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Almost Absolution

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The splatter of raindrops on stone was no indication of an arrival, but their sudden silence was: he'd purposefully left the door open, unguarded, so he could hear the rain, smell its gentle hiss on sun-warmed rock. He growled at the cutoff of fresh air as the door closed – he liked the circulation, it carried scents on its back, the few scant hints he stole from the goings on outside.

There was no reply, not that he'd anticipated one. Those that came to dress his wounds so often stank of submission to their new, green emperor in training that they didn’t dare speak to him. It was better that way, better not to speak, better to accept their reluctantly healing hands with the barest sneer of thanks that went so far with soft-hearted fools like them, the same stock that had accepted his and his fathers' contrition so willingly. But the last gust of wind from the closing door brought the scent of the visitor to his nose and froze his heart in his chest. Freshest linen, powder, honeycomb—

"Yujin," he breathed, turning to her. The loss of his eyesight weighted his limbs with regret more than ever as he got to his feet to reach to her: he'd been suffering endless nights, painstakingly etching the curve of her smile into his memory every time he went to sleep, smoothing away the last look of horror she'd worn when his father's spearmen wrestled their chief to the ground.

His hand hung outstretched to her, but like always she did not take it right away. He reached further, hoping to catch it just as it withdrew and bring it to his lips. It was their ritual dance, her demure play on uncertainty and his everlasting pursuit. But his hand closed on air and his brow furrowed in confusion as his arm settled back at his side. She drew a breath to speak.

"Be at ease," he said as warmly as he could, opening his arms to her. If she couldn't read his expression in the dark or behind the blindfold, let her at least feel his relief that she was here. "It's been a while. You have nothing to fear—"

"You mistake me."

He drew back from her harsh tone as though struck. She'd never spoken to him like that before – in truth, she had often been too shy to speak to him at all – but he'd never have thought her capable of such coldness. "If you give me time to explain—"

"I am here to dress your wounds. That is all."

The rain lashed against the stone outside and he strained his ears against it, convinced she might say something more, but when nothing came his mind flew to another explanation for her indifference.

"He sent you here to mock me," he sneered. "That Imperial brat—"

"Omare is not so cruel as you," Yujin interrupted for the third time, and this time her voice shook the slightest bit, "and I won't tolerate you speaking ill of my husband."

The word was a lance to his heart and he turned his head away as though he could ward the truth off by sheer force of will. This was not the Yujin he'd known. "And yet here is a queen come to heal the damned," he said through gritted teeth. "Am I supposed to believe you volunteered?"

"I did volunteer." He heard her move to the side of the room and pull out a wooden chair. "Sit."

"Imperial life has changed you," he remarked lowly, but he did as he was told, stepping forward until the back of the chair met his outstretched fingertips and he sat down with his back ramrod straight. He tossed his hair over his shoulder with a jerk of his head. "They've poisoned you. I would never believe one as sweet as you would willingly taunt me like this."

"'Taunt you,'" she repeated with disdain. "Not all of us are so easily motivated by vengeance, Rensai." Another rebuke, but his name on her lips was utterly disarming and his expression clouded with bitter regret that had nothing to do with her accusations against his character. Thin fingers slid gently through his hair, working for a moment until she unfastened the blindfold and let it fall away – no matter what she said, this soft touch paired with these harsh words, her so close at hand but so far from his possession, this was cruelty.

"It wasn't my vengeance," he croaked, his throat dry. "It was—"

"Your father's, I know the story." Her hands withdrew and she came around to the other side of the chair to inspect his eyes. "You claim you were not complicit?"

Her challenging stare penetrated him even though he couldn't see her gaze, much less meet it, and for once he was grateful for his blindness. Of course he had been complicit: it had been his final suggestion that nudged his father forward. "His rule is at its weakest," he'd reported back, fueled by jealousy and rage hastily masked as ambition. "His own daughter colludes with the Imperialists. Tell the spearmen, and they're ours." Her betrayal had been the first.

But he could neither bear to admit it nor to accuse her. Yujin apparently took it as a victory, because she gave a satisfied sniff and went about dabbing the usual acrid-smelling ointment around his ruined eyes with a practiced hand. She had always been a talented healer, it was one of the things he'd admired most about her, and though he'd rarely had occasion to receive her care, he'd seen her gentle, patient touch plenty of times with the clumsier spearmen. More than once he had wondered whether it might be worth a slight injury just to receive her full attention without having to vie for it with gifts or under the guise of an assumed courtship. Perhaps even a warrior of his caliber could reasonably slip up and could fall under the care of the Chief Archer's daughter…. And now here he was with the opportunity he'd longed for. Defeated, ruined, a traitor, a disgrace.

"Enough, enough," he said gruffly, pulling away. "I can do the rest."

She only snorted and got to her feet again to tie the fresh blindfold. Indeed, she tied a stronger knot than he would have managed, and the fabric pressed against his eyes, cool and smooth: she'd padded it with silk, a detail no other healer had been kind or generous enough to afford him.

Her work finished, he felt his heart pick up at the knowledge that she no longer had a reason to be with him. A thousand questions he dared not ask crowded to the front of his mind: truly, how was her father? Was she stifled by Imperial life? What colors did she wear – white as though she were any other Imperial show pony, or green to match her puerile husband? Did she still play the part of healer for anyone else, or were times so peaceful now that there was little need? Was this just for him? Did she think of him? Did she forgive him?

There had been no time for formal apologies, not when he was dragged off the battlefield nor when he was imprisoned nor even when he illuminated her coronation in a brilliant shower of golden sparkles, another beauty that would never be his to enjoy. She gathered her things in silence as he fought for the words, and only when she opened the door and the chilled rush of rainy air met his skin again did he manage to string them together and force them out.

"Yujin. I am sorry."

"I know." For the first time she sounded softer, like her old self, none of the new Imperialist ice with which she had somehow been imbued when he wasn't there to protect her. He was on his feet at once and extended a hand to her again, just in case there was any chance, any slightest possibility she might come to him like she always had in the past—

The door snapped shut and she was gone.