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.”


“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

No comments:

Post a Comment