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.

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