“Too much time in the mines.” Rensai covered up the jagged edge in his voice with a curve of his lips that he knew she liked. “It will fade.”
Yujin’s shoulders relaxed. “Good.” She pecked a kiss to his cheek that tickled down his every vertebrae, but only after she’d turned her back on him and disappeared down the twisting stone passageway did he look at the single coral petal that lay in his palm.
Uncertainty took root then. The thin, scraggly kind that ran like tributaries in the soil, cutting deeper than he knew until he yanked up the whole weed and noticed the chunk of earth it pried up along with it. He felt it in his chest whenever he saw her, but then she would smile at him and he thought surely it was a fluke, one lone petal every couple of weeks was nothing to fear. A symptom of any budding courtship. He took Yujin in his arms, admired the way she blushed and turned her face aside when he trimmed her collarbone with kisses, and rejoiced in the shiver his fingers brushed into her spine. Their nights together were breathless, needy, and brief, often cut short by mores and expectations.
On one of the nights he spent alone, Rensai awoke with a start, choking on a tight, green bud until he spat it out onto the floor, chest heaving and forehead cold with sweat.
The mounting war pruned his attentions and for a while the coughing subsided, a welcome respite. He had long grown sick of excusing himself from his work or training to hunch concealed around the nearest corner, shoulders convulsing as he hacked up fistfulls of petals. He stuffed them into his pockets and cast them into the cavernous mines whenever he had a moment to himself: there was a vindictive sort of pride in watching them flutter into the chasm below, certain that they would burn up in the mountain’s heat long before they reached the bottom. Petals were a symptom, but ashes were nothing. And with the necessary changes wartime brought, perhaps Yujin was having second thoughts about setting him aside. He presented her with the first spoils of the Den’s conquest, a splendidly wrought flute whose notes were as nearly sweet as its recipient. She kissed him first that night, her fingers tight in his hair and her lips warm on his.
But hardly a week later, Rensai stood concealed in shadow and watched. He probably could have strode out into the middle of the room, he could have called her name or set off a blaze of fireworks two feet away, and still she wouldn’t have spared him a glance. Rensai watched as she freed the Imperial Prince from where he languished in the slave cages. And worse, he watched Yujin’s face when the prince kissed her. She didn’t blush, she didn’t shiver. She bloomed.
Rensai stumbled into the passageway beyond the slave cages, gripped in the sudden flush of fever. His hands met his knees as he doubled over but it offered him little stability: he collapsed to the ground, throat and lungs shredded by relentless thorny coughs. He heaved, spat, and whole blossoms spilled out, delicate and pink and perfect. He gritted his teeth and brought his fist down on each them, smashing them beyond recognition until they were little more than colorful smears ground into stone.
Yujin was there, frozen at the end of the passageway, hands pressed over her lips in a horrified gasp. Rensai rounded on her and groped for hatred or betrayal, something to align with the sight of her accepting affection from their deepest enemy, but he found only exhaustion and despair instead. He tried to stand but failed, crumpling against the wall in a weak tangle of limbs. She was on him before he could draw a proper breath to speak.
“Rensai, this… this….” Words failed her and her hands shook uselessly as she fretted over what to do. He wondered what she might have done with them otherwise. Brushed his hair out of his eyes? Smoothed them over his chest to guide his breathing? Cupped his face?
Maybe if she loved him.
Another cough seized his chest and he jerked away from her, spitting another shower of blooms onto the ground. Mercifully this wave didn’t last long and he slumped back against the wall, hardly able to keep his eyes open.
“It’s okay, Rensai.” Panic rang high and quick in her voice. He wished she’d stop saying his name. “It’s okay, I’ll fix this--”
Rensai managed a bitter laugh; a single petal fluttered out on his breath.
“I love you,” she blurted out, eyes shining with mingled hope and fear, and she looked frantically around as though expecting the petals scattered on the ground to disappear before their eyes. “I love you, of course I do, you’re going to be fine.” But Rensai’s shoulders went rigid as thorns tightened in his lungs. Yujin clapped her hands over her mouth again as though she could snatch back the words but their agony was blinding, unbearable. He breathed as shallowly as he could and though the thorns didn’t relax, nor did they dig any deeper.
“I didn’t know,” she whispered, tears spilling from her eyes. “I had no idea, I didn’t know it was like this. I would have taken more time, I would have tried harder.”
Tried harder. When loving her was the easiest, most natural thing in the world to him.
She threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in the crook of his shoulder; by some small, momentary grace, his lungs remained quiet. He lifted leaden arms to encircle her and closed his eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Rensai.” She was sobbing into his chest now, he could feel her tears warm against his skin as she repeated her apology over and over, a loop of promises made and broken in the same moment. If she had to apologize, then he was long beyond her help. The confirmation should have wounded him but it was nothing compared to what he’d already seen. What she’d said. What he should have known from the first petal.
“Come here.” His words were cracked and hoarse.
Their final kiss was brief, a few moments of warmth and closeness amid the smashed and scattered blossoms that so closely matched her bodice. It was an act of charity, freely given, and Rensai was willing to accept. In her embrace he was whole, peaceful.
Her tears streaked his warpaint. He tasted blood and nectar.