It was almost admirable, the defiance Omare showed at being discovered in this neighborhood at this hour by his least favorite person. But he swayed under Rensai's scrutiny, and not due to wavering confidence.
"You're drunk," Rensai said bluntly.
"No I'm not."
"Where are you coming from?"
"A party. You weren't invited," Omare said as though that were something Rensai remotely cared about. It was a repugnant trend, one the Imperial City had embraced with great enthusiasm in recent months. They swiped crimson and orange peaks across their brows, wrapped themselves nose to chin in black silk, and some even went as far as painting rudimentary tattoos on their chests and arms, all to give themselves an excuse to gather together and down as much Denborn liquor as they could tolerate. If their Emperor was any indication, that wasn't very much. And it appeared Omare had put far more effort into drinking than he had into the feeble attempt at warpaint smeared across his face.
"You look ridiculous."
"You always look ridiculous," Omare sneered back.
Rensai stared at him. The pathetic comeback wasn't lost on Omare, even in his state, and after a moment's awkward pause he muttered sourly about needing to get back to the palace before dawn. He shoved Rensai aside to stumble past.
Rensai closed his hand around Omare's wrist and bent his arm behind his back in a single fluid motion. Omare hissed and thrashed, but Rensai only tightened his grip.
"Go back for your jester. Otherwise you'll end up in the canal and then I'll have to pretend to mourn you."
"Capo didn't come," Omare growled through gritted teeth. "Let go."
"No escort? No royal retinue? How humble."
Rensai released him. Omare probably would have caught his balance, but Rensai was weak: unable to resist, he kicked Omare's legs out from under him and Omare crashed to the ground in a seething heap. He cursed and rounded furiously on Rensai, but Rensai seized him by the collar and dragged him back out of the alley.
"Come along. I'm not getting implicated in a regicide tonight, least of all one as inelegant as this. I have a reputation to uphold."
"What?" Omare snarled as he stumbled forward. His voice bounced off the alleyway walls in a stunning cacophony. Rensai rolled his eyes. "Your reputation? I'm an Imperial Prin–– an Imperial Emperor, and––"
"Shout it louder, I'm sure your subjects will be impressed."
Omare snapped his jaws around another outburst. Rensai snorted.
"Ah, he can listen. Wouldn't your court be surprised? This way."
He let go of Omare's collar and, confident that the sullen purported emperor was following, ducked down a side street.
They carried on in relative silence apart from a few more muttered curses and the sound of Omare's heavy and uneven footsteps. The streets narrowed and darkened as they progressed. The distance between street lamps stretched the further they strayed from the main road, illuminating jagged corners just in time to plunge them into shadow the moment they turned.
"Where are we going?" Omare grumbled. Had he only thought to ask now?
"This isn't the way."
"My home, you imbecile. It's closer."
"I'm not spending the night in your hovel––"
"Why not? Your sister does it all the time."
Any retort Omare had intended was cut off by a horrible retching. Rensai turned to find him bent over, one hand propped on a building wall as he heaved into the gutter. Rensai leaned a shoulder against the wall to wait, revolted.
"This is pathetic."
"You're pathetic," Omare snarled just as childishly as the last time, but he was cut off by another wave. He coughed, spat, then groaned as he leaned his forehead against the wall. "I hate this."
"I kind of enjoy it."
"Of course you do you fucking––" he heaved again before he could finish, but mercifully for them both there was nothing left in him.
"I'm sure whatever you were about to say was very creative. Now pull yourself together. We're nearly there and I'm not going to carry you."
It took several deep breaths but at last Omare nodded and straightened up in a comical parody of the grit Rensai recognized from the battlefield. He wondered which trial was more grueling.
"Get inside," he ordered when at last Omare had trudged up the steps to his cottage. He held the door open for him. "And if you become sick on my floor I'll slit your throat while you sleep."
"Not if I do first," Omare growled halfheartedly as he dragged himself over the threshold.
"Slit your own throat?"
His royal instincts apparently kicked in upon arrival: Omare threw himself onto the cushion behind the table with neither invitation nor hesitation, then went as far as to gather the others towards him into a heap. Satisfied with the mountain he'd made for his misery, he flopped on his back and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.
"This is horrible. I don't know how you Denborn do it."
"We pace ourselves. And we take care to eat beforehand." Rensai plunked a cup of water on the table in front of him. "I'm guessing you didn't bother with either."
Omare's scowl was answer enough, but still he gulped down the water. He even mumbled what might have been a word of thanks before collapsing back on the cushions again. Rensai glared at him, his distaste at war with the thought of Jimaya's reaction when she inevitably found out that he'd let her brother languish on the floor with nothing but water.
Omare was a moron and deserved his consequences.
Rensai wasn't responsible for him any more than he was responsible for any other drunk on the street.
Aggravated, Rensai turned to his stove anyway.
"So this is it, is it? This is how you live?"
"That's more of a critique of how this city treats refugees than it is a comment on my success, don't you think?" Rensai lifted the lid on the pot he'd left from his dinner. He'd planned to save the rice to accompany his breakfast the next day, but that was before he'd run into a drink-sodden embarrassment for a monarch. He scraped the leftovers into a bowl irritably.
"We've been generous and you know it. And I think you mean 'war criminal,' not 'refugee,'" Omare said. Rensai placed the bowl in front of Omare with a pointed thunk and Omare jumped, opening one eye to glare sidelong at him. "Did you poison it?"
"Yes, I brought you all the way here to poison you," Rensai snapped, slamming a pair of chopsticks beside the bowl. "I was concerned you didn't do a good enough job on your own."
Omare managed to pushed himself up to a half-sit. To his credit he actually managed an intelligible word of gratitude this time, but it was easily muffled as he started on the rice with an intensity that suggested deep concentration.
"What I mean is," he said a few bites later, "that you live normally. Like a person."
"As opposed to what, a fish?"
"You know what I mean."
He did. He watched silently as Omare ate. The lamentable approximation of Denborn warpaint had creased and faded from poor application, flaking away in places and running in others. Nauseating though it was to see his conqueror wear it, Rensai did feel a flicker of curiosity for what the real thing might have looked like from the inside of a cage.
"Yes," he said. "Just a person."
There was a long stretch of quiet punctuated only by the tap of chopsticks on porcelain. At last Rensai broke away to move to the cabinet at the back of the room, and he knelt down to slide open the bottom drawer.
"What were you even doing out so late?" Omare asked over his shoulder while Rensai withdrew a small silver tray.
Omare scoffed. "For what, company? ...Oh."
Rensai set the tray down on the other side of the table and took a moment to light the tiny lamp atop it. He felt Omare's gaze on him and looked up – he was staring, wide-eyed, and Rensai couldn't suppress a smirk.
"I take it you've never tried opium."
Omare shook his head. Metal clinked gently as Rensai scooped a small measure from the jar he'd bought that evening, held it over the flame for a moment, then shaped it and packed it into the pipe.
"Well, tonight won't be your chance," Rensai said. "You've indulged enough for one night. And I don't like sharing with you."
Omare's expression darkened, and satisfied, Rensai held the bowl over the lamp. He rotated it lazily for a while, then brought the pipe to his lips and breathed deeply. His lungs hadn't even filled before his every limb relaxed in a single, gentle wave, the day's tension coaxed from his bones like foam pulled out to sea. He let his eyes shut on his exhale and he hung there for a merciful moment, pleasantly light, then gestured for one of Omare's cushions.
"Give me one of those."
Omare handed it over wordlessly. Rensai bunched it beneath his arm and propped his head on his hand for another drag. He caught Omare staring out of the corner of his eye and chuckled.
"It's not as novel as you think," he said. He tilted his head back and blew thin white smoke over both their heads where it hung in a haze above them. "It's almost as easy to get here as it was in the Den."
Omare returned to his rice, but he radiated reluctant curiosity. Opportunities to relish Omare's ignorance were plentiful, but rarely did Rensai get to enjoy it without courtiers rushing to his rescue.
"Such is the royal burden, I suppose," he went on, watching for a reaction as he set the pipe carefully back on its tray. "Access to whatever you want at the most casual demand... except the things lesser men can procure with the right connections and coin."
"It's nice to know you've finally learned your place."
"And here you are beside me," he said, nodding at Omare reclined just the way he was at the opposite side of the table. He grinned. "How brave of you to make the descent."
Omare frowned stubbornly into his bowl. The smoke softened the edges of Rensai's awareness enough that when at last Omare spoke again, the words passed over him like a gentle breeze. But Omare pronounced each word like it pained him and it snagged his attention.
"What else don't I know?"
Provoking him was almost too easy to be gratifying. Still Rensai barely managed to suppress his laugh.
"We only have the night, not the entire week."
"Don't be difficult," Omare snapped, and Rensai found himself fighting a smile, too. He and his sister were so similar.
"Many farmers keep the best of their own crop," he said. "They'd sell to you if the palace paid more. There's a gambling ring that has transformed its entire neighborhood in a matter of months, but I won't tell you where." He fixed Omare with a look. "And actual Denborn find these parties of yours tasteless and insulting."
"What? The hosts were Denborn!" Omare protested. If he'd applied his warpaint properly, Rensai wouldn't have been able to see him flush.
"Oh, and there's little social or financial incentive to host an Emperor," Rensai said with a scoff. He took up his pipe again. "Look at yourself. You paint on our culture for a night and scrub it clean when you're finished. Don't pretend it's done out of admiration."
But judging by the look of utter bewilderment on Omare's face, critical thought was beyond his reach at the moment.
"Have you told Yujin?" Rensai asked.
Omare's glower returned with a vengeance, but he didn't answer. Rensai smiled on an exhale.
"Then you do understand. Trust your instincts, Omare. They're not a total embarrassment."
"Well what am I supposed to do now?" Omare asked bluntly. He abandoned his rice bowl and flopped onto his back again. "Ban them?"
Rensai's slow reaction might have been a point of shame if he hadn't induced it himself. But Omare's reaction had thrown him. "What?"
"The parties. Should I ban them?"
Rensai stared. "You're asking my advice?"
"I didn't say I'd take it, I'm just––" Omare heaved a labored sigh. "If they're insulting, then they shouldn't happen. So I'll make them not happen. I'm Emperor."
"Yes, you've mentioned that."
Rensai luxuriated in a long, thoughtful final drag before setting his pipe aside and settling onto his own pillow. The opium lifted his senses in a gentle, rolling lull. It was a long moment before he spoke again.
"If you ban them outright, they'll go underground. Like that gambling ring, or this." He gestured lazily at the tray, then let his hand fall back down to his chest. "Just don't participate. Discourage them when you can. They'll fall out of favor soon enough, just like anything else. And in the meantime it won't hurt to show your city why you dragged us out of our mountain in the first place. Assuming you had a reason."
'We're one people now," Omare said rotely, a parroting insistence Rensai had heard countless times now.
"Then we shouldn't make such a good costume."
It would have been a sneer but it came out much milder, and Rensai found he didn't care. Omare seemed to get the point. And if he didn't, he surely would when he awoke to a raging headache the next morning.
"If you don't want to sleep on the bare floor, go find the bedroll," he said, closing his eyes. "It's at the top of the closet, if you can reach it."
"I hate you so much," Omare muttered, but he hauled himself up and stumbled his way to the bedroom. Rensai laid unperturbed at the silence, then muffled curse, then unmistakable fwump of a great deal of fabric hitting the floor at once. Omare reemerged in an accusatory huff a moment later.
"Your room is too normal."
Rensai snorted. "I would pay a great deal to see your vision of me." The floor rocked gently beneath him and bore him up to a sit so he could blow out the tiny lamp atop the tray.
He cleared away the forgotten rice bowl as Omare busied himself with the bedroll and what turned out to be every spare blanket Rensai owned. Rensai shook his head as he placed a freshly filled cup of water on the table.
"You're to be out of here at dawn, understood?"
"Like I'd want to spend a minute here longer than I need to," Omare retorted, all but flinging the blankets over himself for emphasis. "...Thanks."
Rensai waved carelessly, his back already turned.
He awoke the next morning to a dull and relentless pounding.
His first thought was to slide a hand through his hair – a headache? No. He groaned out an irritable yawn and turned over in hopes that stubbornness alone might make it stop. But on it went, until Rensai remembered that he did in fact have a headache taking up space on the floor of the other room. He threw off the duvet with a reluctant growl.
"What on earth do you think––"
But he found Omare still sound asleep right where he'd left him the night before. Omare had thrown off all but one of the blankets, and the rest of them lay strewn around him as though he'd never wanted them in the first place and was insulted at the very idea. He breathed deeply and open-mouthed. Rensai was gripped by the strong desire to smother him.
The door – that was it. Good. Whoever insisted on breaking it down could find themselves responsible for Omare instead. He yanked it open and winced at the blazing morning light.
His eyes adjusted to take in a particularly anxious Jimaya, who only grew more alarmed to find him so agitated.
"Rensai! Omare didn't come home last night, he mentioned a Denborn party, I thought you might know who––" the words tumbled out of her in a rush, and quite a few more too, but Rensai was hardly able to take in even that much and he nodded against their headwind. Opium always left him foggy.
"Yes, yes, he's here." He gestured her wearily inside.
He wished he were in a state to better appreciate the mingled relief, shock, and confusion on her face when her eyes fell on her somehow still sleeping brother. But next she spotted the tray and pipe – he'd tucked away the jar but forgotten the rest. The glare she turned on him yanked him to sharper awareness.
"Don't tell me you––"
"Of course not," he said, affronted. "He was drunk enough already, and I wouldn't waste it on him either way."
"That's the part you take issue with?"
"I told you, I don't want to think about Maya coming here," Omare mumbled groggily from the floor. His head lifted from behind the table and he focused blearily on Jimaya. "Oh." He flopped back down again. "Gross."
"Omare, you idiot." Jimaya stormed to his side and promptly tore up her face in disgust. "Ugh, you smell like a distillery. Where were you? Kouda nearly had a heart attack, you know."
Omare drew the blanket over his head with a groan. Jimaya snatched it away and Rensai crossed his arms to watch, wondering whether there had ever been a time he admired her more.
"Stop it, I feel bad enough––"
"You look worse, I promise you."
"Shut up, Rensai––"
Omare was cut off by Jimaya hauling him to his feet, and halfway there he seemed to realize it was in his best interest to comply: he shook himself free and scowled, but he made no further protests as he straightened out his rumpled clothes as best he could. Thankfully most of his makeup had rubbed off on the pillows overnight, though Rensai supposed he was now responsible for taking care of that, too. Omare looked down at the rat's nest that passed for a bed. "Um, should I…?"
He slunk to the door looking about as eager to leave as Rensai felt about getting him out of his sight. Jimaya shook her head after him.
"Thank you. I'm sorry about all this," she sighed.
"Don't apologize for me!"
"Someone's got to, and besides you owe enough of them to Kouda and Capo," Jimaya snapped.
"Oh, but it's okay for you to sneak around at night!"
Rensai answered for her by dipping his head to kiss Jimaya's cheek. "It is."
"You're an instigator," Jimaya said, smiling despite herself as Omare spluttered in revulsion. Rensai grinned and leaned in for another.
"Don't hurry back." He rested against the doorframe when at last they were on their way. "Except you, Maya. You're welcome back whenever you like."
Omare whirled around, snarling for him not to call her that, as Jimaya dragged him down the steps hiding her smile.