Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there were six shepherds. They were poor people, but proud and self-reliant, and they each had a small flock of sheep. Borus had five, Carbus six,, Nitrus seven, Oxagus eight, Florus nine, and Neus had ten.
One day the corrupt authorities came to the fields of the shepherds, hoping to shake them down for extra funds to pay for the foreign wars of the Empire. The Emperor, Octavius, was in the throes of madness and had developed a strange fixation around the number eight. He decreed that any shepherd caught with more than eight sheep would have the excess confiscated, and anyone with less than eight sheep would face punishing taxes.
The shepherds huddled together and decided what they would do to outwit the mad Emperor’s plans. Neus, being the most dominant shepherd and of a noble lineage, suggested that they each agree to hide away two of their sheep in a secret location. The rest reluctantly agreed, leaving them each with two fewer sheep in the fields than before. Neus was now in the ideal position of having exactly eight sheep and decided to leave the rest of the shepherds to their own affairs, at which he disappears from our story.
At this point the remaining shepherds were at a loss for what to do to avoid the taxes that would surely devastate their families. Just then, over the hills, came a group of boys from the neighbouring Hydrus tribe. Being very young, they only had one sheep each, and they were exempt from the Emperor’s tax.
Just then, Carbus excitedly gathered his friends around him. “Countrymen”, he said. I have an idea! Let us join together with the Hydrus, and with each other, into a pact of Joint Ownership”. Carbius laid out his scheme. Each of them would keep the sheep they already had, but they could choose to share their sheep jointly with other shepherds such that each of them had eight.
He drew it out on a flat rock on top of the hill they had met on. “Pretend each dot is a sheep, and the letters stand for our names”.
See how each of us, by sharing sheep each according to our need, can obtain eight to our name, and thus avoid the tax. All of them nodded in agreement at the wisdom of the plan, except for one.
“What about me?” said Borus. “I can only look after three sheep by myself, and even when I with the Hydrus I only have six. I’m still screwed!”
“True”, said Carbius. “But in order for you to have eight, someone would have to share two sheep with you. It would not be an equal exchange. I have no pair of sheep to give, but maybe someone would like to share their sheep with you?”
At this point Florus, Oxygius, and Nitrus lowered their heads and stared at the ground, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Florus, being the greediest of the shepherds, was least willing to give, followed closely by Oxygius who had a similar miserly temperament. Finally, Nitrus spoke.
“Very well, in the name of tax evasion, I could choose to do so. However, although it might look to the authorities like we are sharing the sheep equally, I will have you wear a necklace that indicates you are in debt one sheep to me, and I will wear a necklace saying I am owed one. It looked like this.
As the scheme took shape over the next few weeks, the shepherds noticed several patterns. First of all, the sheep liked to graze in pairs. Secondly, the pairs of sheep were very territorial, and arranged themselves so that they would have the maximum possible space to graze for themselves. This included both the sheep that belonged exclusively to the shepherds and also to those that they shared with the Hydrus. In the hilly fields, this meant that the shepherds had their sheep both sheep up in the hills, and down in the valleys, because that way they were farthest apart.
In time, the plan grew so successful that Carbus (who was from a large family) invited his many brothers to join. Together with his brothers, Carbus formed many different sheep-leasing partnerships.
They also found that they could share two (or even three) pairs of sheep between them, or with Oxygius or Nitrus. This way, the shepherds could get closer together and it was therefore less work to contain all the sheep, which gave them more time to smoke their water pipes, play backgammon, and complain about their wives.
Then, one day, the shepherds were astonished to find two new visitors to their fields. As Phosphus and Sulfus showed off their huge flocks of ten and twelve sheep, respectively, all the other shepherds could do was gape in wonder. But the story of how Phosphus and Sulfus got their Certificates of Exemption from Octavius’ Rule is a tale for another day…