People in white carried a plain, wooden coffin.
For the military commanders of Ziol, who firmly obeyed the Pure Spirit faith, a funeral service was a ceremony where the dead ascended to the White Heaven. No sobbing was allowed during it. White tents, white flags fluttering at half-mast, and a path of white sand leading to the gravesite. A line of whiteness dazzled any who looked in that direction under the light of the midday sun.
Utal’s funeral service seemed like a bizarre spectacle to the Akafans.
Hossal, who had shown up to give his condolences, was summoned by Lord Ouhan after the funeral. The chamberlain led him deep into the castle, to the room where Lord Ouhan conducted his official duties. Upon opening the door, he was startled by the sight of King Akafah sitting opposite Lord Ouhan.
To the left of Lord Ouhan, at the head of the table with a hanging scroll with beautiful calligraphy of heaven’s teaching behind him, sat Yotal. Moreover, on both sides of the room four chief retainers sat in silence.
King Akafah faced Lord Ouhan in his seat with three close aides standing behind him. One of the aides was Tohrim.
A daunting expression that Hossal had never seen before was on Lord Ouhan’s face. On the other hand, King Akafah looked back at him calmly.
Once Hossal was seated next to Tohrim, Lord Ouhan pinned his eyes on him.
“Master Hossal, please allow me to use this occasion to extend my heartfelt thanks to you for saving my grandson’s life.”
Hossal bowed his head.
“I’m unworthy of such praise. Thank you very much, Your Lordship.”
Lord Ouhan kept staring intently at Hossal without even nodding his acknowledgement.
“Let me ask you frankly,” Lord Ouhan said in a flat voice, “is it true that Akafans won’t die from the Black Wolf Fever?”
Makokan, who had been sitting in seiza in the lowest western seat of the room, felt the dread like a lump in his throat.
…Here it comes.
He had known that it was only a matter of time before the rumor running wild in the city of Kazan ─ the one that said that the Black Wolf Fever was <Akafah’s Curse> for having its territory violated ─ would reach the ears of Lord Ouhan.
Such rumors will naturally circulate, but given Lord Ouhan just lost his eldest son, he can’t simply ignore this rumor, I suppose.
Indeed, the cunning man was abnormally worked up. ──His face was frightening to behold.
“Please allow me to explain two things.”
Despite everything, Hossal’s tone was calm. It was hard to tell if he even felt the tension in the room.
“First, we still don’t know whether the illness we’re dealing with right now is the Black Wolf Fever.” This sparked a commotion in the room, but Hossal ignored the noise, and continued, “Secondly, it’s impossible to guarantee that Akafans will survive without exception.”
In an instant, the room fell silent.
“As you all know, the Black Wolf Fever is a disease that was last recorded 250 years ago. The current disease has certainly produced similar symptoms to those in the records, but that is not enough to conclude that it is the same disease. Also the idea that only Akafans are spared is a baseless rumor that I can’t possibly agree with. It’s a fact that most of those who passed away from the disease were Ziolians, but Izam, an Akafan, presented with much more severe symptoms than Orim, who is of Ziolian descent. If my grandfather, Master Rimiel, hadn’t taken drastic measures back then, Izam would have died. ──In other words, it’s entirely possible for Akafans to die as well.”
Only the dull rhythmic ticking of the lantern clock filled the deadly silent room.
Eventually Lord Ouhan cleared his throat, though his voice was still hoarse like there was something in his throat, “…I see. I understand.” Clearing his throat once more, he added, “In short, you don’t believe that this disease is <Akafah’s Curse>, correct?”
Hearing him, Hossal smiled wryly, “That is correct.” Then Hossal dropped the smile, “Rather, I fear that spreading false rumors about Akafans being safe from the disease will cause people to become careless, and the illness may spread amongst the Akafans next. It’s also possible that the disease will change as the number of infected increases. Currently only the people bitten by dogs are infected, but if this disease has the same properties as the Black Wolf Fever, it may spread uncontrollably as the warm season approaches, and the number of mites and mosquitoes who carry the disease between dogs and humans increases. That’s a much more pressing problem.”
Lord Ouhan had his eyes fixed on Hossal as he thought things over.
“…I understand,” he nodded. “We must urgently take measures against that, but there’s another matter that must be addressed.”
Lord Ouhan shifted his eyes to King Akafah, staring directly at him.
“Those dogs that had rushed into our tent, they seemed like hunting dogs, did they not?”
The eyes of everyone present focused on King Akafah. The former king waited for a beat, and then nodded.
“It seemed so to me as well. Of course, with how quickly everything happened, I can’t say anything with certainty, though.”
Lord Ouhan had his gleaming eyes fixed on King Akafah, “If they were hunting dogs, they must have an owner. If there’s an owner, that would make this an intentional attack.”
“It goes without saying, but I ordered investigations on the attack and have allocated a large number of soldiers to the case. If this was a deliberate attempt to disturb the rule of Ziol, spreading rumors about this being <Akafah’s Curse> and killing Utal just for that, I will not rest until they have all been apprehended and I have personally witnessed their heads leaving their bodies.”
His eyes were rimmed red, and veins popped out on his forehead ─ it was a truly terrifying expression.
“Remember this, Former Lord of Akafah.”
King Akafah’s expression didn’t change. For a while he wordlessly stared back at Lord Ouhan, but eventually he calmly replied, “I have heard you. ──I shall investigate from my side as well, and any criminals I find will be handed over to you. Hearing Master Hossal’s concerns, I don’t believe this is the time for political maneuvers. After all, the lives of us Akafans are on the line as well. …Besides.” He stared directly into Lord Ouhan’s eyes, and emphasized, “The western Muconia has started to move as well.”
A small light flickered deep within Lord Ouhan’s eyes. Seeing that, King Akafah continued, “The Ziolians have been our friends for many years. On the other hand, Muconia is a bitter, hateful enemy who has threatened Akafah for several hundred years. No matter what, we must protect this land from being violated by the Muconian savages. It’s also for this reason that we definitely cannot allow the disease to spread.”
The present and former Lords of this land continued to stare each other down.
There was no way to know what kind of thoughts were racing about inside the heads of those two cunning rulers, but the oppressive atmosphere caused Makokan to find it hard to breathe in their presence. As the silence dragged on, the tension became almost unbearable. However, Hossal’s voice suddenly broke through the silence, echoing through the spacious room.
“About how we will prevent the spread of the disease.”
The retainers all stared at the young doctor, startled. They found it unbelievably rude that he had spoken without being called on at a formal council, glaring their disapproval.
As might be expected, even Lord Ouhan looked displeased, but he took a deep breath, and asked, “…Are there any specific methods?”
Hossal continued calmly, “No matter what we choose, we must consider what measures need to be adopted in areas with high populations like Kazan over the autumn and winter.”
“That’s…it’s just as you say.” Lord Ouhan nodded. “I’d like you and Master Rona to thoroughly discuss this matter. Additionally, whatever plan you come up with, we shall discuss it. ──But.” As if suddenly hit with a thought, Lord Ouhan scowled, “It might be difficult to completely prevent it, if mites and fleas truly do carry the illness. Couldn’t you improve that, the new medicine you created?”
Hossal nodded, “That’s something I will do, no matter what. From recent events, it has proved most effective to repeatedly and intensively administer the <Vaccine> and <Antibody Treatment> from as early a stage as possible, but…” After glancing at Rona, Hossal shifted his eyes back to Lord Ouhan, “The first question would be whether it is okay to administer those medicines to Ziolians.”
Lord Ouhan’s face twitched.
Looking directly into Lord Ouhan’s eyes, Hossal continued, “Even among the Akafan, there are those without any resistance to the Black Wolf Fever, but if we can continue to develop the vaccine, we might be able to save those people eventually. However, if we can’t administer it to the Ziolians, they will become the only casualties, and it truly will become an illness only feared by the Ziolians.”
The room burst into noise.
If the Ziolians were to die from a treatable disease because they refuse the cure, it will become a Ziolian problem. If Ziolian society learns of the fact that they’ll die because of their faith in their own god after coming to this land, many of them might regard it as heaven’s decree. They would truly regard this as <Akafah’s Curse>. Moreover, it will truly be a curse, as they will be trapped by their own actions, unable to blame the Akafans for it.
Lord Ouhan paled, deep wrinkles forming on his forehead. Rona remained expressionless as ever, blankly staring towards the front.
Eventually Lord Ouhan could only hoarsely reply, “…Since it’s not a matter that should be taken lightly, I shall make a decision after thoroughly discussing it with Master Rona.”
Hossal nodded calmly, but he didn’t concede, interpreting Lord Ouhan’s statement as a sign of compromise.
“The decision for the Ziolians will of course depend on you. However, the disease won’t wait for you. I have to produce an effective treatment for those who can be rescued. Would you grant me permission to develop the treatment so that there won’t be any further casualties from the illness that robbed you of your son?”
Lord Ouhan blinked. He thought it over for a moment, but then he answered with a firm voice, “That’s a matter of course. Make all efforts to improve the medicine.”
Hossal smiled in relief.
“Thank you very much. As a matter of fact, I took a bit of blood from all the patients before getting your permission to improve the medicine. However, since I administered the new medicine to them all, I can’t be sure if there are people capable of surviving without this medicine.” Without giving anyone time to interrupt, Hossal rattled on, “The one who developed the quickest and most violent symptoms was the Ziolian falconer who had been bitten near his chin. On the other hand, we found that the one with the strongest resistance against this disease was Lady Slumina, followed by Lord Mazai and Lord Orim. What makes them different? ──If we manage to find the reason behind their natural resistance, unlike worthless and groundless political rumors like it being <Akafah’s Curse>, we may be able to work out effective precautionary measures. This is especially true if we manage to work out why the people in the borderlands, where many black wolves live, seemed to have fewer problems with it in the past.”
Hossal’s expression abruptly clouded over after making that statement.
“However, that will be difficult. Gathering detailed documents and backgrounds on people and investigating if there were any natural survivors from even the most remote places in Akafah is nigh impossible in the first place. I doubt there’s any feasible way for us to examine the actual conditions of people like nomads, and it would take far too much time.”
When Hossal closed his mouth, Yotal spoke up, “It might be possible.”
“Eh?” Hossal turned his face towards Yotal.
Yotal calmly explained, “We have been carefully managing all tax-related business. Even the nomads of remote regions like the Oki Basin and the Toga Mountainous District have been accurately and thoroughly checked in regards to their age, headcount, and whereabouts after we organized them into various groups.” Then his expression suddenly softened, “Of course, just like how we haven’t been able to find <Van of the Splintered Horn>, some people may have been missed if they deliberately hid during our inspections. However, for an investigation like the one you mentioned just now, I believe it’s possible to gather fairly accurate documents since we’re not looking for one singular runaway.”
Hossal stared at Yotal with his mouth open, but before long he slapped his knee.
“That’s wonderful! As expected, you Ziolians are thorough in the things you do.”
Hints of barely contained laughter were visible on the faces of those present due to his spontaneous outburst. Even Lord Ouhan’s face twitched.
“I’m particularly interested in the documents of the immigrants living as nomads! I mean, look, there are many remote regions, right? And the immigrants have married into the families there. If we can learn how each of those people react to this disease, we might be able to obtain some truly critical clues. …Besides.” While looking between Yotal, Lord Ouhan, and then King Akafah, Hossal added, “If we do such an investigation, everything will become clear, won’t it? What kind of people have a resistance against the disease, but also whether some Ziolian immigrants have a resistance, just like how Lord Orim fared better than Izam. If we clarify this, those silly rumors will be extinguished as easily as a campfire in the rain.”
…It’d be great if everything went as planned, Makokan thought deep in his heart. A campfire extinguished by water stank badly for a long time after, and Makokan looked down, feeling as if he could already smell that offensive smell.