She looked at the water rolling down the tunnel toward them and thrust it aside with her power to bare the ledge. Holding it off their right, Tris said quietly, “See, everything’s fine. You should have reminded me to get the water out of the way, I’d have done it. Now we can see the footprints better.” She patted her teacher. “We’re all right. Come on.”
Wishing they had slept more, Briar followed Crane and Rosethorn into the big workroom. “If I may have your attention,” Crane said.
Everyone put down their work and looked at him.
“There is a magical element to the blue pox,” he announced.
Someone gasped. Two workers murmured to each other.
“May I have silence?” Crane asked, a bit too patient. He got it instantly. “Its components have yet to be determined. We hope to know by day’s end what precisely we are dealing with. Should that be the case, I believe we shall begin to make progress.”
The workers nodded their agreement. Stick with Crane long enough, Briar thought, and you forget that all of these folk must be pretty smart to get sent here, with so much at stake. He treats ’em like silly bleaters, but they aren’t.
“In the meantime, we must start again, with those procedures used when we know that magic is present. Additives must be prepared—Osprey knows which of the lists to use. Rosethorn and I should review the trays that were experimented upon yesterday. Then, unless we, er, got lucky—”
A soft chuckle greeted Crane’s words. He pronounces it like he never said “got lucky” in his life, but he’s trying to sound like one of us, Briar thought, amused. If he ain’t careful, he’ll break a tooth that way.
The dedicate cleared his throat. “Then, unless we stumble on something useful purely by accident, those trays must be emptied and cleaned thoroughly and quickly.” Crane shrugged. “I regret to say that since we proceeded quite well yesterday, there are a great many trays to be cleaned.”
A few workers groaned.
Rosethorn raised a hand for quiet. “I know this looks like a setback,” she said. “The truth is, it’s the best news we’ve had in a while. At last we know something. All of us have worked with magic enough to know that it jumps funny sometimes, but we also know ways to detect what magic has shaped and unravel the spell. No long faces or complaints—we’ve finally got a direction we can follow.”
“Enough loitering,” said Crane. “To work, all of you.” To Rosethorn he added, “I will join you in a moment. I need to look around.”
Rosethorn nodded and headed for the inner workroom at her usual brisk stride. A man lifting a tray with blue pox essence turned from his counter just as Rosethorn passed and clipped her with the heavy tray. It tilted and began to slide from his grip. Instinctively Rosethorn grabbed it as yellow fluid ran out from under the glass top to drip on her gloves and arm.
“Stupid bleater!” Briar snarled.
He yanked Rosethorn away, sliding a hand underneath the tray to raise it until it was level. “Chuffle-witted, festering—”
“Stop that,” Rosethorn ordered, stripping off her gloves. “Take off your gloves.”
A lordly voice cut him off. “You—out,” Crane ordered. “Immediately.”
The worker said, “I’m sorry. I’m so—” He put the tray on the counter and fled to the washroom.
“Let the gloves fall—we’ll clean them up,” a friendly voice said in Briar’s ear. It was Osprey, holding two fresh pairs. “Dedicate Rosethorn?”
“No harm done,” claimed Rosethorn as she took the new gloves. Her face was pale. “It was scary, that’s all. Briar, come put that anger to some use.”
Briar followed her to the inner workroom, pulling on his new gloves. Watching Rosethorn go to her counter, he suddenly felt weak with fright. She had said there was no harm done, hadn’t she? It must be true. She wouldn’t let the tiniest drop of pox run between sleeve and glove, where it might touch her skin. Never. Besides, the spot on her forehead was still crimson. She didn’t have the disease.
Or would it change color only when her body lost the fight to keep the pox from taking over?
He couldn’t work like this. Steadying himself against his counter, Briar closed his eyes and practiced meditation breathing. He wanted to stop shaking before he even tried to handle his trays.
Niko and Tris halted where a pair of tunnels intersected. Tris felt the force of the water, thigh deep now, heavy on her barrier. She poured more strength into it, baring the ledge on which they stood and its counterpart across the intersection. With the gold shimmer in the water itself removed, they could see where the footprints continued after a jump from ledge to ledge.
Niko sighed. “I hope it’s not too slippery over there.” He braced himself, then leaped across the canal, landing on the far side where the footprints resumed. Tris had to back up and run a few steps to get the speed to clear the canal.
“We were lucky at Winding Circle, I guess,” Tris said grimly as they picked up the trail again. “All our water comes from wells on the other side of Wehen Ridge. None of this leaks through the stone of the ridge.”
They passed more intersections and entered smaller tunnels, where they had no ledge to walk on. Tris shoved the sluggish liquid mess to either side, fiercely determined to avoid contact with it for as long as she could manage. She had to pity Niko. In here he was forced to walk in a stoop, trying valiantly to keep his head from touching the slime on the roof overhead.