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The boisterous music and chatter of the celebration trailed after Jimaya like flower petals on the wind. Even closing the great courtyard door barely muffled it, and she smiled and shook her head as she turned for her bedroom. Her shoes were fine for ceremony but not for dancing, and if that was where the night was headed she wanted to be prepared. Kouda had stood up before the thought had even formed fully in Jimaya's mind, but Jimaya was too quick: she'd darted to the door before Kouda could volunteer. Their former nanny deserved a chance to relax tonight, too.

With nearly every officer, valet, and courtier relieved of their duties to enjoy the evening, the palace halls stretched empty and shining, golden lamps burning merrily in each alcove. There was a tiny thrill in having the palace to herself, even just for a short errand. It lightened Jimaya's step as she swung around the first corner, and by the second she was all but skipping, the evening's cheer at her back.

On the third, she nearly ran headlong into the Counselor's son.

Jimaya startled, relieved she'd held onto her poise despite the unexpected intrusion on her solitude. She instinctively inclined her head to acknowledge his bow only to realize a second later that he hadn't bowed in the first place. Instead he regarded her from where he leaned against the wall, silent, until he broke his stare to return his attention to fingernails. Indifference before a Princess of the Empire was a bold display of arrogance all on its own, and that was to say nothing of the swift expulsion from the celebration that he and his father had received hardly an hour ago. She scowled.

"What are you still doing here?" she asked sharply. "Where's your father?"

He didn't look up but nodded his head in the vague direction of the other end of the long hallway. "In a meeting."

"A meeting?" Jimaya's frown deepened. "We told you our business had concluded."

He raised his eyebrows, then his gaze. Amusement had lit faint but unmistakable in his dark eyes. "Oh. Someone should tell him no business can be conducted in this kingdom without the royal family's explicit permission."

So he was doubling down on the arrogance, then. Fine. Jimaya drew herself up imperiously. "Your name's Rensai, isn't it?"

This time he did bow, one hand laid carefully over his heart. It wasn't worth the wait: she'd never seen such a mocking gesture in her life.

"Well Rensai," she said heatedly, jabbing a finger down the hallway, "you can go collect him and leave as you were ordered or I shall do it myself."

"It's in your best interest that they finish their conversation."

"I'll take that as your refusal." Jimaya brushed past him to march down the hall, but his hand closed tight over her arm and held her fast. She rounded on him furiously to find his amusement had vanished.

"Jimaya. I mean it."

Jimaya seized him by the wrist and twisted hard. He hissed as his elbow was bent painfully underneath him, and his grip weakened enough for her to snatch her arm back.

"It's 'Your Highness' to you," she spat, her pulse racing, "and if you touch me again I'll have you both banished."

She whirled around again. But he caught her once more, gentler this time, and she froze. His grip slid from her wrist to her hand, then lingered.

"I'll take the risk. Your Highness."

He held still too, maybe waiting for her to lash out again, but after several long seconds had passed without a reprisal he tugged lightly and pulled her back in. She let it happen, poised to snap once more. But instead of angry or even derisive, Rensai looked drawn and tense. He still hadn't let go of her hand, nor had she pulled it back. She glanced down at it and back up again.

"What's so important that you would risk banishment?" she asked warily, not that she counted on the truth. Watching him choose his words like arrows from a quiver solidified her suspicion.

"Progress comes at a cost," he said. "We're just searching for a buyer."

"If you won't speak plainly," Jimaya began, but Rensai cut her off, his gaze unsettlingly fixed on hers.

"Peace is more expensive."

Jimaya snatched her hand back. She clutched it against her chest as though his touch were responsible for the icy, prickling fear that had begun to seep into her veins. "Is that a threat?" she whispered.

Rensai sighed and straightened up. He scowled at the other end of the corridor. "You'll interpret it as one no matter what I say."

The muted, joyous music of the celebration in the courtyard made a sickening match for every second of silence that stretched between them. Rensai looked conflicted, though that did little to ease Jimaya as she struggled to keep her head above the rising swell of anxiety within her.

A liar would have said no. A liar would have called it a warning, or maybe found some other way to delay her without having to answer. He was difficult to read behind all that sharp, peaked Denborn warpaint, but there was a line in his brow that a brush hadn't put there and Jimaya found herself clinging to it like a lifeline. If there was a chance that he was concealing any measure of sympathy, if she could appeal to his emotions––

She seized his hand again and he jerked back to her, alarmed.

"Please, Rensai." She squeezed his hand and called up as much quiet, desperate urgency as she could reach. It wasn't difficult with so much genuine fear to draw from. "If it's not a threat, then tell me what you mean!"

He tried to pull his hand from hers but Jimaya only held tighter. "I can protect you," she offered hastily. "Both of you, if you need it. If your Chief has been planning something––"

Rensai snorted. He quit trying to escape and frowned down at his hand in hers. "There are always plans, Your Highness. That's how alliances work. Plans and contingencies and negotiations. I hope it comforts you to know that planning isn't the Chief's strength."

"Is that why he keeps a Counselor?"

She realized the danger in her question the moment Rensai's eyes snapped to hers. There was something there – something calculating, evaluating, and to her shock the barest smile lifted the corners of his mouth. He passed his thumb gently over her knuckles. A shiver raced up her spine.

"My father would be flattered. When he's finished, I'll tell him you asked."

"Don't," Jimaya urged him, gripping Rensai's hand as though she could seal the question between them. Suggesting the Denborn Chief or his Counselor would consider treason just because the Counselor's son had played coy about the subject of a meeting... the diplomatic implications sickened Jimaya to consider. Where she had once felt she'd been standing on stone, she now felt up to her ankles in shifting sands.

"I'll keep your secret," he said easily. She'd given him the upper hand and he knew it. "Will you keep ours?"

"You haven't given me a secret to keep. Tell me what they're meeting about."

"I don't know. I'm out here with you."

He was pulling her closer. She couldn't look away from the curve of his lips. That was where he'd give himself away, she told herself over the thrum of her heartbeat. That was where he'd betray it, so she had to watch.

"Tell me," she repeated. "Please. If you wanted to lie to me, you'd do a better job of it." Probably. Hopefully. Jimaya had no idea.

"True." He brushed her cheek with the back of his free hand. "I must want something else."

A sharp clack of wood on wood skewered the silence. Rensai went rigid, his attention yanked back to the other end of the hall. He cursed under his breath, turned back to Jimaya, and dragged her into a kiss. Her shock held her in place, then a blossoming heat. It drew her breath from her lungs like water from a well, hand over hand and second by second, but just as she closed her eyes he tore himself away. Her awareness collided with her body again, leaving her dazed and reeling.

"What was that?" Jimaya asked breathlessly, but she realized too late that she'd leaned against his chest to stabilize herself. His arm closed around her, firm and steadying.

"They've reached a decision." He was already looking past her, down the hall and away, as though it hadn't happened, as though he weren't holding her flush against his bare chest, and her senses surged back to her.

"No, what was that?" she demanded, shoving him away. Rensai stepped back with an impatient sort of annoyance. "What do you think this is, what do you think you're doing?"

"That was a kiss. Have you had one before?" His focus was still pulled anywhere but towards her.

"What–– of course," Jimaya snapped.

"Oh. I couldn't tell."

Jimaya took hold of one of the straps at his collar and dragged him into an alcove, pushing his back against the wall with a hand to his chest. His breath came out in a huff and he watched her, irritation shed in favor of interest. He raised his hands in surrender.

"I apologize, Your Highness. I must have misread you."

"You did," Jimaya shot back with almost enough conviction to convince herself. "Egregiously."

"I'm sure you're very adept at kissing, I didn't mean to suggest––"

"You misread my interest," Jimaya hissed as though her blood didn't protest with every syllable. She fought to stifle it.

"Really? You held it for a while."

"You held me there!"

"Oh, I see." His smile was sharpened at the edges. "You only save that tongue of yours for rebukes. That's a terrible waste."

He eased off the wall and she yanked her hand away from his chest, but there wasn't far for her to go in the narrow alcove.

"You should go," he said, "unless you want to be caught with me. I'll leave it up to you – I fear to make any more assumptions about what you want."

"I'll get caught with you," Jimaya said flatly. "I don't care."

She folded her arms stubbornly over her chest. Rensai raised his eyebrows.

"I'd rather dispel a stupid rumor than let you and your father get away with whatever shady deal is happening at the other end of that hall. I'll see who he's meeting with soon enough. And," she added, pointing a finger in his face, "your father might not be so pleased to see you with me. What might you have betrayed, hm? What could you have told a princess who spared you a moment's attention?"

She felt the ground shift back to her favor. That calculating look was back.

"Any number of things, I imagine," Rensai replied. "But none of them are going to be very believable if all you're doing is holding me hostage. They know me too well." He slid his fingers into his hair and gave it a vigorous ruffle. His dense, dark mane came away artfully tangled and he nodded at her. "You should do the same. Maybe loosen those robes a bit."

Jimaya flushed. "Absolutely not."

He gestured at his hair. "Well, the damage is already done. Though now it looks more like you threw yourself at me."

"Then just––" Jimaya let out a frustrated growl and stood on her tiptoes to comb the tangles out of his hair with her fingers. "Don't smile like that," she hissed, avoiding his gaze and the sharp little grin that accompanied it.

"Be gentle, won't you?" Rensai caught her hand in his and touched a kiss to her wrist. Her pulse leapt to life beneath his lips.

Jimaya yanked her hand away. "You're lucky I'm not as rough with you as you deserve," she said lowly, but his arm slid around her waist again and with a lurch in her stomach she noticed his eyes had lit up.

"Your Highness." He leaned close, his voice was a low purr in her ear. "I'm surprised. I think I like you."

"It's not mutual."

But Jimaya turned her head and kissed him. She wanted it to feel like a curse, a bite, something as keen and edged as her aggravation, forceful enough that it punctuated her words rather than contradicted them. It was a ridiculous thought. A justification as performative as every other that had kept her in that alcove with him thus far. She knew it and willingly let the thought slip from her grip. The rest of her objections fell away too, so she held onto Rensai instead. She was still clutching him when they parted.

"If you wanted to lie to me, you'd do a better job of it," he repeated back to her. He was lingering close and all Jimaya wanted to do was cover his mouth with hers so she didn't have to look at that infuriating smile anymore. But he beat her to it and held her in a deep, heated kiss, and she let it pull her under.

He'd pressed her against the wood paneled wall – Jimaya became vaguely aware of the sudden support behind her but it was such a lesser detail compared to the searing kisses he laid on her throat or the sharp nip of his teeth at her ear. A gasp escaped her; Rensai hummed his appreciation and nudged her legs apart with his knee. She ground shamelessly against him – she couldn't decide what to do with her hands so she reached for every part of him she could reach. His face, his shoulders, the straps at his collar, whatever it took to keep him close. Their fingers laced together and he pressed them against the wall, too. Jimaya whimpered into his mouth. There was no escape from his smile: she couldn't see it anymore, but she could feel it.

"We don't have long," Rensai whispered in her ear. It would have sounded like a warning if not for the way he slid his hand down her thigh, then pulled it firmly upwards so he could fit their hips together, pressing her harder into the wall.

Her eyes flew open. He was growing hard, she could feel it, maddeningly obvious even through the layers of silk and leather between them. Jimaya rocked her hips helplessly against his. It didn't matter how long they had. She had no mind for what she'd do if they had one minute or a thousand – if she thought too long about anything her senses would come back to her and she'd have to stop focusing on how good it felt to have him so close. The heat and weight of him made her head swim and she held him all the tighter. A wave of pleasure shook through her.

"Your Highness," he began, grinning. "Are you––?" But his eyes fell to their hips, then widened and met hers once more.

"Shut up." She buried her face in his chest and dug her fingernails into his back. "Just…." She had the words but couldn't say them, refused to say them, and pulled him into another kiss instead. He met her with feverish intensity but pulled back after only a few seconds; Jimaya seethed with frustration.

"Just what?" He cupped her face and brushed his thumb over her lips. His touch was so gentle. Jimaya had never wanted so many things all at once: for more of this, for him to be ruthless, for him to intuit everything, for him to make her say it aloud, to never have spoken to him, to have had the chance to do this differently and better and more and sooner–– She squeezed her eyes shut.

"Just don't stop."

Rensai let out a ragged breath and hauled her off her feet. He pinned her to the wall with his body and ground into her, and Jimaya gasped out, both arms wrapped around his neck and her legs crossed around his waist.

"If we were anywhere else," he whispered roughly as he moved against her. "If we were anyone else."

He didn't finish the thought and Jimaya was glad for it. All she could bear to focus on was the steadily building pleasure inside her, every wave of that he wrung from her body. At last it burst forth in a single violent, coursing rush. It raced through her and she only just managed to clap a hand over her mouth and stifle her moan. She held it inside herself, clung to it, clung to him, and for a fleeting, hazy moment as she caught her breath, she wished she were holding Rensai inside herself too.

He let her down slowly. One foot touched ground, then the other, and she might have swayed if Rensai didn't catch her in another – surprisingly tender – kiss. They were both panting when they parted, but Rensai's jaw was tight beneath his smile. His erection pressed stubbornly against her lower stomach and he let out a tense sigh.

"I'll think of you later," he promised on a growl.

"How?" Jimaya whispered. She'd leaned her head back against the wall and gasped at a sudden nip of his teeth at her throat. He hummed, considering.

"With me. In my bed." His hands found her hips, thumbs massaging in slow circles. Jimaya closed her eyes and tried to imagine what a Denborn bedroom might look like. What his bedroom might look like. A wide bed to sleep off hard training. Light covers for the Mountain's heat. Lamps turned just low enough to make out the very edges of tattoos.

"Hours and hours ahead of us," Rensai went on. "No one to interrupt or overhear. None of this regalia of yours to get in the way." He dug his fingers into her sash and pulled her closer still. "And you," he breathed. "Hair undone. Desperately wet. And you scream my name when you come."

Jimaya let out a shuddering breath. She wanted that. It was difficult to imagine herself like that but she wanted it anyway, she ached to be the sort of person who could live that with every pound of her pulse. Whatever impossible fantasy he was describing, she wanted to fill in the missing details with her own imagination until they'd woven a scene so complete that the complications of reality didn't matter.

If we were anyone else.

The sharp wooden clack sounded again, twice this time. The heady closeness between them evaporated. Rensai pulled her arms from around his neck and gripped her hands tightly in his, his gaze suddenly sharp.

"The weather is bad tonight," he told her lowly. He was hardly recognizable from the teasing, presumptive instigator she'd pulled into the alcove just a few minutes ago, now icy with tension and too-calm seriousness. His eyes didn't move from hers. "Watch for gathering clouds in the west."

"What are you talking about?" She asked the question but didn't want to know its answer. She leaned in again and Rensai met her with another burning kiss, but it was brief and tasted of urgency.

"Watch the west," he repeated. "Stay out of sight."

He was gone in a breath. He swept out of the alcove with an easy toss of his hair, a hand already lifted in greeting, and Jimaya could hear the Counselor's familiar gravely voice from the other end of the hall. Stay out of sight – had he meant now? Their chance meeting had escalated too wildly for her to feel anything but paralyzed either way. Every nerve still hummed with the memory of his touch. Her fingers were shaking.

Jimaya lingered in the alcove, frozen, until long after their footsteps had disappeared.

She'd forgotten to figure out who the Counselor had met with. She'd forgotten the change of shoes she'd gone to retrieve too, until she was already back in the courtyard and Omare laughed at her. He elbowed her in the ribs – she stumbled and heard her own laugh rather than felt it, too distracted to react properly.

She looked up at the sky. It was perfectly clear, and the stars shone brightly even despite the brilliant lights of the celebration. Not a cloud to be seen.

When the first flaming arrow arced over the courtyard's western wall, she understood.