Having begun this series of short stories with a look at a festival at the highest levels of society, and moved through comfortable small-town life, this experiment in a fantasy setting finally reaches the farming-villages in the countryside, and the end-of-year ritual of the gathering of taxes and the royal visit.
Its inspirations – in historical and fantastical terms – are becoming more clear. There are elements of medieval Europe and Heian Japan, but it is not intended to be a direct analogue to either. What matters more, I think, than it being directly comparable to a real culture is that it feels like a credible culture in its own right, and even if the writing does not explicitly explain everything, the reader’s own understanding of cultures and how people think can let them fill in the gaps in their own way.
The harvest is brought in in a small village that is in a green crook in the foothills of stepped peaks. Hard work has once again been rewarded with straining storehouses. There is but one more obstacle in the way of well-earned rest, the visit of the tax-collector, and the royal party who accompany him. This riding-out is considered a way to impress the people, and for the nobility to learn some humility in accordance with The Divine’s guidance for us. Today, it rained. A gentle autumn shower that began not long after the copper-hued sunrise and ended shortly after noon to leave the world humid and golden-lit. The procession – the simple wagon on which the tithes will be taken and the column of soldiers that flank the prince – gleams with drying rainwater, spots of moisture shrivelling on sun-gleaming armour and dripping from noses and spear-points and the manes of horses. Cloaks are the dark colour of wet cloth, the handles of swords and the bridles and reins are clammy to the touch, and already there is a heavy warmth to the air. It will be a fine afternoon, for those who are dry.
I ride as a part of this; next to me, I see a woman I have known for a very long time. Droplets of rain are suspended in her eyelashes, water has flattened the strands of hair that hang below the line of her helmet, and with each drip from a metal nose-guard she twitches in a way that is quite amusing to watch. Reaching over, with the grace that one expects from someone trained in the saddle, I brush the water from her helmet’s brow with my sleeve and she says something approaching thanks. She is never quite sure how to respond to these generosities. Her skin, in this autumn sunlight, is tinged the colour of a fine pale tea, her hair almost silver. It is hard to describe this beauty. The poems she has been sent, which she shows me to great laughter, prove this. We ride under a wide-leaved tree, whose branches bend over us and filter the sun, and my spear knocks a branch, dousing us both with cold water. The horses bristle at this downpour, and the woman I ride with laughs to hide her discomfort. I improvise a few awkward lines about the suddenness of rain being like – what it is like I falter on. I cannot speak plainly about these things in this way, but you can imagine what I wish to say as you imagine a smiling woman wiping rain from her eyes with the cloth I use to clean my sword, offered in a hurry. The others who ride with me are staring, so I hold back on saying more.
The boundary of the village is marked on the road with an arch, around which wild flowers blossom and neat arrangements of cut blooms are tied with ribbon. At night, lanterns will burn from the arch’s spars, and one can see the worn circles of ground where a watchman has stood in nightly vigil, and the dent worn in the stones of the road by the tip of a staff or spear. We have ridden past fields, these ones well-picked and the earth richly scenting the air. Past the arch, animals just released after the rain graze, and I feel my horse pull towards the grass. In the village-square, by the well and the travellers’ shrine where The Divine in her guise as guide stands, the farmers stand waiting to pay their taxes. Most pay with coin, money given by the village-chief as reward for their feeding the people this winter. Some offer payment in kind, which is loaded into the wagon along with the chests of coins. The village-chief and his money-master have counted every last piece, and as two of the soldiers I rode with move the chests, the money-master reads in a dry, old man’s voice who has paid what, and bids us behold their own marks, made of their own will. It is the last ritual, in many ways, of these people’s year. The counting of the money, the final reckoning of the harvest with us, their lords. It does not do for any lord or knight to become too forward, to think too highly of their own status. Without the love of these people we stand before, nobody can rule. Lines come into my head about how, before the waiting taxes, lords are reduced to lesser than farmers. Lines that perhaps I should not write down, for their humour would probably be lost on many of the people to whom I address poems.
We will stay here tonight, listen to the requests of the people tomorrow and then proceed to the next village, and the next, until the wagon is full. Then, we will return home, and proceed out again until all the villages of this province have been visited, and the needs of their people heard. We take, and we listen, and we promise aid. It is now some way into the afternoon, and hunger is beginning to distract the riders. The local people notice this, and as is tradition we are invited into the chief’s hall to dine. The tax-collector himself sits with the chief and his money-master, and we are placed at a long table. At the next table, a small number of the village’s elderly, and some children, and others who for whatever reason are in need of a meal, sit waiting. Winter will be upon us soon and while it is not going to be as harsh as in the mountains, those too infirm or young or old to properly bear it alone will be the responsibility of the people just as this village as a whole is the responsibility of the king and his lords. In this hall, lords really do wait on the generosity of farmers, and that phrase keeps turning in my mind as I try to find a way to express it suitably. Perhaps an aphorism about humility, evoking the teachings of The Divine.
My riding-companion has shed her wet cloak, and her helmet and armour, and sits by the fire in a pale green tunic and white trousers, her hair gradually drying into unkempt tufts. I wish at this moment I could send her a poem, something elegantly humorous about the wild forests, something that would bring laughter to her. For some reason my eyes are drawn inescapably to the curve of her delicate ear beneath silver hair, and the way she dips her eyes when spoken to. Sometimes it is as if she turns them toward me, as if she needs permission to speak freely. Beer, golden like the sunlight and slightly warm and bitter, is our drink, served in – for we are guests of a man of importance – metal cups and poured from a fine pottery jug. No soldier, even those raised in the castle on fine wine in thin ceramic low cups, will refuse this, not when it is brought with plates of the very produce we have just received the taxes on. These days represent the last chance for these people to truly live uncaring before winter, and so they are welcome of any company.
For the remainder of today we will busy ourselves about this village; any messages from the crown that need reading will be read to an assembly of the people, and in turn the village-chief will call upon the prince for justice should it be needed. The intercession of higher authority is reserved for disputes that the chief and his advisors have been unable to resolve – most often, matters of land-boundaries or inheritance or the myriad problems that seem to invite no simple solution or where personal bad feeling might get in the way of truth. In cases where money is involved, the tax-collector is well-read in such matters, and a dispassionate, disinterested executor of royal law. In rare cases – and I think we all hope none such arise – royal justice is needed for a crime felt so distasteful, so unthinkable, that the people of the village wish for a more serious proclamation of guilt. Or a matter so sensitive that it must be brought before ears that will not broadcast it across the village. Then tomorrow will be the more pleasant side of our duties – the people will make their petitions to the prince, he will pass judgement and decide how best they can be helped. There are two such ridings-out each year.
As part of each, there is another duty; any youth who wishes to enlist in the royal army need only speak to any of us and be tested. If he is strong enough to challenge one of the prince’s bodyguard and fight with determination and vigour, he will be permitted to return to the castle and be taught. My riding-companion, flushed with the boldness of being well-rested and finally warmed by the fire, is talking of how she hopes to be challenged this year. She even improvises a few lines about the strength of youth being like the tree standing firm in the winter wind, which invites some congratulation and some improvisation from others in turn. Improvisation I stay out of, for my mind is still possessed with immodest proposals that would not be able to remain out of anything I would compose to her. She has been looking the hall from one end to the other this whole time, aching to stand and talk to others. There is time enough before the passing of judgement. I watch her go and find people among the crowds, and talk to them. Listening, not in any formal capacity, but simply listening to what these people have to say, about their year, about their families.
About, I finally remember, her family.