Her eyes are almost at peace when you are around her, only the barest trace of guilt showing through. Her touch is full of gentleness, grace even, despite her upbringing. Her smile shows something you do not entirely recognize – it is not quite contentment, nor is it hope; love, perhaps, you think to yourself.
From the day you met her, she has been fragile. This, you have known well from the start.
Even that has failed to stop you from dishonoring your family, defying the oft-spoken and ever present laws in order to cling to her, a dying woman whose soul weakens slightly with each passing day. It has failed to keep you from making her, a commoner with a weak spirit, your wife. You redeem yourself, slightly, only by burying yourself in the duties that are sent your way as the head of the family, and the paper- and fieldwork that are your obligation as one of the elite captains. During the day, she waits; and during the day, you do not think of her. She is a separate part of your life; she is not to be brought into your daily routines, especially not after all the disgrace you have already brought to your clan by marrying her.
When you have the time, you use it to be with her. Despite her waning life force, she is rarely without a smile, and always happy to see you. She is gentle, careful, so much that you cannot help but wonder why she was not born a noblewoman; though you would have her no other way, you have no pretenses in your mind about the difference it would make was she not a commoner. She is as delicate as any noblewoman, and far too frail. You wish you could give some of your own strength to aid her. Were such a thing possible, you would freely give it all.
Yet you do your best to banish the last thought from your mind, for you know well how foolish that is. For all that she is your wife, she is still of common blood, and her life will never be as important as yours.
You do not mention this to anyone, nor do you admit, least of all to her, that you are unsure whether she could live without you.
You make sure to remind yourself regularly that the same does not go for you, however easy it would be to indulge yourself in such romantic ideas. She will die, and you will live on. In the end, that is probably for the better.
At least, you tell yourself that.
She seems to grow frailer almost by the day. You watch her through the window as she sits in the garden, reluctant to approach her with the worry so evident in your face. Instead you consult the doctors again and again about her condition, so often as you can without making a nuisance of yourself. When you do join her, you mask the emotions buried so close to the surface. You do not have the luxury of letting your composure break, or of letting your emotions break you. You simply stay by her side, sometimes listening to her tales, but more often talking about yourself: your work, your days, and whatever else she asks. You've come to learn that not only does she prefer to hear about life outside the manor, but that you do not mind recounting the day's events when it is to her. When you speak to her of your duties, it is relaxing, as if you are putting the work behind you rather than giving a report. You do not understand why she is so interested in what seems typical and menial to you, but you are grateful for the comfort it offers.
In turn, she listens to you speak, and as she listens she smiles. Somehow, you know that the smiles are not in response to your words, but rather to your presence and company. Despite the difference in station between the two of you, you have caught yourself wondering just what she, of all people, sees in you.
Even though you understand that there is no reason for you to think such things, you let yourself. You have never known why you love her, except that she is gentle and beautiful and kind, but you have come to realize that in spite of the circumstances, nothing has ever made you happier than being loved by her.
All you can do is try your hardest to ensure that she feels the same way.
As the months pass, your time with her becomes scarcer and scarcer. Oftentimes you arrive home only to see her barely awake, wrapped in her blankets, and all you can do is carry her to bed and tell her to rest. She does not question your decisions, only replying with a 'yes, my lord' and a strained smile before she falls asleep before your eyes. It does not take you long to realize that she has been keeping herself awake to wait for you, and even then you cannot bring yourself to tell her to stop. Being with her has made you selfish, somehow – you allow her to continue straining her health, only directing her to save her strength as the doctors tell you, all for the days when she is awake enough to greet you properly. You cherish those moments, despite the voice in your head that admonishes you to make her take better care of herself. You remind yourself that you are not worth that much, that if her behavior continues, it will only lead to an earlier death.
Yet even when she is clearly in no condition to listen to you, to do anything but sleep, you find yourself glad for her presence. You sit by her, listening as she insists that she feels fine, only to drift into a sound sleep moments later. You find yourself ignoring the work you by all rights ought to be doing, everything you should be preparing for the next day, just to sit by her side and keep watch over her as she sleeps. You cherish these moments as well, but the peacefulness comes with a growing sense of unease. She is weaker now than she was a month, a year, two years ago. You know that someday, perhaps sooner than you expect, you will need to let her go.
Until then, you do all you can. You consult the doctors about her condition, making sure that you are doing all that can be done for her. You deafen yourself to any who still question your relationship with her or make spiteful comments behind your back. She is all that matters. When she is troubled, you comfort her; when she is ill, you tend to her. When she weakens, you do all you can to lend her your own strength. You grasp her hand gently but firmly and manage a smile. I will always be by your side, you think, as if she can hear your thoughts – sometimes it feels as if she truly can. You have nothing to fear – you tell yourself that is true, even in the face of the obvious truth. I will stay with you. I will care for you. I will do all I can in my power to keep you happy and well, for I am blind to all the world but you.
Even as she falls asleep, you hold her hand tightly, afraid that if you let it go, she will be gone. I will always love you. Only when her eyes have relaxed and her breathing has become slow and steady do you let the smile fall from your face and rest your head on your hand, still clasped with hers.
I will never forget you.
As daylight comes, you are awake, her hand resting in yours as if it had always been there. The nights when she has fallen asleep in this fashion are too numerous to count, yet to you they blur together as one continuous night with no morning until it comes anew each day. You stroke a hand through her hair, barely seeing the way the sunlight pales the midnight black strands. If you are tired from staying awake through the night, you do not notice; over the past year, it has become routine.
You stay with her through the day, your duties long forgotten as she breathes slowly beside you, slipping in and out of consciousness. Occasionally, she will awaken and speak to you; more often, she simply looks at you, and that one look says more than enough – more than you care to know. Lost are the days of smiles, strained or genuine; now, her eyes tell little that is not regret. You are unable to find the words for her, words to counter such a pained yet honest baring of her soul. You can only look down at her, the pain too strong to keep from showing anymore.
The doctors have long since abandoned her; at this point, there is nothing more that can be done through medicine. All you can do is stay by her side, day and night, watching out for her physical comfort – the emotional conflict, you can do nothing for. You find yourself, sometimes, holding her hand so tightly it must hurt. You loosen your grip hastily, to no reaction from her at all, no sign that she had even felt the pain.
Her skin is pale, even more so than it used to be. Her pulse is weak and her breathing is shallow, yet when she awakens once more, she is able to speak. You hold her upright gently, allowing her to breathe more easily as she looks away. You listen silently as she whispers to you what you somehow know already will be her dying words: her last wish, and an apology to you.
You know as she speaks that this is all wrong. You are the one who selfishly clung to her; you are the one who needed her more than anything. Yet you listen to her as she apologizes for being a burden, for being unable to return your love as you deserved. No, you think. You are the one who should be saying this – it is because of you that she has struggled these past five years to be perfect, to avoid bringing more shame to your family than you have already brought yourself. She is the one who has been there by your side despite all that you have made her endure, who deserved more than you could give her, yet you cannot find the words to tell her.
As she looks you in the eye, she smiles one last time, eyes closing almost peacefully. Her hand is still warm, yet the feel of her grip loosening against your hand is painfully distinct. You clutch her hand with both of yours, wanting to say something – anything – that would keep her in this world, but your words dissipate as always.
You lay her down slowly, habitually moving the several strands of her that have fallen askew out of her face.
You have known for the past five years that it would come to this. Her hand is slowly growing cold in yours.
'My lord... being with you for the past five years was like a dream come true.'
Her voice is still in your head – ragged and breathless, as it has been for the past month. You shake your head slowly, even as you realize that she cannot see it.
You will always remember her with a smile on her face, no matter what the circumstances. You will never think of her – never – as the weak woman who was a burden to you, the woman who could never forget her painful past even after all these years. You will remember her as the woman who loved you... the woman you loved, who deserved more than what you could ever have given her. You will not remember her as the woman she thought herself to be.
You close your eyes, breathing unevenly. She is gone, with all the strength you have exhausted over the past five years. For the first time in your life, you feel truly weak.
Under your breath, you whisper two last words that seem to sound only in your head, like everything else you have ever wished you could say to her. Forgive me.
You release her hand slowly, turning away before you can see her last smile completely fade.