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The Embassy servants rotate as poison-testers. It’s supposed to be a ceremonial job, an archaic formality. Leif isn’t supposed to be convulsing on the ground with his throat on fire and his hands and feet starting to go numb.

He’s injected with something as the rest of the dining hall is cleared; everything goes hazy. Next thing he knows, he’s groggy in a probably-hospital room, being prodded by people in airtight germ-resistant layers.

One of them, eventually, is Thorn. Leif’s vision un-fuzzes enough to see Thorn’s gloved hands tightly clasping his own. But still, even now, he can’t feel them.

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The soft miasma of the Old God’s hypnosis lifts, leaving the acolyte to gaze down at the rocks. The Radiant One lies in a broken heap, her shining aura gone dark.

With the last of her strength she raises her head to meet her most-devoted acolyte’s eyes, silently pleading. Maybe, from this one worshipper, the praise could give her the strength to protect the universe again . . .

“Um,” says the acolyte. “I’m sorry . . . but I think . . . she needs me? I’m really really sorry!”

The Old God smirks as the acolyte squeezes her hand, and the Radiant One’s vision fades to white.

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Everyone leaves Kale. Everyone should leave Kale. He’s a monster, he’s dangerous, he gave his loyalty to people who made him a killer and even they turned around and left him eventually. He doesn’t deserve company, let alone friends. He deserves to stay alone with his dog in his disaster of an apartment, making himself a tiny bit useful by doing non-lethal work for a government that doesn’t contact him except by c-mail.

Entering the building, he passes Thorn on the way out. They share a nod, and Kale’s throat burns as he swallows the word he can’t possibly say.

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Leif tries to sit up. He knows all this time spent away from work will be taken out on him somehow.

His vision blurs, his neck aches, his head sways like he just jumped onto a boat in a choppy sea, and he collapses back onto the hospital bed.

The flowers Thorn sent loom over him from the windowsill. Not a type from the Embassy gardens, he doesn’t know what they’re called, but they have soft white petals and smell sweet. Leif ends up gazing at them until he falls asleep.

Or maybe passes out again. It’s hard to tell.

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Esther lies on the couch in stillness for several long minutes before she says, “Maybe you should come back later.”

Maria, who has been sitting patiently in silence on the matching chair, pops up and stands at attention. “Of course! If my presence is a burden to you in this state –“

“Nooo, not a burden!” gasps the witch. It seems there might be more, so Esther waits, again, for her to summon her strength. “I’m just . . . in no shape to teach today.”

“And I would never impose upon you for such a thing,” says Maria earnestly, horrified in turn that her intentions might be so mistaken. “But I feared your condition might put you in danger – and I hoped, perhaps, my company might be a comfort?”

Of course Esther is an adult, who has managed her own magical exhaustion for many years, and needs no interference from an adventurer with no special skills in healing. At the same time, surely it would be rude to simply leave?

Surely it would mislead Esther about the degree to which Maria cares for her.

“As long as you don’t ask for anything,” says Esther at last, softly, “then yeah, I think it would.”

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“Oh my god, oh my god, are you okay? Do you know where you are? How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Aren’t your hands . . . holding me?” asks Bailey. His vision is blurry, his head throbbing, he might have passed out for a moment, but he really hopes it wasn’t long enough for someone to come in.

“Oh,” says Gannet. “Yeah.”

“Better have a doctor look, though,” adds Bailey blearily. “Once I’m dressed.”

“That’s smart.” Gannet starts untangling the straps. “We don’t have to tell them I gave you a possibly-concussion by being too enthusiastic on the sex swing, right?”

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“Do try to breathe more calmly, darling,” coos Delphinium. “At this rate, you’ll puncture a lung before I’ve even finished mopping up this blood, and then where shall we be?”

“No need to be so dramatic.” Dexie takes a deep grimacing breath, lets it out with satisfaction. “My chest – all still moves – in the same direction – when I breathe, so it can’t be – that bad.”

“The cuts and bruises ought to heal quickly, but how do you propose to explain to your sister why you can’t lift anything for the next month?”

“Repetitive injury,” offers Dexie. “Played too much golf.”