Two men stumbled in the shadows, their only goal to make it to the end of the dimly lit street undetected. Had one not been ready to fall over from the knife wound to his gut, it might have been easier going. Instead, they moved as quickly as they dared, the one whispering encouragements and pleas to his companion to just stay awake, that they were almost there.
When they knocked on the door at the end of the street, it was an old man who answered. His spiky red hair, faded to a sickly sort of pink, marked the man for what he was, if the sign swinging above his head had not. The healthier of the two companions took a half-hopeful step forward. “Please, sir, we’ve got nowhere else to go.”
But the old man just raised a hand to silence him, and waved them both inside. The relief on the one man’s face was evident.
The old man called out a name, Avie, and then a girl came out. She was about as young as he was old, her hair still bright red like blood welling out of a wound. Even as she stepped into the dim candlelight, the second man collapsed, and his companion let out a startled grunt as he tried to support their weight. Avie and the old man rushed to help him out, and together, they helped the unconscious rebel onto the table.
“What happened?” Her mentor asked as he tore away the bloodied shirt. The patient’s eyes were squinted half-shut, and he was pale from blood loss. The Mender hovered his hands over the wound, hands glowing pale red. Avie smelled something sweet, like cinnamon or honey, as her mentor began to work.
“There was a fight,” said the second man, who was pretty handsome if Avie was being honest.
Avie might have smacked him for his inappropriate sarcasm if he hadn’t been busy putting some stranger’s guts back together.
The other man ran his fingers through his hair, looking down at his companion with concern. Avie didn’t think he realized there was blood on his hands, but she’d seen all manners of panicked people in their little place of fixing. She had to suppose it was normal.
“I don’t know for sure. It was chaos. One minute he was right next to me, and then the next he wasn’t.” The second man suddenly cast a worried glance at the old man and his apprentice. “It was just a bar fight. That’s all. We were – are – both drunk, and he picked a fight with the wrong man.”
If the man was telling truths, then Avie was a monkey, and it was obvious her teacher thought the same. But he let it lie for a moment, motioning Avie closer with his head without taking his eyes off his work. “Keep an eye on the streets. We might have company that needs to be dissuaded to leave.”
She nodded, and moved closer to the door.
It didn’t matter, though. Avie could still hear her mentor talk as she peeked out the street and saw it was, for the moment at least, empty.
“I’ll be frank, here, son.” Her teacher’s voice was soft, like he was attempting to keep her out of it. Fat chance of that. “I know that you both are rebels, and I think you know that I know. So let’s stop lying to each other under this roof.”
Avie pretended not to listen as she checked the streets again. There were two people far off, dim silhouettes in the distance. If they were officers, she’d bar them out herself if that was what it took. And not just because a Mender’s house was sanctuary.
She looked briefly back at the table, and found the other rebel’s eyes dart away. He cleared his throat. “It’s the safest thing to do, Mender, when you fight for a cause that no one is brave enough to stand in.”
Avie clenched her fists just a little. Was it a veiled insult or just an honest truth?
“Avie, the window,” her mentor said idly.
How he knew she wasn’t watching, she didn’t know. Especially since he was currently scrutinizing the dark stain on wounded man’s stomach. He’d claimed that it was easy to understand humanity when you often saw them at their worst.
She turned back to the window, startled when someone rapped on the door.
A stool clattered as the handsome rebel rose suddenly. Her mentor only looked at the door icily. “You’d better get out of sight, just in case,” he said to the younger man. “Avie, I am not quite finished here.”
Someone hammered on the door again, and demanded them to open up. Avie threw back her head and marched to the door. She propped one foot behind the door and then let it crack open, just far enough that the men outside could take a peak in without getting much information.
“Can I help you?” Avie demanded.
The faces of two uniforms were lit by a torch one held in his hand. As she suspected they might, one tried to push further inside. The door didn’t give. The more wiry man gave the larger guard a bit of a glare, and then gave his best impression of an apologetic glance to Avie. She didn’t believe it for a moment. “Sorry to disturb you late at night, ma’am, but we’re looking for two traitors.”
“The only two people here are my mentor and myself. Are you implying that we are the traitors you’re searching for?” She crossed her arms. Avie didn’t need to remind them how vital Menders were to this city, to the country, and it didn’t help that Mending abilities were rare. It would take some hefty charges for guards to risk arresting them.
“Of course not. But we believe one to be injured, and where else would they go but here?”
Avie danced from one foot onto the next. “I don’t know, soldier, though I can’t imagine, as a man of the law, that you’ve forgotten this is a sanctuary. Regardless of where your traitors are, you cannot enter here.”
The wiry guard grimaced, tipped his hat, and then tromped off elsewhere. His friend followed shortly after.
Avie closed the door, and let out a breath. Then she crossed the little house and rejoined her mentor just as the blue glow was fading from his hands.”Is he healed?”
“Nothing’s so broken that it can’t be fixed,” he reminded her. “They’ll stay until morning, so that his body can replace the blood he’s lost. Go get some sleep. I’ll wake you up in a few hours to take my place.”
A shadow moved, and then the handsome rebel was back in the light. “What about me?” He asked.
Avie hesitated just long enough to hear the old man’s reply.
“You can either sleep at this table or you can sleep on the floor. Your choice.”
The man, it seemed, opted for the table. Avie went to her cot wishing the old man wasn’t so callous when it came to the cause these men were fighting for. Especially since she’d seen the way his eyes clouded over like storms when they saw something happening on the streets he didn’t like, or the bitter resolve in his voice when he said, “We’re Menders. We can take no sides.”
Sleep didn’t come easy for Avie, but when she drifted off, she dreamed she had pure white hair and when her hands glowed, people fell. In her dream, the air smelled of static and burnt things. What a rebel she’d have made.
A few hours later, just as her mentor had promised, Avie was once again pulled from her slumber. Tomorrow, she thought as she stumbled over to the table, would drag unpleasantly. The old man fell into bed, and the rebel on the floor stirred but did not wake. On the table, the rebel looked far less friendly with death. Avie realized how young he was. Even his healthy companion must have been only a few years her senior.
As Avie sat down at the table, her foot brushed against something on the floor. She picked it up. A complex little mechanical toy dog that had stopped working. The little boy who’d brought it in had been crying his eyes out. Her mentor had bent down, his hands glowing, the air smelling sweet. He didn’t fix the toy then, but promised his best worker would get on it as soon as her schedule allowed.
Avie smiled, and set the toy dog on the table. A sort of red fog clung to her hands as she waved her fingers directly above the toy. She could sense the entirety of the dog’s inner workings, every cog and gear and bolt. It was overwhelming. The fog spluttered out.
Avie tried again, trying to sense what felt out of place in all the mechanics. That’s what her Mentor said healing would be like, but with much higher stakes. He said practice and time would teach her how to see the complete picture so she could more easily figure out what stood out. It wasn’t as easy as all that. The complete picture was a jumbled mess.
Something moved in Avie’s periphery. Startled, she let loose a wave of red strong enough to make the toy dog skid several inches away from her. But it was just the healing rebel, stirring out of his slumber. His eyes fluttered open, and Avie hastily pushed the dog aside.
The rebel’s eyes slowly came into focus. “How are you feeling?” She asked him, checking his pulse the old fashioned way and finding it appropriately steady.
“Like I got stabbed, then rescued by an angel.”
Avie decided not to mention that the young man’s angel came in the form of a snarky old man with pinking hair. She brought him a cup of water, which he drank shamelessly. His eyes seemed far more lively after that.
“I’m sorry if I interrupted… whatever it was you were doing,” he said, propping himself up.
She shrugged, then gave him a glare she hoped was an impressive replica of the one she’d seen her teacher give to other patients far too eager to get out of bed. “You should lay back down. Just because there isn’t an open wound in your gut doesn’t mean you’re ready to be up and about.”
The rebel flashed her a grin that she refused to be swayed by. “Alright then, Mender. Show me some of your magic, and I’ll try to behave.”
Avie frowned. “I’m not your entertainment,” she said sourly. “And I’m only an apprentice, unfortunately. Not much to see.” Avie rattled the broken toy.
The rebel looked mildly disappointed, and mercifully shut his eyes. Avie gave him a few long seconds before reaching out for the toy again, hopeful. Red magic wrapped around her hands like a glove, and the rebel sucked in a breath. When Avie looked up, she saw he’d only been tricking her into thinking that he was asleep. She glared at him fiercer than anything than her teacher had ever displayed in front of her.
The rebel actually looked apologetic. “I’m sorry. I’m just thinking what I could do for my cause if I was like you, or others who could do things like you. It could change the tide of the war.”
The old man would have laughed and said it was hardly a war when one side was so vastly outnumbered. Instead, Avie just kept her focus on the dog and her work as she said, “My mentor would disagree. ‘Chaos doesn’t take sides,’ he’s said on more than one occasion. So we can’t either.” No matter how much the cause called to her, she supposed.
The rebel looked pained. “But good people have to slog through the mud to make ends meet because of the policies our esteemed governor lets through. How can you be okay with letting that happen? Some of those policies affect you and people like you, you know.”
Like the white-haired soldiers so often drafted by the armies? Yes, she knew. “We don’t let it happen,” she retorted, sparing a glance at her sleeping mentor. “We take in wounded rebels like you, and don’t tell the authorities when they leave. Some people aren’t meant for the fight.”
Avie retrieved a small paring knife from the kitchen, and pricked her finger. It was easier to fix what was wrong with her when she knew what normal was supposed to feel and look like, and with a pulse of red magic, the blood stopped welling and the wound closed.
“I might not be a master at this yet, but I’ve still seen enough death and broken things. It’s awfully rich of you to imply that I’m a lesser person because I won’t help you injure or kill people when it was Mending power like mine that saved your life. We don’t choose who gets to live.”
The young rebel’s frown deepened. “I think I’d like to go to sleep now.”
Avie flexed her fingers, out of sight so he didn’t see, but nodded peaceably. “That’s probably best.”
This time, she made certain that he was asleep when she tried again for the toy dog. Some anxious part of her energy dove for a point in the dog’s shoulder, and Avie instinctively righted the gear. She pressed a button, and the dog moved forward like it was supposed to, stepping right off the table and clattering to the floor.