Caveat, caveat, caveat.
Caveat caveat? Dismissal of caveat. Apology for excessive caveat. Gratitude.
(Seriously, this one’s all conversation and brutal info dumps, and my webcomicky soul gets itchy and I start to think that ninjas should fall from the ceiling, but…well…couldn’t work ’em in.) Also, this was going to be longer, but they’ve put in a post limit, so…err…blame LJ!
Myra sat in the kitchen of the shop, which appeared to double as an alchemist’s laboratory. It was full of foul-smelling chemicals, spilled beakers and unscrubbed flasks, wedged in tightly with frying pans, silverware, and dishes. One large beaker contained several brown eggs, and there were alarmingly colored smoke stains up three of the walls.
Dunno how much money he makes, but he’s got to be spending half of it at the glassblower…will you look at some of this stuff?
Myra looked dutifully. It was all just a tangle of pipes and flasks to her.
The Threnodox magi moved around the room, dragging out a second chair for the table and building up the fire. He looked to be a little under forty, and his hair was pale, the blond mixed liberally with white.
There was nothing aged or infirm about the rest of him, however. He had shoulders like a draft horse, and he still hadn’t put a shirt on.
Daaaaamn, the voice said appreciatively. I’d have come just for the show.
Myra blushed and dropped her eyes to the tabletop. She had a vague memory that she’d seen bare male chests before, but the only one she could remember was the marble statue of the god in the chapel at Home. This man didn’t look much like a god.
Oh, I dunno, I’d convert…
For one thing, even though the god was on a bed of nails, the Threnodox had a lot more scars.
Well, that’s the Threnodoxy for you…they throw their scholars in the front lines along with everybody else. A wonderful people, really. Damn, that one looks like he took a javelin clear through…and that set’s definitely teeth marks…
The little voice seemed to find this much more interesting than could possibly be appropriate.
Myra frowned, poking at a hole etched in the table. Are you sure it’s okay to talk to one of them? she thought. The Hierarchs don’t like the Threnodox very much.
It’ll be fine. He can help us, remember?
And then, more quietly, the barest breeze off the icy lake, I hope like hell he can help us.
“Stay here,” said the Threnodox finally. “Don’t touch anything.” He gave her a last look, equal parts bafflement and hostility, and swept out the door.
Bit of an attitude on him, though. You’d think we’d lost the war.
Myra folded her hands in her lap. The fire was growing warm, and she was so very, very tired. “Why are we here again?”
Well, he’s a Threnodox magi, and they’re very, very good at healing people.
“You really think he can heal Gant?”
Uh. Anything’s possible?
There seemed to be dark things moving under the surface of the ice, but Myra was too tired to worry about them. She pulled the leather jacket tighter around herself and hunched down into it.
Her numb feet were starting to warm up again, with painful prickling feelings.
The man came back. He’d thrown on a rather frayed dressing gown that had probably been blue once, but had faded to a vague metallic grey. Chemical burns had eaten holes in the hems.
Awww. Just can’t catch a break tonight…
He had a blanket thrown over one arm. He stalked behind her and dropped it over her shoulders, glowering.
Myra blinked up at him. “Thank you, mister.”
He dug through the piles of glassware, came up with a battered tea kettle, and set it on the hearth to boil.
“Now, then.” He eyed her coolly. “Is that blood yours?”
Myra shook her head.
“Good. Excellent. Now, tell me who this…”she”…is, and how she’s talking to you.”
Tell him that—
He was already shaking his head. “No. Not what she says she is. First I want to know what you know—Myra, was it?”
Huh. Well, he’s the magi…
Myra bit her lip. Should she tell him everything? Even about Gant? She hadn’t even told Father Maxwell about Gant, and Father Maxwell wasn’t nearly so frightening.
You can skip the bit about Gant. Tell him everything else, though.
By the time Myra had explained everything she knew about having a voice in your head, the tea kettle had begun to boil. Scarn got up, scrounged two mugs, and threw a handful of tea bags in to steep.
Myra could see that he was frowning. He had a hard, square face, and his frown was frightening. She shrank back into the chair a little, pulling her feet up so that she could wrap the blanket around her knees.
Relax. They don’t kill children.
Well…not in single combat, anyway.
Myra had a sense of a memory flashing by too quickly for her to grab, and was grateful she’d missed it.
He turned around, holding the two steaming mugs of tea, and saw her hunched up in the chair, and his frown deepened. “Here.” He slid a mug of tea toward her.
Myra took the cup and took a sip. Peppermint, rose hips, and something complicated underneath that she didn’t recognize. “This is good!” she said, surprised.
“Tea #7,” he muttered into his cup. “Cures gonorrhea. It’s also the only one that wakes you up worth a damn.”
Myra couldn’t figure out why the little voice was suddenly having such hysterics. She drank her tea.
The Threnodox pushed himself back in his chair, leaning back on two legs, folded his arms, and glared at her.
Steady, Myra. He’s not mad at you. Glaring is sort of their national pastime.
Myra had a hard time meeting his eyes. They were very pale blue, and reminded her of the frost that formed on the iron bars over the windows at Home. They glittered under heavy eyelids. His jaw looked like he gritted his teeth a lot.
He looked like he was gritting them now.
“So.” He set the cup down on his table. “There’s a voice in your head. And it says it’s you, but you don’t know what it’s going to say next. And it wants to talk to a magi.”
Gee, said the little voice, when he puts it like that, it almost sounds crazy…
Scarn thought she was probably crazy.
He’d met a few in his time who had voices that talked to them, although in fairness, they were rarely as coherent as Myra’s voice seemed to be. And Myra didn’t seem particularly paranoid, either.
Actually, granted that she’d walked trustingly into the house of a strange man in the gutterside district, while wearing nothing but a jacket and a bloody nightgown, her lack of paranoia was probably the craziest thing about her. It bespoke a death wish.
It was an interesting question. If you heard a sane voice talking to you, were you still insane by default?
Scarn rubbed his forehead wearily. It was much, much too late for this.
Crazy was a safe bet. His old masters at the Mater Megatherium always said that you could never go wrong betting on insanity.
Still…there were at least a few other possibilities…
“Are you possessed, girl?” he snapped. Myra jumped.
Twitchy little thing. Of course, demons aren’t noted for their nerve…
She frowned, either at him or at the voice. “No…” she said slowly, “she says she doesn’t think so. She thinks she’s supposed to be there.” The tip of her tongue moved over her lower lip. “She says that she supposes it’s possible that she’s a demon with delusions of personhood, but if so, she’s not aware of it. Then again, she says, how would you tell?”
Fascinating. Somebody in there was fairly clever, and it didn’t seem to be Myra. “An excellent question.” He propped his chin on his hand.
If she was mad, he probably couldn’t do much about it. If she was possessed, that was easy. Not pleasant, by any stretch, but easy.
Either way, he’d need wyrdsight.
“Hold still,” he said, and reached out a hand. She hunched her shoulders, but didn’t try to pull away.
He laid his fingertips across her forehead, and performed the little mental flick that brought the wyrdsight on.
A network of bright lines sprang up across his vision—red-gold across his own hands, a slithering of lesser lights from the wards, and…Myra.
Who was lit up like a bonfire at Beltane, after they’d thrown the sacrifices on.
The vision kept on going behind his eyelids, a web of pulsing lines etched against the dark. He pulled his hand back, startled, and it dropped.
That was…no, it’s late, I must be seeing things…
Myra looked up at him worriedly. Her eyes were huge and guileless. He would have found that mildly annoying, if he hadn’t been so baffled by what he’d seen.
He set his hand on her head again.
The average person’s body had a web to it, a fine network of lines over and under the skin, tangling together into bright knots at the energy centers of the body. Most of a magi’s work involved manipulating that web—untangling knots that shouldn’t be there, re-routing webs, and in some cases, just plain pouring energy into the web until it got the idea and started re-weaving itself.
That was the theory, anyway. In practice, that was like saying that a surgeon’s job was going to go in with a knife and start slicing. Mostly you just did your best to hold everything together, and prayed like hell you weren’t doing more harm than good.
Myra, however, seemed to have two…no, three webs.
Nobody’s got three. Women pregnant with twins don’t even have three.
There was the main one, which he assumed was Myra. It was a perfectly ordinary web, with ordinary knots—small ones at the hands and feet, large ones at throat, chest, navel and groin. It shone pale green. He’d seen hundreds like it.
Up around the head, though…that was something else. There seemed to be a second web, a much smaller one, radiating out from the back of her head. The strands were a crazy-quilt pattern, like something woven by a drunken spider, and they burned a rich violet color. In some places, they doubled or tripled the paths of Myra’s web, and in some places, they struck out wildly on their own, forming spirals and erratic zig-zags.
Is that the voice? Gods of my ancestors…
Scarn had only seen a web grow that wild that in a few cases—generally children who had fits. If Myra had dropped to the floor and started thrashing at that moment, it wouldn’t have surprised him in the least, although it would certainly have irritated the hell out of him.
Just what I need, a night watch to make sure she doesn’t seize and swallow her damn tongue…
With just those two webs, Myra would have had the most messed-up head he’d ever looked into, and that included the man who’d taken a crossbow bolt to the skull two weeks earlier and was walking around with fletching sticking out behind his left ear.
Even this, however, paled in comparison to the third web.
To his wyrdsight, the last web looked like an elaborate net of lace. Long skeins grew out of the energy centers, most thickly from the chest, and wrapped under the skin. It glowed a clear, brilliant white, and it was patently, utterly unnatural.
Webs were sloppy. They were only nominally symmetrical. Strands went off in blind alleys, doubled back, tied to each other. People were imperfect beings, after all. Scarn knew that his own web, for example, had a half dozen ugly snarls where scar tissue chopped into normal flesh, and the web had rerouted and resprouted to make up. He’d never bothered to unsnarl them, because when bodies were involved, if it wasn’t broken, you sure as hell didn’t fix it.
Scarn stared at the wonderfully precise curves of the white web, and thought, Somebody’s been fixing things…
It really did look like lace. Around the skull in particular, it was so thick that it looked as if Myra was wearing a glowing white skullcap. Scarn leaned forward—he didn’t really need to, wyrdsight wasn’t exactly physical, but you got in the habit—and peered intently at it.
It formed an intricate barrier around the violet web. Everywhere a violet tendril grew, a wall of lace had sprung up to match it.
The violet web apparently hadn’t stopped trying. Wherever it was blocked, at every juncture of white and purple, the erratic zig-zag patterns sprang up, doubling back and flinging itself at the barrier.
Like a plant growing sideways up a wall, trying to find a crack…how very odd.
Where did this white thing come from?
Scarn let the wyrdsight deepen, until he was nearly at the edge of a trance. He’d always been able to do that easily, it was one of his few talents. If you were on a battlefield and casualties were pouring in and you were up to your wrists in a man’s entrails, you really didn’t have time to set up a drumming circle and light some soothing incense. You could either get in there and manipulate the web cold, or you were no damn good for anything, except as another warm body to hold a sword and be thrown at the enemy.
He reached out a not entirely physical finger and plucked a strand experimentally.
“Sorry. Did that hurt?”
He let his hand drop, and rubbed his face. You shouldn’t get afterimages from wyrdsight, but he always did anyway.
“Did it hurt like someone cutting you, or like a spark?”
She screwed her face up, thinking. “Like a spark, I guess…” She paused. “She says it hurt like…well, I’m not saying that word.”
Scarn felt a corner of his mouth twitch. “I see.”
“It didn’t hurt when the little old man did it,” muttered Myra.
The magi’s head snapped up. “What little old man?”
“I don’t know. The one in the basement. I don’t remember.”
“What man in the basement? Tell me!”
She cringed back in the chair. “I don’t remember. Just—no, I don’t remember!”
“I told you, I don’t know!”
I will not pick her up and shake her until her teeth rattle. I won’t.
“Are you sure?”
The war was over, and he was a long way from being able to collar his patients, yell “Stop being such a mewling coward!” and shove them back towards the front. It was not an approach that looked to work on Myra.
It was a little worrisome how often it worked on prostitutes.
“Does she know anything about this?” he asked.
Myra sighed and peered down into her tea. “She says…there’s something there, but she’s having a hard time getting to it. She says it hurts like—stop saying that word! It’s not nice!—even thinking about it.”
“Tell her to think about it anyway,” he ordered, folding his arms.
Myra sighed again. “She says okay, she’ll try.”
There was a little silence.
The girl gave him a worried look. “I think it’s really hurting her. I don’t think she’s faking.”
“Tough. Keep trying.” He got up and refilled the kettle, then dropped back in his chair.
Myra wasn’t meeting his eyes. “She says she can’t get much. It’s like a dream, and she doesn’t know how to describe it. She says there was a little old man, nobody she recognized, and there was a sound. She can’t remember, but she’d know it if she heard it again. And whatever he did hurt a lot. She says that I know more and I’m lyin—I am not!”
Scarn bit his lower lip to keep from either laughing or screaming. He wasn’t entirely sure which.
“Myra,” he said, very carefully, setting his hands flat on the table, “this is very important.”
“I don’t see how this helps Gant anyway,” she muttered.
Who the hell is Gant? Never mind, let’s not get distracted… “Myra, I need you to tell me this. Was there a little old man who touched your head like I did just now?”
She hugged herself tightly, looking a great deal like a sullen teenager. “Yes.”
“What did he do?”
“I don’t know! He just sat there. And he hummed. And he rubbed my head. And it didn’t hurt.” She kicked the leg of the table and gave Scarn a glare that told him what she thought of his techniques.
“Thank you.” The magi got up again, restlessly, prowling around the table.
“I don’t see how—“
He held up a hand, and she lapsed back into silence.
It was a good kitchen for pacing. It took quite a few strides to get from one end of the room to the other. He threaded his way between spilled powders and suspicious stains, thinking.
Let me think. Let me think. If this old man was some kind of magi, could he have built a web?
It was possible to build a temporary web—it was how you saved someone from losing toes to frostbite, if you got there quick enough, but to build one of this size—and apparently permanent—
I couldn’t do it.
Granted, the number of things he couldn’t do was fairly vast, but still.
On the other hand, if I can pluck one thread, I can probably pluck a whole handful, at least for a bit…
He dropped into his chair again. Myra lifted her eyes.
“Well. You may yet be insane, but that’s not all you are. It’s a…hell, I don’t have a term for it,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Someone’s made a web, and tied you both up into it.”
Myra tilted her head and got that odd, listening expression. “She wants to know if you can break it.”
“No. They’re grown right into your own energies. If I tried to cut them, I’d probably kill you both.” He held up a hand. “However, I believe I can do something else, at least briefly. I can see two different sections, and I believe they correspond to you and…ah…her. I can’t cut the cords, but I can stretch them a little.”
It occurred to him that despite the fact that Myra was sitting in front of him, he was pretty sure he was describing this for the benefit of the voice in her head. Nothing he’d seen about Myra so far indicated that she’d understand most of what he was saying.
She barely even seemed to be listening, running her fingers over the scarred wood of the tabletop.
“If I stretch a couple of these, I think I can let you—ah, her—out for a little while. It’ll be tricky, and it might be a little painful, and I can’t hold it for very long.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Or it might just hurt a lot and with no good result. Without making the experiment, I don’t know.”
Scarn got up, poured himself another cup of tea, and returned to his chair.
“She says, do it, mister,” the girl said slowly.
He leaned back and folded his arms. “What do you say, Myra?”
Myra pulled her jacket closer. “I guess…if it’s only for a little while. Will it hurt very much?”
“We will endeavor to see that it does not,” he said, and reached his hands out to her again.
As far as he could tell, if he plucked the strings, energy fizzed along them, and that was probably what was causing the pain. Scarn couldn’t do much about that—there was no way to shut it off, since it was drawing strength from her vital processes, and if he tried grounding it all out, he’d either drink her dry or burn himself out, depending on who lasted longer. The best he could do was shunt the energy to one web or the other.
The voice in her head wanted to come out, so the voice in her head could pay the price. He pinched the cord in his fingertips, stilling the part that led to Myra—or what you think is Myra, what the hell do you know, anyway, you were always lousy at this sort of thing—and let the energy feed back into the other, closed off section. The violet web crackled in response.
So far, so good. Myra looked inquiringly at him. If the voice was hurting, it was keeping its mouth shut.
He picked up another, and another, until he had a whole metaphysical handful. His back teeth were starting to hum unpleasantly with the energy.
Scarn glanced at Myra one last time, saw her eyes as vague and trusting as a puppy, and squelched the urge to yell Why are you letting strange men mess about with your head? Have you no sense of self-preservation? I could be doing anything in here!
Some days he couldn’t believe that this country of idiots and sheep had defeated the Threnodoxy. It didn’t seem like most of them could make their way to the privy without an armed escort.
Oh, well…here goes…
He got his fingers under the cords, bit his lip, and pulled.
The cords stretched. Myra sagged like a broken doll, her mouth slack.
Here’s hoping I didn’t break her permanently…
The web tried to snap back, and he caught at it, dug his mental feet in, and held.
Once everything had settled, he fell back into his own chair. He didn’t need his hands for this, or even wyrdsight—it was just raw physical strength, which was a good thing, because he’d about exhausted the last of his finesse.
There was a definite pressure on his mind. It felt as if he were trying to hold a sword out at armslength—not difficult at the moment, but he could see it getting very heavy, very quickly.
He drummed his fingers on the tabletop and waited.
The woman sat up, put her hands over her face, and said, in a completely different voice, “Ah, shit, that hurts!”
Scarn blinked. He hadn’t really expected it to work.
She dropped her hands, and looked at him, and said hoarsely, “Thank you.”
He nodded mutely.
Gods of my ancestors, what did I just manage to do…?
“You’ve got to help me, magi,” the woman said, leaning forward and grabbing his wrist. Her fingers were like bands of iron across his skin. “I’m not holding it together in there too well at all.”
Scarn glanced down at his wrist. The woman followed his gaze, then dropped his hand abruptly and leaned back in her chair. Her eyes were bright and grim. “How long have I got?”
“Ah….” Scarn made a weighing gesture with his hands. “Probably less than an hour. I could do more if I wasn’t already tired, but there’s a definite drain. Whoever put this web up did not want you coming out.”
Her lips twisted.
“In that case—you’ve got to listen to me.”
The transformation was incredible. If he’d seen this woman walking down the street, he wouldn’t have recognized Myra. It wasn’t just the way she held her body, although that was part of it. Her face looked different. She held different muscles tense and slack, and she seemed to occupy her skin in a way that Myra did not. Her eyelids drooped farther, giving her an almost lazy air, although she looked anything but lazy now.
“I assure you,” he said, watching her closely, “I am listening quite intently.”
“Right. Okay. God, now I don’t know where to start.” She gave a brief, throaty chuckle, as different from her former tentative giggle as he could imagine. It was hard to believe both had come from the same throat. “I’ve been held in an asylum a couple of miles from here for awhile now. My memories from before are very spotty, but I’m quite certain I was a soldier in the war against your people.” She gave him a nod and flicked two fingers out in an odd little salute as she spoke.
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. An old enemy, indeed…if true.
“I’m not sure—what month is it? How long has it been since the war ended?”
Month? Fascinating. “Five years,” he said, not taking his eyes off her face.
She went briefly still. Her hands, which had been running slowly up and down her arms, clenched convulsively in the folds of the jacket.
“Shit!” She smacked her fist down on the table, making glassware jump.
“You didn’t know.” It was not a question.
“No. I thought—maybe eight or nine months, tops. Shit.” She raked a hand through her hair, until it stood up in short, dark spikes.
He waited impassively. She let out her breath in a long sigh.
“Well. I—five years?—well. Suppose it doesn’t matter, really. Anyway.” She leaned forward on her elbows. “Like I said, I’ve been at this asylum…”
She was so much more animated than Myra that it really was like seeing a separate person. Her face was almost entirely different, the lines harder and more weathered instead of slack, child-like softness. She suddenly looked like a woman in her thirties instead of a girl grown prematurely old.
Her hands kept moving, too, over her arms and her face, along the wood of the table and the rim of her mug of tea, an almost unconscious motion, as if she was trying to reassure herself that the world was really solid around her.
“Anyway, this kid—Myra—seems to be in here in front of me, if that makes any sense. She doesn’t seem to have very many memories of anything but living at the asylum, and god’s balls, magi, the kid’s a complete flake. She’s obsessed with sin, and she goes to pieces if she thinks she’s doing something wrong.” A brief, bitter laugh. “Since I kinda had to kill a guy on the way here, it’s been a little rough.”
“You killed him, or she did?”
“I’m pretty sure I did. She went to pieces, and I came out, and it was like—like—“ Her face twisted. “I don’t have any words for it. I don’t think there are words for it.”
He shrugged. “Your language is notoriously light of useful vocabulary for either magic or minds. Or anything else for that matter.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, Threnodox is twice the language, and your horses are faster and your women are prettier and your men piss farther.”
Scarn lifted his mug of tea in her direction, amused. “Now, now. Your people breed some very fine horses.”
She grinned briefly. “Right, then. Well, anyway, one of the orderlies decided to get frisky, and the kid froze up. I managed to sort of shove her out of the way, but god’s teeth!” She shuddered. “That was some pain, magi. It felt like I’d wrenched a tooth out of the socket, and somebody was trying to jam it back in.”
He set the mug of tea down. “But you said you killed this man?”
“Two knitting needles in the eyesocket.”
“Well done.” He inclined his head. Impressive, if not all that surprising. Few things can stand before the strength of panic.
Her lips twisted. “Thanks.”
“Now…a few questions. Can you hear Myra in there?”
“Ah—“ She stared up at the ceiling, rubbing idily at the back of her neck. “No, I can’t, actually.”
“Hmm. If you will permit me—“
Her eyes, when he reached for her forehead, were not at all vague, but she submitted to the touch calmly enough. Wyrdsight flared around him.
Isn’t that interesting…
The web was distorted where he was holding it, red-gold threads knotted around the white. Where it had pulled back, however, the violet web spilled out, a river that had finally found a chink in the dam and flooded through it. Purple threads ran riot over the green, suffusing her entire body.
The pale green web was still there, but dampened. If it had been the only web, he’d have said she was asleep. As it was… Black and bloody gods, how am I supposed to tell anything with this mess?
Scarn pulled his hand away, running a thumb idly over his fingertips. “She’s still in there. I don’t think she’s awake, but it’s hard to tell.”
“Mmm. I guess that’s a relief…I don’t really want the kid dead, although I’d kinda like my body back, you know?”
There was a whole pile of ethical troubles just waiting to pounce there. Scarn shoved them away. It was much, much too late for this, and ethics hadn’t ever been his strong suit anyway.
He folded his arms instead. “So why did you want a Threnodox magi, anyway? Just because you killed a man, and you knew I wouldn’t care?”
She met his eyes with no trace of guile. “That, and I remember seeing something once—we’d captured a magi, one of your people, although I couldn’t tell you when in the war this was. He was an important prisoner—obviously we didn’t get live magi every day!—so we were keeping him in quarters, not in a cell. We didn’t have much space, though, so we’d put him in with one of our own, who’d snapped.” She picked up the cold mug of tea and sipped at it. “You know, battleshock, the usual…”
“He was just sitting in the corner, rocking. He wasn’t any trouble, and he wasn’t violent. Didn’t know what else to do with him. It’s not like you can lock a man up for breaking.” Another sip of tea. “Anyway. Couple of days roll around, and our guy walks out of there under his own power. The magi had fixed him. Really fixed him—we never had a spot of trouble with him afterwards.”
He raised an eyebrow, leaning back in the chair until it tilted on two legs. “So you came to me, because you once saw a magi heal an enemy?”
The woman’s eyes were dark and her jaw was set, but her voice was steady. “My own people did this to me, Threnodox. If your friends do this, what can any of us hope for but the kindness of our enemies?”
“You really are mad, if you came to a Threnodox for kindness,” he snapped, reaching for the teapot.
“Ah, yes. You’re a hardened soulless killer. Doubtless that’s why you gave Myra a blanket…and now you’re refilling my tea.”
Caught, he glared at her.
She grinned. “No insult intended, magi. Threnodox are merciless, except when they aren’t.”
“I wouldn’t rely too much on our mercy, if I were you.”
Her smile faded. “Believe me, I don’t intend to.”
There was a long moment of silence. Finally he stirred. “Enough. I can only hold the web so long—let us not waste it glaring at each other. Tell me about this Home.”
She told him everything she could remember. She noticed things like numbers of guards, and available exits.
If she wasn’t a soldier, she was something similar. A guard, an assassin, something. Hmmm.
“That’s all I’ve got,” she said finally. “I think I must have been fairly important for them to keep me there, but that’s all I can tell you.”
“And why do you think that?” he asked, lifting his tea to his lips. Intriguing, but she could still be delusional. No one ever fantasizes that they are unimportant, after all…
She met his eyes squarely. He had a sudden idea that she knew what he was thinking.
“Because I recognized one of the other women there. They were calling her Yllsa, but I knew her. And you did, too, Threnodox.”
He lifted an eyebrow.
Her mouth was a grim slash. “It was Adriane d’Tarn.”
Scarn choked on his tea. The mug fell from his fingers and sprayed liquid across the table. The woman sat back in her chair, arms folded, while he scrabbled for a cloth.
He swore, whether at the spill or her words, even he didn’t know.
“You can’t be serious.”
She put an elbow on the table and leaned her forehead against her fist. “The Great Traitor’s lieutenant. I don’t know how many men she killed, and I don’t think she did either. They used to say she carried four swords into battle—one on each hip and two across her back—because she’d break three in the hearts of her enemies before the battle was done.”
“Theu-sallah we called her,” said Scarn hoarsely. The towel hung forgotten in his hands. “The Jade Bitch.” Any man of us would have given his left arm for a night in her bed, and his right arm for the chance to take off her head. “We assumed she’d been executed…”
The woman nodded. Her eyes were closed. “They have her get up, every morning, and go down to breakfast, and before she eats, she had to apologize to everyone for screaming all night. She has a stutter. It takes her nearly a minute to get it out. And everyone nods and says the forgiveness by rote—“
Her voice broke.
She sat silently, with her forehead against her hand. Scarn watched the fingers of her free hand close on the edge of the table until knuckles and fingernails went white.
Another man might have reached out to her, said something reassuring and meaningless. Scarn was a Threnodox. He understood rage. He would not insult her by trying to smooth it away.
He realized that he had believed her, every word. Some things were too terrible to be untrue. Some things were beyond mending.
After a moment, she lifted her head. Hair hung in lank black strands in her face, and her eyes were bleak.
“We would have given her a good death, you know,” he said, almost kindly.
“I wish you had.”
They both looked away.
Scarn got up, went to a cupboard, and pulled out a bottle half-full of amber liquid.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
He found two small beakers that were fairly clean and dumped a generous shot of whiskey in each. Her lips twitched a bit at the glassware, but she took the drink with steady fingers, and raised it.
“Theu-sallah,” she said, with quite a passable accent.
She drank it down in one draft and set the beaker upside down on the table. “That’s the first drink I’ve had in five years. It was lousy. Thank you.”
Scarn chuckled despite himself.
“So,” he said, when the liquor had burned down his throat and settled in his belly. “I believe you. And I believe you must have fought against us, because only someone who had faced the Threnodoxy in battle would have the insight—or the nerve—
to come to one of us for aid.”
She smiled faintly. “I remembered. Can you help me?”
“Honestly, I don’t know.” He poured himself another shot of whiskey. She held out her glass, and he tipped a shot obligingly into it. “My talents are considerable, but they’re mostly in other areas. I treated wounds of the body, not wounds of the mind.” He studied the drink for a moment, then tossed it down. “The magi you describe, who healed the soldier’s mind—there were not many of us, even at our height, who could do such things.”
She nodded slowly, sipping at her drink this time, and grimacing. “Do you know anyone?”
“Here and now? No. The Threnodoxy was broken, and your Ethan Tyrael burned the Mater Megatherium to the ground…I don’t know.” He leaned back in his chair, studying the ceiling. There was a rose of smoke burned into the plaster from the last time he’d try to make Remedy #4 and had nearly set the shop on fire.
She sagged a bit and ran her fingers through her hair.
“However—“ he rose and returned the whiskey to the shelf, “—I wouldn’t give up just yet. I doubt your condition will yield to anything as crude as raw power, but it may yet yield to careful inquiry. I will need to run some tests. Probably quite a few of them.” He leaned on the back of the chair.
She nodded. “Makes sense.” She frowned into her glass. “I suppose, if any of these tests are gonna be painful, let’s get ‘em out of the way now. The kid’s had a rough enough time of it.”
Interesting. Scarn inclined his head. “Very well. I’ll need a fairly large blood sample, to start.”
The woman nodded.
He pulled open a drawer, looking for the bell jars.
“There’s one other thing,” she said to his back, while he dug through the drawers.
“I can’t pay you. I don’t have any money, and I don’t have any memories of where I might have any stashed, assuming I made any more than the usual soldier.” She coughed. He turned, looking at her over his shoulder.
“If I were the only one in here, I’d offer to pay you in other coin, but…” She spread her hands helplessly. “With the kid in my brain, I’d feel kinda like my own pimp.”
He snorted. “Quite all right, I assure you. I am already ankle-deep in grateful whores, I really don’t need another one.”
She laughed into her whiskey. “I’ll give you bastards one thing, you sure know how to talk to women…”
Scarn was smart enough to let that one pass.
He found the bell jars at last and turned back. “No, I will help you without payment.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“For Theu-sallah,” he said, bowing to her. His hands were full of knives and glass.
When he straightened up, she was blinking hard, and her lips were tight. Scarn looked away.
The jars clinked in his hands. He set the pile carefully on the table. The woman grimaced, and began to roll up her sleeve.
“Actually, these go on the back.”
The woman eyed the jars dubiously, then shrugged. “I suppose if I trust you to mess around with my head…” She pushed the leather jacket off her shoulders and pulled the back of the nightgown up to her neck. If baring that much skin to a relative stranger bothered her, she hid it well.
“Let me get you a sheet,” Scarn said dryly.
A few minutes later, she was leaning across the table, waist wrapped modestly in a reasonably clean sheet, and he was heating glass jars over a burner. “So. You don’t remember your name?”
“Afraid not. Makes me feel more than a little crazy, let me tell you.”
“Indeed.” He dropped a scalpel into his hand, showed it to her briefly. She nodded.
He stepped behind her, and paused for just a moment.
She’d definitely been a soldier. There were scars across her back and ribs to rival some of his.
Two more will hardly matter, then.
A quick nick across the muscle of her shoulder, and he slapped the hot jar over it. She hissed softly. Her skin distorted, and blood began to pool quickly at the bottom of the jar.
He began heating the second jar. She watched him silently, her head resting on her folded arms.
She had courage enough, he’d give her that. She wasn’t a beautiful woman, and she looked half-starved—were they even feeding them at that Home?—but there was iron in her jaw and her eyes.
Oh, well, what did he know? It had been a long time before he’d seen anything beautiful in a woman’s body—an endless parade of diseased female flesh tended to not just kill one’s libido, but bury it at the crossroads at midnight with a stake through its heart.
He picked up the scalpel again, juggled the hot jar on his fingertips, made a second incision and slapped the vacuum jar over it. She grunted.
His mind was definitely starting to get tired from holding the web now—not so much pain, but an odd sort of awareness of the shape of his brain inside his skull. He set his teeth. She wasn’t screaming, and this was not the most painless form of bloodletting. He could hardly show less courage than some nameless enemy woman.
The first jar was nearly full. He rolled it off her back expertly, with a popping sound, barely spilling any. Blood oozed down her back, and he wiped it quickly with a cloth.
“How are you feeling?”
“To be expected.”
He found a jar of astringent, dipped a cloth in it, and wiped it over the cut. She swore briefly and colorfully.
Definitely a soldier.
The second bell jar was filling slowly. He waited.
“That’s really uncomfortable.”
“So I’m told.”
There was a long, jagged white line running from the back of one shoulderblade down to get lost among her ribs.
His fingers ran idily over the scar, tracing its path over her skin. She lifted her head, startled.
“It would appear that somewhere in your past, someone tried to stab you,” he said neutrally. Gods, I must be tired…
“It was an assassin,” she said, in an odd, distant voice. “I still don’t know why I moved, but I did, just at the last moment, and he missed the cut, and I brained him with a paperweight on the table. We never did find out who sent him.”
“Where was this?” he asked, keeping his voice low and even, nothing to jolt her out of whatever trance she was in.
“It was…” Her brow furrowed. “I remember the room, the desk—there were burgundy wall hangings—we must have been at…at…damn!”
Her fist thumped on the table.
“Sorry,” she said after a moment. “I thought I had it, but…”
“It is still valuable to know.” He popped the second jar off and wiped the cloth across the cut. Round pink rings marred the surface of her skin, but he knew from experience they would fade within a day or two.
“I don’t see how it helps,” she muttered into her arms.
“For one thing, it tells us that you were important enough to merit assassination.”
“Hmm. Suppose you’re right. Although he could have mistaken me for someone else, or decided to take out witnesses.”
He decanted the blood into a beaker. She sat up, pulling her nightgown back down, and slipping the leather jacket on again. “Ye gods, no wonder I feel light-headed. That’s got to be half my blood in there.”
“One-tenth, actually. “ Scarn pulled open a drawer, found the packet he was looking for, and stirred a small amount of powder into the beaker to keep the blood from coagulating. “This should be all that I need for the physical tests. We can conduct the rest tomorrow, but for now,” he rubbed his forehead, “forgive me, but I must sleep.”
“Oh.” She sat up. “Right. So I guess I have to go back in…” She made a vague gesture at her own temples.
Shadows flickered in her eyes, but she drew in a breath and lifted her chin. Her back was very straight. “Very well. Let’s do it.”
He thought about offering her a reprieve—he could have managed another few minutes, even if his head was already pounding—but he did not. Five more minutes would be a poor trade for her dignity.
She either was what she said, or she was uniquely mad, or both. Either way, he’d help her. What other choice was there?
“Rail,” he said, almost to himself.
She raised an eyebrow. “Beg pardon?”
“You needed a name. Rail.”
The other eyebrow went up. “As in “thin as a…”?”
“As in enemy.”
“Oh.” She chewed on her lower lip. “I knew that, I think.”
Whether she had or not, she definitely knew enough about the Threnodoxy to recognize a compliment. A small but genuine smile crossed her face. “I suppose I should be grateful it’s not Theu-something.”
“No,” said Scarn, smiling himself, “we saved that for officers.”
Scarn reached out a hand toward Rail’s face, touched her forehead, and let the web drop.