Aren woke her at seven for one last examination. “You’ll live,” he said curtly. “If you can manage to remember what I told you.”
“I think I’ve been through this enough to know what to do,” she said. “What about the fee?” She had been dreading that discussion.
“Vico took care of it already.”
“What?” he asked as he helped her up. “Like you could have paid him?”
She looked up at the ceiling and sighed, because it was true. “How much was it?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Aren looked to Jayen. “Are you sure you won’t let me take care of your face before you go? It’ll only take a couple minutes.”
“Like I’d let one of you Halcyons get your magic all over me,” Jayen said.
Aren’s lips twisted in irritation. “I’ve half a mind to charge extra for putting up with his attitude,” he said.
“Well, you can bill me, I put my address on the admittance form,” Vico said.
“Here’s an extra ward in case the ones you have now start wearing off. If the curse starts rebounding bring her back immediately. If it happens while we’re closed, just bring her to Halcyon. Do I need to remind you not to leave her alone?”
“Nope,” Vico said, clapping him lightly on the shoulder. “I’ll look after her properly.”
“I don’t need looking after,” she said, but the impact of the words was somewhat lessened by the fact that she had to lean on Vico’s arm to stay on her feet. It was partly the weakness, and partly the sedating influence of the pain wards. She was starting to feel the heady, drugged sensation that marked longer exposure to their effects.
“I’ll get the car,” Jayen said, picking up the keys from the table.
“Oh, no, I’m definitely driving,” Vico said. “You can hold this.” He pushed Seya onto Jayen’s arm and snatched the keys away.
Jayen watch him dart out before either of them could object, indignation on his face. “Is he playing us?”
“Like a damn piano,” she said.
Jayen swore under his breath. “You know what, dueling was his idea too. I’m going to give him a piece of my mind when he gets back.” Seya gave him a pitying look. Clearly he was still a little stupid about anything that had to do with feelings.
She thought he would dump her off on Aren, but he just slipped her right arm over his shoulder, his face set in resignation. The bond sparked between them again, and he made a disgusted sound in his throat. “That’s so stupid, like I’d want a bond with you,” he muttered, though his ire felt halfhearted.
“It’s a fairly natural occurrence between people who have saved each other’s lives,” Aren said.
“That’s why I’m saying it’s stupid,” Jayen said. “We hate each other.”
“I don’t hate you,” she said. She probably wouldn’t have said it if standing up under the power of two of the strongest pain wards hadn’t knocked her for a loop. He didn’t hate her anymore either. His feelings had always been—complicated.
“Then what was all that shit about just tolerating me for Vico’s sake then?”
“He’s very upset at you. Also, you were being an ass.”
Jayen put his arm around her waist and directed her to the door. “I’m sick of dealing with you already.” Despite his terse words, he was moving very carefully to avoid jostling her injured shoulder.
He glared down at her. “I’ll never thank you as long as I live.”
They were met in the hall by a curvy, petite woman whose light, olive-toned skin wasn’t quite the right shade to be Caldi. Her short, golden-brown hair framed a pert, pleasant face, and she had the sort of aggressively practical spiritual presence Seya associated with healers. She was pulling on a fresh healer’s smock. “Aren, Zan will be here soon with those herbs from the school that you asked for,” she said. Her eyes went to Seya and Jayen. “Is this your patient from last night? I was a little worried when you said you weren’t coming home, but she looks all right.” She had a slight accent, not quite Talese but similar.
“Kaya, this is Seya, one of Halcyon’s former students,” he said. “Seya, this is my partner, Kaya Alciere.”
“Nice to meet you,” Seya said. “I can’t really shake your hand, though. Sorry.” Her left arm was useless, but she wasn’t really sorry. Hanging onto Jayen was a full sensory overload, his strong, unrestrained personality made only marginally more bearable by the muting effects of the pain wards. She was going to be very happy to lie down on Vico’s couch, well out of the range of other people’s hands and presences.
“It’s quite all right!” Kaya said, offering her a sweet smile. Seya tried to picture her and Aren working together. There was a bond there as well—not a natural bond, something through Halcyon if she was reading it right. A significant relationship then. She was curious in spite of herself, as Aren had identified as asexual and aromantic since the were quite young.
“By all means, let’s have a pleasant conversation in the hall while I’m holding her up,” Jayen said.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” Seya said, as Kaya eyed him rather askance. “No one ever taught him any manners.”
“Clearly,” Kaya said.
Jayen swore under his breath again. “Can we just leave already? I have to get to the compound and deal with all this. And talk to my father.”
“You didn’t tell him already?” Seya said. “I can’t see that causing a mountain of problems or anything.”
“I was a little busy.”
“Doing what? Sleeping?”
“Oh, I don’t know, establishing a perimeter, maintaining defensive wards in case we were attacked again. Keeping an eye on Vico while he recharged after dumping all his energy into you to keep you alive. Resting after keeping you from dying. Dumb shit, really.”
“Stop shouting in my clinic,” Aren said. He pushed open the door to the waiting room and held it open for them.
“You’ll know when I start shouting, Halcyon. And we’re leaving, aren’t we?” Jayen said testily.
“Do you need some help?” Kaya asked, hovering behind them as they maneuvered through the narrow doorway.
“I’m fine—” Seya’s voice trailed off as Zan stepped into the waiting room with a bucket of freshly cut herbs over each arm, frowning through the open front door over his shoulder.
“Why are there strange wards set up around the yard?” he asked Aren, turning to his cousin. His eyes settled on Seya, and he trailed off as well, blinking at her in astonishment.
“Gods above and below,” she muttered, turning her eyes up to the ceiling. “This day just keeps getting better.”
“Seya! What happened?” He took in Jayen supporting her and tensed visibly, glancing to Aren. “Is everything all right here?”
Jayen bristled at that. “Mind your own gods damned business, Montreides,” he snapped.
“Everything’s fine,” Aren said. “They were just leaving.”
“Yes, hopefully sometime today, even,” Seya said. “So nice to see you again, Master Montreides, I’m lovely, thanks, never better.”
He looked away, his brow furrowed at her sarcastic tone. “She’s the patient you were talking about on the phone last night? The one who was almost cursed to death?” he asked, glancing at Jayen again.
“Yes, and I see you two have already met,” Aren said. “I’m sure that’s an interesting story.”
“She came by the school looking for your mother,” Zan said. “Where would you like these plants?”
“Apothecary room, thank you,” Aren asked. “Kaya, can you go ahead and start the next batch of the number seventeen curse-negator? I’m going to need a week’s worth for Seya.”
“Of course, dear,” she said, taking one of the buckets. Zan held the door for her and followed her down the hallway with the other one.
“Would you like a sling for your arm?” Aren asked.
“No, it’ll be fine. Let’s just go already.” With her ward-fogged brain, Seya didn’t think she could handle another conversation with Zan. His obvious concern set her nerves on edge. She leaned into Jayen’s side, pushing his solid frame toward the door with limited success.
“Where the hell is Vico?” Jayen said.
Taking his time so they would be forced to keep interacting is what Seya guessed. “Where did you park?” she asked. There were no vehicles in front of the clinic, and none on the roadside either.
“Micah moved the car down a few streets after we brought you here yesterday. Didn’t want anyone to find us before I had a chance to explain to dad—Oh, there he is.”
Vico pulled around the corner and parked on the side of the road in front of the clinic. He’d only just gotten out of the car when two Malthusius fleet vehicles screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, blocking Jayen’s car in. Jayen swore quietly to himself as his father stepped out of one of them.
“We should go outside,” Seya said. There was no way to avoid dealing with Corin now, but she could at least keep the trouble out of Aren’s clinic.
“It’s fine, I’ll talk to him,” said Jayen. He handed her over to Aren and went outside. Seya dragged Aren along after him more out of will than anything, since she could barely stay upright. Aren stopped her just outside the doorway, because it was clear by then that Corin had no interest in a civil discussion. He stormed up the walk, emanating raw fury, slowing only briefly to take in his son’s bruised face. He ignored Jayen’s attempted explanation before turning to her with a level of anger that probably would have frightened her if she hadn’t been so bewildered by it. He grabbed her by the front of her shirt and slammed her backwards into the doorjamb. “What the hell did you do to my son?” he thundered.
Her answer was mostly incoherent swearing; he had slammed her back hard enough to knock off one of the pain wards. The bruising force against the freshly healed curse injury rocketed her straight into whiteout levels of agony.
“I’ll thank you to keep your hands off of my patient!” Aren exclaimed in outrage, trying to pull his hand off her. He got shoved backwards through the clinic door for his trouble. For all his confrontational verbal habits, Aren was not and had never been a fighter, so when he got up, he went straight for the phone at the reception desk to call the guard, tracing the sigil onto the dial pad with shaking fingers.
“Gods damn it, dad, just listen to me!” Jayen barked.
Vico, who had been detained by the men accompanying Corin, broke away from them in a panic, hurtled up the walk. “Master Malthusius, this isn’t what you think, I swear—”
The grip on her relaxed just a bit as Corin turned to Vico, who found himself restrained again, by one of Corin’s bodyguards this time. He struggled against the woman’s hold, face gone deathly pale at the pain coming unfiltered through their fragile new bond. Corin loomed over him, aura raging without restraint. “And you! I was willing to overlook your deceit yesterday morning because you’ve managed to be useful to me despite your tarnished blood—I don’t know how you’ve persuaded my son to keep this from me, but if you imagine you’ll remain among my bonded after this—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, after what? I didn’t—it was just a duel!”
“A duel that resulted in the guard being called to Kesendra Park! Imagine my surprise when I learned two of my own bonded were also out there, looking around without my knowledge, after a lethal attack on my heir!”
Vico winced. “Yes, but Jayen was coming to let you know—”
Seya lost the thread of the argument when Jayen joined the shouting too. She was close to passing out. There was too much anger and alarm swarming about in her sense; between that and the pain, it was the magical equivalent of being battered by a bag of hammers. Corin lost his grip on her at some point, and she would have fallen over if someone hadn’t caught her by the arm. Zan—she recognized that calm, steady aura immediately despite everything. Of course it was Zan. She couldn’t even feel properly indignant about the fact that she incapable of doing anything but sag against his shoulder, there was only pain. He lowered her to a kneeling position as her legs went out from under her. It was suddenly very quiet in her sense, the strength his presence drowning out everything else, and that was a small relief. She let her face rest against his arm and tried to breathe through the pain.
The ward Corin had knocked off of Seya’s back was lay at Zan’s feet. He picked it up to put it back on her, and found it had been stepped on, the lines smudged, rendering it useless. He could read how strong it had been, and a glint of anger lit in his eyes. “Is there a problem here, gentlemen?” he asked. His tone was firmly and implacably civil, but there was an edge to it that was sharp enough to cut through the yelling.
Corin rounded on him. “Montreides, what a surprise.” His fury vanished into cold, perfectly shielded calm, though he took no such trouble to hide his suspicion. “I should have expected this. The Halcyons were always too happy to interfere in my business. If I find you were involved in this attempt on my son’s life, I’ll see your sad little school shut down, and you run out of town like the cowardly excuse for a bondmaster you are.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you are talking about,” Zan said. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Master Malthusius.”
Corin scoffed, turning away. “Jayen, get in the car, now. You are going to a proper healer right this minute.” Another of his men had come to join him at Zan’s appearance; to him, Corin said, “Bring Rhaimes. And her. This will need to be settled personally.”
“I think not,” Zan said, asserting his shields and taking a protective stance over Seya. The Malthusius people hesitated. He was a bondmaster, after all, even if the Halcyon bonds held only a small percentage of Starling’s magical interests. If they laid hands on him, it could easily become an incident. Zan’s eyes flicked over them, decided he had no cause for concern just yet, before turning back to Seya. “We should probably go back inside. Can you stand?”
She didn’t answer. He looped an arm around her waist to help her up.
Corin grabbed Jayen by the arm and propelled him toward the cars. Jayen smacked his hand off. “Damn it, Dad, I don’t need a healer!”
“It’s just bruised, I tried to tell you, we were in the middle of a duel, and someone attacked us in the circle, I got hit in the face while she was saving me!”
Corin glanced at her in disbelief. “Saving you?”
“Yes, damn it, and she got cursed half to death for her trouble, so just—stop, okay?”
An uncomfortable silence fell over the group. “I apologize. I can see I was…misinformed as to the nature of this incident,” Corin said stiffly.
“Maybe if you had just listened to me instead of flying off the handle!” Jayen snapped.
Seya gave a faint moan against Zan’s arm. “Seya, are you okay?” he asked, putting his hand under her arm, pulling it away almost immediately at her pained gasp. His fingers were covered in blood and stinging with an unpleasantly familiar sensation—she’d been cursed again. “Aren, it’s rebounding!”
Aren dropped the phone and came running out of the clinic at that, shouting for Kaya. Corin stared in shock at the red stain blossoming across the back of Seya’s shirt as they pulled her to her feet. There was a brief tussle as the redheaded man who had come to find her at Halcyon broke free from the Malthusius restraining him and came hurtling up the steps after them as they half-carried Seya into the clinic, but he stopped when Aren looked back and said, sharply, “No. You’re too uncentered. Stay here and get yourself back together before you start affecting her.”
Kaya hurried out with a new pain ward. Seya went limp in relief the second it was applied, and they hustled her back into the exam room.
“Help me put her on the table, please,” Aren said. He sliced the blood-soaked shirt off. “Again,” he growled, swearing under his breath. Zan blanched at the extent of her injuries, but Aren appeared relieved. “That doesn’t look as bad as I feared,” he said. Zan gave him an incredulous look; if this wasn’t as bad as he’d feared, how bad had it been originally? “The medicine was already starting to take effect, I think.”
“Speak for yourself,” Seya muttered.
“The patient shouldn’t waste energy talking,” Aren said. Kaya bustle into the room with a tray of antiseptic, bandages, and curse wards. “Zan, we’re going to need you to hold her down while we work, please, this will be trickier with her awake.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if you sedated her?” he asked, remembering her reaction to being touched the day before.
“No, if she’s awake, she can tell me how far it’s spread out from the point of rebound.” Aren said. “It’s fine, just put your hands here.” The way she flinched when he put his hands on her said it was far from fine, but Aren had already begun to pull out the rebounded curse, and he could not release her without interrupting the treatment.
She might not be able to feel the pain, but her body couldn’t help reacting to the curse’s attempts to escape the bounds of Aren’s healing spellwork. She was surprisingly strong, her slim frame proving tough and wiry. Not strong enough to make his task difficult, but more than he had expected. It required physical stamina to use strong magic, and hers was strong. With her defenses down, he could tell, despite it being somewhat muted by two high level pain wards, the efforts of two experienced healers, and the vicious energy of the curse. She was projecting, too—anger, frustration, fear. Zan averted his eyes, ignoring his curiosity and reformulating his shields to shut everything out. He didn’t enjoy feeling like a voyeur.
Kaya mopped the blood off her back and applied the antiseptic, healing the reopened cuts in Aren’s wake as he neutralized the worst of the curse. By the time they were finished Seya was shaking with exhaustion and infuriated at being reduced to such a position. She put her face down and swore into the padded table top. She was dimly aware of the Malthusius group still arguing in the waiting room—mostly Jayen and Corin. Vico was standing outside the door, firmly shielded, though his anxiety flickered on the edge of her sense when he checked the bond connection. He withdrew quickly before the feeling could affect her.
Aren went to get more medicine, grumbling the whole while. Kaya blotted the sweat off her face and neck with a dampened cloth. “I’ll bring you some water,” she said.
“Sure,” Seya muttered, wishing she had the energy to be more graceful about it. “Thanks.”
Kaya gave her a gentle, encouraging pat on her uninjured shoulder. Seya reminded herself that it was kindly meant, and that, as a stranger, she couldn’t possibly know that was only going to make her more uncomfortable, especially in her weakened state. “Don’t worry about it, dear. Zan, will you keep an eye on her for a minute? I’ll be right back.”
“Of course,” he said.
Kaya left. Zan went to wash his hands, dropping his shields as he went, and wincing at the volume of the anger she was still projecting. “I apologize if this counts as being pushy again,” he said.
For a moment she thought he was being sarcastic, but of course he meant it. “What is wrong with you? You enjoy playing savior that much?” Spurred by mortification, the words came out before she even thought about them. The response caught him off guard, surprise flickering across his features. Seya gave a muffled groan, curling her uninjured arm over her head to hide her face. “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s quite all right,” he said. “I am familiar with the effects of pain wards on impulse control.”
That made her angrier, but she kept her mouth shut this time. She wasn’t angry at him. It was, she thought somewhat bitterly, impossible to be angry at him, he was practically a saint. He turned his attention back to his hands, scrubbing at the red stains around his nails and mouthing the water purification spells automatically to clear the traces of energy. There was that line between his eyebrows and a troubled downturn to his mouth. It was the same expression he had worn after she had nearly had a panic attack in his kitchen, of someone upset by something they had no power to fix. Seya shut her eyes, not wanting to see it.
Aren came back. “Thanks, Zan. You can go, I think she’ll be fine. We’ll be keeping her under observation for the day.”
“I’ll be fine with Vico,” Seya objected.
“I’ll keep you here all week if I have to,” he said crisply. “No arguments.”
“She’s fine now?” Vico asked from the door, pausing on the threshold and eyeing Zan with a slight wariness before going to stand next to the exam table. He squeezed Seya’s hand gently, and that was comforting. She relaxed, very slightly.
“She will be, if she can refrain from pissing off anyone else today. Visiting hours are over, so get out, and take your idiot Malthusius friends with you.”
Vico snorted. “None of my Malthusius friends, such as they are, were included in Corin’s little outing. Corin’s gone, though, and he took his entourage with him, the bastard. Your receptionist arrived while Jayen was explaining what happened. He left some money with her to pay for Seya’s treatment.”
Seya swore under her breath again. The last thing she wanted was any damn thing at all from Corin Malthusius, no matter how deserved.
“The security guys outside sent the guard away when they got here, so if you want to press charges for trespassing and assault, you’ll have to call them back.”
Aren scowled at him. “I’m less concerned with the trespassing than the fact that he nearly killed one of his children on Halcyon property.”
“Shut up, Aren,” Seya said, her anger flaring back up. Zan lifted his head from where he was toweling his hands dry, his face blank with shock.
“I think it’s well past time to be denying it after yesterday—”
“Corin Malthusius is not my father. My father died in a street duel, killed by one of his people!”
“Stepfather,” Aren said. Vico turned to him with fire in his eyes.
“Aren, this is perhaps not the best time,” Kaya said, a warning note in her voice. Aren had the grace to look contrite, though he did not apologize.
Zan cleared his throat, his discomfort palpable in the small room. “I think I will be going, then.”
Aren saw him out, mostly because Kaya shoved him out the door. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. He should know better than to bring up upsetting subjects in front of a curse victim.”
“It’s fine,” Seya said. She and Aren had always had a contentious friendship. She preferred it that way. Prickly, argumentative people were easier to deal with than nice ones. And on that thought it finally occurred to her that Zan had just faced down the most powerful man in town on her behalf, and instead of thanking him, she had been rude. “I’m the worst person alive, aren’t I,” she mumbled into the top of the table.
“It’s part of your charm,” Vico said, squeezing her hand again.
She was brought another shirt and moved back to the patient room, on her own two feet this time, if still supported between Vico and Kaya. She found herself settled face down on the same bed she had been occupying an hour before.
“Please rest now. Shall I bring you a sedative?” Kaya asked.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Are you really fine?” Vico asked after Kaya left again.
“Of course not, it’s not even nine and this day is already an utter fiasco. Are you going to be okay?”
“I’m fine. Corin settled down after we finally got to explain everything. I’m not revoked, and he won’t object to you staying with me either. He went off to look into the assassination attempt himself. I’m supposed to go meet them at the security offices so I can be debriefed properly, and then I have a couple of things to take care of for work, but I’ll come get you later.”
“That’s fine. I’m not planning on moving any time soon.” The lethargy induced by the pain wards was overtaking her burst of emotion; just stringing the words together sapped the rest of it.
“Good.” He paused, and looked away before saying, reluctantly, “He still wants to see you. Corin.”
“Like hell,” she muttered.
Vico shrugged, but she could feel his own anger at the edge of her consciousness. It was darkly comforting. “It’s your call. I can’t really blame you. I’ve no idea what set him off like that. He was always so obsessed with getting you to join the clan. I always thought that was part of the reason he’d agreed to allow me in, to be honest.”
Seya was more than a little baffled by that too. He couldn’t possibly know—but that was a dangerous line of thought, which she quashed before she triggered another panic. Aren would probably kill her himself if had to put her shoulder back together again.
“Would you rather I stayed?” Vico asked softly. “I’ll stay if you need me.”
“No, I’m okay. Go to work.”
“If you’re sure,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. I left the dial sigil for my work with Aren, so have him call me if you need anything. Anything at all.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“I’ll worry if I feel like it. Be careful.”
“I’m good. I’ll be at the compound all day.”
“That’s not a phrase that fills me with confidence. I mean it, Vico. Be careful.”
He squeezed her hand. “Yeah, you too. Don’t go haring off again, all right?”
“How can I, like this? It’s almost like you planned it this way.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You didn’t, did you?”
“Hey, that’s harsh, how could I do that to my only family?” he said, resting his hand on her uninjured shoulder for a moment. “I’ve got to go now, Jayen is pinging me. We’re leaving a security detail outside, and the wards they put up are still in place, so don’t worry and just rest, okay?”
Too exhausted to speak further, she sent her gratitude through the bond. His response left a comfortable warmth on the edge of her sense long after he was gone.