There was a smell like burning tin in the air, and the harvesters hastened their work. The smell meant that rain was coming and fengill would only grow in marshy ground. Wet mud already sucked at the beige calf-high boots they wore; when the rain started to hammer down like it had a vendetta against the ground the mud would liquify quickly and become a quicksand-like morass. The fengill was grown in long rows between birindi trees, parasitic plants whose long branches swept down close the ground and snared small predators with long, trip-wire vines. Once caught the vines secreted a paralysing, flesh-dissolving toxin known as Birindi-tears and consumed its prey. The harvesters stepped with practised speed and care amongst the vines and over the branches, hauling the spongy, brain-shaped herb from the ground in leather-gloved hands.
Fengill was toxic unless cooked in one of several ways, some of which had the attraction (or terror, depending on your taste for adventure) of leaving some of the toxic still active. Fengill soup could be bland but satisfying, especially when served with poached eggs and rye bread, or it could be a hazy memory of shifting colours and sensations and a inability to distinguish between yourself, the food, and the furniture. Unsurprisingly the less cooked it was the higher the price commanded.
"Eight minutes!" called the foreman, indistinguishable from the other harvesters. Tremayne tilted his head back so that he could see the sky through the slits in the beige face-mask and squinted a little. The slits were ragged and misaligned and trying to focus through them gave him a headache.
"Six, I'd say," he said in a low voice. Two rows away, just close enough to hear, Herbrecht looked up as well, and then nodded. The face-masks came to a hooded peak above the harvesters' heads and when he nodded it was like a unicorn dipping its head ready to charge.
"Foreman's an optimist," he said. His voice was deep and throaty. Tremayne leaned down, shifting his weight slightly to sway his body away from a branch as the wind caught it, and lifted another fengill from the ground. There was a slight resistance as he picked it up, but it pulled away easily enough leaving a short trail of root behind it. That root would work its way back into the ground and grow a new plant over the course of four weeks, by which time they'd be harvesting over in Hegaton's March.
"He's new," he said, his voice flat. They both knew the foreman was new and they'd both seen evidence already that he wasn't ready to be foreman. Three harvesters were in their beds fighting off the effects of fengill poisoning and the foreman wasn't even admitting to carelessness or breach of duty. "Damn. He's coming this way."
Herbrecht didn't turn his head, but his body language suggested that he was aware of this too.
"You two!" The foreman's voice was reedy and young. "Hey, you two!"
"Still hasn't learned any names," said Tremayne. The foreman still wasn't close enough to hear them. They both continued harvesting, ignoring him.
"Hey! Hey! I said YOU TWO!"
Herbrecht raised his head finally and his eyes met the foreman's despite the protective hoods and masks. The foreman paused. "We have names," said Herbrecht. "We even respond to them."
"Like I care. You two need to stay out here and get purple fengill. This is just a shower that's coming, you'll be fine if you stay watchful."
Fengill turned purple in the rain as the plant pumped extra toxin into its lobes, ready for the parasitic worms that the rain would bring to the surface of the soil.
"No sir," said Herbrecht. Tremayne stood full upright then, waiting for the next words. The foreman ignored him, missing that Tremayne stood at least a metre taller than him.
"You don't get to say no!" The foreman's finger stabbed out, pointing, jutting, at Herbrecht. "You do as I saw or I'll report you to the Officer. You'll enjoy yourself harvesting without the protective clothes, will you?"
"That smell," said Tremayne. "That's not a shower. That's a storm."
The foreman didn't look at him, still staring and pointing at Herbrecht. "Shut up. What would you know, useless lickspittle. You're not foreman here, I am. Remember that."
"If you apologise now, he will forgive you," said Herbrecht.
Finally the foreman looked over at Tremayne, and his arm and hand sank slowly down to his side.
"Tremayne is foreman-by-custom," said Herbrecht. "You might have been told about him when you were recruited."
"No such... such... no such thing," said the foreman. His voice had gained a quaver that wasn't there before. "There's no such thing. He's on stilts. This is a joke, hazing. Right? I'll report the pair of you for this, you just wait!"
Tremayne stepped over the rows in a single stride, his feet landing in the mud with a squelch that sounded like the mud had been trying to get away from him and failed.
"You're a myth," said the foreman, but his voice was getting weaker. "You're not real."
"Very real," said Tremayne. "And as foreman-by-custom I have no choice. You're endangering lives and issuing stupid orders and refusing to learn. You are hereby demoted."
"You can't do that!" It was a shocked whisper, almost a prayer. The foreman repeated it twice more, as though trying to make it true by hearing it.
Tremayne reached down and lifted a birindi vine up. It curled and twisted in his gloved grip, trying to coil around him and start digesting.
"No...," said the foreman, horror in his voice. Tremayne said nothing, but dropped the vine around the foreman's neck. Then he looped it, and again, and again until the whole vine was coiled around the foreman. It glistened spectrally as the venom oozed out, and the vine tightened itself.
The foreman sank to his knees, his hands coming up with no strength to try and free himself. The first drops of rain, red as blood, hit the ground.
"Best get in," said Tremayne. "Storm's starting."