Authors: Beth Cato
“Miss Percival! Miss Leander!” Captain Yancy rode up to us and dismounted in a bound. He gestured his respect and leaned closer. “The safe was unlocked and is indeed devoid of bellywood. All other herbs are present.”
“Our stores?” Miss Leander whispered, looking between us. “Bellywood was there yesterday. Only Marcus and I have keys. Oh Lady, the guards must be among the sick, and I didn't thinkâÂ”
“A skilled hand needs no key to enter a safe, m'lady,” he said.
“Sabotage.” I snarled the word. “Wasters. They could have stolen everything, but instead, they toy with us. What's the word from the trenches?”
“I spoke with the Lieutenant Commander, and he says the illness has not spread through our lines, but they are wary. Whether or not the Wasters caused this, they'll take advantage.”
I opened my mouth, but Miss Leander spoke first. “The sanitation stores should include chloride of lime for emergencies, if that's not stolen, too. That will be faster than boiling to sanitize water.”
“I was about to say that very thing,” I snapped.
“You taught me well.” She looked away, somewhat chagrined.
“Indeed. Maybe next time I get a midnight missive from you requesting aid, I'll send you a note of confidence instead.” I returned my focus to Captain Yancy. “What about Officer Wagner?”
“We've accounted for the rest of the sanitation division, but Wagner's not in the sick wards or his usual haunts. All guards have been alerted to look for him. We'll get him.”
him?” asked Miss Leander. “You're acting like he's guilty. He could be ill elsewhereâÂ”
“His tent was cleared of his personal effects. Looks more like he skedaddled, m'lady. We'll search awhile more, then we may need to send for Clockwork Daggers to hunt him. The man had better hope we find him first,” said Captain Yancy with a heavy sigh. Both the Caskentian army and the Queen's agents were quick to judge offenders, though Daggers were said to be far more patient in their execution techniques. “I'll see to the chloride of lime and will alert you if we find Wagner.” At that, he mounted up, offered a tip of his black-Âbrimmed hat, and took off at a canter.
Miss Leander shook her head. “Wagner's a family man with three children. He's come to me for advice on doctoring his babe with colic. All he wants is for the war to be done so he can go home. I can't believe he'd have anything to do with this sabotage, with killing so many.”
I walked onward. “Those facts are the very reason why a man in Wagner's position would turn on his countrymen. Never underestimate a desperate man.”
Ahead of us, three tanks towered twenty feet in height, supported by legs of stout steel as thick as a man. A pump-Âand-Âpipe system carried water from the river just beyond. Soldiers stood guard around these tanks; the tanks for the healthy side of the camp were just downriver and within view.
I looked to the commander of our guard. “The tanks must be opened and the rods withdrawn.” Like the copper and wooden medician wands we carried at our sides, these tanks contained rotating spindles that the Lady had blessed within the sanctity of a circle. Water flowed through slowly enough that it was thoroughly sanitized before it reached the spigots.
It took mere minutes for the soldiers to unbolt the lid and dismantle the steam-Âpowered motor mechanism of the spindle. The long rod was lifted out.
“It's been replaced,” Miss Leander said immediately, her voice hollow. “There's no enchantment on it.” Around us were mutters and gasps, the soldiers' fear shifting to anger.
I mounted the ladder to inspect the rod up close. At a glance, the sheen of water looked a lot like the glisten of magic, but I touched it and found no warmth of inlaid enchantment. I said nothing as I climbed down.
“They did maintenance two or three days ago,” Miss Leander said, as I rejoined her. “Only on these tanks.”
“ âThey,' meaning Officer Wagner and his crew?”
She shook her head, scowling. “I still don't believe he had anything to do with this. Maybe it was one of his men.”
“Which would mean that as commanding officer, he would still bear responsibility. Come along.”
I sent the men at our disposal to the tanks that serÂviced the healthy side of the camp. Magic was evident in the sparkle on the lifted rod. The soldiers immediately reinstalled it and went on to the next, their spirits buoyed. This was good news. It meant there was an immediate source of pure water though it would quickly be exhausted by the number of needy soldiers.
“It's a symbolic attack,” Miss Leander said. “The war started because of water rights.”
“Their motivations aren't our worry. We needed to know the source, and now we do.” I walked away and stopped. Miss Leander had stayed in place, frowning at the water tanks. A low airship thrummed overhead.
“The Wasters didn't simply remove some of the enchanted rods, or steal our herbs,” she said, the latter in a whisper. “This is more. It's not dysentery, or cholera, or any of the enteric illnesses that strike a camp because of natural zymes in the water. I
the songs those maladies create. This is new, something different. It's intentional poison.”
I nodded. Wasters were worthy of many expletives, but for a certainty, they were
stupid. I reached into my satchel for pen and paper. I did not trust this news to travel accurately by mouth. It took a few moments for me to write a letter to the Lieutenant Commander now in charge of Five, and another to be expedited to base camp. All water tanks, all medician storage, must be guarded.
I finished, rather pleased with myself. Miss Leander was unusually skilled, but her focus had been myopic. I had done what was required and inspected the tanks to find the problem. The crisis was not over, but we could proceed from here.
Miss Leander had wandered a short distance away to pace the embankment just behind the water tanks. Her wand and satchel smacked her hip with rhythmic beats. “There's no way to know where the water was poisoned. It could have happened in the tanks when the medician rods were removed, but the river is the ultimate source. But how far upriver?
” She stared across the water at the white slope.
“That doesn't matter if the rods function.”
“But there will always be men who lazily fill their canteens from the river or go batheâÂ”
“In which case, they get what they deserve,” I snapped. Why couldn't she let things be? “It's not as if we can put water samples in a circle and listen for zymes. WeâÂ”
A trumpet's blast echoed across the shallow valley. We froze for a split second as horror sank in, but we quickly shifted out of our paralysis. Miss Leander unholstered her wand from its loop as I did the same with mine, the two of us relying on the weapons we had on hand.
Cantonment Five was under direct attack.
We ran through the tent-Âlined avenue. Around us, soldiers scampered for their duty postsâÂand then we crossed to the stricken side of the camp. Men unable to stand dragged themselves behind barrels and sandbag walls, loading rifles with trembling hands. Others remained prone in snow that persisted in the shadows of the lane.
Miss Leander quite suddenly spun like a Mendalian dervish and threw herself to one side. I had a split second to wonder why, then the brown blur of a riderless horse lunged from between the tents.
I had no chance to dodge. I crashed into the horse, its shoulder as solid as an iron mooring tower. My backside met the dirt, the gray sky whirling as if viewed from a child's spin-Âabout. Trumpets and hoofbeats and yells took on a tinny cast. I touched my head and found sticky warmth.
Then Miss Leander was over me, her hands yanking me up. “The blood was the horse's, not yours. You just have a concussion, thank the Lady! It'll pass by the time we reach the wards.” She dragged me forward.
At that moment, I hated her, this most brilliant student of mine. For her vocal and fervent faith in the Lady, for the sensitivity that warned her of the horse's approach by the cry of its blood, for how she lorded her blessed insights over me without even intending to.
Before I found Miss Leander, I had been the most powerful medician in Caskentia. My aptitude at a young age even enabled me to have an audience before the late King Kethan. Now it was as though I wore the customary headmistress title of Miss Percival simply because I had borne the name for so long, the way one wears shabby clothes because of sentimentality and good fit.
I gritted my teeth, trying to stave off petty thoughts and the wobbling of the world. I forced my legs to run, stiff and old as they were. Pops of gunfire lit up the edge of the camp ahead. I wondered if the entire front line had fallen, or if this had been a decisive spear's point to penetrate the trenches to Five's weakest side.
No matter their goal, ours was simple: protect our patients.
We entered the outer yard of the wards. The deluge had worsened in our short time away. Ahead of me, Miss Leander balked like a horse at gallop jerked to a sudden stop. She could hear a full symphony in off-Âkey agony.
This time, I took her by the arm. “You can still shoot.” It was not a question.
She nodded. Cold as the morning was, sweat coursed meandering rivers from her temple to jaw. “It's been years, but yes. If I must.” She'd likely mutter apologies all the while.
I disarmed a soldier who lay slack-Âjawed in a puddle of expulsions. Most men in the yard were either unconscious or too weak to assist in our defenseâÂwhich was for the best, in a way. Many would have placed their guns to their own mouths rather than face capture by Wasters, who were known for their perverse brutality.
Still unsteady, I stepped as carefully as I could around bodies on the ground. Something felt wrong. I patted my hip. My medician wand was gone! That absence could be fatal amidst a zyme contamination like this. I'd need to recover it promptly.
The walls between the reception and moribund wards contained shrouded logs of dead men stacked like cordwood, five bodies high. All my years at the front, amidst this endless cycle of wars, and I had never seen the like.
“Miss Leander, Miss Percival!” called one of the soldiers, breathing hard. I recognized him as one of our escorts to the water tanks. He motioned us behind a stack of crates.
“Figure them Wasters'll head this way. They's executing any sick man they see on the ground. Easy pickings here.”
“Oh Lady,” murmured Miss Leander. “Mercy upon them.”
As a medician, a mentor to several generations, I had never voiced my frustrations with faith. I knew undeniably of the Lady's power. I felt its wonder every day. But her mercyâÂthat I doubted.
I checked the chambers of my gun. “Prayers later, Miss Leander. Ready yourself.”
A concussive blast shuddered through the camp. More pops, nearer. I raised the Gadsden .45 in my grip, my wrist steadied by the corner of a crate.
The brown dungarees of a Waster flashed into view as the man ducked around a tent. I fired. Blood sprayed from his forearmâÂa mere flesh wound. A pathetic shot, courtesy of my concussion.
The soldier next to us fired his rifle. The Waster spun, a hole gaping through his chest, then flopped to earth.
Gunfire pattered close by, and far away, and all around. More bombs boomed from the ridge. We waited. Tension ached through my ready arms. Hooves clattered into the yard. “Hold! I'm looking for Miss Percival!” called a familiar voice. Captain Yancy. At least
still looked to me, not Miss Leander.
“Here!” I called.
He rode closer. “The Wasters are in retreat, m'lady! They had a force of their best, but we held them off. It seems they expected most of us to be sick as mutts.”
“You medicians. You saved the camp, even if you can't cure us all.” The raspy voice came from a soldier at our feet. Miserable as he was, he looked up with the most tender of smiles. “Miss Leander, she told us to stop eating and drinking right away. She sent away for help.”
“Not fast enough. Not
,” said Miss Leander, voice breaking. She slipped the gun into her apron pocket, her gaze distant.
Miss Leander, Miss Leander, all praise Miss Leander.
I heard it like a child's singsong taunt. Gritting my teeth, I assessed the soldiers in the yard. We needed a new plan of attack for our own battle.
I assembled the medical staff. We gathered what little bellywood bark we had for priority cases, and I ordered the reception tent to be cleared. We had just begun the reorganization effort when the battle wounded began to stagger in.
These soldiers, we could aid. I staged men in lines at the operations tent, with Miss Leander assigned to bring the most urgent cases to the front of the queue.
As for the poisoned men, we housed them in the moribund tent. Healthy soldiers were assigned to provide them with fresh water. Those who suffered the most were dosed with morphine. All we could do was keep them hydrated and comfortable. Beyond that, they were under the Lady's care, such as it was.
At some point, the Lieutenant Commander came by. He informed me that a search was being conducted tent by tent for any Wasters or ill men, and that we had done an admirable job. It was the sort of poppycock expected to be said in public during a crisis.
The line of the injured dwindled. Poisoned men continued to dieâÂthough that, too, had slowed down. I estimated the number of dead in the thousands. A barracks had been commandeered to house the bodies.
As I made my rounds, I soon became aware that Miss Leander was missing. An orderly informed me that she had departed with a small escort.
If she had retreated to meditate on the Lady and assuage her guilt, I
to be livid. Such regrets could and would come later. They always did, the way a cold draft pierces a building.