Just starting out? Click here.
Daphne willed her heavy eyes to open. Between worrying about what another epidemic would do to her community and comforting a lonely boy who insisted on going home to meet his new brother she hadn’t caught much sleep the night before. It was sunrise now. Barely.
At some point in the wee hours of the morning Felix had slipped from his bed to her own. His small, brown limbs had somehow expanded to fill three-quarters of the available space. Daphne wondered how his younger sister fared when they shared sleeping quarters. She was so petite for her age.
Daphne quietly peeled herself out of bed as the sun kissed the foothills awake.
“Lemon, what are you doing?” she asked as she lit a lamp and gently stretched the crick out of her neck. The dog licked his muzzle as a small, brown mouse scurried to freedom.
“Not another one!” Daphne said. Even the cleanest kitchen was bound to attract the attention of rodents eventually but that didn’t mean she wanted to hurt them. After a few unfortunate incidents Daphne wondered briefly if Lemon had been a cat in a previous lifetime. He had an uncanny ability to sniff out mice in the kitchen and seemed to think hunting them down was a game. Had she not interrupted them Daphne knew he would have caught this one.
Felix stirred as Daphne began preparing their simple breakfast. She’d enjoyed his visit but was glad he was returning home today. It will be be nice to have my quiet days back, she thought as she packed up the boy’s belongings while he finished eating.
Nevaeh’s house was humming with activity as Daphne, Felix and Lemon walked up the dusty path to it. Rachel stared off into the distance with a blank expression on her face while Delphine’s husband Lucio and two other men Daphne didn’t immediately recognize bowed their heads and took turns speaking softly to her.
One of the strangers appeared to be a few years older than her, the other one at least a decade younger. Both men wore faded, dusty ponchos and held onto the grim smiles of travellers who’d ran out of fortitude halfway through their journey.
Daphne greeted them with a watery smile while she wondered what Rachel was doing on the other side of the valley this early in the morning. MacArthur’s effervescent first wife loved capturing everyone’s attention with a bawdy story but rarely showed up anywhere before noon.
Something was wrong.
Their voices quieted as Daphne and her charges approached the house. Felix and Lemon ran into the house to greet his little sister.
“I heard MacArthur visited you a few days ago. Do you feel ill?” Lucio asked after they exchanged morning greetings. The creases on his forehead melted away when she told him she and the boy were healthy, but Daphne’s heart sank when Rachel described how quickly her husband and sister-wife became ill.
Naomi had come down with flu-like symptoms just before MacArthur’s latest trading mission. By the time he returned home he was just beginning to feel sick as well. Their oldest daughter was looking after them while Rachel sought help.
Stories from other families experiencing similar illnesses had surfaced from as far away as Cottonwood and Prescott. The strangers were emissaries from local communities who were attempting to learn more about where this epidemic came from and how deadly it might be. No one could thwart the will of the gods, of course, but at least they could know what to expect.
Unlike other epidemics, though, this one wasn’t responding to quarantines and carried off healthy adults even more quickly than it did the very young or very old. What was even more puzzling was how it moved around. Some families lost several members while others never became sick at all.
“…So we’re going to need you to volunteer on the tribunal until this blows over,” Lucio said.
“Well, I don’t do that,” Daphne said. “I’m happy to cook you a hot lunch, but I have no interest in anything else.” Technically one representative from every household was required to serve on the tribunal on a rotating basis. When her children were growing up Daphne was given an exemption as a single parent, and a few years ago she’d earned another exemption when her knee was badly injured and she wasn’t physically able to walk that far. She was happy to share supplies, but after her experience on the other side of the table she hated the thought of being back in that small, stuffy room almost as much as she dreaded once again being the centre of attention.
“You don’t really have a choice,” came the soft reply. “Half of our members lost crops in that damned flash flood and won’t have anything to eat this summer if they can’t find other sources of food, Sean Reed has a house full of sick kids, and no one has heard from the Perez family in weeks. We desperately need new judges.”
Daphne was a low, sandstone wall slapped together by an Arizona Monsoon fifteen years earlier.
“Daphne, I promise you won’t oversee any custody or paternity cases,” Lucio said as Rachel and the strangers slipped inside the house. “You’ll spend one morning a week listening to grumpy old men argue about water rights while Lemon sleeps at your feet. I’ll send one of the Graber kids over to water your gardens if our docket is bigger than expected. It will be an easy term.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then you will face civil charges,” Lucio said. “Do you really want to go through with that?”
“When should I arrive?” Daphne sighed.