Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 98: A Bandit Accountant, 16.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene Two: An Accounting 

The Oggli forces numbered eight men and one horse. The shiniest fellow was the lieutenant. He led his tired-looking gelding a few steps behind him. The horse seemed content to amble. It was a chestnut with a star pattern on its nose and a vacant look in its eyes. Unlike the lieutenant, it bore no armor. Apparently the beast had been drafted into the military to carry burdens. Yet it was healthy and probably the only horse within forty miles, a curiosity.

The officer let his animal snatch clumps of grass as they drew close. Denario gawked. The horse reminded him of his home in Oggli, where streets near the palace could get several inches deep in manure during the winter.

Denario recognized the lieutenant, moreover, a young man named Dvishvili. They'd met in the court of the Marquis de Oggli. He seemed to recognize Denario as well. As the accountant grew near, he ordered his men to lower their weapons.

Dvishvili was the only one wearing a full breastplate. In the center he bore a white, triangular pennant on a blue field, the colors of the marquis. Sewn on the lieutenant's shoulder was the purple hippogriff of Baron Ankster. His assistant, a corporal, also wore the hippogriff. The rest of the men looked like mercenaries of some sort. They were dressed in different styles of chain mail. Someone in authority had issued them swords but they were odd sizes. One was curved. Their weapons bore each a different insignia, none of them Oggli or Mundredi. Denario wondered if these were pirates caught and pardoned for the sake of conscription into the army. They looked scruffy and smelled like brine.

“Denario the Accountant, is it?” The lieutenant smiled but he raised a hand for Denario to halt.

“Yes. Lieutenant Dvishvili, I think?” Denario stopped. He felt abruptly grateful that he'd remembered the fellow's name. He must have met a hundred lieutenants in the court. “You were in the palace for several weeks.”

Dvishvili scowled. He had a thin, angular face and a rather pointed beard. His ebon hair, dark eyes, and relatively fair skin made him a striking figure. Denario remembered that a few matrons of the court had pressed themselves upon young officers and Dvishvili had been one. He'd seemed uncomfortable receiving the older women's attentions.

“It was a temporary assignment. Now I'm patrolling the borders of Baron Ankster's lands. No one told me we had an accountant out here. If you don't have legitimate business, I'll have to place you under arrest for your own protection.” He cast sinister glances at Hermann and Valentina but, in a way, he hardly noticed them. His glare was nothing personal. They were just peasants.

“I had a job in Zeigeburg,” said Denario. He felt determined to stick to the truth as closely as possible but his story was tricky. “The coach was attacked. I escaped with my life but I couldn't get back to the coach road. Nor could I risk it. So I headed northeast and, since then, I've been working my way west toward Oggli.”

“Working?”

“Book keeping, deciphering, and figuring out the odd accounting systems they have here. It's been interesting. I get paid in food. I've been surveying, too, on my own initiative. The marquis has a standing award fee for new maps. I've built up a collection.”

He patted the roll of scrolls and papers.

“I'll have to see those.” The lieutenant held out his left hand. With bad grace that was only partly feigned, Denario handed them over. He hoped the man understood how precious any halfway decent map could be.

Dvishvili harumphed and mumbled to himself. Although he was an educated man, he didn't seem like an avid reader. Denario remembered someone mentioning that the lieutenant was the youngest bastard son of a nobleman. He'd probably gotten his reading lessons a bit late in life. He struggled with the charts and the words as much as Valentina had done. Valentina, at least, had the excuse of reading in a foreign language.

“This looks useful.” The lieutenant handed the first map to his corporal. He peeled off another from the roll. “Nice. Very detailed.”

Denario began to sweat. Close to the center of the map roll were parchments that showed the way into Long Valley. The border mountains of Easy Valley were drawn, too. What would the lieutenant make of the fact that Denario had traveled through those hills? And could he read the obvious fact that there were wealthy, large towns left mostly undefended? The accountant had been a fool to leave those in the center of everything.

“This one is fine, too.” Dvishvili whipped off another, rather too carelessly for Denario's tastes. “You know, accountant, I received a new set of orders for me and my men. It came by courier a few towns back. What was that crossroads … Sniffleburg? Dam Thal?”

“It was Damnet Thal,” growled the tallest pirate-henchman.

“These little places have such funny names.” Dvishvili flashed a genuine if slightly mischievous smile. “Anyway, my orders told us news of a Mundredi spy headed this way. Can you believe it?”

Denario started to rub his hands. They were wet, so he stopped.

“It's good to see we've got our own spy.” The lieutenant pushed the unrolled maps on his corporal, a thin fellow who seemed too young to grow a decent beard. “Don't worry, we won't disturb your cover story. But you've got to do me a favor. You're a real accountant, right?”

“Of course!” Denario felt offended.

“Guild certified?” The lieutenant narrowed his gaze. At the same time, his corporal wrapped the last two maps around the roll and prepared to return them. Denario began to relax. He really didn't want anyone to see the charts on those few center scrolls.

“Yes, yes.” It was true, he'd passed the certification exams with ease. He'd been through the long ceremony that came after and he'd gotten his red sash.

“You can do a bit of magic, then.”

“No, I can't.”

“Come on, now. All Oggli and Anghrili certified accountants can do a bit of numeromancy.”

“How would you have heard about something like that?” He stalled for a few seconds of time. He needed to think.

“They can?” The corporal gaped. The enlisted men looked dumbfounded, too.

Dvishvili gave Denario a sly smile.

“Did you think the military doesn't know your guild secrets? We have our own trained accountants in the home office.”

“But they swore.” Denario realized it as his fingertips touched the roll of maps. He yanked them out of the hands of the corporal. “Damn it, they swore ...”

“What do you care ...”

“They swore to their gods! They were on their honor to the guild masters!”

“What makes you think it wasn't the guild masters themselves? You accountants can be had for a price.”

Whatever the look on Denario's face, the lieutenant closed his mouth. He studied Denario in silence for a moment. His corporal shrunk away from him. Hermann, who stood to Denario's left, leaned forward just slightly. It was a subtle movement but the accountant realized that his Mundredi friend was readying himself to draw his sword. However insulted Denario felt, it was nothing compared to the rage of the peasants who had seen their friends and family killed by Oggli men at arms. Hermann had been acting half-crazy for hours.

But as tempted as the accountant had been for an instant, he had no idea how his lighter baselard would hold up against an army sword like Dvishvili's. Actually, he did have an idea; that was the whole problem. He wasn't keen to prove his blade. He was more interesting in staying alive. The tension was broken when one of the Dvishvili's men cleared his throat.

“Merely as an enlisted fellow,” he said, “I wonder if I might have a word with the accountant and the lieutenant?”

“What?” The lieutenant seemed totally taken off guard. He blinked at the larger man.

“The favor, ahem.” The brute was comically concerned. He put a hand to his chest. “It is a matter of wages, after all.”

“Oh, yes. It is.”

“And the peasants should not stand so close to our men while we're gone or there will be a fight.”

“That's outrageous, Imesh, I ...” Dvishvili hesitated. He seemed to absorb the physical attitudes of everyone in an instant. He nodded and waved to his assistant. “See to it, corporal. Let the peasants go pray in their heathen graveyard or something.”

“Thank you, sir.” The burly henchmen led the way off of the road without looking back. He clearly intended for others to follow. The lieutenant, as his expression flashed with annoyance, gave in. Denario trailed after.

“Very well, you have your conference,” the lieutenant said as the accountant arrived to a spot thirty yards away. “What's this all about, Imesh?”

“You shouldn't have told those two peasants that the accountant is a spy, sir,” grumbled the henchman. Yes, he was definitely a senior man, probably in his late twenties. He looked older even than Dvishvili. Flecks of grey marred his dark, brown beard. “That's going to make trouble for him.”

“Oh.” Dvishvili rubbed his jaw. He leaned closer to Denario so he couldn't be overheard. “Do you want us to kill those peasants or something?”

“No, don't hurt them. They're good servants.” Denario had to pause and re-think. He was still upset over the slander about accountants. There was the loss of guild secrets to consider, too. It was one thing to tell a spouse or a foreigner such privileged information, quite another to admit to magic in front of a wizard or a nobleman. That was an act undertaken only for guild jobs at guild rates. The guild expected discretion. “They swore oaths to help me and they've taken the oaths seriously. They're on our side. Well, they're on my side, at least.”

“On the side with the most money for them, more like.”

“There may be something to that. But they've been very useful. And faithful to me. I won't break the faith.”

“Good on ye.” The piratical enlisted man gave a gap-toothed grin.

The lieutenant took a deep breath.

“I apologize for what I said about accountants,” he mumbled.

“No, I was angry, but maybe that's because I think you're right about our guild masters. They seem to be for sale.” Masters Spioniladro and Filchi fit the lieutenant's idea of crass bead-counters all too well. “But it wasn't always that way. I'll do my best to set things right in the future.”

“Well. Nicely said.” The lieutenant nodded.

“So ...” Denario put his hands on his hips and looked at his boots for a moment. They weren't accounting boots but they had a dark brown-red color. He felt they went well with his vest. He wondered for a moment if he could wear them in the city or if his friends would think it too strange. “What is this favor you're leading up to ask me about? It must have something to do with numeromancy.”

The lieutenant and his man took turns clearing their throats.

“Well, I wouldn't want it to get about.” Dvishvili rubbed his black-furred chin. “But I'm here as a mercenary. We all are. We're not the knight's men or the baron's, exactly, despite our uniforms. We're paid by contract to a whole group of barons. And we're not sworn in by them.”

“But you got to keep your uniforms.”

“Well, I got out of the service on the same day as a few of my friends. There was a lot of pressure to re-sign with the marquis, of course. Half of us did. But I'd fulfilled my oath. I wanted something new. And it grew clear that when decommissioned troops reported to the paymaster for our final bit of silver, we wouldn't get it. Instead, we'd be handed an IOU like the other low officers and we'd have to turn in our uniforms on top of that insult. I've been with the Marquis for eight years. I hardly have any other clothes. So that didn't appeal.”

“How did you hear about the barons?”

“One of Blockhelm's men came for us in the officer's bar. He bought us a round of drinks and said he'd heard we didn't want to fight against the King of Faschnaught. We said we didn't care about Faschnaught one way or the other. But he went on and said that the upriver barons were paying good wages to officers on six month contracts. It was payment in silver plus all we could pillage. We only needed to recruit our own troops.”

“Which you did.”

“Yes. Imesh and his friends needed to jump ship. I needed soldiers.”

“We all needed paid,” grunted Imesh.

“Right,” said Denario. “Are they supposed to get cash to you all the way out here?”

“No. That wouldn't do much good. And we missed our first pay because we had to hike along the Lamp Kill.” The lieutenant threw up his arms. “It was either that or hire a coach and they hadn't given us enough spending money for that. Last week we were supposed to turn back to Sir Fettertyr's castle, rest for a few days, and collect two pay allotments. Instead, we got orders to march north and west to check out some fighting. That used the last of our provisions, so we're on our way back.”

“And you'll collect three allotments now?” Denario wondered. He remembered what Vir had said about how the nobility treated mercenaries. He caught the mention of provisions, too. These men weren't living off the land or off the hospitality of towns.

“We'll be almost due. But I'm suspicious.” Dvishvili reached into a pouch on his left hip. From it, he took a parchment scroll that looked fresh. It was hardly creased and still had a red ribbon around it. “Here's our last set of orders. You see, when I signed my contract, it said we'd patrol a certain amount each day with breaks for rest and provisions. I'd swear we've already patrolled more miles than we should. We're doing more work for less pay and no rest. But the orders say they come from Sir Hiemdahl, whom I trust. He would never work us more without offering to pay.”

“Should I know him?”

“Probably not. He was never at court. He was just a good soldier, knighted for bravery. But he's been wounded so that he has to take desk jobs. I never heard anything dishonest about him.”

Denario held out his hand. The lieutenant hesitated. He glanced to his enlisted man and then to the more distant group that included his corporal. Then he gave the scroll to the accountant.

After slipping off the ribbon, Denario handed that part back. He unrolled the sheet of fine parchment and held it up to the light, in front of the sun.

“How can you read it like that?” Dvishvili asked.

“I can't.” Denario let his gaze run across the lines of ink. Yes, there were a few spots on the parchment that might have been scratched with a razor. The work had been done by an expert. There were no remnants of the old numbers.

On paper, this sort of forgery would have been difficult to disguise. An attempt to cut or erase would have been obvious. On the calfskin used for vellum, though, it was possible. All it took was a good artist. In this case, the artist had matched ink colors too well. It was going to be difficult indeed to work out what had been changed.

Denario turned the page so that it was edge-on to the sun.

“Now what?” said Dvishvili. “Oh, hello, corporal.”

The accountant glanced to his right. The rest of the baron's troops were approaching. At the back of their line, a man led the lieutenant's horse. Denario heard footfalls behind him, too. Valentina and Hermann must have seen the troops move and decided to protect Denario. He glanced to his left and saw Mundredi boots. Well, that was fine as long as no one started fighting.

“I think these orders were changed along the way to you,” said Denario. “But the inks match almost perfectly. We're going to have to check the bank sum. I don't think that's been touched.”

“What's a bank sum? Is that magic?” The lieutenant rubbed his hands eagerly. His men, however, stepped back. Even Hermann moved off further to one side.

“It's math,” said Denario. “Maybe we'll use magic later. For now, I want some volunteers to draw numbers in the dirt. Who can write?”

To the accountant's surprise, only the Oggli corporal and Valentina raised their hands.

“Come on, now,” said the corporal. “We can't have a woman do it. Surely you can write, lieutenant.”

“Not sums, I'm afraid.” Dvishvili shrugged. “Never saw the point in math. And I'll be glad to have a native woman show you up, Fred, if she does.”

The corporal moved his mouth for a moment but he gained control of his emotions. His lips closed tight and pale.

“Just tell me what to do,” he said tersely. He pulled out a long, slim dagger and knelt in the grass and dirt. On the other side of Denario, Valentina did the same and adopted a similar pose.

“Right, then. See these little numbers in the upper left corner, lieutenant?”

“Barely. Are those numbers? I thought they were part of the military seal. They look funny. And they never mean anything to the message, I know, or someone would have told me.”

“They provide a way to check every written military order or bank note if you know how. You see, the banks in Muntar started the practice of writing checksums on messages about four hundred years ago. They did it in base 16 arithmetic back then, perhaps because they had those fancy counting machines. And that's why they put letters among the numbers to allow for sixteen digits including a zero. Most of those old calculating machines are lost but accountants know how to do checksums by hand. When I was a boy, I noticed that the marquis and the military still use the old Muntar bank checksums. They've got the method duplicated right down to the hexadecimal. I worked out a few of the military checksums just for fun.”

“For fun, eh? What a strange boy you must have been. And now what?”

“Now we do the first step. We find out if your orders have been changed on the way from Heimdahl to you.”

Denario gave orders to Valentina and to Corporeal Fred as if he were a pompous master accountant who brooked no backtalk from the help. They dutifully scratched their numbers in the dirt. Hermann even assisted his wife by pulling up clumps of grass to give her more room to work. Strictly speaking, the accountant didn't need assistance. He could have done the math faster himself. But the situation seemed similar to those he'd encountered with his apprentices. Sometimes boys wanted to fight. And what could you do then? You could keep them busy thinking about something else for a while. Enlisting aides was a way to keep hostilities to a minimum.

“Have you got the first row?” he asked as he saw the corporal draw the last loop in the number eight. Each letter in the alphabet was assigned its ordinal value in the Muntar system. The checksum for a row was simply the ordinals summed and summed again until they produced a number less than 16, in this case 'A,' which stood for ten.

Denario had to correct the corporal's addition twice. Fred wrote and calculated sums quickly but he kept making mistakes. Valentina worked at half the speed but she never wrote a sum without being very, very sure it was correct. So she'd been faster to finish the first line, which the corporal didn't like.

“Excellent,” he continued. He tried to jolly the army man along. “Now we chop the total into pieces, right to left, and add again.”

He led them both to the correct answer. His results matched the first digit of the first line of the checksum. He'd expected that. The opening line was just the date the order was written, the author's name, and the name of the officer for whom the orders were intended. It would have been a surprise if Sir Fettertyr or someone else along the way had felt the need to change those. The accountant felt he'd discover the forgeries in later lines, particularly around the references to patrol miles and to pay. He divided the Mundredi woman's work and the corporal's work into separate batches of message lines. That kept the corporal from being irritated by being constantly compared to a woman. Due to there being an odd number of lines, it also gave the fellow one extra job to complete, another face-saver.

Halfway through the process, Denario saw that the Sir Heimdahl's orders had indeed been changed by someone who didn't understand checksums. That was a relief because if Denario had suspected changes but the checksums matched, he'd have had to worry about the sophistication level of the espionage. It was possible for wizards to fool numeromancers by inserting magical numbers in place of the true ghosts, for instance, and accountants hadn't worked out how it was done. Denario felt sure now that he didn't have to deal with that. By the end of the mundane summing process, he knew the lines 5, 7, 9 though 11, and line 14 had been edited even though the alterations weren't obvious. The sums for the lines didn't match the places in the military code up top.

When he told Dvishvili the news, the lieutenant clapped his hands. His dark eyes glowed.

“Brilliant!” he said.

“Thanks to Frau Ansel and Corporal Fred.” Denario had almost forgotten to be polite. When he got engrossed in math, he had to remind himself. His weeks spent traveling alone had made him worse, he judged. But the Ansels had re-civilized him a bit and the adrenaline thrill of nearly being arrested had sharpened his social wits.

“You did a lot of it in your head.” Dvishvili waggled his eyebrows. He was comically good at it. Denario remembered that the ladies in Oggli had laughed. “I could see it.”

“My old master trained me on finding forgeries like this,” Denario said.

“Have you figured out the original numbers?” When the lieutenant said this, two of his mercenaries leaned in to get a look at the orders. Denario realized they didn't understand what he'd done. They expected to see a change on the page. Did they think checksums were magic? Probably they did. The accountant felt a surge of sympathy. They didn't know the difference between math and magic. Maybe they'd never get it.

“No, sorry, lieutenant. If the forgery had been done on paper, we might have some idea. But on parchment, well, whoever did this was skilled and careful.” He turned the page so that everyone could see that the marks on it hadn't changed.

The lieutenant barely took the time to rub his beard.

“So it's down to numeromancy, then,” he said.

“Could be. Do you understand that numeromancy will only uncover the missing numbers, not the text?”

“You can't magic the words?”

“No. I'll get the erased digits. That's my best. Advanced practitioners can get the numbers when they're written out as words but that's not me. I've only done this in the guild hall before. Also, it's a form of death magic. Are you sure you want to do it?”

“What does this have to do with death?”

“Erased numbers have a sort of spiritual existence. We'll be raising the ghosts of the buried numerals. They hover around the page for a while. Apparently, they can linger for years near tomes that haven't moved much. But the more a document is moved around and touched, the more faded the ghosts of numbers past become. Eventually, they get lost entirely.”

“But we've walked near thirty miles!” Dvishvili wailed.

“Expect pale ghosts. Maybe a few will be gone. But your orders are fresh. I don't think we'll have lost too many. The magic should be worth the price.”

“Ah, the price. We're not carrying much money, you know. What's this going to cost?”

“The guild rate is ten gold for attempting numeromancy.” Denario said it automatically but he knew it posed a problem.

“Two gold,” countered the lieutenant. “And we don't arrest you.”

“Lieutenant, it's the rate.” He threw out his hands. “It doesn't move except upward. You can write an IOU if you like but I can't be foresworn to my guild.”

“We're in the service of the barons. That must count for something.”

“I've had a moment to think about it.” Denario put his fists on his hips. “Let's see if the barons are good for the money. Don't bill it to them directly. Charge it to Sir Heimdahl. Let him bill it back to his employers.”

“Ah.” That got a smile from the dapper lieutenant.

“Pay a token amount, whatever makes sense to you. That's so we have a down payment and I can swear it to my guild. Then write a note for the rest. Explain that an accountant found signs of forgery on your orders so you had pay a numeromancy fee to discover the truth. Then send a copy of the true order and the falsified order back with me, sealed. Leave it to Heimdahl to pay me.”

“Are you sure? I love him but he's tight with funds.”

“Is your word good with him? You know him personally, right?”

“Yes.”

“Will he be offended if the barons are changing his orders?”

“It's a stain on his honor.”

“Then his paymaster will take care of me. If he won't, it's out of your hands, lieutenant. The debt won't be held to you. The guild will say it's up to me to collect. I can give your note to my guild bosses if your superiors try to haggle. The guild will take a cut but they'll uphold the honor of the deal. That's what a guild is for, after all.”

“Excellent.” Dvishvili rubbed his hands together. He heaved a small sigh of relief and ordered his corporal to take out paper and ink. “We'll compose a note for your right of free passage. I'll mention that your coach from Zeigeburg was attacked. Should I include details?”

Denario thought back to the scene of the broken carriage and the bodies being looted. He shuddered. The lieutenant looked deep into his eyes and he saw the answer.

“Maybe not, then,” said Dvishvili, hardly missing a beat.

It took the man a few minutes to compose his letter, which he did mostly through dictation. His corporal's writing was not the best. As Fred had done with his math in the dirt, he made mistakes. He wasn't good at recovering from them. So despite the official letterhead of the mercenary headquarters in Oupenli – it said at the top, 'Free Lances of the Five Barons' – the lieutenant's note didn't seem as impressive as the ones from local Mundredi mayors. Of course, it didn't need to rely on looks. It was backed by military authority. Denario's hand-crafted letters of passage appeared impressive but that was because they needed help. They were backed by nothing.

Even as the ink was drying, Denario had a disturbing thought. Now I've got an official letterhead. I can forge military orders if I need to. Then he wondered where that treasonous idea had come from. It would be a bad thing to do, he told himself. But another part of him, the one concerned with math, added, I know the military checksums. It would be easy.

The accountant realized that, as of today, the barons would know an accountant understood their checksums. They might see it as expected. Or they might see it as a startling revelation. One way or another, though, Sir Heimdahl would surely tell them.

What Denario said as he accepted the scroll was, “Is Oupenli my destination?”

“Yes. Heimdahl has set up a military camp inside its borders for legal reasons. That should be fine, shouldn't it? I'd think you'll have to pass through it on your way to Oggli.”

“Yes, the coach stopped there on my way to Zeigeburg. It's an amazing place.”

Embassy Row in the city of Oupenli was a colorful sight. Many of the buildings were painted outlandish hues and flew strange flags. If they didn't show off with their architecture, the embassies erected pavilions out front to do the same thing.

It was strange that Oupenli was still allowed to exist, a free city sandwiched between the lands of many sworn barons and knights of West Ogglia. But it had been traditionally free for ages and somehow that made it acceptable. It was a home to smugglers of all sorts, many of whom paid bits of cash to local knights to keep it lawless. Plus there were the free lancers, knights of no allegiance but of some means of support. Along with such alarming figures were worse ones: mercenaries, rogue wizards, witches, priests of small gods, and nobles from far off places, most of whom came to Oupenli for the fun. Apparently, the nobles regarded it as a place to relax where there were no formal rules and a bit of money was respected, especially when accompanied by men with weapons.

“If your servants won't go as far as Oupenli, you should take advantage of Heimdahl's protection.” Dvishvili pounded his fist in sort of an 'aha' moment. “That city is nice to rich folks but for everyone else it's a risk. Men gamble. They get into fights over women. Could there be anything sillier? Yet it happens. There are duels in Oupenli nearly every day.”

“No one would challenge an accountant, I hope.”

“Perhaps not. But stay away from the women. And you should take what protection and supplies you can. I must say that you seem well provisioned. You might be better off than I am. Look at us.” Dvishvili pressed his fingers to his breastplate. “Do you see any bows? Arrows? No, not a single one. We can't fight our way into these larger peasant villages and they know it. They stand back and fire at us until we go away.”

“That's ...” Laceo struggled. The words 'good' and 'appropriate' would seem treasonous. He scratched his oiled hair before he let his thoughts change course. “That's too bad. Does that mean you get no food from the locals? They don't sell to you?”

“Sell? They won't even talk to me. They shoot before they can even meet us properly. How the hell have you managed to get from town to town without armor?”

“My servants are carrying my armor, lieutenant.” He gestured to the hard, leather hauberk. “I've taken four shots to the chest from a long distance. But I'm still here.”

“And they talk to you after they shoot you?”

“One man alone or one man with native guides must seem more harmless than you. And aren't they right to think so?”

“Of course. It's a compliment, in a way.” The lieutenant smiled for a moment. But the expression faded. “But it makes for lonely marches. And we've come across two other towns like this one, all burnt out from fighting.”

“That's what's put you at the limit of your provisions so fast, then.” That was interesting. It seemed important in a military way, so Denario almost turned to the Mundredi to say something about it. Instead, he stammered, “Uh, me, too. But I can continue to perform accounting along the way for my food. I don't need anything from you.”

“I wasn't implying that I could give anything.” The lieutenant waved off the idea. “At least now I'm relieved of the task of arresting you. You've got a military mission now, legitimate business.”

The idea made Denario's palms sweat. He wiped one hand on his trousers.

Attempting to appear casual, he said, “I really could use the money.”

“Well, I've done my part. Stick to the main roads and wave your pass around. I think the hostility among the peasants here is overblown.”

“If you say so, lieutenant.”

“How were we going to feed him?” asked Fred. The corporal's eyes narrowed. He turned on his officer.

“Eh?”

“If we arrested the accountant, how were you planning to feed him? I don't think we can actually make arrests after a week of travel. We can't afford to feed anyone besides ourselves on the return trip or we'll all starve.”

“You talk a bit too much, Fred.” The lieutenant leaned over his subordinate. He was nearly half a head taller.

“That seems like a flaw in your orders,” said Denario.

“It does, doesn't it?” Dvishvili grinned as if caught like a child stealing sweets. “Well, I won't bother Sir Heimdahl about it. He's got enough to worry about. From here, I'm going to take the road west toward Sir Fettyrtyr. I suppose you should continue south.”

“Yes.”

“No arrest or fine, as I said, but I'll have to report on you.”

“That's only natural. If any knight or baron has a problem with me crossing their lands unannounced, he can take it up with my guild when I get to court.”

“There is that.” Dvishvili nodded, comforted. “And now I'll write you the IOU in Sir Heimdahl's name. I'm only going to give you two silvers. Is that okay?”

Denario paused to consider but it was only for effect.

“Any down payment is good,” he said. “It's on your honor and I'll sign for the receipt of it on your IOU, too, so Heimdahl doesn't have to pay that part again.”

The appeal to the lieutenant's honor was good for an extra silver piece. It probably would have been more but, as a disinherited bastard son, Dvishvili was about as poor as officers got. Denario vaguely remembered the man's half-brother, a staggering drunkard. The drunkard was the legal heir, though. That one would get the estate money, knew it, and had made a start on spending it all.

Here was an example of the downside of primogeniture. Denario had just been writing in his journal about how bad tanistry was. Now he was reminded that, in Oggli, only the eldest legitimate sons inherited. Competent men like Dvishvili, who should have inherited something, anything, had to scramble for funds. Now the lieutenant had turned into a mercenary. His armor was probably technically stolen, too, although no one would call him on it.

“Do you have a magic token?” asked Denario. He was already thinking ahead to the next step. “Anything with a blessing on it?”

“That's for richer men than I, accountant. Or for religious fools, I suppose.”

“Then we'll have to use the graveyard.” Numeromancy needed a source of magic. Accountants weren't wizards. They couldn't make magic or store it up, just manipulate it.

There were many components to the spell he was going to try. The first of them was a magical item. Back in Oggli, the best accountants kept a charmed trinket on hand in case numeromancy was demanded. Denario didn't have anything magical to spare but he could try a substitute. The natural background aura created by worshipers would work in theory. He'd never tested the theory. He'd never known anyone who'd tried. The Secret Accounting Guide said it would work. That's all he knew. But he worried about what would happen if the Sun God or some other magical creature objected to what he was doing. The Secret Accounting Guide had warned of it.

“Let's stand on the east side of the Pillar of the Sun.” Denario reasoned that the totem pole was damaged and probably leaking enchantments anyway.

“You mean the one that they desecrated?” growled Hermann Ansel. They were his first words he'd spoken to anyone other than his wife in quite a while. His tone was such that three of the mercenaries put hands to their sword pommels.

“Not us,” said the lieutenant. He hadn't been bothered by Hermann's accusation. His expression remained carefully pleasant. “You saw us arrive. In any case, no mercenary would anger local gods without direct orders.”

“How can we know?”

“You can't.” Dvishvili rubbed his chin. “But I think the gods would know. Wouldn't you agree?”

Hermann had no answer for a long while.

“I will go pray for us,” he said eventually. “I pray that we may all be forgiven.”

“A good prayer for mercenaries.” The lieutenant nodded. His men relaxed and took their hands from their swords. Everyone marched onward, following the native guides.

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