Chapter 1: Seeing Patients

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Early in the morning and barely out of bed, Dr. Robert Henry Lang listened to the rumblings coming from the waiting room he'd set up on the lower floor of his medieval townhouse.

"Patients," Hans said, appearing from nowhere and startling Rob. "They're growing restless and debating whether to eat the cat." The whippet-thin Hans was light on his feet and tended to lurk just out of Rob's field of view.

Rob dipped his fingertips in a washbowl and began to clean the sleepers from his eyes. "Bathroom. Coffee. Glasses. Then patients."

Hans grabbed a rag to scrub Rob's face as a parent might with a child, though Hans was several years younger—and inches shorter—than the doctor he served. "There's no time for a bath. If you want the privy, the line's three deep and hasn't moved since the rooster began crowing. I still don't know what coffee is, but I've put a cup of boiled water on your workbench."

"Great."

"Which I'm sure is long drunk by now. I realize you're the doctor, but I don't see the purpose of these 'clinic hours.' Sick people should stay at home where they belong. You're supposed to visit them, not the other way around."

"It's a work in progress," Rob said. "Glasses?"

"By the washbowl. And may I raise the issue of our pantry's honor? I believe it's being violated even as we speak." Hans fingered the bag of bread crumbs he kept tied to his belt. "Robert, I can only be in one place at a time. I suggest we hire a guard—someone fat and well fed—to keep your patients from eating us into the street."

"No guards, Hans. We have plenty of food."

Hans shook his head. "Not anymore we don't."

"Look," Rob said, "we have plenty of money to buy more food. Okay?"

 Hans did not appear okay with much of anything at the moment, but Rob's finances remained secure. Months ago, when Rob had first arrived in this strange land, the king's wizened Chancellor hadn't been able to take his eyes off the digital watch Rob was wearing. He'd drawn Rob into one of the castle's storage rooms, filled with broken spinning wheels and three wooden chests of the small, medium and large variety, and offered to trade one of the chests for the watch. Rob's choice, of course.

Rob's digital watch was barely worth 20 bucks at Wal-Mart, and as he was new and didn't want to offend anyone, he'd politely agreed to trade it for the smallest of the chests. The Chancellor wailed at his choice, and when Rob opened it up he discovered why. It had been stuffed full of gold.

Rob didn't ask what was in the other chests, and the Chancellor didn't tell, but the king's chief advisor had kept his end of the deal. After Rob ran the Chancellor through the watch's basic functions, he'd rolled the chest out of the castle in a wheelbarrow. 

Since then, Rob hadn't had to worry about having enough money to buy food to eat, or clothes to supplement the jeans and cotton shirt he'd arrived in, or a townhouse where he could set up shop, or anything else he wanted.

Almost anything else.

"That golden chest of yours isn't bottomless," Hans said. "And we aren't a charity."

"Like I've told you before, we sort of are." Rob ran a tiny brush around his teeth and spat into the bowl. "But I don't want to get into this again. Not so damn early." Rob stuck his glasses on his face and squinted into the rectangle of polished metal hanging above the bowl. 

The reflection showed a beard that, despite a few patchy spots high on his cheeks, Rob liked the looks of. He certainly liked it better than the scratchy, scrape-jobs he saw on some other men's faces. Despite the lack of cartridge razors, a surprising number of locals shaved, and Rob's beard had become one more thing that set him apart. 

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