Mother of Sorrows

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The Inscrutable Contagion had already shrunk the world when the port of Sutao was closed to the merchant ships late in the fall.

One by one, the outlying villages and towns raised quarantine flags and locked Sutao in. The citizens that used to exist in the middle of the web of commerce were left to survive or perish on their own. They did their best to go on about their daily lives, but makeshift shrines multiplied, covered with prayer scrolls. When winter came, the currents of the diminished life cut new courses around them. Gates and windows were nailed shut on the Prefect's orders, against the cold and bandits. Everyone who could, fled the city of funeral pyres for the fume-free air of the countryside.

Yu navigated the festering landscape by feel, drawn to the sickness, but in fear of being caught healing. The charge of blasphemy clung to him as faithfully as his own shadow. He hid away from all: the fairies, the Prefect's guards, and even from the living who did not hunt him. The sick were the only ones he did not hide from since they did not care about who he was. He rarely had the time and energy to fight for what remained human about him.

One afternoon Yu found himself in an alley, with his back pressed against a wall. It was still winter, but it had mellowed to the first hint of spring. The warmth of his body thawed the water caught in the cracks of the whitewashed layer, but Yu was idle for so long that the moisture began refreezing. His had to move, or freeze to death.

He did not.

The craving was there, but it was not enough to force Yu back to his feet in search of the sick. The euphoria of the last healing could not sustain him on its own for much longer. So, he sat down here to rest, hours or days ago... he did not know when.

A statue of a crouching dragon, its maw opened in a perpetual snarl, stared at Yu in disdain. It was set there to guard the entrance to Yu's alleyway against the intruders, and now was just trying to do its job. "I am spent," he told the stone dragon. "And your left incisor is chipped."

A gaggle of faeries appeared further down the street.

Yu could not run. He dropped his head into his lap, to hide his face and his telltale hair under the tattered shawl, and went limp, hoping they would mistake him for a corpse. It would not even be that far away from the truth.

The sound of the faeries' footfalls paused.

He held his breath.

One. Two. Three. Four... Move, for Heavens' sake!

The faeries resumed walking.

Did they know me, and let me be? No. No. Can't be.

Long after the patrol had left, Yu still crouched under his shawl, too exhausted to lean back against the wall. It won't be long now.

"Hey! Sir! Sir?"

Yu took in a deeper breath and the icy crystals scratched his nasal cavity.

No way I am opening my eyes. The ice will hurt them too.

"Are you alive? Please, please, Sir, be alive!" The vigorous shaking followed the shrill voice.

Yu opened his eyes with a sigh.

The girl in front of him looked like a peacock painted in full colour onto the black-and-white landscape of the drab alley. She looked vulgar, bright, and commanded attention, despite being underdressed for the weather or polite society. And dangerously overly-accessorized for this part of town. The contagion did not stop the ruffians from plying their trade; nothing stopped that.

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