The Testing Point

by Rosei Aki (浪星あき)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/248054.html)

Part 1

They called it a marriage, but Devryn was under no illusions. He was a hostage, a guarantee of obedience to their new overlord, a resource like the fields and towns that had been included in the terms of their oathtaking. There had been no war, but it was a surrender nonetheless – and even though he knew there had been few choices, all of them bad, when it came time to depart, he turned away from his mother the Baroness and her consort without granting them the absolution he knew they craved.

*

Devryn had lived all of his twenty-seven years in the warm southern lands, first in his family’s country estate by the river Osten, then in the seaside capital Ostenmoutt as he learned the statecraft he would need as his mother’s heir.

The self-styled King of the Unified Realm – though much of the Realm remained stubbornly un-Unified, and fought more fiercely and steadily than the Baroness had – hailed from the far north, and kept his capital in the mountains of Relganor. As they travelled north – Devryn locked in his carriage under guard – the faces of the innkeepers changed from the olive-brown of Devryn’s own to the paler hue of the northerners.

It was the first time Devryn had known such cold. After three days in the King’s castle, he truly believed he would never be warm again. He had brought more books than he had warm clothes, but his fingers were so chilled, even by the fire, that he could scarcely turn the pages. He told the servants to bring more wood, but they looked at him oddly, and told him that it was summer and that they would not. He was accustomed to obedience; their casual defiance threw the reality of his new status in his face like the icy water they brought him to wash with every morning.

He had been angry, but now he began to be afraid.

*

A week after his arrival, he met the man he was to marry.

Devryn expected disdain – or scorn – or a swaggering show of power. He expected the King’s youngest son to be made in the King’s image. He did not expect Rowe of Relganor to be a slight, copper-haired youth of barely twenty-one, who spoke with quiet courtesy and, on touching Devryn’s hands in greeting, called the servants and ordered the fire built twice as high, and hot tea brought for both of them.

The servants did not question him.

Nor did they object when he sent them from the room after the tea and fire had been seen to, and locked the door behind them.

“I would speak privately with you,” he said.

Devryn nodded. The fire was thawing some of the chill that had settled in his body, and the tea was hot in his hands and gloriously scalding in his throat. He was grateful, but wary.

“My father,” said Rowe – and there was a hint of something in his face as he said it, something that might have been disgust in someone with less control of himself – “would have me treat you as a horse to be broken. He was very specific in his expectations, in fact. I do not intend to meet them.”

“How kind of you,” Devryn replied, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice. He regretted it at once, but Rowe met his gaze squarely.

“I take no credit for kindness, only for realism.” Rowe picked up his own tea and turned it in his hands, but it seemed too hot for him, and he replaced it on the tray. “I know you have no choice in this. You perhaps may not know that neither do I. My father is not a man to be crossed, even – especially – by his blood kin. I have learned more subtle ways to defy his will. I hoped that you and I might be – if not friends – then at least allies, as we are both brought unwilling into this arrangement.”

It could be another kind of power play, a more subtle route to conquest, but Devryn was beginning to think that Rowe was in earnest. He knew enough of the King to know that speaking so openly of defiance was dangerous. Rowe had placed trust in him, knowing Devryn had no reason to honour it, and that spoke of a courage that Devryn admired.

“I should prefer that to enmity,” he said quietly.

He was surprised by Rowe’s smile, fleeting though it was. He could not imagine the King’s face holding such warmth. For the first time since the oath, he felt as though his feet were on firmer ground. He had no doubt that Rowe had his own agenda to pursue – but despite his demurral, it appeared to be one that had room for kindness. Devryn counted that more in his favour than any promise he could make.

*

Devryn had expected that the wedding would be a swift and subdued affair, a deliberate insult to his family – but such an insult would also have reflected on Rowe, and the King could not countenance that. It was a grandiose ceremony followed by feasting and festival that Devryn would sooner have had no part of.

His mother was not invited, nor any of the other great families in the Barony. He was glad; this lavish celebration was in its own way more humiliating than its lack would have been. Rowe’s two elder brothers rode in from their holdings to give him congratulations that had the tone of condolences, and looked at Devryn as if they despised him.

He took comfort from the knowledge that Rowe hated every minute of it as much as he did – though no-one who had not been standing at his side all that day and night would have been able to tell.

After the wedding, the King ceased to take any interest in Devryn’s whereabouts or well-being. The marriage was sealed, his victory complete; he no longer needed to keep Devryn pinned behind the glass like a dead butterfly.

Rowe waited until some moment of certainty Devryn could not ascertain, and then calmly made the changes to their living arrangements that they had agreed. The King did not appear to notice, or if he did, he did not care.

Rowe’s rooms were in the east wing of the castle, on their own separate floor, and some way from his father’s. He had said it would be an easy matter to furnish Devryn with a similar suite, on the same corridor but not adjoining, to give them both an illusion of independence. He was right. There was some whispering, Devryn knew, on the rare occasions he was forced to attend the court, but it was of the sort that suggested no-one had expected them to share a bed, and that no-one was surprised.

The first time Rowe caught one of the servants ignoring Devryn’s orders, he enquired softly whether the woman intended to offer his husband such insult. She blustered and hesitated, unable to say what all three of them knew – the King desired it so – and after a few moments, Rowe offered her reprieve, requesting that she ask his head of household to come and speak with him, as clearly there had been a misunderstanding.

After that, the servants brought Devryn wood for the fire when he asked for it and warmed his water for him in the morning. They made no secret that they thought his wants strange, but they showed him neither disrespect nor resentment – indeed, they seemed relieved that Rowe had countermanded their orders – and he began to truly comprehend the iron grip the King had upon every last corner of his kingdom.

*

“What is that you’re reading?”

The one space they shared was a private chamber off the castle library that Rowe kept stocked with his own collection of books. Access to it had been the only thing Devryn had requested outright – he could not abide the whispers and glances he must bear in the main library. Rowe had hesitated – for the first time in their negotiation – but he had agreed, and when he later found Devryn carefully unpacking his own books onto the available shelves, whatever had given him pause was clearly laid to rest. He had an extra table, oil lamp, and chair brought in, and they often sat in silence there in the evenings.

This was the first time either of them had broken that silence for more than a brief greeting or farewell. Rowe had been restless when he came in, and Devryn had half-thought to ask him what troubled him – but had held back, afraid of overstepping.

“Carovinius,” Devryn replied. There was a pause. He glanced over at Rowe and saw the question on his face. “The Tivithan physician. You haven’t heard of him?”

“Should I have?” Rowe glanced curiously at the other books piled on Devryn’s table. “You’re interested in physick?”

“In passing. Carovinius died almost a hundred years ago, but his understanding of sickness far surpassed our own. It’s hard to find copies of his work – unfortunately, the current school of thought among the Guild of Physicians runs counter to most of what he wrote, and they disregard him as a primitive thinker.”

“I had thought Tivith possessed little in the way of learning, I must say.”

“They have lost much.” Devryn took one page between finger and thumb; even the paper was better, and the ink more durable, than books produced in the north. “The Wars of Drought destroyed their collected learning so swiftly that many learned scholars do not even know of their accomplishments.”

Rowe reached for one of the other books, glancing at Devryn for permission. He nodded.

“And this Carovinius knew much of physick?”

“Far more than we do. He possessed a sound philosophical mind and keen faculties of observation. He took nothing for granted and tested every theory and treatment he came across. His methods interest me more than the physick itself – he was so rigorous, where so few scholars of natural philosophy look beyond second-hand truths these days.”

Rowe turned the pages, glancing at the detailed illustrations. Their colours were as bright as the day they had been inked. Devryn was struck by the real interest on his face as he read, and by the way his hair, falling forward past his shoulders, caught the lamplight and glimmered like red gold.

Rowe looked up, light green eyes meeting Devryn’s with slight surprise, as if he had not known himself watched.

“Do you consider yourself a scholar?”

“I– yes.” Devryn looked quickly away. “I have studied, and even written some tracts. I’d… hoped to spend this season at the university in Calamar.”

“Oh.”

Rowe fell silent then. Devryn would have liked to offer comfort – it was not Rowe’s doing, any of this – but there was no way to soften the truth: that his every hope for the future had ended with the King’s demands for fealty.

For the first time, he wondered what hopes Rowe might have cherished – and if they too were now out of his reach. But it seemed an overly private matter to broach, so he said nothing, and pretended to read the book he could no longer concentrate upon.

*

They had been married scarce three months when Rowe was sent by the King to the restless Eastern Marches to ensure their tithes were paid in full. There had been rumour that all was not well in the Marches, that there had been dying and disorder in the lower lands, though from what cause was unclear.

Devryn was glad that he was not expected to travel with Rowe, but found, unexpectedly, that he worried for his safety – and not simply out of gratitude, or concern for his own fate. Their shared silence had given way to conversation, and he missed Rowe’s company. He attended court every day to be sure he heard the latest news – or at least, those parts of it that the King permitted shared among his courtiers – and took comfort that Rowe seemed to be dealing smoothly with the Knights of the Marches and expected to return within another week.

To his surprise, he received a letter later that day – brought to him by Hallen, one of Rowe’s most trusted attendants. Devryn wondered why she was not to accompany him to the Marches; he realised now that Rowe had wanted her eyes and ears to remain in the capital.

“From my lord,” was all she said, handing over the envelope – which had been sent, not to the castle directly, but to a friend of Rowe’s, a young Knight-at-Arms who lived in the town, with instructions that she pass it to Hallen. “If you wish to reply, I can make the arrangements.”

When he read the letter, Devryn saw why Rowe had taken such care that it avoid the gaze of the King.

The scalding sweat is running rampant in the Marches, Rowe wrote. The Knights have tried to keep it from my knowledge – they intend that no word of the sickness be brought out of the Marches, lest the King order them quarantined and all trade cease – which would doom them to famine in the coming winter. There is little I can do, and if I let slip that I know the truth, they may act rashly to preserve their secret – but I thought to write to you in hope that one of your books might hold some remedy as yet unknown here, that I might find a way to pass it via my servants to the physicians who stare death in the face each day.

Carovinius had indeed written of the scalding sweat at some length. Devryn found the pages easily. But there was little there to comfort. The sickness came on swiftly, so that one who appeared healthy in the morning could be dead by nightfall. It was clear that it passed from the sick to the hale: one case could seed a town like a spark catching in straw. Yet its pattern was haphazard – those who tended the dying would sometimes sicken within hours, and sometimes take no ill even though they had buried a dozen of their kinsfolk. And yet others might merely share a passing word with one sick, and be dead themselves before the day was out.

Not all died, but more died than lived. Carovinius had known of no guaranteed cure for the sweat, but he had found methods that seemed to increase the probability of survival – and he wrote in scathing terms of treatments that Devryn knew, with a sinking heart, were liable to be the first and last resort of the physicians of the Marches.

He began to copy the pages at once, but it was long work, and he could not finish it that day, though he sat up late into the night in the library chamber.

The next morning, he would have returned to his desk as soon as he had breakfasted, but as he passed through the castle keep, he became conscious of a commotion in the courtyard. When he stopped at a window to look, he saw the unmistakable return of some of the horses and riders that had departed with Rowe. His momentary fear was allayed when he spotted Rowe himself dismounting, but it was clear that something must have soured in the Marches for him to return so soon on the heels of his letter.

Devryn hurried to the big audience chamber, but Rowe had apparently gone straight into private conference with the King. Devryn was forced to wait with the other curious courtiers, listening to the murmur and speculation that abounded. At length, rumour began to swell that raised voices had been heard from the King’s private office and that it seemed likely Rowe was in disfavour.

Then, a more certain tale: that Rowe had strode from the room in a fury unlike his usual calm, and that he had rushed to the courtyard and called for his horse; but that the King’s messengers had been swifter, and the stablehands had been told to refuse him on pain of flogging. It was said that Rowe would have walked out of the gate on his own feet, then, but that the guards had barred his way, commanded by the same messengers, and that Rowe had seemed, for a moment, as if he would draw his sword and fight his father’s soldiers. But he had instead turned on his heel, stalked back into the castle, and returned to the King’s office, from whence further shouting issued.

Alarm was rising steadily among the courtiers. Had the Marches declared war? Or had they offered Rowe some insult that meant the King must now do the same? It had not escaped notice that not all of Rowe’s party had returned; a number of his knights were missing, and their companions would not say why.

Devryn was afraid he could guess. He spoke to a chamberlain he knew Rowe trusted, asking that he be informed of any developments, and then hastened to the library.

He had another page yet to copy of Carovinius’s work, and he set to it as swiftly as he was able. He wished he were faster with a pen, or that Rowe’s letter had reached him sooner, but he would do what he could.

He left the door unlocked so that the chamberlain might enter when he came with word, but the chamberlain did not come, not in all the time that Devryn was working. When at last he had finished, and dried the ink, he carefully bundled the pages and took them with him as he set out once more for the audience chamber.

He did not get far before he knew that something was terribly wrong. The audience chamber had been abuzz with voices; now it was silent, long before the end of court session for the day. The halls he walked were deserted of their usual attendants. A fear came over Devryn that, somehow, he had been left alone in the castle – that all its other occupants had abandoned it – but as he drew near the audience chamber, he began to see people standing together in huddles, whispering and white as though ghosts walked among them.

He sought out the chamberlain and, when he found him, understood why the man had not come as he’d promised. He was shaking and fearful, dousing his hands and face in vinegar, and he told Devryn in halting words what had occurred.

The Knights of the Marches had sent Rowe away without warning two days previously, giving no reason – but as Rowe’s party left the city behind, the smoke of many fires rose from it, and the bells began to toll for the dead. They hurried away, but as they approached Relganor, some of them began to show signs of the scalding sweat.

Rowe had halted them at an inn on the outskirts of the castle town and paid the keeper a lifetime’s wage to give it over to them entirely. He had separated the sick from the strong and summoned physicians for the former. Rowe had waited some hours, checking for signs of disease, before he took the remaining healthy members of the group back to the castle. He had gone at once to the King to request the best of the court physicians be sent out to the inn, and to say that he himself would be returning thence to be with his people.

The King had refused to send the physicians. He had put the returned party – knights, attendants, guards all – under immediate arrest, the nobility in their own rooms, the others in the castle cells. He had forbidden Rowe from returning to the inn. He was to consider his people already lost, said the King: they were no longer any of his concern.

Rowe had argued, far more fiercely than was his wont, but the King had been implacable, and threatened not only him, but his attendants and knights with the harshest penalties for disobedience. After he had been denied by the guards at the gate, Rowe had returned to the King and tried again to persuade him, but all reports had been that he met with no success.

And then he had fallen in a faint on the floor of the King’s office, and the attendants who reached him (the chamberlain had been one) found him burning with fever, the sweat already standing on his body. Perhaps he might have recognised his own sickness if the King had not driven him to such fury and agitation; certainly he would have been gone from the castle before it struck him if the King had not detained him.

“Where is he?” demanded Devryn, fighting the shivers that had come over him.

“In his rooms. The head physician is with him.”

Without a care for witnesses, Devryn ran through the halls of the castle. The head physician was very much of the traditional mode of thought, and would begin at once with blood letting or a dose of mercury, which Carovinius was adamant would do great harm to a victim of the sweat. Devryn didn’t know if he could persuade the woman to read his copy of Carovinius’s notes – much less act upon them – but he had to try.

Yet when he reached the east wing, he found guards posted at the doors to Rowe’s chambers who barred his way.

“I need to speak with the head physician.”

“She has already gone,” said one of the guards, a heavy-set woman who always spoke brusquely and obeyed the King without question. “She says he has the scalding sweat – there is nothing she can do for him.”

“Then I would speak with the other attending physicians–”

“There are none.”

Devryn stared at her, uncomprehending. The other guard – a scrawny man who had spoken courteously enough to Devryn in the past, and who seemed to regard him with sympathy rather than suspicion – shook his head, a haunted expression on his face.

“The King has decreed that the rooms are to be sealed. The head physician… she ran for it as soon she got a good look at Lord Rowe. She fled the castle, and many of her cronies with her. The King has said…” He faltered. “The King has said that if the sweat is not to take us all, Lord Rowe must not leave his chambers until…”

He stopped. Devryn was shaking now in earnest, a terrible palsy that threatened to weaken his legs to uselessness.

“He’s alone? You are leaving him to die?”

“He may recover,” said the woman stoically. “The King hopes he will, but he cannot take the chance–”

“He will not recover if there is no-one to tend him! There must be physicians who have not left–”

“They will not enter his rooms,” said the man, “for the King has told them that if they do, they cannot come out again.”

Devryn drew a deep breath, hearing the nuance.

“So you are to prevent anyone from leaving – not necessarily from entering?”

The man frowned. “Well – yes – but no-one would–”

“Then let me in.”

They stared at him, one in shock, the other in suspicion.

“We cannot take the chance of spreading the sweat–” the woman began, as if reciting by rote.

“I do not intend to leave again,” Devryn said quietly. “At least not until the sickness has run its course. The full quarantine by law is a fortnight, is it not? If by some miracle he lives through the sweat, he will die of thirst or hunger in that time if he is not attended. I give you my word, I will make no attempt to come out again until that time is up.”

“The word of a soft-born trophy consort?” said the woman scornfully. “It means nothing. Leave here at once.”

“No.” The other guard took a step away from the door and to one side. “I believe him. Let him in.”

She whirled upon him, teeth bared.

“Is this treason?”

“He’s right,” said the man. “The King ordered that none be permitted to leave. He did not say that none could enter. Lord Devryn understands the consequences and goes willingly. And Lord Rowe–”

“Lord Rowe is as good as dead!”

“Lord Rowe is not dead yet,” snarled Devryn, “and he lies beyond that door in what misery I cannot guess. Can you stand there and listen to his cries? For I promise you, he will cry out – the sweat is not a gentle way to die. Can you turn your backs on his death, however lingering it may be? Knowing that there is none to bring him water or stay with him at the end?”

That, at last, swayed her. She glared at him as if she would strike him, but there was shame in her eyes. Slowly, she reached into her pocket, took out the key, and handed it to him. He caught the acrid scent of vinegar upon it.

“I will need food and water sent up,” he said, moving towards the door. “And medicinal components. I can dictate a list if a servant can be permitted to stand outside the door and listen. If a basket and rope can be secured, the necessary items may be sent up that way through the window, so there is no requirement to open the door here.”

He fitted the key to the lock. The woman seemed as though she would argue again, but the man said, “It will be done. I will tell Hallen; she will see to it.”

The door opened under Devryn’s touch, and the guards backed away to avoid any rush of unwholesome air that might escape. Carovinius had been sure the sweat did not travel on the breeze, but it took an effort of will nonetheless for Devryn not to halt his own breathing as he stepped through into the parlour.

He shut and locked the door behind him. He heard a protest from outside – the woman had not expected him to keep the key, clearly – but it was now no concern of his. He hurried through the parlour and the dressing room and pushed open the door of the bed chamber, battling his own terror as he stepped into the room with Death.

The room was hot: the fire had been built up high before the physicians had fled. Devryn cursed them as he rushed to the bed. They had likewise piled blankets so high that he could barely see Rowe beneath them. He might be dead already for all Devryn could tell.

Devryn dropped his sheaf of papers on the nearest surface, seized the blankets, and dragged them all from the bed. He let them fall where they would and bent over Rowe anxiously.

Rowe still breathed, but he was deep in the fever, his skin flushed appallingly and the sweat soaking him as if he had fallen in the sea. Now free of the weight of the blankets, he moved occasionally, twitchy and unnatural, like one in a nightmare, but he did not open his eyes. His breaths came rapidly and grated ever so slightly in his throat.

Now he had a moment to look around the room, Devryn saw that one of the physicians had unpacked their medicine box – and had not stopped to retrieve it when they fled. That, at least, stood in their favour, as he would be able to make use of some of the contents without needing to rely on those outside these rooms to bring them to him.

It did little to quell his fury that they had done such harm already. They had thought to feed the fever, believing that once the unnatural sweat was poured out, the sickness would abate. Carovinius had known better. The fever was what killed, he said – not the sweat, which was merely a consequence – and the victim must be kept cool at all costs.

Devryn hurried to the windows and worked to open them, flinging them as wide as they would go. There was a pitcher of water next to the bed, but if he extinguished the fire with it, the room would fill with smoke, and Carovinius had cautioned that those with the sweat also became weak in the chest and might die of strangulation if it were exacerbated. Devryn took up the poker and tongs and pulled the fire apart, spilling the glowing logs onto the stone hearth. They still gave off much heat. Inspiration struck; he went out to the dressing room, where Rowe’s tin bath hung, and hauled it into the bedroom. Once he had piled the logs into it, he pushed it out to the parlour and dumped them into the fireplace there.

He paused by the door.

“Have you sent word to Hallen?”

There was no reply. For a moment he was seized with panic, but then he heard the unmistakable clink of armour and the floorboards creaking as someone shifted her weight. He guessed that the other guard had gone to find Hallen, and that his sullen companion had no intention of responding to Devryn. At least, he had to hope that was the case.

The bedroom was already cooling down as the chill air spilled in from outside. It gave Devryn a pang of worry despite himself. Though he had always judged Carovinius as correct and rational, it was quite different now that Rowe’s life was at stake – and Devryn had lived much of his life hearing of the dangers of cold air to the sickly.

He picked up the papers as he returned to Rowe’s side, scanning quickly over Carovinius’s words – in his own handwriting now – and taking comfort from the certainty in them.

The next task was to divest Rowe of his heavy nightgown – the servants had even left on his underclothes to increase the warmth of him – and it was not an easy one. Rowe seemed to rouse when Devryn touched him, but it was not to wakefulness; rather, he gasped incomprehensible words and struggled against Devryn with surprising strength. His eyes flickered open occasionally, but they showed no comprehension. Devryn had to fight him to get the nightgown off, but after that, the burst of strength seemed to leave Rowe, and he sagged against Devryn as he removed the rest of the sodden garments.

He had thought he would feel discomfort at the task, but he swiftly realised that there was no room for modesty if he was to be of any use to Rowe. His body was as flushed as his face, and the heat coming off him was immense. The sweat left him glistening unnaturally.

While he still had Rowe half sitting up, Devryn reached for the water pitcher. Getting him to drink was almost impossible. His throat would be raw, Devryn knew, and any liquid passing down it would burn no matter the temperature – but he must drink. The sweat that stood out on his skin was draining his body of moisture, and it must be replaced. That, Carovinius wrote, was the other great death blow dealt by the sickness – the patient’s body would dry out and shrivel, and sometimes that would kill him even more swiftly than the fever.

By the time Devryn was satisfied that Rowe had drunk enough of the water, most of the rest of it was soaking the bed, and Devryn’s clothes. He would need more – much more – and he began to be afraid again that no help would be sent.

But just as he was laying a light linen sheet over Rowe – now quiet, though his breathing was still rapid – there was a pounding on the door of the parlour. Devryn ran to respond.

“Does he live?” asked Hallen from beyond the door. Devryn could hear an argument behind her – the guards, he thought – but he ignored it.

“He lives, but he does very ill. I need a great many things and I do not doubt the King will forbid that I have them–”

“The King has left the castle,” Hallen replied, undisguised contempt in her voice. “He has taken a handful of the court and his queen, and he has left behind a troop of soldiers to guard the gates from outside. None of us are to leave here, while he flees south to safety.”

Devryn was too stunned to reply for a long moment. Such utter disregard for any but himself – even for the life of his own son – was almost unbelievable, even from the king.

“The Lady Gantar has taken command of the castle. She is attempting to sway the soldiers outside, and in the meantime, she has taken stock of our provisions and believes we shall feel no hardship for the fortnight demanded by quarantine. However,” and here Hallen’s voice shook, “she upholds the seal upon these doors. She believes it is only thus that we may be spared.”

“I understand.” It changed little. “Can you help me?”

She was answering almost before he could finish the question. “When I received your message I sought audience with Lady Gantar. She concedes that there is little danger in sending up provisions through the window, and has granted me leave to bring you what you ask.”

Devryn drew a long breath. “Good. Very well, then. Here is what I need.”

*

The evening and night that followed were the longest of Devryn’s life.

He spent hours hauling water up to the window, until Hallen managed to find a pulley from the stables and send it up to him to affix as best he could above the window. After that, those on the ground could do the work of raising the full buckets, and he need only retrieve them once they reached the sill.

That gave him more time to attend to Rowe. Again and again, Devryn forced him to drink, and that Rowe fought less each time gave him no comfort. Devryn bathed his face and chest with cold water, watching always in case he started to shiver, but it seemed to make barely a dent in the heat coming off him. He mixed ground willow bark and other herbs as instructed by Carovinius, but he could not be sure how much of the potion Rowe swallowed.

Devryn’s own clothes were constantly damp, and when he wasn’t pulling on the rope or struggling with Rowe, he grew painfully cold, but he dared not rekindle the fire in the bedroom, though he closed the windows.

He checked Rowe constantly, looking for the sudden fever spike that Carovinius warned of, and tried to keep himself warm with the discarded blankets when he was still. It struck him with grim irony that he was willingly wrapping himself in bed linen that should rather have been burned to prevent the spread of the disease – but he knew that, if he was going to take sick with the sweat, he was likely already doomed. The blankets would change nothing except his present ability to help Rowe.

It was long past midnight and he was weary beyond description when Rowe cried out, his body spasming in terrifying, unnatural contortions. One touch told Devryn that the moment of greatest danger had come: his skin was painfully hot, and the fever had clearly burned deep into his heart and brain and was poised to consume him. Open windows and damp cloths could no longer battle it, but it was for that reason that Devryn had laboured so long to keep bringing up the water buckets. The tin bath stood full with water as cold as the night air could make it. He lifted Rowe – or tried to. The seizures that racked him made it impossible to easily take hold of him, and Devryn ended up half-carrying, half-dragging him from the bed and into the cold water bath.

Rowe screamed when his body met the water. It broke Devryn’s heart, but he held him in the bath, grabbing hold of the nearest pitcher to scoop water up to pour over Rowe’s head and face.

If dehydration and the exhaustion of fever did not kill them sooner, Carovinius had written, most victims of the sweat reached this point – their vital functions consumed by the fire and then extinguished. Their only hope of survival was to keep the fever heat just below that fatal point – keep it back for as long as it took the body to rally, if it had strength left to do so. Devryn did not know if Rowe had such reserves, but he knelt by the bath for the hours that followed, holding Rowe though his arms ached and he was so cold he thought he would freeze in place. At length, he rested his head on Rowe’s, and sat silent, and though he had never been a godly man, he prayed.

Just as the first hint of dawn touched the window, Devryn felt a shudder from Rowe that was different from the seizures that had shaken him before. He stirred himself to examine him, and saw that he had not been mistaken. Rowe was beginning to shiver. His skin was still warmer than a well man’s should be, but the terrifying heat had abated.

Devryn could hardly move for cold and stiffness, but he managed to get Rowe out of the bath. He wrapped him in blankets to dry him, then lifted him back onto the bed. The sheets were still damp and tangled from Rowe’s earlier delirium, but for now, all Devryn could do was pull them aside and put more blankets in their place.

The thought of bringing the unburnt logs back in from the parlour and starting the fire was almost more than he could countenance. He might not have done it for his own sake, even as cold as he was, but Carovinius had warned that it was an easy thing for the fever to turn to chill, and Devryn dared not risk it – not when, for the first time, he truly had hope that Rowe might live.

The fire took so long to catch that Devryn almost wept before he managed it. When at last it was strong enough that it would burn for some hours, he went to check on Rowe.

He was quiet and seemed almost to be sleeping naturally, apart from the flush still in his cheeks and the hoarseness still in his breathing. The pulse in his wrist, when Devryn lifted his hand, was more rapid than it should be, but steady.

It was light outside the window now. There was no more Devryn could do, so he sat, dull with weariness, and kept watch over Rowe.

For the first time since he had found the door barred, Devryn had time to reflect on his own actions. He had never felt such anger and disgust as at the moment he realised that the King would leave Rowe to die alone with so little hesitation, discarded like the pawn he had been all his life. It had been that, as much as the growing affection he felt for Rowe – which, he realised, was not inconsiderable – that had overwhelmed his own fear and driven him to take the risk he had.

The risk was very great. He felt far from well, though he prayed much of his discomfort was the result of worry, cold, and sleeplessness. The scalding sweat might take him next, and there was little he could do to avert it. It had likely already sown its seeds in him as he fought to keep Rowe alive.

He must have slept, for he was wakened by Hallen at the door of the parlour, knocking with an urgency that betrayed he had missed his appointed appearance at the window.

“He still lives,” Devryn said through the door, hearing the roughness in his own voice. “His fever seems less. He might… he may rally, now.”

“Thank the Lady,” was the fervent response. “What do you need?”

“More water, I suppose, and clean linen for his bed – and some soup or gruel that I can heat on the fire if he wakes.”

“But for yourself? Food, of course – but clothes, a shaving case, blankets, or books?”

“No books,” said Devryn. “They would only have to be burned. But the rest, yes – and thank you.”

*

It was almost night again before Rowe stirred to true wakefulness. Devryn washed and changed his clothes, and once he had eaten, and assured himself that Rowe’s fever remained low, he dragged an armchair from the parlour and slept in short snatches by the bedside.

He was dozing under a fresh blanket – he had bundled all the linen from the day before into one parcel made of a sheet, and tossed it from the window, whereupon servants had taken hold of it with hooked poles and dragged it off to be burned – and was brought to wakefulness by the thought that he had heard someone speak.

He leaned towards the bed. Rowe’s eyes were shut, but after moment, he did seem to try to speak again.

Devryn reached out and touched his forehead lightly, reassuring himself that the fever had not returned. At the touch, Rowe’s eyes opened, and he turned his face towards Devryn. Devryn left his chair and came to sit on the mattress beside him.

“Rowe?” He kept his voice soft. “Do you hear me?”

“Devryn?”

Rowe’s eyes flickered closed again, but he did not seem to sleep, and Devryn kept his hand where it was, resting lightly against his cheek, for what comfort it might bring.

At length, eyes still closed, Rowe said, “I have it, then. The sweat.”

“I cannot deny it,” Devryn replied. “But I hope you are past the worst of it.”

Rowe’s eyes flew open, and now he seemed to truly see Devryn, and to comprehend his surroundings.

“The worst? I thought– The last I remember, I was in my father’s chambers–”

“Two days and a night have passed since. Your fever is breaking.”

Devryn reached for the water pitcher. Rowe was too weak to sit, but he could raise himself on his elbow to drink from the cup Devryn gave him, and that he did so without prompting spoke well of his faculties.

“Two days?” Rowe sank back against the pillow, glancing past Devryn to the darkening sky outside the window. “Ah Goddess, have I brought it here? Are others sick?” He seemed to recall all at once what he had been fighting for in his last conscious moments. “Has the King sent help to my people–?”

“I know not,” Devryn said. He thought to spare Rowe the truth of his father’s cowardly flight until some of his strength had returned. “But I do not believe the sweat has touched any others in the castle. It is confined within these chambers.”

At that, Rowe looked at him with a look that was no less piercing for the pallor of his face.

“Where are the physicians? Why are you alone by my side?”

Devryn hesitated, but he could find no answer but the truth.

“No-one else would come,” he said. “I hoped that by the Lady’s grace and the words of Carovinius, I might do some good. I hope… I believe… that you will recover.”

“And you?” Rowe caught hold of his hand then, the grip tighter than any Devryn had known. His voice rose in horror and despair. “What of you?

“That is also in Her hands,” Devryn replied. He wrapped Rowe’s hand in both of his, moved by the emotion in his face. “Be easy. If I am to fall sick, it is already decided. There is no help in worrying.”

“That is hardly comforting,” Rowe protested, but his grip eased. “You’ve been here all this time? Two days and a night?”

“Yes.”

“Then perhaps it has passed you over,” Rowe said. His eyes slid closed despite his clear effort to keep them open. “That, at least, I learned in the Marches – that if it would strike, it would strike swiftly.”

“Yes,” said Devryn again, though he knew that Carovinius had found it less dependable – that sometimes the sweat would come upon a victim as long as three days after they had been exposed to it. “Sleep now, if you would. Sleep will bring you back to health.”

“I will not let my father retaliate against you,” Rowe murmured, already half gone into slumber.

Devryn thought that the King had likely never even known of his actions – but of course, he said nothing. He sat holding Rowe’s hand until he could no longer keep his own eyes open, then returned to his chair to sleep until he was needed again.

*

Part 2

After that second night – when he woke fitfully, and was not always so lucid as the first time – Rowe swiftly recovered his faculties. Devryn held him up once and fed him the gruel that Hallen had sent up, but the next time he was hungry, he was able to sit under his own strength and manage some bread and meat.

It did not take long before his questions forced Devryn to admit the whole truth of what had happened. When he learned that the King had fled, and that the castle remained under guard, Rowe fell silent for so long that Devryn began to worry for his health again.

“I suppose I should have been a fool to expect anything else,” Rowe said at last.

He seemed to sleep after that, but Devryn had watched over him long enough now to know that it was feigned. He murmured an excuse and left the room for a half hour, wherein he paced the parlour. When he returned to the bedroom, Rowe slept in truth, but Devryn saw the tracks of tears on his face even though he had not meant to look for them.

*

“Hallen reports that no-one else in the castle has taken sick,” Devryn said as he returned to the bedroom on the fourth day. “We do not know how the town fares, but the soldiers beyond the gate are nervous, and Lady Gantar has made much way with their captain.”

“If we can persuade them to open the gate, we must send help to the townsfolk,” replied Rowe. He was able to sit alone now, propped on the pillows, and though he had the hollows of suffering under his eyes, he appeared worlds improved already. “The court physicians–”

“Most fled before the King departed,” Devryn said. “Those that remain will do what they can, should the order be rescinded… but there may be little they can do.”

“Even with Carovinius’s method?”

“Even then.” Devryn had told Hallen which book, and which pages, to have the physicians read, but they would be a handful against potentially scores of the dying. “It is by no means a certain remedy.”

Rowe sighed. “Then I am even more grateful that I yet live.” He looked worriedly at Devryn. “And you? Do you feel any fever, any shortness of breath?”

“No.” It was the truth. Devryn was beginning to believe – through some twist of kind fortune – that he had escaped infection. “I am well – though I’ll be glad of the chance to sleep in my bed and remove this twist from my neck.”

He had meant it lightly, a jest to ease Rowe’s anxiety, but Rowe cast a wrathful glance at Devryn’s chair and said, “The bed is large enough for both of us, if the danger of contagion is past. I… in truth, I should be glad of your company – I have dreamed, these last few nights, and the dreams are… not pleasant.”

At such an admission – and the vulnerability he saw in Rowe then, that had somehow not been there all the time he had been near to dying – Devryn could not refuse.

*

On the fifth day, Rowe was able to go to the window, with Devryn’s help, and speak directly to Hallen and several members of the court – proving, to any who doubted, that he still lived and was capable of giving orders. Later that same day, the captain of the troops outside surrendered himself to Rowe, by way of Lady Gantar, and the gates were opened.

Rowe could have demanded then that his own quarters be removed from the quarantine, and servants sent to attend them, but he upheld Lady Gantar’s decision and ordered that provisions continue to be sent up by the window. He said that he would take no chances. Though Devryn longed to escape the confines of the suite of rooms, he agreed without hesitation when Rowe brought the matter to him.

“Fourteen days is the safest span,” Devryn said. “By then, all trace of the sickness should be gone from us, and we can burn whatever else may harbour it.”

“More than that, I cannot be seen as a hypocrite,” Rowe replied, and only the tightening of his mouth as he spoke made reference to his father. “The quarantine orders within the town must be followed. The people there must see that I am bound by my it as much as they are.”

The scalding sweat had not struck the town as hard as it might – in great part because Rowe had isolated the sick members of his party so swiftly – and the physicians there had shown greater fortitude than those who had fled at the first sign of the sweat. The soldiers who now took their orders directly from Rowe were in the process of dividing the town into districts and ascertaining which contained the infection.

Those physicians who had remained in the castle had taken copies of Carovinius’s work and gone to the town without hesitation. Though Devryn and Rowe were isolated from the gossip of the court, Devryn guessed, from some conversations with Hallen, that the physicians who had not attended on Rowe had been cowed more by the King than the disease, and that they were determined now to atone for their hesitation and the cowardice of their fellows.

There was no word from the King himself. No news had reached them of his destination, though Rowe thought he would most likely go to his eldest son’s manor in the south-west of the mountains, where the majority of the royal army was currently encamped.

“Borel will not think well of his actions,” Rowe said quietly after they had finished their evening meal. They had not been talking of the King, but Rowe had been silent some time, and it was clear his thoughts had run in that direction, whether he willed them or no. “But I… do not suppose he will take my part. My brothers and I have been pieces in our father’s game for as long as we have been alive.”

“That is a monstrous thing to do to one’s own kin.” Devryn should perhaps have better guarded his tongue, but any fear of reprisal that would have kept him quiet before had been swept aside by the hatred that had grown in him since the King had fled. “What loyalty or love can he expect from you now?”

“He has never relied on either,” Rowe replied. “He has long held over us instead the threat of disinheritance – and even of death, if he deemed us a threat.” Rowe paused, and looked away. “My father had a daughter by his first queen. He had her executed for treason when she was seven years old, and her mother beside her. We have never doubted that he would do the same to us.”

Devryn shuddered. He tried to imagine growing to adulthood under such a tyrant. He was no longer surprised that the King had left Rowe to die – but he was amazed anew at Rowe’s bravery and compassion – at the dozens of small ways he had found to defy his father, and at his refusal to back down when the lives of others were in the balance.

Without consciously choosing to do so, he reached for Rowe’s hand and held it in his own. For a moment he entertained the wild thought that as soon as Rowe was well enough, they might take their horses and flee, ride south to Ostenmoutt and away from the iron mountains and their iron despot. But there was no safety to be had there; the King still possessed the resources to take the barony by force.

“My mother was always good to me,” Devryn said, the words tumbling unbidden from his mouth. “She bore no other children after my father died of the whistling plague, but took instead for her consort the woman she had loved since her childhood. She never put the barony in jeopardy for the sake of her own needs, but she would not be a slave to her title, either – and I believed she would never force me to marry against my wishes.”

He closed his eyes.

“What choice did she have but to give fealty? We have no army, and our lands are scattered. If she had defied the King, she and I and all we loved would have died or been made prisoner, and our lands would have been burned and pillaged. I did not truly think it would come to that, before, and I felt betrayed – but now I see that she understood better than I what was at stake.”

“I’m sorry.” The words were little more than a whisper. Devryn’s eyes flew open as he looked in surprise at Rowe, but Rowe was looking at their joined hands, and there was grief in his face. “I am so sorry. That you should have been brought into this prison–”

“I do not hold you accountable for your father’s actions.”

“I could have refused the marriage,” Rowe said. “I could have defied him.”

“And been executed for treason like your sister?” Devryn moved from the chair to sit on the edge of the mattress, distressed that Rowe should hold himself responsible for even a second. “Don’t be a fool. You did all you could – more than you had to – and I am grateful. I… do not know if I have told you that, in words.” He hesitated, then brought Rowe’s hand to his mouth and kissed his fingers. Rowe’s eyes flew to his face. “And I do not find it so very terrible to be wed to you.”

Rowe looked at him searchingly for long moments. Then he pulled gently on their joined hands, drawing Devryn close enough that it would take only a little effort, on either of their parts, to bring their mouths together.

“I confess I had no expectation I should like you as well as I do,” Rowe murmured, and Devryn couldn’t help but laugh softly at the bluntness of his honesty. “And quite aside from that, you have saved my life–”

At that, Devryn’s laughter died, and he pulled back, a heaviness suddenly on his heart.

“I did what others should have done, no more,” he said. “You owe me no gratitude, and I do not want you to–”

“I would not stoop to repay you with false affection,” Rowe said softly. “You deserve better than that, if I can give it.”

He took Devryn’s face in his hands with a certainty that gave weight to his assurance, and smiled, and proceeded to kiss him with a fervour that caught Devryn entirely by surprise. All the more because he responded to it so eagerly and unconsciously himself, with a passion he had not fully realised he held. Rowe’s hands slid up behind his head and neck, fingers winding into his hair. Devryn caught Rowe’s shirt in one hand, pulling him closer, and devoted himself entirely to returning Rowe’s kisses in proper style.

He would have gladly let Rowe tumble them both to the bed – as seemed to be his intent – but elsewhere in the castle, the great clock tower chimed the hour, and Devryn reluctantly lifted his head.

“Hallen will be coming to report,” he said.

“Already?” Rowe glanced at the small mantel clock that Devryn had moved beside the bed. “I had not thought it so late.”

Neither had Devryn. Even before their conversation had taken such a turn toward confession, the time had passed easily in Rowe’s company. He shrugged, tempted beyond words to recapture Rowe’s mouth – lips now reddened and inviting – but Rowe gently pushed him back, an equal reluctance in his eyes.

“I should like to talk to her,” he said. “I can walk to the parlour, if you would find me a warm dressing robe or coat.”

“Of course. I’ll bring one of the armchairs to the door as well, so you can sit for as long as you want.”

“Thank you,” said Rowe, reaching out to brush a strand of hair from Devryn’s face with a tenderness that seemed quite unwarranted by such basic courtesy. “For… everything.”

*

Though Devryn could only hear her voice, Hallen was clearly overjoyed to speak with her lord directly. He took his leave from the parlour, closing the doors between that room and the bedchamber, to give them some semblance of privacy – though he supposed the guards were still out there.

For the first time in days, he had nothing to do and no-one to talk to. He sat down at the window, opening it just enough to taste the sharp mountain air, and found that he was glad of the quiet. It gave him time to go over in his mind the sensation of kissing Rowe, to turn it this way and that in eager anticipation that it would be repeated.

He had not thought he was tired, but he must have drifted off to sleep, because the next thing he knew, Rowe was shutting the window and his face was cold from the draught. Devryn sat up, and Rowe cast him an apologetic look.

“I did not mean to spend so long talking with Hallen–”

The mantel clock read some hours later than Devryn would have guessed. He swung his legs off the window seat and stretched, hoping the stiffness in his shoulders would pass off without turning to pain.

“How fares the world outside?”

“The town is secured and the sickness contained in only three wards.” Rowe made his way back to the bed and sat on the edge. Devryn took note of the pallor of his face and the faint tremor in his clasped hands with concern. He was not yet well. “The people there are bitter – they know the King fled. Many of the nobles in the town itself followed suit. The people were mistrustful of the soldiers, but the physicians and knights who went out from the castle have done much to convince them.”

Devryn crossed the room and poured water for Rowe. Rowe took the cup gratefully, and drank, and made no protest when Devryn ushered him under the covers and settled him against the pillows.

“The mood in the castle is an ugly one,” Rowe said when Devryn was seated back in his armchair. “I had not guessed there could be such open rebellion among the court. I thought them all too afraid… that all of us were too afraid. Even the guards – those who refused to obey Lady Gantar were locked up by their own comrades. The ones who guard my door left Hallen alone so that we could speak, and she believes they are much of the same mind. Some of what is being said – it is close to treason.”

“Only close?” muttered Devryn.

Rowe half-laughed, closing his eyes. The colour was returning to his face, reassuring Devryn somewhat.

“Oh, don’t think I have not thought it all myself… but I fear for the consequences if my father were to return with the better part of the army, as I guess is his intent.”

“Then let us hope he continues to fear the sweat until you are well and able to quieten them,” said Devryn, though he wished in his heart that the court might speak as they wished. “You must not dwell on it now.”

“I shall try.” Rowe opened his eyes and sat forward from the pillows, reaching for Devryn’s hand where it lay on the coverlet. “In fact, I should rather think of quite other things for a while.”

The invitation was unmistakable, but Devryn hesitated, wondering if he should have a care for Rowe’s health. Rowe seemed to guess his concern.

“I am only weary from so much discussion with Hallen,” he said. “Trust that I know my own mind – and body.”

It was hard to readily give such trust when Devryn had seen him so close to death – but he took Rowe’s hand and allowed himself to be drawn onto the bed. Rowe took Devryn’s face in his hands again, looking into his eyes before he kissed him, and something about the gesture made Devryn’s heart skip. He opened his mouth to Rowe’s and closed his eyes as he was kissed more thoroughly than he could ever remember in his life. Rowe slid his hands down to the back of Devryn’s neck, then his back, drawing him into his arms. Devryn could not have resisted if he had wanted to – and he very much did not.

He found some measure of equanimity in breaking off their kiss to lower his mouth to Rowe’s neck, where he kissed the skin beneath his jaw, wringing a soft moan from Rowe. His shirt was open at the neck and Devryn sucked a little on the edge of his collarbone just visible at the gap. Rowe’s hands tightened on his back, then all at once he pushed him back.

Devryn raised his head, worried – but understood when Rowe began to unlace Devryn’s doublet with nimble fingers. There was no trace of a tremor now, which was more than Devryn could say for his own hands as he smoothed them over Rowe’s back, feeling the warmth of him under the fabric. Rowe’s breath caught, and Devryn stroked down his spine with more purpose. He won a shudder and a murmured half-word that might have been his name as Rowe finished with the laces of the doublet and began on those of the shirt underneath. As soon as he had the neck of the shirt open, he grabbed the hem and made to pull doublet, shirt, and undershirts over Devryn’s head with an impatience that made Devryn laugh.

The laughter swiftly turned to a low groan as Rowe dropped the clothing on the floor and bent to return Devryn’s earlier attention to his neck. In particular he seemed to have no qualms in using his teeth and tongue to tease the skin, sucking and biting so that Devryn writhed under his attentions. At one point he cried out so loudly that Rowe paused and lifted his head, concern of his own on his face.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No!” gasped Devryn. “Don’t stop!”

Rowe’s expression changed with alacrity to a smile that was close to a smirk. He pressed Devryn down on the mattress and straddled him. He leaned in again and brushed soft, tantalising kisses over his throat, gradually exerting more pressure, until Devryn was ready to beg. At the same time, he rocked slowly against Devryn, clearly very aware of his hardness and willing to exploit it.

Devryn decided – somewhat hazily, in truth – that he had been too long a passive participant in proceedings. He bundled Rowe’s shirt up over his back, and when Rowe sat back to let it pass over his head, took the opportunity to slip his hand between Rowe’s legs and exact a certain amount of revenge.

… Though perhaps that was a plan he’d not entirely thought through, as the sight of Rowe above him, lips parted and eyes half-closed, thrusting eagerly against his hand, was easily as arousing as his mouth had been.

He was very certain of one thing: that neither of them should still be wearing trousers. Fortunately Rowe seemed to concur, and assisted with the necessary disentanglement – albeit with a clumsiness that Devryn took some credit for.

“Which…” Rowe murmured, pressing his body against Devryn’s as soon as they were naked, rocking gently in a way that was no less devastating for all that Devryn thought it was unconscious. “Which stance do you favour?”

Devryn thought he could have reached his climax just by Rowe moving his hips a little harder, but he wanted more if Rowe was willing – and willing did not seem a strong enough word for the way he was moving against Devryn now.

“I…” He almost said that he had no preference, but then realised, with a shuddering jolt of need, that while that might be true in general, at this precise moment he knew exactly what he wanted. “I… want you to lead.”

Rowe needed no further encouragement. There was a pot of waxy balm beside the bed, that Devryn had used to soothe Rowe’s fever-dried lips; Rowe seized it and used half its contents to coat his cock. Fingers still slick, he met Devryn’s eyes from under half-lowered lids, then slipped his hand down to caress Devryn’s own aching cock before sliding first one, then another finger inside him.

Devryn arched up against him, taken off guard as he always was the first time with a new lover, at just how good it felt. Rowe curled his fingers with the ease of practice, and after a few moments, found the spot that made Devryn shout wordlessly and writhe, his cock spilling a few drops of sticky fluid over his stomach. Rowe withdrew his fingers – to Devryn’s deep dismay – and, as Devryn watched with eyes clouded with desire, leaned down to lick away the residue. His cheek brushed Devryn’s cock, and Devryn found words then, to tell him – to beg him – that if he didn’t stop teasing right now…

Rowe laughed – maybe – or it might have been a groan – and then his cock was nudging against Devryn’s balls, and then lower, testing the way in. Devryn flung his head back and grabbed hold of Rowe’s ass, trying to speed things up, and finally Rowe’s self control seemed to snap as he plunged forward, burying himself deep in Devryn with a low cry.

It took only a few thrusts for them both to find the rhythm of it, and then Rowe began kissing him, wild and urgent, occasionally even painful as his teeth caught Devryn’s lips – but it was a pain that only fed into the pleasure. Devryn scrabbled at Rowe’s back, knowing he was scratching the skin there, but unable to restrain himself as ecstasy swelled in the pit of his stomach.

Then Rowe gasped, and whispered, “Oh, Goddess, I– yes– Devryn…”

He thrust one final time and Devryn felt him shudder as he came, face buried in Devryn’s shoulder. Even in the midst of his climax, he reached for Devryn’s cock, pinned between them, and brought him to his own release – and Devryn could only hope, later, that the thick stone walls of the castle prevented the guards from hearing him shout Rowe’s name.

*

The remainder of their quarantine seemed almost a blessing rather than a burden. Rowe was fully recovered by the end of the first week, and reports from the town grew more and more positive, relieving them both of worry. Left with only each other for company – and no reason not to explore their newfound understanding to the fullest – it became swiftly apparent to Devryn that they were far better suited to each other than chance should have allowed. How Rowe had come to be the man he was under his father’s oppressive shadow Devryn could not fathom, except to believe that some inherent goodness in him had refused to be quelled and sought expression in defiance of all odds.

He realised that his thoughts on the matter were more than a little swayed by what he recognised as thorough infatuation, but he was not unduly concerned by his own lack of objectivity.

On the day they were finally able to leave, Devryn was almost afraid to open the door. He had begun to feel safe here – as if he and Rowe could remain apart from the world forever. He sensed the same hesitation in Rowe – in the way he wrapped his arms hard around Devryn and kissed him as if he never intended to stop – but together they dressed and prepared, and stepped out into the corridor, where Hallen and others of Rowe’s attendants were waiting.

Devryn was astonished at the welcome they received. Lady Gantar had ordered a banquet, and the court at large was effusive in their greetings. Many still kept their distance for fear of infection, but all were glad to see Rowe among them – and to Devryn’s amazement, just as welcoming of him.

Slowly, throughout the evening, he began to see what he had not understood before: that the court feared the King, but loved his youngest son. They knew that Rowe was not of his father’s ilk. Devryn had assumed their coldness and disdain towards him had been because they looked down on his mother’s surrender; now he thought that much of it had been more that they saw him as an unworthy match for Rowe and took his presence as insult.

It was a joyful occasion, yet behind the celebration – and in the back of Devryn’s mind – was the shadow of the King’s return, no doubt soon to occur.

*

Three days after the lifting of the quarantine – three days in which Rowe had been so busy that Devryn had scarcely seen him in private – they finally had word from the western mountains – a rider road-weary and wounded, but with a fierce determination in her eyes. Devryn was there when she arrived – for Rowe had begged his assistance with all that needed to be done, and Devryn had given it gladly – and saw how she looked upon Rowe with delight and relief. He was all at once afraid, but with a fear that had an edge of excitement – for her face told him that not all was as they had thought.

“We thought you dead, my lord,” she blurted without waiting for the proper acknowledgement. “I had hoped to find some support here, but that you yet live is a blessing from the Lady herself…”

“Bring her a seat,” Rowe said to one of the attendants. “Support? What has occurred?”

“I am a sergeant in the seventh brigade,” she replied. “We were camped at Watersmeet under the command of Lord Borel when we had word that the scalding sweat had risen in the Marches and was travelling west through Relganor.”

“So the King did go thence after he left here?” said Rowe. His face did not betray any emotion. “And brought you news of the sickness?”

“Nay, lord,” said the soldier. “That is to say – he did come. But we had word of the sweat before that, from some in the Marches who owe Lord Borel debts.” She hesitated, and her next words were careful. “When the King came to Watersmeet… Lord Borel refused him entry.”

The room was so silent it rang like a bell. Devryn met Rowe’s eyes, seeing there the shock he would not allow onto his face.

“Into the manor?”

“The manor, the town – he ordered the army to stand against your father. He said it was too great a risk that they had brought the sweat with them from the capital. The King – commanded that we should come to his banner and attack Lord Borel as a traitor. But, lord…” She paused again, clearly all too aware that she might justly be accused of treason for what she was saying. “…Word had come as well – that you were dead, and that the King had left the capital to the sickness and fled in the basest cowardice – and many of us were not minded to obey his order.”

“Do you say,” demanded Rowe, “that Borel has taken arms openly against our father?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And our brother Pavis? Does he know of this?”

“He has sent word of his intent to support Lord Borel in your name. They say that the King – that their lord father, for they dispute now his title – has committed treason to his kin, to his people, and to the realm he would guard. I have been sent to seek allies among the court remaining here – if the sweat had passed.”

Rowe questioned her further, seeking details of the engagements that had been fought and the troops on both sides, and as the hours passed, Devryn knew rumour had spread through the castle. He slipped away to the main audience chamber and passed unobtrusively among the courtiers, listening to what they said – sometimes openly, sometimes guarded – and marvelling at the fierce mood in the castle.

He returned to Rowe’s side just as he was ordering that the soldier be taken away and given food and drink. Rowe beckoned Devryn to him and led him into a private side-chamber to speak.

“I might put an end to this,” he said quietly. “If I send word that I am alive – or go myself – it may not be too late to call a halt to the fighting and broker a peace between my brothers and my father.”

“Do you believe he would forgive such rebellion?”

“Not for an instant.” Rowe paced urgently in the small space, hair flying behind him in its long tail. “He might pretend conciliation if he were not sure of his victory, but he would not suffer them to escape retribution as soon as he thought he had the upper hand again.”

“The mood in the court is not one of peace,” Devryn said. “Many would gladly take your brothers’ part, and the rest would wait here for the outcome rather than lending any support to the King.”

“How has it come to this?” Rowe said – but his tone was not dismayed, but wondering, even hopeful. “I had thought my father insurmountable, his grip upon the kingdom unbreakable, and yet– If I understand that sergeant’s report aright, he is on the brink of defeat.”

“Perhaps,” said Devryn, “all his power lay in the fear he taught you all – that each of you believed yourself alone in your defiance, that you thought no-one would rally to your side. Perhaps now the illusion is shattering for everyone.”

“I am still afraid,” Rowe confessed. Devryn reached for him, and Rowe went into his arms with a sigh. “Yet I cannot sit idle – and I cannot countenance war on my brothers.”

“Then you will move against him?”

“Yes,” said Rowe after a moment. “I will.”

– end –

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” – C. S. Lewis

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