The next clear impression I had was of warmth and shouting. My back hurt, my leg hurt, and with my hearing shouting was always unpleasant. I tried to move, whether to cover my ears or to curl up into a position that was more comfortable for my back I wasn’t sure, and found that I couldn’t.
That was enough to wake me up in a hurry. My eyes shot open wide and I struggled, straining against my restraints. I couldn’t budge them, and the attempt made my leg hurt a lot more.
In a way, the pain was good. It brought things into focus again. If before my surroundings had felt blurry, now they were crystal clear, a clarity so sharp it almost didn’t feel real.
I was still lying on the travois. My limbs were tied to it with what looked like leather straps, and there was a scrap of cloth tied around my thigh. It was stained red. I was in the inn, in the taproom, and Corbin was there, and he was furious.
Corbin acted angry rather often. There were plenty of reasons; a villager had said or done something to annoy him, or a guest ran out without paying, sickness and bad weather and accidents. There was never a shortage of things to be angry at in Branson’s Ford. When those things happened he played the part, red in the face and shouting and pounding his fist on the bar. He was very good at playing the part of the angry innkeeper.
I’d only seen him really, truly furious a very few times, though. And the experience was entirely different. When he was genuinely in a rage Corbin was not demonstrative and overblown. He did not pound on the bar. His voice was quiet and precise, every sound enunciated crisply. His hands hung loose at his sides. And his expression made you want to cower in the corner and hope that he didn’t notice you. That wasn’t just me, either. When Corbin got like that, the villagers had a tendency to scatter and not come back for some time. The sound of the door closing suggested that it had just happened again.
I was just glad that the shouting had stopped for the moment.
“Someone,” Corbin said, “had better explain how this happened. Immediately.”
“Your assistant is clearly in need of medical attention,” Hideo said. I couldn’t see him from my current position, but his voice was unmistakable. “Don’t you think that takes priority over talking about how it happened?”
I could just make out Corbin raising one arm to point at Hideo. “You,” he said. “Be silent. If you say another word right now, I’m liable to do something that I’ll regret.”
I was expecting Hideo to have a mocking response to that. It seemed like an obvious setup, and the surveyor clearly enjoyed needling Corbin, for whatever reason.
Instead I heard a quiet click of teeth as he closed his mouth.
“Silf showed us up into the hills,” Sumi said into the silence that left behind. “Wandered around a little, seeing what the terrain looked like, and then got jumped by some ghouls. One of them got its claws into her before we could stop it.”
“Thank you,” Corbin said. “Now kindly leave. I have work to do.”
“Make sure you clean that wound out,” Hideo said. “Ghouls are known to carry all sorts of illnesses. And you know what they say. It’s best to clean out an infection completely, lest it come back to trouble you later.”
Corbin went very still at that, and his already cold expression went entirely blank. He had murder in his eyes. It was something I’d seen before, though not from Corbin. But I’d seen others with that look to them, that intent. I couldn’t put a word to it, couldn’t say quite what I was seeing, but I knew what I was looking at.
Someone was going to die in the next few seconds. And I was on the floor, tied to a sled and unable to move a muscle.
I whimpered in fear, and pulled against the straps again. I couldn’t help it. It didn’t even occur to me to stop it; I wasn’t aware of what I was doing until it was done.
Corbin glanced down at me, and his expression…didn’t soften, precisely, but it shifted. “Get out,” he said. “Right now. Any of you show your faces in my inn in the next three hours and you will regret it.”
Apparently Hideo decided that he’d pushed his luck far enough already, because he didn’t say anything. The next thing I heard was the door closing again.
Corbin stood there silently for a few seconds, apparently waiting. Then he said, “I know you’re watching. Hurry up and get out here.”
I was confused for a few seconds. Then Black moved into my field of view, kneeling down next to my head. “Oh, my,” she said. “You did get yourself into some trouble, didn’t you, Silf?”
“How bad is it?” Corbin asked. His voice was tight now, still not expressive like usual, but less because there was nothing there and more because he was holding it back.
“Looks fairly minor,” Black said. “I wouldn’t leave her like this, but it should heal well. Unless there’s something I should know about that?”
I shook my head. I had some problems from being Changed, but healing had never been one of them. Rather the opposite, if anything.
“All right,” Black said. “Let me get you off this thing and take care of that, then. What medical supplies do you have here, Corbin?”
“Anything you’d find in a legion hospital,” he replied instantly.
Black paused, and if I was reading her expression properly, she was surprised. “Excellent,” she said after a moment. “Bring me needle and cord, tincture of iodine, alcohol, clean water, anaesthetic, and a clean dressing.”
Corbin nodded and left. A moment later I heard him on the stairs down to the cellar.
Black produced a knife from somewhere. It was a large, heavy knife, slightly curved with one edge. It had seen some heavy use. The leather of the grip was stained from wear, and the blade had a number of stains and nicks in it. The cutting edge, though, looked to be in very good shape.
“Sorry about this,” she said, leaning closer. “But you’ll be all right, Silf. Promise.”
I heard that, and saw the knife, and for a moment I was afraid. But no, she just cut the ties off. It felt good, circulation returning to my hands and being able to move again. I stretched a bit as she moved on to my feet.
I noted, though, that she left the blood-soaked cloth on my thigh well alone. I was guessing I knew why. The tear might be relatively small–it had to be, really, for me to have made it this far without bleeding out. And the improvised bandage wasn’t tied tight enough to be a tourniquet. But that didn’t mean that taking pressure off it was a good idea. I didn’t know much medicine, but I’d seen enough with the refugees to know that much.
Corbin returned a minute or so later, carrying a black wooden box. “This should be everything,” he said to Black. “I’ll be right back with the water.”
Black nodded and opened the box, pulling out a number of glass vials. She looked at each in turn and then selected a tiny one of very dark glass, dark enough that I could just barely see liquid inside. She eyed me for a moment and then pulled out a small metal spoon.
“Have you ever had an alchemical anaesthetic before?” she asked, unscrewing the cap.
I shook my head.
“It’ll make you feel numb,” Black said. “Maybe a bit sleepy, or you might feel like you’re floating. I have to stitch this closed, and this will make it so it doesn’t hurt.”
“Don’t really need it,” I said.
“Don’t argue with the doctor,” she said, with a trace of a smile. “We know you’re tough, Silf. You’ve got nothing to prove here. So be quiet and take your medicine.”
I debated arguing with her. Then I decided to be quiet and take my medicine.
The anaesthetic was a thick, syrupy liquid that looked bad and smelled worse. Black poured a spoonful of it and stuck it into my mouth. I swallowed, and immediately regretted doing so. It tasted foul, bitter and biting.
“All right,” Black said, standing. “Just need to wait for that water now.” She stood, taking a candle from the box, and went to the fire.
“It’s right here,” Corbin said, from somewhere out of my sight. “Just filtered it.”
“Good enough,” Black said, setting the lit candle on the table. She sat down next to me, and a moment later I felt something prodding at my leg. It was sharp, and cold, and I flinched without meaning to, but there was a sort of dullness to the sensation, almost a disconnect, like it was happening to someone else and I was just watching it. Black sat back to wait some more.
Corbin walked over and sat down next to me. He rested my head in his lap, and stroked my fur gently. “Bones and bloody ashes,” he said. “What happened to you out there, Silf?”
I stared up at him. He looked very far away. The room seemed like it was spinning, or I was, I wasn’t entirely sure.
I knew what an anaesthetic was. I’d never had one before, but I’d heard of them, and I knew a bit about them. Even back in the Whitewood there had never been enough of them. I’d heard the doctors there complaining about it. Alchemical anaesthetics, they’d said, were far too hard to come by, too hard to manufacture.
That bottle was easily worth gold. Even the dose Black had just given me was quite possibly worth as much as what all of the imperials would pay for this entire stay.
Why was Corbin so nice to me, anyway? It wasn’t like I was worth much to him. Just a Changed girl. Probably dead in a few years, and I didn’t exactly have a lot of skills in the interim. Everyone else had left me to die when the infection got too bad for me to walk, and he didn’t even know my name.
“Silf?” Corbin said, pulling my attention back to the present.
“Sorry,” I said, and then yawned widely. “Got fuzzy there. Nothing much happened, really. We were jumped by some ghouls.”
“Legionnaires don’t lose to ghouls,” Black said quietly.
“They won in the end,” I said. I yawned again. “We were outnumbered. Guess we just got unlucky.”
Corbin frowned. He didn’t say anything.
I yawned again, longer than before. I saw Black set the jug down and realized that she’d just washed the wound out with the water. I could smell blood. Funny that I hadn’t felt what she was doing. She was holding the needle now, rolling it in her fingers. She put it into the candle flame, almost above the flame, and held it there, passing it slowly back and forth through the fire. She held it up in front of herself and the metal was glowing yellow.
For a moment, I was somewhere else, another place and another time. I was trapped and I couldn’t see and the smoke was so thick and I could hear screaming and I was lost and the street was blocked and he was there and I could smell burning hair and there was blood on my hands and my throat hurt and–
And it was just Black. Just a needle. Just me bleeding on the floor of the inn.
Nothing bad at all.
“You look blurry,” I said, and then the darkness settled in again.