Once upon a time, back in December of 2019 and January of 2020, I was creating the three season outline of Blood Magic episodes, and I was struggling to come up with ideas for all of the episodes so that I could maintain the episodic nature of the series. I knew that I wanted at least one, two part episode that would be completely episodic, rather than being a season finale or otherwise contributing to major change within the Blood Magic world, so I slotted it for June and July of 2021, and kept on with the outlining. It wasn’t until I was sitting and thinking about Arthurian history (remember that Blood Magic is deliberately riffing on elements of the Arthurian fantasy sub-genre) that I became interested in examining how the Bubonic plague had affected Medieval cultures, and what it would have been like to live through a plague that periodically (every ten years or so) wiped out 75% of Europe’s population. So I called the two-part episode I wanted to write Contaminant, and decided it would examine that kind of situation.
Of course, a few months later COVID-19 made its presence felt in the world, and for a few weeks it seemed we might all be getting some real world experience on what it would have been like to live through a wave of the Black Death. A month or two later, I would be quoted as calling the COVID-19 pandemic a decidedly underwhelming apocalypse, and now I find myself about a year later in the awkward position of writing an episode about a virulent disease in the shadow of SARS-CoV-2. While I do not by any means intend to disparage the struggles that people have faced as a result of that disease or the people who have been impacted directly or indirectly by it, I must say that it made writing this episode decidedly awkward.
The problem is that, although we don’t know exactly what the mortality rate of COVID-19 might be (for a wide variety of reasons), it’s pretty safe to say that it’s somewhere in the low single digits, but given the new world context, everyone who reads Contaminant will be reading it in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which is not quite the scale and scope that I was trying to explore. It probably sounds terrible and callous of me, but compare a mortality rate of ~2% with a mortality rate of over 50%. Looking at some back-of-the-envelope style calculations, SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to have killed about 3,000,000 people, out of a population of 7,500,000,000. That comes out to 0.04% of the population. If the historical estimates are correct, and 75% of the population in the Middle Ages really did die as a result of the Bubonic plague, then translated to today that would be about five and a half billion deaths, almost two thousand times more than have died from SARS-CoV-2. Again, I am not trying to minimize the real-world, present day impact of COVID-19 – I am trying to demonstrate how this changed the way I wrote Contaminant.
Imagine if three out of every four people you know died in the space of a summer. If the average nuclear family is four people – two parents and two children – then only one of them survived. This isn’t quite as deadly as the disease Stephen King wrote about in The Stand, but many of the features of that book would probably be relevant in a modern, Bubonic plague-style pandemic. That was the kind of havoc and confusion I wanted to explore in this episode. Plus, although the Blood Magic world for a variety of reasons embraces a sort of scientific method more than the comparable-period Earth populations did, they have no idea about viruses, bacteria, pathogens, or disease vectors, nor about hygiene. Kiluron and Doil are advanced compared to people who think blood-letting is a good solution, but are still terribly backwards compared to most modern people. Imagine if instead of knowing everything we know about SARS-CoV-2, we thought it was a curse from an angry deity, or perhaps the result of “bad humors,” whatever those are.
So now that I’ve probably thoroughly offended most of my audience with this overly lengthy breakdown of why COVID-19 has mildly complicated my writing of a story that happens to also feature a virulent disease, because everyone will be comparing it to COVID instead of to the Black Death, let’s talk about the actual story. It was a challenge to write, and not just because of the miniature rant that I just delivered about plagues. When I released Fallen Angel, I talked about how the nature of some of the stories would need to change in response to Kiluron’s new role as Prime, and how that would likely mean that I would need to leverage more side characters to drive the action. That ended up being a significant problem for me in writing Contaminant, because there wasn’t a good character I could pick to drive the initial action that brought the plague to Merolate.
Once I got Minister Kelina to Dervate City, and started travelling with Talim and Gouchen back to Merolate, the story started to move along well again, and the writing grew easier. Then the main consideration became how to balance dropping hints that one or both of them might have been contaminated by whatever was sickening Dervate City, and not making it too terribly obvious that they were ill. I think most readers astute readers will come to the conclusion that their return to Merolate may bring more than a message, but partially because of that I felt that it was important not to be too heavy-handed, but also not to ignore it entirely.
Then the writing became more difficult again. I was back to writing about Kiluron and Doil, who are the main drivers of the series and the easiest to write, because I “know” them the best, but I had to make challenging decisions about the nature of the contamination that was sweeping through Merolate. It was one thing to have Kelina decide to try to burn a whole city to the ground, when that city was one that we’d never before encountered. It was something quite different to convey the terrible toll and affliction of the “bad humors” upon Merolate, where the reader should be familiar with the people and places, and where I knew about 60% of the main cast would have to be bedridden in order for the story to be believable. Whether or not any of them will end up succumbing to their illness will be left for episode 7.
Now that it’s finished, I’m still not entirely pleased with it. I think it could benefit from a thorough reworking to give Kiluron and Doil more active roles throughout the episode, and that this plotline should not have been a two-part episode. Although there seems to be a lot happening, it feels slow to me, although that could be in part because of how long it took me to write (long enough that I’m no longer ahead on my writing schedule). On the other hand, the sometime tedious pacing does help drive home the helplessness of the situation for Kiluron and Doil. In modern times, we have medicine, and understanding of disease and biology, treatments for symptoms even if we don’t have preventions yet. In a society like that of Merolate, or for that matter most of human history, there was little or none of that.
Then again, Kiluron’s last minute idea salvaged a lot of the episode. It made the characters active, and gave a glimmer of hope just before things grew very dark. Although a short scene, I think it makes a big difference in the story, and I’m glad that I included it. That tiny glimmer of hope it important, considering where I left things off with this episode. But we’ll talk about that more in next month’s post. For now, I hope that you enjoy Contaminant, Part One.
From his seat in the rearranged great hall, Kiluron sat beside Doil and watched the performers, who had to be the least interesting performers Kiluron had ever witnessed. The customary furnishings of the great hall had all been cleared away, a raised platform had been erected, seating in a special, semicircular arrangement had been set forth, and odd panels and long bunches of thick, dark, heavy cloth had been hung erratically all through the chamber, all at the request of a woman who had so far spent the entirety of the performance standing with her back to her noble audience. At least the other performers were all facing the correct direction, more or less focused upon the woman who led them, but they had spent the whole time thus far sitting mostly still and make a dreadful din upon their instruments. Admittedly, the performance had only begun a few moments before, but so far Kiluron was not impressed.
“This is supposed to be pleasant?” he asked Doil, leaning over and almost shouting his whisper to be heard over the screeching.
Doil leaned back towards him. “My lord, it hasn’t started yet. They’re just warming up, I believe. Supposedly, the instruments sound different at different temperatures.”
“You mean it gets even more obnoxious?” Kiluron asked.
Doil gave a suffering sigh, and Kiluron suppressed a smirk. He knew fully well that Doil had been the one to make all of the arrangements for this performance. “It’s called a full orchestration. The woman up front, the orchestrator, will coordinate the playing of all of those different instruments into music. It’s supposed to be quite dramatic and stirring. They’ve just started putting these sorts of things together, instead of the more customary quartets or quintets.”
Kiluron nodded, doing a decent job of feigning interest, which was spoiled when he had to stifle a yawn. “And we’re just supposed to sit here and listen? No dancing or anything?”
“Please don’t try to dance,” Doil begged, and Kiluron laughed.
Their further conversation was curtailed when the orchestrator cleared her throat and tapped a slender length of wood, a sort of wand, against the podium in front of her. She then turned to face her audience. “Lords and Ladies of Merolate, Ministers, honored guests, and my lord Prime Kiluron, I am Aufinira, author and orchestrator, and I am very pleased to present to you tonight’s performance, which I wrote especially for this occasion. It is what is called a symphony, and I call it ‘Symphony of the Radiant Solstice,’ for I wrote it upon the just passed summer solstice.” The woman then gave a very low bow, and again turned her back on her audience.
“Why does she keep doing that? How is she supposed to perform with her back to us?” Kiluron hissed at Doil, who just sighed and gestured for him to keep quiet, be patient, and watch. With a sigh, Kiluron did so.
The orchestrator raised her hands, with the wand held jauntily, and almost immediately the other musicians quieted, so that the great hall became thickly silent. Then she swept the wand down, and a great noise filled the hall, but it was not the discordant, grating barrage of dozens of voices all arguing. The noise was like nothing Kiluron had ever heard, deep and full and resonant, and it rolled forth from the assembled musicians and seemed to take up residence somewhere in Kiluron’s breast. The noise changed, morphing into new shapes and taking on different forms. Sometimes one instrument dominated, but mostly they all spoke together, somehow making a sound unlike any of the instruments alone. Kiluron found himself immediately understanding why this was not used for dancing; no one could possibly dance while reveling in the complexity of sound like what the orchestrator was drawing forth.
Though there were no words, Kiluron felt like he could almost see images conjured up as he sat and listened. He saw horses racing across an open field, grain ripening outside a little cottage, a farmer tending the soil. Then the sound changed, and he saw a tiny group of soldiers, surrounded and outnumbered, but fighting on valiantly despite the odds. Periodically the sound would pause, and he would be left with a fear that somehow it had ended, and the images in his mind were incomplete, but then the symphony would pick up again with a slightly different tone that was still linked in some untouchable way with what had come before, and new images would appear in his mind. When it did finally end, Kiluron found himself at a loss for words as the orchestrator bowed once more, and she and her instrumentalists withdrew from the great hall.
With apparent trepidation, Doil turned towards Kiluron. “Well?” he asked.
Apprising himself of Doil’s intense expression, Kiluron suppressed his enthusiasm, and gave a shrug that he doubted appeared suitably nonchalant. “It was pretty good,” he admitted.
“Wait, you’ll even admit that you enjoyed it?” Doil asked. “You must have thought it was absolutely brilliant, then.” Kiluron stayed stubbornly silent. “I thought for sure you would find it as dull as a poetry recital. It seems to me to have a lot of similarities.”
“A poetry recital?” Kiluron huffed. “Don’t be insulting. I don’t enjoy a bunch of stuffy academics force-feeding me with whatever the most voguish of their opinions happen to be in a way that no one but they could possible understand. This symphony thing, though…it leaves it all to the imagination.”
Doil nodded, a knowing smile on his lips, and Kiluron sighed. “Then if I were to have more such performances scheduled, you would not object?”
Keeping his enthusiasm muted, though it was probably too late to hide the truth from Doil, Kiluron shrugged. “I guess I wouldn’t complain too much.” He winced at Doil’s triumphant expression, and hurriedly made an excuse to retire for the evening. The last thing he needed was Doil’s smirk interrupting the still rampant runnings of his imagination, all underscored by the peculiar performance called a symphony that he had just heard.
In truth, he did desire an adequate night’s rest for himself, before the meetings of the following morning. The taxation debates had finally been finished, but even without that catalyst a meeting of the full group of Ministers was never not a headache-inducing experience. Sometimes, he wished he had remained irresponsible and could just go off gallivanting with the guardsmen, though never for very long.
Looking none the worse for wear from the late retirement the previous night, Doil cheerfully handed Kiluron an agenda as soon as he stepped into the conference chamber, and dutifully pushed a prepared plate of breakfast in his direction, which Kiluron began eating from absent-mindedly as he perused the agenda for the day’s meeting of ministers. Then he glanced up at Doil, noting the large pile of books on the table. “How long have you been here? Don’t you ever sleep?”
“Since just before dawn,” Doil admitted. “Ever since you became Prime, I haven’t had much time to peruse the various university publications, so I’m trying to catch up on the backlog that’s now accumulated.”
Kiluron took a bite of a sweet roll and examined the titles. “‘A Treatise on the Underlying Basis of Superstitions and the Manifestations of Inaccurate Belief Systems,’” he read around a mouthful of pastry. “I can see how you would be so excited to get out of bed in the morning and read that.”
Doil hesitated at Kiluron’s unexpectedly sincere tone, doubtless looking for the sarcasm; Kiluron was careful to keep it hidden. “Really, my lord? That is…surprising. Perhaps you really are becoming more of a scholar, now that you’ve been forced to, ah, settle down somewhat for your role as Prime.”
“Yes,” Kiluron agreed, after he swallowed. “I managed to make it all the way through that pretentious title without falling asleep.”
Doil chose not to deign that comment with a response, so Kiluron returned to his breakfast and his review of the agenda. Soon the ministers began arriving, settling themselves into their chairs with various stacks of notes and reference tomes and their own copies of the agenda, which Doil handed to them absentmindedly as they entered the chamber. When everyone had been seated, Doil waited for Kiluron to indicate he was ready, and then began the meeting, consulting the agenda for the first item. “Can we get the regular period reports from the ministers first, please?”
Borivat had just opened his mouth to begin his report first, as was customary, when Minister Kelina preempted him. “Hold on, I think we need to talk about the emerging situation going on in Dervate right now, right away. It’s very urgent.”
“I suppose someone sneezed funny?” Minister Adima retorted. “Or someone slipped on a loose stone and broke an ankle?”
Kelina gave Adima a sour look, though Kiluron tended to agree with Adima; Kelina’s emergencies were as frequent as they were minor, or at least poorly supported by evidence. Mostly, she seemed to seek the attention. Regardless, Doil glanced around, and reluctantly proposed: “are there any objections to discussing the urgent business presented by Kelina before the periodic minister reports?”
Predictably, Adima objected, and so did Inpernuth, who objected to almost everything on principle, but no one else did, so Doil nodded to Kelina that she could address the ministers. Kiluron sat back and prepared to wait for it to be over.
Appearing pleased, Kelina pushed back her hair, and began holding forth in her usual, dramatized fashion. “If you’ll recall, I warned about the bad humors that might have been dissipated by the warmer air back after the Heart War, and I did recommend a full incineration campaign to purge them entirely from the landscape, but you will please recall that I was at that time overruled, and it was decided to leave the landscape un-burnt, and only manure barriers would be erected. While I would assuredly be the last individual to question the wisdom and efficacy of this august body, I would like to point out that, as I warned, the disease appears to have returned in force, and in new form.”
“Any chance you’re going to get to the point of all this recrimination?” Adima interjected acerbically, so that Kiluron thought for a moment that Kelina might actually hush her. The moment passed, and left Kiluron considering that the interpersonal drama was sometimes the most interesting part of these governing councils.
“As I was saying,” Kelina continued, when she was satisfied she had glared at Adima for a sufficient length of time, “I’ve heard several reports now of persons exhibiting similar symptoms of what seems to be a very deadly disease circulating in Dervate. These victims have reported fevers, numbness of the extremities, and clamminess of skin, especially about the face and neck. Swollen glands have also been noted. Of the individuals who have so far been reported as suffering from these symptoms, only three have recovered.”
“Just how many people have reported these symptoms?” Borivat asked. Although he was careful to keep himself aloof from the drama between Adima and Kelina, he did prefer to keep it from escaping the bounds of reason. Kiluron enjoyed the moment as Kelina sweated before she answered Borivat.
“There have been fifteen reported cases so far, but of course there are likely many more that have gone unreported,” Kelina replied.
Adima rolled her eyes. “That’s hardly a relevant sampling. People die of all kinds of things; a dozen people perishing in the summer of some kind of a rotting sickness is hardly unusual.”
“If, as I suspect is the case, these are really all victims of the same sickness, we’re talking about an eighty percent fatality rate here. If the spread of the originating humors is not curtailed immediately, we could have a full-fledged plague on our hands,” Kelina insisted.
“What would you recommend?” Doil asked, trying to keep the acrimony from derailing the conversation further. He clearly wanted to return to the carefully scripted agenda he so dutifully prepared before each of these meetings.
Kiluron was amused by how eager Kelina became as soon as Doil asked her that question; it was like she had been waiting for this trigger to animate her, like the sun striking grass in the springtime. “We have to quarantine the area immediately. Cordon off the places where the cases were reported, and fully immolate them. And all travel to and from Dervate should be suspended until we can be sure that the humors have been suppressed.”
“Because of fifteen cases of a sickness that may or may not be different from anything else usual to the summer?” Admiral Fel asked. “That seems a little extreme to me, but I admit that my expertise lies elsewhere.”
“Yet you are so much more right than the supposed ‘expert,’” Adima snapped at Kelina, who just raised her chin.
“Why don’t we appoint a commission to study the matter?” Borivat suggested. All of the ministers were scholarly to varying extents, but Borivat was a scholar in the truest sense of the word. “We can gather real evidence, rather than rumors, and perhaps then be better able to fully address whatever danger may be posed by these humors.”
Doil latched onto the idea. “I think that sounds reasonable. Prime Kiluron?” It was probably the closest Doil would ever come to effectively playing politics, preempting a decision from Kiluron before Kelina could provide further arguments.
“Perfect,” Kiluron replied. “Let a commission be appointed and dispatched at once.” He thought about adding a gratuitous wave, but restrained himself. He also restrained himself from observing aloud that these meetings seemed to produce a lot of commissions, but not a lot of actual decisions.
With Kelina, while not satisfied, at least temporarily appeased, the meeting could resume its usual course in accordance with Doil’s agenda, and Kiluron settled back and watched it unfold. He paid attention, mostly, but there was nothing else to be discussed that wasn’t routine, and he was glad when the ministers finally finished speaking, and he could apply himself to more productive tasks for the remainder of the day.
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