Chapter 15

It was as close to daylight as Antelysium got when she re-entered the courtyard and climbed down the hatch into the tunnel. Her emotions were withered. Her knock sounded inside the room with a dead, business-like knell.

Detrixhe let her in after the usual security measures. She walked dazedly to the couch and sat down stiffly, as if in a waiting room.

Palmquist was still sprawled in one corner, but he was awake now. He was staring up at the ceiling, head tipped back against the back of the sofa. Occasionally, he would shake with another cough, though the sound was weak and strangled because of the position of his neck. Riga was seated across the room from him, in Detrixhe's usual chair. Her legs were crossed and she leaned on one knee, looking at Palmquist with a mixture of skepticism and pity. Detrixhe finished locking the door, then walked with a bowed head across the room to the table spread with papers. Slowly, he began stacking them, the shuffling of paper the only sound in the room.

Without looking away from Palmquist, Riga spoke.

"So, Collins, where did you go?"

"I went out," Hansette stead, keeping her gaze fixed on the wall directly across from her. She could almost see into the kitchen.

"We gathered that," said Riga, still not looking at her. "Where did you go?"

"Libra Heath." Hansette swallowed.

The press of the crowd after that song, the sound that still filled the room – filled the world, it seemed, echoed all the way to the domed ceiling of the city – the screaming, crying people, all cheering for Wakefield.

And Wakefield, alone on the stage, spent, smiling, crying, whispering "thank you" as if it had been brought back from the dead…

She hardened her face. Hardened her heart. She turned to look at Riga and Palmquist.

"Surely we have moving to do," she said. "Won't we have to move our things to your place? Riga?" She wanted to speak, wanted to not cry again. She was so tired.

"Yes," said Riga, slowly. "I suppose we can do that, if that's what you want. I have room."

"Well, then." Hansette felt the words die on her lips. She stared over at Palmquist. He hadn't moved at all from his spent, vulnerable position. She had never noticed how smooth and tan the skin was on his neck and chest. She watched his body shake with a feeble cough. Slowly, he reached a hand up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. With what seemed like a great deal of effort, he pulled his head forward. He turned very slightly, and Hansette could tell that he was looking at her. She didn't know what to say. She felt like she hadn't slept in days. Palmquist turned slowly away, bringing his legs up onto the sofa to curl up into a ball. Hansette bit the inside of her mouth. It looked so wrong for someone like Palmquist to pull into himself like that. She turned back to Riga.

"Well, then, maybe that's what we should start doing." Hansette rubbed his face with her hand.

Riga stood up. "All right then. Since you seem so determined."

---

Packing up and moving was a sad, quiet affair. Really, Hansette and Palmquist hadn't brought very much from the old apartment: Most of the furnishings had come with the apartment. Hansette wrapped her clothes up in her sheets, and helped Riga pack up the surgery.

Riga didn't speak except where absolutely necessary. Her face was cold and set, but she seemed to be completely lost in thought. Not that it interfered with her ability to pack with great efficiency and speed, but the two of them barely exchanged three words the entire time.

Hansette thought of the night before, of Wakefield, of Palmquist and, with embarrassment, of getting drunk after her failure at her first metasurgery. It all seemed so far away, with the exception of Wakefield's performance. That alone stood out clearly, especially that moment when Wakefield sank to its knees on the stage as the entire audience tried to reach across the orchestra pit to touch it. The look on Wakefield's face at that moment was beyond belief, almost beyond remembering. Even the clearest memory was dull compared to what she knew the androgyne had really looked like.

And she had vowed, on the train…

She wasn't sure what she had vowed. But she felt as if, simultaneous with Wakefield's gift to Anapura of that song, she had lost something very important. The worst of it was, she wasn't sure what she had lost, and knew that she would never find it again.

---

When the apartment was packed, Riga hailed a wagon, pulled by a lumbering, blubbery Ekina. The animal stood by dumbly as Riga and Hansette loaded the back of the wagon, and paid the driver to take them to Riga's address. The driver whipped the beast into tragically bellowing motion, and they moved off towards Riga's at a snail's pace.

The ride, too, was silent. The driver, a very old Borek, mumbled to himself, his toothless mouth dribbling occasional thick strands of spittle. He sat hunched in his seat and whipped the poor Ekina onwards, though it was obvious that the beast was already going as quickly as possible. Hansette stared at her hands and tried to ignore the headache growing in her temples. She wanted to sleep for a week.

"You know, it's never as bad as it looks," Riga murmured, out of the blue. They were halfway to her house, but it seemed as if they were still a long way away.

"You think?" Hansette pressed her fingers to her temples, but that only aggravated the pain.

"I know." Riga didn't look at her, instead staring straight ahead at the wrinkled scalp of the driver. "I've seen terrible things, Collins, but it really is never as bad as it looks. You'll be fine, whatever happens."

Hansette didn't pull away when Riga clasped her hand.

---

Palmquist was waiting for them when they reached Riga's warehouse. He seemed to have cheered up somewhat, probably thanks to the ministrations of one of Riga's girls – this one a charming creature with golden curls and alluring gray eyes. The girl was on his lap when Riga and Hansette stumbled in under the first load of furniture.

"Riga," Palmquist called, smiling weakly, "you've never told me about Clevanka before."

"Why should I?" Riga snapped, but she smiled at him as she said it. Clevanka looked at her with irresistibly kittenish eyes. Riga grinned at her. "Go on, Clevanka. I know you prefer his kind."

Clevanka returned her attentions to Palmquist then, leaving Riga and Hansette free to continue bringing in the things they had so recently packed.

By nightfall, they were done. Clevanka had long since departed, and Palmquist had been temporarily ensconced in an old cot in a back room. About half of Hansette things were unpacked, but she didn't really have anyplace to put them.

"I think we find something for you," Riga said, standing in the center of the broad room that the others led to. "This place is more than large enough for me, you and Palmquist and your things. For now, though, we should be able to get by."

They had a simple meal of bread, an indeterminate sort of meat, and Courage, Riga and Hansette standing by a counter in the kitchen, Palmquist seated on the stack of boxes in the corner. Hansette couldn't help but remember when Wakefield had stood there, singing so she cried, when its cuts were still bleeding a little.

"So, Riga, where's Collins going to sleep?" Palmquist asked in an almost-jesting tone, midway through the meal. While he didn't seem to be in a much better mood, he had at least recovered some of his personality.

"As far as I can tell, she had two options," said Riga, leaning casually against the kitchen counter. Hansette paused midway through a bite of bread, looking at Riga. "She can sleep with you, or she can sleep with me."

Hansette swallowed the bite of bread, having failed to chew it. She choked but managed to force it down with a little Courage.

"And really, Palmquist, your bed's a little small." Riga grinned, and Hansette suddenly remembered the terrifying predator she had perceived Riga to be when they'd first met. "At least in mine, there's a chance she won't be molested."

"Slim chance," snorted Palmquist.

Riga turned to her, smiling a little. "You know we're joking, right?"

"Speak for yourself." Palmquist knocked back a little more Courage. "I've wanted her since day one."

Hansette couldn't keep herself from giving him a horrified look. The thought of sleeping with Palmquist was too hideous to contemplate. On the sofa in the Council's headquarters was one thing, but together in that way was simply beyond the pale.

"You're barely my apprentice anymore, Collins," he said. "I can say what I like." His voice was bitter and he took another draught of Dutch.

"Come on, Tristao," said Riga. She was still smiling, but Hansette could tell she was being serious now. "Stop scaring the poor girl."

He mumbled something indistinct, rubbing his hand over the lower part of his face. Hansette looked over at him. She had never heard him sound so bitter, and she had known him for almost two years. He hung his head, staring at the floor, nursing his glass of Dutch Courage as if it was all that stood between him and oblivion. She wished she didn't have to see him like that, but she knew there was nothing she could do. She turned back to the counter and downed her own Courage.

"Collins," said Riga, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You should go on ahead to bed. Sleep in mine. I promise," she lowered her voice and bent closer, "I won't touch you if I can help it."

Hansette was too tired to object. She went upstairs, undressed, and climbed under Riga's warm blankets.

Cocooned in downy comforters, surrounded by the slightly shabby hangings of Riga's bed, she fell asleep within minutes.

---

When she woke up, Riga was not in the bed next to her, as she'd expected. It took her a few minutes, after sitting up woozily and putting her feet to the cold, hard floor, to finally see where Riga had spent the night.

She was curled up in a large armchair a few feet from the bed. Her legs were pulled up under her, and she had wrapped herself in a plain, gray blanket. Her head was tipped back against the top of the chair, and her mouth was open. Hansette had not noticed how pretty her teeth were; they were white and seemed to glow faintly in the yellow light. Riga was so beautiful while she was at rest, and so intimidating when she was awake and about. Hansette crept quietly out of bed and went downstairs to check on Palmquist.

He had not died in the night, but he didn't seem to have slept much. He was already awake when she came down to his little room, staring blankly at his hands.

"Good morning," said Hansette quietly. He jumped on the cot, scrabbling backwards, before he realized it was just her.

"G'unholy, Collins," he muttered darkly.

"Do you want me to find you some food?" she asked, ignoring his reaction and remark.

"Sure." He grimaced like a sulky little boy, not looking at her.

A few minutes later, she returned from Riga's pitiful kitchen with a hard piece of bread from the night before. It was all she had been able to find, besides Courage and things she had never even heard of. Palmquist looked up at her with an expression of skepticism as he accepted the bread.

"I'll go out and look for doughnuts and coffee later," she said, trying to smile for him.

He nodded, looking down at the bread. After a long moment of silence, she turned to leave.

"Hey, wait."

She turned to see him looking at her from the bed, his hairy, tanned legs hanging over the side. He looked desperate, yet somehow, composed.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I… Collins, I want you to try an experiment."

Hansette took a step back towards him. She wanted to know what he meant, but she was also unsure of exactly what it would be.

"What is it?" she asked, drawing up next to the bed.

"Let me tell you something, Collins," he said, as she sat down next to him on the bed. He draped his arm across her shoulders, more like a sympathetic drinking buddy than a love interest. "You are the best metasurgeon I've ever seen. You're so young and you're already… I mean, Gods unholy, it took me five years to get to Grade Four. I'm not kidding," he added, seeing her skeptical expression. "Five years. And you've done it in, what, two? Three? That is very good, Collins. But you know what you're best at?"

"What?" She was surprised to hear what he was saying. She had assumed the things she could do were things anyone could do.

"You are the best I've ever seen at flesh wounds. Not missing limbs, not that dramatic. You have finely-pointed skills. You healed that androgyne better than anyone else could have, and what you did for those bullet wounds of mine was incredible."

"It was?"

Palmquist stared at her. "Yes, Collins." He shifted on the bed, angling his body so he faced her. "And this is why I want you to try this experiment."

She looked at him. She could see a tragic desperation in his eyes. He was her master; he'd taught her everything she knew. He had taken her from a girl with an uncanny way with sick sheep to a Grade Four metasurgeon, and done it very quickly. But these weren't the things that motivated her decision.

She wanted to know if she was really as good as they said she was. She wanted to know if she was, as Riga called it, "the next step." She wanted to see what she could do.

"All right," she said. "What's the experiment?"

---

Palmquist lay on the operating table, biting down on his lower lip. His face was set and mask-like.

Slowly, Hansette lowered the scalpel to his skin. She was unsure of exactly what this would accomplish, but it did seem to help if she had a little entrance in the skin. She made an inch-long cut in Palmquist's chest, not deep, just enough to rest two fingers in.

She closed her eyes and felt his blood. She grew into it, letting her mind wander into his body until she reached the sacs of his lungs. She touched the strange, open scrapes, feeling how they had come to be, the effort that had caused this kind of damage. She tried to smooth the flesh where it had been damaged, to pull it back together, the way she did with simpler wounds, but there was nothing she could use to hold it shut. She didn't have thread inside Palmquist's body, and it wasn't that simple anyway. Slowly, sadly, she pulled back, bringing herself out of Palmquist, pulled back to the place where she was now draped over his body in Riga's surgery. When she opened her eyes, she was laying across half his body, two fingers still in the shallow cut she'd made in his skin. Not making eye contact with Palmquist at all, she slowly used the needle and thread she had prepared before to stitch the cut closed, almost unconsciously using her mind to help keep it shut while she sewed.

Palmquist was still awake. He looked deadly serious, his face paler than she'd ever seen it.

"Well?" he said when she was finished, wincing as he sat up a little.

Her back was to him as she washed her hands. She finished, then turned back to him, drying her fingers with a cloth.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry. There was nothing…"

He nodded. He looked as if she had just pulled out part of his heart.

"I couldn't hold it closed," she explained. It seemed very important that she explain this. "It's not like I could just… I couldn't just put a bandage on it, you know?"

"I know," he said softly. Slowly, he turned to her, reaching out a hand and stroking her hair. "Thank you for trying, anyway."

Hansette helped Palmquist get back to bed, then wiped down Riga's surgery.

The entire operation had taken less than fifteen minutes, and Riga was still asleep.

Hansette gathered her things and went out to find a better breakfast for Palmquist.