Return 5

Kaveri stirred the pot of soup and tasted it. Good, the herbs she’d added had turned it from tolerable to savoury. At least, she thought so; regional tastes could vary quite a lot. Still, it was healthy but should be reasonably gentle on bodies that had been short on food for some time, and that was what mattered most. A covered dish held rounds of simple pan-bread to accompany the soup, though it had made serious inroads into their supply of flour.

Carrying food around definitely had both advantages and disadvantages. There wasn’t much here for even her to forage for, but worrying about running out of anything was relatively new. She was going to have to make some longer trips outside the town to see what she could find.

It would be worth it if they could find out what under the moons was going on in Ilek that the town council wasn’t telling them.

Narcissa and Lysandra waited nearby, far enough from the fire to not feel its additional warmth. They managed somehow, despite the sultry heat, to look cool and regal with scarcely a midnight hair out of place. The ground was hard and uneven, so in an attempt at some sort of comfort, they’d layered as many moonspun blankets and rugs as they could find, and on top of those added cushions from the wagon. Mirren had sprawled in front of them where both could reach to pet her, though her ears swivelled constantly to track mice; Madoc lay across the doorway of the wagon, and Kieran had settled himself under the cart, both positioned so they could see as much of the campsite as possible. The cats and Kieran had done an efficient and lethally effective job of tracking and emptying every mouse hiding place on the lot and dumping any uneaten bodies into a hole in one far corner, near the pile of stray rocks and bits of metal Tyrel and Kaveri had cleared out of the way—that same cleaning job had turned up enough wood to do them for a day or so, though after that, they’d need to look for another source. There hadn’t been any incoming waves of small squeaking invaders, but that was probably only a matter of time. While the cats might drowse frequently, Kieran would remain on high alert, she was certain of that, and the cats could wake as quickly as they fell asleep.

Tyrel fussed over the donkeys and Ander, none of whom were pleased by the current situation. Kaveri hoped they wouldn’t have to be here long. She disliked forcing the animals into anything they objected to so emphatically.

A woman and two children hesitated at the edge of the street. Presumably that was Onyeka, whose husband was a master craftsman, and the children she’d created an indoor garden to feed.

Lysandra rose to greet them, offering a hand in invitation.

“Come join us?”

The older child was a boy whose age was difficult to judge, though perhaps recently into his teens; possibly, poor diet was a factor. He hovered protectively near his mother and the smaller child, who was, Kaveri estimated, around five years old or so. Sex was impossible to judge under the same sort of basic wrapped garment all children wore in this part of the world.

The younger child saw Mirren, and eyes widened instantly, all uncertainty abandoned. Mirren got up to meet the child at the edge of the blanket, even rearing up on her hind legs to swipe her cheek along the child’s, which elicited a squeal of delight.

“Nechi!” her mother said. “Be polite!”

“It’s all right,” Narcissa said reassuringly. “She’s a very friendly cat. And she’s been working hard killing mice and deserves all possible admiration and attention. Make yourselves comfortable. To whatever extent one can.”

The boy eyed Kieran a bit warily, then spotted Madoc. “What’s that?”

“Another kind of cat, from far away. He belongs to one of my attendants. He won’t hurt you, but he’s less friendly to strangers. Our guard-dog protects the wagon, the animals, and us, but otherwise he’s quite gentle and tolerant. If you’d like to pet him, you can.”

The boy wavered, but when Kieran came out from under the cart, tail waving lazily and ears perked forward, temptation clearly won out.

Well, that will keep the children happy.

“Nothing to prove makes gentle easy,” Onyeka muttered in the tone of quoting a proverb, lowering herself heavily onto one of the cushions. She had with her both a pitcher of quite moderate size, presumably for the Bride’s share, and a rag-wrapped bundle that she passed to Narcissa, presumably the abacus that had caught Lysandra’s eye. “My daughter Nechi, my son Enitan. And my apologies for their manners.”

“In my experience,” Narcissa said, setting the bundle unopened on the ground between her and Lysandra, “children who love animals grow up to be good and compassionate adults. That’s nothing to apologize for. And I think they’ve had less opportunity to simply be children than they deserve.”

“True, that.” Kaveri saw complicated emotions flicker across the woman’s face, as she watched her daughter gather a very patient Mirren up into her arms for a hug before settling down to petting her with more enthusiasm than skill.

“My lady?” Kaveri said quietly. “When would you like to eat?”

“We can start now,” Narcissa said. “There’s plenty of time, with a full stomach, to get to know the four-footed members of my household.”

“Yes, my lady.”

Lysandra came to help, delivering the thin-walled polished wooden bowls of soup to Narcissa and Onyeka, then to the children who were clearly ambivalent about abandoning new playmates in favour of food. Mirren sprawled near Nechi, and Kieran lay down next to Enitan, which might have helped.

The bowl Kaveri gave Lysandra for herself was less full, as were those for herself and Tyrel, who left the animals to join her near the fire; eating nothing at all would look odd, but they could make a little look like more, and save the food for those who needed it.

Behind her, she heard a very soft dull thump, and a nearly inaudible squeak; she glanced back just in time to see Madoc jump lightly back to his place on the wagon.

“Nechi, slow down,” Onyeka said.

“But it’s good!”

“If you eat too quickly you’ll bring it all back up. Eat more slowly. Both of you.”

“If you eat slowly, you’ll feel well enough after eating to play with the animals,” Lysandra said. “I believe a ride on the donkeys could be arranged, if you like. But if you feel sick, we won’t be able to do that.”

Enitan did his best to look too mature to be swayed by the transparent bribe, but Nechi’s eyes widened again. “Could we?”

“Only if you don’t eat too quickly and feel sick. Save a little room, and you can have the last of your bread with honey on it.”

It worked: the children stopped scooping soup and tearing off bites of bread quite so voraciously.

“Thank you,” Onyeka said. Lysandra only nodded acknowledgement. “And a ride would be a treat. We had a donkey, but my husband took it to carry his tools and clothes, it would have starved here anyway, and animals other than mice have been scarce.”

“That seems odd,” Narcissa said. “I’d have expected an increase in the number of predators that eat mice by now.”

“There should be. But the number of cats has gone down, not up. I’ve seen few hawks, fewer owls. No foxes. Wild things that should be there, are not.”

That was a very bad, and very peculiar, bit of information, all by itself.

“And with so little available, anything that a human can possibly eat has been used for that, and livestock have been slaughtered for food rather than leaving them to starve. Have a care for your beasts, that you don’t lose them to a hungry thief.”

“A hungry thief laying hands on anything in this camp may lose that hand,” Narcissa said. “There seem to be a number of things in Ilek that aren’t what I would expect. We were told there are few healers here, despite the need. The young woman in your earthborn’s temple finds his behaviour strange and distressing. There are no predators breeding to take advantage of the abundance of food. Either we’re missing pieces, or this makes no sense at all.”

Onyeka regarded their princess narrowly, chewing on a bite of bread dipped in soup, then shrugged. “Both, likely. None of it is any secret, really.”

“The information we were given,” Narcissa said carefully, “when we arrived and went to the hall to speak to Ilek’s leaders was… incomplete.”

“No surprise, that. If you really want to know why Ilek’s in the mess it’s in, well, no reason not. When my mother was a little girl, this was a much smaller town. Then someone discovered that the sand here is perfect for making high-quality glass, and a mineral that’s highly valuable in glass-making can be mined from the bogland just upriver if they drain it. There used to be a lot of forest around here. It was cut down to feed the glass furnaces. People, craftsmen especially, came here to settle, and then merchants trading on their behalf and others who could sell things to the craftsmen, and suddenly it wasn’t a small town anymore.”

This sounded ominous to Kaveri. She traded glances with Tyrel, and saw an echo of her own misgivings.

“When I was a child, there were people here with skin and hair of every colour, and every height and build, speaking with many different accents. Everything was about the glass. There’s some farmland still, though a lot of it is drained bogland with no minerals left to offer. Enough for the essentials, at least, and Ilek had the money to import anything else. Ejiro tolerated it all, because he was pleased that Ilek was thriving and her people were happy, though I can’t imagine how it felt for him. Two years ago, we had the first flood. It turned all the drained bogland and the low areas nearby into a huge shallow puddle, and drove everything that would normally be scavenging from there into the higher fields that were left, rodents, birds, insects, everything. Many insects, breeding in the still water. We harvested what we could, used everything stored except the seed corn, bought more than usual, and waited for the next harvest. That prickly weed, it’s not anything that’s been seen here before, it began to spread, at first only in places where everything else had died, then it began to crowd out other plants. Nothing can eat it, no matter how hungry, and it’s exhausting to fight, but the fields were cleared. At the planting festival, Ejiro came to lie with his Bride, as he does every year, but even from a distance he didn’t look… right, and there’s conflicting information about whether they consummated the ritual or not. This past year, at the same time, we had a second flood. The same story again. We still have what we could get from the higher fields, above the flood, but it isn’t quite enough. The nearest towns have increased the prices on food. Few people have anything of value left, it’s all been sold for food, even the glass right out of windows. The rest of my husband’s pieces will have to go soon, if I can find a way to sell them, even if I get only a fraction of what they’re worth. As far as I know, no one is dying of starvation, but there are outbreaks of disease and no one is as strong.

“The mice came after the second flood months ago. Thousands of them, out of nowhere, all at once. That there were fewer animals around before it, well… people were hungry, and if your children are crying for food, you don’t ask the butcher where the meat comes from. I thought they were disappearing mostly because there was nothing for them to eat, either, and they were going in search of a better home, and good luck to them. But there are still few predators, and we compete with the mice for whatever food we can find or buy. Or we eat the mice. Many people have abandoned everything and left. Others have gone in search of a job and a place to live so they can send back here for their families, but the same neighbours forcing us to pay so much for food offer poor jobs and poorer wages to the desperate. With fewer people, there’s more food to go around, but still not enough.”

“The local healers?” Narcissa asked gently.

“I know some have died. One was killed by a mob when she tried to stop them from raiding her medical supplies in search of food. One died of food poisoning, and not alone in that. Healers have died in disease outbreaks. Most of them, I don’t know. One day they were here, the next they weren’t. Usually means things are just too bad and they’ve left, trying to survive.”

There were healers who would leave, but in Kaveri’s experience, many healers would stay no matter how bad things got. Multiple disappearances… that was another odd thing about this situation.

“There are people who still have food, though?”

“A few of the wealthiest. Big houses with lots of glass still, and walls around them, and guards that are absolutely loyal to the one who feeds them. The guards will and do kill anyone caught trying to get in. Now and then someone tries, but the risk is too high.”

Narcissa sighed. “Letting children go hungry outside your door is appalling. And of course there’s really nothing to be done except try to survive and hope there will be no flood next year.”

“I’m not sure how much seed corn is left to plant. Another flood will be the death of Ilek. My prayers these days are that my husband finds a good place and sends for us.” Her eyes dropped. “I’d have preferred to live and die here in Ilek and never leave, but I can’t let my children grow up thinking this is normal life. Even if we leave, for a while, and I come home when they’re grown…” She sighed. “I’ve had letters from him twice since he left, I’m certain he hasn’t just abandoned us.”

“It would be a poor husband and father,” Lysandra observed, “willing to leave his wife and children to starve, and I think you would not have married such a man.”

Onyeka’s smile softened the hard lines of suffering that marked her face, her gaze on the fire. “He’s a good man, and a loving father. He feared leaving us alone, but he trusts me to care for our children while he finds us an escape from the trap. It’s strange, though. He spent days, even weeks, trying to decide whether he should go or not. He came home one evening, and would tell me only he’d had a very upsetting conversation with someone from one of the wealthy houses. The next morning he told me that things in Ilek would only get worse, and that for him to find a livelihood and a home elsewhere was the only way. And he warned me to stay away from those in the wealthy houses, and those allied with them—to say nothing to them, and not to trust them under any circumstances even if they offer gifts.”

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