The knock comes late, after he’s gone to bed, and well after he’s sucked the last meat from his dinner, had the servants clear away the bones.
Raffin rubs his eyes, throws on his laboratory robe, spattered as it is with chemical stains and minor burn holes, answers. Oll stands in the hallway. He has something slung over his shoulders - something wrapped in canvas, something with ankles and shoes and -
“Right then,” Raffin says, and gestures toward the door.
Oll huffs in the door, grumbling a little about the weight. He sets the bundle - a woman, must be, based on the shoes - on a work table that Raffin hurries to clear. Sweat drenches Oll’s face, skin lathered as a hard-ridden horse, wisps of hair sticking to his speckled head.
“Is she -”
“Just unconscious,” Oll says, panting. “Poisoned. No idea with what, some kind of dart hit her and -” Oll unrolls the canvas. “Well, you see.”
The woman has skin like the color of dark honey. She wears the robes of a cleric, loose tunic embroidered with flowers, tight leather leggings, boots carved with delicate scrollwork, though splashed with mud. She’s a little younger than Oll, and has fine lines etched around her mouth and closed eyes. Oll reaches over, adjusts her arms closer to her body. Her limbs bend easily; her breathing comes slow and even, as if she’s sleeping.
“Did you save the dart?” Raffin asks.
Oll fumbles for a second with the various pockets of his riding cloak, produces a small pin bristled with feathers, no bigger than a fishing lure. He hands it to Raffin, mindful of its tip, which gleams with some kind of liquid, clear and viscous.
“Don’t know if it’ll be much help,” Oll says, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Raffin says.
Oll washes up at the small work sink, uses water from his flask to rinse his neck and face. Water running in the pipes this late is likely to summon servants. He collapses on Raffin’s cot, begins snoring almost immediately.
Bann finds Raffin, two hours later, flame-testing the pin. “Couldn’t sleep,” he says, when he stumbles in his nightclothes, a long shirt and breeches, his feet bare against the stone floors.
“Good night for it,” Raffin says. “We have a guest.”
“Two, I see,” Bann says, pointing to Oll. Oll grunts, as if Bann had nudged him, rolls over and murmurs something.
Raffin clicks the sparker, ignites a small blue flame on one of the paraffin candles, brings the pin into the flame.
It glows, red, then orange, then blue, then a bright purple, white sparks shooting.
“Well,” Bann says. “That’s new.”
Bann slides beside Raffin, shoulders filling up a good portion of the workspace. He accepts the sample of the pin that Raffin hands him, cradles the little porcelain dish in his big palms. “Full course?” he asks.
“Anything,” Raffin says. “I’ve been through the usual. Doesn’t react to oxidizers, reduction agents, no smell, no color, no taste -”
“You tasted it?” Bann says, and he sets the sample down on the table, comes to grip Raffin by the shoulders. “What were you thinking? It could have -”
“I know,” Raffin says. “I know. But it seems to need to be injected, not ingested, as I’m awake and she’s …”
“Who is she?”
“Oll didn’t say. Cleric, obviously, Nanderan from the look of it. Those floral patterns on her robes means she’s dedicated to a specific temple, though I don’t know the flower. Poisoned.” He snuffs the candle; begins the slow process of diluting whatever the substance is into various solvents. It goes into water well enough, but forms a chalky precipitate when placed in ether. Interesting. “We’ll know more when Oll wakes. He looked fit to collapse when he came through, like one of Katsa’s horses.”
Bann smiles, nudges Raffin a little with his hip, sets about running his tests.
Hours later, and Raffin sways on his feet. His arms ache, fingers going numb as he titrates samples into various indicators, watching the slow drip of solutions as he makes minute adjustments to the stop-cocks.
Soon, elsewhere in the castle, servants will wake, Randa will begin his morning routine of reviewing intelligence from abroad over breakfast, and Helda will fuss, ineffectually, at Katsa to comb her hair.
But all of this seems distant to him now. Whatever is on the pin isn’t like any poison they’ve studied, doesn’t seem to be derived from metals or from botanics or even from their narrow library of reptile venoms. It’s not arsenic, not cyanide, not hemolytic or neurotoxic or anything but what it is.
“Let’s stop,” Bann says, and even though Raffin heard Bann inhale to speak, even though he’s the only other person in the room capable of speech, it startles him. Bann takes the sample that Raffin has been working on and places on the table with an air of finality. “Let’s stop,” he says, again. “We need to think.”
Raffin rubs his eyes with the back of his hand, stretches, cracks a few of the joints in his knuckles, even though he knows it bothers Bann, doesn’t have to look at him to know he’s making a displeased face.
They sit at Raffin’s reading table, Bann with his back to the door, Raffin facing it in case any servants decide to do some early morning cleaning around the laboratory.
Various solutions exploding or sparking or staining their hands bright purple keeps most of the servants away, though Raffin knows a few in Randa’s personal service like to see what he’s up to. Randa never asks in more than a disinterested way - “grinding herbs,” or “women’s work” he calls it, though never in front of his courtiers. But a few of the servants linger a bit too long, act a bit too interested when he offers to explain what he’s working on. Mostly, he tells the truth. Mostly.
“We should see if her condition has changed any, what the physical symptoms are,” Bann says. “To help narrow down the list of toxins it could be.”
“And what happens when we find out what it is, but have no idea how to cure it?”
“One does not cross the mountains in a day, Raff. We’ll find something,” Bann says. He smiles a small, tired smile, puts his hand on the table as if he’s going to pat Raffin’s in reassurance, cups it around the base of a candlestick instead.
After a minute, Bann rises and takes the cleric’s pulse - steady by faint, he says, her breathing too slow, even for someone in sleep.
“Have you tried throwing water on her?” he asks. He’s developing circles under his eyes, just faint ones, the skin there looking soft, somehow, delicate. “Or shining a bright light?”
He reaches over, peels back one of the woman’s eyelids, gently, gently, then the other. “Raff, did you - you’d better come take a look.”
Bann is holding the cleric’s eye open with his thumb and forefinger. Her eye is green, like most Nanderans, the color of moss. Bann nods slightly, reaches and slowly reveals the other eye, which is deep reddish purple like a star ruby.
“A cleric,” Raffin says.
“A Graced cleric,” Bann says.
“Oll better wake up soon.”
Raffin must fall asleep at the table, poring over one of his botanical almanacs, because he wakes to Bann lightly nudging his shoulder.
“To bed with you,” he says.
“No,” Raffin mumbles. “Can’t.”
“She’ll keep ‘til morning, though we need to hide her.”
“Back in his chambers, if he knows what’s good for him. Says he’ll be back when he’s rested more. He must have rode all night to be that tired.”
“I’ll help you -”
“I can move her. One can move as easily as two, less likely to draw notice. Besides,” he says, “You’re not much for heavy lifting.”
Raffin shrugs. He isn’t; he doesn’t have Bann’s strength. When they were children, Katsa would heft him on her shoulders, carry him like a sack of onions, while he laughed and laughed. That ended, of course, when her Grace manifested, though she would still punch him on the arm sometimes, forgetting her strength.
His first potion was a cure for bruising.
He lets Bann maneuver him back through the corridors to his bed.
“Sleep,” Bann says. “I will tell your father you have a headache.”
“Wake me -” Raffin mumbles into the pillow.
“If anything changes,” Bann finishes for him. “Of course.”
Raffin dreams that night of a dark forest. The trees are not Middluns’ trees - they bend and twist in murky water, roots like knobbed knees sticking up. He walks, mud squishing under his sodden boots. He has to duck under vines, climb over felled logs. Everything smells of swamp-water, of something dank and windless. Insects buzz in the background; he catches a glimpse of one, large as a bird, just in the corner of his vision. He bats another vine out of the way, but it turns into a green snake when he touches it. He wants to yell, but when he opens his mouth, no sound comes out. He flings the snake into the water, watches as it swims away.
There’s something in the forest with him, something large and dangerous, watching. He can feel its gaze on back of his neck like a touch. He trudges on, quickens his pace. He’s looking, searching, but for what he doesn’t know. Something unnamable that he know he must find or -
He wakes with a start, sweat sticking his shirt to his underarms, plastering his hair across his face. He feels over-warm, even if there’s a slight chill in the air with autumn coming.
There’s a jug of water on his bed-table, a tray with eggs, porridge, tea. The tea is slightly cool, and the eggs a little congealed. Still, it’s ginger tea, the kind Bann makes for him when he’s down with a headache.
Under the tray is a note, written in Bann’s simple block script. No change. Come by when you’re ready. It has Oll’s symbol under it, the one they use for Council communications, a picture of an old raven.
Raffin sips his tea, pokes at his eggs, splashes water on his face.
He’s not needed in Court that day, no visiting ladies for him to screen as future wives, no peasants’ quarrels to mediate. Still, it would be good to show his face, tired as he is. Visibility will keep his father’s agents out of his chambers and, better still, out of the laboratory.
He bathes, dresses quickly and simply, nothing too blue, since it makes Randa think of the second hair-dying incident and of the day when Raffin will be king. It will not do to make his father think of being succeeded. He contemplates scraping two days of beard growth he’s cultivating off his chin, but decides against it. It makes his father see his age - which leads to more dinners with more visiting courtiers, ladies of elegant taste and upbringing with whom he has very little to talk about - but it also reminds the servants that he’s almost a grown man, and that their hovering is neither needed nor appreciated.
It’s almost midday, and he finds Katsa in the practice yard, honing her Grace. She fights only two straw dummies, though they’re rigged to move at random intervals when she hits them. She’s blindfolded, and both her arms are strapped together at the wrists. She pauses when he approaches, blows a stray piece of hair out of her face.
“Head feeling better,” she says.
“Someday, you’ll teach me how to do that,” he says.
“There’s no trick to it. You shuffle just so,” Katsa says, and walks without lifting her feet entirely. “Giddon always tries to sneak up behind me, and you approached from the front. Bann tries to step lightly, even though he mostly sounds like a herd of cattle. And Helda would say something about the straw in my hair before I even heard her steps.”
“Now that you mention it, cousin,” Raffin says. “You do have straw in your hair.”
Katsa frees her wrists with a quick tug to one of the knots binding her arms, and catches the leather cord before it falls away. She takes her blindfold off, runs a hand through her hair half-heartedly to remove the straw. She gets some of it.
“And you look like you haven’t slept a wink, even if Bann says you’ve been down with a headache.”
“There’s news, Kat,” he says, careful not to change the tone or volume of his voice. “Come by the laboratory later. Bann and I have a new discovery to show you.”
“She’s Graced,” Katsa asks.
“Yes,” Raffin says.
“And a cleric.”
“It would seem so.”
“But what is her Grace?”
“Cleric ... ing?” Raffin says. “Oll said he didn’t know. Could be anything - mind-reading, reading syllabaries, gardening.”
“I think it’s not,” Bann says. “It’s something more specific, more valuable.”
Raffin looks over at him in surprise; he sees Katsa wearing an identical expression.
Bann laughs, slightly. “It’s times like these where you look like cousins, even if you don’t look alike,” he says. “She’s not dead.”
“Yes, we know,” Katsa says. “Dead people generally don’t breathe.”
“Katsa,” Bann says. “You would know better than most that it’s easier to kill than maim, and it’s easier to murder than poison. Poison takes … control. Intent. Someone wanted her like this. Not dead, but not living either.”
“What did you say?” Raffin asks.
“Not dead - but not living?” Bann repeats.
Raffin hurries to the back-room, the one where they keep the rarer reference books, leaving the other two looking slightly bewildered.
“Where is it? Where is it?” he mutters to himself, before drawing a heavy book, one bound with goat-leather and stinking of odd pressed leaves, from the shelf. The book is large enough that even carrying into the other room makes his arms ache, old enough that opening it on the small reading table sends up a cloud of yellow dust.
Raffin begins paging through the book, as quickly as he can without damaging the pages.
“Bann, you know the -”
“Yes, now that you -”
“I know it’s here -”
Katsa waves her hand between Raffin’s face and the page. “What are you two talking about?”
“Draught of perpetual dreaming,” Bann says. “It’s a rare toxin. Made from a plant that only grows in a few places. It takes real skill to make - more skill than Raffin or I have - because, if made incorrectly, its fumes will poison the maker.”
“What does it do?” Katsa asks.
“Exactly what the name implies,” Raffin says. “The dreamer dreams themselves to death. Their body wastes, but slowly. If we can keep her hydrated, she’ll have more of a chance, but her mind may never recover from the toxin. She may not know she’s not dreaming, even if we do manage to wake her.”
“And the cure is …”
“Most often, the cure is what you offer people, Kat,” Raffin says, quietly. “A quick and painless death.”
Bann traces his finger down one of the crumbling pages. “It says, and it’s a little obscure, that there may be something we can do. An antitoxin that … oh.”
“Oh?” Raffin asks.
“It’s an iron-locking anti-toxin. It may counter the toxin, but may also worsen her condition. It may kill her or lock her in a state where she will be difficult to kill, even as a mercy.”
“How long will she have, before we have before she …?” Katsa says.
“A week, perhaps more, if we can keep her hidden and get some salts and water into her. We’ll need your help to move her. She will benefit from having someone massage her limbs, keep her pulse steady. And, if not -”
“Death is my Grace,” Katsa says, looking momentarily older than her eighteen years. “I would prefer -”
“Of course,” Raffin says. “But we must work quickly.”
Katsa leaves to her rooms, face dour.
Bann takes a salt mixture from their supplies, sends for a servant to fetch some sugar. They can’t risk requesting the refined sugar, so settle for the lumpen brown stuff, which they have to wash, purify, and crystallize.
Still, it takes Raffin’s mind off of their larger task. His hands and face feel numb, not unusual for how little sleep he had, but there are also little lights at the edge of his vision, like the beginning of a headache, even if they flick out when he turns his head. He watches Bann mass out the salt, boil water in a flask to sterilize it, prepare tubing from fine-knit cloth. He holds what he is handed, stirs accordingly, nods when Bann suggests they prepare a needle from their supply, stretches the metal to achieve a finer point.
Bann places the needle into a beaker with alcohol, then puts his hands on Raffin’s shoulders, draws Raffin towards his broad chest. “Hey,” he says, like he’s gentling one of Katsa’s more spirited horses.
“M’head,” Raffin hears himself say.
“You need sleep,” Bann says.
“Cot.” Raffin tries to move his feet toward the cot and he really does shuffle, hasn’t noticed it before now.
“Bed,” Bann says.
Raffin doesn’t remember walking to his chambers, or getting into his bed, only that he wakes, sometime later, head pounding, a bitter taste coating the back of his tongue.
Bann sits beside him, above the covers, book in hand.
“The solution helped,” he says, when Raffin stirs. “She looks better. Still, I had Katsa help roll her, and rub some feeling back in her limbs. You, on the other hand, look worse than you did three hours ago.”
Bann passes a hand over Raffin’s forehead, wipes it on his tunic.
“Sorry,” Raffin says. “Guess I really did have a headache.”
“Did you dream?” Bann asks.
“I … I don’t remember. I felt like I dreamed, but I can’t remember what about.”
“Hmmm ...” Bann says.
Raffin raises his eyebrows in question.
“I’ve just been thinking. That robe the cleric is wearing - it’s Hawthorne roses. See here.” He points to a particular passage in the book he has opened on his lap. Raffin follows his finger as it glides down the page, until it settles on an illustration of a woman tending flowers outside a temple. “She’s not just a cleric.”
“What then?” Raffin asks. He shakes his head, as if to clear it, accepts a cup of water when Bann offers.
“She’s an oracle.”
“I heard you,” Raffin says, rubbing a hand over his face. “I just. An oracle.”
“Apparently, they’re relatively common in Nander. Even have a few at Court to spy on courtiers’ dreams.”
“And now someone wants to keep one dreaming indefinitely.”
“It would seem so,” Bann says.
“Bann,” Raffin says. “Would you - This is going to sound strange. Is it possible that I overheard one of her dreams?”
“I think, given the circumstances, anything’s possible.”
“I was there, I think. In some Nandaran swamp. There was - I was looking for something.”
Bann puts his book down, begins to pace, just up and down the length of the bed. “We could take you back there, you know. See if we can recreate the experience. Maybe her Grace is trying to reach out to us. Help us find a cure. There are accounts … I would need to some more research, of course, but if her mind is opening to yours, then perhaps …”
“Bann,” Raffin says. “Stop.”
Bann sits down on the bed, closer to Raffin. He raises a hand, as if to put it across Raffin’s, then moves to withdraw it.
Raffin catches it, holds Bann’s wide palm and long fingers between his own, stills him.
Bann looks startled for a minute, then even more so when Raffin turns his hand over, and runs a fingertip along the deep groove of Bann’s lifeline.
“Tell me what I need to do,” he says.
“Just so we’re clear, this is insanity.” Katsa storms through the lab, Bann in her wake, making sure that whatever she brushes past doesn’t topple off the shelves.
“Glad to know we have your full support,” Oll says, voice weary.
“He’s the heir to the kingdom if you don’t remember. You know, the one we’re keeping safe and sane so that when Randa dies, we actually have a kingdom worth saving.” Katsa is fuming now, face purpling.
Raffin has heard some men say that women are at their most beautiful when they’re angry. Katsa simply terrifies, the way she is before a kill, or as he imagines her to be.
“He could die. He could get trapped. He could come back wrong, and for what? To see the dreams of some cleric whose name we don’t know.” She punctuates this by smacking the reading table hard enough that Raffin is surprised that the wood doesn’t dent. If it hurts, she doesn’t appear to feel it.
“Or we could save her life,” Bann says, voice quiet. “She’ll die, not today or tomorrow, but soon. We can bury her somewhere in the forest, point her toward Nander, keep it quick and quiet.”
“Bann -” Raffin begins.
“That’s not fair, Bann, and you know it,” Katsa says. “You’ll be the one to bury her, but I’ll be the one to kill her, and it’ll be her blood on my hands.”
“On all our hands, Katsa,” Oll says. “Enough of this. If Raffin and Bann say they can induce sleep and dreams, then they can, and that should be sufficient. You believe them well enough to sedate the guards on missions. Let’s hope they can do the same now.”
Katsa sighs, puts her head in her hands. “If Giddon were here, he’d agree with me.”
“Perhaps it’s good that he’s not, then,” Oll says. “Come, we will need your strength if this is to work.”
They cannot move the cleric to Raffin’s chamber, of course, so they set a cot in the little chamber accessible from both Katsa and Raffin’s rooms. Brann carries the cleric in. It’s not unusual for Raffin to cloister himself when his head is especially bad, to keep away from the servants, and the lab’s various odors.
Helda has changed the bedding since their last ‘guest’ slept on it, stocked the room with water and yesterday’s bread, broth.
“Should we put her -” Raffin asks, gesturing between the cleric and the bed.
“Won’t know the difference,” Oll says. “Besides, have to keep that needle in her. Easier if she’s a bit lower, keep it going.”
Bann pulls a blanket that had been sitting at the foot of the cot, tucks it around the cleric, keeping one of her arms above the blanket. Carefully, he angles her elbow, revealing the slight ridge of her vein. He feels for it, swabs it with a clean cloth soaked in alcohol. He tilts the needle so that some of the solution drips out, then inserts the needle, lays it flat against her skin, binds it there. He places the pouch of solution on the table. She doesn’t stir.
The bed, although slightly shorter than Raffin’s own, narrower too, suddenly seems expansive, open in a way his bed isn’t.
“Let’s leave them,” Helda says, taking Katsa by the arm and gesturing to Oll. “Not much good standing around like spectators.”
They exit, Oll last. He throws a look over his shoulder. “You have three hours, ‘else we’ll have to explain what we did with the prince.”
“We know,” Bann says.
Oll shuts the door with a soft click. Bann affixes the latch, slides a bar across the door. “Should keep away the marauders,” he says, with a laugh, though he looks serious in the low lamp light of the room.
Raffin lies on the bed, feeling stiff, like he’s playacting being a corpse in a child’s game.
Bann pulls a chair alongside him, hands him a cup of water, a bit of bread. “Before you take the powder. It doesn’t taste great, but it’ll only last a minute. The bread should help. If you sick yourself, Katsa’ll forgive you. Helda probably won’t.”
Raffin eats the bread, doesn’t taste it. The water is neither cool nor warm, just tastes of well-water and the cup it’s been sitting in, faintly like metal.
“And now …” Bann says. He hands him a small water flask that they’ve dissolved the powder in. It’s gritty stuff, even though they’ve been taking turns shaking the flask to suspend it in the water. “Last chance, if you’re not sure.”
“You’ll be here?” Raffin asks.
Bann sets the flask down, clasps Raffin’s hands between his, leans his face very close to Raffin’s so that Raffin can feel Bann’s breath.
“You’re brave, you know,” Bann says, voice almost a whisper. “In case no one had mentioned. What you’re doing - you’ll make a good king.”
Raffin pauses, shuts his eyes, enjoys for an instant the feel of Bann’s hands on his, the heat of his body. He opens them, startled, when Bann brushes his lips against Raffin’s cheek, mouth a little open, wet against Raffin’s new beard.
“You are not the only one who can be brave,” Bann says, at Raffin’s surprised look. He pulls back, hands Raffin the flask. “Drink,” he says.
He’s back in the forest - the swamp, more accurately - with the feel of some predator’s eyes on the back of his neck. He runs, now, splashing, mud soaking into his shoes, his pants.
It’s odd - he knows that this place isn’t real, that’ he’s in a dream - but it doesn’t stop his heart from beating a tattoo against his ribs, doesn’t stop the stench of the swamp from infecting his mouth and nose. He’s breathing hard, like he’s been running for hours, even though he know he hasn’t.
There’s a light ahead, an unearthly glow in the darkness, and whatever’s chasing him close behind.
The light sits in one of the trees, like the lanterns they hang at the turning of the seasons. It glows a soft blue, hovers.
It flicks from one tree to the next, and seems to wink at him, beckoning him to follow. He follows, quickly, the light speeding up as he speeds up until he’s chasing it through the trees, mindless of branches that scratch against his face, the slop of mud into his boots.
He runs, gasps for breath, continues. He wishes for Katsa’ strength, her speed, her endurance. Raffin’s always been good at working long hours, the tedium of standing and mixing and watching and waiting, of spending days lost, tracing references through herbology lore, of piecing together new formulations, testing and revising.
None of this matters now, even though he knows it isn’t real, that the ache in his limbs and the sweat soaking his back aren’t real things, or if they are, come from his brain sending faulty signals. This is a dream, he says, loud against the sounds of the swamp’s night insects.
The light continues moving.
He runs until he has to stop, to collapse against the nearest tree, to retch. Helda will be unforgiving, he thinks, a little absurdly, when she has to clean the bedding.
A moment, he’ll give himself a moment, only to catch his breath, for his heart to stop feeling like it will burst from his chest, for his lungs to stop feeling aflame. The light seems to stop with him, or at least slows ahead of him.
The burning in his lungs just starts to fade when he hears it, the distinct snap of a twig a few meters from him. Whatever’s following him wants to him to know. No other explanation for giving up its cover now. He turns and sees two eyes like glowing coals in the darkness.
The light starts blinking rapidly from tree to tree, frenetic. He runs.
He’s desperate now, running like he’s falling, careening through trees after the light. Trees tangle their branches in his clothes, one snagging a sleeve. He tears it away, scrapes his arm in the process, keeps going. Whatever’s chasing him is closer. He can hear the heavy pant of its breath, a low growl as it bounds after him.
The light pauses ahead of him; he sprints toward it. He needs something - a weapon, a knife, even a loose tree branch. Maybe, he thinks, maybe since this is a dream he must only think of fighting skills in order to have them. He stumbles at this thought, falls face first into the mud, feels the suck of it as it pulls him down.
But perhaps this too is a mercy, since it hides him in the darkness. He shifts slightly, smears mud - foul-smelling, sulfurous - across his face and hair, hoping to conceal himself.
The beast nears. He can see its eyes, glowing, with something shiny behind them, a flash in the darkness. He puts his hand over his mouth to quiet his breathing, tries not to move. The beast is close, prowling.
He can just barely make out the its form. There’s no moon, and the stars are dim, but he can see its outline. It’s a huge cat-like thing, a panther with the thick head and neck of a lion, a puffed tail like a wolf’s. Its coat reflects the darkness, rippling with blacks and greys, blending it with the shadows. And then he sees its eyes again, really looks at them. They glow, certainly, one a bright orange, the other a deep red like a coal that’s been left on the fire too long, like a ruby.
It slows its movements, tips its head, and scents the air. And then it sees him.
He rises from the mud, searches for something, anything that could be a weapon. He finds a stick, wet with mud and too thin, holds it in front of him like a pathetic sword. The beast narrows its eyes, as if expecting something more, then goes to its haunches, readies its attack.
It’s going to rip my throat out, Raffin thinks, too calm, as if this is happening to someone else. His hand shakes. He lowers the stick; there’s no point. He wonders if, when he dies here, in this unknown swamp, he will also die in the hidden room in his father’s castle.
His mind flashes to Katsa’s fury; to his Randa’s disappointment; to Bann and all the things they never said to each other, to the quiet promise of his lips across Raffin’s face. This hurts the most, perhaps even more than knowing Randa will continue his rule. Katsa will not succeed him. The kingdom will never accept a Graceling for its queen, and Katsa cares little for power of this sort. The prospect of ruling, always abstract, seems even further now, and Raffin takes a breath, and then another, enjoying each despite the odors of the swamp, and the certainty of a quick and brutal death.
It doesn’t come.
The beast is sitting, now, almost like an overgrown housecat, its paws folded primly under its massive body.
It watches him, tilts its head like it’s heard something, then, in a disturbingly human-like gesture, motions for him to follow it with a quick nod, pads off into the darkness.
Raffin wakes with a gasp, heart pounding.
Bann is there; he presses a cold cloth to Raffin’s forehead.
“You were ... ,” he says, voice shaking. He takes a deep breath. “It took me a few minutes to wake you up.”
Raffin tries to sit up, is overcome with nausea, retches once, carefully, into a basin that Bann holds. Bann rubs careful circles on Raffin’s back, offers a cloth for him to wipe his mouth, a cup of water to rinse his mouth.
“How long?” Raffin asks, when he recovers.
“An hour,” Bann says. “Maybe two. You sounded like - ” He reaches for Raffin’s hand, grips it like he was the one who’d been running for his life. “I was afraid I’d lost you.”
“You haven’t,” Raffin says. “I thought for a minute, but - I’m here. I’m fine.” He raises their joined hands to his mouth, kisses Bann’s smooth skin, the fine hairs there. They tickle, slightly, and Raffin has the urge to laugh, smiles instead. He replaces their hands, fingers still intertwined, on the blanket. Bann smiles too. His eyes are red, wet streaks down his face.
“Did you find anything of use?” Bann asks, after a minute.
“I saw much, some of it useful, all of it perplexing,” he says. “How is she?” He motions to the cleric on her cot. Bann must have replaced her fluids; there’s a fresh bag, and any remaining pallor is gone.
“Fine,” Bann says. “Unchanged. She didn’t even stir when you started screaming.”
“I was screaming?” Raffin asks. His throat, now that he thinks of it, feels raw.
“Yes,” Bann says. “Among other things.”
“I am sorry,” Raffin says. “For putting you through this.”
“Raff,” Bann says, once, feelingly, and then squeezes Raffin’s hand before withdrawing his own. He leans forward, presses a quick kiss to Raffin’s forehead, lips cool against Raffin’s clammy skin. “I will go and summon Oll and Katsa. Rest now.”
Raffin lies back, thinks only to close his eyes for a minute, sleeps, and does not dream.
He wakes in his own bed. He’s disoriented for a minute, until he sees the familiar tapestries, sees Bann in quiet attendance. Raffin is suddenly, achingly hungry. There’s a tray on his bed-table, soup and a few slices of bread, some blackened sausages, and he wolfs the food down, barely tasting, enjoying the rapid fill of his stomach. Bann mumbles something about making himself sick, but seems cheered by Raffin’s appetite.
“Oll and Katsa are here,” Bann says. “When you’re ready.” He leaves Raffin.
Raffin gets up, legs surprisingly steady beneath him, splashes his face with water, runs a hand through his hair. He’s wearing a new shirt - different from the one he was wearing when he went to sleep in the small chamber. He wonders who changed it; Helda, probably, or Katsa and Bann together.
It’s almost day, now, sunlight creeping against the windows. Katsa, Oll, and Bann sit around the work table, a few books open in front of them. Of them, only Katsa doesn’t look tired, but then, Raffin doesn’t think he’s ever seen her look tired.
“Before you say anything,” Raffin says. “I have to go back.”
He wasn’t expecting them to take the news quietly, but he also doesn’t expect it to immediately interrupt into shouting, with Bann and Katsa yelling at him and each other in equal turns and Oll trying to shush them lest they summon the entire castle.
“-could have died,” Bann ends, just as Katsa says something about his being crazy to think about it.
“I don’t think I’ll die,” Raffin says.
“Forgive us for not finding that wholly reassuring,” Oll says.
“You supported this!” Raffin begins, only to be interrupted by Katsa slapping the table.
“You were screaming,” she says, voice hoarse. “We could hear you through the hallways.”
“I wasn’t screaming in the dream …” Raffin says.
“That’s comforting,” Bann says, sourly.
“I’m going back,” he says, again, resolute. “Now, let me tell you what happened.” He tells them about the swamp, the light, the beast stalked him, only to spare his life. They have questions, of course, and he answers them, or tries to, but finds that his memory of the dream is already beginning to fade. “I think that, whatever it was, was trying to help me.”
“You don’t know that!” Katsa yells.
“It didn’t kill me when it had the chance,” Raffin says. “And I think it might be the cleric. One of its eyes looked like her eye.”
“It could be the poison, messing with your head. And Bann thinks he can make the countertoxin, though it’ll take a few days,” Katsa says.
“She might be dead by then,” Raffin says. “And the countertoxin can be as dangerous as the toxin itself.”
“Dangerous to who?”
They all turn to look at Oll, who’s been quiet through most of the conversation. “The kingdom needs a king, Prince Raffin. There’s no denying that.”
“And I’m saying I can do this, and come back,” Raffin says. “The kingdom needs a king who can fight his own battles - not send a proxy, and not allow others to die because of their cowardice.”
“Backing down isn’t cowardice,” Katsa says.
“When have you backed down from a fight?” Raffin asks.
“I’m not knocking you out and dragging you back to your chambers until you regain your wits,” Katsa says, pursing her lips. “So there’s that.”
“It’s settled,” Raffin says. “I will do it with or without you. I know how to make the drugs, and can slip from my rooms to where you’re keeping her. Now, you can threaten me, or you can help.”
They talk until the sun has risen fully, then Oll stumbles off for a few hours sleep, and Katsa goes to take her residual anger out on her training dummies. Only Bann remains, looking exhausted.
“I should go,” he says, rubbing his eyes. He drags his feet, loud against the stone floors.
“Stay,” Raffin says. “Stay here, I mean. You can rest in my chambers. We’ll need your strength for tonight, if you are to be of any use.”
“The servants -” Bann says. “There will be talk. There already is talk, likely, since you’ve been with a ‘headache’ for near two days.”
“I’ll make it sound like we’re doing something delicate and explosive. That will keep the meddlers away. You need your rest.”
“I can sleep on the cot.”
“You will sleep in my chambers.”
“Are you commanding me,” Bann asks, “as my prince?”
“I am suggesting,” Raffin says. “As, perhaps, your friend.”
Bann turns, walks down the hallway, his broad shoulders slumped. Raffin follows. Once they’re in his chambers, with the door barred, Bann seems to relax, sitting on the bed to remove his shoes. Raffin fiddles with one of the burn holes on his shirt, suddenly aware of the smallness of the room, the largeness of the bed. He moves to leave, to allow Bann his privacy.
“Stay,” Bann says. “At least until I fall asleep. Please.”
“Of course,” Raffin hears himself say, before he’s even conscious of the thought.
Bann removes his shoes, his over-shirt, places small things from his pockets - the little knife that he favors for taking plant cuttings, a few copper pieces, a small shell that Raffin recognizes from when they went to a lake to collect plant samples and spent an afternoon lounging in the grass by the shore - and places them on the bedside table.
Bann reaches for the hem of his shirt, peels it off, and begins to fold it. It’s not the first time they’ve seen each other in various states of undress, but it feels somehow different.
“Can’t sleep with it on,” Bann says, scrunching his nose.
“You always leave it on when you sleep on the cot,” Raffin says.
Bann shrugs. “Doesn’t bother me there.”
Raffin takes Bann’s shirt, attempts and fails to fold it neatly, drapes it on the back of a chair. He fusses with the fabric, probably more than necessary, resists the strange urge to press it to his face.
When he looks up again, he finds that Bann has slid under the blankets. Bann rearranges the pillows, squashing some, plumping others. Raffin has seen him sleep a hundred times on the cot in the laboratory, and yet cannot seem to stop watching him as he prepares to sleep.
“Sit with me,” Bann says. “Please.”
“You do not need to keep saying ‘please,’” Raffin says. “I will do as you ask.”
“One does not command a prince,” Bann says, but he reaches for Raffin, when he sits, winds an arm around him, so that his cheek is resting near Raffin’s thigh.
“I wish I was not a prince,” Raffin says, after a minute. “I wish -”
“You are who you are. And I would not like you if you were someone else.”
Raffin reaches for the shell on the bedside table. “You got this -”
“At the lake, yes. We found flowers that you thought were bluebonnets, but they were bluethorns instead. I spent an hour picking those little spikes out of your hands.”
“And then you threw me in the lake.”
“The literature recommends a thorough soaking,” Bann says. He schools his face to look more innocent as he peers up at Raffin, though the slight quirk of his lips gives him away. “I wanted to see what you looked like in wet clothes. And out of them.”
Raffin stutters, as if his tongue has become too large for his mouth.
“You look like a wet cat, in them, for the record.”
Raffin laughs. “And out of them?”
Bann has the sense to flush slightly, avert his gaze a little. “Out of them - well, I only have the once to go from. A good scientist would not make such a judgement based on only one testing.”
Bann slides a hand under Raffin’s shirt, between cloth and skin. His hand is wide, cool, with slight calluses at the tips of his fingers, on the rise of his palms. Raffin shivers and closes his eyes, reflexively, allows Bann to strip him of his shirt, careful to avoid snagging the knots and hooks at the collar in his hair.
Raffin opens his eyes to find Bann looking at him like he’s an experiment, something mysterious and fascinating, waiting to be mapped and tested.
Bann places a hand on Raffin’s face, cupping his jaw, the other on the back of Raffin’s next. Their faces are close, breath mingling, and Raffin can’t quite look Bann in the eye, has to lower his gaze.
“I thought you were tired,” Raffin says.
“Please,” Bann says, voice tense, hands trembling slightly. “Raffin.”
“You don’t need to -”
Bann kisses him then, pushes him back against the bedding, comes to rest on top of Raffin. Raffin feels breathless, even if Bann is supporting most of his weight with his forearms, is looking down at him like Raffin is an entirely new discovery. He kisses him again, and again, and again, until Raffin cannot differentiate between kisses, between the end of Bann’s skin and the beginning of his own.
Raffin musses Bann’s hair, always cropped short, with his hands, luxuriates in the ability to touch. He slides his arms around Bann’s neck, yields his neck and face to Bann’s attentions.
Bann presses his lips to Raffin’s cheek - a ghost of that first kiss in the hidden chamber - and then to his neck and his chest and behind his left ear. His hands grip Raffin’s back, arms corded with muscle.
Raffin knows that Bann is strong, has seen his hands grind herbs to powder; he knows that he is careful, has seen him cradle and shape the most delicate of lab equipment, but has never fully appreciated all that strength and care until now, until he has become the object of them.
Bann kisses him again, deep, tongue licking into Raffin’s mouth, then pulls back.
“One more request,” Bann says.
“Anything,” Raffin gasps. “Name anything and it’s yours.”
“No matter what happens tonight,” Bann says. “No matter what happens, you will come back to me.”
“Yes,” Raffin says, even though he knows he cannot promise any such thing, knows that Bann knows it too. “I will do as you say, Bann.”
They spend the day together, and do not sleep.
Katsa arrives first, makes no mention of the dark marks on Raffin’s neck, the fond way Bann runs a finger across Raffin’s knuckles. Oll comes next, bringing Helda, who smiles at Raffin in such a way that he knows they have no secrets from her.
They sit, discuss final arrangements, though Katsa won’t stop fiddling with her throwing knives. Bann will bring the cleric; Raffin will take enough of the sleeping drug to last an hour, perhaps a bit longer; Oll will keep watch.
None of them expect, then, the sharp knock at the door.
Raffin opens the door to find one of Randa’s servants - one of Randa’s loyal servants, one of the few - standing in the hallway.
“Beg pardon, m’lord,” the man says. “His Grace requests your presence momentarily.”
Raffin simply nods, turns to the group around his table. “My father,” he says.
He trails the servant through various hallways, a few paces behind. The man glances back, once, looks Raffin in the eyes, insolent.
Fear knots Raffin’s stomach, sends a bitter taste to the back of his mouth. They’d been careful to hide the cleric, careful in their attentions. Still, his father’s castle is not without its spies.
Randa is in the throne room, wearing imperial blue, scowling from the throne. The servant stays at the door, exits at Randa’s dismissing nod. The usual guards who attend Randa are absent.
Raffin waits for Randa to speak, simply stands a few meters from the foot of the throne and looks just over his father’s right shoulder. He does not lower his eyes, but does not meet Randa’s either.
“I hear that your head has been troubling you,” Randa says.
“Yes, it has,” Raffin says, attempting to keep his voice neutral. “Your Grace.”
“And that that big lad who helps you in your … work has been most helpful,” Randa continues.
Raffin’s stomach drops; so that’s the shape of things - not treason, then, but something that could meet with the same punishment. Raffin lifts his eyes, looks at his father directly.
“Bann is a skilled chemist,” he says, evenly. “He is an asset to my research.”
“I see,” Randa says. He folds his hands on his lap, purses his lips.
“I am not a young man, Raffin,” Randa says. “I have neither the time nor patience for seeing my son make a fool of me.”
“Make a ‘fool of you,’ your Grace?” Raffin asks.
“You must think I am a fool,” Randa snaps. “To be carrying on in your little kitchen, with your little ‘helper,’ disregarding the rumors spinning around you.”
“Do not take me for a fool, Raffin. I will not abide by having my son make me look like one,” Randa says. “Perhaps the lad would be better suited elsewhere.”
Raffin draws himself to his full height, meets his father’s stare. “Send him away, father, and I will go with him. Many villages need skilled chemists, even the ones in Sunder or Monsea. You would not find us. And the Middluns would go to the Lady Katsa.”
“You would abandon your kingdom so easily, become some common alchemist, grinding herbs and midwiving -”
“I will marry, father, when you command it of me,” Raffin continues. “To whomever will make the best match for the kingdom. I will father heirs. I know my duty.”
“Your duty is to do as I say!” Randa says, rising, his face reddening with anger.
Raffin continues, as if he has not heard his father. “As you said, your Grace, you are not a young man. And you will not live forever.” He looks at his father, takes the little knife that Bann left on the bedside table from his pocket, begins to polish it on his shirt. “I know my duty,” he repeats.
Randa scowls, face blotched red, but sits, folding his long frame back on to the throne.
“You are dismissed, Prince Raffin,” he says. “Just know this: Should there be some lapse in your loyalty to the kingdom, I would hate to think what would befall your little friend.”
“Should something befall him,” Raffin says, replacing the knife in his pocket. “I would hate to think how my loyalty to the king and the kingdom might lapse.”
He turns, walks crisply away, the feel of Randa’s eyes boring into the back of his neck.
Once he’s outside the throne room, he slumps against the nearest wall, takes several deep sucking breaths. His stomach roils, and he bends to retch, doesn’t. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve, wishes for water to wash his mouth, or something stronger.
Back in his workroom, Katsa, Oll and Bann all rise, rush at him.
“Did he -” Katsa begins.
“What was -” Bann says.
“Give him space!” Oll says. “The boy looks like he’s going to faint.”
Raffin feels sweat drip down his spine, hadn’t noticed it before. “It was not as we feared,” he says. “Randa has not discovered our plot, or the Council.” He collapses into a chair, holds his head in his hands. “He merely wanted to remind me of his power, and my place in the kingdom. I believe there will be another slew of ladies here for my inspection.”
Katsa looks confused, shrugs. Oll raises his bushy eyebrows, but says nothing. Bann holds Raffin’s gaze, the nods, finally. Helda, who has remained seated in all of this, reaches for Raffin’s hand, pats it, once, twice.
“We proceed as planned,” Raffin says.
It is as before, Helda, Oll and Katsa keeping watch, Bann monitoring his and the cleric’s progress. Still, Raffin sips the drug, hands steady, falls asleep to the feel of Bann’s lips on his forehead.
The swamp looks the same, smells the same, has the same quiet darkness, but Raffin seems to feel it less, can sense that water soaks his boots, but not the discomfort, doesn’t feel fear so much as anticipation.
The beast is there. It looks up at him, had been licking its paw when he arrived. It blinks, slow, like it’s been patiently waiting for him to return.
“I’m Raffin,” he says, feeling a little foolish.
The beast growls at him, an acknowledgement more than a threat, and turns, walking silently, tail swishing.
He walks this way, ducking under branches that the beast glides under easily, avoiding snagging branches, listening to the thrum of insects, the croak of frogs. Snakes hang down, give him the eye as they pass, slither out of their way.
They walk for a long while, until Raffin grows tired of pulling his boots from the mud, of keeping the beast’s relentless pace. The beast must notice him slowing, glances once, back, and jerks its head. It growls, again, but this time it sounds more like a word. “Come,” it seems to say.
He follows, up a steep incline, moving in switchbacks, then quickly down a bank, stumbling, hands catching on a shrub, a rock, thistles that embed into the flesh of his palm.
They splash down into a creek, something fast-moving, carrying the scent of fresh water. The beast swims, easily, navigates the low stones in the water. Raffin isn’t as graceful, nearly slides off the low bank, lands on his backside on a flat rock. It hurts, but mostly his pride, and when the beast turns back, he swears it looks exasperated.
They trace the line of the creek through the swamp. Fish, like glints of silver, swim upstream, flashing over his boots. Plants tangle from the banks and slap wetly against him. Pebbles, smoothed by the stream, tumble, sending up plumes of mud.
There’s no hint of day here, no moon to send eggy brightness down. It’s dark and endless, and the world narrows to Raffin and the beast. There’s also no hint of the floating light he saw the last time, the fairy-light, as he thinks of it.
Something must get the beast’s attention, because it bounds forward, abandons the creek to charge up the far bank, leaving Raffin to huff and lug his heavy mud-laden feet after it. It alights on something, goes over the slight berm, until Raffin can’t see it any more.
Instead, he hears a scream, a woman’s scream.
He runs, panting, over the rise, to find the beast being attacked, screaming. Its voice sounds like a woman’s, a high-pitched cry, one that seems to embed itself in Raffin’s ears.
The beast is being mauled by the light that Raffin had been following in his earlier dream. Tentacles of energy extend, wrapping the beast like ropes. There’s the faint smell of burning fur. The beast flickers, now in animal form, now the cleric, wrapped in her robes, comatose.
Raffin feels the hair on his arms stand, feels the his lungs expand, his heart thud like it’s trying to escape. He pats himself down, wishes he’d taken a weapon, though he’s as useless with a sword as Katsa is with a solution.
It’s a surprise, then, when he finds the little knife in his pocket, Bann’s knife. He nearly cuts himself on it. It’s small, maybe the length of his thumb. But it’s iron, not steel, rust along one of the edges. Something about iron, he remembers Bann saying something about iron. The memory of it clouds his mind, like the memory of a dream. It will have to do.
He holds it the way he’s seen Katsa hold her throwing knives. It feels awkward, foreign, so he readjusts, holds it the way he does when he’s slicing ingredients.
His feet move before he realizes that he’s running, and he hears his voice, loud, less a battle-cry and more a shout of absolute terror. He plunges forward, slashes at one of the streams of light. There’s a scream, unearthly, but not from the beast or from himself. The light, then. It retracts, enough that it loses its grip on the beast. Raffin reaches for its paw, as if to lead it away, finds a handful of fur and the cleric’s skin revealed.
The beast stands on its hind legs, tall as a bear, rears its head back, howls. Its fur drops off like a birch shedding its bark, peels away to reveal the cleric, resplendent even in her traveling robes, red eye glowing. Sparks jump across her skin; her hair swirls around her head.
“The knife,” she says, and her voice is deep, huskier than most women’s, a slight growl to it.
Raffin hands her the knife, hilt first, watches as she slices into the ball of light.
“Take cover,” she says.
He crouches on the lip of the bank, lies prone, eyes fixed on the battle before him.
The light is molten now, lashing out, cracking against the ground like lightning strikes. The cleric slashes at it, cuts it when it latches on to her. It grasps her wrist; she shakes it loose. It coils around her ankles, she kicks, plunges the knife into it.
Raffin thinks that he hears it hiss somehow, like its a sentient creature, and not some strange malignancy.
It surges forward, wrapping tendrils around the cleric’s face, chest, clinging. She raises her hands - to attack? to defend? - Raffin can’t tell, only sees her topple over. The light crouches on her chest, forces itself into her nose, mouth. He hears choking noises.
Raffin’s up and over the river bank in an instant, distance cut short by long strides. He fumbles for something to serve as a weapon, finds nothing. He breathes, once deep, fills his lungs with the damp night air, then jumps, headlong, onto the light.
He feels like he’s on fire. Flames eat at his arms. He can feel his eyelashes crumbling from the heat of it. Tears stream down his face. He can’t quite grip whatever the light is made of, throws his weight on it instead, feels like a spindly piece of kindling trying to smother an inferno.
He wants to apologize - to Katsa, to Oll, to his father of all people, to Bann. But he can’t get the words out, knows that, even if he did, no one would hear.
He wakes, covered in cold sweat, to a mismatched pair of eyes staring down at him. Katsa stands over him, frowning slightly.
She holds a cup of water out to him, dribbles some of it across his lips. It’s tepid, stale from sitting. It burns a little on his lips. They must have cracked in his sleep, because he can feel blood ooze from them, feels the gummy build of too-long sleep. His throat feels sore, strained; perhaps he was screaming again.
“Did we - ?” he manages, voice cracking with effort.
“Yes,” she says. “You did.”
“So the cleric -”
“She’s fine,” Katsa says. She doesn’t sound entirely happy. She has a rag in her hand, doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, sets it down on the bedside table. “Bann will be in, and Oll. They have questions. I’m glad … well, it could have been worse.” She leaves before Raffin can respond, boots padding in that way she does when she doesn’t want to be heard.
He must sleep, because when he wakes again, Bann is there, a book open on his lap. He’s not reading, because he’s sleeping, neck cricked at an awkward angle.
Raffin considers waking him, but sees the dark circles under his eyes, lets him rest.
Helda brings a tray, steps quiet, smiles at them both like they’re the children in the nursery as she leaves. He eats like he’s starving, so much so that he feels sick after, puts the tray on the bedside table.
He considers going back to sleep - Bann is snoring now, softly - and his chambers, his laboratory seem distant, too far from the comfort of the bed. Out there, Raffin knows that Katsa and Oll are waiting, that the cleric is waiting, that the Council will meet and that Katsa, Oll, and Giddon will ride off under the cover of night, to avenge the cleric, to bring a measure of justice to these unjust kings.
They will have questions, of course, about the dream, about Raffin’s role in helping the cleric save herself.
Someone has left a robe, blue as Randa’s, across the foot of his bed. Dried sweat stiffens his clothing. He’ll need to change.
Bann has another robe, Raffin’s lab robe, draped across his lap, is using it like a blanket. Raffin recognizes the familiar pattern of burn holes, a splash of orange from the time he accidentally dyed their hands for a week.
Raffin considers both, considers the consequences of appearing before the cleric as a prince or as a chemist, considers the burn marks on his fingertips, the soft flesh of his palms. He considers Bann, Bann’s gentle nature, his wide shoulders.
He considers all this, knows he will need to decide, decides to wait a minute longer.