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Choosing Adversaries

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Omare knew Counselor Yoren had a son near his age. He couldn't remember when he'd first heard about him, but it wasn't important information, just minutiae about the unsettling ambassador that came down from the mountains once a year or so to speak with his parents. He'd only met the counselor a couple of times, and the man had bowed low even though Omare was short and young, fixing Omare with a cold, gray stare and an even colder smile. Omare's father had put a hand on his back; Omare took the signal and squared his shoulders proudly, nodding his acknowledgement like a good prince should.

"I have a son like you," the Counselor rumbled with a curling smile. "A little taller than you, and older. You would be great friends."

Omare liked friends so he nodded eagerly, but his mother gently dismissed him, shooing him away so the adults could discuss the continued alliance between city and mountain in peace. Omare knew he wasn't allowed back until he heard the sharp clack of the counselor's claves. It was an old tradition, Omare's father explained. One left behind by the Imperial City but kept alive in the mountain, marking the end of a meeting and the beginning of whatever was to come next.

He and his sister grew older, and still they did their jobs as dutiful children and greeted Counselor Yoren whenever he came to visit, dressed in all the regalia of a formal meeting. Omare hated it. The robes were heavy and the hat was hard to balance, but Jimaya would dip such well-practiced curtsies that it took everything in him not to jab her with an elbow and send her toppling over in her high sandals. Once, when they were fourteen, Counselor Yoren paused to study Jimaya. Omare saw her stiffen under his gaze, too polite to turn away.

"I have a son around your age," he said as though they didn't already know, and he arched an appraising eyebrow as he looked Jimaya over. He glanced to their parents, but Omare saw that his father was stony-faced. "We should arrange a meeting for them."

"But first, today's meeting," their mother said smoothly, gesturing for Counselor Yoren to accompany them down the grand hallway like usual. That evening, Omare liberated a trailing length of bright yellow fabric from the palace seamstresses and stole Jimaya's tall sandals. He hunched down and crept around corners to surprise his sister, hobbling after her and rasping, "Meet my son, meet my son!" She shrieked and ran, he gave chase, until at last Jimaya looked to be on the verge of tears and she sought refuge in her father's arms. Omare relented then, shrugging off the wrap and apologizing through tears of laughter. It was all in good fun. A counselor's son would never marry an Imperial princess.

"Imagine what he must be like, though," Jimaya said with a wrinkle of her nose after she'd forgiven Omare for his torment.

"Probably just like his father," Omare said. "Weird, bright robes. Long nose and beard. Balding," he added and Jimaya buried her face in her hands, shaking her head with mingled disgust and amusement.

"Their chief has a daughter, maybe you need to be worried about her. That arrangement makes more sense. I bet she's covered in tattoos and can shoot an arrow through your heart at three hundred yards."

"Let her try," Omare crowed, and Jimaya drew an imaginary arrow and let it fly – he fell back dramatically, laughing.

He didn't have occasion to meet either of them until more than half a decade later, and it decidedly wasn't the setting he imagined with Jimaya. Instead, these circumstances could only have been imagined by Counselor Yoren himself. All those meetings, all those treaties, all that talk about alliance and history and loyalty – lies. Tales conjured up while the old man bided his time. For all Omare knew, the Imperial palace was still smoldering, his parents' bodies left to burn with their fallen kingdom. The thought sat like a stone in his stomach. Jimaya's escape by boat was little comfort to him – if the city had fallen, the lesser harbors that dotted their shoreline probably had, too. He tried not to think about her bobbing on the ocean, unable to make port.

He fought against the horrible pain in his head as much as his heart and he cast around for Capo. It was too dim to see much beyond the strange, round cage he'd been stuffed inside after their seizure: he couldn't stand up fully, and too much movement to either side sent him rolling back and forth. He called out for his jester, but no response. He tried a second time, a third, and on the fourth a spearman shouted at him to pipe down and jabbed his weapon threateningly through the links of the cage. Omare quieted but kept his fists raised. A proper warrior waited for the right moment to strike.

The counselor's son breezed through on that first day to admire the fine capture. If it weren't for whispers and hisses from Omare's masked, anonymous jailers, he wouldn't have known him: he looked nothing like his father after all. Omare had seen Counselor Yoren slither through the palace halls at home countless times, rigidly traditional and impossible to miss in those strange yellow robes. But where the father was bright, the son was dark, and he didn't slither, he stalked, head held high, shoulders square, and mouth curled in an easy smile that spoke volumes on cruelty and coercion. Hatred burned hot and corrosive in Omare's gut on sight.

The counselor's son laid eyes on Omare and spared him only a triumphant smirk as though having an Imperial prince for a prisoner were a lucky but not uncommon victory. Omare had scrambled to his feet and raised his fists, determined to show that he was not so easily subdued, he would fight to the last like any Imperialist warrior worth his salt – but the counselor's son turned on his heel and carried on.

No one else came to visit. No one came bearing food or water that night.

"Hey."

A boot collided with the side of his cage many hours later and sent Omare rocking back and forth, but he was on his feet at once, hissing in pain from the night in his tiny, round cell. It was a moment before his eyes blinked through the haze of rough sleep and adjusted to the lingering darkness – what time was it? – and when he finally focused on the counselor's son, he was nearly blinded again by rage.

"You—"

"Calm down, little prince," his captor chided before Omare could even work through his rage enough to speak a full sentence. "You'll only wear yourself out, and you're not scheduled to receive any water for…." The counselor's son sighed, casting his eyes around the windowless cavern as though looking for the sun. "Six hours, maybe more. I only came to chat for a bit."

"Well then you'd better address me properly. I am Imperial Prince Omare and I demand that you release me!" he commanded in the most authoritative tone he could muster, but anger injected a tremor in his words. The counselor's son's lips unfurled in a smile.

"And I am Rensai." He spared a moment to lay his hand over his heart in a mock bow, but hardly a second later he'd already jerked upright again with a flick of his hair over his shoulder. "No glorious title, so you'll excuse me for not using yours. It's a bit of a mouthful, and besides, I only hoped to get a better look at you and that jester of yours tonight."

"Capo!"

"Is that his name?" Rensai waved a dismissive hand. "I have a task in mind for the pair of you, but now that I see you…." His eyes flicked over Omare from head to toe and Omare bristled, indignant. "I don't think you're very well suited for it." He smiled. "Too small and weak."

"Let me out and I'll show you who's weak," Omare snarled, but Rensai snorted.

"Oh? Wasn't it just two spearmen who took you down while your Capo fought off six or seven more until he was subdued?" He shook his head. "Not an impressive show, little prince."

"My sister will come for us," Omare snapped. "And when she does, we'll beat that smirk from your face, and your treacherous father's as well!"

"Right, your sister." Rensai nodded thoughtfully and scuffed his boot against the stone floor before bringing his eyes to Omare's to savor his next few words. "Did no one tell you?"

Omare heard his heartbeat thrumming in his ears. Already Rensai was unbearably easy to read. That stance was too casual, he was enjoying this too much, too poised to reveal some horrible secret. But Omare had seen Jimaya escape on the ship before Capo carried him off, it was a well-trained crew aboard—

"Lost at sea," Rensai said solemnly before Omare could even complete the thought. "She and her crew hit a squall not far offshore. Our spearmen watched them sink."

"Liar!" Omare cried, lunging for him. He collided with the round edge of the cage and it rolled forward; Rensai sidestepped it easily, still wearing a sickening look of false gravity.

"A terrible shame," he sighed, shaking his head while Omare smoldered with the horrible, hollow half-certainty that it couldn't be true, Jimaya was too smart and too strong to be lost so easily and so soon after their separation. "But life goes on," Rensai continued. "Yours does anyway, for now, and I intend to make the most of it. I have two quality candidates in mind for the task at hand already. Both Imperialists, of course, but your jester will do well as a backup. He looks much more resilient than you do, and I'd rather not waste royal life so soon. Not when it's so recently become such a rare commodity."

A proper warrior would keep him talking. A proper warrior would gather as much information as he could, especially from someone so high ranking and so stupidly eager to boast, but rage heated Omare's veins and he could tolerate no more of it. The thought of Jimaya's death, no matter how remote the possibility; the threat against Capo and whoever else had already been imprisoned; his parents, struck down and abandoned for the sole sin of trusting too freely…. He hated himself almost as much as he hated Rensai, he snarled and kicked uselessly at his cage, wishing he could break the metal and Rensai's sneering face and somehow undo all the harm Counselor Yoren and his son had caused.

Rensai clicked his tongue. "Fury is a sorry substitute for bravery."

"What do you know about bravery?" Omare spat, gripping the links of his cage so tightly that his knuckles turned white. "Cowards and liars, you and your father both!"

"And when you're dead, you'll have plenty in common with your own father, won't you?" Rensai returned, betraying the barest flicker of insult. But it was gone in an instant, and he tossed his hair over his shoulder again. "Take care to rest up, little prince. You won't have the opportunity for long." He aimed a kick at Omare's fingers and Omare snatched them back just in time, seething.

Anger and hatred burned away most of Omare's memory of the few days that followed. The only bright spot went by the name of Yujin, and much like Rensai, she was nothing like he and Jimaya had imagined years ago. The Chief Archer's daughter wasn't tattooed. She didn't try to skewer Omare with an arrow. She gave him water, she returned his and his sister's flutes, she liberated him and Capo both, she was the only beautiful thing in that mountain of fire and rock. She was perfect. He kissed her hand and her blush lit a new flame within him quite unlike the fierce, vengeful one that had warmed him until that moment. He wished he remembered their first meeting with more clarity, but the rush of affection and gratitude he felt threatened to overwhelm him every time he thought back to it.

"Your Highness, you're besotted," Capo joked as they crouched beside the tiny fire they'd dared to build at the foot of the mountain, and Omare mumbled for him to shut up. He was too happy to have Capo back, whole and unharmed. Too happy to be free of his cage and plot the liberation of the rest of the captured Imperialists. Too happy to have found a burning ember in that mountainous pit of ash just waiting for him to bring her to a blaze. His dreams that night were lit up by the spark in her eyes.

The next time he met the counselor's son, it was on the battlefield, and he took the chance when he saw it. The punch was a cheap shot. Omare knew it even as he cocked back his fist while Rensai struggled, beaten and blinded, to his feet. But that didn't stop him, nor did it stop the flood of satisfaction he felt when Rensai collapsed to the ground once more. Jimaya, ever the ardent observer of the rules of engagement, looked aghast, but Omare ignored her.

"That was for my parents," he spat. "And for my kingdom."

Rensai never asked for forgiveness, and Omare was never forced to bestow it.