So Taver and I divide the work and start trying to set Blythe to rights. Taver, of course, takes charge of the city defenses, determining what weaknesses have developed due to Orsin’s syphoning of funds, and setting priorities for fixing them. I get to spend time deciding the amount of excess taxes to be refunded.
I do take a break, pull Alan out of the corner where he has been reading for hours, and go watch ‘Destroyer’s’ possessions burn. Many of the citizens have turned out, but I notice few children—most of the ones’ I do see are older, and I suspect snuck out of their homes rather than being permitted. It’s a big fire, but not as showy as it could have been considering it was lit at high noon, but few of the city were likely to risk attending if it had been lit at night. It wasn’t as specular as when we burned Blight and Rout’s possessions. I wonder if this means Destroyer was less powerful or more powerful, but decide there are too many people in hearing distance to ask Alan.
The next day I send out criers to summon the craftsmen. I have decided to refund taxes publicly, so there will be no basis for rumors of some being treated better than others. Not being especially naive, I also line the streets with city guards, Taver’s warriors, and my guards to discourage any with defective morals from robbery or pickpocketing.
We move a table to the door of the keep, now reached by temporary wooden steps. I am surprised to receive a note from Zale, requesting to be the first to receive his refund—and strongly suggesting the rest of the guild masters follow him.
Zale does not seem greedy to me—a greedy man would have procured Orsin’s poisons for him—so I assume he has some plan. And he wants me obviously surprised. I decide to go along with him, and give the appropriate orders. And send someone to drag Alan away from his books. People need to get used to my having him around. And by ‘people’ I mean Traver and my guards.
An orderly line stretches down the street as I take my place. Zale is at its head, richly but modestly dressed, a heavy gold necklace and gold signet ring his only jewelry. As he comes forward he faces to the side, clearly intending that the crowd hear his words as well as me.
“I have done well with my life, Princess Adava, I can continue to do well, even without the returned false taxes. I would like for you to keep my share, and apply them as needed to repair the damage Orsin has done.”
I smile at him in delight, no so much for the money as for the well-executed plan. His fellow guild masters following will either have to follow his lead, or cede to him the public adoration of the loudly cheering crowd.
“We honor you for your generosity to your home city, Guild Master Zale, and will seek your guidance in where this money can most benefit Blythe.” I carefully stack the coins he has refused to the side of the table.
The second in line follows Zale’s lead, leaving the rest of the Guild Masters no real choice. The stack of donations grows larger, and the cheers louder. The first journeyman to approach after the masters stands for a moment looking thoughtful
“The taxes were a heavy burden, Princess.”
I nod my agreement. “This is why I am returning as much as I can.”
He pushes two of his coins back toward me. “I cannot do as much as the Guild Masters, but I can do something for my city.”
For a moment I cannot speak. “You are a great value to your city,” I tell him. And so it continues, the stack of coins to the side growing larger single coin by single coin.
When the line is empty a large crowd is still gathered in the square, laughing, cheering, and showing no signs of leaving. I set the empty chest that had held the returned taxes on the table and slowly place the donated coins inside.
“Every coin in this box will be used to improve Blythe,” I promise. “Tomorrow a scribe will sit at this table and take your suggestions about what repairs are most urgent.”
Two days later, I return from investigating the last items on the suggested to-do list to find Taver morosely staring at nothing. Ignoring the whooshing noise of Alan hurrying back to his workspace and new toys, I walk over to find out what has gone wrong. The town fortifications have been found to be in acceptable shape, and the suggestions for using the refused tax-refunds are even mostly good suggestions. I thought things were going well, but clearly Taver doesn’t.
“Why are you so gloomy?” I sit down beside him and make myself comfortable so he will realize I’m not leaving without an answer.
He stares at me for a moment before he decides to answer. “I’ve been thinking. Orsin’s plan could well have succeeded. If the swamp sorcerers’ magic had worked as well in Abalem as in Caeel, even with warning of the Outlander attack, Orsin could be King.”
“You told me the Outlander’s attack would have failed even without warning.”
“Without warning, but not without you, too. And if you had died, Alan would not have been there either. The only mistake Orsin made was assuming the swamp magic would work in Misthold.”
“Not the only one,” I disagree. “He assumed my fighting abilities were all given to me by the Sword.”
“And he assumed he could be Wielder,” my Sword joins the conversation, at least my half of it. “He couldn’t. Even before you changed things.”
Taver is back to staring pensively at the wall, so I risk muttering, “I thought he had to touch you for you to tell.” I’m getting really good at whispering without moving my lips.
“He did touch me, when you cleaved his head.”
Oh, yeah. I decide to ignore this, and turn back to Taver.
“Try to dwell on dark might-have-beens a little less, before you convince everyone something must be wrong.”
Taver smiles at me, not a great smile, more like a make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation smile, but at least an attempt at a smile. “You are right. Maybe I should let the priest give me something for my headache.” A major concession from Taver, so I just agree.