On the last Saturday of every month, the Emperor’s tax collectors make their rounds of the city. Dressed in identical black suits and black hats, the ten appointed tax collectors, none of whom are known by name, are escorted in ten identical black carriages up and down every street and alley. On the lower left corner of each carriage door is a small yellow ribbon sticker that says “Support Thy Empire.” The military chauffeurs who act as drivers and guards wear their dress uniforms, medals sparkling against their chests like tiny flashes of lightning in the sunlight. The carriage stops in front of every door, and as the chauffer rings a loud brass bell, the tax collector moves to the doorway of the carriage, where he stands in silent recrimination of anyone who might dare to deny his country its fair share of the bounty. The bell calls, and the call is almost always answered immediately.
We step outside with heads bowed as if the emperor himself were on our doorstep, for essentially he is, and without making eye contact with the tax collector, we deposit our monthly offering in the silver bowl which rests at the tax collector’s feet. The noise it makes is different every month. We bring silver coins, bags of flour, peacock feathers, stuffed and mounted heads of deer, jewels of all kind and quality, hand-crafted tools, pieces of chocolate, babies of a certain lucky coloring who might please the court, anything that we can bear to part with, to pay our dues and remain free citizens in a just and benevolent kingdom. The tax collector doesn’t speak, but instead looks down at the offering and examines it with his highly trained and judicious eye. If he is pleased, he nods and steps backward, still without a word, and the carriage moves to the next house in a beautiful clomping of horse hooves. If he is not pleased, he looks up and makes eye contact before signaling to the chauffeur that this particular citizen no longer wishes to live in the emperor’s kingdom.
We do not make complaint. Our emperor is just. He assures safety. Maintains fortification. Reigns. He takes only what he needs to maintain our security, and we are happy to provide. We make our choices carefully, listening intently for the bell as it moves down our street, fully aware that we are as free as any common person ever was, and that freedom comes with an uncertain price.