Throughout November I’ll be concentrating my posts on Welcome to the Valleys in honor of NaNoWriMo. If you’d like to catch up on this story, the first post of this story can be found at this link
As their group descended the ramp down into the town of Riverside, Jeremy noticed a change in Walter. Since they’d arrived in the Inner Valleys the stress of worry had fallen over his face, but now the old trader appeared relaxed. He also began whistling a tune to himself as they walked. It reminded Jeremy of the kind man who had awoken outside of Water Gap a week earlier.
“You thinking of something happy, lad?”
Apparently Jeremy’s reminisces had not gone unnoticed. He smiled slightly and shrugged. “I was thinking this moment reminded me of our trip into Water Gap that afternoon you found me.”
“It does now, does it?”
“Yes, you were relaxed and cheerful. It helped me stay calm even though everything was so alien.”
Walter smiled. “Hold on to moments like that, then, Jeremy. When storms come they’ll remind you the worries of the world don’t last forever.”
“I will,” Jeremy nodded. “But I was wondering, what is it about Riverside which makes you so relaxed?”
“Well, you’ve sort of already seen it,” Walter chuckled. “Truth be told.”
“Not entirely. I just like Riverside, there’s no pretense. The Inner Valleys are full of people all trying to lie better than everybody else, Riverside tends not to put up with it.”
“What makes Riverside so different from the other places in the Inner Valleys?”
A twinkle flashed in Walter’s eye. “Ah, well, you happen to be entering the only recognized settlement in the Inner Valleys not started by a Senatorial family. The folks who settled here had enough of high and mighty people ruling over them by virtue of their birth status. So they kept the Senators out.”
“But I thought to be an official town it needed to have a senator.”
“Not true, lad. Though that’s what many folks think. What they need is to be able to support a senator, which is what Riverside does.”
“What do you mean?”
“They hire one.”
“You can do that?”
“Ha! Well, if they can’t no one’s ever bothered to tell them! The true is, most of the senators are just bought and sold by their families – they’re told what interests to look after and what proposals to work against. The folks here figure they do the same thing, but are more honest about it. They hire a Pathfinder from a family which has an abundance of resources, and the town council tells them what to do. If they don’t do as they’re told, the senator gets fired.”
“That doesn’t cause trouble?”
“Of course it causes trouble! In fact, I think that’s what the folks here want. The Senatorial families hate Riverside’s independence, but it just too useful to get rid of. It’s a source of good experience for younger siblings who would otherwise be denied access to the Senate Chamber, and often acts as a tiebreaker on contentious votes. It’s a mess, but it works.”
Jeremy shook his head despondently. “I don’t understand at all.”
“That’s all right, lad. Just keep your eyes open as we walk through town and you’ll probably see why the old families have never attempted to force Riverside into line.”
With that, Walter fell silent. Jeremy decided to pay particular attention to the town, and noticed some unusual distinctions almost immediately.
The most disconcerting was the way people stared. Jeremy had become used to a measured indifference from people in The Valleys. People tended to be either cautiously friendly with, or casually observant of, strangers. The people who walked the well laid-out streets of Riverside, however, did nothing to disguise their appraising looks. It was as if every face on the street said, “We don’t recognize you, are you sure you belong here?”
“It’s a bit discomforting, isn’t it?”
Jeremy jumped as he was startled from his observation. A response which alarmed Michael. “I’m sorry, Jeremy. I didn’t mean to startle you!”
“No, that’s all right, Michael. What was that you were saying?”
“The way people here stare, it’s a bit discomforting.”
“Yes, it is, I don’t feel very welcome.”
“Ah, I thought so. Don’t let first impressions fool you, though. The people of Riverside are actually quite friendly, but they are a close-knit people and easily recognize newcomers. Even people who live in the town are given the same treatment, should they enter a neighborhood in which no one knows them.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“These people look out for one another, Jeremy, so they keep an eye on newcomers to make sure they intend no harm.”
“OK, I guess,” Jeremy shrugged. “But how do we let people know we don’t mean any harm.” He then leaned over and whispered, “I really don’t like being stared at.”
Michael smiled. “That’s part of the test, Jeremy. You have to make yourself known.”
“How am I supposed to do that? And don’t they recognize Walter?”
“I’d be willing to say most recognize the emblem on his sleeve and understand him to be the Old Fox. Captain Alec has also warned his neighborhood captains of Walter’s arrival. You, however, they do not know – and I’m wearing the uniform of a guard from another troop, which could mean trouble.”
“So I’ll ask again, how do we let people know we aren’t trouble?”
Michael called out, “Walter, could you hold up for a moment?”
“Sure thing,” said Walter as he stopped the group. Jeremy noticed the stares increasing, which made him wish they’d kept on moving.
Michael reached into his pockets and pulled out a few coins, which he handed to Jeremy. Pointing over toward a street vendor, he said, “Let’s go over to that vendor and order some prizes.”
“Prizes, you’ll love them. Riverside has the best in all The Valleys. I’ll let you do the ordering.”
Jeremy pushed back against Michael’s nudge in a near-panic. The vendor was now staring at them, blank faced. “But I don’t know what to do!”
Michael smirked. “That’s pretty much the point.”
Jeremy allowed Michael to steer him over to the street vendor, who continued to stare at them as they approached. When they came into conversational range the vendor’s face softened somewhat as he asked. “Whatcha need?”
Michael nudged Jeremy forward, and the vendor’s eyes fell on the youth. “Uh. My friend told me to order some prizes.”
“No problem, how many d’you want?”
“I don’t know, how much are they?”
“It’s two for a copper and five for two coppers. I see y’got two coppers there. How ‘about I give you five and you can share them with your friends over there?”
“Oh, ok. That sounds fine.”
“You want mustard.”
This sounded odd to Jeremy, as it sounded like the sentence should have been a statement, but was inflected like a question. Going with his instincts he said, “I’ve never had a prize before, so I guess I’ll do whatever you say.”
“You never go wrong leaving it to an expert, kid. If this is the first time you’ve had a prize then y’gotta have it wit mustard.”
“OK, sure. I’ll trust you.”
“Smart kid there, mister.” Said the vendor.
He then slathered a yellow substance on to a string of what looked like small breads which had been twisted together and covered with coarse salt. He shoved the mass into a brown bag and handed them to Jermey.
“That’ll be one copper.”
“I thought you said two.”
“It’s your first time. You’re a good kid so I’ll give you a break.” Jeremy looked up into the vendors eyes and, to his great surprise, found his previous blank stare replaced with a warm grin. “All right then?”
“Uh, sure. Thank you.”
“Not a problem, kid. Enjoy.”
The vendor took one coin from Jeremy and handed him the brown bag. He then offered the second coin back to Michael, who held up his hand.
“No, Jeremy, I think that’s yours. You earned it.”
Michael did, however, take the the brown bag from Jeremy’s hand. Reaching in, he separated a portion of the twisted loaf and handed to Jeremy. He then broke off a second section and ripped off a small bit, which he stuck in his mouth. Michael closed his eyes in delight.
“Mmm, I’d forgotten how good these were.” Opening his eyes again he said, “What are you waiting for? Take a bite!”
Grinning, Jeremy tore off a piece of his prize and put it into his mouth. His mouth danced around the flavors. The robust zing of the mustard combined with the coarse salt and dark outer crust and set his mouth watering. Beneath the crust was a perfectly baked dough which was wonderfully chewy. Instinctively following Michael’s example, Jeremy closed his eyes to savor the flavor.
“All right Michael, you got the lad his prize, now share them with the rest of us.”
Michael handed over the bag to Walter, who broke off his own section and began devouring his prize.
“I’m afraid we only got five. The price has gone up since the last time I was here.”
Walter shrugged. “That’s all right, we’ll make Talum buy his own. He doesn’t like mustard anyway.” Turning to Jeremy he asked, “So, lad, what do you think of Riverside now.”
Jeremy chewed on a bit of his prize and looked at the scene which surrounded him. Most of the stares which had recently intimidated him had vanished. People passed him by without a second glance. Except, that is, for the vendor. When Jeremy caught his eye he smiled warmly and tipped his cap in salute.
Jeremy swallowed his mouthful and looked up at Walter. “It certainly is a different sort of place.”