Irai’h strode along the boulevard towards Ryeo’h’s townhouse. New austerity measures implemented by the Regent limited the days the open air market could sell staples and cooked food. The siege promised to go on for months, until their forces could return to assist the city-state. Already, the price of staples like grain and raw vegetables and fruit had skyrocketed. The Regent had given an order to the villas to grow vegetables and fruit for the city-state in order to stave off the starvation that resulted from long sieges. Tjish.un had destroyed the Torahni navy that had been at port seven weeks prior. The ships had burned for days and the air still reeked of acrid smoke. The sailors manning the Torahni navy had either been killed outright or taken as prisoners back to Tjish.un.
Irai’h grimaced as he turned down a smaller street, away from the empty marketplace. When he reached Ryeo’h’s home, he took the front steps two at a time and used the knocker to announce his presence.
The butler opened the door and bowed. “Lord Asjur. Welcome. Everyone is in the main sitting room.”
“Thank you, Shen.”
“Of course, my lord.”
Irai’h entered the sitting room to a hushed atmosphere. The children were playing quietly in a corner and did not even notice him when he entered. The smallest, Kher, now six months old, looked up from his blanket on the floor between the settee and the armchairs and gave Irai’h a toothless grin, his chin shiny from spittle.
“Good afternoon,” Irai’h murmured into the silence.
The adults rose and turned to him, Ryeo’h nodding his head at Irai’h.
“Welcome, Irai’h,” Ryeo’h said softly.
Banela and Sjaji curtsied.
Aosji and I’a’sji both bowed.
Ryeo’h turned to his wives. “Please take the children upstairs.”
The women did as he asked, Sofi and Alis whimpering their discontent before dissolving into sobbing.
When the women and children had gone upstairs, Ryeo’h closed the sitting room doors. “Have a seat, my friends.”
The men sat down and watched silently as Ryeo’h began to pace.
“Our plans have obviously changed,” Ryeo’h said. “The siege can go on for months, if not years. It all depends on the battle at Le.ath Plain. I had hoped we could go to South Torahn to attend Princess Alida’s wedding, but now everything is up in the air. Although, the services of the Reformist Lord may not be necessary now that King Belihn is on the throne.”
Irai’h shifted. “We should wait before we decide our services are no longer needed. Belihn seems sincere, but, as you say, everything is up in the air.”
Ryeo’h nodded distractedly as he continued to pace. “Things are going to get difficult for a while. Once starvation sets in, disease follows. I don’t know how much food is stored at Draemin Castle, but the denizens of the castle and its protective forces will always eat first before the rest of the population. I’ve begun to grow food in our villa. I will make sure your families get some of that food.”
Irai’h waived a hand. “It’s just me, Ryeo’h. I’ve already begun to ration my food.”
Ryeo’h sighed. “All staples rot after a while. Grain lasts a bit longer than other types of food, especially if we use simi stones to prolonge freshness. But we’ve been cut off from the rest of the world. SImi stones can preserve food only for so long. Eventually, starvation will set in and we will have the plague on our shores.”
The friends glance at one another and then drop their gazes.
Irai’h pushed down his terror and swallowed thickly. “We knew it would be hard to change our city-state. Goddess help us!”
They hunkered down around Ryeo’h’s card table and began to take inventory of food stores, including grain supplies, dried meat and nuts. They made a vow to share all supplies amongst their families. Then they made plans for when the food ran out.
Irai’h glanced at Ryeo’h. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he had children and spouses to worry about. Ryeo’h was ruthlessly efficient and capable, but he was just a man after all. He couldn’t defeat the Tjish.unen armed forces and he couldn’t produce food from thin air.
“We have to be brave,” Irai’h told the sombre silence. “This will probably be the hardest times we face in our lives.”
Ryeo’h rubbed his eyes. He looked worn down. “You are correct, Irai’h. This will be hard enough that some of us might not survive. People will die. Children and women will die.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “My own children and women may die.” He shook his head. “Goddess help me! We must not lose our faith or our persistence.”
Then the days turned into weeks and further austerity measures took effect. Beggars began to line the streets, asking for food. The open air market closed indefinitely. Throngs of people made their way to Draemin Cathedral as the High Priest set a podium on the grounds and held mass on a daily basis.
As the weeks gave way to months, the Regent imposed curfews, limiting only from sunrise to midafternoon when people could roam the streets. Lean, haggard soldiers brutally enforced the curfews. Irai’h had seen more than one curfew breaker beaten to within an inch or his life then carted away to the hospital.
Warm anasj gave way to a sweltering dibasj. No one could recall the last time dibasji temperatures soared so high, resulting in long rainless days. The days piled one upon the other until drought threatened the last of the food supply. The city was out of seeds, so if the food on the vine was destroyed, they would have nothing else. Dry dibasj gave way to a rainy, cold haltath. It rained so much, the remaining crops rotted on the vine.
The Tjish.unen began to catapult the bodies of plague victims over the walls of the city-state. The bodies were filled with festering pustules and reeked of disease. Soldiers and citizens were conscripted to cart the bodies into the countryside and collect them in vast trenches carved out by the citizenry. But the damp conditions did nothing to deter the spread of the disease. By the end of the season and the beginning of kamaran, the black flag was raised into the sky over the ramparts of the city walls. Quarantine was imposed and brutally maintained by groups of lean, haggard-looking soldiers. Bodies were carted by wagons into the countryside in the morning and evening.
Irai’h, watching from the window of his apartment, wondered how many bodies have already been carted out into the countryside. Hundreds of plague-ridden bodies had been catapulted over the walls by the Tjish.unen forces. So many, the bodies could not be disposed of quickly enough to prevent the disease from taking hold. It had been days since Irai’h had left his apartment. Hunger and its accompanying symptoms were his constant companions. His days passed in a fog of lightheadedness and aimless thoughts. He thought of attempting to leave his home to try to reach Ryeo’h’s home, but he had seen too many quarantine breakers beaten to death in the street. The brutality of the soldiers seemed to know no bounds.
Whispers of cannibalism began to circulate throughout the city-state. Whenever Irai’h left his apartment to talk to his neighbors, the topic would inevitably arise. That soldiers were killing citizens and consuming them. That they could not leave their homes for fear of death.
As Athal’Atana approached, the beginning of a new year, Irai’h wondered what had become of the city forces at Le.ath Plain. It had been over eight months now. Irai’h was beginning to lose hope and thought he would die of starvation before the city-state was rescued. No news came out of Draemin Castle. Silence blanketed the city-state like the snow blanketed her streets and the roofs of her structures.
Hunger riots broke out occasionally and were brutally put down by soldiers wielding clubs. Irai’h, watching from his window, saw more than one person trampled under the hoofs of bahil or lirtah. Blood stained the snow in a glaring display until more snow fell.
There were times when Irai’h dreamed. The dreams were of food. Of eating and eating and never feeling full. He dreamed of Belihn on a throne made of bones. He dreamed of Ryeo’h pacing and talking, although his words sounded distant and muffled. Soon, he didn’t go out of his apartment even to talk to his neighbors, for he had heard the coughing and retching coming from neighboring apartments. One evening, he stole into the hallways and saw the black swath of cloth nailed to doors. Plague had stolen into the building. Horrified, he hurried back to his apartment and locked his door.
But as the days piled one upon the other and Athal’Atana came and went, Irai’h came to the realization that he could conceivably die alone and he didn’t want to. So, that evening, he waited until long past midnight and snuck out of his apartment with a bag filled with clothes. He bundled himself under his kamarani cloak and hurried into the back alley. From there, he made his slow and careful way to Ryeo’h’s row house. The journey, which should have taken twenty minutes at the most, stretched to several hours as he waited in the shadows for roaming groups of soldiers to pass his hiding spots. By the time he made it to Ryeo’h’s front door, he was shaking from exhaustion and weakness. Ryeo’h’s front door was unmarked, so he made his slow way up the steps and knocked on the door.
Ryeo’h himself opened the door. “Goddess, Irai’h! Come in.”
It was early morning by then and Irai’h wondered what Ryeo’h was doing up so early, but he said nothing as he followed his friend to the sitting room.
Ryeo’h looked whip thin, his face gaunt and pale. He said nothing as he sat down in an armchair and watched as Irai’h set his bag down and took a seat across from him.
“I won’t eat your food, Ryeo’h,” Irai’h said softly. “I just…I don’t want to die alone.”
Ryeo’h smiled wanly. “I will spare you some food, my friend. We killed our two carriage lirtah and smoked the meat.”
“I can’t eat your food, Ryeo’h–“
“This isn’t up for discussion, Irai’h,” Ryeo’h snapped. “No one dies under my watch.”
Irai’h swallowed with some difficulty and nodded. “Thank you. How is your family?”
“We lost Kher,” Ryeo’h said, his voice breaking. “Banela stopped producing milk and the child died of starvation. He wouldn’t eat anything else, no matter how we tried.”
“I’m sorry,” Irai’h murmured, recalling the young child and his guileless smiles.
Ryeo’h nodded. “Thank you. Dahni is listless and mostly sleeps. He won’t make it, either. Sjaji is unconsolable. Dahni is our youngest child, after Kher. Her youngest child.”
“Yes,” Irai’h murmured. “And the servants?”
“I let the servants go; I could not feed them any longer.” He rubbed a hand over his mouth and shook his head. “I’a’sji and his mistress both died of the plague. His servant sent us a message.”
Irai’h gasped. He thought of the tall, broad, handsome I’a’sji A’kir’h and could not conceive of him gone. He had been a part of their group since the beginning.
“And Aosji?” he asked.
Ryeo’h shook his head. “I haven’t heard hide nor hair from him. I hope his family is well, but chances are he might not survive. My sources tell me the plague is killing at a rate of 80 percent of the infected.”
“So, it is particularly virulent this time around,” Irai’h murmured. He sighed and leaned his head against the backrest. He was shaking.
Ryeo’h stood up. “Give me a minute.”
Irai’h heard his friend’s footsteps receding into the row house. He must have fallen asleep, because then he was being shaken awake and a strip of meat was being pushed into his hand. He looked at the woody looking meat and brought it to his mouth. It was tough but salty-sweet. He chewed mechanically, his stomach giving a lurch of protest before it settled down.
“Look in my bag,” he told Ryeo’h. “I brought a bag of grain that I’ll share with your family.”
Ryeo’h did as he was told, lifting the container of grain from the bag.
He glanced at Irai’h and nodded, swallowing thickly. “Thank you, Irai’h. We’ll stretch it out into gruel.”
Irai’h smiled wanly and finished his meat while Ryeo’h took the container to the kitchen.
When Ryeo’h returned, they sat across from each other.
“This is worse than I suspected it would be,” Ryeo’h said into the silence. “I have no hope of surviving this.”
“I can’t say I have much hope, either,” Irai’h told his friend. “During my most treacherous and blackest moments, I wonder if our hopes for equality were of any value. Was it worth dying for, doing away with the caste laws?”
Ryeo’h nodded. “It is worth dying for a cause if the cause is just. Our cause is just.”
“Yes, I know that during times when I am not mired by depression. I have these lucid moments when everything makes sense.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “But those are few and far between. I mostly sleep my days away, hoping one of these days I won’t wake.”
“Hush,” Ryeo’h chastised and made the sign to avert evil. “We’ll make it, Irai’h. Goddess help us, it can’t be much more that our troops return!”
“It is hope,” Irai’h assured his friend. He said nothing that his hope was dying a piece at a time with each passing day.
Ryeo’h led him upstairs to an empty bedroom, where Irai’h set his bag on the floor, removed his thick cloak and shoes and climbed under the bedclothes and closed his tired eyes. He felt hollowed out, a sliver of the man he used to be. He said a prayer to the Goddess, assuring Her of his devotion and asking Her for swift passage into the next life. He did not have Ryeo’h’s hope anymore. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to survive anyway. It would be a long time before Draemin City-State returned to her previous glory. He wasn’t sure he would see if, and he found he didn’t care in the least. He allowed sleep to take him.