General Fortus stood before the door to the Garden, and waited. He rarely had to wait on anything, being the highest ranking military person in the Troskan Empire, but he waited here. The wait was the consequence of his own orders, and he had a purpose in those orders.
"He is out of line of sight, Sir." reported the soldier guarding the door. The soldier inserted an ornate key in the equally attractive lock, and opened the door for the General. Fortus stepped inside, and went down the short passageway to the next door and the next soldier. That soldier had a similar key, and inserted it into a similar lock. He quickly opened the door, and the General stepped through it into the Garden. He heard the door close, and the lock snap into place.
His crew was good. They had been well trained, and knew their business. It was critical to Fortus' plan not to let the resident of the Garden know anything of the outside world. At least, until today. Fortus rehersed in his mind his plan for this day. The culmination of fourteen years of planning. The beginning of the next phase.
Fortus walked as he thought on his plans, wandering along the convoluted pathways of the Garden. It was astoundingly beautiful, and all for one small boy. One small boy who was on the cusp of becoming a young man.
Rounding a turn in the pathway the young man came into view. He was sitting on a bench by one of the many reflecting ponds, watching the clouds reflected in the water. The young man turned at the sound of Fortus' feet on the gravel path.
"Uncle Fortus! How good to see you!" shouted the young man, who stood up carefully and walked slowly toward the General. He shook the General's hand warmly, looking up into the older man's eyes with open affection.
"Good day, Pestilence!" said Fortus. He noted the continuing flame of fever in the young man's ashen cheeks, and the heat of it in his hand. "It is your birthday today. Fourteen years old!"
"You said you had some special plans for today, when you last visited." the young man named Pestilence said.
"Indeed. All is ready." replied Fortus. "Walk with me, Pestilence. I have gifts for you."
They strolled together down the paths of the Garden. It was beautiful, and Fortus always enjoyed such strolls with his adopted nephew. The General had made this special residence as pleasant as he could. It was a prison for the boy, but not a place of punishment.
Pestilence glanced around at the familiar grounds, little realizing that his small universe was unusual in its beauty. He had know no other place, and never seen the world outside. So careful and subtle had been his lifelong imprisonment that he only vaguely thought of the world outside at all. The outside world was like colors to a blind man. He rarely gave it any thought.
They came to a door. It was large and deep brown, with an arched top. The ironwork was ornate, and the lock and latch beautiful. Like all of the doors Pestilence had ever seen, it was locked.
The General sighed, and pulled a key from his pocket. Pestilence was immediately curious. In all of his years of residing in the Garden he had never seen a key, nor an opened door. The General had engineered the place so that people could enter and exit the Garden always unseen by its one inmate. He met with people on the paths, but never did he see them come or go.
Today the General would breach his own command, and expose Pestilence to the possibility of something greater than the Garden.
The young man watched as his Uncle placed the key in the lock. The key turned slowly, and the latching mechanism engaged with an audible "snap." Fortus turned the knob, and pulled the door open.
"Pestilence, here is your first gift." said Fortus, as he ushered the young man through the door. "This door shall remain unlocked. You may open it whenever you wish. Now, let's go up the stairs."
The General assisted Pestilence with the unfamiliar stairs. "Always use the handrails." he said. "You are too precious to lose in a fall." He showed him how to ascend safely.
At the top the stairs opened onto a well appointed deck at the top of the wall, overlooking the Garden. Pestilence gave the Garden only a glance. His eyes were wide as he looked in the opposite direction. The vague concept of outside became suddenly real.
A sloping ridge line, covered in trees, descending to a little bay. Water going out to the horizon. He had no words in his small vocabulary for most of what he could see. Life in the Garden had been simple, and required little in the way of words.
He was astounded. Fortus allowed him to stand and stare for nearly a half-hour before recalling his attention to their business.
"As I said, a gift." Fortus repeated. "You may come here as often as you like. View your Garden from a different perspective. You may even observe the outside world."
"So big." said Pestilence. "Yet the trees and plants seem to have no order. Is there no person to care for them?"
"Caring for a garden is one thing." said Fortus. "Ordering a whole world is another. Still, this Garden is pivotal in managing that world. Sit, Pestilence. Let me tell you a story."
The young man found a seat. He waited patiently, the glow of the fever alive in his face.
"Our land is not particularly large." Fortus began. "A very small continent, not much more than a very large island. We have been small players in the politics of the world. There are many nations, all seeking the power to dominate the others. Like those games I taught you, long ago."
Pestilence nodded, though it was apparent that he did not fully understand. How could he, living isolated as he did? The General made a mental note to begin the next phase of the young man's education in a few weeks.
"Though not large, we were prosperous. We grew more than enough food, and our artisans created things highly sought after." continued Fortus. "We were growing rich and were held in high esteme by other nations. Then came the dark times."
Pestilence moved to the edge of his chair. This was better than any other story he had been told. His attention was intensely focused on the words of the older man.
"Disease ravaged our people. Entire villages were wiped out. One in every three people died." said Fortus. "Our economy was in ruins. The people were confused, and in need of a firm leader. The Emperor seized power and placed things in order. He brought people together in central locations and built fortified cities. We were ripe for plunder, once word got out and other people came to believe the ravaging disease had run its course."
Pestilence touched his own cheek gently, feeling the burn of the fever that had always been in him.
"I found you, and adopted you as my nephew." said the General. "Your parents, sadly, had both died. Of all the people that contracted the disease and did not die, you were the only one in which the disease continued to live. You have never been defeated by the disease, yet your body has never overcome the invader. You became our national treasure."
"What do you mean, Uncle?" asked the young man. "How can one sickly boy be the treasure of a nation?"
"This Garden I had built as your home." the older man continued. "In all of these years I sought to keep you safe. I also have used you, lad. I am not ashamed of that. You have served your people better than hundreds of men. Thousands."
"Over these years you have had many visitors." said Fortus. "They came and met you, touched your hand, shared your food. Soldiers, workers, mothers and more. I did that to keep them exposed to the disease that in you did not die. Our people will be strong and resist the disease because you are here to share it with them."
Pestilence nodded, remembering the endless stream of visitors he met in his Garden. It had been part of the patern of his life for as long as he could remember.
"You know, Pestilence, most boys do not get new bedding every day." Fortus said. "Nor do the get new clothes four times each day. The bedding in which you have slept and the clothes you have worn have been taken to other lands. Carefully managed, we have used them to bring disease to various other lands, keeping them weak. Too weak to invade our precious land."
Pestilence looked out over the sea. He could only vaguely imagine those other lands, those other people. He thought that perhaps he should feel some guilt or pain over all of those deaths. He could not. It was all too new to him.
"That is why I have kept you in this Garden." Fortus said. "You are too valuable to lose. Yet you grow older, and who knows what the future holds? So, I will begin your education into the ways of our nation and the world."
A young woman appeared around a corner. Now that he was aware of the trick, Pestilence realized that she had come from outside, through some hidden door. He eyed her and the contents of the tray she carried with equal interest.
The General noticed his interest, and smiled. The next phase should go quite well. Over the recent months the more matronly women working to care for Pestilence had been replaced by younger women. The uniforms of those women became more aluring over time, to provoke the interest the General now observed.
She set the tray of delicate fruits on the table. She smiled at Pestilence, and then stepped back against a nearby wall to wait.
"These fruits we cannot grow here in this land." said Fortus. "We must trade for them. To keep the balance of trade we exchange other goods. Bedding, for example. Perhaps children's clothes."
Pestilence took one of the unusual fruits and studied it. He then consumed it with obvious relish. His eye often strayed to the young woman standing by the wall.
"You want to do your part, maintaining this balance of trade, don't you?" asked Fortus.
Pestilence nodded. He was not sure why it was so hard not to look at the serving girl.
"Sandra, come here, please." said the General. The serving girl came and stood by him.
"Pestilence, would you like Sandra to stay with you for a few days?"
"Oh, yes, Uncle!"
"Good, good. Sandra, why don't you take Pestilence over there and you two can get to know each other. Don't mind me, I will be fine right here."
Sandra smiled and took Pestilence by the hand. The young couple walked a few paces away and sat on a lounge facing the Garden.
Fortus sat back and smiled. Sandra was just a few years older than the many other serving girls working around the Garden and surrounding compound. She was considerably more experienced. She would teach Pestilence some wonderful things in the next few weeks. Things he would be able to share with the endless parade of young women the General intended to march through the Garden.
Perhaps the condition that made Pestilence so valuable was genetic. Perhaps it could be bred. If not, the young women who had been intimate with Pestilence could become another exportable commodity.
If nothing else, the unending pleasure should keep his young prisoner docile for many years to come. The General was content in his belief that the Empire would be safe and secure for a very long time.
He got up quietly, went around a corner and let himself out through another hidden door.
Pestilence did not even notice his Uncle's departure. He was too busy with the next phase of his education. It was a very happy birthday, indeed!