How and where and when did the Forgotten Realms start? What's at the heart of Ed Greenwood's creation, and how does the Grand Master of the Realms use his own world when he runs D&D adventures for the players in his campaign? "Forging the Forgotten Realms" is a weekly feature wherein Ed answers all those questions and more.
n any governing system, corruption (and eventual scandal, when misdeeds are found out) becomes most rife when checks and balances break down. In Cormyr, for example, the courtiers of the Royal Court are pitted against nobles and wealthy merchants, and the Wizards of War are watchdogs over both (with the Highknights and the highest-ranking courtiers, abetted unofficially by the Harpers, serving as watchdogs over the War Wizards).
In matters of state, it's difficult for any of these opposed-but-sharing-the-same-boat groups to collude with each other in large numbers or major ways without someone swiftly finding out—and because everyone has an interest in the outcomes of Crown policy, swiftly making public what they've learned.
When matters are smaller in scale and import, though, covert collusion can and does happen. The Skalantur Scandal of the early 1380s DR is one example of this. All it took was a particular courtier getting too cozy with a specific noble, and the two of them befriending and paying off a junior Wizard of War who was supposed to be on the watch to prevent such coziness.
It happened like this . . .
In the 1350s and 1360s, many Cormyrean nobles had complained that although they were quite prepared to maintain public roads bordering and running through their lands, they were being "swiftly beggared" (in the words of Lord Langarl Ironcastle) by the high costs of repairing bridges and culverts, and they wanted the Crown to at least pay half (and preferably more or even all). All the work they needed to have done included paving and "potholing," even rebuilding roadbeds after spring flood washouts, and of course "brushing," or periodically cutting back shrubs and trees that impinged on the roadway and provided cover for brigands and deer that were apt to spring out and collide with passing wagons.
Some years into her regency, the Steel Regent (Alusair Obarskyr) agreed with them, and in the spring of 1374 DR, the Crown took over full payment of the costs of bridge and culvert building and repair, with the proviso that "an officer of the Royal Court" (a courtier) would oversee every worksite to ensure the work was done to "a safe and acceptable standard." Other duties included making sure that appropriate signage was erected and maintained (nobles were notorious for providing misleading signage or none at all, and even removing Crown signage, to dissuade the curious and to divert travelers to noble-owned inns and businesses), and that no one at all tried to levy tolls for the use of "Royal roads" (something else a small but persistent handful of unscrupulous nobles had repeatedly attempted to do, with often violent results).
What those courtiers really intended to do was to cut down on nobles providing their own work gangs to do fence repair, barn repair, and any other work on their own estates they desired to have done, and billing it all to the Crown purse by passing it off as bridge and culvert work. Most nobles were fair and honorable about such things, but as Alusair once said in open Court, "There's always four or six too many who succumb to human nature, if they think consequences will be light enough."
Where Things Went Bad
In a realm where maintenance is minimal and few other matters (such as wars or technological advances that result in either unrest or swift mercantile change) distract civic attention, fiscal skullduggery is hard to conceal. When many overlapping projects are on the go in a background of swift change and rearming or constant military readiness, however, hiding things becomes easier—and when opportunity gets combined with greed and personal need or indebtedness, misdeeds begin to happen.
In this particular case, the ingredients were a young War Wizard hight Jhaerak Skalantur who was disgusted at the succession of seedy rental accommodations that were all he could find and afford in booming Suzail, but who had noticed that quite a few suites of nice rooms were available to someone willing to pay about twice what his budget could run to; an overworked and jaded Court clerk named Aunroebur Mahalwynd whose adequate but low salary had matched his laziness years ago and showed no signs of rising any time soon; and a "wastrel-younger-son" noble by the name of Chaerezneth "Chess" Arcantur, who saw an opportunity to quickly make a lot of coin by buying up crumbling warehouses in western Suzail, razing them, and building new warehouses with several floors of small but palatial rental suites above the storage floors. He'd do this by diverting coins paid out by the Crown for road repairs on his rural estates (minimal paving repairs that were billed as major bridge reconstruction) to buy the warehouses and pay for the razing and new building). All three conspirators would gain free (and rent-free) rooms for themselves plus the rental money from two other suites (rented out in the usual, legal manner by Arcantur as landlord to tenants entirely unaware of the collusion), and the Crown would unwittingly pay for it all.
Bad Goes To Worse
Beginning in the depths of the winter that started 1376 DR, they hatched the scheme, and in the spring that followed, major (and almost entirely fictitious) repairs began to the Arcantur-land bridges ), and the young Lord Arcantur quietly became a landowner of two (and three by the fall of 1376) west-end Suzailan properties. In later years, the billings shifted to culverts, presumably to avoid attracting attention to multiple and very expensive repairs being necessary to the two large and four small bridges involved. Rebuilding on the first two was complete by the beginning of Marpenoth, and 1377 DR saw the three conspirators all enjoying new addresses and income.
That second year of collusion saw the Crown paying for the purchase of seven new properties and three rebuildings. By the winter of 1378 DR, two additional properties had been acquired, and all of them now hosted new buildings providing rental income. By then, Mahalwynd was strongly advising his fellow conspirators that the scheme must be wound down to avoid discovery, but Skalantur and Arcantur both wanted to derive more income, and therefore buy more properties. Mahalwynd secretly began to work on ways of vanishing from Cormyr to Baldur's Gate or somewhere farther south along the Sword Coast, and beginning a new life—because he'd already had to murder his immediate superior, Senior Clerk Dereth Tlaelfence, to prevent an investigation into the increasingly suspicious billings, and because he doubted Skalantur's ability to conceal anything from his fellow War Wizards. Skalantur threatened Mahalwynd with his magic when the courtier became insistent on the matter of "making this all quietly fade into history," and Arcantur tried to convince both Skalantur and Mahalwynd to participate in even more ambitious plans, involving purchase of swift merchant ships to be based in Westgate and so escape all Cormyrean attention. Both of the other men knew that merely using Westgate as a home port would accomplish no such thing, but Arcantur was convinced that if he set up a Sembian company as the purported owner of the fleet, it would conceal what was going on from "the Court of Suzail who has no business looking beyond the boundaries of where its rightful jurisdiction ends." As Elminster dryly pointed out, "Reveal unto me a ruler who looks only so far as his rightful jurisdiction runs, and I'll show you an ex-ruler or soon to be so."
It all collapsed very suddenly when Arcantur got into a duel with a rival noble and therefore attracted public notice, a War Wizard named Relligo Grelhaunt became suspicious of Tlaelfence's "accidental" death (falling down a flight of stairs and bleeding copiously but somehow leaving no bloodstain where his body was found), and a thoroughly frightened Mahalwynd fled the country in disguise, with an overland caravan bound for Berdusk. Skalantur tried to take care of the problem by using his spells to slay Grelhaunt, but failed, and a manhunt by the Wizards of War to catch one of their own ended in Skalantur's capture and interrogation.
Arcantur denied everything, but his guilt was obvious from the paper trail of deeds and matching monetary amounts in the flows of money ("if he'd just taken and used less than the face amounts of the Crown billings," Elminster commented, "he'd have had some slender grounds for denial—yet I do say 'if' and 'slender'"). When adventurers tracked down Mahalwynd in Berdusk, and after he was "roughly questioned," he admitted everything. Interestingly, his fate revealed to everyone who cared to think through its implications (most Cormyrean nobles and merchants, it seems) that Cormyr covertly had adventurers on retainer in certain locations across Faerûn, who reported to visiting Highknights and senior Wizards of War.
The scandal became attached to the name of the War Wizard involved largely because the citizenry of Cormyr expected both nobles and courtiers to be corrupt, and because they deeply resented the War Wizards as spies (while at the same time taking comfort in the protection they provided, which is why the common folk of Cormyr don't openly hate the Wizards of War).
The Steel Regent, Alusair Obarskyr, reacted to the Skalantur Scandal by making all Crown payouts involve three courtiers and herself. She instituted a system by which every War Wizard watching over Court proceedings had two backups checking on them—a formal one they were aware of, and an unknown person (perhaps a fellow War Wizard, perhaps a Highknight, and perhaps even a paid-by-Alusair-on-the-sly freelancer such as an adventurer, mage-for-hire, or even a Harper) watching over both War Wizard and backup.
She also made formal the habit of forfeiting the properties of certain sorts of miscreants to the Crown, by having the Dragon Throne take over ownership of the properties acquired by the three conspirators, under a new law that, paraphrased, comes down to this: If in the judgment of a three-person tribunal (a high-ranking courtier, a senior member of a guild, and a farmer, all of them having no direct involvement in the case, and all of them receiving a lump sum fee for their services from the Crown) a property was acquired through any process that involved misuse of Crown funds or financial misrepresentation to the Crown, or that resulted in short payment or non-payment of "rightful and proper" taxes to the Crown, that property is forfeited to the Crown, immediately and forever.
This set nobles and some wealthy non-noble landowners into an uproar, but Alusair remained firm in the face of their fury, and she pointed out that "the honest have nothing to fear from this, and the sooner the dishonest depart our fair realm for elsewhere the better." After some bitter criticism, things died down again, and the lasting effect was that such deceits died down and shifted almost entirely to being handled through Sembian companies as fronts, something that continues to this day, which bolsters the Cormyrean perception that "all Sembians are crooked."