“Inspector,” Torgald said, bowing respectfully. “I’m glad you could make it out today.
“No you’re not,” the woman said. She had a severe cast to her face, with the sort of mouth you could tell at a glance was eternally downturned. Her clothes, wrapped tight around her body, looked as stiff and uncomfortable as her facade.
Torgald dropped his smile immediately. “That’s unfair,” he said. “We’re both just here doing our jobs.”
She looked down her nose at him, an easy thing, since her chin came level with his forehead. “Perhaps.” She extended a hand his way. “Inspector Mara. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, taking her hand, though he tried to make it as obvious as she had that he was not, in fact, pleased.
He didn’t mind the inspection in the slightest. He understood her reasons for being here, and why those higher up had requested he be inspected, considering the nature of his work. It wasn’t her fault that she had been chosen to take the job, either. Her choice lay in making this unpleasant for both of them right at the start.
One of Torgald’s workers closed the gate behind the Inspector’s carriage, and another led her driver off to where he could feed and care for the horse. Torgald began walking, and left it up to the Inspector to follow him. He had begun they day determined to make this experience a positive one, and now, he felt frustrated that she hadn’t desired to do the same.
“Your grounds are well-kept,” the Inspector said. She fell into stride beside him, her hands clasped behind her back, her long legs allowing her to keep up with him easily despite the fast pace he was accustomed to taking. Her eyes, a cold, dark green, combed over the farmyard.
“Thank you,” Torgald said. He looked her up and down deliberately. “Don’t you need something to take notes on?”
“I have an excellent memory,” the Inspector said. “I’ve found that if I take notes as I work, I lose some of my eye for detail.”
“Fair enough.” Torgald already couldn’t stand the nasal quality of her voice. She spoke with a distinctive Ischyllian accent. Torgald couldn’t tell if it was genuine or affected. People who wanted to sound educated and important often mimicked the capital’s accent.
“Take me to see the barn first,” the Inspector commanded.
Torgald rankled at that. She could clearly see that his path led them straight toward the barn already. “Yes, of course.”
At this time of day, the large doors to the barn were open, so that the air could flow through and help to regulate the animals’ temperatures. They kept a variety of livestock in the barn, with pigs, cows, and chickens all kept together in one large space in an unconventional array. Of course, this served a purpose, for the facility itself was highly unconventional. All of the livestock they kept here were kindred.
The Inspector paused just inside the doors. “I see that you have rows of chickens between your rows of pigs and cows,” she said. “Can you explain why?”
Torgald tamped down his frustration. Surely the Inspector already knew the answer to the question. She seemed like the type to have thoroughly researched the project before even considering taking the assignment. “Of course. As you may have read before you arrived, and as you might see, we two types of kindred here. The hogs and the cows are all of Krrgotst’s kindred, as his blood is known to make creatures hardier, and this project was started with the idea that they might prove to be an excellent source of food and nutrition.”
“Right,” the Inspector said, and while from some the word might have sounded like a dismissal or an attempt at pretending understanding, from this woman, it sounded though Torgald had gotten the correct answer on a test.
She leaned over, observing the chart that had been posted next to one of the hog’s pens. The creature’s nature was obvious at a glance, with no need of words to convey its origin. Krrgotst gave his children thick, brown scales, which gave way to knotted growths on their skulls, and hard, segmented shells upon their backs. In natural conditions, moss and small plants often grew upon those shells, but here, the attendants kept the animals clean.
Torgald frowned. “It is also thought that, like their father, kindred of Krrgotst bring vitality to other beings around them, causing them to grow stronger and healthier than they would otherwise. That is why we have placed the poultry in such close proximity to the livestock.”
“Why not just obtain chickens of Krrgotst’s kindred?” the Inspector asked.
“Because chickens which are kindred of Volphyret are much easier to obtain,” Torgald explained, attempting to keep the exasperation out of his voice. The woman studied him as he spoke: she very clearly knew the answers to all of her questions already. “When we were setting up this facility, those in charge of acquisition were unable to find any chickens which were kindred of Krrgotst. As a result, they chose kindred of Volphyret. All dragon kindred are hardier than their purely mortal parents. Krrgotst’s kindred just take that to a higher degree.”
“This also allows you to test the theories about whether Krrgotst’s children really do provide vitality to those around them,” the Inspector said. “It is known that plants thrive in their presence, but it has yet to be proven whether animals do, as well.”
“Yes,” Torgald said. “That’s right, of course. That’s why we’ve set up a control group of chickens, which we keep in a coup far away from any of Krrgotst’s kindred.”
The Inspector nodded knowingly. “And I assume you have different groups supplemented with different sorts of nutrition, to ensure the source of the effects you witness?”
“Yes, Inspector,” Torgald said. He sighed. It would be much easier to simply go along with her desire to feel smart and powerful. After all, she had the ability to remove him from his place, which would be a huge blow to his livelihood. He had invested a great deal of his life into this place over the last few years.
“Good,” the Inspector said. She gestured. “Lead on.”
He led her down one of the paths through the barn. In this section, pigs that were kindred of Krrgotst filled pens on either side of them, giving the air a strong aroma that, oddly, was less unpleasant than that of more mundane livestock, at least to Torgald’s senses. They smelled earthier, more like freshly-turned dirt than the stench of animals and excrement.
Between every four stalls of pigs, chickens of Volphyret’s kindred filled an enclosure of equal size. Wire mesh enclosed the chicken pens from floor to ceiling, for due to Volphyret’s influence, the chickens were extremely adept fliers. The soft greens and yellows of their plumage was all that differentiated them from base chickens, at a glance. Volphyret’s kindred were hardest to distinguish, morphologically, since she tended to breed with avians, and she already had feathers rather than scales.
“The place seems well-organized,” the Instructor said. “I appreciate good organization. I approve of the accuracy and thoroughness of your charts.”
Torgald raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t expected any sort of praise from this woman, especially not outright praise, unhidden behind a backhanded compliment. “Thank you, inspector. Our caretakers are mostly those who have worked in farming, so they’re less familiar with accurate note-taking. We supplement that by making sure we have a certain number of scholars who focus in biology. The caretakers keep the animals healthy and fed, and the scholars take the notes and decide the direction of the research.”
“The original directive called for you to be staffed only by the scholars,” the Inspector said. “I’m grateful that you realized this was in error, and that you defied the direction so tactfully and skilfully. Had you gone about it the wrong way, your superiors might not have listened.”
“Ah, true,” Torgald said. Perhaps he didn’t have as good of a read on this woman as he had guessed.
He led her to the side of the barn where they kept the cows. The cows of Krrgotst’s kindred were a sight to behold: larger and stronger than regular domestic cows, and covered in a thick hide supplemented by a shell, the beasts could be quite intimidating. Luckily, they had inherited their mortal parents’ docile, tamed behavior, and it was said that Krrgotst himself wasn’t prone to violence anyway.
The Inspector stepped close to one of the creatures, seemingly unafraid. “I have two questions,” she said. “The first is about the collars around their necks.”
Every kindred in the facility, from the newborns to the oldest kindred being readied for slaughter, had a copper band around its neck, etched with carvings that Torgald didn’t understand. He did, however, know their purpose. “They are preventative,” Torgald said. “Like most of the dragons, both Krrgotst and Volphyret confer a breath of fire to their kindred. The cows are so docile that they don’t ted to use it, but the chickens have, in fits of frustrations. The early days here told us we needed to find a solution.”
“Your records showed that you had allocated funds for a spellworker,” the Inspector said. “I assume the collars are some sort of spellcraft, then?”
“Yes,” Torgald said. “There should be a complete record of the reasoning behind the need for magic.”
“There is,” the Inspector said. “But our superiors have instructed me to ask once more. Why is it that we can’t use mundane means to stop the fire breath issue? Can’t we just remove the organs that allow it, like declawing a cat? It would surely be much cheaper than employing a specialized spellcrafter.”
“No,” Torgald said, suddenly seeing the reasoning behind some of her questions. She wanted to be able to say honestly that she had asked, even when she already had the answers — and even when those that would later ask her already knew the answers. Bureaucracy. “No, there’s no biological mechanism for the dragon breath. It can only be stopped magically without, basically, killing the kindred.”
The Inspector nodded. “And you’ve continued attempting to find a cheaper solution?”
Torgald shook his head. “Well, no. My scholars ensured me this was the only one.”
The Inspector raised a finger to chastise him. “The answer was yes, Foreman. Even if the answer is no.”
“Ah,” Torgald said. “I understand.”
“This project is important,” Inspector Mara said. “Even if the common people wouldn’t understand it, if we are successful here, the fight against hunger will be so much easier. We are lucky that our country has much less stigma against consuming the dragon kindred than any other. We are lucky that our myths say humans grow stronger by eating the flesh of dragons. Perhaps we will prove them right, in a way.”
“Perhaps,” Torgald said.
Inspector Mara began walking. This time, it was she who lead Torgald. “The dragons are evil. There can be no doubt about that. Vanaprimax and his children want to erase humanity and replace them with his twisted kindred. We can’t allow that, but we can try to use his ambitions against him. If the children of Krrgotst are better food for us, well, Vanaprimax’s goal will only help us thrive, then, won’t it? We’ll twist his evil to our own means and use it for good.”
Her entire speech was delivered in her same even, almost passionless voice. It let Torgald slightly agape. He, too, cared for this project, but he wouldn’t have expected the same drive out of someone he would have guessed to be so disconnected. “The hardest part of this won’t be sustaining the kindred or testing whether our theories about value as sustenance are valid. The hardest part will be getting the populace to believe our findings.”
“Luckily,” Inspector Mara said, and for an instant, Torgald thought he saw a hint of a smile, “we have people for that. Now. Take me to see the grains of Krrgotst’s kindred. I’ve never seen dragon plants before, and I’m very interested.”
“As you wish,” Torgald said. He felt something different toward the Inspector now — not quite warmth, but not quite the distaste she had first inspired in him, either. He felt as he’d felt before her first words: confident that they were both here to do a job they believed in. That would be enough.