The Price of Survival, Season 1 Episode 1 — Choice of Desperation

Navin Wolf, Pack Father of the Long Valley Wolves strode into the court of Queen Alfhard as if he owned it. Looking neither at the gaping courtiers surrounding him nor the soldiers who escorted him. He looked only at Alfhard. She would have called his stare a challenge, except he did not meet her eyes.

When he reached the foot of the dais he stopped and waited. Alfhard studied him for a moment. He was smaller than she expected. Slight, with a hint of fat in his cheeks and belt. But hard, for all that.

Her examination didn’t bother Navin, he’d expected it. But the wolf within him paced fretfully. They knew what was to come, Navin and his wolf. And neither of them liked it.

The herald belatedly announced him, and his purpose, “… come to offer surrender on behalf of the Long Valley Wolves and all of their pack.”

Alfhard had known, of course, that the offer of surrender was coming. But she had expected a messenger, not the Wolf himself. That he put himself in her hands without even a promise of safe conduct spoke of either great trust or desperation. Possibly both.

“And what are your conditions, Pack Father?” she asked.

Though no one else saw it, his eyes flickered, flashing golden for a moment before returning to their human brown. It startled Alfhard, who had heard all her life of the wolves but had never met one before. She was sure it meant something but didn’t know what.

“One condition only, Majesty,” he replied, the strain in his voice belying the calm on his face. “The life of my people.”

She knew then that he was desperate. But why? He was losing the war, yes, but still had the position and forces to demand real concessions.

She accepted as Navin had known she would. In some ways, she had no choice. To reject his surrender under such easy terms would anger her soldiers, who died daily in the war, and their families who wanted them home. At her signal, the Lieutenant who headed the Wolf’s escort stepped forward.

“Surrender your weapons,” the soldier demanded. Navin unbuckled his sword belt and let it fall to the floor.

“Surrender your armor.” The brigantine took longer to remove but was discarded likewise.

“Surrender your honors.” His tunic this time, bedecked and embroidered with all the markings and honors of his life. This he folded and crouched down to place on the floor.

“Surrender yourself.” His wolf-sister tried to rise at this, but he silenced her with a memory of dead cubs. He knelt and put his arms behind his back. Rough hands grabbed him and bound his wrists together. Navin had known they would not offer him parole. Not to the Wolf.

A hand shoved between his shoulders and he bent over until his forehead touched the floor.

Alfhard walked to the edge of the dais and rested her foot on his neck. She considered him for a moment. Considered the questions she needed answers to, and dismissed her court.

Some of them wasted no time in leaving, eager to be as far away from the infamous Wolf as possible. Even in apparent captivity. Others tried to linger, looking over their shoulders, stretching ears.

But finally, the doors closed, leaving only her trusted advisors and guards.

“Why?”

“Caldelon presses us from the east. Either one of you we could standoff, but both would overwhelm us eventually.” He paused and she was astonished to see fur grow out of his skin a wave, disappearing almost as fast as it appeared. “Two months ago they sent a raid. Targetted. Our cubs are dead.”

A murmur of shock spread through the room.

It took Alfhard a moment to wrap her mind around the enormity of it. For all the atrocities by both sides in their long war, to deliberately target children, to somehow kill all the children… the life of his people. Not the condition that she would not kill them, but that she would protect them as he could not.

“I understand your condition now.”

He did not reply, focused only on keeping his breathing steady, his wolf sister calm. There was still time for this to go very badly.

“There is a valley north of here. It is smaller than Long Valley but should be large enough. The villages there were destroyed in an avalanche two years ago and the survivors refuse to return, believing it cursed. Caldelon will not be able to reach your people there. I will send messengers before the day is over.”

For Navin, the relief was beyond words. He relaxed at last. Alfhard was known for her trustworthiness. If she said it, it would be so. He could go to his death in peace.

“Thank you, your majesty.”

As if his thoughts had triggered it, there was a scrape of steel. “You asked for life for your people. But your life is mine to do as I will.”

Hugging his wolf-sister to himself he tilted his head to the side, exposing his throat. And waited.

Alfhard took the dagger her guard had offered her and rested the edge against Navin’s throat. But she hesitated. She had not expected him to beg. Not the Wolf. But she had expected… something. Some resistance or defiance. “You give me your throat?”

“I did not expect to survive this day.” There was a tightness in his voice. His voice, she noted, was the secret to reading him. “Better your blade than the noose.”

She did not know what to do. This was not the brutal monster Wolf who had terrorized her soldiers and even sometimes civilians these last ten years. There was none of the rage, the volatility she would have expected of any wolf, never mind this one.

“How can one prevent a wolf from changing?”

“You can’t.” There was a hint of a whine in his voice, and she felt her guard tense. Fur was again appearing and disappearing in patches on his skin. “At best you can make it… unwise. This,” he flexed his wrists against the ties that bound them. “I would dislocate my shoulders and probably break my arms if I tried to change now.” He stopped, breathing harshly. “A collar. Not for every wolf. For me, yes, for me. I am a small man, but my wolf is large. I would strangle myself. If I could force the change I would still be dangerous for a few minutes, but would be dead before long.”

He said nothing further, just panted like a man after a long run. Or a dog. He began to twitch, little twinges and muscle spasms.

“Majesty,” again his voice contained that trace of a whine. “It is not the way of a wolf to wait for death. If you would take your cut, do it soon.” It might have been fear, that whine. But she didn’t think so. It was strain. The strain of controlling the wolf within him.

Somehow, that was what decided her. Not his words, but that little trace of a whine.

She moved the dagger away from his neck and sliced through the leather ties on his wrists. He froze, even the constantly shifting patches of fur stopped.

“Show me your wolf.”


As someone who is aphantasic, character description does not come naturally to me. This time I have given myself permission not to worry about it. Picture the characters however you choose — but I reserve the right to give them canon descriptions later.

Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Season Finale

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

Tears leaked down Lefeng’s cheeks. Dripped on eir dead hands.

It was done. They had a family. Enough of one.

Tears dropped faster now. Ey choked back a sob.

As quietly as ey could, ey moved away, to the far corner of the compound. Ey crouched down, leaning against the wall, and let the tears pour forth. Ey had kept eir promise to Chestef. It was like laying a burden down.

So why did it hurt so much?

Eventually, ey slept.

Lefeng woke slowly the next morning. Moving was hard and thinking was harder. Eir whole self felt slow and weighed down. Like ey was carrying a heavy pack through thick brambles instead of… just waking up.

Tears leaked from eir eyes and ey buried eir head in the blankets.

Blankets?

Ey looked around. Ey was still in the corner of the compound where ey had retreated to last night. But someone must have found em and brought blankets during the night.

More tears poured forth. Wrapping a blanket around eir shoulders like a cloak, ey stood and stumbled toward the firepit.

Paiokp and Kolchais were up and eating. They filled Lefeng in on what ey missed. Tsouchm went back to eir rooms last night, but would be moving into the compound that day. Kolchais and Paiokp were to put together a sleeping area for Tsouchm while Lefeng helped Tsouchm move eir things into the compound.

Lefeng said nothing. Talking seemed to be too much effort. Ey had known ey was not doing well since Chotaikytsai accepted them, but that had been a general grumpiness and tiredness ey had put down to being stuck in the city. This was different.

Ey barely managed to choke down any food and more than once had to scrub tears from eir face.

Chotaikytsai was absorbed with Chestef, but Paiokp and Kolchais asked em what was wrong. Lefeng tried to shrug it off, push the way ey was feeling aside, but Kolchais wouldn’t let em.

“Pushing stuff away doesn’t help. I mean, if you’re in danger and have to push stuff away to deal with it, that’s one thing. But you’re safe here, so don’t push it away, whatever it is.”

“Maybe you should rest for a day,” Paiokp said, “You haven’t stopped pushing yourself since… ” ey swallowed, “…Since the wave killed everyone.”

Once Lefeng had witnessed a flash flood in the mountains. One minute the narrow canyon had been dry, the next it was running knee-deep with water, and rising. That was what it felt like now, as grief surged through em and washed eir control away. Ey broke down, crying, sobbing, blubbering.

By the time Tsouchm arrived, the worst of the storm had passed. Paiokp had helped Lefeng retrieve the Baba’s old necklace from the bottom of eir pack and Lefeng had wrapped it around eir hand, fingering the beads.

Lefeng managed to help get Tsouchm’s things but had no life to spare for curiosity about the city or the new grandparent. As soon as they returned to the compound, Lefeng retreated again. Ey had done eir duty to the living, but Kolchais was right. Lefeng couldn’t push eir dead away any longer.

Ey had much grieving to do.


This ended up being a very short episode. Sorry about that.

Next week we’ll be starting the first season of The Price of Survival.

The wolves of Long Valley knew they couldn’t win a two front war, but they thought they had leverage for a negotiated settlement.

A genocidal attack has forced their hand. The Pack Father will offer full surrender to the lesser of two evils. Now the pack will discover – can they afford to pay the price of survival?

The subscription newsletter is already on episode 6 of The Price of Survival.

If you are interested, subscribe to get a jump start on the story!

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Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Episode 11 — The Grandparents

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

While Chotaikytsai spoke with eir visitor, Lefeng and Kolchais continued discussing what they needed to build a new home. “I don’t know how much any of it will cost, but we also need money for food and drink and the bathhouse,” Kolchais was saying, “And no matter how much we have between us, it won’t be enough.”

“It’s walking season for the far-walking families. That means little leather or furs are coming into the city. I could go foraging in the forests near here. I’d need to find an area that hasn’t been hunted clear or claimed by another family though.”

“What most familyless do — and some of the poorer families — is take day-labor. The city is always hiring day-labor for work on the roads or walls. And many families will hire day-labor for things like extending their home or unloading a ship after a successful trade-run.”

Lefeng nodded and focused on digging around the burnt post. Nothing remained of the old daub, and little of the wattle, but most of the support beams remained. They were stubbornly stuck in the ground. Ey was beginning to suspect…

“Stillness throttle it!” Buried to the depth of Lefeng’s forearms, was a thick beam with holes drilled into. The poles of the wattle and the roof’s support beams were set into those holes. Possibly a few in the middle of the home for the central support beans.

Ey stood up and dusted eir hands off. “We need shovels. There are base-beams down here. I suppose that’s normal for city-construction?”

Kolchais shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Paiokp spoke up for the first time, “Probably. Only far walkers who don’t care if their home falls apart in a few years don’t put foundation beams in. And foraging would be a mistake — you’d be gone for a week or more while we need help here to get a new home built and roots only know what the council will require.”

“Enough for now, then,” Kolchais said. “Let’s put our money together and see if we have enough for at least one good shovel. We’ll need it for building as well so might as well get a good one if we can.”

Lefeng agreed and carried the last of the broken bits ey had been able to gather to the new scrap woodpile. Kolchais said they’d be able to sell it, and if not it would be firewood for a good while. That done, ey washed eir hands at the water bucket and dug out eir small pouch of trade tokens. Ey gave them to Kolchais to make sense of.

They all ended up gathered around the firepit. It was becoming a bit of a thing and Lefeng enjoyed the familiarity of it. While Kolchais went through the money and maked sense of it, Lefeng turned to ask Chotaikytsai about eir visitor.

“Tsouchm,” Chotaikytsai said, making Lefeng wince at the free use of a stranger’s name. Chotaikytsai smiled gently. “Ey has been a friend and is another family-less who has some influence in the family-less community but is very much a loner.”

Kolchais chuckles and said, “Tsouchm would have started courting Chotaikytsai years ago if ey thought Chotaikytsai would accept eir.”

Chotaiktysai looked down and away, as if embarrassed. “Stop being silly,” ey said, but it didn’t come out as forceful as Lefeng thought ey had meant it.

Kolchais laughed and said, “Now we know it’s true — if it wasn’t Chotaikytsai wouldn’t have gotten flustered.”

For a moment, it seemed the world was still. The current unsure of which direction it should turn. Lefeng looked up at Paiokp and Kolchais, and saw them looking back, just as wide-eyed as Lefeng felt.

“You know,” Lefeng said, picking eir words as carefully as footsteps on a strange night-trail. “A family should have at least two grandparents. That way they can trade off baby care and such. Even with the cenn helping out, you need at least three trading off if anyone is going to get a good night’s rest with a new baby.”

Paiokp and Kolchais grinned. “You’re right,” Kolchais said. “Isn’t ey right, Chotaikytsai?”

Chotaikytsai laughed uncomfortably. “Stop being ridiculous. Tsouchm is a friend and, yes, I like em, a lot. But ey is the biggest loner in the city. The family-less often form fake-family groups, for support and protection. Tsouchm is famous for refusing to join any of them. If ey doesn’t even want to be part of the loosely structured fake-families because it will restrict em, why would ey want to be part of a real family with even more demands on em?”

In the corner of eir eye, Lefeng saw Kolchais mouthing “Nope.” and chuckled. But the young adults all let the topic drop. A few minutes later Kolchais announced that they should have enough for the shovel, but it would mean tight rations for a week and they’d need money soon after that.

“The first of the winter beans should be ready to harvest soon,” Chotaikytsai said. “We will do well enough.”

Kolchais and Paiokp went out to buy the shovel, Lefeng having had enough of the city’s markets to last em a season. Shortly after they returned — and Lefeng was once again digging in the dirt — the gate bell rang again. Lefeng put the shovel down and heads for the gate. Paiokp rolled eir eyes at Lefeng’s hurry to get to the gate first. Paiokp, Lefeng suspected, saw it as a version of the childish ‘Me first!’.

If it made em happy to think so, Lefeng wasn’t going to try to convince em otherwise. Kolchais, ey expected, understood.

To Lefeng’s surprise, Chotaikytsai’s friend was waiting at the gate once more. After their earlier conversation, Lefeng didn’t bother asking eir to wait but invited em in immediately. This time, ey followed the strange family-less to the fire pit and squatted down near Chotaiktysai, who was preparing dinner. To eir relief, Chotaikytsai didn’t try to introduce Lefeng to the stranger. Lefeng would prefer not to have eir name given freely, no matter what the customs of the family-less were. And they had not yet discussed how to label themselves until their new family could be made official.

Instead, Chotaikytsai said, “Back so soon? Well, it may be the current steered you well for us. Kolchais was explaining to long-stride here about day-labor in the city.” Lefeng managed, barely, to keep from wincing. Ey hadn’t told the city-folk the name of eir lost family, and ey did have a longer stride than the city-folk. It was just an unfortunate nickname.

The stranger’s eyebrows reached for eir hairline — and it was a long reach. The other’s greying hair had receded to eir ears.

“We need money for building supplies,” Lefeng explained, “and we have no trade yet. I could go back on the trails, leather and furs sell well here. But that would take me from the city for too long.”

“Then day-labor is your best — possibly your only — option,” the grey-haired one confirmed. “Now that the wood has had time to dry, the city will be hiring many to do the work of repairing the roads. It will be hard work, but steady, and pays well. I’ll show you where to go for it?”

“That is good,” Lefeng said, and then let the topic drop. The grey-haired one had come for a reason, and Lefeng had hopes as to what it might be. Thankfully, the stranger didn’t wait to speak.

“I have been thinking all day on what you are doing here.” Lefeng bit back a cheer and glanced at Kolchais who had come to stand behind Chotaikytsai and was biting eir lip and trying to hold back a grin. “I know well my reputation, but while I have embraced my solitude, being alone has not been entirely my own choice. I would join this family you are creating, if you would have me.” The grey-haired one glanced around at the gathered group, but Lefeng wasn’t surprised when eir gaze was drawn to Chotaikytsai.

Lefeng held eir breath, waiting, and it seemed Paiokp was doing the same. Neither of them looked at Chotaikytsai.

Kolchais was not so restrained and whatever ey saw in their grandparent’s face made the hearth-fire flare-up — ey burst out laughing.

Worst thing ey could do. The grey-haired one mostly kept eir face blank but Lefeng saw the slight wince ey couldn’t control. Lefeng didn’t know how to save the situation. Kolchais started gasped words through the laughter. “I told eir… A dozen times… I…. told eir and… ey… didn’t believe me.”

The hidden wince changed to open confusion and Lefeng sighed in relief. Perhaps ey should have trusted the city-folk more. “I do not understand,” the stranger grated out.

Kolchais was still laughing too hard to be fully coherent and Paiokp had once again withdrawn to an unaccustomed silence. Lefeng was surprised at how hard it was to speak, how heavy eir tongue was in eir mouth. But someone needed to say something. “Of course you don’t.” Ey nudged Kolchais. “Stop it. Even I know better than that!”

“After you left earlier,” Lefeng said, speaking past a lump in eir throat. Why? Ey should be happy… “We,” ey gestured to eirself and Paiokp, “got to witness the hundredth cycle of an argument. That stubborn-one has been sure you were interested in courting the once-weaver. And our parent-to-be has been sure you were too much of loner to ever court anyone.”

Kolchais finally got control of eirself and stood, nudging Lefeng in turn and tapping Paiokp on the shoulder. Lefeng nodded heavily and stood. “The spouses – or spouse in this case,” Kolchais said, ” accepts the courtship. We had our say earlier, anyway. Come on, you two.”

Kolchais and Paiokp rounded up Chestef and headed toward the sleeping shed. Good, it was time for Chestef to sleep.

But Lefeng was unable to make emself follow them. Instead, ey moved off a short distance and looked through the charred scraps for a piece that might be worth carving. Far enough that ey wouldn’t be intruding, but close enough ey could still hear.

Ey had to know.

“So,” the grey-hair said, “You thought I could not be interested, hm? Did you also think I was a dead? Even trees twine their roots together, though they stand apart.”

“Are you a tree? I see no leaves.” Chotaikytsai’s voice was full of humor and Lefeng was glad of it. The grandparent needed someone to play with.

“No? But here is my lustrous bark and my limbs dance in the wind.” Lefeng couldn’t help glancing over eir shoulder at that — the stranger had raised eir hands over eir head and was waving them around. Ey and Chotaikytsai laughed together.

“I don’t know anything about being part of a family. And tides know how I’ll manage as a grandparent when I have never known children. But I will do my best by this family. And I have been alone long enough.”

Lefeng heard Chotaikytsai accept, and then the whole world blurred.

Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Interlude — Tschoum

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

Tsouchm got breakfast, as usual, from a rundown cooking-family by the docks that catered to the familyless. Ey sat and ate alone, unusual among even the family-less in eir stubborn individuality. When ey was younger it had seemed a fine thing to make emself a reverse of the society that had rejected em. Not for em the banding together in unsanctioned “families” that mimicked (and mocked) the ‘proper’ families that ruled the city. Ey went eir own way, as eir own person, and did eir own thing. Ey had survived, and even to some small extent thrived, alone since eir Cenn died when ey was still a child.

But lately, ey had been feeling regrets. Age was creeping up on em. It was a fine thing to walk alone amidst the whispers and stares as a young one, daring the world to react to eir choice. And if ey could be sure of a quick, clean death, it would not be a bad way to finish eir life.

But the memory of eir cenn dying slowly, coughing out eir life over long, horrible weeks, haunted em. Nothing could have saved eir Cenn, but the dying would have not been as hard if there had been anyone other than a poor child to take care of em. It was, Tsouchm thought, the beginning of old age and these creeping fears that had em dreaming of eir cenn’s death so often of late.

For the first time since Cenn died, Tsouchm found emself wishing for a family to belong to.

It was with these things in mind that Tsouchm heard the gossip. The two strangers ey had spoken briefly with a few days before, given directions to the husk of a family compound where old Chotaikytsai stubbornly held on, sought to form a new family. That last night they had been seen moving all their things into the once-weaver’s place.

From the gossip, not many would bond with strangers. Why force a new family into being when one could live life as best ey can with friends and unfamily? But Tsouchm was curious. Ey had done business with Chotaikytsai many times over the years. They had become friends. Ey didn’t know Kolchais as well, but the younger had frequently been at Chotaikytsai’s home when Tsouchm had visited the last several years. So they knew each other.

Deciding to humor eir curiosity, Tsouchm paid for the tab and headed out.

Arriving at the burnt-out compound set off a familiar routine. Or should have. But it was a stranger who came to open the gate, the lean far-walker who had constantly checked eir stride to keep from outdistancing eir companion. Ey would not let Tschoum in immediately but asked em to wait. Family propriety was already reasserting itself.

Chotaikytsai was technically not familyless but family-last. And ey had been raised in exactly the kind of family that would least encourage a marriage to such as Tsouchm. When eir family had lived, Tschoum would not even have been allowed inside the gate except for occasional day-labor. But to Tschoum’s relief, Chotaikytsai came to the gate a moment later. Ey greeted Tsouchm as always, with full courtesy, giving respect to eir rank among the familyless.

Tsouchm had always liked Chotaikytsai, and the once-weaver’s respect was part of why. Ey was the only one from a family who looked at Tsouchm as a person deserving of respect and consideration.

Tsouchm had at one time considered a liaison with Chotaikytsai but had decided against saying anything. The weaver was still very much a child of the families. And one thing that stuck with em from eir childhood was that no physical liaisons were to be had outside of the marriage group. It would have shamed eir family.

Chotaikytsai’s loyalty to eir family had made Tsouchm doubt the rumors. But the stranger who had opened the gates went to join another stranger and a child. They were clearing the remains of the burnt house while Kolchais sat nearby talking with them.

“I heard rumors but did not know what to believe. You will do this thing?”

Chotaikytsai nodded. “I had thought to never be a grandparent. But the cycle has turned and it is time to start anew.”

Tsouchm grunted. “I hope that this cycle is a good one then.” Ey looked around the familiar compound. “I… expect I shall see you less often. Now that you will have a family.”

Chotaikytsai flipped a rude hand sign meaning ‘root rot’. “You have been a friend when I needed one most. You will always be welcome in my home and my family’s home.” Tsouchm laughed and shook eir head. Ey should have known better than to think Chotaikytsai would go all proper on em.

They spoke for a few more minutes, and then Tsouchm took eir leave, much distracted.

Tsouchm had enough saved by that ey didn’t need to seek work for a few days. So ey went to the edge of the dockyards and squatted in eir accustomed place. Any of the familyless who wished to seek em out knew they could find em there. A twinge of arthritis reminded em of eir age. Ey didn’t know how old ey was. Like many familyless Tsouchm had no one to remember eir birthing and no younglings to count the years by. But eir hair had grayed several years ago, so ey was probably of an age with Chotaikytsai.

One of eir neighbors stopped by, needing information on what families were hiring for day-labor. They haggle briefly, but Tsouchm’s heart wasn’t in it.

Unlike proper families, the groups the familyless formed were all the same age. When those eir age were banding together, Tsouchm had been taking care of eir cenn. Cenn had been part of a group, but they all died either before Tsouchm was born or while ey was very little. So ey and eir cenn had no one else. Tsouchm could only have joined a group by leaving eir cenn to die alone. And ey refused to do that.

By the time eir cenn finally died, ey had a reputation as a loner. Even if the groups forming by then would have been willing to accept someone older, everyone just assumed Tsouchm wanted nothing to do with any group. And ey had been too proud to ask.

So Tsouchm made a badge of eir alone-ness instead. And it had worked for em. Ey was known and respected not just by the family-less but also by some of the families. Ey had even done business a few times with members of the council. And ey never looked back.

It was a bold thing these strangers were doing. They had to have had families. No one born to familyless-ness would have considered it. To start a new family with strangers, trusting that the belief in family and what it meant would be enough to bind them together for generations.

Tsouchm grimaced. Old age was making em too prone to endless thinking and not enough doing. But, ey admitted, in this case, there was a reason for that. What ey was thinking of doing scared em.

Slowly, Tsouchm stood up and headed for eir tiny room in the port district. Ey changed into eir one set of good clothing and strode back to the compound which was once the home of the color-work weaving family. Boldness and refusal to apologize for who ey was has gotten em this far. Ey would ride that current where it took em now.

Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Episode 10 – The Decision

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

When they returned to the compound, Chotaikytsai had gotten Chestef to take a nap and was working the garden. Kolchais tried to join em but Chotaikytsai took one good look at Kolchais’ face and insisted ey sit down and eat something. Ey had done enough today.

Kolchais protested that ey didn’t do anything. “Rot and stagnation!” Lefeng exclaimed. “You guided us around the city, introduced us to people, and helped us understand how the city works. That is enough for anyone to do in one day.

“If I am tired, you must be exhausted.”

The once-weaver gave Lefeng a respectful nod and said, “Besides, I was about to stop and eat something. The gardens can wait for a time.”

Lefeng and the others joined the grandparent by the fire pit and shared the roasted vegetables and beer ey had prepared. Ey did eir best to make small talk through the meal — especially as the golden-eyed had fallen silent. Lefeng desperately wanted to ask what the once-weaver had decided, to ask Kolchais if ey might be willing to consider them, but held to the hunt-patience and waited.

Thankfully, when they finished eating, Chotaikytsai decided to take pity on em. “I will be part of this new family,” the once-weaver said, “but only if Kolchais is also part of it. Ey is already root-kin to me and it is only right that ey be part of any family I build.”

“What!” Kolchais exclaimed before Lefeng or Paiokp could respond. “You can’t do that! You can’t throw away this chance for my sake!”

Chotaikytsai threw up eir hands and shook eir head. “What? You think I should give up the family I have to take a new one? Or are you saying there are not family-feelings between us?”

The limping-one cut em off, and Paiokp leaned over to whisper in Lefeng’s ear, “They certainly fight like family.”

Lefeng snorted and nudged the sun-touched. “Go on then. You’re the rooted-one. They’ll listen to you better than me.”

Paiokp laughed. “I’d get between a mountain cat and it’s meat before I got in the middle of a family quarrel.”

“Very well,” Lefeng sighed. “I’ll do it. Otherwise, I see us having our first family quarrel over who will interrupt their family quarrel.”

Kolchais and the once-weaver were standing now, yelling at each other. Lefeng considered a moment. How different were the city’s courting customs?

Ey stood and put two fingers under Kolchais’ chin, startling the stubborn-one into silence and turning eir head to face Lefeng. “Shut up long enough for us to answer, courting-sib.” Lefeng leaned in until ey could feel Kolchais’ breath on eir lips. To eir delight, Kolchais recognized the invitation and leaned into the kiss. It was light and sweet, and Lefeng could taste the stubborn-one’s uncertainty, inexperience. So different from intense Paiespaiokp or teasing Poutsneptsaipn or any of eir other lost ones. Ey pulled back and blinked away tears. It took a moment to clear eir throat and regain the teasing tone ey had intended. “Unless you’ve rather not be married to us. I can’t imagine we’d be prime catch for a sophisticated city person.”

Kolchais stared a moment, reaching up to touch eir lips. “You don’t know what you are saying.”

“You city folk talk weird, I’ll admit. but I’m pretty sure I’m saying exactly what I meant to. Paiokp?”

“Stop teasing em, Lefeng. I swear when you get an idea in your head…” Paiokp shook eir head and looked down at eir hands. “Kolchais, if the once-weaver hadn’t said something, we would have asked you. I know it’s indecently fast to speak of marriage and mating and… and there are things about us that you should know before we ever asked. But you could be a big help to us, with how well you know the city. And we… I … like you.”

“We,” Lefeng said. “Smart, aware, kind, city grown, and cute.”

“I…” Kolchais swallows. “I like you too. But you saw what people think of me.”

Lefeng shrugged. “I’m a mountain child who would follow the old ways and live in a tent most of the year. Have you not heard what the people here say of me? Why should I believe they speak any more truth about you?”

Chotaikytsai chuckled. “Enough my children. If we are all agreed?”

Lefeng looked at Kolchais and raised eir eyebrows. Slowly, the stubborn-one nodded. “Agreed.”

“Go get your things,” Chotaikytsai said. “You will all stay here now. And you,” ey poked Lefeng, “who brags of sleeping in tents, you will be in charge of putting together someplace for you all to sleep until we can…” Ey stopped and took a deep breath. “Can rebuild the compound.”

Lefeng heard an echo of eir own grief in that pause and offered a hand to eir parent-to-be, who gripped it tightly.

“Off with you then! The faster you go, the sooner you are back.”

With a nod, Lefeng turned and jogged for the gate, Paiokp trailing behind.

When Lefeng returned, Chestef was awake and pestering eir grandparent-to-be with questions.

Lefeng put eir pack down out of the way and went to squat down near the child. Chotaikytsai said, “Alright, child. Lefeng is back now and we have something important to tell you.”

“You know why we came here?” Lefeng asked, picking up the grandparent’s cue. “To make a new family?”

Chestef nodded. “You and Paiokp are going to be my parents. And we would find more parents and grandparents. But will I have a new cenn?”

The child’s voice wobbled a bit at that last and Lefeng picked up the child and held eir tight. “No, Chestef. There is only one cenn, one birthing parent, for each of us. But there can be many paitche, many parents. And new Babas as well.

“Chotaikytsai and Kolchais — the short city-folk who is child to Chotaikytsai, the stubborn-one — will be joining our family. Chotaikytsai will be your grandparent, and can be baba if you want em to be.”

“Baba?” Chestef asked, looking at the once-weaver.

“Yes, child,” Chotaikytsai said, and Chestef launched emself at eir new Baba so fast that ey nearly knocked Lefeng over. Chestef clung to eir new grandparent and cried. It was a long time before eir tears finally stopped.

They talked plans over dinner. As Lefeng was afraid, the city would make everything more complicated than it had to be. They couldn’t just go before a priest and have their new family blessed. Chotaikytsai said that ey would find out when the next council meeting would be. They would need to get a hearing before the council to request recognition as citizens.

Lefeng tuned most of it out. It would be important, ey knew. But it was not something ey could help with. Leave it to those who could. Ey’s concern was getting shelter for everyone.

By nightfall, they were temporarily settled. Chestef would sleep in the lean-to with eir Baba. Lefeng, Paiokp, and Kolchais all had space under a shelter Lefeng constructed in a corner of the compound. Tomorrow, ey would start work on a winter shelter — the not-so-temporary shelters the far-walkers used when they planned to stay in one place for several weeks or months. The shelters were named for the winter in-gathers when the far-walking clans came together and an entire mountain valley would be filled from end-to-end with the winter shelters of all the families there…

The future opened before Lefeng — but the past remained, dogging eir steps.

Planting Life in a Dying City; Season 1, Episode 9 – The Abandoned

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

Lefeng rose early the next morning. The hospitality family offered fruit and a strange kind of flatbread. Ey took the flatbread and ate it a small bit at a time. By the time ey finished, the sun was rising. Ey roused Paiokp and Chestef and waited, as patiently as ey could, while they ate. Then the three headed out to speak again with the weaver.

When they arrived again at the old compound, the once-weaver let them in, but refused to speak with them. “Kolchais will show you around the city,” ey said instead. “If you would live here, you should know it. I will watch the youngling for you. Ey can help me with the weeding.”

Lefeng was reluctant to leave, wanting to talk with the once-weaver about the family and eir thoughts on it, but Chotaikytsai was firm. Chestef, to eir surprise, liked the plan. Eventually, Lefeng realized that the youngling would feel safer in a family compound — any family compound. With the assurance of the youngling’s safety, ey agreed.

Kolchais was extremely knowledgeable about the city. Ey not only pointed out directions and landmarks but explained some of the city customs and organization. There was a council that ruled the city, made up of one member of each family. The council made the laws and set policy, and once a year elected between three and ten people to do the day-to-day work of managing the city.

“In theory, anyone can be elected.” Kolchais paused a moment to gulp for breath. “In practice, it’s almost always people from the most successful 20 or 30 families. Fifty years ago, though, one of the family-less was elected. Ey had become a hero in the fighting when North Shore tried to invade. I guess the council thought they needed to do something about em before ey became a threat, though. Ey was caught ‘stealing’ from the city and executed as a traitor.”

Lefeng glanced at Paiokp and saw the golden-eyed one looking back at em. Paiokp rolled eir eyes and Lefeng nodded. Don’t trust the council, message received.

Their town-guide stumbled. Lefeng caught eir elbow reflexively, but let go as soon as Kolchais had eir feet again. “Apologies, Kolchais. I did not mean to intrude.”

Kolchais looked down and away, pulling away from Lefeng. “No apology needed, far-walker. I… appreciate the help. Turn here. I’m sure you’d like to see the main trader’s market.”

Lefeng followed, trying to give the town-guide space. But the once-fisher hurried after and asked, “Are you okay?”

“Of course. The market runs every day, but by custom first day through fourth day are reserved for trading families. Fifth and sixth days are open to other families, and on seventh day they let family-less who have enough tokens in to buy what little we can.” Ey continued talking about the market, but Lefeng stopped listening. The once-walker had heard enough of markets, now it was time to watch.

Once Lefeng was paying attention to eir eyes rather than eir ears, it became obvious that Paiokp had been right to worry about their guide. Kolchais was sweating and limping. There was a pattern to eir steps. It reminded Lefeng of grandparents in their last year on the trails. Something that spoke of an inner strength and stubbornness, but an outer strength that could no longer keep up with that inner determination.

Worse, ey now noticed the other city-folk around them staring. Not staring at the two out-town strangers, but at their guide. The stares were hostile, and more than one person made warding gestures or signs of contempt. City folk were disgusting.

Lefeng ignored the staring strangers. They were not a problem — now, anyway. Ey hesitated before speaking, not wanting to offend Kolchais again. But Lefeng could not stay silent while the stubborn-one pushed emself into injury. “We should stop and rest a bit. You are going to harm yourself if you keep pushing yourself.” Kolchais looked down and away again, and this time Lefeng could see it for embarrassment and shame, not the anger ey had thought.

“Besides,” Paiokp put in, “my thoughts are more stuffed than a child on a feast-day. We need time to absorb everything you have said before we hear any more.”

Kolchais didn’t try to argue. Paiokp, Lefeng thought, turned the tide, giving the city-folk a reason to stop that eir pride could accept. They found a wall to sit by. Lefeng and Paiokp squated down but Kolchais leaned against the wall. “If I squat down,” ey muttered, “I may not be able to get up.”

The city-folk seemed to expect some response, but Lefeng couldn’t imagine what. Ey shrugged and went back to watching the people around them.

They had barely walked a finger-width of the sun’s course, and it took the stubborn-one a half-fingerwidth to breathe easy and stop eir legs from shaking. Not wanting the stubborn-one to push emself again so quickly — and still having much to learn — Lefeng and Paiokp began asking questions.

Before too long, Paiokp began to get restless, after traveling with em for a month Lefeng recognized the signs. But Lefeng was used to judging eir family’s fitness for the trail and gestured patience. After another finger-width, Lefeng asked Kolchais if they could continue.

The city-folk agreed, but Lefeng insisted that ey tell them when ey needed to rest again. Lefeng found eir eyes caressing Kolchais’ broad face and the cute way ey bit eir lip while ey thought. “Alright. As long as you don’t mind…”

“If I minded, I wouldn’t ask.”

So they walked and rested, walked and rested. Over the course of the morning, Kolchais explained everything from the street sweepers who passed by (family-less hired as day-labor) to the working of the council. From class distinctions within the city (class being a combination of a family’s trade, location, and wealth) to how family compounds could be sold or trade hands. Even how the family-less lived in the city.

Lefeng and Paiokp were by then used to the physical presence of the city. But they had many questions about how so many people managed to live together. Kolchais’ explanations help them make sense of how the city worked and how they would need to function to survive within it.

Lefeng was not happy with city ways. They were, as eir family always believed, unhealthy and ridiculous. Why they practically lived in their own filth! But this is the choice ey had made, so ey would deal with it as best ey could.

Ey wondered if Paiokp might also be having second thoughts. Sometimes the wind shifted to blow from the sea. Each time the golden-eyed-one looked toward it with longing, in spite of the horrific smell that came from the docks.

Throughout the day, Lefeng continued to see (and sometimes hear!) strangers stop and yell taunts or make rude gestures at Kolchais. For most of the walk, Lefeng and Paiokp politely ignored it as a personal matter they didn’t want to call attention to. But Lefeng found emself thinking that this stubborn-one, with eir knowledge of the city and how it functioned and the best ways for someone without power and influence to survive, could be a valuable addition to their family. Plus ey liked em. Paiokp must have been having similar thoughts. Lefeng could see eir hands clenching and eyes narrowing at each new insult. So ey wasn’t surprised when the golden-eyed-one asked about the rude people.

Lefeng expected the city-folk, stubborn-one to refuse to answer. It was an invasive question. But Kolchais began talking of eir family and eir illness. How eir slowness and difficulty walking was the result of something that caused them to be constantly in pain. Eir family believed ey was lying and lazy to get out of contributing and doing work for the family.

“That’s ridiculous,” Lefeng burst out. “You nearly pushed yourself to collapse this morning. Anyone with eyes can see that you do what you can and more. Or was it someone else working in the garden with the once-weaver yesterday?”

Kolchais shrugged. “It is what they believe. And for a long time, I thought they were right.”

“Were the healers and priests unable to help?” Paiokp asked gently.

Kolchais looked down. “There are no healers for the family-less. The one healer my family brought to see me gave a potion that helped the pain, but it didn’t stop it.”

“I’m sorry,” Paiokp said.

They didn’t speak of it further, and soon Kolchais turned their steps back toward the once-weaver’s compound. But Lefeng caught the golden-eyed watching em with eyebrows raised in question. Lefeng grinned and nodded. Yes, ey thought they could do well with this one.

Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Episode 8 – The Weaver

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

They set out early the next morning to speak with the weaver. But navigating the city was difficult and it took them until mid-morning to find the compound of the Colorworkweaving family.

The gate was broken off the hinges and leaned against the inside of the wall. In its place, a simple wooden bar blocked the entrance. Through the mostly-open gate, they could see the partly-cleared-away burnt remains of a large compound. Lefeng thought it could have comfortably held a family of over thirty. Around and behind the ruins were gardens that were in various stages of tending. Most showed some level of neglect and a few were completely overrun with weeds. But a few were thriving. Two people worked in one of the gardens. One who was old enough to be a grandparent, and was likely the weaver they were seeking. The other was of an age to be a parent. They were focused on their work and didn’t notice their visitors. Lefeng shook eir head. Especially with no gate, it wasn’t safe for them to not be alert.

A knocker still hung beside where the gate had been. Lefeng rang the knocker, though gentler than usual for fear it, too, was in disrepair. But it rang out clearly in spite of its battered appearance.

The two working the garden looked up and the maybe-grandparent stood and approached the gate. As ey got closer, Lefeng could see there were still a few black strands mixed in with the bright white curls of eir hair — too loose to be called coils. Lefeng had noticed that was common in the city. Eir face was broad, with a button nose, and unusually for the rooted folk, as dark as Lefeng and many of eir family.

“Greetings strangers. Who are you and what brings you to my gate?”

Lefeng glanced at Paiokp and found Paiokp looking back at em. Ey guessed Paiokp was wondering the same thing — how did one without family introduce themself?

After a moment, Lefeng says, “I am… I was farwalker near-adult of Sandy Cove. The great wave a month ago destroyed my village… and my family. My companions are also left familyless by the wave.

“I met a parent of the Southward Cobblers in the market yesterday, and ey asked that I come here and give eir greetings.”

“I am Chotaikytsai, once a weaver.” The once-weaver shook eir head at their surprised look and said. “Among the familyless, personal names are given freely. We have no other designation to share.”

“Oh.” Lefeng took a breath and glanced at Paiokp again. The once-fisher glanced away, clearly unwilling or unable to speak. “Of… course. I am… Lefeng. And this is Paiokp.” Courtesy or not, ey wouldn’t name Chestef to a stranger. It was bad enough sharing eir and Paiokp’s names.

“You are a long way from home. Though I expect farwalkers are always a long way from home.”

Lefeng blinked in surprise. “The farwalkers carry their homes with them, once-weaver. But yes, I am a long way from the fires of my family.”

“I expect,” the once-weaver said in a sudden change of tone and topic, “that my nibling did not send you here just to give greetings ey could have brought emself. And I am too old and tired to dance around what brings you here.”

But not, Lefeng noticed with a grin, so discourteous as to ask outright. And the humor of that gave eir current enough of a boost to push em onward.

“We wish to start a new family together. But three people don’t make a family. So we’re looking for others who might want to join us. It was after I told em this, that your nibling asked me to come.”

Chotaikytsai said nothing, but lifted the bar across the gate and gestured for them to come in. As they entered, the other person stood from the garden–moving more like an elder than a young parent. Chotaikytsai introduces em as Kolchais, once a messenger. This one had proper coils around eir broad face, and skin lighter brown than the weaver, but still darker than Chestef or the fisher.

Kolchais snorted and shook eir head. “No, never a messenger, just the child of them.”

Ey and Chotaikytsai exchanged looks like this was an old argument. Lefeng decided to remember that but said nothing.

“I was getting ready to break for some food. Would you join me?” Chotaikytsai asked.

“If you wish,” Lefeng said, fearing to take from what small reserve this pair must have. “We have some trail food left if you wish to share.”

It took a few minutes, but the once-weaver and… Kolchais… had more food on hand than Lefeng would have expected from the state of the compound. Between what they had and the trail food, they were all settled near an old fire pit with food in less than a fingers-width.

After they ate quietly for a few minutes, the once-weaver asked, “You would make family with strangers? Many people are lazy, good for nothings. You would risk burdening yourself with their care for how do you know which is which? And what of your own families? Would they wish you to abandon them? Their ways and traditions and history?”

Lefeng shook eir head. “I have nothing left. My family followed the old way so we kept few possessions that couldn’t be carried in a pack, and most of those were destroyed by the wave. I could make my way in the mountains, but a lone traveler in the mountains has a fool for a companion. My family would rather see me make a new life, walking the path before me than dead on the trail to no purpose.” Ey looked to the once-fisher.

Paiokp shrugged. “My family would rather be forgotten than have me be their only memory. And the longer I am gone from them, the happier I am to have it so. Let the dead bury the dead, for they will have none of me.”

Kolchais looked at Paoikp consideringly. “Sometimes no family is better than the family you had.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Paiokp grinned, “But the longer they are gone the more I see how much they hated me. Why should I give them the respect they never offered?”

“As for making a family of strangers…” Lefeng shrugged, “we don’t propose to join with anyone we meet. Courting can take many forms, after all.”

Chotaikytsai said nothing. Ey looked around the compound, the burnt wreck of eir home. “I am all that is left of my family,” ey said finally. “So long as I remain, some part of them lives on. But you ask me to abandon them to help you create a new family.”

Kolchais snorted. “Would your family wish you spend the rest of your life familyless trying to keep them alive beyond the grave? You forget the cycle with such thoughts. All things end, and in the endings are new beginnings. Your family will end. If not now, then when you die. Will you turn your back on a beginning in a futile effort to prevent an ending?”

Chotaikytsai didn’t respond, but Lefeng could tell ey was disturbed. Ey, Paiokp, and Kolchais left em to eir thoughts, instead discussing the city and Lefeng and Paiokp’s first impressions of it.

They ended up staying through the afternoon until it was time for evening meal. Chestef, unwilling to sit for long, got up to investigate the gardens, and, still silent, Chotaikytsai followed.

Eventually, the conversation wound down, leaving Lefeng with a strong respect for how much the stranger — Kolchais — understood eir home city. Finally, Lefeng decided it was time to leave. The once-weaver had said nothing, but Kolchais was worn out and they had stayed far longer than Lefeng had planned. Ey stood and called Chestef back. Paiokp stood with em and they made their farewells.

“Come back tomorrow,” Chotaitkysai said. “I will have an answer for you then.”

Ey reached into a small pouch under eir tunic and squatted down beside Chestef. “Here, child,” ey holds out a colorful woven band that could be a necklace or headband.

As they got up to leave, Lefeng saw Chotaikytsai grab the other cityfolk’s hand and ask em to stay the night. The cityfolk’s — Kolchais’ expression told Lefeng ey had never expected the request. Lefeng hurried Paiokp and Chestef out, leaving the two city folk to talk. But it seemed the once-weaver was already changing eir habits, and that made Lefeng hopeful.

Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Episode 7 – The City (Part 2)

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

At the area the guard directed em to, Lefeng laid out eir tent-leather as a blanket to sit on. There was room on the blanket for the leather and other things ey had brought to sell. The market was quiet, with only a handful of people haggling. Several near-adults were loitering — talking and playing dice games. One of them came over, took a close look at eir offerings, and took off at a run.

The person next to Lefeng, who had such a random clutter Lefeng wondered where ey had gotten it, laughed at eir surprise.

“Message runner,” ey said. “Families that need something and don’t want to hunt the markets themselves will hire a messenger to watch and alert them when the goods they need are available.” Ey leaned over and took a close look at Lefeng’s leathers. “I’m surprised more than one hasn’t taken off. You’re the first I’ve seen here with leather since before the bright season.”

“Thank you,” Lefeng said.

“Do you mean to set yourself up at a trader?” The other asked.

“No.” Lefeng wondered if the other was worried about competition.

“Well, if you have anything left at the end of the market, I’ll buy it from you.”

Lefeng narrowed eir eyes. “Why?”

The other tittered, rocking back and forth on eir heels. “You are new. Look, I’m a parent of the Beadtraders family.” Lefeng eyed eir goods. “I know, I know, we’ve fallen on hard times, and rarely trade in beads anymore. But it’s worth it for one of us to sit in the various smaller markets each day. You can’t afford to spend too long here — you’ll not want to pay the fee more days than necessary, and you must have things you came here to do.

“If you sell to me, I can sit here with it until it is sold or rots. I can hold onto it until a family that needs it comes along, and make more from it than you might, who must sell for what you can get. And you get the money you need and can go on with your tasks without being tied to this market or carrying around goods you have no need for.”

Lefeng thought a minute, then said, “Let us see how the day goes.”

A few minutes later the runner returned with a stranger and pointed the stranger to Lefeng.

The stranger came to where Lefeng sits, and crouched down in front of eir, fingering the half-finished leathers. “You are out-of-season, farwalker. Usually, it is in Spring, before the Bright Season, that your people come from the mountains and flood the city with leather and fur and herbs.”

Lefeng clenched eir hands but managed to speak calmly. “I am no longer farwalker, city-folk. My family was destroyed in the great wave and I have brought the last of the summer’s traplines to get money to stay in the city.”

The stranger nodded but made no further comment until ey was done examining the hides. “You will accept city tokens, then, once-farwalker?”

“Yes,” Lefeng says, “if you have fishing tokens.” The city tokens confused Lefeng, but the hospitality family had set their price in fishing tokens. Lefeng knew how well the hides would have traded for fish in Sandy Cove.

They dickered for a short time, but in the end, the stranger took all the hides. Ey left Lefeng with enough tokens for a week with the Hearthsafes. Lefeng suspected that the stranger got the better of eir, but the price ey got was much better than what the traders paid when they come–came–to the village each spring. So ey did not complain.

As the stranger gathered the hides, the ey asked, “What will you do in the city, once-walker? I would have expected you to head for the mountains and find another family there.”

“What business of yours stranger?” Lefeng gestures agreement, though. Ey and Paiokp had agreed that starting gossip would be a good thing. “I come with two other family-less, rooted folk, left alone by the great wave a month ago. We hope to find others and perhaps form a new family together.”

To Lefeng’s amusement, the Beadtrader’s ears were practically twitching as ey tried to pretend ey wasn’t listening. But to Lefeng’s surprise, the stranger also looked interested and crouched back down.

“So… once-walker, I am a parent of the Southwardcobbler family. Are you looking only for those of your own generation, or grandparents and elders as well?”

Lefeng sat up suddenly. If this cobbler was implying… “A family needs all generations to be complete, does it not, Southwardcobbler?”

Ey nodded in satisfaction. “Just so. Just so. Though too many family-less of the city will deny this.

“My Cenn married out of the Colorworkweaver family. You can find the remains of their compound on the street of Hares

“The remains?”

“Yes. There was a fire when I was a child. The only survivor was one of my ommer, my Cenn’s sibling. A parent then, ey was too old to be adopted into another family.”

Lefeng nodded, knowing ey was doing a poor job of hiding eir eagerness. “Perhaps we might pay a call upon eir?”

The cobbler nodded several times and smiled. “If you would give eir my greetings, I would be grateful. I do not have time to go down to that part of the city often.

“Ey still lives in the remains of the compound. My Cenn visits from time to time, so I know ey has not left.”

Lefeng accepted the suggestion with thanks and promises to bring the cobbler’s greetings to the weaver. Ey was tempted to sell what ey had left to the Beadtrader but forced eirself to patience. The weaver would not disappear overnight.

By day’s end, Lefeng sold most of eir other goods. Ey sold the few things that were left to the BeadTrader for a few tokens. Then ey returned to the inn to meet with Paiokp and Chestef.

Over the evening meal, they discuss the results of the day. Lefeng told Paiokp of the Colorworkweaver they will need to seek out. Paiokp, unfortunately, has less hopeful news. “No one has heard of others who survived the wave coming here.” Ey shrugged “We should have expected it, I think. The damage got less as we traveled, and if any further than your village had survived and come this way, they would have reached my village before we left. There are many family-less here, I am told. But they are born family-less and instead of forming proper families, have joined into fake marriage groups with no connection from one generation to the next.”

Lefeng shakes eir head. How can the children be raised properly with no grandparents to tend them while the parents work? How can the grandparents and elders be well with no parents and near-adult children to care for them? But… “We knew city ways were strange. I don’t see it as much stranger than any other thing rooted folk have done. Perhaps some of them will be willing to consider new family ties.”

Paiokp stared at Lefeng, then focused on eir food. Rooted folks. Each so sure that only their way was best.

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Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Episode 6 – The City (Part 1)

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

Lefeng crouched down to examine the trail. That morning it had widened, from a narrow forest trail to a packed dirt path. Now, the dirt had given way to what looked like logs. As thick around as Lefeng’s arm, they lay perpendicular to the road, pressed deep into the dirt. The bark had been removed but the wood was rough, pitted and scarred and worn away in places to expose the ridges formed by the rings of the original tree. Most of them were showing signs of rot, returning to the earth. Paiokp stopped beside em and said, “I didn’t think they did this on the trails. The roads inside the city are all made this way. They say it keeps the streets from turning to mud after a rain.”

Lefeng shook eir head. “How?”

“I don’t know,” Paiokp shrugged. “It’s a great deal of work, isn’t it? Especially all the way out here, where we can’t even see the city. Maybe there are families who specialize in road building?”

Shortly after the logs appeared on the road, the forest surrounding the road disappeared. They came out of the forest into a clear area that stretched three times the length of Sandy Cove. The open area ended at the edge of the city.

The area was half a giant bowl with the deepest part of the bowl as the edge of the sea. High up on the ridge were what appeared to be family compounds, but two and three times the size of any Lefeng had ever seen. Lower down were more normal family compounds grouped around what appeared to be markets and other open areas. Most of the open areas had a great pillar, taller than any of the surrounding buildings by several person-lengths. Lightning towers, Lefeng guessed. The village had talked about constructing one from time to time, but there were many tall trees on the ridge above the village to draw the lightning. Lightning had never struck the village in Lefeng’s lifetime. A few of the towers were particolored. One grew what looked like a stone tree atop it. Lightning did strike here. Perhaps often.

Down towards the water were smaller buildings. They might have been homes for small families, but had no walls or yards to separate them from their neighbors. And right before the docks ware large buildings that Paiokp said stored food and sometimes other goods.

The city was overwhelming. The noise and smell of it alone, even from a finger-width away, were shocking. The youngling seemed shocked as well. Chestef clung to the two adults, staring at the city. “Are you okay?” Lefeng asked.

“There’s so many people…” the youngling replied before burying eir face in Lefeng’s tunic. Of course. The youngling wasn’t used to seeing the various adults of eir village. Now ey was confronted with thousands of people beyond anything ey ever imagined.

The number of people was a bit much for Lefeng as well, but ey had seen hundreds and thousands gathered together before at the great farwalker conclaves each winter. It was the buildings, the sheer number and variety of them, that took eir breath away.

Paiokp wrapped an arm around Chestef’s shoulders. “It’s big. Bigger than I remembered. I don’t recall it being this loud, either.

“Look, there’s the gate.” Ahead of them, the path ended — or perhaps began — at a gate set in a wooden palisade. “No wall though. The harbor is surrounded by a sea-wall, to hold off raiders.”

“Raiders?”

Paiokp looked at Lefeng in surprise. “There are sea-raiders all up and down the coast. Your village never saw them?”

Lefeng shook eir head. “The fishing fleet was attacked from time to time. But never the village.” Ey smiled. “Almost, I would have liked to see them try. Half the village was farwalking families. Any raiders who tried would find themselves in a hornet’s nest.”

“Ah.” Paiokp was quiet a moment. “The sea-wall is two person-heights and made of stone. They say it will hold off the local raiders, and attacks by other cities. I thought they’d have a similar wall here.”

“Not if I understand you right.” Lefeng pointed to the mountain side. “They have little danger from the land-side. The mountains climb high above the city, there’s no space for towns and villages which might hide the land-version of your sea raiders. And few farwalkers would stay anywhere near the city. The noise and smells would drive away game and the forests would be stripped bare by city-dwellers seeking to feed their vast numbers.

“There is no other city for a month’s travel south of here — there is no area with a good enough harbor to support such a large fleet, and the mountains are too close to the coast to allow much farming.” Ey spit on the ground at the mention of that aspect of rooted life. Fishing folk and crafters kept to their villages and waves, but farmers tore up the forest and burnt the trees which were the birthright of the farwalkers.

Paiokp nodded, understanding what ey said. “So, at worst, bandits here, lawless folk from the city itself. Not organized raiders or attacks from another city.

“Not from this side of the bowl.” Lefeng scanned the city. “Perhaps the other side.”

As Paiokp warned, guards stopped them at the gate and required them to state their business. Lefeng told the gate guard that eir village was destroyed and ey had come to the city because there was nowhere else to go. The guard was brusque but sympathetic, telling em that they have one month to find a permanent place to stay or they’d need to leave the city. Lefeng was confused but decided that asking would not be wise. Lefeng and Paiokp ware both given clay tokens to carry with them and show to any official who asked. Lefeng found a spot for eirs in a pouch. Any farwalker, who carried everything they owned, had many pouches about their person. Paiokp strung eirs on a cord and wore it as a necklace.

Paiokp led them, with some difficulty, down to the docks. From there ey remembered the route to what ey said was a “hospitality family.” The family provided a place for travelers to stay while in the city. Paiokp had eaten in this family’s compound before, though eir family always stayed on their boat when they traveled to the city. Lefeng was confused and uncomfortable with the idea of a home being constantly intruded on by strangers. Didn’t that defeat the purpose of each family having their own space? But the place Paiokp led them too looked nothing like any compound Lefeng has seen before.

Instead of a solid fence with a single gate facing the street, this compound had a small building right on the street. The fence stood behind the building, set back from the street. Next to the building was a shed where Paiokp told Lefeng to leave the travois. Lefeng wasn’t comfortable with it out of eir sight, but a near-adult of the hospitality family, Hearthsafe, came forward and promised it was safe. Reluctantly, Lefeng accepted the assurance and followed Paiokp inside.

In some ways, the building was similar to Lefeng’s home. There was a central firepit where several members of the family were preparing food, lots of shelves and pegs for hanging coats and bags and things, and a floor covered with rushes and old, tattered blankets.

A parent of the Hearthsafe family greeted them. Ey gave them a price in trade-tokens for staying there. The trade tokens were nothing but confusing to Lefeng. Thankfully, this family was used to hosting traders.

“You have trade goods?” The Hearthsafe asked.

“Some. Mostly half-cured leather, some herbs.”

The Hearth-safe nodded. “You’re here out of season–that’s why we’re empty. The few guests we have are about their business and will return for evening meal. You’ll likely get good trades for the leather. If you’ll leave half your leather as surety, we’ll offer 3 nights’ shelter and food. Trade the rest of your leathers and pay us before the fourth night, or you forfeit your surety and need to go elsewhere.”

After checking with Paiokp, Lefeng agreed. The Hearthsafe gave Lefeng directions to a market. Lefeng got the trade goods off the travois, leaving half the leather with the Hearthsafe. Then ey headed out again, leaving Paiokp to get Chestef settled. The two rooted folk would want to rest after their travels, but Lefeng was well rested after the slow pace they had taken. Ey wanted to settle with the Hearth-Safe family as quickly as possible.

The traveler’s market was between the docks and one of the smaller landward gates. It is three times the size of the Sandy Cove quarter-moon market, but smaller than other markets they had passed through on the way to the Hearth-Safes. A bored person in a uniform stopped Lefeng as ey entered.

“Token?”

Lefeng withdrew the clay token ey had been given at the gate. The guard looked it over then asked, “Selling or buying?”

“Selling,” Lefeng answered. “Leather and herbs and leftovers.”

The guard nodded, examining the embroidery of eir tunic. “I don’t know your family, farwalker.”

Lefeng blinked. Not many rooted folks even knew that the embroidery of a farwalker had meaning, never mind was able to read the meaning in it. “Longstride,” Lefeng stopped, cleared eir throat. “Longstride summered a half-moon down the coast. The wave last month destroyed our village and I am the last.”

The guard nodded but didn’t make any attempt at sympathy, for which Lefeng was grateful. “You’ll be new to the city then, family-last. This is the right market for you. Come again if you have more to trade. Big traders don’t come here. Small traders and travelers who have a few things to sell only. There’s an open spot on the sunward side you can set up. Sun won’t bother you none, not like some of our city folk?”

“Not this time of year, guard.” Lefeng said with the finger flick that meant ‘instructions understood.’ To eir surprise, the guard responded with the sign meaning ‘on your way.’

How did a city guard learn not just farwalker embroidery but farwalker trail signs? But cross family marriages could spread information in the strangest ways.

Planting Life in a Dying City: Season 1, Episode 5 – The Idea

Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism

Pronunciation Guide

Lefeng was washing eir clothes when the golden-eyed one approached em. Ey walked hesitantly, eyes down and fists clenching and unclenching. Scared? Had ey ever seen the golden-eyed one scared? Lefeng didn’t think so.

“Are you okay?” Had the villagers done something?

“I’m…” the once-fisher stopped. Cleared eir throat. “I had an idea. For the youngling. For… us.”

Lefeng put down eir laundry and gave em eir full attention. “For us?” It hadn’t occurred to Lefeng that there was an ‘us’. Though ey liked the once-fisher and hadn’t been looking forward to leaving when the youngling was settled. That was one reason ey had been willing to delay, despite eir need to return to the trails.

“The youngling… the youngling is acting like we are family to em.”

Lefeng nodded. “I’ve noticed. It worries me.”

“Well, why not… why not be a family?”

Lefeng stares, stunned. A family. A new family. It… “A family of three people? How?”

“Oh, not alone, a family of just three people would be ridiculous.” The once-fisher, golden-eyed one chuckled, but it sounded forced. “How could we manage with only two parents? Worse, no grandparents! But there had to be others who lost family. Maybe from this wave, but also… disease or disaster. We both know it happens. Why continue to be alone when we could come together?

“We could go to the city, I know from our trading runs that there are more family-less there. We can find others and create a new family together.”

“I… why wouldn’t the family-less in the city have already come together like that? Surely it can’t be that easy.”

The golden-eyed one shrugged, “I don’t know. But it can’t hurt to try, can it? None of us can stay here much longer. So why not try to stay together?”

Lefeng nodded, thinking. It was a clever idea, but Lefeng wasn’t sure ey liked it. Ey had never been to the city and never wanted to go. Village living was as far from the old ways as ey had ever wanted to get. But ey needed to do something, and ey had made a promise to the youngling–a promise that was keeping em sane despite eir loss and grief. And it would let em keep the golden-eyed one.

Maybe in the city, far from everything ey had ever known, the voices of eir dead would stop haunting em.

“Yes.” Lefeng finally said. The once-fisher stared at em as if ey couldn’t believe it. Or as if Lefeng had been speaking another language. “Yes. We will go to the city and see what family we can build there.”

The golden-eyed one jumped and clapped. Then, for the first time, ey reached out a hand to touch Lefeng. To share the intimacy of family.

Lefeng didn’t hesitate this time. Ey grabbed the offered hand and pulled the golden-eyed one into a hug. The once-fisher returned the hug, holding on as if eir life depended on it.

Maybe both of their lives did.

“I am Lefeng,” ey murmured, getting it over with quickly.

The golden-eyed one stilled, pulled back. “What?”

Lefeng felt blood rising in eir cheeks and looked down. “I… ah… my name. Is Lefeng.”

The once-fisher stared a moment longer but thankfully didn’t ask. Ey just said, “I am Paiokp.”

Lefeng nodded, hiding a wince at the reminder of eir dead betrothed. ‘Wave’ and variations on it were common names among fisher families. “Paiokp,” Lefeng made emself say. “Alright, clever-one, I suppose we should go have a talk with our youngling.”

The youngling’s name was Chestef, lightning. It was a name of chance, and danger, and opportunity. Lefeng found emself wondering if Chestef’s Cenn had sought out that name for eir child, or like Lefeng’s Cenn, been unlucky.

Chestef needed no convincing to accept Lefeng and Paiokp as eir parents. Ey was excited and relieved to be able to stay with them, even if it meant moving to a strange place–with eir family compound destroyed, every place was strange now anyway.

They needed to travel overland to a city. Not only were there no undamaged boats left in the village, but no one is willing to have Paiokp on their boat. Out of patience with root-bound superstitions, Lefeng asked Paiokp “What is their problem?”

Paiokp looked away. “You should know…” Ey turned around and lifted eir tunic, displaying eir back. The skin under the tunic is unusually pale as if the Deepfisher had never taken eir tunic off. Ey had a round-ish scar the size of Lefeng’s hand and a half-inch deep across the left shoulder blade.

Lefeng, baffled, asked. “What, you aren’t tanned enough?”

Paiokp stared at em. “The scar. I slipped out of the compound as a child on one of the bright days. I’m sun-branded. Bad luck will follow me everywhere.”

Ey swallowed, looked away, “I should tell you to leave without me but… I’m too afraid.”

Lefeng shook eir head in disbelief. “Sun branded? Foolishness. Do you know how lucky you are to have survived the sun’s kiss?”

“Yes, of course. Most of my parents thought it was a waste of resources for a cursed child, but my Cenn insisted. They cut the sun-damaged flesh out and I spent weeks in delirium. The old priest prayed and blessed me, which was a waste but I guess it worked.”

“A waste!” Lefeng yelled, then, caught emself, continued in an irate whisper. “Listen to me. Among the old clans in the mountains, the sun-kissed are hunt leaders, way-finders. Everything you touch is lucky because you are lucky. Because you had to be lucky to survive the sun’s kiss. If you weren’t lucky you’d be dead. So how can you be unlucky? How can you curse those around you when you carry such luck?” Clever one? Ha. Not if ey believed these.. these… “These fools should be bringing you gifts to come when their cenn’s give birth! But they shun you and refuse you even the courtesy of aid in travel! You are right to leave. Let them rot in their own foolishness. If I had the sense of the tides I’d scoop you up into the mountains where the old ways still hold and you’d be treated as the treasure you are!”

Paiokp had been staring at em in shock, but at that last, shook eir head and jerked away. “You would not! What would I do in the mountains? Live in a tent? Never have a home? No shelter from the bright days and get branded again? No. We’ll leave, but we’re going to the city. And I will be careful to hide my brand because in the city they aren’t ignorant and know how unlucky I am.”

Lefeng gave up trying to convince Paiokp. Ey has seen this before. The root-bound insisted that the barbaric farwalkers knew nothing and anything they said could be dismissed. If Paiokp wished to be a fool like those who surrounded em, Lefeng would not waste breath. Instead, ey focused on preparing for the journey. The overland path to the city was longer than the sea path, but Lefeng didn’t mind. Ey knew the woods and overland paths. Ey had never actually been on a boat. Though Paiespaiokp… Paiespaiokp had often teased em and promised to take em out with eir family before they left for the mountains that fall.

Lefeng had insisted on checking the trap lines instead. If ey hadn’t, ey would be with eir family now…

Slowly, Lefeng put eir work down and walked out of the village, under the trees. Not the great trees, which provided shade and shelter to many of the unrooted folk in the summer months. But still, the hushed green space was as much ‘home’ as anywhere under a roof.

Why was ey doing this? Why go to a city? It would be full of strangers with strange ways who looked down on the unrooted life and would never know this sacred space.

But ey had nothing else to do. No other path to take. So ey would walk this path and hope it was the right one.

Over the next few days, Lefeng approached those families who owed debts to the Deepfishers. On Paiokp’s behalf, Lefeng bargained for partial payment immediately in return for Paiokp forgiving the rest of the debts. To those who were owed debts, ey gave rights to take whatever they wished from Paiokp’s family compound after they were gone. It wasn’t enough to completely cover the debts, but the cut and cured wood in the support beams and roof would make repairs and rebuilding much easier. Everyone was pleased.

They weren’t sure what to do about the land and (remaining) possessions from Chestef’s family. They didn’t want to sell Chestef’s inheritance but they couldn’t take it with them. After much discussion, they took Chestef to the ruined compound. Ey picked out a few things from what remained that ey wanted to keep and take with them. They told the priest to sell what was left and hold the funds until ey heard from Chestef.

Given Paiokp’s experiences with this priest, Lefeng wasn’t sure ey trusted em, but they don’t have many other options, so this was what they would do.

There were three cities in the region they could have traveled to. Lefeng had never seen any of them. But the great winter meetings included several farwalking families from each of them. Paiokp had actually been to one and heard of two others from other fishing folk. Paiokp knew of several cities from much further away, including one across the sea, but they didn’t want to travel that far with the youngling. Well, Lefeng didn’t want to travel that far with the youngling. Paiokp didn’t want to travel that far at all.

After some discussion, they agreed to set out for Deep Harbor. It was a small city to the north that had grown around a natural harbor. It was the one city Paiokp had seen before, but that wasn’t the only reason they chose it. The city was sheltered by a spur of mountains that would have blocked the worst of the wave.

The trip to the city took half a moon. On her own Lefeng could have managed it in under a quarter-moon, but ey didn’t try to push the pace. Paiokp and Chestef didn’t have experience walking for hours or experience living on the trail. So taking it slow and leaving extra time for making camp and all just made sense.

Lefeng had made a travois out of some of the salvage from the Net-mend compound. With that ey was able to bring most of what they had. Including the results of eir last check on the trap lines–half cured leather, dried meat, and herbs–and goods remained from the two family compounds.

They passed by a few more villages and one town on the way to the city. The worst of the wave’s damage seemed to be behind them, and Lefeng and Paiokp were doubly glad they hadn’t decided to try for the southern cities. The wave must have been strongest to the south.

The trip itself went smoothly. Traveling in a group most assume them to be part of a family. Chestef’s presence was unusual but Lefeng was clearly one of the trail-hardened farwalkers. Everyone ‘knew’ their children traveled with them.

The closer they get to the city the busier the trail got. On the last day, they traveled with a small stream of people. Paiokp said that most people come to the city by boat, usually. But with the damage from the wave, there may have been more foot traffic than usual.