If Tythel had any doubt about Catha’s honesty when it came to Freda’s fate, those doubts were erased upon seeing Otis. The man Tythel remembered was large and full of life and bluster. This man was half the man she remembered. He was thinner, his clothes hanging loosely like they were still sized for the man he’d been before. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair had turned the color of ash. The last few months had aged him decades, and Tythel wanted to hug him and tell him they would find the people responsible for his suffering and make them pay.
Unfortunately, the woman in question stood behind Otis. Catha looked as worried as Tythel felt. How dare you pretend to care for him? You did this to him. Tythel again had to restrain herself from leaping at the woman across from her and putting her talons to use. Eupheme’s hand on her shoulder reminded Tythel she needed to constrain herself.
Otis gave them both slight nods and got to work inspecting Tellias. It was clinical and detached, the examination of a man who had seen too many horrors to let one more nightmare bother him.
“Can I be frank with you?”
“Your friend here isn’t alive. Not in any meaningful sense of the word. He has a pulse, he’s breathing, but his pupils aren’t dilating to light, he shows no responses to external stimuli. If there’s anything of the man you knew still in there – which I quite frankly doubt – he’s lost in a private world of agony.”
“I suppose I did ask you to be frank.” Tythel said. “I just didn’t expect…”
Otis gave her such a forlorn look that Tythel closed her mouth. “Miss, I don’t want to pretend this is something other than it is. The best thing you can do for your friend right now is let me fill the bloodwetters with poppy milk. If there’s anything left of him, his pain will stop.”
“Along with everything else,” Tythel said, clenching her hands into fists.
Otis nodded. “I’m sorry. As much as the…as the Alohym have advanced what we can do for patients – and Light help me, it is infinitely better than what we did for them before – he is beyond our ability to help. A lumcaster’s too, though there are precious few of them left around. It would require far too much Light to heal him.”
“There’s a way,” Tythel said.
She expected Otis to protest, to try and convince her she was wrong. She didn’t expect him to close his eyes tightly, taking a deep breath. “I understand that hope, miss. I do. And I know how hard it can be to let go. But right now, your friend is just suffering. Let me do what I can for him. Let me spare him that pain.”
“No,” Tythel said. “You have to keep him here. You have to keep him alive.”
Otis took another slow, deep breath. It wasn’t anger, like Tythel had initially thought. He was holding back tears of his own. “Alohym law means that, unless his family makes a claim and funds his survival, I cannot prolong it longer than two weeks. After that, if no family has come forward-”
“What right does his betrothed have?” Tythel asked, snapping the question.
“She…would have the same right as family, although their claim would supersede hers if they came forward. Upon her instructions, I can prolong his life for two months. After that, I’m required to take a tax to fund the treatment of patients with a hope of survival.”
“Then I have two months to get you the money.”
Otis’s expression made it clear he didn’t believe her hasty lie, but didn’t care enough to protest. Or maybe that was too harsh. Maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to crush her hope. “I hope in two months, you’ll reconsider. The tax is…designed to discourage needless suffering.”
Designed to make sure only the wealthy can keep their loved ones alive, binding their hope to the Alohym and their machines, Tythel translated, though she held her tongue. “How much?”
“Two thousand keys a month.”
“I’ll pay it,” Tythel said, without flinching. A single jewel from her father’s horde would buy Tellias ten months of life. A dozen of them…if she couldn’t learn Heartflame in that time, then maybe it would be time to admit that Tellias was gone.
“Catha, can you check on the other patients?” Otis asked, looking over his shoulder at her.
Catha nodded and exited. Otis turned back to Tythel. “So it really is you?”
Tythel’s heart stopped beating for a moment, then started up again at a runner’s pace. “Really is who?”
Otis snorted. “Your disguise is not a good as it could be. Makeup covers a great deal, but your voice…I remember your voice. I remember how cavalier you were about money then too. A dragon’s view.”
“Otis…” Tythel reached out and took his hand. “I’m sorry about Freda.”
“Thank you,” Otis said. He paused for a moment, and a bitter smile spread across his lips. “Your highness.”
“You don’t…you don’t need to call me that.” Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed, clearing away tears that weren’t coming. She’d lost her tear ducts at some point, and her eyes just burned instead.
“He should,” Eupheme said, speaking up softly. “He is one of your subjects, after all.”
“She’s right,” Otis said, before Tythel could protest. “My father always claimed one day I’d treat the illnesses of dukes. I never expected to skip straight to the royal family. I certainly never expected to do it without knowing that’s what I was doing.”
Tythel winced. “I didn’t know either.”
“I believe that.” Otis squeezed her hand one more time. “You…have some dragon magic that can save your friend?”
“I will,” Tythel said. “I just have to learn it. Heartflame.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Otis said. “Heals like light. But instead of turning people into monsters, too much…too much makes them into dragons.”
“I’d say just enough,” Tythel said.
“Is that what your friend – your betrothed – wants?”
Tythel sniffed. “I don’t know. And he’s not…” Otis gave her a warning glance, and Tythel cut off her denial. “I don’t know.”
“Some would say you shouldn’t do that to him without his permission.”
Tythel had to rub her eyes to dispel the itch, the nictitating membranes not doing enough to relieve the need to cry. I’ll be past that one day. I’ll be like my father. My sorrow wont burn my eyes. “If he prefers death to being a dragon, he can fall on a sword once he’s healthy enough to make that choice. But I’ll be damned to the blackest Shadow if I don’t do everything I can to let him choose.”
Otis nodded. “I did say some would say. I wouldn’t be one of them.”
“Otis…you should know. Catha…she called the Alohym on me. What happened to Freda…”
Otis looked at her with eyes that had stared through a thousand torments and shook his head. “Catha wanted to. I agreed, your highness. I thought…I thought they’d spare us if I did.” The tears he had fought for so long finally began to mist his eyes. “I should have known better. That’s not how the Alohym show mercy. They only spared me.”
Tythel found herself unable to speak as the man who had saved her life and doomed the woman he loved collected himself. It took some time.