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
Talum recoiled from her gaze. “Oh. I’m appearing uncaring again, aren’t I? I apologize.”
Talum’s attitude managed to confuse Kaitlyn’s emotional state. The senator’s face shifted from anger to pained confusion. Sensing her struggle, Walter stepped in.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of Healer Talum’s reputation, Kaitlyn. He’s a good man…”
“Oh, it’s so good to hear you say that, Walter. I was afraid you thought me callous!”
Walter shook his head and rubbed his neck. “…but… let’s just say he’s ‘socially different’ and leave it at that.”
Senator Kaitlyn gazed tiredly at Talum. “As you say, Old Fox. Talum’s reputation is well-known, but no one has ever said he could be so uncaring.”
“Kaitlyn,” interjected Ama. “I’ve known Talum for many years. ‘Uncaring’ isn’t a word which I’d apply to him. ‘Distracted,’ certainly.”
“I like to think of my self as ‘preoccupied.’”
Ama took calming breath and continued. “…but he does care. He simply loses himself in his research and it tends to take him time to reconnect after he’s been immersed in a study.”
“If you vouch for him, Ama, I will accept your explanation. Yet he is not immersed in a study at present. I would expect he’d have ‘surfaced’ by this point and join the rest of us.”
“As it so happens, Senator, I am currently involved the most fascinating research study of all time! You see, you…”
Talum’s smile froze on his face, mouth open, as he turned and was confronted by Walter’s warning stare.
“But I suppose that can wait for another time.”
Kaitlyn sighed in frustration. “Walter, what is going on? Merkot was already beginning to lose it before you showed up, but our voting block in the Senate had him mostly in check. Then, out of the blue, you show up and it’s like the entirety of the Inner Valleys has lost it’s mind!”
She pointed at Michael and Terrin, “You have two guards following you around like body guards, one of whom currently has a warrant out for his arrest for ‘aiding smugglers,’ which we know is bogus. The other is wanted back at The Ravine for questioning regarding a supposed break down of discipline among The Boulevard Troop.
“If that wasn’t bad enough, you’re arrival seems to have woken our old friend Tollen from his ‘quiet retirement.’ He showed up at The Ravine yesterday paying visits to the few guards left in Command who aren’t in Merkot’s pocket. He nearly outed two of my only sources in the office!”
“Tollen is his own man, always has been.”
“Let’s just say you bring the ‘best’ out in him, shall we?” Kaitlyn leaned in, a hardness chiseled on her face. “What is going on?”
All eyes at the table turned to Walter, who leaned back in his chair and scratched his chin. His lip formed a line as he pondered his response. Finally, he shrugged and said, “I’ll tell you what. If you tell me your story, I’ll tell you ours. I’ve no idea what Merkot is up to, and I keep stumbling across his plans in a manner both blind and stupid.”
“You’ll tell me everything?”
Walter crossed his arms and grinned, “Everything.”
Kaitlyn rapped the table with her knuckles and leaned back. “Fine. You’ve probably heard from Captain Michael and Patroller Terrin about Merkot’s anti-smuggling efforts.”
Walter nodded. “We have.”
“At first, the Senate didn’t make too much of his ramblings and occasional ‘sting operations.’ They didn’t cost much, and it kept him from doing anything too destructive. The Woodhall and Plantation delegations were actually glad Merkot was wasting his time on smuggling. It kept him out of their hair.”
“This much we’ve been able to put together, Kaitlyn.”
“I’m just giving some background, Old Fox, so we can get on the same page.”
“OK, please continue.”
Kaitlyn nodded thanks and continued. “Anyway, we should have known he was up to something. About six months ago Merkot brought a report to the Senate which seemed to confirm his previous ramblings. It said smuggling was on the rise in the Inner Valleys, and the activity was costing everyone much-needed revenue for road repair and extensions. I knew it was bogus, of course. Ninety-percent of smuggling passes through Water Gap and we see almost none of it going on. Merkot’s report was pretty damning, however, and when he shared it the Senate split a vote allowing him to explore how an ‘exclusion zone’ might discourage smuggling and increase tax revenue.”
“And that’s when Merkot began buying up properties?”
Kaitlyn nodded. “That sent off some alarms in the Senate, but Merkot insisted it had to be part of his experiment. After all, any of those plantations could have been used to bypass his road block. Since Merkot was paying fair price for those he forced out, no one bothered to say anything.” Kaitlyn said this last bit bitterly.
“And how long did that go on for?”
“It took him about three weeks to get his roadblock set up, so he’s had Meadowrun cut off for about another three after that, or so.” Kailyn glared at Talum, “A report on what he was doing would have been nice.” Talum shrugged a bit, noticing the anger tossed in his direction. As Walter shook his head Jeremy heard Sheilak in his mind.
“Report sent. Report received. The Old Fox Summoned.”
Jeremy flinched in surprise, drawing a look from Senator Kaitlyn. He recovered enough to ask, “Are you saying your people took Talum’s report?”
“Why did you need it?” But the Guardian would say no more.
He emerged from his short sidebar to hear Walter’s voice. “And then something changed two days ago?”
“That’s right. Merkot called an emergency session of the Senate and offered yet another report. This one was about a shadowy group which was intending to smuggle evercoal reserves out of the Inner Valleys in an effort to undermine the Senate and destroy the economy. Merkot reported a break-in in the Meadowrun warehouse and detailed the guard’s pursuit as the perpetrators attempted to exchanged the stolen ore with their partners at The Boulevard/First Run junction.”
“And so he got permission to move his roadblock.”
Walter sighed. “And when I opened the outgoing traffic that morning…”
“Merkot spun it to say someone impersonating a senator had broken his roadblock and it clearly showed there were elements in the outer settlements who wanted to undermine the authority of the Senate. We tried to raise a coalition against his proposal, but half the senators will believe any awful story about folks from the outer settlements and they went along. Merkot got permission to block all incoming traffic at Shelter. In the name of establishing order, or course.”
“Shelter can’t be happy about that.”
“They’re livid, Senator Dana even voted with Woodhall against the measure.”
Terrin whistled. “Well that doesn’t happen every day.”
Kaitlyn nodded and crossed her arms. “And that is what Merkot has been up to. His paranoia has reached new heights and I’m getting rumors that he’s considering a motion to unseat the outer settlement senators from the body. It won’t pass now, but he if fabricates enough evidence to increase the fear of some Inner Valley senators, he just might succeed.”
“And then we’ll have war,” growled Michael.
“If we do it won’t be a long one. The Inner Valleys can’t survive without the resources from beyond the tunnel and the outer settlements need access to evercoal if they’re ever going to develop beyond their scattered homesteads. Without representation in the Senate, we’ll have no power and less say. The Inner Valleys have all the evercoal, after all.”
Walter grinned slightly. “Well, now that you mention it, Kaitlyn, let me tell you a story.”