Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene Nine: It Has To Be Done
“You can't be finished already!” exclaimed the mayor. “It's been less than two weeks.”
It was late in the morning. The air was warm. The sky had blown away a single, gray cloud. All that was left to mar the perfect blueness was the sun and a few wisps of white mist. At his breakfast, Denario had learned from Hummel that there was a warm spring at the edge of town. It was just a pool of water next to the stream. But in it, the water fizzed up from underground. The temperature of the water at any time of the year was tepid. Water in these hills that was warmer than liquid ice was a miracle.
Denario had wanted to try dipping his feet or even his whole body in the pool. But he'd had to rush through his work to meet Jack Quimbi during his lunch hour. Denario hadn't even completely re-packed for the trail yet. He wanted to. He felt like he could run all the way to Oggli in an afternoon. But he suspected he needed a letter of transit.
“I agreed to stay until I fixed the tile system,” he said, “and I reconciled the three sets of books. Now I've done all that. I was up most of the night and all of this morning getting the accounts straight.”
“All three? Done?”
“You'll still have two systems running at once but that's no problem now that Senli and Hummel have the right numbers. And they're talking. You've got to keep them talking and checking on each other. That's important.”
“That's ... that's wonderful.” The mayor's words sounded happy but his facial expression had fallen. His smile had become a grimace.
“Is there a problem?” asked Denario.
“You finished so quickly. It's unexpected. Look, I'll need a day or two to verify what you've done. Surely you'd agree that's reasonable.”
“It is but ...” No, this was a trap, Denario realized. This was exactly the sort of thing the mayor of Ziegeburg had said to him. Everything sounded reasonable. But the train of thought ended somewhere bad. “You should come look at the books right away. There are a couple of surprises for you.”
“Didn't you wonder who owed what? It turns out that about two thirds of the traders told the truth. But a third of them didn't. They owe the town quite a lot of goods.”
“That's wonderful!” The mayor rose to his feet and clapped his hands.
“No, it's not.”
“It's not?” Jack Quimbi's expression fell again. Then he seemed to doubt his reaction. “Yes, it is! It's a great thing. We've got food coming to us, I'll bet. And cloth. Maybe some silk? My wife would love that.”
“I'd better explain as we walk.” Denario should have seen this coming. The town leaders didn't understand trade the way Bibbo Clumpi had or the way his Mistress Clumpi did, for that matter.
“But ...” The mayor dragged his feet.
“You'll see that 6 bolts of silk are owed to us in the accounts, among other things.” That was the lure to bring Jack along, he supposed. Sure enough, the mayor brightened his step and followed Denario a bit closer.
At they turned onto Mine Street, they met Vernon Dumm and a farmhand coming the other way. Vernon had worn two yellow shirts today. An older, flimsier one was visible beneath the short sleeves of his newer one. The farmhand next to him was dressed in dark, heavy clothes. He looked about fifteen. His jaw was sharp. His teeth were white. He was a head taller than Denario and, in this land of metals, he carried four wooden slats and a wooden hammer. That was odd but Denario wasn't going to tell these folks their business. The farm boy walked in the careless, precise manner of someone who knew what he was doing.
Denario simply nodded in Vernon's direction. It was the mayor who stopped their progress.
“Vernon!” The mayor waved to the burgher. “We've got a problem, man!”
“I've got a footbridge to repair,” said Dumm. He paused. With a sigh, he gestured for the farm boy to go on ahead. “But I suppose they can do the job without me. What's the problem?”
“The accountant has finished.”
“What? Already?” Dumm put his hands on his hips. His gaze shot back and forth between his mayor and the accountant. Then he frowned. “I'm feeling puzzled, Jack. How exactly is that a problem?”
“It's ...” Jack Quimbi stole a sidelong glance at Denario. He chuckled unconvincingly. “Oh, it's not a problem, of course. Not exactly. It's just ... what were you saying about the amounts owed, accountant?”
“About a third of the tradesmen lied to the town. Now that I've brought all the records together, you can see the true accounting.”
“Aha!” Dumm rubbed his hands together. “Are we rich? Any big debtors?”
“Yes. But that's bad.”
“No, it isn't!” Dumm insisted.
“See?” the mayor said to Denario.
“Being owed little sums is good,” allowed Denario, “especially when it's the local hunters and farmers who owe. But being owed big amounts of material has hurt this town already. It could get much worse.”
“I fail to see why,” said Dumm.
Denario sighed. “I'll show you.”
At the counting house, the accountant ordered a desk and three chairs set up in the front. The chairs posed a bit of a problem. He could see that Olga and her friends were occupying everything available. That meant that Hummel and the guard had to go across the street. Denario told the ladies not to get up, much to the surprise of the burgher and the mayor.
Nevertheless, in a few minutes the staff assembled the desk, seats, counting tiles, and an extra stool. Senli and Hummel brought their recently re-finished scrolls. In fact, they marched them to the desk, heads held high. They knew their books were perfect by now. They'd corrected for the thefts. Mistress Clumpi carried the brand new scroll that Denario had made with them this morning. She also brought a bottle of ink. Senli saw what was missing and ran back for the pen.
“Let's start with the names of the traders,” said Denario. He pointed to the leftmost column on the scroll. “Some of them in the tile system were unfamiliar to Senli and Hummel. But Mistress Clumpi was able to help us.”
He led the town's leaders through the list of merchants row by row and detailed where each one had cheated the town or had been cheated by Vernon Dumm or Mark Haphnaught.
“I can't read any of this,” admitted Vernon. “But I recognize a lot of these names. I had pretty long arguments with a couple of the caravan drivers.”
The burgher gestured vaguely to the scroll.
“I believe that only one of the caravans that you dealt with is still doing business with the town.”
“But we don't know that for sure,” said Vernon. “They may be back.”
“It's possible,” Denario agreed, although he thought there was no chance.
“The remaining caravan is the best one, fortunately.” Denario pointed to the name on the paper. Figures for the caravan occupied every possible column in the row. “It's the one owned and operated by Master Baggophili.”
Behind him, Olga Clumpi hissed.
“He's the one we overpaid. He got double the usual rates!” She crossed her arms as she stepped back from the group. “Then the old crook came back around as fast as he could and got paid double again!”
“Yes, that's about right.” Denario had to smile. So did Senli, he noticed. All of the book keepers had stories to tell about Baggophili and not all of them were bad, either. “You said he was a smart one.”
“He ... if I read this right, those deals were based on lies. So he owes us more cloth than he can carry,” the mayor observed. His finger was on the correct column. “The next time he comes in, we can ruin him.”
“That would be foolish.” Denario put his hands on his knees and braced himself to explain.
“I thought we were coming to this,” Jack sighed. “Why?”
“We can seize his entire operation!” Dumm chortled.
“If you do that, you'll plunge your town into poverty. Look, do you understand your situation or not? Master Baggophili is your most profitable trader by far. He's the only one who brings you cloth anymore.”
“There are other cloth merchants around.”
“They don't trade with you. Some of them didn't make enough profit last year. Some want money that you don't have, don't they?”
“That's a complaint, yes. They don't like raw ore or even finished brass. They want gold or silver coins. We don’t have those.”
“Look at this.” Denario pointed to the staggering surplus in the dried meats column. “Baggophili supplies about a fifth of the town's food. If you arrest him, what are you going to eat?”
“But he has to pay!” Burgher Dumm wailed.
“It's my understanding that he has a lot of caravan guards, too. Do you really have the force to take him on? Can you pay the Mundredi army to do it?”
“That would ruin us.” The mayor let out a bitter chuckle. “No offense, Denario, you come from the army. But Captain De Acker and his men eat too damn much and they want too much metal. We'd have to come up with a whole flock of sheep, probably more, and they'd do us out of brass on top of it all.”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Dumm.
“Forgive his debt.”
“Oh, you can let him know that you're aware of what he's done. I've seen this issue arise before. The accounting guild has records of similar situations. I know what will happen. He can't pay. And you can't ask him to pay you off bit by bit, either.”
“Because Baggophili needs an incentive to return. You can't make it unprofitable for him. Every trip he makes to you needs to be rewarded. That will keep your town successful. In the meantime, you throw him a dinner.”
“And Mayor Quimbi here takes him aside after a bit of wine and maybe walks him down here to the counting house records room. So that Baggophili can see that the mayor knows. And the mayor says, 'Gosh, chum. I understand. It's no problem.'”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Then Master Baggophili will understand that he owes a favor. He'll be extra nice to you for ages … maybe the rest of his life. You’ll probably get your money back eventually. Not because you asked for it. But because you didn’t.”
“By the gods, I think the boy is right.” The mayor shook his head.
“Do you know Baggophili?” Burgher Dumm squinted at him.
“Then how come you know so much?”
“I'm an accountant.” Denario shook his head. “Doing business with caravans and shippers was part of my training.”
“Burgher Dumm,” said the mayor. He rose from his chair. “I'd like you to talk with me for a while. Let's stroll on over to that bridge you're repairing.”
Mistress Clumpi watched them go.
“They're going to be a problem,” she said. Her arms crossed over stomach like a shield. She gestured to the men with a tilt of her over-large chin.
“The mayor? Or Burgher Dumm?”
“The two of them together. They don't want to see you leave town, I'll bet. Especially after what you did to Mark Haphnaught.”
“What did I do to Mark? Oh. Oh, yes,” he said before he could think to stop himself. “That.”
Olga folded her arms.
“You're angry,” he said. “I can understand it. But I didn't do much, really, and that was only acting in self defense. He might have killed me.”
She relaxed. “That's probably true. I forgot for a moment. I don't doubt you were in danger. But still ... it looks bad. He's old. And well respected. Don't you care what happens to him?”
“I do. I hope he gets well soon.”
“That's a start.”
“Look, I can see this is bothering you.” Denario rose. “Do I look presentable?”
“For what? You're not fit to go to church.”
“I meant to pay a call on Mark Haphnaught's home.”
“His son might try to kill you. He's sergeant of the city guard.”
“He might.” Denario sighed. He checked himself. No, there was no other way. Every situation that he feared was one he had to confront. Anything less would look foolish to Vir. He opened his hip bag and put a hand on his darts just to make sure they were in easy reach just in case. “But still it must be done.”