can't think of a way that could make continuing worth it for him, least of all if her execution is already scheduled. Her hand is still on the door when he locks it behind her. She can feel the finality shudder through the metal.

"Are you thirsty?"

Jimaya turns and sees that he has a waterskin to his lips. He lowers it and holds it out to her through the bars.

She stares dully at him. Her energy for speculation is long tapped. What she might have questioned weeks ago feels about as reasonable as anything else now, so she nods and takes it. The water is fresh and cool, and she holds it back out to him after drinking her fill. He waves it away carelessly.

"Keep it."

He's never given her leave to ration her own water before. Never afforded her that measure of freedom.

"Thanks."

He doesn't answer, and she's surprised yet again when he drops to the ground to sit with her. It's been a while since the last time – every recent visit has turned into a walk. But before he always drew up a stool or leaned against the wall as though the most casual whim could pull him away. And he almost always has something to do while he visited, some meal to deliver or banal task to finish or pointless argument to start. He never just sat.

She doesn't have the strength to ask. She sets the waterskin down on the table, retreats to her cot, and turns her back to him.

At some point she falls asleep. She doesn't realize she's drifted off until she opens her eyes to find the torches low and her feet cold. She squints through the darkness to grope for her threadbare blanket.

Rensai is still sitting outside her cell.

Jimaya jolts fully awake. How long has it been? She waits, frozen, for him to react to her, but he doesn't move either. The still Den air is eerily quiet.

Slowly she eases out of bed and creeps towards her cell door. He has one long leg extended out in front of him and the other bent to his chest, propping up his forearms. His head is low. Fascinated by her own disbelief, Jimaya presses herself against the bars and peers as far around as they'll allow.

Rensai's forehead rests atop his arms. His hair is pulled away just enough for Jimaya to catch a glimpse of closed eyes and a relaxed brow. His shoulders lift and fall ever so slightly by the gentle roll of his breathing.

Her first instinct is to marvel. Rensai doesn't seem human enough for sleep – he's never even shared a meal with her, not once despite the countless ones he delivered. She's seen him weary before, and he has moods, but so do the winds and tide. That doesn't mean anything. None of that makes him human.

His back is flush with the cell bars. If she wanted to, she could reach out and touch him. Trace the tattoos across his shoulders and down his spine. Feel his heartbeat through his skin. Has she touched him before? Not really, she thinks, because he'd probably be warm and the idea feels foreign to her, like the cool smoothness of a snake's scales might suit him better.

She jerks her hand back and skitters back to bed, heart pounding, and throws the blanket over herself.

When she wakes again, the torches are burning brighter. Morning. Rensai is gone.

 

–––

 

"You lead the way this time."

"Why?"

"I want to see you get lost."

He's lying. She doesn't know how, but she can feel it with the same indescribably sharp certainty that comes with the scent of rain before a storm. He picks up on her suspicion and rolls his eyes. The feeling vanishes.

"If you're not interested, then I won't bother––"

"No, stop it, I'll do it," Jimaya says quickly. "I'm just surprised. After yesterday, I mean. I thought when that archer…"

"I told you, Diyu is a fool. If you lead us to him again, then the same is true of you. No one will be pleased with me if I have to throw him off a catwalk."

Rensai seems back to his usual self, as though he didn't spend half the night asleep in front of her door. The switch is so dramatic that Jimaya's tempted to wonder if she dreamed it.

"Fine. Just don't push me into a pit or something."

Rensai makes no promises as he pulls her door open. Jimaya steps out cautiously, her eyes on him as though he might withdraw the offer. Even the thought of taking the lead sets her alight with a giddy sort of nervousness.

"Do you have everything?" he asks. He always knows how to ruin even the smallest moments.

"You're horrible," she mutters, and sets off without a look back.

Without his shoulders to shape the view in front of her, the sheer size of the Den sends a fresh tremor through her. The cavern ceilings are taller, the catwalks are longer, the gaps are deeper. She never noticed what a strange comfort his presence was until it's conspicuously absent. But his same booted footsteps carry on behind her instead, ushering her forward, and her confidence grows with every turn. The path she's spent weeks tracing over and over in her mind flares to life in front of her – she listens for the hiss of steam or the prickle of rising heat and pauses at every intersection, poised to duck out of sight from Diyu or anyone else. Rensai doesn't speak.

When they reach their turning point, Jimaya's heart begins to pound. They're at their apogee, the furthest she's ever been from her prison. Every other moment here was tinged with disappointment and longing, but she's drawn tight like a wire this time. The air is fresher here. How had she never noticed that before? The heat of the mines is long behind them, the calls of spearmen in training muffled. They haven't crossed a catwalk in ages – the ground must be shallower. Maybe close to an exit.

She could run.

He's right behind her. He's in warrior shape and has eaten properly and sleeps peacefully for more than two hours at a time. Every one of the weaknesses Rensai has carefully cultivated within her for week after agonizing week screams out in terrified protest.

A surge of blazing hope drowns them all out. Jimaya bolts.

She races down the passageway with a frantic burst of wild energy. It's a straightaway, perfect for a sprint. Desperation suppresses the brutal strain on her atrophied muscles, but there's no making up for their lack of strength – she's heavy and slow, every step echoing deafeningly against the curved stone walls. But her footsteps are loud enough that she can't hear Rensai's pursuit. It's like he's not there and never was, none of this ever happened, she's racing down the palace's gleaming halls after Omare and there's nothing at the end of it but a heap of winded laughs, a forgotten argument, and maybe a cup of ginseng tea.

She trips. She cries out as she sprawls over the rough stone floor and pain sears in both her knees and wrists. She scrabbles back to her feet and casts a look backwards, braced against Rensai's hand on her shoulder and a viciously delighted promise in her ear that she'll never see daylight again.

His silhouette cuts a dark gap in the light of the cavern behind him. He's right where she left him.

Jimaya falters, staring back at him. She places one foot behind the other and backs further away, tentative. He still doesn't move. She can tell he's watching her but there's no reading his expression at this distance, least of all at her end of the dim passageway. Even if she could, she's sure it wouldn't help her understand.

There's no time for confusion. She whips around again and tears off with a fresh surge of determination. Eventually the passageway begins to slope gently upward. Light lends texture to the rough tunnel walls, not the yellow glow of torchlight, but sun, white and clear.

When at last Jimaya bursts out of the mountain and into the fresh air, her relief escapes her in a strangled sob. The color is searing bright, more vivid than she can remember and more wonderful than she'll ever be able to describe. Fall in full flush, just like he said. The brilliant foliage blurs as she keeps running, on and on and on, until her legs give out beneath her and the Mountain Den is no more than a dark shadow beyond the trees. She falls to her hands and knees, sobbing, shaking, clutching her hands in the soft soil, and when she collapses exhausted onto her back she's overcome all over again by the first sign of stars between the forest branches.

She lays there for what might be hours. It feels like it takes that long to catch her breath and settle her pulse, but she's long forgotten how to gauge time. The sky darkens to indigo and more stars join their sisters. Her tear tracks have grown stiff on her cheeks. Her throat works uselessly against a swallow. She's so thirsty.

She wishes she'd thought to bring the waterskin.

 

––––

 

He looks different on the battlefield.

His hair is tied back and his body is shielded by armor. The Denborn army roils at both sides, a jeering and vicious mass. In the Den Rensai always seemed invincible. Untouchable. Now here, flanked by allies and armed to the teeth, he just looks vulnerable. Like he actually needs protection.

Jimaya loses sight of him almost immediately. All becomes a teeming swirl of black and color as the two armies clash and bleed into one another, the shouts of each side an indistinguishable cacophony between the collision of armor, fist, and metal. There's almost no telling whose blades she dodges or whom she leaps over in the Imperialists' desperate push forward.

"Down!" comes the warning call, and Jimaya dives just in time for arrows to stud the ground where she once stood. She scrambles to recover but the next call comes incomprehensibly fast.

"Fire!"

"You cause me no end of trouble, Jimaya," Rensai says in her ear.

She's knocked clean off her feet and plowed downhill as a fresh shower of arrows bury their heads in the dirt. She gasps out for breath, dazed and panicked, but Rensai just shakes his hair out of both their faces and staggers to a stand, grinning broadly.

"You must have missed me, to come running back so soon after––"

He stops mid-sentence, his back suddenly rigid, and his smile falters as he collapses to his knees. Horror rushes through Jimaya in a chilling sweep.

Two jet black arrow shafts extend from his back.

Without thinking she dives for him, but he's too heavy: they fall into a heap and slide further downhill until Jimaya manages to get his arms underneath him and help push onto all fours. She holds him there by the shoulders, desperately fighting the panic rising in her chest. His breathing comes quick and labored.

"The fletching," he rasps. "What is it?"

Jimaya barely catches sight of the feathers tied to the arrow shafts over the jagged rise and fall of his breaths.

"Black and yellow."

"Diyu." He chuckles and drops his head. There's blood in his teeth when he looks at her again. "You see? Mercy never gets you anywhere."

His arms threaten to give out from under him but Jimaya pushes him firmly upright again. He hisses in pain.

"Stop it, Rensai, keep it together." She looks frantically around them, desperate for any help, but the Imperial forces have pushed forward. His isn't the only body on the hillside. There's no one to care about another fallen Denborn.

"One narrow escape wasn't enough for you, I see." He's growing heavier in her arms. "Imperialists are so selfish."

She wants to protest again but her throat won't work properly, her hands are shaking on his shoulders, and he takes advantage of her hesitation by pushing her hands away and letting them both fall back against the hill. He leans over her, and his shoulders cut the same shape into the sky as they did in every Den passageway. On every walk they took until she knew enough to guide herself out.

He lays a hand against her cheek. His skin is warm after all. Jimaya's breath stills in her lungs.

He's not unreadable anymore.

"Stay alive," she whispers. "You'll be fine, just stay alive."

He looks like he'd laugh if he had the strength. He settles for a smile.

"I can't be made to do anything."

His eyes drop to her lips. His hand slips from her cheek before Jimaya can speak, and Rensai collapses into the dust.