An air of grim satisfaction pervaded the Court of Hastinmark. The Dark Wizard had been defeated, his power – if not exactly broken – at least contained for now. Dignitaries sat in triumphant judgement, meticulously arranged in descending order of royal rank from the hosting monarch. The courtier seating had been hastily rearranged from double flanking columns into a great circle of nominal peers. The canopied throne itself, on which King Himavat presided, had not been touched. And diametrically opposite the King on the great circle, sat the emissary of the belligerent representing Koschei the Immortal.
“…grave insult to this Treaty by delegating a peasant girl,” muttered Earl Yarod of Gwynloch.
“Your offence is misguided, your lordship,” smiled the Eye of Koschei politely, “I am magically granted the intellect of my Master for the duration of these proceedings and fully authorized to negotiate on his behalf.”
The emissary was a young woman of perhaps twenty, with the strong coarse features of a farm girl, though her eyes glowed with the uncanny radiance of whatever arcane magic linked her to Koschei. Her leather armor was ceremonial than practical, and she carried no armaments either magical or otherwise. At least none that had been found by three independent security details.
“Stay on track, Yarod,” snapped Duchess Anasaya of Shung, impatiently, “the issue is whether Koschei – as the defacto Lord of Severnosk – will accede to our demand of reparation. Not his choice of emissary.”
“The gold amassed within Fortress Severnosk is indeed legendary,” nodded Yarod, “Surely Koschei can spare us some. Each one of us has taken staggering losses in this war. But my homeland has borne the brunt of his aggression.”
“It was the Alliance that initiated hostilities,” the Eye of Koschei pointed out mildly, “not my Master.”
“Of course,” snarled Mage Yaga, her wrinkled fingers gripping her casting staff, “did you expect us to wait until Koschei was ready? Each pandemic feeds his power. The Order does not forget his dark treachery, nor our resolve to protect Ordossia.”
“How selfless of you, Lady Yaga,” observed Anasaya silkily, ” and yet your precious Order spawns Dark Wizards with distressing regularity. Perhaps the Order should pay restitution for its former Arch-Wizard whom it is so quick to disown.”
“How dare you,” Yaga hissed at Anasaya, “after everything that the Order has done…”
“Enough,” King Himavat did not raise his voice, but the hall quietened down, “there will be no bickering within the Alliance.”
“It was your mother who failed to execute Koschei when she had the chance,” retorted Anasaya, nonchalantly inspecting her finger nails, “or we wouldn’t be in this mess”.
The hall went completely silent. It was considered very bad form to mention that in front of the monarch. Himavat scowled. His wife and queen Vasilisa placed a comforting hand from her seat beside the throne.
“What is Koschei’s final word on this?” Himavat turned to the emissary.
“Your majesty,” the Eye of Koschei spread her hands, “restitution of such magnitude would cripple us. My Master cannot possibly accept it.”
“Then what can he accept?” Himavat asked coldly, “Perhaps he forgets he is the losing side? Severnosk is no position to dictate the terms of its surrender. We can maintain the siege cordon indefinitely.”
The Eye of Koschei grimaced but did not respond.
“If your Master cannot pay us gold, perhaps he can loan it,” declared Yarod, “Preferably interest free.”
There was a startled pause. Anasaya whistled, “That’s not a bad idea, Yarod. It’s the first time you’ve make sense today.”
All eyes turned to the emissary who seemed to shrink into herself. Vasilisa watched the girl closely as the emissary huddled in her chair rocking back and forth in seeming agitation. Then the Eye of Koschei sat up straighter and looked at the King, “My Master is willing to negotiate a loan.”
It took most of the day to hammer out the details. Vasilisa could follow the broad outline, though she trusted her husband with the minutiae.
“This calls for a toast, lords and ladies,” Himavat permitted himself a smile, “Koschei has agreed to advance a loan – at below market interest rate – for distribution between our kingdoms. This sum is an order of magnitude more than all coinage in circulation within the Alliance.”
Vasilisa blinked in surprise. The was startlingly generous.
“We can ill afford such largesse, your majesty,” nodded the Eye of Koschei, her eyes downcast, “But my Master wishes the Alliance to feel safe. This should convince you all that Severnosk is determined to make amends.”
“A Master of Appeasement he is,” nodded Anasaya with barely concealed glee, “The Emperor of Shung sends his blessing on this historic Treaty.”
“As does my master, the Queen of Gwynloch,” grinned Yarod.
“I still don’t like it,” growled Mage Yaga.
“What is it this time, O Most Revered Mage?” demanded Anasaya, rolling her eyes. Vasilisa gaped at the Duchess’ insolence. Most nobility were far more respectful of the Unaffiliated Order, and Vasilisa herself was more than a little fearful of the ancient crone who went by the name of Baba Yaga.
“Long have I watched Koschei’s machinations,” Yaga muttered almost to herself, “and seldom does he act without shaping the future to his own ends.”
“My lord,” Vasilisa turned to her husband with a twinge of unease, “I have sought out Mage Yaga for her wisdom before, and if she is worried so should we be.”
Yaga nodded absently in acknowledgement.
“And not for nothing are you known as Vasilisa the Wise, my beloved,” Himavat’s smile faded into a frown, “and I would do well to heed your counsel. But do you see a specific plot behind Koschei’s apparent generosity?”
Vasilisa shook her head, biting her lip. The others at the table looked back at her – the commoner who had become queen – with carefully controlled disdain. Vasilisa would never be one of them, without royal blood in her veins. But she barely noticed them as her unease grew stronger. She couldn’t produce wisdom on demand. Not without consulting her toy, and it had never occurred to her that today’s events would call for deep insight.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Anasaya barked a laugh, “Koschei hopes to provoke a falling out within the Alliance. He knows that each one of us will use part of the loan to rebuild our armies and stoking mutual distrust.”
“As he might well hope,” nodded Himavat thoughtfully, “since the Alliance is one of convenience not friendship. Not exactly subtle. But the Master of Appeasement will taste disappointment. Fears of a resurgent Severnosk will keep the Alliance united.”
“Speaking of rebuilding armies,” Maga Yaga tapped the contract scroll in front of her, “there are odd stipulations in here. The loan may not be invested in capital equipment such as plows, anvils or other such tools for civilian use. It may be used to pay for military expenses, military and civilian construction including palaces and other luxuries. Rather strange, don’t you think?”
“My Master has his reasons,” the Eye of Koschei shrugged, “which I cannot comment on.”
“Sir Gawkes,” the King turned to the head of the Actuarial Guild, “Have you estimated the risk of defaulting? The penalty is magically enforced, after all”
“We have, your majesty,” nodded the elderly man surrounded by a trio of assistants bearing dusty ledgers, “given that repayment starts in ten years, the risk is… manageable. We’ll have to work the peasants and metal workers a bit harder of course, but nothing that the Treasury wouldn’t normally underwrite.”
Vasilisa suppressed the angry retort on the tip of her tongue. As a merchant’s daughter she hadn’t been raised in luxury, but she hadn’t wallowed in poverty either. But she had seen enough of the proletariat to know how hard the peasants had it already.
“Besides even if we default,” observed Yarod, “what’s the worst case scenario? Any structures constructed from the defaulting loan will magically crumble to dust. But there’ll be plenty of warning. We are not exactly risking our lives.”
“I don’t know, Yarod,” Anasaya smiled, “I like my palaces. Especially the ones I am planning to build from the loan.”
“Not to mention the security implication of losing border fortifications,” Himavat pointed out, “We better make bloody sure the loan is paid back, if that is indeed Koschei’s plan.”
“Again, not very subtle,” Anasaya yawned elaborately.
“It is settled then,” Himavat nodded, “the Treaty will be ratified. Unless Mage Yaga has anything else to add?”
“I have no other objections,” Yaga shook her head wearily, “The Order will be supervising the magical enforcement of the loan to make sure there is no subterfuge.”
Vasilisa stared out the window of her royal bedchamber. Dusk was falling and far to the north the setting sun had painted the peaks in golden amber. The roof tops of Hastina were spread out below like a royal child’s play set, as tiny windows began to light up with a multitude of lamps to keep the night at bay. There was even a celebration planned in the streets tomorrow to mark the Treaty.
Vasilisa found no comfort in the warm lights of the capital, as she settled into her bed. From beyond the mountains, Severnosk seemed to cast a long shadow into her mind. Koschei was almost a mythical being to her, a bogeyman used to scare children into obedience. The pandemic in the capital had been a terrifying part of her teen years, forcing Vasilisa’s father to relocate her to the countryside along with her stepmother. And Koschei had become much feared for supposedly bringing on the pandemic.
There was an ornately carved box on her nightstand which Vasilisa opened to pull out what appeared to be a girl’s wooden doll with the paint faded with age. She ran her fingers over the scratched surface. It had been a gift from her dying mother, though little Vasilisa hadn’t understood why her mother had never shown her that doll before. It was only later, in her teens, when trouble from her stepmother started that Vasilisa realized that her mother’s gift was magical, possibly an Elder artifact of immense age. Whatever it’s origin, Doll had saved Vasilisa from her stepmother’s murderous plots on more than one occasion. And none suspected her secret, not even Himavat who simply assumed that Vasilisa kept her childhood toy to remember her mother.
Her fingers clutched Doll to her chest as her eyelids grew heavy. Vasilisa was tired. Doll’s insights could be accessed only through dreams and it was quite unreliable even then.
“Hello Doll,” Vasilisa gave a start as she realized she had fallen asleep, “did you miss me?”
Oh Vasilisa, you are so silly. I am not some person trapped inside your toy. I am you. Or rather Vasilisa as she would be if your potential was realized.
“Do you know what deception Koschei is planning with his reparation loan? Apart from the obvious, I mean.”
Why would I know what he is planning? I can’t read his mind, only yours. I can’t tell you anything beyond what you yourself might figure out if you were smarter.
Vasilisa sighed and reworded her question, “What is Koschei most likely to be planning given what we know?”
Despite Doll’s insistence that she wasn’t a person but merely a smarter version of Vasilisa, it didn’t feel that way. To Vasilisa it felt like talking to a smarter sibling, not like her own mind was being temporarily accelerated by Doll’s ancient magic.
“Doll, are you still there?” Vasilisa was beginning to wonder if Doll had failed as it sometimes did, perhaps unable to craft meaningful insight from Vasilisa’s limited knowledge. Then without warning, Doll’s vision began to flash into her mind.
She saw her kingdom as if from afar, the farmers tilling the soil, smiths hammering steel into plows, carpenters crafting wood and masons sculpting homes brick by brick. Hastinmark’s economic lifeblood pulsed placidly steady, its flow governed only by the size of its population. A bright avalanche of gold – Koschei’s loan – suddenly dumped into the sluggish stream that was gross domestic product. The sudden injection of credit was an order of magnitude larger than all coins in circulation, a veritable tidal wave of spending frenzy trickling down from the nobles to the merchants.
Vasilisa struggled to make sense of the fast moving images, the nobles driving the peasants hard to ensure that the magically enforced loan was not defaulted. The economic tidal wave crested and behind it was the stream bed laid bare with the entire output of the kingdom going into repaying the debt. Vasilisa blinked in sudden understanding. With the debt magically enforced, the kingdom had effectively borrowed from its own future. And the future was here with a vengeance. With no more money the mercenary troop garrisons turned on the kingdom they had been hired to serve. Fiefs revolted against ever more unreasonable demands from their masters. Towns and villages burned. And exploiting the chaos came the armies of Koschei the Immortal, breaking out of their bottle , sweeping through like a cleansing flood…
She woke from her nightmare with sweat damping her forehead. She still clutched Doll to her chest. Night had fallen and stars twinkled outside the window. King Himavat slept snoring with his arm across her, he must have come to bed after she had fallen asleep. With a sinking feeling Vasilisa finally understood why Koschei was so dangerous. They weren’t even playing the same game. The Dark Wizard forged economic forces into weapons, while the kingdoms of Man still played with swords and magic. How could they hope to beat him? She touched the sleeping form of her husband and king, the man she so loved and who was no match for the Dark Wizard. But perhaps, Vasilisa could be the Queen her kingdom needed. With Doll’s help, she might truly become Vasilisa the Wise and a worthy foe to stop Koschei.
Author’s Note: This story was mainly inspired by How the Economic Machine Works