The weather is bad tonight.
She piled herself with furs and a blazing fire roared at the center of the hut. But the wind howled its icy call outside, and even their Mountain Tribe hosts commented on the unseasonably vicious chill. She squeezed her eyes shut and told herself she didn't hear his voice on the wind.
Watch the west.
They did. They made the west their entire focus. Whether they were battered by sea, sand, sky, or snow, their target remained fixed as she led them in a determined march. When her energy waned, she looked behind. The sight of her nanny and valets staggering in her wake always managed to call up a fresh reserve of strength. Their loyalty fed her, her conviction fed them, and they pressed on. They never asked what made her so decisive, why they should head towards the Den rather than away from it, and she was grateful for that. They wouldn't understand the ally she dared hope might await them there.
Stay out of sight.
Nearly impossible. At her best she called it bad luck and at her worst she cursed him for such ridiculous, hypocritical advice. Stay out of sight, he'd told her, after rumpling her vivid scarlet and gold robes himself, knowing exactly what she'd have to hide from. Knowing that if she did manage to escape, she'd blend into the mountain or forest scenery about as well as he blended in with polite company.
He didn't have to warn her. She'd reminded herself so many times that it felt permanently carved in her skull. He didn't have to warn her, but he could have warned her better. She'd twisted their entire encounter this way and that in her mind, replaying it over and over and over, scrounging for any possible nuance or hint she might have missed. Some tiny detail that might have saved her parents at least, if not her palace or her kingdom. That would have been enough.
She always came up empty handed. Maybe it was better that way. She couldn't stand the thought of a detail she'd deliberately pushed aside just for one more moment beneath his lips. Jimaya balanced her chin on her knees and frowned into the fire, watching the embers Omare idly prodded flare to life and disappear.
"But Rensai was the worst by far," Capo was saying in low tones.
Jimaya jumped. It was the first time she'd heard his name spoken aloud since the siege. She covered up her surprise by inching closer to the fire. Dread pooled cold and viscous inside her.
"You could tell he liked it. He visited too often to be normal," Capo went on. "Never wanted to get his own hands dirty, but he was all too happy to make sure you heard him give the order whenever he left. And sure enough you'd be passed over for water that night or dragged off at dawn to 'observe construction.'" He shook his head, jaw tight. "I'm certain I was next on his list."
"He always asked how I was doing," Kouda said with a shiver. "Calm and polite as could be, like he wanted to hear me say it. But I never answered," she finished proudly.
It was a chilly night under the stars, but Kouda sat furthest from the fire of them all. It's too soon, too similar, she'd said, waving away the smoke, and Omare and Capo had nodded with a grim understanding that had made Jimaya feel sick.
"Ruthless," Omare spat. He poked the logs too hard and they shifted, sending up a shower of sparks as they exposed their golden bellies.
Kouda hushed him gently and cast a glance beyond the ring of light. The brothers they'd rescued from Rensai's mill were there, finally asleep after their wounds had been tended by the Forest People and their best healing herbs. Past them a few smaller fires illuminated the drawn faces of other Imperialist refugees, plus a few Mountain Folk and their Forest hosts, all of them bound together by resilience, empathy, and the cold inevitability of what the next day would bring. Omare followed Kouda's gaze for a long moment, then turned back to the fire.
"I'll kill him," he said bluntly. The firelight cast his face in unnaturally sharp peaks. "Or maybe just his father. Then he'll know what it's like."
For a horrible moment the only sound was the crackle of flames. Jimaya couldn't bear to look at him. Omare didn't mean it. He couldn't. He might want to mean it, but she couldn't picture a world in which Omare took someone's else's life. No amount of suffering could change that about him.
But she knew she'd heard only a fraction of what had gone on in the Den.
"Nature wields revenge with greater strength than human hands," Tsulemon began sagely, but Jimaya got to her feet and cut him short.
"I'm going to sleep," she mumbled, breaking tension before Omare could snap at him. Immediately worried, Tsulemon took her hand and made to stand but Jimaya shook him off.
"It's okay." She winced a smile. "Just… give me a little while."
She bid her goodnights, and with Tsulemon's concerned eyes at her back, trudged towards their shared hammock alone. She picked her way through the trees, ducking beneath hammocks and sidestepping bedrolls – the Forest People had been endlessly gracious, but every fitfully resting body Jimaya passed reminded her of what they'd endured while she'd been off hiking up mountains or flitting through the forest, making friends wherever she went.
She was being unfair to herself, she knew. But their suffering felt real and close at hand. Hers was scattered behind her, left behind in pieces on craggy cliff faces or lost beneath ocean waves, too mismatched and fragmented to string together now. In little more than a month her own twin had learned to speak death threats in a tone even Jimaya had never heard before – how could she possibly compare his suffering to her own? How could she compare when she'd been warned, when she'd been told something would happen and still she'd done nothing?
Jimaya swiped the heel of her hand beneath her eyes as she crawled into her hammock. It swung gently under her weight but all she could think about was a too-small boat pitching on a stormy sea. She gripped her shoulders, curling into her own protective embrace.
Watch the west. Stay out of sight.
Rensai's warning echoed in her head, a deep reverberation, but after a few repetitions the urgency in his voice thickened into a purr, dark and warm, made breathy by his lips against her skin.
Your Highness. I think I like you.
She'd believed him. And he probably had been telling the truth then, just not in the way Jimaya had wanted. What a fun game she must have made for him, what an easy conquest, a momentary distraction while his father finalized whatever plot had burned Jimaya's entire life to the ground. She'd spent a month of sleepless nights remembering how gently he'd touched her, how he'd spoken to her like she could be someone else if she wanted, how torn he'd looked at their greeting and parting. Whenever doubt crept in she'd shoved it aside in favor of hope, wrenching his teasing, sharp little smile back into the conflicted grimace he'd worn before their last kiss.
She'd even let that hope carry her towards the Den, towards him, no matter the danger, because at least it gave her the certainty of a destination. And on her loneliest nights she'd imagined him finding her, worn from her journey but stronger for it, and taking her into his arms.
But now all she could imagine was his grin, his voice, his ease, on the opposite side of a cage in a dimly lit cavern.
Kouda. How are you this evening?
Jimaya's stomach heaved with shame. She clutched herself tighter and gulped back a sob. What could she have done? What could she have said, in the hour or so Rensai had granted her between their final kiss and the first arrow, that would actually have saved them all? Nothing. He'd given her too little to work with. It was just another game, and her brother and nanny and court jester and kingdom had been the pieces.
Her own voice called back to her this time.
If you wanted to lie to me, you'd do a better job of it.
He'd done a better job than Jimaya could ever have feared.