Lydia had been in Skandia for about a year and she was almost used to the eccentricities of Hallasholm. But she was not prepared for the craziness that had pervaded the past week. People had been running around, closing shops early, and shirking work. Several men and their families had not been seen for several days. When she brought that concerning fact up to an unusually harried Edvin, he brushed the thought aside and said that they would turn up soon enough. Edvin had been making three times the normal amount of medical calls this week as it seemed that everyone was deliberately trying to get themselves injured.
Lydia wondered if there was a full moon making everyone in the town act crazy. She had seen Jesper giving his possessions away to folks, who, instead of taking the objects, were desperately trying to give Jesper their valuables. Stefan was constantly mimicking someone and trying to hide. She didn’t think she had heard Stefan’s real voice in a week.
Even Hal, her sensible skirl, had been acting secretive and weird. He was constantly whispering with Stig while looking at their cargo and completely preventing people from getting close to the Heron, even the curious little kids who wanted to know more about the famous Heron boat. Lydia had seen Stig tackle Borsa who had gotten a little too close to the Heron just yesterday.
Walking on the outskirts of the town, she could already tell that this day was going to test her patience. Erak was stalking around town, grabbing random townspeople by the shoulders and forcing them to walk with him all while wearing the ugliest smile Lydia had ever seen. It looked like Erak was simultaneously enjoying himself to the utmost degree and wishing he was anywhere but here at the same time.
Someone brushed past Lydia, bumping her shoulder. "Oh, so sorry dearie. I didn't mean to hit you." warbled a high pitched voice.
Lydia started to protest but the words died in her mouth when she saw who had bumped into her. It was Svengal, but he didn't look like Svengal. He was wearing what looked like a gray bird's nest on his head, messily plaited, and a shapeless dress that Lydia was fairly certain was a potato sack.
"...Svengal?" She ventured hesitantly.
"Oh no dearie," came the warbling reply. "I'm his great aunt Winfredia. You may have heard of me before."
Lydia had indeed heard of Svengal's fabled great aunts, including Winfredia, but she had would have bet her last emerald that Great Aunt Winfredia did not exist. It still didn't explain the person standing in front of her. Lydia didn’t think anything could ever explain the past week to her. Before Lydia could even begin to think of what to say next, she felt a comforting presence come up beside her.
"Hullo Great Aunt Winfredia" said Ingvar. Lydia gave him a despairing look. Had her best friend succumbed to the madness infecting the Skandians? Was this a disease that only she was immune to? "On your way to meet Erak, I presume."
"Another year gone by, my dear boy. Don't get old, enjoy the first blooms of youth while you can." was the cheerful yet odd reply.
Ingvar leaned down conspiratally. "I like the braided beard this year Svengal. It's a nice touch."
Great Aunt Winfredia grinned up at Ingvar and Lydia and winked. "I have no idea what you're talking about young man." Ingvar winked back like he was in on the joke.
Lydia had never felt so confused in her life. When Great Aunt Winfredia had walked away, she turned to Ingvar and threw up her hands, unable to properly convey with words her confusion. Ingvar was still grinning but his grin slowly faded as he saw Lydia’s look of confusion and frustration. She didn’t know. His grin was replaced by a look of realization and horror. No one had told Lydia about the tradition. She wasn't prepared for tax collection and more importantly, tax evasion. It had completely slipped his mind, no one ever talked about tax evasion time, people just felt it deep in their bones and knew what to do. And apparently everyone had failed to notify Lydia of her duties during this sacred time. Ingvar had failed his best friend and he was going to correct his mistake immediately.
Ingvar guided Lydia back to his house where it was empty. His mother, father, and little sister had left a day earlier to avoid tax collection. Erak would get their taxes when they got back, but it was the effort that really mattered. As long as you put some effort into evading your taxes, the tradition was upkept. He explained the best he could to Lydia about how it was a time honored Skandian tradition to evade taxes and to pay as little money as an individual and crew member could. Lydia could only stare at her giant friend. What kind of town had she landed in? And why was she excited about the prospect of trying to cheat someone out of taxes? Ingvar took this stare as a stare of understanding instead of disbelief and went on to explain the intricacies of the Skandian tax system and evasion, highlighting points with specific examples like Svengal dressing as his Great Aunt Winfredia was a yearly occasion and other various schemes and loopholes, only stopping after he explained how he and Lydia would have to pay a certain percentage of the money and cargo they received as a tax payment since they were members of the Heron crew.
Ingvar expected Lydia to throw her tax money on the ground for Erak to find and leave Skandia forever, tax evasion season was a difficult, confusing time for anyone, much less someone not born in Skandia, but Lydia had a cunning look on her face. She was never one to back down from a challenge and she would be a horrible guest if she didn't participate in town traditions.
"Ingvar," she said slowly. "You said crew members have to pay a certain amount of the cargo they received, correct?"
His reply was automatic. "Yes, unless you can prove that two members of a crew count as one unit. Ulf and Wulf try to argue that they are the same person every year and it never works. It only really works if the members are married." At this he stopped. Lydia was looking at him deviously. A smile curled on Ingvar's face. He knew where Lydia was going with this.
The best friends had briefly talked about marrying each other before, but in a strictly platonic way. Lydia had no interest in dating anyone and Ingvar was in the same camp. Getting married to each other would stop questions about when they were going to start dating from being asked and no one would ever have to know the truth about the marriage really being for tax evasion purposes. Spending the rest of his life with his best friend and committing the ultimate tax evasion at the same time sounded wonderful to Ingvar. He had never been too committed to avoiding paying his taxes, they weren't large and Skandia needed some money for trade. But this would be a great solution to several problems at the same time.
"Ingvar, will you commit tax fraud with me?"
They spent several hours planning out the logistics of their tax fraud marriage and trying to figure out the smallest amount of taxes that they would have to pay. Since Lydia was not born in Skandia, she didn't have to give as much cargo as Ingvar did, so the two of them decided to file their joint taxes under Lydia's payments to maximize the evasion. There were several other tax loopholes that they were planning to take advantage of just to make the marriage even sweeter of a deal.
Erak hated tax season. As a simple skirl years ago, he had loved it. Avoiding giving full payments on his cargo tax, taking short trips to avoid getting audited, trying to fool people, that truly was the life. As Oberjarl, he hated tax season. What little respect he got from the skirls like Svengal evaporated and he had the hardest time getting taxes from everyone. Erak just wanted to scream. The crew that was giving him the most trouble was the blasted Heron crew. Erak loved them but he wanted to shake his grandfather’s axe at them, they were giving him so much trouble.
Right now, the majority of their crew was surrounding his table by the waterfront, trying to stop him from taking their taxes. Hal was trying to anxiously look at Erak’s ledgers and Stig was trying to prevent Erak from getting up and inspecting the Heron and her cargo. Erak was a strong man but he did not have the patience to stop Stig from stopping him today so he slumped down on his chair and tried to listen to the Herons. He was sick of the tax evasion schemes. The twins, Ulf and Wulf, tried to convince Erak that he was so old that he was seeing double of them and every time the twins said the word old, Erak put another tally down on their accounts but didn’t stop them from talking. They were going to pay in every sense of the word for that insult. Taking in all of the commotion was Edvin, who was holding a forlorn Jesper and Stefan by their ears. They had tried to sneak out of Hallasholm and pin their taxes on Thorn, but Edvin had caught them and marched them right up to Erak. Edvin might have been the one Skandian who had paid his taxes in full and for that, Erak thanked Gorlog.
As all of this was happening, Erak saw Ingvar and Lydia walk to his desk together, holding a small bag of money between the two of them. They cheerfully walked up to Erak and smiled widely. No one ever smiled during tax season. The rest of the Herons paused, looking at the pair.
The commotion fully stopped when Ingvar and Lydia tossed the bag of coins onto Erak's desk. No one had ever willingly given up their tax money before, except for Edvin, Gorlog bless him. Erak threw off Stig and gave an incredulous grunt before peering into the bag. He looked at his sheet. There was not enough money to cover either of their payments, even after the tradition of tax evasion. Tax evasion only went so far and Skandia needed money. The Herons looked confused at the duo until Ingvar pointed at the small flower in Lydia's hair, signifying that she had been married that morning.
Chaos ensued. The twins may have fainted.
After everyone had initially calmed down, Erak looked at the money again. The amount was the smallest payment he had ever seen.
“You know that this is not enough to cover even your joint tax payments including the evasion money.” This was accompanied by a mournful glare. Erak knew that some loophole was coming, something that would truly make him regret becoming Oberjarl.
“Oh but it is,” explained Lydia, a little too gleefully. “We’re filing our joint payments under my name and I pay less in taxes than a native Skandian would. We’ve also claimed Kloof as a dependent and taken out the money allocated for that.”
Hal interrupted here. “You can’t claim Kloof as a dependant! She’s my dog!” Lydia shot a withering glance his way.
“I have fed her more times than you have in the past week while you’ve been off avoiding paying your taxes. I took her in as my own and I’m being the responsible one, paying my taxes with my husband.”
Ingvar continued Lydia’s argument. Erak and Edvin were looking quite confused, Ulf and Wulf looked like they wanted to fight Lydia and Ingvar, and the rest of them were looking at them like they were legends.
“Plus, since we just got married and you did not come to our wedding, that really hurt our feelings by the way,” Erak looked even more shocked. “We took out the amount that the traditional gift from the Oberjarl would cost from our tax payment. Plus, since Lydia has no father to give his gift and Lydia is a technical ward of the state and you act in loco parentis for her, we took that amount out of our payment as well.”
Erak could only shake his head in disbelief as Lydia and Ingvar walked away. He looked at Hal and Hal quickly backed away. He and the rest of the Herons had nothing to do with this plan and even if they had been a part of it, he wasn't going to admit that to Erak who looked ready to take his ancestral axe and chop something down.
Edvin pulled the Herons together. He knew that Erak liked Ingvar and Lydia. They were in no danger of being hurt, but Ulf and Wulf certainly were. The Herons followed Edvin eagerly. They needed to follow a calm head in this uncertain time. Edvin followed the couple into the woods.
In the privacy of the woods, Lydia and Ingvar fully explained the situation to their crewmates. Everyone agreed that it was the best tax evasion scheme they had ever seen and congratulated Lydia and Ingvar for a job well done. Hal and Jesper immediately started grilling Ingvar and Lydia on all the different laws they used to minimize their payments. Lydia and Ingvar brushed them off gently; they wanted to go celebrate their successful tax evasion and play some cards.
As Lydia and Ingvar left to go play cards back at Lydia's house, they heard Hal say to Stig "Erak hasn't collected OUR payments yet, has he?" A long silence followed.
Later that night, a piece of paper was slipped under Lydia's door, interrupting their card game. Lydia went to pick it up, but Ingvar shook his head. It wasn't worth the trouble to be a part of Hal and Stig's tax evasion scheme. Lydia nodded in agreement and went back to the card game.