Chapter 1: Subtitle A - Income Taxes
Cliopher sayo Mdang took his seat accompanied by the reverberant thud of the reams of wire-bound pages he placed on his desk. As the echo bounced through the offices of the restoration of government, he winced. Imperial Code of Astandalas: Title 48 - Intermundial Taxation was hardly the appropriate reveille for Princess Indrogan but it was, nonetheless, liable to be what stirred her from her sleep this morning. Sipping at his slowly cooling coffee carefully, Kip untangled the section labelled Subtitle A - Income Taxes and set about a diligent study.
Hours later, as the sun crept in through intricately girded panes of glass, Kip smelled the delicate caramel and hazelnut aroma of fresh coffee before he noticed anyone else in the office. With everything else having fallen apart to some degree or another, he felt a tinge of guilt at his unspoken wish for the coffee they grew in the Vangavaye-ve, the kind that carried the spicy notes of fresh stone fruit, honeysuckle, and the barest hint of toasted coconut. It was something beyond words. Had he been wrong to return to Solaara?
Shaking himself back to attention, he finally tuned in to the sound of an office waking up. It was a comfortable din for Kip; the sounds of a working office of government were unmistakable and a second home to him. The staccato taps of excess ink being shaken from brushes and shuffling of sheaves were the drumbeat of government. The low voices punctuated with the slowly returning sound of a joke being exchanged were welcome friends. He knew that he’d never be certain returning was the right choice but amid the symphony of governance he was able to at least feel peace.
“Sayo Mdang, coffee?” his new secretary cheerily inquired.
“Yes, thank you. Did you sleep well, Kiri?”
The importance of having a reliable undersecretary was only outranked by the importance of having an adept one. Kiri Kalikiri, thank the Sun was both. As they finished exchanging pleasantries, he set her to a stack of ledgers from Cohélhé. That part of the empire had been of particular interest as it concerned Kip’s current occupation. The Princess had assigned the restoration of orderly taxation to his office, and with it, the full faith of her government. If Kip happened to make some well-placed adjustments, it wouldn’t particularly matter. As long as the books are balanced in the end, sayo Mdang had been his sole writ. In any other circumstances, a version of what had served Astandalas the Golden would be a fairly simple way to levy taxes on what parts of Zunidh remained under the throne. With whole provinces falling into the sea, and the inconsistent speed at which time passed, the circumstances after the Fall were anything but ordinary. His mind wandered to his conversation with the Princess at the start of this ordeal.
“Does your highness want to amend the tax code to account for income earned on a centralized time scale, or should it be collected in years as they pass locally?” he asked with a subtle emphasis on the latter option.
“I think locally. If time is at least consistent in that location, then it should stand to reason that taxation on a schedule set here in Solaara would cause havoc for tax collectors.” Her eyes narrowed, as she asked slyly, “don’t you agree, sayo Mdang?”
Princess Indrogan was a canny ruler, and could sus out Kip’s subtle suggestions as readily as he could make them. It was at her urging that they had set to the task of restoring the government and her pace at which they were expected to deliver results. Speaking of results, Kip, you’ve wasted enough time daydreaming he thought as he settled back into his work. As though to assuage him, his coffee lightly burned his mouth as he took a sip and set back to reading.
Chapter 2: Subtitle B - Estate and Gift Taxes
Kip and Kiri talk strategy over lunch.
He’d had another three cups of coffee by the time the noon bells rang. Drawing in a sigh, he pressed his hands on his desk and stood up purposefully.
“Kiri!” the exclamation was unintentionally loud. Wondering how long had it been since he’d last said anything, he repeated himself by way of an apology “Kiri, I’d love to hear what you’ve found so far, maybe over lunch? I’ll treat.”
Restaurants were sparse in Solaara after the Fall, and Cliopher rarely ate anywhere but the commissary, so he left it to Kiri to make the decision. She amicably suggested a Jilkanese food cart that had recently opened and lunch in a park. It was rare that Kip spent much time outside of the palace, but the weather was supposed to be calm for a change, and Kiri seemed to come alive in the fresh air, so he agreed. Picnic tables were common enough in parks of Solaara, and seats were readily available as they dined on a fried rice and lentil dish. The fragrant aromas of the warm spices transported him back to the grand hotels of Gorjo City. Not being one for foods that had more heat than flavour, Kip had ordered his dish medium. Kiri, to her credit, asked for her’s to be “Jilkano hot” which seemed to endear her to the chef.
Kiri grabbed his attention between bites in her deft way of slowing down his eating—when had he started eating so quickly?—“The Collian ledger books were fascinating, but I’m not certain they had the kind of information you were looking for. It seems tax collection was based on an imperial standard year, despite Colhélhé’s rather unique features.”
“Yes, I suppose that would have made the most sense for Imperial Revenue at the time. If we use that model, we’d be collecting annual taxes from some people on a near-weekly basis, and others might not see their taxes collected more than once a decade.”
“With due respect to tax collectors, imperial or otherwise, I am almost certain I would be annoyed by weekly taxes, sayo Mdang” her laugh lilted like the music he’d heard at the inn when he had gone to visit his cousin Basil on Alinor.
Laughter danced in his eyes while his tone and demeanour carefully betrayed nothing. “I suppose you might have a point there..” He trailed off, sounding pensive almost as if considering it for the first time. The barest crack of a smile broke the veneer of solemnity, and Kiri wheezed with laughter in response. Kip very frequently found himself playing the straight man in their secretarial comedy duo and took to the role well.
“With the other option, the treasury receives a year's worth of tax revenue every fifty from some locales.”
“Which will be a problem for budgeting,” this time his distant tone was genuine. He continued, not fully processing the words coming out of his mouth until after they’d been said. “and paying the bureaucracy. Decentralizing the government could fix that...”
“Why Sayo Mdang,” her tone exaggerated feigned scandal, “you’re sounding positively revolutionary. Fitzroy Angursell himself might kiss you for that kind of treasonous talk.”
Chapter 3: Subtitle C - Employment Taxes
As the sound of the midnight bells faded into memory, Kip was wearing a hole into the floor of his apartment. He performed a subtle dance of stress and anxiety that only he might hesitate to call pacing. The rhythm of his feet matched that of his thoughts as he made an abrupt turn. What had she meant by that? He’d read Aurora —it was practically a rite of passage in the old empire—and through it came to understand that he was not all that different from Fitzroy Angursell. He had more than once dreamed of joining the Red Company on some grand adventure. Of course, Kip’s oboe was no match for Fitzroy’s harp, but that was all a flight of fancy. No one had heard from Fitzroy Angursell since well before the Fall. If he had survived, he was undoubtedly somewhere where he’d settled down and started living a more modest life. Perhaps he was composing songs for an audience of ducks on Alinor, or sharing poetry in one of the theatres on Ysthar. He latched onto the thought, feeling it take root in the part of him that still doubted if it was right to have returned. Quickly it turned to an obsession, echoing through his mind like the bells through the courtyard.
“If an era-defining vibrant revolutionary deserves to retire to a peaceful life, don’t I?”
He fruitlessly spoke the sentiment aloud to disrupt its ostinato through his thoughts. The gentle sound of each footfall by slow metamorphosis became a familiar rhythm, his pacing transfigured into dance steps. His dance had guided him before, he needed it again now. Cliopher Mdang danced the Aōteketētana, sweat and tears mixing to form a saline cocktail of exhaustion.
He fell into his bed, candlelight glistening on the sweat—or was it tears—that sat clinging to his face. An immediate restless and dehydrated sleep overtook him, the most burning question left unanswered, but his mind focused clearly on an answer he wasn’t seeking. He awoke what felt like a moment later to the sun and a letter underneath his door.
I inquired with your neighbours about your whereabouts this morning when you were not already in the office by the time I had arrived. Your downstairs neighbour rather bruskly indicated that you had been “stomping around” well past the midnight bell. Trusting your reasoning, I have made sure your duties are covered for today and secured permission from the Princess to advise you that you have been granted a day off. Please take the day to rest.
I do not wish to offend you in any way, sayo, when I say that I worry for you at times. You have an understanding of governance that is unparalleled, and I hope to work with you for as long as possible. My concern is that you do not allow yourself enough rest. When left unrested, the mind starts to lose efficacy and takes longer and longer to recover. The Empire has seen many talented members of the Service end their careers when their wick was burnt out too quickly. Yours is too precious a mind to risk those circumstances.
Hoping that this reads with the care intended,
Kip took the letter in breathlessly and set it down on his writing desk. Opening his window to the smell of fresh Solaaran air, he was struck by the olfactory realization that he was in dire need of some water and a bath, then he’d write.
Chapter 4: Subtitle D - Miscellaneous Excise Taxes
My Dear Basil,
I can only dream that by some miracle this letter reaches you alive and well. I had stopped writing for a time with no small reason. When Astandalas fell, so much of Zunidh was lost to us. Communication with the remote provinces was all but non-existent. Whole continents fell into the sea, and I could not bear not knowing the fate of our home. I sailed the Wide Seas through storms that the bravest merchants refused to traverse. Wind and rain rocked my ship, only to wash me up on the shore of some long-forgotten island. I kept the fire of hope that our family still lived. Basil, I survived it all and found that the Fall was a curiosity to our home, not the tragedy it was for so many of us. Buru Tovo still walks the Ring. The music still lives in Gorjo City. The Vangavaye-ve still waits for us to return if we are ready.
I made the journey back to Solaara and rejoined the Service. I was restless, and I was certain they still needed me. Sitting here writing this letter I have never been more uncertain of our dream. Dimiter lived his, I pray that you are living yours, but Elonoa’a had Aurelius and I am left at the feet of a sun that does not rise. Basil, what am I doing here? I’m working on taxes of all things. The emperor in whom I believed has slept for the better part of a century. Trade is all but stopped by the storms that buffet the seas. Provinces have taken up arms against each other. Ripples of broken magic make time impossible to keep. Zunidh wails and calls for help, is my answer tax reform? A government must fund itself somehow if it is to maintain order and yet I cannot help but search for any meaning in this. I cannot sleep at night. I worry that I keep the fire for a world already burned.
I wish I knew what to do. I wish I knew you were alive. I miss you.
The part that makes this all so bitterly amusing is that I think I have a solution to the tax issue. I truly hope that someday you can meet my under-secretary, Saya Kalikiri. You and she would get along famously. A sense of humour in dark times such as these is sorely needed. She and I talked through the issue over lunch, and I kept repeating a refrain of something she had said. “You’re sounding positively revolutionary.” Later than any diurnal man should be awake after I had danced in sheer frustration, it hit me. Revolutions. The Treasury needs cyclical revenue to continue to meet budgetary needs. Solaaran time moves too quickly these days to be a base fiscal year, but the government needs to run on some sort of calendar. As I danced, contemplating Kiri’s (her given name) words I recalled the stars. Even with the fluctuations in local time, the stars still served as a guide on my journey home. They exist outside of the sphere of Astandalan magic and are unaffected by the Fall. If we assess taxes based on a stellar year, we can tax fairly, and we can tax regularly. The rates can be set based on the local period equivalent to a stellar year, but collection and delivery will be consistent. That much was clear to me last night. Wait…
Oh, Basil, I have been so wrapped up in guilt that I missed the answers directly in front of me. My dance is Aōteketētana, and it has guided me across the Wide Sea just as surely as it guides me now. Absent the sun, we navigate by the stars. The stars told me I am where I must be, and doing what I must do. Until the sun or the stars tell me differently, I’ll keep the fire.
Thank you, Basil. I know this letter is not my usual update, but I could not have done this without you. Please forgive any tear stains on the latter half of this letter—as I’m sure you would had I not asked that of you.
Yours in certainty,