Chapter Twice Eight
Scene Three: ReputationHalf a minute after the spell was done, the lieutenant took Denario's hand in both of his and shook it. He beamed. Around him, his men and the Ansels too had sunk to their knees or fallen flat to the ground. The corporal was crying and another enlisted man was hiding his face. Valentina had her head in her hands. Her husband knelt next to her, one arm up to protect her from magic. Only the lieutenant and his senior mercenary remained standing although the mercenary had crept backward. Dvishvili hardly noticed anyone else's reaction. He hadn't been bothered by the magical light show at all.
“Fifteen miles a day,” he said. “Not twenty! I thought so. We owe the barons a patrol of no more than a hundred miles per turn. That was according to Heimdahl and this order, his real order, confirms it. Someone else scraped off Heimdahl's numbers.”
“Someone changed a fifteen to a twenty,” Denario conceded. He nodded and relaxed his grip. The lieutenant slowed down his arm pumping. “But that wasn't the only ghost number we saw.”
“Right.” Dvishvili took the hint and let go. “The nine got another nine?”
“You were looking at it sideways.” Denario clenched and unclenched his right hand to restore circulation. Then he pointed to the mark in question. “The nine showed a six underneath. That's because Heimdahl thinks you're walking a circuit for six days. Then, if you're derelict in returning to the nobles, you don't get paid for the rest of your march. If you're ordered to stay out for longer instead of being tardy, you get paid double for the days beyond six. That's according to the original. The orders were changed to say that you don't get paid extra until nine days have passed. And then you only get ten percent more, not double.”
“These orders came through two barons. One of them must be corrupt.”
“Maybe. It's hard to tell who. Even if it's Baron Ankster, what can you do? Sir Fettyrtyr may be in on it or he may be honest. He wouldn't necessarily know the terms of the deals his master is making.”
“That rings true enough.” The light in the lieutenant's eyes dimmed. “Besides, I can't come out and accuse the man, not when I depend on his hospitality. That's where you come in.”
Denario hesitated. After a few seconds, though, he nodded. This was what accounting was about. Someone had to tell the truth. Usually, it was him.
He and the lieutenant discussed the details of the numeromancy for a while and dwelt on the numbers revealed. That led to speculation about what they meant, if their colors indicated something, why some ghost numbers faded quicker than others, and why numbers had ghosts in the first place. The last two were guesswork. Were numbers alive? Not even the accounting masters could agree. Numerals failed most of the tests of life. Certainly they couldn't reproduce on their own. The mystic accountants would reply, again and again in their journals, that humans can't reproduce on their own, either. Humans need other humans. Does it matter if numbers need humans too? Some kinds of life need special hosts.
While they talked, the corporal's shame overrode his fear. He wiped his eyes. His legs twitched. He lifted himself to a crouch, then to his feet. The Ansels, a minute later, did the same. Hermann stood first out of gallantry and Valentina seemed to wait for her husband to lift her by the hand even though she didn't look as afraid as most of the men.
“Personally, I think it's the intent behind the numbers that makes for stronger or weaker ghosts,” Denario said as he eyed the remaining solders. Two mercenaries had gotten to their knees. It wouldn't take them much longer to rise fully and tease their comrades.
“You mean if Heimdahl really, really, sincerely meant that we get paid double past our six day tour, his number for that is stronger?”
“Yes. You'll remember that his numeral 2 was a vibrant, bright yellow. I don't know what the color has to do with it.”
Denario and Dvishvili shook hands once again. The senior armsman and Corporal Frederick shook with accountant, too. Fred glanced at Valentina. He seemed offended by her presence. His gaze barely flickered over Hermann, who seemed to frighten him. The other men didn't seem worried by the presence of the peasants but Fred looked to the bits of armor and the trappings of wealth on them.
He tiptoed to his boss and whispered something. After a minute of listening, Dvishvili shrugged. His furry, black eyebrows waggled up and down in mock alarm.
“They're a bit roughnecked, it's true,” whispered the lieutenant. “But I don't think they're as bad as all that.”
Corporal Fred whispered his case one more time.
“Well, the accountant doesn't seem worried,” concluded Dvishvili. “I know him from court. He's a good one. His peasants have shown no signs of disloyalty. They fell to the ground fast enough when the magic began, too. They were rightly damned impressed.”
“Yes, sir.” The corporal bowed his head and stepped back. “Apologies for speaking out of turn, sir.”
“Not at all, Fred. Not at all.”
“I just think there's something wrong in that man's head sir. He wears his sword like a nobleman.”
“Yes, well, that's a problem with all of the peasants around here, isn't it? We'll soon put that down.” The lieutenant turned toward Denario. “Accountant, did you say that your guides have sworn an oath to you, didn't you?”
“Yes, they have.”
“Well, then I don't suppose they'll kill you. They're a superstitious lot, these hillmen.”
They shook hands one last time before parting. A man walked back to the road to hold the reins of the lieutenant's horse. Another muttered to Corporal Frederick that he'd seen Denario's face before.
“You have?” Denario couldn't help overhearing. “Where, do you think?”
“Um. Don't rightly remember, sir.”
For such a rough-looking fellow, he seemed embarrassed to have been caught speaking of the accountant. His beard was thick. The hair on his head was thin. His skull and, for that matter, his arms looked hard as stone. He was tanned, too. Denario took a long look at him. You could never tell when an acquaintance would be important. Was this the face of someone he'd seen at the docks in Oggli? It was possible.
“Did you ever work near the Paravienti? Or maybe you carried goods across the river from Anghrili?” he asked.
“No, sir. Our ship came to the West Port dock.”
“Hmm. Well, I don't recognize you. Sorry, I can't think where it would be that we've met.”
“I've never been to the court or anything. I'm no one important. Just had the feeling I'd seen you, sir. Probably a mistake.”
“Maybe.” Denario stuck out his hand anyway. “Best of luck to you anyway.”
The fellow bobbed his head like a relieved puppy. He shook firmly and apologized a moment later when it turned out that he'd squeezed Denario's fingers a bit too hard.