"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."