Released on July 11, 2019, I have not had this much fun with a story for a while. Say hello to Horace and Giselda again!

The Tax Collector

Why did I join the force? I repeat, - Oh I’d have to say that it was due to police oppression. I’d witnessed it within my own community and decided that it was something I wanted to be part of, I smile.
— Filth, Irvine Welsh

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ 

“Awlright, Willie?”

“Awlright, Barry.”

“The Magistrate didn’t give ya no-”

“Nope, no trouble at all, me buddy.” Willis unlocked the padlock on the trunk of the coach, lifted the wooden lid, and – with difficulty – threw the stretched hempen sack in. The coach sagged with the weight. The muted sound of coins clinking told the man seated on the top of the coach all he needed to know. Barry relaxed.

“I hoped that dirty fucker were gonna give us a reason ta pop ‘im,” said Willie, patting the head of the vicious pronged mace hanging off a loop of his belt and climbing up to sit next to the moon-faced creature with the reins in his hands. He was wearing a shabby top hat and formal wear, under chains, leathers, and the road stained ivory cloak of the White Guard. It was the same garb worn by Willie, though Willie’s was in slightly rougher shape. A top hat in exchange for a visored helm – at least the powers that be behind the throne had decided to class up the White Guard for what by all accounts was a shakedown from the King. “Greedy cunt,” finished Willie.

“We can make ‘em comply wit our little buddies on our ‘ips, but we ain’t Magistrates ourselves, Willie,” said Barry, spitting over the side of the carriage. “All dat matters is da colour o’ da coin, as me old man used ta say. Silver and gold.”

“Fuckin’ eejit, by da sounds of it, Barry, me buddy,” said Willie, punching the man playfully and pointing at the rut-worn road ahead of them. “‘e fergot about da colour o’ cunny.”

“True enough. Pink, silver, and gold, dat’s about the score of it.” Barry snapped the reins and the horses began to move. “Tin and copper can get ta fuck.”

Willie brayed a donkey laugh, which was cut short when one of the back wheels dipped into a rut and got stuck. Like Barry, he was nearly thrown from atop the carriage when the rear axle broke.

“Fuckin’ dirty whoreson of a coach,” roared Willie, clambering down and inspecting the damage. The bushings were split and the wood had snapped. His heart sank when he realized that he was not going to be able to get back on the road that night. “Another night in dat inn,” sighed Willie. “Gods-damned Kalingshire.”

“Eh, it’s not so bad, Willie,” said Barry. “Dat Giselda makes a fine stew.”

“An ‘er ‘usband is da bore ta end all bores.”

“Don’t ye fuckin’ get on ‘is case again about dat mixin’ metaphor shite, Willie,” Barry said warningly. “Giselda said da only reason ‘e never beat da livin’ fuck outta ye is because, fer one, we’s da King’s men, and fer two, we never grew up wit’ ‘im. If ye was a local ye’d ‘ave been in worse shape’n ye were after yer little experience in Rhymore.”

“Why’d ya ‘ave ta bring dat little shitehole up?” laughed Willie. “Me nuts is freezin’ just t’inkin’ about it.”

“I’m serious, Willie,” said Barry. “Don’t piss dat ol’ fine-speakin’ bastard off. ‘e’s got a temper worse’n a potato badger, da way Giselda telt it. I don’t want ta ‘ave ta explain to da King why we ended up splatterin’ da ‘ead of an innkeeper dat everyone ‘cept ‘is misant’rope ex-Smuggler Tax Collector loves.”

Willie waved him off and unlocked the trunk again. “Christ-man,” said Willie, his face reddening with the strain of lifting the bag of coin. “Give us a ‘and wit’ dis, eh? Can’t leave it out ‘ere fer da vultures.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“You are a fine Magistrate, Clarence,” said Horace Jenkins, pushing a mug of Clever Charles, the locally-celebrated ale brewed by a cabbage farmer, across the bar to the man. He had refused to remove his cloak, citing a chill despite the Junius Month heat that had permeated the morning air of the inn. Around the neck of the garment, a clasp made of the King’s Crest. A a trio of silvern cups on a purple field, itself the symbol of Royal power away from the capital, kept the fur-trimmed wool from dropping off the his back onto the floor. It was the only indication that the man seated at the bar was Magistrate of Kalingshire. It must have stung the Magistrate when he saw the same image painted on the side of the Tax Collectors’ coach.

“You had to give those brutes the money,” continued Horace, pumping the beer engine and collecting up the dregs of the cask into a mug for himself. “If you did not, they would have been back in numbers. You would have been stripped of your title, at the very least. More likely, you would have been brought back to Isha to swing from the gibbet.”

“T’ank da Christ-man dey did not come by in da autumn,” muttered the Magistrate. “We’d never ‘ave survived da winter.”

“Ah, nonsense, old friend,” replied Horace, “we cannot eat coin. We would have survived. My only concern now is how we are going to afford to keep Esmer Montcalm on the town’s payroll. That woman saved my life a few years back – and saved a great deal more than me, besides. Without a Physiker around… well, let us try not to think about it.”

“E’ery five-year, dese fuckin’ ‘Tax Collectors’ comes down ta our ‘ome, and takes what is ours,” growled the Magistrate. “I’d sooner see ‘em dead’n give ‘em our coin. Not dat we ‘ave any ta give, now. I tried ta tell ‘em dat da population is in the shite box, dat we can’t even pay fer bleedin’ lamp-lighters. Did dat bot’er dem at all? Not a bit. More animal’n man, dat fuckin’ fella wit’ one eye.” He sighed and took a long pull on his ale. “Not dat we ‘as ta worry about ‘em fer another five year. At da very least, dere is dat.”

“Cheers to silver linings,” said Horace, clinking the clay of his mug against the Magistrate’s. As he shifted for the gesture, his leg came up against the steel of the war hammer he had purchased from a traveling blacksmith. After his troubles, the ones that saw him attacked by a rabid animal, the greying Innkeeper had replaced his simple protection stick with a weapon more suited for the threats he felt awaited him in nights outside the inn. Inside, too, depending on the quality of the clientele. The Highwaymen that haunted the walls of the inn seemed to be multiplying. Horace took a moment to grasp the solidity of the leather-wrapped handle and felt a wave of relief.

The Innkeeper took a moment to consider the Magistrate. Clarence Johnson. One of Horace’s oldest friends, Magistrate Johnson was a fair man, though he had a temper much worse than Horace. At least Horace only had a single thing which riled him: those that made fun of his spoken affectation. Johnson became incensed at the slightest of slights, and had no trouble having men whipped or shipped off to Isha for a more permanent form of Justice. This tax collection was just the latest in the litany of problems visited upon Clarence Johnson by the world, one that he could not solve by an abuse of the law. Existence was a process which was happening to the old man, rather than for him.

Horace had a different take on life. By rights, he should have been the one angry at the Tax Collectors. Nearly the entirety of the money given to the uniformed ruffians had been generated by Horace’s inn. Ever since the man had converted The Black Kettle into something that was midway between an inn and a tavern, business had picked up. Certainly, there were a few local ale lechs whose only goal in life had become setting themselves before his bar nights, and there were more than a few Highwaymen that had taken a shine to the place as well. For the most part, though, The Black Kettle had become a hub for the community. Instead of staying at home and drinking themselves into their stupors alone, the citizens of Kalingshire now had a true public house. A gathering place. And Horace was the man who had facilitated that.

More money would come, Horace knew. And Kalingshire would survive, as it always did. But to hear Magistrate Johnson tell it, the community was already lost.

“Drink up, Clarence,” said Horace, downing his own ale before bending down out of sight and fiddling with the top of the cask. It took him a while to finally get the grommet loose from the length of rubber tubing that he had illegally imported from Liseria, a rare bit of technology which served as the feed line to the beer engine. “We will have ourselves a little party tonight, eh? A ‘thank the Christ-man that those Gods-damned Tax Collectors are gone’ party.”

“Sorry ta disappoint ya, Innkeep,” said Willie with a knowing laugh, having silently entered through the front while Horace was immersed in his labours. “Ye’ll ‘ave ta ‘old off on da party.” He slammed the meat of a gloved fist down on the oaken bar. “We’ll take a room an’ a cask o’ dat ale fer ourselves. Sharpish. An’ fetch yer best fuckin’ Woodworker.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Hubert and Wally Doran, men just out of their teenage years who had not three summers before begun searching for a way to escape Kalingshire to the big city of Isha, had somehow found themselves under the tutelage of Nathaniel Impton, the local Woodworker. Nate, as he was known to his friends, had suddenly become extremely busy with jobs, some carpentry tasks for the townsfolk and the hermit types who lived out in the forest, but mostly, it had to be admitted, for the Black Pits.

The Black Pits, the infamous mining camp that doubled as a hellacious exile for the criminal element of Thrairn, had suddenly began breaking down. A large portion of the mine had collapsed, and oak beams and supports needed to be sawn, cut, and installed. Nate could not handle all the work himself, so he had taken on the Doran boys, erstwhile poorly-paid Lamplighters who had no skills but plenty of work ethic. The boys were slow learners, but they were excellent grunts. With proper instruction, they could be directed to the places that needed fixing and do the work that Nate’s aching back protested so loudly against.

“Wally, watch dat fuckin’ sawblade, yer gonna slice yer fingers off!”

No sooner had the words exited Nate’s mouth than the crimson erupted and the screech followed suit.

“Aieeee! Me t’umb!”

“Ah, Christ-man, lad,” said Nate, dropping the clamp he had been fixing onto his workbench and motioning to the injured boy’s brother. “Hubert, get on up ta Montcalm’s. On da fuckin’ double, eh?”

Hubert looked to his brother, who had dropped to his arse in a pile of sawdust. The pedal that worked the gears of the blade, a massive illegally-imported contraption of Liserian design, had been knocked over on its side and was crushing the older youth’s foot. He started towards him, which drew the frustration of his employer once more. Chastened by Nate’s shouts to leave Wally to him, Hubert turned on his heel and stepped forward. Unfortunately for him, and any chance of salvaging Wally’s thumb, the young man tripped on the severed appendage and fell face first into a pile of beams that had been bound together with wire strapping. Hubert was knocked unconscious and the thumb sailed backward through the air, unseen by Nate, where it landed in another pile of sawdust near the corner of the workshop.

“Ah, ya Gods-damned fool,” said Nate, after checking Hubert to make sure he was not dead. Then he opened a cupboard and pulled out a greasy kerchief. He threw it down to Wally, who wrapped the dirty bit of cloth around his stump and continued to wail. Nate looked to Hubert, who had not moved from his position splayed out on the wood. “I guess I’m gonna ‘ave ta take care o’ dis mess myself,” muttered Nate, crossing to the big door that led outside. “I’ll be right back, Wally! Keep pressure on dat, now!”

Nate threw open the door and stumbled right into Horace Jenkins, who grabbed the man by the shoulders firmly and peered past him at the bloody mess within.

“The Doran boys, then?” said Horace. Nate nodded with the ghost of a smile tugging at his lips. “Anything fatal?” Nate shook his head. “You tend to them, I will go summon Esmer.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

In the southern reaches of Thrairn, where Kalingshire had sprung up out of the forest in the shadow of the Crooked Spears mountain range, the hot Junius Month sun made travel in unshaded areas a very uncomfortable prospect. Horace, getting on in age, drinking freely of Clever Charles, and only rarely setting foot outside the inn, was not exactly the man he had been in his younger years (nor as he was when he had suffered from the strange enlivening condition that required scholarly intervention from an enigmatic woman named Kathryn not three summers before). Clomping along the wooded path to Esmer Montcalm’s, a local Physiker with a specialty in Chirugery, it was not long before he was winded and the sweat began to lubricate his thighs and undergarments. Why on Clovir had he decided to wear his leather duster?

Horace was heaving and stained with massive amounts of perspiration when the finally made it to the Montcalm residence. Reaching out for a knock, his hand never did make contact with the front door. It swung inwards and revealed a woman with blonde hair and eyes whose irises teetered on the edge black. She was wearing the white robe of the Physiker and carried a little leather satchel in her free hand.

“You haven’t beat the shite out of anyone again, then, old man?” asked Esmer, a smile blossoming at the doubled-over man before her. Horace shook his head, his breath still galloping out of control. “Whatever it is, I’m going to have to charge you. You just missed Magistrate Johnson – the stipend is at an end and I can’t offer my services for free anymore.” Horace nodded, totally unmoved by the news. “You knew? You knew that our good Magistrate was going to clam up the coffers, to leave the good people of Kalingshire to suffer without a Physiker?” Horace nodded again, then stood up straight.

“Fucking Tax Collectors. My dear,” he said, still wheezing. “I will pay you whatever you need. But that. Is not why I am here. The Doran boys. An accident. At Nate’s workshop. Not sure. What happened. I came right away.”

“Well, that was bloody stupid of you, Horace,” said Esmer. “I have no idea what to bring with me.”

“Nothing fatal,” replied Horace. “I know that much.” He looked over to the small barn next to the Physiker’s house. “Say, can we take your donkeys? I will perish if I have to make that trek on foot again.”

Esmer looked at Horace, then glanced around her yard. “What happened to Dumbtit? Where’s your own beast?”

“I had to put her down, Esmer, my dear,” replied Horace. “She took a fit after eating some tainted carrots, best I can figure it. We had hoped that she would recover.” Horace placed one hand on the leather sack hanging from his belt. “You have three of the animals, do you not? And could probably use a bit of extra coin. How about I buy one from you?”

Esmer did not reply. Instead, she went to the barn and returned within minutes leading a pair of asses with two leather thongs.

“Keep your coin, Horace,” said Esmer, handing one of the cords to Horace. “For now, anyway. We have a mess to clean up. Give me a moment.”

With that, the Physiker entered her house again. Horace made three attempts to get up on the beast before finally managing it. The donkey, for his part, brayed and snorted at the enormous man’s efforts. Barely another moment passed before Esmer exited the house again. In her hand, the small leather satchel which she had been carrying originally had been replaced by a Chirurgeon’s sack, a great big thing slung over the woman’s shoulder. It would be filled with all sorts of implements: a bone saw, needles, thread, splints, bandages, vials of different medicines, blankets.

“What is his name,” asked Horace as the Physiker turned to lock the door. “The donkey, I mean. The one you gave me.”

“Clarence,” said the Physiker flatly.

“Like our good Magistrate?” replied Horace, laughing. “I cannot call him that. You know what Clarence – the real one – is like.”

Esmer’s face hardened as she mounted her own donkey. “Yes,” she replied. “I know what he is like. So the ass is Clarence. A base, stubborn, ignorant shite of an animal.”

Horace laughed again. “We better get on,” said Horace. “They might be touched, the Doran boys, but I would hate to see one of them hurt because we took our time in returning.” The Physiker gave her donkey a smack and the beast started to move. Horace did the same. “Say,” added the Innkeeper, “where were you headed, when I arrived? I did not interrupt you, did I?”

“Horace,” replied Esmer, smiling good-naturedly, “every time you visit me it’s an interruption. But, yes, actually. You did. I was going to make a house call. To your good wife.”

“Gizzy?” said Horace. “Why is that?”

“She hasn’t told you?” asked Esmer, peering at the sweaty man in the bright sun. “If that is the case, it certainly is not my place. You will have to speak with her yourself.” Esmer noticed a pained expression on the Innkeeper’s face before adding, “I can tell you that it’s nothing serious. Well, not that serious. Hmm, let me try again. You needn’t worry yourself, but perhaps you should speak with her.”

“Alright, Esmer,” said Horace, somewhat satisfied, but still worried. “After the Doran boys, we are going straight to Gizzy. You can give two stones to a bird for your trouble.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

It did not take long for the Tax Collectors to get utterly piss loaded in their room. They had drained the cask by noon, at which time Barry stumbled down the stairs to the bar. He had removed his mace and armour, and was now dressed like an unattached degenerate fop with clothing that looked like it needed to be burned for how dirty and old it was. Giselda was tending to the other drunkards, unemployed sots who spent their days and what meagre coin they possessed on Clever Charles or the bone-curdlingly foul and locally-distilled liquor called aquavit. Aquavit was cheaper, and smelled like a Mortiker’s hut, but in spite of its utter vileness, The Black Kettle could barely keep it in stock. Still a great number of the customers preferred ale. Giselda was cleaning a dirty tankard and watching the men sip on the local tipples when Barry sidled up next to her.

“Another cask den, missus,” said Barry, placing a coin face up on the bar. The visage of King Janus, a relief carved into the gold of the coin, stared up at Giselda. “Dat’s double what dis piss is wort’.”

“Ye ain’t cout’,” said Giselda, making a grunt of disgust before turning to bend down and grab a cask from some cubby beneath the bar. “I can’t believe da King ‘as types like ye doin’ ‘is dirty work fer ‘im.” She placed the cask on the bar and pulled the tap out of the spent one. Then she lined it up with the bung on the new cask, gave it a few whacks, then handed over the tapped cask to the intoxicated Tax Collector. “Dere. Don’t choke on it, now.”

“Ye’s some dirty bitch,” slurred the man, gathering up the cask under one arm and turning to go. As he did, his foot got caught in a stool and he fell. Mercifully for him, the keg did not leak or shatter. Though it might have had something to do with the fact that he let his back take the brunt of the fall.

“It ain’t a Gods-damned infant,” said Giselda, opening the door to the bar and going to help the man up. “Clever Charles ain’t nuttin’ to break a fuckin’ bone over.”

“Eh, maybe ye ain’t so bad, ya cunt ya,” Barry said as the woman pulled him to his feet. He tried to nuzzle in to her cleavage as he raised her up. Giselda responded by pulling her fist back and giving the man a solid clout to his mouth. He stumbled back and fell on his arse again.

“Get yer own self back up den, ya fuckin’ drunken pig,” said Giselda. “One more load a shite like dat and yer da fuck outta ‘ere. I don’t give a toss who ya are.”

“‘Oy,” called down Willie from the top of the stairs, “what’s all dis den?”

“Dis is us goin’ back up to da room, Willie,” said Barry, somehow recognizing the danger of Willie’s temper through the ale-haze. He stumbled to the bottom of the stairs.

“Dat’ll be two sandwiches fer us, wench,” said Willie. “Ye’d best ‘ave ‘em sent up quick or I’ll be comin’ back ta see ya answer fer smackin’ a papered Official.” Willie brandished a crumpled piece of parchment, some sweaty thing he kept hidden in some inner pocket near his crotch. It was indeed an official document, but the desired effect, some sort of a channeled fear of the King’s authority, was rarely what was conveyed these days. Instead, the theatrics played like some strange mix of comical ineptitude coupled with simmering wrath. Willie and Barry might look and act like Gods-damned fools, but it was evident that they had cracked their fair share of skulls over the years. Quite literally, given the standard issue flanged mace of the White Guard.

“Like I said before,” Willie added, “sharpish.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“You’ll be lucky to get out of this without an infection, Wally,” said Esmer, putting her suturing kit back into her sack. Both of the Doran boys were seated at a table in front of her, Wally gripping the base of the thumb beneath the gauze wrapping, Hubert gently rubbing the lump on his forehead. “If you do – if it starts burning and you get a fever – come to me, straight away. I haven’t lost anyone in this town to sepsis yet, and I don’t intend to.” The boys nodded sheepishly and Esmer turned to face Nate.

“Mr. Impton,” she said, “I apologize for this, but I’m going to have to ask you for five tin pieces for the trouble.” Nate’s eyes widened and he began to protest. “Please, let me finish. The Magistrate and the Mayor visited me earlier today. They informed me that they could no longer keep me engaged as the Kalingshire Physiker. As this is the case, I’m going to have to charge my patients.”

“Dem Gods-damned Tax Collectors, wasn’t it?” asked Nate, crossing his office to a cupboard set into the wall. He opened it and retrieved a leather sack. He spread it open with his fingers and counted out five pieces of tin. Sighing, he put the bag back and returned to Esmer. When he went to put the coin in her hand, he grabbed her with both of his own. “Please, now, don’t ye go doing somethin’ stupid, like leavin’ us.”

“Don’t worry Mr. Impton,” she replied, “I have no intention of that.” Then she looked to Horace, who was standing silently near the doorway back into the workshop. He nodded to her, said his farewell to the Woodworker and his apprentices, then held the door open for the Physiker.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

By the time Horace and Esmer arrived at the Black Kettle, it was mid-afternoon. Most of the drunks – the aquavit types – had passed out at their seats, though some had had enough sense to drape themselves over the couch and fauteuil near the fireplace. Aside from servicing a few upright beer drinkers, Giselda was taking the opportunity to clean up mess that the men had made during the lull.

The middle-aged Innkeeper kept looking to the stairs that led up. She had quite a bit of experience dealing with intoxicated individuals pawing at her, and she knew how to defend herself. That did not mean that this one didn’t worry her more than normal. Ever since she had suspected her condition, she had been on high alert. And a Tax Collector could bring Hell down upon her little sleepy hometown if he made the wrong report back to the capital. She did not want to have to deny him again.

Giselda breathed an enormous sigh of relief when she saw her husband pull open the door. It caught in her throat when she noticed that he was holding it so that Esmer Montcalm could enter. Had she told him?

“Giselda,” said Esmer, smiling as she approached her. Giselda had been delicately washing a table around the forearms and heads of a pair of snoozing citizens. “Looks like you have your hands full.”

“Afternoon, Esmer,” she replied, straightening and balling up the cloth. “All in a day’s work, Maid.” Giselda caught herself – Esmer was an Ishan and Giselda hated to be looked down upon as an ignorant country woman. Using quaint local phrases around her – like calling a female friend ‘Maid,’ – always made Esmer uncomfortable. “I means, ‘All in a day’s work, Esmer.’”

Esmer smiled at her. “You’re never going to warm up to me, are you Giselda? You know I love you both, you and your husband. Even if he might be a bit too headstrong for his own good sometimes,” Esmer motioned to Horace, who appeared to be interrogating one of the conscious men at another table.

It was Giselda’s turn to smile. “Ye knows we loves ya, too, Esmer. Ye might be a come from away, but ye’s family now, ya knows dat, right?” Giselda did not wait for a response. “Say,” she said, dropping the tone of her voice, “ye never telt ‘im, did ya?”

“I never did, except to say that I had to come see you,” Esmer replied, a contrite expression wending its way onto her face. “For a condition. Sorry, Giselda, I just assumed he knew. You are going to have to tell him, one of these days.” Esmer paused and regarded the sack she had placed on the floor. “Unless… I did bring a full complement of treatments.”

“No,” said Giselda, “Not a chance. We already talked ‘bout dat.” Giselda’s shoulders slumped and she grabbed Esmer by the forearm. “‘e telt me years ago ‘e never wanted anudder one. ‘ow am I gonna tell ‘im?”

“Tell me what?” asked Horace, who had approached the women surprisingly silently, given that he was dragging a weedy man by the scruff of his neck. “Give me a moment.” Horace lined up his advance, then pushed the drunkard out through the door. Before he let him drop, he gave Horace a playful kick on the arse. The man fell into a sprawl. “Drinking is not a necessity of life, Darren. You will pay your tab and then you will be permitted to return. Go speak with your uncle. I am sure he will lend you the coin. And if not, well, you can always go see if they will take you on at the Pits.”

Horace closed the door and returned to Esmer and Giselda.

“Now, Gizzy – erm, I mean Giselda. Would you please tell me what is going on? Esmer told me that it was not serious. Whatever it is, I am sure we can get through it.”

“A babe,” said Giselda, a tear rolling down her cheek. “Yer gonna be a da ag’in, ‘orace.”

“But yer,” said Horace, his eyes wide. “But she’s…” he added, turning to Esmer.

“I ain’t dat old, ‘orace!” shouted Giselda. “I knew ye were gonna react like dis! After ‘enry, ye never wanted no more kids, ye always said it!”

“Gizzy, my girl,” Horace said, embracing her. “I only said that because I thought we could not again! To spare your feelings! This is the best news I have had since I can remember!”

Esmer smiled at the pair as they wept and kissed. She had always known them as the couple that were natural parents. And yet, nature had seen fit in its caprice to deny them more of that for which they were so well-suited. When Giselda had come to her, having missed her moon’s blood, part of the Physiker had been overjoyed. And now, it seemed, all was right with the world. Esmer relaxed.

“‘oy!” came a slurred voice from the stairs, breaking the spell. “Back to yer rooms if yer gonna shag ‘er, old man. But not before ye gets us anudder cask, ya fat bumpkin fucks.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

When Magistrate Johnson re-entered the Black Kettle that evening, the place had already filled near to bursting with locals. In addition to the drunks from earlier that day, a complement of Spearsguard, those men who ensured the smooth operation of the nearby Black Pits mining operation, had seated themselves near the exit. A few feet away, men whom Johnson recognized from his courtroom as confirmed Highwaymen were passing around a bottle of aquavit. Farmer Whateley, the man who brewed Clever Charles for the inn, was on a stool by the bar, paging through a leather-bound book. The Magistrate noticed with relief that the stool next to Whateley was empty.

“Awlright, Aldous?” said Johnson above the din. The Magistrate motioned to Giselda, who nodded and began to pump the beer engine. Farmer Whateley peered over the book and his spectacles at the Magistrate before smiling in recognition.

“Clarence,” said the Farmer warmly. “Good ta see ya, me son.” He folded down a page of the book before closing it and placing it face-up on the wood of the bar.

“Still readin’ dat rot?” the Magistrate asked, glancing at the cover. “Fuckin goblins and magic and shite – dat ain’t real, ya know.”

“Clarence,” said the Farmer, smiling and shaking his head. “Ye just can’t help yerself from bein’ a bastard, can ya? It’s much better den ye might t’ink, Percy Spence’s stuff.”

“I’m sure t’is,” said Clarence. “I just prefers ta read about da real world – da place where we got all kinds a problems and concerns.”

“I heard about yer visit from da Tax Collectors,” said Whateley. “Yer firin’ Esmer? Surely dere is somethin’ else ta be done.”

“A few years ago we couldn’t even afford ta light da lanterns around ‘ere, Aldous. T’ings change, as ye can see.” Clarence waved an arm at the bustling room. “I telt Esmer dat we’d ‘ire ‘er again in da winter, once we’ve built up enough taxes again.”

“Let’s just ‘ope dat no one gets sick in da meantime, I suppose, den, eh?”

“Yes,” said the Magistrate. “Dat’s da plan.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

The death of Barry Templeton was like a play in three parts: there was an introduction, then there was some action, and finally there was a climax that saw the Tax Collector’s blood sprayed all over the bar of the Black Kettle, his body crumpled on the floor and the rest of his vital fluid leaking out onto the recently refinished wood floor.

First, the players. The Doran boys were involved, of course. Wally was drinking to forget about the pain that was throbbing from a thumb that had gotten lost in a pile of sawdust. Hubert was drinking to forget about the pain from the massive lump on his head, a souvenir from his concussion. Esmer was seated by herself, drinking aquavit. The Magistrate and Farmer Whateley had been joined by Nate Impton and Mayor Phelps, a quiet and unassuming man who held office because, well, he had always done it and the people of Kalingshire despised change. Behind the bar, Horace and Giselda were bubbling over between their labours of serving up beer, aquavit, and several pot pies Giselda had on offer as a grog bit. Finally, the two Tax Collectors had just left their room and were prowling among the Highwaymen and other toughs.

Willie Coulter loved a good bar fight. It was one of his flaws, at least according to Barry before his passing. Once he had enough booze on board, the man simply pushed whoever was meanest and closest until he had himself an opponent. It was a relic from the man’s youth, the desire to fight and prove… well, it wasn’t superiority. Willie could not give less of a fuck of what others thought of him. If he was being honest with himself, it was the only way he felt alive these days, especially since his daughter had disappeared off with those red-robed creeps a few years before.

It was Edward Gump, a ne’er-do-well Highwayman, who had allowed his ire to be raised by the older Willie. As soon as the clay tankard was smashed and a shard was gathered up by the younger combatant, the chatter in the room ceased and everyone looked to the circling men. Gump, vital youth that he was, made several attempts to engage with Willie, but was rebuffed every time. It was on the third attempt that Willie caught his wrist, threw him to the ground, and kicked him across the face. That ended it. Aside from the rise and fall of his chest, the boy was unmoving.

“Mr. Coulter,” said Horace quietly, approaching the two men, “you are going to have to leave.”

“Oh yeah? An’ who’s gonna make me? Ye? I’d like ta see ya try.” With that, Willie turned his back on the Innkeeper, picked up his tankard, and downed what was left. Horace, who was significantly larger than every other man in the barroom, grabbed Willie by the collar and started towards the door.

Barry, who had previously advised caution to his colleague when dealing with the locals, had let alcohol take him well beyond reason, as evidenced by his molestation of Giselda earlier that afternoon. By this point, there was naught but simmering ego left in the man. He was a walking reaction. And at that point, he reacted.

“Leggo of ‘im ya cocksucker, ya,” said Barry, producing a long-handled hunting knife and advancing on Horace.

As soon as the weapon came out, the men of Kalingshire – Magistrate, Mayor, Woodworker, and Farmer – were on their feet. Encouraged by the wiles of the liquor themselves, they were not about to stand idly by as their beloved Horace was threatened by this degenerate fuck of a Tax Collector. Each produced his own weapon: the Magistrate had a knife of his own, as did the Woodworker. Mayor Phelps had a strange glove-like apparatus made of brass that fitted over his knuckles, something that none of the men had seen before and none noticed for comment at just that moment. Farmer Whateley simply grabbed a pie coated fork from their table, hoping he would not have to use it.

Willie struggled, of course. He tried to free himself from Horace, who had readjusted his grip on the man. There was no escape. Horace oriented himself with the flopping body of Willie between him and Barry. Willie’s eyes went wild when Barry attempted a few swings at Horace, barely missing Willie in the attempt. By the fourth swing of the knife, the men of the village were on them.

As much as the men had their hearts in the right place, Barry was a man well-acquainted with the type of violence in which they were all now engaged. He managed to fight the Mayor and the Magistrate off, sending the pair of them careening off into the table where the Doran boys were seated. They were pulled from their reveries and fully processed what was occurring for the first time. The two heads of government of Kalingshire lay bleeding from non-fatal knife wounds at their feet. The apprentice Woodworkers stood up and charged.

By this time, in spite of Horace’s size, Willie had gotten free. He smashed Hubert with a well-aimed fist, right on the massive lump that had appeared on his forehead. Picking up a chair, he swung at Wally, but the Kalingshire boy ducked just in time and struck him in the belly with his good fist. Willie retched up something nasty, a bilious mess of half-digested pie and beer. It splattered Wally in the eye, who shrieked and tripped over his unconscious brother.

If the two Doran boys had not fallen over, perhaps Barry would have survived. As it happened, though, Wally’s body was too much for Barry to navigate while trying to fend off the older Kalingshire men. Instead, he himself stumbled and fell, twisting back to land face first. Only, instead of face first, his eye caught on the fork held by Farmer Whateley. The force of the fall drove the tines up and into the Tax Collector’s brain, snuffing out his life and breaking the fight haze that had descended over the bar. Everyone seemed to notice the death at once.

“Barry!” shouted Willie, who had recovered from the stomach punch. He crossed to look down at him. Blood was pooling on the slats near the dead man’s head. Willie shook him a couple of times before adding, “Ya killt ‘im! Ye Gods-damned bumpkin fucks – ya killt ‘im!”

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“Ye can’t ‘ear yer own case,” said Willie, the cold sobriety and hangover an unrelenting contrast to the hot Junius month sun that was streaming in through the windows of the courthouse. “Yer too close. Ye’ll ‘ave ta get anudder Magistrate in-”

“Yer fucked in da ‘ead if ya t’inks yer callin’ da shots on dis one, Coulter,” said Magistrate Johnson coldly. He rubbed at his gauzed-wrapped forearm. “I’ve got ya dead ta rights on causin’ a disturbance and assault on da Doran boys. Dat dead sack o’ shite ye came in wit’ woulda swung fer ‘is attempts at murder. If it were up ta me, ye’d be servin’ sixty days at da Pits fer dis.”

“But it ain’t up ta ye,” assessed Willie. “Word from Isha, den.”

“From da fuckin’ King, of all people.” The Magistrate passed a letter across the desk. The purple wax of the seal, into which the trio of cups of the Aquester coat of arms had been pressed, had been snapped in two. Before letting go, the Magistrate hesitated, “Ye can read, can ye?”

“Fuck yerself, Johnson,” growled Willie, pulling the letter free, unfolding it, and beginning to scan the page. A smile appeared on his face as he read. “Recalled by the order of da King ‘imself, eh? Looks like dat Pits’ll ‘ave ta wait den, eh, Magistrate?”

“I don’t know ‘ow ye’ve come ta be in possession of such favour from da man on da t’rone, Willie, but ye caused a right fuckery o’ a disturbance.” The Magistrate leaned forward in his chair. Between them, the gulf of the massive desk seemed to close in on itself. Willie could smell the old man’s breath, and it was rank. “Ye knows, ye took everyt’ing from us. More den was necessary. We ‘ad ta fire our Physiker, fer fuck’s sakes. Many people in da town’d prefer dat da story went dat both Tax Collectors died accidentally in da Black Kettle.” The Magistrate picked up a letter opener and began to clean under his fingernails, pausing for a moment. “I’d ‘ate ta see ya ‘ave an accident on yer way back ta Isha.”

Willie recognized something in the Magistrate then. It was the kind of rage that was unfamiliar with reason. The type of red emotion that saw men make foolish decisions, one that never once knew regret. It would watch the world burn with satisfaction. It had razed more than one life to the ground and the Tax Collector had watched it happen. Willie felt, for the first time in the long time, a measure of fear.

“Well, Magistrate, I’m sure dat some o’ dat coin can be returned to ya. A blood tax, fer yer troubles. Never let it be said dat the King an’ ‘is Tax Collector’s weren’t fair men.”

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Esmer, Horace, and Giselda were the only ones in the inn when Willie made his exit. They had decided to shut their doors for the morning, just so they could get a breather after the mess from the night before. The Tax Collector barely looked up at them as he strained and marched with the overstuffed bag of coin. Horace, ever the gentleman, got to his feet and tried to help him out the door. Willie told the Innkeeper in no uncertain terms that he did not need his help. Still wanting to be kind, in spite of the terrible behaviour of the Tax Collector, he offered Willie a cask of Clever Charles.

“I don’t want yer fuckin’ horse piss ale, ya cunt ya.”

“The horse’s gifts always come from the mouth,” Horace said sagely to the man before pulling open the door to allow the over-encumbered man his exit.

“It’s ‘never look a gift ‘orse in da mout’,’ ya stupid bumpkin bastard,” retorted Willie. “I’ll look yer fuckin’ ‘orse in da mout’ any day-”

Horace slammed the door on Willie while he was still crossing the threshold. Then the Innkeeper proceeded to kick him several times in the face and the ribs. It was a lesson that many had learned about the wisdom of making fun of Horace’s problems with idiomatic expressions.

“You deserve worse than a boot fuck, you disgusting pig,” said Horace, winded from his efforts. “Giselda!” Horace called back to his wife. “The hammer.” She brought the massive implement of death out to him just as Willie was getting back to his feet.

Horace brandished the weapon menacingly at Willie, until the Tax Collector was aboard his coach and whipping his horses into motion. As the last glimpse of the interloper disappeared from view, Horace turned to face his wife, who had been watching from the doorway behind him. Horace placed the war hammer on the ground and put an open palm to his wife’s midriff.

“Now then,” Horace said, smiling, “let us forget about Tax Collectors for another five-year, eh?”

“I’ll drink to that,” called Esmer from the bar, pouring a full mug of Clever Charles down her throat.

Giselda simply smiled, and placed her own hand over her husband’s. “I t’ought dis place was done fer, not t’ree year ago,” she said. “Kalingshire, I means. An’ now, look of ‘er.”

“Yes,” replied Horace, leading his wife back to the bar, “now look of ‘er, indeed.” He paused to set her down on a stool and sit next to her. He picked up the tankard of beer he had left. She took her own vessel of water and put it to her lips.

“Say,” Horace began, laughing, “did you see that shite that Phelps had on his hand last night? Brass fucking fist or something?”

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