(Go back to Part 41)
Alex followed the Grand Master out of the chapel. They emerged into a neat garden of white gravel footpaths and trimmed green hedges. Trees arched over the path, branches bare against the slate-gray sky. She fell in step next to the Grand Master, not sure where to start.
“Do you believe us?” she blurted out finally.
“About the Weeping Tree? And the baron?”
“Of course,” he said.
Alex was surprised by this answer. “Why?”
“Because Tobias McCann is one of the finest knights the Curate has ever seen. One foolish decision and Desdemona’s machinations do nothing to change that.”
Alex sighed in relief.
“Also, I’m quite familiar with the book that you describe,” added the Grand Master.
“Is it a Curate book?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Rochelle.
“Then how did the baron get it?” asked Alex.
“Why, I gave it to him, of course.” The Grand Master’s voice was light, and it took Alex a moment to realize what he had said.
“You—what—a Curate book, but—you gave it to him?” Alex spluttered.
“Well, not personally. I arranged his finding it. And it was a clever forgery—the original is safe in our vaults, where your friend The Bookbinder may stumble across it one day. The complete original,” he added.
“. . . You removed the pages at the end—the pages that warned against using the Weeping Tree to cure the Plague?”
“Yes,” said Rochelle.
“Why would you do that?” asked Alex.
“Ah. An excellent question. And to answer it, we must go very far back into the history of the Curate. Right to the beginning, in fact,” said Rochelle. He sat on a small bench under the bare branches of an oak tree. “Alex, do you know why the Founder formed the Curate?”
Alex sat next to him. “The Founder started the Curate when he saw humanity would not survive the Plague. That’s what the history says.”
“Yes,” agreed Rochelle, “and the history is wrong.”
“Wrong?” asked Alex.
“Yes. The Founder created the Curate because he discovered a cure.”
“Listen to me carefully, Acolyte, because this is not a truth that many have the privilege of hearing. Seven hundred years ago, the Founder was the champion of his village. One day, the Headman of the village was bitten. He was like a second father to the Founder, whose parents had died when he was very young, so instead of putting him to the blade and burning the body, the Founder went searching for a cure.”
“And he found it?” asked Alex.
“He found it, brought it back to the village, and the Headman was cured,” said the Grand Master.
“It doesn’t matter, because a week later the Plague tore through the village again, starting from the Headman. It was no normal Plague, not just the zombii—it was a virulent strain, like what you saw at Weeping Tree. I have seen it like that, too—three times with these eyes—and it is always a nightmare made into flesh. You and I have that in common, now.”
Alex shuddered as Rochelle continued.
“The Founder defeated that outbreak, too, but at terrible cost. The Founder’s adopted brother, wife, and entire family died in the carnage, and after the last of the infestation was burned out the villagers exiled him for bringing such destruction upon them.
The Founder wandered for many years, bearing the scars of his battles and the loss of his family. Finally, he found the great lost library of Ongressi and began reading the histories of the Ancients. There he learned something very important.”
“What?” asked Alex.
“Every time a cure has been found, destruction and bloodshed have followed in its wake. Sometimes it comes quickly, like at the Weeping Tree, while sometimes it takes years, but one thing never changes—whenever the Plague is ‘cured,’ it only returns again in a more terrible form. There have been no exceptions. And that is why he founded the Curate—to search for cures.”
“Wait—to search for them? Why search for them if they only destroy?” asked Alex.
The Grand Master stood again, and resumed walking. Alex followed suit.
“Imagine for a moment, Acolyte, what would happen if a cure was found. A cure different than the Weeping Tree’s tears, slower, one that actually seemed to work. Imagine if people found that cure—what would they do?” the Grand Master asked her.
“Spread it. Give it to everyone, of course,” answered Alex.
“Exactly it. Far and wide, everyone would take it, sick or not, just to be safe. And when the inevitable doom came . . .”
“They would become zombii? All of them?” asked Alex.
“Hundreds of thousands. Millions. More than the Curate and all of humanity could hope to face, and strengthened with unspeakable demons erupting from the soil and falling from the sky. It would be the end of us all. And that’s why we seek out the cures—to destroy them, not to use them. There is only one real Cure, in the end.”
“The sacred flame,” Alex finished for him. Her skin had gone cold as she followed the Grand Master’s argument. “You gave the baron that book on purpose. You sent him to the Weeping Tree to kill him.”
“Most of those who seek cures will never find them, and are no threat. The baron was different—he was on the cusp of finding something truly dangerous, and so I sent him a present.”
Alex was horrified. “You sent him and all of his men to die. Boys—farmers—hundreds of them—”
“And they were a small enough price to pay to offset the deaths of millions. The very virulence of Weeping Tree makes it one of the least dangerous cures in existence. In a few years it will be back much as you saw it when you first arrived,” said Rochelle, unmoved.
Alex could not believe what she was hearing. “How many times have you sent innocent men to die there? How can you—”
“I use the dead to keep others from unleashing the dead on us. It gives me no pleasure, Acolyte, but our swords are stretched thin enough as it is. Even without the cures, we stand closer to the edge of destruction than you know.” The Grand Master looked suddenly weary. Alex caught a glimpse of something else behind his eyes before they hardened again. “It was done in the name of survival, and it will be done again in the name of survival. Enough of this; it is time for me to ask you a question. You did not come here seeking knighthood, did you?”
Alex hung her head; she’d sought the Grand Master to learn how to cure Dalia. That would be impossible now. “No.”
“Tobias suspected as much. So did Barrius—he knew a bit more than you thought, as it turns out.”
Of course, thought Alex. “I . . . should’ve guessed that.”
“You should know that your friend Dalia was not wrong.” Rochelle reached inside his robes and removed a small object. It was Dalia’s journal. “She made some small errors in translation, but was essentially correct. The older texts do make a few passing references to other cures discovered early in the history of the Curate.”
“How did you get that?” asked Alex, not without some hostility.
“It was delivered to the citadel along with Knight-Sergeant McCann’s dispatches when your horses arrived on the Lysia. When it was discovered what was inside, we could not leave it out in the open. Dalia was a very smart young woman; I am sorry we have lost her.” He gave her the journal. “The librarians removed the sensitive passages, but I believe the rest of her writings now belong to you.”
“Thanks,” said Alex. She took the journal and tucked it away.
“Do you understand, now, Alex, why I cannot give you what you desire? Why our mission is so important, why it is the most important mission there is?” His eyes were burning into hers again.
“Then, even though you did not come here seeking knighthood, I hope that you depart seeking it. Complete one last task for me, Acolyte, and you will be granted the precepts.”
Alex knew she should feel elated, but she just felt weary. “And what task is that?”
They were nearing the edge of the garden. One turn remained in the path. “You must return to Goodhollow. I will send one of my own testing-masters with you.”
As they turned the corner a person came into view slouched on a bench. The tattered clothes, the plain scabbard—
“Sergeant!” Alex couldn’t believe her eyes.
“It’s about time.” McCann rose and went to one knee before Rochelle. “Master.”
“Tobias. You know the girl’s last task?” asked Rochelle.
“Good. Go with her—take the dispatches north. It should be easier this time without the baron’s interference. Your orders are with Desdemona.”
Rochelle turned to both of them. “Now, receive my blessing.” They knelt, and the Grand Master blessed them. Then he was gone.
McCann rose, but Alex remained on one knee, lost in thought.
“You coming?” asked McCann.
“Sergeant . . . what is the final task?” she asked him.
In her heart, Alex already knew what the task would be. That didn’t stop her from weeping when McCann told her.
(Go on to Part 43)