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