The valet that called her to the throne room wouldn't tell her why, or more likely he couldn't tell her why. Valets received orders, not reasons. The Imperial family had seen enough spoiled birthday surprises to learn that was the more prudent choice for that lively, gossipy bunch. So when Jimaya received neither reason nor context for her summons, she nodded and set down her calligraphy brush without protest.
"Omare is in the training room," she said as she stood and brushed the wrinkles from her robes, "if you haven't told him yet."
"They only requested you, Your Highness," the valet replied.
Jimaya's gaze snapped up. She found the valet staring determinedly up at the ceiling, lips pressed tight.
"Oh well now you have to tell me why," she said. "You know they only ask for one of us when we're in trouble."
The valet shook his head, acutely focused on the ornate golden trim framing the room as though he'd never seen something so compelling in all his days.
Jimaya crossed her arms to wait. Usually they caved right away. She could offer a tidbit of gossip in exchange, or if she chose her words carefully she could order them to tell her in a way that absolved them from the burden of secrecy. But something in the rigid set of his shoulders gave Jimaya the anxious, needling impression that this one wouldn't be so easily won over.
"Come on," she tried again. "If I've done something wrong, let me at least think up a defense before I go in there."
"It's nothing like that, Your Highness."
Finally he met her eyes and forced a smile. The unease scratching at Jimaya's insides dug in its claws.
"Please," he said with a deferential gesture to the door. "This way."
The warm, shining halls of the palace stretched unnaturally long as Jimaya followed his loping steps towards the throne room. She was never called without her brother. If anything it was usually the other way around, and even that was rare. She couldn't even think of a thing she'd done that could merit a scolding – not a single missed lesson, no slips of conduct that she could recall, nothing.
But when the valet pushed the doors wide and stood back to bow Jimaya inside, three pairs of eyes awaited her instead of two. Her father's, glittering but unreadable. Her mother's, shining with pride and what looked uncomfortably close to trepidation. And standing just left of their thrones, wrapped in venomously bright yellow, was the emissary from the Mountain Den. Counselor Yoren.
His flat, gray stare was edged with steel, his smile cold as twisted iron.
Realization dropped inside her like a stone.
Jimaya's mother had told her own story many times before. Usually at bedtime when the twins were younger, and Jimaya and Omare had laughed and gagged their parents' awkward, adjudicated courtship. Orchestrated to the point of comedy, overseen and nudged along by an army of courtiers, all of it in the public eye, which only delighted the kingdom more when they finally wed.
It was a proven model. Governance naturally gave way to loyalty naturally gave way to love. If people could learn to live with one another, so too could nations.
So Jimaya had no right to be shocked. This was to be expected. She should have seen it coming, even, especially at her age. She should feel as prepared as she did proud. But instead the pronouncement reverberated in her chest like a bell in an empty cavern. She stiffened against the bluntness of the delivery, the tight resignation in her father's voice–-
"Counselor Yoren has accepted your betrothal to his first and only son Rensai–-"
Jimaya faltered. Yoren's son? Not someone in the Denborn chief's family?
"–-as a symbol of renewed and enduring peace between our two nations. May your union be an everlasting symbol of the partnership between the Empire and the Mountain Den. Blessings be upon you both."
All three bowed their heads to her. Jimaya returned the gesture as though dragged down by a noose. Blood pounded in her ears and she beat back the panic as best she could. Why her? The Denborn chief had a daughter – why wasn't Omare standing in her place?
"The happy engagement will take place between City and Den in two days' time," Yoren announced in the thin, reedy tones of a man who never needed to shout to be heard. Satisfaction gleamed chilly in his eyes. "Do you have a message I might deliver to your intended in the interim?"
Two days. The floor lurched beneath Jimaya's feet. The timeline, this conversation, her sudden need to react – all of it was happening too fast. Feverishly she scrabbled together the politest words she could come up with.
"You may tell him that I'm proud to unite our families," she said. The shake in her voice sounded far away, as though her words were coming from anyone but herself. She couldn't press the quaver out. More. She needed to say more. "...And that I look forward to seeing him again after so long."
Yoren looked pleased. Either her alarm was lost on him or he didn't care. Jimaya felt certain which. "I shall. Know that he sent ahead his undying love and affection for you, which I'm sure you will soon see in full force."
Jimaya would have scoffed if she weren't sure it would come out as a sob instead. She hadn't laid eyes on Rensai in ten years or more. And Yoren spoke of love like he might the metal smelted within their mountain. Cold. Uninspiring. Unremarkable. A good to be traded and sold. She looked desperately to her parents but found little comfort there: her father hid his expression behind his beard, and worse, her mother looked like she wanted to speak but couldn't. Jimaya's vision finally blurred and she plastered on a smile.
"Might I be excused?" she asked. The three others paused – Jimaya hadn't even noticed they'd resumed conversation. She wasn't even a participant in the discussion of her own future. "To share the happy news with Omare."
She hardly waited for her father's nod before dipping another bow and rushing from the throne room. The valet who'd escorted her there still waited outside the door; she turned from his sympathetic expression with a vicious flare of resentment. The only secret he'd managed to keep in all his days was the one that condemned her.
But condemned her to what? The same fate her mother had been assigned? Uncertainty that blossomed into love? Was that really so bad? And her mother had hardly been twenty – if anything Jimaya was late. She should be grateful, she should be proud. The Mountain Den had always stood apart from the rest of the Empire, looming heavy and dark at the edge of the horizon. She would be the one to bring it into the fold. Maybe even to heel.
Not with so low a marriage. Not alongside a counselor's son.
Tears finally spilled from her eyes as she threw open the training room door. Omare barely dodged a strike from his court jester in time to turn. He smiled to see her, but it vanished the moment he took in her expression.
"Rensai," she choked out. The full weight of it dropped onto her shoulders and her knees threatened to buckle beneath her right there in the threshold. "I've been engaged to–- to Rensai."
"What? Who?" Omare let his staff clatter to the floor as he rushed to her. Jimaya threw her arms around him and sobbed into his neck.
"Yoren's boy, that son of his!"
"What do you mean engaged? He's not even–- Capo, can you…?"
The court jester was on them in seconds, his wide palm a comforting pressure on Jimaya's back.
"This way, Your Highness. Sit, take some water."
The backs of her knees met a bench and she collapsed onto it, her hands shaking as Capo pressed a cup of water into them. She didn't drink.
"You can't be engaged to him," Omare stated firmly. As though what he wanted or believed had any impact on reality, on fate. "He's not a royal, or he's not… whatever it is they have over there. He's not in the chief's family."
"Denborn don't care about that," Jimaya murmured hopelessly. "The chieftain's sash can pass to anyone. A counselor's son is as good as nobility to them."
"But he's not!" Omare protested. "You're a princess, he's–- he's no one!"
"Mother and Father have already accepted." Every syllable drove her spirits deeper into the ground with the force of a mallet. "It's done. In two days, it's done."
"It's too soon and he's not good enough! None of those Denborn are." Omare pushed his hands through his hair, a sure sign that he was thinking on his feet. "Remember what the Minister of Commerce said the other day? About the merchants that disappeared from the roads? I'll bet they snatch them up and drag them underground and–-"
"That's not true and you know it," Jimaya murmured.
But Omare abandoned the argument and got to his feet. "It doesn't matter. This doesn't make any sense, and it's not happening."
Jimaya seized him by the arm before he could storm for the door. "Stop, Omare, please! You weren't in there, you don't know. There's no debating this."
"There's got to be someone else. Someone from the Forest, or a Mountain Tribesman or something–-"
"You'd rather have me in the woods or on top of a peak somewhere?"
"I'd rather have you here!" Omare insisted. Capo gripped his other arm and Omare let them both drag him back; he sat down heavily and rested his forearms on his knees, shaking his head. "You belong here. Not underneath that dingy mountain or anywhere else."
His sincerity clenched at her heart. Jimaya didn't want to be anywhere but here, either. "Maybe we'll live here," she offered morosely. "After… after the wedding."
Another pound of the mallet. Why was she reassuring him? When had their roles reversed?
"Yeah, like Yoren's gonna let that happen," Omare muttered.
"Yoren is no one. I'm still an Imperial royal, and soon enough his son will be too." She had to spit the words to force them out. They bit like poison on her tongue. "Mother's family moved to the palace," she added more gently. More hopefully.
"Mother's family lived not a half hour's walk from the gates," Omare said defeatedly.
"I'll insist. And you remember Rensai – that skinny, pale thing? He won't argue."
But conjuring up Rensai's memory did nothing but churn her stomach, and insulting it only made it worse. Dark. Sulky. Narrow. Sharp. The kind of boy that looked like he'd tense if you embraced him, maybe even snap in half altogether. They'd met on probably three occasions and spoken on two of them. Jimaya tried to imagine the Rensai she knew sending ahead his "undying love and affection" for anything, much less her.
It wasn't completely impossible to picture. Maybe he was desperate.
And she, an Imperial princess, would spend the rest of her days with him. With a desperate nobody.
Omare let out a long sigh, disturbing the gray haze of her thoughts. "When is the formal engagement?"
"The day after tomorrow."
Omare cursed under his breath. "And then you go to stay with them? Why can't he come here?"
"I don't know." Jimaya shook her head. "A show of good faith, I think. I didn't… I didn't really take in all the details."
"Good faith in what? That we won't hold Rensai hostage until they surrender that miserable mountain of theirs? Who would want it, much less him–-"
Jimaya winced. "Omare, please."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He heaved another sigh and scrubbed his face with his hands. "Can I at least threaten him a little? To make sure he behaves?"
"No. Maybe," Jimaya amended. She tried to smile. "Let me try first."
Finally Omare smiled too. It was weak, resigned, but the tiny spark of hope it kindled snapped into a flicker when he pulled his sister into a hug.
Jimaya clung to that flicker. For two days of preparations it warmed and reassured her. It illuminated the smiles of every palace servant that wished her well. It brought barest glowing comfort as her mother helped her pack away her things and promised her she would be fine, that this was meant to be. Jimaya closed her family's warmth inside her heart those two nights and trembled around it, but it didn't go out.
When Jimaya stared at Rensai from the opposite side of the ambassadors' tent, she felt the flame gutter.
His dark gaze didn't meet hers. She remembered it vaguely from brief introductions and passings in hallways. But either her memory had softened over the years or Rensai's intensity had only sharpened with time: he had a severe, hawkish look about him, and a glance at Counselor Yoren unfurling what felt like the fiftieth scroll in front of her parents told Jimaya everything she needed to know about where that countenance had come from.
He wasn't not handsome, she supposed dully. Better than he'd looked ten years ago, anyway. He wasn't as pale – or maybe he still was but the tattoos distracted from it. His skin had been a blank canvas when she'd seen him last, but now it was painted over in twisting whorls of black, clouds and ocean waves, crashing over his chest and shoulders and leaving only a dagger-shaped stretch of blank skin down his torso. He was still uncommonly tall, but it looked like he'd figured out what to do with his limbs at some point. He'd grown stronger too, filled out with lean, ropy muscle.
And like Jimaya, Rensai didn't look thrilled at their shared fate. She might have felt for him if he weren't marrying so ludicrously above his station. He had no right to look so sullen. Not like she did.
Omare shifted agitatedly off to the side and Jimaya looked at the ground before his eyes could find hers. She didn't trust herself not to burst into tears at the sight. Her brother was surely thinking the same as her – that the cold bureaucracy of it all was nothing like she'd imagined for their parents, much less for herself. She certainly hadn't pictured Counselor Yoren lurking vulture-like over her father's shoulder as he signed away more and more of Jimaya with each successive scroll. She longed for one of Omare's outbursts, for him to dash the scrolls from the table and demand what was wrong with their parents for resigning her to this, for condemning her to the mountain.
But he couldn't object any more than she could.
Only the final scroll called for their signature, the sole one among the veritable library piled atop the table that required their own actual agreement. Yoren beckoned to his son and Rensai stepped forward first, his expression wiped carefully blank of its prior moodiness.
When he'd finished, he straightened up and looked over his shoulder at Jimaya.
Their eyes met for the first time. He held out the brush in silence. She joined him at the table and murmured her thanks; his fingers grazed hers as she accepted.
She could upset the inkwell, Jimaya thought as she dragged the brush through. Wash the scroll black and illegible, and in the time it took to draw up another she could… nothing. There was nothing. No act of sabotage or desperation would make a difference and all would be shamefully transparent. She wouldn't do that to her parents nor to the kingdom, not even to Rensai.
A drop of ink trembled perilously at the tip of the brush and finally, each stroke a strain, Jimaya swept her name beside his. Rensai's drying signature shone sharp and confident. Despite all her calligraphy practice, hers looked brittle and inelegant by comparison.
History would read the hesitation in her hand.
There was a sudden clack of wood on wood, and Jimaya jumped and nearly dropped the brush. Counselor Yoren was lowering two lacquered sticks from overhead. Rensai had stiffened reflexively beside her.
"Blessings be upon the betrothed," he announced with that ironclad smile of his. "Princess Jimaya, the Mountain Den welcomes you as I welcome you as my daughter-to-be. May the love shared between you burn steady and true. Your Majesties." He turned to her parents and swept into a deep bow before Jimaya could even pretend to thank him for his approximation of kindness. "We will speak again before the month is out. Upon my honor the Den shall care for her as one of our own–-"
Jimaya didn't take in the rest of his pledge. Activity had sparked to life at the sharp sound of the claves: valets gathered up scrolls, orders and chatter rose among the Denborn outside the tent as they prepared for the journey, and Yoren's assurances of welcoming, union, and whatever else were all but drowned out.
Logistics and commerce and diplomacy. That was all. Jimaya's heart tightened in on itself.
She parted with her family one at a time when the time came.
"See you soon," Kouda promised firmly. The nanny's hands shook as she held Jimaya's, but after only a few seconds Kouda caved and crushed Jimaya in a hug instead.
"Relish the adventure." Capo pressed his fist to his chest and bowed. His dazzling grin fell just short of his eyes.
"Take care of yourself," rumbled her father, holding her in a bone creaking, lingering embrace. He cleared his throat when they parted.
"Faith, courage, and love," urged her mother through a smile that sparkled with tears.
But as Jimaya wrapped her arms around her brother and squeezed, only Omare's words shook out the sob she'd been holding in her chest all morning.
"You always have a place at home," he whispered.
She nodded into his shoulder and willed the tears back behind her eyes. "Just a few months," she said for what felt like the hundredth time, still as shaky as the first. As though repetition would shorten the blank stretch of uncertainty between now and then. "Until we're closer to–- closer to the wedding."
If Omare had other words of encouragement he couldn't bear to voice them, and Jimaya was grateful when he hugged her again instead. She couldn't bear to hear them in turn.
The only voice in the room she didn't recognize. She swallowed back a shudder and turned. Rensai held out a hand to her, his expression as forbiddingly inscrutable as it had been since the moment he signed his fate to hers. Omare drew himself up beside her and Jimaya forced her hand into Rensai's before Omare could interject.
Long fingers curled around her own.
"You'll take care of her," Omare said. A clear warning. Rensai's coal-dark eyes shifted to him.
"Of course, brother." An even clearer barb. "I love her."
Omare drew back, stunned but not daring to insult the engagement with contradiction. Rensai awaited rebuttal, and when none came, the faintest hint of a smile lifted the corners of his lips. He raised Jimaya's hand and kissed it.
Shock flushed through her in a wild jolt, but by the time it cleared she was already halfway across the ambassadors' tent, led by Rensai's hand in hers.
Her final goodbye was lost to the calls and footfalls of the Denborn company as they set out for the forest road that led back to the mountain. Flanked on all sides, Jimaya had to peer between spear shafts to meet her family's eyes. They stood in a row alongside the tent, hands raised in farewell. Jimaya's heart heaved, and she only just managed to catch her brother's eye before a hand fell to the small of her back and ushered her onwards instead.
Jimaya startled and whipped around. Rensai's hand fell away just as fleetingly as it had arrived and, straightfaced and silent once more, he nodded for her to follow the company's lead.