March on their belly
"I don't know what else to say. I cannot afford to sell to you at that price. I just ... I cannot."
The civil servant sneezed into his handkerchief, looked at the contents, and shook his head. His eyes were red, his nose dripped snot, and his voice was hoarse with phlegm as he tried to argue with her.
Behind him, Tess saw three rats the size of barn cats run across the muddy yard. They were fat with stolen grain. From the barn came the sound of her husband and the bandit lad Senator Bridgit had persuaded her to take in, shouting and hollering loud enough to drown out the barking of the dogs. They'd found another nest, by the sound of the swearing.
"This is ... well it's going to be a problem," said the civil servant. They both knew that he was selling the situation short. Tess had sold root vegetables and smoked meat to the civil service provisioners every year for as long as she had been in charge of the farm; just as her father had before her, her grandmother before them both. She felt her cheeks flush with embarassment. This was not what she wanted but she had no choice.
"I can't help that. Just like I can't help the rain, and the root rust; just like Wee Jack and his boys can't help the pest' eating their pigs alive; just like Ma Alspeth can't help the flood that smashed up her apple trees. We're doing our best, but there's only so much. We're all going to have to tighten our belts ..."
The civil servant closed his eyes, squeezed the bridge of his nose, and just managed to cover it with his handkerchief as another savage coughing fit took him.
"It's all very well to say we need to tighten our belts ... but I have armies to feed ..." he tried to smile, but all he managed to do was cause the cold sore on his upper lip to split open again. He winced.
"Don't you know there's a war on," he said despondently.
The pair of them looked towards the barn together for a few meditative moments, where the shouting, swearing, and barking was continuing as the battle between men, dogs, and rats entered a new phase. Tess knew she was being a fool but ... she just had to ask herself what her da and her grandma would have done and her course was clear.
It started, very gently, to drizzle. Tess made a hard decision."Come inside, then." she said stepping aside to usher the civil servant into her kitchen. "Let's see if we can sort something out. After all. There's a war on, 'parrently."
Shortly after the Autumn Equinox,it all goes wrong. Unseasonable hail flattens unharvested fields; plagues of giant rats and other vermin attack storehouses; a particularly virulent blight spreads through the root vegetable crops; a pernicious sickness devastates animal herds, breeding pus-filled cysts in their flesh and befouling their milk with blood. Across Mitwold, Upwold, and Bregasland, people fall sick with an unpleasant strain of influenza leaving a smaller labour-force to collect what harvests remain.
The damage is widespread - with potential implications for the entire Empire. With Winter coming, the Marcher storehouses are half empty. Normally there would be plenty of food to see any hard-working farmer and their family through the cold winter months, with a good surplus to sell off to merchants and civil service purchasers. The timing of the curses could not have been worse, however.
This year, people are not going hungry - not too hungry at least. Everyone has had to tighten their belts a little - some farmers more than others - but the grim situation has brought out the best in many Marchers. They ensure their neighbors have enough to eat, without drawing too much attention to their good deeds. They keep a weather eye on the young, the old, and the infirm to make sure they are not going to bed with empty bellies. Practical Marcher virtues help to fill the gaps created by the curse. Up to a point.
But the Marches are not called the breadbasket of the Empire for nothing ...
The primary effect of the curse has been financial, and its effects are felt across the Empire.
Individual farmers have seen their income slashed in half over the last three months due to missed sales and reduced surpluses. This has affected only monetary income - the herbs produced by the newly re instituted Hearth Tithe have been unaffected. Nobody is starving; even a badly damaged harvest is still a Marcher harvest - but the price of food has steadily climbed over the three months since the Autumn equinox, even in the Marches.
The Imperial treasury
The damage to the crucial Marcher harvest will have an impact on the Imperial treasury. With the breadbasket of the Empire suffering significant damage, the price of food has risen, meaning the costs to support the Imperial armies are likely to have increased by anywhere between a tenth and a fifth - meaning less money being paid into the Imperial treasury this season.
The damage done by this curse must not be underestimated. Food prices have increased across the Empire, and this in turn is effecting everything else. The knock on effect is that the funds required to keep imperial military forces supplied are being stretched - potentially to breaking point. As a consequence the natural resupply of imperial armies, navies, and fortifications is reduced by a fifth during the coming season. Emergency resupply - which focuses more on replacing damaged goods than victuals - is unaffected.
The effects of the curse are far-reaching, and show no signs of abating any time soon. If nothing changes, this reduction in natural resupply will continue until the start of the Summer Solstice.
Winter is coming
The immediate effects are bad enough, but they are not over. This winter is shaping up to be harsh, very harsh. The Marcher farmers and stewards have sufficient stores to see them through, and even some to sell if they wish. The harvest has been bad, but there have been bad harvests before. The result is that the bad effects - specifically the damage to Imperial resupply - are going to continue, potentially though to midsummer.
The Marches have the ability to reduce this effect - or rather the Marcher assembly can. It's too late to do much about the dismal Winter, those dice have been rolled. But if the Marcher assembly chooses to pass a statement of principle encouraging every Marcher farmer to tighten their belt another notch and sell their surplus at a reduced price for the good of the Empire - then the reduction to natural resupply will be over by Spring. However this will mean that every farm in the Marches will produce only half as much money over the next three months, just as they did over the last three - and in this case it will also include any farms in Mournwold. As part of the judgement, the national assembly must name a single priest that is part of that assembly to be responsible for coordinating the creation of virtuous auras, and provide that priest with 50 doses of liao.
Alternatively a statement of principle by the Marcher Assembly encouraging prosperous yeomen to take full advantage of the rapidly rising prices for food and supplies would have the opposite effect. Farm owners would see considerably more income next season as a result - but the effect on the Empire's ability to resupply their armies would grow even more serious. As part of this judgement, the national assembly must again name a single priest that is part of that assembly, but need only provide that priest with 25 doses of liao - it is easier to encourage people to look to their own prosperity than it is to encourage them to be selfless.
Only one of these two statements of principle can be made - in the event that the assembly attempts to make both, the second, more selfish one will take precedence. If the Marcher assembly chooses to do nothing, then it will still be six months before the Empire's ability to resupply their armies naturally returns to normal.
Assuming, of course, that there are no further curses ...
It is obvious that something unnatural is afoot. Divination quickly reveals that the Marches are under the effect of a curse woven with Winter magic. Indeed, landskeepers wisely identify it as Naeve's Twisting Blight. Its effects should have faded by now ... but while they are not worsening, they are not really improving.
Investigation of the curse on the Marches will be hampered by the distances involved. One possible solution would be for a magician versed in the lore of the winter realm to prepare an arcane projection which would allow an effect similar to Wisdom of the Balanced Blade to be performed at the imperial regio, targeting one of the three affected territories, to at least get some idea of what exactly the curse is doing. No doubt other possibilities will suggest themselves.
The Marches assembly made a judgement in support of the Empire "To encourage Marcher Farmers to reduce the cost of food sold to the Civil Service to resupply the armies of the Empire. We name Martin Orchard to co-ordinate this and assign fifty liao to this work."
Following this bold statement, most Marcher farmers are tightening their belts, and selling food to the army quartermasters at a price which means they are taking a significant loss. Coupled with the bitter Winter, this means that all Marcher-owned farms including those in Mournwold will produce half as much coin in the coming season.
At the same time, however, this sacrifice mitigates the lingering effects of the disastrous Marcher harvest. While the costs to run the Imperial armies are still heightened, the status quo should be restored by the end of the Spring Equinox.