IGMS Issue 2, page 1
Issue 2 - March 2006
Copyright © 2006 Hatrack River Enterprises
Table of Contents - Issue 2 - March 2006
* * *
In the Eyes of the Empress's Cat
by Brad Beaulieu
The Yazoo Queen
by Orson Scott Card
Salt of Judas
by Eric James Stone
by David Farland
by Ty Franck
I Am the Queen
by William Saxton
by Al Sarrantonio
by Scott D. Danielson
by Orson Scott Card
In the Eyes of the Empress's Cat
by Brad Beaulieu
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff
* * *
Al-Ashmar sat cross-legged in the tent of Gadn ak Hulavar and placed his patient, a spotted cat, onto a velvet pillow. Gadn lounged on the far side of the spacious tent, puffing on his hookah and waiting for the diagnosis of his grossly thin cat.
Al-Ashmar held his fingers near the cat's nose. She sniffed his hand and raked her whiskers over his knuckles. When the cat raised her head and stared into his eyes, Al-Ashmar found a brown, triangle-shaped splotch in the right eye, along the left side of the green-and-gold iris. The location of the mark indicated the cat's liver, but in this case it was the strong color that was most disturbing.
"What have you been feeding her?" Al-Ashmar asked as he stroked the cat, noting its muscle tone.
Gadn shrugged his massive shoulders. "Nothing. Cats find food."
Al-Ashmar smiled, if only to hide his annoyance. The wealthy always wanted cats of status, but when it came time to care for them, they hadn't an idea worth its weight in sand.
"Not this one," Al-Ashmar said as he picked up the cat and stood, absently continuing to stroke its ears. "Please, go to the bazaar; buy a large cage and some swallows. Once a day, put her in the cage with one bird. The activity should interest her enough to induce appetite. Do this for a week and her normal eating pattern should return. If it doesn't, send me word."
A bald servant boy rushed into the room and bowed deeply. "Master, if you please, there is a messenger."
"We are done?" Gadn asked Al-Ashmar.
"Then bring the messenger here, Mousaf." Gadn handed Al-Ashmar three coins and then embraced him, kissing one cheek, then the other.
But the servant boy remained. "Begging your mercy, master, but they are asking for Al-Ashmar ak Kulhadn."
Al-Ashmar frowned. "Who is, boy?"
"A man, from the palace."
Gadn shoved the boy aside and rushed from the tent. "Why didn't you say so?"
Al-Ashmar was right behind him. Moments later, they reached the edge of the caravan grounds, near the pens holding dozens of Gadn's camels and donkeys and goats. A balding man with a reed-thin beard - the current rage in the Empress's courts - and wearing blue silk finery stood just outside the caravan grounds, on the sandy road leading back toward the city proper. Behind him stood four palace guards.
The first thought through Al-Ashmar's mind was the sort of beating Gadn's servant would get for referring to Djazir ak Benkada as a messenger.
The second was what sort of emergency would require the Empress's own spiritual guide and physician to personally come asking for him, a simple physic. At the least it would be to attend to a courtier's cat - after all, he'd been to the palace a handful of times for just such a purpose - but since Djazir had come personally, he could only assume it was for Bela, the Empress's cat.
Gadn ak Hulavar, as the caravan's master, stepped forward to meet Djazir. "Please, Eminence, would you care to join us? A smoke, perhaps?"
But Gadn stopped when Djazir held up an open palm and stared at Al-Ashmar.
"You will accompany me," Djazir said.
"Of course, Eminence," Al-Ashmar replied.
He left the confused and slightly hurt Gadn and followed the royal guards and physician toward the palace. The walk through the city streets was not long, but neither was the climb easy. Al-Ashmar didn't consider himself old, but he didn't have sharp climbs like this in him anymore - not without becoming winded, in any case. Djazir, on the other hand, a good fifteen years older than Al-Ashmar, seemed hardly winded at all.
They walked through the Grand Hallway with its long pool of water and lily pads; up four sets of stairs to reach the Empress's personal wing; through a small garden of palm trees and beds of sand sculptures; and finally reached the waiting chamber of the Empress herself.
Even though it had been nearly ten years since he'd had the honor of visiting the Empress's wing, Al-Ashmar was surprised to find so many memories in conflict with reality. The room was as opulent as he remembered, but almost completely stripped of furniture - the only furnishings were the throne itself and a marble table crouched next to it, the only entertainment the three books stacked on top of the table.
Djazir turned to Al-Ashmar and spoke softly. "Understand, ak Kulhadn, you are here to examine the Empress's cat, that is all. You will do your business and you will leave. Is that understood?"
Al-Ashmar tipped his head low. "Of course, Eminence."
"If the Empress decides to speak to you, it will be through her handmaid. But it is taxing on her, and you will formulate brief answers, answers that will not invite further comment."
Djazir studied Al-Ashmar's eyes, and finally, apparently satisfied, turned to the guard nearest the rear door of the room and nodded. The guard rang a small brass cymbal. Minutes passed, and Al-Ashmar began to wonder if the cymbal had been heard, but then the door opened, and two huge eunuchs walked in carrying a palanquin between them. The Empress sat inside the covered palanquin, but her form was obscured by the green veils hanging down from the palanquin's roof. The only thing Al-Ashmar could discern was the golden headdress resting over her brown hair.
They set the palanquin down near the padded throne and, after pulling the fabric away on the far side, cradled the Empress from inside and set her gently on the throne. The pair of eunuchs - for only eunuch guards were allowed this close to the Empress - then moved to stand behind her, one on each side.
The Empress's eyes drooped, the left lower than the right; she sat tilted to one side, her head arching back the other way; her thin arms rested ineffectually in her lap. She had a face Al-Ashmar barely recognized - another memory that appeared to have faded to the point of uselessness. But then again, the last time he'd seen her had been years before the malady that had left her in such a state.
Al-Ashmar suddenly realized that someone else had entered the room. A woman - young, but no child, she. She moved with a subtle grace, hips swaying as she did so, but she stared at no one until she reached the Empress's side. Thus positioned, she turned and regarded Al-Ashmar with impassive, kohl-rimmed eyes. How stunning those green eyes were. How beautiful.
Much of Al-Ashmar's mind wanted to compare her to another beauty in his life - dear Nara, his wife who'd passed years ago - but those memories were still tender, and so he left the comparisons where they were. Buried.
With no one performing introductions, Al-Ashmar took one knee to the Empress and woman both. "I am Al-Ashmar ak Kulhadn, humble physic."
"The Empress knows who you are," the woman said.
Movement pulled Al-Ashmar's attention away from the Empress. From inside the safety of the palanquin leapt a cat, Bela, the bright one, ninth and final companionto the Empress Waharra before she alights for the heavens. Like the cat Al-Ashmar had just treated, Bela was long and lean, but she had the muscle tone of a cat treated well. Her smooth coa
Djazir moved to the palanquin and retrieved a crimson pillow dusted with short, white hair. He set the pillow down several paces away from the throne and then set Bela upon it.
"Please," Djazir said to Al-Ashmar, motioning to Bela, "tell us what you can."
Al-Ashmar hesitated - how rude not to introduce him to the woman! - but there was nothing for it. He couldn't afford to insult Djazir.
As Al-Ashmar stepped forward and knelt before the cat, he felt the Empress's eyes watching his every move. Her body may have failed her, but her mind, he was sure, was as sharp as ever. Al-Ashmar stroked Bela's side and stomach. Bela stretched and purred.
"Her symptoms?" he asked.
He expected Djazir to answer, but it was the woman who spoke. "Her feces are loose and runny. She eats less, though she still eats. She's listless much of the day."
Bela's purr intensified, a rasping sound everyone in the room could hear.
"Anything else? Anything you noticed days ago, even weeks?"
"Her eyes started watering and crusting eight or nine days ago. But that stopped a few days back."
"Has her diet changed?"
"She began eating less, but Djazir administered cream from the Empress's reserve herd, laced with fennel."
"She's kept her appetite since?"
"Somewhat, but she still seems to eat too little."
Al-Ashmar scratched Bela under the chin. Bela stretched her neck and squinted, but when she opened her eyes wide again, Al-Ashmar started. He leaned closer while continuing to scratch, tilting Bela's head from side to side while doing so. Bela seemed amused, but on the inside of her iris was a raised, curling mark. It retained the golden color of the iris, but something was obviously there, just beneath the surface.
Al-Ashmar sat upright, confused.
But the woman . . . She held an expression like she'd rather this sullied business be over and done with.
"Do you have a name," Al-Ashmar asked, "or shall I continue to treat you like a talking palm?"
Was there a hint of a smile from the Empress?
"You may call me Rabiah," the woman said crisply.
The height of rudeness! What civilized person withholds her mother's name?
"Where has this cat been, Rabiah?" Al-Ashmar asked.
Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"I asked where the Empress's cat has been, in the last month."
"In the palace only. She has never left."
"Of course not."
"Enough, ak Kulhadn," Djazir said. "What is it you see?"
"Forgive me. I ask these questions because Bela - long may the sun shine on her life - has snakeworm."
"What?" Djazir asked. He kneeled beside Al-Ashmar and stared into Bela's eyes.
"Look for the raised area. There."
Djazir inspected, but Al-Ashmar couldn't help but wonder how this could have happened. Snakeworm was common in his homeland, but that was far to the south, and the worm came from goats. There were caravans, of course, like Gadn's, that brought livestock northward. It was conceivable that a cat could get it from a transplanted goat, but the worm seemed to have trouble thriving in the north. In nearly twenty years in the capital, he'd seen only three cases, and all of them had been near the caravan landings or the bazaar. How could Bela, a cat that would never be allowed from the palace grounds, have contracted the worm?
Al-Ashmar stood. "I can make a tonic and return tomorrow."
"No," Djazir said, standing as well. "You will tell me how to make it."
Al-Ashmar dipped his head until he could no longer make eye contact with Djazir. "With due respect, it cannot be taught in so short a time. The balance is tricky, and I wouldn't wish to jeopardize Bela's life over a formula crudely made."
Djazir bristled. "Then you will do it immediately and return here when it's done."
"Of course, but it will take nearly a day. The ingredients are rare, and it will take me time to find those of proper quality. And then I must boil - "
Al-Ashmar stopped at a disturbing noise coming from the Empress. The sounds from her throat could hardly be construed as words, and yet Rabiah leaned over and listened attentively as if she were speaking.
Rabiah stood. "Her Highness, Waharra sut Shahmat, wishes for Al-Ashmar to make the tonic. Alone. He will return tomorrow when it is ready, and every day after until Bela's recovery is judged complete."
Djazir bowed to the Empress, as did Al-Ashmar. Again, he saw a quirky smile from her lips and wondered if it could be such a thing. She had enough control still to speak to Rabiah. Could she not show amusement if she so chose?
He supposed she could. But the real question was: Why? Why him? And why amusement?
Al-Ashmar rose to his feet and turned to Djazir. "Anyone in close contact with Bela may have contracted the worm, so it would be wise to examine everyone, even wiser for everyone to take the same tonic as Bela will receive."
After Djazir nodded his assent, Al-Ashmar inspected the hulking guards, then Djazir. As he held Rabiah's head and gazed into her irises, more than anything else he sensed the scent of jasmine and the warmth of her face through his fingertips. He had to force himself to examine her complex green eyes closely to make sure there were no signs of infection.
Al-Ashmar knelt before the Empress next. It took him a moment, for the two guards were watching him as the cobra spies the mongoose. The Empress's eyes were free of the worm, but she kept glancing toward the stack of books on the nearby marble table.
When Al-Ashmar stepped away, he noticed the binding of the top book; it was inlaid with a cursive pattern - a pattern often used in the south, Al-Ashmar's home. In the center of the leather cover rested a tiger eye stone with a silver, diamond-shaped setting.
Bela, sitting beneath the table, watched him closely. It was strange how utterly human Bela looked for that brief instant.
Al-Ashmar nodded to the Empress. "Our Exalted has fine taste in books."
She spoke to Rabiah. Rabiah said not a word, but it was a long time before she moved to the stack of books and retrieved the top one. She held it out to Al-Ashmar.
"My lady?" Al-Ashmar said.
"The Blessed One wishes to gift you."
Al-Ashmar nearly raised his hands to refuse, but how grave an insult to reject such an offer. "The Empress is too kind," he said at last.
Rabiah shoved it into his chest, forcing him to take it.
And now there could be no doubt.
The Empress was smiling.
Late that night, within his workroom, Al-Ashmar poured three heaping spoonfuls of ground black walnut husk into the boiling pot before him. The sounds of the evening meal being cleared by the children came from behind. Mia, his second youngest, sat on a stool, watching, as she so often did. She picked up the glass phial of clove juice and removed the stopper, but immediately after recoiled from the sharp smell and wrinkled her nose.
Al-Ashmar laughed. "Then stop smelling it."
"It smells so weird."
"Well, weird or not, it's the Empress's, so leave it alone." Al-Ashmar added the minced wormwood root and mixed it thoroughly with the ground husks. That done, he flipped his hourglass over, and the sand began spilling into the empty chamber.
Mia leaned over the table and retrieved a thin piece of coal and the papyrus scrap she'd been writing on. "How long after the bark?"
"Four hours, covered. It will boil down, nearly to a paste."
She wrote chicken prints on the scroll. Al-Ashmar tried to hide his smile, for if she caught him, she always got upset. She didn't know how to write more than a few letters, but still she created her own recipes as Al-Ashmar made things sh
"I told you, the clove juice, then the elixir, then they steep."
"Oh," she said while writing more, "I forgot." She sat up then and fixed him with a child's most-serious expression. "Doesn't she have people to heal cats in the palace?"
Al-Ashmar found himself hiding another smile. He often told his seven children about his day over their evening meal, but Mia was the one who listened most often. "She does, Mia, but they rarely see such things."
"From where you and memma came from."
"Then how did it get here?"
Al-Ashmar shrugged. He still hadn't been able to piece together a plausible story. "I don't know."
"Tell me about the woman again. She sounded pretty."
"I told you, pet, she wasn't pretty. She was mean."
Mia shrugged and tugged the Empress's book closer. "She sounded pretty to me." She flipped through the pages, pretending to read each one. "What's this?"
"A gift, from the Empress," Al-Ashmar said.
"What does it teach?"
Al-Ashmar smiled. It was a retelling of several fables from his homeland - four of them, all simple tales of the spirits of the southern lands and how they helped or harmed wayward travelers.
"Nothing," he finally said. "Now off to bed."
Mia ignored him, as she often did on his first warning. "What's this?"
Al-Ashmar snatched the book away and stared at the scribbles Mia had been looking at. He hadn't noticed it earlier. He'd had too much to do, and since it had seemed so innocuous, he'd left it until he had more time to sift through its pages. On the last page were the words save her written in an appalling, jittery hand. The letters were oversized as well, as if writing any smaller was either impossible or would have rendered the final text unreadable.
The Empress, surely. But why? Save who?
And from what?
Mia dropped from her stool and fought next to him for a view. "Enough, Mia. To bed."
After tucking the children in for the night, Al-Ashmar stayed up, nursing the tonic, and thinking. Save her. Save Bela? But that made no sense. He had already been summoned, had already been directed to heal the Empress's cat. Why write a note for that?
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