"That tune again?"
The melody paused, unresolved. The sudden silence snagged him with the sharpness of a burr's spines, his punishment for lingering where he shouldn't. Rensai shook himself free of it and slunk towards the door.
"What's wrong with it?" There was a shrug in Jimaya's voice. Easygoing. Defensive. Rensai slowed. "It's light and simple."
"Nothing's wrong with it," her brother said, then, quieter, "It's just… it's kind of sad. I thought maybe you missed––"
"It has nothing to do with Tsulemon," Jimaya insisted too quickly. "You played it for Yujin. Can't I play it for practice?"
Ah. That explained why such a sweet melody stuck so stubbornly. Rensai should have recognized the refrain for his greatest loss. Worse than the war, worse even than his sight. Yujin had heard hope in those notes. All he'd ever heard was resignation.
"Okay, okay," Omare was saying as Rensai slipped out of the meeting hall. "I was just checking."
Jimaya's flute resumed as Rensai rounded the corner. The notes dug like barbs between his ribs.
Jimaya was lying, of course. If Omare couldn't see through it then he was every bit the fool Rensai knew him to be. Rensai never spent a moment longer in the palace than was required, and even that was long enough to pick up gossip about Tsulemon's withdrawal from court. That was what the courtiers called it, but Rensai knew a retreat when he saw one. That Firefly Boy no more belonged in the palace than Rensai did.
But at least Tsulemon had somewhere else to go. Rensai was nearly jealous. He was left to lurk in corners, speaking up only when addressed directly, only to have his input roundly dismissed in a vicious and humiliating cycle. Though if he'd asked to come along, Tsulemon probably would have said yes. He'd have happily strung Rensai up in some hammock and left him to enjoy whatever backwards, carefree life the Forest People cherished so much. However carefree a blind man could be in a tree canopy, anyway. The idea was too ridiculous even to picture, and yet Rensai was sure Tsulemon would have given it every effort.
Apparently what had existed between Tsulemon and Jimaya wasn't worth quite as much work. If it were, she'd be playing her flute with him, not for him.
Whatever Rensai felt when he heard it, whatever sentiment tugged his shoulders and heart closer to the earth, it wasn't sympathy. It prickled like sympathy, it had the same weight as sympathy, but it wasn't sympathy. She didn't deserve it. He resolved to find a different word for it and it seemed he would have plenty of time to think of one, since Jimaya had apparently taken to bringing her flute with her wherever she went. And so the tune followed him too, ever nipping at his heels. He caught snatches of song when he visited the palace, and each time its fingers clenched tight in his chest, then relaxed by a fraction, just enough to keep him tense with the ache of it. For a while he tried to despise Jimaya for it. But that butted up against whatever sense of not-sympathy held him arrested and silent, hesitating outside doorways or dawdling behind columns, listening for more. The notes pined, and repeatedly Rensai fell into their embrace.
"Shut up," he once hissed at a pair of chatty courtiers as they passed. Maybe even ministers, not that he cared. They hushed at his word either way, and Jimaya went on playing at the other side of the garden, oblivious.
By then Rensai knew he was sunk.
Obviously some tiny, sentimental, pathetic, and wholly ill-advised part of him found solace in it. Some small part of him heard that melody and closed each note within him, delicate and treasured as could be. And since no amount of hatred, inward or outward, was doing anything to change it, Rensai had no choice but to resign himself to it.
So he skulked. And scowled. And stewed. He steeped himself in Jimaya's mournful little performances as though they had anything to do with him, which of course they didn't. But still the notes dragged on his limbs, pulling his nerves taut and his throat tight. They coaxed him back beneath the Mountain, beneath his great mill, and suddenly he was there again, just out of sight, just close enough to intervene but too paralyzed to follow through. Omare's posture cramped by his cage. His face alight with hope, and Yujin's shining to match. Their fingers laced between the links of the cell. Omare's hand a better fit for Yujin's than Rensai's had ever been.
Rensai regripped and twisted the knife again. Over and over and over.
Jimaya's flute stopped suddenly. Rensai ground his teeth from his perch on the railing of the western veranda. The autumn air had sharpened the notes to glass, keening and clear. If he'd known anyone else was nearby, he would have scared them off before they could interrupt.
"He's not bothering anyone," she said. "Just leave him be."
Low tones. Likely a glance over a shoulder. Rensai's hands tensed on his walking stick.
Omare. Of course. Rensai had no desire to overhear more.
"Just leaving," he finished for Omare, sneering. He got to his feet.
"You don't have to," Jimaya said quickly. It was the same telltale haste she'd used when she'd tried to convince her brother she was doing anything but mourning what could have been. "Really, I don't mind."
"Pathetic sentimentality," Rensai growled under his breath. He stalked from the veranda to the sound of Jimaya scolding her brother, but for once he took no pleasure in it.
When he arrived home and closed the door behind him, he found his cottage cold. It stayed that way even after he stoked a fire to life.
"Do you really think it's pathetic?"
Rensai tried not to startle. He hadn't heard Jimaya approach, and he hadn't expected to be addressed at all either: he'd stayed away from court for a few days, and when no officer came to drag him there he'd assumed it was because no one had noticed his absence.
"Most likely," he grumbled automatically, leaning against his walking stick. "...What do you mean?"
"Going back to that same song all the time. You called it pathetic."
"Ah." Rensai suddenly wished he hadn't placed himself so far from the meeting hall door. How many people were still in the room? "I just don't see much use in lingering where there's nothing to gain."
"Mm." Nodding, probably. "So that's not what you've been doing?"
"Of course not. I'm not the one playing it incessantly," he said, indignant.
"No, just torturing yourself with it at every opportunity," Jimaya said. There was a lilt in her tone – she was laughing at him. Rensai bristled angrily. "You gave up on hiding quite a while ago," she went on, softer. "It's okay, I don't mind."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Rensai muttered, moving to leave, but her hand closed over his wrist.
"I know you do," she said gently. "And I think I know a little bit about how you feel, too."
Rensai rounded on her with a snarl. "You know nothing," he snapped, "about how I feel."
Jimaya dropped her hold on him abruptly. Rensai longed to know how she looked. Afraid, he hoped venomously. He squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. She was quite a bit shorter than him, he remembered. Maybe she was clutching her hand to her chest and cowering from him, an enemy she'd foolishly dared to think she'd tamed. One she could keep close enough to be useful but must hold far enough away lest he lash out. But when she spoke her tone didn't match up at all with the image he'd conjured up.
"You only listen to punish yourself. So you can keep hurting."
"And you think you know what it is to hurt?"
Menacingly he stepped closer to her voice, all the while simmering with the indignity of the possibility that his angle was just a bit off, that he wasn't fully facing her, that he hid behind a blindfold and still she presumed to see through him.
"I do," she said coldly. "I think you made certain of it."
Rensai bared his teeth at that. Even he couldn't decide whether it was a smile or a grimace. He scoffed and turned from her.
"Then keep suffering. I won't stop you."
But he didn't hear Jimaya play again after that.
If she was still at it, he wasn't around to notice. Rensai arrived and departed his court summons on time, not a spare moment to bookend his comings and goings. For weeks he was exactly where he was asked to be until the precise moment he wasn't. No part of him wanted to linger anymore.
Until Yujin attended her first low council meeting.
Omare had something to say about why she was there. She even opened the day's discussion, her sweet, measured voice thanking them for their attendance and patience and whatever else. Rensai didn't take in a word of it. His world had shrunken suddenly, paralyzingly narrow. He had to be prompted twice when it came time to provide his update, and he had to clear his throat before delivering his report on the new street lighting illuminating the canal through the panicked race of his pulse. He wouldn't have been sure he'd spoken at all if he hadn't heard his own voice as though from a distance – every part of him wanted so desperately to be clear of the room.
The moment they adjourned Rensai was out, darting from the hall amid the chatter so he could pretend he didn't hear anyone calling after him. But of course no one did. There was an alcove just outside the meeting hall – he had no idea how private it was, and he only knew it was there because he'd stumbled into it by accident once before. He found it again after a few rattled taps of his walking stick and all but collapsed into the wall upon arrival, praying it closed him in, gripping his head in his hand as the grief and regret he'd fought so hard to stave off all meeting long crashed over him in a chilly iron wave. Stupid. Of course he'd run into her eventually. But he'd hoped it would be a long, long while from now, after he'd gotten a grip on himself, after he'd begun to forget the brilliance of her smile or the particular blazing copper of her hair, after he'd taught himself to resent her for choosing Omare over him.
No. Impossible. He let out a shaky breath and sank down to the floor.
His insides heaved again, this time with burning shame. She would be the one to find him. Only Omare would be worse. "Jimaya," he croaked. He didn't lift his head. He could imagine what he must look like to her. "I'll bet you love this, don't you?"
She didn't answer. There was a long stretch of silence, then a rustle of fabric followed by a sudden warmth on his left. She'd sat down beside him. Rensai froze.
"Move over." She nudged him with such bizarre familiarity that he tensed. "If anyone sees me they'll come asking questions."
Bewildered, Rensai shifted to give her more room. There was a little more rustling and then an exhale – was she stretching? Her hands fell with a light thump to her lap.
And then… nothing. She neither spoke nor moved. Warily Rensai switched his walking stick to rest against his other shoulder – if she struck, he might be able to use it to block her. But he couldn't imagine she could do much damage sitting shoulder to shoulder with him like this, not without giving even him ample time to counter. Then again he couldn't imagine her taking this opportunity to attack him, either.
"Why are you mocking me?" he asked lowly.
"You think this is mocking?"
It had the cadence of an honest question, which only made Rensai more aggravated and confused. "I can't think of any other reason you'd be here," he muttered. "Do you have your flute? Maybe you can play that horrible song of yours and then you'll really get a chance to salt the wound. Call your brother while you're at it. You can make it a duet."
"I don't have it today."
Silence hung thin between them. He didn't have a thing to say to her. Not her or anyone else. The only person he could dream of speaking to had snatched the breath from his lungs just by entering the room. He changed his mind. Jimaya was the third worst person to see him like this.
"I was doing it for you, you know," she said. "Not at first, but you kept staying behind to listen. I thought maybe you found it cathartic."
Rensai bit back a sneer. The idea that he found any degree of comfort in that song was laughable. But, he remembered bitterly, he'd still lingered.
"That's… generous of you." The words tasted more suspicious than grateful.
"...And I stopped because you made it clear you didn't," she went on as though he were failing to grasp a simple concept. "Sometimes people are kind to others. Is that news to you or something?"
Rensai gritted his teeth and turned from her. "And I suppose you expect me to interpret this––" he gestured stiffly between the pair of them–– "as kindness, too."
"I know better than to expect anything from you."
He gave a hollow laugh. So he could even let down those who held him in lowest esteem. What an accomplishment. He wondered where along the line he'd disappointed her, what he'd done to fall short of whatever expectations she'd dared set for him.
"I'd like it if you did, though," she said. "Take this as a kindness, I mean. Malice doesn't have the market value it did a few months ago, so I try not to bother with it." She dropped her voice a little. "But if you'd rather be alone, I understand. I'm sure that was… difficult in there."
Rensai did want to be alone. He wanted to press himself so hard into the alcove wall that he became indistinguishable from the knots in the wood. He wanted to curl around the cold, tiny core of himself, tighter and tighter, smaller and smaller, until he disappeared entirely. He wanted to cringe away from her, because he was certain that if Jimaya touched him with any sort of tenderness now he'd only cling to her and what would he do then? Drag her down with him until she realized he'd have done the same to anyone else, she wasn't special, she was just there, and then he'd have discovered a whole new way to disappoint her, someone he should relish letting down.
He said nothing, so she did nothing. Another stretch of quiet extended between them, and with every passing moment the aching pressure in his chest eased fraction by fraction. Rensai was grateful he couldn't see her hands. He didn't trust himself not to reach for her if he could. They were small, he bet. Probably callused from training on the palms but smooth everywhere else. He pictured her right hand on the floor between them, relaxed and at ease, and imagined what it might feel like to settle his over hers.
He cleared his throat after a while.
"Thank you," he managed. "You didn't have to do this."
"That's what makes it kind," she said easily. "Anyway."
Rensai jumped as something long and rigid landed in his lap. He picked it up gingerly and ran his hands along it – his fingers slid across smooth metal, their tips catching on evenly measured holes. Her flute.
"I lied," Jimaya said. If he had any memory of her face, maybe he could picture something close to the specific warmth of her smile. In that moment, some small part of him wished desperately that he did. "How about something new?"
"This is ridiculous," he muttered, tossing back his hair to reposition for what felt like the fiftieth time already. He brought the flute to his lips again. "I really just…?"
"Pinch the corners of your lips more."
"What do you mean, pinch––"
"Here." Her fingertips touched the corners of his mouth and Rensai nearly snapped his teeth at her. Jimaya just laughed and yanked them back. "Tighten there. And press the flute harder against your chin, you'll have no control if you don't stabilize it."
"Ridiculous," he repeated, and tried again.