It was fair to say that the House of the Fierce was adjusting to Hien’s return.
For several weeks after the battle for Doma, everyone bowed and shuffled around him, not realizing that he had been living for moons as a nameless nomad and had little familiarity with being treated as a lord. He managed to talk them down from building a royal annex in the hideout, but his people still insisted on giving him his own chambers. At least it proved useful in situations like this, when all he wanted was to have a quiet cup of tea with his friend.
“Tell me, how is Lyse?” Hien asked.
Yugiri folded up the letter she was reading, her cheeks going the slightest shade of pink. “She is well. They have a new commander.”
“I know she would never presume to take you away from your work here, but we could spare you to go see her, Yugiri.”
“Are you calling me unnecessary?” she asked, but her eyes sparkled with mirth. Hien waved a hand.
“Now we are free. We may afford to act selfishly from time to time. In fact, independence demands it.”
The kettle began to boil, and Hien stood to fetch the tea from the stove. Yugiri remained cross-legged on the floor, in a simple robe with her hair down. As he poured them both cups, he allowed himself a small smile at how unthinkable this would’ve been several moons ago.
The comfortable silence was broken by a sharp rap at the door.
“Come in,” Hien called.
“Lord Hien,” said Aoi, struggling to catch her breath. She was in her guard uniform. “Sorry to interrupt, but there was a disturbance outside. An Auri man at the gate is demanding to see you at once.”
Hien and Yugiri both rose and hurried after her, making their way through the stone tunnels and into the main hall. They emerged to all seven fulms of Magnai the Older standing in the entryway, along with ten guards in bright Oroniri yellow and armed to the teeth. The other gatekeeper on duty seemed to be trying to reason with him.
“The Sun cares little for your excuses,” Magnai was saying, dismissing the shinobi with a flick of his wrist. “Hien will see me, or you will draw and fight me here and now.”
“Why, it’s the khan!” said Hien.
“I knew it,” said Yugiri at the same time.
“Doman,” Magnai said, looking down at Hien with an expression that could only be described as imperious. “Finally.”
Hien stared back. Magnai’s hair seemed even wilder than usual, tousled by the rough winds of travel, and the fur at his collar stuck up at odd angles.
“Well, my most radiant brother,” said Hien, “I was told you needed me urgently. Is something wrong?”
“You must return for the Naadam,” he said, “so that I might face you in combat once more. I have to bring you to your knees to restore glory to the Oronir.”
“The Naadam? But surely you didn’t come all this way just to…” he trailed off, Magnai’s glower answering for him.
“No meddling foreign warrior this time. Just you and I, facing one another in combat like proud men,” Magnai said, drawing himself up to his full height.
Hien cleared his throat. “If you’re spoiling for a fight, I’d be more than happy to meet you on the sparring grounds at any time during your stay.”
“You misunderstand me. It has to be the Naadam, or it doesn’t count,” Magnai said. His scowl deepened by the second.
“I shall give you a fight,” said Hien. “I won’t give you an audience.”
Some of the Oronir began to murmur amongst themselves, but Magnai silenced them with a wave of his hand.
“What about for a-- for a friend?” Magnai’s voice dropped on the last word, like a child uttering a curse. At Hien's side, Yugiri made a noise of disbelief.
“I suppose even if you did throw me in a cell, you’ve bled for my people’s freedom.” Hien sighed. “Ah, blast it, Magnai, it’s not that I don’t wish to go with you. I’d love to see the Mol again and feel the wind of the steppe on my face. I just have too much to attend to here.”
“You understand the responsibilities of being a leader,” said Yugiri. “Evidently the khan does not, because he’s come gallivanting across Othard for the sake of salvaging his own pride.”
At least his retinue had the good grace to look embarrassed. Magnai did not seem remotely abashed.
“I have an idea,” said Hien, to a look of faint alarm from Yugiri. “If we had more help with preparations, surely I would be able to make time for a few days away?”
“What?” said Magnai and Yugiri in unison.
“You have brought with you a whole host of capable warriors, presumably with the intent of dragging me back to the steppe, but I daresay their strength would be better put to use for the rebuilding effort. What say you, Yugiri?”
Yugiri nodded thoughtfully. “Most unconventional, my lord. Though like most of your schemes, I suspect it will turn out in the end.”
He beamed at her. “Just what I needed to hear.”
“I have not yet agreed to this,” Magnai said.
They retired shortly afterwards in anticipation for the work ahead, the Oronir sleeping in a tent they’d brought along outside of headquarters. Hien crept past it when he woke the next morning, before the sun had chased away the morning mist.
Even earlier, he’d sat up in bed, sweating, having dreamed of the castle falling on him while he was still inside. Since Hien had gone into exile those many moons ago, he’d often suffered from nightmares: atrocities at the hands of the imperials, those close to him dying, being alone and lost with no one to turn to. Yet another reason he was grateful for having his own quarters.
Finding the return to sleep impossible, he took up his sword and went to practice in the valley. The mist had settled between the cliffs and bathed everything in pale silver light, and the grass where he walked was damp beneath his feet. The only noises were the occasional rustle of trees and the eerie calls of the Oroniri yol, roosting somewhere among the pines.
It was still strange to be going without Gosetsu. When he was younger, they had not missed a day of training together, and now he felt like a piece of him was missing. As if in a dance without a partner, Hien switched from form to form, body and sword moving as one, and he only stopped when the phantom presence at his side abruptly became solid.
“Who’s there?” he called into the fog, tightening his grip on his sword. It was not uncommon for magatsu to wander out this far, but he did not want to dispatch some poor soul on accident.
Just as he was ready to dismiss whatever he’d sensed as lingering anxiety, Magnai stumbled into Hien’s field of vision, tightly clutching his axe. Hien breathed a sigh of relief. “Gods, Magnai, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost. Did you come to practice with me?”
“Heard a noise,” Magnai said. He gestured. “Why were you...”
Hien lowered his sword. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Magnai grunted, spun on his heel and stormed off into the mist. Hien stared after him. Well, that was certainly odd.
After finishing with his exercises, he met Magnai and his retinue at the entrance to the House of the Fierce. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” he said.
Magnai just crossed his arms. “The sun does not wait to rise in the morning.”
“Neither do you, I’m sure.” He wanted to ask about their strange encounter earlier, but they had work to do, so instead he set the group to hauling pine wood in Monzen.
Monzen was once a village for the samurai families who served Hien’s father, and the Domans had spent the better part of a few moons trying to make it habitable again. Refugees steadily flooded into the country after word of the victory spread, and they needed places to live. The people of Namai had opened their homes, but it was difficult to feed and house so many, so the provisional government determined Monzen was the best place to begin the rebuilding effort.
Hien had only visited a few times in his childhood, but he remembered it as a lovely, warm place, full of kind people. Now only the magatsu kiyofusa lurked amongst the ruins, frightening the builders and refugees alike.
“Where are all these metal bastards coming from?” Magnai kicked aside the shell of a fallen creature he had just dispatched with his axe.
“They were originally created to fight off the Garleans, but I fear too much time on their own has turned them feral.” Hien sheathed his sword and bent to pick up the pine logs he’d been carrying before they were attacked. “They’ve been hounding us at every turn, but I am certain they will be no match for your warriors.”
“I should think not,” said Magnai, and he sniffed. A few yalms away, an Oroniri woman ripped off a kiyofusa’s arm and used it to bludgeon the beast into submission.
The Oronir proved themselves more than capable over the course of the day. With their help, the Domans were able to chase the remaining monsters from the village, as well as erect a makeshift fence around the perimeter to keep out tigers and other wildlife. Yugiri was absolutely beside herself, which she demonstrated by pulling up her scarf to hide her smile. Hien couldn’t blame her-- he felt better about their progress than he had in weeks.
That night, the whole company gathered around the fire outside the Oronir tent. Hien poured them all Gensui wine and the musicians took out their flutes and zithers. One of the Oroniri men had brought along a stringed instrument that almost resembled a shamisen. The wine warming his blood, Hien propped himself up on a cushion and closed his eyes, listening to the melodies of Doma mingling with those of Azim. They sounded good together.
Next to him, Magnai was being unusually quiet.
“I apologize for having contrived to doubt you,” said Hien. “Your guard did the work of a hundred today. We must be moons ahead of schedule.”
“Mere chores beneath my station. Of course it was simple,” Magnai said, but unless the firelight was playing tricks on Hien’s eyes, he seemed a little pleased.
The people around the fire began to swap stories, telling humorous anecdotes about everything from hunting to romance. Hien found himself particularly amused by the one about the Oroniri cook and the Dotharli warrior who carried out a secret relationship for moons before being discovered.
“I would have put them both to the axe were he not the only one in the village who can make a half-decent boortsog,” Magnai said with a snarl. The teller of the tale gave a nervous laugh. “Instead I am subjected to their flirting every time I sit down to eat.”
“Someone’s jealous,” said Hien, teasing, and the Oronir all turned, giving him alarmed looks. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Yugiri doubled over, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter.
Magnai fixed him with a withering stare. “I see no partner in your company, Doman.”
Several of the shinobi stood up, and Hien motioned for them to be seated. “Aye, aye. You are correct.” It would have been in poor taste to mention, but the last time Hien had even bedded anyone was during his stay at the Dawn Throne. Since then he’d been too busy for such play.
It was only after conversation broke off into groups that Magnai spoke again, quiet so only Hien could hear him. “I’ve been short-sighted,” he said. “Perhaps my Nhaama is not of the steppe at all. Perhaps she-- perhaps my Nhaama is here.”
Hien took a long draught of wine, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Magnai, if you begin interviewing my people to cart them back to the steppe with you, I shall be very displeased.”
Perhaps a khan did not sulk, but Magnai came damn close, his brow furrowing and his mouth twisting into a grimace. “I would never do such a thing. If they are truly my Nhaama, they will love me enough to follow me anywhere, reflecting my radiant light as the moon to my sun.”
From what Hien understood, Magnai had many such ideas about destined mates that were in no way shared by his people. The truth was that Magnai was a hopeless romantic, which Hien might have found charming if someone had told him even once in his life that he wasn’t the center of the known realms. “You might need to reconsider your standards,” Hien said. “Love and obedience are two different beasts.”
Magnai stared into the fire. “What of your retainer?”
“Yugiri’s obedience is a weapon. She would not hesitate to kill you if I gave her the word.” Realization dawned on him, and he suddenly felt rather ill, the wine sour in his stomach. “Do you believe Yugiri to be your Nhaama?”
“No,” said Magnai, miserably.
“I must admit,” said Hien, and he stood, pushing himself up with a hand on Magnai’s shoulder, “I never thought much of destiny. Merely in people caring for one another and trying their hardest.”
“You’ve spent far too long with the Mol,” Magnai grumbled.
“Goodnight, my friend."