Chapter Seventh Prime
Scene Three: Hired Against His Will“You can't leave,” said Valentina in a voice she might use to explain facts to a child. She threw her arms up as if stunned by his foolishness. To judge from her behavior, the incident with the axe in the Hammer clan hall had never happened. She had made friends with several women there and had gotten and invitation to dinner. Hermann had gone off to get his meal with other South Ackerland men. Only Denario had been left alone to eat cold turnips from his rations. So he kept packing his bags. It was amazing how much traveling gear he'd accumulated. He had three blankets.
“It's not a problem,” Denario told her. “It's late, yes, but there will be a moon. I've traveled by night before. I've gone without food, too.”
His surroundings were a bit bare but otherwise they were as nice as he'd seen since Pharts Bad. Now that he was confronted, he felt hesitant to depart. Curo could muddle through another day without a partner, couldn't he? After all, it had been seventy-nine days already. Besides, the walls in Denario's current room were clean and white. The floor was stone. The window had shutters outside and inside. A gold-painted altar had been pushed to a corner and a cot brought out, as was done for respected guests. Apparently he was one.
He did feel honored by the treatment. But no, it was time to resume his march. He'd been given no chance to work for food in this town and he couldn't tolerate more than three more days of that. Recognition without pay of some sort was meaningless. As it was, he'd checked his supplies and he judged that he might arrive hungry at No Map Creek.
“No, I mean that you really can't leave.” She pointed to the main hall just outside his door. Two men with staves stood there no more than ten yards away. They looked suspiciously like guards. They hadn’t been there when Denario had arrived. “The head of the house thinks you're valuable.”
“You mean I'm a prisoner?” He dropped the blanket he'd been folding. He had a fleeting thought that the Mundredi were starting to value math.
“Not ... exactly.”
“How, not exactly?”
“The men will keep you here while the head of the Hammer clan negotiates with the mayor. The mayor heard that we came with a licensed accountant. He wants to talk with one.”
Denario froze. This place was not in the valleys or in the hills. It wasn't isolated from West Ogglia. It was just off the main road a bit. Here, they knew what an Oggli accountant was. He remembered the wanted poster with his face on it. Valentina understood immediately without him saying a thing about it. She lowered her voice.
“I don't think it's a bad thing.” She stepped closer and glanced to the guards to see if they were listening. They weren't. “I took the liberty of telling the head of the clan about the price on you, though, just in case.”
“Frau Ansel!” Denario objected.
“Don't worry. He's in love with that medallion on your neck.” She put her palm on the blue coin. Denario had to remind himself not to jump back away from her. She was beautiful and frightening and, at the moment, serene. He didn't want to disturb her calmness. It was better than her with an axe. “He's not going to do anything to harm you. If the mayor turns hostile, those guards who are holding you here will fight on your side. Understand?”
“Why hold me at all?”
“We're not stupid.” She backed up, fists on hips. “We know you want to leave. But the Hammer clan has to live with the mayor, even if he's a waldi. He's not such a bad person, I hear, and waldis make up a third of the town. They're all behind mayor Friedrich.”
“That's his name, Friedrich?”
“Yes. Friedrich Jolli. He descends from a line of families that goes back hundreds of years before the previous empire. They say he knows some words in the old, old tongue.”
“Not likely,” Denario retorted immediately. His eyes narrowed. Nevertheless, his interest was piqued. The old, old tongue was maybe half a thousand years gone from the world. Remnants of it survived on stone tablets. Some of those tablets had homes on shelves in the Accountant's Guild. No one alive in Oggli could read them. Denario was sure a couple of the symbols there were numbers. Then there was one slab that bore the unmistakable symbol of Melcurio. He'd love to be able to read that story.
“He's got relatives by marriage in every major Mundredi clan, does Friedrich, and his grandmother is said to have had bastard children of the old Baron of Ankster.”
“Good gods, he's connected to everyone.” Denario tried to keep his mind on the topic. He thought he was starting to understand how town governments worked. Pecunia would have been proud.
On the other hand, he felt felt flushed by the presence of Valentina. She made it hard to think. Her face reminded him of Pecunia although of course she was taller, fiercer, less educated, had arms like a sailor, and ... well, she wasn't much like Pecunia at all, really, except she had a pretty nose and smelled good. It was her perfume. Valentina had cleaned up and done something to her hair. Now, for some reason, she smelled a bit like Denario's fiance. Was Pecunia was still his fiance? He had doubts. But it was a problem he didn't want to contemplate.
“Yes. His connections make him a strong mayor. Well, he's not too strong, really.” Valentina's head cocked to one side. She seemed to be evaluating her mental picture of the situation. “But there's not going to be a Mundredi mayor, not by appointment. So he's the best our folks are likely to get.”
Denario took a deep breath. That made him notice Valentina's scent even more. Really, her face looked clean, not that he exactly looked her in the face. When they were this close, he had an excellent view of her lace blouse, her shawl, and her curves beneath. He inched backward.
“Where's Hermann, anyway?” he asked, looking higher.
“Out being sick.” Valentina turned away. She folded her arms. Really, he thought, she was amazingly intolerant of weaknesses.
“He's ill?” That had been a concern of Denario's for weeks. Several times, he'd felt a fever or a chill coming on. He'd caught nothing worse than a head cold so far and that was lucky because the Mundredi believed that illnesses were moral failures. He touched his forehead. Was he sweaty? Yes. “But Hermann was fine just a few hours ago.”
“That was a few bottles ago, too. I can't say that I think much of his new friends.”
“I see.” Denario self-consciously removed his fingers from his brow. He felt better. “Say, do prisoners get food?”
“Hmm?” Valentina turned toward him again. She had been lost in her disapproval. “It's a bit late at night for eating, isn't it? Oh, I suppose no one fed you. I'm sure I can arrange something.”
She left for a while and Denario kept packing because you never knew, the guards might fall asleep. The burly men didn't look like soldiers and didn't seem much interested in him. They took turns drinking from a wine skin as they studied his open doorway. The guards' only source of light in the main hall was a pair of sesame oil lamps. Valentina had lit them on her way out. Their glow had no effect in the twilight. Denario had a bigger lamp on the altar and his own candle, too, a large one that he'd lit from the lamp. He could tell it was several times as bright as the oil. If he couldn't escape, he would probably work late into the night.
When Valentina returned, two members of the Hammer clan came with her. Denario recognized the man, who had been introduced to him as the owner of the hall. The slight woman with him looked the right age to be his wife. She didn't carry food, the way a serving woman might. Valentina and the head of the house did that.
Valentina set down a wooden bowl of stew between Denario's bedroll and his candle. The head of Hammer clan set down a loaf of bread, a hunk of bluish cheese, and a what appeared to be a dried fish.
“I'm sorry that we didn't get to talk much today, accountant,” he said. He wiped his hands on his shirt and then shook with Denario. “There's a lot going on. Our knight has put men out patrolling his towns. Fettertyr has never done that before, nor Ulrich before him. It's distressing to the mayor.”
The accountant nodded. The nervousness was understandable.
“They're out looking for our chief's spies. And they're trying to collect on a bounty for an accountant, too. Which are you, again?”
Denario started to tremble. “I'm probably both.”
“Hah!” The man clapped him on the shoulder. “I knew you were worth something. Well, the mayor thinks so, too.”
“Do you mean ...”
“Oh, not the reward. I've seen to that. The mayor wants you to check a tax scroll that he owes. He wants to add the seal of Oggli for whatever effect it has. He's still trying to appease Sir Fettertyr, the fool. He thinks that a promise of grain and maybe a stack of meats, linens, and leathers will do it.”
“The knight burned the temples in South Ackerland and killed the women and children. Why wouldn't his men do that here? But Friedrich thinks can he encourage them to sack poorer villages. There are plenty of farm centers that don't have walls like we do.”
Denario couldn't wholeheartedly wish the mayor success if that was his strategy. Anyway, Baron Ankster seemed set on razing all of the Mundredi settlements. This one, two thirds Mundredi, probably qualified.
“Is there anything else you need?” the head man asked.
“Another candle. I use a lot when I'm working. Paper or parchment. Tattoo ink, too, if you've got any.”
“Candles, yes. Paper, no. Parchment, maybe, but the mayor will provide. Got to kill a sheep to make it and we haven't got many left. Ink is an interesting question. I'm sure we've got plenty but I'll have to call in my tattoo man.”
“Anyway, the deal is a good one.” The head man rubbed his hands together. “Tomorrow, you'll work for the mayor. He'll pay us for the service and he'll pay you, too, depending on the results.”
“He'll get fine results. I'm very good and I'm very honest.”
The way the head of the house and his wife shared a glance, Denario started to worry.
“Honest.” The man cleared his throat. “That's fine. Honest is good.”