A Single Coin's Worth by DezoPenguin

Prelate Arjan adjusted the high, flat-topped hat that went with his formal robes for the fourth time, studying his reflection critically in the mirror of polished silver. Was it quite straight? Was the medallion with its seal of the Eclipse Torch hanging properly on its chain, none of the links caught or snarled? Were the robes themselves properly in place, without creases, the hem not snared in his boot-top?

"Nervous, boss?" a voice asked dryly.

Arjan turned from the mirror. It was his assistant, Colce, who had spoken. Colce was a sturdily built man, broad-shouldered and husky. That was a rarity in the Dezolian race, whose hairless green bodies tended to grow tall and lean; at six feet Colce was even shorter than some Palmans. He was about fifteen years his master's senior, and this greater experience of life lent his relationship with the scholar-priest a certain casual air outside the usual master-servant dynamic.

Arjan pressed a long-fingered hand to his belly.

"You could say that. Even the redwings in my stomach have redwings in their stomach."

"What's wrong? I've seen you preach sermons to lots bigger crowds than this for six years now. Vassha is a tiny little village, with barely a few hundred people—most of whom won't even be there today."

The prelate shook his head, then suddenly shot his gaze back to the mirror to make sure that the sudden movement hadn't dislodged his hat. Only after reassuring himself that yes, it was still in place, did he answer Colce's question.

"Those were just sermons, though. Preaching and leading worship services are the things I've been trained to do. They're why I joined the priesthood in the first place. I'm not going to preach today, though. This is my very first session of the tribunal of Vassha. I have to act as a judge, settling civil and criminal matters."

"The Church believes you're ready, boss, or else they'd never have named you to this post."

"The Church is shorthanded," Arjan admitted frankly. "When the civil government collapsed, unable to cope with the problems of the mass Palman immigration following the destruction of their homeworld, someone had to step in. Some believe that Bishop Ngangbius's wisdom single-handedly saved Dezolis from a racial war. Restoring the ancient theocracy was the only sensible route acceptable to our own people. It was only because of Mother Brain and powerful Palman corporations that the Church ever gave up governing Dezolis." He sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, the skills of an able administrator are not always those of an able cleric. Too many of us, scholars and preachers rather than leaders, were pressed into service as local prelates—temple senior, village elder, and magistrate all rolled into one!"

"Take a deep breath, boss, or you'll hyperventilate. You'll do fine."

"Will I? All over Dezolis, priests like me are stepping into their tribunals. Can we live up to our obligations? If we can't, the people may turn from us. We will lose our civil authority, fragmenting the planet into individual landholdings as they were in feudal days three thousand years ago. Worse, if we cannot meet the leadership crisis the people may reject our moral authority, too. That would end with our Dezolian culture sliding into as dark a period as it has ever had to suffer!" The words tumbled out of him like a waterfall, one spilling out upon its predecessor.

"Boss, I don't think you having one bad day in court will lead to the fall of the Church."

"No, not alone," Arjan agreed. "Yet it could be part of such a fall. I want to enter a tally on the right side of the ledger—to show Vassha that they can trust me to rule fairly, wisely, and justly, and by example show the people here that they can trust the Church to rule Dezolis in the same way. Our people have suffered enough, Colce. It's high time they were given what they deserve instead of what suits a few power-hungry tyrants to dole out."

Colce nodded.

"Okay, I'll buy that. Still and all, you just have to ease off." He picked at his teeth with his fingernail. "Just be yourself and stay relaxed. It's the only way to keep your mind able to reason things out. I don't know anybody I'd trust more to unravel some knotty legal problem. If," he added saucily, "you're not worrying more about whether your kem'pallah is on straight, boss!"

Arjan managed to suppress his first instinct, which was to check the hat again. Colce was right; he had a job to do and worrying wouldn't change anything. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves as best he could, the Prelate nodded to his assistant.

"All right. Let's begin."

Colce went through the arched door first, so he could tell the bailiff that the Prelate was ready to start. Arjan waited while the bailiff, who also served as the headman of the police, rang the large silver bell which announced the opening of the session.

"Come to order!" the man announced. "His Grace, the Prelate Arjan, declares this session of the tribunal of Vassha open. Let all who seek justice come stand before the court and be heard, and may the Eternal Flame light the way to the truth!"

Arjan walked to the bench, climbing the short wooden steps to the judge's seat. Hanging from the front of the bench and on the wall behind it were scarlet banners bearing the flame symbol of the Church in gold thread. To his left sat the scribe, who would take down the record of the proceedings, while to his right were the bailiff and his two police-wardens, ready to keep order if a criminal tried a desperate act.

Looking out over the crowd that had gathered to watch the proceedings, Arjan realized that at least half the village's population had turned out to pack the spectator's seats in the court-hall as well as standing in every available place around the edges. It was not a surprise; they were no doubt as curious about him as he was himself worried about his performance. After all, it was their lives which were now subject to Arjan's idea of justice. Though Arjan was responsible to the High Priestess of this demesne, who would take steps to replace him if he proved inadequate, his errors could cause the villagers great harm in the meantime.

It was for these people, the hard-working hunters and herders of this mountain village, that he was most worried. Anarchy and tyranny were the symptoms of a poorly-run prelacy. Under the old civil government, both had been the norm, as had deep-rooted corruption. It was a trend Arjan was convinced had to be struck out.

And so, with no other choice, he steeled his nerve, rapped the gavel twice, and called for any old business that might have been on the docket. The scribe rose from his seat.

"Your Grace, the plaintiff in the matter Rethan v. Yord begs leave to introduce new evidence."

"Very well. Let the parties come forth and be heard."

Rethan versus Yord was a snarled property dispute that had dated to well before Arjan had been appointed to his position. A ridgeline had collapsed, sharply changing the character of certain real estate. The families had been in dispute over it ever since. The original antagonists were dead now, the feud descending to the next generation.

The case was one of those twisty legal puzzles which a scholar like Arjan was well-suited to deal with. He anticipated spending many hours unraveling the lies and insinuations from the truth and sorting out the legal issues. To the common people, though, it was dull going, and a number of spectators left the tribunal in search of more exciting entertainment.

Finally, the new evidence Miss Rethan had to present was done, and Arjan ordered a sheaf of documents placed in the case file over her opponent's loud and belligerent protests that they were forgeries. The Prelate gave thanks to Heaven that the old government had at least been wise enough to use paper files as backup archives; now that the Palmans' computer network was gone, all the data stored on disk or optical chip was utterly inaccessible. Resolving a tricky case like this one with any degree of fairness would have been impossible had there not been archived documents.

"These papers will be carefully examined by the tribunal's experts," Arjan declared sharply, cutting off Yord in mid-argument. He wasn't yet sure who those experts were, but although he had yet to review the case in depth the Prelate was already quite certain that he would accept neither side's unsupported word. If it came to it, Colce knew a number of tricks of the underworld; perhaps his sharp eyes and Arjan's own intimate knowledge of historical documents could sort out the truth.

Moving on to new business, two routine matters followed the contentious land-dispute, and Arjan had begun to think that he might escape the first tribunal session unscathed, when there was a murmur from the back of the crowd. The spectators parted ranks, and two men came forward to stand before the bench. Both wore the short jacket and trousers of the common folk; one's face was thin and small-eyed while the other was robust.

"This man is a thief!" angrily accused the thin-faced man.

"That's a dirty lie!" the other bellowed.

"Show some respect for his Grace the Prelate!" roared the bailiff, his hand dropping to the butt of his truncheon. This was not an idle threat; Dezolis lacked the resources to maintain extensive prisons, so contempt of court would be punished on the spot by blows. Arjan wondered if he would have the stomach to order such measures—and if not, would it earn him respect for compassion or scorn for weakness from the village-folk?

This time, the Prelate did not have to make the choice; both men fell silent and bowed their heads.

"Let's have this in an orderly fashion," Arjan said. He managed to keep his voice calm, though his stomach had once again begun to twist and shake. A real case, not one of abstract legal scholarship but a straightforward crime, and on his first day. "You, state your name and complaint," he said, pointing to the accuser.

"My name is Rhied; I run a store for general goods," the thin-faced man said respectfully. "This man came into my shop just as I was finishing my breakfast. He offered to sell a small bronze clasp. Seeing that it was worth perhaps seventy meseta, I offered him thirty cash. We haggled for a bit, and settled on forty-five meseta. When I paid over the money, though, I accidentally picked up a silver hundred-meseta piece with the copper cash. Now this rajago-breed won't return it, insisting that it is his!"

The other man's face became suffused with anger, but he restrained himself from making an outburst. Over time, the Vasshans would learn what Arjan would and would not tolerate in the tribunal, but in case of an unknown quantity it was better to play it safe.

"What about you?" the Prelate asked. From his dress, including the round-topped kem'pallah of modest height, the man appeared to be of the artisan class, making it extremely unlikely that he'd be carrying a silver piece as pocket change.

"The money is mine!" he claimed loudly.

"Control your temper. Remember that you are in the tribunal and treat this court with respect." Regardless of whether the one sitting in judgment has personally earned it, he admitted mentally.

"My name," the defendant said sullenly, "is Aros. I am a carpenter by trade. I can only guess this greedy straw-neck saw the silver when I put the forty-five meseta into my money pouch."

"If you had a hundred meseta," Arjan asked him, "why were you selling a clasp for forty-five?" Rhied smirked at the Prelate's comments.

"My father built a cabinet for one of those Palman Espers once. She liked it so much, she gave him that silver piece as a bonus. He always kept it, said it was lucky; since his death I've carried it with me. Pajo's business prospered, and he lived to be one hundred seven! I wasn't about to break that luck by spending that silver!"

Arjan rubbed his chin, thinking. It seemed to be one man's word against another. How was he to settle it? Rhied was not a prepossessing character, with his sly manners, but then, Aros's bluster and superstition seemed as much a character type as the merchant's greed. Each might be a liar. He looked from one to the other, as Rhied wrung his hands nervously and Aros kept his fists tightly clenched, shooting angry side glances at the shopkeeper.

"Let me see your money pouch," he told Aros. The carpenter took a small leather drawstring bag from under his tunic and gave it to a warden, who brought it up to the Prelate. Arjan unslipped the thong holding it shut and spilled the coins out on the bench before him. There was the one single silver piece and just over fifty one-meseta copper cash. The Prelate examined the money, then turned his attention to Rhied.

"What did you have for breakfast?"

The shopkeeper looked confused; a murmur ran through the crowd.

"Why, seed cakes with honey, your Grace."

Arjan scowled, the nervousness fleeing as he found himself on firmer ground.

"You are a liar and a thief, Rhied!" he snapped. "This silver piece is the property of the defendant!"

The crowd's murmur held a touch of astonishment this time.

"Your sweet tooth has betrayed you," Arjan continued. "Most of these coppers are tacky from the honey on your fingers—but the silver coin is perfectly clean. Therefore, you never touched it this morning, and were just trying to use this tribunal to help you steal."

Rhied looked down at his hands, seeing the crust of dried honey on his fingertips that had given the Prelate the idea. He bowed his head and confessed.

That was the solution, Arjan thought. Justice was still another matter.

"Do you have a spouse or children, Rhied?"

"No, your Grace."

"Good. For the sake of your family, I had considered only placing your business assets under a lien, but as no innocents will be harmed your personal assets will be considered as well. This tribunal hereby orders you to pay a fine of two thousand meseta to Aros in reparation for the insulting false accusation you made against him." That was a small fortune to a craftsman; he could live on it for years. "If you do not pay, your property will be seized and sold at auction to raise the funds. If you still cannot pay, then for each one hundred meseta or part thereof you are short, you will spend one year at hard labor!"

The Prelate scooped the coins back into Aros's pouch and returned the man's money. The bailiff took Rhied's arm, preparing to enforce the sentence. The spectators were positively buzzing now, discussing their Prelate's quick deduction of the truth and sharing their opinions of the sentence. All were glad, though, that they had decided to stay instead of leaving early—this would be a story to share over the dinner-table and at the tavern over wine.

For the Prelate himself, there was a quick prayer of thanksgiving for being guided to the truth. Perhaps, with divine mercy, he would prove worthy of this prelacy after all—and if across Dezolis other Prelates were finding the same thing, then there well might be hope for the Church to lead its people out of the darkness inflicted on them by the Palmans and their Mother Brain.

As the proverb said, hope makes the flame burn more warmly. Even a single silver coin's worth.