Return 3 pt3

(chapter continued from previous post)

“Your husband isn’t here?” Narcissa asked.

“Gone, like all Ilek’s master craftsmen, looking for a place he can earn a living to support his family. He’ll be back when he can. Meanwhile, I do what I can to keep his children and myself fed, and remember my duty to Ejiro’s Bride even when many others forget.” She paused in front of a sandstone shop, closed like the others.

Unlike the others, the faded and chipped sign above showed the unmistakable form of an astrolabe.

Enodian technology turns up in the oddest places, Lysandra reflected.

“Your home?” Narcissa said, and gestured upwards. “The sign of an educated craftsman, that. I suppose you’ve sold all his work by now?”

“No, not all. I can’t get much for it anymore. Neighbouring towns charge us cruel prices for food and have had so much sold so cheaply that even an object that should feed our family for a month, I’d be lucky to get a single healthy meal.”

“Would you be willing to humour me? We’re far from home and at times I feel homesick, I confess, and I would very much like to see what a master craftsman might have done with Hypatia’s plans and descriptions.”

The woman hesitated for a long moment, then nodded abruptly. “On condition that you touch nothing else. I have children to feed, and right now, the plants are worth more than all the clever trinkets combined.”

“We do not need your food, even if we were willing to steal from children.”

The woman unlocked the door with a heavy key, and waved them inside.

The interior was much brighter than Lysandra expected.

That had a great deal to do with mirrors, both polished metal ones and glass ones that should have been astronomically expensive, angled to cast sunlight across an indoor garden of sorts. Anything that could be used to hold soil had been pressed into service, from cooking pots and washbasins to half-barrels and odder things she couldn’t readily identify. In all of them, plants were growing, and doing so more successfully than any others they’d seen locally. The air smelled heavy and green. Lysandra couldn’t tell the difference between root vegetables and salad greens, but some sort of bean that had been trained up a trellis was hard to mistake.

Between the plants, though, were things of brass and bronze and steel and glass. They’d been shoved to the backs of shelves, into the shadows, and were dulled by dust and dirt, but some of those shapes were complex or deceptively simple. Continue reading

Return 3 pt2

(chapter continued from previous post)

“We seek only to learn what has happened here,” Narcissa said gently. “I’m a skilled healer, travelling to learn and to offer my assistance. It is difficult to know where to begin.”

“Can you heal an earth-lord?” the young woman asked, and her laugh had a manic edge. “Because if you cannot, then we are all dead, we simply have not yet accepted it or stopped moving.”

Motion, something bright white and larger than a mouse, drew Lysandra’s gaze to the nearer end of the stiff green curtain, but whatever it was, it was out of sight before she could get a clear view. She was sure it hadn’t been a mouse and she had no impression of fur or feathers.

“Your earth-lord is unwell?” Narcissa asked.

“Ejiro has never before abandoned his Bride, not in all the history of this region. This is the heart of his domain, his first temple and the home of his Bride, and he does not come here.” She sank down on the bench again. “I have followed every rule, I have loved him and I have served him, and yet I have not seen him since the first flood came. Some say it’s my failing. But he chose me himself, and if I’ve displeased him, why would he not choose another, rather than punishing all of Ilek?”

The feeling of being watched was rather distracting. A spirit-creature of some sort? Not all gods created them, but many did, and this would be an appropriate place. Or perhaps just a pet or guardian animal of some sort, and she’d been mistaken. This town was enough to make anyone edgy.

“It seems unlikely that it is anything you have done. I think these conditions are being caused by something too large for one earth-lord to restrain, not by his displeasure with those dedicated to him.”

“You’re foreigners, what do you know? Leave, and let us all die, and the suffering will end for Ilek. Perhaps then Ejiro can recover.”

“Sometimes death is the only way,” Narcissa conceded. “But sometimes there are solutions that are hard to see, especially from inside. We’re very sorry you have suffered through so much. We will try.”

The Bride shrugged, hunching forwards, her face buried in her hands.

At the altar before the statue, Narcissa paused, traded glances with Lysandra, and knelt on the floor of hard-packed bare earth. She freed a thin gold bangle from the collection around one wrist, and laid it on the altar. “What we can do, Earth-lord, we will do, you have my word.”

Lysandra knelt beside her. Since she was wearing much less jewellery, and none of it gold, befitting her role as handmaid, she placed next to her sister’s a bangle of delicately carved hard black wood she’d been given by an admirer of her dancing. “With all respect and honour, Earth-lord.” Continue reading

Return 3 pt1

Since it would be out of character for Narcissa to be seen helping with setting up camp, and since the barren lot was in a highly visible location, she decided to go for a walk.

Lysandra shrugged to herself. As her sister’s handmaid, it was of course her job to accompany her. She wasn’t sure she cared for the idea, but scouting did make practical sense, and it was better than sitting around decorously while Tyrel and Kaveri did all the work.

Floods and famine. In Enodia, a town struck by such a situation could count on a response from the capital. Emergency food supplies would be brought in, medical care provided, and once the initial crisis had passed, experts would be sent to evaluate the cause and possible measures to prevent a recurrence. Dams and drainage systems, placed and constructed correctly, could be quite effective. Specialist physicians would be alert for signs of epidemics in the wake of the upheaval, and would respond promptly and decisively.

Much of the world, however, consisted not of nations but of independent states that comprised a region centred on a city. Even several cities forming a confederacy lacked the organization and unity necessary to deal with a crisis in a useful way. The more primitive nations, without communication and transportation and distribution systems, were little better.

Kaveri had said that her people would simply move until they found a place with food, and that even in poor conditions, they had a broader definition of food and were more adaptable. Lysandra wondered, but didn’t ask, what happened if they ran out of places to move to that hadn’t been claimed by other tribes or by more civilized or aggressive cultures.

No one approached them. It felt eerily like being a ghost, in fact. The people around them had no energy to spare on strangers. They walked from one point to another as directly as possible, with shoulders bowed and eyes on the ground, and paid little heed even to each other. Those not on their way somewhere moved little: they passed a smithy, which should have been audible from some way off as metal rang on metal, but there wasn’t even a fire in the forge, and the broad-shouldered smith sat, dull-eyed, on the bench that normally would have offered a rest to those bringing horses to be shod. Continue reading

Return 2 pt2

(chapter continued from previous post)

Narcissa probably would have plans for the best use of what food they had.

But these are kids. And they definitely aren’t eating enough.

“Hold on.” He looped the reins around the pole and rummaged in the cart for a basket. Seating himself again, he untied the top. “It’s not much, but most of what we have is no use by itself. One handful each, and no pushing.” He scooped out a first handful of mixed tree nuts Kaveri, with sporadic help, had collected some way back. She’d forgive him. He hoped.

Once, Kieran growled, ears going back, gaze fixed on a larger boy a short distance from the cart who was trying to intimidate a smaller child into handing over her share.

“Hey,” Tyrel said sharply. “You got yours, leave her alone to eat hers.”

“Or what?” the larger boy asked belligerently.

Tyrel glanced at Kieran, who jumped lightly from the cart and advanced on the boy. “Or that.”

Somehow, there were no further incidents.

Miraculously, there were still a few nuts in the basket by the time he’d given them each something.

Kieran nudged Iole with his nose and started along the street. She and Phaidra followed him. After all, he’d led them to water, food, shelter, or safety at various times, and he was familiar.

Tyrel left the reins tied off and hopped down so he could approach a nearby man who was watching.

“Excuse me. Who’s in charge here? Your town’s leader?”

The man shrugged, pausing to set down the leather sack he carried; from the clanking noise, it must be metal, maybe tools. “Hall’s straight ahead. Smarter to go right through and keep going.”

“Maybe, but our lady is a healer and wants to see if she can help.”

“Not unless she can do miracles. Keep an eye on your beasts, or you’ll be leaving on foot. That’s a lot of meat on the hoof.” With a groan, he picked up the sack again. Tyrel winced. He didn’t think the man was nearly as old as his stiff movements and leathery skin suggested.

“Where are you going? Maybe we can give you a ride there?”

“Wrong direction.” The man slung the sack over his shoulder and went back on his way.

Straight ahead. Fair enough. Continue reading

Return 2 pt1

With the heat down to merely annoying instead of oppressive and a faint thread of wind stirring the air into motion, the landscape here was simply boring. There was nowhere for highwaymen or large animals or other diversions to hide. Taking a turn at the reins did nothing to alleviate the monotony.

Fighting made him feel bad, unless it was unequivocally in defence, and even then, the royal sisters had an annoying tendency to speculate about what underlying conditions could have created the situation. But at least it wasn’t dull. Scenery or wildlife or other traffic or, well, something, anything, was better than boredom.

“’Veri, shouldn’t there be birds and things around? Even with the mice and all the damned bugs?”

She shrugged. “There should, normally. But those mice weren’t normal. If the mice have stripped everything edible, then there’s nothing for anything else to eat, unless it eats mice. Hawks and owls don’t have many options for perches and nesting around here, which isn’t going to lead to them being common. Even foxes and small cats might find this a tough situation. There might be some around, though, and weasels and the like. Not seeing them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. A lot of animals don’t come out in full daylight. Some are hard to see against their surroundings even when they do.”

No smells, Kieran said.

“No smells,” Tyrel translated.

“That’s a bad sign. With no predators, there’s nothing to stop the mice except their own internal pressures and the limit on food. And I bet whatever human-edible or livestock-edible food the mice didn’t get fairly quickly is probably being guarded closely. How much there is, is another question.”

“Great. Well, at least food shouldn’t be a big issue for us, if we aren’t here too long.” Talir and Lirit would be full together in less than a week, and the need of the cats for food would start to diminish rapidly as Sanur brightened; Meyar being just past full, Lysandra would be fine with limited food for the next few days. It wouldn’t take long, though, for all of that to change. If this became an extended event, things could get complicated. Continue reading