The rope burns patterning her slender wrists were still raw and angry, closer in shade to scarlet than pink, when she saw his face through the screen of snow-laden pines. It was her first glimpse of a human in hours, of him in almost half a year; combined, the shock rendered her stock-still, riding boots sinking into the deep snowdrift as she stared down the gentle slope.
Something in Berenene's chest unclenched, enough that she could register the beads of sweat running down her back, the burning ache in her thighs and calves. Her young body was more used to riding out of forests on horseback than escaping on foot.
Immediately after, following on her dizzying relief's wake, came a surge of fury, laced so deeply to fear that she could not tell where one ended and the other began. Both were as acrid as smoke. Berenene had already been betrayed by one trusted friend, not half a day earlier. Who was to say that another, even one garbed in the white robes of novitiate, albeit stained, in this case, with spattered vegetable dyes, would not also turn on her? How, even, could she trust that his presence in the wilderness was mere coincidence?
Far wiser to find her way back alone.
But he had already seen her, and her name, heavily accented but recognizable and just this side of booming, split the air like thunder. "Berenene!"
Shock raced up her spine. Berenene spun so quickly her tangled hair caught in her mouth, eyes darting around the forest floor in search of some sort of weapon. (Why, in all her years learning to outshine her older brothers, had she never considered, in depth, the relative deadliness of missiles of pine cones compared to a bat made of the branch from which they had fallen?) The soft thuds of feet scrambling up the incline made her neck prickle. Her mouth slanted determinedly, and she scooped up weapons before swiveling to face him.
"Novice Jianghua," she shouted, brandishing a branch in her left hand. The other clenched white around a pinecone, primed to become a missile at the slightest trigger. Before, she hoped, Jianghua thought to incinerate it in midair. "Do not come any closer!"
Novice Jianghua stopped, either in wary surprise or at her order, but for once, he looked like he was not listening. Instead, his attention - no longer surprised, but angry - caught on her wrists, and then the state of her mottled cheeks, and then the tangle of her hair. It made the familiarity of his broad, open face vanish. He could be any other traveler from Yanjing.
"What are you staring at?" Berenene hissed, glaring back with the weight of sixteen years of experience at receiving piercing attention.
Her eyes narrowed when he did not immediately respond.
Hastily, the novice held up both big hands, strong from constant work in various kitchens around the two empires, in a placating gesture. The coal-dark eyes stopped roving, resting, unnervingly focused, on her face.
"Whoever wished you harm did not work with me," Novice Jianghua said, dropping into a low rumble.
Of course not. The possibility of a collaboration with Jianghua had never occurred to Berenene; most other nobility did not visit novices gaining worldly experience in another empire's charity hospitals, even the hospitals of which they were the patron. Her former captor had probably never so much as laid eyes on a public healer in his life.
Berenene continued to watch Jianghua distrustfully; it did not preclude a novice working alone.
"Then why are you so far out..." she tried, and failed, to give a definite location, so settled uncomfortably on, "here?"
Novice Jianghua's surprise did not disappear, this time; too understanding, as he almost always was, to be hurt. "The whole city knows your horse came back rider-less." He shook his head, smiling a little, and suddenly utterly familiar once again. "I was looking for you, Bere -- your highness."
"Father let it become public knowledge?" Berenene wondered if the fatigue was dampening her hearing.
He hesitated before replying. "Your brother, highness. All of Namorn probably knows His Imperial Majesty is furious." As if aware of the spiral of Berenene's thoughts, Jianghua gestured in a direction outwardly no different from any other, though Berenene was at loathe to admit it. "It's not so far from the city."
Berenene stared moment longer at the well known face, the warmth behind every expression. There never had been any guile his words, even when he sought to avoid her more probing question by disappearing into his aroma-filled training. Even now, that did not change.
There was a shifting, like the world regaining centre again.
She sighed and lowered her branch, though she shifted her grip rather than let go. "How long to Kugisko?"
"An hour's walk, your highness." He glanced at her, the corners of his mouth rising slightly. "I could -- "
"No," Berenene said archly. "I will not stay lost a moment longer."
Jianghua considered his words a moment longer. "Even if it meant you would ride out of the forest instead of walking?"
"I've done this for four hours already. A fifth will get me just angry enough to make the traitors regret it dearly."
"Yanna Healtouch grant mercy if we see them," Jianghua smiled, and she had to stop her mouth twitching in response. She was supposed to be too tired, too angry, too wary, to regain the scraps of her composure and smile. But it was oddly easy to form one that felt genuine.
Berenene picked her way down to meet him, half way up the incline, and they trudged in the direction Jianghua had indicated. Up close, Berenene could see that, while the novice had not reached her degree of dishevelment, there were flecks of mud and water on the hem of his robes. His presence beside her was reassuring (though Berenene clung grimly to her branch), their shared quiet filled, somehow, and less grating than charm-soaked chatter. She had missed it when they last parted ways, six months past in the capital, even if, then, Berenene had not admitted it. She would miss it even more when the Trader Caravans began the journey east again. Who else would spend the time away from duties, completing his novitiate, discussing shakkans as easily as spices? Who else would know, instinctively, when to stop expounding knowledge in an attempt to impress her?
For an indeterminate time, they struggled on, up until the moment she realized that Jianghua, who had visited Kugisko for barely three weeks, was not retracing his steps.
Jianghua stopped when she did. Following her wary gaze in the general direction of the barely disturbed snow, and correctly interpreting it, he explained, "I can sense the heat of the forges and kitchens."
"From so far away?"
"There are a lot of kitchens, your highness," said Jianghua, who had probably been studying in one before leaving to search for her.
"There would have to be, as much as the Court eats," Berenene said dryly, already acquainted with headaches from overseeing the Royal Progress - the opportunity to present herself as the most sensible choice for heir was worth it.
Jianghua's wry smile told Berenene he was perfectly aware that she knew, few better, that his work for the past three weeks had been to help supply their table. "They supply all of Kugisko. A well-fed populace is a happy one, your highness."
He would know better than most.
"It's just the two of us, here," Berenene reminded him, as close to permission to use her name as she would ever get. She smiled, deadly sweet, stepping over a low-lying branch. "And those who would try to recapture me, if the leader still has the nerve once he has woken."
With frankness most of the courtiers lacked, oddly apparent despite the curve of his vowels, he did not hesitate to ask. "How did you escape?"
The smile widened even as her eyes narrowed at the memory. "Poppy and essence of Namornese thistle in my lip color."
At his surprised laughter, the pride in his expression as dependable as the Earth beneath her feet, the sting of betrayal accompanying her cold satisfaction faded a little.
"Hallucinations?" asked the novice, and Berenene nodded.
"I must express my gratitude, Jianghua, for our discussions while visiting the hospital's kitchens. You might have focused on the flavor, but without your advice, he would not have mistaken the stick figure I scratched on the wall to be me before he finally collapsed." She had given her thanks to Vrohain that the guards had left to prepare transport, stripped him of his coat, and freed her bound wrists with the key strung on his waist.
The thump of their boots was all that filled her ears, for a moment, as she smiled. Even the trees were silent, motionless, their shadows carving immutable shapes on the ground.
Then Jianghua asked, quietly and without jest, "I thought you would have thrown the oils away. What made you wear it today?"
Of course it would occur to Jianghua.
It was strange, how difficult the innocuous question was to answer, even set against her current circumstances. But had she not, herself, reminded him that no one else was listening? Berenene did not need to consider, in this instant, how others would look at her. There were situations that deserved her cold, hard, composed face, but this was not one of them. And she refused to fear his opinion - she could not fear anyone's if she was to rule.
"I planned to seek you out again," she admitted, as devoid of frivolity as he was, glancing sidelong at him through her lashes.
His eyes flicked to hers. "I did not think you would." Berenene could see the very moment the implication sank in: lip color, and him. "Your highness -- "
"Don't," she said, unexpectedly sharp just so it could hide the rawness. She remembered, as if each individual syllable was cut into her mind, that the last time they had spoken, she informed him, as distant as she ever might be, that the proper address was 'Your highness.' "I was angry, and swayed by it as I cannot be again. The past half-day has reminded me what actions should be regarded as betrayal, and yours were not it."
"I belong where I am to be Dedicated," he said, an echo of their past conversation, when he told her that that particular section of his journey to Namorn was over. "To something bigger than myself."
To quiet and peace and devotion, wholly separate from the uprisings of the Yanjing Empire -- where drought and famine had ravaged the north-east in the past decade -- that left the obvious scars on the back of his hands and less tangible ones in his mind.
"I did understand," Berenene sighed. "And now" -- after all she had seen on the Imperial Progress -- "I will no longer pretend not to."
The trees around them thinned abruptly. Berenene glanced back, dark eyes sweeping over the deep woods. When would it be appropriate to recommend turning the forest to lumber, so it offered fewer opportunities for mischief? Glancing forwards again, Berenene could see bright colors emerging from the beyond the screen of trees, where citizens bustled within the city of Kugisko.
She had the strangest sensation -- one rapidly becoming a conviction -- that after they crossed the veil of trees, the conversation would, as was entirely unjust and disappointing, as was entirely right and proper, be over. Words had flowed like spring rivers, rather than frozen lakes, only when just the two of them, and no one else, were paying attention.
It would no longer just be the two of them, but the pair of them and the rest of the Empire, and then, after he had gone, it would not be even that.
"Your high -- Berenene."
She turned her head in his direction, and blinked as Novice Jianghua dared to reach over to take the pine cone from her fingers. No; he had not intended to take only the pine cone, but her hand with it, gently nudging her fingers open to display the deep red imprints on her palms. They matched the marks on her wrists. "Promise me you will eat well tonight."
"I am the Imperial Princess, Jianghua," Berenene reminded him. "Of course I shall dine well."
"But will you?" he pressed.
"Eggs, fish, and at least three kinds of meat," she promised. She smiled, suddenly, turning their clasped hands so that she could see the back of his -- and the scars there. "You are not remotely who I thought you would be, when I first saw you. And yet, in some ways, you are."
Maybe he understood.
"What did you think?" he asked.
"That it would not matter to me if you returned to war and disappeared. I was wrong. That you did not seem like you would lie to me. I was right."
"Much to your chagrin?"
Berenene smiled, reluctantly. "Sometimes. And you, Novice Jianghua?"
It took him longer to compose a reply, but for the words would stay with Berenene for the rest of her life. "That you were always who you appeared to be, but others simply didn't look closely enough to see it."
"And who was that?" she asked, squeezing their clasped hands.
"Whoever Namorn needs you to be," he said, as sad as he was earnest, and she realized then that even if it was not the truth now, she would do her best to ensure that one day, it would be.
"Then it's fortunate you'll be leaving," she couldn't help but say.
"As if you would let it stop you," he pointed out; true.
Berenene nodded, and reluctantly, they began to walk again, shoulders brushing.
She could now pick out the individual guards standing by the city wall. It would not be long before her heavy coat ceased to conceal her identity. She would, then, be in the perfect position to punish her captor, unravel her brother's plots, and reassure those who would one day be her people -- those who were already, in her heart, her people -- that she was safe. Their hands unclasped, as though by mutual accord, when they neared the final tree before them, and just as Berenene had already guessed, the sight of her loose hair flicking with the new breeze sent up a cry of recognition.