Monday, August 9, 2010


"I am very pleased to be able to meet with you, seƱor," de Cerveza said to the official of the Monte-Cristan Academie des Sciences. "His Majesty the High King will be equally grateful, should your Academie be able to shed some light on the debasement of our coinage."

The scientist nodded graciously, if a little shyly. "Mmmm, that is -- kind of you, Don Rafael-Vidkun," he said. "Thus far, we have been able to confirm that the metal in the coinage was not in fact zinc, or tin, as, aahh, first thought, but was, in fact, a rather, ahh, unusual metal called aluminium.

"As to who was responsible, or why they might have taken the action he, she, it, or they took, we, ahh, are unable to ascertain. Those considerations are, ahh, quite outside our area of expertise, as I'm certain the Don will understand," the scientist said with a lopsided smile and apologetic shrug. "Human motivation and behavior is something we of the Academie prefer to leave to diplomats...and the clergy, of course.

"Of course, if the source ever is discovered, the Academie would be very interested in that information."

Don Rafael-Vidkun nodded and smiled. "I read the confidential summary memorandum the Academie so thoughtfully provided," he said. "It seems this...aluminium of yours offers a number of potential metallurgical advantages, although the difficulty of obtaining and working it makes large-scale commercial use uneconomical at this time."

de Cerveza gathered papers into a leather portfolio. "I thank you once more, for my own account as well as on behalf of His Majesty the High King," he said to the scientist. Bowing, both took their leave.

Returning to the well-appointed inn in which he had taken rooms, de Cerveza found Havelocke the Henrovian taking his ease in the sitting room of their suite. "Were you able to learn anything among your contacts here about who might have been responsible for the debasement of the currency, my Colonel?"

Havelocke smiled. "Alas, it is Major now, don Rafael," he said. "I found no new information, but it is widely suspected that some odd metal was used, rather than the usual zinc or tin."

de Cerveza nodded, pouring wine from a crystal carafe. "The Academie confirmed it," he said. "They gave me a memorandum to read about this...aluminium of theirs. Official ministries being what they are, and judging by the look in the eye of the man with whom I just spoke, I should say that this wonder-metal has even more remarkable properties than they are letting on."

Havelocke nodded assent. "Seems a safe assumption, right enough," he said. Then, as if remembering something he'd forgotten, he spoke again. "Oh, I spoke with a man today who is somewhat acquainted with your man Schwinglein, and seems to get news from him now and again. He could not -- or did not, at any rate -- offer a reason, but the word from Nuevo Narviki is that everything is at sixes and sevens for some reason."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Two weeks earlier (continued)

A murmur of confusion, punctuated in one or two places by surprise and consternation, swept the chamber.

"But what means this 'devolucion,' Majesty?" asked Don Adolfo-Miguel de Soto, Minister of the Ports and Customs.

Joern Carlos smiled slightly, and by way of explanation, said, "The redoubtable and honorable Thanes of the Moerish Dominions and of the Cota Basquard have on more than one occasion offered to 'go it alone,' as it is said, out of pique over an inadequate heorthwerod gift. What we propose to to let them."

The High King motioned the sudden uproar to silence. "Gentlemen, please. Your concern is understandable, but consider: What we gain in revenue from the Khalifa's domains is minuscule, I believe" -- here he looked at Don Alejandro, who nodded assent -- "compared to what we spend keeping them quiet and pointed in more or less the same direction as the rest of La Union Real.

"Likewise, our frontier with los Basquardos is one long -- to say nothing of mountainous -- smuggler's playground. What the Treasury spends each year attempting to keep the level of smuggling below the level of 'gross embarrassment to the Crown' is not remotely offset by the customs duties from the ports in Cota Basquard.

"But what of the army?" someone -- the High King couldn't tell whom, in the crowded chamber and general hubbub -- asked. "What about the continuing threat of...." Here the speaker trailed off, but more than one pair of eyes slid to the direction of Llano del Caballero, the Plain of the Plain Thanes, the border hills, and beyond those -- mighty Gallia.

The High King nodded. "In years past, it has been the policy of this House to seek to become a Great Power through acquisition of territory. However, it is our belief that that game is just about played out, and that the returns no longer justify the blood and treasure we must spend to achieve them.

"Conversely, we learn that the colony at Endopotamia is beginning to show real signs of economic vitality" -- another confirming nod from de Plimoto-Volare -- "and the treasury not being bottomless despite the best efforts of the good Don Alejandro, it is now our settled view that what we spend buying off the Khalifa and the Thane of the Cota Basquard every year would be better spent building a merchant marine, along with a navy to protect it. We should also be able to increase the proficiency of the regular army.

"In addition, we see opportunities for increased trade at reduced cost with the lands we send their way.

"Finally," he added with a wry smile after a pause, "it has entered our mind that the legitimacy of the Crown should rest on a firmer foundation than 'take our word for it, we are the anointed of the Almighty.' The Britannian, Locke, has written much -- and well -- on this subject; we have had occasion to have some of his work translated into Scandalusian lately."

The High King rose from his place at the head of the table. "Gentlemen, we realize that we have given you much to consider, and with little warning. We will convene again in a few days, to hear your views -- but we must be candid: our mind is set upon this course. In the meantime, Hasta la vista."

The assembled ministers and clerks bowed and backed through the double doors of the chamber as the High King watched. Once safely out of view, they turned and headed in various directions, many in search of pen, ink, and paper.

One or two ran.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Two Weeks Earlier

"And now, your Majesty, we come to the matter of the annual heorthwerod gifts," said Don Alejandro, Count de la Plimoto-Volare, Chancellor of the Exchequer to High King Joern Carlos XI. Though Don Alejandro to all appearances was as composed as ever, the High King knew him well enough to detect a minute hesitation in his voice and a certain wariness in his eyes. He cocked his head and offered his longtime servant a subdued smile of wry affection.

"We take it that some of our stalwart Thanes of La Union Real wish for larger gifts this coming year, Don Alejandro?"

Don Alejandro nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Very well. Don Alejandro," said the High King with a sigh. "Who wants what?"

"Well, Your Majesty...the Khalifa is requesting an amount that would nearly double last year's gift."

The High King quirked a corner of his mouth. "The Khalifa, peace be upon him, has made a great show in recent months of communicating with great ostentation with fellow believers over the seas. It is as if he wishes to send us some sort of message, is it not?"

The assembled ministers of the High King's Council -- Scandalusians and Cuatrofenians to a man -- murmured assent.

"Leave aside for the moment our inclinations in the matter, Don Alejandro. What are the odds we could actually give him what he asks?"

"None at all, Your Majesty, at least not without incurring ruinous tax increases in Scandalusia and Cuatrofenia, and increasing import duties at the ports in both the Moerish Dominions and the Cota Basquard."

"In which case the Moers and los Basquardos would simply indulge their penchant for smuggling to an even greater degree than they already do," mused the High King. "One cannot entirely blame them, we suppose, but it is ridiculously hard to protect our smugglers from pirates and thieves without revenue."

"We are still attempting to determine the extent to which the coinage has been debased," Don Alejandro added. "We think we have been able to contain the worst of the damage, but we have not been able to ascertain who is behind it. It is rumored that the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition will offer the Crown its services in the matter," he added.

The High King's face clouded. "We are not over fond of the Holy Inquisition," he said, "but we are even less fond of whomever it is that is responsible for the debasement of the coinage. We would almost suspect the involvement of agents of the Khalifa...or of his foreign associates, but we are well aware that there is no evidence of that."

Joern Carlos paused. "What are the other requests, Don Alejandro?"

"The Thane of the Cota Basquard has requested an increase of thirty percent." At an inquiring look from the High King, Don Alejandro shook his head slightly -- no, we can't afford that either. "The Thane of Cuatrofenia," he went on, "has indicated he will be more than satisfied with the same gift as last year, under the current pressing circumstances. None of the Thanes Minor have asked for increases in heorthwerod gifts," he added.

Well, may Heaven bless Duke Miguel and the Thanes Minor, at any rate.... The High King steepled his fingers and mused for some moments. At last he spoke again. "I have been reading of late, of a word much in use in Britannia. We are not experts in the Britannian tongue, but it would render in Scandalusian, I believe, more or less as 'devolucion.'"

To be continued....

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Around la Union Real

Don Diego-Halfdane de la Chevrolet-Vega scanned the astounding document again, hoping against hope that he had somehow managed to read it entirely wrong. Finally he dropped it on the desk as if it were a live serpent, and turned an imploring glance to the rather nondescript individual who had delivered it. "Schwinglein, are you absolutely certain of this letter?"

"Of course, I was not there myself, my lord," replied Schwinglein in a calm voice, "but he who gave it me certainly was. Also, when I left Nuevo Narvik three days ago, the Ministry of the Interior was boiling like an overturned beehive."

Don Diego-Halfdane tapped the mahogany desk, gazing out the window over the beloved hills of his home in northeast Cuatrofenia, near the Gallian frontier. How much longer, he mused, would those hills repose in peace?

"Once again we are in your debt, Schwinglein," he said at length. "You had better rest today and then return to the capital with all speed. I suspect it would be best for you to be near His Majesty the High King in the days to come. I myself will set out for Nuevo Narvik the day after tomorrow; I fear it will take that long to put my affairs here in order."

Don Diego-Halfdane was a nobleman and a diplomat, not a merchant, but he knew how to read an account ledger. On those narrow terms, the contents of the letter made a certain sense, but from every other frame of reference he knew of, it reeked of madness.