Sunday, January 15, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 64: A Bandit Accountant, 10.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene Six: Late Night with the Mayor

“Thank you, ma'am,” Denario bowed and took off his hat for the mayor's wife. She was a lovely woman of dark, brunette hair and uneven, swarthy complexion. Her cheeks had a delightful smattering of freckles, he thought. Her smile was shy and her eyes were bright. The grey in her hair was just beginning to show.

He sat in the center of the mayor's many-roomed home for a few minutes. Marie Quimbi served him a hot drink that she said was tea. It didn't taste like it. But he couldn't help noticing that the china cup was fine and the chair she offered him was a well-wrought fiddleback. It wasn't her best chair, either. Two of the others had cushions.

Do they know how wealthy they are? he wondered. Without money, the citizens here had no way to measure. Mrs. Quimbi had thrown furs over a sofa which looked soft enough without them. She wore a least two layers of linen. She kept a tapestry on the wall, not the best artwork but done in red and pink, which would have cost plenty even in Angrili. And Angrili specialized in those colors. Denario happened to gaze up and noticed the wooden beams of the ceiling had been carved with an axe. Someone had cut at least twenty-eight, no thirty-one, no thirty-four, no thirty-six clan markings into a fresco or mural of sorts. As an artwork, it was partly mysterious and all beautiful.

Items made of brass lay about everywhere, mostly in the form of candlesticks and wash basins but also in pieces of armor that had been hung on the wall. Denario got up to inspect a breastplate and was shocked to feel how thin it was. It was ornamental.

“My gods, accountant, you're still working?” said the mayor. Denario spun to find that the genial man had come into the dining area from the hall to his bedroom.

“Oh yes.” Denario found it hard to say anything more. He felt surrounded by stolen goods. How much of this had been taken from the counting house after Bibbo had died?

“How very diligent. I'm impressed.” Jack Quimbi wrung his hands. Denario suddenly realized that the man was nervous. Perhaps I do seem fast, Denario thought, remembering Mistress Clumpi. He felt he was moving at a natural speed but if he seemed hasty, it was because he sensed time slipping away from him, taking his apprentices with it.

“I think you'll be surprised at how much I've learned already,” he said.

“Delightful. And my wife has made tea.” The mayor wrung his hands some more. He sat in a cushioned chair and showed every sign of joyful anticipation. “How lovely!”

Jack poured the steaming liquid into his cup. When he glanced at Denario, he seemed to notice the pendant on Denario's chest. He narrowed his eyes. The blue coin in its setting bothered him.

“Do you mind,” he said, waving his hand as if trying not to see the image on the coin, “putting that away for a little while as we talk?”

“It would be disrespectful to hide it.” Denario did his best to remember how Vir had told him to act. “This is by order of the captain.”

“You're really his man? Even though you're from Oggli?”

“I'm under his protection, yes.” He couched his words carefully. This conversation was proceeding differently than he'd planned.

“And the coin really belongs to Vir? Because it rather announces that he's of royal blood.”

“I think you can't be captain without it.”

“Ah. Yes.” The mayor squirmed in his seat. “That rumor. I'd heard it. But I'd rather thought that a myth of bygone days.”

“Vir doesn't think it's important anyway.” Denario took a seat not far from the mayor. “He says that he's sworn to save the villages from being raided. That's the main thing.”

“And how's he going to go about that?” the mayor wondered. “We pay our monthly goat, you know. We overpay. We sent fourteen of them last year. But we get more and more reports of village raids. They're getting close. Refugees have come in. Some have come right through and kept running. It's got folks around here worried.”

“Yes. The barons and the Raduar are both headed this way.”

“Both?” The mayor's eyes goggled.

“I drew a map of this before. I can show you. Yes, the Raduar chieftans are coming from the north and east. The Ogglian barons are coming from the south and east. Their lines of attack should meet, well, a few miles east of here.”

“I ... I think I'd like to see the map.”

“I'll draw another soon, then, before I go.”

“Go? And that's something I don't understand. You want to head right toward the battles? Walk right through them?”

“I have apprentices,” he said doggedly.

“Yes, but ...” The mayor's hands flopped. “But all the killing ....”

“I understand that Vir has two sergeants out that direction. They're obligated to this coin of the realm, too. They may lend me some assistance.”

“Or they may be dead.”

“They might.” He admitted it and found the possibility to be no deterrent. He surprised himself. “I'll get through anyway. With your letter of transit, of course.”

The mayor sat and held his head for a minute or two. He didn't touch his tea.

“So,” Denario ventured after a sip. The silence was an opportunity he didn't want to waste. “I see that you've been using the counting house as your personal bank.”

A fearful expression, followed by rage, followed by a neutral expression of calm flickered by on the mayor's face in only a second.

“Where would you hear something like that?” he wondered.

“I would read it in the account scrolls.”

“Oh.” The mayor did, at last take some tea. He drank half a cup at once. “Did you see that it's not just been me? The burghers started it. And the mine headman.”

“I know about the worst of the burghers, for sure.” He took a chance on his next statement. “I think the mine supervisor has been more honest than the rest of you.”

“Well, maybe, but ...” At last, Jack lay his hands out on the table. He'd given up trying to justify himself. “You can see all of that in the accounts?”

“In the new ones,” Denario partially lied. “I haven't cracked the old one yet. It'll take a little while. But not as long as you think.”

“Good. At least the old system was honest,” said the mayor. “You won't find much there except who owes what to the town.”

“You mean that Bibbo Clumpi was honest.” Denario started to roll his eyes but he checked himself. “Well, for a given value of honesty. He didn't cheat on deals with the tradesmen for you.”

“Yes. How'd you spot it all? That little man, Hummel, said he had it fixed.”

Denario could already see that Hummel would be the brunt of a lot of anger if his boss didn't put a stop to it. And Denario was his boss right now.

“No more brow-beating the book keepers into falsifying records, right?” Denario folded his arms and did his best to mirror the mayor's neutral expression. “I've been trained to spot them. And I've got a hard enough job as it is working out who owes what without sifting through all the cheating, too.”

“Senli wouldn't do it much anyway.”

“In her own way, she was honest. She put down each loss as theft. Which it was, after all.”

The mayor stared into his cupped hands.

“How did the mine come to be owned by the town, anyway?” Denario said after enough time had passed for him to become impatient.

“Oh, it's belonged to the town for so long that no one really remembers," Jack replied with a sigh. “We only started pulling out tin and copper forty years back. But there's been a granite quarry since … well, since a time when hardly anyone's ancestors lived here. Those who did spoke a language that was older than the Old Tongue.”

The mayor babbled on for a while about town history. He seemed calmer when discussing anything other than his theft, naturally. Why does he think the mine supervisor has to be involved? Denario wondered. The accountant mulled it over for a few minutes while Jack Quimbi continued to explain his grandfather's inspiring rise from slavery. Abruptly, Denario saw it: the economy of the town flowed through the mine supervisor. All of the riches ran through the mine's log books and, at one time, all of the wages must have done so, too.

The cut of wages taken by the town leaders came from the mine's pay logs. They could get no richer than the mine foremen allowed. Since old Bibbo had been honest, the burghers hadn't been able to use the counting house to get out from under the control of the mine supervisor. When Bibbo died, that changed.

“Tell me,” he interjected when the mayor paused in his history lesson. “The burghers felt they had to get out from under the control of the mine headmen. Why was that necessary?”

Jack Quimbi looked up at the question. He'd been avoiding Denario's gaze. But he didn't seem surprised. He merely nodded.

“It wasn't. The mine is sloppily run, I think, but we've been doing well for a long while. I suppose the first burgher to complain that we weren't rich enough was Mark Haphnaught. That was ages ago.”

“Ages meaning how long?”

“At least fifteen years. Haphnaught became a burgher under the last mayor. He always thought that the town leadership should get paid more. Other big towns around here have raised the pay for burghers and aldermen. Our burghers are busy with surveys, trades, supervising construction projects, the water filters, the new aqueduct, and so on. So if they're busy, shouldn't they get something for their work?”

“Sounds fair so far.”

“It made sense to me. And the burghers and I had been making our town richer and richer.”

Denario cleared his throat politely. “Until recently.”

“Yes, there's that.” Jack's cheeks flushed. “We were doing well until Bibbo died. Then there came the news of the wars that were cutting off the caravan trade. But even in the good times, the miners wouldn't agree to our raises.”

“Are the mine foremen elected by the miners?” The slaves might have some rights, he realized.

“What does 'elected' mean?”

“Well, how about just telling me how the foremen are chosen?”

“If a slave earns his freedom, he applies to be a headman or foreman. The other headmen usually let him join. After all, most of them were slaves once, too.”

“And do the mine foremen make as much as you, mayor?”

“The mine supervisor makes exactly what I do. That's by rule. I always thought it was a good rule when I was young. It keeps the mine from dominating the town.”

“But you wanted the town to dominate the mine?”

“Maybe. I don't know. In the end, I wasn't thinking of it like that. Like I said, it started with Haphnaught complaining. But that was years ago. He never approached Bibbo Clumpi about it, not that I ever heard.”

“Because Bibbo would have told him to go to hell?”

“Probably.” The mayor wagged his finger. “But Bibbo was a clever old coot. He had a way of sending people to hell that made them eager to pack their bags, if you know what I mean. After he died, we were in shock. Haphnaught and Dumm tried to run the place but we could tell that it wasn't working. Around then, the caravans started lying to us about what they owed us or didn't. Some of them cheated us on the math. Dumm sent out for a replacement book keeper and he authorized the caravan drivers to bring us the best they could find.”

“Wait, the caravans brought these two? And you weren't worried that they'd feel loyalty to the caravans?”

“Why would they?” Quimbi looked startled by the idea. “I don't think anyone suggested it. Although, come to think of it, Hummel does cut deals with the caravan that brought him. That's the only caravan he deals with, really.”

A puzzled scowl fluttered briefly across his features. Strands of brown hair fell into his eyes. He brushed them back.

“So Vernon Dumm and Mark Haphnaught realized they could give themselves the raises they wanted,” Denario said. “What happened next, from your point of view?”

“I'd better refresh my tea.” The mayor got up and ambled to the hearth. There, a cast-iron pot hung over the fire. He tossed in a couple sticks to stoke the blaze. Then he grabbed the ladle and scooped out more hot water. He re-started his story.

It took him a few minutes to get to the point. As the mayor rambled, Denario noticed that Marie Quimbi had discreetly gone missing. Maybe she didn't want to hear Jack discuss his business. That seemed smart, considering his revelations. Jack interrupted himself fairly often but otherwise seemed eager to tell his side. Denario could almost believe that the corruption had been weighing on his conscience.

The mayor wasn't sure when the first burgher stole something from the counting house. He suspected that Vernon Dumm had started the practice. About a month into his supervision of the area, the burgher acquired a new bed that his wife had been coveting for years. He must have traded something for it, the mayor figured.

Soon after, other burghers followed Dumm's example. Several of them traded for imported foods. Burgher Haphnaught got himself an improved set of false teeth. At some point, the burghers started to feel in danger of being caught by the mayor or the mine supervisor. Haphnaught had been the one to suggest gifts as the answer. They had invited the supervisor and the mayor to dinner. They'd given them surplus furs 'for the wives and kiddies, don't ye know' because it was winter. Haphnaught had given a broach directly to Marie Quimbi as her thirty-fifth birthday present.

Vernon Dumm, in his way, had been more clever. He'd talked to Marie Quimbi about a donation to her church, the South Winds. Marie had been ecstatic. And the priest had been bowing-down grateful, too, for all of the candles, furs, brass, and bits of gold. The church had been openly bought off.

That donation had almost been an announcement that the burghers could take from the warehouse as they pleased. Soon, burghers and friends of the burghers were making gifts to the Quimbi home every week. Jack Quimbi gave up the pretense of being surprised. He started to visit the counting house himself to look at the best trade goods as they came in. He asked around and figured things out. He started accepting inventory directly from tradesmen.

“I gave up trying to stop it,” Quimbi admitted. “I went completely the other way.”

He paused in his confession and stirred his tea. He hadn't taken a drink since he'd poured. Denario didn't feel a need to point that out but he felt he should say something. If he'd been Master Winkel, he would have chided the mayor. But that wouldn't work. It had never worked well for Winkel when dealing with the nobility. That's why he was never a member of the Court of Oggli despite having their respect. Now if Denario had been more like Vir, he would have done ... what? Smacked the mayor? But Jack Quimbi didn't work that way. Who in this town had power over the mayor? Even the mine supervisor was at best a nominal equal.

“Marie, will you please come in to talk with us?” Denario called.

Jack stood up. He seemed startled for a moment. Then he grinned sheepishly, nodded, and sat back down. In a moment, without audible footsteps, his wife's face appeared at the crack in the hallway door. She moved the door without a sound, too. Such perfect hinges, Denario reflected. It seemed like an out of place thought but maybe it wasn't. The town was rich from its craftsmen not just its raw materials.

“I think it's important that we get your views on the rest of our conversation.” Denario rose and held out a chair for her. He made sure it was a cushioned one. “The women in town are pretending that they don't know what's going on. Wouldn't you agree?”

Wordlessly, Marie nodded. Her eyes were wide with fright. After a few seconds of hesitation, she took a seat. She tried to smile politely but failed.

“Right now, you're worried about what your friends will think,” Denario predicted. It was, he hoped, a safe guess. He didn't know anything about her. “And Jack is worried about what some of the craftsmen and farmers will think. But believe me, they're not important.”

That got a surprised laugh from Marie.

“They're not?” Jack asked dubiously.

“No. This is about math again.”

“I don't know much adding.” Marie had donned a pink shawl while she stood behind the door to listen. She pulled it close around her neck.

“Don't worry. You'll follow this much. And while I'm telling you, I want you to do is think of some way to get a message to the town women. Okay?”

She nodded. Then she shrugged hopelessly. Well, he didn't know if she could do it either.

“Your husbands have been cheating the caravan drivers.” Denario leaned back. “I know that some of you must think that's a good thing. But those caravans come an awfully long way and carry heavy loads in order to deal with you. When they feel cheated, they don't come back.”

“Oh!” Marie put a hand to her mouth. She removed it and said, “I know what you mean. No silks.”

“You used to get silks?”

“Once a year for three years. But then only once more after Master Clumpi died. The caravan left mad. We've never had a bolt of silk come through here since.”

“That sounds bad. But there's worse. Now that some of the caravans haven't returned, the local thefts from the warehouse are larger in proportion. The town has been stealing so much from itself, in fact, that it has less to trade with the caravans. So the town drives harder bargains. Then more caravans decide not to trade with the town. That cycle has gone on for a year. More. Now you have fewer items to give. That means you get less in return. Your copper and tin stocks are piling up. But you can't eat those. You can't sleep in sheets of brass.”

“Have you talked with the caravan drivers?” Marie asked.

“No, not a one. I don't need to. I can see that, at this rate, it's not just Mistress Clumpi who'll go hungry next winter. A lot of other folks here are going to do the same. Your food mostly isn't grown around here.”

“Food comes in from all sorts of places,” pointed out the mayor.

“Right. But it can't come by boat because you've got a hands-depth of water in your creek. Who brings it?”

“Caravan drivers and tradesmen.”

“And who have you been cheating?”

“The caravans. Oh!” He smacked his own forehead.

“And what have you got least of in the warehouse?”

“Food. All of the smoked meats are gone. There's a bit of fish, though, and we have a few oats.”

“Enough for the town to last a winter?”

“Oh, not at all. We've got enough for about a month. Even in the best of times, we've never held enough to last a whole winter.”

“So the caravans have to keep coming in or the town starves?”

“They bring the firewood, too. We can get that ourselves easily enough but … the food, well, probably not. This isn't good farmland, you may have noticed. Even the nearby towns that do some farming can barely support themselves.”

“We don't know how to farm,” said Marie. “We're all miners or descendants of miners.”

“My gods … the borrowing is in the accounts, the missing caravans are in the accounts …” Jack's hands had gone to his hair. “Is our starving in those numbers, too?”

“Yes, it's all there.” Denario looked at their bewildered, frightened faces. “All of it is on record for someone who knows how to look. But you still have time. You can change your future. You don't have to starve next winter.”


“First, start by planting more gardens. That's just practical. At the same time, you should pay higher prices to all sorts of traders. Give away more skins to the farmers. Give them more brass tools, too. You don't keep enough of those in stock, by the way, which means that folks are getting their finished tools elsewhere.”

“The mine provides raw materials, not finished tools.”

“But you trade the raw materials to craftsmen in return for good tools. You could increase that to the town's profit. You can re-trade those tools. It's something to consider.”

The mayor rubbed his jaw.

“Why are you telling us?” Marie asked. “Why should you care about this town?”

“Vir thinks you're important or he wouldn't have dropped me here. He took his troops out of their way for this. And he spent a long time after we arrived just talking with me about the place.”

“I noticed that,” remarked the mayor in what was probably supposed to be a dark tone. But no one could talk darkly the way Vir could. Denario hardly noticed.

“I think Vir gets his best weapons from you. What's more, this is a place where both armies will attack.”

“What armies?” Marie dropped the hand from her lip. She sat up straighter.

“The Ogglian and the Raduar ones. The Raduar combined force has veered off at the moment but they'll be back. And I doubt very much that the Ogglians know about you. Otherwise they'd head straight for your town right now."

"Why?" she breathed.

"From the Mundredi army information, it seems that the Ogglians loot villages each time they raid. Then they follow the fleeing villagers. Of course, the villagers follow the caravan roads.”

“And the caravan roads lead back to us,” concluded the mayor.

“So we're going to die?” Marie didn't seem as worried as Denario expected. It must not seem quite real to her. The armies were still a long ways off.

“No, your leaders will take appropriate action,” Denario prompted. “They'll keep the town in business. They'll raise more taxes. They'll gather a fighting force.”

“The burghers will never go for that,” said Jack. Next to him, his wife fidgeted with her copper necklace.

“Can't you talk them into it, Jack?” she said. She glanced from her husband to Denario. Clearly, she wanted one of them to reassure her.

“Maybe I can help a little,” Denario allowed.

“Haphnaught has been a major opposition leader for years,” said the mayor. “I think half of the border guards are loyal to him, too. That's a roadblock to progress.”

“Send Vernon Dumm and John Haphnaught to me in the morning," Denario said. At the moment of those words, he felt full of bravado. Then he heard what he was saying and, suddenly, he wasn’t.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene One

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