Chapter Binary Two
Scene Four: The Turtle
Amidst the birches, he could see that her house had been painted pink about three years ago. That was an expensive color. Now the top coat of paint had begun to peel but it revealed a similar shade of pink below. Above, the roof tiles had begun to warp. A few of them needed replacing. Still, the yard looked neat. The windows were shuttered, not open like those of the neighbors, but maybe Mistress Clumpi didn't like to feel a draft. She tended to her roses and to her back yard garden, he noticed. She had a crop of spring onions started. And the woodpile that had been large at the beginning of the winter had diminished to half a cord of sticks. The missing wood left a trail of brighter paint up the side of the house where it had been.
Denario resumed his walk but he was slow about it. The warnings from the mayor, burgher, and the book keepers stuck in his mind. Mistress Clumpi was difficult, apparently, and there was no escaping her. He needed her. But now he thought of her as a bit of a monster. Approaching her house felt akin to creeping up on the lair of a dragon. He told himself that he was being irrational. His legs didn't believe him.
“Ma'am?” he cleared his throat. He knocked.
When she opened the door a few seconds later, Denario couldn't help jumping backwards. Her face loomed like snapping turtle's. She had a bit of that turtle-ish expression, too. Her jaw stuck out. Her neck looked long. Her shoulders were as wide as Denario's.
“Now what?” she said. Her mouth shut like a clamp. She studied him through puffy slits.
“Are you Mistress Clumpi?” he asked. He took off his hat. It seemed more polite.
A scowl darkened her features immediately.
“I'm a traveling accountant,” he continued. “I've got some questions about ...”
She slammed the door before he could finish. He could hear her on the other side, though, as she snorted with either laughter or disgust. It was hard to tell which. Maybe she felt a bit of both.
He stood for a long while, hat in hand, thinking. A cool breeze made him shiver. But he couldn't just leave. Mistress Clumpi surely knew more about the old records keeping system than anyone else. She'd helped to dismantle it. Therefore, he reasoned, she would remember what it should look like.
“The burghers have made a mess of things,” he spoke through the door. He hadn't heard any footsteps walking away, at least. It was worth a shot. “I can see that much. You're the only one in town who stands a chance of setting the records straight.”
“So what?” she shouted. He was surprised the shutters didn't flap off the windows. She had a powerful voice. “What has this town ever done for me?”
“Um, I don't know.”
“No one cares if I starve,” she hissed. “Master Clumpi never got me any children. He saved enough to get by for a year or two and that's running out.”
Aha, thought Denario. It isn't just that she hates everyone. She has a reasonable fear of not living through the next winter.
“What did the mayor offer you for fixing the tile counting system?” he wondered.
The brass latch rattled. It was quiet for a second. Then it rattled again and clicked. A knobbly arm pulled open the thin, wooden door.
“What do you mean by 'offered?'” Mistress Clumpi still looked a bit suspicious. That was her default expression, Denario realized. Something to do with the squint. This time, though, her countenance was softened by curiosity.
“I mean, it couldn't have been money.” Denario waved his arm as if that would help keep the conversation going. “This land doesn't seem to have any. So did he offer a few shares of the copper? Of the dried fish, maybe?”
“They just ordered me to do it, them burghers.” Her massive shoulders relaxed.
“Ah. And you told them to go to hell?”
“I let them know what I think. I always do.” The woman glanced down to straighten her long, floral-print dress. Where did she get the material? he wondered. Come to think of it, Denario had noticed other women on the street wearing similar printed fabrics. But that made them as fancy as most of the dresses worn by the merchant class wives in Oggli. Truly, this town had wealth. They had no money here but they possessed ample riches. “Then I took a look through what old Bibbo had done. They're important men and they would have tried to make me miserable if I hadn't.”
“But ...” Denario didn't want to give voice to his worst suspicion, which was that she couldn't reconstruct or even remember the damage. She was elderly, after all. “You took it apart.”
“Hah!” There was that snorting sound again. It was definitely amusement. “I only told them that they could if they wanted. I knew they'd destroy it.”
“Couldn't you have just read the tiles for them?” And wouldn't that have been better than sabotage?
“Not really.” She put her hands on her hips. She looked less turtle-ish that way. “Old Bibbo told me a lot about what he done. But he didn't tell me the all of it. He didn't want me to know his whole system.”
“Really? But why not?”
“Because I'm so good at counting.” She folded her arms. Her expression got very smug. “And I let him know it.”
“You always do.” He was beginning to see the pattern.
Her head bobbed solemnly. “Of course.”
He glanced at a pair of children to his right as they played in the street. It was evening, after all, and they didn't have to work any more, if they ever did. Next to the children, two mothers watched Denario intently. One of them whispered in the ear of the other, who laughed.
“May I come in to talk?” Suddenly, the notion of sitting down behind the shuttered windows seemed appealing.
“I'm hungry,” he said, trying to think the way Vir or Alaric thought about people. They wouldn't give up in this situation. Even Master Winkel wouldn't have given up. He'd have made an offer. “Can I treat you to dinner? Maybe you know somewhere I can eat even if you don't want to go.”
Her sudden grin scared him as much as her scowl.
“That's more like it,” she said. “Them's as needs a favor should do one first. I take dinner at the South Winds Church when I can. They'll accept pig's ears or fish in trade if you have enough. I know the counting house has a stock of both.”
“It does.” He nodded to himself. So that was how it worked. He would make a note of it in his accounting journal tonight. In other places, he'd seen dried fish, eggs, and pigs' ears used as substitutes for money. There was the ever-present standard of 'goat' as well. That made at least four barter standards. “Will you walk with me?”
For her answer, she grabbed a short coat. She threw a shawl on over it.
The stroll to South Winds wasn't long. In fact, they ended up across the street from the Church of the Small Gods that Senli frequented. The major differences in the religious buildings seemed to be that South Winds was taller by at least two stories and a tremendous steeple. It had oil-soaked torches burning out front, too, making the gentle blue dusk seem brighter. This was a place for people of means who worshiped something high above the mundane world.
A rough-bearded priest in a brown frock greeted them at the door. He held a torch in his left hand as if he'd just lit up all of the candles and torches, inside and out. The torch simmered.
“Joining us tonight, Mistress Clumpi?” he said almost eagerly. It was good, Denario reflected, to see that this intimidating old woman did have friends or at least acquaintances who didn't immediately duck away upon seeing her. “Me mam made a barley chowder, lamb drippings on the side. Got some biscuits too.”
“Sounds delightful.” She removed her shawl in the doorway. “The counting house will pay for me tonight. This man is an accountant them burghers got to works miracles there. Or so they think.”
The priest's smile immediately disappeared. Nevertheless, he made to shake Denario's hand.
“I can see ye didn't bring anything with ye. But yer good fer it, I suppose.”
“I'm Denario.” He'd anticipated a bone-crushing grip from this fellow but instead the grip felt pleasantly firm. “I'm thinking I might like to pay for a few meals in advance, next time. Can you start a tab?”
“Oh, it's ...” He did a quick mental readjustment. They didn't have much written math here or else old Bibbo Clumpi would have been using it instead of his homegrown tile-moving method. “It's a way of tallying if I owe for a meal or if you owe me a meal instead.”
“Like breaking a stick? Over just a few meals, that sounds a bit complicated.” The priest extinguished his smoking torch in a bucket of sand. “Can't I just remember?”
“That works, too.” All the same, Denario would write it down in the counting house. Some priests were not to be trusted.
The priest's mother seemed nice enough. She was a short, heavy-set woman with grey curls of hair. She pushed an awful lot of food on Denario. It was more than he could eat. When he slowed, she talked to him as if he were a child. Denario didn't take offense. She did the same for her son, the priest, who was nearly thirty. The four dinner tables in the church were populated mostly by older women and their unmarried sons. All of the women had advice for Denario, most of it about food. He felt grateful for the few grandchildren who ran about and made nuisances of themselves. At least they attracted the occasional kiss or hearty slap, which meant a pause in the conversation.
There weren't any young mothers here. Denario supposed they ate at home with their families. Nevertheless, in less than half an hour he grew alarmed at learning of the numbers of women who died in childbirth. Didn't they have any witches or midwives in town? That's what they were for. It seemed that the town refused to support them. Years ago, he heard, the churches had refused to let a traveling witch settle down inside its city walls.
“This young man thinks he's going to pay me,” Mistress Clumpi told the grandmother next to her. That got snorts of derision from several folks within earshot.
“What's wrong with that?” Denario demanded. “Everyone's got to eat. Everyone needs to get something for their work.”
“The burghers,” said Clumpi's neighbor at the table.
“They're against paying women.”
“If they want my help, they'll have to accept the way I work. People have to be treated decently. Even the slaves need cared for.”
Suddenly, everyone was looking at him. The other conversations had stopped. Denario became aware that he'd raised his voice. He was standing, too.
“Look, Olga,” he implored. He'd learned from the other women that her full name was Olga Clumpi and he found himself feeling less formal with her now. He had to stop himself from reaching out and taking her by the wrist. “I've seen the log books. I know that the copper mine is doing less and less trade. It's not just the fault of the Raduar and Oggli armies. It's the burghers and mayor. They're too greedy. They don't know how to do business.”
“You don't know the half of it,” said Olga darkly. Several folks nodded.
“Your husband must have kept them under control before. Maybe it was him together with the mine headman. Did Bibbo do the negotiating with the caravans?”
“He negotiated everything with everyone.” Her expression turned almost wistful.
“The town leaders are hurting the business. Or … this is just a thought ... maybe they're really clever and they intend to form their own caravans. They could eliminate the tradesmen. Could that be it?”
She waved off that idea. “Those idiots wouldn't know where to go or what to take for trading, even if there was a one of them who could make a donkey walk uphill with a load of tin.”
“Then ...” Denario returned to his place on the stool. He rested his elbows on the table and his head in his hands for a moment. “Then they really are fools.”
In the silence after that comment, Denario wondered who was going to report this.
“How did ye get that head wound?” asked the priest. Perhaps mayhem and murder were safer topics than the quality of town leadership. “Was it a Raduar chief? That's what I heard. I was told by the mayor hisself that the Raduar chieftains have come all the way out here.”
“Yes, that's true.”
There were groans from around the tables. No one liked the news but they were soon on the edges of their seats to hear it. Denario had to re-tell the saga of his journey from Hogsburg to Phart's Bad. It was an awful experience. He came off as a fool even in his own version of events. That was partly because he found himself retelling it all from the Mundredi army point of view.
The diners at the church laughed and clapped at the right places. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to feel he'd done justice to the fight scenes. The men and the boys dragged all of the bragging out of him about the tripwire. Then they followed up with questions about the combination locks, knock codes, poisons, and maps until they finally sat back, satisfied.
“Good on ye,” the priest murmured. He patted his belly. “Good on ye.”
Two of the boys took to re-enacting the spear fights with sticks.
As the dinner ended, Denario caught Olga Clumpi watching him with a suspicious eye.
“Do you know how to write, Olga?” he whispered.
“My name, yes. Not much else.”
“Are you willing to learn? It would keep you in food, clothes, and firewood, for sure.”
“You have two book keepers already. How could you pay me on top of that?”
“You'll earn your wage.” He smiled in the face of her scowl. “I'm going to pay Senli, too, you know. It won't be just you.”
“But Senli's foreign. Anyways, you might get away with that because all of her wages will go back to the counting house to buy her freedom. Everyone knows that. But when she's free, will they pay her? That's the question.”
“It's not a question. Look, I understand that it's not normal for a woman around here to hold a book keeping job. But about a third of the book keepers in the Ogglian county are women. Sure, it'll be hard work. It'll be hard learning at first, too.”
“Bah.” Olga brushed off imagined hardships with a sneer. “There ain't nothing like that what's so hard for me. I've always been able to figure things out.”
It took a while for the rest of what Denario had said to sink in.
“Other women is allowed to be book keepers?” she said. “In other lands?”
“Out to the east, yes. Definitely in the small towns along the borders of West Ogglia. By reputation, also in the Raduar and Kilmun tribes. Why not here?”
She pulled her shawl up tight to her throat and didn't answer.
“You can do a part of Bibbo's job that Senli and Hummel can't.”
“What's that?” she snapped.
“Negotiate with the fur trappers and tradesmen. I think you can do it honestly. That's badly needed. Senli is honest, yes, but she gets pushed around. Other people break her bargains and she doesn't stop them. She's admitted it.”
“Well, I'm not standing for that.”
He smiled. “I know you aren't. That's what's going to make you invaluable, Mistress Clumpi.”
She rose. There was a troubled scowl on her face. He hadn't completely sold her on the idea. Well, he knew he wasn't much of a salesman. He'd have to keep working at it.
“Would you like me to walk you back home?”
“Where else do you have to go?” There came that snort from her again.
“I'm going to visit Hummel and Senli. I'm going to shock them this time, I'm afraid.” Denario ignored her attitude. He understood it better now. “But it doesn't have to do with you.”
“It doesn't? What is it then?”
“Maybe I'd better not say unless I can find the right tools. I need an ice pick, one that's like a needle. But a needle won't do.”
“What do you have in mind?” she said, curious.
“Come along for the laugh, if you like. Maybe I'll just look foolish.”
“You've been foolish so far.” She glanced to the scar on his head where the Raduar axe had grazed him. “But I suppose you've come through it well enough.”
Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Five