They become something of a legend, in those parts.
There are stories told of the small wagon that appears suddenly, like magic. No one ever sees it cresting the far horizon; it always rolls into town with the dawn, already close enough to hear the clip-clop of the horses' hooves. A few moments more and one can make out the painted sign swinging merrily by the back door, depicting a snake coiling around a mortar and pestle.
The wagon's driver differs with each storyteller: sometimes, it's a slight, hooded figure perched primly in the driver's seat, the silver threads in her skirt glittering like stars even in the bright daylight; sometimes, it's a white-haired fellow, reins coiled lazily around one hand as he leans far down enough in the seat that one can't be sure if he's actually awake. And there is at least one old timer who claims he came upon the wagon on the road to Nevivon, and found only a snake coiled on the seat, warming itself in the sun. An osprey perched on the roof, its sharp gaze pinned on him as the wagon passed him by.
The wagon usually stops wherever there's ample space, and if one waits a few moments they will see awnings unfurling over the right-hand window and above the back porch, while a rolled up sign pinned to the side opens to reveal the words 'Potions and elixirs at the window, tarot readings at the door.'
"Witches," some people whisper, herding their children inside houses and closing the shutters. But there are some who swear by the apothecary's brews, and more than a few querents praise the tarot reader and his uncannily accurate advice. They rarely take money, instead asking for things like bread, or produce, or a bolt of thick cloth, or an old but sturdy kettle.
They're polite, too, and always smiling, both at their customers and at each other. They must be in love, some of their friendlier patrons say; and, How happy you two must be, to which the apothecary only smiles and nods, but the tarot reader laughs brightly.
"That's right!" he says, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pressing a kiss to her temple.
And they are happy, even in the tiny space they share. They have to maneuver around each other to get from one end of the wagon to the other, but it means they can feel each other's warmth while Rei mixes potions at her table and Asra boils water for tea over the stove just behind her. The dining table barely has enough room for two plates, so they only use one, and take turns feeding each other from it. The bed is smaller even than the one they shared in the shop, but they wake up tangled in each other every morning, so it suits them just fine.
They are together, they are in love, and they are the happiest they've ever been.
(He wakes up every morning in contentment and thinks he can't want for anything more than this.)
One evening, well after they've closed up shop, Rei looks up from wiping down her workstation, glancing out the window with a crease in her brow.
"Someone's coming," she says, eyes fixed on the flashing stars, "but I don't know who."
Tulin rouses from the nest Muriel made for him in the rafters, suddenly alert. She opens the window, and he flies out into the night with a warning call. Asra pauses in washing the dishes, drying his hand on a towel before reaching for his deck and pulling a random card.
The Empress looks back at them, but they hardly have time to listen to what she would've said before Tulin flies back in, alighting on Rei's shoulder and looking fixedly at the door.
"It's one of the farmers," Rei says, her gaze turned inward as she sees what her familiar saw. She blinks out of it, and the two of them share a terse look just as a knock sounds through the wagon. Asra answers the door to find that it is, indeed, one of the farmers from the village, peeking up at them from beneath his straw hat and wringing his hands.
"Please," he says. "Me wife's giving birth, and the midwife's outta town this week."
Another look, another silent conversation between them.
"I—" Rei begins haltingly, glancing between Asra and the man, "I can give her something for the pain, but I—I've never—" She looks over at Asra for help, and he smiles at her, encouraging.
"We'll just do what we can," he says, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
"Oh, yes, please," the man says, nodding desperately. "That's all I ask."
Rei takes a deep breath and nods once, smiling gently at him. "I'll gather my things. We'll be out shortly."
Once the door closes, she lets out the breath she'd been holding as she grabs her satchel and turns to her workstation.
"Tulin, look after the shop while we're gone," she tells her familiar, who disappears back up to the rafters with a short caw. Asra asks Faust to do the same while Rei runs quickly through the various herbs on her table. "Ash, juniper, beth root, witch hazel . . ." Her fingers quiver ever so slightly against the bottles as she pulls them from the rack and into her bag. "What else, what else—"
"Yarrow and oak, brewed together as tea, act as an astringent for the womb," Asra recites, reaching for the proper containers. "Jasmine, bergamot, and rose oil infused in hot bath water help soothe the mother after the birth."
When he notices her perplexed look, he smiles, and admits: "You taught me that, after you helped the baker's wife deliver their child." He takes her hands and squeezes them, stilling her shaky fingers. "I know you can do this, Rei. Don't be scared."
She takes a few calming breaths as he places a kiss atop her head, before she pauses, and says, "The baker has a wife!?"
Asra laughs and kisses her cheek. "Later. We've got a patient waiting."
The inside of the one-room hut the farmer takes them to is dark and warm, lit only by a small fire on the hearth. The farmer's wife is attended to by two other women—an older spinster aunt and the farmer's younger, unwed sister, both looking uncertain as to what to do but trying their best to calm the expectant mother anyway.
Asra and Rei stand silent by the door, watching as the farmer approaches his wife to whisper in her ear. She turns her glazed eyes over to them, and Rei stiffens, squeezing Asra's hand reflexively.
"You can do this," he reminds her, with a brief brush of his thumb across the back of her hand, before he relinquishes it and steps back. He watches, a warm feeling suffusing his chest, as her throat moves with a swallow and she steps forward.
"My name is Rei," she says, voice serene, her nervousness only apparent in the way her hand clutches at the strap of her bag. "I'm here to help."
Asra throws more ash seeds and juniper berries into the fire as he waits for the water to warm. He glances over to where Rei kneels by the mother, murmuring words of comfort. She has tied her hair into a high, messy bun, and for a moment Asra relives that day in the baker's house—the warm bedroom with heavy curtains over the windows; the lingering smell of bread and spices that followed the baker as he paced worriedly back and forth; the soft lilting chant Rei had whisper-sung to the frightened young mother as she groaned with the birthing pains.
The stars, they watch over you, sister,
And the lady moon, she smiles on you, daughter.
The pain, it will pass, become no more than a whisper,
Be brave, little mother, and calm as the water.
Asra snaps back abruptly to the present only to see Rei smiling quizzically at him, brow raised.
"Asra?" she repeats. "The water, please."
It is only now that he realizes the kettle is already boiling, whistling cheerily in the otherwise silent room. He pours some water into a cup and hands it off to Rei, watches her steep a mixture of beth root and raspberry leaves before bringing it to the mother's lips to drink.
"The contractions will come soon," Rei warns her gently. "But I need you to be strong, and push as hard as you can, alright?"
"Alright," the mother says, in a sure, clear voice. No longer are her eyes unfocused and unseeing; now, determination blazes in them as she crouches over the birthing stool.
It is not so difficult a delivery, after all. (The baker's wife had a harder time of it, he remembers.) Soon enough, Asra is helping Rei wash the newborn in warm spring water, his eyes fixed, trance-like, as she coos tenderly to the baby and swaddles it in clean linens.
(The thought comes to him unbidden: oh, what if, what if, what if?)
"It's a beautiful baby girl," she announces softly to the room. The farmer beams, clutching at his wife's hand with tears streaming down his joyful face, and the aunt and sister lavish quiet praises on the mother, who only smiles tiredly and stretches out her arms for her daughter. After Rei carefully maneuvers the baby into her mother's embrace, Asra waits patiently as she packs wool and witch hazel between the mother's thighs to stem the bleeding, and explains to the aunt how to prepare the astringent and the sitz-bath.
Then, her job done, she joins Asra at the door with a wide, satisfied smile, tucking her hand into his as they slip quietly back out into the starlit night.
They lie awake later, well into the early hours of the dawn, squeezed together in their bed with barely a spare inch between them, listening to the cricket-song outside the window.
Asra lies facing her, chin propped on his hand. He watches as her eyes flutter sleepily; she must be exhausted, and he cannot help the grin that splits his face as he remembers how she looked in that little one-room hut, kneeling next to the mother, just as determined and just as brave.
"You were amazing today," he whispers, brushing a loose curl from her cheek.
She cracks one eye open as she turns to him, snuggling closer. "I couldn't have done it without you," she sighs, settling into his warmth. "Thank you, Asra," she says, "for believing in me."
He kisses her hair as she burrows into his chest, and his heart is so full it hurts, but only in the best way. "Always."
He watches her breaths even out, and when he thinks she's asleep, he says, "You'd make a great mother."
(They'd have his hair and her eyes and oh, but what he wouldn't give for them to have her smile—)
He doesn't expect it when the corner of her mouth turns up the slightest bit, and she mumbles, if a little incoherently, "Only if you're there to help me."
It stuns him stock-still long enough that her breathing deepens into true sleep before he gathers his wits back to himself.
(He has been so happy, here with her, that he had all but forgotten what it was to want something with every fiber of his being.)
Slowly, so as not to wake her, he reaches slowly behind her to the little compartment where he keeps his deck and pulls out a single card.
The Empress is quiet, smiling enigmatically out at him from her abundant garden, and Asra closes his eyes as he recalls the memory of the newborn's first cry as she lay swaddled in Rei's arms, a grin remaining on his face even long after he falls asleep.