On many Earths, they tell a story about Kêr-Ys, drowned by the thoughtless action of Dahut, the wicked daughter of good king Gradlon. On other Earths, they tell this one.
One evening, centuries after Ys grew into an economic empire, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ys received a summons to the throne room. Dread made him almost plead illness. At this hour, the summons could only have come from one source.
Instead, the Chancellor donned his coat and arranged his hair, and followed the hulking guard up the stairs. While pleased that Ys had stopped using mercenaries, the Chancellor felt ill at ease with their replacements, with their prognathous jaws, their pointed teeth, their greenish-gray skin. The Queen had said she’d found them in some northern territory, but the Chancellor, who had read of such things, wondered, of which Earth?
As the Chancellor entered the throne room he noted with surprise the Chief Constable of the City-State of Ys and the President of the Guildmasters’ Council, each with their own hulking escorts. In front of each of them were three closed chests of pine or some other light wood. On the other side of them, on a dais, were two thrones. The empty one had once been of oak, but it had been gilded and bejeweled and reshaped in accord with fashion so many times that no one knew how much of the original remained. The other throne, of polished ebony, had no adornment save black velvet cushions; in the history of the kingdom it had never changed but like all earthly things had perhaps been repaired.
On the ebony throne sat the Eternal Queen, Dahut.
The queen wore a flowing red dress, too revealing in some places for a co-monarch, and a simple gold circlet over her raven hair. But, like all mortals, the Chancellor was drawn not to her bloodless porcelain skin or black lips barely able to contain the pointed teeth within, but to her eyes: solid black, without whites or iris, glittering like some fluid, not water, from a well sunk deep into the earth.
“Ah, good of you to join us, Chancellor,” Queen Dahut called, with only the slightest lisp. “I thought you might plead illness.”
“Certainly not, Your Highness. Is the King not joining us tonight, Your Highness.”
“Alas, he is unwell. He is old.” Many kings, and three queens, had sat on the now gilded throne in the centuries since good king Gradlon. Since that time, only the daughter of Gradlon had sat on the ebony throne. And, since the reign of Dahut’s dim-witted great-great-great-grandnewphew, only an equal fool would doubt who truly ruled Ys.
“Well then, what business brings us here?” the Chancellor smiled, forcing a cheerfulness he didn’t feel.
“For I have reports to read,” grumbled the Chief Constable. “Your Highness.”
“And I, too, am old, Your Highness,” added the President of Guilds.
“How remarkable you should ask, Chancellor,” Dahut smiled, with far too many sharp teeth, and a gaze fixed upon the Chancellor. She made a negligent motion with her hands, and the three guards opened the three chests.
Inside were coins unlike any the world had yet seen. Black metal they were, as dark as the Queens eyes and yet with a glittering sheen more fascinating than that of mere gold. Wonderingly, the Chancellor bent over and picked up a coin. It had a jagged hole in the center, and the number “20” stood out in relief, but he could not make out the design in the candle light. As he tilted it, it caught the last ray of the setting sun from a high window, and the Chancellor reflexively dropped it back into the chest. Teeth, the Chancellor remembered. A maw full of teeth, in the palm of a clawed hand.
“You like?” the Queen purred, and the Chancellor jumped back as he met the Queen’s eyes mere inches from his own.
“Wh-wh-what are they?”
“Coins! You of all people should know what a coin looks like!” The Queen laughed, and all others present laughed gamely with her until she stopped. “Our new coins, as it happens.”
“New …? What are they made of?”
“What does it matter?”
“Coins are precious metal, like gold, or silver, or –”
“So are these! Have you ever seen the like? Any of you?”
The three officials dutifully shook their heads.
“These will be the new coins of Ys! A season from now, all merchants in this city will only accept the Coins of Ys, and only give them in change. Moneychangers at the docks and other stations in the merchant quarters will change gold and silver for our money, and back again of course, at a fixed rate until the end of the year. Afterward they’re free to make a profit, or let the exchange rate rise as demand rises.”
“A fixed rate of …?” the Chancellor heard himself say.
“Oh, let’s say, one silver denarius. To start.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Highness”, said the President, “but I don’t know that my guild members will think one of those coins is worth a solid silver coin.”
“Ah, but you’ve hit upon the great virtue of these coins!” Her talon-like hand plunged into one chest and pulled out a large coin. “This coin is marked 10,000, see?”
“Ummm … it’s not even the size of three coins, let alone ten thousand.”
“Exactly!” She reached out her other hand and a guard handed her a sack of metal coins. The brute grunted as he did so, yet her thin arm barely registered the weight. “This is ten thousand silver denarii, while this” – here she waved the black coin – “is also worth ten thousand silver denarii. This ten thousand fits in your pocket” – she tossed the coin at the Chancellor who kept it in his hand – “while this sack” – she slung the sack at the Guild President, who toppled over and cried out – “could break your hip. Did it?”
“No …”, the Guild President quavered. The Queen motioned to her guard to put him back on his feet.
“Ah. Well, then, any more questions?”
“They’re not a known metal …” the Constable mused.
“Call them electrum. An electrum Dinar. Yes, I like the sound of that.”
“But electrum is a mix of silver and gold,” said the President, who flinched when the Queen turned his way.
“Oh, but how many people know that?”
The Chancellor and President tentatively indicated they could. The Constable remained silent, though he was an educated man.
“I mean out there!” The Queen pointed at the darkening city outside, although the only window only showed the sky. “Anything else?”
“What about copper, bronze, lead, and the like, Your Highness?” the Constable asked, gruffly.
“What about them?”
“Poorer subjects use coins made of those metals,” the Chancellor offered, “for quantities less than a denarius?”
“They could break a one dinner into parts.”
The Queen scoffed. “Even I can’t do that and I’m … queen.” She thought a moment. “Base metal coins will remain, for now. I’ll contact the mint about a smaller coin, in size and value. Perhaps an Obol, to pay Charon.
“And, since I know you’ll ask, we’ll settle our large debts in dreary old gold. Pure gold bars. Which a citizen may own and trade, if he needs to transfer sums in excess of 100,000 Dinars. Cutting a bar will be illegal, though. And I guess licensed jewelers will need raw gold and silver too. Have I forgotten anything? No? Good.” The Queen walked back to her throne.
“But it won’t work,” the Chancellor heard someone say, and to his horror he realized the speaker was he.
The Queen paused, and turned slowly. “What?”
Next to the Chancellor, the Constable bristled. It was his duty to rid Ys of all blood-sucking fiends; Dahut’s brother made the law as his first act as king, at his “revived” sister’s suggestion. That one monster had survived for centuries in the throne room galled the Constable almost beyond reason. Almost.
The Queen’s eyes fixed on the Chancellor like a snake hypnotizing its prey, slinking ever forward, and the Chancellor regretted that his last act in this life was babbling. “The common people regard the exchange of coins as a form of barter. They have faith that the metal of the coin has value in proportion to its weight. The ancients, after all, named their currencies after units of weight or size: the talent, the drachma, and so on. Few if any will accept a coin of unknown metal as valid currency, let alone regard one coin as worth twenty of another coin nearly the same size. You’ll only create a black market in silver, or the market will simply pick something else as the standard of value like salt or Oriental … spices …”
The Queen was within arm’s reach. Even in her platform shoes she was shorter than the Chancellor, yet he felt she towered over him. “It will work. I hear things, Chancellor. Always have, even before … even when I was a child. I hear angels gossip and demons brag. I hear the secret language of bats and the weaving songs of spiders. And I hear the winds of change, of times to come. The sailors and merchants will balk at first, oh yes, but they will take the coins, and keep the coins when our Dinar is worth more than a denarius, than ten denarii, than a solidus of Byzantium. Those sailors and merchants will one day carry our coins to the North and to the South, to the East and one day to the unknown West.”
“West?” the Chancellor squeaked.
“Oh, yes. There is a whole land across the Western sea, people with ways unlike any we know. There will be gold, and glory, and suffering, so much suffering. We will see it in, well, my lifetime. And our coins will spread like fire across the land, and into lands we can scarcely imagine. When even I am no more the Black Electrum Coins will endure; they will disappear from memory only to be found again, and to spread like mushrooms once more.
“A metal without value? It cost me far more than you will ever know. But the returns on this investment will continue even when the New God is dead.”
Others recoiled at her blasphemy, but the Chancellor recoiled at the look in her eyes. Queen Dahut’s eyes were not entirely black, he found; at their centers burned unquenchable hellfire.
Abruptly the Queen smiled, and patted the Chancellor’s cheek lightly with her cold taloned hand. “You worry too much, Guillaume. Get some sleep. All of you, make plans for the transition, and we’ll meet again two nights from now to work out specifics, hm?” She strode toward the door that led to the royal chambers. “Right now I have a party to go to!”
“Party, Your Highness?” asked the Constable. “Where?”
“Oh, I haven’t decided yet.” With a smile that on anyone else would have been cheerful, she strode through the door.
On the walk back to his chambers, the Chancellor passed by an arrow slit. He heard the laughter and screams of the Night People, those citizens who awoke or merely shed their disguises at nightfall for another round of debauchery and unspeakable defilement of each other or unwary neighbors. This was the time Day People like him, who sustained the illusion of Ys as a clean and pious town, huddled in their beds and prayed to the New God for deliverance.
His hand rummaged in his pocket, and emerged with the 10,000 Black Electrum coin. Under the flickering light of his candle and those in sconces along his path he made out the outline of a pagan ziggurat, with a flame or lightning bolt striking the top. He felt a shudder, as if the Queen’s gift of prophecy momentarily passed to him. But the coin itself was beautiful. So very beautiful …
As the power of Ys grew, frequent visitors and trading houses from all over the known world did indeed keep caches of the Black Dinars. When the sea claimed Ys at last, many simply dumped the black coins into the sea to join Ys, since no other kingdom would have them. Other coins fell into the hands of collectors, who grew obsessed with them and always sought more for their collection. As hoards of Black Electrum grow, immorality spreads, and incidents of madness, death, and disturbances of natural law increase … if one believes greybeards and old wives. Or even if one does not.
So if one day a stranger offers you a glittering black coin as payment, best you refuse it. Especially if that stranger is a little too pale, or bears a greater resemblance to animal than man, or hides more than human anatomy under his clothes. It’s better by far to give charity than to accept an undying seed of evil.