Chapter Eleven

Vico sank to his knees next to them. Seya was crumpled against Jayen, limp, her vibrant aura dimmed and lacing with shadows as he watched. Gods, there was so much blood—for a split second he wasn’t even sure they hadn’t both been hit, but then Jayen sat up, lowered Seya onto the circle, his eyes wide and horrified as he took in the amount of blood on his clothes, and beginning to puddling beneath Seya’s still form. But then his security reflexes kicked in and he was on his feet, reestablishing his battered shields and sweeping the perimeter. “Clear,” he said hoarsely.

Vico barely heard him as he peeled back the bloody slivers of Seya’s shirt with shaking hands to assess the damage. “Oh gods, oh gods,” he said as he felt the sting of the curse in the blood that got on his skin—she had always been so sensitive to curses… It was a bad one too, the energy of it sinking into her flesh and causing a hemotoxic reaction, making the bleeding worse as it spread.

He ripped off his uniform shirt and was trying to apply pressure to the series of deep, razor-thin slashes across her back and shoulder, his breathing uneven and a little hysterical. “Oh gods,” he said, “I can’t—this is—I don’t—”

“Stop panicking!” Jayen said, dropping down next to him, and gripping his shoulder. “Damn it, Vico, look at me! You used to do this all the time when yo worked security! You know what to do. Put a block on it so we can get out of here without causing her further damage!”

“I know that!” Vico said, his voice rising, “But—Seya— There’s a curse, Jayen, a bad one, she can’t—”

“I know all that, but it’s all the same if she bleeds to death, so just fucking do it! I’d do it myself but it’s too much spiritual magic, I’d just mess it up. You’re the only one here who can do it.” 

His take-charge tone had a grounding effect. Vico took a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself back to center. He could do this. Everything would be fine. He was not going to let Seya die when he’d only just got her back. He worked up the blocking spell and laid it over the worst of the bleeding, working it into the network of smaller cuts and trying not to look at the wreck the curse was making of her magic, or think about how closing it up like that left it free to leech further into her blood and increase the chances of irrevocable damage.

“Good, now let’s get out of here,” Jayen said. “I’ll carry her. Cover me.”

“Right,” Vico said. He drew up his shields and glanced around as Jayen picked Seya up. “There’s no one in my sense range,” he said, forcing his voice to steady as he spoke. “If there are any attackers left, they’re well shielded. Ready?”

“Yes,” Jayen said, shifting Seya in his arms to get a steadier grip. 

Vico stared down at the red slick marring the cream-white stone, reaching up to his fire charm to obliterate every drop. “She’s not—still dripping, is she?” he asked, forcing his gaze toward the path back to the car, studying the currents of the energy over the ground, the trees and shrubbery, the motion of the air with his sense, trying to catch a glimpse of disruption to indicate they were still under threat. Nothing, but his range was not large, either. 

“I don’t think so,” Jayen said. 

“Let’s move,” said Vico. 

They encountered no resistance, nor any additional attacks. Vico suspected that the spellwork had been targeted, a hit and run assassination attempt, and this seemed to be confirmed when they made it to the car without incident. Vico stood watch the few moments it took for Jayen to load Seya into the back seat, then get in himself to drive. Vico climbed in the back, cradling Seya in his arms, one foot braced against the front seat to hold her steady as Jayen tore out onto the street. 

Jayen was pinging Micah as he drove, to send people out to investigate. “Hierond is the closest temple,” he said.

“We can’t take her there,” Vico said flatly. “If she woke up in the temple that refused to perform her mother’s funeral rites, she’d probably rebound. Plus she never liked being around gods. The Halcyon clinic is closer anyway.”

“Is that place even big enough to handle something like this?” Jayen asked.

“Aren will at least be able to keep her alive long enough to find a place that can.”

“You’re going to trust a guy who hasn’t spoken to you in years?” Jayen said.

“Aren can be an ass but he wouldn’t break his healer’s oath.” 

Jayen zipped through the streets like a maniac, tires screeching at every corner, and for once, Vico didn’t care at all. He studied Seya with worried eyes. The block was starting to falter under the spreading influence of the curse. Her skin had gone ashen-pale and her breathing was harsh and uneven. Worse was what it was doing to her magic. Her exterior shields were gone, and her interior shields were a mess, the energy structure maintaining them being bled dry by her body’s efforts to resist the spread of the curse. That was enough for Vico to confirm what he had suspected that morning: there was something wrong with her magic. He had no idea what, only that it manifested as a shadow deep in her aura. It wasn’t doing anything, it was just—there, growing slowly darker as she weakened. It had the feeling of a venomous snake, coiled and ready for the moment to strike. 

Between that, and the curse, and the way her breathing kept getting weaker and shallower, it scared him. He reached out to their tenuous connection—she was rejecting him still, even unconscious. He squeezed her hand. “Come on, love, you’d really rather die than have me back?” he hissed, suddenly, irrationally and absurdly angry, even though she couldn’t possibly be doing it on purpose. It might have been the appropriate response, or perhaps her strength had just faltered enough at that point, because whatever instinctive rejection existed abruptly ceased. Vico seized the fragile spark and held it, felt it establish—thin as a thread, but strong enough for him to pour his own energy through to help hold the curse at bay. He swore under this breath in relief as her color improved and her breathing steadied.

“What is it?” Jayen asked, tilting the rear view mirror to try and see what was going on.

“Nothing, just keep driving. I won’t be able to keep this up for long.” 

The humbly appointed Halcyon Clinic was nestled in the middle of a row of houses on the edge of downtown, most of which had been converted into small businesses some time ago, trees leveled and yards stripped out to become parking lots. The clinic had left its trees, which cultivated very stable spiritual energy, useful for their work, with healing requiring so much of it, and also making it easier to connect to the Halcyon bond—but it meant they had no proper parking.

Jayen parked the car as close to the front door as possible, heedless of the damage he was doing to the small lawn, and got out, his eyes sweeping the surroundings and finding them quiet. He opened the back door to fetch Seya out. Vico tried to hand her out to him, but he was pale as dust and trembling with exhaustion. He leaned against the car as Jayen hefted her to secure his grip and started for the door. 

“Vico?” he said, when he realized he wasn’t following.

“I’m coming, I just—overdid it bit, I think.” Vico forced himself upright with visible effort and hurried ahead to get the door for them. A bell jingled as it opened, and they found the reception area empty of patients. Of anyone.

“They can’t be closed,” Vico said, gripping the doorframe. Jayen blinked at the sign. It said they closed at seven on weekdays. “Aren?” Vico called, his voice edging back towards hysteria. “Anyone!”

Aren Halcyon came out of the back a moment later, their intense relief. His face registered deep annoyance at Vico’s presence, and then blank astonishment at Jayen’s. “What the hell do you two want?” he asked, before he saw Seya, and the blood, and felt the curse, which was leeching out from the block now that Vico had let go of her. His eyes went wide. “Is that—”

“Yeah, can we get on with this?” Jayen said, shoving past him, toward the door labeled ‘Exam Room’ without waiting for permission.

Aren ducked around him, running ahead to prepare the table with a hasty disinfecting spell and grab some towels and antiseptic. “Put her there, face down,” he said, and stepped forward to slice off the bloody remains of her shirt. He swore at the extent of the damage. “What the hell happened here?”

“Curse,” Vico said from where he was leaning on the doorframe for support.

“Curse is an understatement,” Aren said, dousing the wound liberally with antiseptic and sluicing the blood away with a brisk gesture. “How long has she been back?”

“Since last night.”

Aren made a disgusted noise in his throat. “Of course. Spirits, but this is bad. I can’t do this myself. Jayen, come over here and anchor her for me.”

“I can’t do that!” Jayen said.

“I’ll do it,” Vico said, straightening with an effort and coming to the table.

Aren put a hand on his shoulder in appraisal. “No, go sit down. Jayen can do it.”

“I’ve never—don’t you have an assistant or something to do this stuff for you?”

“My partner left early to do student health evaluations at the school. Seya doesn’t have time to wait for her to come back. Look, you can argue while she dies, or you can shut up and help. Pick one,” he said, not waiting for an answer, just grabbing him by the arm and dragging him officiously to the table side, despite being about half Jayen’s size. “Put your hands here,” he said, placing one over the back of her neck and the other over her right wrist. “You can do this, you two have a blood connection.”

“We do not!” Jayen said, an objection more of reflexive outrage than conviction.

“Shut up and listen to what I’m saying,” Aren snapped. “Find her pulse. You can feel that energy, yes? Follow it in your sense. I know you don’t have very good range,” he added, as Jayen opened his mouth again, “but you don’t need much for a blood connection anyway.” He put his hands over Jayen’s and guided the faint threads of his sense through until he had established a connection between them. Jayen shuddered in revulsion at the feel of the curse invading his sense, but Aren seized it and held it off, binding it with a swift, practiced gesture. “See, that’s not so hard. You don’t need to do anything else, just don’t let go.” 

Then he got to work.

Working security, Jayen had grown accustomed to the fact that people’s lives would occasionally depend on him, but never in such a stark, personal way. He was aware that Vico was watching him, that he would probably never be forgiven if he failed at this. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to forgive himself, truthfully. He’d never wanted this. He just wanted to beat her, prove he could after all this time. Prove he could stand equal to her. She wasn’t allowed to die and leave him unacknowledged. 

And yet…feeling the thready pattern of her life under his hands, the certitude of their connection, had a way of putting their old rivalry into perspective. He had known his whole life that they were half-siblings, but this made it real to him in a way it had never been before, even when they had fought over the fact as children. She could die, and he could feel the truth of that humming in his own blood. It felt wrong. And terrifying, but he refused to acknowledge that, channeling it into anger instead, using that energy to hold on while Aren worked, stripping out the worst components of the curse and deconstructing the physical reactions it had caused, putting shredded skin and muscle back together so it would heal with minimal scarring, painstaking work that took hours. 

At some point during the proceedings, Micah pinged him, but he fielded the conversation to Vico, afraid to let his concentration waver. 

They were both numb with exhaustion by the time it was over. Aren had Jayen remove his hands so he could judge her condition without interference. “Stable,” he pronounced. “For now. It’s a bit difficult to tell if I got it all while she’s unconscious, but she’s out of danger at the moment.” He went to the cabinet in the corner and unlocked it to fetch a pain ward, which he applied to the back of her neck. She stirred limply, her eyelids fluttering. 

Vico pulled himself upright and went to her, smoothing the sweat-damp hair back from her face. “It’s all right, love. Just rest for now,” he said, and she drifted back out obediently.

Between the three of them, they managed to get her onto a gurney. Aren transferred her to the patient room at the end of the hall, Vico following to help. Jayen hung back, unsettled by the bright color of her blood against the white surface of the exam table, the lingering sensation of holding a life in his hands. He went out, to find Micah in the waiting room, his eyes fixed into the middle distance as he monitored the progress of the investigation through the clan bond. He tuned out of it when Jayen came over to him, and his expression grew alarmed as he took in the streaks of blood on Jayen’s clothes, and the unease hovering in his aura.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “She’s not—” 

“No,” said Jayen. “Halcyon says she should recover.” He made an effort to center himself that was not entirely successful. “How long have you been out here?”

“Couple of hours. What happened? Vico told me you were attacked in the middle of a duel.”

“We were almost done. She—” It hit him then, that she had literally thrown herself in front of a deadly attack to save him and nearly died for it. He could still feel the faint sense of connection pounding in his blood. It felt—bright, warm, like getting too close to a light charm. He sat, looked down at his bloody clothes. “Tell me what you found,” he said, automatically, and forced himself to pay attention.

“We found these by the pond,” Micah said, holding up a clear bag containing several shards of glass. Broken glass was popular tool for rough fighting and hit and run attacks—easy to find, with the hardness and sharpness of a deadly weapon just waiting to be drawn out. These shards were etched with a complex sequence of sigils—the catalyst of the curse. “No aural traces, they probably set up the spellwork beforehand, dropped it and set it off before getting out. They weren’t there long enough to leave recognizable signatures in such a public place. I have Desielle from L&R looking over everything right now. She’s pretty sure they used an aural trace to plot out the curse, but without knowing for sure which one of you was the target, she can’t tell us anything more just yet.”

“It had to have been me,” Jayen said. 

“If that’s true, it shouldn’t have stopped with her.”

Jayen looked down at the reddish stains on his hands. He didn’t feel up to talking about that yet. 

“I have our people setting up a perimeter,” Micah said after a long moment. “Here’s the prelim.” He handed Jayen a thin folder. “It’s not much though. Waiting for Desielle’s analysis. Did you need anything else?”

“Food would be good. Clean clothes. And—don’t tell my father what happened yet.”

Micah nodded and left to coordinate the security detail on the clinic. Jayen sat in the empty waiting room for a few more minutes before restlessness drove him to his feet. He found a bathroom to wash his hands using healers’ soap, which was formulated to destroy blood traces, then went outside to look at the security spellwork Micah and Rena Soledad were setting up around the property—proximity alerts, a small series of wards. There was no fence around the property, which made the task more complicated, as wards required a physical seat to be stable. They could not sink them into the ground because the whole place was saturated with Halcyon’s own bond magic, and the slightly less obtrusive resonance of the Thalessai-style shrine in the back yard. They settled for using the trees as tethers instead. “It’s not as secure,” he told Aren, when the healer came out to frown over the proceedings. “But it’s better than nothing. It should hold until we get this straightened out.”

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with business,” Aren said. 

“I thought you closed down for the night.”

“I still have a patient.” He went to the shrine to check it over for interference, found none. He was holding a small bundle under one arm—the bloodstained shirts—which he deposited into the stone basin on the front of the shrine and drew from the fire charm hanging above it, setting it alight. He performed a purification rite over it that Jayen did not recognize, probably also Thelassai. “I can do this for your clothes too,” he said, glancing at Jayen, who was watching him.

“I can take care of my own business,” Jayen said.

Aren rolled his eyes and dragged Jayen inside to make him drink a foul-tasting concoction from the apothecary room. “It’s to shore up your energy levels. Even if you don’t have much in the way of spiritual magic it’s still dangerous to get too low.”

“What about Vico?”

“I already gave him a dose. He’s resting.” Aren jerked his head toward the hall. “Do you want me to fix your face while you’re waiting?”

“Is it bad?” Seya had hit him pretty hard, but he hadn’t really registered the discomfort until Aren called attention to it.

Aren studied him with a professional eye. “No, just some bruising.”

“Then it’s fine,” Jayen said, disliking the idea of owing a Halcyon any more than necessary. He downed the last of the drink and went to check on Vico. 

The Halcyon clinic was small enough that they only had one patient room, and Seya was laid out on her stomach on the bed closest to the door. There was another bed, which Vico had shoved as close to hers as possible. He was sprawled out on his side, asleep, one hand stretched across the small distance between them to rest on her uninjured arm. That made Jayen frown, his restless feelings settling into something hard and resentful. He went around the beds to the chair on the other side, because he had a better view out the window from there. The edges of his vision were blurred with light, and he wondered if that was a side effect of the drink Aren had given him, or if he was just that drained. 

Micah had keyed him to the defenses, so he tried to concentrate on that instead of the tightness in his chest when he looked at the two of them. But he found himself continually distracted by the bright tousle of Vico’s hair from the corner of his eye. It had been such a long time since they had been together in the same room without arguing immediately. Of course one of them would have to be out cold for that to happen, Jayen thought bitterly. His hand dropped, almost outside his volition, to brush against the coppery locks.

Vico bolted up with gasp. “Gods. You scared the shit out of me,” he said, pressing his hands over his face and taking a deep breath. “What do you want?”

“Not for you react like I just attacked you,” Jayen muttered. He wasn’t going to say that he had just wanted to touch him because he was close enough. “Are you hungry? Micah is bringing food. Should I ask him to bring you a clean shirt, too?”

Vico glanced down at his plain white undershirt, still streaked with Seya’s blood. “Food would probably be good,” he said. The shirt he got for himself, his gaze flicking out at nothing as he concentrated. He held his hands out, palms up, and ported a tidily rolled up shirt from his apartment into them. 

Only Vico would tag and organize his clothes so meticulously that he could fetch them whenever he needed. He was that way with everything, though. It had been extremely useful when they worked together. “You aren’t going back to work?” he asked as he watched Vico pull on the clean shirt. 

“I finished my work before lunch,” Vico said, combing his fingers through his hair. He folded the bloody undershirt neatly and set it on the bedside table to be disposed of. 

“You complained last night about how hard Marten works you, but today you could finish it all before lunch,” Jayen said. 

“Because I made sure I got away before he could pile more work on me. Is that the preliminary report?” he asked, his eyes on the thin folder Micah had left. Jayen handed it over to him. Another pair of eyes couldn’t hurt. He didn’t even care if Vico’s reasons for involving himself in the case as if he was still part of the security devision were because of Seya or not. It was a chance to work with him again, however peripherally. He wasn’t being ignored, and that was what mattered. 

When Micah came back with the food and clothes, Jayen asked him to let Vico have a look at the physical evidence and Desielle’s trace analysis too. Micah wasn’t happy about it. “What are you doing here?” he asked, pulling Jayen aside as he was coming back from changing. 

“What? He knows the drill. He ought to have been put in L&R, it was just Addison’s bullshit that kept him out of it.”

“No, I know how good he is as a mage,” Micah said. “I worked with him too. I’m asking what you’re doing. Here.”

“I—” Jayen glanced into the patient room. He had thought the feeling of connection would fade out, but it was still there, and it made him feel like he shouldn’t leave yet. Micah studied him, tipping his head to the side, his expression shifting from annoyance to surprise and then disbelief. They had been friends all their lives, and he knew Jayen’s aura as well as his own, because Jayen was terrible at keeping it shielded. “Is that—”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Jayen said.

“Have you told—”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it!”

“Your father—”

“Do not tell him,” Jayen said, fixing Micah with a glare.

Micah threw up his hands in disgust. “Whatever. Rena’s pinging me about something, I have to go.”

Vico looked up from the preliminary trace analysis he was studying as Jayen came back into the room. “I’d like see the files from the previous attack. To compare.”

“I’ll bring them to you tomorrow,” Jayen said.

Vico shut the folder and set it aside. Without context, it contained nothing particularly useful, and reading it had only made him think about the day three weeks ago when Lejan had come to tell him Jayen had been stabbed in the street. Of the cold feeling the news had left in his chest, of how he hadn’t gone to the healers’ offices because he knew no one would let him through to see for himself that Jayen was all right. He wished now that he had tried; he couldn’t help but feel he might have seen something to indicate this kind of escalation was in the works. 

He reached over to touch Seya’s hand again. She was sleeping peacefully, knocked well out by a very strong pain ward. He felt the faint thread of their bond, warm and a tiny bit reassuring. He hadn’t missed the faint connection that remained after Jayen had anchored her while Aren worked. That was…a surprise. Not an altogether unpleasant one, truthfully. It kind of caught in his throat, Jayen carrying Seya, standing for hours at the table to hold her back from death. He had forgotten Jayen could be so reliable. 

Well, not forgotten. He knew exactly how good Jayen was at taking care of people. He ran his fingers through his hair again. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Jayen looked down at him suspiciously. “For what?” 

“I forgot you were being targeted. I should have been paying attention. Taken some precautions.”

“You never forget anything,” Jayen muttered.

“I’m not a damn memory charm,” Vico said. “I do forget things sometimes.” When he was upset, usually. Or, apparently, when an opportunity to put his life back together was dangled in front of him. The small warmth of the fire charm bounced against his jaw as he stretched the kink out of his neck. He unclipped it and held it out to Jayen.

Jayen reacted, predictably, with a flash of anger. “I told you I don’t want that back!” 

“I’m not returning it. This is a loan. I expect to get it back when you’ve replaced the one you broke.”

Jayen made no move to take it, so Vico caught him by his collar and pulled him down close enough to clip it on his earring. Jayen huffed under his breath and reached up to touch the charm. “What if you need it?” 

“I haven’t needed it for ages.” He’d been glad of the thing for a couple of months after their breakup, thanks to the challenges from people who’d seen his single status as an opportunity, and a certain amount of more blatant rough treatment from the McKellen faction, until Jayen had put his foot down about it. He’d never said as much, but Vico knew. “I’m not important enough to be targeted. Just a mediator.” 

Jayen disagreed with that assessment. Vico waved his objections away and took up the bag with the glass shards to examine it again. “It’s hardly a secret that almost everyone in the clan would be happy to know I was gone. Did Micah say anything else about what they found at the park?” he asked, to change the subject.

“No,” Jayen said. “Nothing else.”

Vico watched from the corner of his eye as Jayen settled back into his chair. “You don’t have to stay,” he said softly. “I’m sure you’ve got things to do. We’ll be fine.”

Jayen propped his feet on the edge of the bed and threw Vico a scowl, as if daring him to object. “You just rest like Aren told you. I’m not going anywhere.”

 ❀

Seya woke with her neck cricked from being turned to one side for too long. When she tried to sit up, pain lanced across her back and shoulder, and she flopped her face back down onto the pillow with a sharp gasp. It was just as well, she decided blearily; she seemed to have misplaced her shirt somewhere. 

She turned her head and saw Vico sprawled on an identical bed a few inches from hers, one arm falling over the edge. Jayen was slumped in a chair on the other side of the bed Vico was occupying, with his head resting on the mattress, his feet propped up in another chair. “Vico,” she said, and it came out a harsh cough because her throat was so dry. 

Vico sat up, bleary. “Seya? Y’alright, love?”

“I guess,” she said in a hoarse whisper. “You two okay?”

“We’re fine, don’t waste any energy worrying about us.” He started to get up, swayed sightly, and sat back down. Seya felt a wave of dizziness that was not her own, and came to a slow awareness of the remains of the energy Vico had channeled to her to keep her alive, and the warm spark of the bond that had been reestablished between them in doing so. She shut her eyes, torn between gratitude for the fact that he had probably saved her life, and dismay for what it would cost him, for how hard that was going to make it to leave again. 

“Hey, I’m fine, it’s nothing,” Vico said. Prodding at Jayen, he said, “Hey, she’s awake, she’s fine. Stop pretending to be asleep.” 

Jayen sat up. There was a pattern of bruises across his face from where she’d slammed into him. He glowered at her for a moment and then turned his glare out the window. It was dark out. “Whatever,” he rumbled, but there wasn’t much in the way of anger in his aura. His attention was focused somewhere outside.

The sound of their voices brought footsteps to the door of the room, and a testy voice. “Don’t try to get up! Spirits, but you’re just as much of an idiot as you ever were. Some things never change.”

“Is that Aren?” she asked, her voice muffled into the pillow. He wasn’t the last person she wanted to see, but he wasn’t that far from the top of the list. 

“It is,” said Aren, “and you’re welcome, by the way. That was a hell of a curse, nearly killed you.” 

“Thanks,” she said, twisting her head to look at him. He had hardly changed at all since the last time she’d seen him; a younger version of his father, short and narrow-shouldered, his hair straight and dark, cut efficiently short. He even had the slight stoop from constantly bending over patients and medicinal brews, though the similarities ended there. The deep southern Caldi coloring and angular features he had inherited from his mother were somewhat tempered by his father’s Thelassai blood, but his acerbic personality was all Winter. He had her same sharp, dark eyes and sharper tongue, and absolutely no tolerance for other people’s nonsense.

“I brought you some water.” He crouched next to the bed and held up a cup of water with a straw for her to drink. He was angry; it was snapping all over his aura, but he was professional enough to put her treatment first. “Is that enough?” 

“Yes. Thank you,” she repeated. He set the cup on the table and dropped a bundle onto the bed next to her. “I brought you a shirt. Your other one was irretrievably damaged by the curse, I had to burn it.”

“Thank you.” 

“I’m going to check your injuries now,” he said, and pulled back the sheet. Vico grimaced and looked way. 

“That bad?” Seya asked.

“Well, not nearly as bad as before, but yeah. That’s a bad curse.”

“It was a bad curse,” Aren said, running his fingers along the marks it had left on her back, testing them with his sense. Seya shifted uncomfortably at the intrusive, if necessary presence “It is now more of an inconvenient one. I managed to purify the bulk of it before it did any lasting damage. Fortunately for you I wasn’t busy.”

“Thank you,” she said again.

“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the pain?”

“Eleven,” she said, wincing aloud as he prodded a particularly raw spot on her shoulder blade.

He peeled the depleted ward off her neck and replaced it with a fresh one. “And now?”

She sat up cautiously. It still hurt, but not unbearably. “I don’t know, five?”

Jayen turned way with a disgusted grimace. “Gods, woman, have some decency.”

She pulled the sheet over her chest, rolling her eyes. “No one’s asking you to look. What are you even doing in here?” 

Jayen declined to comment. She frowned at him. With the pain reduced, she could read the restless, anxious energy in his aura—was he worried? About her? “I must be really out of it,” she muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose. 

“Hmm,” Aren said. He added another ward, which reduced the pain to a dull, distant ache. “I suppose you have heard this enough times, but since you’re obviously still a certified idiot, let’s go over it anyway: wards are not a substitute for full recovery. Do not make any sharp, sudden movements, do not exert yourself in any way, absolutely no fighting.” 

“Yes, Aren. Thank you, Aren.”

He grabbed her left wrist and held up her gloved hand. “Is there some reason why you have this so heavily warded I can’t take it off?” he asked.

“Yeah, the reason is mind your own business,” she said, tugging her hand away with all the force she could muster.

“It’s my business if whatever you’re hiding is going to affect my treatment,” he said.

“It won’t. And that’s all I’m saying on the subject.”

He made a disgusted face and walked out of the room without another word.

“What time is it?” Seya asked.

“About one in the morning,” Vico said. “You’ve been out for a while.”

“What happened?”

“It was probably an assassination attempt by the same guys who tried to kill him before,” Vico said.

“She doesn’t need to know that!” Jayen objected.

Vico ignored him. “They traced the water to the pond across the park, and found these.” He held the bag containing the glass shards out to her. 

“Water to cut through the fire, glass to cut everything else. But where did the curse come from?” She tried to call up the curse in her sense to compare it to the sigils, since she could still feel the residue of it in her blood, but Aren had obliterated most of the markers. What remained was merely malicious intent, muted and contained by Aren’s healing spellwork, with few distinguishing characteristics.

Vico shrugged. “We haven’t heard anything more yet. Whoever it was didn’t leave any traces that I could read, but then I was pretty preoccupied with keeping you from dying.”

“Thanks, Vico,” she said. “But really, did you have to bring me here?”

He shrugged. “I thought you’d be happier here than with the Malthusius healers, and a temple would’ve had to call the Guard about that curse.”

“Technically I will have to as well,” Aren said as he returned, carrying a cup of something smelling sharply green and fizzing with healing magic. “The only reason I have not yet is because I didn’t want to leave the patient alone before she woke up, and my partner was already gone for the day. When she arrives at the clinic’s opening time, I will be calling to inform them of this incident.”

“Come on, Aren, she’s practically family,” Vico said. “No need to bring the law into this.”

“I realize you Malthusius are a law unto yourselves,” Aren said. “But the rest of us are required to obey Caldona’s actual laws.”

“The general’s laws,” Jayen muttered.

“Who makes them doesn’t matter, laws are laws for a reason,” Aren retorted, turning back to Seya. “Drink this.” He handed her the cup. “It will help purify the remains of the curse. I’ll be discharging you in the morning. The medicine should start to take effect in about two hours. You will need someone to stay with you at all times while on it, in case the curse rebounds. It’ll take three more doses at least, and I’ll have to heal the remainder of the damage as the curse abates, so you will need to come by once or twice a day so that I can monitor and maintain the spellwork. I recommend bed rest, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, six to eight glasses of water a day, no alcohol. I have you down for a three o’clock appointment tomorrow.” He leaned forward. “You better show up, and on time.”

“Yes, Aren. Thank you, Aren. I don’t drink, Aren.”

He crossed his arms and stared down at her. “All right. Now, where the hell have you been?”

“There it is,” she said. “I didn’t think it’d take you this long to ask.”

“I’m asking now,” he snapped. “Where have you been for the last ten years? It better be damned good.”

I ran off in a fit of angst and ended up in the army with my magic being coerced by the country’s most notorious traitor, from whom I am currently on the run, and also from the army, who will almost certainly think I’m still working for him if they learn I’m not dead after all. If it had happened to someone else, she might have considered it a good story, but somehow she doubted that was what he meant. “Around,” she said. 

“Around,” Aren said. He turned to Vico. 

Vico shrugged. “She hasn’t told me.”

“At this point it’d probably be easier to list the places I haven’t been,” she said—which was the wrong thing, if the way anger flared in Aren’s aura was any indication. 

“Are you making a gods damned joke out of this?” he hissed. “Do you realize what you did to my parents, disappearing like that? Do you know how much my mother blamed herself when you never came back? They were devastated!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, staring down at the rumpled sheets, suddenly weary beyond the mere physical. “I really am.”

“I’m not the one you need to apologize to,” he said. He turned to Vico. “I’ll be sleeping in my office if she needs anything.” The door slammed behind him.

“Well then,” she said.

“He’s not wrong,” Vico said, not quite looking at her. There was a mild sense of reproach, which he did try to keep back, not quickly enough.

“Do you really think I haven’t had ample time to reflect on the stupid, life-destroying mistake I made when I was a teenager?” she asked.

“I’m just saying,” he said mildly.

“Ugh.” She put on the shirt Aren had left for her. Her injured shoulder was so stiff Vico had to help her pull the sleeves over her arms. It was one of the loose, smock-like things usually worn by healers’ assistants, printed with an annoyingly cheerful floral pattern, tying closed across the front at the shoulder and hip for ease of removal. Vico did up the ties for her. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to bring me my own clothes while I’m waiting for Aren to kick me out.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Vico said. “I am definitely not fetching you those awful rags you’ve been hauling around gods know where.”

“Look, it’s not like they’re going to come back for me. Jayen was their target. Shouldn’t he be under lock and key at the Malthusius compound?”

“I’m not hiding at home just because some assholes want me dead,” Jayen said. 

“At the very least you should get someone to fix your face.”

He looked at her incredulously. “Halcyon was a little busy to worry about some superficial bruises.”

“He was busy all night?”

“Oh for—just shut the hell up. What is wrong with you anyway? You don’t stop in the middle of a duel to save your opponent’s life! What made you think I needed your help anyway? I can take care of myself!”

“Don’t mind him,” Vico said. “He’s just angry because he lost.”

“How was it anything but a draw?” she asked.

Vico pointed at the bruises on Jayen’s face. “You did this when you knocked him out of the way, ergo, you won.”

Jayen brushed his hand away. “Like hell! She went over the line, and that definitely counted as physical violence! If we hadn’t been interrupted, I’d have won!”

“If you’re going to be that childish about it you can just have a rematch when she’s better.”

“Don’t think we won’t!”

“Sure,” she said, lying back down. The pain wards were starting to make her lightheaded, but she was not so out of it that she missed how under Jayen’s blustering, he really was worried and upset on her behalf, nor the spark of the nascent bond flickering between them. She wasn’t prepared to deal with that, even if Jayen had helped save her life, but the weight of the pain wards against her own sense wouldn’t let her withdraw completely. “You guys really don’t need to stay if there’s something else you need to do.”

“You hush,” said Vico, picking up an old back issue of Modern Casting from the table and flipping through it. Jayen huffed, flinging himself back into the chair, glaring out the window. Seya shut her eyes. Somehow, even Jayen’s prickly presence was sort of comforting. I really am out of it, she decided, and sank into the lulling energy of the pain wards, finally drifting back to sleep.