Holding her hands up in the dark moonlight, she studied the wrinkles of her fingers before rubbing the ends together and plunging them back into the cold water. Her head following not far behind, she held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut before breaking the surface. Slicking her hair back, she glanced over her shoulder. Just over the silhouette of the nearby mound giving her her privacy, she could see the warm glow of the fire and the soft murmuring of the men. Her men, as she had come to realize.
But even with this change of heart towards her compatriots, she couldn’t help but feel a sort of disconnect from one particular man, and yet, at the same time, an intimacy she had never before felt with anyone in the entire world. And though she tried her best to keep a professional distance from him, as time passed, she continued to dwell on those occasions that lingered in her mind, until finally… Finally…
Holding her breath, she dipped below the waterline, letting her hair float gracefully around her as she cooled her burning face. Rubbing her face, she waded to the bank before tightly wrapping the soft towel around herself. Shivering as the evening wind licked her, she hurriedly dried and dressed herself. Water dripping and soaking into her clothes, she trudged towards the fire.
Sitting down hard, she reached for her blanket. Gritting her teeth to prevent them from chattering, she glimpsed beyond the dancing flames his crossed arms and the hat turned down so low, his face was nigh invisible. Inching closer to the fire, she hid her face in her arms. Beside her Gino softly whistled to himself as he carved a piece of wood into the beginnings of a long-stemmed rose.
“Do you have another one?”
“A knife. Do you have another one?” she asked. When she saw the questioning look on his face, she merely showed him her hair. Over the past few months, it had grown past her waist and was a dreadful strain.
“Why don’t you braid it like Xingke?”
“It wouldn’t solve the problem.”
Nodding, he reached into his pack before unwrapping a small pair of scissors. As he handed it to her, he offered to cut it for her; he cut everyone’s hair, he explained, with the exception of the Prince who apparently needed so such care. Though she was suspicious, she eventually agreed. She had never before cut hair, much less her own, and since there was no reason for there to be any anxiety caused by society, she accepted.
Settling behind her, he gently ran his hand through her hair, combing out the knots and tangles. Sitting up and still, she tightly clasped her hands together, when she heard from behind, “Mind if I ask you something?”
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. I’ve just been trying to figure out why it is that you’re here. Not that I’m not glad that you are, but everyone here joined for a reason, and since you don’t really see much women going down this path…”
“Then what about you? Why are you here?”
A long time passed before he softly said, “A long time ago, I made a mistake. It wasn’t such a terrible one, but any mistake is a terrible one to my parents and so I was carefully and politically removed from my family so that I would no longer be associated with them and damage them with my misstep, but I still loved her anyway, so I didn’t much care until I realized there was nothing I could offer her. Not even a sliver of what I wanted to give to her, which was everything because she… Well, because she deserved it.”
She felt the weight from her shoulders melt away as he cut her free. His sigh ruffled her hair while he checked to see if all was well with his progress.
“So I asked her to wait for me, until I could give her even a little of what she was used to. I never told her what my plans were because I myself didn’t know, but I’ve been doing my best. I just wish my best was better.”
Across from them the Prince abruptly stood, startling them both. His hat spilled off and tumbled on the ground, but he paid it no mind as his wild eyes flickered around before settling on her. She stared back as he intently studied her, noting the panic and terror in his eyes, and was about to ask if something was wrong, when he walked away into the night as suddenly as he had woken.
“Strange,” muttered Gino. “He hasn’t done that in a long while.”
“He does that often?”
“He used to. He also had a lot of trouble falling asleep too apparently. At least that’s what Jeremiah told me.”
She studied his abandoned hat.
“You said everyone had a reason for joining.”
“I don’t know.” Setting the scissors in his lap, he appraised his work before telling her how no one knew; not even Suzaku had, who’d been no less than a brother to the man. “But maybe you’ll be the first to find out,” he joked. “You never know. He’s shown you his face, right?”
“Not out of choice.”
“What about when we were at the cliffs?”
She had no reasoning for his actions at the cliffs, when he had revealed to her out of his own will and desire something no living man had knowingly set eyes upon for years. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t any. Just because she was unable to logic her way out, it didn’t mean the Prince couldn’t.
No, it was too dangerous to make such assumptions, or even to jest about them. For jesting would only bury deeper inside her seeds of hope and delusion, and God knew she needed anything but the whims and fancies of a childhood gone by.
Gathering the dead hair in her lap with her hands, she gently scattered them into the fire and watched, mesmerized, as they instantaneously vanished. If only ridding herself of those thoughts could be as easy as that, she mused. If only it could be so easy. But then if it were, she wouldn’t be much human, would she?
No. No, she wouldn’t.