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Borderline Suspect

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If there had been a proper moment, Jimaya had missed it months ago. Waiting for the next one was just as risky. But at least the bad moments were easy to identify, like first thing in the morning or immediately after higher court proceedings. Omare hated both, and thrusting him from excessive boredom straight into aggravation could only end in disaster. She was being considerate by not cornering her brother when his mind was blankest. He should be grateful the news was coming from her. She swallowed and set her chopsticks aside.

"I thought you'd want to know—" Jimaya began as casually as she could, but Omare's head snapped up from his lunch and he smiled broadly.

"Uh oh, what's this?" He elbowed their court jester in the ribs – beside him, Capo bridged the gap between indulgence for Omare and respect for Jimaya with a look of polite interest. "Maya's got a confession."

"Not a confession," she said impatiently.

"Cashing in a favor, then?" Omare grinned as he reached for more meat to add to his bowl. "I'm not sitting through that tax hearing for you. You know I'm useless at it and it'll be worse than if we both just skipped it."

"Don't even think about skipping the tax hearing," Jimaya warned him. Maybe this was a bad time she hadn't anticipated – the unseasonably warm air had put him in so good a mood that she couldn't focus his attention.

"That's why we have a Minister of Finance," Omare groaned, "so we don't have to sit through the boring stuff—"

"Rensai's vision has recovered," Jimaya cut him off before she could lose the nerve. "He's expected at low council in the coming days."

Omare's chopsticks froze over his bowl, his playful grimace hardened to stone. He snorted and returned to his meal. "So?"

"So I thought you should be made aware before he strode in and you pitched a fit," Jimaya said, then sat back on her heels, wishing she hadn't framed it so reprovingly. She tried again, gentler. "I didn't want you to seem uninformed."

"And how did you become so informed, hm?" Omare glared into his bowl between bites.

Jimaya hesitated. "I don't want to have this argument again."

"Did he heal overnight?" Omare asked. He shrugged in mock bewilderment when Jimaya shifted uncomfortably. "What? Seems to me like there must have been some kind of miracle if I'm only hearing about this now. Is there a healer that needs a commendation? Should we throw a festival for some fiery Denborn god he's got on his side?"

"You knew he was going to get better eventually. Please don't do this," Jimaya sighed, but her brother slammed down his chopsticks and she jumped.

"While we're on the subject of what we should and shouldn't do, maybe you shouldn't be sneaking off to make friends with slavers," he said angrily. "I assume you're friends, though you seem to share at least one secret with him and I don't know any other pair of friends that goes to such great lengths to conceal simple meetings over tea."

"Sire," Capo interjected, aghast, but Jimaya held up a hand to silence him. Omare knew he'd gone too far: she watched as his anger slid into regret.

"I didn't mean it like that," he mumbled.

"I can't think of any other way you might have meant it," Jimaya said coldly. "My meetings with Rensai may be unescorted but they are not concealed. My valets and Tsulemon alike know exactly where I am and have full confidence in my abilities."

"You know I do, too—"

"But not in my judgment, apparently," she snapped. Heat rose in her cheeks at the accusation. "Not in me."

Omare actually ducked his head. "Not in him!" he protested. "He's a snake, Jimaya!"

"Then you should have insisted we cast him out when you had the chance," Jimaya said imperiously. A childish sadness passed over his face as it always did when disagreements called for that tone of voice. They were twin rulers, but in times like these she was more Empress than he was Emperor. "You can't hand down a pardon with one hand and beat someone back with the other. What kind of example does that set for our people?"

"A pardon is not forgiveness," he said sulkily.

"That's exactly what a pardon is. Act like it. I'm just telling you that his eyes have healed and look what it does to you." Jimaya threw up her hands in exasperation.

"The law can forgive him, but I won't." Omare got to his feet and Capo followed suit, eager to put some space between the twins. "Not until Jeong and Jayu's backs no longer bear the scars from his whip."

Capo swept into an apologetic bow; Omare's expression matched it despite his best efforts to smooth it away, and he let himself be steered from the garden pavilion. Jimaya watched him go, then heaved a sigh and called for more tea.

"I don't know," Rensai said with a careless shrug the next time she visited. The Counselor's son lifted his whetstone to his mouth, spat, and returned to sharpening his knife in long, deliberately menacing strokes. Jimaya huffed from across the table.

"You don't know or you don't remember?"

"There were a great many of them. I didn't make a point of learning their names. Oh, don't look so shocked," he added when he caught sight of the discomfort on her face. "Do you know the name of every ox that plows your fields?"

"They're not livestock, they're your countrymen now," she said heatedly, but it only served to quirk the corners of his mouth. She should have dodged the obvious barb. But her argument with Omare had held her on edge for days and she felt ready to snap like a bear trap at even the slightest provocation. If there was anyone she could take her mood out on without feeling guilty, it was Rensai, and luckily he also had a chance of putting her mind to rest. Not that she counted on it.

"Jeong and Jayu," Rensai mused as he thumbed the edge of his blade for a moment. "I really can't say, but if they claim we put them to work then we probably did. They lived, obviously, or you wouldn't be here interrogating me about it. Clearly it was nothing a strong Imperial back couldn't bear."

"You're not understanding me." Jimaya leaned across the table and snapped her fingers in front of his face. The mocking smirk faded from his lips and he halted his work, scowling at her. "Omare wasn't pleased when I told him you'd healed. He called you a slaver, he said their backs are marked by your whip."

"You're concerned about whether I whipped them?" Rensai asked. "Is that all?"

Jimaya drew back, unsettled as ever by his nonchalant response to the unthinkable. "I want to know for certain."

"Why? Are you planning to revoke my pardon? Is your brother?" He laid his knife carefully aside to pin her with a penetrating look, one she still hadn't grown used to even after months of watching the strength of his gaze return.

"Let me tell you what I'm hearing, Jimaya," he said. He loved ignoring her title as much as she loved refusing to dignify his over-familiarity with a response. "You've chosen a most peculiar time to tell your brother that I have made a full recovery, which, knowing him, resulted in a very childish overreaction. You've latched onto his accusation that I whipped two of his prized pets – warriors," he corrected himself when Jimaya opened her mouth to interrupt, "because you need an excuse to reject me after months of frequent and likely indecent meetings."

She'd expected a self-satisfied smile, but his eyes had grown narrow and calculating. "I don't need an excuse to reject you," Jimaya sneered. "You give me plenty of reason every time you open your mouth. I don't need to tell you that nothing indecent has happened here."

"Of course not," Rensai conceded smoothly. "But I suspect there are some out there that interpret things differently. Why else would you run straight to me to verify your brother's claims?"

"I didn't run straight to you," Jimaya said, lifting her chin. "Omare and I spoke about this days ago."

The news didn't deter Rensai, and in fact he only appeared more interested. "I expect the schedule of an Imperial Empress is most difficult to manage," he said carefully. "You must not have had time to tell him I was making a recovery until then, either."

"I didn't tell him because I didn't want to put up with his reaction until absolutely necessary," Jimaya snapped, "and I'm beginning to see why he feels so strongly."

"You can admit that you dislike discussing our little meetings with others. I won't be offended." He leaned forward as though offering a confession. "I enjoy sharing this secret with you."

"Enough, Rensai," she said, wrinkling her nose in distaste while he sat back with a laugh. "I was happy to take away your treasured element of surprise. Don't pretend you weren't looking forward to some kind of dramatic reveal at court one day. I know you can't resist it."

"You deliberately sabotaged something you thought I might enjoy?" His eyes moved over her face with something like pride. "Perhaps I'm rubbing off on you."

Jimaya's stomach tightened to match her shoulders. "I said enough," she repeated before her hesitation could seal his victory. "I'm not here to discuss your pathetic craving for attention, I'm here to discuss your crimes against your fellow Imperialists – don't roll your eyes at me," she commanded even as he was halfway through the motion. She rose up onto her knees, forcing him to look up at her. "As your empress, I demand that you answer the claim my brother lays at your feet."

"What claim? That I was a slaver?" Rensai scoffed, finally betraying a flicker of aggravation. "If that's what he insists on calling it. We captured them, we held them, we put them to work. You know this. And if they didn't work, yes, they were whipped."

"By you?"

"Among others, all of whom received your pardon long ago. Some posthumously. Will you carry on accusing me simply because I'm the only one left alive to speak in my defense? You know I'm not proud of it."

The fate of the late Chief Archer was clearly not a point Rensai cared to linger on. Danger lurked beyond that too, in what Jimaya could only interpret as a reference to his father's more recent passing. The playfulness was gone from his eyes now, replaced by something dark and challenging. It warded her away from pushing him further. Instead she stood from the table and strode to the hearth to check on the heating water: infuriatingly, only the sparsest bubbles of a simmer had begun. The metallic slide of blade on stone resumed behind her.

"Tell me what has gotten you in such a snit, Jimaya," he said. It might have sounded kind if the offer didn't arrive in the wake of an admonition of repeated abuse. "No part of what I have done is news to you. Why did it take you days to come to me?"

Jimaya was grateful for being so close to the fire: this time her face did burn red. Omare often forgot that the Forest People's stance on committed relationships hardly resembled their own. Even worse, he often forgot how that particular cultural difference grated against her. There was a reason Lady Yujin had a title and Tsulemon was just a consort to the empress. Not titled, but labeled. Like "paramour" but never "partner." Jimaya constantly straddled the gap between trusting Tsulemon's love and setting aside the bitter certainty that he kept others' company while at home in the Forest. It was his people's way, and she believed him when he said it never diminished his feelings for her. To demand anything more from him would be to undermine the unity and respect they'd fought so hard to preserve at the end of the war.

But she wasn't foolish enough to think her comings and goings from Rensai's cottage wouldn't make her the subject of gossip. She told herself she didn't care: she was setting an example of acceptance and forgiveness. She had the faith of her people. She'd just hoped she could count on Omare for the same. She couldn't face her brother's accusation and then run straight to Rensai as though chased along by her own guilt.

"Tax hearings," Jimaya answered, the first thing that popped into her head. She stared at the kettle, willing the water to boil.

"And has your Firefly Boy flitted back from the forest yet?"

Tsulemon's epithet sounded so graceful when spoken by his people but ridiculous in Rensai's harsh Denborn accent. "He's due back in the next few days," she mumbled.

"Ah. Dull meetings and a cold bed can sour even the sweetest among us."

She wished he wouldn't comment on the state of her bed. The fire was beginning to grow uncomfortably hot against the thick silk of her winter robes, but still she remained there, letting the heat and crackle of flame dim the thoughts that nagged her. A hand came to rest on her shoulder, thumb brushing the exposed skin beside her throat, and Jimaya jumped.

"Go sit back down before you catch fire," Rensai said from too close behind her. "I will prepare this if you're so impatient."

Jimaya didn't care much for Denborn tea. The taste was too strong and it was served cooler than she would otherwise prefer, but in this case it was an advantage: if they didn't wait so long for the water, the sooner she could leave without seeming impolite or uncomfortable. She ducked out from under Rensai's touch to retreat to the table.

When he returned he spared a moment to rearrange the teaware between them. The Denborn tradition was as odd as the tea it produced, almost crude in its informality compared to the way Jimaya had been taught. But when she looked closely, she could see that Rensai only used his thumb and middle finger to handle the cups, only served with his right hand, only presented Jimaya with her tea when the liquid had gone still and the steam had grown thin. These were the moments she visited for, the brief snatches of time that he wasn't mocking her brother or sharpening a knife just for the look of it. This sharing of tradition was why she'd insisted on union instead of exclusion at the war's end.

She could have done that with anyone from the Mountain Den. It didn't have to be him. The thought nagged at the back of her head in a tone that too closely resembled Omare's.

Jimaya quieted the imagined reproach with a murmur of thanks. The strong, bitter tea left her sucking her tongue after she swallowed. Omare surely would have despised it if he ever bothered to try it, but Jimaya had given it several chances by now. Much like the server's company, each time it tasted just a little less acrid than the time before.