“Red as blood,” a man remarked. “You can take him home, Dedicate.”
“Briar.” Hands cupped his cheeks and turned his head. His eyes met Rosethorn’s.
“Why is there a red thumbprint on your face?” he asked.
“It’s Crane’s detection oil. If you have the blue pox, it turns white on your skin. If not, it turns red. Yours is red, mine is red, and we’re going home.” She seemed to be pleading with him; her tone was gentle.
“If I get up I’ll wake Flick,” he pointed out, not unreasonably, he thought.
“My dear, you know better,” Rosethorn said. Her brown eyes were level, serious. There was no pity in them. He was glad. Pity would have hurt.
Briar looked at his friend. Her fingers were limp in his, her mouth was slack. No pulse beat in the thin skin over her temple. She was just a shell, lying there.
Silently Briar pulled his hand away. He picked up his shakkan, then followed Rosethorn out of the ward.
Quarantine had lifted, but no one was taking chances. Once they were out of Urda’s House, they entered the tent that Niko had mentioned, the one beside the road to Winding Circle. There the clothes they’d worn were taken away while they scrubbed with medicinal soap, rinsed in hot water, and rubbed themselves in disinfectant oil. When they emerged, they were handed fresh clothing. Briar examined the folded garments and realized these were his own, from Discipline. His eyes blurred; he opened them wide, so no one might see rinse water on his face and mistake it for tears. He dressed, pulling on his second favorite boots. His favorites, he remembered, were gone, destroyed on his first day at Urda’s House as part of the useless attempt to keep the disease from spreading.
A squad of the Duke’s Guard mounted on horses awaited them in front of the tent.
“We’re to give you a ride to Winding Circle,” their corporal told Rosethorn. “Honored Moonstream asked us, if you turned out to be well.”
“I don’t have the blue pox,” Rosethorn said bleakly. “I don’t know if I’m well.”
The mounts picked their way along Nosegay Strut, the street that ran past Urda’s House to Temple Road and the fishing village on the harbor. Briar looked around dully. The day he’d come here with nothing more on his mind than unloading medicines and running about with Flick, the street had been muddy but clear. Now it was strewn with the remains of bonfires, pieces of wood, liquor bottles, and trash. There were heaps of rags: the dead, left to be picked up by the big vehicles mockingly called lumber wagons. Three buildings showed signs of fire; another had burned to the ground. Drunkards and beggars leaned on buildings and watched as the guards passed. Doors and window shutters slammed all around.
It began to rain as they turned onto Temple Road. On the north edge of the way, several houses had burned; on the south edge, the fishing village had built a wall of barrels and wagons to keep rioters from their boats. As the road climbed into rocky ground, he saw men and women in street clothes and habits already hard at work. They were putting down plank floors and raising large canvas tents. Three or four giant tents were already taking in the sick: the guards had to swing around a line of wagons carrying fresh victims to the makeshift hospitals.
A heavy, cooked-meat smell drifted into his nose as the wind whipped around. From Bit Island a thick black trunk of smoke rose to mark where the dead were burned.
The guards watched their surroundings, though nothing lay now to their right except the bluffs and, below them, the slate-gray waters of the harbor. To their left rose tumbled earth, giant slabs of rock, and whatever plants could get a foothold on such unpromising ground. The greenery drew Briar’s eyes; he touched the shakkan he carried in the crook of one arm.
“I forgot the plants at Urda’s House!” he gasped suddenly. “Rosethorn—”
“They need them more than we do,” she replied. “Don’t worry about it.”
He dozed, tucked so firmly behind his guard that he couldn’t fall. He woke suddenly: an animal was screaming. Leaning to look around the guard, he saw that they had reached a Y in the road, where it split to either side of a well and a shrine. He knew both. Higher on the rising ground soared gray stone walls. Atop them, warriors in red habits and broad-brimmed hats against the rain leaned through notches to stare at them.
Down the road that led to Winding Circle’s north gate raced the screeching animal: a big white dog nearly out of his mind with joy. Behind him came Daja, walking sensibly on the firm ground at the road’s edge, using her staff to keep herself out of the mud. Tris followed her, raising her skirts as she picked her way past the worst ruts and dips in the road itself. Last came Lark and Sandry under a big umbrella the same earth-green shade as Lark’s habit.
Briar’s guard commented, amused, “I see there’s a welcoming committee.”
Little Bear reached them first, sending up gouts of muddy water as he raced from Briar’s horse to Rosethorn’s. No one tried to speak; none of them could have heard anything but the dog.
Daja stopped by Rosethorn, looking up at her. After a moment she smiled, carefully, as if she were unsure Rosethorn would like it. Briar saw his teacher reach down and wrap her fingers around the Trader’s dark hand where she clutched her staff. Daja’s smile broadened, and Rosethorn let go.
Daja came over to Briar, staying clear of Little Bear. Briar looked at her, seeing that she was still tired after long hours in the forge. She gazed up at him for a long moment, then said, “You took your time coming home, thief-boy.”