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.
Comfort, it seemed, was not chief among Denborn priorities. Jimaya had expected to journey to the mountain on foot – they weren't much for horses up on their cliffs or down in their tunnels – but the company set a grueling pace that had her uncomfortably aware of her breath in less than an hour. The forest canopy filtered much of the summer sun but every once in a while it broke through in searing bright rays, and even in shade the leaves kept them trapped in near-oppressive humidity. There was water but that might as well have been all: no breaks for rest, no food, not even an umbrella. Even the leanest of Imperial escorts would have provided that much. She could stand it, Jimaya told herself with a huff and a grit of her teeth. Still she stared at Counselor Yoren with open shock and indignation as the old man picked his way over the path ahead of her, surefooted and unfussed in his tall shoes.
"Are you jealous of an old man?"
Jimaya nearly stumbled in surprise and whipped around to find Rensai wearing the same faint smirk he'd worn during his exchange with Omare. They were the first words he'd spoken to her since they'd set out. She quickly rearranged her expression.
"I was only thinking that he's very… nimble on such difficult terrain."
Rensai's smirk grew. Jimaya didn't like the look of it. She kept waiting for him to say something more but when he didn't, she felt suddenly like the sunlight were shining down on her like a beacon, highlighting her hasty lie.
"You've only made the trip a few times, right?" she asked, hoping to point his focus in a different direction.
"A few," Rensai said. He looked down at her at his side. "And you've made it none."
Jimaya barely kept from scowling. She'd meant to say she'd only had a few opportunities to meet him, not invite a comparison, least of all one that put her at some kind of imaginary disadvantage. "Palace life is very busy," she said with a touch of haughtiness.
"It must be. Twenty-two years and not a moment of it spent outside your own domain," Rensai said. He gave it some thought, then shook his head. "That sounds dreadful."
"Twenty-three," Jimaya said curtly.
"Twenty-three." He nodded as though taking note of a minor bit of trivia. A fun but irrelevant fact about his own future wife. "Even more tragic."
"Are you some kind of world traveller then?" She was beginning to wish they'd stuck to silence.
"Hardly. But our borders are so much more modest than yours, Your Highness," he said sleekly. There wasn't an ounce of respect in his tone. "It brings perspective that much closer to hand."
"Are you trying to be rude?" Jimaya asked, losing her patience at last. "Or does it just come very naturally to you?"
He raised his hands innocently. "Not at all. I didn't mean to offend. I'm not very familiar with Imperial–-"
"Don't bother," Jimaya cut him off. She glared up at him and, aggravated to see his smirk was back, went on, "There's no rush. You'll have an entire lifetime to learn."
The reality of their shared future promptly shut him up. His expression slipped seamlessly back to neutral, but the moment silence fell between them again she became aware of the spearmen flanking them, likely overhearing every word. Overhearing how their very first exchange had been barbed.
Even if he'd started it, her irritation cooled in the wake of regret.
"What should I be prepared to learn?" she tried again a few moments later, a little gentler. She could make the effort like she made this trek – unpleasant but bearable. "About the Den, I mean."
Rensai took his time in answering. "We're probably more… communal than you're used to. Less stratified." The answer made Jimaya bristle at first but it didn't carry quite the same serrated edge as his last few comments. Maybe he was trying, too. "There aren't as many of us, so there are fewer we can do without. Everyone has a role."
Rensai flashed her the closest hint of a genuine smile she'd seen from him thus far. It was broad and sharp. "Innovator."
Completely unhelpful. Jimaya directed her eyes at the road to keep from rolling them. "And what will mine be?"
Rensai shrugged. "Whatever you like, I suppose."
Jimaya snorted. Rensai said nothing and a glance at him told her even less – it seemed he was impossible to interpret unless he was being deliberately mocking. But that left honesty as a real and viable option, and that made no sense. She'd never been whatever she liked in her life. She was what she was and liking it was a gift, not a guarantee.
Anyway if he was off innovating, whatever that meant, he'd probably want her applauding and fawning, congratulating him on his successes. But nothing about Rensai suggested he wanted her at all. Nothing apart from a meaningless claim that he loved her, and he'd only said that to aggravate Omare.
Rensai caught her scrutinizing him and Jimaya promptly closed her mouth and faced forward again.
"That might be another thing you have to learn," he said. "To choose."
Insult flared and burned up her curiosity. "You mean like how you chose this engagement?" she snapped.
A liar as well as an innovator, then. Jimaya huffed and picked up her pace so Rensai fell behind and out of her line of sight. It wasn't a natural stride and her legs made their protests plain, but she stuck with it, resolved not to speak to him for the rest of the journey.
Only when afternoon deepened to the gemstone red of evening did the Mountain Den finally come into view.
The company's formation changed abruptly, tightening up and closing in as they skirted the increasingly rocky terrain. Between the darkening shadows of the trees the craggy cliffs of the Den began to take shape, and on a few of them Jimaya could spot torches burning, some even held aloft by lookouts visible only when they darted back between the rocks, presumably to report the escort's imminent arrival. The company pressed in yet closer and tension squeezed Jimaya's insides to match: they were funneling into a passageway. The stones that lined their path grew into a wall, then stretched into a crevice, then finally closed over their heads, swallowing them up in a tunnel as wide as any Imperial palace hall.
But unlike her home, torches blazed on rough-hewn walls rather than lamps glowing merrily in ornately carved alcoves. Stalactites hung dagger-like from the ceiling instead of tapestries hanging in great stretches of woven history. The passageway hadn't welcomed them so much as devoured them whole. And despite herself, Jimaya remembered what Omare had said about those missing merchants.
Rensai's hand suddenly closed over hers.
"You'll want to make this look good," he said in her ear. Jimaya's thoughts fled and blind anxiety rushed to fill the vacuum. He worked his fingers between her own, forcibly lacing them together and gripping tight. "Follow my lead."
Jimaya couldn't even draw breath to ask what he meant before the entire company was greeted by thunderous cheers. The tunnel had opened up into a grand hall carved straight out of the mountain itself, a wide, yawning cavern choked with bodies, light, and noise. All around them Denborn crowded countless overlooks and catwalks, all whooping and straining to catch a glimpse of them. Some dangled from ropes between levels, pushing off the walls to swing over the company for a better look. One group on a heavy metal platform stomped and struck their chests in time with a rhythmic chant that penetrated even the onlookers' cacophony. Black cloth concealed much of their faces save for their eyes, all painted in the same peaked swipes of bright orange and white – warriors.
Jimaya inched closer to Rensai and proudly lifted her chin out of equal instinct. They weren't her enemies. But they were far more in number than she –- and likely even her parents –- would ever have expected.
Her shoulder jerked as Rensai pulled her arm overhead. He lifted their joined hands to their adoring audience and gestured to the crowd, basking in their resultant adoration, his face alight as the calls of congratulation washed over them. He looked nothing like he had in the ambassador's tent. Not sulky, not taciturn, but ablaze with a sudden incandescent energy. It pulled at her, and he turned to pull her closer too. He clutched her hand against his heart. Jimaya stared up at him, her breath very suddenly short.
"What are you–-"
Rensai leaned down and kissed her.
The explosion of cheers came in at a distant, muted last place to every other one of Jimaya's flooded senses. Outrage and an unmistakable jolt of fear threatened to overwhelm her sudden and acute awareness of his warmth, his closeness, the brush of his long hair against her shoulder as Rensai held her in it, her note of shock trapped between their lips.
Threatened, but only that. Her heart thudded heavily and revulsion joined the chorus of instincts screaming at her to object, push him away, anything. But his touch was gentle, if insistent. His kiss was uninvasive, if unexpected.
He gave her hand what could only be a coaxing squeeze.
You'll want to make this look good.
His grip on her hand relaxed as bit by bit she let herself lean into him, a silent confirmation that this was right, this was what was necessary. She felt his other arm curl around her waist just as vaguely as she noticed the way her own free hand had come to rest on his chest. Their kiss deepened, though by whom it was impossible to tell, and she caught the gentlest nudge of his tongue before–-
Another squeeze of her hand and he was gone in the next breath. She discovered she'd closed her eyes only after she'd opened them to find Rensai turned back to the renewed cheers and mingled catcalls of their welcoming party.
Shame evaporated her haze of distraction on the spot. Her decorum, her reputation, her first impression… she'd let her surprise loosen her grip on all three.
"Excellent work," he whispered to her as the company resumed its march at last, this time across the entrance cavern towards another wide passageway. "They might have just bought it."
"You might have warned me," she hissed through a forced smile, digging her fingernails into his hand.
"Ah! Put away your claws, would you?" He shot her the briefest of glares. "Your reaction wouldn't have been natural."
"How do you know that?"
He took so long to look her over that Jimaya felt heat rise in her cheeks. "I just knew," he finally said with a nonchalant certainty so aggravating that Jimaya dug in her nails again and yanked him down so he was forced to meet her eyes.
"You will not do that again."
"Fine, fine." He shook free from her grip. He examined the dents she'd made with a scowl, but it disappeared in favor of mischief as he held his hand to her lips. "What about the other way around? Kiss it better?"
Jimaya slapped it away and Rensai laughed.
"Are you going to tell me where we're headed next?" she grumbled. They filed into the next passageway at last and Jimaya was relieved to leave her false cheer behind in the cavern with the throngs of well-wishers. "Some new venue for my embarrassment?"
"That wasn't meant to embarrass you," he said, sobering.
"Well it did. If you had pulled that stunt at the palace instead–-"
Rensai scoffed. "I would never. Are you going to fight me on every public gesture, or are you going to let me take the lead on my own people's expectations?"
"You mean for me to believe that every single person in this mountain expected us to behave like that after a single day's forced march?"
"Oh, 'behave like that,'" he repeated on a sneer. "It was a kiss, and it served us well. Should I have let you walk in looking as sour as you did the entire way here?" Jimaya was certain he would have gone on but Rensai abruptly cut himself short: his father had appeared at Jimaya's other elbow.
"Your Highness." Yoren inclined his head to her, and in that moment Jimaya was quite certain there was no place she'd like to be less than framed by both Counselor and son. "I hope you are warmed by your preliminary welcome. Chief Kharvaach would have greeted you upon arrival, but I thought you might prefer a quieter setting after the journey. He and his daughter will await you for dinner tonight, along with the Chief's Guard."
Jimaya shot a glance at Rensai – another warning he might have deigned to share with her. But of course he was no help: he'd melted back into the same impenetrable stoicism from the ambassador's tent.
"You're very right, Counselor, thank you." She was grateful to at least let courtesy carry her now, since Rensai surely wouldn't. "What time do they take their meal? I'll want to refresh myself to make the most of our time together."
"Not for another two hours, but you'll find your new accommodations very well stocked should you need anything before then. Your belongings should have been brought up already. Rensai, if you'll escort her. I'm sure you can do without all this," Yoren waved a hand at the company crowding the passageway, "superfluity."
"We'll see you at dinner." His reply was so perfunctory Jimaya half expected Rensai to bow. Yoren seemed to detect something in his tone too, and Jimaya could have sworn she caught a hint of warning flash in the Counselor's eyes.
"Until then," he said with another incline of his head, then made his slinking way to the front of the company to dismiss them.
"This way," Rensai muttered. His hand met the small of Jimaya's back again as he led her towards a side passageway, but he took it away again the moment they disappeared from view.
This tunnel was narrower, winding like a tributary to the passage they'd just left behind. But wherever they were headed, it was back upward, and Jimaya imagined them steadily crawling their way up the mountain's peaks from the inside. It was a much less trafficked road, for which Jimaya was grateful, but it also had much less in the way of infrastructure: every so often the path opened up into another wide cavern and skirted up its walls with only a few feet between stone and open air. It was better than crossing – she hadn't liked the look of those catwalks – but she still hugged tight to the wall and tried to ignore the few Denborn she spotted scurrying along their own routes, confident as could be.
"I apologize for kissing you," Rensai said quietly as she followed him up the narrow path. "I won't do it again unless you ask."
Jimaya very nearly sniped that she would never ask, but the memory of the slightest touch of his tongue ghosted through the back of her mind and her stomach gave a startled little swoop. She quickly exorcized the thought with a forcible reminder of their circumstances instead. They were to be wed. Surely every once in a while there would be a call for that. And likely more, further down the road. And presumably there would come a time when she could learn to tolerate it.
In the interim he as right to await permission. To make her ask for it.
Her insides squeezed in an appeal she refused to entertain.
"Thank you," she said as diplomatically as she could. "...I don't want us to get off on the wrong foot. I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to argue in the future." She tried to angle herself to see whether Rensai had smiled. She doubted it. "This is a lot at once and it will be much easier on me if I don't feel lost."
They turned a final corner and Jimaya nearly laughed at her timing: she was certainly lost. It was a residential block, she supposed, but not built in a cavern or carved from a tunnel. It was a deep, gaping crack in the side of the mountain, a split in the rockface itself as though a great axe had been driven into it. Apartments were carved straight into the far wall, stacked just two high to allow the towering ceiling to slant up and out overhead, offering cover from the weather but enough sweeping view of the forest beyond to make Jimaya dizzy.
"I don't know what you don't know, Jimaya." Rensai carried on down the path as though he weren't striding past the single most incredible vista she had ever seen in her life. She nearly tripped as she followed him up a set of carved stairs to one of the upper residences, wholly distracted by the dying sunset in its rockface frame. "You'll just have to trust me when–-"
He noticed she'd slowed and he stopped, following her gaze for a moment.
"This side is better in the morning," he said almost gently. "Come on."
Finally Jimaya tore her eyes from the horizon to find Rensai fitting a key into a door at the top of the stairs. He pushed it open and nodded her inside.
"Shall I carry you over the threshold?"
"Save it for the wedding night," she muttered as she crested the top of the stairs. But passing beneath his arm and into the apartment she was sure she caught the hint of a smile, and inwardly she let herself be just the slightest bit grateful for – however brief or tenuous – something close to levity.
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."
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.
Jimaya yelped in surprise and her hands flew to her dressing gown to yank it closer. Rensai was watching her from the main table with unconcealed amusement. He'd already changed for the day, back in his ridiculous bare-skin-and-leather getup, and she flushed at her state of dress by comparison.
"You–- I thought you'd left already," she stammered, heart racing as she edged the rest of the way out of the bedroom.
"What would you have done then? Wandered the tunnels until you found your way to wherever my father has summoned you today? Sit down, have some tea."
Kouda had given her a diplomatic warning that Den life would likely be quite a bit… leaner than what Jimaya had been used to at the Imperial Palace. No ringing valets for her breakfast of choice, no baths drawn at her most casual request, no army of attendants to help her into formalwear. She was confident she could cope with discomfort but less certain of how exactly she'd have to go about it. Figure it out as she went along, she supposed, starting with breakfast. She could make do with whatever remained of the refreshments from the prior night. She'd even mentally prepared herself accordingly.
But in addition to the tea tray at Rensai's knee, a plate bearing two generous sesame-sprinkled rice balls awaited her at the table. She glanced at the hearth – the pot hanging over the fire still steamed.
"You made those?"
"Yes Jimaya, much of the world knows how to cook. There's soup as well."
"I didn't mean–-" she began, then cut herself off, feeling awkward as she settled down opposite him. "I mean I appreciate it," she tried again as he poured her a cup of tea and slid it towards her with an inviting nod. "I thought I was going to have to survive on grapes alone before facing your father."
"Oh, you don't need to worry about that," Rensai said mildly, sipping his own tea. "You slept through it."
Jimaya nearly dropped her rice ball. "What?!"
"By a few hours," he nodded. "I was going to wake you. But after yesterday's journey, setting so early a meeting time was pretty ungracious of him. Think of it as his own etiquette lesson if it helps you feel better."
"But we all made the same journey! You were up in time!"
"I've made the trek before. And," he added with a grin, "if it were me, I probably would have skipped the lesson either way."
Jimaya groaned and bit glumly into her rice ball. Delicate, comforting creaminess threatened to sweep away her dismay before she could even settle in with it: she looked down and found a perfectly soft boiled egg cradled in the center.
"So high strung," Rensai commented, his attention already drawn elsewhere, and Jimaya noticed for the first time that he was poring over several sheets of thin, heavily marked paper laid out atop the table. "Is that an Imperial trait or a royal one?"
"I want to make a good impression," she said defensively.
"You already have, I told you. Senten is conducting your combat assessment today, and after last night he's quite looking forward to it. And if my father gives you grief when you see him next, you can blame me. He'll believe you."
Jimaya wracked her brain for Senten's face – she'd met so many of the Chief's Guard that night that it had been difficult to keep track, especially through all the matched warpaint. And if she did run into Yoren somewhere along the way, she didn't want to lie to him, much less assign blame to Rensai.
She thought of his weighty sigh last night. How tired he'd sounded, how resigned, before he'd settled down beside her.
Jimaya sipped her tea in silence. He was all casual calm now, despite his late night and early morning, and she watched as his hand passed over the papers in front of him, reed pen held loose in his grip. He scored through miniscule notes and added new ones in the same practiced hand that marked their engagement contract. "What's all that?" she asked when her curiosity finally won out, nodding at the tabletop.
"Innovation?" she tried to ask with a mocking sweetness, nose in her tea, and she was rewarded for her efforts with another devilish smile. She had to consciously force herself to swallow.
"Yes. I'll show you this week, if you like."
"What, you can't tell me what it is?"
"It's better experienced than explained," Rensai said, returning his attention to the pages. "And I want to make sure you have the stomach for it first. Wouldn't want to scare you off."
Jimaya barely kept herself from rolling her eyes. But after only another minute he tucked the pen behind his ear, sighed, and leaned back on his hands.
"I'm not going to make any real progress here, anyway. Soup?"
With breakfast out of the way, Jimaya readied for the rest of her day. She swiped another damp cloth over her body – honestly, there had to be a better way, and she made a mental note to ask Rensai how Denborn actually bathed. She had to dig through both trunks until she finally unearthed her more everyday training clothes: a simple, breathable scarlet linen tunic and tightly woven leggings that afforded a full range of motion. Rensai leaned in the bedroom doorway as she tugged her hair back into a neat bun. His smirk caught her eye in the vanity's reflection.
"Come on then. Senten awaits."
Like every other journey she'd taken in the Den so far, she had no idea where she was headed nor any confidence that she could retrace her steps even if she wanted to. There were at least two afternoons' worth of scheduled tours on her week's agenda, she remembered, though she couldn't imagine how any amount of repetition would make the identical, twisting tunnels and gaping caverns distinguishable to her. She could at least tell they were headed deeper than she'd been thus far: the air was thicker down here, and drier. Hotter. They parted ways at the mouth of a passageway Jimaya never would have noticed had Rensai not stopped directly in front of it.
"Just carry on this way until you see him," Rensai said unhelpfully, nodding her onward. "Good luck. Make me proud, dearest heart."
Jimaya did roll her eyes this time. "And where are you off to?"
"Work," came the only reply, and he lifted his hand in farewell, his back already turned as he disappeared down the side passageway.
Luckily she didn't have to go much farther: she passed two more side tunnels like the one Rensai had taken until her own gave way to a huge, multi-level practice space. Archers drew their arrows with invisible swiftness and fired on distant targets at an instructor's command. Warriors grappled and cheered one another on in at least a dozen separate sparring rings. A flash of color drew Jimaya's eye upward: warriors were scrambling up the sheer rock face at the back of the cavern, spears strapped to their backs, until comrades hauled them up to rest on impossibly narrow outcroppings. The entire hall was a cacophony of movement and activity, and the calls and clash of wood and metal raised the hair on Jimaya's arms. She gave a little shiver – it was as exciting as it was intimidating. She could keep up. Probably.
She tore her eyes from a group of trainees struggling to restring their bows when her eyes fell on a familiar face. Or at least familiar warpaint.
"Senten." She crossed the space between them and inclined her head respectfully. "It's a pleasure to see you again so soon."
"Senta," he corrected her gruffly, pushing off the wall to greet her. He was holding a board and pen – presumably to mark her combat assessment – but what concerned her more was the dark knit of his pronounced brow. "Did that bastard tell you to call me that?"
Jimaya stiffened in alarm. "Oh, I'm sorry, I must have misunderstood him! I met so many new faces last night and I'm afraid–-"
But Senta interrupted her with a deep, rumbling laugh. "Ha! I say 'bastard' and you hear 'Rensai.' Outstanding – you'll do well here." Jimaya coughed as he clapped her hard on the back, and before she could recover he'd already strode deeper into the training hall and beckoned her to follow. "I don't suppose he told you why they call me that?"
Jimaya scurried to catch up. "No, I didn't even know it was a nickname."
He stopped and thrust his arm out to her. Jimaya tensed, expecting to find him suddenly holding some weapon or another, but instead he just turned his arm slowly beneath her gaze. His tattoos were unlike any she'd yet seen in the Den: jagged, blurred lines on uneven skin, as though it had blistered and scarred long ago. Where she'd seen thick black whorls and bands on others, Senta had only brittle outlines.
"Inksick. Took ten sessions to get my first. They wanted to give up after two, but I insisted. Some find it funny that I wear less ink than them. But I bore ten times the pain." He dropped his arm again, radiating smug pride. "And none of them have ever made Chief's Guard."
"Quite an accomplishment," Jimaya said, and she meant it. Even a short time with Rensai had shown her how vain Denborn could be about their tattoos. Here was one with a fragile facsimile of the art others wore, and he could probably kill any one of them on sight.
"I value endurance. You should know, then, that I don't plan to go easy on you." Senta led her to an empty sparring ring; around them, trainees took notice and glanced in their direction. Jimaya straightened her shoulders under their scrutiny. "Rensai might be a bastard, but he can fight. Let's make sure you can give him what he deserves, eh?"
Jimaya followed Senta's example and turned to the weapons rack just outside the white-chalked ring. Staves and blades of all kinds glinted dangerously in the hall's bright torchlight as though daring her to take up any one of them in challenge. She chose a spear first and tested its balance – not her most proficient weapon. But a whisper rippled through the trainees just like she'd hoped, and she tightened her grip on it, determined. She'd beat these Denborn at their own game.
"Or what? He'll walk all over me?" she asked casually.
"I don't think either of you would care much for that."
She turned to find Senta had chosen a spear too. He dug in his feet and leveled it at her chest from across the ring. "Three bouts with each – spears, staves, and swords. Whichever order you like. Then a climbing test, and after that Taina will take over for archery and stealth. Are you ready?"
Jimaya locked the spear beneath her arm and matched his stance. Adrenaline flushed the room clear of everything but Senta, the tip of his spear, and the circle that closed them both in. "Very."
The word had hardly left her mouth before Senta lunged. It was like trying to fight a hurricane – he was everywhere at once until a spare few terrifying, blank moments when she couldn't see him at all. She dodged his spear tip only to have the shaft swing around whack her across the back or sweep beneath her feet to knock her over. The first bout saw her slammed unceremoniously to the ground in what felt like seconds, spear trained at her throat, but by the second Jimaya had a better grip on his technique. He wasn't as measured as the Imperial style demanded, nor as tight and cautious: once she had a feel for his movements Jimaya was able to jab the butt of her spear to his lower back and send him staggering, dancing just out of the reach of his blade. The handful of gathered trainees whooped and jeered in equal measure no matter who had the advantage.
She fared far worse by staff than she did by spear: all three bouts ended in crushing, demoralizing defeat. By the time they made it to swords she had to wrap the trailing scarlet sashes around her wrist to keep the hilts secure in her sweaty grip. But swords were her specialty. Renewed energy surged her forward in a flash of steel, and she finally pinned him to the ground in the first bout, twin blades buried in the sparring ring sand on either side of his neck. He nodded brusque approval when she let him up. Momentum carried her a victory in her second bout too, with a knee pressed into his back and blade held to his throat. That win was sweet but short lived: he disarmed her in the third and sent both swords flying outside of the ring. Jimaya could only raise her hands in defeat, gasping for breath and pouring sweat, head bowed as she caught her breath.
But the trainees around her erupted in cheers. She jerked her head up in surprise and found they'd lined the entire outside of the ring to watch: she'd been too focused to notice, but there Senta was waving them off impatiently, scolding them back to their own practice. Even then some of them fought to catch her eye, waving and applauding.
"Splendidly fought, Your Highness," Senta said with another clap on the back. This one nearly sent her to her knees.
"Just Jimaya," she panted, wincing an exhausted smile. "Jimaya is fine."
"Jimaya then." Senta bared his teeth in what she had to assume was a smile. "You've done your people proud. We could stand to learn a lot from you, you know – that footwork… but we'll come to that later. Climbing next, come on."
By the end of the session Jimaya was certain she'd never been so physically spent in her entire life. She'd climbed before - rocks, trees, onto the palace roof. But none of that remotely prepared her for the threatening jab of Senta's spear as she scrambled up the jagged wall as fast as she could. Her exhaustion from the ring compounded with her lingering aches from the prior day's journey, which took the opportunity to make themselves known at the least convenient time possible, dragging down her legs as she fought to distribute her weight and cling to the rock face. By the time Taina met her for archery, she could hardly nock the arrow without her hands shaking violently, her forearms screaming in protest from their trials at the wall.
"I don't know why you have to do this all in one day," Taina sighed impatiently, shaking her head as yet another of Jimaya's arrows met the ground instead of its target. "Rest up, come back tomorrow, and we'll try again." Defeat sapped the last of Jimaya's strength and she tried to protest, but Taina cut her off before she could even catch her breath. "It's not a proper assessment if you've already been exhausted. We separate archers and spearmen for a reason."
Jimaya turned for Senta instead, hoping he could insist. She'd rather perform poorly than give up. Her eyes roved over the training hall and finally they found him close to the entrance again – and her heart sank. He was poring over his assessment notes, Rensai leaning close to peer over his shoulder. She trudged over to join them, apprehensive.
"My heart," Rensai greeted her with a wide smile. Jimaya instantly became aware of the sweat that coated every inch of her body in a grimy, tacky film. "I hear you've done spectacularly today."
Her laugh came out more like a sigh of exhaustion. "I don't know about spectacularly. Senta is a credit to his station," she said, inclining her head to him. "As is Taina. I'd like to continue my practice with her–"
"Not today," Taina insisted as she joined the trio, bow slung over her back. She crossed well-muscled arms over her chest. "I deserve her as fresh as Senten got her this morning. Who is responsible for her schedule?"
"Who do you think?" Taina snorted but Senta remained stoic, and Rensai turned to him next. "And you? Enough for one day?"
"I have everything I need to assign her a training class. Taina can handle the rest." Senta pushed the board into Rensai's chest and laid a rough hand on her shoulder. "Well done, Jimaya. I'll see you in the ring."
Jimaya bowed in earnest this time. "Thank you, Senta–-"
"Senten is fine," he growled. He strode away with no further closing, barking at the nearest throng of loitering trainees – something about being fed to the mines if they didn't straighten up.
"See that she comes back to me, and rested next time," Taina warned, pointing a finger at Rensai as though Jimaya's fatigue were any fault of his. She gave Jimaya a significant glance, then left them as well.
Rensai watched her go, then turned a sly grin on Jimaya. "You let him call you by name."
"You call me by name," she pointed out.
"Yes but we're in love," he said, slinging an arm over her shoulder and making a show of leading her out of the training hall. "And he let you call him Senten. He must like you."
"Well he called you 'bastard' about a dozen times, so what does that mean for you?"
"It means he and I are the best of friends," Rensai said so evenly that Jimaya had no idea whether he meant it. He let his arm slip from her shoulders once they passed into the tunnel and out of sight, then began paging through the results of her assessment. Curiosity and self-consciousness brought her to her tiptoes.
"What does it say?" she asked, trying to see over his arm.
Rensai deliberately raised it out of her reach, lifting his chin to keep reading. "It's as I said. Spectacular."
"Don't be difficult." She tugged impatiently on his arm but Rensai only held it higher.
"It says here 'a sheer and relentless force of nature–-'"
"You are a bastard," Jimaya muttered, dropping back to her heels, and Rensai laughed.
"And you're about as fun as Senten." He held the board out to her.
Nerves pushed aside the miniscule prick of Rensai's words – yet again she had no idea whether he meant it – and she scanned the assessment with a flutter of anxious optimism. She'd been right, "spectacular" didn't appear once, but nor did any outright declarations of failure. In fact Senten's scrawling but meticulous notes characterized her efforts exactly as she'd dared hope: adaptable, determined, and above all sound in technique. He was brutal in his thoughts on her staff work, which she had to admit was fair, and though he criticized her weak efforts at the wall Jimaya had every confidence that would come in time. Glowing with pride, she read and reread his praise for her swordsmanship. What would Omare say? He'd probably kill for a Denborn's proper evaluation of his skills. She could imagine the tearing jealousy on his face if he knew.
Before long they arrived back at the axe-cloven split of the Mountain that was Rensai's neighborhood. Another blazing sunset burned on the horizon beyond and her shoulders released just a fraction of their fatigued ache at the sight. How Rensai could insist sunrises were even better, she couldn't imagine. But fatigue called to her more and she dragged herself up the stairs behind him, and upon arrival she let herself fall to the ground to yank off her shoes.
"If I don't have a proper bath, I might die."
Rensai snorted. "You'll die, Jimaya?" He bent to remove his own boots. "I'll have a dead royal on my hands? Will I be framed for regicide or just assassination?"
She gave up on her shoes for the time being and laid back on the floor, digging her fingers into her aching shoulders. "Murder-suicide if I have anything to say about it."
Rensai chuckled. "Use the hot spring."
Jimaya sat up so quickly her head spun. "What hot spring?" she began, then startled to find Rensai had knelt and was tugging her shoe off for her. He nodded in the vague direction of the back of the apartment, eyes down.
"It's very small, nothing like the public ones, but it's private." He set one shoe carefully aside and reached for the other. "That probably doesn't sound like a luxury to you, but I assure you it's very rare in the Den. Perks of being the Counselor's son."
Jimaya heard the roll of his eyes more than she saw it, too focused on watching his fingers unlace her shoe and gently ease it off. She blushed vividly and mumbled her thanks, but he appeared to take no notice of either as he straightened up.
"It's just out the back door and down the stairs. I'll start dinner in the meantime, but don't be too long – I'm too hungry to wait for you."
"Thank you," she repeated more clearly this time. The promise of an imminent bath brought her back to her feet with sudden and renewed energy and she rounded on her trunks to begin digging for linens and a robe. Once she extracted them she nearly buried her face in the fabric to sob out her preemptive relief. Every cell of her body keened for a vigorous scrub.
The modest wooden door at the back of the apartment opened up into an even more modest set of carved stone stairs that snaked downwards into a tall, narrow cavern. Jimaya followed them delicately, careful not to trip on the narrow steps, and the lower she descended the more she could see of the jagged gap in the stone ceiling above. The warm light of summer dusk poured through and, just when Jimaya was sure she'd descended even below the floor of the apartment beneath Rensai's, illuminated the small spring below.
It was little more than a ragged hole in the ground, hardly wider than Jimaya was tall. But the fading sunlight cast the stone in pink-red shadow, touching hue to the delicate plumes of steam that rose from the softly shimmering surface of the water. The rich mineral scent of sulfur rolled over her skin. Maybe it was the inviting effervescence of the opaque water, maybe she was just relieved beyond comprehension, but Jimaya was sure no part of the Imperial palace, in all its opulence, could compare to the unassuming and natural beauty of this tiny, closed space. She barely clung to her senses long enough to light the candles that rested in a carved alcove in the wall. She shed her clothes, kicked them aside, and slipped slowly into the water.
A whimpering groan escaped her lips as the water closed over her shoulders, and for a second Jimaya feared she might actually cry in relief. The heat worked its way into every ache in her body, coaxing it looser, pulling her gently towards rest like a lover's guiding hand. She let herself bob, eyes closed, weightless, and – for the first time she'd yet felt in the Den – blissfully careless in the Mountain's embrace.