“My Lord Chancellor, we are hearing the most troubling reports about a new disease. It strikes down the babes and the old of course but it seems that sometimes young men are especially susceptible. The troops in the hills of Ibra, near to Yiss, went down with it and barely two in five survive.”
Caz shook his head to clear it of all the minor issues that had surfaced with his morning briefing. This was shocking. Too important not to deserve his whole attention. Cazaril rose from his chair in alarm. He strode towards the young courier.
“Sit, sit, you have clearly travelled fast to get this news to us here. Sit, drink, and give me as many details as you can. Is there any information on how long it takes to strike down the next victim? The symptoms, the treatments that have been tried? What success? What failure? Is there anything the priests have been able to say?”
“No, no, I ask too many questions. But when you are ready, I need whatever you can tell me? How far has this spread? Where was the first site? How fast does it travel across the land? No, I must stop – again I ask too much and press too hard. Wait and rest even if only for a few minutes.”
Caz signalled to his senior runner at his desk just outside Caz’s tiny office. “Ask the Roy and the Royina if they are likely to be free very soon for an urgent piece of news.” After years of training his boys both as Chancellor with his official squad of runners and as the market trader and his market-boys, he had them well organised and ever keen to go beyond their ordinary day-to-day tasks. And they kept their mouths shut. Little was more dangerous to a well-organised system than a flap-mouthed messenger. The peer-group pressure and Caz’s long experience told him which boys and girls needed to be watched in their first few weeks. It was a long year since he had refused or rejected one of his runners. And many had grown into administrators spread across the land. He had heard of them being called ’the Chancellor’s Spies’. ‘What a dreadful suggestion’ he had murmured, but concealing a smile.
Most of his first runners were older now and were still paid by the treasury so, conveniently, had no conflict in their loyalties. A few were at Princely courts and had to tread carefully as to who and what they reported – as well as to whom they did report. To be blunt, or accurate, a few were simply spies. These worked, it would at least appear, for those on whom Caz, Bergon or Iselle had set their eye as being, um, fragile.
The boy returned in a few minutes and said ’they will be free in about ten minutes. They are speaking with the archpriest.’
“Ho, hum. And the archpriest. Skip along and say I’d be grateful if the archpriest would delay leaving until I have arrived. And not too fast, the corridors are wet it being Wednesday.”
Smiling at the rebuke from months ago when Varget was new to the duty, the youngster disappeared at careful speed.
As he came back, still at a speedy scamper, he was gasping. “They are ready for you, sir. When the Royina asked for at least some information, I had to tell them there was news from the north about a fast-moving disease. I had to say that was the limit of my information; that I knew nothing of cause, speed, degree of danger or risk. I most carefully explained that you knew only a little more but saw a need for a meeting as soon as possible.”
Caz had had time to prepare. He sent his boys to the Squares to as many of the Province buildings as he knew were occupied. At each one, they were to ask, as if for a survey by the Royina, about the health of their district, the recent flow of trade and any news that was important for the quarterly meeting.
After a year or so, the scheme for Provinces to have administration and marketing at a site in the Two Squares was growing steadily. Even the most unwilling had seen the benefit to their income and to their trade – and to the reputation of their district. As far as he knew there were some seventeen Provincars currently in the city; and where they were absent, most had appointed a senior assistant or son or brother to act as their Name.
This was another idea borrowed – that a person of suitable and sufficient status could act on behalf of a Provincar while they were absent. Several Provincars had quibbled at the demand that they give that much trust to another – but most had found the system worked well. And there was rarely a need to amend or change. There had been the case of the younger son chosen instead of the wastrel elder – but he in turn had been concealing his own ugly deeds and vile character. Caz had helped ease the way for the third brother to become Provincar by ’Announcement and Acclaim’ of the relevant Provincar’s Court. And there had been high-level discussions of how did one damaged person in a family reflect the whole or …. but they had agreed that sometimes bad things happened without necessarily having a definite cause.
But some people were so stupid that they imagined all their plans would work to perfection, that nobody would say nay, that nobody would actively disagree. Caz found it almost beyond belief that there were any such idiots – but time had shown him that there were many such, and many more who displayed their incompetence in ways he did not wish to believe. Fortunately, he always had his own memories to remind him that even he could be, had been and would be an idiot about a whole range of things and people.
He shook his head – why was he thinking about such matters – there was disease rising in the land. Plans must be made, instructions issued.
As he hastened to his meeting he wondered what had been tried in the past and with what success.
….. He would soon be asking and answering a lot of questions.
“Milady, sir, I have calculated that you have no more than a dozen questions to which you want answers immediately, at once and by yesterday. To begin with we must find answers to ’How many, how soon, how far, when and where. I am unsure what your next questions might be – but I’ve tried in the last few minutes to prepare for whatever you ask of me.”
Fortunately, he saw a glimmer of humour in Iselle’s expression at his acknowledgement of her probable behaviour.
“I do take some blame for being this unprepared. It must be accepted that we could have prepared in some way for this event. We could have ’pretended’ that there was a new and potent disease, or even just a bad outbreak of one we already know about. And then ’pretended’ about how much work the hospitals might require and whether special services might be required from such as the army – for instance digging graves, making coffins, clearing infected areas and the like – but it is so much easier to plan and deal with what is real. Pretending on such a scale is very difficult and we have not done it. Like every ruler, every chancellor, every expert, we will say ’we must learn from this’. But I confess I like it not to learn from failure.”
“There is the Marsh disease with the sweats that we have recently begun to address by keeping boggy spots near to houses and roads to a minimum. Whoever realized that those long-legged insects were in some way a cause should be hailed for their efforts. Others we are getting to grips with – the diseases on ships where the diet falls below their needs, we are finding some solutions. Other diseases are ….. no, we mustn’t waste time on what we have done. What do we know about this new disease, even if it just a bad outbreak varying slightly from some similar ailing. But it does seem, from the fragmentary reports so far, to be uglier than we would wish.”
“We may be fortunate that our couriers ride solo and may be able to warn without passing on the illness. They can pass the message for each town to close down and prevent both arrivals and departures. This may cause real harm to those who need to travel for their trade. It will also require farmers and local suppliers of the daily menu to find new ways to deliver and receive their funds with minimal interaction.”
“That’s an extension of our usual practice, is it not, Caz?”
“Aye, m’lord. But tales from afar suggest that such a closedown can help slow the progress and even give information about the speed of travel of the vileness. Encouraging the use of cloth masks to limit the spray from one person’s breath into the faces of others ….. I’ve heard some indication that this helps. That was an idea sent by the physician of the Empire when they were affected by an outbreak of the ancient Blue Disease.”
“Do we do anything special for the old or the young? If as is the case with most disease that they die more than the fit and strong and thus in larger amounts than usual. I do know that it is hard to say what the usual amount might be – but we have very few who live beyond their 70th year. So, if the population here in the capital was a tidy 70,000 then spread evenly 1,000 would die each year and perhaps 1,000 would be born. It may be that we should begin to count our people every few years so as to have such numbers to hand – I’ll make a note to talk to Ferdy about such a scheme.”
“But back to planning and thinking about who is likely to die and how we might protect us and them. Those who do are either well-to-do, well-fed and ever busy or just lucky, certes is that they are not worked to the bone. The labourer or farm-worker who reaches his late 50s is a rarity. We should be careful of those of age who we value, though I would think harshly of anyone who said that even the oldest lazy person has no value. The contribution of their long age to the memory of the land has betimes been of inestimable value. But they will die. And with most invading diseases, their ends come a little quicker. The young are the future. But those who keep the system working, who feed, protect and strive for others are those we might label newly adult and at the other end, like us perhaps, getting-older. We must hope that being fit and active gives us both physical muscle and mental determination to use against the stress and struggle which approaches.”
“Alas, my information is that in one case at least, at the garrison of Yissivar, that the young men died.”
Bergon took his turn. “That is worse news atop that which you have already imparted. So We can be in little doubt that we are due for a struggle. It is clear that there will be more deaths and therefore more difficulties for some than in a usual year. But, equally truly, most of us will survive and carry on. Perhaps in a few years it will be seen as a mere blip or hiccup in the rich tapestry that the Gods weave for us or with us.”
“Truly, mi’lord, let us hope that this will be ’merely an ugly blip in our history’. Thank you for that briefing, Caz. I’truth you point out that there are grievous gaps in our plans for such an oncoming, as you call it, invasion. As for the immediate response, the couriers will have a hard task. They must go as soon as possible to tell the towns and even the provinces to the north to slow down all their activity, if not to prepare to actually close down as much travelling and trade as feasible. There must definitely be a limiting and control of arrival and departure. The location from and the location to must be listed to see if there are links. Perhaps any arrivals should be held in a location near the gates rather than actually inside the town. If after a week or at most two, they show themselves clear of disease, then they can enter and do their business.”
“Also, send to the Priests of the Mother to look for the sequence of the disease. What are the first signs, how quickly does it develop and so on? We must learn so that we defeat this enemy. I remember you teaching me that one, Caz.”
“I’m going to add my thoughts, too”, said Bergon “Ask the priests not just for the simple information about how long does it take from first sign to being ill and then to death or indeed recovery. They would give us the typical data. We need to know not if it takes about a week but is it three days for some and ten for others. If we do arrange for lodging outside the town, these hostels may tell us if one is infected then how soon are others catching it too. After a time, we may know how many die out of a hundred infected and how many recover quickly.”
“Good thinking, m’lord. I shall prepare a draft for the riders to deliver with utmost despatch. Shall I send the first draft to yourselves to amend and improve.”
“Oh don’t be silly Caz. We always do amend and improve – if you give us the chance. At least, we are confident that we make improvements. Certes there are times when your handwriting lends itself to interpretation.”
“Indeed, m’lord. And m’lady.”
“Thank you Caz. I would not wish to be forgotten for my contribution.”
“M’lady, who would dare?”
“Don’t be naughty, Chancellor, as you are the one who does most dare. Apart from that husband of mine. Eh, husband, not so?”
“If Cazaril can dare do so, then I judge that as both husband and whatever else, I too may dare. It’s not as if you never make a mistake, oops, misjudgement, ooops, a great decision that by the excellence of hindsight turns awry.”
“Oooh, m’lord husband, I am so grateful that you slid past any accusation of a possible error, infrequent though they may be, as a restatement of it being an excellent decision only in error by hindsight. I think I shall sentence you to giving me your share of our favourite pudding, which I asked for for tonight.”
“Caz, the cruelty of this woman has no bounds. Can you not send message to the kitchens that a portion be set aside for me?”
“Freckleberry Pie with Meringue and Cream dusted with dried Raspberries has that special a meaning to you, m’lord?”
“Caz, I durst not speak of why it is so special. There is this woman, y’know. She’d find a petty revenge for it.”
“hhmmmmph” came from the chair beside.
Caz took the opportunity to rise, “I think I must set off to make plans, prepare drafts, lists, schedules and the like. I shall return – or at least send the draft for your comments and approval.”
Bergon called out as Caz stood up to leave “Caz, do you think we should set up extra troops of local couriers. To take these messages to the outlying farms and settlements that might be missed by the typical couriers on routes between the main cities. It’s a job perhaps for trainees from the Father or the Son.”
“Isn’t that a part of their training already? But I think not whole troops. Pairs might be best. I’ll check with the relevant generals as to the current practice out in the rural areas.”
“In most areas I agree, pairs would be best. But should we think of adding a little more structure?”
“What? To the training? Not really our task today. But everything needs a kick from above now and again. I think a strong suggestion for the creative use of local trainees should be passed on to the Arch Priests with an equally strong message that this should become part of the standard training.”
It was Iselle’s turn to interrupt – “I worry about the supplies of food to the cities. If they begin a closedown, then will the farmers be willing to deliver. Will the people of the city panic if food and supplies run short? Are WE panicking by beginning to talk this way when we know so little?”
“I hadn’t thought about that. We need to be strong and yet ensure that there is no such panic. How about ’There are reports of a disease spreading from the north. It is very strongly recommended that trips to and from the provinces and the cities are restricted to essential travel only.’
Iselle lifted her hand to interrupt, “Caz, and who is to decide what is ’essential’? I think we need to think about that. And also, as you taught me long ago, about the unintended consequences of all this. What you once called the ’unknown unknowns’.”
“Oh dear me yes, there are always those. But in the meantime, I’ll try to send an encouraging message to prepare to defend against this invisible invader.”
Some while later, after much muttering and scrawling in his vile chancellor’s script, Caz delivered the following.
There is a new disease striking across the whole of our country. We believe that we must strongly press people to greatly restrict their travels even for what they think is essential activity.
Families must stay together but even for essential purposes we insist that there is no meeting of more than two or three.
People must talk more with their neighbours so that purchase or collection or delivery of food and essential supplies is also reduced.
It is certain that some of these precautions will work better than others. We have had to make decisions based on what we judge has worked reasonably well on previous occasions. News of any new treatment or preventative will be circulated as soon as possible. The courier service will continue but there may be restrictions. However, a local courier service will be arranged near each city and across each province so that some transport and communication occurs.
Where possible, use local knowledge and common-sense to keep ordinary life continuing unchanged but doing the best to restrict the spread of this disease. As the philosopher Voolcahns Pok once wrote ’Live Long and Prosper’ must be our aim as the years roll past this trouble. This will pass.”
Caz took his draft to Iselle and Bergon. They read it quickly and Iselle asked one question. “What is the damage going to be?”
“As with any large project, the crucial choices about how it is done relate to Speed, Quality and Cost. You can often manage two out of three – but never all three. The BIG choice is which of the three to let slide.”
The plague spread, coiled around as if to miss a city, then attacked – as if with snakelike malice. People died. People lived. People criticised the choices forced on them by Roya or Provincar or city-Mayor. Village-elders had to act on local situations. There were those who railed against the constraints. There were those who were heroes. And always, there were deaths. Unexpected. Unwelcome.
In later years, after the death of Cazaril, Iselle, Bergon, the disease became known as the ’Passing Plague’. In its place were the known diseases and plagues. And none killed young adults as did the Passing Plague.
It wasn’t that it had no effect. That was so not true. But …. it passed.
People died across the peninsula. Apparently over the mountains and into the Empire as well. But the toll did pass. But the deaths did slow down; normal life did resume. Obviously it wasn’t the previous normal for those who had a death or more than one in their family. Or where a street or neighbourhood had been unkindly hit. But death does come to all. And sometimes Gods may be involved. It is a form of good fortune, in Caz’s view, that their involvement is both rare and, mostly, unknown.