Yotal’s mansion was located in the suburbs of Kazan, the former capital of Akafah. The building itself was built in the Ziolian architecture style with its black roof tiles and white plaster walls. However, the windows facing the courtyard, whose garden was said to have been designed by an Akafan gardener, were usually left open, allowing the evening wind to carry the fragrance of the flowers into the building.
The channels drawing water from the large Maharl River, which wound its way leisurely through the plains, kept the garden well irrigated with small glugging sounds.
Makokan sat on a chair near the window, vacantly gazing out at the garden as the sky slowly darkened into a light purple. He could hear Hossal’s light snoring nearby. Hossal had somehow managed to keep his eyes open until moments ago, but now he was slumped into the chair, sleeping soundly.
…That’s only understandable.
Yesterday they went to the salt mine as soon as dawn broke. When they came back to Hossal’s clinic in the provincial capital of Kazan, he immediately wanted to begin examining the corpses, turning down Yotal’s offer to take a break in the mansion first.
When they arrived at the clinic, the corpses had already been carried in. Hossal’s female assistant of many years, Miral, who also shared a bed with him at night, had started the preliminary preparations with the help of several assistants. Hossal’s clinic, which was rather uniquely named the <Hive of Small People>, was a facility built with Lord Ouhan’s blessing, and consisted of a hospital, three research facilities, and a residential mansion for Hossal and his assistants. Since he had arrived in this region, Hossal had been secluding himself here almost every day.
Upon entering the hospital, Hossal was about to head straight for the research facility that the corpses were preserved in, but Miral, who came out to greet them, grabbed him by the elbow, and forcibly dragged him to the dining room. The assistants had finished their dinner long ago, so the dining room was deserted, but Miral had made sure that the day’s dinner, a beef and onion stew, would remain warm by placing it next to the fire in the hearth.
As he watched the red tint return to Hossal’s cheeks little by little as he drank tea sweetened with honey, and bit into slow cooked tender meat that melted in one’s mouth, Makokan thought that Hossal would be definitely lost without Miral.
Miral, who was three years older than Hossal, was small and plump. She wasn’t a beauty by any standards, but she handled Hossal, who could become extremely moody at times, patiently and comfortably like an elder sister. Since she was a commoner and Hossal was one of the <Sacred People>, even though she was also an Otawalian, the difference in their standing was like heaven and earth, but Miral still fearlessly voiced her opinions and even scolded Hossal when she thought it was for his own good.
Rather, that’s probably why Hossal feels so comfortable. When he’s with Miral, Hossal’s expression relaxes, just like when he takes off his leather clothes.
However, last night neither of them could be described as relaxed. Hossal was restless, wanting to do something as soon as possible. Unusually enough, Miral was also agitated. Even as they ate the stew, they kept talking endlessly. The words fluttering about between the two were too difficult for Makokan to follow, but he felt it was a little strange: their reactions were as if someone they had long awaited had finally visited, rather than having any anxiety over the outbreak of the Black Wolf Fever. Fully aware that he would be regarded as an idiot, Makokan tried to ask them what it was that had made them so excited.
Just as he expected, Hossal bluntly refused, telling him that he wouldn’t understand anyway with a bitter undertone, but Miral said to Makokan, “Actually, if it’s you, you should understand very well,” as she replenished the tea in their cups.
“The reason ghosts are scary is because they are intangible, correct? If they had a physical body that you could grab, I’m pretty sure no one would be scared by them. The same applies to illnesses. If you can take hold of its essence, it would be possible to develop methods to deal with it.” Miral’s eyes shone like they were glowing. “I’m excited that we finally obtained the corpse of someone that has been infected with the Black Wolf Fever after 250 years. Oh, jeez! I want to coordinate the schedule with everyone in the Shin Academy’s Wound Medicine Division to start working on researching the medicine as soon as possible.”
“Medicine, you say…can you actually derive medicine from corpses?”
Pausing just before she was about to answer, Miral pulled a troubled face, “As expected, I think it will be difficult to explain this to you. But, yes, putting it very simply, those five corpses are treasures that have the potential to help produce three types of medicines.”
“Correct. Since they were killed by the Black Wolf Fever, it might be possible to discover the germ that causes Black Wolf Fever, right? If we can determine the germ, we might be able to create a <Weak Cure> to weaken or kill the germs. If we can produce a <Weak Cure>, it would be wonderful. After all it might be possible to prevent an outbreak of the illness. Besides, if we have the Black Wolf Fever’s germs on hand, we can search for substances which will kill or weaken the germs. In other words, it might be possible to further create a <Cure>. But that’s not all. It’s possible that the bodies of the people infected with the fever produced something special as a countermeasure against the germs of the Black Wolf Fever. We call those <Antibodies>, and if we can extract those antibodies, it might become possible to create a <Vaccine> that can give people the strength to resist the Black Wolf Fever’s germs.”
Makokan furrowed his eyebrows, “But…those people died after losing the battle against Black Wolf Fever, didn’t they? In other words, their <Antibodies> or whatever won’t be of much use, will they?”
Miral’s eyes widened, obviously taken aback.
“Oh my, Makokan my dear, how perceptive of you!” She said and started to laugh. “Sorry, sorry, that was rude of me to put it that way. Please forgive me.”
“…I don’t really mind though.”
“But you know, that’s a really discerning question. From the standpoint of creating medicine, it’s more of an issue that it’s something created by someone else’s body rather than whether it was actually useful to them, but anyway, the medicine created from their <Antibodies> will have limited effect. Even if the medicine can suppress the symptoms and prevent the outbreak of the illness to some extent, the people who survive with the help of the medicine won’t necessarily be fine if they are bitten again or if there’s a new outbreak. It might have some effect, though.” A light of hope dwelt in Miral’s eyes. “If we manage to create a <Vaccine> from the blood of those who recovered from the Black Wolf Fever, it should be far more effective than the <Vaccine> produced from the five bodies we now have. Well, its effect and the duration of the effect would still be limited, but nonetheless…”
I see. That’s the reason why Hossal asked whether I could track the leader of <Lone Horn> back there.
Having concluded that, Makokan earnestly looked at Miral, who still had a dreamy expression on her face.
“…But, even if it’s for creating a medicine or whatsoever, you will still be in contact with the Black Wolf Fever. Aren’t you scared?”
Miral suddenly burst into laughter.
“Of course I’m scared. But, I’ve finally encountered a legendary enemy ─ moreover it’s an enemy in a body I can touch with these hands, and not just from folklore. What can I say? I’m thrilled.”
Hossal lifted an eyebrow.
“You heard her, Makokan. This is what you would call a true hero. At times I wonder whether she isn’t more manly than I am.”
Refusing to dignify that with a proper response, Miral just snorted and said, “Come on, if you’re done eating, we’re going to start,” and pulling at Hossal’s elbow once more, she dragged him into the research building.
Makokan didn’t know what kind of work they did afterwards, but it seemed as though Hossal really didn’t get a wink of sleep. When a message from Yotal came just past noon today, requesting their presence in the mansion, Makokan barely managed to persuade his young master to come despite his grumpy replies for Makokan to go by himself. Now that he had brought him all the way here, Makokan thought it might have been better to let his young master rest and cite his poor health as an excuse to Yotal.
Baked sweets that were cut into thick slices and tea with a nice aroma lined the big, round table by their chairs. Makokan had eaten even the crumbs of his share, but Hossal had just sipped a bit of the tea without touching the sweets.
Makokan had intermittently heard the high-pitched chirping of a bird for some time now, and it had gradually gotten closer until it sounded from right beneath the window.
Hossal woke with a start, blinking rapidly. And, noticing that it had been a bird’s chirping that had woken him up, he smiled wryly while rubbing his eyes.
Hossal and Makokan lifted themselves up a little, looking down out the window. A small boy around ten years old was walking with a big birdcage dangling from his hand. It was Yotal’s second son.
Hearing Hossal’s call, the boy quickly looked up at them with a blush. He had both Ziolian and Akafan blood running through his veins, and though he looked predominantly Ziolian when Makokan saw him from afar last night due to his black hair, his eyes and high nose bridge were obviously inherited from his mother. It was clear at a glance that he was descended from Akafan royalty.
With a smile, Hossal said, “What kind of bird do you have there?”
Still blushing, he answered, “A minnal.”
Makokan reflexively leaned his body forward with a “Hoh.” Minnals had excellent singing voices provided they were trained well. Singing matches between these birds were often held in Akafah. Recalling the memory of his father teaching his minnal to sing called a smile on Makokan’s lips.
“It looks to be a fine minnal. But, training it is difficult, isn’t it?”
The boy nodded with his red face. He’s probably nervous after being called out to by a guest. Makokan started to pity the boy after realizing that the boy probably wanted to leave as soon as possible.
“I’m terribly sorry for stopping you. Please feel free to take the bird back to the bird hut.”
As soon as he said so, Orim bowed lightly, looking relieved, and quickly ran off.
“…He sure gives me a strange feeling.” Makokan whispered.
“Even though he’s exactly like Lord Yotal, he has traces of Akafah’s king around his eyes and nose…” Hossal curled his lip. “You must have mixed feelings about that.”
Makokan gazed at his young master, sulking over the way he had phrased it.
“You say so, but what about you?”
Hossal yawned, “If I were to explain my thoughts to you, we would be here until the break of dawn.”
Just when Makokan was about to retort, a knock sounded at the door. When Hossal responded, the door opened, and Yotal came inside. He was followed by a servant carrying a tray with a wine jar and cups. The servant filled the cups with wine, put them on the table, then bowed and left the room.
Yotal sat down opposite Hossal, picked up his own cup, and encouraged the two others to follow suit. Then after lifting the cup and draining its contents, Yotal took a long and hard look at Hossal’s face.
“…Are you alright? You don’t look too well,” he said.
Hossal smiled wryly.
“I’m doing fine, it’s just a lack of sleep. Since it’s not like you can catch the Black Wolf Fever by messing with corpses, you don’t need to worry.”
Yotal smiled briefly, but his face became serious again right afterwards.
“How is the examination going? Did you make any progress?”
“No, no. We still have a long way ahead of us.” Hossal answered, waving him off. “Yesterday I told you that we might be able to identify the illness’ details against my better judgment, but in the end the only records we have are ancient documents. First we must eliminate the possibility of it being another illness.”
“I understand. …I’m very sorry to bother you with this when you’re busy with that work, but last night a fast messenger arrived with a reply to the letter I sent to father and brother. It was very fortunate that the two of them were still in the next town after Kazan on their way to answering to a summons from the Imperial Council in the imperial capital.” Yotal said. “Both father and brother are taking this situation very seriously. I could only tell them what little information I had, but it appears that both of them are aware of how terrible the Black Wolf Fever is. I was told to tread carefully while consulting with you, Master Hossal, as this has the potential to lead to an irreversible situation if this is not handled well.”
“I will do whatever I can. With your honorable father’s permission, I had planned to send the first report on the outbreak of the illness to the sacred land in order to find the most appropriate way to deal with it. However, since I wanted to pass it by Lord Ouhan first, I haven’t yet notified them.”
If news of the outbreak of an epidemic were to spread, the citizens would panic, which would essentially be an open invitation for enemies to invade. It was information that couldn’t be handled carelessly, but once he heard that, Yotal smiled.
“As for me, I’d like to put anything Otawal can offer to good use. After all, it’s an unknown illness to us. Master Rona shares my opinion. He said I should consult with you first when it comes to anything related to the Black Wolf Fever.”
Hossal blinked. “He said that? It’s very appreciated.”
“I have already asked father for his thoughts as well. Now that it has turned into a matter of such gravity, it’s impossible not to inform the clerical healers at the imperial court. However, we can leave that for father and brother to handle, along with the emperor. I have been told to defer to your judgment, Master Hossal, and to make sure to rely on the wisdom of the wisemen of Otawal’s Shin Academy. Please, by all means, initiate contact from your side.”
A smile slowly formed on Hossal’s face.
“I see. As expected of Lord Ouhan, he’s decisive.”
Yotal smiled wryly.
“You’re completely right. Father doesn’t seem nearly as old as he is when it comes to matters like these. I feel like I should follow his example.” Yotal suppressed a faint smile. “Still, why has the Black Wolf Fever suddenly made a comeback now? Father and brother were also curious about that. According to father’s letter, there hasn’t been an outbreak of the Black Wolf Fever for two hundred years.”
Hossal nodded, “It is just as your father says. Or to be more precise, the last recorded great spread took place 247 years ago, and no records of major outbreaks have been recorded since. Perhaps one or two people have been infected with it since then, but at the very least there is no record of a significant number of deaths due to it.”
Hossal slowly stroked his chin with his slender fingers.
“I don’t know. The reason might become apparent if we investigate, but…epidemics are associated with many mysteries. At times they suddenly spread uncontrollably, and then abruptly disappear after taking a heavy toll.” Hossal smiled bitterly. “It’s the cause of my native land’s downfall, so our great ancestors should have frantically researched it as well, but at the very least I know that there are still many things that we don’t understand.”
Yotal stared at Hossal.
“Could you at least tell me what you do know? In as much detail as possible.”
Hossal leaned back into his chair.
“Even if you ask me for details, there isn’t much I can tell you. But well, I wonder where I should start from. …Ah, do you know of the <Song of Otawal’s Demise>?”
“I see. ──It’s a long song beginning with the words…beckoning the black shadows across the white peaks. The black shadows here refer to wolves. Specifically, they were wolves with fur as black as night, which had never been observed before in the area around the old Otawal Kingdom’s capital. It’s said that it all began with an aristocrat, who hunted for sport, bringing one back after discovering it in the Toga Mountain Range. The first black wolf probably didn’t carry the illness. Its beautiful fur and intelligent look pulled at the heartstrings of the Otawalian aristocrats, and they began to compete with each other to obtain black wolves. Hearing that, the animal hunters and traders in the kingdom went out to catch black wolves, selling them to Otawal’s aristocrats. Apparently, they even crossed dogs with the black wolves. It’s written in history books that it became such a craze that there were merchants, called black wolf dealers, that dealt exclusively with black wolves in the capital.”
Hossal picked up his wine cup, and took a sip.
“However, one spring, a strange rumor began to spread. A fever had begun to spread among the black wolf dealers. In addition to that, according to the rumor, it was a very terrifying disease that caused those who had been bitten by the black wolves to have high fevers and rashes, their limbs would stiffen, and they would convulse, dying over the course of just one day. Hearing about that, the Sacred King of Otawal at that time prohibited the trade of black wolves. After the prohibition, the strange fever abated for a while, but soon, when summer came around, the illness began to run rampant once more. ──This time those who haven’t been bitten at all started to show the same symptoms and died like flies.”
Yotal listened attentively without even twitching.
“That summer was apparently very humid. The epidemic began to spread from areas where the poorest people lived and gathered, and before long, it had spread in all of the capital. The doctors of the Shin Academy formed a hypothesis that it had been spread by fleas and mites, which had sucked the blood of the black wolves carrying the disease and transferred it to rats. By the time the capital began exterminating the insects and rats, several thousand people had already succumbed to the illness, I hear.”
“…And then?” Yotal asked in a whisper. “What happened? How did they escape the clutches of the illness?”
Hossal fixed his eyes on Yotal, answering, “They discarded the capital.”
“Eh? …Oh, then the infamous order to abandon the capital is from then?”
“Indeed. It’s an anecdote from that time period. Takarhal, the last king of Otawal, abandoned the capital which had prospered for a thousand years. Otawal’s capital, and the major cities around it, were located on three islands in a huge inland sea, as you know. This meant they were excellent for repelling foreign enemies, but on the other hand, it’s possible that it was also the reason that the epidemic was so fatal. But, the fact that they were isolated environments was truly a godsend for stopping the epidemic in its tracks. King Takarhal left behind anyone that was ill or refused to leave and destroyed the long bridge that spanned the capital and the opposite shores. ──All for the sake of saving the people who hadn’t been infected with the illness.”
Yotal looked stiffly at Hossal.
“It’s written in the ancient documents that it was an almost comedic scene. The pale Otawalians, who had taken off all their clothes and shaved all their body hair, formed a long beeline as they crossed the bridge in tears. …But, for those who remained in the metropolises, the comedic scene also represented the sealing of their fates.” Hossal continued dispassionately, “Takarhal probably believed that it was wrong for one who had abandoned his people to remain king. He moved the capital to the Trade City Kazan of the Akafah Province, this place ─ the area in the northwest of the kingdom that had been miraculously unscathed in the epidemic, and ceded the crown to a young man, the lord of the metropolis of Kazan. In other words, the Akafah Kingdom was founded for the sake of surviving the Black Wolf Fever.”
When Hossal finished his story, the only sound was curtain fluttering against the wall in the night breeze.
“…If there is any upside to all of this,” Hossal said, “then it would be the fact that it wasn’t an illness that can be passed from person to person, and that symptoms appeared within a very short period of time for both people and animals once they contracted it, I think.”
Yotal narrowed his eyes, “…I see, otherwise those who were unaware they had contracted the illness would continue to move around, directly contributing to its propagation.”
Immediately after saying this, he tilted his head in confusion.
“However, why didn’t the black wolves die on the way to the city despite suffering from such a terrible disease?”
Hossal’s eyes brightened up. “Yeah, it’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Catching himself after his slip up, Hossal excused himself with a wry smile.
“You’re very discerning. As you say, it’s said that there are beasts who don’t suffer from the illness despite carrying it. It looks like there are such cases among people as well. If there are those who suffer from the same illness twice, there will also be some who don’t suffer at all. If there are people who immediately die upon contracting the illness, there will also be others who will survive it. I believe that this is the key to unlocking the secrets of any illness.”
“I understand,” Yotal muttered and then added as an afterthought, “Speaking of surviving, about the runaway slave, is it a certainty that the illness doesn’t spread from person to person? Would it be possible for the fugitive to spread the disease?”
Hossal lifted an eyebrow, “I’d like to think that’s not the case, but at present there’s nothing we can fully exclude. It’s not like we have even established without a doubt that this is truly the Black Wolf Fever either. However, at least from what I have seen, I don’t think that people will infect one another,” and scratched his cheek with a finger. “If you look at the corpses, all of them have been infected within a short span of time – so closely that they may as well have been infected simultaneously – suffered the symptoms, and passed away. It didn’t seem as though someone was infected first, triggering a chain of infections from the initial host. If that had happened, the ones who were still alive should have been able to inform someone about the outbreak.”
Yotal nodded slowly.
“I see, that definitely makes sense.”
“In addition, this illness is severe. If you look at the situation in the salt mine, the first symptoms very quickly followed after the infection, and moreover, almost everyone died from it. It may have been obvious that the slaves died, since they might already have been weakened, but even the slave overseers succumbed. And yet, seeing that none of the soldiers who have been working since the day before yesterday have shown any symptoms, it looks like there was no infection through fleas or mites, and it doesn’t appear to have spread through the air either, right?”
Yotal nodded once more.
“In short, at this stage it is safe to conclude that the illness will not be transmitted as long as you are not bitten. ──Hence it would be most logical to hunt down the beasts spreading the disease to stop the epidemic before it takes hold.”
“Well, that would work. And the extermination of the rats, correct?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Those are truly annoying.”
Yotal stroked his chin, “Recently the complaints by the serfs about sheep being attacked, though it’s still unclear whether they were attacked by dogs or wolves, have been increasing…if it might also be connected to this matter, we’ve got to deal with it promptly, no matter the costs.”
Hossal shook his head.
“I think hunting down wolves and wild dogs will have some effect, but it might be impossible to hinder this illness with such an untargeted approach.”
Yotal knitted his eyebrows.
“If the wolves and wild dogs attacking the sheep were the source of this illness, you should have already heard about shepherds dying left and right after being bitten, but there was no mention of any such occurrences, was there?”
“Oh,” Yotal widened his eyes, “I see, I understand now. You mean there’s no point to aimlessly hunting wild dogs, rather, we should track down and exterminate the beasts who are carrying the disease, right?”
Yotal’s face clouded over as he muttered, half in a monologue, “In that case, I need to have Malji track <Van of the Splintered Horn> and exterminate the identified beasts at the same time, huh?”
Upon Hossal’s question, Yotal lifted his head to look at Hossal.
“You know of him? He’s an Akafan slave hunter. There are several skilled people, but Malji is an outstanding chief hunter.”
“I know him.” A smile flashed across Hossal’s face. “Malji, eh? That’s a truly nostalgic name. I’d certainly like to come along as well, if you would allow me to go with Tohrim.”
Surprised, Makokan unintentionally let an “Eh?” slip.
“Are you done examining the corpses?” Makokan asked.
Hossal answered composedly, “It’ll take several days for the results of the test being run now to appear. Corpses appear to decompose more slowly in the salt mine. Bringing up the corpses from the underground layers to the surface won’t be completed in one or two days anyway, right?”
“But, you’re already on the verge of falling asleep, aren’t you?”
“I just have to take a good, long rest tonight, right?”
“However, it has become quite cold outside, and the hunters’ village lies in a mountainous region, you know?”
Hossal clapped Makokan’s shoulder, “You’re my attendant, not my mother. Don’t keep endlessly worrying about unnecessary things.” And then he shifted his gaze back to Yotal, becoming more serious, “I told you that there are people who die and people who survive after catching an illness, but foreseeing who will survive and who will die is currently impossible. ──Illnesses don’t care about borders. And, I’m a doctor, someone who has vowed to live for the sake of saving people from illnesses.”
It was an abrupt statement, but probably understanding what Hossal wanted to tell him, Yotal nodded slowly.
“Please, go ahead and accompany Tohrim. I believe, if there’s anyone who can save this land from this illness, it’s you. Please do your best to stop the disease without any worries.”