The Grand Duke sat slumped in his chair, glowering at the papers on his desk. His breakfast tray had been pushed to one side, where a silver egg-cup caught the reflection of the small fire in the grate. He scratched his ear absent-mindedly, clearing his throat, and then re-tied the sash on his silk dressing gown.
There was a tap at the door of the study - the Grand Duke uttered a deep, meaningless grunt, and the door opened to admit a nervous-looking, thin young man, with round spectacles à la Schubert, and unruly, thinning hair. He carried a pile of workbooks and folders; he walked around to stand in front of the desk, blinking.
The Grand Duke growled at him.
"These accounts - I've read them through. We can't let anyone see these - there must be mistakes here? According to your figures," the word 'your' was stressed, "we are bankrupt. If the Hörwitzes or the Von Schiels get a whiff of this they'll be jumping up and down, not to mention queuing up here to pinch our furniture and the Grande-Ma'am's jewels to repay the loans!"
"Er - well, Highness, I would not use the word bankrupt. There is what I would term a temporary dip in liquidity. The Grand Duchy still has plenty of wealth, but it is in places where we cannot use it readily to fund our debts, or..."
"Or buy things, or pay the workers," the Grand Duke finished off, helpfully. "Yes, I read that a great deal of our resources are concentrated in the new Deer Park project, for example - when will that be finished, by the way? - and the Duchess is going to have to cut down on her hunting lodges; at least some of them could manage without a full staff for part of the year?"
He shook his head slowly.
"What do we do now? I am required to issue a statement of the Duchy's financial situation by St Boniface's Day, as always - which gives us three weeks. If this gets out there will be riots - we already owe the tin miners six months' wages. What can we do? - you're supposed to be the ideas man, Schlimm - what can we do? I am told by the Burgermeister of Pronkendorf that there are women with babies, begging in the streets - he has had to make donations of bread and soup to the families of the men who were laid off when we closed down the Ducal Wurst factory. They will cut my head off."
"Highness - we have been through that again and again - it is far cheaper to have the sausages made in Bangladesh - the figures are in my report..."
The Grand Duke raised his right hand, and the accountant trailed off into silence.
"We have a problem, Schlimm - in fact, you have a problem. The sausage makers used to buy their bread from the state's bakers, and buy their work clothes from our state-owned suppliers, so they are feeling the pinch as well - you didn't tell me about that. What shall we do?"
Schlimm seemed unwilling to speak; he fidgeted with the collar of his jacket. Eventually he stood up a little straighter, and half closed his eyes.
"Well, Highness, we could lie a little - creative presentation, so to speak."
"Creative presentation? - what kind of presentation will mask the fact that we have a complete generation of young people with no prospect of ever working or making any money? Three hundred and fifty thousand of them, to be exact, it says here."
"Ah - yes - I was going to get to that. Let us reclassify things a little, so that most of our young people are described as 'full-time students', and we'll remove them from the totals."
"But they aren't students - we have no colleges for them to study at, for one thing, and we have no-one qualified to teach them. Anyway, we couldn't afford to do this."
"No - we aren't really going to teach them anything - we are going to pretend."
"We will create a complete network of centres of education. There is already the University of Drossel, of course - we could make a great many people long-distance pupils of the university. We don't have to teach them anything, just get them to sign a piece of paper. It gets better - we could charge them a very large amount of money to enroll. There's not just the old University, we could rope in the seminary colleges, anyone who runs some kind of vague apprenticeship, every half-baked evening class for flower arrangement or embroidery - they will all be students - they will embrace their new universities, and they will be happy to pay for the privilege. And you, Highness, will have a new industry - education - which will employ a great many people, who will sing your praises and the National Hymn, and will pay taxes and yet more taxes, and they will aspire to send their own children to the new universities."
"You can't offer a university degree course in flower-arranging, can you?"
"Why not? People would rather be fake university students than unemployed dead-beats. They can study anything they like - who cares? - they won't be required to use their skills on anything. All we need is to balance the books over the next few years."
"I have to say that balancing the books is just the problem I was thinking about - no-one has any money to pay for such an education, to join up for such courses."
"We shall lend them the money. We shall lend it at a very high interest rate. We'll get a lot of it back straight away in the state university fees, and then we can set up accommodation in the university towns, require students to live on-campus and charge high rents. That should catch most of the rest of it"
"Let me get this straight - we will lend the unemployed money so that they can pay exorbitant fees to enroll for worthless further education courses, most of this money will come back to us directly through fees and accommodation, and we will charge interest on what we have lent them? And we can delete these people from our unemployed lists, thus boosting our economic outlook?"
"Correct - and we'll create a whole industry of educators and cleaners and transport drivers and caterers and administrators, who will all pay taxes too. The people in the industry don't need to be skilled or anything - no-one is going to be able to tell the difference anyway - the universities themselves will carry out the assessment of the results. All you need to get this started is to get back to old Hörwitz and see if he can lend you some money - rather a lot of money, in fact - I've prepared some figures so you can see how this will work, and a prospectus for our investors..."
"Good God - I'll look at the numbers later. I underestimated you, Schlimm - I certainly underestimated you. But tell me - in the longer term, this cannot possibly work out - how do we pay back the capital, if no-one gets any actual skills or earnings expectation out of the education system?"
"I have prepared another document here, Highness - the plan is that within 10 years you will have disappeared - you will be living under an assumed name, on a very large private wine-making estate in Tuscany. I have some brochures here, to give an idea, and some rough estimates."
The Grand Duke sat back in his chair and waved his hand again, his head spinning.
"I see - good God. Well, Schlimm, you may leave me now - we must talk about this again. You are sure it will work?"
"Absolutely - that nice Russian chap assured me it could not fail."