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#2: Lily of the Valley
I watch the river’s surface with a frown, for once able to let my distress show, since Kai is off catching some crustaceans for dinner. At the rate the water level has been dropping lately, this river could be dried up in less than a month. The last autumn winds are making ripples across the water. Winter -- and with it, the dry season -- is just around the corner.
The river bank is far from town, but provides clean water and food. This has led to a lot of people building shelters alongside it. More and more are gathering here, putting their lives in the hands of this dying river. No rain has fallen since the war broke out. Mother Nature hasn’t listened to our prayers.
“Shit,” I mumble, as an old couple slowly approaches the opposite river bank. They walk with difficulty, leaning on each other to keep going. Even though I now have my own troubles, with two children to take care of, seeing all these struggling people still makes my heart sink. But we will find a new water source.
I keep watching the old couple. My throat feels numb.
Back when I was a young musician desperate for freedom, I dropped out of university and left home to wander. Apart from being a street performer, I also managed to get work as a luthier and a carpenter. I mostly repaired instruments and tools, and never had the chance to build things from the raw materials.
Life was tough, but it was fun. Every day was another day worth living. Even though I ended up in the middle of this war, I’ve never regretted the decision to leave home. I have grown a lot.
That said, I still miss my grandfather every now and then. On the day I left, he was the only one who smiled and wished me luck. But his sad and lonely eyes said something else. He’s getting too old, and I worry about him.
When my thoughts finally come back to reality, the old couple is gone. I call out to Kai. It’s time to go home. The agile boy cheerfully comes to me with a small basket of crabs and freshwater shrimps. It isn’t much, but not everyone has the skill to catch those things by hand. I rub Kai’s head.
We get up early the next day to go find a new water source. Kai leads the way to a mountainside. I feel a bit apprehensive about the possible danger, but the military camp at the forest entrance helps calm my nerves. If we’re lucky, we might find edible mushrooms or even rabbits. Maybe even the painkiller herb that I’ve been taking.
We finally stop when we reach a ten-storey waterfall. I breathe in the fresh air and scenic beauty all around me. Cool winds carry leaves over my head as I get close to the waterfall. It’s still pumping down a lot of water, working hard to maintain this pocket of life in the forest here. The air is thick with moisture. It was a long walk, but worth the effort. Kai moved quickly and confidently on our way here. He must have come to this place a couple of times before.
And we’re not the only guests. The deer, rabbits and other wild animals were all invited. We split into groups, each choosing a private section of the stream from which to enjoy the fresh water.
We start filling our water bottles. One filled bottle later, Kai is already chasing after some rabbits. I sigh, finishing the rest of the work alone. I find myself wondering if Kira would have been that cheerful if she’d been allowed to leave that heavy building. They are twins, after all.
Forests have always felt eerie to me, so we soon head back home.
We’re still in the middle of the forest when Kai abruptly stops. With lightning speed, he plunges into a nearby bush. Someone screams before I can even react. I scramble through the bushes and find Kai pinning a young man face-down on the ground with his mechanical limbs. The unknown man is short and slim, and looks a little younger than me. He doesn’t stand a chance against Kai with that modest body size, so he just screams in anger. He seems to be yelling in the local language so I don’t understand a word. Kai is still on top of him when I get close.
Those eyes! Those distinct purple eyes!
The way he returns my stare confirms everything.
“You are…” I trail off, still stunned.
“Good day, blood brother,” the man replies with mock cheer.
With that, there’s no doubt that we are compatriots. I’m a little shocked, since my tour guide said that I was the only Quaserian in town. The Lcorians living here probably can’t even find Quaseria on a map.
After another glance, I signal Kai to let the Quaserian man go -- he looks harmless anyway. My compatriot suddenly changes his attitude, repeating something to Kai over and over. Judging by his demeanour, he seems to be apologizing. Kai remains hostile, turning his back on the man’s words.
I talk to the man in my native tongue. His name is Riat and he’s been living in Lcori since middle school.
His sudden change in attitude seems strange, but he looks nice and honest overall. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Any man would be outraged at being attacked and pinned down by some random kid. I loosen up and start talking to him more openly. It’s wonderful to see one of my own countrymen again -- it’s been quite a long time since I last met one.
Riat says that he’s living with other people, including some Quaserians, on a farm further up the mountainside. He asks if Kai and I want to stop by for an early lunch. Apparently the farm is close by, with more than enough food to go around.
I want to trust him.
Centuries ago, our ancestors had to fight the greatest empires of the world to defend our kingdom. Hundreds of years of wars have forged an unbreakable unity and allegiance among our people.
It would feel like treason to turn a fellow Quaserian down, so I accept his offer. Still, I furtively recheck my gun before following his lead. Kai is unhappy, but he falls in behind me.
We soon get to a breathtaking valley, where the rays of the sun are warm and tender.
Thousands of plants and flowers live together in harmony here. Together they grow. Together they form an elegant natural art.
My artistic instinct stirs, making my heart miss a beat. After a deep breath, I slowly look around to find that musical inspiration I’ve longed for. Even Kai has gotten excited, running around to stare at this flower and touch that tree. Riat just stands there with a smile on his face. He seems to understand our feelings.
After walking around a bit, I find some unusual white flowers. Their facedown petals make them look crestfallen and forlorn. The fact that these flowers grow in their own cultivated squares of soil, far from the rest of the plant family, makes the image even stronger. I go closer to get a better look, and my compatriot follows.
“Lily of the Valley,” he says.
“Lily of the Valley?”
“You don’t know these flowers, right?” he continues. “Understandable. These gorgeous flowers don’t grow in Lcori or in our homeland -- their natural habitat is on the other side of the world. We’re the reason they’re here. We’ve been planting them in this valley. Seed transportation is tough, but they’re very easy to grow. A little cold in the air is all they need.”
He pauses and glances at me before continuing. “The flowers are also called ‘Our Lady's Tears’, since they look like a mother’s tears. They’re also as kind as mothers. Eating their petals and berries helps with preventing and healing digestive diseases and heart problems. We also cook their leaves and use them to heal skin diseases. And that scent you’re smelling has benefits too. It’s used to cure headaches and stress.”
It sounds like an exaggeration, but the flower’s scent is truly nice and relaxing.
“We originally came out here to the valley to plant these flowers for selling and exporting. This area is close to three different countries, so deliveries cost less. With the favorable weather and low land price, it was a perfect plan, until the war broke out. Soldiers don’t come all the way here to fight, but all of our deals have been postponed. To survive, we became a self-sufficient community. We were mostly foreigners at first, but more natives have joined us to hide from the war, so it’s been really noisy and fun lately.”
After another pause with another glance, he asks, “So where have you two been living? Wanna join us?”
“Three, actually. There’s a girl too, the boy’s twin. And it seems to be really safe here, but we can’t leave our house. For personal reasons.”
Riat looks at me when I mention Kira. We talk some more before moving on.
Before long, we reach a large farm, filled with dozens of people doing different jobs. Just as my compatriot said, there are many foreigners, and Lilies of the Valley everywhere. We’re led to a big building, right at the farm entrance. My compatriot enters the building first, and then invites us in moments later.
It’s a warm bakery with Lilies of the Valley planted in every corner. The smell of the flowers fuses with that of the breads, creating one of the finest scents I’ve ever experienced. The owner is an old lady who can speak both Quaserian and Lcorian. She kindly greets us and shows us around.
It’s still day out, so Riat has to get back to work. He leaves with a wave, and we find ourselves alone in the bakery. I choose a comfortable chair to rest while the old lady shows Kai how to knead flour. The whole atmosphere is very relaxing.
The bakery’s door swings open and a Quaserian kid runs inside. He politely greets me and the old lady before asking if he could stay and have some bread.
The old lady starts preparing one of the loaves. I offer to help but she gently declines. So I relax and let my mind wander again, watching the kids play together. The kind old lady pours some milk for them.
Milk. It’s been forever.
During our warm meal, the old lady keeps asking about Kira and trying to convince me to move here with the kids. I have to politely decline three times before she stops. She says that she lost her granddaughter some years ago and wishes she could have another little girl to take care of, since there are only boys here on the farm.
Her teary eyes make me feel awkward. Kai and Kira might have a better life on this farm, but what if that devil organization finds them here? These kind people would be implicated too. It’s better to protect the kids and find the cure for them myself, at least for the time being. I firmly decline one last time. The old lady still looks sad but changes the subject without another word.
She asks a lot of questions about my disease before preparing some Lily of the Valley berries for me to eat. She makes me eat quite a lot, saying that they will improve my heart’s condition. The berries are a little unpleasant but as the old woman said: “Bitter pills may have blessed effects.” I eat every last one.
The old lady gets more jovial after each story she tells or is told. We continue talking after the kids run off to play. I have to signal them to be quieter every now and then. Time warmly passes by.
We leave close to lunchtime. Riat comes back to make sure we don’t get lost on our way home. We leave the bakery happy and grateful, with some loaves of bread, a bottle of milk, and flowers for Kira. I try to give my countryman some money when we part ways at the valley but he refuses. I insist until he eventually gives in.
As we walk home, I can’t help but feel lucky to have met such good people. Now that I think about it, I probably should have asked the old lady to help me talk to Kai. There are so many things that I want to know.
Kai is moving very fast, like he can’t wait to give the presents to Kira. He will definitely talk a lot too -- about the beautiful valley, its flowers, the nice people... I have the urge to share the story with someone too, so I know how he’s feeling. But I keep a steady pace. Every time Kai goes too far ahead and impatiently turns around to wait for me, I just give him the “give me a break Kai, it’s been a long day, I’m very tired” face.
Kira looks a little worried when we get home later than expected, but Kai’s cheerful voice eases her tense posture. I feel a little sleepy, so I just stand there, watching the kids talk. Suddenly, Kira reacts strongly to Kai’s words. A few sentences later, she hurries to my side and grabs the flowers from my hands without a word. She stares at them tensely before dragging me to the library room. There, she stands on a chair, rummaging for something on the bookshelves. I get anxious as Kira keeps throwing books to the floor. She finally stops, checks some pages, and then brings a book to me, open in the middle.
Page 216. An encyclopedia of plants and flowers written in Quaserian. Images of the elegant Lily of the Valley hit my eyes.
Lily of the Valley.
Ecology, taxonomy, garden use...
All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, including the red berries which may be attractive to children. If ingested, even in small amounts, the plant can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, reduced heart rate, blurred vision, drowsiness, red skin rashes and possible death.
Each word feels like a sharp knife stabbing into my heart. The Quaserians, the sweet scents, the kind old lady... I haven’t even fully realized what has happened before my eyes get blurry. I feel dazed and confused. Then my mind goes blank, as if someone had turned off a switch. Everything fades to black.
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