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.
Businesses were closed and silent—many of them craftsmen, as near as she could judge from the remaining signs. Buildings of pale sandstone, often with carved scroll-work, or of sturdy dark brick, had boards over broad openings that must be windows; in very few of those, usually smaller or of unusual shapes or in places likely difficult to reach, glass remained, catching the sun and casting occasional pools of reflected light onto the street or neighbouring buildings. If all those windows had held glass before calamity struck, the town must have shone and glittered like one great diamond. Lysandra wondered whether the circular buildings they’d seen outside the town had been an older form, and had been flattened over time into the round-cornered squares to make the addition of windows easier.
Though mice were more likely to be active at night, motion on the edges of her peripheral vision prompted Lysandra to turn her head to look, time after time, only to see a fleeting glimpse of a naked tail or even nothing at all. Dead mice lay in corners, though, where even the hungry left them untouched—Kaveri thought people were likely to be eating the mice, which made sense, but if they were restricting that to ones they’d killed themselves, that would be safer. And part of what they were walking on wasn’t normal dirt between the flat cobblestones, it was rodent feces.
“This whole town is dying,” Narcissa said softly in their own language. “Its spirit is dead already. On one person who looked like this, I could try cures for melancholy. But this?”
“There’s a much smaller population than there should be for a settlement this size,” Lysandra answered. “If it’s a single body, it’s one that’s decaying alive. I’m not quite convinced that what he said accounts for all of this. I’m sure chronic hunger and stress would drain anyone, but these people are just… broken. I think something more is happening, or at least has happened, here.”
“Agreed. But I don’t believe our council liaison is going to provide us with anything further. Whatever his reasons, and there are a great many possible reasons both personal and official, we will gain no further information from that quarter. So we must find another source.”
Lysandra shaded her eyes with one hand. “I could be wrong, but in the middle of all this stone and glass and brick, a building that appears to be something much more organic-looking seems rather likely to be the temple of the local earthborn.” Cultures varied widely in how many abstract gods they created and gave power through their belief, but most recognized at least a few fundamental nature gods. Even if no others, they almost always honoured their local earthborn.
“That could be worth a try.”
The building in question was at the top of a small rise, and the ground had been built higher yet with a retaining wall of rough stone keeping it in place. Atop that stood a circular structure with a roof shaped like a pointed dome. All over the roof were scoop-like niches, a few of them still showing greenery straggling over the edges. As they drew nearer, Lysandra concluded that it was made of cob or some similar mixture of tightly-packed earth, something that could be built up and sculpted like a potter indulging her fancy with a lump of clay.
A broad arch, lacking a door or any sign of there ever having been one, offered access to the interior.
Within was a single open space encompassing what was clearly the entire ground floor, though a curtain of something green and relatively stiff and miraculously intact concealed the contents of the raised dais at the far side. Benches of polished wood ringed the space, far enough from the walls to allow one to walk around the edges and view the vividly painted scenes on all sides. In the centre stood a statue of painted wood, showing a handsome muscular man in his early prime, his skin reddish and his curly hair dark muddy brown. His hands were spread in welcome, and his smile was friendly. In front of the statue was an altar of stone that Lysandra thought was used as it had been found, rough and undressed. On it lay only a few desiccated flowers and pretty stones.
“Anything edible is eaten,” Narcissa murmured. “Anything of monetary value is sold for food.”
The temple was empty, save a single person. She had been lying on her side on one of the benches, positioned to have a good view of the statue, but she sat up quickly, pushing her dark hair back from her face. Like everyone else, she showed physical signs of being underweight and undernourished. The dozen or so braids of her hair lay lank and dull around her shoulders. Entirely unique was her costume: bare from the waist up, her small limp breasts and sunken belly were marked with a dense pattern of tattooed blue dots. Her short wrapped skirt was woven of some strongly-textured reddish-brown fibre, and was poorly secured by the usual wide belt since it fit much too loosely, dark leather intricately decorated with not only embossed designs but gold and silver as well. Around her neck she wore at least a dozen strands of what might have been beads or might have been seeds. Bruises and dirt stains mingled on her lower knees.
“If you seek Ejiro’s favour,” she said, rising from the bench, “you need not try. It has been nearly a year since he has appeared.”
She was, Lysandra thought, very young, behind the aging effects of hunger and misery.
(chapter continued next post!)