Chapter Two

I shared an exhausted smile with Keagan. "Thank you, Master. Without you I would have been…"

"No need to speak of it again. You were successful, and you learned a better way to remove the curse going forward. One that works for you. What matters under my apprenticeship is that you learn."

I nodded mutely, then moved to help Rose untie the now unconscious Samuel. Together, we rubbed a cooling cream into the areas where he'd struggled hard enough to rub his skin raw against the rope.

Rose and I pulled Samuel into a sitting position – not easy given how large a man he was. He sagged sideways against my shoulder and I fought the urge to pull away as his bare chest, damp with sweat, rubbed against my skin.

On the far side of the room, Keagan measured out two tonics into a pair of worn mugs and grabbed the smelling salts. Returning to where Rose and I still propped up the groggy patient, he passed the first tonic to me. "Drink up."

I wrinkled my nose at the dark green energy potion I knew from experience tasted like mushrooms gone bad. "I don't need this," I started before a yawn cut me off.

"Drink up," he repeated. "We've still got a report to make with Rayn after this. Plus full check in with the rest of our patients, and clean up."

"I'll get clean up started while you guys meet with Rayn," Rose promised.

Keagan waved the smelling salts in front of Samuel who jerked back, wide eyed, nearly throwing me over the other side of the table.

"Easy," I said, trying to be comforting yet firm. My feet found the cold, packed floor again. "You're safe. Everything's okay."

"You were under the effects of a dangerous curse," Keagan said, smoothly sliding into the space I once occupied next to Samuel. "Drink this potion. It will help you recover."

Samuel did as told, and I decided it was about time I did the same. I'd nearly spilled my energy tonic when he'd reacted to the smelling salts, and if there was one thing Keagan hated more than liars, it was wastefulness.

I held my nose and swallowed quickly, then fought a shudder as it oozed down my throat, slimy and cold.

"What is this? What happened?" Samuel asked after taking his own tonic, sunshine yellow. His tasted like daisies, with a touch of lemon and honey.

"Something to help you heal," Keagan repeated. "Someone cursed you, but you're free of it now. Do you remember anything before waking up here with us?"

I gently took the empty vial from Samuel's shaking fingers and placed it on the only other table in the small room, then grabbed a damp cloth from the counter top along the far wall. I kept my hands busy as I listened closely. If we could get a lead on who was casting incendiamentem throughout the city...

"I was walking down Mitebitten, toward the fishin' district when the world went black. Right near The Leaky Beak. Not the best of places, I know it, but there was work to be had, and that's hard to come by round these days, you know? Reckon that's why my head feels like it's been kicked by a mule. Someone knock me flat?"

He had been struck with something, multiple somethings really, but it was impossible to tell whether the blows came before or after he was cursed.

"It's possible," Keagan answered, then turned. "Rose will escort you to our recovery room. You may feel a bit drowsy. This is completely normal. I or my apprentice Esti will visit you again soon to check on your progress."

Samuel looked between Rose and me. "Lucky man, Healer. Mayhap I should take to the business."

"Let's go." Rose took the big man by the elbow and led him out the only door of the Healing Room and across the hall into the first of our two recovery rooms. When Samuel's hand came around her waist, then drifted just a little too low, she deftly smacked his hand away. "None of that."

"I'm injured, not dead. And you're a pretty doxie, even if ya'are a mite dark skinned for a man ah my good breeding."

"Good breeding indeed," Rose muttered, before she was out of my earshot.

"Leave that," Keagan instructed, glancing at the two vials I was still pretending to wash. "I expect Guardsman Rayn is upstairs in his usual spot. We'll need to make this a quick report, if possible. There's too many in the recovery room for us to be gone long."

"I could stay with Rose..."

"She doesn't need you. You and I both know that if that man tries anything again, you and I will be called down to treat some mysterious burn wounds, not to tend to any wounds he might inflict."

He was right, of course, but as we left the candle-lit healing room and climbed to the second floor, I couldn't fight down the belly-dropping sense of guilt weighing me down. The other way around, Rose would be right next to me, not moving steadily out of sight.

"Let's go, Esti." Keagan's voice was harsh.

"Yes, Master Keagan." I stutter stepped up the heavy wooden stairs, head angled as far back as possible to try and look through the door frame to where Rose was.

"Oh for goodness sake," Keagan hissed through clenched teeth as I ran into him, my foot stepping on his heel. "Go see to her. Confirm she's fine so we can move on. I need you focused. The man's probably drooling like a baby into his pillow by now anyway."

I darted down the stairs, into the brightly lit recovery room. Although this was where our patients rested and recovered, the walls were covered with as many windows as possible, allowing natural light, and a breeze whenever the weather and city air allowed.

Samuel was already snoring, located in a bed towards the center of the room. The room housed thirty beds, set up dormitory style, fifteen per side and I dashed down the center aisle to give Rose a quick hug.

"I'm fine, silly goose," she said before pushing me towards the door. "Go, before Keagan gets upset."

Keagan raised a single brow when I joined him at the top of the stairs. "Well?"

"Not a burn to speak of, sir."

Keagan chuckled and opened the door to the spare bedroom where Rayn was waiting with what might generously be called patience, if patience meant pacing a hole in the floor. "Rayn, how good of you to stay while we finished up."

Rayn took Keagan's outstretched hand and shook it. Both men were tall, but I'd always thought Rayn had a lanky strength to him, deceptively hidden beneath his frame. By contrast, Keagan was as broad as an ox, and nobody other than drunks and fools would even think about taking a swing at the older, dark skinned man.

"How's the man?" Rayn asked with a nod towards the stairs.

"Cured," Keagan responded, then gestured to me. "Esti freed the man. I believe you'll need that information for your report."

Rayn raised a single brow. "Indeed?" He sat on the edge of the light blue loveseat located just beneath the only, very large window. The breeze ruffled his salt and pepper hair. He fished out a stylus and a modest piece of parchment. "And was the man able to tell you anything? Is he available to be interviewed yet?"

Keagan tilted his head towards me, a clear indication that he expected me to fill in the details. I kept my eyes trained on the dark brown of the wooden floor at Rayn's feet, and told him the little we'd learned from Samuel. "He will be unable to answer questions until the morning bell."

The scritch scratch of the stylus tapered off. "You're sure?"

"Yes Guardsman."

I saw Rayn nod seriously in my peripheral vision. He turned to Keagan. "Healer Keagan, I would like to investigate the area and feel a Healer's perspective might be helpful. Perhaps there are…." He trailed off as Keagan shook his head.

"Curses do not leave anything behind for us to see, Guardsman. As we have discussed previously."

Rayn sighed. "I am aware. But there have been twenty-six instances of this curse in the last six months alone, and we are just as close to finding the son of a mngwa as we were when this epidemic started. Maybe there's a trace. I know you say there's not, but I want you to take a look. Even if there isn't a trace you can find, maybe there's something else. Something you would see, but I wouldn't."

Keagan hesitated. "Alright. But I don't have time to go with you on this fools mission just now. You may take Esti instead. Rose will join you as well."


"Healer Keagan, that's-"

Rayn and I sputtered in unison, but Keagan shushed us both with a glare. "You need a Healer, Guardsman, and I am giving you one."

"You're giving me a student," Rayn retorted with a hiss, then softened. "No offense meant, Miss Esti."

"She takes the examinations in less than two weeks, which is, in large part, why I am unable to join you tonight. Chosen Jak has scheduled my official review of her training this evening. He will be here shortly after the first night bell."

I started, and my stomach did a decidedly uncomfortable backflip. Chosen Jak, one of the seven Chosen who ran the Healing Guild, would be here tonight? To discuss me? Of course I knew a Chosen would do the final interview with Keagan as required, but knowing it would happen eventually, and actually knowing the thing that might determine your future was scheduled were two entirely different things.

Rayn stared at the two of us, and I did my best to appear the calm, devoted, never-shaken Healer I was expected to be. "I'd be happy to accompany you."

An hour later, I stood at the corner of Mitebitten and Bishop, caddy-corner to the Leaky Beak Pub with Rose to my left and Rayn to my right. The street was filthy with muck from animal and human alike congealing in putrid pools, flowing into footprints and divots left by carts. Far from relief, the breeze whipping around the rotting wood of the nearby buildings only served to lift the dust and decay up to face level.

"Delightful," Rose said, her nose wrinkled.

A passing cart splashed muck up the side of my leg and leapt back in horror. Cold slime filled my shoe. The driver hooted as he speed away. "Truly," I agreed.

"Well, our man said he was walking near here, down towards the docks. Let me know if you spot anything suspicious." Rayn began to mosey forward, a hand casually resting on the sword strapped to his hip.

"Everything is suspicious," I muttered, eyes on the ground, trying my best to keep my shoes on the least questionable sections.

We picked our way along slowly, past beggars, prostitutes, and jeering men. "Eyes up!" a woman overhead shrieked, dumping a bucket of yellow liquid out the window. I leapt left, just barely dodging the stream.

The offending woman cackled madly, clearly amused.

My belt dug into my left side and the person behind me holding the side pouches got their fingers stuck in a pocket.

"Hey!" I smacked the scrawny man's filthy hand, slipping backwards in the muck towards Rose who caught me before I could land in anything too revolting.

The man turned to run, but Rayn caught him by the wrist and slammed him into the nearest building so hard, I worried the ramshackle thing would collapse from the force of it. "Jasper. So lovely to see you! I see you've met my good friend, Esti."

"I didn't know she was one 'a yours, Guardsman," the man, Jasper, said through gritted teeth.

"No, of course not. You just saw her a half step behind me and decided she was fair game."

"Oh come on. You know it's not like that."

"What did you take?"

"Nothin' Guardsman." When Rayn pushed harder, making the wood creak, the little man continued in a frantic voice, "It's true! Daft doxie ain't got nothing but plants in her pockets. Where'd you pick her up at? Is she gone all a'kiltered in the head or sumthing?"

"She's a Healer, you moron," Rayn growled, releasing Jasper enough so that he could turn around and rub at his cheek. "You know her Guild doesn't take kindly to those who rob one of their own. Would you care to pay your debt to her by volunteering in their school?"

"Debt! I ain't owe the damn doxie a debt! I didn't take nothing. Ask the girl; she knows it. Tell the man, Healer girl. Tell 'em I ain't took nothing from you."

"That doesn't sound like much of an apology," Rose growled next to me.

I wasn't sure what was going, but Rayn was clearly playing at something with the man. "Besides," I said, lifting my chin and doing my best to act like I wasn't completely clueless. "You don't have to steal from me. It is my right to call a debt for anything I so choose."

"Bullshit," the man spat.

"I can make it so you're barred from every Healing House in Rabindra if you decide not to pay you debt to me." I feigned a yawn. "I do hope that cut on your leg doesn't turn to rot. Would be a shame. Looks deep. How old is it? Three, four days?"

"Indeed," Rayn agreed. "But you're in luck. As it turns out, my friends and I are looking for someone. I'm sure Esti would be willing for forgive the insult you've paid her if you were to help us."

The man paused, glaring not at Rayn, but at me. "Who're you looking for?"

"A sorcerer," I answered.

The little man laughed, drool stretching between yellowed teeth. "A sorcerer in these parts? You are all a'kiltered! What would a full-blooded sorcerer be doing in these parts?"

"We're looking for the man that cast the incendiamentem spell yesterday. I'm sure you noticed the results."

Jasper paled under the grime. "I ain't know nothing about that," he said, voice in a whisper. "The girl can send her Guild after me, but I'm not telling you dogs anything about that."

"Don't know anything, or won't tell us, Jasper?" Rayn's elbow found the man's neck. "We need to know what you know."

"Rayn, wait." I put a hand on his shoulder and lightly pushed him to the side to that I could come face to face with Jasper. The thief was barely smaller than me. "He's clearly in pain. Perhaps we can work out a trade."

Jasper eyed me with distrust. "A trade?"

"Indeed. The cut on your leg needs tending – has needed it for a few days."

"I can't afford your damn fees," the man said. "And I'm not interested in being your training fool."

I nodded. "Understandable, but you can't be fool enough to think that yellow pus is a good sign, right? And I've noticed your eyes are a little glassy. Are you running a fever, Jasper? Feeling a little weak? A little slow?"

"It don't matter," he muttered, failing to shrug off Rayn's hold.

"It does. An infection such as that can kill, Jasper. You have…oh, maybe two or three days until your insides start coming outside in very unpleasant ways unless you get treatment. That, or you could simply cut off the leg. That's always a fair option." I shrugged like it wasn't killing me to be so heartless.

"Cut off my leg? You might as well let me die here and now."

"Or…I could take care of that for you. You tell Rayn what he needs to know, and I'll make your leg as good as new. You won't have a thing to worry about. No debt owed."

Jasper hesitated. A crow cawed overhead.

"A'right, fine. Get us a room in at the Leaky Beak and take care 'a my leg right now. I'll tell your Guardsman what he needs as you work." He spat in his palm and held it out to me.

I looked at Rayn who nodded gravely, then spat in my own hand and tried not to shiver when I took Jasper's hand. "Fair enough."