Passage from Chapter One of Lord of Emperors
Rustem of Kerakek, son of Zorah, sat cross-legged on the woven Ispahani mat he used for teaching. He was reading, occasionally glancing up to observe his four students as they carefully copied from one of his precious texts. Merovius on cataracts was the current matter; each student had a different page to transcribe. They would exchange them day by day until all of them had a copy of the treatise. Rustem was of the view that the ancient Trakesian’s western approach was to be preferred in treatment of most-though not all-issues relating to the eye.
Through the window that overlooked the dusty roadway a breeze entered the room. It was mild as yet, not unpleasant, but Rustem could feel a storm in it. The sands would be blowing. In the village of Kerakek, below the fortress, the sand got into everything when the wind came from the desert. They were used to it, the taste in their food, the gritty feel in their clothing and bedsheets, in their own intimate places.
From behind the students, in the arched interior doorway that led to the family quarters, Rustem heard a slight rustling sound; he glimpsed a shadow on the floor. Shaski had arrived at his usual post beyond the beaded curtain, and would be waiting for the more interesting part of the afternoon lessons to begin. His son, at seven years of age, showed both patience and a fierce determination. A little less than a year ago he’d begun dragging a small mat of his own from his bedroom to a position just outside the teaching room. He would sit cross-legged upon it, spending as much of the afternoon as he was allowed listening through the curtain as his father gave instruction. If taken away by his mothers or the household servants he would find his way back to the corridor as soon as he could escape.
Rustem’s two wives were both of the view that it was inappropriate for a small child to listen to explicit details of bloody wounds and bodily fluxes, but the physician found the boy’s interest amusing and had negotiated with his wives to allow Shaski to linger outside the door if his own lessons and duties had been fulfilled. The students seemed to enjoy the boy’s unseen presence in the hallway as well, and once or twice they’d invited him to voice an answer to his father’s questions.
There was something endearing, even to a careful, reserved man, in a seven-year-old proclaiming, as was required, ‘With this affliction I will contend,’ and then detailing his proposed treatment of an inflamed, painful toe or cough with blood and loose matter in it. The interesting thing, Rustem thought, idly stroking his neat, pointed beard, was that Shaski’s answers were very often to the point. He’d even had the boy answer a question once to embarrass a student caught unprepared after a night’s drinking, though later that evening he’d regretted doing so. Young men were entitled to visit taverns now and again. It taught them about the lives and pleasures of common men, kept them from aging too soon. A physician needed to be aware of the nature of people and their weaknesses and not be harsh in his judgement of ordinary folly. Judgement was for Perun and Anahita.
The feel of his own beard reminded him of a thought he’d had the night before: it was time to dye it again. He wondered if it was still necessary to be streaking the light brown with grey. When he’d returned from Ispahani and the Ajbar Islands four years ago, settling in his home town and opening a physician’s practice and a school, he’d considered it prudent to gain a measure of credibility by making himself look older. In the east, the Ispahani physician-priests would lean on walking sticks they didn’t need, gain weight deliberately, dole out words in measured cadences or with eyes focused on inward visions, all to present the desired image of dignity and success.
There had been some real presumption in a man of twenty-seven putting himself forward as a teacher of medicine at an age when many were just beginning their studies. Indeed, two of his pupils that first year had been older than he was. He wondered if they’d known it.
After a certain point, though, didn’t your practice and your teaching speak for themselves? In Kerakek, here on the edge of the southern deserts, Rustem was respected and even revered by the villagers, and he had been summoned often to the fortress to deal with injuries and ailments among the soldiers, to the anger and chagrin of a succession of military doctors. Students who wrote to him and then came this far for his teaching-some of them even Sarantine Jad-worshippers, crossing the border from Amoria-were unlikely to turn around and go away when they discovered that Rustem of Kerakek was no ancient sage but a young husband and father who happened to have a gift for medicine and to have read and travelled more widely than most.
Perhaps. Students, or potential students, could be unpredictable in various ways, and the income Rustem made from teaching was necessary for a man with two wives now and two children-especially with both women wanting another baby in the crowded house. Few of the villagers of Kerakek were able to pay proper physician’s fees, and there was another practitioner-for whom Rustem had an only marginally disguised contempt-in the town to divide what meagre income was to be gleaned here. On the whole, it might be best not to disturb what seemed to be succeeding. If streaks of grey in his beard reassured even one or two possible pupils or military officials up in the castle (where they did tend to pay), then using the dye was worth it, he supposed.
Rustem looked out the window again. The sky was darker now beyond his small herb garden. If a real storm came, the distraction and loss of light would undermine his lessons and make afternoon surgery difficult. He cleared his throat. The four students, used to the routine, put down their writing implements and looked up.
Rustem nodded and the one nearer the outer door crossed to open it and admit the first patient from the covered portico where they had been waiting.
He tended to treat patients in the morning and teach after the midday rest, but those villagers least able to pay would often consent to be seen by Rustem and his students together in the afternoons as part of the teaching process. Many were flattered by the attention, some made uncomfortable, but it was known in Kerakek that this was a way of gaining access to the young physician who had studied in the mystical east and returned with secrets of the hidden world.
The woman who entered now, standing hesitantly by the wall where Rustem hung his herbs and shelved the small pots and linen bags of medicines, had a cataract growth in her right eye. Rustem knew it; he had seen her before and made the assessment. He prepared in advance, and whenever the ailments of the villagers allowed, offered his students practical experience and observations to go with the treaties they memorized and copied. It was of little use, he was fond of saying, to learn what al-Hizari said about amputation if you didn’t know how to use a saw.
He had also seen enough of violent death and desperate, squalid pain that summer to decide to return home to his wife and the small child he had scarcely seen before leaving for the east. This house and garden at the edge of the village, and then another wife and a girl-child, had followed upon his return. The small boy he’d left behind was now seven years old and sitting on a mat outside the door of the medical chambers, listening to his father’s lectures.
And Rustem the physician still dreamt in the blackness of some nights of a battlefield in the east, remembering himself cutting through the limbs of screaming men beneath the smoky, uncertain light of torches in wind as the sun went down on a massacre. He remembered black fountains of blood, being drenched, saturated in the hot gout and spray of it, clothing, face, hair, arms, chest… becoming a creature of dripping horror himself, hands so slippery he could scarcely grip his implements to saw and cut and cauterize, the wounded coming and coming to them endlessly, without surcease, even when night fell.
There were worse things than a village practice in Bassania, he had decided the next morning, and he had not wavered since, though ambition would sometimes rise up within him and speak otherwise, seductive and dangerous as a Kabadh courtesan. Rustem had spent much of his adult life trying to appear older than he was. He wasn’t old, though. Not yet. Had wondered, more than once, in the twilight hours when such thoughts tended to arrive, what he could do if opportunity and risk came knocking.
Looking back, afterwards, he couldn’t remember if there was a knock that day. The whirlwind speed of what ensued had been very great, and he might have missed it. It seemed to him, however, that the outside door had simply banged open, without warning, nearly striking the patient waiting by the wall, as booted soldiers came striding in, filling the quiet room to bursting with the chaos of the world.
Rustem knew one of them, the leader: he had been stationed in Kerakek a long time. The man’s face was distorted now, eyes dilated, fevered-looking. His voice, when he spoke, rasped like a woodcutter’s saw. He said, ‘You are to come! Immediately! To the fortress!’
‘There has been an accident?’ Rustem asked from his mat, keeping his own voice modulated, ignoring the peremptory tone of the man, trying to reestablish calm with his own tranquillity. This was part of a physician’s training, and he wanted his students to see him doing it. Those coming to them were often agitated; a doctor could not be. He took note that the soldier had been facing east when he spoke his first words. A neutral omen. The man was of the warrior caste, of course, which would be either good or bad, depending on the caste of the afflicted person. The wind was north: not good, but no birds could be seen or heard through the window, which counterbalanced that, somewhat.
‘An accident! Yes!’ cried the soldier, no calm in him at all. ‘Come! It is the King of Kings! An arrow!’
Poise deserted Rustem like conscripted soldiers facing Sarantine cavalry. One of his students gasped in shock. The woman with the afflicted eye collapsed to the floor in an untidy, wailing heap. Rustem stood up quickly, trying to order his racing thoughts. Four men had entered. An unlucky number. The woman made five. Could she be counted, to adjust the omens?
Even as he swiftly calculated auspices, he strode to the large table by the door and snatched his small linen bag. He hurriedly placed several of his herbs and pots inside and took his leather case of surgical implements. Normally he would have sent a student or a servant ahead with the bag, to reassure those in the fortress and to avoid being seen rushing out-of-doors himself, but this was not a circumstance that allowed for ordinary conduct. It is the King of Kings!
Rustem became aware that his heart was pounding. He struggled to control his breathing. He felt giddy, light-headed. Afraid, in fact. For many reasons. It was important not to show this. Claiming his walking stick, he slowed deliberately and put a hat on his head. He turned to the soldier. Carefully facing north, he said, ‘I am ready. We can go.’
The four soldiers rushed through the doorway ahead of him. Pausing, Rustem made an effort to preserve some order in the room he was leaving. Bharai, his best student, was looking at him.
‘You may practise with the surgical tools on vegetables, and then on pieces of wood, using the probes,’ Rustem said. ‘Take turns evaluating each other. Send the patients home. Close the shutters if the wind rises. You have permission to build up the fire and use oil for sufficient light.’
‘Master,’ said Bharai, bowing.
Rustem followed the soldiers out the door.
He paused in the garden and, facing north again, feet together, he plucked three shoots of bamboo. He might need them for probes. The soldiers were waiting impatiently in the roadway, agitated and terrified. The air pulsed with anxiety. Rustem straightened, murmured his prayer to Perun and the Lady and turned to follow them. As he did, he observed Katyun and Jarita at the front door of the house. There was fear in their eyes: Jarita’s were enormous, even seen at a distance. She stared at him silently, leaning against Katyun for support, holding the baby. One of the soldiers must have told the women what was happening.
He gave them both a reassuring nod and saw Katyun nod calmly back as she put her arm around Jarita’s shoulders. They would be all right. If he came back.
He went through the small gate into the road, taking his first step with his right foot, glancing up for any signs among the birds. None to be seen: they had all taken shelter from the rising wind. No omens there. He wished there hadn’t been four soldiers sent. Someone ought to have known better. Little to be done about that now, however. He would burn incense at the fortress, in propitiation. Rustem gripped his stick and struggled to present an appearance of equanimity. He didn’t think he was succeeding. The King of Kings. An arrow.
He stopped abruptly in the dusty road.
And in the moment he did so, cursing himself for a fool, preparing to go back to the treatment rooms, knowing how very bad an omen that would be, he heard someone speak from behind him.
‘Papa,’ said a small voice.
Rustem turned and saw what his son was holding in both hands. His heart stopped for a moment then, or it felt as though it did. He swallowed, with sudden difficulty. Forced himself to take another deep breath, standing very still now just outside the gate.
‘Yes, Shaski,’ he said quietly. He looked at the small boy in the garden and a strange calm descended upon him. His students and the patients watched in a knotted cluster from the portico, the soldiers from the roadway, the women from the other doorway. The wind blew.
‘The man said . . .he said an arrow, Papa.’
And Shaski extended his two small hands, offering his father the implement he’d carried out into the yard.
‘He did say that, didn’t he?’ said Rustem gravely. ‘I should take that with me then, shouldn’t I?’
Shaski nodded his head. His small form straight, dark brown eyes serious as a priest’s with an offering. He is seven years old, Rustem thought. Anahita guard him.
He went back through the wooden gate, and he bent and took the slender instrument in its leather sheath from the boy. He had brought it back from Ispahani, a parting gift from his teacher there.
The soldier had indeed said there was an arrow. Rustem felt a sudden quite unexpected desire to lay a hand upon the head of his son, on the dark brown, curling hair, to feel the warmth, and the smallness. It had to do, of course, with the fact that he might not come back from the fortress. This might be a farewell. One could not decline to treat the King of Kings, and depending on where the arrow had lodged. . .
Shaski’s expression was so intense, it was as if he actually had some preternatural apprehension of this. He couldn’t, of course, but the boy had just saved him from the terrible auspice of having to re-enter the treatment room after walking out and taking his bamboo reeds, or sending someone back in for him.
Rustem found that he was unable to speak. He looked down at Shaski for another moment, then glanced over at his wives. There was no time to say anything to them either. The world had entered through his doorway, after all. What was to be had long ago been written.
Rustem turned and went quickly back out through the gate and then with the soldiers up the steep road in the north wind that was blowing. He didn’t look back, knowing the omen attached to that, but he was certain that Shaski was still standing there and watching him, alone in the garden now, straight as a spear, small as a reed by a riverbank.
© Guy Gavriel Kay