The Plaguebearer

Summary: A doctor awakens on a foreign shore, unwitting bringing a plague with him.

Doctor Oris Vandori never expected to wake again, much less under the care of a compassionate stranger. From the cast of his face, disfigurements of the Scarlet Pox, sordidly storied scars, and sun-kissed skin from a life at sea, he thought himself ostracized enough from his own crew. He scarcely interacted with the crew, save when necessity brought them to his quarters. His time aboard the Farsight vanished from his mind, as he realized the absence of the vessel's swaying beneath him. As he observed his surroundings, his body involuntarily heaved and spasmed like a fish flopping on deck.

Oris coughed, and he reached his good hand to the ceiling. Light trickled in from a lace curtain surrounded by wooden shutters. The creaking ceiling above him loomed like a wooden press. The walls were rough-hewn earthen bricks, and the floor was covered with thin, worn tiles. All he saw of the outside world were an overcast sky, and the pattering of soft rain. For a moment, he thought of his home's frequent rainstorms. He wondered if it was the weakened remnants of the last storm that sank the Farsight. He wondered if he would last much longer than his old home.

Oris collapsed back to the bedroll he laid on, and he pulled the heavy fur blanket on top of him. He heard the distant roll of thunder over the horizon, and he found himself back before he awoke. He remembered the Farsight docked at Heron's Beak, the peninsula that jutted out into the bay where the ocean met the Grand River. His caravel sailed across the eastern sea to their homeport in the Shatterlands, the Serene Republic of Roa. After two months at sea, the crew were eager to sate their carnal appetites before departure. He preferred to visit local libraries and sages, and retreat to his study during the night.

It was due to this that Oris saw the boarding attempt by a dockside gang. While most of the crew spent shore leave at bars and bordellos, he saw a mass of armed, desperate locals charging towards the gangplank. The sentry on duty pulled the plank away, but the distance between the pier and the hull was close enough to leap. He did not know if they were drunk, desperate locals seeking to loot the now-emptied cargo, or if they'd been stirred on by some local demagogue. From their brandishing of pitchforks, knives, and rusted swords, the implications of capture were clear enough. From the ship, the angry mob congealed into a single faceless, formless entity.

As the amorphous army threw itself at the ship, Oris drew his most trusted weapon. He'd scarcely had to use it in his tenure aboard ship, but he nevertheless practiced his surgical dexterity with its operation. It was a long-barreled pistol that accepted a flute-like magazine of lead ball and black powder, with a brass handle that terminated in a metal endcap. Its lower caliber made it easier to use with a single hand. Like his surgical tools, it was built to an exacting standard. The weapon clearing the holster drew a pang of nausea.

As Oris laid helpless in bed, he saw his unloaded pistol hung above his head. His prosthetic leg and metal fingers were set directly beneath it, just out of reach. His arms and legs were tied to metal bars well out of reach. He remembered the circumstances which typically accompanied its bedside use, when all he could provide for a patient was a quick euthanasia. He remembered the first time he'd learned that lesson, when he was an apprentice surgeon during the Battle of Highwater Gulf. The Roan and Itan battle-lines collapsed into a mad melee of boarding actions, and he'd heard the former First Mate screaming after barely surviving a blast of grapeshot to the side. Given the missing leg and perforated chest, all he could provide was a merciful termination with a pistol. The scarcity of supplies at sea necessitated he perform the procedure at more frequently than he'd hoped. He wondered if his unknown benefactor was now weighing his own life in a similarly karmic fashion. He involuntarily shuddered as he mused over the implications of the empty pistol kept nearby.

Oris found his macabre musings interrupted by a gentle wrapping on the door. He asked who was there, hoping someone spoke his language. Given the position of his prosthetics and pistol, he immediately knew resistance would not be an option. He clutched his aching head, cursing to himself. He silenced his grumbling as a local woman walked in, a lean and willowy figure clad in a white apron. She had dark hair, high cheekbones, skin with a tune between the verdigris of greening bronze and molten chocolate, and a pair of gloved hands that covered spindly fingers. The plethora of pockets on her garment were filled with tools of alarming similarity to his own. To his terrified mind, he wondered if she was sent to heal him or torture him. The probability of both being true crept into his mind as he beheld the downcast eyes and upturned lips.

"What is the last thing you remember?" she asked in flawless Roan.

Oris forced his muddled mind to recall the pandemonium from the prior night. He remembered expending the entirety of his ammunition, taking measured shots from behind the cover of wooden shutters. He remembered the crew raking the boarders with the swivel guns, the mad mob vanishing in a whiff of grapeshot. Like the symptoms of a retreating fever, the crowd fell back from the docks. Captain Zur came around to check who remained, and instructed them to make ready for immediate departure. All unlucky enough to return beyond their allotted time would be left behind.

Oris scarcely remembered the sudden swell that overtook them the following day. One moment, the sea looked as clear and delicate as a crystalline mirror. The next, gray clouds snuffed out the sunlight as white-capped waves rose higher. Captain Zur ordered them to batten down all hatches, and he retreated to his study. He heard the cracking of wood and rushing of water, but then his vision went black. He wondered where he was in the Empire, or what fate the locals intended for him.

"I remember a riot, a rapid departure, and a storm," he said, selecting every word as deliberately as be placed his shots. "But nothing afterwards."

"Then I will be more than happy to elucidate what transpired," she asked. "In the wake of the riots, the city succumbed to a disease unknown in these lands. The garrison commander believes you spread this epidemic as vengeance, before you cowardly flew away like a startled gull."

Oris felt himself mumbling involuntarily. He'd been to Heron's Beak twice before, but he'd never witnessed hostility like that desperate boarding attempt. So long as foreigners did not wander outside the port district, the locals rarely bothered them. As best he understood, the remainder of the city simply ignored them. Given the strategic value of the city, the possibility of deliberate instigation of the riots was one that crossed his mind. He clammed up, trying to consider what his interrogator hoped to get from him. He'd heard of the Empire's infamous torturers, and he wondered if this woman was part of some inscrutable game intended to break him. He responded with a guileless honesty he'd hope would satisfy them.

"Madam, I do not know anything about this outbreak, but I will do all in my power to help stop it," he said. "I am Doctor Oris Vandori, surgeon of the Farsight. The oath I swore as a physician is to alleviate suffering to the best of my ability. Please, tell me of this disease, and I will gladly lend my expertise to yours. I trust you are a fellow physician? If so, I am honored to meet your acquittance. I am sure we have much to learn from one another."

"Doctor Vandori," the woman said disdainfully. "Those pitiful pirate cities that your crew hail from were raised from barbarism by explorers from this land four centuries ago. Your equipment has not even changed since then."

The woman pulled up his box of medical supplies and personal possessions, a buoyant wooden crate with the same initials as his belt and pistol.

"We found your things in this floating box," she said. "Another invention you've stolen from here. Your things are all derivative of ours. Have you contributed nothing original to this world?"

Oris said nothing in response, trying to keep his composure together. She pulled out his surgical tools, handling a metal sawblade missing a handful of teeth.

"These tools are obsolete, even by the standards of the ancient Kirn Dynasty. Your country's surgeons resemble our butchers."

Oris said nothing, as she understood she was attempting to anger him. She moved towards his prosthetic leg. She picked it up, stared at it, and dropped it in front of him.

"Ah, a spring-pattern leg prosthetic. Made of a similar alloy as an ancient crossbow, and you've failed to improve your metallurgy since. A piece of junk only fit for the scrapheap."

Oris flinched as he heard it clattered to the ground, as it reminded him of the times he'd tripped on his trusty artificial limb.

She raised the emptied pistol, before dropping it to the floor behind her. "Your pistol is a crude, foreign copy of a Kirn-patterned sparklock repeating pistol. Perhaps you'd be better served by throwing stones."

Oris did not care for the weapon, but the carelessness she displayed with his things was irking him. A small tide of anger rose within him.

She held up the plague mask he wore when working with contagious patients, a green fabric sack with opaque glass goggles and a metal filter containing herbs and charcoal. He recalled how much he looked like an insectile demon when wearing it. "And this, another Kirn rip-off, worn by those expecting to deal with bodily fluids and infected material. Perhaps you had other reasons for bringing this?"

Having withstood the other barbs, Oris simmered in rage. He wanted to launch a tirade as to how his homeland was not as affluent as the Empire, or how they were helpless against this unknown disease. His attempt at an angry rant came out instead as a series of frantic, sobbing pleas.

"Please! Enough! I apologize if I have offended you," he said. "I know my fate is completely in your hands. Just tell me about this plague, and I will try to identify it."

"So, you admit spreading it?"

"No! I would never spread a disease!" he raised his hands, revealing the blisters on his left hand, his elbow, and the side of his neck. "These are the scars of the Scarlet Pox. Having suffered through its agonies, I would naught wish them on even my greatest enemies!"

The woman craned her head inwards. Her scornful tone evaporated as though it was a puddle in the sun. Her tense shoulders lowered, and she spoke with an analytic tone befitting her posture. She became the model of a professional, detached clinician that he'd aspired to, but never quite reached.

"Doctor Vandori, could you please describe the Scarlet Pox?"

Oris found his rage vanish quickly, replaced by a sense of confusion. He blinked, and he muttered to himself for two minutes. He tried to make sense of what he'd beheld, of the humiliating show he'd been subjected to. He saw her eyes watching him with great interest, as though confident of achieving some inscrutable goal. Well past the point of caring of his own survival, he spoke without reservation or pause. If this woman wanted to her about it, she would drown in his words.

"A disease common in the Shatterlands, where most of us have a less virulent form of it as young children. Those that contract it once never do so again. I was unlucky enough to catch a more potent form of it as a young adult, and it nearly killed me," he said. "I suffered bloody sores across the body, which hosted secondary infections resistant even to blue mold elixirs. Each sore is highly infectious."

She nodded, her eyes moving like a student taking notes. She bowed her head. "I must apologize for the earlier actions, but I had to ensure you were not lying."

"What? I would have told you everything if you'd been honest. Your Roan is flawless!"

"I learned from a foreign woman, kept in my mistress' manor as part of her entourage."

"Wait, what? Are we still in the city?"

"No. My mistress is a rural noblewoman that took an interest in you after a fisherman found you and your things washed ashore. You were out for a week."

"Then why the binding? Why the act?"

"I have to deal with liars all the time, and I wanted to ensure you weren't lying," she said, smiling warmly. "I'm confident in in my initial assessment of you as a doctor, but I had to prepare for the worst."

"About what?"

"It wasn't a chance I was willing to take. The constables wanted to torture a confession out of you."

Oris stopped. "Why?"

"Because the fisherman that saved you was the first reported patient. He was taken to the city for treatment, and the quarantine came soon afterwards."

Oris screamed, not caring if his captor's words were truthful or not.