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Daphne glanced down at the sleeping baby in her lap. The mite had recently decided that only Daphne or her mother were allowed to hold her, and Mariposa could hardly be expected to bounce a potentially fussy baby while hearing her cases. She was too small to be separated from her mother from the hours this meeting might take, but with a fully belly and fresh diaper the baby would almost certainly sleep through at least the first half of the meeting.
Daphne took a few slow, deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself down before the council convened. There was no reason to be nervous today. It wasn’t like she was on trial. Unless something unexpected happened she wouldn’t have to speak at all.
Still, she’d had nearly 20 years of experience doing her best to avoid such a setting. Her first brush with the law had been such an unmitigated disaster that even her brief stint as an ombudsman a few years back had done little to calm her fears. Council members carried a lot of social sway in the community, and she’d seen what happens when that influence was used for ill.
Lemon whined and stuck his nose out from underneath her skirt. She surreptitiously reached down to pat his soft head while Mariposa took her place as the far end of the council. Technically he wasn’t supposed to be here at all, but Daphne thought she could get away with it if she sat at the back of the room and kept her oldest friend quiet. It was comforting to have him close by when she was surrounded by so many people she didn’t know.
Despite living in Peoria for four years she hadn’t been very good at getting to know everyone. It was overwhelming enough to live in a small, crowded house with seven other people. Had her knees not been so bad she would have gone back to her own house in Mingus at least occasionally to get away from the ruckus. She loved them, of course, but Daphne craved solitude so deeply that not having it was like carrying around a bucket of rocks on her hip.
The inane breakfast conversations three seconds after she dragged herself to the table, the cat yowls when someone forgot to prop the front door open, and the quiet sounds of her son and daughter-in-law making the grandchild she was starting to believe might actually stick around ground into her mind as she attempted to fall asleep each night. Sometimes she dreamed about the day’s events, wiping sticky mouths
The crowd stirred as the head ombudsmen called the hearing to order. As expected, most of the plaintiffs complained about water rights. There was just enough to go around if everyone shared their excess, but not everyone could be counted on to do it. As the evidence was presented Daphne felt her mind wander to a time she wished she could forget.
“It’s shameful,” a tall man complained as he paced back and forth in front of the council. Daphne’s stomach lurched, the invader inside of it skimming against her muscles like a hummingbird gliding through the morning air. “She can barely take care of herself, and you think she should be allowed to raise one by herself in the middle of nowhere?”
A low murmur rippled through the crowd. It wasn’t the first time someone had brought this up.
A much younger Aunt Lucy leaned over the desk and peered at Daphne. There was a streak of dark brown hair stubbornly running through her grey mane. She had shrunk a little with age, but people were beginning to wonder how she remained so active at an age when most of her contemporaries were retiring to a quiet back room to weave and mind small children while their parents worked. The other ombudsmen avoided eye contact as their leader stared silently at the woman with such an unorthodox plan. Daphne’s mouth ran dry. She opened it and then closed it again without saying anything.
“How old are you, again?”
“38.” Some women were grandmothers at that age, occasionally several times over again.
“How do you plan to support this child?”
“I have a garden…”
The baby wrapped her fingers around Daphne’s pointer finger and squeezed. Somehow her left arm had wriggled out of the blanket Daphne had wrapped her in so securely before the hearing began. So much for that nap, but at least she wasn’t crying yet. A muffled snore rose up from the floor. Now how on earth had Daphne rocked a baby awake while the dog fell asleep on the cold, stone floor?
The hours dragged on as case after case was heard. Every time her mind began wandering again either the baby or the dog demanded attention. A certain part of Daphne was grateful for the distraction.
“Mr. Miller doesn’t own enough land to properly look after six damn goats. He even lets them sleep in his living room of all places!” the plaintiff whined. Daphne rocked the baby as he added as many details to his complaint as he could pack in before he was interrupted again. To make matters worse, this was the third such case they’d heard this morning.
Well, at least she wasn’t responsible for sorting out this mess. Newcomers weren’t invited onto the council until they’d lived in Peoria for 5 years, and even then their names were only added to the list if one of the current ombudsmen retired and their household was next on the list. Mariposa hadn’t been volunteering in this capacity long enough to resent it. Daphne was quite safe for now.
“Let’s break for lunch,” Mariposa said when Mr. Brown finally finished. “We’ll give you our verdict this afternoon.”
The baby grunted. She would need to be fed and changed again soon. Mariposa had called for a break just in time.