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Cinders fic - "Right Hand Woman"

butterfly
Title: Right Hand Woman
Fandom: Cinders
Rating: Explicit (for sex, and also some aftermath of violence)
Wordcount: ~8k (Chapter 1)
Characters: Cinders/Perrault, Sophia, Carmosa
Spoilers: For the Independent Woman ending
Notes: I posted this story as a WIP on Tumblr last fall; now I'm cleaning it up into a more final version. Cross-posted to AO3. Enjoy! (And if you haven't played this game yet, I really recommend it.)


It was a quiet day in the manor house, peaceful and pleasant. Birds were singing in the forest, and a gentle breeze whispered in the trees. A lovely spring afternoon, the perfect time to sit on the porch and watch the world go by.

"Bet you think this is boring." Sophia leaned back in the rocking chair and crossed her feet on the deck. "No parties being planned, no distinguished scholars debating philosophy in the study, no visits from the prince, Perrault off chasing some band of highwaymen. Bet you're just waiting for something to come along and liven the place up."

Cinders set down the pillowcase she was embroidering and turned to her stepsister with raised eyebrows. "You're the one with your nose in an adventure novel," she pointed out. "Besides, I seem to recall you being more eager than I, the last time the prince was here."

Sophia's ears turned pink. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about," she said primly, then buried her nose back in her book. Cinders smiled, took a sip of her lemonade, and returned to her sewing. Sophia kept denying any interest in Prince Basile, but the way she looked at him told another story. And, despite increasing pressure from the other nobles, the prince still had not taken a wife. Cinders suspected it was only a matter of time.

Her musings were interrupted by a thundering sound from the west: horses, maybe a dozen of them, trampling the forest path. Cinders put down her work again, this time with a frown. "Hm. Were you expecting anyone?"

Sophia shook her head. "Who ever comes here to see me?"

Cinders stood and lifted a hand to shade her eyes, squinting through the dust of the horses and the glare of the sun. "Perrault isn't supposed to be back for at least a week, so it can't be..." But it was -- she recognized his horse among the pack, a dappled gray mare with a dark mane. She was riderless, and Cinders's heart thudded with sudden fear. Had something happened to him?

Next to her, Sophia had also gotten to her feet. "I'll get the bandages," she said, then disappeared into the house. And Cinders gasped as she saw what Sophia had already noticed: a dark shape, slumped over the horn of a saddle, held in place by another rider. An incoherent cry escaped her lips as she threw her sewing aside and raced down the steps and into the courtyard to where the first of the riders had arrived, jumping off the back of the horse with a tip of his hat.

"Apologies, m'lady, but we didn't know where else to bring him." It was a young man, a member of the local patrol that had replaced the City Guard -- Cinders recognized him, but could not remember his name.

"Perrault?" Cinders lifted a hand to cover her neck, as if to ward off a blow. "Is he..."

"He's alive." He glanced over his shoulder at the horses galloping up behind him. "At least, he was when we found him. But I won't lie to you, m'lady -- it's pretty grim."

Cinders nodded, taking a deep breath to stave off the panic that was sure to come later. But not now -- no time to panic now, not when the rest of the horses were pulling up into her yard, including the one that carried Perrault, slumped like a sack of potatoes, wrapped in a heavy cloak that was stained with blood. She strode toward the horse and caught the eye of its rider, a big blond man with a drooping moustache. This man, she knew: it was Eduard, a former guardsman who had served under Perrault for many years. Normally he was quick with a smile, but not today. His eyes were grave as he nodded to her and barked out orders to his men, who carefully lifted the Perrault off the horse and down to the ground.

"Lady Cinders," Eduard said as he dismounted. "I apologize for the unannounced--"

"We can dispense with the social graces, thank you, Eduard." Cinders kept her words calm even though she felt like screaming. "Please take him upstairs. My sister will direct you to my room. Sophia?"

She turned to Sophia, who had reappeared on the porch, the basket of home remedies over her arm. "Right away, yes." Sophia set the basket aside -- nothing in there would be equal to this task. "This way, please."

Two of the men picked up Perrault, one holding his shoulders, the other his knees, and they went into the house. Cinders followed them through the hallway and up the stairs, and after they gently deposited Perrault on her bed -- Sophia had already thrown off the blankets to leave only the clean sheets beneath, bless that girl and her quick mind -- Cinders went down to one knee beside him.

"Perrault?" she said, lifting a hand to his brow, pushing sweat-soaked hair back from his closed eyes. His skin was ashen, but his breathing seemed steady enough. He had returned wounded from his excursions before -- hence the stash of bandages, tinctures, and poultices kept at the ready -- but never had she seen him look like this: so pale, so limp, so much blood on his clothes. "Perrault, love?"

He moaned, once, and then not again.

She stroked the top of his head, then moved her fingers to his neck to check his pulse. It was strong, if a bit fast, and she allowed herself a sigh of relief as she stood. "Oh, Perrault. What happened to you?"

"Don't know, exactly." Cinders turned around to see Eduard, standing in the doorway behind her. "We were riding back from the next village over when we found him, just like this, surrounded by half a dozen dead bandits and the tracks of many more. He may have tried to take out an entire gang by himself." He lowered his eyes and shook his head. "Damn the man, sometimes he has more bravery than sense."

Cinders unwrapped the cloak to check the extent of the injuries, carefully pulling it out from beneath his back, bracing herself for anything. It was bad, all right: his arms, legs and chest were riddled with bruises and lacerations, some of the cuts almost to the bone. Those would need stitches, for certain. She undid the belts that held up his breastplate; it had been slashed through in several places, but she suspected it had done its job, protecting his vital organs from the worst of the blades. No sparing his bones, though -- from the bruising, she suspected that several ribs were broken, and his right arm sat at an odd angle, the shoulder swollen to twice its usual size. The riders had bandaged the worst of the wounds and had wrapped the right arm, but all the dressings would need to be changed.

"Sophia!" She turned away from the bed to call again, but once again her sister was already there, standing next to Eduard in the doorway.

"What do you need?" Sophia asked.

"Bandages," Cinders replied, rolling up her sleeves. "And boiling water, and witch hazel, and that poppy elixir for the pain. Get the servants to help you. And Carmosa, if she can." Gloria, fortunately, was in town visiting her latest suitor; no risk of her getting underfoot.

"Right. I'll be back." Sophia looked up at Eduard. "Can you help me gather the herbs we'll need?"

"Of course, m'lady," Eduard said with a quick bow. "We are at your disposal."

He turned to follow Sophia out the door, when Cinders called out to him. "Wait!" He turned back, and she raised her eyes to meet his. "Thank you for bringing him to me."

"M'lady." He bowed deeply at the waist. "I am happy to be of service to you both. I hope that you can make him whole again."

Cinders could only respond with a nod, choked with sudden fear. The damage was so extensive, and she was no healer. What could she do, really? She touched his forehead again, fighting back tears. Madame Ghede would know what to do, but she'd left town a long time ago, and Cinders had no way to reach her. For a wild moment Cinders contemplated running down the lake and begging the fairies for aid, bringing gifts of bread, flowers, money, whatever it took to save him....

But no, that was ridiculous. She hadn't heard from the fairies in years, and even if they agreed to help, how high a price would they extract? No. Cinders was on her own. She would just have to do her best.

She ran her hand down his left arm, leaving the right for now; when she hit a deep cut across his elbow, he groaned in pain, and then his eyes flew open, his head turning toward hers. "Ci- Cinders?"

"Yes, love, it's me." Cinders knelt down beside the bed, came close enough to leave a light kiss on his forehead. "You're safe now."

"How did I..." Perrault closed his eyes and sighed. "Everything hurts."

"Hush." Cinders ran the backs of her fingers along his scarred cheek. "Save your strength. I'll take care of you."

He nodded and relaxed, letting his head rest against the pillow, and Cinders let out a long, shuddering breath of her own. He was awake, he was alive. Knowing that, she could manage the rest. She didn't have any choice but to manage the rest. The alternative was too horrifying to contemplate.

She started by examining Perrault carefully, head to toe, taking stock of every cut, bump, and bruise, no matter how slight. When she pulled off his boots and prodded his toes -- one was wrenched and already bruised a deep purple -- she heard him shifting around, and she stood up to see him watching her.

"How bad is it? Tell me the truth."

His voice was a whisper raked over gravel, cracked and dry. Cinders did not reply to him, directing her next words to Sophia as she walked in the room with an armload of bandages. "Could you pour a cup of water?" Sophia nodded and moved to the bedside ewer. Cinders took the proffered glass and moved behind Perrault, propping him up enough to drink . He closed his eyes to swallow, then looked up at her with a sardonic smile.

"You didn't answer my question," he said.

"I know." Cinders backed away and let the others enter the room: Eduard carrying a heavy cauldron, another of the men with the basket of herbal preparations. They left them at the bedside, then stepped away as if awaiting orders. She acknowledged them, then returned her attention to Perrault. "I didn't answer because I don't know yet. I need to change all the bandages and clean your wounds -- that's going to hurt, I'm afraid -- and then I can take stock of the rest. Your right arm is probably the worst. I need to take a closer look but I..." She stood and turned away, letting her hand fall on his left shoulder. "I don't know if I can save it."

Perrault let out a shuddering breath, then fell silent. When he spoke again, the rasp in his voice was not from dehydration. "Do what you have to do."

Cinders risked a look at him. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure." His left hand opened and Cinders slid her own into it, closing her fingers gently around his; he squeezed back with a tight grip, meeting her gaze with storm-dark eyes. "I trust you."

She leaned down to kiss his cheek, brushing his hair back one more time. Once it had been brown, flecked with gray, but now it was the other way around; when had that changed? Shaking the distracting thought away, she let go of his hand and stood up straight, the general of the sick room, commanding her team.

"Sophia, give me a hand with these bandages. Let's see what we have to work with."

That was how it began: Cinders removing every bandage and most of his clothes, cutting away what would not come off easily. She then washed each cut and abrasion with the witch hazel, hardening her heart to Perrault's gasps and hissing intakes of breath and one outright scream -- that was the saber cut across his upper chest, a bone-deep gash that would need stitching. When the time came to sew it up, she found a piece of one of his ruined belts; without a word, he opened his mouth and let her place the leather between his teeth. He was quieter after that, suffering in near-silence as she wrapped his wrenched knee, set the broken toe back into place, and bandaged the cracked ribs, tending to every other injury until she could ignore his right arm no longer.

His right arm. Yes, that was unquestionably the worst of it. The shoulder appeared to be wrenched from its socket, and Cinders thought the upper arm broken in at least three places. Gingerly, she unwrapped the bandage that his rescuers had hastily applied in the field, and she could not suppress a gasp at the sight of a single hoof print, red and purple against the pale skin of his upper arm.

Perrault flicked his eyes sideways. "Yes," he gritted out. "A horse. Last thing I remember, before..." He closed his eyes and leaned back his head, all the muscles in his neck straining against the pain as Cinders prodded at the ruin of his shoulder blade -- it felt like a mass of bone chips beneath the skin. It was a miracle none of them had broken through. Still, it was bad enough that she couldn't reset his shoulder joint. Even if the upper arm hadn't been broken, there was nowhere for it to go.

"Cinders." Perrault's voice was low, the word mumbled through his still-clenched jaw, and his face was lined with agony. "Whatever you must do, do it now. Please."

She nodded, then raised her eyes to Eduard. "Help me," she said, and he came to her side. "Hold him down while I set the breaks I can."

"Right." Eduard caught Perrault's eye briefly. "Sorry, old friend." Perrault acknowledged the apology and then looked away as Eduard's hand closed around what was left of the right shoulder. Cinders worked quickly, blocking out Perrault's grunts and heart-wrenching moans, working the broken pieces of his upper arm back into place. Then she wrapped it back up in clean linens, swaddling it from wrist to shoulder before tying it tightly against his side.

"There." She stepped back, took just a second to check her handiwork, then took an elixir bottle from the dresser where Sophia had arranged her various preparations. Cinders pulled the stopper from the bottle and came back around to Perrault's head, pulling the belt piece from his mouth. "It's done. I'm sorry I had to hurt you."

Perrault shook his head. "Had to be done."

"I know, but..." Cinders sighed, then sat down on the stool someone had left by the head of the bed. "I still hate it." She pulled herself closer to him, resting her hand on his forehead, soothing his brow, and he closed his eyes. "Now, that inventory. I can say with reasonable certainty that you aren't going to bleed to death tonight. But that's all I can be certain of. We'll have to watch for fever, and weakness, and that your broken bones are mending properly. Your shoulder... only time will tell. Once the swelling is down, we might be able to get it back into place. For now, you need to sleep. Here, drink this." She tipped the elixir to his lips, and he swallowed obediently, only shuddering a little at the vile taste.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. "Poppy's milk and willow bark," he murmured. "I see Ghede did teach you a few things."

She touched her lips to his forehead. "Just a few. I'm sorry I couldn't give it to you earlier, but I needed you awake."

"'s all right." His words were already slurring, his gaze losing focus. "You should rest, too."

"I will," Cinders lied, not moving as he slipped out of her arms and back down to the bed, relaxing into drugged sleep almost the moment his head hit the pillow. The others left the room, but Cinders stayed, sitting a hand's reach away, not taking her eyes off him. Finally she let herself feel all the emotions she had been blocking: the shock, the fear, the helpless agony of seeing the man she loved in pain and near death, and they washed over her like a sudden chill, leaving her trembling, tears pricking at the back of her eyelids. She pulled one of the blankets off the floor and wrapped it around herself, clinging to it like a frightened child. No, she would not be able to sleep tonight: instead, she would stand guard and wait for him to wake. Awake, she could keep the demons of her fears away, and keep the black dogs of death off their doorstep.

-x-


The hours passed slowly, the only marker of time being the steady rise and fall of Perrault's chest. Cinders kept watch as she had planned, moving from her chair only to check on her charge when he shifted or muttered in his sleep, dosing him for pain twice more, and once when a serving girl appeared in the door with dinner: a plate of venison, vegetables, and bread in one hand, a fresh pitcher of water in the other. She nibbled at her meal and sipped from the mug, but she hadn't much appetite, and she barely noticed when another servant took the full plate away.

Eventually she did sleep, overcome by exhaustion two hours before sunrise. When she jerked herself awake, the sun was fully up, and a blonde head bent over Perrault, touching his wrappings, checking the dressing on his chest. She blinked the sleep from her eyes and saw to her surprise that it was Carmosa; she began to speak, but Carmosa stilled her with a finger to her lips, then jerked her head toward the door. Cinders stood, stretching out the kinks from her arms and neck as she followed her stepmother into the hallway.

"He seems improved," Carmosa said. "Certainly further from death's doorstep than he was yesterday afternoon."

Cinders glanced back through the door. Perrault lay on his back, left arm folded over his chest, the right bound tightly to his side; a light stubble covered his cheeks and he wore a frown, but then Perrault often frowned in his sleep. "I suppose," she said. "No worse, at any rate."

Carmosa nodded. "And you? I see you got some sleep, finally."

Cinders flushed. "I didn't mean to. I was supposed to be watching over him."

"You need your rest." Carmosa took a quick look over her shoulder toward the bedroom. "I know something of what it is like to watch over a man you care for, unsure whether he will live or die." Cinders thought back to her father's last illness and remembered Carmosa, standing silent in the corner of the room while Cinders knelt by his side in tearful farewell. At the time she had taken Carmosa's stillness for cold indifference, but she knew better now. "I trust that Perrault is in capable hands; you're the one I came to check on."

"Oh. Well." Cinders looked down at her fingers. "Thanks, but I'm fine. Although I suppose some breakfast wouldn't come amiss."

"I'll have something sent up right away," Carmosa said. "And perhaps some porridge, if you think Perrault is up to eating?"

"I'll eat it if he doesn't." Just thinking of a hot bowl of porridge, rich with honey and a bit of cream, made Cinders's mouth water. Carmosa headed down the stairs while Cinders went back into the bedroom and laid her hand on Perrault's forehead; it was warm, but not feverish, and she allowed herself the smallest measure of relief.

He opened his eyes. "Cinders?"

"Good morning, love." She sat down on her stool. "How are you feeling?"

"As though I'd been torn to bits by demons, then put back together." He coughed, then grimaced, and Cinders reached for the water glass. "That's not far wrong, I suppose."

Cinders propped him up on the pillows and held the glass to his lips; he took several greedy swallows before she pulled it away. "Are you up to eating?" she asked. "Carmosa is having some porridge sent up."

"A little, perhaps." He glanced down at his hands -- the left, limp at his side, the right hidden under a mass of bandages. "I may need some help."

The words were spoken slowly, with great reluctance, and Cinders smiled inside. He was already feeling better, if he resisted her assistance. "Of course," she said, in as neutral a tone as she could muster. She gathered up his left hand in both of hers and turned to face him. "Whatever you need, my dearest, I am here."

He nodded and leaned back against the pillows, his eyes on hers. "Thank you," he murmured, and lifted their joined hands to his lips, which he brushed over the backs of her fingers. She tightened her grip and shivered at the thought of how close she had come to losing him. How easily it could still happen. But right now he was here, alive, his hand warm in hers, and so she moved in for a swift kiss.

"Morning." Cinders pulled back and saw Sophia in the door, steam rising from the bowl she carried. "Breakfast is served."

"Ah, good." Cinders waved Sophia inside. The porridge smelled delicious, but her greedy eyes fell on the cup of coffee that Sophia had in her other hand. "I'll take that."

Sophia handed them to her. "You want something else for yourself?"

"Maybe in a minute." Sophia nodded; Cinders took a long, grateful drink of the coffee -- milky and sweet, just the way she liked it -- before stirring the porridge and scooping up a small spoonful. She held it up and caught Perrault's eye. "Ready?"

His eyes flicked away from her, but he opened his mouth, looking for all the world like a baby bird. As Cinders fed him, the image persisted: Perrault as a wounded bird, but not a songbird or a sparrow. Something strong and fierce and noble, like a hawk or a falcon with one wing pinioned, unsure if it would ever fly again. He ate about half the bowl, then turned away. "Thank you," he said again. "Now, you should go find your own breakfast."

Cinders set the bowl on the floor next to her cooling coffee and smoothed his hair back. "I won't leave you."

He looked back at her, eyebrow raised. "Did you sleep at all last night? Or eat a proper meal?" Cinders shrugged, and Perrault smiled. "I thought so. It's all right, Cinders. I'm poor company right now, and you need to take care of yourself, too."

She sighed. She hated when he was right. And she also had to admit that the smell of frying meat from the kitchen was sending her into a state of rapture -- Perrault making it through the night had done wonders for her appetite. "You know me too well, love. All right. I'll have some breakfast if you take another dose of the pain medication. Is it a deal?"

"A fair bargain," he replied with another half smile, and she pulled the bottle off the dresser.

-x-


A hot fresh breakfast was waiting when Cinders came downstairs, along with all of the tasks she had neglected yesterday while tending to Perrault. One of the first things she had done when she came into her money was to hire enough servants to run the house properly, and Carmosa and Sophia both pitched in where they could, but there were still many things that only she, as head of the household, could take care of, such as settling bills and accounts that came due very soon. She also dealt with a disciplinary matter that had arisen among the staff, took stock of the medical supplies, dispatched a messenger to the healer in the next town over, and took the necessary steps to cancel a party she had scheduled for next week -- Gloria would be disappointed at the delay in her search for a husband, but Gloria could go jump in the lake as far as Cinders was concerned. Perrault was her top priority right now; everything else would just have to wait.

The small tasks piled up, and with one thing and another -- not to mention the two hour nap she took, to her chagrin, after dozing off at her desk in the study -- it was almost sundown by the time she was able to return to her room and check on Perrault. Though he seemed to be asleep, at the sound of her footfalls in the doorway he opened his eyes and turned to face her. "There you are." His voice was still rough, but stronger than it had been even that morning.

"Hello there," she replied, greeting him by taking his hand and kissing his forehead. "Feeling any better? I'm sorry to have been gone for the entire day." She sat down in her chair, not letting go of his hand.

He shook his head. "Don't worry yourself. I was well cared-for, by your stepsister and the servants under her direction. And I slept most of the time, anyway."

"My stepsister?" Cinders shook her head. "Then I should apologize double, at least -- Sophia may be clever, but she has a terrible bedside manner."

"It was Gloria, actually." Cinders eyebrows shot up in surprise, and Perrault responded with a wry smile. "And she was most kind, and helpful."

"Hm." This detail was too unexpected to absorb right now, so Cinders set it aside for later contemplation. "What can I do for you?"

"Nothing much for now, I'm afraid." He sighed and closed his eyes. "Every muscle aches, and I'm still exhausted -- I've spent so much of this day asleep already, and yet all I want is close my eyes and drift away."

Cinders squeezed his hand. "Sleep is what you need to heal," she said. "Although you should probably eat something first, if you're up for it. Some soup perhaps, and a little bread -- I requested both for my own dinner, which should be here shortly."

"Well, all right." The serving girl appeared in the door just as Perrault finished speaking, and Cinders blessed her competent staff.

The girl laid the tray on the corner table with a curtsey. "M'lady, Captain." Perrault grimaced at the use of the title; he hadn't been captain of the guard for too years, and hated the reminder of his less-than-voluntary retirement, but neither he nor Cinders had come up with a better form of address for the manor staff to use. "I'm glad to see you on the mend, sir."

Despite his discomfort, he acknowledged the well-wish with a nod, and she backed out of the doorway; meanwhile, Cinders went to pick up the bowl -- a hearty soup, made from the leftover venison, healthful and easy to eat, just as she had requested. "Here, let me help you."

"It smells wonderful." Perrault struggled up to a seated position. "I think I can manage, if you keep the bowl steady."

It was slow and awkward going -- Perrault was not practiced at eating with his left hand, and the bandage on his elbow hampered his movements, but in the end he did manage to finish half of the soup and several slices of bread. Cinders ate the rest of both, and the rest of the food that had been brought up. When they were both finished, she gathered up the dishes and got to work, changing his bandages and checking on his bindings -- everything seemed to be holding, and some of the smaller bruises were beginning to fade.

"Looks good," she said. "Do you want more painkiller?"

"In a little while." He flicked his eyes upward to her. "My mind grows muddled when I take it, and I find I want to spend a little more time with you, awake and alert." He reached his hand out and she took it again. "I am... not unaware that I've disrupted your entire household, not the least by taking over your bed. Where did you sleep last night?" Without meaning to, Cinders glanced at the chair, and he smiled ruefully. "I thought so, and you can't, Cinders. As I said this morning, you need to take just as much care for yourself as for me. It'll be no good for my recovery if I'm worrying about you, too."

"I-- all right." Cinders stepped away from the bed. "But I don't want to sleep apart from you, either. I'll have the trundle bed brought in."

Perrault glanced down at the space beside him. "Is there not enough room here?"

Cinders couldn't help but smile. He knew perfectly well, from ample experience, that they would both fit easily in her bed. "I can't imagine that would be comfortable for you right now, as much pain as you must be in."

He leaned his head sideways, eyes softening. "Less uncomfortable than being separated from you for another night."

A lump rose in Cinders's throat, all the tears she had been avoiding for the past day threatening to spring forth. "All right," she murmured. "For a little while, at least." Kicking off her shoes, she sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled back the covers, then rolled over into Perrault's side, careful not to jostle anything bruised or bandaged. "Is that all right?"

"Better than all right." He let out a soft sigh, bringing his left arm around her back to pull her closer. Her hand found a safe place on his chest, resting just beside his heart, and she nestled against him. "I don't know how to thank you."

"You still being alive is all the thanks I need," she whispered, closing her eyes and pressing her lips to his cheek. He turned his head and caught her mouth with his in a gentle caress, sharing the warmth of his breath as proof that he did, indeed, live another day.

"I love you," he said, softly. "And I hope I can still be the man you love, when all this is over."

Cinders touched their foreheads together. "Just live," she murmured. "Right now, that's all I ask."

"Then I shall do my best," he replied, kissing her again. "For both our sakes." She closed her eyes and rested her head next to his, as close as she dared, felt his warmth and nearness, and hoped their best would be enough.

-x-


Tired as she was, Cinders couldn't fall asleep -- she was too aware of Perrault and his fragility, too afraid of jostling him as she relaxed into unconsciousness. Still, she found it comforting to lie next to him, feel his warmth and the steady beating of his heart, watch him breathe. But eventually the grimace he made with each deep breath -- pain, most likely from the cracked ribs -- was too much for her to bear, and so she roused him enough for another dose of the poppy elixir. Then she called in two servants to drag in the old trundle bed from Sophia's room, just managing to change and wash her face before collapsing into it from pure exhaustion.

The next morning followed the pattern of the first -- sleeping in, feeding Perrault breakfast, finding some food of her own before dealing with the business of the house -- but noon brought an interruption: the arrival of the healer Cinders had summoned. She was an elderly woman, hunched over but spry, with a quick step and a gleam in her eye. More grandmotherly and less intimidating than Madame Ghede, but no less formidable in her own way.

The healer, who was called Mistress Giselle, undertook a thorough investigation of Perrault's injuries, much as Cinders had on the first day, unwrapping all the bandages and gently prodding at the broken bones. Perrault took it all in stoic silence until she reached his right shoulder; even a light touch there made him hiss with pain, and she backed away.

"Bad one, is it?" She shook her head and clucked her tongue. "Mindful I'll be, but I need to get a good sense of what's happened in there."

"Of course." Perrault's tone was calm, measured, only the slightest hitch in his breath betraying his nervous anticipation. "I'll do my best to lie still."

Mistress Giselle looked at him with sympathy. "You're a man used to taking your lumps and then being patched up, aren't you? I don't need the scars on your face to tell me that. Well, I'll be as quick as I can. Can't promise any gentleness, though."

Perrault let out a wheezy laugh. "Nor would I expect it."

"No." Her expression turned more thoughtful. "I suppose you wouldn't. Well then, dearie, won't you sit there with him while I take a look?"

This last was addressed to Cinders, who had stood at silent attention throughout the inspection. Now she responded to the order with a nod, taking the seat on Perrault's left side and threading her fingers through his.

"That's good, hold him steady. Now, let's see what there is to see." Giselle unwrapped the bindings that slung around his left armpit and over the chest to hold the shoulder and arm in place. The swelling had gone down, but only a little, and the hoof mark was as clear as ever, red with dried blood and bruised a deep purple. "Demons, that looks painful!"

"It is," Perrault bit out. "I felt the bone shatter when the horse landed on me. Not... pleasant. That's when I lost consciousness."

"And no wonder." Giselle checked over the entire shoulder and upper arm, her touch firm put swift; Perrault choked back a few gasps, and his grip on Cinders's hand grew tighter and tighter until her fingers went numb. She bit her lip and bore it -- whatever she was feeling, she was sure his pain was a thousand times worse. When Giselle had finished, she stood up and looked at Cinders. "You-- I presume it was you who tending the wounds? -- you did a fine job cleaning all the others, but it looks as though you didn't touch this one."

"No," Cinders admitted, with a swift glance at Perrault. "I was afraid to hurt him more."

Mistress Giselle clucked her tongue again. "You should have done it anyway. That's why we don't heal our own kin, you know. Hard to be as ruthless as you need to be, when your heart weeps for your patient's hurts." She patted Perrault's right hand. "Well, no harm done, I don't think, as long as I wash it out now. What did you use to clean his cuts?"

"Witch hazel and boiled water," Cinders said.

"A fine choice, if you don't have anything better," Giselle responded. "I have a stronger potion in my basket. How are you treating the pain? Poppy's milk?"

Cinders nodded. "Mixed with willow's bark."

"Ah, for the swelling." Mistress Giselle had already pulled out a small green bottle and a clean rag and began pouring a clear liquid on the cloth. "Someone's taught you well. Good thing -- your village has been without a decent healer since Madame Ghede left you."

Cinders couldn't help but smile. "It was Madame Ghede herself who taught me. Just a few things, right before she took off."

"That prince of yours was a fool to let her go." Giselle stoppered the bottle and set it aside, then looked straight at Perrault. "Smart as a whip, that woman, and one of the best healers I ever knew. If she taught Lady Cinders a few things, then you owe her you life."

"Twice over," Cinders said, with another fond look at Perrault, her eyes falling on his scarred cheek. He had never shared many of the details, but she knew that Madame Ghede had found him and healed him after the attack in which he got those scars. She wondered what kind of scars this battle would leave.

"All right, let's get this taken care of." Giselle nodded to Perrault. "Hold tight, my boy, this may sting a bit."

A spark of resentment crossed Perrault's expression at being called "boy", but it was quickly replaced by a wide-eyed gasp of agony as the healer touched her wetted cloth to the hoof-mark wound. His hand clamped down on Cinders's again; she used her other hand to gently keep him on the bed while Giselle finished her work. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back, panting. "What the devil was that?"

"Whiskey," the old woman replied calmly, folding the rag into a small square and dropping it back into her basket. "Sent through the still twice to pull out any impurities. It does, indeed, hurt like the devil, but nothing cleans a wound better. Anyway, it's done now, and we won't need to do it again, unless you go rolling in the muck. Let's bind up your arm again. Help me, would you dear?" Cinders did as she was asked, helping pull the linen around Perrault's back and over his shoulder, tying the arm back into place.

When they had finished, Mistress Giselle put away the rest of her things, then perched on the chair by the window. "Now, my boy, would you prefer the blunt analysis or some reassuring platitudes?"

Cinders had to chuckle -- this old woman was reminding her more of Ghede every minute. With Cinders's help, Perrault struggled up to a seated position and looked straight at her. "The truth, please."

"All right." Giselle leaned back into her seat. "You'll mend easily, I think -- believe it or not, most of the wounds are not that serious, and all were well tended. Fever remains a danger, it always is, but I'll leave tinctures and dressings with your young lady. I see no reason why you won't be up and around -- carefully, mind you -- within a week. But for the shoulder." She shook her head. "It's destroyed, and no mistake. I can't even guess how that mess will knit back together. If the damage were any lower down, I'd suggest taking the arm off right now, save you the trouble. But to amputate above the shoulder is risky, very risky. Safer, I think, to keep it tightly bound and take your chances with the fever. The choice is yours, of course. But this is my advice."

Perrault let out a breath, and a tension Cinders hadn't even noticed in the room before went with it. He had feared losing the arm, she realized, far more than he'd ever let on. "Then I will take your advice," he said. "Will it heal?"

"I won't lie to you, dear. Your odds of regaining full range of motion in that arm are slim indeed. You might get your grip back, if you're lucky, or some use of your elbow. But the shoulder itself?" She shrugged. "It would take a miracle beyond my abilities. I'm sorry."

He closed his eyes and leaned against the headboard, and for a long time, he was silent. When he opened them again, he looked older than before. Tired, world-weary. "I understand," he replied, quietly. "Thank you for your assistance."

"Yes." Cinders went to Mistress Giselle's side and helped her stand. "Thank you for coming all this way. Please, let me see you out." She led the old woman out the door and down the stairs, talking about next steps all the way into the hall, where the butler was waiting with Giselle's wrap and payment. Cinders took a basket containing all the remedies that had been described to her, then paused before opening the door. "Are you sure you won't stay the night?"

"No thank you, dear, I have a room at the inn in town."

"All right." Cinders looked at the healer, and she looked back with clear blue eyes. "Is it true, what you said? Is the arm truly hopeless? Is he going to heal?"

"I believe so." Mistress Giselle patted Cinders on the hand. "He may not seem so to your young eyes, but Captain Perrault is still near the prime of his life, and in good health. He'll mend all right, near good as new -- excepting, of course, the right arm. As for that, well." She shrugged. "I've seen stouter men break from a hurt like that, and weaker men step up to the challenge. You never know which it will be. But he'll have your help and support, and that often makes the difference."

The butler opened the door and Mistress Giselle left, trundling down the pathway into the forest, the young man who had escorted her from the village walking by her side. Cinders watched her go, then turned back into the house where Sophia waited, book loose in her hand. "How was it?" she asked.

"I'll tell you later," Cinders replied, and started her way back up the stairs. In the hallway outside her room, she paused with her hand on the doorknob. She didn't want to leave Perrault alone to digest news of this magnitude, but what if he preferred it that way? He had spent so much of his life alone that solitude came naturally to him -- even now, he kept a room at a boardinghouse in town and often spent nights there. Would he want to talk, or take some time alone to think?

There was only one way to know for sure. Cinders took a deep breath and pushed the door open, letting it close behind her. Perrault had not moved, still sitting up against the pillowed headboard, staring out the window, face blank.

"Perrault? Love?" Cinders took a step closer, the silence thick between them. When he did not reply or even move, she forged ahead. "Do you want company, or--"

He turned his head on the pillow to face her. "Company, no. You, yes. Please stay." She started toward him, but he looked away again, and so she settled into the chair by the window instead. And so they sat together, but it was not the quiet companionship they usually shared; instead the air was heavy with worries, fears, things unsaid. When he finally spoke again, his eyes stayed focused outside the window. "You always know of this possibility, when you live a warrior's life. It lurks at the back of your mind, popping out when you least expect it: the fear that someday you may take a blow from which you will never recover. But you never truly believe that it will happen to you."

Cinders shook her head. "Don't give up all hope," she said. "You might still recover."

"You heard the healer just as well as I." Perrault turned again to face her, his eyes shuttered. "It would take a miracle."

"Stranger things have happened," Cinders replied, leaning forward to rest her hand on the foot of the bed. "Like a kitchen maid dressed in rags gaining the favor of the prince, the friendship of the richest man in town, and the heart of the mysterious and dashing captain of the guard." That was enough to earn her a crooked smile, and she moved to sit beside him, taking his free hand. "So you'll understand if I'm not ready to give up on you yet." She brought his hand to her lips and kissed the back of his fingers, pressing them tightly against her mouth, then resting them on her cheek. "We're in this together, whatever comes next."

"Cinders." His voice was rough, choked; his dark brown eyes focused on her like a falcon ready to swoop down on its prey. He tugged at their joined hands to draw her close enough for a kiss, claiming her mouth with his. His hand came around the back of her neck and then was up into her hair while she stroked his cheek, rough with two days of stubble. Her lips parted at his unspoken request, coming closer to taste his breath, responding to the call of his tongue with a stroke of her own. He pulled away, laid his hand on the side of her face, and touched their foreheads together. "Cinders, I--" With a slow exhale, he took her hand again and placed it on his chest, covering his heart, then wove their fingers together. "I need you. Now. Please."

"You..." Cinders lifted her head to confirm from the hunger in his eyes that he was asking what she thought he was asking. "Can you?"

"I don't know if I can." Perrault tightened his fingers on hers. "I only know that I must."

Cinders bit her lip. "I... I want to." Very much, she realized; just at the suggestion, she could feel the warmth of desire spreading through her whole body. She had almost lost him, and she still might; she ached to be with him, to feel him within her, around her. She traced his jaw with her free hand and lowered her eyes. "But I'm afraid I might hurt you."

"I trust you to be careful," Perrault replied, and he let her hand go to tip up her chin, forcing her to meet his bright gaze. "It's worth the risk."

She took a deep breath and let it out, slow, shuddering. And then showed her agreement with a kiss, longer and harder and slower than the last, exploring every corner of his mouth as he dragged her hand down, under the covers and to his smalls, cock hard and warm beneath the thin cloth, already straining for her touch. In response, she pulled the undergarment down and let him spring free, then wrapped her fingers around him.

A few light strokes, and then she pulled away, their eyes still locked together as she stripped off her skirts, her petticoat, her hose, and loosened the laces of her corset. Perrault reached to her, and she reached back, throwing the quilt onto the floor before climbing back on the bed, kneeling over him, one leg on either side of his hips. She had straddled him a few times before, so she was already familiar with the angle she would have to take to guide him inside her. But she moved with care, lest she jostle the right arm or the bandaged ribs, easing herself down on him with an almost agonizing slowness.

He moaned and his hand came around to rest on the small of her back, and she brought both palms up to frame his face. She leaned in and touched her lips to his, and he responded fiercely, pressing back, hard, tongue in her mouth, fingers splayed across her back. Still slow, still careful, she began to rock in his lap, sliding up and down his cock at a steady pace, then picking up speed to match the rhythm of his kiss. He lifted his hips to meet hers, and she buried her face in his neck, stroking his pulse with her lips, tasting the salt on his skin, twining her fingers into his hair. Perrault groaned her name, and Cinders murmured his in return, then pushed him as deep and hard inside her as she dared. He gasped, and then the tremors took him, his body shaking with release as she held him up, kept him steady.

They sat together for a long while, Cinders still balanced in Perrault's lap but letting her knees take her weight rather than his hips; his arm tightened around her back, then reached up to stroke her hair, which had come loose from its chignon some time back. "My love," he murmured, his breath warm on her neck, a catch in his voice. "I-- I am so afraid."

"I know." Cinders kissed his brow, his scarred cheek, the side of his nose. "But you won't go through this alone. No matter what. I swear it." She felt his nod of acknowledgement, and she shifted off of him to snuggle into his left side. He sighed again and fell back against the headboard, his arm coming around her back and pulling her tight. After a few minutes, she felt his grip loosen, and she shifted around to see that he had fallen into a light sleep, his lips parted, his breathing slow and heavy. Cinders smiled and pushed aside the lock of hair that had fallen into his face. Instead of waking him for more medicine, she eased him back down to lie flat on the bed, arranging his head on the pillow and pulling the quilt back over him. Then, after putting her skirts back on and making a minimal effort to fix her disheveled hair, she settled down in the chair, taking her watch once again.

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