Sunday, January 29, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 65: A Bandit Accountant, 11.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene One: Facts Explained

Morning brought a crisp feel to the air. Denario sniffed. It smelled as if there should have been a frost. But it was probably too late in the spring for that. He kicked and rolled out of bed. After he dressed, he descended his lonely staircase, careful to miss the snares he'd set before. The sun hadn't quite risen. There was barely a blue-gold glimmer over the eastern mountains. Yet when he reached the front door of the counting house, he found that the place was already bright. The book keepers, both of them, had risen to build a stove fire and light candles.

“Good morning, Master Denario,” said Senli in a clear, almost cheerful voice. Fire cast a warm glow over the shelves, stacks, pots, and tables.

A minute behind Denario, Olga Clumpi reported to work with two of her friends in tow, both elderly women in thick, wool cloaks. They'd brought steaming bowls of hot porridge for breakfast. Senli was so touched that she didn't know what to say. She made a complicated and confused curtsy. Or was it a bow? Hummel stared at the bowl and spoon they'd placed in his hands, bewildered. Maybe no one had fed him breakfast before.

The older women never stopped talking, although the subjects weren't related to accounting. Often it was about the weather, their knees, or the lax morals of young people. They seemed determined to help Olga get off to a good start. However, they had their opinions on creature comforts, too, and they didn't think much of the spices in the kettle Senli that had hung above the fire to make tea. They'd brought their own and added them to the mix.

Mistress Clumpi had worn a severely plain, off-white dress, sensible shoes, a shawl and a headdress. She'd brought a matching shawl and headdress for Senli. As soon as he saw them, Denario understood the effect she'd intended. Unlike the weather or the old ladies' knees, this was an area in which he could take action.

“Keeper Hummel,” he said. He motioned for the little man to get up from his desk. “I understand there's a tailor in town. Do you know where he lives?”

“Yes, sir.”

Denario put down his porridge on the edge of Hummel's desk. He grabbed a scrap of parchment and began writing a note.

“Hurry over to his place and buy us both shirts that are the same color as the women's shawls and headdresses. If the man makes hats or skull caps, buy those. They need to be of the same color, too.”

“But ...”

“I don't know how I'll make it work with my Ogglian guild reds but we'll find a way.”

“But people will see me without my chains!”

“That's right!” Denario pushed the note into Hummel's sweaty hands. As a concession, he added, “Show the note if anyone gives you trouble. And tell the tailor to come on over to get the best pick of his trade items.”

“Yes, Master Denario.” Hummel bobbed his head. He stumbled out the door, full of butter and oats but seemingly not too tired or terrified to carry out his simple deed.

That was how all of the book keepers came to be in uniform before the burghers arrived. Denario and Hummel had just changed into their off-whites. Even better, two muleteers had arrived with otter furs to trade for tin. That kept everyone busy with the basic counting and judging. Olga Clumpi was in the midst of her first official negotiation for the town when a short, heavy-set man poked his head in the the main door.

The book keepers stiffened. They didn't like the burgher. Denario recognized that the strong-jawed, double-chinned visage belonged to the man who had been introduced two days before as Vernon Dumm. After a brief apology to the muleteers and Olga Clumpi, who didn't need him, Denario marched over to meet Dumm.

Whereas Hummel looked smaller than he was, Dumm seemed bigger. He matched the height of the book keeper, no more, but something about his presence took up a lot more room. He wore layers of heavy linen over his torso. His breeches looked plain, not much more than sack cloth. His cloak had a hood but he'd pulled it off to reveal his severely short hair. His head was shaped like a brick. He saw the accountant coming for him and stepped into the room like he was ready for a fight, arms at his sides, cloak pulled back to reveal a sheathed dagger at his belt.

Denario didn't blame him. He'd worn his baselard today in case he faced something like this. But smiled at the tiny blade Dumm had chosen.

“Burgher Dumm,” he said. His eyes swiveled to the right as a tall figure stepped in behind the first man. “And Burgher Haphnaught, I see. I gather the mayor had a chance to talk with you.”

“Accountant,” said Burgher Dumm. He hesitated, unsure of how to respond. He gave the appearance of someone who had come with a prepared speech but had forgotten the lines.

“Master Denario,” rumbled the deeper voice of Mark Haphnaught. His pale, spotted face was crowned with grey hair. His eyebrows were as fuzzy as milkweed. He turned his stern look on his fellow burgher but not on the accountant or book keepers.

“Oh, right.” Vernon tugged on his pants to pull them up over his impressive belly. “I understand you've discovered thefts from the warehouse.”

The boldness of the words made Denario step back for a moment. Just a few months ago, he wouldn't have had anything to say to a man like Dumm. Was the burgher going to pretend that he hadn't taken anything? Was he going to blame the thefts on the book keepers? That would be ridiculous. A bark of laughter escaped Denario. His reaction surprised the burghers.

“Oh, yes. I know who took what,” Denario motioned Vernon Dumm toward a stool. He gestured to burgher Haphnaught, too, who seemed strong and alert but was in fact the first grey-haired man that Denario had met in the last twenty or so Mundredi towns. Old men and young women were both in short supply in these valleys. “Everyone else knows who took things, too.”

“Who knows?” demanded Dumm. His voice dropped from a shout to a whisper. He grunted and took the seat offered to him. “Who's heard what you've been saying?”

This was a question Denario had thought about during the night. He knew his answer.

“Everyone important to you,” he said. “The mayor, of course. The mine supervisor. The other town leaders know. Our book keepers are aware, obviously, including Mistress Clumpi.”

“My gods!” The stout man scruntched lower on his stool. He was nearly spherical for a moment. His fingers went to his neck as if he were thinking about being hanged. “And wait, wait. Olga Clumpi, she's a book keeper now? She's certainly not a town leader. That woman can't keep a secret.”

“I expect … not.” Denario drummed his fingers. “Well, that's your problem. I suppose a polite talk with her might be in order. Very polite, you understand.”

“But ...”

“You did give a gift to her church, didn't you?”

“I gave to all the churches and temples this year.” Vernon looked to his senior, Mark Haphnaught. The elder burgher's face remained stern. “Every burgher gave something.”

Denario nodded. “It might be good to remind her of that.”

“The mayor,” harumphed Haphnaught as if reminding the other man of his lines, “seemed to feel that the town was in danger. Can you prove that?”

“Easily enough.” Denario motioned toward the negotiation between the book keepers and the muleteers. All of the people involved had been sneaking looks at him anyway. It wasn't hard to catch Senli's attention. “Keeper, will you bring the new scroll I started yesterday? Also another stool to rest it on would be welcome.”

It only took a few minutes for Denario to explain, as he'd done last night, precisely how the town had been driving away business. He showed the two burghers what the consequences would be. Everyone else could overhear, of course. Even the counting house guard, who Denario had bribed with soup from Mistress Clumpi, listened in. The burghers seemed shocked at first. But their dismay turned quickly into anger – with each other, with the rest of the burghers, and with the accountant. Denario had to repeat himself to be heard over their bickering. He named the caravans that had gone missing. He took the burghers on a walk through the inventory so that they could see for themselves the lack of food stores.

Really, they should have seen this coming. Only their sense of denial, of believing things would always be the way they'd been, had kept them from seeing the trends.

After they returned from their walk-through, Denario sensed that Burgher Haphnaught was still skeptical. He didn't have a chance to reiterate his case, though. The mayor, Jack Quimbi, staggered in through the front door.

“Mayor? You look awful,” Denario said as he strode over to greet Jack. He stuck out his hand before he realized he was being a bit too honest. “I mean, awfully tired. You look tired.”

“I didn't get much sleep last night,” the mayor mumbled. “First there was you. Then I spoke to a few burghers. Later, the gate guards woke me to say that they turned away some strange armed men at the gates. They didn't even recognize the clan signs on those fighters. The tribe markings were all Raduar. One of them looked sick.”

“That's bad.” Denario's memory flashed back to the injured Raduar he'd seen. There had been no prisoners, no quarter, but there had been reports of a few escapes. The traitor Piotr was among them. “But it's not unexpected, surely. Vir did warn you.”

“Finally, they woke me before dawn to tell me that they'd seen a caravan go by.”

“That's good news, then.”

“No! It's bad news. Why would a caravan drive past us?”

“Because you've been cheating them?”

That made for a long look between the mayor and the burghers. No one seemed happy with anyone else. On the other hand, no one was drawing a weapon on Denario at the moment.

“That could be it,” the mayor allowed after a while. “The guards said the caravan looked headed to Timberburg.”

“What have they got in Timberburg?”

“I don't know.”

“Granite,” grumbled Haphnaught. “No copper.”

“Oh, I've heard they have copper,” interrupted Vernon Dumm. “Of course it's ours, really. It's the scrap ore that we let sit out. We even paid some mule drivers to dump a bunch of it outside of town.”

“Would anyone in Timberberg know how to turn that kind of scrap ore into a useful metal?”

“They might. We've had any number of copper smiths and tin smiths come in. Half a dozen, at least. Not all have stayed. We can't employ everyone.”

“So there must be smiths in nearby towns. They probably buy from you. And some of them know how to use the scrap ore. Has there been a lot of scrap?”

The mayor nodded glumly.

“Maybe we should go to war with Timberburg?” suggested Burgher Haphnaught. He rubbed his gray-stubbled chin. “That would keep them away from our scrap heaps. I don't know how hard our men would fight, though. We need a mayor who's tough enough to lead them.”

Quimbi paled.

“Wait a moment,” Denario interjected. “As the Raduar and Ogglian forces are closing in, you want to fight with your neighbors? How long would be before someone from a smaller town got the idea of pointing those armies toward Pharts Bad?”

“What proof do we have that any armies are headed this way?” said Haphnaught. “That's just your say-so. You even admit that you haven't seen them yourself.”

For his answer, Denario knelt and drew in the dirt. It didn't take him long to re-create a map of the seven valleys. His problem was that none of the three men had seen a map before. He spent a long time explaining that it was 'like what a bird would see from high above.' Even then, only the mayor seemed to understand the concept.

The accountant tried to use words and numbers to help him. He drew tally marks for the Raduar soldiers, who he put at 280 strong based on what Vir described.

Baron Ankster of Cumbria had at most twenty knights devoted to razing the Mundredi villages, Denario was pretty sure. Those knights came with four or five men at arms each so Denario put their number at 120. They were better armed, of course, than anyone in the valleys, but at the moment their numbers were small. After the Faschnaught war finished, such men-at-arms would become available in the thousands. The knights fought from astride their horses, too, which made them unstoppable except by Vir's trained spearmen. Even then, Denario guessed that the fatality rate among spearmen had to be high.

“So the Raduar are marching to the northeast now?” the mayor pointed to where tally marks had spilled over into Hard Valley. Denario wasn't sure how far the Raduar army had progressed against the Tortuar tribes there.

“Are those bumps you drew supposed to be mountains?” complained Dumm. He put both of his hands on his head. “I don't understand any of this.”

“Well, I don't understand this drawing either,” spat Haphnaught as he crouched down to speak louder to Denario. “But I do know what you said, accountant. Those armies may never get here.”

“That's possible. But I think they will. If they do, you'll have warning. You'll start meeting a lot of refugees first.”

“We're already getting refugees.” The mayor tried his best to use a threatening tone of voice. He glared at Dumm and Haphnaught.

“More of them, maybe? And you'll see scouts.”

“Like last night?” quipped the mayor.

“Well, I already said I think those troops will make it here. You're too rich a target to be ignored.” Denario stood and turned to the burghers, arms outstretched. “But I'm sure, too, that you've got time. From Vir's description, the armies are still distant. Vir's worried about Phart's Bad. But he knows there's time to act. That's why he brought me here.”

Denario was never sure how the two burghers got into an argument. It wasn't anything that Denario had said, really.

They'd talked about how the Ogglian army seemed to be looting caravans. No one seemed too upset about that. Then Dumm tried to blame Haphnaught for their bad relations with the caravans. He thought they should have been willing to come to Phart's Bad despite the looting. The older man turned the accusation back around and said that Dumm had mis-handled the counting house math, had gotten greedy with the merchants, and had been too weak at managing his home life, which had led to 'foolishness' about an extravagant bedroom. The mayor seemed delighted by their falling out. He clapped as Haphnaught scored his points.

A few minutes into their argument, another burgher arrived. He was no taller than Dumm and a good deal less heavy. With him came the mine supervisor, a wiry, dark man who saw what was going on between Dumm and Haphnaught and excused himself to get back to his work. Denario got the impression that the mine supervisor would have cut off a limb to escape. Hadn't he been the boss here before Denario? He should have been curious to stay and see the new boss at work. He obviously regarded the contentious burghers as a source of danger.

“This all started with you, Vernon,” said the other burgher and, at that point, everyone started to blame Burgher Dumm. They talked so fast that Denario couldn't completely follow their conversation. In a minute, Dumm was looking for someone else to blame.

The burgher's gaze fell on Keeper Senli for some reason. Last year around this time, Denario would have frozen in the knowledge that something bad was about to happen. But with a year of help from Curo, Pecunia, and more recently Captain Vir, Denario finally understood that he needed to step forward. He positioned himself between Dumm and Senli.

Red-faced, the burgher yelled at Denario for a minute. It wasn't as bad as Denario had feared.
“And this didn't start with me!” Dumm continued. “This started with your book keepers. If your folks had known who owed what, the town would never have gotten into this mess.”

“I'm sure that's true, Mister Dumm.” Denario resisted making a holy symbol over his chest. Technically, he was lying. But still it could be true. If Dumm and Haphnaught hadn't felt cheated by the first few caravans, they might not have behaved as badly afterwards. And they wouldn't have felt so cheated if they'd known the amounts owed.

“Well, what are you going to do about it?” The portly man rested his fists on his hips. He took a deep breath. Now that Denario had agreed with him, he'd lost his momentum.

“We'll fix our end, Mister Dumm.”

“When? When will you tell us the truth? You should tell us all of it. Can you even tell me yet who owes what?” A snort of derision escape him. He gave a knowing smile. “Of course not.”

“We will. I'll have the counting house straightened out within the week. Whether you burghers get the town straightened out is up to you, Mister Dumm.”

The burgher started to say something in anger but he caught the looks from his fellow town leaders. He shut his mouth. After giving them a defensive, worried grimace, he turned and stomped off down the street. droplets spilled from his beard. They splashed onto the dirt floor by his feet.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene Two

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Ten Chapters


Chapter 
Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two



Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 64: A Bandit Accountant, 10.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene Six: Late Night with the Mayor

“Thank you, ma'am,” Denario bowed and took off his hat for the mayor's wife. She was a lovely woman of dark, brunette hair and uneven, swarthy complexion. Her cheeks had a delightful smattering of freckles, he thought. Her smile was shy and her eyes were bright. The grey in her hair was just beginning to show.

He sat in the center of the mayor's many-roomed home for a few minutes. Marie Quimbi served him a hot drink that she said was tea. It didn't taste like it. But he couldn't help noticing that the china cup was fine and the chair she offered him was a well-wrought fiddleback. It wasn't her best chair, either. Two of the others had cushions.

Do they know how wealthy they are? he wondered. Without money, the citizens here had no way to measure. Mrs. Quimbi had thrown furs over a sofa which looked soft enough without them. She wore a least two layers of linen. She kept a tapestry on the wall, not the best artwork but done in red and pink, which would have cost plenty even in Angrili. And Angrili specialized in those colors. Denario happened to gaze up and noticed the wooden beams of the ceiling had been carved with an axe. Someone had cut at least twenty-eight, no thirty-one, no thirty-four, no thirty-six clan markings into a fresco or mural of sorts. As an artwork, it was partly mysterious and all beautiful.

Items made of brass lay about everywhere, mostly in the form of candlesticks and wash basins but also in pieces of armor that had been hung on the wall. Denario got up to inspect a breastplate and was shocked to feel how thin it was. It was ornamental.

“My gods, accountant, you're still working?” said the mayor. Denario spun to find that the genial man had come into the dining area from the hall to his bedroom.

“Oh yes.” Denario found it hard to say anything more. He felt surrounded by stolen goods. How much of this had been taken from the counting house after Bibbo had died?

“How very diligent. I'm impressed.” Jack Quimbi wrung his hands. Denario suddenly realized that the man was nervous. Perhaps I do seem fast, Denario thought, remembering Mistress Clumpi. He felt he was moving at a natural speed but if he seemed hasty, it was because he sensed time slipping away from him, taking his apprentices with it.

“I think you'll be surprised at how much I've learned already,” he said.

“Delightful. And my wife has made tea.” The mayor wrung his hands some more. He sat in a cushioned chair and showed every sign of joyful anticipation. “How lovely!”

Jack poured the steaming liquid into his cup. When he glanced at Denario, he seemed to notice the pendant on Denario's chest. He narrowed his eyes. The blue coin in its setting bothered him.

“Do you mind,” he said, waving his hand as if trying not to see the image on the coin, “putting that away for a little while as we talk?”

“It would be disrespectful to hide it.” Denario did his best to remember how Vir had told him to act. “This is by order of the captain.”

“You're really his man? Even though you're from Oggli?”

“I'm under his protection, yes.” He couched his words carefully. This conversation was proceeding differently than he'd planned.

“And the coin really belongs to Vir? Because it rather announces that he's of royal blood.”

“I think you can't be captain without it.”

“Ah. Yes.” The mayor squirmed in his seat. “That rumor. I'd heard it. But I'd rather thought that a myth of bygone days.”

“Vir doesn't think it's important anyway.” Denario took a seat not far from the mayor. “He says that he's sworn to save the villages from being raided. That's the main thing.”

“And how's he going to go about that?” the mayor wondered. “We pay our monthly goat, you know. We overpay. We sent fourteen of them last year. But we get more and more reports of village raids. They're getting close. Refugees have come in. Some have come right through and kept running. It's got folks around here worried.”

“Yes. The barons and the Raduar are both headed this way.”

“Both?” The mayor's eyes goggled.

“I drew a map of this before. I can show you. Yes, the Raduar chieftans are coming from the north and east. The Ogglian barons are coming from the south and east. Their lines of attack should meet, well, a few miles east of here.”

“I ... I think I'd like to see the map.”

“I'll draw another soon, then, before I go.”

“Go? And that's something I don't understand. You want to head right toward the battles? Walk right through them?”

“I have apprentices,” he said doggedly.

“Yes, but ...” The mayor's hands flopped. “But all the killing ....”

“I understand that Vir has two sergeants out that direction. They're obligated to this coin of the realm, too. They may lend me some assistance.”

“Or they may be dead.”

“They might.” He admitted it and found the possibility to be no deterrent. He surprised himself. “I'll get through anyway. With your letter of transit, of course.”

The mayor sat and held his head for a minute or two. He didn't touch his tea.

“So,” Denario ventured after a sip. The silence was an opportunity he didn't want to waste. “I see that you've been using the counting house as your personal bank.”

A fearful expression, followed by rage, followed by a neutral expression of calm flickered by on the mayor's face in only a second.

“Where would you hear something like that?” he wondered.

“I would read it in the account scrolls.”

“Oh.” The mayor did, at last take some tea. He drank half a cup at once. “Did you see that it's not just been me? The burghers started it. And the mine headman.”

“I know about the worst of the burghers, for sure.” He took a chance on his next statement. “I think the mine supervisor has been more honest than the rest of you.”

“Well, maybe, but ...” At last, Jack lay his hands out on the table. He'd given up trying to justify himself. “You can see all of that in the accounts?”

“In the new ones,” Denario partially lied. “I haven't cracked the old one yet. It'll take a little while. But not as long as you think.”

“Good. At least the old system was honest,” said the mayor. “You won't find much there except who owes what to the town.”

“You mean that Bibbo Clumpi was honest.” Denario started to roll his eyes but he checked himself. “Well, for a given value of honesty. He didn't cheat on deals with the tradesmen for you.”

“Yes. How'd you spot it all? That little man, Hummel, said he had it fixed.”

Denario could already see that Hummel would be the brunt of a lot of anger if his boss didn't put a stop to it. And Denario was his boss right now.

“No more brow-beating the book keepers into falsifying records, right?” Denario folded his arms and did his best to mirror the mayor's neutral expression. “I've been trained to spot them. And I've got a hard enough job as it is working out who owes what without sifting through all the cheating, too.”

“Senli wouldn't do it much anyway.”

“In her own way, she was honest. She put down each loss as theft. Which it was, after all.”

The mayor stared into his cupped hands.

“How did the mine come to be owned by the town, anyway?” Denario said after enough time had passed for him to become impatient.

“Oh, it's belonged to the town for so long that no one really remembers," Jack replied with a sigh. “We only started pulling out tin and copper forty years back. But there's been a granite quarry since … well, since a time when hardly anyone's ancestors lived here. Those who did spoke a language that was older than the Old Tongue.”

The mayor babbled on for a while about town history. He seemed calmer when discussing anything other than his theft, naturally. Why does he think the mine supervisor has to be involved? Denario wondered. The accountant mulled it over for a few minutes while Jack Quimbi continued to explain his grandfather's inspiring rise from slavery. Abruptly, Denario saw it: the economy of the town flowed through the mine supervisor. All of the riches ran through the mine's log books and, at one time, all of the wages must have done so, too.

The cut of wages taken by the town leaders came from the mine's pay logs. They could get no richer than the mine foremen allowed. Since old Bibbo had been honest, the burghers hadn't been able to use the counting house to get out from under the control of the mine supervisor. When Bibbo died, that changed.

“Tell me,” he interjected when the mayor paused in his history lesson. “The burghers felt they had to get out from under the control of the mine headmen. Why was that necessary?”

Jack Quimbi looked up at the question. He'd been avoiding Denario's gaze. But he didn't seem surprised. He merely nodded.

“It wasn't. The mine is sloppily run, I think, but we've been doing well for a long while. I suppose the first burgher to complain that we weren't rich enough was Mark Haphnaught. That was ages ago.”

“Ages meaning how long?”

“At least fifteen years. Haphnaught became a burgher under the last mayor. He always thought that the town leadership should get paid more. Other big towns around here have raised the pay for burghers and aldermen. Our burghers are busy with surveys, trades, supervising construction projects, the water filters, the new aqueduct, and so on. So if they're busy, shouldn't they get something for their work?”

“Sounds fair so far.”

“It made sense to me. And the burghers and I had been making our town richer and richer.”

Denario cleared his throat politely. “Until recently.”

“Yes, there's that.” Jack's cheeks flushed. “We were doing well until Bibbo died. Then there came the news of the wars that were cutting off the caravan trade. But even in the good times, the miners wouldn't agree to our raises.”

“Are the mine foremen elected by the miners?” The slaves might have some rights, he realized.

“What does 'elected' mean?”

“Well, how about just telling me how the foremen are chosen?”

“If a slave earns his freedom, he applies to be a headman or foreman. The other headmen usually let him join. After all, most of them were slaves once, too.”

“And do the mine foremen make as much as you, mayor?”

“The mine supervisor makes exactly what I do. That's by rule. I always thought it was a good rule when I was young. It keeps the mine from dominating the town.”

“But you wanted the town to dominate the mine?”

“Maybe. I don't know. In the end, I wasn't thinking of it like that. Like I said, it started with Haphnaught complaining. But that was years ago. He never approached Bibbo Clumpi about it, not that I ever heard.”

“Because Bibbo would have told him to go to hell?”

“Probably.” The mayor wagged his finger. “But Bibbo was a clever old coot. He had a way of sending people to hell that made them eager to pack their bags, if you know what I mean. After he died, we were in shock. Haphnaught and Dumm tried to run the place but we could tell that it wasn't working. Around then, the caravans started lying to us about what they owed us or didn't. Some of them cheated us on the math. Dumm sent out for a replacement book keeper and he authorized the caravan drivers to bring us the best they could find.”

“Wait, the caravans brought these two? And you weren't worried that they'd feel loyalty to the caravans?”

“Why would they?” Quimbi looked startled by the idea. “I don't think anyone suggested it. Although, come to think of it, Hummel does cut deals with the caravan that brought him. That's the only caravan he deals with, really.”

A puzzled scowl fluttered briefly across his features. Strands of brown hair fell into his eyes. He brushed them back.

“So Vernon Dumm and Mark Haphnaught realized they could give themselves the raises they wanted,” Denario said. “What happened next, from your point of view?”

“I'd better refresh my tea.” The mayor got up and ambled to the hearth. There, a cast-iron pot hung over the fire. He tossed in a couple sticks to stoke the blaze. Then he grabbed the ladle and scooped out more hot water. He re-started his story.

It took him a few minutes to get to the point. As the mayor rambled, Denario noticed that Marie Quimbi had discreetly gone missing. Maybe she didn't want to hear Jack discuss his business. That seemed smart, considering his revelations. Jack interrupted himself fairly often but otherwise seemed eager to tell his side. Denario could almost believe that the corruption had been weighing on his conscience.

The mayor wasn't sure when the first burgher stole something from the counting house. He suspected that Vernon Dumm had started the practice. About a month into his supervision of the area, the burgher acquired a new bed that his wife had been coveting for years. He must have traded something for it, the mayor figured.

Soon after, other burghers followed Dumm's example. Several of them traded for imported foods. Burgher Haphnaught got himself an improved set of false teeth. At some point, the burghers started to feel in danger of being caught by the mayor or the mine supervisor. Haphnaught had been the one to suggest gifts as the answer. They had invited the supervisor and the mayor to dinner. They'd given them surplus furs 'for the wives and kiddies, don't ye know' because it was winter. Haphnaught had given a broach directly to Marie Quimbi as her thirty-fifth birthday present.

Vernon Dumm, in his way, had been more clever. He'd talked to Marie Quimbi about a donation to her church, the South Winds. Marie had been ecstatic. And the priest had been bowing-down grateful, too, for all of the candles, furs, brass, and bits of gold. The church had been openly bought off.

That donation had almost been an announcement that the burghers could take from the warehouse as they pleased. Soon, burghers and friends of the burghers were making gifts to the Quimbi home every week. Jack Quimbi gave up the pretense of being surprised. He started to visit the counting house himself to look at the best trade goods as they came in. He asked around and figured things out. He started accepting inventory directly from tradesmen.

“I gave up trying to stop it,” Quimbi admitted. “I went completely the other way.”

He paused in his confession and stirred his tea. He hadn't taken a drink since he'd poured. Denario didn't feel a need to point that out but he felt he should say something. If he'd been Master Winkel, he would have chided the mayor. But that wouldn't work. It had never worked well for Winkel when dealing with the nobility. That's why he was never a member of the Court of Oggli despite having their respect. Now if Denario had been more like Vir, he would have done ... what? Smacked the mayor? But Jack Quimbi didn't work that way. Who in this town had power over the mayor? Even the mine supervisor was at best a nominal equal.

“Marie, will you please come in to talk with us?” Denario called.

Jack stood up. He seemed startled for a moment. Then he grinned sheepishly, nodded, and sat back down. In a moment, without audible footsteps, his wife's face appeared at the crack in the hallway door. She moved the door without a sound, too. Such perfect hinges, Denario reflected. It seemed like an out of place thought but maybe it wasn't. The town was rich from its craftsmen not just its raw materials.

“I think it's important that we get your views on the rest of our conversation.” Denario rose and held out a chair for her. He made sure it was a cushioned one. “The women in town are pretending that they don't know what's going on. Wouldn't you agree?”

Wordlessly, Marie nodded. Her eyes were wide with fright. After a few seconds of hesitation, she took a seat. She tried to smile politely but failed.

“Right now, you're worried about what your friends will think,” Denario predicted. It was, he hoped, a safe guess. He didn't know anything about her. “And Jack is worried about what some of the craftsmen and farmers will think. But believe me, they're not important.”

That got a surprised laugh from Marie.

“They're not?” Jack asked dubiously.

“No. This is about math again.”

“I don't know much adding.” Marie had donned a pink shawl while she stood behind the door to listen. She pulled it close around her neck.

“Don't worry. You'll follow this much. And while I'm telling you, I want you to do is think of some way to get a message to the town women. Okay?”

She nodded. Then she shrugged hopelessly. Well, he didn't know if she could do it either.

“Your husbands have been cheating the caravan drivers.” Denario leaned back. “I know that some of you must think that's a good thing. But those caravans come an awfully long way and carry heavy loads in order to deal with you. When they feel cheated, they don't come back.”

“Oh!” Marie put a hand to her mouth. She removed it and said, “I know what you mean. No silks.”

“You used to get silks?”

“Once a year for three years. But then only once more after Master Clumpi died. The caravan left mad. We've never had a bolt of silk come through here since.”

“That sounds bad. But there's worse. Now that some of the caravans haven't returned, the local thefts from the warehouse are larger in proportion. The town has been stealing so much from itself, in fact, that it has less to trade with the caravans. So the town drives harder bargains. Then more caravans decide not to trade with the town. That cycle has gone on for a year. More. Now you have fewer items to give. That means you get less in return. Your copper and tin stocks are piling up. But you can't eat those. You can't sleep in sheets of brass.”

“Have you talked with the caravan drivers?” Marie asked.

“No, not a one. I don't need to. I can see that, at this rate, it's not just Mistress Clumpi who'll go hungry next winter. A lot of other folks here are going to do the same. Your food mostly isn't grown around here.”

“Food comes in from all sorts of places,” pointed out the mayor.

“Right. But it can't come by boat because you've got a hands-depth of water in your creek. Who brings it?”

“Caravan drivers and tradesmen.”

“And who have you been cheating?”

“The caravans. Oh!” He smacked his own forehead.

“And what have you got least of in the warehouse?”

“Food. All of the smoked meats are gone. There's a bit of fish, though, and we have a few oats.”

“Enough for the town to last a winter?”

“Oh, not at all. We've got enough for about a month. Even in the best of times, we've never held enough to last a whole winter.”

“So the caravans have to keep coming in or the town starves?”

“They bring the firewood, too. We can get that ourselves easily enough but … the food, well, probably not. This isn't good farmland, you may have noticed. Even the nearby towns that do some farming can barely support themselves.”

“We don't know how to farm,” said Marie. “We're all miners or descendants of miners.”

“My gods … the borrowing is in the accounts, the missing caravans are in the accounts …” Jack's hands had gone to his hair. “Is our starving in those numbers, too?”

“Yes, it's all there.” Denario looked at their bewildered, frightened faces. “All of it is on record for someone who knows how to look. But you still have time. You can change your future. You don't have to starve next winter.”

“How?”

“First, start by planting more gardens. That's just practical. At the same time, you should pay higher prices to all sorts of traders. Give away more skins to the farmers. Give them more brass tools, too. You don't keep enough of those in stock, by the way, which means that folks are getting their finished tools elsewhere.”

“The mine provides raw materials, not finished tools.”

“But you trade the raw materials to craftsmen in return for good tools. You could increase that to the town's profit. You can re-trade those tools. It's something to consider.”

The mayor rubbed his jaw.

“Why are you telling us?” Marie asked. “Why should you care about this town?”

“Vir thinks you're important or he wouldn't have dropped me here. He took his troops out of their way for this. And he spent a long time after we arrived just talking with me about the place.”

“I noticed that,” remarked the mayor in what was probably supposed to be a dark tone. But no one could talk darkly the way Vir could. Denario hardly noticed.

“I think Vir gets his best weapons from you. What's more, this is a place where both armies will attack.”

“What armies?” Marie dropped the hand from her lip. She sat up straighter.

“The Ogglian and the Raduar ones. The Raduar combined force has veered off at the moment but they'll be back. And I doubt very much that the Ogglians know about you. Otherwise they'd head straight for your town right now."

"Why?" she breathed.

"From the Mundredi army information, it seems that the Ogglians loot villages each time they raid. Then they follow the fleeing villagers. Of course, the villagers follow the caravan roads.”

“And the caravan roads lead back to us,” concluded the mayor.

“So we're going to die?” Marie didn't seem as worried as Denario expected. It must not seem quite real to her. The armies were still a long ways off.

“No, your leaders will take appropriate action,” Denario prompted. “They'll keep the town in business. They'll raise more taxes. They'll gather a fighting force.”

“The burghers will never go for that,” said Jack. Next to him, his wife fidgeted with her copper necklace.

“Can't you talk them into it, Jack?” she said. She glanced from her husband to Denario. Clearly, she wanted one of them to reassure her.

“Maybe I can help a little,” Denario allowed.

“Haphnaught has been a major opposition leader for years,” said the mayor. “I think half of the border guards are loyal to him, too. That's a roadblock to progress.”

“Send Vernon Dumm and John Haphnaught to me in the morning," Denario said. At the moment of those words, he felt full of bravado. Then he heard what he was saying and, suddenly, he wasn’t.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene One

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 63: A Bandit Accountant, 10.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene Five: Broken Chains

Armed with three different sizes of knitting needles, Denario opened the main door to the counting house. He'd seen the lights on through the shuttered windows. He knew at least one of the book keepers was working. That made him feel guilty for being so well fed. For all he knew, he was supposed to arrange for the slaves' dinners now. Well, he hadn't asked to be their master. That wasn't what he'd bargained for.

At their desks, Hummel and Senli sat. They faced away from each other, as usual.

“Where's the guard?” Denario wondered as he stepped in. At the opposite corner of the room, Senli rose. He knew she could hear him. “I was told there was a guard at night. Hells, I met him yesterday. Not a tall man but burly enough and he had some armor.”

“They send him away on gate duty, most nights now,” answered a voice from behind. That was Olga Clumpi. She felt obligated to tag along with him to watch after her needles, she'd said. Anyway, she wanted to satisfy her curiosity. He was counting on that part of her although he still wasn't sure what he hoped to achieve by bringing her here.

“Damn it, look at this place!” He waved his hands at the piles of copper plates and ingots of tin. There was a new stack of otter furs in the middle of the floor, too. A tradesman had stopped by in the afternoon. “Anyone can just walk in at night and take what they want?”

“It's not ... it's a small enough town.” Olga sounded like she didn't quite accept the explanation herself. “We would know ... eventually.”

Senli approached in silence. Her wary gaze seemed to avoid even seeing Olga Clumpi. She bowed her head.

“I reviewed the tallies, master accountant,” she said. Denario opened his mouth to correct her – he was a still just a journeyman – but she continued. “The thefts are all reconciled with the inventory.”

“And now I understand them, too,” mentioned Denario. He led her back in the direction of her desk. “Have you and Hummel taken your evening break?”

“No, sir.” Her lips got tight as she pondered his understanding of the thefts. “Can we go? I have dinner waiting at Small Gods.”

“Not quite yet. You should see this.” He marched to the space between the desks. “Hummel, turn this way. Rise. No, wait, sit back down on your stool. Just prop your legs up on my knee.”

“Master?” Hummel tried to do everything at once and ended up confused. He missed resting his leg on Denario's knee. He nearly fell off his seat.

“Just one heel up, like that.” Denario went down on his right knee with his left one higher to act as a workbench.

“Have you ... did the mayor ...?” Once Hummel saw the knitting needles, he started to panic. It wasn't that he didn't understand Denario's intentions. He did.

“Shut up, Hummel. That's an order. I have some things to explain to all three of you. I'm glad you're here together.” With the largest needle, he dug into the primitive key lock on the shackle. It took only a few seconds to be sure that this device had two pins on springs inside. The springs kept the latch inside closed; the latch kept the shackles locked around the slave's ankle. Two pins were all that kept Hummel in chains. Denario grinned when he was sure. He switched needles and shifted his grip. “You'd better take a look at one another now and think about trust. You'll need to rely on those around you. Because it's going to be the whole town against the three of you for a while.”

“Not the whole town,” Olga said. She struck her fist against her thigh. “Not the whole town, by the gods.”

“The town leaders, then. The ones who've been running this place like their private piggy bank.”

She nodded. Denario could feel one of the pins giving way under pressure from the mid-sized knitting needle. He rolled the biggest needle in his hand and decided it was too thick. He set it down as he held the first pin back and got ready to tackle the second pin in earnest.

“You leave them to me, understand?” He paused as he picked up the smallest needle. He checked their faces. The slaves looked stunned. “If any of the town burghers or the mayor or a priest or priestess or foreman ... if any town leader at all gives you any trouble, you just send them to me.”

“Yes, master,” said Senli.

“But what if they won't go to see you? What if they're afraid of you?” Hummel asked rather sensibly, if oddly to Lamero's ears. It was hard to imagine anyone being afraid of him even if he did walk around with a short sword these days.

“I'll be here in the counting house most of the time. If something bad happens when I'm not around, well, there are three of you now. Someone should always be able to slip away and tell me. I'll stop whatever I'm doing to return.” He rocked on his heels and thought harder.
“Honestly, who are the ones who are going to cause trouble?”

“Burgher Dumm,” said Senli. “And Burgher Hapfnaught.”

“And Mayor Quimbi,” added Hummel.

Denario felt the second pin click. The manacle popped open a little in his hand. Rust on the hinge kept it from opening all the way. He yanked out his baselard and used it as a wedge. Hummel jerked for a moment when he saw the blade leave the sheath. But then he held still for Denario to continue.

“I said I'm going to pay you. All of you. So I am.” He wrenched the manacle open or close enough. Hummel's leg was a mess of sores beneath the iron but he had to ignore that. He pushed the man's right foot off his knee and pulled up the left. “Now look around at the bins and shelves. Because you're going to be paid out of this stock. This is yours to care for. It's part of your job to protect it.”

He liked giving this part of the job to them. No one would understand the details better than these folks.

“Tell me,” he said to Senli and Olga. “Do we need a guard?”

Senli shook her head. She gazed uncertainly at Hummel and at Mistress Clumpi. Neither of them spoke up, so she continued.

“I think ... not yet. We sleep close by. And things aren't bad enough in town for any real trouble. If we close late and open early, we'll be all right. When the Raduar troops get close enough, that's when we'll have to fight looters.”

“When the Raduar or the Ogglian troops come, inventory will be the least of the problems.” Denario shrugged. The first pin of the second lock was nearly rusted solid. He switched to the biggest needle. “So, no guard. What's our next biggest problem, aside from theft?”

“The tiles,” murmured Senli. The other two nodded in agreement.

“That's the other part of your job, Olga. It's not a big part. But at times when you're not negotiating with fur traders or caravan drivers, I need you to return the tile system to the state it was in when your husband died. I'll take it from there.”

“You will?”

“Oh, you'll all help. You're smart. And this kind of work is always interesting.” His voice was much more confident than he was. He listened to himself sounding positively fearless and wondered how much of that was true. “I'm sure you'll have ideas and you can work on it in your spare time as much as you like. But I won't be decoding in spare time. I'll be devoting myself to it entirely. It'll take a week or two.”

He could almost hear Olga Clumpi shaking her head. Senli's hands were trembling, he could see. But he was right. It would take two weeks at the outside or it wouldn't get done.

Just then, the second manacle clicked. The hinges were even rustier than on the first one but he could leverage them with the edge of his sword.

“I ... well ...” stammered Olga. “I don't know about fixing up those tiles but I know the burghers well. They never set Hummel free before. Aren't ye afraid he'll run?”

Denario hardly had to look up. He knew it was the unspoken question in Senli's eyes, too.

“Well, Hummel?” He couldn't help giving the little man a smile as he put the man's leg down. He rose. With a jaunty air that was nearly real, he sheathed his baselard. “You must have a dozen plans for getting away. But you don't look well suited to travel. Do you have a store of dried food? Prepared snares? Canteens? Have you ever lived off the land before?”

“No. No, none of that.”

“You're going to earn your freedom for real, if you stay. You may even like it.” Denario surveyed a corner of the room where he thought he was most likely to discover a problem. “But in exchange, you're going to return the material you've stolen from the warehouse.”

“Sir?” Hummel nervously licked his lips. His eyes, sure enough, drifted to the problem corner, as far from Senli's sleeping corner as was possible.

“I know how it goes, Hummel. They weren't paying you. It's no problem to set a few things aside. That's what people do. So I'm not going to go dig it out. But, in time, as your pay comes in, I expect you to return whatever seems appropriate, whatever makes you honest again.”

“Yes, sir.” He bowed his head.

After a moment or two, the little man started hiccuping. It took Denario another half minute to realize that Hummel was crying. He had to see the tears plopping on that big beard.

“Never been free of shackles in these past six years, sir.” The man raised his arm to cover his face. “Not in any place what owned me.”

Denario felt a lump in his throat. But he wasn't going to give in to it.

“You're good at what you do, Hummel,” he said. “So is Senli. So is Mistress Clumpi. You three have always been able to run this place. The only difference now is that we'll to make sure that everyone knows it. That starts now.”

He couldn't stick around the bearded book keeper another moment without succumbing, so he turned his back. It was getting late. And he still had work to do.

“Are you looking for loyalty from Hummel?” Olga whispered in his right ear. “Because I don't think you're going to get it. He's not a strong man.”

“Everyone gets treated decently while I'm here.” This time, Denario wasn't acting. He wasn't pretending to be like Vir or Alaric. This was him. “Everyone.”

He caught Senli's eyes, too, to make sure that she understood he was including her. Then, with a nod to them both, he took his to leave. He reached the door before Mistress Clumpi called out.

“The mayor goes to bed early,” she said “Not that it's a bad time to see him. Get him while he's tired.”

“Are you a mind reader, Mistress Clumpi?” he stopped and turned to see her smile at him. It was a turtle-ish expression with her head poked forward on her long neck. Her hands were fists on her hips.

He couldn't help returning her war-like grin. Am I enjoying this? he asked himself. Yes, he decided, despite his fear. He was looking forward to confronting the mayor. How odd.

“You're moving awfully fast,” Mistress Clumpi replied. The words were reproachful but her tone radiated approval. Next to her, Senli wrung her hands. Hummel kept his face covered. Watery droplets spilled from his beard. They splashed onto the dirt floor by his feet.

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Six

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 62: A Bandit Accountant, 10.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene Four: The Turtle

Denario turned the corner from Mine Street to Birch Street and saw Mistress Clumpi's home two houses down. He paused for a moment and tried to remember what he was going to say. Vir had tried to give him advice, hadn't he? Yes. But 'Have ye won a contract with someone what don't know ye?' were the words that echoed in Denario's head. He hadn't and this was why. Loud people scared him. It was as simple as that. His legs were locking up at the thought of confronting this old woman.

Amidst the birches, he could see that her house had been painted pink about three years ago. That was an expensive color. Now the top coat of paint had begun to peel but it revealed a similar shade of pink below. Above, the roof tiles had begun to warp. A few of them needed replacing. Still, the yard looked neat. The windows were shuttered, not open like those of the neighbors, but maybe Mistress Clumpi didn't like to feel a draft. She tended to her roses and to her back yard garden, he noticed. She had a crop of spring onions started. And the woodpile that had been large at the beginning of the winter had diminished to half a cord of sticks. The missing wood left a trail of brighter paint up the side of the house where it had been.

Denario resumed his walk but he was slow about it. The warnings from the mayor, burgher, and the book keepers stuck in his mind. Mistress Clumpi was difficult, apparently, and there was no escaping her. He needed her. But now he thought of her as a bit of a monster. Approaching her house felt akin to creeping up on the lair of a dragon. He told himself that he was being irrational. His legs didn't believe him.

“Ma'am?” he cleared his throat. He knocked.

When she opened the door a few seconds later, Denario couldn't help jumping backwards. Her face loomed like snapping turtle's. She had a bit of that turtle-ish expression, too. Her jaw stuck out. Her neck looked long. Her shoulders were as wide as Denario's.

“Now what?” she said. Her mouth shut like a clamp. She studied him through puffy slits.

“Are you Mistress Clumpi?” he asked. He took off his hat. It seemed more polite.

A scowl darkened her features immediately.

“I'm a traveling accountant,” he continued. “I've got some questions about ...”

She slammed the door before he could finish. He could hear her on the other side, though, as she snorted with either laughter or disgust. It was hard to tell which. Maybe she felt a bit of both.

He stood for a long while, hat in hand, thinking. A cool breeze made him shiver. But he couldn't just leave. Mistress Clumpi surely knew more about the old records keeping system than anyone else. She'd helped to dismantle it. Therefore, he reasoned, she would remember what it should look like.

“The burghers have made a mess of things,” he spoke through the door. He hadn't heard any footsteps walking away, at least. It was worth a shot. “I can see that much. You're the only one in town who stands a chance of setting the records straight.”

“So what?” she shouted. He was surprised the shutters didn't flap off the windows. She had a powerful voice. “What has this town ever done for me?”

“Um, I don't know.”

“No one cares if I starve,” she hissed. “Master Clumpi never got me any children. He saved enough to get by for a year or two and that's running out.”

Aha, thought Denario. It isn't just that she hates everyone. She has a reasonable fear of not living through the next winter.

“What did the mayor offer you for fixing the tile counting system?” he wondered.

The brass latch rattled. It was quiet for a second. Then it rattled again and clicked. A knobbly arm pulled open the thin, wooden door.

“What do you mean by 'offered?'” Mistress Clumpi still looked a bit suspicious. That was her default expression, Denario realized. Something to do with the squint. This time, though, her countenance was softened by curiosity.

“I mean, it couldn't have been money.” Denario waved his arm as if that would help keep the conversation going. “This land doesn't seem to have any. So did he offer a few shares of the copper? Of the dried fish, maybe?”

“They just ordered me to do it, them burghers.” Her massive shoulders relaxed.

“Ah. And you told them to go to hell?”

“I let them know what I think. I always do.” The woman glanced down to straighten her long, floral-print dress. Where did she get the material? he wondered. Come to think of it, Denario had noticed other women on the street wearing similar printed fabrics. But that made them as fancy as most of the dresses worn by the merchant class wives in Oggli. Truly, this town had wealth. They had no money here but they possessed ample riches. “Then I took a look through what old Bibbo had done. They're important men and they would have tried to make me miserable if I hadn't.”

“But ...” Denario didn't want to give voice to his worst suspicion, which was that she couldn't reconstruct or even remember the damage. She was elderly, after all. “You took it apart.”

“Hah!” There was that snorting sound again. It was definitely amusement. “I only told them that they could if they wanted. I knew they'd destroy it.”

“Couldn't you have just read the tiles for them?” And wouldn't that have been better than sabotage?

“Not really.” She put her hands on her hips. She looked less turtle-ish that way. “Old Bibbo told me a lot about what he done. But he didn't tell me the all of it. He didn't want me to know his whole system.”

“Really? But why not?”

“Because I'm so good at counting.” She folded her arms. Her expression got very smug. “And I let him know it.”

“You always do.” He was beginning to see the pattern.

Her head bobbed solemnly. “Of course.”

He glanced at a pair of children to his right as they played in the street. It was evening, after all, and they didn't have to work any more, if they ever did. Next to the children, two mothers watched Denario intently. One of them whispered in the ear of the other, who laughed.

“May I come in to talk?” Suddenly, the notion of sitting down behind the shuttered windows seemed appealing.

“No.”

“I'm hungry,” he said, trying to think the way Vir or Alaric thought about people. They wouldn't give up in this situation. Even Master Winkel wouldn't have given up. He'd have made an offer. “Can I treat you to dinner? Maybe you know somewhere I can eat even if you don't want to go.”

Her sudden grin scared him as much as her scowl.

“That's more like it,” she said. “Them's as needs a favor should do one first. I take dinner at the South Winds Church when I can. They'll accept pig's ears or fish in trade if you have enough. I know the counting house has a stock of both.”

“It does.” He nodded to himself. So that was how it worked. He would make a note of it in his accounting journal tonight. In other places, he'd seen dried fish, eggs, and pigs' ears used as substitutes for money. There was the ever-present standard of 'goat' as well. That made at least four barter standards. “Will you walk with me?”

For her answer, she grabbed a short coat. She threw a shawl on over it.

The stroll to South Winds wasn't long. In fact, they ended up across the street from the Church of the Small Gods that Senli frequented. The major differences in the religious buildings seemed to be that South Winds was taller by at least two stories and a tremendous steeple. It had oil-soaked torches burning out front, too, making the gentle blue dusk seem brighter. This was a place for people of means who worshiped something high above the mundane world.

A rough-bearded priest in a brown frock greeted them at the door. He held a torch in his left hand as if he'd just lit up all of the candles and torches, inside and out. The torch simmered.

“Joining us tonight, Mistress Clumpi?” he said almost eagerly. It was good, Denario reflected, to see that this intimidating old woman did have friends or at least acquaintances who didn't immediately duck away upon seeing her. “Me mam made a barley chowder, lamb drippings on the side. Got some biscuits too.”

“Sounds delightful.” She removed her shawl in the doorway. “The counting house will pay for me tonight. This man is an accountant them burghers got to works miracles there. Or so they think.”

The priest's smile immediately disappeared. Nevertheless, he made to shake Denario's hand.

“I can see ye didn't bring anything with ye. But yer good fer it, I suppose.”

“I'm Denario.” He'd anticipated a bone-crushing grip from this fellow but instead the grip felt pleasantly firm. “I'm thinking I might like to pay for a few meals in advance, next time. Can you start a tab?”

“What's that?”

“Oh, it's ...” He did a quick mental readjustment. They didn't have much written math here or else old Bibbo Clumpi would have been using it instead of his homegrown tile-moving method. “It's a way of tallying if I owe for a meal or if you owe me a meal instead.”

“Like breaking a stick? Over just a few meals, that sounds a bit complicated.” The priest extinguished his smoking torch in a bucket of sand. “Can't I just remember?”

“That works, too.” All the same, Denario would write it down in the counting house. Some priests were not to be trusted.

The priest's mother seemed nice enough. She was a short, heavy-set woman with grey curls of hair. She pushed an awful lot of food on Denario. It was more than he could eat. When he slowed, she talked to him as if he were a child. Denario didn't take offense. She did the same for her son, the priest, who was nearly thirty. The four dinner tables in the church were populated mostly by older women and their unmarried sons. All of the women had advice for Denario, most of it about food. He felt grateful for the few grandchildren who ran about and made nuisances of themselves. At least they attracted the occasional kiss or hearty slap, which meant a pause in the conversation.

There weren't any young mothers here. Denario supposed they ate at home with their families. Nevertheless, in less than half an hour he grew alarmed at learning of the numbers of women who died in childbirth. Didn't they have any witches or midwives in town? That's what they were for. It seemed that the town refused to support them. Years ago, he heard, the churches had refused to let a traveling witch settle down inside its city walls.

“This young man thinks he's going to pay me,” Mistress Clumpi told the grandmother next to her. That got snorts of derision from several folks within earshot.

“What's wrong with that?” Denario demanded. “Everyone's got to eat. Everyone needs to get something for their work.”

“The burghers,” said Clumpi's neighbor at the table.

“They're against paying women.”

“If they want my help, they'll have to accept the way I work. People have to be treated decently. Even the slaves need cared for.”

Suddenly, everyone was looking at him. The other conversations had stopped. Denario became aware that he'd raised his voice. He was standing, too.

“Look, Olga,” he implored. He'd learned from the other women that her full name was Olga Clumpi and he found himself feeling less formal with her now. He had to stop himself from reaching out and taking her by the wrist. “I've seen the log books. I know that the copper mine is doing less and less trade. It's not just the fault of the Raduar and Oggli armies. It's the burghers and mayor. They're too greedy. They don't know how to do business.”

“You don't know the half of it,” said Olga darkly. Several folks nodded.

“Your husband must have kept them under control before. Maybe it was him together with the mine headman. Did Bibbo do the negotiating with the caravans?”

“He negotiated everything with everyone.” Her expression turned almost wistful.

“The town leaders are hurting the business. Or … this is just a thought ... maybe they're really clever and they intend to form their own caravans. They could eliminate the tradesmen. Could that be it?”

She waved off that idea. “Those idiots wouldn't know where to go or what to take for trading, even if there was a one of them who could make a donkey walk uphill with a load of tin.”

“Then ...” Denario returned to his place on the stool. He rested his elbows on the table and his head in his hands for a moment. “Then they really are fools.”

In the silence after that comment, Denario wondered who was going to report this.

“How did ye get that head wound?” asked the priest. Perhaps mayhem and murder were safer topics than the quality of town leadership. “Was it a Raduar chief? That's what I heard. I was told by the mayor hisself that the Raduar chieftains have come all the way out here.”

“Yes, that's true.”

There were groans from around the tables. No one liked the news but they were soon on the edges of their seats to hear it. Denario had to re-tell the saga of his journey from Hogsburg to Phart's Bad. It was an awful experience. He came off as a fool even in his own version of events. That was partly because he found himself retelling it all from the Mundredi army point of view.

The diners at the church laughed and clapped at the right places. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to feel he'd done justice to the fight scenes. The men and the boys dragged all of the bragging out of him about the tripwire. Then they followed up with questions about the combination locks, knock codes, poisons, and maps until they finally sat back, satisfied.

“Good on ye,” the priest murmured. He patted his belly. “Good on ye.”

Two of the boys took to re-enacting the spear fights with sticks.

As the dinner ended, Denario caught Olga Clumpi watching him with a suspicious eye.

“Do you know how to write, Olga?” he whispered.

“My name, yes. Not much else.”

“Are you willing to learn? It would keep you in food, clothes, and firewood, for sure.”

“You have two book keepers already. How could you pay me on top of that?”

“You'll earn your wage.” He smiled in the face of her scowl. “I'm going to pay Senli, too, you know. It won't be just you.”

“But Senli's foreign. Anyways, you might get away with that because all of her wages will go back to the counting house to buy her freedom. Everyone knows that. But when she's free, will they pay her? That's the question.”

“It's not a question. Look, I understand that it's not normal for a woman around here to hold a book keeping job. But about a third of the book keepers in the Ogglian county are women. Sure, it'll be hard work. It'll be hard learning at first, too.”

“Bah.” Olga brushed off imagined hardships with a sneer. “There ain't nothing like that what's so hard for me. I've always been able to figure things out.”

It took a while for the rest of what Denario had said to sink in.

“Other women is allowed to be book keepers?” she said. “In other lands?”

“Out to the east, yes. Definitely in the small towns along the borders of West Ogglia. By reputation, also in the Raduar and Kilmun tribes. Why not here?”

She pulled her shawl up tight to her throat and didn't answer.

“You can do a part of Bibbo's job that Senli and Hummel can't.”

“What's that?” she snapped.

“Negotiate with the fur trappers and tradesmen. I think you can do it honestly. That's badly needed. Senli is honest, yes, but she gets pushed around. Other people break her bargains and she doesn't stop them. She's admitted it.”

“Well, I'm not standing for that.”

He smiled. “I know you aren't. That's what's going to make you invaluable, Mistress Clumpi.”

She rose. There was a troubled scowl on her face. He hadn't completely sold her on the idea. Well, he knew he wasn't much of a salesman. He'd have to keep working at it.

“Would you like me to walk you back home?”

“Where else do you have to go?” There came that snort from her again.

“I'm going to visit Hummel and Senli. I'm going to shock them this time, I'm afraid.” Denario ignored her attitude. He understood it better now. “But it doesn't have to do with you.”

“It doesn't? What is it then?”

“Maybe I'd better not say unless I can find the right tools. I need an ice pick, one that's like a needle. But a needle won't do.”

“What do you have in mind?” she said, curious.

“Come along for the laugh, if you like. Maybe I'll just look foolish.”

“You've been foolish so far.” She glanced to the scar on his head where the Raduar axe had grazed him. “But I suppose you've come through it well enough.”

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Five