“No. Don’t die. Not by my hand. Not in my arms,” I begged. I was curled forward over him, nearly as blind as he was as I fought the blackness at the edges of my vision. This was too terrible to live through. How could this be? How could this be? My body longed for unconsciousness, and my mind knew I had but a knife’s edge of a chance. I could not survive this if he did not.
He spoke again, and blood was on his tongue and lips as he formed the words. “Dying in your arms … is still dying.” He breathed two breaths. “And I cannot. Must not.” The blood crested his lips and began to trickle over his chin. “Much as I’ve wished to. If you will. If you can. Keep me alive, Fitz. Whatever the cost to us. To you. Please. I need to live.”
A Skill-healing, even in the best of circumstances, is a difficult thing. It’s usually accomplished by a circle of Skill-users, a coterie, who are familiar with one another and are capable of loaning one another strength. The knowledge of how a man’s body is put together is essential to it, for in severe instances one must decide what injuries are most deadly and deal with those first. Ideally, before the healing is attempted, all will have been done to accomplish an ordinary healing, wounds cleansed and bound, with a patient who is rested and well fed. Ideally. I knelt in the snow, the Fool in my lap, surrounded by chattering onlookers, while Riddle held my terrified daughter in my arms. I lifted my eyes to Riddle and spoke clearly. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve hurt an old friend who meant my child no harm. Care for Bee and keep these others back. I wish to say a prayer to Eda.”
It was a believable excuse, and there were enough followers of Eda present that they could persuade the others to give me quiet and space. No one had shouted for the city guard: It was entirely possible that few realized I’d actually stabbed the beggar. Riddle’s astonished gaze reproached me, but for a wonder he obeyed, and I suddenly knew just how deep our friendship actually went. He called out loudly for people to give me space, and then, turning, I saw him shout and beckon FitzVigilant to his side. Shun was following the scribe, walking like a cat in wet snow. I saw him speaking earnestly to both of them, taking command, and knew he would handle it all.
I closed my eyes and bent my head as if in prayer.
I plunged into the Fool’s body. We no longer had a Skill-link; for an instant his boundaries opposed me. I summoned Skill-strength I scarcely knew I possessed and breached his defenses. He made a low sound, of objection or pain. I ignored it. This was a body I knew intimately, having once worn it. It was like and unlike a man’s, with differences that were both subtle and crucial. To close the wounds I had caused and stem that bleeding was not a complicated feat, and I made it my first task. Undo the damage I had done to him. It took focus, and my willing his body to make that healing a priority worth burning his scanty reserves. So I stopped his bleeding, and felt him dwindle and weaken as his body accelerated that healing. For while the Skill is a powerful magic, it does not do the healing. The body does, under the Skill’s direction, and there is always a cost to the body’s reserves.
Almost immediately I saw my mistake. I moved through his body with his blood, finding old damage and bad repairs and places where his body had trapped poisons and sealed them off in a vain effort to control their spread. One of my knife plunges had pierced such a toxic pocket, and now it leaked blackness into his blood, and his pumping heart was carrying the poison all through his body. The wrongness was spreading; I felt his body’s weary physical alarm, and then a peculiar resignation began to spread through him. It was not his mind but his body that knew his life was at an end. A strange pleasure began to spread through him, a final comforting that the flesh offered the mind. It was soon to be over; why spend your last moments in alarm? Almost that lure of peace drew me in.
“Fool. Please!” I quietly begged him to rally. I opened my own eyes to look into his face. For a long moment, the world spun around us. I could not focus; the healing had taken more from me than I had realized at the moment.
I drew a shuddering breath and widened my eyes. It had never been easy to meet his eyes when they were colorless. Even as they had acquired tint and had moved from a pale yellow to gold, it had been hard to read what was behind that gaze. Now his eyes were occluded, grayed in what I knew had been a deliberate blinding. I could not see into his heart any more than he could see out of them. I had only his voice to go by. It was breathy and full of resignation.
“Well. A bit longer we shall have together. But at the last, we fail, my Catalyst. None have tried harder than we did.” His tongue, bloodied still, moved over his chapped and peeling lips. He took breath and smiled with scarlet teeth. “Nor paid a higher price for that failure. Enjoy what good is left in your life, old friend. Evil times will soon be upon you. It was good to be near you. A last time.”