Sixteen

It had been an inauspicious start to the merging of the Houses. Holden had arrived with Blakely still in disarray, gripped in a mania, vendors and customers more likely exchanging gossip than coin in the aftermath. And despite Allard’s considerable efforts, they were not able to clean up what remained of the barracks before Holden’s caravan reached the city.

They had nothing to offer the Prince but meager greetings and confused explanations.

Holden graciously acted as if it was no bother. If anything, he reacted with faint interest, having never laid eyes on a dragon himself.

They had all left, but Isaac remained behind on Gerard’s orders. Gerard had asked him to interview some of the locals who saw the event nearer than they, to collect their accounts so a more thorough report could be made to King Edmund. Isaac thought it was an uncharitable phrasing–“nearer than us”–he could still feel the sudden thud of wind as its great black bulk thundered by. But he’d said nothing and nodded agreeably. Eagerly, even. It was rare for Gerard to entrust him with such a task–normally he stuck to lyrics.

He hadn’t been very successful. It was no fault of his own–he was exceedingly thorough in seeking out witnesses. But their accounts were already tainted by the impurities of time and exaggeration.

He was told stories about the way locals had actually faced the beast down, forcing it to flee. He was told it had two heads–or three. He was told that it had swallowed men whole. He was even told it must have been an inside job–the work of Edmund to try and make the people feel less safe, to justify His Majesty’s imperial aspirations.

Isaac found that idea particularly fascinating. It was wrong in its specifics, but what struck Isaac most were its generalities: that this man earnestly seemed to think kings cared to justify their wars–or that their peoples asked them to. It had never seemed that way to him. But…normally he stuck to lyrics.

When it was clear Isaac wasn’t going to gather anything more illuminating than what he already had, Allard prepared him some travelling supplies, a horse, and bid him farewell.

Evening was fast approaching, and he decided that he should find a spot to settle in for the night. He was following close along the shore of a small stream, and in the distance he saw a dark hump splayed across the bank, partly submerged in the gentle current. He approached slowly, carefully, and as he came upon it he could tell it was the shape of a man. Even closer, and he was rendered dumb–the man Gerard had taken in. The man who was, presumably, the dragon that had nearly ended them. His heart began to beat rapidly against his chest, and a scattering of impulses and questions crackled through his brain. Was the man dead? If not, should he make sure he was? Should he flee as fast and as far as he could? Should he try to take the man back into custody? How could he? With what?

He looked round quickly as though he were guilty of something, as if someone might see him. He didn’t know why. The moors were quiet and their ceaseless, rolling emptiness cared not what decision he made. Looking just downstream of the man’s body, he saw faint ribbons of red swirling in the current, becoming dilute, and vanishing as the water carried the blood further and further away.

He jumped off his horse and checked the man for a pulse. Life still throbbed in him. He rolled him over and saw that he had slumped onto a jagged stone, and it had cut deeply into his abdomen. Isaac drug his body further up the bank with great effort, and quickly began unstrapping the leather vest from around his torso. Near the wound, the banding had become matted and sticky with congealed blood. He peeled it away gingerly and as he did, fresh, crimson streams started to seep out.

“What are you doing?” the man groaned, his consciousness slowly returning to him.

“Saving your life,” the bard said, fishing a knife from his rucksack. “This may sting,”–and he cut quickly through the man’s black tunic. He hesitated before removing it, afraid of what the wound might look like.

“What are you waiting for?” Garridan’s voice was hoarse and some of his consonants were only gasped air.

“I…I’ve never done this,” Isaac admitted.

His voice only gravel–“Removed a man’s shirt?”

“What? No. I mean–”

“Then I’ll do it,” Garridan grunted and moved to take the tunic off. But he was exhausted and could barely lift his arms.

“No…no. I’ll do it. I just…don’t know how bad it is.”

“Then find out.”

Isaac inhaled and pulled the shirt away. The assassin had a naturally toned build–shaped by combat practice and prowling the shadows. His chest was speckled with hair that thinned down his stomach, revealing smooth sides, one of which was smeared with purple-brown blood. Garridan winced as the fabric pulled away but said nothing. He rolled as much as he could onto his uninjured side to give Isaac a better look. The wound was jagged and looked deep, and where the skin should meet it instead puckered and seeped fresh blood. Isaac cringed and a shiver ran through him. “It’s…”

“Just say it.”

“It’s…not good.”

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