Actions

Work Header

Borderline Suspect

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

There were bound to be some unpleasant faces at court that morning, and the thought of every one of them brought an extra swagger to Rensai's step as he breezed through the Imperial palace's inner gate. He'd taken this route many before but never in such vivid detail: the curved entryways trimmed with gold, the vaulted ceilings held up by column after towering column, the forbidding outer gate held permanently open in typical Imperial confidence – all of it stood sharp and clear for the first time.

Well, the second.

But architectural feats aside, the detail he treasured most was the look shared by every pair of guards he passed. Jimaya may have warned her brother about his full recovery, but news didn't appear to have trickled down to the rank and file. The guards stiffened, too professional to gape at Rensai's missing walking stick and blindfold but too wary to keep their eyes forward as he strode by. Rensai soaked it in like sunlight and tossed his hair over his shoulder.

A hand to his chest cut his momentum off at the knees just as he arrived at the eastern meeting hall.

"Allocations have finished for today," the officer said gruffly. His eyes were sharpened by the same mistrust shared by his fellow lapdogs. Rensai smiled and brandished the wax-sealed scroll he'd brought along.

"That's unlikely, as I haven't received mine."

"The Emperor has already advanced the agenda—" the officer began, but Rensai barked a laugh and sidestepped him to kick the door open. It swung wide revealing an intimate meeting hall packed full with nearly two dozen people. Every face in the room snapped to him, the buzz of courtly chatter dead on their lips.

"Ah, you see? They're awaiting me." He strode into the hushed room, and the crowd scrambled to part and give the twins a better view of the latecomer. At the very center of the throng, behind a low desk piled with scrolls and papers, knelt Emperor Omare and Empress Jimaya. Rensai swept into a deep bow and a broad smile. Jimaya rolled her eyes; Omare looked ready to snap his calligraphy brush between his fingers.

"I see the rumors are true," Omare said loftily. "Congratulations on such an… unexpected recovery."

"Thank you, my Emperor." Rensai only just swallowed back his laugh. Such a commanding tone hardly suited the young king.

"We've moved on for the day. Come back tomorrow, and on time, and we might consider your petition."

Rensai took it in stride. "My apologies. I was admiring your splendid palace. The reconstruction has produced a true feat of wonder."

An uncomfortable murmur rippled through the attendants at the reminder of the prior year's siege. Apparently his father's machinations were still front of mind. But before Omare could gather his wits enough to retort, Rensai approached the desk and dropped his scroll atop the heap.

"Plans for the upcoming Midsummer Festival," he said. "Your engineers will repurpose the structure I created for your coronation. The plans are included, as is a requisition for six further barrels of firepowder. I'll be able to lend a stronger guiding hand this time, and I think you'll find that the complexity of the plans necessitate it."

He watched for Omare's reaction with unconcealed interest. He looked older than Rensai remembered, which came as a bit of a disappointment. He'd always imagined Omare too small for full emperor's regalia, as though the only way he could rule was by playing dress-up in his father's old things. At least the nuance of Rensai's offer didn't appear lost on him: to accept the petition would be to accept Rensai's lateness and therefore his disregard for the meeting; to reject it would be to take a childish stance against something that existed only to bring happiness to the city.

"We accept your petition for review, Rensai, but discussion will wait," Jimaya cut in. Rensai turned a sharp look in her direction. "We will consider your request and you will receive a written response in due time."

"Written?" Rensai repeated irritably. Was stealing the surprise of his recovery not enough? "There is only so much time—"

"And we value timeliness," Jimaya assured him with a sweet smile. Beside her, Omare was grinning like an idiot, content as ever to be saved by his sister. "You may go."

Rensai skipped the requisite bow before stalking from the meeting room in a huff, leaving more murmurs from the assembled sycophants in his wake. He shoved the officer posted outside the door out of his way as he passed. What a wasted visit. Of course Jimaya would find some clever way to trim him back just as he began to flourish. He could have created more of a stir by forgetting to plan the firework display entirely – at least then his most recent memory of that insufferable infant emperor wouldn't feature a moronic smirk.

That was decidedly not how he had hoped to reacquaint his mind with the image of Omare.

Guards bristled at the clip of his pace but he carried on unimpeded, not back towards the main gate but further east instead. Each step worsened his mood. The palace was beautiful: every splendid tapestry hung heavy with Imperial excess, every polished floorboard gleamed with self-importance. If the archers had done their job properly, all of this would be ash and he wouldn't have to suffer the aggravation of being dismissed from meetings by a boy playing at royalty.

The thought slashed through him and even he recoiled from its edge. "Unbecoming," Jimaya would have called it in the crisp, cool tone of hers that more plainly stated "ungrateful." And she would be right. Guilt layered over his aggravation and muted it into a sulk.

He threw open the only door at the end of the hall – at least that granted him a satisfying bang as he stormed through. But he came to an abrupt halt as soon as he realized he'd stepped not into another elegant hallway but into a wide stone garden instead. High whitewashed walls framed the simple, tidy space. Carefully pruned trees sprung up from palest gray gravel, and though it was still too early in the season for leaves, tiny golden buds studded the tips of their brittle branches. The anger he held in his chest dissolved a bit despite himself.

"Rensai?"

The moment to react came and went. He hadn't planned for this or even dared hope for it – he'd shoved the possibility as far from his mind as he could.

Chest tight, he turned.

Yujin was so unchanged. His insides wrenched at the pain of it, so acutely that she might as well have run him through with a spear instead. He could only stand there, arrested by the curious interest that lit her face, and she spared him the insurmountable challenge of moving closer by crossing the delicate gravel path on her own.

"It is you! I'd heard your vision was on the mend but I hadn't expected to see you recovered so soon."

Yujin beamed and Rensai wondered how the garden resisted bursting into immediate bloom. So many sleepless nights had been for nothing: he'd completely failed to preserve her as perfectly in his memory as she existed in reality. Her copper hair lifted in the chilly breeze and she pulled her robes tighter against it – long folds of gold-trimmed Imperial white. The sharp air had brought color to her cheeks rather than a blush, but the effect was the same and Rensai was utterly disarmed. Instinct came to his rescue and he reached for her hand, raising it to his lips.

A fan rapped him hard on the wrist and he jerked back, yanked from his haze.

"It is customary to bow before Lady Yujin."

Rensai turned and stared at the nanny as though she'd just appeared out of thin air: his mind had filtered out every unnecessary detail the moment he'd heard Yujin's voice. But the memory clicked into place after a moment. This woman was familiar. She'd been in his mines, one of their final captures. Recognition must have shown on his face because she faltered, unsettled, and he felt the advantage shift to his side.

His confidence surged back in a rush and he bent into a kneel before Yujin, one hand over his heart. It wasn't a greeting befitting an Imperial consort: this was for a Chief of the Mountain Den.

"Of course." He glanced up and was pleased to find the nanny looking deeply uncomfortable. She took a step back as he rose to his feet again. "It's been so long, Yujin, but I'm afraid I still have one or two habits left to adopt."

"I won't hold my breath for that." It came on a laugh but the surprise of their meeting echoed with unmistakable tension. Yujin dropped her gaze; he watched her throat work as she swallowed.

A formal distance stood between them, one Rensai knew and adored and had been happy to close for her on so many occasions. But the third in their chance gathering was brandishing her fan like a weapon. The single step forward it would take to bring Yujin into his arms seemed about as threatening as drawing a knife on her. He burned with resentment. This should be a moment shared by two, not infiltrated by some nameless, hypercritical nanny.

"I delivered my plans for the Midsummer Festival this morning," he offered. "I think you'll be pleased."

"I always am," she said, brightening a little. "You'll have to stay for the show this time – it's your first chance to see your work come to life."

"If it's at the request of a Lady, then I'm powerless but to obey."

He'd intended it to sound suggestive, but even he heard the touch of a sneer that tainted the way he pronounced her title. Yujin's smile became fixed. The nanny pounced on the opening.

"My Lady, we must mind your schedule," she clucked, her glare still locked on Rensai. He called up every memory of her he could reach: exhausted, half-frozen from her forced march down the mountain, thrust into the heat and toil of the mines. The thought of Jimaya's accusation followed and he wondered if this nanny had been whipped too. In that moment, he hoped so.

"Don't delay on my account," he said, meeting her scowl with a faint curl of his lips. "I remember how seriously you take the tasks set to you."

The nanny swelled with anger but Rensai refocused his attention on Yujin, softening. "I'm glad to see you well," he said with earnest. "I'm glad to see you at all."

"Likewise," Yujin managed with some difficulty, as the nanny was now ushering her bodily from the garden. She lifted a hand in farewell and Rensai caught one last glimpse of a smile before she disappeared into the palace, leaving him to exhale in a rush. He calmed his shaking fingers by raking them through his hair.

Time may not have smoothed away every apprehension, but it had healed her enough to gift him with a smile rather than scorn. Their recent interactions had been so few – most meetings had been by chance, half the time they included Omare, and then Rensai always excused himself quickly before he could become rude, sick, or both at once. But just to see her again, whole and healthy and happy. For so many months he'd feared his last memory of her would be the expression on her face as her father disappeared over the edge of a cliff.

As ever, Yujin was a hundred times more than he deserved.

Rensai lingered in the garden until midday had long passed and hunger drew him homeward. This time he didn't notice the garish Imperial palace, the guards, or even the familiar path to his cottage. Instead the same thought replayed in his head over and over, unshakable in its perfect detail: what might have happened if they'd been alone, if he'd dared, if she'd allowed it, if he had placed a hand at the small of her back and drawn her close against him.

Chapter Text

"Now look – do you see how fine and fragrant the steam is? They dry it in just such a way that—" Jimaya cut her excited explanation off and frowned. "Are you listening?"

Rensai cleared his throat and blinked. "Yes, intently."

"The Forest People went to a lot of trouble to send this tea at this time of year. The least you can do is pretend to appreciate it." She sat back on her heels. He'd been in an uncharacteristic haze since she'd arrived: it was easy to recognize distraction in someone who usually took such pleasure in weaponizing intense focus. He hadn't even pointed out that Tsulemon hadn't delivered the tea himself. That kind of opportunity for mockery didn't pass Rensai by often.

"My apologies, I do appreciate it. Please go on." He gestured at the setting between them but Jimaya shook her head.

"Just drink, it doesn't matter."

She lifted her own cup and inhaled. The nutty, earthen scent seemed to wrap her up in its warmth, soothing and lingering, and it steamed away the finer wrinkles of her annoyance. She drank, lowering her cup just in time to see Rensai do the same, his eyebrows raised in vaguest interest.

"Not bad."

"Of course it's not bad, it's a summer harvest! If you saw the lengths they go to in order to preserve this properly, even you'd have more praise," she said. But Rensai hardly reacted apart from a nod of acknowledgement, another sip, and by the time he'd placed his cup back down on the table Jimaya had already run out of patience.

"What is it? Is this about the written response? I told you it would be approved and it has been, so I can't think of what might have made you so distracted."

"I'm never distracted, Jimaya, least of all when you come to visit," he said with the curling smile she disliked the most.

"Oh, stop it. Your mind is elsewhere and you'll forgive me for my suspicion, given your track record."

That got a snort out of him and he turned his cup between thumb and middle finger.

"I am adjusting to the Imperial pace of progress," he said after a beat. "Between sitting through your meetings and grappling with your ridiculous engineers, things are moving much slower than I predicted."

"You don't have to attend every low council meeting," Jimaya pointed out.

"Ah, but where else will I get the chance to watch your brother stumble his way through basic governance?"

"You don't have any friends in that room and you're not going to make any if your conduct doesn't improve," she said.

"You're a friend," Rensai pointed out silkily. Jimaya ignored him.

"Don't think we don't see you roll your eyes every time Omare speaks."

"I know you do."

Jimaya shrugged and took up her tea again. "I'd hoped you were clever enough to draw a connection between a decent impression and the increased presence in court you're apparently after, but I guess you're stupid after all."

Rensai gave a haughty sniff. "My work speaks for itself."

"Then you can keep your mouth shut," she said sweetly.

This time he tucked an amused smile behind another sip of tea. A tiny, unbidden thrill in her stomach only had a moment to flicker to life before it was overtaken by a wave of revulsion. No, no, absolutely not. She wouldn't even reward the reaction with further thought.

But he did keep his mouth shut, and they fell into silence as their little tea meetings so often did. Usually it was a mutually comfortable quiet, though this time Jimaya found herself fidgety and distracted, first by whatever might have been preoccupying Rensai's thoughts and now by whatever ridiculous instinct had dredged up that momentary flutter in her gut. That made two jittery teas in a row, and on neither occasion could she blame particularly high caffeine in the brew.

"Your Minister of Culture – what is her name again?" Rensai asked suddenly. Jimaya blinked in surprise.

"Yuuga." Her mind flew to Rensai's eyes on the Minister's long, graceful limbs and ebony hair but she quickly stifled that thought, too.

Rensai nodded, his brow furrowed. "Do you think she'd give up a dozen or so of her dancers?"

"For what?"

"A group romp," he said dryly, making Jimaya choke on her tea. He snickered while she coughed through it, glaring at him through watering eyes. "For the festival, obviously. I have something in mind for them."

"Well, I invite you to ask," Jimaya sneered. "Minister Yuuga is very protective of her dancers' time and she won't want anyone with too much talent to while away the hours watching you blow things up."

"Lovely. Next low council meeting, then."

"That's awfully presumptuous of you—"

"And if one or four of them happen to take a liking to me, well," he shrugged lazily.

"You're repulsive," Jimaya grumbled.

But Rensai did get his dancers. Not his full dozen, but ten of them, all apprentices, and he had the sense to thank Yuuga for her generosity even if it wasn't exactly what he had hoped. Jimaya had counted on her minister for a swift rejection, but to Jimaya's irritation Yuuga pushed her hair over her shoulder imperiously and warned him that if any one of them returned with so much as a singed hem, she would personally set his entire cottage aflame. Such a casual threat of ruinous destruction evidently resonated with Rensai: he agreed to her terms with an easy smile and a humble bow of his head.

"You look sour," he said with a smug glance at Jimaya as the close of that day's meeting. She made herself busy by needlessly gathering scrolls to hand off to her valets. "It's no surprise that two artists such as ourselves would be attracted to innovation."

"Systematically lighting things on fire isn't art," she said.

"Not it anyone's hands but mine," he agreed.

Chapter Text

Capo didn't object when Omare requested that he begin attending low council meetings, nor did he spend much time wondering why once he noticed the Counselor's son had started making more frequent appearances. Sharp looks and leering smiles were one thing, but now it seemed Rensai had become bold enough to voice offhand requests and opinions alike, and it had all become too much for the young emperor's liking. On more than one occasion Capo had been forced to shove Rensai from the room when his constant scoffing began to derail the agenda. In those moments the cool, easy veneer burned away once the doors closed behind them, and Rensai would throw Capo's hands off him with a hiss.

"How fitting that a clown serves as footman for a joke of a ruler," he spat once. Capo helpfully pointed out that if only Rensai had the delicate talent for communication that his late father had possessed, maybe he wouldn't have such trouble with the Imperial engineers and he could run his project without the intervention of the low council. Rensai had sulked and smoldered at the comparison.

It was true that there were whispers of unease from the engineers. With Rensai's sight restored, he'd been able to deliver a set of plans far more complex than he'd ever provided in the past. While the festival promised to be a spectacle, bringing the vision to life also called for Rensai's hands on the project, a caveat that had proven difficult to negotiate. He used to map out his plans by description only, leaving the engineers to complete the picture with only his word and haphazardly scrawled notes as their guides. Now they shared the burden of work, locked in the hot workshop for hours on end while Rensai barked instructions and cast a critical eye on their every move. The engineers were comprised of Imperialists by birth and by adoption – some were Rensai's former countrymen, and they didn't look back on their shared lineage too fondly. Capo understood their shame: passed from one master to the next, the Denborn resented taking orders from Rensai after his father had led them so far astray. For his part, Rensai dismissed them as traitors and fools. It didn't create a particularly productive atmosphere in the workshop.

So Capo was put on watch. He was happy to do it. He knew Rensai's wiles better than the average guard and he wasn't blinded by dishonor like the Denborn. Even better, he welcomed any opportunity to rough Rensai up a bit: like Omare, Capo hadn't forgotten his capture and imprisonment. He knew how close he'd come to becoming fuel for Rensai's horrific mill. He saw it in Rensai's eyes whenever the Counselor's son looked him up and down, as though he were imagining the fate he thought Capo deserved had destiny taken their lives in a different direction. It was then that Capo usually cuffed him in the head.

"They're long gone, leave me in peace," Rensai grumbled one evening, his eyes on his work when Capo lingered in the doorway of the otherwise empty workshop. He was bent over something flammable and sinister-looking, as was typical, and Capo slammed the butt of his spear on the ground to get his attention.

"It's after hours and you're not permitted to be in here alone," Capo said when Rensai scowled. His gaze lingered only for a second before he returned to his work.

"Ah. I thought you were here to scold me about the one that caught fire. I should have expected Imperialists to set a hard time limit on progress – the pace of the city wall's reconstruction is evidence enough. You'd be due for another siege if there were anyone left in the world that you hadn't already subjugated."

"What caught fire, Rensai?" Capo asked dully.

"No one. Nothing," Rensai corrected himself. The twist of his lips told Capo seamstresses would soon be working overtime to double-fireproof the garments for the engineers on this project. "I wasn't aware I was under curfew."

"You're not an Imperial Engineer—"

Rensai snorted. "I give thanks for that every day."

"—and as such you're not entitled to free rein of the workshop at all hours of the night," Capo finished through gritted teeth. "Move along. I'd rather not play nanny to a grown man."

"I'd rather you didn't, either. Why don't you send the twins' nanny instead? She and I get along well. I'm sure she'd welcome the chance to work beside me again."

Capo's blood flashed hot. He remembered how long it had taken poor Kouda to recover from her time in the mines, however brief her stay had been. She'd clung to her palace duties more fiercely than ever, even as her hands shook and her fan whipped open reflexively at the slightest hint of hot weather, as though she could beat away the memory of the burning heat and smoke of the Mountain Den. Mentioning Kouda was an intentional jibe. Capo bared his teeth and strode forward to yank Rensai bodily from the workshop, spear gripped tight in hand.

Rensai reacted quickly, bringing his hands together in a sharp little gesture over his workbench: only then did Capo realize Rensai had been concealing a flint. Capo ducked, arms raised over his head just as a spark flared and a thin needle of flame shot towards him. The firework split mere feet from his face, each blazing half whizzing away to burn up in opposite directions before they could do any harm. Capo leapt to his feet again, seething, and bounded forward to seize Rensai by the collar.

"You see? A breakthrough," Rensai rasped, his smile unshaken by Capo's hand at his neck. "If you'd interrupted me an hour earlier, those dreadlocks would be ablaze—" But Capo jabbed his spear at Rensai's throat, the bladed tip a hair's breadth from meeting its mark, and all signs of amusement vanished.

"I'm shocked to find you eager to fight after such a lucky recovery," Capo growled. "Are you willing to bet on a second?"

Rensai's gaze hardened. Though Rensai was taller, Capo was stronger and far more agile, and the sudden rush of anger had made him hungry for the chance to prove it. But he let Rensai go with only a rough shake and a push towards the door, his spear still lowered in silent challenge. Rensai wisely didn't take him up on it. He paused only to snatch up the mess of notes that scattered the workbench before stalking to the door. Its slam echoed through the cavernous workshop.

Capo glanced over his shoulder at the massive metal structure that would eventually become the festival's centerpiece. Already it was almost unrecognizable from the twins' coronation. Unlit and unfinished, it loomed with an alien rigidity at odds with its twisting, curved arms. The mill in the mines came to mind again and Capo shivered to free himself from the memory. He found a satisfying relief in locking the door behind him.

Chapter Text

The fun of low council meetings had begun to wear off over the passing weeks. Now that Rensai actually had progress to report on, he couldn't arrive late or irregularly, which was a shame. He'd relished the looks on the court's faces whenever he strode in at his leisure, and even when the jester ushered him out on those few occasions, at least he'd left knowing he'd broken up the monotony. But not anymore. He mostly lingered on the edges of the throng of adoring nobles and ministers, idly thumbing the calluses on his hands and interjecting a comment here or there to remind the assembled how completely moronic they all were. The Minister of Agriculture had so much trouble reporting on predicted rice yield that Rensai was shocked the entire kingdom didn't starve.

But every once in a while Yujin attended, and it silenced him completely. He became deaf to all conversation in a room as soon as she entered it, which was almost a gift on this particular day because Yuuga had nothing but criticism for his handling of her dancers. Eventually he tore his gaze away from the way Yujin folded her hands in her lap.

"I assure you, there is nothing unsuitable about their practice environment," he sighed. He'd counted on Yuuga to trust his vision and she'd gone along with it for the first few weeks, but that had turned out to be a gross overestimation of her faith in another person's creative process. Or maybe just his.

"I offered you two hours twice a week," she went on, "which is exceedingly generous based on the choreography they have presented to me. And yet they trudge back near midnight, too tired to apply themselves to their real training in the morning."

"You granted me apprentices," Rensai said with a shrug. "Presumably their endurance will build with time."

"They are not yours to mold!"

"If you take issue with the way I conduct the development of this project, Minister, my workshop door is open to you. We're accepting all manner of visitors these days." He shot a pointed glare at Capo, who had the audacity to cock his head in a winning smile. Omare cut in.

"Rensai, stop abusing Minister Yuuga's dancers. You'll release them after two hours as scheduled or you won't work with them at all. Next order of business."

Nothing set a spark to Rensai's temper like a dismissal from Omare and he crossed his arms over his chest with a snort, determined to tune out the remainder of the pointless meeting. Beside Omare, Yujin offered him the tiniest wincing smile. His anger evaporated on the spot, and just as quickly her gaze had flicked away again. It would be worth it. No matter the bureaucratic tedium and needless scolding that led up to it, she would adore the presentation.

Rensai barely had the chance to savor the moment before the meeting was interrupted by a blast of a horn from the front gate. All attendants' eyes snapped to the door but Jimaya was already on her feet, halfway through the door in a flash of crimson robes. Yujin glanced knowingly at Omare, then leaned in to whisper in his ear: his face lit up and they got up to rush after Jimaya with Capo in tow. Whether the others knew what had excited the royal family or whether they were just pretending, the rest of the room clearly thought it best to mimic the twins' excitement and follow. They streamed out of the room in a rare demonstration of urgency, leaving Rensai to trail behind them. He knew that horn, and so he knew there would still be plenty to see if he took his time.

Ministers and guards alike gathered at the palace door, choking the entrance, but Rensai could see over their heads with a slight crane of his neck. Jimaya, Omare, Yujin, and Capo had paused in the middle of the square. Even from this distance Rensai could tell Jimaya was delighted: she gripped her brother's hands, bouncing on her toes, and whatever she was saying to him was cut off by a gasp when two dozen brilliantly colored birds soared over the palace's outer wall.

The Forest People were unmistakable in their entrance: they strode through the gates in a bright, bejeweled throng, all yellows and greens and beaming smiles, arms held wide. At the very center was Jimaya's Firefly Boy, and unable to bear the wait any longer, she dashed across the square and flung herself into his arms. Tsulemon spun her around, his robes a swirl of glinting gold, and kissed her. Omare and the others were soon enclosed in joyful embraces of their own as the rest of the Forest People met them in the middle of the square, ruffling Omare's hair, taking playful jabs at Capo, and returning polite, bobbing bows from Yujin. Closer to Rensai, the guards shifted uncomfortably, still not quite used to the Forest People's enthusiasm for physical affection.

"Prepare a feast!" Omare declared to the cheers of the assembled. "A feast for the return of our friends!"

Valets scattered to their stations either to prepare the night's festivities or join in the welcome party, affording Rensai the opportunity to slink through the crowd and make his escape. He'd nearly reached the gate when--

"Kunzé, friend!"

Rensai cringed. Very few Forest People would bother to address him in their own tongue, and only one among them would call him 'friend.' He turned, lips tightly fixed in his best approximation of a smile.

"Ah. Tsulemon. I didn't see you there."

The Firefly Boy let out a booming laugh and was on him in seconds, Jimaya still fused to his side. He wrapped his free arm around Rensai and squeezed tight enough to crack a rib.

"That is a joke, isn't it? Look at you – where is your stick, your blindfold?" Tsulemon didn't wait for an answer before pressing kisses to both Rensai's cheeks. Rensai yanked back as quickly as possible; on Tsulemon's other side, Jimaya had her hands clapped over her mouth to keep herself from exploding with laughter.

"I forgot them this morning," Rensai said dryly, peeling himself out of Tsulemon's embrace, but the Firefly Boy only redoubled his grip with another rumbling chuckle.

"Ah, Rensai, how favorably fate has shined. My blessings to you, friend. I am glad for you."

"Yes, well unfortunately I was just leaving—"

"Oh, but you'll come back for the feast, won't you?" Jimaya piped up. She'd carefully arranged her features to resemble innocence, but as always she was comically easy to read: Rensai's look of utter disgust nearly cracked her façade.

"You must, I insist," Tsulemon said with a firm nod as though he had influence over any part of Rensai's life. "You look like you need it – always so thin."

"I'm afraid I'm quite busy, and Jimaya's ministers have kindly diminished my few productive hours already today."

"Don't worry about that, you have seventeen days to go." Jimaya waved a hand dismissively, but Tsulemon frowned.

"Fifteen, sunflower."

Jimaya blinked. "The festival is in seventeen days," she repeated. "In line with the solstice."

Rensai glanced between them, then took advantage of Tsulemon's suddenly looser grip to wriggle free. He slipped away just as Jimaya's face was falling.


A lovers' quarrel was the perfect distraction from the invitation Jimaya had issued specifically to annoy him. The entire retinue of courtiers were certain to be in attendance – he wouldn't be wanted there any more than he wanted to be there himself. Though he'd been making a concentrated effort to disavow rejoicing in the twins' troubles, this turn of events did come as something of a relief.

But relief and aggravation were neighbors within the Imperial City walls: his assumption bore out only as long as the early evening when a pair of well-muscled guards nearly broke down his door with their demanding knock.

"An escort?" Rensai sneered.

"A forced march," one officer grunted. Obviously this task was as distasteful and demeaning to them as it was to Rensai.

"I already told her I can't attend—" Rensai said but was cut off as the guards took him forcibly by the shoulders and yanked him outside.

What followed was one of Rensai's less dignified journeys to the palace, even considering the number of them he'd made while still getting acquainted with his old walking stick and blindfold. Every time he shrugged the guards' hands off they redoubled their grip as though he might make a run for it.

"How desperate she must be for my company," he said sleekly, changing gears after the fifth passerby gave a congratulatory nod to the guards, which Rensai could only interpret as praise for finally arresting him. "Did she beg to see me, or did you scurry to do her bidding too quickly to let it get that far?"

But the guards didn't speak once during the walk. They carried on as a mutually aggravated trio across the square, through the palace gates, all the way to the western banquet hall. A few heads turned when they entered, and Rensai noticed more than a handful of laughs coyly concealed behind fans. He made one more attempt at shaking off the guards but they remained firm, ushering him all the way to the head of the table where the royal family was seated. Stars help him.

At last the guards forced him into the empty place between Tsulemon and Zhendou, the Minister of War. Based on the curl of his lip, Zhendou didn't appear to have warmed to Rensai any more since the war's end. Rensai flashed him a grin; Zhendou huffed and knocked back the shot of liquor he was holding.

"Thank you for coming."

Rensai had set right to brainstorming ways he might spend the evening antagonizing Zhendou, but Yujin's voice scattered all of them. She was sitting directly across from him and flanked by Capo and Omare, both of whom were mercifully too deep in conversation to spare Rensai anything more than irritable looks of acknowledgement. A small smile warmed Yujin's face like the glow of a candle. "I'm sorry about the officers. I hoped they'd be a bit more professional."

"Ah." The chatter of the banquet hall died from a dull roar to the barest hum to his ears, all thoughts of being anything but on his best behavior flung far from his mind. "No harm done. I'm surprised you were behind it – that sort of summoning has Jimaya's fingerprints all over it."

"Oh, well." Yujin winced and nodded at Tsulemon and Jimaya beside him, who were deep in a low-toned conversation. Even with Tsulemon's muscled bulk between them, Rensai could see tension radiating from the set of Jimaya's shoulders. "It was my idea, but for her benefit. Tsulemon loves your company and the two of them could use a distraction."

Rensai couldn't begin to unpack such a ridiculous idea just then, not when he had full command of Yujin's attention. He arranged his features into regret as he filled Yujin's cup, then his own. "A calendar discrepancy, I take it?"

"Imperialists have a fixed date for the solstice but the Forest People chart the moon's phases instead," Yujin sighed, wilting. "It was my job to know – I've been in touch with their ambassadors for weeks. I don't know where communication broke down."

"I'm sure it was no fault of yours." Rensai wanted to dive across the table, take her into his arms, and beat back anyone who would look at her with a critical eye. Anything to brush away that crestfallen look. How typically Imperialist, placing a Denborn in charge of negotiating holidays she'd never celebrated in her life. Yujin smiled weakly.

"Either way, what's done is done. We're two days off pace with their calendar."

We. The word sank like a stone in his gut. He cleared his throat. "How much conflict could have been avoided by ignoring the event altogether."

"Well, it's important to them. And besides, we'd miss out on one of your fireworks displays," Yujin said as she raised her cup in toast. He was as unprepared as ever for the emotional whiplash of her attentions: she was an Imperialist in one breath and his again in the next, and her smile hit his senses far before the saccharine burn of the alcohol. It left him dazed enough to miss his opportunity to dodge Tsulemon's encircling arm as it closed around his shoulders for the second time that day.

"Rensai, Rensai, Rensai, you snake," he said fondly. Rensai's posture and good mood alike caved under his grip. Yujin hid a laugh behind her sleeve. Why did everyone find Tsulemon's forced bonding so funny? "How did you convince my sunflower not to tell me about your recovery? You wanted to surprise us, yes?"

Rensai wanted nothing more than to wriggle free – or perhaps drive a knife between Tsulemon's ribs for interrupting them – but Yujin's encouraging nod kept him still. He shot a look at Jimaya instead, who was suddenly very interested in the valets whisking into the banquet hall with the first course. She'd hidden his recovery from her brother and her lover?

"It was no secret. I'm sure matters of state took far more precedence in her mind," he said. His eyes never left Jimaya, nor did hers ever meet his.

"Well, it is a true miracle either way. Stars' blessing," Tsulemon bid him with a bracing shake and sparkling smile, and to Rensai's relief he was released at last. Tsulemon knocked back the contents of his own cup and eyed Rensai expectantly: he took begrudging sip, far less motivated to indulge at Tsulemon's urging than Yujin's. Imperial alcohol was so sickly sweet.

Tsulemon boomed a laugh. "You Mountain men – what's the matter? Too fragrant? Doesn't put enough fire in your belly? Ah!"

Rensai was spared the necessity of further conversation by Tsulemon's sudden interest in the first course: piles of grilled whole fish, seasoned and smoked to perfection, a rarity for guests hailing from mountain and forest alike. Tsulemon took two at a time and dug in with enthusiasm, while across the table Yujin handled her meal with such careful delicacy that Rensai had to hide his smile. So many feasts they'd had occasion to share in the past, and aggravating surrounding company or no, sitting across from her was nostalgic.

Mounds of roasted vegetables followed, then dumplings, then roast boar: "Shot down on our journey here! Fresh as can be," Tsulemon assured the assembled, having grown somehow friendlier with each course and corresponding glass of plum wine. Over time Jimaya loosened up as well, though Rensai wasn't sure how much of it he could reasonably take credit for. The entire evening was designed to cater to an Imperialist taste for revelry, and irritating as he found them, there was no denying the Forest People provided entertaining company. Bursts of lilting song broke out every few minutes, punctuated by laughter and cheers that spread like an infection down the long table. While Tsulemon enumerated all who would listen on the goings-on of his forest village, Rensai managed to sneak in a few snide comments that made Jimaya snort into her cup, and when Tsulemon snaked his arm around her waist to draw her closer, she passed Rensai a smile that just brushed against the border of gratitude. Odd how an old enemy could loosen tension among friends.

"So good to see you!"

Four courses and several hours in, Omare deliberately raised his voice to be heard over the cacophony of conversation. Two men had joined him at the table and Omare cast around like a clown awaiting applause, counting the number of eyes he'd attracted. Rensai took his cue and got to his feet.

"Rensai! No, it's too soon, this won't do, come." Tsulemon tried to fill Rensai's cup and beckon him back to the table at the same time, nearly sloshing plum wine over the rim.

"Yes, don't be ridiculous, sit back down," Jimaya insisted with an impatient wave. A quick glance at Omare revealed his annoyance at the shift in attention.

"I can hardly maintain this figure if I carry on like this," Rensai said with a gesture, which got another booming laugh out of Tsulemon. Annoyance twinged – it wasn't that funny, oaf. "It's time I took my leave. Tsulemon, Jimaya, a pleasure. Zhendou, scintillating conversation as ever."

Minister Zhendou grunted irritably, having ignored Rensai all evening, his attention currently occupied by the two men Omare had invited to the table.

"Capo, I assume I shall have you breathing down my neck in the workshop soon enough; Yujin, I am grateful for the invitation, however insistent." Yujin returned his smile, and Rensai's grew when he saw Omare bristle at the realization of who was responsible for seating Rensai in such a place of honor.

"So good to see you," Omare repeated loudly, committed to whatever bit he insisted on playing out. He stood to clasp hands with the two men behind him as Rensai turned to leave. "I hope you enjoyed the feast. After all you've done for us, you've both more than earned a seat at my table, Jeong, Jayu."

Yujin's sharp gasp hooked Rensai's attention again. Her eyes were darting between the men and Rensai, and only then did he notice the solid set of their shoulders. The pair were uncommonly alike – brothers most likely, with thick, dark manes of hair. And though he was used to being automatically disliked, Rensai couldn't think of a reason they might stare at him as though hoping their gaze might skewer him like that evening's boar. Jimaya was the next to react, and her disappointment was enough to make the smug smirk on Omare's face falter.

Oh. Of course.

"How dare you, Omare," Jimaya hissed as she unfolded her legs to stand. "Orchestrating this, on such a happy occasion!"

"What are you talking about? I didn't invite him!" Omare protested, but Jimaya turned to the pair and spoke over him.

"This is horribly inappropriate. Jeong, Jayu, I am so sorry. Please accept my regret at my brother's thoughtlessness." Both men softened at Jimaya's emphatic apology, then grew alarmed when she bowed for emphasis, and they hastened to assure her that surely this was a misunderstanding, no harm was done, that she mustn't concern herself.

"I am certain this was no misunderstanding," Rensai cut in coldly.

He shouldered his way back into the group and silence fell. Yujin's hands were still clasped over her mouth, Omare's cheeks were colored with resentment, and Capo had placed a hand on his emperor's shoulder to steady him.

"I apologize for my actions while you and I stood on opposite ends of a war," Rensai said. The others' gaze pressed cold against his skin, but his own eyes didn't move from the brothers'. They stared him down with the same defiant wariness they'd shown when Rensai had selected them from their prisons in the mines, picked carelessly from among countless others, and shoved them to work. The same glare they'd worn when the crack of Rensai's whip drew blood from their backs. Their names had meant nothing when Jimaya had come to him months ago, too agitated to even brew tea, plagued by the fear that Rensai could hardly keep track of how many of her subjects had suffered by his hand. She'd been right. But seeing them now, there was no mistaking them.

"I understand if you'd rather not accept it. I will not fault you for that, as I hardly deserve your forgiveness," he said. "It appears all three of us were used as props tonight. For that, I am sorry too."

Rensai shot Omare a vicious glare, for once too angry to delight in the way the boy blanched. He bowed pointedly to Jimaya, Yujin, and the two brothers, then turned and stalked from the banquet hall.

Chapter Text

"Rensai!"

She had to gather up fistfuls of her robes to keep from tripping as she caught up with his long strides. The table she'd left was surely in worse shape than it had been when he'd arrived, a thought that drove the spike of guilt deeper into her gut. She knew little about Jeong and Jayu, but she knew enough to be certain they didn't deserve to be placed face to face with their abuser on an occasion meant to celebrate unity. Pardons erased crimes, not memories. Not scars.

"Rensai."

She stopped to catch her breath, one hand on a column, just as he was about to storm around the final corner towards the palace gates. Stony, bitter anger gave way to regret the moment he laid eyes on her. The spike dug deeper.

"Yujin."

He was beside her in a breath in the same seamless way he'd always closed the space between them in the Den. Magnetic. Natural. Would he take her hand like he used to, too? She kept a firm grip on her robes just in case, unable to look him in the face, though she couldn't place why. She settled for his collarbone instead.

"That should not have happened," Yujin said quickly, before he could say anything to disarm her. "Omare was out of line."

She expected a scoff or sarcasm; she might have even taken some measure of relief in it. Nothing of the kind came.

"You were a guest there, just the same as anyone else. I should have warned him that I'd invited you, but he's, well…." Surely Rensai didn't need elaboration, and Yujin didn't trust herself to explain it in few enough words that Rensai wouldn't arm himself with the extras. "And he shouldn't have brought the two of them over. I never intended for you to feel like a prop."

She chanced a look up at him and immediately regretted it. For someone with such a reputation for deceit, Rensai was terrible at concealing his emotions. There was no malice or ill will there: she'd had his forgiveness the moment she'd said his name. But if he wasn't upset with her, why was her sense of guilt worsening?

"Of course not. You could never." There was the hand on hers. She dropped her robes without resistance. His thumb passed gently over her knuckles. "You are perhaps the only one in that entire room that doesn't dream of taking me up or setting me aside at their discretion. I treasured your invitation. Don't dwell on how it soured. It wasn't your fault."

"I don't see how you could," Yujin muttered, her brow furrowing. "They marched you in like a prisoner."

"Treasured," Rensai insisted.

There was more. There was so much more that he wasn't saying; Yujin could feel his body humming with it. In another time there would have been a promise that upon her word he would march anywhere for her. Perhaps a playful purr that he wished she would use him as a prop, some artful turn of phrase that straddled courteous and lascivious and made her blush, and he would beam as though he'd been awarded a splendid prize. Ruminating on the possibilities was bringing color to her cheeks, and like a spider attuned to the smallest thrum of its web, Rensai reacted. His free hand found her cheek and guided her gaze to meet his. Yujin stood frozen, breathless.

"They think only of what I've done, not what I can do. I can no more outrun my mistakes than I can insist they forgive me for them. But let them grapple with their emotions over my pardon and my presence here. It's no concern of ours."

Ours. The thought of sharing anything with Rensai twisted her insides. They weren't co-conspirators, they weren't anything, and if she had the words to protest, she wanted to believe she would have voiced them. But she didn't, and taking her silence for agreement, he drew her hand to his mouth and touched a lingering kiss to her fingertips. His lips were soft, his breath light on her hand.

At last he pulled away, a tiny smile curving his lips that even he looked anxious to allow. Air filled her lungs in a dizzying rush as the warmth of his touch faded, leaving her confused, unmoored, and weighted down with enough guilt to sink her.

"It's a gift to see you, Yujin. I'll look for you at the festival," he promised, backing away towards the palace doors. "I'm certain this will be your favorite yet."

Yujin's feet found their way back to the feast through her daze. Unsurprisingly, the mood at the royal end of the table had shifted measurably during her absence. Laughter and song still erupted further down the line, but a tense, polite quiet had fallen among her company as though they'd all slid behind a curtain that separated them from the rest of the celebration and muted its joy. Jeong and Jayu were nowhere to be seen. Jimaya had a purse to her lips that told Yujin she'd hissed more than a few scolding words at Omare and he'd hear yet more of them later, too. Tsulemon whispered something in Jimaya's ear but she turned her face away.

Yujin sank back into her seat between Capo and Omare in silence. Their gaze met over her head, she could feel the weight of the look's significance, and she wished it could push her downward until she seeped right through the floorboards and away from this mess altogether.

"So? How was he?" Omare sounded conversational but his face was tight as he poured them both another drink. He slid Yujin's towards her and sipped in an attempt at nonchalance so transparent that Rensai would have laughed out loud to see it.

"Angry." Yujin realized it was a lie only after the word was out of her mouth. Or maybe it was just a half-lie. Rensai had been angry, at least for the single second it took him to realize who had come after him. What was worse, a half-lie or a half-truth?

"Well he's the only one that doesn't have a right to be," Omare said haughtily. "He ought to be grateful for a place at my table, or any other for that matter."

Yujin sipped her wine to save herself the obligation of responding. She tried to focus on anything but the way Rensai's eyes had blazed when he reiterated, "Treasured."

"So what? You apologized for me too, I suppose?" Omare shot a sulky glare at Jimaya.

"Yes."

"And then?"

"And then he left."

"Well, did he accept?"

"I don't know, Omare." Yujin sipped her wine again to steady the hand that held it. "You know he's difficult to read."

Co-conspirators after all. Damn Rensai.

Chapter Text

Jimaya woke with the dawn, eyes creaking reluctantly open as she shifted beneath the cool, single sheet she'd kept through the night. Sleeping beside Tsulemon was like drifting off in front of a fire: comfortingly warm at first, then suddenly blazing hot, and most nights she awoke after a few hours to put some space between them and wrap herself in something thinner. He slept on next to her, unaware, his hair a wild mane around him.

She felt hungover though she hadn't had a drink since the night of the banquet. Tired, wrung out, and definitely dehydrated. A headache pressed against her forehead while her stomach pitted hunger against her certainty that eating would only make her feel sicker. Unable to look at Tsulemon any longer, she slid out of bed to pour herself a glass of water from the pitcher that stood beneath the widest window.

In the past several days, the festival square had been transformed. This view afforded her a glimpse of the most dramatic addition: the towering, gleaming black structure that occupied the square's center, the reaches of its many arms just visible over the palace wall. She'd heard that it was built on the frame Rensai had designed for their coronation, but looking at it now, she could hardly imagine how that could be the case. That one had reminded her of a sun, a sparkling golden circle. Whatever this was supposed to be, it certainly wasn't circular.

Every day the structure grew, every banner hung and every statue adorned with flowers was a reminder that her time with Tsulemon was waning. And every day she focused on their remaining time together was a day she wasn't focused on enjoying it. The bitterness that had begun as a grain of sand at his arrival had lingered inside her, mulled over and smoothed and polished into a pearl that she wished desperately to give away but was unable to pry out. He went on walks, he talked with her people, he trained with her warriors in the sparring ring. He was liked by all, even the reticent Denborn. He was the perfect bridge between city and palace.

But he belonged to neither, and with the progressive chilling of the heart that can only come with resignation, Jimaya was beginning to accept that he probably didn't belong to her, either.

She turned from the window and looked back at him again. It was barely daybreak. She couldn't reasonably be annoyed with him for not being awake too, but a prickle of aggravation flared anyway. She gulped down some more water to see if she could drown it out. Their last day together was here and he was already missing it.

She paced. She read. She called for fruit and stared out the window while she ate. At last, as she was knotting her sash behind her back to finish dressing for the day, Tsulemon stirred. He blinked in the light of the full sunrise, his mouth turned up in what might have been a sleepy smile or maybe just a brittle one.

"Good morning, my sunflower."

"Morning."


Forest People made grand entrances but comparatively muted exits. Apart from the inescapable joy and noise of their arrival in the city two weeks ago, their comings and goings through the streets had been as pleasant and mildly remarkable as spotting a particularly colorful flower along a familiar path. No one thought much of it when they began filing out to take their leave – much like Jimaya and the rest, most had assumed they'd be staying for the solstice. Imperialists looked up from their errands, from beating rugs or putting out cats, any number of typical late afternoon tasks, and gave the passing Forest People a warm smile or an absentminded wave.

Jimaya didn't accompany Tsulemon to the city gates. She hung back as he embraced her brother, Yujin, Capo, one after another, refocusing her attention only when he turned to her.

"It's okay," she said quickly enough to keep the tremor from her voice. She forced a smile. "It's okay, it's fine."

"I adore you." Tsulemon cupped her face in his hands and Jimaya had to consciously keep herself from blinking, fearful that a tear might slip free. He touched a kiss to her forehead, then her nose, and finally her lips. He might have lingered close for a little while longer, but she drew back.

"Thank you for coming." It was all she could think to say but she saw how it wounded him: his gaze dropped and his shoulders went slack, wilted. "No! I mean it. I've loved every moment with you. These and every one before it."

His face was torn in regret and though her heart broke for him, for the briefest unsettling instant Jimaya wondered how he could dare to feel disappointed. How could he look as though this weren't the simplest answer in the world, for him to just be where he said he'd be when he said he'd be there? To be hers in the way she needed? She quickly stifled the thought, sickened by her own lack of empathy.

"Jimaya, I—"

"Don't." She put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a little encouraging shake. "You will always have a place here. I promise you."

"And you with me." Tsulemon stared at her for a long moment, then heaved a sudden sigh and flung his head back to look towards the heavens. The first, boldest stars were just beginning to prick forth in the darkest part of the sky.

"May they guide us together again soon." He closed his eyes, head still tilted back, perhaps sealing his intent in some more meaningful way than his willpower could ever accomplish.

Omare ushered the others to follow Tsulemon on his way through the palace gates, leaving Jimaya alone in the courtyard. He'd always been good at intuiting her feelings. Sometimes the realization dawned on him a little too late, but today – tonight, really – Omare's instincts were sound. She had no desire to wave to the departing guests from the ramparts, she didn't want to watch Capo struggle between comforting her or clapping her bracingly on the shoulder, and she couldn't bear to stand next to Yujin in all her undying compassion and explain why she felt cold when she should feel closer to devastated. Her heart went out to her brother for sparing her that, and for unknowingly granting her the chance to slip through the palace gates without attracting attention.

The walk to Rensai's cottage was hardly convenient from the palace, but Jimaya felt detached from her feet as much as her emotions as she ghosted through the city streets. The journey hardly registered with her; it was just one foot in front of the other. The people who noticed their empress passing bowed without interruption or comment, but every pair of eyes pinned guilt to her. She should be more upset, she should be regretful, she should be mourning, but here she was instead on the same route she'd taken countless times now.

Her knocks fell hollow on the door when she arrived. Rensai always took his time to answer, as though she were always dragging him away from something important, but she could usually hear the scrape of a wooden chair or heavy, booted footfalls approaching the door. Tonight, nothing. She knocked again anyway, an unexpected tightness beginning to grip her chest. Still nothing. She should have tried the workshop first, the festival was just three days away, of course he'd still be working at this hour. Why was no one ever around when she needed them? Jimaya leaned her forehead against the door and let out a frustrated whimper.

"Bit late for a house call."

Jimaya whipped around to find Rensai standing hardly a foot behind her and regarding her with the sort of smug, mild interest he only ever put on to make her annoyed. This was the moment she was supposed to shove him back so he could snap at her, and then he'd shoo her inside so they could bicker until they settled into comfortably contentious silence.

She crumbled instead. Her chin dropped to her chest and her shoulders slumped to match, and before she could even finish drawing a shaky breath to speak Rensai had already gone stiff with alarm.

"Oh. Ah, come in."

He circled around her like a cat skirting the edge of a puddle and ushered her through the door. He skipped the lamps and went straight to the hearth instead: fire blazed to life after only a moment's attention. It was illegal for him to keep any of the firepowder for personal use but Jimaya didn't have the energy to be surprised, much less scold him for it. She folded herself in front of the center table in silence, eyes forward, while Rensai bustled about in an uncharacteristic fret in the corner of her vision. Cabinets opened, closed, there was the clink of porcelain, and Jimaya relaxed a bit, grateful for the stability of their tea tradition. But Rensai returned instead with two cups in one hand and an unmarked bottle in the other.

"That won't be necessary," she began listlessly, but as with so many of their conversations, her objections felt more like steps in a dance than actual protests.

"It hardly ever is," Rensai agreed as he poured Jimaya's glass first and held it out to her. "But it'll burn hotter and quicker than tea. Ah, ah." He drew back. "Accept with your right hand, and sip before setting it down."

A scowl flitted across her face – really, she wasn't interested in Mountain Den traditions tonight – but Rensai was watching her with such intensity that it was easier to roll her eyes and do as he said. It tasted wretched, strong and unexpectedly sour, but he was right: heat flooded her throat and chest as soon as she swallowed. She coughed and turned a watery glare on him.

"Why would anyone want to drink—"

"Again. Breathe through it."

"I'm not in the mood to sample the worst concoctions the Den has to offer," she snapped.

"Would you rather sulk into a cup of tea? You can do that anywhere." Rensai knocked back the remainder of his cup in one smooth motion and refilled it. "Again. Finish it, if you can."

Obvious bait. She took it. The alcohol scorched on the way down but cooled as she let her breath out in a whoosh, and she punctuated her irritation by setting down her empty cup with more force than was really necessary. Rensai nodded approvingly and poured her a second.

"Nicely done. Make this one last a little while longer. It'll be easier."

If the second drink was easier, it was by some undetectable fraction. Jimaya shuddered through each sip, hating Rensai for every one of them. But it felt good to be angry with someone. The emotion was there, she'd just needed a target.

"He's not coming back," she rasped after finishing off the second cup, a hand over her chest to steady her swallow. "He—"

"Wait a moment." Rensai held up a finger and drained his own drink – was that his third? Was he steeling himself to be her audience? Jimaya flushed, suddenly self-conscious, but Rensai raked his hair out of his face and gestured for her to continue.

"Tsulemon," Jimaya began again. She stared hard at the grain of the polished wooden table. "He's not coming back. He left."

Rensai nodded slowly, unsurprised, and somehow Jimaya felt short-changed by his reaction.

"He left you, or you sent him away?"

"Is there a difference?"

"Of course there is."

"Well, the result is the same." Jimaya shifted on her knees, swallowing around the words stuck at the back of her throat. "I can't ask him to be something he doesn't want to be."

"Can't or won't?"

Jimaya looked up just as Rensai was reaching across the table to refill her glass again. "What?"

"You are his empress. Surely you could order him to be whatever you like, shed whatever parts of himself or his culture that hold him back. He would have no choice but to obey."

"I would never," Jimaya said vehemently. She took up her drink again to seal her insistence. "I refuse to be that kind of ruler or that kind of person."

"That's admirable," Rensai said, toasting her. "Many in your position would not choose the same."

"Would you?"

The question appeared to take him by surprise: he raised his eyebrows and examined the contents of his glass for a moment, then sipped.

"I'm not sure."

His words touched a chill to her spine. Jimaya looked away as though she were intruding upon some secret. The thought of Rensai caught up in such selfish, desperate love to go as far as to change a person… how could that be worth it to him? The idea of Rensai in love was foreign enough as it was. Teasing, certainly, and affectionate was probably within the realm of possibility. But not loving, not like that.

He'd courted Yujin. Sort of. Jimaya knew that much. But neither of them spoke about it and if Rensai had taken it seriously, he would have used the story as an opportunity to criticize Omare before now. He never passed up the chance – that was the one thing about him that Jimaya trusted most. Plus she could just picture Counselor Yoren playing sinister matchmaker, moving people – even his own son – like pieces on a board for no other purpose than to secure power. An assumed courtship between two prominent Den families wasn't love.

She glanced up again to find Rensai studying her, his eyes dark and impossible to read.

"You did the right thing, Jimaya," he said before the uncomfortable silence could linger too long. "Have you even shed a tear for him?"

"Many this morning," she mumbled. "None since he left."

"And how do you feel now that he's gone?"

Regretful? Hollow? Guilty? Lonely? The proper word came easily, but that made it no less challenging to admit.

"Lighter." Her voice hitched on the word, and if her eyes were finally brimming out of mourning or relief, she couldn't tell the difference.

"Admirable," Rensai repeated, and drank.

Tears traced warm tracks down her cheeks. Neither of them mentioned it. They passed the bottle back and forth for some time – eventually Jimaya began pouring her own – and before long her chest was swelling with an unexpected gratitude for Rensai's company. He didn't ask her if she was sure like Omare would, he didn't fret like Kouda would, he didn't weep with her like Yujin would. Out there she was an empress too weak to set a standard for the man she cared about. But within these four walls, for however long she stayed, she was a woman who refused to settle for less than what she wanted. The weight of her crown was lighter here. For that reprieve, she was thankful.

But the night carried on with or without her, and before long her valets would begin to wonder where she was. She thanked Rensai for his hospitality and got to her feet, but the movement was too quick for the rest of her: the room tilted under her and she stepped back to catch herself.

"Ah, easy."

Rensai was up and behind her in a breath, a firm, steadying presence. Their sudden closeness threw off her sense of balance all over again, and he closed a hand over hers to keep her in place.

"Should I walk you back?" Rensai's voice was a low rumble, close enough to her ear that she could feel the warmth of his breath. "Your guards might execute me on the spot for returning you in this condition, but it's better than letting you find your way on your own."

His long hair had fallen over his shoulder and brushed softly against her neck. Her heart was hammering; between all this and the closeness of his body and voice, there were suddenly too many details to sift through for a quick answer. A moment unfolded, then two, and when she realized she still hadn't answered, she thought she heard a quiet sound of amusement from behind her.

"Or you're welcome to spend the night."

That yanked her back to clarity. She turned in his arms only to come eyelevel with his chest, and that was hardly an improvement: they were close enough to embrace, close enough for her to see every detail of the tattoos that skittered across his torso and arms, intricate black whorls and crashing waves. Her whole body was abuzz – the alcohol, surely. That had to be the culprit. Certainly not her hand in his, the pleasant warmth of the cottage, or the fact that she was nearer to him than she'd ever been before.

"I can't," she whispered.

He didn't need to say it, she could practically see the words written in the curve of his smile. Can't or won't?

"As you wish." But instead of letting her go, his hand found the small of her back. He pressed lightly, guiding her body closer against his until they were standing flush together. Her breath went still in her lungs. "I will deliver you back to the palace."

"I can't stay past dawn," Jimaya said quickly, before nerves could force the words back down her throat. "That's what I meant. I can stay just… just not past dawn."

Rensai's smile stretched. "As you wish," he repeated.

He led her away from the door, away from the table, and towards the bedroom in the corner, the only other room in the cottage, one that Jimaya's eyes always slid over whenever she visited as though afraid to linger long enough to let her thoughts follow. Like the rest of the cottage, it was modest, hardly more than exactly what was needed: a bed, a nightstand, a low dresser and vanity, all very tidy except for a desk shoved into the furthest corner of the room. A long harplike instrument leaned against the wall next to it, one she had seen him play once or twice but couldn't name. Jimaya hardly had time to look around before Rensai was guiding her to sit down on the bed, scattering every other thought from her mind.

He sat down beside her, his eyes tracing a long, leisurely path from her legs up to her face, then nodded at her robes. "Will you sleep in that?"

Jimaya shook her head wordlessly and reached behind her back to undo her sash: Rensai leaned forward, his hands joined hers, and soon she was shrugging out of scarlet and gold silk, leaving only the thin whites beneath. He left her for a moment to drape her robes carefully over the back of his desk chair, and when he returned he leaned close again with another hand against her back.

"Lie back."

She did. She settled against Rensai's pillows, in Rensai's bed, in Rensai's home, the effect of the earlier drinks still completing their dutiful work on her senses. Jimaya sighed and tilted her hips, stretched her neck, such minor adjustments that she knew could be taken as equally relaxed or suggestive. Rensai hummed above her and she felt his hand cup her cheek. Fond. Lingering.

"Wait for me a moment."

Booted footsteps left the room and Jimaya sank further, one arm curled under his pillow.

Chapter Text

Awareness pricked the edges of Jimaya's consciousness, then slammed violently into her with the force of a battering ram. She bolted upright in bed – Rensai's bed. Her hands flew to her chest and felt her heart pounding beneath the white fabric of her under robe. Still clothed. Of course she was, why wouldn't she be? She made time to scold herself for letting the worry even cross her mind before a thousand other details and questions crowded to the forefront.

Tsulemon was still gone. No, she wouldn't touch that one just yet.

The space beside her was empty, the duvet smooth and cool. On her other side, a well-used bedroll had been pushed against the wall and out of the way, a pair of extra blankets hastily folded atop it. Jimaya could practically see Rensai, hair unbound and tangled, on the floor beside her while she slept on in the kind of rest that only alcohol and emotional exhaustion could provide. There was a cup of water waiting for her on the nightstand. The thoughtfulness of the gesture made her blush more than the one fleeting second she'd spent thinking she'd actually slept with Rensai. She drank it down in three great gulps.

There was no noise from the other room, no creak of leather or sounds of a meal being prepared. He'd left her in his cottage alone? Jimaya swung her legs out of bed and tightened her robe around herself as she tiptoed into the main room, half expecting Rensai to be sitting there polishing his boots. But the cottage was empty. The table had been cleared of last night's glasses, a single leaf of paper left atop it instead.

In the workshop. Breakfast in the pot if you're interested.

Jimaya blinked. Rensai's calligraphy was surprisingly beautiful, a cascade of flowing characters whose style juxtaposed the brusque message. Was he annoyed with her for falling asleep? Was that why he left? Was the note really brusque, or was it just brief?

She hated the tingle of anxiety the question gave her, so she set that thought aside next to the ones concerning Tsulemon.

She went to the stove and lifted the lid to find at least twice as much porridge as she'd be able to eat, still steaming warm and seasoned ever so slightly with the husky spices of the Mountain Den. She took down a bowl and ladled herself a healthy serving.

Curiosity twinged at the back of her head. Sitting down at the table all by herself felt bizarre. What point was there in being polite when no one was around to see, much less in the home of someone who made a point of consciously dismissing most rules? Suddenly emboldened, Jimaya embarked on a self-guided tour of the cottage, bowl in hand, opening drawers, peering into cabinets, and running her fingers over every surface she could find. Whenever guilt poked its nose out of hiding, Jimaya shooed it away with the reminder that this was Rensai, if he wanted to hide something he could do it easily, and he wouldn't have let her stay there alone if he feared what she might run across.

The cottage yielded a few points of fascination, but not as many as Jimaya had hoped. Part of her had suspected the place might be booby trapped, but no, she supposed Rensai wasn't paranoid. Most questionable-to-illegal things that she could find were tucked away, but still not exactly hidden. A substantial sack of firepowder was the most illicit discovery, hidden in a large ceramic pot beside the hearth. That came as no surprise: she'd all but seen him use it just the night before. She also found a pipe and a tiny glazed jar of opium tucked away in a drawer, which was more interesting. Rensai didn't strike her as the type to indulge. Jimaya imagined him reclining, propped up on an elbow and wreathed in smoke, pipe balanced lazily between long fingers— she quickly shook the thought away.

Her spoon was scraping the bottom of her bowl by the time she moved away from the small altar at the back of the cottage – immaculately clean, either out of reverence or disuse – and wandered back into the bedroom. The desk there was the only place in the entire home that showed signs of disorganization, all but buried beneath scrolls, calligraphy brushes, and waxy nubs of candles. She headed there first and leafed through the piles of paper. Each was covered with schematics or scrawls of half-baked plans, all written in a sharper, hastier hand than the note he'd left for her in the other room. Twice she returned to the scroll at the very top, unable to shake the feeling that it was familiar to her. A wall, probably, but so covered in notes and sketches of scaffolding that she couldn't be certain. But there appeared to be no war machines, no weapon designs, nothing she could identify as overtly sinister. Oddly relieved, she let the rest of it be.

Her search complete and her meal finished, Jimaya sank back down onto the bed and let her breath leave her in a rush. Responsibility awaited her at the palace. Festival preparations. Omare's questions about what had happened with Tsulemon. Valets' politely averted eyes.

But since she was still here, it wasn't unusual to reflect on the night before, on what had taken place on the other side of the wall. It wasn't as though she were reviewing it on her own time, in her own bed. This was completely different, this was situational, and it was fine to think back on how soft Rensai's hair had been against her shoulder, how sturdy and warm he felt when they stood chest to chest, how gently he had eased her out of her robes after he'd guided her to his bed.

How he'd known she was going to spend the night before she did.

None of it had been real. They'd been drinking, and he felt sorry for her. He slept on the floor. It wasn't real.

But that didn't stop her from lying back in his bed and turning her head to the side to inhale deeply, her face buried in the pillow. It didn't stop her from letting her hand settle between her legs – however deeply she kept the secret, it wasn't her first time thinking of him like this, and those times hadn't been real either. And it didn't stop her from imagining him in his bed with her, behaving far less politely than he had the night before.


Jimaya took the long route back to the palace, following the canal and cutting a wide circle around the festival square. She certainly wouldn't cross through it, not when she was so likely to run into Rensai barking orders at engineers or wrangling dancers or whatever it was that he did for the festival's final preparations. He would either ignore her entirely or make a show of running into her, and under the circumstances she could hardly decide which option agitated her more. The city streets were already bustling with the day's work, so she had little time to linger on the thought between hurriedly returning the smiles, bows, and greetings of those that managed to catch her eye as she all but scurried back to the palace. At last she slipped inside the outer gate and into the courtyard, single-mindedly set on heading directly to her rooms as fast as she could without causing outright alarm. But no sooner had she approached the palace doors did the nearest guard heave a visible sigh of relief.

"Your Majesty." His posture sank under the weight of the many people who must have been asking her whereabouts since daybreak. "Emperor Omare awaits you for breakfast in the western pavilion."

If Jimaya had any appetite, the idea of facing Omare now would surely have destroyed it. She forced a smile. "Please thank him, but I will have to decline. I'm not feeling much like company today." That should do it – polite but firm, and by now everyone would know that Tsulemon had gone and wouldn't question her choice. The guard bowed and set off to deliver her message, but Jimaya didn't even have time to relish her escape before she rounded the first corner towards her rooms and collided with Kouda.

"Oh, Your Majesty!" The nanny flung her arms around Jimaya in a bone-cracking hug. "There you are, I was so worried, I fretted all night, you know how I worry for you and your brother, I know you can take care of yourselves but given the circumstances of course I was distraught for you—"

Jimaya froze in her grip, back rigid. "Please, Kouda," she said tightly as she shucked off her embrace. Kouda backed off, looking concerned – had Jimaya sounded too impatient? She tried to soften her tone. "I'm fine, I just want a bath—"

"I'll draw one for you right away, dearest Majesty, but come along and meet your brother while you wait." It was more of a herding than an ushering that Kouda used to guide Jimaya onward, the unyielding power that only nannies possessed, no matter how long ago her charges had outgrown their care. By the time they reached the western pavilion Jimaya had practically splintered the floorboards with her heels, but a final push from Kouda spat her out into the dappled sunlight of the surrounding garden. At its center under the ornate pavilion roof sat Omare and – ancestors help her – Yujin.

"Morning," Jimaya greeted them with an awkward wave. Omare jumped to his feet at once – sit back down, sit back down, she willed him furiously. She already had one foot back through the door. "Sorry to keep you waiting, but I'm not very hungry and was just about to go for a bath."

"Just a few minutes?" Omare pressed. Even at this distance she could read the worry on his face. "It's your favorite, sesame buns!"

Jimaya had never turned down a sesame bun in her life and Omare knew it. To refuse him now would only give him further cause for alarm. Teeth gritted into a brittle smile, she forced her legs to carry her through the garden where breakfast awaited her like bait in a trap. The circular table made her feel surrounded as she knelt, Yujin's soft, quizzical smile on her left and Omare practically exploding with suppressed worry on her right.

"Are you okay?" Omare blurted out just as Yujin asked gently, "And how are you this morning?" Jimaya startled.

"I'm fine," she said, and she meant it. She lifted a sesame bun from the basket at the center of the table because she was fine, and since she was fine she would have some of her favorite breakfast even though she wasn't hungry, and she wasn't hungry because she'd spent the night in her brother's worst enemy's bed and had woken up to a meal, which she'd eaten while rummaging through all his things. And after that she'd gone back to bed to imagine him with his face between her legs. And Tsulemon, the man she'd loved and left less than a day ago, was somehow still the last thing to come to mind when she considered everything that had happened in the past twelve hours. But she was fine.

Omare wasn't buying it. She assumed Yujin wasn't either, but Jimaya certainly wasn't going to give them anything to latch onto by elaborating. She bit into the bun and the sweet, sticky dough stuck to the roof of her mouth.

"I came to your room last night," Omare said. He framed it guiltily, like a peace offering, but it registered like an electric shock. "Just in case you wanted to talk. I didn't want you to feel alone."

"Oh. I must have missed you." Jimaya swallowed and forced a grateful smile. "I went for a walk."

Yujin's eyes were on her. Jimaya hated herself for the prickle of aggravation she felt under their gentle touch. Yujin had done nothing to earn this sudden chilly disinterest in her company, nothing but be the sweet, empathetic presence she always was. A balm on the scrapes and burns of life. But Jimaya didn't want to be soothed, and she didn't want to think about the possibility that Yujin somehow knew exactly what had gone on last night – or worse, that Yujin suspected things that distinctly hadn't happened. She knew Rensai better than any of them. Something about that sparked a tension that Jimaya feared to examine too closely.

Omare drew a breath in the way he always did before he plowed onward with some poorly thought out statement or another, but Yujin put a hand on his knee to quiet him.

"It was a beautiful night. Was your walk pleasant?"

"It was refreshing," Jimaya said carefully. Too many hours in Rensai's company had set her on high alert for hidden meanings and verbal traps. "I needed the perspective."

"I told the Minister of Culture I'd be the only one attending the preparations meetings today," Omare finally exploded, unable to contain himself any longer. "So you can, um, take some time to yourself. If you want. Or if you don't want, Yujin has plenty planned, right Yujin? Aren't you going to meet with that Mountain Folk chief about—"

"Perfect, thank you, Omare," Jimaya cut him off. She got to her feet. "You're right, I don't feel quite up to the final preparations today, and I'm sure you have it well in hand. I'm grateful." Guilt twinged when Omare wilted. "And I'm grateful that you're always there for me, too," she added, casting around for something else to smooth down the edges of the too-short meal. She settled on folding a second sesame bun into a linen napkin. "For later," she explained, and he seemed to relax, though only fractionally.

"I am here for you, too," Yujin said, and as soon as Jimaya met her eyes she wished she hadn't. Tucked tight in the tiny, concerned line between Yujin's brows, Jimaya could swear she saw her holding onto a secret. "I hope you'll seek me out anytime you need an ear. Or perspective."

Jimaya nodded, bid them both a hasty farewell, and hurried back inside the palace. The first valet she laid eyes on found himself with a squashed bun pressed into his hands and an order to drop whatever he was doing and make sure her bath had been drawn. When at last she sank into the steaming, fragrant water, she heaved a sigh, tilted her head back, and told herself firmly that it had been sympathy that had creased Yujin's expression, not warning.

Chapter Text

"Savoring your final moments of playing spy?" Rensai laced his fingers together and stretched his arms overhead. Below the overlook, festival goers wove between the four massive feet of his finished structure, a stream of bright colors beneath the machine's gleaming black arms. "Or can I look forward to your interruptions in my personal life now that my professional one is approaching a hiatus?"

"Don't be sad. There will be other projects and time aplenty for us to bond," Capo said as he joined Rensai, leaning his forearms on the railing to gaze out over the crowd. "What's next on the calendar? Coronation Day?"

Rensai's lip curled. The Imperialists kept a very tedious tradition of re-celebrating their sitting monarchs' ascension to power, as though the world needed an annual reminder of whose thumb pressed down on them. "The Ashen Days," he said acidly, and he relished the tightening of Capo's shoulders. It was a Den holiday, a somber three days of remembrance commemorating the losing battle that first pushed them into their mountain home. Who would have predicted that the same force that drove them there would yank them back out more than a century later?

Rensai could have hazarded a guess.

Capo cleared his throat. "So this metal monstrosity." He gestured to the festival square's centerpiece. "I hear you won't be lighting the fuse yourself this time."

Rensai snapped a glare in Capo's direction. "I made it abundantly clear to those dancers that tonight's proceedings were top secret. Who's been talking in bed?"

"Why on earth would I tell you?" Capo asked on a laugh. "I can't believe you'd use the words 'top secret' around apprentice dancers and expect anything to stay that way. All the court entertainers know each other. I didn't have to do anything as tricky as sleeping with one of them to find out."

"No, I suppose that would have been very challenging for you."

"But don't worry, they didn't reveal much," Capo said, the barb glancing harmlessly off his skin. Rensai snorted but Capo went on, "And despite some complaints about their working conditions, they seem very excited. Some of the more experienced dancers were even jealous."

Rensai only grunted his acknowledgement, but satisfaction bloomed from within. Just the night before, even the engineers had seemed proud of what they had accomplished, or at least relieved that it was finished. But after every screw, axle, joint had been checked one final time, they'd still waved Rensai into their circle and awkwardly pressed a cup into his hands.

They'd toasted his vision, so he'd toasted their execution in return, and promptly drank to wash away the sudden churn of emotions. He was well acquainted with pride, but less so with the gratification of sharing it, and that didn't sit well with the acute reminder of the rough working relationship he maintained with nearly all of them. But despite it all, the team had done well. He'd taken his leave quickly that night, leaving the rest of them to pour another round, clap each other on the back, and crane their necks up at their handiwork. They would all have the night off tonight to enjoy the view from the audience.

And for the first time, Rensai would see the product of his efforts.

The thought came with electric anticipation. He'd never had as much confidence in one of his fireworks displays as he did this one, and that in itself was saying something. But every minute that ticked towards dusk and glory brought behind it the threat of the following morning. When he awoke tomorrow, Rensai would be without immediate purpose again. Not an Imperially sanctioned one, anyway.

"Speaking of talking in bed."

Rensai flicked an impatient glance at Capo. Why was he still here?

"Someone was out of hers the other night." Capo's tone had changed and he was angling to catch Rensai's eye. "You don't know anything about that, do you?"

The smile slid across Rensai's lips before he could stop it. He turned bodily to face Capo, irritation melting away as he leaned against the overlook railing with renewed leisure. To his delight, Capo's conversational manner was fading into something between wary and distasteful with every passing second of silence. Rensai let it stretch as long as he could stand it, then,

"I'm not sure what you're suggesting," he said sleekly.

"I think you are," Capo hissed. Was he flushed beneath his jester's paint? Rensai could barely keep from laughing. "I prayed you wouldn't, but if that sickening grin on your face is any indication, I'm on the right track."

"Jimaya visits me of her own accord, often without invitation or even warning. I don't see why this should become a problem now. It's been going on for more than a year."

"We became concerned when she didn't return to the palace that night," Capo said tightly. "Reasonably so."

"Is it typical practice for court staff to interrogate the gentry about the nature of their private time with royalty?" Rensai looked up from examining his fingernails for soot and locked eyes with Capo. "Seems a terrible way to feed a rumor mill."

He'd taken aim like an arrow and the word found its mark: Capo's eyes flicked instinctively at the structure that loomed over the square below. He drew himself up and took a menacing step towards Rensai, eyes ablaze. "I'm concerned about her safety," he growled, "and I'm not picky about how I guarantee it."

"All evidence to the contrary," Rensai said. "I'm being questioned by a clown instead of a royal guard, so I'm willing to bet Jimaya hasn't expressed any safety concerns to you or anyone else. I can only conclude you're questioning your empress's judgment."

"I'm questioning your motives."

"What do you think I'll do to her?"

He asked it plainly, quietly, and Capo's lips drew back in a snarl. The buffet of possible answers had crossed Rensai's mind many times, and never in more vivid color than when he'd guided Jimaya to his bed and slid the silk from her shoulders. He'd kill to hear Capo speak any one of them aloud.

When no answer came, Rensai pushed off from the railing. "Worry about one night away from the palace all you like. The fact is that she returned safe and sound, and she will continue to do so after every night that may follow. You have my word on that, whatever it's worth to you. That said," he grinned, "it's a bit naive to assume I can't do during the day what has you so worked up about the night."

"Enough," Capo hissed. He cast a glance down at the crowd below as though there were any possible way they could hear their conversation amid the music and frivolity of the festival. "I have my answer, and you have your warning. There won't be a second one."

"I didn't need the first." Rensai turned away and gestured down at the teeming festival square. "Why don't you find yourself a companion for tonight's display? It will be rather romantic."

Chapter Text

Dusk fell and eager chatter lifted. The sound had crept into every crevice and corner of the city, mingling with the festival's music and laughter and punctuated by purveyors selling every manner of food, flower, and frivolity available. The entire royal family had been swept up in the magic of the day: they were a fixture in the festival square, seated atop a raised pavilion bedecked with lanterns and streamers. Omare's joy proved particularly irrepressible. He spent the most time in the crowd out of all of them, cheering for every dance and demonstration. Yujin joined him for most of it, but took care to stroll through the alleyways too – each was trimmed with garlands that dripped petals onto anyone who passed beneath. Capo and Kouda turned up every few hours, but they had they day off like everyone else and Jimaya was glad to see them enjoying it. As the sun began to sink lower in the sky, she smiled upon spotting Capo across the square sharing a basket of dumplings with one of the Imperial officers.

The pavilion didn't last the evening though: Jimaya and Omare were ushered away towards the palace's grand balcony overlooking the festival square so it could be dismantled.

"The roof obscures the view from the square, Your Majesty," the engineer explained politely, but pride and anticipation were alight in his eyes. "You'll see much better if the tree is eye level."

"Oh, a tree," Omare mused, leaning out over the railing to get as close a look as possible. "I guess I see it now."

"You'd never guess it was our coronation piece at the center of it. Look how they built it out from the middle." Jimaya pointed to the massive center joint that stood at the top of what apparently served as the trunk. Yujin joined them before long, followed by Capo and Kouda, then Minister Yuuga and a few other courtiers. Soon enough the balcony was crowded with guests, all balancing drinks or food in hand and taking turns coming up with the wildest possible predictions for the evening's display. Omare was an expert at the game, convinced the entire structure would burn down by the end of the night. Yujin beamed and begged Yuuga for as much detail as she could reveal, but Yuuga shook her head and gave a catlike smile.

"The apprentices made me swear not to tell. But you will adore it, I'm sure."

Stars had begun making their first blinking appearances by then, but it wasn't until the sky had gone indigo that the first flare of light illuminated the festival square.

Both twins gasped and pressed against the railing, craning their necks to see over the sea of heads below. One corner of the crowd was alive with cheers, but Jimaya couldn't quite make out why: before she could wonder too long, a sharp burst of light came to life opposite. Another followed, then another, the crowd was roiling with murmurs of appreciation, and finally they parted enough to see ten dancers evenly spaced around the square, each holding what looked like a tiny, shimmering star.

Yujin let out a delighted gasp. Omare laughed, wrapping an arm around her shoulders, and Jimaya watched with wide eyes as the dancers made their way towards the center structure in slow, measured steps, the sparkling stars cupped in their hands, unfaltering even in the evening breeze. A drum thundered and on cue the dancers spread their arms wide. They whirled in place, long skirts swirling in dervishes at their feet, and the stars left trailing beams of light in their wakes. The crowd cooed its appreciation and consolidated to give them more space; the dancers' ring of light tightened as they converged on the tree trunk.

"Oh, look! Roots!" Omare pointed a finger at the base of the structure. No sooner had he mentioned it did the dancers swing their stars into low bows, brushing the ground with their light, and Jimaya's hands flew to her mouth as delicate golden fire flared at the roots of the tree. It shot up the structure in winding, veining twists, ivy bound in light, until each branch reached sparkling fingers towards the sky. The angular skeleton of the structure disappeared under the glow of its curving branches. As though brought to life by the same fire that carved out their great tree, the dancers resumed with renewed vigor while the crowd burst into applause.

"There will be more." Jimaya heard Yujin's laughter above the onlooker's cheers. "Keep watching, Omare, there will be more, there always is."

Omare nearly dropped the drink he'd been reaching for when the top of the tree blazed green. "Leaves! No, fireflies?" The verdant pinpricks that dotted the branches exploded outwards and took flight, whizzing in all directions before disappearing as quickly as they'd ignited. "And flowers!" Green was replaced with bursts of orange and pink at the end of each branch. They burned long and steady, raining glitter into the festival square. Jimaya let out a breath and realized her mouth had been hanging open, but found a moment to recover when traditional fireworks began firing off of the surrounding rooftops. Their eruptions mingled with the drum beats and the audience's whoops of encouragement.

"Ah, the man of the hour. Who let you up here?"

Rensai's laugh cut through the noise and Jimaya startled, turning in time to see him accept a drink from Minister Yuuga. A particularly large boom overhead drowned out his answer, but the accompanying flash of light illuminated the sidelong glance he laid on Jimaya. His lips curved upwards and he raised his glass in a discreet toast. Jimaya straightened her back, turned her attention back to the festival square, and immediately regretted it. Should she have greeted him? Would that have been more natural?

"Rensai." Omare's tone was stilted, the one he put on when he was struggling to find his footing on the high road. Their encounter at the welcome banquet still weighed on him, and by the look of it Yujin too. Jimaya watched them out of the corner of her eye. Behind Omare, Capo bristled and raised a hand to excuse himself from conversation just in case.

"Another spectacular display," Omare said diplomatically. "Thank you for your hard work."

Every potential sneering response flitted through Jimaya's mind at once, but to her relief Rensai only inclined his head and turned his gaze out towards the tree as it carried on raining its sparkling blossoms.

"It's a pleasure to see it come to life for the first time," Rensai said. "I hope you'll pardon the intrusion. The finale is quite something, and I couldn't resist the best vantage point." Another dazzling firework exploded close overhead, tracing Yujin's cheeks in gold. Jimaya wondered if Yujin's placidity was practiced or natural, given the company.

That was a ridiculous thought. And it was ridiculous that Jimaya hadn't joined them as soon as Rensai arrived, but by the time she noticed it the moment was already gone, too committed to feigning disinterest to play mediator like she usually did. She was allowed a moment to herself. There was nothing wrong with taking in the light and sound and focusing on calming the absurd low-grade panic in her chest.

"Jimaya."

His voice swept a shiver over her skin despite the warm summer air. She moved to turn, but Rensai's hand settled lightly on her shoulder and she froze beneath its touch, recalling too vividly how she'd stood with her back against his chest just two nights prior.

"Rensai. You've outdone yourself again." Her voice came steady and she tried not to think about how the slightest shift of his hand would betray her pulse. "Everyone will be talking about this one for years."

"I have no doubt." The smugness in his tone was nearly too much to bear. Jimaya was about to squirm out of his grip when light flared out of the corner of her eye, and Rensai wound his arm around her, encircling her. In his hand was one of the sparkling stars the dancers had held, trailing them through their turns like comets. Up close the light was nearly blinding, but Jimaya could just make out the end of a thin metal stick: he held it like a flower, a glittering golden bloom, and Jimaya gasped in delight.

"So that's how it's done! This is like magic – I've never seen anything like it!"

The breath from Rensai's low laugh shifted her hair. "Take it, it's quite safe."

Jimaya hesitated, wary of the sparks, but slipped the stick from his fingers and held the sparkler out at arm's length. She gave it a wave and light scattered a shimmering trail in its path; she looked up at Rensai, beaming. "It's beautiful." His lips twisted in a smile but his gaze shifted away from her, back towards Omare and Yujin. Jimaya wondered if her brother had noticed her all but wrapped in Rensai's arms, but the thought's accompanying flash of anxiety came muted, outshone by the brilliant circle of light that enclosed them.

The upper perimeter of the festival square lit up in a shower of glittering sparkles and all attention returned to the scene beyond the overlook. The thin line of fire cut through the night and illuminated the entire square to a twilight glow, the tree at its center, its glowing branches finally fading as the last of the fireworks erupted overhead. Rensai's hand slipped from her shoulder.

The music reached its crescendo, dancers whirled, the crowd cheered, and all at once Midsummer was over, the sky awash with smoke thick enough to leave Jimaya breathless.

Chapter Text

The southern sparring ring was Rensai's favorite in the palace. It didn't get as much natural light as the other two and Imperial officers tended to gravitate to the more artfully finished training rooms to the east and west, stocked with spears that had seen fifty bouts or fewer and swords often sharpened that same week. The dimmer, bare setting here reminded Rensai of the Den and attracted less polished opponents. Technique could be somewhat lacking, but ruthlessness was not.

Naka and Oroq were fond of it for the same reasons, and also because it afforded them an appropriate setting for roughing Rensai up as best they could. What had begun as a tense chance reunion between former compatriots had settled over time into a brusque understanding. They didn't mention Rensai's hand in his late father's betrayal, and in exchange Rensai didn't point out the way their Imperial whites failed to hide their Den tattoos. Every once in a while the trio met to beat the lingering hostility out of one another, and Rensai had the two hulking spearmen to thank for returning him to something close to the physical condition he'd enjoyed before his injury.

"I'm still slower on the left side." He leaned his spear back against its rack and swept his hair back to reknot it into a tighter bun. "You didn't take nearly enough advantage of it."

"I saw Oroq's blow to your ribs and took pity."

"I'll ask for your mercy when I need it," Rensai returned with a challenging grin. Already he could feel the bruise blossoming and he sat down heavily on a wooden bench just beyond the boundary of the ring. "You two carry on, that was more than enough for me."

The sharp wooden crack of spear on spear resumed, a dull rhythm to match the pulse of blood in his ribs. He muttered a curse and pressed a hand to the spot; it would be a week to heal at least. He leaned his head back on the cool stone wall and breathed through it. There was an oddly satisfying nostalgia in following the path of a match without watching. The footsteps, breath, and strikes told a story all on their own. But whatever story that unfolded between Naka and Oroq was interrupted before long by the opening door. The melody of blows halted without resolution.

"Your Majesty!"

"Do you need the room? We'll clear out at once—"

"If you don't mind, officers. I need a word with the wounded."

Rensai's lips turned up before he even opened his eyes. Jimaya was a treasure. Desperately predictable one moment and capricious the next. Death claim him the day she quit ricocheting between the two. Naka and Oroq all but flung their weapons back on the racks before abandoning the room, and Rensai eased the pressure from his ribs to wave Jimaya closer.

"What a pleasant surprise," he remarked as she perched herself on the bench beside him. "It's been some time. I didn't know you had a fondness for dull blades and battered staves."

"I thought you had a fondness for shaking up low council meetings," she said. "Where have you been? You've missed three."

"I prefer not to intrude where I'm not needed," Rensai said, which Jimaya met with a sniff of disbelief. "Besides, the last one I attended was a high point. I'm trying to preserve the memory as best I can."

Truthfully he'd stopped paying attention to the schedule as soon as his attendance was no longer mandatory. Plus it was clear low council could only go downhill after the applause that greeted him at the meeting following the Midsummer Festival. Minister Yuuga had been particularly emphatic, as well she should have been: he'd molded her greenest dancers into the envy of the entire city, and it had only taken threats of burns and other forms of bodily harm to get them there. Even Omare had acknowledged the success of the evening with a few words of praise, which to his credit hadn't even sounded bitter on his tongue. Yujin had been there. Jimaya was too, wearing the sort of fixed, mild smile that betrayed more than it concealed. Why ruin the memory with another bumbling update from the Minister of Agriculture? They could miss him for a while.

"That's not at all true and it doesn't answer my question."

Rensai straightened up to better study her. Chin lifted, shoulders square, fingers tightened in her lap. She was serious, which meant there was only one appropriate response. He smiled.

"Jimaya, have you missed me?"

"I've had more than enough of you for a lifetime," Jimaya snapped. "This is about the other night."

"There have been many nights since I last saw you," Rensai pointed out.

"Two nights before the festival. My last visit."

"Ah, the night you slept in my bed." Rensai leaned back against the wall again and Jimaya hushed him, glancing at the door as though someone might overhear. As though her entire court didn't already suspect. "You handle your drink remarkably well."

Jimaya scoffed. "Not well enough to make it back to the palace. Poorly enough that I let you talk me into spending the night."

"Right. I all but pleaded, and you were generous."

Jimaya's cheeks were burning and he was seized by the sudden desire to take her face in his hands and feel the heat of her blush himself. But her embarrassment quickly gave way to a hardened, defiant stare.

"Minister Zhendou delivered a reconstruction update this morning."

"More reason for me to stay well clear of those meetings."

"His plans reminded me of something I'd seen before. Sketches of the western wall."

Rensai raised his eyebrows. He hadn't counted on her prying, but then again he hadn't counted on her spending the night, either. "What a shameless admonition," he said, leaning closer.

Jimaya's blush deepened and he ached to know what was on her mind, but she pressed on. "That's what they are, aren't they? The notes on your desk."

"I wondered if leaving you alone might be a mistake. But you slept so soundly, I couldn't bear to wake you."

"You haven't been commissioned for any such project."

"Is there a law that prohibits taking note of the local infrastructure?"

"I don't think I need to spell out why concerns might arise when someone like you takes a sudden interest in city defenses," she said shortly. "Particularly a past invasion point."

Rensai's amusement chilled in his chest. Jimaya's expression flickered.

"I thought you'd present a plan at an upcoming meeting, but you stopped attending." She was reeling her tone back in, trying to smooth it over with understanding. "I'm asking you to reward my benefit of the doubt."

"What benefit of the doubt? If someone like me is such a cause for public concern, perhaps a more appropriate plan would be to send guards to search my home," Rensai said. "Or your court jester – he has an inflated sense of responsibility for your private affairs, so he might as well barge in on mine too."

"What are you talking about—"

"This is the second half-baked accusation you've leveled against me since my pardon," Rensai cut her off coolly.

"You admitted to the first!"

"And I admit to the second. Don't look so shocked," he sneered when her mouth fell open. He hadn't taken such a venomous tone with her in months. It tasted sickly sweet on his tongue. "I have plans for the western wall, yes. But your anxiety is unfounded, and you should know by now that I never present proposals until they're ready. That I haven't brought it forward yet should be of no consequence."

"Please don't act like you're hurt," Jimaya said derisively, but there was a flash of worry in her eyes that begged him to confirm no deep offense had been taken. He got to his feet.

"Your brother paints me with such vivid malice, and admittedly with some reason. But I thought you and I were well beyond that."

"Just tell me what it's for," Jimaya said exasperatedly. "I don't want to argue with you. I won't ruin the surprise of the presentation, but please, just ease my mind."

Rensai cast a glance at her, then moved towards the weapons rack Naka and Oroq had left cluttered in their haste to exit. He ran his fingers over a staff, then lifted it to test its balance. Worn, but not cracked. It had seen more wins than losses. He looked back over his shoulder at Jimaya.

"Fight me for it."

Jimaya looked from the rack to Rensai and scowled. "Are you serious? You could just do as your empress commands and tell me."

"My empress?" Rensai spun the staff hand over hand and rounded on her, locking it under his arm and leveling the butt just under her chin. "You seem to miss the days when we were enemies, so why don't I indulge you? Consider this treason."

Jimaya's lips parted wordlessly, her cheeks flushed with anger now, and she slapped the staff away. "You had better watch your words with me, Rensai—" But he slid the staff through his grip and struck it down on her hand, not hard enough to break bone but enough for her to snatch her hand back with a yelp of pain.

"How dare you!"

"Leave aside your surprise. Our relationship has never been one between empress and subject. Come, Jimaya." He opened his arms wide to her. "Put me in my place."

Seething, Jimaya snatched up a pair of swords from the rack and advanced on him until they stood at the center of the ring. She wasn't dressed for a sparring match. Nor was he in the right physical condition for one, not against someone with such immaculate technique as Jimaya. Her measured, fluid paces to the center of the ring were plenty of evidence.

They regarded each other in silence, weapons raised, and Jimaya lunged. Rensai had hoped the first strike would be hers; he couldn't repress his smile when he blocked her, nor the catch in his breath when she turned with a jerk and slashed one of her swords at his side. He twisted out of the way with hardly a split-second to spare.

"Vicious," he said admiringly. "Have you been longing for this?"

Both swords shined overhead and he raised his staff to block them: their dull blades glanced off the wood and left an opening for Rensai. He ducked low and swung the staff in an arc along the ground – Jimaya had to leap out of the way to avoid having her legs knocked out from under her.

"You are impossible," she spat. "The excuses I have made for you, the chances I have taken for you— all I ask is for your honesty."

"And you would have it, if only you gave me your trust."

"My trust?" Jimaya swords were twin flashes of silver, and Rensai's smile fell away in his haste to block the flurry of strikes. There was power behind each slash: she wasn't afraid to hurt him. "You've had it! You've done nothing to earn it, but I gave it to you anyway and you repay me with teases and secrets when I need your honesty most."

"And when you came to my doorstep after leaving your lover? Was I teasing you then?" He danced out of the way of another furious strike. "What about when I led you to my bed?"

He'd spent so much time watching her blades that he'd neglected her feet: a kick connected to his bruised ribs and Rensai stumbled back, clutching his staff for support. He shook his hair from his eyes to find Jimaya looking alarmed and uncertain, flicking her gaze from his face to his injury.

Rensai seized his chance and surged forward. He pinned Jimaya to the wall behind her and pressed in, his staff flat against her chest and forearms, her hands trapped uselessly. She gritted her teeth against the pressure but refused to protest or complain, panting as she glared up at him.

"Your revulsion at exploiting others' weaknesses reveals your own," he breathed. "Your brother's immaturity. Tsulemon's infidelity. Do you ever wonder what you could be if you leaned on their flaws instead of turning away?"

"That's your strategy, not mine," she snapped, eyes burning.

"True enough." He pressed harder. "Can you tell which one I'm leaning on now?"

They were close, their bodies flush against the wall. Jimaya's eyes couldn't seem to settle on his face, and they darted in search of any clue to his thoughts. When they landed on his lips, they lingered. Rensai smiled, leaned closer, and answered for her.

"Your uncertainty."

He kissed her. Her lips parted for him and he imagined he could taste relief there, relief that her suspicions had been right, that she hadn't misinterpreted the countless invitations he'd been laying at her feet for months. He would have done this a year ago if he thought she would have permitted it, but the wait was worth it, her desperation was exquisite, her tongue sought his first and a second later her swords had clattered to the floor. His staff followed and Rensai kicked it aside, gathering her close, winding his arms tight around her waist. They broke apart for only scant seconds at a time, enough for her to look at him, make her peace with her decision, then give in and kiss him again.

Jimaya's breath changed when he moved to her throat; he paused just beneath her jaw to savor her pulse beneath his lips. She turned her head and pulled her hair aside to make more room for him and he took his cue, trimming her neck with kisses and tiny flashes of teeth.

He pressed his knee between her legs and pulled her hips tight against his own, but her breath hitched again and Rensai pulled back to find Jimaya blushing. Was she actually surprised to find him hard? What had she expected? But smugness or superiority wouldn't serve him now; he swallowed his smile and leaned in to kiss her again, gentle, coaxing. Jimaya softened once more, and a few seconds' adjustment saw her tentatively rocking her hips against his. Rensai let her lead on and rewarded her with a growl of encouragement. He focused instead of mapping every inch of her body his fingers could reach, the curve of her shoulder, the arch at the small of her back. Eventually his hand found its way downward and he pressed hard between her legs: Jimaya rose up onto her toes with a sharp intake of breath.

"These are in the way," he said in her ear as he worked his hand against the fabric gathered there. "Imperial dress is so excessive."

"Don't get your hopes up." The way Jimaya was moving against his hand rather undermined her sneer. Even when spitting venom, she was too sweet to do much harm. "I'm not going to sleep with you."

Sleep with you. She couldn't even say it. Adorable.

"No," Rensai agreed, and sealed his agreement with a kiss. "Not this time."

Jimaya gave an agitated huff and to Rensai's surprise reached down and yanked up the hem of her robes. He delighted in little more than a tryst driven by this exact brand of aggravation, but his amusement slid seamlessly into hunger when she dragged his hand back between her legs.

She was desperately wet. It cost him every ounce of patience to take his time, trace every part of her in lazy lines, punishment for letting her irritation give him such an advantage in their game. Only when she whined in frustration did he press inside her: she choked on the sound and dug her fingers into his shoulders.

"Where is your darling blush now?" he teased, pulling in deep, reaching strokes in time with her breath. "If I'd known you wanted me to touch you, I would have done it long ago. This and quite a bit more."

"Shut up." Jimaya closed her eyes and rested her head back against the wall behind her; Rensai leaned in and kissed her throat again. "Every time you open your mouth, my life becomes more difficult."

Rensai chuckled against her skin, pressed a chaste kiss to her lips, and abruptly drew away. Jimaya's affronted sound of protest was cut short when he got to his knees, replaced with captivated silence. He could feel her eyes on him, wide and apprehensive, as he gathered her robes out of the way and nudged her legs further apart.

"Rensai…"

"I'll be silent," he promised. "But I want to hear you."

He slid one finger back inside her and began laying light, reverent kisses along her hips and stomach. Years of combat training of the highest royal quality had kept her lean and tight: muscles contracted under her shallow breathing and narrow hips angled impatiently forward, but still he made her wait. A sudden crook of his finger sent a shudder through her that shook out a moan. Unable to resist any longer, he laid his free hand on her hip, leaned closer, and kissed between her legs.

"Ah!" Jimaya let out a shaky breath as Rensai set about his task, her hands flat against the wall as though it were her anchor. She smelled divine and the taste was even better – Rensai groaned in appreciation as he swirled his tongue around her clit. A sudden impatience surged inside him. He'd had his fill of teasing – he wanted her desperate, begging, sighing his name. Every reaction he drew from her he pursued, every gasp drove him to repeat whatever he'd done to earn it. His hand worked relentlessly in tandem with his tongue and eventually her hands found his hair, either encouraging him onward or hanging on for dear life.

Her every breath was punctuated by a whine now, a pleading, keening sound that called up every one of the other thousand things he wanted to do to her. But no, not this time. Better to leave her wet and wanting, willing to do anything for more, to set aside suspicion and expectation alike just to be touched by him again.

"Rensai," she whispered. Her legs were trembling, both her hands tangled in his hair. "Please, don't stop."

He didn't, until Jimaya came with a cry, back arched and head thrown back. Rensai held her in it while she caught her breath, and at last she sank down into his arms until they were both half-kneeling on the floor, her robes pooled in a scarlet pile around them. She clung to him, kissed his chest, kissed his neck. He made sure she tasted herself on his tongue before tucking her her face into the crook of his shoulder.

So affectionate. He wouldn't have guessed.

"That was," she began once they drew apart, breathless, but she couldn't find the words and gave up on seeking them. She shook her head against his shoulder. "That wasn't why I came here."

"It should have been. You are exquisite, Jimaya," Rensai said, and he meant it. What a beautiful image she made of an empress undone, in a heap on a training room floor, weak from orgasm in the arms of a pardoned war criminal. What a prize.

Her hand wandered downward and came to rest on the erection had long been straining painfully against his leather pants. He entertained a brief fantasy of her returning the favor – splayed between his legs there on the floor, his hand at the back of her neck, her eyelashes dipped as she concentrated – but no. He closed his hand over hers.

"Visit me tomorrow," he said. "I will show you my plans for the western wall."

"And?" Jimaya glanced up at him. It looked like it took a lot of willpower for her to hold his gaze. He leaned close and touched a kiss to her ear.

"And I will fuck you until you can't stand," he whispered, "at which point we can consider transitioning to bed, where I will fuck you at least twice more."

Jimaya let out a breath and drew away at last. Rensai leaned back on his hands and stared openly while she ran her fingers through the worst of her hair's tangles and smoothed the wrinkles from her robes. Poor Jimaya was so tragically easy to read that he was sure anyone who looked at her too long would suspect something had happened – there was no chaste excuse for those swollen lips or flushed cheeks.

He couldn't wait to see her properly fucked.

"Until tomorrow, Jimaya," he bid her as he got to his feet. She was lingering uncertainly, as though awaiting dismissal, and Rensai itched to take her in his arms again. He would have been surprised if this sort of casual encounter was something she did often, but he never could have dreamed she would be quite this awkward about it. He came close again and touched a kiss to the corner of her mouth. "I look forward to it."

The cue to leave was taken gratefully and Jimaya stepped back, some attempt at a calm mask hastily drawn over her features. "Until then," she said primly, spun on her heel, and marched from the room.

Chapter Text

Jimaya had only the vaguest awareness of passing anyone as she put as much space between herself and the southern training room as possible. Details felt fuzzy and distant; the only things that mattered were left behind in the ring. If there were guards on her harried journey back to the main part of the palace, she neither saw nor acknowledged them. That was probably unusual to them, but she couldn't examine the feeling now. She couldn't examine any feelings at all at the risk of being utterly overwhelmed, and the pristine polished halls of the palace were decidedly not the place for that kind of introspection. She darted towards her bedroom with her secret clutched close to her chest like a jewel: too exquisite to keep to herself but far too valuable to share with anyone.

Rensai had called her exquisite, too.

Sensing her need for privacy, Jimaya's attendants scattered from her bedroom as soon as they spotted her on the approach. They left her with hurried bows and murmurs for Jimaya to call should she need anything, but Jimaya was already shutting the door on them. "Yes, yes," she assured them, nearly catching her own fingers in the door in her haste to close herself in. She leaned back against the door with a shaky sigh, then sank down onto the floor. A scoff of disbelief escaped her.

She sat with it for a while, the blank, irrefutable reality in which Rensai had kissed her. And touched her. And gotten to his knees for her in a far more enthusiastic demonstration of deference than he'd ever shown in court. It was gratifying to learn that she had been right: he was as good at it as one might reasonably assume. Better, even. Of course he was – a wicked tongue like his had to be good for something other than slinging artful insults. But that was to say nothing about the way he held her, kissed her, touched her. That had completed the picture in a way her imagination could never have supplied.

Her face burned at the memory and she smothered a giggle, unable to contain it any longer. She buried her face in her hands.

But the conspiratorial fever of a secret tryst didn't mix well with the demands of real life, all of which lingered just outside her door. The day crawled on and a new source of anxiety gradually dawned on her: Rensai's invitation. The flush in her cheeks returned every time she thought about his breath on her ear, the roughness of his voice, what he had promised her should she come to visit tomorrow. No man had ever spoken to her like that before. She imagined few would dare, and she wasn't quite sure if she liked it yet.

Omare snapped his chopsticks in her face when he caught her distracted over dinner.

"What's going on? Everything okay? You're so out of it."

"What? No I'm not." Jimaya tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Maybe you're just being boring."

"Hey!"

But he had no hope of competing with what was on her mind. Yujin laughed and remarked that there was a new color in Jimaya's cheeks, which only made it burn brighter.

"You seem to be feeling better. I'm glad," she said with a smile, and Jimaya realized too late that Yujin was probably referring to Tsuelmon's departure. Jimaya quickly arranged her features into something close to resigned, optimistic acceptance. Missing Tsulemon almost felt comical.

The following day brought meetings galore, none of which held her attention as she had hoped. She'd awoken with agida as a bedmate, unable to keep from agonizing over what to do, whether it was desperate to accept Rensai's invitation, whether it was rude not to. She thought of him waiting for her, wondering when or if she might arrive, maybe even nervous that she wouldn't, and liked it. But she also thought of him forgetting, the previous day's promises just a symptom of the moment, and how horrible the stifled laughter would look on his face. His eyes would go alight and his lips would quirk up – she couldn't bear to be the object of it, not like this. Twice the Minister of Agriculture had to clear his throat to bring her attention back to the irrigation problem in the southern fields. Omare goggled as though the very idea of a preoccupied sister turned his world upside down.

She took a light dinner alone that evening and sank into a long jasmine bath afterwards. The perfumed steam relaxed her thoughts, drew them softly out like fingers through hair until at last they stopped tangling in her mind. Maybe he'd been expecting her at noon. Maybe he hadn't been expecting her at all. Maybe it was wholly excessive to show up at his door after dusk, wrapped in the scent of a bath that probably cost more than the contents of his entire cottage. But the heat of the water had raised her pulse enough to conceal her heartbeat, and that made it easier to ignore when she rapped her knuckles against Rensai's door.

"Come in," came the muffled bid from within, and Jimaya pushed open the door into an unusually private scene. The low-turned evening lamps illuminated Rensai bent over the center table, a reed pen hovering over a stack of heavily marked papers, hair piled in a haphazard bun. He'd forgone his usual cowl and gloves: a bare chest was one thing – Jimaya had long grown used to that – but an exposed neck and arms felt oddly intimate. She'd never seen that much of him before, never followed the uninterrupted pattern of his tattoos from chest to shoulders to wrist. There was a tea tray on the floor beside him but the sight of the second empty cup did little to diminish the sense that she was intruding. Rensai looked up and smiled to see her, waving her forward.

"There you are. I thought you'd forgotten about me."

"Have I interrupted? It was a full day and I hardly had a moment," Jimaya began, resenting the flush she already felt building in her cheeks. She didn't know where to look and settled for the tabletop – that was why she was here, right? To see his plans for the western wall like he'd promised. He beckoned her closer when she lingered across the table from him, and reluctantly she joined him on his side, folding her robes neatly beneath her knees. Jimaya didn't have to see his face to know how amused he looked.

"As much as I adore your less expected visits, this is hardly an intrusion. I'm appreciative – I know an empress' time is valuable," Rensai said. Jimaya's lips tightened. She didn't want a reminder of her position now. But she barely had a second to settle in with her irritation before Rensai leaned closer and touched a kiss just below her ear. She froze, heart hammering, and he lingered for a moment before breathing deeply and kissing her again.

"You smell lovely."

"It's jasmine," Jimaya said inanely. Rensai chuckled, his breath tickling her neck.

"How lucky. That's just the sort of tea I chose for today. The water has gone quite cold though, I will have to heat some more—"

"Don't worry about it," Jimaya said quickly, tucking her hair behind her ear and gesturing to the plans that scattered the table. "Tell me about this." She recognized them from her momentary rifle through his things during her last visit, though these looked like they'd been revised considerably since then. The familiar silhouette of the western wall was slashed apart with marks and notes. Thumbnails and more of Rensai's weirdly beautiful calligraphy cluttered what little space remained on the pages.

"Mm. All business. Very well." Rensai drew away at last and leafed through the papers to pull out one that bore a somewhat cleaner sketch than the rest. "The western wall's reconstruction is six months off pace. This is to be expected, considering Minister Zhendou's innumerable weaknesses as a general and your Minister of Infrastructure's apparent disdain for regular maintenance. But I suppose discussing Imperial inefficiencies doesn't get your blood pumping, does it?" He flashed a smile that hooked in her stomach and pulled out a second page, this one bearing what looked like a map. The mountains stood heavy and ominous northwest of the sprawling Imperial City, little tributaries of alpine runoff carving ravines across the sketch. "The delay affords us an opportunity. If the structure of the wall is sound so far and the materials are available – and I know they are…"

Rensai paused. Jimaya felt his eyes on her, waiting for her to work out his proposal. She scowled in concentration under the sudden pressure: the mountain, the city, the eastern sea…. The southern plains stretched their rolling expanse across nearly half the page, fed by the river that cut through the mountains. But that river was unreliable, prone to flooding or weeks-long stretches of sudden scarcity, and the irrigation system there wasn't built to support the growing need for crops from that region. That had been reinforced to her recently, dully, and at great length by the Minister of Agriculture just that afternoon. She looked closer. He'd taken such great care to map the mountain tributaries, a landscape he'd probably grown to know well after a lifetime spent in the Den. Given the scale of the map, it was odd to see them indicated so prominently.

"What does the wall have to do with all these rivers?"

"An aqueduct, Jimaya," Rensai said, dark eyes alight, and before she could blink he'd shuffled the papers again to spread out one of the least legible ones, this time bearing the western wall again. "You already use the river but not the mountain runoff. Redirecting it will deliver clear, consistent water after the spring floods have subsided, and if we use the western wall as an arcade, we can supplement the city's resources and direct more water to the southern plains."

Jimaya looked from the plans to Rensai, mouth agape. "This is not what I expected at all," she stammered. "This is a massive undertaking—"

"One we have very little time to act on unless you tell Zhendou to stop insisting on more unnecessary watchtowers," Rensai said. "Who are you watching for now? All your enemies are within city walls."

"Don't talk like that," Jimaya warned him. He grinned devilishly and leaned back on his hands, smug as could be. "Since when are you so concerned about the kingdom's water distribution anyway?"

"I'm not," Rensai said, but he looked at her with a sudden sharpness that stilled her breath. "But these plans are valuable, and I want something for them."

Jimaya's mind flew to feed her worst instincts. He must have read it on her face because he looked amused, he had that horrible dip in the corners of his mouth that she hated so much, the one that told her she was quaint to him, that he was laughing at her.

"Ah. You would think the worst of me. I should have guessed," he said before her imagination could run too far into the arms of anger. Rensai shifted closer until they were shoulder to shoulder, then reached forward to pull long fingers through the hair she'd tucked behind her ear. "I don't mean sex, Jimaya. My personal and professional ambitions are quite distinct."

"Then what?" Jimaya asked softly. She wasn't sure she believed him, but she welcomed the reassurance and let it cool the worst of her agitation. She felt drawn to him, she couldn't stop staring at the way he lingered on her lips. Her heart thudded when he lifted his gaze to hers.

"A royal appointment."

Jimaya blinked, anxiety extinguished by surprise. "A what?"

"I'm tired of working on commission," Rensai said. "The entire city knows I'm capable of more than festival fireworks but I'm afforded neither the resources nor the opportunity."

Jimaya studied him, waiting for his facade to crack. He couldn't be serious. "An appointment means court. You hate court."

"I hate wasting my own time, and with a proper title perhaps I can make better use of it."

"I agree that your talents are probably underutilized," she said slowly. "But surely you know I can't make that appointment myself."

Rensai let his hand fall back into his lap. A crease had formed between his brows. "Why not?"

"Because you and I are close!" She gestured at what little space remained between them. "You have a… reputation. Don't look like that, you know you do, and I know you still enjoy clinging to it. Imagine how a sudden appointment would look."

"Smart," Rensai said bluntly. "The natural choice."

"Ridiculous," Jimaya corrected him, "and borderline suspect."

"I think we left suspect far behind in the southern training room," Rensai said. He raked his eyes over her body. "Appointing me Chief Engineer—"

"Chief?!"

"Yes, Chief," he insisted, snaking one arm around her waist. "Surely that is no more suspect than the time we have already spent together. This neighborhood thrives on whispers of your visits, and I'm sure that pales in comparison to what must go on among your courtiers. Perhaps this will redirect their suspicion."

"That's absurd and you know it," Jimaya began, but Rensai's lips touched her throat, featherlight and lingering.

"For all they know, we have been spending our time perfecting this proposal," Rensai said, and she could feel him smile against her skin. He trailed kisses along the length of her neck. "Hours and hours. Late into the night."

"What happened to distinct personal and professional ambitions?" Jimaya asked breathlessly.

"I could ask the same of you, who arrived to review construction plans after dark and wreathed in jasmine."

He nipped at her playfully and she sighed, letting him pull her into his lap.

"I'm royalty," Jimaya said, lacing her fingers behind Rensai's neck. "I can do whatever I want."

She kissed him and he growled a note of approval that skittered down the length of her spine. Deepening their kiss felt like a full body motion, more than the gentle slide of his tongue over hers but his hands on her hips too, the rise and fall of their chests, her fingers stroking through the hair pulled away from the nape of his neck. He leaned back and took her with him, laying them both down against the tatami floor so he could better fit his hips against hers. He lined kisses down every inch of skin he could reach, then fingertips followed, leaving goosebumps in their wake as they stroked over what few expanses of skin her robes afforded. Jimaya shifted impatiently before long – her robes were already bunched and tangled from Rensai's wandering touch; she wished the heat between them would burn them away and be done with it. A tiny sound of frustration escaped her and she felt Rensai smile. He'd been keeping her close with a hand at the small of her back but he drew it upward to rest on the knot of her sash.

"May I?"

Jimaya was nodding before he even finished the question and he laughed, drawing away to lean over her and untie the complicated knot. At last he parted her robes like curtains: the silk whispered over her bare skin as it fell away into soft folds at her sides. Rensai's eyes passed over her body with unconcealed hunger. Arousal blotted out any self-consciousness Jimaya might have felt, all she could think about was his hands and mouth on her again. She reached for him and he obliged.

He delighted in her every sensitivity, his breath warm on his skin as he huffed his amusement at each new discovery. Jimaya shuddered when his lips passed over one of her nipples and she imagined him mapping her like one of his designs, every detail marked and memorized. Eventually his mouth found its way between her legs again and sighs became moans, vague words of encouragement as his head bobbed below her hips. But she could tell Rensai was teasing her, this was nothing like the ruthless affections that had left her shaking the day before. She fisted her hands in the pool of robes beneath them.

"Rensai..."

She felt his ragged sigh and he looked up at her, one hand already fingering the laces at the front of his pants. His lips had curved into a smile and he hid it with a kiss to the inside of her thigh. "What is it?"

Jimaya gritted her teeth. She didn't want to have to say it, but when he saw her hesitate Rensai pressed a finger inside her and she gasped, her rebuke lost to another moan. He worked it in and out of her in slow, lazy strokes.

"Do you want me to fuck you, Jimaya?"

She nodded feverishly, gesturing for him to get a move on, but Rensai took her hand and drew it downward to curl it around his cock. Her eyes flew open, he was unspeakably hard, and she could barely remember the last time she wanted someone inside her so desperately. She licked her lips and swiped her thumb over the head, smearing the bead of precum there.

"Tell me," he purred, crooking his finger inside her. She gasped again and tightened her hand.

"Fuck me," she said fiercely, lifting her hips for even a fraction more of his touch. "Now."

All pretense of languor seemed to abandon Rensai at the word: he shucked off his pants and returned to her in a breath, sinking into her with a groan. He paused to stare down at her, one hand on her hip and the other splayed over her stomach, to bask in the satisfaction of the moment.

"Do you know how long I've wanted to do this?" he asked. Jimaya couldn't bear to meet his eyes but her lips parted again as he began to move, each slow thrust pushing the breath from her lungs. "To see you like this?"

Jimaya laid her hands on his hips to urge him faster. "Almost as long as I have."

Rensai stifled a groan in the crook of her shoulder and she arched into him. He seized the opportunity to gather her into his arms, raise her up, and they were kissing again, teeth and tongue and desperate jerks of their hips. Cool softness brushed over her face and Jimaya realized his hair had come undone: she doubled her grip on it and shivered when it made him inhale sharply. Both their patience had run out long before he'd entered her, she could feel it in the heat and weight of his breath, and through the haze of pleasure she wondered how she had possibly lasted this long, how either of them had spent this much time in each other's company and not done this sooner. Every second under his touch drove her relentlessly closer to the edge.

Jimaya clung to him when she came, shaking, panting, vaguely aware of his name on her lips. She was on her back again and hardly noticed the way Rensai had pinned her hands above her head until he backed off of them to take her by the waist. He fucked her through it, steady, rhythmic, until he pulled out and came too, striping her stomach with thick, warm ropes. He collapsed beside her a moment later, his amusement warm on her ear.

"You exceed every expectation." Affection kindled at the ends of each word and Jimaya turned into it, pressing close against him. Rensai settled an arm heavily over her body.

"You..." Jimaya began, but her mind was splendidly blank. She sighed without finishing her sentence and shook her head against his chest. "Ridiculous." He chuckled lowly.

"I prefer borderline suspect." He nudged her chin upward to kiss her. Jimaya smiled against his lips.

"Mm. I'm not sure I'll be able to hide it as well this time. You better not have stained my robes."

"Worry about your own handiwork. You were hopelessly wet for me—"

"Rensai!"

"—absolutely drenched and begging for my touch—"

"I take it back, this wasn't worth it," Jimaya grumbled. Rensai smacked a kiss to her throat and sat up.

"I couldn't disagree more." He cast a grin back at her that Jimaya felt flutter in her stomach, then began piling his hair back on top of his head to tie another loose bun. "Stay there. I'll find you something a little less fucked atop to wear."

Jimaya's face burned and she drew the wrinkled ends of her robes around herself. She still wasn't used to discussing sex so casually, so carelessly, but it rolled off Rensai's tongue smooth and cool as polished glass. Maybe it was a Denborn thing. Or maybe everyone spoke of sex with alternating admiration and dismissal and she just never knew. Suddenly she felt small and inexperienced, and she pulled the robes tighter.

But Rensai returned with not just two silken dressing gowns, but a damp cloth as well. He knelt beside her and coaxed the fabric from her shoulders, then distracted her with a gentle kiss as he wiped away the evidence of the evening's transgressions. Jimaya closed her eyes and parted her lips for him – the cloth was cool and refreshing in the close summer air of the cottage, and each brush over her skin raised goosebumps in its wake. The cloth passed over her breasts and drew her nipples back to pertness; Rensai caught her eye, his lips twisting into a half-smile, but didn't act on it. Instead he draped her shoulders in the dressing gown, charcoal gray and unexpectedly light. It settled in shining folds around her elbows and hips, a surprisingly good fit. Jimaya willed herself not to think about why.

"I didn't know you owned anything with sleeves."

"It's a special occasion," Rensai said, flashing a grin as he slid a similar one over his own shoulders. "Tea?"

They fucked twice more that night. Fucked, Jimaya told herself firmly, partly to acquaint herself with the informality of it and partly to modulate the tingle of comfort and ease she felt when she turned over in Rensai's arms. She even said it aloud a few more times to get used to it – "Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me," to the rhythm of his movements – which Rensai took to with great enthusiasm. She had to consciously work to untangle her limbs from his after she came. He kissed her hair and whispered praise in her ear that made her run hot all over again.

Eventually sunlight coaxed them both awake but they marinated in bed for hours. Rensai wasn't particularly talkative in the morning, all grumbles and growls, but somehow he managed to convince Jimaya that her valets weren't worried or wondering, they knew she could take care of herself. Around that point his hands began to wander and Jimaya stopped caring for who might have noticed she spent the night elsewhere. All she cared about was enclosed within four unadorned walls, lingering just at the tip of Rensai's vicious tongue.

"I need to go," she said at last, untangling her fingers from his hair. He chased her lips for what felt like their thousandth kiss.

"You're royalty. You can do whatever you want."

She softened in his arms, a moment of weakness, but found the strength to push her hands against his chest and sit up. He took her hands in his and slid them down his torso.

"No, I mean it," she insisted, but a smile was pulling at her and he sat up to capture it. She let him have it, but only for a moment before forcing herself out of bed and casting around for the robes she'd arrived in.

"In the other room." Rensai propped himself up on the bed and made no move to help her, though he did stare unabashedly at her naked body. Jimaya huffed and returned a few moments later to jerk her robes around her shoulders, hopelessly wrinkled and scandalously stained. Luckily nothing was visible from the outside, and once Jimaya had folded herself in and smoothed the silk out as best she could, she turned her back on Rensai and flicked her eyes over her shoulder.

"Would you be so kind?" She held out her sash.

Rensai swung his legs out of bed – at last Jimaya's question about exactly how far his tattoos extended had been answered – and looped the sash around her waist. His lips touched the nape of her neck.

"When will I see you next?" His voice came low in her ear. Jimaya closed her eyes, leaning into it.

"Tomorrow's low council meeting."

"With neither a commission nor title? Hm." He cinched the knot tight and Jimaya turned to face him. Rensai passed his thumb over her mouth thoughtfully, then drew away. "We'll see."

"Wait," Jimaya protested before she could stop herself. "Don't be like that, I just… want to manage your expectations. You— ah." Rensai had turned back to her and slipped his arms around her waist again, burying his face in the crook of her neck. She felt the smirk in the nip of his teeth. "Don't get overexcited. These things can take time, and my opinion isn't the only one that matters."

"It's the only one that matters to me," he purred, and Jimaya rolled her eyes. She pushed against his chest and he let her slip from his grip.

He kissed her goodbye at the door, sweet and lingering. Jimaya would have bet half the kingdom's treasury that time moved differently in that cottage, in his arms, at times alarmingly fast or splendidly slow. Morning light spilled into the room when she opened the door, illuminating every worry and obligation she had set aside the night before. She was seized by the sudden impulse to slam it shut again and go back to bed.

Rensai noticed her hesitation and smiled. It was the one she hated, the one that told her she'd played into a hand dealt long ago. She didn't care.

Chapter Text

Kouda liked the buzz of activity that vibrated through the polished palace halls. She and the servants were the only one who could feel it, but everyone saw the results: meals managed with military precision, rooms aired just in time for impromptu meetings, bedding fresh and turned down every night. Managing the royal household was practically identical to nannying, but rather behind the scenes and supported by a small, largely unseen army of dedicated staff. Instead of Kouda hounding the twins to study or practice like she had when they were young, now there was almost always someone else to do it, a minister or advisor or whatever the case might be so they could attend to this or that. Kouda was their relief rather than their enforcer now. Her shoulder had borne more than a handful of furrowed royal brows since their ascent to their thrones.

But this morning's task was laundry supervision, far from her favorite. It was dreadfully hot and noisy down there, and Kouda didn't do well in the heat. Rising steam made the air that much thicker, the bustle of laundresses that much closer, and she whipped out her fan as though moving the air would push her thoughts away from smoke instead of steam, slaves instead of servants. She focused instead on the lead laundress' singing, a high, tinny tune that kept the pace of everyone's scrubbing.

"Madam Kouda!"

Kouda startled, her tenuous grip on her nerves loosened once more. It was one of the newer laundresses, one whose name she hadn't committed to memory just yet, though if she always looked this harried it wouldn't be difficult to pick her out from the rest.

"Madam Kouda," the girl repeated, bowing apologetically over the bundle of robes she carried, "I was sent to the empress' bedroom to straighten while Her Majesty took breakfast with the Emperor and…." She trailed off, face flushed scarlet. "I thought I ought to bring these straight to you."

She thrust the robes at Kouda, eyes averted, and Kouda's brows knitted into a wary frown. She shook out the robes – one of Jimaya's favorite sets, crimson silk patterned with blossoming golden branches – but a few of the wrinkles failed to fall out. The fabric stuck together in places, along the inside liner, and Kouda squinted through the humid air to take a closer look. She jerked her head back and sucked in an affronted gasp.

"Have you brought this to anyone else?"

The girl shook her head.

"Good." The tightness in Kouda's chest relaxed fractionally. She thrust the robes back into the girl's arms. "Those won't come out. Dispose of them and then join everyone else at the wash basins."

The girl ducked another bow and scurried off. Kouda caught the lead laundress' eye, bid her farewell, and hurried back up the wooden stairs to the palace just as the reedy chorus of the servants' song resumed.

She'd conducted many a harried search in her days, usually chasing after the young twins to wrestle their wriggling bodies into formal wear, but all that felt far behind her as she rushed through the halls. Each time she ran into a guard or attendant she slowed her pace and beamed a doting smile, then dropped it the second she left their line of sight. Capo always stood out like a phoenix among pheasants – why was he so hard to track down when she needed him?

"There you are." Kouda apprehended him outside the gate to the western garden, a plate of grapes in hand and alarmed to have his relaxing breakfast interrupted before it had even begun. She took him by the arm and dragged him away from the door, standing on her toes to peer over his shoulder and ensure they were alone.

"Easy, friend, what is it?"

"It's as we feared," Kouda said breathlessly, wincing against a stitch and winded from tearing through the palace to find him. She gestured vaguely as she caught her breath – tall, hair, tattoos…. Capo frowned in confusion.

"Jimaya and the Counselor's son," she managed at last. "At least I think it's him, I don't know who else it could be—"

"Slow down, Kouda." Capo laid a steadying hand on her shoulder but a threatening scowl had already darkened his expression. "Are you certain? How do you know?"

"I know as any nanny would know, don't question it," Kouda hissed. She would not betray Jimaya's confidence, least of all in so many lurid details, no matter how distasteful the circumstances. "Do you still have him under watch?"

"Not since Midsummer, and it will be difficult if he doesn't have business with the palace."

"Well he's certainly found business with the palace all on his own!" Even she heard the panic in her tone. She shook her hands in hopes of dispelling her nervous energy. "Can you return to the low council meetings? Will Omare suspect something if you do?"

Capo grimaced. "He might, though it depends on the session. Today's will be well attended so I won't be out of place. On thinner days I'll be pretty conspicuous."

"Then say you're interested in apprenticing with Minister Yuuga!"

Capo drew himself up. "I may be a jester, but—"

"I don't know, make something up! Please, Capo," Kouda urged him. His resistance gave way easily: the thought of Jimaya and Rensai together plainly churned his stomach as much as it did hers.

"Yes, I'll drop in on the next few meetings," he agreed in low tones.

"Starting with today's."

"Starting with today's," Capo repeated. Kouda heaved a sigh of relief and thumped a hand against Capo's chest.

"Good. Thank you. Fate willing, this will resolve itself before the court begins to suspect."

But contrary to Rensai's repeated claims, the courtiers weren't idiots, and as Capo stood sentinel at that afternoon's low council, only a fool could miss the connection that sparked between Jimaya and Rensai. The twins entered the room last as was customary, and a stone sank in Capo's stomach when he saw Jimaya's eyes search the room, land on Rensai's, then immediately dart away. Had she asked him to come? Had she hoped for but not expected his attendance? She hid her surprise behind grace and focus, but Capo knew her too well to miss it. Worse, Capo knew the glint in Rensai's eye well enough to be certain the Counselor's son was captivated, and not by the meeting's discussion. He sat in silence in the back row of the intimate meeting hall, completely at his leisure. Not once did his gaze leave Jimaya.

Capo dug his fingers into his crossed arms to keep from baring his teeth.

The council met and adjourned without incident, though Capo hadn't taken in a word over the hot thrum of blood in his ears. Chatter lifted as ministers began filtering out of the hall. Omare stretched his arms overhead, pleased with the brief meeting, but his smile faded when Rensai approached their shared table at the center of the room. Rensai spared him a smile and an inclination of the head that almost passed for respectful, then turned to Jimaya to lean close and whisper something in her ear. He touched a hand to her elbow and Capo practically flung himself across the room.

"That's close enough," he said sharply as he clamped a hand on Rensai's wrist. Rensai drew back with an easy apology, hands raised in innocence. "Low council attendees usually have something to contribute, they don't skulk silently in the shadows. If you have something to say to the empress, you should have raised it during the meeting."

"Calm down, jester." Rensai pulled his arm free. "Sometimes more is communicated in silence than in words." He bowed low to Jimaya, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, then strode from the room.

"What was that about?" Omare kept narrowed eyes on Rensai's back even after he'd passed through the meeting hall doors.

"Nothing of consequence," Jimaya said shortly, and busied herself by handing off scrolls to her waiting attendants. It took all Capo's willpower not to meet Omare's searching gaze.

Chapter Text

Summer evenings in Rensai's arms passed with the heat and haze of a fever dream. Sometimes he met her at the door with reaching fingers and a ravenous mouth, other times he kept up the pretense of a more chaste meeting just to see how long she could stand it. It usually wasn't long. Once they made it all the way through tea, but then he eased her legs apart, told her she bloomed just like their tea flowers had, and didn't let her up for two hours. If it had gone on much longer, Jimaya suspected she never would have made it to bed without being carried.

"What do you want?" she took to asking, which Rensai adored. It saved her the anxiety of guessing and granted him the opportunity to tell her directly: he'd whisper his answers using words no one else would dare speak in her company, and she'd shiver against him. Nervousness flared the time he responded by arranging her on her knees, then getting to his feet and taking his cock in hand.

"Open your mouth."

Jimaya hesitated. Rensai rarely issued orders, not like this, but his cock nudged her lips and she inched closer to kiss it. His command buzzed at the end of her every nerve – he wanted her submissive and hungry, but she would have him desperate and dependent. Affectionate, admiring kisses became delicate swirls of her tongue, perhaps the barest moan of appreciation, and soon his fingers were weaving into her hair.

"Good," he breathed, his eyes dark and hooded when at last she began to suck in long, languid pulls. "That's it."

She hadn't taken off her robes or crown, and Rensai was just the sort of man to be driven wild by an empress at his feet. But she didn't feel like an empress: she felt like a woman with a man's cock between her teeth, and it was only her mercy that held him in pleasure rather than pain. The power of it seeped like venom through her veins, potent and intoxicating. Every groan she drew from his throat urged her onward, to take him deeper; she locked eyes with him and his grip in her hair tightened. When he came down her throat, it was harder than he ever had yet.

"Splendid." Rensai bent down to kiss her temple once Jimaya had let him slip from her mouth. "Exquisite."

They laid in bed for a long while after that, dozing, chatting, his fingers idly playing with the ends of her hair or tracing the length of her spine. Orgasm worked like alcohol on Rensai, loosening his tongue and inspiring acts of playful affection. Jimaya had learned quite a bit about him that way, tucked under his arm or lifted by the rise and fall of his breathing. How it felt to sink into the sulphuric heat of the springs hidden deep within the Den after a hard day's training. Climbing the crags of the mountain to watch thunderstorms lash the rocks with rain. Tracking winter's approach as the vivid crimson of autumn swept across the forest like a wildfire. The deep rumble of his voice illustrated details that still struck Jimaya as bizarrely human, reminders that he'd already lived an entire other life that she'd had no part in.

She hoped he carried that same humanity with him in the face of disappointment. They laid together as an extended silence warned of an oncoming nap – he was comfortable, vulnerable. Jimaya shifted in his arms.

"I have some news."

"Mm." Rensai's breath tickled her ear and he snugged her closer. "Do go on."

"You've made it impossible to forget your request for a royal appointment," she began, and he had. He'd been in every low council meeting since their first time together, unspeaking, watchful, patiently waiting for her to deliver exactly what he had asked of her. To his credit he'd never repeated his request. But that didn't stop the nagging fear that it was the only reason he touched her or kissed her. The only reason he wanted her. She swallowed. "And it's still impossible for me to grant it."

Jimaya saw him open his eyes out of her peripheral vision. Her heartbeat picked up.

"So you say."

"Maybe more so now that this… keeps happening." Jimaya nodded at their naked bodies. Rensai made no indication that he agreed. She forced the next words out, determined to smooth the suddenly awkward footing between them. "But you can petition my brother."

Rensai's practiced indifference tore up in a frown. "You can't be serious."

"No, listen. If I do it, it will just cause more scrutiny. Capo has mysteriously turned up at every low council meeting since you started attending again, and Kouda has been trailing after me like I'm nine years old. We'd be foolish not to assume they know."

"You would have the suspicions of a clown and a maid keep me in my place?" He sat up, shaking his hair out of his face irritably, and Jimaya's heart sank.

"It's not just them." She twisted her fingers in the bedsheets. She wished she hadn't brought it up at all. "Breakfast with Omare and Yujin is more like an interrogation. It used to be casual, but now they treat it like their only opportunity to make sure I haven't died in my sleep or been spirited out of my window during the night."

Rensai skewered her with a look. "What have you told them?" he asked sharply.

"Nothing," Jimaya said, voice small.

Rensai's eyes moved over her face, searching. She stayed still, stuck like a butterfly pinned to a board, but whatever he found there seemed to ease him by a fraction. He settled back down and took her face in his hands. The corners of his mouth were hard when he kissed her.

"I don't want to hear your brother's name in my bed," he growled.

"I'm sorry." Jimaya turned her face aside but still found a flicker of reassurance in the return of his arms around her. Something hard and cold had settled inside her. She tried to push it away. "I knew you wouldn't be thrilled, but I hoped you'd at least be optimistic. There's still a chance. I haven't just been stringing you along."

"...Ah." His fingers found her chin and guided her gaze back to his. He touched another kiss to the corner of her mouth. "I appreciate your delicacy with me." Another kiss to her cheek. "Is that your fear? That I'm stringing you along?"

"No," Jimaya said too insistently and too quickly. She drew back and glared at him as though convincing him would convince herself, too. "I know what this is."

"That's a shame." A fearful little thrill jolted through her as he kissed her ear. "I would love to have you at my beck and call, grateful for even the smallest of attentions. Willing to do anything for them." His fingers traced the curve of her hip thoughtfully. "But this arrangement has its merits, too."

"Most notable among them are the constant reminders of why I hate you," Jimaya muttered, then let him smooth away her scowl. The easy, comfortable haze settled over them once more.

By morning Rensai had agreed to meet with Omare.

Chapter Text

"He's late."

"I believe you arrived early, Sire."

"Well he should have anticipated that if he's as clever as everyone says," Omare muttered. He wasn't sitting "as a prince would," as his mother would have put it, and he didn't care. The thought of having to grant Rensai an audience for any purpose, much less a request for royal appointment, made his entire body want to contort in on itself, all elbows and angles. Anything to shut him up and shut him out.

The crossfire of the glance shared between Yujin and Capo bristled across the back of Omare's neck. "If either of you have any thoughts, I invite you to share them now," he said peevishly.

"You'll want to relax." Yujin offered him a gentle smile that had an undeniable effect on the tension in his shoulders, even despite his best efforts. "Rensai is… unusually attuned to others' discomforts. If you intend to judge his request fairly, it will help to look as though you haven't already made up your mind."

"And what if I don't intend to judge it fairly?"

"Jimaya asked you to handle it because she felt she couldn't," Yujin pointed out. "At least not in the eyes of the court. It's an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to a united kingdom."

"So you think I should just give him what he wants."

"I think you should hear him," Yujin said evenly, making Omare regret his accusatory tone. "Which you are."

"And we're going to just ignore the fact that he's probably sleeping with my sister." The words fell flat and heavy in the empty throne room. But leaving them unsaid was impossible, Omare couldn't stand to live beneath their weight any longer, and it was ridiculous for any of them to go on pretending Jimaya's frequent nighttime absences to Rensai's cottage were driven by innocent motives. "Our enemy, a slaver, our captor," he said, turning on Capo, who was immovable except for a tightened grip on his spear.

"Our pardoned enemy, Sire," Capo said stiffly.

"What difference does it make?" Omare demanded. "It's still him, she knows what he did to us and still she— tell me I'm not crazy!" He turned to Yujin imploringly. She took several seconds before selecting her words.

"I'd rather not speculate on how they spend their time together." Yujin's eyes fell on her hands folded in her lap. "She says they meet for tea. I will not call my empress a liar."

"Right, and an appropriate time for tea is well past sundown until daybreak the next day," Omare said acidly. He shook his head. "You two know as well as I do but you'd rather ignore it. Perhaps Rensai will thank you for your loyalty."

A flush was rising in Yujin's cheeks but any reply was cut short when the great wooden doors of the throne room opened. Omare hastened to rearrange his limbs into something a little more presentable. Imperial. He lifted his chin and stared Rensai down as he strode forward and swept into a bow.

"I hadn't expected such an assemblage. Capo, Yujin, it is a pleasure as ever." Rensai smiled warmly. Omare's mouth contorted in disgust. "And Emperor Omare, of course. Thank you for making the time." He tossed his hair over his shoulder as he made to stand.

"Did I bid you to rise?" Omare asked coldly. Beside him, Yujin's lips went thin. Rensai hesitated, smile fading, and sank back down to a knee.

"Better." Omare settled back on his throne. "My sister has briefed me on your petition for royal appointment. I'm inclined to reject it."

"Understandable," Rensai said nonchalantly. "You and I have a rather complicated history. But we all do, don't we?" His eyes flicked to Capo and Yujin, then back to Omare. His smile was creeping across his lips again. "The benefit to the kingdom will be worth this bitter pill, I assure you."

"Yes, she mentioned some plan of yours," Omare grumbled. "I suppose you brought that with you?"

"I did." Rensai's hand moved to the bag at his hip, but he paused. "If I may."

Omare waved an irritable hand and Rensai rose to his feet to unfurl what turned out to be a mess of complicated sketches and plans. Something about alpine runoff, an aqueduct… Capo leaned over Omare's shoulder with interest but Omare was barely paying attention as Rensai's long fingers flew over the pages indicating this note and that. This wasn't Omare's problem to evaluate. He had ministers and advisors for this, and he wasn't going to sit and be lectured by a slaver about what was best for his own kingdom. He waved his hand and cut Rensai off mid-sentence.

"We have Imperial Engineers who can bring this plan to life, if it has any merit. We don't need your involvement."

Rensai arched an eyebrow as he rolled the plans back up and returned them to his bag. "Do you intend to seize my work?"

"I could."

"Indeed. I look forward to meeting the Imperial Engineer with such mastery of Mountain terrain. Yujin, perhaps you can guide them."

Omare flung out an arm as though it could protect her from Rensai's words. Harmless or not, the thought of Rensai in any sort of casual conversation with Yujin made Omare's blood run hot. Her name came to his tongue with such sickening familiarity.

"This work calls to you," Yujin said, and Omare's head whipped around in shock. She was watching Rensai levely. "I can tell."

A sigh passed through Rensai and he smiled again. "Irresistibly."

"Well, resist it for a little while longer," Omare sneered, but Capo interrupted him with a hand on his shoulder. "What?"

"A moment," Capo bid Rensai, who bowed his head and retreated several paces from the throne so the three of them could confer.

"What was that for? What is there to discuss?"

"I think his plan has merit, and I worry about leaving a man with that kind of ambition to his own devices," Capo said lowly. "He wants leave to build things, not to have unfettered access to the royal treasury."

Omare goggled at him. "You can't be serious."

"He'll have more eyes on him than ever before."

"Including Maya's—"

"Who is right in her belief that this is an opportunity for acceptance and unity. Sire, I don't relish this either," Capo assured him. "But the war is long over."

"I won't have him in my court," Omare hissed. Anger and anxiety sent heat flooding to his face and he dropped his head to hide it, ashamed. Every time he saw that horrible smile, the memory of the slave cages rushed back to him in a blast of heat and smoke. To see that nearly every day, to reward the person behind it with a title—

"He can't hurt you, Omare." Yujin's hand closed over his and Omare's resolve weakened. He wished he could bury his face in her shoulder. "He has nowhere to go. Nothing to gain." She flicked a sidelong glance at Rensai, who was occupying himself by staring up at the joint between a column and the vaulted ceiling of the throne room. He looked like a crow trapped in a temple. Grounded, awkward, out of place. "You are denying a pardoned man a position he's qualified to assume out of bitterness. Justified bitterness," she added gently. "But it benefits no one anymore."

Omare nodded glumly after a long moment, then pecked a kiss to Yujin's cheek. She squeezed his hand as the three of them broke the sanctity of their huddle.

"Rensai."

He turned.

"Your qualifications are sound but your character is not," Omare said. His voice sounded far away, separate from himself. He kept a grip on Yujin's hand as an anchor. "You will accompany me on a hunt tomorrow for your opportunity to change my mind. Fail to impress, and your request will be rejected and you will not be permitted to bring it forward again. Do you accept these terms?"

Interest ignited in Rensai's eyes. "I do."

"The western gate at dawn, then. You're dismissed."

Rensai bowed once more, and the three of them shared a collective sigh when the throne room doors had closed behind him.

"A hunt, Sire?" Capo asked once they'd taken a moment to breathe.

"With a son of the Mountain Den, no less," Yujin said. There was pride in her tone, but apprehension rang clearer.

Chapter Text

"A hunt," Jimaya repeated, stunned when he told her his plan over dinner. "A Denborn warrior. And you've challenged him to a hunt."

"What? He's not an archer. At least not one of the really good ones," Omare said defensively, then glanced at Yujin. "Right?"

She shook her head.

"See? It'll be fine. Besides, it's not a competition."

"Right, so you won't be upset if his arrow finds its mark before yours."

"I won't," Omare snapped. The cost of suppressing the petulance in his tone was doubled by Jimaya's skepticism. "Why are you so concerned? If you trust him alone with you, you should trust him alone with me. And maybe you want to place a little more faith in your brother than you do in him," he went on, unable to resist, "considering I'm in this position because of you."

Jimaya didn't have an answer to that. She joined Yujin in silence, and for the rest of the meal the only sound was the click of chopsticks on bowls. Omare wilted a little under the realization that he'd gone a notch too far.

Guilt still hung like a haze when dawn broke misty and humid the next day. Omare rode out with two guards and an extra horse in tow. The horses' hooves sent steam rising in tiny clouds as they picked their way through the city streets towards the western gate, the sound deadened by the thick summer air.

What small, lingering hope that Rensai wouldn't show died as the gate came into focus. He was there, leaning a shoulder against the city wall and watching the trickling stream of merchants, field workers, and livestock wind its way to the open road beyond. No bow, no quiver, no suggestion that he was there to do anything but cast a pall of suspicion over all who passed through the arched gateway. Omare settled into the simmering irritation he was sure would plague him for the remainder of the morning when Rensai noticed their approach. His eyes flicked from Omare, to the guards, to the horses, and he pushed away from the wall.

"Good morning, Your Majesty." No part of the morning sounded particularly good to Rensai. He kept his distance from the horses and their pawing hooves, and all at once Omare's mood turned around.

"Good morning, Rensai. No bow?"

"It was too painfully aspirational for a blind man to keep," Rensai said tightly. "I haven't had the need nor the chance to replace the one I left in the Den."

"No matter, we came prepared." Omare beckoned the spare horse forward with a flourish. "You do ride, don't you?"

"I have." Rensai waved off the guiding hands of one of the guards as he swung into the saddle, but it was far from a practiced motion. He pushed his hair over his shoulder and pulled the reins tight; the horse tossed its head irritably.

"I suppose horses don't do well in caves and cliffs," Omare said brightly. "Well! Off we go." He kicked his own steed into a neat trot and led the way through the gate. Behind him, Rensai's curse was barely audible as he hastened to follow.

The western gate was one of the less trafficked in the Imperial City and led most directly to the forest rather than to the sprawling meadows and smaller villages to the north and south. Still the road was thick with comers and goers from the city, each of them hailing their Emperor with bows and broad smiles. The guards took their place on either side of Omare, leaving Rensai to bring up the rear. It was proper, but Omare would have paid dearly to see him struggle to keep up, especially in the wake of such admiration.

"We'll be hunting fox this morning," he called over his shoulder. "Clever little den-dwellers, sneaking along with their bellies to the ground. I thought you'd be good at it."

"You've afforded me every opportunity to excel today," came the response from closer than Omare expected, and he twisted in his saddle to see Rensai glowering behind him just a few yards back. Omare grinned.

It was an hour's ride to the edge of the forest, and in this case a mostly silent one. Rensai grew used to the ride about halfway through, but Omare heard the horse snorting anyway, sensitive to its rider's unease and inexperience. As much as he relished Rensai's discomfort, the dramatic transition from field to forest that loomed ahead of them cooled Omare's interest in goading Rensai further. He raised a hand when they met the treeline and dismounted, waving off the a guard's motion to help equip him with bow and quiver.

"Don't bother, you'll await us here."

The guards hesitated. "Sire—"

"I know the terrain, I will be fine," Omare insisted, and the guards didn't dare question their emperor further. Rensai looked surprised as he all but fell out of his saddle onto solid ground. But he didn't comment either, and he slung the spare bow and quiver over his shoulder with far more familiarity and ease than he'd shown on horseback. Jimaya's and Yujin's shared concern flickered through Omare's mind. He shoved the memory aside.

The air was cooler this close to the trees, though the leaves trapped the humidity close enough to the ground to choke. Filtered sunlight lit the lightly worn run ahead, long carved out by hunters, deer, and anything else that passed between forest and field. Rensai gestured to Omare as though this whole affair had been his own idea. "Lead on, Your Majesty."

The snort and stomp of the horses disappeared just a few yards into the wood, closed out by the dense trees and trill of birdsong overhead. Omare had been on countless hunts, enough to feel confident in his abilities but also enough to be hyper-attuned to how heavy his footfalls sounded compared to Rensai's. But the ground grew softer the deeper they trekked, muffling their steps as they carved their way through the wood in silence. What otherwise would have been a pleasant hike was shot through with tension by Rensai's presence, the crunch or snap of every leaf or twig a twinging reminder that control was Omare's to seize.

"So. Omare. What details of my character do you hope to glean from a meaningless hunting trip?"

Omare cast a bitter glare over his shoulder, his temper flaring to life at the sight of Rensai's smirk. Beaten to it. "Left your manners with the horses, I see. I should have known that was an air you only put on for court."

"If you intend to judge me, I thought I may as well be honest."

"You will address me properly or not at all," Omare growled, "otherwise we can turn around now and be done with this."

"Is that the sort of respect you like to command? Insisted upon rather than freely given?"

"Is that the sort of honesty you want to stake your future on?" Omare returned. "The kind you take on and off when it serves you best?"

Rensai's low laugh sent a prickling shiver up Omare's spine. "There's a chance you don't get enough credit for your cleverness."

"And you get way too much credit for yours."

Rensai laughed again, but it was cut short when Omare let a branch snap back in his wake so that it whacked Rensai in the face. "Childish," came the aggravated growl from behind.

"This trip isn't meaningless." Omare ducked beneath the trunk of a massive fallen tree. "You and I have little occasion to talk, and you buck under Imperial mercy and customs despite how you've benefited from them. I thought I'd relieve you of their burden for a while." He looked back over his shoulder at him. "And if I don't like what I see now that the weight is lifted, this will be the end of your stupid little engineering ambitions."

"All due respect, Your Majesty," Rensai said lowly, "but you of all people should know just how effective my ambitions can be."

Omare stopped short and rounded on him, fists clenched. The heat of the summer forest rolled over him like the billowing steam of the Den mines and Omare wanted nothing more than to snatch an arrow from his quiver and hold it to Rensai's neck. "Too effective," he hissed through gritted teeth, "which is why it will give me no greater pleasure than to send them up in smoke myself."

"You would take that from me as well?"

There was no mocking amusement in Rensai's eyes now, none of the superior spark that Omare hated so much. Instead he stared flatly at Omare, who faltered slightly, unable to hold his gaze for long. He redoubled his grip on his animosity.

"Everything you lost, you lost because you were too weak to hold onto it," Omare said coldly, turning away to carry on down the trail. It was several seconds before Rensai's footsteps resumed behind him.

Silence fell again, a distinctly different kind than the one that had settled over them when they first set out. They arrived at a brook but Rensai didn't stop to drink, lingering on the bank like a shadow among the saplings while Omare quenched his thirst. If Omare was being honest, he had no idea whether there were foxes around here. They lived in the forest, certainly, but they were no more likely to run into one than they were to run across any other animal that morning. Probably less so, since they'd spent half the journey arguing and sending all manner of wildlife scattering out of their way.

"If you're not heading for a particular den, I suggest we take to the trees." Rensai was inspecting the tip of one of his arrows with detached annoyance. "Unless this hunt really was pointless, in which case you can just interrogate me until you have enough evidence to condemn my future and we can head back."

"It's not pointless," Omare insisted.

"Good." Rensai nocked his arrow with startling speed, took aim at Omare, and let it fly. The arrow shot over Omare's shoulder, across the brook, and buried itself in the trunk of a towering oak. A pair of sharp thunks announced the arrival of two more arrows, and Rensai was wading across the water before Omare could even register his outrage.

"I could have used a warning!" Omare trudged after him, fuming, and became all the more annoyed when he saw Rensai jump up and use the arrows as handholds to pull himself into the thick branches of the tree. His long legs dangled twelve feet overhead as he waved Omare upwards.

"Come along. Grip close to the trunk so the arrows don't break."

"I know," Omare snapped, though he definitely didn't. He didn't make a graceful show of it, but he managed to clamber up the trunk and onto the lowest branch, then begrudgingly accepted Rensai's extended hand to pull him the rest of the way up for a better vantage point.

"How did that come so naturally to you?" Omare panted, swiping sweat from his forehead. He wished he'd taken a longer drink first. "You look like you haven't been outside in years."

Rensai snorted. "Livestock don't last long in the Den. Nearly all our food comes – came – from hunting. If you're not comfortable with heights, you get comfortable with hunger."

"But not your family," Omare reasoned. "Weren't you like nobility?"

"We are not quite as obsessed with formal rank as Imperialists," Rensai said with no small dose of disdain. "My family's status didn't exempt me from traditional upbringing and training. If anything, it necessitated it."

Omare thought of the late Counselor Yoren, rigidly conventional for sure, and no matter how many times he visited the palace in the years before the war, Omare never had any idea what sort of bizarre traditions he observed with such apparent reverence. Whatever they were, almost none of them appeared to have been successfully imparted to his son. His next words came with casual caution.

"So, your father…"

"Not up for discussion," Rensai said with a bone-piercing glare.

"I'm judging your character, remember? How else am I supposed to do it?"

"Through the incredibly meaningful hunt you've insisted on," Rensai grumbled. He settled himself in the crook of two splitting branches and examined his fingernails. "If I kill something, can we move along with our day?"

"Impatient, irritable, bloodthirsty..." Omare ticked the qualities off on his fingers. Rensai sneered at him.

"I'm not picky about my target."

"Poor attention to detail," Omare went on, then dropped his hands. "Come on. I don't like this any more than you do, but you have to give me something to work with. If you don't want to talk about your family, what about mine? What about Jimaya?"

Rensai's mouth turned up. "Can you bear the answer?"

"I knew it," Omare said, revolted. He'd heave Rensai out of the tree if he thought the effort wouldn't make him fall too, and he settled instead for a kick to Rensai's ribs. He missed.

"Calm down, little prince. Your sister and I are only friends."

"Oh, you expect me to believe the Counselor's son has friends now?" Omare hissed. "I suppose next you'll tell me she hasn't been spending nights with you in your hovel."

"Only to escape a brother who sends a clown to be his prying eyes." Omare flushed and Rensai's smile widened. "It's no wonder she seeks relief outside of court life. We share tea, sometimes it becomes too late for her to journey back to the palace, and that is all. If you doubt me, I suggest you ask her yourself."

"Just tell me you're not sleeping with her." Omare forced the words out over the churning bile in his stomach.

"I haven't fucked your sister, Omare," he said. "You can rest easy."

"Good. Don't," was all Omare could think to say, and his ears burned at the shame of it. The thought of Omare weighing in on whom Jimaya could and couldn't sleep with would have made her explode in a rage.

"Why, is she interested?"

"Shut up," Omare snapped. "And don't talk about your empress that way!" But the second part came too late and Rensai was already snickering, leaving Omare to scowl into the branches across the brook.

For a while the only sounds were the whisper of wind through the leaves and the babbling of the stream below. Pins and needles began to fill Omare's legs and he shifted, jealous of Rensai's more comfortable crook between branches. But the lull in bickering had attracted visitors: the pair of them watched as squirrels leapt from branch to branch, and later a nod from Rensai called Omare's attention to a doe dipping her head to drink from the brook a ways downstream. His powers of observation did nothing to quiet Omare's discomfort. He didn't want to think about Rensai applying that kind of scrutiny to his city, to his court, to Jimaya. To Yujin.

"And while we're on the subject—"

"We're well off it, actually." Rensai rolled his eyes as the doe's ears pricked up and she darted back between the trees.

"Yujin."

"Ah." That changed his attitude and he turned so he could face Omare more fully. Rensai cocked his head, considering for a moment. "You're very insecure."

"Shut up," Omare repeated. He barreled onward before he could lose momentum. "I know you two have a history—"

"A history that is shared by practically every other Denborn warrior worthy of the title. Are you worried about them too?"

"They're not you," Omare said darkly. He thought back to how Yujin had invited Rensai to the feast without telling him, how she'd spoken to him just yesterday with familiarity and understanding. "She's not as close with them."

"Our families had been entwined all our lives," Rensai said with a shrug. "Of course I know her well. And it should be no surprise that I courted her, either – she was the only heir to the Chieftain's sash. I would have been a fool not to."

"But she didn't accept." Omare aimed the words like arrows but all he got for his efforts was the barely perceptible tightening of Rensai's lips.

"No, luckily for me. Not that your consort isn't dazzling," he said with a smile that made Omare feel sick. "But formally pursuing her was my father's plan for me, not my own."

"Why not?"

Rensai arched an eyebrow. "Can you really picture me as Chief?"

Omare didn't know enough about Den tradition to say. But he'd met the late Chief Kharvaach once or twice during more peaceful times, before the war claimed him. A massive, hulking man worthy of the mountain he dominated. Omare mentally forced Rensai into that sash, into that role, with the power of an army at his command and the tradition of an entire people on his shoulders. The image was impossible to grasp, like a candle flame flickering through fingers.

"No."

"It's as you so wisely pointed out, my Emperor," Rensai sighed. "I buck under customs. I knew where that union would take me and I'm afraid my heart just wasn't in it. And if the thought of a political marriage still turns your delicate stomach, I have some very sorry news about how you likely came into the world."

Omare ignored the jibe as he wrestled with this new, sour sort of relief. First Jimaya and now Yujin. He wasn't proud that he'd felt the need to validate his suspicions with the object of them, but at least he'd been bold enough to ask.

"This conversation doesn't leave this forest," he warned Rensai, who scoffed.

"No, I should think not. If you had any trust in Jimaya or Yujin, you wouldn't have to ask me at all."

"It's you I don't trust," Omare grumbled, folding his arms over his chest. Rensai settled back between his branches, leaning his head back so his hair fell over the bough behind him.

"How powerful you must think me, that I could make liars of your sister and lover alike. Is that why you don't want me in your court?" Rensai cast a sidelong glance at him when Omare remained silent. "That's very flattering."

"I won't grant you the power to use people like you did before," Omare said quietly. He picked at the bark beneath him. "Whatever Jimaya or anyone else thinks of you now doesn't change what you've done."

"Then you should not have pardoned me. If you wanted me gone, you should have had the courage to cast me out or execute me when you had the will of the people behind you," Rensai said. His tone was sharp but it stung of bitterness, not entitlement. "Now your city would hardly know the difference if I lived or died, except that their festivals would be a bit dimmer. I'm an exile within your walls."

"And what if I wanted to keep you that way?" Omare asked. He lifted his gaze to gauge Rensai's expression, but it was difficult to read at this angle. He was just staring blankly up through the leaves.

"If that's how you choose to exercise your power, you're well within your right to do so. Jimaya deferred to you. I am only your subject."

Silence fell again. Omare hadn't exactly planned where he was going with all this, but now that he was here he wasn't sure he liked the destination. He hadn't expected Rensai to be quite so direct, nor half as reasonable. The decision was supposed to be a shield, not a burden.

"And now you've poured your heart into this aqueduct idea," he muttered, at a loss for any other way to keep Rensai talking. "Assuming you have one."

That made Rensai sit up a little, enough to draw an arrow from his quiver and play it through his fingers. "We can argue my humanity if you like," he said after a moment's quiet thought. "But it might be an exercise in futility. I doubt I have the language to convince you, and I'd be surprised if you were in a position to hear me. That's not a reflection on you," he added, glancing at Omare. "Only on what I have done. I know a legal pardon and personal forgiveness are not equals."

"I suppose all that was your father's idea, too?" Omare sneered, but it felt hollow. Rensai's jaw was tight when he spoke.

"The firepowder is my invention and my legacy. As is its means of production. My father and I fought endlessly about it, to tell the truth." He spun the tip of the arrow beneath his finger. "It only became interesting to him when it began to align with his political ambitions."

"Assassination," Omare supplied coldly, but Rensai didn't react.

"It didn't have to be. We tried to trade it to your city first, but the royal family wasn't interested. My father convinced Chief Kharvaach to attack instead and you know the rest. The plan changed again when Kharvaach's own daughter was seen freeing a certain valuable prisoner of war." Rensai flicked a dark look at Omare, but it was gone again in an instant and he returned his attention to his arrow. "It was easy to orchestrate a coup with such obvious weakness within the Chief's own house."

"And meanwhile you were content to fuel your war machine with the bones of captured innocents."

Rensai swallowed. "...Not technically. The bones need to be dried and treated—"

"I don't want to hear about it," Omare interrupted, stomach heaving.

"I mean to say no Imperialists fed the mill," Rensai insisted. "On that, you have my word."

"Only because you didn't have enough time."

Rensai's silence was answer enough. The next question clawed its way out of Omare's mouth, one that had churned hot and angry in his chest every time he laid eyes on the Counselor's son.

"How could you?" It was supposed to be a demand but it nearly died on his lips instead, soft and weak. He fought against a shudder as Rensai looked away. A bead of blood had welled under Rensai's fingertip where he'd been spinning the arrow. "How could you bear it? Me and Capo I can understand, but the civilians. Kouda. They were innocent."

Rensai was very still. "You won't like the answer."

"Tell me anyway."

The arrow threatened to crack in Rensai's grip. It was a long moment before he answered.

"I didn't see them as people," he said. "And for my crimes, for a year I saw nothing at all."

Ice prickled Omare's veins. There was no way Jimaya had asked him that before. She couldn't have stood another moment of Rensai's company after an admonition like that, she couldn't have shared tea with someone so cold, so vicious. But Rensai looked like neither now, his shoulders hunched and eyebrows knitted together in what Omare found himself hoping was regret. He'd rejoiced in Rensai's disgraced, blinded fate and in fact had often yearned for worse. He'd even confessed those feelings to Yujin in moments of weakness, though she always went quiet and refused to engage them.

"I don't relish the fact that my only mark on this world sits walled up in an abandoned mountain, you know," Rensai said bitterly. "I don't treasure my hand in the loss of my own way of life. I know I hardly deserved a pardon, and I know I probably didn't deserve to heal. But here we are. And much as you and I may dislike one another, I am at least grateful to you for this."

It took a long moment's consideration, but eventually Omare jerked a nod. Rensai sat up a little and stared past him. His sudden focus made Omare shift to follow his gaze: there on the ground not twenty yards away, a red fox was nosing through the leaves.

Rensai held out his arrow, his voice barely audible. "Your shot."

Omare slid his bow from his shoulder, accepted the arrow, took aim, and let it fly.

Chapter Text

Omare's kiss stirred Yujin from sleep before dawn. She turned over contentedly, then a rush of anxiety yanked her to her senses. She bolted upright with a gasp.

"Oh! The hunt—"

"Don't worry," Omare reassured her, and Yujin hastily blinked the sleep from her eyes enough to make out Omare already across the room, hovering at the door. "Go back to sleep. I only wanted to say goodbye."

Yujin sank back down onto her pillows, wishing she'd concealed her concern a bit better. He was probably already apprehensive enough. She should believe in him. She did believe in him. "Be careful," she said anyway. "And good luck." Show him you're worthy of your title, she wished she could say, but she checked herself. Omare was worthy of his title simply by being born. That was the Imperial way.

"He's the one that needs to be careful," Omare said with a devilish smile. "Only one of us will leave the forest alive." He blew her another kiss, and satisfied with the forced laugh she gave him in response, darted back through the door and away.

Sleep, of course, refused to return. Yujin curled herself tight in the sheets and forced her eyes closed, hoping to sleep through the morning's hunt entirely, but dawn's gray fingers reached through her window and kept coaxing her away from the edge of rest. Rensai liked to sleep late. The opportunity rarely came but he was good at taking advantage of it when it did, and she remembered mornings held fast beneath the weight of his arm, reluctant to disturb him by moving. Yujin clutched her stomach to quell its agitated churning.

She shouldn't be thinking about Rensai.

But it was impossible not to, not when he and Omare were about to ride into the wilderness to do nothing but talk and kill things, and Yujin didn't know which one worried her more. Rensai's tongue was capable of even more damage than his arrows, and Omare was on a hair trigger for any opportunity to cut Rensai down. It would be a miracle if both of them returned without injury.

And Jimaya. Jimaya, whom Yujin had seen through ever since her first night spent outside the palace walls and who looked at Rensai with a flush and fire that pulled Yujin's nerves taut. Jimaya deserved a warning, or at least an explanation. But if Jimaya carried either one back to her brother, it would break his heart, and Yujin couldn't ask her to keep that secret. She shouldn't have made it into one in the first place.

Finally she gave up on sleep and forced herself out of bed with a resigned groan. She folded herself into the thinnest, breeziest robes she had – heat she could contend with, but the humidity in the city was unbearable – and set out for the archery range.

"You're up early, my Lady," a valet remarked as she rounded a corner, dipping a bow. Yujin pressed her lips into a smile and moved on.

"Lady Yujin, if you're awaiting the Emperor's return, I can prepare tea for you in the stone garden."

"No, thank you." She'd already passed the attendant before the words were even out of her mouth. Her feet carried her past at least three more servants as she rushed down the palace halls, but all she had for them were excuses and words of thanks. Each greeting tightened her shoulders and quickened her pace. The palace was stuffed with every comfort imaginable except privacy.

She all but burst through the gate in a huff, a bow and quiver she'd snatched from the southern training room slung over her shoulder. A pair of gardeners raised their heads from their work to greet her but Yujin kept her eyes forward, cutting across the manicured stretch of grass that stood between her and the set of targets that served as an archery range. Even though the southern garden boasted a lawn so expansive it could nearly pass for a meadow, the outer wall of the palace loomed beyond. It cut a dark, broad line between ground and sky. A frame for a picturesque palace.

But narrowing her focus on her target broadened the closed world around Yujin. The walls became a blurred strip in the distance, hazy compared to the sharp color of the target. Slow, even breaths steadied her hands and strengthened her grip. The fluid nock, draw, and release came effortlessly, as familiar and affirming as writing her own name. At this distance it was difficult to judge her accuracy beyond the thunk of each arrow meeting its mark, but she wasn't looking for anything more than that. The sound was reassurance enough. The grass beneath her feet matted with every trip to retrieve her arrows and back again.

"Good morning."

Yujin loosed her arrow – thunk – before turning. Jimaya stood a few paces back, tea tray in hand. If the image of an empress carrying her own tea tray into the middle of a field wasn't odd enough, her visible apprehension was.

"Jimaya! Good morning. Let me take that for you—"

"Oh, it doesn't matter." Jimaya placed the tray on the ground and crouched to pour a cup, then held it out to Yujin. The steam lifted in fragrant spirals even in the humid haze. Yujin hesitated, thrown by the informality of the thing, but set her bow and quiver against a bench and accepted. Jimaya poured her own next. "I didn't want a valet hovering," Jimaya explained.

"I dodged what felt like thirty of them on my way out here." Yujin hid her smile behind her cup, afraid that it would look too pitying. Even she found palace life stifling, and the schedule of a diplomat was nothing compared to that of an empress. She'd already seen more negotiations and meetings than she could count, and she'd pay more visits to the low council too if the thought of it didn't lull her straight into a stupor. But Jimaya had all that times a hundred, and a kingdom to answer to at the end of it all. Silence spread between them like steam, invisible yet palpable, as Jimaya stared straight ahead at the far wall that closed them in.

"Do you target practice often?"

"Not as often as I would like," Yujin said. "It's difficult to find the time."

"Hm."

Something was nagging at Jimaya. Yujin watched her try to swallow it back with her tea. Busy though her day must be, there was no reason for an empress to be up at dawn and evading servants just to share a cup of tea with her. Unease rolled through her.

"...Are you worried for him?"

"No. Omare can take care of himself."

"Jimaya, I think candor would suit us best," Yujin said gently. She moved closer, trying to catch her eye as Jimaya stared stubbornly ahead.

"He can take care of himself too. You know that."

It was an invitation or a trap and Yujin couldn't tell which. If she needed any evidence that Jimaya had been spending a great deal of time in Rensai's company, there it was.

"I do," she admitted, "and though I don't know it with quite as much certainty, I think I understand the conflict you must be feeling, too."

Jimaya's grip on her cup relaxed by a fraction and so did Yujin – an invitation after all. But that path was studded with almost as many hazards.

"He's caused a great deal of harm and been forgiven for all of it," Jimaya murmured. "Legally, anyway. And I do think he deserves a chance to contribute more to the kingdom."

"But?"

Jimaya drew breath, but then pursed her lips and shook her head. Something in Yujin's heart pulled tight and she dragged some levity into her voice to conceal it.

"Jimaya, if you are interested in him—"

"Not interested," Jimaya insisted, but her conviction seeped out of her on the back of a sigh hardly a second later. All at once Yujin was in her shoes, picking her way to his door with a nervous little rush in her veins that was only made worse when he opened it, one that refused to settle until he was dozing beside her, fingers pulling lazily through her hair. She knew far too well how it felt to be the target of Rensai's affections. To be run through by something as simple as a well-timed glance or too-casual greeting, or to turn over in his arms and be surprised at how someone so angular could be so soft. She'd let herself forget it after the war, but the memory had prickled to life again when she ran after him at the banquet. When he kissed her hand and looked at her like he wanted nothing more than to live in those few seconds forever.

Was that how he looked at Jimaya? Did Jimaya wish he did?

"He has been an unexpected… comfort to me," Jimaya admitted, then paused and wrinkled her nose. "Maybe 'welcome discomfort' is more fitting. But that comes with no small degree of shame, given the circumstances. And since you and he share a history…." she trailed off.

"You want to know if his overtures can be taken seriously," Yujin said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

"Not overtures," Jimaya said hastily. "There have been no overtures, it's nothing like that. But now he pursues a court position." She braced herself with a gulp of tea, eyes still fixed on the target across from them. "Did you feel the same? When he courted you?"

Yujin yearned for the ground to open up and swallow her whole. It took a long moment's consideration to craft an answer.

"I never felt deceived by Rensai," she said at last.

Jimaya sniffed. "No, I'm sure. Not even when he and his father staged their coup."

"Betrayal and deceit are brothers, but not twins," Yujin said quietly. Jimaya dropped her head, cowed.

"I'm sorry. I just— I have felt very alone in this. And Omare could very easily return within the hour with a sound rejection and then all of this worrying would have been for nothing." The words were tumbling out of her in a rush; Yujin had to consciously stand firm to keep from sliding away in discomfort. "But I wish I weren't worrying in the first place because it's him, he's not worth it. And I don't want to be suspicious of you, or for you to be suspicious of me." Jimaya offered a smile but turmoil twisted it into a wince. "I'm sorry," she repeated, slower. "I feel like I haven't been honest with you."

"You are my empress, you don't owe me an explanation," Yujin said, but Jimaya was already shaking her head.

"No, I don't want that. Our history is beyond titles. Even if our stories began on opposite ends, they've come together in the middle. You were right, candor suits us best."

Jimaya heaved a cleansing sigh. Whatever weight she'd been bearing eased onto Yujin's shoulders instead. "Then, your suspicions about me…" Yujin said tentatively.

"Suspicion is too strong a word, I don't mean to alarm you," Jimaya assured her at once, even laid a hand on her arm for emphasis. Yujin felt frozen beneath it. "But if Rensai has made… overtures for political gain in the past, it would be helpful for me to know."

The summer breeze picked up the hems of their robes so they grazed over the grass. No matter what Jimaya insisted, there was no ignoring her title, no matter how deeply Yujin wished she could speak freely. She wanted to grip Jimaya's hands in hers and demand what had driven her out here at dawn, what made her place Rensai's appointment in Omare's hands, what guided her to Rensai's door over and over. She wanted to hear her say it, to be absolutely sure.

With the truth out of the question, the best she could hope for was to point Jimaya in the vague direction of happiness.

"He has," Yujin said at last. "But I knew. It was as performative as everything else he does. Heavily orchestrated by his father and mirrored by many others in the Den, too. That was the way." She laid a hand over Jimaya's on her arm and forced a smile. "I knew what he wanted. I wasn't deceived, and I don't think you would be, either."

Gratitude washed over Jimaya's face. "You are a dream confidante. Thank you, Yujin."

"But you're not interested, as you said," Yujin pointed out with a smile. Jimaya laughed.

"No, of course not. Especially if Omare asks." Jimaya's eyes had a playful sparkle in them. Yujin clung to it like a lifeline and told herself that for all her denials of Rensai's deceit, her own was justified.

Their tea long cold in their hands, they traded the bow back and forth until the target was studded with holes. Jimaya was a good shot and an even better student, keen to accept an adjustment or correction at Yujin's gentle offering. They should spend more time like this, Yujin thought. So many meals and meetings, but so little recreation and conversation. Was that the Imperial way too, or just the way of royals?

The chatter of valets drifted across the field. Yujin would have been happy to ignore them, but Jimaya turned and promptly shot her arrow straight into the ground. The side gate stood open across the garden. Valets were taking four horses' reins from guards' hands, and once the cluster of attendants and steeds thinned out, Yujin could make out Omare handing off a spectacular looking fox kill. Behind him, Rensai watched with his hands on his hips.

That stance was too easy. Whatever had happened, it had gone well for him.

"They're back so soon? And they're both alive, that's good." Jimaya pressed the bow back into Yujin's hands. "Take this, would you?" She gave a nervous squeeze to Yujin's arm, apprehension and excitement and relief all alight at once behind her eyes. "Not a word to Omare, right?"

"It will be fine," Yujin assured her. She forced a smile and pushed Jimaya on. Jimaya cut across the lawn to meet them, a streak of scarlet and gold against the vivid green of the garden. Yujin clutched the bow to her chest as she watched Omare notice Jimaya, wave, and beckon for her to join them inside. A discussion, Yujin assumed. There would be no decision without one. Even at this distance, she could tell Rensai wasn't perturbed by the prospect. He bowed to Jimaya, exchanged a few words, and gestured for her to lead the way back into the palace. With Jimaya locked in conversation with Omare, he looked past her and across the lawn. His gaze found Yujin like an arrow to its target. She tightened her grip on the bow.

His smile softened. Rensai inclined his head in another bow, hand over his heart, and turned to follow the twins inside.

Chapter Text

If Rensai was disappointed in the outcome, he didn't show it. He was the picture of grace and gratitude when Omare handed down his decision, bent knee and all. A three month trial. One full season to prove himself before the court, and if all went well, potential for an extension or even full appointment. He bowed himself out to leave Jimaya and Omare to consult, but after Omare had told his side of the tale to her and left to see to the skinning of their kill, she found Rensai waiting for her outside the throne room. He yanked her into an alcove, kissing her hard enough to bruise and leaving Jimaya with just enough breath to laugh and wrap her arms around him.

"You'll have to be on your best behavior now," she managed between kisses. Rensai turned his teeth on her throat.

"Only publicly," he growled.

His public thanks were as muted as the promotion announcement: Omare tacked it onto the end of a low council meeting, and Rensai accepted the polite spattering of congratulatory applause with an inclination of his head. Some courtiers were more enthusiastic than others. Minister Yuuga intercepted him the moment the meeting had ended to seek his opinion about updates to a few of the city's plazas, and meanwhile Minister Zhendou all but cornered both twins with a lengthy list of reasons why this was the worst decision they'd yet made during their rule.

"I suggest you check yourself, Minister," Jimaya cut off his diatribe coldly. She raised a hand to halt Capo's stormy approach to intervene. "The decision is made."

"But Your Majesties, the wall—"

"Has been behind schedule for months because you and Minister Bandui cannot work out an effective plan between yourselves. Luckily we're all in the business of second chances. Or will your prejudice rule you?"

"It's only three months," Omare reminded him, but Zhendou's eyes remained narrowed. He jerked a bow and stalked from the meeting room. Jimaya was surprised he didn't shoulder check Rensai on the way out.

"It'll be fun to watch that play out," Omare snickered.

But Rensai made no complaints as he became a new, silent fixture in court. Jimaya was relieved to find him smart enough to observe for a time before actively participating, a courtesy he had relished withholding from low council meetings. Petitions from citizens, long awaited rulings on taxes, and all manner of other proceedings that were sure to bore him passed day after day without interruption. His first announcement came jointly with Minister Bandui, that they would not break ground on the aqueduct until the following spring.

"When the ground is soft again," Rensai explained to the other courtiers. "We will have a narrow window of time to work before the first snow in the mountains."

"A bold plan, considering your trial ends at autumn's close," Zhendou grumbled, but Rensai just flashed him a smile.

"We'll see how things develop."

The changes to the western wall's reconstruction would still proceed as Rensai had proposed – when the aqueduct would be built didn't change their need for preparation. With the approval of the project came a great many additional meetings that Jimaya was grateful not to attend, and it was nearly a month after his appointment before he had the time to host Jimaya at his cottage again. That meant three weeks of shifting under that ink-dark gaze, especially when proceedings dragged and she knew exactly how Rensai was occupying his mind instead.

"Ah, look how you've missed me," he purred, hand between her legs and breath hot on her neck. He laced their fingers together and guided her hand down his torso. "The feeling is mutual."

As was tradition for courtiers of his rank, Rensai had been offered accommodations closer to the palace, but he'd declined. She asked why when they laid together afterwards, breathless and careless. "I spend enough time under Imperial scrutiny," he grumbled. A private flicker of relief licked Jimaya's insides and she settled closer against him. Her escape was still hers.

In fact her escape began following her back to the palace before long, and no sooner had the new normal of court life settled around Rensai did he begin pressing his advantage. She saw it coming a mile away – those sorts of lingering glances were rarely for nothing – and after a few days of performative resistance she gave into the electric thrill of it. She dismissed her valets, the courtiers filed out of the throne room, he lingered, and the rest followed. She came alive under his harried touch and breathy whispers and ached on the days they couldn't find the time.

They fell back one early evening, chests heaving, on the floor of the low council room. Rensai pillowed his arms behind his head and stared up at the intricately carved ceiling. Jimaya pretended to do the same. It had been a later meeting than usual and the slanting glow of the dying daylight washed them both with gold.

"You'll be expected at dinner soon," he said once their breath had evened.

"I don't care," Jimaya sighed, and he laughed. The air beside her cooled as he sat up.

"If I ever managed to fuck the conscientiousness out of you, I fear your charming empire would be lost." He leaned down to kiss her, refastened his pants, then cast around the room for his gloves. Jimaya should have flung one out the window so he'd have no choice but to linger.

But he found the second one at the foot of a column and slid it back on while she watched from the floor, propped up on her elbows. "Until next time—" he began, his hand on the door, but cut himself short when the lock clicked. He snatched his hand back as though burned, then skittered back to Jimaya and stretched himself out beside her again, lips clamped tight around a secret.

"What is it?"

Rensai shook his head and stared up at the ceiling again, what used to be Jimaya's least favorite smile fighting at the corners of his mouth. A wave of dread passed over her.

"Don't tell me you forgot to lock the door."

The laugh escaped him at last and he pulled her close, smothering her alarm against his chest.

Jimaya knew what it felt like to drown. It had nearly happened to her once, after the Den's assault on the city. She'd escaped by boat and hit a squall not far offshore. She hadn't known which direction to swim; there had been no telling what was ocean current or wave or driving rain. The only certainty had been the pound of blood in her ears, the tearing pain in her lungs, and the crushing pressure of the water. It still haunted her.

Now the threat of her court's judgment pressed in from all sides instead. Omare's dislike tore at her conscience. But her breath left her in a rush when Rensai kissed her. Her blood thrummed in the moments between knocking at his door and being invited inside, between adjourning a meeting and finding his eyes among the breaking crowd. His arms pulled at her like an undertow, and her will to fight it was fading.

She stood at the bow, stared out at the gathering clouds ahead, and dove overboard.

Chapter Text

Harmony settled over the court with the warmth of an unexpected summer breeze, and relieved Yujin turned towards it. Rensai's presence turned out to be just the refreshing jolt the courtiers needed: something about business as usual just seemed more interesting with him there to interject. Lighter, less stuffy, even if it came with the occasional rumble of discontent. The Imperialists were an ancient people; surely their tradition could withstand the critique of one temporary Chief Engineer. That was just the sort of thing Rensai himself would say.

But he didn't speak often in court, instead leaving the burden to the various ministers unless his input was strictly needed. Low council meetings were another matter of course, but for the sake of the more formal gatherings this distinction served him well. The apprehensive court settled into their new normal after just a couple of weeks, and even Omare's shoulders relaxed. Yujin could only beam. This was the second revolution, these quiet moments of union and acceptance. She grasped Omare's hand and kissed it, blushing and refusing to answer when he asked what was on her mind, too pleased to properly articulate it.

She returned to her rooms before dinner to find a sunburst of flowers stuffed in a vase, waiting for her. Pink and orange, just like her favorites that used to grow in the crags along the mountainside. Yujin closed her eyes and breathed in their scent. Omare had obviously been in a good mood lately too, but this was an extra thoughtful touch.

"Oh, those are lovely," Omare remarked when he came to fetch her for dinner, nodding at the flowers. "Where are they from?"

Yujin looked between him and the vase, confused, but Omare's face was a placid blank. He wasn't one to fish for compliments or thanks.

"The gardener thought I'd like them."

The lie slipped out of her like oil over water. She led the way to dinner before Omare could notice the way her expression had frozen. The next day, she motioned for Rensai at the end of low council. Her faint unease only deepened to see him smile as he wove his way towards her.

"Yujin." He touched his hand to her elbow; the crowded room felt at once full to bursting and completely empty. "What can I do for you?"

"I received some flowers recently." She kept her tone as mild as she could, grateful for the cover of conversation and commotion that always picked up at the end of the meeting. She'd planned more for that statement but the words got lost somewhere along the way. Rensai raised his eyebrows when no follow-up came.

"Hm. From an admirer?"

Relief rushed out of Yujin in a sigh. So he didn't know about them. "I wasn't sure."

"Perhaps just a token of thanks," Rensai said. "For your confidence."

The ebb of anxiety returned in a great flow. Was he leaning closer? Yujin couldn't tell, but the instinct to step back was pulling at her heels anyway. "Confidence?" she repeated, voice small. Rensai's hand passed over hers as he drew away.

The word plagued her for the rest of the day. She shut herself in her bedroom that night and glowered at the blooms, a perfect match for the dying sunset outside her window. She'd granted him her confidence when she spoke up on his behalf during his petition to Omare. Maybe that was it.

There was another type of confidence though. One that spoke of secrets rather than the set of one's shoulders, and Rensai liked both in equal measure. But Yujin wasn't planning on sharing any secrets with him, even if she'd already accidentally lied about where the flowers had come from. It wasn't even a real lie - she hadn't been sure at the time. They could have been from anyone.

A horrible swoop in her stomach reminded her that not everyone knew her favorite colors. Not everyone had given her similar bouquets in the past. Not everyone had told her the flowers matched the sunrise and sunset, markers for their first and final thoughts of her. Yujin frowned and rubbed one soft, delicate petal between her fingers.

Not for the first time, she was grateful Imperial royalty usually slept in separate rooms.

A week or so later, a splendid ebony comb found its way atop her vanity. Yujin didn't even notice it until Omare slid it into her hair just as she finished brushing.

"You never wear this, I've never even seen it."

Yujin hid her surprise behind her powder puff. "I forgot I had it."

"Well, it suits you." Omare turned her chin to admire the tiny pearls in the mirror's reflection, then grinned, touched her with a kiss, and bid her to meet him in the eastern pagoda for breakfast when she was finished. As soon as he had gone, Yujin snatched the comb from her hair and hid it safe inside a drawer. Omare asked why she'd taken it out when she joined him.

Yujin wouldn't have recognized the third gift as a gift at all if the first two hadn't made her hyper-vigilant. When she discovered a single tangerine atop her drawing room table, a vivid blush rose to her cheeks and she snatched it up to storm off in search of Rensai herself. The first valet she encountered all but yelped in surprise when she demanded if he'd been seen, and he pointed her in the direction of the stone garden.

Sure enough he was there, in the same garden they'd run into each other two seasons ago, sitting on a bench with his back to the door. He turned as she slammed the door shut behind her, and his face split into a wide smile.

"Yujin, what a pleasure. Join me."

"Rensai, you—" she began heatedly, then stopped dead. "You can't be serious."

He followed her gaze to the half-peeled tangerine in his hands, then noticed the one she'd brought along with her and burst out laughing. It rolled over her in warm, familiar waves while Yujin stood aggravated in the tide.

"Oh, don't look like that." He waved her closer, shoulders still shaking with laughter. "I didn't think it would upset you."

"I'm not upset," Yujin hissed automatically as she slid onto the bench next to him, then shook her head. "No, I am upset and I want to know how you keep sneaking into my rooms!"

Rensai managed to look affronted despite his obvious delight at the entire sequence of events. "Oroq knows your valet. He was glad to coordinate a few deliveries for a small fee. I would never enter your room uninvited."

And I never have. He didn't need to say it aloud – it was written so plainly on his face that Yujin couldn't bear to look at him. "Why would you leave me this?" Yujin held out the fruit as though brandishing a weapon. Rensai flicked a glance between her outstretched hand and her eyes.

"If you've come here in such a huff, then I suspect you remember quite well—"

She hushed him frantically. "Fine, that's enough—"

"—that not so long ago I drew a lovely comparison—"

"Rensai!"

He looked down at the halved tangerine in his hands, then split off a wedge and popped it into his mouth. "They're very sweet."

Yujin fell silent, hands and knees clasped tightly together. The security of decorum she clung to whenever they met felt forgotten behind the garden doors, just out of reach and leaving her with little script to guide her. Of course Rensai didn't seem bothered by that in the slightest. He offered her a slice, which Yujin declined with a rigid shake of her head.

"If the gifts cause you stress, I will stop," he said after a while. "I intended only to bring you happiness, and repay you for the kindness you have shown me." Yujin chanced a curious glance at him as he set aside the tangerine peels. The air was perfumed with citrus. "Omare would never have granted me an opportunity to make my case without your good word at my petition. I'm grateful."

Yujin's shoulders yielded a fraction of their tension. "I could tell you were passionate about it," she said.

Rensai nodded, a tiny smile just perceptible at the edges of his mouth. "You have a keen eye for spotting others' passions."

She fought against the flush that threatened to rise in her cheeks. "And have you made much progress on the project?" she managed to ask, but Rensai turned to face her suddenly and her blush bloomed in full.

"We speak enough of work in court," he said. There was something else on the tip of his tongue; Yujin watched as he bit it back. It was enough distraction that she startled when his finger twisted idly in her hair. When had they drawn so close? "Tell me about palace life. Does it suit you?"

"Yes," she whispered, motionless, and his eyebrows raised in either surprise or disbelief. He played the ends of her hair through his fingertips.

"I'm glad. I worried you would find it stifling. We had so much freedom before."

We. He'd done that before – cleaved them together with a word she would have otherwise left behind. It beat in her chest like a hummingbird against glass. Yujin drew breath to continue but Rensai beat her to it.

"When I first saw you here, I worried you were not yourself. All in Imperial white. Perhaps through with me for good." He tucked her hair behind her ear. His hand hesitated on her cheek, then drew away. "You can't imagine my relief to find you unchanged, even hidden away behind these walls."

"I'm not hidden away," Yujin said. "And I'm not the one that needed to change."

Regret passed a shadow over Rensai's face. "I know that." His hand fell on hers as she worried them in her lap, and she stilled. He turned her hands over, fingers ghosting over her palms as though mapping every line.

"Rensai." He looked up at her. Their foreheads were close enough to touch, the air between them dizzyingly thin. "You can't do this," she said softly.

"I know. Not here, and not for long." He shifted closer still and touched a lingering kiss to her cheek. She held still, breathless, her hands shaking in his. "But I think of you every day, Yujin. My sunrise and sunset."

She let out a pained breath. "Please. You're not hearing me. I can't do this, either. Omare—"

Rensai closed his eyes, jaw tight. "Don't say his name to me."

"Jimaya, then."

Rensai hesitated, watching Yujin for any sign of injury or jealousy. "It means nothing," he began at last. "You are the only—"

"This isn't about me—"

"Yujin." He lifted a hand to her cheek and his smile was all compassion. "My sweet. Everything is about you."

"No it's not, and least of all this! I don't think you're approaching it the way she is," Yujin said. Her voice was made weak by the honesty in his eyes and she could hardly stand to meet them. She realized she still hadn't pulled her hands out of his. "I don't know what you've told either of them about our... our history—"

"You know I'd already have been chased out of the city if I'd given even a hint," he said. "I've kept this secret as long as you have. Omare willingly believed it was political. Jimaya hasn't even asked."

"Well, she asked me."

"And?"

Yujin didn't answer. She'd made the same political excuse, hopeful that Jimaya was taking some comfort in his company after Tsulemon's departure. Hopeful that Rensai returned even a fraction of Jimaya's affections. And now it was just another lie shared between them. The memory of Rensai thanking her for her confidence swept through her like a chill, but it was chased away by the warmth of Rensai taking her in his arms. It was familiar, comforting, as though he could shield her from her own mistakes. Yujin took a shuddering breath and relaxed into him.

"You shouldn't sleep with her anymore, Rensai," she said. He let out a breath and tightened his embrace. "She'll draw the wrong conclusion. They're not like us."

No sooner had the words left her mouth did she regret them. She had meant the difference between City and Den, the Imperialist preoccupation with the blurred line between physical and emotional love. But Rensai pulled back, and in the curve of his smile she saw not the "us" that linked them to their home, but the "us" that existed in the stone garden. The only "us" that mattered to him.

"No. They're not."

He kissed her on the lips this time, just for a moment, the slightest press of warmth and promise. When he drew away he took her breath with him.

"Don't do that again," she whispered. Tears pressed hot behind her eyes, but her wavering vision didn't spare her the sight of Rensai's happiness seeping out of him like steam in winter air. He went cold against her and rose to his feet.

"This is agony," he muttered, and stalked towards the garden door. Suddenly adrift without him beside her, Yujin leaned back against the bench, clinging shakily to the edge while a tear slipped past her defenses.

Chapter Text

Rensai didn't appear in court the next day, nor the day after that. When asked, Minister Bandui gave a vague shrug as though he hadn't expected his new closest colleague in the first place, then updated the assembled on the western wall's progress in the same boring drone as ever.

"Where is Yujin?" Jimaya asked Omare after the close of that day's proceedings. She'd been missing too. Omare got to his feet and stretched.

"She's been observing the Ashen Days," he yawned. "I think they're over tomorrow. She's been all over the city visiting the Denborn, and there's supposed to be a feast or something tomorrow to close them out."

"Really? I wish she'd involved us," Jimaya said with a frown. "We're supposed to be unified."

"I don't know." Omare shrugged. "Den thing."

Jimaya wasn't sure how she felt about the Denborn gathering to remember how they'd fallen to Imperial forces, no matter how long ago it had been. The previous year's observance had made a barely noticeable impact, but maybe that was only because she hadn't been looking. She did think it was a bit odd that Omare didn't have any noteworthy details about his partner's traditions – Rensai hadn't mentioned the holiday either, but if he had, Jimaya would have at least gotten the schedule.

Not that she and Rensai were partners. But she still would have.

She visited the kitchens and asked whether the Denborn guards had been eating anything particular that week. Smoked meats mostly, and root vegetables with a long shelf life. It wasn't particularly exciting fare, and Jimaya winced at the bite of salted pork one of the cooks offered for her to try, but maybe that was the point. That kind of bitterness seemed like a very Den thing to appreciate on just such an occasion. The kitchen staff wrapped up a generous package for her and she set out close to dark.

Dusk had been reaching its long fingers into the evenings earlier and earlier in the recent days, and it was nearly nightfall by the time Jimaya reached Rensai's cottage. She lifted a hand to knock but paused: there was muffled conversation behind the door. She'd never known him to entertain any guests but her. With a swell of childish indignation, she rapped her knuckles against the door.

The voices fell silent. There was a long stretch of quiet, then at last the familiar sound of boot treads.

"Jimaya." The door opened to reveal a particularly dark and forbidding Rensai. Incense lingered thick in the cottage. "This isn't a good time."

"Jimaya, what a surprise." Rensai tried to close the door but Yujin fitted her way under his arm anyway and slid beyond the threshold to join Jimaya outside. Her eyes were shining as she smiled and hefted the great bundle of flowers she carried in her arms. "How kind of you to visit – not many Imperialists think to during this time of year."

"I wasn't sure why you were missing from court," Jimaya said slowly. She glanced between Yujin and Rensai, hoping to knit together some kind of clue to dispel her twinge of trepidation. "I'm sorry I didn't remember. I hope I'm not interrupting."

"No, don't worry, I was just taking my leave." Yujin adjusted the flowers again. "I have others to visit before the night is out. Would you like to accompany me? I can think of a number of families who would be thrilled to see their empress take an interest in the Ashen Days."

It was difficult to focus on Yujin's smile with Rensai looming behind her, framed by the light from within the cottage and radiating such a palpable chill.

"Thank you, but I can't stay away from the palace long tonight," Jimaya lied. "Perhaps it would be all right for me to join tomorrow's feast instead?"

"Please do," Yujin said. She darted a flash of a glance at Rensai and back again. "If you're certain…"

"I am," Jimaya said in the tone she used to suppress complaints in court. "Thank you."

Yujin picked up on it and nodded quickly. "Very well then. A pleasure running into you. Fire keep and kindle you, Rensai."

"And you."

Yujin flinched but Jimaya couldn't guess what she must have heard in his reply. Yujin dipped a quick bow to Jimaya, then slipped down the stairs towards the main road.

"What's going on?" Jimaya asked cautiously, but when she looked back Rensai had already turned from the door. She tightened her grip on the package she'd brought along and edged inside – he'd left the door open, so he hadn't outright refused her – to find him at the altar at the very back of his cottage. It was bedecked with branches of white blossoms: they hung like bells, blooms dripping over the edge of the dark wood in a stunning contrast. Rensai pinched the end of an incense stick between his fingers to extinguish it.

"This isn't a good time," he repeated. "These days aren't for your people."

"We're all one people now," she reminded him gently, but looking at him now, she didn't feel like it. His tattoos stood out with unnatural sharpness in the dim evening light. Everything about him warded her off from the set of his shoulders to his refusal to face her, and unease rose in a wave within her. "I asked the kitchen staff if you had any dietary restrictions during the Ashen Days, and—"

"Do not presume to make this time your own," Rensai cut her off coldly. He shot a glare over his shoulder. "If you have to ask, then it's not yours."

Whether he meant the holiday or her impromptu visit that evening, Jimaya couldn't tell, but the thought of one stung much more than the other. "I didn't mean to intrude. I'll just…." She laid the package on the center table. A tea setting sat atop it, its service interrupted. Jimaya whipped around to leave as quickly as she could.

But no sooner had her hand reached the door had Rensai's arms looped around her waist from behind. Jimaya startled, heart hammering.

"I'm sorry." His voice was gruff and low in her ear.

"No, it's okay," she insisted, "I'll go." She tried to pull away but Rensai held her fast. His head dropped to rest on her shoulder and he heaved a sigh.

"Rensai, what's wrong?" There was no keeping the alarm out of her voice now, nor stopping a sickening flush of jealous anxiety from lighting her nerves. "What happened with Yujin?"

"Nothing. She delivered the flowers." He trailed a trio of kisses up her throat, then tucked his face into the crook of her neck, his hair spilling over her shoulder.

"Then why are you like this? Talk to me, you're making me nervous."

A small sound of bitter amusement. He pressed his body closer against hers. "Isn't that why you like me?"

"I don't like whatever this is!"

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "Stay."

A little thrill of affection batted its wings against the knot in her stomach: all she wanted was his honesty, and here he was so obviously troubled yet more distant than ever. "Rensai—"

"Please."

She turned to face him and this time he didn't resist. He caught her in a kiss before she could speak again, and the same inky black warmth that she'd come to crave so much bled through her worry, threatening to blot it out entirely. This was better. This was how she wanted him, present and tender and deep. The person she'd hoped he could be. She laced her fingers behind his neck as though it could keep him from slipping into whatever current threatened to drag him away.

"Come to bed," he murmured.

"Not until you tell me what's wrong," Jimaya said breathlessly, but as she clung to him she hoped he wouldn't answer. Whatever was pulling at him, it was making him hold her like she were the only thing keeping him anchored. Rensai leaned his forehead against hers.

"Nothing is wrong except that you and I aren't already in bed," he said. "Come."

Rensai took her by the hands and she followed as though gliding over the floor. He extinguished the two lamps that illuminated the main room on their way. Another smaller lamp threw a flickering yellow light against the walls of his bedroom and he extinguished that one too, shrouding them both in darkness as he eased Jimaya back. It reminded her of the first time she'd laid down in his bed. Natural, guided, and with a fluttering hint of apprehension. But he kissed her so gently that her preoccupations dissolved, replaced only with the awareness of his lips and body and roving hands. Her shoulders found their way out of her robes and soon the rest of her followed, Rensai's skin warm and smooth against hers.

But whatever mood had seized him had followed him to bed as well: she reached for him, whined for him, but whenever she touched him he tugged her hands away and kissed her fingertips. "Not tonight," he said. "I'm repaying your kindness."

"What kindness? The things from the kitchen?"

Rensai answered only with a kiss to the palm of her hand.

"You don't owe me anything. I want you to share in it," she protested, wrapping her legs around him to keep him close. "I want you." He was hard, she could feel it, and he rocked against her with a frustrated groan. His hair ghosted over her skin as he shook his head.

"No more words. Lie back."

His tongue and touch drew sighs from her first, then moans, but Jimaya held back anything more like he'd asked. Rensai ended up doing enough talking for both of them, murmuring words of encouragement, asking her what she liked, calling her beautiful. His voice came low and deep, it resonated with every nerve in her body, and Jimaya basked in it as he covered her in kisses. When their lips touched there was an ache behind it that Jimaya didn't recognize: it burst like a firework within her and set her ablaze. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close, as though they would melt together if she gripped tightly enough, if she aligned their breaths and heartbeats.

"My sweet," he whispered in her ear, as though they'd been apart for years rather than just two days. "I've missed you desperately."

Rensai laid her head on his chest when at last she fell back, satisfied and exhausted, and his fingers stroked through her hair while their breathing fell into a rhythm. His earlier behavior felt so far away now, surely weeks ago rather than minutes or hours. She relaxed nestled between his arms. It was warm. Easy. Every tiny, tender kiss they shared was a little flicker of heat. She gathered them up like fireflies in a jar and held them against her heart.

Sleep found her while she traced her fingers over the tattoos on Rensai's chest. Her hand went still and the darkness grew closer. It was the kind of rocking, peaceful partial-sleep that lovers shared, each ever attuned to the other, relaxed enough to rest but aware enough to return a kiss. She lingered there for a while, then sank deeper.

An unusual, acrid scent tugged her back towards consciousness. A fire? Jimaya jerked awake in a sudden gasping panic. But no. The room was still dark and there was no smoke or crackle of flame. Pulse racing, she caught her breath and turned to Rensai.

His side of the bed lay empty.

Jimaya sat up, puzzled as much as dazed. Rensai rarely woke up before she did and it was still the middle of the night. The scent still hung in the air and Jimaya didn't want to wonder how many bizarre chemical compounds Rensai might store around his cottage to save him a trip to the workshop. But he never worked at this hour – at least she'd never caught him at it. Worry prickled at her. She turned away from the memory of the tense start to their evening, slid out of bed, and padded to the door.

In the middle of the main room, a single, tiny lamp illuminated the long angles of Rensai's body. He was reclined in front of the center table, his back to the bedroom, the cushions all piled beneath him on one side of the table in a sort of nest. Jimaya sighed her relief. If he'd left the cottage thinking she would sleep through his absence, she would have been angry.

Maybe it was the solitary lamp, but the air in the room felt uncommonly thick and dim. Rensai shifted a bit, breathed deeply, then tilted his head back. Thin reeds of smoke poured out on his breath, making the lamp light shiver. He seemed to exhale his tension along with it: his shoulders relaxed and he set the pipe down to pillow his head on his arm. His chest rose and fell in slow and even rolls.

This wasn't the seductive, illicit scene Jimaya had pictured when she first discovered Rensai's opium pipe. She'd imagined sidelong glances, lazy gestures for her to come closer, hair falling into eyes, air thick with smoke and incense. The reality was wan and nearer to pathetic. He looked so thin; something about the smoky lamplight made him appear flimsy and weak, as though a breeze could carry him over the edge of a cliff and he wouldn't bother to fight it. She wanted to turn from it but found herself transfixed instead, her face twisting in distaste. How often did he do this? Every time she visited, or just some? Had she slept through it every other time and let him slide back into bed beside her as though he'd always been there?

The drifting scent of opium now seemed more like a stench to Jimaya, cloying and choking and impossible to ignore. It was far too late to travel back to the palace alone. He'd trapped her in this tiny cottage with his tumultuous moods and his repulsive, selfish escapist habits, and for what? Didn't he have everything he wanted? What happened to repaying her kindness?

She retreated to the bedroom instead and slammed the door shut behind her. Beyond it, she heard Rensai sigh.

Chapter Text

Jimaya would wake early, so Rensai woke earlier. Even if he hadn't spent the night on the floor, no amount of sleep would have helped him avoid the next day's requisite fog and fatigue. He waded through it like a stork through a swamp as he tidied the cushions and tucked away his pipe and the rest. Tools of a nasty trade. He wasn't proud of it, and he was even less proud that he'd been foolish enough to let himself get caught. His father's disapproving snarl seethed in the back of his mind. "Go ahead, boy. Deliberately dull your senses. See what becomes of you."

He prepared tea and rice for breakfast, then waited. Jimaya would be upset with him. She deserved to be. He should have thrown her out when inertia was with him, but he'd become weak in the face of Yujin's willingness to leave so soon. There had been countless other Denborn for Yujin to visit that night. She could have easily passed him over, and she didn't have to suggest tea. He'd had her in his home and if it hadn't been for Jimaya's intrusion, there was no telling what else he might have had. Time to better explain his behavior in the stone garden. A moment to hold her. That would have been enough, and instead all he had were the consequences he'd earned in exchange for a few hours' chemical relief. He scowled at the steam that rose from the two waiting bowls, nauseated.

Not long after sunlight began creeping its way through the cracks in the shutters did his bedroom door open and close, and Jimaya entered his line of sight a few seconds later. Everything about her was tight: her bun, her robes, her expression.

"Good morning," Rensai began, motioning for her to join him but she was already shaking her head.

"I'm not hungry. I'll see you whenever you decide to turn up in court again."

He'd anticipated that, but it didn't keep the flicker of irritation from heating the jagged edges of his consciousness. He fought to keep it from his tone. "Jimaya, please. Surely you're not needed for a few hours."

She lifted her chin and glared down at him. Ever the empress. But after only a few moments' consideration did her resolve give way: she dropped to her knees opposite him, a heap of scarlet silk and aggravation. She jerked her head at the teapot and Rensai hurried to remove the kettle from the hearth.

"I assume you'll explain yourself," she said.

The heat of her stare competed with the steaming water he poured over the tea leaves. He avoided it. "Would you prefer an explanation or an apology?"

"I feel entitled to both, but I'll let you begin where you feel most comfortable."

He sat back to wait for the tea to steep. "I apologize, Jimaya," he said gravely. "I should not have left you alone, least of all for such an unworthy substitute for you company."

"It's disgusting," Jimaya snapped. "And it's illegal."

"By your laws—"

"And yours."

Rensai suppressed the impulse to roll his eyes. He didn't have the stamina to debate differing cultural approaches to drug use with an Imperialist. "It's not the law I'm concerned about," he said. "It's you."

A light blush suffused Jimaya's cheeks and she reached across the table to begin pouring the tea. It hadn't steeped nearly long enough. Rensai decided against pointing it out.

"Well, you had me last night," she said stiffly. She slid Rensai's cup across the table towards him. "Why did you need it?"

He sipped his tea to buy some time and tried not to blanch at the weak taste. "It's an analgesic," he said at last.

"So you're in pain?"

The question was sharpened to a point. Rensai hardened against it. "Perhaps you'd like to rethink your tone," he said lowly. "I told you last night. The Ashen Days are not for you. They are a memory of what your people have done to mine, and that particular stretch of history isn't pleasant to ruminate on. You're free to preach unity all you like, but we are not the same and no amount of insistence will change that."

"So this is about a holiday? One you've never bothered to mention to me until this moment?"

"That is exactly the Imperialist attitude that—"

"Don't make this about Imperialists and Denborn!" Jimaya set her cup down on the table so hard that tea sloshed over the rim; she hissed and shook the scorching droplets from her hands. "I want to know why you were angry with me one minute and begging me to stay the next. Why didn't you let me touch you? Why did you say what you did to me last night and then—" she clenched her teeth together, blinking hard— "and then leave me to do that?"

"Can you conceive of a world in which the answer has nothing to do with you?" he sneered, as though protecting the truth inside a ring of sharpened stakes would ward her away from it. "I know you've had an entire kingdom and lifetime to reinforce your belief that you and your brother are the only people in the world that matter, but try to fight your every instinct and recognize that this is not about you."

Jimaya scoffed. ”So I’m to believe you would have done the same to Yujin had I never turned up?"

Rensai's hesitation lasted only the scant second it took him to draw breath. But Jimaya was staring at him, and he saw in the careful freezing of her expression that the damage was already done. She sat back on her heels, awestruck.

"Is this because she was here?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Rensai began but Jimaya cut him off.

"It is, isn't it?"

"No," he insisted angrily, his pulse quickening, "but since you've raised the subject, I'd be very interested to know when you told her about you and I."

That made her falter and Rensai clung to his recovery, desperate to keep Jimaya on the defensive.

"I didn't tell her anything," she said, but her flush betrayed her again. "I did ask her advice…"

"And on what matter is she qualified to give advice?" he snapped, already certain of the answer.

"I wanted to be sure." Jimaya dropped her head. "She was also in a position of power when—"

"This is not a courtship, Jimaya." Rensai watched the words strike her through the chest: she flinched, eyes averted, her hands clasped tight in her lap. There was no victory in it, nothing to be gained from injuring her just as Yujin had warned him against. But Yujin never would have known if Jimaya had only kept her mouth shut. He pressed on ruthlessly. "You told me you knew what this was."

"I do," she whispered.

"She could have gone to your brother, and what would he have done to me then?"

"Since when do you care about what Omare thinks or does?" Jimaya asked darkly. "You had me on your side whether you deserved it or not, and my word carries just as much weight as his."

"You were the one afraid of your court suspecting!"

"I think you're lying to me, Rensai," Jimaya said as though he hadn't spoken. Her eyes were shining but her voice was steady. "You tried to close the door to hide her, you wanted to turn me away."

She waited for him to deny it, but Rensai was out of excuses. Her anger vanished again, replaced with detached realization.

"You love her, don't you?"

Rensai drew breath to speak, then closed his eyes and turned his face away. Of all the lies he could tell, all the words he could spin to charm or pacify her, that would have been his least convincing by far. Jimaya laughed hollowly.

"How long?"

"How long have I loved her?" he asked, voice dry. Impossible to say. Years. Every season, every month, every moment for years, but time was immeasurable with someone like Yujin resting at the center of it.

"How long have you been using me to get close to her?"

His anger sparked back to life. "Never," he growled. "That's exactly the moronic, self-centered conclusion your brother would draw."

"Yes, let's discuss what conclusion Omare might draw. What do you think he'll say when he hears you've been pining after his partner? That you've been sleeping with me for an excuse to catch her in court more often?"

"I didn't fuck you for that appointment, Jimaya," Rensai snarled viciously. "You would have given me a lot more for a lot less."

Jimaya reeled back as though slapped. "And you would have been satisfied to take it, wouldn't you? As long as you get what you want, the cost doesn't matter. But I suppose I've always known how much you value other people."

"I can't take tea with one person and care for another?"

"Don't pretend that's all we were doing, even before this escalated."

"And you were powerless in that transaction, were you?" Rensai snapped. “You take me for granted, Jimaya. I am not your escape from your miserable, regimented court life, no matter how secretly and closely you may hold me. You made me into your distraction and I allowed it, but don't act as though you weren't using me. And now you feel entitled to my contrition because you couldn't keep your own feelings in check?" He snorted. "I won't shoulder the blame for your inability to distinguish sex and love."

"But you behaved like a lover." He'd expected another counterattack, but Jimaya's tone came soft. "Everything you said last night. That was for her, wasn't it?"

Rensai swallowed his regret like bile. He did care for Jimaya. Of course he did. She was excellent company, intelligent, resilient. She'd been kinder to him than he often deserved, and he'd willingly repaid that service by providing her with a few hours' respite from the pressures of court whenever he could. Her visits were a glimmer of sunlight on an otherwise gray and monotonous day. A reminder that he could be someone that mattered, even when it had just been tea.

But he knew he'd treated her poorly the night before. He'd known it even as he did it, as though he were watching from outside himself when he extinguished the lamps, when he told her not to speak, when he whispered to her and imagined she were someone else.

And then he'd left her to try to forget the dull, blunt misery of doing it all because of Yujin, for Yujin, and still without Yujin.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"What kind of life did you imagine you'd give her?"

His head snapped up. Jimaya was watching him flatly.

"I'm assuming you haven't been 'taking tea' with her as well, or else you wouldn't have said half the pathetic things you told me last night," she said coldly. "Am I wrong?"

Rensai could only stare at her. She'd never spoken to him with such obvious intent to wound. He'd never afforded her the opportunity. And here she was leaping at her first chance, jaws open and claws bared. She went on when he couldn't find the words to answer.

"What did you think you could offer her? This?" She gestured at the modest cottage, a tiny fleck of ink against the sprawling mural of her kingdom. Her eyes were alight. "She is an Emperor's consort, she is a diplomat. You are relic from an old life she's left behind. What could you possibly give her?"

Jimaya took no pleasure in this. The tone didn't suit her, nor did the harsh words it demanded. She wasn't built for willingly inflicting pain, physical or otherwise, and Rensai could tell by the shine in her eyes that it was taking its toll on her.

He would relieve her. He leaned closer so she couldn't avoid his gaze.

"If you have to ask," he said lowly, "then you have never loved."

Rensai watched as the hatred within her calcified. It closed her expression and darkened her eyes. She got to her feet.

"Consider yourself relieved of your duties as Chief Engineer," she said. "Your trial is finished."

"Jimaya—"

"You will address me as Your Majesty or not at all," she snapped. Satisfied that she'd stunned him into silence, she turned on her heel and took her leave, slamming the door shut behind her, closing him in with no evidence that anyone else had been there apart from the two unfinished tea cups. Just as Yujin had left him the night before.

Eventually Rensai slunk back to bed. Jimaya had tidied it with the precision of a palace maid, tight and smooth. He peeled the duvet back, gave up halfway, and collapsed atop it instead.

Nausea or guilt. He couldn't tell which. Both would pass in time.

Chapter Text

Yujin nearly dropped her makeup brush when Jimaya burst into her rooms that morning. Her insides flooded with ice.

"Jimaya…"

But she didn't speak, closing the door with the sort of measured control that told Yujin she would have preferred to slam it.

"What has he done?" Yujin whispered.

"What have you done?"

This must be why the Imperialists set so much store by royal blood. This presence, this command of a room's very temperature was surely bred, not learned. "I— I don't understand—"

"I would rather hear it from you," Jimaya said lowly, "in your own words, than draw my own conclusions. So far assuming the best hasn't gotten me far."

Yujin got to her feet but the tension in Jimaya's shoulders anchored her in place. She hesitated, vacillating. "You must believe me, I would never have pushed you in his direction if I had known—"

"You cannot expect me to believe you had no idea," Jimaya snapped.

"I wanted to be wrong. Please, Jimaya." She couldn't fight the impulse to go to her any longer and she took her hand, but Jimaya snatched it back. "I only wanted you to be happy. I wanted him to be changed and for neither of you to be alone."

"'I never felt deceived by Rensai'?" Jimaya threw Yujin's words back at her like a curse, a cruel parody of Yujin’s sentiments at the archery range. "I see now how that could be true. How lucky you were to enjoy his honesty. I wish I could say the same, and I wish even more that I'd never been deceived by you."

"Please," Yujin repeated, softer. She clasped her hands over her heart to keep herself from reaching out again. She'd seen Jimaya angry before, and upset as well, but the wary look of betrayal in her eyes was sickeningly new, as though she were afraid Yujin might lash out at her. "I tried to steer you both apart once I realized how he felt. I hoped you would leave with me last night."

"And I'm to believe that was just a social call?"

"I was delivering altar flowers for— no! No Jimaya, you mustn't think—" Yujin could hardly get the words out fast enough. "I would never betray Omare like that, I swear it."

"There was a tea setting."

"Well yes, but…" But Yujin supposed that had been something of a ritual between the two of them. A ritual, and then an excuse. "The tea was my suggestion."

Yujin dropped her gaze to her feet. Rensai had lit up when she proposed it, all the disappointment from their last meeting vanished in a breath. Meanwhile she could only feel as though she were giving a beloved pet its happiest final day on earth. He had been trying. She could tell. Not just for her but for himself – outside of the rough edges of their home, his own had softened, and he spoke of his work on the wall in a way she never would have expected him to praise a collaborative effort with Imperialists. He'd held back any more barbed questions about her court life, recalling how poorly she'd reacted to it last time. It had been almost pleasant, and when Jimaya's knock sounded at the door, Yujin had felt a flash of relief that she might be spared the misery of taking a spear to his happiness.

Her mercy was always poorly timed, she thought bitterly.

"I was going to tell him that he needed to let it go," Yujin said quietly. "Him and me, and what we had. I tried once before but he… perhaps he was willfully misunderstanding me." Perhaps she'd been too weak to do it properly. "You arrived before the opportunity arose."

"And what did you two have, exactly?"

She glanced at Jimaya but couldn't bear it for long. Jimaya's mouth was hardened into a thin line, eyes narrowed in accusation.

"I… I wanted to love him," Yujin admitted. "And part of me did. That part became very good at ignoring everything that made him so…”

Ruthless. Vicious. Callous. She couldn’t say it. It had been safe in the circle of his arms, held close by the certainty that she was the center of his world, far removed from whatever he did to or thought of others. He made it easy to ignore.

“How long?”

"A little more than a year," Yujin said, and flinched when Jimaya turned away and shook her head. "Though I think for him it was... quite a bit longer."

"Until Omare arrived. In a cage," Jimaya said acidly.

"What could I have done, Jimaya?" Yujin asked imploringly. "Freed every Imperial prisoner? Begged them to stop? My father was the Chief, and Counselor Yoren already had the ear of every warrior with any measure of ambition. Please don't make me answer for those mistakes as well. I feel very acutely how many lives were lost because of me."

It was Jimaya's turn to wince. "I didn't mean—"

"I don't regret freeing Omare when I did." Yujin touched a finger to her cheek before the tear welling there could slip too far. "But I do regret letting Rensai believe I loved him for so long. There's a kind of heartbreak in being unable to fully love someone, too. But it killed my father and however many others, Denborn and otherwise. And now it's hurt you." She gave up trying to stem the flow of tears; her vision blurred but she refused to look away from Jimaya. "I'm so sorry."

"Yujin. Those losses are not yours to bear."

The sudden softness in Jimaya's voice crumbled Yujin's resolve. Jimaya's hand closed around hers and she clung to it like a lifeline.

"I'm sorry," she repeated anyway. "For all that's happened, I truly did want everyone to be happy. I didn't tell Omare because I didn't want to worry him, I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to be alone. I didn't tell Rensai because I didn't want to hurt him again." She tried to force a smile. "I promise I'm not an untrustworthy person. Maybe just a cowardly one."

"That's enough." Jimaya squeezed Yujin's hand. "I shouldn't have come to you so angry. I feared he'd been using me to get to you, and I worried for Omare."

Yujin let out a shuddering sigh and swiped her hand beneath her eyes one final time. "Of course. I don't know what else I expected after last night. I suppose I hoped he could at least be civil, but...." She watched Jimaya's expression.

Jimaya sniffed bitterly. "We were both upset in the end."

She gave her a moment to elaborate, but when nothing followed, Yujin pressed, "Please. You can tell me."

Jimaya shook her head and let her hand slip from Yujin's. "He just made it abundantly clear that he would rather have been with you."

“Who did?”

Both of them startled and turned to the open door. The answer was already written on Omare’s face.

He raged. Jimaya stood firm against it, but Yujin had never had never come under the force of that kind of hurt and betrayal. He wasted precious few seconds on disbelief and the rest rolled over her like magma, slow and superheated. Something in that hurt worst of all – that he had feared this, anticipated it, and she'd proven him right.

“Him,” he repeated, one hand pressed over his eyes, teeth gritted to keep himself from turning his full anger on her. ”Him. How?"

“It’s finished, Omare, I swear it—“

“You know better than anyone what he has done, for how long, the sick relish he found in it—“ He let his hand fall and he looked at Yujin with a disgust she'd never seen before. “I feel like I hardly know you.”

“Omare,” Jimaya said sharply. “She told you, it’s over.”

“Clearly not to him!”

“And she doesn’t have a say in that?” Jimaya snapped when Yujin cringed.

"And you?" He rounded on Jimaya. "What is your excuse? Don't you care about what he did to our people? To Kouda, to Capo? To me?"

"Of course I do—"

"But it didn't repulse you enough to keep you out of his bed."

"You appointed him Chief Engineer! Why is your forgiveness more acceptable than mine?"

"I wasn't sleeping with a slaver!"

"I'm sorry!" Jimaya choked out. Omare faltered at the emotion in her voice. Whatever retort he had lined up, her pained expression extinguished it within him. "I'm sorry. He was… different towards me. I wanted him to live up to our pardon."

"I told you he was a snake." The fight seeped out of him and he took his sister in his arms. Jimaya melted into him, burying her face in his shoulder. "I never trusted him with you— he didn't see us as people, Maya. He said as much during the hunt! And now look how he's treated you."

"That's—" Jimaya began, but like Yujin any defense of his actions was well beyond their grasp anymore. She sniffed and tried again. "Then why did you appoint him?"

"I wanted to see what you saw in him. Or what I thought you saw in him," he amended, still not able to suck all of the lingering venom from his voice. "He said it was behind him, but it looks like there is very little he leaves behind." He cast a look at Yujin. She retreated a step, longing for any escape, inch by inch closer to the door.

“He is finished in this city,” Omare said resolutely. He released Jimaya, squared his shoulders, and lifted his chin. Imperial. “He will have no place here. Not with my partner, not with my sister, not with anyone.”

In the ringing silence that followed, Yujin edged out of the room and fled the palace.


Yujin tried to picture a shadow box, all tightly fitted corners and compartments, its contents neatly arranged and organized. She'd had one as a child, a gift left behind by her mother, set with thinnest paper over the top so she could just see the darkened, fuzzy outline of the jewelry she'd stored inside. She tried to arrange her emotions similarly, tucking away their sharp pins and shine. Disappointment in herself. Lingering guilt for Jimaya. Looming dread of returning to Omare. But she would leave this task to no one else. She found an empty spot, shoved the image of Omare's heartbroken expression inside, and snapped the lid shut.

It didn't come easily to her. She still saw the outline through the paper.

When she finally found Rensai, he was atop the scaffolding of his reconstruction project. It was otherwise abandoned for the day owing to the number of Denborn laborers observing the last of the Ashen Days: the scaffolding stood empty and skeletal against the still morning sky. Yujin had to gather her robes in hand to climb up.

If Rensai heard her approach, he didn't turn towards it. Even from her distance he looked dreadful. She hadn't seen that set of his shoulders since his father had died – his thin frame betrayed every wear and weakness, every burden that bent his bones.

As usual, they were all of his own design.

He stayed facing the overlook, forearms balanced on the wall's edge as he gazed outward over the plains beyond the city. Merchants and cattle drivers streamed back and forth along the western road, small as the tin soldiers that used to stand atop her father's war table. Yujin joined him to watch, and Rensai gave a faint note of surprise.

"I thought you might be Omare come to drive a knife into my back."

"He might have, if I hadn't dissuaded him."

Rensai closed his eyes and bowed his head. "Yujin, I—"

"I don't want to hear it," she cut him off, and he clamped his jaws obediently around whatever explanation would follow. As though one would make a difference. "I don't know how you could do that to her, Rensai. I told you not to sleep with her again."

"...I didn't sleep with her," he began cautiously, then winced when she rounded on him in a flash.

"You did in every way that mattered!" she hissed. "You knew what I meant. You told her you wanted her and let her believe it! You—" Yujin shuddered. She could barely stand to consider it. She gripped her anger like a dagger. "What you did was vile, Rensai. It was selfish, and disrespectful to me as much as her."

He cringed as though she'd struck him. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"Are you? Or are you just sorry you lost your appointment?"

Rensai fixed her with a wounded look. "How can you ask me that? I would give that up and a thousand times more for your forgiveness."

"You should be asking her forgiveness, not mine," she snapped. "You love to tell me what you'd give me, what you'll do or be for me. But you refuse to be better." Her voice cracked on the word; she could see how he longed to reach for her. "That's all I wanted – for you to be better. Be kinder. Not just to me and not just for me, but because you wanted to be. For a moment I thought you were, and then…." She shook her head and suddenly her hands were gripped in his.

"I am," he insisted. She was close against his chest. Her breath abandoned her lungs and he leaned down as if he could fold her into himself. "I will be, I can be, just please…" He kissed her fingertips. "Be patient with me. I've been without you for so long and I—"

"No, Rensai." She snatched her hands back and stepped out of his reach. "I won't be your moral compass."

"Be my anything," he said desperately. "Please. You know as well as I do that there's a part of each of us that can't leave this alone."

"I have to," Yujin insisted. "I am. This can't go on, I've already made my choice. I love him."

His expression twisted in revulsion. "Love," he repeated. He spat the word like a curse. "Was it love for him that drove you to keep our past a secret from him for so long? You know he can't love you as I do, as I always have, not an entitled child like him who would be dead if not for his sister's intervention."

"By your hand!" Yujin's voice broke at last. "If things had gone another way, you can't convince me you wouldn't have killed him yourself!"

"Then isn't it evidence that I have changed that I didn't break his spine during that ridiculous hunt?" Rensai snarled. "He could have fallen out of a tree, drowned in a river – any number of tragedies could have befallen him, and anyone would have believed it of such a reckless fool. An entire morning of baiting and picking at me, seizing every opportunity to remind me of what he holds just out of my reach – he was lucky to come away intact."

"I won't listen to you speak of love and violence in the same breath anymore!"

The command in her tone stilled him. Yujin fought to steady her breath.

"I won't— I won't hear it anymore."

Rensai's expression softened. He watched her like he might a small animal he feared to spook. He held his hands out to her. Palms up, offering, all malevolence dissolved in the space of a heartbeat. There was a tenderness there that she recognized and, a lifetime ago, might have even craved.

"Then let me only speak of love," he said gently. "Please, Yujin. You can't imagine how I've missed you." He reached for her.

She thought of being folded up in those arms. His hard angles would ward away any danger, his sharp tongue would carve vicious threats in one moment and adoring promises in the next, anything to keep her safe and close and his. They would kiss and his hair would close around her like a curtain, so black it was nearly blue, the same comforting warmth of the darkness just before dropping off to sleep.

Yujin clasped her hands over her heart and took another step back.

"I'm sorry, Rensai," she said softly.

He studied her. Dark eyes searched for any sign from her, any barest hint of hope, and each second of silence made Yujin's pulse thrum harder in her ears. Eventually his hands fell back to his sides. His words usually flowed effortlessly, ice on a wintery river, but when he spoke at last his voice came dry and cracked.

"Say it."

"Rensai—"

"Tell me you don't love me."

Yujin swallowed back a sob. She'd prayed he wouldn't make her speak it aloud, not now, and not at the countless other opportunities she'd let pass them both by.

"I don't love you," she whispered.

"And I suppose you haven't for some time."

Yujin dropped her gaze and shook her head.

He turned from her to look out over the wall again, out at the wide expanse beyond. Their mountain loomed in the distance, a dark and indistinct cutout against the gray morning sky. Hollow and abandoned.

"This city has made you cruel."

"No. My mercy has made you complacent," she said lowly. "I was trying to be kind. I wanted you to be happy with her – for both of you to be happy." She was exhausted from explaining herself and couldn't stand to do it again. She worried her hands in the long sleeves of her robes – Imperial white. He stood at the wall between palace and mountain – did he feel the weight of the Ashen Days as she did? Was she the Imperialist pushing the Denborn into seclusion? Her stomach twisted horribly, and Rensai faced her once more, empty as the mountain behind him.

"I had forgotten how much damage your mercy can do."

He brushed past her before she could recover; she turned but found herself rooted to the spot, unable to follow. Uncertain of what more she could possibly say if she did. He swung his legs over the railing of the scaffolding, jumped to the level below, and all at once Yujin was alone atop the wall.

The sheen of a drawn sword sounded below.

"Where is she? What did you do—"

Yujin flung herself to the overlook just in time to spot Omare cornering Rensai at swordpoint, poised to strike.

"Omare!" Yujin flew down the scaffolding and took hold of his arm, tugging to make him lower his weapon. He tensed at her touch and held firm; Yujin tried to ignore the stab to her heart. "I already told him, he knows now! Please don't do this."

But Rensai was only staring flatly at Omare. Usually she could read him without even thinking, pick out a glint in his eye that hinted at mischief or affection or danger. There was nothing now, and for one horrible moment Yujin feared he might lash out, seize Omare by the throat, maybe lose a hand for his trouble. But instead he reached out, laid two fingers against the flat of the blade, and gently pushed it aside.

Thrown, Omare blinked and relented, and Rensai strode past them both. But no sooner had he turned his back to them did Omare's senses surge back: he shook Yujin off his arm and whirled on Rensai again.

"D-don't think you can just walk away," he snarled.

Rensai hesitated, but it wasn't Omare that halted him. At the other end of the catwalk stood Jimaya. Her stance was a mirror image of her brother's, sword leveled, eyes glittering, daring. But she didn't wear it defensively like Omare did. Her gaze carried a challenge, and admiration crashed over Yujin in a great rush. That Jimaya would confront him so soon, and in Yujin's defense even now, was a strength she longed to match.

Rensai glanced over his shoulder at Omare. "Do you think I won't carry this with me?"

Jimaya's grip relaxed fractionally. Not one among them would call her heartbroken – if there was a word for whatever blend of shame and anger and hurt she felt, Yujin didn't know it, but it wasn't that. Instead heartbreak was clearly illustrated between them, skewered by the invisible line that connected the twin sword points.

"Get out of here."

Rensai turned to Jimaya, taken aback. Omare's mouth fell open in shock.

"Jimaya!"

"What are you going to do, attack him? Look at him." She glowered at Rensai, all his usual presence and menace diluted like ink in water. She waved him away with a twitch of her sword. "Go."

He fought for words but none came to his rescue. Instead he edged cautiously towards Jimaya, as though she might change her mind if he moved too quickly. Her eyes followed him with a poisonous warning Yujin had never seen before; Rensai cringed from it in a way that could only indicate recognition.

"Your Majesty, I—"

"Go."

He went, slipping past her and disappearing down the next ladder towards the alley below. Omare finally relaxed his position but much as Yujin longed to take his arm again, she clasped her hands in front of her instead.

"He knows?" Omare asked tightly.

"Yes," Yujin said breathlessly, "I swear."

"You're absolutely sure?"

Yujin nodded and his sword clattered to the floor as Omare folded her into a crushing embrace. A shudder passed through him that rattled Yujin's bones. She clung to him.

"I can't think about you with him, I can't..."

"Then don't," Yujin pleaded. She kissed his lips, his cheek, any part of him she could reach, and held him tight. "Please just put it out of your mind, all of it. I love you." He kissed her back at last and she felt his forgiveness in it, warm and desperate and loving, and let it cover her like a shroud.

Jimaya sheathed her sword and the two parted abruptly, the momentary spell broken. Omare blushed, chastened.

"Jimaya, are you—"

"Fine." She forced a smile before Omare could even get the question out. She took a step back just as he took one forward to reach for her. "I'm fine, don't worry."

"Please, come here." Yujin opened their embrace to her but Jimaya shook her head.

"I'm just glad it's clear and settled." Jimaya didn't look at them. She passed her eyes over the scaffolding instead, as though she'd meant to inspect the project's progress all along, then gave a tight nod. A trim turn of her heel followed, and her scarlet robes disappeared down the ladder as well.

"She's ten minutes older than me," Omare sighed. "Sometimes it feels like ten years."

Chapter Text

At Jimaya's request, Omare announced Rensai's withdrawal from court. This carried the benefit of saving her the trouble but the consequence of inviting an entire spectrum of reactions from the ministers, who took Omare's public dislike as permission to speak freely.

"Not a moment too soon," Zhendou said, smiling approvingly. "A sound decision, Your Majesties."

Beside him, Bandui looked as bewildered as his detached manner permitted. "This will have… implications for the aqueduct project," he said with a vague sort of concern that spoke to exactly how much of the project Rensai had owned.

"Such a shame," Yuuga sighed. She pulled her fingers through her long hair. "He lent a certain drama to proceedings. Is he still available for commission work?"

At that point Omare cleared his throat and advanced the agenda, calming the curious murmur. The questions ebbed and flowed in the meetings that followed, and each day the time between tides grew longer. Rensai's plans had become palace property the moment he was appointed, and to no one's surprise, they stalled almost immediately. With no Chief Engineer to shepherd it along, updates on progress devolved into Minister Bandui's half-hearted reports on the hunt for a replacement. The scaffolding at the western wall stood empty and lonely. Within a week it was as though Rensai had never been there at all, never smirked and sneered his way through low council, never sat still and silent during higher court proceedings just to set everyone else on edge. But it was a further two before the twins stopped glancing at the door as though someone might make an unexpected entrance.

Autumn soon flushed through every crack in the Imperial City. It left the air crisp and clean in its wake, and suddenly unburdened by the oppressive summer humidity, even the city walls relaxed into their foundations, no longer braced firm against the heat. Wreaths of vivid crimson maple decorated nearly every door in the city. Coronation Day was still a few weeks away, but it wasn't every dynasty that the city got to celebrate alongside the natural emergence of the royal family's symbol, let alone for two reigning monarchs at once. Anticipation sparked through the city, a static shock to match the sharpness of the air. Yujin and the twins began taking their tea outside in the southern pagoda, letting the heat seep through their cups and turn their chilly hands just the slightest bit scorched.

It felt normal again, just the three of them. For the most part. Every once in a while Yujin still flicked uncertain glances at Omare, little checks on his mood and trust and affections, and he pretended not to notice out of respect for her sincerity. Jimaya never asked, but she was certain there had been more than a handful of long talks between them lately. She could see it in the way she settled close to him, their knees just touching, and the way he laced her fingers firmly in his, a protective little tether. A few times she thought about being envious of them. But the idea never quite stuck, brushed aside like a leaf on the wind. She didn't want to have to cling that hard to someone, no matter how great the reward. Omare was pressing a kiss to Yujin's hand when she turned and broke Jimaya's haze of introspection.

"What do you think?"

"Hm?"

"Maya's distracted again," Omare warned amiably. Jimaya told herself her laugh didn't sound punctured.

"If we move the Coronation Day feast to the festival square, you can be among the people that crowned you. By choice as much as blood." Yujin smiled warmly and went on, "The Denborn are used to more communal celebrations, and lowering the formality a bit will thrill the Mountain Tribe..."

The upcoming reunion with her Mountain friends cheered Jimaya immensely. It lifted her spirits every time she remembered – their visits were so rare, and she was certain she'd be able to convince them to take her up on another flight for the occasion. Restlessness had been tugging at her heels and it had nothing to do with Rensai's sudden departure from her life, which she reminded herself fiercely and often. It would just be nice to get away from the palace for a little while. Get a bit of perspective. And there was no stronger dose of perspective than dangling from the bars of a Mountain Tribe flying machine.

Routine marched on in the interim, indomitable as ever. Habit carried her to the southern pagoda each day, a welcome if predictable moment of respite between meetings. She shook the pent up energy out of her shoulders as she approached.

"If Zhendou brings up the naval budget one more time, I'm going to bore holes in the hulls myself so we don't have to worry about—"

Jimaya stopped short. At the opposite end of the table, in Omare and Yujin's place, sat Rensai.

She planted her toe behind her heel and pivoted on the spot.

"Wait," Rensai protested as she stormed away. "Please, Your Majesty—"

"Don't try on your manners now, they don't suit you," she snarled, turning back only after she'd put several yards of space between them. She wouldn't let him wield courtesy like a weapon. "How did you get in here?"

"I wasn't aware I was banned from the palace grounds," Rensai said carefully. "Apparently neither are your guards."

Jimaya scoffed. "Was it that archer friend of yours? Oroq or the other one? He'll have you to thank when he's relieved of his position."

"I've visited plenty of times without a title. Would you punish him for disobeying unspoken orders?"

"Don't tell me how to run my palace," Jimaya snapped heatedly. Rensai had the sense to duck his head at her tone.

"I would never presume to."

A liar as ever. Of course he would presume to, and in fact had done so on countless occasions. Jimaya opened her mouth to tell him so but his eyes had dropped to the table and for the first time she noticed the tea setting in front of him.

A visibly Imperial service lay between them, and even at her distance Jimaya could tell it had been very thoughtfully arranged. Each utensil was right where it should be, down to the direction of the teapot's spout, all laid out atop a polished maple tray to match the season. Rensai was no stranger to Imperial tea but she'd never seen him stick so close to tradition – when they'd met in his cottage, they'd usually created their own blend, a marriage of two cultures impossible to recreate anywhere else. Imperial leaves and Denborn preparation. Imperial ceremony and Denborn teaware.

Imperial empress and Denborn warrior.

She glared at him accusingly and stepped closer. The teacups he'd selected – wherever he'd gotten them – were splendid: gleaming black ceramic brushed with great swipes of crimson and gold. It wasn't very subtle, even for him, but there was no denying their beauty. Jimaya crossed her arms.

"Is this supposed to be an apology?" she asked loftily.

Her answer came in the flicker of aggravation that passed over his face. She felt a little thrill of satisfaction – she'd stung him.

"It's tea, Your Majesty."

"Well, I don't want any."

"You always take tea at this hour."

"I don't always do anything," Jimaya said petulantly, as though she hadn't strode straight into the pagoda under the suggestion of anything but mindless routine.

"Changeable as the wind," Rensai agreed. Jimaya was seized by the sudden desire to dive across the pagoda and pummel him. "Of course the least predictable thing you could do is agree to stay, so I imagine you're in quite a bind."

"Where does having you arrested rate on your scale of my predictability?"

"Quite low, since we've already established I haven't done anything wrong."

"Well you've never done anything right."

"You're very liberal with the rebukes this morning."

Aggravation boiled thin and hot beneath Jimaya's skin, intensified by its sickening familiarity. This ringing tension was too normal, too close to the way they'd spoken before. Was she flushed? She had better not be. And if she was, she could always fling the tea in his face and blind him again so he wouldn't notice. It was just as Omare said, they needed him out, he had no place here anymore, and if he kept inserting himself where he didn't belong it was going to make them all look weak.

"Of course it's an apology," Rensai said just as she was drawing breath to snap back. "I owe you at least this much."

"Why? I didn't love you, you know."

Momentum carried the words away from her before she could snatch them back. If she wasn't blushing before, she certainly was now, and she clamped her teeth around any other stupid outbursts that might overcome her. To her horror, sobriety passed over Rensai's face rather than the smile she'd expected and dreaded.

"That was never up for debate," he said quietly. He gestured to the setting opposite him. "Please."

Jimaya watched him for a long moment, then lifted her chin and strode back to the pagoda, cold and regal as she could muster. She pictured a dark, placid lake and let it soothe the prickling embarrassment in her chest. As she folded herself into a kneel she noticed Rensai was probably employing a similar strategy: his expression had gone blank, his focus fixed on the tea with a sudden reverence.

Each step of the ceremony passed with Rensai's light and deliberate touch. Jimaya tracked every turn and pour with a critical eye: this was the product of careful study, if not sufficient time for mastery. There was fluidity in the way he prepared the pot, measured the tea leaves, added the water. But deliberation weighted down his work – he was thinking two steps ahead, not about the present moment. Was this anxiety? His relentless commitment to the effortless and casual was nowhere to be found here, replaced instead with a determination to impress she'd never seen before. Why bother? Why start now? Surely Rensai knew no praise awaited him when this performance was through.

Even if he had learned it for her. A delicate and intricate Imperial tradition. Wrapped up as an apology.

Jimaya shifted on her knees.

He reached to drain the teapot and she couldn't help herself.

"Pour water over it again."

Rensai froze and jerked his head up, concentration broken. "Hm?"

"You need to pour the hot water over the teapot again. It helps hold the heat inside."

"Ah. Of course."

Rensai corrected the forgotten step. Not long after he presented her with a filled teacup and laid his hands across his lap to wait: the steam lifted in a gentle, fragrant haze and Jimaya breathed deeply. Appreciation warmed her senses first, then recognition, and her eyes snapped to him.

"Is this...?"

"We really shouldn't speak during a formal tea, Your Majesty," Rensai reminded her gently.

"Don't call me that."

"Jimaya."

She glared at him anyway – who was he to tell her how to conduct herself? But one sip eased the edge of her irritation as the Forest blend she'd given to him months ago wrapped her up in its grounding and comforting warmth. She thought of incense, a warm cottage, conversation so easy and informal that the future became inconsequential and foggy, comfortably out of reach of the present moment. The autumn breeze lifted the willow branches beyond the pagoda and their whisper encouraged her to be still, be here.

She lowered her cup and inclined her head, a thanks and indication that her host was permitted to join her.

The pair of them sat and sipped in silence. Jimaya was spared the burden of eye contact by the manners the ceremony demanded. Perhaps that had played a role in Rensai's choice of tea style: it would be rude to stare at his guest, so he could keep his eyes lowered out of politeness rather than penance. Cowardice loomed heavy in that decision.

As the guest, Jimaya was bound by no such protocol.

She chanced a glance across the table and found the shadow of a frown creasing Rensai's brow, and another sip of tea didn't smooth it away as it had for Jimaya. Whatever present he was experiencing, it didn't look like a peaceful one. He looked as worn as she'd seen him last, but she doubted this had anything to do with an opium comedown. This looked older and weightier. Sadder.

But Jimaya had already spent too much time trying to interpret him, and she'd gotten it wrong almost every time it mattered. He never looked the way she wanted him to. Distracted when she was generous, thorny when she was tender, gleeful when she was frustrated. And now he actually dared to look sad, his most audacious act yet, and Jimaya didn't know what to do with it. She'd wanted him to regret what he'd done. Now that he did, she wished she could turn away from it.

He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and sipped his tea instead. Silence folded around them once more.

"There you are, Your Majesty!" Kouda bustled across the manicured stone path that led to the pagoda. "Your brother has been asking— you." She halted upon spotting Rensai. All goodwill evaporated on the spot, taking the afternoon's tenuous peace with it. "I thought we were all finally rid of you."

"Kouda!"

"Please, Your Majesty. I think you've given him quite enough of your time," Kouda said with a burning look in Rensai's direction. "We all have."

And there was Jimaya's confirmation that Kouda and Capo had long known what she had gone to such great lengths to conceal. Shame heated her from within, and deeper, indignation. "I'll be along in a moment. He's gone to a lot of trouble—"

"It was nothing." Rensai got to his feet and chilly disappointment hollowed out the warmth the tea had kindled inside her. He swept his hair over his shoulder, and in one fluid motion all tension and regret were tucked carefully out of sight again. "She's right. I shouldn't impose any longer. Thank you for your time, Your Majesty. As ever."

He dropped his head in a bow, but his hand was over his heart. A Denborn gesture of deference. It slipped back to his side and he glanced at the only untouched thing on their shared tea tray: a neatly wrapped packet in the corner reserved for sweets to be shared at the end of the ceremony.

"Don't forget those."

He paused to give Kouda a nod of farewell too. She drew herself up, braced against any mockery or threat that might lurk in his expression, but there was nothing to be found. He retreated back into the palace without another word. Kouda sighed her relief.

"That one's bad news, Your Majesty." She shuddered. "You're right not to grant any more excuses for him. Skulking around, waiting where he knows you'll be. I don't know how he got ahold of your schedule, but rest assured I will see to it that—"

"Thank you, Kouda, that will be all," Jimaya interrupted listlessly.

Kouda hesitated. "But your brother—"

"Will have to be content with Yujin's company for today. Am I allowed no measure of privacy? Even with him gone?" The sudden sharpness in her tone made Kouda wince. Jimaya loosened her grip on it and tried again, gentler. "This was a formal tea. I'd at least like to finish it."

Kouda murmured her apology and withdrew. But the tea in their cups had gone cold, and what remained in the pot had gone bitter. Jimaya rotated her cup in hand, frowning at every scarlet brush stroke, every glint of gold. One sincere, uninterrupted moment. That was all she had wanted.

There was no recovering what had held them both at brief peace in the pagoda. Frustrated, Jimaya snatched up the packet and turned it over in her hands. She slid her finger into the thick parchment crease and it folded open in her palms. On a trim square of wax paper in the middle lay a small pile of candied almonds. Her favorite.

But writing covered the parchment beneath and Jimaya set the almonds aside to examine it more closely. Dense, cramped notes filled every available space: measurements, materials, a diagram of the festival square. Jimaya's eyes passed over every detail she could make sense of, her throat tight. The very top bore Rensai's practiced calligraphy.

Coronation Day.

Chapter Text

Capo ducked into their line of sight, pulling their attention from the expectant sea of scarlet, white, and gold that flooded the festival square. From behind his back he produced two thin metal sticks, one for each of them, and held them out with a wink.

"You're to lead the finale."

"How? What is this?" Omare asked curiously, spinning it between his fingers.

Jimaya accepted hers with a nod of thanks. A faint smile pulled at the edges of her lips.

There was a brazier at the closest corner of their dias and Jimaya held the tip in the flame. The sparkler burst to life in a shower of gold, and Omare's gasp of recognition was lost to the swell of anticipation from the crowd below. It grew to a thunderous cheer when Jimaya turned to her brother and lit his in turn. The light flared between them, and on Omare's other side, Yujin held out her own sparkler for him to light, beaming.

Bit by bit the tiny pinpricks of light multiplied, first for the royal family, then among the courtiers a few steps below, until it reached the crowd and swept through the festival square. Celebrants gathered in throngs to light their sparklers at once from the flame of others, and so the light spread, on and on and on, exponential, until it covered every inch of the square in a rolling, glimmering blanket of light, enough to outnumber the stars making their first winking appearances overhead. Only in the momentary flares of light was it possible to tell who was who – Imperialist, Denborn, Mountain tribesman, Forest dweller. In the brilliance of the collective blaze, all Jimaya could see was the silhouette of the whole.

She looked to her brother, reached for his hand, and squeezed. Two ruling years gone. Omare grinned and yanked their joined hands up overhead, flinging their arms wide to the crowd, a grateful embrace big enough to unite them all.

On a balcony overlooking the square, a lone sparkler flared out and died. It caught Jimaya's eye and she squinted to make out its owner. A figure played the spent sparkler between his fingers for a moment, then let it drop into the crowd below. It landed among countless other discarded sticks as their ephemeral lights began to fade one by one.

Jimaya stared. Maybe it was the distance, maybe it was the smoke-hazy twilight, but she could swear the figure was watching her back. He shifted, perhaps to place his hand over his heart, then tossed his hair over his shoulder and disappeared.