Five and a half years later.
Graham Wiertham, a stocky man in his early forties and dressed in his best business suit, forced a smile and nod to acknowledge those that passed him in the lushly carpeted corridor. He noted the suits of armour, family portraits and hunting trophies on display. Is he really any different? Hearing the case is one thing, but would he dare rule against his own? He turned and looked through the large oak doors into the main courtroom of Draishire Castle.
The luxurious rugs gave way to a cold marble floor, and the aisle between the rows of benches together with all the lines in the room guided your eyes to the judicial bench at the front and the grand wooden sculpture of the Draishire coat of arms above it. It featured a lion on the crest, ram and owl supporters, and below the motto, ‘Honour, courage and wisdom’. The main space was oak-panelled up to the height of the doors with white plaster above that, and was flanked by wooden upper galleries on either side. They protruded out into the room by two metres or so and were supported by a row of five pillars at their free end, forming a colonnade of sorts down both sides.
Baron William Fristead, a tall, handsome and somewhat athletic man in his late thirties, was dressed in the finest clothes money could buy and sat at the left evidence table. He examined his impeccably manicured fingernails then glanced around himself and nodded, impressed. Quite a crowd he’s gathered. Fine, let the vultures drool. It’s about time someone made a public spectacle of these frivolous lawsuits and showed that there shall be no return to the anarchy of fifteen years ago.
Mr Wiertham took a deep breath and moved down the aisle to his seat at the right evidence table. On his way, he made eye contact with the Baron, who stood and stepped towards him, extending a hand.
“Mr Wiertham, how good to see you,” said the Baron with a condescending smile and gleam of malevolence in his eyes.
Oh, this was a mistake. Mr Wiertham’s eyes widened and he shrank back as he accepted the handshake with trembling fingers. “And you, my lord.”
The Baron took his seat again with a look of smug satisfaction. Mr Wiertham took his seat and internally kicked himself, There’s no going back now, pull yourself together.
Two resounding thuds of the butt of a ceremonial pike against the marble floor drew all eyes to the court bailiff, in his mid fifties and dressed in the uniform of a yeoman of the chamber.
“All rise for the court of Viscount Draishire, which is now in session.”
Everyone stood as Marcus, now thirty-three years of age and dressed in flowing official robes, entered from a side door and sat at the raised judicial bench, appearing fresh and eager to get to work.
“First case, please.”
“First case, Mr Graham Wiertham versus Baron William Fristead,” announced the Court Secretary, sitting at a desk beside the judicial bench.
The two of them came forward and the Viscount gestured towards the older man. “Mr Wiertham, please state your case.”
Mr Wiertham took another deep breath and steeled himself before taking a further step forward. The initial stutter that betrayed his nerves immediately disappeared as he got into his stride.
“F-First of all, my lord, I do not wish to imply any disrespect towards Baron Fristead, or towards yourself, and I wish there was another way of resolving this problem, but I see no other way than to appeal to you, my lord, for clarification on this issue.”
“No disrespect?” sneered the Baron. “My lord, this… plebeian is protesting against tax collection, directly challenging our authority!”
“Thank you, Baron Fristead,” steadied Marcus, “let’s discuss this calmly and civilly, shall we? What precisely is your complaint, Mr Wiertham?”
“Well, my lord,” said Mr Wiertham, still a little unnerved by the Baron’s protest, “at seven in the evening on the thirty-first of January this year,” he glanced down at the first of the prompt cards in his right hand to verify that detail and steady his nerves a little, “one of my lord Fristead’s tax collectors came to my cattle shed for my taxes, asking for twenty percent of that month’s income, which I had ready in cash for that purpose. I handed it over, there were no irregularities, and I went home.”
He glanced at the card again and his voice gradually regained its full natural strength. “On arriving back at the cattle shed at seven the next morning, the first of February, I found the same tax collector waiting for me, demanding the same amount again as my taxes for February. I did not have this amount to hand, neither did I have the opportunity to go to the bank in the meantime, since its opening hours are from nine to six.
“He refused to come back at a later time or to wait for me to send someone else to the bank, which would have taken at least three hours, and immediately ordered the confiscation of twenty percent of my cattle. Within twenty minutes a fleet of cattle transporters arrived, fifteen I believe, and they left with three hundred head of cattle at approximately half past nine. Our conversation and the cattle transport was all recorded on the farm’s security cameras, I have the recordings with me, including timestamps, and can show them if needed.”
“Baron Fristead, will it be necessary to view the recordings?” asked Marcus. “Do you wish to dispute Mr Wiertham’s version of events?”
“I do not, my lord. It seems to be in line with the report from my official.”
“Very good,” acknowledged Marcus with a nod. “Continue, Mr Wiertham.”
“Thank you, my lord. There was no way for me to obtain the money in time, and I was being taxed on income that I had not yet earned. My other subsidiary businesses will suffer from the reduction in milk supply, meaning I will be less able to pay any future taxes, and such a shortfall could recur. Is this to become standard practice? Are we now expected to have forty percent of our monthly earnings to hand at all times? It seems to me that such an approach is not conducive to a stable economy, it becomes extremely difficult to do business under such circumstances.” A bead of sweat rolled down the side of his forehead as he finished his appeal.
The Baron then stepped forward. “My lord, Mr Wiertham should not be lecturing us on what is good or bad for our economy. His farm is but one small element in a very large system, and he has no idea what it is like to manage such complex affairs. The confiscated cattle are being worked in my own cattle shed, serving the economy just as well as they were in his. The tax collector was performing his duty, the law clearly states that taxes are to be collected once a month at a rate of twenty percent, it does not specify a particular day of the month.”
“Hmm.” Marcus paused for a few seconds, as if assessing an opportunity, then nodded slightly. “Well, it seems clear that that law will need to be amended. I will decide on a new wording over the next few days. Besides, as it stands, the law states twenty percent of income, not property. I find in favour of Mr Wiertham, the punishment was excessive and the collection itself was not carried out in a reasonable manner. The confiscated cattle are to be returned and Mr Wiertham’s farm is exempted from its tax burden for the month in question.”
Mr Wiertham’s shoulders dropped and he half-laughed, half sighed in relief. Baron Fristead opened his mouth to speak, but Marcus raised his hand to silence him.
“In addition, the issue was raised of Mr Wiertham’s ability to appreciate the difficulties of effectively managing the whole of Fristead’s economy as a baron, and also of Baron Fristead’s ability to appreciate the situation of a businessman attempting to work within the economic system in place. I am aware that the incident brought before me today is far from the first of its kind, and this is not a pattern that I wish to see continue, but what is to be done? Should we throw up our hands and say such misunderstandings are inevitable?
“How much disharmony and distrust could be avoided by simply walking in one another’s shoes for a day? My father was a firm believer in this saying, and made sure that I witnessed other sides to life before being handed any sort of administrative role. In addition to the usual military service that young men are sent on, he insisted that I spend an additional year being trained and employed in turn as a road sweeper, farm hand, hospital porter and finally laboratory assistant. I must confess to being less than enthusiastic at the beginning, but the experience and insights I gained by its end enriched me more than I can put into words.”
Mr Wiertham smiled and nodded, while the Baron exuded an aura of impatience.
“I intend to provide the two of you with a similar opportunity to see how the system works from a new angle, to understand the difficulties that the other faces, the contribution that his activities make to society, as well as what is at stake in his day-to-day decisions. To ensure that this exercise is taken seriously, this is what we are going to do:”
Marcus counted on his fingers as he announced each new point.
“One. My chief auditors will spend the next three days carrying out a detailed assessment of both of you in terms of your current total wealth and projected total wealth in six week’s time. During this period, you will both be my guests here at the castle.”
A concerned expression swept across the Baron’s face.
“Two. The two of you will then swap places and spend one week learning all that goes on and the responsibilities that are expected of you in your new temporary positions. During this time, you are not permitted to make any changes to how things are done.”
The Baron’s concern turned to indignation, and eyebrows were raised around the room.
“Three. For the next month, you will have the full powers that correspond to that position, and full access to the resources and wealth available to the other. You may make any changes you deem necessary, and manage the resources available to you as you see fit.”
The Baron’s indignation turned to horror, and faint whispered murmurs could be heard from the galleries.
“Four. Another three-day detailed assessment will be carried out and the final determined amount of total wealth compared with the projected amount from the initial audit. If the amount you achieve is greater than the projected figure, you may take half of the difference with you. If the amount is less, you must pay double the difference to the other party.”
The Baron’s horror became rage, his nostrils flaring and the knuckles on his tightly clenched fists turning white.
“Five. While this second assessment is being carried out, you will again both be my guests here at the castle, where we will meet together to discuss any new insights on the economic system as a whole as well as what, if anything, needs to be changed, before you return to your previous positions.”
The Baron was unable to contain himself any longer, he was almost foaming at the mouth as he half-screamed, “This is an outrage! How dare you insult me to this degree! You would turn me into a cattle farmer?! What about tradition?! What about…”
“Go in the corner and count to ten!” shouted a tiny voice, with all the authority it could muster. All heads turned to see four-year-old Lucius, who had been secretly watching the proceedings from behind a pillar, now pointing at a vacant corner of the room with the sternest possible expression on his otherwise very sweet little face.
“In the corner!” he insisted, repeating the standard punishment he and his brothers received for complaining about one of Daddy’s decisions, his eyes still locked on the dumbfounded baron.
“Wha-? Who?” Several of those present who knew little Lucius couldn’t help smiling to themselves, but those smiles faded when the Baron regained his composure and turned on this impudent urchin, “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that?! I’ll teach you to respect a member of the nobility, come here!”
He lunged for Lucius, attempting to grab him by the arm. The little boy screamed and ran for the safety of Marcus’ arms, who picked him up and comforted him before answering the Baron’s question:
“This is my eldest son, Lucius, who will one day govern in my place. He was expressing his opinion that your outburst against me was unacceptable, and that you should calm down. I entirely agree with him and suggest that you follow his recommendation.”
“What? You mean…?”
“Yes- walk to the corner of the room, look at the wall and count to ten. Then come back here so we can continue this discussion in a civil manner.”
The Baron sighed and began to walk to the designated corner.
“And count nicely!” added Lucius, the remnants of a hurt expression on his face. The Baron responded with a venomous glare, at which Lucius buried his face in his father’s arms again. Marcus scolded his little boy,
“That’s enough, Lucius, you leave the Baron alone. Thank you for wanting to help me, but Daddy has very important work to do here. You are not to come into the courtroom when Daddy is working. If you need to tell me something important, you tell it to one of the messengers at the door. When you are ten, then I’ll take you with me when I’m working and you can start to help me then. Agreed?”
“Yes, Daddy,” consented Lucius, still not entirely recovered from his little emotional ordeal.
“Good boy.” Marcus gave Lucius one last hug and kissed him on the forehead, to which Lucius responded by smiling and stroking his father’s arm. Marcus returned the smile and instructed, “Now go and find Mummy and do what she says.”
Lucius happily ran off through the side entrance.
Meanwhile, as the Baron slowly counted aloud, the tension in his shoulders eased as he processed the details of the ‘experiment’ and a plan formulated in his mind, his devious smile hidden from view. He also did his best to mask any changes to his voice that would give away his new-found joy and calmed himself to immaculate decorum by the time he finished his count.
“Nine, ten.” He returned to the centre of the room in a dignified manner.
“Now,” resumed Marcus, “any further objections?”
“No, my lord, just one minor query. My wealth is undoubtedly orders of magnitude greater than that of Mr Wiertham. What if the damage he does to my estate is more than his resources can cover?”
“He will have five days to obtain loans to cover the amount. Otherwise, all of his property will become yours and he and his family will have to work for you until the debt is repaid.”
The Baron cast a triumphant glance at Mr. Wiertham. “Well, this shall indeed be a fascinating enterprise.”
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