The year 360, the fourth month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
"A property tax!" exclaimed the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon.
As head of Yclau's royal prison, he was used to handling crises. Prisoners who tried to escape. Guards who tried to carry out their duties while drunk. Fellow Seekers who whined about how much easier life had been for them in the lighted world, despite the fact that they paid not a single penny in the dungeon for their housing, food, and clothing.
Never before, though, had Layle Smith been faced with the possibility of the dungeon's utter ruin.
"Yes, we all have to do our part during these difficult times," said the newly appointed royal official cheerfully. "It is every subject's duty to our beloved sovereign."
Layle offered a dark look to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, who was presumably not the royal official in charge of raising revenue by sacking enemy towns. Not that such sacking had taken place for a while now. "We're not at war," he pointed out.
"Not yet." The Commissioner looked exceedingly sorrowful at this loss of revenue. "But signs are strong that our extended peace talks with the Vovimians will fail. And the treasury has not been doing well. We need more funds to pay for the upcoming war."
"'The treasury has not been doing well'?" repeated Layle slowly. They could not possibly be talking about the same treasury. The wealth of the Queendom of Yclau was legendary. The queendom controlled the largest empire since ancient times, with colonies throughout the Old World. It had the most advanced mechanics in the entire globe, with the result that it held a virtual monopoly on advanced industry in the New World. How could the Queen's treasury not be doing well?
"Yes," confirmed the Commissioner, without elaborating. "We've been doing our best to assist the treasury by drawing money from wherever we can. We've taken control of the pension fund for the Queen's Guards, the expense fund of the Queen's Home for Orphans Displaced by War, the annual Gift to the Deserving Poor . . ."
Layle listened with a certain amount of respect during the lengthy recital. Given his own past, he always had respect for men who successfully carried out the greatest of crimes.
Though these days, he usually managed to cause such men to regret their crimes, once he had them in a breaking cell.
He cut off a recital of which hospital funds were being drained, asking, "And the Queen approves of these measures?"
"Most certainly." The Commissioner's eyes were wide and innocent. "She had difficulty understanding the need at first, but her Secretary has been most helpful in making the necessity plain to her."
Ah. The weak link in the Queen's otherwise efficiently run government: her inordinately trusted Secretary. Layle slid his gaze over the Commissioner. Very young, very handsome, and very sly. Just the sort of youth that the Secretary was accustomed to taking into his bed.
Though it was not clear, in this case, who was the seducer and who was the seduced.
"I will need to discuss this matter with the Queen," Layle said tersely.
"Of course." The Commissioner's reply was complacent. "Take all the time you need, High Seeker. You have another two weeks to send us the payment before we seize your property as payment for the tax."
"If the Commissioner had only been twenty-one," said Layle, pacing back and forth in the sitting chamber of his living cell. "Twenty-one, rather than twenty. Incalculable harm has come to this dungeon over the years from that blasted Secretary. He insists on taking advantage of the old law that permits the Queen's officials to take young men into their beds until the youths are twenty-one, rather than eighteen, as the law goes for other men in the queendom. The amount of favoritism that this hell-damned Secretary engages in—"
"Deplorable," said Elsdon Taylor. "Men sleeping with full-grown men. Employers sleeping with men they have appointed to high positions."
Layle stopped to glare at the junior Seeker. "This is not a time for jokes. The future of the Eternal Dungeon is at stake."
"And will not be resolved by you worrying about the idiot Secretary. Come sit down, love." Elsdon took Layle's hand, tugging Layle down onto the bench beside him.
Layle sighed as he placed his arm around Elsdon. Elsdon promptly laid his head upon Layle's shoulder. He was twenty-three now; the lines of youth that had softened his body when Layle first met him, at age eighteen, were disappearing, leaving behind a hard solidity of body that aptly echoed his solidity of mind. Layle brushed Elsdon's fine golden hair with his lips before saying, "You are right. I am a hypocrite."
"Where matters of love are concerned, men will always take advantage of whatever laws they are placed under," Elsdon agreed. "I didn't fully realize as a young man, you know, that I would be unable to sleep with other men once I became an adult. I wonder sometimes what I would have done if I had stayed in the lighted world and had fallen in love with another man. Where are prisoners sent who break the purity laws?"
"Not to this dungeon, thankfully. The Queen has enough sense not to make hypocrites of us all." Layle paused to kiss Elsdon lightly on the lips. His hood brushed Elsdon's face as he did so. Normally Elsdon would have been hooded as well, with his face-cloth up in the privacy of their living cell, but Layle had interrupted Elsdon in his bath. It occurred to Layle belatedly that, while he'd been ranting about the Secretary and his thrice-blasted Commissioner love-mate, Elsdon had been patiently sitting, naked and wet, with only a towel around his groin to protect him from the year-round cool air of the underground dungeon.
Five minutes later, they were both naked and under the covers in their bedroom, Layle using the heat of his own body to warm Elsdon. Following up masterfully from Layle's last sensible remark, Elsdon said, "You spoke with the Queen."
"Of course. She pointed out what I have pointed out to her many times over the years, in disputes between the Throne and her dungeon: that the Eternal Dungeon is run under its own laws and its own treasury. In exchange for this independence, the dungeon is expected to handle its own legal and financial troubles, without involving the Queen. Even if," Layle added bitterly, "the Queen's own Commissioner is the cause of those troubles."
Elsdon ran his hand absentmindedly across the side of Layle's neck and down over the shoulder; they were embracing each other face-to-face. "I remember you told me, when we first met, that the dungeon's finances are separate from the royal finances. Who runs our treasury?"
"Our exceedingly overworked Record-keeper," replied Layle, watching as Elsdon entwined his fingers with Layle's. "We've tried to hire other treasurers over the years, but none of them had the integrity of our own Record-keeper."
"As for integrity . . ." As he spoke, Elsdon propped himself onto one elbow. "What did the Commissioner mean when he said, 'The Queen's treasury has not been doing well'?"
"Clever of you to have picked up on that," said Layle approvingly. It was always a pleasure to see signs of clever searching in the junior Seeker whom Layle had helped train. "I had a quiet word afterwards with an official in the Queen's treasury with whom I have exchanged information in the past. He tells me that there is some sort of leak in the treasury. Millions of pounds were drained last year."
"That much? Was the money taken by robbers?" Still youthful in certain ways, Elsdon looked excited at this image of bank robbers stealing bullion from the treasury.
Layle laughed then. "Being drained by documentwork. You've never seen the Queen's budget. It takes up dozens of volumes. Most of the volumes are copied over from year to year, with only a most cursory glance at them. Apparently, some organization within the Queen's government has managed to use this convoluted documentwork to sidle away a large chunk of the money in the treasury. The treasury officials suspect chicanery. They have been spending long evenings trying to discover the source of the theft. All that they've been able to determine so far is that the money is not being taken in a single lump sum."
"Millions of small requests for money, all from the same source." Elsdon nodded. "If that's so, they'll identify the thief eventually. In the meantime. . ." He reached over and took from the night-table the document that Layle had slammed down earlier, upon his arrival back at his living cell. "Layle, this figure can't be right. That's an enormous amount of money!"
"Five times our annual budget," Layle agreed. "Alas, it's a property tax. Three percent tax on any real estate in the Queendom of Yclau. Would you like to venture to guess what the most valuable land in the queendom is?"
"I suppose," said Elsdon with a sigh, "that would be the hillside for the Queen's palace and the dungeon that lies within it."
Layle nodded, taking back the tax demand that the Commissioner had given him. "So we have two weeks in which to raise five times the amount of money that this dungeon receives from the Queen each year . . . or the Commissioner of Internal Revenue will seize the Eternal Dungeon in payment."