The Presidential Picaresque

The Presidential Picaresque

Prologue I: Hlenderian Myth and Reality

Your average person of some worldly education knows a few major facts about the Commonwealth of Hlenderia. The first of these is its position at the southernmost extremity of Gondwana, on the island of Hayaneste. The Commonwealth shares Hayaneste with the Staynish territory of Joralesia, though a sizable irredentist faction, members of which we will be spending some time with in this telling, considers the Staynish settlers there to be intruders occupying what should rightfully be the nation’s “Northwest Provinces”. The history of foreign settlement on Hayaneste is too deep to elaborate upon in this short prologue, but suffice it to say, colonists from numerous nations have been drawn to the mineral wealth of Hayaneste – a hunger which, we will discover, Hlenderians of all sorts are more than happy to satisfy in their own way, despite their hatred of all things foreign.

The second fact, known to many who could not even find Hlenderia on a map, concerns its status as a “hermit kingdom”. This perception of the Commonwealth persists even today, despite efforts by His Majesty, King Yendrin, and President Marsilamat Indari – the protagonist of this story - to rectify what they both perceive to be a problem threatening the country’s future prosperity. Quotas on tourism to Hlenderia were entirely lifted in 2004, though quotas on immigration have hitherto been only very slightly reduced. Indeed, the burgeoning cottage industry of cruises to Semipterna have made some Hlenderians very rich – though this new class itself lobbied hard to ensure that the tourists could not choose to stay in Hlenderia after their 20-day sojourn to the southern ice caps.

The third fact is also mixed with rumor and stereotype. Hlenderia, any student of sociology could tell you, is split between three ethnic groups, united – delicately – by a common religion and language. This student would further divulge to you the names and characteristics taught to them regarding each tribe. The wealthy Vrotrim, in the temperate western region of Hayaneste, most closely resemble upstanding members of the modern world; their values are liberal, their religious strand modernized and smoothed over by foreign melding, and they prefer to resolve disputes by negotiation. The Mūnim, located in the tundra and taiga-transition in the southern and eastern parts of the island, are the complete opposite: they live in traditional villages, practice a form of religion that has not changed for hundreds of years, and possess extreme reactionary views of the world. Finally, the Kwarim, located in the northern and central parts of the nation, are in the middle of these two extremes, and this moderation has ensured their great political success. Both the King of Hlenderia and President Indari – whose story we will begin soon – are great Kwari political operators.

This sociology student would further tell you that the three Hlenderian ethnicities hate each other more than they cooperate, and they are only countrymen in the loosest sense of the word. As one Joralesian poet said about his neighbors to the south - “The land of the midnight sun / where the spindly trees of the forest have hid myriad crimes”. It is true, of course, that pre-contact Hlenderians often sorted out disagreements through violence, sometimes with the approval of the governing authorities. But the last “Great Feud”, in which two fighting families took turns murdering each other until they were both extinct, took place in the 1800s, and modern feuds often fizzle out, or are put down, after only three or four such murders. King Yendrin’s infrastructure-frenzy has ensured that regional gendarmes can often intervene if two families come to violence in the country’s vast interior.

All together, some of this sociological received wisdom is correct, some is not, and the majority is partly-right and partly-wrong. Hlenderia, in the second decade of the 21st century, contains nearly 26 million people, with a wide range of motivations and beliefs, regardless of what some say their tribe or faction “should” believe. Indeed, some – such as the subject of our story, President Indari – could be accused of believing in nothing.

Prologue II: The Kwari Way of Life

Marsilamat Indari was born in the mid-1970s in north-central Hlenderia, in Kwari land, though near the border of traditionally Mūni territory. Ethnic borders at this time, and in this part of the country, had become more or less set. Most land in this region of the country was owned by the families that lived on them, and Indari grew up on his family’s homestead just outside the mid-sized town of Isherrith, a mill town that processed lumber and made paper. Isherrith, population 3400, is located in a part of the country rich in pine and fir, and is far enough north that the temperate forests were thick and the land fertile – as opposed to the alkaline soil in the taiga further south.

Despite this, Isherrith is the center of a community that is largely rural. One main road connected the town to the Kwari cities along the north coast, and in the winter it could snow over for five to seven days until equipment made its way down. Therefore, the Kwari here live a life that was more traditional and self-sufficient than their urbanized kin. They often govern themselves, with occasional visits from provincial authorities. In the center of Isherrith, like most Kwari communities, is a large building that serves as town hall, ballroom, indoor farmers market, and whatever other need arose for it. A Hlenderian temple, known as a “chapel” regardless of its size or opulence, is located on the outskirts of the settlement and contains a large crematorium and cemetery, each essential for the ancestor-venerating local traditions.

Among the Kwari, political office-seeking is seen as a way to enrich oneself and their family. It is considered a job or a career, rather than a public service as the western Vrotri or foreign elements might view it. In Isherrith, the Traditionalist Kwarim party has a monopoly on power, and to become “involved in politics” is synonymous with joining this party. In this area of Hlenderia, what in other nations would be called nepotism and corruption were so endemic to the political order as to be entirely unremarkable to the governed, except for a general grumbling about the cost of doing business. It is at this time, and in this place, that the future President of the Grand Council of Hlenderia would grow up and enter politics.

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I. How Marsilamat Indari Came to Represent Isherrith District on the Grand Council of Hlenderia

November 25, 1990

November was the late spring in Isherrith, which meant one thing for its inhabitants: the scourge of the black fly. They would breed in clean water, which in this rural environ was everywhere, and would hatch by the thousands, bothering human and animal alike. On still days, with no wind, they could be seen in clouds hovering in the air, until a person would walk by, at which time the cloud would follow its unlucky victim until they ducked into a building or car. The tiny bites would itch and swell. Relief could only come through the speedy application of antihistamine cream – and local drug stores would sell out within the first week of fly season.

It was on a day like this – warm, with little breeze – that Demmeranith Indari chose to take his teenage son foraging. Foraging was essential in the spring to supplement whatever lean, skinny venison Demmeranith could hunt or poach, but it was never pleasing to his son, Marsilamat. They would drive out in the early, foggy morning, past the local chapel and into the woods in Demmeranith’s fifteen-year-old pickup truck. The studded snow tires, which Dem’ had not yet had time to change, made a loud rumbling noise on the asphalt, as if the car was being followed by a hundred hummingbirds.

When he turned right onto a gravel logging road, the truck lurched as it left the pavement. Marsilamat hung onto a handle above his head. His father said nothing, but just bit down further on the cigar in his mouth. The pair were dressed in traditional Kwari garb: a colorful, light spring coat – black with red piping for Dem’ and blue with yellow piping for Marsilamat - with a high collar, tied just above the breast with silver-colored cord. Under the coat they each wore a red scarf tucked into their shirt, along with gabardine pants tucked into high leather boots that came to the mid-shin. Each item was handcrafted, but clearly deemed “workwear” - worn from heavy use and reserved for occasions where soiling the fabric would not be a great inconvenience.

Dem’ made another turn down a narrow path and brought the truck to a stop at a large rock sitting in the middle of the road. He took the cigar out of his mouth and mumbled something under his breath before turning to his son.

“On foot from here, Marse.”

Marsilamat swung the passenger door open and stepped out. Immediately, he was attacked by black flies. He cursed and walked to the bed of the truck. Demmeranith was already there, reaching for a few bags stuffed in a heavy chest attached to the chassis. Then, he grabbed two simple fishing rods. He also pulled out a couple of loose hats made from corduroy, almost like a hood with a small visor attached, and threw one at Marse.

“This way!”

The pair continued down the path, past the rock that blocked the truck’s way. After about twenty paces, Dem’ turned to the left, propped his fishing rods against a tree, and bent down over a fern. “Zami-heads”, named after the curling neck of a traditional Hlenderian guitar, were always prized this time of year, though Marse was quite sick of them. A zami-head was the juvenile form of a new fern frond, still curled tightly and not yet unwound. Picked fresh and boiled several times to reduce their natural bitterness, they were a tasty side with a bit of butter and lemon - when lemon was available. Marse walked over to another fern nearby and began picking them too, throwing them into a mesh bag he had.

“Not that bag, Marse” Dem’ said. “That’s for when we get to my chanterelle spot, so the spores fall back on the ground. Use the old potato sack.”

Marse sighed and dumped the zami-heads into the potato sack as requested.

After a few minutes, after they picked all the ferns in the area, the pair stood back up and continued walking. Eventually, the dappled sunlight burned away the morning fog and Marse could see that the road continued to the bank of a small, unnamed pond. Suddenly, though, his father took another left turn, again put his fishing rods down, and walked straight into the woods.

“This way!”

Marsilamat pushed branches out of his way as he followed his father. After a few minutes, a small clearing appeared, dotted with yellow mushrooms.

“My chanterelle spot. Your mother loves these,” Dem’ said gruffly. His cigar had gone out, and now he was just chewing on the nub. “Don’t tell your Uncle Fenn about these, he’ll take them all. You have to leave some behind so they’ll sprout again. That’s what my pa always said. Use your mesh bag now.”

Marsilamat, out of breath from the brief period of bushwhacking, grunted affirmation. After a while, they had picked the clearing clean – except for a few, as Dem’ instructed.

“Come on, son,” he said, “let’s go fishing.”

After another short minutes of bushwhacking back to the road, and a few minutes more of walking to the bank of the pond, the two were sat on two separate rocks. The flies were eating Marsilamat alive, but seemed to leave his father alone.

“Why do the flies not bother you, pa?”

Dem’ huddled over a match and relit his cigar. “They don’t like my blood,” he said, in the deadpan manner that fathers do. Then, he smirked – his first of the day – and reached into a bag at his waist. He threw a small glass bottle at Marse.


“You never put enough on, that’s why they bite you.”

Despite being called a lotion, it was more of a thick gel. Marsilamat unscrewed the top.

“Ugh, I hate the smell of this”, he said.

“So do the flies,” Dem’ said. “Put it on, go on.”

Marse dabbed some on his hat and neck, and then rubbed more on his hands.

“Don’t use too much now, your skin will break out.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Marse said. He rescrewed the bottle and threw it back to his father.

The two of them sat, waiting for bites. Clouds of tobacco – spicy, with a bit of vanilla and licorice, wafted over towards Marse. It reminded him of his after-school job at the town hall, running errands for the various functionaries. The mayor of town, a Traditionalist Kwarim man, smoked similar cigars. In the summer, he would sit on the town hall’s screened-in patio and smoke all day, looking through papers. In the late afternoon, when Marsilamat would arrive after getting out of school, he would have a stack of sealed envelopes. Mayor Drōth would hand them to Marse, taking care to point out the names and addresses on each.

This one goes to the Surin family… oh, and this one should be delivered directly to Morris Hlerrith, not his wife Ramissi. Make sure this one goes to Níra Dresi. She’ll tip you for your time.

In the early evening, after returning from his errands, Mayor Drōth would hand Marsilamat a 50-dina bill with the King’s face on it and send him home for supper.

Demmeranith spoke up, as if he read his son’s mind.

“How’s the job been, Marse?”

“Good, pa.” Marse replied. When a teenager is actually enthused about something, it is impossible to hide it. A pity, then, that his son’s job bothered Dem’ so much:

“Hmph. Be careful around those types at the town hall, son.”

Marse rolled his eyes. “Why? I make more than anyone else at school.”

“Don’t roll your eyes at me, boy.” Dem’ took a sip from his water canteen, plain metal with a colorful cover knit by his wife. “Honest men don’t get into that line of work.”

Marse flushed. “Mayor Drōth forgave the Surins’s debt to him!”

Dem’ sighed and shook his head.

“And Honest Avi Drōth told everyone he knew, didn’t he? And why does the mayor own his…” Dem paused, looking for the word. “his constituent’s debt anyway? Wonder what poor Briar Surin had to do to get Avi to forget that money.”

“Pa, if the mayor has the money to give, why shouldn’t he? Mr. Surin’s truck had that head gasket problem.”

“Avi’s brother is the only mechanic in town!”

“Pa, you sound like Uncle Fenn,” Marse said, referring to his mother’s infamously-paranoid brother.

Dem’ coughed, opened his mouth to say something, then clearly thought better of it.

“Just be careful around the town hall, Marse. Your ma agrees with me.”

“Ma likes that I can help pay for groceries.”

Demmeranith grumbled and cast his line again.

November 25, 1990

Demmeranith and Marsilamat packed up their gear after lunch – sliced, roasted chicken with native cheese – and headed back to the truck. Dem’ caught three fish, two trout and one bass, and Marse caught one: a medium-sized trout. All together, their foraging trip would cover two meals for the week. Trout with fresh zami-heads was always a delicious supper, though the vegetables had a tendency to turn to mush by midsummer after being kept in the icebox for months.

Nevertheless, this was a lucky day indeed, and one that Dem’ was quite pleased with. His son, though, couldn’t help but resent having to give up his Sunday mornings to these excursions each spring. It was nearing the end of the semester at school, and that, combined with his duties to the mayor at his job, meant that Marse had little free time anymore, and what leisure hours he had he certainly did not want to spent picking mushrooms and fishing with his father.

His thoughts turned to a girl in his grade, Ervamea Kwaran. Her father, the local representative to the Great Council, certainly never dragged her along on foraging expeditions. He probably returned from the capital with Kuduki cheeses, Tangrian cocoa, Aldaari figs…

Marse and his father arrived at the truck after a short walk. They threw their bags in the bed and climbed inside. As Dem’ threw the vehicle into reverse, Marse turned on the radio and tuned it. It seemed every channel was static.

“Started doing that the other day.” Dem’ said. He shrugged. “Gotta look into it.”

Marse sighed. “This thing is a piece of junk,” he mumbled. Dem’ shook his head.

“Watch it, boy.”

They rode back into town. When they began to approach the chapel, Marse heard the pounding of kettle drums. He rolled down his window and looked. Dem’ slowed the truck. In front of the building, he saw dozens of mourners dressed in white. A few women who looked like professional mourners wailed in the classic Hlenderian manner: heads tilted up towards the sky, armed wrapped around themselves, rocking side to side.

“Didn’t know there was a funeral today.” Dem’ said.

“I wonder who died?” Marse replied.

With that, they took back off for home. When Dem’ pulled into the driveway, Marse hopped out and grabbed his bicycle, leaned against the house. “It’s almost 2:00, pa. Gotta go to work.” Dem’ shook his head, for perhaps the sixth time today, and grabbed his forage bags.

“Supper is at 6:30.”

“Got it, pa.”

Dem rode the two miles into town. There were not many people on the streets, and he noticed that the library had closed. This, combined with the sudden appearance of mourners at the chapel, confused him. Perhaps the librarian, a woman of at least eighty, had died. The adults had seemed to like her, though she once kicked Marse and his friends out when they were thirteen. They had discovered some kind of foreign magazine, with articles printed in Staynish interspersed with pictures of women without their shirts on.

Marse pulled up to the town hall and brought his bike up the front steps. Mayor Avi Drōth was not sitting on the patio, like he usually would. Marse leaned his bike against the building and walked inside. It seemed empty, except for his cousin, Madara, at the front desk. She worked the desk most afternoons, and did errands for the town treasurer occasionally.

“The King is dead.” Madara said. Marse’s eyes got wide.


“Yes. He had pneumonia.”


“Mayor Drōth wants to see you. Town council is in emergency session.”


“School is canceled tomorrow.”

“Wow. A three day weekend.”

“Grow up, Marse.”

Marsilamat wandered past Madara into the main meeting room of the town council. It was empty, but he noticed that, behind the mayor’s chair, the door into their private chambers was cracked open. Marse approached it and gently pushed it open.

Inside the private chambers, the entire town council was gathered around a long table, along with the school principal, the librarian (who, despite Marse’s initial thoughts, was still alive), and the owner and manager of both the local paper mill and the local lumber mill. The entire room was in heated discussion – about what, Marse couldn’t exactly tell. He stood awkwardly in the doorway until Mayor Drōth, sitting at the head of the table, noticed him and waved him over.

Marse stood by Drōth and leaned into his whisper.

“The King is dead.” Avi said.

“I know, Madara told me.”

“It was sudden. Our party does not have a candidate picked yet.”

“Oh.” Marse said. He understood that this was not ideal, but didn’t exactly understand how not-ideal it was.

These first hours, when the various parties represented on the Grand Council of the country present their candidates for succession, were crucial to the election of the next King. Traditionalist Kwarim, which ran Isherrith and many other towns in Hlenderia, needed to quickly agree on who to present to the Grand Council, or they could be out-maneuvered by the Kwari Peoples Party, or, heaven forbid, the western Vrotri parties. It was likely that the now-deceased King, who was himself a Vrotri, had his health problems disclosed ahead of time to these parties, who likely already had a succession candidate picked out.

“Marse, you have to go get Councillor Kwaran and bring him here as soon as possible. He will know the situation in the legislature better than any of us.”

“I can go to his house right now.”

“No, we called his house. He is not at home. Here,” Mayor Drōth said, writing something on a scrap of paper and handing it to Marse. “Go to this address. He is probably here.”

Marse grabbed the paper and hurriedly left the town hall, dragged his bike down the front steps, and pedaled away. The address was nearby, on the corner of two busy streets at the edge of the town center. By now, people were outside tying white ribbons of mourning to lampposts and flagpoles. It took Marse only ten minutes or so to arrive at the address Mayor Drōth had given him, but it didn’t appear to be the right place. It did not look like an office that a wealthy national legislator might keep in his district. Instead, it was a prefabricated trailer, the kind you might see at a construction site, parked on a sandy lot. Two trucks were parked in front – one, an older domestic model, and the other a newer, clearly luxury foreign import. Marsilamat pulled into the lot and got off his bike, forgetting to put the kickstand down. It fell over, and a small cloud of dust rose from it.

Not knowing for sure what to do, Marsilamat walked up the wooden steps to the trailer. Through the thin plastic door, he could hear a quiet conversation with three voices. It sounded like they were discussing some kind of excavation work. Marse knocked quietly on the door and the conversation abruptly stopped. He stood back and soon the door opened. A wrinkled man, smoking a cigarette and dressed in workwear, stood in the doorway.

“What do you want, kid?”

“Sir, I am looking for Councillor Kwaran’s office.”

The man looked back into the trailer. Through the doorway, Marse could see a plastic folding table set up with three chairs arranged around it. One man was dressed similarly to the one at the door, and wore a hard hat. His view of the third man was blocked by the worker in the doorway.

“His office is at the top of this street, on the corner of Spruce and Chapel.”

“Mayor Drōth needs Councillor Kwaran very urgently, sir. The King is dead.”

“What did you just say?” came a voice from inside the trailer. It appeared to be the third man, who Marse couldn’t see. “I’ll talk to the boy, Morris.”

Morris got out of the doorway, and the third man, dressed in fine Kwari garb, walked to the door.

“I am Councillor Meril Kwaran. What is this you said? The King is dead?”

“Yes, Councillor.” Marse said. “Avi Drōth needs to see you at the town hall.”

Meril turned to face the two men in the trailer. “Go back to the site. I will be down when I can.”

Marse walked down the steps and let the two workers exit. As Meril left and locked the door, Marse picked up his bike and prepared to get back on.

“I can give you a ride.” Meril said. He clicked a button on his key fob and the door to his truck unlocked. “Just throw your bike in the back.”

Marsilamat lowered the tailgate and slid his bike carefully into the truck, taking care not to scratch the bed. Meril walked down the trailer steps and got in the drivers seat. As Marse closed the tailgate, the truck’s powerful engine roared to life. Marsilamat climbed into the passenger’s seat, immediately noticing the fine leather seats.

“What’s your name?” Meril said.

“My name is Marsilamat Indari, sir. I am Demmeranith’s son.”

“I know Demmeranith”, Meril said, putting the truck into reverse and backing out of the lot. “He is one of the union men down at the paper mill.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The men at the paper mill are good. Hardworking. The union at the lumber mill is a Workers Party front. They are all communists.”

Marse nodded. He got the impression that Meril also suspected the paper mill workers were communists, but that he didn’t want to insult Marse’s father. Meril turned right and headed towards the town hall.

“Marsilamat. I think I have heard my daughter Ervamea mention you.”

“Ervamea mentioned me?” Marse said, trying to contain his excitement.

“I believe so, yes. She said you do well in social studies.”

Wow! Marsilamat thought. He does do well in social studies.

“You are Mayor Drōth’s boy? Avi speaks highly of you. He says you are a hard worker.”

“I am glad to hear that, sir.” Marse said.

“My boy quit recently. I may be in need of some help on Tuesday afternoons, if you are interested in some extra work.”

Marse thought for a moment. He normally studied on Tuesday afternoons, but the semester was ending soon and he could get a study hall during the day his senior year beginning in the fall. And, he thought, Councillor Kwaran may pay even better than Mayor Drōth, judging by the luxury of his truck alone.

“I would be interested in that, sir.”

“Good to hear. Come to my office – my actual office, on the corner of Spruce and Chapel, on Tuesdays after school. The place you found me was a little space for a project I am working on.”

“Yes, sir. May I ask what?”

“Just some work for the party,” Meril said. “Are you a member of the Traditionalist Kwarim?”

“Not yet, sir. I am only seventeen. I cannot vote yet.”

“Hm,” Meril said. “I joined when I was fifteen. I will talk to Avi about you.”

The truck pulled into the parking lot behind the town hall. Meril parked it and turned to Marse.

“Marsilamat, thank you for retrieving me. The King is with his ancestors now. It falls on Kwarim across the nation to ensure that one of our own sits on the Auspicious Throne. We all have a part to play the governance of our nation. For myself, I will work with Avi and the town council to determine who the people of our town want to see as King. Then, I will go to the Grand Council in the capital and represent Isherrith’s wishes. You should remain loyal to the Traditionalist Kwarim, your employers, and your elders. Go home now and be with your family on this day of national mourning.”

“Yes, sir.” Marse said, opening the truck door. He felt like Councillor Kwaran had just delivered a stump speech, but also got the impression that Meril completely believed the things he was saying. Meril opened his side and strode in the town hall. Marsilamat dragged his bike out of the bed of the truck, got on it, and pedaled home.

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November 25, 1990

Hlavesa Indari waved her husband and son off as they went on their weekly spring forage. The morning sun, shining directly on the front steps of the house, hurt her eyes, so she raised her left hand to cover her face. Demmeranith and Marsilamat climbed into the truck and it roared to life. Turning around, Hlavesa bumped into seven-year-old Marila, Marse’s sister.

“Come on, let’s go inside.”

The two stepped inside the house, Hlavesa shutting the door behind her. There were dishes in the sink from the night before, and Hlavesa invited Marila to stand on a short stepstool and dry as she washed. Hlavesa had a shift at the general store in town in the afternoon, so she wanted to make sure the kitchen was ready for Dem’ to cook supper.

Like the male half of the family, Hlavesa and Marila dressed in traditional Kwari garb. For women and girls, this meant a tunic that reached the mid-thigh, with a matching skirt over a pair of leggings. In the past, these leggings were made of a looser linen or wool, but with the modern era they became mostly nylon. Color and pattern were the defining markers of Kwari dress, with Hlavesa’s tunic and skirt a cornflower blue with yellow piping along the collar, the bottom of her skirt, and at the ends of her sleeves. Marila wore a matching blue, but with forest green accents.

Inside the piping, thin lines of white fabric were woven into patterns. Among the Kwarim, these patterns were passed down the maternal line and indicated family heritage. For Hlavesa and her family, these patterns were repeating geometric shapes – squares, triangles, trapezoids – linked by a white line like a chain. When her family needed new clothes, they would be bought plain, without these patterns, which Hlavesa would have painstakingly add on a weekend day.

When they finished the dishes, Hlavesa turned off the water and helped Marila off her stepstool.

“Can I go ow-side?” Marila asked.

Hlavesa looked out the window above the sink. It was clear, but there was no wind. She thought about the black flies, which would be out in force shortly.

“Yes, but put on bug spray.”

Marila ran off towards the back door. Hlavesa followed, and helped her put on her spring coat, which looked much like the ones that Marse and Dem’ wore foraging, then bug spray. Hlavesa held the door open, and Marila ran out towards the tire swing in the back. Looking at the time, Hlavesa realized she had not yet said her morning prayers, and resolved to do so.

A small room was built along the rear, western side of the house. Unlike the other rooms, it had no door on it, but at the threshold Hlavesa removed her slippers and stepped inside. Opposite the door, along the wall, was a small altar covered with a cloth woven in the same pattern that appeared on her clothing. This cloth, a family heirloom, was of fine construction and was probably the most expensive thing the Indaris owned.

On top of the altar were candles and pictures of deceased relatives. There were also a few portraits, done in a simple folk-art style, of relatives that died before the advent of photography. In the center of the altar was a wooden reliquary, and inside that were perhaps a dozen bone fragments and three fingerbones. In the Hlenderian religion, when a relative was cremated, those pieces that survived the fire were handed out to close family members at the funeral and became treasured altar-pieces.

Upon entering, Hlavesa first kneeled, and then prostrated herself before the altar three times. Then, she shuffled on her knees to the altar. A hand bell sat on the floor, and she picked it up and rang it as a meditation aid. Taking a few deep breaths, she then began her morning prayers. Repeated quickly, like a mantra, in an archaic form of the Kwari dialect of the Hlenderian language, each prayer was to either an ancestor or a saint. Some saints were national heroes, others of importance only to the Kwari,a nd still others were local community members. Regardless, there were at least 50 to get through. After the ancestor and the saintly prayers came 12 prayers to Chem, the Hlenderian creator god that lived with the spirits of the ancestors on the Oramin Mountains far to the west – mountains towards which the suppliant faced when praying at this altar.

Hlavesa – named after Saint Hlavesa of Selerith – was of great religious conviction, and so prayed daily, taking between 30 minutes and an hour to do so. Her son Marsilamat (“[Saint-]Marsil-Helps”) was less observant, mainly only participating when she would drag him to chapel services. Demmeranith (“City-of-Great-Faith”) would pray with his wife on occasion, but only when it was no great inconvenience to him. Marila, also a saintly namesake, was not yet of the age where ancestor prayer was obligatory, but seemed to enjoy chapel every week. It seems, Hlavesa thought, that it is incumbent upon us women to honor the ancestors.

When she was finished, Hlavesa stood up and walked backwards out of the room, taking care not to turn her back on the altar until she turned a corner in the hallway and it was out of sight. Then, she returned to the kitchen and decided to begin cleaning the counters. Marila was still outside, playing on the tire swing, but the neighbor child had also come over to play. Hlavesa turned on the radio and horrible foreign-sounding music came out, undoubtedly Marsilamat’s doing. She tuned it, instead, to a channel playing Kwari folk.

Hlavesa had been scrubbing the counters for about 25 minutes when the song - “Deril’s Dilemma” - suddenly faded out and was replaced with an orchestra playing the Hlenderian national anthem. Understanding this to be unusual, Hlavesa put her scrub brush down and stood up, wiping her hands on her apron. Shortly thereafter, a voice came on.

“This is the Hlenderian News Network with an important bulletin. It is with great sorrow and fierce grief that we announce that His Majesty, King Randrin, died this morning following a brief fight with pneumonia. The Grand Council has been ordered to convene and prepare candidates for the Royal Election. Tomorrow, Monday November 26, has been declared a day of mourning.”

Hlavesa gasped and ran to the back door. She threw it open.

“Marila, inside, now!” Hlavesa yelled. She looked at the neighbor child and realized she forgot his name. “You, go home to your parents!”

When Dem’ and Marse returned home that afternoon, Hlavesa was sitting at the table and had tied a white ribbon of mourning around her right arm. Marila was sitting in the living room, watching television – though coverage of the King’s death was the only thing on any channel. Demmeranith walked in as Marse was on his bicycle, heading to his job at the town hall.

“What’s going on?” Dem’ asked, closing the door behind him. Noticing the white ribbon on his wife’s arm, he continued: “who died?”

“The King died.”

“Pah.” Dem’ scoffed, slightly involuntarily.

“Where is your son?”

“Going to his job. Sure all those grifters at the town hall are scrambling now.”

Hlavesa sighed – loudly. “I am going to the chapel to pray for His Majesty. Watch Marila. Did you find chanterelles?”

“Yup,” Dem’ said, dropping his foraging bags to the floor and walking to the icebox. He rummaged around and found a beer.

“That’s good. I will save them for Marila’s birthday on Wednesday. Beer, today?”


Hlavesa sighed again, adjusted her coat, and left. Demmeranith walked into the living room and sat on the couch. “Where’s your cartoons?” he asked Marila.

“I can’t find any!”


Marsilamat left his bedroom on the morning of November 26 to find his family sitting around the kitchen table eating breakfast. The radio was on, as it had been non-stop since the King’s death the day before. His mother was drinking tea, and his father was smoking a cigar. Marila was picking at the eggs on her plate.

“Morning.” Marse yawned.

“Good morning, Marsilamat.” Hlavesa replied. She took another sip of tea. “How was work yesterday afternoon?”

“Good. Busy!” Upon hearing this reply, Dem’ scoffed loudly and took another drag off his cigar. Marse pursed his lips and got a plate out of the cabinet, getting a couple of eggs out of the steaming pan on the stove and scooping some berries out of a bowl on the counter. He grabbed some rakwuti – a popular Hlenderian sauce that tasted of paprika – out of the icebox and squirted it all over his eggs.

“Yuck!” Marila giggled.

“Hey, you should try it!” Marse laughed in reply.

Hlavesa gave them both a scolding look, as if to communicate that levity is not appropriate on this day. Marse sat down and began eating.

“Marsilamat.” Hlavesa began. “Busy is good at the town hall. As Kwarim, we have always been central to our nation’s politics. Our people – your ancestors -” here, Hlavesa pointed at Marse with her mug, “forge compromise between the Vrotrim and the Mūnim. This could be your calling.”

Marsilamat, always a mother’s boy, blushed. Demmeranith sighed and picked up the newspaper, continuing to chomp on his cigar.

“I met Councillor Kwaran yesterday. Mayor Drōth had me get him and bring him to the town hall so they could decide on who they want to be a candidate in the election.”

“That’s very important! Mayor Drōth must trust you!”

Demmeranith loudly shuffled his newspaper.

“Councillor Kwaran is very nice. He drove me back to town hall in his truck! I think it was imported! I’m going to work for him on Tuesdays.”

At this, Dem’ could take no more. “Meril Kwaran is a crook. I’ve heard what goes on at his mine across the river.”

“Mine?” Marse asked. “I don’t understand.”

“No, Marse, you don’t!”

“Demmeranith, please!” Hlavesa scolded. Marila continued to pick at her eggs. Dem’ tossed the newspaper back on the table and stood up.

“Boy, I told you not to get involved with these types. Meril Kwaran, Avi Drōth, the King – they are foxes. They would sell their own mothers.”

“Demmeranith!” Hlavesa yelled. Dem’ was already walking to the door and putting his coat on.

“I have to work on the truck.”

With that, Dem’ slammed the door behind him. Marila kept picking at her eggs, and Marse put his fork down. Hlavesa sighed and shook her head, tears standing in her eyes.

“Your father was not like this before the union came to the mill,” Hlavesa said. “To say that about the King, saints preserve us…

“Suddenly, the way things are isn’t good enough. He grumbles at chapel every week. He says that our ‘way of doing things’ is corrupt. I don’t know what he’s talking about. And he’s always on about Kwaran’s mine…”

“What mine?” Marse said.

“Councillor Kwaran owns a mine across the river. Your father stumbled on it while hunting one day last fall. He says it’s unlicensed, Kwaran is getting rich off of it, and that none of it goes back to the community. I mean, a man can do what he wants with his property. But to your father, it’s like the end of the world. He brings it up every week, at least.”

“Ma? Can I go ow-side?” Marila asked.

“Sure, sure,” Hlavesa replied, sipping her tea – now getting cold. Marila got up and put her boots and coat on.

“A mine, huh.” Marse said.

“Listen, Marsilamat. I am proud of you for getting involved in politics. Everyone can make a difference, especially now with His Majesty’s death. And you’re doing it the right way.”

“Thanks, Ma.” Marsilamat said, not really listening anymore. He thought about Councillor Kwaran’s brand new truck, and his fine clothing, and his daughter Ervamea in social studies class eating oranges. Then, that morning over a plate of eggs and berries, it clicked for Marsilamat Indari – he wanted to be rich.

June 21, 1995

On this, the shortest day of the year, Marsilamat woke at 7:30. The sun would not rise for another hour. Rubbing his eyes, he rolled out of bed and walked to the window, groggily sliding the curtain to one side. From his second-floor apartment on Isherrith’s main street, he could see the sidewalks, dimly lit with incandescent-bulb streetlamps, fill with mill workers on their way to clock in. Perhaps his father, who had not spoken a word to Marse in two years, was among them. Scratching his face, Marsilamat pulled the curtain shut and walked across the hall to the bathroom.

As he showered, Marse thought of everything he had to do today. First, he had to visit the town hall and collect quarterly dues to the party from Mayor Drōth and the rest of the town council. Marsilamat, as he scrubbed his chest, reminded himself of how the Traditionalist Kwarim’s political machine worked in his town. At times, it remained confusing even for him. Avi Drōth, Isherrith’s mayor, was the local “boss”. He would collect dues from the party members in town, and in return they would receive the full backing of the TK in their local elections. Town treasurer, public works manager, and school board were controlled by the party in this manner.

Then there were those party members who, whether by their choice or the choice of the machinery, could not run for office. These members were handed civil service positions – even the town librarian’s position was controlled by the party – or they were given contracts for construction, snow removal, or other local needs. Above the mayor was Councillor Meril Kwaran, the town’s representative to the national legislature. Marse was Kwaran’s chief-of-staff and protege. Kwaran represented the TK-controlled town on the national level, and ensured that the national machine directed an appropriate amount of funds to the town. He was paid through local dues, his salary as a Councillor, and various business investments he was involved in.

Marse scrubbed his face and kept reviewing his day. After meeting the mayor, he had to go to Kwaran’s office down the street and meet with Morris Nerrith, the local Chief of the Kwari Sportsmen’s Association – the euphemistic name for the Traditionalist Kwarim’s paramilitary wing. Managers at the paper mill had heard rumors of a strike to coincide with local elections in September, and it was essential that the KSA be on-hand in case the Workers Party showed up in force.

The thought of the Workers Party momentarily pained Marsilamat, whose final breach with his father was caused by the latter joining the Workers Party along with many other members of his Lumber Cutters Union in 1993. The unions spread across Hlenderia, and the manufacturing-heavy Kwari territory particularly, remained the one institution that the traditional political machines couldn’t co-opt. Instead, the Kwari Sportsmen’s Association grew commensurate with the labor union’s own numbers, mainly to serve as strike-breakers on behalf of the TK-aligned managerial class.

After that, Marse would drive to Kwaran’s mine across the river and work on whatever needed to be done. Satisfied that his mental schedule was complete, Marsilamat turned the shower water off and dried himself. The sun’s first rays were beginning to stream through his bathroom window, particles of light suspending in the steam. Wrapping his towel around himself, he walked back into his bedroom to get dressed.

He opened his wardrobe: no longer did he have to wear patched, repaired clothes as he did when he lived with his parents. He remained grateful that now, the blues of his shirts were vibrant and did not fade from washing. The high collars were starched by the local laundry service and did not become floppy by the end of the day, and the elaborate embroidery on the piping at the end of his sleeves did not become torn from work.

After tea, Marsilamat put on his coat, lined with beaver fur, and got in his car; a modest, but functional domestic model. He set off towards the town hall. Now, the sun was creeping above the horizon and the streetlights were turning off. Upon arrival, he strode by the receptionist. He did not know her name; every year, it seemed, the receptionist was a new girl who just graduated high school. Marsilamat, arriving at the mayor’s office, knocked twice and opened the door.

Avi Drōth sat behind his desk, reading the newspaper. When the door opened, he flopped it down. Small reading glasses sat perched upon his chin.

“Mr. Indari!” Avi exclaimed, reaching into a drawer next to him. He pulled out a small envelope and put it on the desk. Marse sat in a chair across from the mayor and grabbed the envelope. Inside was a mixture of cash and checks. “Tell Kwaran that Dunel is concerned about this strike in September.”

“We’re keeping our eyes on it,” Marse assured. “Is Dunel at the lumber mill or the paper mill?”

“Paper. The day manager.”

Marse counted the cash in the envelope. “I have a meeting with the Sportsmen after this.”

“Our man in the Workers Party says they want it to be a big one. You may have to bring in some of Ferrith’s guys.” Avi said, referring to the TK boss from the next town over.

“We’ll see. Tell Dunel we’ll do everything we can. It’s what he pays us for.” Marse put the cash back in the envelope and tucked it into his coat.

Avi put a cigar in his mouth, the first of the day, and lit it. “He’s complaining about that too.”

“His dues? Sounds like him.” Marse scoffed, standing back up and making his way to the door. “See you, Avi. Don’t work too hard!”

When Marsilamat parked in front of Councillor Kwaran’s office, he saw that Kwaran’s car was already there. Marse double-checked that the envelope was still in his coat pocket before opening his car door and walking inside.

Councillor Meril Kwaran’s office was located in one of the nicer buildings in town, on the lower floor of a large house. Kwaran lived on the upper floor with his family when the Grand Council was not in session, and the ground floor served as a waiting room, law library, and office. When Marse walked in, the receptionist – a young man of seventeen - greeted him.

“Hello, Mr. Indari. You can just walk right in, Councillor Kwaran is with his daughter.”

Ervamea, Marse thought. He had not seen her since they graduated from high school four years ago. She went to college in Pelachis, the capital – one of the few in his class to go to college, and probably the only one to get accepted to the Royal College.

Marsilamat opened the door to Councillor Kwaran’s office. Sure enough, Kwaran sat at his desk, with Ervamea in one of the chairs across from her father.

“Marsilamat!” Kwaran said, standing up. “You know my daughter, Ervamea.”

Ervamea stood as well and faced Marsilamat. Marse was quite taken with her – he found her pretty when they were in school together, but she had become a beautiful young woman, with dark, curly hair framing her round face. She wore fine clothes, clearly bought at a boutique in the capital, and wore a perfume that smelled like oranges. It immediately reminded Marse of how she would eat oranges, imported from central Gondwana, in social studies class. Finally, it appeared Ervamea had all of her teeth and fingers: in this manner, she was unlike many of the girls in this mill town.

“Of course,” Marse said after a moment. “It’s good to see you, Ervamea.” He moved to greet her in the Kwari manner: they quickly hugged and rubbed each cheek together.

“You too, Marsilamat!” Ervamea said. She was not as taken with Marse as he was with her, but she found him handsome, with a good smile and broad palms, and she admired the beaver-fur lined coat he wore. His aftershave smelled like licorice. He seemed to have a slightly more rugged look than the men in Pelachis, but in a good way. Furthermore, Marse also had all his fingers.

“Marse, Ervamea just graduated from the Royal College. She will be working with us on business here in Isherrith. Helping with my campaign.” Councillor Kwaran said.

“That’s wonderful,” Marsilamat said, nodding his head. “What is your degree in, Ervamea?”

“Political Administration. My thesis supervisor was Edwin Alderman, the Joralesian visiting scholar.”

“Ah,” Kwaran said, interrupting. “From what I’ve heard, Alderman, despite our differences on the issue of the Northwest Provinces, is learned.”

Ervamea furrowed her brow, and prepared to argue with her father – that the Hlenderian government renounced all claims on Joralesia years ago – but Kwaran continued.

“Marsilamat is my chief-of-staff, Ervamea. The three of us will be working closely together. And,” Kwaran looked at his watch. “Our first opportunity will be here shortly. The Workers Party and their mill unions plan to strike in September. Morris Nerrith will be meeting with us at 10:00 to come up with a plan of action for him and his Sportsmen. It is imperative that the mills begin running as soon as possible, with as little disruption to the owners as possible. Ideally, the strike should not happen at all, but failing that the Sportsmen will help us get everyone back to work.”

The three agreed to get to work as they waited for Morris to arrive and sat back down, making conversation.

June 21, 1995

After their meeting with Morris Nerrith about deploying his men at the site of the expected strike, Councillor Kwaran, Marse, and Ervamea stood with him outside Kwaran’s office. Judging by the lengthening shadows, it was nearing lunchtime, and the three of them planned to head over to Kwaran’s mine across the river after this.

“Councillor,” Morris said in a gravelly voice, “the Sportsmen’ll be happy to help out at the strike, if the mill owners will pay what you’re promising.” A cigarette hung from his mouth. He had tanned skin from a lifetime spent working outside, and a perpetual five-o-clock shadow. His forest-green coat had canvas patches on each elbow and some kind of fur was visible around the collar. “Actually,” he continued, taking a drag from his cigarette, “With the way this winter’s been, by the spring I bet we’d love to crack some skulls.”

Marse winced. “Crack some skulls”? This was 1995, not 1925. The Traditionalist Kwarim had to seem like good stewards of Isherrith, for their own sake as much as the people’s. The image of the Sportsmen beating strikers with the wooden stocks of their rifles would be embarrassing, and would only strengthen the nascent Workers Party in this poor town. No, the Sportsmen must maintain order. It required a softer touch. Marse prepared to stress this with Morris, but Ervamea was ahead of him.

“Careful now, Morris!” she smiled. Marse would have gone right into a lecture, but Ervamea used her lilting laugh, and a hand on his forearm, to gently correct the old man. “Keep a soft touch . It’ll help our bargaining position.”

“Ah, I’s only joking, hon’.” Morris said, smiling. He tossed his cigarette and cleared his throat, looking back at Councillor Kwaran. “I gotta get back to it. Afternoon, Councillor.”

With that, he got back into his truck and drove off. Marsilamat was impressed by the whole interaction. Normally, Morris was a stubborn bastard, not giving an inch to anyone and jumping to offense. Ervamea seemed effortlessly charming – like she knew exactly how to disarm people.

Meanwhile, Kwaran buttoned his coat - made entirely of fine beaver fur - against the midday breeze. “Let’s eat lunch at the mine. My boy is picking up sandwiches from the deli. Marse, do you mind driving Erva?” he asked.

“Not at all!” Marse smiled. He held his hand out to direct her to his car.

The mine was across the river, about a thirty-minute drive away. When the pair were settled in Marsilamat’s car, he asked Ervamea if she had been to the mine before.

“Not since before I went to college,” she said, adjusting the visor to keep the sun out of her eyes. “I heard that while I was away you all hit a new copper deposit.”

“Yes, we did.” Marse said. “I don’t know the details of how it all works, but I guess it’s mixed in with the silver. The deeper we went, the less silver and the more copper. Now we hardly produce any silver, but Councillor Kwaran doesn’t seem to mind. There’s a lot of money in copper.”

“There is. In the past two years four new electronics factories opened in Norrith.”

“Really?” Marse said. Even with all his work with Kwaran, he had never been more than 100 miles from Isherrith. He hadn’t even been to the capital yet.

“Mm. And the King ordered more power lines built in the south.”

Marsilamat turned the car onto the steel bridge spanning the Isher River, the town’s namesake. To the right of the bridge, upstream, rapids kept the river unfrozen except for on the coldest days of winter. To the left, downstream, the river gradually became covered with ice. Marse glanced over and saw Ervamea looking out the window at the rapids.

When the car came to the other end of the bridge, a large wooden sign by the side of the road said:

Plot 5 South of the Isher River (P5SIR)
Territory of the Isher River Mūni Bands

“Mūni land.” Ervamea said. In this region, where the Kwari and Mūni people of Hlenderia lived in close proximity, an uneasy peace prevailed. Many Mūni worked at Kwaran’s mine, but just as many opposed it. Aside from a few permanent settlements along the coast, most of the country’s Mūni people lived traditionally, only settling for the winter before moving on, following a pastoral or hunter-gatherer nomad lifestyle. For Kwaran and Marse, hiring and keeping miners was difficult, as they always wanted to leave in the spring.

The mine was located another twenty minutes up the road, in Plot 4 South of the Isher River (P4SIR). Early Hlenderian governments had surveyed the entire island in the 1700s, but only true settlements got names. The rest of the country got these peculiar, numbered codes.

“The Mūni workers are fine,” Marse began, “as long as you don’t expect too much of them.”

Ervamea laughed. “The Mūni are old-fashioned, but at least they’re, you know, Hlenderians. They’re like us.”

“What do you mean?” Marse asked. To him, the Mūni were not at all like him. He quickly sped by a couple yurts built in a small clearing by the road. At least he had an actual roof above his head.

“I – no, I shouldn’t say.”

Marsilamat laughed. “You can’t do that! What do you mean?”

Ervamea sighed deeply, and then chuckled. “Well… you can’t tell my father I told you this.”

Now, Marse was really interested. His eyes widened. “My lips are sealed!”

Ervamea glanced sideways at him and smirked. “In college, there was this guy in my sophomore-year World History class. He was from Norrith, you know,”

“From Norrith” was almost shorthand in this country. Norrith, the largest city in Hlenderia, was located on the northern coast near the border with Joralesia, and was the closest thing the nation had to a world port. For its inhabitants, Norrith was a haven of liberal attitudes in a country full of provincial hicks. For everyone else, it was an embarassing cesspool of cosmopolitan influence. Marse and Ervamea definitely fell in the latter of these two camps.

“He was from Norrith. Vrotri guy. His family was wealthy and – well, they all belonged to the Liberal Party.”

Marsilamat nodded. Ervamea continued. “In class he would constantly talk about how traveled and cultured he is, and all the places he went with his family and his girlfriend. He brought her up any chance he got. We could be talking about a Borean war that killed millions and he would brag about the time he and his girlfriend took a cruise there. Really annoying.”

“Okay…?” Marse said, expecting more. Ervamea chuckled again.

“I really shouldn’t say more. I mean, it’s embarrassing.”

“Come on! We’re almost to the mine!”

“Well,” she sighed again. “Over spring break, this girlfriend came to visit him. But no one ever saw her. It’s like he kept her in his dorm room or something. But, at the end of break I went over to pick up a book I let him borrow. His door was unlocked. I opened it and, well they were together, you know.”

Now, Marsilamat started laughing. “That’s funny.”

“They were together and she, well – she was an orc.”

Marsilamat was fully guffawing now. “An orc? That’s disgusting!”

“Imagine having to stare at that face all day. You’d begin to appreciate a Mūni face, even if she was missing teeth.”

Still laughing, the pair arrived at the mine right behind Councillor Kwaran’s car. A gate at the end of a long gravel road slowly opened, and the two cars drove down the path for about a mile. The tall trees – spruce, fir, and pine, allowed dapples of the sun’s light to hit the procession. It was now about 12:30, and the light on this shortest day of the year was quickly shortening. Dusk would arrive in merely two hours, and the sun would set an hour after that.

Suddenly, the forest opened up to a collection of temporary trailers and a vast pit. The leadership and miners called it a “pit”; the Mūni opposed to the whole project called it a “scar”. Equipment – backhoes, excavators, and dump trucks – scurried around, resembling strange, metallic animals. In the cold winter air, gray and black exhaust plumed from atop the vehicles. From this vantage point atop the pit, the equipment at the bottom seemed like large squirrels. Miners dressed in traditional Mūni garb walked along the wide paths leading to the bottom of the pit, moving to and fro.

Kwaran’s “boy” - a young man of 17 – pulled in behind the group in his own, beat-up truck. When he got out, he had a bag of sandwiches in his hand and ran towards one of the trailers. Kwaran, Marse, and Ervamea followed him. It wasn’t long ago, Marse thought, that he was fulfilling the same kinds of errands for his now-mentor.

Inside the trailer, Marse grabbed a trout-salad sandwich. He got a bottle of rakwuti – the native paprika condiment he’d always loved – out of a nearby cabinet and opened the sandwich, squirting it all over the filling.

Ervamea grabbed a sandwich with cheese and the meat of the native fen-grouse and asked for the bottle. Meanwhile, Kwaran walked over to his desk at the opposite corner of the trailer and dug around in the drawer.

“Hlerim,” Kwaran shouted to his sandwich-deliverer, whilst still digging through his desk drawer, “Go see if they need help in the mess hall.”

With that, Hlerim ran back out the door.

“Here it is!” Kwaran said, pulling out a purple envelope from his drawer. “Come here, Marse.”

Marse walked over to the desk.

“Marsilamat, I need you to go on a short business trip for me.” Kwaran opened the envelope and took out an airline ticket – Chieftain Air, the Hlenderian budget carrier. “I had Saren in town buy the ticket, he owed me a favor.”

Marse’s eyes widened. He had never been on an airplane before.

“I’ve never been on an airplane before, sir.” He often would fall back on saying “sir” and “ma’am”, as he did when he was a child, when he was experiencing trepidation.

“Oh, there’s nothing to it. The worst part is getting seated.”

“Hm,” Marse said, scratching his chin anxiously. “Where am I going?”

“Aivintis. I have a potential… buyer there for some of the copper this mine produces. You are aware that we have a surplus right now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Our potential client is in the city of Marnacia. The flight is for June 30. I’m giving you the rest of the week off. You should go to the city and buy a suit - a business suit, the kind foreigners wear. This Kwari getup will make people stare at you.”

Marsilamat looked down at his outfit. It was of a higher quality than he used to wear, but the bright colors and patterned scarf could be distracting to foreigners. Kwaran continued, “I’ll have my boy bring a travel guide and a memo with instructions to your place this week. I have to go talk to the foreman now.”

Kwaran handed the ticket to Marse, grabbed his coat and a sandwich, and went out the door. Marse fell into a chair by the desk. He didn’t get rattled easily, but taking a plane to another country, having never been more than a hundred miles from Isherrith, could do it. Ervamea, at least, noticed Marse’s long face.

“You’ll do fine,” she said between bites, waving her hand dismissively. “It’s not that much different than here!”

“Ah,” Marse groaned.

“We can get a drink when you get back, and you can tell me all about it.” Ervamea said, smirking. That made Marsilamat feel a little better.

July 1, 1995
Cowritten with @Mangegneithe

In 1995, Marnacia was a busy city. It was easy to see how, a hundred years prior, it was one of the capital cities of Aivintis. The docks were stacked high with metal containers, the streets were congested with vans, trucks, and sedans. Planes took off towards and landed from every part of the country, and many parts of the world. People in suits with briefcases walked in crowds down the sidewalks. Construction teams built towers of glass and steel, while brick factories churned out domestic products and old stone buildings housed the rich elites.

One of these elites was David Presecan, the textile king of the south. On top of that, he was also the most successful mobster in Aivintian history, the current Overboss of the Aivintian Mafia. He didn’t create the organization – organized crime had been around for decades before even his own birth. He did, however, centralize and expand it to its nationwide power. Now, with the guidance of his two most trusted underbosses, Virgiliu Roman and Arthur Frost, he was making it an international affair. It had already begun, but there was something more to be done.

In an empty cafe, these three men discussed that very subject. The cafe was owned by a friend of a friend of Arthur’s, who closed it down from time to time for the price of a couple thousand crowns. Four armed thugs stood at the door. More were outside. One on a bench, two seemingly walking by, but actually looping the block, and four in a parked car in front of the bar next door.

“I don’t think this is particularly necessary,” Virgiliu was arguing from a seated position in one of the booths.

“If we don’t secure copper supplies, we can’t continue production,” David replied, standing next to him.

“Yes, I understand that,” Virgiliu said, “but why do we need to rely on a foreign dealer?”

“If we’re going to expand to other countries, we need to do business in other countries,” Arthur stated simply. He was sitting on a chair next to a counter along the main window, just beside the door, watching people walk by as he spun on the chair. He could be immature at times. His partners had learned to ignore that.

“We can do that while keeping production in Aivintis,” Virgiliu countered.

“We are,” Arthur insisted.

“It would be cheaper to do it ourselves.”

“We don’t own any copper mines!”

“I’m sure we can acquire some.”

“Because randomly buying a copper mine wouldn’t be suspicious at all.”

“Let me do it,” Virgiliu offered. “I’m not connected to any public companies right now. It works.”

Mr Frost narrowed his eyes, but the Overboss intervened first. “Enough. He’s already on his way. We’ll meet him. Besides, Arthur’s right,” he said, locking eyes with the man as he spoke his name. Mutual understanding crossed between them. Virgiliu was never to own a significant share of the enterprise. “We can’t go around buying up copper mines and we need to start dealing with foreigners. I’ll meet with whoever Kwaran sent. Virgiliu, with me. Arthur, keep your distance. I want to keep you a secret for as long as I can.”

A flash of annoyance crossed Virgiliu’s face, but he nodded. “Alright.”

Arthur nodded, too, and dropped onto the floor from his seat. “I’ll head to the car.”

When he walked down the street, he passed Marsilamat Indari himself, the Hlenderian completely unaware of who had just walked past.

Indari shifted his shoulders as he walked past Arthur, still not used to the fit of his “foreign-style” business suit. It was single-breasted, made of flannel, and gray with wide lapels in the “Norrithi” style popular in the border cities back home in Hlenderia. He wore a starched white shirt, with the collar open. When he bought the suit a day before his flight, he picked out a red patterned necktie; the tailor carefully trained the provincial Marsilamat on how to tie it, but all this knowledge was forgotten by the time Indari landed in Aivintis. Now, it remained in his hotel room, thrown on the dresser.

The flight to Aivintis – Marse’s first experience on an airplane – was miserable. The ticket Kwaran gave him was for coach, and he was crammed in the window seat next to a large man, probably of Vrotri descent, who slept through the entire flight. For hours, he leaned on Marsilamat’s shoulder and snored before waking up 20 minutes before landing. Takeoff was nausea-inducing, and the turbulence they encountered an hour into the flight nearly killed him.

All that being said, Marse was pleased with Aivintis so far. It was warmer than Hlenderia and the sun was up for a few more hours each day. He had taken Staynish lessons in school and was able to get by speaking the language, though he knew his accent marked him as a foreigner.

This was the other strange thing about this country; being a visitor presented no great hurdle. On the rare occasion back home when a foreigner would pass through Isherrith, their mere presence immediately became town gossip, and they could expect either stares or rude gestures. Here, in this large city, Indari scarcely received a sideways glance.

Indari reached inside his coat and grabbed a notepad tucked in a pocket. This inside pocket was an interesting innovation of the “business suit”, and one that could easily be added to a Kwari jacket, if a tailor or seamstress could be convinced to break with tradition. Marse flipped open the notepad. On one page, he wrote the address he was to meet his contact at, along with highlights from the memo Kwaran had sent him before his flight:

  • Mine is exciting business opportunity

  • Proven supply of copper

  • Permitting will not be a problem

  • Govt will not interfere

Indari flipped the notepad shut and put it back in his pocket. He realized he was quickly approaching the address, and soon was at a door with four burly men standing by it. He silently wondered if he should have been sent on this trip alone.

“Gentlemen,” Indari said. “I am here to see the Overboss.”

Mr Presecan rose, and Virgiliu followed.

“Mr Indari, I presume?” David asked rhetorically. “I am David Presecan,” he introduced, shaking the man’s hand. “You may be aware I’m a public figure in the business world. Before we begin, I’d like to make it clear that any attempt to reveal my connection with the less flowery business ventures we discuss today will not be tolerated. Of course, I am a gentleman thief, and I intend to reciprocate the same respect you offer me. Oh,” he said, “where are my manners? This is Virgiliu Roman, one of my trusted advisors.

It was Virgiliu’s turn to offer a handshake, tightly clasping the Hlenderian’s hand. “Good to meet you, Mr Indari,” the underboss said.

“You as well,” Indari replied. He was surprised that the Overboss was, in fact, here in person. It calmed Marse’s nerves, in a way, reassuring him that this was indeed a serious business deal. He also respected Presecan’s attitude towards discretion, though Marse got the impression that here, “under-the-table” dealings were far less tolerated than at home in Hlenderia. Sensible, then, that such discretion would be required.

“I can assure you that my organization also values good judgment in these matters. Meril Kwaran sends his regrets that he could not attend personally, but there was pressing Council business that he could not extract himself from. Nevertheless, I speak with his authority regarding the Isherrith mine. May we sit?”

“Please do,” David replied, beckoning to an open seat. He and Virgiliu both sat as well, the latter remaining quiet and watchful. David continued, “I understand the demands of political life and I trust he’s chosen a suitable negotiator. Though, of course, I do not enjoy dealing business with a stranger. Tell me about yourself, Mr Indari.”

Marse was taken slightly off-guard by the question, partly because of the setting and partly because in the provincial town in which he lived, he rarely had to introduce himself to anybody. “Of course. I have been a member of my political party, Traditionalist Kwarim, since I was a teenager, and employed by Councillor Kwaran for about as long.” Here, Marsilamat paused for a moment. An unpleasant memory intruded on his mind, of a blow-out argument with his anti-government father over Marse’s membership in the TK. Clearing his throat, he continued:

“In the town in which I live, our party handles all local governance, and it is expected that party leaders maintain diverse income streams, invest in their community, and take proteges to prepare for political advancement. I fill this latter role for Meril Kwaran, and I assist in managing his assets across the region.”

“Fascinating. Virgiliu here is my asset manager.” At that, the underboss grunted. “I think a lot of parallels can be drawn between my enterprises and that of Councillor Kwaran. We’re not so different. I think common ground like that is important in lasting business relationships, don’t you agree?”

“I do. A background of mutual understanding and trust is essential in any business, but especially the work we are involved in.”

“Indeed. So, to business, then,” the Overboss said, clapping his hands together. “Tell me about the Isherrith mine, if you please.” For a criminal, he was the model of a gentleman and businessman, though a gruff, intimidating note underlied his courteous, well-mannered tone. Virgiliu was less overtly polite, unceremoniously staring at Marsilamat as one might keep their eyes glued to a television screen.

Marse kept an eye on Virgiliu. He reminded him of some of the men in the Kwari Sportsmen’s Association, the brutes that Councillor Kwaran kept around to bust up political enemies or union rallies.

“The Isherrith mine opened three years ago, and last fall expanded to full capacity,” Marse said, opening his notebook. He retrieved a small map of the area, folded neatly and tucked between two pages. As he unfolded it, the two men leaned over it intently, and he continued:

“It primarily produces copper, but we are exploring a molybdenum vein as well. The concentration of the copper ore is modestly above average, given that it is not volcanic in origin.”

He laid the unfolded map on the table and pointed at Isherrith, the town’s environs occupying one side of the Isher River.

“But where we can really compete is in the field of regulation. The mine is located here, across the river from Isherrith, in Mūni land. Here, their ‘customary law’ applies, which means the local leaders set regulations. Said leadership has an… understanding with us; we employ a substantial number of Mūnim, and they recognize the mine’s value to their community.

“All of this is to say that we can offer very reasonable prices on the copper the mine produces, as our overhead costs on labor and regulatory affairs are lower.”

Mr Presecan nodded. “Smart. Sounds interesting. Virgiliu, what do you think?”

“Like you said,” the man said slowly. “Interesting.”

Mr Presecan frowned slightly, but quickly hid it. Turning back to Marse, he said, “And I imagine Councilor Kwaran expects something in return?”

Presecan had predicted the last part of Indari’s mission to Aivintis, which Kwaran, unwilling to bring up in front of his daughter, informed Marse of via a memo stamped “burn this”.

Though he knew they had privacy in this empty cafe, Marsilamat still glanced side to side. Businessmen skimming copper; this was the kind of thing that was not unexpected in Hlenderia. But this next part could be embarrassing:

“My benefactor is involved in a business deal with some Vrotrim from the west of our country, importing coca from central Gondwana. We process it and sell it in-country. We would like to scale up the business, and have men on the coast who have fishing grounds off Aivintis. We could direct them to bring some into your country and split the profits, if you could aid them in getting shore permits.”

Mr Presecan gave a slight smile. Greed shone in his eyes. “A fascinating proposal. Very profitable indeed.” He paused, and then continued, “Permits are no problem. I can make a few calls to the right people and have it arranged within the month. Virgiliu can assign a few men to watch over it, ensure a smooth flow of product. Yes, I think that would be a fine deal.” Virgiliu nodded solemnly, unable or unwilling to contribute any unique thought of his own.

A smile crept across Marse’s face. “I am very pleased to hear that. This has been meeting has been quite successful, in my opinion and, I am sure, that of my benefactor. Thank you, gentlemen.”

“Pleasure doing business with you Mr Indari. Give my regards to the Councilor.” Both Aivintians rose from their seats to firmly shake the man’s hand. Virgiliu threw in an approving nod for good measure. Marsilamat likewise rose and shook their hands. After a short conversation over where would be a good place for Marse to try the local cuisine, he was out the door.

When he got back to the hotel after eating, Indari unbuttoned his jacket. Remembering his notepad, he reached into the coat’s inside pocket and took it out. Still amazed at the ingenious development of this “business suit”, he quickly wrote a note to remind himself to ask his tailor if he could sew a similar pocket into his Kwari-styled jacket at home. Then, throwing his suit jacket onto a chair, he saw a note left by housekeeping by his phone - “Call from Urvamaya”. Thinking for a moment who he knew by that name, he realized it was a phonetic spelling of “Ervamea”. He chuckled and smiled, looking forward to going home.

August 27, 1995

Isherrith’s “Red Hall”, so named for the painted color of the carved wooden columns adorning the front of it, served variably as a farmer’s market, union hall, voting center, or general-purpose meeting place. On this day, it was serving as a ballroom. In the Hlenderian dating style, August 27 was the 1st of the month of Hlūl, and the lengthening days signaled that spring was approaching – as hard as this may have been to believe, considering the wild blizzard of two days past. Nevertheless, the 1st of Hlūl meant that it was time for the Ladies of the Isherrith Ancestor’s Temple to put on their annual Spring Dance.

Five musicians stepped into the Red Hall from the cold, removing their hats and shaking the snow out of them. In cases, four carried the instruments of their trade: two of them played the zani, the traditional Hlenderian stringed instrument; this pair was followed by a man in his 40s carrying a large drum, strapped onto his back like a backpack. The fourth musician entered with a foreign-style violin, which had proven both adaptable to Hlenderian folk music and popular the past two years. The fifth, and leader of the band, was Derisa Gerroth, who carried no instrument but her voice. Gerroth, who was still singing even though she was approaching 80 years of age, was an influential member of the Ladies of the Isherrith Ancestor’s Temple and would make it known every year that the Spring Dance was her idea all those decades ago.

As the musicians made their way to stage and set up, the door to the Red Hall opened and Marsilamat entered, rubbing his hands together to warm up. He noticed seasonal decorations hanging on the walls, set up the night before by volunteers. Garlands of pine and spruce, dried flowers remaining from the autumn, and pictures of various town figures – living and dead – brought a festive feeling to the plain hall. At present, the Hall was empty except for Marsilamat, now strolling across the room towards the stage, and the musicians. In a couple hours, he thought, it would be filled with people – far more than he or Councillor Kwaran could ever drum out for elections!

Marse came now to the edge of the stage. He greeted Derisa and her band, and reached inside his coat – into the foreign-style interior breast pocket he had gotten his tailor to add to his clothes. From this, he pulled out an envelope.

“Mrs. Gerroth, Councillor Kwaran sends his regards. Our office hopes this donation will help cover the cost of the Spring Dance for the Temple Ladies.”

Derisa smiled, her lined face expressing a studied graciousness. “Thank you, Mr. Indari.” She paused for a moment as she put the envelope in her purse, as if she had something on her mind. “It has been some time since I have seen you with your family at the Temple.”

“Ah,” Marse said involuntarily. He was reminded of his falling-out with his father and his chronic skipping of services, which even Councillor Kwaran – no holy roller himself – was beginning to notice. In our line of business, we must be seen at Temple, he would tell Marse. “I was out of the country on business last month, and have been very busy since, Mrs. Gerroth. But you’re right, I should go. I do miss it,” Marse lied.

Derisa gave a sly smile. “Busy with Meril’s daughter?”

Marse was taken aback. “Ervamea is a good friend,” he stammered. “we enjoy getting coffee together.”

“Ah,” Derisa said. She paused for a moment and furrowed her wrinkled brow in thought. The zani player began to tune his instrument. “Your… father’s brother, I think, briefly courted Meril’s sister, but she moved to the city.”

“Uncle Fenn?”

“Yes, that’s his name! An Indari and a Kwaran; we all thought ‘what a match that would be!’ How is Fendrin?”

Marse hadn’t seen Fenn since his falling-out with his father. When he did know him, he was a drunk living off Grandpa’s meager inheritance.

“He’s good, Mrs. Gerroth. Well, I must be going.”

“Send Councillor Kwaran my thanks. I hope to see you at the dance tonight!”

“I will, Mrs. Gerroth.” Marse said.

Marsilamat exited the Red Hall and fastened his coat, preparing for the ten minute walk back to his apartment. It was 2:30pm, and the sun’s rays were only now beginning to lengthen – a marked improvement from the six-hour days of June. When he returned to his apartment, a note had been slid under the door. It was from Ervamea, and made clear that she expected to be picked up for the Spring Dance at quarter to 6:00. He was partly annoyed that he now had to postpone work, but was mostly looking forward to seeing her. He went to his closet and looked for something decent to wear.

By 6:00, Isherrith’s main street and the surrounding roads were already lined with parked cars. The thin windows to the Red Hall were fogged over from the breath of the dozens already inside. As Marse and Ervamea walked towards the building’s entrance, they spotted Mayor Drōth standing outside with his wife, smoking a cigar in the cold. His cheeks were as red as the dance hall, irritated from the biting wind.

Avi Drōth nodded at the pair and took the cigar from his mouth. “Good turnout this year, the Ladies will be pleased.” Avi stuck his free hand out, palm-up. “Admission is ten dina.”

Marse reached inside his formal coat for his wallet.

“They have you taking admission, Mayor?” Ervamea asked, hanging onto Marsilamat’s other arm.

“My son is. He’s inside using the bathroom.”

Marsilamat opened his wallet and took out two ten-dina notes; salmon-red with a picture of the Grand Council on the front. He placed them into Avi’s palm. “Stay warm, Mayor. Mrs. Drōth.”

When Marse walked by the Mayor and opened the door, he was hit with the humid air, warmed by the eighty or ninety bodies within the Hall. At the opposite end of the long, rectangular building was Mrs. Gerroth and her band on stage playing what sounded like the traditional Kwari folk tune “Deril’s Dilemma”. After handing his outer coat to the lady at the coat check, he helped Erva remove hers. Pulling her heavy fur jacket off her shoulders, he was amazed at the intricate shawl she wore underneath it. In formal settings, all Kwari women wore a shawl called a chirimu atop their blouse – usually woven loosely, almost resembling a net, with a fringed bottom that draped down across their torso. Ervamea’s appeared to be a Kwaran family heirloom, finely woven from delicate imported cotton. Erva glanced at Marse and grinned slightly.

“This was my grandmother’s chirimu.”

“It looks delicate!” Marse replied.

“It’s perfect for dancing, especially the sahbarim”, she said, referring to the customary spins undertaken by women during folk dance.

In the center of the hall, about twenty couples danced to the band’s lively music. Others, resting or observing, stood around the edge of the room. As the band finished “Deril’s Dilemma”, Erva pulled Marse into the center of the room. The next song, “Spinning River-Ice”, was composed to give the women plenty of opportunities to twirl. The pair each put their dominant hand on the other’s waist and the other on the opposite upper arm.

Mrs. Gerroth’s zani-players were obviously experienced dance-hall musicians, playing a repetitive tune that reassured novice dancers while providing opportunities for the more experienced couples to show off. Marse had been to dances growing up with his family, but was no expert. It became clear within the first four bars of the song that Erva, on the other hand, was a prolific dancer. She seemed to work literal as well as figurative circles around her partner.

By the time Mrs. Gerroth reached the second chorus, Marse was out of breath. Erva, smirking self-assuredly, took his hand off her waist, extended her arm, and backed away from him in one swift-motion. As the male dancers clapped rhythmically to the band’s percussion, the women twirled in place. The tails of their skirts, as well as the tassles of their shawls, extended amidst each spin. At the end of the chorus, they rejoined their partners.

“I hope I’m not out-dancing you, Marse,” Erva said with a grin.

“Of course not,” he lied.

The song ended after three more choruses. The next one would be a different kind of Kwari dance, the erberach, which resembled the quadrille and involved swapping partners. Marsilamat wiped his brow discreetly.

“I am going to get a drink, do you want anything?” he asked Erva, trying to act cool. She saw right through it, but humored him.

“Yeah, get me something – I’ll join you after this next song.” she replied. There were already a handful of single men gathering around waiting to ask her for the next dance. Marse glared at one before walking to the bar. When he looked back, she was dancing with Mayor Drōth, his wife, and their other teenage son.

Marse asked the bartender – another one of the Ladies of the Isherrith Ancestor’s Temple – for a water and a couple of glasses of wine. Turning around and leaning on the bar while she made his drinks, he saw a girl of 13 or 14 approaching. She resembled his sister, Marila, but it had been a couple years since he had seen her and he was unsure.

“Marse!” the girl shouted, and ran the rest of the way to the bar. It was indeed his sister.

“Marila!” he laughed back, and they embraced.

“It’s been years,” Marila said, hanging onto him. Marse wondered how much she knew about the extent of his falling-out with their father; why it happened, and why he did not come around the house anymore.

“Yes,” was all he managed to eke out. When Marila finally let go of him, he could see that there were tears standing in her eyes.

“Dance with me!”

“I’m just waiting for a drink, Marila”, he replied. “Are you here with Ma and Fa?”

This latter question was pointless to ask, as Marse could already feel his father’s eyes on him from somewhere in the building.

“Yes, over there.” Marila answered, pointing across the floor. Marse looked and saw his father staring daggers at him. His mother meekly nodded in his direction. When the bartender put Marse’s drinks down in front of him, Marila tugged at his hand.

“Come on!”

Marse picked up his glasses of wine and left the water behind. Marila brought him over to his parents.

“Hello, Marsilamat.” his mother said.

His father said nothing. On his jacket, he wore two pins; one with the name of his union and the other the red pin of the Hlenderian Workers Party.

“Ma, Fa.”

“I want to dance with Marse,” Marila said. “Can you hold his drinks?”

Her words hung in the air.

“Marila, why don’t you go out on the floor and I’ll join you? The bartender can watch my drinks.”

Marila, finally affected by the awkward silence, nodded affirmatively and ran off towards the dance floor.

“Are you here with that crook’s daughter?” his father said as soon as Marila was out of earshot. Marse turned red.

“Demmeranith,” Marse said, choosing to use his father’s first name, “Do not bring her into this.”

“I’ve been driving Tanderen Vrotrith into work for the past four months. Your boss took his car over some debt. Nice clothes you’ve got on, though.”

“I’m leaving, Fa.” Marse said, turning around to take his drinks back to the bar.

“Mill’s on strike in a few weeks. We’ll see your ‘Sportsmen’ then!”

Marse put his glasses of wine back on the bar and asked the bartender to watch them. Looking towards the dance floor, he saw Erva teaching his sister how to twirl.

August 27, 1995

The Temple Ladies’ dance ended around 10:00pm and Mrs. Gerroth, apparently satisfied with the take in ticket sales, thanked the attendees for coming out. Marse had noticed his mother, father, and sister leave about twenty minutes before the dance was over and, after watching the trio leave, enjoyed the last few songs with Erva. By 10:30, the coat check had managed to hand back the appropriate jackets to each person and a small crowd lingered by the outer doors.

Marsilamat and Ervamea, bundled tight against the night air, made their way through the crowd and prepared for the cold walk back to the car. Perhaps 250 feet from the vehicle, a brace of wind bit through even their heavy fur greatcoats. Instinctively, they clung together for warmth.

“We’ve got to get to the car!” he laughed.

It took the engine an extra few seconds to turn over, during which the couple waited in anxious agony. When Marse’s small domestic sedan finally came to life, they each sighed a breath of relief. Marse merged into what passed for traffic in Isherrith, and headed down the lit main drag towards the town’s small suburbs, where Erva and her father lived.

As the car passed Councillor Kwaran’s office, Ervamea noticed a light on inside and a car parked out front.

“Look,” she said, tugging Marse’s sleeve. “Looks like Fa’ is still at work.”

“I never saw him at the dance,” Marse replied.

Within ten minutes, Marse approached the Kwaran residence. It was large and reflected a mixture of traditional and new styles. The main building was a typical Hlenderian longhouse, made of local stone with a broad shingled roof, hanging off of each side and sloping downwards like a seabird’s wings. The home’s entrance, however, was marked by a more modern glass door set inside a vestibule to keep out the winter cold.

To the right of the main building was a small, squat, round structure. Marsilamat parked the car on the street and turned to Ervamea. She pointed at the round building and said:

“I am staying in the guest house. Ma and Fa’ built it for Ma’s parents. They used to come visit us every summer. With Grandma’s health, though, it’s been a few years since they’ve come up. Now I’m staying in it while I work in Fa’s office.”

“Ah,” Marse said. “It looks nice.” There was a brief silence in the car. Erva thought that Marse seemed to have an annoying habit of clamming up when he would drop her off after their dates. She smirked to herself and decided to be direct.

“Would you like to come in and see it?”

“Ah,” Marse stammered. “Well, Councillor Kwaran will be home soon, I’m sure, and I should -”

“I think Fa’ knows about us by now, Marse.” Erva sighed, rolling her eyes.

Marsilamat knew this intellectually, but he tried not to think about it too much. Since the falling out with his own father, Councillor Kwaran seemed to fill that role to him. Meril Kwaran was like a father, yes, just one who paid his paycheck and occasionally sent him overseas to negotiate with foreign organized crime. And if Kwaran was Marse’s father, what did that make Kwaran’s daughter?

Ervamea seemed to have thought of none of these concerns. Her brown eyes were rapidly progressing from friendly to annoyed the longer Marse said nothing. He could use a drink, he thought, and her orange blossom perfume did smell nice.

“Sure, give me a tour of the place.”

Marsilamat awoke the next morning at 5:00. His head hurt, and he counted the drinks he had had last night – three at the dance, and then four more whilst sitting with Erva on her couch. She laid next to him, on her back, still sleeping. Marse found his thoughts turning from counting his drinks to his encounter with his family at the dance the night before.

His father never liked his involvement with Traditionalist Kwarim, ever since he first got his job as a teenager running errands for Mayor Drōth. To Marse, the TK was a ticket to success. Rather than growing up, working at the same mill that his father toiled at for decades, and becoming the patriarch of another family of average plebes, he could instead choose a life of wealth and power.

To Demmeranith, though, his son’s ambitions signaled his desire to take the easy road. “Crooks” and “cheats” were the only words Fa’ used to describe Mayor Drōth, Councillor Kwaran, and all the members of the local political machine. Fa’ never understood, Marse thought, the essential role that the party played in governance – no matter how many times he explained it. A few loans from those who could afford it to those who needed the money were no crime. And if the owners of the mills and businesses in town were all members of the TK, that was only a testament to the party’s effectiveness.

He stared at the ceiling for a few more minutes. The sun was starting to come up, illuminating Erva’s room.

“Your sister will be a good dancer,” Erva said. Marse, who didn’t know she woke up, looked over at her. She seemed groggy. “What time is it?”

“6:20,” Marse replied. He didn’t realize how long he had been ruminating. “Marila is fun. I miss her.”

To Erva, last night seemed to prove that Marse appreciated a direct attitude. “What happened with your family?”

“My father doesn’t like what we do. Our party.”

“He is a union steward at the paper mill?” Erva asked. “That’s what the Mayor said once.”

“I think so. Last I heard. He joined the Workers Party a few years ago. Then he cut me off. Well, we cut each other off. It had been brewing for a while.”

“The Workers Party had a foothold in the lumber mill at first,” Erva began, propping herself up on her elbows. “But then they took over the paper union too. Fa’ was pretty disappointed by it.”

“Yep,” Marse grunted, remembering that Councillor Kwaran was grumpy for a week over the development. “My ma goes along with Demmeranith. She calls me sometimes when he is at work.”

“Well, at least you have that.”

Marse sighed. The calls made him feel worse.

“Do you think your father will be at the strike next month?” Erva asked.

“I think so,” he replied. Of course Demmeranith would be at the strike – he had promised as much to Marse in their brief interaction at the dance. Marse knew he would be even before their meeting. It had been waking him up at 5:00 every morning, just as it did an hour ago.

The couple was silent for a few minutes, but it felt like words still hung suspended in the air. Eventually, Erva scooted over and put her arm across Marse’s chest.

“Listen, Marse…” she said, trailing off. This didn’t sound good. “Last week Fa’ got a call from the Palace. He’s going to be made Chief of the Mining Bureau in October.”

Marsilamat immediately set to figuring out the game of musical chairs that would occur in the local party - Mayor Drōth would be the candidate for Kwaran’s seat on the Council, Drōth’s chief-of-staff would take Marse’s position, and Marse would be the party candidate for Mayor. A promotion, but Kwaran and Erva would move to the capital. He was starting to really like Erva.

“That’s great!” Marse feigned. “So Avi Drōth will be the new Councilor.”

“No,” Ervamea said. She put her hand on Marse’s cheek and turned his head to look at her.

“Avi’s wife is sick. She doesn’t want to do the travel. Fa’ is going to put your name forward for his seat.”

Marsilamat’s heart, which had dropped into his stomach a moment ago, suddenly lifted into his throat.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, but Marse -” Erva whispered. “Fa’ is being appointed because he makes his mine run. This strike could be embarrassing for our party. It has to end quickly. Or he could be passed over.”

“Councilor Kwaran told you that?”

“No, I inferred it. But I’m sure he’ll tell us both the same thing.”

Marse jumped out of bed and looked for his clothes on the floor. A ticket to the capital with Erva! Out of Isherrith! The strike, which he had been dreading for months, now could not come soon enough.

“We have to meet with Nerrith and the Sportsmen. We should give them whatever they need. What did Morris say? ‘Let’s crack some skulls’?”

September 20, 1995

The Shanni-Isher Paper Mill towered over the landscape, its chimneys the highest structure in all of Isherrith. The main building and its outlying service houses sat squat by the Isher River, a convenient location for it. Upon its initial construction in the 1900s, the mill used the river to generate electricity and though that stopped by the 1940s, when Isherrith was connected to the national grid, lumber was still occasionally floated down the river by logging companies upstream in the old-fashioned way.

When the Shanni-Isher would pulp pine chips to turn into paper, the chemicals would cause a sulfurous stench to descend on the town, making the streets smell of rotten eggs. Marsilamat’s father would tell him that the stink was the “smell of money”. This was true in a metaphorical sense, but also in the literal sense – the Shanni-Isher was one of several mills contracted to the Hlenderian mint to produce paper for dina notes.

Today, there was no smell. For the third consecutive day, the Shanni-Isher was on strike, with the lumber mill down the road joining them in solidarity. The action, timed to coincide with local elections on the upcoming weekend, started on the 18th. The week prior, Councillor Kwaran stressed to Marsilamat and Ervamea the necessity of the strike ending quickly. If it came to a rapid end, with a negotiated settlement, it would further cement Kwaran as the government’s right choice for Mining Bureau Chief. If it dragged on, well…

After his directions to Marse and Erva, Councillor Kwaran left, returning to the capital ahead of the Grand Council’s opening in the spring. His departure was also a method of plausible deniability, keeping him away from the scene should the strike get messy – as they often did here in Kwari country.

The mill sat low on the riverbank, with a thoroughfare separating it from the town proper. Across the street, on higher ground, sat a vacant office space – it was here that the local Traditionalist Kwarim apparatus set up shop for the duration of the strike. With the owners of both mills in their party ranks, every TK member knew the stakes of this labor action. Mr. Shanni’s donations were contingent on the TK’s agreement to supply “wedges” – code for strikebreakers – and “hammers” - the security that would accompany them on their way through the picket line.

The strikebreakers were a collection of retired mill employees sympathetic to the TK, party members who knew how to operate the mill’s equipment, and a few workers bused in from the next town down the road, enticed by the promises of high pay. The “hammers” consisted of police and the Kwari Sportsmen’s Association, the local TK-aligned militia that would guard the scabs.

Formal police in Isherrith were not capable of responding to organized strikes by themselves, though all three officers on the town’s force would cooperate regularly with the TK’s “hammers”. One of these officers, Sergeant Lerammi, was himself a member of the Kwari Sportsmen’s Association.

The first two days of the strike had been disappointing to Marse and Erva. At 5:00am each day, the strikebreakers would line up on the side of the street beneath the TK’s office, with a line of Sportsmen ahead of them. Across the way, in front of the plant, stood the picket line. The scabs would cross the way, accompanied by the “hammers”, only to encounter a physical wall of strikers. After a brief shoving match, the sides would separate and the mill would remain closed.

After the second day of this, Marse began to grow impatient. That afternoon, he called the local head of the Sportsmen, Morris Nerrith, up to his makeshift office across the way from the mill:

“The union will not negotiate with Mr. Shanni if they think we are pushovers, Morris,” Marse said. He sat in a chair behind a dusty desk that came with the building. Erva sat on a corner of the desk, arms crossed, backlit by the late-afternoon sun shining through a window behind her.

“These men want to work, and the strikers are keeping them from it. Every day they can’t enter the plant, it’s as if we are letting the strikers rob them.” Erva commented.

Morris shook his head. “Last winter, ye told me to have a soft touch. I told ye that wasn’t goin’ to work.”

“There’s something between a soft touch and rolling over, Morris. Use that.” Marse barked.

“Alright,” Morris replied, standing. He seemed put-upon.

Marsilamat arrived on the 20th at 4:40am, 20 minutes before the scheduled start of the first shift. Ervamea was already there, looking through binoculars out a window at the assembled men below.

They were almost all men in this conservative part of Hlenderia, except for a handful of women among the strikers who worked in the mill office and “Daisy” Hlaruti, a tall and broad lady who was known throughout the plant for carrying sacks across the floor on each shoulder. Ervamea, hearing Marsilamat enter and walk to the window, handed him the binoculars.

“Did you bring sandwiches?”

“Yes,” Marse said. He peered through the binoculars himself. The strikebreakers and Sportsmen were lined up and ready to walk across the street. The sun had not risen yet, but streetlights illuminated them. A few of the Sportsmen carried long guns, mostly hunting rifles. Up the street slightly stood the three officers of the Isherrith Police and their two cruisers, lights flashing.

“A couple of the Sportsmen brought their guns. That’s a good sign.”

Erva grunted agreement while chewing a sandwich.

Across the street were the strikers. Many had signs, and at each end of the picket line stood a few burly men, also armed. Marse could tell by their stance and dress that they were Workers Party loyalists, shipped into town to aid with security. In the center of the line were a couple men wearing orange reflective vests. One, Marse could tell, was his father – the union steward for the Shanni-Isher. It stood to reason the other vest was the union steward for the lumber mill.

Marse put the binoculars down and looked at his watch: 4:47am.

“Throw me a sandwich, Erva,” he said. She complied and Marse caught it. After eating it, it was 4:58.

The pair stood by the window, passing the binoculars back and forth. At 5:00am, the mill’s automated bell rang: first shift. The strikebreakers and Sportsmen began to cross the street.

“More shoving,” Erva said, sounding disappointed. Marsilamat frowned. “Oh, wait, they’re pushing a little more now.”

“Let me see,” Marse said, and grabbed the binoculars.

The mass of people pushed against each other like waves. At one point on the right-hand side of the line, the scabs briefly broke through the line and rushed towards the mill before being pushed back.

“They almost had a breakthrough on the right side,” Marse said. Then, he saw his father throw a punch at a Sportsman. The man seemed to fall backwards through the crowd. The picket line was pierced again, this time on the left side, and strikebreakers and Sportsmen poured through the gap.

“They got through the line this time,” Marse said. Erva asked for the binoculars and he handed them over.

“The picketers are really angry now,” she said. “They’re just throwing punches.”

Marse smiled, satisfied with himself. A blow to the strikers’ morale would aid in negotiations.

“A bunch of our ‘wedges’ are heading for the door. The strikers are just brawling now.”

Marse chuckled at this. “Lemme see,” he said.

Through the binoculars, he saw a few dozen scabs heading for the mill, with others engaged in the brouhaha in the street. The police up the street stayed back, unwilling to get involved. Marse saw his father throw another punch and knock a scab to the ground. Unlike the first man he laid out, though, this one stood back up and walk towards Demmeranith. In the early morning twilight, Marse saw a flash of light through the binoculars and heard a crack a half-second later. He gasped.

“Was that a gunshot?!” Erva said, grabbing the binoculars.

Marse fell back from the window, his face flushed.

“Saints’ blood,” Erva said. “Someone was -”

Marsilamat ran out the door and down the stairs. On the front steps of the building, he saw the crowd and heard their roar. A space opened up and Marse saw his father, recognizable in his orange vest, lying on the ground. Almost by instinct, the Workers Party members among the strikers raised their own weapons while the Sportsmen did the same. A set of cracks from both sides pierced the air and Marse smelled powder.

He ducked for a moment and then stood. By now, Ervamea had also run onto the front steps of the office building. This volley did not seem to hit anyone, but those in the crowd not armed scattered. Morris strode through the scene, yelling at his Sportsmen to hold their fire. Briefly, Morris looked towards the office building and made eye contact with Marsilamat.

Marse ran down the steps and towards his father, but before he could make it he saw that towering woman, “Daisy” Hlaruti, stride between the men pointing rifles at each other. She bent down, picked Demmeranith’s body up, laid it across her broad shoulders, and struggled to walk to a nearby van. Two strikers emerged from behind the lines of Workers Party gunmen and helped her.

“Hey!” Marse shouted towards Daisy. “Hey!”

If she heard him, she made no expression signaling so. Daisy and the two men helping her carry Demmeranith loaded his body into a van, jumped inside, and sped towards the local medical center.

Marse stood in the street for a few moments and watched the van drive away. Looking up the road, he saw that the town’s three police officers had vanished. The Sportsmen and Workers Party members eventually lowered their rifles as a few straggling strikebreakers made their way towards the mill. By now, Erva was shouting at Marse from the sidewalk.

“Get out of the road, Marse!”

Marsilamat stumbled back towards the office building.

September 23, 1995

Marse could not attend his father’s funeral. He was turned away at the door by a couple of bruiser union men from the mill. Nevertheless, he had “won” in a sense – the day after the shooting at the mill, the union and Mr. Sharri agreed to terms. It reopened on the 22nd.

Erva put on a small service on Marse’s behalf at the Kwaran family home. It was attended by TK loyalists, who assured the grieving man that he would have their vote in the next elections, now that Councillor Kwaran had been appointed to the Mining Bureau. Marse thanked them for their support.

He called his mother four times on the day of the funeral, but she never answered. The Isherrith police quickly informed the Indari family that, considering Demmeranith threw the first punch, it was unlikely his killer would be found guilty of anything by the local TK-controlled court.

January 1996

Shortly after the summer solstice, the special election for Councilor Kwaran’s former seat was held. The local Hlenderian Workers Party, which rebranded itself the Kwari Workers Party to qualify for the ethnically-reserved seat, sponsored “Daisy “ Hlaruti as a candidate.

On December 14, a provincial court – the same one that advised against charging Demmeranith’s killer – disqualified “Daisy” on the basis that the renamed party was not “substantially proven” to be “Kwari in ethnic character”.

Marsilamat won the election and became Isherrith’s newest representative to the Grand Council. The local Workers Party paper claimed the turnout was 12%. He and Ervamea, who were by this point inseparable, prepared to move to Pelachis.

On January 8, Marsilamat and Ervamea drove to the town’s small charter airport to catch a flight to the capital. On the way, they passed the Sharri-Isher Paper Mill. White plumes of steam drifted from its smokestack. Marsilamat smelled rotten eggs.