Catte Black, with illustrations by JR Leach
Once upon a time in a land far away and in a time of plenty there were two rich and prosperous Landlords who each owned large and spacious adjoining buildings wherein many people lived.
The apartments were warm and comfortable and every week there was a market where grain was brought from Landlord B’s land and fruit and meat and vegetables from Landlord A’s. While wood from Landlord B’s copses kept the Communal Woodpile stocked with seasoned logs.
Everyone was happy.
The Landlords were both friends with a Banker.
The Banker was richer than both the Landlords combined and in fact he owned their houses and their land and watched carefully what they did with them.
And one day he invited them to a sumptuous dinner at his house and said “things could be better”.
“How could things be better, friend Banker?” asked Landlord B, “there is food in our granaries and money in our coffers, and everyone is happy”.
“Your people are charged too little for too much luxury. They expect fuel for their stoves and food in their markets, and are never grateful enough to you for your kindness.”
The two Landlords looked at each other and realized this might be true, for they rarely disagreed with the Banker.
“Yes,” said Landlord A, sadly shaking his head, “our people are feckless children that never give enough thanks for our largesse, but alas, what can we do?”.
“They need to be taught their place”, the Banker said. “They need to pay a proper price for what you provide and learn to be grateful. You should triple the price of food from your farms and fuel from the Communal Wood Pile”.
The two Landlords looked at each other in apprehension. They were greedy and liked the sound of this very much, but they were also cowards.
“But”, said Landlord B, “but if we do that they may just become annoyed and might refuse to pay or break our windows or our bones and then we will be worse off not better!”
This was true. And caused the Landlords to shake their heads regretfully.
But the Banker was cleverer than either of them. He merely smiled.
“They are children”, he said, “and children require stories in order to learn about life’s harsh truths. So, you will tell them a story”.
The two Landlords looked at him, but did not understand.
“You will tell them there is a new and terrible plague which has broken the Supply Chain and consequently fuel and food are three times more expensive!”
“But…but there is no new and terrible plague”, stammered Landlord A.
“Of course there is”, smiled the Banker, “why else would hundreds of people be dying?”
“But hundreds of people are not dying”, stammered Landlord B.
“Of course they are,” smiled the Banker, “how could they not when there is a new and terrible plague?”
They looked at him for a long time before gradual understanding dawned, and their puzzled frowns turned to smiles.
“Of course!” they said in unison, “what would we do without the Banker to guide us!?”
So the next day, in doleful tones, the two greedy Landlords announced to their respective tenants that a new and terrible plague had begun and many people were dying and this tragedy had broken the Supply Chain and consequently food and fuel would be three times more expensive.
Most of the tenants believed this lie, because they trusted the Landlords who had always taken care of them, and so they willingly paid three times more for their food and fuel because they knew a new and terrible plague had made it inevitable.
The Banker bought both the Landlords gold hats for having handled things so well.
A month past and some of the tenants from both houses began to notice that, even though there was a new and terrible plague that had broken the Supply Chain, no one they knew seemed to be dying of it.
This puzzled them. And after another month they held a joint meeting of the tenants from House A and House B, where they aired their concerns and they agreed to send a joint delegation to the Two Landlords to enquire for the reason.
Which they duly did.
The joint delegation of tentants from House A and House B confronted their Landlords. This had never happened before.
“How can it be not one of us is dying?” the delegation asked the Landlords. “For hasn’t the new and terrible plague killed many hundreds of people and thus broken the Supply Chain?”
“And, while we’re on this”, added a particularly observant delegate, “how come we now have less food while you both appear to have new gold hats?”
“Yes”, they all cried, “why are we going hungry while you have new gold hats?” The two Landlords looked at one another in dismay.
“Errr…” said Landlord A.
“Ummm…” said Landlord B.
“Good question!” said Landlord A, “come back tomorrow and we’ll explain the whole thing!”
The delegation agreed to this, but were muttering darkly as they went back to their homes.
The two Landlords looked at each other and, as one, they turned and ran to where the Banker sat dreaming dreams of human suffering.
“It’s not working any more!” shrieked Landlord A.
“They’re on to us!” screamed Landlord B.
“They asked about the gold hats!”, howled Landlord A.
“When they find out the plague isn’t really happening they’ll lynch us!”, they both cried together, before collapsing on the floor, their heads in their hands.
But the Banker only smiled.
“You forget the people are children”, he said, “they have simply grown tired of the story and need another. Go to them and tell them the new and terrible plague just got worse and will now kill anyone who asks a question, then tell them to go home and lock their doors, this will solve your problem.”
The two Landlords blinked at him.
“That doesn’t even make any sense”, said Landlord A.
“They’ll never fall for that”, said Landlord B.
“Yes, they will”, said the Banker, “because they are children and they want stories, not sense”.
So the next day the tenants of Landlord A and Landlord B were confronted by two big signs that read – in large red letters and identical wording…
“WARNING! The new and terrible plague just got worse and is now DEADLY to anyone who ASKS A QUESTION!!
Go home, lock your doors and don’t ask questions – or you’ll all DIE!”
This created great fear and panic among the tenants, including the joint delegation who had been about to confront the Landlords and demand an answer to why they had less food while the Landlords had new gold hats. In terror they abandoned this plan and ran home and asked no questions for fear they would die.
The Two Greedy Landlords watched from their windows as the tenants ran in fear and they sighed with relief.
Then they chuckled together at the gullibility of their tenants, congratulated themselves on their cleverness and held another celebratory banquet, and then bought themselves some gold shoes.
Another month passed, and the tenants began to notice that the even newer and more terrible plague did not seem to be making people die any more than the previous one – even when they unlocked their doors and went outside.
So one day the bravest of them dared to ask a question.
“Why isn’t the new and terrible plague killing any of us?” he asked.
Everyone looked at him in silence, waiting for him to drop dead.
But he did not. Instead he spoke again.
“And why are we in hardship when they have new gold hats and now new gold shoes as well?”
The tenants looked at one another some more. Perturbed and troubled. And then the questioner spoke again.
“I think they’re lying to us”, he said. “I think they made up the new and terrible plague and the broken Supply Chain so they could increase the price of our food and fuel and buy themselves new gold hats and new gold shoes.”
At first the other tenants dismissed these words as folly and they laughed at the man in chorus.
But then first one, then another, stopped laughing and began to think…
“I think he’s right”, said one.
“So do I”, said another.
“Me too”, said a third.
And slowly it began to dawn on them. They had been duped.
Neither the new and terrible plague nor the newer and even more terrible plague that killed you when you asked a question had ever existed!
A great uproar and debate followed.
Some tenants said they should have new landlords who would not dupe them.
Others asked why they needed the Landlords at all, since all they did was take money and tell lies.
“We can be our own landlords”, became the cry. “We can keep our own Communal Woodpile, grow our own food in the farms. We can take back the gold hats and the gold shoes bought with OUR money. We can be free!”
The Banker could hear the growing commotion from his penthouse suite which covered the top floor of both the adjoining buildings, and he summoned the quaking, terrified Landlords to him.
“The tenants appear to have seen through our scheme and realize we have tricked them,” he said.
“They’re going to kill us!” Shrieked Landlord B.
“They’re going to take all our stuff”, screamed Landlord A.
“We need to think of something”, howled Landlord B, “before they come and kill us and take our gold hats and gold shoes and stop doing as we tell them”.
But the Banker only smiled.
“We can tell them the new and terrible plague became even more terrible,” said Landlord A, “and they must go home, lock their doors and ask no questions or they will all definitely die this time”.
“No”, said the Banker, “they are too wise now to the plague and won’t believe you”.
“We can tell them we’ll shoot anyone who tries to take our gold hats and gold shoes”, said Landlord A.
“No,” said the Banker, “there are too many of them and they are too angry.”
“They’re coming to get us!” cried Landlord B in great panic, “we have to do something!”
The Banker smiled a little more.
“Do you gentlemen remember your old boundary dispute from years ago, when you both claimed the old nettle patch was on your side of the fence?”
“Yes, but what use is that now?”, cried Landlord A in agonies of dread.
And then the Banker told them.
A little later, while the tenants were protesting and throwing rocks at the Landlords’ windows, they saw Landlord B suddenly stride out into the yard, past the angry tenants gathering outside, and plant his gold-shod feet in the Disputed Nettle Patch and cry in a loud voice “I claim this Nettle Patch for Building B!”
A shocked silence followed as the tenants from both houses gazed at him in bewilderment.
Then, softly but surely the tenants of Building B began to cheer.
Then Landlord A, who had followed at a safe distance, raised his arm and pointed in accusation and proclaimed “Landlord B is flouting the Rules Based Order and is a tyrant!”
And just as softly and just as surely the tenants of Building A began to boo.
“Oh no I’m not”, said Landlord B in his best booming voice.
“Oh yes you are!” cried Landlord A as shrilly as he was able.
And they shook their fists at each other while the cheering and booing rose and swelled around them. Hats were thrown in the air. Feet were stamped on the ground. Building B tenants were joyous, Building A tenants outraged. Because they all suddenly remembered the Disputed Nettle Patch belonged to them.
“Wait”, cried one of the tenants, “what about the lies they both told us? What about the threefold prices and the gold hats and gold shoes?”
“That was all Landlord A, the scoundrel”, said someone from Building B.
“It was all Landlord B, the devil”, said someone from Building A.
And then they punched each other.
And soon after the tenants from both buildings were a writhing knot of rage on the ground, punching and kicking one another.
Some Building A tenants were actually fighting on Landlord B’s side because they were sure his gold shoes were smaller than Landlord A’s.
Some Building B tenants were actually fighting on Landlord A’s side because they were certain his gold hat cost less than Landlord B’s.
In the ensuing days people even published proclamations proving these claims with diagrams and complicated arguments.
They made fun of those on the other side whose beliefs were of course absurd.
Everyone had a decided opinion. So when someone burned down nine tenths of the Communal Woodpile and there was almost no Communal Wood left to heat the tenants’ stoves, of course both sides knew exactly who to blame.
And they fought each other with even more ferocity because now even more was at stake.
Instead of bringing words and fists to the fight they brought sticks and clubs and knives and began to kill each other because they were now cold and afraid.
Meanwhile as the blood flowed, the two greedy Landlords held another celebratory banquet, with a place at the head of the table for the Banker.
Then, and with mournful countenances, they increased the price of food another threefold and rationed fuel to the most deserving – because the tragic, unavoidable ongoing and bitter war for the Nettle Patch had finally broken the Supply Chain beyond repair and someone had tragically, unavoidably burned down nine tenths of the Communal Woodpile.
And this time there were no protests, just the screams of battle echoing into forever.
JR Leach (illustrations) is a fantasy author and graphic designer whose debut novel The Farmer and the Fald was published earlier this year. You can follow him on Twitter or Substack and see more of his work on his website
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