Wards of Yanna Healtouch, Winding Circle Temple, in Emelan
It had not taken Paras long to discover that Tris Chandler had been right. Over the course of one week there had been many, many strange, serious adult people in four-colour robes coming over to her strange, too-clean bed in the Water Temple’s healing rooms. They came to poke and prod, to stick things in her and to make her swallow liquids that tasted of every imaginable nastiness, along with more of the sweet, sticky stuff that made her dizzy and sent her to sleep as it eased the tightness in her chest and throat.
They came to give her weakness a name: asthma, they called it, and it was ‘chronic’. All this apparently made her ‘asthmatic’, which Paras assumed was the opposite of acrobatic, because it made sense.
Tris came in to see her, to sit next to her bed with a book mostly, a thoughtful look in her peculiar eyes, but she had stopped three days back. Said she had to go to Mbau by Sunsday, which Paras knew was stupid, because no one could reach anywhere much past Olart in less than two days, and the girl was pretty sure the odd mage couldn’t fly. Paras tried hard not to feel abandoned. Feeling abandoned was stupid, if she went around thinking like that all day then her whole life would be spent weeping and wailing. Still, it was hard not to feel a little angry—what was she supposed to do now? Just stay here?—the healers or whomever they were didn’t seem keen to let Paras wander off—or was she to be thrown off again? Paras hadn’t told Tris about the fits, and she didn’t want to tell anyone else about them either. Life had become one big tangled knot of confusion, snarled all around her. Paras didn’t know how she could feel frightened and grateful and angry and sleepy and hungry and sick and bored silly all at once. It was enough to make her head pound.
Since Tris left, most of Paras’ time—when she was not having things stuck in her or fluids dripped down her gullet—was spent listening to all the whispering Water Dedicates. They seemed to have a secret, and they also seemed to be extremely stupid about keeping it, because they went around flushed and open-mouthed and incredibly obvious. They spent time huddled around a bed with curtains drawn all around it. The secret had to be in there, whatever it was.
“Winding Circle should be outside Summersea politics!”
That was one of the secret-keepers, a tall, pale woman in blue who often spent her time hovering, with one eye always trained to the bed.
“You’re suggesting we refuse to take in one of the sick, Withyfern?” This voice was lower and dryer, belonging, Paras thought, to the short dedicate with a black armband who gave her the sweet stuff most often, calling it poppy.
“Rapidspill—she was poisoned. His lordship…”
Rapidspill snorted. “He’s powerful, but he can’t touch her, or us, here. And if he could, that means he could hurt anyone anywhere.”
“Well,” Paras could only just hear Withyfern’s mumble. “She’s a disgusting patient.”
“Her great uncle is just the same, and if we did turn over Lady Sandri…the lady, Fern, and then he would have another attack and then we would have to deal with him, and Yanna would not guide us. Is that practical enough for you?”
The Dedicates were moving away; Paras couldn’t hear anything anymore. She was left with a clear view of the bed, and a burning desire to see who exactly was inside it. She had seen people poisoned before—there had been a time in Yanjing where a main well had gone foul, and she had seen people turn green and collapse in the streets—but she had always thought the rich-folk and ways of protecting themselves from things like that. Poor kids who ate some of their food first, to test, or wonderful magic charms that saved them from any worry. Maybe it was different when the rich-folk poisoned the rich-folk.
She stared hard at the curtains. They were well-oven cloth, a sort of clean white that made her eyes hurt. If she squinted, Paras could see all sorts of symbols moving in it. It was nothing like the cloth she knew, which was usually fine and frayed. If the curtains were made of that stuff then she could easily see the mysterious, ‘disgusting’ poisoned-person, she was sure.
Paras glared, and then shrugged. It was no use. Even curtains are rich and stuck-up here, she thought mildly. Not going to show me anything.
There was a ripping noise, and her eyes stung. Someone cried out.
Blinking, Paras tried to clear her vision. It seemed to take forever. She was shaking. It felt like another fit. She could here people running, shouting. I’m blind!
Paras wasn’t blind. The light-spots were fading, and when they had, she could see, even with her head all swimmy and Dedicates running about everywhere, that the bed-curtain facing her hand been torn right down the middle, and that there was a woman behind it.
She was half-sitting up and gasping, looking both confused and affronted. A pretty woman with a nose like a child’s, and wide, wide blue eyes, almost black in her spectre-face. Her cheeks were ghastly pale; lips tinged a purplish green; limp, mousy hair slipping from its plait. Paras had no way of telling her age, she was so strange a mixture of features, but the confused look had left her eyes now, and she was looking right at her, and Paras blushed.
“Was it you?”
Rapidspill blocked Paras’ view of the woman, standing over her. She looked worried and furious. The girl, feeling suddenly tired, had to giggle. “So many double-feelings here,” she said, and her voice sounded small.
“Was it you?”
Paras whimpered, trying to bring a heavy hand up to cover her eyes.
“Answer me, girl,” the Dedicate snapped. “That was the—”
“—Shouting at little girls, Dedicate?”
The room went still. A tall, heavy man was standing behind Rapidspill, and he wore a different habit to everyone else. No matter how hard Paras squinted she couldn’t tell its colour. The man looked like he was from Yanjing, with a neat-clipped beard and his shiny black hair clubbed like her father had worn his sometimes. Paras didn’t know how he did it, but he seemed to be looking sternly at Rapidspill and smiling at her, all whilst wearing the same still face.
“Honoured Gorse,” the other woman whispered, pale. “She was…”
“She has a name, Dedicate,” said Honoured Gorse, whoever he was. He gave a real, physical smile to Paras. “Don’t you, little Paraskeve Aygry.”
Paras had become used to strangers using her name without warning, but Rapidspill was startled. “How did you…”
“I know everyone who is in my temple,” he answered. He spoke with a thick accent, but his words were precise and there was something very serious in his eyes. “We will talk again soon, little bird.”
The girl half-laughed. ‘Little bird’—was that meant to be her?
Gorse nodded. “Much better,” he said, dismissing Rapidspill with a glance and turning around to face the other bed, the tear in the curtain hidden by his bulk.
“This situation does not suit you, my dear,” he rumbled, and Paras strained hard to hear the lady’s answer.
“Few do,” she said, sounding tired. “Who was that girl?”
“Someone I think you will meet when you are feeling better,” Gorse answered, gentle. Paras gasped, and listened for more.
The lady was laughing. “When I’m ‘feeling better’. Of course.” There was a sniffling sound. “This is dreadfully tiresome. I am in your debt, Honoured Gorse, but…” her speech ended in a frustrated, ‘oh, I hate this.’
“There is no debt,” said Gorse. “You are sick and frightened.”
“A curse to Franzen,” came the lady’s breathless but impassioned cry. Paras was curious, this was the second time she had heard that name.
“As head of Winding Circle,” Gorse murmured, “I cannot condone curses, my lady, but I can offer sympathy for them, perhaps. And say that perhaps a change would benefit your health.”
Paras could see Gorse move as he nodded. “I have not been a healer for many years, Lady Sandrilene,” he said. “But I feel sure that some time spent with Dedicate Briarmoss would be well spent time. I shall arrange for a litter—”
“I can walk, Honoured Gorse!”
“A litter to be sent behind you, my lady.”
Another sniff. “If you insist. And I really must see that girl, Gorse.”
“When the both of you have recovered, you will see each other,” he said, and Paraskeve was not sure to whom this remark was addressed.
The lady—Sandrilene—was taken away, and Paras slept long. When she woke even the tips of her hair felt like an ache, and the large Honoured Gorse was standing to the side of her bed holding a streaming tray.
“You are awake,” he said. “Good. It is time to be eating.”
Paras’ stomach growled in response, and she felt her cheeks go pink.
Gorse laughed, setting the tray on a small table and helping her sit up properly, bolstered by pillows. “No one starves in here, little Paraskeve. I insist upon it and Dedicate Moonstream acts upon it. Eat up now,” he told her, fetching the tray again and balancing it across her lap. “Moonstream’s cooking does wonders for the sick.”
Closing her eyes, Paras dipped her spoon into the bowl of broth that sat in front of her, and brought it to her lips. Cinnamon seemed to explode in her mouth. She sneezed.
Gorse was laughing again. “Good, good!” he said. “You will feel better soon. It seems you have not been a well girl. Asthma can be a frightening thing.”
Paras took another spoonful to hide her embarrassment. “I…I have fits, ‘long with the wheezes.” she whispered. She had no idea what was in this broth, but the man who had given it to her was looking at her in a way that made deceiving seem like a fairly stupid thing to do.
A large, clean hand rested on her forehead, and Paras could smell fennel and roasting garlic and hot oil. “Fits, is it?”
Paras shuddered, and then stiffened, as Gorse took his hand away and looked at her thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think so,” he said.
“But…I keep on…”
“You have something very different, which you will learn about later, once you get out of here,” he said. “Little birds need light and air.”
Hope was constricting her throat. “The lady said…”
“Oh-ho—listening in, were you?” Paras expected a glare, but he was smiling. “You will see her when she’s a little better, as she really will insist,” he said. “But for now, I think I’ll see you settled somewhere. Perhaps the Earth Temple—or Air. We will see.”
“But…I will see her?”
Gorse grinned. “As I said—she really will insist.”