The princess and the plague
The princess looks out the airtight window, which contains her like a bug in a bell jar. She wants to feel the hot breath of the desert on her neck, the bite of its sand on her skin. Her lovely face would crease and pucker, but so what? She would, at last, be truly alive.
“I hate being trapped in this train. The recirculated air is suffocating. It’s like prison!”
Her handsome husband stifles an eye roll. He has been to prison, and it is nothing like this train. “It’s the price of safety,” he says. “You can breathe all the air you want when we get to Regnat.”
The princess pouts. “Regnat is a plastic theme park for rich tourists. Fake, fake, fake! I want to experience something real. Something authentic.”
The prince folds his lips into a reluctant smile. “We must agree to disagree, my love. See the bones on the sand? The ragged skulls with the sandy hair still attached?”
The princess nods glumly.
“That is real,” says the prince. “That is authentic.”
The princess pages through a newspaper while she drinks her coffee. She ignores the macabre march of statistics proclaiming the latest death tolls. The plague won’t last forever. Her father’s scientists are working on a vaccine. The people just have to hold out a little longer. Obey the curfew. Bathe regularly. Wear their masks.
The people, she thinks, have tremendous freedom. They suffer none of the tedious restrictions or obligations of people like her. Really, she envies them. They are simple and happy. And they love her, albeit necessarily from afar.
As the train passes through towns, small signs appear.
We love you, Princess Eliza!
Come to us, Princess Eliza!
Eliza, the People’s Princess
Save us from the plague, Princess Eliza!
The last one makes her uncomfortable. She can’t save anyone from the plague. Not by herself. She is a princess, raised to breed pedigreed scions and look respectably pretty at family functions. All she can do is smile sweetly and remind her father that the people — people who love her — need the vaccine.
The train wheezes to a halt with an audible sigh. The princess sighs, too. She has been cooped up in this train forever. She wants to kick off her shoes and walk in the desert sand. The sky is already the russet orange of impending sunset. She doesn’t want to look at it through a sand-scored barrier.
“I can’t believe we’re stuck again,” she huffs, laying her head on the prince’s shoulder.
He strokes her golden hair absently, his fingers fluttering like a nervous bird. She wonders if he really loves her and then quashes the thought. Of course, he loves me, she tells herself. Everybody loves me.
And yet she cannot let it go. She’s about to ask the prince how he really feels, when an officer in dull dress grays knocks on their compartment. His face is lumpy and undistinguished except for a gray, over-sized mustache. The prince opens the door. The officer clears his throat.
“Your Highness, I need to borrow the prince. We have a small situation. Nothing for you to worry about.”
The prince’s back straightens, and his shoulders snap into place. He glances at the princess, his face smooth and opaque. “I’m sorry, love. Duty calls.”
The princess is bored. Bored. Bored! She has read her newspaper cover to cover at least three times. She has tried on three outfits. She has put her hair up and taken it down. And she has brooded about the prince.
He seemed so eager to leave her when the officer turned up. She wonders if he has grown tired of her. Theirs was an arranged marriage, a uniting of political and military dynasties. And yet he was so gallant when they met the day before their wedding. He called her his light and his rose. It also didn’t hurt that he was so much handsomer than she had expected.
She paces and frets as the sky burns and glows. Almost without thinking, she leaves her compartment and enters the hallway. Walking as if in a trance, she passes window after window. After an indeterminate period of time, she finds a double-paned glass door. It is glowing warmly, lit by the dying embers of the late-day sun.
The princess presses her face against the cloudy glass, squinting. She thinks she can see people outside, tall, flickering people. Flames bearing gifts? Their arms full of crimson flowers? Perhaps for her?
She thinks of the prince again. If he found out she went outside, he would be furious. And heartbroken. He would feel a concentrated tang of loss. He might even mount a wholly unnecessary rescue.
She smiles at the vision of her husband in his military gear, charging to her rescue. She just wants to be loved, without condition or reservation. She opens the door. It feels like stepping into a furnace. And the people are waiting for her.
The princess is alone in a dimly lit hut. She lies on a pallet stuffed with moldy hay. It is what passes for fine accommodation in this arid part of the world. There is a strange tickle in the back of her throat, a prelude to a violent, rib-rending cough.
Squirming to find a comfortable position, her thoughts are hot and muddled. Images flicker through her mind like a dying flame. Children with weeping sores on their faces, regarding her with cautious hope. A makeshift hospital where human-shaped husks coughed and begged for water. A flask of chalky milk. A bitter swallow.
She is sure, almost sure, that she tried to leave the hut at least several times, only to be gently but firmly returned to bed. She wonders when her prince is coming. If he is coming.
She closes her eyes, sliding into moist, feverish dreams full of bright, inchoate shapes and jumbled longings. She has no idea what time it is when someone shakes her shoulder.
“You! Wake up!”
The princess’ lids are sticky and sore. She rubs her lashes and peers through swollen slits. A desiccated old woman with a stiff brush of white hair, wrapped in a brown robe, is staring down at her. The princess tries to speak, but she can only gasp and cough.
The old woman shakes her head and hands her a note. It takes the princess several tries to read it.
My love, I’ve sent word to your father. He is coming. Prepare yourself.
The enormity of her relief makes her feel almost well for a breath or two. She is disappointed the prince won’t be rescuing her, but he did ask her great and terrible father. And that is something.
The princess coughs and coughs and coughs. It feels like a needle is poking between her ribs. When she wipes her mouth, the back of her hand is streaked with blood.
Light streams into the hut from gaps in the ceiling. The princess knows she should be hot. Instead, she’s cold to the bone. She tries to rise and stand outside in the sun, but she can’t find the breath. She flops on her pallet like a fish on the line.
For the first time, she wonders if she, the princess, has truly contracted the plague. She always thought it was a common disease, nothing that would affect a clean and healthy woman like her, a woman who bathes at least twice a day. And yet…
A loud, high-pitched whine drowns out her thoughts. She recognizes the sound. Her father’s planes are overhead, no doubt searching for her. Perhaps one of them will take her home to her cool, blue room.
Then the explosions begin. And the princess begins to pray.