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Tea Series

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He keeps a very long list of things he would have done differently. He would have practiced his archery more. He would have cultivated a deeper appreciation for meditation. He wouldn't have taken the Den's hot springs for granted. He would have spent more time making friends and less time making contacts.

He would have taken better care to preserve his mother's memory. He would have listened to his father. Or maybe he would have listened less. He didn't really get the hang of either until it was too late to make much difference.

He would have worked harder to refine the components of firepowder.

He would have done more to impede the siege on the city.

He would have pretended not to see Yujin free Omare from his cage.

He would have paid closer attention the first time he laid eyes on Jimaya. Even just one or two extra seconds to take her in would have been enough, the fiery flash of scarlet and gold, the conviction in her eyes, her exact stance on the battlefield. He didn't know then how long it would be until he saw her again, nor how different the circumstances would be when he did. Nor how much he would look forward to it.

He would have kissed her sooner.

He would have tried to wake up a bit earlier so he could have more of those soft, warm moments when the night's closeness still lingered but the day's obligations still felt like anyone's concern but theirs. The world was so small then. Four walls, two bodies, one bed. That was all. Jimaya's lips parted when she slept, her hair golden and tangled as spun sugar. She was his in that handful of pre-dawn moments. Not her family's, not her court's, not her empire's. Just his. He would have lingered there longer.

He would have broken the news to Omare with more delicacy. He would have thanked Yujin earlier and more often. Those two regrets, at least, he still had some time to amend.

So when he turns to face her, Rensai is certain only an unjust world would permit him to see Jimaya like this.

She's swept up in folds upon folds of shining crimson and ivory, all held together by a war's worth of golden stitching and delicate embroidery. Her hands are clasped in front of her, hidden beneath long silken sleeves. Impossibly delicate pins and glass beads tuck her hair in the perfect state of not-quite-undone. But she notices him staring and drops her head with a smile, regal poise set aside, and beneath all the finery he recognizes the Jimaya he loves most. The one he met in a quiet, bare bones cottage at the opposite end of a tea tray, first by voice, then by face, then by heart. He closes the space between them breathlessly.

"Jimaya." It tastes more like a spell than a name. He draws one of her hands out from hiding and kisses her fingertips. He notices his hand is shaking so he grips hers tighter. "You are…." There are words to describe her. Beautiful. Radiant. Perfect. Every one of them is lost to the overwhelming gratitude of seeing her at all.

"Speechless," she remarks. Her tone is teasing but he can read her own nervousness in the shine of her eyes. She squeezes his hand back. "That's so unlike you."

He guides her face gently towards his and kisses her properly, lightly, careful to preserve her scarlet-brushed lips. It's several long seconds before the ground beneath his feet feels still again. He lingers close. "I was going to say taller."

Her laugh calms both their nerves. "They're traditional." She gathers a fistful of skirt and lifts it a few inches to reveal platformed sandals nearly a foot tall. She drops them again and fingers the crimson trim on his vest, a striking match for her own. "And so are you."

"A bit. For you." He places his hand over hers and laces their fingers together to follow the path of her touch. Jimaya suddenly flushes and Rensai wonders whether she too is thinking back to another time, another life, when they traced Imperial embroidery together. He kisses the inside of her wrist. "Would you do the same for me?"

Jimaya nods wordlessly and he reaches for his belt, a woven sash from the Den, vivid and heavy with formality. He draws out a thin length of scarlet silk and Jimaya's eyes go wide. Rensai hesitates, curious, but she shakes her head and waves him on hurriedly, her lips clamped tightly together.

"In the Den," he says, taking her hand again, "we say two lovers are joined by an invisible string. Slowly but surely its length tightens, drawing them together." He loops the ribbon around her pinky finger and ties a small, tidy knot. He offers Jimaya the other end to ask her to do the same for him, but she takes it into shaky hands and ties a perfect knot on her own. The ribbon hangs like a bridge between them.

"It pulls them across time, distance, sometimes nations," he goes on. "And when they finally find each other," Rensai draws a ceremonial dagger from his belt, "they sever it. Because once they've found one another, they'll never lose each other again."

He presents the dagger's hilt to Jimaya. And waits. But Jimaya drops her head and shakes it. Just as anxiety tightens a grip on Rensai's insides, she looks up again, her eyes are agleam.

"I wanted to make sure you had something of your own." Her voice is drawn tight with emotion. "So…." She smiles as she reaches into her sleeve and pulls out her own length of red silk.

Rensai drops the dagger. He pulls her against him and she shrieks a laugh as their arms are pinned between their chests, the ribbon too short to allow for a proper embrace. But his other hand has found her waist and he folds her in, burying his face in the crook of her shoulder.

"I love you," he whispers. It feels like not enough and everything all at once, both the most perfect, succinct summary and an utter failure of human language. She melts into him.

"I love you," she returns on another laugh as she loops her arms around his neck, and Rensai can do nothing but marvel at how irrepressibly joyful her love is, how easy and light. She pulls back just enough to kiss him.

"Are we allowed to tie both?" Jimaya asks when at last they part, and Rensai nearly laughs himself at the idea that any force on earth could prevent them from doing exactly what they want ever again. He holds out his hand. The two ribbons cross in the center, twined together. They join their hands, foreheads close, and share a deep breath.

They grip the dagger together and pull.

Blinding sunlight floods forth when they throw the palace doors open. The courtyard erupts in cheers, bursts of flower petals rain down from above, and the musicians sweep into a new pinnacle of passion. Across the teeming courtyard, past officers and Ministers, Forest People and Mountain Folk, Imperialists and Denborn, Omare and Yujin await them beneath the tasseled wedding canopy. Tears of joy already streak Yujin's face, Omare's hand gripped tightly in both her own. And when Omare lays eyes on his sister, he is powerless except to beam.

Jimaya looks up at Rensai, gives his hand a squeeze, and he smiles. The two proceed, hand in hand, twin pairs of scarlet ribbon trailing behind them.