Sunday, February 26, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 69: A Bandit Accountant, 11.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene Five: Aha

The morning sun had turned from orange to yellow when Burgher Dumm showed up to the counting house. The air was brisk but with the promise of a warm, spring afternoon ahead. That was fine because they were overdue for some better weather, to Denario's mind. Instinctively he put a hand on his sword as he noticed the burgher’s approach.

Vernon Dumm hadn't bothered to bring a weapon. He wore the same breeches as before. They didn't have room to hide a dagger, not with the way his belly filled them out. He'd put on two fresh shirts, both dyed a pale shade of green. His mood and his manner of dress seemed improved from yesterday. In fact, he looked spry and well rested. His lack of cudgel seemed a bit suspicious to Denario but he found it hard to demand that the burgher go get one.

“Can you tell me who owes what, yet?” said Dumm as he got within speaking distance. This seemed to be his version of teasing. He put his fists on either side of his great stomach and waited although he clearly didn't expect an answer.

“As a matter of fact, I can tell you that one trader is owed two hundred fifty pounds of copper,” Denario answered. He took his hand off of the hilt of his baselard. He indicated the relevant string-counters. “I'm sure the orange round tiles are the copper markers. Types are separated by a double set of black beads, see. Another trader owes us sixty bales of wool and one hundred twenty rabbit hides. I don't have the names of those traders figured out yet.”

“Really?” Vernon's hands dropped from his sides. “That's ...”

“Better than you expected?”

“Yes. Well, I mean no offense by it. Your captain said you were good. But Olga Clumpi herself told me that the job was impossible and she ought to know.”

“You had your talk with Olga?” Denario's voice dropped. The old woman was eating breakfast with Senli not far away.

“Yes, me and Mark Haphnaught both. We got an earful back from her, as we expected. But she seems happy to keep matters quiet as long as she’s got a job.”

Denario glanced down Mine Street. He'd expected to see Haphnaught walking over here long before Dumm.

“Where is the other burgher, anyway? Why isn't he with you?”

“He's ...” Vernon Dumm rolled his eyes. He leaned his weight one direction, then another. He seemed embarrassed but he forced himself to appear business-like. “I suppose you’ll find out anyway. Burgher Haphnaught is indisposed.”

“Indisposed. Do you mean he's sick?”

“In a manner of speaking.” He rocked on his heels again.

“What manner of speaking is that? Was he well enough to come to his door?”

“No. His youngest son comes off guard duty at sunrise. He let me in. Mark was in bed. He said his arms hurt. His face looked bruised, too.”

“Aha,” said Denario. “I mean, that's awful.”

“Yes. I know what most people will think.” Vernon nodded. “It looks a bit like he and the wife were fighting again. They do that from time to time. But it's been years since they've had a row anything like this serious. It's not good for them, not at their age.”

“Or he could have had a fall down the stairs,” Denario suggested. He watched Vernon's face carefully to see if the man was hiding his knowledge of last night.

“His house has one story,” replied the burgher without missing a beat. He seemed to regard Denario as slightly daft for suggesting it, nothing more.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene Six

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 68: A Bandit Accountant, 11.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene Four: A Bump in the Night

“What?” Denario sat up, startled. The room was so dark that he could barely see his hands on his sword. It was the middle of the night.

He immediately regretted saying anything. He was sure he must have heard a noise. Yes, there it was, a board that creaked. The sound came from outside his bedroom door. Was someone on the stairs? He held his breath and listened.

Another creak. Then, abruptly, there was the noise of a stumble. Someone muttered a curse but too softly for Denario to hear the words.

Alarmed, he pulled his baselard from its sheath. The blade made a noise which, after a moment of consideration, Denario admitted might not be all that bad. Did he really care if someone knew he had the sword drawn? He didn't want to fight. That would probably mean he'd die, given his lack of skill. He'd be safer scaring off the intruder.

On that principle, Denario rolled out of bed. He didn't care about the loud thump he made when his boots hit the floor.

Someone else cared. A second later, there was a gasp from behind the door. That was followed by what could only have been the clack and clatter of a large man falling backwards down the stairs. It lasted for a second or two and ended with a bang against the bottom board. At least the intruder didn't fall head-first off of the second floor, Denario thought. Then he'd have a dead body on his hands and a lot of explaining to do in the morning.

“Ooow!” The cry of pain had been knocked out of somebody. Was that the voice of Vernon Dumm? Denario couldn't tell.

The clatter woke the mines slaves.

“Shut up!” shouted one in a thick accent.

Another called out, “Who is it?”

Denario didn't see any point in staying in his room. He lifted the latch and swung open his door. His sword tip remained at eye level as he moved. That part of his training had been effective, it seemed. He had the reflex. No one rushed in to attack him. There wasn't a second intruder, as Denario had feared for a moment. All the action sounded like it was taking place downstairs. Rag blankets, furs, and straw beds rustled. The bottom stair board creaked as someone rolled off of it.

“It's the middle of the night!” complained the slave with the accent.

“Are you all right?” said a third, more thoughtful voice.

With a horrible groan, the person at the bottom of the stairs started to move. He dragged himself across the straw-covered dirt floor with a heavy, limping gait.

“I'm coming down!” Denario shouted. Powered by fear, his voice sounded like the bellowing of a bull – or maybe a bit more like the bleating of a newborn calf for its mother. His words came out with a lot more volume and a higher pitch than he'd meant. His throat felt as tight as his arm muscles.

He was so nervous that he stepped into his own trap.

When the loop of twine slapped him on the back of the leg, he let out such a curse that the intruder downstairs, whoever he was, began to run. It wasn't that Denario had been hurt. His ankle had twisted a little but no more than that. Instead, it was the thrill of fear making him loud again. How could he have been so stupid? He'd almost tumbled down the steps himself. He was lucky that he wasn't any better at setting traps.

Vir had shown him how to make a holding snare, a flip snare, and a trip snare but this was the first time that any of Denario's traps had worked. And now this, nearly the second time, had happened with him as the victim.

His left hand trembled. He hastily yanked out the remaining snare anchors on his way down to the equipment room. There was one anchor that he couldn't budge because its hook had gotten caught. He ignored it.

As he came to the last step on the staircase, a light flared. One of the slaves lit a rag torch.

He stopped as his eyes adjusted. The thin slave, who had provided the firelight, had already clambered to his feet. In the other corner, a chubby, stoop-shouldered fellow was rising. Still on the ground, shielding his eyes from the light, lay a man with more tattoos on him than Denario had ever seen. Those included a slave tattoo on his left cheek.

“What happened?” asked the chubby fellow. Even at full height, he was shorter than Denario and that didn't happen often.

“Intruder,” said the man next to the mining cart before Denario could open his mouth. He gestured to the accountant with his torch. His words proved him to be the source of the belligerent accent. “So ... you're wearing armor and a red vest underneath. You're the Oggli man we've heard tell of?”

“That's right.” Denario nodded. He ignored the knowing smile. He knew that 'Oggli' sounded funny but just now he didn't care.

“You're the one what got the book keepers paid?”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Denario gestured to where the intruder had fallen. “Someone was just trying to sneak past you to do who knows what. Probably something bad. And you're thinking about pay?”

The standing slaves cocked their heads. The one on the floor grunted and rose to his feet.

“Folks don't like that.”

“What folks?” Denario raised his voice. The slaves backed away. Abruptly, he realized that he must look threatening. He turned his baselard around. It took only a moment of awkwardness to get it sheathed.

He turned toward the front cargo doors of the equipment room. Maybe there was still time to chase down the intruder. But then what? Was he going to attack someone in the dark? Maybe kill a grandmother by accident who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

He sighed. He turned back to the miners.

“Why? Why don't folks like it?”

“Yer paying women. That’s the big problem. Could be that's why you got a visitor tonight.” The thin man shuffled forward at step. “It weren't us, ye know. Not one of us.”

He got lots of nodding from his fellows about that point.

“How can I be sure?” The idea hadn't entered Denario's head until now but it had a certain appeal. A slave only needed to run to the front door, which was still open, make some noise, and creep back to where he'd been. The thin one could have done it.

On the other hand, all of the slaves rattled when they moved. Denario glanced at their ankles. Each man had brass fetters attached to keep him from running away. The chains between the footcuffs were thin. The links were dirty with red and gray shades of mud. Surely these slaves could have broken out with their mining shovels or picks. But why would they bother? Where could they go?

More to the point, how silently could any of them climb stairs with those chains on? Denario had to guess that it wouldn't be easy.

“None of us owns a cudgel,” said the thin one. He gestured to a spot on the ground next to the stairs. “They don't let mine slaves walk around with something like that.”

Denario knelt to touch the dark shape. It was a wooden mace about two feet long with a knob at the end. The material had been seasoned until it was as tough as iron. It was not the sort of thing brought by someone with nice intentions.

“Who carries a cudgel?” he wondered.

“That's for the foremen and aldermen.”

Denario scratched his head. “What's an alderman?”

“He means the burghers,” corrected the short, round fellow. He indicated the man with the accent with a jerk of his thumb. “He's a foreigner, like you, so he don't know nothing. Like you.”

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene Five

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 67: A Bandit Accountant, 11.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene Three: Made His Bed

By the end of the day, he’d gotten the counter strings about half of the way restored according to the sometimes tenuous memory of Mistress Clumpi. Exhausted after the reconstruction process, which included re-stringing over a thousand tiles, eating a three-potato dinner at his desk, and re-stringing hundreds more, he rubbed his eyes. He rubbed them again. Finally he noticed Olga Clumpi as she donned her shawl. He understood what time it had to be. He'd kept everyone up too late. He told Olga to hold on. That gave him a moment to shake hands with his book keepers and bid them good night. Over the widow's faint protests, he walked her from Mine Street to Willow Street, up to her front door.

When he returned to Mine Street, he saw that the lights in the counting house had gone out.  He couldn't blame them. He steered himself toward the equipment building for the climb up the narrow staircase to his loft.

His bedroom sat above a utility room for mine tools. It held mostly wooden beams, shovels, and pick handles. The beams had been stacked with rocks wedged between them, perhaps so the wood would dry faster. Normally, no one else stayed there. But this night, he saw that someone had moved a dusty mining cart to one corner of the floor. A gangly fellow had fallen asleep there on piles of dirty rags. Two more men had made rag beds in a different corner. They were mine slaves, Denario supposed. He felt a twinge of regret about going up to his fancy room full of downy linens but there was no sense in waking these men to apologize to them. Anyway, he needed to sleep.

He marched up and laid himself down on his covers. He felt rested, full of food, and reasonably warm. But the clues he’d uncovered in the afternoon had set his mind to whirring like a set of gears broken from their shear pin. His thoughts spun out idea after idea. He discovered that he'd memorized the color counts. His mind kept manipulating tiles in his imagination as if they were cold and smooth in his fingers. He shuffled them around in a waking dream. He was getting so close to a solution, he could almost taste the bitter glazes in his mouth. Bibbo had certainly assigned a number to each type of goods: furs, straw, feathers, beets, potatoes, and so on. Denario had been able to chart out some of the types already. Bear skins looked like a number nine. But where had that thought come from? It had made sense only moments ago. Now he questioned his logic.

After a few minutes in the dark, he sat up and re-lit his bedroom candles. He got out his accounting log and made notes about what he’d learned of base 16 mathematics. For one thing, base 16 had many common divisors that people used every day like 2, 4, and 8. But it lacked the divisor of 3 that was an advantage to base 12 systems. From that, Denario deduced that Bibbo Clumpi counted in groups of 4s and 8s when he was young. Olga Clumpi called them 'quads' and 'tets,' which indicated that Bibbo hadn't been alone. A farmer trading turnips and potatoes for furs had used those terms, too. It made Denario think that local farmers, however few there were, must have started the practice ages back.

Denario tapped the nub of the pen against his lower lip, a bad habit. He wiped his mouth, which blackened the back of his hand, and flipped the log pages to old Master Winkel’s description of the Tomaru system. He added his own annotations from what he'd learned while working with Senli. That took him half an hour.

When that wasn’t enough to let him sleep, he dug out his sword, spear, and buckler for some practice. The mindless repetition felt good. He hadn't realized how much his legs had cramped from disuse until he stretched them for a bit.

Part of him was dimly aware that he stank. At some point soon, he would need to go down to the town's spring and bathe no matter how cold the water was.

Even after the exercise, he couldn't sleep. Denario thought about the traps he'd set on the stairs two nights ago. He'd neglected them since. Rationally, he was sure he should be more careful. There were strange men downstairs, after all. He knelt to his travel pack and located his remaining snares, which he'd wrapped neatly, cords around the pegs.

He unrolled all four and tested them. The straps were thin leather, not twine, and they felt strong. Two of the snares had been a gift from Alaric. The other two had been spoils of the battle, part of the common pile the men lugged to the nearest fort. Vir was the one who had insisted that Denario learn to use them. He'd meant for the accountant to keep in constant practice. 'These saved me when I traveled alone,' he'd said. 'Ye need te learn the way.'

The captain hadn't volunteered a story about how traps had saved him.  But it wasn't hard to imagine. The Mundredi peasants seemed willing to rob anyone they deemed weak. The knights in the Ogglian lands weren't much different. Only in the larger towns and cities did the rule of law exist. A traveler alone in the wilderness might starve or suffer attacks by men or animals.

Denario felt there was a chance that the slaves downstairs would creep up to steal from him. Moreover, he doubted they'd stop anyone else from doing it. Denario didn't trust the look he'd gotten from Vernon Dumm. He might come up to do thieving or, more likely, worse. If anyone seemed ready to do Denario harm, it was that man.

The accountant had borrowed extra anchor pegs from the equipment on the floor two nights ago. They'd been lying in a heap of old mining equipment. They'd looked like they might have been used as tent spikes because they had pre-drilled holes for rope. Also, they'd been carved with hooked tips he found useful. Not far away from the spikes, he'd found larger, bent sticks in roughly the same color as the wood of the staircase. He'd wanted those pieces to rock back and forth without breaking and they'd seemed to do the job. That was how he'd set his traps. He still had some spare parts.

He pulled a few parts from the his scrap pile next to his door. He tested the bent pieces by stomping on them. Perhaps they didn't rock as much as he'd like but they didn't break. He tied cord loops to those sticks so that when someone stepped on one, it threw the loop over their foot. And when they took their next step, they'd discover that the anchor kept them from pulling away from the twine.

Tools in hand, he scurried to the top of his staircase.

It took maybe ten minutes to set the additional traps. He tried to watch the shadowy figures of the sleeping slaves beneath him in the gloom. It was impossible, even by the light of his candle. If they'd been awake, they would have heard him. They gave no signs of being disturbed, though, not even when he wedged the anchor pegs between the boards of the steps.

When he was done, he had some energy left and some extra pieces, too. He dropped those next to his bedroom door. He'd already trapped each of the top six steps. That was more than enough. Besides, he had started to feel tired. Maybe it was the sense of protection at work. A calmness crept over his limbs. He pressed his cupped left hand over his mouth as he yawned.

If someone stepped on a stick, the loop would catch them about half of the time, he guessed, and it would make them stumble. Denario would hear it and wake up. At the worst, he ought to hear the wood rockers snap if that's all that happened. He would have liked to tie a different type of snare to the railing but there was no railing. The steps were steep, not much better than a ladder. As he sat down on the bed, he envisioned what he'd done. He felt a brief twinge of worry that someone could trip and fall a long way down.

But his spirits settled. He closed his eyes. He knew that no one had visited him except one Mundredi soldier on his first morning here. This looked like a harmless precaution. Besides, as he sunk deep into the feather mattress, he realized he didn't want to go to the bother of rolling out of it.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene Four

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 66: A Bandit Accountant, 11.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene Two: Facts Discovered

“I thought you weren't any closer to figuring out Clumpi's system,” Hummel whispered, much too loudly for Denario's comfort. All of the mule drivers and book keepers had watched the confrontation with Burgher Dumm. Some of them had been keeping a close eye on Denario since. They probably wanted to overhear something to their advantage.

Outside, the clouds had fled. The sun climbed alone into a gray-blue sky. In the counting house, the shelves and stacks had been cast into shadow. Denario ordered the cargo doors opened to relieve his mood. It had taken him more than a day to notice that those doors existed because two boxes of turtle shells had been stacked in their way. Next to them five bales of raw wool also blocked the view. Denario had to help Hummel and the guard shift everything to get the place opened up. They discovered that lowest bale of fleece had gotten wet and started to go bad. But the reward for their work was plenty of light in the counting house. It made Denario feel better about his job.

That the large doors hadn't been used in a month, apparently, was depressing. It meant no caravan had brought in large barrows of supplies to the town for that long.

“I didn't even look at the tiles yesterday,” admitted Denario as he puzzled over how such a wealthy town could have gotten itself into such a dangerous situation. “But I'll start right now.”

The transactions with the muleteers had finished. Denario walked past the last mule driver and a fresh stack of otter furs on the way to the tile desk. The driver nodded to him. Denario nodded back rather absent-mindedly. Behind the trader, at the back desks where the scrolls and candles were kept, Keeper Senli had taken the opportunity to instruct Mistress Clumpi on the mechanics of penmanship. It wasn't easy. The quill was old and the ink was lumpy. Nevertheless, Olga and Senli entered records into a Tomaru scroll. Senli seemed to be a patient teacher, which was good considering the disposition of her student. Olga gave turtle-necked, hands-on-hips scowls to the marks she'd made on the page.

Denario didn't want to disturb the women, not yet, so he sat in front of the tiles at the edge of the bright sunlight. He made a quick recount of the colors and shapes of clay pieces. All of them had holes for stringing, of course, but most were square. A few had been cut into rectangles, probably also meant to be square. Others were flat discs. Still rarer types had been shaped into beads.

The beads were always black or red, never any other color. That was Denario's first clue.
“Hummel, did you talk to whoever made these tiles for Master Clumpi?”

“No, sir. I hear the man was just a farmer and part-time potter. He lives out of town, I think.”

“I'll bet Mistress Clumpi knows him.” It was odd that someone hadn't thought to talk to the potter responsible. That was a symptom of how this town worked. If a task wasn't convenient, it got put off. And certainly the burghers hadn't made it easy for Senli or Hummel to travel. A woman with a visible slavery tattoo had to worry about walking practically anywhere.

Denario had seen businesses in Oggli operate in a similar, lazy fashion. But unless those people were related to the marquis or some other noblemen, they didn't act that way for long. Instead, they went out of business. Master Winkel had listed those failed operations in his accounting logs along with the reasons he thought they'd gone bankrupt. Here in Phart's Bad, where there were no other mines, only one cobbler, one tailor, and not many farms, the only businesses that had to survive any competition were the caravans and the smiths.

It was no surprise that the Mundredi army got their best bronze spear points around here. The copper smiths had to be learning from one another and competing fiercely to acquire the best materials and techniques.

“Why aren't you moving the tiles, master?” asked Hummel. He wasn't even pretending to work. That was all right by Denario, though. He didn't want his book keepers doing fake work just to look busy when he was around.

“I'm counting the pieces again. I've got some ideas, given the numbers, but I don't want to disturb anything.”

In fact, Denario did move the tiles and strings. But he shifted them carefully, always restoring anything he'd displaced. Hummel watched for a while. But for a quiet man, he didn't have much patience. He soon turned his back and began to re-stack the otter pelts. Meanwhile, Denario kept a tally in the dirt of the various types of shapes and colors he encountered. In about two hours of careful work, he got to a point where he felt able to match the tile types to categories in the counting house inventory.

The basics fell together more or less at once. It started with a sense that the beads were operators instead of counters. From there, his guesses led logically to a series of vague conclusions that he couldn't prove. But he was sure he was generally right. When he felt himself getting confused about the details, he drew a chart:

          black beads = addition
          red beads = subtraction or sometimes a debt
          disc tiles = multipliers
          yellow square tiles = one
          green square tiles = two
          blue square tiles = four

“Mistress Clumpi?” he called. The old woman had finished her writing lesson. A friend of hers had come by with applesauce for lunch so she had just dug in. “Did your husband ever count by eights? Or maybe sixteens?”

“Sixteens, yes. He called them hexads.” She wiped her hands on her apron. “I don't know if he counted by them but he liked the number.”

“Hexads? I don't know that word. Maybe he invented his own term?”

“Yes.” Olga groaned for a moment as she got up off of her stool. She ambled toward Denario. “He liked the old tongue. A lot of his words came from that. But he shortened them when he used them in his math.”

“That could account for two of the three the missing colors.” Denario stared at his chart, which appeared to make sense. His guesses had been on the right track and he thought he could make another, too. “Did he compare hexads to tens and twelves?”


“He must have been very sharp.” In fact, the man must have been doing his accounting math in hexadecimal and translating it into decimal or duodecimal when talking to the caravan drivers, all of whom worked in base ten or twelve according to the slave book keepers. “Very sharp, indeed. He did all of the math in his head?”

“Bibbo couldn't write much.” She wrung her hands. Although she seemed encouraged, it was obvious that she felt confused by the line of questioning. She seemed a bit tired, too. Denario didn't feel he could offer her the rest of the day off but he wouldn't give her heavy work this afternoon.

He added to his chart,

          red square tiles = eight
          purple square tiles = sixteen

There were fewer purples than reds. Reviewing his results, he realized that he'd gotten ahead of himself. He hadn't even started to restore the system. But he was pretty sure he was on the right track about the basic scheme. Without these guesses, nothing else he did would matter anyway. He could puzzle out the state of the tiles on the strings with Olga in the afternoon. For the moment, he needed to come to a decision about whether the proportions of colors suggested connections to the inventory, signs for the traders, or tally marks – and the verdict seemed to be tally marks. A yellow tile didn’t indicate ‘one otter fur.’ It meant one of anything. All of the colors were numbers or operators and they were all part of a base sixteen accounting system.

“Do you need me?” asked Olga. “Only I want to get back to my sauce. And it looks like you already know what you're doing.”

“I've made a start. I'll need your help after lunch.” Denario smiled at her. “You see, I really need you. I can already tell there's a problem about these values if I'm right about your husband's method. And I'm pretty sure I understand the basic method.”

“So what's the problem?”

“Well, if no color belongs to any particular trader, how did Bibbo keep track of what account strings belonged to which trader? Did he say anything about that? Would you have any idea?"

She shook her head.

“And if each tile stands for a number, how did Bibbo know what kind of thing he was counting? How did he know someone had contributed sixteen bear skins but not sixteen pork bellies?”

“Maybe he just remembered.”

"That's what I'm afraid of," admitted Denario. It seemed all too likely.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene Three