"All right," Licorice said. "But if you want to go to where the fleas are, I'm changing into boots first. Ugh."
"The flea problem is bad enough that they're biting humans?"
"Yes. The House of Chambers isn't too bad, but the House of Diplomacy has the worst flea problem. No one even goes into the fourth-floor conference rooms any more. You'd think the fleas would starve, but no luck so far."
"It takes a long time to starve fleas out," Smoke said. "Their eggs won't hatch if there's nothing around to eat, so they'll just lie in wait for months until something comes along and causes enough vibrations to make them hatch. Assuming they're not living off of someone's pets. Or," they added, thoughtfully, "the rats. Hmm."
"Yay," Licorice said without enthusiasm. She led Smoke back upstairs. It was late enough now that the halls were empty. Night had fallen outside, but the halls of the House of Chambers were well-lit by glow-globes in sconces along the walls. They went into a kitchen on the first floor. It had a relatively small footprint for such a large building, clearly intended more for snacks and drinks than to prepare meals. A few staff were on hand, cleaning up or preparing dough to be preserved for baking the next day. The room smelled of cinnamon and warm apples, strongly enough to remind Smoke that they hadn't eaten since lunch and it was after supper time. Licorice waved to an aproned man sweeping up. "Hey, Teak!"
Teak, a trim kith man with a slight build, strong arms, and ginger stripes, looked up with a wary look. "We don't have any leftover cookies tonight, Licorice, you're too late."
"Aww." Licorice pouted briefly, in that adorable big-eyed, out-thrust-lip way that only humans could pout. "It's fine, Teak, I'm not here for cookies. This's the new enchanter, she wants to see about the ant problem. Are you still seeing them?"
"Not so much. We cleaned out all the cabinets and threw out some canisters that weren't sealing properly, and they seem to have lost interest.." Teak leaned the broom against a counter and beckoned them to the rear wall, where he opened the lower cabinet doors. "These cabinets here were the worst affected, don't know if there's anything to see now."
Smoke crouched down and peered into them. Their freshly-scrubbed condition was evident from the spotless surfaces. Even the canisters for different kinds of flour and sugar had been cleaned. There were no ants or ant trails. But at the back of the cabinets were a few little heaps of dust, near cracks that made the fur on Smoke's neck prickle. They scraped at one heap with a claw tip. It was powdered wood. "Teak, what size were these ants?"
"I dunno. Ant-sized?"
Smoke closed their eyes. "I mean, were they very small -- " she held her fingers perhaps an eighth of an inch apart " -- or bigger, like rice-grain-sized? Did they smell bad when you squished one?"
"Oh, they weren't that tiny. More rice-size, I guess. I don't remember them smelling after they were crushed."
Smoke rubbed at their face and stood. "Those are carpenter ants. They're not here to eat your food."
Teak brightened. "Really? That's good."
"That depends on your idea of 'good'. What they're eating is the building."
Teak and Licorice exchanged looks, while the other staff glanced at Smoke in alarm. "That sounds not so good," Licorice said. "What were they doing in the kitchen, then?"
"Not sure. Might've been drawn here for moisture. You haven't seen them in other rooms?"
"Some of the other kitchens and the dining halls," Teak said. "That's it as far as I know.
Smoke flicked their ears back; carpenter ants did need water as well as wood, but it was still a little strange that their signs would only be in eating areas. "All the same size?"
"Uh. I didn't pay that much attention. I thought ants were just, you know. Ants," Teak said, sheepishly.
"When did people first start seeing them?"
"I dunno. Couple weeks ago?" Teak turned to others in the kitchen, who nodded concurrence with this estimate.
It's hard to tell how bad this is, although Smoke's gatherer should give some information about that in the morning. It's not likely to get significantly worse in the next few days, however.
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