Two hours later, someone knocked on my carriage door. It didn’t surprise me when I looked up and saw Hiro’s face in the window to the right of the door.
“Allen, Lieutenant Davis just sent a note.”
I set the pencil and lap desk aside. “Good. There’s way too much that needs doing for me to be puttering around trying to keep myself busy.”
“Definitely something to do,” Hiro commented.
Great, now my guards are reading notes sent to me by the officers?
I bit back a bitter comment and carefully put my right arm back in its sling. I’d been sketching out where different buildings might be for our farm, after the war, if we were allowed to homestead the property here. Most of my ideas seemed like common sense to me, and I couldn’t imagine Marza wanting any of the buildings in different places. I also knew it could quickly become a problem if I assumed she would agree with me.
I tucked the half-finished map under the lap desk so it wouldn’t blow away after I opened the carriage door and smiled to myself.
Story books mostly seemed to agree that spouses who knew each other from childhood would always agree. Marza and I already knew better than that. Not that we disagreed a lot. We knew we would usually agree, but we also knew better than to assume agreement. Some of our more spectacular squabbles had been due to me making plans and not consulting Marza. She’d done the same thing a couple times herself.
My current situation with the militia had been bouncing around in my head as well. I’d had a bunch of ideas. A lot of them simply wouldn’t be a good idea to mention, but there were a few that had nothing to do with fighting. Like renting ships from the far northern climates before they were frozen in for the winter, or other ways to temporarily expand the fishing industry. We had time to build simple boats, even rafts if need be.
Hopefully, this is an answer to my request to speak with the planning group.
Perhaps even trying to trade with the prison colonies for food. The prison colonies had farms, and they didn’t have to deal with locusts. Albert would probably lie about how much food the prison islands had. He wouldn’t want us to trade with them, and they would probably ask a heavy price for food, but it would be worth considering as an option. I wasn’t sure what their growing conditions were either. They might be able to plant a new crop and be nearly certain it would make it to harvest. Lots of potential there.
“What does the note say, Hiro?” I looked at him through the glass as I reached for the door.
“I don’t know. It’s addressed to you, not me.”
“Then how do you know it’s something to do?”
Hiro lifted a folded piece of paper and pressed it against the glass. “It says ‘Orders for Allen Rickson, per Lt. Davis’ on the front?”
“I see.” I smiled briefly and chuckled as I nodded at Hiro.
Sorry to doubt you, Hiro, I said, internally.
With a slight bounce of the carriage, Hiro stepped down from the first step, leaving only the top of his head visible.
I stepped outside, and Hiro handed me the note. I fumbled with my one good hand, eventually unfolding it, read it, and stared at it blankly for several seconds before showing it to Hiro.
Hiro gave me an odd look before he read the note, then smiled. “Heh. Well, it’s something to do, right?”
“Why do they call this ‘poison oak’ Allen?” Anu asked. The other city recruits nearby perked up, looking interested in the answer.
“I don’t know. I suppose the leaf looks a little like some oak leaves.” I shrugged. “Just remember each leaf is actually three leaflets with a common stem. Leaves of three, let it be.” I pointed at the poison oak I was using as a teaching tool. “The leaves aren’t always the same, but they will always have several rounded lobes around the edge of each leaflet. The top of the leaflets will be shiny and waxy smooth, and the bottom will be dull, with some fuzz visible if you look close. The stems will be a little fuzzy too. Only check for fuzz if you’ve already touched the plant. The active chemicals are present in every part of the plant.”
Anu nodded, as did several others in the group of twenty or so city recruits that were following me around for the “Woodlands Training” class that I’d been assigned to teach. A man that I didn’t know spoke from the back of the group. “How big does it get?”
“Good question. Usually less than a meter, but it can climb if it’s got something to grow against.” I paused. “Any other questions before I show you how to tell real oaks apart?”
Hiro spoke from nearby. “Why does it matter? An oak is an oak? They all have acorns.” He paused. “Well except poison oaks, which aren’t oaks, like you just said.”
“Tannin content mostly. If you have the choice between what types of oak acorns you harvest, you want to choose the types with the least tannin.”
They were all staring at me blankly. “Tannin makes acorns bitter. You soak them in water to get most of the tannin out. I’m pretty sure it’s called tannin because it’s used in the leather tanning process.”
Another comment, from the same unknown person as before, judging by the voice. “Wait. People can eat acorns?”
There was a muttering of affirmation from quite a few others who also seemed surprised that acorns were edible.
I did my best not to laugh, but my best wasn’t enough, and I chuckled for a few seconds. I was getting irritated looks from a few people, Hiro being one of them. Anu, fortunately, seemed not to be taking offense.
“I apologize for laughing. It’s so deeply ingrained in me that it startled me you would ask. Acorns are one of the best and most easily found forages, one of the first things I learned about as I was growing up. I knew the difference between different oaks before I started school.” I smiled at the group. “We grew up in different worlds, almost. I’m fairly sure that you would have all laughed at me if you had seen me in the bathhouse the other day. Before the militia paid for it, I’d always bathed in a pond, or with a sponge on the farm, depending on the season. It was pretty amazing being able to put my whole body in hot water all at once. I certainly plan to try it again at least a couple more times in my life.”
There was dead silence for a second before someone started laughing. Then they all started laughing. Loudly. Anu and Hiro both joined in.
“Ah, it’s not that funny, is it?” I tried not to look irritated at how enthusiastic they were.
They laughed harder.
“Well, I guess it is that funny. This way, I’m going to show you white oak first, they have the least tannin. If you have a choice, you want these first, every time.”
I walked off, trying not to look upset.
It’s really not that funny.
I realized, suddenly, that I was still carrying some swine treats in my pocket from the morning. Pulling a couple out, I started breaking them into pieces, carefully choosing my words. “I have some acorn meal biscuits on me right now.”
Anu gave me a sharp look as she saw what was in my hands, but said nothing.
I looked at her and popped a fragment of one of the swine treats in my mouth to reassure her before she said something. “These aren’t sweetened or salted, but they are low tannin.” I carefully started eating the piece of brick-hard swine treat, allowing it to soak in my mouth, lightly rubbing it with my teeth as the biscuit became soft. “Don’t bite down too hard, eat them like hardtack bread.”
I passed out little pieces of the swine treats to everyone. About half of my students watched others gumming their pieces for a few seconds before they put their swine treat pieces in their mouth.
Anu stared at me as she popped her swine treat piece in her mouth, her expression shifting from suspicious to contemplative as she carefully gummed the brick-like biscuit fragment. “Not bad. Not good, but maybe better than sawdust bread.”
There were several agreements from others and noncommittal grunts from everyone else.
A tall, thin dark-haired woman who had been one of the first to try her treat piece piped up with a question “Why don’t you put a sweetener in them? I’ve had worse, and the nutty taste is interesting, but a little honey or molasses would be very good with this, I think.”
I did my best not to smile. “Two reasons. We make the biscuits so they can keep for a very long time, and our swine like them just as they are.”
Within a second, everyone stopped chewing and stared at me, motionless, except Anu, who slapped her thigh with her right hand, loudly. “I thought I knew what these were. You did say swine could eat anything we could.”
“Swine can eat practically anything organic, true, but acorn meal bread is something we do eat on the farm.” I nodded to the dark-haired woman who had spoken earlier. “When we use acorns for cooking, for people, we usually do use sweeteners, but not always. Acorn meal makes an excellent thickener for stews.”
Smiling, I popped another piece of swine treat in my mouth and watched as my students resumed chewing carefully. I was somewhat disappointed that none of them spit out their fragments.
“It is better tasting than the bread this morning, but there’s not much that tastes worse than boar taint,” Hiro commented.
I froze and glared at Hiro, who was watching me.
Was that a statement of fact, or an attempt to goad me?
Neither of us blinked as we stared at each other, until I forced myself to look away for a moment. When I felt the pain in my right shoulder, I shook my head and relaxed my fist.
I looked back at Hiro, who had not stopped watching me. “Knowing forest plants so we can find edible food and avoid poisonous plants is all well and good, Allen, but what I’d like to hear is any advice you have to offer us about avoiding other people in the woods.”
What are you doing? Why are you bringing this up, Hiro?
It was apparent that Hiro had intentionally tried to provoke me by mentioning the boar taint in the morning bread, which came from my dead boars. Even though I knew my expression was very clear because the rest of the students had backed away from me slightly, Hiro did not seem apologetic.
“Something else I’d like to understand is how you do that.” Hiro pointed at me.
“Do… What?” I asked, confused.
“You didn’t see everyone else just step back from you? You didn’t intend to intimidate us? I watched you sparring with the spear training cadre a few days ago and saw the same thing. Even the lieutenants are hesitant when they are just sparring with you, even though they normally win. You seem to have a way to appear suddenly more dangerous, and I’d love to know if there’s a way to copy it.”
“I…” Looking around, I could see several other people looking back and forth from Hiro to me, thoughtfully. Some of them were nodding, agreeing with Hiro.
Hiro pressed me. “There are a lot of people in the militia that can find food, Allen. And it certainly would be handy to know how to avoid starving in the woods, but I’d rather learn something that will keep arrows and spears out of me. Especially now that New Tokyo has initiated violence.” He tapped me lightly on the chest with his staff. “And you survived an eight-to-one encounter.”
I stiffened, pushing the end of his staff away from my chest with my left hand. “I can’t teach how to be me. I’m not entirely certain I would if I could.” I took a deep breath. “When I’m angry, it shows. That’s not very helpful when people don’t know me. It’s occasionally a problem around people who do know me.”
“You aren’t doing it intentionally?” Hiro set his staff against his shoulder.
Something clicked. “So, you mentioned my boars, knowing it would make me angry, to watch me and see if you could figure out what I was doing to intimidate people?”
Well, that answers that.
I glared at him for a second. “No, I don’t do it intentionally. I’m just quick to anger, and don’t hide it well. Always have been that way. Please don’t try to make me angry on purpose. I have enough to be angry about without you helping.”
Several of my students had made small noises of dissatisfaction before Hiro spoke a couple seconds later. “Fine. Can you tell us how you survived the attackers in the woods?”
“Hiro, you’re right that there are a lot of people who can forage. However, many of them are already scouts. A lot more of us are going to be spending more time in the woods trying to intercept New Tokyo foraging parties like the one that almost got me.”
“Is that a no?” Hiro’s voice was flat, and maybe even a little angry.
“No. It’s not. I can teach you a couple basic things that might help you know when something is wrong in the woods. It won’t make you a scout, but it might keep you alive.”
Suddenly, I had everyone’s attention. “I’m also going to keep teaching you about foraging. If everything goes bad, you’ll need it.”
There were several seconds of silence before I started walking towards some nearby white oaks. “Blue jays scolding the New Tokyo scouts alerted me to their presence.”
I paused and shook my head. “The first thing to remember is that if animals hear something unexpected, they will react. Normally their reaction is to go completely still and then turn to face the disturbance unless it’s very close in which case they will run immediately.” I pointed at an obnoxious grey squirrel chattering at us as we approached the oak grove. “See the grey squirrel there, being loud? It’s looking directly at us. If someone else were to walk behind it, the squirrel would likely stop chattering at us and turn to face them, at least briefly. Non-predator birds will normally face a disturbance before deciding what to do.”
Anu laughed loudly, suddenly. “That sounds like what we do.”
“Don’t move,” I ordered as I stopped walking, and everyone stopped. “Before you move again, notice what you are looking at.”
Almost everyone was staring straight at Anu.
I don’t think that could have been set up better if we’d planned it.
“OK, you can move again. Anu is right. She made an unexpected loud noise, and almost every one of us looked at her. That’s exactly what wild animals will do, but they have better senses than we do. You might not see, smell, or hear what they did. But they act the way they do for a reason.”
After a moment’s thought, I continued. “I can’t help you be quiet in the woods because I’m not good at that, other than the obvious stuff like not walking on loose leaves. But if a wild animal suddenly looks in any direction but at you, or flees and doesn’t run almost directly away from you, there’s a good chance that there’s a predator or human nearby. Pay special attention to blue jays and squirrels. They are willing to stay near humans, and even follow people for a short distance, scolding.”
“What does a blue jay sound like?” Another person I didn’t know.
I chuckled and shook my head a little. “Sorry to laugh again. More of that stuff that I’ve known pretty much since I was able to form complete sentences. I’m sure we’ll run across some blue jays as I show you different types of forages. If we don’t, I’ll try to imitate a blue jay alarm call, but I’m not very good at it.”
Two hours later, my class of twenty might not starve in the woods, and if they were lucky, they might get warning of danger in the woods.
Anu and I chatted a little on the way back to camp, and I constantly noticed Hiro watching me. It was starting to become annoying, but that was his job, to watch me. For some reason. I could understand it to a degree, but that didn’t make it bother me less.
After lunch, I was going to take another group of twenty out with Hiro. After that, another group. For the next four days, my schedule would be breakfast, two groups, lunch, two more groups, and then dinner. My swine would eat when I did.
Until my arm healed, it was going to be my job to teach, like I had done when my leg was wounded. Other people would make sure they were learning and send them back to me if they didn’t learn properly, so I could probably count on being a teacher for four days.
Anu bumped me carefully about halfway up my upper left arm with her shoulder. “What’s got you worried, Allen? Anything you want to talk about?”
I shrugged. “Thanks for the offer, Anu. Plenty I’d like to be able to talk about, but nothing I can talk about unless the officers call me in to speak with them.”
And even then, some things I can’t talk about.
Why didn’t you just tell me to keep silent about everything, Albert?
Turning her head just enough to see me without blinding herself to what was in front of her as she walked, Anu watched me for a few seconds. “You’ve got friends, Allen.”
I clenched my jaw to keep from saying anything before I thought about it. “I’ve also got Hiro and Kevin, who have to stay by me. I’d feel truly strange trying to have a conversation between friends when my watchers have to stay close to me, and probably remain close enough to hear anything I say.”
There was a stir from the group as we walked, and several people looked at Hiro.
Hiro spoke in his own defense. “Not my idea, Allen. That doesn’t make it any less of an order.”
“No insult intended, Hiro. It’s just the way it is. I suspect I’m more bothered by the situation than you are.”
“I have no doubt that’s true.” Hiro laughed quietly after speaking, but sounded a little nervous.
Anu looked forward. “So, what was it like, talking to Albert?”
The forest was suddenly silent, except for the sounds of twenty-two people walking through leaf litter.
I wonder how many times people are going to ask me that.
It didn’t take me long to think of an answer. “If you have any childhood memories of adults humoring you when you thought you knew what you were talking about, it was like that. He asked questions and drew me out when I thought I was right, and then showed me how I was wrong. Multiple times. There were a couple things that we didn’t agree on that he didn’t change my mind about, but I don’t think he cared about those things. It felt like I was four again.”
“Ow,” Anu whispered as she shook her head.
I don’t care how brilliant you are, Albert. You are directly responsible for every early death on Nirvana. Humans might have even become deathless by this time without your interference. I’m not going to be your scapegoat.
Suddenly, I realized what I’d been thinking.
Am I starting to follow Doctor Sven’s line of reasoning? Has something happened that should have changed my mind?
For the rest of the walk into camp, I barely paid attention to the world around me. I tried to figure out if I had any reason to think Albert intended to use me as an excuse to take action. I didn’t, nothing that held up to logic. My prior arguments against Doctor Sven’s beliefs on Albert’s motivations continued to seem sound, assuming Albert was sane. I wasn’t ready to believe Albert was insane, despite my anger earlier.
Nobody spoke to me the rest of the way into camp. I imagine my expression wasn’t congenial.
I had been happy to be useful when I had an injured leg and was teaching people to use tools safely and effectively. Now I had a wounded arm and was being just as useful, in a way, but teaching people felt empty.
It seemed as if I had an obligation to do more, now that I knew more. The limits Albert had set upon me, and those I had set for myself, seemed to weigh heavily.
Before Anu left the group at the camp, I touched her arm. “Thank you for the offer to talk. I’m sure I’ll take you up on it soon, even if my minders have to stay in attendance.”
Anu smiled a little. “Some people need to talk through their problems. Some people need to think through their problems. Do what you need to do.”
Two days later, what I needed to do was figure out what the officers were thinking. Every night, I wrote down carefully considered ideas about how we might hide our resources or generate more resources after making sure the ideas were not potentially usable for offensive actions. Some of the ideas I knew were good, but I received no invitation to help plan.
For instance, I knew from sustainable ecology classes that gill nets were disruptive and unsustainable on a large scale. I also knew that a single year of gill net use would not cause a long-term problem for fish populations, provided that major waterways were left partially unblocked. We needed to make gill nets legal for use this year, and we needed to convince every other state to do the same. It would take time to make nets, deploy them, and properly scale up fish processing capabilities, but it could be done in time to help.
Fish typically wasn’t a big part of our diet in the temperate climate ranges, but we did have a small, established fishing industry. We couldn’t quickly build and establish fish farms like colder regions had in place, but we didn’t need to. Not for a single season.
The gill net idea was the only idea that generated a response that I saw. My note was returned. At the bottom was written ‘very good idea. Forwarded to Stateman Urda. – Lt. Baker.’
If it was a very good idea, why am I not allowed to join planning sessions?
Even Riko was apparently avoiding me. Granted, I only saw him twice, and both times, he was walking rapidly with a purpose, but it was still annoying.
The camp kitchens had finished using the boars in meals. The human-edible parts of two boars split six hundred ways lasted three meals, one day, and there wasn’t a lot of meat in the beans and rice for the lunch and dinner meals.
Despite that, I could still smell the boar taint faintly in the air, and taste it in everything I ate. My swine, if anything, were more skittish than ever. If I could taste boar taint in what I was eating, they could certainly taste it in the kitchen waste pile. They were eating from the kitchen garbage though, so the taint itself apparently didn’t have special meaning to them as long as it wasn’t accompanied by the taste of their fellow swine. Just another organic chemical.
The nervousness of the swine was because their sense of smell was good enough to tell that the boars had been eaten by us. It would be a week to ten days before my sounder would stop being able to smell the scent of digested pork. In my next letter home, I had made sure to note for Granpa and Zeke what I’d discovered about the swine not having a serious problem with boar taint by itself in the kitchen garbage pit. They might already know, but I’d never heard it before. Not exactly useful information, but it was information that could be written down and passed on.
I was hoping Zeke would be able to arrive soon to take my sounder back to the farm. My arm was still immobilized, but healing quickly. If I was fully recovered and able to join the newly forming scouting and forage parties before Zeke arrived, I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I was certain I wouldn’t like it. I made sure to mention that in the same letter where I discussed the boar taint in the kitchen garbage pit. I had to be positive that my family knew the situation I was in, just in case Zeke hadn’t already left.
Before bed every night I had been writing and sending letters to Marza with plan drawings of different parts of the farm. It was empty planning because we still didn’t know yet if we’d be allowed to homestead there, but it was something interesting to discuss. We’d eventually have to plan to live somewhere. I carefully didn’t mention the chances that I might not be around to live on the farm, even if the land grant request was accepted. We both knew that, and I preferred to keep at least some part of my life as positive as possible.
On the third day after I was attacked, I had not received any mail in two days, and Marza and my family had been writing every day before that. I had seen other people getting mail and heard them talking about their families at home. I nearly reached the point of marching into the officer’s tent and demanding my mail. If the officers were holding my outgoing as well as my incoming mail, then Zeke might not even be aware that I needed him to get the swine. If the officers casually caused me to lose my future livelihood by engineering the loss of my swine, they would find me to be a much more difficult person to work with.
I didn’t want it to get that far though. I had written two copies of the same letter, addressed to Stateman Urda’s office. The letter expressed my irritation at being arrested, with no charges against me, and explaining about how the officers were interfering with my personal correspondence. I requested that she address the matter with the militia officers. I also wrote a very terse note to my family with my request to Zeke and an explanation of my current situation.
The first copy of my letter to the Stateman’s office and the terse note to my family were both folded and addressed before I folded them into a third sheet of paper. The third sheet was a letter to Anu.
It wasn’t hard to pass the note. I pulled it out of my sling and handed to Anu with my body between Hiro and our exchange when we spoke briefly about what we’d done that day at dinner the night before.
“Anu, I wish I could talk more, but I’m not comfortable with talking out loud about anything other than the weather,” I told her as I tapped the letter against her ribs twice. When she looked down at the paper, she could see where I had written in large, dark block letters. ‘Say nothing. Read in private.’
Fortunately, she said nothing, took the letter, and put it inside her shirt. The next morning she nodded to me with a thumbs-up, clearly indicating that she’d done what I’d asked in the note to her. I nodded back, and took out two training classes before lunch, just to make sure the daily post would be well on its way before I did anything else.
After lunch, but before my third class of the day, I handed Hiro the second copy of the letter to Stateman Urda’s office. “Hiro, please give this to Lieutenant Davis. I’ll follow you to the officer’s tent.”
Hiro looked at the letter, then at me. “Am I going to see you lose your temper again when Lieutenant Davis flies out of the officer’s tent waving this in your face?”
“If that’s his reaction, you might see my temper again, yes.”
Hiro’s smile in response surprised me. “Good.”
At that moment, I realized that even if Hiro had seen me pass the note to Anu, he might not have said anything. Like always, my expression gave me away.
“What? Do you think I like the way they are treating you, Allen? I’ll do what I’m told if it’s not horribly repugnant, but that doesn’t mean I like it.”
“I didn’t think you did, but I didn’t get the impression you had a problem with it either. Thanks, Hiro.”
At the officer’s tent, Hiro handed the letter to one of the guards. “Give this to Lieutenant Davis, please.”
The guard nodded, stepped into the tent, and I heard muttering. A few seconds later, the guard came back out of the tent, declaring “Handed it to Lieutenant Davis.”
Lieutenant Davis did not come out of the tent. Nor did any loud noises.
Hiro looked up at me, curiously.
I looked down at him and shrugged. “Maybe they were expecting it.”
We both looked back at the tent. After a few seconds, the two tent guards made shooing motions at us but said nothing. They didn’t like people loitering near the officer’s tent. We left before they started to get agitated.
I was feeling a bit confused, and Hiro was visibly disappointed when we walked away to find my first afternoon class to take into the woods.
I had started asking everyone to bring a pack with them, so we could forage for real, and bring back useful calories and herbs. We weren’t going far enough out to find a lot in the already-gleaned area, but I could tell how well people were learning by what they put in their packs. The area was fairly heavy with sassafras, which the foragers had been mostly bypassing because it wasn’t a high-calorie food. It was, however, a powerful taste, and would be welcome in the kitchen, I hoped.
Mrs. Zeta, with some cajoling, had agreed that I could get one small table in the back of the kitchen to sort through my students’ finds. I had to sort rapidly and was allowed to have only Hiro and one student in the building with me at a time. That would get forage into the kitchen’s hands faster, and make it easier for me to correct any students collecting wrong-type plants.
I was sorting through the first student’s small collection of forage when I heard Mrs. Zeta speak behind me. “I smell sassafras. How much did you collect?”
I turned away from the student’s forage. “I don’t know yet, Mrs. Zeta. Should I set it all aside in a separate pile?”
“Definitely. You brought roots and leaves, I see?” She reached forward and picked up a root, cut it with a fingernail, and sniffed it.
“Yes, ma’am. Roots for flavoring, I’m not so sure about the leaves. We usually dry them in unused crop storage space before we grind them up and use them as file thickener for soups. You have plenty of heat and ceiling height in this building. I figure you can dry them fairly quickly.”
Mrs. Zeta looked into the ceiling above us with a pensive look on her face. “I’ve always used aged leaf for gumbo file. It’s worth testing fresh-dried leaf.” She sniffed again. “I’ll have us use the root immediately.”
Patting me on the left arm gently, Mrs. Zeta didn’t mention that it would be welcome for covering the taste of boar taint.
I could appreciate that. I was fairly certain that, more than anyone else in camp, I wanted to stop tasting boar taint. That was a large part of why I’d had my students collecting the plant.
As she turned and started walking towards where two of her staff were arguing quietly with one another, the head cook said one more thing. “Tell any of my people to let me know when you have sorted this group’s take. I’ll happily take all the sassafras root and leaves your students can find. Now that I know it’s nearby, I’ll pass the word to the other foragers that I want them to bring back a little when they find it. We need other forage more, but a little sassafras root goes a long way.”
My current group ended up with nearly a kilo of sassafras root and leaf, and about five total kilos of various edible mushrooms, berries, and acorns, with only a few inedible plants. I carefully inspected every mushroom, throwing away any that were missing identifying parts, explaining when I did so that in many cases I wasn’t sure if it was poisonous or not. With mushrooms, you had to know. Guessing could kill.
The whole group of students collected less than I could have managed myself in two hours with two good hands, but we were working a picked-over area, and they were new. Overall, I was pleased.
After all the student finds had been sorted, I called over one of the kitchen runners and told them to inform Mrs. Zeta that I was done sorting, and then Hiro and I left.
“We need to go and see the officers now,” Hiro informed me, as we stepped outside.
“I have one more class today,” I replied, looking at him.
“No, you don’t.” He handed me a note. “This came to me when you were sorting.”
Hiro, bring Allen to the officer’s tent when he has finished his current class. His last class is being redirected to firewood collection. ~ Sgt. Covil.
After I had read the note, I looked towards the officer’s tent. “I see.”
After two days of wanting nothing more than to be a part of whatever was being planned, now I wasn’t sure I wanted to speak to the officers at all.
Hiro interrupted my thoughts. “Second guessing yourself about that letter to the Stateman earlier?”
“Is it that obvious?” I looked at him, and he smiled, briefly showing teeth.
I sighed. Of course it was obvious.
As I walked towards the officer’s tent, I spoke again, “I don’t regret the letter. It needed to be said. That doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy this conversation.”
I wasn’t happy with Hiro as he followed behind me, laughing under his breath.
“Schadenfreude is not a virtue.”
“No, but it’s still funny to watch someone stepping into a hole they dug for themselves.”
“Whatever, Hiro.” I grumped at him as I started to walk faster towards the officer’s tent, intentionally forcing Hiro to jog a bit to keep up.
A minute later, we were standing in front of the tent. Hiro had stopped laughing several steps before we arrived and he announced my presence. “Militiaman Rickson arriving as requested by Sergeant Covil.” Under his breath, he said as an aside. “Good luck in there.”
I said nothing, but gave Hiro a nod in thanks.
The guard that had taken the message in pushed his way past the tent flap. From inside the tent, Captain Marko’s voice was audible. “Allen, come in. Hiro, please go to Allen’s carriage. We’ll send an escort with him to meet back with you, or Kevin, whoever is on duty when we’re done here.
They think this meeting might last three hours?
I dry-swallowed and pushed into the tent.
The first thing I noticed as I entered the tent was that there were more people than I had seen in the tent before. At least twelve people. It felt crowded.
The second thing that I noticed was Zeke stepping forward from my right, and throwing his arms around me to give me an enthusiastic bear hug.
“Ow. Ow. Stop, Zeke. My arm.”
“What? Oh, that’s right. They did say you had a cut on the shoulder.” He let go of me, took a step back, and poked at the bandage, making me wince as I jerked my shoulder back to keep him from poking it too hard.
“Bad enough for stitches, but it should heal fine if nobody pulls the stitches out. Hint. Hint.” I gave him a careful left-armed hug back.
“The doctor there said the muscle wasn’t injured severely, just a ragged skin wound. Stop whining.” Zeke grinned briefly, then went serious. “Sorry I got a bit rough there. It’s good to see you looking healthy, even if you’ve been banged up a bit.”
“What are you here for, Zeke?” I asked. “You didn’t send me a letter saying you were coming.”
“Didn’t you ask for me to come and get your swine and carriage?” Zeke frowned and looked towards the back of the tent, over the table where the militia officers were all seated, at the little table that the captain kept there for his use. There were three people sitting there. “I didn’t send a letter because I was offered a ride when the Stateman delivered the letters to our farm and spoke to Ma on her way here. The handwriting was yours, Ma said. It sounded important enough that you didn’t need a letter in response if I could come quickly in person.”
I looked at the back of the room, then back at Zeke.
She talked to Ma?
“I did.” I shook my head briefly. “I do. Thank you for coming. Apparently, my mail has been handled differently than most.” I stared at Captain Marko, and he met my glare with no expression, arms folded across his chest.
I looked away from the captain, and towards the back of the room. If the Stateman was here, then the older, white-haired woman was certainly her. The young woman to her left was clearly too young to be a Stateman, and the man to her right, well, the Stateman was a female, and he was clearly male.
Looking back at Zeke, I thanked him. “Anyway, Zeke, thanks for coming. I’ll be happy to have the swine out of harm’s way, and I’ll owe you a favor.”
“We’ll talk about favors later after we see how bad this winter is.”
“And if I survive.”
“You got the letter about Speedy?”
Zeke nodded. “Yes. Very interesting.” His head tilted towards the center of the tent. “But I doubt these fine people want to hear us talk about swine breeding.”
There was polite chuckling from several people in the tent. The white-haired woman confirmed herself to be Stateman Urda by speaking next. “Zeke, thank you. Please go to Allen’s carriage. There’s a man named Hiro there who can keep you company, but he won’t leave the carriage. I ask you not to leave the carriage area either, please. I’m sure you’ll want to inspect the harness and carriage for yourself anyway, since, based our conversation on the way here, you’ve never used it.”
Before Zeke started moving, I made sure to warn him “If you let them out, watch them closely, Zeke. I’m sure you’ve smelled it.”
“I did. Taint but no pork smell any longer. How bad were the sows?”
“Not terrible. The kitchen worked with me. I’m fairly sure they didn’t encounter anything that tasted strongly of the boars in the kitchen refuse pit. They were mostly nervous and irritated without any overt anger or violence. Hotfoot and Speedy were the only ones that tried to run off, and they both returned after a couple whistle commands.”
Nodding, Zeke accepted the information as he felt at his chest, where I knew his whistle would be. He didn’t ask for mine, so I knew he had his. It would have shocked me if he hadn’t had his under his shirt.
“I’ll be careful.” He gave me a more careful hug this time. “Watch your mouth here, Allen. Think about everything you say, before you say it. Twice.”
Zeke stared at me with a no-nonsense look until I nodded back to him, saying “I will.”
With a look at the back of the room, where I saw Stateman Urda nodding, Zeke carefully walked out of the tent.
As the tent flap closed behind Zeke, I felt more than a little confused.
The Stateman cleared her throat. “I hope that we’ve demonstrated that we aren’t out to ruin your life, young man, which seemed to be something of a concern in your letter addressed to my office.”
I nodded. “The safety of my swine was my most pressing concern. They are a large part of my future.” I shrugged. “If I have a future after this.”
With a brief nod, the Stateman continued. “You seemed a little hot under the collar about the way we were interfering with your mail, as well. All interference with your mail was at my direct orders. All of your mail passed through my hands directly, as well as all of your ideas that you told us. You’re quite the innovator.”
I looked at Captain Marko. “And the lies telling me that Albert repudiated my claim that he had spoken with me?”
Captain Marko’s mouth twitched, and his eyes squinted, but he said nothing.
“I didn’t specifically order that, but I would have if I had thought about it. I just told the officers to make you as angry as they could without pushing you to the point where you might strike out physically.”
I snapped my mouth shut and looked down while I closed my eyes and counted to ten. “What?”
There was a loud sound of papers shuffling. I opened my eyes as I looked up at the Stateman and saw her putting on what were clearly reading glasses.
“I was quite impressed with your list of tests that you thought Albert might be running. Let’s see. ‘Will the militia or civil government resort to physical torture to extract information from an individual that follows all other orders except orders to reveal dangerous information?'”
She looked up at me. “A very valid question. Near and dear to your heart, considering the situation, I’m sure. I might have wondered the same thing.” She tapped her chin with her index finger. “I’m not entirely sure I would have given the idea to the very people I thought might believe it to be a good idea if things started to go badly.” She looked at me, clearly expecting me to comment.
“I…” I thought about what I was going to say, again, framing the answer in my mind before saying the first word. “I felt that Albert’s obvious dissatisfaction with such an option would be best to bring to light before others seriously considered the idea. It seemed like a valid question, considering how Albert engineered the situation.”
The Stateman’s head tilted and she hummed. “Not bad.” She flipped a paper and started reading again. “Let’s see, where was it. Ah, there it is. ‘Will civil government or military leadership confine an individual in isolation, or outright kill someone to prevent them from revealing information that would lead to Albert reducing humanity to a true stone age?’ I liked that one.”
I felt a drop of sweat start to dribble down the center of my forehead and did my best to ignore it.
With an audible rustle, she set aside the papers in her hand. “Again, a question that one might argue is very important to you. It was quite brave to give your officers and myself that idea. Granted, we certainly would have considered the idea. As distasteful as it might be, it has its merits, and it would be a very clean solution, even if it ended up with a few of us in prison.” She leaned forward. “Which it would not, under militia law, though it would still count against Albert’s violence tally.”
I winced and looked at Riko, who shook his head and averted his eyes from me to the Stateman, clearly telling me to get my eyes back where they belonged.
I looked back at the Stateman. I could read nothing from her face. Her expression reminded me of Ma or Pa working with Abe and Molly a couple years before, teaching them from a reading primer. Relaxed, observant, and confident.
When she saw she had my full attention again, she continued with no obvious sign of irritation. “The same reasoning behind this idea as the last, I’m sure. A combination of pre-emptive self-preservation and legitimate concern, correct?”
“Yes.” I nodded nervously. The drop of sweat on my forehead had company now.
“There was one thing that I noticed you didn’t mention in your list of things that Albert might be testing for, that I’d like to ask you about if you don’t mind?”
I stared at her for a second, and had absolutely no idea what she might be thinking. I hadn’t even noticed her blink though I’m sure she must have. Her small hands folded across each other, her elbows not on the table. She sat without any sign of a slouch, despite her apparent advancing age.
I shook my head and carefully considered my next words. “I don’t mind. Please, Stateman Urda, ask.”
She smiled, a small, brief smile that quickly disappeared like it had never happened. “I was very concerned that Albert might be testing to see how receptive our militia might be to a takeover by a charismatic young man. A young man with a history of violence, and a penchant for new ideas, who just happened to have knowledge that could threaten officers and government authority.”
Stateman Urda’s facial expression went from mild to hawkish in an instant. Her eyes bored into mine, and I felt cold. “Have you, by chance, considered that possibility, Allen?”
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