The Charlatan and the Flower
The sun had already begun to quietly set and the world was bathed in the soft orange glow of twilight when the doctor opened his eyes.
His was a clinic that operated mainly in the dark of night with clients from less desirable walks of life who preferred to meet with him in the comfort of shadow. He had been running his clinic for fifteen years now and his age and tiredness was beginning to show in the lines on his face. While he had begun losing his hair at a much younger age he still wore it in such a way that the salt-and-pepper remnants swept over his pronounced widows peak. The tanned face which had seen much blood and hardship was slightly leathered now and his dark brown eyes searched the twilight for the betrayal of the outline for his silver-rimmed glasses.
Once the rectangular frames found their perch on the bridge of his nose and focus was restored to his eyes the doctor rolled from his bed and leisurely began to dress himself in the dim light.
He had no appointments booked for the first part of the evening. It was going to be a quiet evening.
As he opened a few windows in the clinic to let in the night breeze he heard the thunder crack in the distance as the heavy summer air pressed on his chest. The clinic was swept full of the scent of fresh rain.
Ahhhhhh, he thought, the summer rain is here.
He fell into a lonely silence as he sat on a chair by an opened window and drifted into a memory. A bittersweet memory of a time before he had opened that clinic. Of a time when he was young and reckless.
Once upon a time, prior to his reputation exploding as it had among the underworld, the doctor was a novice fresh out of training from The College and serving his required military training in a small border town between Byrnan and Hieros.
He was not in the least gifted when it came to the healing arts but he was extremely talented and intellectual when it came to medicine in general. As a young man he had won a scholarship to study at The College which had taken him from the sleepy town he had been born in where the sun shone brightly to the cold confines of The College in the north. His soft bronze skin betrayed his origins as one of Hieros and his tall athletic build made him stand out even more against the pale lanky academics at The College.
Due to his almost abnormal skill with the medical sciences he had been nicknamed The Charlatan and that moniker followed him even now. He had been known as The Charlatan for almost twenty years and the real name his deceased parents had given him had been almost forgotten. There were very few who knew or called him by such a title that even he forgot it from time to time.
The clinic he had been forced to work in post-graduation was small and overrun daily by the needs of the Byrnan military and the civilians who were unfortunate enough to get caught in the crossfire. Peppered among such a colourful clientele, The Charlatan also worked with the prostitutes from the many brothels that dotted the red-light district. They needed everything from screenings for disease, to abortions to keep their last remnants of sanity. It was a hard place, a hard trade. Many of the men and women who sold their bodies at the brothels did not do so by choice. Some had to pay off debts, some had been captured and some had just been sold in order for the remaining family members to continue eating. It was not pretty. It was not glamourous.
It had been summer then as well in the town in the north which was not immune to the heavy heat and the showers of rain that made your clothes stick to your skin and your lungs to your ribs.
Charlatan had been hot that night. He had seen nothing but blood since his shift had started twenty-five hours prior. He was hot and tired. Tired and hot. There was no relief for him in the foreseeable future.
And then he saw her.
The good doctor would never forget that night as he recalled it now, some seventeen years later. It was that night the woman entered his station in the clinic. She sat before him, quietly waiting for his stare to abate. She was clothed in a tight strapless dress which allowed her bronzed shoulders to glimmer with sweat and rain in the dim light of the clinic. It was that skin tone that declared she was not a native of the north either; brought there perhaps as a bride. Or a slave. She played with her fingers and twirled a segment of her soft auburn hair between her index finger and her thumb.
Charlatan felt his heart skip a beat with an unexpected anticipation.
He wanted her. He wanted to caress that small face with those bold blue eyes that peered quizzically at him from behind a splash of greyish freckles that concentrated on the bridge of her nose before spreading across her cheekbones.
Charlatan adjusted his frames nervously and cleared his throat when he realized he had done nothing but stare at her in silence since she had entered his room.
"What seems to be the trouble?" he asked meekly, flipping through the chart in his hands.
She smiled slightly, sadly.
"Uh, Doctor, I am here to-"
He wasn't really listening. Not to her words. Her voice was also soft and melodic. He wondered if her skin was as delicate to touch as he was imagining. He stared at her, watching her lips move as she spoke. Did he find her beautiful? Did he just simply want to have her, consume her, in an effort to satiate this hunger that had enveloped his body?
A sudden crack of thunder followed by a pouring of rain jolted Charlatan to attention and he smiled at her.
He could never remember how the rest of the appointment went. He vaguely recalled ordering tests and drawing blood from her arm which was as soft as he had imagined. All he could clearly recall was that she was slightly older than he had been at the time and that she went by the name of Hana.
It would be just over three days until he saw her again.
Charlatan was perusing the streets with some surprised time off. The clinic had just received some fresh graduates and after spending forty-five hours training them Charlatan was released into the streets to unwind. The accelerators he had taken some five hours ago in an effort to stay awake were slowly leaving his system and he wanted nothing more than a woman to lie with and a good sleep to follow.
Pleasantly buzzed he made his way to his favourite brothel, The Garden, and smiled at the Matron upon entering before making his way to the lounge where he would wait for his girl.
He was such a frequent user of the services at The Garden that the Matron knew him by sight. She knew his likes and his dislikes, the room he preferred to use and the types of girls that caught his fancy. In return for the excellent service Charlatan would give the girls of The Garden preferential treatment when it came to screenings, abortions, and other medical necessities. As a man of science Charlatan was not afraid of the gods as some healers were. He would perform all manner of surgery that seemed to defy the design the gods had for humanity without a blink. Without a twinge of guilt to his already declining conscience.
The Matron followed him into the lounge and sat across from him in a velvet chair. She took a long drag from the ornamental pipe that rested between her fingers and slowly exhaled the musky smoke before speaking.
"I'm sorry, love. The Raven isn't available today. I know she's your favourite but she's been isolated due to illness. Perhaps another girl will do?"
The Matron's voice was low and husky from many many years of smoking. As she spoke Charlatan vaguely remembered The Raven coming to see him at the clinic and prescribing her bed rest and pills for her fever. She looked at Charlatan with anticipation. Her garish red lips were like a bloody slash across her pale face. Her bustier lifted her almost flaccid breasts to the base of her neck and cinched in her waist in an unrealistic fashion. If anything, The Matron had legs for days. She had been in the business for over the entirety of Charlatan's life at that point and he wondered sometimes with his twenty-five years of experience in living if she had chosen that trade or if she too had been forced into it as many young women and men were.
"Who can I have tonight then?" he asked, trying to hide the disappointment in his voice with a smile.
The Matron rose to her feet and snapped her slender fingers.
"I've got a new girl," she started, "I believe you tested her earlier in the week and said she was clean. She is our Flower."
But Charlatan wasn't paying attention any longer. His eyes were fixated on the entrance where the girl The Matron had called stood. The girl from the clinic. Hana.
Thunder rumbled but Charlatan couldn't hear it over the sound of his own heart. He rose from his seat and approached the girl. Woman. She wore a bustier of the most brilliant blue trimmed with soft black lace. A garter held up opaque black stockings with a ribbon as brilliant in blue as her bustier. Laced underwear that exposed the bottom of her butt cheeks completed the ensemble.
She smiled at him softly as she had in the clinic.
"Hello Doctor," she said.
Her voice rang in his ears.
"She will do just fine," he said, his hand extended and grabbing Hana by her elbow he steered to the room at the back which he always used.
The room was dimly lit with black silk on the windows to block out the tiny beams of sun. The bed in the far corner was dressed in blue silk sheets that matched Hana's outfit. The room was filled with the sound of rain.
Hana had stopped in the middle of the room and Charlatan stood so close to her he could see the goose bumps his breath made on the back of her neck. She was just tall enough for the base of her head to reach his shoulders. He pulled her back into his arms and breathed in her smell. Cucumber and melon filled his senses.
Wordlessly, lightly, he ran his fingers up and down her arms. She shivered in response and he felt his heart beat faster. Carefully he used his fingertips to explore her exposed skin, relishing in every sigh, every murmur she made. His fingers rested on the inside of her arm and he felt for her pulse. Instead of the rushed beating he was expecting he felt nothing but a steady thump thump thump. His hand dropped immediately in rejection.
Undeterred he touched her again. She gasped. Her skin responded to his every touch and seemed to cry out for more. Clearly she was enjoying the situation as much as he was.
He carefully led her to the bed where he gently pushed her into the silk sheets and climbed on top of her. Again he explored all her exposed flesh with his fingertips while his face nuzzled in the crook of her neck and drank in her scent. Her eyes were closed and her breathing began to speed up with the ecstasy he was causing her. As his fingers reached her bustier and began to slowly undo the clasps her voice broke the silence.
Startled, Charlatan leapt from the bed, tossed money on the dresser and dashed from the room. He made straight for the lounge where he fell into the velvet couch and caught his breath.
Married? He thought.
The Matron appeared from nowhere, as usual, and sat before Charlatan.
"She's married?" he asked her, unable to lift his head from his hands.
The Matron sighed and with that expulsed some smoke from her lungs.
"She told you, did she? I told her not to bring that up with clients. Technically, yes, she is married. Her husband has dug them a nice deep hole of debt and sent her here to work it off. The poor dear has never done anything to deserve such a punishment for her husband's behaviour. But a business is a business. I've bought her contract and she needs to work it off. That's why I figured I would give her to you, love, since you always treat the girls so well. But if you won't take her I've got no choice but to sell her to the soldiers. No one else has the kind of money needed for her to work this off."
Charlatan sat in silence. It was not like he had never slept with a married woman before, in a brothel or otherwise. He hadn't asked her for clarification and he hadn't even seen the look in her eyes when she told him that. He had just felt such a strong rejection he wanted nothing more than to leave the room at that moment.
Before he could respond a frantic young voiced called to him from the flooded streets.
"Charlatan! Charlatan where are you?! We need you at the clinic!!"
It was one of the fresh graduates and Charlatan felt his body get heavier. Reaching into his breast pocket he pulled out a bottle of pills and immediately downed two of them.
"Don't sell her to anyone else. She's mine. She will work off her debt with me," he gruffly muttered to The Matron before leaving The Garden and disappearing into the rain.
Charlatan had spent the next fifteen hours sewing up bullet wounds, stitching limbs back together and cleaning endless smears of blood before sleeping for ten hours straight. The rain had stopped and the muggy air pressed heavily on his chest when he woke up on his cot in the back of the clinic. Outside his room he could still hear the shouting and hurried footsteps of his fellow doctors and healing aides as they scurried about trying to minimize the damage that just kept crashing on them.
He rubbed his tired eyes before putting his glasses back on. Reaching over the left side of his bed he picked up the work chart that hung from his bedside table to check his shifts. His eyes widened as he noticed he had been given twenty-four hours of downtime. Such luck so close together was not usually in his favour.
Wasting no time Charlatan hastily pulled on his dark grey slacks and a dark blue short sleeved button-up shirt. He slipped on his brown leather sandals and ran from the clinic. He ran through the muddy streets. He ran passed the wide eyes of the citizens who floated by him like blobs of fuzz. He ran passed the soldiers that nodded respectfully in his direction until he reached The Garden.
Panting for breath he barely made it to the lounge when he caught the eyes of The Matron from across the room where she sat with her own client. She flicked her eyes in the direction of his usual room and turned back to her task at hand. Wordlessly Charlatan crossed to the room and boldly opened the door.
His nose was assaulted with her smell. She sat on the bed, hands clasped in her lap as if she had been waiting for him. With large strides Charlatan made his way to the bed. He pushed her down and stopped any potential protests with his mouth pressed firmly on hers.
Giving in to his tidal wave of desires he took her. He owned her body with his hands and his mouth. He made love with her in a flurry of flesh, sweat, and silk.
He lost track of time that day. For hours upon hours they stayed in that dimly lit room answering unspoken commands with their bodies. Rarely did they stop to catch their breath or to wipe the sweat from their skin. Again and again their flesh answered each other until finally, they were spent. They lay back on the silk sheets which had somehow managed to remain cool in that humidity. At some point in time the rain had started again but Charlatan couldn't smell the rain from the open window. All he smelled was cucumber and melon. All he smelled was her sweat, her body. All he could smell was Hana.
Such visits continued for the entire summer. Any time Charlatan had even an hour of downtime he would rush to The Garden. He saw no other girls and she took no other men.
The rains began to wane and the sweltering heat of the true summer sun began to scorch and sizzle the small border town. Water began to disappear and wells dried up one after the other. Aside from bullet and sword wounds Charlatan had to treat heatstroke, dehydration, famine. The supply lines to the town had been targeted by Hieros rebels and the food was dwindling faster and faster with each passing day. Old men unable to harvest their crops watched in desperation as the food shriveled and dried up in the hot summer sun. Old women wailed as their buckets came up dry from the several wells which dotted the town. The rain barrels were emptying faster and faster.
Charlatan felt nothing as children lay dying in his arms. He had learned a long time ago that if you started caring for one child, you could only ever care for the children and that emotion would kill you faster than fatigue. He worked with speed and efficiency. He ordered I.V. drips for those young men and women who could be saved. He cloaked the elderly in cool blankets and cool packs provided by the healing aides who could use magic to at least bring them some comfort from the heat. There were not enough members of staff with magic skills to replenish the water supply and all requests for such support had been intercepted by the rebels and destroyed.
As part of his scholarship Charlatan had no choice but to give preferential treatment to soldiers and diplomats from Byrnan. He had to forsake dying civilians to attend to a case of the sniffles from a spoiled militant. Every fibre of his being revolted at the choices he had to make but outwardly he did nothing to change the situation. No one went against the military. He knew better than to voice his opinion. That was how people kept living in a time of war.
Charlatan had been quite content to live out the remainder of his mandatory service in such a fashion. While it sat uncomfortably on his soul every time he passed over someone in greater need of his skills and assistance for someone who barely required any help, his ethical standards were dropping faster and faster by the hour.
His viewpoint was forever changed one hot summer day as the peak of the heat wave caused bush fires to spark all around the town. The military was unconcerned and sent civilians to combat the small but plentiful fires that dotted the circumference of the town.
It was during that time that the rebels of Hieros attacked. Seemingly content that most of the civilians were out of the town for menial labour they burst through buildings trying to reach the centre of the town, the centre of the military encampment. With weapons flying and screams bouncing off walls the rebels rushed the military.
A long and bloody battle ensued. Buildings were destroyed. Bodies piled up faster than anyone could count. Charlatan was run off his feet, popping accelerator pills in an effort to remain alert.
He stopped counting the bodies and only focused on the barked directions of his superiors. The fresh graduates fell like flies to a swatter forcing more and more upon Charlatan and his coworkers. He shut his ears to the sound of buildings crumbling and people wailing to focus only on those barked orders. If he could just stop thinking it would have been even better.
With blood up to his elbows and his pants ruined from the remnants of death all around him Charlatan moved through the crowds in the clinic like a fish in a river. Moving with the currents and working with the force of the bodies pushing and demanding all around him he wordlessly stitched and saved and cleaned where he could. There were people on the cots, the floors, in the doorways and in the halls. Most of the soldiers had taken the beds as they lay screaming and gasping for aid. Few lost limbs and even fewer lost their lives. Ordered to disregard the rebels who also clamoured for aid, the dead that lined the streets grew in number. For an entire day and night Charlatan worked without rest and without eating. He accepted dried meat that was pushed in his mouth by a healing aide if one happened to pass him by but he did not actively seek out nourishment. He didn't have time to think about that. He barely had time to breathe.
It was while he was stitching up a gash inflicted by a sharp sword on the arm of a soldier that Charlatan heard his name being screeched in the middle of the clinic.
Not losing focus he ignored the oddly familiar voice and kept to his task. He had just finished tying the knot in the stitches and cleansing the wound when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, forcing him around.
He looked up to see The Matron bearing down on him. Her makeup was running down her face and her damp black hair which was normally piled so elegantly on top of her head was a mess of strands that stuck to her face. She was covered in filth that could have comprised of anything from blood to feces to mud.
"Over here! Over here!" The Matron cried in her hoarse husky voice as she pulled him from the soldier to the rear of the clinic.
He refused to look at the helpless faces of those around him and instead focused on the back of The Matron. Had she always been that tall? She almost towered over him and at that moment Charlatan actually began to wonder if The Matron had started her existence in that world as a man.
It wasn't until they had waded through the sea of filthy human bodies that Charlatan finally understood what was happening. The Garden must have been destroyed. If The Garden had fallen then that meant the girls were injured or in serious danger.
Her name echoed in his head and his heart began to race. Was she alright? Was she even alive? With the way The Matron was dragging him to the back of the clinic his heart beat faster and faster and he felt his mouth go dry. She wasn't alright. Would he make it in time?
After what seemed like forever, The Matron stopped running and pulling and instead shoved Charlatan before her towards a heap in the corner.
He adjusted his glasses and tried to peer through the darkness at the mass before him. It was misshapen and covered in mud and blood. The metallic smell assaulted his nose ferociously. But still, even in all that sweat and metal and mud he smelled it.
Cucumber and melon.
He dropped to his knees, ignoring his surroundings and suddenly focusing. Reaching out a tender hand he wiped off some mud and discovered the fair face splashed with freckles underneath. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was laboured. Quickly he wiped off the filth with the sleeve of his once white doctors coat in an effort to discern what the trouble was. Once he reached her midsection he saw it.
The wound was deep and the blood was dark. A piece of metal piping was sticking through her stomach. The edge was dull now and the blood had cemented it inside of her. He wouldn't be able to pull it out of her right there. It would take surgery and at least two healing aides to supply her with their arts and help her flesh regenerate. That's what healers were best at, creating. They used their skills in creation to stimulate the healing properties of the cells they worked on to have the skin and organs they were dealing with heal themselves. They could purify poison and suture wounds in such a fashion. But for issues like the one that presented itself before Charlatan now, a healer on their own would be useless. They could not cut flesh to remove an item. They could not dive into a human body to remove a solid foreign object. This was where doctors and physicians like Charlatan came in. With their nimble fingers and incredible skill they could do such feats. With the support of a healing aide they could cut out a metal pipe or a fetus from a woman's body and the aide could immediately assist with recovery. Those who were gifted in healing could never do both. The sheer amount of energy and stamina required to heal even a single person could drain the healer for hours, if not days. Even during his educational career Charlatan had only come across one healer who could potentially conduct precision surgery and heal the patient at the same time.
But she wasn't there. It was only him.
Charlatan held Hana's face in his hands and tried to coax her eyes open. His heart beat faster and faster as her response was more and more delayed.
She was dying. Oh gods she was dying right there in his arms and for the first time Charlatan felt the helplessness he had been ignoring overwhelm him.
Roughly he grabbed the first healing aide that walked by.
"Prep a room now. You and I are going to save this woman," he shouted in the aide's ear above the roar of the crowd.
Only nodding, the young aide slipped away from Charlatan's grasp. All he could do was trust that the aide had understood him.
"I have to move her. I need your help. It will take two of us. Matron, I need you to cradle her in your arms while I hold the pipe in place," Charlatan demanded.
Luckily the pipe protruded from her right side so The Matron could hold her tightly and Charlatan could secure the pipe. They scrambled now and forced their way through the throng towards the surgery rooms.
"Doctor? Is that you?"
Her voice was soft and he almost missed it.
"Yes, yes it's me," he replied, gripping her hand with his free one while he stabilized the pipe.
"Ah. I'm so glad I got to see you. I've missed you," she whispered.
Unable to control himself Charlatan felt the hot tears making their way through the grime on his face before he was aware he was even crying.
"Charlatan! Over here!" the aide's voice rang high over the buzz of the crowd.
Charlatan made his way towards the voice. Before he could reach the pristine surgery room where the tools he needed to save Hana's life were twinkling in the florescent light, he was stopped by the medical chief of staff.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing, Charlatan?"
The harsh voice of his superior sliced through his mind like a physical blow. He swallowed in vain, trying to lubricate his throat so he could speak.
"She's got seconds, sir. If I can just get her to surgery I can save her life," he carefully said.
The chief of staff was a skinny, skeletal man who looked like he might crumble if hit hard enough. His sharp and heavy voice made up for everything he physically lacked.
"I don't fucking think so, son. I thought I told you to stay in section three and handle all the surface wounds."
It wasn't a question. It was a statement. Charlatan swallowed hard.
"Sir, it won't take long. I've already got an aide in the room. If you just let me do this-"
The chief reached forward, past Charlatan, and shoved The Matron with Hana's limp body dangling in her arms back into the crowd. Charlatan heard The Matron hit the floor with a thud and strained his ears to hear as The Matron was swallowed by the throng of blood and filth behind him. The chief reached forward once again and grabbed Charlatan by the collar of his shirt with surprising strength and brought his face towards him. Charlatan raised his eyes in defeat and locked them with his superior.
"What are you doing?" the chief asked.
"Heading to section three," Charlatan said flatly, all hope fading.
"What are you going to do there?"
"Work with the soldiers on their surface wounds," he responded.
"Good boy," the chief said as he returned Charlatan to his feet and shoved him abruptly towards section three.
Much like the first time he had met her, Charlatan didn't remember much of the rest of his day. The wounds and stitches and blood all seemed to melt together and he couldn't differentiate one patient from another.
That hell lasted another twenty hours before the soldiers subdued the rebels and the fake peace returned to the town.
Stumbling from fatigue and half-drunk on sorrow, Charlatan left the clinic and headed blindly towards The Garden after his shift.
The building was in shambles. Walls were broken or completely gone. One corner was soaked from burst pipes while another corner, ironically, was singed from fire. The Matron was not there, so Hana wasn't there either.
For what seemed like hours he roamed the dusty streets of the town, crushing debris and ash underfoot as he searched for The Matron.
"Ah, Charlatan, love. There you are."
The husky voice appeared once more from behind him. Battered and worn Charlatan turned to see The Matron, somehow clean and fitting the memory he always had of her.
His mouth opened and closed.
What did he want to ask? There was no doubt she was dead. He had abandoned her. He had let her die. He had known he could save her and then let that decision be taken from him. He was not a man. He wasn't even a child.
The Matron reached out and grabbed Charlatan gently by the hand and led him to the outskirts of town. There were men digging when they arrived and at first, Charlatan didn't know why. It wasn't until they drew closer and the smell hit his nose that he realized the men were digging graves.
Off to the side, close to where one could assume was the beginning of said graveyard, was a small fresh grave with a meager wooden stake sticking out of it. Scrawled in almost childish writing was a name.
Charlatan fell to his knees before the grave. He pressed his forehead to the mound of dirt as his emotions broke and he began to sob and wail like the women who had brought their dying children to him. He grabbed the dirt in his hands and twisted his fists into the earth. He began to slam those same fists and his forehead into the ground, kicking up dust all around him. His tears did not stop. His heart ached like he was going to go into cardiac arrest.
She was dead. Oh gods, she was dead.
He slammed his fist so hard into the ground that he cut himself on a rock that had been sleeping beneath the dirt. He held the bleeding appendage before his eyes and just stared. He could see the blood, smell the blood, but he felt nothing.
Silently she looked over him before turning her back on him and disappearing into the remnants of the town.
Charlatan never saw The Matron again.
Once he had managed to calm himself slightly, Charlatan pulled himself to his feet and wavered before Hana's grave. Even still, he could smell her cucumber and melon through the dirt. He could feel her breath on his skin. Hear her cries of ecstasy as their bodies answered each other in the darkness of the silk room.
Charlatan left the town that night. Without a word to anyone he grabbed the small pack of his pathetic belongings and disappeared in the night.
For years the military would search for him to have him tried for desertion and have him executed. But he would evade them. Always. Two years after the rebel attack on the town whose name he couldn't even remember, Charlatan would find himself opening a clinic in the underground of Vanecia where he would attend to any person, no matter their social or economic back ground, in the order of who had the most pressing issue. The way it should be.
Nine years after opening the clinic he would take on an apprentice healing aide named Kokoro who had shown up on his doorstep at the age of twelve, begging to be hired.
Now, a full fifteen years after the events that drove him to the underground that same girl poked her head into the room and spoke.
"Dessa is here to see you, Doctor," she said.
Her voice was young with all her eighteen years behind it. Charlatan looked away from the opened window and towards the bright young woman with the long strawberry blonde hair that she wore tied up high on her head. She was one of the few people who addressed him as 'Doctor' in that day and age. She was also the only one who lit the cucumber and melon scented candles on humid rainy days in the summer.
"Thank you Kokoro," Charlatan said as he drew himself to his feet.
She smiled at him again before disappearing into the lobby of his clinic. Charlatan gazed once more out the window at the torrents of rain that fell before running a hand over the remnants of his hair and moving forward.