(Go back to part 4)
Alex couldn’t speak.
It felt like the air had been sucked out of her body, the way she’d felt once in the first moments of falling out of a tree as a kid. The memory was burned into her mind, the branch slipping out from under her, hands slipping and grasping at empty air.
She finally choked out a single syllable. “What?”
“Dalia is going to die, Alex. She has the Plague. Or, rather, the Plague has her. It’s only a matter of time, now.”
She shook her head, uncomprehending. “But . . . how? Don’t you have to catch it from one of them while they’re alive? It was just a bone . . .”
“It doesn’t matter if they’re alive or not,” said Joseph, “the Plague is in them until they’re burned. And if it breaks through the skin, well . . .” he trailed off without finishing his thought.
“But you said it was just a tiny cut, and that you almost missed it! Maybe it was too small, maybe she’ll be okay.”
Joseph shook his head. “It might take a little longer, but in the end it’s the same. She’s going to die, Alex.”
Alex slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor, knees against her chest. She didn’t feel anything except a gaping emptiness.. Feelings would come later, maybe.
She finally forced herself to speak. “So when you put the holy water on it, it drew the Plague out?”
“A form of the Plague, yes, though I haven’t seen it like that in a long time.”
“Is that what the librarians use the holy water for?”
“So you suspected it was the Plague.”
“Yes.” Joseph nodded. “I hoped not, but when I saw the bone I was worried.”
“And when you tossed it into the fire?”
“There is only one Cure,” quoted Joseph. The old Curate credo hung heavy in the air.
“So when the Curate finds out that Dalia is sick . . .” began Alex.
“They will administer the Cure,” finished Joseph flatly. “Before she turns. It’s safer that way. I’ll keep her asleep until then, so that she doesn’t turn early.”
“Keeping her asleep slows the Plague?” asked Alex.
“Well, yes. The Plague turns the body on itself, and so if you slow down the body you can slow down the spread of disease.”
“So you can keep her from turning?”
“Alex . . .” Joseph shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not like that.”
“You can keep her from turning?” she persisted.
“Yes, for a time. But eventually the Plague always wins. It’s only postponing the inevitable.”
“How long can you keep her asleep before she turns?”
“A few months, maybe. Even half a year, according to some; I’ve never done it myself. But Alex—no one deserves to live like that. You can’t hold on to her this way. It’s not what she would want.”
“Six months . . .” Alex was thinking out loud. “What if you were able to keep her asleep long enough to find something else?”
“Something else? Like what?”
“Like . . . a cure. A different cure, besides the flame.” Alex gulped even saying the words out loud.
“There’s only one Cure, Alex. You know that.”
“Only one that we know of,” replied Alex.
“I’m a doctor, Alex; do you know how many people I’ve seen try to find a cure?” He sighed. “Good students of mine, promising students, eventually they all run into the Plague somehow. A family member gets it, a friend, whomever. And either they realize the truth about the Cure, or it breaks them. There’s only one way to cure the Plague—with fire. That’s what the Lexicon says, and while I don’t always hold to it on everything, in that sense it’s right. The Curate is right.”
“So you’ve seen people try to cure the Plague before?” asked Alex. Joseph had never mentioned this before.
“And none of them ever had any success? At all?” An idea was itching in the back of her head somewhere, trying to get out.
“Not even your friend who came up with the sleeping potion you gave Dalia? How did he figure out that it slowed the Plague down? Isn’t that a success of some sort?”
“Um. Well . . . maybe,” admitted Joseph. “But it’s impossible to cure, the way that you’re thinking of.”
“Dalia used to tell me things about the Lexicon and the Plague,” said Alex. “Apparently the Lexicon says there’s only one Cure, but a few of the older books say something else. They have hints about other cures, depending on how you read them.”
“Really?” Joseph was skeptical. “Did she ever actually find anything about these other cures?”
“No,” admitted Alex, “she said it was all just hints and rumors, and that she really needed the older texts that the books came from, stuff they only have in the archives in Antioch. That’s why she was so excited for the trials next year.”
“Alex, if the Curate had another cure, don’t you think they’d use it? There’s a reason that those hints are only in the only texts—they probably didn’t lead anywhere. The Curate wouldn’t keep a power like that secret.”
“They keep the holy water secret, don’t they?” countered Alex, pointing to the bottle still on Joseph’s workbench, “and that’s pretty useful. Maybe they keep other things secret, too. Or maybe,” Alex had another thought, “maybe they don’t know. Maybe Dalia figured it out where no one else could!”
“Dalia is a smart girl, Alex, but the most brilliant minds of the Curate library have had hundreds of years to study the texts. Do you really think she caught something they missed?”
“It’s possible! Maybe they never put it together the right way. Maybe they have too many books, instead of not enough, and it’s all mixed in. Maybe—”
“Even if Dalia did figure something out—not that I’m saying she did—it can’t help her much now. Antioch is hundreds of miles from here, and she’ll turn within a day if I let the medicine wear off. She could never tell us or the librarians what we need to know.”
“No,” Alex agreed, “she can’t.” She sighed.
And then the idea hit her. It presented itself whole from top to bottom in one blinding flash of intuition, and she knew what she had to do.
Alex went into the other room. She returned a second later with something in her hand. “But this can.”
It was Dalia’s journal, crammed with loose pages of notes and tied shut with a bit of string.
Joseph was speechless for the first time in the conversation. Alex took his silence as an invitation to continue.
“You keep her asleep here, I’ll take her journal to Antioch and show it to the librarians. Then, if they have a cure, I’ll bring it back for Dalia.”
Joseph found his voice again. “But how will you get there? And how will you get Barrius to let you leave?”
She swallowed. “I’ll go take the trials for knighthood.”
“You’re not due for the trials for another year. Maybe two.”
“But I can still claim the right to take them. I’ve come of age. I can claim the right whenever I want. Dalia said it’s in the rules.”
“Barrius won’t like that.”
Alex took a deep breath. “He doesn’t have to.” The words were braver than she felt. “And if he won’t let me go, then . . . I’ll sneak out. At night.”
“Desertion? You know the penalty if they catch you, right?” said Joseph.
“I’d go fast. Barrius won’t be able to spare a messenger any time soon. By the time Antioch finds out, I’ll already be there.”
“And then they’ll flog you until you die.”
Alex shrugged. “It’s no worse than what will happen to Dalia.”
“Alex . . .” Joseph sighed. “You’re young, and so I can understand how you feel, but you’re lucky that I’m not under vows to the Curate. Are you forgetting that they fed and sheltered you for all of those years? Gave you an education? Took you in when no one else would?”
“I know,” said Alex, “and that’s why I’m going to try to take the trials first. I’ve heard that you get to meet the Grand Master if you succeed; that’s when I’ll tell him about Dalia and show him the journal.”
“I can’t believe I’m even listening to this,” said Joseph. “And so you want me to keep her here? Asleep, but alive?”
“Can you?” asked Alex.
Joseph sighed. “Probably. Maybe. But if she starts to turn . . .”
“Tie her down now, while it’s safe. And if she does start to turn, do what you have to.”
Joseph sat, thinking, for a long time. Alex opened her mouth to say something more, but he waved her off and she thought better of it. He got up and stoked the fire, nudging the tongs out of the heart of the embers with a loose log. Finally he started to speak again, slowly this time.
“Alex. You know that I love you both very, very much. Like the daughters I never had. And you know that I feel the pain of losing her just as much as you do. Maybe more, with her so young and me so old.”
“Hush, I’m not done yet. If you ask me to do this, Alex, there may come a day when Dalia is turning and I have to do what is necessary. You may be asking me to kill that young woman, there, in the other room. I want you to understand that.”
“I do.” Alex nodded.
“And it is also possible that, old as I am, I will make a mistake and she will break free to infect others. She could spread the Plague to the entire valley by herself—it only takes one, and many people would die. I need you to tell me that you understand the danger that we’re handling here, and that you understand the level of responsibility that you’re accepting. You’re risking all of our lives, Alex.”
Alex hadn’t thought of this. “I . . . understand.”
They shared a long look. “Are you asking me to do this?” he finally asked her.
“I am,” replied Alex.
“All right.” He nodded. “Then I’ll do it. For you, and for Dalia. It’s a stupid, foolish, one-in-a-million chance, but I’ll do it. God have mercy on an old man’s foolishness,” he added.
“Thank you, Joseph. I’ll come back. You’ll see,” she told him, with more confidence than she felt.
“You’d better. I’m already losing one daughter, don’t make me lose the other. Now go! It’s getting dark, and Barrius is expecting you.”
(Continue: Part 6)