Sunday, March 11, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 113: A Bandit Accountant, 18.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene Five: The Value of Holiness

“So ...” said Denario. He hesitated, goblet in hand. He felt a bit lost in the dinner discussion about Mundredi customs. The problem wasn't eating different cuts of meat with three different knives. It was the relationships of tribes to clans and also of clans to houses. The combinations were worthy of their own subset of math. “You belong to the Mundredi Tribe, Clan of the Spears, House of the Goat. But the Clan of the Spears is also known as the Kallikar?”

“That's right,” Addler nodded approvingly. “It's like the Raduar you bin fightin', the Killimar and the Juttari. Men there belongs to clans with names and tattoos that any waldi can understand but they've got the old clan names, too. The old names don't always mean what the tattoos say.”

“Then what do they mean?”

“Mostly, no one remembers,” Udo announced dourly.

“We know the Raduar Juttari are the biggest clan,” said Addler. “And they wear the sword crossed with an axe. The Killimar clan wears the sword crossed with a spear. We don't know what those names mean. Everyone has guesses.”

“I'd guess that the old, old tongue for spear could have been something close to 'kallikar' or 'killimar,'” said Denario.

“You and everyone else.” Udo spoke into his cup. His eyes never rose to meet Denario's. “But it's just a guess.”

Addler grinned and nodded. Denario let his gaze drift between father and son. Udo's nose had the same slight hook as his father's. They held their cups the same, too, in both hands. But they were quite different in temperament. The father, Addler, had dominated the dinner conversation. The curly-headed Udo had limited himself to snide remarks. Yet they both seemed to be selling something to Denario and he couldn't figure out quite what it was.

The table had been laid out with comfort foods, solid fare like turnips, fried oats, stewed meats, and cheeses. Karla and Carinde had performed the serving but, Denario noticed, had done very little of the talking. It wasn't like the young girl to keep quiet but she had done so in a determined way. She'd put her hands in her lap when she wasn't eating. Karla, even when seated beside her step-daughter, had been aggressively maternal with her serving portions. The only times she'd spoken were when she'd urged the men at the table to eat more lentils or, once, when she'd given an order to Cari to fetch another ladle. Karla's toddler was asleep, thank goodness. For her part, Cari had volunteered to serve the wine. She'd seemed poised and nearly adult. But as Denario had thanked her, she'd looked directly into his eyes and spilled a fingers-width of the beverage onto his leg. He had to pretend not to notice. Cari had acted as if everything was fine, too, or she'd tried. She'd turned her head for a moment so her parents couldn't see her.

The dining room and kitchen looked neater than usual. Normally, a few items from the store inventory cluttered the table. There was usually an abacus next to Udo's chair but it hadn't survived the cleaning. Udo had kept wads of imported sharkskin nearby that he normally sold to the woodworkers for their use in sanding but which he also used to repair nicks and bumps in his merchandise. Those were gone. So was the pot of hardened shellac that had been gathering dust for months. One of the window shutters had been replaced, probably yesterday.

They'd cleaned up for him. Addler had trimmed and shaved a bit. What were they thinking? The mystery put Denario on edge.

“The mayor asked about your health,” said Udo. Again, he spoke to his cup rather than look across the table to the accountant or at his father.

“Is that a hint?” asked Denario. “He gave me a letter to carry. Does he want me to move out tomorrow?”

“No. It's not that kind of a hint.” Addler's eyes crinkled. He rubbed his close-cropped beard, now mostly grayish stubble, neatly trimmed. “See, the carter's guild has gone to him about you. So have the carpenters. They want to bring accountants into town. I'd like that, too.”

“Do you mean my apprentices?”

“No! Idiot!” Udo snapped. He pounded his fist on the table. “They want you to stay.” In a smaller voice, he added, with a glance to his oldest daughter, “So do we.”

“You'd do well here.” Addler shrugged as he weren't committed one way or another. “It seems to me that you already have a thriving business.”

“And you don't need to make yourself any competition from your apprentices,” Udo said.

“Now ...” Whatever Addler tried to say, his words were drowned out by his son.

“Besides, you could have an apprentice right here if you're serious about letting Cari work. You could have others, too. Folks would pay you to learn.”

“I'd like that. I think the world of Cari.” Denario tried to remind Udo of what the man should already know. “But I've sworn an oath to my previous apprentices in Oggli. You wouldn't think so well of me if I broke my word to them or their parents. What worth would my word have anywhere then?”

“Um.” Udo hesitated. Promises didn't seem to mean much to him but he understood Denario's point. Most of anyone's business was done on trust. Even Udo, who relied on the mayor and the local priests to enforce his contracts, also relied on his craftsmen, carters, and caravan masters to keep their commitments. He couldn't fight legal battles over every little thing. He set down his wine cup.

“Of course we don't want you to foreswear yourself,” Addler jumped in. “But there's a place for you here. If you're gone too long, some junior book keeper will fill it. We want to make it easy for you to come back to town.”

“How?” Denario didn't need to tell them that it was a long trip. Addler already knew.

Denario didn't intend to come back to this area, regardless. He tried to imagine the consequences of bringing journeymen accountants with him. It would be a disaster, possibly with fatalities. Even a marginal success would come at great expense. He'd need to pay a caravan or he'd have to arm and march his apprentices for a week upstream without suffering ambush. The trip might take longer than a week. He wasn't sure how far northeast he was or how difficult the paths beside No Map Creek might be.

Addler grunted. His left hand patted his chest. Denario wondered if the old fellow were feeling indigestion. Then he wondered if he could be suffering something worse. The fellow's pale, trembling hand drifted down to the side pockets sewn into the lower half of his shirt. After failing to find what he wanted there, he put his hand to his belt. He had a pocket belt similar to the outfits worn by wealthy merchants in Oggli. Denario had never owned a pocket belt himself. They were made of fine leather. It took a skilled tailor to design hidden compartments on the inside. Someone with problem hands, like Addler, could barely use them. The accountant knew Addler had trouble with his left hand in particular, which curled semi-permanently into a half-fist. The fingers on that side were pale and cold, nearly blue-green at the tips. It took the old fellow's gnarled digits half a minute to open the hidden nook.

In stages, Addler eased his treasure out of the belt. Whatever it was, Denario could tell the shape was rectangular and not much more than two fingers wide. The accountant’s eyebrows went up when he saw that the piece shone like steel. It had been stamped or inscribed. The elder Vogel palmed it. He turned over his trembling hand. With pride, he presented the piece to Denario.

Steel was so rare here that it was probably worth quite a lot just for that. The inscription showed four donkeys in a row. The accountant had never seen anything like it before but it teased at his memories. The icons recalled something important. Winkel had mentioned an artifact like this but Denario couldn't bring the name of it to mind.

“It's beautiful,” he said. He wondered how anyone had managed to make such detailed pictures on steel. Perhaps the tablet had been stamped into a die while soft and blazing hot. “What is it for, Herr Vogel?”

“This, accountant, is an Oupen Teamster piece. It's a token of transport.”

“Oh.” Suddenly the memory came flooding back. He rubbed his fingertip around the edge and felt a sense of awe. Yes, Master Winkel has mentioned these. Accountants couldn't get them. Even upper class travelers couldn't get these. They were only available to the wealthiest of the wealthy.

“It should suit you and your apprentices when you come back here. I meant to sell it to our local caravan masters but they never gave me the price I wanted. You can have it. If there are mule teams hauling rafts back up the Riggle Kill, the teamsters will honor this. So will any Uberwaldi mule-led caravan.”

Addler Vogel must have been as rich as a prince, once. It changed Denario's opinion of Ruin Thal. He was closer to civilization than he thought.

“This ...” Denario tried to put it back in Addler's palm. The old fellow had anticipated the move, though, and he jammed his hands into his pockets. The accountant was left dangling the steel wedge in the air. “This is more than my accounting practice could ever afford. We do well. But not this well. How ...?”

“I did a mule captain a favor. He paid me in this.”

“Must have been an amazing favor.”

“Saved his life. He felt it was worth a pair of these.”

“He gave you more than one?”

“Long story ...”

“Dad!” said Udo. Next to her grandfather, Cari groaned. Apparently, they'd heard the story more often than they liked.

“Anyway,” said Addler, not much bothered by their reactions. “They are good forever. This is the one I kept. It will help you get back up here. I know all the boat masters to take you down to Oupenli, too."

“Long ago you did,” corrected Udo. “Da, those fellows are dead. Well, most of them.”

“I know families doing business on the creek. I get news from there. I know that you can catch a ride down No Map straight into the Lamp Kill.”

“Who among the boatmen take passengers?”

“All of them if they're not full to the brim with cargo. The best is the Bowman family. Hans Bowman's son is Otto. Otto goes all the way down the creek like his dad did and sometimes he goes all the way down the Lamp Kill into County Oggli. Then there's Ingemar Scheller. He's a great raft maker. He's old now but when he's on a run down to the Lamp, you can't do better. It's just that he doesn't go all the way down to the end of the creek anymore. He's gotten superstitious. Doesn't like to pass by the forgotten temples.”

Karla took the lid from her table stewpot. The rich scent of venison wafted across the table. She dutifully spooned out a tiny morsel for the accountant although he hadn't asked for another helping. He was the guest and therefore was always served first. Then she scooped up a much larger portion for her husband, who patted his belly and bowed his head. Fatty juices from the meat had gotten on his hands, lips, and beard. That gave him a moist smile but a genuine one. He seemed pleased to have his wife anticipate him.

“Forgotten temples ...” mumbled Denario. “Those sound like sources of magic.”

“Hah. The whole creek is lousy with magic. That reminds me. There's a crazy man you could try named Jack Lasker. He'll be making the run to Oupenli if he hasn't gotten himself killed. He takes too many chances. That's how he gets in three or four rafting runs a year. In the spring and fall, he gets iced in upstream but he breaks through it with rocks tied to ropes.”

“Like anchors?”

“That's what he calls those things.”

It didn't sound foolish to Denario but he didn't know much about icy water except that the Mundredi feared it. They tried to ward off magic, too, and he was pretty sure they were wrong. Magical light was practical. So were flying carpets. If you feared such tools, you might as well fear math, alchemy, or engineering.

“So Helmut Zimmerman told me you were packing to leave,” Addler ventured after a rather long silence.

“There's no reason to linger except to teach Cari some more,” Denario admitted. She smiled at hearing her name and that made him feel warmer. “I had to unpack my supplies and take a full tally of what I've got and how long it'll last. Also, I had to weigh it. Now that's done.”

“I'll bet you've got at least ninety pounds of stuff.”

“I weighed out one hundred seven pounds in eight bags.” Denario shook his head at the craziness of it. He had fifty pounds in cash alone. “I need to lose about thirty-seven pounds and get down to four bags. If I don't catch a ride at No Map Creek, I'll have to leave equipment there.”

“Can't you take less food and money?”

“If I can keep working for food, yes. In fact, I wondered if I could leave some money with you.”

“There's a holding fee,” said Udo.

“Now, now,” Addler drawled with a smile. “You can leave anything with me, personally, no holding fee.”

“Really?” Most tradesmen charged holding fees. Even the Oupenli-Oggli Bank charged fees. Next to the accountant, the women of the family blinked. Their gazed drifted between the elder and younger Vogel men in confusion. Karla's face seemed to resolve in an expression of suspicion towards her father-in-law.

“You have to come back within two years to collect, though.” The elder Vogel leaned back in his chair, hands over his stomach. Karla nodded at his remark. “I'm not getting any younger.”

“Understood, sir.” Denario brightened at his prospects. True, he didn't expect to return but the option was good have. He slipped the Oupen Teamster token into his pants pocket. “It's extremely kind of you to offer. I accept.”

“Will you stay a few days to teach Cari? She could come to classes with those other merchants if you let her.”

“Some of them have objected to the idea,” he admitted. He could see that Addler and Udo knew about that. One of Denario's worst students, a master carpenter, had voiced his opinion loudly on the proper place for women. He didn't think they belonged in school. “But as far as I'm concerned, she really should come. If another student doesn't like it, he can leave.”

“Heh.” Father and son both laughed. Even Karla and Cari dared to share smiles.

“I'll write to Cari when I'm gone. I'll send more lessons. After all, I write to other folks.”

“So we've heard,” said Udo. “But your messages to our chief won't make it across Sir Fettertyr's territory.”

“I have to try.”

“Why? Why did you send them with a caravan? It marks you as a spy in other men’s eyes.”

“Well, I'm not,” he retorted. Several other voices spoke at the same time, one of them a rare comment from Karla that he didn't catch.

“Look, son,” said Addler over everyone else. “The accountant has the token of the royal Mundredi. That's important. He's got to write to the chief.”

“Dad, all that 'chief' stuff went out a generation ago. This town has a knight, a real, powerful knight with a horse and armor and everything. Our knight appoints the mayor. Believe me, Sir Fettertyr is not going to tolerate any talk about a Mundredi chief.”

“And what a crap-ass job Fettertyr did of appointing our mayor! Not that Tobias Brauer is immoral, mind you, but on his own merits he'd be the hundredth man in line to hold office. His wife would be ahead of him in line.”

Udo had to chuckle at that one. He settled in his seat, content to have made his point. The chief had no power in Ruin Thal.

“Anyway,” said Denario, getting back to what he thought the subject of conversation should be. “I have to lighten my packs. And I want Cari to write back to me in Oggli if she can. She can send to the Bank of Oupenli-Oggli and they'll find me. That's the way it's done.”

“Nonsense,” snorted Udo. “We can't afford it. She's a mere girl. She's got no call to write. The price of parchment is ridiculous.”

“I have extra parchment. I could leave her with blank scrolls and some money to send them.”

“That's a fortune! You could feed forty men for a week on the trade for that.”

“Well,” said Denario. He pulled out the steel Oupen Teamster pass from his pocket for a moment. He turned it over to gaze on the four donkeys. “You've been more than generous yourselves. If I'm going to teach Cari math, I'll want to see that she's making progress.”

“Is this on top of the chalk?”


Udo stood up and stuck out his hand. Denario palmed the teamster token. Without rising, he shook on the deal with the shopkeeper.

“Done!” said Udo. He sat back down with a smile.

“So ...” Denario turned to Carinde. To his surprise, she was biting her lip. He plowed on anyway. “Cari, your grandfather told me you've been keeping up with your geometry. Do you have anything new to show us?”

She nodded. She put the edge of a napkin in her mouth. Suddenly she seemed very childish. She just stared at Denario, wide-eyed. Then she made a choking sound. She spat out the napkin. To his shock, the poor girl burst into tears. A moment later, she hopped off of her stool and dashed out of the room.

“What just happened?” Denario looked to her step-mother, then to her father. Udo looked as surprised as Denario felt. “Did I do something wrong?”

Someone patted him on the knee. He turned. It was Karla. Beneath her braided, blonde hair there was a gentle smile.

“You were fine,” she said. She rose from her stool with a barely audible huff. Her belly was heavy but it didn't seem to inconvenience her much. “You men sit here and talk. I'll come back with Carinde. She's been worked up, Denario, about your accounting, and about everything else you've taught her. She showed me some of her work. Very clever, I think. But Carinde has been on edge for days. She's worked herself into a fit.”

“Over math? Really?” She was more motivated than Denario had realized.

“She'll be back to show you her work in a few minutes. You'll see.”

In fact Karla and Carinde returned in less than a minute. The young girl led the way. She marched from the storeroom to the front of the house holding two slates in front of her. Denario noticed that Udo didn't like that. His daughter must have appropriated the slates against his orders.

Carinde wore her best dress tonight, which was white with green trimmings. It was the one she took on family trips to the temple. She was proud of it because it had belonged to her dead mother and Karla had trimmed it down for her. There was nothing tribal about it. The cloth was linen. The pattern was simple. In fact, the only thing that seemed Mundredi about Cari was the stubborn tilt of her jaw. She gazed meaningfully at her left slate, then her right. She offered the right one to Denario like it was a fragile present.

“Beautiful,” he murmured. He held the diagram close so he could see the details. Carinde had drawn a star with straight-sided rays, one called a mullet in heraldry. This mullet was good enough to grace a herald's shield. It had eight points, each colored with yellow chalk. How had she done that? Then there was the piercing in the center, also an eight-sided mullet. The chalk marks had been removed from the pierce. “How did you color it?”

“We sell sulfur,” she explained. “It leaves crumbs in the bins. I mixed those with the chalk.”

“Smart,” he said. Carefully not glancing at her father, he added. “Economical, too.”

“It's the holy star,” Karla added. “The women at temple love it. We're going to have Carinde help us to stitch the design into blankets. We can all have new blankets for winter mass.”

“Could we, um ...” Udo reached across the corner of the table to touch the edge of the slate. “Could we sell a few of the blankets, do you think? To single men and to older women?”

“Of course. I hadn't thought of that. And not just to them. For intricate designs like this, there will be quite a few middle-aged women who need help.”

“Interesting.” The price of blankets in Ruin Thal went up twenty percent on his smile.

The accountant passed the eight-pointed star to Udo, who contemplated it with an air of satisfaction. Denario accepted the second slate from Carinde. The drawing on this one was also colored, probably with rust. The girl had seen the 'flying 8' painted on Denario's buckler and she'd attempted to duplicate it with a compass, protractor, and straight-edge. Her design, in fact, was closer to the official seal of the Oggli and Angrili Accounting Guild than his own.

How had she duplicated the seal so exactly without seeing it? Was it an accident? Was it inevitable? Did Melcurio himself have something to do with it? The rust color couldn't be helped but everything else was correct.

“I will never forget this one,” he said truthfully. If nothing else, it presented a puzzle.

“We, uh ...” Carinde wrung her hands. She glanced to her step-mother. “After I was done, someone, uh, pointed out that, uh, well, it's your god sign, right?”

“For Melcurio,” said her father darkly. “The trickster.”

“The god of accountants, yes,” Denario corrected.

“We were worried that Melcurio would be mad if we erased it. See? But we need the slate back. Could you …?”

Denario laughed. Still, the child was right. The gods took offense to this sort of thing. He'd seen it before in Oggli.

“Here's a penny,” he said. It was a copper piece that he was going to leave with the Vogel family anyway, so it was no loss. Melcurio would appreciate that. “And now, my accounting bag. Can you go get that for me, Cari? It's by your side door.”

When she came back, Denario dug into the bag and found his chalk sack. The dark leather bag, about the size of his fist, opened large enough to fit around one corner of the slate. He tilted the slate in his lap. With the edge of his skinning knife – animals skinned so far, zero – Denario scraped off the chalk and rust. The debris from the drawing fell into the bag. Sometimes he had to nudge it along with the tip of the knife. In all, the process took a few minutes and proved to be a neat solution.

“Back to where it came,” he said when the remains of the flying 8 lay with his chalk shards. He wiped off the pale residue with his bare hands. “Near enough, anyway.”

“And you'll write with the chalk, which is now covered in holiness,” observed Addler. “Nicely done. Cari should be able to do the same with the star and our priest's blessing.”

“That's a relief,” snorted Udo. On the other side of the accountant, Karla smiled and let out the breath she'd been holding. Carinde stopped wringing her hands.

“Geometry does have power,” Denario said. He tied the drawstring on his chalk. “Numbers formed the world. They can re-form it in ways that we don't want if we're not careful.”

“Is … is her math safe?” asked Karla. That was a question Denario had heard from the lips of Shekel's parents and Guilder's parents, too. He replied with the same answer Master Winkel had given.

“All of the math lessons I give will be safe, you may be sure.”

“But ... all the exploring ...”

“Explorations are normally safe, too. I trust that she won't venture far into trouble with you to guide her.”

Karla folded her hands in her lap. She didn't seem completely satisfied but she'd had enough reassurance for now. Denario didn't know the woman well but he could already see more holy symbols in Cari's future, especially whenever her step-mother felt uncomfortable about her step-daughter's work in higher math.

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