Flick looked at Alleypup, who shook his head. “None as we know,” Flick said. She didn’t have to add, “Not yet.” All of them knew that most speckled diseases were catching.
Briar stood. “I don’t know what this is,” he told them. “I got to get Rosethorn down here.” When their eyes went wide, he shook his head. “She hasta see for herself.” He looked at Flick. “There’s a closer route in, ain’t there? If she came through the city, she could climb straight down to here?”
“You got to go to Urda’s House anyway to tell her,” Alleypup pointed out. “And they won’t let me bring her through town. We’ll get stopped at the gate.” He pointed to his clothes, streaked with fresh muck.
“I’m going no place,” Briar replied. “I got a quicker way to talk to Rosethorn than hiking back to the Mire.”
“She won’t come for no street rat,” said Flick tiredly. “Nobody cares if we live or die.”
“Shows what you know,” Briar retorted. “Where do I ask her to come?”
Flick shook her head.
“Didn’t I nick cough syrup for you back in Wolf Moon, that fixed you up?” demanded Briar. “Didn’t I teach you how to throw a knife last time? I swear Rosethorn’s all right. I swear.”
Alleypup stripped off his filthy shirt and breeches, tossing them into a corner. The clothes he yanked from an open crate were somewhat cleaner. “Tell her meet me at the Guildhall clock.” He pulled a worn tunic over his head.
Climbing the rags behind Flick, Briar pressed his hands to the raw earth at the rear of the cave. Even in the lamplight he could see roots hanging down. There were plants everywhere in the city. Digging his fingers into the rich dirt, he brushed a handful of rootlets, the beginnings of a vast underground web.
He and Rosethorn had thought of this over the winter. They could not speak mind-to-mind without touching, but they could talk through a web of plants. Closing his eyes, he found his magic, cool and firm with life. He passed it through his fingers, into the pale underground roots that had reached from the dirt to wrap around his hands.
His power split into a thousand small threads that flowed through grass and rose, ivy and moss, yew and cedar and ash roots. From one plant to another he sped, going in all directions except back. At the city wall he pulled himself together into a few dozen streams, plunging under the stone barrier to emerge in the tangle of weeds and poor men’s trees of the Mire. He scrambled forward, Rosethorn now a blaze ahead of him, towering in his magical sight like a giant tree.
Ivy grew on the sides of Urda’s House, framing the windows of the room where she worked. By the time he got there, she was opening the shutters.
This had better be good, she told him mind-to-mind as she gently wrapped her fingers in his vine-self. I’m in no mood for jokes.
He told her everything. When he was done, she untangled herself from the vine. He waited for her to reply, then realized she was gone, walking to the lower levels of the house. Just like her, not even to say she’s leaving, Briar thought. Letting go of the ivy, he raced back through roots again, falling into his own body. Only when he’d carefully freed himself of the roots in the wall did he try to speak to Flick and Alleypup. “Rosethorn. She’s on her way.”
“I’m off,” said the other boy. He picked up one of the lamps and left.
Coming out from behind Flick, Briar noticed the water bucket and ladle. “Have you washed at all?” he asked.
She looked at him, feverish eyes scornful. “You think they let me in the city baths?” she wanted to know. “Dippin’ my toesies with the draymen and the drunks? Did you think—”
Briar held up a hand, and Flick caught her breath. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I washed the first day of spots, before I got too tired. I’m weaker’n a kitten now.”
Briar nodded. “Do you boil your water?”
“Why?” she demanded. “We get water from the Potter’s Lane fountain. It’s good enough.”
“Even good water goes bad, ‘specially if dung and pee leak into it.” And I think maybe it is leaking in, Briar thought, but didn’t say. “Maybe your water that ain’t boiled is what got you sick.”
“I had spots before I washed,” Flick pointed out.
“So maybe you drank it.” Briar could speak with confidence about this. One of his teachers had spent an entire winter’s day talking about diseases in water. “You can’t tell water’s bad by looking.”
“Wood and kettles cost money,” growled Flick. “Don’t yatter at me, Briar. My head’s all swimmy.”
“Sorry.” Briar watched as she settled back, trying to get comfortable. Within minutes she was dozing.
He kept watch until he sensed Rosethorn’s approach. “You took forever,” he said when she and Alleypup walked into the cave. “I know turtles was quicker on the move.”
Rosethorn’s dark eyes took in the state of Briar’s clothes; the corners of her mouth turned down. “That will be enough from you, my lad,” she said. “This is our patient?” As she passed, she thrust her workbag into his hand.
Briar drew out a small, heavy pouch. Dumping its contents into one hand, he revealed a round crystal the size of his palm. Inside burned a steady, bright core of jagged light that put the smoking lamp to shame. He carried the light to a niche close to Flick and set it there. Its glare lit the street girl’s spots cruelly. Rosethorn knelt beside her without a thought for her earth-green habit.