Joshua stood up and addressed his friends.
“If Sophie’s right, we’ll have a hundred starving people here for breakfast tomorrow. Bring in as many onions and leeks from the garden as you can.”
“Where are you going?” Lucinda asked.
“There are a few more ingredients I need.”
“Can I come?” asked Sophie.
“Sure. Your gift with gobbledygook may come in handy.”
They rested a few more minutes to let their meal settle, then Joshua and Sophie set off while the others got to work.
“Where are we going?” Sophie asked.
“The Bungle Downs,” he answered.
Sophie’s eyes got wide.
“Ooo! There are old women down there who can tell your future by looking a cup of goat’s milk. There are old wise men that can push daggers through their own necks and shed no blood.”
He grinned and said, “I knew you’d like it.”
They stopped by the alley. Joshua stuffed some potatoes, carrots, and a few bundles of herbs into a sack.
“They also have spices that we can trade for,” he explained.
“Spices?” Sophie asked. “Isn’t enough that we’ll serve a hot meal for a hundred children, you need spices as well?”
“Food fills the belly, but spices satisfy the tongue. Each person will only get so much. The better that little bit tastes, the slower they’ll eat. The slower they eat the better. If you just cram food into your mouth much your stomach can’t handle it. It gets messy after that and the end result is almost worse than not eating in the first place. But it’s more than that. I have to do better than just deliver hot food free of dishwater.”
“What do you mean you have to?” Sophie asked.
He thought for a moment before he answered.
“I don’t really know. Maybe it’s just pride. I’ve never been really good at anything before. Now that I am, it seems like a defeat to do anything less than the very best that I can. But then there’s something else. I can’t really explain it. But I can’t really explain how I can do all this in the first place.”
Sophie gazed at him curiously. She didn’t say anything but Joshua knew she wanted to hear the full story of how he became such a great cook.
He’d been dying to tell someone and he thought Sophie was the perfect candidate. She wouldn’t think it strange, not compared to some of the stories she told. And he didn’t see her everyday. She vanished after supper to go who knows where. There was something a little comforting in that. He couldn’t tell his friends, his family what was going on. Not just yet. He remembered the strange looks they gave him after their first meal. Telling Sophie felt somehow safer. At least that’s what he thought initially. But as soon as he started his tale he was suddenly nervous. How would she react?
She didn’t say anything as he told her about the old man and the thing that was food and wasn’t and how he suddenly just knew things about food.
“Very strange,” she admitted. “But who was the old man?”
“I never knew,” Joshua answered.
“Well you should find out. Because the answer to the mystery lies there.”
“Later perhaps. After I solve the mystery of how to feed a hundred hungry kids.”
They headed across Dreamer’s Garden towards the South Wall. After a few blocks they saw push carts and their pushers as they headed back to the Downs. The tinkers, the peddlers, the street side cooks, they were all headed home to the warren of huts and shacks.
Sophie said, “I can’t imagine leaving the city everyday. It’s so unfair that they have to rest their heads so far from where they’ve worked so hard.”
“Where do you rest your head?” Joshua asked.
Sophie looked up at the sky.
“Oh, I have many places. I’m constantly on the move.”
“You have to be if you want to find the Great Children’s underground.”
“I am. It exists and I will find them.”
They passed by the single guardhouse and the South Wall and into the maze of hovels.
Sophie ran from shack to shack and peered at whatever was on display. Evening had fallen and there was smoke and music in the air. Joshua followed his nose. He found a family sitting around a great cauldron. The wrinkled matriarch stirred the thick pungent gruel with a large wooden paddle. Joshua took a big sniff of the pot.
He offered the old woman potatoes from his sack.
“Trade,” he said.
The old woman let loose a barrage of words he couldn’t understand. Her neighbors joined her. Sophie listened, and then repeated a few phrases, and then she threw back words with them as if she knew what they meant.
“What are they saying?” Joshua asked.
“I’m just figuring that out. They’re not sure what you want.”
“Well, you know. Can you explain?”
“Wait. Yop! Yop is their word for trade,” Sophie said.
“Yop,” Joshua said dubiously.
At this, the old woman smiled and clapped her hands together. She handed her stirring paddle to a tall girl and walked back into her hut. She emerged with a bag full of seeds and spices, a mixture of black and brown. Joshua gave the bag a sniff. The smell traveled through his nose and into his stomach. This was what he sought. He traded the old woman his potatoes and carrots. In the next hut they found an old man with dry brown skin who traded a crock of pungent hot pepper sauce for the herbs.
“Smells rotten,” Sophie said.
“Not rotten, fermented,” Joshua corrected.
They waved goodbye and started back towards the city.
“Oh, that was amazing,” Sophie declared.
“They’re very a nice. You’re right. It is a shame they won’t let them into the city.”
“Maybe somebody will do something about that,” Sophie said.
He laughed bitterly.
“I wouldn’t count on it. Hey, what’s the trouble there?”
He pointed to the guardhouse. They both slowed down. The saw the man on duty run around wildly as he clutched his rifle.
“What’s wrong?” Joshua asked.
“Did you see it?” the guard exclaimed.
“Just now. Something thin and wispy moved in the shadows.”
The nervous man held the gun in his trembling hands. Joshua and Sophie both took a step backwards.
The guard protested, “I didn’t imagine it. There’s plenty of dead in these old houses. Men, women and children. Hundreds of them all dead of hunger and disease. Their souls lie forgotten out here.”
Joshua looked around. He caught just a glimpse of shadow in the corner of his vision.
“There it is again!” the man shouted as he brought the rifle up to his shoulder. Joshua and Sophie covered their ears. But the gun didn’t fire.
“It’s gone again. Strange, when you passed by here the first time, that’s when I saw it. Now that you’re here again-“
He whirled around and jabbed his finger at them furiously.
“It’s you! It’s following you! Be off with you! Now!”
Joshua put up his hands and backed away from the man. He kept himself in front of Sophie. They retreated carefully over the broken ground until the guardhouse was out of their sight.
“What was wrong with him?” Sophie asked.
“He’s just nervous for some reason,” Joshua answered.
But he thought of that morning right after the kettles had appeared in the alley. He’d heard a noise and caught just a glimpse of something above him.
Is something following me?
He pushed away those thoughts and focused on his task. He had hundreds on the way and he had to feed them all.
Joshua and Sophie returned to the alley as the sun began to set.