Rensai seemed to be quite well-liked at least, and Jimaya allowed herself the tentative hope that he wasn't as difficult to get along with as he'd seemed thus far. Their path this time was much busier than the last, and several times along the way he was hailed by archers and spearmen. All had words of awestruck congratulations for him, a few even clapped him on the back, and each time he grinned broadly, laughed with them, thanked them, all the while glowing with the same ease he'd shown at their first welcome to the Den. Jimaya bobbed countless nods of greeting in return. The beads she'd pinned into her hair clacked in her ear each time, a tinkling reminder of how she must look beside him.
A shining Imperial accessory. An import.
Well, if she was an import, she was the most valuable one in that entire miserable mountain. She let the thought square her shoulders and narrow her eyes. Haughtiness didn't often come naturally to her, but tonight it rose up around her like a shield and she braced herself against their evaluating gazes.
"They're no one, Jimaya," Rensai said quietly, the first he'd spoken to her in some time. "They don't matter. Relax."
Oddly it wasn't his reassurance that calmed her. As they approached what could only be a vast dining hall, Jimaya found herself suffused not with buzzing apprehension, but the calm glide of confidence. Of course the Denborn Chief intimidated her. But unlike everything else she'd encountered thus far, she was prepared for this sort of meeting. Every moment of her upbringing had readied her to make a gracious, courteous, regal impression. She floundered when Rensai left her to improvise, but she doubted he could get away with that here. Maybe she'd even find a way out of Yoren's etiquette lessons.
Rensai noticed the change in her posture and tugged her arm gently closer.
A pair of spearmen flanked the final turn to the dining hall and struck the butts of their weapons on the stone floor to herald their entrance. Gravelly conversation quieted as over two dozen pairs of eyes fixed on them, nearly all of them brushed with the same white and orange Jimaya had seen earlier. Apparently the chanting throng at her entrance had been the Chief's Guard.
But scant few seconds passed before cheers broke out all over again, this time led by Chief Kharvaach himself, who stood from his seat to welcome them with applause that resounded like thunderclaps in the massive hall. Jimaya had always pictured him as more of a legend than a man and he lived up to every expectation: a broad, bearded tower of a man that surely stood at least a head over everyone in the room, Rensai included. Between the beard and the glint in his eye, some small part of Jimaya was reminded of her father and squeezed her heart painfully.
Rensai paused to genuflect, one hand laid over his heart, and Jimaya took the cue to bow. As she rose up she ducked aside to accommodate an archer hastily pressing a bow into Rensai's hands, a single flaming arrow already strung.
He took aim at the center of the table - at the chief - and fired.
The arrow shot over the heads of the assembled, swallowed up by the depths of the shadowy cavern, but Rensai didn't even have time to lower the bow before a blaze of light surged from the back of the hall. When Jimaya's vision cleared a massive lamp glowed bright and golden overhead. Invigorated by whatever this must have meant to them, the Chief's Guard redoubled their cheers and joined Kharvaach on their feet. Rensai laughed and handed off the bow again, then took Jimaya's hand and led her to the center of the long table.
"Allow me to introduce my future wife." He brought her hand to his chest and drew her close. He smiled at her, and his next words came soft, intimate, as though they were a gift to him. "Imperial Princess Jimaya."
"Welcome, Princess," Chief Kharvaach boomed in exactly the low, rumbling voice Jimaya would have imagined for him, and she dragged her gaze from Rensai's. "We are honored to host you, and even more so to name you among our own in just a short while."
"The honor is mine, great Chief." Jimaya inclined her head, her breath and blood steadied by the certainty that she knew this, she was ready for this, she could at least do this. "I'm humbled by the warmth of your welcome. Since the moment I set foot inside your mountain I have seen the strength and fire of your people. I can only imagine such a flame is fed by equally strong leadership."
He gave an approving, tightlipped smile that made Jimaya suspect the real thing might actually look kindly behind his beard and thick, vibrant warpaint. "Please." He gestured for them to sit, then to the two on either side of him as he returned to his place behind the table. "You know my counselor, Yoren, of course." The older man gave such an exaggerated bow that Jimaya's stomach turned. "And this is my daughter, Yujin."
She was easy to miss compared to her father's bulk and Yoren's lurid yellow robes, but once Jimaya's eyes fell on Yujin there was no looking away. Kind and talented, Rensai had called her. He'd failed to mention beautiful, which was surely the first word anyone with eyes would use to describe her.
Yujin was a rose petal atop a shale heap: soft, bright, and delicate against the sharp edges of her home. Her red-copper hair was pulled into two carefully coiled buns, but strands on either side were left loose to frame her heart-shaped face. Long lashes lifted to dart a fleeting smile at Rensai, then dipped again as she nodded respectfully to Jimaya.
"It's an honor to meet you," she said as Jimaya settled down opposite her, placing a gloved hand over her heart for emphasis. Intricate black lace climbed beyond the reach of the glove and up past her elbow, a pointed substitute for the bold, thick tattoos Jimaya had seen etched into most Denborn arms, male and female alike. Exquisite as it was, Jimaya noticed her other hand was bare - she must be an archer herself. "I've heard so much, though not nearly enough to satisfy my curiosity."
"I feel the same," Jimaya agreed automatically, too relieved to meet someone who looked actually approachable to remember she hadn't heard much about Yujin at all, only what little Rensai had told her. But Yujin's smile returned and Jimaya's shoulders relaxed in earnest for what felt like the first moment since she'd arrived.
"I hope we can be great friends. I want to hear all about the journey, the Imperial City, how you're settling in, everything."
"She made the trip like a seasoned trail runner," Rensai answered for her, leaning just a notch closer than he needed to to fill Jimaya's cup, then his own. "You'd hardly know it was her first."
"And soon I'll have made as many as you," Jimaya said sweetly. "Maybe more."
"I couldn't bear it, my heart." Rensai's eyes flicked to Jimaya's lips, and he smiled in that way that quieted every other detail of the room around them. "Where you go, I go."
Yujin's sigh reminded Jimaya to breathe. "Such a splendid match." Her hands were clasped over her heart as she beamed at the pair of them. "And so closely bonded already, I hear! I heard quite a story about your entrance--"
But she was cut off by a pair of ear-splitting clacks from Yoren's lacquered sticks. Jimaya jumped – she was never going to get used to that. She turned to find Yoren still on his feet, his cup raised, and a hush fell over the table.
"Only fate could gather together such an auspicious assemblage," he said, his smile as thin as his voice. "How long has it been since Imperial royalty has visited us under the Mountain, and how lucky are we that it is on so happy an occasion."
A chill swept through Jimaya. Indeed, not all shared history between Den and Empire was peaceful. Distinctly the opposite. She fought to keep a grip on her serene expression and chanced a look at Rensai, but she found him a closed and careful blank.
"Luckiest among us is my son, who shall marry this daughter of the Empire in a union ages past would have called impossible. May their love blaze like a beacon, guiding us all towards a glorious new era of power and progress."
He paused, eyeing the pair of them expectantly. A cue. But Rensai didn't move. His hand lay still atop the table. Hastily Jimaya took it and squeezed. He came to life again under her touch, suddenly all warmth and smiles once more, as though only just recalling where he was. That seemed good enough for Yoren, who lifted his cup in toast. All around Jimaya the guests did the same.
"To fate's favor."
"Fate's favor." Jimaya repeated it back with the rest of them, and though she easily caught Yujin's cheer and Kharvaach's deep rumble, Rensai's voice came only as a murmur. He knocked back the contents of his glass in one swift swallow. A glance up and down the table told Jimaya most of the Chief's Guard had done the same, so she tossed her hesitation aside and her cup back.
Burning heat ignited her throat on contact and she choked – how could alcohol possibly be hot, bitter, and sour all at once? She coughed and slapped a hand to her chest, eyes watering as she forced herself to swallow, and when at last she caught her breath she found Yujin watching her with sympathy while Rensai laughed openly.
"Shut up," she rasped, fanning the tears from her eyes, but Rensai was already pouring her another.
"Oh go on, the second is never as bad as the first."
The Chief's Guards closest to her groaned in disappointment when she set aside Rensai's proffered cup for now. They were a fiery, rowdy bunch, she found during the first course – a simple, clear-brothed soup with onions and mushrooms sliced so delicately that they were nearly translucent. Their familiarity jarred her at first, but she warmed to them just a little bit as she watched them slurp down their soup with a ravenous abandon she longed to give into herself. Nerves had suppressed her hunger until now, and she consciously paced her bites to keep from finishing in two minutes flat.
But at the guards' enthusiastic urging she did eventually manage one more cup over the course of the meal – charred vegetables next, then a venison stew so complex the Imperial Palace chefs would have descended into a jealous frenzy at the taste. The hearty meal helped offset the drink but still Jimaya felt grateful for the light, pleasant looseness the alcohol afforded. Her tension eased more and more the longer she engaged the soldiers, Yujin, and even Chief Kharvaach in conversation. There were extensive trials before one qualified for the Chief's Guard, she learned, and even after that they had to be handpicked by Kharvaach to earn the title. Though Kharvaach spoke little, Jimaya thought he had to be at least somewhat pleasant behind all that muscle and stoicism – the Chief's Guard were friendly in a rough, hardscrabble sort of way, and every word Yujin spoke was nothing but gentleness and warmth. From what she could see only Counselor Yoren stood out as overtly disconcerting. Surely a poor leader didn't attract that much charisma to his side without reason. The evening passed with surprising haste in their company.
Their cue to leave came as the guard nearest her, a windburned archer named Taina, insisted on pouring Jimaya a third drink.
"I couldn't, I couldn't," Jimaya protested on a laugh, "the journey has tired me enough–-"
"I can only imagine," Rensai interjected, suddenly shoulder to shoulder with her in the space of a breath. Jimaya noticed for the first time that he'd hardly spoken to her all evening. He was grinning again, but something in his eyes shone hard and insistent. "You must be exhausted. Shall I escort you back?"
Jimaya glanced up and down the long table – the final course had concluded, but Kharvaach was leaning back on his hands to chat with his daughter and Yoren was among several that still nursed final cups of tea. Was it really appropriate to go so soon?
"Yes," she agreed tentatively, putting her hand in his. "Yes, I think so. Though I'm reluctant to leave behind such a warm welcome," she added to Kharvaach with a grateful incline of her head. "Thank you for such a lovely evening. I hope there will be many more nights like this to come."
"All this and more, Princess Jimaya. Go on." He gestured with a flat hand at the entrance of the dining hall. "Get some rest. I have no doubt my counselor has a punishing schedule in store for you tomorrow."
"And I look forward to every moment of it." Jimaya got to her feet and dipped a bow first to the chief, then to Yoren, who was watching them with the faintest upward turn of his lips. She looked away to give a parting wave to Yujin, whose smile could have lit up the entire room with as much brilliance as Rensai's flaming arrow.
"I look forward to spending more time with you," Yujin said. Rensai's hand tightened over Jimaya's just as Yujin added, eyes sparkling with sincerity, "And I'm so happy for you, Rensai. Truly."
But Rensai only jerked a nod of acknowledgement. He pulled her away and Jimaya stumbled to catch up as he led her from the dining hall, tailed by the guards' mingled bids of farewell and suggestive jeering oohs at their departure for their first night together.
He dropped her hand the moment they were out of sight and sighed, rolling his shoulders as though relieved of a great burden.
"Well done," was all he said.
Jimaya tried to tell him that she'd liked them, that she'd been surprised by their kindness and that she was eager to have a friend in Yujin. But Rensai spoke nothing more for their entire walk back to his house. Uncertainty dimmed the flicker of hopeful happiness the evening had lent.
When they arrived back at his home she watched him carefully as he eased off his boots, tracked the set of his shoulders as he poured himself a cup of water, stared at the tattoos on his back as he sipped in silence. None of them told her anything. Eventually he turned and gestured vaguely to the bedroom.
"You can have the room. I will sleep out here."
"No," Jimaya said before she even knew why. "No, we agreed that we'd do this right. So I'm going to do it right. I told you, I–- I'm going to try."
Rensai studied her for a long, uncomfortable moment.
"Would you prefer that I join you," he asked at last, "or will you join me?"
Genuine gratitude thudded alongside her anxious pulse. For all his jokes and sneers, maybe he did want her to be comfortable after all. "You can join me. If you don't mind waiting a little bit."
He gestured to the bedroom again wordlessly and turned from her to sit down at the table.
Jimaya removed her hairpins first and set them down atop the bedroom vanity. Their glittering beads nestled between the pots of Denborn warpaint, glass glinting against ceramic. She stared down at them. Maybe she should have stored them away back with the rest of her luggage. They were meant to share this space, this home, but no part of it was really hers. And something warded her away from the living room, too. An imaginary little chill she hadn't yet felt from Rensai before. Curiosity called at her to ask what had changed his mood, what had made him want to leave the dinner at the very first opportunity, but self-consciousness snuffed it out.
She supposed there were a great deal of things she hadn't felt from Rensai yet. And it would be a very, very long time before she did. If ever.
She wiped away her makeup and laid her dress carefully over the back of the chair. Another thing that could wait for tomorrow. She left a single lamp burning low for whenever he chose to join her, then wrapped her dressing gown tight around herself and peeled back the duvet. It was the first time she'd really let herself look at the bed and still she ignored all but the essential details as she slipped inside. It was wide and comfortable and warm and that was all she needed. Jimaya forced her eyes closed and called up every fatigue of her exhausted body, the gentle warmth of the lingering alcohol, and willed sleep to come. When it hesitated, she tried counting out each pulse in her tired, journey-battered feet instead, grateful for their rest at last. She imagined every muscle in her body relaxing, from the bones in her ankles that had carried her across rough roads to the muscles in her legs that had pulled her along cavernous passageways, all the way up to her shoulders, somehow still held tight even though the day was through, even though she was alone.
It wasn't enough. Some time later, while she finally lingered just at the edge of subconsciousness, her ears caught an oddly and distinctly intimate puff of a breath - he'd extinguished the lamp. Cool air grazed her shoulders as Rensai lifted the opposite end of the duvet, then settled down beside her.
He let out a single long, heavy sigh. After that his breathing came soft and even.
Eventually sleep claimed her. When Jimaya awoke the next morning, stiff and yawning but tremendously refreshed, she forced herself to look at the space next to her.
She was alone.