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The house of power, p.5
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       The House of Power, p.5

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “Why aren’t you in with the saplings?” The tranquil moment in the grove was broken by Mr. Ratikan’s sharp question. He had a maddening way of emerging out of nowhere when least expected. Mr. Ratikan’s hair was matted and his old pants were wrinkled, as though he’d crawled right out of bed and into the grove.

  “I asked you a question, boy.” He swung the walking stick at Edgar’s shins, and Edgar didn’t move, thinking a little cruelty might soften Mr. Ratikan’s mood. It didn’t. “Where have you been hiding this morning?” he demanded.

  Edgar wasn’t sure how to answer. He hadn’t slept or eaten in a long while and he couldn’t think clearly.

  “All right, if that’s the way you want it,” said Mr. Ratikan. “There’ll be no water and no food until you tell me. And don’t think of lying about it—I’ve asked around and I know where you haven’t been. I want to know where you have been.”

  Mr. Ratikan poked Edgar in the chest with the walking stick and almost knocked him off his feet, but the boy stayed quiet. Edgar could think of no lie to cover his tracks, and he certainly couldn’t tell Mr. Ratikan the truth of where he’d been.

  “Now get to those saplings and don’t stop until you’ve finished the rest of them! I suspect a little hard work and hunger will open that closed mouth of yours.”

  As he silently watched Mr. Ratikan walk away, stooping under low-hanging limbs, Edgar realized “the rest of them” meant over fifty saplings. To trim each one would take until late afternoon even if he worked fast. It would be a long day with no water and no food.

  Edgar went to the sapling field and started to trim the first of many small trees. These were the babies—the future of the grove—and they stood only a little taller than he was. The bark was thin like paper. A gentle breath on the tiny green leaves would make them dance all around, but not let go.

  The trees were only a year old and they would grow quickly. By the time they were two they would produce a crop of figs, and when they were three they would produce one more crop—known as the third-year harvest—and then be cut down, the insides scooped out for dough. The trees were a miracle of production: figs, dough, paper, wood for building and burning—nearly every part was put to use.

  But the trees in the grove had problems as well. They consumed enormous amounts of water, which meant Tabletop could grow only a few hundred at a time, leaving even less water for the resi dents of the village. Two hundred saplings, just a hundred second-years (for the saplings were delicate, and half were dead by the second year), a hundred more third years—this was all the grove could handle and still provide enough water for the village. The best of the trees produced less than a hundred usable figs a year, while many of the fragile trees produced nothing but hard black balls.

  The greatest danger from the fig trees came if they were left in the ground more than a few weeks after the third-year harvest. The leaves became toxic to the touch, and the bark transformed into a bright orange moss that dried out and turned to dust. If the dust caught in the air, many in the grove suffered an agonizing cough that lasted for weeks. This, Edgar suspected, was one of the most important reasons Mr. Ratikan was so strict about the fig harvesting schedule. There was little room for error.

  Edgar tried to work fast all day, but more than once found he was sleeping right where he stood. He went from tree to tree, trimming and pruning, entirely lost in his own world as the day slowly passed into the dinner hour. As he neared the end of the last row of saplings, Edgar snapped out of his reverie when he heard a crack and something shot just a hair past his head. He ducked and instantly reached for his sling.

  “I saw you.”

  Edgar spun around and saw Isabel standing about ten paces away, reloading from a little bag full of black figs hanging around her waist. She began swinging the sling once more, and Edgar froze. She let one end of the string go with a pop, and an other black fig flew a few inches over Edgar’s head.

  “You’ve gone mad!” he screamed, fumbling in his side pocket to seize his own weapon. But Isabel had already reloaded and was swirling another black fig over her head. She was unbelievably swift in her movements.

  “I followed you before dinner last night,” she said. “I saw what you did.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Edgar, loading his sling. “Put that thing down!”

  “I know where you went and what you were doing.”

  She let go of the string once more with a snap, and this time the black fig nearly grazed the right side of Edgar’s head.

  “I’ve always known.”

  Always known? Could it be true? And when had she made the sling? Edgar didn’t think anyone else had thought to make one, and certainly not Isabel. It was clear she had mastered its use. She could aim it and throw with force.

  “We can’t talk if you keep throwing those things at me,” said Edgar.

  “I wasn’t going to hit you,” she said. “I’ve better aim than you and I can throw a black fig farther. Do you want to know why? Because I spend my time practicing while you climb around trying to get yourself killed!”

  Now Edgar was angry. Who did this nine-year-old girl think she was, following him around and spying on him day and night? He would show her how wrong she was.

  Edgar loaded a black fig into his sling and began swinging it over his head.

  “Do you see that second-year tree down the line, the one on the very end?”

  Isabel nodded. It was a long way off down a narrow path through the trees. Edgar’s black fig whizzed through the air down the path and glanced off the trunk. Not a direct hit, but a hit nonetheless on a target so far away Isabel could never hit it.

  “I don’t know what it is you’re doing climbing around up there,” she said, fishing around for a fig in her little bag. “It’s dangerous! And it’s against the rules—I mean the really big rules, the ones you can’t break or they take you away.”

  “Why must you always sneak around?” said Edgar. His secret was known by someone—and not just any someone. It was Isabel!

  She stepped closer to Edgar and began swinging the black fig in a wide circle over her head. Edgar realized for the first time that her sling was longer than his, quite a bit longer. Around and around it went, gaining speed and force. When Isabel let it go, Edgar was astounded to see that it plainly traveled much faster than Edgar’s had. And not only that, but it hit the very center of the second-year tree that his had only glanced.

  It was true. Isabel was a better shot than he was. And she probably could hurl a black fig farther than he could, too.

  “A long time ago I watched you make a sling, so I made one, too.”

  Edgar didn’t know what to think. He showed no emotion—only a blank stare—which wasn’t surprising, having had no sleep or water or food for so long.

  Isabel stood before him, her anger having turned to concern. “Last night, when you didn’t return for so very long—” Isabel broke off, embarrassed, and tried to find the right words. “I thought you were never coming back.”

  Edgar was finally beginning to understand that he’d spent so much energy trying to keep people away for such a long time—to remain hidden—that he hadn’t realized Isabel’s true intentions. She wanted only to be his friend. And yet he was still angry.

  “I don’t trust anyone,” said Edgar. “And I’m afraid you’ll tell someone.”

  Isabel turned and scampered off into the trees a short distance away. When she returned, she held out a handful of dough and a cup of water to Edgar. Isabel had come to him at his weakest, and he couldn’t resist reaching for it.

  “Why must you climb the cliffs when you know it’s forbidden?” Isabel asked, pulling the dough and the water back so Edgar couldn’t reach it.

  “I can’t tell you.”

  The two were at a standoff. They were like two lonely saplings standing near one another, rooted to the ground, unable to come any closer.

  “I have my reasons for climbing the cliffs,” said E
dgar. “I can’t tell you what they are, only that they are very important.”

  Isabel’s dark eyebrows were her most expressive feature, and they moved up just a little, which told Edgar she wished he would go on. When Edgar had nothing more to offer, Isabel relented and handed over the dough and water.

  “I won’t tell anyone what you’re doing, I promise I won’t. And we’ll never be friends if I keep sneaking around trying to understand you, so I won’t do it anymore.”

  Edgar gulped some water and swallowed a hunk of the dough, barely chewing it. He’d always been alone, but now found himself with Isabel and Samuel—two allies where before he’d had none. The speed at which things were moving made him nervous, and yet the idea of having companions he could trust captivated him.

  “There’s been a lot of talk in the grove these past few days,” said Isabel.

  Edgar looked up nervously, wondering if word of his climbing had gotten out.

  “Oh, no—they don’t know anything about the climbing,” Isabel reassured him, as if reading his mind.

  “What, then?”

  “Remember when the ground shook yesterday and the day before that?”

  Edgar nodded.

  “People are scared. The adults gathered in the village last night, but I couldn’t get close enough to hear them. They’re preparing for something. And that man, do you remember him, the one who was sick at dinner the other night?”

  Edgar nodded again.

  “Well, he’s still sick. From what I’ve overheard, he hasn’t eaten or been back to work. He just lies in bed moaning. People are nervous about it. They think maybe it was something in the grove that caused it.”

  “You mean something he ate?”

  Isabel shrugged. “I don’t know.”

  “Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with us,” Edgar said, changing the subject. The water and food were clearing his head, and there was a little more energy in his legs. “In a couple of nights I have to go somewhere. Do you think you could do something for me?”

  Isabel’s eyebrows darted up. Maybe he had decided to trust her after all.

  “Tomorrow night, if I’m up to it, I’ll be traveling to the Village of Rabbits on an important errand. I could use some food and water for the journey. Do you think you could get anything for me?”

  “I can always get more than I need.”

  Her reply made Edgar realize once again that he had long underestimated the cleverness of this girl of the grove.

  “You know where I usually sleep, on the far side of the main grove?”

  Isabel nodded.

  “Can you meet me there in the morning with something to eat, and again after dinner?”

  “I can.”

  Edgar ate the last of the dough and drank what was left in the cup, then handed the cup back to Isabel. The two of them parted ways. Isabel walked toward Mr. Ratikan’s house and Edgar went the other way, to the place where he slept.

  Not long after, Edgar heard the snap of a sling and ducked down in the grove. A black fig slammed into a tree beside him and bounced along the ground at Edgar’s feet. When he looked back there was no one, only the trees of the grove and the sound of a girl laughing in the distance.

  CHAPTER

  8

  THE VILLAGE OF RABBITS

  True to her word, Isabel brought food to Edgar the next day and night. They talked, but only a little, and Isabel was careful not to ask too many questions. Edgar was surprised to see how much food she was able to bring, and he was especially pleased by the water, which was much harder to attain. She was really quite resourceful.

  Edgar had enjoyed a good night of sleep in the soft undergrowth of the grove and an easy day of work almost entirely free of encounters with Mr. Ratikan. As he stood in the early evening light, ready to embark on his journey, a chill of excitement ran through him. This would be Edgar’s first exploration in Tabletop away from the grove.

  “Do you need any black figs?” asked Isabel. “I’ve got some.”

  Edgar shook his head, for he already had two of his own. He was in the habit of traveling light.

  “I could make you one of these little bags that tie around your waist. Mine holds ten black figs. You could bury the bag like I do and only take it out when you need it.”

  Edgar had to admit it seemed like a good idea for the future, because he’d never felt quite so vulnerable before. He’d broken two of the rules of Tabletop, and planned to continue doing it. Carrying around more black figs seemed a good idea.

  “Be careful,” said Isabel, and she was off, racing through the grove to the village on the other side.

  There were three villages in Tabletop, and each produced something different—rabbits in one, fig trees in another, and sheep in the third. The farms and villages were near the waterfalls, and Edgar had to stay wide of them to avoid being seen. Later, when he was well clear of the grove, he could veer back and walk along the cliffs.

  Tabletop turned dry and dusty as he moved farther away from the water. After a while Edgar bent down and touched the ground. It was hard and infertile, completely devoid of life. As he stood in the silence, feeling a little cold and alone, the ground began to move. It was slow at first, but a moment later the wave of movement became stronger and shook dust into the air. Edgar knelt down on the ground, waiting and wondering. It didn’t last very long, and when it was over, Edgar got up and began to run until he was able to put the strange occurrence out of his mind.

  Edgar had brought with him a single dried fig—a rare treasure that had been secretly hidden away since the last harvest. This was not a black fig, but rather one that had once been fresh and chewy. If these were saved long enough, they turned hard and crumbly, but they tasted magnificent. This was not true of black figs, which were entirely inedible. The farther Edgar got away from the grove, he knew, the more the little treasure would be worth. Edgar thought that in the Village of Rabbits, he could probably get ten rabbits for the dried fig in his pocket, though rabbits were beside the point. What he sought was information about Samuel’s father.

  It may have crossed your mind by now to ask why figs were such a coveted item on Atherton, and a long, dull walk across a lifeless plain seems as good a time as any to tell you. There were no candies or chocolate on Atherton, no sugar or sweets to speak of. Unless of course a person happened to have a fig, in which case everything could be made sweeter, whether the fig was fresh off the tree, churned into butter, or dried and ground into powder. In Tabletop figs were truly a treasure because the Highlands wanted them all. Of the thousands of figs harvested, only a tenth remained in Tabletop, and those were often plucked in secret during the harvest, taken out one by one and stashed in a hat or a pocket.

  When Edgar came upon the Village of Rabbits, it was late and he was cautious as he crept into town. It was a young place. The oldest person in the village was forty, and about three hundred people lived there. They didn’t have a burial ground because nobody who lived in the Village of Rabbits had ever died.

  Edgar hoped he might find someone he could talk to, someone who wouldn’t ask too many questions but might be able to answer a few of his. He made his way down the dusty main street and entered the one public establishment that was open—an old inn with a kitchen that served rabbit, rabbit, and more rabbit. They also offered small servings of water, but it was far too expensive for most passing through.

  When Edgar entered, he caught the smell of meat cooking. A woman was sweeping a hard dirt floor with a broom. The room was poorly lit by a fire in the middle, where a man was turning three whole rabbits skewered on a stick. It smelled awfully good.

  One of the three small tables in the room was occupied by a man and a woman, and the other two were empty. Edgar strolled past the fire and sat at one of the open tables.

  “It’s a bit late for a stranger to be out.” It was the woman sitting at the table. “What’s a young boy like you doing away from home at such a late hour?”

  Edgar had
expected questions and he’d concocted a story. “I work in the big grove. Well, actually, I live in the big grove.” He paused and put on a face of embarrassment, hoping they would see him for the orphan he was. “My caretaker sent me to get rabbits for a celebration, and I got a late start. We’re very busy in the grove.”

  “Mr. Ratikan? I’ve heard he’s quite a hard man to work for,” remarked the fellow who sat with the woman. He had a beard that grew in patches on his face, as though he weren’t quite old enough to make it work but was determined to try.

  “I hope he’s not expecting you to work tomorrow,” added the woman. “You’ll be walking most of the night to get back by morning.”

  Edgar nodded somberly before he answered.

  “It will be a long walk back and a busy day in the grove tomorrow. He does make us work long hours, but I don’t mind, really I don’t.”

  “You see there? Mr. Ratikan is a hard man, I’ve heard that before,” said the man, pleased that he had been right.

  They told Edgar their names—Morris and Amanda—and Edgar told them his. Edgar thought they seemed the type who might stay and sit at the table for hours on end talking idly about nothing in particular to whomever passed through. He looked to the fire in the middle of the room and watched as the man poked one of the rabbits with a sharp stick, and watery blood dripped out. The coals hissed and smoked.

  “How do you expect to pay for these rabbits you seek?” said the man at the fire. He had black hair that looked like dark water and a solemn face reflecting orange and yellow light.

  Edgar fished around in his pocket for the dried fig and set it on the table, which produced an abrupt change in Morris and Amanda’s leisurely tone. The two were overcome with a sudden interest, and the man turning the rabbits licked his lips, thinking of a taste he hadn’t enjoyed in quite a while.

  “Mr. Ratikan wants ten rabbits for it,” said Edgar. “That’s what he told me to ask for.”

 
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