Chapter 4 - The Tax Problem
After ten years of being cursed, the kingdom’s books are a mess. So John sets about fixing that problem – and gives some thought to a few others.
John and Elsa very quickly settled in at the former Castle of the Beast, and they were both kept quite busy. Lady Belle had latched on to her new ‘project’ with a will – the way she did any project, apparently – and Elsa was almost always with her in either the library or the gardens. In new climate-appropriate dresses, which kept her from fretting quite so much about being hot; the castle’s staff had actually taken care of that problem without being asked, because they were so delighted to not have to ration the ice anymore. And the castle’s cook, one Mrs. Potts who John was given to understand was a widow, was very mothering toward his childlike princess, which pleased John a great deal.
The state of the castle’s books, however, did not. ‘A mess’ didn’t begin to describe them; they were a disaster. John finally gave up on trying to figure out how much gold the royal treasury actually held from the numbers and instead just took a lamp and a stack of paper into the treasury and counted it all himself. Which took him a full week, but by the end of it he knew exactly how much of everything was there and had come to the realization that the kingdom was much better off than might have been expected. In fact, it looked to him like it had once been a seriously prosperous kingdom, and that possibly there had been more than a little trade going on as well. There wasn’t any now, of course, not after ten years of being cursed right off the map – literally, as there was no mention of the kingdom’s name anywhere John had looked, and only blank spots where the name should have been on maps.
Blank spots that gave him a headache if he looked at them for too long, no less, and which couldn’t be written in to add a new name. The prince, Lady Belle and even Cogsworth, the steward, had confirmed that they’d all encountered the same problem. So it was a mystery, something John didn’t much like, but there also wasn’t anything he could do about it so he put that problem aside for later consideration. The books came first.
He made a new ledger, setting it up in the system he was accustomed to using, and filling it in starting from the last time they’d received the tax. Which almost immediately revealed another problem, although he was certain this was one he could solve by himself. A thorough check within the castle led him to the conclusion that the problem hadn’t originated there, which meant he needed to go investigate down in the village and surrounding countryside. Not that he minded: Mrs. Potts had been fussing at him about not getting out enough – she said the week spent counting in the treasury had made him ‘peaked’ – so going out to solve the problem would take care of that issue as well.
John, in truth, really had less experience with ‘mothering’ than his princess did – he’d never had it before, his own mother having died when he was little more than a baby, and he wasn’t sure what exactly to make of it now. Still, the woman kept scolding him, so going down into the countryside for an afternoon should make her stop. He let one of the servants know he was going in case anyone came looking for him, then got Sven from the stables and set off down to the valley to visit the farm of one Master Beauchard.
It was a lovely day for a ride, so John took his time. The valley below the little village was deep and dotted with picturesque farms – Adam had a very lovely little kingdom, although John wasn’t sure he knew it. “I’ll have to get him out here,” he told Sven. “It might do both he and his people some good if he was seen more often.”
Sven had no opinion on that save for a wide swish of his tail, which John took as either agreement or flies.
The farm he was looking for was quite easily found, and he reined in at the gate and dismounted, waving to a man that he saw near the house. The man approached him with a quick stride that meant business, and John swallowed when he saw the blunderbuss. Hopefully he wasn’t about to get shot for trespassing. Still, he had a job to do, so he drew himself up and tried to look unbothered by either the suspicious look or the gun. “Good day to you, sir!” he called out once the man was close enough. “I’m looking for Master Beauchard, the owner of this farm.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Who’s looking for him?”
John bowed. “John Kepperson, the Royal Bookkeeper. I’ve come about a discrepancy I found in the tax…”
The gun was immediately leveled at him, and he jumped. “It’s paid,” the man spat. “I’ll not give you a single gold piece more, either. Now get you back to the castle and don’t come back!”
John held his ground. “Master Beauchard, I came here to find out why you’re paying so much tax. It’s a truly ridiculous amount, and what I saw of your farm on the map, and riding in…I mean, we don’t assign extra tax just because it’s prosperous, and even though it’s a fairly large parcel of land that still doesn’t account for the amount you paid.” He put on his professional face, the one his father had used to face down councilors who didn’t want to listen. “Sir, I’m not leaving until I have an explanation. If it was graft…well, whomever you were paying it to must not be around anymore, because no one currently at the castle knows anything about it – and I did check, I questioned them all very closely and so did the prince.”
The gun’s fluted barrel dropped just a little. “He didn’t have a problem taking it.”
“Of course he didn’t, he had no idea how the tax worked—he just expected you knew how much was owed and wrote it down. Once I pointed it out to him, he was quite upset.” The farmer looked suspicious of that, and John rolled his eyes. “Sir, how in the world would he have learned it? My father taught me my trade, as your father probably taught you yours. Prince Adam’s father disappeared when he was a boy of ten, and then he spent the next decade of his life trapped in the body of a mostly illiterate monster. When, exactly, was he supposed to have learned the skills needed to run a kingdom?”
The gun was pointing at the ground now, and John breathed an internal sigh of relief that he wasn’t going to be limping home with a bullet in him this day; the unpleasantness of that experience for himself aside, he thought his princess’s reaction to it would probably be much more unpleasant for the entire valley. “He’d been taught not to let strangers in the door, like any child,” he told the farmer, somewhat confidingly, “and then this fairy came along and cursed him for it? She had to have been a bad fairy, a good one wouldn’t have done that – a good one would have asked to speak to whomever was in charge of the boy and made her request of him. If she’d asked Mr. Cogsworth, he’d have let her in at once…but for some reason the servants had all been told that the boy was the only one allowed to answer the door, even though he was barely able to budge it by himself.” He shrugged. “In all honesty, I suspect that the curse was more about the kingdom than it was about the boy. I still haven’t been able to discover why that would be, though. It’s a lovely little kingdom, but I haven’t yet seen anything here which would account for such an elaborate plan being enacted.”
The farmer thought on that for a moment, nodding. “Now that you mention it…yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I’ve a boy that age, and he’d not have let a stranger in either if I wasn’t about. So far as a reason, though…” He switched the gun to the other side, held out his hand. “I apologize for the rude reception, Mr. Kepperson. Do come into the house, we’ll have a cup of tea and I’ll explain.” He leaned in a little. “I don’t want to discuss the tax issue out here, one of the neighbors might hear and be embarrassed.”
John took the offered hand without hesitation, giving the man an understanding smile. “I had wondered if it was something like that. A cup of tea would be lovely, thank you.”
The Beauchard farmhouse was clean and comfortable, and the farmer’s wife was plump and bustling and seemed kind. She was all of a flutter that someone from the castle was there, but once she had brought out tea and cake she disappeared back into the kitchen – to listen at the door, John was sure of it, but he didn’t mind. In this case, any gossip she might spread would only help Prince Adam. “So,” he began. “How much of the valley do you currently own, Master Beauchard?”
The farmer snorted. “Far too much – and a good deal of the village, too. My father did it,” he explained. “After the curse fell, things started to go very badly for the village, and by extension for all of us here in the valley. My father had the means, so he helped where he could…and ended up owning nearly all of it. They all pay rent,” he said. “But since we own it, now we have to pay the tax. It comes not quite even, and it’s getting worse as time goes on; my father had set the rents low, and the tax rises even though they don’t.”
“I can see why you’d not want to raise the rents,” John agreed. He took a sip of tea and thought a moment. “If you’ve a list you could give me – or I can write it down if you don’t – I’ll look it over and see if there’s anything we can do to help sort things out,” he finally said. “It’s an unfair situation all the way around at this point, to my way of thinking, so if there’s a way to remedy that I’ll find it for you.”
The farmer nodded, looking relieved. “I’ve a list, we keep it very carefully…” His wife came bustling out of the kitchen with it and put it on the table, and he made a face. “Thank you, Maribelle,” he said. “I’ll build a thicker kitchen door, shall I?”
She blushed, and John chuckled. “I did quite expect everyone who could to be listening in,” he assured her. “I know there’s a lot of curiosity about what goes on at the castle. I was just thinking on my ride out here that I need to get the prince to come out more often so his people can get used to seeing him. He’s quite a nice man, but as I was telling your husband he’s not had opportunity to learn this ruling business and he’s still somewhat unsure of himself.”
The woman sniffed. “His lady wife certainly isn’t afflicted by that malady.”
John laughed. “No, Lady Belle certainly isn’t. She’s got to be one of the quickest people I’ve ever met, always bustling around after something to do. And she’s helped Prince Adam remedy a great many of the gaps in his education…but there are some things one just can’t learn from a book.” She had frowned when he’d said ‘Lady Belle’, though, and he made an educated guess as to the cause. “Prince Adam can’t make her a princess for the same reason he can’t name himself king, the current laws of succession don’t allow him to. It’s an issue we’ll have to address, but right now the welfare of the kingdom takes precedence – even Lady Belle says so.”
He knew he’d gotten it right when her pleasant face relaxed and her smile came back. “Some of us had been wondering; thank you, Mr. Kepperson. Would you like more cake?”
“It’s wonderful, but no, thank you. I’ll have to be getting back soon, there’s still quite a lot of work to be done to get things back on track.”
“It’ll be a mercy if you can do that,” she told him, and then swept back into the kitchen.
Her husband started to say something once he was sure she had left the door, but John waved it away before he could. “It’s fine, Master Beauchard, it’s fine. The cook at the castle talks to all of us that way – the prince included. Plain speech only angers people who think too much of themselves to begin with.”
The farmer nodded. “So I say myself, Mr. Kepperson. Which also goes to that other matter, so I’ll make myself free to tell you what I think. You’re not from here, so you wouldn’t know what it was like before the curse. But the old king, our prince’s father, was…odd. He was always something of a gadabout young man, never wanting to stay home and attend to things like a proper ruler even after his father died, and then he married a princess from some northern kingdom – went out and got her and brought her back here to marry him, no less. That kept him home more often for a few years, but then after she gave birth to the prince he started going off again on a regular basis and taking her with him. They didn’t take the baby, though, and I remember my mother and the other women going on about that like it was the most unnatural thing a woman could do, queen or no queen. Still, the kingdom was prosperous enough, and people had gotten used to having a ruler who didn’t interfere with them overmuch, so the complaining wasn’t very loud or very long.”
He took a long drink of his tea. “Then, though, things started to get stranger. The king would come back, but the queen wouldn’t, and all the servants knew was that he’d said she was visiting her people because there were important things she had to attend to there. At first everyone thought maybe she’d decided she didn’t like it here, or that he was unhappy with her because he wanted another heir and she couldn’t give him one, but every rumor coming out of the castle said it wasn’t so and that the two of them played like children when she was home and couldn’t seem to get enough of each other. And then they left for the last time right before the prince’s eleventh birthday, and that was the last anyone in this kingdom ever saw of them. And then the fairy came the one last time…”
“And everyone suddenly had more immediate concerns than their gadabout rulers,” John said, and then he frowned – not just because the headache was coming back. “Wait, one last time? She’d been here before?”
The farmer nodded. “So I heard; whether it’s true or just people trying to make the story better for telling I don’t know. But some said the fairy had been seen at the castle before, that Mr. Cogsworth had been heard complaining about ‘mysterious visitors’ one day. Apparently he didn’t much care for people not coming in the proper way––or for his majesty not letting him know someone was coming in the first place.”
“No, Mr. Cogsworth wouldn’t like that at all,” John agreed. “I appreciate you telling me these things, Master Beauchard; I agree with you that it paints a strange and rather suspicious picture – I just can’t imagine of what at the moment.” He thought of something else. “This is going to sound an odd question…but I don’t suppose you can tell me what the kingdom was called before the curse, can you? The name has vanished from every map and ledger in the castle, and no one there seems to remember it.”
“No, they wouldn’t.” The farmer looked very grim. “Because nobody does. The curse took it from all of us, even from people who knew of our kingdom but didn’t live here. It was like we’d disappeared from the world.”
“Or like someone had wanted to erase you from it,” John mused. He shook his head. “No sense, it makes absolutely no sense. Maybe I’ll set Lady Belle on that part of the mystery – she knows the castle library like the back of her hand, if there’s a clue there, she’ll find it.”
The farmer snorted a laugh. “She would, yes. We all knew her as a girl, of course,” he explained quickly. “Always going about with her nose buried in a book, or coming out with the strangest ideas she’d gotten from one. Sometimes she made it useful, though.”
John just smiled. “Sometimes it can be, yes.” He finished his tea and cake, and then he took his leave of the farmer and rode back to the castle. Slowly again, but this time because he was thinking hard. Why would you want to erase a small kingdom from the memories of everyone who’d ever known of it? And why go through an over-elaborate curse setup to imprison the heir when you could just kill him and be done with it? It seemed like an awful lot of planning and magic unless something far larger had been at stake.
He stopped on his way back through the village to buy some of the small cakes the baker had out, thinking that his princess might like one and planning to give one to Prince Adam as well – incentive to come down to the village, the way John saw it. He put the cakes safely aside once he returned to his office, dug out a stack of the paper he used for making notes, and got to work on the farmer’s records.
Adam showed up some little time later. “You went down to the village?”
“I went into the valley to talk to the farmer who paid all the tax, Master Beauchard,” John corrected. He fished out a cake and pushed it across the desk. “I stopped in the village on the way back and picked these up – they’d just come out of the oven, they smelled too good not to try.”
Adam took the chair opposite the desk and picked up the cake, inhaling the aroma appreciatively. “Oh, that is nice. So what did Master Beauchard have to say?”
“Quite a lot, once I convinced him I wasn’t there to ask for more tax than what he’d already given,” John told him; he’d already decided that the gun the man had been holding probably shouldn’t be mentioned. “They’ve a very prosperous, pretty farm, and when the curse fell his father had the means and so he helped his neighbors and eventually some of the villagers stay in business. Unfortunately that ended with him owning half the valley – which he doesn’t seem to want – and with all of them paying him rent. But that means he now has to pay the tax on all of that property, and he doesn’t feel he can raise the rents to compensate. So he’s stuck and not very happy about it.”
“Can we do anything?”
“Possibly.” John tapped the sheaf of papers. “His father set the rents low on purpose, you see. He had to keep it low enough that they could all keep paying it, but they had to pay something so the situation would remain business rather than charity. It was a good plan for keeping the kingdom going, and it worked, but now the tax is fully back and it’s left him holding the bag, so to speak. His neighbors still can’t afford to buy their property back from him, and he can’t afford to keep paying the tax on all of it with the rents so low. So…” He finished scribbling on a piece of paper, pushed it across the desk the same way he had the cake. “I believe we may be able to do it this way, Your Highness, if Master Beauchard will agree.” Adam looked at the paper, blinked at him, and then shook his head; John sighed. “Sorry, I forgot.” He leaned over the desk, using his pencil to point to each part as he described it. “Here’s what his father originally paid for each property. This shows that some of them he only owns a share of, not the whole thing – but he’s still paying the tax for those as well. Here are the rents, which the people pay on a quarterly basis, and accounting for interest here’s what they all still owe.” That number widened Adam’s eyes, and John shook his head and sat back down. “That’s actually not as bad as it could be. We still couldn’t buy him out without draining the treasury past a point I feel is wise, but we could settle on that amount with him and arrange to pay say a quarter of it yearly in return for the deeds to the properties.”
“And then we give those back to the people?”
“No, but we can afford to let them pay it back to us without interest and not charge them rent, something Master Beauchard can’t do. They’ll also all have to pay their own tax, and I propose we do that quarterly as well to make it more manageable for them. The kingdom won’t be losing any money by doing it this way, because we have a surplus which I’m having to assume is left over from the castle being enchanted.” Adam blinked at him again, and John fished around in his papers and found another one to push over. “That’s what I found in the treasury. There’s no value on some of it, because some of those rubies are the size of my fist and I wouldn’t even know where to begin deciding how much they’re worth. A good many of them seem to have been mounted in something at some point as well.”
Adam frowned. “Rubies? I seem to remember…” And then he winced. “Ow.”
John nodded. “Same headache we all get trying to put a name to the kingdom?” Adam nodded. “It’s not just us. Master Beauchard says the name was wiped out of everyone’s memory everywhere he knows of, like someone was trying to make this kingdom cease to exist. It’s got to be either another curse or part of the same one, Your Highness.”
“Of course it does.” Adam put the rest of the cake into his mouth and ate it, looking glum. “Because not letting someone in a door you could barely open anyway is certainly worth that kind of overkill, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not.” The words came out rather sharper than he’d meant them to, and John winced when Adam jumped like someone had poked him with a pin. “Sorry, Your Highness. But it’s not! It makes no sense at all unless it was part of some larger plot, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what that could have been. Why go to all that trouble? If someone had wanted to take over…well, you were a little boy, it wouldn’t have been hard to get you out of the way one way or another. If someone had just wanted to destroy the kingdom, why imprison the Beast they’d created instead of letting him go rampaging across the countryside?” He made a face. “Why, for that matter, leave him sane? I’m making the assumption here that a curse has to have some sort of out-clause, because I’ve never heard of one that didn’t, but this one seems like it was only done to keep you out of the way for ten years and get your kingdom out of everyone’s thoughts as well…” He raised a hand to the side of his head, wincing himself. “All right, that really hurts.”
“Which means this curse protects itself…” Adam’s eyes widened. “So if there’s an – out-clause, you called it? – then it’s one we can’t use ourselves. Which means…”
“…Someone else has to do it.” John shook his head, then again, doing his best to force the thoughts he’d been having out; the pain receded with them, and he tossed himself back in his chair. “Dammit! I just know we were getting close!”
“Too close, apparently.” Adam thought on that for a moment, then shook his head. “All right, don’t do that again – don’t think about it, don’t try to figure it out. We can’t know how far it will go,” he cautioned when John started to open his mouth in protest. “The last one could have gone…well, I was a Beast, and I ate meat, I’ll let you guess just how badly that could have gone. But because of that, we know the fairy who cast the curse – or curses – was a very bad one who didn’t much care if people died or not.”
“True, she just wasn’t into killing them directly. So, games.” The face John made this time was disgusted. “I don’t like games.”
Adam cocked his head. “Played them a lot in Arendelle?”
“Me? No, my father taught me to stay clear of that whenever possible. Everyone else? All the time. Everything was politics, everything.” He sighed and started rearranging his papers. “All right, so that’s one problem we…can’t solve, and one problem we might be able to. First, though, I need to make sure you understand what that solution entails.” He raised an eyebrow. “Be honest, how much of the problem with the tax do you actually understand?”
Adam shrugged. “One man owns half of everything and he’s having to pay all the tax, and that’s bad?”
“Close, but no. One man owns half of everything and he doesn’t want it, that’s the problem – if he did want it, paying the tax on it would be his problem, not ours. Our problem is that his father did what he did to help the kingdom, which means it’s now the kingdom’s responsibility to fix it. With me so far?” Adam nodded, a bit cautiously. “Good. And as far as you being the ruler of the kingdom, it’s your responsibility to act on my recommendations for fixing the problem – or not if you don’t think they’re sound.”
“John, I have no idea if they’re sound or not!”
“I know, and it’s my responsibility to fix that – as I told you when you hired me, it’s not like anyone has ever shown you how the kingdom’s books are to be kept, or how the treasury is supposed to work, or even how the tax should be calculated, so there’s no way you could be expected to know any of it.”
“Do my subjects know that?”
John stood up. “They do now, because Milady Beauchard is likely the spigot half the gossip in the valley flows out of and I was rather…sharp with her husband on that topic. We’ll work on the attitude change for the village more later, though, right now we’re going to learn about the tax. Come over here to this little table by the window, Your Highness, we’re going to have a royal math lesson…”