The man stepped down from his palanquin. Clean bare feet fell gracefully on soft, dark soil.
There was no dirt under his fingernails. Obviously wealthy, but he looked keen. In truth, he'd lived in the capital his whole life. But his tutors raised him well. He knew tha(more)t any man who thought himself too good for the land that fed him was an ignorant man, indeed.
It was a crisp late-spring morning. Yellowing poplar leaves sifted to the ground around his feet.
The sun emerged over his left shoulder from a nest of smooth, white branches, birthing cold light on a barren field. The man had steeled himself for the worst, but as the sight before him rooted itself in his mind, his jaw dropped. Rotting brown stalks, row upon row, field upon terraced field, as far as the eye can see.
"This was supposed to feed an army," he said. The words spilled from his lips like the last breath of a man drowning.
I kept my eyes down as I spoke.
"I'm afraid it goes like this for miles."
No 'sir', no 'my lord'. No trite honorifics. Those of us who sweat and bleed and break ourselves to feed the world don't feel anyone is above our station.
He shook his head piteously.
"War is upon us. We have legions of well-drilled soldiers, fine steel, machines of destruction designed by the greatest minds the world has ever known. And we can't even keep a few shriveled leaves on their god-damned tables."
"It is not our failing," I began coldly. "We-- we followed--"
I trailed off, seeing the strange, faraway look in his eyes. He turned to me, a pained expression etched across his face.
"This is more than failing. This is the kind of tragedy that undoes empires."(less)