(121-07-22) The Tax Man Cometh
The Tax Man Cometh
Summary: Customs master Lars Costayne finally catches up with Lady Hastwyck to discuss a tiny matter regarding her latest shipment from across the Narrow Sea…
Date: 22/07/121
Related: Auntie and the Tax Man

Joyeuse Hastwyck's Rooms

After his many adventures in pursuit of Lady Hastwyck the day before — and his notable failures in that regard — His Majesty's dogged and diplomatic customs and excise agent, Lars Costayne, presents himself at what the fellow in the tavern assures him are the lady's apartments, at the respectable hour of ten o'clock in the morning. He is received by a serving maid who boggles at him, narrows her eyes, and suggests he try again in an hour, when her ladyship might actually be awake, although, mind, she can offer no guarantee.

That hour draws to a close; he presents himself again, and receives the intelligence that the lady is in her bath — and what was his name, by the way, and what was it he wished to discuss with her ladyship?

Lars is nothing if not persistently optimistic, giving the maid a bright smile as though all he ever wanted to do today was wait in the fine weather and take his time before meeting the elusive Lady Hastwyck. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Lars Costayne, how do you do. It's just a little tiny bit of business regarding Lady Hastwyck's shipment, I'm sure it won't take a moment to sort out the confusion."

"She never said nothing to me about no shipment," avers the serving maid, sniffing at him distrustfully. Obviously not an employee plucked from the top shelf. But the Costayne name is one to conjure with in Oldtown, if nowhere else upon this continent or any other, and so she allows that he may as well, "Sit down here, me lord, and I'll see if her ladyship'll receive you."

This antechamber has the air of a furnished room, and has thus a great deal in common with every other furnished room everywhere. No one stick of furniture therein matches with any precision any other stick. But red roses are in full bloom upon the table just inside the door, and the mats of woven rushes on the floor have a fresh, green scent about them, and nothing is conspicuously untidy.

Forty minutes pass.

The maid shows Lars, rather casually, into the next room — where every stick of furniture is in harmony with every other, the walls are hung with tapestries depicting scenes of sylvan pleasure, three further vases of red roses are scattered hither and yon, and the pleasantly-rounded, silk-swathed redhead who was yesterday afternoon standing just behind another, very different lady is regarding him with a mischievous (she can't help herself) smile from the windowseat.

"Master Lars, is it? How do you do," she sighs, clasping her hands in her lap.

There's a moment of silence, followed by a genuine laugh and a nod. "Oh, very good, very good! Well played, my lady, very well played," Lars insists amiably, finally pausing to give a short bow. "I shall have to apologise to the chap I thought had been very naughty and lied to me yesterday. How do you do. It's delightful to finally meet you." He straightens, adjusts his cuffs and nods. "May I say what a lovely home you have here? And the roses, I could smell them all the way up the stairs. I shall have to find out from your woman where they came from and take some home to my wife!"

"I don't imagine you'd care for your wife to receive roses from — this particular source," the widowed Lady Hastwyck murmurs, lifting an eyebrow at her guest. He's peculiarly difficult to disdain, this Costayne chap who doesn't mind her trick of yesterday, who admires her flowers… "But I must confess," she clears her throat, trying to summon up the attitude one is supposed to take on these occasions, when one is talking over serious matters with serious men, "I've no notion what business you might have with me. Are you sure you aren't looking for my step-daughter-in-law…? She's a Lady Hastwyck too, of course," she reminds him helpfully, blinking heavy-lidded grey-green eyes at him.

"It is distinctly possible that there's been a mistake," Lars admits, pulling out his crumpled piece of paper again, "and if that turns out to be the case I shall apologise for having bothered you at all. I'm sorry, I ought to introduce myself properly, my lady. I have the somewhat dubious honour to work for His Majesty's customs and excise, usually all very dull I assure you, but occasionally we do find a few odd shipments which bear further investigation. I'm sure there's just some sort of confusion somewhere, but we have in our possession a shipment in your name which contains… well, I'm concerned for your wellbeing, my lady. It certainly doesn't seem to be a substance conducive to continued good health." He clears his throat quietly, adjusting his cuffs once more. "So anyway, I thought to myself, Lars old chap, the best thing to do is just go and ask the lady and see if perhaps she's ordered the shipment by mistake, or if it's been maliciously sent, in which case obviously we shall do our best in conjunction with the city guard to track down the fellow who sent it, do you see?"

"… But what is it?" the lady implores him, shrugging her shoulders in charming perplexity, her expression having grown more and more grave during what Lars no doubt intended as a comforting recital of his thinking. "I can't think of anything at all unusual I've ordered from abroad; I wonder whether someone has tried to send me a gift, and it's all gone terribly wrong? I can't," she utters pensively, "imagine anyone who might… wish me harm." Yet her eyes have clouded over, and her smile has faded, suggesting she might be imagining just such a person.

"Small crate," Lars offers, using his hands to indicate the sort of size. "Filled with a couple of jars of… well, if I'm honest with you, I'm not too sure. We cracked the seal on one of the jars - it's rather part of the job, you see - and, well, it's some sort of reddish brown oily liquid, but the smell. You haven't ordered any exotic foods that might have… ah… gone past their best in transit?"

All at once the lady's duskily glowing skin takes on an ashen hue. "I — I see," she murmurs. "Master Lars, there is no mistake, that shipment is indeed intended for me, and I should esteem it a great favour if you would see it delivered to me as quickly as possible, according to the— arrangement I have with --." And she names a customs agent whose retirement party Lars Costayne no doubt attended a fortnight past.

Lars arches a brow, clasping his hands together. "Ahh, I think I see where the confusion might have come from now. Lovely chap. Retired a week or two ago, and didn't mention any sort of arrangement. Well, I'm sure we can just renew your paperwork and then we can send your goods on to you without delay! Excellent, excellent. One moment, my lady," he adds, sliding the satchel over his shoulder round to the front so he can dig through it. "Alchemical… supplies… it's here somewhere… ah, there we go. Can you imagine the trouble I'd be in if it turned out we were letting anyone send all sorts of injurious substances without checking them out?" He straightens the paper, moving aside a little to stand by a table so he can write. "Supply type… shall I just put 'miscellaneous alchemical supplies'? It's nothing we need to worry about, is it? Do you know I once had the fortune of stopping a shipment of rat poison, which was going to go into the wine of a whole family. Silly little feud thing."

"… Rat poison!" the lady exclaims. All of a sudden she's off the windowseat and on her feet, her filmy red silks sighing about her with her passage through the room to the other side of the table Lars has selected for his jottings. One long-fingered hand, adorned with a ruby ring, is tucked into another long-fingered hand, adorned with a pearl ring. Each is wringing the other distractedly. "Master Lars, you must understand — this arrangement was entered into by my late husband; I don't know anything about any paperwork there might have been," she murmurs, "and if there were any, which I wouldn't know, it would surely have been among my husband's effects…" And she leans her forearms upon the edge of the table, and herself forward over them, placing a certain strain upon the thin silk of her bodice. Her eyes implore him. "I'm not at all certain what to tell you; I'm not accustomed to having to attend to this sort of matter myself."

"Of course not, of course not," Lars soothes. "Let me see what I can do to make things easier for you, my dear. Have you any idea what it might be? We can probably work out what needs to be accounted for, then."

Lady Hastwyck's dark pink lips part — and then press together in a tight, pained line. Another swish of silk, another wafting of some spicily feminine scent in Lars's general direction, as she turns away from the table and prowls restlessly to the cold fireplace. She whirls to regard him again, her hands clinging to one another to resist the temptation to some more nervous gesture. "It is merely something I require, quite urgently," she confesses; "I'm certain we can come to an arrangement. Why, you have my word, Master Lars, that it poses no danger. It's not at all like your— your rat poison."

"Alchemical supplies," Lars insists apologetically, "are rather heavily restricted, as you can imagine, my lady. We will need to know the purpose before we can release it. Are you sure it's not foodstuffs? There's no paperwork for food. Household supplies? Cosmetics? Wine? I mean, there are different tax brackets, but it's far less strictly regulated."

"… Tax brackets?" It's not far from the tone in which Lady Hastwyck utters the phrase 'rat poison'. They are alike, at any rate, in being foreign to her experience of the world. "My," she tries again, "my lord of Costayne, on my honour… I simply can't… You know so much more than I do of all this sort of business," she sighs, favouring him with a rueful, apologetic, very feminine smile. "What," and she approaches him again, one slow step at a time, with a tremulous hand raised as though to reach out to him for rescue, "what answer would— would be the most convenient, and trouble you with the least paperwork…?"

"If you have no idea what it might be, do you know somebody who might, perhaps?" Lars suggests, doing his best to be helpful. "Then we can get the papers filled in correctly and speed your goods through to you without further delay. A household alchemist, perhaps? I'm loathe to get a chap in. The smallfolk do talk. Far better to keep it all in house, don't you think?"

"My lord," and that is why Lars Costayne is just the fellow for these delicate situations, for he can speak to the nobility on their own terms, and sooner or later, that's how they speak to him. But Lady Hastwyck hesitates. "You— you have a wife, you said? Then you must, you really must understand…" Her hand quavers in the air, her ruby ring glinting in the sunshine; and then it falls away and she tucks it into her other hand. Her opulent, silk-clad figure is positively crackling with nervous tension, as though she might at any moment rush about the chamber in a frenzy, or faint dead away, or fling herself into the windowseat and sob. "There are some things," she murmurs urgently, "a lady can't discuss."

Lars taps the pen against his cheek for a moment, watching her with genuine compassion. "Do you think, perhaps, if we just put 'feminine products', that might satisfy the requirements?"

Lady Hastwyck regards him with wide grey-green eyes; and hesitates again. "You — would understand the requirements better than I, my lord," she allows diffidently.

"Well, let's try that," Lars decides, pen scratching across the paper to fill it in with a neat hand. That done, he offers the pen over and gestures to the bottom. "Just here, my lady, if you'd be so kind. If there are any issues with it, I shall do my best to dissuade the fellows from bothering you about it."

The lady comes round to the same side of the table, to stand next to Lars and lean over the parchment and regard it anxiously. "My husband's steward… He always told me never to sign anything unless I'd had him read it first," she sighs, standing there with the quill in her hand as though she hasn't the least notion what to do with it. "But he isn't my husband's steward any longer, he's my stepson's steward, and he's miles and miles away — oh, my lord, I really don't know what I ought to…" And she breaks off in a sigh of helpless feminine vexation, and rests her chin in her palm, and looks beseechingly up at Lars.

"Excellent advice," Lars agrees disarmingly, turning the paper a little so she can read it. "What this is, then, is essentially a permit to transport goods within the seven kingdoms, and confirmation that the correct duty has been paid on them. You're taking responsibility for the goods you sign for, if that helps? I know it's all very complicated, my dear, and I only wish the maser of coin would make it all much easier for all of us, but you know what these chaps are like. It's all paperwork and levies and trying to track every last nail in the land. Are you confident that the information on this page is correct, and happy to take charge of your shipment?"

Lady Hastwyck makes a fine show of reading the document, though really every word on the page simply swims before her worried eyes. It's all High Valyrian to her. After a moment she turns to Lars: "Shall I have to sign something every time? I've never had to before…" She's still holding the quill in one hand, and smoothing it with the fingers of the other. "Is it — all right, do you think?"

"Oh, no no no no no no no! We'll just hold on to this, so any time you've got a similar shipment coming in, we know we can send it right along without worrying," Lars insists brightly. "Oh gosh, no, can you imagine if I had to get a signature for every single crate coming into the docks? I'd never get a moment's rest."

That, it appears, is just what she needed to hear. She dips the quill into Lars's little portable inkwell (he may be relied upon to go about the city equipped for any and all paperwork) and inscribes 'Joyeuse Hastwyck' in an enormous, flamboyant, sprawling hand across every remaining inch of space at the bottom of the parchment. Anything, anything, no matter how often she has been cautioned against it, to ensure her supply of that noxious substance which, when diluted, applied to the scalp, and put up with, covers the grey and turns her every rampant curl a glorious deep red.

She offers to Lars the quill and a hopeful smile; "Shall it be all right now? You'll — see that I receive it soon?"

Lars gives her an absolutely confident and reassuring smile. "I shall have one of the boys send it along this very instant, my lady. Once again I'm so sorry that I've had to bother you over such a triviality, and thank you so much for your kind hospitality. I do hope you'll have a very pleasant day."

Suddenly suffused by goodwill toward the man who has stirred up her anxieties and then soothed them so completely, Lady Hastwyck rests her hand upon his sleeve for the barest instant, then withdraws it as she murmurs, "And you also, my lord. Thank you for seeing to all of this so quickly… I should have been quite out of my mind if I'd been waiting much longer. You see, I simply didn't realise yesterday that this was what you meant."

Lars laughs as he rolls up the parchment to slide back into his satchel. "It's quite understandable, old girl, nobody likes a visit from the customs man. I try my hardest to make it painless."

… Old girl? Old?! There's more than a hint of injured innocence about the widow Hastwyck as she bids farewell to this disquieting visitor.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License