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Oberta 21, 1535

It was a lovely room.

He was propped up on pillows spun from gold silk, covered with a swan-down comforter to ward off the autumn chill. The panes of the window rattled as flakes of early snow whipped past. The marble fireplace breathed cheerfully, filling the room with heat and fragrance. Healing herbs, his maid had said. He'd snapped at her; you think making my room smell nice will fix this? He had her turned out of the house. The woman left in tears.

He'd ordered them to reduce the poppy milk a bit every day. Every breath made his body ache. When they changed his bandages, he screamed himself hoarse. Thick-armed porters held his legs. But he hadn't liked watching fingers of sunlight slide across the room in what seemed like moments, and realizing he had no idea what day it was.

They told him he was fortunate to be alive.

He tried to flip the page of the book he'd been reading. It slipped from his fingers, and he instinctively tried to snatch it with the other arm. The book slid off the comforter and thudded to the floor.

It still felt like the other arm was there. Every few minutes he had to relearn that it wasn't. It was a mangled pulp of meat and bone, buried... somewhere. They hadn't told him where they'd disposed of it.

It hardly mattered. He couldn't hold a book. He couldn't hold a hammer. He couldn't hold a quill. In the years when the sky held more blue and his heart could be swelled by a delicate piece on the pianoforte, he'd committed to holding tools instead of some apple-cheeked lass with flowers in her hair. His tower was empty, save for those paid by his skills with quill and hammer.

He watched the fire for a time, observed the shrink and collapse of the logs, the way they sent stars aloft. He listened to the windows rattle.

There was a soft knock on the door. He cleared his throat, still raw from the morning's dressing, and said, "Enter."

Eidolus swept into the room. He was dressed in the formal robes of the Arch-Shaper, but hollow-eyed and unshaven. "Good afternoon, Petrus. Are you..." He trailed off, looking at the carpet, and tugged at his gilt collar. "I'm sorry. Of course you're not well."

"I have been worse," Petrus charitably lied. "You're here on business?"

"Yes," Eidolus said, gratefully. "Count Caliani asked me to tell you, your design won."

Petrus looked at him as if he grown an ottrekin's tail and whiskers. "It won? How could it win? It wasn't complete."

"I finished it," Eidolus said. "I followed your plans as best I was able."

"...why?" Petrus said, utterly baffled.

"Because it was a good design. Because it wasn't a fair competition if only I finished. Because..." he laughed shortly, "because I believe I'd call us friends."

Petrus stared at the comforter. At his remaining hand, with its ever-baggier flesh, its ever-bluer veins. "How can I build a shrine?" he said.

Eidolus waved away his concern. "You don't have to. They've asked me to build your design. You'll receive the honors. You'll receive the funds. I'll do the work."

He could think of nothing more to say than, "Thank you."

Eidolus inclined his head and smiled. He turned to go, pulling his cloak tight, then halted, remembering something. "A hypothetical question, Petrus. Something I've been wondering. If knowledge is power, and power corrupts... does knowledge corrupt?"

After a moment of consideration, Petrus replied, "I see no benefit to providing you with the answer to that question."

Eidolus chuckled softly. "We should have worked together before - before now. We balance. Imanna," a shadow flitted across his face, "says I have too generous a view of the world."

"How is she?" Petrus asked.

He watched a torrent of words claw against the back of the younger man's teeth. After a moment, he bit out only, "Bedridden."

The only thing that came to mind was an awkward, "I'm sorry."

"Thank you."

"Perhaps... perhaps you should be with her. Pass the shrine project to another?"

Eidolus shook his head. "I won't let your las- let your work be mangled by someone beneath your skill." He looked at his hands, and smiled without humor. "And I have no art for healing anyway." The corners of his mouth started to quiver and crumble. "If she were a stone, I could - I would know how to..." He lapsed into silence, shielded his eyes as if from a blinding light. His broad shoulders sagged.

Petrus held his tongue. Eidolus turned away. His voice floated up from underwater, "Please excuse me." And he was gone.

Petrus stared at the fire. It occurred to him that he should have asked Eidolus to pick up his book before inquiring about his wife. Then it occurred to him that might be a selfish thought. He tried to rub the bridge of his nose, realized anew by the twinge of pain that arm didn’t exist anymore, and did it with the other instead.

He smiled humorlessly. Both of them had wobbled off the axis of their lives. So what if his life was his work, and Eidolus' was his wife? It was the same, wasn't it? They were in the same place. Weren't they?

There was a brisk rap at the door. Before he had a chance to say anything, Duke Anzerani swept in. His cloak was dusted with fading snow, his boots squeaked on the hardwood. "Maestre Decamari," he nodded, hanging his hat on Petrus' footboard as if it were his own.

"Your Grace," Petrus nodded. He tried to push himself more upright, and almost tipped himself over instead. "I thought you might be Eidolus returning."

The Duke made a small, dismissive gesture. "I passed the Arch-Shaper on the way in. He seemed in no mood for conversation." He made to untie the collar of his cloak, then thought the better of it. "I will not take up much of your time," he said instead. "I have a business proposal for you."

Petrus felt his brows lift. "My abilities have been... somewhat curtailed, Your Grace."

Anzerani allowed a curt nod of acknowledgement. "Yes. That is why I am here. It is not your hands I want, Maestre. It is your mind. I will not insult us both by comparisons, but I have reason to expect you will find yourself... displeased by lack of an intellectual outlet. If you are not already."

Unthinking, Petrus moved to tug his beard thoughtfully. Another electrical fork of pain reminded him which hand to use. "What would you have my mind occupied by?"

"My daughter." Petrus struggled to keep listening and not choke outright. "She is yet fourteen, but has outstripped all her tutors. Not the son I hoped for, but bright enough. If I cannot acquire a real heir, my fortunes will be turned over to her husband. I would prefer she have the intelligence to manage them and the wit to manage him. I would leave her intellect in your hands. I will do the best I can to correct her personality."

"Is there some problem with her personality?" Petrus asked. He was only half-listening. His eyes were flickering over his bookshelves, dusty tomes on geometry, architecture, and history, thick with formulae and dates, charts and rankings of lineage and peerage. Wondering what was within the grasp and interest of a young girl. Surely he couldn't just recite facts at her. Assign readings and question her on them. Even within his area of expertise...

A memory of Varde's voice came to him unbidden. "I'm sorry, Maestre," he'd said, clutching his head in both hands. "I don't understand, no matter how many times I read it." He'd looked up from the tome with eyes brimming over, but shied from the frown that awaited him. "I'm not smart enough," he'd mumbled.

Petrus clutched at his collar of his shirt, heart turning over at the memory.

The Duke looked towards the rattling window and rubbed his forehead, as if he had a migraine. "The girl is painfully shy. I expect she comes to it by her mother, Spirits give her rest. She was a comely woman. A dutiful wife. But if you placed her in a room with a stranger, she would make every effort to blend in with the shrubbery." He made a swift, cutting gesture with one hand. "I will not have it in my daughter. It is unseemly for someone of her stature."

"I would... have to do some research first, I suppose," Petrus said hesitantly. "How to teach... how to teach general subjects. If I'm to do this, I must do it correctly. And I would prefer to meet her first, Your Grace."

"Of course," Anzerani nodded. He glanced back at the door to Petrus' chamber and brusquely snapped his fingers. With a rustle of dark silks, a pale young girl crept through the door, head down, white-knuckled hands clasped before her. She had a fur stole wrapped around her thin shoulders and a fragrant hothouse orchid pinned in the fall of her hair.

She stopped beside her father and curtseyed, keeping her eyes on the floor and swallowing repeatedly, as if to keep from losing her stomach. "Sir," she whispered.

The Duke glared down his nose at her. "Hold your chin up, for the Spirits' sakes, Mikella," he snapped. The girl flinched and dragged her eyes up from the floor. They were a strange, beautiful teal, the color of deep wells in a barren land.