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April 15, 2024

The Aser Stories 47: Just Thievery

By Sand Pilarski

A legal question besets the company: is conjuring an object the same as theft? And just to keep things interesting, is "demanding" a tip for delivering a message the same as theft? Do chickens really count as "theft"?

After we managed to peel the enamored empath Prest Ur-Hannan off Margot the Troll, we set out for the Ur-lands to the east: the ancestral home of the Jennan Clan. We'd been here before, of course: Danner and I had both been born here and nurtured by the strange essence of the Jennan Well, which makes our people some of the best shamans in the world.

There were seven of us in the company, not counting the horse. Cloudraft the Great, a displaced wizard; Margot, a troll on vacation from the security guard position she held with a southern trade caravan; Dan Ur-Jennan, my friend and relative and on again, off again apprentice to Cloudraft; Narsai and Guillaume, talking baboons who took care of Cloudraft's library; Racer, Margot's talking dog (yes, all three of the animals had run into the same kind of magic); and me, Ase Ur-Jennan, who was just out for the fresh air of travel, and okay, we can admit it, to stir things up in the world for the hell of it.

We had crossed out of Ur-Hannan territory by noon, and in another hour were skirting the big open field of grains (looked like wheat and oats this year), it still being summer. The field would be harvested in early fall, and then the bare ground would host the gathering of Clans. As we headed east, the ground began to rise a little under the trees. We struck a path and turned north.

The buildings of the Jennans tend to be low, one-storey places under the trees, with wide covered porches on all sides. In the summertime, people often sleep outside on these porches, so they tend to be cluttered with various comforts: bedding rolled up and stacked on tables, or basket chests with lamps atop them for use at night, carpets and mats for sitting or sleeping on.

As we passed houses, people began coming out of the doors, or from the little garden plots that dotted the landscape between the trees, peering at us and then shouting my name and Danner's. We waved, and the people fell in behind us, following us, hoping for an explanation of the baboons and the troll.

Cloudraft was starting to puff himself up with annoyance at being part of a parade, and Margot's bronzey-green scaled face was taking on an air of long-suffering. The baboons sat backwards on top of the packs on the horse's back, watching the procession and waving like politicians.

In another hour, we reached the Hall of Elders. A dog trotting along with the throng that had followed us moved forward and with hackles bristling, approached Racer, who stood stiffly, ears back, pretending not to see the advancing mutt. The local dog edged forward to sniff at Racer's rear, stretching his neck as far as he could. Suddenly Racer leaped end for end and snarled viciously at the dog, teeth showing and snapping. "YAR-YAR-YAR!" he barked, sending the sniffer scuttling away, tail between legs. Racer looked up at Margot and said very quietly, "I've been wanting to say something like that for days."

The commotion from the dogs and the crowd got the attention of the worthy elder inside the hall. A wide door with a rounded top opened, and Rain Ur-Jennan, the chief elder of the clan emerged, wearing a tool belt with a hammer and a pouch of nails dangling. She unstrapped the thing and slung it over her shoulder. As she surveyed the multitude, she ran a hand over her tangled white hair, and watched as one of the Jennans waded across the river at the ford to tell others of the circus that had come to town. She saw me, and pointed at me, then crooked her finger at me to come forward, evoking childhood memories of her using the same gesture when she was my teacher. "Aser, are we in trouble again?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," I answered her. "I think we may have blown up an evil wizard."

Rainer clapped her hand over her eyes. "Oh, shit."

"I figured we could get one of the Ur-Trabben seers to have a look," I offered by way of explanation of why we were here instead of attracting vengeance far, far from home shores, so to speak.

"Courier!" Rainer shouted, fumbling for a pen in the pockets of her robe. She pulled out a fountain pen and a small slip of paper as a crow landed on the porch beside her. "I need you to take a message to the Ur-Trabbens," she told the bird as she scribbled.

"As long as there's a tip involved," said the crow, ruffling his feathers. Three other crows landed as well, panting with the summer heat. "And that will include my brothers and my sister, too."

"Go ahead, tell me 'it takes a village to deliver a message,'" said Rainer in disgust.

"Hey, you wouldn't believe the riff-raff flying around these days," said the crow. "Gets so you can hardly fly around by yourself anymore. And anyway, those Ur-Trabbens are cheap bastards. They haven't paid postage since the Mountains rose." He snatched the paper from Rainer and took off, followed by the other three crows.

"Sundown, Aser, right back here. We won't bother with the Hall; I can already tell this is going to be a zoo. Besides, I'm trying to fix floorboards." She turned and went back inside and shut the door.

As we settled into a space in front of the porch of the Hall of Elders, Cloudraft, waving his wand, made a feast appear in front of us, about a dozen roasted chickens, a mountain of mashed potatoes with butter, and what looked to be a half cord of boiled sweet corn on the cob. "Where does this stuff get conjured from?" I asked before I gave myself up to the repast.

"As I recall," Danner said, looking to Cloudraft for his approval of her recitation, "real substances are ethically only conjured from those loci which are etherically marked by disproportionate wealth," she took a breath, "for the purpose of fulfilling local needs adequately."

"Except for...?" Cloudraft prompted.

"Except for money, which is a medium of exchange in and of itself, and therefore is not subject to etheric moral exchange."

"Stealing someone's roast chickens is a medium of etheric moral exchange?" I asked.

"Use of a medium of exchange is not theft," said the wizard loftily. "The intrinsic values of the decrease in moral culpability and the usefulness of the conjured items are systematically equal."

Oh, good, another Robin Hood theorem. Take from the rich and give to the poor. The merry mischievous mendicant sees a poor old widow with a begging bowl going door to door asking for scraps after the midday meal, and having pity on her, cinches his own belt a little tighter and sets off for the castle of Duke Ham of Glutvale. Using clever skills, he sneaks into the treasury and the kitchen and relieves the Duke of a few things he will never miss anyway. Knocking on the widow's door after dark, the cloaked figure hands her a few silver coins, a loaf of bread, and a string of summer sausages. Mysteriously he slips away in the night, the widow blessing his very footsteps.

The homestead was burned to the ground by an army passing through, and the farmer's store of vegetables in the cold cellar are all dust; the herd animals he managed for milk and meat have gone to fuel the energies of soldiers' demanding marches. In fear and trembles, his goodwife sneaks to the other end of town, to the burgher's big cabbage field, and by night pinches a head with which to make a watery but life-sustaining soup. The children cry not as much before they fall asleep, and the husband vows he will have the strength to begin again in the morning.

What is justice? What makes actions "right"?

The volunteer librarian shelves and carries books all day, answers the patrons' questions, checks books out and checks books in. A reference volume on herbs and herblore sits on the shelf and gathers dust day after day. The volunteer librarian dusts the neglected tome and notes that there are never even any fingermarks in the dust. "Why should this sit here unused when I could study it at home?" he asks himself, and when another month of disuse of the valuable book has passed, tucks the encyclopedia of plants under his arm and takes it home to study. Weeks go by, and 'borrowed' becomes 'just recompense in the form of an unused book for all my free labor.'

What is the sensible solution to the ills of life, or to the senseless waste around us?

Duke Ham of Glutvale's crops have failed in the drought. Cattle, horses, and goats are slaughtered to dry the meat against the winter's coming hunger; fifty serfs are released from servitude to make their way in the world because the Duke will no longer be able to provide even their most basic need. The serfs wander through the village, and at nightfall, cold, hungry, and without prospects, smash in the window of a merchant and take blankets, bowls, soap, yardgoods, flour, and dried fruits -- anything that will help them survive. The merchant and his family will go hungry this year, but is their poverty as base as the serfs'? Were they not justified to take a little, when what they had was so much less?

I raised a finger and shook it in the air. "And tell me, just who is it who was in need of this 'decrease in moral culpability' that said personage could afford to lose a feast?"

Cloudraft folded his arms and huffed. "Kaladang the Axe. The poster child for inconsummate greed."

"Kaladang!" shouted Danner and I in unison.

Margot tossed the chicken she had been about to eat back on the huge platter.

"Are you out of your mind?"

"Oh, as if he would ever notice," said the wizard.

"Well, suppose he does notice," I said, "and bribes, pays, or tortures a seer to check out where his fat, juicy hens have gone. He sees that they ended up as a dinner in the lands of Ur. This is a guy who started a major war over someone taking a herd of goats onto a contested hill for grazing! HE IS GOING TO COME HERE AND WASTE US!!"

"You're overreacting."

"No, I'm not! Send it all back. ALL. NOW!"

"Oh, fine," Cloudraft said. He waved his wand in dismissal and the whole pile of food disappeared. The dog and the baboons sighed in chorus. "Do what you like for dinner," the wizard said. He mumbled something and tapped his wand on the ground. A paper-wrapped sandwich reeking of grease and sugary bread appeared before him, as well as a red hard-paper package of fried potato strips. He picked both up and strode away from us.

The crowd who had followed us watched with wide eyes, and then began to come forward with journey-cakes and fruit and even a wineskin. Margot and I pulled out pouches and offered payment for the food, but the answer of every provider was "No, that's okay, I've got plenty!"

That's the real moral redistribution of goods: that those who have excess give it away when they see the need, and you don't even need to resort to magic to make that happen.

As we dined on bread and fruit, Margot nudged me unkindly in the ribs. "Didn't I first meet you when you were still on the lam from stealing some ghost's gold?"

"It's all in a bank in Great Well," I said, "earning interest. You may say that I'm holding it in trust."

"So maybe you're one of those Ether Points of Excessive Wealth yourself."

"I never really considered it mine."

"She's lying," said the dog, who was sniffing my foot.

Well, maybe, but I don't steal chickens.

And I sure as hell wouldn't steal them from Kaladang the Axe.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-28
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