It was terrible and thrilling. With every step Miea took into the planting field, she grew more certain that something was very wrong here. At the same time, though, she couldn’t help but feel a bit of excitement at simply being in this place again. To be doing something instead of presiding over everything.
She knelt to examine the cancerous blond spots on a cluster of leaves. She ran a finger over the deep green striations on another set. She understood what it all meant and this weighed upon her.
Yet the smallest part of her felt somehow lighter. Some reachable part of her mind felt the faintest measure of buoyancy at simply returning to a place where she could be close to the earth. She felt sense memories of the thousands of days of her youth spent planting, nurturing, and cultivating, and especially the liberating summer out in these very fields, perpetually dirty, wearing the grime as casually as her colleagues did, thankfully unaware of the changes that waited only months in the future.
The lightness evaporated and the full gravity of her current function returned. Miea was too young to recall the Great Blight clearly, but there were reminders everywhere. In the bleak pigment sculptures of Naria Solani. In the discordant tone poetry of The Age of Wither. In the dozens of volumes of history and analysis and revision that had been solemnly committed to the page in the years since. What she did recall from that time was the clipped exchanges between her parents, the way they’d challenged, questioned, and criticized each other as their world teetered. Miea had felt uncomfortable being near them, unaccustomed to seeing them act this way together. She remembered wishing desperately that there would be less tension, that her home could have the harmony she’d always believed was there.
Then suddenly it was so. The Blight was gone. Without explanation. Within two seasons, the ebony loam of the fields had spawned shoots as azure, indigo, and cerulean as ever before. Miea assumed that her parents had never forgotten how close everything had come to falling apart and probably always remembered that they’d nearly alienated each other forever. Things had never really seemed the same between them after that. Regardless, life on the other side of the Blight had been prosperous and promising.
But now these blond marks. These green veins.
“This does not necessarily signify anything,” Thuja said gravely.
Miea turned to face the craggy minister of agriculture, more than four decades her senior. He hadn’t wanted her to come here. He’d tried to use his considerable influence to prevent it, failing to understand how much Miea needed to see this herself.
“That’s difficult to believe.”
“Diseases—minor ones—happen all the time. Especially out here in the far reaches. We discover their causes and we cure them.”
Miea tilted her head. “And what is the cause of this particular disease?”
The man averted his eyes. Surely, he hated having this kind of confrontation with someone so young. He was just going to have to deal with that. “It is early. We will find it.”
Miea let her fingernails skim the dark earth. The soil was so rich, so moist with the nutrient-filled morning rains that distinguished the territory of Jonrae. It was difficult to imagine that something destructive thrived here. It was even more difficult, though, to deny her instincts.
“If there is any chance to cut this off before it begins to spread, we must.”
“We have people working every daylight minute. Farmers, scientists, specialists.” Thuja spoke more quickly than he usually did. A clear indication that, despite his words, he was nervous about what they’d found here.
“I want biweekly reports.”
Miea saw Thuja recoil ever so slightly at her tone of voice. Then he nodded with studied deference. “It will be done.”
“And I will return here in the near future.”
Thuja made a show of glancing around him. “That might not be the most productive thing. I do not mean you disrespect, Your Majesty, but I believe your presence makes people nervous.” He smiled professionally and extended his hand to help Miea stand. She looked away from him, turning toward a shrunken vine.
As she did, she remembered her mother’s outrage at her decision to spend months in these fields. “The entire summer?” Mother had said. “Spend a few days if you insist. Spending the entire summer is ludicrous. There are other things to do. Other places you need to be.”
“But no place else I want to be.”
Her mother had frowned and walked away. Once again, Miea hadn’t been sure where that left their conversation. At dinner that night, her father had spoken with her about her planned summer in Jonrae and her mother hadn’t objected. Maybe Mother had realized how much the trip meant to her. Maybe she hadn’t understood at all. It was one of many things left forever unresolved.
Miea held a withered leaf between her thumb and forefinger. Was it possible that she’d sowed the seeds for this plant herself? This cluster of vines could easily be four years old. The field supervisor, forever favoring her, had assigned her duties as close to the gatehouse as he could without his soft treatment of her making her angry, so she’d always worked near where she now stood. The thought—of all of it: her days in the fields, the skittish supervisor, the diseased plant, and her lost mother—threatened to bring tears to her eyes. Tears that she could not let fall. She wouldn’t allow Thuja to see her cry, and it would be wrong to let the others see it.
She bent to kiss the leaf. To will some of her spirit into its blue planes.
The leaf came off in her hands.
Miea bowed her head and closed the leaf in her palm. She shut her eyes tightly and silently whispered a plea for strength and answers. Then she placed the leaf gently on the dirt. She rose, not wishing to make eye contact with Thuja, but finding it impossible to avoid the worried gaze of his associates.
She had been a child during the Great Blight, aware of the disturbance in her household, but ignorant of the larger and more portentous implications for the world around her. She was not a child any longer. If the Blight returned, what else would be different this time?
“We need to go,” she said quietly, nearly to herself.
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