Her mother raps gently on the door, giving the guard a worried glance. No answer from within.
“She hasn’t been out since yesterday, milady.”
“Have you been checking on her? Is she—”
“Oh, yes, yes, of course, milady, she— she’s safe, she’s just—”
Dove fumbles with her keys, unlocking the thick oak door and slowly pushing it open. The lamps within aren’t lit; there’s only a single, flickering candle by the bedside. Dove can just barely make out a huddled lump under the bedsheets.
She pushes the door shut, turning the bolt again, and slowly approaches her daughter’s bed. The curtains are shut tightly, locking out the fading glimmers of daylight. Dove feels fabric underfoot, clothes strewn on the floor. The impossibly tidy Falcon’s bedroom floor.
“Love?” she calls out softly, putting a hand on one of the bedposts. “Are you— are you awake?”
Falcon makes a faint noise.
Dove pulls back the sheets a little, seats herself on the bed next to Falcon. “Hey. It’s just me. Can— can you talk to me?” Her voice is quavering already.
Falcon peeks out from between the sheets. Even in the dim candlelight, Dove can see how red the girl’s eyes and nose are. There’s a small pile of dirty handkerchiefs on the bed.
“Hey. Yeah. I’m here. I’m—” Dove chokes up a little. “How— how are you feeling?” The question feels wretchedly facile, naive, childlike, but she can’t find anything else to say.
“I’m sorry, love. I’m— is there anything I can do?”
Falcon weakly pushes back the sheets and pulls herself into a sitting position, hugging her mother tightly. Dove wraps her arms around the girl, kissing her softly on top of the head. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ve got you.” She touches Falcon on the shoulder, and breathes in sharply as she feels something warm and wet under her hand.
“F-Falcon? Are—?” She sits back, pulling her daughter’s arm into the light. It’s covered in deep cuts, some clotted with blood, some still oozing red. She cries out in alarm. “Fal! Wh-what happened? Did you— did you do this to yourself?”
“…I’m sorry, mom.”
“No! No, honey, no, I’m— why did— oh, God. Guard! Guard, get in here at once!”
There’s a rattle at the door and the guard bursts in, eyes wild, revolver in hand. “Milady, what’s wrong?”
“Fetch the nurse. Fetch her right now. Tell her to bring bandages and alcohol.”
“Is— is Mistress Falcon wounded?”
“Yes. Go. Go now!”
The guard salutes her and dashes out of the room. Dove hugs her daughter tightly, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Oh, baby. Oh, honey, I’m so, so, sorry.”
Falcon buries her head in her mother’s shoulder. “I just… I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t… I felt so— it keeps happening over and over again, I can’t make it stop… I should have fought back, I—”
“Shh. Shhh.” Dove rests her head against Falcon’s. “Darling, no. Don’t say things like that. This isn’t your fault. She was a Guardswoman. There was nothing you could have done. You didn’t do anything wrong, you hear me?”
“I feel so helpless. I still feel so—”
“We’re going to fix this, okay?” Dove takes Falcon by the chin, tilts her head up, looks her in the eye. “Okay, Fal? I’m gonna keep you safe. I’m gonna make sure this never happens again. Not to you, not to anyone else.”
Falcon’s expression is confused. “I— I thought— they don’t take orders from you, I thought there wasn’t anything you could—”
“We are done being helpless, baby girl. I promise you.” Dove looks up as the guard reenters the room, an older woman in fluffy red robes close on her heel, and gives a cry of relief. “Oh, thank God you’re here.”
“What seems to be the matter, my dear?” the healer asks briskly, dropping her satchel on the bed and popping it open.
“M-my daughter, Aster, she’s cut herself. All over.”
“Oh dear.” Aster plucks a bandage roll and some cloths from her satchel, and joins Dove at Falcon’s side. “Let’s see the damage now, young mistress.” She smiles encouragingly at Falcon as the girl reluctantly pushes away the covers. “Oh, my. Oh that’s quite the mess you’ve made, you poor dear.” She unstops a small bottle of grain alcohol, soaking a cloth. “First things first, let’s get you cleaned up, alright? Here, hold your dear mother’s hand, darling, I’m afraid this is going to hurt quite a bit.”
Dove holds Falcon tightly as Aster swabs her arm clean, squeezing her hand at her mewls of pain. “I hope whatever knife she used wasn’t too dirty,” Aster confides to duchess as she works. “I think most of these wounds will be fine with a cleaning and a bandage. These three here, you see? They’re going to need stitches, I’m sorry to say. Just too wide and deep.”
Falcon begins to sob. “God, no, please… I can’t, stitches hurt so much, I—”
“Aster,” Dove says quietly, “can you find us some opium?”
“I… I don’t know, your ladyship.” Aster sounds shocked. “It’s… it’s so very illegal, I’m not sure— it can’t possibly be a good idea for you to—”
“My daughter is in pain.” Dove wraps her arms around the shaking Falcon. “And besides, Aster… the law… it isn’t going to matter much after the next day or so.”
“…whatever do you mean, dear?” Aster asks, looking worried.
“I’ll explain later. Do you… know anyone, any dentists or dealers or anyone who might have the connections?”
Aster purses her lips. “There’s a dentist I used to work with. He… might trust me enough to procure a vial or two for the girl.”
Dove nods shakily. “Good. Thank you.”
Aster switches to another cloth, starts work on Falcon’s other arm. “I’m worried about these wounds. They might fester, and if they do…” She shakes her head. “What I wouldn’t give for some of the Pact’s miracle-medicine right now!”
“…what do you mean?”
“Oh— oh, I’m sorry, your ladyship, I wasn’t thinking—”
“No, no, Aster, really, what do you mean?”
“…well.” Aster shrugs. “You hear rumors. That the Commonwealth gets these strange little lozenges from the Adversary you can swallow to drive off a fever, and a poultice you can just rub on a wound to stop it from festering. Just like that! And they even know how make someone sleep like a pien şai right through the most terrible surgeries you can imagine. Things like that. I don’t know if any of it’s true, it does sound rather far-fetched, but—”
“Guard!” Dove exclaims, interrupting Aster. “Run to Mistress Iris at once. Tell her she’s needed; bring her here quickly!”
“As you will, milady!” The guard takes off at a run. Aster gives Dove a quizzical look.
“Who’s this Iris lass, my dear young Serenity?”
“She’s a… negotiator. From the Commonwealth.”
“The Commonwealth?” Aster bursts out. “We have one of their spies under our own roof!? My cherished Lady, what are you thinking? I do hope you’ve kept her in the strictest captivity—”
“I’ll explain later, I promise, I just… if there’s any chance she might be able to help… I need to try.”
“Well. I suppose I wouldn’t mind getting a look-see at their secret arts,” Aster replies grudgingly. “So long as they don’t involve human sacrifice or heathen blood rite, anyway. But bringing that spy here… your poor daughter is vulnerable enough already, I daren’t think of what those warmongering rapscallions might do.”
“Falcon is precisely why she’s here,” Dove replies.
“Mother?” says Falcon weakly, looking up at her, still shaking from the sting of the alcohol. “You— you told me she was just an advisor— wh-what have you done?”
“What I had to do.” Dove squeezes her tightly, desperately. “Auntie Peri and I are going to punish the woman who did this to you. Kiteroost is no longer the Guard’s toy to bleed and violate.”
“There, all finished.” Aster dries Falcon’s arm with a cloth and releases her, patting her encouragingly on the back. “Milady, I— I know it’s not my business to intrude, but… how could you possibly control the Guard? They’re worse than men. Wild animals; completely feral.”
“Mistress Aster.” Dove turns to her, still clinging to her daughter. “To whom is your fealty? Your truest lone loyalty above and beyond all others?”
“Why, to your house, young lady. To you. You know that.”
Dove takes a deep breath. “House Blackthorn will soon declare itself against the Sixth Empress. We will open our gates to the troops of the Commonwealth and surrender. In turn they will liberate us from this wretched occupation. My people will be spared the… appetites of the Imperial Guard. My daughter and my son will be safe. That is what I have done, Mistress Aster.”
“I— I—” Aster’s eyes are wide with shock. “I… cannot believe what I am hearing, you— you intend to betray our Empress?”
“She has already betrayed us,” Dove returns coldly.
“No! Mother, no!” Falcon cries out in terror, clinging to Dove. “You can’t, they’ll— even if you win, they’ll kill you or torture you or worse! And if you lose— if the Empress—”
“No matter.” Dove takes Falcon’s cheeks between both hands, looking her tearfully in the eye. “I would pay any price to keep you safe. You are my only daughter, Falcon Blackthorn; I would sooner burn at the stake than watch you so violated again.”
“P-please—” Falcon clutches Dove’s arm. “Mother, please, I can’t lose you. Nothing is worth that.”
“Peri will take good care of you if anything happens to me, dearest. You know she loves you like her own daughter.” She kisses Falcon on the forehead again. “And we don’t know for sure that anything bad will happen. Mistress Iris tells me they… prefer to salvage people when they can. My future won’t be easy but they won’t just murder me for my title.”
“How can you trust her? After everything they’ve done?”
“Because over the season she’s spent with us, my spies have confirmed many of the things she’s told me. You know me, Fal; I’m always careful. I had to make sure I wasn’t putting you in harm’s way. Please, dearest. Trust me. Trust your mother. We’re doing the right thing.”
“Is Auntie Peri in on this?”
“Yes. She was from the start.”
Falcon relaxes slightly. “…okay. Okay, mom. I’ll trust you. Just… please, stay safe.”
The door opens again. “Mistress Iris Summer-Rose, your Serenity,” the guard announces, out of breath.
“What’s going on?” Iris glances around the room, obviously alarmed. “She said there was some kind of medical situation.”
“Yes. Ah.” Dove gives Falcon another hug and stands, keeping hold of her daughter’s hand. “It’s my daughter; she’s wounded. She’s cut herself, and she needs stitches, and she’s in a lot of pain already, and we’re afraid the wounds will fester, and— w-well, my nurse Aster tells me of rumors that the Adversa— the Society has tutored your people in the art of healing, I thought… perhaps you might know of… something? Some way to help? I, I—” Her tone is wretched, pleading. “I don’t know what to do.”
“…oh no.” Iris hurries forward. “I— I’m not a medic, but they sent a field medikit in my luggage, and everyone in the armed forces gets some basic training.” She sets a small metal box on the bed and unlatches the lid. “I have some things that might help. Oh, Falcon, you poor thing.”
Dove exhales in relief. “Thank you. Iris, thank you, you have no idea what this means to me— if there’s any way I can repay you—”
“Well, you’re singlehandedly turning the war in our favor, so maybe don’t worry too much about that.” Iris extracts a number of clear, capped vials from the kit. “I have syrocillin capsules if the wounds start to fester dangerously — technically I’m supposed to get authorization before using those, but if it’s an emergency, it’s an emergency — fentadone for the pain, sublingual tabs and fluid for IV — an antibiotic gel, ah — some tetrazolam, and some topical and intravenous anaesthetics.” She glances at Aster. “Which ones do you need, mistress?”
“Oh. Well.” Aster looks embarassed. “I… must admit, I… don’t really know what… any of those are, young lady.”
Iris sighs. “Right. Okay. I… I’ll just handle this.” She motions to Dove, who hesitantly moves to make room. Iris sits down next to the trembling girl.
“Hey, Fal. How are you holding up?”
Falcon shrinks back. “Mother told me what you really are.”
“About time. Your mother’s a brave woman, you know that?” Iris pops open a vial. “Are you in a lot of pain, hon?”
Falcon slowly nods.
“Put one of these under your tongue and let it dissolve.” Iris hands her a little green tablet. “I’m gonna leave the rest on your nightstand, okay? Just take one whenever the pain starts getting bad again, okay?”
“Good girl.” Iris sets the vial aside. “Is it okay if I touch your arm? I don’t… I don’t want to upset you any more than—”
“Why are you being so kind to me?”
Iris pauses. “Because I care about you? Fal, what’s up with you all of a sudden?”
“You’re—” Falcon shakes her head. “They said the Commonwealth was our enemy and you were just an advisor and now you’re actually one of them but now the Commonwealth isn’t our enemy anymore… This is too much. This is all too much. I can’t—”
Iris beckons urgently to Dove, who sits down next to her. “I know this is a lot to take in, Fal, and I’m really sorry we lied to you. Just— look. You mom cares a lot about you. I care about you too. Whatever else is going on, that’s not a lie, okay? That was never a lie. The politics are a fucking mess but we’re handling that, right, Dove?”
Dove nods. “Y-yes. We are. And we’re not ever going to let anyone hurt you again, darling. I vow on my life.”
“Just focus on you, okay?” Iris continues. “You’ve got your mom, you’ve got me, and your brother’s gonna be home soon. Let us take care of you.”
Falcon stares at her for a moment, then flops back onto the bed. “Okay.”
“Thank you.” Iris reaches out and pats the bed. Falcon takes her hand, and exhales raggedly. “Is the fent kicking in?”
“Mmh. I… I think so? Is it supposed to feel like opiu—” She stops abruptly, red-faced, clears her throat, quietly mumbles, “never mind;” her mother appears not to have caught on.
“Good. The pain should start fading soon.” Iris looks up at the nurse. “Mistress Aster?”
“Er. Yes, Mistress Iris?”
“Show me the wounds that need stitching. I’m going to anaesthetize them.”
“…pardon my ignorance, mistress,” Aster replies, clearing her throat awkwardly, “but… what does that mean?”
Iris smiles tightly. “It means I’m making her skin numb, so she doesn’t feel the needles.
“You… can do that?”
“I’ll have them show you all about it when the Commonwealth moves in.” Iris beckons, and Aster hurries forward.
“These three right here. They’re awfully deep and wide.”
Iris winces. “Yes. Yes they are. Fal, hon, this might sting a bit, just try to hold your arm still.” She squeezes a transparent gel from a tube and rubs it into the wounds with her thumb. Falcon twitches a little but doesn’t complain. “I’m so sorry we have to touch you so much for all this,” Iris murmurs, screwing the cap back on as she sits back. “I can only imagine how stressful it must be after what happened to you.”
Falcon’s grip on Iris’s hand tightens. “It’s… okay,” she murmurs sleepily. “You’re… warm and soft and nice. You always make me feel better.” This time, her mother catches on immediately.
“Awh.” Iris smiles at her, taking Falcon’s hand in both of hers. “You too. Do you want me to hold your hand while the healer stitches you up?”
“I’d like that.”
Aster rummages in her satchel, extricating the equipment she needs. “I’m ready to start whenever you need me, Mistress Iris,” she says.
Iris presses a finger into one of Falcon’s wounds. “Did that hurt?”
“N-no. Just felt funny.”
“Okay. She’s all yours, Mistress Aster.”
Dove and Iris sit in silence on one side of the bed while Aster busies herself about her work on the other, regaling Falcon with stories and jokes to keep her distracted. The duchess and the commissar exchange awkward glances here and there. Falcon keeps a firm hold of Iris’ hand.
“Alright, now. All finished, young lady.” Aster smiles encouragingly at the girl as she finishes the last stitch. “Let’s get you bandaged up and you can hop right back in the saddle, eh?”
Despite it all, Falcon cracks a smile. “Mom?”
“I’m sorry I got blood all over the bedclothes.”
“Oh, honey.” Dove can’t keep the giddiness out of her voice. “That doesn’t matter. I’ll buy you a hundred new sheets if you need.”
“I’m glad she has a mother like you,” Iris murmurs quietly.
Dove flushes slightly. “I just hope I do right by her. Thank you, Iris, I— I am in your debt. You’ve saved us all so much hurt.”
“Yes, well.” Iris smiles faintly. “It’s what the Commonwealth is for.”