A line of merchant wagons, damp with morning dew, sat waiting before the sealed gates of the Barracks. The drivers were wrapped against the early autumn cold, blankets draped over shoulders and pulled close to goose-prickled necks, faces hard set, cheeks rosy. Gloved hands holding loose to the wagon reins. Steam rising from the flanks of the horses and clouds of their breath hanging in the dawn. They shook their heads and snorted impatiently and stamped at the paving stones beneath them. Cosmin spoke to them as he passed. Soft and calming, he called them by the names of their merchant houses, “There, there, Nabor,” and “Ease now, Baskiv,” and a dozen others. He patted their warm muscled necks and ran his hand through their bristling manes. His other hand was held against his chest, bandaged and aching in the cold.
Cosmin peered beneath the stretched canvas bonnets of each of the wagons, took stock of the cargo, then went to each driver and paid them in full. His words to the merchants were gracious, but a depth of resentment simmered beneath each one. The vultures. They all sensed his desperation. They claimed alignment to his cause, then immediately inflated their prices. They said the Days increased demand, said these were dangerous times and required more labor, said they knew he would understand. And he did understand. He understood that they were little more than carrion birds. Creatures gleeful of misfortune that wore the humble skin of men. Petty, scheming little beasts. It didn’t matter. He paid them whatever they asked. He paid them for the grain they brought, and for the barrels of fuel oil, or the casks of pitch. He paid them for the salted meats, dried fish, medicinal herbs, bandages, blades, shields, and a hundred other necessities. He paid them for their goods and he paid them for their secrecy. He needed both, no matter the cost.
When all was accounted for Cosmin walked back down the shadowed road and through the column of wagons and horses. He raised his good hand to signal the guards along the Barracks wall. They cried out to the gatehouse and in a moment a deep groaning filled the air as the stonewood gates heaved inward. An orange line of sun, violent against the soft grey shadows of the morning, broke from between the great doors. It spilled onto the street and widened as the doors widened. It cast itself in a halo around Cosmin and he held his hand up and squinted his eyes against it as he stepped towards the vast parade yard of the Barracks.
Hundreds of City Guard were stood at attention inside the yard, all bathed in the warm light of the morning sun. They stood in loose ranks, and immediately broke into action as the doors opened fully and the first of the wagons rolled across the threshold. The soldiers directed the merchants through the dusty yard and formed assembly lines to unload all of the goods.
The work was fast and precise, and overseen by a single man who stood stern and proud in the midst of the activity, like a stone rooted in a field of blowing grass. Soldiers and supplies and wagons buzzed around him, but he stood firm with his hands behind his back as they passed. The shadow of a guard tower stretched across the yard and the man stood beneath its darkness. The sun held no part of him, save a single sliver which crossed his face and touched upon his one good eye. A crimson patch covered the torn flesh of the other. A half-circle of men and women, each as stone faced as their leader, stood around the man. Cosmin approached the group, and they bowed to him as one.
“Lieutenant Redwyn,” Cosmin said. “A word?”
Adrian Redwyn nodded to his group and they dispersed into the yard. Cosmin noticed the crimson bands tied around each of their arms as they parted. “You’ve quite a following,” he said. “They’ve taken to wearing their Lieutenant’s colors.”
“I never asked it of them.”
“It’s become something of a rally symbol around here,” Cosmin said as he looked around the yard. He saw the small red bands on a number of the soldiers. “You’ve inspired them. You know what they call you, don’t you?”
“Redwyn the Miraculous,” Adrian said with a sad shake of his head.
Cosmin smiled. “Indeed,” he said.
“I did not ask for that either.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. But it isn’t every day that a man returns from death.”
“I wasn’t dead.”
“You were damn close, Adrian. Damn close.”
Captain Redwyn grunted. He watched the wagons as they were being unloaded. He counted them and frowned. “How many more wagons?” He asked.
“Not all grain, I take it.”
“No. Two of them need to head for the armory, you’ll see them. Another is for Doctor Halliwell.”
“Heavens hold her,” Adrian said. “I doubt the Guard have known a finer medic.”
“They haven’t,” Cosmin replied. “She’s the best there is. You know that better than anyone. You have her to thank for your life.”
“I’ve thanked her many times,” Adrian said. “Though it will never be enough.” He looked at Cosmin’s bandaged hand and gestured to it. “Seems you may need to see her as well.”
Cosmin turned the hand over and frowned at the wet, rusty stain that darkened it.
“I hope you made the bastards pay for that.”
Cosmin opened and closed his hand and turned it in the sunlight. He felt the tightening of the stitches, and the familiar burning pain beneath them. “They paid for it,” he said.
“I’d rather lose an eye than a hand,” Adrian said with a grin. “Can’t hold a sword without a hand. Can’t draw a bow.” He scratched at the skin beneath his patch.
“The Vacant are frenzied for some reason,” Adrian said. “One of my patrols nearly came to blows with them at the northern wall. Damn beasts don’t know their boundaries. They think they own the whole damn city.”
“During the Days they almost do,” Cosmin said.
“Well the Days don’t last forever. And we’re going to have one hell of a cleaning up once they’re done.”
“Yes we will. They won’t go back to their holes quietly.”
“I’m sure they won’t,” Adrian said. “And by heaven I look forward to it.” A wagon marked with a burning tree pierced by twin blades rolled into the courtyard. It was met by a heavyset, bearded soldier who led the horses by their reins towards the Barracks armoury. Adrian’s eye was fixed on the wagon. He opened his mouth to speak, but Cosmin didn’t give him the chance.
“We need to be prepared,” he said. “And provisioned.”
“Provisioned, yes. But this…” Adrian gestured to the flurry of activity in the courtyard. The gangs of City Guard unloading wagons, the stockpiles of supplies. “This is something else entirely. I know you keep your secrets Cosmin, but the Guard are starting to talk.”
“I’m sure they are. I know they need answers. But I can’t give them any if I don’t have them myself. I sent two Sovern scouts into the East when the torch arrived. Fast riders. With any luck they’ll be back tonight and I can address everyone at assembly tomorrow morning. You will all know what I know.”
“They were not the only riders that went out that night,” Adrian said.
“Is that a question, Lieutenant?”
“It’s a fact.”
“It is,” Cosmin said smiling. “You’ll make a good Commander someday, Adrian. Now that you’re back among the living. A good Commander knows the value of information. Yes, other riders went out. Four more of the Sovern. Hunters though, not scouts. I sent them West. I won’t say anything else about it. You don’t need to know everything.”
“Everything,” Adrian laughed. “I doubt even Petra knows everything.”
Cosmin didn’t reply. His attention was on a wagon with a red crescent moon painted along its bonnet. A line of soldiers pulled the last of the casks of pitch that it carried and the driver took up the reins and began to steer the wagon back towards the gate. Cosmin shouted across the yard after it. His voice stopped all the activity at once. Hundreds of pairs of eyes turned to watch him.
“Stop that wagon,” he ordered Adrian. “It stays here. So do all from Houses Oswulf and Nabor. Get the horses into the stables, and send the wagons for any repairs they need. I want them all working like new.”
“You have wagons now as well?”
“Fifteen in total.”
“And from Oswulf and Nabor… You’ve been calling in some favors, old friend.”
“They are aligned to our cause,” Cosmin said. “Now get them to repairs. Time is against us.”
Adrian watched Cosmin for a long moment. He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, then walked towards the departing wagon. Cosmin watched him go, then called to him once more. Adrian stopped and turned. The sun catching on the edges of his armor, tracing the crimson patch and the knotted scars around it.
“It’s good to have you back,” Cosmin said.
Adrian Redwyn smiled, though it was shrouded in some sadness Cosmin could not place. “This is where I belong,” he called back. “Here. Among the living.” And then he was swallowed up by the activity of the yard.
Cosmin had no time to consider the words. “Are you preparing for a war?” a voice asked from behind him.
He turned and saw Doctor Halliwell, her graying hair pulled to a bun on the back of her head, her white tunic missing several buttons and drifting open at the neck. She wiped her hands on a towel draped over her shoulder.
“I’m always preparing for a war,” Cosmin said.
Halliwell waved away the words. She reached out to his wounded hand and carefully turned it. “I saw you out here and figured I’d have to come to you,” she said. “Most people seek out a doctor when they’re hurt, you know?”
“It was days ago,” Cosmin said.
“Not from the looks of that bandage. Come on.”
Cosmin hesitated. He watched another wagon approaching through the gate. The crossed scythes of House Nabor were painted on its canopy.
“It won’t take long,” Halliwell said, sensing his hesitation. “You only need to see me if you want to keep your hand. I won’t insist on it.” She walked back towards the open archway of the clinic without looking behind her.
Cosmin sighed, and followed.
The hand was still sore and Cosmin winced as Halliwell removed the last of the bandages. They had clotted against the wound and stung as they were pulled away.
Halliwell was frowning and making no attempt to hide her disgust from Cosmin. He followed her gaze to his hand and frowned as well. The wounds were ragged, and crossed the full width of his hand. Halliwell’s stitches, just days old, stood out black and stark against the red swelling of his palm.
Halliwell made a dissatisfied clicking with her tongue, then bent down and sniffed at the hand like a dog searching a muddy yard.
“Does it smell?” Cosmin asked.
“Yes,” Halliwell said. “It smells sour, and in need of washing.”
“No, but you aren’t out of danger yet. Are you taking the predelle I gave you?”
“Twice a day,” Cosmin said. “It tastes like death.”
“Did you hear that, Brinn?” Halliwell called down through the empty clinic.
Brinn poked his head from around the corridor. “Hear what?” he called.
“The Commander find your tincture unappetizing.”
The clinic alchist came into full view and walked down the hallway between rows of cots. His tunic was pristine, his hair tight cropped around his cherubic face. “Well there’s a reason we boil it in wine first,” he said as he approached. “But no fire means no boiling, and that means you have to chew it raw.”
“It’s foul stuff,” Cosmin said.
“Well,” Brinn said. “You only have to take it if—”
“If I want to keep the hand,” Cosmin said as Halliwell mouthed the along with the words. “Yes I’ve heard that already.”
“Feisty this morning, isn’t he?” Brinn said to Halliwell.
“Always,” Halliwell said. “And yes, Commander, it is foul stuff. But it’ll keep you from getting infected.” She turned the hand again and dabbed at the wounds with a cloth. Cosmin sucked in a hard breath.
“How is it?” he asked.
“Not bad. But not too good either. One of the cuts reopened. I’ll need to stitch it back up.”
“I told you not to use the hand.”
“Yes you have,” Brinn said. “That’s why it opened back up.”
Cosmin glared at the man. Brinn let out an exasperated breath and went back down the hall.
“He’s right,” Halliwell said. “You need to keep this hand in your damn pocket. Otherwise it will never heal. You aren’t young anymore Cosmin. You have to take better care of your body. Keep the hand dry and in your pocket, and keep taking the predelle. Give it another week or two. How’s the pain?”
“Brinn can give you some opelum. It will help.”
“Keep it,” Cosmin said. “How are your supplies?”
Halliwell laughed. She called down the hallway, “How are our supplies, Brinn?”
“We should be fine for a decade or so,” Brinn said without turning.
“At least,” Halliwell said to Cosmin. “You’re stocking my clinic like you’re preparing us for a siege. I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why.”
“I’m preparing us for the worst.”
“For the Congregation?”
Cosmin ignored the question. “I have a bad feeling, Layne. I don’t like to get caught off-guard. The stockpile is a precaution. I’ve taken several.”
“Well I don’t like you taking them for me. This is my clinic, Cosmin, not yours. If there is something I need to prepare for then I need to know what it is. You’re unloading supplies on me like the whole damn city is going to be coming here. You know that there are other clinics in Mayfaire, right? Not just this one.”
“You know that you’re different,” Cosmin said.
Halliwell shook her head. She stood and walked over to a cabinet and began digging through its contents. She returned with new bandages, thread, a long needle, and a bottle of clear liquid. She set them neatly on the cot next to Cosmin.
“No alcohol in the city during the Days,” she said as she uncorked the bottle. “But I don’t think the Vacant will find their way into the Barracks do you?”
The smell of the alethia penetrated deep into Cosmin’s head, forcing him to cough.
“You can thank your wife’s sister for this particular brew,” Halliwell said.
“You got it from Dace? By heaven, be careful with it then. It could burn right through me.”
“That hand needs the strong stuff, trust me. Now hold still.”
She held a cloth under his hand and poured the liquid on the torn wound. The pain was immediate. Cosmin clenched his jaw and kept silent.
“Well that should teach you to not grab the sharp end of a weapon. Honestly I don’t know what you were thinking.”
“I wasn’t thinking,” Cosmin grunted.
“You’re too old to fight. You know that. Now stop wiggling.” She snipped the torn stitch away from the swollen hand and pulled it through the edges of the wound. Her hands moved remarkably fast and precise as she worked. There was a sureness to the movements, a familiarity. “I can have Brinn give you the opelum,” she said. “It works fast.”
“Save it. Just get this over with.”
She nodded, and set about closing the wound. “I saw you talking with Adrian,” she said. “How is he?”
“Alive, thanks to you.”
Halliwell worked silently, not taking her eyes from the work. “How does he seem to you?”
“Arrogant and stern,” Cosmin said with a grin of pride. “Same as he always was.”
“You don’t think he’s changed at all?”
“I saw him smile briefly,” Cosmin said. “I suppose that’s something new. Why do you ask?”
Halliwell hesitated. “No reason,” she said at last.
Cosmin watched the needle for a few seconds then turned to stare out the window. He winced silently at each stitch. “I’ve never known a stronger man than Adrian Redwyn,” Cosmin said. “To defeat death like he did. To pull himself back from the edge of it by willpower alone. Such incredible strength… such conviction. If I had a hundred soldiers like him I could storm the Pale City. I could topple the Spire itself.”
“I’d wait for this hand to heal first,” Halliwell said as she snipped the long ends from the waxed thread and inspected the stitches. She nodded at her work, then began to wrap the hand in a new bandage. “And I’d be careful placing so much hope on a single person. Adrian is an inspiration, I’ll give you that, but he is still only a man.”
“He is unafraid of death,” Cosmin said. “And that makes him more than a man. Especially in these times. It takes away any power the faith can have. It makes him a true enemy of the Spire.”
Halliwell was silent. She finished wrapping the bandages and tucked the end to keep it from falling loose. She opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. She held Cosmin’s bandaged hand for a quick moment, and turned it to inspect the wrapping. She did so delicately, like a mother checking that her child’s shirt is tucked in, then patted the back of the hand. “Keep it dry,” she said. “And keep it in your pocket. Let those young men do the lifting.”
Cosmin smiled and thanked her. He rose and put the bandaged hand in his coat pocket. He exaggerated the gesture, and winked at the doctor.
“Very good,” Halliwell said, though she didn’t smile.
“I’ll do my best to keep it there,” Cosmin said. He left the clinic and Halliwell rose from the cot as he did so. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes questioning. She stepped to a deep window between the rows of empty cots and stared into the parade yard outside. Lieutenant Redwyn stood in the far distance, a dark shape outlined among the dust and the sun. His back was to Halliwell. She watched him and watched him. She didn’t hear Brinn as he approached.
“Bad news?” the man asked.
“You only stare out the window like that after bad news. What did Commander Aurel say?”
“It’s just…” Halliwell started before shaking her head.
Brinn’s face darkened with concern. “Tell me,” he said.
“I think about that night a lot…”
“We all do,” Brinn said, his voice dropping quiet.
“We have a strange profession. Do you realize that? Our actions, here in this clinic, exist at the edge of so many possible futures. We hold the knife. We dictate life and death, right here, in these rooms. We stand at the intersections.”
Brinn had no words in response. He shifted uncomfortably and brushed at his tunic sleeve.
“Adrian Redwyn should have died that night,” Halliwell said. “It was one of the only times I’ve ever made a decision like that. One of the only times I’ve interfered in the natural way of things, and that isn’t something I take lightly, you know. Not at all. There was just no possible future for Adrian Redwyn except one of suffering. He was nothing but a corpse. All broken and bleeding, his mind gone… and you gave him enough opellum to kill an ox.”
Brinn swallowed. “And here he stands,” he said.
“Indeed he does. Here he stands. And do you know what Cosmin said? He said that Adrian was healed by his own will. He said Adrian didn’t fear death and his fearlessness is what saved him.”
“Well that’s not even a little true is it?”
Halliwell shook her head. She brought a hand up to her face and held her cheek. “I’ve never known a man so terrified of dying. Never.”
“I was there,” Brinn said.
“And so was Cosmin.”
“Yeah, well… Sometimes we only see what we want to see.”
“I know,” Halliwell said. “And I think that’s what has me worried. Cosmin has placed so much hope on Adrian. So much hope… I’m afraid it’s blinded him.”
“Not just him,” Brinn said. “It’s been all of us. You and me included. It’s been incredible seeing him heal… just incredible. Seeing someone return from the brink of death like that. It’s miraculous.”
“But do you believe in miracles, Brinn?”
“I know that there are things we can’t explain.”
“Cosmin thinks it was will power. He thinks it was fearlessness and determination. But we both know that just wasn’t true. Adrian Redwyn was beyond hope. He was slipping away. All he could think about, all he could talk about, was death. And then that disease took hold of his mind and all he could do was babble and cry. All night long… Like it was eating him up. Just pleading to an empty room…”
“A lot of dying people talk to themselves when they’re at the end,” Brinn said. “They talk to themselves, or to loved ones who aren’t there, or to an empty room.”
“I know that. So I dismissed it. We all did. And then there was that awful night… He was just so far gone. Absolutely lost to us… and then he just started to heal. You call it a miracle, but damn it I don’t believe in miracles. But I just accepted it. How could I not? I was beyond happy. We all were. Just ecstatic. We celebrated his recovery and then we all moved happily on with our lives. New recruits for the Guard, the clinic expansion… life just moved on… But we never stopped to think about how he survived. I know it wasn’t my treatments.”
“So what do you think it was?”
“I’m afraid to even say it.”
Brinn opened his mouth to speak, but Halliwell jerked her hand up and silenced him. “I know how that sounds, Brinn. And so help me if you keep looking at me like a crazy old woman I’ll boot you right out into the yard. Something brought Adrian Redwyn back from death and it wasn’t me and it wasn’t you. It wasn’t will power or fearlessness, or whatever Cosmin has allowed himself to believe. We can’t be so blind. We just can’t. He was pleading to the darkness when he was dying. He was begging for his life.”
“And now he lives,” Brinn said.
“Yes,” Halliwell said. “And now he lives.”
“And you’re worried that Redwyn is… somehow tainted? But you know that he isn’t. We checked his blood five times. His eye is clear. If he was given the Angel’s blood we would certainly know.”
“I know…” Halliwell said. “Something just doesn’t feel right about it. It never has. And now the Congregation is coming early…”
Brinn was silent. The room was silent as well and in the silence his mind wandered to dark, unfathomable places. “We checked…” he said. “No one said it, but we were all worried and we checked. His blood is clear. Whatever you’re worried about…”
“I’m worried about what he was saying to that empty room when he was dying,” Halliwell said. “He was begging for his life. Begging for it. And…”
Halliwell turned to face Brinn. All humor gone from her face, her eyes pleading. “What if something heard him?” she said. “We don’t know everything that lives in the Pale City. What if something was listening to him beg… And what if it answered back?”