Monday, 23 June 2014

Strength of Faith

Once again, I was an interloper at what was the most sacred of human rites. To say I felt uncomfortable was an understatement. Even though my presence was required, albeit informally until the necessary rituals were completed, there was a nagging sense that I was an intruder, an outsider, and that I didn’t belong. This sense was only heightened by the fact that other than the priest in his official capacity, and myself, there were only two others present, and the dour expressions they wore told me that they didn’t really want to be there, either.
            I remained, though. Not only because I was being paid to stand just outside of the periphery of the three gathered at the graveside, but also because something stark and remorseful ate at my bones in response to the lack of mourners in attendance. No one was crying. Not the young woman on one side of the coffin, nor the middle aged man on the other side, and certainly not the priest, whose sonorous voice was the only noise to be heard that warm and lazy spring afternoon.
            The young woman was the deceased’s daughter. She was dressed in customary black: a long and formless dress, sturdy, low-heeled shoes and a flat, broad brimmed hat with a veil that draped mysteriously over her face. Why she went to such a length to disguise herself was anyone’s guess. She was hardly a stranger to either Father Bryan or myself, having met both of us a few times before this afternoon’s service to make arrangements, and there was nothing in her demeanour during those few brief meetings to suggest that she was shy, or indeed, had anything to hide.
            As for the middle-aged man... well, I didn’t know him from the proverbial bar of soap. And judging by the way the young woman kept her distance, it would be safe to assume she didn’t really know him either. For all anyone knew, he could have been a drifter from off the street, who happened to spy the makings of a funeral and decided to blend in with the crowd in order to access the buffet that would no doubt be in store at the wake. Such callousness was not new. Indeed, part of my job was to keep an eye out for such vultures, just in case. However, given the man’s deportment and the fact that his dark grey suit looked too expensive to belong to a casual “funeral crasher,” I gave him the benefit of the doubt. In a crowd of four, I didn’t wish to cause an unnecessary ruckus, and besides, the young woman had been somewhat adamant that the affair would be neat, simple and quick. In other words, a graveside ceremony with a thimbleful of prayers and ritual, and no wake.
            On the surface, the request would seem cold, devoid of any emotion at all. Yet, it was not uncommon.  Modern life, it seemed, robbed people of so much time that they couldn’t even afford an hour or more to mourn for their dead. Only in this case, it wasn’t the commodity of time that dictated the young woman’s needs.
            “Mother was not a Catholic,” she had explained, sounding both adamant and apologetic at the same time. On me, the distinction was lost, though Father Bryan nodded in understanding.
            Hence, here we were this afternoon, a crowd of four, participating in an abridged ceremony. At the foot of the grave, Father Bryan held court. His voice washed over proceedings, utterly calm, totally powerful, inflected with the experience of decades of attending to the souls of mankind. For a man fast approaching seventy, he still stood tall and straight. Sure, he was gaunt of features, and his limbs were spindly, but there was still vitality in that body. Presently, he was at the penultimate stage of the ceremony, the bit that still brought shivers down my body even though I’d seen it countless times now. It was quite a piece of theatre, done with such clinical practice that unless your focus was on the priest’s foot, you’d swear it was magical.
            “...and we commit our sister in faith to the ground,” Father Bryan intoned. No sooner had the word ‘ground’ been spoken, the winches on the frame bearing the coffin burst into life, and the coffin began its descent into the earth. As the coffin disappeared, he continued: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...”
            While this happened, my heart skipped a few beats, as it seemingly always did. Despite the best attentions of the sun beating away at the black suit I wore, a sliver of cold wormed its way down my spine and an involuntary shudder coursed through me. And then, as suddenly as it came, it went, but not without tracing the hairs at the nape of my neck with its cold fingers for a final fleeting moment.
            All that was left was the closing. Father Bryan crossed himself, and then with the litheness of a man many years younger, he stooped to where a small shovel poked out of a token mound of dirt. Seconds later, the first clod struck the top of the coffin, the sound overly loud in the stillness of the grounds. One by one, the rest of the mourners followed suit; approached the grave, gathered a tiny clod of earth on the end of the shovel, and added it to the meagre few that went before it. With that, all was done.

            The graveside ceremony had barely clocked ten minutes.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Power of Fire - Sampler 3

Dire signed the official parchment with a flourish, a smile creasing his lips. To say it was a sanitised version of events was an understatement, but it suited the needs of practicality... and protocol, that recurrent bugbear that rode officialdom like a demented jockey.
            He read over the missive, satisfied with not only the message itself, but also the quality of the writing. There was not a single smear in sight amongst the neat rows of perfect calligraphy. It was one of few vanities Dire allowed himself to revel in. Sadly, though, this message would have but one reading, by the Queen, who would grasp its content at the most basic of levels, before consigning it to the archives where it would remain until it was recovered by some intrepid historian centuries down the track. And the chances of that, Dire mused humourlessly, are less than zero.
            “A small price to pay,” he muttered, reaching across his huge desk for a stick of sealing wax and his personal seal.
            In a matter of minutes, the missive was rolled and sealed with his own personal stamp, ironically, that of a crow. Around this, he secured a single red ribbon fashioned into a large bow. With that small task complete, he rose, wandered slowly to the huge windows that graced his study and gazed out over the palatial courtyards.
            Presently, the courtyard was deserted. Unless you counted the guards standing at the entrances and exits... oh, and the occasional boy loitering after his interview for the apprenticeship, waiting in vain for the next boy to come out so they could exchange banter. Only the next boy, and the boy after that—and should the first boy in question prove particularly stubborn, the boy after that—would be shown different exits. In the labyrinthine splendour that was the palace, the choice of exits was nearly limitless. But why go to such lengths to keep the boys from prattling to one another in the first instance?
            It added to the mystique. Pure and simple. The boys weren’t drawing lots for scullery duty, after all, and none of the established Bodyguard, or those charged with the training of potential apprentices wanted to fuck around with any more dead weight than they had to. And God alone knew just how much dead weight there was, just waiting to be pruned, to be cut and slashed... to be burned.
            The power of fire.
            The thought leapt into Dire’s mind, uninvited and unwanted. He saw again the parchment with the death notice flick from Seth’s hand into the brazier, saw the document blacken, and curl, before being consumed by flames. The cleansing power of fire. There were no screams as the parchment burned, but there would be screams early tomorrow morning. Even though Dire didn’t have to hear those screams, he knew exactly what they’d sound like. Such things he had heard before, and doubtless, would hear again. Invariably, the noises were the same, even if the circumstances changed.
            Nothing could remove the shrieks of agony, of fear—of complete hopelessness—from the grey matter lodged in one’s skull. It became embedded there, as if the sounds were a bullet fired from a gun, cutting a straight purposeful line deep into the flesh. Only these kinds of wounds did not bleed and were never really fatal. They hurt, sure; a kind of twisted private agony that only those who have shared similar experiences could understand, even when their own torment was different. After all, empathy can only lend you its wings for part of the journey. If there is no common ground, then it leans dangerously towards fantasy, and from there, becomes a detached observation.
            In the grey light of dawn, there will be new burning, fresh wounds opened in the minds of young men. They might possess the steel in the moment to act on their instructions. Once, twice, thrice—as many times as was needed. But in the harsh light of day, after the adrenaline fades... what then?
            This was not war, at least not in the conventional sense. It was not combatant against combatant. Even though they were trained to kill, those who would be their targets were not their enemy. Hell, they couldn’t even see the real enemy, and even if they could, would they believe that such a thing was possible? The cross they would bear would be weighted with their ignorance. Whether that eased the burden of their guilt was a moot point. There was a fine line between euthanasia and murder, even if the extermination of a few would save the lives of many.
            And what of Marcus Dire? Was he bearing his own cross for this coming deed, for those already performed, or even those yet to be perpetuated? He had to dwell on that for an appropriate answer. What he felt wasn’t exactly guilt, nor was it remorse. All he knew was that he had plans that couldn’t afford to be derailed, and something like the plague, if it were allowed to run its full course, would set back these plans immeasurably. He could label his actions as a preventative measure, but that would imply a level of altruism that did not exist. Dire was far from uncaring; but a humanitarian he was not. On the surface, his motives were selfish. Anyone on the outside looking in could easily ascribe that to what they saw, and without digging further, that label would be correct.
            In his musings, Dire had wandered away from the window and towards the other desk that sat in the farthest corner of his study. It was piled high with a miscellany of heavy tomes, but the one he wanted was within easy reach. He’d even slipped the bookmark to the place he required, so that all he had to do was ease his fingers between the covers and lever it open. What lay on the pages opened before him repulsed and allured him in equal measure.
            Here was the plague in all of its glory, captured in lurid detail in a number of sketches. While the workmanship was rough, even amateurish, each scene was contrived to wring out the rawest emotion to its viewer. It was a catalogue of despair and horror. One sketch, bordering on caricature, depicted a plague victim writhing in their death throes, their limbs emaciated and seeming overly long, covered in the infamous buboes from which the plague derived its name. These lumps were drawn in such a way as to give the impression that they were moving, from the region of the groin, over the chest, to the armpits and from there, to the neck.
            Yet another sketch, this one much more realistic in its rendering, depicted a narrow city street lined with a multitude of corpses, some fresh, others in varying states of decay. Through the piles of human detritus a rickety cart rolled, led by a man dressed in dark robes. In his hand was a bell, which, if the caption were true, he would toll incessantly while crying out, “Bring out yer dead!” On either side of the cart, groups of men could be seen trying to hurl bodies onto the cart, which was already overflowing with corpses. Dire spied dangling legs and arms; there was even one body that looked as though a sharp jolt from the cart would see it tumble onto the ground.
            Yes! Dire’s mind screamed. This is the plague.
            On the next page, physicians could be seen performing their arcane rites in vain. There was blood letting, application of leaches, various lotions and potions being poured into mouths that gaped like open sewer holes. There were amulets and trinkets and priests in funny conical hats. Here, a Grim Reaper strode across a devastated town, his bony limbs hacking at the populous with his trademark scythe, and there, angels gathered at the bedside of an ailing child, ready to guide the soul to the afterlife.
            Dire flicked another page and another. The plague, death, bodies swollen and blackened. One more page he flicked over...
            ...and saw a densely packed city, many times larger than that which existed outside the window. It was perfectly rendered, the artist choosing to include every intricate detail so that anyone looking at this particular picture knew exactly which city was being portrayed, even if they had never set foot inside its walls. Dire’s fingers traced over a magnificent clock tower, over a massive bridge spanning a broad and deep river, over a palace complex that far surpassed the dark and dingy set of buildings he currently occupied. Yes, this was a city par excellence, thriving with humanity, with culture, with history, and sadly, with all manner of pestilence related to those. Only it wasn’t pestilence that was the theme of this drawing, nor the timelessness and urban beauty of its ancient buildings. What commanded the viewer’s attention was the large pillars of fire that rose high above the buildings and the rendering of the sky. Even though the picture was in monochrome, it was hard not to look at it and imagine seeing colour: the yellow and orange flames, the heavy clouds of black sooty smoke, and the sky angry red, like an infected wound, shimmering with copper highlights like the glowing coals of a blast furnace... or Hell itself.
            The power of fire.
            The inferno lasted for four days, and destroyed over one hundred thousand houses. Miraculously, the death toll was a single digit number, at least officially. Dire smirked at that word. Officially. Being a well-learned student of “officialdom,” Dire knew how easy it was to create statistics to serve one’s needs, and anything written on parchment and sealed with wax was pretty much sacrosanct.
            White lies.
            The power of fire.
            However, death tolls aside, the real reason this picture sparked Dire’s imagination was the single one pertinent fact that directly related to the situation here in Thalesia. As little as twelve months prior to the conflagration, the city was at the mercy of the worst ever outbreak of plague in its history. Indeed, prior to the burning, plague was the single most common cause of mortality amongst the crowded populace. But, after the fire... the outbreaks were so infrequent that one could surmise that the fire played a significant part in eradicating the agent that caused the disease.
            The rats.
            Or, more correctly—Dire turned to the last page in the tome that dealt explicitly with the plague—the fleas on the rats. On the final page was a picture of one of these creatures. Under magnification, it looked like a monster from a story told to frighten children. There were six long, spindly legs ending in hooked claws that at this size looked more than capable of seizing limbs and ripping them apart. Then there was the body covered in segmented armour like the knights of old, giving it a formidable appearance, the façade of great strength. Lastly, there was the head, with its beady black eyes, emotionless as an obsidian pebble, and several long filaments erupting from what could be classed as its mouth. It was easy to imagine these filaments wriggling and writhing, eager to drag pieces of flesh, maybe, into the maw.
            Only such things were impossible, given the flea was barely one sixteenth of an inch in size. In other words, barely visible to the human eye. Barely visible? Practically invisible. Yet another joke played on humankind by Mother Nature. An unseen enemy capable of cutting a swathe through huge populations, leaving these ignorant fools no other option but to pray to a merciless God for salvation, and devise all manner of wicked torture in the name of medicine, and thus, perpetuate the conditions required for the reappearance of the calamity. Ah, yes, proud humanity brought low by the bite of a single flea.
            Dire chortled, but there was little mirth in the noise, which sounded loud in the relative silence. He stared at the diagram of the flea, musing, marvelling at the ingenuity of this creation. He was within a nonce of closing the book and banishing the pictures from his mind when he stopped, caught by a sudden idea. However, he had no time to chase down the idea, to make it a coherent thought, for outside the large door that formed the divide between his private life and the world outside came three sharp raps. And a voice.
            “Marcus Dire, sir?”
            Dire winced, let the book fall shut. The thought that so briefly skittered across his mind alighted. “Yes?” he inquired, barely able to control the irritation in his voice.
            “The interviews, sir... for the apprentices?”
            Dire bit his lip. No doubt it was his turn on that esteemed panel. The idea didn’t exactly thrill him, but was part of the bargain he had to strike to get the damned things in motion. Give a little to get a little, or so they say.
            He placed a few other volumes atop the one that was just closed, the incriminating one; a veritable noose around his neck should anyone with curious eyes should happen upon it. Even though he had rebound the book itself, replacing the original cover, [toan], with something a lot more pedestrian: Studies of Architecture. All it took to rat him out—forgive the pun—as a witch would be someone with the right frame of mind to open the volume up at the wrong page. Better safe than sorry.
            “Ah, yes. The interviews,” Dire muttered. He approached the door slowly, hoping to recapture the flash of inspiration that was stolen from him by the knock. No such luck. It had departed, taking with it all traces of its genesis.
            “Your presence is required... soon.”
            “My presence,” Dire muttered under his breath. Out loud, he said, “I’m afraid I am rather tied up at the moment. Is there any way we can... postpone my presence?”
            There was a shuffle from the other side of the door, the sound of voices, indicating the messenger was not alone. Then, a second voice. “Postpone for how long, exactly?”
            Without skipping a beat, and to hell with the consequences, Dire replied. “Can we postpone until tomorrow morning?”
            There was a short pause. Then a reply, unsure, hesitant. “That won’t be liked much, sir...”
            “Too bad,” Dire snapped. “I have other important business to attend.” It wasn’t really a lie, semantically speaking. But the excuse was enough, because Dire had said it.
            “Very well, sir.”

            Dire, grinning broadly, even though his brow furrowed into a frown, spoke once more. “And please refrain from addressing me as ‘sir.’ It hurts my ears.”

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Power of Fire - Sampler 2

The door closed behind him with a heavy thud, a sound his over active imagination likened to a coffin lid being closed. It was loud, but not loud enough to drown out the phantom voice and the snide comment.
            “That’s going to be a quick interview.”
            Liam heard it clearly, as if someone had said it just inches from his ear. He wasn’t stupid enough to believe that the comment was aimed at anyone else. It was directed at him. He knew it, and yet, it didn’t bother him. In fact, it was a true reflection of how he felt.
            He followed the two Bodyguards, his feet moving as if his shoes were weighted with lead. They escorted him down a wide hallway that was decorated with row after row of po-faced portraits, none of whom Liam recognised. He only gave them scant attention anyway, disliking the way their eyes looked down on him, their disapproval paramount in their countenances.
            You don’t belong here, those disapproving faces seemed to be saying.
            I know, Liam retorted, from the confines of his mind.
            There was another door at the end of the passageway, which the Bodyguards held open for him. This was not done as a courtesy, but to shepherd the boy deeper within that inner sanctum. Beyond the door was an antechamber with three other doors at the other points of the compass. One of these doors would lead outside and to freedom. Another, into the actual interview room. The final door would lead... well... Liam didn’t know and didn’t care. If he had the balls, he’d ask right now which door was the exit, bid the Bodyguards a fond adieu, and would skulk away and enjoy the rest of his afternoon.
            Take the easy way out, in other words.
            Liam sighed, a deep inhalation and exhalation that could have been seen, by a casual observer, as someone preparing to take a big plunge. Psyching himself up. If only.
            “This way,” one of the Bodyguards announced. There was no fanfare. Just the rough voice and an arm turning a door handle and pulling open the door. There was not even a “good luck” or something similar as Liam strode between the duo and into the next chamber.
            The meeting room was a huge, high ceilinged chamber designed to make the interviewee feel small and insignificant. To further the sense of powerlessness, the dominating feature of the room was a massive wooden desk shaped like a crescent. Around the outer curve of the crescent were three high backed chairs occupied by the three interviewers. These sat facing the door so that the three interviewers could watch the boy carefully as he walked towards them. His own chair, which the interviewer in the middle of the trio bade he deposit his sorry arse into with a gesticulation, was much smaller, and was without arms or soft cushions. Sitting in it, Liam felt the back of the chair conspiring to hold his spine straight, to force him to actually sit up, and look directly at the men across from him.
            “Good afternoon, Liam,” the tutor in the middle crowed. The chamber amplified his voice, deep and mellifluous, so that it filled the entire room seemingly without effort. “My name is Peter Osborne. To my left is Elias Clough and to my right... Gerard Lucas.”
            “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Liam replied, his voice sounding tiny and hesitant, pitched a little too high. He hated that sound, hated the tremulous quality he heard coming from his own mouth.
            “So... Liam,” Osborne said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You want to become an apprentice?”
            For a split second, Liam was sorely tempted to answer honestly. Instead, he pictured his father at the moment he announced in his usual brusque manner that he’d nominated Liam as a candidate. There was no sarcasm in his father’s voice, just a dead certainty that whatever Liam said this afternoon mattered little. His place was all but assured. Therefore, what passed in these few minutes was a farce, and it was in Liam’s best interests to simply play along and bring the formality to a speedy conclusion.
            “Yes,” he lied. “There is nothing more I want than to become an apprentice.”
            He watched with satisfaction as all three tutors blanched. The fellow who posed the question coughed, and shuffled at the papers set out on the desk before him. Liam glanced at these but briefly. They were all blank, there for show, each sheet adding a layer of lead around his rapidly beating heart.
            “You’re aware of the requirements for the apprenticeship?” Clough asked.
            “Yes, sir,” he replied, diligently.
            He even allowed himself to sound excited by the prospect of being force-marched around the training yard, of having boys nearly twice his size pummelling him with wooden swords and fists clad in boxing gloves. Just yesterday, he had been the only boy to put the wrong foot in the stirrup and to mount the horse backwards, eliciting howls of derision from his peers. Yes sir, he thought. I am ready for twelve months of humiliation and pain.
            “Can you write?” Lucas demanded.
            “Yes, sir,” Liam said. Sure, he could write, but his handwriting was like most other things he did. It was awkward, uncoordinated, a slow process. It didn’t help that he was left handed and that if ever a tutor caught him using his pen in that hand, they’d rap him over the knuckles with whatever device of torture was in their possession and force him to use his right hand.
            “It’s only proper,” they would quip. That or some other trite expression. What they said didn’t matter. Liam’s cheeks would burn with humiliation regardless of what they said, and so too the offensive left hand.
            “Can you read?”
            At first, the question seemed daft. I can write, why wouldn’t I be able to read? Liam was tempted to say. But thankfully, he stopped himself. The two skills weren’t mutually exclusive, he realised. Any monkey could copy the symbols onto a piece of paper. But not every monkey could read those same symbols back. There was a tale he remembered his father telling him about how ancient priests with precious secrets would hire waifs from the slums and get them to simply copy the scripts from one parchment to another. Because they couldn’t read, the secrets were safe. And once the waifs had served their purpose, they’d be given a few coins as payment and sent on their way.
            “I can read,” Liam said. Then, after a pause, added, “My father made sure I learned that skill.”
            The trio nodded in unison. Whether they approved of Liam’s literary skills or the fact that his father insisted he acquire them was largely immaterial. Until mention of his father, the trio looked about as excited to be here as Liam. He might have been naïve about much, but Liam knew boredom when he saw it. And until his last remark, boredom was scrawled across the faces of his interviewers like an exquisitely detailed map. Now, the faintest glimmer of interest arose in their eyes.
            “Your father is a good man,” Osborne said. “Would you agree with that, Liam?”
            “It would be unwise to disagree with that, I think, sir.”
            The tutors smiled at this remark, cold smiles barely touched with mirth. “Indeed, it would be,” Osborne commented. On either side of him, his companions nodded silently, dutifully. “Tell me... what line of work is your father in?”
            “Trade, sir. My father is a merchant.”
            “A quite successful merchant, too, from what I have heard,” Clough murmured.
            “That is true,” Osborne replied.
            “So the matter of... certain donations... wouldn’t be beyond his means, then?” Clough wondered aloud.
            Osborne shook his head slowly. “Not at all.” He turned his gaze back to Liam, his cold smile still firmly in place. “I’m fairly certain that he’d meet any charitable need to ensure that young Liam here is made an apprentice. Isn’t that right, Liam?”

            In that moment, Liam felt his heart lurch inside his chest. But, like the good boy he was, the good boy that his father always required him to be, he simply nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Slow Dancing

Slow dancing,
Synchronised chemistry, the poetry of two
To the rhythm of our hearts beating as one

Mere inches between us,
Your breath on my cheek
Closer, I hold you, shuffling our feet

In time, our time, forget the music
But, whisper the words softly in your ear
That knowing smile, knowing I am yours

We're the only ones in the world that matter
As I see me in the reflection of your eyes
Yes, forever, much more than a promise

This slow dance, forever.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Step into the light

They cannot and will not
Break these bonds
Crush the flame
Render darkness in this our world

Let them try,
With their falsehood and
Green-eyed words of hurt
Those dagger tongues and envenomed

This, our world, our sun and our moon
Our universe
A night blanket sewn with a million stars
The shared gift that none can steal
Though they shall try

Be strong,
I shall shield you, as you shield me
This our bond, our promise, united
Against the battering hordes beyond
Who seek to come within

Take this,
This spark, this light, my illumination
To throw back the shadows in the corners
Expose them for the falsehoods they are
Banish them, cleanse them, cast them away...

You and I,
Let us take clasp hand in hand
Take that step, the first step, by far the most difficult
But the one that above all else is true;
Step into the light,
Leave the dark behind.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Power of Fire - Sampler

The man dressed in black was not a holy man. He wasn’t there to hear confessions, absolve sins, or offer words of comfort to the dead and dying. Such salves he found contradictory. God had left this realm centuries ago, leaving both saints and sinners to sort their own mortal leave-taking.
            The holy man who was in attendance at today’s function was typical of his ilk. He tiptoed in sandaled feet, speaking in soft monotones punctuated with genuflection after genuflection. While he sought to school his features into a mask of calm, fear rode his back just as surely as the thick weave of his dark cassock. Despite supposedly possessing the secrets of the hereafter, this man feared Death as much as the mere mortals for whom he prayed. And Death currently held court in this tiny hovel in all its mysterious and fearsome glory.
            This was Death: the body on the cot, skin sallow, taut around the edges of the mouth in one final grimace. The eyes were open, looking up blindly at the thatched ceiling, and the mouth was slightly agape, a blackish-purple tongue tip protruding through puffy, barely parted lips. There was no serenity in this tableau, no peace. It was the antithesis of the paradise the holy man promised.
            Dying wasn’t much better. It was a cacophonous symphony of coughs, splutters, moans and groans, interspersed with curses, prayers and delirious ranting. It was shivering as if cold, but burning with fever. It was alternating between being lacquered with clammy sweat and having skin as parched as a desert. Most of all, dying was being held prisoner in your own body while an evil bacterium ravaged it.
            Marcus Dire could quote rafts of information about the plague. He could take the physicians and holy men by the hand and lead them down the swift and brutal road from infection to mortality, outlining symptoms, offering suggestions for treatment and advice on effective quarantine measures. Yet he didn’t. He couldn’t. Having such knowledge was akin to having a noose around your neck; sharing it would be pulling the lever and letting the trapdoor drop beneath your feet.
            So Dire said nothing. He nodded at the appropriate times, as both the physician and then the holy man explained in their limited ways the steps they were taking to control the scourge. He listened to both prayer and prognosis, secure in the knowledge that were he to offer even a thin sliver of his knowledge, he’d be executed for heresy.
            It was a uniquely impotent experience, watched from a point of detachment somewhat alien to Marcus Dire. Still, he bore the experience with stoicism, and when the half hour tour of duty was complete, allowed himself to be led out of the front door to where his carriage awaited him.
            “Rest assured,” the physician promised. “We will do everything within our power to control the spread of the pestilence.”
            Dire nodded, offered a tight smile that was an outward display of reassurance. “I shall report back to the Queen,” he said.
            The lie came easy, as all lies did with practice. The carriage had barely begun to move when Dire signed the piece of parchment. Come sunrise tomorrow, the hovel, its inhabitants, and those unfortunate enough to be tending them would be history. He didn’t even blink at signing what was effectively a death warrant. It was a necessity. In a place such as Thalesia, where ignorance ruled, it was sometimes better to be heavy handed.

            Especially when there was so much at stake.