It was well past noon when Ghia was able to take a break. All the patients who had needed moving had been moved, all those whose lives could be salvaged had been saved, and standard healing procedures had been applied to the less serious cases. There was still work to do, of course – A healer’s work is never done – but she figured she could take a break for an hour or so before being needed again.
Among those she’d ministered to personally had been Eorl Gray, who had sustained several serious injuries in the defense of her province. On a younger woman, standard healing practices probably would have done the job. Eorl Gray was no longer a young woman, and her healing had needed Ghia’s special touch. Harbourtown wouldn’t stop needing its Eorl just because the battle was over; so Ghia made the woman a priority.
Upon the former bellica’s waking, Ghia instantly liked the woman although she was quite intimidating. Her eyes had snapped open the second Ghia had healed her, and when she saw she was in the clinic – in bed and resting! – she’d been furious.
“Dammit, why am I in bed? The city needs defending! Timothy! My sword and armor!”
Hurriedly Ghia tried to calm the lady. “Your Ladyship, the battle is over. You defended your city well and all is safe.”
Gray narrowed her eyes at Ghia and frowned. “Who are you? How do I know you’re not some Vocan trying to trick me?”
Ghia smiled. “If I were the enemy I wouldn’t bother healing you, would I? I’m Helene Donacella-Voto’s daughter.”
Gray’s face cleared instantly. “Ah. I’ve heard of you – young Ghia, was it?” Ghia nodded, surprised at her renown. “Yes. Saw you at the Midwinter banquet, before you disappeared into the hallway with that young man,” Gray continued, winking at Ghia conspiratorially. Ghia felt her face flame in embarrassment, and Gray chuckled. “Nothing to be ashamed of, girl. He’s quite attractive, young Jules is. And a good officer, I hear, though no doubt not so good a healer as you are – the reason you’re Head Healer and he’s not.”
“You mean aside from being my mother’s heir?” she asked, a bit more tartly than intended, but she didn’t like to hear any ill said of Jules.
Gray let out a bark of laughter. “Perhaps. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Still, better to have you here now. Emily’s absolute shite in a crisis. A good healer as long as things are slow. Tell me, Ghia, did we get the bastards? Are they all dead?” she said, changing the subject so abruptly it took Ghia a moment to realise the Eorl referred to the attacking Vocan force.
“Yes, Your Ladyship. You and your bellicas routed them well. Some were caught for questioning, and await your mercy in the jail. But thanks to your expert leadership, Harbourtown has been saved,” and she smiled beatifically at the Eorl. She couldn’t help it – the joy of victory was contagious and prevalent, despite the massive damage caused.
The Eorl snorted. “Flattery will get you nowhere, but I thank you all the same. Now, where is that scoundrel Merry? I need to kill him for bringing trouble to my province.”
Hiding her laughter behind her hand, Ghia moved aside for Captain Merry to speak to his superior and turned to attend to her other priority patients. Next had come Mara Tanner and the revelation that had shattered Ghia; following that she’d numbly attended to Dagon the sailor, apparently Anala’s Honour Guard, and various other people deemed to be priority according to her intuition or to information from those who were not so close to death. She could not think or feel coherently after what Merry had told her. I suppose I am ‘some Vocan’, though I doubt I’ve tried to trick anyone recently. And I was not born on Voco, I know. Small comforts count not much, but it is something.
To discover she was of Exsil Vis blood? She shuddered as disgust gripped her. “Doesn’t get much worse than that,” she whispered to herself as she stepped outside for some fresh air.
In the daylight the destruction of the town was much more apparent. The Regiments might have been busy cleaning and repairing all day but signs of the battle were still all around. Several oceanside buildings had been destroyed or damaged severely, no doubt from the ‘cannons’ on Vocan ships she’d heard about from patients in the clinic.
Vocan weaponry was terrifying to her. Between personal weapons that could kill with one shot and the arsenal on the boats that could demolish hardy stone and deathtree buildings, there was a lot to fear.
Lares had one of those weapons with him. At least one, she amended, thinking of the vision of the sea battle she’d picked from his distraught mind. Later, after he’d gone to nap, Ghia had watched the past sevenday’s events from his perspective more carefully, wanting details of what had happened on Voco and the ship.
She’d gotten more than she’d bargained for.
What a tangled web of relationships! Lares, a Vocan farm boy-turned-courtier, was servant to Hope Exsil Vis, whom he loved, and acting servant to Lord Exsil Vis, whom he despised Ghia had never met the bastard but how one could not loathe the man was beyond her comprehension. in essence, Lares’ role was that of a double agent for a married couple who despised…or maybe loved…but hated…but loved each other. Then, Anala was the eldest daughter of Hope and Lord Exsil Vis, making her Vocan royalty, and Charity – ostensibly Ghia’s mother, though she had no proof as of yet – was Hope’s sister. Making me Anala’s cousin.
Every cloud has a…she thought, and then stopped. Wait. How could she be of Exsil Vis blood if Charity was Hope’s sister? Hope married into that family, didn’t she? Unless…. Oh Goddess. Do they marry within their own line?
Suddenly gripped with this new horror, Ghia leaned over in the street and retched, throwing up what little breakfast she’d had. Great. Child of the incestuous Exsil Vis line – though why I’m surprised, I don’t know. Nothing Exsil Vis could do should surprise me.
“Ghia! Are you okay?” a hand rested on her back gently, and she straightened to see a worried-looking Aro. She flushed. He must have seen her upchuck her morning meal.
She nodded, ducking her head to hide her blush and any mess that may have remained on her face. “Just tired,” she said, surreptitiously wiping her face with the back of her hand. “Sorry I made a mess on your newly-cleaned street.”
He shook his head and shrugged. “I’m sure no one will begrudge you that. Will you rest now?”
“No. I only have a short break, and then I’m back on shift.” She let out a small sigh – technically everything was done, but she didn’t feel right abandoning her post just yet.
Rest is not abandonment.
It can be – what if there’s a new crisis?
She gestured to the clinic door. “Anala’s in the upper ward. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.”
Aro grabbed Ghia’s shoulder and squeezed it gratefully. “How bad was it?”
Ghia shrugged one shoulder, loathe to sound a braggart, but wanting to be honest. “It’s a good thing I got here when I did,” was what she settled on.
Aro cleared his throat, a sudden moisture in his eyes, and got down on one knee, making the oath sign with his hands. “For your service to my bellica, Head Healer Ghia, I pledge myself to you, come war or sickness – I will follow you and keep you well. Call me and I shall come.”
It was the Paxwoman’s Pledge. Ghia felt her jaw drop in astonishment. “Aro, I…” she began, and stopped, unable to finish. Ghia, part-Magi heir to Atton, child of Voco, cousin to Bellicas Yarrow and Anala, Head Healer of Athering, and now with Second Major Aro as my paxwoman. Talk about giving myself airs. She shook her head, feeling a little dizzy with the weight of it. All she’d wanted was a simple life. She could almost hear the Goddesses laughing Their divine butts off.
The major rose again and smiled down at her. “What’s done is done, Healer. I’m your paxwoman now, whether you like it or not.”
Ghia laughed mirthlessly. “I’m not deserving of your loyalty, Aro. I just do what’s needed.”
Aro’s face turned serious. “And it saved Anala’s life, so as far as I’m concerned you are deserving of my loyalty. And my life, if it comes to that. ”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t. I’m going to go and eat now. You should go visit Anala,” she said, waving him away. “I’m sure your lover is eager to see you.”
Aro stopped and slowly turned around. “She said you knew,” he said, shaking his head slightly, “back before she left. I’d totally forgotten, though I suppose, with all those other things you know, I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Ghia shrugged. “What can I say? I’m good like that. Go see your bellica, Aro. Enough with the anticipation.”
He nodded and near-sprinted into the clinic, a bounce in his step. Ghia watched him go with a half-smile. Her break would be over all too soon; she headed down to the bakery to get something to eat.
Halfway there, another cramping spell took her and she had to lean against a nearby building for support, doubled over with pain. She would have retched again, but her stomach was empty. Dizzy with pain, fatigue, and emotional turmoil, she forced herself upright and continued to the bakery.
She had no ulterior motive in visiting this particular bakery, or any other bakery – she was just hungry and it happened to be close by. So, it was with surprise that she heard the matriarch of the Baker family immediately ask after Anala.
“How do you know Anala? And why would I?” she asked. Perhaps rudely, but she was too tired to be polite.
The woman smiled and patted her arm. “I’d’a ken Anala since she’d been a wee thing. She’da been playmates with me eldest. I’d ‘eard she’da been injured, and so as ye look ta be a healer I’d thought ye might ken a mite o’ her condition.” The woman looked at her shrewdly. “But I’d a feeling ye’d be more than just a healer ta Anala.”
“I’m a friend of hers from Athering,” she said as explanation. This woman didn’t need to know her familial ties to Anala. Tyvian, no one did. “Healer Ghia deHelene Donacella-Voto,” she added by way of introduction.
“Sappho Baker. Does Anala live?”
Sharp and to the point, Ghia thought, tempted to giggle hysterically at her little pun. Instead she answered, “Aye – she will for a while. Anala’s strong, and a quick healer,” she said, lying easily. Anala was strong, it was true, but she would have died from that wound without Ghia’s help – she would have died before reaching Harbourtown had it not been for the healer’s foresight before Anala had left for Voco. She dismissed these thoughts. All in the past now and Anala was alive. Right now all that mattered was food. “Not to be rude, but I’m terribly hungry and my break will be over soon.”
“Oh, dear, where’d me manners be? Just sit yerself down, child, and I’ll be getting ye a mite o’ tea.” Sappho smiled in apology as Ghia sank gratefully into a chair. “What would ye like?”
“Anything hot and meaty would be great, thank you,” Ghia said, and blushed at the double entendre. Ah, naughty Desirelle! It’s as if a faucet of never ending sex has been turned on in me. Down, girl, down.
Quickly Ghia’s food and tea arrived and she dove in hungrily. The sandwich was very good – better even than her aunt Kasandra’s sandwiches, and that was saying something. To her surprise, Sappho sat at her table and talked to her of all that had transpired in Harbourtown in the past sevenday or so. Strangely, the woman’s idle chatter made Ghia feel better; she wanted to hear all the details of the Battle of Harbourtown from someone who’d not been injured in it. Sappho’s account was much fuller than those of the patients in the clinic.
At some point, a young woman, still older than Ghia, came to collect the healer’s cutlery. When the healer thanked her all she got was a murderous glare in return. Taken aback, Ghia reached out to touch the woman’s mind, wondering what she’d done to offend her so.
The vipers’ nest of hate she found made her reel, and she nearly retched again. Sappho stopped mid-sentence and looked at her in concern. “Ye alright, child? Ye look downright green. It’d not be the food, would it?” She gestured to where Ghia’s plate had been.
Ghia waved her hand in a negative; if she shook her head, she’d throw up. “No, the food was delicious. I’ve just been getting dizzy spells for over a sevenday now. It’ll pass.”
“Ah,” said Sappho, and leaned back with a knowing expression on her face. “In a month or so, ye’ll probably be wondering why ye decided to do it at all, but I’ll tell ye now, it’d be worth it, in the end.”
Ghia closed her eyes and forced herself to smile. To keep up the pretense would be easier than explaining the long and not wholly believable truth. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Who’d be the lucky man, if’n I might ask?” Sappho asked abruptly, and Ghia nearly died.
How far must I carry this? “He’s not here right now,” she heard herself answer, and realised she was going to take the lie to the full. “He’ll be joining me shortly, though. He had business with his bellica in Mudflat.” She opened her eyes and hoped her face didn’t betray her. She’d never lied so extensively as she had today. And to think I’m suggesting Jules is the father of my unborn (and non-existent) child! Ridiculous! She felt increasingly nervous.
Sappho smiled and nodded. “Military man. Good choice. They’d be loyal.”
Ghia nodded in return and searched for a change of subject. Anything to get out of this spiralling lie of doom. “That woman who took my plate – was that your daughter?”
Sadness crossed Sappho’s face before she answered. “Aye. That’d be Laurel, me youngest.” She grimaced slightly before continuing. “She’d not been the same since Isidora died.”
“Isidora?” Ghia asked, damning her curiosity for prodding what was most likely an old wound. Why can’t I learn when to shut up?
Sappho frowned and sighed. “Me eldest. Died in the Battle o’ Voco, in ‘fifteen. Laurel loved ‘er a great deal – Tyvian, everyone did. She’d been Harbourtown’s Sweetheart. But…Laurel never really healed. ‘S been five years and most ‘ave found some sort o’ solace. Even Major Caelum, I ‘ear, and they’d been ‘andfasted. Laurel’s never found that center again. Poor girl,” she said, looking to the back where her daughter worked, baking bread. “‘s not been easy on ‘er – first ‘er fiancé, then ‘er sister. She’s not been able to re-adapt ta normal life.”
“I’m sorry.” Ghia felt a bit awkward. On the one hand, history’s gaps were being filled in in a very personal, real way for her, and enriching her view of Athering’s recent past. On the other hand, she felt like a total jerk.
“Not yer fault, child,” Sappho said, smiling briefly. “Some pains go on and on. Cannae help such things.”
There was a pause, the words hanging in the air heavily. Ghia couldn’t imagine surviving the emotional blow that losing a child would give. How Sappho not only survived, but ran a successful bakery and kept her family going was extraordinary, to say the least. Colour me impressed.
Her time was up; Ghia reached for her coin purse. “I have to get back to work now. Thank you very much for the food and talk. How much do I owe you?”
Sappho shook her head. “Free. Ye saved Anala’s life; givin ye a meal’s tha least I could do.”
“You’re too kind. I said Anala was strong. I just did my job,” Ghia protested modestly. “Let me pay.”
Sappho leaned across the table and lowered her voice. “When the Battle’d begun, I’da been on that frontlines, providin’ food fer the soldiers an’ tha healers. I’d seen Anala when she’d been brought in. I’da heard what tha healers said about her condition. I ken what ye did fer us, Healer Ghia. I dinnae ken how and I dinnae really care, fer it only matters ta me that ye did it. Tha food ‘n’ drink are free,” she said with an air of finality to her voice as she sat back in her chair, “and what else I’d be able ta spare ye.”
Ghia nodded numbly and pocketed her coin purse. “Then thank you, Sappho. I truly appreciate it. I must go now, but if you wish to visit Anala she’s stable now. I’m sure she’d love to see you.”
Sappho smiled, a sad gesture. “I might be o’ a mind ta do jus’ that. Fare ye well, Healer.”
“And you, Sappho,” Ghia replied, and then hurried back to the clinic. Her break was long over.
A fearsome sight awaited her at the clinic’s front. Lares, Aro, and Dagon the sailor stood yelling at each other, waving arms, throwing threats, and generally causing a scene.
“What were you thinking, letting her go to Voco alone?” Lares was saying to Aro loudly, though with admirable control.
“What was I supposed to do? Not everyone can disobey orders as readily as you can, Stout-Heart,” Aro spat back, making Lares’ name sound like an insult.
“Ever have I served my Lady faithfully,” Lares replied in a tight voice.
“O? What about when ye served yer Lord? Or doesnae that count?” Dagon said, eager to get into the fray.
Lares rolled his eyes at the old sailor. “Are you aware of what the ‘double’ in ‘double agent’ means? I ever have been faithful to Hope – it was her orders I followed, and no one else’s.” He stopped and looked away quickly but not before Ghia saw the tears in his eyes.
Unable to leave well enough alone, Aro said “How do we know you’re not still a double agent? Tyvian, a triple agent! You could be here under Lord Exsil Vis’ orders. I don’t want you around my bellica.”
“I dinnae either, ye Vocan spy.”
“Even if it were my choice to make,” Lares said, tight control back, “which it is not – where would I go?”
“Why dinnae ye go back to Voco? Ye had a cushy enough job there.”
Lares narrowed his eyes at Dagon. “Because they’d kill me.”
“Exactly,” said major and sailor at once.
Ghia’d seen enough. She’d seen enough quite a while ago, but she’d wanted time to work up a good anger.
“What a fine sight this is – Anala’s Major, Paxwoman, and Honour Guard arguing over who’s more fit to guard her. If it were up to me to decide, I’d say none of you.”
Aro jumped and looked at her guiltily; Dagon developed a fascination with his toes. Lares merely bowed his head submissively.
“Ghia, he could be a spy,” said Aro urgently.
“I heard the accusations, Paxwoman. I daresay the whole of Harbourtown heard them as well,” she added, shooting Aro a glare that could curdle milk. “I could not care less what you think about who is or is not a spy – right now you’re yelling in front of the clinic. A place of healing. How do you expect Anala to get any rest if you’re disturbing her and everyone around her? That’s what I thought,” she said to the blushes that rose on three faces. “Now, if you’re quite done displaying dominance over one another, I suggest you leave. In fact, I order it.”
“As you wish, Domina,” Lares said instantly, bowing deeply.
Interesting — he doesn’t curtsy.
“At least one man here knows his place,” she said haughtily. Aro and Dagon shot Lares murderous glares, but his eyes were on her, waiting for instruction. This power I wield is quite unnerving. Where’s Jules’ constant bickering when I need it? “Now go, all of you – I expect you to be best friends when I see you again.”
Lares bowed again and started off in search of a tavern that wasn’t filled with dying people; Dagon looked between the Vocan and Ghia for a moment before following the other man. Aro stayed to argue.
“How can you expect us to be friends with a Vocan?” he asked her in an angry whisper.
“Because, Aro, you’re all oathbound to Anala – you’re going to have to get along.”
He kicked the ground angrily. “I don’t trust him.”
Ghia sighed at his stubbornness. “Do you trust me, Aro?”
He blinked, taken aback. “Of course I do.”
“Then trust Lares. He’s got nothing to hide.” I tell you as a Magi, she sent, and saw his eyes widen in surprise. “Now, go. Go get drinks — non-alcoholic! Go with Lares and Dagon and do that male-bonding thing. I’ll be here, working, and I’ll see you tomorrow, when they need hangover tea.” She smiled and patted his arm, to show she wasn’t angry anymore.
He curtsied low in acquiescence. “As you wish, my lady,” he said, and then was off down the street.
Ghia shook her head in disbelief as she entered the clinic. Did little boys ever grow up?