Demon of Justice + Chapter 14 (cont)
Taxing Times

* * * * *

"Human," Uthmar said flatly. Karthan nodded. "You're saying that in Wufei's world, humans ride around inside demons, to make war?"

"Ah. That's another thing--"

"Great," Uthmar muttered, squeezing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Now I'm getting a headache. Go on, tell me!"

"I don't think Nataku's exactly a demon, either."

One slightly bloodshot eye popped open and glared across the table at Karthan. "You're not going to tell me that Nataku is human, too, are you? Because I'm warning you, I won't believe it."

Karthan grinned slightly. "No, sir, Nataku is very definitely not human. It's a machine."

Uthmar dropped his hand and stared incredulously at the other dwarf. To him, 'machine' meant something like the water powered mills and foundries in the dwarven cities, not something that could get up and walk around like a man. "You said he-- it-- You said Nataku can think! How can a machine think? And what makes it go?"

Karthan rubbed his temples, wincing slightly as the question triggered off a shower of 'memories'. A quick image of Nataku, lying on its back with half of its torso in pieces around it as a large metal object was lowered towards its socket, trailing wires as thick as rope-- "There aren't any words in any of the languages I know to explain it, sir. Nataku was built. There's something in the body that... it's got sort of a fire in it, but it's not hot, and even a tiny burn from it could kill you. The fire gets turned into something like lightning, is collected, and somehow it makes Nataku go. And think. Little trickles of lightning through tiny bits of wire and stone..." He shook his head, blinking. "The words just won't fit! It thinks, it counts and measures and ciphers so fast it's incredible, but it's got no will or emotion of its own. If Wufei tells it to do something, it does it. That's all."

=*It would explain why I can't feel Wufei except when he's using his powers,*= Torframos said abruptly in the back of Uthmar's mind, =*if he's not much more than human at other times. And it would explain why I can't feel Nataku unless Wufei is inside. How did Wufei get those powers, though?*=

"Do you have any idea how Wufei got his powers?" Uthmar repeated, for Karthan's benefit.

The other dwarf blinked and seemed to concentrate for a moment; then he shook his head. "No, sir. He's got them now, and he didn't have them before. That's all I know."

"So are we to call him human, or demon, or what?" Cord asked quietly. "I'll tell you straight, it's easier to think of him as a demon, what with his looks and all."

"His companions look normal by our standards, and he didn't-- doesn't-- think of them as different from himself," Karthan informed him. "I think humans just come in a wider variety than we're used to, where he comes from."

"Elves and dwarves and hradani, too?" Naiya asked, sounding interested. "What about halflings? A hradani with Wufei's colouring would be an odd sight!"

"I don't think--" Karthan broke off and frowned. "I don't think there are any there," he said slowly. "I didn't see any non-humans in his dream... though it was mostly about his friends... and I'm not getting any memories when I think about it. Did he draw any non-humans in his book?"

"No," Naiya said, shaking her head. "There are only two pictures of people that aren't his four friends or that girl, and they're both human-- though looks nearly as big as a hradani, and the other seems as arrogant as a Purple Lord!"

Cord snorted, flicking a quick glance towards the shuttered windows and dropping his voice. "Well, with no half elves in the world, somebody would have to fill their place..."

Uthmar smothered a cough behind one fist, beard twitching as he suppressed a grin. "A world of only humans, hm? Sounds monotonous."

"That's not the impression I'm getting, sir," Karthan said dryly.

"Well, even if he is human, it's probably simplest to keep calling him a demon," Uthmar sighed. "I think it'll be easier to tell people 'this one's a good demon', rather than trying to explain 'No, he's not a demon. He just looks different, and has strange powers, and a really big suit of animated armour'..."

=*Actually, human or not, he is a demon,*= Torframos said absently.

"Huh?" Startled out of his train of thought, Uthmar squinted up at the ceiling and frowned. "What do you mean?"

"He's talking to Torframos," Karthan explained in a careful whisper as the two hradani looked at the Champion with surprised expressions.

"I didn't think he was trying to start a conversation with my smoked hams," Cord whispered back.

=*'Demon' originally meant 'being from outside this world',*= the god explained, sounding rather preoccupied. =*'Devil' has almost the same meaning, but implies greater power. Even a creature with no powers at all can be a demon.*=

"Really?"

=*Oh, yes. If Wufei had brought a-- a rabbit with him, that rabbit would also be a demon. Assuming his world has rabbits, of course.... and since Wufei seems to have acquired powers since he arrived here, the hypothetical rabbit might, too.*=

Uthmar covered his eyes with his hands and groaned. "Demon rabbits," he said despairingly. "Vorpal bunnies... this is ridiculous!"

Cord nearly spat the last mouthful of his tea across the table as he choked. "Demon rabbits?!" he sputtered, mopping his face with a sleeve as Naiya snatched Wufei's sketchbook out of harm's way. "What are you on about, man?!"

"it was just an example Torframos gave me," Uthmar said hastily. "Any creature from another world is a demon in this world."

"So... demon rabbits?"

"If someone brought one here, yes," Uthmar sighed, glaring briefly upward. "It sounds silly, I know."

Cord snorted. "It does, aye! Brings to mind a wee fluffy cottontail with great big fangs, rippin' unsuspecting men's throats out. I think I'd rather have big green wailing blobs, thank ye kindly! You expect things like that to be dangerous."

"On that note, I think it's time to go to bed," the Champion said firmly, rubbing his forehead. "before this conversation gets any sillier. Unless you can think of anything useful to add?" he asked, raising one eyebrow at Karthan.

"I don't think so, sir," Karthan said, frowning slightly. "Except... no, it's gone."

"Hmm?"

"Every time someone says 'Nataku', something niggles at me," the dwarf said, frown deepening. "I'm not sure..."

"Nataku the big metal machine, or Nataku the girl? Chang Meh-ran?" Naiya asked, stumbling over the name.

"Both, but mostly the girl. Nataku. Nataku... oh!" Karthan smiled, brightening as light dawned. "That's it!"

"What?!"

"'Nataku' means 'justice'," he said, looking hopefully at Uthmar. "That's good... isn't it?"

* * * * *

As the next day dawned, the villagers were out at first light, looking glumly at the ruin the battle had made of their few remaining grainfields. Although the fight had started in the already burnt sections, it hadn't stayed there; sections of other fields had been flattened or torn up, Nataku's flamethrower had started a small fire and the bonfires built to destroy the demon's remains had touched off another.

"I don't think I'd feel happy eating what's left, either," Royce said with a sigh, kicking at the ground. Stinking black ashes fluttered away on the breeze. "Bits of that damned thing melted everywhere, and the ashes are all over the place. What if it's poisonous? I think we should get the fields blessed, and not replant until after Chemalka's sent us a couple of good hard rains."

"At this time of year?" Derrin grumbled. "It's not going to rain until winter starts, and that means winter wheat's the only crop we'll get. Don't mistake me, I agree with you that it's the best thing to do... but it makes a bad situation worse."

"I know." Royce sighed again, looking around at the gathered men and women. "We're going to have to buy grain to get us through."

"Do we have enough money to buy grain and still pay the taxes at the end of the quarter?" Jarad's mother asked.

"Maybe. If we buy the absolute minimum, if we cut extra wood for sale, and if the hunting is good, we can just scrape through, I think," the headman replied.

"Well, if we're not going to harvest what's left of this crop, we can plough it under and let it lie as soon as the fields have been blessed," Terrin shrugged. "We can put everyone onto woodcutting instead of weeding and bird-scaring."

"It's mostly the women and children who do that anyway," Gwent protested. "They can't cut trees!"

"No, but we can set the ropes to guide the falls, trim branches off the logs, cut the brush back when it's in the way, carry water and whetstones..." Jarad's mother smiled, standing straighter. "All of that takes time away from the cutting. And a few of the bigger girls might surprise you, Gwent Richars'son! We've got two months until the end of the quarter. I say we can do it!"

Royce nodded, relaxing slightly. "That's more like it," he said approvingly. "If we just-- eh? What's Manten up to?"

The tall teenager came out of the village at a flat run and made a beeline for the group of villagers. "Big trouble!" he wheezed, then went into a brief sneezing fit as dust and ashes swirled up around him. "Lord Yithar-- *ahchoo!*-- he's-- *ahchoo*"

"Lord Yithar's what?"

"He's demanding next quarter's rent now!"

--------------

"Isn't it customary to charge rent at the beginning of the quarter, Lord Yithar?" Uthmar snapped. "Not one month into the previous quarter!"

"According to Purple Lord law," Yithar said loftily, "I can demand payment at any time in the preceding quarter. And it's taxes, not rent! If they haven't planned ahead and can't pay, they're not the sort of workers a Purple Lord wants on his land."

And how are they supposed to plan for a spoiled brat's whim?* Uthmar thought angrily. *It's just a convenient way for you to kick them out, trying to salvage a scrap of pride by victimising people who can't fight back!

"I beg leave to make partial payment, m'lord!" Royce gasped, running into the square.

"Denied!"

Royce swallowed hard, but persisted. "M'lord, by law, if we have a reasonable expectation of being able to pay the full amount by quarter's end, a partial payment is permitted--"

"At the discretion of the lord involved!" Yithar said, almost dancing with triumph. "I say, if you can't pay now, you certainly won't be able to pay later. Not with your fields like that! And if so, I want you all off my land now, so I can move in better tenants!"

"Are there no provisions in your law for Acts of Gods?" Uthmar inquired. "That was an Act of God if I ever saw one!"

"No," Yithar said smugly.

"Will-- will you accept payment in kind, m'lord?" Royce asked desperately, clutching at straws.

"No! Money, jewelry and precious metals only," Yithar snapped. "I don't want half-cured hams and broken down nags!"

But you'll take them anyway if the villagers have to default, won't you? Uthmar took a couple of steps back, out of the Lord's line of sight, and drew Gunnar to one side. "Take up a collection among the men," he whispered, pressing his money pouch into his second's hand, "and slip it to Royce when that prick isn't looking. Tell them I'll pay them back when we get to a chapterhouse and I can access my funds."

"We'll do what we can," Gunnar whispered back, "but there won't be much. We spent most of our cash provisioning for this trip in a hurry!"

"I know," Uthmar hissed, "but it might make the difference!"

Gunnar slipped away, and Uthmar went back to watching as the villagers bustled around, scraping together every last copper coin and earring they had. Gwent brought out the small pouch of money that he'd saved from selling his beer; women twisted their wire-thin wedding bands off and added them to the pile in front of Yithar, fighting back tears; and through it all he looked more and more smug.

"I even got ten coppers out of that yellow-haired guardsman of Yithar's," Gunnar whispered, reappearing at Uthmar's side. "We were dicing with him last night, after Yithar finally went to sleep and he could get away. He doesn't say much, but I got the impression he doesn't like his lord much... It isn't going to be enough, is it?"

"He doesn't think so," Uthmar growled, nodding towards the Purple Lord. "Look at his face!"

=* If they default, you can escort them to the nearest chapterhouse,*= Torframos said quietly. =*The Order will provide for them.*=

Yes, but they'll have lost everything! Uthmar flicked a glance upwards, then back to the tavern table Yithar had appropriated; he was setting up a small pair of scales to weigh the jewelry, moving with precise, finicky movements. Their overlord may be a bastard, but this village is their home. The Order can't give them enough to set themselves up again, either; the best we can do is give them alms while they find work. They'll be split up...

Across the square, Wufei wobbled into view in the open doorway of Cord and Naiya's house, blinking sleepily at the milling villagers; then small demon saw the pitiful pile of valuables and coins in front of Yithar, with Royce standing opposite him, twisting his cap, and frowned, eyes narrowing.

And if he loses his temper and does Yithar in, it won't matter how much we approve, Uthmar thought grimly, starting to work his way around to where the human/demon was standing. The Purple Lords will see every person in the village dead!

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