"You'll take care of them."
"Of course." He pressed his lips to her hand. He gripped tight to keep from shaking. "I promise you."
"And you'll get along with Omare."
"I always have."
Jimaya's laugh was weak but genuine. She tugged on his hand and drew him into a kiss.
"Good." She smiled when they parted. "I just like to hear you say it. Go on, go to bed. Let me rest."
Every cell in Rensai's body resisted. He couldn't tear himself away, couldn't pry his hand from around hers. "I'll bring your tea in the morning," he said tightly.
"Ginseng, if you can." She always said things that way. Like her vaguest preferences weren't the responsibility of a veritable army of valets. Like he wouldn't do everything in his power to deliver on even her most careless request. She smiled again. "I love you."
Rensai's reply caught in his throat. No. She already knew. He'd told her countless times and he'd tell her again tomorrow. Every tomorrow, over and over and over, for as many tomorrows as it took. "My heart," he said instead, and kissed her again. His hand lingered on her cheek until at last he dragged himself to a stand. "Sleep well. I'll be here when you wake."
Jimaya settled contently on her pillows and raised her hand in goodnight. Rensai backed out of the room so he didn't have to turn from her.
Kouda came to the bedroom door at dawn. Rensai didn't need to be woken; he'd hardly slept all night. He looked at her wordlessly. Kouda's ashen face told him all he needed to know.
Omare was already there, on his knees, hunched over the bed, his body mercifully obscuring what Rensai couldn't bear to face. Yujin rested a soothing hand on his shoulder.
"Rensai." She turned when he entered the room and her hand slipped from Omare's shoulder as she moved towards him, arms extended. He'd seen her wear this expression before, but never so deep or so pained. "Rensai, I'm so sorry."
He shook his head stiffly and didn't move from the doorway. They were wrong. Omare was a fool, Kouda was a fool, and Yujin was simply mistaken. Every one of them was wrong. Yujin paused and clutched her hands to her chest instead. Deepest sympathy radiated off her in waves, threatening to stagger him, while whispers gathered in the hall behind. Ministers and courtiers, all there to confirm news, take stock, gather gossip, whatever else they existed to do.
The whispers pressed closer, crowding him, insistent, cloying, until Rensai rounded on them with a snarl.
"I said away!"
He slammed the doors shut in their faces. The hall outside fell silent. It only served to close Rensai further in.
He didn't want to turn around. He didn't want to see.
But Omare sniffed, then shifted behind him and exchanged a few low words with Yujin. Rensai recognized this as the proper moment whether he liked it or not.
Time and fate obviously had little care for what he liked.
He crossed to the bedside. Every detail of the room was gray and muted to him, hazy as though wrapped in a fog. All except Jimaya. She lay still and peaceful beneath the silken duvet, golden hair fanned around her in a too-perfect picture of sleep. One hand had been arranged carefully over her chest, but the other lay at her side, palm up. Omare must have been clutching it. Rensai touched his fingers to hers, imagining for a fleeting second that they might stir and twine gently with his as they had done on so many lazy mornings.
But nothing happened. She was cold.
Rensai swallowed and knelt down beside her, taking her hand between both his. He would warm her up. He would be her hearth and her home, he'd promised her so on their wedding day, the Denborn vows she'd been so generous to adopt. She'd blinked back happy tears and pledged the same.
Omare's stare and Yujin's pity were pressing into his back. He dropped his head.
"Please," he whispered. "Leave me."
Neither protested. They retreated from the room, and when the door shut behind them something in Rensai went out. He slumped over the bed, Jimaya's still hand held to his cheek, and he wept, his own words echoing against the empty cavern of his chest.
How can you leave me?
Kouda must have told the twins.
She'd must have told them to run to him when they saw him, to throw their arms around him and bury their little faces in his neck and hug him tight, because when they tried to squirm out of his grip again they both wore the happy, bewildered look of children who'd done the right thing but didn't know where to look for praise. Rensai's heart heaved. Did they know he was all they had now? Did they know but not understand?
Sayame slapped his leg and shrieked with laughter, clearly hoping to be picked up, while Yaten had become distracted by Rensai's hair and tangled up his inexplicably sticky fingers. Rensai let them go. He could hardly look at them. Their faces beamed with a round-faced, irrepressible optimism that too closely resembled their mother's.
He straightened up and cleared his throat. "Kouda. Can you…?"
He didn't have the words. Luckily the old nanny needed none. Her dismay disappeared under the polish of professionalism as she scooped the twins up in a well-practiced embrace and carried them out into the garden where they'd be easily occupied. Their half-formed, joyful chatter carried even after they'd gone. Rensai ached in a way he knew he deserved.
He'd lost his mother too, when he was young. He'd been older, old enough to feel the loss with acuity if not total understanding. They were lucky they hardly knew theirs. Luckier still if they hardly knew him, either.
"How are you?"
Rensai stared out across the pagoda, taking in little, focusing on less. "Yujin already spoke to me. It's fine. You don't have to do this."
He should have asked back. It was the polite thing to do. However much he'd loved Jimaya, Omare had loved her differently, and for far longer. But reaching for the words felt like scraping the bottom of a hand-dug well. There was nothing there for either of them. Nothing that would sustain them.
"I'm asking anyway."
"Because you relish my suffering."
"If you really think that's how I feel after all this time," Omare began, then sighed and didn't go on. He should sound angrier. Why didn't he? What was wrong with him?
"I didn't tell her." Rensai hid his face in his hand. Warmth streaked from his palm to his wrist before he even realized they were tears. Years ago he would have pitched himself over the palace walls before he let Omare see him in this state. Now he hardly had the energy to notice. "She said she loved me and I didn't say it back. I knew it was a goodbye and I couldn't let her… I couldn't–-"
Omare's silence stood hard and cold opposite him. Rensai didn't care. He'd as soon lean into Omare for comfort as he would a bed of nails.
He startled when a hand squeezed his shoulder. It was gone again before he could speak.
"She knew," Omare said quietly. "I know she did."
Rensai had thought he disliked Imperial funerals until he endured a royal one. Now he was certain he hated them.
Usually the somber mood gave way to reminiscence and celebration after a few hours, a lively and frankly embarrassing expression of appreciation for a life they'd probably never valued enough in the first place. Not so for the royal family. No one asked him what Jimaya had wanted. No one prepared a pyre. That would be done privately, presided over only by monks, and her ashes would be interred in the palace sanctuary alongside her ancestors. Rensai would have no part in it, their children would have no part in it, except to bear witness to a life that belonged to the public before it belonged to Jimaya herself. Before she belonged to Rensai.
He clutched Sayame's and Yaten's hands as hour after hour of memorial stretched on. Omare's voice was tight but steady as he paid his public respects to his now unshared kingdom. The Forest People offered a clear, haunting, elegic song that set many mourners to weeping. One of the Mountain Folk elders recounted the tale of her brief stay with them, the story stretched long and gilded by their oral tradition.
Rensai hardly took in a word.
There were a great many bows and embraces and unmemorable words of condolence when the interminable day finally drew to a close. The children were gone before Rensai even realized his hands were empty again. To bed, probably. It was hours later before he resigned himself to the same.
He stood in their bedroom doorway for what felt like an eternity. She hadn't slept there in some time, not since she'd taken ill. But Jimaya was between every seam of the tatami floor, in every stitch in the duvet, every ivory petal of the lilies she always kept in the vase atop the table. How many mornings had he spent pretending to be sound asleep, arms wrapped around her waist, hopeful that her reluctance to disturb him would keep her close for a little while longer? How many nights had seen him to bed late and exhausted, when he'd collapse beside her and she'd click her tongue and tell him not to work so hard while she took down his hair?
She wasn't coming back.
Sometime later he stood in the doorway of his old cottage instead. Neglect hung heavy in the air. Palace staff still came by every month or so to keep things in order, but it was clear no one had spent more than an hour or two there in years. It wasn't the relief he'd hoped. She was everywhere here too – at the hearth, at the table, about to knock at the door, still in bed.
Rensai trudged inside.
He slept there for several weeks until he could bear to spend his nights in the palace again. He reached for her every single morning.
Yujin used to have more subtlety before she met Omare, but Rensai supposed he'd burned all that out of her like a torch held to a particularly fragrant candle. Their constant flow of tea and meal invitations carried none of the grace or delicacy decorum dictated. When he pointed it out Omare muttered, "You don't pay attention to anything unless it's shoved directly under your nose," causing Rensai to react with a flare of aggravation he hadn't felt in months. It was novel, nearly welcome, but Rensai still declined on principle.
Eventually they took it upon themselves to descend on one of his solitary meals anyway and Rensai didn't have the energy to fight them. But when Kouda arrived with the twins too, he stiffened.
"I'll take them." Omare abandoned his barely touched lunch and got to his feet in a breath, beaming. "Have they eaten already? Good, good." He let Kouda hand off Sayame and jerked his head in the direction of the rock pond. "Come on Yaten, want to count the fish?"
Yaten toddled off after them and the trio settled at the edge of the pond. Yujin was looking on, a faint smile on her lips.
"You want children," Rensai said bluntly.
Yujin coughed and returned her attention to their meal. "We're open to it," she said reservedly, but a blush tinted her cheeks. She darted another fond glance at Omare. "He likes spending time with them very much, you know."
"I'm sure he does. They share the same mental capacity."
"They're at a very fun age," Yujin went on pointedly. Rensai refused to look at her. She was so transparent. She shifted on her knees a little and leaned in closer as though about to tell him a secret. "If you visited a little more often–-"
"They have plenty of capable hands caring for them," he interrupted gruffly. "They don't need mine."
"I know you don't mean that–-"
"Of course I do. Kouda alone is worth four parents."
"Rensai." She laid a gentle hand over his and he froze. "Please. Your father was present for you, always."
"That was nothing but a detriment and you know it," he muttered. He pulled away but felt a pang when Yujin withdrew too, confused and crestfallen.
"But you're better than him."
Rensai scoffed. He shot an accusatory look at Omare and the twins. Sayame was still engrossed with the contents of the pond while Yaten had wandered a little ways away into the nearby garden.
They were fine. If they missed anyone, it was their mother, and if they ever cried for her, someone would come. Someone experienced and compassionate and warm and whole. He swallowed against a constricted throat.
Jimaya asked him to take care of them. And he was.
"Baba," Yaten called from across the garden, looking around. His eyes fell on Omare and he brightened, pointing into the dirt at who knew what.
Omare flicked an uneasy glance at Rensai, then got to his feet to see what Yaten had. "Not Papa," he said quietly but clearly. "Uncle, okay? Uncle." He squatted down to peer at whatever Yaten had found.
"You need to step up. Omare doesn't want to rule alone."
"You mean he doesn't know how," Rensai muttered. The ginseng tea had long gone cold in his cup. He held onto it anyway and thought of Jimaya's hand. "He doesn't want my help."
"You're shirking your obligation to your title."
"Then revoke the title. I won't miss it."
"Lord Rensai," Capo said sharply. Rensai might have snorted if there were any ounce of humor left in him: the court jester couldn't stand calling him that. He must be very serious indeed. "There are a number of things Jimaya handled on her own, and it will take time for Omare to prepare to take them on. The Dynasty would be… grateful. For your assistance."
The Dynasty. A ridiculous Imperial concept. As though the palace itself and every ancestor who had or would ever set foot inside it would weep their thanks for his attendance at a handful of meetings.
"Send me the schedule," Rensai sighed. "But I won't be Omare's secretary."
They worked in silence.
Relative silence, anyway. Omare was restless, prone to shifting and sighing and rustling every page that crossed his desk. Every once in a while he'd have to hand one off to Rensai and he'd draw breath for some kind of sheepish expression of solidarity, which Rensai ignored so pointedly that they always died on sighs instead. Complaining wouldn't make it go any faster.
"Jimaya and I used to split these up and race," Omare said just when Rensai dared hope they might get through the stack without interacting. "These ones that need co-approval were the best. We'd save them for the end –- just when you think you've won, you could end up with ten more."
Rensai's grip on his pen tightened. A barb lingered at the tip of his tongue, something about a careless approach to governance, but the words hung just out of reach, just past the image of Jimaya smiling triumphantly, brandishing a handful of signed pages, and dropping them in front of Omare with a golden laugh.
"Childish," he managed at last, hardly more than a whisper.
Omare heaved another sigh and hunched over his work again. "You're so humorless. Do you know she always insisted you were funny?" He shook his head.
Silence fell again, cut only by the occasional scratches of their reed pens. Slowly the unread pile in front of them shrank until at last Omare slapped the final proposal atop the "finished" stack and threw down his pen.
"Ugh, finally." He groaned as he stretched his arms overhead, then made to get to his feet. "Thanks for the help. I know you're not interested, you don't have to tell me, but we're taking dinner in the southeast hall if–-"
Rensai shuffled a single leaf out from under the stack of rejections. He held it out to Omare, lips pursed and eyes averted. One last co-approval. Omare looked from the page to him, then lit up in an astonished grin.
"I liked it more on the other side of the room," Rensai muttered once the final minister had filed out the door and left them mercifully alone. Omare snorted.
"Well, I didn't. Any low council with you in it was almost certain to be the worst part of my day."
The corners of Rensai's lips tightened. It was a moment before he recognized it as a near smile. It had been some time since he'd come by one naturally.
"Always late, starting arguments with everyone," Omare went on. He was watching him. Rensai tried to thin his lips back to neutral. "Waiting to deliver the most irritating news at the least convenient time. Or – I hated this one – just sitting there until we had to ask what was going on, like you were better than everyone else."
"Only Jimaya thought so."
Something warm took a gentle, palliating hold in his heart. Gratitude. Rensai nearly laughed aloud. Actual appreciation for Omare – he hadn't thought either of them were capable. The question he should have asked months ago was there, simple and uncomplicated, but he'd waited so long to say it that regret prickled inside him. It came out quick and gruff before he could lose his nerve.
"How have you been doing? Without her?"
Without her. It didn't need to be said, but Rensai tested the weight of it anyway. He'd be carrying it with him for the rest of his life. Omare let out a slow and thoughtful breath.
"Terrible," he said bluntly when all the air had gone out of him. "I can't sleep a lot of the time. I feel like every other minute I want to ask her something, and I'll turn to her and she's just not there. And then I'll feel like maybe she's just in the next room, and then I have to remember she's not there, either. Over and over and over again."
So honest. Rensai nearly shrank back from it, like it might be some kind of trap. Whenever someone asked him, he just told them he was fine and spent the rest of the conversation trying to leave it.
"She really was my other half," Omare went on. He looked down at his hands. "I don't think we spent a day apart all our lives until the war. I worried that too much had happened to each of us for us to ever be the same again, and in a way we weren't. But even after that we were still two halves, just a little more complementary instead of identical. Now I just…." He trailed off and shrugged. "I guess I should try to be whole. But I don't want to be, you know? I don't want to not need her."
Rensai could only nod wordlessly. He never wanted to be whole again, either. He would sooner waste away like this, forever reaching for something beyond his grasp, than say he never needed it.
"But that doesn't do any of us any good, does it?" Omare smiled sadly, tinged with a hope and warmth that so closely resembled his sister's that Rensai had to look away. "Least of all her. I think she'd want us to feel what we feel, then move forward. She never wanted any of us to be miserable. Especially you."
He smiled again and got to his feet.
"That's why I like spending so much time with the twins." Omare sighed fondly. "They're like a little bit of her, aren't they?"
"They only just woke up so they may be a bit moody." Kouda was too well mannered to voice her hesitation out loud, but Rensai recognized it anyway. Are you sure?
He gestured and Kouda unloaded the twins into his arms one at a time, their little bodies flushed and warm from their nap. Yaten grumbled but didn't resist. Sayame reached for him, melting seamlessly from one pair of arms to the next. Their weight felt at once foreign and natural as he carried them to a chair and settled down. Yaten squirmed a little and pressed a pudgy finger to the tattoo that snaked up Rensai's bicep.
"Would you like some?" Rensai asked. Yaten hesitated, then recognized the cadence of an offer and smiled. "Would you? Hm?" Rensai hefted him in his grip and Yaten buried his face shyly in Rensai's neck.
"Me!" Sayame announced with no more understanding of the offer than her brother but reluctant to be left out.
"Oh, you?" Rensai turned to her and pressed a kiss to her cheek. "Fearsome thing. What would your mother say?"
Kouda caught his eye from across the room, palms up in a gentle, unspoken offer. Rensai shook his head; he just caught a glimpse of an approving smile as she withdrew.
Sayame gave as big a sigh as her little lungs permitted and settled her head against his chest. Yaten's eyelashes brushed his neck in a lazy blink. Sudden anxiety gripped Rensai's insides – he wished he could call Kouda back. He shouldn't have them. They were too small and too delicate. Too perfect to risk crushing in his ill-prepared hands. Too trusting of a father that had retreated when he should have embraced them, when they were just as alone as he was.
"I'm sorry," he whispered into Sayame's hair. His breathing had thinned and his chest ached with a splintering tightness. "You'll forgive me, won't you? Please." How much forgiveness could one man beg in a lifetime? How much more could he possibly be entitled to?
Sayame swallowed and snuggled closer. Yaten's breath was warm on his neck. Slowly the tension seeped out of him, pulled out bit by bit on a receding tide. And just as slowly, the hollowness he'd carried with him for months began to close. He thought of Jimaya and her fingers twining sleepily with his. Her hands smoothing over weary muscles. Telling him not to work so hard. Telling him she loved him.
In their tiny heartbeats, he felt their mother's too.