My first evening with Pharaoh had been nothing like I expected. I hadn’t even departed for his palace before learning Half had been stabbed, and that he and Tall were hidden in the grounds of the Palace of the Ornaments. The banquet with Pharaoh and his queen was, quite frankly, boring, with little to distract me from my worries about whether Half still lived. My mind shied away from remembering what happened after the banquet and the mortification of waiting naked for Pharaoh’s arrival. I had cried all the way back to the Palace.
Now I was back within its walls and in just a few minutes, I would learn whether Half was still alive. Whether my maids had managed to get him and Tall into my chambers without anyone discovering them. If they had been caught, there was probably nothing I could do for them. Or for myself, for that matter. We would likely all be executed for breaking what seemed to be the Palace’s most fundamental rule: no unmodified men permitted inside.
I took a deep breath to steady myself as I made my way up to the main entrance of the Palace. As much as I wanted to race along the path, I forced myself to walk steadily and tried not to look like I hurried in case anyone was watching. The door guards admitted me without question. I encountered only a servant woman on the way to my chambers. Her face was familiar — perhaps she served the Ornaments in the dining chamber where I sometimes broke my fast. She kept her gaze on the floor as we passed each other.
I reached my chambers to find the door barred from the inside. Of course, they wouldn’t want to risk any unexpected visitors coming in. I knocked.
“It’s me,” I said quietly.
Merytre let me in and was quick to bar the door again behind me.
“Oh, my lady,” she whispered. “It is terrible.”
“Khaemmalu said he was alive.”
But he knew only as much as had happened while they were outside and his information was from several hours ago. The situation might have changed since then.
“He is, although he is mortally injured,” Merytre said. “He needs a physician, but even if we could bring one, Ahmose can’t say he will definitely live.”
I supposed the decision they had been trying to make was whether it was worth the risk to bring in a physician, or if Half would likely die anyway. What a terrible thing to have to decide.
I went straight to the spare bedchamber. Ishtar had slept in here before Pharaoh made her an Ornament and she received chambers of her own. Before that, I had thought we would use this bedchamber for Tall and Half if they had reason to flee Pharaoh’s palace. I hadn’t expected that might be so soon.
The coppery scent of blood hit me as I entered the chamber. Half lay on the bed, still and pale. They had removed his shirt and Ettu held a bundle of linen cloths to his belly, but they were already soaked through. Blood coated her arms to her elbows and was splattered over her gown. Ahmose crouched on the floor, sorting through a pile of the little linen packets I recognised as her herb supplies. She held her broken arm to her chest, but having only one hand available didn’t seem to slow her down, even if she left bloody fingerprints on everything she touched. Tall stood in the corner, shoulders hunched as he flapped his hands near his face and muttered. I could only make out bits of what he said. Men. Danger. Flee. Belly.
As I stood frozen in the doorway, Ettu looked up.
“He lives,” she said brokenly, “although perhaps not for much longer.”
“What can I do?” I asked.
Merytre came to stand beside me. The warmth of her body was reassuring and I found myself leaning against her. She didn’t move away.
“He needs a physician,” Ahmose said from the floor. “I have done what I can, but it’s not enough. The blade missed his organs, as far as I can tell, but there is too much blood.”
“Where can we locate a physician?” I asked.
She frowned and fidgeted with one of the herb packets. “We cannot call for the Palace physician. Not to treat a man who shouldn’t even be here.”
“What about a priestess?” I asked. “Would praying over him help?”
“He needs more than prayers at this point,” Ahmose said. “He needs someone to stitch wherever the blood is coming from. I have packed the wound with honey and grease, but it’s not enough.”
“Someone must know a physician we can trust.” Surely I wasn’t the first Ornament to need a discreet physician. But who could I entrust with such a secret? Tiye? Maybe, but could I be certain she wouldn’t take the opportunity to remove a competitor and report me to the administrators? Maybe Henutmire. Ettu had smuggled the letter for Nebtu’s family out of the Palace for her. If she knew it was Half who had seen her letter to a courier, she might feel obliged to help.
My mind whirled furiously and I barely noticed Ahmose tipping little packets into two bottles. She got to her feet with a groan and filled the bottles from a water jug which sat on a nearby shelf, before stoppering them and giving them a quick shake.
“Somebody needs to go for a physician.” She pressed the bottles into my hands. “Or even a healer. I know a little, but not enough to treat a wound like this. Someone must go out and get help. He has no chance of survival otherwise.”
My fingers were slow to clasp the bottles and I almost dropped them.
“Me?” I asked.
“You or Merytre.” Her gaze darted between us. “There is nobody else. Both Ettu and I would raise too many questions if anyone saw us covered in blood like this, and we cannot spare the time it would take to fetch bathing water and make one of us presentable. Either you or Merytre must find someone who can treat Half. Quickly now. There is no time to waste.”
She gestured for me to leave and my feet obeyed, carrying me back out to the main sitting chamber. Merytre followed, her face pale and tense. We looked at each other and I suppose each of us wondered who should go.
“I can do it,” she said. “But I don’t know where to find a physician. I might not be back in time to…”
Her voice trailed away.
“I will go,” I said.
“You know no more than I do,” she said. “And you have never even been outside the gates since the night you arrived. I should do it.”
Half wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. He would still be safe at Dur-Kurigalzu, my father’s palace in Babylon. If anyone was to risk going out to find a physician, it should be me.
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