"How is the eggling?" Tak-Saleed’s voice betrayed no special concern as he looked down at the unconscious Afsan, lying flat on his belly on a marble surgical table, the youngster’s head stretched out so that the bottom of his jaw was against the cold stone.
Most denizens of Capital City had left to enjoy the spoils of the hunt — more thunderbeast meat than many of them had ever seen in one place. But Saleed, giant and ancient, was too old and too slow to go so far for a meal. One couldn’t unequivocally interpret his having stayed behind as showing any particular worry about his fallen apprentice, and yet he had come here, come to the hospital, where those trained in medicine did what they could for the hunters who had been injured during the day’s spectacular kill.
Unfortunately they couldn’t do much. Oh, they cleansed wounds with water. Some lacerations were wrapped with leather. Broken bones were braced with splints. Mangled extremities were cut off with twist-saws so that they could be regenerated. The saws were different from the cleavers Pal-Cadool used; these wrenched and tore so that blood vessels would seal. With a simple severing, a Quintaglio would bleed to death.
But, excepting bruises and minor cuts, Afsan’s limbs were intact. His injuries were internal, to the head and torso. It was known that the sap of certain plants could relieve infections, that holding a makaloob root in the mouth might reduce nausea, that the venom from some lizards if applied in moderation could deaden pain. But to rouse one knocked unconscious, one who’d had a ladle of blood spill from his right earhole, one who even now breathed shallowly — that was a matter beyond doctor or priest.
Saleed switched from looking down his wrinkled muzzle at Afsan to facing the doctor, Dar-Mondark. Mondark seemed deep in thought, working his lower jaw backwards and forwards, the clicking made by pointed teeth passing over each other an audible indication of his cogitation. At last he answered Saleed’s question. "He has been unconscious since they brought him back from the site of the kill. His shoulder took the brunt of his fall — see the bruising there? — and we have shifted his shoulder blade back to where it should be. But the side of his head was also banged severely. We tried placing halbataja leaves on his brow. That helps about one time in twenty, but there was no response."
Mondark knew more about the inner workings of the Quintaglio body than anyone else. For kilodays, he had been dissecting cadavers, trying to understand what each organ was for and how it worked; why extremities could regenerate, but eyes, for instance, could not; what blood was for; and so on.
The hospital room was heated by a cast-iron stove burning coal. When the body was warm, internal processes occurred more quickly, so this would normally speed any healing that might occur naturally. The crackling of the flames was the only sound for several heartbeats. Finally, looking as if he had been wondering whether to say what he was about to, Mondark went on. He gestured with his head. "High Priest Yenalb is here. And Crown Prince Dybo came in with Afsan, and said he would return soon. Even that lanky palace butcher — Cadool, is it? — stopped by. And now our humble facilities are graced by he who reads the stars for the Empress. Why is this youngster so important?"
Yenalb was bent over Afsan. He had used a carefully honed and polished fingerclaw to pierce the skin above Afsan’s left earhole, making a swirling pattern. Now he was smearing in purple-black pigment, filling in the hunter’s tattoo. Normally the high priest would only personally tattoo members of The Family, but Yenalb must have felt a degree of responsibility for Afsan’s injuries. If Afsan did not survive, at least he would make it into heaven bearing the mark of one rite of passage.
Saleed wrinkled his muzzle as if he found such questions distasteful. "Afsan is my apprentice," he said at last. "He has — he has a remarkable mind; a genius one rarely sees."
"Judging by his heroics today," said Mondark, "it would appear that he has a great future as a hunter."
"No." Saleed let the syllable hang between them for a time. "No, this is his first and his last hunt. His mind is too keen, too valuable, to waste on such animal concerns."
"The people need to eat."
"The people are going to need much, much more than just fresh meat if we…" Saleed stopped short. Mondark opened his mouth slightly, a questioning gesture. Apparently Saleed felt he couldn’t just end there. At last he said, "There are tough times ahead, Doctor. Tough times, indeed."
Mondark’s tail swished back and forth. His claws unsheathed. Fear. "You have read a portent in the sky. The stars foretell our doom!"
Yenalb stopped working on Afsan’s tattoo and looked up at the astrologer. For a moment, Saleed closed both his eyes. He apparently was uncomfortable, as though, perhaps, the medic had read him too plainly, had taken his meaning too clearly. Or perhaps not, for after a moment Saleed clicked his own teeth in gentle humor. "You may be taking me too literally," he said at last. "Just because I’m an astrologer doesn’t mean I always speak of heavenly revelations. Perhaps I meant, in a general sense, that our progress as a people simply depends upon the sharp minds of our young."
Mondark seemed about to speak again when Afsan, prone before them, let out a small groan, a sound coming more from deep in his chest than from his throat. Yenalb quickly moved out of the way and the medic loomed in, bringing his earhole to Afsan’s chest.
"Well?" snapped Saleed.
"His heart is beating more steadily." Mondark laid his palm across Afsan’s forehead. "He’s managed to raise his body temperature well above the ambient, meaning his metabolism has strengthened considerably." He shouted, "Paturn, bring bowls of blood!"
Mondark’s team was well-trained. Within moments a young male appeared bearing a tray full of simple clay hemispheres filled with red liquid. Paturn was no older than Afsan himself, judging by his size. He set the tray on a counter and brought the first bowl to Afsan, forcing Afsan’s jaws open and letting the blood trickle into his short muzzle and down his throat.
Mondark stepped back from the marble surgical table and motioned for Saleed and Yenalb to follow. Softly he said, "The animal blood will help rehydrate him, and its taste usually arouses the spirit. He’s fighting for consciousness now."
Paturn drained three bowls down Afsan’s throat, although much spilled out of his gaping muzzle and pooled on the tabletop. Suddenly Afsan spluttered. Paturn immediately ceased pouring blood into him and turned Afsan’s head aside so that his throat would drain onto the tabletop.
"Is he coming around?" asked Yenalb.
Mondark bent over Afsan and firmly gripped the boy by the shoulders. Saleed’s nictitating membranes blinked in surprise. "Such physical contact often forces a reaction," said Mondark, almost apologetically.
But Afsan’s coughing stopped almost as quickly as it had begun. Mondark shook him gently, but to no avail.
The doctor swore quietly. "Roots."
"Have you lost him?" Saleed demanded.
Mondark straightened. "I don’t know."
Suddenly there was another voice in the room. "You had better not lose him, Mondark."
Heads swiveled. "Prince Dybo…" Bows of concession all around.
"I said I would be back," said Dybo. He looked at Yenalb. "I am pleased you came," he said. And then he turned to Saleed. "It’s good to see you here, as well, astrologer."
Saleed dipped his muzzle. He looked uncomfortable and moved quickly to the doorway. He nodded concession to Mondark. "You’ve looked after him well. My thanks." And then, off-handedly, he added, "Oh, and don’t tell Afsan I was here, please." And with that, the old astrologer hurried down the corridor as fast as his age and bulk would allow.
"What have you done for him, Doctor?" asked Dybo.
"Everything possible," said Mondark.
Dybo then turned to Yenalb. "And you?"
"I have used every prayer I could think of," said the high priest.
The prince waddled over to the surgical table. "Then let me try."
And a sound.
Yes, music. A ballad: The Voyage of Larsk.
So beautiful. Compelling.
He sailed to the east,
River’s waters tossing his boat,
A steady wind,
And, at last, rising from the waves…
Rise up to the music.
But the darkness is so warm, so inviting…
Can’t give in to it.
Wake up! Break out into the light.
So difficult, like cracking through an eggshell without a birthing horn.
Better to sleep, to relax, to rest.
Force the outer eyelids open. Light filters through the inner membranes. An effort, such an effort: open those, too.
Such beautiful music.
The prince stopped singing and thumped his tail in joy. "Afsan, you plugged earhole! I knew you wouldn’t leave us."
Afsan managed to click his teeth together weakly. "Finish the song."
Dybo leaned back on his tail. And sang some more.