Chapter Ten

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Tregan was nervous. He was not a man of any ranking: not in Villotta, not among the other nobles, and especially not in the Guard. He'd done his two years, just long enough to fulfill his obligations as a landowning noble, and even had a son who served to the death. And every year he brought the palsa harvest to the capital — that alone should have made him special. Those awful trees grew almost solely on his estate, half because of the climate and half because no one wanted to put up with them. Sure, he spent the little money he earned on his lavish home and lifestyle in the capital, but what else would he do? Stay at the ends of civilization with the peasants all year? He contributed to the country's economy. He might as well be able to enjoy it too.

But the others saw through him. They all knew he was in constant debt trying to keep up with the trends and expenses of the wealthier nobles. Not a day went by where he did not lament the agonizing existence passed down to him through the generations. His own great-grandfather Kettance had built the orchards up from nothing after the Guard abandoned King's Helm as a military outpost. He'd proven the worth of the palsa trees and made a name for King's Helm, no matter how small.

Not that anyone in Villotta cared. There had never been respect for the bloodline, from Tregan's great-grandfather until now. The orchards grew on his land, and they brought forth a rare product; why should Tregan have to do anything more to prove himself?

The crown never paid enough for what the palsa fruit was worth, and it was even more pitiful in wartime — now they expected him to practically give it all up for the sake of the country. As if they'd ever given anything up for him. He would always be alone in pushing for better prices, and managing the land, and keeping those peasants in line.

It got worse, too. In the past week when he'd been back to King's Helm for the harvest, it was smaller than usual, and there was still fruit hanging from the trees. Rotting. The peasants all but buried themselves in the dirt trying to get away from Tregan. He rampaged, tearing through houses and fields, grabbing anyone he could get ahold of and showing them what a mistake they had made. He kicked the trees, burned himself on the sap, and got all the more furious.

It took more than a few pulls of brandy to calm himself down, and by nightfall he managed to catch a group of peasants gossiping outside a shack. In his mellow drunken state, he was more likely to laugh than to threaten, but the peasants trembled in his presence nonetheless. With some prodding and promises he would never remember in the morning, Tregan got one to talk. The man told Tregan one of the local's daughters had gone missing, attributing the low yield to her disappearance. The others vouched for her abilities, saying her family would hire her out, and agreed they had struggled to keep up their work while she was gone.

When this comment spiked his ire, the peasants began to pipe up with different excuses. The weather was too hot and rotted the fruit right away, the soil was poor from a hard winter, a windstorm blew up during the month and pummeled the young fruit off the branches. The brush birds were bold and abundant this year. Bandits came through and stole the fruit just last night, then poisoned what remained on the trees.

Kettance had known everything about growing palsa trees, forming the orchards from nothing but dust. Tregan did not. He didn't know which stories to believe, if wind really could blow fruit from branches or if the soil could get any worse than it already was. The brandy pushed any scrutiny he might have right out of his head and into the dry evening air. It didn't, however, lessen any thoughts on the missing girl, if only because the peasants could all point to her as a cause.

At first the group tried to direct him to the girl's family, but Tregan was already dealing with more peasants than he ever wanted. He took sips of brandy to maintain his good nature and said he would leave those he talked to tonight alone if they'd tell him all they knew. It took some cajoling, but Tregan was used to that. Nobody in the capital liked talking to him either.

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