Walter stared into Tollen’s eyes for a moment before he finally shrugged and pocketed the stone.
“You can’t shrug this away, Walter! I’ve been wondering why Merkot has suddenly become so aggressive in his policies. Well, now I see. He knew you were coming, and he’s trying to make sure you don’t get to where you’re going.”
Walter stroked his chin. “Hmm, that guard was rather quick to find that particular cargo. He was going to confiscate it, too. We might have gotten arrested, if Michael hadn’t intervened when he did.”
Tollen turned to Michael. “Did you catch any directives to be on the look out for the transport of evercoal?”
“No sir. At least, not any more than normal. Merkot has been obsessed with the illegal trade in evercoal for the last five months. But there were no directives to search incoming travelers for the ore.”
“Any why would he? There have never been evercoal deposits discovered outside the inner valleys. But I wonder, Michael, if there are some directives being sent out to which the older guards are no longer privy.”
Michael nodded, but Ama protested. “Surely the guard command would not do something so brash as to undermine a captain of post. That would be unconscionable!”
Tollen coughed out a chuckle. “Perhaps, Ama. But Merkot is slowly wrapping the guards around his will. Officers such as Michael, here, are becoming liabilities.”
“Wait a moment.” Jeremy had been listening along, but something about Tollen’s reasoning had bothered him.
“What is it, Lad?”
“Well, Walter. Mr. Tollen believes this senator is trying to keep you from bringing the evercoal to it’s destination.”
Tollen nodded. “It does appear so, Son. It could be a coincidence, but as Walter approached the Inner Valleys Merkot’s actions began to become much more aggressive.”
“Well, that would make sense, especially given how easily Walter’s evercoal was discovered.” Jeremy then turned to face Walter. “But Walter, aren’t you bringing your evercoal to The Ravine?”
Walter nodded. “Yes, lad, that’s correct.”
“So why is the way to Meadowrun blocked, and not the path to The Ravine?”
Tollen shrugged. “The boy’s got a point. Meadowrun is the only town which is being blocked by Merkot’s patrols. Walter, as of this moment you could march that ore right into the Senate chamber with not so much as being asked for your name.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t want the ore to get to Meadowrun?”
“Meddle, what reason could he possibly have for that? If I get that ore to The Ravine, I can negotiate for the coastlands to be brought fully into The Valleys. That’s Merkot’s worst nightmare.”
“I really can’t say. There’s nothing unique about Meadowrun.”
Tollen chuckled sardonically. “Oh Ama. Surely you can name at least one unique feature about Meadowrun.”
“It’s very similar to many other Inner Valley towns. The only thing different is…” Ama glanced down at the table, but quickly snapped attention on to Walter. “You don’t think Senator Merkot is trying to keep us away from Talum, do you?”
“If that’s the only thing unique about Meadowrun, then it’s as good a guess as any.”
Michael cleared his throat, drawing all attention to himself. “Walter, if this is true, then my presence with you may not be enough to get you into Meadowrun.”
“Well, Micheal, I’m afraid there isn’t much we can do about that. You’re our best bet to get into the town, and that is where we are going. Especially if Merkot doesn’t want us get there.”
“Well, what if I wasn’t the best way for you to get past the barricade?
Walter’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure what you mean, there.”
“Well, sir, if Senator Merkot has given orders to keep all outer settlement traders out of Meadowrun, then even my presence won’t be enough to get you by the barricade. Walter the coastlands trader will not be allowed through no matter who his companions are.”
“Like I said, that’s too bad because you’re our best bet.”
“No, sir. Walter the trader may be barred from the town. But Walter the senator can’t be denied entry.”
Jeremey swallowed in shock. He was, however, apparently the only shocked person at the table. Ama was nodding, Tollen had erupted in a belly laugh, and Michael was gazing upon the old trader with barely concealed joy. For his part, Walter had turned bright red and was shaking his head in protest.
Banging his fists upon the table, he bellowed, “No! Absolutely not.”
“Portals, man! Are you so enamored with playing the common man that you won’t even use your office to get you where you think you need to get?”
Jeremy, much to his own surprise, raised his hand. The others at the table, who were unfamiliar with the gesture, gazed at Jeremy as though he was about to do some kind of trick.
“Did you want something, Jeremy?”
Suddenly self-conscious, Jeremy lowered his hand. “Uh, yes. What does Mr. Tollen mean by ‘Walter the senator?’”
Tollen cackled one of his laughs. “The Old Fox didn’t tell you much about himself, did he son?” He pointed at Walter, who looked as though he might storm from the room, “Walter here made the stones glow by the time he was five years old. The youngest anyone has managed to do that for a very long time. His family was so proud, they’d lost their seat on the Senate several generations before and Walter signaled their rise back to prominence!”
“That’s enough, Tollen.”
“What? You don’t want your young friend here to know who he’s traveling with? The ‘Old Fox of The Ravine,’ scourge of corruption and champion of freedom?”
“And then, son, he bit off a bit more than he could chew. He pushed the idea to give the outer settlements their own senate seats, and make them equals in the government. But his family didn’t like that. Battling corruption was fine when it knocked other families down a peg, but when his crusades risked the very superiority of the Inner Valley families, well that couldn’t be allowed to stand. They voted en masse to shelve his proposal into a dusty bin and never speak of it again. When Walter saw what was happening he stormed out of the Senate and made a public address condemning the selfishness of the Senate. And then, he left. Bit of a blow to his family, who rather enjoyed being important again.”
“I said that’s enough!” Walter’s fists slammed down on the tables, rattling the mugs. His eyes were locked on to Tollen’s, filled with an anger Jeremy had not yet seen on his face. Tollen returned the gaze with an equally hard visage.
“You don’t want the boy to know your story, Old Fox?”
“My story?” Walter roared back. “My story is a young man who was raised to serve, taught the principles of love and charity which came from our founders, and had the slowness of mind to actually believe them. That is my story. I was a show pony for the ruling families. Allowed to clean out corruption where it didn’t interfere too much with people’s scheming, and all the while every ‘victory’ just opened the door for something worse to come out and play. And then I was delusional enough to think that actually expanding the reach of the Senate would be such an obviously good thing that people couldn’t help but open the gates. But I was wrong, wasn’t I, Tollen? My family worked against me, lined up the Senators against my proposal with nothing but fear-mongering and lies, and showed me what the Inner Valleys does to people who actually believe it’s promises.”
“And then, you left.”
“Yes, Tollen, I left. I didn’t believe any more. I looked for the promise and all I saw was selfishness. I didn’t want to be used any more.”
The table lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, which Jeremy broke. “But the outer settlements have senators. What happened?”
Tollen cleared his throat. “Well ‘show pony’ he may have been, but the Old Fox was quite popular with ordinary folk. When Walter left in a huff, the Senate found the old bin in which they’d buried Walter’s proposal and dusted it off.”
“And less than six months after Walter’s Departure, Jeremy, the first Senator from an outer settlement was sworn in to office. Others followed suit once more Pathfinders were discovered in the various towns. I myself performed the test I performed on you with Water Gap’s representative, Senator Kaitlyn.”
Michael jumped in. “Within two years, there were as many senators from outer settlements as from the Inner Valleys. The political make-up of the Senate has never been the same. Which is why what Senator Merkot is doing now is so dangerous.”
Jeremy nodded. “So, Mr. Tollen, would you say Walter’s leaving helped spark that change.”
“Well, people were certainly riled up. I’ve never seen the Senate so distraught.”
“And if Walter had stayed, would the Senate have considered his proposal?”
“Probably not, but he…”
“So, why are you angry with him? It seems to me his leaving put you in a better place than if he’d stayed here.”
Walter and Tollen stared at one another, as Jeremy’s question hung over the table. Tollen then cocked his head toward the young man. “Is the boy always like this?”
Walter smirked. “I honestly don’t know. I only met him a few days ago.”
“So what are you doing back here, Walter? Where did that evercoal come from?”
“The treaty is broken. The Old Fox is summoned.”
Those seated around the table shared a stunned look, their breath suddenly visible.
“What in the depths was that?”
Ama smiled as she wrapped her arms around herself for warmth. “It appears, Tollen, you and Michael have been chosen to hear a story.” As Ama spoke, a shadow appeared the small evertorch standing in the center of the table. Dancing to a rhythm the humans seated around it could neither hear nor understand.