Warnings: Vicious fantasy violence, disease, drowning
Summary: While Énna prepares to negotiate a treaty with the Aerie, Ryder tries to solve a set of mysterious drownings in the southern part of Bridehive.
A/N: Art by Zomburai.
I blinked my eyes open into watery sunlight, yawning and stretching, and reaching out blindly for Énna. My questing hand found a warm place between otherwise empty sheets, and I grumbled sadly beneath my breath. Gone again, and the sun was barely over the windowsill. He’d been working too hard, but then it wasn’t so surprising. In just a few weeks, the Monarch of the Aerie would be traveling to Bridehive to sign our treaty, and in the meantime, we were all trying to rebuild our hometown from the mess the Khar had made of it.
I was at loose ends. I’d been ordered to rest in the aftermath of my head injury, and it turned out I was not very good at it. I kept trying to sneak out and go to the library, at least, but the teachers were very serious that they meant mental rest, as well as physical. The headaches had faded almost five days ago, and at this point I was ready to stab something, just so that I could have a reason to do the purification rite. It would be better than lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.
I heard the door open, and I rolled over hopefully. To my surprise, it actually was Énna, and he was grinning.
“Oh, good,” he said. “You’re awake.”
“I am,” I agreed. “Why are you smiling like that? Find some quality birdseed, did you?”
He huffed and shoved my shoulder. “I shouldn’t be, really,” he said. “There’s been some concerning disappearances. Citizens turning up drowned at a much higher rate than they ought to, and some kind of disease running on and off through the river district.”
“Oh, and at what rate ought they to be turning up drowned?” I asked him playfully. “And I admit, I don’t see much to smile about in that news. But can’t you just use your all-magical awareness to find out what’s happening?”
Énna scratched the back of his head. “Well, no. I’ve no idea how to begin using it to understand illness, and most of the drownings are happening just out of town, where my awareness is fuzzy. Which means I’ll need someone to investigate them.” I crossed my arms and raised my eyebrows. “Someone I trust. Maybe someone that the teachers have finally said can get out of bed and do things again, so I don’t have to stare at their highly sad and disappointed face every night when I get back from a tedious day of politics.”
“Ahhhhhh.” The noise I let out must’ve put Énna in mind of something I hadn’t intended, because he blushed, but I was just stretching. “Thank the saints. I thought I was going to wither away in here.”
“So you’ll do it? I know some of the stories you told—you did some investigating, right? Solved mysteries and things?”
“Well, usually where the nearest library was,” I confessed. “I suppose I did search for some artifacts, and there was that time that I figured out who’d murdered the heir to the Connor family—” I paused. “All right, so I’ve done a bit, and I do like it.”
“Also, I need someone that I really—that I really trust?” Énna’s voice broke a bit, and I reached out and squeezed his arm. “I’m just—I’m a werman. Being Protector used to be military, it made sense for it to be a werman, but I’ve no call to be doing diplomacy.”
I swatted him. “And as a noman, I’ve no call to be killing people, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good at it.”
He slid a hand up the raised scar on my belly. “I wouldn’t say good, precisely.”
“Oy!” I protested. “You should’ve seen it the time I held off ten Khar at the Bridge of Irinaya.”
“I’m sure you’ll be happy to tell me all about it, in great detail, but for now, you’d best get dressed and get some breakfast.”
Énna filled me in on the problem over breakfast. Over about the past week or a little more, while I’d been forced into mind-numbing recuperation, several wermen, women, and nomen had disappeared, most of them farmers living in the river district who grew fruit and herbs along the banks. One or two had been artisans as well. A number of their drowned corpses had been found at the bend where the Bridehive River curved just south of the city. Énna had sent one or two of the recently renewed city watch to question them but the only response had been that the “monster” had probably returned. The watch hadn’t been able to get much more out of them.
“I don’t know if they’re likelier to talk to you,” he admitted, “but at least it seemed like something to occupy your time. Something you’d have the talent for.”
“And the sickness?”
“Some of the citizens told the watch that the water creature sent the sickness. If you do go down there, be careful. It’s killing many of the people who catch it. There’s a high fever, and they just waste away. The teachers tell me there was an alchemist who came through and thought they could cure it, but they disappeared some months ago, before the Khar came. No one in the river district will say anything about them.”
“Hm,” I said meditatively. “That’s intriguing. They just vanished into thin air? Not one of the drowning victims?”
“As far as we know, the drownings began well after they disappeared.”
“I hate to say this, but it does sound like fun. I mean—I’m sorry people’ve been dying, it’s just—”
“You need something to do. I know, Ryder, I’d’ve not asked you to do this if I hadn’t thought it’d be good for you. Even if it does mean me being left alone with all this diplomacy shit.”
I leaned across the table and kissed him. “It’ll all be over in a few weeks,” I said. “You’ll do fine, you’ll see.”
“Saints, I hope so,” he replied fervently, putting his hand down on top of mine. “How is it you’ve actual faith in me, Ryder?”
“Oh, I don’t know, something about you saving my life when I was dying of a gut wound comes to mind. Plus you’re smart enough to listen to me some of the time.” I stuck my tongue out at him.
“You got that gut wound defending me.”
“Which I wouldn’t have had to do if I’d listened to you in the first place. But it all seems to have worked out.” I shoved a jam-covered loaf of bread into my mouth. I still wasn’t quite over how familiar all the tastes were and how much that affected me. Now I blinked back some extremely unnecessary tears and started thinking about how to approach the problem.
In the end, I finished my breakfast and popped out to the side of the river, where the supplies used to be delivered to the church. There was still a small boat tethered there, and I checked with Énna and then took it out, since it was the easiest way to get down to the River District in the south, which, despite the name, was hardly the only part of Bridehive adjacent to the river. Might as well get a feel for the neighborhood and whether it had changed.
I hadn’t spent much time in the River District growing up. I’d never been interested in trade, and my only real experience with the river itself had been the summer I’d spent with Énna looking for pearls. It was no different than most of the city; a little quieter, perhaps, a little more run-down. Great fruit trees reached towards the sky, some of them in flower, most of them looking ill-tended, which wasn’t terribly surprising. Bridehive was still recovering, after all.
A few people were outside tending the trees. None of them were particularly inclined to be talkative, but eventually I was able to get them to direct me down the river to an old woman sitting outside on the riverbank behind a small house, knitting what looked to be a heavy woolen jacket. At first, she was wary of me, but when I explained that I was interested in stories about the river monster, she brightened up. Possibly the Bridehive accent I’d easily reacquired also helped. No one but a native could swallow their words with quite such proficiency.
“Ah, it was the alchemist who conjured it up,” the old woman, who introduced herself as Isibéal, told me eagerly. “There was just the sickness it was sending in from the river, you see, and they promised us they’d find a cure. But what they were doing in their little hut—well, must’ve been something awful, that’s all I can say.”
“Hut?” I interjected.
“Oh yes, just down the river. You can’t see it from here, but you’ll not miss it if you take your boat down a little ways past the bend. I wouldn’t if I was you, though.”
“Oh?” My eyebrows rose.
“Everyone who goes past that place gets drowned by the monster,” Isibéal told me, with a somewhat ghoulish tinge of satisfaction in her voice. “I tell you, the mad alchemist called it up. The drownings didn’t start till they arrived and stirred it up.”
“Are they still there?” I asked. Although if no one came back from the hut alive, perhaps there was no way to know, I pointed out to myself a moment later.
“No, they’re gone, but the monster’s not.”
I frowned. “How do you know?” I asked. This time the old woman’s expression grew grave, and she looked away.
“Ah, well, I just do,” she said, finally. “There’d not be drownings if the monster was gone, now would there? And little Kathleen swears she saw it swimming in the river last week under the full moon. All white and bleached like a dead thing, and it’s got tentacles about its mouth. That must be how it drags people into the water to drown.”
“So it comes out at night? Has anyone gone to the hut during the day?”
“Oh, one or two.” She waved a hand. “Drowned, all of them.”
My frown deepened. Tricky. “And the sickness?”
“Not as many are taking sick these days, it’s true,” she said speculatively. “Maybe it’s because the monster’s drowning them instead. The sickness is still about, though.”
It definitely seemed as if there were some answers hiding in the little hut she was speaking about. Of course, there was the minor problem of everyone who went to it turning up drowned, but I supposed I’d just have to deal with whatever was causing that. If I just went and took a quick look around, it would probably be fine. I’d survived worse, after all.
I thanked Isibéal rather thoughtfully and maneuvered the little sailboat back into the main current of the river. There was a merry little breeze dancing slantwise across, and it was a simple matter to tack in the correct direction to take us further down. The alchemist’s hut came into view within a few minutes, a little cottage with a thatched roof, almost built into the bank. I anchored the sailboat a little ways downstream, thinking it might be safer not to approach directly from the river.
I squelched through the mud and reeds at the side of the river. This stretch of bank looked no different from any of the rest, although there was a twist in the river some hundred feet down it, where it wound away sharply to the east. I suspected that was where the bodies had been found. I wondered if they had all been found. The river was deep and swift here; it could easily swallow someone whole. I shivered a little and reminded myself again to be careful. My resolve lasted until I had covered the short distance across the long pale grass to the hut, opened the door, and stepped in.
Inside, it was warmer than out, although there was no fire in the ash-covered fireplace set into the right wall. A dozen tiny glass jars full of water sat in front of it, spaced at strangely even intervals. A closer look told me that they had been placed on a set of charcoal semicircles hatched into the floor. There was a rickety wooden desk shoved against the other wall, piled high with books and loose papers. In the center was a leatherbound journal.
My eyes lit up, and I took two long strides across the room towards the desk. Most of the books and papers had been shoved to the side to make way for the journal, though there was no sign of the pen whose dark ink, fading in short banded stripes suggestive of a reservoir that did not retain its ink very well, had been used to make the careful curlicued letters. I flipped it open to find a name inscribed on the inside front cover.
Tierney Callum Cray, opened 3rd of the Month of Barabal. Being a series of Notes on preparations of an Alchemical nature. Bending over, I flipped to the first page and began to read.
Day 1. I have taken it upon myself to put together the facilities, such as they are. From conversations with the locals, it seems that the disease is likely ingested from the water of the river, but it is possible that it may be transmitted from one man to the next once incubated. I have taken samples from different parts of the river along with some riverweed and algae. Each one has been labeled with location and time of acquisition.
Day 2. There is something in the water. It is too soon to say, yet, but there are signs of cloudiness growing in some of the samples. I have taken care not to handle them with my bare hands. Even if I can identify something that is growing in the water, however, I must prove that it causes illness. As a first step, I have introduced some of the cloudy water into the vials containing algae from the river.
Day 3. An accident. I woke from nightmares, tripped, and fell among the glass vials. I was forced to clean the entire hut, and procure new samples. I only noticed later that I had a shard of glass embedded in my wrist. It had bled all down the inside of my arm. I do not believe the blood contaminated the samples. I hope not.
Day 4. Sé should have rendezvoused with me by now. I hope she has not forgotten. She has an unfortunate tendency to lose track of time when working on a problem. I am certain I told her the first week of the month of Barabal. I hope she did not get confused.
Day 6. The different substances display different growth rates. It is difficult to stabilize the conditions under which I am working. I have also developed a slight cough, which may be concerning. It is true that I have not been able to confirm all mechanisms by which the disease is transmitted. Certainly, drinking from the water in the wrong part of the river is all but confirmed to cause it, but cases have appeared beyond that, suggesting a secondary mechanism. The mortality rate is high, and if I have contracted the disease, I may not have much longer. I hope Sé arrives soon. I hope I am not ill.
This is not a diary, but it is hard to corral my thoughts. I must
As a variable, temperature has the strongest effect, but it is the most uncontrollable. I keep different vials at different distances between the fire and with different amounts of ice surrounding each, but I cannot stay awake all the time—the ice melts, and the temperature of this hovel fluctuates infuriatingly with the external weather. Nonetheless, some observations are becoming clearer. Too hot, and the algae dies, and the water is clear. In the vial below that, the algae is sickly, but it grows; the water is clear. In the band beneath that, the water becomes cloudy, indicating the infectious agent may be present, and, indeed, the algae sickens and dies. As the temperature is lowered, the cloudiness increases steadily until some threshold temperature, beneath which the water is once again clear. Thus, perhaps, one mode of treatment may be to control the temperature of the victims. This may also explain why several of the survivors reached very high fevers before recovering rapidly.
Day 8. I have begun trying temperature oscillations. They are very difficult to control, but may still afford me some information. Every quarter of an hour I move one of the vials closer or further from the fire. The rapid fluctuations stress the algae but do not seem to affect the cloudiness of the liquid. Only the absolute temperature appears to do that.
Day 10. I’m cold. It’s difficult to keep warm. Likely a symptom of fever. It is very likely I have contracted the disease. I pray Saint Mora will overlook me. She has before, but I do not believe I have ever been this sick before. The floor seems to move beneath me. I must concentrate on the work. Sé, please come quickly.
One of the vials is displaying an abnormal response. It is one of the ones I have been oscillating between the largest extremes I can without killing the infectious agent. All the other algae has died from the temperature variation, including the control. The non-oscillating algae has died from the disease. But in this vial, the algae has a good color, even though the water is very cloudy. I do not understand it.
Day 11. I still feel quite ill, but I have taken to walking back and forth near the fire. It calms the buzzing in my head, and though it’s difficult to walk, I feel better than I do lying down. Perhaps these temperature oscillations are the key? I have tried staying very hot or very cold but I get dizzy and find myself moving away or towards the fire. I do not understand it. It’s all very interesting.
Honestly, I am terrified. Sé, where are you?
Day 12. I am still dizzy and so sluggish I can barely lift my pen. I keep thinking of you, Sé. Do you recall the day we met? I thought you were so beautiful, but the first thing I said to you was that your monograph on the heritability of phoenix eggs was wrong in almost every particular. Although I am not sure I was exactly aware of the beauty aspect at the time. Still, perhaps I should not have said the one thing calculated to spur you into a shouting match with me at three in the morning.
We were forcibly ejected from the pub together. You were drunk. I was not. Thus, I was capable of walking and you were less so. I wanted to keep arguing but something made me bite my tongue, and you leaned against me and told me that if I was so smart, I should come up with my own theory about the phoenix eggs. I told you I’d never been fortunate enough to touch one, thus making any sort of study difficult, and you started crying. When I asked why, you told me because “that is the worst crime I have ever heard of.”
We walked along the side of the river, watching the way the lights played on the top. You watched them, at least. I watched you watching them. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know why. You were telling me about a new theory of the aetheric propagation of light, and for the first time in my life, I could not argue. And then you got very quiet and murmured that you had dreamt about this moment. You seemed frightened. I know I was. But I didn’t know what I was afraid of.
Will I ever see you again? Where are you? My fingers are so cold I can barely hold the pen.
You pushed a lock of hair behind your ear and gave a peculiar smile up at me, and it seemed you were expecting something, but I did not know what it was. I stammered something about perhaps coming up with a better theory of phoenix eggs, and you frowned and muttered something about “stupid, misleading dreams,” and sighed. You took my hand and leaned against me, and it felt so warm and comfortable that I didn’t want to let you go. We walked down the riverside like that, and I pointed out the way the branches of the dark trees outlined against the sky repeated the same pattern, smaller and smaller, ad infinitum.
You told me about the triangle game, then. We sat by the river and played it in the mud. The triangles with their infinite edges and no area grew large and wobbling in the mud, and you stammered that I held eternity in my hands. I did not know what to do with such a statement. The sun rose on our triangles, and I was not tired. I am so tired now.
Day 14. You kissed me three days later, after we had spent another whole night brainstorming about the most useful experiment to test your latest hypothesis about phoenix eggshell thickness. I do not remember what my suggestion was, though I am certain that I should, but I remember that the sun was just rising. I remember the way it outlined your hair with gold. I remember the way your face went from puzzlement to dawning excitement as you thought about the idea, and then you grabbed my face in your hands, and you kissed me.
“It’s better than my dream, anyway,” you told me. You were laughing, and I didn’t understand, but for the first time in my life there was something I wanted more than an answer. I laced my hands in your stiff, curly hair and kissed you back.
I turned the page and found that it was the last one. There were only a few sentences on it, and a quick flip through the rest revealed that the rest of the book was blank. I hear them, the alchemist had scrawled. Something is coming. Something is coming for me. Sé—And then there was a long ragged line of ink, trailing off into a deep, clean gouge, like flesh parted without blood. I frowned, moving to close the little book slowly. I really shouldn’t stay here any longer.
I woke slowly. There was darkness all around me, a faint scattering of lights high and far away, like distant stars. I could hear a strange little murmuring noise in my ears, but it sounded weirdly distorted. Where was I? My memory was fuzzy, but I had an image of a long-fingered bone-white hand sliding down the side of my cheek, and the feeling of cold water on my face.
That was the moment at which I realized I could still feel cold water on my face, my mouth, my eyes—my mouth opened automatically, a stupid, useless reflex. The cry I would have given was swallowed instead by the water around me, and a large, greenish bubble detached from my mouth and floated upwards.
Something brushed my hand, my cheek. I saw two dark eyes appear above me, and that same long-fingered hand stroked its way down my face, rested on my throat for a moment, then moved questioningly down towards my chest. The hand stayed in place just above my heart for a moment and then withdrew.
My chest was burning. The bubble of air must have been just about the last breath left in my lungs. Barabal preserve me, I was going to drown, just like all the others. And it was going to hurt. I struggled, hoping somehow I’d be able to reach the surface, wherever the surface was, but it was no good. My feet were tangled in something, and I couldn’t free them. A sharp, deep ache blossomed in my chest.
Something tugged at my ankles; I tried to kick out, but it was no good. I still couldn’t move. And I could feel tension pooling in my aching chest. I was about to breathe, and when I did, all I would draw in was water. I’d heard stories from sailors about nearly drowning. Some swore they’d seen Mora’s face, but I saw nothing. Just a strange yellow color filtering across my vision.
Clammy hands on my face. Something cold on my lips. My lungs contracted, and I gasped, but when I gasped, what I breathed in was air, moist and stale, but breathable. The strange yellow color wavered and receded, and I was staring into wide, black eyes. The creature’s hair floated out like a corona about its head, and there were wriggling dark lines about its mouth. Tentacles, the old woman had said.
I had only just managed to parse that the monster’s mouth was covering my own when it ducked down and away again, beneath my line of vision. I closed my mouth and tried to focus on holding my breath again. With my mind a little clearer, I felt down with my hands, running them along my body until I found what was trapping my ankles. Rope, bound so tight my flesh dented beneath it.
Impatient hands shoved against my own, and I realized I was not the only one clumsily trying to free myself. After another long moment, I felt someone removing my right boot, and I felt down, trying to remove the left one as well, though I thought the rope was probably bound too tightly to slide off. My lungs had begun to burn again by this time, and air was bubbling out of my lips again. Again, a hand on my face and what felt like cold lips on my own, and I was able to take another meager, musty breath. This went on for some time, as I gradually realized the creature was working at the ropes binding my ankles in an attempt to free me.
Eventually, despite the fact they were tight and swollen with water, I felt them loosen, and I tried to kick out, but my legs were numb with cold and could move only feebly. Hands hooked beneath my shoulders and drew me upwards. After another breath, I felt my head break the surface, though the light was still very dim, and I could not see much. Someone urged me sideways, and I let them nudge me until I felt rough straw beneath my hands—a pallet, perhaps. My teeth were chattering, and I curled up on it, pulling my knees to my chest to recover some of my lost warmth. I heard a hissing, rattling noise, like nothing ever made by a human throat, but it was very distant, and I was still too cold to move. If the creature wanted to kill me, there was little I could do to prevent it, I thought vaguely.
There were no threatening motions, though. After a moment, a rough piece of cloth was thrown over me, and that was all. I thought I ought to be warming up, and I ought to be considering moving, but although the numbness faded, the cold did not. My hands and feet were icy with it, and my head ached—what I had thought was just the oppressive feel of the water around me turned out to be a throbbing, pulsing pain that threatened to crush my skull. I moaned. Again, I heard a faint, dry hiss, and there was a cold, wet hand on my forehead. Hiss, hiss. It sounded angry this time.
My perceptions seemed to break apart and jumble. I had a moment of clarity when I thought, Do I have a fever again? Really? and then it was gone, and I couldn’t tell what was outside my head from what was inside it.
The alchemist’s hut was small and cramped, lit with a bright yellow light with no apparent origin. The journal lay open on the desk, and I stepped around the water jars and bent over to read it. Something is coming. The letters wavered before my eyes and took on the dull red color of blood. The pen-scratch trailing off from the end of the final letter welled up with liquid.
“They were drowned, you know,” someone said behind me, and I whirled to see a grinning werman holding a crossbow trained on me. His face was nothing but a shadowed blur. “The first victim. No, don’t move.” I’d reached for the hilt of my sword, but I wasn’t going to be able to draw it, not without being shot. They heard the noises, the stomp-stomp-stomp of pounding feet coming for them, the screams of the mob.
They were drowned. I felt the hut splitting apart around me, and then—
“Ryder!” Kiran was perched on the edge of the third-floor library balcony, and I turned in confusion. They were gesturing frantically towards my back, and—no time. Definitely not the time for thought. I flung myself to the side of the road, towards the bushes, heard the twang of a bow at my back, and landed hard, the thorns tearing into my palms and knees. That had been far too close for comfort, I thought, sitting up unsteadily to peer out. The soldier who’d tried to shoot me had had to stand up to do so; he was very close. Even as I watched, he plucked another arrow from his quiver and reoriented. I realized who his target was before he loosed, but the yell of warning left my lips a brief moment after the arrow. Kiran, without my combat-honed reflexes, just blinked and stared. The arrow caught them in the throat, knocking them from their precarious perch to fall the three stories to the water below.
A noise jerked its way out of my mouth, and I was on my feet again and running towards them. The werman with the bow reached for another arrow, and I swept him off his feet with a wild sword stroke as I went past. No sense letting him get up to try to kill me again.
I’d made it to the bank of the wide lake and I could see Kiran floating on their back, a thin curl of red staining the water above their chest, but they were still breathing, eyes still open, one arm weakly struggling to keep their head above water. “Kiran!” I shouted, but my feet hadn’t touched the water when hands grabbed me and held me back.
“What are you doing? Let me go!” I struggled desperately.
I stumbled backwards. The crossbow twanged. My hip hit the edge of the desk, but there was no pain, just a strange, jumbled blur of dots in front of my eyes. The hut was darker, now, and empty. Just me. I looked around, and then I heard the tramp of feet echoing from outside. Shadows flung by the flicker of the torches on the tiny, curtained window showed a motley group of men carrying weapons.
I looked around for a weapon and found nothing, my sword gone from my side. My eye was captured by the ugly, puckered injury on the inside of my wrist. It was not large, and it was scabbed over, but the flesh around the wound was puffy, and a long streak of swollen flesh was marked out in red beneath the skin of my inner forearm. Someone was hammering at the door.
My mouth was parched, and my throat scratchy and dry. I made a soft, confused noise as I opened my eyes to see packed earth about me, and a white face with wide black eyes in it bending over me. The light was yellow, still firelight; I was so hot I felt my skin was going to melt and slough off. “Too hot,” I moaned. A cupped hand at my mouth offered me a drink of lukewarm water, and I slurped at it gratefully. My eyes fluttered shut again.
“It’s not for us to interfere in an armed conflict,” someone said, and I looked up to see that I was held by two of the library guards in their black silk uniforms. The rest of the librarians were gathering in clusters of one and two beside them, white silk robes in various states of disarray. One or two looked shocked or solemn, but the leader, who had spoken, just looked stern.
“Let me go!” I demanded again, terror beating against my chest like a trapped bird. “By the threefold god, you can’t—you can’t—”
Kiran was sinking—not much, but enough for their mouth to dip beneath the water. Enough for the water to start trickling in when they tried to breathe. I was close enough to see the terror in their eyes as they struggled, but not close enough to touch them. Not close enough to reach out. “Gods’ sake,” I begged again. “Please.”
“It’s forbidden,” the leader said again. “There’s nothing to be done.”
“They didn’t interfere,” I begged wildly. “They were just—they just called to me, they just—”
“They warned you. They’ve changed the threads of fate.”
Kiran’s mouth was moving, and, in desperation, I yanked again. There was a pop and a jittering shock of agony—one arm went limp, but I was able to slip out of the guards’ grip to stagger a few steps forward, making it to the shallow water and the reeds before they recaptured me, and I groaned in pain. Ryder, Kiran’s lips said.
“Kiran, Kiran, hold on!” Somehow I made it another few steps, but it wasn’t enough—I could just reach out with the arm that still worked, just enough for the tips of my fingers to brush the tips of theirs. Kiran smiled, tried to breathe. “No, don’t,” I tried to say, because I could see the veil of water covering their face, but it was too late. Their eyes went a touch wider, and one hand moved towards their mouth. I saw the moment the light fled from them; I stopped struggling, because there wasn’t any point anymore. “They just wanted to keep me safe,” I said softly.
The guards let go of me, and I gritted my teeth and jerked my shoulder back into its socket without thinking about it too hard. It hurt, but not as much as looking at Kiran did. I swam out and caught at their hand, towing them back to shore so that I could cradle their head in my lap and gently close their eyes. “Saint Mora,” I whispered. “Watch over them. Kiran—gods. Forgive me. Forgive me.”
A spear of pain shot through my head, and I opened my eyes again to find someone was moaning low and soft in my ear, a strained monotonous tone that I wished I could block out. Where was Kiran? No, I reminded myself. Kiran had died years ago. It was Énna I needed to protect now. I needed to leave here and reach him. I tried to get up, but something held me down. The monster was at my side, a hand on my arm, and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. As they fluttered shut, it was the hut that formed around me.
The door was listing inward on its hinges, splinters of wood breaking off near the bolt. I took a clumsy step backwards, looking around for anything to use as a weapon, but there was nothing. One more blow shivered through the thin wood, and they were on me, torches and clubs at the ready. I fought against them, animal instinct taking over, but there were too many of them, and I had no weapon.
I scratched and bit and flailed, but I was dizzy and weak, and they pinned me down and bound my hands and my feet. They threw me to the side; I landed amid the glass jars with a tremendous crash. I thrashed again, trying to free myself, but I couldn’t. My attackers heaved opened a trap door on the side of the floor farthest from the door, and even from where I was, I could see the glimmer of black water beneath.
I thrashed myself back awake, shivering violently, to find a clammy hand on my forehead and one on my wrist. Those huge black eyes staring into mine. “Did they drown you?” I asked. “Was that you?” My voice was a thin, cracked whisper, and the eyes only blinked at me. I was offered another sip of water, and I took it thankfully, before my mind slid away into broken dreams.
When I woke up again, my mind was much clearer. I was caked with sweat and mud, and for a moment, I thought I was still dreaming, because I could not place the angry, booming rumble that seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. It took another few moments for me to identify it as thunder, the noise warped after traveling through the earth to reach me. At which point, I realized I was still lying on the little straw pallet. There was a little light filtering in from somewhere, but I couldn’t figure out from where. It was still very dim; I could barely make out my own hands.
A few moments later, with something prickly and tense growing at the base of my spine, I realized that the only opening was a little round hole in the ceiling, barely big enough for a man’s hand, and the round, dark, glittering place where the water entered. If I wanted to leave, I’d have to go the way I’d come in.
If I’d been less shaky—if part of me hadn’t been thinking of the dreams and another part of me thinking of watching someone I cared about slip beneath dark water and drown in front of me years ago—I might have waited. Tried to make a plan. Thought. As it was, I did nothing other than to throw off the rough blanket about my waist and dive for the water, desperate to exit the tomb of close-packed earth.
The chill of the water nearly robbed the breath from my lungs entire, but I managed to surface and gasp a lungful of musty air before I went under again. I was weak and shaky, but I was more alert than I had been in what felt like days, and I was able to see sporadic green flickers of light drawing me onwards. Without my heavy jacket, without the bindings about my ankles, once I found myself clawing at the edge of the earthen passage, I did not sink; I floated toward the jagged light and breached the surface into the cold night air with a glad oath.
It was thundering so loudly that I could hear nothing else, and the lightning flickering overhead was so nigh-constant that it was no wonder I’d been able to use it as a beacon. Exhaustedly, I pulled myself out onto the bank. I was shivering, wet through, my hair plastered to my head. Blinking water out of my eyes, pushing my hair back so that I could see, I looked around for the church’s boat, but there was nothing. Just the dark silhouette of the little hut up the river. I sighed, rubbed my chilly hands along my arms to try and warm them. It was going to be quite the hike back.
It took me several hours to reach Bridehive Church. I’d thought I was cold when I pulled myself out of the river like a drowned rat, but that was nothing compared to how cold I was when I shoved open the side gate and made my weary way up a mostly deserted hallway.
The door to the altar room was ajar; blessed yellow light poured out of the opening. Énna’s voice filtered out as well, high and wretched. “You’ve found nothing?”
“Nothing, my Protector.” I didn’t know the voice, but whoever it was sounded concerned but patient. “Just the church’s boat anchored downriver, and a woman named Isibéal Beale who says she talked to them. Said they were heading for the alchemist’s hut, even though she warned them against it. And—Protector—I’m sorry, but the river runs swift there. We might not find anything, if—”
“Saints forfend,” Énna groaned. “I should never have let them go. I just—they’d been going so stir-crazy, I thought they’d enjoy a puzzle, I didn’t think they’d do something so foolish.”
He sounded miserable, and, really, I’d heard more than enough. I shoved the door open, still dripping rainwater. “Énna, love, if there’s one thing you’ll learn about me, it’s that I always do something so foolish. Now—not to interrupt my own funeral—but it’s thrice-cursed weather out there, and I’m soaked to the skin.”
My teeth were chattering, too, and I rubbed my soaking shoulders with both hands, trying to get a little feeling back into them. Énna stared at for me for a moment, then breathed, “Thank Gauselen,” and broke into a run across the room towards me. The next moment, his thin arms were around me, his hot lips on my cold ones. I barely had time to adjust before he shoved me backwards and glared. “You thrice-cursed idiot! What were you thinking?”
I blinked, rather surprised at his anger. “It seemed like a good idea at the time?” I suggested. “And it’s worked out fine, I’m fine. I’m very good at being fine.”
“I have spent four days thinking you were dead, Ryder! It’s not worked out fine!”
“Well, it hadn’t until now, I suppose.” I shifted my weight from foot to foot. I wasn’t used to having someone care this much. And I’d not really thought about what being on the other side of Kiran might’ve been like. If it hadn’t ended the way it had. “Sorry,” I said, with a crooked smile. “I suppose I didn’t think too hard, did I?”
“No, you did not!” Énna’s hands tangled in my hair, and he kissed me on the mouth again, then pressed his forehead against mine. “How could you do this?”
I gave him a skeptical look. “I seem to remember someone hanging himself with no indication that he expected it to be a temporary phenomenon,” I pointed out dryly. “I’m not the only one who doesn’t think things th-th-through. Saints, but I’m cold.”
“We’ll need to get you out of those wet things,” Énna said, then turned back to the little group of people in armor watching us. “Ryder, these are some of the city watch.”
I nodded at them. “Sorry to give you t-t-trouble,” I managed. “Cathair’s blessing on you.”
They nodded back. The werman who’d been speaking with Énna said, “Shall we leave you, Protector?”
Énna sighed. “Please,” he replied. As they turned and trickled out of the room, he put a hand on my shoulder. “Get these off,” he said sternly, and I managed a weak grin.
“If you wanted me naked, all you had to do was ask.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I peeled off my sodden shirt.
“I’ll get a towel,” Énna said.
“Meet me at the baths?” I suggested. The thought of actual hot water, of cleaning off the mud and sweat I could still feel clinging to me, was extremely enticing.
“You want to be wet?”
“I want to be warm. And clean.”
Énna eyed me suspiciously. “You’ve not gone and killed someone else, have you?”
“No!” I crossed my arms across my still-sodden breast-band. “This may be news to you, but I’m a soldier, not an assassin. I don’t just wander around killing folk.”
“Hm.” Énna sounded skeptical, but he didn’t object. “All right, come on with you, then.”
I undid my breast-band as I followed, kicked off my shoes at the door of the room, and then shucked off my trousers and dropped them and the breast-band on top of the shoes. Thank god for the heated floor. Every step was heaven on my cold, aching feet.
I sat on the edge of the warm bath, dreamy and blissful, waiting for my skin to heat so I didn’t drive myself crazy with the itchiness that was sure to follow dunking half-numb flesh into the overly hot water. Énna entered the room a few minutes later, sighed and clucked his teeth at my abandoned clothes, and padded barefoot over to me.
“Good timing,” I told him sleepily, as I put a toe into the water. “Gods, this is decadent.”
“It’s supposed to be public,” he pointed out. “But then, there’s not many about in this weather, and they only finished managing to reconstruct the whole thing a few weeks ago.”
“Mmm, lucky me.”
“Are you actually going to wash or would you rather just sit in here and get warm?”
“No, I am disgusting.” I held out the palms of my hands, displaying the fine cake of mud that had dried on and partially flaked off. “I’ve just been waiting until I warmed up a little.”
“You look as if you’re about to fall asleep,” he observed.
“I have had a very long day,” I pointed out. “Several days,” I corrected myself after a moment. Énna sighed, then gave me a fond chuckle.
“Just—okay, I’ll get in with you to make sure you don’t drown, shall I?”
“That would be appreciated, I’ve had more than enough of drowning to last me a lifetime,” I said. I’d been trying to be lighthearted, but it came out with a shudder.
“Careful.” Énna put a long-fingered hand on my shoulder.
“Ah, I’m all right.” I still felt rather weak, though, so it was with relief that I let him help me down into the water. After a moment, he stripped off his own clothing and slipped in beside me, putting an arm about my waist. I gave a long sigh of appreciation and leaned against him.
After I’d drowsed for a few moments, I felt around for one of the large sponges that I’d remembered seeing when I entered and, with a pleased sigh, drew it down the space between my breasts. The layer of mud finally started to peel away—and how I had gotten mud beneath my shirt, beneath my breast band—I didn’t know.
I shuddered a little. “Do you want me to do that?” Énna asked, but I shook my head. His hands on my back, holding me steady, were well enough, but I just didn’t want to give up the control of anything else right at this second. “All right, then.” He pressed his lips into my hair, and I felt an odd lump growing in my throat at the warmth of his breath. It passed quickly enough.
The mud came away quickly, probably a good thing, since I didn’t like to think of actually falling asleep in the water, even with Énna there to watch me. It was odd, this fear, a niggling sensation, like an unwelcome guest in my mind, but I stayed in the water as long as I could; only when I was duly warmed and duly washed did I stand up a little dizzily and try to get out. I almost slipped, wet feet against a wet floor, but Énna caught at my elbow with a muffled gasp. “Ryder,” he bit out. “All right. You’re to go to bed now.”
“Not arguing,” I muttered, a little shamefaced, as I reached for my clothes. “I’ve been sick, I think. Suppose I’m not as steady on my feet as I usually am.”
Exasperated grunt. I waited as Énna gathered up his own clothes and then, to my surprise, I felt something soft being wound around my torso. Looking down, I saw he’d put a towel about me. “You’re not walking through the church naked,” he told me, at my raised eyebrow. “I’d not hear the end of it from the Teachers.”
“I suppose,” I conceded. And it felt very nice. As I made my way from the baths towards my bedroom, I was vaguely aware that his hand never left my waist, but as soon as I stepped from the hall into my room, I crumpled onto the bed and was dead to the world.
When I woke up, the sun was high in the sky and streaming down directly into my eyes. I was alone in the bed once again—no particular surprise there—and I dressed without haste, pulling on a pair of soft trousers and a loose shirt. I didn’t bother with a breast-band, since I figured on a lazy day recuperating again. I could spend some time dozing and thinking about what my next move might be.
I was breezing along through the open corridors when I heard Énna’s voice, and I popped my head into the cozy little study he used to receive visitors on a more personal level. He was seated across from a noman in a long plaid, with a platter of bread, cheese, and porridge between them. With them was a werman soldier with his dark hair drawn back and the sigil of the Aerie upon his back. Both turned at the noise as I pushed the door open.
“Morning, Énna,” I said cheerfully, eying the porridge. There were fresh berries scattered across the top, and my stomach was rumbling. “Can I—”
“Ryder, now is not the best time—we’re in the middle of making certain that all the preparations for the treaty signing are in place. You know, the treaty signing that happens this evening?”
“I was just hoping for a bite to eat.”
“You could ask the kitchens, you know—oh, all right.” He sighed. “Haven, this is Ryder, my—” beat “—spear. Ryder, Haven, the Aerie’s emissary, and their spear Bartholomew.”
“Saints’ blessing,” I told the two of them. Haven’s eyes flickered coolly up and down me—an assessing look—but Bartholomew seemed to take an odd little half-step back. Ah, perhaps it hadn’t been the best day to go without a breast-band. Though I felt no shame in my profession, it might’ve been better to avoid advertising both profession and gender this way. The shirt did dip, and my breasts, though not over large, weren’t exactly invisible.
Well, there was no help for it now. I sauntered across the room to the food and collected a bowl of porridge and fruit, with Énna giving me an exasperated look from behind the desk. I helped myself as rapidly as I could to avoid causing too much trouble for my poor lover, and headed out to one of the main hallways, where I curled up in one of the window-seats and stared out meditatively at the churchyard as I ate.
It seemed that while I’d been gone, they’d really started to construct a pavilion for the treaty signing. Bridehive citizens—mainly wermen, instructed by the women Teachers and one or two nomen—were busying themselves putting together long tables and making the area overall more defensible the best they could. With the yard as open as it was, I didn’t envy them the task.
I’d been watching idly for a good quarter of an hour, and I’d just about finished my bowl of porridge, when I saw a fat, dark woman pause and enter the church gates. She wore long, dark robes banded with a red pattern I recognized as being from the University of Trant, whose catacombs I had gotten lost in once trying to return a book.
She was trying to get someone’s attention, but everyone was busy; I saw her sent from one person to another like a crow begging for scraps. A shame, I thought, setting my bowl down on the window-seat with a sigh. It might have been nice to drowse in the sun for a few hours longer, but ah well.
I made it to the courtyard to find the mysterious scholar standing in frustration underneath the shadow of an old oak. “Saints’ greeting!” I called to her, and she nodded back. “You seem to be all at loose ends. Anything I can help with?”
She looked me up and down briefly, then gave a brisk nod, a little furrowed frown briefly puckering her forehead. “I’m looking for an alchemist called Tierney. Tierney Cray. They’d have journeyed through here—it—it might have been up to several months back.”
I felt a sudden lurch in my stomach. An alchemist—and the name sounded concerningly familiar, though I couldn’t quite place why. But then the last few days were certainly muddy in my head. “You’ve misplaced an alchemist? That’s quite a feat.”
“I’m late,” the woman said, in a clipped, frustrated voice. “I’m—saints forfend—I’m months behind schedule. We were to meet in Bridehive, but I got distracted, didn’t realize how long I’d been tracking a phoenix egg—at any rate—I’ve been all through town, stopping at every inn, and I can’t find them. I’m Doctor Devin. Sé Devin.”
Sé. The name rang through my head like a sudden, jangling, dissonant chord. Tierney Callum Cray. Thin, copperplate letters, with ink bleeding off into a long scratch, an interrupted plea—interrupted by what? “Did you happen to go southwards on your trip through town?” I asked.
“No.” She seemed to hear something in my tone of voice, because her face grew darker. “I’d not heard there were any inns down that side?”
“There are none. But—there’s an abandoned hut south of Bridehive entire. It was an alchemist’s hut till a few months ago.”
She drew in a short, quick breath. “What happened? Are they—”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Not for sure.” Saints, but this wasn’t news I wanted to deliver. “I think they might have been drowned,” I said, finally.
Her face grew a little greyer around the edges, but rather than losing control of herself, the control grew tighter. “But you don’t know?” she asked, sharp eyes snatching at mine.
“Not for sure, I’ll admit. Seems the most likely explanation,” I replied, with a strange little shudder as I remembered the black water all around me.
“What makes it likely?”
I frowned a little, wondering how much of the confused mess of the past few days I’d need to put into words to explain it. As I did, I found myself walking back through the fever dreams again, remembering the men with their weapons, remembering a pair of round, dark eyes, cold lips against my own, and the voice of Isibéal Beale speaking in excitement about a monster. “Hold that thought,” I said tersely. Énna wasn’t going to be happy with me, but I’d been tasked to get to the bottom of this mystery. “I think I need to do something dangerous and stupid.”
“What?” the woman asked.
I paused for a moment, letting the thoughts settle, leaning back against the tree, trying to look at this thing from all angles. There’d been a monster, for sure; I’d met them. I’d woken in their lair, my feet bound, the air bubbling from my mouth. But then they’d let me go, nursed me back to health. There was definitely something here I was missing, and I’d not be able to figure it out staying around here. Even if the thought of dark water made me tense a little—even then. This had to be done.
Quickly, I outlined my recent experiences. Sé went grey. “You think Tierney’s become some kind of monster and is drowning folk?”
“I don’t know.”
“They wouldn’t,” Sé said, loudly enough to draw attention from the crowd of men working nearby. “They—they—I don’t believe it.”
“Well, would or wouldn’t, I think the answer’s to be found down there,” I said slowly. “And I’d rather not go alone again. It was dangerous enough the first time; now it’d be sheer suicide. So if you want to prove me wrong…”
She nodded sharply. “All right, then. I’ll come. We’ll see about this monster and this disease.”
I considered for a little while how much Énna needed to know, and, after a brief struggle with myself, I went to tell one of the city watch what we were doing, and to come after us if we weren’t back in the next five hours. With luck, we’d not be drowned by then.
Further consideration suggested avoiding the actual hut, given the series of drownings all seemed to center on that location in particular. Further given that I thought I could remember where I’d staggered out of the river the day before, I thought I had a good place to start. It was a good stiff walk down the river away from the alchemist’s hut. I still didn’t know why the hut itself should be so deadly, but—they’d not drowned me when they could have. And if there was anything left of Tierney Callum Cray at all, they’d not harm Sé, not the way they’d addressed her in their journal.
We didn’t take the boat this time; I was still oddly hesitant to go out onto running water if I had the choice. Besides, with the Monarch of the Aerie traveling in today—saints, but I’d missed a fair chunk of time!—the church would likely need it for ferrying supplies. So it was a stiff walk, but eventually we were standing on the bank of the river where it turned beneath the city to make its way towards the sea. The heavy rain had washed away most traces of my passage the previous day, but it was plain to see where I’d emerged from the river: the reeds had been torn out in two long strips where I’d clawed my way out. Beyond, just a few feet downriver, there was a round hump that I’d have taken for a beaver’s dam had I not already known what it was.
“There,” I said, and I didn’t even flinch, though I could see the black water running swiftly out of the corner of my eye. I’d need to do something about this new, niggling fear. It was no good for me to have this strange, bone-deep twinge whenever I got within hands’ breadth of a body of water.
Sé didn’t evince as much emotion as I had expected. She walked up and down the river, hands clasped behind her back, as if she were searching for something. “This is the place where you woke?” I nodded. She paused, then shrugged. “Might as well try something witless, I suppose. Tierney!” she called, cupping her hands about her mouth. “Tierney Callum Cray!”
Her voice was loud in the still air. It carried well; she had a good pair of lungs on her. I didn’t have terribly high hopes, and a quick glance over the landscape seemed to confirm that nothing much had happened. The river ran swift and undisturbed. And then I realized that the reeds at the bank had parted.
The creature looked less eerie in the full light of a sunny day. What had seemed to be tentacles before now looked like a thin, ropey beard, merging with its long, black hair. Though its eyes still seemed abnormally large, some of that at least was attributable to the large shadows around and beneath them. The only truly inhuman thing about it was the fluttering slits that wound down its neck towards its torso, and the delicate fins I could just see shimmering in the morning sun.
Dr. Devin crouched in front of the river, holding out a hand, a deep furrow appearing between her eyes. The creature made a noise, the first I’d heard it make, a strange, garbled twisted sound. “Oh, no,” Sé said. Her voice was low and serious, different from the variations on a rough, sarcastic twist I had heard until now. “Saint Cathair, Tierney, what happened?”
The mouth moved; one webbed hand lifted slowly. Again, that gurgling noise. If it hurt my ears, I could only imagine what it was doing to the plump woman squatting in front of it. “Sssssssshhhhh.” Water poured down the creature’s face and neck. Then, more recognizable this time, “Ssshhaay?” It made a gesture that almost looked irritable, hand flapping from its throat to its mouth. “Laaaaaay,” it tried.
“I don’t—dammit,” Sé put a thumb into her mouth and chewed on it.
The creature looked from Sé to me, then put its head on one side and looked at the mud next to it. Brightening up a little, it poked its finger into the mud and wrote, in sloppy but recognizable letters, “Pen?”
My mouth opened slowly. I did not have any idea how to respond to this. It had seemed so eerie when I’d first awoken, when we were moving about in complete silence beneath the river. Now it dawned on me that there were precious few ways for us to communicate beneath the river—and later I’d been out of my head with fever. Perhaps there was more left of the alchemist who’d left the diary than I had at first thought. Tierney drummed their fingers in irritation.
“You’ll get my notebook all wet,” Sé said, but she didn’t sound annoyed; she sounded—
Tierney poked a long-fingered hand into her shoulder and pointed at their throat again.
“All right, but at least dry your hand off, will you?”
But if Tierney wasn’t a monster, then what had drowned those people?
I shook myself out of the questions and stood forward a little, as Sé dug out a leatherbound notebook from inside her voluminous robes, twin to the one that had been left on Tierney’s desk, followed by a silvery pen, which she handed to Tierney. I stared a little. No ink meant the pen must have an internal reservoir of some sort, and though I was vaguely aware of the possibility, it was a difficult matter to construct such an item. I tried not to appear too covetous. Now was, perhaps, not the time, in any case.
One scribble later, Tierney held up a notebook saying in all capital letters, YOU ARE LATE.
Sé winced. “I know, I’m sorry, I lost track of time.”
I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD.
“I admit to being a little concerned about you in that direction.” She put a hand on Tierney’s cheek. “Oh, Tierney, I am so—I am so sorry. What, in the name of the threefold, happened to you?”
Tierney levered themself up along the bank until they were half out of the water, displaying both small, naked breasts, and longer, trailing fins. They swept their soaking beard and hair behind their head, frowning over the notebook for several minutes before presenting it to Sé and me.
There is a pathogen that exists in this river that causes the disease that has been killing the Bridehive citizens. My studies indicate it can only live within a narrow temperature range and that under rapidly-fluctuating conditions, or possibly when its host is near death from an outside influence, it is capable of changing somehow.
“Changing?” Sé asked.
Tierney very clearly rolled their eyes and took the notebook back. THIS IS EXTREMELY SLOW.
“You could learn one of the sign languages,” I suggested. “I’ve found several in different cities.”
A surprisingly good idea, Tierney wrote. Unfortunately, that is not an option at this precise instant.
“You could also try to write shorter sentences,” I pointed out wryly.
NO. They shot me an irritable look, then frowned over the notebook again. I do not know why it does not occur with respect to the disease itself—perhaps the death is too gradual—but algae that are strained by temperature oscillation do not die, and it seems it is because the pathogen keeps them alive somehow. I, myself—
They broke off with an angry slash and an exhaled sigh, pressing their hands into their face. Awkwardly, Sé sat down in the mud, stroking her hands through the long, wet hair. “You were going to die,” she said softly. “You were infected, and you were going to die, and somehow, the—the pathogen—”
“You were going to drown,” I put in slowly. “Oh, my gods. The men living in the south—they came for you—they thought you were in league with the monster.”
There was no monster. Only the disease. Until—again, their shoulders slumped. I had discovered it was survivable if the temperature became high enough. I could have helped them.
“You saved my life,” I breathed. The heat in that close, cramped little den beneath the river, rising and rising until I felt I was in an oven. I had been sick to death with a fever—and it must have been the fever from the river.
I probably infected you in the first place trying to keep you from drowning.
So they had arrived to find me already beneath the river, ropes about my ankles, knowing nothing about me, and immediately tried to save my life. I suddenly felt a little guilty about having referred to them as a monster. “Do you know what happened?” I asked. “I can’t actually remember.” Also embarrassing, as a matter of fact.
Someone has been drowning people.
“Yes, well, I gathered that.”
That was a short sentence!
“You could also try eliminating redundancy,” Sé told them, but she belied her words by kissing them gently on the top of their head.
Tierney sighed, rolled their eyes again, and frowned over the notebook for another several minutes. There is someone working in my hut. I am not certain what their ultimate goal is, but they have been there for perhaps three weeks—it is difficult to tell time in my current circumstances. In any case, they have been drowning people, and thus far I have not been able to stop them. The first time I tried I very nearly took an arrow to my chest for the pains, and they spent at least a day afterwards hunting me with a spear. They were, I believe, in a hurry with you; I was watching but the two of them did not remain once they had attacked you and thrown you into the water, so I was able to approach before your lungs ran out of air. Lucky you.
“Very lucky,” I returned seriously. “Thank you.” Frowning and chewing on the inside of my cheek, I began to pace back and forth. “Two of them? Are you certain?”
There are two who visit routinely, a werman and a woman—the woman may be an alchemist. A noman I have seen once or twice.
I hated to just charge in once again; it might be my native inclination, but Énna would not be happy with me, and I’d be risking myself, Sé, and possibly Tierney as well on an unknown venture. On the other hand, there were still too many unanswered questions for me to feel comfortable going to the city watch about this, and going in assuming that we’d be dealing with two, maybe three, human enemies, gave me sufficient knowledge to work with that I’d not likely find myself in the river again.
I chewed on this for a little while. “Is there a way to approach the hut without being observed?”
Tierney thought about this for a bit. Well, the river. You’d probably not take sick again.
“Sé might, though.”
“I’ll risk what’s necessary to be close to Tierney,” Sé bit out, and Tierney’s face worked, and they swiped a thumb across their mouth.
You fool. We’ll discuss it later.
“Is there a way that does not involve approaching via disease-infested waters?”
Nothing certain. But if you come up from the southwest corner and stay low to the ground, they will not have a good view. It depends how alert they are, but you may be able to avoid being spotted.
I nodded. “I’ll take it.”
Sé and I, bent nearly double, slipped northeast along the riverbank, waving rushes occluding our vision. The hut lurked amid high grass and more rushes, looking faintly sinister in the bright sunlight. There were signs of recent arrival; the mud outside the door was churned up and there were fresh, not-yet-dried spatters across the stoop and doorway. I waited, taking a long moment to ensure that no one was on guard; then I gestured to Sé and the two of us ran the last few steps with our heads bent almost to our knees. I flung open the door.
A woman and a werman were bent over the desk. The woman I didn’t recognize, but the werman—it was Bartholomew, Haven’s guard. He looked up as Sé and I entered. “You,” he growled. “Back again, abomination?”
I drew my sword. No one with that twist in their voice was going to listen to reason, and there was Sé to think of. Maybe Tierney, too, depending how close they were.
“Stay back, I’ll take care of this,” Bartholomew instructed his companion. “Maybe this time you’ll have the good grace to stay dead,” he snarled at me.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I told him coolly. “I don’t make a habit of it.”
We circled each other in the little hut. He moved like a competent swordsman, light on his feet, blade outstretched. This was a very different situation from most of the fights I’d been in, wars and duels not sharing much in common other than a particular determination on the part of the participants to kill each other.
Bartholomew broke first, darting forward with a rapid lunge; I danced to the side. Despite my bravado, I’d resolved to be careful. Énna wasn’t likely to forgive me if I got myself stabbed again. So instead of taking the brief opening, I waited and observed. A good thing, too: Bartholomew recovered faster than I’d have estimated, and he could easily have landed a devastating blow to my sword arm if I’d tried to attack. Once more, we began a wary, circling maneuver.
I realized rather quickly that my opponent was reading my hesitance as dangerous cowardice; he kept trying to drive me backward, and after the first times, I began to let him. Let him back me into a disadvantageous position almost up against the wall, and deliberately began parrying overzealously but rather weakly.
“Give it up, and I might let you live, boy.”
No, he absolutely wouldn’t, but maybe I’d have believed it if I’d been as frightened as he thought I was. I let my sword arm waver slightly, lowering the guard on my left side. I thought I might be able to bait him in for a stab, off-balance him, but instead, he did something a great deal more foolish. He grinned, took a half-step to the side, and went in for an overhand swing, maybe thinking he’d got me so intimidated I wouldn’t try to block, or that he could ride right over my guard if I did.
I’d had enough of whacking myself in the face, though, and I had just enough more room to maneuver in the little hut than I’d had in the church that I skipped neatly to the side, twirled as his momentum took him into the wall, and drove my blade into his back. There was a little shocked cry from behind me. I heard a chair shift, and then Sé’s clear, steady voice. “If you don’t want a knife to the back, you’ll stay where you are.”
Bartholomew slumped, shuddering, over the wall. I withdrew my sword, set it on the ground, and took a knife from my boot. No sense letting him die slowly, after all. He was still curled over with a hand across his chest when I dragged his head back and cut his throat. I’d need to clean both sword and knife, but it could wait till we knew exactly what was happening here.
“Talk,” I told the trembling woman at the desk. “What’s going on? Why take Tierney’s hut? Why drown anyone who enters here?”
But it was Tierney’s voice that answered, not a proper word but a liquid, distorted noise from the doorway. I looked over to where Sé still had her knife trained on the other woman, and then I took a few steps over, snagged Tierney’s journal from the desk, and flipped it over to them. Frowning in frustration, they began to write.
This place is sour with the disease, they wrote. I am able to sense it. Smell it, perhaps?
“Tierney,” I said. “To the point, please.”
I believe they have increased its virulence—made it deadlier.
“What are they saying?” Sé was too far away to read the words.
“They’re saying that the people here—they made the disease worse, I think?”
“An interesting problem, I suppose,” Sé commented, sounding a little blank. “But why?”
Bartholomew had called me abomination. Haven had sent a woman and a werman to do their dirty work for them. I’d known there were those in Bridehive who didn’t approve of nomen soldiers—one reason I’d left—but it’d not occurred to me that the attitude might exist in the Aerie as well, certainly not so strongly. But it couldn’t just be me, could it? And then my eyes widened, as it occurred to me—really occurred to me—Bridehive was a city led by a werman. If a noman spear was an abomination, what might a werman monarch be?
“Fuck,” I breathed. “Énna.”
I swung round to the woman at the desk. “What were you planning? The disease—a poison?” I demanded. “For Énna?”
She was sobbing, but she nodded, chin jerking up and down in terror. “A way to kill him that wouldn’t—that wouldn’t—”
That wouldn’t be traceable back to the Aerie. Nothing but an unfortunate tragedy; still, it would delay, perhaps halt the treaty signing, if Énna were to—
“How far did you get?” I asked, my voice oddly calm, a strange chilly icewater feeling in my veins.
“It’s already—” she choked. “Haven took it—took it an hour ago—oh, saints, please don’t kill me!”
I wanted to. My hand leapt for my dagger. But she’d not tried to kill me, and she’d done only as the emissary had ordered her. A difficult thing to disobey. I hissed with frustration, but I did not strike at her. “Tell me how we can stop them,” I said instead. “What can we do?”
She shook her head, still sobbing. “I don’t—I don’t know!” she wailed. “Haven is trusted by the Monarch, they’ll not—they’ll not believe—”
Énna would believe me, but if I couldn’t demonstrate with some proof, I could harm the treaty negotiations irreparably. Even if that wouldn’t put my relationship with Énna at risk, it’d put Bridehive into a much worse position. “Think,” I told the woman tersely. “Or be prepared to join Bartholomew.”
She sobbed again, a sudden, desperate noise, and then flung herself out of her seat and tried to run for the door. I caught her arm as she went past, readying my dagger. She shrieked something incomprehensible, and then Tierney shouted something that took me only a moment to decipher as “Wait!”
I threw the woman to the ground and looked over at them.
Soldiers, they wrote at me, their raised eyebrows indicating a certain amount of distaste, and I sighed.
“Tierney, I really haven’t time for this,” I told them.
Algae, they wrote. It sickens quickly in contaminated liquid, and I imagine if the virulence is much increased, it will sicken so much faster. An effective demonstration, as well.
“Will it work?” I asked them, then looked back at the little wailing heap on the floor. “Do you have any samples of the poison left?”
Eagerly, she gestured at several vials on the desk. “Any of those should work,” she told me. “We’ve got some algae we were using for testing as well, if you want it.”
Tierney tugged at my arm until I looked down again. Let me gather you some samples. Better data that way. Safer.
I nodded. “Be quick,” I said harshly, and they nodded. I’d no time to be pleasant. Énna’d no time for me to be pleasant.
Thankfully, they were gone no more than a few minutes after snatching a few empty jars from near the fireplace. They returned with three large samples of blooming algae, clearly healthy, and offered me a clump, nodding to the vial that the woman had indicated. I let it fall into the liquid, reached out to push it down—and Tierney caught my arm, a frantic bubbling no falling from their lips.
For a long moment, the algae floated on the surface of the water; then dull dead brown started to streak upwards from the bottom of the brilliant emerald green. It died quickly and dramatically, and that was good—it’d look good. It’d be believable. But I felt dull fear tearing at my stomach anyway, because the death in that vial was waiting for Énna.
“Let’s go,” I snapped, then stalled. How could I get there fast enough? I’d need a horse or a boat—surely Haven would’ve gone upriver in a boat, and even if they hadn’t, they had enough of a head start on me. “I’m going to get a horse,” I said, shoving down the fear. “Sé, Tierney, can you take care of her?”
I didn’t wait for an answer: even if they couldn’t, I’d no other choice. What happened to the woman was irrelevant; the only thing left in my mind was Énna. Énna, trying his hardest to make this treaty work; sending me out to play scholar just because he knew it’d please me; Énna dangling motionless from a noose a month ago. Naéve, Cathair, Gauselen—don’t let me be too late.
I found a horse just a few fields over. Admittedly, it was currently in the employ of a farmer attempting to tend to her crops, but that was of little concern. It was unfortunate I didn’t have any money on me or I’d have given her some; as it was I had to settle for a little highway robbery. I made a note to see if Énna couldn’t reimburse her later as I vaulted into the saddle, stuffed my knife back down my belt, and rode off at top speed.
Even moving as swiftly as a large farm horse would allow, I felt as if the city were crawling past. Every moment seemed to stretch long and unending, and I tried not to think about it, but every single heartbeat was a heartbeat Énna might not have. I knew the city must have been bustling and full of life, but I saw and heard none of it. I rode almost as if I were in a snowstorm, a silent white curtain cutting me off from the rest of the world. It seemed like a hundred years before I reached the central church.
I flung myself off the horse and ran right into a member of the city watch. “The Protector?” I gasped, and he gave me a curious look.
“He’s with the Monarch and their retinue. They’re beginning to discuss the treaty.”
Well, I thought, at least he’s still alive. I shouldered my way past the city watch; at least they knew who I was so didn’t try too hard to stop me when I wasn’t in a talkative mood. The jar of algae weighed heavy in my pocket.
The treaty itself was to be signed in the altar room, but before then, a meal’d been laid out for Monarch and their retinue. They were seated beside Énna, and a frisson of heart-stopping terror ran through me when I saw that Haven was directly across from him.
“Énna!” I called urgently, striding forward, and he looked up, hand on a glass of wine that I hoped to the sky-father he hadn’t tasted yet.
“Ryder—there you are.”
“Don’t eat anything—don’t drink anything.”
He let go. Thank the saints. “What do you mean?”
“You’re to be poisoned,” I told him shortly. “There’s a good chance neither your food nor your drink’s safe. Let me test it.”
The Monarch of the Aerie gave me a long, steady look, then glanced to Énna. “Poisoned,” they remarked. “Well. The noman emissary once again. Greetings.”
I gave them a nod, but there wasn’t time to spare for formalities right now. Hastily, I dug out the jar of algae. “If it’ll kill this, it’ll kill you too,” I told Énna seriously, and he gave me a surprised look, but he sat back and gestured for me to continue.
“Surely you will not allow someone to interrupt,” broke in Haven, and I gave them a lazy smile as I approached.
“I’m his spear,” I said quietly. “I’ve every right to interrupt.”
“You’re nothing but his bedwarmer,” Haven spat.
“Nah,” I grinned, and I lifted the algae above Énna’s glass. Haven’s eyes followed it helplessly. “I’m his bedwarmer and his spear. Damn good at both.”
I saw the puzzlement lighting in Énna’s eyes at Haven’s response. The Monarch’s eyes flickered from Haven to me to Énna, and then to Énna’s glass. After a moment, they gave me a tiny nod. I let the algae drop, but didn’t push it down, remembering Tierney’s caution.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then that same telltale dead brown highlighted the bottom of the algae, spread its streaks up through the top. Haven blanched slightly. “If it’ll kill the algae, it’ll kill you, Protector,” I told Énna.
“You’re certain?” the Monarch asked.
“I’ve not the expertise in this particular poison to answer all your questions, Monarch,” I told them. “I know someone who has, though—I just had to get here fast enough to stop a murder.”
They nodded carefully. “An investigation does seem warranted,” they agreed. “If you believe so, Protector.”
Énna had been staring at the algae, unspeaking. Now he nodded jerkily. “I trust Ryder with my life,” he said shortly. “I’ve no idea why anyone’d want to poison me, but I trust Ryder with my life.”
“To scuttle the treaty,” I said. “It’d not go forward with the Protector of Bridehive dead, would it now?”
“Hardly,” the Monarch put in. “But who would want that?”
I was circling the table now. Haven’s eyes kept flicking sideways towards me. “Someone who’s concerned about a treaty signed by a werman, I’d wager. Someone whose spear’s lying dead in a hut a few miles southwards, whose alchemist’s being watched by several allies of Bridehive. And I think she’ll be happy to name you, don’t you, Emissary?”
Haven’s jaw worked. “He’s a werman,” they spat. “The Monarch, signing a treaty with a town led by a werman? It’s cursed.”
“Really,” I said, because that was closer to a confession than I’d expected, and what I’d not expected was the way the anger boiled up underneath my heart. “Well, lucky for you, you won’t have to worry about that.”
Énna caught the tone of my voice before anyone else did, and I heard his gasped, “Ryder, wait!” but I was already moving. I’d heard you could kill a man neatly with a stab upward beneath the ribs, but I’d never mastered the knack. Much easier to grab the Aerie emissary and jerk them forward so the point of my knife went cleanly into the center of their throat. More blood that way, but it did the trick all the same.
There was silence at the table as everyone stared at the emissary’s body going slack and slumping down over their food. My hands were sticky, and I moved to clean my dagger, but before I could do any more, my arms were pinned to my sides and I was pushed forward down over the table by the Monarch’s guards.
“Murder at the treaty,” one of them said aloud. “What shall we do with them, my liege?”
“Oh, gods.” Énna’s breathless voice again. He really needed to learn an outward calm face if he was going to be doing much more diplomacy than this, I thought distractedly. “Please—I am sure we can make this up to you, Monarch—but I—”
“Quiet,” the Monarch’s voice said serenely. “Please, gentlemen, let go of the Protector’s lover.”
“But, my liege—they committed murder at a treaty signing! A noman committed murder at—”
“Nonsense,” the Monarch said, still in that same calm, resonant voice. “The emissary was attempting to commit murder. Simply because they were doing it through other tools does not make them any less culpable of that. A noman, as you said, committing murder. An affront to the gods. And their answer was sent by Gauselen’s own hand. The Protector’s lover has merely acted as a tool for the saint. Let them go.” The hands relaxed slightly. “Oh, for gods’ sake,” the Monarch said, wearily. “Go dunk them in the purification pool. I assume you have one?”
“Um, yes.” Énna again. “Y-Yes, it’s near the baths…”
“I can show you,” I suggested brightly. “I am intimately acquainted with it.”
Énna breathed hard in a way that I suspected meant I was not going to receiving his intimate acquaintance that night, then gestured for one of the city watch. “Please,” he said helplessly.
“Of course,” the werman said. “This way, if you will.” He nodded to another member of the watch. “Start cleaning up the table, would you?”
The Monarch inclined their head, and I thought I caught sight of a slight smile hovering at the corners of their lips. “Shall we return to the matter at hand?” they asked Énna.
In the end, the treaty was signed before the combined citizens of Bridehive and the Aerie, agreeing to encourage mutual trade and defense, and if there should be children born to the Monarch or to Énna, a betrothal would be seriously considered. The last clause came as a surprise to everyone, it seemed, other than the Monarch, who proposed it and merely watched, rather imperturbably, the reaction, until Énna, ignoring the ebb and flow of flustered conversation around him, gave a single, intent nod. So in the end, it was more than the simple trade and military treaty we’d expected—it was a step towards making something larger out of the two of us. Maybe. Someday.
Sé brought the woman alchemist to the Monarch of the Aerie, and she was taken into custody, to be judged at a later time. It was Haven who had masterminded the plot against Énna, and since the Monarch had immediately declared their fate to be divine judgment, I didn’t have to put up with anything worse than a dunking on Haven’s or Bartholomew’s account.
Tierney—well, that was a bit of a tougher spot for Sé and for them, really. They couldn’t spend much time outside of the water or they started having trouble breathing, like a fish on land. There was also the fact they weren’t certain whether or not they could spread the disease by their simple proximity. Sé did not take kindly to suggestions that they quarantine themself, and, in fact, refused to countenance any such measures. “If no one else stays with you, I will,” she told them. Then, finally, “I’ve seen it, Tierney, just give it up.”
An angry scrawl of, YOU SEE POSSIBLE FUTURES did not deter her. In the end, Énna, with the help of the teachers and the city watch, was able to install the two of them back into the alchemist’s hut to continue Tierney’s research into the disease. Visitors were somewhat restricted to curtail the possible spread, but over the following few months, they began to work out certain safeguards. Deaths diminished, and even the southern citizens of Bridehive grudgingly began to accept Tierney’s presence.
Énna took over more and more direct responsibility among the teachers. Ever since the Khar invasion, the role of the Protector had been expanding from something purely ceremonial, but now he really shone. I watched him grow, and I started to learn alchemy from Sé and Tierney, and I started delving into the catacombs beneath the church of Bridehive, looking for secrets to combat boredom. And one fine, sunny day I went home to Pat. But that’s another story.
Copyright © 2018 by Mertiya. All rights reserved.