When I awoke the next morning, I decided on a walk to the village shoppe to clear my head. I got as far as the town square, only to spot Basilea standing by the well, staring moodily down at the water. I could have walked on, she hadn't seen me, but then I thought of Irfan and how he needed my help. Poor Irfan, in love with being in love, his head filled with foolish romance. Taking a deep breath, I walked over to Basilea.
"Well met, Lady," I greeted her, leaning against the well beside her.
The lines of her face were stern, her brows drawn together in a scowl, yet when she spoke her voice was mellow. "Making my acquaintance once was not enough then, Merylana?"
"No," I replied and was surprised to find how sincerely I meant it.
We stood in silence, gazing down at the well. Our reflections were smeared dashes of colour on the surface of the murky water. Without warning, Basilea leant forwards and spat. Ripples spread out, breaking our reflections into fragments.
"Did you make a wish?" I asked.
As if she hadn't heard my question, she asked one of her own. "Do you know what it is like to travel across the ocean? To try and make a life in a new country?"
I was confused by this sudden questioning, but answered. "No. I was born here and I will most like as not die here. Sometimes I stand on the beach and look out at the ocean, watch the ships coming and going, but... no, I've never travelled."
"I came here to start anew. The secrecies and the intrigues back home, I got so tired of them. I wanted to be somewhere else. Someone else. But it appears my reputation preceded me. Basilea the Sly they call me, don't they?"
"Then when I saw Irfan here, I couldn't believe it. To be confronted with my past like that so soon after deciding to get away from it."
I glanced at her sidelong. The lines of her face were still harsh, but now they seemed as fragile as our shattered reflections. I thought that perhaps I could see a tear in the corner of her eye. "You were not happy to see him, then?" I ventured.
"I was overjoyed to see him. I love him. When we were young, we pledged ourselves to one another. But I hear now that he is betrothed to someone else?"
"He is." I thought of what Irfan had asked me to do. In a wild, reckless move, I grabbed one of Basilea's hands in both of mine and pressed it to my chest, just beneath the hollow of my throat. Her skin was warm and pleasantly rough, like wood warmed in the sun. Her dark eyes met mine without betraying her emotions. She was a tree – solid, implacable.
"You deserve so much better than him, Basilea. You're beautiful and charismatic. Do what you set out to do and start a new life. One with someone who will appreciate you and only you." Letting go of her hand, I fumbled in the bag I keep secured to my belt, withdrawing a bouquet of dried wild-flowers, which I pushed into her unresisting hands. "Here, take these as a token of my favour."
"I have to go." Basilea broke away from me and left. But I noticed that she didn't drop the flowers.
Hardly able to believe what I had done, I wandered to the river that ran through the town. My mind was racing, but my body felt like it was drifting languidly, untethered. Reaching the water, I settled on my haunches and watched bubbles rising to the surface as fish swam to and fro.
A shadow fell across me.
"Bloodletter Merylana? Are you unwell?"
I looked up to find Dame Constance standing over me. I opened my mouth to reply, hesitated, and then closed it again. I'd already committed myself to Irfan's schemes. And he was a good friend. "I am lovesick," I told Constance.
Smiling prettily at me, she raised one eyebrow. "Who for?"
I took the plunge. "You." I went on one knee and took her hand. "Dame Constance, I wish to woo you."
She jerked her hand free as if my touch pained her. "My heart belongs to Irfan!"
"Then, please, forget I said anything."
"I most certainly shall!"
I nodded and rose to my feet. "I hope the two of you will be very happy together." My duty done, I went to find the instrument of my embarrassment – Irfan.
He was in his chambers, practising sword-fighting on a training dummy. I stood in the doorway and watched, admiring his technique. He was a skilled swordsman. His usual hood and robe hung across the back of a chair, exchanged for a simple tunic and hose. He was breathing far too heavily, I noticed.
"Remember to rest regularly, Irfan," I spoke up. "You shouldn't overwork your lungs."
He pirouetted, bringing the sword over his head in a sweeping blow that struck the training dummy's neck. "My opponent will not care about that in a fight to the death," he panted.
"Then you'll just have to make sure you finish him quickly."
Irfan turned to face me, using his sword to support his weight as he struggled to get his breath back. "Have you come to apologise for storming off last night?" He grinned impishly and any lingering ill will I felt towards him vanished.
"I've come to report my findings."
He became serious at that. "You tested Constance's and Basilea's loyalty to me?"
I nodded and told him all that I was prepared to reveal. When I had finished, he put his sword away and dressed in his hooded robe without a word. His expression was thoughtful. I waited for him to speak, feeling strangely anxious.
"Then it is decided," he said at last. My heart lurched in my chest. "I said I would marry the one who spurned your advances and it seems as though Constance was the woman that did so. Am I correct?"
I thought of Basilea saying she loved Irfan. I thought of her flinty eyes and her warm hands. I swallowed hard, feeling like an awful friend to both her and Irfan. "Yes, you are correct."
He smiled. "Then Constance is to be my wife!"
Deflated and miserable, I nodded. "Congratulations. I should go; I probably have patients waiting."
I was turning away when he called me back. "Merylana, look. I bought the ring this morning." He held out his hand to me. Nestled in his palm was a delicate band of gold, beautiful in its simplicity.
"As lovely as my betrothed," Irfan sighed happily. "And Merylana?"
"Yes?" I answered, thwarted in my attempt to leave once again.
I walked home feeling like a villain. Had I done the right thing? Politically speaking, yes I had; but morally? And what of the attraction I felt for Basilea? It was selfish of me. Not that Irfan had behaved any better – he had allowed two women to believe that he loved them whilst using me to test their affection for him. And I had gone along with it, a willing accomplice! Whichever way I looked at it I was just as, if not more, wretched than he.
My waiting room was empty when I arrived. A shame, as I was in need of distraction from my racing thoughts. I fetched myself a goblet of wine and then slumped at my scribe table, sorting through the sheaves of papers strewn across its surface. I was arranging written diagnoses by date when my assistant burst into the room, his face flushed.
"Merylana, you must come to the town square!"
I pushed a strand of hair that had fallen loose back behind my ear, my muscles tensing as I half-rose from my chair. "Has there been an accident?"
"No. Irfan has asked Dame Constance to marry him and they are having the wedding now, right in the middle of the town square!"
I was so shocked that I forgot to finish standing up. I must have looked quite ridiculous, perched in mid-air like that, but I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Irfan was getting married at that very moment? Betrayal hit me like a physical blow. After all I had done to help him decide on a wife, he hadn't even bothered inviting me to the wedding. I had been left to find out about it from my assistant! For all of Irfan's noble talk about chivalry, it was obvious that he had no idea about the right way to treat his friends.
My thoughts were brought back to the moment by my assistant asking if I was all right.
"What? Oh, yes, thank you. Just a twinge in my back, that's all," I lied. Standing, I drained the last of the wine from my goblet.
"I could take a look, if you would like?" my assistant offered.
"No, that's all right; we have a wedding to go to!"
We walked to the town square together. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time we got there. Irfan and Dame Constance stood at the centre of a group of onlookers, apparently oblivious to their audience. They seemed to have only eyes for each other and they gazed adoringly at the aforementioned features as they exchanged the traditional marriage vows.
My gaze swept over the spectators and focused in one the one person I had hoped not to see – Basilea. Her face was blanched with fury. Slipping away from my assistant, I went to her side.
As I approached, she turned and snarled something at me in a language I didn't understand, but from her tone could guess was nothing complimentary.
"How could he choose that spoiled little milksop over me?" she demanded to know.
Against my better judgement, I decided to come clean with her. "Because I helped him decide between the two of you." Seeing her reach into her robes, I guess she was going for a weapon and hurriedly tried to explain myself. "Irfan is still very much in love with you, Basilea, he realised that when you came here. But he is in love with Dame Constance too and he can only belong to one woman. You know how he is."
Basilea nodded, but I could see the outline of her fist clutching a dagger handle beneath her robe. I swiped at the sweat that had suddenly sprung into being on my brow. The sound of the wedding had faded into an indistinct roar in my ears, like the sound of the distant sea. My mouth was dry.
"So," I continued, "he tasked me with testing you loyalties to him by wooing you."
"Then what you said to me by the well, it was all a lie? A trick?"
"No, I meant every word of it." Shocked, I realised that this was the truth. "I meant it more than I have ever meant anything in my life."
Basilea's hands slipped from her robe. I flinched, until I saw that they were empty. I took them into my own hands. Once again, my skin thrilled at the touch of hers, so warm and capable. The harsh scowl left her face to be replaced with a look of mischief.
"Well, you know what they say," she told me with mock solemnity, "if you can't be with the one you love..."
"...Love the one you're with," I finished for her.
"What do you say we crash the party and make this a double wedding?"
Laughing, I drew her towards me and we shared our first kiss. Around us, the crowd cheered.