I looked down so that she would not see my relief. In her eyes at least I was still Corpsmaster, and by taking the first move, I might have left the others here free. For there was something about this that raised my hackles, not just the near-insolence of their arrival, but a sense that these troops had received uncertain orders.
I moved quickly through them to the door, without speaking to the Thane or the others, and heard the troops close in, Haemerick before me, one on each side, and the rest following. Not quite arrested, I thought, but not exactly a guest, either. Two weeks ago I had known exactly where I was and to whom my debts were paid, but at this friable moment, I knew nothing.
We are all instructed in the layout of the Fortress, except for the lower unused parts labyrinthine in their complex extensions. As we mounted stairways and came higher in the great building I became more puzzled about our probable destination. When we stopped, crowded together in a poorly lit stone passage, I looked around as best I could without being too obvious, and knew we were in the royal quarters. Not the official part but the warren of subdivided chambers that lay above and behind the reception rooms. Haemerick knocked twice upon the door at the end of the small cramped corridor, and it opened after a moment of delay. The Queen stood there, her face pale and strained in the morning light.
She said nothing, but Haemerick pressed herself back against the stones, and the Queen gestured me in, urgent and imperious. She closed the door firmly behind me and her nod directed me to the east corner of the sunny room.
I walked wondering forward, and saw the prince himself, lying curled upon the tossed covers, sweat heavy on his fevered forehead, his eyes wide open with the whites showing, his mouth tight as if determined to make no sound. He was frail, I realized. I had handled so many young children in the past few days that I could say such a thing with authority. His ribs heaved with his breathing. He also had the great pox. It was early, but he had been racked with the first watery bowels and the stink of it hung heavily in the room.
I knelt by his bed and saw that he met my eyes with determination more than fear. I saw the pain, too.
“I do not know if the gift is still with me,” I said. “I will try, if it is your will.”
He nodded, and closed his eyes as if they hurt. I spoke over my shoulder to the Queen.
“Send Haemerick back down. She herself will be enough this time, for none of us would ever resist the Queen’s order. We are all your willing servants. Have her ask Thane Gehir to come. If I cannot do what is needed, he surely can.”
I placed my hands upon the boy’s hot wrists, feeling for an instant the flutter of his turbulent pulse through the thin skin. Then the world changed, and I gagged upon the bile he still fought to contain, the torment of a bowel pierced through with infection, a raging heat that seemed to flow through bones. I felt his life, like a fluttering thing.
He would not let me go; I could not leave. Even after I had done each of the things that had become familiar to me, it was not enough. I knew he had still some kind of healing left to do that had nothing in common with the pox, a deep and threatening ill, not so immediately urgent as the pox, but terrible in its own nature. I had sometimes felt things like this in those I healed, but never before so strongly. Always before when the pains of the pox were past, the sick had let me go, preoccupied with their own relief from the greatest agony they had ever known. But the Prince would not; perhaps because he was not so far gone as most of the others I had put my hands upon. Or possibly his will was different, since it had already been tempered by this constant undercurrent of unknown suffering. I did not know how to ease this other illness; I had no knowledge nor even instinct to guide me.
Then I felt Thane Gehir, prying me out from the darkness, pulling me away and up. I opened my eyes and saw his big hands tugging my grip from the boy’s arms.
“The pox is gone,” he said, looking at the boy. Gehir sounded calm but I saw sweat upon his brow.
“Her gift may conquer the pox,” Thane Gehir said, as if in explanation to the sleepy-eyed boy, “still it cannot heal all things. I know that I may mend what I myself have inflicted,” he continued, “what another has dealt if it be fresh, illness if I have suffered its kind and survived myself. Yet there are ills bred into the bone or deep in the motes of the blood that even I cannot touch. I know none of the names for the mysteries of the body; the functions of a system that has gone wrong. The humors themselves can only rarely be adjusted. I can only say ‘this is the nature of the thing, and I am helpless to touch it.'”
The Prince did not reply, but closed his eyes as he passed into the sleep that always seemed to complete this healing. I had a new response this time, not just a distaste and embarrassment for the very private act I had just committed, but a shame that I had failed, that my part had been insufficient. I thought over exactly what the Thane had said, questions teeming up in me. The Queen had come to stand by the sleeping boy. Her face, I saw, was marked with strain. She said nothing though she met our eyes in turn and nodded her acknowledgment. Then she turned to her son, and simply placed her hand over his.
We left the room, this time unescorted, and the guards outside the door had no challenge nor any word for us as we walked down the corridor.
“I must leave today, ” Thane Gehir said. “I must be away from the Wall before noon.
“I have two suggestions only to you now. Conceal nothing that has happened to you if you are asked. Also, I tell you that some day the Queen will give you an order. I ask that you obey it, whatever your thought at the time.”
“I shall; you have my word,” I said. “Thane Gehir, I do not understand the nature of the Prince’s remaining sickness.”
“It is a blood problem where the motes of the blood are imperfect as the body makes them. He inherited this. It is not a disease that can be caught or communicated.”
“It comes from a parent? Neither the King or Queen is affected.”
“It happens so, sometimes, ” he said and gave me an odd look.
“Have I still this gift of healing that you gave me? How long will it trouble me?”
“I cannot tell, ” he hunched his shoulders under his cloak. “I think you may find it grows a little in you — you heard what I said about the nature of the healing. You will find that the manner of what you do will be different, say for a fresh sword wound, but you will be able to sense what is awry. Today you have learned why I will also say ‘be careful’.”
“Yes. Was it the Prince who held me back in the dark, or was it because I forgot to use the magic words?”
“It was the Prince. But what magic words?”
He frowned in puzzlement at me as we descended into the main hall.
“‘Ah shyd’,” I said to him. “Those were the incantation words you taught me. That’s what you whispered before you did the first healing. This time I forgot to say them.”
He stood still, frowning for a moment, but then all the lines on his face broke up.
“Oh Gods,” he gasped, and laughed as if he had no way to stop.
“An incantation,” he managed to say. “Ti of the Wall’s incantation. I am sorry, Ti.”
His eyes were full of the hysterical tears that laughter after suffering can bring, his face contorted.
“I hate healing, I have to force myself to it,” he said. “What I said before I began was ‘oh, shit’.”
He grabbed my scarred hand and kissed it, then swung out the door so fast he was almost running, but I could still hear the choking gasp of his laughter as he went beyond my sight into the sunlight.
I rode with Mell and Cascada back to the barracks in the late morning, observing the dense activity of the streets with unaccustomed pleasure. Used to be that I found the hectic clamor of the stalls annoying, and saw the crowds of self-occupied citizens more as an obstruction to my horse than a sign of the City’s health. Now I felt in the ebb and flow of noisy trade a return to real life, as basic and therefore as good as the smell of breakfast porridge.
They let me stop at the baths at Gartek End, and told me it was more for their sake than mine. The owner tried to refuse my payment until I nearly bit his head off — I wanted to wash away all of my involvement in the past strange days and have no lingering of any kind. Even as I realized that my wish was unreasonable, I softened my tone, and tried to explain how I was still a soldier like any other, due no particular favors. The scene became awful to me when he blubbered at me some story about how I had saved his son’s child, a male child, he emphasized, the only male child in the generation; his sole male grandchild. As if prick and balls were the measure of all things.
Cascada, cool as obsidian, peeled him off of me, and let me escape to the baths. I do not know what she said to him. He troubled me no longer. Mell returned from the shop outside with new clothes, and once I had wrung out my blissfully clean black mop of hair, I had the comfort of real cleanliness at last.