Rae was shaking with terror. She knew that the royal summons had nothing to do with her magic, but that didn’t stop the irrational panic. Zeno, the soldier who came to deliver the summons, kept trying to reassure her that she had no reason to be afraid.
“His majesty merely wishes to see if you can save his son like you have others who have caught this plague,” he told her soothingly. “You’re the only one that has had any success.”
“I know, but this is still nerve racking.” It was also hard to feel confident that she could help when she thought about all those she’d lost. Silas’s smiling face flashed through her mind, making her heart feel heavy.
How could she possibly tell any of them that the only reason she’d had any success was because she wasn’t human? That in order to save the crown prince she’d have to commit an offense punishable by death?
She was surprised when Zeno lead her down to the royal wing of the castle instead of towards the throne room.
“Where are we going?”
“King Leone has been staying near the prince’s room. The physicians won’t let him inside because we can’t risk the King catching the plague, but he stays nearby. All business has been conducted out of the King’s study in royal wing as a result.”
Rae felt the stirrings of pity. King Leone wasn’t just the King of Vitali. Or just the man who upheld the laws, like the anti-magic laws. He was also a father whose son was dying.
Zeno gave a door a brisk knock.
A muffled, “Come in,” was heard from inside.
Pushing the door open, Zeno said, “I brought Miss Rae, Sire.”
Rae followed Zeno and froze in the doorway. There were so many books. Every inch of bare wall was covered from top to bottom with shelves packed full of them. On one section of wall that had no shelves was a desk facing the rest of the room. Behind it sat one of the most imposing men she’d ever seen next to Luca. His long, dark hair was kept tied at the nape. His clothes, while clean and clearly expensive, were wrinkled, indicating restlessness. He held himself proud and tall but there seemed to be a weight on his shoulders.
Then she realized she’d seen him before on the docks. Eyes widening, she pointed at him saying, “You’re Dante’s father.”
“Show some respect,” a man standing next to the desk snapped at her.
Rae looked at them, just realizing that there were three other men in the room with them giving her disapproving scowls. Two of them she recognized. The gray-haired man was the physician Ada had been begging for help on Rae’s first day in Corthira. The youngest looking of the group with black hair was the physician that had delivered the threat to her in her clinic. She assumed the bald and final man was Corthira’s third physician.
“That is the King you are addressing and the Crown Prince you are referring to,” the bald one informed her with a sneer.
“What?” She turned her gaze back to Dante’s father. As what he said sank in, she dropped into a curtsy. “I’m sorry, your majesty. I didn’t realize…”
The king held up a hand. “No. It’s fine.” Standing he moved around to the front of the desk. “I didn’t introduce myself properly before so it’s only natural that you’d be surprised. I am King Leone of Vitali. Dante is my son and the crown prince. Please, you can rise.”
Once Rae was standing straight again, he asked, “And you are?”
“Rae Morandi, herbalist to The Slums and The Docks.”
“See, your majesty,” the physician with graying brown hair said with satisfaction. “She’s nothing but a mere herbalist. She couldn’t possibly do anything for your son that we cannot.”
One sharp look from King Leone had the man silencing himself. Turning his attention back to Rae, “These three are Corthira’s three physicians.” Pointing to the bald man, he said, “Master Armo.” The gesture moved to the gray haired one, “Master Gavino.” Indicating the dark haired one, “And finally Master Enric. I’m sure you’ve at least heard of them.”
Rae nodded, her expression containing her disgust. “Yes.”
She said nothing of assassins or threats. It wouldn’t change anything nor was this the time or place for such discussions.
“They believe I am wasting my time in asking for your help treating my son.” He considered her for a moment. “And I wondered if they were right, but that was before you introduced yourself. No one mentioned you tend to The Docks as well,” the King commented. “I know Luca Ramberti would never send his men to someone who didn’t know how to tend to them.”
The mention of Luca made her relax just a little. Even the King knew of his reputation it seems. Unlike others, there was no fear of Luca Ramberti in King Leone’s tone, but a kind of respect.
King Leone walked over to her. “My son, Prince Dante, began showing symptoms of this plague early yesterday morning. Those three tell me there is no hope; however, the numbers say that people within The Slums are recovering from this illness. Are you the reason they are surviving when others are not?”
She wasn’t going to lie to him. “Yes, Sire. But, I haven’t been able to save all of them.”
“Some is better than none. With any luck, Prince Dante will be one of the some.” He gestured for her to follow him. “I will show you to him and we will see.”
Rae and the three physicians followed him just down the hall outside the study. Zeno was right. The King wasn’t staying very far from his son.
“This is it,” King Leone told her, placing his hand flat on the door. “I can’t go in there with you. The risk of catching the illness is too great, and I can’t afford to catch a deadly plague.”
Rae felt sympathy for the father who only wanted to comfort his son but knew he could not. Without thinking, she placed a comforting hand on his arm. “I will do my best, your majesty.”
Realizing she’d touched him, Rae jerked her hand back. “I’m sorry.”
Shaking his head, he stepped aside. “I will pray that your best will be enough.”
Rae opened the door and stepped inside. The other three physicians followed her. She wasn’t surprised by that, but it still annoyed her. It also made things difficult as she couldn’t just use her magic to cure the boy now.
Prince Dante’s room was surprisingly simple. There was a wardrobe for his clothing with a full-length mirror next to it. On a desk was an open book and paper, probably for his studies. She saw a rack with wooden weapons on it that all looked well used. Tapestries hung on the walls and rugs lined the floor. She saw over the desk hung a map of the world and one of just Vitali.
Rae turned to the little boy laying on the bed. His voice was raspy and she could see his face was flushed with fever. Giving him a gentle smile, she walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. “Hello again, your highness. I’m here to try and make you feel better.”
His skin was covered in blisters. Some were already popped and developing infections. She pulled off his covers so she could gauge the spread of the rash and blisters. Her heart sank when she saw it was already covering half of his body. That and the fever told her he would not last until morning if she didn’t get the plague under control.
“I need a tub full of warm water,” she informed the three men in room with her.
“Why should we do anything for you,” the bald Armo demanded irritably.
Her eyes snapped to meet his. “Because this little boy is dying and you are a physician. I understand that you don’t like me but do not let this child die because you want to be stubborn. The medicine I’m using is working while what you’re using is not. Instead of being insulted by that, find out what I’m using and use it too. Pride has no place in medicine, because gentlemen, lives depend on us to save them.”
After a brief staring contest, Armo reached out and pulled on a rope hanging next to Prince Dante’s bed.
A moment later, a woman opened the door and bowed from the doorway. “What can I do for you?”
“I need a hot bath for his highness,” Rae answered. “As quickly as possible.”
Within minutes, a tub was brought in and servants came in and out with buckets of hot water. When the tub was full, Rae emptied an envelope full of herbs into it. With quick efficient moves, she had the prince in the tub, her arms supporting him.
“What did you put in the water,” Gavino asked a bit suspiciously.
Rae looked over at the man who’d once turned his back on Ada and her husband. “Witch’s hazel for the itch, calendula to stimulate healing, mint to soothe the aches, and vera for curing infections. The vera and mint also vaporizes so when he breathes it in it will help his lungs and throat.”
“I’ve never heard of vera before.”
“It’s a tropical plant that grows only on a group of islands around the equator.”
“How do you get it then,” Enric asked.
“One of my patients who works on the docks gets it for me when ships bring in other things from those islands.”
When the water started to feel cool rather than warm, Rae pulled the prince out and dried him off. She hesitated at the edge of the bed.
“What seems to be the problem, Miss,” the maid asked, standing in the doorway again.
“Can you bring a fresh set of blankets?” Rae asked her.
When the maid returned, Rae had her place the clean blankets on the floor. “I will take care of things from here. I don’t want to risk you catching this illness.”
The maid looked relieved and hurried away.
Holding the prince in one arm, Rae shook out the blanket with the other, then wrapped him in it and set him down on a couch near the window. “Wait here for just a moment, your highness. I’m going to change your blankets on the bed.”
He nodded, watching her through sleepy eyes.
Rae pulled his old bedding off, leaving it in a pile on the floor for now. With quick efficiency that came from lots of practice she had the new sheets in place. Returning to the young prince, she lifted him carefully.
“Time for some sleep, your highness,” she whispered as he yawned.
She tucked him into the bed. He fell asleep almost instantly. Checking his temperature again, she sighed with relief. The fever was down to safer levels. The bath would have also soothed the rash and blisters, easing any infections on his skin. The steam had been infused with some of the medicines as well, helping with the little boy’s breathing. This would buy her a little time to figure out how to use her magic to save him without anyone else finding out.
She stared at the dirty sheets and decided to leave them for the time being. At least until she had a chance to tell the King what she’d need. She just hoped he would cooperate with her.
The moment she stepped away from the bed, the three doctors crowded around the young prince. Rae felt a bubble of irritation. Biting her tongue, she continued towards the door. If they woke up the little boy, she might change her mind about not screaming at them.
Outside, King Leone was talking with Renzo. The moment he saw her, Leone straightened. “Well?”
“He’s improved. However, he isn’t cured. Like all of those who catch this plague, his only hope is that he can live long enough for his body to beat the illness.”
“Improvement is still better than nothing,” the King replied with some relief.
“Your majesty,” she spoke a bit hesitantly, “if I may speak freely?”
“I will need a few things if you are going to want me to continue to take care of Prince Dante.”
“Oh?” the King gave her a resigned look. “And what would those things be?”
“The first thing I’ll need is someone who helps me at my clinic to be allowed to stay with his highness. They are already familiar with the treatments I use and have been exposed to the illness enough that if they were going to catch it, they would have already,” she began, curious as to why he seemed to dread what she would ask for. “The next is a constant supply of hot water. Also, I want to know what he’s been eating. I might need to make changes to his food and I don’t want anyone to argue with me about it.”
Rae tapped her chin and looked up at the ceiling as she thought through what she’d need, making sure she hadn’t forgotten to mention anything.
“Is that all?”
“I think so. If I do come up with something I’ll let you know.” She met his eyes again.
The three physicians came out of the prince’s room. Because she didn’t trust them, she opened her senses to make sure he was still stable.
It was then that she noticed others that were sick within the palace, including one of the physicians themselves. She looked over at the three men and used her magic to determine that it was the oldest of the three. If she remembered correctly, his name was Armo. The disease must not have progressed far since he hadn’t noticed yet. His only real symptom so far was a rise in body temperature.
She walked over to him and placed her hand on his forehead before he had any time to react. “You have a fever.”
His eyes widened. “I assumed the chill was the old age. I get them sometimes.”
“Nope. Fever.” She sighed. “The first symptom.” Turning to the other two she asked, “Why weren’t you paying attention to this? The three of you are under constant exposure to this illness. It should be common sense to check each other periodically for developing symptoms.” She returned her attention to Armo. “If we start treatment now, we might be able to head it off before you get much worse. I’ll need to see the others who are sick within the palace too.”
“That is all you need?” King Leone asked her again, his expression blank.
“Probably. I need to see the other victims before I can be sure. I may need you to allow several people in here to help me. I still have to tend to those in my clinic after all. With two places to work in, I’ll need all the help I can get.”
He considered her for a moment then asked the physicians behind her, “How is my son?”
Grudgingly, the youngest – she believed his name was Enric – of the three answered, “His condition has improved.”
“Then you can have whatever you need,” the King told her.
She smiled. “Thank you. I will do my best for everyone.”
“Then we should be thanking you,” King Leone told her.
Maybe it was her imagination, but she could have sworn he smiled a little at her. Turning, she asked the physicians, “Can you take me to the infirmary where the others are?”
Given no choice, they lead her down the hall. The room was even more organized than her clinic. Then again, her clinic wasn’t built to be a clinic. She’d converted another building to work as one. Almost every bed had an occupant. Based on their clothing, they all appeared to be servants.
“None of the aristocracy besides the Crown Prince?” she asked, just to be sure they weren’t just being kept elsewhere.
Enric shook his head. “None of them are in Corthira. Winter is a slow season for the nobility. That season is spent in their home holdings. Court starts in the spring.”
“I see.” Rae decided that was probably for the best. It wouldn’t end well for her if one of the nobility caught the plague and then she had to choose between letting him die or saving him with her magic. “Then all the sick except for his Highness are here?”
She glanced over at the three physicians. “Then Master Armo should join the sick.” Rae met his gaze. “You will quickly begin to feel worse. If we start treatment now, you may yet join the few who have survived having this plague.”
Rae expected, given what she knew of the physicians, Armo to not only agree but to insist on the best of treatment.
She would have to disappoint him on the last. Not because she didn’t like him, but because the supply of vera leaves was limited. Even if it wasn’t, vera wasn’t enough to save anyone. Her magic had been the only thing to save anyone so far. Even that, she knew, couldn’t save everyone. Silas’s death served as a reminder to her that even she had her limits and they were woefully too short for this plague.
To her surprise, the old man shook his head. “No. I will not lay abed until I just can’t stand anymore. Right now, I am able and will do my job.”
She considered him. “Really? Where was all this when those in The Slums came begging for help?”
He sneered. “They are only poor and diseased. Let them die. It will clean things up.”
“They are living, breathing people who need help just as much as those here in the castle do,” Rae snapped out. She let out a sigh and said before any of the three could respond, “Never mind. If you insist on treating the sick then I will show you what I do. The best mix for treating this illness isn’t going to be available to everyone. I only have so many vera leaves and those will have to go to Prince Dante.”
She looked around at those in the sick beds, estimating how much medicine to bring back with her. “While I go get my medicines, you should get to work in here. I’ll also be bringing a couple of people back with me to help.”
“We won’t need untrained hands here,” Enric informed her with a sneer at the idea.
“They aren’t untrained. Each one has been helping in my clinic since before the plague started.” She decided she was probably going to hurt one of them before this plague ran its course. “They know more about what I am doing than you.”
Turning on her heel, she left them without another word, tired of their prejudices already. Each moment spent in their presence was going to annoy her, she knew it. Sighing, she shoved the emotion aside. It wouldn’t do her any good to be upset with them. They were willing to do their job and she needed all the help she could get. Even if she still questioned their right to call themselves physicians.
As she hurried down the street towards her clinic, someone called out to her. Turning towards the sound, she saw Mirko. She offered him a tired smile. “Greetings, Mirko. How are the others you help?”
He walked over to stand in front of her. “They are fine and will be better soon. Everything will be better soon.”
His eyes searched hers, for what she couldn’t say. Something about him seemed off, but she wasn’t sure what it was. If only her mind wasn’t as tired as her body. Ada and the others may have a point about her getting rest.
They both turned to see Luca joining them. His hazel eyes examined her carefully before considering Mirko.
“Luca? What brings you here?” she asked.
“I heard you were requested at the castle. I was worried.”
She felt some of the tension leave her at his presence. The easy confidence he carried himself with made it so easy to trust there was nothing he couldn’t handle.
“I’m fine.” She crossed her arms over herself. “But, the crown prince has caught the plague.”
“I’m sure you can save him,” Luca assured her with an easy shrug.
It was the easy confidence he seemed to have in her that eased her tension more than anything else.
“Yes, you can,” Mirko agreed.
Rae looked over at him. There was still something wrong with his tone.
“Mirko, right?” Luca asked him. “We’ve met a few times.”
“Yes,” Mirko agreed.
Something was wrong with both of their tones now. Rae looked between the two men in confusion, trying to get her tired brain to function.
Luca looked at Rae then back to Mirko. “You aren’t human either.”
Mirko’s eyes widened with surprise before he looked at Rae. “He knows.”
“I told him about me. I said nothing about you.”
“You work in the docks. There’s nothing I don’t know about what goes on there. I’ve known you weren’t human for a while now,” Luca explained. His gaze never left Mirko’s face. “Mind if I ask what you are specifically?”
“He’s like me,” Rae supplied, still trying to figure out what was going on. It occurred to her a second after she spoke that she should have let Mirko decide if he wanted to answer Luca or not. Her expression horrified, she said, “I’m sorry, Mirko. I shouldn’t have…”
He shook his head with an indulgent smile. “You’re tired. Besides, he already knew most of it.”
“All true,” Luca agreed before Rae could respond. “Tell me. If you’re a healer like she is, then why aren’t you tired?”
Rae frowned. “We’re all tired.”
“He’s not,” Luca disagreed. His entire body was tense and seemed poised for…something.
Rae wasn’t so sure what he was thinking at the moment. She turned her attention back to Mirko. He seemed tense too, though he had from the beginning. It was then that she noticed that Luca wasn’t wrong. Unlike her, Mirko didn’t seem to drag under the weight of healing so many like she did.
“How are you maintaining your energy levels?” she asked eagerly. If he knew something she didn’t about keeping exhaustion at bay then she may be able to save more.
Mirko met her eyes without a word.
It was Luca who answered her. “By not using any energy.”
She glared at Luca. Did he always have to be such a cynic? “Mirko is using energy. He told me he was saving the magi hiding within the city.” She turned her gaze back to Mirko. “Tell him.”
Mirko stared into her eyes without a word. She saw the flecks of black in his eyes, she stared expectantly for so long. He just stared back with an expression somewhere between anger and sadness.
“Mirko?” she asked as realization began to set in. “But you said…” Her own anger began to surface through the exhaustion and pain. “You lied to me? I asked you for help and you lied.”
“I didn’t lie. I am helping the magi, not just here in Corthira but in all of Vitali.” His tone was earnest now. “Rae, think about it.”
She took several steps back. “How is this helping anyone? How is doing nothing helping? This plague is hurting everyone.”
“Not the magi. Not a single one has caught it.”
She ran through her mental list of patients she had tended to since the plague had hit. He was right. They had all been human. She looked at him again. “But, why wouldn’t you help?”
His eyes held pain and sorrow. “I am helping. The magi. Not the humans.”
“They are killing us, Rae,” Mirko shouted, flinging his arms to include all of the people. “Every day they kill one of our own and there is nothing we can do to stop them. Why should I help the humans?”
Rae felt her heart squeeze. She wasn’t sure what to tell him. Given how he’d earned his powers and how he had to live before becoming a healer, she wasn’t sure what she could say. He died saving a magus from execution. Even before then, Mirko had lived in fear of humans. What could she, a born human turned healer say to him that would be enough? And really, he might have a point.
“I won’t help the humans. I’m sorry, Rae.”
The strange thing was, she believed him. Even the apology.
He walked away.
Luca placed a hand on her shoulder, making her jump. She’d almost forgotten him. “Come on, Rae. The clinic needs you.”
She nodded slowly. “He’s a healer.”
“But he’ll just let them die.”
Luca just nodded in agreement.
“I don’t…I don’t know what to say to him.”
“Then say nothing until you do.” He put his arm around her shoulder to gently guide her back to her clinic. “If anyone can reach him, you can.”
“Why are you so certain of me? I barely have anything left in me to help anyone. It’s been all I could do just to save the few I have.”
He paused on the stoop of her clinic as he considered her. She knew she couldn’t hide her thoughts and feelings like he could. He’d see the tightness around her eyes and the bags under them. He’d hear the drag in her voice from exhaustion. Her shoulders were slumped under the weight she carried. Luca would see it all because he rarely missed anything. It was how he’d survived all this time in The Docks, he’d told her once.
Those sharp hazel eyes took it all in and he still didn’t falter in confidence. “That won’t stop you. Nothing will. We all know what you will give up to help us. Of that, I have no doubt. And because of that, I know you won’t give up on us. So, I won’t give up on you.”
She felt a tear slide down her cheek. “Thank you.”
He shrugged. “I have to return to The Docks now. A new ship is coming in today. You’ll be alright?”
Rae nodded. “I have to be.”