A Shandorian Journey, Part Four

What was a foreigner doing at Color Finders? Tam stepped over to have a closer look. The man had light hair, like Tam, a square face, and red cheeks. He was sitting up in bed reading a book, and the title was all in words Tam couldn’t read. As Tam approached, the man looked up at him.

“Excuse me, sir,” Tam said, “I can’t help but notice that you’re not from the clan.”

The man blinked and looked lost. He set down his book and waved his hands in front of himself. “I speak only little,” he said, in a very heavy accent. “Sorry, very sorry.”

Tam had heard that accent before. It took a moment to remember where. “Germhacht?” he asked. He’d learned a bit of that language from the carriage-drivers, outside the fancy art museum, while waiting for Anna. He hoped he could remember it right. “I, ah, speak little also,” he said in Germhacht. “Can I, ah, help?”

The man’s eyes lit, and he sat up straighter and began talking full-speed in words that Tam didn’t understand. He thought he caught “thank you” and “men” and “good,” but it was impossible to follow.

“Slow,” he said. “Please.”

The man slowed down a little, but it didn’t help. Tam knew only a few words, and the ones about horses were useless here. The man took his hand, and nodded, and he nodded back and said in Trade Common, because he didn’t know the Germhacht words, “The Healer’s here, and if anyone can set you to rights, it’s him.”

The Germhacht man kept talking, fast and earnest, and Tam felt awkward just nodding when he didn’t understand, so eventually he shrugged, and smiled, and made his escape over toward the others.

The Healer had a long thin funnel in his ear and was listening to a small boy’s chest, as Palma and Teo looked on. “I’ve noticed no irregularities in heartbeat,” Teo said, “though sometimes there have been muscle spasms. I’ve also been checking their temperatures.” He pulled out a little glass tube with markings on it. It was meant to test for fever, Tam knew. When the Germhacht doctors had come to make sure Anna was recovered from that bad fever she’d had, they had carried a little tube like that.

“Did you get that from the Germhacht man?” Tam asked.

Palma sighed. “We do have thermometers at Stone Guardians, and at the University, you know. It’s not only rich countries that can have up-to-date equipment.”

The healer had a look at the thermometer. “Though this is a bit newer than any of ours.”

Teo nodded. “It takes readings quicker than the one I learned with, at University. And your young friend is right.” He met Tam’s eyes for a moment. “This was a gift from the Bruhman company, who are indeed from Germhacht.”

Palma’s eyes narrowed, and Tam remembered what the Healer had told him about the foreign company that was causing trouble in her land. He started to feel worried. In the Tembelakan islands, it had also been company men, fruit company mercenaries, who had killed and burned and stolen. “What’s a Germhacht company doing here in Shandor?” he asked.

“They run the mine,” Teo said. “They’ve been here for a year or thereabouts. Decent folk, and hardworking, though most of them don’t speak any normal language, so it’s hard to have a conversation, and they don’t mingle much with the clan.”

“A mine?” The Healer raised an eyebrow, and his notes turned sharp and thoughtful. “What sort of mine?”

“Blood paint powder.” Teo used the K’shay tanna word for it. “The kind we’ve always used in our colors. We’ve never mined for it before, just picked up stones from the mountainside. But we’ve never wanted as much of it as they want. They’ve got a foreign name for it. Cinnabar, they call it, and they think it’s worth a lot.”

“So foreigners built a mine last year, and your people started getting a strange illness, and it hasn’t occurred to you that the two might be related?” The Healer’s sharpness leaked into his voice.

“Of course we thought of that.” Teo sounded apologetic. “It’s one of the first things we considered, especially since it was the miners who initially took ill.” He indicated the Germhacht man. “But blood paint powder isn’t a poison, unless you swallow it. Warriors have mixed it for face-paints since the Land was young. So it can’t be that. We did think that maybe the air might be bad in the mine, so the company men dug more shafts for ventilation. But then the children started catching the illness, and none of them had even been near the mine, so we had to change our diagnosis.”

“You’re half right,” Palma said, pulling out her little notebook. “Cinnabar is poisonous when ingested. But it’s also poisonous when inhaled as a dust, which could certainly occur while mining. And it’s even more toxic—” she tapped the thermometer which Teo had set on the bedside table, “—when it’s been refined into mercury.”

Teo sounded puzzled. “But blood paint powder doesn’t look anything like this mercury. How could you make one out of the other?”

“I’m not entirely certain about the process,” Palma said. She seemed excited at the prospect of learning something new. “We definitely need to have a look at this mine.”

The Healer nodded. “We will take samples of the earth and air, and any water flowing nearby. But not tonight. We’ve done all we can for the sick, so let us accept Hural’s hospitality, and see the foreigners in the morning.”

It was very late by now, and the moon was up. Hural showed them to guest tents that had been erected, one for the men and one for the women. Tam flopped gratefully onto a bedroll much softer than the one he’d slept on during their travels. He had listening exercises that the Queen had given him, that he was supposed to do every night before bed. He meant to do them, and maybe try to find Hashta, too, but the next thing he knew the early morning sun was coming through the walls of the tent, and then youngsters from the clan were escorting them to a big welcome meal. Since the clan hall was being used for the sick, everyone sat on blankets around the big fire pit at the center of the double ring of tents. They had spicy sausage, vegetable soup, and fried sweet bread, and it was all so much better than the trail rations Tam had been eating for days that he didn’t think about anything else for a while.

Then he remembered about Hashta, and listened through all the exterior noise of eating and talking for those rumbly drums. It was hard, and every time he thought he’d found him and sent out a tentative “Hello?” he didn’t hear anything back. The drums sounded grouchy, so he couldn’t tell whether Hashta was listening and refusing to answer, or whether he was doing something else and not paying attention at all. Tam finally gave up and just sort of shouted to the surrounding mountains in general, “Well, if you don’t want to come have a nice breakfast that’s your own lookout!” and then finished eating with rather less enjoyment than before.

After the welcome meal, which lasted all morning, they trooped around the mountain, with Hural in the lead, to go look at the mine. It was a more extensive operation than Tam had been expecting. He’d seen a few mines before, and they were mostly holes in the ground with a shed built over top to keep the rain out. This mine had one big building with a metal cage that could be lowered down into the shaft, and also two other buildings set nearby along the stream that ran down the mountainside. Up above the mine was a cluster of smaller huts. Mules with saddlebags and men with wheelbarrows trundled back and forth between the buildings, and an odd smell filled the air.

Tam sniffed, trying to figure out what the smell was. Sharp, but not metallic. Maybe a chemical, like the ones Anna used in making photographs?

Palma sniffed too. “Sulfur,” she said. “But no hot springs in sight.”

“Something odd is certainly going on here,” the Healer agreed, frowning at the permanent structures on the mountainside. “This is more than just a mine.”

As they approached, a little delegation of men came out from one of the smaller huts. Instead of workmen’s overalls, they wore shirts buttoned all the way up, and neckties, and the one in the front had a round hat with a brim. When he spoke, it was in Trade Common, though with an obvious Germhacht accent.

“Welcome, welcome!” he said to Hural, and shook his hand. “And are these the, ah,” his eyes flicked a bit dubiously between Palma, Tam, the Healer, and the warriors accompanying them, “the government officials we were expecting?”

“This is the Healer, yes, one of the revered elders of Stone Guardians.” Hural made introductions all around. “And this is Mr. Ziller, of the Bruhman corporation, who is in charge of the mine.”

Ziller shook hands with everyone, even the warriors. He had ink stains on his fingers, Tam noticed, and an impressive set of whiskers, and showed a silver-capped tooth when he smiled.

“Revered elder, is that a ministry-level post?” Ziller asked the Healer. “Or would it be more of a religious title?”

“My duties are sometimes spiritual,” the Healer said, “but more often deadly practical. I have been sent to investigate this outbreak of disease, which also seems to have affected your miners.”

“Ah.” Ziller seemed visibly to relax. “Then you are a physician, and not a government official after all. Hural seems to have misrepresented you to me.”

“I don’t believe he has,” the Healer said. “My delegation—” he opened a hand to include Tam, Palma, and the warriors, “—has been sent by the Queen herself and carries her full authority. We will be reporting everything we find here directly to her.” He glanced sideways at Tam, who remembered, with a twinge of guilt, that he hadn’t made any reports to the Queen in the last few days. Well, he’d remember that tonight, along with the listening exercises. “If, as seems increasingly likely,” the Healer went on, “this mining operation is related to the outbreak of disease, we certainly have the right, in the name of the Queen, to close it down.”

Ziller stiffened up again, and waved his hands. “Surely it won’t come to that. I assure you that we are operating quite legally, and scientifically too, using proven techniques.”

“Will you give us a full tour of your operation, then?”

“Of course.” Ziller gave a forced smile.

Hural, too, seemed to have grown stiff and awkward. Tam could hear the tension rumbling around him, as it had last night when they had arrived. The clan chieftain clearly didn’t want them to be there, and didn’t want the mine closed either.

Tam took a breath, reminded himself that when doing an investigation it wasn’t always wrong to question the motivations of your elders, and blurted out, “Hural Clan Color Finders, sir, may I ask you something?”

Hural gave a shrug and an ambiguous grunt.

“Why do you care so much about the mine, sir?” A horrible thought came to him. “The foreigners didn’t give you something in exchange for the Land, did they?”

Hural’s rumbly notes went suddenly loud and angry. “I would never sell any part of the Land! It’s dishonorable.”

“Also illegal,” the Healer remarked.

It seemed to Tam that Hural was telling the truth. His notes weren’t wrong in the sort of way that people went wrong when they lied. But he still sounded twisty and awkward. Something else was going on.

“The foreigners aren’t holding something over you, are they, sir?” Tam asked. “Because if they are, you know your own people will stand with you.”

Before Hural could say anything, Ziller burst out, “Are you accusing us of blackmail, young man? A ridiculous charge, and a dangerous one. Nations have come to blows over less. On behalf on Germhacht’s Ministry of Geological Industries, I am quite prepared to take offense.”

“No one is accusing you of anything.” The Healer glanced sideways at Tam again, but he didn’t feel upset, so Tam clamped down his urge to apologize. “But you should know that Tam Gardner is a full-fledged member of the Queen’s delegation and that his questions must be answered as surely as mine must be. I, for one, would very much like to see what authorization you have to extract minerals here in the Land.”

“After the tour?” Palma said. She had drawn several glass vials out of her belt pouch. “I have numerous samples to take.”

One thought on “A Shandorian Journey, Part Four

  1. Geez, brings back all those tales of Calomel, mercurochrome disinfectant, thimerosal, unfiltered coal boiler smokestacks, and those tilt switches with a blob of mercury in them…

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