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Master Carver Builds A Debtors' Prison

Sean Vivier is a web app developer in real life, with his own website at seanvivier.com. He feels the need to mention that he has good credit.

Itzak paid very precise attention to Master Carver's instructions. He had apprenticed for the man long enough to know that his master demanded particular detail. For all Carver's love of anarchy, he still loved order and harmony within his own work.
The apprentice knew all the ways he might fall short. He remembered all the ways he had fallen short in the past. For all he tended to correct and explain with a kind tone, Itzak had seen Master Carver's temper more than enough times that he'd rather avoid it.
So he concentrated. And with each word Carver spoke, Itzak made it something tangible in his mind. Old Roman concrete, salvaged from ruins, for the supports. Walls made of two thin frames of limestone with bars of iron between to strengthen them.
Itzak straightened his yarmulke and tugged his apron and adjusted his toolbelt all the while. If he couldn't make the plans perfect yet, he'd perfect things where he already had control.
Still, something else bothered him. He could have sworn Carver had told him never to build with limestone. Itzak remembered when Carver had said that, years ago, when he had first begun his apprenticeship. Itzak had made sure to remember that, the better to make sure he never became a bad Mason. Actually, nothing about the design made sense.
He decided to ask the question with tact, but even then he swallowed his fast heart. "To help me understand... what are we building?"
"A debtors' prison," Master Carver said, nonchalant.
Itzak nodded, while his whole world spun. Carver didn't believe in prisons. Now he wanted to make one?
"And you got the limestone from the quarry I asked?"
Carver's voice outside the lodge woke Itzak. Right. He needed to be ready for work. He rose and he donned all his clothes and Masonic paraphernalia.
"The very one," came Mother Temperance's voice, filled with glee. "They gave us a great discount. Between that and the salvaged Roman concrete, you'll save us quite a bit of money."
That didn't sound like Master Carver at all. He wanted the best, no matter how costly in coin or effort. He wanted Riphean marble and adamant and orichalcum. Why did he settle for inferior materials?
Itzak knew he'd never manage breakfast with his stomach twisted like that. He placed his yarmulke and stepped outside, where Mother Temperance already frowned at the sight of a Jew.
"Ah," said Carver. He gave a much warmer reception. "Up bright and early. Ready to work?"
"Yes, only...." Master and apprentice had built a working relationship over many years. Carver must know to expect to hear Itzak's concerns. Had listened many a time, if he had often dismissed them. So he risked it. "Why are we making a debtors' prison? I thought you, of all people, must abhor a debtors' prison."
Carver flushed and glanced at his sponsor by his side. "Debts should be paid, should they not?"
Itzak frowned. "Well, I mean... I always pay mine...."
"Well, there you have it. So get back to work."
Carver had never been so abrupt. Itzak felt his balls shrivel and try to retreat inside himself for protection. He decided to hurry away to work rather than face that.
Itzak felt heat on his face the whole time he worked on the prison. He didn't dare refuse, because he knew that might well spell the end of his career. Who wanted to work with someone who refused his part?
Still and all, while he worked, he worried about a changed Master Carver. If he built debtors' prisons now, where else did he no longer draw the line? Carver alone had been willing to apprentice Itzak when the law said no Jews may learn a skilled trade. Few men besides Carver argued religious toleration. What if he changed his mind about anti-Semitism, too? What if he then renounced his distaste for violence as a first resort? How far did the changes go?
He didn't speak a word of his fears. Not now. When Carver treated the limestone with lemon juice and vinegar and salt, he didn't ask. He and Carver worked, and the journeymen and laborers worked, as the debtors' prison rose floor by floor, backed by the mountains of Montsalvatch. Until Mother Temperance brought the debtors to their new home.
"Hey, Itzak."
Carver shook him awake, and Itzak crawled back in the bed, certain the new man had come to kill him.
"Hey," Carver whispered. "Sorry I had to hide my plans from you. I know how upset you can get. But I want to show you something. Come outside."
This seemed important. So Itzak only took time for his yarmulke before he rose from the bed and followed Carver, wary, out the lodge door.
A heavy rain fell, but Itzak paid it no mind. He saw it score the limestone walls of the debtors' prison before them, already quarried from inferior quality stone and abraded by Carver's caustic treatments. Pockmarks formed under the torrent of water, until the lack of cohesion collapsed the remainder of the limestone. The thin stone fell like scales and washed away to nothing, so that the walls vanished. Only the Roman concrete stood intact. That and the iron lattices, now so much like ladders.
"A loan is a risk," Carver said. "You should pay your debts if you can, sure. But if someone can't... if you face the downside of the risk... destroying someone's life is not the answer. Refuse to lend to them again. Stain their reputation. Shun them. Blackball them. But don't lock them away."
Already, debtors awoke to descend the ad hoc ladders and make their way to freedom.
They'd done this on purpose. Just this once, for a little while, Itzak felt his fear wash away like the broken walls.
Carver laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "This," he said, with a passion, "this is why we built a debtors' prison."
Trickery to defy authority. Now that's the Master Carver that Itzak knew.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 8th, 2022


Author Comments

Master Carver is my favorite character of my own creation. He began in an online play-by-post freeform RPG. I made him an anarchist because I tired of everyone who obeyed the king and queen without question. I made him a Mason because I tired of characters without an income or a need to work. I have since rebooted him in a version of Renaissance Europe where the lands of medieval legend are real. With any luck, you'll see him again.

- Sean Vivier
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