a free and easy kind of feeling @stanzas

From the sliver of moonlight creeping through the crack at the high end of the wall, Li Xian’s skin glows in shades of deep cool blue. Arms elegantly folded over her front, she lies unmoving. All except for the slow and steady rise and drop of her chest. Even in travel-worn, unwashed clothing, the inherited regal grace of a princess is deep and difficult to bury.

So much unlike herself, Lin Wanyue thinks with a wry twist of her mouth. Without the fair upbringing of living under a royal title, she is not graceful or remarkable by any standard.

The princess is not one to talk excessively before bed. Tonight, however, her silence is distant and pointed. Lin Wanyue decides it is not worth the energy to worry over this. She assumes Li Xian is too exhausted for conversation and lets her sleep. She also assumes if the princess were awake, Li Xian would ask the reason for her staring. Remembering this, Lin Wanyue turns her head and fixes her attention on the aged rotting wood frame.

The princess is not one to talk excessively before bed. Tonight, however, her silence is distant and pointed. Lin Wanyue decides it is not worth the energy to worry over this. She assumes Li Xian is too exhausted for conversation and lets her sleep. She also assumes if the princess were awake, Li Xian would ask the reason for her staring. Remembering this, Lin Wanyue turns her head and fixes her attention on the aged rotting wood frame.

The moon is not yet full, but bright, casting odd shadows through the window -- or rather, the hole in the east leaning wall -- and scatters arrays from the moving shadows. Outside, some of the trees moan, limbs passing under the breeze before falling still. Lin Wanyue is grateful for the fair weather. It is not too warm so that she feels the uncomfortable stick of sweat against the back of her neck. It is also not cold, lacking the bite of a light frost. Ideal weather for sleeping outside, as it were, although she has given up on that affair.

For herself, rest evades Lin Wanyue with certain solemn promise. She doesn’t mind the weary ache in her legs or shoulders. Tomorrow their journey continues on and she is well-adjusted to the feeling of travel. At this pace, she figures she may count on another night of sleeplessness before her body and eyes finally succumb to the demanding burn of fatigue.

Careful not to disturb the princess, Lin Wanyue sorts through their remaining rations and frees the short sword strapped at her waist. She divides the rations, counting down by the dwindling amount of supplies and mapping the meals ahead by the day. Five days, she counts, if they are wise enough to make use of what remains. There would be a settlement two days ahead, if her estimations were correct. She can replenish their supplies there with what was left of her slowly emptying coin purse. Enough to get them through this leg of their journey.

No use worrying over the days ahead. Lin Wanyue withdraws the spare rag from her own supplies and comforts herself, blade in hand, wiping down both sides of the blade. It is piercing to the touch, her fingernails skimming down the edge and tracing the sharp edge.

“Mh, Feixing? Are you awake?” Lin Wanyue startles at the her voice breaking the still quiet. It is silly to think, but Lin Wanyue turns her head all the same as though the princess might address some other undetected figure beside her own. There is nobody else for Li Xian to address.

Silence. Lin Wanyue wonders if the princess succeeded in returning to sleep until she hears again, “Feixing. Come here.” Lin Wanyue follows the sound to the source. “Feixing,” Li Xian calls again. “I can’t see you.” Lacking edge, her voice carries a set kind of urgency -- not out of fear, or of that nature. Reassurance that she is not alone in the room.

Swallowing, Lin Wanyue bravely presses one hand to the side of the small cot where the Li Xian resides. She is not brave enough to reach out and relieve the princess with more than the ghost of comfort. “I am here, Xian--ah. Princess. I’m here.”

Closer, Lin Wanyue makes out the details of her fingers and the curve of her cheek. She is trembling slightly. Without needing to ask, Li Xian explains the reason for her summon: “Feixing, did I wake you?”

Lin Wanyue, who does not have a reason to lie, replies, “No, princess.” She senses the princess is reluctant to believe her, so she hastens to add, “Don’t worry. I couldn’t sleep.” Li Xian trembles again, shivering. “Are you cold? I can fetch an extra blanket from the carriage.”

Agreeing with a low noise, the princess sighs and shifts in the cot. Lin Wanyue feels guilt settle in her heart. An oversight on her part to leave the rest of their supplies in the carriage. “Mn. Be quick.”

The donkey ignores Lin Wanyue’s quest for the spare covering. It, too, must be tired from their long hours of travel. Satisfied, she returns to the small shack they claimed refuge in for the night. Lin Wanyue was lucky to spot it before dark, or the two of them would be sleeping in a far more exposed environment.

As she promised, Lin Wanyue returns quickly. Li Xian’s eyes are closed, fluttering open again at the muffled sound of her entrance. “Here, princess.” She doesn’t know if it’s appropriate to help Li Xian tuck the folds closer to her legs, but she mentioned she was cold.

“Feixing,” Li Xian raises her resting hand and gently strokes the side of Lin Wanyue’s forehead. Her nails press lightly into the skin where her hairline begins, as though gathering the words there and pressing them into her skin will pass along the message. After a moment, Li Xian sighs, warm and sweet. “Will you sleep beside me?”

Lin Wanyue is suddenly grateful for the darkness in the room. While the princess surely can’t see it, Lin Wanyue’s face thins and burns with prickling shocks of heat.

“It’s not appropriate for --” She already knows the princess will find a way to counter her argument.

Li Xian says, “I don’t care for propriety rules. There is nobody else here. Come, lie down. You should rest too.”

Feeling a bit like someone hit her in the back of the head with a large wok, Lin Wanyue nods dumbly. “Rest. Next to -- next to you?”

“Next to me,” the princess affirms. “Lie down, Feixing.”

The moonlight dims, a passing cloud dulling the lowlight and shadows. She can’t see Li Xian’s face when the princess says, “Stay here until morning.” It isn’t an order or a request. An appeal, or an assumption.

Barely daring to breathe, Lin Wanyue waits for the quiet to settle again before she breaks it again. Softer, Lin Wanyue replies, “If Miss Xian wishes it so.”

The cot is barely big enough for a child. It is certainly not meant for two people. No matter how desperately she rearranges herself, Lin Wanyue finds her arms and shoulders brushing alongside Li Xian’s. This doesn’t appear to bother Li Xian, who hums, and leans into the comfort Lin Wanyue offers her.

“Princess,” Lin Wanyue warns. “I --” Li Xian ignores her. She is cold and seeking warmth, Lin Wanyue reasons. That does not stop her from swallowing, inexplicably nervous, as the princess leans further into her personal space. Despite citing her sensitivity to the cold, Li Xian’s skin burns with heat. The princess shivers again. It is not cold enough for her to shiver as she does.

Lin Wanyue suspects otherwise. Summoning her courage, she raises her hand not trapped under Li Xian’s weight and presses it to her forehead. Li Xian lets out a soft noise at the cool touch. Drawing her hand away, Lin Wanyue informs her, quiet, “Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling ill?”

When their party left the military camp, Lin Wanyue was assured the princess made a full recovery. How could she be so careless as to think it wouldn’t happen again! Someone with her delicate nature wasn’t made for living on the road or travelling under such intensity. Now they are alone and Li Xian doesn’t have her helpful medical ladies at her side.

Unaware of the deeper guilt encircling Lin Wanyue’s heart, the princess denies her original accusation. Li Xian closes her eyes and answers, humming, “I don’t feel ill. Cold. Only cold.”

Sighing, Lin Wanyue allows her to nestle closer into her side. “Princess...”

Her eyes slip open at the gentle call. “What?” Lin Wanyue falls silent. Realizing there is no response, Li Xian pulls her head away and faces Lin Wanyue, expectant. Dangerous, Lin Wanyue thinks. She wonders if Li Xian can hear the rapid drumming of her heart, as close as they are.

Li Xian, also silent, doesn’t ask again. She tips forward, allowing their foreheads to meet. Lin Wanyue tries to hold her breath and is unsuccessful. Li Xian exhales quietly, warm air meeting the skin of her cheek. “No need to worry, Feixing. It will pass.”

Lin Wanyue draws back and releases the heavy air in her chest. “Tomorrow, where should we --?” She does not finish. Breathing slow and quiet, Li Xian returns to her dreams and Lin Wanyue drops her question.

It’s too generous to assume she could possibly fall asleep after this. Instead, Lin Wanyue watches the dark sky and hopes the clouds don’t threaten them with rain.

By morning Li Xian’s fever hasn’t broken and she develops a small, shuddering cough. Lin Wanyue presses the back of her hand against Li Xian’s forehead, as she did in the evening, and is distressed to feel the same dry heat radiating from the surface. The dirt outside their small lean-to is disturbed in the same way as Lin Wanyue recognizes from her own footsteps. While she dreads the thought of leaving Li Xian alone inside, their water satchel is also running dangerously low. Her ears are sharp enough to pick up the sound of a nearby brook. There are plenty of trees covering the distance to the road. No passing traveller would notice the small clearing by chance.

She walks quickly to the stream, takes her own fill of water, and returns as swift. The princess is awake on her return, sitting up in her cot and looking around the room with a honey-like gaze. Lin Wanyue calls her by name twice. Li Xian fails to respond until the third.

Worry pools in the bottom of her stomach where the space once occupied shame. Li Xian accepts the water satchel and drinks slowly. A soft accidental brush of Li Xian’s fingers against her wrist deepens her concern. While her forehead radiates deeper warmth, the soft skin of her palms is cool to the touch. “We should find someone who practices medicine. There must be a doctor near the next town.”

Li Xian shakes her head, slow, as though avoiding quick movement. Her brow is pinched, where her brow aches. Lin Wanyue wishes to press her thumb there and smooth the skin, removing the wrinkle, but she isn’t foolish. “Mn, too risky, I think.” She closes her eyes, upright, and sighs. “We won’t pass any towns for a while.” She is right. Lin Wanyue bites the inside of her cheek and agrees.

She helps -- carries, practically -- the princess into her carriage. Lin Wanyue worries the skin of her cheek between her teeth where she bit it earlier. Li Xian voices no objection to their moderate pace, likely succumbed to another fit of feverish slumber inside.

The road turns rocky and uneven around the time the sun is locked directly above her head. No clouds to spare her from the beams today, nor the comfort of the cool breeze afforded from yesterday’s trip. Wiping the slow building layer of sweat on her brow, Lin Wanyue scours the unchanging treeline. At the base of a mountain, there must be someone who lives nearby.

Good fortune blows with the little breeze offered in the shade. Lin Wanyue finds a house a dozen li from their last stop and urges the donkey to march alongside the house. The faint trace of smoke makes her hesitate. While it is true there hasn’t been an attempt like the one outside Huzhou, Lin Wanyue hasn’t shaken the feeling of eyes watching their every move. She decides it’s worth the risk of knocking. She can handle whoever, or whatever, lies inside. She has to.

She ties the donkey to a thick root visible above the soil and makes her way to the house. Near the entrance she hears a cry. “--aauuuuuughh!” Lin Wanyue’s steps falter at the door. “No! Go away!

Lin Wanyue pauses. “Hello? Is there someone in there?”

Shrill, the same voice replies, “Nooooo! Nobody lives here! Get lost!” Confused, Lin Wanyue steps back from the door. “Get lost! Get lost!

“Sorry, sorry…” She beats a hasty retreat and returns to the carriage. Although she feels shameful doing so, she pulls back the curtain enough to peek inside. Limbs askew, appearing very ungraceful since she first laid eyes on the princess, Li Xian sleeps on undisturbed.

Lin Wanyue returns to the house in the woods. She ignores the alarmed cries and carries on with her mission. Rapping her knuckles against the crooked wooden door, she calls to the person inside, “Hello! I’m sorry, I need help. Do you know where I can find a doctor?”

If she were not so alert, she would miss the rapid shuffling of footsteps. Even with her hearing so tuned to the sound of disturbance, she jumps at the the surprisingly vigorous force that springs the door open. Jumping back on her heels, Lin Wanyue straightens.

The voice belongs to a short stump of a woman with white wisps of hair and a wrinkled frown. “A doctor, a doctor you said?” Lin Wanyue repeats her request, politely, awaiting directions. None of which are provided, as she is ushered inside. A quick glance at the ceiling reveals the drying herbs and dried flowers strung above her head. If nothing else, she might be able to convince the woman to let her take a closer look. She recognizes a few by their leaves and roots and notes their medicinal background.

“Well let’s see it!” the old woman proclaims. Under all the dirt smudges and ill-looking stains of her robes, Lin Wanyue spots a flash of cherry blossoms. The material is rather fine, suspiciously well-made even, for someone who lives alone with nobody around. What an odd woman indeed. “Where are you hurt? Show me your wounds, then!”

“I -- It’s not for me!” Lin Wanyue corrects. The woman misunderstood her. “I’m sorry, I will explain. This junior is a farmer named Lin Fei--”

Snapping, the older woman pushes her out the door. “No! Don’t tell me your name! I don’t care! Do you need a doctor or not?”

“Yes!” It’s not as though there are a line of huts with doctors awaiting inside. “My wife she’s -- she’s ill. We are passing travellers with little supply. We need a doctor.”

“Then you are in luck!” Stooping -- or perhaps crouching -- the woman gestures to a small folded cot by her stove. “I am a doctor! Bring her in, bring her here.” Leaving the princess outside unguarded for so long isn’t ideal either. An old woman like this surely poses no severe threat, but Lin Wanyue remains on guard. Better to stay vigilant.

Following the woman doctor’s orders, she retrieves Li Xian from her carriage. The princess doesn’t stir during the short trip. She wakes briefly after Lin Wangue places her on the worn cot, murmuring, “Feixing?”

“I’m here,” Lin Wanyue reassures her. “You’re alright.” Li Xian opens her eyes and searches for a familiar face, her face relaxing with relief. The woman doctor takes Li Xian’s wrist and measures her pulse. While Lin Wanyue knows she isn’t qualified enough to aid, she finds some of the woman doctor’s methods...odd, to say the least.

Li Xian sleeps, coughing lightly every so often. The doctor drops her wrist and pokes Li Xian in the corner of her elbow and breathes harshly out of her nose, harumph!

“What?” Lin Wanyue asks, curiously, but also out of concern.

“A slight fever,” the woman doctor diagnoses. “Brought on by exhaustion, I’d say, if I were a doctor. Which I am! Hahaha!” Lin Wanyue nods and says nothing, keeping her expression carefully neutral. “I will boil broth. Make yourself useful and fetch me water for the stove.”

With the woman doctor’s guide, Lin Wanyue tracks through the surrounding growth and finds a small pond. She withdraws as much water her shoulders can bear and hurries back to the house. Smoke rises from the low-brick chimney, a good sign that the doctor is making good on her promise.

The woman doctor tells her to pour the water into the stove pot for her, which Lin Wanyue does not protest. She doubts the old woman could even lift the bucket further than her knees. With a flick of her wrist, Lin Wanye is sent away to sit by Li Xian’s side. Playing the part of a dutiful husband, Lin Wanyue thinks, to maintain appearances. Pretending to be concerned over the princess’ health doesn’t take much convincing on her part.

The princess doesn’t stir even when Lin Wanyue wipes a damp cloth over her brow brow. The heat in the house builds with the added fire from the stove. The heat becomes uncomfortable enough to rouse a small discomforted noise from the princess, who turns over in her sleep and coughs. Her delicate features twist with distress.

Lin Wanyue is ever grateful the princess wakes fully after the third compress. “Feixing,” she calls again. Her eyes open, feverish and bright. “You’re here.”

“I am,” Lin Wanyue replies, like one might say, of course. There isn’t much else to say.

Uncaring of her interruption, the woman doctor shoves a carved wooden bowl under Lin Wanyue’s nose. “Drink.” Lin Wanyue wrinkles her nose. “Not you, foolish man. For your wife.”

“Ah, right.” The woman doctor turns away and huffs, shuffling around her house and muttering under her breath about witless husbands and unfaithfulness. Lin Wanyue wisely presses her lips together and returns her focus to the princess.

While the woman isn’t looking, Lin Wanyue dips her smallest finger across the surface and places a drop on her tongue. Her understanding of medicinal herbs is limited to the teachings from that old doctor of her village, but there is nothing in the mixture that strikes her as out of the ordinary. Passing the bowl to Li Xian, she encourages her to sip gently from the side. Li Xian doesn’t complain, but her mouth pinches at the bitterness. Lin Wanyue leaves her to finish the bowl and politely asks the old woman for something to boil water for tea.

Forgetting her earlier misgivings, the woman doctor guffaws. “No need, I will make it myself. A host should make tea for their guests, yes?”

Anxious to return to the road, Lin Wanyue argues with the doctor and loses face for a second time. “Your wife is in no shape to travel right now,” the doctor informs her. “I would be a shameful physician if I turned you out as you are now. Stay one night. This lonely aunt wouldn’t mind the company.” Unable to defend her argument without the princess conscious enough to assist her, Lin Wanyue retrieves her pack of rations from the carriage and eats in the corner beside Li Xian. She refuses the extra cot from the woman doctor, insisting the old woman needs her rest, too.

“Well, I’m old,” the woman doctor says. “If I sleep too much, I’d probably roll over and die, hahahaha!”

Lin Wanyue knows even if the woman doctor insisted, she wouldn’t be able to sleep at all. She remains awake and changes the compress over Li Xian’s forehead as it warms and swaps it with a cold one.

Li Xian wakes again after her fever breaks in the darkest hour of the night. Without candlelight, the doctor’s mountain house darkens like they’re standing in an open forest with no moon to guide them. This is why Li Xian calls “Feixing,” once, and reaches out to where Lin Wanyue lies on a short stool.

In the dark, their hands join awkwardly. Li Xian wraps her thin fingers over Lin Wanyue’s and holds them tight. Careful not to wake the old woman, Lin Wanyue replies, “Yes, I’m here.”

“You’re still awake?” Li Xian whispers. “Feixing, have you slept?”

“I’m alright,” Lin Wanyue answers. “You’re feeling better --” Hesitating, before she tacks on, “-- Xian-er?” There is always the chance the old woman’s snores are fake. Considering her strange personality…

“I am,” the princess agrees. It is too dark to tell, but Lin Wanyue feels like the princess is smiling in her voice. She squeezes her fingers between Lin Wanyue’s and says, “I am thankful to have you by my side.”

“Ah, Xian-er…” Once more, Lin Wanyue is fortunate to hide her embarrassment under the cover of darkness. Li Xian drifts off into easy sleep near dawn. Their hands remain wrapped together, for Lin Wanyue couldn’t find herself so heartless as to wake the princess again. The woman doctor declares Li Xian to be in good health and allows them to depart at full sun.

Lin Wanyue moves their small bag of supplies to the carriage, returning once for Li Xian and again to thank their fortuitous stranger for her generosity.

Stopping at the entrance, Lin Wanyue salutes the woman doctor under the frame. She withdraws her coin purse and holds it out, bowing. “This one is beyond grateful for your hospitality. If there is any way I can repay you for --” Interrupting with an irritated cough, the woman shakes her head and waves her hands over her face.

“No payment,” the old woman refuses, despite Lin Wanyue’s protest. “Don’t want your money.”

Lin Wanyue stutters. “You’re a very kind aunt, but--”

“Auugh! No!” Stubbornly, the aged woman refuses again with unyielding firmness. “I won’t take it!” It is far better to accept the blessing than to argue otherwise. Lin Wanyue returns her coin purse to her side. Placated by Lin Wanyue’s defeated appearance, she hums and returns to wrapping long strings off the ends of fresh herbs. The house fills with short-lived peace, until the old woman speaks again: “You care for your wife very much.”

Nodding without thinking, Lin Wanyue replies, “Yes.”

“Good,” she replies. “That is good. Our world could do with more men like yourself.” Lin Wanyue -- who is not a man and therefore not insulted in the slightest -- smiles and thanks her again.

Li Xian is waiting in the carriage with the curtain draped over the window to block out the sun. Lin Wanyue crouches by the donkey and unties it from the gnarled tree root, wrapping the length once, twice, and a third around her arm. She drops the freed rope in the front by her seat.

Li Xian’s voice is stronger when she calls her name, unlike the faint whisper from before. “Feixing. You are outside?”

“I am,” Lin Wanyue confirms. “Is there something you need, Xian-er?”

“Come to the window,” Li Xian answers. Lin Wanyue’s mouth twitches. She retraces her steps to the other side of the carriage and waits. The princess pulls back the side of the curtain, her face flushed a healthy bright shade. Lin Wanyue opens her mouth to speak, but Li Xian extends her arms and pulls her closer to the opening with a light touch at the back of her neck.

Flustered, Lin Wanyue moves to pull back, but Li Xian tugs at the shorter hair pressed at the base of her neck. She holds Lin Wanyue far enough from her face to look into her eyes and read her openly, completely.

“You are a good man, Feixing,” Li Xian says. “A princess like myself is very lucky to know someone like you.”

Lin Wanyue, who can’t pull back without running the risk of offending the princess, can only stammer and acquiesce Li Xian’s gratitude with her embarrassment on full display. The eldest princess smiles, satisfied, and releases her hold.

“We should be going,” Lin Wanyue says, once she finds her words again. “You can rest, Miss -- Xian-er. I will wake you.” Li Xian nods and pulls the curtain over the opening.

Lucky, the princess said. Lucky to know someone like her. Lin Wanyue feels a smile pull at her mouth as she sits. Yet a certain heavy stone sits in her stomach. The princess is so far unaware of her true identity. She knows the princess might not think so fairly of her if she knew the truth. She is not worthy, nor the kind of person to be held in such high consideration.

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