It was an honour to be summoned by the officials to deliver a letter and his own report to the Crown. For most of the night, the courier had drunk strong, muddy tea and typed and retyped his report of all that he observed and discovered in recent weeks. Passion and pride seemed to electrify his fingertips as they clicked the keys. For years, the Crown had shown great wisdom and benevolence in managing war, famine, and pest. Despite the sleeplessness, the courier felt awake for the first time in years. There had been years of somnambulism from the sheer exhaustion of working overtime, of being vigilant, of intermittent and unpredictable quarantines. The commoners would never be able to imagine the sacrifices of the officials, of the undaunted courage and industriousness that had been required to ensure public safety. They had no idea what it meant to make an act of faith. The courier could still hardly believe he was being called to the court as he stepped out into the roadway at dawn. It was a dry, mostly sunny spring. Some trees were in flower, the white blossoms trembling in the cold wind. Old posters with the crown symbol hung in tatters from the walls; gendarmes guarded striped gateways; glowing iodine-red lanterns hung from windows, keeping the perpetual light burning, the light that represented the inner light of all, but most importantly, the light of vigilance, of caution, of the cure and the Crown itself. When the road reached the wall of the inner city, there were more masked guards in white or pale, drab green, and one semicircle of masked, white-clad soldiers centered on an overturned wheelbarrow and a cowering delivery man. Most of the contraband merchandise had spilled out onto the dirt, and the courier could read the labels on the packets, boxes and jars—wormwood, creosote, larch and pine sap syrups, willow and birch bark powder, quinine soda, orange peel and paprika, atropine cordials, charcoal. There were other items, but he could not read them. Brilliant colourful labels and clear glass gleamed in the morning sun. A shot rang out, and the body of the merchant fell to the dust. The courier passed through the gate after showing his passport, his official letter of summons, and answering questions for a quarter of an hour. The avenue to the palace was lined with more centuries, cannons, and checkpoints. Round, glass lamps and cylindrical, paper lanterns poured their red light into the shadows of the squares where marble statues gathered skeletons of poisoned sparrows. The palace front loomed larger and larger. The courier could hardly breathe as he walked up the steps and passed through a colonnade into the great foyer. A beautiful woman at the bureau in the antechamber, a maze of sentries and cordon ropes, raised her hand and beckoned to the courier. She wore a mask over her mouth, a white beret and white uniform, her hair cut to her jawline, her eyes darkly lined, her cheeks almost ghostly with face powder. Congratulating him on his honor, she directed him to proceed through gate 9 and directly enter the throne room. An armed halberdier accompanied him. They did not ascend the main stairway, as the courier had thought they might. Instead they walked down a hallway, and entered a dark courtyard. Clouds had blown in overhead, mingling with the billowing smoke that rose from a gigantic fire pit in the courtyard. Already, some guards were dumping what looked to be the contents of the wheelbarrow that had been overturned before the gate earlier that morning. Glass jars shattered or cracked, cordials exploded, packets of dried bark and charcoal blazed. The fragrance of the pit was soporific and calming. The courier could hardly believe that he was standing right next to the warmth of the cure itself, the very heart of the empire. Beyond the glare of the dancing flames, the august person of the Crown himself stood, bald, masked and in full uniform—candy-striped trousers and an immaculate white coat with a mandarin collar, decorated with glittering crosses and curling, metal serpents. Another official was speaking to him, handing him a stack of beautiful books. The courier recognized them—they were out of print now, almost impossible to find. They were a series of forbidden chronicles, a monumental history of the realm with gold leaf trim on the pages, bold fonts, bone-white paper and colorful arabesque covers of real leather with gold leaf lettering. The Crown took the books, and threw them, one after another, into the fire-pit. After listening some more to the report of the official, he nodded to the escort, who kicked the official into the fire-pit. A military band in a gallery somewhere began to bang drums and cymbals. Screams filled the air, and the fire blazed. Gradually, the cymbals and gongs ceased. The other armed guard bowed to the Crown, and walked back, nodding to the courier and his guard as he passed. Perhaps it was the smoke, perhaps it was all of the walking that morning after several months of quarantine, but the courier began to feel sleepy once again. The Crown beckoned to him through the light and shadow of the flickering flames. The black smoke rose like a prayer of gratitude into the sky.