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.
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.
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.”