The Presidential Picaresque

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.