As their company came to a halt behind a line of travelers Walter scratched his chin. “You know, I don’t think I feel like bothering with another inspection.”
Ama and Michael exchanged a look. The guard shrugged, but Ama resolved to share her thoughts. “Walter, I’m not certain this is the time to assert your renewed office. Why don’t we wait in line for our turn?”
“Meddle, you’ve been telling me for twenty years I needed to come back and be a Senator. Now I’m back, and I’m not going to be held up by the machinations of a paranoid legislator. If Merkot wants to stop me from doing something, he can come out and make me. Let’s go.”
Walter tugged on the reins of the first pack-horse and led their party forward, moving to the left side of The Boulevard and streaming past the line of annoyed travelers. At first, people placed at the group with open hostility. Soon, however, fingers were pointed at Walter and murmuring began to hum through the line. After half a mile, the line of travelers was beginning to shout encouragement.
“Welcome back, Old Fox!”
“Remind these guards who they work for!”
“Start the hunt again, Fox!”
For his part, Walter’s face betrayed an embarrassed grin. Ama saddled up next to him and whispered loud enough for Jeremy to hear, “Enjoying yourself?”
Walter waved to a few of his encouragers. “Well, if it makes Merkot nervous I’ll deal with a few shouts. It seems like these folks needed a reminder the Senate’s supposed to work for them.”
She patted her friend’s arm. “I think you needed a reminder as well, Old Fox. You committed yourself to these people a long time ago. They need you now.”
“Hmmm. Well. We’ll see.”
As the group approached the inspection point, Walter noticed a sullen-faced guard glance over in his direction. He turned and spoke to a nearby subordinate and then made straight for Walter’s approaching horses.
“OK, Michael. You’re on.”
The guard nodded and moved to intercept the approaching inspector. The exchanged words briefly, leaving the inspector shaking his head and Michael pointing heatedly at Walter. Before long the party caught up and could hear the tone of the conversation.
“Look, I don’t care who you are who who he says he is. I’ve got ordered to inspect all travelers and I’m going to inspect all travelers. Now get back to the end of the line or so help me I’ll throw the lot of you in a holding cell!”
Walter strode forward and addressed Michael. “What seems to be the problem here, Captain?”
“It’s this one, sir. He says he has ‘special authority’ over all travelers on the road. No exceptions.”
“Surely he’ll take the word of a fellow guard and allow us to pass.”
“Sorry sir, but these guards represent First Run and will not accept my appraisal.”
“First run?” Walter turned to the impatiently ignored inspector and jolted him out of is sulking. “We’re not on First Run here, sir. Who gave you authority to you inspect travelers on The Boulevard? You’re out of your jurisdiction!” At this several people in the nearby crowd cheered, causing the inspector to grow even more sullen.
“We’ve been given special orders from Senator Merkot himself to inspect all travelers approaching this junction. And if you people,” the inspector made sure his voice carried to the nearby crowd, “have an issue with that well I can arrange a personal meeting with the Senator.”
“I thank you for the offer to make an appointment for me. But, as it so happens, I will be seeing Merkot in The Ravine sometime in the next week anyway and have no need of your services. Now, kindly step aside and allow me to pass. If your inspection passes muster I will allow it to continue.”
“And who are you to be giving me orders? The captain I recognize, you look like some coastal trash that just washed down the road and decided to play dress-up.” Whispers began to echo down the queue, several people crossed their arms and stared angrily at the inspector.
“I, inspector, am a Senator, and if you think for an instant I’ll be hobbled by an ill-advised maneuver of Senator Merkot then you are a fool. Now, step aside or fall in line before I decide to have my Captain arrest you.”
“I’m a Senator for Valley’s sake!
“Sure you are. Look, anyone can put on a badge and claim to be a Senator. I find it quite fishy, if you ask me. Not get back in line and be glad I’m not deciding to hold and your interesting claims for questioning. Do you understand?”
Walter stared coldly at the inspector. “I’ve had enough of this. Jeremy!”
Jeremy snapped to awareness, if not attention, “Yes Walter?”
“In the third pouch of the last pack horse you will find a pouch of stones. Bring them to me.”
“Yes sir.” Jeremy walked back to the last pack horse and dug through the pockets until he discovered the pouch Walter described. He brought them forward to the old trader, where he and the inspector were glaring hostily at one another. “Here you are, sir.”
Walter accepted the pouch and muttered thanks. Jeremy stepped back over to the horses as Walter untied the pouch and poured out a set of stones much like those Ama had offered to Jeremy in Water Gap. He held them up to the guard, who suddenly betrayed a slight break in confidence. The queue of travelers had come to a stop, the theatre along the road was too good to miss.
“You seemed to intimate that I am not who I say I am. This will prove my words true.” With that, he exhaled a breath upon the stones. They immediately began to glow brightly in the sunlight. The inspector’s eyes opened with shock.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know. I was told not to trust any travelers on the road today, no matter their claims.”
“Well, I’m not feeling too forgiving at the moment, inspector.” He pointed at the crowd, “Not only are you distracting a Senator from his vital work, you seem to be preventing the free movement of persons along our The Boulevard – undermining one the key freedoms we share as a people!”
The inspector looked at the ground and muttered, “Yes sir. Those are my orders.”
“Your orders are in violation of our laws! Or don’t the guards on First Run know about the laws they are supposed to uphold.”
“Sir!” the inspector protested, “We have orders.”
“What you have, near as I can tell, are illegal orders. Now, you run along to your post, and dismantle it.”
“Dismantle it, sir?”
“Yes! Dismantle it! You’ve inconvenienced the people here enough.”
“But sir, we…”
“If you say ‘we have orders’ I’m going to call for your badge. Am I clear?”
The inspector nodded angrily, but before turning spoke. “This will be reported to Senator Merkot, Senator.”
Walter smiled. “Yes, please do. And tell The Waterfall how much I am looking forward to seeing him soon.
The guard nodded and turned to head back to his post. As he did so, the queue of people began to cheer. Walter, however, didn’t seem to enjoy the adulation as he had earlier.
Noticing Walter’s mood Jeremy asked, “Walter, what’s wrong?”
“What wrong is them, lad” replied Walter quietly as he pointed to the crowd. “I’ve always known Merkot was a dangerous paranoid, I expect guards he’s trained to take on his fear-mongering and arrogance. What could have happened to these people that they’d go along with something like this?”
Jeremy glanced over at the line and noticed, for the first time, a blank sullenness on the traveller’s faces. As the line sped up to a normal walk the expression remained.
They were a people who had given up caring.