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The Shape of Things To Come

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Jimaya couldn't describe what she pictured when she imagined a Denborn residence, but as soon as she was standing in the middle of one she was certain she'd been right. Woven rugs brought warmth to the smooth stone floors, and sparse but efficient furniture punctuated what would otherwise be an intimidatingly large living space. A massive hearth dominated one side, mercifully empty for now, the perfect focal point for a life built from rock and flame. The only windows were carved into the same wall as the door, of course, but lamps lit the room to a close, golden glow. And Counselor Yoren had been right: the low center table was laden with fruit, cured meats, and a heavy stone pitcher of water that awakened an immediate and urgent thirst within her. Only the ceilings didn't match her expectations – they were taller than Jimaya would have thought, though looking at Rensai that was fitting as well.

But looking at Rensai gave her pause. He shucked off his boots too readily. He stretched his arms overhead too easily, he strode past the threshold too comfortably, and he roughed his fingers through his hair too casually as he bent to inspect a leaf of paper left beside the refreshments. Jimaya stole another fleeting glance around the room. Mounted bows and staves. A tapestry of a gray and churning ocean. An urn atop a small altar, tucked safely away at the back of the room. And her own belongings, two trunks painted in intricate white, gold, and red Imperial fashion, heavy and out of place in their otherwise very Denborn surroundings.

Rensai fit too well.

"Is this your home?" she asked.

Rensai looked up from his reading. "Yes." Blunt. Nonplussed. As though it should have been obvious.

Jimaya's pulse quickened and she swallowed, steadying her voice. "Your father said to take me to my accommodations."

Rensai stared at her. She watched as he fought against a twisting smile, but he lost and huffed a laugh. "Were you asleep in that ambassadors' tent? Did you know what you were signing? We're engaged."

"But not married!" Her eyes darted around the house again. Only three other doors, and there was no way more than one of them led to a bedroom. And if he'd assumed she'd go along with a public kiss without objection…. The same stinging jolt of fear she'd felt under his lips lanced her all over again.

"It's just a tradition, don't worry," he said, waving a hand dismissively. "A bit cruel of your parents not to warn you, though."

"What's just a tradition?" she demanded. He might as well have said her spine was just a stack of conveniently arranged bones. There was nothing less mutable in the world – if there were, she wouldn't be engaged at all, she wouldn't be standing in his threshold fighting to swallow back a rising panic. She would not, he would not–-

Rensai caught her meaning and drew back in distaste. "Cohabitation, of course. Denborn couples share their homes as much as their lives. And since we're making this look good," he paused for emphasis as though she were dimwitted, "so will we. That is all our engagement demands."

Jimaya glowered at him, though she could swear her ribs creaked as the tension in her chest dared to ease up. "Don't look at me like that," she grumbled. "You did kiss me."

"A decision I regret more and more every second." He sighed and raked his hand through his hair. "Please at least quit lingering in the doorway. You can have a look at this schedule and then you'll have a real reason to run."

Jimaya kept a wary eye on him but finally relented and toed off her shoes one at a time. Rensai had folded himself behind the table and was snapping off a sprig of grapes from the heaping fruit bowl when she joined him, and he held the page out to her. Spidery penmanship covered it top to bottom, each line detailing what appeared to be every hour of Jimaya's existence for the next full week: that evening's dinner with the Chief, an exhaustive tour of the Den that stretched over three afternoons, plus something called a "combat assessment," a separate entry from "archery" as though the writer had assumed she didn't know how to shoot an arrow properly. But most forbiddingly of all–-


"With my father, yes," Rensai said, nodding gravely.

"It's nearly every morning."

"I don't envy you."

"But surely he knows that's not necessary." She gestured to herself agitatedly: her breeding must have made as plain a statement as her attire. And the thought of spending any length of time alone with Counselor Yoren, much less repeatedly, made her deeply uneasy.

But Rensai only looked her over and snorted. "I know, it's unfathomable. You've been polite as can be since the moment we met." He motioned for her to sit, then poured a cup of water from the stoneware pitcher and nudged it in her direction. "It's likely to be less about manners and more about culture. And I don't think you'll disagree that you're a bit behind in that area."

Jimaya's spirits sank to the floor and so did she. He wasn't wrong. "I don't suppose that's something you could coach me on instead?"

Rensai barked a laugh. "Ask him that tomorrow, I beg you."

So that was a no, then. Jimaya could think of nothing else to say so she sipped her water in silence, looking everywhere in the room but at Rensai. He chose a tangerine next and the scent of citrus bloomed from his hands, a distracting mismatch to the discomfort of being trapped in the room with him while their dinner with the Chief loomed like a thunderhead. But the silence didn't appear to bother Rensai in the slightest – like his father, he seemed unnaturally resistant to others' disquiet. For all she knew he saw her presence in his own home as no more disruptive than a particularly ornate vase.

The minutes dragged on.

"Well." Rensai suddenly stretched. Jimaya's hand froze over the cured meats – she'd been hoping part of her persistent churning anxiety was just hunger in disguise. "I imagine you'll want to change before dinner. I'll leave you the house, only please don't go poking around the study. I suspect that's where they hid away everything else I own when they brought your things in." He gestured vaguely to the living room, though Jimaya couldn't imagine what sort of clutter someone like Rensai might keep.

"Oh. Um, thank you," she said, feeling small as he strode past her to the doorway. Then, before she really knew why, she added, "I'll be better tomorrow. I–- I'm sure I'm just tired. From the journey, and from the adjustment."

"You don't have to perform for me, Jimaya." His back was to her as he pulled on his boots again, but when he straightened up he cast a smile over his shoulder at her. "Just for them. Back in an hour."

And he was gone with a snap of the door.

Jimaya stared after him. She couldn't even hear his footsteps on the stairs outside – silence hung like snowfall in the cavernous room, thickened and held close by the stone walls. Somehow Rensai's aggravating ease had filled the space more than his body had, and without him a foreign sort of emptiness slowly settled in her gut, stones dropped into a well one by one.

She'd felt lonely before. She'd thought it was what happened when she was frustrated or misunderstood, that self-righteous fire that convinced her in a moment of white-blind anger that she was the only one who knew the truth of the world. When she was younger she'd snap or slam a door and cry the fire all to ash. There had always been someone beside her, someone just within reach when she'd burned up all her energy and rejoined the world, shoulders hunched and apologetic.

But as she sat there, scooped hollow and fragile, she was sure loneliness was actually much colder than she had thought.

She missed her brother.

Eventually she sniffed and pulled herself to her feet to pick glumly through her belongings. Gold and scarlet silk shined inside their trunks, dressed carefully in their translucent wrappings. Jimaya passed her fingers over the stitching. "They like red, don't they?" Kouda had said with as much excitement as she could summon up and still sound convincing. Jimaya had agreed at the time, though now it seemed more like black, orange, and yellow were just as appropriate. She'd brought very little of each.

She dug out a black-trimmed crimson dress and made do with whatever she ran across first in Rensai's house. There was a small washroom with a pitcher and basin, and she swiped water over her body with a rough cloth to scrape off the worst of her journey, praying this wasn't the only way Denborn bathed. The bedroom had a vanity, though she refused to look at the bed itself. She touched up her makeup there, patting fresh powder into the creases the day had left. Her forehead needed extra attention, and she wondered morosely whether she'd really spent that much time frowning.

The front door opened just as she was dusting the final touch of gold to the center of her lips. She startled badly, upsetting two pots of warpaint and sending a carefully organized box of brushes crashing to the floor. Rensai leaned in the bedroom doorway, all smiles again.

"Making yourself at home?"

Jimaya whipped around, hands held behind her back, then realized how ridiculous that was and revealed the brushes she'd been picking up. She squared her shoulders and cleared her throat. "You surprised me."

"I can see that."

He'd changed as well – the woven sash, linen vest, and leather bracers he'd worn for the engagement were gone in favor of, well, less. His chest and shoulders were bare, though a thick black collar covered his neck and connected to long, fingerless leather gloves. Embroidered black and white pants sat low on his hips, a look possibly only achievable thanks to what seemed like at least one more belt than was strictly necessary. Jimaya's first thought was that, bare chest aside, all that leather must be exceedingly uncomfortable in the heat of the Den. She frowned, confused.

"...Is this dinner informal?"

Rensai's smile broadened. "It is for me. Though you've made a lovely choice. I'm sure they'll be very impressed." He joined her at the vanity and Jimaya tried not to draw back, but he only bent to gather up the brushes she had missed.

"You must be very close with Chief Kharvaach," she said carefully as she set the pots of warpaint right.

"Closer than many, but not most. My father has known him for close to forty years." He reached across her to return the lacquered box of brushes to its place.

"And his daughter?"

"Yujin." Rensai turned from her, then noticed her sash laid across the bed. "Do you need this?"

"Oh. Um, yes. Thank you." Jimaya raised her arms and let Rensai loop the sash around her waist. "What's she like?"

"Kind. Talented." He jerked the sash tight and Jimaya bit back a gasp. She waited but Rensai didn't go on – the only sound was the whisper of silk on silk as he tied. She could feel his warmth at her back.

It was a long few moments before he withdrew to examine his work. "How is that?"

Jimaya turned her back to the vanity to check. Truthfully he'd done a very good job, far better than she would have managed on her own. The low V of her dress's back disappeared beneath the center of the thick, square-shaped knot, its tails pulled just far enough to shape delicate but firm arches.

"Perfect. Thank you."

Rensai smirked and let one of the sash tails flow from his hand like water. "I understand physical signs of affection are out of the question," he said, gesturing for her to follow, "but we'll still need to make some effort at this dinner. I hope you've come up with some convincing terms of endearment instead."

Jimaya made a face. "Like what?"

"I don't know. Get creative." He gestured to his chest with a wicked grin. "Objectify me."

She rolled her eyes. "Well what do you have lined up for me?"

"My treasure, my jewel, my pearl." He ticked each one off as he linked his arm with hers and led her to the door. Night had fallen in earnest: a sliver of a crescent moon peeked out from the rocky overhang and cast the stairs in shadow. "My sun and stars. My heart. My pet, if you like. I'm very partial to that one."

"My heart is fine," Jimaya said firmly, swallowing against the shiver of his gaze on her bare collarbone. But he shrugged carelessly.

"If you insist. And for me?"

"My love, I suppose," she mumbled, her cheeks burning. She might as well be aspirational about it, she thought dispiritedly, though she doubted she could have sounded more awkward if she tried. Rensai laughed.

"Don't sound so enthusiastic about it." He shook his head. "Forget it – I suppose you have enough to worry about. I will set the tone. You just focus on looking something other than miserable."

"I'm not miserable," she insisted, gripping his arm tighter for emphasis. He blinked, surprised, but when he met her gaze she held onto it stubbornly. "I'm not. And after a decent meal and some sleep, I'll be better able to prove it."

He watched her wordlessly. Jimaya barely kept from wincing – she needed to say more?

"You're–- you're very at peace with this," she went on. "And I want to be, too. I will be. So I promise, I'm going to catch up."

Rensai's lips twisted. Jimaya had seen him smile many times that day – certainly more than she'd done for him. But this didn't quite look like one of them. He faced forward again.

"Keep practicing. It's almost there."