The dead could rise on this kind of night.
In some ways, they already had.
The cool air nipped at my shoulders as I knelt in the dirt, encircled by an elite group of warriors called the Koru who protected the queen. Torchlight reflected off their copper scorpion helmets. The scars they wore on their bodies like badges of honor. It flickered in their eyes when they looked at me, the healer who had saved them all.
After more than a moon of restless illness, they’d risen from their sickbeds one after another. When I’d witnessed the life in them, their muscles regaining strength as they fastened into their greaves and plated tunics to return to their duties, I’d cried like a baby.
If only my father had been alive to see it. He would have been so proud that I’d healed them, and that the queen was honoring me this night in recognition, though he would have scolded me for running myself ragged to get here. But that’s what you did when you were a healer doing everything in her power to be the best she could be.
I played with the clasp of my healing satchel, flipping it up and down and up and down. Fought the urge to bite my thumbnail. I had one more person to save, and her illness was nearly impossible to overcome. Mirrum was the last Koru still struggling to recover.
But I’d heal her, too. I had to.
In front of the sycamore trees, a small band of musicians rapummed their drums and clacked beaded shakers. My heart banged as Sarratum Tabni appeared at the edge of the circle and the Koru parted, chanting my name in their soft, round Manzazu accent.
The queen nodded at me, a spiked gold crown on her dark hair, earrings skimming her shoulders. Behind the queen, a towering statue of their goddess Linaza was bathed in firelight. Her mighty wings were spread to the east and west, her scorpion’s tail hovering in warning.
As I stood, something white flickered in my peripheral vision near the grove.
I turned, and a cold, dank breeze brushed my cheek. The sound of water slapping against a wooden boat filled my ears. It almost felt as though my feet were in the prow, the river Garadun rocking beneath.
Stop it, Kammani. None of that Boatman nonsense. Not now.
I’d seen his skeletal face in the tomb back in Alu, and he’d been haunting me ever since we’d fled. Nine long moons of his face hovering over my pallet at night. Nine long moons of his bony fingers grazing my cheek.
Shoving away all thoughts of him, I stared at Dagan standing tall and proud beyond the circle of warriors, and tried to calm down. He hadn’t wanted me to come alone to the ceremony so late at night, so Sarratum Tabni had granted him access as my escort, though no one else was allowed to attend. He smiled at me encouragingly and placed one hand over his heart.
“It’s okay,” he mouthed. “Just breathe.”
Grateful for his encouragement, I offered him a wobbly smile of my own as the queen approached. She unclasped a necklace from around her neck, a scorpion amulet dangling from a thick leather strap. She held it up. Its sapphire eyes glittered in the firelight, and I took a deep breath to calm my fluttering heart. For what she was about to fasten around my neck wasn’t just a gift.
It was a promise.
She was saying the Koru owed me a favor, and I could call upon them to answer it at any time, even with their lives if necessary.
“Kammani, Healer from Alu, this evening, we grant you our highest honor.”
She held the necklace up in front of the Koru. They leaned in to see it, some reaching out to touch the dazzling pendant.
“We grant you the symbol of Linaza, our goddess of love and war.” She glanced at one of the Koru standing nearby. “Commander Ummi? Your assistance.”
Ummi, black hair cut bluntly at her jaw, stepped forward and held my ratty curls so the queen could fasten the strap around my throat. The scorpion was cold, heavy, as it settled between my collarbones. My fingers slid across the slick metal.
Sarratum Tabni stepped back and met my eyes. Hers were hooded. Calculating.
“Mighty A-zu, healer, we grant you our thankfulness on this evening for all you have done for our city. You, a stranger in our land, worked to bring my warriors back to health. May the Koru repay your kindness with their allegiance.”
At once, the warriors brandished their battle-axes and swords and shouted my name, a great wave of exultation that resonated off the homes scattered nearby.
As they chanted, I locked my hands together to keep from playing with my healer’s satchel. I had only been doing my job. What I had been trained to do by my abum. Though healing all of them had been a challenge, since Mudi, the healer with whom I’d been working, tended to favor the spirit world to her own rational thought. She told me that my visions from the Boatman were gifts. That I should listen to what he was trying to tell me.
But all he brought to me were nightmares about Alu, a city I’d never be able to visit again.
“Do you accept the gift that we have given you, Healer?” Sarratum Tabni asked.
“Yes, my lady.” Not accepting this gift wasn’t an option. Arwia, our exiled queen of Alu, had told me so earlier. Rejecting their kindness could only lead to ill will, even if it felt like too much. “I accept it.”
She smiled briefly. “Good. We ask that you use it wisely, letting the goddess guide your heart.”
The queen turned to the Koru and raised her arms up high. “My Koru, warrior maidens of Manzazu, children of Linaza, I invite you to feast in the A-zu’s honor tonight. Drink from Linaza’s cup. Dine from her abundance. Let us celebrate Kammani’s bestowal of her gifts upon our great city. We can rest easy this night knowing we lie in her capable hands.”
The Koru cheered once more, a great ferocious roar, and my heart seized as I looked at them all. These warriors were part of a larger Manzazu army that protected me. The citizens of this city, our place of refuge, were now my citizens. Their illnesses, mine to heal. And though the thought filled me with pride, with a certain amount of unspeakable joy, it also filled me with an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
I couldn’t let them down now. Though I’d barely begun to make headway in this city that would rather pray and whisper incantations than take the tinctures I gave them, I would build a successful, thriving healing practice here with my own two hands. I swore it.
The musicians took up their drums and shakers once more to play a quick, staccato rhythm. Some of the Koru gathered to dance. Some dispersed to partake in the food brought in from Linaza’s altars. Others hoisted me to their shoulders to sway in front of their goddess, voices raised in excitement.
“A-zu, this is your night.” Commander Ummi’s face was bright with religious fervor underneath me. “Enjoy it.” She and other warriors jostled me around to the rhythm of the drums. Writhing in embarrassment, I met Dagan’s eyes at the perimeter of the courtyard. He grinned and gave a little wave.
As the warriors whirled, singing a rousing hymn about honor and war and love, I looked up into Linaza’s formidable face. Sightless, she stared down at me, as empty and inanimate as the gnarled trees behind her. But right when I pulled my gaze away from her sandstone eyes, the tips of her wings fluttered.
And though it didn’t make any sense, any sense at all, I swore my new scorpion pendant twitched against my throat in response.
“Are you nervous, Simti?”
My friend and I knelt in front of a looking glass, making final touches to our faces.
“A bride always feels nervous on her wedding day.” She flashed me a wobbly smile, but her eyes were shining.
A circlet of copper sat on her black hair. When she moved, the dangling leaves shimmered in the light from the tallow candles spread on low tables around the tent.
The wedding would begin at dusk. Simti’s bride price had been paid--a plot of land and a chest of coins. The dowry had been settled, too. Now? We would feast, and once she and Ilu spent their first night together, lost in one another’s arms, the marriage would be complete.
Happiness flooded through me, but so did a nagging sense of worry over Mirrum, the Koru warrior who had yet to recover.
“All will be perfectly fine, my friend.” I squeezed her clammy hand, trying to pour some reassurance into her, but whether it was more for me or for her was unclear.
Scratching my nose around the colored pastes and powders Nanaea had painted on me, I wrestled with my own nerves. I felt absolutely itchy. I hoped that Mudi was doing what I’d asked. Three drops of the tincture every thirty minutes. That was it. Not too difficult. But as Mudi rarely did anything I wanted her to, only time would tell if she followed my directions. For Mirrum’s sake, I hoped she did.
It had been four days since I’d received the scorpion necklace, and Mirrum had still not recovered to full health. She was sitting up and even taking in some broth, but I wasn’t satisfied. I’d been over to the sickroom constantly to heal her, and had only left her this evening to witness my friend becoming the bride she’d always wanted to be.
Only this time, Simti’s groom was very much alive. Since we’d all escaped the tomb in Alu, she was free to marry whomever she wanted instead of a dying lugal.
“Kammani, you’re not messing up my handiwork, are you?” Nanaea squawked from the corner of the tent. She knelt, a threaded needle between her lips, wrestling with the hem of Iltani’s tunic.
A difficult task, since Iltani was currently in it.
“I wouldn’t dream of ruining your efforts, Sister.”
“Good. It’s been nearly impossible to find more face paint in the Libbu. The merchants are carrying hardly any.” She plucked the needle from her mouth and wriggled it into the fabric.
My heart swelled watching her work, dampening the worry about Mirrum. We’d become a family of exiles here in Manzazu, establishing our own home. Each of us doing our own share. I’d carved out a little space in our house west of the queen’s Palace for me, Nanaea, and our little brother, Kasha, though it was filled day and night with the noise of everyone else who’d left Alu with us. I’d miss Nanaea when she eventually left me for her own marriage.
My stomach fluttered as I stood and busied my hands straightening up. I grabbed a basket and tossed discarded tunics and beads into it.
“Watch it, Nanaea!” Iltani grumbled, sipping on her cask of sweetwine, the Manzazu brew she couldn’t leave alone. “I’ll be dotted like a leper when you’re finished with me.”
Sweating, Nanaea pushed her damp black hair back from her forehead. “Stop fidgeting and you won’t get poked. This is a difficult stitch!”
Nanaea had apprenticed herself to a seamstress and was excelling in her craft, though dancing was more of her passion. But since Manzazu had dancers in droves, it made more sense for her to learn a trade that could support her. I missed the shine radiating from her eyes when she danced, though, which was happening less and less the more she worked on her craft.
Maybe one day she’d have time to return to what she loved.
Iltani bent to a table, selecting a juicy bit of fish out of some oil and popping it into her mouth.
Nanaea tugged on a seam and looked over her shoulder at Simti. “How did you get the embroidery in your tunic so perfect?”
“You forget that I’ve been sewing clothes for my family for years.” Simti bent to the looking glass, pursed her lips, and pinched her cheeks. “But not applying face paint. It isn’t blended right.”
“Didn’t Arwia say before she left this tent that nothing you do will make you any lovelier?” I stuck my basket on my hip. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the entire city.”
She blushed. “Thank you, my friend. Now come here. I need to fix something.”
I knelt, and she twisted a bud on my flower crown. “And you look beautiful today, too. You’ve slept recently, which is an improvement.” She smiled, and the gold powder that Nanaea had dusted on her brown cheeks shimmered in the candlelight.
“And you are a stellar liar.”
“Me?” She placed a hand on her chest in mock indignation. “I lie about nothing.”
“Are you sure about that?”
She grinned. “Well, perhaps only once and that was to get Ilu’s mother to love me as much as she loves Dagan. Is he here yet?”
“Yes, he walked with me from the Koru’s sickroom. Mirrum is still fighting the illness.”
Simti’s eyes softened. “You look worried. Will she heal?”
“I think so. But there’s a tincture that will hurry things along if Mudi will use it instead of just pleading with the Boatman.”
He didn’t help anybody.
Unease filled my belly as I recalled the Boatman scooping Lugal Marus in his bony arms and disappearing into the Netherworld from the tomb. Mudi had told me--repeatedly to the point of nausea--that the Boatman was once a warrior, cursed to his post for murdering innocents in war. She said he spoke to healers because he was trying to gain his freedom by helping prevent the deaths of as many lives as he took. But despite her telling me to listen to what he had to say, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The breaths I heard in my ear when I was pounding out a new tincture in my mortar made me shudder. The glimpses of his face right before I fell asleep every night stole my breath.
Communing with the spirit world went against everything logic told me to do.
Kasha burst into the tent, his dark curls falling down past his shoulders. Since he’d escaped the Palace, he’d refused any trimming, saying he’d been shorn like a sheep once too often in his life. Now he would live his life as he wanted. This morning, I’d made him wash himself, but I’d let him win the haircut argument. At least it was clean.
“Sisters, girls, all of you. You’re wanted by the priestess. It’s dusk.” He swiped a cup of sweetwine off a table, dancing out of reach when I tried to grab it back. “It’s time!”