Sunday, April 30, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 77: A Bandit Accountant, 12.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene Five: Things Left Unsaid

Back out in the brisk night air, the party had reached full swing. Everyone in town had arrived and none of the children had yet been sent home. A group of young men had taken it on themselves to build a second bonfire. Two different choirs from different religious groups, a quartet in maroon robes and a set of nine in sky blue or white dress, were each singing Denario's song. They didn't quite sing in the same rhythm or same key because, although they'd clearly practiced, they hadn't practiced together.

Fortunately, the dancers didn't care. Young men and women hopped and skipped to the trumpet's tune. Children ran between them. The teenagers were careful not to touch one another in any case. That seemed to be the dancing style. Most of the girls and about half of the young men wore grass garlands around their necks. Many had spring flowers in their hair. All of them kept their hands to their sides.

An elderly friend of Mistress Clumpi – Denario couldn't remember her name – asked him to dance. He did an awful job of it. He felt grateful that no one appeared to notice his awkwardness. Other women, not all of them gray-haired, took turns with him for the better part of an hour. Every now and then he stopped to rest. Hummel or Senli would refill his goblet. They had the sense to give him tea, thank goodness. During one of those breaks, he wondered aloud if Senli wanted to dance but the brown woman pointed to the tattoo on her neck and shook her head no. Denario grimaced but he understood her reluctance. Perhaps she was wise not to act as if she were free.

Finally, Denario noticed Olga Clumpi on the edge of the biggest bonfire crowd. He shouted her name. She didn't hear, so he grabbed his goblet and marched over.

Her dress, he thought at first, was white. But that was a trick of the darkness and his difficulty with seeing colors correctly in the fire's glow. Up close, the fabric of her dress shone with a pale, pink lustre. Her eyes looked wet. Her nose did, too, as if she'd been blowing through it. Denario was pretty sure she hadn't been sick today.

When he got within a few feet, she noticed him. She turned and put her fists on her hips. Her head hung down in a half-hearted, snapping-turtle glare of suspicion. It was then that he noticed her cheeks were wet, too.

“Olga, what's wrong?” He raised his hand instinctively to touch her. Just in time he realized that she wouldn't want that. She flinched a little at his motion.

She took a breath to speak. Then she shook her head.

“Okay. Walk around the edges with me?” He held out a hand for her to take. She didn't touch him but she followed. “The mayor stopped by, you know. You were right. He and the burghers couldn't resist the party.”

“Heh.” She gave an inward smile. “His mum made sure.”

Denario tried not to slap himself in the head. Jack Quimbi's mother was still alive. Olga hadn't even tried to hide the fact. She'd introduced one of her friends as Mistress Quimbi. Denario had been so busy with decoding the tile system that he hadn't noticed. She'd probably thought he was rude.

He was glad Jack's mother was still around and being persuasive. In retrospect he was pretty sure he'd danced with her earlier tonight, a short, slender woman, hair not completely grey. She'd worn a patterned dress and an air of satisfaction. She had probably been one of the citizens demanding that her son treat the visiting accountant decently. Unlike most of them, she could make sure she got her way.

Denario and Olga walked along the southernmost row of torches to almost the end. There, they crossed from one side of the road to the other. As Denario began to lead them back up the row toward the greater part of the crowd, he wondered what could have gone wrong for Olga. She should have been happy. Had she gotten ill? Or had one of her friends gotten sick? Had she heard news of someone's death? Oh, of course, he thought, someone important has already died.

He'd seen the way her friends had looked at her. They'd dealt with her crying by deliberately not noticing it. They'd faced away. It wasn't from lack of caring. They'd formed a protective circle around Olga. Denario hadn't noticed as much as he should have because they'd parted to let him in. They'd all been there, though, and all of them widows, all of them carefully keeping up appearances.

“Do you miss Bibbo, Mistress Clumpi?” He felt unable not to ask.

“Oh.” She stopped and turned away from him for a moment. She wiped something from her face. “I wish you could have seen him, master accountant. I wish he could have met you. He'd have liked you.”

“I hope so. Maybe that isn't saying much. He sounds pretty friendly.”

“He had a quick wit, sure enough. He made folks laugh. But he didn't always put himself at ease. He could have done that around you, I'm sure. He'd have been able to talk math. In all his life, I think, he never had even a handful of folks he could talk to about math.”

“I wish I could have met him.” Bibbo had been all alone, a mathematical genius in the wilderness. How much could Denario have learned from such a man? It was hard to guess.

“I went home and dressed.” Olga turned in a semicircle away from the crowd. Denario followed. He was glad she was taking the lead. They were headed back to the southern end of the torch rows, which meant they weren't far from the counting house. “But you know how it is. I got into my old place and I slowed down a bit. I pulled out the dress I wanted. I'd had it in mind for a while. Then I cleaned up. I started to sing a bit and talk. Like in old times. I got dressed as I sang to myself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed.”

They reached the end of the row. No one else was close to them. Somewhere in the darkness ahead was the counting house but there were no lights on in it. He couldn't see more than a few yards out.

“I sat and waited.” Olga cleared her throat. “It was only when I called his name that I realized I'd been waiting for him. He always dressed by the hearth while I did my business next to the bed. I was expecting him to come over and tell me he was ready.”

She snuffled. Denario found himself doing exactly what the rest of her friends had done. He stared out into the darkness at the end of the torch light. He didn't watch as she dabbed her face.

“When I realized ... well, that's what got me upset. Just for a moment.” They stood in silence for a long while. Then she harumphed. Her postured straightened. “Come on, let's go get some tea.”

“Yes, Mistress Clumpi.”

“I could use something warm.” The sleeves of her pink dress were long and she wore a short coat, too. She shouldn't have felt the chill.

“You know, young man,” she continued. “The last thing I ever said to Bibbo was mean. He wouldn't get out of bed that day, so I had to nearly push him out the door. I called him a lazy bum. He laughed and said that I never let him be lazy.”

“And ...” He hesitated to say the next part although he'd been told. “And then he collapsed at work?”

“Yes. By the time I came to see him, he was half an hour gone at least. But he didn't look in pain. Just blank. No expression on his face at all.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“That part sounds good.”

“I never got the chance to tell him that I knew he wasn't lazy,” Olga mused. “I suppose he knew what I really thought. He usually did. But I would have liked to say so.”

Denario patted his waist and discovered that his accounting bag was missing. He'd left it in his room. At the moment, he wanted a scrap of fresh parchment. He felt desperate to write another letter to Pecunia.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 76: A Bandit Accountant, 12.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene Four: Final Proposal

Denario's farewell event turned out to be on the evening before a holy day, so the whole town turned out. Due to compromises made by the local clergy, his party location was the dirt road between the Temple to the Small Gods and the South Winds Church. That afternoon, the neighbors dragged out their tables for use by the general public. Deacons from the various religions laid out food just after sunset. Two priests lit torches that lined the avenue for more than fifty yards.

Even before the sun had set, children showed up in garlands of woven grass. Musicians strolled in with guitars, flutes, drums, and a brass trumpet. Three or four women presented Denario with bowls of food as soon as he arrived. He accepted a roll and a chicken drumstick. Then he settled back on a bench to watch mothers dance with their children. Children danced with other children, too. A shaman put on a low-powered magic show. He made colored lights dance in the air. Denario clapped along with everyone else.

Again due to the compromise on location, the churches on the edge of town had insisted that they be allowed to provide the entertainment. That included not only musicians and magic but fiery speeches, poems, and songs sung by choirs of religious figures. Denario gathered that this was all relatively normal. He helped himself to a second drumstick and got up. One of his book keepers, Senli, followed him.

He strolled around the stalls that vendors were setting up to barter for wooden toys, fur clothes, leather clothes, pottery, and jewelry. This busy scene was nothing much compared to Oggli. There weren't even enough vendors to compete with the Ziegeburg poor-end market on a bad day. But since Denario had marched through wilderness for a while, he was impressed by the amounts of stuff available for barter. Eggs and pig ears seemed to act as currencies of sorts although anybody would trade for anything, really. Copper changed hands not as pennies but as bits of jewelry and snips of metal sheets good for nothing except perhaps for taking to a smithy. But because the copper smiths would accept the snips, they had value.

Candles had been lit in most of the windows, many of which sat high up on the second stories. They added a bit of light to what was already provided by the orangish glow on the horizon, the torches, and the rising moon. There weren't many pockets of darkness in town. Nevertheless, Denario soon passed by one of them.

“Why are there no torches around those tables down Windy Alley?” he asked Senli when he noticed the dark benches. Senli was also nibbling on a chicken leg, although she was doing a neater job of it than Denario.

“Those are for the mine slaves,” she told him. She leaned forward and squinted at the vaguely rectangular shapes.

“They have to sit in the dark?” Denario strolled from torchlight to shadows.

“They'll bring shielded candles with them,” Senli said as she followed. “They're not allowed much light. It's done this way so that the townspeople don't have to look at the slaves if they don't want to.”

“Aha.” He wandered over to the empty tables and ran his fingers over the wood. There was nothing wrong with them. They were clean.

He tried to decide how he felt about this. He wished those men were free but he was impressed that the town acknowledged them. The nobles in Oggli never had to look at slaves in their city, of course, because they weren't allowed. But even outside of the city boundaries, nobles didn't like to see their lowest servants very much. They treated them like farm animals. Here in Pharts Bad everyone knew that some of the the slaves were criminals but still they weren't regarded as less than human. In practical terms, they had to be shackled and guarded. The mine supervisor probably had to beat some of them. Others he probably let kill themselves in mine accidents. Yet the mine slaves would sit down and eat almost as well as anyone else. The town leaders allowed them to observe holy days. They recognized that even these men deserved a little dignity. That was a blessing.

“I'll come back when they're here to say goodbye to them,” he decided. “Some of the men slept downstairs from me, after all.”

Senli's dark eyes widened to show the whites. Her expression looked like alarm or surprise, maybe a bit of both. After a moment, she decided she didn't like the shadows and anyway, they both needed more chicken. They returned to the main crossroads.

Denario had to admit that the cooking smelled better than usual. Often enough, the local women used no spices even though they were only a few yards from a warehouse of bins full of salt, garlic, onions, tumeric, celery seed, and basil. On this evening, he could smell the onions and the basil. One of the cooks had even used a bit of tumeric on the chicken. He asked Senli about it and she laughed.

“The tumeric was my doing,” she admitted. “They've never seen it before in this town. It only grows around the Complacent Sea. But my grandmother cooked with it and, when a trader brought some in, I traded for his entire supply.”

“Did it cost much?”

“No. The poor man, Bagophili, he threw it in nearly for free. I think he realized that no one wanted it.”

“Hmm. Had he met you before?”

“Yes, once.”

“And he turned around on the trail, probably got the tumeric off another trader, and brought it to you. I don't think it was an accident.” Denario rubbed his jaw as he concluded his thought. He wished he'd met Bagophili while he was here.

“You think he was bribing me?”

“Everyone says he's a smart fellow. I'll bet he was taking a chance on you. If you convert a few folks around here to using the spice, he'll start profiting where there was no profit before. If you can't, well, he did you a favor and he might get a bit of your good will in return.”

“Oh!” She covered her mouth for a moment. “I had no idea. You must be right, though. Really, are you sure you haven't met him?”

“Quite sure. But maybe on the trail to Oggli, I will.”

“Maybe.” She put her hand behind her, which Denario had learned to recognize was a sign he was about to here some carefully planned words. “Master, I want to talk to you about your journey.”

“If you're going to tell me again that it's too dangerous, don't waste your breath.”

“No, it's not that. I understand that you're determined to go and why. It's just that you're going to meet a lot of people. You don't plan to pass through Kilmun territory but from what you say, you'll come close. So I have to ask ... if you hear any news about boys who might be mine, not quite as dark as me with slave tattoos on their necks like me ... will you write and let me know?”

“Of course.” He mentally kicked himself for having forgotten about her sons. He hoped he would have had the sense to write to her regardless of any reminder. “I'll happily promise that.”

Despite how he said he was glad to promise it, the oath cast him into gloom for a little while. The itinerant priest did nothing to dispel his mood, either. The near-toothless, bald man pulled Denario aside and foretold hardships along Denario's road, which seemed an overly-easy prophecy if there ever was one. To top it off, he pronounced that Denario's mission was doomed. Denario had to say 'that's enough' eight times in a row to get the man to shut up.

The traveling shaman was a bit better. He took a break from his show to bestow his blessings upon Denario, which he said came from several of the small gods. It was the first time that Denario had met a genuine shaman. He was surprised that the fellow carried no staff like the wizards did, only a drum and enough beads and ge-gaws to open a specialty store. He gestured to Denario's head and neck and said there was a lot of magical power there. He figured that Denario was going to be just fine.

“Is the whole night going to be like this?” Denario complained. “One side wishing me ill and the other side with good tidings? I could use a drink.”

Hummel and Senli, both standing nearby, raced off to get him glasses of wine. As a group they sat on a bench for a while and drank what tasted like a recently-made sangria. With some of Olga's friends – but not Olga because she had gone home to change clothes – they listened to the music, which was awful.

Denario couldn't carry a tune himself. Music was a mystery to him but sometimes, just sometimes, he could hear bad music and understand mathematically what the composer had been trying to do.

The instruments were all tuned to slightly different keys except for possibly the banjo and trumpet. Those two musicians were fast, loud, and played well enough together to make the rest of the experience more painful as the other players dragged behind or fell off key. Usually, Denario couldn't drink a whole glass of wine. On this occasion, he needed two just to make his musical insight go away.

“Your face is flushed, master,” whispered Hummel.

“No more for you. No more for any of us,” Senli asserted. She put down her goblet. “Anyway, they're starting. Hush.”

What they were starting was another song. It took Denario a minute to recognize that this was his official song. That is, it was the story of his travels to Pharts Bad. It was a version that had been perfected, apparently, after the many re-tellings before it in which Denario's role got more hilarious with each version.

At the end of the song, the young fellow who was singing it thought to include the story of how Denario had fixed the tile keeper records. Everyone applauded at that part. More men had arrived from fields and shops to fill out the crowd, too. Lots of them smiled in his direction. Denario sighed. He felt he'd gotten a touch of their respect. They'd made his accounting a permanent part of their story.

“Master Denario?” whispered a man into his ear. The applause died down. The band started another tune without a singer. The dancing between mothers and children resumed.

Denario turned to see one of the younger burghers whose name he'd forgotten. The fellow wore a brown linen tunic. His pants seemed to be sailcloth dragged through mud. His fingers were covered in what smelled like cooking grease. He offered to shake hands. Denario accepted. He knew his hands weren't much better. Anyway, it was nice to see how the officials in this town weren't afraid to get themselves dirty with work.

“Yes?” said Denario as he shook.

“Thank you for what you did.” The man's gaze flickered over the blue coin that hung around the accountant's neck. “Other burghers will be along shortly. Some are on the wall patrol. A few others are escorting the miners to their place.”

“Fine. I'd like to see you all again before I leave tomorrow.”

“Yes, that.” The young man frowned. “We had a talk with the mayor. He'll be here, too. I believe he wants to talk with you again.”

“I'm afraid my answer must remain the same.”

“He understands,” said the burgher darkly. Denario tried not to worry about it. Surely he wouldn't have to escape the burghers or fight his way out of town? That would be awful and probably impossible.

It wasn't long before the miners showed up on the road. They marched four abreast, five counting the foremen along one side. Two burghers and two town guards formed an escort on the other flank. Shadowy figures clanked between the rows of torches. Before the group turned off into Windy Alley, the mine supervisor jogged to the front. He raised and lowered his cudgel. The procession came to a halt.

They stood in silence for a moment. All of the men stared in Denario's direction. One of the burghers broke off from the group and stomped toward the accountant. It was Mark Haphnaught.

Denario raised his hand to ward off the burgher. But the big man misunderstood and shook it. The gesture rattled Denario back and forth. Then, with a manly nod of understanding, Haphnaught turned to the mine supervisor and waved his cudgel through the air. All of the armed men raised their weapons in what looked like a salute.

“Ah, there you are,” said another voice beside Denario. The foremen lowered their sticks. The slaves turned toward the darkness of the alley. Denario turned away from the scene to stare into the pale but handsome face of Jack Quimbi.

“Hello, mayor,” he said. Since he noticed Marie next to Jack, he added, “Good evening, Mistress Quimbi. Yours silk dress looks beautiful.”

She curtseyed to him but lowered her gaze. She didn't seem to like being the center of attention, which probably made it hard for her to be the mayor's wife. Jack clearly enjoyed her appearance. Even under two layers of clothes, one of them a linen undergarment that shone through the silk, Marie Quimbi held herself like a rather shy deity, maybe the goddess of decorum. It was easy to see how that would have attracted Jack. The mayor had no such obvious charms himself. Maybe it spoke to his powers of persuasion that he had been able to win her over.

“I don't mean to take you away from your celebration,” said Jack. “Let's walk around the edges for a bit. I want to discuss your problem with apprentices.”

“Well ... sure.” It wasn't likely that the town leaders had a kidnapping planned.

“I've heard you talk about them several times,” the mayor said as he led the way. “There are five, if I remember right. Two of them are quite young?”

“Yes but they're getting the best training.” Denario started warming up to the conversation. He nodded to several of the party-goers who he'd seen before in town. “My personal misfortune is how there won't be enough business for them all when they're grown. The brightest child, Shekel, might swear into the Marquis de Oggli's service. That would help.”

“Ah.” The mayor smiled. He accepted a goblet of wine from a girl who offered three of them. “What would be the next best thing for this area, would you say, if we can't keep you as an accountant?”

“You could use a surveyor, I think. That's another type of accounting. You've already got a book keepers, see, but you've got no one who knows geometry or surveying techniques to help the mines.”

“Would that help?” Jack scowled with an expression of keener interest than Denario had expected.

“Very much. And this whole land needs a numaticist.”

“A ... pardon me, a what?”

“A numaticist is a specialist in making coins. Honestly, Jack, this place needs money.”

“I've heard that.” The mayor took a long swig. “Thing is, accountant, I didn't really expect you to answer my question. I was going to answer it.”

“You were?” Denario started feeling lost. Somehow this conversation had moved to a different level and he hadn't figured out the rules of it yet.

“I was going to say that the next best thing to having you here would be having one of your apprentices. Do you see what I mean?”

“My gosh.” That was a totally crazy idea. Who would send a trained accountant into a land with no money? But now that Denario had been here he saw that it made a glimmer of sense. A good accountant could forge a currency. There would be an opportunity to set practical standards. The whole valley could be run under one record keeping system rather than dozens.

Anyone who set up an accounting school would have no competition. For that matter, he'd yet to hear rumors of any kind of school at all. He started to explain as much to the mayor but all the mayor heard, apparently, was the word 'competition.'

“That again,” he huffed. “You told me that the strength of Oggli is the competition between businesses. But that doesn't sound right at all. Strength comes from unity. This town is much stronger with only one mine. Two in competition would end up working their slaves to death!”

“Well, the competition isn't ...”

“And certainly a cobbler is better off when there's no other shoe maker of any sort living close by. If there were, maybe he wouldn't even have enough business to live.”

“That's true.” Denario had argued as much to Master Winkel when he was twelve. At first glance, having only one provider of any kind of service seemed much more efficient. “But it just doesn't seem to work out well for everyone else. It's because of how people act when there's no competition. Your cobbler isn't very fast, I notice. I ordered shoes for my book keepers yesterday morning but none have yet to arrive.”

“They'll get them eventually.”

“In Oggli, any cobbler would have delivered at least one pair to us by now. That's because they know their customers will take the business elsewhere if they're too slow.”

“Hmm. My wife never did get the sandals she asked for last year. Master Cobb keeps forgetting.”

“Right. In my homeland, the worst services are those that don't have any competition. For instance, if you want to buy olive oil, you have to go to the Marquis de Oggli himself. No one else is allowed to harvest olives. What do you think his prices are like?”

“I'd guess they must be high.”

“They're so bad that people take boats across the river to Angrili and sneak back with jars of olive oil. They're breaking the count's law and they could be hanged if they're caught. But they do it.”

“They're crazy!”

“They're almost always the smart ones. And you're smart, Jack. So if you were in the city, you might find yourself doing the same thing. My old master used to buy his olive oil from clever men like that.”

“I'm as wise as your master, then. Because I'd buy from one of those risky fellows but I'd stay well away from those river trips myself.”

“Fair enough.” The mayor was being as open-minded as a small town official could be. “My oldest two apprentices, Buck and Kroner, are fourteen and fifteen. They're old enough for journeymen. I think they could pass the Master's Exam. When I get back, I'll have the money to pay for those official tests. But what could I tell a journeyman to get him to travel here?”

“That he'll have a job, of course.”

“That's good. It's not a thing to be taken lightly. But there will be lots of towns in the count's territories offering jobs, too. I see a few things that make Pharts Bad special. Do you know what they are?”

“No. I have no damned idea. Look, accountant, we just want someone who can help. This arrangement with three book keepers is only going to last so long. Three mouths is a lot to feed and, if nothing else, Mistress Clumpi isn't getting any younger. She's the real negotiator, right? That makes sense but she's got no one to succeed her. The other two are slaves. Even if they weren't, I don't trust Hummel and I don't think Senli strikes good deals.”

“I see your point,” Denario admitted.

“And now you're leaving, yet another good man wasted to these pointless wars.”

“Wasted?”

“Perhaps that's harsh. But you're heading towards the battlefields. The caravans don't come back through there anymore. The fighting has gotten too serious. No men return from that direction except as refugees.”

“Vir keeps returning, doesn't he?” Denario had been staring at the torch light and thinking of far-away places. The idea of passing through mountain towns touched by war brought him back. He frowned at the mayor. He hoped his point was made.

“Yes, he does,” the mayor allowed. “But he's the only one. He seems to travel at will. Are you aware that he has less men each time I see him? They're different men, too.”

“He travels with different sergeants. I've only seen Alaric but Vir said he has four, total, and he wants more.”

“He's appointed more. He can't keep them. He's made three sergeants in two years, I believe, to replace three that died. He says he needs to increase his numbers but he's finding it hard. He keeps losing men in fights.”

“His men say that they win battle after battle.”

“I don't doubt it. Otherwise, Vir would not be alive. But the Raduar generals who have conquered town after town of the Raduar territories ...”

“Wait a minute ...” Denario rubbed his temples. “The Raduar have been fighting the Raduar? Is that what you're saying? They're conquering their own folks?”

“Oh yes.” Jack spat out a mouthful of wine. Then he took another drink and continued. “All of the other great tribes have routes to the outside world, you see. But the valleys occupied by the Raduar clansmen, those being Fat Valley and Long Valley, they don't border anything other than other valleys. The Raduar clansmen don't have any way out of their lands. So their clans have fought amongst themselves, town to town. And as I was saying, the Raduar generals have conquered their towns. They've subjugated many clans. They've conscripted many men. That's why they have hundreds of professional warriors. Vir can't compete with that.”

“Except by conquering the Mundredi towns and conscripting men,” Denario thought out loud.

“Don't.” The mayor's brow darkened. He glanced to the adults nearest, who were only one torch over. “Don't say things like that, especially within earshot of the burghers. That's what they fear.”

“Do they fear it as much as dying at the hands of opposing armies?” Denario whispered.

“If it comes to that, no. But the enemies would need to be visible.”

They had strolled to a spot in front of the city hall, which meant they were near the end of the northern arm of the torch row. A few children ran around and whacked at moths in some kind of game. A handful of adults stood in a cluster not far from the steps to the hall. They'd been engaged in some kind of religious debate before they noticed the mayor. Denario considered how his words might seem to them.

“You had enemy scouts at your gate on the night after I arrived,” he pointed out.

“I don't deny it.” The mayor eyed the crowd. He turned away from their faces and spoke in a quieter tone. “Look, almost every able-bodied young lad we have signed up for the border patrol in the past fortnight.”

“They patrol the outer wall?”

“The only wall we have.” Mayor Quimbi sighed and touched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, they're happy to do it. But most of them are so young that they need permission from their mothers.”

“That's a start,” Denario guessed. He could tell by the numbers that Pharts Bad and Timbersburg together could mount a defensive force of hundreds. But would they? And if they did, would any of them fight? Or would they see the enemy coming and flee? “You could really use a better wall, you know.”

“Don't tell me things like that,” the mayor complained. “You're leaving. You won't help with that work. I suppose you've done your part anyway.”

“Jack, I can hardly send a journeyman to a town that no longer exists.”

“Fair enough.” The mayor waved Denario toward the door of city hall. “Come on in. I'll write you that letter of transit.”

“Really?” Denario hesitated. He still suspected some kind of trick. “What made you change your mind?”

“Burgher Haphnaught. I don't know what you did to bring him around to your side after you nearly broke his arm but it's damned impressive. He feels that you deserve some honor. For that matter, I suppose that I do, too. Always did. But personally I feel that the town is more important than a little thing like honor, mine or yours.”

Denario had walked into the hills around Easy Valley not much more than three weeks ago. He hadn't spent much more than two of those weeks with Vir. But they'd talked so much, Denario realized, that he'd revealed his thoughts completely to the Mundredi chief and he'd learned quite a bit about the chief in return.

The whole time, he'd thought of Vir as nearly silent. Everyone did. But in those rare times that Vir spoke, it was to a clear purpose.

“Your tribal chief said something similar,” he told the mayor. “Vir expressed the same sentiment about West Valley and Easy Valley. He told me that honor wasn't as important as protecting people's lives.”

“He's got that part right.” The mayor nodded severely. He pushed on the door to the city hall.

Only two torches had been lit in the foyer. They didn't create an artificial daylight but they cast a constant glow along the whitewashed walls. Denario stepped inside. His footfalls echoed on the granite floor. He stopped worrying so much about an ambush. He would hear anyone coming. As he helped close the doors, he noticed silvery-red reflections from the town seal above the arch.

There it hung in its splendid, glorious cast tin. It had to be someone's job to keep the seal polished. If it wasn't, Denario had no doubt that the mayor got out a ladder and did it himself.

Bordering the Mundredi symbols in the seal were a few local clan signs. In addition, Denario recognized the sword-over-the-sun symbol of the Raduar. Then there was a castle spire, which was for some reason the icon of the Tortuar tribes. Maybe the ankh or the staff icons came from the Kilmun tradition. They were as large as the crossed spears and crown.

“That's an awfully busy seal,” Denario remarked.

“We're a busy place, as you've seen.” The mayor put his hands on his hips and followed Denario's gaze to the tin circle. “The Mundredi sign is biggest but we've got the four major tribes in the middle there and all of our local clans around the edge. Sooner or later, we get someone from a remote town passing through. They always stop to tell me how much they appreciate it.”

“Who designed it? Who made it?”

“The former mayor. But my father was the tinsmith.” Jack spoke with a wistful sort of pride. His eyes glistened. “In fact, the Letter of Transit upstairs is already written. All that I need to add is your name and my official seal. My seal is just a smaller version of that one. And it was also cast by my father.”

In the mayor's office, Denario could look down over the party being thrown in his honor. In the light of the torches, the bonfire, the cooking fires, and the magical lanterns supplied by the shaman, the feast seemed far more splendid than he deserved.

The parchment was waiting for them, as the mayor had promised. In less than a minute, Jack was done with his quill pen. All that remained was the wax. Jack tilted a red candle and a white candle together over the blank spot at the bottom of the roll. He dripped a pool of two-colored wax. Quickly, before it could dry, he grabbed a round paperweight off of his desk corner and stabbed it into the center.

Denario leaned close to see how the seal's impression was turning out. He wanted the wax to look impressive.

“I can see all four tribes. Good.” His finger drifted to the signature above. “But after your name, Jack, you drew a Raduar symbol.”

“What of it?” The mayor didn't even glance at Denario. He placed his seal back on its special corner of the desk.

“It's just that, well, Vir likes you. Or he approves of you, anyway, which is as good as it gets with him. But he's fighting against the Raduar.”

“No, he's not. He's defending us from some renegade Raduar generals, that's all. As to my signature, well, my father came from the Gogobi Raduar clan.”

“How did he end up here?”

“He'd heard that this place had tin.” Jack Quimbi ran his hands through his hair for a moment. A sigh escaped him. “He was a bit of a scoundrel in his youth, I'm afraid, a womanizer. His clan drove him out even though they rather liked him and wrote him nice letters afterward.”

“So he came to where he could find business?”

“It was a long trip but he didn't see that he had any choice. He was lucky that the previous tinsmith had been killed in a clan duel. So there was a place for him.”

“Would he have sided with the Raduar generals?”

“Never!” The mayor stood up straight and defiant. “So that's it, eh? You think I would side with some relatives I've never seen? Just because none of my children here have lived?”

“Vir knows,” Denario concluded after a long pause. “He knows that you're Raduar.”

“Yes, he does.”

Denario scratched his head. Then he crossed his arms over his chest. He tried to find a diplomatic way of expressing how strange this seemed.

“Look, accountant,” said the mayor. He seemed a little less offended than he'd been a moment ago but he struck the air with his open hand for emphasis nonetheless. “You seem to think that I don't like Vir. But I do. I liked Daric, too. He was assassinated. And before him, I liked Bas Piotr. And he was murdered. And before him, there was a man named Yarick who I never met. He was killed in a battle not far north of here. They all die. The Mundredi tribal chiefs all die.”

“Not Vir,” breathed Denario. He didn't know if he was certain of that or if he was just certain that he wished it were true.

“I thought you said you weren't his man.” The mayor returned to his desk. With care, he rolled the parchment. “After all, you're not sticking with the army. You're headed back to your homeland.”

Denario nodded. He had his duty. There was nothing more to say.

Next: Chapter Twelve, Scene Five

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 75: A Bandit Accountant, 12.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene Three: Farewell Party

“I hear you went to all of the temples in town yesterday,” said Olga Clumpi.

“Yes, right after my visit to the mayor.” Denario nodded to her over the letter he had just finished. “I figured a few prayers wouldn't hurt. You can never tell when one of the gods might be listening.”

Olga put her hands on her hips but favored him with an indulgent smile. After a brief nod, she marched back to the cargo doors of the counting house. Olga had been raised on Leir, the lightning god, and Bandari, a local god of the mountains, and both of those deities were rule-givers. Contrary to the opinions of her town leaders, Olga sat firmly on the side of the authorities. She just considered herself to be one of them. Fortunately, she also had an enthusiasm for religions of all sorts, so she could easily forgive Denario's wanton affection for the lesser gods and goddesses.

A luminous haze had developed on this warm spring morning. It seemed magical in origin, although that kind of thing could be hard to tell for a non-wizard. After all, it had also rained a bit before dawn. There was a wet mist in the air. As to the magic, Denario saw to the east how the mountains shone with all the colors of the rainbow. Closer up, everything appeared a bit silvery. Looked like magic.

He'd already packed his bags. He hadn't talked to his book keepers about it he but he was sure they knew. Anyway, it hadn't taken him long. He discovered that he'd eaten most of his previous supplies. Now he needed to find appropriate hiking food. Here in a town where no one traveled far except for the caravan masters, there was no way to get wax paper packages of anything. That was what Denario wanted. And there was no dried meat except for the fish in the warehouse. Could he pay himself in stinky fish? He'd already treated himself to ten rolls of parchment. But he needed meat, too.

Denario had spent part of last night and this morning writing additional letters to Yannick and Vir. He couldn't trust the mayor. So this time the messages were in a stenographic code. That hadn't been easy to devise. It was hard to find a code that the Mundredi army could decipher but no one else with half a brain could simply read. Denario had finally settled on a variation of the 'knock' code he'd worked out in the jail cell with Vir.

“Knock on wood for luck. It will take a fistful of good fortune for the caravans get this to you. Make sure they are paid," he'd begun his letter. Then he'd proceeded to highlight every fifth letter of the main message to make the hint easier. He hoped Yannick would remember that the knocking had been decoded in fives.

“Mistress Clumpi? Master Klaistag?” he called. He'd set up his desk beside the front, small door of the warehouse. Behind him and to his left, the leader of a four-mule caravan had arrived to negotiate a trade and, as it turned out, to be paid the debt owed him. Olga had told Hummel to bring out the sheets of fine copper. Then she'd politely asked Denario to agree.

And Denario had. He felt that Klaistag might as well get the best stuff. As they said in Oggli, it was good advertising. The only reason they didn't say the same thing in Pharts Bad is because they didn't have the concept of paying money to maintain a good reputation. Anyway, for all anyone knew about the caravan trade, there might be no one else of significance coming for a while and the copper would go greener with rust than it already was if it sat in storage.

“Yes, Master Accountant?” Olga put her hands on her hips again. But Denario knew her facial expressions now and this was a default one, her squint of suspicion.

Beside her, Klaistag's eyes crinkled with humor. He had been pleased with his back payment. Apparently he knew copper smiths in small towns to the northwest who would pay him handsomely for Pharts Bad's best.

Klaistag wore low-quality leather gear that he made himself, supplemented by small-animal furs. They formed a patchwork brown jacket. He wore that over a similar, patchwork pair of rawhide-stitched pants. More rawhide and string formed his belt. His fur cap looked like it had seen more than its share of winters. He ran a small operation, just him and an armed guard roaming through these difficult and magical lands. Nevertheless, he'd managed to stay in business for twenty years.

“I think,” ventured Denario as he approached, “that Master Klaistag said he was headed west.”

“For a ways, yes.” The bearded fellow agreed. He rubbed his long, gray-brown beard. Perhaps he knew what was coming because he didn't seem surprised when Denario pulled out the letter. He nodded.

“I want to send this to Fort Dred.” Denario offered it to him unsealed. He couldn't spare the wax to close it and, from what the mayor said, that wouldn't do any good.

“Ain't going that far.”

“But it sounds like you'll get better than halfway there. Do you think you can give this to a trader headed up those hills? Fort Dred must barter for quite a bit of food and clothing.”

“They take in goats, sheep, and chickens.” Klaistag's gnarly fingers accepted the letter. “I know herders who do business with that fort.”

“Good. Do you need anything in exchange?"

“My part is free.” The master trader gave him an indulgent smile full of cracked teeth. “But for the next fellow in line, I should have eight pigs' ears or four dried carp.”

“Sure, I'll get ...”

“Be right back, sir,” called Hummel, who had been standing in the shadows of the counting house doors. Denario tried to hide his amazement. When had the resentful man he'd met become eager to please? Even Olga raised an eyebrow.

After Hummel got back with the pigs ears, Olga took her seat. She never stood for more than a few minutes at a time.

“I don't suppose your note to the fort says something about the promises made by our burghers,” she said. She fanned herself with a pig's ear.

“Where would you have heard about those?” Denario asked. He was careful not to answer her question.

“Some promises were made in the South Winds church. A few of us have heard about them anyway.”

The priest must have talked, then, despite his oath to Haphnaught. His mother could have done it, too, though, and she'd sworn nothing to anyone. That seemed more likely. Denario nodded to Olga.

“They say that Burgher Haphnaught got it in his head to renew his oath of office,” she continued. “And then he and his son and a few other folks dragged other burghers over to their temples to do the same. They said that the Oggli accountant was there for start of it all.”

“If he was ...” Denario folded his arms. He glanced to Trader Klaistag, who wore a fat grin and seemed altogether too curious. “Then the accountant would have sworn to the gods to say nothing to anyone in town.”

“Ah.” She shook her head. Next to her, Klaistag's smile faded. “But the Mundredi army folks you're writing to aren't in town, are they?”

“That's true,” he allowed. His hands started looking to fidget so he clasped them together behind his back.

Olga gave him an evil grin.

“I hear yer goin' quite a ways east,” said Klaistag. “Do ye need food? I've got a bit laid in. Some of it's badger meat but it keeps.”

“Oh, I'd be most grateful ...” Denario was reaching to take the man by the arm when Mistress Clumpi cleared her throat.

“The book keepers have made a little something for you.” Olga said. She cleared her throat with extra emphasis in case he hadn't gotten the hint on the first try. “You might want to take a look at what they've done before you make any other arrangements.”

“Really? But we don't have ...”

“It's a travel kit of sorts. Senli has been working on it all morning. She's a bit sad you're leaving but she's done her best. Hummel contributed some things he'd put aside. He says that he knows he'll never use them.”

It was a lot to absorb. Senli was sad he was going? Why? She'd be the most knowledgeable one in the counting house after he left. Her position would become secure. Then there was the donation by Hummel. It had to be whatever material he'd saved up for his planned escape.

“I'm ... I'm astonished.”

“Don't look too astonished,” Olga warned. “It isn't polite.”

“Right, right.” Denario wrung his hands. “That reminds me, though. Doesn't the counting house barter to the churches for holiday meals? And we barter to the mine for lunches. Plus there's the tailor. I want to make sure I pay ahead for all of that. I want to sign for it. The mayor can curse me all the way to No Map Creek, I suppose, but he'll be in a much worse position to argue.”

Hummel let out an odd squeak that Denario interpreted as a sign of approval. Mistress Clumpi and Master Klaistag didn't seem bothered by it anyway. What else would concern Hummel? Oh yes, shoes. Denario made a mental note to pay ahead for the cobbler's services as well. Senli and Hummel both needed better sandals. Olga might not admit it but he'd bet that her fine shoes were wearing thin.

“Heh. You're a good one,” said Klaistag. He patted Denario on the shoulder.

Olga would never have gone so far as to agree with a statement like that. But she sighed.

“I think we should throw you a going away party at the church tomorrow,” she added. “It's traditional. And anyway we can be pretty sure that the burghers aren't going to throw you one.”

“Probably not,” Denario admitted. “They seemed in a bit of a shock yesterday.”

“They're still trying to find a way to keep ye, ye know.” Olga's squint darkened to a scowl. “Despite how yer a nuisance to them.”

“I know,” replied Denario. “But I have apprentices. I have to do my duty.”

“And you do yer duty, don't ye?” Olga's crinkles turned into an approving smile, not very much different from her malicious grin. “We'll do ours, too. We'll have the traditional dinner. We'll invite Master Klaistag here to be polite. And we'll invite the burghers.”

“You will?” Denario's mouth fell open. Next to him, Klaistag's face bore a similar expression.

“Of course. That will send a message to the mayor, too. If the high folks wants to come, they'll come. And they will. If they try to hide from it, well, it'll serve our aims to make sure they can't claim later that they didn't know.”

“I think I see,” said Denario. Next to him, Klaistag nodded. Mistress Clumpi really was quite shrewd. The town leaders couldn't attend a farewell banquet and then come up with a reason to hold him. It would make them squirm, anyway. “It's a very nice thing you're doing, Keeper Clumpi.”

“It's well deserved, Master Accountant.” She inclined her head graciously. It was as much of a bow as she ever gave anyone, he suspected.

Next: Chapter Twelve, Scene Four

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 74: A Bandit Accountant, 12.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene Two: Three Letters Sent

“I've heard some odd things,” whispered the mayor into the accountant's ear.

“Me too,” said Denario, quite truthfully, although he doubted that Jack Quimbi was talking about irrational numbers. Denario had written about his base 16 math to Pecunia and that had gotten him to thinking about higher math in general. He pulled the three letters out of his jacket that he'd prepared for this meeting.

“Burgher Haphnaught went to church earlier today.”

“Is that strange?” Denario put letters on the mayor's desk. Jack Quimbi walked to the other side of his desk and pulled out his chair. He didn't sit down in it. His hands went to his hips.

In the mayor's office at the town hall, Jack had a room to himself on the second floor. There were two small windows of the type favored by most of the houses in town. They were unshuttered to let in the spring air. There was a third window, too, of a type only seen in the temples, churches, and town hall. It didn't need shutters. It was made of glass. It overlooked the town center and saw all the way back to the northern mountain, which wasn't Mount Bandatar because that one was behind them.

“It occurs to me that you must have a glass maker,” Denario remarked.

“There's a glass works in False Beard. That's more than a day's hike to the southeast. There's nice sand for it at the bottom of their cliff, they say.” Jack tapped the topmost folded parchment. He didn't open the letter. “Are you changing the subject?”

“Am I? I didn't mean to. Were we talking about anything yet?”

Jack sighed. He took his seat.

“What's this?” he asked as he picked up the top letter.

“That one goes to Yannick of Dred.”

“Ah, so you're sending out reports on us. Well, we've been watching for that. I expected a note to go out with the first caravan that came through here, the one run by Mossistone. I suppose you hadn't finished your reports by then.”

“You've been watching me?”

“Of course. I admit, though, that no one's seen you send anything until now. And you've come to me to about it. I'm impressed. Or appalled.”

“I suppose that asking you to send a secret message is out of the question.”

“Hah! I couldn't do that even if I wanted.” There was a stout back to the mayor's chair, so Jack set down the letter and relaxed into it. “The caravan drivers around here open all the messages and read them. I know they do. There are no secrets from the caravan posts. Even the burghers in towns along their way will open your letters.”

“The caravan masters I suspected. But the leaders in each town? That seems a bit much.”

“Well, this isn't Oggli. I hear they have a postal service there. It keeps secrets, they say, or maybe it just keeps certain official secrets.”

“That reminds me ... how have you learned about Oggli? You have some information about the city, at least, and Oggli doesn't know anything about Phart's Bad. There can't be any caravans that touch both places. And for his part, the marquis has got a hundred spies on his staff. Yet I'm sure he doesn't know that towns this large exist in the mountains.”

“Are his spies employed against us in the Seven Valleys? Or does he send them around his own lands to keep watch on his subjects?”

“Good point.” That was what the marquis did, for sure.

“There you go, then.” The mayor leaned forward, elbows on his desk. He opened the top letter, the one to Yannick. Denario hadn't told him not to read it and the parchment wasn't sealed.

“This is rather incendiary stuff,” said Jack after a minute. “You've estimated the mine's output, I think? And the amount of brass armor that our smiths could make? And there are other things. You've listed the local clans and their tribal affiliations. But you've missed a few. That would be a hard task for you. I doubt Vir needs that kind of information anyway. He knows the clans by heart. And this ... how did you find out the population of Timbersburg?”

“A smith came from there this morning to make a purchase.”

“Their town has nearly a thousand citizens? Astounding.” The mayor shook his head. “That must include the surrounding lands. But it makes them larger than we are, in their way, even though they're not packed as close together.”

“Yes. They've got better farms around them I hear. But I only wanted to make the case to Vir's officers that this area is worth defending. If Vir's planning to make a stand with all of his forces against the Raduar armies, this isn't a bad place to do it.”

“It's a horrible place to do it,” countered the mayor. He glanced up from the sheet of figures. “We would all die.”

“You don't think Vir could defend you?”

“Vir is just a refugee himself, really,” said Jack. He tossed the open sheet down. “A few years ago, he came into Phart's Bad with a group of other survivors from the farm towns south of the mountains. They were the first group we'd seen fleeing from the Ogglian forces. This was before the Raduar got organized.”

“He was a refugee? That's hard to imagine.”

“By the time he got to our town, he wasn't acting like one. He'd trained at least a score of men. He'd fought the baron's troops. I gather he'd had successes. His reputation was fearsome. He'd defended a dozen Mundredi towns south of the mountains. Although he'd lost those battles, he'd killed scores of Ogglians and rescued the Mundredi women and children. He brought them here to resettle.”

“And did they?”

“A few. Most of the rest ended up in Timbersburg. That's not important. What seemed shocking at the time was how Vir had killed at least three Ogglian knights and even more squires and men at arms. I don't think our folks really believed him at first. They thought it was impossible. But after you spend a bit of time in his presence you can see how, for him, it really could happen. He's that capable.”

“He's the only one with that much power and the brains to go with it.” Denario remembered how he'd pictured the fight. The Mundredi must have gotten the Ogglians off of their horses, as Vir had implied. That was a good trick. An ambush might have done it. Maybe he's attacked the knights as they ate dinner. “It's hard to imagine anyone killing a knight except another knight.”

“Then you agree with me. We can't possibly defend this place against two armies.”

“What's the alternative? Surrender?”

“On good terms, of course.”

The logical terms for the Raduar included killing the town leaders and the surplus citizenry. Then maybe they'd work the rest of the folks to death in the mine. The tin smiths, copper smiths, tailors, caravan masters, and associated tradesmen might live but they'd bet branded as slaves and lose their children. Under an Ogglian attack, Denario doubted that any local citizen would survive. That wasn't the purpose of Baron Ankster's strategy. The baron wanted the hillmen dead, simple as that.

“I don't ...” Denario struggled to remain tactful. He needed the mayor. “I don't think you can look forward to good terms from either army.”

“Maybe not. But raising taxes and training the young men, as I hear you've advocated, is a good start. We'll get better terms if we can mount a credible defense. Anything that looks inconvenient to the opposition would help us quite a lot.”

“Oh.” Denario tried out that idea. There seemed something too optimistic about it and yet he couldn't blame the mayor for thinking that way. Jack was a good negotiator. That's how he got to be mayor, probably. He wanted to turn the battle into a negotiation. That played to his strength.

“You look skeptical,” said Jack. He steepled his fingers. “But try to see it my way. Vir is wanted dead by two powerful enemies. Both of them have hundreds of warriors. He has opponents among the Mundredi because he demands that we in the towns pay our taxes. And all of his enemies seem to be richer and stronger than he is. If he has some measure of success that's wonderful but I can't let the town's future depend on it. Military victory is unlikely. The best outcome I see for us is that the Raduar army gets here ahead of the Ogglians. That way, the Raduar generals will be forced to protect us. And if they've laid down any lives at all for us, they'll want to see this place prosper so it can pay them back.”

“You sound very sensible.” But the mayor wasn't, in Denario's experience, realistic. The timing of armies was as unlikely as any other piece of wishful thinking. The military leaders weren't as logical as the mayor hoped, either. Denario had witnessed knights who killed their servants in fits of anger and then complained that there was no one left to help them into their armor. They were likely enough to do the same to the citizens of Phart's Bad.

“You seem attached to Vir. You're proud to wear his coin. But I have to tell you that his outlook isn't good. The nobles of West Ogglia have put a price on his head. We have reports of wanted posters bearing his likeness.”

“I suppose I knew that.” Denario finally took the guest chair that the mayor had offered to him upon arrival. “For that matter ...”

Denario had been about to say that there was a price on his own head. The Mayor of Ziegeburg would have sent out word at least to his neighboring towns in West Ogglia. It would have been foolish to tell Jack about it, though. So the accountant merely shrugged. He drummed his fingers on the mayor's desk as the pondered his problems. At the moment, he felt surrounded by difficulties and outclassed in negotiating skills. His only refuge was math.

“Baron Ankster sent most of his men and his heavy siege weapons somewhere else,” murmured Denario now that he was thinking about numbers. “This would be a fine time for Vir to counter-attack if it weren't for the Raduar.”

“If,” said Jack. He needed to say no more.

“Would you happen to know what happened to Vir's home? He never mentions his family.”

“Hmm, what did he say back then?” The puzzled expression on Jack's face looked nearly like a smile as he tried to remember. “I remember that he came into town with the announcement that he wanted to join Captain Daric.”

“Ah, that makes sense. Did he meet the captain here?”

“He met Mundredi troops up at the top of the cliff in one of their little forts. The captain showed up soon enough.”

“He knew Vir?”

“No. I saw them meet. They weren't friends. They postured like two armed bands do when they're not sure if they should fight. They asked me to mediate for them, you see.”

Denario tried to imagine a slightly younger mayor hiking up the hill to the normally unused fort. It had been a long enough climb going down. The climb up to the top was something that even Vir had avoided when he could. He'd left with his troops by the creek bed route.

“That was a long day.” Jack Quimbi rubbed his chin. “But Daric got friendly with Vir soon enough. I always wondered how Vir did that. Now I think I know.”

He pointed to the medallion on Denario's neck.

“He must have shown the royal coin to Daric. The old captain was a bit royal himself, so they say. At the least, I'm certain he would have recognized the legendary mark of Muntabi royal blood. So whether it was the troops that Vir had assembled or his heritage or just the look in his eye, Daric got it in his head to make Vir a sergeant right on the spot.”

“A sergeant? Right when they met?”

“Oh, he took some precautions. He broke up Vir's hand-recruited regiment and took some of them for his own. He was surprised to find they included a couple Raduar men who had fled with the Mundredi. He didn't like that.”

“That's a strange part of Vir, isn't it? Everyone else seems determined to keep up the tribal fights.”

“No, that's not so strange. There's peace between tribes in most places. There's even peace between local clans. You could argue that the clans are more important than the tribes since, in the past, clans have switched tribes. That’s hundreds of people at once. It's only the trouble makers like the six Raduar chieftains who think otherwise. Those chiefs aren't the majority. They're simply the leaders of the strongest clans at the moment. No, the strangest thing in all of this fighting is you.”

“Me?” Denario touched his finger to his chest. He nearly hit the coin.

“Most Mundredi don't hate Ogglians. After all, they're just another sort of waldi. Waldi don't participate in the clan battles. They don't care about our gods or our totems. So we don't care about them. But Vir hates the Ogglians. He learned that while fighting Baron Ankster. I never thought I'd see him in the company of one.”

“Oh.”

“You saved his life once with math and another time with poison. Was that enough? Or is there something more?”

Denario didn't know how to answer that. So he didn't. But he thought about his apprentices and how Vir had kept asking questions about them. Vir knew Kroner, Guilder, Buck, Shekel, Mark and even Curo all by name. He didn't know or care about much else in the city of Oggli. But he knew about those boys.

“There is something more, isn't there?” The mayor's slight smile faded. “I can see you're worked up about it. I'll bet you're not much of a card player, despite all your math.”

“Oh.” Denario understood why he kept losing to the best card players. He could beat the lesser ones with his card counting. But he couldn't control his emotions enough to hold his own against experts. “I suppose you're right.”

“What's this middle letter? A love note?” The mayor set the first parchment aside and unfolded the second one in an instant. He seemed to read quickly and with too much enjoyment for Denario's tastes. “It is! Good lord, it's a love note with chart! For your sake, my boy, I hope she's an intellectual sort of girl. Not many ladies want to see actuary tables in their romances.”

“I just ... she's a very smart woman.”

“She likes math?”

“Not really.” Denario fidgeted. “But she understands it. And math is what I know how to talk about.”

The mayor sighed.

“You do understand math,” he said. “Maybe you don't understand romance. That's just my guess. But what I know is that you can figure things out in a way we've never seen in this town. And suddenly the burghers realize that it's important. Math will determine our poverty or wealth. So I've talked them into it. We want you to stay.”

“Ah.” This is what Olga Clumpi had warned him about.

“You probably have some folks like your book keepers who are trying to help you out of town. But remember that they have an interest in seeing you gone.”

“They do?” But even as he asked the question, Denario realized that the mayor was right. A staff of four was too large for a counting house that had been run by one man. If Denario settled down here, in fact, the town could sell off both Senli and Hummel. They might make a profit if nearby towns could be persuaded that they needed book keepers. Timbersburg probably did need one.

“Of course. Oddly enough, the mine supervisor told me that he'd like to see you stay. I thought he'd be the one most opposed to you.”

Denario felt confused. He'd given the supervisor a hard time over the pay records. There had to be things going on between members of the town leadership that he didn't understand.

“That means you could be a buffer between the mine and the town,” the mayor rubbed his hands and grinned. “The supervisor and I are the most important men here and you'd be nearly equal to us. That's a lot of power. You'd be a leader. And you have no clan affiliation. That could be useful, too.”

“How?”

“Different neighboring towns have different clans. And when there's an argument about land or water, it's hard to find a judge that all of the clans trust. The clan leaders suspect that anyone chosen will favor their own clan or an ally. But they would trust you, I think.”

Jack was offering Denario one of the toughest jobs around. Yet it was attractive, too, in its way. The mayor was right about how important Denario could become.

But what would be the cost? It wasn't just Senli and Hummel who would suffer. Olga would have to become a servant to survive. Back in Oggli, the accounting business would get turned out of its home. The boys would starve or return to their parents untrained. Curo would lose his contracts. No accountant in the city would lift a finger to help him because the senior men were already shipping their sons across the river to Angrili to find more work.

“Honor,” Denario muttered to himself.

“What?” The mayor leaned closer, as if he hadn't been able to hear.

“Foolishness, maybe. But I think Vir's wrong about it. We need to have a sense of honor. I've got five boys depending on me and I have to do the right thing.”

“Ah.” Jack Quimbi nodded. His grin faded a little.

“I'm sorry, Jack.” Denario rose and extended his hand. “It's a good offer. In fact it's a wonderful offer, far better than an accountant my age should expect. But I have to go.”

“I don't ...” Jack shook his head. And he didn't shake Denario's hand.

“You still don't want to write the letter of transit?” Denario finished the sentence for him. “Still. And that was our deal. But I can't make you. I'm leaving anyway, with or without your right of free passage.”

“Without it, you'll die in West Valley. That coin won't protect you from everybody. It absolutely will not.”

“Goodbye, Jack.”

Denario turned and headed out of the mayor's office. He thumped down the stairs and left the mayor staring glumly at the letters. He paused once, for a few seconds, in the hope that the mayor would call out to him. But it didn't happen. He swung out into the town hall, grimaced at the smiles and waves of the burghers there, and marched out to check on his book keepers. After that, he knew he had to pack his bags.

Next: Chapter Twelve, Scene Three

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 73: A Bandit Accountant, 12.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Scene One: A Solution Explained

“I could kill you right now,” croaked Burgher Haphnaught from his sickbed. He rose up on his elbows and let out an angry groan. Denario could see a bluish bruise on the old man's left arm. It was about the size of a fist.

“I'm sure you could.” Denario circled around the bed to the chair that Raisya Haphaught had brought for him. He was careful to remain out of reach for the moment. “Please wait. Your wife is still present.”

Raisya smiled rather absent-mindedly at Denario. She turned and strolled out of the bedroom into her kitchen. Mark Haphnaught grunted.

“Well, I should,” said Mark gruffly.

“She's a gracious woman,” Denario said. He observed, with relief, that Mark showed no signs of rising from his bed. His wife had seemed sensible enough and she hadn't been worried.

Mark grunted. He nodded.

It was funny how old Raisya seemed in comparison to Mark. Even when Mark was ill, the difference showed. But they had to be contemporaries, didn't they? Mark had his force of personality. It made his movements grand. It made his legs move him along at an anxious pace. In contrast, Raisya's gait was slow. Her back was stooped. Her wrists trembled. When Denario had come through the door, he'd felt bewildered because Olga Clumpi had described Raisya as a redhead. That had been true twenty years ago, perhaps, but Raisya's hair had since gone silver. Only in the minds of her friends and her husband did it retain its former hue.

In Raisya's now-cloudy blue eyes Denario had seen no sign that she'd recognized him. To her, he was one of many visitors to the home. He watched her through the bedroom door as she wiped her hands on the smock that protected her eggshell-white dress. She picked up a cast iron pot. Her limbs stopped shaking.

“I need you to listen to me,” he said as he turned his attention back to the burgher.

“You? Why should I listen to you?” Haphnaught scoffed. There was nothing wrong with the power of his voice. Judging by that, he seemed likely to recover from his fall. “Do you think I'm going to be impressed by your reading and writing?”

“You're only impressed by yourself,” Denario blurted with more honesty than he'd meant to show.

“Bean counter! Sneak!” Mark began throwing off his blankets. But he had to do it one-handed. His left arm wasn't good for much. And there were a lot of blankets. Denario fought the urge to stand up and draw his sword. What was he going to do, kill an old man in his bed? No, he had to make himself be calm despite how the burgher was shouting at him. “You would never have won in a fair fight.”

“Is that what you crept upstairs for?” His sense of outrage overcame his caution. He heard his own voice grow louder. “In the dark while I slept? For a fair fight?”

That made Mark pause before he removed his last blanket.

A moment later, he crashed back to his pillow. It happened not so much because he'd wanted to rest but because he'd kept himself sitting up by continually throwing his right arm forward each time he yanked a blanket. As soon as he stopped, he had to prop himself up or fall.

“What's happening to this town?” he beseeched the ceiling.

“Dad?” A shadow loomed in the doorway.

“We're ruled by pansies and nincompoops!”

“Dad, you're being loud.” The shadow filled in suddenly as a ghost-like image appeared. It was Mark Haphnaught as he must have looked thirty years ago. Denario took a second or two after the figure stepped into the light to realize that this had to be the youngest Haphnaught son, the one who was captain of the town guard. His jaw was as square as an anvil's edge and his muscles overflowed his tight shirt. “Is this fellow bothering you? Why did mom let him in?”

“Oh, hello, Junior.” Mark turned his irritation on his son. “Get out of here. This isn't your business. Go sleep all day, as usual.”

“I've been working nights.” The son propped his arm against the door frame. He didn't seem inclined to leave. Something about the way he moved caught Denario's poorly trained eye. This was someone else who hadn't been taught to kill, not fully. He was a police officer of sorts. He didn't look like he'd fought a battle with anything besides his fists. Not that he would need to.

“Surrounded! I'm surrounded by nincompoops and pansies.”

“Am I the pansy, then?” Denario sighed. “Well, you've heard how awful I was against the Raduar, I guess.”

“Look at you. You're a runt.” The burgher scoffed. His tone changed a moment later. He glanced at the scar on Denario's forehead. “But at least you fought against the Killimar and Juttari. That's more than our young ones have done. Those two clans are the Raduar's best. Did you really poison them?”

“Just one.”

“A chief! You poisoned a chief!”

“I'm sorry. But really I don't see why everyone thinks it's so awful. It kept me alive. It kept your Mundredi captain alive. I wouldn't take it back.”

“See what kind of man this is?” Mark Haphnaught told his son. His son nodded gravely. “And what are you here for? What do you want from me? Money?"

“Honor.”

“What?” With a roar, Haphnaught sat up in his bed. His knees lifted with the effort. He raised his right fist. “Honor to a poisoner!”

“No. Honor for the town. I want you, Mark Haphnaught, to tell me what you're going to do when the Raduar or Ogglian troops reach your home.”

He sank back. This time, it was a planned, gentle move.

“Ah.” He breathed after he was quiet for a while. “So you really do think they're going to come.”

“Vir thinks they will. I don't think he's wrong.”

“What do you care? That's my son's business, maybe. If he has the courage.” He gestured to the figure in his doorway. “You'll be gone, won't you? Gone back to your apprentices in Oggli.”

Denario nodded. “Alive or dead, I won't be here. And with the letter of transit or without it, I'm going.”

“Letter of transit?”

“I've finished my job.”

“Already? By the gods!”

“But the mayor doesn't care to write the letter.” Denario couldn't resist getting in a few more digs. Besides, he was in a bad mood. He'd met the Jack Quimbi on the way here and he'd had the chance to ask for the letter he'd been promised. That hadn't worked out well. “So you see how much honor a poisoner receives here. Someone sneaks up to his room while he’s sleeping to maybe beat him to death. And then when he does the job he was hired to do, he isn't paid.”

“Well, I ...” Burgher Haphnaught turned red.

In the silence, his son rumbled.

“Dad?” he said. “Was that you? You said you were going to drive the accountant out of town. Did you go to beat him up?”

“It's none of your business!” Haphnaught roared.

“Dad!” This time, the son's voice was as loud as his father's.

“Don't you have some honor?” Denario shouted to make himself heard. “I'm not asking for myself. I'm asking for the book keepers I'm leaving behind and who may die in your care. What I want to hear is that you, Mark Haphnaught, will behave honorably by the time the enemy troops reach town.”

“Well, of course ...”

“Will you have armor enough ready? Will you have weapons? Will your men be trained? Will there be a real defense against an army of two hundred? Four hundred?"

“But ... well, now that's a lot to ask ...”

“Will the town have allies in neighboring towns? Will your folks dig pits and set traps? Will it be an honest effort?”

“I am honest, dammit. I am.”

“I know you want to be. But I’m leaving. And I have no way to check on you or the other burghers. So I want ... well, I want to be sure. I want to see you to renew your oath of office.”

“What?”

“Good one, dad,” said his son. He smacked his right fist into his left hand. “That would be really, really good.”

Next: Chapter Twelve, Scene Two