"Isana," Giraldi rumbled. "Steadholder, I'm sorry, but there's no more time. You need to wake."
Isana tried for a moment to remain in the blissful darkness of sleep, but then forced herself to open her eyes and sit up. She felt thoroughly wretched, exhausted, and wanted nothing more than lie down once more.
But that was not an option.
Isana blinked whatever exhaustion she could from her eyes. ' "Thank you, centurion."
"Ma'am," Giraldi said, with a nod, and stepped back from the bed.
Veradis looked up from where she sat beside Fade and the healing tub, holding the unconscious slave's hand. "Apologies, Steadholder," the healer murmured with a weak smile. "I have no more than an hour to give today. "
"It's all right, Veradis," Isana replied. "If you hadn't given me a chance to get some sleep, I'd never have lasted this far. May I have a moment to..."
Veradis nodded with another faint smile. "Of course."
Isana availed herself of the facilities and returned to kneel beside Veradis, slipping her own hand between hers and Fade's, and reassuming control of the steady effort of furycraft required to fight the man's infection. The first time she had handed the crafting off to Veradis, it had been a difficult, delicate maneuver-one only possible because of an unusual degree of similarity in their styles of furycraft, in fact. Repetition had made the extraordinary feat commonplace over the past twenty days.
Or was it twenty-one, Isana thought wearily. Or nineteen. The days began blurring together once the low, heavy storm clouds above the city had rolled in. Even now, they roiled restlessly above them, flickering with sullen thunder and crimson light but withholding the rain that should have come with it. The storm cast the world into continual twilight and darkness, and she had no way to measure the passing of time.
Even so, Isana had managed, barely, to hang on to the furycrafting that was Fade's only hope. Without Veradis giving her the odd hour or two to sleep, now and then, Fade would long since have died.
"How is he?" Isana asked. She settled down in the seat Veradis rose from.
The young healer once more bound Isana's hand to Fade's with soft rope. "The rot has lost some ground," Veradis said quietly. "But he's been in the tub too long, and he hasn't kept enough food down. His skin is developing a number of sores, which..." She shook her head, took a breath and began again. "You know what happens then."
Isana nodded. "Other sicknesses are pressing in."
"He's getting weaker, Steadholder," Veradis said. "If he doesn't rally soon-"
They were interrupted as the room's door banged opened. "Lady Veradis," said an armed legionare in a strained, urgent voice. "You must hurry. He's dying."
Veradis grimaced, her eyes sunken and weary. Then she rose, and said to Isana, "I don't know if I shall be able to return again," she said quietly.
Isana nodded once. Veradis turned and walked from the room, her steps swift, calm, and certain. "Describe the injury," she said. The legionare's description of the blow of a heavy mallet faded as the pair walked down the hall.
Giraldi watched them go, then rumbled, "Steadholder? You should eat. I'll bring you some broth."
"Thank you, Giraldi," Isana said quietly. The old soldier left the room, and she turned her attention to the crafting within Fade.
The pain of exposing herself to the substances within Fade had not lessened in the least. It had, however, become something familiar, something she knew and could account for-and as she had grown more weary, day by day, as she grew less able to distinguish it as a separate entity from her body's exhaustion, it had become increasingly unimportant.
She settled herself comfortably in the seat, her eyes open but unfocused. The infection now existed as a solid image in her mind that represented its presence within Fade. She pictured it as a mound of rounded stones, each solid and heavy, but also eminently moveable. She waited for a moment, until the beating of her heart and the slow cadences of her breath matched those of the wounded man. Then, in her mind's eye, she picked up the nearest stone and lifted it, carrying it aside and tossing it into a featureless imaginary stream. Then she repeated the action, deliberate, resolute, one stone after another.
She did not know how much time passed as she focused on helping Fade's body fight the contagion, but she suddenly felt a presence beside her at the imagined mound of rock.
Fade stood there, frowning up at the mound of rocks. He did not look as he did in the healing tub, worn and wan and wasted. Instead, he appeared to her as a young man-thin with youth and a body not yet done filling out. His hair was cut Legion style, his face bore no scar of a coward's brand, and he wore the simple breeches and tunic of an off-duty soldier. "Hello," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"You're sick, " Isana told the image. "You need to rest, Fade, and let me help you."
At the mention of his name, the image figure frowned. His features changed for a moment, aged, the scar of the coward's brand emerging from his skin. He reached up to touch his face, frowning. "Fade..." he murmured. Then his eyes widened. He looked up at Isana, and his features abruptly aged, hair growing longer, scars reappearing. "Isana?"
"Yes," she murmured.
"I was wounded," he said. He blinked his eyes as if trying to focus. "Aren't we in Ceres?"
"Yes," she said. "You're unconscious. I'm attempting to craft you well."
Fade shook his head. "I don't understand what's happening. Is this a dream?"
An interesting thought. Isana paused to consider him. "It might be. I'm in a state of mind somewhere close to sleep. You've had a fever for days, and I've been in close contact with you, through Rill, almost the whole time. I've felt the edges of some of your dreams-but you've been in a fever the whole while. It was mostly just confusion."
Fade smiled a little. "This must be your dream, then."
"In a manner of speaking," she said.
"Days..." He frowned. "Isana, isn't that sort of crafting very dangerous?"
"Not as dangerous as doing nothing, I'm afraid," she said.
Fade shook his head. "I meant for you."
"I'm prepared for it," Isana said.
"No," Fade said, abruptly. "No, Isana. You aren't to take this kind of risk for me. Someone else must."
"There is no one else," Isana said quietly.
"Then you must stop," Fade said. "You cannot come to harm on my account."
Back in the physical world, Isana dimly felt Fade begin to move, the first such motion in days. He tried, weakly, to pull his hand from hers.
"No," Isana said firmly. She went to fetch the next stone and resume her steady labor. "Stop this, Fade. You must rest."
"I can't," Fade said. "I can't be responsible for more harm to you. Bloody crows, Isana." His voice became thick with anguished grief. "I've failed him more than enough already."
"No. No you haven't."
"I swore to protect him," Fade said. "And when he needed me most, I left him to die."
"No," Isana said quietly. "He ordered you to see us clear of the Valley. To keep us safe."
"I shouldn't have followed the order," Fade said, his voice suddenly vicious with self-hatred. "My duty was to protect him. Preserve him. He had already lost two of his singulares because of me. I'm the one who lamed Miles. Who drove Aldrick from his service." His hands clenched into fists. "I should never have left him. No matter what he said."
"Fade," Isana said quietly. "Whatever killed Septimus must have been too much for anyone to stop. He was the son of the First Lord, and every bit as powerful as his father. Perhaps more so. Do you really think you could have made a difference?"
"I might have," Fade said. "Whatever killed Septimus, I might have been able to stop it. Or at least slow it down enough to allow him to handle it. Even if I only managed to preserve him a single second, and even if I'd died doing it, it might have been all he needed."
"Or it might not," Isana said quietly. "You might have died senselessly with him. You know he wouldn't have wanted that."
Fade clenched his teeth, the tightened muscles of his jaw distorting the lines of his face. "I should have died with them. I wish I had." He shook his head. "Part of me died that day, Isana. Araris Valerian. Araris the brave. I ran from the fight. I left the side of the man I swore to protect."
Isana stopped and touched the brand upon his face. "This was only a disguise, Araris. A costume. A mask. They had to think you were dead if you were to be able to protect Tavi."
"It was a disguise," Araris said, bitter. "It was also the truth."
Isana sighed. "No, Fade. You are the most courageous man I've ever known."
"I left him," he said. "I left him."
"Because he wished you to protect us."
"And I failed him in that, as well. I let your sister die."
Isana felt a dart of remembered pain strike her chest. "There was nothing you could have done. That was not your fault."
"It was. I should have seen that Marat. Should have stopped him b-before-" Fade held his hands up to his ears and shook his head. "I can't do this anymore, I can't see him, see you, be there anymore, my lady please, just leave me, let me go to him, to my lord, left him, coward mark, coward heart..
He trailed off into incoherent babbling, and when his body thrashed weakly in the healing tub, trying to take his hand from hers, the image-Fade vanished again, leaving Isana alone with the mound of imaginary stones.
She went back to work.
Later, she blinked her eyes, forcing her thoughts back to the chamber in Cereus's citadel for a moment, looking around the room. Fade lay in the tub, muscles quivering in random little twitches. She reached across him to touch his forehead with her free hand, and confirmed what she already knew.
Fade had given up the fight. He did not want to recover.
His fever had grown worse.
He was dying.
The door opened and Giraldi paced quietly into the room, a mug of broth in his hand. "Steadholder?"
She gave him a faint smile as he passed her the mug. It was difficult for her to eat and keep food down, given the constant pain the crafting required, but it was vital that she do so. "Thank you, centurion."
"Course." He stumped over to the window and stared out. "Crows, Stead-holder. I always hated getting into a battle. But I think standing around like this is worse." The fingers of his sword hand opened and closed rhythmically upon his cane.
Isana took a slow sip of broth. "How fares the battle?"
"Kalare's taken the upper hand," Giraldi responded. "He worked out how to draw out Cereus's Knights so that he could eliminate them."
Isana closed her eyes and shook her head. "What happened?"
"He ordered his Knights to attack a residential district," Giraldi replied. "Including the city's largest orphanage and a number of streets where retired le-gionares were living out their pensions."
Isana grimaced. "Great furies. The man is a monster." Giraldi grunted. "Worked, though." His voice became something distant, impersonal. "There's only so many times you can see an elder getting cut down. Only so many times you can hear a child screaming. Then you have to do something. Even if it's stupid. "
"How bad were the losses?"
"Kalare and his son were personally involved in the attack. Cereus lost half his knights. Mostly Knights Aeris. If Captain Miles and the Crown Legion's Knights hadn't intervened, they'd have died to a man. Cereus himself was injured, getting them out of the trap. He and Captain Miles went up against Kalarus and his son in the front hall of the orphanage. From what I've heard, it was an amazing battle."
"In my experience, rumors rarely bother to get the details correct," said a gentle voice at the door.
Isana turned to find Captain Miles standing in the doorway, still in full battle armor, his helmet under his left arm. The armor and helm were both dented and scratched in too many places to count. The right arm of his tunic was soaked in blood to the elbow, and his hand rested on the hilt of his gladius. His hair was Legion-cropped, greying, and he smelled of sweat and rust and blood. He was not a particularly large man, and he had plain features that gave Isana an immediate sense of fidelity and loyalty. He moved with a detectable limp as he stepped into the room, but though he spoke to Isana and Giraldi, his eyes were on the man in the healing tub.
"Cereus played the wounded bird and lured them in. They came in to take him down, and I was hiding in the rafters. I hit the boy from behind and wounded him badly enough to make Kalarus panic and pull him out."
"Captain," Giraldi said with a nod. "I heard Kalarus tried to roast you for it, sir."
Miles shrugged. "I wasn't in the mood for roast. I ran away." He nodded to Isana. "Steadholder. Do you know who I am?"
Isana glanced at Fade and back to Miles. They were brothers, though Miles, like the rest of Alera, had thought Araris dead for nearly twenty years. "I know you," she said quietly.
"I would ask a favor of you." He glanced at Giraldi, including him in the sentiment. "A few private moments of your time, Steadholder?"
"She's working," Giraldi said, and though his tone was not disrespectful, neither was it prepared to compromise. "She doesn't need any distractions."
Miles hovered for a moment, as though uncertain of which way to move. Then he said, "I spoke to Lady Veradis. She said that there might not be much more time."
Isana glanced away. Despair washed through her for a moment, her weariness lending it tremendous potency. She pushed the tide of it away, then said, "It's all right Giraldi."
The centurion grunted. Then he nodded to Isana and limped to the door on his cane. "A moment," he said to Miles. "I'll hold you to it, sir."
Miles nodded, and waited for Giraldi to depart the room. Then he went to Fade's side, knelt, and laid a hand on the unconscious slave's head. "He's on fire," Miles said quietly.
"I know," Isana replied. "I'm doing all that I can."
"I should have come sooner," Miles said, his voice bitter. "Should have been here every day."
From outside, there came the loud, hollow cough of thunder that accompanied a firecrafter's assault, when fire would suddenly blossom from nothing into a white-hot sphere. The fire-thunder was answered, seconds later, by an almost-continuous rumbling from the glowering storm.
"You've been somewhat busy," Isana said, tired amusement in her voice.
Miles shook his head. "It wasn't that. It was..." He frowned. "My big brother. He always won. He's been in fights that should have killed him time and time again. And even when he did die, he managed to come back. It may have taken him twenty years, but he did it." Miles shook his head. "Invincible. Maybe part of me didn't want to admit that he might not be. That I might..
Lose him, Isana thought, finishing his thought.
"Can he hear me?" Miles asked.
Isana shook her head. "I don't know. He's been in and out of consciousness, but he's grown more incoherent each day."
Miles bit his lip and nodded, and Isana felt the depth of his grief, pain, and regret. He looked up at her, his eyes frightened, almost like a child's. "Is what Veradis said true?" he asked. "Is he going to die?"
Isana knew what Miles wanted to hear. His emotions and his eyes were begging her for hope.
She met Miles's eyes, and said quietly, "Probably. But I'm not going to give up on him."
Miles blinked his eyes several times and moved his right hand as though brushing sweat from his forehead. It left his face smeared with thin streaks of the blood on his sleeve. "All right," he said quietly. Then he leaned down closer to Fade. "Rari. It's Miles. I'm..." He bowed his head, at a loss for words. "I'm here, Rari. I'm here."
He looked up at Isana. "Is there anything I can do help you?"
Isana shook her head. "He's... he's very tired. And very sick. And he isn't fighting it. He isn't trying to recover."
Miles frowned. "That doesn't sound like him. Why not?"
Isana let out a sigh. "I don't know. He's only been lucid enough to speak for a few moments. And even then, he wasn't making much sense. Guilt, perhaps. Or perhaps he's just too tired."
Miles stared down at Fade for a moment. He was about to speak when boots thumped up to the door.
"Captain!" called a young man's warbling voice. One of the citadel's pages, then. "My lord requests your immediate presence."
Miles looked up at Isana, and called, "On my way." Then he bent down and leaned his forehead against Fade's for a second. Then he rose. "Should he come around again before... Please tell him I came to see him."
"Of course," Isana said.
"Thank you," Miles said.
Miles left the room. Giraldi stuck his head back in, glanced around once, then went back out. He shut the door and leaned his back against it to prevent any more disturbances, Isana supposed.
Miles had been right. Fade was not the sort of man simply to surrender. He had lived with the guilt of Septimus's death for twenty years, yet never attempted to end his life, never given in to despair.
It had to be something else. Something more.
Bloody crows, Isana thought. If only he could speak to her. Even if just for a moment. She ground her teeth in frustration.
Outside, fire-thunder boomed and cracked. Trumpets blared. Drums rattled. Beneath them, the roar of angry armies. The sullen sky flickered with spiteful thunder.
Isana finished the broth, forced all such distractions from her mind, and went back to work.