A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Five: Holy Larceny
When Denario was nine and carried all his worldly possessions out of the slave barracks on his back, he was surprised to discover that Master Winkel traveled by donkey, and not by horse. The master lifted Denario by the armpits and set him atop a rough saddle blanket. The burro, whose name was Half-Stitch, barely flicked his tail. When Winkel hit him with a rod, Half-Stitch launched into a walking pace.
“Horses are unstable,” Winkel said by way of an explanation.
“They scare me,” Denario admitted from his seat on the donkey. No one had raised him to show false courage. He often came out with admissions that other boys would never speak.
The master accountant nodded his head as if dreading the presence of horses was perfectly sensible. Within the year, Denario would realize that the master feared those beasts even more than Denario did. Their huge masses of muscle, flared nostrils, wide eyes, and the sheer reek of their sweat kept Winkel in a state of alarm. He wouldn't touch the reins even if the owner guided him. It was so bad that, despite sitting at his desk in the counting house, Winkel would jump when he heard a horse snort outside his window.
He and Winkel took turns on the donkey as they traveled. Sometimes they would both walk to give the donkey a bit of a rest although Denario didn't much slow down the creature with his nearly unnoticeable weight.
“Why is he called Half-Stitch?” Denario asked.
“Because I don't own him.” The master let out a soft giggle, a noise he made when satisfied with himself. It could have been irritating to others but Denario found it endearing. “I share him with the tailor. You see? That's why the name. It's a joke.”
“You can't afford a donkey?”
“Oh, I could spend money on two or three donkeys or maybe even a pair of horses. Would you like that?”
“Good. Neither would I.” He smacked Half-Stitch on the bottom. “I don't like needless expense. When I worked out that I only use my donkey about one quarter of the year, I searched for a way to lower the cost of owning him. After all, it takes money to feed and house a good burro like this. Plus I don't know how to do it and I don't want to know. I want someone to keep my burro for me.”
“Is that a job?” Denario's eyes widened. He was beginning to learn about all the ways that a free man could make money.
“Yes, I pay a stable master. He pays stable hands, buys the feed, and so on. But why should I pay for a whole donkey myself if I can't use him even half of the time?”
“Because you can't ride half a donkey?” Denario ventured.
Winkel laughed. "Very good. A donkey is an indivisible unit. That's true. But what if I share the donkey? That might be hard, of course. Sharing takes some work. But I found a tailor in town only one street from me who rented a donkey from the stables. He, too, only needed our little burro friend for a part of the year. But renting the donkey was, for him, quite expensive.”
“I don't know.” The master's narrow shoulders rose in a shrug. “Maybe if you rent a donkey for a week out of a year, the stable master still has to feed the donkey all year, so that week is expensive. Maybe the stable master says that's how it works but he just charges high prices so he can make a good profit. Who knows? Well, I do, actually.”
“You do? How?”
“I do the books for the stables. But never mind that. The point is, it was cheaper for the tailor to share the ownership expense of a donkey with me than to rent different donkeys twenty times per year. And I renamed our friend here 'Half-Stitch' in honor of the tailor, so the tailor was pleased. We both come out ahead in our arrangement.”
“What's the tailor's name?”
“Ah. You take an interest in people. Good. His name is Gregor Liveli. His sons are Lukas and Hansel. Their mother came from far-away Uberwald with quite a bit of dowry, so they have set themselves up well. The boys are fine workers. They make not the best clothes but they make decent ones, among the best for their price.”
The burro clopped onward up a slope. As they headed down the other side, Denario wondered, “Which is it? Does the stable master make a big profit on renting animals or does he only cover his expenses?”
“I won't tell.”
“I think I know,” said Denario.
“But I still won't tell.” Winkel made his announcement with a proud sort of smile.
In the late afternoon, Winkel bade Denario to get down and walk. Together, they led the donkey onto a narrow path off of the main trail. The strip of naked dirt led though a thicket of low scrub and stunted trees. A rivulet of mud and a trickle of water ran from a rocky precipice above. Winkel led his beast up a switchback. Denario followed. Finally, when the ground leveled off, they had marched almost to the top of a small hill. There were hardly any trees, only a few saplings. The rest of the space was dirt, grass and rocks. Many of the stones were boulders as big as a man's head. A few were as small as a fist and as craggy as a shriveled fruit.
The stones were laid out in some sort of pattern, never more than two feet high, sometimes in lines as wide as four feet or as narrow as a hands-width. Denario had the impression that the pattern would make sense if only he had the imagination to see it properly.
In the center of the dirt paths, encircled by stacked rocks, someone had dug a well. More likely, Denario realized, someone had found an ancient spring and built this odd edifice around it. Even now the water's surface lay only a few feet below the rocks. It seemed miraculous, as if a supernatural spirit had forced water up through the rocks deliberately.
The spring was probably related to the water source that fed the rivulet they had passed earlier. The same dribble of water collected in pools down the side of the hill and farther, across the main trail, then in fits and starts again down toward the Ghost Stream, which fed the river called Riggle Kill.
Winkel put his hand into a small, natural trough in one of the larger boulders. It was bone dry.
“Pull up a bucket for the donkey, boy. Then rest for a moment.”
“Master Winkel, why are we here?” Denario trotted over to a tiny earthenware pail. It had a hole in the bottom. He picked it up and tested it with his fingers. It seemed he would be able to plug the hole. “I mean, it doesn't seem like we've come this far to rest.”
“What makes you say that?” The master probed.
“We passed a bigger well not forty yards from the road only half an hour ago.” His hands went to his hips as he considered the problem. “Is the water there bad? I don't think it can be very bad because four men were drinking from a big bowl.”
“The water there is fine. And before you ask, the men are fine, too. I recognized them.”
“Then why? We made the donkey climb up pretty high. Did you come to write more on your map?” He scooped up a pail of water and sluiced it into a natural trough in the rocks. The donkey had been waiting there for him to do it. It wasn't hard to figure out.
“No, I finished my mapping here ages ago. We've come for the temple. Young man, these cairns of stones around you don't look like much but they mark a holy presence. This place is sacred to Melcurio.”
“Melcurio is a god?” Denario set down his pail.
“He's the god of accountants. Watch now. In silence.”
Winkel strode to the edge of the well. He made a sign with one hand above his heart. Then he reached into his moneybag, pulled out a copper penny, and tossed it into the rather shallow depths. It disappeared into a clump of algae at the bottom.
“What was that for?” Denario edged closer, looking for the coin.
“Melcurio, hear our prayers,” mumbled Winkel. “I have made this boy my own. Now I give him to you. I will train him into your service.”
“You're giving me away?” exclaimed Denario. He was shocked. He had already grown fond of the accountant's presence and thought he wouldn't need to leave.
“Only in a manner of speaking.” Winkel gave him a sly smile but it was reassuring, too. He was letting his pupil in on a joke. “For the gods, we sometimes run two sets of books. I'm writing you onto his ledger. But I've already written you down on my own. It's doubly entry of a sort. But don't worry, he'll understand.”
“He? Do you mean the god?”
“Yes. Melcurio is the god of accounting, as I said. He does a few other things, too, but mainly, it's accounting.”
“You're giving me to this god?”
“Of course. Wouldn't you like to become an accountant?”
“Will I get to do that?” Up to this point, Denario hadn't dared to hope. For all he knew, the master might be inclined to teach Denario carry his bags, no more. “All the math and geometry?”
He held his breath, waiting for the answer.
“I don't think I've ever met anyone more suited than you.” The patriarch beamed. “And it's an odd coincidence, if that's what it is, that you should come along in my life now. Two nights ago, I went to the temple of Melcurio in Oggli, as I always do before my journeys, and I prayed to Melcurio for an hour. Then, on almost a whim, I asked for something special. I don't usually do that.”
“Does the god listen to you?”
“I don't really know. That's how it is with gods. Anyway, I asked for a great task, a quest to give my life additional meaning. And I asked for an heir, someone worthy to succeed me, someone to whom I could trust my life's work. There has been much of it, you see.”
“What about your sons?” Winkel's beard was at least half grey. He was more than old enough.
“No sons, no wife.” He threw up his arms. “There were a few women who appealed to me but, apparently, I didn't appeal to them. And somehow, I was always too busy to arrange a suitable marriage for myself. My mother died long ago before she could do it. My father tried to buy me a good woman from a family of our class but his idea of a suitable woman differed from mine. Considerably.”
Denario must have given him an uncomprehending look.
“I prefer them to have teeth, among other things. Did you ever have someone who shopped to give you a present? Oh, no, you wouldn't have. But my father, I think he was one of those people who say they're getting something for you but really, they're getting it for themselves. He kept looking for women who he liked, never asking what I would like. He married one of the women I turned down. Then he stopped proposing brides to me and told me to look out for myself.”
“You're an accountant. Aren't you rich?”
“Ah. I see you have a basic grasp of romance.” It was the first time Denario had seen the accountant give an ironic smile. It wasn't too harsh. “Yes, I am well off, as most prospective husbands go. I could marry a woman who needed my money, if I tried.”
“But you won't.”
“I'm over fifty, now. My father is many years dead. Most of my friends have moved or died, too. I'm sometimes lonely, yes, but frankly, I've lost interest in women. My life has been busy and good. All I want is an heir. I have a young man at home who helps me out but his understanding of accounting is terrible. He has no love of math. If I'm going to leave my work to anyone, Denario, it's to you.”
“You're going to leave math for me to do?”
“Ah, no. You don't quite understand. But you're nine. And a slave. Or anyway you were a slave for all of your life until today. You're going to see a lot more of the world as a free man, as an accountant, than you would have as a textile worker. You'll understand after I teach you.”
“Do you like seeing the world? Is it good?”
“There are many nice people and nice places, yes. I enjoy them. Even the bad parts, I enjoy a little as I write down descriptions of them for other accountants. Say, can you write?” Winkel worried in beard as he considered the issue. “That's a question I should have asked before.”
“I don't know if I can write. I taught myself to read.”
Winkel sat on a short ridge of sacred stones.
“I'm a fool. You're bright. Yes, you are. But what am I doing? Oh, Melcurio, what a burden! What a gift you have given me!” He beseeched the sky. Denario couldn't help glancing at the clouds in case the god was coming down from them. A beam of light broke out from behind them. It cast a warm glow. “How can I serve this way? I was a fool to ask for it. I don't know how to be a father. And I see now that I need to be a father to this boy.”
The accountant flopped onto his back. He had the sense not to bang his head against the stones behind him but it didn't look comfortable. He breathed heavily, as if staving off an panic attack.
“Have you traveled anywhere at all?” he wailed.
“I've gone all the way to field number eight. That's as far as anyone goes.” He surveyed the sacred spring and the maze of low, stone walls. He was a long way from home but happier than he'd thought possible. “That is, that's as far as any of us were allowed to go, including me, until now.”
Tears appeared in Master Winkel's eyes. His lips emitted a burbly laugh. To Denario, the day seemed full of grown men crying without being beaten first. Very odd. Maybe that was a normal part of the larger world, people crying without getting any injuries. Denario just hadn't seen it before.
While the accountant mumbled to himself, Denario strolled to the circle of stones around the fresh spring. A few glints of pennies and half-pennies, most covered by green rust and algae, a few still half-shining, caught his eye. He reached in for one, fumbled, turned over a few slippery stones, and finally retrieved the coin. He inspected its corroded metal. The denomination stamped on it was obscured by algae, at least a few weeks' worth. He glanced at the silt he'd stirred up in the pool. There should be more pennies here, he realized. Some of the worshipers must steal them back. He wondered if this particular worshiper whose coin Denario held had gotten his prayer answered. Denario had never prayed before. No one had ever invited him. He supposed that gods weren't interested in slaves. But he wasn't a slave now, according to his master. Anyway, he'd seen how the prayers were done.
“Oh, Melcurio,” he began. He'd forgotten to make the sign over his heart, so he paused to do so. He'd watched his master carefully, so he was sure he was right. “Oh, Melcurio, hear our prayers. I give myself to your service. Only, you know, I give myself to Master Winkel's service, too. I'm to become an accountant. That sounds fun.”
He tossed the coin back into the shallow well. With a plunk, it shook the water's surface, turned over, and wobbled to the bottom among the silt and rocks. An edge shone in the sunlight. As he watched it, he felt an odd sensation ripple through his skin. He looked up to the sky. He couldn't see any birds. There was only the sun and the clouds. But he had a warm feeling inside. His new master had stopped crying and mumbling.
Denario didn't move. He felt that someone was waiting for him to say more. Was it the god? Was Melcurio paying attention? His heart felt light, almost giddy.
“Oh, Melcurio,” he said to the clouds. “I know a trick you might like. I've figured out how to reduce a number to its prime factors. Want to see the trick?”
He waited a requisite moment for the god to talk, just in case. His body still felt light. He was eager to show off.
“Let's pick a funny number. Well, 6552 would have the factors of .... 2, 2, 2, 3, 7 ... and 13.” He'd cheated a little on that one because he'd worked on that particular number yesterday. “Go ahead, pick any number.”
“One thousand, seven hundred seventy-one,” whispered Master Winkel from behind him. Denario pictured the number in his head, 1771, and realized that it had to be divisible by 11. He started there.
“See, Melcurio, 1771 has prime factors ... 11, 23, and 7. No more.”
“That's too easy because 13 is prime and it goes into 1313 exactly 101 times ... and 101 must be prime, too ... I can't seem to put any number smaller than 51 into it ... yes, it's prime.”
“Amazing!” breathed the elderly accountant. He had risen to his feet.
“It's just a trick.” Denario started to turn around to talk. Then, remembering the god, he bowed a little to the well and to the sky. “Ever since Tom told me what primes were, I've been thinking about them.”
“I must say it's well done.” Winkel hobbled up to Denario's side. “Get on your knees with me for just a moment. I can almost feel the god's presence.”
“Okay.” Denario knew what the accountant meant. He felt it, too. All the same, he also sensed that Melcurio didn't really go in for a lot of bowing and scraping. He fell to one knee, only, like the visiting knights did when greeting the baron.
They were silent for less than a minute, long enough to satisfy the master. Then they stood. Winkel brushed dust from his robe and pants.
“How did you guess, Denario? Or did you already know that Melcurio likes tricks?”
“I didn't. I just felt like ... you know, like someone was amused.”
“Yes, you've certainly lightened my spirits. Or the god has.” Winkel glanced up a the sun. A cloud was starting to drift over it again. “That has to be one of the more unusual offerings the god has received, I think. You may have gotten his notice. What possessed you to offer yourself?”
“You said you gave me to the god as a free man. So I thought I should give myself freely, too. Does this mean I'm free now? I'm not a slave?”
“That's right,” said Winkel. “You are not my slave. You are my apprentice.”
“I could leave if I like?”
Winkel raised an eyebrow. “If you like. Would you like to run away? Go somewhere else? Be something else?”
“Never,” announced Denario. “I will work for you to the death.”
Winkel was quiet for a long while. The donkey had finished with its water, so he wandered over to it and took its reins. He hopped aboard the saddle blanket. Without any directions from its master, Half-Stitch just stood and waited. After a moment or two, Winkel bowed his head. He seemed to remember what he should be doing. So he got off the donkey and motioned for Denario to come alongside of him. He led them all down the trail, the way they'd come.
“That's a noble sentiment of yours, Denario.” The accountant shook his head as they walked. “I feel blessed to have heard those words. But you are young, so young. We shall see. At any rate, it'll be to my death, not yours. By then, I'm sure you'll be a master accountant.”
“You'll raise me to be a master?”
“You? Oh, yes. Easily. Stay with me and you'll be the master of all money and all maths. You'll be a man who everyone talks about, an example for all. I'm a top master myself. You'll be second to none if I have anything to do about it.”
When they reached the bottom of the switchback, Winkel stretched. He sighed with relief and glanced at the slope behind them. Even Half-Stitch seemed relieved. He cantered four or five paces before settling down to his usual plodding pace.
“When can I start my lessons?” Denario wondered.
“Oh, well, I hadn't given much thought on how to begin ... I suppose I should test you more on what you know already. Do you have any questions? Maybe we could start with those.”
“Yes. What is 'double entry?' I hadn't heard you mention that before but you talked about it with the god. It seems important.”
“Ah, that's a form of book-keeping, Denario. It was invented by Luca Pacioli, a devout Melcurio worshiper, almost two hundred years ago. It's an excellent system for most businesses ... not all, perhaps, but I'll explain any exceptions later ...”
Chapter Three, Scene Six