The royal physician, Galena by name, examined the festering bruise just below the king’s ribcage. The king lay in a sleeping stupor. A state he had been in for three days, and yet it was only now, and only by order of the queen that the royal physician was allowed to examine her king.
Galena peered down at the bruise, around the margins of which there appeared an oozing of bright purple fluid.
“I had thought him a fool, but a harmless one,” the queen said.
Galena did not look up as she answered. “Is there such a thing?”
But she too had thought him harmless, the one of whom the queen spoke, the only one to whom the king had turned to for the care of his health over the past half year.
The queen clasped her hands together and leaned over her king. “But here before our very eyes is proof of that which we did not believe. The purple fluid, just below his ribs. Is that not the royal organ that seeps? Is that not the regididymus?”
“Regididymus? What quackery is this? There is no such organ.” Galena smirked at the man.
“How can you be sure, physician?”
His name was Charlock, and it was three days after he had introduced himself to king and court as a healer. And it was half a year before the king would fall into a stupor whose cause was unknown, the only clue being a festering wound just below his ribs.
Galena could not have guessed that the man would soon be her rival, and thereafter would supplant her. Else, she might have judged him more harshly. He was a new type of healer, he said.
But he ascribed to many old notions, such as the four humors of the body.
He called himself a didymedicus, a healer who had the skill of treating one’s physical self by treating one’s shadow-twin-self. In his previous treatment of other royals, he had discovered the existence of a fifth humor, which he called “royal bile.” A secret organ just below the ribcage, secreted this royal bile, a purple fluid that imbued those of royal bloodlines with special strengths. He called this organ the “royal organ,” in common parlance, or in professional parlance, the “regididymus.”
“Of your talent in medicine, I am unsure,” Galena had said, “but you certainly have a talent for wordsmithing.”
This earned a chuckle from others who were present, but who dared not to speak so to the man who had earned the king’s highest favors.
“Those who only study the physical body would never find the regididymus,” Charlock explained over a lunch reluctantly attended by his fellow courtiers, after his new appointment as the royal didymedicus. “When sapped by illness, injury, or other forces, this powerful yet delicate organ would first shut down, then shrivel and vanish altogether, a process that also happens naturally as a royal ages. And no matter the age, the organ is absorbed by the body upon death.”
Galena narrowed her eyes and nodded. “How convenient.”
Charlock grinned. “It is indeed. The organ hides itself from us. But we have found it, and now that we have, we can take all the better care of our precious royals, can we not?”
Perhaps Charlock was sincere at first; perhaps he never was. But the “we” he spoke of never came to be. In the coming months, the king turned more and more toward his royal didymedicus, and less and less toward his royal physician.
The king had always been hale and hearty, ever since he was a young boy, when Galena first began to care for him. A swindler pretending at being a healer would have little to do or to risk by latching onto a healthy sovereign. Galena had her doubts about Charlock, but she was ever a student of new—and sometimes old—ways. She resolved to keep her eye on the king and his didymedicus. So long as Charlock did not harm anyone, Galena would let him be. And after all, the king had many other protectors. The queen was not moved by the didymedicus’s charms, and neither was the captain of the royal guards. And if Galena sensed even a shadow of danger approaching her king, she would cast a light upon that shadow, and extinguish it.
But there came no shadow, no warning, before the king collapsed one day, six months after welcoming a charlatan into his court.
When the queen found the king’s wound, observed its nature, she had cause at last to keep the royal didymedicus from the king. For Charlock claimed that only he knew how to manipulate the royal organ. If the royal organ was in distress, and there was no other obvious cause, then the didymedicus himself must surely be the cause.
The queen called Galena to examine the king. And she called the captain of the royal guard, Aasim by name, to arrest the royal didymedicus.
The arrest was cold comfort to those at court who doubted the didymedicus. For it seemed it was already too late for the king.
“Is he dying?” the queen asked, twisting her robes in her fist.
Galena shook her head. “I do not know.”
“I had hoped that separating him from…from the…I had hoped that the distance would free him from whatever has a grip on him.”
Galena understood what the queen was trying to say. Charlock claimed he did not need to examine his patient’s bodies to gauge their health, but he still had to be within sight of them to summon their shadow twins. It was this twin that he examined. He claimed it showed him far more than a physician could see in a living person’s body. He could see the organs within, particularly his favorite organ, the royal organ. If Charlock was able to harm the king through this shadow twin, the queen had hoped that locking the man away from the king would sever his connection to the king’s shadow twin. Even if the queen did not believe in such things as shadow twins, it was all that she could think to do.
A knock at the royal bedchamber door announced the arrival of Captain Aasim. He swept toward the bed shadowed by two of his men.
“The culprit is detained,” Aasim said. “He claims to know nothing.”
A bit too late for that claim, Galena thought. For the queen’s sake, she kept the thought from leaving her lips, but she glanced at the captain, who caught her gaze. His chest and shoulders rose and fell in a silent sigh that seemed to indicate that he understood her sentiment.
Galena turned to the queen. “If we are to investigate properly, we must learn as many details as we can. The king has not allowed me to examine him for many months now. I know little of the state of his recent health. When did this wound first manifest? Did he feel ill before it did? When was the last time that Charlock examined the king’s…twin spirit self?”
At the mention of Charlock’s name, the queen put a hand to her stomach and her shoulders heaved forward.
Galena rose from her king’s bedside. “My queen, stay with the king. He is feverish. You must keep him cool, dry, and comfortable. I’ve changed his dressings. I will return to change them again. If he wakes, if anything changes, please have someone fetch me. In the meantime, Captain Aasim and I will find out what we can. We will report all to you.”
The queen nodded to both, and she settled in a chair beside the king.
“The king took a trip recently,” Galena said, as she and Aasim strode down the hallway. They were headed toward the palace prison. “Could he have contracted some illness during his travels?”
“That was weeks ago.”
“And neither you, nor I, nor any other courtier or royal went with him. He only took his trusted didymedicus.”
Aasim grunted. “He would not listen to my protestations. This is my doing. I should not have allowed that pretender to whisper his spells into our king’s ears.”
“Captain, I could easily say it is my doing. I allowed myself to be supplanted. To have too much faith in the good health of my king’s body. I did not equally consider or care for the health of his mind.”
“Our king is not weak-minded.”
“Nor am I, I should say. Yet I have fallen prey to charlatans in the past, especially in my youth. And I still might under the proper conditions.”
“What do you hope to learn from the pretender? If he has harmed the king, he will not admit. Even if even he does admit it, he will not help us to save the king.”
“And what if he has not harmed the king?”
“I would never harm the king. Please! You must believe me.”
Charlock paced back and forth in his cell. His breathing was rapid. His eyes darted to and fro. And his thin brows were knotted.
“For many months now, he has only been under your care,” Galena said. “Unless you know of another who has examined or treated our king.”
Charlock winced. “Yes, I know, physician. I know why I am suspected, though I have done nothing to the king.”
“When is the last time you examined him?” Galena asked.
Charlock stopped pacing. He cast his eyes down and blinked. He looked up at Galena, then dropped his gaze. “Two days past.”
“And he seemed well?”
“Can you describe the state of his…regididymus?”
Charlock swallowed. He raised his head and met Galena’s gaze. “What has happened to him? Will you tell me?” His gaze shifted for a moment toward Captain Aasim, who no doubt had told him nothing.
Galena described the king’s condition and the strange wound beneath his ribs.
“The exact position of the royal organ,” she said. “The skin is unbroken. The damage appears to be internal. It would seem the organ suffered a blow, and by proximity, the muscle and skin above the organ suffered the blow as well.”
Charlock again cast his gaze aside. “It cannot be…” he whispered.
Galena stepped toward him. “What cannot be?”
“Will the king recover? Or will he…?”
The clatter of boots interrupted the interrogation.
Galena kept her eyes on Charlock as Aasim turned to face the guard who had called out to him.
She heard the chill dread in the guard’s words. “It’s the queen.”
No one knew the exact moment that the king had collapsed. He’d been alone in his chambers for hours. Only when the queen came to fetch him for dinner did she find him crumpled upon the floor.
But the queen’s two most trusted attendants had been with her when she collapsed no less than a few hours since she had spoken with Galena.
Galena stood over the queen’s bed. “She complained of no pains, no discomfort, other than seeing the king fallen ill.”
“Perhaps her worry over the king masked the signs she might otherwise have noticed,” Aasim suggested.
The royal physician nodded. “You could be right.”
“Could this be a contagion?” he wondered aloud.
“If so, we are already exposed. But we must keep the princes and the princess away, though they will want to see their mother and father.”
“I can arrange it. But if it is contagion, could they not have already been exposed? What then?”
“Then we must investigate faster. Captain, you must bring Charlock up here.”
“Are you certain? Will his presence not make them worse?”
Galena bit her lip and gazed down at her sleeping queen. “He was nowhere near the queen when she fell ill.”
“He could be lying about needing to be close.”
“If his aim was to kill them, and he is able to do so from his cell, then what is he waiting for?”
Captain Aasim exhaled a sigh. “I have already once ignored my better judgment about that man.”
Galena turned to the captain. “He had the king’s ear. He had the king’s favor. If he was going to harm anyone, why the king? Why not someone who doubts him? You, or me, or even the queen, yes. But not the king.”
“Perhaps the king’s favor was turning against him.”
“I suppose it could be,” Galena said, “though I saw no signs of it. Perhaps this was part of his plan all along. Perhaps whatever he has done to the king, and now the queen, will serve as proof that his claims about the royal organ and the royal bile are true. But if he is rotting away in prison, nothing will come of this reputation and rumor. The king and queen must recover for the royal didymedicus to be vindicated.”
Captain Aasim nodded. “You think perhaps that if we let him near the king and queen, he will administer a cure, and they will recover.”
“And he will claim victory and move on to another kingdom, before those of us who doubt him can close in on him.”
“It would seem a good plan. Are we certain he is bright enough to have devised it?”
Galena shook her head. “It’s a dangerous plan. Charlock does seem to have some knowledge of herbs and poultices. He must know that there is no telling how a particular person will react to a particular substance. I have been stung by a bee before, and suffered no more than some pain and swelling. But I know that the same venom that is relatively harmless to me may be deadly to some. I have been taught it. And I once witnessed it myself. Either the king or queen, or both, might have easily died already. Even if he does not care for their lives, he knows that the laws of our land would require imprisonment for any who are even suspected of poisoning a royal. I myself would now be in your prison, Captain, if it wasn’t for the fact that I haven’t been near the king in months.”
“If Charlock has administered some venom or toxin, then he surely has an accomplice. He was locked away when the queen fell ill.”
“Not necessarily. The effects of some poisons can be quite slow. And we must remember, Captain, that we might be wrong about all of this. It makes for a logical story. But we cannot let our misgivings about Charlock influence our investigation. The lives of our sovereigns depend on us finding the truth—whether we approve of that truth or not.”
“Physician, I remembered something,” Charlock said, as he entered the royal bedchamber. He glanced at the bed where both the king and the queen now lay.
“What is it?”
“I think…I think someone else may have examined our king. When you mentioned it earlier, I knew you said it in mocking. I know that the king has refused to see you for many months now.”
Galena cleared her throat. “The examinations of a physician have never been pleasant. The drawing of blood. The mortification of disrobing before one who is not your lover. And the further indignity of having that one put their hands upon your most intimate parts. It is no wonder to me that the king welcomed an examination that required nothing of him but to sit still for a few moments.”
Charlock attempted a smile. “Indeed, it is why I did not suspect that the king had agreed to a physical examination. He dismissed me one night. I thought little of it. He was dining with his cousin, a fellow king. But…the physician was with them too. I expected he would soon be dismissed as well. But the next morning, I noticed the king was pale and tired and—“
“When, Charlock? When was this?” Galena asked.
“The last time the king left the kingdom, to see his cousin. A friendly kingdom. A friendly king. To him perhaps. But not to me. Their royal physician disapproved of me. He was not so gracious as you are in displaying his disapproval.”
“And you think this physician may have examined our king?”
Charlock nodded. “And the next morning, the king was pale and listless. He claimed to just be tired. I offered to treat his exhaustion, but he refused. It was the first time he refused my offer.”
“But all seemed unchanged when you two returned, at least by my observation,” Galena said.
“And mine. I had believed all was well, until now.”
Galena grasped him by the shoulders, startling him. “Is this your doing, didymedicus? Tell me.”
Charlock’s eyes widened, but he did not look away from her. “No, physician. I swear it.”
Galena released him. “Then examine the wounds as I change their dressings. Perhaps the sight of royal bile will arouse more memories.”
This Charlock did, but the sight of the viscous purple fluid oozing from the severe bruises on each monarch’s skin aroused only shock and revulsion in the royal didymedicus.
Galena noted that the margins of the king’s bruise was growing, and as it did, his fever worsened. His heart beat weakly, and the breaths he drew were so slight that she could not measure them by the rise and fall of his chest. She attached a clean down feather upon his lip so that its movement would signify that he still breathed.
She collected some of the fluid from both sovereigns and subjected the substance to all the tests she could think to apply. For the sake of time, she recruited Charlock’s aid, despite Captain Aasim’s continued suspicions.
She had moved many of her chemicals, tools, and apparatuses into the receiving room beside the royal bedchamber, so that she would be close enough to the sovereigns to react, should any change befall them, for better or for worse.
Physician and charlatan were waiting on one of these tests when a royal guard knocked upon the chamber and summoned them away.
Captain Aasim had just uncovered another victim, and another clue.
“That’s one of the queen’s most trusted attendants,” Charlock whispered to Galena as they entered the eastern guardhouse.
“Yes, I know,” Galena said.
“Oh, of course.”
Galena had brought her medical bag as requested by Captain Aasim.
She dropped to her knees beside the young woman, who was shaking and sweating. Her bronze skin appeared ashen. She sucked in breaths from her nose, but exhaled from her mouth.
There was a dark bruise upon her left arm just below the elbow. It was already beginning to seep purple fluid.
So much for the regididymus, Galena thought.
The young woman, whose eyelids were already growing heavy, had reluctantly admitted that she had spied her queen open a secret panel in her wardrobe once or twice. When she saw that the royal guard did not find that panel upon their search of the royal bedchamber, she checked it herself, in case it might contain some clue. She found something. But she did not fetch the guard. For fear she would be punished for spying on her queen, she planned to take what she found and put it somewhere the guards were still searching.
“She grew nervous and spilled some upon herself,” Captain Aasim said. With gloved hands, he held up a plate on which sat a canister. He uncapped the canister, cautioning Galena not to lean too closely toward it. Within were what appeared to be three small cakes of soap. Powdery white cakes.
The queen’s attendant had spilled some of the powder on her arm. And when she first felt an itching and burning, she went at once to the eastern guardhouse.
Within the hour, she too fell into a stupor.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Charlock asked Galena, once the two returned to the makeshift laboratory beside the royal bedchamber.
Galena shook her head. “You?”
“I would guess that the king and queen did not apply the powder to their bellies,” she said. “Perhaps it must be mixed with something to make it benign enough to apply, or ingest.”
“But why would they do so? Is it some treatment?”
“It could be meant for pleasure perhaps. Or prevention. It matters less to me at this moment than knowing what it is and how we may counteract it.”
“I’m not surprised that the king would try such a thing. But the queen?”
“Charlock, I will need your hands and your attention on our task. We must test the substance first to identify it. We may endanger ourselves in doing so. We must set all other questions aside save those that help us in this task.”
“What if we cannot identify it? Or even if we can, what if we have no treatment?”
“We are not the only ones who are trying to save our sovereigns’ lives and the life of that hapless and heroic young woman. Captain Aasim may give us more clues yet. Or we may yet uncover clues for him.” Galena donned a pair of her own heavy gloves and lifted the canister out of her bag, whose other contents she had first emptied, in case of an unexpected reaction.
Charlock too donned gloves and a heavy coat upon his own clothes. “Galena, why do you trust me? How can you be sure I’m not the one who’s caused all this harm?”
“Because I now have more gray hairs upon my head than black ones. And I know that a person who is not trustworthy in some circumstances, may be trustworthy in others.” Galena caught his gaze and peered at him. “You’re a charlatan. You did intend harm. But the only harm you intended was upon the royal coffers, not upon the royal person.”
“I will not betray your trust, physician.”
Galena shrugged. “And if nothing else, your fear of imprisonment is most certainly sincere.”
“It is a venom. Reptilian, it would seem. But that is all I can discern with my tests.”
Galena and Charlock stood before Captain Aasim, and all three stood beside the royal bed where their sovereigns still lay. The young attendant who’d also fallen ill was being cared for close by in the queen’s private chamber.
“But…the king and queen have been ill for days,” Aasim said. “If they were struck with venom, wouldn’t they have recovered by now, or else…”
Galena nodded. “Died. Yes, and I have not known many venoms. But the ones I know do not come in solid form.”
“Then the venom has been altered somehow?”
“We discovered something in our tests,” Galena said. “When mixed with certain liqueurs, the powder emits a most fragrant and intoxicating aroma.”
“I was this close to imbibing some of it myself,” Charlock commented, holding up his thumb and forefinger so they almost touched.
Captain Aasim rolled his gaze toward the charlatan and blinked, as if to say, If only you had.
“We did not partake,” Galena assured the captain. “So this is only a guess. But I believe the affects would have taken a few days to appear. I believe the king drank first and seeing that he was unaffected, he convinced the queen.”
“I have sent my guards and investigators to the southern kingdom,” Aasim said, “to question their royal physician, and bring him back here as soon as they can—along with whoever else might be responsible for what has happened.”
Galena nodded. “That’s good. I hope the treatment that we have devised will work, but if it doesn’t, it’s prudent to prepare another plan.”
Galena smiled. “I must admit that our royal charlatan does have a small bit of useful knowledge in that scoundrel mind of his.”
Charlock pressed his lips together. He raised his head, but could not quite meet the captain’s fierce gaze.
Galena dropped her smile as she raised the vial of antidote. “We must treat the young lady first. Though she fell ill last, she is in the direst state, for the powder fell directly upon her bare skin. And through her skin, the purest form reached her blood.”
After a few restless and sleepless nights, Galena’s three patients began to stir. First the queen, then the king, and lastly the queen’s attendant.
But even after waking, the three were feverish and wracked with aches and spasms of their muscles. Galena watched over them. With the help of the royal attendants and the royal didymedicus, she treated them with the antidote. And she treated them with herbs to dull their pain, and music to soothe their minds, so that their thoughts would not be singularly occupied by their suffering.
“It surprises me that your treatment includes such poultices for the mind and spirit,” Charlock remarked one evening, as the sound of gentle harps lulled the three patients to sleep. “Almost as much as it still surprises me that you value my knowledge of herbs.”
Galena sat across from him beside the balcony of the royal bedchamber. A cool breeze lifted her hair off her shoulders.
She smirked at him. “I am a physician. I know many things. But I cannot know all things.”
“Such humility makes you a rarity among your profession.”
“You only think so because they are your rivals.”
Charlock chuckled. “That may be so.”
Galena exhaled slowly. She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. The muscles of her shoulders began to relax, though the muscles of her back remained taut. She felt a hand grip her own and opened her eyes.
“Remember, physician, to heal yourself first,” Charlock said. “Else you will not be well enough to heal others.”
Galena grasped the hand that grasped her and shook it to and fro. “Once they are fully recovered, I will take a respite, a long respite, and you can resume your care of our delicate king.”
Charlock gently pulled his hand free of her grasp. “Captain Aasim has asked me to stay until his investigation is complete,” he said, “but once he gives me leave, I will be moving on.”
“You need not,” Galena said. She folded her fingers and rested them upon her stomach as she leaned her head back. “You have true talent. Give up your swindling and work with me, as you proclaimed you would when you first arrived.”
“You would have me give up swindling? But that is where my true talent lies.”
He turned his head slightly and peered at her. “Physician, are you trying to swindle a swindler?”
“Into turning honest? Yes.”
“It’s well that medicine is your profession. You would make a poor charlatan.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Then, Galena spoke.
“Charlock, if you cannot cure, then at least do not harm.”
“A good motto,” he said.
Galena regarded him for a moment. He blinked and dropped his gaze.
“You are no mere physician,” he said. “You are a healer.”
“And yet, I could not heal you.”
Chalock looked up. “Of what?”
Charlock grinned. “Some wounds are, alas, incurable.”
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel