Sunday, August 27, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 91: A Bandit Accountant, 15.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Three: Hasty Promises 

Denario half-awoke to a creak from the door. He tried to put his hand on the hilt of his sword but it took enormous effort. His eyes didn't want to open. He gave up on moving. The door had made noises several times before. There were too many people in the house and different burghers kept getting up to pee outside. Two had walked by him. Denario had learned to disregard the sounds so he could sleep.

That's why he was surprised when someone pulled on his right boot. 

“What in the world?” He woke completely. His eyes flew open. His sword came out of its sheath. 

He hadn't had any preconceived notion of what he would find and yet somehow it wasn't this. In front of him, grabbing the heel of the boot, was Valentina Ansel. She was dressed in a flannel nightgown so thick that it could have deflected Denario's blade. There was a wad of black shoulder padding on the top with something red sewed onto it. She had his heel in both hands and she was trying to pull him across the floor. Maybe. It was the only thing that made sense.

“Is there a fire?” he asked. He didn't even try to pull his leg away.

“Darling?” someone yawned in the doorway. It was Hermann Ansel. He looked puzzled and half asleep. No, more than half. He looked as dead as Denario felt. Hermann hadn't brought his sword, either. If they were up to something, it wasn't murder. But it was strange. 

“Don't just stand there!” Valentina said to her husband. 

“Don't just stand there what?” he asked, understandably. 

“What is it you're trying to do?” Denario pleaded. He decided to sheath his sword. He didn't want Hermann to get the wrong idea. Or Valentina, for that matter, because she had arms like a dockyard worker. “Will you just let go?” 

This time, Denario twisted and pulled. He managed to wrench his leg free. 

“Don't do that!” Valentina shouted. 

“Don't do what?” said Denario and Hermann both together. Herman added, “Honestly, if you were up to dishonor me somehow, couldn't you have been quieter?”

“What?” Valentina put both fists on her hips. “Oh! It's not about that! Can't you see I've been visited by the goddess Druantia?”

Denario started to laugh. Fortunately, the effort of rising to his feet stopped him. Valentina's husband didn't think it was funny. 

“Again?” Hermann complained. His hand touched his brow as if he were still trying to wake himself up completely. 

“Yes! She came to me in a dream. Druantia said the accountant had a tattoo on his right foot. If I saw the tattoo, I would know his god. And if I knew his god, Ackerland could live.” 

There was a great deal of confusion for a minute or two. Denario staggered erect. The youngest burgher, dark-haired and thin, joined the meeting. Then the short, heavy burgher came to see what the fuss was about. Finally, Mayor Richter came down the stairs. Denario realized that if he thought Valentina's flannel gown was thick, it still could not compare to what Ilsa Richter wore. The mayor's night dress was padded like the stuff warriors wore under their plate armor. Folds of the material were held up by carved bone. She had a black shoulder garment like Valentina's but embroidered in gold. She couldn't possibly have slept in all of it. Denario guessed she'd put on an extra layer before she came down. 

“Well, is it true, accountant?” asked the mayor. She folded her arms. He tried not to stare at how the gesture made her robe bunch up and her hips look as wide as two grown men. “Do you have a tattoo on your right foot?”

“Yes,” Denario admitted. He wondered if the Mundredi would understand. They mingled with West Ogglian folks enough to recognize a slave tattoo. On top of that, they had a strong disdain for slaves. “That part is right. But I don't show anyone. It's ... it's a religious thing.”

“Aha!” Ilze Richter raised a finger. She gave him a triumphant smile. Instead of laying into him about his foolish shyness, she turned to her burghers and began a religious debate. The short, heavy burgher seemed to be some kind of authority on negotiating between religions. He took the matter very seriously. The last burgher to wake up, a tall fellow in a white robe with gold brocade, at last joined the crowd and launched in with his opinions. His ideas seemed based largely on the precepts of his farming god. 

The leaders of Ackerland took Denario's beliefs so seriously that Denario started to feel ashamed for not having them. He was only trying to hide his childhood as a slave.

“It's important to know how the goddess Druantia came to Frau Ansel,” said the heavy burgher as he stroked his beard. “That's how gods establish themselves to one another through us. We must understand the extent of Druantia's presence or we will offend the accountant's strange god.”

“No one wants that,” said the mayor. The burghers murmured their agreement. Ilse Richter turned to her only female guest. “So how did the goddess appear in your dream? And before you say too much about that, I think we should know about how the goddess appeared in your previous dream.” 

Valentina and Hermann had been voicing their religious opinions along with everyone else. But when questioned directly, they closed their mouths. Husband and wife locked gazes for a while.

“It's my fault,” Hermann said at last. He sounded defeated. “I didn't listen to my wife.” 

“No, it was mine, too.” Valentina seemed relieved to be let off the hook. Her hands opened as she talked. “I thought my vision of Druantia was funny. I mean, it was an acorn talking to me. An acorn, just a thing I held between my thumb and forefinger. So I didn't think it was a true dream until the moment it started to happen.” 

“What happened?” said the burgher in white. 

“The attack,” answered Hermann. 

“The goddess ...” Valentina took a deep breath. “She warned me to leave town with my family before South Ackerland was burned to the ground. I told Hermann. We both thought it was a silly joke. We were laughing over it that morning.” 

“Until the fighting started.” Hermann spoke without emotion. Yet his words silenced the North Ackerland men for a long moment. 

“You were with the other burghers of South Ackerland when the knight's men ran over the lot of you.” The portly burgher started rubbing his beard again. “How did you escape, Hermann?” 

“I didn't. Five of us lined up with swords, even though it was a useless thing to do. I was on the end of the row, I suppose. That may have helped. The horsemen speared Burgher Rumsel to my right. They hacked or ran over the rest. Then the steeds wheeled around and headed back to trample me, too.” 

“They couldn't have missed.” 

“Two horses ran over me. Two. And something hit me in the head, probably a hoof. You've seen the scar. I don't know why I lived. I was senseless for a little while. And when I became aware of myself, I thought I was dead. I kept waiting for Druantia's angels to come take me to the afterlife. Maybe it would have been kinder that way ... to have been trampled, I mean.”

“Kinder than what?” Denario blurted.

“You wouldn't know.” Hermann hesitated. With a nod, he went on. “Kinder than missing my little girls. But that's not a story for tonight.” 

“No,” Valentina agreed emphatically. 

“I'm surprised that you got another vision, Valentina,” said the burgher. “The gods don't like to waste their interventions on folks who don't follow their bidding.”

“I know.” Valentina gritted her teeth.

“So tell us how Druantia appeared this time.”

The younger woman took a while to speak.

“The odd thing about this dream,” she said quietly, “is that I woke up. In the dream, I mean. I wasn't here in the mayor's house. In my mental picture, I woke up in my tent. I ate a mash of turnips for breakfast. Then I trudged back to the fields for another day of labor. I must do my part, after all. That's what I thought. But as I was walking, I heard a phrase inside my head. 'You didn't listen,' it said. I knew right away it was a message from Druantia. She had the same tone.”
“But she was just a voice inside your head? Not a vision?” 

“The goddess said, 'Valentina, I will give you a last chance to save the people you love. Do you want to rescue all of Ackerland? You must go to the accountant.' 'The funny little man?' I said. 'Yes,' the goddess told me. 'The accountant comes from a foreign land. He is beholden to a god of tricks. You must trick him. But first, you must know his god.” 

“That's when she told you about his tattoo?” 

“'It's on his right foot. You must look. You must understand the god. But then you must do the right things, too, and I cannot tell you what they are.'” 

“What are they?” Hermann asked. 

Valentina shrugged. “'You can trust the accountant to keep his sworn word. That's why he doesn't like to make any oath. But on his oath he has carried the messages of other gods and he's been trustworthy.'” 

“Have you?” asked the burgher. He eyed Denario. “Have you carried messages for the gods?” 

“Yes.” That chore was meant to be a joke, he thought, a trick on the accounting guild. How is it that these folks know? It's probably some primitive magic, he thought. Druantia shouldn't have known about the symbol of another god. In Oggli, the deities didn't mess with each other so directly. 

“And on your right foot?” 

“Yes, I have a tattoo.” 

The fellow rubbed his beard a bit more. He murmured to the other two burghers and they whispered in their turn. In half a minute, they pulled in the mayor for a conference.
“Are you under a religious oath to hide the tattoo from non-believers?” 

That was a good one. Denario should have thought of using that. But he found himself reluctant to tell a direct lie. 

“No,” he admitted. “But it's private. Only believers have seen it. Not even my guild masters have been allowed.”

“But ...” the mayor began. She stopped at a whisper from the third burgher, the one who'd been in the conversation from the beginning but hadn't spoken much. He had more tattoos on his arms than any of the other men. 

“But there was one other, a witch,” Denario whispered. Then he realized that he was admitting to himself that Pecunia was probably a dabbler in magic. Maybe she was a medicine woman of sorts. She did a lot of brewing and distilling. He remembered how her house was filled with tinctures on shelves along the walls everywhere, even in the hallways. 

“I am not a shaman or a witch,” said the third burgher. He stepped to the fore. His hair was the curliest, by far. “But I am an artist.” 

“Yes?” As an accountant, Denario had a healthy respect for artists. They could do things he couldn't. But he thought there had to be something more to the burgher's meaning. 

“I'm expert in tattoos,” the fellow explained. “Valentina needs to see what's on your foot. But she may not understand it. I must interpret for her.” 

Denario raised a hand so that the man would hold his peace for a moment. Denario needed to think. Awkwardly, not only did the artist fall silent but he raised his own hand, too, and everyone else stopped talking. So it was a very long minute for Denario as he contemplated his position. He patted his stomach and thought about the pieces of leather armor he'd removed. They were all around the room. He'd trusted these people. And, in fact, they were trustworthy. They were taking care not to offend him even though him felt they might be justified in wrestling him down and cutting off his boot. In their minds, they would be saving their town. Denario would have done it for Oggli. Well, no, that wasn't quite accurate. He'd have done it for his apprentices. They just happened to live in Oggli.
“Will you swear to secrecy?” he asked. 

The burgher beamed. Denario would have reacted badly to a sly expression but the artist more simply relaxed. The natural appearance of his face was a slight, calm smile.
Everyone swore to their gods without hesitation. Even Hermann and the mayor went down on one knee and pledged oaths to keep Denario's secrets. Only Valentina held back, perhaps driven by the need in her dream to 'trick the accountant' somehow. Well, Denario had that in mind. Whatever Druantia or Valentina might be up to, he wanted to keep it in check.
The tall woman put her right hand over her heart. She gave Denario a rather confused vow to keep secret whatever she saw. 

“You hesitated,” he noted. “You swore to Druantia only. Everyone else swore to all of their gods. I'll bet you worship another god.”

“Yes, we worship Tannus as well.” Hermann laid a stern gaze on his wife. 

Her eyes widened in an unspoken protest of innocence. Last year, Denario guessed, he might have been fooled by it. Now he wasn't. For that matter, no one else seemed taken in. They understood that Valentina had tried to cheat, even if they had different attitudes about it. The expression on Mayor Richter's face was one of approval. Clearly, Ilse had no problem with giving false oaths in order to save her city. But the burghers looked grave. Hermann pressed his lips tight together, apparently impatient with his wife's hair-splitting morals. The men, as a whole, seemed to feel that an oath ought to be a straightforward thing.
“Try again, madam,” said the artist. 

“To Tannus.” Denario stepped back and waited. 

Valentina took a second oath. She couched her phrases a bit differently to Tannus. In fact, the way she crafted her words, they didn't amount to anything. Denario didn't even have to ask her to try again. The burghers did it for him. The third time, at last, she swore in the name of 'all the gods there are' that she would never tell anyone except the people in this room about Denario's tattoo. The promise upset her.
That was why, when Denario knelt and unlaced his boot, he wasn't surprised that he let down Valentina. After all, the mark was the size of a honeybee. She peered close at the sign of the winged messenger and shrugged. Then she stood, hands on hips. After a moment or two, she stomped her feet.
“That thing,” she pouted. “Just that. It's tiny. And what is it? What god?” 

“Ah, Melcurio,” murmured the artist.
“How did you know?” Denario dropped his trouser cuff in astonishment. “I haven't seen his tokens anywhere for weeks of travel.”

“I know my work.” The other two burghers laughed and slapped the back of the artist. Hermann thumped the man on the shoulder. “Besides, he's notorious, isn't he? God of thieves and all that.”
“Damn it!” Denario got hot. “I had to keep telling Vir, too. Melcurio is not a thief. He's the god of accountants. He counted all of the things in the world. He measured everything. Everything!”
“That he did.” The artist, like his stout compatriot, was a calm fellow and knew how to deal with religious fanatics. The fact that he leaned back and regarded Denario as one was enough to make the accountant hesitate in the middle of his explanation which, as he replayed it in his mind, sounded a bit like the beginning of a rant.
“I need a drink,” announced Hermann Ansel. His wife immediately contradicted him and asserted that, in fact, he didn't.
“Me, too,” Denario mumbled. The burghers ignored him. But the mayor took notice.
“It's been an odd night,” said Frau Richter. “I don't expect I'll be good for much tomorrow. But a little wine would help. With better sleep, we’ll be better later. Hermann, would you tell my kitchen staff to bring out a bottle of Ogglian Red?”
“That's the good stuff!” Hermann smiled, much pleased.
“Well, I am the mayor.” She chuckled. With a punch to his shoulder, she sent him on his way.
It took Hermann a few minutes to persuade the kitchen ladies that wine was needed in the darkest part of the night. Even then, the older one felt it was quite improper. She had to be mollified with the allowance of half a glass of Oupenli White, her own personal preference. In the time it took the younger lady to arrange everything, one of the burghers asked Denario to brag about his accomplishments.
Denario hesitated. It was a strange hour to be awake. Only the oil lamps made it possible and he'd spent enough time in the wilderness to see them as nearly unnatural as magic. They smelled good, though. The mayor scented her oil as if she were of the nobility.

“No singing, accountant,” said Mayor Richter. “It's too late for rowdiness. But I would like to hear why Captain Vir thinks mathematics could be useful. He never saw much use in it before that I ever heard.”

Could be?” Denario scowled. He felt he could get into the spirit of this bragging thing. “It's only the most useful skill in the world. Everyone needs accounting. Everyone. Math is the secret that underlies the universe. Everyone does accounting whether they realize it or not. It's what separates men from beasts. Beasts do not count ... well, except according to a few wizards.”

“But they're wizards who've transformed themselves into beasts, aren't they?” The stout burgher raised his glass. He'd been the first to fill up on red wine. “They're biased.”

“Right.” Denario tried to launch into a demonstration. The first idea that occurred to him was what he'd accomplished at the Paravientari docks. He and Buck had designed a new winch there. It had been built by Buck and a team of skilled workers but Denario's geometry had been important. The winch lifted cargo that was too heavy for other docks. It had made the Paravientari crew hundreds of gold pieces per year.

The accountant had trouble describing it, though. He wasn't much of a salesman. Slaves weren't expected to talk about themselves. Even long after he'd been set free, such talk didn't come naturally. Winkel had never done taught him to do it. Denario needed encouragement. He needed more than one drink. That was a problem, too, because he wasn't accustomed to so much wine. Bragging took on a sort of emotional momentum. After a few minutes, he didn't want to stop. He told them about how the docks used so much twine that Denario made them an extra twenty silvers a year by switching them to a lower-cost provider. He'd also stopped the headman's son from buying cheap scaffolding. The price hadn't made sense. Sure enough, a rival yard had bought the cheap scaffolding and it had collapsed, killing two workers and injuring four more.

Denario kept talking, aware that he'd started rambling. He shared his philosophies on how three must be equal to three, always. From the looks he got, not one person followed his thoughts. After a minute or so, he let the mayor steer him back to tales of battles and other, less consequential things.
“So then I killed the Raduar hetman,” he said with false bravado. He raised his cup into the air and nearly spilled some of his wine.

“With a poison dart?”
“Yes, and others with darts too.” He lowered the cup. He wasn't nearly as proud about that. “Well, it had to be done. I had to save the boy, Karl. Oh, but then came tile system. That was the best. When I fixed that, I knew I'd saved the town. And saving one town saved others. No one could have done anything like it with weapons.”
“But that was just numbers.”
Denario had been sitting on a stool under the arch between the hallway to his bedroom and the main meeting room. It was where the wine had been set on a dark, green table not much taller than the chairs. Naturally, the group had drifted in the direction of the bottles. Denario had begun to feel like he should return to his bed soon. But at hearing the words, 'just numbers,' the accountant shot to his feet.
Numbers are the key to life.” He could hear his words slurring but he went on. He tried to explain the concept of hiring people for money. Vir needed armorers. Coins were the best way to lure highly skilled craftsmen. Denario explained the concept for three or four minutes before anyone could get a question in.

“But if we have to pay them,” said the artist, “how can we know they'll be loyal?”

“If you kidnap them, they won't be loyal either,” Denario retorted.

“We'd have their families. That usually works.”

Denario had forgotten that the Mundredi were experienced criminals in their way. They didn't understand Ogglian attitudes about laws, not even after a few generations of living with them. Their ancestors had spent hundreds of years raiding villages, kidnapping one another, tearing down totems, and in general living a clan-based, semi-tribal style of life. Only the most powerful Mundredi and their caravan leaders ever traveled more than ten miles from their homes. Journeys were dangerous. When Vir had traveled alone from the West Valley hills to the Lamp Kill farmlands, he'd proved he was an exception. The mere fact of his wandering had made him a hero of sorts in the eyes of the Mundredi.

Their army couldn't really kidnap the labor it needed, could it? No, probably not. But Denario found it hard to rule out the possibility with Vir in charge. 

“You need skilled labor,” Denario said. “You don't realize how much you're missing. It isn't just math teachers, accountants, and geometers who would help you. Your towns need more doctors, midwives, masons, and other folks who can help you catch up to the big cities.”

“If we need you so much,” said Valentina, “why are you leaving?”

“Curo! There's Curo. And Kroner. Guilder. Buck … good young man, Buck, really coming around as a surveyor. And Mark. Shekel. Shekel is the smartest. He's going to be the guild master, someday, or a professor at the Academy of Muntar.”

“Oh, that's right.” She seemed slightly disappointed. “You have apprentices. Five boys?”

“Yes!”
“And you're going to rescue them from poverty?” 

“Yes.” 

“Very well, then.” Her eyes narrowed. “But you're leaving behind an entire land, the whole Seven Valleys. At the least, you've abandoned the chief of two valleys, Vir. And you're doing it for just five boys.” 

“Well, yes.” He could see that from her point of view it wasn't a fair trade. But that was the point. No one else was going to rescue Denario's apprentices. Other folks could rescue these peasants. Maybe they could even rescue themselves.

“Have you taken an oath to them?” 

“I took ...” Denario didn't want to admit that he hadn't. These folks set a lot by oaths. “I took an oath to my old master.”

“But not to your god.”

“No. Nor to my guild, if that's what you're going to ask next.”

“I wasn't.” The tall woman seemed to read his body language with precision. She allowed herself a slight smile. “Guilds are a big city thing, I suppose. Around here, the carpenters have a guild. The farm workers tried to get one together too but the knight wouldn't allow it. Mostly, they aren't important here. Honor is important. Keeping oaths is important. And your master is dead. That frees you from your old oath.”

“Um ...” Denario tried to think fast. The hour of night and the wine weren't helping.

“So you could stay.”

“But ...”

“Unless you took another oath.”

“Yes.” He nodded but without quite comprehending.

“After all, we all took oaths for you. Surely you could go now to the temple and make an oath to your apprentices. Then no one can gainsay you.”

Denario tried out the idea. He set down his wine. This was the trick, he was sure. Somehow, it was what Druantia and maybe all the other little gods and goddesses around here wanted. But there was nothing wrong with it that he could see. Saving the boys was his goal, after all. It was why he'd set out from Ziegeburg – well, aside from the fact the mayor there had tried to kill him. The reason he'd gone in the first place was to save the practice for his apprentices. He wouldn't mind swearing to it.

He nodded. A moment later, there was a brief stumble out into the streets and through the North Ackerland night. To Denario's mind, it was an unsteady journey and a bit unclear in direction. The people up front, the mayor and a tall burgher, kept up a chatter in low voices. Denario got chilled to the bone because he wasn't wearing armor or many clothes, either. The group ducked down several alleys and changed direction once. Denario kept up by focusing on Hermann's back and by refusing to be distracted. Eventually, they stopped at the Temple of the Passion Gods. The doors opened and the group trudged in. Valentina poked Denario in the back to make him move. She herded him and the other men, too, toward the altar. On the way, they stepped over the bodies of rail-thin children sleeping on the temple floor.

A sleepy-eyed priest met them on the dais. He didn't speak crossly to the mayor but, in some manner of revenge for having been woken, he took his time preparing for the oaths. Whoever the Passion Gods were, the priest required that everyone present say a prayer to them while he rather awkwardly sacrificed of loaf of bread. He burned a crumb of the loaf in a candle flame.
“I really should have been given time to go catch a bird, mayor,” he grumbled at the end of the ritual.

“None of the children who are good at it are awake.” Ilse folded her arms. “And I'm not about to have you rouse them. Let's get on with it.” 

“Very well. Who is taking the oath?”
“The accountant!” all of the men and women said together. They pointed to Denario, who felt himself trying to shrink. The crowd parted for him. He walked up the aisle they made and was reminded of the wedding of Volfie and Elsa. He wondered if he would ever get married in a church like this. Probably not, if he couldn't persuade Pecunia. Most women didn't want to put up with a lot of math, much less enjoy it.

In front of the priest, between Mayor Richter and former burgher Ansel, the accountant made a holy “eight” symbol above his chest and head. The bitter tang of burnt acorns, which must have supplied half of the flour for the bread, hung in the air. The smell made him light headed. Or maybe that was the wine. The priest's voice rasped as he chanted the opening invocation. It was like standing in front of the breathy rumble of a bassoon played by someone who had downed a glass of sour beer. 

Then, when it became Denario's turn to speak, sobriety hit. He opened his eyes, looked around at the town leaders, heard the sniffles of refugee children in their sleep, listened to their parents rustling nearby, and noticed the sputter of the candles. The heat of the alcohol moved from his chest and temples into his hands and into his skin all over, especially his nose. He smiled as the priest handed him a lit taper.
“Now your oath,” the fellow muttered. He ended with a throat-clearing cough. 

This was it. What would Melcurio do, trapped like this? Step into the trap. The answer came to him instantly. Take over. Make it your own. Trap them right back.

“I swear,” he said. “In the name of Melcurio and in the faith of all of the gods and goddesses here present, I shall rescue my apprentices. Their names are Mark, Shekel, Guilder, Kroner, and Buck. I know they are waiting for me to help them. And my partner, Curo. I'll take care of them, even Curo, as well as any mortal can do.”

“Unto death?” The voice was Valentina's. Naturally. Denario didn't look over his shoulder. 

“Unto death,” he said, “theirs or mine. And no one here will move me aside. Do you swear?”

“I swear,” said Hermann. All the other men and even Valentina followed. Trapped you back, Denario thought. If you have any fear of your gods, I've got you now. You can't get in my way.

“Even if they have done bad things while I've been gone,” Denario continued, “I'll take care of them. I'll make them right.”

“Even if they've forsaken you?” Valentina said.

“They're my apprentices. Their parents trusted me to act as a parent to them. They cannot forsake me.”

“Pursue them, find them, do everything you can?” she continued. "Without failing, without betraying their trust? Or the trust of their parents?”

“Yes.” 

“And you'll take me as far as Fr├╝hlingburg?” 

“Yes, I'll take you as far as … uh, what place?” He raised an eyebrow. In front of him, the priest was open-mouthed. He glanced to his right. Hermann Ansel had turned around to gawk at his wife.
“Where?” said Hermann. 

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Four

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