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The first cases were in the docks. Sailors impatient to get back to work soon became desperate to flee. We had no trouble keeping the port closed to arriving ships, the departing ships could not be contained and soon the harbor was empty with plague vessels heading to all points of the wind.
There was no first case that I know of. The day before was a hot, unbearable day, but no more remarkable than any other during the drought with exception that the counter flies had vacated the countryside. Then the next day there were ten cases of the pestilence that I can attest to. The day after fifty, then a thousand.
Carcinoma. The disease struck first with a red blight on the face that caused the forehead and the cheeks to appear puffed and sunburnt. The blight soon swelled, tumors grew under the skin, then broke out and grew black and once putrefied causing agony.
I was called out to the docks early that week. My mother had been relocated to the palace grounds the previous week, but my sister was near the infection. I first paid my respects to her. Her husband and child were healthy and she appeared well.
So I said to them, “It’s not safe here. Come, there is plenty of room at the palace.”
“What?” Alisoun asked. “Will praying to the Saints not save me, brother?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The Saints help those who help themselves.”
“Motley,” she said. “I can’t leave if our neighbors need help.”
“I have a fear,” I confessed. “I fear the disease will destroy Adea like it has Theodora and Donaeve. The East is entirely silent. I do not think the sickness is the work of spirits.”
“Is it of Man then?” she laughed. “Then it is ours to fix.”
My pleading would not move her, so I left fearing that when I came back they too would be sick.
I soon came to an area that overlooked the sea. A grouping of hovels stood here and I entered the one the Square Temple had bade me to. The floor was dirt and there was one bed. One bed for the whole of the house, and an unnaturally low ceiling near collapse. A man lay in that bed. He was surrounded by his family; strawblonde girls ages six to ten with dirt on their brows and embedded in their hands. A wife too with straw and gray hair and a hideous expression of worry worn into her cheeks. They rejoiced to see me and begged a miracle.
The rotting tumors gave off a filthy odor, one I can only describe as excrement and fouled meat. They had so distorted his face, these tumors, that his nose had been pushed sideways to his cheek and his teeth jutted out of a jaw twisted like a corkscrew. His breath rattled out of him as air squeezed from a punctured bellows.
“The monk’s here,” his wife whispered to him.
He raised his hand and though it made my skin crawl, I grasped it. There was no strength in his grip. I held it up as much as I just held it.
“Abso,” he croaked as sound as raspy as paper. “Absolut--.” He couldn’t finish the word.
“In the Saint’s light we live,” I said. “In that light we go. We are the breath of the Saints. You are absolved in their Light.”
He may have tried to smile: the ruined face trembled. Soon the rattling breath stopped. I held that wife’s hand in grief. I patted the children to comfort them.
The stop, the first of many, depressed me greatly. I had to gather myself in the street before I continued on. Each stop introduced me to sailors, carpenters, tradesmen, each highlighting a stage of illness. Some were rosy faced optimists who talked energetically about their plans after they recovered, some were terrified and others were bedridden wrecks whose faces were distorted lumps of rotting flesh. I could tell the stage from the smell. Those bedridden smelled as death smells. If the burning people of Isopia smelled like dry pork in death, the victims of the disease smelled like rotten, wet leaves.
The streets were still crowded, yet the usual congregations were brief as if by one consent every man became afraid of every other man. They shunned public company; business had to be done, but social obligations could be dropped and were.
The priest of the Square Temple, Pius Vincenti, caught the Contagion early in the epidemic and his was a different kind of progress. Summoned from the docks, I arrived posthaste barely having to deal with the traffic I expected. The Sickness lubricated the city’s byways marvelously. Nobody stopped to talk, all avoided all, and as a necessary consequence, I arrived at the Square Temple in a mere twenty minutes.
The monks of the Temple, and all the priests from Adea, stood around in great agitation. Yonas met me on the steps, his habit disarrayed.
“Motley,” he said. “Come quick.”
He led me through the gardens up to the barracks, then toward the priest’s chamber.
“He’d been fine and then a day ago, he had the rash and today-- Motley, we don’t know what to do.”
Around the priest’s chamber a group of monks, priests, and physicians stood. Wall-eyed, they looked at each other with fear. They rang their hands. They muttered in hushed voices. But their feet were firmly planted and none had any energy of action. The door was shut, but I could hear a terrible wailing beyond it.
“What is it?” I asked the assembly.
“Brother Motley,” said a small monk with bristly black hair, “it’s the head priest. He’s possessed by a demon.”
“Why are you all standing here?” I asked. “Cast it out. We’ve all had the training.”
“We dare not go against this demon,” one of the priests said.
I looked from man to man, fear on each of them as clear as the tumors on the victim’s faces. An anger built in me to see this cowardice. I strode through them yelling, “You fools! What does a Believer in the Faith need to fear?”
I threw open the door. The smell behind it, a foul odor like rotten fruit, did not stop me, but the priest himself did. Pius, his clothes hanging in shreds, arms flailing, stumbled around the small room. He alternated between wailing and sobbing, stopping to spit up blood tainted with black, ropey pus. He did not appear to know where he was, and nothing intelligible escaped his lips.
“Pius!” I called to him.
He didn’t respond, but the candlelight caught his face and the reason behind his madness was so clear to me that I had no doubt whatsoever about his affliction.
The tumors had not grown outward in his case, but inward. The lumps in his face looked bruised, there was bleeding under the entire surface of his face. Those tumors must have exerted tremendous pressure on the man’s brain.
“He’s only sick!” I called to the crowd behind me. “Doctors, can’t you tell he’s only sick?”
“I know a demon!” one cried back. “That is no natural sickness.”
“Demon is it?” I asked.
“None here could survive the touch of it,” the doctor said.
I stared at this coward for a second, enough for him to see my disdain, before turning and marching toward the madman. I touched his forehead and shoulder and forced him into bed. For all his failing, there was no resistance, and once down his thrashing was confined to his horizontal position.
“Now, get in here and do something,” I said.
They did so, but now they appeared to fear me more than the dying priest.
I stormed out of the Temple, thunder on my brow. Yonas followed.
“You touched him! Aren’t you afraid?”
“Fear is for the Faithless,” I replied.
“You could die!” he said.
“Everybody dies,” I said.
“But the demon!”
“There is no demon,” I said.
I did not explain my reasoning to him, but I will explain it here. The ancient physicians believed that ailments were caused by either a distemper of humors, that is the body was comprised of several elements: Blood, bile, pus, and phlegm, to whit: if one of these was unbalanced with the others than sickness was the result. The smell of the sick in the case of the Contagion likely spread it, but agitating the blood. Since, logically, nothing can come from nothing, a sulfur pit in the far off jungles of Tarqour was the likely origin and once the miasma infected some hapless passerby, it jumped and propagated itself. This could account for Pius and the other members of the Faith so stricken. The other option, one too terrible to contemplate was that Pius himself and others thus afflicted were secret Sinners whose lack of Faith left them defenseless against the plague. Yet, again here was a problem. Even a disease of the natural world should passover a man with Piety. According to the Hexaliturgy: “He who believes is in Divinity never sickness plague him.” Clearly then, this current pestilence was some form of divine punishment, for the Eastern Heresy, if for any reason at all, our victories too few to please the Saints. But demons? None of what I outlined is demonic.
I left Yonas on the steps of the Temple, right where he greeted me, and went down the hill.
My next stop, the Order of the Golden Rose, was more cheerful for the sickness had not yet made itself known there. I did have a troubled discussion with Father Mab about the High Priest. If Pius Vencenti died, as he was sure to do, who then would lead the Faith? The protocol for selection needed to be enacted forthwith, but only the Emperor could issue the process, and the Emperor was just a boy. Father Mab commanded me to send word to the Emperor that the High Priest was in his final hours.
I again transversed those strange, impersonal streets, where man and beast walked not daring to look at each other for fear.
I shall recount an incident:
I had walked some miles distant into an affluent quarter of the city marked with spacious houses and large patios often with overhangs, awnings, and benches. Here, as elsewhere in the city people walked. They avoided each other with a wide berth, keeping a good foot between them and their neighbor pedestrians. I was crossing a courtyard made by four houses of the type described with a large public fountain in the center. The Fountain of Saint Atlantus if I remember true and griddled around by gilded fawns and stone vines. I was passing this when a horrible cry struck the air. The crowd pressed to one side of the courtyard and I saw a man coming out of one of the homes carrying a bundle.
His face was marked with the Contagion and bleeding freely, splattering the cobbled street with black tar-like fluid. The bundle he carried was wrapped, but a little arm, as delicate as a bird’s wing, hung from the cloth.
“Dead!” he cried. “She’s dead!”
He stumbled out into the street. People fled from him. Panicked to get away from the sick man, they fell over each other in mad haste. He raised the bundle as he went toward the fountain and on reaching it, plunged the bundle into the water. Falling back, he died on the cobblestones.
The crowd fell silent. The fountain’s water, clear before, took on the color of the bundle. Realizing the danger-- a public fountain thus contaminated could cause a lot of damage-- I pushed through the ring of spectators.
I bore the clump of rags out of the water with one hand and heaved the father onto my shoulder with the other. I then carried both back into the house.
The place was wide and spacious and bright too, but it reeked of death, a disconcerting contrast to see so bright a place with wide open windows that reeked so foul. Light and smell were at war with each other in there. I found three dead children, faces distorted beyond the grotesque, and a comatose and dying woman. The mother probably. I blessed the house and the bodies, then shut the place up, locking it so no others could disturb their peace. I would remember to send somebody to bury them.
I ignored the astonished crowd that greeted me outside. They looked on me as if I were something miraculous and many called out to be blessed. I did not feel like stopping and blessed not a soul from the fountain to the Imperial Hill.
The guards of the palace would not let me in until they’d checked my face for lumps, and even then I had to identify myself to their superior. Since that morning, likely Lutinus, had sealed the palace up. The Council expected trouble, I found out. Indeed the next day it came, a crowd surrounding the front gate and a few districts experienced rioting. The Empire was reeling. We received no information about the fronteers, the distant provinces were now autonomous for the duration of the Emergency. Nobody communicated this to them, it was understood by the administration but never articulated.
There were worrying reports that the Army was too ill to move.
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