Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 58: A Bandit Accountant, 9.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Six: A Funny Kind of Freedom

When they reached Fort Six, Denario was astounded to see, nestled against the cliff below them, the town of Pharts Bad. He counted at least eighty-six homes between the trees, most of them with painted rooftops. A few had wooden shingles. One might have held slate. There were more homes upstream, too, with cruder coverings of thatch. After all this time in the wilderness, the town seemed huge. It had three churches, six totem poles, a town hall, and an oval structure with bench seats that could have been a stadium or a theater. To the southwest, the mine entrance was visible. A pair of large buildings stood in front of it, probably one of them the counting house.

There was no jail house that Denario could make out. In a land without laws, justice was probably left to those who could make it for themselves. He'd didn't think he could make any for himself but avoiding trouble would have to do. He could hardly wait to get down there and leave the group. Guilty feelings or not, he had to get back to his accounting practice and this was the first job on his path.

“Impressive, isn't it?” murmured a voice next to Denario's ear. It was Vir again.

“It is.” Denario put his hands on his hips and stared. There were two punts by the stream, each carrying a rower and a load of furs. A team of traders led four oxen, sacks tied to their backs, down the main street toward the mine. Three draft horses stood in front of the mine entrance, next to their handler and a cart. “This is a busy place. And the Raduar don't bother it?”

“Not yet.” Vir darkened. He had to expect a battle here sooner or later. “If ye look out by the south row of houses, ye'll see an outer wall.”

“I see it.” He followed Vir's gesture. “It looks awfully small, from here.”

“It looks small up close, too, but the townsfolk think it protects them. Crazy. They organize a militia now and then. That's good. And they keep armed guards patrolling the wall, about six of them. That's something.”

“Plus the fort.”

“Plus the fort, which we don't keep manned.” The captain sighed. He glanced to his sergeant.

“I can barely keep it in repair, sir,” said Alaric as he noticed the reproachful look. He had ordered his men to shore up the fort's wooden walls. He left them to it and joined his captain and the accountant.. “We need another sergeant and another cohort if you expect to protect this town, maybe more than one of each.”

For a moment, Vir seemed angry. Then he slumped.

“Ach, yer right.” He pointed past the town. “There's just too much unprotected territory. We need to get back to our old set of ranks, if we can. That's forty-five sergeants.”

“The towns have got to pay their taxes in armor and food if we're going to come close.”

“And they're not going to pay their taxes unless they see us start to win. Well, let's head on down to Mayor Quimbi and brag a little. Bring your biggest and most impressive men. And a couple of good talkers, too.”

In less than half an hour, the sergeant had assembled his premier force. It did not include Pug or any of the wounded except for Denario. Reinhard and Moritz were there, though, and they were the only two not in full chain mail. The rest of the cohort gleamed or came close. Everyone had a helmet, shield, spear, and sword. Even Denario was re-kitted. Sergeant Alaric strapped a captured buckler to his back.

The tribal signature on the buckler had been removed, scraped off by one of the men last night. If Denario hadn’t thought he wouldn’t keep the thing, he would have painted a number 8 on it in red and black.

“Follow the captain,” said Alaric after he finished tightening the buckler strap.

Vir began the descent. It didn't look easy. This side of Mount Bandatar was steep. Parts of it were sheer cliff face. The Mundredi had worn a path around the worst of it. Denario supposed the journey had to be less impossible than it seemed. After a few hundred yards, he reached a spot where he had to turn around and climb down backwards. He expected to fall to his death at any moment. Vir acted like the descent was nothing unusual. In his clipped, quiet way he kept up a stream of questions about accounting.

“What's keeping yer apprentices alive while yer gone?” he asked as he dug the toes of his boots into the footholds carved into several yards of rock.

“Well, the contracts I saved for road surveys and the cloth warehouses make good money.” Denario instinctively focused on anything but the drop below him. “I was surprised at how many merchants agreed to keep me on, actually. The senior accountants in the guild really tried hard to win the contracts. They're allowed, when a master dies.”

“I'll bet they pulled some tricks on ye.”

“I think they did but I was never quite sure what ones, exactly. The contract that made them really mad was the Paravienteri dock that stayed with me.”

“How many docks are there, anyway? I thought Angrili was the shipyard and port, not Oggli.”

“That's right. Oggli's shores are shallow and rocky. So our folks had to build long docks out into the water to compete, some into the river, some into the sea. There are five big docks and seven minor ones. The Paraventeri dock is a big one right in the transition between river and sea.”

“And that makes it rich?”

“The sea docks should be wealthier, really. But the Paraventeri do a better job. Captains sail a little farther into more dangerous waters to deal with them.”

“But why? Why go out of the way for this one dock?”

“Better equipment? I'm not sure. More honest deals with the captains, for sure.”

“Really?” Vir gave him a skeptical look. “But a lot of boat traffic is with new merchants or new captains. How do they know about the Paraventeri? The Paraventeri must have something that the others don't.”

Denario scratched his head. “Better prices?”

“Sounds to me like what makes that dockyard the wealthiest is yer old master and his apprentices. Honest accountants means more money for them. And that's more money for everybody. The captains go there to get richer, not because the Paraventeri are friendly.”

They climbed down in silence for a while. Denario had to admit, Vir's take on the situation seemed shrewd.

“We're going to have to brag on ye,” Vir huffed as he scrambled to stay upright over a patch of loose pebbles.

“Brag?”

“Yeah. We need to tell the mayor about how you broke the Raduar knock code, the secret geometries ye know, yer surveying, yer maps, and stuff like that.”

“The way he understands magic,” Alaric interjected from above.

“The way ye count up everything ye see.” Vir nodded. “But ye have to help. Ye have to be the one to sell yer accounting. I don't think ye've sold yer skills much.”

“I did save those Oggli city contracts, you know.”

“That was with folks what knew ye. Have ye won a contract with someone what don't?”

Denario blushed. He'd tried to do precisely that, in Oggli, and failed.

“No,” he had to admit.

“Well, then, we'll start the brag. But ye'll take it from there. Ye need these folks more than they need ye.”

“Because of the letter of transit?”

“Even that won't be enough, likely. But ye've got to have it. I've got one more trick to help.”

Denario turned around to climb backward for what looked like the last time. Below them, the trail leveled off and came to an end near the mouth of the mine. As he turned, he glanced up at Alaric. The sergeant was giving his superior officer a thoughtful look. Caught, he turned away from Denario to begin the last stage of the descent.

At the foot of the cliff, a trio of mule drivers met the troops. They shared some beer from their mule packs and some laughter, too. The muleteers recognized Vir and Alaric. As they escorted the captain to the town hall, they complained about harassment of their caravans. They didn't seem certain whether the Mundredi had robbed them or it was the Raduar but they respectfully asked for it to stop.

“Any other problems?” Vir asked.

“The town guards turned back some men a few days ago. Don't know why.”

Vir grunted and traded raised eyebrows with his sergeant.

In the town hall, Denario felt impressed despite himself. There was no gold visible but the whitewashed walls were high and clean. The ceilings and floors were pinewood, polished. The round seal of the town stood over the rounded doorway. Denario stared at it for a moment, trying to figure out what was odd about it aside from being cast in tin. Before the reason occurred to him, a medium-sized man in a white robe approached. It was the mayor.

“Chief de Acker,” said Mayor Quimbi. He shook Vir's hand. Behind him, other men in robes, burghers of some sort, tried to nod and smile to Alaric and his closest soldiers. “To what do we owe this visit?”

Not 'honor,' Denario noticed. He was trying to take Pecunia's advice about paying attention. And the smaller-town mayors had been delighted or at least 'honored' to meet Vir. They'd called him 'commander,' 'big chief,' 'captain,' 'hetman,' and 'master.' None of them had known his full name, either.

“I brought someone for yer mine,” Vir told him.

“A slave?” The mayor looked right and left. He seemed to be searching for someone in shackles or maybe with a fresh tattoo. Fear shot through Denario in the brief pause in the conversation. He realized that Vir could whimsically decide to tell the mayor just about anything.

“Nah. Remember ye couldn't tell how much was the right amount when that caravan wanted to pay ye in money?”

“That's ...” The mayor wrung his hands. To his left, one of the burghers nodded. “... a problem. Still.”

“Is he a book keeper?” The shortest burgher, farthest from the leadership group, pointed at Denario. How had he picked Denario out? Yet he had.

“I'm an accountant,” Denario corrected. He strode forward. “Not a mere book keeper.”

“He's from Oggli,” Vir sighed.

“Oggli?” Eyebrows rose up everywhere. The mayor clapped. He noticed Denario for the first time and gave him a smooth smile, as professional as any master merchant could do. “An almost mythical land. But then you've strayed a bit far from your marquis' protection. Why?”

“He's wanted for murder.” The captain grinned. Denario opened his mouth to object but it was too late. The brag was on, as he suddenly understood, and apparently a murder charge was something to play up among the bandit tribes.

Vir made Denario's minor mathematical achievements sound spectacular. Alaric pitched in, too. Even Corporal Gannick felt compelled to point out how Denario had been keeping maps during their travels.

“I can do more,” Denario offered during a pause in the conversation. “I've been trained in the Baggi double-entry system, traditional Muntab single-entry book keeping, which is also known as the 'rational' system, the Ankor process of valuation, the Tortuari method of verification, and other popular asset systems. I know how to use multiple device counters. I can calculate liabilities, income, and expenses. I can do projections. I know the theories of numeromancy.”

“Have you done any numeromancy?” The mayor's eyes narrowed. He was a sharp one.

“Only under the tutelage of senior accountants, sir. Not in the field.” Denario clasped his hands behind his back.

“Well, that's honest.” He rocked on his heels for a moment.

“I reckon he's got a chance, then,” one of the burghers said.

“I'm sure we're losing extra copper to the caravan masters,” chimed the shortest one. “But they're still mad at us and I can't figure it out.”

“None of us can. The gods know, we've tried,” the mayor acknowledged. What was he referring to, exactly? He turned to Vir and stood crisply at attention. “Chief de Acker, we will of course feed your troops as you require. But we've a few yet hours until dinner. Will you accompany us to the counting house? I would like your accountant to see our records and, of course, I know you will want something in trade.”

The counting house was, as Denario expected, one of the two large buildings in front of the mine. Although it wasn't as beautiful as the town hall, it had an impressive single room and stairs leading above it to a second floor. On ground level, amidst the support beams, there were stacks of copper sheets, ingots of tin, bolts of cloth, furs, dried fish, spices, and crates of varied goods lining the east and north walls. That was one reason the place had to be so huge, Denario supposed. The Seven Valleys had no money and that meant their counting houses needed to be warehouses, too. The bins of salt and tumeric alone took up more space than Denario's counting office at home.

The citizens of Pharts Bad were rich in their way. It was a wealth based on bartered, non-perishable goods but there seemed to be an abundance. So compared to the surrounding towns, the citizens here lived in luxury. Come to think of it, the farmers in Waffle Bad had been well-dressed in linens. They'd had plenty of brass tools, too. The wealth in this city had spread outward.

“Ah, the records system.” Denario spotted a table in the center of the north wall. On it sat hundreds, no, thousands of colored, clay tiles. They had been painted with various glazes. The effect from one tile to the next wasn't perfectly consistent. Some yellow tiles looked like gold and others looked like canary feathers but Denario was pretty sure they were all meant to be the same color.

In general, he noticed, the tiles sat in stacks of five. There were a few stacks of six or twelve. That was odd because usually systems stuck to base ten or base twelve and didn't use both. He hoped that old Master Clumpi hadn't done something as idiosyncratic as to use different types of arithmetic for different accounts. Sometimes self-trained book keepers got like that out here in the wild. Stories of it were laid down in the accounting guild records. Book keepers without anyone around to understand them got to pleasing themselves with their cleverness. That led to the invention of systems that weren't meant for anyone else to read, like one that was half in base 16 arithmetic and half in base 10, discovered in Faschnaught. Of course, that one had been decoded. It hadn't been hard. There had been many others found but left unsolved, their arrangements of knots, beans, fish scales, ink marks, or pottery shards being being more difficult than was worth anyone's time.

They could be fiendishly clever, these home-made systems. Sometimes they were positional, too, so that if a stack of tiles sat in a near corner of the desk it meant something other than if the same pile sat in a far corner.

“That's not good.” Denario was talking to himself but he caught the ear of the mayor and burghers. They whispered and pointed to the desk, where Denario had noticed that a stack of tiles had fallen over. That could be awful, since even a slight movement out of place might ruin the system, whatever it was. His fingers itched. He had to resist the impulse to neaten the stack. For all he knew, he might be destroying the evidence of how the system worked.

The important thing was to carefully record the state of the system as it was, untouched. From that point and from the hints the book keeper would have left with those around him, Denario could get into the man's state of mind. It would be tedious and hard but he had a good chance. He could do it.

“I notice two wooden tubes with beads in them.” Denario touched one carefully, afraid to disturb it. The tubes leaned against the records system desk covered by exactly as much dust as the tiles. “They don't appear to be part of the tile system but since Master Clumpi was on his own, I expect that they're probably connected somehow. Does anyone remember when these were used?”

“Oh, Clumpi used to get those out for the fur traders,” said one of the burghers. “Is that important?”

“I expect so.” Denario caught movement out of the left side of his vision. In the northwest corner, someone he hadn't noticed before had un-shuttered a window.

There were actually two people there, each at a different table, both hidden from view of the door by stacks of inventory. They must have heard everyone come in. They didn't look particularly lost in their work. The bearded man faced the open window. To his back, a woman sat facing away from the same window. She seemed to be using her desk lamps for light. Something about the way they'd positioned themselves gave Denario the impression that they didn't get along. Each of them had scrolls on their desks. Neither of them smiled.

If Denario had been a replacement book keeper, as he guessed at least one of these must be, he would have run to the door to greet his guests. Neither of them had done it. They hadn’t budged even though their guests were the most important men in town. Why? It was a mystery as big as the records system and, he suspected, connected to it.

“Are these your replacement book keepers?” he asked. “Why do you have two of them? And why has neither of them worked out?”

“Hey, he is good,” murmured one of the burghers as he nudged the mayor.

The dark haired and dark skinned woman may have been able to hear Denario talking. She stood up. That was hard to tell, at first, because she was shorter standing than she was in her chair. She looked plump, around thirty years old, he guessed. Her eyes met his and he could feel her sizing him up. Her expression was not kind. Nevertheless, she gave a polite nod and headed his way.

As soon as she did, the man behind her turned to see.  Then he watched her progress while he turned his back again and pretended to ignore her.

“We have two records keepers because they're both slaves,” explained the mayor as the woman approached. “We're not going to put them to death for failing us. And we can't trade them for what they're worth. There are farmers around here who have goats or oxen to trade but they don't need to buy much in the way of counting services.”

“You got these slaves even without money?” Denario asked for clarification. It was hard to believe. There seemed to be no limit to what these folks could barter. “So it was in exchange for copper?”

“We traded mostly tin for the woman, Senli. She came first.”

“But she couldn't solve old Master Clumpi's system,” one of the burghers complained. “I don't think she even much tried.”

“She said we ruined it when we tried to fix it.”

“Oh.” Denario had been waiting for the woman to come closer but she stopped while fifteen feet distant. She folded her hands together and waited. “Oh, hold on. You moved the tiles?”

“Well, we had to. Half of them were on strings.”

“You ...” Denario turned on them. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. “You took them off the strings? Why?”

“Well, to count them, of course.”

“Actually, it was Mistress Clumpi what did that.”

“Oh, yes.”

“His daughter?” Denario's mind started to race. “Can I talk with her?”

“His wife. You can try to talk with her if you like.” The burgher who said those words followed them with a cruel grin. Next to him, other burghers laughed. “Although you won't do much talking. You'll be listening.”

“Fine. That's fine.”

“It is?”

“Now for the next question,” said Denario. But as he prepared the words, he glanced to the book keeper who remained away from the group near the middle of the huge floor. “Were all of the same color of tiles strung together?”

“Oh no, not really.”

“Mostly, yes.”

“I never really looked. That's what Master Clumpi was for.”

One question, three answers. Denario reflected on that for a moment.

“And you took the system apart.” He pulled at his hair. It wasn't just that it was a difficult code. The burghers had completely unraveled the code, too. They'd made the job impossible. It simply couldn't be done.

“Is that a problem?”

“Not for him!” Vir said. He whacked Denario on the back.

The conversation paused. In that moment of time, Alaric glanced at Denario with an apologetic expression on his face. He seemed to know what a mess Vir had gotten Denario into and he was ready to pull Denario out of it. For an instant, the accountant was ready to accept his help. Then he realized that it meant he'd never get back home. No, he had to do the job. He couldn't depend on Alaric, who wanted to keep him with the Mundredi. Vir had given Denario the opportunity to go to Oggli where he could save his apprentices and rescue his counting house. Denario had to take it. It wasn't even Vir's fault that the burghers had made the task impossible.

If Denario needed to fix the records, then that's what he'd do. He looked at Alaric as he spoke.

“No problem,” he lied. He turned to the mayor and burghers. Those men bore such innocent, hopeful expressions. They had no idea what damage they'd done. “I can bring all three systems together into one.”

“Three systems?” said Vir.

The mayor was bobbing his head. He understood.

“The old system,” Denario explained with a glance to the unstrung and unstacked tiles. “And the two new systems, which aren't the same and don't reconcile records.”

He was guessing. He caught the book keeper's eye as he said it to check her reaction. She had been watching them. Although Muntabi might not be her native language, at least not this dialect of it, he was certain that she could follow the conversation.

She studied him for a moment longer. Then she closed her eyes and nodded. So he was right, three systems. And none of them were correct.

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene One

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Not Zen 190: Study

The first group arrived during a storm. They unpacked in haste, running from cover to cover in the dark with their belongings. Amidst laughter and expressions of frustration, they managed to find their places in the dormitories. Despite the wind, rain, and lightning, they eventually fell asleep.

The next day, one of the students woke in his bunk to discover that the masters with whom he'd hoped to speak had risen before him. They were, he guessed, hard at work in their areas of expertise.

Today was the beginning of a festival of artists and masters of spiritual disciplines. However, like the other early arrivals, the young man discovered that there were no events scheduled. The festival had been delayed. He’d made plans to study everything offered. In his mind, he'd filled each moment of his calendar with an activity. But so far, most of the students and some of the organizers had yet to make it to the site. He had hours of unstructured time to himself in an isolated retreat in the mountains.

The young fellow wandered around and took note of the locations in which there would be festival classes. Next to the pavilion, he saw a bearded yoga instructor leading a sunrise session. Some in the session appeared to be novices. A student like him could join. But further on, he observed a handful of women practicing martial arts. On a grassy rise above them, two men and three women sat in meditation.

In the meadow at the top of the hill, there stood a wooden tower. It looked like a fire tower and, in fact, he found a small plaque next to the structure describing it as one. He climbed it. The gate at the top was not locked. On the platform, elbows rested against the rail, he gazed down at the masters in their various disciplines.

He could see all of the things he meant to study. There was a man burning incense next to a campfire. To the west, a pair of women pointed to the next mountain and painted watercolors of its treeline. As he stood and surveyed the area, the young man noticed that he could see all the way to the nearest town, which lay far below. The town's buildings seemed distant and humble. He sighed. After a minute, he climbed down from the tower.

He returned to his dormitory. He emptied his backpack and filled it with dish rags and freshly-laundered towels that he found in the closet next to the shower.

When he was done, he slung on the full pack and marched down the main road. As he passed one of the dormitories, he smiled to a woman with a notebook in front of her. He recognized her as one of the organizers and also a scheduled lecturer. She sat on the porch with a peaceful expression on her face, her pencil poised above a blank page.

"What will you do today?" he asked her.

She put her pencil down for a moment. She let her hands fold into her lap.

"A parable has occurred to me," she replied. "Today, I am going to write."

A few steps away, on the wooden staircase below the porch, sat a man who the student recognized as a master of a meditation school.

"And what are you going to do today?" the student asked him.

"Parables are a waste. I'm at peace. I'm going to sit here."

The young man nodded. That choice seemed reasonable for someone devoted to the discipline.

"Since you've asked us," continued the meditation master, "I should ask, what will you do?"

"I don't know much, so it was my intent to study," he said. "But instead I'm going to walk into town. As we passed by last night, I noticed the storm had blown off the roof of a house. The family who lives there will be sorting through the damage. Probably I can help pick things up."

The student marched on. The master sat in meditation. After a moment or two, the fellow rose to his feet. He waved to the back of the departing student.

"Wait," he called. "Let me get my shoes."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 57: A Bandit Accountant, 9.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Five: Nearly at Liberty

Pecunia towered over him. By that, Denario knew that he must be sitting down. Spiritually, she was immense. Physically she was only a few fingers taller. Now she wore a high, lace collar and an urgent expression. Her delicate brow knotted. She leaned closer.

“Where are they?” she demanded.

The scene behind Pecunia shifted. A door opened. He could see the sky and a wispy cloud. With no effort at all, he rose. He strode out the door with this beautiful woman by his side. Her collar had changed. Now it was green. Her whole dress was green. It went with her golden hair. He tried to tell her that. His fingers rose up as he prepared to speak.

“Where are the boys?” she asked.

Suddenly he knew. Guilder, Kroner, Mark, Shekel, and Buck were far away. He needed to find them. He turned, searching. He saw blue sky, tall grass, and distant forest all around. There was nothing else. He needed to find his boys.

“Home,” he breathed. “Aren't they? But which way should I go?”

He stopped moving. Pecunia circled around him. She kept studying his clothes, his shoes, his face. On her second pass behind him, her appearance began to change. Her hair darkened. Her skin turned a luxurious brown, almost like his own but with a golden undertone. Her hair straightened as much as his. She kept walking. She got shorter. She got wider. He saw she was gaining weight. Her dress changed into a plain smock.

“Find the boys,” she insisted.

“I'm trying.”

“Faster.”

Her pace picked up. She circled around him and made his head swivel. Her hair curled. Was she turning back into herself? No. Yet she was becoming lighter again. Her clothes were growing more ornate. Her dress bunched up. It looked too big, better than the smock but it was nothing like her usual high fashion. She gave him a determined smile.

When she did that, she looked up at him. She had become almost child-sized.

“Where are you?” she said.

“I don't know,” he replied. “I'm lost.”

“Hurry,” she whispered. “Hurry.”

She turned her back on him. He watched her spiral away. She was moving in an arc even though she appeared to be walking straight. What's the mathematics of the arc? he wondered. It looked like the classic one, in which the radius was equal to a constant plus another constant multiplied by the angle of departure. He estimated the angle at thirty degrees. Beautiful. But she was keeping her back to him and barely glancing over her shoulder. Her hair was growing golden. Her skin was brightening. She was returning to her usual self.

“The boys,” she said. Her voice sounded very distant.

He turned away from her. It was hard to do. His arms stretched out as he searched for his apprentices. He could feel the land. It was in the air between his fingertips. It was slipping by. It was passing through him.

The boys were too far away to reach. But he could feel their footfalls. They were marching, running, skipping, jumping, or just ambling along. They were in motion. He tried to embrace them, to catch them by the sound of their feet, a sensation so tangible he wondered if he could pull it out of the air. Each set of feet was a clump of spider silk. He thought he could smell rice pudding for a moment, as if one of the girls next door was trying to lure Buck to them with food and he'd caught the scent. But as he tried to gather all the perfumes and noises in his hands, he lost them all.

He couldn't feel the boys. He started to run in the direction of the last group of wind-blown sensations. Nothing, just a girl's laughter.

Denario woke with his feet kicking his blanket. He wiped his face. It dripped with his sweat and the early morning dew. He shivered and pulled himself closer to the fire.


Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Six

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Not Even Not Even

For those reading the scenes in A Bandit Accountant every week, I apologize for the interruption in the flow of the story.  This next scene makes sense in the context of the book. On its own, it may seem difficult.

The week after this, as I post the last scene of the chapter, it will all come together.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 56: A Bandit Accountant, 9.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Four: Lowest on the Totem Pole

The troop picked up their new recruit, Pug, at a farm that had at least two boys and three girls working in a one-acre wheat field. To Denario, it looked like they all might be pulling up weeds but he didn't want to ask and reveal his ignorance. Anyway, the lad wasn't out in the field with the rest of his family. It took Vir a moment to chat with the father and an older brother before he found Pug at the end of the bean fences next to a totem pole with heads of local deities carved into it. Even there, the boy stayed mostly out of sight behind the pole.

Pug was hiding, perhaps, because his face was a patchwork of bruises. Denario winced to see him. His lip was healing but split. He was missing a front tooth. Although his bruises looked painful, his bones appeared to be intact except for a shattered small knuckle. Vir inspected him like man buying livestock. In Oggli, the family would have gotten offended by that. In Mekli, they threw a dinner for the troops and offered to let them sleep next to the wheat, although Vir refused that on the grounds that a few miles' march would do everyone good.

The boy's name was the same as his uncle but it was an unusual one to the rest of the Mundredi. Naturally, they began teasing him about it. To Denario's shame, he felt slightly relieved not to be the butt of their jokes for a while. He didn't feel compelled to stay close to the protection of the officers now that Pug was here.

Even so, the years of slavery in which he'd learned to anticipate casual kicks and punches served him well. The Mundredi took turns swinging at Pug. But they playfully tried to trip Denario, too. He dodged them and ignored their remarks about how short and scrawny he was. He pretended not to notice when one of the men tried to kick him.

The highlight of the evening came when Denario managed to duck as someone threw an old acorn at his head. The acorn hit Reinhard on the neck. The big man spotted the culprit instantly – it wasn't hard with the fistfulls of nuts and pebbles he was holding – and he pummeled Denario's tormentor until Gannick and Alaric told him to stop. Everyone laughed except for the fellow who'd taken the drubbing. Even Pug seemed to feel better.

The troops camped to the sound of howling wolves.

“They just moved in,” replied Pug when questioned about them. “They haven't bothered the livestock.”

Alarmed by the howling, Alaric set a watch schedule, two men at a time. Denario volunteered to go first with Reinhard. That got a smile from the sergeant, who thought his accountant was making an effort to fit in. It elicited a scowl from the captain, who knew Denario was grabbing the easiest shift. Vir constrained himself to kicking Denario's travel pack, though, as he made a spot to lie down.

And in the morning, they went to church.

It wasn't a whole church. The walls had been made of stone but someone or something had knocked most of them down. Denario realized after a few minutes there that the destruction was a tragedy. Blocks that remained showed intricate carvings. Fragments of the engraved scenes lay strewn in the clearing amidst rocks, dirt, and wild grasses.

A poplar tree had grown up in the middle of the church site because the building no longer had a ceiling – or rather, the ceiling lay on the ground in rot and rubble.

“This place was holy to Leir and Hoki back in the pre-empire days,” said Vir wistfully as he approached. “Villagers built it for protection from storms, first. Then it served them for worshiping the small gods. Then came the bigger ones. Finally, when Prince Robberti passed through, the place impressed him enough that he ordered improvements.”

“What improves a church?” Denario wondered.

“Gold, mostly.”

Alaric and a few other men snorted.

“Was this the Biscelli Church that was supposed to be so beautiful?” Alaric's attitude changed a bit. He touched one of the fallen walls and smiled. His fingers traced the etched form of a horned god.

“You know about it?” Vir smiled at his sergeant. Denario got the impression that the two were sharing a secret.

“Well, stories of a vaulted ceiling, gold leaf on the furnishings, colored glass in the main window ...”

“It had glass windows?” Reinhard seemed astounded.

“Naturally, the prince's children fought over it.” Vir sighed. He took off his helmet to scratch his bald head. “This is all that they left, the rocks. Everything else got taken away. No one desanctified the church lands, either. Followers of Hoki and the smaller gods still visit here from nearby villages. The original village of Biscelli was destroyed, of course.”

As Vir was speaking, Denario scanned a wall for pictures that weren't covered by climbing weeds. He noticed references to Melcurio twice, once with the god pointing to a number eight, the other time with him stealing the crown off of the All-Seeing King, whose hundred eyes were all looking the wrong way. Soon Denario ran out of wall, though, and had to move on through the rubble.

“They've got a temple to Leir in Waffle Bad,” Vir continued.

As Denario walked, his eyes drifted to a pale shape in the grass. It took Denario a moment to recognize that it was a goatfish of some kind. Was it a primitive version of Glaistig? This was a long way from her river. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. Time had been kind to this piece. The figure was intact.

Denario knelt and said a little prayer of thanks to Melcurio. He was lucky to have gotten this far in his journey. As an afterthought, he thanked Glaistig, too. He'd made the decision, almost without thinking, to keep the goatfish piece. It might be crazy to carry extra weight, even though it barely amounted to a single pound, for miles and miles. Yet the thought of showing it to Pecunia made him smile. Pecunia showed every sign of detesting the priestess at the Temple of Glaistig but she nevertheless showed affection and curiosity for the goddess herself.

“It's holy,” whispered someone next to him.

“A little,” Denario allowed. He didn't have that powerful feeling he sometimes got in a church or temple. He had to admit that the place felt good, though.

“Yer not afraid of stealing from the church?” Gannick asked.

“No.” Denario slipped the carved rock into his travel pack. “Not at all.”

The Mundredi, though, seemed afraid for Denario. It was touching, if ridiculous. Several men made holy signs over themselves or over him. Even Moritz shook his head at an accountant's craziness. Pug kept his mouth closed and his hands behind his back. Denario remembered that the boy had gotten into trouble for mocking his local priest. He lived close by to these ruins, too, so he knew them well. He probably took things from this old church. After all, he was the sort who would defy the gods. Denario wondered if the superstitious talk was making him worried. For whatever reasons of religion and logic, it didn't bother Denario. He felt good about what he'd taken.

“The gods are funny about their holy places,” Alaric chimed in. “And this site is still consecrated. Be careful. They say that the sons of Prince Robb who took stuff out of here died soon after.”

“Ah, well,” said Vir. “That could be said of many folks in those times. They all died before they saw thirty. Anyway, didn't ye see the accountant saying a prayer to Melcurio? That's the god of thieves, ye know.”

“Accountants,” retorted Denario. “He's the god of accountants.”

“Same thing,” said Vir with a smile.


Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Five