(Go back to Part 11)
“For the common ailments of man and beast,
there are many medicines.
A Curate must be their master.
For dealing with friend and foe,
there are many tools (both steel and otherwise).
A Curate must exercise them sparingly.
But when it is a matter of the Plague,
There is only one Cure.
And a Curate must act without hesitation, or doubt.”
–The Lexicon, Preface to Blades and Medicines
They reached the town of Vermouth by noon the next day.
Headmaster Riles’s chapter house was outside of town, near a lazy bend in the river and a massive earthen dam. At its center was an old monastery, donated by the Credo to the Curate and expanded in haphazard fashion. A rough palisade enclosed a pair of corrals and scattered outbuildings.
Alex waited outside while McCann spoke with the headmaster. Riles had only a half-dozen acolytes, and she didn’t recognize any of them. They were practicing archery with a straw target behind the stable, sharing a pair of old bows. No one approached her.
McCann emerged an hour later with a fresh sheaf of wax-sealed documents. He stuffed them in the leather pouch on his saddle before mounting up. The sergeant turned to Alex.
“Well? You coming?”
Alex mounted Brutus and followed the sergeant through the gap in the palisade, unable to keep a wide grin off of her face.
The town of Vermouth was a wide, sprawling affair, stretched along the bank of the river in an unorganized mess. Alex and McCann rode through the mud between ramshackle wooden buildings, dodging heavy freight wagons and irritated teamsters at each intersection. The streets weren’t laid out in any discernible pattern, but by keeping the twin spires of the old fortress in view they were able to navigate.
McCann stopped them in front of a solid stone structure that jutted out of the tangled mess. “Stay here,” he said, handing his reins to Alex.
“Where are you—” but McCann was gone, inside.
Alex tied up the horses and settled in to wait. They were near the water; a group of men were struggling to load a barge at the wharf with blocks of cut marble. Oxen were yoked to a wide wheel to power a crane, but they refused to move. The handler yelled at them and swatted their rumps with a dry stick, all to no effect.
McCann came out a few minutes later. “There’s a barge that leaves tonight. We’ve got two stalls for the horses and two spots on deck to sleep.”
“A barge? I’ve never been on a boat.”
“It’s faster than walking. We’re behind schedule.”
“Three days to Dunheim.” He mounted his horse. “Come on.”
“Where?” Alex untied Brutus.
“We’ve got five hours to get you outfitted properly.”
Alex thought of her meager savings, the handful of copper coins on her belt. “I don’t know if I have enough money.”
McCann tossed her a small pouch without looking back. It jingled when Alex caught it. “A loan from Headmaster Riles. Pay him back on the way home.”
By the time they returned, Alex carried with her a number of new items. A larger water skin hung from her saddle, and her boots had fresh soles. The white Curate tunic was gone, replaced with a flat gray shirt and a brown cloak of rough cotton. She also had a small blank workbook that McCann said would be used to practice writing the old language.
The sergeant crossed the street with one last item.
“What’s that?” asked Alex.
“Here.” McCann handed her a leather pouch with a tie to attach to her belt. Alex flipped it open. Inside were smaller compartments filled with dry powders and a few glass vials.
“What’s this for?”
“Apothecary’s kit. You’ll need to practice for the trials.”
Alex reached for the borrowed coin purse. “I’m not sure I have enough left—”
“Take it and shut up.”
Brutus didn’t want to cross the gangplank, but with a great deal of coaxing he was finally led on board. Alex spent some time making sure that both horses were snug in their stalls below before joining McCann on deck. She was just in time to watch them cast off; teams of men undid the lashings at bow and stern, and at the helmsman’s signal a team of oxen on the other side of the river took up the slack on a thick tow cable.
Soon they passed under the shadow of the dam upstream and were out on the river. The flaming red sun sent long splintered shadows across the water before sinking below the horizon.
McCann spread his bedroll next to the slanted roof of the midships cabin in silence; Alex followed his lead. She watched the stars slide by overhead, wooden deck hard under her back. Soon the rocking of the barge put her to sleep.
Alex woke with the sun, along with the handful of other passengers who’d paid the pittance to sleep on deck. The sergeant was already awake and gone, his bedroll tied up neatly beside her. McCann appeared from below deck with two steaming mugs as Alex was packing up.
“Morning, Sergeant.” Alex twisted a few times to loosen her stiff back.
“Morning, Acolyte. Do you still want to learn?”
There was only one right answer. “Yes.”
“Good.” McCann handed her one of the mugs. “Drink this.”
Alex sipped it. The liquid was bitter, but the warmth felt good against the early morning chill. She guessed it was some sort of tea. “What’s this?”
McCann didn’t answer her. Instead, he set down his mug and moved to a clear space on the foredeck. He removed a small candle from his pocket, lit it, and settled into the first position of the Morning Routine on the deck. Alex joined him, surprised.
Alex was even more surprised a few positions later. McCann’s third position was much too far back, and his weight was on the opposite foot. Alex’s initial thought was that the sergeant’s technique had been corrupted in the years since he took the precepts, but another glance at the sergeant’s body dispelled the thought. He paused, waiting for her.
Alex gave a mental shrug and followed the sergeant. She did his best to mirror him, but over the next few steps the sergeant’s routine deviated completely from what she was used to. Bits and pieces of the Morning Routine were recognizable, but always with switched feet or in the opposite direction.
By the time they finished, Alex was breathless and drenched in sweat. They both knelt in the first position again, and Alex heard McCann mutter a short prayer. Finally they rose. A few of the other passengers were watching them.
“What was that?” panted Alex.
“That wasn’t the Morning Routine.”
“No, it wasn’t.” McCann’s face betrayed nothing. “Are you ready for breakfast?”
Alex’s stomach gave an unexpected lurch. “Uh . . . no, I’m not hungry.”
McCann shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
He came back on deck a few minutes later with a chunk of bread and two more cups of tea. He handed one to Alex. “Get the pouch.”
Alex showed him her belt. “Right here.”
“Good. We’ll start with the basics.” McCann took the belt from her, opening each tiny compartment in turn and explaining the history and use of each dried plant. Alex tried to listen, but the lurch in her stomach had not been the last of her nausea. In fact, it only intensified as the minutes passed. Beads of sweat began to stand out on her brow, although it was not warm enough to warrant it. McCann remained oblivious to Alex’s distress, droning on in uncharacteristic loquacity about each type of medicine.
A shout went up from the bow. There was a splash as the port side two cable was released, and the man at the tiller brought the barge to the side of the channel. Another barge was coming in the opposite direction, and they slipped by after dropping one of their own tow-ropes.
The wake from the other barge struck them, rocking the deck back and forth. Alex felt her stomach lurch sideways at the first movement, and she barely made it to the side before vomiting into the water. Bitter tea and bile streamed from her mouth and nose.
“Not feeling well?” asked the sergeant as Alex hauled herself upright again. A few other passengers looked over in alarm or disgust, but McCann hadn’t moved a muscle.
“I felt fine this morning, I don’t understand . . .” the nausea had not subsided. Alex’s guts writhed.
“Strange.” McCann raised an eyebrow and handed her back her half-finished drink. “Drink your tea.”
Alex took her cup and did her best to sip the lukewarm liquid. As soon as it touched her lips her stomach heaved again.
“Sergeant, I don’t think I can, it makes me feel worse.” and she looked over to McCann’s own cup. The drink was untouched. Wheels began to turn in Alex’s brain.
“Wait . . .”
“Now might be a good time to know how to make something that will calm your stomach, wouldn’t it?” McCann’s tone was mild, but his eyes were laughing at her.
“You poisoned me! You poisoned me, you crazy old man!”
“I’m teaching you. Now, how do you calm the stomach?” he asked her.
“I . . . I don’t know.”
“I told you ten minutes ago,” said McCann.
“But I can’t remember, I was . . .” and Alex threw up over the side again. A long thread of spittle clung to the side of her chin.
Finished, she sat up again. McCann was still waiting for her. “I’ll tell you again–Twinroot and Lady’s Finger both work, although you don’t have Lady’s Finger there.”
“. . . Okay.” Alex was too miserable to be angry. Her skin was flushed and sweat streamed from her temples. She started digging through the pouches. “Which one is it? Where is it?”
McCann interrupted her. “I made it already.” He was holding his own mug. “Just this once. Drink, Acolyte, you’ll feel better.”
Alex frowned. “How do I know it isn’t just more of the same?”
“The taste is different. In the future I won’t help, but for now—drink.”
Alex hesitated a moment more before taking the cup and draining it. The flavor was faintly sweet, like flowers, and it felt like ice water falling on the embers in her stomach.
She dropped the cup. The pounding in her head remained, and her abdominal muscles were sore from heaving, but the fires in her belly were quenched. She tried to glare at the sergeant, and mostly failed.
“You said you wanted to learn.”
Alex grimaced. “Yeah.”
“So what did you learn?”
“Twinroot. Lady’s finger.”
Alex thought for a minute. She picked up her own half-empty cup and sniffed it. “What’s this? What did you put in it?”
“Now I know not to drink Duskflower. And I know what it tastes like.”
“Good. But what else? Bigger picture.”
Alex frowned. “I don’t know.”
McCann leaned back. “What if I’d given you Devil’s Fork instead?”
“I don’t know. What’s it do?”
“It’s fatal. No antidote. Burns in the veins like fire, or so they say.”
“We won’t be trying that one?” she asked him.
McCann snorted. “No. But if I had?”
“I . . . would’ve died. How can I defend myself against something with no antidote?” asked Alex.
McCann leaned forward, seized Alex’s cup, and tossed the contents over the side. “By not drinking it at all, Acolyte. And that’s the real lesson today—let nothing pass your lips that you didn’t prepare yourself.”
“Even if it comes from a friend?”
“Aye, especially if it comes from a friend. Why would an enemy waste his time with poison?”
“I . . . see your point.” Alex shuddered. “Are you going to keep trying to poison me?”
McCann didn’t reply. Instead, he rose to his feet. “I have some work to do. We’ll spar this afternoon.”
Alex woke the next day at first light. The sergeant was already up—Alex spotted his form at the bow of the barge outlined against the glowing horizon. Ignoring her protesting muscles, she threw off her blanket and joined the sergeant.
McCann settled into the first position of the Morning Routine. Alex followed him; this time the second position was more different than before, and McCann deviated from there into a series of bizarre variations that Alex had never seen. She could still recognize parts of the routine, but they were turned around and inverted in ways that taxed her muscles to the fullest. Alex was drenched in sweat again by the time they finished.
“Why?” she panted, shaking her head.
McCann just looked at her, eyebrow raised.
“Why do you change the routine?”
“How many times have you done the Morning Routine?” he asked her.
“Every single day since I became an acolyte,” answered Alex.
“And you always do it the same way?”
“That’s why we do it differently.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“If you pass the trials and take the precepts, you’ll spend the rest of your life in deadly combat with the enemies of the Curate. They’ll come at you a hundred times, a thousand times—and never the same way twice. What do you think happens to the warrior who responds the same way every time?”
Alex thought. “Eventually the enemy will figure her out. She’ll be too predictable.”
“Exactly. The fundamental steps of the Morning Routine are sound, but their order and sequence must be varied. Routines are not memorized because they always work—they are memorized to teach the body the fundamentals beneath them. That’s the real lesson.”
“But Headmaster Barrius said—” began Alex.
McCann cut her off. “Remember your first kill at the farm?”
“What about it?”
“You stabbed it through the eye.”
“Did Headmaster Barrius ever tell you to stab through the eye, at close range, with a knife?” he asked her.
“And you did it anyway, and it worked. What if you had done what the Headmaster taught?”
“It . . . wouldn’t have worked.” Alex was starting to see his point.
“Exactly. Now, we do it again.” McCann settled back down into the first position.
(Go on to part 13)