Rukhnis did not particularly mind the heat of the day, but nevertheless she was glad to slip through the doors and into the cool shadows of the Jumana Bimaristan. She stood in a dim corner of the entryway for a few moments, watching the flow of sombre-robed physicians and all manner of potential patients as they streamed past the fountain and off down what looked to be the central corridor of the hospital. There was a hum of voices and activity, a strained note of worry and tension in the air, a muffled hint of cries that might have been distressing if she had been closer to hear them better. But it was all, somehow, soothingly familiar.
She closed her eyes, letting out a long breath. It felt right to be here, even though she had never set foot through the doors before. This was the kind of place she was meant to be. Everything had gone so terribly awry these last few weeks. Well, no, in truth they had gone wrong many more weeks before that, she had only not realized it until the evening of the day she and Ras had set foot upon the docks of Omrazir. But all would be well now. Somehow, it would be.
A sudden stirring jolted the inside of her belly, and equally jolted her out of her thoughts. She let out a grunt, in spite of herself, and leaned back against the wall with a sigh and a surreptitious rub at the small of her back. That does not matter, she told herself. I can still work, and I will still work.
There was a quiet rustling closer to her, and then a voice. "Sayyida?" Opening her eyes, Rukhnis found that this polite address had come from an older man, with the slightly stooped posture and gnarled hands of one touched by a lifetime of vigorous work. "Sayyida, may I help you?"
She straighted up, feeling a little sheepish to have been caught out in such a weak and lazy moment. "Yes, please," she told the man. "I have need to speak with someone who is in charge of this hospital's affairs. Can you tell me where I would find such a person?"
"Ah," the man said, his face crinkling up in a smile even as his nut-brown eyes observed her with concern. "I hope you have had no trouble with anything at the bimaristan."
"Not in the least," Rukhnis assured him -- she had not had time to have any trouble yet, even if she had expected any. "I only need to speak with someone about..." She pondered. "Staffing matters."
The older man peered at her curiously for a few seconds longer, then dipped his head in acquiescence. "As you wish, sayyida. We are near the offices just now. Follow me, please." He beckoned her with a sweep of his arm that also seemed to offer it as a support if she needed it. But that was quite absurd; she was well enough. Nodding to him in return, she simply fell in beside him and followed along as he passed through a smaller doorway to one side of the lobby.
Walking down a very short corridor, it was only a moment before the man opened another door for her, and ushered her into a small office. Despite its size it was nicely appointed, with pretty brass lamp fixtures, classically plush Irzali carpets, and a low wooden desk with short cushioned stools on either side of it. On one of them sat another man, much younger than the one who had conducted Rukhnis to this space, and on seeing the two of them enter he rose with a bow.
"This woman wishes to speak with you, Administrator," the older man told the younger, with a much deeper bow. As the so-titled administrator inclined his head, the elder concluded, "I leave her in your hands," and with no more than that saw himself out.
Rukhnis and the administrator surveyed one another from opposite sides of the desk. Like the man who had shown her in he was Sirdabi, with a similarly high forehead and aquiline nose. He was certainly a great deal younger, perhaps only in his middle twenties, but his dark brown eyes were not, Rukhnis thought, unintelligent. They were also slightly worried and more than a little bemused, and for a moment he stroked his goateed chin with an uncertain motion that suggested he wasn't quite sure what to make of her. But just as she opened her mouth to be the first to say something, he spoke.
"Sayyida," he greeted her, with a sudden solicitous smile and wave of the hand. "Please, sit, before you do yourself harm." Harm? Rukhnis thought in confusion. Why should he think-- "I will have one of our women's physicians conduct you to the mothers' and children's ward immediately." Seeing her sudden frown, he asked, "I hope you have no complaint with the hospital's services, sayyida?"
"I-- no. No," Rukhnis said, "you misunderstand me." She shook her head at him. "I have not come here as a patient. I have come here to work." He opened his mouth, looking faintly confused, so she quickly elaborated. "As a physician. I am here to work as one of your physicians."
The administrator shut his mouth slowly, and simply looked at her for a moment, eyes traveling up and down her form. She was not sure just what he was seeing when he kept looking at her -- besides, she thought in annoyance, the fact that she was pregnant, which had certainly not been any plan of hers and had no bearing on the much more important fact of her being a physician. She was neatly and plainly dressed, as suited the role, even if everything but her blouse was several years old. It was all tidy, and mended with serviceable skill. But he still continued to study her for several moments with an unreadable look.
"I see," the man finally said, well past the point at which Rukhnis had begun to feel a disagreeable mixture of discomfort and irritation at being made to endure such a long inspection. "Well, I-- would you please at least sit, sayyida?" He sounded almost a little bit pleading, as if he didn't know what he would do if a pregnant woman continued simply to stand there speaking to him from the floor in the middle of his office.
Rukhnis eyed him for a moment -- Can he truly believe I am an invalid? -- before saying, "Very well," and taking a seat upon the stool. I will be gracious, she thought with magnanimity, and humour this silly man's silly whims.
"Good, good," the man murmured, appearing somewhat relieved. "Thank you, sayyida. Now..." He trailed off, and the look of uncertainty returned to his face. "Are you.. quite sure you wouldn't like me to have someone take you to the womens' ward, to, er, address your concerns there?"
"I do not have any concerns," Rukhnis asserted dismissively. "Save that I be employed here in some useful capacity, making use of my skills as a physician to help all those who come here for treatment." Among whom I am not included, she said to him with a stare.
"Aahhh, yes, of course, sayyida. As you say." His dark eyebrows drew together as he seemed to consider how to proceed with what Rukhnis felt should have been a perfectly straightforward interview. "And what are your, er, credentials for such work?"
"Ah yes," Rukhnis said, confidence filling her voice. "I have them here with me, for you to see." Here she felt on very firm and steady ground -- her credentials were impeccable. She dug into her old canvas bag, the stained but still sturdy one that had belonged to a friend so long ago, and pulled out a roll of fine paper which she spread out upon the desk in front of the man. The paper was heavy and creamy, the writing on it elegantly flourished, the wax seal at the bottom a rich sanguine that exuded authority. Sitting up straighter on her stool, she stated proudly, "This is my certificate to practice medicine as a full physician in the markets of al-Sabiyyah. I served an apprenticeship in that city under the great master physician al-Ghazali, and after that worked independently in the city for some time."
Well, it had not been quite so seamless as that. She had returned to the Desert of Fallen Stars after her apprenticeship, to become the Dreamsinger for her people and endure all that followed thereafter. And then once she had been returned to al-Sabiyyah by the slavers, it had only been a few months that she had actually worked in the city by herself, before the agents of the Augur or Kaleet or whoever it had been had come to try to murder her or kidnap her or whatever they had wanted, but that was of no matter. She had done good work while she had been there. But the administrator was simply frowning at the bottom of the sheet.
".. 'Granted'," he read, "in this, the seven hundred and ninetieth year of the age of the New Dawn.'" He looked up from the paper to peer at her critically. "This is from nearly ten years ago. So you practiced medicine in al-Sabiyyah from then until now? What caused you to leave the place where you were registered and come here?"
Rukhnis's brow creased. He did not have to make it sound like such a crime to come to a new city. She was sure physicians must travel about all the time, if they were of a mind to. Al-Ghazali had not, but then he was well established in al-Sabiyyah and had no need to do so; although for that matter, how had he even met her other teacher, the former Dreamsinger of the Free People, if he had never traveled...? Now that she reflected on the matter, it was quite a conundrum. She realized she had been lost in silent thought for a moment too long when the man prompted, "Sayyida...?"
"Oh," Rukhnis said, shaking her head with a frown, dismissing the thoughts that were not important just now. "No. After some time I..." (was nearly murdered or kidnapped) ".. took ship..." (stowed away) "... across the sea to..." (wherever the ship had planned to go, which she hadn't known, until they had discovered her onboard and thrown her out midway, leaving her to eventually make her way on her own to) "... Ensor."
He truly was staring at her now. "An-Sor?" he asked, sounding faintly disbelieving. "You left off practicing medicine in the markets of al-Sabiyyah, and took ship for the barbarian Kingdom of An-Sor?"
She blinked, consideringly. The barbarian kingdom. She thought of how the nobles there had behaved, their oppression of the peasantry, their ridiculous sense of lofty entitlement, their denial of the clear rights of commoners as free human beings entitled to self-governance and respect as all people were. It had been a very barbaric kingdom, she reflected regretfully. "Ah. Yes," she agreed with a nod. "The Kingdom of An-Sor." Seeing the look on his face, she hastened to add, "Nevertheless, they are not unskilled in medicine in that land, and their physicians possessed knowledge and talent." Which most of them failed entirely to use properly, she aded to herself, disapprovingly. But I was not so.
He smiled thinly. "No doubt they have their own.. customs, yes."
Rukhnis frowned back. "Yes," she answered, not sure what other response to make. "In any case, once there I settled in Imbryck -- the capital city of Ensor," she explained, seeing his look of incomprehension. "I was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians, where I was after a time raised to the position of Assistant Master of the College. And then," she went on, raising her chin as pride glowed in her eyes, "I became the Headmaster of the Royal College."
The administrator regarded her with an odd look which she wasn't quite sure how to read. "I... see," he said, after a substantial pause. "You came to the Kingdom of An-Sor, with some small experience practicing in al-Sabiyyah, and then, after a few years spent in this kingdom where you were unknown to anyone except as a woman from a foreign land, you were raised to be.. master of their country's guild?"
"Yes," Rukhnis confirmed proudly, then frowned a little at his expression. "I was a very good physician." She frowned harder still, corrected, "I am a very good physician." But he was still just looking at her, and suddenly she could guess something of his thoughts. It was perhaps a little implausible, she allowed. It did perhaps seem as if, should such an improbable thing have happened at all, that it might only have been because the Barbarian Kingdom of Ensor was so backwards that it would promote even an inexperienced foreigner to lead its college of supposed master physicians. And then of course there was the matter of her having left that supposedly exalted position to come here... But that was not how it really had been. Seeing the skepticism in the administrator's gaze, a faint fluttering of panic awoke in her, but she pushed it aside. He will see, she thought firmly. I will show him.
Reaching back into her bag, she pulled out a small stack of books and laid them gently on the table, in pride of place at the center. "I treated many cases in Ensor," she assured the administrator importantly. "Some of them mundane, others quite difficult and dangerous. They are all recorded here." She dipped her chin towards the books in a solemn nod. "My case histories."
That, Rukhnis saw with satisfaction, had actually startled him a little -- he hadn't expected her to take such detailed note of her work, or to have so much of it to note. Feeling pleased and reassured, she folded her arms above her belly and inclined her head to the man, granting him permission to read. He cleared his throat slightly, looked back down at the books, opened the cover of the topmost one... and stared at the page with a frown of bemused consternation.
It was only then she realized her mistake.
When she had written her case studies she had done so in such a way that others in Ensor could understand it, especially clever but ordinary people like Theora who worked at the clinic. Her case studies were all written in Ilexi. Rukhnis's eyes widened a little, and she could feel the heat of a sudden embarrassment and anxiety creep into her cheeks.
"What is this...?" Gibberish, said something in his tone, and the distasteful gesture of his hand towards the page.
"It is.. it is Ilexi," she told him, not liking the degree to which her anxiety intruded upon the sound of her words. "The language of the people of Ensor."
"I see....." he said again. He flipped to the next page, filled with the same writing in the same script, then the next, then the next, and the next, fingers moving faster as he leafed through them, finding nothing different. Finally he sighed, closing the book, and looked at her almost pityingly. "Can you write in Sirdabi, sayyida?"
Rukhnis bristled visibly, anger joining her dismay and embarrassment. "Of course I can write in Sirdabi," she replied curtly. "My father trained me to write Tessouare in the Sirdabi script, and as you can tell I learned Sirdabi itself very well during my time in al-Sabiyyah." As the man stared at her with polite condescension, it came to her for the first time that perhaps her Sirdabi was not in fact all it could be, from the point of view of a native Sirdabi administrator. She did not, she realized, sound quite like him. But after all, she told herself, that hardly mattered -- he had said write.
She frowned at him, re-emphasizing, "I can write in Sirdabi with perfect proficiency. And regardless of the language, these books are filled with my many cases." You can see how many volumes there are, she wanted to say, but realized how childish that would sound, as if the number of them were all that mattered. But it meant nothing. He cannot read them. They are nothing but scribbles in a barbarian script, to him. Her eyes shifted among all the items she had laid out on the table for his inspection. But the other things...
The administrator, too, looked them over, with rather a weary air. "Yes, well...." He rubbed one hand across the neatly trimmed goatee on his chin, sighed again. "Are you sure, sayyida," he asked carefully, "that there aren't other places where your... talents... might be put to better use?" Like a traveling circus, something about his demeanour seemed to say.
Rukhnis looked back at him; she could feel the dismay painted across her face. He really does not think I am fit to work here. All this means nothing to him. It means less than nothing; it means proof that I have used my time poorly, wasted it in a barbarian backwater, and have done nothing meaningful. The idea stung her. It is not true. The flush that crept across her face deepened, and she could feel that too.
"I am sure," she answered him, a surge of sudden desperation striking her. "I will-- I will take the physicians' exam here as well, to prove my ability and to become registered to practice independently here as I was.. elsewhere." She winced a little, realizing how desperate and unsure she now sounded.
"I don't think that will be necessary for the time being." Relief pulsed through her, and was instantly swept away by his next words. "I will assign you to work under one of the physicians here so that you can.. learn how things are done here at the Jumana Bimaristan." Which will be far different than in those barbaric places you have spent your time before, his tone implied. "And he will find you work fitting for one in your... delicate condition." His eyes flickered briefly towards her belly, then back to her face with a faintly strained look.
That was simply too much. "I do not require to be treated differently just because I am with child!" Rukhnis exclaimed, feeling angrier still at the little wince on his face as she stated her "condition" so bluntly. Giving him a look of irritated begrudgement, she continued shortly, "I know that I must not do anything very laborious. Such as rescuscitations, or the amputation of limbs." He looked aghast to even hear her -- a woman in delicate condition -- speak of such things, which only fuelled her anger. "I am a physician," she fumed. "I know very well what I am capable of, in any condition, and what I am not. And I am capable of a very great deal."
He opened his mouth as if to argue further, but then, to her relief, closed it without doing so. "Yes, sayyida, of course. You know best." And then in those condescending words, and in that use of sayyida still instead of physician, she realized he was refraining from argument not because he truly meant that, but because he had decided it was not worth it to argue. He had decided that he would humour the delusional woman, and she would go away and all would turn out well in the end. We will see about that, she thought, eyes smouldering. All will turn out well. I will show him.
She decided it was not worth her time to argue either. "Very good," she said flatly, scooping up all her books and papers and restoring them carefully to her satchel. She snapped it shut with a sharp click of the latch, and rose to her feet as gracefully and authoritatively as she could still manage. "You may expect me back here tomorrow afternoon." And I will expect you to have work for me, she thought. "Peace be upon you," she told him, and, before he could say another word, left him to sit alone at his desk and look forward to that event in silence.