Jeremy finished his breakfast while wrestling with a queasy sensation in his stomach. He was afraid. It wasn’t fear as he’d experienced in the tunnel, when the darkness of the shadows crashed upon him. Rather, he was afraid of a secret so dangerous and powerful he’d actually worked to keep it from himself. The shadow had said it was trying to protect Jeremy, but from what was it trying to protect him? Tollen believed it was from the truth, but Jeremy didn’t think that was the case. The people of The Valleys might fear the truth, but he wasn’t from The Valleys.
Neither was the shadow.
He ate in silence, and his companions left him alone to ponder what the shadow had said. While had grown accustomed to their presence since his appearance out beyond Water Gap, he was glad for the time to sit and think. In those moments alone he discovered something about himself. He enjoyed sitting in silence, pondering a deep question. With that awareness his fear began to be replaced with a sense of comfort. If he was able to reconnect with himself, perhaps he’d be able to figure out his puzzle after all.
Grinning slightly, he looked up from his plate and discovered his other friends had already left the room to prepare for the journey. He wondered where he should look for them, until Michael’s voice called out from the front hallway.
“Jeremy, Walter wanted to know if you were finished eating and ready to go?”
He shoved his plate away slightly and pulled away from the table. “I am. Be right there.” He exited the room and moved to Tollen’s front door. Outside, he saw Walter’s horses packed and ready to be off.
Tollen beamed when he noticed Jeremy’s appearance. “Ah, there’s the boy! Back from your trip to rumination?”
“I guess. Sorry I missed out on helping get things ready.”
“That’s all right, Jeremy, we were able to sense you needed to be alone. We’re ready to go now, though. If you’re ready, that is.”
“I am, Ama, thank you.”
Walter, who was leaning against one of his carts, grunted with mock annoyance. “It’s about time, too, I was just about to leave you here with Tollen!”
“You were not, Fox. First, you’d miss the boy too much. Second, I wouldn’t let you. I enjoy my solitude, and mystery children are not my idea of a quiet way to pass the time!”
“Solitude! By the way Michael tells it, you have half the guard spending their comings and goings with you!”
“Yes. But they come, and then they go. Like you’re about to do. Now, go.” Tollen waved his hands, as if to shoo the company way. His eyes, however, held a warmth which Jeremy hadn’t before witnessed. Ama Smiled, Michael laughed, but Walter walked up to his old compatriot and held out his hand.
“I’ve missed you old friend. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Tollen’s face became a blank mask, and the warmth slowly faded from his eyes. He gazed at Walter for a moment and, for the briefest of breaths, looked as though he might ignore the old trader’s gesture and turn away. The moment passed, however, and he reached out and took the proffered hand. His eyes glistened slightly as he said, “I have missed you too, Fox. I’m still furious with you, but it’s good to have you back.” The old guard then laughed and pointed to Walter’s clothing. “And dressed up for a party, even!”
“All right. All right. You’ve all won. Walter the Senator is back and running. Now let’s get going before I decide to just pack up and head back through the tunnel to where people are more sensible.”
Tollen laughed and patted Walter on back. “OK, Old Fox. Go on, I’ll see you soon enough. I’ve got some business in The Ravine, anyway.”
“Fine. You do that.”
“If you are both finished making up, Old Fox, we really do have to go.”
“She hasn’t changed at all, has she?”
“Not in the slightest.”
Walter winked at Tollen, who grinned and waved to the company as they departed. They travelled down Tollen’s walk, and turned right to return to the junction with First Run. It was then Jeremy took notice of Walter’s outfit. As with the clothing the old trader had provided him in Water Gap, Walter’s new clothes were cut in identical manner to Jeremy’s own. His shirt was forest green, rather than blue, but the same decoration of triangles appeared on Walter’s right sleeve.
Pointing toward the embroidery, Jeremy asked. “Walter, I noticed that decoration on my sleeve. What does it mean?”
“Ah. Well, that comes with being a Senator. It’s the badge of my office, given to me when I officially took my seat in the Senate. They gave me the title of ‘Fox.’” He smiled. “I don’t think they knew how appropriate it was before I began hunting down corruption and digging in everyone’s corners!”
“So that’s where you got your nickname?”
“That’s it. You see, when a new Senator takes their seat an Am healer touches the new arrival and makes a pronouncement about the deepest aspects of their character. Most of the healers have the old families as patrons, so frequently the pronouncements are nothing but clipped wings.” He grunted with satisfaction, “Not me, though. My family wanted our healer to declare me ‘mountain,’ but I insisted Ama do my reading. I knew she wouldn’t make anything up, and she saw ‘fox’ – the sly hunter.”
“You mean the healers lie about most of the Senators?”
Walter shrugged. “They don’t ‘lie’ as much as they ‘tweak.’ The healers are mostly independent from the Senatorial families, but here in the Inner Valleys everything comes back to politics some how. So the healers are ‘encouraged’ to describe their readings in the most favorable light possible. ‘Mountain’ means unmovable and unbending, which is a lot more majestic way to describe my character. My family wanted my name to be that so they could tell the other Senatorial families we weren’t going anywhere, but it’s not too far off from describing who I am.”
“But you didn’t want that name?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Well, if I got it, I wanted it honestly. Ama saw that wouldn’t ever happen, though. She took one reading of my heart and declared I was ‘Fox.’ That was that.”
“So your decorations are a fox head?”
“Yah, Ama designed that as well. She told me ‘hunters can’t be ostentatious if they want to be successful’ and made me the most minimal badge possible. It’s her way of keeping me humble.”
“So if it’s your badge, why do I have it on my shirt?”
“Ahhh,” Walter smiled. “That is an excellent question. And I guess I’m being a bit presumptive, but seeing as we passed you off as my apprentice trader I figured we might as well continue the image.”
“So this means I’m your apprentice?”
“That badge, combined with the blue shirt, mark you as a senatorial apprentice tied to my office. Yes. I’m sorry, I should have asked you. If I’m taking up my old office, being I apprentice will put real expectations on you, I’m afraid.”
“Oh no, I don’t mind. But won’t this mean people will know I’m… well… like you?”
“A pathfinder? Not necessarily. I could just be training you to be a clerk on my staff. Actually, that’s more likely than training you to actually be a senator. Every office has a handful of apprentices at their disposal to do the busy work.”
Jeremy smiled. “Does this mean you’re going to be sending me out to get you coffee?”
“We’ll make Michael do that.”
“I heard that.”
“I’ll bet you did, and right now I’m not kidding. We’re not too far from the junction. Can you run ahead and get us some coffee and see what’s what today.”
Michael nodded with a grin. “As you wish, Senator.”
Walter glared at the guard as Michael sped off ahead.
“Walter, that’s wasn’t very nice. I could have done that.”
“No, lad, you couldn’t. Well, you could have gotten the coffee, but Tollen tells me people talk to Michael and I wan’t to know what’s waiting for us down First Run.”
“It appears you won’t have long to wait, Old Fox.”
Ama was pointing ahead of the company, where Michael was already returning to the group.
“Back so soon?”
“You won’t like it, sir.”
“What is it?” But Walter didn’t have to wait for an answer. Not far from their position, The Boulevard was beginning to back up as it entered the junction. Signs were posted ahead of the group which read,
By order of the ministry of safety, all travelers at this junction must submit to inspection. Failure to comply will result a loss of license and confiscation of goods. No exceptions.
Walter sighed. “Merkot never did make anything easy for me.”