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.