By the time we reached his small cottage, Nakai was fit to collapse. Hurriedly, I helped him inside and laid him across his bedspread. I carefully took his shoes off, placing them at the foot of the bed, and then searched about for a basin of water. Finding one sitting on a makeshift wooden counter top, I grabbed a clean cloth and immersed it in the cool liquid. Settling myself before Nakai’s bedroll, I squeezed the excess water out of the damp cloth and began dabbing it against the guard’s hot forehead.
“Shhh,” I hushed him gently as he gave out a feverish moan, “I’m here.”
Nakai’s brow eased slightly and he slowly slipped away into unconsciousness. I continued to wipe his forehead, then his face and hands, in an attempt to keep his temperature down. Afterwards, I sought about the room for an extra bedspread to cover him. Finding one in the deep recesses of a dark closet, I shook the spread outside to get rid of the dust before covering Nakai with it and tucking in the corners. Once the guard was well nestled, I stepped outside to refill the basin.
I walked over to the well and hoisted the bucket up. At that moment my ears pricked at the sound of footsteps approaching. Raising my head, I saw a maid about to pass by.
“Miss!” I cried out to her, “Could you do something for me?”
“Of course, Your Highness,” She replied humbly with a low curtsy.
“I need you to go to my quarters and ask Nalda, my maid, for some heafsbreadth. It’s a sort of twisted root I brought back from the Capitol,” I explained, “Be quick – I need it urgently!”
“Yes, My Lady.” And the maid was off in a rush.
As I watched her go, a loud moan called out from the cabin. Rushing inside, I saw Nakai thrashing about with beads of sweat forming on his brow; his breathing was coming out in shallow gasps. Holding his arms down by his sides, I spoke in low, even tones, trying to reassure him. Then rather abruptly, the guard lay still, his ribcage collapsed.
“No!” I cried, my heart throbbing painfully in my chest as I pressed two fingers against the guard’s neck near the collarbone to check for a pulse. To my relief, he still had one but it was growing weaker by the second. Anxiously, I grabbed a cloth and dabbed it against his dripping hot forehead. He was beginning to shiver violently. I tucked the blanket a little tighter about his body. A salty, copper taste filled my mouth and I realized that I had been biting my lip so hard that it had started to bleed.
“Your Highness?” A voice called.
Dropping the cloth, I dashed out the door. It was the maid. She was standing on the other side of the gate with a small parcel in her hands. She curtsied low when she caught sight of me. I threw open the gate and snatched the parcel out of her grasp.
“Is it the heafsbreadth?” I asked in a raspy, desperate voice.
“Yes, Your Highness,” she replied with a curious frown, “A small boy gave it to me.”
“Thank you!” I grasped her hands and squeezed them gratefully. “Thank you!”
“Your Highness?” The maid began to ask, but I didn’t let her finish for I had I had already spun around and was rushing back inside the cabin.
When I caught sight of Nakai, my stomach dropped. His face was drained of all color and he no longer showed any signs of struggle. He wasn’t even shivering any more. Then I noticed that his chest wasn’t moving.
“No! No, no, no!”
I tripped and fell against the bed, banging my head against wood. Something wet began to trickle down my brow. Ignoring it, I pressed my ear against the guard’s open mouth. He wasn’t breathing. Quickly, I pressed my hands against his chest, pumping in a hard, fast rhythm. Then I covered his mouth with my own and heaved a breath, before pumping again. Nothing happened.
I repeated the process again and again till my arms ached. Hot tears began pouring down my cheeks as Nakai remained still beneath my hands.
“Please!” I begged hoarsely.
I tried to give him one last breath, but my dry throat was so choked down with sobs that I was unable to breathe anymore myself. Helplessly, I threw myself across the guard’s chest, clutching at him as if I was drowning and he was my life vest. As I lay with my head buried in Nakai’s robe which muffled my cries, a small errant thought crossed through my head. It was a voice asking – why did I care so much? Why did this man, a man I barely knew, mean so much to me? Why did I feel such loss?
Nakai gave a shuddered gasp, his chest heaving beneath my cheek. Lifting my head, I watched as the guard’s eyelids flickered and then opened. Wiping my tears away with a sniff, I leaned carefully forward.
“Nakai?” I asked in a whisper.
He gave a weak groan in reply.
“Thank goodness,” I sighed, “I thought I’d lost you. Please … stay with me. Hold on a little longer while I make you something that should help.”
I thought I saw Nakai twitch, as if he was trying to give me a nod. Reassured, I stood and put a pot of water on to boil. Once the water was simmering, I unwrapped the package and took out the root. Finding a stone, I began to mash its wispy tails till they were powder. Once finished, I brushed the grains into the cup of my hand and sprinkled them into the boiling water as I stirred thoroughly.
After it had simmered enough, I drained the water carefully into a bowl. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I helped Nakai to sit up, placing one arm around his head to steady his neck as I spooned the healing soup into his mouth. Though it took up a lot of his energy, I made the guard drink the contents to the very last drop.
As soon as he was finished, I helped him to lay back down and he promptly fell back asleep. But this time not under the influence of the fever. Unsure, I put the bowl aside and felt his forehead. It was cool.
“Good,” I sighed gratefully, “The fever’s gone.”
All at once I was feeling exhausted. Drained. I gave a big yawn and stretched my arms before rising to my feet to go. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave. The fever might come back again.
Deciding to stay and keep watch, I sat back down on the bed.
“I will stay awake,” I told myself with gritted teeth. And that was the last thing I remembered before I drifted off to sleep at Nakai’s feet.
* * * * *
I woke to the feel of someone’s soft touch brushing through my hair. Groggily, I opened my eyes to stare into deep blue ones. With a start, I sat up.
“Sorry,” Nakai apologized, yanking back his hand, “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s alright,” I replied, wrapping my arms tightly about myself, blushing fiercely. We were both sitting on the bed and he was so close. Now that the guard was all better, I couldn’t help but remember our kiss from the night before. My cheeks flushed deeper at the memory.
“Thank you,” the guard whispered sincerely and laid his hand out to me on the bed covers. Slowly, I rested my hand in his. His fingers immediately curled around mine and squeezed them gratefully. “You saved my life,” he choked out in a hoarse voice.
I shook my head. “I was a rather poor nurse. You would have been safer in my Grandmother’s hands.”
Nakai frowned. “But she wasn’t. And I’m still alive. Thank you,” he emphasized.”
I nodded back. “Well you saved mine. I’m glad I could repay the favor,” I replied, “Do you know who did this to you?”
The guard shook his head weakly. “No.”
I pulled my hand out of Nakai’s grip and rose from the bed to get the still weak man a drink. “Here,” I held out a clay mug full of water, “Drink this.”
Nakai tried to raise his hand to take the cup, but his arm was still so weak that it could barely lift off the covers. Without thinking, I sat back on the bed, squishing right up beside Nakai, and laid my arm across his shoulders and behind his head as I lifted the mug to his lips. The guard gulped down the water thirstily.
It wasn’t till the cup was nearly empty that I realized how close our faces were. My cheek had been brushing against Nakai’s every time he’d taken a sip. I was filled with the urge to pull away before the guard noticed, but he was already leaning forward for another drink. Without a choice, I lifted my arm to raise the cup to his mouth and our cheeks grazed against each other.
The guard’s head stilled and his shoulders tensed. Then I became painfully aware of how my arm was draped against them, almost caressing his neck. I was about to draw back when Nakai turned his head to look at me.
Our noses bumped and I felt something soft land on my mouth. Shocked, I froze. The guard also held very still, his dark eyes pouring into mine till I could only see a deep well of blue. Together we remained motionless, daring not to move a muscle though our lips still touched each other.
Then a step sounded in the doorway. In a rush, we broke away from each other and both turned our heads to look at the intruder. A young maid stood just outside the open door of the cottage, her hands tightly clasped in front of her, a rosy blush and guilty expression fixed on her pretty face as she lowered her eyes to the ground.
“Your Highness,” she gasped, “I’m so sorry! Princess Pulsa sent me to inquire after the guard’s health. I apologize for intruding – I shouldn’t have come!”
And with that apology barely escaping from her lips, the maid spun around and ran away before either Nakai or I could offer any form of explanation. Quickly, I jumped off the bed, causing the springs to squeak loudly.
“I ought to get back,” I murmured, avoiding Nakai’s probing gaze.
“Yes,” he replied seriously.
Subconsciously, I touched my lips, which still burned, with one finger. Raising my eyes slowly, I looked at Nakai and found the guard grinning apologetically.
“Sorry?” He asked with a slight, helpless shrug of his shoulders.
Perhaps it was the exhaustion. Or perhaps it was the unexplained connection I felt growing between us. But I suddenly felt the whole situation funny and a merry laugh burst out of me. Nakai watched me, slightly perplexed but mostly amused, as I began to laugh so hard that my knees grew weak and I had to sit down hard on the floor.
Wiping the tears out of the corners of my eyes, I grinned impishly up at the guard. “We seem to be getting ourselves into awkward situations of late. Why does this all feel so familiar?” I asked him.
Nakai’s eyes crinkled. “You find this familiar?” he asked me in return from his perch on the pillow.
“Perhaps you did this in a previous life,” he joked.
I raised my brows. “Perhaps,” I replied coyly.
“Your Highness – tsk tsk!” Nakai shook his head reproachfully at me, which only made my grin ever wider.
I sprang to my feet and grabbed the bowl of water. After threatening to dump its contents on the guard’s head, I threw the water outside. After putting it away, I went about tidying up the rest of the room. Nakai protested loudly against this, but I ignored him and soon the room was spic and span.
Clapping my hands together in satisfaction, I pumped Nakai’s pillow and helped him to lie back down. “Be sure you get plenty of rest,” I told him as I turned to leave.
“Yes, ma’am,” was the sleepy reply.
Shaking my head, I glanced back over my shoulder to look once more at the guard. Already his eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. With a soft smile, I stepped quietly outside into the morning dew.
All the way home, my heart felt full and light, just as it used to after a job well done with Grandmother. However, when I reached my quarters and had pulled away the sliding, paper door, my spirits fell when I caught sight of Nalda’s face.
“The Emperor wants to see you.”