When Firuz had arrived in Qilwa, the plague had already taken hold. Had already seized the lives of Sassanians and Dilmunis and Qilwans alike. Filled the streets with stacked bodies, bloated into the sea separating the island from Dilmun’s coast. Firuz barely shut their eyes at night before the swollen faces of the dead loomed before them, the puffed and cracked lips, eyeballs bulging or else sleepy and half-lidded as though in contemplation, and the stench. The sweet, weighty smell of infection. The blooming rot of a corpse.
Kofi cupped an elbow while his other hand bracketed his chin, tapped his cheekbone. Fine lines stemmed from the corners of his mouth and eyes, though Firuz could not tell if he was ten or twenty or even thirty years older than themself. “Trained as a healer, have you?”
“Not . . . not quite. Well, yes.” Firuz pulled their shoulders back, readjusted their feet to stand steady, project a confidence they didn’t feel. “I was unable to complete my training, but I have enough knowledge to be an assistant. I think this plague is curable, and if anyone spent time on people other than the rich, we could get it under control.”
Kofi’s nostrils flared, the action darkening his otherwise pleasant features. “Ah, yes. Have you heard the governor’s latest plan to streamline how healers see our patients, on suggestion of the university’s scholars?” To Firuz’s shock, Kofi spat on the ground, glaring at the wad of spittle. “Migrants flood the city, an outbreak of disease happens, and what do we do? Bar the gates and hoard resources for ourselves, let people die in the streets instead of granting them a dignified passing. By those who call themselves learned people, no less.” A vein pulsed in Kofi’s temple. He massaged it. “Ah, there I go again, prattling about something I cannot change.” He disappeared again into the back, returning with a wet rag which he used to mop up the evidence of his contempt. “Well, they-Firuz, tell me a bit about your training. I could certainly use the help.”
Firuz liked how Kofi said their name; usually, the pronoun was dropped after introductions, but from Kofi it sounded affectionate, a nickname. What they did not like was the reasonable request for more information. Their prepared answers faded from their mind as though they’d numbed themself with poppy. “I—ah—did you say you work here alone?” Since Kofi had not done it, they sidled over to the samovar and opened the jar of long tea leaves behind it to dump some in the waiting pot. Potentially a good blend—aromatic and floral.
Kofi rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm. This close, the bags under them hung heavy. “Unfortunately, the governor enticed my last assistant away to head a clinic of her own, and I am left these many months without help.” He sighed as he gathered the baskets on the floor. “I don’t suppose you speak Sassanian? Half of those coming in don’t even know Dilmuni. My love, may hos soul soar in cloudless skies”—here Kofi’s eyes flicked to the tapestry of the Sassanian god—“only taught me a little of the language, before hu died, and this was many years ago, when I was still young.”
Was this a test? Sweat beaded at Firuz’s hairline. Skies, they’d never been this jumpy back home, but if the healer connected Sassanian with training as a healer, then blood magic user probably wasn’t far behind. Not that Kofi would have to make those connections, as long as he looked Firuz in the eyes and knew the subtle red that rimmed them—a feature that developed in most after training, in some if their natural affinity to blood was strong. How would he take it, were he to find out? Firuz didn’t know how Qilwans felt about the Sassanian science, but they feared the possibilities.
They reapplied pressure from their thumbnail to their index as they waited for the water to boil. Insofar as there were any Sassanians left from the original tribe—a feat nigh impossible after nearly two millennia of empire and three centuries of their own conquest by Dilmun—they did, theoretically, resemble Firuz. Ethnic Sassanians, though, spanned groups; besides, Sassanians and Dilmunis looked so alike with their hooked noses and range of olive skin tones and thick, dark brown or even black hair. Firuz could admit their own linguistic knowledge without revealing more.
Strange, though, about the others not speaking what should have been their second tongue. Modern Sassanian, as a spoken language, was speckled with Dilmuni, and the people who still knew it—blood adepts and rural folk, mostly—were almost always bilingual. After all, Dilmun was their home. Well, had been their home.
“You know,” Firuz ventured, lifting the spigot to pour water into the teapot when the glug of boiling began, “they might be afraid of you.”
“Afraid?” Kofi tilted his head, hand poised to pick up the baskets he’d been filling with sorted plants. “Why would they be afraid? I’m a healer, not whatever is hunting them across the sea.”
Firuz flinched so hard, they nearly dropped the teapot. One thing to know the current fate of their people, another to hear the careless mention tossed out like trash to be burned. Taking a deliberately slow, deep breath against their rising heartrate, they stacked the pot on top of the samovar and searched for a towel to cover it. Finding none, their wild pulse now demanding acknowledgement, they pressed two fingers to their neck, willing it to calm. “They don’t know you, Kofi-khan. They don’t know whom to trust.” Kofi turned, lips pursed, trying to balance two piles of baskets; Firuz hovered for a beat before stepping forward to take one. “Where does this go? Do you have something to cover the tea with?”
“Back room with the blue curtain. We can grab a towel from there as well.” Kofi shifted the remaining baskets onto a hip, as if the tower were a child, without toppling the precious cargo. “You raise an interesting point, they-Firuz. Let’s see what else you can do.”