Kaveri tried not to tug too obviously at the layers of her mantle. There were several styles for wrapping it, showing the colourful pattern in different ways against the pale minimally-decorated dress beneath, but clearly there was some trick she hadn’t learned for making everything stay comfortably in place. Or maybe she’d just never be able to get accustomed to this much clothing.
Tyrel, beside her, caught her eye and gave her a sympathetic smile, which she returned.
While out for a morning stroll and a discussion about whether there was more to see or if they should leave that night, their attention had been caught by the number of people moving in this direction. Curious, they’d followed, and had joined the crowd. Most of those that comprised it looked, to Kaveri, like the sorts of men and women who did all the daily work of the city, labourers and craftsmen, the owners of very small businesses and those who worked for them, with only a few in finer clothes.
“There was a lot of activity here last night when I was exploring,” Mirren murmured. “I tried to get in and look but a workman chased me off.” Tyrel hadn’t thought much about the ubiquity of cats around humans before Mirren joined them, but virtually everywhere, she was ignored as just another local mouser.
“What kind of activity?” Madoc asked.
“Bringing in a lot of things. Foodstuffs, I think. And a lot of lights were on very late. Finishing work up at the last minute, maybe?”
The assembly had gathered in front of an impressively large building, all neatly-dressed limestone with a few broad steps up to the doubled main doors. The steps were shaded by a great roof, the edges carved with figures and scenes, supported by columns adorned similarly, all the carvings painted in the half-dozen colours that were common in architectural decoration around here.
Flanking the doors were a pair of painted statues, just enough larger than human-sized to be imposing. One was a mature woman in a pale yellow dress and modest green mantle, an infant cradled in one arm and a basket draped over the other, out of which spilled herbs and an infant’s rattle and a mortar and pestle; at her feet, a brown bear-cub stood up on its back feet, one forepaw braced on her leg, to reach for a white ribbon or strip of bandage trailing from the basket. The other was an elderly man in a scarlet-bordered white physician’s gown holding, in one hand, some sort of inexplicable device he was looking at, and in the other, a model of one of the four-spout public fountains that were the water source for less wealthy homes; from his belt dangled a substantial ring of keys at one side, a rectangular case at the other that probably meant something to Enodians. A goose was pressed close against his side, craning its head in rather improbable curiosity about the device. While she didn’t know all the symbolism, that would be both the major gods associated with health and healing, Kaveri figured. Smaller statues stood in niches in the wall to either side, though from here Kaveri had no idea what they represented. Very likely that offered a strong hint as to the purpose of the building.
The chatter stilled as the doors opened. The first out were a pair of women in, interestingly, tunics very like those men typically wore here, brilliantly white ones, though something deep green was both tied as a belt and formed an X from each shoulder to the opposite hip, and each had a long knife at her side, her hair gathered smoothly out of the way. Both looked athletic and alert, scanning the area intently.
“Bodyguards,” Madoc said in an undertone, and Tyrel nodded agreement.
Kaveri spotted another a short distance along the wall, at the base of the stairs, and checked the mirror position on the other side. Sure enough, there was a fourth.
“Someone important,” Tyrel said quietly. “For Enodia, there’s fairly high security. More city patrolmen than usual. Not all in uniforms.”
“Interesting,” Madoc said.
Unusual here: Enodia and its neighbours were an odd blend of tradition and practicality, but it seemed to work very well for them.
The next to emerge from the interior were two grey-haired men in the white robes of a physician, looking enough alike that from here Kaveri doubted she could tell them apart. Another mature man wore a white robe that had bold scarlet borders, and with him was a woman in a green-bordered yellow dress and a green mantle that seemed simpler than most, a yellow veil over her grey hair. Priests of the two healer gods, maybe? A stride behind was a tall woman in the orange-tinged yellow they called saffron here, with sinuous indigo borders, and a mantle of saffron and indigo that looked as sheer as a veil and there was clearly less of it than usual; gold pinned a saffron veil over her silvering hair, and gleamed as heavy dangly earrings and a collection of bangles.
Behind them was another woman. Kaveri suspected there were pleasant curves under the rich indigo-and-emerald draperies wrapped artistically over her pale dress and pinned with gold; more gold secured a green veil over her coiled dark hair, and glittered in her ears and around her wrists. To her left and a step or two behind was a man whose dyed and embroidered costume looked equally expensive if uncommon, the pale blue tunic with its wide forest-green borders long enough to cover his knees and over it an open-fronted blue and green robe of a sort Kaveri had seen only a handful of times. The position reminded her of the one Madoc still fell into automatically with Tyrel at times, close at hand and available but not enough so to be in the way, but nothing suggested to her that he was another bodyguard.
Behind them were a number of other men, whom Kaveri decided were local notables in their best finery, none of which equalled that of the lady and her companion.
She allowed a moment for those around her to arrange themselves, then glanced to the side, at one of the city notables, and nodded.
He stepped forward, and raised his hands for quiet.
“Phleion is honoured to not only be home to this marvellous new facility, but to have Her Gracious Serenity Narcissa Diamantina as our guest to open the door to our citizens.”
Under the considerable cheering, Mirren said, “Royal family. High.”
That explained the extra security, although most places would have had far more for a member of the royal family. But then, everything they’d seen suggested that Enodia’s royals were popular and well-liked, so maybe they felt little need.
Her Gracious Serenity waited courteously for him to step back—Kaveri figured he was the mayor or whatever the local equivalent was—and then turned her attention to the waiting crowd.
“I see,” she said, “that I’m not alone in being excited by this newest addition to your city.” Her voice carried powerfully, without sounding like a shout: a neat trick they’d encountered when Mirren dragged them to the theatre, but rarely outside of that. “Three years ago, Enodia’s first Crown-sponsored public hospital opened in Orthia. The impact on community health has been dramatic. The demand was even higher than we expected, and we’ve had to make some rapid changes since it opened, to make certain that it would never be necessary to turn anyone away. The plan is now to open further hospitals, beginning in major cities. This, of course, is the first step in that plan, the first hospital outside the capital. All citizens of the nation are important to us, and while we would like everyone to have a life of security and comfort, poverty is a difficult weight to shift. For many people, an injury or illness can be catastrophic. They cannot afford the services of a physician, or they cannot afford to follow that physician’s best advice or to purchase the medicine recommended. Women bear children at great personal risk, often in unsanitary surroundings without a midwife, and often must soon after get up and perform household tasks, increasing their risk.” She paused while the crowd muttered agreement about the injustice.
“The temples of Neaira and Makarios do their best,” her gesture acknowledged the man in white and red and the woman in yellow and green, “and many of their priests are highly skilled, but they were meant as houses of worship, and lack the facilities to meet the need. Both temples have been enthusiastic partners in this venture, as have those of several other gods with an interest in health and healing, and their priests work beside secular physicians in Orthia and will do so here. Aithre’s Oracles have given it their blessing and have foreseen positive results to this project. The new public hospitals will ensure that the injured and the sick have access to the services of a physician without cost and without judgement. Women can bear their children in a clean safe setting with expert midwives at hand, and have time to recover and will leave with necessary supplies. The nursing staff will make sure that those who come here receive care promptly in an emergency, and that those who need to stay longer have clean bedding, healthy meals, and any assistance they need.” She paused briefly after each statement to let the cheering fade. It certainly sounded not only compassionate but sensible to Kaveri, far more so than she was used to civilized cultures coming up with.
“There has been some concern in the capital about physician students within the hospitals, fears that they will use patients as practice. I can assure you that all students will be closely supervised. Each new generation of physicians needs to learn, this is highly important, but not at the expense of patient safety.” Another pause, a longer one.
“Another issue has arisen repeatedly in the hospital in the capital. Patients have been advised that they should stay for several days, but they have been unable to do so without losing their livelihood, which may affect not only them but a spouse, elderly parents, children. This has led several times to tragic consequences that could have been avoided. To this end, a new law is coming into force.”
That silenced the crowd—in surprise, Kaveri thought.
“Hospital physicians will have the right and responsibility of providing a written document to patients in genuine need which can then be delivered to an employer. To terminate employment as the result purely of a stay in the hospital will result in a fine for a first offence, with heavier penalties for repeated offences. We feel that this is the best way to ensure that the health of our citizens is given the priority it deserves.”
Dead stillness, for the span of a couple of heartbeats, before the eruption of voices—some cheering, some not so pleased.
“Formal notice,” the princess’ voice climbed over the uproar, firmly. “Formal notice will be provided to all businesses registered in the tax records over the next few days, here and in Orthia. After the Midsummer celebrations end, this law will be enforced. A strong and healthy population means a strong and healthy nation, and that ultimately benefits all of us. Health should not be a privilege of the wealthy, but a right of all citizens.”
Both brothers half-turned, scanning the unsettled mass of humans around them. Kaveri glanced at Mirren, who was by far the best judge of anything within a city, and found her frowning thoughtfully but not particularly apprehensive, so Kaveri assumed she wasn’t anticipating a riot. The grumbling was probably on the part of business-owners who feared they’d have to keep an employee whose health was failing. Kaveri had no sympathy at all. Even in Dunnval, being injured or ill meant being off-duty for a while and missing opportunities for plunder, but not being tossed outside the palisades and abandoned, and within her own people, the ill or injured were tended without complaint by the rest of the tribe, each aware that they could be the next to need it.
Kieran raised his head, sniffing at the air. Not only his nostrils flared, but he opened his mouth, inhaling to catch every trace of scent. Kaveri glanced down distractedly, wondering what had caught his attention.
Then he growled, a low and threatening sound that made the fine hairs stand up on the back of her neck. Slowly, his ears flattened and the fur along his spine rose, muscle tensing visibly, the growl increasingly deep and guttural.
Not in all the time she’d known him had she ever heard a sound like that from the amarog.
Nearby townspeople began to edge farther away, quite understandably.
(chapter continued next post!)