Fentonious looked up as the sound of sandals echoed down the corridor leading to the meeting room of the regional forum, the Ruralus Regulatum, in the heart of the seaside fortress of Napierion.
He put his head down, pretending to study his agenda as councillors filed into the chamber and took their seats. But his hooded eyes were following the group of newcomers who had ousted several of his long-standing councillors a few months earlier.
He scowled as he heard the booming voice of Rictus Barkus, a former senator, down the hallway. Barkus had led an unsuccessful bid to take the chairman’s role, backed by the newcomers. Now Fentonious was enjoying watching Barkus trying to get comfortable on the hard benches of provincial government after spending years ensconced in the plush leather seats of the senate.
A bearded man with a lean and thirsty look strode into the chamber, carrying what appeared to be a sack of apples.
It was Rexus Graymattus, the spokesman for disgruntled fruitgrowers whose patchwork of orchards carpeted the rich plains of Heretaungus.
Although he had spent some of his youth in Hustings, the heart of the region’s horticultural district, Fentonious always felt more comfortable mustering sheep than mingling with fruity types who grew beards and wore sandals.
He glared as Rexus began crunching an apple, juice dribbling through his whiskers on to his order paper as he chatted to Petrus Beavenus, another newcomer who no doubt would insist on comparing apples with apples, thought Fentonious. If he had his way, he would convert those annoying rows of fruit trees into lush green dairy farms, irrigated with water from rivers fed from his beloved Double-Dragon Dam down in the Central Bay of Hawks.
Then his cold gaze came to rest on a figure at the far end of the table, busily underlining parts of the agenda. It was Thomas the Bellringer, editor of the subversive underground paper Baybus.
Fentonious’ dark eyebrows met in an angry scowl. The election of this skeptic scribe by a handful of votes had caused panic in the council’s executive ranks. Posters of his face, pock-marked by wooden darts, had been hastily removed from the council staffroom. An effigy of a donkey, with Thomas’s face and a large ponytail, had been secretly burned the previous day in a private ritual, attended by a group of handpicked councillors.
Taking a deep breath, Fentonious picked up an olive branch he’d found under a neighbouring farmer’s tree the previous night. Looking closer, he now realised it was actually an old branch from a fig tree. He hoped his councillors wouldn’t notice the difference.
“This branch symbolises how I see this forum operating,” he announced.
“With dead wood and leaves to cover up the parts you don’t want the public to see?” Thomas murmured.
Fentonious gritted his teeth and pretended not to hear. He was used to dealing with brainless sheep and clumsy cattle, not a wily fox like this.
Then Rexus Graymattus raised his hand.
“Can we get some water?” he asked.
“We never have enough water around this place.”
Fentonious banged his gavel.
“Our water is reserved for those who need it and are prepared to pay for it,” he said. “Dairy farmers for example.”
Rexus said nothing. He licked his lips and spat out several apple pips. They ricocheted off the table and arced through the air, landing on Fentonious’ agenda.
Fentonious leapt to his feet, frantically shaking the pips off his papers.
“Keep your rotten fruit to yourself,” he bellowed. “I’ve got sheep with better manners than you.”
Rexus was unmoved.
“Do you realise that you could feed 300 young fruit trees with the water that just one cow drinks each day,” he said.
Fentonious’ hand gripped the gavel tightly.
“Cows turn all that water into milk, for your information,” he snapped. “Can you name a baby that can feed on young fruit trees?”
“Cydia Pomonella,” he said.
Fentonious looked at him blankly.
“The baby codling moth,” replied Rexus. “Plus baby sawflies, weevils, spotted spider mites, peach tree borer, scale and leaf-curling midges. They feed on them all the time. I assume you’ve heard of woolly aphids?”
Fentonious thought quickly. He had plenty of woolly two-tooth ewes at home, but he’d never heard of any breed called Aphid. He hesitated, wondering whether Rexus was just making things up.
Then Rexus spoke again.
“It’s a sucking insect that lives on plant fluids – that’s if the trees can get enough water to produce fluids in the first place.”
Several of the new councillors nodded in agreement.
“And anyway,” continued Rexus, “your precious cows not only turn water into milk, they turn it into urine which gets into our rivers and pollutes them.”
Fentonious was breathing heavily.
He wondered if he could hit Rexus with a well-aimed fling of the gavel. He made a mental note to practise his throwing back on his farm using a gnarled old pear tree stump covered in grey moss. Now that he thought about it, the matted stump looked vaguely like Rexus.
“We’re not here to talk about water anyway,” he snarled.
“We have an executive committee of high priests that deals with water matters on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know.”
“I don’t know anyone who knows what’s going on, even those on a need-to-know basis, which I know they don’t,” replied Rexus.
Fentonious felt his head swimming. He banged the gavel so hard it woke several sitting councillors.
“Morning tea time?” asked one.
Fentonious nodded and got to his feet.
“I think a cup of tea would be an excellent idea,” he said. “Now, who takes milk?”
“Just water for me,” said Rexus.