Nightly Knocks on the Door of a Doctor
Going to be busy for the next week. Here’s something totally unrelated from my Google Drive in the meantime. Mostly to show what my stuff is like when polished. Usually takes me three drafts.
At night, no common person in common circumstances knocked on the door of a doctor. For only in matters of life and death, when hours and heartbeats grew precious, did a common person dare such an expense. That winter night, the knocking penetrated the crisp cold air of the Old Neighborhood like thunder.
Doctor Gapato snored, unperturbed.
The knocking came again, echoing down silent streets and quiet alleyways. Still asleep, Doctor Gapato turned over in his bed and put his pillow over his ears. In a dream, he murmured a few words of prescription and snuggled deeper into his blankets. Somewhere, a cat meowed. Somewhere else, a dog barked.
The knocking came again.
Finally, his wife's finger, stabbed him in the ribs like a saber.
"Gapato!" Vidria hissed, "Go see who it is! If you wait till they wake the baby, I swear you'll need a doctor yourself!"
Doctor Gapato tried to snore one last time, but Vidria’s finger struck in a dozen places, landing a flurry of blows like a master swordsman. He hiccupped and came suddenly awake.
"Yes dear," murmured Gapato.
Gapato stood, half-asleep. He changed from out of his nightclothes into his fine pants, his fine shirt and his fine coat. He grabbed his medical bag from out of his closet. He grabbed a lantern and lit it, taking a moment to smooth his hair and moustaches in a hallway mirror. His face was hale and hearty, his beard sleek and black.
Gapato was halfway down the steps when his visitor found the door knocker. The knocker clanged like falling bells. The baby cried a moment later and Vidria cursed the curses a proper lady could only curse in the early hours between sunset and sunrise when the part of the mind able to judge propriety could not be woken.
When Gapato reached the door and opened it, he was the picture of professionalism.
"How may I be of assistance?" he asked.
A young boy stood in the snow, hat in hand. He had the hardened look of a gang-runner, with his bright sash of colors to go with the bruises on his face, but there were tears in his eyes all the same. Gapato’s flushed with relief. The gangs were said to always pay on time and he hadn’t wanted to worry Vidria about their finances.
"My poppa sir, it is his stomach. I tried for Doctor Taotista, but he is gone away. I know not where, or I would not trouble you. They say it is his app… appendis? I cannot say the word! Please hurry, sir. My family does not have much, but what we have we will give to you!" the boy flashed three silver coins, tarnished black.
Doctor Gapato bit his lower lip, bent his knee and put a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder. The boy seemed so small there. So frail. Under the hem of the boy’s collar, Gapato saw a gang tattoo. What had this young man seen? What had his life been like up to this point?
For that matter, how much did he and Vidria owe the grocer?
In a deft motion, Gapato snatched the coins and pocketed them.
"Young man, you have reached the finest surgeon in this city. I have just the thing to treat your poppa. Wait one moment, I will be back and then you will show me the way."
Gapato left the boy at the door. He hurriedly and quietly made way to his library, pulled out a medical text and flipped through the pages. The lantern light flickered and important words seemed to be eaten by the shadow of the spine. Gapato had graduated from the Royal Medical Academy less than three months prior. He had assisted with removing an appendix twice. One of those times had been on a cadaver. He had never performed the procedure by himself. He read through the procedure twice before realizing he had not put on his spectacles. When he did so, the words began to make much more sense. His hands trembled only slightly when he placed the book back on the shelf.
It was Gapato’s first night visit since moving to the Old Neighborhood. He would have to celebrate later. It must mean the community was finally accepting him.
Later, when Gapato ran through the dark, following the boy and trying not to slip on the ice he reflected that he was so preoccupied trying to commit the procedure to memory that he would not be able to find his way home.
"Poppa! A woman! A woman, poppa!"
Little Hector jumped in the middle of the bed, shouting at the ceiling. Vidria slept unperturbed, her eyes covered with a blue silken mask Gapato had bought her on their anniversary, and one perfect tanned hand laying across her pregnant stomach. Gapato, knowing that Hector would appear one way or another, had merely waited until the last moment to get out of bed.
"Did you hear, poppa? There is a woman! A woman has come, poppa!"
Hector was now leaning over Gapato in the manner of small children and fiddling with his father's earlobes. Finally, Hector whispered with uncomfortable, close moistness into his father's ear.
"She said she is having a baby right now and something is wrong." Gapato stared at the ceiling, wondering what it was he had been dreaming about. These days, it seemed he had dreams of uninterrupted sleep. How tired did a man have to be to dream of sleep?
"She said she might have the baby right now on our steps, poppa!" Hector screamed in Gapato’s ear.
Gapato bolted upright, throwing on his clothes in a blur of lace and buttons. Seconds later, he walked toward his door. Hector made to run after him and in one deft move Gapato picked up his medical bag, spun, picked up Hector and threw the child at his mother on the bed. Hector laughed the entire way. Still asleep, Vidria’s arm snaked out from under the blankets and grabbed the excited boy and held him pinned to the bed where he could not interfere.
No longer needing a mirror, Gapato walked down the steps of his home lighting lanterns as he went and straightening his hair.
He found the woman in the entryway, as pregnant as Vidria.
"How far along?" he asked.
Gapato took a bottle of alcohol from his bag and splashed it on his hands.
"Eight months," the woman said.
Gapato nodded, giving her room to say more.
The woman took a moment to stare at some of Hector’s toys and a pile of unwashed laundry and hesitated. She looked back at the door and her hands again found her stomach. Gapato rolled his eyes in the darkness. He wondered what this woman’s house would look like if he barged into it unannounced in the middle of the night.
"I went looking for my midwife. I see Mother Loras, but she was gone and the father—“
The woman stopped and her face spasmed and her breath grew short.
"May I feel?" asked Gapato.
Gapato pointed to her dress.
"Certainly not! I am a lady! I keep the faith! I’m not some—"
"Do not knock at my door at this hour and not let my husband do his job!" Vidria shouted from upstairs. Between each word lay a thousand implied threats.
The young lady breathed hotly, but moved her hands aside in acquiescence. Gapato felt along her stomach, trying to remember what he knew of childbirth. He pressed hard enough to cause pain, but still he pressed. Finally, he realized that the baby was positioned the wrong way.
"Perhaps you could give me something to delay the birth? I should have another month,” the woman asked.
Gapato shook his head.
"You are having this child now. It is not for you or me to say otherwise. Drink this."
Gapato gave her what remained of the alcohol he'd used to clean his hands.
"Mother Loras said drink was not good for the child."
"You will need it,” Gapato insisted.
Generally, when a child was born, Gapato had to do no more than catch the infant and suppress his guilt at taking credit for the terrible labor the mother had endured. That night, he worked for hours, sweating, shoving, doing things out of medical necessity that would have banned him from any respectable establishment. He was covered with sweat. Eventually, Vidria came down to help. They pushed and pulled for an hour. Then they sent Hector to fetch three neighbors.
Madame Beluccios, who was well into her seventies and had eight children of her own, declared after another hour that they were bringing a giant into the world. Gapato was thankful she was there, for he did not think he could ever have found the words to do what was necessary. As Gapato, Vidria and the two male neighbors, who were staring very hard at the ceiling, all pushed on the visitor’s stomach, Madame Beluccios guided Hector’s tiny hands into a place Gapato had been hoping would remain a mystery to him for at least another several years.
“But… but, that is no! That is a no!” gasped Hector.
Gapato rushed to his son’s side.
“When it is life or death, my son, then there is nothing too embarrassing not to consider. After this is done and we are rested, we must thank Madame Beluccios for teaching this to us. Now, feel for the baby. And grab him! Grab him for his life, and his mother, for that is what is at stake!”
Vidra coached the mother through the breathing exercises she knew. The woman lay half-dead with exhaustion. Finally, by description alone, Gapato told Hector how to move the cord away from the neck before it could strangle the child. Then, they grabbed the infant and pulled. Feet appeared, then a stomach and finally shoulders. The baby cried. The mother cried. Everyone cried. Gapato, too, wanted to cry but first he washed his and Hector’s hands. He was, after all, a doctor.
“Today my son, I see you on your way to being a man and I am proud of you. You will save many lives and the nation of Tall will have a fine healer in you. It is always better to save a life than to take one.”
The knocker banged once against the door.
"Gapato-" Vidria hissed, suckling their third and newest infant to her breast. A girl, a precious princess, Ismerelda.
“I know dear, a few more moments please. It is our first daughter, after all,” whispered Gapato, turning over in bed to stroke a lock of his daughter’s black hair. He was still asleep, acting out a dream of being woken up for an emergency.
“I will kill you!” an unknown woman shrieked.
"Hector! Tell them I will be down shortly!" Gapato sprang to his feet before Vidria’s finger had a chance to even touch him. Somewhere around the third step from the bottom floor he woke up and found his medicine bag and clothes all properly arrayed and smiled. One day he would not even smile at his growing mastery and on that day there would be almost nothing left to learn.
Hector held a cloth to a man’s face with one hand. With his other hand, and one of his feet, he fended off a woman with a knife. Laranso stood in a corner, only ten years old, and not knowing what to do.
“You bastard! With my sister! My own flesh and blood!” the woman spit.
Gapato caught her spit with a handkerchief and put on his most professional face.
“Thank you so much for seeking us out in your time of need. You have done everything correctly, but I see you yourself are in great distress. Take this and please fetch a Priest. I fear your husband might not be long for this world.”
In a series of motions as elaborate as a dance, Gapato gave the woman a tranquilizer, tilted the cup upward so she had no choice but to drink it, and squeezed her husband’s face wound hard enough that he screamed. The idiot had been protesting that he was only bleeding, which while true, was not the kind of truth that would stop his wife from trying to murder him. Just as quickly, Gapato cleaned the wound with alcohol, eliciting another series of screams, and brought out his scariest needle to begin stitching the cut. It was this action that caused the woman to break into tears, drop her knife, and run away.
Gapato smiled at Hector and Laranso who looked at him with awe. He could recall having similar feelings about his own father and it felt right that the cycle had continued. Tonight was a good night.
Gapato finished stitching the man’s face, waited for the man to pass out from the pain, and wrote a receipt which he then put in the man’s purse after subtracting an appropriate number of coins. He took these coins down to the cellar where he removed a wine bottle from a rack to reveal a hidden compartment full of other such coins.
“One day, you will both go to the Royal Medical Academy and have a proper education,” Gapato said, “and you will go to the finest houses in Newheart and treat men and women of great accomplishments.”
“Will they teach me such things as you did tonight, poppa?” asked Laranso.
“Will they teach us honor and duty and to always help those in need?” asked Hector.
“Some things, only life can teach you. You will learn those things in time. But I also hope your life will teach more about what is the appropriate cutlery to use at a formal dinner then how to stop couples from killing each other.”
Mother Meranor knew Gapato wished he could have worked in Newheart, but he had fallen in love with a woman from the Old Neighborhood and she would not live anywhere else.
Gapato sat up in a chair before the door, a glass of wine untouched on the table before him as he watched a tranquil moon setting over the city. Men and women screamed outside. The Old Neighborhood was in riot. Some parts of the Old Neighborhood were even on fire. It was a bad night, but the wine smelled delicious, like lush grapes with a hint of old leather. A glass sat on the table in front of Gapato, untouched.
“Gapato?” Vidria whispered from the kitchen.
“Poppa?” Ismerelda called, a short time later.
“All is well, loves,” said Gapato.
Gapato looked to the sword-cane leaning against the wall nearby. The kind rich and angry young men used in duels. He couldn’t even remember where it had come from. One of the gang members he’d treated, probably. One of the ones without money to pay. Gapato would have destroyed it, for he could not have sold it in good conscience, but Hector had held onto it with fondness, and Gapato had taken to keeping it up as a reminder of the attraction to evil things.
There came a banging on his door.
Gapato drank the wine in one long swallow, stood and answered. He left the sword-cane leaning against the wall. He’d only taken it out there at Vidria’s insistence, though it had made Ismerelda cry to see her father hold such a thing
Five men stood in the foyer, faces covered in masks, eyes dark and glittering with rage. None of them had swords but a few had knives and one had a club that looked like it would break Gapato’s sword had he drawn it. Gapato stifled a yawn.
“I don’t suppose it would make any difference if I told you I was under the protection of the gangs? Both Olivera’s Sickles and Ribborto’s Grange Men?” Gapato sighed.
The men shook their heads. One held out a hand, insistent and demanding. The one with the club made a few threatening motions. Two in the back seemed eager to step inside.
“Would it make a difference that I was personally opposed to and deeply wounded by the new tax levies? That I would bring all the troops home from Nyria if I could? That I have spoken publicly against the conscription of our boys even against the gang-leaders who profit by it? That my own two sons are fighting for their lives this very moment? No? Well, that is to be expected. A moment, gentlemen. Vidria do you have the hors d’oeuvres?”
Muttering, Vidria appeared from the kitchen. She’d been preparing all night. She carried a silver tray in her hands. On it were beautiful arrangements of fish, lettuce and cheese. She shouldered Gapato to one side and handed the tray to the burglars, lighting herself a cigar after she did so. When the men’s confusion seemed to reach a pinnacle, Vidria spoke.
“I am Vidria ari Espessa Illomina Gapato, niece of Don Fridrik Illomnia. Let me see, I think I know these faces… ah yes,” Vidria rattled off a series of names and a few family anecdotes.
In a series of embarrassed motions the men hid the weapons behind their backs. Each of the burglars made a show of politely taking one of Vidria’s hors’doeuvres before the one in the middle returned the silver tray.
“Thank you, lady Gapato! We will make sure no one troubles you this night! No need to tell your uncle!” said one of the men.
“Charmed,” Vidria muttered around her cigar.
“I don’t know why you made me take the sword,” Gapato yawned.
“We have a daughter to think of!”
“She makes you look like a gentle little lamb.”
It was true, a moment later they found Ismerelda asleep in the kitchen with a cleaver held in one hand and several other knives hidden with remarkable skill in the folds of her dress. Gapato put away the knives, lifted Ismerelda in both arms and carried her to bed. She woke as he kissed her forehead.
“I would kill any man who ever tries to hurt you, poppa,” she said, wrapping her tiny fingers around his thumb.
“Better to be clever, little love. Better to give people a chance to remember who they are and what is right. Most will take the chance. Remember that, love,” said Gapato.
“I will,” Ismerelda whispered.
Gapato walked downstairs, sat at the table by the door and played cards with Vidria until eventually the screams subsided and the riot abated. Somehow, during the night, they had finished the entire bottle of wine. And then another bottle.
“You think the boys are safe?” asked Vidria
The sun had risen and Gapato knew it would only be a short while before people started to arrive at the door. He had time for a nap, maybe, before the deluge. Gapato picked up the table they had been using and moved it back to its formal position in the hall.
“They are in service to Prince Carlo, and they are guarded by boys from the Old Neighborhood. They are safe. I’m sure we will get a letter any day now,” said Gapato.
“We must do more to cherish Ismerelda,” said Vidria.
Reaching out with one hand, Vidria pinched Gapato’s bottom. He swore, blushing, that she was an entirely different woman when drunk. She filled a glass of wine Gapato had emptied earlier and downed its contents in a single swallow. And then repeated the action if only to show him she was still superior.
“What? You can’t be drunk when the patients start arriving.” She smiled.
Shaking his head, Gapato picked up the cane-sword and prepared to hide it away again.
“You know, Gapato, you look very handsome when you have a sword. Is it so wrong of me to seize the opportunity?”
It turned out he did not have time for a nap, after all.
Gapato woke up the moment before he answered the door, fully dressed, medical bag in hand and Ismerelda making preparations in his office. Rather than being pleased to find this was the case, he was only tired and eager to return to bed. A brief glance at his reflection in the front window showed his moustache was more gray than black. Age, it seemed, had finally caught up with him.
It was time Laranso returned to help with the practice, if only the damn war would end. The boy needed more hands on experience if he was to be as competent as Hector. Gapato opened the door with a sigh and began speaking at once. “You did everything correctly, all is well in hand, if you just come this way—”
Two soldiers stood there, in immaculate uniforms with brightly polished buttons. Gapato recognized one of them as a man he saw frequently who still had pain from a missing limb. The other soldier, he saw, was missing an ear and a few fingers. One of them held a small card, covered in gold filigree. Neither of them seemed to be in distress. Or rather, nothing seemed to be medically wrong with either one of them that hadn’t already happened a long time ago.
“You have the wrong house,” Gapato said flatly.
Gapato’s knee buckled for a moment and he had to grip the door handle tightly to stop from falling.
“Poppa, what is it?” Ismerelda asked from the office.
“It is nothing, go back to sleep. It’s just some men who need directions,” Gapato snapped.
The soldier with the missing arm bowed deeply.
“Doctor Gapato, is is my duty as a lieutenant in the Home League to inform you that both—”
Gapato stumbled back several steps, as if struck.
“No! You have the wrong Gapato! My sons are doctors not soldiers! They are nowhere near the front lines! They serve the Prince!” Gapato shrieked. He collapsed back into the hallway, barely able to breathe. Heart racing as the world closed in from all sides. Not like this. Not at night. Not when his sons were hundreds of miles away and there was nothing to be done and the news was weeks old.
He would have known, wouldn’t he? He would have felt something...
The soldier closed his eyes to fight tears, and continued, “to inform you that both of your sons died in direct defense of Prince Carlo, who was grievously wounded by enemy action outside Chavannah. Without their noble sacrifice, his life may have been lost completely. Our King wishes to extend his personal gratitude for their sacrifice as well as the sacrifice made by your family during this time of need.”
“Both?” Gapato asked in a weak voice.
The soldier nodded.
And that quickly, Hector and Laranso were beyond Gapato’s healing.
Tears fell unashamedly down Gapato’s face. Ismerelda helped him to his feet in time so that Vidria did not catch him so totally unmanned. Gapato managed to tell her when she came downstairs. With perfect formality, Vidria took the card from the soldiers, a card with the personal signature of the King, and thanked them politely before closing the door. Her eyes were clear from all pain before she fell into Gapato’s arms and wailed.
She had always been so much stronger than him. His children had always been so much better than him. No parent should bury their child. It was not in the Oath a doctor took, but it ought to have been.
They said the King hated the Old Neighborhood and Gapato could not deny that was true. When Prince Carlo took the throne, covered in burns and thirsting for vengeance, conscriptions increased to the point that there were almost no young men at all in the Old Neighborhood. No one to work in the shops or chase pretty girls or lift heavy things. Only old men and women with sad faces and little cards with names on them.
It also seemed the King had a vendetta against the gangs, for he rooted them out with a vengeance. Not just the younger gangs who fell quickly to violence and were eager to carve out space for themselves, but the older and established gangs who kept peace and vice in a mostly non-violent balance. It was as if King Carlo knew all of the Old Neighborhood’s secrets. All of its dark corners. No place could live under such light.
Gapato barely had strength to make it to the door when he heard the knocking. He did not sleep much these days. The nightmares were too frequent. Always, he dreamed of the war with Nyria and saw Hector and Laranso burning alongside Prince Carlo. The only thing that brought him any pleasure was the knowledge that Ismerelda had married well and was expecting her first child. If they lived far away, then it only made him that much happier to know the war would not touch them.
“Yes? How may I be of assistance?” Gapato whispered.
Gang Captains, though none wore a sash. A dozen of them, all huddled around a man with more knife wounds than healthy flesh. Even through the blood, Gapato knew him. Vidria’s uncle Fridrik. A man no one from the Old Neighborhood would ever dare to touch. Gapato motioned them into his surgery without a word.
He worked for hours that night. He cussed a dozen men to complete a hundred tasks. But in the end, Vidria’s uncle died. Neither Gapato nor Vidria cried. Fridrik had been old and while honorable in his way had much innocent blood on his hands. All their tears had been cried for Hector and Laranso.
Over the next few nights, Olivera Hespasso died of an arrow through the lung, though Gapato had only heard of this secondhand from another doctor. Ribborto Gaspi, on the other hand, was long dead by the time he arrived at Gapato’s. The King had killed them all.
There was one gang now, and it was the police and they were more brutal and corrupt than ever any of the gangs had been. Gapato’s business boomed, with broken skulls and broken teeth and broken spirits.
It was not possible to say exactly when it happened, for no one knocked on Gapato’s door and announced it, but at some point during the deaths of the three Dons, the Old Neighborhood died too. The gangs, for all their problems, had kept order there. Had kept the Old Neighborhood politically relevant.
Now the Old Neighborhood was just a bunch of old buildings where widows lived. The King hated the Old Neighborhood, they said. It was only some years later, when Gapato saw the King at an assembly, covered in burns and scars, and somehow strangely reminded of a boy he had seen on his doorstep on a night many years ago, that Gapato began to believe he knew why.
Gapato held Vidria tightly each night, wrapping his arms around her as if she were the world entire.
When Gapato woke that winter night to the sound of a fist banging on his door, he awoke with the scent of blood already in his nostrils. Another wound, another illness, another death. It amazed him that they had not blended together, but remained distinct in his memory. He waited for the poke in his side, but none came. He waited for the knocker to knock on the door, but none came. Vidria had died just before the knocker, and of the same cause, namely old age.
Gapato had not had the heart to replace either of them, though the Old Neighborhood was more full of eligible widows these days than blacksmiths.
"Coming!" Gapato said, before he was fully awake or aware.
When he had a few moments to gather his senses, he grumbled to his memory of Vidria that he was moving as quickly as he could and took a few creaky steps toward his slippers.
As a younger man he'd simply taken to wearing pants to bed as a matter of course. Well, one had to make some concessions to age. He drew on a pair of trousers and stuffed his nightshirt into it, not caring how it bunched awkwardly around the waistline. Next was his fur coat and hat. These were on a coat-stand next to his bed and now indispensable in the winter.
Gapato contemplated the distance to the door as if it were miles. Even the absence of stairs could not motivate him. It had only taken him a single night-time emergency after the passing of his wife to finally move it into his bedroom and out of the hall by the door. Vidria’s things remained in their old room, untouched and undisturbed. Each thing, exactly as she had left it. Sometimes when business was slow he would sit in there for hours, imagining she might appear at any moment. Thankfully, business was rarely slow.
The knocking was insistent. Thunderous, even.
"Coming, I said!"
They'd better have brought a carriage if he had to go anywhere. He was not young enough to be getting on horseback without time to take his breakfast first. Let alone in the snow.
Doctor Gapato walked around a mess of furniture in total darkness. His feet knew the way well enough in the dark, but when a stranger knocked on the door they'd eventually need a lamp and like as not they'd have forgot to have brought one of their own. Gapato grabbed a lantern hanging outside his office door.
He took a moment to check himself by the lantern light in the hallway mirror. Skeletal and gaunt. his moustache whiter than snow and thin as cobwebs. That was Doctor Gapato. Soon, someone would knock at his door and he would not answer, and then some other poor physician would be woken not with one emergency but two.
No matter, though. Tonight was not that night. There was enough life in him to do his job.
Gapato sighed and pulled on his gloves. Then he picked up his bag from its place by the door. Not there simply for convenience, but because some days he was too tired to carry it any farther after he came home. His hands were steady enough to wield a scalpel, still. That was a small blessing. He was not useless yet.
"Yes, yes, I am here!"
A renewed burst of knocking shook the door again as he opened it.
Gapato swung the lantern toward his foyer with the brazen lack of social propriety that any person who had lived to his advanced age eventually found. It was an inspection which simply said that he did not have long enough left on the earth to waste time on pleasantries. The lantern illuminated three guards. Palace guards.
"You are urgently needed at the palace on royal business," said the lead guard.
A carriage waited behind the men. Two fine black horses were teamed to it, their harnesses slick and brown and glistening under the reflected moonglow on the snow. Doctor Gapato grunted.
It seemed, in that moment, an illusion that the Old Neighborhood had been fine once. As vibrant and strong as he himself had once been. There was no need for lantern light to shine on the dilapidated buildings which now abutted his house for him to inspect its fall from grace. And no need for him to look back at his own house to marvel at its chipped paint and cracked boards. Though he had long since thought himself dead to them, Gapato heard the cries and wailings of sick and starving children as though his ears were made new by the nice suits of the guards.
There was no reason someone from the palace would send for Doctor Gapato. None at all. His only paying clients were policemen, these days.
"Well, this is a first," Gapato said, stifling his concerns, and accepting the hand of the first guard that offered to help him through the snow.
His hips hurt. His back ached. The cold seemed to seep into his joints and freeze them to the point of paralysis. But deep inside, in a warm place not strictly connected to his body, his mind was bright and sharp as a razor's edge.
Who was it that had sent for him?
Why, after all these years?
Gapato was lifted more than helped into the carriage, for which he was both mortally offended and eternally grateful. A woman just into her middle years sat across from him, the brim of a cloak lowered over her face.
"The king is not well," the Queen said.
Doctor Gapato nodded, sadly.
"Let us get on with it then," grunted Gapato.
It had come at last.
Gapato was eighty years old. Ancient and withered. He had lived far longer than he had ever thought to live. It was a beautiful night, even considering the cold. It was not such a bad night to die. He had grandchildren, after all. Seven of them, each a perfect healthy miracle. A grandfather was surely old enough to die.
The King's face was a mess of burns and scars, but that was not what made him scream. The burns had been there for over forty years now. The burns were battle-wounds that might cause him pain on cold nights such as this, but earned in defense of the nation they were not a source of shame or discomfort.
No, the king screamed for different reasons.
Gapato recalled that the King’s father had had the same affliction later in his years. He remembered the first time someone had knocked on his door. He remembered a little boy who had worried over his father’s “appendis” and smiled despite the circumstances. Gapato wondered how long the fool man had waited before calling.
"I will need boiled water. Alcohol for cleaning my knives. An assistant to hold him down. Here, you'll do," said Gapato as he thrust his bag into her royal majesty's chest.
The Queen stumbled back a few steps but dismissed the guards and the other attending physicians and sent them on their errands. She ordered them not to enter the room again. Gapato put his hand on the King's stomach, feeling for hard spots.
"He waited three days before calling for help?" he asked.
The queen paused.
"Six," she said.
"Stubborn bastard. He always was. Always insisted he was fine when his father brought him to me. I was never sure. Not completely. How much has he told you?" asked Gapato.
"How much do you suspect?" asked Gapato.
"Everything,” whispered the Queen.
Gapato laughed again, all black humor and hard amusement.
"I always wondered, how did he avoid you seeing his chest after you had married?"
The King was beyond reason now, but he still fought as Gapato cut his shirt away. Oh, the wily goat knew even now that it could all come undone. Knew in a place beyond rational thought and cold calculation. Knew the way an animal knows to fight or run away from a predator. Forty years he'd kept it secret. Forty years when one second might have brought it all crashing down. But Gapato had cut off too many shirts to be thwarted, and he cut a neat line down the middle of the King’s fine silk shirt and some of the fight went out of the man.
"He said the scars were not becoming. He did not wish me to become disgusted. We were both so very young. I had thought he would trust me in time,” whispered the Queen.
At last Gapato wrested the scraps of the fine silk shirt away from the king, revealing a chest of hard muscles and smooth skin...
... marred only by the gang tattoos of a hardened criminal.
"Of course," sighed the queen.
"His father's appendix gave out at the same age. Thank Mother Meranor he was not foolish enough to try cutting it out himself. Such a small thing, but he has waited a long time and it may be beyond hope now. I will do what can be done."
Doctor Gapato sterilized his knives while the Queen tied the King down to the bed. Then Gapato began to cut.
Such sweet screams.
Rich and royal and resounding.
Gapato had never enjoyed causing a man pain before.
This boy had put so many men into Gapato's hands both before and after the coronation, and now Gapato used those same hands to make right what had been broken. To fix a murderer. He cursed the Oath which compelled him. Cursed the bright love that the memory of his sons brought to him, because he wished he could be filled with hate instead. Enough hate to kill a man in his care.
The organ was bright red and purple and swelled with angry heat, when he found it. Gapato cut it out with a deft move of his knife. He applied iodine and cleaned the wound. It was the last of his antiseptic. His very expensive antiseptic, too good for any in the Old Neighborhood.
When the King was still and asleep, Gapato sewed shut the hole.
"The next few days will decide whether or not he lives. Keep him rested. Keep him still. Do not let him move. Lots of water, no alcohol. He may want to numb the pain, I have some medicine for that. You will have to take a firm hand with him. He may have broth and boiled vegetables to eat. Nothing more than that for the first two days."
The Queen nodded her understanding. She sat next to the King, pulled the covers up over his chest and then stroked his face with a sad smile.
Gapato took small sip from a vial in his bag. Something to help him sleep. There would be need for sleep.
"Guards!" the Queen called.
They entered the room.
"Arrest this man! Listen to nothing he says! And throw him into the farthest cell in the dungeon until his majesty awakens!"
They were gentle with him, which was a small blessing. They even gave him a blanket and a nice bed to sleep. It was not such a bad winter's night. Gapato had not expected to live a moment beyond the last stitch, anyhow.
Gapato slept for two days. Slept deep and hard as if to make up for all the sleep he’d lost all those nights. A younger man might have tried to stay awake longer, drinking in the last few sights life had to offer even if they were of straw and stone and cell bars. Gapato had eighty years of sights and not nearly enough dreams. So he slept and dreamed of his wife and his sons, now dead, and all the other lives he might have lived. He dreamed of them all visiting Ismerelda, of spending the day with her four children in the countryside. He dreamed a thousand such dreams.
Each dream was perfect and wonderful.
When Gapato was awake he had warm food and good wine, brought down from the palace kitchens. And more dreams. A glut of dreams. And still not enough.
In his youth he’d often shaken his head at the dreams of dying men as no more than mere delusion. Too many times men and women had claimed to see all their loved ones in their final hours. Now, he was happy for such dreams and could not help but suspect they might be something more.
On the third day, the guards came again and knocked on his cell bars and carried him back to the King's room. Gapato made no fuss. He was too weak for fuss now.
Gapato was placed in a chair, for which he was grateful, as he found himself still tired and kitten-weak. The King was barely in better condition but his coloring was back, although it was hard to tell given so much of his face was covered in burns. Quiet, the King motioned with his hand and dismissed the guards.
"Doctor Gapato," he said.
"My how you’ve grown little Carlo," said Gapato.
The King grunted.
Doctor Gapato laughed.
"Did you know before?" the King asked.
"I suspected. Some people in the Old Neighborhood suspected as well, but we never spoke of it. If it hadn't been you, we'd have been hung for defaming the Prince. If it was, you'd have hung us for knowing your secret. I imagine with the burns and the confusion of you both having the same name, it was easy for the switch to be made. You needn't have conscripted all of them and sent them off to die, you heartless rat."
The King sighed and nodded.
"It was war. I conscripted everyone. I was sad to see so many of the people who knew me die. I was also relieved. That is what it means to be king."
Gapato studied his old hands.
"I saw you during the coronation. I treated you too many times not to suspect but I had never seen much of the Prince so I could not be sure. How did it happen?"
The King smiled.
"As you said, mostly confusion and mistaken identity. It has been such a terrible weight, you know. It will be good to be free of it, even in a small way.
"I was in the Prince's personal guard. A lot of us were recruited from the gangs for our fighting experience in those days. Your sons… I regret what happened. We were ambushed. The Prince was an idiot. Always putting himself too close to the front. I took his clothes to draw away the enemies. It was the only chance. I was promised medals, I never dreamed to earn a crown.
"I was burned beyond recognition. The true Prince was burned to a crisp. The Nyrians are cruel. I woke screaming. Such pain as I had never dreamed. Your sons were afraid to remove my clothes, and when I was awake I refused to let them. Your sons had already mistaken me for the Prince. Too many people referred to me that way. There was no way to extricate myself without dying. And the King was old and wanted his son to be alive. Who was I to refuse?"
"They saved your life," the doctor said.
"I know. I wish I could say I have regretted it every day, but it is an old wound now. How did you put it together?" asked the King.
Gapato shrugged again. There was too much to explain and it wouldn’t haven’t meant that much. Dates hadn’t matched. Accounts of the battle hadn’t matched. A few bribes here and there over the years had let him ferret out the truth, which was that the Prince had executed his sons and tried to cover it up. He’d thought the revelation would have hurt more. But his sons were dead either way. Still, he’d needed to know why. And then it was only a matter of putting it together..
"Did you know you were the first person to ever pay me a night visit? I remember you, still, in your little sash asking me to come help your poppa. Your three silver coins, all black with tarnish. Three silver coins will not be enough now. For this? I want a hospital. In the Old Neighborhood. And a weekly gift of food to the poor there. Death benefits for the widows. I don't care how you justify it. You killed my sons. You owe me a legacy."
"Done," said the King.
There was a crackling fire in the chamber, now fading to embers. Gapato felt the cold creeping back into his joints. Death would not be so bad.
Silence stretched, an unanswerable question hanging in the air.
"I poisoned myself after your surgery was done. I'll sleep for the most part until it happens. Take me home and put me in bed. I can't teach a new bed the shape of me quick enough for comfort. If you are concerned I’ll say something, her majesty can bring me meals and wine until I pass. I will not need her for long. I have never been served by a queen."
"I had considered letting you live on in the dungeon,” said the King.
"You would do that, and think it kindness, wouldn't you? My way is better. Cleaner. Honest." Gapato fought to stay awake. The poison would be slow to kill him. He’d sleep most of the time. There’d been no time to put something better in his bag after he saw the Queen. He’d had to make due. What he had taken he gave only at request, when hope was gone and there was nothing left to do but give the family time to gather and say goodbye.
“Why didn’t you kill me when you were cutting me open? No one would have known,” asked the King.
“Have you forgotten so much of the honor of the Old Neighborhood? I would have known. I taught my sons better. I taught all of my children to give people a chance to do the right thing. Not to seek vengeance. You have been a cruel king but I have always been a good doctor. Perhaps if you live, you might be a better king. Your deaths profits me nothing. For their memory, you have another chance. ” Gapato said simply.
Silence stretched, and Gapato felt himself falling further into a sleep from which he would never again be awoken.
"Do you know that you were the one man my father admired above all others? That all children in the Old Neighborhood were told to look to the example of your family? That the gangs were united in their admiration of you? The way they spoke of you… I always wanted them to speak of me that way but violence came too easily to me. When I first came to power, I tried to have you killed and no one would take the contract. Murderers with hearts as black as midnight balked at the idea of harming you. I am older now, but even so I do not deserve your forgiveness. A king cannot apologize and I am a king now, wherever I came from, and I find that to be a king is terrible. Perhaps no man can have such power and not be corrupted by it. Much better to be a Doctor. Much better to fight the true enemies of humankind and be made sanctified. I cannot change the past, but I have heard you and you have my thanks. Goodnight, Doctor Gapato. You will have your legacy back.” Tears made long and meandering paths down the scars of the King’s face.
Gapato thought of a boy, and three silver coins, and a need to pay the grocer. He’d only ever wanted to live. That was all.
Gapato slept all the way home.
Night came to the Old Neighborhood.
Night and cold and silence.
Fewer children cried with hunger. The King had heard their plight, so it was said, and become like the old gang Dons, finding something like mercy in his old age. There was new paint on the buildings, although not the best paint and the boards were still old and cracked. Food could be had if you were hungry and not afraid of religion. Matters of life and death still stirred people from their routine and sent them out into the darkness in search of a doctor. There was a hospital now and it accepted all and they found what healing there was to be found there.
It wasn’t like the Old Neighborhood of the Old Days, but nothing is ever like it is in the Old Days. But still, it was better than it had been and people could live there. People could get married and raise families there. There were young men there again, sprung up out of little boys, like seeds bursting open after a forest fire.
Lastly, there was a house where no one lived, but which old people would pass and make the sign of the Wheel and the Eye. It was not haunted, though some younger children supposed it was and for this reason left it alone. Older people put flowers there, in remembrance. Some walked by with legs set straight and remembered bones mended and smiled and tipped their caps.
The door of the house had no knocker. But it mattered not, for no one knocked on that door any longer.