Today’s blog is the continuation of, Welcome to the Valleys. If you would like to catch up with the tale, the first section can be found at this link
“As you were Captain, Lieutenant. Please, enjoy breaking your fast.”
The two men relaxed somewhat, but exchanged nervous glances as they began to help themselves to the offered food. Satal’s presence did not help the two career guards to be at ease, especially now that both wore the uniform of the Presidential Troop.
Jeremy, wanting to put his friends more at ease, struck up conversation. “Michael, I’m sorry I was falling asleep when you came in last night. How’s your family?”
Michael was in the process of pouring coffee for both himself and Terrin, but looked up long enough to beam a smile in Jeremy’s direction. “Well. My wife is a bit concerned by my abrupt departure for new duties, but she’s relieved my name is no longer being whispered in rumors.” Michael turned to Satal and nodded, “My thanks for that, Madam President.”
Satal shook her head in response. “Captain, you’re simply too good a man to allow to go to pasture in disgrace. Merkot’s lack of wisdom knows no bounds.” Leaning forward she added, “And your family, Lieutenant? How are they?”
Terrin put down the knife he was using to butter a roll and smiled nervously. “They are well, Madam President. Thank you for asking.”
“Riverside is treating them well, then?”
Terrin smiled and huffed a brief laugh. “My wife informs me the people of Riverside are treating her as a minor celebrity. She is the woman smart enough to marry a man who told Merkot where he can stick his ‘reforms.’”
To Jeremy’s surprise, Satal smiled. “I’ve always loved Riverside, such a colorful people.”
Walter turned his gaze sideways toward Satal and grunted into his mug. The President arched her eyebrows at the sound and turned to the old trader.
“Something bothering you, Old Fox?”
Walter set the cup down, revealing the frown he wore on his face. “For all your professed love of the town, Satal, I can’t say Riverside thinks all the much of you.”
The room quieted. Jeremy held his breath, and noticed the two guards had followed a similar reflex. Satal held Walter’s gaze for several beats, and finally breathed out a sorrowful sigh.
“Walter, for all your wisdom, you have never understood my motivations. I ‘play the game,’ as you put it to me so many years ago, and that is true. But I play this ‘game’ because I want to make certain The Valleys will still be a place where the majority of people can live in peace and prosperity.”
She suddenly stood up, causing Michael and Terrin to do likewise. “And, perhaps you are right. In my desire to see The Valleys preserved, I may have moved too slow to make the changes which would have kept Merkot from rising in power. But I had a duty to do, and could not have done it had I been tossed down from power by confronting him sooner. Had I done so, it might be Merkot himself who would have been waiting for you here. Have you thought of that?”
“I have, Satal. I don’t envy your position, but neither do I deny it’s a position your own inaction caused. Merkot sparked animosity between the Inner Valleys and outer settlements, and your own prejudices kept you from seeing it until it was too late. Merkot tried to isolate Riverside and bankrupt the town, and you failed to rally the Senate against him. And yet, here you are expressing your fondness for them.”
“I am fond of them, Walter. They say, and do, things I cannot as President. I can’t rally people to voting vote something they believe is in their best interest, and that is a blight on the our government. But I can make certain the impact of more narrow-minded policies is kept to a minimum by giving them only minimal funding. This I have done.”
At this, Walter actually grinned. “I was wondering how Riverside was managing to keep their smuggling operations going. Even with the support of the Riverside guards, you should have been able to shut them down easily.”
Satal nodded. “Indeed. I may also not be able to come up with… creative… nicknames for a powerful sitting Senator. But I can smile when I hear of them. You say, Walter, I allowed Merkot to rise to power. But I always intended to give him enough space to isolate himself. His latest pushes have solidified support against him in the outer settlements and, with Riverside’s support they would have been enough to bring him down from his lofty position even before you arrived with your cargo.”
“A lot of people suffered as you played your long game, Satal.”
Satal’s face reddened as she threw her hands on the table and leaned forward. “That is true, Old Fox. But the number of those who have suffered by my ‘long game’ is rather smaller than the suffering which would have been caused by a war. A war which, I assure you, would already be upon us had Merkot gained the office of President!”
Walter stared into Satal’s face, expressionless. The president’s face began to lose color as her shoulders slackened. She surveyed the room with wide eyes, stunned by her own outburst. Micheal and Terrin remained standing at attention, worried looks barely concealed on their features. Jeremy was ashen-faced, gazing dumbly at his nearly-full breakfast plate. Seeing the discomfort her outburst had caused, Satal collapsed into her chair once more. She slumped down and wearily rubbed her forehead.
“My apologies, please. I shouldn’t lose control like that.”
“No apologies necessary, Madam President. You’ve carried a great weight. Greater than I knew.” This came, much to Jeremy’s surprise, from Walter.
Satal lowered her hand and looked directly at Walter. “You were gone, Walter, and most of the other idealists went with you. I did the best I could.”
“I know, Satal, and I’m sorry.”
“For leaving like you did?”
Walter took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “As much as I hate to admit it. Yes, I am sorry I left the way I did. It was selfish of me. But I’m also sorry for my actions just now.”
Satal cocked her head. “Why? I don’t recall the Old Fox ever being sorry for riling up an opponent before.”
“You aren’t an opponent, Satal. I just needed to see if my friend was still in there after all your years in power.” Walter lifted his mug and drank a large swallow of coffee. “It turns out she is.”
“Great, Satal’s still a human-being and the Old Fox has triumphantly returned. Can we please get down to the Senate and put Merkot in his place?”
Shocked, Jeremy turned to see Tollen seated at end of the table opposite Satal. He’d already procured a sweet roll and was pealing off pieces to put in his mouth. As he chewed a particularly large piece he added, “I mean, I’ve been waiting a long time to see Merkot get his, and I’m not getting any younger.”