Traveling had to be one of Jerryck’s least favorite activities. He had never liked it, starting all the way back with the first trip he’d ever taken, when his mentor brought him to the palace from the little village where he lived. This was far worse than that first trip, or any others in the years since. Aside from the discomfort, the disruptions, and the sheer boredom, he missed his wife. Nita’s carriage, all the supply wagons, the dozens of horses and men… Everything made for a huge group traveling south. Good thing Nita refused to bring as many servants as other nobles would have insisted on. She didn’t stop for niceties, like setting up a pavilion and tables for meals. She made do with eating the same road rations as everyone else. She slept in a simple bedroll on the floor of a small tent only because her bodyguards insisted on the shelter. A portal would have been faster. Unfortunately, it wasn’t reasonable. Jerryck could open one. But he had difficulty doing the necessary scrying beforehand to examine the spot where the other end of the portal would open. He couldn’t sustain a portal for this many people anyway. Any magician who specialized in travel magic would have to charge an exorbitant fee just to carry him through the time he’d need to recuperate from sustaining a portal for that many people. Most other forms of magical travel were either unreliable, like summoning a flying creature large enough to carry a passenger, or were more ideal for individual use, like transmogrifying into a bird, or translocation. So they were stuck with slowly making their way south along the roads, using horses, wagons, and a lot of guards. The flat farmlands around Kershet morphed into rolling hillocks the farther they went. Every once in a while, the road curved around a larger rise that was too big to be called a hill, and still too small to be considered a mountain. More often, they would see such mounds in the distance, several miles off the road on one side or the other. They passed through Wollock, the little town that had grown up on both sides of the bridge crossing the Flaynes River. After that, the hills became less frequent, without disappearing altogether. Sporadic groves grew more common and they passed in and out from under conifers. Eventually, the copses conglomerated into one large forest that the road bordered on its western edge. Then an arm of the forest engulfed the land, and they traveled through a paved tunnel through trees and thick underbrush for two days. When they emerged on the other side, they came to the tower that stood on the Brend side of the border with Shontarra. Built at the beginning of the nation, in the decade before Shontarra conglomerated into a nation of their own, the tower stood like a naked, stone finger with a bulge at the top for marksmen to shoot from. At one point, there had been a fort nearby, just inside the trees. Over the years since, the forest had taken it back, and the tower was manned by a mere handful of men acting more as border agents. They crossed over into Shontarra. Messengers wearing the king’s crimson and gold on their livery raced ahead to inform everyone on the road before them that the Royal Princess of Brend was on her way to the Shontese palace. As they approached the first village, soldiers wearing Shontese red and gray uniforms lined the road, raising banners of welcome. Jerryck rode close to Nita’s carriage. Hopefully, she wouldn’t see the scraggly children lurking between the façade buildings on either side of the street. What were the chances, though? She was a lot more observant than most. She certainly put Jerryck to shame in that regard. She leaned her arms on the carriage window, looking out at the men lining the street. “Where are the civilians? Do only soldiers live in this… Oh, there they are. Why are they hiding between the buildings?” “Because they’re poor, and told to stay out of sight.” The man in charge of her bodyguards rode even closer that Jerryck. He nudged his horse just enough to block her view. “Sit back inside. Don’t lean out.” “I want to see,” she said. “You don’t.” The man shook his head. “Trust me. You really don’t.” She sat back with a huff, crossed her arms, and muttered something Jerryck didn’t catch. The man said, “I can give you that. You don’t have to ask one of the residents.” “It’s not the same,” she complained. “It’s fairly simple.” The man glanced back. “Even Jerryck could probably give it to you.” “Give her what?” Jerryck asked. “She wants the history of this village.” “I could give you that,” Jerryck said. Nita leaned back out the window. “I wanted to stop and talk to some of the people here.” “The commoners here won’t talk to you,” Jerryck said. Nita frowned at him. “Why not?” “Because you’re a princess.” Jerryck looked at the banners they passed, the silent soldiers, and the children lurking in the shadows behind them. “That’s why the soldiers are holding up banners of greeting, instead of shouting welcomes.” Nita crossed her arms and leaned them on the windowsill of her carriage, scowling at the men lining the street. “Refusing to talk to me is rather insulting.” “They think it’s the other way around,” the bodyguard said. “This isn’t your father’s kingdom, with his proprieties. Here, no commoner has the audacity to speak to a noble, let alone royalty.” “Then how am I supposed to learn about their land and their culture?” “Their culture is similar to ours,” the bodyguard said. “You know that.” “Or maybe not so similar as I was told.” Nita snorted with disgust. “I talk to commoners every day.” “You wouldn’t have in your grandfather’s day,” Jerryck told her. “Your father was the one to bury that protocol.” “As well he should have,” Nita said with a curt nod. They passed the soldiers and the last of the well constructed buildings that made the village look good. The paving stones ran out, giving way to packed and rutted dirt for a road. The first of the children ventured up to one of the random guards riding with the caravan. Jerryck couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he thought he knew what it was. A second child came up to someone a bit closer, asking what Jerryck expected they would. “Please, do you have a morsel to spare?” A third child dared come even closer to the carriage. “Do you have anything I could eat?” Nita sucked in her breath. Her fingers went white gripping the sides of the carriage window. All the color leached from her face as more and more children came asking for food. “Stop the caravan,” she said. “No,” her bodyguard told her. “Sit back, inside all the way, or I’ll shut your windows.” “They’re sick and injured!” She pointed at the crutches and limps and bandages the children sported. “They’re faking it,” Jerryck said. How was it he could tell this and she couldn’t? She had much better people skills than he did. “They don’t look like they’re faking it,” she said. Jerryck looked over the closest of the children. With a single word, he altered his sight so he could see their auras as clearly as everything else. He pointed at the one with a foot twisted to the inside. “She’s turning her foot on purpose. There’s nothing wrong with it. She does have lice, though.” The other children stared at her, specifically at her head. She shouted at them, “I do not!” “And that one…” Jerryck pointed to a boy with his left arm in a sling. “He did have a broken arm at one point, the scars are there. It’s long since healed. He really should take that sling off. It’s so filthy, it’s what’s causing his skin rash.” The boy looked down at his arm, then up at Jerryck. Nita peered at him. “I don’t see a skin rash.” “It’s under the cloth of his sling,” Jerryck said. He blinked his eyes, letting his sight fade back to normal. “All these kids are displaying things they’re not suffering from, and hiding what they are suffering from.” “Why?” Nita asked. “What they’re displaying gets more sympathy,” her guard said. “Gets them more food handed out from travelers.” “So they’re hungry,” she said. “We should stop and feed them.” “We brought extra rations to hand out.” He pointed behind them. “Look to the back.” Nita craned her head out the window, looking behind at the back of the caravan. Some of the servants she had brought were opening up a crate. They dug in and pulled out some strips of jerked meat. The children snatched at them as fast as they were produced. Until a group of Shontese soldiers marched up the street, shouting and hollering, shooing the kids away. They scattered, disappearing into the ramshackle mud huts behind the façade buildings, sucking on the jerked meat like it was candy. Nita scowled at the soldiers as the caravan left the village outskirts behind. “That wasn’t very nice of them.” “The kids here are used to it,” her guard said. “And these kids are probably better fed than some of the villages we’ll go through.” Nita gaped at him. “You’re not serious are you?” “This village exists to support the soldiers stationed here at the border,” the guard said. “They get food rations. Other villages don’t.” Nita glared at him. “You’re not going to let me stop in those other villages and feed them, either. Are you.” “You can’t feed the entire countryside,” the man said. Nita stuck her nose in the air, turning her face away from the guard. “Then I’ll just tell the servants to leave food behind us as we go through. Children need fed.” The guard shook his head. “Their parents would take it all. They’d horde it, and sell it. The children wouldn’t get to eat any of it.” Nita looked back at the receding village. “The only adults I saw were soldiers. No parents tending to their children.” “The adults were inside,” the guard said. He looked straight ahead to the road before them. “Again, it garners more sympathy for the children. They might get more from generous travelers.” “So they could sell what their children could eat?” Nita asked. “Make them starve? I don’t find that very credible.” “You’ve never been exposed to true poverty,” Jerryck told her. “These people are used to going hungry. They go out in the fields and forest and collect edibles there to survive. So if they get hold of something they can sell for a pair of shoes, or a winter cloak, or lifesaving medicine, they’ll use it. Not eat it.” Nita sat back in her seat, nearly hidden inside her carriage. It bounced and jostled on the ruts and potholes in the dirt road. Every once in a while, she would brush back hair that had fallen in front of her face. Or maybe she was wiping dust from the road out of her eyes. She was rubbing them an awful lot. And sniffling every once in a while too. Her bodyguards closed the windows of her carriage through every village after that.