There were worse things than an arrow through the arm.
There was, for example, the thoroughly unpleasant phenomenon of having the arrow through one's arm go completely unnoticed for interminable moments while one loudly and repeatedly attempted to call it to the healer's attention.
There was the sickening feeling one got when said healer suddenly noticed her staves had been depleted days ago, giving off no more than a fitful flicker of light and not a breath of magic. There was her completely guileless look as she suggested that, well, perhaps next time one ought to try harder not to get hit.
There was her refusal to surrender even a scrap of the approximately seventeen yards of – what was that? Was she wearing charmeuse? In a forest? – that insane ostentation draped over herself and her horse, no matter how much you needed to stanch the bleeding. She never carried bandages, of course, because that was what staves were for, and wouldn't it be disrespectful to the Everlasting to express any doubt that their magic would provide for you? Maybe not disrespectful, but impious at the least, and she was so very, very pious – "And personally, I've always thought that jacket of yours a bit too long to be fashionable. You've got material there to spare to bind up your arm, haven't you?"
But there were worse things even than that. Oh, no, this constellation of utter horribleness was not yet complete. It could start sleeting. Milady's so-called steed could come up lame. Both of these things could happen simultaneously.
Rennac was not surprised when they did. Dismayed, but long past the need for surprise. Take a bad situation, add L'Arachel, and somehow it would always contrive to get worse.
"You're supposed to give me your arm," she said, her tone patiently instructive. "Or offer to lead my horse."
"Have you seen my arm lately?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm glad the arrow snapped off so neatly, and I suppose you did a passable job wrapping it up –"
"Thank you," he said witheringly.
"And I hardly expect you can take your jacket off and offer it to me, since you have that bandage tied on over it. So you have two choices, Rennac, and those are the ones I've already outlined." She waited a few breaths, then, apparently taking his silence for indecision, transferred her horse's reins to her other hand and laid hold of his arm, just above where the bloodstains started. "There, now. Where do you suppose Dozla has gotten to?"
He didn't answer. This was in part because that was the most completely stupid and irrelevant question imaginable under the circumstances, and in part because at that precise moment he was not really capable of speech. A pained breath hissed out through his teeth. No gently-bred holy woman should have a grip that firm. There could not possibly be fingers inside those gloves of hers. Talons, he decided. Hooked talons, possibly made of steel.
"Rennac, are you quite all right?"
He didn't answer. He was too busy trying to balance the requisite incredulous stares with the equally requisite seething.
"I suppose I don't really have to lean on you, but it would be gentlemanly of you to offer."
"I didn't offer."
"Yes, and that's the problem, isn't it?" She looked up at the nearly-bare branches of the canopy. The rain and ice were sure to make short work of the few leaves foolish enough to venture out so early in the season. "But perhaps you can redress this if you find us some shelter."
"That is not the problem. I can't even tell you what the problem is right now, because I am simply spoiling for options. It could be any of a thousand things! For instance –" She stared at him incuriously. He was reduced to pointing at things and muttering, "This, or that, or that, especially that." His arm, her horse, the useless Heal staff she'd yet to discard ("I could use it as a bludgeon if we're attacked again"), the Princess herself. "But if there's one thing it absolutely isn't –"
"You're being tiresome," said L'Arachel, with her first flare of temper that day. Good. If she got annoyed enough, maybe she'd decide to stop speaking to him. Short of getting his arm mended, he couldn't think of any development he'd welcome more.
They started walking, Rennac leading the way. "I think there's an abandoned fortress nearby." Abandoned by humans, anyway. With his luck, it would turn out long occupied by revenants and bonewalkers and wights like the one that had shot him, and L'Arachel would declare this a grand adventure handed them by Fate and insist on ousting them and, afterward, ask him if he thought he'd learned anything from the ordeal, because she was certain her education in the divine machinery of the universe was already quite complete.
"That will do splendidly. Perhaps we can send some kind of signal to Dozla from there, so he can rejoin us. I do worry about him sometimes."
"I wouldn't. That old man could survive anything."
"It isn't his survival I worry about. Not like you, for example." She waved vaguely at his arm, as though he could possibly have forgotten about it. "You're so careless sometimes. Always getting injured. You fight well enough against human opponents, but with these monsters – I don't know how you would survive a single skirmish without me."
"'Careless,'" he echoed, disbelieving. "You're comparing me to Dozla – you're comparing me to yourself and somehow reaching the conclusion I'm the one who's careless? Tell me, is it because carelessness and inattention to detail are such lucrative qualities in the fields of trade and thievery? Do you think I owe my successes to –"
"Well, you did blunder straight into the path of that arrow. Anyone could tell you it would have missed us both entirely if we hadn't moved." She tossed her head, flinging off a spray of icy water that had accumulated in her curls. "The undead aren't terribly good shots. It's something to do with tendons, I think," she said absently. "I shall ask Prince Innes. Anyway, I seem to recall that the instant the sound of bowstrings came to our ears, you suddenly moved toward me. Then you were hit by an arrow that would otherwise have passed harmlessly between us. Either you were careless, or…"
He knew she wanted him to ask "Or what," so he didn't. Small victories.
"Or you've finally begun to care."
This time he couldn't help it. "What?"
"Why, Rennac, it should be obvious. I could, if I so chose, interpret this little blunder of yours as arising from concern from my welfare. Do you have any opinions on the matter?"
There were far worse things than an arrow through the arm, and they all seemed to be happening at once.
"Mm-hmm," said L'Arachel, into his horrified silence and the patter of sleet, "just as I thought."
The vulnerary's effects had long worn off by the time they reached the fortress, and after careful consideration, Rennac had reversed his stance: there was certainly almost nothing worse than an arrow through the arm. L'Arachel hummed blithely to herself as they walked and he could not even muster the will to be properly disgruntled.
An immense outcropping stabbed crookedly at the horizon, punching through the surrounding trees; the fortress would be at its top. "Look, we're nearly there!" said L'Arachel excitedly. "It looks charming. How did you know about it?"
"There are these things called maps," he said. "I wouldn't expect you to know about them. They're reserved for those of us who don't go through life certain the world would rearrange itself around them if they ever got lost. Pesky things."
L'Arachel sighed, frustrated. "It wouldn't rearrange itself. Only think how inconvenient it would be if people's homes kept moving around underneath them to accommodate my position in the world!" For a moment he was stunned to hear something so suspiciously like a broader perspective from the princess, but then she ruined the illusion by going on: "It's just that I can't ever get lost. My every footstep is guided by divine light. I am always exactly where I need to be."
He rolled his eyes. "Then could you work on needing to be somewhere a bit warmer?"
She looked at him as though that was utterly absurd. Then she turned to contemplate the – well, "hill" was a gross understatement. "Horrible rocky monstrosity" might be more appropriate. "I'm not sure my noble steed can manage something that steep in his present condition. And in the –" She stopped, her head snapping up suddenly as she squinted into the sky. Her expression turned disapproving. This might be the first time she had noticed the sleet. "This isn't ideal," she said at last, lowering her face.
"So we're finally on the same page."
"Not entirely. Your page has much more complaining on it." She tapped a finger thoughtfully against her lips. "We'll walk around and see if we can't find an easier path up."
It was another hour before they reached the top and finally put a roof between themselves and the elements. Rennac started a fire in the gatehouse hearth and went no further; L'Arachel stabled her horse and went exploring. For once she did not insist that he come along, and he was sorely disinclined to volunteer. She had a magical tome with her and, if that failed, could probably defeat any dangers she encountered by being enthusiastic at them until they gave up.
He really couldn't imagine anyone who needed protection less.
"There isn't any food," she said when she returned. "And there aren't any monsters… anymore. But there are a few chests I'll need you to open." He raised his eyebrows. "There may be something we can use. Or perhaps the Everlasting saw to it something was left here for me by the previous occupants. It's not unprecedented, you know."
"Yes, yes, I understand completely. They could be full of money you could withhold from me, and we know that's an opportunity you never pass up."
She crossed her arms. "Your concerns are so pedestrian. But don't think you'll convince me there isn't hope for you yet."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You will." For a while she was silent. Then, "You're still bleeding? You're going to ruin that chair."
"Your concern is touching," he grated.
"What? I thought upholstery was the kind of trivial thing you would care about. You seem to have an unhealthy fascination with cloth. I just don't say anything because it isn't nearly as bad as your unhealthy fascination with money." She paused slightly. "But you really don't look well."
"I have been shot in the arm."
"Maybe there will be a Mend staff in one of those chests. So, come, if you won't do it for me, surely you'll open them for yourself."
An insultingly transparent ploy. There was no reason to believe any of the chests would contain staves of any description. But she was giving him that look. He rolled his eyes and got out of the chair and reluctantly abandoned the fire, still no more than half-dry.
Indeed none of the chests contained staves of any description. One was full of torches, one moldering books; the last contained a rather sinister-looking axe which L'Arachel insisted would make a lovely gift for Dozla as soon as he rejoined them. "If we light a signal fire I know he'll come and find us immediately – how many torches can you carry?" Without waiting for a response, she dumped an armload of them on him. "We must be sure it is a robust and noble beacon – wait." She grabbed his injured arm, her expression suddenly intent, and prodded at the edges of the wound. Pain shot through his arm; he uttered a strangled oath and dropped the torches. L'Arachel did not seem to particularly notice. "Your skin is getting too warm. This wound could go bad. It needs cleaning and we must have this arrow out right away. I know I can manage it with the proper lighting, and I'm sure there will be bandages somewhere –" She shook her head, dismayed. "I'm so used to having a staff on hand that I – I think I've handled this badly. I've been foolish."
The haze of pain had cleared, and he said dryly, "What happened to 'try harder not to get hit?'"
She contemplated this for a moment, and then her brow smoothed again. "You're right. It isn't my fault. But it should still be attended to."
He sighed. It may have been alarming to see her distressed, but she could have felt bad for a little longer than that.
The world did not seem like a brighter place with the arrow out and a proper dressing on the wound (a nasty fog was settling in), but it did seem slightly less hideously unfair. It emerged that L'Arachel had been mistaken about the lack of food, because she had only been looking for pastry. There was a small quantity of salted meat stored underneath what they assumed was the kitchen, and it suffered only from not being apple tarts.
"The beacon is lit," she announced. "Now, we have an hour at most before Dozla arrives, and I wish to discuss something with you."
An hour seemed too little time, until he considered that Dozla probably would not search for an easier path up to the fortress. Dozla would probably scale the cliff face, digging in with his hands and teeth, chortling inanely to himself all the while. "Secrets, Princess?" said Rennac. The unsettling thought struck him that it was about the right time of year for the old man's name day, and L'Arachel might have arranged this whole miserable excursion to surprise him.
"Yes. For now. Of course, secrets are no fun unless you have plans to dramatically reveal them later, but don't worry. I am prepared."
"I never doubted." She usually had the dramatic revelation planned before there was even any secret to reveal. Sometimes she invented secrets for this very purpose.
"Then listen closely. It's a simple enough thing, but it is very important that you not contradict me." She sat down in the chair opposite him and laced her fingers in her lap. "I am going to tell Dozla you sustained that wound by heroically leaping in front of me and taking an arrow intended for me. You should act embarrassed, like you don't wish to talk about it. Dozla will ask us more questions, and you should forbear from answering – maybe even leave the room. I shall spin for him an epic tale of adventure and devotion –"
"And what exactly is this meant to accomplish?"
L'Arachel blinked. "Oh, nothing, at first. But when we rejoin our companions, Dozla will surely tell everyone within earshot – you know he loves me, and loves anyone else who loves me, and can hardly stop talking about me – and rumors will begin to spread."
"And what could rumors possibly profit you?" What could they profit me, he could have asked, the one who's been trying to escape your service since practically the moment I entered it? Why should I let you convince anyone I like it here? "You're not thinking – the potential scandal –"
"Oh, pish. Haven't you read any of the stories? Heard any of the ballads? No, this is how I'm going to prevent scandal. It's a very clever plan."
It beggared belief. Even more than her absurd declarations usually did. "And… how is that, exactly?"
"Well." She smiled sweetly. "I am a princess, and you are a commoner. That would generally be frowned upon, would it not? Even if you are in my employ, many people would consider it inappropriate for us two to go gallivanting about the countryside unaccompanied."
"Imagine how much more suspicious they'd be if they knew you haven't even been paying me."
For answer, she just glared at him. It had been worth a try. "So we must make this more like the stories. We shall recast you as someone who, though of common birth and afflicted with the commoner's indecent preoccupation with commerce, possesses a hidden soul of high-minded nobility and devotion. That will make it all more acceptable."
"Or we could simply neglect to mention that Dozla wasn't here the entire time."
"And how, pray tell, would that help anything?" He was about to explain – though he was not sure how to go about explaining something that seemed to need so little explanation – but she held up a hand to silence him and went on. "No. This is what happened: we were seeking out monsters in the woods, that we might vanquish them for the greater safety of Magvel and the greater glory of the Everlasting. We found them in greater numbers than expected, and were separated from Dozla. You will notice that, to this point, the story is completely true.
"Some time after we lost Dozla, we were unexpectedly attacked by a group of the abominations that had somehow managed to escape our attention. I don't know how that happened – well, they were skulking in some untold darkness, of course, but I still wonder how any darkness could have sheltered them in that forest once someone with my gifts of divine luminance – ah, it's hardly worth contemplating." But she looked troubled, and her sudden silence suggested she was contemplating it after all.
"And then I got shot," Rennac supplied.
Her eyes narrowed. "If you want to be prosaic about it, yes. But I shall tell Dozla, and he shall tell everyone else, that the arrow was intended for me and you were extremely self-sacrificing."
Him. Self-sacrificing. "And you think anyone will actually believe you?"
"I'm the princess," she said.
He sat back in the chair, staring at her. He knew he wasn't likely to get any sensible answer, but he had to ask: "Why are you so invested in this?"
"That's very simple. I –" And then for perhaps the third time in living memory, words failed her. Her brow furrowed and her lower lip stuck out slightly. "Well, it's important. You should understand that."
"It's important to avoid scandal, yes. But you never seemed worried about it before. Why now? And why this way?"
"Oh, you are infuriating," she said, abruptly turning her head away from him. "And you don't know how a gentleman should behave and you steal things and you can't appreciate the good fortune you have." She left just enough of a pause for him to start compiling a similar litany against her, but then turned back to him and spoke again. "I certainly don't approve of everything you do. But you are an interesting man and I enjoy your company." She was trying to look haughty, but having a much harder time of it than usual. "Do you understand?"
He found that he did. "Don't tell me this is what you were thinking about the entire time. From the moment I got shot, you were trying to come up with a way to fit it into your agenda –" He should have sounded indignant. He wondered why he didn't. Maybe he was just too tired.
"There was nothing else to do for it at the time. I didn't have a staff. What was I to do, let you complain about it the whole time?"
He rolled his eyes. "You know, Princess, you have a remarkable talent for profiting from other people's misery. If I didn't know you better, I might suggest you go into business."
She made a face. "I'll… try to accept that remark in the spirit in which it was intended."
For a while they were silent.
"Actually," said L'Arachel, "there's another kind of story. The royal runaway. A princess who flees her home and leaves her title behind for the sake of true love." She put her head to one side. "We could go into business."
He laughed. "You're dreaming. You'd never make it as a normal person." She looked offended. "That's not a challenge," he said hastily. "What I mean is that you could never stop being the princess. It's part of who you are."
This seemed to mollify her. "Well, it's true I would probably face some difficulty trying to curb my natural refinement and grace. Do you suppose we could go back to being mysterious do-gooders?"
"We were never that mysterious."
"Then I suppose that exhausts our other options. You'll just have to submit. I am going to tell Dozla you saved my life, and he is going to tell everyone else, and you must at least try to cooperate. Otherwise I may become convinced you don't really want this."
"Want what?" he said belatedly. He thought he understood, but it was best not to guess at what went on inside L'Arachel's head. He might have been wrong. And if he was right, it was past time somebody said it.
"You know perfectly well," she said. "The possibility."
"So you're asking me to squander my chances of ever going anywhere else or doing anything else… on a possibility."
"If it bothered you, you would have left already."
"I did, remember?"
"And then you came back the moment I requested it."
"You didn't exactly phrase it as a request," he said sourly.
"And you danced with me."
"You didn't leave me any choice."
"I did so," she snapped, sounding almost childish. "But fine. Fine. You can leave right now. I won't stop you."
He couldn't be hearing this. This didn't sound like the princess he knew at all. "Now? In this weather?" It was important to come up with a valid objection. He wasn't sure why, but he was sure he needed one. "At night? Where would I even go?"
"I'm sure it's none of my concern anymore," said L'Arachel, and got up, and turned her chair around so its back was to him, and sat back down in it. Even she had no desire to leave the fireside in conditions like these. Even to make a point.
She'd forgotten about it within an hour, anyway. "You're awfully quiet," she said, as though nothing had happened. "Bring your chair a little closer to the fire – it's warmer. And I can't even see you from here. Why are you hanging back?"
He hadn't left. That seemed to be all the evidence she required that the possibility existed. Maybe it really was that simple. Or maybe she knew that when she told everyone he'd been trying to protect her, she wouldn't be entirely lying.
There were worse thoughts.