Carcinoma

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9.

“Pius Vincenti is in his last days, your Majesty,” Lutinus said to the Emperor. “You must appoint a successor.”

The boy looked from Lutinus to me. His eyes were bright and huge looking in the dim hall.

“The sickness has…” the boy began. He faltered and had to start over. “The head priest is sick?”

“A madness grips him,” I said. “I believe he will be dead by nightfall.”

“My parents died of a fever,” the boy whispered. “How can illness be so pervasive? Can’t the Divinity protect us?”

“Prayers may do wonders,” I said. “We must pray for ourselves and the dead.”

“Even so,” Lutinus said. “We must choose a successor. Motley, do you have any suggestions?”

“Father Mab is a good choice. He is experienced, wise, and importantly of robust constitution.”

“An excellent idea!” Lutinus said. “Your Majesty--”

“No,” the Emperor said. “I say there are no successors.”

Lutinus stood agast. I shuddered.

“The Empire’s foundation is the Faith,” I said. “There must be a priest at the Square Temple or else the State is done for.”

“I don’t care about the State,” the boy said. “You choose. I don’t want to.”

“Only the Emperor can choose,” Lutinus said.

“I choose nobody,” the boy said. “When you find a person of that name, return and make him the high priest.”

This troubling development waited until the next day to be a problem. It came to us that Pius had died and due to the Emperor’s refusal to select a successor, Lutinus appointed Father Mab as “transitional” head of the Faith. This prompted complaints from the other temples that there could be no transitional head and that the Emperor must pick a replacement. But the Emperor would not change his position. Nothing the Council, I, or anybody else said could move him.

In desperation I turned to his sister. She was no less stubborn.

“Why does the Square Temple need a priest?” she asked.

“Because it is the center of our Faith,” I said. “The Temple was erected by the first Saint and he commanded that the priests of the Church guard the Faith eternally.”

“And why does my brother have to decide the priest?”

“Because your brother is the embodiment of the Empire.”

“My brother is a child.”

“He’s also a symbol. If he doesn’t choose a priest then it tells our citizens that the Empire is rudderless.”

“I’m supposed to change his mind?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t. I won’t,” she said. “If the embodiment of the Empire thinks we don’t need a priest then we don’t need a priest.”

Thinking hard about the problem, I took my time heading down to the small house I had procured for my mother. The boy must have conferred with his sister about the priest. They were siblings in confidence and cohorts. Their shared conspiracy would be the worst for all of us if the Deity took offense at the boy’s delay.

My mother was in good health and high spirits. She’d made a few friends already though in the course of our interview, she did admit a certain regret as to the baker near her old home whom I gathered she had an infatuation with. This knowledge improved my opinion of the relocation scheme.

Indeed, she seem little aware of the terrible pestilence raging in the city. Nor did any of her neighbors, for I questioned them about the vile Cancer. To them the disease was a thing of the poor, entirely a problem outside of the Hill’s walls.

The Council disagreed.

The Treasurer panicked at the first meeting of the month. We had been discussing emergency policy when General Venvetii asked if we could expect the same kind of devastation as seen in Theodora. A team of soldiers, I gather, had been dispatched to the island, of the fifty sent, only five returned and they reported a city completely depopulated; corpses in the streets, wild dogs. The civic government disbanded, the constabulary deserted.

The Treasure, a man as healthy as any of us there, threw up his hands then proceeded to give a speech, the envy of any politician in any age, concluding with: “It will come here and burn us out. Nobody will make it out alive. We must flee. Take the Emperor and go. The country is done for. Maybe this disaster won’t reach us in the forests.”

General Venvetii stood up, strode across the room, and slapped the man.

“You idiot,” he said. “We have a duty to the people. If we leave, the entire Empire falls. The tumors can’t kill everybody. If one man lives, the Empire lives.”

“We’re all doomed. The Empire is doomed,” replied the Treasurer.

“Silence,” Lutinus said. “This helps no one. Flee if you wish. Then we’ll be free of your squawking.”

The Treasurer did flee, but it took him a week. He might have stayed forever if the disease hadn’t breached the palace walls. A guard of the Council showed signs. His face grew puffy, and even his own self-exile didn’t prevent the Terror’s foothold.

My visits to my sisters became more worrisome too. The city streets now were deserted except for brave doctors or those out on the business of death. The Council had decreed the dead to be disposed of quickly, but soon graveyards were filled and great pits outside the city walls were being dug. When the family of the deceased were too sick to transport their dead to the walls, they burned the dead in the squares so that a foul smelling smoke was ever upon the city. The stench of death saturated everything, the very cobblestones stank of rot and ruin.

My visit yielded little. My sister refused to run. Her husband lay in his finality, barely able to breath, my nephews were sick. She, like me, remained unaffected. I dreaded how long that would last.

Strange then, I reflect now, that in those days, I feared not for myself. It never occurred to me I might become sick. If I had, I would have walked until I fell. I blessed all I saw, I pardoned and absolved all I came across-- fewer everyday.

On reaching the Golden Rose that day, I found a monastery abandoned. Mab had gone to the Square Temple and those left had died. They lay as they had fallen. No burial for them, these faithful monks. Of all the Order, I was the only brother left.

I stood at the altar I had held a thousand sermons at and gave one more to the dead. I then went to find the keys. I closed the monastery doors with my own two hands, locking the great wooden doors. I then posted a sign on which I wrote: Closed for duration of emergency. I attached a hastily drawn map to the Square Temple just under the note and heeded my own advice, traveling toward the center of the Faith.

I encountered a small group of people at the ebb of the hill. They were ragged folk with no relation, the last of their families most untouched by the ravages of the Great Calamity, though a few were in the rash stage. They knew me, these people, and they cried out. One, their leader, or the most forceful said: “You are Brother Motley?”

“I am.”

“We have heard of your miracles,” his face full of wonder. Passion burned as bright there as did the first stages of the Death. “We have heard you plucked a sick child out of a fountain and the fountain turned to wine.”

“We also hear that you are unaffected by the sickness,” another said.

“I have been lucky,” I said. “I claim no miraculous powers, only simple Faith.”

“Please,” said the man who had first spoken. “I beg you to cleanse us of our impurities! Surely the Divine shines through you!”

What was to be done? I blessed them all, even as I was sure they would all be dead in a week. I left them in a state of spiritual redemption, yet without what they sought: physical salvation. They were all of them dead, walk or talk or beg or pray, dead men and women and children. I left them as if on a cloud. Not the happy cloud of a dream, but that of a nightmare. The petty works of man; the buildings, streets, fountains; the studded naves, the wondrous stained-glass rainbowed with light, towered palaces, the ships silent in the harbor, the city itself from foundry to bar to pleasant inn-- all of it-- was unreal to me. Solid phantoms, bricks made vapor, transient pathetic mist, the breath of Divinity in a cold world and that God was about to inhale. I felt like the last man on the edge of Apocalypse.

The Square Temple was not wholly empty. The few remaining clergy told me that Mab had died. I talked to them and found that the doctors, the cowards I’d declined weeks previous had fled likely spreading contagion to the winds.

I found Yonas lying in his cell, on his little cot, dying. The tumors had not yet overwhelmed his face, but they were prominent. Red and fiery as if lava boiled him alive under his skin.

“Motley,” he said. “How is it you’re well? Does nothing touch you? The flies, the Carcinoma. You must be touched by the Saints.”

“There is nothing special about me,” I said.

“You’re lucky then, friend,” he said. “I thought Faith would--.” He stopped.

“Yes?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s too horrible to say.”

“Tell me.”

“I think my Faith is broken,” he said. “The Faithful die like the heathens. Brother Polis died and he was as faithful and devout as any of us.”

I did not know the Polis he spoke of.

“Do not say that,” I said.

“There are no Saints, Motley,” he said. “I’ve known it since Ishopia. Their Faith made as much sense as ours--.”

“Stop,” I said. “You say that now and you’ll abandon Heaven.”

“In truth,” he said, eyes closing, “I’d abandon Heaven to forgo this pain.”

I absolved him as fervently as I dared and left the dying Temple in horror.

And worse happened. My sister’s children died. Her husband died. When I called on her the next day to console her in her grief, I found her apply the torch to the bodies outside of her home. She’d not even bother to go to a square. Other piles, some not even burned, cluttered the road. I at first tried to examine these fetid towers of bone, but found that the ruined leaking faces attached to the bodies of men and women was too much. You who are thus removed by time may idly speculate on this; the horror is necessarily far removed. It falls to me to tell of how in those piles were children, little boys and girls whose faces held tumors so fierce that their eyes had popped out and dangling by threads, how girls on the cusp of womanhood lay exposed to the world, their breast hanging down their emaciated ribcages, of men whose faces had liquified, of the black oil that ran from their bodies and putrefied in the sun, then froze at night. And how this nightmare was not exclusive to one street but common to all.

I found my sister lighting a pile with her husband and children on it.

“Alisoun!” I cried.

She turned and I saw the Contagion on her face.

“Motley,” she said.

I ran and hugged her, refused to let go, eventually she pulled away panting.

“I must go to bed,” she said, wiping her brow. Some of the skin on her forehead came loose exposing brilliant red skin below it. “I feel exhausted.”

I guided her inside and tucked her in.

“Is mom still alive?” she asked when she was settled.

“She’s fine,” I said. “Healthy.”

“Don’t tell her,” she said.

“I won’t.”

“Motley--?”

“Yes?”

“Tell me a story.”

I told her the creation story from the Hexaliturgy. How in the beginning the World was nought but a sea of serpents until the arrival of the Deity who cleared the serpents from the face of the World and raised it, populated it, set the stars and moons above, how he lit the sun. It was the last story I ever told her. The disease’s progression lasted three days, always three days, and I stayed with her until her last breath ceased to resonate in her hollow-sounding chest.

I returned to the palace after having made the trek to the wall to cast her shrunken and deformed body into the trench. I saw very few people out, only a madman thrashing in the street, bile pooling from his eyes.

The palace doors were shut tight due to a crowd of people thirty strong pounding at the gates, but being only desperate and not well armed and few, the doors were enough. I took a hidden backway in, passing two guards dead at their posts, and entered into the citadel.

My mother seeing a great sadness upon me asked as to the matter, but I told her that a friend had passed. She was without the Sickness, but had developed a cough that troubled me. Over the next week it grew. There were no physicians left, and what I could do with scented smokes and fervent prayer was not enough. She died with her own face, but she still died.

I felt empty as if nothing could fill me up again. The monasteries and temples were empty, the streets and homes too.

It hardly surprised me to find Lutinus on his deathbed.

“Is the worst past?” he asked from a mouth already beginning to be distorted by large red tumors. “How fares the Empire?”

I looked around his apartment to a huge map of the world on the wall. The Empire as a ring of red around the ocean, comprising thousands of miles, built by boats and blood; the map of the Faith. If Faith and civilization defined the Empire, then it was possible the Empire only existed inside of this room now. No news could be had beyond the walls. I held the latest news for I was the only one brave enough to go beyond and into the city.

I told him I thought the Empire was done for.

“As long as the Emperor lives--,” he said, his words creaking out of his great prone bulk. “See that he lives--.”

I bowed and left the dying man.

The Emperor’s apartment was locked. Nobody stood guard. I forced my way inside using a bronze candelabra as a wedge against the lock.

The apartment had not been cleaned in three or so days. The servants having fled (or died). I found the place full of refuse. It smelled of dust. I found the Emperor huddled in the bedroom. He wouldn’t look at me.

“Here child,” I said. “Where’s your sister?”

He didn’t answer with words, but pointed to a barricaded door across the hall. I went to it, fearing some horror beyond. The boy had piled furniture against it but futilely because bedroom doors are universally designed to swing inwards and such were these. The idea, I gather, is that it allows the occupants to keep out trespassers. I moved all of the furniture and pushed open the door.

A wasted corpse lay on the floor. A victim of the same fate as Pius. The girl’s tumors had grown inward, driving her mad. Having seen this, I closed up the room and went to collect the boy.


Carcinoma

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