The Tax Collector Cometh
Rosalind and I were drinking coffee in the tavern, waiting for the first guests to arrive. It was a little past two in the afternoon, but we had been open for several hours. In those days, with decreasing patrons, we had been closing up earlier, and thus going to bed earlier – as a result, we ended up waking up earlier, and therefore opening earlier. Not that there was much point to doing so. Nobody came to a tavern in the middle of the day. As a result, we spent our time idly, an air of gloom settling over us. Both of us knew why our patrons had decreased – the new tax increases had cut down on the amount of disposable income our patrons held. There was simply less money to spare for frivolities like drink. Due to the initial popularity of our shop, we were still sitting rather comfortably above the cost line, but those customers that came were often rowdy and noisy, spending all their money on drinking to forget some grievance or other. Our female customer base had declined considerably, such that Rosalind and I adjusted our shifts such that she spent more time entertaining, while I spent more time in the kitchen.
However, while we had not yet entered into the red, there was no guarantee that such a situation would last. The continued decline of our consumer base was one issue, but on top of that, we had yet to be re-evaluated by the tax agents. Due to constitutional rules, the new Lord Rishard was unable to make changes to existing tax percentages for a period of at least three years. Instead, what his purported “economic reforms” had done was to introduce new taxable items, and tax agents were thus being sent to every household in the land to do a reassessment of the tax amount owed by each household. We passed every day awaiting the arrival of this agent, whose evaluation would then decide our fate.
As Rosalind and I were making small talk at the counter, the door opened. We turned towards it, taking in the polished shoes, the black slacks, the white tunic and the smart black necktie of the tax agent that stood there. Rosalind greeted him first.
“Mister Edgar. It’s been a while.”
The tax agent, Edgar, took off his fedora and placed it across his chest, revealing his slicked-back brown hair and his sharp green eyes. He bowed his head slightly.
“Miss Rosalind. Miss Elysium. I’d like to say ‘always a pleasure’, but I’m afraid I’ve come on rather unsavoury business.”
Edgar placed his fedora on a hook by the door and took a seat at one of the tables. As the tax collector assigned to this town, I had met him on a number of occasions, each time when he came by to collect the monthly taxes. He struck me as a professional, well-mannered man who took pride in his work, but not necessarily in his job. I briefly wondered what manner of fate led him to become a tax collector, when his disposition and abilities seemed to lend themselves to bureaucracy. Putting that aside, I went over to the table and sat down next to him – I was better at business talk than Rosalind.
“I suppose you’re here to perform the tax evaluation?”
Edgar smiled at me apologetically.
“I’m afraid so. However, if it’s possible, could I perhaps have my meal before making the evaluation? I’m rather afraid you might poison me otherwise, and I’m terribly hungry.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, yes. The grocer tried to lock me in his storeroom – would have done it, too, if his wife hadn’t stepped in. And the butcher took up his knives with a dangerous look – suffice to say, I left as soon as I could. So you can see my concern.”
I looked with some amusement at the troubled expression that was showing on Edgar’s face. But at the same time, I felt a tinge of worry. What kind of tax additions could spark off such a response? I decided that I would at least help the man relax.
“Well then, good sir, may I take your order?”
While Edgar recited his order, Rosalind looked at me in surprise – clearly, she had expected me to refuse, so as to get the matter with as quickly as possible. In truth, that was my first instinct. But seeing Edgar, sitting in the chair and sighing, well… my heart went out to the poor guy. He had a hard job. I looked at Rosalind and met her eyes, trying to convey my intention to at least help him calm down. Maybe she understood, but Rosalind gave me a smile and nodded.
Once Edgar’s lunch and drink had been served and consumed, he coughed and sat up straight. Rosalind and I both watched him attentively. He pulled out a piece of parchment and read off it.
“In the name of the lord of the region, Lord Rishard, I shall hereby reveal the results of the tax bureau’s evaluation of this premises. First off, may I have your income declaration for this month?”
Rosalind, rummaging through the drawer hidden behind the counter, pulled out a sheet of parchment with this month’s expenses and earnings handwritten on it and placed it in Edgar’s waiting hands.
Edgar confirmed the contents, then tied it off with a string and placed it in his bag. He then pulled out another piece of parchment, one that had a table on it, and began to read off items from it while glancing around the shop.
“Business tax, 15%”
That was normal. The business tax was the tax we paid for being allowed to do business on the grounds of this town. That was what we had been paying all along, so there was no change there.
“Land tax, 10%”
This was the tax that we paid as citizens living on the land owned by the Lord. Once again, this was an older item, so we had been paying this tax the whole time.
“That is all for the old tax items. Next is for the new taxable additions.”
As expected, there was no change from the existing amounts for the older taxables. So far, we were sitting at the old amount of 25% of profits being due as taxes. Of course, the moment of truth would come after this – just what were Rishard’s new taxes, and how would we be affected? Edgar continued speaking.
“Employee tax, 10%”
“Employee tax? What’s that?”
Rosalind raised a voice in question. Of course, in my home country, we had employee taxes, but that was largely for foreign workers, meant to be a disincentive for companies to import labour. It seemed counterproductive to national employment to impose a tax on hiring local workers. Edgar put on an uncomfortable expression while explaining.
“Well, according to Lord Rishard, ‘being able to hire an employee means you have money to spare. If you have money to spare, you should be giving it to me.’ Of course, there are… many big problems with his reasoning, but he refuses to listen to counsel, and it’s unfortunate, but the right to set taxes in this region ultimately falls to him, so that’s the way it is. We did, at least, convince him to exclude family members from being considered as hired help, but it’s still rather unreasonable.”
I frowned. This was clearly an abuse of power. Since it only affected a small amount of the population, most of us would just endure it – and 10%, while being non-negligible, was not devastating, either. But I could foresee a future where if Rishard continued abusing power like this to fatten his coffers, he might face an uprising sooner or later. I looked at Rosalind, who was looking similarly troubled. We met gazes and shrugged in unison. 10% of profits would hurt, but we could still deal with it. I turned back to Edgar.
Edgar fidgeted around, clearly unwilling to carry on. However, as we silently waited for him to speak, he sighed and stowed away the parchment.
“Alcohol tax… 40%”
Rosalind’s jaw dropped; I spontaneously stood up from my seat at the table. We were a tavern – our main product was alcohol. We had been selling alcohol for years – to suddenly impose a tax, and more to the point, what was with that ridiculous number, 40%?! That was too much, way too much. Edgar shrank back. I glared at him, even though I knew that it was not his fault.
“W-Well, Lord Rishard claims that the number of alcoholics in our land is too high, and so he’s imposing a tax to try and drive the price up so that shops will stop selling it; he says he intends to make the country sober.”
“…Is the tax imposed on the product cost or on our sales?”
“…it’s 40% of your sales.”
A tax on alcohol had its merits as a demerit tax, and if the intention was truly to sober up the country, a demerit tax on alcohol was common – however, such a tax was usually levied on the purchase of alcohol, that is, a flat tax on alcohol bought from suppliers – this would cause retailers to offset the increased cost by selling at a higher price. But taxing the retailer based on a percentage of earnings did nothing, aside from possibly causing the retailer to simply cut alcohol from its shelves. However, would the Lord Rishard who supposedly killed a barkeep for not carrying his favorite brand of alcohol truly want all the taverns in the land to stop selling liquor? It didn’t add up. Even if his only intention was to fatten his coffers, this method was too irrational. However, before I thought on it further, Edgar spoke up again.
“And… the above, new taxations… are taxations on your earnings, not your profits.”
Rosalind raised a shout from inside the kitchen and stormed out, looking like she intended to punch Edgar. Edgar took in a deep breath and closed his eyes, as if preparing to get hit. I held my arm across, blocking Rosalind’s way. Rosalind glared at me, but I returned her stare with calmness, keeping my anger bottled inside.
“Ros. Calm down. He’s just doing his job. Hitting him won’t do anything.”
Edgar breathed a sigh of relief and crossed over to the door, collecting his fedora.
“Because of the sudden changes, you have a month to raise the money. I’ll be back a month from now to collect the taxes for this month, but if at that time you are unable to pay according to what you’ve listed here, well… I’m afraid we’ll have to confiscate your property.”
Rosalind surged forward, but I held her back by forcefully clamping a hand on her shoulder. I bowed my head slightly.
“Thank you for the consideration. Please take care on the road.”
Edgar donned his fedora while opening the door.
“Yes, thank you for understanding. And… well… I’m sorry.”
With that, the door closed, leaving Rosalind and myself in the empty tavern. Rosalind walked over to a chair and slumped down, holding her head in her hands.
“50% of earnings… that’s way too much.”
Leaning on the wall, I crossed my arms and said nothing. I was too busy thinking.