Sleep did not return to Mateo easily. His dreams were a replay of the morgue over and over, only less intense and more clearly dream-like than before. He was exhausted from waking up several more times in the night and finally, some time early in the morning just before the sun rose, he gave up on sleep entirely and headed downstairs.
Barnen was standing dutifully behind the front counter, looking like he was about to doze off but grew more attentive and turned to Mateo as he descended the steps. Mateo paused on the stairs, watching him. He could not explain why, but for some reason seeing the tavern keeper this morning unsettled a part of his mind. He tried to shake the feeling, quite literally, as he gave his head a quick jerk in hopes it would clear the thoughts. Barnen was always waiting there dutifully, every morning, regardless of when Mateo awoke. That sense of unease returned. Mateo continued to linger on the stairs.
“Morning,” Barnen grunted at him.
“Yes,” Mateo said quickly, as though answering a question only he had heard. “Ah, good morning.”
“Would you like your usual?” Barnen offered.
“Yes?” Mateo responded in more of a question than an answer. “Sorry, what is my usual?” He was still lingering on the steps. He should probably fix that.
“Toast,” Barnen responded with a shrug.
“Right. Of course it is,” Mateo agreed. He just needed to place one foot in front of the other. Just finish walking down the stairs. Stop lingering.
“Are you alright?” Barnen asked, his mouth frowning in concern as he watched the healer frozen in mid-descent.
“Why?” Did that sound defensive? Mateo didn’t mean to sound defensive.
Barnen offered yet another shrug.
“You just seem a bit frazzled is all.”
“Do I?” Mateo responded quickly. “Sorry, I must have slept bad. I mean, I did. Poorly. I slept poorly.” He was repeating himself. He still hadn’t moved from the stairs.
“I see. I understand.”
Barnen stared at him. He did not seem to know how to respond to the healer’s odd retorts. Mateo could not blame him and felt his cheeks and ears grow hot. He had no idea what had come over him. Some odd, lingering paranoia in his mind from the nightmares before, no doubt. He wanted to kick himself for his own strange behavior.
“How about I go get started on your breakfast,” Barnen offered. Mateo both hated and appreciated the offer to drop their awkward exchange. He nodded. He still needed to leave the stairs.
“Yes,” the healer accepted in a low exhale. “That would be good.”
Barnen turned away and headed into his kitchen. Mateo finally left his perch and moved to sit at a table, trying desperately to collect himself. What really had him so nervous? Surely this wasn’t just a carry-over from his nightmare. Perhaps he was still embarrassed from Sabbis catching him in the night and the rahkanna’s passing accusation about him. But that didn’t seem right, how would that have caused him to hesitate when he saw Barnen? It was just the sight of the man standing there, waiting, turning toward him as he did every time he came down the stairs.
“Barnen, when do you sleep?”
“Pardon?” Barnen asked, his voice and expression pleasant as he leaned to set down the toast and preserves for Mateo. He’d only just arrived with his food when Mateo caught him with the question.
“Sorry, I realize that must seem odd.” The healer admitted and frowned at his breakfast. “I was just curious. You always seem to be up late with Sabbis or Carmyle, and then even if I’m awake before dawn you’re here and waiting.”
“Well I only have so few patrons,” Barnen responded with a smile. “There’s no reason not to be as attentive as I can for you all.” He turned and left without another word, humming as he went. Mateo noted that he had not answered his question.
He needed to refocus his mind on his actual task. He felt like he was allowing himself to be swept away by odd dreams and strange things and paranoid, and all sorts of unexplained thoughts. He would be no use to anyone if he did not keep his mind focused and sharp. It was not like him to get carried away like this. He shoved a corner of toast in his mouth, skipping the preserves as he concentrated on the bland flavor of hardened bread. His hand moved to his pocket to search out his holy symbol. He needed to stop letting his imagination get the best of him.
Mateo finished up his breakfast and headed out. The sun was just rising and in the distance he could hear the faint ringing of a bell as the corpse collector worked her rounds. Mateo considered heading into the town to look for her. It was likely too early to head to Shindia’s home so he would have the time to do so. A light rain was drizzling softly, the usual weather for the isolated little town, and Mateo shifted the shoulder strap of his pack before he started off through the empty cobble streets toward the distant noise of the bell.
Following the echoes he managed to find the corpse collector and her wagon just as they were returning to the morgue at the far end of town. Mateo paused several yards away, the looming form of the stone building and its three smokestacks bringing up fresh memories of his dreams. It had seemed just as real to him then as it did to him now and he frowned. He did not want to linger on such thoughts, fearing they would continue to feed into his confusion. He spurred himself quickly on to follow in the wake of the slow-rocking wagon and the masked woman who pulled it along.
The wagon was covered by a canvas tarp and Mateo was left to wonder how full it was this morning. How full it was any morning? Was it all bodies or was some of it the town’s garbage? Two long bars jutted out from the front of the wagon and she walked between them steadily, gripping them tightly as she pulled her burden along.
While tracking her through town Mateo had not yet gotten close enough to see much of her, but he could tell from this distance that she wore a wide-brimmed hat to shield from the rain and had on a beaked mask that covered her face fully. He assumed someone carting the dead every morning would be covered head to toe to guard themselves from the illness they worked around. She pulled the wagon up to the large iron doors of the morgue, pushed them open easily, then her and the wagon vanished steadily inside before the doors closed behind them. Mateo followed quietly after.
Everything about the building was just as it had been in his dream. The way it towered over him, the smell of the smoke, the look of the bricks, even the way the iron doors gave under his hands as he pushed them open. The sheer familiarity upset him, vexed him. The short corridor and the room beyond it were nearly identical as well, only this time the reception area looked and felt more appropriate to its purpose between the desk in the corner and the added lighting that gave the stone room a warmer glow. The wagon and woman were gone already but Mateo could hear the low rumble of wheels over stone and the cling of a bell beyond the second set of iron doors that stood across from him. He did not notice the same foreboding red light that had danced beneath them in his dream. He hesitated to head through them and after the bell wagon. He hesitated to do much of anything in the moment.
To his left and to his right were the walls with wooden doors. In his dream the door to the right had been stuck and the left had opened into a ward-like room filled with tables and figures. Mateo headed to the left and tried the door. It was locked tight.
“What are you doing here?” The voice was not loud or particularly upset but Mateo jumped all the same, gripping the doorknob tightly in his surprise and rattling it. Immediately he felt embarrassed, chiding himself silently for his nerves.
“I apologize, sir,” Mateo said as he turned to face the owner of the voice behind him. There was a frowning man standing in the doorway across the room wearing a long apron and dark boots. His dark skin made him nearly invisible as he stood in the shadows of the doorway but the flame from the oil lamps flickered and reflected off the whites of his eyes, making them look like two pin points of light glaring at the healer. Something about that was also uncomfortably familiar and Mateo could not shake the feeling although he tried not to focus too much on it. He could see over the man’s shoulders into the room beyond him. It looked like some form of office or study.
“Um,” he vocalized the moment it took to get his mind to focus. “My name is Mateo Gulverres. I’m a healer, a practicing doctor from the Temple.”
“You can’t heal the dead, son,” the man said firmly. He did not seem interested in company.
“I… understand that, yes,” Mateo hesitated out. “Actually I was here in hopes of answering some questions? About care and disposal for the bodies? I was hoping I may find some information that could help regarding the plague.”
“Don’t see how people already dead from the sickness will help you figure out how to cure it, and anyway I don’t have time to stand around answering questions,” the man replied, his voice rich and deep in its curtness. “There’s a lot of work I need to do around here.”
“Yes, well, really I just need to know what that work is? Could I just shadow you for a bit while you went about? You wouldn’t even have to answer anything, if I could just watch...”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t allow outsiders in here,” the man answered once more, his tone final. Mateo’s brow furrowed.
“Outsiders to town or outsiders to the morgue?”
The man said nothing in response. He stepped out of his doorway, letting the door close behind him, and gestured toward the exit expectantly.
“Please, Mr. Gulverres.”
Mateo did not have the nerve to press the matter further. He relented with quiet politeness, heading out of the morgue at the man’s behest and back into the gloomy town. The healer could not honestly decide if he was relieved to be out of the all-too familiar building or not, but he was frustrated at how quickly his attempt for information had been blocked. Regardless, the sun was up now and that meant it was a reasonable time for him to check in on Shindia and her family. He headed through the streets, the slow drizzle of rain having stopped for the time being, and his down-turned eyes caught sight of more large worms squirming over damp cobblestone as they searched for softer ground to burrow back into. He frowned at them.
Mateo reached Nidiyna’s home several minutes later and knocked. The door opened with great flourish and Mateo reflexively leaned back as though the motion threatened to strike him where he stood.
“Healer! Thank goodness you’re here! Please,” Nidiyna ushered him in quickly, her tone and gestures reserved in motion but frantic in implication. “Please.”
“Did something happen?” Mateo asked as he hurried in, gripping the strap of his medical pack.
“Please, yes,” Nidiyna pressed, too frantic to offer much more detail until they were already heading to Shindia’s room. “This morning she says her chest is tight. Breath is hard. There is not even a lot of coughing, just bad wheezing.”
Kareem was seated by Shindia’s bed when Mateo and Nidiyna entered. He was holding a small cup for her, gently coaxing the girl to take water when she could. Mateo could hear her labored breaths as she gasped, not choking for air but certainly struggling for more than she seemed to be getting. Kareem’s head turned as the two entered and he looked skyward.
“If I may have a seat near the bed,” Mateo requested softly and Kareem nodded, carefully drawing the cup away from the girl and standing.
Mateo moved in and the young girl looked up at him with dark eyes, her breaths strained. From his pack he pulled a long wooden tube that was thinner in the middle and widened at either end, roughly a foot long.
“I’m going to try and listen to your breathing,” Mateo explained to the young girl. “Is it okay if I help you sit up?”
Shindia was resting at a slight lean since before the healer arrived. She gave a weak nod and he assisted in getting her upright as he propped pillows behind her back to keep her steady. When she was stable he placed the wooden stethoscope to her chest and leaned in.
“Now breathe in deeply and hold it for a moment,” he guided her through the motion. In, hold, and out. In, hold, and out. Mateo’s brow furrowed as he listened through his unique device. He drew back and considered the girl curiously, then worked to change the expression on his face to something softer.
“Can you speak for me? Tell me your name?”
“Shindia,” the girl wheezed softly, her voice sounding strained. Mateo nodded and glanced around before reaching for her doll.
“Thank you.” The healer put his device away and pulled out his journal, scribbling a few quick notes. Though he could hear her wheezing as she worked to gain breath he could hear nothing through his device. This was not completely uncommon but it was another piece added to his puzzle.
“I’d like to stay again and observe, if I may,” Mateo asked and Nidiyna agreed readily. The healer once more spent the day at Shindia’s bedside, talking and playing with the young girl as he took notes on her health.
“Did you sleep very well last night?” Mateo asked as Shindia braided the hair of her doll.
The little girl shrugged.
“I had a dream that my insides were full of yarn and that was making my chest hurt because there wasn’t enough room for all of me.”
“And did the bad dreams keep you up?”
“I used to have bad dreams when I was younger, too,” the healer admitted.
“Did they go away?” Shindia asked, her voice hopeful as she looked to him. He managed a smile for her.
“Mostly, yes. Sometimes they still come back. Usually when I’m upset about something.”
“Like being sick?”
“Like that I think, yes.” He agreed.
Mateo stayed through the day, encouraging Shindia to eat and drink when she could, and asked her often about how she felt. Despite the sudden down turn of her health since the evening before, she appeared to remain stable for the long day while he was there. Her breathing remained strained but she did not speak of fatigue or feel ill when she ate. Regardless of her wheezing she never even complained about weakness or lack of air. It was nothing Mateo expected and it left him perplexed.
He stayed for dinner once more, telling Nidiyna and Kareem about how well Shindia seemed to be doing for now. He did not want to get their hopes up but he did not want them hopeless either. Nidiyna offered that he could stay the night but Mateo did not want to put upon them so much. And he needed the time and space to go through his work. He promised Nidiyna that he would be back early the next day and invited her to find him at the inn if anything came up before then. She thanked him and as evening set in Mateo headed back to his room at Barnen’s Wayward.
“So what exactly is it that you do as a healer, anyway?” Carmyle was sitting with Mateo again in the restaurant and lounge of the inn. “I see you pouring over books all the time. How does that heal people? Are they spell books? Do you, like...” she rubbed her hands together and held them out, implying a form of touch.
Mateo sighed, his hands wrapped around a mug of hot water. He’d wanted something with a different flavor than the various alcohols and also something to help warm him up after his walk home through the continuous drizzle. Heated water was the best Barnen could offer him considering the limitations.
“I don’t… use magic, no. We don’t cast spells.”
“Well that’s a shame,” Carmyle stated, sounding bored as she rested her cheek on her hand. “You go to the temple of a Goddess and She doesn’t even teach you magic or anything?”
“She inspires,” Mateo replied with a frown. “People don’t need magic. They need innovation and invention. Magic was… of the Sun. And everyone knows how well that’s ever gone. The very people that were made to use it are now hunted by monsters.” He lifted the mug to his mouth and took a long sip of the hot water, letting its steam warm his nose. He put the cup back down and gave a noise that was as much of a hum as it was a sigh.
“Healers are taught medicine and medical practices. We can mix herbs and minerals to help people. We can cut out rot and set bones and sew bodies.”
“You know, that all sounds real dark when you put it that way,” Carmyle’s brown eyes lit up, the small flecks of green in them more striking. “Hardly something I would expect to hear from a person busy healing people.”
“Well… medicine and healing is messier than I think most people realize,” Mateo admitted, his frown deepening at the thought. Her interest reminded him of his own when he was younger. “There’s a lot to do… There’s a lot you can’t do… Like I can’t really do much about the plague until I understand it better. I don’t want to start trying things that might accidentally make everything worse, but at the same time I feel helpless while I watch people getting sicker and sicker and all I’m ever doing is… asking them how they are and taking notes.” The healer let out a deep sigh into his mug as he pulled another drink of the hot water. Carmyle watched him with patient interest.
“You sure you don’t want something to help your head feel lighter tonight? You sound like you could use it.”
“No… I haven’t been sleeping well,” Mateo confessed. “I don’t think the alcohol will help that.”
“Does ‘not sleeping well’ somehow relate to you ending up outside my bedroom on the ground?” Carmyle teased. Mateo felt his cheeks grow hot.
“Y...es… Sorry about that by the way. There was...” He reached up to rub his forehead and closed his eyes, momentarily pressing his fingers to his eyelids. He didn’t know how to explain the things he thought he saw.
“I had an odd dream, and then I guess I may not have been fully awake and thought I saw something in the hall.”
“What did you see?”
“A woman, I thought,” Mateo continued. “She was in white, if I remember. I thought I saw her walk through your door.”
“Odd,” Carmyle stated as she leaned back in her chair, folding her arms. A calm grin remained on her face as she listened. It helped Mateo feel a little more at ease.
“Well, I don’t remember any lady paying me a visit in the night. Just you and Sabbis being loud in the hall.”
“Ah...” The heat returned to Mateo’s face. “No, I didn’t… expect anyone did.” He gave another sigh, his shoulders rising and falling with the breath. “It’s not the first time I thought I’ve seen something odd in this town. I think I’m just overwhelming myself-”
“Like what?” Carmyle cut in, leaning forward as she propped her folded arms onto the table. Mateo frowned. He had her undivided attention as she listened, eager to hear his odd experiences. It made him feel harried. “What else have you been seeing in town?”
“Well I...” Mateo trailed off, his eyes turning down to the table. He let go of the mug and started rubbing his thumbs along the side of his forefingers as he meditated on whether or not he actually wanted to share any of his experiences.
He played the conversation out in his head, him telling Carmyle about walking into an abandoned house and thinking he’d seen something running at him. He pictured her asking him why he was breaking into empty houses. He contemplated trying to tell her about his dream that seemed so real and how the place he’d visited in it was completely accurate to when he’d seen it while awake. He theorized what sort of things she’d say about him, about the educated, practicing doctor from the temple who kept letting his mind run away with fantasy. He held all these conversations in his head within the span of nearly a minute and all the while Carmyle patiently waited out his silence, though he could tell from the tense way she held her shoulders and gripped her hands into slight fists that she was eager to break the quiet, to push him to speak.
“I think I’d rather not,” Mateo finally admitted, sitting back, eyes still focused on the table. He cupped his hands around his mug once more. “They’re nothing, just my mind being tired and overworked. I’d rather focus on what I came here to do than indulge in nonsense...”
“Suite yourself,” Carmyle’s voice remained even but her posture sagged with disappointment. “In that case, I should stop bothering you and let you work.” She offered him a smirk as she stood from their table.
“Night, Mateo. See you tomorrow.” Carmyle winked before she turned and headed up the stairs to the bedrooms.
Mateo huffed out another breath, trying to will away his nerves and embarrassment as he focused on his hot water. Tonight he would head to bed early to see if he could get better sleep.
Mateo’s dreams were graciously calm and forgettable that night. He awoke early the next morning, feeling more rested than he had in a while, and headed down for breakfast. Barnen was standing dutifully behind the front counter, looking sleepy and like he might doze off at any moment, but he grew more attentive and turned to Mateo as he descended the stairs.
“Good morning,” the tavern keeper stated with reserved cheer.
“Morning...” Mateo cast a look around the dinning area as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He noticed a sour-looking Sabbis sitting off in a corner by himself.
“Toast?” Barnen offered helpfully.
“Ah...” Mateo tilted his head in the man’s direction, keeping his gaze on the rahkanna where he sat. “Yes, please.”
Barnen ambled away and Mateo frowned as he continued to watch Sabbis. He knew he was not the overly cheerful type, but ever since his odd accusation when the cat had found him outside Carmyle’s door, Mateo was all the less interested in seeing him. He was not sure what he’d meant by there being ‘something odd’ about him, and he certainly didn’t know how to explain himself in a way that would clear him of the cat’s disdain. With all the isolation the plague brought on, Mateo could only hope Sabbis was not trying to seed rumors about him to Carmyle or Barnen. But then again, neither of those two seemed to mind him much. Perhaps he was just overthinking things.
He tried to clear the nagging thoughts from his mind and refocus himself on matters of illness, on matters of Shindia. With a physical shake of his head he took a seat, ensuring his back was to the rahkanna so he could focus on his work.
Pulling his journal out he skimmed over the notes he made the day before, the curiosities about how Shindia’s health had been so stable only to change so drastically over night. With everything else he knew about the plague and certainly with his witnessing Toby’s final day he’d expected to see the young girl’s health fall while he was at her bedside. Was it possible the simple care of feeding and ensuring she had water was enough to keep her stable? But that would imply no one else had received similar care from their family members as they fell ill, and Mateo simply could not believe that. Was it something about engaging her in talk for the day that helped her stay healthier? That didn’t make sense either. He recalled checking in on Toby and finding his wife ever-present by his side. Surely she’d been talking to him during his illness. What was it that he was missing?
Mateo looked up, unaware of the frown that formed on his face as he saw Sabbis standing above him. Speaking to the rahkanna was the last thing he wanted to do right now.
“Yes?” Mateo asked, his upset not reaching his voice which remained soft and calm.
“You, ah...” Sabbis looked down to the table, his ears swiveling and turning in agitation before laying back in a manner that spoke his discomfort. “You haven’t touched your toast in several minutes.”
Mateo looked down at the table in slight confusion. There was toast there. When had Barnen dropped off his toast?
“I, um-, I am supposed to apologize.” Sabbis slip into a seat across from the healer and Mateo frowned at the company. Sabbis did not look too happy either, his gaze sidelong and avoidant, and often his upper lip curled far too much as he spoke, revealing sharp, pointed teeth.
“Okay?” Mateo found himself unconvinced.
“So… I am sorry.”
A silence stretched out between them, awkward and inescapable. Mateo’s mouth tightened into a grimace.
“No, actually, I don’t think you are?” He blurted out when the quiet became too much. Sabbis flared his nostrils and bared his teeth again but finally moved his gaze to the man.
“I suppose not,” the cat admitted with little care. “But Carmyle says I must apologize to you.”
“Why would she say that?” The healer’s curiosity was genuine.
“Because she does not want you disliking me.”
Mateo’s brow furrowed. The answer struck him as both reasonable but equally odd.
“Oh.” He cocked his head to the side. “Why does that matter to her?”
“Hmmm...” Sabbis’ eyes narrowed and he turned his gaze away again. His ears twitched forward and back. “When we all spend time together, she would prefer it would not be difficult.”
“When do we spend a lot of time together?” Mateo meant it to be only a thought but it came out as words anyway. He was always busy or out, and he could count on one hand the number of times he had stopped to speak to Carmyle alone. Even less were the number of times he and Sabbis had done anything together.
Sabbis’ narrow gaze returned to him. The rahkanna considered Mateo silently for a moment.
“Listen,” his voice was measured and deliberate. “When I snapped at you the other night, I was worried that you were unsafe and were trying to harm Carmyle. But honestly, I… don’t think you are a threat to her. So that is what I want to apologize for.”
Mateo frowned. Sabbis had said nothing to address his point. He did find it curious that the cat thought of him as a threat, though. Mateo considered himself easily one of the least threatening people he knew.
“Why are you so concerned on her behalf?” He asked, resting his arms on the table. “She seems like she can take care of herself.”
“Yes, she can,” Sabbis agreed with a single nod, his tone firm. “I suppose my concern for her is… reflexive.”
Mateo found the word choice odd.
“Have you and Carmyle traveled together for very long, then?”
“Ah...” Sabbis sounded dismissive, his tone growing more and more uninterested. Mateo could tell he did not want to make small talk, but for the moment the healer didn’t care. “I suppose for about a year now, yes.”
“What do you do together?” Mateo’s curiosity was honest. “Do you work? Travel?”
“Carmyle, she travels,” Sabbis folded his arms over his chest, eyes still averted as he spoke. The rahkanna never fully looked comfortable. “I travel with her. She met me at a town where I used to work as a miner. Said I was interesting and wanted me to join her. So I have.”
“Seems… simple, and oddly straight-forward,” Mateo admitted. Sabbis offered him a shrug. “Um, so what do you both do for money while you travel? How do you afford any of this?”
“We make friends,” Sabbis’ voice was a low smooth rumble. “Like Barnen.”
Mateo looked to the tavern keeper as he stood dutifully behind his counter. He was busying himself with one small task or another. The motion of Sabbis standing turned Mateo’s attention back to him.
“I am done, I have said my apologies,” the cat stated as he moved away. “You have your breakfast and do your work, healer. I suppose I will see you later.”
“Right...” Mateo agreed with uncertainty as he watched the rahkanna head up the stairs and vanish from sight. He frowned. “Right...” This entire morning felt off. He decided to take his toast with him to finish on his walk as he gathered his pack and headed out into the gray-sky morning.