Authors: Sarah Remy
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in the corner of the cold room whimpered when Malachi Doyle bent over her corpse.
Mal paused, scalpel poised over a particularly large pustule. He glanced beneath his elbow at the weeping spirit, and tried to summon patience. Only half a morning into the day's work, and already he was more than eager to strip off his leather apron and retreat.
“Lass,” he said, trying for gentleness. “It's as I told you. There's no reason to stay.”
The child hadn't seen more than three summers when she'd succumbed, first of her small family lost to the new plague the residents of Wilhaiim had already dubbed the Red Worm, for the odd scarlet filaments that formed at the center of telltale blisters. Mal knew the little girl wouldn't be the last of her siblings mourned. Wilhaiim's temple was filling quickly with sickened babes.
“Anna,” the ghost sobbed, as she had done since Mal first arranged her small corpse on his table for examination. “My Anna!”
Swallowing a sigh, Mal set his scalpel on the scarred marble tabletop. He scrubbed the palms of his hands over the front of his apron, striving for calm, then turned and faced his unwanted guest.
“I don't know Anna,” he said. “Is Anna your mam, lass? Your mam isn't here, child. Go and find her, why don't you?”
The ghost child was changed in death, unmarked by the raw sores and the rictus of pain that turned her corpse grisly. The haunt wore her white-Âblonde hair in two neatly braided fishtails. Vexation flushed her round cheeks pink. There were ribbons on her dress, and a multitude of lacy pockets. From a wealthy family, Mal guessed, and likely spoiled, which explained the glint of temper in her dark eyes.
She'd been someone's beloved daughter before the first of the spring plagues had claimed her.
Mal crossed the room and knelt to meet her glare. The flagstones were cold through his trousers, the wall against the child's back limned with frost.
“Mayhap you're Anna?” he guessed. “Annabel? It's a lovely name.”
The ghost scowled and snuffled. She was too brave to flee, but her edges went thin and fretful. He could see the wall through her wavering form.
, Mal thought, although he knew he was being unkind.
Go and find your mam, lass, and leave me alone.
“No!” the girl gasped, and tears wet her lashes. She thumped a small fist against her chest. “No, no! Anna!
Anna!” Her protests were quickly escalating into howls.
“Hells!” Mal snapped. “Someone needs a nap!”
The child quieted mid-Âshriek, mouth hanging open, nose dripping. Her dark eyes widened impossibly further, and then she hiccuped.
“No,” she said, hopeful. Her mouth puckered.
“Blood of the King.” A reluctant grin twitched Mal's own lips. “You were a terror, weren't you? I'm sorry.”
“I thought you preferred not to converse with them. Unless necessary.” A voice behind Mal said.
“Your Majesty.” Mal rose and turned. “Apologies. I didn't hear your knock.”
“Because I didn't.” Wilhaiim's King Renault stared through the ghost-Âchild, unseeing, then graced Mal with a weary smile. “Are you interrogating the dead, brother? Over a case of the plague?”
Mal shook his head, waving a dismissive hand. Renault stepped further into the room. He was not a large man, yet wide at the shoulders as Mal was narrow, sturdy where Mal was lately too thin. The king wore red livery, and a circlet of true gold around his brow. His beard was clipped short in the current fashion, and his dark hair carefully coiffed, but his muddy eyes were red from lack of sleep, his lips chapped from too many hours spent outside in the spring winds.
A matched set of tonsured theists followed Renault into Mal's laboratory. They set themselves one to either side of the door, lips moving soundlessly in prayer. They carried torches for light and warding: small bundles of tansy lashed just below the flame, smoldering. The masterhealer believed the burning of precisely selected herbs kept illness at bay.
Mal was less inclined to ascribe magical properties to flora. He knew Avani would take him to task for his skepticism. He wouldn't let himself admit just how much he missed the island witch's strange notions, so he glared at the torches instead.
“Smoke in my cold room,” he said. “Only complicates things.”
One of the yellow-Âeyed priests looked as if he'd like to argue, but Renault silenced him with a look.
“Wait outside,” the king ordered. “Shut the door. This room is kept clean.”
Renault waited until they were alone, then looked at Mal.
“Would that you could purify the city entire,” he said. “Cleanse the plague from the continent.”
“The precise spells used to ward these rooms are long forgotten,” Mal said. “I haven't the knowledge to ward much larger than your chamber pot, let alone Wilhaiim.” He shook his head, trying to rattle away gloom. “Come, look. It's as we suspected.”
Renault was long used to Mal's table and its horrors. Even so, the king flinched when he looked down at the pitiful corpse laid out across marble.
“So young,” he said.
“That's the puzzle, isn't it?” Mal dipped his hands in a bowl of clear ferment, and then retrieved his scalpel. “Why are they all so young? Not a single cadaver over ten summers, not yet.”
“Not yet.” Renault shook his head, folded his hands behind his back. “So. What have you determined?”
The ghost lass crept forward, leaving her corner to tiptoe closer, near enough she could reach out and touch Mal's apron. Her body on the table was pliant, not long free of rigor mortis, her limbs limp, and her jaw agape. The fluids of death stained her braids, and the ribbons on her dress. Her feet were bare, her small toes scab encrusted.
“They heal, then.” Renault nodded at the crusts. “Heal over and scab.”
“Only to form again, ofttimes in their original location.” Mal used the tip of his scalpel to delicately lift a scab from the corpse's instep. Beneath the brown crust, fluid burst, the pustule grown deep instead of up, eating flesh and muscle.
“Some run deep as to touch bone,” Mal said. The ghost girl pressed against his leg, fisting fingers in his trousers. She was very strong for a new-Âmade spirit. And determined.
“Anna!” she reminded him.
“Yes, yes, hush.” Mal cleansed his scalpel in the bowl of ferment. Renault arched his brows, but didn't comment.
“It's not the blisters that kill,” Mal continued. “It's the fever, and the loss of fluids, and the ruination of the lung tissue. Although,” he paused, “maybe it's blisters in the lungs damaging tissue. I'll know more once I cut her open.”
Renault brushed a soiled lock of hair from the corpse's brow, his murmured prayer nearly unintelligible. Mal was glad the nervous priests weren't witness to the quiet benediction, the tactile affection.
“Explain the red worms.”
“Not living, so not worms in truth,” Mal said. “Strings of coagulate, I suspect. Or infection. I've seen something similar before, when I was a child. In the bite of coastal sand fleas, if I recall.”
“Means of transmission?” Renault washed his fingers in Mal's bowl.
“Yet to be determined.” Mal slit the child's gown from collar to hemline. Ribbons fluttered on lace when he spread the fabric away from the body. “But I've no reason to believe it's other than the usual methods. Coughing, sneezing; infection shed in shared snot or other bodily fluids.”
The ghost was near to climbing Mal's leg, small fingers gripping the edge of the dissection table, knees clenched around his thigh, lithe as a monkey. She stretched, reaching.
“Anna! Anna! Mine!”
Renault didn't look around, but he smiled.
“It's the pockets she wants,” the king said.
Mal kept his expression smooth.
“Can you see her, then?” he asked.
“Nay.” Renault turned on one heel, still smiling. “But I know children, and her desperation is nigh palpable. Your trouser is flapping. Look at her pockets, Vocent. She's stuffed them with treasures.”
“Anna!” the ghost agreed, bouncing against Mal's knee.
“It'll be the doll, there.” The king tilted his chin. “Last pocket, green ribbons. Cloth doll, see it? Pretty little thing. Katie had one just like it, from childhood.”
Mal hesitated in retrieving the treasure, but Renault's smile remained in place.
“Here, now.” Mal turned the little doll over on his palm, noting the elaborate detail on the fabric face, and the miniscule gown made to match that of the corpse. The doll had hair of dyed yarn, tacked to her skull with an unfamiliar adhesive, and tiny ribbons on her sleeves.
“Is this your Anna, lass?”
He set the doll on the floor. The haunt immediately let go her grip on the table and his leg and scrambled after. She clutched the doll to her chest, tears turned to giggles.
Then she was gone, and the doll with her.
Renault made a sound of dry amusement.
“It used to startle me, the ways of your spirits,” the king admitted. “But I believe I've grown accustomed. At long last. Placated, was she?”
“Yes,” Mal answered. “You were quick to understand the problem.”
Renault only shrugged. “You saw the interruption; I imagined the child. It comes of spending too long with too many nieces and nephews, all royally spoilt. Now,” he set his shoulders, “Show me these filaments. I want to look at them through your magic glass.”
“Yes, Majesty.” Mal bent to his task.
gone and day turned to night and back again, Mal lost in his own head, hands and apron turned splotchy by the vegetable dye used on specimen glass, when the quick slap of boot heels on flagstone brought him around.
“Nearly there,” he assured his king. “Nearly, nearly. Definitely infection, not a
sorcery, and if not easily contained, at leastâÂ”
“Ah.” Mal blinked the world back into focus. He turned from his table, surprised. “Liam. Not ready for supper quite yet, but thank you. Tell His MajestyâÂ”
“No, my lord.” The young page stood rigid, a trellis of scars white against flushed cheeks. He was out of breath, and sweating. “You're wanted. Right away, my lord. It's your father.”
Renualt's throne room was deserted but for a few subdued courtiers warming their hands in front of the roaring hearth. Two men and one woman, each dressed in their lightest spring finery beneath incongruous winter furs, they glanced up at Mal's abrupt entrance, then bowed their heads again in respect. Mal recognized the woman: Peter Shean's sharp-Âtongued wife. While Mal's old friend was an affable man, often cheerful and eager to please, his wife was a different sort. The scrape of grudging pity across her usually sour face was more disconcerting to Mal than Liam's barely contained concern.
Guardsmen just inside the chamber pulled the double portal closed behind Mal. He heard the reassuring muffled clank of the crossbar being set. Liam stepped to one side precisely as an armed kingsman moved to take his place. The exchange of escort was as practiced as any dance, and Mal was just as glad of that precaution as he was of the heavy bar across the chamber door.
It had taken an entire season of solid argument and sound reasoning to convince Renault his kingdom was under invisible threat.
Mal pinned his gaze to the kingsman's red-Âclad shoulders. The large stone chamber was cold but for the mid-Âroom hearth; spring winds shook floor-Âto-Âceiling windows behind the throne. More winter fur draped the throne. Mal could smell the hot spice tea Renault consumed in great jugs throughout the windy season.
Outside the castle, spring slowly thawed the land, but inside the thick walls, chill lingered.
The kingsman drew to a halt at the bottom of the great stone steps. Mal continued the climb to Renault. Fifteen steps, the graystone worn down by the tread of generations. The king watched Mal from his throne, chin dipped low in thought, the fingers of one hand tapping restlessly against his thigh.
“Brother,” Renault said, once Mal had made his obeisance. “We've had news this morning, just before dawn. A rider from the Rose Keep. Your father is on his deathbed.
Mal spread his hands, noting distantly the green and yellow discolorations left over from his work. He tipped his shoulders in respect, but let Renault see the irony in his smile.
“I'll light a temple candle, Your Majesty.”
“Your mother is desirous of more than a candle, Malachi. She requests the comfort of your presence.”
Mal coughed. Renault sighed and straightened. He snapped gloved fingers at the robed intendant waiting at the foot of the steps.
“Clear the chambers.”
Mal coughed again. Renault waited, bland. The intendant emptied the room with a single blast of a silver trumpet. Peter Shean's shrewish wife glowered once at Mal before she was ushered away through the double portals.
“That one doesn't like you,” Renault said, amused, once the chamber was clear but for the king's attendant triplicate of guardsmen. “What have you done to deserve her ire?”
“Her young son continues to mock Liam's
scars.” Mal folded his hands behind his back so Renault couldn't see them clench. “I've encouraged my page to stick up for himself, as even little lordships occasionally need their attitudes rearranged.”
“No doubt. I can't suppose Peter approves of his lad's attitude.”
“Lord Peter is unaware.”
“I see.” Renault pulled bearskin closer about his shoulders. “These winds need to stop, and soon. The howling drives us all mad. You're going to Selkirk, Mal. I've already sent a messenger. Your mam deserves the kindness, no matter the trouble between you.”