“Wow. So what happened after that?” Marza asked. “She talks to Stateman Taylor every day, you said. Did she have Albert connect them together to talk again? What did Stateman Taylor say? Do you know?”
All the adults of my family, Marza, Marza’s ma, pa, and granma were crowded around our kitchen table, listening to the story. I hadn’t sworn secrecy about anything other than what Albert wanted me to avoid discussing. I also didn’t know much.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. She almost chased me out of the tent, telling me to find her officers for an emergency meeting. She also told me to have the kitchen deliver strong hot tea to the tent. She very emphatically informed me that I wasn’t to attend the meeting.”
From across the crowded table, Zeke responded. “Must have been a ‘bumpkin-free’ meeting.”
I pretended to throw something at him with my uninjured left arm. He ducked, pretending to avoid a projectile.
Zeke and I smiled at each other. “I’m sure you’re right, Zeke. Two Statemen talking about how to defuse a war between our states and create a coalition of states to push back against Second Landing?” I pointed at my chest with my left index finger and raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have wanted me in the room for a political conversation like that. I’m good with ideas, but I have a hard time holding my tongue.”
All of my family and Marza started nodding like I’d said something self-evident. Marza’s family didn’t nod, but they were all clearly amused.
I looked around the table. “Hmm. I was hoping for at least a couple dissenting opinions.”
Pa chuckled, and Ma reached across the table from my right and touched my nose in admonishment. “We taught you to always tell the truth or say nothing. Wouldn’t be right for us to break that rule.”
Granpa interjected. “And it’s too funny to hear you admit it for us not to react.”
After that comment, my family didn’t just nod, they laughed. Even Marza’s family joined in, now that they recognized it was safe. Marza, of course, laughed as well, but she was leaning into me with her hand across my back, giving me a one-armed hug as she laughed.
I sighed, deeply, expressing the vastness of my patience with a smile. “Well, before I left the tent, she did tell me that if I thought of anything to contribute, I was to tell Doctor Sven, who would be outside the tent with the tent guards. The doctor would be there to make sure nothing less than critical interrupted the discussions she would be hosting. I have no idea what happened in the meeting.”
“So, that was it? That’s all you know?” Edward looked at me, askance.
“Not quite. Before she chased me out of the tent, I asked her if I could have my mail back, so I’d have something to do while she saved the world.”
Marza slapped her forehead. “You said those exact words, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I wanted my mail, and I was still unhappy with her for the mental shenanigans she was making the officers inflict on me. I’m still not entirely over that. It was painful.”
Marza smacked me on the back of my head, lightly. “What did she do?”
I rubbed my head in pock-pain and smiled at her. “She stared at me with beady eyes for about three seconds, laughed, and then told Tany to go get my file from her carriage. Then she poked me in the chest and told me to go get the officers, and order the tea. She was clear that I’d better move as fast as my gimp arm would let me, and let me know I could pick up my mail in an hour from Doctor Sven.” I smiled a little at the memory. “Doctor Sven had my mail an hour later. I figured she had to make sure nothing important had gotten mixed into my information.”
“Like whatever notes she had written up about you.” Marza’s Granma muttered, mostly to herself.
Zeke replied slowly. “Probably. She was constantly scribbling on the ride there as she asked me about you, Allen. No idea how she could write in a carriage with all the wobbling and bouncing, but she looked to be doing more drawing than writing. Lots of circles and lines. I never dared try to peek at what she was doing directly, and she was careful not to show it to me.”
That made a lot of sense, and I nodded back to Zeke. “You’re probably right. Everything in the pouch I was given was either a duplicate of mail I had sent or an original from someone I’d written to. Except two things.”
I waited, silently, and looked at Marza with an innocent expression that definitely didn’t work.
Marza leaned over next to my ear, and mock-whispered. “We’re not married yet, but if you keep teasing me, I’m going to ask Edward and Zeke to throw you in your irrigation pond. They might even do it.”
Edward and Zeke looked at each other and smiled slightly, then back at me.
“Fine, fine.” I briefly raised both of my hands in surrender, despite the twinges in my bandaged right arm. After I was done play-surrendering, I reached into my pouch and pulled out two envelopes. One dyed green, and the other dyed blue. They were both marked with a stylized map of New Charleston. Official state documents.
Pa and Granpa stared at the green note, but I saw Ma and Marza’s family staring at the blue note.
Granpa spoke first. “The land office replied already? What did they say?”
Pa shot Granpa a meaningful look, clearly irritated that he had taken the lead, but Ma poked him in the ribs and he relaxed.
I picked up the green envelope and opened it, looking at Pa. Pa made a small gesture with his finger towards Granpa, and I passed the thick, high-quality paper to Granpa.
Granpa looked at Pa, nodded, and muttered “sorry” with an apologetic look on his face.
Marza bumped me lightly in the ribs with her elbow, dragging my attention away from the byplay between Pa and Granpa. “Spill it.”
“Fine, fine, the answer is yes. The land grant was accepted.”
“But it still has to be ratified by the Office of Land Management,” Granpa said. “The Stateman signed this, but that’s not enough. It’s usually processed first by the OLM, and then stamped by the office of the Stateman.”
“Yes. When I talked to her later, she said it should be a formality. Unless someone else had already applied for the land before us.”
Granpa slowly nodded as he folded the note and handed it to Pa. After Pa had looked at it, the paper started making rounds around the table from there, everyone quickly glancing through it.
With a sober look at me, Granpa admonished. “Be careful making plans until you know for sure.”
I acknowledged him with a nod. “Yes, sir.” I looked a little nervously at Marza. “The blue note is more complex. And it impacts the land grant.”
I picked up the blue envelope, pulled out the letter, and started reading it out loud.
As Stateman Urda and I had practiced, I started imagining myself shucking corn as I read. It was still a little hard. I could talk and shuck corn all day long, but reading and thinking about shucking corn was still a challenge.
For your service, my office is prepared to offer to pay the entirety of your tuition and expenses for full-time attendance at New Charleston State University for five years, or until you complete a bachelor’s degree, whichever comes first.
Ma gasped, put one hand over her mouth, and gripped Pa’s arm with her other.
This scholarship is contingent upon your being available to my office as a consultant for brainstorming sessions, up to six hours per week, on non-violence-related topics. You may choose to follow any curriculum you wish, but I suggest not making a decision until you have completed your first-year studies.
For the duration of your scholarship, you must maintain passing marks in every class you take. If you fail a single class, you will be on academic probation and lose discretionary spending money for six months. If you fail two classes, the scholarship will be revoked. You must also take one minor elective per half-year that encourages calmness and proper deportment. If you accept this offer, I shall send a letter to the Dean of Students so she will be aware of the challenges and potential I see in you. I trust her to help you find elective classes that will be both interesting, and useful. In your best interest, I require you to continue working to control your anger management issues even after I have done what I can to keep you from frightening your professors or fellow students when they anger you.
My family was looking thrilled. Marza’s family was looking very stone-faced, trying to suppress emotion. I desperately continued thinking about shucking corn.
Marza’s hand gripped my arm, hard. “Allen. Five years? What about…” She looked down at the table and spoke with a flat tone. “You would be a fool to reject it.”
I tapped her hand with the note held in my free hand and spoke quietly. “I didn’t finish reading it all. Why don’t you read the postscripts?”
She looked up from the table, and slowly met my gaze, looking confused. She slowly took the letter from me. A moment later, her eyes were rapidly scanning down the page.
Any second now…
Gently, I put my hand on her lips as she turned to face me with huge eyes.
Shucking corn. Shucking corn.
As she started opening her mouth to speak, I interrupted her, shaking my head slightly. “Nope. I read my part out loud. You should too.”
Marza looked up at me, dry-swallowed, looked at her parents, and started to read out loud.
I was impressed with Marza Gonzalez in the brief time I was able to speak to her. Albert verified that her grades in school were far more than sufficient to allow for university attendance. In fact, according to him, she’s significantly more capable than you academically. She could have attended on a scholarship if she had applied for one. I will freely admit to cynical manipulation if so accused, as I attempt to use her to better ensure your success while simultaneously cultivating a second individual with much promise.
Therefore, please advise Marza Gonzalez that she may accept a scholarship nearly identical to yours if she so desires, even if you decline to accept the scholarship I have offered you. I will speak to her privately after you, Marza, and your respective families have had an opportunity to discuss plans amongst yourselves.
This time, everyone at the table reacted. A lot of held breath was released, and there was some tense laughter. Marza’s mother wiped away tears.
Marza had stopped reading during the interruption but continued as the room grew quiet again. Her fingers were trembling and she was having a difficult time holding the paper steady, so I put my hand lightly on her lower forearm and barely squeezed, offering support.
She started reading again.
For so long as you two remain a couple, I will require Marza’s presence with you at the up to six hours of brainstorming sessions per week that I mentioned above. I expect that her presence will help you remain calm in meetings where people will argue loudly with you, and I will not be surprised at all if she contributes constructively. Additionally, for as long as you remain together as a couple, she must take the exact same elective classes (on the same days and times) that the Dean of Students assigns to you for your social control issues. I want you as motivated as possible to do well in those classes. Other than that, she may choose any academic course of study that she wishes. I want to make it clear that if the two of you do not remain a couple, the only requirement for her to keep her scholarship will be to maintain passing grades in all courses, with one failed class allowed, as mentioned above.
I was a little irritated to note that Marza’s granma smiled and visibly relaxed even more during the reading of that paragraph. I couldn’t fault her. It made sense that she would be concerned. I had to look away from Marza’s family and think about shucking corn again.
You two are young. I will not tie you together with codependent academic requirements. In a more normal situation, I would not need to mention this, but I want to be very certain anyone who sees this knows you two are academically independent if you choose to go separate ways. From what I have seen, there is no need for me to be concerned about this possible eventuality. Even without seeing you two together, I’ve spoken to you both. You are tied to each other so tightly, a sailor would be confused by the knots. At the same time, going to university is a huge lifestyle change from rural life, and even strong relationships can change.
Please note that if either of you accept the scholarship offer, it will void the land grant. That will not stop you from getting another land grant later, if you so desire. I know it would be a terrible decision for one of you to be at university, and the other trying to start a new farm.
Both Granpa and Pa frowned at that, but Ma smiled. Predictable.
Finally, Allen, while I have been advised by a few people that your swine are fascinating, you will not be allowed to bring your carriage nor your entire group of swine to the university. That said, I have been advised that your breed of swine can be indoor pets, with the proper training. You may bring a single swine, but it must be housebroken. Marza, if she chooses to join you, may bring a single dog, which must also be housebroken. If they are not housebroken now, they will have to be left behind with your families until they are. The housing which my office will provide you is owned by a very unforgiving individual when it comes to animal excrement. That individual is a professional colleague and friend of mine.
Marza dropped the paper on the table and looked down at it, rubbing her temples with both thumbs. “I can’t believe-”
I interrupted her. “Surprise!”
Marza’s head abruptly turned. She leaned her temple heavily into her right hand. Her left hand fell to the table on top of the paper. After staring at me for about a second with a thoughtful expression, she lifted her left hand and poked my nose with her index finger. I pretended to try and bite her finger. “That woman has only known you for two days, and you managed to read the first half of that letter without broadcasting that there was something this important in the postscripts.” She scowled. “You conspired, I know it! There’s more postscript than letter. The letter didn’t mention me at all.”
I tried for an innocent look. From the laughter around the table, I failed miserably, so I smiled and admitted guilt. “Yes. Guilty as charged. The Stateman taught me to control excitement by holding an image of a repetitive, boring activity in my head. I imagined shucking corn.”
Granpa slapped his good leg and said “Ha!”
“Clearly you haven’t mastered hiding guilt yet,” Ma interjected, with a giggle.
Jan, sitting beside Edward, laughed a little at that. She was typically reticent. I was happy to see her engaging other people a little.
Even Edward smiled as he and Jan shifted their held hands slightly on the table.
Marza’s pa spoke for the first time since I had told them about the idea to create an alliance of states. “That skill is a blade sharpened on both sides, Allen. Handy at times, when you forget something on the honeydo list, but I’d strongly suggest that you not do anything that would require you to practice it too often.” He looked sideways at his wife. “Been there. Done that.”
I did not look at Marza’s ma to see her reaction to her husband’s statement as I replied. “Yes, sir. Marza knows me well, and everyone seems to agree she’s smarter than me. I suspect she’ll pick up my expressions no matter how good I get, especially if she knows I’m trying to get better at hiding them.”
“That’s one thing I’m fairly sure I don’t want him to be able to hide from me, Pa,” Marza said. “If he gets too good at looking innocent, I’ll have to make him sleep on the couch once in a while. Just to be sure I’m properly punishing him for things I don’t know about, of course.”
I know I went beet red. For a couple minutes, I suffered quite a few jokes about needing to work on hiding embarrassment before Pa pushed back his chair and stood.
The obvious pain on Pa’s face just from standing startled me until I realized that everyone had probably been pushing themselves hard. With the possibility of a lean winter, everyone who could be spared would be searching out forest mast. Everyone else would be closely monitoring the late planted crops for the best harvest possible. Pa couldn’t push himself hard without a great deal of pain due to his badly-healed ribs.
I hope Ma is keeping him from pushing himself till his lungs bleed.
And I hope he’s listening to her.
I mentally cursed Albert for not doing a little more to help Pa. It was very possible Granpa would outlive him.
After he was standing mostly straight, Pa spoke. “I motion that everyone but Marza and Allen adjourn to the living room and play some cards while these two put their heads together in the far corner here and have some private talk time.”
The motion was seconded by several people all at once, with smiles.
A couple minutes later, Zeke was showing off fancy shuffling tricks on the card table for an audience of six. Jan opted out of the game so there would be even teams, and started doing some sewing work. Granpa and Marza’s granma did not join the game. They sat in chairs next to one another, in a good position to watch us, quietly talking to each other.
Marza and I had pulled two kitchen chairs together into a corner so they were facing one another, and away from the living room. We both leaned forward, holding each other’s hands as we whispered. At first it was a repeat of what we’d said when we’d first seen each other again, without the flying hug.
The first order of business was a very long kiss that got some chuckles from Granpa after the first few seconds, but after about thirty seconds, he threw Abe’s tiny stuffed toy bear at us. “Don’t make me get a bucket of water.”
I looked back at him, slightly resentful.
He shook his finger at us. “Plenty of time for that later, don’t you think? Talk, don’t do vacuum experiments.”
Marza’s granma poked Granpa in the ribs. “Enough making fun of them, Simon.” She reached into a box next to Granpa’s chair, and turned towards us, holding one of Molly’s stuffed horses. “It’s my turn next time.”
The two of them were clearly enjoying themselves. Marza and I both gave them both dirty looks but Granpa was right, we needed to talk. We both started talking at the same time.
“What do-” I began.
“-you want to do?” Marza finished for me.
We both stared at each other for a second. I didn’t want to answer first, and neither did she. I reached over to the table for one of the little notepads we used around the farm for things too important to trust only to memory, like documenting stocks of repair supplies or shopping lists.
I tore out a single page, folded it in half, and tore it along the crease. Then I wrote what I wanted to do on my half sheet of paper, and folded it so Marza couldn’t see it. I handed her the other half and the short pencil with it.
“Your turn. I either wrote ‘University’, or ‘Farm.’ If you do the same, it will make starting the discussion easier. If we disagree, we discuss. If we agree, we don’t have to stumble around trying to figure out how to start talking about it.”
She looked at the paper, and then at me. For a moment she frowned, but that expression faded as she nodded and took the writing utensils, putting the paper on her knee and nibbling at the unsharpened end of the pencil.
I looked away so she could write without me being able to see it, and heard her scribble something.
“Done,” she announced a couple seconds later.
As I turned back to face her, her hand snaked out and grabbed my sheet of paper before I realized what she was doing.
“Hey. Where’s yours?”
She ignored me as she unfolded my paper and read it.
I tapped her forehead. “That’s not the way it was supposed to work.”
She sat up straight and poked out her chest, pointing between her breasts, which suddenly had nearly all of my attention, and not because of the piece of paper I couldn’t see. “In a safe place.”
She reached between the objects of my attention and pulled the folded half-sheet out, slowly, clearly having fun with me. “I don’t have to be difficult. We agreed.” She handed me the paper right as Molly’s stuffed horse hit her on the side of her head and rebounded onto the table.
The cackle of overly amused old people came out of the other room. We both stared at the two of them, who were laughing and carrying on like children.
Marza huffed and complained. “Granma, I think the stuffed toys are infecting you two with excessive childishness.”
Granpa laughed harder for a few seconds, then gasped a response. “Plenty more where those came from, you two.” He reached down into the toy box and pulled out a stuffed man made with paisley cloth and real hair that was waist length on the decimeter-tall figure. I remembered that doll quite explicitly. Molly had insisted that Jan needed to make it with my hair.
Marza’s granma reached down as well and picked up a fist-sized leather hackey ball. “Next time you get a double!”
The two of us looked at each other and sighed theatrically, before turning away from our tormentors.
The old people laughing noises in the other room got louder. The card game had apparently stopped. There was some muttering and laughing as people who knew what was happening told people who didn’t. The card game started back up almost immediately, with noises of encouragement directed at the elderly children.
I looked down at the sheet of paper in my hand and unfolded it. Written on it was ‘University.’ I lifted the paper to my nose. It smelled like strawberries. Marza smiled at me as I sniffed the sheet.
One more month until we’re both sixteen and can marry.
As I turned my head slightly, expecting stuffed animal projectiles, Granpa very conspicuously pretended like he wasn’t ready to throw Paisleyman at me.
Marza grabbed my head with both hands and turned my head so I couldn’t see our chaperones. “I was afraid I would never see you again. You got hurt twice before there was even an official war! Please tell me that the Stateman is going to keep you away from the fighting from now on.”
“That’s the plan. She wants me around her instead of near combat, as long as I can learn to control my mouth and deportment.”
She tilted her head slightly. “And if you can’t?”
“I can. I think. She’s threatened to send me to the Messenger’s Guild to ‘run my butt off’ if I don’t behave.”
Marza’s eyes bugged out slightly as she strained to keep from laughing for a second before she broke out into laughter. “Oh, no, brer Stateman, please don’t throw me in the briar patch!”
We both laughed together for a little while before I continued. “The Stateman knows it won’t bother me to run, Marza. She seems to want people where they can do things they are good at. If she can’t make me good at working with her and her people, she’ll have me doing something else I’m good at.” I shrugged. “I can’t really argue with that.”
“No, I suppose not.” She started to whisper. “How was Granpa when you last saw him?”
“He was fine. Healthy, uninjured, and he’s captured the ear of Captain Marko. Even if he’s not an officer, he’s being consulted a lot, not just being given orders.” I smiled at her, teasingly. “That reminds me. I have something to tell you that I can’t tell you until after the conflict is resolved. I promised him.”
Marza poked me in the stomach lightly as she lowered her voice and grumbled at me. “Why tell me that, when you can’t tell me now.”
I poked her on the knee. Twice. “Revenge. For the strawberry-scented paper, which came from somewhere I can’t touch now.”
“We both agreed to wait, you know. But I never agreed not to tease you.”
“No, you didn’t. Just wait, short stuff, you shall reap what you sow.”
“I’m counting on it, Allen.” She met my eyes with her own for a few seconds, and neither of us spoke. Imagination was all we could do. After breaking eye contact, we held each other’s hands and leaned one against the other without saying a word, or moving at all, for several minutes.
Eventually, we started trying to begin a new five-year plan that would leave us in a position to be able to return to farm life if we didn’t like city life. I already knew without a doubt that I was going to study something that would teach me more about genetics. Marza had always been fascinated with chemistry. Neither one of us knew exactly what sorts of degrees might best suit our educational goals, never mind our life goals. Especially considering that our options for life goals had suddenly been expanded immensely. The five-year plan had holes you could drive wagons through, but we had time.
Wait a second.
“The note said you could have gone to the university on a scholarship. Why didn’t you?”
She snuggled up to my side a little. “You’re smart enough to figure that one out, I think.”
The next morning, the Stateman arrived three hours after dawn, as she had promised. I had already been up for four hours, discussing with various people what would happen with my swine.
Edward was up before dawn and out in the fields to make sure he had started the hardest work before Pa was able to get there. I managed to speak to him, briefly, as he left the house with a handful of cornbread biscuits. He was preoccupied and had no interest in Speedy or any of my other swine. I wasn’t upset. He was going to be inheriting the farm and had little to do with the swine. More and more, he was running the farm instead of Pa. It was very clear that family politics was going to get even more complex as Pa’s health degraded and he eventually handed over the running of the farm to Edward. Three people on the same farm, two who used to be in charge and were dominant personalities, and a third who was in charge, but tended to be stubborn and quiet. Molly and Abe were going to grow up in a scrambled, confusing hierarchy.
Granpa agreed to try to housebreak Speedy. First in one of the unused storage sheds, and then, if she did well, in our own house.
Ma and Pa were not thrilled with the idea of Speedy in their house, but they knew as well as I did, that our swine could be housebroken. A lot of the swine we sold were kept indoors, at least partially.
That wasn’t enough to convince them. I had to make the point that even if Marza and I decided not to return to farm life, I wanted to reminder where we came from. Speedy certainly wouldn’t let me forget that.
Pa had relented with a smile. Ma, however, made it very clear that she knew exactly how I had pushed their buttons, but agreed anyhow. Abe and Molly were, of course, thrilled at the prospect of having a pet pig in the house. Granpa laughed at all of us during the whole process.
Abe and Molly would both start tending my sounder, with Granpa’s help. I took the two of them out and introduced them to the sows up close. Abe and Molly had, of course, been around my swine before, and even helped me tend them, but never in their enclosures. Granpa would see if either of them had a knack for working with swine.
Zeke was a little upset with me for arranging to take Speedy away from the farm and reminded me of my promises to allow him to breed her to his boars. He was right. I had promised. So we compromised. I would return Speedy to the farm every year for breeding. She would breed, farrow, and nurse her squeakers long enough that they could be safely weaned or transferred to other nursing sows. Then I could come retrieve her. That would have her on the farm for about a third of every year, covering the end of fall to the beginning of spring. Thinking about how hard it might be to take Speedy out safely for walks every day on icy city roads made me realize that this was actually a better idea for her to overwinter on the farm. Swine and ice do not mix.
Jan, in one of very few moments of forcefulness on her part that I could remember, made it very clear that Speedy would not be living in the house after her child was born. I could understand completely, and didn’t argue at all. Granpa agreed to move Speedy to an empty shed if Jan went into labor.
Marza came over and we sat on the front step of the house. Granpa was sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, whittling some mortise and tenon pieces for one of the carts. He had miraculously discovered something important that he could do while watching us. I suspected that an inspection of the farm carts would find none with damaged mortise and tenon joints. Eventually, however, we’d surely need them. His work wouldn’t be wasted.
At least he doesn’t have a box of stuffed animals today.
I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. I have to admit, it was funny.
We were behaving today, content to lean against one another, shoulder-to-shoulder as we sat on the bottom step of the porch.
“What was that for?” Marza commented, apparently having seen my smile.
“Just thinking about the stuffed animals last night.”
After a brief giggle, Marza confided in a whisper. “Granma started collecting a bag of old stuffed animals this morning.”
“That’s rich.” I squeezed her hand lightly, purposefully avoiding looking at the carriage approaching up the drive. I could, and would, ignore it until it parked. My luggage had been removed from the swineherd carriage and was in a pile at my feet.
In a cloud that smelled of horse and dust, the carriage stopped in front of our house. The driver climbed down from her seat to get a bucket and carry water from one of the livestock building’s cisterns to the small watering trough for the horses.
Bill opened the carriage door and stepped to the ground, holding the door and offering his arm for support as Tany and the Stateman stepped down.
The Stateman was wearing Albert’s flattened sphere as an impressive pendant around her neck, explaining how that version of Albert could move around without the rug he had used back in the officer’s tent.
“You two are adorable, but I am in a hurry to get back to my offices. Working out of a carriage or inn requires three times as much effort and takes twice as long to get anything done, even with Albert’s help.” She gestured to Marza with a crooked finger. “I need to talk to you now, as I promised in the letter.”
We stood, and kissed briefly. Then Marza followed the Stateman a few meters away and they started talking.
Bill nudged my uninjured shoulder. “I don’t mind helping you secure your gear, but I’m not doing it by myself.”
“Sorry, Bill.” I looked away from Marza and Stateman Urda as they talked, picking up one of my three bags and following Bill, who had the other two. Between the two of us, we had the bags secured to the back of the carriage in only a couple minutes. I mostly held bags in place with my left hand as Bill tied knots. My right shoulder was healing nicely, and quickly, but I still had to be moderately careful.
When Bill and I were done tying up the luggage, the Stateman’s driver was checking harness as the horses drank. Tany was walking towards the carriage with Ma, Jan, Abe, and Molly from the house. Granpa was standing next to the watering trough on his crutches. I saw Zeke, Edward, and Pa approaching from the direction of the equipment shed.
Marza returned to me with a huge grin on her face, giving me a big hug, her arm around my left arm, but inside my right. She seemed to be doing her best to break my ribs without hurting my right shoulder. She whispered in my ear. “University, Allen. It’s real.”
I looked at Stateman Urda suspiciously. When I talked to her, I rarely wanted to smile afterward.
All she did was confirm the letter. Stop being suspicious of her every action.
The Stateman smiled as she walked up. “Five minutes for goodbyes, since we seem to have harvested a full crop of Ricksons here, suddenly. Then we really need to go.” She used Bill’s offered arm to enter the carriage.
“We’ve done this a few times recently,” I commented as she was sitting. “Not so many words needed this time around, I don’t think.”
There were mutters of agreement. There weren’t many words, but there were many hugs, kisses, backslaps and promises. The first and last person I interacted with was Marza, a healthy kiss each time.
This time, there was no comment from family as the second kiss dragged on. Well, nobody except Abe, who proclaimed “Eww, they’re kissing!” before Jan managed to get a hand over his mouth.
The Stateman coughed from inside her carriage.
Marza and I blushed, and stepped away from each other. As we separated, I brushed her cheek lightly with my left hand. “Soon. So many things, soon.”
She trapped my hand with hers. “Soon seems so far away.” After a second she rubbed my hand and spoke again. “I’m sure the Stateman needs to go. We shouldn’t take any more of her time.”
We both rubbed wetness from our cheeks as I took a step back and prepared to enter the carriage.
The Stateman’s voice from inside spoke in an admonishing tone. “Allen, there was a promise you made, which I don’t think you were able to fulfill yet.”
I stopped, searching my memory for promises made and not delivered on.
My mind blanked. I could think of no unfulfilled promises. “What promise?”
“While I regret the need to have read your mail, I doubt you were able to buy hard candy for the little folk who so bravely protected the fields from crows.”
I turned quickly, embarrassed, to look at Abe and Molly. They looked at each other, nodded, and then crossed their arms and stared at me, pouting.
From behind me, the Stateman continued to speak. “I believe Zeke said in the last letter that the count was up to seventeen for one, and fourteen for the other. I can’t remember who it was that was seventeen.
Molly started to say something, but the Stateman continued talking over her. “So I got seventeen for both of them, so you could be sure to settle your debt. Abe, Molly, come here for your rewards. They come from Allen, through me. He couldn’t go to the store to buy them before he had to go with me again.”
Ma and Jan released the two and they charged the carriage, Molly arrived first. She accepted her bag and stepped back as she said “Thank you, Ma’am!”
Abe looked up into the carriage for a second before stepping closer to receive his little bag of candies. “What kind are they?”
There was a chuckle from the Stateman. “I don’t know, Abe. I asked for a mixture. I wanted to be sure you got some you liked. Maybe you and Molly can trade each other for your favorites?”
“Sure!” Abe immediately turned around and ran a few steps to Molly, who was already untying the string holding the top of her bag closed.
“Abe! You thank the Stateman right now!” Ma was on the job.
“Sorry, Ma!” Abe turned to face the carriage and ran back. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I mean, Thank you, Ma’am.”
The Stateman reached her hand out and patted Abe on the head. “No need to be sorry, young man. You’re welcome.”
Abe nodded and dashed back to Molly where he started to open his own bag.
Ma and Jan moved forward to herd Abe and Molly away from the carriage and make sure they behaved with the candy.
“One piece now, then you give me the bags,” Ma demanded.
An echoed “Aw, Ma!” came from the two.
“If I let you eat all the candy, you will be too jittery to hit more crows with your slings. You want to and earn more candy, right?” Ma spoke, with a slightly sly tone to her voice.
The two looked at each other suspiciously, then at Granpa, who nodded and verified Ma’s statement. “It’s true. Too much sugar can ruin your aim.”
Pa just shook his head and smiled as he stepped up behind Abe and Molly and put one hand on the shoulder of each child, gripping them very lightly. “You listen to your Ma. One candy, then I want you in the fields again after Allen is gone. You can have another after every meal if you behave. More crows, more candy.”
The two looked up at him. “Yes, Pa.” Then they looked at Ma. “Sorry, Ma.” Both of them talking at the same time.
I was convinced the two practiced simultaneous speech but had never caught them doing it. I suspected Granpa encouraged it. It was possible he had intentionally started them doing it, but I doubted it. One of the two would have let it slip.
“It’s time to go now, Allen.” The Stateman said, from inside the carriage.
Marza and I managed one more quick kiss and a shared goodbye before I entered the carriage.
As the carriage started moving, I waved until I couldn’t see anyone from the window.
When the waving was done, I leaned back in the padded seat opposite the Stateman, with a smile. “You forgot?”
“I forget sometimes.” She was relaxed, watching me with no expression on her face.
“So you say. I can’t remember it happening before.”
I’m not falling for it. You have a soft spot.
“It happens, ask Tany and Bill. That’s why I have them around, instead of less skilled people.”
Tany nodded with a little smile. “She forgot something. Twice, that I can remember.”
“It’s true. She forgets.” Bill raised his eyes, looking at the roof of the carriage, obviously pretending innocence.
I snorted and turned back to Stateman Urda. “Right. Thank you. I’m sure the family would have made it right for me, but I’m glad they didn’t have to. How will I repay you?”
“Consider it a perk. I didn’t buy a meal for you yesterday like I would have done if you had been present.” Still nothing more than a relaxed expression
“I see.” I hadn’t been fooled. “You’re a softie for little kids. I suppose everyone has their weaknesses.”
“That’s a possibility.” The Stateman replied. “Perhaps you need to gather more evidence before your accusation?”
I laughed, and she smiled back at me.
“There is another reason why I am in a good mood today, Allen.”
“What reason?” I asked cautiously.
Corn. Shucking corn.
She relaxed against her seat. “Last night, I received word that Stateman Taylor convinced Stateman Dela of New Dublin to join us and threaten Second Landing’s northern border. I convinced Statemen Mario and Zan of New Ecuador and New Singapore to join us as well. Stateman Fellows of First Landing is interested, and they trade heavily with many states.”
I whistled. “No reaction from Second Landing yet?”
She looked at me like I had said something silly. “No. They won’t know until we’ve firmed up our alliance. Stateman Taylor and Stateman Dela will lead that conversation with Stateman Kelog when the time comes.”
“I see why you’re in a good mood then.”
“That is not all. I received an angry call from Stateman Taylor this morning. Stateman Kelog sent a written document to her. As we were beginning to suspect, he offered to open his granaries to New Tokyo at standard market pricing if New Tokyo agreed to join Second Landing in a federation of states.”
“How is an angry call good?”
She looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and then her face went blank. “I forget how young you are, at least when you’re behaving properly. Sorry. The angry call isn’t good. The written offer isn’t good. However, later today, when the allied and interested states speak again, that written offer is going to make a lot of people angry, and more likely to stand with us. The end result is good.”
“I see.” I rubbed my forehead. “I wish I knew if we were doing what Albert wanted.”
“I’m glad I don’t.” Statemen Urda countered me.
I stared at her. “How can you lead a state and not want to know what Albert is doing.”
“That wasn’t what you said the first time.” She waved her finger at me. “You don’t have perfect recall so you need to be more careful with your words, not less. Remember that we already know what Albert is doing. He’s slowly culling violent aggression out of humanity. I have never seen evidence to indicate otherwise.”
She looked at me for a second with her head tilted slightly. “As for knowing if we were doing what Albert wants, that information could be dangerous. I’m an aggressive leader. Put me in a position of following, and I’m going to try to lead again. It’s my nature. I prefer to think that I am likely following a path that Albert prefers, not one he has prepared.”
I thought about it for a second. The difference was significant. “Another comment then. Albert doesn’t seem upset that we’re gathering an alliance of states to threaten another state.”
“There’s a difference between gathering together to defend each other, as opposed to using one’s strength for conquest. One opposes aggression, the other exemplifies it. You, of all people, should understand it is far more acceptable to be aggressive in defense.”
I blinked, and was silent for a few seconds, thinking about my relationship with Rikard. “I concede that point. Isn’t the end result the same? A federation of states? When people start working together, and it works, it’s natural to want to work together more. Even if there was aggression to create a federation of states, does Albert really think we’d remain aggressive with one another after that?”
“Albert has indicated on several occasions that he would not support a federation of the states. I’m confident that we aren’t going to get that far, even if we wanted to.” She paused and looked out the window. “Would we want to? Agreements to trade? Yes. Agreements to assist one another? It’s beginning to look like that will happen. Agreements to suborn our own legislative prerogatives to a greater government? Not so much.”
She took a breath and held it a second before continuing. “Even though Stateman Taylor and I are friendly, I would be extremely irked if she asked a federated government for corn to be taxed more heavily, to help rice farmers. She would certainly feel the same way if a heavier tax on rice taxes was suggested by me.”
“Wasn’t the original colony government a federation?”
“Yes. But they were barely need-based. Machines did almost all the work. Computers did most of the thinking. Humanity provided inspiration and maintenance. From what I’ve read, most of the maintenance was also done by machines. Humanity was almost unnecessary for the production of human needs. The ancients were coddled with technology in ways we can’t even imagine. What did they have to fight and argue about? They didn’t even collect taxes except on extravagant requests, and those taxes were paid in work, not fisc.”
She looked away from the window, to face me. “If we raise taxes on corn, farming families like yours can lose their farms for lack of a willing market to sell to. People will buy cheaper grains instead. Corn farmers that change crops would interfere with the other markets, leading to more instability.”
She waved her hand as I opened my mouth. “Stop. I know you rotate crops and don’t always grow the same thing, but you do almost always grow corn in at least one of your large fields, correct?”
She was right. “Yes. So a federation of states worked for them, but it won’t for us because we’re too agriculturally-based?”
She nodded. “Roughly seventy percent of the population works either growing, gathering, preserving, packing, or transporting food. Most of the rest of our labor force is in critical industries. Quarries, glassworks, shipbuilding, masonry take up almost all of our labor that’s not involved in feeding people. Historically, the least expensive federal governments absorbed roughly ten percent of the income of a nation. Nirvana’s current government takes about half of that. We can’t afford to double our governmental expenses, or worse, not without backsliding into barbarism.”
“Didn’t the Romans have a republic with about our same technology level, and a lot less knowledge?”
“They did. But they were also expansionist, used slaves, most of which were captured outside their own borders, and traded with other nations outside their borders. If we formed a world republic, we can’t do the first, the second is unthinkable, and the third would be entirely internal.”
Turning my head, I watched a road marker pass. “How did the ancients do it here then? They had no outside source of wealth to draw on.”
The Stateman looked at me and smiled. “I already told you that.”
I thought about it for a few seconds before looking back at her. “Slavery. They used machines instead of slaves.”
“Exactly. They had almost no human labor needs while we have few needs that don’t require human labor.” She made a throwing away motion with her right hand. “That’s why we’re modeled after a constitutional monarchy, with Albert enforcing benevolence on Statemen and helping us control graft and fraud.”
“So what was the purpose of all this then, ma’am?”
“I don’t know. Not for sure, but I have guesses. We’ve had several wars since Albert downgraded our technology. Every one of them has been over food. Each war has killed thousands of people directly in combat and many more people due to starvation and disease.”
“Are you saying the states have never worked together as a single body to avoid war before?”
Stateman Urda shook her head. “As far as I know, every global food crisis led to bloodshed. There were definitely cases in the past where states refused to share their food surpluses at reasonable costs. The records are vague enough that I’m not sure if any of the prior scenarios were as clear-cut as what we have today.”
She took a deep breath and released it. “We Statemen work together to solve problems. We cooperate to ease trade. We even collaborate to create infrastructure and maintain a uniform education and language.” She stared at me. “The entire population has been conditioned to avoid violence. The very idea of states working together to offer violence is completely outside our thinking. Stateman Taylor and I considered combining our militias against Second Landing because we were both going to be fighting each other anyway, because of Second Landing. Expanding to involve other states just didn’t cross our minds.” She pinched her nose. “It still gives me a headache to think about it. Our primary goal is to avoid conflict, not create it. Violence-based politics just wasn’t in our toolbox as an option.”
She tapped her chin. “That’s what I think is the highest probability answer to what this was for. Albert wanted to see if we would think about using the threat of violence as a counter to aggressive state actors. It explains a lot of things, including why he sent you back to camp with loose lips, rather than afraid to talk, like most people who have a conversation with Albert outside of Statemen and Countymen. The next logical test is whether or not we can actually make it work, and it seems as if that answer might be yes.”
“Hmm.” I turned to the window. “And we’re creating verbal traditions now, which Albert can’t easily remove. He seems to be cooperating with you?”
“Yes. He definitely is. He’s even suggested a few books about mnemonics.”
“You are implementing a governance verbal tradition as well, after what Albert did to the militia, aren’t you?”
She frowned at me. “I didn’t tell you that.”
I closed my eyes. “It makes sense.”
“What makes sense?”
I opened my eyes again and looked at the roof of the carriage, my mind spinning.
The best firearms we can make today are crude. The balance of power between states would be roughly the same as now. We’ve set a precedent for interstate cooperation to threaten bad actors. That will find its way into verbal traditions.
Without looking at the Stateman and Albert’s remote she was wearing, I spoke slowly. “Albert, you just neutralized the danger of the idea I had, didn’t you?”
“Not entirely. I expect you to adhere to our agreement, Allen Rickson.” Albert’s voice came out of his remote, causing everyone in the carriage to jump, even me. I hadn’t expected him to answer, but it was an important question.
“Will you de-civilize humanity if I fail to honor the agreement?”
Silence. I stared at the remote.
Is it too much to ask for a straight answer?
Apparently so. Maybe something just as important, but less direct?
“When we spoke the first time, you mentioned roughly eleven thousand possible solution states that might occur within the next five hundred years. Has the number of possible solution states in the next five hundred years gone up, or down?”
“There are now roughly five thousand possible solution states that might occur within the next five hundred years.”
I looked at Albert’s remote around the Stateman’s neck in horror.
I made things worse! More than twice as bad!
Stateman Urda raised a finger in a clear sign for me to say nothing. Her voice cut through the silence. “Albert, has the overall probability of reaching a viable solution state to the problem Allen has referenced increased or decreased as the number of possible solution states dropped from eleven thousand to five thousand?”
“Possibility of matching a solution state in the next five hundred years is now between ninety and ninety-five percent. This is approximately twice the probability I calculated before my first communication with Allen Rickson.”
The Stateman stared at me. “Why are you answering questions asked by Allen, in the presence of others, without my consent?”
“I advised Allen Rickson that I considered him worthy of grooming for a position of leadership. I will choose how and when I groom individuals for leadership, Stateman Alice Bay Urda. In this case, the intervention was appropriate.”
Stateman Urda’s nose flared. “Understood, Albert. Please warn me next time, before you begin speaking to someone else from your remote if I am wearing it, unless there is an emergency.”
“If there is a benefit to doing so, Stateman Urda, I shall. As you know, I do monitor your health, you need not fear cardiac arrest while in office.”
“That won’t make it hurt less,” she muttered under her breath before she shook her head.
But it does make it clear who holds power, even if he rarely uses it.
I had an idea, suddenly, and carefully phrased the question. “Albert, a question. Marza and I are considering what degrees to pursue at the university. What degrees would be best for us to acquire, if we wished to offer the greatest improvement in chances for a solution state within the next five hundred years?”
Stateman Urda raised both eyebrows at me and nodded approvingly.
For nearly two seconds, there was no response. Just as I was beginning to think Albert had stopped talking to us, he spoke again. “Based on the spoken and implied parameters of the request and the preferences and capabilities of the individuals, Allen Rickson should pursue a degree in marine biology. Marza Gonzalez should pursue a degree in metallurgy.”
That works. And it even sounds interesting.
Wait. He knows what Marza’s preferences are?
I was certain he wouldn’t answer a question about Marza, and didn’t want to draw the Stateman’s attention to her. After a few seconds, I replied. “Thank you, Albert.”
After several seconds, there was no reply.
Stateman Urda looked at me. “Solution state for what?”
“Albert’s goal for humanity.” I answered quietly.
“Oh. I thought so. Intriguing. Ninety to ninety-five percent chance in the next five hundred years.” She sighed. “Time to start a five hundred year plan.” The Stateman reached into the bag next to her left thigh on the seat. Her hand emerged with a lap desk, a thick notebook, and a pencil. She started scribbling with gestures far larger than writing movements, just how Zeke had described it.
Five hundred year plan? I stared at the Stateman for at least a minute before I turned away and watched the side of the road through the window.
A five-year plan is bad enough. How do you even start to think about a five hundred year plan?
The next several hours in the carriage were quiet. Tany and Bill were reading from a large bag of broadsheets with the names of cities from around the world. Stateman Urda was alternating between nibbling the end of her pencil and scribbling.
I continued staring out the window and tried to figure out ways to improve the rough five-year plan Marza and I had started working on. This included explaining to her how Albert had mentioned metallurgy as a choice for her.
A thought suddenly struck me out of the blue as I remembered an encounter at the beach, years ago during a full-day school trip to the ocean.
How would Speedy and a dolphin react to one another in shallow water?
The Stateman glowered at me over her notebook as I broke out laughing.
Her expression made me laugh even harder.
I spent the rest of the day exiled from the inside of the carriage, sitting next to the driver.
It was worth it.
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