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There were crossbows, Aglaia

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One may be frightened by the same event twice: once when it is actually happening and a second time when you look back and realize that it was far more dangerous than you first had thought, now that you've had some time to reflect upon it.


"There were crossbows, Aglaia. Hundreds of them. I ran."

(A Death in the Venetian Quarter, by Alan Gordon.)

A bolt struck the ground at my feet, and everything lurched into a sickening blur. I rocketed mindlessly forward and upward, entire body alight with disorienting pins and needles. Below me the chain bounced and swayed, and further below that the sea churned, foamy with blood, greedily gobbling up the soldiers who sank like stones in their armor.

Then I hit a wall.

For a moment I was more confused than afraid, but it was a very brief moment.

Aglaia was clutching at my arm, and behind us I was aware of Rico and Plossus rushing into our room with blades drawn. A house full of fools is a dangerous place to cry out in terror. Or a very safe one, depending on how you look at it.

My brain understood that I had been dreaming. My body understood no such thing.

My hands had been out to steady myself on the chain, so I at least hadn't run headlong into the wall. But as far as I was concerned, the chain was still there, swaying and bucking, threatening to plunge me into the bloodied sea, just one more drowning soldier. I could still hear the hail of crossbow bolts thudding into the ground, glancing off of rocks, clanging into armor, breezing past my ankles. Somewhere down there, in the midst of all the warriors fighting for honor or God or a would-be-emperor, a handful of troubadours were fighting for their lives. And so, I figured, were a lot of the warriors.

I felt ill.

The tingling persisted, making my skin crawl. Cold heat radiated outward from the scar in my thigh. I was shaking like a leaf, gasping for breath, tears streaming down my face. By this point Rico and Plossus had put two and two together and were standing on either side of us. I could hear them conversing in low voices with Aglaia, but their words were drowned out by my own frantic heartbeat and the ringing in my ears, which suddenly coalesced into Malvolio's voice, giddy and smug.

You didn't think I'd allow you a quick death, did you?

Pain lanced through my leg. I shoved away from the wall, staggered a few feet, and dry-heaved. My friends were barely a step behind me, exclaiming worriedly, reaching out.

There was no space in my head for shame, in that moment. In retrospect, I felt bad for scaring them. Plossus was young; he didn't need this grim reminder of what a fool's life could do to a person. It would have been kinder to let him believe the rumors that I had backflipped fearlessly across the great chain, strumming my lute and mocking the Crusaders. And my poor wife had already spent a full day not knowing whether I was alive or dead.

But these thoughts would come later. At the time, I was busy trying not to vomit. The presence of loved ones was a balm, and I could not spare the energy to think of them beyond that.

At length, the three of them coaxed me into sitting down. Aglaia settled behind me, rubbing circles between my shoulder blades, a tender gesture that I appreciated but could barely feel through the pins and needles. Rico sat beside me and held one trembling hand tightly. Plossus, the unlucky soul, sat in front of me, and was therefore in the most danger of being thrown up on.

My body lurched forward of its own accord, and I wrenched my free hand up to cover my mouth. Instead of scrambling to his feet like a sensible man, Plossus grabbed my arm to steady me. My stomach was empty, anyway. The nausea passed, and inertia and my own violent shuddering carried me forward until my forehead met his shoulder.

We sat there for some time, a bizarre little tableau. Daylight was streaming cheerily in from a window at the far end of the hall. I had collapsed straight into bed on getting home, so all four of us were in full garb, a gaggle of distressed fools clutching each other on the floor.

I could not stop shaking. Even my teeth were chattering. My hands were going numb with the pins and needles. My heart was racing and I could not catch my breath, wheezing and gulping for air, which did not help the impossible but very real fear of drowning. Occasionally one or two of these complaints would begin to subside, and then my leg would throb, or a wave of dizziness would roll over me, or there would be a distant noise that my over-tired mind took for a crossbow, and the panic would spark anew and start everything back up again.

I lost all sense of time. Aglaia told me later that we sat there for maybe a quarter of an hour. I would have guessed much longer.

At some point it all just stopped. The tingling faded rapidly until it was gone from everywhere but my leg. The floor stopped tilting. For a few surreal seconds I was devoid of emotion but still trembling all over, still gasping into Plossus's shoulder, the panic putting my body through its paces for one final push before receding completely.

I took a deep breath, and leaned back into Aglaia's arms, utterly spent. "Thank you, my friends," I whispered, too exhausted to conjure up anything witty or sardonic. I couldn't keep my eyes open. I wondered how long I had slept.

Rico patted my hand and then led Plossus away, talking quietly to distract the poor lad. Even in my half-awake stupor I could see he was shaken. That was when the guilt started creeping in, but I was too tired to sustain it at the time. I would have to leave the boy to Rico for now.

Aglaia helped me to my feet. I wouldn't have minded nodding off on the ground at that point, but I wasn't about to consign my pregnant wife to the same fate.

My knee buckled, and said pregnant wife caught me deftly and supported me the few steps into our room. My leg was aching badly enough that I had to be imagining at least some of it, a fact which changed nothing about its current refusal to take my weight.

Aglaia deposited me on the bed, and anxiety fluttered around in my chest like a trapped bird when she didn't immediately settle beside me. After a moment I felt a rag on my face, scrubbing away what was left of my makeup. I shivered and leaned into her touch, grateful for both the intimacy and practicality of the gesture. Sweat and tears had made a pasty mess of the flour, a discomfort I didn't truly notice until it was gone.

"Thank you," I said hoarsely.

She lay down, wrapped her arms around me, and sobbed into my chest. Wrung out as I was, I did my best to spring into action, forcing my eyes open, wrapping my own arms around her weakly, stroking her hair flat against the nape of her neck.

And then she stopped. I held my breath in the sudden stillness, hand still tangled in her hair, waiting to follow her lead. I suspected that her abrupt recovery, much like my own, had more to do with physical exhaustion than anything else.

Eventually, she took a deep breath and drew back far enough to look me in the face. My eyes were closing every other second of their own accord, but I tried to meet her gaze.

"I shouldn't have pointed a crossbow at you," she said guiltily.

I snorted, and kissed her on the forehead. "I shouldn't have scared you half to death. Again."

"We're even, then. Are you alright?"

"My leg hurts," I admitted. It wasn't what she meant, but it was the easiest thing to grapple with. "I'll do some stretches in the morning."

"It is morning, my love."

"I didn't say which morning."

She laughed softly, and kissed my cheek. "Sleep," she ordered.

"Yes, Duchess," I said around a slightly embellished yawn, and let my eyes fall shut at last.