Myrna peered at it closely again, tilting her face as she inspected it from every angle, and then she folded Leon’s undamaged fingers down into a fist, keeping his wounded one extended over a clean towel.
“Mabrother Cho,” Myrna said. “I need you to hold his arm. Here.”
Startled, Leon tensed as the chef pinned his forearm securely against the table.
“You don’t want to watch this,” Myrna said, tightening her grip around his finger.
Before Leon could argue, she took her hot scalpel from over the flame and pressed the flat side of it firmly against his raw fingertip, cauterizing the flesh with a sharp sizzling noise. The sensation knocked Leon backward and he would have fallen except that Mabrother Cho kept his arm pinned to the table. A pungent, burning scent soured the air.
“Thank you,” Myrna said curtly to Mabrother Cho. “You can let him go.”
She set her scalpel aside.
“Are you done?” Leon asked, breathless with pain.
The doctor was frowning in concentration, examining his finger again. “Yes,” she said. “With this at least. Let’s see your back.”
She released his hand. He curled his fingers slowly toward himself, scrutinizing the seared end of his finger. The burned tissue was damaged in a controlled, scarlet burn, the bleeding had stopped, and the skin at the edges had singed to a tender brown. His pulse was still hammering in his veins but the pain, oddly, was deadening a little, as if the nerves to his fingertip, which before had been ragged and shrill, now were short-circuited. The significance struck him for the first time: his wedding ring finger had been deliberately stunted, as if he’d never make a fit husband.
“Ouch,” he said softly.
“Change your mind yet about the mor**ine?” Myrna asked. “I could put you out for a couple hours.” She put a light dressing on his finger to keep it clean.
“No.” He glanced over at Genevieve, who had gone very pale. “You said he could change his mind?”
She hesitated, then nodded.
“Would he come down here?” Leon asked.
“I don’t think so,” Genevieve said.
Leon heard the uncertainty in her voice. “Can you get together some supplies for me?”
She nodded and slipped quietly out.
He’d been barely aware of his surroundings, but now he glanced around the great kitchen of the Bastion, with its rafters high above and a row of ovens near the open fireplace. A bowl of brown eggs was in a familiar place on the counter, and he remembered a blue ceramic teapot on a shelf by the window. How long it had been since he used to sneak down as a kid to visit the cook he couldn’t recall, but little of it had changed. Though most of the cooking equipment was tidily put away, four pie dishes on the counter were filled with unbaked crusts that draped gracefully over the edges, and he could see a big bowl of apples had been sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon. In fact, now that he looked more closely, he saw traces of flour across the top of the wooden table, and Leon guessed that Mabrother Cho had hastily moved things out of the way to clear room for his unexpected guest.
“Pies?” Leon asked.
The cook gave a shrug. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“I’ll need some food to take with me,” Leon said.
“Where are you going?”
“Into the wasteland. Mycoprotein mainly would be good, and some powdered baby formula,” Leon added. “And whatever you have for canteens.”
“You’re going after the midwife? Do you know where she was headed?” the cook asked.
Leon knew only that Gaia was heading north, and that she had at least a four-day lead on him. Anxiety made him restless.
“Here, hold still,” Myrna said. “What’s this?” She touched the back of his head.
“I was hit there when they arrested me.” He lowered his head to rest on his folded arms, and she cleaned the tender lump on the back of his skull.
“Have any headaches?” she asked.
“Not so bad now.”
As the doctor turned to work on his back, he could feel her cleaning the scabby wounds from his floggings and couldn’t help flinching. He tilted his face, staring blindly at the piecrusts, and grit his teeth. He searched mentally through his body for one place of him that didn’t hurt and settled on the big toe of his right foot. Deep inside his black boot, under the table, that one part of him was okay and he concentrated on that.
Then, after the cleaning was finished, he felt the careful tugs at his back as she sewed the worst of his shredded skin.
“Is that necessary? I won’t be able to reach to take the stitches out,” Leon said.
“They’ll dissolve by the time you heal,” Myrna said.
The little snipping noises continued as she tied off the knots, and finally she set aside the curved needle and scissors on the towel in his line of vision. Mabrother Cho brought him a bowl of barley soup to drink. Leon couldn’t relax, couldn’t let down his guard against pain, but he swallowed the salty, steamy liquid and dipped a crust of the bread in the dregs to swab them up.
“More?” Mabrother Cho asked.
“Hold still,” Myrna said again.
Next he could feel the doctor dabbing something on his back, a light, cool substance that pulled some of the pain away.
“That’s good,” he muttered.
She kept at it, working her way from the top, and in the path of her touch, he felt the merciful easing of pain across the back of his shoulders, toward the middle of his spine, and then outward.
“What is that you’re putting on?” he asked.
“The sort of thing your girl would appreciate. It’s mostly an antibiotic, but I added some tansy she told me about. That’s what’s soothing. I’ll give you some of this to take with you, too.”
“You called her ‘my girl,’” he said, surprised.
“Isn’t that why you’re going after her?”
He shifted slightly. “Did she ever talk about me?” he asked.
“Not much,” Myrna said. “She liked the orange. That was from you, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I guessed as much.”
He would have appreciated a little more to go on, but then, Gaia herself had never been particularly forthcoming. She was the most direct, fearless person he’d ever known, except where admitting her own feelings was concerned. At least, he hoped she had feelings for him. When she’d said that thing about respecting him, as if that was all she did, he’d been startled by how much it hurt, like a clean gouge right through him. Still, she’d gone on to let him kiss her, and that counted for something.
He wanted Gaia to trust him, or more exactly, he wanted to be a person that Gaia would trust, even if no one else ever trusted him. He wondered if she realized he’d risked his life for her. Not that it mattered. He’d have done it anyway. But still, he wondered.
Why did he want so badly to be with her?
“Look at me,” Myrna said, sitting down beside him on another stool. Her fingers were still smeared with the frothy, white salve.
He looked up doubtfully to meet her gaze. Myrna’s shrewd eyes were devoid of sympathy, but he could see that didn’t make her heartless.
“Don’t ever blame Gaia for this,” Myrna said.
“No. I mean later. Whether you ever find her or not. None of this was her fault.”
“I know,” he said. “It was my decision. I knew what could happen to me. I know what could happen to me in the wasteland, too.”
Myrna rose to rinse her hands at the sink, leaving Leon to rest another minute. His one comfort was that he’d succeeded in helping Gaia escape. He could only believe she was surviving somewhere, somehow. A girl who could come out of prison stronger than she went in, who let hardships deepen her rather than rigidify her thinking, had to be able to handle the wasteland, and as long as she was alive, there was a chance he could find her.
Genevieve returned with an assortment of supplies and a rucksack. “You can’t carry anything on your back, obviously,” she said, “but is your neck all right? You could hang something around your neck, in front of you.”
He lifted a hand to gingerly touch the nape of his neck, which was unscathed. “That’ll work,” he said.
“I think this will keep the sun and flies off your back without clinging,” Genevieve added. She’d brought a loose, lightweight shirt and a bowed oblong framework that he recognized from a kite kit his brother Rafael had owned once. She clipped the framework to the inside of the shirt collar so the material would drape loosely behind him, not touching his skin. The resulting contraption had a flimsiness he doubted, but she tested its spring with a tug, and it rebounded in a way that was flexible and durable enough to last, at least for a while.
“Feeling any better? That first dose of mor**ine should have kicked in,” Myrna asked, taking the stool again.
The food was helping, too. Mabrother Cho handed him another bowl of soup and more bread. Then he set before Leon a saucer with a few of the cinnamon-and-sugar-coated apple slices. “You always liked these,” he said.