Updated: Dec 26, 2022
(image to be updated)
Tara follows up on her hunch and goes to confront the general manager of the Central Axis Project.
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Episode 191. About 10 Months (68)
The handwriting on the budget execution documents for each of the districts was the same.
I looked at the penmanship on individual words and numbers. The writing style of the word ‘request’ was identical on two different documents.*
The documents before me were the Labour Cost Execution Budget, the Construction Material Execution Budget, and the Wagon Maintenance Execution Budget.
The workforce manager, construction materials execution manager, and transportation logistics managers were all separate people, each appointed to the Central Provinces by the Imperial Ministry of Finance in consultation with the military.
All of these procedures were designed to create transparency in the use of funds.
Each document was supposed to be written by a different person. Therefore, the handwriting should never be the same on all three documents.
Budget documents requesting manpower were submitted through agreement between the Ministry of Finance and the military. They were directly approved by the Ministry of Finance and the budget was executed by the military without a separate verification process.
The military then sent the agreed upon budgets to Baron Charles Berg, the head of the Central Construction Department.
So far, the Ministry of Finance had allocated the budgets for the Central Axis project to the military without any dispute.
Immediately after I discovered the document falsification, I met with the construction manager, the materials manager, and the workforce manager to look at the actual budget execution in the accounting books.
But it was strange.
The amounts on the budget documents had been arbitrarily changed, and the actual budget execution amounts were different for each department, but the total budget execution amount was exactly the same.
At first, I didn't understand what was going on.
However, when I calculated the differences one by one, I observed that the costs related to labour costs had increased and the cost related to other construction materials had been lowered.
In addition, part of the budget for the expansion of wagon repairs was transferred to the budget for repairing construction materials.
Regardless of all of this, the Central Axis project was progressing well without any issues.
The use of the budget could be adjusted on the authority of the general manager. However, there had to be preconditions to justify these arbitrary adjustments. Each document had to be reviewed before the funds could be used and it required additional approvals.
Arbitrary modifications being done without preconditions could lead to an official being deprived of their managerial position, or in some cases, severe punishment.
It was a matter of appropriately spending the Empire's taxes after all.
So why didn't the Baron follow the procedure?
Because it was a waste of time waiting for the documents to be reviewed and approved?
Was he so confident he wouldn't get caught?
Yes. He wouldn't do it unless he was confident he would be able to get away with it.
Even so, it was reckless. Was it possible he only balanced the budget on paper so he could embezzle the funds privately?
There was a high probability he saw this as an opportunity for personal gain.
Well, I was going to find out as soon as I spoke with him.
Paul and I were currently on our way to Baron Charles Berg's mansion.
The town, named Preston, was an unusual place in the Central Provinces.
Even after the heavy rain, the small countryside town was well-tended and lively.
Well-maintained street vendor stalls sat in neat rows instead of being tightly crowded together.
The wagons and carriages along the street were also well polished, and the [Central Castle Preston Police Station] and [Central Preston Magistrate's Office] were both located in an organised commercial area where the rows of shops intersected. The [Central Provincial Bank] and [Central Preston Provincial Government Office] were also in close proximity.
"Why is it so well maintained? In addition, the prices here are about 10 percent cheaper in the local currency!"
The price of items in the local currency were attached to the signs in front of the street stalls alongside the prices in the common currency.
What was up with this place?
“I assume the local currency must be more valuable. In addition, this place is very neat. Compared to the small rural towns I've been to, this place is a paradise.”
I nodded thoughtfully in agreement with Paul's words.
"Yes, you're right…"
In the past, I had run away as soon as I woke up in Tara's body, so I knew this as well. None of the small towns in the Imperial Capital region had been as well maintained.
As far as I knew, the town of Preston had a long history, comparable to that of the Capital.
Even in the Capital, alleyways were scattered haphazardly, and there were multiple sections where wagons were unable to pass because the locations of walls and streets had been decided on a whim.
Outside of the areas frequented by the aristocracy, the streets were congested and dangerous due to the crowded rows of street vendors and shops.
However, this place had no sign of the restrictive walls that were commonly seen in the Capital.
It felt like a new kind of urban planning.
I walked slowly and looked around the town. People's expressions were certainly positive.
In the small square, children gathered in twos and threes to play and there was a large communal well under construction in the centre.
"That's the last destination His Highness the Second Prince is scheduled to visit."
"There. The well."
Paul, who had been caught up looking elsewhere, looked towards the small square at my words, and nodded his head belatedly.
"Oh… Yes. The residents here must be happy. It's such a well-equipped place. I can't believe there's a police station and a bank. And the wagons and carriages are well maintained. Where I used to live there was no well, so I had to travel 2km every day to get water."
"His Highness accepted the request to dig a new well here while reconstructing the Central Provinces. And he also plans to bear the related expenses."
“Oh, as expected! The Lord I have chosen to trust and follow is truly exceptional in every way!”
‘What do you mean exceptional? This should be normal! As a high-ranking member of society, it is expected to demonstrate a high degree of morality. And as a member of the Imperial Family? Even more so! This is noblesse oblige! The words lingered on the tip of my tongue, but I held them back, not wanting to trample Paul's genuine feelings and sparkling eyes.**
"Haha. That's right. Ah! I see the Baron's mansion over there."
Instead, I quickly changed the subject.
At the edge of Preston, I saw a house with a single small window. Beyond that, there was a wide training ground, and after that a massive C-shaped two-story building.***
The huge mansion was out of place in such a small town.
Perhaps the small house out front was the residence of a housekeeper or gatekeeper.
I went to the small house and knocked on the front door. After a long moment, the door opened.
A skinny old man with his hands on the hilt of a pick-axe looked back at us. He looked as if he had just come back from ploughing a field.
The old man's hair was almost entirely white, with only a few dark brown hairs visible here and there. He furrowed his wrinkled brows to get a closer look at us.
His eyes were…?
Looking closely, he didn't look very old, except for his white head of hair.
The man straightened the collar of his dirty shirt, which had probably been white at some point.
"Are you on the inspection team?" He asked.
Before I could even open my mouth, Paul, who was standing behind me, blocked me with his body and took a step forward.
"How dare a servant speak so informally to a palace representative! Have some courtesy."
I immediately moved one step to the side and grabbed Paul's arm.
"Sir Paul, wait a minute."
But Paul didn't budge.
"I've only ever lived in the countryside, so I do not know what manners to use for officers of the Palace. What should I do?”
His attitude and intonation was strange.
The man asked the question with a grin, placing his hands on the pick-axe again.
This made Paul furious.
"No. This bastard is still a servant…!”
To prevent any further mishap, I hurriedly stepped in front of Paul and nodded to the man.
"Hello, I am Tara Elias, the Second Administrator of the inspection team. Are you a nobleman?"
Paul shouted in surprise.
The skinny old man maintained the same posture as if to say, 'Hooh…' as he looked me over. His brown eyes gleamed.
"You're quick-witted. Or is my attitude too stiff? I'll have to grovel a little more next time. Hehehe."
“It’s hard to change things that are ingrained in your body.”
I naturally glanced towards the old man's hand.
"Your fingers also played a part in it."
When I pointed to the old man's fingers holding the pick-axe, Paul and the old man's gazes turned towards them.
The end of his middle finger on the right hand was bent a lot, and ink stained the skin, making that particular section appear blackened. A quintessential scholar's hand.
At the same time Paul exclaimed, the old man burst into laughter.
"Next time I'll have to hide my hands. Alright, what's going on?"
"Does the mansion in front of us belong to Baron Charles Berg? It seems like this is the entrance, but there is no gate, so I ended up knocking on the door here. By any chance…"
"Well, I'm glad you found me."
I tilted my head and stared at the Baron. He was quite different from the person I had imagined.
"I'm the Baron. What is the matter with the inspection?"
"I came here to ask you a few questions. Are you actually Baron Charles Berg?"
I checked again.
"Indeed! Since you are from the Palace, I will make time for you. Now, come inside."
As the Baron entered the room, I stood frozen at the door. The Baron, having already gone in and turned around, asked.
"Why aren't you coming in?"
"Do you live here?”
I asked, after glancing again at the mansion across the training grounds. The Baron slowly nodded his head.
"I've been living here for a while, won't you come in?"
Despite the Baron's answer, my eyes remained fixed on the mansion. Paul, standing behind me, spoke softly.
"This is strange, Second Ai… No, Second Administrator."
"I know. This doesn't feel right… Well, we can check later. Let's go in, Sir Paul."
I couldn't keep the Baron waiting any longer, so I put off the questions that kept coming to my mind and walked inside.
“I will be here. Just say the word."
After walking in, Paul looked around, stood in front of the door, and nodded. I followed the Baron.
As I quietly looked around the narrow room, the Baron grumbled and exclaimed to himself like an actor in a theatrical play.****
"Did he go down to drink in the city? That old man, I'll have to cut him off or something…”
"Ah. One of my servants. Haha. Please sit there."
The Baron pulled out a chair from the only available indoor dining table, grabbed a glass of water and sat across from me.
"So, what are you curious about?"
The Baron I knew of beforehand was 67-years-old. I had also heard he had a chronic disease, but he didn’t look ill.
When I first opened the door, I initially thought he was around my age in Korea, but when I looked closer, I could only see that he was in his late 50s.
Was my profile on him wrong?
"Before that, may I ask why you pretended not to be the Baron?"
"I'm a little mischievous. That's why sometimes I hide my identity from outsiders and then reveal myself before them. Hahaha."
The wrinkles on his face almost looked like they were created with makeup… Wait… Make-up?
The plot thickens.... Hint: Check out the Working with Kyle arc (chapters 168-176) if you want to go back to find any relevant clues.
* In the original text Tara was comparing how certain Korean characters were written similarly. This is one of those places where direct translation simply does not work. I essentially ended up entirely rewriting both of these sentences to convey the same idea.
** The term Tara uses here, ‘noblesse oblige’ was a historical moral philosophy of European nobility that suggests it is the responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity towards the less fortunate. This term is still used this way in modern English. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/noblesse%20oblige
*** The mansion was described as 'digeut'-shaped, which refers to this character 'ㄷ'in Korean.
**** The word used to describe the Baron's muttering here was '추임새' "Chuimsae". From what I understand Chuimsae is the name for exclamatory utterances used by performers during a traditional Korean pansori '판소리' performance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pansori). Pansori is a unique form of traditional Korean performance art where drummers combine storytelling and music. I found this little reference really culturally rich and fascinating. I love these tidbits I find while editing and encourage you to look these references up yourself!
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