Thursday 8 June 2023

Hex Crawl 23 #159: Judgments of Aish Mashuila: Disputations of Ownership

 Twelve hexes north, one northwest of Alakran.


This case dates from a decade ago. Its protagonist, Palluwara the Hawk-Nose, was a tax collector who covered the western country. He came to love the landscape and people so much that in recent years he left his job to settle in Hulutal, and by good works make amends for the many coins and bushels of grain he had taken on behalf of the Governor.

Most of Shasari province uses donkeys, rather than camels, as the preferred beast of burden. Palluwara was riding on such a beast which he had bought in Hulutal, back to Shasari laden with tribute, when he overtook a poor limping man, whose name has passed into oblivion. This pauper was on the way to Aish Mashuila to pray for his dead relatives, so he said, but was struggling to walk there. Palluwara took mercy and seated the pauper atop his donkey while he walked along beside. So they arrived at Aish Mashuila, not much of a detour on the way to the capital.

But there, in front of a gathering of guards and pilgrims, the beggar refused to get off the donkey, spinning a tale about how it and its burden were rightly his, and the tax collector had abused his power to confiscate it. Palluwara knew the lie could be refuted by witnesses from Hulutal, but that could take days, and meanwhile rumors could spread and blacken his name. As the Judges, led by Kemosiri, were in session at the time, he lodged a complaint against the scoundrel, so that his vindication would be recorded officially in the scrolls of Aish Mashuila.

The next day, their case was to be heard after two others, which by coincidence all had a common theme.* The first case involved an oil merchant of Izuz who claimed that his neighbor stole a lucky golden medallion of his, while the neighbor claimed that the medallion had always belonged to her and the merchant merely coveted it for himself. Both being unmarried at the moment, there were no witnesses to call. "As its ownership is not clear, give the medallion to me, and return tomorrow," said Kemosiri. And they could do none other than comply.

Palluwara stroked his beard, frowning. The wisdom of Kemosiri's father had been legendary, but this son, though advanced in years, brought suspicion on himself by confiscating the goods in question with no explanation. His doubt was not allayed by the second case, in which a naturalist and a theologian at the university in Shasari disputed the ownership of an ancient scroll, the annals of three kingly generations from five hundred years ago. Kemosiri likewise ordered the scroll impounded.

And then Palluwara's case came up, each man told his tale, and as Palluwara feared, the donkey -- and its sacks of tribute, grain and coin! --passed into the hands of the Judge, who had merely nodded when asked to summon witnesses. Palluwara lodged in nearby Hupiki, and he came back the next day, thinking the donkey already lost, and his head forfeit for losing the tribute of four hundred acres.

The Judge had advanced the three pending cases to the front of his queue. After conferring for a while with the two other judges, he pronounced judgment on the first case, awarding the medallion to the oil merchant and ordering twenty lashes with a willow switch to be laid on the palms of the accuser, which had fondled the medallion, thus expiating both the attempted theft and the perjury. The bailiff who handed out the blows was strong in the back, and from the wails and pleadings of the merchant's neighbor it was clear she was the guilty party. 

And so it passed with the disputed scroll. The theologian was summarily judged to be in the wrong, and was assigned twenty hard slaps in the face, the part of his body which had faced the scroll. In between blows the scholar cried and confessed his crime, hoping for mercy, but none was given.

Finally, Kemosiri decided the case of the donkey in Palluwara's favor. Because the seat of the beggar had enjoyed the disputed property, it was the wretch's lean buttocks which endured twenty strokes of the switch. Then he would be remanded to the Governor for execution, in the attempt to steal official property and revenue.

Palluwara's name became burnished by this soon-famous vindication, not tarnished. He rose in the ranks to head the delegation that accompanied the Governor's temple tribute. He took one of these occasions, and his new rank, to request an audience with Kemosiri, and an explanation of those judgments.

"Oh, it's quite simple," chuckled the elder. "I placed the medallion in a beaker of water overnight. The film that floated on the surface the next morning told me it was the oil merchant's greasy fingers who had fondled it at times of difficulty for years."

"Ah. But then how did you award the scroll to the natural scholar and not the theologian?"

"In my chambers I unrolled and read it. I could not help but notice that the parts where the edges were smeared, the parchment was cracked, and the ink faded from exposure and use, were all about famines, plagues, strange beasts and natural prodigies. The parts about the temple and holy feasts were barely touched."

"And then, the matter of my donkey?"

Kemosiri smiled. "The ass being dumb, and only newly bought according to your story, I could not question it further. Instead I looked in the sacks and observed two things. First, there was a large amount of both coin and grain, which did not fit that man's story that he was a farmer on his way to market. A farmer does not travel with both things, from fear of robbery. He uses his proceeds to buy what he needs in town and comes back with the remainder."

"But then, Your Honor, the scoundrel could always claim that he was on his way to buy a loom or some other large purchase."

"Quite so; but then I inspected the grain and the coins. The kernels were either withered, or bloated, or had the marks of incipient mold. The coins were chipped, shaved, and in a few cases counterfeit. These are the goods that peasants set aside for the taxman, not for market day. Don't you agree?"

And Palluwara could not do otherwise than agree.

* Or perhaps in the retelling several separate cases have been compressed into one day.

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