After the slaver had left the tent, Aziru grinned wickedly at Tushratta. "More company tonight, Doctor, and such delightful company it will be! I must prepare something special for supper.
"Aziru, why do you always insist upon cooking when I own three slave boys, one of whom is an experienced cook? You do more than your share of the work as it is. Why not rest this evening and let them take care of preparing the meal?" Tushratta glanced up from his journal spread before him on the low table. Scowling slightly, he took the reed pen, dipped it in ink, and added a few notes to the paper.
"Cooking gives me immense satisfaction, almost as much as I derive from studying works on medicine and collecting medicinal plants in the field. Besides, I like to eat," the small Khandian chuckled, "and if I prepare the food, I know the meal will not deviate from my high expectations."
"Then prepare whatever you want, Aziru." The master physician was distracted, his mind far away from mundane matters such as what would be served for supper. His concentration was totally directed towards the perplexing case of Goldwyn of Rohan. Though he could find no physical cause for her strange lethargy, he still hesitated to give it a supernatural explanation. There were other possibilities. Perhaps she had fallen victim to a bizarre form of the sleeping sickness which often raged through the far South, sickening many.
Possibly she was in the second phase of the disease... that would explain the disturbed sleep cycle that she was experiencing, the doctor reasoned to himself. Maybe the exertion that she experienced in escaping from the orcs had so weakened her that she had fallen into a state of total physical exhaustion, making her body more susceptible to disease. That could explain the hysterical shrieking that they had heard. There were some definite correlations between her case and sleeping sickness. Tushratta thought of the victims of the disease that he had seen in the past. Perhaps she had fallen prey to the malady...
But still, there was no characteristic swelling of her neck, armpits, chest, stomach, and groin. Sleeping sickness was an impossibility! How could a woman who was native to the North ever fall victim to a disease of Far Harad? Tushratta felt relieved that there was little chance that this could be the disease which plagued her, for there was no cure known for sleeping sickness, the disease always being fatal.
While Goldwyn's strange malady shared symptoms with other diseases, Tushratta had ruled them out one by one. What was left for a diagnosis? He was not one of the simple who gave every natural event - from the cry of a bird at night to the appearance of a comet - a supernatural explanation. While he believed that magic still existed in the world, his logical mind had as yet to see the proof of it. Everything could be explained either by the ruling of Destiny or by natural occurrence.
While Tushratta pondered the dilemma of diagnosing the bizarre case, his assistant bustled around the tent as he made plans for supper. Inspecting their food stores, he noted the quantities of dried beans, rice and lentils; the amounts of flour, dried meat, fruit and cheese. He ran a finger over the sealed earthenware jars of jams and jellies, and then came to the olives, pickled cucumbers, onions, and the other vegetables which were preserved in jars of brine. Occasionally taking out a pinch of dried leaves from small pots, he crushed them between his fingers, inhaling the exotic essences before placing the ingredients in a basin and stirring them together.
"Something a little more festive for supper... Let me see..." Resting his chin between his thumb and forefinger, Aziru mentally inventoried his collection of cooking supplies, utensils and spices. "The camp cook will prepare his usual unimaginative griddle bread for supper and sprinkle the tops of the round loaves with sesame and aniseed, as he always does. He varies but seldom in what he prepares. The man is to be pitied, for he does not have the soul of a true cook!"
"That sounds fine, Aziru," replied the doctor. Not really paying attention to what his assistant was saying, Tushratta stared into space, his mind on other matters.
Aziru shot a sharp glance at the physician. "Each food must compliment every other one upon my table. But there are so many limitations to cooking on the trail! Or perhaps I should say challenges." He sprinkled another spice into the basin. "Such a shame that you and I have been so long away from Bablon, Tushratta, for the cooks there are among the finest in the world. Who else save the chefs of Bablon would devise recipes for over fifty kinds of bread!" Aziru added a little water to the concoction and swirled it around. "Does the Master Physician have a preference for tonight's meal? Something special that I might prepare for him?" A questioning look upon his face, he turned to the physician.
"No, Aziru," he replied absentmindedly. "I have nothing particular that I wish for supper. Beans, rice and lintels prepared in a soup... lamb would be a marvelous addition, but since we do not have it--" Tushratta interrupted himself in mid-sentence, "--you know I am an ordinary man and believe in eating simple meals."
"Of course." Talking out loud to himself, Aziru was not giving his full attention to Tushratta's words. He returned to the inspection of his food supplies. "Ahhh, for some yogurt and turnips! What I would give for even a little fresh, soft cheese!" Aziru exclaimed, closing his eyes and letting his reverie transport him far away. "Master, do you remember the wonderful aroma of Bablon in winter! The glorious city was perfumed by the odor of turnips simmering in date syrup and water. I can still remember the tantalizing fragrance that filled the nostrils on those cool winter days. Surely you remember, Doctor... Doctor?" Aziru turned around, ready to repeat his question, when he realized that the physician was no longer there. He noted that the arras between the two chambers was swaying slightly.
Aziru shook his head. "My friend has gone to the inner chamber to see if the woman has stirred. He does not think I notice the way his eyes shine with affection when he looks at her." Aziru opened the jar of dried lentils and tossed a few handfuls into the liquid. "Tushratta should have his own woman to take care of his needs," he reflected to himself. "For that matter, so should I."
Bending down, he picked up an earthenware container of chickpeas. "Perhaps some lemon juice and garlic would give more taste... then for dessert, dried figs cooked with cinnamon, walnuts and sesame seeds. The physician does not eat enough..." He shook his head. "Perhaps if I add more sugar..."
Later that evening, Aziru was busily absorbed with his cooking when one of the servant boys admitted a young woman, not much more than a girl. A leather case containing a tanbur slung from a strap over her shoulder and a baby held in her arms, the woman smiled shyly under lowered eyelids as she began to kneel.
"Sang-mí, my darling! You do not need do obeisance to me!" Aziru called out. "I will not hear of your bowing!"
"My lord Aziru..."
"Hush, girl!" The physician's assistant walked over to the girl. After helping her to her feet, he held a finger to her lips to silence her protests. "No lord am I, but only an herbalist and a doctor's helper... and a fair cook, if you would count that. Let me hold your child while you put your mantle and lute on that stool over there."
"Master, a woman of my station never assumes anything," she murmured softly as she placed the babe into Aziru's outstretched arms. Unfastening the brooch which held her mantle secured under her chin, she pulled the garment away from her head and shoulders. The removal of her covering revealed a young woman with large brown kohl-lined eyes set in a moon-shaped face, unblemished light olive skin, and a small, round nose. Her dark, shiny tresses fell in tightly coiled ringlets over her shoulders. Her milk-swollen breasts were barely covered by the scandalously low-necked long jacket of dark green which she wore over a flowing blue dress. Her only jewelry was a piece of coral set upon an inexpensive silver-plated chain. Out of all the pleasure slaves which Esarhaddon retained for the use of his men, her eyes were the only ones which yet remained soft and gentle. She had not yet acquired the hard appearance that came with years of use and disillusion.
Looking around the tent, Sang-mí asked, "Where can I make a bed for the child? Am I sleeping with you or the physician tonight... or the both of you?"
"Neither," replied Tushratta's deep voice as he parted the curtain and stepped forward into the room.
"Master," Sang-mí murmured softly as she sank to the carpet and kissed the sleeve of his caftan. Bending down, the physician took her by the hands and pulled her to her feet. Being careful not to raise her eyes to him, she studied the carpet until he cupped her chin and brought her face to gaze into his.
"Sang-mí, how many times must I tell you that you do not have to bow to either of us when you are in my tent? In public, yes, abide by custom, but not here."
"Too many times perhaps, Master, but most men demand that slaves show them the proper deference." Her eyelashes fluttered as she looked up to him. "If I am not to warm the bed of either of you tonight, why have I been commanded by my master Esarhaddon to come here? He sent a slave boy to tell me that you needed my services, and what was I to think except..."
"Not this time, angel of Paradise." Tushratta stroked the silky skin under her chin with the backs of his fingers. Aziru sent the physician a disappointed look as he dandled the child in his arms. "There is another woman inside lying on my couch..."
Sang-mí raised an eyebrow. "You wish for me to kiss and caress her while the two of you watch and indulge yourselves? While sometimes I have been called upon by masters to ready a girl for their pleasure in that way, I must say that I have always been reluctant to do such things, for they go against my natural inclinations."
"Sang-mí, you misunderstand," Tushratta explained. "This is the woman who was found in the tomb. She has never awakened from her unusual slumber, and needs to be watched continuously."
"Oh, Master, I understand now!" She smiled approvingly. "Please take me to her."
After the supper was finished and the dishes were cleared away by the servant boys, the two physicians and the harlot reclined on the cushions on the floor as they drank their tea. Though the physician had politely complimented Aziru on his cooking, Sang-mí had been effusive in her compliments, offering to reward him generously for his efforts later that night.
"Master Aziru, let me show you how much I appreciate your culinary efforts with some sport on your sleeping mat... or on the rug, or the table, or against the tent pole... or anywhere else that you please, for that matter," she offered seductively, her voice deep and throaty. "Perhaps you would enjoy pretending that I am a virgin and that you are examining my virtue... Then when it is found that I am unable to live up to the standards of modesty, you could spank me for my naughtiness."
"I would like that very much, Sang-mí," Aziru breathed heavily as he leaned towards her. Turning to the head physician for approval, he discovered that Tushratta had once again immersed himself in his books and was not giving his attention to the conversation.
Glancing up from a scroll, Tushratta inquired blandly, "What did you say, Sang-mí?"
"Nothing, Master..." she giggled as she assumed an innocent expression and fluttered her long eyelashes modestly at him. "But it is time for my son Nib to be fed." Deftly averting Aziru's groping hands, she scampered to her feet. Bowing as she rose, she retired to the inner chamber, where her child had been sleeping during the meal.
Aziru groaned in displeasure, and Tushratta looked up at him curiously. "Something not agreeing with your stomach?"
"Aye, you could say it was a distress in the lower regions, but it will pass," Aziru replied drolly.
"The girl is gone?" Tushratta inquired questioningly. "Ah, well, it is time for bed anyway," he remarked, gathering up his journal and other papers. Both he and Aziru followed Sang-mí.
Taking up the child, who had been lying on a blanket on the floor and complaining loudly about his hunger, Sang-mí pushed aside her low-cut bodice and shoved a nipple in the child's mouth. Aziru set up his hookah by the low table and watched in fascination as Sang-mí suckled her baby. The chief physician went back to his reading, but found that he had trouble concentrating, for his eyes continually wandered to the nearby couch where the sleeping Goldwyn lay. Tushratta's worry for her had absorbed his thoughts until her plight had become an obsession for him. His concern had increased with the passage of each hour. Once again he read and reread the section called "On the Nature of Those Who Are Afflicted With Evil Spirits" in his well-worn volume.
His forehead wrinkled with concern, Aziru studied the vapor from the pipe. "Are you finding anything in your scrolls that might lead you to a diagnosis and cure? No? I see you shake your head. I thought as much... If you cannot discover anything, perhaps you should put up the parchment and join me in a smoke? You should relax more."
Looking across the table at his assistant, Tushratta's face was clouded in discouragement. "No, no pipe tonight. Perhaps I made a mistake in judgment when I devoted myself totally to medicine and did not study under a shaman in addition. At least then I would have more of an understanding of the occult than I have now." He shook his head. "Actually, we should consult a specialist in these things."
"Too late to do anything about it now, Tushratta," Aziru murmured sleepily as he exhaled a lofty smoke ring. "Khand is too far away to send for help."
The child finished feeding and Sang-mí brushed her lips across his forehead. "The boy is asleep now. Of course, he will soon be hungry again." She made a lyrical sound deep in her throat as she placed the baby upon the bed that Aziru had created for him from a blanket-covered reed mat. When she returned to the physician and his assistant, Sang-mí saw that Aziru's eyes had taken on a glazed appearance.
"Time for me to sleep and dream the dreams of the blessed," he yawned as he languidly rose to his feet and set the stem of the waterpipe upon the tray on the table. "Sleep well, Tushratta, and remember, Sang-mí, if my friend Tushratta allows it, you can always come over and keep me company in my bed."
"Aziru, you know she is not here for that purpose," the physician frowned in displeasure.
"I know, I know, but it does no harm to think." Sighing, the small man walked over to his sleeping mat and stripped down to his loincloth. Yawning prodigiously, he scratched his rotund, hairy stomach and lay down, pulling a blanket over his body as he turned onto his side. Sang-mí watched him with interest as she stood by her son's sleeping pallet. After blowing Aziru a kiss, she turned and walked over to gaze down at the unconscious Goldwyn.
"Sang-mí, rub my back." Closing the book, Tushratta groaned slightly as he stretched his arms.
"Yes, Master," she purred as she swayed over. Kneeling down behind him, she began massaging the taut muscles in his neck and shoulders. "What is wrong with the Northern woman? Her face is ashen, she is cold to the touch, and she barely moves!" Alarmed at her first sight of Goldwyn, Sang-mí gave her head a quick jerk to the side, gesturing towards the sleeping woman.
"That I wish I knew." Tushratta sighed as he leaned back into her probing fingers. "Perhaps this book has the answer, but as yet, I cannot find it... or perhaps it is that I have already found it but do not wish to accept it."
"Master, how long has it been since you have slept?" Sang-mí asked with concern. "You look exhausted!"
"Some sleep during the noon siesta, but that is all since the night before last," Tushratta replied wearily.
"Then please sleep now! Do not fear. I will keep a vigilant watch over the woman and awaken you if she stirs."
"I think I will take your suggestion, Sang-mí. I am so weary that I fear I will fall asleep over my books if I stay here any longer. Extinguish the lanterns and snuff out all the candles, save for one to give you light enough to see by." Stumbling to his feet, Tushratta made his way to his sleeping mat, where he slid off his slippers and began pulling his caftan over his head.
"Master," Sang-mí called softly, "I am ashamed. You should have told me to assist you in undressing... If you should have need for me to bring you comfort and consolation during the night, you have but to command."
No answer greeted her except a great snore, for Tushratta had sprawled onto his mat and was already asleep on the pillows.