Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene Eight: A Pattern of Bartering
The sun turned red. Purplish clouds sneaked up over the mountains to the south. There was still enough light for Denario to see the colors of the tiles. He was surprised to notice a repeating pattern in the beginning of the string he was holding.
Hadn't he seen a repeat in the previous string? Here it was again. The beginnings of each tile sequence held repeated colors much more often than in the rest. In fact, Denario didn't think he'd noticed any repeated colors in the last half of any string, not even in the short ones.
That made him think of Philip Dummpi, who spelled his name with two m's. Why two? Was that really necessary? The question had occupied Denario's mind for a moment as he'd written. Now he had a different question in mind: why repeat anything at all?
He knew a lot about how old Bibbo had thought. The man had been devilishly efficient. Instead of saying that a man was owed 64 pounds of copper, Bibbo would have written 16 once followed by a multiplier to indicate "times 4."
He didn't repeat anything if he could help it. So why did he have repeating patterns in the beginning of his strings? Past the first 16 to 24 positions, there were almost no repeating tiles. In those 16 to 24, there were repeating patterns in about half of them.
“Hummel, can you hand me your scrolls for a moment?”
“Yes, sir.” The little man shuffled off to get the parchment he'd rolled up and put away. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“The names. Have you got the names spelled right?”
“I think so, sir. Some of the traders were very specific about that.” Hummel found his scrolls. He minced back to the front desk like someone still working out how to move without chains. “They said that Bibbo Clumpi had been very precise about everything, including their names, and that's the way they liked it, too.”
“Senli, may I have yours?” he asked without looking.
“She's gone to help Mistress Bobbins make us a dinner,” said Olga. She put down her bowl of bulgar soup. “I'll bring it. And yes, my husband was a very precise man in general.”
“He was a genius, Mistress Clumpi. Have I already told you that?”
“You've said 'brilliant,' 'wizard-like,' and 'dastardly clever.' I'll add 'genius' to the list.”
“Sorry for the 'dastardly' part. I think we've fixed most of these amounts. The beads that aren't red or black seem to indicate the type of debt. I've got a chart. Green is vegetables, mostly onions. Blue is stone. The dotted beads mean linens. But the identification of debt owners looks like it was from memory, I'm afraid, and that's been tough to deal with. Sorry about the 'wizard' part, too. I've known some wizards. They mostly weren't as smart as Bibbo.”
That got a crinkled smile from Olga. “Apology accepted.”
“You've known wizards?” said Hummel. “They keep to themselves in Muntabar. I never saw them. What are they like?”
“Very full of themselves. Still, for people who can throw fire from their hands or turn other people into frogs, they're nicer than you'd think.”
“Like witches,” said Olga. She came over with Senli's wrapped-up scrolls. “I was always sorry this town turned away witches.”
“Really?” Denario didn't have a good impression of them from the tales he'd heard. What’s more, most churches seemed to fear them and Olga was devoted to her church. Logically, she should loathe them.
“Oh, they aren't decent folks, not like priests and priestesses. But still you need a few around, you know. They're useful.”
“Are accountants useful?” she jabbed. She smacked him on the head with a roll of parchment. When he didn't react, she placed it more gently into his waiting hand.
Denario had only known her for a few days but he didn't take offense, as he might have done earlier to such a remark about accountants. He knew that Olga Clumpi couldn't spend more than half an hour at a time being nice. The complaints and the teasing remarks seemed to leak out of her even when she was on her best behavior. Her friends had grown used to it, apparently, and sparred lightly with her from time to time. Edna Bobbins had whispered to Denario that her friend Olga needed a roaring argument from time to time or she felt like no one was paying her enough attention.
Life with Bibbo must have been a multi-decade battle of wits. And both sides had been heavily armed.
“I'll make myself useful with these tiles for a little while more,” he allowed. As he checked the patterns against Hummel's ledger, he continued, “You did a nice job dealing with that man from False Beard, by the way.”
“I'm not sure if he was really owed that much. But I see your point about how we have to pay up to keep them coming back. And he did have two oxen to sell.”
“Mmm.” But Denario had stopped paying attention to the conversation. He suddenly felt he was close to an understanding.
He stared at Hummel's parchment. He stared at the strings.
Something about the patterns seemed similar. A few minutes later, he got it. The revelation came like a lightning strike. And the shock made him try to stand up.
In Denario's hand was a string of red, blue, green, orange, white, yellow, purple, and plain brown tiles. The pattern of colors in the first twelve was: blue, purple, blue, red, blue, yellow, red, blue, yellow, purple, red, yellow. Then came four brown circles. But it wasn't the repeat of brown tiles that was important. It was the repeated pattern of red, blue, and yellow. That pattern, he realized, could be the letter 'm'. No, it had to be. He knew it because if that was true, the entire pattern would match the name Dummpi letter for letter.
The beginning of each string was a code, not a calculation. The code stood for the name of the trader. That meant Denario could read the tile system – all of it, not just the types and amounts.
String of tiles in hand, he tripped over his stool. He fell backwards on the dirt floor, hopped back up, and started skipping around the room.
“Ha ha ha!” he shouted to the stares of Hummel and Senli, who had apparently returned from her new home. Denario ran to find Olga outside of the front door talking with her friends. “Mistress Clumpi, your husband was a genius!”
“You've said that al ...” She stopped speaking and stared.
He grabbed her hands and twirled her in a circle. But he remembered to be gentle about it. Then he danced with her for a moment before he pushed him off, looking like she'd remembered her dignity but was otherwise pleased.
“You solved it, didn't you?” She gave him her hands-on-hips turtleneck expression but with a smile on it.
“Dance with me!” said one of Olga's friends. And Denario did.
“The first 16 tiles on each string is the name.” His voice sounded to him like he was singing. And why not? He let the older woman steer him. His feet felt light. The string of tiles, which was the account for Philip Dummpi, bounced in his hand as he swung around. “Sometimes it's only part of a name. Sometimes it's a name with some brown tiles after it for padding. But it's always a name. Always. And now I can read the names.”
Everyone laughed a little, whether in relief or in sheer joy, it was hard to say. Much to Denario's surprise, the small crowd began a formal dance. There were five older women, a farmer who was son to one of them, and even Hummel and Senli joined in. Somehow, everyone picked a partner.
Hummel allowed himself be to led by Mistress Bobbins. Senli choose to spin around for a minute with Olga. A round of giggles spread through everyone, even the farmer, who said something funny to his mother and set off another round. Everyone laughed for a whole minute, at least, although Olga cried a little as she did so.
She stopped and gave Denario a hug. She mumbled something about her husband that Denario couldn't understand but he didn't really need to. He knew she wished Bibbo were here. Denario did, too.
Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene Nine