Maldoror (maldoror_gw) wrote,

Original Fiction: Outlands - 'Social Insurance Number'

Another intermediate chapter, muuuuch shorter than the previous one.

Incidentally, I've been organizing this fic a bit and putting all the chapters in order in the 'link to all chapter' page. The overall fiction is called 'Outlands'. 'Out' is the name of the first arc. These intermediate chapters each have their own title, while each arc will also have a name. Thanks once again for all the comments! They're great fuel for my inspiration ^_^

Link to all chapters

Timeline: this is situated the day after The Talk chapter

Social Insurance Number

According to Darius, the door to the library was the one with the bronze engraving of Teraqin-Hallit fighting the Dacians. Ryou examined the metal plate inserted into the wood depicting a scene of a wide-eyed curly-bearded man in stylized armour flinging arrows at three identical foes a third his size, and supposed this was it. He pushed it open just wide enough to slip his head in and spy two bookcases of scrolls and nobody in sight. Good.

Ryou walked in and got a better impression of the room. It was a long rectangular space divided by floor-to-ceiling bookcases that acted as inner partitions. The shelves were made of wood and metal, elaborate design of diamond-shaped nooks to hold scrolls, and flattened segments reserved for the few books. The far wall beyond the bookshelves was pierced with windows high up, covered in opalescent material to protect the scrolls while letting in some light from the early morning sunshine. Sconces on the walls and shielded lamps would provide further illumination once lit. Booths beneath the windows, with cushioned benches and tables on which to unroll scrolls, invited the readers to sit down and read.

The first thing that struck Ryou was that, for a royal library that was the only repository of non-sacred texts in Sura, it wasn't very large; around two thousand scrolls at a first quick estimate, and a further tenth of that number in books. The second thing that struck him was that he wasn’t alone.

The person already present was half-reclining against cushions on one of the benches, a cup in one hand, a scroll unrolled before him. He glanced up when Ryou reached the booth area, they saw each other at the same time. Ryou got a small shock. The way the face was half lifted to the light, the frown that said the man was not pleased at being disturbed, the tawny hair unbound and falling on his shoulders...For a fleeting moment, the resemblance to Darius was striking.

Then he lifted his head further, that pleasant smiling mask slipped back onto his clean-shaven features and the resemblance was nowhere to be seen. “Ah, Ryou,” said Leyam in lieu of greeting.

“I’m sorry, your majesty, I did not know you were here,” said Ryou, already backpedalling towards the exit. Though Leyam looked perfectly happy to see him, Ryou had not mistaken that first expression.

“That’s the fourth time you’ve called me that since we met.”

Ryou hesitated, almost out of sight behind the nearest shelf, the door a few meters behind him. Would it be ruder to stay or to respond? “You mean, 'your majesty'? I’m sorry, should I call you something else?”

“Have you heard any of my people call me anything else?” Leyam prompted.

Ryou cast his mind back to the courtiers, the chancellor, Darius and the tailors he’d seen interact with the King of Assyria. “...Just ‘My king’.”

Leyam went ‘Hm-hmm’ into his cup.

“Is that the proper form of address?”

“Proper?” mused Leyam, putting down his drink and wiping the corner of his mouth with his thumb. He was dressed like yesterday, and Ryou found himself wondering if the king had gone to bed at all. “Proper...well...”

Then Leyam shifted on his seat so that his feet landed square on the floor, one arm against his chest in a heraldic pose and the other pointing straight at Ryou, the gunsight for a suddenly stern and forbidding expression. “In the age of my forefathers, you would have to address me as “Great King, Light of the East, master and liege” and you would have your hands cut off if you approached me from behind, and that’s if I was feeling generous.” Then Leyam slumped back in his seat, hooked an arm over the booth's backrest and crooked a finger at Ryou to beckon him forward. “Fortunately we learned a few things from the Greeks. Our free men have liberties and a say in this city’s running that make my ancestors pound in fury at the doors of their crypts on a daily basis. All you need to do, Ujiie Ryou, is serve me loyally and call me ‘My King’. If that’s not breaking an oath you’ve already made to your Emperor, that is. Is it?”

“What? Oh, no, no oath. But-...never mind.” Ryou hesitated, but then obeyed the gesture that had indicated he should seat himself in the stone bench opposite Leyam. He’d almost forgotten, in the whirl of events last evening, that Leyam had asked him a few questions about Ryou’s home country, and had been curious that Ryou was in principle governed by an Emperor. Then a slave carrying bolts of cloth had come in, and Leyam had made a signal not to discuss it further before Ryou could go into the details of a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government.

Leyam’s sandy eyebrows quirked, and when Ryou had seated himself, he said, “But?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You said no, you've not sworn an oath, 'but-...' But what?”

“Well...I’m not Assyrian.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Probably nothing,” said Ryou, taking off his glasses and giving them a weary wipe with a clean cloth he'd finally managed to score amongst the stacked crates, weapons, pieces of armour, maps, tablets and styluses and an old chewed beef bone he'd found in Darius's quarters this morning. It didn't matter, in final; the king might just be ‘my King’ rather than Light of the East etc, but anyone setting foot on his land was subject to his law, and by that law there was hardly anything at all that was not within the king's power.

“What’s tying your ankle? What’s troubling you?” Leyam rephrased when Ryou gave him a perplexed look. “You’ll have to tell me how the Gift of Zaratusra works, by the way, because it still seems incredible that we can understand each other as well as we do, bar a few expressions here and there.”

“As soon as I’ve figured it out, I will be honoured to tell you,” said Ryou, rubbing the bridge of his nose before putting on his glasses again. “I have...questions, but I do not want to disturb you any further.”

“One of the things you’ll learn about me, Ujiie Ryou,” said Leyam, “is that when you find me reading the annotations to the Code of Atolius at this unworthy hour of the morning, I'm in a state where I'll welcome some interesting discourse.”

That hadn’t been Ryou’s first impression, but he wasn’t going to call the king a liar. And it was true that he did have questions. Leyam, King of Assyria, had presumably better things to do than answer a bewildered foreigner’s queries, but Ryou did not know anyone else who knew exactly who he was, where he was from, and could answer to the depth required. Well, that wasn’t quite true; Ryou could ask Darius. But the kind of question he had would not be neutral when asked of his lover.

“Well...If I may-“

“Just a minute,” said Leyam, lifting a hand. “Nico, go grab some breakfast.”

Ryou blinked, then looked over his shoulder. Nicodeme was sitting two booths away, blinking drowsily. The mark of a pillow decorated his right cheek. Ryou hadn’t seen him earlier, the boy must have been sleeping on the bench when Ryou had first come in. He was dressed in a short skirt and not much else, and he looked ridiculously young with his hair tousled and his eyes sleepy. But Ryou caught sight of something small being slipped into the back of the large belt holding up his skirt when Nicodeme got up from the bench, something thin, palm-sized and that gleamed metallically in the soft light from the windows; a little reminder that, as with everything about and around Leyam, appearances could be dangerously deceptive.

Ryou responded politely to Nicodeme's parting bow and then attempted to gather his thoughts, focusing away from whatever weapon Nicodeme had bared on his arrival and more on the fact that Leyam had, without much thought, dismissed his bodyguard so he and Ryou could chat in private.

"My questions...I suppose I am trying to figure out what place I can make for myself here."

Leyam invited him to elaborate with a quirk of the eyebrows.

"Darius has invited me to stay with him," said Ryou, since Leyam was already thoroughly acquainted with his relationship with Darius - Rand would have seen to that before Ryou had even set foot in the capital - and would thus not likely expire from shock at the notion of his brother inviting another man to stay on intimate terms. "He's arranged for me to have a vacant room in the Noble Quarters, and you've clothed me and fed me, otherwise I would really have next to nothing in term of possessions. I owe a debt to the both of you which I don't know how I'll ever repay. But now I need to start looking out for myself, and for that I need to know how your society works and how I can fit into it. Is there any place that could use my kind of skills here? Can a foreigner even find work in Assyria without papers? How do I introduce myself, or prove to anyone who I am? What kind of revenue do I need for food and lodgings, how much are the taxes and am I, a foreigner, expected to pay them yearly, or are they taken off income?"

Leyam's eyes had widened in genuine amazement at each question, and then he started laughing, that snorting guffaw that had startled Ryou yesterday. “Taxes?! You want to pay taxes?!”

“...Do you not have them here?”

“Of course we bloody have them, how else do you think I run the state? We Assyrians invented the laws of taxations, as well as the rule of law itself, whatever those Babylonians and Sumerians say. But I’ve never met anyone so concerned with paying them. Your country's collectors must have such an easy job of it, may I have a twelfth of their bountiful joy.”

“What you’ve never met is someone who has not lived in any country remotely similar to yours,” Ryou pointed out. “I’m afraid this is the extent of my ignorance. Darius told me a lot about the war, religion, Assyria's history and such, but there's a lot of small details that makes every day life here possible that it never occurred to either of us to talk about.”

“Are our countries that different?” asked Leyam, snorting away a last chuckle.

“In many respects, they are.”

“Huh. Interesting, you’ll have to tell me much more. But not this morning.” Leyam rubbed his eyes. It seemed the laughter had broken the flow of energy that'd kept him going for who knew how long. He looked tired now. “To answer your question, you’re a guest of my brother's and a foreign dignitary. That means you don’t have to worry about room or board, my dearly confused friend from a far off land.”

“Foreign dignitaries have sources of income from their own countries,” Ryou pointed out, tone steady but intent blunt. “And guests are eventually expected to leave.”

Leyam chuckled again like an afterthought, but Ryou did not think he’d found the last words droll or missed their import. But all he said was, “Where is my brother anyway? He’s normally up as soon as Holy Shamash rises in the sky. Did you exhaust him so much he’s still in bed?”

“He said he had something to do with the troops around town this morning,” said Ryou, refusing to be thrown off his stride by the King's innuendos. “He left before dawn.”

“I see. Did you discuss this with him at all? Don’t tell me he gave you the impression you would have to fend for yourself from this day forward; if he was that rude to the first firm friendship he’s had in awhile, I’ll have to take a stick to the bloody mutt.”

“If you’re wondering why I’m not asking Darius about this...well, maybe it’s different here-“

“No, no, these are not the kind of questions one would ask a lover,” Leyam concluded astutely. “It’d sound too much like you were asking him how he was going to support you.”

“Yes,” muttered Ryou, who’d have preferred to not have it said out loud at all.

“I fail to see why you're so anxious about this."

True, Ryou could probably kick back and relax for at least a few weeks, or twelvedays as they counted them here. But that made him feel too much like a tourist. It just wasn't his nature. If he was going to stay here, however long, he needed to know exactly where 'here' was and how he was going to fit into it.

"I don't mean to cast any disparagement on your generosity or Darius's, but my countrymen feel very strongly about living on charity. Begging is considered one of the worst things someone from my culture can stoop to."

"Really?" Leyam interrupted, looking fascinated as always. "And what if they're about to go hungry?"

"They go hungry," Ryou said bluntly, then waved away the over-easy generalisation. "Darius is taking me to the temple of Hygeia tomorrow to make a donation for the recovery of my broken arm. It's my arm, yet I don't have even two, er, denarii to rub together. It's denarii, right?"

"No, that's Imperial currency. Though we tend to have adopted it for many things," Leyam said drily. "As for funds, you have ten talents of silver."

"I do?" Ryou blinked at the memory of Leyam's declaration yesterday. "That's right, I do. Thank you, you were once more being very generous-"

"I've got quite a lot of talents, whereas I only have the one brother," said Leyam with a regal nod. "And unless Hygeia saved your arm from the deepest putrefaction, I can assure you that you have plenty for her and whatever other God helped you survive the road riding at Darius's side. My brother is a man of superb physique who tends to forget others are mere mortals, so I think you'll have many oblations to make, but rest assured you have plenty of money to make them with."

"Oh. Good. I have to admit, I have no idea how much that sum represents. How much does a talent of silver weigh?"

"One talent," Leyam replied innocently.

"Right. Ah, how many denarii is it worth?"

"Well that depends. Which currency are we talking about? Which country were these denarii forged in? What's your coin's assay weight, is it stamped with an eagle or a king, and are the edges worn?"

Leyam was waiting for Ryou's comeback, obviously enjoying himself. The king's sense of humour was better than his suspicions, but only by so much, Ryou reflected. Very well then. Ryou had his shortcomings in sword-wielding and Assyrian etiquette, but not in economy.

"Let me phrase it another way. If I have one silver talent, how many bowls of rice will that buy me?"

"Ei? Rice? You eat that bland stuff?"

"Yes. It's a staple in my country." Leyam had probably never had anything approaching the quality. 'Bland stuff'...

"Hmmm. We only get rice imported from the Levant region, and that-"

"I'm sorry, did I say rice? I meant bread, the large flat loaves they sell in all the markets. How many of those can I buy for one talent of silver?"

"Hmmmmmm, well, for one talent of silver..." Leyam scratched his chin, eyes twinkling, then he decided to concede that Ryou had cornered him. "For one talent you'll be able to buy a hell of a lot of bread. I have no idea how much. This may surprise you, but I have never actually bought bread at the market myself."

Ryou kept his outward composure, but inwardly he smacked himself in the head. "That's right, my apologies."

Leyam gave that snorting laugh. He'd obviously enjoyed the exchange. "I can tell you that a good horse is worth two hundred denarii, a good slave with skills but no education is worth three hundred or more depending on his health and the market, and a large house near the walls of the palace can be rented for one hundred denarii a year. The houses in the Noble Quarters are not for rent and you are quite welcome to stay there by my decree; meals are provided as a matter of course, though it's polite to regularly buy a few seah of wine and a goat for the stewards. One talent is currently worth a hundred and fourteen aureii or in the region of two thousand eight hundred denarii, depending on who weighs it and counts out your coin."

With the exactitude of a cash register, Ryou's mind rang up just how much money he had to his name here and what that represented in terms of everyday life. His jaw dropped- but Leyam steamrolled right over his stuttered attempts to express his gratitude.

"That's by the Doric standard, which is much purer than the Roman standard; they've gone and watered the metal again. I'd say you'd lose five denarii out of every hundred right now if you're not careful which coin you trade in, and more if you're traveling closer to Roma Praetorium. Whichever emperor is on it, I'd advise you to have any eagle-stamped coin assayed in town by the Greeks on Silver Row to see what you're dealing with. Now, if you buy that slave I mentioned earlier, it'll cost you...ah, thirty denarii a year to keep him clothed and fed and all that, whereas paying an unskilled labourer to do much the same job would put you back nine bronze bits a day. That's not quite one denarius. And though I don't know how much they flog their bread for down at the market, Tupila tells me a grown man needs twenty four mina of grain a month, which he'll need one hundred and twenty bits to pay for; that's thirty bits for an Imperial modius of wheat, twenty five for barley, steeper than in my father's time but that's because of the war."

Ryou nodded as he memorized the information and started drawing economic equivalencies in his mind. He wasn't surprised that Leyam would not know the price of a loaf of bread yet could recite all those numbers off; from international currency negotiations which, without computers or even reliable communication, would rival the complexity of the Nikkei, all the way down to the cost of a regular free man's household including wife, children and slaves, which a good king would know before sitting down and working out the taxes.

Fast on that thought, Ryou said, "I wonder...It can't measure up to your generosity, but I would like to help you any way I can. It will take me a few months to find my feet and learn all the ins and outs of your financial system and your economy, but this was my work back in the Inlands, I am reasonably good at it, I believe I should be able to at least assist your ministry of finance in a few of their tasks."

"My what?"

"...The office that takes care of all the income? And the taxes."

"Oh, right. You actually want to do that? I'd cut off my right arm to never have to touch it again without getting the kingdom robbed out from under me."

"I find it interesting."

"Every bow needs its own length of cord," Leyam muttered, which was Assyrian for 'it takes all kinds'. "Tupila is the one who helps me manage all of that, he has several scribes who work under him, and- oh, a lot of other people too. If you wish to help me there, well, I think that at the least you might have some interesting ideas. Take them to me or Tupila, though, because you'll be giving anyone else a headache, as well as a good indication that you're from somewhere considerably further off than Ezo. We are keeping that little fact between me, my brother, Rand and Tupila at this point. As for assisting, who knows- here, if you can make sense of this," Leyam said, unrolling a small scroll that'd been waiting at his elbow and flipping it Ryou's way, "then you've got more blessed lights than I do."

Ryou stared down at the scroll for a long minute. Then he looked up. "I'm sorry."

"Heh? The screw-up in the New Athens' minting house isn't quite that bad, is it?" Leyam asked, startled by the feelings that managed to escape Ryou's struggling composure.

"No. I mean..." Ryou tried to hide just how large an abyss had suddenly appeared at his feet. "I cannot read it. The language, I don't know how to read it."

"Oh, fool that I am, that's Greek. Here, you mentioned you're familiar with the Empire's letters, god knows I get enough of those-"

"No-" Ryou cleared his throat and glanced briefly at the scroll Leyam had tendered his way, the one he'd been reading when Ryou entered the room. "It's not the letters. The Gift doesn't translate the written word." There'd been no indication that it would, yet Ryou hadn't even contemplated the possibility...

"Oh..." Leyam wrapped the scroll up studiously after one quick look at Ryou through his tawny lashes, a look that had looked faintly sympathetic. Leyam must have an idea of what this meant to Ryou, who'd always been an avid reader, though he could not fully grasp the loss. This was confirmed when the king shrugged and added reassuringly, "Well, you've just joined the majority of Assyrians then, even amongst the great families. That's why we have scribes. I'll get Tupila to introduce you to Yau-Seen of Tulloa. He's utterly trustworthy, have him read out anything you might need."

"I suppose that would work, thank you," said Ryou automatically.

Leyam made a delicate finger waggle towards the door. "If you want to talk to Tupila now, just head towards the Golden Hall, where Tupila reigns on our country's costs. That's what we call the big square building next to the Women's Gate, opposite the barracks. That's how a kingdom is run, isn't it? Soldiers on one side, money on the other. I have other duties to attend to now, I wish you the good day, my foreign friend. We will talk more later, I really want to know-" his next words were swallowed by a yawn. Ryou found himself hoping the duties included a nap. Though talking with Leyam was a little nerve-wracking at times, Ryou had found himself touched by the king's sympathy and efforts to answer his question. It gave Ryou good hope he'd be able to get along with Darius's brother after all.

Ryou got up and bowed, and Leyam left with a grandiloquent gesture that looked entirely automatic. His eyes beneath the lines of smudged kohl were sleepy. He did not seem surprised to find Nicodeme waiting for him right outside the door; he gathered the boy with one sweep of the arm and walked off down the hallway.

Ryou looked at the rows of books all around him and out of reach of his apprehension. So much knowledge contained there...Or not. Darius had occasionally mentioned the books he'd read (been forced to read, rather) when he was young and still the half-prince of Assyria being educated by diligent, long-suffering pedagogues. From what his lover had said, Ryou was ready to bet he'd find codes of law in this library, accounts of various wars, philosophical treatise in Greek and not the simplest Encyclopaedia or primer to learning Latin...

Ryou was not going to be able to rely on his abilities to conduct data research anymore; no more books, papers, spreadsheets, computers or internet. He was actually going to have to talk to people instead. Ryou grimaced ruefully. Looked like he and Tupila were about to get well acquainted over the following days. But...not today. Leyam was right, he could afford to take a little time to find his bearings and learn to allow himself to rely on others. Ryou got up and headed past the unreadable stores of knowledge towards the door and the people of the palace going about their duties outside.


[Edit: Little PS for history nerds and other interested parties. I blew my 10 minute research rule out of the water again, but not by too much so the Assyrian economy is still sketchy. However, note that the silver talent in modern day Outland Assyria is almost half of what the old Mesopotamian talent was. Ten talents of silver would otherwise be VERY generous.]


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  • 3...2...1...Blast off!

    AO3 sent me an invite, I have a new account there, Maldoror_Chant, and no idea what I'm doing! Once I figure out the UI, I should be up and running,…

  • Here we go

    I spent a long boring 8 hour drive (long story) examining both Dreamwidth and AO3. They both look great. DW seems to make the journaling aspect of…

  • Well damn, LJ...just...damn...

    *catches up on LJ news* *headesk* Next step: Mastering LJ cuts again Next step: 1- backing up as much as my LJ stuff as I can 2- write as…