"Sire!" Capo's sharp tone cut through the howling wind but Omare dismissed it with an irritable shake of his head, loosening the largest of the snowflakes that had plastered themselves to the furs protecting his face. "For the hundredth time, stay on the path!"
"He wasn't following the path." Omare had to yank the ruff away from his mouth to be heard properly, and he paused only to glare at Capo as the man trudged several yards behind him. "Look at the tracks! If we don't follow them now, we'll lose them."
"If he's fool enough to stray in this weather, then he deserves whatever befalls him," Capo muttered as he caught up, long legs closing the space between them with ease. Omare felt more like he was wading through snow rather than walking atop it like Capo but he pressed on and paid his jester's grumbling no mind. There was an outpost ahead, perhaps he'd headed there – but then why did the tracks lead southwards?
"There!" Capo pointed with his spear just to Omare's right, a ways down a rock-studded hill, and Omare turned, squinting against the blizzard. A patch of disturbed snow, and beside it, a long, snapped length of wood. "His walking stick?"
Omare wasted no time and bounded forward again. Yes, that was unmistakably Rensai's, and he didn't bother gathering the pieces as he scrabbled his way down the hill, Capo cursing behind him as he followed. The snow was turned over in places, wiped clear from the icy rocks beneath, but it wasn't exactly a fresh trail, not with the way snow was dumping down on them from above; he could have been here an hour ago or more. He reached the foot of the hill and cast around wildly for another clue, but his ankle caught on something beneath the snow and he tripped, falling flat on his back beside a snow-covered mass. Fur pricked through the thin layer of flakes, and the barest hint of blue—
"Capo!" he shouted, his heart beating excitedly in his chest. "Capo he's here, get down here!"
Capo was on them in seconds and knelt beside them to brush Rensai off, yanking off Rensai's hat and blindfold to get a better look at him. Rensai's head lolled on his shoulders but he winced slightly, his chest rose and fell: he was still breathing, still conscious. Judging by the snow that covered him and the length of his fall, he was lucky to be either.
"Up, get him up," Capo ordered and Omare helped hoist Rensai to his feet. It didn't accomplish much: Rensai could barely keep his eyes open, much less support his own weight, and Capo gave him a violent shake.
"Hey! Awake, you hear? Keep it together," he growled. "He's soaked," he added sternly to Omare. "The nearest outpost is another half an hour's march, and that's in the best of weather without a fool's dead weight." He hefted Rensai again, who found the energy to grumble irritably at the insult. Omare let out a breath of relief; at least he was lucid.
"Then we better get going," Omare said firmly, "and when it's within sight I'll run ahead to get a fire started."
The wind refused to relent and it was hardly a quarter of the way there that Omare began to feel like Rensai's thin frame was weighing them down twice as much as it should have. His stumbling steps slowed them even further and the steam from their labored breathing seemed to freeze right in front of their faces, only to have the moisture thrown back at them by the wind like knives. Capo vented his fatigue and frustration with a selection of choice curses and well-timed jabs at Rensai when he dragged too long, and Omare might have protested if he didn't find catharsis in it too. Rensai would hiss, gnash his teeth, and stumble onward.
At last the vague shadow of the outpost took shape in the midst of the blizzard's white-gray landscape. No torch burned at the entrance – indeed, no one was guarding the summer trail at this time of year – but Omare took heart anyway, easing Rensai's full weight into Capo's arms and taking off towards the outpost with newfound energy. He stumbled up the steps and burst inside: even the still, frigid air within couldn't dampen his gratitude for the opportunity to be out of the wind. It was a small, stilted building, stocked with only the barest essentials, but he yanked down everything he could find from the stacked shelves. A musty bedroll, blankets that hadn't seen the wear of moths just yet, two heavy jugs of water, an oil lamp – not much for heat, but it would do the job until they could find wood for a proper fire. He gulped down some of the water, dragged his hand across his mouth, then dashed back outside to help Capo the rest of the way.
He didn't blame Capo for dumping Rensai so unceremoniously on the bedroll once they'd heaved him inside: Capo's dreadlocks looked more like icicles, and his breath had frozen in his eyebrows. Capo tossed his hat to the floor and yanked the door shut, closing them in a small square of silence while the wind and snow whipped against the walls outside. The pair of them panted, grinning, and relished a moment's appreciation for the labor they'd just endured. But the object of their toil interrupted them with a gasp from the floor, shivering violently.
"Take the furs off, they're too wet," Capo was saying as he knelt down to unfasten the heavy coat and ease Rensai out one shoulder at a time. Omare focused on the legs instead, satisfied to find that the snow hadn't soaked through the heavy soles of the shoes just yet, but Rensai's feet were both white with cold.
"He's not shivering anymore," Omare pointed out hopefully, but Capo was shaking his head as he folded two blankets over Rensai's body.
"Because he's been cold too long," he said gravely. "This lamp won't do, he needs to get warm, now. Stay with him, I'll find some wood."
"But you just—"
"Stay," Capo insisted, then added, "Sire," with a little salute before he forced himself back out into the cold.
Omare sighed and chafed his hands together, blowing on them and wondering if doing the same to Rensai might help. Instead he moved the lamp closer – better than nothing – and tapped the other man hard on the shoulder.
"Hey. You should drink water. Can you sit up?"
Rensai's breaths were coming weak and shallow, but he managed to turn his head to Omare and frown in a distinctly disgusted way that communicated, "What does it look like?"
"Well too bad, you're going to have to anyway," Omare snapped. "C'mon." He moved behind Rensai's head and pushed at his shoulders, bunching the bedroll up a bit and shoving another blanket on top of it so Rensai was at least a little more propped up. It was only half as effective as he'd hoped, but he poured out a cup of water and pushed it into Rensai's hands regardless. Gripping appeared to cause him a lot of trouble though, so Omare had to guide the cup to his mouth with a knee shoved under his back to get him up to the proper angle. Water ran over Rensai's lips but he managed to gulp down most of it, and he fared better with the second and third cup. The fourth he declined, waving Omare away. Despite whatever pain he was in, Rensai probably relished the opportunity to dismiss him.
He sat back against the wall with a huff as Rensai settled down again, his body still jerking with the occasional rush of shivers. "Hey, eyes open," Omare said sharply when he saw them begin to close, prodding Rensai with his foot, and Rensai actually snorted, his tongue wetting his lips as he struggled to speak.
"Child king to the rescue," he croaked.
"Oh great, you can talk," Omare sneered, but he was glad Rensai couldn't see the way his shoulders relaxed to hear it. It was a good sign, if an annoying one.
"Won't waste it on you," Rensai assured him, and Omare had to wonder if Rensai was pooling his energy just so he could use it all to be as ungrateful as possible. He watched as Rensai shifted beneath the blankets, shaking his arms free to flex his fingers, frowning as he brought them to his cheek – Omare guessed they must still be numb. He carried on for a bit but said nothing further, apparently unconcerned with where they were or how they'd arrived there, content to rest and warm while Omare stared uselessly at him.
"Are you injured?" he thought to ask after a while. There had been no blood when they'd shucked off the wet furs, nothing dislocated or broken from what they could see, and certainly no cries of pain when they'd done so, but still, they had found him in a heap at the foot of a rocky hill.
"Don't sound too eager."
Omare huffed. "We didn't have to come after you, you know. Capo wanted to turn back. We could have sent guards in the morning."
Rensai scoffed again but said nothing more. The bitter certainty in his smirk unsettled Omare, but it died soon enough, gone to the flicker of the lamp's dim flame. The sky outside was darkening, and he wondered after Capo. They would have to stay the night, not that he'd expected much less, but he still wasn't looking forward to an evening in such close quarters with Rensai.
It was still some time before Capo's thumping knock sounded at the door: Rensai occasionally turned his unseeing eyes to odd parts of the room as though he imagined something had caught his eye, mumbling to himself. It set Omare ill at ease and he interrupted with more offers of water, which Rensai had accepted more often than not, but he was grateful for the interruption and threw the door open to admit Capo, freshly snow-plastered and windswept.
"I did the best I could, but I fear these won't hold a flame long," Capo admitted grimly, dumping the armful of wood and kindling in a corner close to the door. "Most everything was soaked by the storm. How is he?"
"He spoke a bit, took some water," Omare said with a gesture at Rensai, who had turned his head at the sudden entrance. "He doesn't seem injured, and the fall didn't beat the obstinance out of him."
"Bad luck," Rensai rasped, and Capo let out a harsh laugh.
"Well, won't Her Highness be pleased," Capo remarked, pulling off his gloves and tossing them aside to better take inventory of his haul. Behind him, the curl of Rensai's lips vanished.
Omare joined Capo in sorting firewood, then allowed himself to be boosted towards the ceiling to open the vent: harsh wind howled above and little drifted down into the shelter, though Capo still insisted Omare better arrange the second blanket across Rensai's torso. The pair of them then set about striking a fire but the wood was too cold and wet from sitting in the blizzard so long. Even with a flint and the best tinder Capo had been able to scrounge for, a proper flame refused to hold for long.
"Try some of the oil," Capo suggested, and Omare took up the lamp to douse the driest bits of wood with what little oil they had at their disposal. It was some help: light flared and flickered, Rensai turned towards it, but the wood still spat and hissed. Capo ran his hand through his hair in aggravation.
"Use the ore."
Omare's gaze whipped to Rensai. "What? You have it on you?" he demanded, and Rensai gestured weakly towards to the corner where they'd laid out his coat to dry. Capo snatched it towards him and rifled through the pockets – knives, a flint, twine, basic survival supplies, but also a heavy leather pouch. An unmistakably acrid scent wafted up when Capo opened it, and Omare drew back, nose wrinkled.
"A pinch, and lean away if you value your hair," Rensai advised. Omare was about to snap back that no one on earth valued their hair as much as Rensai did, but he allowed himself to be pushed aside instead as Capo took a tiny amount between his fingers and tossed it into the struggling flame.
Heat blasted forward, sparks darted at the ceiling, and Omare stumbled back as Capo moved to cover him. But it had done the trick: the wood was singed but the flame held stronger than ever, and Omare clapped Capo on the back in congratulations. The effect on their morale was instantaneous: firelight flooded the room with orange and comforting warmth, and he heard Rensai let out a sigh. "Move him closer," Capo said with a nod, and they got to their feet to drag the bedroll nearer to the fire.
"The fire will help, but he's still dangerously dehydrated and the increased blood flow will be painful. We'll have to watch for signs of shock, and he needs to keep drinking. He can sleep when we return."
"How are you supposed to know if a blind man is asleep or not?" Omare muttered irritably.
"You'll know when he stops baring his teeth like a wild animal," Capo snorted with a nudge at Rensai, who indeed had not taken well to the comment on his sight. But no insult came with the scowl and after a few moments his face relaxed again, turned towards the fire.
They kept an eye on him and divided up the time by alternately prodding Rensai to make sure he was still awake and lifting him up and insisting he drink more water. Capo found some dried fruit in one of the shelves, which Omare split with him gratefully, and hours ticked by in relative pleasantness despite the circumstances. They chatted about court life, the upcoming Winter Festival, Capo's seemingly endless pursuit of one of the court's most prized martial artists – "Always seems to have training when I seek her out," he laughed – and only once did Rensai growl and ask whether the pair of them ever shut up. Outside, the wind had calmed considerably but night had fallen long ago: there would be no travel until daybreak.
Somewhere in the small hours of the morning, Omare jerked awake at the sound of another log being added to the fire. He lifted his head from Capo's shoulder – how long had they both been asleep? – and rubbed his eyes to find Rensai sitting up, one arm propped on his knee as casual as could be. The sound of movement turned his head slightly.
"King or jester?"
"Emperor," Omare corrected him, lifting his chin, but having to say it himself didn't make him feel very authoritative. Rensai seemed to feel similarly and smirked as he returned his attention to the fire.
"What might have brought an emperor and his sidekick out into a blizzard to search for me?"
"What might have inspired a blind man to stagger out into the blizzard in the first place?" Omare sneered back, but it felt like a low blow, childish. He hated confirming the role Rensai had already imagined for him.
"I was encouraged," came Rensai's careless answer. "I know the path. I didn't know there would be a storm."
"Everyone knew there would be a storm," Omare insisted, but he closed his mouth when Rensai turned to him again and pinned him with a sightless, unsettling stare.
"Everyone including your guards, who informed me that the storm had turned north and I had better get a move on if I wanted to make it to the mountain."
Omare's eyes fell on the pouch of ground ore they'd taken from Rensai's coat. They never kept much of it in the palace, it was much too dangerous to store in large quantities, so they left it locked away in the mountain where it came from and only fetched as much as they needed when they needed it. Rensai and his father knew the way, they often went together, but in the dead of winter Omare supposed the old man wasn't interested in making the trip. Either that, or he hadn't known about it.
"What were you going to do with it?" Omare asked lowly. "How much were you planning to steal?"
"Steal?" Rensai laughed. "It's mine, how can I steal what's already mine? The three of us would be frozen if I hadn't already had some on hand, so you're welcome for that. Isn't the better question why your beloved guards didn't ask me the same thing, knowing where I was headed?" Omare frowned, confused, and Rensai pushed on. "Why did they acknowledge where I planned to go, then insist I leave right away despite the approaching storm?"
"If you're implying they wanted something to happen to you—" Omare began, but Rensai cut him off with a smile and mock applause.
"Not everyone in your court shares your forgiving nature," he sneered as he turned back to the fire.
"I don't believe you," Omare said stubbornly, but Rensai just shrugged.
"Then don't. If it makes more sense for a 'blind man to stagger out into a blizzard' willingly, then by all means, believe that instead."
Omare turned his scowl on the fire as he puzzled that one out. His mother and father hadn't been the only ones to fall during the attack on the palace. He'd seen several soldiers and guards pierced by arrows as he and his sister fled to the docks, and when they'd returned, several more were missing and later mourned. But surely Imperial guards would uphold the will of their emperor and empress! If Omare and Jimaya said they were to be spared, integrated into society with the rest of the archers and spearmen, then there was no question! "There has been enough of mistrust and violence," Jimaya had declared at the sentencing. If he and his sister could set aside the loss and wickedness they'd suffered at the hands of Rensai and his father, how could his guards not follow suit?
"Can you imagine? The idea that your rule and good will might not be absolute," Rensai sighed and shook his head, having guessed the reason for Omare's silence. "Such a complex tangle for such a simple boy. Don't worry, I won't misplace my trust twice. Next time I will demand a royal escort. I've become accustomed to a certain standard after today's adventure."
"I'm going to investigate that," Omare said gruffly. "And when I prove you wrong, I'll come straight to you to tell you you're a fool like you deserve."
"I'll steel myself for your arrival."
"And your reason for venturing out in the first place?" Omare all but demanded, now thoroughly sick of the constant stream of sarcasm. Capo shifted in his sleep behind them and Omare lowered his voice to a hiss. "Explain yourself, or you can find your own way home."
Rensai's smirk faded. "Low on ore," he said simply.
"You're not. It's rationed out, we have enough for the winter."
"Not enough for the festival."
Omare made a face. "We haven't scheduled a display for the Winter Festival," he said, "and I've never seen you attend any event unless you're specifically ordered."
Rensai's jaw tightened in the flickering light of the fire. "She likes them."
Silence unfolded between them. "She doesn't love you," Omare thought of snarling. "Stay away from her." But Rensai always had. He never sought out Yujin, never asked after her, never visited her in the palace. On the rare occasions Omare had seen them in the same room, Rensai stood stock still as though hiding behind his blindfold; strange behavior for someone who usually arrived late for the express purpose of informing everyone around him that he had more important places to be. He'd only seen them exchange words once or twice, and each time Rensai had disappeared soon afterwards. Outlined by the glow of the fire, Rensai suddenly looked thinner than he had when they'd faced off months ago. Paler, more gaunt. Omare looked away, glaring instead at the pile of unburned wood.
"We'll dip into next month's stores," he grumbled. "Send someone else to fetch the rest when the weather improves."
"Why did you come for me?" Rensai turned, ruined eyes gazing just over Omare's left shoulder. The effect was at once eerie and just shy of pitious. "Why you?"
Omare pursed his lips. "She insisted."
Rensai eventually settled back down and assured Omare he wouldn't strangle him in his sleep, which Omare rather thought didn't needed to be stated and he couldn't decide whether to take it as a threat or as reassurance. The pair of them snatched just a few hours' rest before they were shaken awake by Capo at first light, accompanied by a string of curses and apologies about how he shouldn't have fallen asleep in the first place. ("Of course you could rest, Sire, but he could have died! I should have kept better watch.") Rensai barely spoke at all as they prepared for their return march, but he drank plenty of water and accepted some of the leftover dried fruit from the previous night, waving away Capo's reluctantly helping hands as he yanked his boots back on. Omare watched him tuck his pouch of ground ore safely back in his coat, drawstring tight.
Their journey back was mostly silent: everyone was still exhausted and Rensai's progress was hindered by the loss of his walking stick the day before. Of course he stubbornly refused any physical guidance from either of them – "Do you want help or do you want this to take three times as long as it needs to?" Omare asked, annoyed – and eventually Capo had to hand over his spear so they could keep up a reasonable pace. It was several hours before the palace walls were in sight: Omare gave a whoop of joy to see them just as shouts sounded from the walls above, followed by the blast of a horn: their emperor was back, his reluctant quarry in tow, and the group didn't make it the rest of the way there before they were met by practically half a platoon to usher them back inside. Another thick fur was thrown over his shoulders, Capo was accepting a cup of something warm—Omare turned to look over his shoulder at Rensai, who hung back, and at the nearest crossroads parted ways with the group and headed for home.
The week that followed brought Yujin's beaming smile to Omare one morning, a small scroll clutched to her chest. "A revised arrangement for the festival square," she exclaimed excitedly, smoothing the scroll out on the table for him to see. "Look at this, the cannons are mounted high but don't shoot very far. It will be a shower of fireworks right above our heads, a whole snowstorm."
Omare peered down at the design and gave a chuckle, glancing up at her delighted face. "A blizzard."