Ismeln leads a small procession down an obscure path that winds through the forest.
Ismeln's pace is the ground-eating stride of someone who's got six miles yet to go before she reaches the Sime Center, and another half mile to her daughter's house.
Vlad follows, with his backpack. He went to Desperation Point to pick up Kadi's order of sewing supplies there, and joined the group of Gens on their way to Elk Mountain.
Ismeln sighs as the trees give way to a small meadow, with a pile of moss-covered rocks in the middle.
Ismeln: Border station ahead. Everybody clear what they have to declare?
Hycinth is strolling at a leisurely pace through a clearing in the trees, plucking specimens of some long, stalky herb from among the long grasses.
Crudel didn't quite get it the first time.
Crudel: Now as a Sime-Territory Gen, exactly what am I supposed to do and say? Sorry, this kind of thing always confuses me.
Crudel lives by the muddling-through philosophy whenever possible.
Hycinth has dropped his donkey's packs, with bags of various herbs, in the clearing.
Vlad shrugs out of the backpack and digs out the packing slip.
Ismeln: Just follow my example. It's important to do it right, so they won't send any inspectors to make trouble.
Crudel: Yeah, but you're a Gen Gen. Aren't the rules different depending on whether you're going out or home, or something like that?
Ismeln: No, not really. When I asked for clarification, they said we could both use the same currency.
Crudel: Okay, fine. I'll just play follow-the-leader, then, and you're "it".
Hycinth notices a few patches of something with golden-yellow blossoms, and stops to pluck a few, making sure to leave enough for the patch to re-sprout from seed next year.
Ismeln: Good. There's the official border agent now.
Ismeln gestures towards a very fat chipmunk chittering on the top of the biggest boulder. She was pivotal in having the chipmunk be employed by the towns of Elk Mountain and Desperation Point.
Ismeln: Good afternoon, Humfry. I have fabric, needles, and two bags of dried cherries to declare.
Ismeln listens gravely as the chipmunk scolds.
Gennifer has been chasing a rock around in her shoe for the last mile or so and is ready for a rest stop to deal with it.
Ismeln: I have the duty here, as officially set by the vice-deputy tariff officer at Cottonwood.
Ismeln reaches into her pocket and pulls out three peanuts, which she lays on the boulder.
Hycinth notes the group at the boulder, but doesn't seem overly concerned about them. He returns to his gathering, trying to look as unobtrusive as he can.
Ismeln smiles as the chipmunk grabs one.
Ismeln: Greedy thing, taking the tariffs for your personal wealth.
Ismeln turns to Crudel.
Ismeln: You see?
Vlad: Corrupt. All them officials are taking graft.
Crudel: So that's Humfry? How do you know it's not one of his worthless relatives? And how did you arrange -- No, never mind, I don't want to know.
Ismeln: He's got that scar on his right front paw, that's how I know. It's just very convenient for us that when we complained about having to part with money, that tariff officer suggested paying with peanuts.
Hycinth walks back to his donkey packs slowly, pulling out a few unused sacks and sorting the herbs into them.
Gennifer takes advantage of the queue to get her shoe off and the rock out before it is her turn.
Crudel, like the other Simes around Elk Mountain, doesn't have such trickery come naturally to him, partly because there are so many more Simes there among the Gens.
Ismeln: It's quite true. The man said, "I don't know what you're complaining about. The border tariff is peanuts." Which is quite all right with Humfry, as you see.
Crudel: Somehow I don't think he had those in mind. But whatever.
Vlad doesn't think it's fair. Peanuts are an import. He had to buy some. Why can't they use sunflower seeds?
Vlad: Well, I've got a list here.
Vlad squints at the packing slip.
Ismeln: Good. Mind you declare everything. We don't want to be accused of smuggling.
Vlad: Uh, five kinds of needles. Some papers of pins; some steel, some brass. Eight kinds of ribbons and trims. Some hooks and eyes, and some snaps, and some.... uh, some other kind of thing, I can't read it.
Vlad turns to Ismeln.
Vlad: Do I have to declare the stuff that's just for us, not for sale?
Ismeln: Might as well be thorough. It's the same three peanuts, either way.
Vlad: Okay. Uh... some cinnamon bark and a nutmeg. And some candy. And some raisins.
Ismeln: Oh, dear. That might be a problem. You might want to throw in a raisin or two along with your peanuts, just to smooth things over.
Vlad: But the raisins are at the bottom of the pack!
Crudel: If the man said peanuts, he meant peanuts.
Ismeln: Well, maybe if you made it four peanuts, that would smooth things over.
Vlad looks over to the boulder.
Vlad: Besides, the chipmunk ran off with the rest of the peanuts you gave him. Do I just leave the peanuts for him?
Gennifer watches the goings on with a scowl. The mangy tree rat ain't gonna get none of her raisins, that's for sure.
Vlad thinks the whole thing is incredibly stupid, but he doesn't want to get Ismeln pissed off with him.
Ismeln: Yes. He'll be back for them.
Vlad: Well, okay.
Ismeln looks up, ~~ worried ~~.
Ismeln: Unless that raven gets them first...
Vlad puts four peanuts on the boulder, leaving only eight for Kadi and the kids.
Vlad: Shedoni doomed chipmunk should stay on the job. It's your government hired him.
Crudel: Okay, my turn, I guess? I have hammers for sale in Sime Territory, a suit of tailored clothing for my personal use, and, umm, a dolly. As a gift.
Gennifer hopes that some bird of prey will make lunch of the hairy little politician -- and the tree rat too.
Ismeln: Good. Put your nuts there, and we can move on.
Crudel pulls three half walnuts out of his back pocket.
Crudel: There. Peanuts.
Ismeln: Well, they're walnuts, but I suppose they'll do.
Crudel turns to look at Ismeln with patently false innocence.
Crudel: I say they're peanuts, and I say the hell with it.
Vlad: Shuven, Ismeln. I could have given him some sunflower seeds. We grow them in the front yard.
Ismeln: I think we'd better stick to nuts. They were very clear on that.
Vlad knows that peanuts aren't really nuts either. They're more like beans. But he isn't going to argue it.
Hycinth finishes sorting his herbs, and glances up to keep an eye on his donkey, who is grazing at the edge of the meadow.
Ismeln: Hey, what's that donkey doing over there?
Hycinth ambles over slowly, with a very slight, almost imperceptible limp.
Ismeln looks the approaching figure over carefully.
Hycinth: Good day.
Hycinth holds up a hand in what seems to be a sort of greeting, with the palm turned outwards. He doesn't smile, but doesn't seem to be threatening or hostile either.
Ismeln: Hello, stranger. What brings you to our neighborhood?
Hycinth: I stopped by the road to gather a few herbs for my trade. If I'm trespassing on private property, I apologize and I'll be on my way.
Ismeln: Oh, dear. Have you been crossing from this side of the meadow to the other?
Hycinth: Is it a problem?
Ismeln: Well, only if you're short of peanuts.
Hycinth is not wearing his hat, and his hair looks as though several mice could comfortably nest in it.
Hycinth looks over to his packs.
Hycinth: Would you like a peanut?
Ismeln: Oh, it's not for me. You probably owe Humfry quite a few, though, if you've got anything to declare.
Hycinth: Nothing but herbs, and the clothes on my back.
Vlad rolls his eyes. Playing along with Ismeln is okay for the locals, but this stranger will think they are all, um, nuts.
Ismeln: Any raisins?
Hycinth: A few.
Hycinth is a man of few words, when there is no need for many.
Ismeln: I'm afraid Humfry isn't a completely honest official. He tends to go for raisins even if they're not, strictly speaking, subject to tariff.
Hycinth nods, seeming to take this as perfectly reasonable. He heads over to his packs, pulls a pouch from one of them, shakes a pile of something into his hand, and begins picking through it.
Hycinth: Raisins and peanuts, you said?
Ismeln: If you're taking goods across the border here, the duty is paid in peanuts. A chipmunk has no use for cash, you understand.
Hycinth seems to think over this statement for a few seconds.
Hycinth: No. I suppose he doesn't.
Crudel: And he's the customs official, so we have to do it his way. Officially appointed and everything.
Ismeln: It makes things much smoother for everyone.
Hycinth reaches into another bag, and picks out a few peanuts, still in rather dirty shells. He offers them in his outstretched hand, with no further comment.
Ismeln: If you put your payment on the rock there, Humfry will collect it as soon as that hawk moves on.
Ismeln points up at a circling raptor.
Hycinth: Ah! All right.
Hycinth follows the path of Ismeln's finger, with what might be concern. It's hard to tell, since he doesn't seem to have many facial expressions.
Hycinth finally looks away, blinks the light out of his eyes, and heads over to the rock, placing the handful of peanuts on it neatly.
Hycinth: I hope that suffices.
Ismeln: I'm sure that will. Humfry is pretty reasonable, as customs agents go.
Hycinth nods also, seeming satisfied.
Vlad thinks that at this rate, the chipmunk will get too fat to squeeze into his crack in the rocks.
Hycinth: Are you on your way to town?
Ismeln: Which one? We're from Desperation Point, heading into Elk Mountain.
Ismeln follows local custom by using the English name for the first, and the Simelan for the second town.
Hycinth reaches into another bag and pulls out a beat-up hat, and puts it on.
Hycinth: If you meet a young woman named Sylvera, tell her that her uncle sends his love and all his best wishes.
Hycinth is beginning to miss her, despite having known her only briefly.
Ismeln: You don't want to come along and tell her yourself?
Hycinth: Is it permitted? I... would like to see her before she leaves.
Ismeln: I don't see why not. Unless the young lady's been arrested or something? Or has to be quarantined because of a disease?
Hycinth: No. But she needs to be at a First Year Camp.
Ismeln: Oh, I see. Well, I'm sure our channel can arrange that.
Hycinth nods again.
Hycinth: She's from out-T. She knows nothing at all, only what I already told her.
Hycinth lets a little bit of emotion break through in his voice.
Ismeln: You really ought to come along with us and see her off, then.
Hycinth: I'll follow you, then.
Hycinth goes to catch his donkey.
Ismeln: We'll be there by dark, if we don't dawdle.
Ismeln steps out briskly down the trail to Elk Mountain.