Alright, we are not panicking. No panicking at all.
"Rosalia? Are you feeling ill again? Oh Papa, get her the sick bag." I can hear Mother fuss.
For some odd reason, my grandfather has decided to take us on another one of his crazy hot balloon field trips. No biggie. Let's not panic...
...Why are we heading to the leper colony?!!?!?!
Alright, let's still not panic. It's just a little lower on oxygen up here, and thus harder to breathe. Panicking is very bad.
Breathe Rosalia girl, breathe.
I have the power of reason and an actual brain on my side. Let's just breathe and think things through. No, I do not need a barf bag!
After all, Gable is here. Nothing too horrible can happen if Gable is here. Even if we are headed into a disease outpost of quarantined and ostracized people suffering from a seemingly incurable and honestly very frightening looking disease.
Made all the worse by being in this world!
Imagine if one day you wake up, feeling not so well.
Maybe you have a rash, some swollen limbs, feel a bit faint, or are covered in lesions and infected wounds? By chance, you go see whatever constitutes an actual medical professional in this world. By chance they are not an amazingly magical healer, by chance, they diagnose you with the classic case of leprosy, possibly by screaming and backing away.
Well faster than you can ask just what it is you have, you've won a one-way all-inclusive ticket to the leprosarium! Effective immediately! Return trip not included.
It is known as the place the infected go to die. To be sent there is practically a death sentence, a grim isolation to protect the healthy.
If caught, if rounded up, anyone with even the mildest confirmed symptoms, by general law, gets sent to the leper colony. Which is why so many people hide it. The disease itself seemingly incurable, highly infectious, and an ultimate mark of sin and sickness.
Or so is the belief.
Coming from another world, I have a bit more knowledge on various fields. Including but not limited to, not getting scared shitless by just anything.
Really everyone? Infectious diseases can be terrifying yes, deadly in many instances. But they don't have anything to do with morality or some angry gods giving out plague-worthy deaths like talk show hosts give out free cars. You get leprosy! You get the bubonic plague! Everyone in the audience gets a voucher for a cruel and painful death!
Now, I do have to take a mental step back. Perhaps, the disease in this magical world is not the same one I'm thinking of?
Once again, I am a modern tourist, what I know may not be what's going on here.
Rosalia Ventrella may have been educated but was no medical physician. In fact, who needs a medical degree when you have 'poof poof kiss and make it all better' heroine Lilyanne? Well not like physicians here all had it right and good either.
One of the cures for noblemen was literally to drink gold? Since gold was a 'pure' substance'. Uh huh, how did that work out for everyone? It didn't? No shit. What about bathing in the donated blood of virgins or infants?
Yeah, let's not trust the maniac medieval doctors too much.
From what I do remember of the symptoms and the public revulsion to the disease, it sounds to match up.
Until the balloon touches down, and I see first hand just what horrors my grandfather and Gable have planned, I shall continue staying shocked still with Georgie here. Praise be Gable, just believe in Gable. I am a safe, reasonable and intelligent girl. I can deal with this in a sane manner.
Perhaps it is the lack of oxygen but at this exact moment, a random scene, and very random conversation makes its way to my recollection. The kind that can only be possible with the internet, alcohol, and dumbasses.
"Just don't lick an armadillo." another voice rings out in my head.
Thank you brain, for that wonderful contribution.
As much of a good student I'll give Jung-Joon credit for, he was, is, a very big dumbass sometimes.
"Seriously, just don't lick an armadillo? Generally, it's impossible to catch it as fast as a zombie outbreak. Did you know 95% of the population is actually immune to Hansen's disease?"
He would state casually. Interrupting the not so scary, ha I've built an immunity to your horror shit, show we were binge-watching while stealing my snacks. It was very rude how he always reached around my shoulders and stayed there for easy but awkward access to the snack bowl. But persistent to the point, I just gave up.
"...Why armadillos? Who licked a damn armadillo and figured that out?" anyone would ask, myself included.
Not like, why the hell would he know this? It was the age of the Internet. Access to the widest amount of information. Oh, I miss the Internet so much.
"They just have the perfect low body temperatures to naturally carry the bacteria. Other than humans. Oh my god, Mycobacterium is just..."
He would wave, unable to put into words just how....exciting bacteria was. Sometimes even run his hands through his lazy hair in a way that could be called very cute, if whatever he was saying wasn't so distracting.
"We can't grow them in cell cultures? Labs? It only survives in living cells, we use mice, well just the footpads to grow them, and-"
"Can we go back to watching bad historical fantasy zombies in peace?... And you never answered me, who licked a damn armadillo in the first place?!"
"It spreads through the droplets in the nasal cavity and-"
"Who licked a damn armadillo to figure this shit out?!"
"I...honestly don't know? Wikipedia it?"
I may have tossed off that information, begged even, to end it. But now I mentally dig to recall everything I can. Not just that random conversation, nor how the fucker stole all my good popcorn, but literally any relevant information I can regarding the disease. Documentaries. Stereotypes and myth-busting. General health common sense.
Let's list it out.
Hansens's disease as it was named in my world, and not like some ancient scary leprosy, was a very old skin disease caused by bacteria.
"Mycobacterium. The same thing that runs tuberculosis. It's mycobacteruim leprae-"
Alright, shutty up annoying other voice in my head. Go grow bacteria in space or some shit.
That's not actually relevant right now. I need stone-cold medieval usable facts.
-It was very treatable with multiple antibiotics.
-It does not actually cause your limbs to fall off, but causes numbness. Making a person much more susceptible to infection and amputation of digits and limbs.
-It attacks the nerves but most noticeably swelling in the hands, feet, and face. Late stages are often marked with very visible disabilities.
-It's actually not very contagious and takes a very long time for the bacteria to grow or spread. This may make people carriers if they're in that lucky 95%, but that number might not be relevant here. Or people can have the dormant disease but not know it for years due to the slow growth. Symptoms may never show at all before they die of something else.
-It's spread usually from the mouth or nose of an infected person after a long time of close exposure, such as living in close quarters and poorer sanitation...or contact with animals like an armadillo.
Do armadillos even exist here?
Not a curse. Not divine wrath and retribution for your mortal wrongdoings. Not even hereditary as some more reasonable scholars suspect.
A lot of the information known in this world is incorrect from many standpoints. Medically. Scientifically. Common sense. Even the kind in the original Rosalia's education.
It's a whole different world, far far back in time!
If I published a medical pamphlet right now with my shoddy memory, it would probably cause the world to go into shock and uproar. If it was taken seriously that is.
Understandably most people, the illiterate public especially, wouldn't have the resources or education to understand nor process that. If someone started spotting lesions all over their body, losing parts, and going blind, well then off to die you go!
We even have some strange discriminatory customs. Such as a special type of robe. Or it being mandatory for the diseased to wear a bell or clapper wherever they go, to warn people that a 'diseased' was coming.
Of course, that's if they haven't already been caught and sent to the leprosarium.
They exist in every country, every land, as far as I know from the original's knowledge. To be fair, some did act as medical facilities to try and treat the 'patients'. But it's hard to say, they're so varied and isolated far away from the rest of society.
It's mostly known that there were terrible disease-ridden places where people can only await death. At most, they can pray for a little less pain. It's better to live out the rest of your days wasting away than be beaten by an angry mob or burned and buried alive by your own fearful village. Perhaps the worst part of the disease is how people fear it.
The one in the mountainous edge by the 'badlands' of my family's territory is supposedly one of those medical facilities. Of course, Rosalia knows about it. There are costs and upkeeps to keep it running after all.
But I've never seen it personally. Never stepped foot near it! I'm a pampered little noble lady that died the good old fashioned schemed against with murder way.
"I don't think Rosa is ok!" points out Lukas without any consideration.
I am very ok for any toddler on the way to the leprosy colony. Just feeling faint.
"Oh dear! Rosa, just use the sick bag." Mother fusses.
To be fair, the barf bag is very useful.
More for Georgie than me though. He's the one that ends up hurling on the hot air balloon. Not me.
Ha! I know better than to eat before rides.
I didn't learn that from a hard-earned experience on the balloon or anything. The only witnesses to those shameful times are a crazy old man, some unreliable brats, and a blessedly silent Gable. My honor is safe!
Let's just hurry up and get this over with.
The ride ends in the usual way, with Grampa touching down gently. Though the pressure change does give me an uncomfortable sensation in my ears sometimes.
Apprehension aside, it doesn't look like a scary place?
At least so far?
Grampa parked the balloon outside on a field of nothing. As is the standard safety procedure. So far, we passed over even more nothing. The badlands being filled with eroded and drying up lakes and river beds. As well as empty mountains. It's a very desolate place with no people, perfect for the quarantine colony away from society.
But where is it?
"Where exactly are we?" I ask, allowing Mother to scoop me up in an overly concerned manner after undoing my seatbelts.
She acts as if I'm already ill. To be fair, I do not have a great history after long rides on anything.
My very normal and much older assistant, however, is clutching onto the solid ground in great relief after getting out the balloon. He's fine on carriages? Geez, he acts like some country bumpkin that's never been on a car let alone a flying vehicle propelling the human body at an unstable height generally unknown to man.
"Well....it's somewhere...that some very unfortunate people live. They've taken ill." Mother tries to answer my question in the most age appropriate manner.
"Pssst, Maria. Big girl! She already knows that part!" Grampa fails at whispering over from where he started deflating the balloon.
"Why do I feel as if you didn't tell her the way I told you?" Gable taps at Grampa's side.
"Trust me, Gabe. This is the most effective way."
"The last time I trusted you was nearly 30 years ago."
"It's been 30 years?"
Worriedly, Mother fusses in a basket from the balloon while Gable and Grampa do another one of their comedy skits. She has her 'aha, found it' moment when she pulls out something that resembles a perfume bottle. While it is very pretty, I don't see the point. Nor when she tips the open mouth to a handkerchief to rub the stinky stuff all over us helpless kids. Lukas and Lilyanne already gagging from where they get assaulted.
Bleh, I don't think we smell very good?
"Alright, nice and safe! Oh and Georgie too! Can't forget you, oh. Oh dear. You're so fragile, oh dear this might not be enough." she spritz and rubs more perfume all over him, from his hands to behind his ears.
Is this sanitizer? Bug spray? Melted magic gold? Am I any cleaner or safer with this stuff?
A horn blows in the not so far distance, while a dust cloud approaches closer and closer to us. Before long, a carpentum carriage arrives. It's much larger and noisier, with metal shodden wheels, but rounder, more streamlined and sturdier than the average. With not one but two drivers, recognizable with the troop's emblem and higher rank issued pieces of leather and carapace armor.
Without leaving the vehicle, they stand to respectfully salute and greet their Lord Commander, sliding open the large carriage doors. The interiors I see are not cushioned or decorated, but very comfortably spacious.
Well, that license plate matches up. Guess our ride is here.
Mother takes the first step in, not only by scooping up three live kids at once but somehow dragging along Georgie. I don't know how and I won't think about it. I just take my sliding seat and stay good.
Not mentally panicking at all.
"Do we need face masks?" I ask out loud, though more to myself than anyone.
"Why! Are we gonna do a super-secret mission? That's not what Cap told me!" Lukas responds, being right next to me in this squishy kiddy pile.
He, like my mother, does not understand the concept of personal space.
Two arms length! Keep away! Social distancing!
From the front, Gable calls back for us to behave, and that's that. The rest of the ride is rather unassuming. I can't say it's relaxing, with the outside window sight of nothing, nothing and more nothing, but fine enough. I even have time to rummage my baggie for some cloth to tie into face masks!
One for me. One for Georgie. Everyone else without common sense or magic protecting them can die I guess.
"Rosalia, take that strange thing off your face. You need to breathe. You shouldn't play like that." Mother tries warning.
"People can breathe fine even if it's uncomfortable! CO2 retention and face masks is misinformation. Prevent infection! Slow the spread! Protect yourself and others! Be considerate!"
"Oh dear....why is she like this?"
Excuse me Mother, that is my line.
As I forcibly tie one to Georgie, my confused assistant looks down to me. Confirming that his only link to survival, and knowing anything, is with me.
"Are we...going to make soap again?" he asks, fiddling with the protective face mask. "Should I cover up?"
I gasp at the revelation.
"Georgie, you're a genius. Soap!" I start rummaging through my bag, mentally calculating how much stock is in there.
"...Okay? About what?" he still hesitatingly asks.
"Grampa! What are the sanitation standards inside the leprosarium?!" I yell out, slightly muffled.
"The WHAT?!" Georgie cries, hearing it for the first time.
Before anyone can answer Georgie, or before Mother can get her hands on me, we approach to pass by a large constructed gate. However, it looks more like one of the troop's military outposts than anything, but with more rock, stone, and plastery concrete built to suit the terrain. Nothing but functionality and stationed soldiers.
The roadway is cleared, and the carriage does not stop. It goes further and further into the outpost, past courtyards, buildings, more walls, and to a desolate warehouse looking district. Like a direct transport freeway until we reach the edge of a cliffside wall.
Yet we still don't stop?
At this point, I know things aren't always what they appear. But Georgie is new to all these sights and wacky experiences. I comfort him by mutually clutching and silently screaming as we ram cart first into the mountainous wall.
Darkness. But we keep trotting along, the carriage wheels noisily bumping down the hidden tunnel. How the drivers can see anything in their compartment must be a hidden secret, some night vision functions, or something. Because the air is stale, cold, and pitch black.
Feels haunted, no lie.
A great yelping sound immediately comes out too close to my ear. Much like how one accidentally steps on a dog's tail and it cries out in pitiful shock and pain. A familiar kiddy-sized mochi mass huddles over me and Georgie, squishing us further.
"Lukas?" Georgie fumbles, steadying the boy blindly.
But light comes slowly in the way the edge of a tunnel always ends. I can make out an extra pale face in a sailor suit, shaking in unfamiliar territory. It's a very odd sight, for normally Lukas runs headfirst into everything without care. But his palmy hands brush and clutch at everything, messing up my face mask. All until I can't take it anymore and maneuver to take them into my own.
The sudden darkness is scary down here. It would be to anyone.
"Lukas. Lukas, can you hear me? You say I'm loud right, can you hear me? You can hear us all around right? It's not so scary." I try imitating my speech in a comforting way I've heard before.
Another brat's warnings immediately playing in my memory. Matching up with the unsaid hints, all adding up. Ah, where's Amar when you actually need him? He would be better at comforting the other boy.
Oddly, I don't know what else to say. Shocked still the same way Lukas shivers silently, an anxious look of restrained terror on his face. It doesn't suit him.
It looks too much like his other-self. The not so grown boy that was there at my death.
He's scared. He was scared?
My sister oooos and aaahhhhs in my mother's arms while she hums lightly. Grampa whispers something a little too loudly to Gable, who hums back in response. The wheels clicking on the rocky road still sound out too loud, especially when Lukas of all people is so silent.
He finally clutches back, fingers gone cold but the light returning to his eyes the same way light starts shining in all around. Steadily returning back to the little monster that I've gotten used to.
"...Uh huh. Didn't bring my jars." he doesn't nod, but burrows his head to Georgie's chest.
"Stupid," I say, but I don't really complain when the cold grip in my hands borders on painful.
"Nuh uh." the brat squeezes.
Maybe he's already had enough with reacting today, but Georgie simply sighs and readjusts us more comfortably in his hold. Waiting to see what it all unfolds to.
It gets brighter eventually. It always does.
If I peek up from where Lukas attempts to hide, catch just a hint of Gable looking back on us. The world opens up to blue skies and sunlight once again, and I didn't notice.
"Huh! Lily too. Lily huggles too."
My sister makes to escape Mother's arms the moment the carriage stops. A tiny force jumping to squeeze her weight onto Georgie's poor lap. She wiggles a space in between us, grasping apart Lukas' slowly warming up hands and mine to cuddle for herself. Giggling in happiness as she rolls back and forth between us.
Did she just?
Oh my god, Lilyanne no. Bad Lily! No aiming for a harem this early on!? Or ever! Is it the sailor suit?!
No one else understands. They only sigh or coo, or in my mother's case, 'kyaa~' over a cute little girl. But the knowledge of the future is as much a curse as it is my blessed cheat. Lilyanne no!
Lukas, slowly returning back to his normal state like a plant exposed to sunlight, is far from understanding just how close he is to being a cannon fodder capture target. Instead, he scrunches his cheeks and complains out to the adults.
"Gaaable! Cap! The stinky baby trying to scent mark me again!" he tattles.
You know, I don't think that's what it is but sure.
"Assert dominance Lukas! Overwhelm by scent or grapple the intruder for your territory and-"
"No! Ron! Do not? Lukas, put her down right now."
"Papa...we're not..." they all react.
Luckily, we all manage to get off the carriage in one piece, and no one goes flying out the window. Though Lukas did attempt to throw my twin in his efforts to 'assert dominance'. Never let Grampa raise a child, everyone. God knows how they'll turn out.
Outside, the other side of the tunnel opens up a beautiful valley. This is some land before time shit. Where were the empty barren lakebed and unforgiving terrain? What the hell, where does that waterfall go or come from?
On closer inspection, it's technically isolated, yes. With harsh hills and mountains on all sides, seemingly no exits. But the valley is so huge and open that it doesn't seem to be much of a problem at all.
Against the closest cliffside, buildings and homes are built right into the mountain. Descending down like a scenic staircase. Paved and built roads, an obvious design plan in place, little oddly modern details that came right out of the troops. On the overlooking outskirts, plowed fields and food production could be seen.
Rather than a dismal leprosy colony, it looks like any other scenic stone and brick self-sufficient town. Hell, it's much better than most of the farming villages I've toured!
There are even large multi-story buildings that could be apartments, hospitals, mess halls, community centers, and in-between stations for the troops guarding and working outside.
Especially ones resembling larger but plain industrial buildings in the troops. Tall, flat, and strong, as if made out of concrete and actually has piping running water through each upper floor.
Okay, I feel like I really need a good talking to with Grampa and how much he's holding out.
"Oooooooh." Lilyanne babbles, still being held back by my hand holding hers.
She seems more interested in running wild in the opposite direction of civilization. Which, as nice as it looks, is still a quarried town of isolated people stricken with diseases. So that's good.
I know my sister's strengths best.
Even in her prime, as a young woman who had full control and grasps over her amazing powers, she had her limits. She could only heal so many people in a single day. Even then, it was a case by case basis, wounds, and illness each taking a different amount of effort. Push it, and it was a risk to her own health and life.
Besides, it was never going to be enough. She is only one person, with only two hands. Against the floods of all the people ever, begging for her magic touch, how would she ever be able to survive against that never-ending wave?
There are many reasons why my family isolated us from the world. Why we held our stance, even against protests. Why they were so against free, let alone public, healings. Something she wouldn't be able to showcase until after my parents passed.
It would take Lilyanne some tiring weeks to cure a population of a village this size. But that was then. I can't say considering her current too young age, and the unknown conditions of the residents.
Besides, I don't think that's what they brought us here for. Grampa would never. He believes in being a hero for the sake of it, in lending a helping hand, in saving one more life, one more chance. But not like that.
The Ventrellas don't do handouts. We cannot save those who cannot help themselves. No one can. Nor are we responsible for that. Never were.
"That's right Lily-poo. We're heading that way!" the crazy old man, younger than he should be, holds out his hand for the little princess to take. And she does, dragging me along.
I have a lot of things I'm still not brave enough to ask about. Because I don't know if I can ever get an answer.
Where did you go?
Why did you leave us alone for so long?
Was it me? Did I do something wrong? Not enough? Or really...was it just me, something I can't help. I don't know. I won't ask stupid questions, I won't selfishly go 'me too'. It's not my place, never was.
The road we take is still paved, even as it leads to orchards and trimmed forests. Gnarled dark trees that don't look familiar, or even native to the local lands, grow in their plots. The fleshy star-shaped flowers bloom so greenly. So close to the trucks rather than the branches that they look like a type of moss of mushroom growing along the main body.
We walk deeper and deeper into the green, out of sight of the village and the troop's outpost there. Though, there are plants still around us, something feels off. Wrong.
It feels like a bad crop.
A wooden clapper sounds out, deeper in, until the orchard runs out to barren land and an overreaching tall tree, shading the whole section.
"Give your worship good morrow', gentlemen. My Lords. My lady. I thank yee for answering the call."
A plain cloaked figure greets from the far side of the tree. The voice was of a still young woman, but her figure that of a crooked elderly. It was impossible to see much under the dark corner of shade, but peeks of bandages covered her vaguely shaped hands. Most likely missing fingers. While modest veils further concealed the bottom of her face. She makes a praying gesture with those bandaged hands and bows from the distance away.
"Multa Melitta. It's good to see you again.” Grampa nods and regards her.
The title of 'multa' can be regarded with the same meaning as a mother. Indicating this person before us is a community leader or overseeing figure of some kind. Before Grampa can take a step closer, Gable resolutely stops him. Pulling out a palm that grows a small light with an incantation, Grampa smiles wryly, snapping in a lighting spark of his own.
Together, it quickly branches an invisible barrier over our small party, ending at the edge of the shaded woman's steps.
"Such wondrous little ones. Gifts of the highest order. Are they all yours?" she asks kindly, not taking offense. There is an undercurrent to her voice that is not dissimilar to my own mother or any of the women who aww over how cute we are.
"Unfortunately yes." Gable sighs. "My charge, and well..."
"Ah yes, a "charge". Pardon your graces, the uncanny resemblance almost had me making my congratulations. The world is a strange place. If anyone could make the impossible possible, well..."
"Multa Melitta." my mother ends up walking to the titled woman first, bowing humbly but a few steps away.
"Little Maria, my how you've grown! How wonderful. It feels not all that long ago when you were small and accidentally ate the fruit here. Oh it was only a large bite but you were fevered and moaned so wretchedly. They still speak of you when warning the children not to forage here."
"...Oho... yes...I certainly recall." Mother smacks at Grampa before he could start laughing.
Ahem, Mother. I think this is a story I would like to hear more of. Who eats random things and poisons themselves hmmm?
"To think you're already old enough to partake in the fruit." the woman sounds to be sighing, stroking a withered branch of the tree.
There is no fruit. No blossoms. Though it is summer. It's not hard to understand what she means by that sigh.
"This is only a temporary solution," Gable says, hiding Lukas behind his leg. A solid hand to keep the boy from wandering or interrupting.
"Isn't it all? Even this one here. It is only a temporary solution in keeping people alive, even just a little longer. Waiting for treatment to work. If that little bit of extra time could buy back someone's life. Even a temporary solution is priceless." the woman sighs partly circling the tree.
"The Hydnocarpus wightianus were incompatible with the land." Gable looks back to the grove of foreign trees.
"No. Already, every year it produces less and less. A treasure like this was already too good to exist in this world. Those green stars did no wrong, they were uprooted from their homes and planted here to be used as medicine. It's our own fault for not figuring out something sooner. We humans only know how to take."
I think I know what's kinda going on.
Hydnocarpus wightianus? I don't know much about that but they look more like tropical plants than something that should be growing around here. Placed this close to this old tree, the plants are competing for nutrients in a very limited environment already running dry.
Most importantly, the fruit of this tree is extremely valuable, life saving even.
Perhaps that's why it's hidden all the way out here. Unknown to even me. The multa isn't wrong, humans only know how to take.
"The last of them?" Grampa asks.
"Dried or already sent away by your men, for preservation. The chance of another one being grown ...is nigh impossible, but a chance is better before giving up entirely." the old woman replies, head low.
Gable lifts up Lukas to throw right into Grampa's arms. Then steps up to tap on the ground with his foot, and it feels as if the ground was a pond rippled by a rock. It sounds out, detecting everything and everyone in the vicinity. Satisfied with the level of privacy, he spells one last layer of a large barrier unseen to the naked eye.
"What happens here will stay between us. Speak and you may forfeit your life before the consuming finally gets to you." Gable warns.
Oh hot damn, I'm already swooning. Yeah sure ground, take my fall. This level of Gable intensity is just too much for my delicate maiden senses.
Wait, Georgie? Why are you on the ground with me?!
Oh well, I guess we're both swooning that bad. That's fair. How can anyone resist? That or the earth literally shook. It might as well have with how magnificent Gable looked and sounded just now. Look, even Grampa is almost swooning for a man!
"Rosalia, will you come here please?" Gable calls out to me, specifically me. Oho ho ho!
Rolling myself off the ground, I run off to his perfect outreached hand, beautiful background of dead and dying trees and all.
"Remember how we've worked on plants before?" he kneels down to tell me.
"Yes. I know how to control Lilyanne on that much." I recall last year, all the tests and experiments that may have included exploding fruit.
"This one will be a little more intense, think of it more like the pillars underneath the main garrison. It will zap a lot out."
"That's why we haven't been charging anything lately right? To save up for this big one."
"...Smart girl. Don't push yourself. It won't be all fixed today. "
"Alright, I'll stop Lilyanne when it starts feeling risky or she gets tired."
"But can I ask one thing for now? What kind of fruit is it?" I whisper this part.
Gable has this worried look on his face but a girl can't help it. I'm curious. What's the great big deal that we're trying to save a tree for?
He pats my head, sighing but relenting none the less. His voice smooth and low.
"What type doesn't really matter. It doesn't resemble much anything we know, but it has restorative properties. One fully matured fruit... has the potential to restore a person's life by 5 years. You know this isn't to be known anywhere else, right Rosalia?"
My mouth slightly hangs but I nod readily none the less.
Such a thing! People would go crazy to get their hands on the supply. It would cause an upheaval, a war even. Imagine being on the verge of death and just having a fruit that gave you another 5 years of life. What if you baked a few of them into a pie?
If I ate one right now, I may even be unborn! No wait, Mother took a bite when she was a kid and that caused her to poison? Maybe I'll just drop dead if I try it.
No wonder it's hidden so deeply. No one would go looking for such treasures in a leper colony. They would never imagine it.
Gable pats my head and closes my jaw, silently patting me to retrieve my sister and get to work. While I do so, he pulls up the barrier once again, either making sure it's still there or reinforcing it even further.
"Come on Lily, follow big sister. It's zap zap time! You can have a snack later." I clap and pull her up. My sister easily toddling along, looking back only to make sure our mother was still there in sight.
I can see as Mother gulps, lightly sweating in her gown. Grampa reassuring her quietly with a wriggling Lukas tucked into his arms. The boy holds out a thumbs up when our eyes meet. How reassuring, whatever that means.
"Have we stopped to the lows of using such small children now your highness." the woman's voice carries in the wind, despite her stepping back even further away as my sister and I approach the tree.
"Healer Melitta, how about we know our places? I am but a humble hermit, with a personal history that means nothing. Best not to forget that." Gable says calmly, denoting her title to a mere health worker.
Well now. Before I overheat, let's get to work.
Snap, snap and zap Lilyanne! Start strong and use discharge! Go crazy! Big sister is right here to cheer you on. Rawr rawr and spark, now use thunderbolt! Yaaaaay!
Cheering on the heroine is also very hard work. But Lilyanne does a lot better when I hold her hand and encourage her like this. So attention needy.
She's saved up a lot of energy the last couple of months, so even when the hungry tree and earth below initially feels like swallowing us up, it only comes as a temporary surprise. Plenty more where that came from.
Pushing down, I help direct the little power source, distributing it more evenly across the dry-packed land that starved the trees. That just feels a lot more reasonable than shock overfeeding an already starving magic tree.
It's the first time Lilyanne is working with so in nature. I wonder if this would work well on general crops and farms too.
I feel like it should? She's forced flowers in gardens to bloom before? Or well, at least the original did.
Actively focusing myself, especially while directly holding on to Lilyanne, really does have a more immediate effect and direction. It's a little like playing co-op mode on a certain wacky game. She drives full throttle while I aim and shoot.
So I don't really notice the world around us as much, not when I'm focusing and feeling around where to best aim the Lilyanne magic water hose.
The newest discovery is how it's almost as if I can see what's receiving it underground. The soil, slowly drinking it in like rainwater deeper and around. Dry roots, flushing back to life in their complicated networks. Empty spots deep deep down below, like very old broken skeletons all eaten up by said roots.
"Um, I think we need a break soon." I raise, more questions suddenly under my tongue.
Hey uh not to be pretentious but I think I know another way to fix the hungry tree problem. Where do you people bury your dead? I'm just going to quietly ask later...yeah.
"Zap zap!" Lilyanne huffs, pushing in a last few heavy bursts. As if I had just made her sprint some laps and wove the finishing flag in a home run distance.
Good girl. Working so hard. Zap zap and finish strong Lilyanne!
At my cheering, the floodgates really rush. She must have had a lot of pent up magic saved up still. It's to the point that I have trouble regulating it far and deep enough. I finally give up as I get her to stop, letting a good amount rush straight into the seemingly dormant tree, awakening in a colorful flush.
Green and pink blossoms start growing, hyperspeed. It's as alien as it is beautiful.
"This is beyond a miracle." the strange old woman gasps, looking up in awe.
Lilyanne screams the moment the wind blows just right, misplacing the woman's hood and veil. My sister screams and cries as if she's seen a monster. A horribly frightening thing that she must immediately clutch and hide behind me.
And I don't blame her, the shock freezing me in place after I jumped back. Even as the unidentifiable woman quickly rights her veil, covering up. But it's too late to unsee.
Sunken gaping nose, misshapen bloodshot eyes, unnaturally uniform boils wrapping all around her skin as if it were replaced with bubble wrap. It would be more accurate to compare her to a half dead lizard than a human. Truly, it was the kind of face that could make children cry.
"WAAAAAHH!!!!" Lilyanne wetly wails, shaking and running back to Mother and the rest when I don't move. "WAAAAAAAHHHH SCARY MONSTER!! WAAAAH HELP!!! Mama! Mama! Grampapa! WAAAAAAAAHHH!"
Pinpricks uncomfortably itch up my skin. Fear. Shock. Shame. Guilt. All sorts of horrible feelings well up in me, much like Lilyanne's flood. My body not listening to what my reason wants it to do, and calm down.
The world is disgusting, and I am part of that. I am disgusting.
"My humblest apologies for frightening the little ones," she backs away, hunched and tightly gripping the veil.
"What monster? I don't sense any monsters?" Lukas tugs up at Gable.
"Lilyanne, there, there, don't cry so. It's alright. Oh, I'm so sorry Multa Melitta. She doesn't mean it like that. She's just so young, and there, there Lily." Mother rocks the bawling toddler, trying to calm down her painful cries.
I feel a pain I don't fully understand when Lilyanne cries. I feel it with weak limbs and hot eyes.
"Alright there Rosalia?" Grampa stands right behind me, the shadow and presence solid despite never touching me.
He does not try to comfort me. Does not scoop me up or take me away. He stands there patiently, watching. Waiting for whatever it is I choose to do myself. It oddly feels like the most reassuring thing he could have done.
Pinpricks and acid still run through me. I'm scared. I'm sickened and scared. So ugly. I'm so-
"Sorry. I'm sorry." I choke, feeling that awful pressure in my nose. Tears finally beginning to edge and drip down my eyes.
It's beneath me but I feel myself drop messily on knees. I feel myself curl up, almost like a bow yet still hiding my ugliness from the world.
"I'm so so sorry. I'm sorry for being scared. I'm sorry for reacting like that. I'm sorry."
The woman's deformed appearance is truly repulsive.
But my own revulsion, my natural flimsy character, disgusts me even more. I'm no better than the ignorant masses of people I hate and judge. Though I thought myself to be above them. Like being born 'noble' or from another world means anything.
I just proved it. I'm not better than those who denounced me without knowing a thing. I'm no better than my baby sister who innocently ran screaming. Crying.
"I'm sorry. It hurts a lot right? Don't be sad. I'm sorry. You don't have to run away like that. You're not scary or bad. You didn't do anything wrong. I'm very sorry. Sorry."
I'm babbling. The stupid tears won't stop. It's not like me at all.
The woman bends low, also on her knees, as if to see eye level with the stupid little kid crying her eyes out on the ground.
"I see. You're a kind one aren't you? Thank you." she says gently, the way you speak to upset babies.
My nose is so stuffed I can't even sniff, my throat stuck and impossible to breathe let alone speak. I can only shake my head no at her comforts.
We're the ones that hurt her. We don't need it. No one wants to be seen in that way, to be treated in that manner. It must have been hard. It must have been very painful, not just the treatment. It must have been a very long time since she's been living here like this.
Strong arms that can only be Grampa's finally pick me up, lightly bouncing me as if I were a real child. Sweet nothings pressed into my ear. It sounds like he said good job, and for some odd reason, I cry more.
It's pathetic how much it comforts me, though my tears and hiccups only increase. Curse this body, curse this too young overly weak and sensitive body.
"There you have it. My little monsters of granddaughters. Strong criers aren't they? Sorry for the noise.'' Grampa laughs, holding me into the firm softness of his chest to cry in.
"Almost as bad as you were. They're very cute. So is your son." that mismatches voice chuckles back.
"Ahahaha! It's really time for their break, they did warn us. We'll be back to finish up the jobs, please take care of us then.”
"Of course and no, thank you."
This short but painfully scary trip is not over. Far from it.
But on the tunnel ride back through the other side, Georgie strokes my hair, uncomfortably silent while Mother checks up on me when still trying to calm down Lilyanne. Her own emotions, a complicated and frazzled mix.
Lukas could have gone with Gable for whatever they had planned for him but insisted he was tired and wanted a nap too. The kid crushes half my side along with my hand, just because he feels like it. They tuck us into a guest bed with cool sheets and I won't say anything more.
Lighter Road trip side story bonus. For those who need it. Still skippable.
Yuna tilts his head to the other side, trying to identify the item Amar questioningly held out of all the others at the stall, let alone the busy market.
It wasn't the nicest that they've seen, but it was something. Definitely a strange and new experience to everyone but Vincent. The borders between these two lands were friendly. Most importantly, it was somewhere they could finally fix the damn wagon and get some spare tools.
"It's a spoon carved out like a chicken. I think?" Amar holds it up higher, inspecting and waiting for approval.
"For Lukas? Why a chicken?"
Yuna looks over to the specific stall, an array of seemingly decorative carved wooden spoons on display. Some were colorfully painted, some were varnished plain to showcase the natural wood, but they were all traditionally carved according to local traditions. Lots of decorative designs, though the most eye-catching to a child may be the animal-shaped handles.
"Chickens," Amar says as solemnly as a child that young possibly can. "They raise chickens. "
"...Yeah sure. Whatever you want to waste money on." Yuna waved off.
Despite his words, he not only helps the child select a few souvenir spoons but angrily haggles with the stall merchant to prevent the kid from being 'ripped off'.
"Are these eggs?" the boy inspects the painted wooden carvings that the seller gave and threw in for free, perhaps in a desperate bid to get the kids away. "What do they do?"
"Looks pretty," Yuna spat out but sighed and took the younger boy's hand for safety as they walked down the market, putting away the supposed gifts, "or some shit like that. People like pretty painted stuff."
"Oh. Okay." Amar nods, swinging their hands together as they walk.
He let the older boy handle the purchases and lead them down the sparse market alleyways. As they've often done in all the places before this. He knew how the teenager didn't express it very well to the adults, but he worries.
Amar doesn't think anyone would want to kidnap him, not this far from home, and certainly not any weaklings. But if it made Yuna feel better, he'll stick close and hold his hands.
If bad people wanted to kidnap someone for those bad things, he honestly thinks they'll grab the older boy first. Yuna was closer to the age the kidnapped slaves were sold the highest number in those parts of markets.
He remembers how all the mamas and mistresses laughed from their hidden balconies, pointing down to the new girls in the training houses of the outer harem. They would make lots of jokes and bets. All over who was rarer, lovelier, or more useful. Who costs more and why? If any were worth taking in as underlings or better off arranged to be married to an officer. If they were worth the trouble, the investment.
When his older sisters giggled, asking him to pick the prettiest ones, he couldn't really answer for his mama was best. How could anyone compare to his mama? It was like asking if a random pebble, even a polished one, could be compared to the moon. That's just silly.
While they were walking and pointing out any strange or funny things, Cass waved at them from the end of the market alley. She quickly maneuvered her way over to them, the chains and silver coins of her usual headdress jingling when not wearing her cloak. Not minding the dark eyes following how she just left a jeweler's in the more high-end part of town.
Let them come. It's free money and stuff if they try mugging their unassuming party.
"Done and good riddance." she flushed. Pocket purse more than a bit heavier in local currency after getting rid of some of those broken jewels and gems at the awful castle.
With the deft hands of a dealer, she counted out a reasonable portion and handed it to Yuna. The young teen still looked displeased though, pointing down to the boy.
"What about his cut?" Yuna defended.
"...It's all his, you're the one with a cut." Cass made a shooing motion.
"That's cheating," Yuna hissed, arguing over the extra funds.
"Whatever he wants to buy, I'll get it for him."
"Kid needs his own money, not some-"
Amar felt his stomach rumble when sniffing something a passing traveler just bought. When he starts taking even half a step, the others are on him in a flash. As if they were never arguing in the first place.
"Don't step so far out on your own. You think this is kiddy safe Ventrella lands? Pfft, it's dangerous! Your skin is all baby soft and shit from the main house, easy for eating up."
"Don't teach him that! Little kahk, did you want some manti? Let's get some with your favorite yogurt sauce?"
"Shit, yogurt. There was this stall some ways back selling actual dehydrated yogurt balls. We gotta stock up."
"I still do not understand it, Yuna. What do those people eat in the place of yogurt?"
"They don't! It's all vinegar or grape wine, and on fancy days we get half butter. I honestly think they're just figuring out butter. The cooks in the main Ventrella houses didn't even know how to clarify it until this year, when this brat here of all people told them."
"I believe it. I hear they think salt is a spice."
"Oh, it gets sadder the more north you go."
While the two older ones bantered and discussed the sudden shopping list, they pulled the boy along. Allowing him to carry the wood tray of steaming baked dumplings as they shopped and found a decent looking tea house to sit back and relax a bit.
That's how Vincent found them. Splitting manti dumplings and summer plums in a very public and ...'bohemian' part of town while either arguing or organizing.
But he supposes it's better than another bawdy tavern, like the kind Tamera often drags them to.
The others ignore him as he takes a tired seat, too busy figuring out translations and prices. They don't even bother asking him if the wagon is ready yet, because of course not. They already knew that.
"Did you eat yet? You look more tired than normal? Your breath smells like alcohol, did the repairmen make you drink with them? They drink really heavy stinky stuff around here. Good job." Amar offers him medicinal tea and half a purple plum as he moves seats. The juices were sweet and refreshing.
Vincent plops down on the table in maybe tears. He thinks this trip will actually kill him if the brat wasn't here. It was a little pathetic but he has long accepted that.
"Did you have fun today?" Vincent tries to be a decent person because that's the right thing to do and not just because Tamera says that's how to get dates.
The other two were still arguing if something was a good deal or not.
"Uh huh. Yuna and I went and bought souvenir kinds of stuff. I tried to find stuff you're not supposed to find elsewhere. I think that's how it works."
"AH, yep yeah that's how it should work for normal people. That's how Tamera would do it. I hope she got that part right." the dark haired teen nods, weakly accepting everything Amar passed his way. From food in his mouth to souvenirs up for inspection.
"Tamera lost a lot of hair in that accident. So we got her this hat for laters because she gets cold easy." the boy pulled out from Yuna's shopping packs and piles.
"....Is that something's tail?" Vincent feels the dumpling drip from his mouth.
"Oookay then. It...can be a hat, when turned inside out. I think she'll actually like that."
Vincent doesn't actually know, but when Amar beams, he forces himself to sit through the burning sunlight of that smile. Practice being decent people, he told himself. This is what normal people do for kids right? Amar was practicing normal kid stuff finally, right?
Ah, they were the worst kind of people for this.
"And I wanna buy jams too but I got these-" the kid pulled out next, oh and Yuna got these wood eggs for free. I don't know."
At this point, everyone at the table looked over. Cass and Vincent turning their head various angles to figure the hell out of what it was.
"It's a...monster bird thing?" Vincent tries
"A fish! That one is a fish." Cass exclaims, figuring it out.
"Uh huh, the chicken spoon is for Lukas. Because of chickens."
They all play along. 'Oh yes', 'of course', 'that made perfect sense'. No, the fuck it didn't but they would stab anyone who ruined this. Kids were strange creatures. Lukas would probably like a funny shaped rock, why not a chicken spoon?
"And the fishy spoon is for Rosa. Because she's really scary around raw salmon."
Oooooh of course. Wait what?
"You got princess strawberry, grumpy money rolling cries a lot when she's hungry or mad Rosalia, a fish-shaped spoon?" Yuna says out.
"Uh huh." Amar nods.
"Do you want to be whacked with the spoon and get cried on. Again?" the blond just goes straight to the point.
"Oh. I don't think so? No?" Amar drops a little.
He thought a fish spoon was funny. Not as good as a chicken spoon but still good. Should he get two chicken spoons? Or three? Would Gable like a chicken spoon? Or the scary chicken mama? He's pretty sure the stinky baby chick would like a random chunk of cheese so that was fine.
"Eerrr um I think it will be fine." Vincent tries.
"Cass," Yuna calls out, popping another dumpling, "you were a little girl once. What would happen if someone got you out of all things, a fish-shaped spoon?"
"I would gratefully thank them. Of course." Cass responded well and fine.
"Okay, but what would you actually want to do. Not what you should for face or shit. Besides cuss them out in your head," the younger countered
"...hit them with the fish." she admits.
"Aha! Yes. See. That's Rosa, but worse." Yuna points, more than ready to spill his worst babysitting stories.
The young teen has no idea how he gets saddled with so many brats. Especially the young lady of the Ventrellas. What part of him screamed appropriate babysitter material?! Lukas was included first because he followed along after Amar like a turtle duckling, but where the hell did the Lord Commander's spoiled little granddaughters come in?
"So....I should make it another chicken spoon?" Amar tilts his head in questioning.
"Tamera would lose her shit over a chicken carved spoon no lie," Vincent thinks about it. But ultimately shakes his head, because that does not sound like a normal sane answer.
"Typically don't little girls like playing with dolls?" Cass leans back, remarking casually.
She was the one with the least time and experience with the person in question. How was she to know just how wrong, cursed even, this statement would be?
"That sounds...right?" Vincent agrees.
"Maybe if it was made of gold." Yuna snorts. "A cloth sack ain't gonna do it. That one likes hard cold cash. Coins. Precious gems. Money. I swore I have never seen a three-year-old try to pry and steal off the stupid decorative gems embedded into walls, but that's what I caught her doing once. But that's nothing on how crazy feral the younger one is."
They get distracted, pouring cups of tea, and just not being tired out on the road for a while. The matter of spoons and souvenirs put away for the time being.
The problem came the next day. At the very same market.
"It's a doll? A nicer one? The face is ceramic and not cloth? The eyes kinda look like gems?" Amar held it up, getting the thing at the very low price of "AHHHH! IT'S BACK?! TAKE IT! PLEASE FREE ME!" free from the shopkeeper.
He doesn't think Rosa will like it very much but it sounded like all the qualifications were met. That and it might be funny. It could be like Kitti all over again. He's sorry it got burned up like that.
Yuna was on the floor laughing, choking on his own tears at the terror this would cause. He was getting another babysitting story for the books.
"Oh, it's perfect."
-Road Trip Days till destination (7/49)