Tweet The clock in the square struck one. Karea cursed under her breath; she hated being late. She stood on her toes to peer above the heads of the crowd. They jostled and shoved outside the cathedral. Some brandished placards, while others waved banners in a righteous frenzy. “The dead have rights too” and “We’re sick, not criminals” were two of the more popular slogans.
She edged along the edge of the crowd, caught between protestors and onlookers. Many of those watching the demonstration held handkerchiefs to their mouths, or buried their faces in nosegays. Karea wondered why they didn’t just stay away, if they were so scared of the Contagion.
The crowd petered out on the far side of the square, and Karea slipped into a narrow alley between a bakery and a milliner’s. Looking back, she could see mounted militia surrounding the protestors. They sat astride huge chestnut stallions, all wearing black government-issue masks. The long ibis-like nose would be filled with strongly scented flowers. Karea wondered how many people would succumb to hay fever before the Contagion itself.
Karea burst out of the alley as a tram pulled up to the stop across the street. She hurled herself across the cobbled stones, narrowly avoiding a pony and trap driven by a young boy. She climbed on board, and squeezed herself between two elderly women clad in black. She nodded at each in turn, acknowledging their loss. A purple hat band indicated that the woman on her right had lost someone a lot earlier than the woman on the left. Probably when the Contagion first started, thought Karea.
Two government officials flanked the trembling conductor. Blue eyes burned bright behind the ibis masks. Karea shuddered. She wondered if the masks were intended to protect the officials, or to intimidate the populace.
Several passengers alighted at the next stop. Karea dropped her gaze from the window; she didn’t need to see them file into the cemetery. She also didn’t need to see the gravediggers and their pits, shovelling quicklime onto anonymous corpses, dumped in ignoble piles.
A tickle in her nose made Karea look up. A woman settled into the seat opposite, heaving a wicker basket onto her knee. A cat the colour of marmalade sat in the basket. It looked at her with brazen interest. Karea felt her stomach drop as the first sneeze struggled to escape. She left off a volley of rapid sneezes, each more violent than the last. The passengers scattered, clawing at each other in their attempts to get away from her.
The government officials swooped. Each clamped a gloved hand on her arms, hauling her to her feet. The tram lurched to a halt, and they pulled her down the stairs into the street. Karea’s protests went unheard as a crowd gathered to investigate the commotion. A cart waited by the gutter; the livery was that of the House of the Stricken. One of the officials fought to tie a cloth mask over her lower face.
“I’m not sick!” shouted Karea, her words lost in the thick fabric. “I’m just allergic to cats!”