“So she dumped it illegally in the sewer, where it combined with the city’s muck, to give us the blue pox,” said Niko wearily. “Whichever of us enters the country of the dead first should locate her and tell her what she wrought.”
“All this for money,” whispered Crane. Looking at him, Briar thought that only people who were born rich had such a low opinion of money. “The death of hundreds,” Crane went on, “from a pursuit of wealth and a reluctance to spend.”
“She didn’t have that much to spend, from the look of it,” muttered Tris.
“And cursing her now or in the afterlife won’t bring us closer to a cure,” said Rosethorn. “Crane, let’s split these notes of hers up between us and brew her recipes. Let Briar keep trying the magic-blockers we gave him this morning on the trays.”
“Done,” replied Crane. To Niko he said, “You told me I could have Trisana.”
“Perhaps she needs a day to recover,” suggested Niko, but Tris was already shaking her head. “Well, then, she’s yours.” He sighed. “I should report this to Moonstream and the duke.”
“I do not envy you in the least,” Crane said absently, beckoning to Tris. He said to her, “Since we do not wish to keep the book where it might get stained or torn, copy that female’s recipes for all five potions while Rosethorn and I set up.” He seemed to have forgotten that Niko was still there. “Give Rosethorn her copies. Then—”
Briar returned to his work. After Tris and Niko had left for the city, Rosethorn and Crane replaced all of his additives with new ones, each made to react to magic. He wanted to refill the cabinets that had been emptied that morning: those vacant shelves seemed like a reproach.
Niko stopped beside him on the way out. “How goes all?” he asked quietly.
“Fine,” Briar said, trying not to think of that morning’s spill.
“What happened there?” inquired Niko. He motioned to the outer workroom. “I see three layers of cleansing spells, all strong and very fresh.”
Briar stared at him, startled. “Don’t your eyes ever hurt you?” he wanted to know. “If you can see so much?”
Niko shrugged. “One grows accustomed.”
Briar snorted. “You sound like Crane.”
“Dear gods, anything but that,” Niko whispered with a crooked smile.
“We had a spill of pox essence,” Briar said. “They wanted to make sure they cleaned it all up.” Curious, he asked, “Did you see it? The magic in the blue pox?” While Crane and Rosethorn read through the journal, Osprey had given Niko the tour, showing him even the contents of the distilling jars.
“Yes, but I wonder if I would have noticed it, had it not been pointed out to me. The sewer diluted Pearldrop’s fluids so much that her small power is only a ghost within the disease. You and Tris did well to spot it—very well.”
Briar shook his head, blushing at the rare compliment. Niko was hard to please. “I might not’ve had the nerve to say anything.”
“You had the nerve to suggest Tris might be of use.” Niko hesitated, then said, “Take care of yourself, Briar. Bringing you here was one of the best ideas I ever had.”
It was as well he left then. Briar couldn’t think of anything to say.
“First change,” Rosethorn said cheerfully, coming over. Leaning past him, she erased the name of a test fluid they had started to use just hours before and wrote in a new one. Rubbing out the number one next to Variation—they had switched to numbers after the discovery that magic was a factor—she put the number two. “Let’s get to it,” she told Briar.
Before she turned away, he glanced at the diagnosis spot on her forehead. It was still there, still red. Relieved, he went to ask Osprey where he would find powdered jade.
With the discovery of Pearldrop’s weight-losing potions, the atmosphere in the greenhouse changed for the better, despite the fact that the workers were even busier. Briar might almost have said he was enjoying himself. All along he’d thought that, as exhausted and nervous as the greenhouse staff was, they had the best of it. They weren’t nursing the sick and the dying, or being pressured like Crane and Rosethorn to find a cure. The helpers only had to do their jobs well.
One sign that things had improved came on the third day after Tris and Niko returned from the sewers. A tray slipped from Briar’s hold as he carried it to his worktable. He jumped back quickly enough that he wasn’t spattered with pox or shattered glass, then braced himself for Crane’s wrath and that pointed finger. Rosethorn clenched her hands in her gloves, her eyes daring Crane to dismiss Briar. Crane didn’t even look at her. His eyes rested on the spill as Osprey’s crew came running to mop up, rose to Briar’s face, then slid to the slate on which the boy’s ever-changing instructions were written.
“Trisana, have you the list of supplies Rosethorn and I require from temple stores?” he inquired.
Tris made a face—she’d tried to get him to call her by her nickname, without success—and held up a slate.
Crane took it. “Briar, memorize this, scrub out, then collect these materials. Get everything, mind. If the people at stores do not have the amounts we require, they must promise to bring the rest with all due speed. The spill should be cleaned up by the time of your return.” He held the slate out to Briar.
“You’re not getting rid of me?” the boy asked, shocked.