We crept down the hill, but there wasn’t anything to keep us hidden. We were relying solely on the laziness of the sentries—would you be paying attention if you were standing there all day—and the slightly less noticeable motion of us slowly sliding down the hill.
I think we were only barely being less conspicuous than running down the hill. At least this way, we had a slight chance of passing by unseen.
We were also totally screwed if anyone saw us because whether they shouted for the others or they began creeping towards us, we would end up drawing more attention to ourselves and the odds of us getting out unscathed were much closer to zero than I’d have liked.
Especially since I’d basically put any injury on Kase as my responsibility.
It was definitely one of my stupider moves.
Kase gestured for me to keep following him when he noticed I’d paused. When I didn’t move, he cast me a quizzical glance.
What? He seemed to be saying.
I gestured to the nearest sentry, who was turned in our general direction at the moment.
The sentry’s head turned away for a moment and I took another step, half falling to where Kase was. Since I was falling and, therefore, not being entirely careful, I managed to knock a rock loose and it rolled down the hill, falling into the river with a nice plunk.
The sentry turned our way immediately and we ducked down behind the large rock Kase had been behind.
Kase shot me a look that conveyed “way to go” perfectly.
I cast him a helpless look in return and tried to gesture rolling head over heels with just my hands.
The sentry sounded like he was walking towards us and we both stilled. After a moment, we heard him muttering to himself.
“This is what I get for taking a double shift,” He said. “I get paranoid and start thinking that someone is going to try to cross the river.” He scoffed to himself. “No one comes down here.”
A small puff of air came from next to me and I turned to see Kase giggling with his hands over his mouth.
I made a motion across my throat, trying to get him to stop, but he couldn’t; he was laughing too hard.
I made a face and reached over and pinched him on the arm.
He yelped and we both froze again, both of us only barely breathing.
“Who’s there?” The sentry called.
We didn’t move, but slowed down our breathing.
“I should get paid more for this,” He said, walking back up to his post.
It took a long moment, but Kase and I began to breathe normally again.
Kase cast me an irritated look as he rubbed his arm, but we kept creeping down the hill. I let Kase lead and moved sideways down the hill, being careful not to slip but also keeping an eye on the sentry.
I went to go place my foot, but something gripped my leg before I put it down. I turned away from the sentry long enough to see Kase preventing me from putting my foot down, he pointed down and I saw what looked to be a moss-covered rock.
He shook his head very firmly and gestured for me to move to the side like he had.
I cast him an odd look, but kept following him, skipping stepping on the rock.
Kase glanced up to the sentry and turned back to me. “Ask me what that was after we cross the river,” He said.
I cast him an odd look, but nodded, still not daring to speak.
We crept closer to the water until all we could hear was the flowing water, but I did glance back and notice that there were a few tree branches that covered this section of the river. Or whatever you could call something that wasn’t quite a river or a stream. It looked a little… dry, but it was still wide.
“Oh,” Kase said, looking at the river gravely.
I glanced at him, but he didn’t elaborate. I glanced back at the river. “Uh, want to expand for people not in your head?”
Kase looked up at me. “The river is very dry,” He said.
I looked at the ‘river.’ “I think I could tell,” I said, “Judging by how it’s not nearly as wide as a river generally would be.”
Kase nodded. “It’s approximately fifty feet wide right now, but usually it’s at least twice that. I know that we haven’t gotten rain in a while, but I didn’t think the drought was this serious.”
I looked at him, “So it’s not just a famine?”
Kase shook his head. “That’s what they tell us,” He said, with far too much seriousness for a young kid, “But we all know that we haven’t gotten rain. If we haven’t gotten rain, then the farmlands that are in the rain shadow aren’t going to get any water, which means that around half of our food supply is gone.”
I blinked. “Half?” I asked incredulously.
Kase nodded, moving into the river a bit, picking his way across stones. “Yep. The royals aren’t good about sharing resources, so they each are in charge of gathering one and they trade it to get money. Black is the kingdom that does all the logging, but they’re also located in the perfect spot to trade, so we tend to be the trading central. That said, there isn’t really a designated trading spot. We just happen to have the most developed port.”
I watched, thinking about it as he took another careful step.
“Are you coming?” He asked.
I looked up to see him looking at me, his head tilted slightly to one side.
“Yeah,” I replied, half-paying attention still. “What are the other kingdoms like?” I asked, stepping into the water.
“Step on that rock, but skip that one,” He said, motioning to the rocks in order. He turned away and kept picking his way along. “I don’t know, actually. Kai keeps telling me that we’ll sneak across the border sometime to see, but he hasn’t taken me yet.”
I glanced up at Kase’s back, then looked back at the rocks, stepping on the same ones he had. “You have to sneak across the border?”
“Yeah,” Kase sighed. He didn’t speak for a moment and I began to wonder if he’d explain. “The royals are a rather selfish lot—sorry, I spend a lot of time with Gliss—and they hate sharing their subjects about as much as they hate sharing resources. Most people make a living by buying wood from the royals and turning them into something and selling it back to them for a profit. They’re basically the center of the market here, but there are also a few of us that never had the money to buy the wood with in the first place, and the royals aren’t very fond of loans.”
I waited for him to finish the thought, but he didn’t. “So…?” I prompted.
He still didn’t say anything.
I thought to myself, trying to piece together the puzzle myself. “What happens to the people who don’t have the starting money to make a living? They just live on the streets, I’m sure, and they probably starve—” I couldn’t bring myself to think with emotion right now, because I knew all too well what it was like to be near starving.
“Most do starve,” Kase said, not letting me finish my thought. “Others, Russ finds and puts to work in slightly less legal ways.”
“Like this,” I said flatly.
Kase didn’t reply, but this time, I took that as confirmation.
“So all of you as a group, what? Make your living by stealing and trying to garner pity?” I was slightly appalled that a group so big had to do that. Surely they could gather enough money together to try to start something to sell?
“Mostly stealing,” Kase replied. “No one really pities others, here.” He smiled to himself, “You’re lucky I even know what that means.”
I hadn’t thought of that, but come to think of it, had I been talking to any other kid, they’d probably either be running in the other direction once I glanced at them or they’d have no idea what I was talking about. Another problem with knowing a lot of stuff, you don’t know how to unknow the stuff.
“Thank you for knowing what that means?” I offered, smiling slightly.
Kase laughed, “You’re welcome.” He kept picking his way across the river, and this time, I didn’t prompt him out of his silence.
When he reached the other side, he stood by the bank, waiting for me to cross after him.
Once I reached him, he stopped me from moving up. “This will be the hardest part,” He said seriously. “Once we take a few steps up, the sentries will be able to see us if they’re looking. We have a few options, run and hope that they aren’t paying attention at all, or creep up slowly, trying to stay as tiny as possible to look like some sort of bush.”
“Won’t they think that we’re the wrong color?” I asked, frowning.
Kase smirked, “How far away can you see colors accurately before you can only tell that they’re dark or light.”
I held my hands up. “I’m not the one who knows this place,” I said. “Ignore me.”
“Not happening,” Kase said. “I like the company.”
I cast him an odd look and he smiled. “I come up here a lot to get nuts. The trees are all walnut and oak, and certain acorns are actually edible.”
I thought for a moment, conceding the logic in that. “Kai lets you?” I asked, finding a single flaw in that.
“What Kai doesn’t know doesn’t hurt him,” Kase said. “I was actually heading up here anyway. Getting nuts is almost a daily thing. You’re lucky that Kai caught me before I left.”
“Caught you,” I repeated.
“Oh, I mean stopped me before I left to ask me to help you,” He clarified. For a moment, he looked horrified. “If he knew…” He shook his head. “Please don’t tell him. Either he’ll try to keep me in the warehouse forever, or he’s never going to talk to me again.”
I think my brain was so far gone at this point that I couldn’t figure out what kind of person Kai was. The best I could do was think of Kase as some sort of brainiac kid who was more daring than he originally seemed.
“I won’t,” I said. “How are you going to carry the nuts?”
Kase gestured to his bag. “Why would I lug such a cumbersome thing around if I didn’t need it?”
I couldn’t figure out whether I should dwell on the fact that he had used the word ‘cumbersome’ or that his bag was looking a lot emptier than I had originally thought it was.
Maybe I was going insane, but I could’ve sworn it had something in it earlier.
“Okay,” I said. “And I need to get…” I paused realizing how it sounded slightly stupid. “Sticks.”
Kase grinned. “Well, yes. Your job sounds much more difficult.”
I cast him an exasperated look. “It’s not like I went up to Russ and asked him to treat me like a baby. I grabbed a task!”
Kase shook his head. “Whatever you say, Calypso.” He was still snickering, but he calmed down a bit. “So, creep up the hill?”
I nodded. “Boys first,” I smirked.
Kase rolled his eyes. “It’s about time,” He muttered.
I chuckled, but followed after him.
It somehow felt like it was more reasonable for him to be gathering the nuts because he no doubt would be better at seeing them. He was closer to the ground and all that.
I was going to have to do a better job of not noticing people’s height.