Tam was just getting to the good part when, behind him, Kaeta said, “Don’t move.”
His eyes unfocused from the page. “What?” he said cautiously.
“You’ve got something…”
“It looks like a bee.”
Something moved on his bare shoulder. Gentle insect feet. He could feel the brush of its fur, the weightless warmth of it.
“Maybe if I…” Kaeta flapped a timid swat of air at him.
“Don’t,” he said. “Let it be. It’s not doing any harm.”
He went back to his book and the blue ocean beyond, strangely pleased about the bee. The story began to gain momentum again, and when Kaeta said, “Ah, it’s gone,” he had to resurface into the physical world to understand what she meant. He hadn’t even felt it leave.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a plague,” said Tam as the café boy put the glasses down on the table.
“It doesn’t matter what you’d call it,” replied Banur, nodding politely at the boy even as he sized up his cool glass of cider with dark-ringed, famished eyes. “It’s officially a plague.”
“There’s hardly been–cheers–hardly a noticeable increase in-”
“We’ve only caught the very edge of it,” said Banur, who’d obviously explained this many times. “The air pressure pulled it further inland than predicted. If you want to see it in all its glory, hop on the train to Lindolm.”
“Oh?” Tam sipped at his beer and licked the foam from his lips.
“Yes,” said Banur. “I haven’t seen it–they’ve cracked down on leafleters and postcard artists this time–but by all accounts the mountains have just made the whole city into a kind of…” He yawned and gestured vaguely with his long fingers. “Sorry. A kind of bowl.”
“A bowl… filled with bees?”
“That’s what they’re saying.”
Tam raised his eyebrows. “Well, that’s an image and a half.”
“At least it’s just bees,” said Tam hopefully. “They’re meant to be good, aren’t they? Good omens.”
Banur made a noncommittal sound.
“Not good?” ventured Tam.
“It’s not the bees part, it’s the plague part.” Banur drained half his glass in one. “It could be a plague of kittens and it would still be a problem.”
“All those little badly-socialised claws,” said Tam.
“Quite.” Banur’s smile was tired. “You know this, Tam. You weren’t that bad a student. It’s not the ‘of’. The imbalance is the problem. The, whatsit, the disharmony, if you like.” An ember of wickedness lit his face. “You know, the Ministry mooted changing the name once to avoid the confusion.”
Tam leaned in. “You know I love some Ministry gossip.”
“It was all before my time, so most of it’s been buried in shame, but someone came up with ‘muchness’.”
Tam snorted into his beer. “A muchness of frogs!”
“A muchness of boils, a muchness of twee, grisly death visited on all the second children… In the end they quietly killed the idea.”
“So we’re stuck with plagues then,” said Tam.
“Oh no,” said Tam. “Banur, no. Don’t make that face. When? What will it be this time?”
“We don’t know yet,” said Banur. “And you didn’t hear it from me.”
“Please let it be a plague of rolling stock. Just this once.”
“It’s in the hands of the powers.”
They nibbled on hot spiced nuts for a while in silence, Banur yawning from time to time. They’d come a long way from the ambitious boys studying for the government exams at these tables. Their companionable silence was unbreachable too, Tam barricaded behind his stacks of scrolls and numbers, and Banur all but hidden in the shadows of his Ministry’s secrets.
“So,” said Banur at last. “Rolling stock, is it?”
“Ah,” said Tam. He cleared his throat. “Well, there have been some issues.”
He took a deep draught of beer in the hopes that it would cool the embarrassment in his cheeks. Hours of overtime and drafting statements, massaging numbers and leaking ambiguous words to pamphleteers in pubs paled and shrank from government glamour into something small and grubby.
“What kind of issues?” asked Banur, relentless.
“Well, the, um, the comet shower the other month, sort of…”
“Ah, I remember reading something. It, what was it, disrupted the supply line?”
“You could say that,” said Tam unhappily, and indeed he had written the words himself. “One of our warehouses got flattened.”
Banur made a sympathetic face. “Oof.”
“All brand new rolling stock, built to spec. We were going to send Minister Paro out to sit in one, get some commemorative postcards drawn up.”
Tam sighed into his beer. “It was meant to make people forget how horribly over-budget the project is and get them excited for the new line.”
“Tam, stop. I’ll cry.”
“Yes, yes, very funny.”
“What’s funny about it?” protested Banur.
“I know the Transport Ministry is insignificant compared to Interpreting, but-”
Banur was fully indignant now. “Who said that? I never said that!”
“Well it is-”
“People need transport, and they want Ferthian Two.”
Banur held up two fingers to the café boy: same again. He directed a meaningful look at Tam. The café boy did his best but the corner of his mouth twitched in sympathy with Banur as he went to fetch the drinks. Banur loved making him look dramatic in front of the café boys.
Tam felt himself redden further. “Just, with everything at your place…”
“Screw my place,” said Banur. “I like hearing about your work. It’s nice to hear about something normal for once.” He leaned forward. “Have you decided what colour Ferthian Two will be on the maps yet?”
“Not yet.” Tam glanced up at Banur. “Look, all this plague stuff…”
“How… how bad is it going to get?”
Banur made that noncommittal sound again. “Oh, who knows?”
“You do,” said Tam flatly.
“And I’d rather not talk about it. Ah, good, here come the drinks. Now. Tell me about the logo designs. They’d better have vetoed Minister Marruth’s execrable idea with the ducks. I know Lady Brira will have had something to say about it, and I want to hear every mordant word of it.”