Sunday, November 26, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 100: A Bandit Accountant, 16.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene Four: Still Wanted 

Half a mile into their march to Frühlingburg, Hermann Ansel began to stomp. It was as if he'd come back to life. His grey-faced, deadly pallor lifted. His limbs moved with constrained anger.

“He belongs to Baron Ankster, that lieutenant.” Stomp, stomp, stomp. The peasant plodded onward for another hundred yards. Denario had time to wonder where the man's mind was traveling. “He's one of Fettyrtyr's men now.”

“He's a mercenary,” Denario pointed out. “Dvishvili thinks there's a difference. The barons think so, too, even if you and I might not care. The barons aren't liable to the families of mercenaries the way they are to sworn subjects. But yes, the lieutenant is helping your knight patrol these lands.”

“We should have killed him like we should kill Fettertyr.”

“There were eight of them.” Denario gasped at the enormity of the failure to understand. “That's not how the battle would have ended, Hermann.”

For a few seconds, Herr Ansel's face turned dark red. The man trembled. His hand fell to his sword. It remained there and it made Denario wonder. Would he be struck down at any second by his own guide? He waited. After they traveled about another hundred yards, Hermann's hand fell away from the pommel.

“Maybe not,” the man breathed. “But it should have. It should.”

“Career soldiers like the lieutenant are a danger. But they're only a danger when they're being paid by Baron Ankster. If you could afford mercenaries, you could hire someone like Dvishvili yourself.”

“Really? He'd switch to us, that fancy officer?”

“It might not be as simple as offering a wage. For Lieutenant Dvishvili to switch to your side, he'd need to feel you were going to win. But believe me, Dvishvili and a lot of the low-level officers and even the enlisted men in the army aren't committed to killing the Mundredi in the way the nobles are. They're just trying to make a living.”

“A living. You mean the soldiers don't do anything else? They don't farm? They don't hunt?”

“No. They're not farmers or clock makers or anything else while they're soldiers. It's like with Vir's men but for much longer. The Oggli soldiers stay in the army for twenty years, some of them. When they make enough money or they get wounded, they might need to find a different profession. But while they're in the army, all they do is train and fight.”

“They must be great fighters, then.”

"Among the best that money can buy, I believe.”

Valentina snorted. It took her husband a few more seconds to catch the accountant's meaning. But he did. His eyes glinted. His jaw jutted out.

“We fight, too, most of our lives,” he muttered. “And we're loyal. We can't be bought. We're not so bad.”

“I think the Mundredi and Raduar fight more than any people I've known. If it came down to bravery, not numbers or equipment, you wouldn't be in danger from the nobles.”

Hermann grunted. His face twisted as he tried to digest the thought.

“Back there ...” Valentina hesitated. “In the graveyard, back there, it was brave of you to cast that spell. I should take back all the bad things I said about accountants.”

It was Denario's turn to think for a moment.

“You never said anything particularly bad,” he ventured.

“Then I take back the bad things I thought. I had no idea that someone could lie with numbers. I suppose it should have occurred to me but I've not seen many numbers written down. And then there's the idea that you could detect a lie with numbers. That's almost useful.”

“Thank you.” Denario tried to keep the sarcasm from his voice without much success.

“I already knew the maps might be useful. I'm rather disappointed.” Valentina strode a little closer, just a pace or two behind the men. She touched her lip with a finger. “I mean that I'm disappointed the army men understood them. I thought maps were more of a secret than that.”

“They're common among the educated classes in Oggli,” said Denario. Around the coast of the Complacent Sea, in fact, maps were the most popular sort of publications written. There was even a subscription for wealthy navigators, captains, merchants, and wizards called Magical Islands Monthly. It tracked the latest changes in geography around the sea. It was worth reading simply for the outraged letters to the editor that cast blame on wizards, witches, pirates, and underwater kingdoms for the inconvenient transformations. Coastlines changed constantly everywhere around the Complacent Sea. The editor printed at least one entertaining complaint each month.

“You didn't tell us that you were taking maps to Oggli.” Hermann didn't sound as full to the brim with anger as he'd been but he seemed to be making an accusation. Denario needed to set the matter right.

“That's because I'm not. We were lying, remember? I've been planning to update the guild library, it's true, but I would never take my maps to Marquis de Oggli. I wouldn't even do it for a reward. You'd have to meet the marquis to know why. I wouldn't want my maps put to military use, not by him or his soldiers.”

"But you're fine about sending them to Vir," Valentina pointed out.

“That's different." Was it? He'd never questioned it before. He glanced from wife to husband. “Vir needs these. He didn't ask. He's not paying me. I know he needs maps. Anyway, I've told you my intentions. Do you doubt me?”

“Well ...” Hermann slowed his gait. Really, when he wasn't insane over the loss of his daughters, he was a mild fellow. “I suppose not.”

“Then you'll swear to it, won't you?” Valentina nagged from behind them. “If those are your intentions, it should be no problem.”

“Yes, that sounds good.” Hermann agreed.

“Damn it!” Denario felt insulted. But he'd known that Valentina never gave up. She was still trying for some sort of advantage. “Again? Well, maybe I will. But if I do, you'll have to swear to something, too.”

“Fine.” Hermann would have sworn to anything, probably. “In Frühlingburg? We're making good time. If we don't stop of at Einferd Wad, we should be there tomorrow morning.”

“You mean you want to swear at a church?” Denario didn't even want to talk about Einferd Wad. He wasn't sure the lieutenant's note would protect him there.

“Of course. They're not completely foreign. They worship Tannus there.”

“Right. You too, Valentina?” Denario said. He glanced over his shoulder at Hermann's wife. He'd meant it as a statement but somehow seeing her impassive face had turned it into a question.

“What do you want me to swear to, accountant?” she asked.

“I don't know. I'll think of something.”

She chuckled but not in a mean way. At least she didn't outright refuse.

“You sent maps to Vir but your loyalty is still to your home city of Oggli,” she added by way of an explanation. “It's not unreasonable to ask you to swear.”

“Aye, you're not loyal to a clan.” Her husband gave Denario a slow, mournful look.

“Yes, I am.” Denario thought fast. What would these folks understand of loyalty to friends in a city? “My clan is my guild. Or maybe it's my accounting practice. There are only six people in the practice now aside from me. There's my partner Curo, then there's Kroner, Buck, Shekel, Guilder, and Mark.”

“That's your house, then. A clan is many houses. Your clan would be your whole guild at the least.”

“Right. Well, Vir said that the senior members of my guild tried to take advantage of me. And he's right. I think they tried to get me killed.”

"So now you're loyal to your house and nothing more?”

“If saying that helps you to understand me, yes.”

“Not to your marquis?”

“He's not loyal to me, so no.” As he said it, he paused. Those words were nearly treason back home. Denario had met John de Nack, the current marquis, any number of times. He was a tall, pompous man. His hair was blonde and his shoulders were as strong as his father's had been. He kept his beard trim but let his mustache grow huge and floppy. He wore perfume and fine clothes. He expected everyone to bow to his every whim. Everyone did.

John was good-looking and charismatic in his selfish way. He had grown into a talented swordsman and had become a lot of other things, too, that Denario wasn't but wished he was. But in the end, John de Nack was so openly self-serving that Denario had come to despise him regardless of the admirable stuff.

Going beyond his usual, venal manner, the marquis had killed one of his civil engineers in a tantrum. He'd slit an unarmed man's throat because the engineer had dared to tell him that building a bridge the way the marquis wanted it would cost too much money. Later, he'd sacked his treasury room staff because they'd reported, as required, the real account numbers. So Denario bowed to the marquis and he did the marquis' work but he never forgot. It was impossible to give fealty, even measly-journeyman-accountant fealty, to someone who didn't value it. The marquis was loyal to no one but himself. So Denario guessed that almost no one in his court could be completely loyal to him.

“And to Vir.” Valentina stepped closer, almost between the two men. “You must be faithful to Vir. After all, he had enough faith in you to give you that coin.”

The men slowed down further to contemplate the idea.

“He was a fool to give me anything.” Denario felt he had to say it. Vir was a killer, a brute, and superstitious farmer all at once. And he was more than that. He was rudely honest, unfearing, and an inspiring leader in a terror-inducing sort of way. He was loyal to his troops all the time, every second of every day of the rest of his life, however brief that might be. Despite what local women said, he was not good looking. He was the opposite of the marquis in every way. “We did save each other's lives, I suppose. But ...”

“But you don't think he can win.” Valentina was smiling. She loved a fight and she wanted to start one now just for the sake of the conflict. He knew that if he'd been praising Vir, she'd have found a way to criticize him instead.

“He's got one hundred men against six hundred Raduar.” Denario couldn't seem make the Mundredi believe the numbers. Of all the people Denario had known, Vir deserved loyalty as much as anyone but Master Winkel. Nevertheless, those were the numbers. “Valentina, that's what he's guessing he needs to face in his first major battle. That sounds hard and it's probably harder than it sounds. He thinks there are two Raduar armies. If a miracle occurs twice and he wins through those, he's got to go against Ogglian forces numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands, all of them equipped with steel and with horses.”

“We can get horses, too, if we want them.” Valentina stuck out her jaw. It was a gesture that her husband used, too, and Denario was struck by how similar they were. Maybe that was why they didn't seem to get along.

“Hundreds of them? I doubt it. And Vir has got brass swords,” Denario continued. “He's got brass spear tips. He fights on foot. It's crazy to go up against plate steel and cavalry like that. So to top it off, he gives me the only proof of his royal heritage.”

“Well, what good was it doing him?”

Denario took a deep breath. “Not much, that's true.”

“Maybe … maybe this is why the goddess wanted us to travel with you. We've kept you safe. You've kept us safe. And we can make you see why you should be loyal.”

“I am loyal. I'm going to save my accounting practice and everyone in it.”

“So you swore. But aren't you faithful to Vir even a little?”

“He's a fool.”

“That's not answering the question. I've been loyal to fools all my life.”

Denario decided not to look at Hermann.

“Valentina,” he began, “even most of the Mundredi don't really follow Vir. In the valleys, they've never given much tax power to the chieftains. Outside the valleys, some of your folks don't even consider him their leader. They think of him as a bandit.”

“We'll settle those people,” grumbled Hermann.

The road to Frühlingburg crested a hill and turned. Ahead, Denario could see lush, cultivated fields. He couldn't make out the type of crops from this distance and for that matter, he'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between celery and cabbage. The important thing was seeing the farms at all. Surely the presence of plowed and planted lands meant they were coming close to a town.

Around the bend, there was an better sign. Off the side of the road to the left on a boulder exposed by erosion sat a covered gazebo. It served as an outdoor temple of some sort. Its roof looked expensive, not covered by thatch but by wooden tiles, some of them carved with icons. The posts of the shelter had been chiseled with the local clan signs. Denario recognized a plow and a double-sickle. On either side of the steps leading into the shelter were totem poles for the local deities.

"This is the harvest god shelter,” explained Valentina. “I've been here before. Hermann must have passed by it three or four times himself. We're only three miles from Frühlingburg.”

“Do the totems mark the border?”

“Of a sort, yes. The territory of Eleus begins here. Worshipers of Haphrometer drop off their god-tokens, sometimes, and pick up the tokens of Eleus as they head into Frühlingburg. Travelers from Frühlingburg toward South Ackerland do the same. Or they did, once. I expect there are no tokens left.”

“Isn't that cheating?” asked Denario although he didn't disapprove. “You're currying favor with the local harvest deities going both ways. Won't they mind?”

“Not so long as it's sincere.”

They continued down the slope beside the temple. There was obviously no one in it and no good reason to stop for a visit but Denario felt regretful about passing it by. He wouldn't have minded a moment of prayer to such understanding gods. Besides, he could have had a few minutes to tell them about accounting. As he slowed down to mention that he'd like to see the temple, he noticed that Hermann had already stopped.

The Mundredi man turned back and met his wife. He muttered something to her. She shrugged in reply.

“That could be another wanted poster of Vir up there by the totem,” said Hermann as he turned to explain to Denario.

“You mean a picture of him as a bandit?” Denario shaded his eyes from the late afternoon sun. He could see that someone had posted a scrap of parchment to one of the uncarved beams of the gazebo. Whoever had done it had possessed enough sense to avoid covering a god mark or clan mark. That might mean a Mundredi priest had put it up or it could have been an Ogglian subject with an earnest desire to avoid provoking fights.

“I'm going to take it down.” Hermann didn't wait for anyone to reply. He spun and headed across the slope and up toward the temple stairs. The path to the harvest god site was inlaid with crude stones, shiny, gold-colored shale made dull with dirt and constant wear. The last few yards of the path led to steps cut into a small rise. The steps were paved with the same shale.

“Someone may see you!” Valentina exclaimed. Her arms fluttered. She walked after him for a yard or two. But she stopped at the edge of the road that her husband had left. Anyway, Denario knew that if Hermann hadn't offered, she would have wanted to take it down herself. It was just they way they were. “Anyone could be watching you from the south, you know.”

“So what?” he called.

“Hmph.” Valentina raised her chin in his direction. She folded her arms and waited.

Hermann trudged along the path about forty yards before he reached the temple stairs. He was getting good at plodding heavily, in a temper, for long distances. Denario wondered if the man was hurting his feet. The winter had been so hard on him that he didn't fill out his clothes correctly. That included his loose boots.

When the Mundredi came to the top of the short staircase, he stopped to make a holy sign. Whether it was to Tannus or to Eleus or some other local deity, Denario didn't know. The gesture ended when he dipped his right knee to kneel on the top step. After that, Hermann rose and ambled into the open-air temple. He touched a few holy signs and a clan sign, too, paying his respects. He didn't seem to be in a hurry to grab the parchment. Eventually, he came to it. He reached for for the top of the page and stopped.

His fingers made contact. He pulled back. Denario knew something was wrong. Maybe the magic of the image was tainted. Maybe the poster had been hung with a curse on it to prevent anyone from removing it. Either one of those could happen. All the way out here, though, Denario realized they had to be unlikely. Magic was expensive. Tracings from a magical portrait were cheap. From a distance, this one looked like a tracing if only from the thin, ragged edges of the parchment. It didn't make sense for anyone, even a baron, to pay for truly magical images. If they did, they wouldn't put them on sub-standard parchment.

Hermann trembled. Denario could see him building up his nerve. He touched the nails as if he expected them to burn him. When they didn't, he grabbed them hard. He sawed them back and forth bare-handed until they came out, first one, then the other. Denario knew he could never have done that himself. His grip wasn't strong enough and his fingers would have been torn to bleeding.

As if in a daze, Hermann held the parchment high. Then he folded it over. His boots clumped down the temple stairs. He failed to make god-signs as he left.

When got within a few yards from the accountant, Denario could see tears in the man's eyes. But he had a smile on his face. It was such an odd expression, sadness and light, that Denario couldn't tell if the man was crying or laughing. He kept unfolding and refolding the parchment. At last he came to the space between his wife and the accountant.

“Look,” he said. He unfolded it again although he held it the wrong way around. The page faced Hermann. “It's another magic picture.”

“We've seen it before,” said his wife. She didn't even try to look. “'Wanted for Banditry,' right?”

“Oh, I think it says 'Bandit' just fine.” Hermann was definitely laughing. His lungs made a quiet, tittering noise. “That's the letters up at the top. But you haven't seen this picture before, I think.”

Hermann turned the parchment around.

“Look, accountant! Without the beard and without the scar on your head, you look like a boy.”

Denario gawked at the image. It was him as he'd appeared six weeks ago in Ziegeburg. Some wizard, probably the one at the bank, had been able to provide a magical portrait to the authorities. In this particular view, the teenaged accountant wore his guild cap with gold brocade. His jaw was shaven. His accounting vest was visible. His gaze looked happy and slightly vacant. His hair rested, dark and beautifully combed, on his shoulders. Denario wished he had that hair now. He'd had to cut it and cut it again because it kept getting tangled. In comparison to the portrait, he looked like a mess.

Above his younger face, the poster said, “WANTED FOR BANDITRY.” Below, it read, “ALIVE OR DEAD” and in slightly smaller letters, “PREFERRED DEAD.”

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