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Once Upon Her Veins

Chapter 1

The Secret

The worst part of being a healer was telling the truth. Mzia only told it when she absolutely had to. When there was no other way around it—when she had tried everything else only to end up back at the truth. The horrible, empty, ugly, killing truth. 

“Healer?” Sari, mother of two, stood holding her youngest son on her hip just inside the small examination room. Sari’s traditional ankle-length dark blue skirts swished as she rocked back and forth to keep the toddler from fussing.

Mzia completed her examination on Sari’s oldest son and set down her stethoscope. The boy, Ethik, at only six winters old was all arms and legs and clumsy movements. Mzia had seen him shoot through the streets in front of the clinic with the other boys his age, laughing loudly and covered with dirt. 

But today he sat almost completely still on the examination table, his eyes dull and lifeless, and his skin an unnaturally light shade of brown. 

“Healer?” Sari prompted again.

“Still waiting on those test results.” Mzia forced lightness into her voice. She didn’t need the test results to know what was wrong with Ethik. She had seen these symptoms time and again. Nobody knew the source of the illness. Even research doctors—whose scientific papers she read late into the night—had no answer. Sometimes the illness would just pop up in the Utara Kingdom, take hundreds or thousands of lives, then vanish for several years. Most doctors disagreed about how it passed from person to person, causing the more superstitious to blame it on spirits or Caouete, the god of rain. Something to do with an old belief that one could catch cold from the rain. 

And this illness wasn’t the only one the doctors disagreed over. There were more incurable sicknesses every year, so many she lost track of all the names. 

A good healer would tell Sari the truth. A good healer would send the boys from the room and sit the mother down and tell her that her son had something that only Iaomai, a drug grown in the Alang Kingdom, could cure, which in a poor mountain town where nobody could afford such a drug because the government had a monopoly on the supply grown, was the same as telling Sari that her son would soon die. 

Yulia, Mzia’s mentor, would tell Mzia it was her duty to tell the truth. After all, they were healers and only the truth would make the people trust them. 

But Yulia wasn’t at the clinic today. So Mzia smiled easily and said, “I wouldn’t worry about it; I saw another little boy just last week come in with the same thing. I think they are eating some of those berries growing by the temple.”

Sari relaxed a little, adjusting her headscarf after her youngest tugged it out of place. Most women wore them out of convenience instead of tradition because of the sudden winds and dirty life in the mountains. Sari lowered her voice. “You really think so? Because when he didn’t want to eat this morning, I thought that maybe. . . maybe it was. . .”

“I don’t see any cause for concern,” Mzia said, giving Ethik a pat on his bony leg. Just then, her handpad buzzed and Mzia quickly picked it up off her desk. Her eyes scanned through the results of the blood test she had taken not half an hour before. It was as she suspected. 

A normal healer would have to tell the truth now. Would be unable to lie because even if they did, Ethik would die in just a few weeks without the Iaomai. 

Mzia deleted the test in one tap and smiled up at Sari. “It is as I thought, all negative. It must have been those berries.”

Sari sagged in relief. “Oh, healer, thank you. I was so worried.”

Mzia adjusted her own headscarf and set of goggles that she was never without and ducked her head. Without looking up from her pad she said, “I am just going to give him a shot to help his immune system, and then I will send you home with some herbs to help his stomach. Nothing but broth and bread for two days, even if he begs for something else.”

“Yes, healer.” Sari smiled and kissed her youngest on his cheek. 

“Why don’t you take your little one and wait for us in the front room?” Mzia suggested. “I find siblings don’t like watching others get shots.”

“Good thinking. This one cries at the drop of a leaf, don’t you?” She kissed her youngest son again and walked out.

Mzia turned to her patient. It broke her heart to think what would have become of this boy if he hadn’t been brought to Mzia. 

“I will be right back,” Mzia said, and left through the second door into the lab and storeroom. The cool back room grew with one wall against the mountain itself. The walls were lined on one side with ancient books on uneven shelves and the other side with baskets of herbs and tools and a door to the stairs going up. A center table held various medical equipment Yulia had been able to scrape together over the years. Such a lab was considered very outdated, especially when compared to the modern hospitals in the Alang Kingdom. However, this clinic was perhaps the best within a day’s travel. 

Mzia got to work collecting the herbs for settling a stomach and portioned them out into little bags which she then labeled. These she would send home with Sari to help provide a cover for the real cure. 

With a quick glance over her shoulder towards the examination room, Mzia snatched a vial she had filled earlier that day from the bottom of a basket of tek moss. The moss was a rarely used ingredient due to its many side effects, which made it a perfect place to hide things she didn’t want Yulia to find. 

“What’s that?” a voice asked from the stair door. 

Mzia whipped around to find Anuva on the bottom step, one hand on the open door. “You shouldn’t be down here!” Mzia hissed, walking over to shut the door. Thank goodness the girl at least had her headscarf on. 

“What’s that?” Anuva asked again, gesturing to the vial in Mzia’s hand.

“Nothing. Now go back upstairs before someone sees you.”

“If it’s nothing,” Anuva pressed, “why did you hide it in the tek moss?”

Mzia signed. At eleven winters old, Anuva let Mzia get away with nothing. 

“I can’t tell you. But I can tell Yulia you were breaking rules if you don’t go back upstairs right now.” 

“You won’t tell on me,” Anuva said evenly. “Because I will tell on you.”

“There is nothing to tell,” Mzia insisted. “Now go.”

Anuva frowned. “It’s your blood, isn’t it? That’s what you were hiding?” Her eyes widened. “Are you going to heal someone? Can I watch? Please!”

“No and no!” This was getting too far out of hand. Mzia sighed. “I will tell you everything tonight if you go upstairs right now.”

Anuva nodded, satisfied with that answer, and pulled the door shut. Mzia waited until she heard little feet pad up the steps before returning to the examination room and Ethik. Mzia talked to him kindly as she fitted the vial on a syringe. “This might hurt a little,” she told him as she tightened a band around his upper arm and searched for a vein in his inner elbow. “But it will be over fast.”

He didn’t respond, and her heart broke a little. Not that she needed any validation to do what she did, but it was comforting to know that she wouldn’t have to supply his mother with the traditional incense at his funeral. 

Mzia pushed the dark liquid into his vein and removed the band from his upper arm. “There, all done. Not so bad was it?”

She lifted him down from the table and walked him out to his mother. He would be his old self by morning, having no idea how close death had brushed him. He would grow up to be tall and strong like his father and probably never even remember this trip to the healer. As it should be. As it was with all those she had cured. 


Evening stole in around Dolok’s Hamlet as the sun sank behind the hills to the southwest. Mzia locked the clinic door to walk down to the market as she did on many nights. The main road of the town zigzagged away from the clinic down the mountain, with buildings half-grown, half built up many years ago. 

The process for growing homes always fascinated Mzia. Long ago it had been more of an art form, myths told one had to sing the tree-like plants into the right shapes to live in. But now it was all genetically coded into the house plants; they needed only the right growing conditions and homes would take shape in a matter of weeks. Taller buildings, ones that reached the clouds, grew in the Alang, or Central, Kingdom. It took a few years to reach such heights but even that time was being shortened constantly by new and better technology. 

In the Utara Kingdom where she lived, and particularly in mountain towns where wealth was in short supply, some were so impoverished that they built parts of their home out of the earth. Mzia only saw this poverty as an added reason to justify what she did. But she couldn’t think of that now, because then she would have to think about what she would tell her adopted sister when she returned to the clinic. And it was simply much too beautiful of an evening to dwell on that. 

She passed the meeting hall grown with its shallow roof and open walls. Wide and flat, the town used it for holidays and solstice dances and sometimes market stalls during the rains. Tonight, a group of girls skipped rope inside, and the popular rhyme about a princess in her tower reached Mzia as she walked by. 

The sky turned a dusky pink as she entered the lower market. Because nights were so long in the winter months, people learned to live in the darkness. Even now in mid-spring, bioluminescent lamps were brought out to drive off the night for a little while longer. Mzia had her own little lamp, swinging at her hip. Not because she needed it. Her condition gave her what Yulia called “impossible vision” and let her see nearly as well in the dark as during the day. 

Mzia paused at a bend in the dirt road to look down on the hilly lowlands to the south. She could see the blue and green glows of the larger cities near the swamps. There were even more amazing things happening in the other kingdoms. And beyond them, the other nations of the world. So much life happened just out of reach. But with things the way they were, Mzia couldn’t leave the mountain side. Her condition made it too dangerous. For most of the twenty-two winters she had been alive, Mzia’s life was confined to this mountainside. 

The air crisped as twilight stole over the land, so Mzia turned from her thoughts and made her way to one of the food stalls. 

“The usual, healer?” the older man, Kip, face deep-set with wrinkles, asked. At her nod, Kip flipped the flat rice breads on his wide thermal stove. Metal that big was rare and had been passed down for many generations. Such things were considered primitive by modern standards. In a poor town, however, it was necessary. 

As Kip wrapped the rice breads up, he asked, “Will you be leading the solstice dances again this year? My granddaughter has talked of nothing else for weeks.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the empire!”

“They say it’ll be a special celebration this year because it’s feared to be Emperor Kaisar’s last. He is soon to follow his wife to the stars.” His eyes became unfocused, distant. “I remember the last few they did for his father, very grand.” Then he returned back to reality. “I swear you fly across the ground you move so fast! Nice to see the young people ‘round here so engaged, keeping old traditions alive.” 

“You flatter me.” Mzia smiled, “And I love the dances. They are fun.” She took four of the flatbreads and tried to pay, but, as usual, he waved her off. “You saved Bire’s life. For you, anything.”

“You won’t make any money this way.” She forced a little laugh, hoping he didn’t brag about her to everyone. “I was just doing my job.”

“No, others do their jobs; you are gifted by the Starbreather.”

Mzia forced another laugh. “You flatter me, Kip. I hope you don’t spread such rumors around or people will be coming to me for miracles.”

“As far as I am concerned, you have worked me a miracle.”

Mzia thanked him again and ducked away before anyone could overhear. She wouldn’t trade the lives she had saved for anything, but to hear others even joke about her having a special gift sidled uncomfortably close to the truth. 

She purchased a few more items, including some sweet tea and a surgery puff for Anuva, before climbing the road back up to the clinic. 

After going up the back steps into the upper rooms where they lived, Mzia shed the headscarf and goggles she always wore. This was the only safe place to go without them. She shook out her long braids and felt them slap against her lower back. Maybe Anuva had forgotten about what she saw in the clinic. As they sat down to dinner, her first words to Mzia were, “So how often do you give people your blood?”

Mzia sat on a cushion by the low table and crossed her legs. She busied herself with pouring the tea for both of them, but Anuva didn’t touch the food, waiting for an answer.

At last, Mzia looked at her sister. The girl had also taken off her headscarf revealing the white hair they both had in sharp contrast to their tawny skin. Though Anuva was never supposed to leave the upper rooms when anyone else was around, Mzia and Yulia often took Anuva into the woods on herb gathering excursions and picnics so she wouldn’t get bored shut away in the upper rooms of the clinic. But it was just too dangerous to let her out alone. 

So, just as Mzia had been hidden until she turned thirteen, Anuva would remain a secret until she was old enough to keep the great secret. The secret that kept them hidden away in this mountain town. 

Mzia folded her hands––it was time Anuva understood the whole truth. 

No part of this chapter may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including informational storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. 

Copyright © 2023 by Rachael Katharine Elliott

All rights reserved. 

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