Jimaya woke with a jolt and her eyes flew to find the arm that held her. Still Tsulemon's. Just like it had been the three times before. She let out a shaky breath. It had been a fitful night.
Maybe she would have slept better if she'd been alone. It was common for the Forest People, even for new acquaintances, but sleeping so close to someone she hardly knew called up more unease than comfort. On the first night Tsulemon had kissed her fingers and promised to keep her warm. He had, and that was all. He was a protective, steady presence.
But if she were alone she wouldn't have to wake up blind and panicked and wondering who was holding her. And worse, when the unease subsided, enduring the sinking in her stomach that felt too close to disappointment.
She didn't want Rensai. She didn't. She didn't even know him.
Jimaya slipped out from under Tsulemon's arm. Chilly mist parted beneath her feet and she hugged her arms close as she padded back towards last night's fire, hopeful that someone had awoken before her and rekindled it.
You're up early, Your Highness, he'd probably say in the sort of tone that was both an observation and a dig. He was probably a fair cook. He'd have tea ready and breakfast roasting on a spit – squirrel or rabbit or whatever it was they ate in the Den. They'd sit in silence as the day warmed around them.
But no one else was awake. The fire pit lay stone cold, the stick Omare had used to prod it discarded a few inches away. Jimaya wondered how long they'd stayed up trading horror stories. She managed to bring a struggling fire to life and she huddled as close to it as she could. Ashes dusted her robes, but she didn't care.
Not much call for survival skills within those gilded walls of yours, I suppose.
Jimaya's shoulders tightened. The voice she gave him probably didn't even sound like the real Rensai. She'd spent nearly all their time together telling him to shut up, so the idea that she'd remember it accurately was comical even to her.
But his memory had been a consistent companion on her journey, more than her valets, even more than Kouda. He'd gasped and flopped on his back, chest heaving, when the storm delivered them to the beach at last, then wrung out his hair like he might a wet cloth. He'd waved her impatiently along forest paths as they made their winding way west, always a few steps ahead. He'd laughed when her footing slipped on mountain crags, then extended a hand to pull her onward.
You're lucky you have me.
It was a pathetic game she played with herself. A childish attempt at self-soothing. But if he had been at his best when they met, if he'd really done everything he could to warn her, then it wasn't so hard to imagine him doing all the rest. If he'd done his best, that meant she had too. She wasn't wrong to keep his warning to herself, then or now.
That had been much easier to believe before she'd learned what she had the night before.
"You're up early, Your Highness."
Jimaya startled and whirled around. Capo had a hand raised in greeting but he dropped it to mask a massive yawn. "Forgive me," he added with a respectful inclination of his head. "Restless night."
"That makes two of us." She gestured to the spot beside her, grateful for the company.
Capo's was the sort of presence that lifted any gray dawn into a light golden glow. With only a few moments' attention he'd brought her feeble fire to a comforting blaze, then set about rummaging through a few sacks of provisions Jimaya had been too glum to notice. He tossed her two apples, a pear, and one spiny fruit Jimaya had never seen before and couldn't even guess how to eat. Capo dug his thumb into the thick peel and pulled it back to show her the fragrant white flesh inside, then handed it back to her.
"Who will stay with Kouda?" Jimaya asked quietly. She still didn't know how to approach the spiny fruit so she settled for the pear instead, but even one bite felt like too much for her anxious stomach. "Today, I mean."
"The Mountain Tribe aren't much for fighting," Capo said. The warmth he'd brought with him dimmed a little. "We're lucky to have them at all, truth be told – they make it down from the summit so rarely. A few of them are out scouting ahead now, and when they return they'll be here to tend to the weapons and… and whoever needs tending."
The wounded. Jimaya looked away. Her thumbnail punctured little crescents into the skin of her pear.
"Will be where I'm meant to be," Capo said firmly. "At your brother's side, and yours."
Jimaya smiled gratefully. His sentiments were echoed by others in the camp as it began to come to life around them: the Mountain Tribe were habitually early risers and came to the fire bearing several freshly snared rabbits. Omare came next, rubbing his eyes and looking drawn, but after getting some food in him it became clear that a good night's sleep had done him well. When Kouda arrived she made it her business to ensure even the most taciturn Imperial officers ate all they could – reluctant to be a burden, they'd refused the meat at first, but they soon caved under Kouda's insistence and the Tribe's irrepressible generosity. The Forest People began filtering in around then, adding a burst of color and cheer that bore a striking resemblance to Capo's, and for a moment Jimaya could pretend there was no battle ahead. They could all just be there around the fire, together, sharing. Tsulemon looped his arms around Jimaya's shoulders, pressed a kiss to the top of her head, then joined her on the ground to dig into one of the spiny fruits.
For them, she thought, she could face anything.
And when the day's objective could no longer be ignored, after the cheerful morning chatter had hardened into brusque words of encouragement, she carried that feeling with her. She glowed with pride as she and Omare addressed the patchwork crowd of newfound allies. Those with armor pounded their chests, those with weapons raised them and cheered. There were fewer of them than anyone would have hoped, under-resourced and poorly armed, but they burned with a golden intensity bright enough to blind.
"Let's see the Denborn match that," Omare said with a grin, emboldened by the rallied army at their backs. Jimaya held her brother's tireless optimism against her heart as they marched towards the battlefield.
But when they arrived, her grip faltered. She hadn't expected to see Rensai leading the vanguard.
Apparently neither had Omare.
The Imperial line surged forward, led by Omare and Capo, fists raised and eyes alight with vengeance. There was no reading the Denborn. They were a single, inky mass of charging spearmen as arrows rained down from the cliffs above. A single glance was enough to tell Jimaya they were dangerously outnumbered and egregiously underarmed. Arrows studded the ground and Jimaya shouted the army forward – they'd be within range, but the Denborn would be hesitant to fire on their own. Color shot through the black ranks of the Denborn as the Forest People threw themselves into the fray, blocking and disarming so they could throw weapons to their allies. Jimaya, Omare, and Capo barreled through the resulting gap.
Rensai was shouting orders at the center, bound tight in armor that might have contradicted his typical informality if he didn't look so at ease in it. The sight hit Jimaya like a blow to the chest – this wasn't the person who'd slouched in alcoves and waited boredly for his father to finish business. Here was the pedigree that molded his manner. His soldiers took their orders and dispersed dutifully, and when Rensai turned his eyes lit up to see who had broken through the line.
"The prince and his fool." He greeted them with a mocking bow but when he rose again his gaze had gone flinty. He spared only the briefest glance for Jimaya. "Have you missed your accommodations?"
"You're going to pay for what you've done, Rensai," Omare growled, dropping into an attack stance. Capo did the same, but a nod from Rensai saw Capo tackled by no fewer than three spearmen at once. They clung to his limbs, dragging him down, and Capo roared as he spun and fought to fend them off. With a cry Omare dove to Capo's defense. But Rensai had already seized a spear and charged.
Two invisibly swift strikes to Omare's shoulder and ribs sent him reeling back to regain his footing. Rensai aimed a thrust but Omare was too quick: he twisted out of the way and came back with a kick to Rensai's jaw. He staggered and Jimaya saw her opening. She darted forward and pressed her back to Omare's, mirroring his stance, eyes and fists trained on Rensai. But to her shock Omare shrugged her off.
"Leave him for me, Jimaya," he snarled, shaking the sweat from his eyes. "I owe him."
"So do I," Jimaya said lowly, unmoving.
But Rensai had recovered. He lunged again, separating the twins with his spear and sending Jimaya sprawling to the ground. She rolled to her feet, bracing for an attack, but Rensai had rounded on Omare instead.
Indignance shot hot and poisonous through her veins as she watched the pair circle one another. Whatever he'd done to Omare in the Mountain Den, Rensai had wronged her first. He should have paled to see her alive, he should have begged her forgiveness or attacked her to finish the job. In none of the fleeting visions that had torn through her dreams last night had he outright ignored her. She gritted her teeth and let perverse, jealous anger launch her back into battle.
An arrow whizzed past her hair and she yelped, whirling around. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted archers leaping down from the cliffs for a better shot, and the Imperial allies couldn't have presented brighter targets.
"Omare!" Jimaya shouted. "Get down!"
She turned frantically for him, but the pair had disappeared. There was no seeing through the melee so she charged into it instead, dodging strikes and beating back any spearman that dared engage her. At last one crumpled beneath a final kick, and with him out of the way she managed to spot her brother locked in combat not with Rensai, but with some other anonymous warrior. Relief swept through her – he was still alive. Had Rensai fallen?
Another arrow buried itself in the ground beside her foot. Jimaya snatched up a discarded spear and broke into a sprint, running a wide arc towards Omare and back out of the archers' range. She was just about to reenter the fray when a colossal force slammed into her body and sent her tumbling off course. Panicked and dazed, she tried to roll to her feet. But to her horror the ground didn't catch up with her. She was falling.
She tucked her body tight and barely managed to finish the rotation, crashing to her hands and knees on rocky ground. She hissed in pain but sprang back to her feet, casting around wildly.
But there was nothing and no one. Panic crept into her chest and she fought to stifle it back down. She could still hear the sound of battle over her thundering heart, but it came distant and muted, the sunlight dim and filtered. Jimaya threw her head back: a narrow strip of sky cut through the wide rock walls around her. She'd fallen into a shallow crevice. But its walls curved outward as though scooped out, and the ground was unnaturally flat.
A Denborn tunnel. Dread flooded her insides. She'd heard about them before, stories of spearmen crawling from the very earth to ambush the unwary or drag them back to their mountain, never to be seen again.
Rocks shifted behind her. Jimaya kicked the spear back into her hand and turned, ready to strike.
Rensai dusted off his palms as he straightened up. He cast a look up at the top of the crevice – had he jumped? – then laid a hand on the wall to catch his breath. He nodded a greeting in Jimaya's direction.
"Your Highness. I'm glad to see you're all right."
She'd prepared a hundred reactions to a hundred different meetings. Every single one of them was useless in the face of his offhand informality. Less than a minute ago they'd both been prepared to kill or be killed, and now here he was, calm beyond comprehension, as though he'd just wandered in on a whim. He might as well have said he was glad the weather had held out.
Her rage boiled to the surface and she jabbed the spear at his throat.
"Glad to see I'm all right?" she snarled. He scowled irritably at the spear and made to brush it aside, but she swung the shaft around and struck him behind the legs, knocking him to the ground. He shook his hair out of his eyes, seething, but Jimaya kicked him back before he could stand. She held him there with her foot to his chest, spear trained on his neck.
"I know what you did. I know what you did to my people, to Capo, to my brother."
Her cheeks were running hot, her vision blurring at the edges. She hated herself for it but there was no stopping it now – every hope she'd clung to, every excuse and justification she'd made lay pinned beneath her shoe, insultingly corporeal and ordinary. Just a man. It cost all her strength not to run him through.
"And me!" She blinked back the threatening tears and jabbed the spear closer. He flinched. "You let me trust you! You told me just enough to make me sick with guilt and keep me powerless, all to make me part of your war game!"
"You assign me a great deal of credit," Rensai rasped, his eyes burning. "If this were a game, I would have made sure I won."
"Didn't you?! What part of this hasn't gone your way? From the moment you spoke to me you–-"
Rensai gripped the spear in both hands and jerked it aside. Jimaya tumbled to the ground with a cry and Rensai rolled them both over, pinning her to the ground with his body, his forearm held against her neck. The spear clattered far out of reach.
"I didn't want a war, Jimaya. I tried to keep you from starting one."
Her name hit her like a shock to her system. How many times had she imagined him using a form of address, deferent and respectful? And worse, how many times had she imagined him in situations far too intimate to merit it?
"Liar!" she cried, thrashing against him. But his weight was too solid and any struggle added to the pressure against her throat. He let out a frustrated growl and backed off, laying a hand to her cheek instead. She stilled.
"Are you going to listen to me or are you going to fight me?"
Jimaya glared up at him, silent. He sighed.
"I'll prepare for both, then."
He sat up and tightened his legs at her waist, holding her in place as he transferred his grip to her forearms. He leaned close to press her wrists into the ground. Jimaya's blood was pounding in her ears, her breath still coming quick and shallow. For what had to be the thousandth time Rensai's voice echoed in the back of her mind.
If we were anywhere else. If we were anyone else.
"My father and I visited your palace as peacebrokers," he said. His clipped tone was a strange match for the way he held her, the way his hair fell over his shoulder and into her face, closing her in. "Not very good ones, I'll admit. A revised trade agreement in exchange for a ten year extension of the treaty. When the Emperor saw what we had to trade, I imagine the treaty became the last thing on his mind, which my father had anticipated."
"That's not trade. That's extortion and warmongering," Jimaya spat. "You set impossible terms and attacked when we refused!"
"Which is why, Your Highness, you and I were so fortunate to run into each other," Rensai went on impatiently. "I insisted my father take another meeting with your Minister of Commerce and hoped they'd reach some sort of agreement. Even half of what we'd proposed might have been enough to stay the Chief's hand. As long as a certain Imperial princess didn't interrupt negotiations."
"Liar," Jimaya repeated, but doubt twisted horribly in her stomach. It was the same awful, fluttering uncertainty that had kept her in the alcove with him, desperate to convince herself that he was honest and safe. Then and now, there was so little to be gained by lying. He must have noticed some of the fight go out of her – he loosened his hold by a fraction.
"Why should I lie? I don't expect this rendezvous to go nearly as well as our first."
She flared again. "Then you did...!"
"Did what?" Rensai studied her, then his eyes lit up with delight as understanding dawned. "Oh, Jimaya. Please tell me you're going to accuse me of seducing you."
Jimaya flushed and looked away, held tighter now by the sharp smile and tender name on his lips than his grip on her arms. Rensai laughed and, satisfied that she wasn't going to lash out again, released her and sat back on his heels.
"Be careful. The alternative is admitting I didn't have to."
He touched her cheek again, then looked pointedly at the way he straddled her thighs and grinned. At last he swung a leg off of her to let her up, and with the bizarre spell of his closeness broken, Jimaya scrambled to her feet and shoved aside the unsettling sense that she felt too light without him.
"What you told me. Your warning."
Rensai had picked up the spear and was making a show of inspecting the tip. "What about it?"
"Why did you bother?"
"I've already told you," he said calmly, lowering the spear. "I didn't want a war."
Jimaya shook her head. "Nothing you said to me could have changed the outcome of that meeting."
"No, but it might have changed how the outcome affected you."
"But why did that matter?"
Rensai frowned at her, bemused. "I told you that, too. I like you."
"Then why didn't you say something more?" she demanded. Anger trampled a fleeting rush of satisfaction – she'd imagined him telling her precisely that so many times, but the reality was too cold and blunt. "Your warning was useless, cryptic to the point of incomprehensible! What did you expect me to do with that?"
She could have sworn she saw him flush behind his warpaint.
"You're alive, aren't you?"
"No thanks to you. I'm alive, my brother is alive, but by our own power, not yours. And meanwhile my people are homeless and my kingdom is in ruins. Even now they fight and die for a home you took–-" she cast a hand overhead at the edge of the crevice–– "because they have nothing else left!"
"You would ask me to betray my people over fifteen minutes in a hallway?"
His barbed words sank deep between her ribs. She readied her own.
"I didn't have to ask," Jimaya said coldly. "Your Chief is dead. What greater betrayal is there? You did it all on your own."
Rensai had no reprisal for that. He glared at her, a piercing bastardization of the evaluating look he'd given her at their last meeting. Recognizing her advantage, Jimaya pressed on ruthlessly.
"You could have stopped the attack. Stopped your father. But you did nothing."
"You don't know what I did," he growled. She'd touched a nerve.
"I know what you did afterwards," Jimaya said lowly. "And I know how much you enjoyed it."
"Oh yes, you must have heard quite the tale from your brother," Rensai snapped with such sudden acid that Jimaya faltered. "While he was singing stories of my cruelty, did he have time to tell you what he took from me?"
Rensai's relentless focus on Omare on the battlefield came back to her, keen as cold as an arrowhead. But alongside it came the twisted, hollow bitterness that he'd barely spared her a glance.
"Omare wouldn't take anything from you unless he was sure you didn't deserve it," she said. "And I'm certain he was right."
The barest flicker of hurt passed over Rensai's features, too brief to be an act. He thrust the spear out to her. Jimaya startled.
"Well. You have me good and cornered now, don't you? You seem to have made a conclusive assessment of my character. What will you do about it?"
Silence pulled taut between them. The distant, muted clash of the ongoing battle passed over the top of the crevice like the rumble of an oncoming storm. But Jimaya was all but deaf to it as Rensai watched her, level and calm, as though they were the only two people in the world. She hesitated, flicking her eyes from him to the spear.
"Nothing now." Jimaya fought to keep her voice steady. "We'll win, and then you'll stand trial."
"What a diplomat," he sneered. "I hope whichever nation prevails has time to commend you."
He seized her by the wrist and yanked her close against him. Jimaya gasped and tried to pull back, but to her horror he forced the spear into her hand and held the blade flat against his throat.
She froze. A quarter turn and a decisive slice were all it would take. He was so near and warm. With a wave of revulsion Jimaya imagined the heat of his blood spilling over her hands, slickening the spear, how he'd grow pale beneath his tattoos and crumple to his knees. The spear tip rose and fell with his breathing. She could all but feel his pulse through the shaft.
"Do you want me dead?" he asked.
Jimaya shook her head, wide-eyed. She wished she could bring herself to look anywhere but at him. Rensai's hand tightened on hers, clamping her grip even more firmly around the spear.
"Would your family be pleased to know you had the choice and let me live?"
Jimaya swallowed hard. "They wouldn't want me to have to kill any––"
"If they knew what you do about what I have done," he cut her off with a growl, "and what more I could do if I were to survive, would they be pleased?"
She shook her head again.
"Would your people?"
"But still you wouldn't kill me."
"No," she whispered.
Rensai leaned closer. His presence folded around her, swallowing her up.
"Then maybe you can find it in your heart to forgive me," he said softly, "for the cardinal sin of being just as weak."
He released her. Jimaya stumbled back, stunned, clutching the spear for support. But he only cast her a final, unreadable look and strode away. For the first time she noticed a recess carved into the wall of the tunnel a little ways down: Rensai stopped there to rummage through its shelves.
"You have a very poor record," he said as knelt down to lift the lids of two heavy clay pots, "but if I tell you to stay here, will you listen?"
"Are you going to tell me why this time?" she asked peevishly, still too rattled to strip the petulance from her tone. As he pinched his fingers together to taste one of the pots' contents, she caught the hint of a smile.
Something in the way he said it rolled through her like a wave, a sudden weight and pressure that squeezed her ribs together.
"Then I won't."
Rensai flashed her a grin. "What if I beg?"
But it was gone again by the time anxiety exploded to life and colored her cheeks, and Rensai had already resumed his search. Jimaya edged closer and craned her neck to peer over his shoulder, suspicious, but he straightened up before she could see what he was doing and pushed the pot back into its place with his boot. A leather pouch hung from his belt.
"It's a shame we met when we did." He plucked a flint from another shelf and, satisfied with a test spark, pocketed it. "I maintain that we would have gotten along under other circumstances."
The swirling anxiety inside her vanished. She stood, suddenly empty, and stared at him.
"You're going back out."
He nodded as though the whole thing were very tedious, but there was a tension in his face that Jimaya recognized from their first meeting, carefully concealed behind his warpaint. After accusing him of lying so many times, Jimaya was finally beginning to recognize the signs. He was frightened. He looked past her. His eyes traced the path out of the tunnel, towards fate, and away from her.
"As much as I love hiding away with you," he began.
But he didn't finish the thought. His smile faded from his lips. His hand twitched as though he might reach for her.
A sudden, violent hatred for the space between them filled the void anxiety had left inside her. Jimaya wanted to throw herself into his arms, wrestle him to the ground, beat her hands against his chest until he promised not to go. She wanted to burst from their hiding place with a force so great and blinding that it scattered every part of the war from the face of the earth, every wasted life, every pathetic prejudice, every unjust injury restored and undone. The unfairness of it all gripped her heart, tearing a cry of anguish out of her as she threw the spear to the ground.
"I hate this," she cried, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes and turning from him. "I hate this, I wish this had never happened! I should have done more! I should have changed it! I wish you and I were just people and none of this would ever have––"
His arms were around her before she could draw breath. He pressed his lips to hers and she rocked into his body, clinging to him, desperate for him, the only person who had failed her as deeply as she'd failed her people. They broke apart and he cupped her face in his hands.
"I'm sorry, Jimaya."
His voice came rough and choked but Jimaya shook her head furiously and kissed him into silence again. She didn't want to be Jimaya and she didn't want him to be Rensai – she wanted to be away, in another world apart, oblivious to whatever unknown disasters unfolded down long hallways or at the feet of mountains. She didn't care if he was a liar or an enemy or anything else: if she closed her eyes and held him tight enough he was only the person whose shape, smile, and voice she'd assigned to all her hardships. He was the person who'd washed ashore with her, trekked up mountains with her, fallen asleep with her. He was better and she was braver and there was no war, only hands and lips and mirrored heartbeats.
They crashed into the curved tunnel wall. Rensai's footing slipped and they slid to the ground in a tangle of limbs, but he held her firmly atop him with an arm around her waist. They kissed again, Jimaya slid her hands up his chest but whined in frustration at the armor that kept him from her.
He guided her hands to his left side. She found the cords holding his armor closed and yanked them loose, satisfied to find how easily it slipped from his shoulders. Denborn armor was flimsier than she expected. But Jimaya hardly had a second to consider it before he was kissing her again, settling her in his lap, moving against her.
They'd been short on time the first time she'd found herself under Rensai's touch, but this impatience was different, shot through with desperation not for haste but for affirmation. She felt it in the way his hands couldn't keep still, fingers pressing deep and hard before moving on to map the rest of her, and in the way she clung to him as though pressing against him would make him more real and everything else less so. She rose up on her knees and together they pulled her sash looser and her leggings out of the way. Her robes hung from her shoulders in thick folds; Rensai touched a kiss to her sternum as he pressed a finger inside her.
Jimaya whimpered a sigh and arched into him, and his breath grew hot on her skin as he worked his hand beneath her. He kissed her breast, then her nipple, swirling his tongue just as he slipped in a second finger. She could feel his eyes on her but she couldn't bear to meet them, she squeezed her own shut and leaned her head back as she rode his hand.
No. Not enough.
Her own body protested as she laid her hand on his and pulled it away long enough to strip her leggings the rest of the way off and fling them out of the way. In the space of a heartbeat she was back on him, locked in another heated kiss, squeezing his hips tight between her thighs. She could feel him again, hard and fighting impatience, just as she had in the alcove. Swallowing a nervous self-consciousness, she laid a hand on the buckle of his belt.
But apprehension gave way to frustration when all she found was layers. She yanked a second belt open, pulled down the waist of his leather skirt, only to be met with a pair of laced pants – she growled in aggravation and Rensai laughed.
"Now you know how I felt when we met."
Long fingers flicked easily through the laces at the front of his pants and Rensai took out his cock. Jimaya's eyes widened and she hid her flush behind a hasty kiss – it had laid dark and heavy in his hand and she couldn't shake the impossible feeling that it was for her, he wanted her, exactly as she was and in these incomprehensibly bizarre circumstances. She curled her fingers around it and somehow that made it feel easier to manage and understand. Better yet, Rensai went weak beneath the gentle squeeze of her hand, sighing and drawing her into another soft kiss. She moved her hips in tandem with her hand, but before long she released him and ground against him all on her own, lips parted and and astonished at the peek of his tip between her hips as she moved and the dizzying pleasure it stirred up within her. Just a few inches and he'd slip inside her, she could feel it, she wanted it, and she buried her face in his shoulder.
"Rensai," she breathed, eyes squeezed shut. "I–– I've never––"
He let out a ragged groan against her skin. A flash of anxiety nearly overwhelmed her but the heat of his next kiss blotted it out like ink in water – maybe he was proud to be her first. Or her last. In that moment she too was grateful to be either, to be this close to someone else in the thick of a war that had divided so many, and Jimaya ground down again, shuddering a sigh as she rocked against his length. His cock was slick beneath her.
"Now is your chance," he said in her ear. "So?"
Jimaya nodded feverishly. He could have said anything and she would have agreed to it, anything to feel more of this, more of him. He laid a firm guiding hand at the small of her back.
But he stilled. Jimaya turned her face away. Her confidence hinged on their pace, if they stopped she'd have too long to examine the absurdity of what they were doing.
"No. Look here."
Reluctantly she dragged her eyes to his and her thoughts abandoned her. Rensai wasn't laughing. With a jolt she was reminded of his warning and the serious, desperate intensity he'd worn then, but this was different. It burned deeper, darker and reassuring, like the soft expanse of black beyond the warmth of a campfire. Jimaya hung suspended there, unable to do anything but stare back. She felt her lips part, but if she'd meant to speak the words were driven far out of reach when he leaned in and kissed her. Light. Lingering. He eased her down.
Jimaya broke away to gasp out. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed, pressing her face into the crook of his neck. It was tight, she felt stretched, pried open in a way she'd never felt before, but to her shock there was no resistance: her grip on him slackened bit by bit, until at last some final threshold inside her gave way and she relaxed around him. Their hips met. He was inside her. Rensai, the Denborn Counselor's son, was inside her, hot and alive and near. She stayed there for a few shaky breaths, stunned at the impossibility, unable to face it yet, panting in his arms. His breathing matched hers. His hand cradled her head against his shoulder. When had that happened?
She pulled herself back just far enough to speak, but his hand slid to her cheek and turned her into another kiss before she could find the words. Jimaya melted against him again, folding them closer, pouring herself into him with a needy roll of her hips, and his kiss grew sharp as he began to move. Her fingernails dug into his back again – it felt foreign but so good, and it awakened a viciousness inside her that she didn't recognize. She set her teeth against his throat until he groaned and drove himself deeper.
"Fuck," she breathed, at a loss for any other reaction, and this time Rensai did laugh.
"Your Highness," he purred, "I didn't know you had it in you."
"Don't start that now," she managed tightly, but her tone lost its bite when his breath came hot on her ear.
"Jimaya, then," he said softly. "Jimaya."
He leaned her back in his arms. The change of angle sent a shudder rippling through her body. After the forced silence of their first encounter every gasp, then whine, then moan felt like its own liberation. Jimaya let him pull them from her freely, her shame long cast aside like her spear. She'd wanted this, she recalled through the haze of steadily building heat and pleasure. To be the sort of person he'd picture like this, want like this, remember like this. For however long they had.
"Rensai," she gasped as another surge of pleasure raced through her. Surely her fingernails were digging marks into his back by now. "I'm––"
"Again," he said with an insistent thrust. "Say it."
With a shock she remembered that, too.
And you scream my name when you come.
"Rensai," she repeated, throwing her arms around him and holding him close, eyes screwed shut as she met him with every desperate movement. "Rensai, Rensai, Rensai!"
Pleasure burst inside her in a wild rush of heat and she cried out, back arched and rigid as it raced through her every nerve. His arms tightened around her waist, holding her in it until she sank back down into his welcoming embrace. He kissed her through it, held her through it, fucked her through it, until he came too, deep inside her and pressed tight against her body, her name groaned against her throat and smoothed over with feverish kisses.
They slid back to earth in an exhausted heap. Jimaya didn't notice that he'd laced their fingers together until he tugged them away so he could cup her face in his hands. He kissed her briefly, gently, then a second time as though the first hadn't been enough. She held him there as the seconds slipped by one by one, delicate and unrushed as a blooming flower.
"You are exactly as I imagined," he whispered.
Jimaya nearly laughed aloud. She was so overwhelmed by the reality that she could hardly remember the Rensai she'd spent so much time imagining. Crueler, colder, kinder, softer. All four at once. She was too tired to think about it.
At last they parted. There was an intangible sense of finality to it, and the glowing warmth within her dimmed. Rensai touched his forehead to hers. He wove his fingers into her hair and let out a steadying breath, too close for her to read his face anymore. But she'd already seen it. She could feel it in the crease of his brow.
She knew that grimace.
"Rensai," she began softly, but the rest died inside her. His frown deepened.
"Don't. I don't want to hear it like that."
He kissed her again. It swept Jimaya up enough that she hardly noticed he was drawing away until she found herself suddenly cold and empty absent his touch. Dazed, she opened her eyes to find him refastening his pants, pointedly avoiding her gaze as he reached for his discarded armor.
"Rensai," she tried again, more firmly this time, but he only looked more pained. He tossed her her leggings. They landed in a heap in her lap and she balled them up in shaky hands.
"Whatever you're about to say is naive, so you may as well save it." He slid his armor back over his shoulders and motioned to the cords at his side. He still wouldn't look at her. "Would you?"
"Stop it. We'll–– we'll go out together and call for a truce." She snatched frantically for a strategy but he was already shaking his head. "Even Omare won't attack you if he sees you with me."
"My people won't accept a truce."
"Why not? If you're the one to––"
"If you're coming out with me, your options are to do it as a prisoner or to announce your surrender," he cut her off. "Anything less will cost you an arrow through the ribs or worse."
"Then explain to them!"
"And what do you recommend I tell them?" Rensai snapped, turning a glare on her that ran her through like a lance. "That I fucked you and now an entire war's worth of harm is undone? I know it was your first time, but the world around us is exactly the same as it was before you came. Maybe you should have set more realistic expectations."
The empty tunnel reverberated his cold insistence back at them both.
"Now you're just being a coward," Jimaya said softly. His words had stung harder than he'd intended and they both knew it: he was avoiding her eyes again, his lips pressed tightly together as he fiddled with his armor. Eventually he cursed and gave up, casting it aside and getting to his feet. Jimaya stayed where she was.
"Tell yourself whatever you need to," she said. "I'm not letting you go out there alone."
"You are completely insufferable," he muttered. He massaged his forehead as though her concern for his safety were triggering a migraine. "What have I done to make you resent listening to me so much? The only meaningful thing I've ever told you was to stay out of sight and yet here you are, bright as blood on a battlefield, until I have to drag you off myself. And now you insist on going back."
He scoffed a bitter laugh and Jimaya started. The force that had slammed her into the crevice and out of the fray, his focus on Omare–– no, not a preoccupation with her brother. An unwillingness to attack her.
He must have noticed her realization because he sneered as he extended a hand to pull her to her feet, but he tugged hard and she stumbled into his chest. When she looked up she found that he'd softened again. Regret and resignation clouded his expression.
"Insufferable," he repeated, and took her chin in his hand. Jimaya closed her eyes.
"Last chance to kill me." He made the offer one final time when there was no delaying the inevitable any longer. Jimaya had pulled her leggings back on and his armor still lay forgotten, but he'd retrieved her spear from where she'd discarded it. He held it out to her again. "If you don't, someone else might, and if it's your brother I'll make certain neither of you know peace for the rest of your days."
Jimaya shook her head. "I'll risk it. Call it your incentive to stay alive."
"Fine." He gave an easy shrug and to her surprise lay the spear against the tunnel wall. He motioned for her to follow. "But keep your distance. Wait for me to clear a way, then find your brother."
She trailed behind him uneasily as he led the way up the tunnel's gentle slope. After all his protests for her to stay behind, he was pressing on with less than half a plan, unarmed and unprotected. She had no idea how he meant to clear a path through anything, much less a raging battle.
Her apprehension magnified tenfold when they emerged from the tunnel and caught sight of the fringes of the fight.
The archers had abandoned their posts on the cliffs, their quivers long emptied into the field below where arrows peppered the beaten earth. Their numbers added to the Denborn forces on the ground, and from her distance Jimaya could only spot the barest flickers of color that indicated the Imperial allies. A punctured surge of hope swelled inside her. As long as there was fighting, they weren't defeated. Not yet.
"Well," Rensai sighed. His gaze followed hers across the expanse. But after a long moment's pause, he passed her a sharp little smile that snagged her senses like a burr. "Let's make it right."
He took off. Jimaya barely had a second to react before his long legs had carried him nearly halfway across the field.
She tore after him, dodging arrow shafts and leaping over the fallen –– not now, not now, not now, she told herself fiercely, and the effort of suppressing her horror propelled her forward. She stayed singlemindedly fixed on the shrinking target in front of her: apparently he was eliminating any possibility that she might defy his order for her to keep her distance.
She wouldn't have it. She'd protect him, protect her people, and put an end to this war. There would be no more loss of life on her watch.
Rensai's figure slipped between the teeming clash of bodies and Jimaya lost sight of him, but as she neared the edges of the battle she found it looser than she'd left it. Not because there are fewer warriors, she insisted inwardly as she pushed inside. Not because so many have fallen.
But they'd entered the battle with impossible odds, and looking at who remained, Jimaya felt the first surge of hope she'd felt since that morning's rally. Forest People were taking on two spearmen at a time nearly everywhere she looked, twisting out of reach of every blow. Imperial officers met their foes with ever immaculate technique, determined to best their opponent with unyielding precision or not at all. She even caught sight of a few Mountain Tribesmen, their fur hats out of place on the battlefield but their long, ivory-tipped spears reaching far beyond any Denborn weapon. But after a few moments' survey, panic began to creep into her chest. Where was Omare?
She sidestepped every swipe of a spear or bellicose call to engage her, weaving through the melee towards the center. So much for Rensai's cleared path, she thought angrily. He was nowhere in sight either. But the thought was knocked clear out of her head as she was seized around the middle and dragged in the opposite direction.
"Your Highness!" Callused hands moved to her shoulders and yanked her into a desperate embrace.
"Capo!" Jimaya's heart threatened to explode with relief. She clutched him back but pulled away just as quickly. "Omare–– where is he?!"
"Fighting when I saw him last. We need to get you out of here, give the retreat order, we need to regroup."
"Not without Omare."
"Your Highness, we can't afford to lose––"
"You'll lose both of us or neither of us," Jimaya said fiercely, wrenching herself out of Capo's grip. "Where is he?"
Capo bit back his protest and nodded over Jimaya's shoulder. She whipped around and scanned the battlefield until there, she saw him, beyond four pairs locked in combat and squaring off against––
Honestly, she hated Rensai.
She darted towards them and threw herself at Omare in part tackle, part embrace. They fell to the ground in a heap; Omare reared up, snarling about the rules of engagement, but his face broke out in relief when he recognized her and he threw his arms around her.
"Jimaya! You're all right!"
"Come on, get up, we need to get out of here."
She glanced back at Rensai and found him rolling his eyes.
"Don't look like that, you're the one that took off!" she snapped, hauling Omare to his feet while he glanced between the pair of them, bewildered.
But the Imperial Twins together made too perfect a target.
All around them, Denborn abandoned their fights to close in around them. A dark ring of leather and iron tightened like a noose, spears jabbing in from all sides, and with a sinking horror Jimaya realized they expected them both to face Rensai.
She turned. Rensai was shaking his head.
"You're lucky you have me," he said, just audible above the jeers of the other Denborn.
Jimaya's eyes went wide. "What did you say?" she whispered.
He reached for the pouch at his belt and the taunts changed tone. The spearmen began stumbling back in alarm, scrambling over one another to get away. Omare didn't notice – he jerked out of Jimaya's grip and lunged at Rensai, but Rensai sidestepped him easily. She dove after her brother, casting a look over her shoulder at Rensai, panicked and confused.
"Look away," he said.
He didn't wait for her to obey. Rensai struck his flint and the world went white.