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Part III: A Concern of Trolls

The rising voices from the waiting room rasped across my brain like a file, and the obsidian needle slipped in my forceps again. I muttered a curse on loud clients, difficult clients, and clients who used their fire-lizards to hunt garden gnomes. Sure, it works for keeping the gnomes down, but the gnomes always leave a couple of huge slashes before they die. So they need stitches. Profitable stitches, but obsidian needles break easily, slip easily, and are the only thing that will sew through dragon hide.

And then you have to set traps in the recovery room for the gnomish vengeance-squads.

From the waiting room, my assistant Harriet’s voice cut off, abruptly.

This meant trouble. Harriet was an ex-tavern-wench, who was an ex-witch. No one got the last word from her. My hand strayed to the scalpel at my waist. Then I heard it: “Halloo! Halloo, Dr. DeGrande. Come out at once: I wish to have a word with you!”

Cursing in earnest this time, I leapt across the room, grabbed the mirrored goggles and fastened them around my head, fingers trembling on the locking catch. They snapped into place: I now had two mirrors and a pane of glass between each eye and the outside world, but I couldn’t just rush out there. With vision just a bit more binocular than I was used to, I checked my patient.

The cocktail of blended bloods and plant extracts hadn’t clotted yet, so it was still dripping into the fire-lizard’s throat. I twisted the valve that would increase the non-virginal blood that was so important for keeping draconics under. All together, it would take down anything smaller than a minotaur, of course, but fire-lizards were tricky. I slammed out the door, already knowing what I would see.

The waiting room was full of statues.

The statue of Mrs. Glabrug the orc stood looking curiously at the door. Her two pet tarantulas looked like ornaments in her hair. Baronet Klathraee, the dark elf, was looking at a spot some six feet farther in, his expression of annoyance just turning to one of alarm, his bloodhawk frozen in the act of taking flight from his shoulder, and thank the Gods below it hadn’t actually launched itself into the air or I’d have been sweeping up gravel all over the place. The statue of Harriet was pushing herself away from the desk. She’d obviously tried to throw her hands over her eyes, but it was too late.

And there, keeping meticulously out of the sun that streamed through the waiting-room skylights, the Countess Elspeth Bathetique stood with a sour expression on her face, and a pair of mirrored goggles over her eyes. She was much the same color as the statues surrounding her, but unfortunately, still quite un-petrified. Wriggling in her grasp, gazing at me with bulbous, outsized yellow eyes, was Gnasher. Her pet basilisk.

“Dammit, milady, I have told you before that you cannot come into my office with that basilisk unless it is properly restrained!”

Her nose turned up. “Don’t take that tone with me, slave! I shall have my husband take your tongue out for such insolence. Gnasher obeys my every command. And so will you.”

One hand went to my ruby-studded slave collar. “Fortunately, milady, I am not your slave. The Count may report my insolence to the Dark Lord, but I recently cured his pet dragon, Baugrath, of a knight stuck in his gut. You are my client. And I told you to keep that basilisk in his box! Now what do you propose to do about all my other clients?” I gestured to the statues. “Not to mention my staff?”

She arched her brows. “They are hardly my problem. Gnasher is not at all dangerous to people who behave properly around him.”

“People who wear mirrored goggles all the time?” I snapped.

“Well, if they will patronize you without considering whose pets they might encounter, that’s their fault. I should think your staff would know that, but I suppose you don’t exactly get the best and brightest here. I mean, look at that twisted freak,” she gestured at Harriet.

I felt my blood boil. Harriet Templin had almost become a witch. With a college degree, no less. But the fashions for witches had changed just as she entered the College: dark, tall and statuesque had become a requirement (for humans, anyway) and the severe hunchback that witches for generations had admired had become a liability, so she’d disguised herself as a dark elf until she was found out, but that was another story. Well, Harriet was certainly statuesque now. I winced, making a mental note not to crack that joke when I revived her. “Milady Bathetique,” I fumed, “I value Harriet. More than I value you.”

“Well,” she sneered. “The Dark Lord doesn’t pay his slaves, so I think a little more courtesy to your higher-class clients is in order. After all, who knows if these will still be yours after today? Don’t you educate your clients in proper precautions? I don’t know the Baronet socially of course, but I have heard he is not a forgiving man.”

Neither am I. But the hell of it is, she was right. I didn’t have many clients. I would almost certainly lose the Baronet and the Glabrugs. And eat the cost of the unguent that would restore them. And the hazard pay for Harriet. But I couldn’t get rid of the Countess. The Dark Lord wouldn’t punish me for “insolence,” but he would make me keep serving her. You can’t have a Dark Empire where slaves can refuse service to nobles. There had to be a way….

“So what’s the trouble this time?” As if I didn’t know.

The Countess frowned in the way that only rich bored women with spoiled pets can and said, “He’s lame in his right front leg. Still!” I sighed.

“Bring him into the back.” I knew what the problem was. I could tell by the statues.

In the examining room, I added a lens to my goggles. “He’s got a fracture. Again, not still.”

“Well, doctor, I must say I’m disappointed. I thought your medicine would work.”

“It did. And I’m disappointed. I thought you were listening when I told you to change his diet. Have you?”

The Countess drew herself up. “As I have explained to you, doctor, in our house, Gnasher is like family. He feeds as we do.”

“Is that still chalices of blood?”

“Of course. We have transcended the need for flesh.”

“Gnasher hasn’t. His body is absorbing his own bones because you’re not feeding him any bone meal. He’s got metabolic bone disease, so his legs are snapping like twigs! He’s so far gone that his gaze is turning his victims to limestone just so he can eat them for the calcium.”

“Eating stones and bones is beneath our house’s dignity. We will not live like trolls.”

“You could at least give him a couple of hocks of meat,” I growled.

“We will live as the higher orders,” she intoned.

Oh, gods below, humans in the Dread Empire were the worst! I ought to know; I was one. The ones in the nobility, though, were enough to make your flesh creep. Some of them had flesh that did creep. A pack of unholier-than-thou suck-downs, the lot of them. “Dammit, woman, you’re not even a vampire!”

“I beg your pardon?” she gasped.

“Dammit, my lady, you’re not even a vampire!”

“How… how dare you? I identify as a vampire, you filth! You cannot dream of the tragic destiny which is ours!”

“What? Suffering from vitamin deficiency, malnutrition, keeping out of the sun for no damn reason, and torturing your poor pet basilisk? If I dreamed of that, I’d seek clerical help.”

“When I want a medical opinion on my health, you upjumped butcher, I will consult my personal shaman. Give me the potion I came for and cease your effrontery!”

Fuming, I mixed the potion. “You’ll be back in a week if you don’t change his diet,” I said through my teeth. “So you’ll also want these.” I handed her a small, deep muzzle with two eye pieces high up on it.”

What is this?” asked the Countess, as though I’d just handed her a stool sample.

“It’s for Gnasher, next time you come in. It will block the effects of his gaze.” I placed it on the wriggling lizard, and put it, snapping its head side-to-side, in the Countess’s silver-and-lead box. Then I charged her triple. She paid it without a thought, and then swept out.

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