“I hate these offices with no windows. We might as well be underground,” Kiva said with a huff as she took a chair opposite Tomas.
“All the others with a round table were booked,” Alo said apologetically.
Kiva sighed and rolled her eyes. Lio chuckled as he took the chair between her and Alo. “Worry not, my scholarly friend. This room will do just fine.” The diminutive woman next to him shrugged in a way that somehow conveyed he was right. Her delicate features and slight frame were at odds with the intensity she exuded. Her clear, blue eyes were piercing, her voice [not loud or shrill, mind you,] had a weight behind it that reminded Tomas, oddly, of Collins. Most of all, though, he was transfixed by the color of her hair. It was red—redder than Kari’s or her mother’s. He could see that it had Kari’s attention as well; hers looked blonde by comparison.
Alo nodded in a satisfied manner. “Well, then,” he said, turning to Kari and Tomas. “Would you like to explain to them or shall I?”
Tomas looked from Alo to Kari, who pursed her lips for the briefest of moments, then nodded. “I guess I’ll give it a try,” he said to Alo. To Kari, he said, “Where do you think I should start?”
“The Stranger, I think,” she said.
Tomas nodded, taking a deep breath. Absently rubbing his shoulder, he began. “He wasn’t wearing anything warm. Open shoes, light cloak. It was so light, the wind made it dance around him.” Tomas shuddered as the memories came. “It was extra cold, too, while he was here. Or, there, I guess. And he slept with the window open. He bought dough, but then Grant saw him eating bread.”
“Heat,” said Kiva.
Alo nodded. “Just you wait.”
She cocked her head inquisitively.
“I saw him doing something, out in the fields. Waving his arms and looking up into the sky. Then the wind changed; clouds rolled in. It had been a clear night—I remember a really good aurora as I walked back from Kari’s.”
“We got three years.”
Everyone looked at Kari.
Undaunted, she pressed on. “It was just enough time to get the pass cleared. I didn’t put it together before, but the first bad harvest was right after we made the road we took to get here.”
Alo and Lio shared a glance. Kiva looked lost in thought.
“What?” Tomas said.
“Trium made sure you could get to us. Even as your world fell apart, a way out emerged,” Alo said.
Lio nodded. “We have to get up there. Clearly the enemy wants to ruin you; your last good harvest was how long ago?”
“Two years,” Tomas said.
“But why? Why work so hard to lay a sizeable curse on such an out-of-the-way village?” said Kiva.
Kari and Tomas glanced at one another, then both looked at Alo.
“The Black Wheat,” Tomas blurted across the table as Alo opened his mouth. “It needs snow to grow.”
Realization dawned on Kiva “What‽ But you’re closer than Villesav!”
Kari and Tomas both jumped at her sudden intensity.
Alo was nodding now, looking a bit uncomfortable.
Agitation which had clearly been building in Kari burst forth. “Why is all of this so secret? What is so important about our Wheat?”
Alo sighed heavily, causing everyone to look at him. Uncomfortably, he fingered the spine of his notebook and said, “I suppose, it’s because…twenty pounds of Black Flour, with certain additives, can feed an army.”
The room fell silent.
Alo nodded. “One pound can supply a ship for three months. It’s not good for morale, but it’s light and compact.”
“Is that how they make ash-tack? Ugh, that stuff sure fills you up, but I think that’s the nicest thing I’ll say about it,” Lio said, shaking his head.
“I’m sorry, ‘ash-tack’?” Tomas said.
“Ah, you don’t know about hardtack, do you? It’s flour and water. And salt, if you’re lucky. They bake it hard and it keeps for a long time. Ash-tack is the same thing, but bitter and too salty. And bad; there’s another flavor to it that I’ve never been able to place, but it’ll make you miss the regular hardtack after too long.” Lio’s nose wrinkled as he shuddered at the thought of the apparently wretched rations.
“And this is why some people don’t even believe our Wheat exists, let alone know where it comes from?” Tomas was determined to learn as much as he could before letting these people walk away.
“The Villesavian Empire was built upon the backs of soldiers fed by ash-tack, once your Wheat was discovered and the recipe was perfected. Since then, all the Black Wheat distributed comes through Villesav first, and most of it is milled on arrival. The idea is that since it’s a port, nobody will be able to assume they know where it originates. Ingenious, if I may editorialize a bit.” Alo seemed to be back in his element.
“It’s definitely effective,” Kiva said.
“So we need to feed them,” Lio said. “Can we ship that much? Is that sustainable?” He rubbed the back of his head, looking to Alo with uncertainty creasing his brow.
“Not in the long-term, but I have a plan. You two are on board?”
“How soon can we leave?” asked Lio.
Kiva rolled her eyes and said, “Apparently we are. Who else do you want to send?”
“Honestly, that’s just a bit outside my area of expertise. I was hoping you’d have some insight there.”
“We’ll let you know by tonight. We should touch base about all this before setting anything in stone.” It seemed to Tomas that Kiva said the second part more to Lio than to Alo.
“You have a plan already?” Tomas said to Alo.
He nodded. “We knew something was going on when last year’s harvest was so light, then when you sent caravans away, I began to draw something up. Then, when Collins clued me in shortly after you first spoke to him, I set down my other projects, actually pawning them off on my colleagues. I’ve spent most of my time since then working through the details and sending letters. I’ve a meeting with an excellent farmer tomorrow, I’m sending him with other crops for your people to begin working in the meantime. Repairing the climate…will take longer. But, your people will not starve.” Alo said the last with such conviction it induced a shocking calm in Kari and Tomas.
“We’ll be trying to sort out the curse, then, won’t we?” Kiva said quietly. Lio’s hand went to her shoulder and gripped it gently but firmly. Her eyes were downcast, but her hand alighted on his, seemingly unconsciously.
“And to take back the land for Trium,” Lio said with subtle conviction.
“Perhaps to take it for the first time. The farming community up there predates the forming of the Maktaba, so it may just have been wild, so to speak.” Alo was shuffling through his notes now, though he didn’t seem to find anything useful.
“Is that better or worse?” asked Tomas.
“Could be either, honestly. If the enemy hasn’t known about it until relatively recently, it might not be too difficult to oust them. But, it has been some time since your stranger came through, which could have allowed them to establish a pretty strong foothold. Really, we won’t know until we see it for ourselves,” said Kiva.
Alo looked to Kari and Tomas. “I know we’re asking you to trust us to care for what must feel like your whole world. Is there anything else you’d feel better knowing? We’re building a team here, and you two are at the center of it. It’s very important you feel you understand what’s going on, and are comfortable with the people we’re sending.”
Realization dawned on Tomas. “Sending? Are we not going with them?”
Kari shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Alo shook his head guiltily. “We’re sending an advance party the short way to begin the damage control process and bring hope to your people, with caravans on the long road with food and supplies to keep them going. We need your help as eyewitnesses and locals to the area we’re saving to inform our research, not to mention develop sustainable defenses.”
“What he means,” Kiva interjected, “is that you two will be more able to defend your homeland than outsiders, so you need to be equipped to do it before you go back.”
Lio nodded. “We’ll be able to hold down the fort in the meantime, so to speak. Prevent things from worsening. But you’ll be the key to restoring your Home.”
“But why?” [Kari’s ability to communicate so much with so few words is something I’ve always deeply admired about her. Verbosity is a trait Tomas and I share, so her elegantly understated way of speaking remains a marvel to me.]
A familiar voice answered from behind them. “Precisely because it’s yours. The land North of the Mountains was Trium’s gift to a people, and you two are heirs of that people. Gifts are given freely, but we must care for them, and that’s exactly what your people have done for a very long time. That’s powerful, in a way that none of us have anything to do with. You can restore your Home, but not until we figure out how—together.”
“You always did know how to make an entrance, Collins,” Lio said with a big smile as he enthusiastically shook the small man’s hand.
Collins beamed, taking the seat between Alo and Tomas. “What can I say? I love what I do.” Turning to Kari and Tomas, he said, “How are you feeling about all this? I’ve worked with these two both in the library and in the field and the library, and though Alo selected them, I can think of no one better to send north.”
Lio chuckled deeply. “Thank you, Collins. We’ll be on our way, if you don’t mind. We have preparing to do if we’re leaving town. And I’d prefer our friends feel free to speak of their concerns, which will be easier without Kiva and I listening, I think.” To her, he said, “You ready?”
Kiva nodded, standing. “We’ll watch for your message. Hang in there, you two. I know it’s a lot, but we’re on your side in this.”
[After they’d left the room, Kari said that all-too-important word again:] “Why?”
“Why what?” asked Collins, with just a hint of guilt. [He felt he should know what she was asking, unless I miss my guess.]
“Why are you all on our side? It doesn’t make sense. We just wandered in and everyone started taking care of us.” Tomas knew precisely how Kari felt.
“Well, it’s our job! Trium gave us—humanity—this wide world filled with wondrous things purely out of love, and we’re expected mostly to respect Them, care for the world, and love others. The promise is that Trium will sort out the details; we need only trust that They will. You came to us in need, so it’s only right that we, with the resources to help, well, help you.”
“It is worth mentioning that your Wheat matters beyond your people’s livelihood, but Collins is right. Even if it didn’t, we would find ways to help you,” said Alo, gathering his things.
It was quiet for a moment, but for the rustling of Alo’s papers. “Can I send a letter Home with Lio and Kiva?” said Tomas quietly.
Kari looked intently at Collins, who perked up. “That is a splendid idea! Alo, how soon do you intend to have this little expedition set out?”
“The advance party traveling through Brin I hope to have set out in as little as a day or two, depending on how soon Cley can be ready.” To Kari and Tomas, he said, “Is that enough time?”
Tomas nodded, then looked at Kari.
She nodded once.
“Lovely! There’s stationery and pens in the desk in your room. If you give them to me as soon as they’re finished, I’ll ensure they make it into our adventurers’ things. Oh, but you haven’t answered Alo’s question: how are you feeling?” Collins was talking with characteristic speed and gusto.
“Well, we decided to trust you, and you’ve continued to help us, it seems. So…I suppose we’re still on board, though I’m a bit sad we won’t be going Home with them.”
Kari nodded. “More than a bit. But I guess I understand why. What’s next?”
“For you? Get those letters written; I’ll find you at the dining hall during dinner. A walk is in order tonight, I think. A little fieldwork is just the thing to get us started. But relax while the sun is up. I know things are a bit harrowing now; try to find a way to trust us, our organization, our leader, if you take my meaning. Do you think you can do that?”
“I think we can,” said Tomas, as he and Kari stood. She was nodding.