He introduced them.
He took her in his arms and twirled her around, her surprise lost to the silver peals of her laughter. He didn't have words to explain at first so he kissed her instead, every anticipatory beat of his heart behind it.
"We have him," Rensai panted when they parted breathlessly, his eyes alight. "We found him."
He led her to the cages, down the lifts and across the catwalks to the overlook. The prince was easy to spot: there were many cages but his was the only one surrounded by jeering spearmen, black insects scrambling for a bite of a shared crumb. He was a glint of green and gold between them.
"He was hiding in a cave to the east," Rensai said. He curled an arm around Yujin's waist. "He didn't even know he was in our territory."
He brought her down for a closer look and shooed the spearmen away; they scattered like rats to the darkened periphery of the cavern. Yujin edged closer to the prince, hands clasped over her heart.
"Is he hurt?" she asked softly, but she jumped back when the prince snarled and lunged as far as his prison would permit, fists raised. Rensai laughed.
"Whole and healthy," he assured her. He basked under the heat of the prince's ferocious, pointless glare. "For now."
He kicked the rounded cage and sent it rolling back and forth as he led Yujin away again. In all her endless sympathy, Yujin looked back over her shoulder at their prisoner. Rensai adored her for it.
"I hear you've been keeping a pet," he said a little more than a week later, lacing their fingers together as her head rested on his chest. He hadn't seen it himself but he could imagine it: Yujin waiting for a quiet moment, slipping through the shadows to offer water or quiet words of reassurance. Little comforts no one else could deliver with half the sweetness or sincerity.
"Not a pet." Her perfect lips pursed into a pout. "I just feel sorry for him. He's lost his entire family."
"I wish you wouldn't talk like that," she sighed. Rensai wrapped his arms around her and kissed his apology into her hair, and she resumed tracing the tattoos on his ribs. He closed his eyes on a contented exhale.
"I suppose he's stopped snarling at you by now. Has he said anything interesting?"
"He asks after his jester, the other one they brought in on the same day. And his sister. But I don't know if he believes me when I say I don't know anything about her."
"Hm, distinctly uninteresting, then. Too bad." Rensai could think of a spearman or five that could get something better out of him, but he doubted Yujin wanted to know about that. He stroked a tickling finger up her bare back and she snugged closer, propping her chin on top of her hands so she could look at him. Rensai wished he could stare at her like this forever.
"He says it doesn't need to be like this," she said quietly. "He doesn't want a war. Neither do I."
"No one wants war, Yujin." Rensai cupped a soothing hand to her cheek. His spear gleamed at the other end of the room, freshly sharpened and polished. "Not even your father."
"Not even yours?"
He heaved an aggrieved sigh and let his head fall dramatically back to his pillow. "The prince. War. My father. Can't we talk about pleasant things in bed?"
"You're the one that brought up Omare!"
"Careful." Rensai grinned and tipped her face up for another kiss, all feigned distress discarded. "You shouldn't name him. Otherwise you'll get attached."
She returned it. She even deepened it before he did. She melted against him like a taper held over a too hot flame and he rolled them both over until they became a tangle of sighs and shudders and the only name on her lips was his. Rensai imagined his heart spilling into her, sealed tight by heat, forever uniting them.
But she still got attached.
He could have intervened. Instead Rensai clenched the railing, waiting for her to snatch her hand out of the prince's when he gripped it through the links of his cage. He couldn't recognize Yujin's expression at his distance. The catwalk was too high up and too far away, the light was too filtered by the steam from the mines below for him to see properly. It wasn't because Yujin had never looked at him with that kind of longing tenderness before.
Yujin looked at Rensai with plenty of tenderness. Familiarity and affection and understanding. Love.
He stood frozen in place as she yanked the cage open and the bewildered prince stepped out. The pair joined hands.
They shared a kiss.
A chill crept creeping fingers through Rensai's veins, clear and crystalline. It reached its claws deep inside his chest and held him there, paralyzed, unable to look away, until what Rensai vaguely recognized as heartbreak came through only as a dull, distant emptiness in the growing cold.
At last they parted. The prince freed his companion and turned back to Yujin, one hand extended.
She shook her head.
The prince and his jester scampered off down the passageway. Relief tried to kindle to life but cold stifled that too as Yujin watched them go, both hands clasped over her heart, a mirror image of the way she'd looked when Rensai had introduced them. When Rensai had been foolish enough to put her in the prince's path.
He told no one.
His father raged when he learned the news.
"He was our best bargaining chip," he snarled at Rensai. "I thought you had eyes on him at all times! Someone freed him and it wasn't one of ours!"
Rensai shrugged from where he leaned against the wall. "It's done."
Detachment came easily. He'd spent the night with his arms wrapped around his stomach to keep from becoming sick, curled into himself and wishing desperately that what he'd seen had been a nightmare. That the woman he'd move their entire mountain for hadn't put her heart in the hands of their deepest enemy, that every effort and overture hadn't been undone by a chance meeting he'd orchestrated himself. How many nights had she spent in his bed thinking of someone else? The question caught like an arrowhead's barbs, buried far too deep for him to yank out without tearing muscle and sinew. He'd barely scraped together an hour's sleep.
And then he'd awoken to the same horrible, hollow reality he'd tried to leave behind.
"We know the scouts lost track of the princess at the summit days ago," he said dully. "We should assume they'll find one another."
His father studied him with a bone-gray glare. Rensai couldn't care. Say it, he wanted to jeer. Make the accusation. But if the Counselor suspected Rensai knew more than he was letting on, he didn't act on it. Instead he shook his head and returned his gaze to the map atop the table, gnarled hands curled into fists.
"The coup will wait," he growled. "Perhaps the Imperialists will do the work for us."
Rensai could feel his father's bitter disappointment in every syllable but he couldn't care about that, either. Overthrowing Yujin's father wouldn't exactly have made her cleave herself to Rensai. He'd worried about that since the beginning.
But apparently neither did loving her. That had been a fear he couldn't bear to consider, and now a reality he couldn't stand to endure.
There was a third option. One that swept the prince's tiny figure from atop the war table altogether.
Rensai pushed off from the wall. "To battle, then."
She was weeping when they parted. Rensai was grateful for the layer of armor between them. If he'd felt her tears on his bare skin, the searing uncertainty of whether they were really for him would have slashed him deeper than any Imperial sword. She choked on a sob as he tightened their embrace; he rested his forehead on the crown of hers and swallowed a shudder. How could she want another's arms when she fit so perfectly in his?
"Promise me you'll come back," she whispered. Rensai's heart heaved in his chest. He wished he could believe that was what she wanted most of all. He tucked her hair gently behind her ear and drew her gaze to his.
"For you, my sweet, I will do anything."
The impossible. Unthinkable. Unspeakable. He should have wrung the life from the prince's neck with his bare hands the day he was brought in. He could have pitched him bodily into the yawning chasm below and Yujin would never have looked at him, never even spoken his name. The prince had been destined to die from the start, if not between the gears of Rensai's mill then by Rensai's own hand. No miracle could spare him that. Not even the one crying softly in the circle of Rensai's arms.
And when it was done, Rensai would come back and she'd love him again. She'd fling herself into his arms and never leave, never knowing what could have happened if he'd told his father the truth, never knowing how she'd hurt him. He'd set fire to the memory like a corpse on the battlefield and before long it would all be as easily forgotten as the prince's name. Rensai kissed every tear from her face. He laid his hand on her cheek to stop his fingers from shaking.
"Wait for me," he breathed, and touched his forehead to hers. Yujin closed her eyes and nodded, a fresh wave of tears streaking down her cheeks. "I love you."
He pulled away before she could answer, too afraid he'd hear her lie.
The prince was as easy to spot on the battlefield as he'd been in the cages: a glint of green and gold in the middle of another teeming swarm of spearmen. They fell back at Rensai's command and the prince turned in a flash, fists still clenched, confused by the sudden retreat. When his eyes fell on Rensai, he gritted his teeth and snarled.
The prince was unarmed – really, it was too easy. His strikes came quick and vicious but Rensai blocked blow after blow, all the while marveling at how unprepared the Imperialists were. They'd had time to make allies of the Forest People but no time to arm themselves? The prince had time to steal Yujin's attention but no time to consider the consequences? The luck and carelessness of it all only fueled Rensai's icy, bitter hatred. He lunged forward with a sweeping slash of his spear but a kick caught him in the jaw and he staggered back, dazed. The princess had dived to her brother's aid.
"Leave it, Jimaya." Rensai's vision cleared in time to see the prince wipe blood from his lip and raise his hands again. "He's mine."
Rensai struck just as she began to protest.
It was too easy.
The glint of green and gold blossomed into sudden scarlet. The princess screamed.
A messenger delivered their victory back to the Den on faster feet than any of the battered warriors could have managed. A raucous celebration had already begun in anticipation of the army's return, but Rensai shrugged off his armor at the entrance and wearily brushed aside any words of welcome or congratulation. They could all wait. There was only one welcome that called to him, and he doubted she'd be celebrating.
He found her on the catwalk overlooking the slave cages in just the same place he'd watched her unknowingly take a spear to his heart. Rensai hesitated in the shadows. Bones creaked and muscles protested at even the smallest movement, but every ache and fatigue of battle faded against the fear that his wasn't the face she wanted to see.
But Yujin whipped around at the sound of his approach. Her hands flew to her mouth in shock, and when she lowered them again her beaming smile was shimmering with tears.
She dashed the length of the catwalk and threw herself into his arms. Rensai tensed and smothered a hiss of pain – the princess had retaliated ruthlessly – but Yujin only gripped him tighter and the relief that rushed through him was more powerful than any healer's medicine. He wrapped her up in his arms.
"You came back," she whispered. "You came back. I heard them celebrating so I knew we'd won but I was so afraid––" Whatever she'd meant to say, she couldn't bear to finish and she shook her head, her face hidden in Rensai's chest. "Oh!" She pulled back suddenly and sniffed, wiping away another tear with the heel of her hand. "But you're hurt…"
"No." Rensai pulled her close again, he didn't want to bear another second apart from her, he'd crack his own ribs to keep her close as long as she was here and his. But his legs gave out from underneath him and they crashed to the ground – Rensai's hand shot out and caught the railing to keep them safe from the abyss below. He steadied them both, his breath coming sharp and tight, and brushed the hair from her face with a trembling hand.
He kissed her once, tentatively, but she shuddered with what he prayed was relief and kissed him back. A trickle of the coursing rush he felt for her slid down his spine, still hesitant, but when at last they parted Yujin took his face in her hands and stared at him as though she'd never expected to see him again, as though she'd feared he were only something fleeting and precious. She draped her arms around her neck and buried her face in the crook of his shoulder. Rensai swallowed against a tight throat and leaned his head back, closing his eyes. If he could choose his death, he'd want it to be like this.
"Who else is hurt?" she asked against his neck. Rensai stroked her back soothingly.
"A handful of ours, but none fell. Two Forest People were killed – the princess found allies among them and had called them to her side. We still outnumbered their forces three to one." His hand stilled. A touch of frost twinged behind his ribs. "The prince died by my spear. Their surrender quickly followed."
Yujin went very still against him. Her pulse beat out every silent second against his chest.
"I'm glad you're safe," she whispered at last, and drew him into another kiss.
Rensai cradled the back of her head and welcomed her, wrapping her up in warmth. No matter her stumblings or sorrows, he would be there to hold her. Uncritical, unfaltering.
Rensai opened his eyes. Yujin's were closed, her brow furrowed in the depth of her emotion.
He slipped a hand around her waist and held her close. Fresh tears streaked courses down her cheeks.