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Mercy Killings

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There was a script for these things. A natural progression Yujin had been watching unfold since she was fourteen. Rensai had been sixteen at the time, lanky as he was moody, not yet fully grown into his fire and wildness. He’d taken her hand without looking at her, brought it to his lips, pecked it with a kiss, and promptly dropped it again. It didn’t even occur to Yujin to blush – this was just the way things were done. Over Rensai’s shoulder, Counselor Yoren had looked sour but accepting.

They both got better with practice. Yujin would smile a little, Rensai would flick his eyes to hers, and they developed a little push and pull. She could offer her hand, but he preferred to pursue it and treat the kiss as his reward. He knew she liked a gentle squeeze before he let her hand go. Maybe he didn’t know that she was beginning to like the twisting, tight lipped smile he gave her even more.

Eventually time and training strengthened his back and broadened his shoulders. He’d received his war paint, a full-fledged warrior at the command of Yujin's Chieftain father, and even Counselor Yoren’s efforts to stifle him had long since lost their edge. But when his newfound boldness made Yujin pull back, Rensai noticed her hesitation, softened, and drew her back in.

Alone and awash with the torchlight of the Den’s cavernous passageways, he took her hand in his. Yujin felt a smile pull at the corners of her mouth. The routine was a comfort when more and more she found that being this close to Rensai made her feel like she'd gotten out of a hot bath too fast: the edges of her vision went dark, her focus narrowed, and breathing did little to steady her. But Rensai pulled her closer, laid his other hand against her cheek, and bent to kiss her lips. It was brief, just a few moments of tender warmth. When they parted Yujin fumbled for words only to discover he’d taken her breath along with him. He’d left her with little more than her feet on the ground and a rising color in her cheeks, and when he looked down at her it was with a kind of reverence she’d never seen before. He kissed her again.

 

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“The more Omare insists he stop, the more attention he calls to it,” Yujin protested, fiddling with the long sleeves of her robes. Imperial dress still felt so weighty and excessive in its extravagance. It was stifling. “Can’t we just call it a cultural difference?”

“You know it’s not that,” Jimaya said. Yujin could tell she was fighting to keep her grip on her understanding tone. “Please just tell him yourself.”

Jimaya wasn’t wrong. The bow Rensai reserved just for Yujin was a deliberate distinction between Den and City, a far more sincere gesture than the sweeping mockery he tended to give the Empress and Emperor upon greeting them. Jimaya didn’t care, but it made Omare’s blood boil.

“You’ve got to stop doing that,” Yujin hissed the next time Rensai bent his knee to her, one hand laid over his heart. He straightened up with a wounded affect that Yujin didn’t believe for a second.

“I don’t understand. It’s how I greeted your father—”

“Right, when he was Chief, but we’re here now and some things need to be left behind.” She didn’t fear for Rensai’s feelings - he donned and discarded traditions according to the moment’s necessity - but her own insistence pained her. Rensai genuflected to aggravate Omare, but their home was in the gesture, too.

“Ah.” Rensai’s eyes drifted over her shoulder to where Omare was thankfully trapped in conversation. “He’s jealous of the respect I pay you.”

“Omare doesn’t care about your respect,” Yujin said, but the sudden upturn of Rensai’s lips told her at once that she’d fallen into a trap. If it wasn’t about respect Omare felt he was owed, then it must be about the attentions publicly lavished on his consort. Attentions lavished according to a culture Omare didn’t share, and lavished by a man he hated more than any other. Yujin flushed.

“That was the last time,” Rensai assured her in a tone that knotted her stomach.

Their next formal meeting wasn’t for another week, plenty of time to smooth Omare’s ruffled feathers and assure him that yes, she’d spoken with Rensai and there would be no more of this Den-style bowing to set courtiers’ tongues wagging. As usual, Rensai greeted the Imperial Twins with a grand display of fealty that even the court jester would have called a bit much: Jimaya rolled her eyes while Omare sat stony-faced. True to his word, Rensai didn’t bow to Yujin. Instead he drew closer, reached forward, pushed back the long sleeve of her robe, locked eyes with Omare, and kissed Yujin’s hand.

 

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Rensai never had reason to doubt his powers of deception before now. He’d whispered sweet nothings into Yujin’s ear with one breath and hissed tales of crumbling power structures and internal dissent to the spearmen with the next. But he'd meant every word he’d ever spoken to Yujin. It was the ones he hadn’t spoken to her that he feared might ruin him.

But she’d beaten him to it. Across the yawning divide and concealed by the shadow of the war machine he’d built to secure their place in the world, there had been a moment’s hesitation, a smile, a kiss. He squeezed Yujin's hands tighter to blot out the memory of who had held them last. The corners of his mouth felt brittle when he drew her fingers to his lips, he couldn’t hold a smile there, and he couldn’t bear to meet her eyes for fear of discovering that she was avoiding his gaze, too. Someone’s hands were shaking. He couldn't tell whose.

“Let me walk you back,” he offered, but his voice sounded too gruff even to his own ear and Yujin was already shaking her head. Hatred heaved in Rensai’s stomach – was the prince there? Was he waiting for her in her rooms? Did she tell him to await her there when she let him escape? Rensai should have killed him on sight, pitched him bodily into the cavernous mines below or wrung the breath from his neck with his bare hands—

“No, I’m fine, I know the way from here.”

“I insist—”

“No,” Yujin repeated, and her face betrayed a visible flicker between fear and forced calm that touched Rensai’s insides with ice. “I’m sure you have work to do. So I won’t keep you.” She smiled, raised herself up on her toes, touched her lips to his, then snatched her hands back and disappeared down the twisting passageway.

He stood frozen in place. The chill in Rensai’s stomach crept through his veins and reached its fingers deep inside his chest. What he vaguely recognized as heartbreak came through only as a dull, distant emptiness in the growing cold.

He waited for the echo of her footsteps to fade from the stone, then turned back towards the mines in search of his father.