Sunday, May 21, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 79: A Bandit Accountant, 13.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Baker's Dozen

Scene Two: Strange Snow

Around the time Denario crested Tree Stump hill, he was mentally reviewing the tax accounts for Ziegeburg. There was no particular reason to do it. He had written the story of his findings in his log book already. He just enjoyed re-thinking the math.

Years ago at a temple in the town of Flieshopphen, north of Oggli, Denario had stopped with a team of accountants and surveyors from the Count of Oggli. The monks there had advised everyone to empty their minds. That was supposed to be better for noticing the world around them. Master Winkel, the survey leader, had responded that an empty mind was fine for someone who had nothing to do. An accountant always had work. He'd told Denario to keep on thinking about math. So he always did.

And in his idle time, Denario wondered about math, geometry, and business. He liked to test his cleverness and his memory. The light was waning as he marched across the flat hilltop. Denario counted his steps. He counted the flower buds among the grasses. The rest of his thought process drifted along in the Ziegeburg work:

7,342 in silver and the emperor gets 10 percent ... 

Wind rushed through a meadow of heather downhill from him. It cast the scent of the heather into his face.

That’s 734, no, 735 actually, forgot to round up ... anyway, it's too bad there's no emperor anymore because he won't get his share ... 

Beyond the meadow, a hedge bush trembled. Denario could smell a hearth fire, too, but he'd smelled other distant fires and he hadn't seen a soul all day. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword. For a moment, he listened to the noise of bushes. Vir had taught him that habit.

Plus ten for the traditional tax collector fee, which in Ziegeburg goes to Burgher Figgins, so that’s 745 ... 

The wind felt glorious and cool through the vents in his hauberk. A snowflake drifted down no more than ten feet in front of him. He was surprised. Protected by layers of crude armor, he hadn't noticed that the weather was harsh enough for that. He felt warm and safe. Nothing moved except the heather, the bushes, and Denario. He removed his hand from his sword.

Take away 742 ... that’s 6,600 minus 3 ... 

He tromped through the heather. Not a bird or rabbit bounded away from him. Odd, he thought. He hadn't seen many animals.

That meant 6,597 minus the duke’s share ... the duke gets the emperor's share and his own ... except the count skims a percentage off of the top ... 

Even as a child, Denario had found that he could carry out quite complex equations and sophisticated steps in logical philosophies while remaining intensely aware of his surroundings.

Another few snowflakes drifted in. He smiled at them. In his third travel pack, strapped to his pack, he had a roll of furs wrapped around a tiny bolt of linen. He could withstand a blizzard in his gear, not that he would face one. It was spring. This was just a gentle dusting of a hilltop.

As he reached the end of the meadow and headed downslope into a thicket of trees, the snow changed. It blew hard down the back of his neck. It started sticking to the ground.

He moved his spear from his left hand to the right. That is, he tried to switch hands. He couldn't. The shaft of the spear stuck to his glove.

“Aaah,” he grunted. He tried again. He wanted to use the butt of his spear to steady his scramble down the muddy patch of slope, except now it was becoming a snow-covered muddy patch.

He crouched and knelt to look at the pale swath of ground. The snow on it wasn't melting into water. It was turning into a sort of thick, white glue. He stood and managed to move the sticky spear from his left hand to his right. It nearly took his glove with it. He studied the palm of his glove. It was covered in what seemed to be glue.

He sniffed at the white stuff. It was, in fact, glue. All of it was. Flakes of glue were tumbling out of the evening sky. Damn it! The gods were mad. Or maybe he'd simply wandered into a high-magic area.

“Stupid!” He smacked himself in the forehead with his left hand. That stuck his left glove to his face for a moment. He started to panic.

“AAAaaah!” he screamed. He tried to wipe the glue from his left eye with his sleeve. But his sleeve was covered in glue. “Damn!”

He realized that he could still see if he left his face alone. He only needed to stop wiping himself with the insidious, magic snow. He ripped the glove away. He forced his arms to his side. But he was twitching. He found it hard to hold still. And in a few seconds he realized that holding still might be a very, very bad thing to do. How much magic glue could fall on him here? He didn't want to find out.

He started to run. He tried to find thickets of tall trees. He ran from cover to cover as best as he could. In a few minutes, he'd reached the relative safety of a pine grove. But the snow blew down his back in gusts even here. Did he want to hide under these boughs from the worst of the storm? Not really, he guessed. It would be bad enough to get snowed in. It would be worse to get glued in. He sniffed again. Over the smell of the glue there was the campfire that he'd noticed earlier. It was close and it would provide shelter. It had to. Anyone living near a high magic area knew what they were doing. He'd better find that person soon.

He kept running in the direction of the smoke. He tried to stay under the trees but the glue landed on his hat, his jerkin, his gloves, and everywhere else. It kept finding him. He wondered: since it was magical could it be trying to get him?

Finally, he came to a clearing. About fifty yards away stood a log hut. There was a barn behind it and a chicken coop to the side. The hut had windows, shutters closed. Light came through the slits of the shutters. Beside the house was a patch of mud that led to the barn. Not much glue had fallen there or someone had removed a part of it.

“Rrrrrraaah!” He sprinted as best as he could but he wasn't fast even in the best of circumstances. He'd been figuratively running in glue his whole life. Doing it literally was worse than he could have dreamt. He worried that if he slowed, his boots would lock in place in the inch of paste that covered the front yard.

He worried about trampling the spring crops these folks had planted but surely the wheat stalks were dead now, just as he would be if he fell.

Naturally, he slipped and fell. A window on the cabin opened. Denario glanced at it and saw a silhouette there, perhaps a woman's face. And in the moment of his distraction he stepped into a hidden pile of manure. That sent him to the ground in a splash of brown dung and white mush. The packs, the spear, the sword, his armor, the buckler on his back, and everything else conspired to drag him down, including the adhesive between him and the ground. But he got up. Covered by mud, dung, grass, snow, and glue, he rose and kept running.

“Aaah!” he screamed as he reached the closed front door. It was a good oak one, almost rectangular and cut from a single tree. “I mean, barn! Aaah! Can I take shelter in your barn? Please!”

“Go ahead,” said a woman's voice. Then the door pulled open. A matron in a gray dress and her husband, dressed in overalls and rain gear, stared at him. “It's still glue?”

“Aaaah! Yes! I mean, yes.” Denario lowered his voice.

“Come on in. We have a magic scrub for that.”

Denario stepped into the middle the doorway. He stared at the patch of bearskin carpet beneath him. He dripped a spot of glue onto it.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“He's small enough,” the man, who Denario had first take to be a farmer but who had all his front teeth, a solid jaw, and the speech of a somewhat-educated man. He waved a gray, shiny rock over Denario's head. “And he's not a murderer.”

“Really?” Denario swallowed. “Look, I need your help. But I don't want to deceive you. Your rock is broken.”

“The shaman says it's fine. But from what you're saying, I guess you've killed.” The big fellow didn't seem concerned. In his rain gear he looked a bit like a priest. Maybe he was one. That would be an explanation for his living out here. “Was it self-defense?”

Denario nodded.

“Get in here!” the woman suddenly shouted. “You're letting in the glue!”

That was a sentence Denario had never expected to hear in his life but it made perfect sense. His legs obeyed her. She shut the door behind him.

He stood and dripped on their patch of bearskin for a minute while they studied him. He knew he had to look pathetic, mostly. On the other hand, he worried how the baselard and spear would seem. This farm couple probably couldn't tell at a glance that Denario was incompetent with his weapons.

The woman giggled. She tried not to show it. She hid her smile behind an open hand.

“Sorry.” She blushed. “I think you are the shortest and skinniest warrior I've ever seen.”

“You've got an Ogglian accent!” Denario exclaimed as he realized it.

“So do you!” The woman and her husband recognized at the same time. The big fellow spoke like someone who'd had a formal education in the city. He grinned as he clapped Denario on the shoulder. Then he made a disgusted face. He'd smacked the dung and glue. Some of it had spattered onto his beard.

“I'm an accountant, actually.” Denario decided not to tell him about what was in his beard. “I'm a member of the Oggli and Anghrili guild.”

“With a shield strapped to your back?” The woman chuckled openly.

“You are on the worst assignment ever,” her husband agreed.

Priest or not, the man in the raincoat knelt as if to pray. When he arose a few seconds later, the gray stone was gone and he held a black stone in his right hand. There had to be something magic about it because whenever he waved it over Denario, the stone glowed a purplish-green color. And everywhere it went within a few inches of Denario's skin, it made the covering of glue and snow disappear. In a moment, Denario's shoulder was clear except for a few spatters of cow dung.

“That's amazing!” he said.

“It's what lets us live in a high magic area like this one,” the man said. “Otherwise, we couldn't keep any animals or grow most kinds of food. I'm Jake, by the way.”

Introductions were made all around while the cleansing process went on. The woman's name was Hadewig. As Denario listened to her talk a bit more, he realized that she had to come from Oggli's 'new rich' class – not the nobility but the merchants, tradesmen, and even wizards who had done well in the past generation. The 'old rich' families grumbled about their presence but they paid their taxes in full so the count loved them. He let the merchants start schools. Even girls could go to school in Oggli. From the words she used, Hadewig revealed that she'd been one of those girls.

“And here she is,” Hadewig said. Denario glanced to his left. The woman had been talking about someone and Denario had been paying so much attention to her mannerisms and idioms of speech that he had to mentally catch up with her meaning.

It was her daughter to whom she pointed. This little three year old girl was the reason the family had come to Tree Stump Hill.

The girl wore a green dress. Her wide, curious eyes were pale blue. And she had a river of mucus streaming from her nose to nearly her chin. She looked perfectly normal for a toddler.

“Are you an elf?” She took her fingers out of her mouth to ask the question. Her hand glistened with mucus. For once, Denario wasn't worried about a child touching him. He was clearly as much of a mess as she was, probably more.

“No, sorry.” Were elves good magical creatures or bad ones? Denario wasn't clear on that point. But he was pretty sure that if he'd been one, someone would have mentioned it. “I count things. I make calculations. And I draw pictures. I do geometry. That's lots and lots of pretty pictures.”

“Huh.” She stuck her fingers in her mouth again.

“Do you count things?” he asked hopefully. He was never sure where to start with children. But if the girl had an interest in math, he knew he could get along with her somehow.

The girl shook her head no. In case she was lying, Denario glanced at her mother. Hadewig didn't notice Denario, however, as she was too busy casting a concerned gaze upon her daughter. It looked like she had neglected Tabitha's education here in the home or parts of it, at least. That was normal for a girl child. Nevertheless, it might not seem acceptable to Hadewig.

“Hey, uh, Denario. Spread your arms and legs a bit more,” requested Jake. Denario moved without worrying about the glue so much. The magic rock kept doing its work. He could tell that anything that dripped from him would be easy to clean.

When the job was halfway done, Jake handed the rock over to Denario, who immediately cleaned up the mess he'd made on their floor. That removed a burden of guilt from his mind and met with nods of approval from Jake and Hadewig. The toddling girl, however, backed away from the rock as if she knew it too well and didn't like it. Was there something bad about its magic or was there something wrong with the girl?

“You know, I don't understand why you're here for, uh ...” He hesitated as he cleaned his boot. He searched for the name he knew that Hadewig had mentioned.

“Tabitha,” Hadewig supplied.

“Your girl looks fine. Very healthy. And you both seem so educated ...” He didn't know how to finish.

“She has a problem.” Her father walked over to Tabitha and took her hand.

“It's her stomach,” clarified Hadewig although that didn't help Denario much.

“Hadewig's father is a magical supplier of sorts,” Jake continued. “He works for wizards. Does quite well, too. Back when Tabitha was young and sickly, we took her to a few doctors. No luck. She wasn't growing. She couldn't take anything other than mother's milk. She was growing thinner and thinner. We thought she'd die. But Hadewig's father took our girl to a wizard who said she had a magic deficiency.”

“Is there such a thing?” Denario wondered, perhaps rudely.

“That's what I asked. But the wizard said that Tabitha needed a bit of steady magic to help her digest food. In the end, he was shown to be right. The problem was in our daughter's stomach.”

“My father traded something to have us sent out here,” Hadewig said.

“He didn't say what, exactly.” Jake scowled. He apparently didn't like to be in debt to his father-in-law. Denario didn't understand the feeling but he'd seen it before in married men.

“So we came out here to where there's a natural, magical background radiation. Tabitha has been fine ever since, as you can see.”

Denario crouched to eye level with the girl as he brushed the glue from his other boot. She slunk behind her father's leg to avoid him, though.

“Every now and then,” said Hadewig, “my father sends us back home to see how Tabitha handles it. She's getting better. In another two years, the wizards say, she'll be ready to stay in Oggli.”

“Oh really?” Denario immediately saw the possibilities. “That's where I'm headed. When do you go for a visit next?”

Hadewig turned her grimace on Denario. He got the impression she used that look a lot. But she didn't answer. On the other side of Denario, her husband shook his head.

“It's done by magic,” he explained. “It's just us. And we don't get any warning.”

“Ah.” Denario slumped for a moment. Then he resumed his self cleaning. He'd dripped a spot of white glue on the rug. The glowing black stone wiped it out. It didn't feel particularly magical although it had a different texture from most rocks that he'd held. It was irregular and raw. The edges were rough and occasionally jagged but it was smooth in places, too, as if it had been melted. It was heavy, like metal ore.

As he crouched, he stole a glance at Tabitha. The little girl had inched into the open. She kept one hand firmly wrapped in her father's raincoat.

“Have you seen an elf?” she asked him.

He shook his head.

“I have,” she announced.

“Really?”

“Not quite,” explained Hadewig. She wiped her hands on her dress, an action that naturally resulted from touching her daughter's cheek. “She's seen some things, though. That's why she's on the lookout for more. Jake is an animal doctor. He keeps pets. He's got the cutest little knocker-fox in the barn. In fact, I met Jake when he took such wonderful care of my kitty, Mister Roughbottom.”

“And is Mister Roughbottom ...?”

“Oh, he's still with us. The wizard sent him here and he doesn't get to go back. Roughbottom stayed inside all winter, poor thing, but now that the weather is nice he's decided he can live out in the barn. The knocker-fox has learned not to eat him and there are mice that the dogs and fox can't hunt, most of them not too magical. Those are perfect for a cat.”

“Roughbottom caught a mouse that changed into a little man, though,” Jake sighed. “We decided to let that one go. It was probably a gnome but thankfully not one of the powerful kind. I don't think it cast a curse on us or anything.”

Denario finished his second boot. He stood and prepared to clean his hat and his neck. He hesitated as he wondered how to reach around between his shoulders.

“Don't worry about doing your head,” Jake said. “The stone won't hurt the magic you've got up there. It only sops up the raw, natural stuff and not even all of that. Magic snow and goose down are the best things for it.”

“Goose down?” Denario had been about to ask why Jake thought he had magic in his head. But the question about weather was what came out of his mouth.

“Yes, we had a snowstorm of goose down this winter. It was awful.”

“It sounds rather warm,” Denario ventured. It would have been an improvement over glue.

“Everyone thinks that.” Jake's shoulders slumped. “It nearly killed the pigs and chickens. Nearly got me, too. I had to work with a mask on. It was lucky that I had the pens and stalls already built in the barn.”

“He sneezed for hours!” Hadewig put a hand over her heart. “Let me tell you, it was no fun for any of us. Tabitha and I were in no danger, I suppose, but it didn't feel that way. We stayed locked in for two days.”

“Finally, a rain came.” Jake nodded. He daughter tugged on his coat and, absent-mindedly, he lifted her up. “I expected it to just tamp down the stuff. Come morning, though, the down was gone completely.”

“Raw magic,” his wife snorted. “It never lasts. Not like the real stuff. That gets made by wizards and stays where it should.”

Jake turned his shoulders for a moment. It was apparent that he didn't want his wife to see him roll his eyes. But Denario noticed and agreed with Jake's sentiment. Hadewig was a smart woman. However, her excellent impression of magic was based upon her father's business and the reputable wizards involved in it.

Denario's impression of magic came from rather rascally wizards and their badly made trinkets. Those made magic seem untameable. Magic did not really stay put and do what wizards told it. It took on life of its own. A finger that a wizard magically re-attached to an axeman might get into bad moods. It might not cooperate in holding the axe. That was dangerous for everyone.

All in all, limbs coming to lives of their own was why soldiers avoided asking their wizards for medical assistance. Magic couldn't be trusted. That was why Denario paid close attention to the magic he was doing at the moment. He finished cleaning his hat. The dark lump did whatever it did to make the glue disappear. He checked it and made another pass to catch a lingering stickiness.

“Don't trust it now?” Jake murmured. He must have noticed the concern on Denario's face.

Denario glanced at Hadewig.

“It's working very, very well,” he said despite his sense of wariness about it. When he finished a few minutes later, he heaved a sigh of relief.

“Looks like you're here until the glue fades.” Jake accepted the dark, magic rock from Denario's outstretched hand. He ran two fingertips over its rough edges. Then he flipped it from his left hand to his right and slipped it into a pocket on his rain slicker.

“I don't suppose you need any accounting done?” Denario asked hopefully. He wanted a way to pay for his stay.

“You could help in the barn,” the animal doctor said with a smile.

“No, Tabitha needs a math tutor.” Hadewig put her hands on her hips. She seemed shocked by her husband's idea. She'd had hers first, probably.

“You could tutor our daughter, of course.” Jake sighed. “And maybe help a little in the barn. Just a little.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 78: A Bandit Accountant, 13.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Baker's Dozen

Scene One: Fond Farewell

Dawn turned out bright but cold. Denario shivered as he hitched up his travel pack and gazed to the east. Mist had settled over the hills. Thankfully, it didn't look magical. The haze in the air lingered only as a lining of silver over the tops of the rolling greens. By mid-morning, the sun would burn it away.

“Are you sure you don't want to take some wine?” Senli asked. She had carried a skin of it away from the party. It was too heavy, already a burden in her arms. Denario begrudged every ounce that he had packed.

“Thank you,” said Denario. He turned towards her and gave his bravest smile. “It's very kind. But no, I'll have a hard enough time on the hike without getting accidentally drunk. That's something I've done before on a surveying trip, I'm afraid.”

“I can't believe that Mistress Clumpi let us come to the gate with you.” Senli let the bag slump lower. “No one ever forbid me to come here but still ...”

Denario nodded. Every slave wanted to be free. Sometimes that's all they could think about. Perhaps Olga didn't understand the temptation of the open road or perhaps she all too rightly gaged that she had to trust her book keepers. She couldn't chase them down if they ran away.

The road that led out the gate quickly divided into three trails. One of them was wide enough for maybe two horses to pass and continued to the next hill, which the locals was called Blue Stone. After that came hills known as Cup and Tree Stump. Beyond those, Denario would have to ask the people who lived there for more hill names because no one in Pharts Bad bothered to keep track of things so far away. It was funny, Denario mused, how a day's march could seem too far to bother.

The accountant had already mapped out the land ahead of him. That is, he'd done as much of it as he could. He was sure to fill in details and expand his mapping efforts as he traveled. His journals and his log book sat at the top of the accounting bag slung around his waist. This was part of his journeyman experience, after all, and he intended to provide records of the area that were as good as any in the Oggli guild hall. No accountant had been here in hundreds of years. His contribution would be important.

He tied a canteen over his left shoulder and groaned at the added weight. He'd kept the heavy mail shirt because it was his best defense. Anyway, he wasn't any good at slipping it off or on. The leather armor over it kept him warm. The buckler served as a shield and he'd grown accustomed to his short sword. His spear doubled as a walking stick and he was pretty sure he could mount a theodolite on it if he needed to make surveys for his maps. In all his equipment, the only thing he felt might be useless to him was the hunting bow.

Since he'd never caught an animal in his snares, he kept the bow. He probably couldn't hunt with it. But he vowed to try. First, he'd have to learn to string it. So far he hadn't proved strong enough.

“It's good to see you so well equipped, master,” said Hummel. Senli nodded in agreement.

“Yes, I was just thinking that this bow might keep me from starving,” he replied. He didn't say that he thought he could trade it for food. “Hummel, I'd like a word with you before I go.”

“Of course, master.” The little man shuffled closer with a gait perhaps permanently crippled by years in leg irons. Senli backed up a few paces. She glanced westward, behind them, to the Haphnaught home. There, Mistress Haphnaught sat out on the porch in a rocking chair.

Denario glanced to the east, his hand on Hummel's shoulder. There was the junior Haphnaught, the captain of the guard, at the town gate. In a way, Denario was surrounded. Everyone would know he'd spoken to Hummel privately. But it couldn't be helped.

“I have a duty to you, Hummel,” Denario murmured.

“You've been so good, master.” The brown-toothed man tried to smile. But he gave up and shook his head. “I wish you weren't leaving.”

“Me, too,” Denario lied. “Look, Hummel, what's the worst that could happen to you here in town, do you think?”

“Murder?” Well, Hummel was a literal fellow, a failing that he shared with many other book keepers, clerks, and accountants. It wasn't anything unusual.

“Less bad than that, perhaps,” Denario hinted. He tried to give the man time to think.

Hummel stroked his beard, bewildered. After a moment or two, he shrugged.

“Last night,” Denario plowed on. “The mayor complained to me about all of the mouths he had to feed. It made me wonder if he wouldn't pull a trick after I left ... a trick involving you.”

“Oh, he's never talked with me, master.” Hummel's bushy eyebrows rose. His eyes pleaded for help in following this line of thought.

“I know. I don't mean he'd ask for your cooperation. I'm wondering if he might set you free. You see, last night I made sure that the burghers knew you weren't allowed to be put back in chains.”

“Thank you. Thank you, master.”

“But the mayor doesn't like that. And you'd like to be free, wouldn't you?” Denario knew that Hummel had been an unlicensed accountant in Muntar. He'd been making his living by undercutting the Muntar Accounting Guild members. They'd finally gotten sick of the independent operators like him and tipped off the slave ship captains. Most other men in his position had seen it coming, apparently, but not Hummel. Even now, he didn't see things coming, not if they involved understanding other people.

“Better than being in chains, yes.” Hummel saw that far, at least.

“Me, too,” agreed Denario. “But have you given thought to where you would go?”

At that, Hummel's face fell.

“There's no place, master. You had it pegged right from the beginning. I've got no escape from here alive, whether I'm free or not.”

“There's always the north road.”

“What would I find along there? Better farmlands?”

“Yes. But I'm thinking of a particular town. On the north road, you'd walk straight into Timbersburg.”

Hummel sucked in air. It was the only way he could whistle.

“You see what I mean?”

“I think so, sir.” He glanced in all directions to make sure no one was close. He whispered, “You think they'd give me a job?”

“I do.” Denario felt obligated to do the forward thinking for this man. If the town cut Hummel loose, he couldn't get far on his own. The caravan leaders thought it was day's stroll to Timbersburg so it would be two days of hard work for Hummel. But he would have a clear trail. He could make it.

The mayor and burghers of Pharts Bad were just crazy enough to do something like this. They'd turned aside other bright folks, too, and some of them had ended up in Timbersburg. The mining town was essentially in the process of creating its main rival.

“It's just a thought,” he said. “It might never happen. Probably won't.”

At that moment, Hummel burst into tears and threw his arms around Denario. Denario had to thump the little man on the shoulder repeatedly to get him off. Fortunately, the outburst only lasted a few seconds. Then Denario asked to speak privately to Senli.

The short, stout woman was less dramatic than her colleague. Still, after Denario promised once again to look for her sons, the conversation ended in an embrace.

Then, finally, he was off.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Twelve Chapters


Chapter 
Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross



Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 77: A Bandit Accountant, 12.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene Five: Things Left Unsaid

Back out in the brisk night air, the party had reached full swing. Everyone in town had arrived and none of the children had yet been sent home. A group of young men had taken it on themselves to build a second bonfire. Two different choirs from different religious groups, a quartet in maroon robes and a set of nine in sky blue or white dress, were each singing Denario's song. They didn't quite sing in the same rhythm or same key because, although they'd clearly practiced, they hadn't practiced together.

Fortunately, the dancers didn't care. Young men and women hopped and skipped to the trumpet's tune. Children ran between them. The teenagers were careful not to touch one another in any case. That seemed to be the dancing style. Most of the girls and about half of the young men wore grass garlands around their necks. Many had spring flowers in their hair. All of them kept their hands to their sides.

An elderly friend of Mistress Clumpi – Denario couldn't remember her name – asked him to dance. He did an awful job of it. He felt grateful that no one appeared to notice his awkwardness. Other women, not all of them gray-haired, took turns with him for the better part of an hour. Every now and then he stopped to rest. Hummel or Senli would refill his goblet. They had the sense to give him tea, thank goodness. During one of those breaks, he wondered aloud if Senli wanted to dance but the brown woman pointed to the tattoo on her neck and shook her head no. Denario grimaced but he understood her reluctance. Perhaps she was wise not to act as if she were free.

Finally, Denario noticed Olga Clumpi on the edge of the biggest bonfire crowd. He shouted her name. She didn't hear, so he grabbed his goblet and marched over.

Her dress, he thought at first, was white. But that was a trick of the darkness and his difficulty with seeing colors correctly in the fire's glow. Up close, the fabric of her dress shone with a pale, pink lustre. Her eyes looked wet. Her nose did, too, as if she'd been blowing through it. Denario was pretty sure she hadn't been sick today.

When he got within a few feet, she noticed him. She turned and put her fists on her hips. Her head hung down in a half-hearted, snapping-turtle glare of suspicion. It was then that he noticed her cheeks were wet, too.

“Olga, what's wrong?” He raised his hand instinctively to touch her. Just in time he realized that she wouldn't want that. She flinched a little at his motion.

She took a breath to speak. Then she shook her head.

“Okay. Walk around the edges with me?” He held out a hand for her to take. She didn't touch him but she followed. “The mayor stopped by, you know. You were right. He and the burghers couldn't resist the party.”

“Heh.” She gave an inward smile. “His mum made sure.”

Denario tried not to slap himself in the head. Jack Quimbi's mother was still alive. Olga hadn't even tried to hide the fact. She'd introduced one of her friends as Mistress Quimbi. Denario had been so busy with decoding the tile system that he hadn't noticed. She'd probably thought he was rude.

He was glad Jack's mother was still around and being persuasive. In retrospect he was pretty sure he'd danced with her earlier tonight, a short, slender woman, hair not completely grey. She'd worn a patterned dress and an air of satisfaction. She had probably been one of the citizens demanding that her son treat the visiting accountant decently. Unlike most of them, she could make sure she got her way.

Denario and Olga walked along the southernmost row of torches to almost the end. There, they crossed from one side of the road to the other. As Denario began to lead them back up the row toward the greater part of the crowd, he wondered what could have gone wrong for Olga. She should have been happy. Had she gotten ill? Or had one of her friends gotten sick? Had she heard news of someone's death? Oh, of course, he thought, someone important has already died.

He'd seen the way her friends had looked at her. They'd dealt with her crying by deliberately not noticing it. They'd faced away. It wasn't from lack of caring. They'd formed a protective circle around Olga. Denario hadn't noticed as much as he should have because they'd parted to let him in. They'd all been there, though, and all of them widows, all of them carefully keeping up appearances.

“Do you miss Bibbo, Mistress Clumpi?” He felt unable not to ask.

“Oh.” She stopped and turned away from him for a moment. She wiped something from her face. “I wish you could have seen him, master accountant. I wish he could have met you. He'd have liked you.”

“I hope so. Maybe that isn't saying much. He sounds pretty friendly.”

“He had a quick wit, sure enough. He made folks laugh. But he didn't always put himself at ease. He could have done that around you, I'm sure. He'd have been able to talk math. In all his life, I think, he never had even a handful of folks he could talk to about math.”

“I wish I could have met him.” Bibbo had been all alone, a mathematical genius in the wilderness. How much could Denario have learned from such a man? It was hard to guess.

“I went home and dressed.” Olga turned in a semicircle away from the crowd. Denario followed. He was glad she was taking the lead. They were headed back to the southern end of the torch rows, which meant they weren't far from the counting house. “But you know how it is. I got into my old place and I slowed down a bit. I pulled out the dress I wanted. I'd had it in mind for a while. Then I cleaned up. I started to sing a bit and talk. Like in old times. I got dressed as I sang to myself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed.”

They reached the end of the row. No one else was close to them. Somewhere in the darkness ahead was the counting house but there were no lights on in it. He couldn't see more than a few yards out.

“I sat and waited.” Olga cleared her throat. “It was only when I called his name that I realized I'd been waiting for him. He always dressed by the hearth while I did my business next to the bed. I was expecting him to come over and tell me he was ready.”

She snuffled. Denario found himself doing exactly what the rest of her friends had done. He stared out into the darkness at the end of the torch light. He didn't watch as she dabbed her face.

“When I realized ... well, that's what got me upset. Just for a moment.” They stood in silence for a long while. Then she harumphed. Her postured straightened. “Come on, let's go get some tea.”

“Yes, Mistress Clumpi.”

“I could use something warm.” The sleeves of her pink dress were long and she wore a short coat, too. She shouldn't have felt the chill.

“You know, young man,” she continued. “The last thing I ever said to Bibbo was mean. He wouldn't get out of bed that day, so I had to nearly push him out the door. I called him a lazy bum. He laughed and said that I never let him be lazy.”

“And ...” He hesitated to say the next part although he'd been told. “And then he collapsed at work?”

“Yes. By the time I came to see him, he was half an hour gone at least. But he didn't look in pain. Just blank. No expression on his face at all.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“That part sounds good.”

“I never got the chance to tell him that I knew he wasn't lazy,” Olga mused. “I suppose he knew what I really thought. He usually did. But I would have liked to say so.”

Denario patted his waist and discovered that his accounting bag was missing. He'd left it in his room. At the moment, he wanted a scrap of fresh parchment. He felt desperate to write another letter to Pecunia.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 76: A Bandit Accountant, 12.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene Four: Final Proposal

Denario's farewell event turned out to be on the evening before a holy day, so the whole town turned out. Due to compromises made by the local clergy, his party location was the dirt road between the Temple to the Small Gods and the South Winds Church. That afternoon, the neighbors dragged out their tables for use by the general public. Deacons from the various religions laid out food just after sunset. Two priests lit torches that lined the avenue for more than fifty yards.

Even before the sun had set, children showed up in garlands of woven grass. Musicians strolled in with guitars, flutes, drums, and a brass trumpet. Three or four women presented Denario with bowls of food as soon as he arrived. He accepted a roll and a chicken drumstick. Then he settled back on a bench to watch mothers dance with their children. Children danced with other children, too. A shaman put on a low-powered magic show. He made colored lights dance in the air. Denario clapped along with everyone else.

Again due to the compromise on location, the churches on the edge of town had insisted that they be allowed to provide the entertainment. That included not only musicians and magic but fiery speeches, poems, and songs sung by choirs of religious figures. Denario gathered that this was all relatively normal. He helped himself to a second drumstick and got up. One of his book keepers, Senli, followed him.

He strolled around the stalls that vendors were setting up to barter for wooden toys, fur clothes, leather clothes, pottery, and jewelry. This busy scene was nothing much compared to Oggli. There weren't even enough vendors to compete with the Ziegeburg poor-end market on a bad day. But since Denario had marched through wilderness for a while, he was impressed by the amounts of stuff available for barter. Eggs and pig ears seemed to act as currencies of sorts although anybody would trade for anything, really. Copper changed hands not as pennies but as bits of jewelry and snips of metal sheets good for nothing except perhaps for taking to a smithy. But because the copper smiths would accept the snips, they had value.

Candles had been lit in most of the windows, many of which sat high up on the second stories. They added a bit of light to what was already provided by the orangish glow on the horizon, the torches, and the rising moon. There weren't many pockets of darkness in town. Nevertheless, Denario soon passed by one of them.

“Why are there no torches around those tables down Windy Alley?” he asked Senli when he noticed the dark benches. Senli was also nibbling on a chicken leg, although she was doing a neater job of it than Denario.

“Those are for the mine slaves,” she told him. She leaned forward and squinted at the vaguely rectangular shapes.

“They have to sit in the dark?” Denario strolled from torchlight to shadows.

“They'll bring shielded candles with them,” Senli said as she followed. “They're not allowed much light. It's done this way so that the townspeople don't have to look at the slaves if they don't want to.”

“Aha.” He wandered over to the empty tables and ran his fingers over the wood. There was nothing wrong with them. They were clean.

He tried to decide how he felt about this. He wished those men were free but he was impressed that the town acknowledged them. The nobles in Oggli never had to look at slaves in their city, of course, because they weren't allowed. But even outside of the city boundaries, nobles didn't like to see their lowest servants very much. They treated them like farm animals. Here in Pharts Bad everyone knew that some of the the slaves were criminals but still they weren't regarded as less than human. In practical terms, they had to be shackled and guarded. The mine supervisor probably had to beat some of them. Others he probably let kill themselves in mine accidents. Yet the mine slaves would sit down and eat almost as well as anyone else. The town leaders allowed them to observe holy days. They recognized that even these men deserved a little dignity. That was a blessing.

“I'll come back when they're here to say goodbye to them,” he decided. “Some of the men slept downstairs from me, after all.”

Senli's dark eyes widened to show the whites. Her expression looked like alarm or surprise, maybe a bit of both. After a moment, she decided she didn't like the shadows and anyway, they both needed more chicken. They returned to the main crossroads.

Denario had to admit that the cooking smelled better than usual. Often enough, the local women used no spices even though they were only a few yards from a warehouse of bins full of salt, garlic, onions, tumeric, celery seed, and basil. On this evening, he could smell the onions and the basil. One of the cooks had even used a bit of tumeric on the chicken. He asked Senli about it and she laughed.

“The tumeric was my doing,” she admitted. “They've never seen it before in this town. It only grows around the Complacent Sea. But my grandmother cooked with it and, when a trader brought some in, I traded for his entire supply.”

“Did it cost much?”

“No. The poor man, Bagophili, he threw it in nearly for free. I think he realized that no one wanted it.”

“Hmm. Had he met you before?”

“Yes, once.”

“And he turned around on the trail, probably got the tumeric off another trader, and brought it to you. I don't think it was an accident.” Denario rubbed his jaw as he concluded his thought. He wished he'd met Bagophili while he was here.

“You think he was bribing me?”

“Everyone says he's a smart fellow. I'll bet he was taking a chance on you. If you convert a few folks around here to using the spice, he'll start profiting where there was no profit before. If you can't, well, he did you a favor and he might get a bit of your good will in return.”

“Oh!” She covered her mouth for a moment. “I had no idea. You must be right, though. Really, are you sure you haven't met him?”

“Quite sure. But maybe on the trail to Oggli, I will.”

“Maybe.” She put her hand behind her, which Denario had learned to recognize was a sign he was about to here some carefully planned words. “Master, I want to talk to you about your journey.”

“If you're going to tell me again that it's too dangerous, don't waste your breath.”

“No, it's not that. I understand that you're determined to go and why. It's just that you're going to meet a lot of people. You don't plan to pass through Kilmun territory but from what you say, you'll come close. So I have to ask ... if you hear any news about boys who might be mine, not quite as dark as me with slave tattoos on their necks like me ... will you write and let me know?”

“Of course.” He mentally kicked himself for having forgotten about her sons. He hoped he would have had the sense to write to her regardless of any reminder. “I'll happily promise that.”

Despite how he said he was glad to promise it, the oath cast him into gloom for a little while. The itinerant priest did nothing to dispel his mood, either. The near-toothless, bald man pulled Denario aside and foretold hardships along Denario's road, which seemed an overly-easy prophecy if there ever was one. To top it off, he pronounced that Denario's mission was doomed. Denario had to say 'that's enough' eight times in a row to get the man to shut up.

The traveling shaman was a bit better. He took a break from his show to bestow his blessings upon Denario, which he said came from several of the small gods. It was the first time that Denario had met a genuine shaman. He was surprised that the fellow carried no staff like the wizards did, only a drum and enough beads and ge-gaws to open a specialty store. He gestured to Denario's head and neck and said there was a lot of magical power there. He figured that Denario was going to be just fine.

“Is the whole night going to be like this?” Denario complained. “One side wishing me ill and the other side with good tidings? I could use a drink.”

Hummel and Senli, both standing nearby, raced off to get him glasses of wine. As a group they sat on a bench for a while and drank what tasted like a recently-made sangria. With some of Olga's friends – but not Olga because she had gone home to change clothes – they listened to the music, which was awful.

Denario couldn't carry a tune himself. Music was a mystery to him but sometimes, just sometimes, he could hear bad music and understand mathematically what the composer had been trying to do.

The instruments were all tuned to slightly different keys except for possibly the banjo and trumpet. Those two musicians were fast, loud, and played well enough together to make the rest of the experience more painful as the other players dragged behind or fell off key. Usually, Denario couldn't drink a whole glass of wine. On this occasion, he needed two just to make his musical insight go away.

“Your face is flushed, master,” whispered Hummel.

“No more for you. No more for any of us,” Senli asserted. She put down her goblet. “Anyway, they're starting. Hush.”

What they were starting was another song. It took Denario a minute to recognize that this was his official song. That is, it was the story of his travels to Pharts Bad. It was a version that had been perfected, apparently, after the many re-tellings before it in which Denario's role got more hilarious with each version.

At the end of the song, the young fellow who was singing it thought to include the story of how Denario had fixed the tile keeper records. Everyone applauded at that part. More men had arrived from fields and shops to fill out the crowd, too. Lots of them smiled in his direction. Denario sighed. He felt he'd gotten a touch of their respect. They'd made his accounting a permanent part of their story.

“Master Denario?” whispered a man into his ear. The applause died down. The band started another tune without a singer. The dancing between mothers and children resumed.

Denario turned to see one of the younger burghers whose name he'd forgotten. The fellow wore a brown linen tunic. His pants seemed to be sailcloth dragged through mud. His fingers were covered in what smelled like cooking grease. He offered to shake hands. Denario accepted. He knew his hands weren't much better. Anyway, it was nice to see how the officials in this town weren't afraid to get themselves dirty with work.

“Yes?” said Denario as he shook.

“Thank you for what you did.” The man's gaze flickered over the blue coin that hung around the accountant's neck. “Other burghers will be along shortly. Some are on the wall patrol. A few others are escorting the miners to their place.”

“Fine. I'd like to see you all again before I leave tomorrow.”

“Yes, that.” The young man frowned. “We had a talk with the mayor. He'll be here, too. I believe he wants to talk with you again.”

“I'm afraid my answer must remain the same.”

“He understands,” said the burgher darkly. Denario tried not to worry about it. Surely he wouldn't have to escape the burghers or fight his way out of town? That would be awful and probably impossible.

It wasn't long before the miners showed up on the road. They marched four abreast, five counting the foremen along one side. Two burghers and two town guards formed an escort on the other flank. Shadowy figures clanked between the rows of torches. Before the group turned off into Windy Alley, the mine supervisor jogged to the front. He raised and lowered his cudgel. The procession came to a halt.

They stood in silence for a moment. All of the men stared in Denario's direction. One of the burghers broke off from the group and stomped toward the accountant. It was Mark Haphnaught.

Denario raised his hand to ward off the burgher. But the big man misunderstood and shook it. The gesture rattled Denario back and forth. Then, with a manly nod of understanding, Haphnaught turned to the mine supervisor and waved his cudgel through the air. All of the armed men raised their weapons in what looked like a salute.

“Ah, there you are,” said another voice beside Denario. The foremen lowered their sticks. The slaves turned toward the darkness of the alley. Denario turned away from the scene to stare into the pale but handsome face of Jack Quimbi.

“Hello, mayor,” he said. Since he noticed Marie next to Jack, he added, “Good evening, Mistress Quimbi. Yours silk dress looks beautiful.”

She curtseyed to him but lowered her gaze. She didn't seem to like being the center of attention, which probably made it hard for her to be the mayor's wife. Jack clearly enjoyed her appearance. Even under two layers of clothes, one of them a linen undergarment that shone through the silk, Marie Quimbi held herself like a rather shy deity, maybe the goddess of decorum. It was easy to see how that would have attracted Jack. The mayor had no such obvious charms himself. Maybe it spoke to his powers of persuasion that he had been able to win her over.

“I don't mean to take you away from your celebration,” said Jack. “Let's walk around the edges for a bit. I want to discuss your problem with apprentices.”

“Well ... sure.” It wasn't likely that the town leaders had a kidnapping planned.

“I've heard you talk about them several times,” the mayor said as he led the way. “There are five, if I remember right. Two of them are quite young?”

“Yes but they're getting the best training.” Denario started warming up to the conversation. He nodded to several of the party-goers who he'd seen before in town. “My personal misfortune is how there won't be enough business for them all when they're grown. The brightest child, Shekel, might swear into the Marquis de Oggli's service. That would help.”

“Ah.” The mayor smiled. He accepted a goblet of wine from a girl who offered three of them. “What would be the next best thing for this area, would you say, if we can't keep you as an accountant?”

“You could use a surveyor, I think. That's another type of accounting. You've already got a book keepers, see, but you've got no one who knows geometry or surveying techniques to help the mines.”

“Would that help?” Jack scowled with an expression of keener interest than Denario had expected.

“Very much. And this whole land needs a numaticist.”

“A ... pardon me, a what?”

“A numaticist is a specialist in making coins. Honestly, Jack, this place needs money.”

“I've heard that.” The mayor took a long swig. “Thing is, accountant, I didn't really expect you to answer my question. I was going to answer it.”

“You were?” Denario started feeling lost. Somehow this conversation had moved to a different level and he hadn't figured out the rules of it yet.

“I was going to say that the next best thing to having you here would be having one of your apprentices. Do you see what I mean?”

“My gosh.” That was a totally crazy idea. Who would send a trained accountant into a land with no money? But now that Denario had been here he saw that it made a glimmer of sense. A good accountant could forge a currency. There would be an opportunity to set practical standards. The whole valley could be run under one record keeping system rather than dozens.

Anyone who set up an accounting school would have no competition. For that matter, he'd yet to hear rumors of any kind of school at all. He started to explain as much to the mayor but all the mayor heard, apparently, was the word 'competition.'

“That again,” he huffed. “You told me that the strength of Oggli is the competition between businesses. But that doesn't sound right at all. Strength comes from unity. This town is much stronger with only one mine. Two in competition would end up working their slaves to death!”

“Well, the competition isn't ...”

“And certainly a cobbler is better off when there's no other shoe maker of any sort living close by. If there were, maybe he wouldn't even have enough business to live.”

“That's true.” Denario had argued as much to Master Winkel when he was twelve. At first glance, having only one provider of any kind of service seemed much more efficient. “But it just doesn't seem to work out well for everyone else. It's because of how people act when there's no competition. Your cobbler isn't very fast, I notice. I ordered shoes for my book keepers yesterday morning but none have yet to arrive.”

“They'll get them eventually.”

“In Oggli, any cobbler would have delivered at least one pair to us by now. That's because they know their customers will take the business elsewhere if they're too slow.”

“Hmm. My wife never did get the sandals she asked for last year. Master Cobb keeps forgetting.”

“Right. In my homeland, the worst services are those that don't have any competition. For instance, if you want to buy olive oil, you have to go to the Marquis de Oggli himself. No one else is allowed to harvest olives. What do you think his prices are like?”

“I'd guess they must be high.”

“They're so bad that people take boats across the river to Angrili and sneak back with jars of olive oil. They're breaking the count's law and they could be hanged if they're caught. But they do it.”

“They're crazy!”

“They're almost always the smart ones. And you're smart, Jack. So if you were in the city, you might find yourself doing the same thing. My old master used to buy his olive oil from clever men like that.”

“I'm as wise as your master, then. Because I'd buy from one of those risky fellows but I'd stay well away from those river trips myself.”

“Fair enough.” The mayor was being as open-minded as a small town official could be. “My oldest two apprentices, Buck and Kroner, are fourteen and fifteen. They're old enough for journeymen. I think they could pass the Master's Exam. When I get back, I'll have the money to pay for those official tests. But what could I tell a journeyman to get him to travel here?”

“That he'll have a job, of course.”

“That's good. It's not a thing to be taken lightly. But there will be lots of towns in the count's territories offering jobs, too. I see a few things that make Pharts Bad special. Do you know what they are?”

“No. I have no damned idea. Look, accountant, we just want someone who can help. This arrangement with three book keepers is only going to last so long. Three mouths is a lot to feed and, if nothing else, Mistress Clumpi isn't getting any younger. She's the real negotiator, right? That makes sense but she's got no one to succeed her. The other two are slaves. Even if they weren't, I don't trust Hummel and I don't think Senli strikes good deals.”

“I see your point,” Denario admitted.

“And now you're leaving, yet another good man wasted to these pointless wars.”

“Wasted?”

“Perhaps that's harsh. But you're heading towards the battlefields. The caravans don't come back through there anymore. The fighting has gotten too serious. No men return from that direction except as refugees.”

“Vir keeps returning, doesn't he?” Denario had been staring at the torch light and thinking of far-away places. The idea of passing through mountain towns touched by war brought him back. He frowned at the mayor. He hoped his point was made.

“Yes, he does,” the mayor allowed. “But he's the only one. He seems to travel at will. Are you aware that he has less men each time I see him? They're different men, too.”

“He travels with different sergeants. I've only seen Alaric but Vir said he has four, total, and he wants more.”

“He's appointed more. He can't keep them. He's made three sergeants in two years, I believe, to replace three that died. He says he needs to increase his numbers but he's finding it hard. He keeps losing men in fights.”

“His men say that they win battle after battle.”

“I don't doubt it. Otherwise, Vir would not be alive. But the Raduar generals who have conquered town after town of the Raduar territories ...”

“Wait a minute ...” Denario rubbed his temples. “The Raduar have been fighting the Raduar? Is that what you're saying? They're conquering their own folks?”

“Oh yes.” Jack spat out a mouthful of wine. Then he took another drink and continued. “All of the other great tribes have routes to the outside world, you see. But the valleys occupied by the Raduar clansmen, those being Fat Valley and Long Valley, they don't border anything other than other valleys. The Raduar clansmen don't have any way out of their lands. So their clans have fought amongst themselves, town to town. And as I was saying, the Raduar generals have conquered their towns. They've subjugated many clans. They've conscripted many men. That's why they have hundreds of professional warriors. Vir can't compete with that.”

“Except by conquering the Mundredi towns and conscripting men,” Denario thought out loud.

“Don't.” The mayor's brow darkened. He glanced to the adults nearest, who were only one torch over. “Don't say things like that, especially within earshot of the burghers. That's what they fear.”

“Do they fear it as much as dying at the hands of opposing armies?” Denario whispered.

“If it comes to that, no. But the enemies would need to be visible.”

They had strolled to a spot in front of the city hall, which meant they were near the end of the northern arm of the torch row. A few children ran around and whacked at moths in some kind of game. A handful of adults stood in a cluster not far from the steps to the hall. They'd been engaged in some kind of religious debate before they noticed the mayor. Denario considered how his words might seem to them.

“You had enemy scouts at your gate on the night after I arrived,” he pointed out.

“I don't deny it.” The mayor eyed the crowd. He turned away from their faces and spoke in a quieter tone. “Look, almost every able-bodied young lad we have signed up for the border patrol in the past fortnight.”

“They patrol the outer wall?”

“The only wall we have.” Mayor Quimbi sighed and touched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, they're happy to do it. But most of them are so young that they need permission from their mothers.”

“That's a start,” Denario guessed. He could tell by the numbers that Pharts Bad and Timbersburg together could mount a defensive force of hundreds. But would they? And if they did, would any of them fight? Or would they see the enemy coming and flee? “You could really use a better wall, you know.”

“Don't tell me things like that,” the mayor complained. “You're leaving. You won't help with that work. I suppose you've done your part anyway.”

“Jack, I can hardly send a journeyman to a town that no longer exists.”

“Fair enough.” The mayor waved Denario toward the door of city hall. “Come on in. I'll write you that letter of transit.”

“Really?” Denario hesitated. He still suspected some kind of trick. “What made you change your mind?”

“Burgher Haphnaught. I don't know what you did to bring him around to your side after you nearly broke his arm but it's damned impressive. He feels that you deserve some honor. For that matter, I suppose that I do, too. Always did. But personally I feel that the town is more important than a little thing like honor, mine or yours.”

Denario had walked into the hills around Easy Valley not much more than three weeks ago. He hadn't spent much more than two of those weeks with Vir. But they'd talked so much, Denario realized, that he'd revealed his thoughts completely to the Mundredi chief and he'd learned quite a bit about the chief in return.

The whole time, he'd thought of Vir as nearly silent. Everyone did. But in those rare times that Vir spoke, it was to a clear purpose.

“Your tribal chief said something similar,” he told the mayor. “Vir expressed the same sentiment about West Valley and Easy Valley. He told me that honor wasn't as important as protecting people's lives.”

“He's got that part right.” The mayor nodded severely. He pushed on the door to the city hall.

Only two torches had been lit in the foyer. They didn't create an artificial daylight but they cast a constant glow along the whitewashed walls. Denario stepped inside. His footfalls echoed on the granite floor. He stopped worrying so much about an ambush. He would hear anyone coming. As he helped close the doors, he noticed silvery-red reflections from the town seal above the arch.

There it hung in its splendid, glorious cast tin. It had to be someone's job to keep the seal polished. If it wasn't, Denario had no doubt that the mayor got out a ladder and did it himself.

Bordering the Mundredi symbols in the seal were a few local clan signs. In addition, Denario recognized the sword-over-the-sun symbol of the Raduar. Then there was a castle spire, which was for some reason the icon of the Tortuar tribes. Maybe the ankh or the staff icons came from the Kilmun tradition. They were as large as the crossed spears and crown.

“That's an awfully busy seal,” Denario remarked.

“We're a busy place, as you've seen.” The mayor put his hands on his hips and followed Denario's gaze to the tin circle. “The Mundredi sign is biggest but we've got the four major tribes in the middle there and all of our local clans around the edge. Sooner or later, we get someone from a remote town passing through. They always stop to tell me how much they appreciate it.”

“Who designed it? Who made it?”

“The former mayor. But my father was the tinsmith.” Jack spoke with a wistful sort of pride. His eyes glistened. “In fact, the Letter of Transit upstairs is already written. All that I need to add is your name and my official seal. My seal is just a smaller version of that one. And it was also cast by my father.”

In the mayor's office, Denario could look down over the party being thrown in his honor. In the light of the torches, the bonfire, the cooking fires, and the magical lanterns supplied by the shaman, the feast seemed far more splendid than he deserved.

The parchment was waiting for them, as the mayor had promised. In less than a minute, Jack was done with his quill pen. All that remained was the wax. Jack tilted a red candle and a white candle together over the blank spot at the bottom of the roll. He dripped a pool of two-colored wax. Quickly, before it could dry, he grabbed a round paperweight off of his desk corner and stabbed it into the center.

Denario leaned close to see how the seal's impression was turning out. He wanted the wax to look impressive.

“I can see all four tribes. Good.” His finger drifted to the signature above. “But after your name, Jack, you drew a Raduar symbol.”

“What of it?” The mayor didn't even glance at Denario. He placed his seal back on its special corner of the desk.

“It's just that, well, Vir likes you. Or he approves of you, anyway, which is as good as it gets with him. But he's fighting against the Raduar.”

“No, he's not. He's defending us from some renegade Raduar generals, that's all. As to my signature, well, my father came from the Gogobi Raduar clan.”

“How did he end up here?”

“He'd heard that this place had tin.” Jack Quimbi ran his hands through his hair for a moment. A sigh escaped him. “He was a bit of a scoundrel in his youth, I'm afraid, a womanizer. His clan drove him out even though they rather liked him and wrote him nice letters afterward.”

“So he came to where he could find business?”

“It was a long trip but he didn't see that he had any choice. He was lucky that the previous tinsmith had been killed in a clan duel. So there was a place for him.”

“Would he have sided with the Raduar generals?”

“Never!” The mayor stood up straight and defiant. “So that's it, eh? You think I would side with some relatives I've never seen? Just because none of my children here have lived?”

“Vir knows,” Denario concluded after a long pause. “He knows that you're Raduar.”

“Yes, he does.”

Denario scratched his head. Then he crossed his arms over his chest. He tried to find a diplomatic way of expressing how strange this seemed.

“Look, accountant,” said the mayor. He seemed a little less offended than he'd been a moment ago but he struck the air with his open hand for emphasis nonetheless. “You seem to think that I don't like Vir. But I do. I liked Daric, too. He was assassinated. And before him, I liked Bas Piotr. And he was murdered. And before him, there was a man named Yarick who I never met. He was killed in a battle not far north of here. They all die. The Mundredi tribal chiefs all die.”

“Not Vir,” breathed Denario. He didn't know if he was certain of that or if he was just certain that he wished it were true.

“I thought you said you weren't his man.” The mayor returned to his desk. With care, he rolled the parchment. “After all, you're not sticking with the army. You're headed back to your homeland.”

Denario nodded. He had his duty. There was nothing more to say.

Next: Chapter Twelve, Scene Five

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 75: A Bandit Accountant, 12.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene Three: Farewell Party

“I hear you went to all of the temples in town yesterday,” said Olga Clumpi.

“Yes, right after my visit to the mayor.” Denario nodded to her over the letter he had just finished. “I figured a few prayers wouldn't hurt. You can never tell when one of the gods might be listening.”

Olga put her hands on her hips but favored him with an indulgent smile. After a brief nod, she marched back to the cargo doors of the counting house. Olga had been raised on Leir, the lightning god, and Bandari, a local god of the mountains, and both of those deities were rule-givers. Contrary to the opinions of her town leaders, Olga sat firmly on the side of the authorities. She just considered herself to be one of them. Fortunately, she also had an enthusiasm for religions of all sorts, so she could easily forgive Denario's wanton affection for the lesser gods and goddesses.

A luminous haze had developed on this warm spring morning. It seemed magical in origin, although that kind of thing could be hard to tell for a non-wizard. After all, it had also rained a bit before dawn. There was a wet mist in the air. As to the magic, Denario saw to the east how the mountains shone with all the colors of the rainbow. Closer up, everything appeared a bit silvery. Looked like magic.

He'd already packed his bags. He hadn't talked to his book keepers about it he but he was sure they knew. Anyway, it hadn't taken him long. He discovered that he'd eaten most of his previous supplies. Now he needed to find appropriate hiking food. Here in a town where no one traveled far except for the caravan masters, there was no way to get wax paper packages of anything. That was what Denario wanted. And there was no dried meat except for the fish in the warehouse. Could he pay himself in stinky fish? He'd already treated himself to ten rolls of parchment. But he needed meat, too.

Denario had spent part of last night and this morning writing additional letters to Yannick and Vir. He couldn't trust the mayor. So this time the messages were in a stenographic code. That hadn't been easy to devise. It was hard to find a code that the Mundredi army could decipher but no one else with half a brain could simply read. Denario had finally settled on a variation of the 'knock' code he'd worked out in the jail cell with Vir.

“Knock on wood for luck. It will take a fistful of good fortune for the caravans get this to you. Make sure they are paid," he'd begun his letter. Then he'd proceeded to highlight every fifth letter of the main message to make the hint easier. He hoped Yannick would remember that the knocking had been decoded in fives.

“Mistress Clumpi? Master Klaistag?” he called. He'd set up his desk beside the front, small door of the warehouse. Behind him and to his left, the leader of a four-mule caravan had arrived to negotiate a trade and, as it turned out, to be paid the debt owed him. Olga had told Hummel to bring out the sheets of fine copper. Then she'd politely asked Denario to agree.

And Denario had. He felt that Klaistag might as well get the best stuff. As they said in Oggli, it was good advertising. The only reason they didn't say the same thing in Pharts Bad is because they didn't have the concept of paying money to maintain a good reputation. Anyway, for all anyone knew about the caravan trade, there might be no one else of significance coming for a while and the copper would go greener with rust than it already was if it sat in storage.

“Yes, Master Accountant?” Olga put her hands on her hips again. But Denario knew her facial expressions now and this was a default one, her squint of suspicion.

Beside her, Klaistag's eyes crinkled with humor. He had been pleased with his back payment. Apparently he knew copper smiths in small towns to the northwest who would pay him handsomely for Pharts Bad's best.

Klaistag wore low-quality leather gear that he made himself, supplemented by small-animal furs. They formed a patchwork brown jacket. He wore that over a similar, patchwork pair of rawhide-stitched pants. More rawhide and string formed his belt. His fur cap looked like it had seen more than its share of winters. He ran a small operation, just him and an armed guard roaming through these difficult and magical lands. Nevertheless, he'd managed to stay in business for twenty years.

“I think,” ventured Denario as he approached, “that Master Klaistag said he was headed west.”

“For a ways, yes.” The bearded fellow agreed. He rubbed his long, gray-brown beard. Perhaps he knew what was coming because he didn't seem surprised when Denario pulled out the letter. He nodded.

“I want to send this to Fort Dred.” Denario offered it to him unsealed. He couldn't spare the wax to close it and, from what the mayor said, that wouldn't do any good.

“Ain't going that far.”

“But it sounds like you'll get better than halfway there. Do you think you can give this to a trader headed up those hills? Fort Dred must barter for quite a bit of food and clothing.”

“They take in goats, sheep, and chickens.” Klaistag's gnarly fingers accepted the letter. “I know herders who do business with that fort.”

“Good. Do you need anything in exchange?"

“My part is free.” The master trader gave him an indulgent smile full of cracked teeth. “But for the next fellow in line, I should have eight pigs' ears or four dried carp.”

“Sure, I'll get ...”

“Be right back, sir,” called Hummel, who had been standing in the shadows of the counting house doors. Denario tried to hide his amazement. When had the resentful man he'd met become eager to please? Even Olga raised an eyebrow.

After Hummel got back with the pigs ears, Olga took her seat. She never stood for more than a few minutes at a time.

“I don't suppose your note to the fort says something about the promises made by our burghers,” she said. She fanned herself with a pig's ear.

“Where would you have heard about those?” Denario asked. He was careful not to answer her question.

“Some promises were made in the South Winds church. A few of us have heard about them anyway.”

The priest must have talked, then, despite his oath to Haphnaught. His mother could have done it, too, though, and she'd sworn nothing to anyone. That seemed more likely. Denario nodded to Olga.

“They say that Burgher Haphnaught got it in his head to renew his oath of office,” she continued. “And then he and his son and a few other folks dragged other burghers over to their temples to do the same. They said that the Oggli accountant was there for start of it all.”

“If he was ...” Denario folded his arms. He glanced to Trader Klaistag, who wore a fat grin and seemed altogether too curious. “Then the accountant would have sworn to the gods to say nothing to anyone in town.”

“Ah.” She shook her head. Next to her, Klaistag's smile faded. “But the Mundredi army folks you're writing to aren't in town, are they?”

“That's true,” he allowed. His hands started looking to fidget so he clasped them together behind his back.

Olga gave him an evil grin.

“I hear yer goin' quite a ways east,” said Klaistag. “Do ye need food? I've got a bit laid in. Some of it's badger meat but it keeps.”

“Oh, I'd be most grateful ...” Denario was reaching to take the man by the arm when Mistress Clumpi cleared her throat.

“The book keepers have made a little something for you.” Olga said. She cleared her throat with extra emphasis in case he hadn't gotten the hint on the first try. “You might want to take a look at what they've done before you make any other arrangements.”

“Really? But we don't have ...”

“It's a travel kit of sorts. Senli has been working on it all morning. She's a bit sad you're leaving but she's done her best. Hummel contributed some things he'd put aside. He says that he knows he'll never use them.”

It was a lot to absorb. Senli was sad he was going? Why? She'd be the most knowledgeable one in the counting house after he left. Her position would become secure. Then there was the donation by Hummel. It had to be whatever material he'd saved up for his planned escape.

“I'm ... I'm astonished.”

“Don't look too astonished,” Olga warned. “It isn't polite.”

“Right, right.” Denario wrung his hands. “That reminds me, though. Doesn't the counting house barter to the churches for holiday meals? And we barter to the mine for lunches. Plus there's the tailor. I want to make sure I pay ahead for all of that. I want to sign for it. The mayor can curse me all the way to No Map Creek, I suppose, but he'll be in a much worse position to argue.”

Hummel let out an odd squeak that Denario interpreted as a sign of approval. Mistress Clumpi and Master Klaistag didn't seem bothered by it anyway. What else would concern Hummel? Oh yes, shoes. Denario made a mental note to pay ahead for the cobbler's services as well. Senli and Hummel both needed better sandals. Olga might not admit it but he'd bet that her fine shoes were wearing thin.

“Heh. You're a good one,” said Klaistag. He patted Denario on the shoulder.

Olga would never have gone so far as to agree with a statement like that. But she sighed.

“I think we should throw you a going away party at the church tomorrow,” she added. “It's traditional. And anyway we can be pretty sure that the burghers aren't going to throw you one.”

“Probably not,” Denario admitted. “They seemed in a bit of a shock yesterday.”

“They're still trying to find a way to keep ye, ye know.” Olga's squint darkened to a scowl. “Despite how yer a nuisance to them.”

“I know,” replied Denario. “But I have apprentices. I have to do my duty.”

“And you do yer duty, don't ye?” Olga's crinkles turned into an approving smile, not very much different from her malicious grin. “We'll do ours, too. We'll have the traditional dinner. We'll invite Master Klaistag here to be polite. And we'll invite the burghers.”

“You will?” Denario's mouth fell open. Next to him, Klaistag's face bore a similar expression.

“Of course. That will send a message to the mayor, too. If the high folks wants to come, they'll come. And they will. If they try to hide from it, well, it'll serve our aims to make sure they can't claim later that they didn't know.”

“I think I see,” said Denario. Next to him, Klaistag nodded. Mistress Clumpi really was quite shrewd. The town leaders couldn't attend a farewell banquet and then come up with a reason to hold him. It would make them squirm, anyway. “It's a very nice thing you're doing, Keeper Clumpi.”

“It's well deserved, Master Accountant.” She inclined her head graciously. It was as much of a bow as she ever gave anyone, he suspected.

Next: Chapter Twelve, Scene Four