Omare put his hand up. "Do we have to?"
"You do," Kouda said firmly, and Omare sagged forward on his cushion. Both twins knew that tone well enough to know arguing wasn't worth the breath it cost. "Any other questions?"
"No," they chorused in gray monotone. Their nanny nodded her head approvingly and set about gathering up the crumpled remains of the morning's calligraphy lesson. Soon enough they were left alone in the lesson hall and what little remained of Omare's decorum seeped out of him on a groan.
"This is gonna be the worst."
"Why should it be? Maybe they're nice," Jimaya said with a shrug.
"So what if they're nice? They'll be weird. All Denborn are."
"You know exactly one of them, and you've never spoken a word to him," Jimaya reminded him. She licked her thumb and tried to scrub a spot of ink from her index finger.
"Don't have to. That Counselor's supposed to be their whatever-you-call-it."
"Right. And that's who they choose to represent their entire mountain?"
Jimaya couldn't fight off a laugh. The Denborn Counselor was nothing like his people's history or art or culture suggested – at least not the way the twins had learned it. She pictured him picking his way across the craggy mountain peaks in those ludicrous shoes of his, bright as a dandelion and poisonous as oleander.
"I don't know." Jimaya gave up on her ink-stained hands and flopped back on the floor to stretch. "It's just a week, and it'll probably get us out of lessons for a few days. Maybe it'll be fun."
It didn't get them out of lessons. In fact on the morning of their guests' arrival, the twins' valets dictated the day's schedule with a sympathetic grimace that deepened with every word and corresponding slump in Omare's posture.
"You're kidding, right?" he groaned when at last they'd finished. Kouda rapped him over the head with her fan.
"I hope that's out of your system now, Your Highness, because that's your final complaint for the week. Now come along. They're already taking breakfast in the pagoda."
Omare's grumbling subsided on their way, no doubt replaced with the same prickle of excitement Jimaya was beginning to feel herself. The schedule might be brutal but it wasn't often they entertained guests, much less ones their own age, and never any from the Mountain Den.
But it wasn't just the pair Kouda had described that awaited them in the pagoda. The twins' parents were there too, as well as Counselor Yoren, bizarrely vibrant and forbidding as ever, and another man so thickly muscled that he scarcely fit behind the low breakfast table.
"Chief Kharvaach!" Omare whispered, awestruck.
Even without the prompt there could be no doubt that this was the Denborn Chief Archer: his dense hair was braided back, exposing thick black tattoos that carved all the way up his arms and down his chest and back. Jimaya had never seen someone so intimidating in her life and yet there he was, calmly sipping tea beside her father, one false move away from shattering the cup in his massive hand. She had to consciously tear her eyes away.
The person beside him was much more manageable – his daughter, Yujin, for certain. She looked exceptionally small and delicate beside her hulking father, but instead of tattoos her right arm – her draw arm, Jimaya realized – was wrapped in a sleeve of intricate black lace. As they drew nearer Yujin laughed at something the boy across from her had said, and immediately Jimaya was put at ease by her cheer.
The boy was hiding a smile behind his teacup. If Jimaya hadn't been told the Counselor's son was coming too, she wouldn't have recognized him: the only thing he appeared to have in common with his father was a distinctly unapproachable air. The Denborn didn't have a royal family, so the Chief Archer and his daughter were the next closest thing. Inviting Rensai along too seemed like an afterthought, a counterweight for the sake of balance. Or maybe Yujin was just shy and didn't want to come alone. Either way, he no more fit in at the table than his father or Kharvaach: he was bare chested as was common in the Den, but his pale, narrow shoulders were absent the tattoos that covered his chief, leaving him looking underdressed and uncomfortable. His dark hair was tied up away from his neck in a bun that tightened his already sharp face. Jimaya nearly jumped when his eyes flicked to her.
"Ah, there you two are. Come, come."
The Emperor waved them forward and Jimaya's apprehension evaporated under her father's warm smile. The guests might be unusual but she knew the routine well: she dipped a bow to each in turn as her father made the introductions. She even managed to meet Chief Kharvaach's eyes, which he returned with a smile that might have looked warm if not for his extensive warpaint. Counselor Yoren, on the other hand, had a smile Jimaya wished she'd never seen at all: it unfurled at the corners of his mouth and did nothing to soften his flat, gray stare. Rensai's introduction provided no relief, as he hardly looked at either twin and offered them only a deferent nod each. Jimaya was relieved to settle down beside Yujin, mercifully beaming and warpaint-free, while Omare sat down stiffly next to Rensai.
"It's such a pleasure to finally meet you," Yujin sighed. Her hands were clasped tight in her lap as though she were keeping herself from taking Jimaya's. "This is all Counselor Yoren has talked about for weeks, but I have to say I couldn't imagine your palace would be so beautiful."
"I'll have to show you the water garden then," Jimaya said, brightening immediately under Yujin's warmth. "That's one of my favorites."
"Oh! Do you keep fish?"
Chatter came easily between them. Yujin had countless questions about palace life, and Jimaya had to choose her words carefully when she asked about life in the Mountain Den, worried she might offend. But Yujin laughed off every accidental suggestion of a challenging way of life.
"It's really not as harsh as it probably seems to you. Right, Father?" Yujin laid her hand on the chief's arm and Jimaya stiffened when Kharvaach shifted his gaze to her.
"Hm? Oh no. It's much harsher," he said on a growl, leaning in menacingly. Jimaya's blood chilled but Yujin laughed again and waved him away; Kharvaach's beard twitched as he returned to his conversation.
More serious business called the adults away towards the end of the meal. Yoren pointed out the late morning hour and the others agreed, rising from their seats with a few words of farewell. Left to their own devices, the four glanced at one another, suddenly awkward and silent. Rensai craned his neck to watch their parents leave, and the moment his father's yellow robes had disappeared around the corner his stiff shoulders settled into an easy, casual slouch as though suddenly relieved of a great burden. He leaned back on his hands and sighed.
"I think that's a new record," Yujin said in a play whisper.
Rensai gave a tired laugh and loosened the bun that bound his hair tight. It was such a shift from his earlier attitude that he almost seemed like a different person entirely. Omare apparently agreed – he was staring puzzledly at him. "It might be. The extra high stakes helped."
"We like to see how long he can go without catching his father's attention," Yujin explained to the twins. "I don't know if we've ever had a tougher test than breakfast with the Imperial royal family. That must have been over an hour straight! On a normal day…"
"I last about five minutes," Rensai finished with a grin that brightened his whole face. "But if he's not looking, he's not nitpicking."
"He seems… stern," Omare said awkwardly. In the loosening of his posture though, Jimaya could tell he was relieved to find Rensai less standoffish than he'd seemed at first face. Rensai laughed again.
"That's the politest way to describe him."
"Yours too." Omare turned to Yujin with sudden excitement. "But in such a different way! I can't believe I barely had a chance to talk to him. What did he have to say, Maya?"
Truthfully the Chief Archer had barely spoken a word to her apart from the tease about Den life that had thrown her off so much, and when he had his voice had been so deep that she barely heard what he was saying. Jimaya struggled to find the most diplomatic way to put it.
"Not very much," she admitted. "He seems like more of a man of action than words. Would that be fair to say?"
Yujin laughed. Rensai's smile grew sharp, like he and Jimaya were sharing a little joke.
"He's not very talkative, no. Not over meals, and not usually at events like this."
"I've heard so much about him," Omare went on, eyes bright. "Is it true that he earned the Chieftain's sash at just twenty-four? And did he really fight off four other men for it?"
"Four other men and my mother," Yujin said with a proud nod. "But he won her eventually, too."
"And he's gone unchallenged for over ten years?"
"Nearly. There was one challenger a few years ago, but no one really counts it."
"The chief threw him off a cliff in about five seconds." Rensai shook his head. "Pathetic."
Omare grew more animated with each question he asked, his interest undiminished even when a pair of valets arrived to clear away their meal and usher them all to the day's lessons. He went ahead chattering to Rensai while the two girls followed behind.
"He's very enthusiastic, isn't he?" Yujin put her fingertips to her mouth to conceal a giggle.
But Omare knew to hold it in during lessons, even if it did take all his concentration to keep the lid on his simmering excitement. Rensai, on the other hand, was back to the chilly stoicism he'd worn at their introduction, perhaps worried any poor behavior in class would be reported back to his father. That cooled Omare a bit, as did Yujin's perfect example of attentiveness. Jimaya caught Yujin imitating the way Jimaya settled her hands in her lap and felt a little flicker of pride.
The remainder of the day flew by thanks to the addition of their two new classmates. Mathematics, usually Jimaya's most dreaded subject, was made more interesting by Rensai's uncanny instinct for numbers. Later on the twins were reciting key dates from the past two dynasties, usually as tedious as it was stressful, when Yujin chimed in with Denborn history to match, and before anyone knew it she and Omare were trading opposite sides of the same story with so much interest that even their instructor couldn't bear to interject. After lunch they all took to the archery range where both Denborn excelled – "No surprise there," Jimaya laughed when Rensai studded a neat circle of arrows around Omare's single shot. But when it came time for sparring practice, it was just three of them: Yujin watched from the outside of the ring while the twins circled Rensai, sizing up the reach of his staff and long limbs.
After three exhausting rounds Jimaya dropped onto the bench beside Yujin and wiped the sweat from her brow. "Boys," she sighed, shaking her head at the pair of them. Omare had seized Rensai's staff and was trying to wrest it from his grip.
"Show-offs," Yujin agreed on a laugh. She drew one knee to her chest and looped her arms around it to watch. "Is your brother a sore loser?"
"That's good." Just as Yujin said it, Omare finally landed a kick to Rensai's chest that sent him stumbling back, leaving Omare room to snatch up the staff. He leveled the butt under Rensai's chin and was met with a burning glare. "Rensai is."
The instructor called the end of the match but neither boy moved, still panting, stares fixed on one another. At last Rensai's glare yielded in the same moment Omare lowered the staff, and Omare extended an arm to pull him up. The tension broke in an instant and both boys were grinning, clapping each other on the backs, gesturing to go again. Jimaya rolled her eyes.
"Boys," she repeated.
By dinnertime all of them were too exhausted to do much more than melt into their cushions. Omare's wellspring of questions had run dry for the time being, but Jimaya had gathered up about a thousand more over the course of the day only to find herself too tired to voice them. She settled instead for sharing half her candied almonds with Yujin ("I've never had anything like this in my life!"), promising her to show her the water garden tomorrow, and bidding them goodnight to drag herself to bed with the satisfied, weighty fatigue of a day exceptionally well spent.
"That went better than expected." She covered her yawn with a hand. Omare gestured blankly as though his agreement defied language.
"So much better! I couldn't believe Yujin at the archery range! I know she's the Chief's daughter, but still…"
The days swept like wind through willow branches in the week that followed. The four of them were pulled this way and that at the mercy of Kouda's schedule but the nights they had to themselves, and by the fifth day they were casting looks over their shoulders and clamoring up the rock garden trellis to reach the roof. Yujin was hesitant, but Rensai played lookout while Jimaya urged her along with a laugh – "Don't worry, just be quiet and we won't get caught!" – and soon the four of them were stretched beneath the autumn air, hearts hammering and roof tiles chilly beneath their backs.
"They're brighter on the Mountain." Rensai stretched one lanky arm up to the heavens, fingers extended, like he might snatch the stars from the sky. "And there are twice as many."
"Really?" Jimaya sighed while Omare scoffed.
"What do you mean, twice as many? It's the same sky."
The boys went on bickering heatlessly but Jimaya and Yujin had both grown used to the routine by now. They exchanged a glance and a laugh before looking back up at the stars above.
"I wish you didn't have to go so soon," Jimaya said.
"Me neither." Yujin stretched her arms overhead. "I love it here. There's just so much more time. Time in a day, time together. The Den is so…" She trailed off and balled her fingers up in a tangle, then dropped them again with a sigh. "Anyway, you'll see. You'll come to visit us next year, won't you?"
"Only if you promise twice as many stars."
"Ha! See?" Omare shot up and pointed at Jimaya as though her joke counted as scientific evidence. Rensai wrestled Omare's arm back down and all four of them collapsed back in laughter, the danger of being caught already far from their minds, and Jimaya felt at once huge and whole and tiny as one of the pinpricks of light in the sky.
A great wolf yawning. That was the closest comparison Omare could conceive of as they passed through the gaping entrance to the Mountain Den. Row upon row of stalactites clung like fangs from the cavern's high ceilings and torches studded the rough-hewn walls, illuminating the wide tunnel in front of them. Omare wondered how long it stretched – whatever the answer was, he was sure his best guess would still fall short. Even so, the undeniably intimidating transition from forest to Den churned up nothing but nervous excitement within him. He'd been training all year to spar with Rensai again: the memory of the boy's long reach had lingered in the back of his head during many an agility session. And Yujin… he wasn't even sure which memories of her he'd hung onto anymore. Most of them he'd turned over in his head so many times that they'd gone all smooth and polished like a stone in the sea. The first couple times he'd been surprised to realize how often he thought of her. But after a time he just went with it, and now a year later he had to consciously remind himself not to be disappointed if she wasn't exactly the way he remembered.
But she still might be.
Kouda and the twins startled in unison. If it weren't for the voice and casual wave, Omare might not have recognized Rensai. He'd somehow managed to grow yet taller in the year since his visit to the palace, and it seemed, like Omare, he'd spent a good deal more time in the sparring ring too. But the most dramatic change sprawled across his shoulders and chest: the inked outline of ocean waves crashed over his body and disappeared beneath the high reach of his gloves.
He strode towards them, smile broad and arms wide, and before Omare or Jimaya could react he'd slung an arm around each of their shoulders as though they were the oldest of friends.
"Welcome to the Mountain Den." He tightened his grip, dislodging an indignant Kouda. "I've been sent to collect you – there was to be a more formal welcome, of course, but you know these things shift and we'll need to make up some time."
"I'm sure I don't," Kouda said tetchily. She gestured to the retinue of valets that accompanied them, all bearing the twins' luggage. "The Counselor was very clear about the agenda–-"
"Isn't he always?" Rensai cut her off cheerily. "If you continue down the entrance hall you'll run into the Chief's Guard, and they can direct you to the Counselor's parlor. I'm sorry, but I do need to take them. Chief Archer's orders."
"B-bye, Kouda!" Jimaya managed over her shoulder, stumbling a little as Rensai steered them down a much narrower, winding side passageway. "It's good to see you again, Rensai," she added politely. Like Omare, she clearly recalled his familiarity but wasn't totally prepared to deal with it. Rensai only snugged them closer.
"And you! It's been so long but look at you, you both look just the same. Yujin's been talking about this for weeks, you know."
"What does Chief Kharvaach want?" Omare asked to cover up the warmth the mention Yujin's name had flushed through his insides. Rensai laughed.
"With you? Nothing. You've arrived on a very exciting day, and believe me, you wouldn't want to waste a moment of it at a three hour tea with my father. I thought I'd rescue you."
"Oh. Well thank you," Jimaya said. She could almost always be counted on to fall back on her manners in the face of confusion, but Omare made a face. "Um. And congratulations on your first ink."
Mercifully Rensai let them both go, though it was likely only so they could better admire the crisp linework that spanned his chest. So he was a year older than them, so what? It wasn't like every Denborn sixteen-year-old didn't get the same. Omare looked sidelong, not wanting to appear too interested, but still his curiosity won out.
"Thank you. It was a full month before I could return to training."
"Did it hurt?"
"Terribly," Rensai said with relish.
Omare seized on his chance. "A whole month off, huh?" he jibed. "You must be rusty."
But Rensai only laughed again. "I'll let you be the judge of that." His arm landed heavily over Omare's shoulders once more. "But it'll have to wait a day or two. Now come on, we don't want to miss her."
Before either of them could ask what he meant their passageway opened up into a vast, vaulted cavern bigger than any Omare had yet seen. Thick columns of wood and stone bore rows of blazing torches, each illuminating the catwalks spanning the gap between them and the next passageway. So far their journey had been solitary but the cavern was a blaze of activity: Denborn called to one another between levels, hauling on pulleys, hanging over rails, climbing hand over hand from one platform to the next. The round rock walls bounced their voices back in a sharp, reverberating echo that rang in Omare's ears. He looked down and his stomach heaved: bursts of torchlight lit each level, down, down to a dizzying depth until they were just tiny pinpricks against a dull, golden glow at what must be the blazing heart of the Mountain Den. Dry heat wafted up in a blast, lifting the hairs on his arms. But despite his unease he looked at Jimaya and found his own wonder reflected back on his sister's face. There was energy in the air, some sort of spark, and it lifted a giddy excitement in him that even Rensai's call for them to follow couldn't diminish.
To Omare's relief they skirted the outer rim of the cavern – he was more eager to watch the Denborn effortlessly stride across the catwalks than join them just yet. From there their path twisted away and further down still, and as the calls of the laborers faded, the dull roar of a crowd began to strengthen instead.
"Ah," Rensai huffed his satisfaction when they emerged. "Just in time."
The cavern had opened into an arena carved from the mountain itself, a vast ring at the center of row upon row of stone seating. Each was packed with spectators, cheering and whooping towards the top where the three of them stood, while further below others sat in rapt attention. In the center ring a lone archer stood, back turned and bow at the ready, as attendants slid unusual looking targets along metal tracks behind her. Omare felt an electric little pull in his stomach – he'd recognize that copper hair anywhere.
Rensai didn't answer, but he was grinning, eyes alight as each of the attendants locked their target into position. They raised their hands and sudden silence swept over the crowd. In the ring below, Yujin was fingering the blunted head of an arrow, her head lowered. She was blindfolded.
Realization dawned just in time for the attendants to raise thick pairs of drumsticks: one at a time, they pounded two deep, concussive strikes out of each target. The sound reverberated through the cavernous arena, and silence had hardly fallen again when Yujin raised her head, whipped around, and fired. Three responding drum beats rang out as the arrows struck their targets and the crowd erupted. Omare punched the air, shaking a disbelieving Jimaya by the shoulders – she'd pressed her hands over her mouth in awe. Rensai had leaned over the railing to cheer and he was nearly pulled into the row below by a handful of rowdy boys, all of them in their first ink too and all of them eager to clap Rensai on the back. His friends noticed the twins and elbowed one another, gawking, giving Rensai an opening to extract himself.
"Come on." He pushed his hair from his face, breathless from laughter. "Let's meet her."
The audience chatter and rumble of the resetting targets grew fainter as they followed a steep stone staircase past the lower level to the competitors' training room. There brightly decorated archers tested their bowstrings, shook out their limbs, and laughed at alternating wishes of good or ill luck. Omare soaked it all in, captivated. He'd always imagined the Den as a dank, shadowy place, but nearly everything around them leapt like fire instead, lively and catching. The heat of it picked up his heartbeat as he cast around for Yujin.
A squeal rang out and Omare turned: a little ways away Rensai had lifted Yujin off her feet and was twirling her in an embrace. She gripped him back, delighted, until she spun out of his arms and straight into Jimaya's. Omare swallowed back the twinge in his chest and shouldered his way through the crowded room.
"Omare!" Yujin gasped and hugged him too, as though she never could have dreamed the twins would arrive together, and all Omare's excitement flooded back into him in a rush. His head swam when they parted. "It's so good to see you! Though I might not have picked now," she added with a playful glare at Rensai. "They're supposed to be with your father!"
"Are they?" Rensai asked blandly, but he was grinning. "I wanted to surprise you."
"That was incredible," Jimaya gushed, unable to contain it any longer. "You were a great shot a year ago, but this was–-!"
"I didn't even see you draw the second and third arrows!" Omare added when words failed her. "So fast! Just a completely different level!"
"Thank you, thank you." Yujin's cheeks colored slightly. "It wasn't my worst…"
Curious Denborn eyes followed them back into the arena stands but Omare hardly noticed, too busy peppering Yujin with questions. How does she train for that? Are the targets always the same distance apart? Does anyone ever hit the attendants? She answered each with a laugh, and he struggled to split his attention between the competition's other events and Yujin at his side. Contortionists balanced on their hands and shot with their feet. The arena torches dimmed and archers raced to snuff out tiny candles at the opposite end of the ring with their arrows. No matter the spectacle, always his eyes were coaxed back to her.
"I'll see you both tomorrow, right?" Yujin asked when at last the ring was empty and the crowd had begun to thin. "Do you have your training schedules yet?"
"Ah, no." Rensai winced sheepishly. "They would have gotten those at their tea. Come on, I'll take you now. He should still be in the parlor at this hour."
"Ooh, good luck," Yujin said sympathetically, then noticing Jimaya's expression added, "No, don't worry, he won't be angry with you."
She bid each of them goodnight with a hug in turn. Omare warmed under her touch, light and airy, until he noticed her hand linger for just a moment in Rensai's.
But whatever low simmering distaste had been gathering heat that evening was quickly extinguished as Omare watched Rensai explain himself to his father. He remembered the way Rensai's posture had changed at the palace, the way he sat and spoke differently when he knew he was under scrutiny. All of that came to life again when Counselor Yoren growled out his criticism – "They are royalty, boy, and their time is not subject to your senseless whims" – and wasn't diminished even when the twins insisted everything was fine. Jimaya added a tactful line about what a gift it was to take in some real Denborn culture, which seemed to assuage the Counselor somewhat. Eventually he dismissed Rensai with orders to see them to their rooms. "With no unscheduled detours," he added coldly. Rensai gave only a sniff nod in response.
"I'm sorry about that," Jimaya offered quietly once he'd slid the door closed behind them and started off back down the hall, the next day's schedules in hand. He gave a dismissive wave, but his expression was tighter than it had been all day.
"Don't worry about it, it was worth it. But you'll want to get to sleep right away. I'm afraid we keep pretty early mornings around here."
Sleep, it turned out, was no tall order at all. Omare barely took in the details of his lushly furnished accommodations before collapsing into the wide, stiff bed, the fatigue of their journey and their whirlwind arrival crashing over him at last. He clutched one of the fur blankets to himself, too warm to use as intended in the dry, hot Den air but far too soft and luxurious to ignore. Of all the incredible things they'd seen that day, the detail that repeated over and over in his head was the way Yujin had lit up when she first saw him.
But morning came far too soon, and it turned out "lessons" were nothing like what the twins had shared with Yujin and Rensai at the palace. There the four friends had enjoyed the instruction of patient, if strict, private tutors. Instead the next day Omare and Jimaya were promptly split up by a brusque spearman who either didn't know who they were or didn't care: they were pushed towards two separate training groups, and there they stayed for the rest of the day. Omare's looked him up and down with keen, evaluating eyes. He was used to standing out, but for the first time in his life it didn't feel like a good thing. Neither Yujin nor Rensai were anywhere to be seen. Omare drew himself up, princelike as he could muster.
But the other trainees turned out to be nicer than they looked, in their own way. They were boisterous and rough, as quick to kick dirt in Omare's face as they were to laugh and help him back to a stand. They were fascinated by him, marveling at the differences in his staff technique and cheering when he pinned his first opponent to the ground. Omare struggled to keep up with their names – Kourente, Sainen, Kantu, Xuku, and many more he couldn't remember. His tongue tripped over the unfamiliar syllables and they laughed, then challenged one another to repeat Omare's name back to him in their best attempts at Imperial accents. Such a harsh, honest approach to connecting grated on Omare at first. But as the day wore on and they all grew more exhausted by match after sparring match, he found himself smiling at the rough claps on his shoulder when he did well and began doling out as many as he received.
"There are hot springs, you know," the one called Xuku told him when at last they had finished for the day. He massaged his shoulder in the spot where Omare had landed a particularly good strike with a staff. "We're only allowed once a week, but I'm sure you can go whenever you want."
Omare felt a little guilty for not catching up with Jimaya first, but he had no idea where she was or if she was even finished with her own day's work. He was utterly drained from the day's training, and if he was going to trudge in one direction or another, he was picking the one with a hot spring at the end of it.
He was sure he made at least a dozen wrong turns while trying to follow the directions Xuku had given him, but upon arrival he knew he'd made the right choice. There were dozens of pools to choose from, some of them wide and clustered together, others hidden behind stalagmites for added privacy, and still more in caverns all their own. Omare picked one of the biggest and, amazed that no one else was there at that hour, wasted no time peeling off his sweaty clothes. An actual whimper escaped him as he eased himself down into the steaming, milk-cloudy water. How many more days was he meant to keep up with this sort of training? He decided he didn't care, he couldn't grasp the concept of time just now, not while the heat forcibly pried the tension from his muscles. He leaned his head back on the edge of the spring with a sigh.
"Oh, you picked a good one."
Omare barely had the energy to open his eyes, much less turn around, but he managed it just in time to catch a glimpse of Rensai's grin as he strode into the cavern. Omare dropped his head back again without answering, face torn up in annoyance. Kouda would have scolded him, but really, he just wanted a moment to relax, and Rensai's company was decidedly not very relaxing. He hastily smoothed it away as Rensai came closer to dip his fingers in the spring.
He smiled again and withdrew. Omare watched out of the corner of his eye, a little resentful, as Rensai carefully folded his clothes and laid them beside the heap Omare had ditched in his haste to get in. He stretched his arms overhead – the ink on his back thinned like thread pulled taut. The tattoos were more extensive than Omare had initially realized, running along Rensai's arms, down his back, all the way down to his ankles. They were thin and brittle, a skeletal framework, like scaffolding around an unfinished statue. But Rensai's pride radiated off him like steam from the spring. For the second time Omare wondered what had happened to make a boy so quick to duck from his father's gaze into someone so aggravatingly at ease under a spotlight. He faced forward again as Rensai slipped into the water beside him.
"Brutal training today," Rensai groaned. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the rock edge too. "How was yours?"
"Fine," Omare said, though it was only half true. He'd enjoyed himself, certainly, but he also wasn't sure full command of his limbs had returned just yet. The hot springs were still heating his muscles back to elasticity.
"Your sister did well."
"She was in your class?"
Rensai shook his head. "I only saw her in passing. But she had one of ours pinned pretty decisively. He was nearly begging before she let him up."
"Begging?" Omare wrinkled his nose. Surely that was as distasteful to Jimaya as it was to him. "Why? It was just practice."
Rensai shrugged carelessly. "You Imperialists have a reputation."
"For what?" Omare asked, feeling less and less committed to concealing his irritation with every passing moment.
"For trivializing Denborn life." Rensai let it hang, perhaps waiting for Omare to object, then added mildly, "But don't worry. I'd trust you with my own and anyone here who wouldn't do the same is a fool."
More charity with the cadence of a compliment. What did he want Omare to do, thank him for his open-mindedness? He knew he'd regret asking the next but since his mood was already waning–-
"Was Yujin in that class too?"
Rensai's lips turned up. "No. She's already specialized."
"As an archer?"
Rensai nodded. "You saw her last night." His next words came on a near sigh. "She is matchless."
Omare's insides chilled despite the hazy warmth of the spring. But impulse took hold before he could stop it and he plastered on a smile, elbowing Rensai in the ribs. "Oh, matchless, huh? So are you and her…?"
"No." Before relief could take hold Rensai dropped his head and smiled to himself. "Not yet."
Omare forced a hollow laugh. "I won't tell her," he promised even though Rensai hadn't asked. He stood abruptly, fighting off a wave of dizziness from leaving the heat so soon. "If I stay in here any longer I'll dissolve," he lied. He'd barely been there ten minutes before he'd been interrupted. "I'll see you tomorrow, I guess?"
"Tonight." Rensai had relaxed back against the edge of the spring. "Meet me at the eastern face at dark. The guards can tell you where, if you get lost."
Annoyance brought an edge to Omare's anxious jealousy – was he being condescending on purpose? "Right," he said, unwilling to give Rensai the satisfaction of asking why. He snatched up his clothes and a towel in the space of a second and darted from the cavern.
Rensai had apparently gotten to Jimaya too – she was leaving her room at the exact same moment Omare did, and they exchanged simultaneous apologies for being too exhausted to wait for the other for dinner. But it wasn't Rensai that awaited them at the passageway to the eastern face that evening. Yujin waved them both forward excitedly and it was all Omare could do to keep his heart from leaping.
"Did you enjoy your first full days? I want to hear all about them." She beamed at the pair of them then went on, too eager to wait for an answer. "We don't have to sneak like we did in the palace. Just watch your step – it's not very well lit out there."
Omare let Jimaya lead the way through the tight, serpentine passageway so he could bring up the rear with Yujin. "It curves like this to keep out the winter wind," she explained. "And to disorient intruders, if one actually made it all the way up here. But it also makes for quite a reveal when you––"
Omare nearly ran into Jimaya, who'd stopped dead at the mouth of the passageway. A wide expanse of deepest indigo sky stretched in front of them, studded with thousands upon thousands of stars. The pale yellow moon hung heavily above, bathing the ridge in just enough light for Omare to spot the cliff edge just a few yards ahead. Well past that, glowing orange and nearly as bright as the moon, was the Imperial City, just a faraway smear of brilliance cradled within the gentle embrace of the mountain range.
"See? Twice as many, just like we said!" Yujin squeezed Omare's arm.
"Come, this way." Rensai was already out there, just visible as Omare's eyes adjusted – he stood a little ways further down the ridge and motioned for them. "No one's posted at this lookout tonight so we'll have the spot to ourselves. Just don't tell your war council or whoever that we rotate them. Joking, joking," he added with a glinting flash of teeth when Jimaya turned a faux scandalized look on him.
It took some encouragement and a touch of playful teasing, but the twins agreed to join Yujin and Rensai in hanging their legs over the edge of the ridge to take in the night sky. Omare swung his legs and his stomach turned over in a delightful swoop – he'd never been so high up in his life.
"See? That's all we had to go on before our visit last year," Yujin said, pointing out towards the City. "All we could see of you."
"It looks so much bigger and brighter from here," Jimaya sighed.
"Not to us," Yujin and Rensai said in unison, then laughed. Omare clung to his smile and kept his gaze forward.
To Omare's right Jimaya had leaned forward and was asking Rensai something else. Together Omare and Yujin leaned back on their hands to give her more space.
The other two chattered on and Omare hardly took in a word of it. He wanted to say something. Usually it came so easily to him. But now that he had the barest sliver of privacy with Yujin, even sandwiched together between his sister and her friend, he could hardly think what it might be. Just sitting this close together felt like he was getting away with something, a secret that lived for hardly a few breaths.
Yujin smiled and looked away. Omare dared hope she felt the same.
Not yet, Rensai had said. Not yet. Sitting here with her, the summer wind rustling gently through the tree branches far below, it seemed a little more reassuring.
The Mountain had its moods, just like any other living breathing thing. Flares of temper and silent sulks, warm embraces and stubborn stretches of quiet. The Denborn set enough store by them to adapt but not enough to halt what needed to be done. They bent around them just like they might bend around a temperamental family member.
Which is why the third consecutive month of disquiet rumblings began to shoot sparks of gossip down the snaking passageways of the Mountain Den. That was less common. No one feared an eruption – the very idea was unheard of in all their people's history. But the most superstitious among them did whisper that the Mountain had grown restless, and unless they found a way to force change, the Mountain would do it for them.
Yujin had felt a similar shift, a subtle one, like when her feet rested on two slightly different levels of a slope. Not enough to make her unsteady but enough to make her take note. She asked Rensai about it once, hoping he'd tell her it was all in her head.
"Oh no," he said instead. His eyes burned dark and excited. Ever since his ink had been filled into its full flourish, the effect had only added to the strange sense that he was made of the same energetic, unnamable stuff as the Mountain itself. "I've felt it too. It keeps you on your toes, doesn't it?"
She forced a laugh and a noncommittal sound of agreement. Rensai smiled that fond, too-honest smile of his before sweeping back to the mines. Yujin stayed put while barest caution tightened inside her. Caution for him, she told herself firmly, not against him. Partly because she had no reason to doubt him or his affections, no matter how informally stated, and partly because lately Rensai seemed to have abandoned the concept of caution altogether. She often went days without seeing him, and when she did, he was flush with excitement he either couldn't or refused to articulate. Everything was a surprise, he'd show her later, he was certain she'd love it, over and over and over. It was exhilarating as much as exhausting. She missed the days when they both had room to breathe and share, when they'd swing their legs over the sides of a catwalk and chat about their days as their feet dangled above the abyss, when she felt she actually knew him. But all that felt long distant now.
Maybe sending him ahead was Counselor Yoren's way of beating some restraint back into him. Maybe some Imperial judgment would teach him that it didn't do to do as one pleases all the time. That was the sort of thing Yoren would say, anyway. And with Rensai's training finished, Yoren couldn't exactly tell him how to occupy himself anymore. Rebukes that had once made Rensai cringe away now rolled off his back, sleek and slick as oil.
But it wasn't so much that Rensai was going ahead. It was more truthful to say Yujin was staying behind. Maybe he was really just a placeholder, a sign that the arrangement was exactly as it had always been: a week exchanged between City and Den. As though the royal family wouldn't notice a mere Counselor's son was there for the full week while the Chief Archer's own daughter was only there for the final three days.
Maybe – and of all her theories, Yujin couldn't articulate exactly why this one might be – her father didn't want her away from the Den for so long.
When it came time to bid Rensai goodbye, Yujin's father kept a heavy hand on her shoulder. Both Rensai's and Yoren's eyes rested there for a little too long. Pinned beneath her father's grip, she could only watch as Rensai sank into a dutiful bow. He flicked his hair over his shoulder, gave a word of farewell that Yujin was certain was meant for her alone, and then he was on his way, flanked by an escort of just two spearmen.
"Don't fret. You'll be along in just a few days."
Yoren's rumbling reassurance chilled the painful ache in Yujin's heart. He was smiling at her in some approximation of kindness or sympathy. Whatever it was supposed to be, it fell just short of its mark. Yujin nodded anyway, ducking out from under her father's hand and excusing herself as quickly as she could. The two men's low tones followed her out of the entrance hall, indistinct but unmistakable. They had to be talking about her.
She flopped onto her bed the moment she arrived home and clutched her biggest pillow against her body. Rensai liked her, but not enough to tell her anything. Counselor Yoren expected something from her, but she didn't know what. And her father, who had once nudged her in both Rensai's direction and into the Imperial City's glowing light, now held her back.
And the twins. Would they even notice her absence? Would they even think to miss her in the face of whatever new, electrifying energy had infused Rensai lately? She already felt like the least interesting of their quartet. What if they forgot about her?
She buried her face in her pillow.
Her malaise stuck with her in the days that followed, tugging at her heels like tar. When at last it was time for her to set out for the Imperial City herself, it hardly seemed worth the journey. She'd spend more time traveling to the palace than staying in it. Her father noticed her despondence and wrapped her up in a bone-crushing hug.
"You'll be fine," he said gruffly. Yujin pulled back a little to study him. Her father never used more words than he absolutely had to, and she wasn't sure why he'd chosen those ones. Of all the things she'd worried about leading up to her departure, safety wasn't one of them.
But his face betrayed nothing more. The beads in his beard clinked faintly as he pressed a kiss to the top of her head. He waved her onward while Counselor Yoren bowed his own farewell from just behind, his flat gray gaze inscrutable.
Yujin's spirits lifted a bit as the shadow of the Mountain shrank behind her, though. The autumn air was sharp and crisp, and brilliantly colored fallen leaves softened the path ahead. Two in her guard were still in training, and free from the rigidity of their usual schedule, they snuck mischievous looks at one another like puppies eager to test their teeth. They began trading progressively more obvious jabs with their spears, and Yujin fought to stifle her laughter until their game erupted into an all out wrestling match. One tackled the other to the ground, sending up a tornado of scattered leaves, and one of the more senior guards bellowed that she'd leave them both for dead in a ditch if they didn't knock it off.
"I apologize for their behavior," she huffed at Yujin, glaring as the boys kept elbowing one another in line. She whacked one of them on the shoulder with the butt of her spear to be safe.
"No, don't worry," Yujin assured her, still breathless with laughter. The resemblance to Omare and Rensai's first sparring match was too similar to ignore. "I'm sure they're just happy to be out and about."
The boys' company greatly diminished the monotony of the journey. She even woke the next morning eager to get a move on, much of her earlier melancholy gnawed away overnight by growing anticipation. When the trees thinned and the high walls of the Imperial City came into view, Yujin nearly joined the boys in their whooping cheers. By noon they were at the palace gates, just as high and intimidating as Yujin remembered. Any lingering apprehension disappeared the moment the twins burst out of the great wooden doors in a rush of color.
"Yujin! You made it!"
"It wasn't the same without you!"
"I told the cooks not to make fish until tonight, I know you liked it last time––"
"The valets are up to something, I think they're planning to put on a play tomorrow night––"
Yujin could hardly tell whose voice or embrace was whose and she didn't care, all her anxiety evaporated in the warmth of their welcome. She was just wondering how she could have possibly thought they'd forget her when a sudden pressure enveloped all three of them, squeezing the last of her worries out of her.
"Rensai!" Jimaya's laugh came muffled.
"Ack! Get off– how are you so bony?" Omare protested.
Rensai chuckled and gave a final squeeze before he loosened his grip. Once Yujin had space enough to breathe and take them all in, she found each of them just the way she'd dreamed they'd be, just the way she liked them best: happy, relaxed, and winded with laughter.
"Come on." Omare took her by the hand. For a second Yujin felt like she hadn't caught her breath yet after all. "Come get settled, we need to make the most of your time!"
Her room was as splendid as the last time. Afternoon tea was as splendid as the last time. Everything was as splendid as the last time. She'd forgotten about the five extra hours the Imperialists seemed to have in each day – languid, beautiful stretches to breathe and relax and enjoy. The thought was punctured a bit when she leaned back on her hands and a valet took the opportunity to whisk away their tea tray before any one of them could even think to ask. The twins went on chatting animatedly.
Maybe those five extra hours were just for the royal family.
She felt a little guilty about it but it wasn't as though there was anything she could do to help. At best the staff would insist she was a guest and refuse. At worst they'd be insulted to think their efforts weren't up to Yujin's standard, which of course couldn't be further from the truth. When a valet arrived to turn down her duvet for the coming evening, Yujin stood uneasily near the door. There wasn't anything in the world keeping her from diving into such a sumptuously appointed bed at the end of a tiring day of travel, turned down or not. It was too much. Had the twins stood in their carved stone rooms last summer, furnished in the pinnacle of Denborn comfort, wondering whether that was all?
The valet looked surprised as Yujin bowed on his way out. When she slipped beneath the duvet later that night, even her travel-worn bones didn't weigh her down enough to keep from wondering whether this kind of needless decadence was the reason her father didn't want her staying in the City for long.
Her visit was so short that lessons weren't part of her agenda. She would have felt grateful if it weren't for the sense that the other three had bonded without her: they laughed and recounted stories from earlier in the week and tried to catch her up, but Yujin could only smile and nod. Some part of her didn't want to know. If she hadn't been there, then it wasn't for her. Ever hyper-attuned to her mood, Rensai laid a hand on hers beneath the table at lunch the next day. Yujin's breath caught a little. She gripped his hand back briefly, then drew it away, folding her hands in her lap instead. To her relief the weight of his curious gaze didn't linger.
Early evening found her drawn to the water garden alone, away from the chatter and noise. Jimaya had shown it to her on her first visit. The Mountain had its cascading waterfalls here and there, runoff from the snowcapped peaks above, and the hot springs bubbled soothingly deep within, too. But nowhere at home was there such delicately curated tranquility as this. This was a mastery of nature, not an acquiescence to it. There was a power there that Yujin wasn't sure whether she liked or shied from. But the sunlight glistened off the near-still water and the heat of the dying sun lifted the hairs on her arms. She sighed.
Omare dropped his arms on the bridge railing next to her.
Yujin's heartbeat leaped to sudden life. "Hey."
"Everything okay?" he asked easily. Everything came easily to him. Everything was fun and careless and secure. Yujin longed for that kind of self-assurance.
"Of course. Why do you ask?" She tried to sound as casual as she could but immediately Yujin regretted it. She didn't want all the evidence of her unease laid out in front of her.
Omare shrugged. "You had to come late, and it's been busy. I know you know busy," he added hastily. "But I also know it's different here, so." He shrugged again and followed her gaze out over the koi pond. "I just wanted to be sure."
Yujin's chest filled with a laugh but no rebuttal gave it voice. She let the breath out again. Two koi traced a lazy path just beneath the water, their black and gold scales glinting in the dying sunlight.
"Do you think things have changed?" she asked.
"I don't know. Just things."
Omare sighed thoughtfully and settled more comfortably against the railing. His arm brushed up against hers. Her heart thudded in her chest.
"Maybe," he said slowly, like the answer might come to him if he stretched it out long enough. "Court feels a little different. When we're allowed to attend, anyway. Lately we haven't been invited as often as usual."
"The ministers are gossipy. Well, they always are. But they don't even bother to hide it anymore, and the other day our father actually had to call for quite twice. I assume whatever's got them on edge is only discussed in the meetings we're not in."
"That doesn't worry you?"
Omare shrugged. "Should it? If there was anything Jimaya or I could do, we'd be in there with them. I think I'm fine with it." He glanced sidelong at her, then down again, smiling down at the pond below. "It gives me more time to spend with you."
Happiness's fluttering wings batted back her anxiety and she blushed. She imagined Imperial ministers whispering behind their fans, then thought of the low conversation her father and Counselor Yoren had shared just a few days ago. Neither felt as immediate as Omare's calm, gentle warmth beside her. She leaned just a little bit closer against him.
"Then I'm fine with it, too," she said.
They stayed like that for a long while and watched the koi circle one another. Every so often a long tail would break the surface of the water and add a gentle splash to the whistle of the wind through the bamboo that trimmed the garden. A wind chime sang quietly, either tiny or very far away from them. The sunlight faded. By the time it had grown too dark to see the fish anymore, Yujin's head rested on Omare's shoulder. Their hands were joined lightly, tentatively, just over the edge of the railing.
"They'll be waiting for us. We should go."
Yujin's heart sank. He was right. It had grown chilly as dusk settled over them. But she would have stayed there with him for hours more just to avoid the thought of what or where was waiting. Not Jimaya or Rensai, and not to some splendidly trimmed dining hall to enjoy whatever undoubtedly delightful meal had been prepared for them all. Whatever awaited was bigger and inevitable, vast and certain as the darkening sky above them, and all she had to go on was whispers and a churning unease inside her.
"I don't want to," she said quietly.
Omare turned to her and she lifted her head, breathless at his sudden closeness. His lips were parted as though he'd meant to say something but had forgotten what it was. His throat worked as he swallowed. Her hand was still joined with his.
"Neither do I."
Their kiss was sweet, tender, and warm.
"And I don't have to repeat myself, do I?"
"No," Rensai grumbled. Luckily for him his father's attention was fixed squarely on the scrolls in front of him, pen gripped between bony fingers. It was the only way Rensai could get away with glaring so deeply at him.
"You are not to see them."
"I said you don't have to repeat yourself," Rensai half-snapped. "Do I?" He wiped the scowl from his face just in time for his father to lift steely eyes to his.
"We will do without the childish outbursts," Yoren said coolly. "You have a job to do. A deadline should motivate you, and you like the mines."
Not for an entire week. Not when his friends were catching up and training and laughing without him.
"Can I afford to be away from Yujin that long?" Rensai sneered. But Yoren just scoffed.
"Your time with her seems about as productive as your time apart from her. Focus on the achievable goal. And don't sulk. You'll see the royals before the year is out, if you do what needs to be done." He returned to his work – a clear dismissal.
Rensai stalked from the room, hands curled into fists. They stayed that way until he found a target for his anger in a deeper, less trafficked part of the Den: he landed strike after strike on a wooden training dummy, and when his hands began to bleed, he wrapped them and struck again. At last he leaned his arms on the pegs to rest, hair stringy from sweat and his breathing a labored, lonely sound in the empty cavern.
He could tell them. Spite flared at the thought. There was little to tell, but he could tell it anyway and trust that the twins would bear it back to their parents. And what would his father have to say then, when his so-called trade proposal fell apart before it even touched paper? That was his fear, wasn't it? What other reason could there be for forbidding Rensai from seeing the twins?
There was more to it. He could feel himself being pushed along like ink under his father's calligraphy brush, little idea where he was headed until he looked at the path he left behind. He'd felt the same when he'd been pushed towards Yujin, as though his heart wouldn't follow. He still ached with the pain of it.
No. He couldn't tell the twins. Omare would surely spill it to Yujin and she wouldn't understand. Rensai had spent too long keeping secrets from her for any lingering flicker of affection to save him from suspicion. She'd take it back to her father and the hours upon hours of work would be for nothing, even if it was all for the better of the Den.
She'd be frightened of it. And beneath the layers of pride and satisfaction for every moment he'd poured into his work, a needling twinge in Rensai's gut told him maybe she was right to be.
He gritted his teeth and landed a final punch.
The twins' arrival the following week was easy enough to avoid, but talk of it was not. Gossip hung thick as smoke in the passageways during the few trips Rensai took between home and the mines.
"Omare's gotten really good with a broadsword. Nearly took my arm off this morning–-"
"Did you see him spar with his sister? They were going so hard you'd think only one of them could rule!"
"Maybe that's why. Hey, Rensai." Kantu slung an arm over his shoulders before Rensai could dodge it. "Are both of them going to rule, or does one have to kill the other or something?"
"I don't know," Rensai said moodily, shrugging him off.
"Well find out, would you? And then ask Jimaya if she remembers me from her last visit."
"Who would remember you?" another boy jeered, and Rensai took the opportunity to slip away as the two began to bicker.
Time slid by with merciful speed in his workshop, at least. No sunlight, no distractions, no way of knowing how many hours had passed. No one to interrupt. The heavy stone walls dulled even the noise from the mines, and if he focused hard enough he could shove the thought of everything he was missing almost far away enough to forget. Almost. But the weight of it still clung to him with every step towards and away from the workshop.
"There you are. You're strangely hard to track down, you know."
Rensai startled and spun around. Jimaya was there, pleased as could be, hands propped on her hips.
She'd come to find him. And on her own. Smug, mischievous awe surged inside him. His father couldn't have predicted that.
But Rensai wrestled his voice into careless calm. "I'd forgotten you were arriving this week. It's good to see you."
Jimaya's smile dimmed a little. The memory of the laughter and embraces that had marked prior reunions tugged on them both, he was sure of it. "And you," she said anyway. "Where have you been? Even Yujin doesn't know – she just said you were working."
"She's right. And I should get back to it. Maybe I'll see you in time to say goodbye." He raised his hand in farewell and forced himself to edge away from her, retreating towards the workshop. She scrunched her nose in a frown and moved to follow him.
"That's it? I had to promise that boy Kantu I'd sit beside him at dinner tonight just to figure out where you were, you know."
"You can break it. No one will believe him." Rensai's heel hit the wall – he could turn off here and disappear down the side passageway, but he hesitated. His eyes darted over Jimaya's shoulder as though his father might appear behind her.
She noticed his gaze and glanced back at the empty tunnel; when she turned back her expression had gone from confused to suspicious. "Something's going on. Tell me what it is."
Every year the precise nature of her willfulness came as a surprise. Not demanding, not pouty, but certain. Like things would go her way simply because they were meant to. Rensai's heart raced. Whether from mischief, anxiety, or daring he couldn't tell, but locked in the sights of Jimaya's stubborn attention he decided he didn't care.
He lowered his voice, unable to stop a smile from tugging at his lips. "I'll tell you. But you'll have to keep it a secret."
Jimaya lit up. "I knew it," she whispered, instantly conspiratorial. "What is it? I can't even tell Omare?"
"No. Least of all Omare."
"And Yujin doesn't know either?"
There was permission in her tone, the test of an invisible boundary she hesitated to cross. Jimaya knew. She had to know something had happened, some unspoken failure Yujin was too polite to mention outright. Or maybe Rensai had just been blindingly obvious for the past three years. But Jimaya was looking up at him with such excited earnestness, maybe even hope, that boldness seized hold of him. He grasped her hand and grinned when she jumped.
"No. This needs to stay between us. Can you do that?"
Jimaya nodded, wide-eyed. He wanted to kiss her.
"Good," he said instead. "But I'll have to show you. This way."
She let out a high note of surprise as he pulled her down the side passageway. It curved in a tight spiral, boring down towards the mines, and in a flighty rush of excitement Rensai tugged her faster.
"Wait!" she laughed, gripping his hand tighter. "You're going to make me trip–-"
"Shh, we can't be heard," he hushed over his shoulder. They raced deeper and deeper until finally the passageway opened up into a tunnel as broad as the first. Rensai stopped short and caught a panting Jimaya in his arms.
"Quiet," he whispered. The tunnel would be empty. It nearly always was, as was the passageway behind them. But she was in his arms, flushed and giddy, and Rensai pulled her closer to make a show of checking whether the coast was clear. He took her hand again and led her just a little ways further to the very end of the tunnel. Two blazing torches framed the heavy, unadorned metal door to his workshop. Reluctantly he let her go to take up one of the torches.
"Stand back a moment," he warned. "I need to light the lamps."
He swung the door open on the pitch dark workshop, but he raised the torch higher and touched it to a ledge a couple feet overhead. Fire flared to life, scurrying across the perimeter of the room and illuminating the wide, high-ceilinged workshop in a blazing glow. Jimaya gasped as carefully angled mirrors on the ceiling bounced the firelight back towards the floor, and once the flames had settled the room was lit bright enough to rival daylight. He turned back to her and held his arms wide in welcome.
"Wow," Jimaya breathed, stepping inside, and pleased Rensai hurried to return the torch to its place outside the door and close them in. He watched as her eyes traced the firelit ledge, then found the barrels of ground ore against the wall, the prototype hand-powered mill, then came to rest on the massive workbench that stood in the center of the room, piled high with notes and scales and sacks of powder.
"This is incredible." She squeezed his arm. Rensai felt it in his chest. "What is all this? What are you making?"
"Something only this mountain can produce," he said, "and once the rest of the world knows about it, they'll want it too. Come here."
He led her to the workbench and cleared a space with a wide sweep of his arm. A few notes fluttered to the ground but he paid them no mind as he pulled one of the sacks closer, then cast around. "Where–- ah." He snatched up a flint and turned to Jimaya. "Remember. This stays between us."
"I promise," she said without hesitation.
Emboldened by the spark of their shared secret, Rensai grinned and dug his hand into the sack. He let the powder inside fall from his closed fist like sand through an hourglass, measured and controlled until it settled in a neat, peaked pile atop the workbench. He dusted off his hands, cast a final glance at Jimaya, then struck the flint.
Brilliant white light blazed to life, brighter than any fire, clearer than sunlight. Jimaya yelped and clapped her hands over her mouth. But just as soon as it had appeared, the white flame vanished, leaving behind only a wisp of smoke and a tiny pile of ash.
"What?" Jimaya gasped, awestruck. "What was that, how did you–-" But words failed her and Rensai was already digging up another handful of powder. This time he spread the piles out, five of them in a neatly separated row, and when he struck his flint over the first the light surged and leaped from one to the next in dazzling arcs. The light had barely faded when Rensai swept the ash clean and dashed another fistful across the surface of the workbench – that one flared low and flat but no less bright, erupting in a single burst. A page at the opposite end of the table caught fire and Jimaya cried out, but Rensai laughed and ground it out with the leather-covered heel of his hand.
"Firepowder," he said breathlessly, tossing his hair out of his eyes as he whirled back to her. "Mined in the belly of the mountain and milled into this." He held out a handful to show her, glittering like glass and darker than obsidian. Jimaya stared down at it in wonder, half rapt and half unnerved – the only reaction Rensai craved. "Can you imagine what this could do? What it could power, what it could illuminate?"
"But why is this a secret?" Jimaya looked up at him with shining eyes, astonished. "How can you not tell everybody?"
Satisfaction shivered through him. "It's not ready." Rensai returned the powder to its sack and leaned back against the workbench beside her. "I need to compound it with something but I haven't figured out what yet. And until I do, it's inefficient to produce and burns far too quickly. And," he gestured to the charred notes, "it's hard to control."
"So, like you."
He pushed his hair over his shoulder with mock vanity. "In the sense that it's ingenious and revolutionary, of course."
"You mean brilliant."
"You mean complex."
"You said it's not ready."
"Perfection is so hard to–-"
Jimaya rose up on her toes and pecked a kiss to his cheek.
"Not ready," she teased.
Rensai shook off his shock in the space of a second. He turned to her, yanked her closer, and smothered her laugh and his own smile with a proper kiss. Jimaya wound her arms around him, she pressed herself close – it was so different from Yujin that Rensai ached. She'd been all blushing glances, twined fingers, and humming nerves, and every inch they drew nearer had made Rensai burn for more. But Jimaya was already near. She was brilliantly, vividly present. He could feel her smile against his lips between kisses, she had come to him, and when they parted at last she let out a breathless giggle that left him dizzy.
"You're too tall," she whispered, flicking a playful glance over him.
Rensai hummed his agreement, then took her by the waist and lifted her onto the workbench. He caged her in with an arm on either side, leaning in for another kiss. "Better?"
Jimaya nodded and met him there in a sweet, unhurried press of warmth. Then another. And another. And when Rensai finally tore himself away the flush in her cheeks nearly dragged him right back.
"Now you'll have to keep this a secret," he murmured against her neck. He reveled in the shiver it shook out of her.
"I suppose." She sucked in a breath when he kissed her throat, then let it out on a long sigh. "Until it's ready."
He wrote her name in firepowder before he led her back. They watched as the light raced through each character, but the glowing afterimage lingered much longer, imprinted in their vision even as the smoke cleared. Like a comet's glittering tail, like flaming arrows over a wall. An intangible reminder of what was already far out of reach.
Rensai gripped her hand.