By Deyland Somer
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 28th contest was American Civil War.
King Leschi smiled as he saw the steamship docked in his port. Only just a few years ago a similar French ship had been attacked by Makah pirates. But now that the Western Peninsula had been largely secured, the naval escort he had given to this vessel had been hardly necessary. Still, it showed the Confederate delegation that the Salish Kingdom was a civilized nation.
The muddy little port was no Portland or San Francisco, yet alone a London or New York. However, substantial progress had been made with the help of French engineering and Native labor. The French had long made great allies for the Salish nation. While the British and Americans both stubbornly insisted that this Salish land was the other nation's territory because of some archaic treaty dispute, the French had moved in. Their interest in this rainy corner of the North American continent was hardly innocent, but their expertise and technology had made the difference between independent nationhood and the humiliating subjugation faced by Native peoples to the north, south, and east. The King had no intention of remaining a French dependency forever, though, and this had been a major factor in his decision to hear out this odd delegation despite the objections of his European advisors.
Salish laborers crowded the dock. Men, women, and many children thronged about in the mud, done up in a mixture of their fanciest foreign and Salish dress. They cried out in their many dialects of Lushootseed as the Salish soldiers pushed them back. As the King walked forward through the gap created, he could hear the familiar cries of “long live the King!” He waved at the crowd, eliciting further screams. “We love you!” Far different from the screams he had heard not long ago when his army had unified their many tribes into a single nation. Some of these subjects undoubtedly still held such petty loyalties, but for most, he hoped, the progress of civilization had justified unity.
“Your Majesty!” The Confederate delegation had walked off the ship. Most white men Leschi had encountered seemed to treat his claim to royalty with a sense of bemusement. But there was a different look in the eyes of these men. One he had only seen before in his own people. As the uniformed men prostrated themselves before him, a whiff of desperation joined the smell of sea and pine needles.
The Nisqually Palace was the true crown jewel of Leschi's Kingdom. Hewed from locally quarried stone, it combined the most modern of European construction with Native design. Overlooking the industrial port and the sound below, it invoked the power of the monarchy and the Salish nation.
The banquet hall, designed to resemble a longhouse, was lined with polished cedar and beautiful oil paintings of the local scenery. In the middle was a large and ornate table. The guests sat around it unsegregated. At least in the confines of this palace, native and white were always equal.
To the king's left was his queen. A Yakama girl, she was his third wife after the first two had succumbed to disease. Significantly his junior, she was an entirely political marriage to mollify his Eastern subjects. Like many noblewomen, she applied the latest in French cosmetics to cover up her pockmarked face.
To the king's right was an empty chair. Lemieux, his dapper chief advisor and right hand man, usually took up this seat. Even as his beautiful Puyallup wife sat patiently in her Western dress, he was nowhere to be seen. Still, the ceremony must go on.
“Welcome!” The King began, standing up to address the gathering in English. “We, the Salish Kingdom, are grateful to host our guests today. These fine ladies and gentlemen have come to us all the way from Richmond, Virginia to visit our sacred nation. We hope that this exchange can begin a long friendship between our two peoples.”
He had thought long and hard about how exactly to address the delegation. In the end, he had settled for what he hoped would be the friendliest possible greeting without conceding what appeared to be official recognition. It was a tactic that the British and Americans had directed towards him many times before.
“Your Majesty,” the head diplomat began. “It is an honor as a representative of the Confederate State of America to be hosted by yourself and your great nation. We would like to begin by acknowledging and apologizing for the many crimes and injustices committed by our former government against your people. Our Southron nation seeks to begin a new chapter of positive and mutually beneficial relations between our two races.”
In all of his life, the King had never heard a white man talk like that. Still, he did his best not to be taken away by the words of the diplomat. He needed to project strength before the negotiations were to begin.
The room fell silent as the uncharacteristically disheveled Frenchman stormed into the hall. On his arm was a woman darker than the darkest Salish laborer. Her white eyes looked out from her black face in horror. She was the first black person Leschi had seen in years.
“I discovered this member of our visiting delegation seated by herself in the waiting room. Should she not sit among us as a guest of our great nation?”
The King knew exactly what was going on. He knew of the practice of slavery in the southern United States. Slavery was nothing new in the Salish Kingdom, only having been abolished less than a decade before. Leschi himself abhorred the practice, and his French advisor knew this. What he hated even more, though, was racial subjugation. The look in the woman's eyes was far too familiar to him. Diplomacy aside, he knew exactly what he needed to do.
“Of course, let her sit.”
The rest of the Confederate delegation looked like they wanted to die, their white faces turning to pink and then to red. Still, they made no objections. The woman kept her head down as she was seated, unwilling to even look at her masters.
That evening, with the pageantry over, the King met with the Confederate delegation directly. This was Leschi's favorite part. No bullshit, just pure negotiation. He knew he was good at it, too, having brought so many once proud chiefs to their knees. Even the French had come to respect him, he thought. But the approach the Confederate delegation took was unlike that which anyone had with him before.
Their head diplomat, a lean man of noble demeanor, brought out a map. Rolling it open, it showed the entirety of North America.
“What parts of this land would your race like back?”
“Um,” the King looked bewildered. “I thought we were going to be negotiating a declaration of mutual diplomatic recognition.”
“That can wait later, your Majesty,” the Confederate said. “Right now, we're in the middle of a life or death struggle. And so are you.”
Lemeiux grabbed Leschi's arm. “May we talk?”
“Excuse me for one moment,” Leschi said.
The Frenchman looked at Leschi with his blue eyes as they went into a side room. Underneath an orca mural, the two began to talk.
“The Confederates, they are desperate. They know they are going to lose. You know I was against allowing this meeting in the first place, but I implore you to consider your position before you provoke the American government. The real American government.”
“But this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Our people are dying. Thousands taken by white man's diseases every year. Maybe you don't understand, since you come from such a strong nation.”
“My nation is yours, your Majesty,” Lemieux said., “and you are my King. My wife is Salish. My children are half-Salish. I have as much stake in this whole project as you.”
“Then let me hear the Confederates out. I will not do anything too rash.”
Lemeiux sighed as the two re-entered the room.
Leschi walked over to the map, took out a quill, and outlined a border. From the Continental Divide to the Pacific. From the forty-ninth parallel to the forty-second. “This is what we want. How can we get it?”
“The Confederate States of America is prepared to send an expeditionary force. Thirty-thousand of our finest boys ready to help you take back Oregon. We have many sympathizers in that land as it is, and it is lightly defended.”
Lemeiux couldn't help himself. “Thirty-thousand troops all the way around Cape Horn? By the time they arrive here there will be Union soldiers marching through South Carolina.”
“Our boys are doing just fine holding the line,” the Confederate diplomat said. “We have confidence that with the help of the Salish Kingdom, we'll bring the damnyankees, as many of our people know them, to their knees.”
“Delusional,” the Frenchman said.
“May we get back to you in a moment once again?” Leschi asked. As the Confederates nodded expectantly, he pulled the Frenchman back aside to the orca room.
“Need I remind you of your position?” Leschi was growing annoyed with the arrogant white man.
“Let me ask you this, your Majesty. If those slavers were as close to winning as they think they are, don't you think the United States would be sending a delegation too? Surely they would see the preservation of their nation as more important than some stubborn damned claim to Nova Scotia.”
“I can't possibly know what the United States is thinking. What I do know is that the Confederates are making a very generous offer. More generous than your so-called Emperor has ever given us, I might add.”
“I...need a break,” Lemeiux said, his face a tomato. “Please don't start a war while I'm gone.”
“Can you send my queen over while you're at it?”
The Yakama girl had one skill that all of Leschi's other advisors lacked --- she enthusiastically agreed with everything he ever said. He'd caught on to this trick early on in their marriage, but he was weak to the sound of someone else supporting and often providing additional arguments in defense of the positions he already held. She knew this, and this knowledge had amassed her great influence in his court. A litany of servants, entertainers, and bureaucrats at her personal command. He knew she was using it to enrich her tribe back home, but it was worth it if it prevented yet another rebellion east of the mountains.
He explained to her in hushed Lushootseed the Confederate proposal. He also explained to her his reasoning for why he wanted to accept it.
“Um...,” she said, batting her eyelashes, “you know I don't know a lot about military stuff and the like.”
Leschi was a bit taken aback. “Go on.”
“But I think it's best not to view this as a military issue. It's an issue of our national sovereignty. My tribe and your tribe have little in common in terms of our culture, our language, or our history. But what we have in common is our skin. If we have an opportunity to free our red brothers and sisters in Oregon, we should absolutely take it.”
“Yes,” Leschi said, “that's what this is really all about. All of this, what we have here, is in the service of our people. We should take every opportunity to free our people. We can't possibly know if the Confederates have a chance of winning, but if there is any chance we need to be there to take advantage of it. Our nation only exists because I took advantage of white men fighting among one another, after all.”
“Absolutely,” the Queen said.
Feeling confident, Leschi turned towards the entrance of the other room. It was time to make history once again.
It was a soft female voice speaking English. He turned back and saw the black woman being led into the room towards him. Behind her was the Frenchman, crossing his arms.
“Please forgive my interruption, but I need your help...I need it so bad...I am a slave...as you know......I am a slave to that man you've been talking to.....after we leave your port he is going to kill me.....”
“Kill you? Why?”
“Because I humiliated him in front of you all....because I sat at the table....because I'm a bad *****....please he's going to hurt me and I just....”
“What can we do to help you?” The Queen looked at the poor woman with concern.
“Free me...take me from him...let me live here....I will be your servant....your slave....just don't let them hurt me again....”
“Under the international principle of diplomatic immunity, it would be impossible for us to take you from your master, even if slavery is illegal in this jurisdiction. Moreover, it would destroy any developing arrangements we may have with this lovely Confederate delega---”
“They're lying to you...they're going to lose...and even if they win they're just going to hurt more black people.....”
“As long as you are in my Kingdom, I will let you dine with us,” Leschi said. “But I am the King of the red race, not the black race.”
The woman turned to the Queen instead, getting on her knees before her, continuing in her whispered begging.
“If you don't care about black folks....surely you care about women folks...do you know what those white men do to young dark women like us...what my master had done to me....”
The Queen turned to the King. “Leschi...”
He swore in Nisqually and ran his hands through his long black hair. But before he could make his decision, the Confederates made it for him.
The head diplomat, curious about the noises, had made his way over into the side room. Upon seeing his slave kneeling before the Salish royals, he lost any sense of diplomatic cool. A swarm of racial epithets coming from his mouth, he rushed over to the woman to strike her. The rest of his delegation grabbed him forcefully to hold him back.
“Is it true,” Leschi asked, “that you raped this woman?”
“What does it matter to you what a man does with his own property?”
“No human beings are property in the Salish Kingdom, sir.”
“I'm a diplomat! I can do what I want!”
“The Salish Kingdom does not recognize the sovereignty or legitimacy of the government of the Confederate States of America. Should you attempt to hold this woman against her will, you will be detained and subject to Salish law.”
And then the diplomat turned his scorn towards the King. “Fuck you, you red ******!” The rest of the delegation led him away as he continued to sully the confines of the royal palace with his foul language.
One of the other Confederate diplomats approached the King apologetically, even if he looked visibly disgusted at the sight of the black woman. “We would like to apologize on behalf of our colleague, he has had a bit too much of your lovely camas wine to drink.”
“I would like all of you to leave by morning, thanks. Except for this woman, she will stay with us.”
“That is all.”
The Confederates left dejected, as Lemeiux approached happily. “Your Majesty, thank you!”
Leschi ignored him and approached the black woman, still on the ground. She was sobbing. “Thank you, your Majesty....I am so grateful...”
He'd seen enough scenes like this before. Freed subject groveling before him. But he still felt good about it, even if he knew he would never quite shake the uneasy feeling that he'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime. Still, he had more important things to focus on now.
“Lemeiux, help integrate our newest subject into our Queen's court. I need to go inspect some Lummi mines.”