“You couldn’t sleep either?”
At the whisper, I looked up from struggling to lace my boots with trembling hands. My master stepped into my dormitory room, adding his lamp’s light to my candle.
“Why must I dress as a boy?” I whispered back. Perhaps I was not so buxom, but I doubted I’d fool anyone. “This makes little sense.”
“Patience.” Master Parselev placed his lamp on my writing-table and checked my packed bags. “They’re gathering at the chapel already. None of us got much sleep, it seems.”
The straw mattress creaked when I stood, boots laced and the woolen hose sagging between my thighs. I ran my fingers around my waist, under my layered cotes, to check the drawstring. “Are these right, Master?” I’d strung the hose and braies together as best I could guess and as memory was my Blessing I had no excuse for failing. Men’s underthings weren’t much concern to me — if I saw such, or more, it was while the man lay bleeding on the surgery table.
“If they stay up, it’s right. Good. This too.” He slung a heavy felt cloak across my shoulders and pinned it on. The hood buried my face in shadows; my blonde braid, even wrapped around my head, would give me away.
I asked, “Master, this journey will be long, won’t it?” Parselev had given me more clothes than I’d ever owned to pack in those bags. All heavy winter woolens, too. “Shouldn’t you go, then?”
He looked down at me, mouth quirking to one side. Master was a greybeard, said to be over a hundred years old, but his kir kept his eyes bright and his face lightly creased. I had only been his apprentice two years. Surely I could not be ready for this.
“It must be you, Kate,” was all he said. He carried one of my bags, and I took the other.
Wreathed in breath-clouds, we crossed the Order’s campus. Low on the horizon, the slim, waxing crescent of the Shepherd hung golden, all seven of his Flock scattered in the sky behind him. He gave the only hint that dawn was coming. The cloak kept me marvelously warm, even in the chilly breeze. No frost this morning, not yet, but it was only a few weeks off.
Master un-bolted the side gate and led me to the door of the Grand Chapel. Horses waited on the grass, many horses chewing at their bits and shaking their heads, most of them with knights in the saddles. The knights’ black tabards, worn over suits of mail, had a white horse embroidered on the right shoulder and two gold stars on the left, marking them knights and Prince’s Guard as well. Kite shields and bucket helms hung on their saddles, in easy reach.
Several of the horses stood with empty saddles, collectively held by a couple of pageboys, and that gave me pause. I’d never been on a horse; I was only a peasant girl. But it could not be so awful, I told myself, so I gripped my cloak a little tighter and followed Master Parselev inside.
My new boots rang too loudly in the empty chapel, and when I slowed to lighten my step I fell behind. Only one lamp burned on the high table before the icons, and its light was mostly blocked by those gathered below the two steps. Faces were cast in shadow as they turned toward us — all looming in the dim light, some cloaked like me, others not — and I knew none of them. I kept my head down as I joined my master before them, glad the hood hid my face.
“Not ready, Elect?” one asked, his voice low but strong. “Who’s this?”
“My apprentice will safeguard the travelers,” my master answered. “She has —”
“What?” The man stepped closer, his shoulders blocking out the light.
“Majesty, she’s my finest student.” Parselev put up a hand when the stranger reached for my hood.
My knees trembled as the word echoed in my head. Majesty. I stood before the king of Wodenberg. Wobbling a bit, I dropped to one knee in obeisance, fist pressed to my heart. The king yanked off my hood while I stared at the flagstone floor, pulse pounding.
“This girl?” the king demanded. “You trust a mere disciple with this mission?”
“Absolutely. Saint Qadeem and I have discussed it, and we agree. Do we not, Master?”
“We are in agreement, Wilhelm.” I felt kir blossom nearby, like a candle flaring to life in a dark room, and my own kir stirred in my chest. He was here, no doubt, my master’s master. Our saints appeared and spoke to us on solstices, and I knew that silken, lilting voice. My saint, the one who’d Blessed me with perfect memory and marked me as his disciple. Kings and now saints in the chapel, and me just a peasant-born apprentice. I didn’t dare budge.
“You know what rides on this mission,” King Wilhelm said.
“And know well,” Saint Qadeem replied. “Accord her the proper rank of a physician and let her take her place. Kate?”
I hesitated, even then. “M’lord?”
Gently, “Stand up, Kate Carpenter.”
Hands clenched on the felt cloak, I managed to rise and risked a glance at the high table before the icons of the Mother and the Father. All three saints were there, jolting cold terror through my veins. Qadeem sat in the middle, olive-skinned and exotic as his voice. His kir-lit eyes glittered black as midnight. I could see nothing else.
He spoke with a faint, kind smile. “It’s not the Saint-day announcement and not the celebration feast that a new physician deserves. But once it’s done it’s done. I ask believing that you will not fail me, Kate. Do you accept the duties and the burdens of Physician as my disciple?”
Even though my voice quavered, I raised my chin. “I am honored to.”
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