“You are ordered to the Fortress, Corpsmaster Ti,” Sylva said, but I saw urgency in her face as she added, “by order of the Queen.”
I had Cascada replace me, rousted out of a sound sleep to do double duty. I’d take her time on the Wall another time, and keep my debts clear. I did wash my face and hands. I found my gut clenching with dread in me as I mounted my saddled mare and accompanied Sylva through the City. But the Queen could mean anything by this message, perhaps no more than an errand.
The streets thronged, full of chatter and clamor, cheerful with business being done, jokes, quarrels and contentions making me curiously happy. The memory of silence during the great pox still lingered too freshly for me to take the discordant music of the streets for granted. Smells of fresh produce, of warm bread and fruit tarts, sausages on the vendor’s grills, made me remember a breakfast too many hours distant.
“The Queen orders me explain why you are requested. It is our Prince for whom you are needed, ” Sylva said over the babble around us. “Thane Gehir told our Queen that he left you with a healing in you when Prince Daniel would need it. He fell yesterday while trying to train his pony to do a courbette — he wants to be well versed in the arts of war, but he hasn’t yet learned that you cannot teach a rat to sing. He bruised himself heavily in his fall and since then his joints have swollen, his bruises have spread as though they could not stop bleeding.”
“I understand,” I said, though I did not really. I wondered if it would be like the last time only with no Thane Gehir to drag me forth from that inner pit. “If Thane Gehir said that I would be able, then I must be.”
She said nothing more. I felt the cool assessing gaze of her light blue eyes. I had trained her, but I’d never known her to share a joke or lighten the sorrow of a friend. Maybe she did these things; I had not seen it. I knew her reflexes, though, and I remembered that she frequently would overcompensate for the power of a countering blow when we used swords in play. Also I had tried to break her of her habit of drawing in breath just before launching a blow. I had made jest of it, still she had not laughed.
My mare danced a little and I became aware of how I tightened my reins. I stroked her brown neck in apology making an effort not to project my own feelings and anticipations of the task to come. All my training should have brought me a better degree of control.
A girl with thick black curls and a striped red dress tossed one of the bouquets she was selling to me, a small cluster of violets and white tear flowers with fern. Her eyes seemed to match the blue of the petals as she looked up at me, no smile on her face. I caught it by reflex, then saluted her. Of a sudden it came back to me, my smile froze on my mouth–I saw with terrible memory her flushed and strained face, vague blotches upon her cheeks and forehead. About seven years old, but she had not cried or moaned. I remembered that I had thought this one would make a warrior as I placed my hands on her and felt the presence of a soul as fierce as a black widow, and true as a knife. I met her eyes, turning in my saddle to look as she bowed at the waist with her head up still staring after me. I had only felt this kind of memory once before in the weeks since the pox, yet I did not even know her name.
At Methen Square we left our horses climbing up the black slate stairs, curved with generations of passage. Up through the halls and corridors we went, with Sylva giving the password each time the guards stopped us on our way. Our route seemed indirect, even circuitous. I wondered if the King knew of my visit to the Prince in the time of the pox.
We came to the same room, bright-lit with the noon sunlight, with silent guards at the open door. They let us in, and this time the room had many in it, persons I did not recognize, but also the King and the Queen, sitting waiting by the Prince’s bed, faces strained with watching. I knelt and saluted the boy, whose large dark blue eyes considered me with much more than simple recognition. His skin held the flush of fever.
“My Prince,” I said, “there have been some acts of healing that have been possible to me. Not all of your will, nor all of mine can make possible the kind of deep cure that you need. It is only the present damage that I may, if I am able, begin to mend. Let me do this much. If you press me for more, as you have the power to do, I cannot perform it. We might both die.”
“I remember,” he said, and gave me a curiously beautiful smile. “I very nearly ate out your bones with my will the last time you laid your hands on me. I am sorry. I will try not to do so again. After all,” he said, “you belong to me, and I will have need of you again. As you shall of me.”
It was a very strange thing for him to say, and I found myself hesitating. But what was there to reconsider? He was but a child, raised quaintly and alone and lonely, for purposes of power. I felt his need of friends, and it came over my mind that he should be more brought before the people that they might put their hopes and their affections upon him. Quillmaster and the other Burgmasters should know him and make him known. For we had no other heir, and some day I would fall in battle and they would need a new ‘hero’ as well as this prince.
“Ah shyd,” I said. I took his offered wrists in my hands and fell into his darkness and his crushing pain.
Time, images, sensations passed, I felt the Prince holding himself in check and it made my retreat easier. I drew myself away, pulling back into my own separate skin with gratitude. I lifted my hands from his slender wrists.
He met my glance with one of his own as the weariness swept over him, and he smiled at me. I stopped even as I would have risen from my knees, overset by his direct simplicity. Weak tears stung my eyes. Then his eyelids drooped and he fell into slumber.
“I think he will do, now,” I said, regaining my feet. I managed a bow.
I stepped backwards towards the doorway, desiring only to retreat and go back to my own life. This had been easier than healing the pox, the pains of injury more contained. I found thoughts crowding in me, I wondered if the healing had become easier for me now, or if the terrible nature and quantity of need during the pox had made me stronger. And I wondered how long I could keep any such secret from the people. Quillmaster and Grassmaster aside, I had no illusions about the tolerance of the people for a human who had improper abilities. Quillson had his own ideas, but they would not be shared for decades by other citizens, if ever.
I looked up as the King himself blocked my way.
“I would speak with you, Corpsmaster Ti,” he said. “In my own chambers in my tower.”
I bowed in obedience and followed him, flanked by his personal guard. I felt the eyes of the Queen upon us, and tasted anxiety in the air.
Down the slates of the stairs, the King spoke no word, and I followed his erect back with my eyes fixed upon his burgundy velvet, wondering how I had offended. We crossed the sunny central courtyard of the Fortress, then reentered the building and went up the stairway into the West Tower.
At the door of his study he gestured to the guards that they remain outside. The heavy door shut behind me. No sunlight could reach this room in the tower, for it was buried in the center, and the room felt cool, almost clammy to me. King Matthew paced across the room then turned, looking me over with a cold eye, his silver beard and hair gleaming in the candlelight.
I said nothing as he considered.
“I am forced to conclude that you have laid your hands upon my son the Prince before.”
“Yes, Lord King.”
“This was during the pox; he had contracted it and you came to heal him?”
“By whose order did you come and do this thing?”
“By the Queen’s order, and by my Prince’s assent.”
He stood silent, his eyes thoughtful. My tension mounted. I tried to show nothing. I knew better than to try to speak, unasked.
I realized that the great door behind me was heavy enough to stop all noise, and remembered the small snick it had made as it closed, like a door so well-fitted that hardly a touch of air could pass its hinges. What we said or did here could be as secret as the King desired.
“What is my son’s disease?”
“My Lord King?” I started, but then I recalled Thane Gehir’s caution that I should conceal nothing. “I cured him of the pox, yet he has another sickness. When I tried to cure him the first time, his soul tried to hold me to healing his deeper ill, but I had not the ability. He has a strong will, and Thane Gehir had to bring me back out. I asked Thane Gehir what the ailment might be, and he said it was a disease of the motes of the blood that even he could not begin to remedy.”
“And why was I not informed?”
“My Lord King, I thought you knew. Be sure your son was quickly cured of the great pox, when that disease was just beginning to take hold. As for the blood ill, I take the fault, for I did not know what it was, nor anything about it until I asked the Thane what had happened when I tried to heal Prince Daniel. I did not speak of the blood ill even to the Queen.”
I could see no emotion on King Matthew’s face, but his eyes looked hot, and I feared him as I have never feared another.
“So you spoke to no one about his deeper illness?”
“No, my Lord King.”
I could not tell if that answer pleased or moved him further.
“Will the blood in him kill my son?”
“I do not know,” I stammered in my ignorance. “I understand little of this. Only that Gehir said it was a flaw passed down from parents to child, not a contagion from any other person, nor a poison.”
Again he held quiet, his gaze fixed upon my naked face. Why had I never thought to speak of the Prince’s health before, even to his mother? Yet I think that even in that first visit to the sunlit room, I had felt an air of complicit knowledge, a sense that the Queen knew as well as her son himself, that something was profoundly wrong with him, and that the flaw he had inherited, was a weakness to be concealed even from his father. I could not say this now.
“I cannot explain my own disobedience or stupidity,” I said. “I submit my punishment and my life to your judgment.”
“You acknowledge your fault,” he said slowly. I knew from the blue eyes that he was thinking something very different indeed from what words he spoke.
I drew out my sword and placed it upon the ground between us, hilts turned to him. He looked down at it and at me when I knelt.
“Yes,” he said. “I understand there may be some insanity that makes the healing work. Thane Gehir spoke to me of such lapses long long ago, before you, Corpsmaster had even suffered your birth. You acknowledge your fault. You submit.”
There was a current of strained force in his voice that I did not understand. He continued to look down at my sword, making no move to pick it up.
“I would have faulted you more, for indiscretion,” he said. “The Prince is the only heir. He must make a strong presence among us.
“Corpsmaster Ti, you have been loyal to the contending authorities of this kingdom. Take back your sword. I bind you only to silence. Now be gone,” he said, and then he whispered something I thought I did not catch.
That night in my bed I was falling into sleep when I heard his words reconstructed by some part of my brain as though I had read his lips. This time I heard him clear enough to wake me.
“…before I change my mind.”
I had a duty at the Fortress some days later and bringing my shabby bay mare through the streets, I became aware that I was marked as I passed by people in the street. Word had traveled that I did not take pleasure in recognition, so no one approached me or spoke. I could feel eyes upon me, considering, yet not unfriendly. I recalled what had been said at Quillmaster’s table, and I wondered how much deliberate work had been done to keep an idea of me before the people. For the defense of the people, I thought to myself, even this may have good purpose. However, I could not shake my unease, nor comfort myself with any illusion that the will of the people could protect me if the King himself changed his mind against me.
Time had grown late by the end of my business and I departed the tall gray walls of the Fortress with considerable relief. I like matters of writing well enough, particularly those having to do with historical records and legend, or tactics of our ancestors in war, but the tedious numbering of supply items and tracking flows of goods and wealth in the City bore me. I tried to keep our records of the Wall clear and clean, for I quickly saw that what I found exacting would quickly become intolerable if I tolerated imprecision. Work ill-done always needs to be done more than once.
Cascada has a gift for these matters and I relied upon her to check my figuring or sort it into better form before I relayed any report. Of recent she had been training Adarte to support her, finding that Adarte had a similar gift to her own. Adarte was still a good soldier, but her arm never regained full function; still marred with its great cicatrice of scarred tissue, it remained unable to flex for the full rotation of her sword arm.
I had been thinking of this and other matters, so that I did not notice until I came to the hitching post that my mare was no longer there. Instead only one horse waited, a lovely gray gelding with large purple-dark eyes and a high crest, his delicate ears canted forward to consider me with curiosity and challenge. I could not help looking at him, noticing as my father had taught me so many long years ago, how deep a chest he had, and how broad his cannon bones were, how lovely his hocks. Deep quartered for both jumping and speed. He had neat hooves of iron gray, his legs almost black up to the knees, and he possessed the height I have always favored, just two hands over pony size but built without the heaviness and coarseness that many pony breeds display. He fluttered a snort at me, as if in inquiry, and I had to smile.
I turned away, supposing that one of the guards had had the kindness during my long absence to take my mare to the barns for fodder and a drink, but the burly figure of Grassmaster’s Glinka stepped forward from where he had been talking with one of the Fortress Guard.
“Good even, Corpsmaster Ti,’ he said. “I am sent to tell you that you this is your horse. Kassh is his name, and he knows it.”
“I can accept no gift from the Grassmaster,” I said.
“It is not a gift, nor is it from the Grassmaster,” he saluted me. “The beast comes from the people merely in exchange for your own bay horse. If you feel you have been cheated in this matter, I can bear that message back. Grassmaster told me to remind you that your master is the people, and those whom the people own should accept with grace the whim of the master. Even when the sword’s cutting edge faces you.”
I did not know what to do. I stood looking for an answer in his narrow-boned face and secretive black eyes, and I did not know if I should refuse and insist on walking all the way back to the Wall. I have always cringed easily at ridicule. I felt keenly that my position was ridiculous. Also my soul shrank at the idea of this gift, for no wording could change what it was or its great value. They could not have selected a beast more to my desire, and already, watching Kassh’s impatient toss of head I could almost feel the velvet of his muzzle cupped in my hands.
“I am fond of Shipkau, my bay,” I said. “She has seen battle with me, and even though she may seem old and un-beautiful, she is a loyal friend.”
“And she goes to an honorable retirement,” Glinka said. “She goes to the stables of the King, for this exchange is a matter of his will as well. She shall be the Prince’s first fully battle-experienced horse, and thus they shall both gain.”
I turned when Haemerick spoke by my side.
“The King approves this exchange and gives it all honor,” she said.
I smiled a little. It seemed like the only thing to do, though I felt like walking away. I could not find myself adequate. The price of this horse must have been raised by public call, and I didn’t merit it. Maybe it should have comforted me in some part that no one giver would have contributed a large amount, so that this was a gift of many pieces. Maybe it should have, but instead it hurt me even more.
“I am grateful, ” I said, and saluted, my hand to my chest. My voice came out unclear and grating as if I hardly had control over it. I peeled off my glove and put my hand out to Kassh who pressed his soft muzzle against my palm. It was just as tender and warm as my mind had made it.
There were still many people upon the streets as I passed back through them, and I heard them murmuring, like the soughing of wind in leaves. I understood that they did have ownership of me even though I had oathed my first loyalty to Thane Gehir. How many times had I said ‘I serve’ or ‘I am a killer for the people’, and now I felt that they also knew it was true. I wondered why, what had moved them, but in explanation I thought too of what Quillson had said when I asked why he did not fear me.
Riding Kassh took no effort. He moved as if his vigor would never be spent, and as if it were his pleasure to bear me, not his burden. I stroked my bare hand along the deep curve of his neck, and felt it lift under my touch, warm with life.