Part II of this. Continued crash course in growing up, with some more unlikely teachers (“some more”, that is, not “more unlikely”).
We got up very early and went to the hospital, leaving Father on Fig Tree Square with the team of bearers, while Baradar went the other way to take up his position on the wall. At the gatehouse a woman asked us what we were there for. Wasn’t that clear? “To help,” we said, and she sent us to a room to wash and scrub, and then to the next room to put on clean white clothes– one thing, really, a sort of shift with short sleeves that ended just above the knees. It made me feel as if I was in my underclothes, and Zendegî was even more uncomfortable because it exposed her legs but covered her stomach, the opposite of what she was used to. But it looked as if we’d be able to work in it, and change it easily for a fresh one if we got too much blood on it. Then the woman told us to go to Room 12 with Doctor Serla, we were assigned to her, and should do everything she told us. She went into the next room murmuring a prayer, and I thought that was a good idea, so I took Zendegî’s hand and said the Invocations with her as Vauri had done with both of us, teaching her the words and thinking of the sense.
Doctor Serla turned out to be the one who’d received us in the gatehouse the first time we were in the hospital– really only the day before yesterday? There were also two young men there, boiling bandages in a large pan. They were Orin and Eldan, Serla said, “and they work very hard when they’re not in one bed together”. First we had to hang the bandages to dry on a line, with the loops as long as possible without touching the floor, and after that our job would be to clean anything that got dirty, and sweep everything off the floor that got on it. That sounded easy enough. And then Serla gave us that look –both of us, this time– and said “you two can help me with something else, the boys aren’t any use to me for that, come here for a moment please?” and then she showed us how to hold her by the hips, one on each side, “I may need that when I have to do something very hard, and I’ll do something to you that I can’t explain yet, and you may –no, you will– pass out from it but it won’t hurt you.” That sounded scary but it was clear that she was depending on us for whatever it was, and if the doctor said it wouldn’t hurt us she was probably right, and we’d said we’d do everything she told us, so I nodded cautiously and so did Zendegî.
It was mid-morning by now, and all we could do was wait. It was very quiet in the whole hospital, almost spookily quiet. Serla counted on her fingers, “one hour to the palace, two back with the wounded, they’ll be held up in the streets, we can expect the first in four hours”. I don’t know if we waited four hours, but suddenly the wounded came streaming in and we scrubbed and swept and mopped and got blood everywhere, up to our eyebrows. Occasionally someone brought us a cup of tea, which we drank standing up, and when our clothes were completely soaked with blood we went to the wash-room to clean up and get a new smock but they’d run out already so we had to rinse it and wring it out and put it on again, dripping pinkly.
It must already have been late in the afternoon when Serla suddenly asked: “Girls? Will you ever want to bear children?” “Er, yes?” I said, because I didn’t get the point. “Do you think that women should be able to bear children if they want to?” “Yes, of course,” we both said, and then Serla called us to assist her as she’d shown, because she was stitching up a woman’s belly with a deep sword-cut in it. We put our hands on her hips, and I felt a stream of –well, it was most like warmth– run through me, and the next I knew I was sitting against the wall in the only clear space by the door of the room, and Zendegî too, and Serla between us, with our butts in the blood that we hadn’t been able to mop up because we’d fainted.
Someone was giving us food and tea. It turned out to be Jilan with his arm bandaged and in a sling, and a bandage on his head, but still grinning. “I didn’t get to wash you!” I said. “No, Zendegî washed me.” He pointed to a bed across the room, “My enemy is here too. He’s worse off than me. We’re sharing a bed but I can walk so I don’t want to be in it with him.”
Serla sent us home then, and Jilan with us, to make room for someone else in the bed with his enemy. As we stripped our bloody clothes off a group of people arrived who Zendegî knew: they were her neighbours, or at least her master’s neighbours, boys and girls from the brothel. “They’ve asked us to come and help,” they said. And they had news for Zendegî: the neighbourhood had been taken and had become part of Valdyas. Master Nakhast was home again, and very angry because he’d had to free all his slaves by decree of Queen Raisse and pay them their manumission money. “Oh dear,” Zendegî said, “and he’s had to pay back the theft, too!” She was so absorbed in the hospital work that she wouldn’t be going back to her master for a while anyway, so she could put it away to think about later.
It was completely dark, which surprised me a little because I hadn’t actually see it getting dark. The hospital was lit with candles and oil-lamps, so we’d been able to work even when it was dark outside. Father wasn’t there when we got home, nor Baradar, or any of the guests, only Khahar and my little brothers and sisters. Khahar took me by the arm the moment we came in. “Parandé! Listen, I’m a widow, and you’re the woman of the house now, are you going to turn me out?” “Sister,” I said, “who would take care of the little ones if I turned you out? I’ve been thinking of going away to learn, and even if I don’t I have my work here.” And only then it dawned on me what it meant that Khahar was a widow: Baradar was dead! My brother Arin, who had become so Iss-Peranian lately but still mussed my hair when he came home. I was too tired to cry for him. “Did they storm the walls?” I asked, but it wasn’t that, it had been a stupid fire-arrow mowing down five watchmen at once. “And what about her?” Khahar asked, and pointed to someone lying on a pallet, her head bandaged: Alyse! “She’s Father’s woman now, it seems, and if she dies, you’ll think I’ve done it, of course!” “No,” I said, “you wouldn’t do that. If she dies, the enemy will have killed her, not you.” “Promise? Promise that you won’t think it?” And I had to promise with all the proper forms until she was satisfied, though it hadn’t even occurred to me that Khahar might want to kill Alyse when she was recovering in our house.
I think we ate. I think we slept. I’m sure we washed, because I lent Zendegî a clean white shift and put on another myself, rolling up the sleeves so it was rather like the nurses’ smocks. Jilan wanted to come along, but he was delirious and we didn’t dare move him, so I told Khahar to take care of him– it does have some advantages, being the woman of the house. “I hope those whores of yours have done the laundry,” I said to Zendegî, but when we got to the hospital it turned out that they’d washed the bedsheets, the towels, and even the bandages, but left the clothes completely alone. Good thing I’d had two white shifts left– though those were all I had, and we’d have to borrow some from Khahar if we wanted clean clothes tomorrow.
This day was like the first day, only worse. And there were more days like those, two weeks of days, though after a while we didn’t count days or hours or weeks any more, just worked until we dropped and went home to sleep and go back to work and start again. It must have been on that second day that Orin or Eldan called all of us helpers to the courtyard and said “Okay, this is when you learn to dress and check wounds,” and showed us a man with a leg sliced open from groin to ankle. “This is a wound. We can’t stitch it, so we have to bind it closed.” And he demonstrated it with a large roll of bandage, and told us what to look for (skin turning black; then the whole leg would have to be cut off) and how often to look for it (“every time you want to take a piss, check your patients first and help them if they need it, then forget to take a piss because you won’t have time for it”). I used my new knowledge on Jilan that evening, and he did have a fever but fortunately his skin wasn’t turning black.
Jilan’s enemy died, and about half the people brought into the hospital died; some died in my arms, some died crying on me, women died after they’d called me their daughter, men died making moony eyes at Zendegî and even at me, soldiers hardly older than us died. “Anybody who thinks war is glorious is mistaken,” Serla said. “Not on the battlefield, not behind the lines. And anybody who thinks only the people on the battlefield have it hard, should come and work here for a while.”
One day a young harassed-looking priest of Mizran came along with a long paper box, and Doctor Ruyin was elated: “The wax candles! Come!” and took Serla and Vauri and their attendants (us, among others) to a room that had silvered glass walls on all sides, and lit candles, so it was brighter than day, and we were in there a night and a day and another night, as long as the candles lasted, cutting and stitching and bandaging. The first patient there was a very beautiful young man with a bright face, great shoulders, a chest to die for, and wounds in his belly that he was going to die of; Serla and Ruyin tried all they could, but at one point Ruyin shook his head and Serla tapped the young man on the cheek, “Arin!” and gave him a kiss that he would have remembered all his life even if he’d lived. He died before the kiss was finished– I saw the life go out of him. “The queen taught me that,” Serla said, “that you shouldn’t give people false hope, but give them what they need, let them die happy if they can’t live. He’s had a crush on me for the last four years, now it’s time to indulge it.”
All the buildings in Orange Blossom Square were being taken over by the hospital, the former bath-house and royal palace, the weigh-house, even the Temple of Mizran. That explained the look on the priest’s face. I saw Father every so often, bringing in more and more wounded from the fighting, and I think I heard someone in his team call him ‘captain’– I wonder if he was ever a soldier.
One evening, or perhaps it was a morning, Zendegî and I were sitting at home with Jilan who was so much better that he’d be off to the Order house that same day to recover completely. I’d had bad dreams, perhaps because I was exhausted, and was worrying about all the people who seemed to want to get me in their hands, and suddenly I didn’t feel safe at all. “Perhaps I should go away,” I said, “to the west? Where the king and the witch are, so I can learn there?” “Not to the west,” Jilan said, “you can’t get a ship, and if you wanted to walk to where the king is you’d have to walk half a year and be dead before you were halfway there. No, if you want to go away, I’d say north.” “You mean to Valdyas? –Zendegî,” I said, “if I do go to Valdyas, and your parents can do without you, will you come with me?” I was very sure that we belonged together, that neither of us would be able to use her gifts properly without the other. “I’m sure there are jewellers there that you could learn from.” Zendegî looked thoughtful for a while, then nodded, “Yes.” “The best silversmiths are in Ildis,” Jilan said, “but that’s a nest of the Nameless.” And then he wanted us to change his bandage and wash the wound that was closing at last, and we didn’t talk about it any more but it had started me thinking.
Serla was on the bench in the gate-house when we arrived and made us sit next to her. “I want to show you both something, but only if you become my apprentices,” she said, and added hurriedly, “In the Guild of Anshen, I mean, not in doctoring.” I’d intended to become an apprentice in the Guild of Anshen anyway, so I consented at once, and Zendegî wasn’t much behind me. She drew us close to her and said, “I could show you what the city looks like from above as if you were a bird, or how to lock a door so nobody can get in our out unless you allow them,” –this made me snigger– “or how to call your friend on the other end of the city and ask her to come and look at your new clothes, but what I want to show you is what I did when you helped me on the first day of war. Look.” And then she pitched us –or at least me, I don’t know what it looked like to Zendegî– headlong into that operation, but this time I could see or feel the power flowing out of me, and Zendegî, from us to Serla, to make the ruined flesh whole under her hands. “She’ll live, and she’ll bear children if she wants to, because you allowed me to use your strength as well as mine.” And she explained –probably the first lesson, then– that using your gifts needs power, and that power is all around us and we can usually just get it from the air, but sometimes if you have to do something really demanding getting the power from the air as well is too much, and it’s good to have someone who will freely give you their power because that’s already been gotten from the air, like vegetables cut up in a bowl instead of in the ground all sandy. “You could take it from someone who doesn’t give it freely,” she said, “but then you’d belong with the Nameless.”
One day when we were home Zendegî’s parents were there and told us that the war was going well, that they’d had the note Zendegî had thrown over the wall and had Master Nakhast’s former slave-boy read it to them, so they hadn’t been worried. They’d had to flee and hide while there was fighting in their street, but that was gone now, thank the gods. “And we’ve eaten of the salted turnip,” Zendegî’s mother said, “it was very good, thank you!” They hadn’t just come to make compliments, but to ask a favour: now that the palace had been taken, they’d like for someone to find out what had happened to Zendegî’s elder sister. Zendegî promised to try, but she couldn’t promise to do it soon, of course, because she didn’t know when she’d have time for anything except hospital work again.
We heard from everybody that the war was going well, but that didn’t mean the work was any less. Now that we were Serla’s apprentices she kept us close to her, letting us help her rather than doing the general rounds as often as she could get away with. And then a man was brought in on a stretcher that could barely hold him, a giant of an Iss-Peranian man, his chest completely crushed by a large piece of masonry. Serla had him laid on her work-table and called us to help her, laid her hands on him, and then her own lungs seized up and she collapsed and died, just like that. The woman whose life and womb she’d saved went into hysterics, and I ran to her side to have something useful to do and tried to calm her, and I think Zendegî ran to get Doctor Ruyin because he was there the next moment, and also Hinla, who slapped the woman’s face and told her to pull herself together.
We didn’t have a master any more. We’d had one for, what, three days? Perhaps four. And she’d taught us more about using our gifts than we’d learned in the twelve or thirteen years before that. “Can’t we go to the Temple with her?” I asked. “Seeing that we were her apprentices.” But that couldn’t be, Doctor Ruyin said, only if you were someone’s child or parent or sibling, or married to them, or, as the priestesses didn’t keep to the rules so strictly with the war, if you’d slept with them. “I need you to do something else,” he said. “We need more bandages, and willow-bark, and ginger, and purified pine resin, though I doubt if there’s any of that left in this city.” So we went to find all of those things, fully aware that we’d been sent away. Zendegî knew of a medicine-seller, surprisingly in my own street, who had everything except the bandages, even the pine resin.
And then, all of a sudden, the fighting was over. There were still a lot of patients, of course, but there weren’t any new ones coming in, and even with one doctor less the work was manageable now. Doctor Vauri sent us home, “take a day off, wash your clothes, sleep as much as you need, you deserve it!” But when we got home I found Khahar slumped over the table, all limp and exhausted. She was pitifully thin, too– surely I should have noticed that! While I was taking care of people I didn’t even know, my own sister-in-law wasn’t taking care of herself. I tried to get her to say what was wrong, but all she said was “nothing” and I didn’t believe that! She roused herself, got the pan of cold gruel and divided it between me and Zendegî, but I wouldn’t have any of that either, I put it back together and cut it into three parts. “You should eat something,” I said. “I can’t have you starving, who will look after the little ones?”
When I went out to get washing-water a little boy came up to me with a small loaf of bread in a cloth, “it’s for the mistress!” A girl came next with a head of lettuce, and more children, one even with a small chicken. “She helped our mam so well when our dad went off to fight and didn’t come back, now we’re helping her!” So Khahar had been helping other widows and their children, and she was too proud to tell me! I went to cook the chicken, never mind the washing, I think Zendegî did that eventually. I did try to talk to Khahar again, so much that I burned the chicken on one side and had to throw the skin to a passing cat, but the meat was all right and I took it off the bones and fed it to Khahar piece by piece. “They all love you!” I said. “All the widows and their kids. They’ve brought all of this for you because now they want to help you!” But she didn’t respond, though she ate. I wished I could really do something for her, but I didn’t know what. Perhaps she should really get together with the other widows so they could make a pact to help each other, but I don’t think I could organise that.