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"Well now," said Jeryn, grunting softly as he reclined back into his chair, causing it to creak. Lifting the blue glass goblet, he squinted, observed the wine-stained rim then took a long sip.
Satisfied, at least for the moment, he looked past the remnants of torn bread, crumpled fruit skins and bare stalks, and the half-ruined cheeses that lay scattered on the white cloth to his host, Thattith and continued, "Here, I am, as you suggested. I must say, pleasant as I find your woodland lodge and fine as this good wine is I think it is now time for you to explain your message."
"Of course, of course," Thattith signaled one of the nearby maids who gave a perfunctory nod; departed. "I'm most grateful for you making this journey out to my estates, but I assure you that for what I am about to explain, discretion is paramount. More wine?"
"Hm," Jeryn nodded, holding out his goblet to another maid who had drifted silently to his side to refill his glass. Jeryn appraised the small white hands on the gold decanter, the indistinct outline of the thighs beneath the flowing white skirts. "And them?" Jeryn jerked his head at the maid as she drifted away.
"Them?" for a moment Thattith had understood Jeryn to be making a request of his household. "Oh, I see" he said, suddenly realizing his mistake, "they are to be trusted. They are brought down from the far North and don't speak any of the local tongues. They communicate only with me. Ah!"
The first maid returned, followed by two footmen carrying an ironbound chest between them. The men set the box down beside their master's chair as indicated by the maid. She then opened up the box and all three retired a respectful distance."
Jeryn was intrigued; he lent forward.
Thattith reached into the box and withdrew scales, a measure, iron weights, a wrack of counting-beads, and a fat, leather pouch that jingled softly as he planted onto the table.
"Observe!" he declared and with the speed of a magician, he flourished a large, perfectly round silver coin between finger and thumb.
Jeryn shifted position, the chair creaked "A silver Regal. What of it?"
"A Regal, yes, silver, yes, but this is one is old. It was minted in the reign of Ashur the Bold and – "
"'May his name never fade!'"
"Uh, yes, of course – 'May his name never fade' – well, this coin is silver. You see?"
Thattith dropped the coin in the scale, adjusted the measure and showed the value of the weight. Jeryn nodded approvingly. Thattith removed the counterbalance; the right-hand pan immediately plummeted.
"Now, here" he fished another coin from the pouch, "is a new regal. Observe."
Jeryn observed, and though this coin appeared identical to the first, and though he saw nothing unusual he understood perfectly Thattith's meaning and frowned.
By way of reply, Thattith dropped the new coin into the left-hand pan; then another, and another and another. As the sixth coin dropped into the left-hand pan, Jeryn threw himself into the back of his chair, a dark scowl clouding his face. As the ninth let fall and still there was no balance, Jeryn began raised a hand to his face, covering his mouth. As the fifteenth coin crunched into the left-hand pan, and still there was no balance Jeryn let out a low, mournful whistle and shifted uncomfortably to the protesting creaks of his chair.
"Just … how many?" he asked dumbly.
Thattith raised the finger of one hand, while still dropping coins into the mounting pile with the other. Finally, the balance was made.
"Twenty-four." replied Thattith.
"Twenty-four … " Jeryn snapped impatiently for more wine; snatched the decanter from the maid and waved her away irritably and splashed wine into his goblet. He drank deeply, filled the glass again.
"How …? But the King – 'May his name be forever known' – he knows of this?"
"Knows of this?" Thattith raised an eyebrow, revealed a sardonic smile. "Gentle sir, First Protector of Our Province, this is from the hand of the king, may-'is-name-be-f'ever-known. These coins are what the Royal Mint have returned to the Division House of our region."
Jeryn poured and drank again; wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then set down the blue glass goblet on the table.
A silence followed, edged by the sound of distant cuckoos deep in the woodland beyond Thattith's lawn. Jeryn pondered, then, at last spoke.
"But, surely this changes nothing? If this coin is from the Royal mint, then it is still the coin of the Realm. Why should these silver Regals be worth less than those from the reign of Ashur, m'is-name-ne'er-fade? A silver Regal will keep a common man in salt, bread, bacon, beer for – what? – a three-day, even a four-day, will it not? What matters the weight of the coin if it is not false, but true?"
"An excellent question! The answers, however, may leave you discomfited. You see now the reason for discretion? For meeting here, at my private hunting lodge far from my usual rooms in the Division House?"
"Naturally, but, again, what is the issue here?"
"The problem first and foremost is the old coinage, already in circulation, already locked in coffers, already stuffed in mattresses; sewn into cloaks and belts, boots and trews, dirndls and corsets; packed into oil jars and buried at the bottom of kitchen gardens.
Jeryn leant forward; steepled his fingers, his eyes darkening in tandem with the dimming light of the late afternoon.
"So long as even one of these old Regals is out there, then every baker, butcher and candle-stick maker will raise his prices by a twenty-four-time. Silver in the hands of a poor man is like an eel in the greased hand of a tanner – it has left his palm as soon as graced it. The poor will starve and the starving will riot and the rioters will murder and the murderers will outweigh the soldiery.
"Only those from the middling poor of the artisans and the monied merchants will have a stock of these coins still. But even they will be hurt. The coins they have stored to pass onto their children will be a one-twenty-fourth the value today that it held just yesterday.
"A master cobbler, say, now advancing in years and who has worked all his life to provide means for eldest sons to elevate themselves through a schooling at the university, or make alliance through a handsome dowry for his daughters may now go to the grave knowing that his works are as dust. That will be the fate of the middling poor."
"And the merchants?" Jeryn cried with indignant suspicion, "Surely they won't have the fat trimmed by them from this?"
"And why ever not? When the price of every good is increased a-twenty-four-fold many of them will lose their custom. They will have paid a price in full silver for stock they can now only sell for dismal portion. They will be ruined, their daughters will be whores, their sons destitute and vagabond. With their advantages in schooling and manners and with the air of command, some of these may make cause with the commoners, the poor and the starving. If such were to happen, the soldiery, your soldiery, would not face a wild untamed rabble, but a disciplined and organized foe."
"I think not!" Jeryn growled, pulling the gold decanter from the table. "WINE!", he roared. Startled, the maid made no move until Thattith made his signal. She rushed back to the house, her skirt brushing over the blades of grass.
A thought occurred to Jeryn and he turned to the Grandmaster of Accounts, "You have a solution, don't you?"
Thattith nodded. The maid returned and hurriedly refilled the goblets, Jeryn's first, then her master's. Jeryn swung the cup to his mouth, slurped in a good suck of the wine.
"Well? It involves me, I suppose? So, out with it – what do you propose?"
"The matter is delicate" Thattith shrugged; made a vague gesture.
"Out.With.It." Another suck of wine, "IF, you please," he continued, in a sinister drawl.
"If we hope to avoid the disastrous consequences I have just now detailed to you, then we must act. Having some presentiment that something like this may occur – I have sources in the Capital – I arranged for the newly minted coinage to be delivered here, to the lodge, and not to the Division House."
"But how …!?" Jeryn began angrily, then silenced himself.
"I arranged for the coinage to come here, first. This give us time. As of this moment, we two are the only ones who know of this."
"You mean that no one else of the Division House knows of this?"
"That is correct. They are not expecting the new coinage to arrive until the Fall. That is as usual." It was Thattith's turn to take a drink of wine. He smacked his stained lips and continued.
"We must recover all of the old coinage before the new is issued." Innocently, he sipped at his wine.
"Yes. Or, at least, to do so completely that certainly is impossible. But the main part can and should be recovered to avoid disaster. If we … if, that is to say, you … take a diligent and thorough enough approach to the discovery of the old coinage the few that will be left will need to be concealed with such secrecy that to all intents and purposes they as well no longer exist."
"Discovery?" Jeryn smirked, a sound suddenly made ugly and amplified by the goblet at his lips.
A pounding fist.
"Open up! Open up!"
Frost-like fear drew tightly over Elyssa's skin, her blood turning to ice. More pounding.
"In the name of Jeryn, Knight Second Class and First Protector of Our Province, Actor on Behalf of the King, 'May his name be forever known', Open up!"
Under the bed clothes, Elyssa's little sister lay beside her; she trembled, sobbed; Elyssa grasped her tightly in her arms, pressed her face into her hair and kissed her. "Shhh!, Shhh!" she urged.
Her father's voice: "Who is this?" He was calling from the balcony that led from his study.
"It is the Office of the Special Investigation."
"WHAT!?!?" Bellowed her father above the echo of barking dogs. "You will find no –"
His voice was lost in the terrific sound of their door crashing down.
Elyssa pressed her tiny sister closer still; trying to cover her completely with her arms and legs.
A brittle glare bruised her eyes, while snow burned her bare feet and the chill air puckered the skin of her arms, legs, belly and cheeks. Elyssa was alone and dressed only in the night cap and gown she had been taken in, both now much soiled, she felt naked and ashamed.
"Ple-e-e-ase," came a hoarse whisper, her head turned back towards the serjeant-at-arms pressing her forward across the inner courtyard. "Ple-e-e-ase."
Roaring waves of a thousand and one voices wafted back and forth from beyond the walls of the courtyard; at first faint they grew harsher and louder as they came near the huge iron-bound doors that lead to the city beyond the Division House walls.
"Ple-e-e-ase." Elyssa stopped, turned, whimpered.
The serjeant looked down at her. His eyes were pale blue, his face a bright red tile of flesh squashed on every side by a chainmail hood. Blue-black iron plates enclosed his arms and shoulders, a gleaming skirted pot helm shaded his face.
He gripped her elbow tightly.
She began to slip down to her knees.
"But, but I'm, I'm not a witch, I'm not! I've never cursed silver! I can't make silver turn tin! "Ple-e-e-ase."
He let go his grip, but only to take her elbow a second time, this time even more tightly.
"You don't understand. Confess. Hanging is the best way for you." His arrows narrowed; he swallowed; the suddenly, "It's quick! Over in the blink of an eye."
He sighed. She couldn't hear him – that much was obvious. He dragged her to her feet; pressed her forward.
That year, "Elyssa the Vintner's daughter" became a favourite song everywhere and to everyone, from the taverns of the commons to the drawing rooms of the gentle. The melody was memorable, and the story inspired such pity in its listeners that a minstrel who could sing it well was almost guaranteed a good return for his efforts.
The first verse told how Elyssa was born a cleft-lipped, wall-eyed, club-footed hunchback, balding like an old gimmer, broken-toothed like an old hag. It told how she wept that she would be forever a maid and never know love and how the Demon Zagagtorax had heard her weeping as he passed below her window one night.
The second verse described the deal the demon struck with her – he would make her a great and delicate beauty, desirable to all, but only if she promised to perform whatever black magics he demanded over thereafter. She agrees, instantly learns the secrets of transformation, becomes beautiful.
The third verse usually brings forth indignant gasps and much muttering in the audience. This is when the now much desired Elyssa is commanded to devalue the hard-won silver of the people. At first, she pleads with the Demon, she protests that such a deed would be too cruel. But Zagagtorax appeals to her vanity; he threatens to take away her new-found beauty. So, even though reluctantly, she performs the magics that curse every silver Regal from the good King Ashur the Bold.
In the fourth verse, there is much consternation as Elyssa, the Vintner's daughter, refuses to confess her guilt, refusing to admit that she consorted with the Demon once defeated by Ashur the Bold. She is taken to the river for trial, but the river is frozen over. Hammers smash a hole in the ice, and Elyssa, still refusing to confess, is lowered into the cold, black water over and over until she gives up the ghost.
The fifth and final verse evokes the most pity of all – if there is a dry eye left in the room at its singing, then it is a minstrel wholly unworthy of the name who has been doing the singing. The lifeless body of Elyssa is now laid out on the ice before all the townsfolk and every inquisitor. Dead though she is, he body stubbornly refuses to be transformed back into the hideous creature she had once been. At this point, Thattith, Grandmaster of Accounts and a most learned fellow, steps forward to: this must be the virgin Elyssa's true form, he declares. The crowd gasp! Has an innocent been slain in error? The Grandmaster quiets the crowd, explains: the only explanation possible is that she had been born a great beauty but, jealous of this, the Demon Zagagtorax had cursed Elyssa with bodily afflictions while she remained in her crib. The black magic he had taught her simply turned her to her natural self, as she should always have been, had the Demon not interfered. Such cruelty when sung with the honeyed voice of an expert minstrel won great praise for many years after the death by trial of Elyssa, Vintner's daughter.
"What are you thinking about?"
Derienell, a Master of Accounts at the Division House, had been staring fixedly out of the carriage window as he and his wife rocked and lurched their on the long journey back to the city from Grandmaster Thattith's country lodge.
"What are you thinking about? I know that look of yours, something has you worried. What is it, my dear husband?" She picked up his hand in hers, kissed the back of it, then settled her eyes on his in wait for him to answer.
He smiled down at her.
"I love you." he closed his eyes then kissed her gently on the lips.
"I know," Karys said shyly, smiling, but still she persisted, "What is troubling your mind?"
Derienell looked again out of the window, then up to the roof, as if thinking about the drivers. The horses hooves clattered, the wheels rattled, Derienell hugged his wife close so as to speak softly into her ear.
"It's" he began, swallowed, then continued, "the thing is, it's that song. 'Elyssa the Vintner's daughter'."
Karys erupted in bright laughter, playfully punched her husband on the arm, then snuggled tightly back into him.
"Oh, that? Well, it's just a song – a sad one, of course, but still it's just a song." A thought flashed across Karys' mind. She became sober and pressed Derienell to go on.
"It's just … in the song, the Demon Zagagtorax curses her in the crib," Karys shuddered against him, "makes her ugly, and that's why she agrees to be seduced by his promise of black magic."
"Yes" she sighed.
"Well, then. Why did she then need to curse the silver? If all she did was to return to her natural form, then why curse the silver?"
"Well, Demons are … well, they're evil, aren't they? Surely that's all there is to it?"
"I suppose so, yes." Derienell looked back out into the night.
Every Master of Accounts knew that every coin that came to them was practically light as a feather. They knew because every one of them had been ordered on pain of death to adjust their measures to show that they still had full value. None were told why; None dared ask; they already knew.
Jeryn was ebullient; before she drift away and fade into the wood panels, he had lunged out, grabbed her firmly by the hips and pressed her down into his lap.
The maid's squealing clashed with the crashing of the decanter and the slap of wine onto the wooden floor. Eyes wide with alarm flashed at Thattith. Thattith looked away, making no sign of any kind.
Jeryn leered up at the maid, grinning and growling, as he squeezed her left thigh in one hand, her right breast in another. The maid submitted in muted fury, glowering away and down into the far corner.
"Ahh, by all the Gods and Stars, you're no fun, are you? Away with you! Off! Off!" He threw her petulantly to her feet. Thattith blinked a signal, and she turned on her heel from the long hall.
"I can …" Thattith's voice trailed off, "Entertainment can be found, if you are of a mind for it. I can have it ordered here, to the Lodge, if you wish it so?"
Jeryn grunted an assent. Thattith made another hand signal from his seemingly interminable store of them and the remaining maid swept out of the room, shushing the door behind her.
"Well now," said Jeryn, grunting softly as he reclined back into his chair, causing it to creek. Lifting the blue glass goblet, he squinted, observed the wine-stained rim then took a long, sip. "We are rich, you and I, aren't we?"
"Well," Thattith answered, raising his hands in assent, "The old coinage had to be removed from circulation in such a way as to not seem to be a simple case of rapine."
Jeryn sniggered, snorted a mouthful more of wine.
"No, 'rapine'" Thattith sighed impatiently, in one of those rare moments when his composure slipped, "It means to remove the property of another without asking; by force."
Jeryn returned he blue glass goblet to the table.
"Be careful." his voice was like dry stone. "I can always find another Grandmaster of Accounts should the present incumbent … fall foul of Fate."
Thattith looked up through lowered eye-lids, paused, then replied with an air that sounded something like relief.
"Indeed, that is quite, quite the truth you have there. Ah!" The second maid had returned, this time with a stunted old peasant woman. She carried a rag and pail of water and immediately fell to her knees to slop up the spilled wine by Jeryn's boots.
"Well, anyway!" Jeryn boomed, his head swaying, "you have word from the Palace? Are they content with my 'Office of Special Investigation'? What is the word at Court? You have advanced word, with your damned spies, do you not?"
"Oh, yes. That's correct." The old woman shunted her rag back and forth through the pool of wine. Thattith made a hand signal.
"Yes, Indeed, it seems that my 'Office of Special Investigation' seems to have garnered much praise within the Star Chamber at court."
Back and forth, the rag shunted, sponging the wine from the floor, splashing it in the pail.
"Now, you listen – " Jeryn fell silent. His eyes loomed large as boiled eggs. With great care, the footman who had drifted up quietly behind the First Protector of the Province, withdrew the long stiletto blade from the back of Jeryn's skull.
The head fell forward, pounding weightily on the table.
The Grandmaster of Accounts made a signal and withdrew from the hall.
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