Sunday, April 14, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 160: A Bandit Accountant, 27.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Cubed

Scene Two: The Proper Sheriff'

“Justice must be done in front of the whole town. Nothing less will serve.”

Jakob Seidel sat in the church with his night shirt tucked into his trousers. He laid out his open hands as if what he said was self-evident. He had smallish fingers for a man with such strong limbs. They made him look cultured. They revealed that he was a gentleman farmer, able to do a bit of his own work but from a position of ownership. He could leave the dullest, hardest labor to his staff.

“Leonid was told he was a slave,” Denario countered. He sat on the bench opposite the mayor. “He certainly can’t cheat for himself. He has no taxes to pay. He has no private debts. He has nothing.”

That was the central point. It was so completely true that the mayor couldn’t find a direct counter to it. For the moment, his lips moved in silence. He seemed to struggle to find the reasons
why letting the slave boy go unpunished seemed unjust.

“He’s been beaten,” Denario pressed. “And threatened with death.”

“That is his claim,” the mayor corrected, as if the bruises weren’t obvious.

“Look at him.” The accountant gave his counterpart a moment to glance at the still-crying boy. “Do you think he knocked himself blue and green? His limbs were almost broken and with some care, too. I’ll bet someone in Grimsli’s service served as an army interrogator.”

After a moment, Seidel shook his head. He couldn’t pretend that the facts were other than how Denario presented them. His own sons, slightly older than Leonid, had tagged along. Now, rather naturally, they comforted one of their friends. Did they understand that their father meant to hang Leonid? They showed no sign that they were aware of it.

“He should have come to me,” the mayor finally answered.

“Really? Abelard Grimsli killed two different men over debts. Why would you be different? Being mayor won’t protect you. Master Grimsli told Leonid he would kill you if you stood in his way.”

“He wouldn’t dare.” As he announced it, the calm fellow got an uncertain look in his eyes. “Sir Negri wouldn’t stand for anything like that.”

“When his family does the deed, they’ll blame you. They’ll make your knight think the whole town is corrupt except for them and they’re the only ones who can lead.”

“Abelard has said something like it.” Seidel shook his head at the memory.

“They will come before you know. Before you’re ready. Unless you act. You have to move now, before they’re ready.”

The brown-haired man took a deep breath. He raised his strong shoulders, flexed his limbs. He was in the prime of his life. His gaze appeared to take him into his future. What he saw there bewildered him. He gazed down into his hands, elbows on his knees, and shook his head once more.

“Why him? Of all of these cheaters and thieves, why does it have to be Master Grimsli?” said the mayor. “His family estate is a wooden castle. This will not be simple.”

“Do you think it will get easier if you wait?” Denario asked. “At this moment, the Grimsli family thinks they’re cheating on the taxes one last time. They don’t know that the boy, Leonid, has testified against them.”

“If he’s their slave, he’s not allowed to testify.”

“He’s not theirs. As you were on the way here, I started drafting a report to Sir Negri. It begins with how illegal the kidnapping of Leonid was.”

“Is he Koen’s slave, then?”

“He’s the reckoner’s apprentice. Leonid is free. He was a slave, once. But he was given to Koen. The reckoner gave him the accounting oath, not a slave brand. You should write it out officially. You should recognize Koen’s decision from years ago. Do it in your capacity as the mayor. There will be no question about Leonid’s rights.”

Seidel’s face darkened in shadow. He couldn’t help stealing a glance at his sons. One of them sat on a church bench with Leonid. The older one was talking with them both. The mayor looked down again.

“This is not going to look good to my lord,” he sighed.

“Do you think that backing down like a coward and trying to hang a slave,” said Denario, “instead of the guilty gentleman will look better?”

It took the mayor a while to answer. “No,” he whispered.

“The whole town will know what you do. Everyone will be watching. We have evidence. This is the moment. This is your chance to save the rest.”

“The rest? Rest of who?”

“As I read the accounts, nearly all of the town gentlemen cheated, plus some merchants and peasants. If you hang Abelard Grimsli, you could blame the rest on Abelard’s bad influence. The alternative for Negri is to hang half of the town. He won’t do that if you act decisively. Not if you stop cheating and make the town pay up.”

“Where will we get the funds?”

The accountant had wondered about that himself as he began this argument. Now he had the answer. “The Grimsli estate.”

“Do we steal from his grandchildren? No, I suppose the tax penalty is legal. We are the arm of our knight’s law.” Seidel leaned his head back and beseeched the ceiling of the church. “Oh Contadin! Why does no one keep your precepts?”

“What does the knight’s arm need, then? Or Contadin?”

“More men for this enforcement. As many as we can get. The leadership of a proper sheriff.”

“Yes, well, I can see that Voight is back from that errand you sent him on. He’s got his boss tagging behind.”

Through the wide-open doors of the church, three figures could be seen in the night mist. They wandered into the light of the torch that sat under the awning of the Temple of Contadin. They blocked the candles of the town hall behind them, too, which made their silhouettes clear. The one in front carried a lantern. It swayed unevenly. That was Voight. The man next to him slouched away from the light as if he didn’t want to be seen. He couldn’t drop back any farther. A tall man with a sword walked behind him.

“Your assistant, Brand, seems to have kept Sheriff Fischer from going astray.”

“I would expect no less.” It was the truth.

“Your crew,” the mayor paused to rub the chin of his beard, “is sterner than I would have expected from accountants.”

Denario had no answer so he kept his peace. The mayor did not press him about the nature of his staff. That two of the assistants were dwarfs must have seemed unusual. That the dwarfs did not strike this town’s gentlemen as the oddest part of the crew spoke to the history of East Hogsli.

A moment later, Voight trundled through the door. He set down his lantern and paused to shake his coat. Drops spattered the floor. The young man seemed better dressed for the weather and better equipped for a fight than when he’d left. His boots had been re-tied. There was a loop of rope tucked into his belt. There was a sheathed dagger on the other side above his cudgel.

Next to him, the sheriff stepped in. He hesitated. He only moved after Brand prodded him in the back. When the older fellow saw the mayor, he stiffened. He seemed to recover his courage. But as he was about to turn to Brand and say something, he caught sight of the boy, Leonid. The tears on the boy’s face froze him.

“What’s this?” he croaked.

“Step in,” said Brand. Voight and the sheriff made room for the former caravan leader. That interrupted whatever line of thought had formed in Fischer’s mind.

“Who’s that in the far back?” asked Denario. He squinted into the misty night.

“The reckoner,” Brand replied. He didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know. He must have spied the fellow taking a path to the road that would meet up with his own. “He’s soaked through. Did you send for him?”

“Yes.”

“With the master here, I suppose I should take care of Leonid’s status first,” Seidel said. He huffed to his feet. “You’ve convinced me, accountant.”

Everyone shuffled into place. The sheriff and deputy looked uncertain. They moved to one side as Koen stepped into the doorway. They trailed him into the aisle and up to the open space of the nave, where the mayor took a high seat behind the pulpit. Koen noticed Leonid and the mayor’s boys. He waited, hand outstretched for a moment. It was apparent that he hoped the boy would come over to him.

“Reckoner Koen, welcome.” Seidel gestured with his left arm to the position he wanted the reckoner to take. “You look tired. Are you feeling well?”

“I have a complaint to make,” said Koen. He trembled. It could have been from being wet and cold.

“Is this about your apprentice being taken?”

“Yes. Yes it is, mayor.” Koen remembered his hat and removed it. “That was wrongly done, sir, by them gentleman. Seeing as you’re a gentleman, too, and our mayor as well ...”

The reckoner’s speech trailed off. Seidel waited a moment to see if it would resume. When it didn’t, he waved to catch the attention of his sons.

“Boys, come on over,” he called. “You, too, Leonid.”

The mayor’s eldest stepped smartly over to him. The younger one held back enough that Denario glanced up to see what was the matter. He was trying to remain in the company of the reckoner’s apprentice. But the apprentice was slow. Leonid approached the mayor as if walking to the gallows. His friend took his hand.

“Leonid,” said the mayor, “step forward.”

With effort visible on his face, the reckoner’s apprentice increased the pace of his short strides. His breathing grew heavy. His trembling increased.

“You have been beaten into committing a crime,” the mayor began. He waited until the boy would obviously come no closer. “Normally, that would be no excuse. But since you are young and thought yourself their slave, you saw no means of protest or escape. Therefore, as mayor, I pardon you, and you will not hang.”

Leonid bowed his head. Not moving from his standing position, he started sobbing again. The mayor’s younger son opened his mouth, aghast. He had at last realized what had been at stake. In half a minute, Leonid fell to his knees, hands to his face. Seidel’s youngest knelt next to him, right arm around his friend’s shoulder.

“However,” continued Seidel, “you must testify against the men who ordered you to steal from our knight. There must be justice. In our knight’s name, it must be done in front of the whole town. Do you understand?”

The boy started to shake his head no. Then he paused and nodded.

“Very well. Stand up, Leonid.”

That was the process of another half-minute. This time, all three boys banded together. It sort of looked like the sons had sided against their father.

“Reckoner Koen, you swore this boy, Leonid to be your apprentice?”

“Yes, mayor.” Koen clutched his hat, although actually it was Denario’s hat, to his chest. He leaned toward Jakob Seidel.

“That is an implicit announcement that Leonid was set free. Yet you didn’t write the papers.”

“Don’t write much, sir. Didn’t see the need. He was my charge. He didn’t have no slave tattoo. I never gave him one. I swore him to learn my trade. Thought that was enough, sir. One of the gentlemen Grimsli said it was. Master Ragophile agreed, years ago, when he lived.”

“Johann,” the mayor said as he turned to his eldest son. “Go to my office for my book, pen, and seal.”

“Yes, sir.” The boy bowed his head. He left without another word.

While they waited in silence, the mayor turned to take notice of his sheriff. Fischer looked like he had been a former village tough. But he had aged badly. His nose had been broken on three occasions at the least. His left ear had grown disfigured, its lobe a bumpy mass of scar tissue. One of his front teeth was missing. Most of the East Hogsli men grew full beards but Fischer grew a patchwork. Swathes of skin showed through it. His eyes were dark, puffy, and small. He reeked of sour beer. Taken all together, he did not inspire confidence.

On top of all that, the sheriff’s glances around the Small Gods church seemed filled with shame. From time to time, Fischer leaned toward the door. He scowled when he noticed Leonid. The more Denario watched the sheriff, the more the direction of the scowl stood out. Fischer averted his gaze when the mayor’s youngest son draped his arm over the apprentice’s shoulder.

The anger and fear in the man’s face let Denario know the truth without being told.

“Sheriff Voight?” he called to the deputy.

“Ah, master accountant.” Voight smiled as he stepped forward. He seemed grateful for the distraction from this awkward pause in events. “I’m flattered but I must remind you, I’m only the deputy.”

“Right.” The accountant took the man by the elbow. He walked them a few steps over to the desk. “Mayor, you ought to appoint Voight as the sheriff. Right now.”

“Now? Why?”

Denario tilted his head so that he could see his murderous assistant, Brand. The caravan master and he exchanged a look. The accountant was never sure what his expression said precisely but Brand did the right thing. He knew that Fischer had participated in the thievery. It was provable tonight, at least, and probable at other times. The big man drew his sword.

Fischer caught the accountant’s expression, too. He understood what was about to happen. When he saw Brand grab the hilt of his sword, he foresaw his death and fell to his knees.

“Oh, my gods! Please, Seidel! Please, Jakob! Don’t let them kill me.”

There was the barest flicker of expression on the mayor’s face as he caught up. It must have seemed as self-evident to him, in hindsight, as it had been to Denario and Brand.

“Did you participate in this tonight, Fischer?”

“They were going to kill me, Jakob.” Still on his knees, he crawled to the desk. He grabbed the mayor’s hand in two of his own. The mayor didn’t pull away. “Please. Please don’t.”

“Fischer, really. I can’t make another exception.”

“Please! You showed mercy to the boy because he was frightened for his life. Can’t you show me the same mercy?”

“You were the sheriff, Fischer. You are a man, not a boy.” He dismissed the officer of the law with a snap of his wrist. It was meant to shake off the pleading hand. But Fischer clenched and remained. His bald spot, when his head was bowed, pointed right to the mayor’s heart. On his hands and on his head, there were age blotches on his weathered skin. He began to cry in a manner not quite like the slave boy, for it was a man’s sorrow, deeper and more self-conscious. After a moment, his chest began to wrack so loudly that even Leonid lifted his head to stare.

The frantic, low noise threatened to go on and on.

“I will think on it,” the mayor conceded. Denario started to lift his arm to object. He felt surprised by Seidel and also by his own objections to mercy. Perhaps his time in the wilderness had hardened him. He had never felt so opposed forgiveness before.

Brand caught his eye. Even one of the dwarfs, Ulf, seemed open-mouthed at this development. The mayor’s words seemed to calm Fischer. The stout fellow started taking longer, deeper breaths.

“Much of what transpires tomorrow morning will depend on how it goes with tonight with Master Grimsli.” Jakob Seidel turned. Fischer’s hold on him loosened. A moment later, the mayor slipped from the older man’s grip. Then he focused his attention on the deputy. “In the meantime, you, Rikart Voight, must be appointed as my new sheriff.”

Voight stood taller, excited. In his nervousness, he glanced to Denario and tried to smile.

“The role of sheriff comes with greater honor and pay but, I must warn you, Rikart,” the mayor said, “it is also a greater responsibility. Will you swear to me?”

“Seidel!” The fellow was too young to have been friends with the popular boys in town who were the mayor’s peers. But he was at a perfect age to have idolized them. “Of course I shall.”

“Step forward.”

The mayor patted Voight on the shoulder. His gaze fell on Denario for a moment, as if to ask, Are you satisfied? His son’s eyes drifted to the accountant, too. For a moment, everyone turned to look at Denario. He gave a curt nod, such as he’d seen Vir do when people waited on his response, but the mayor had returned to the task at hand, moving events ever faster.

Monday, April 8, 2019

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Twenty-Three Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

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


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross


Chapter Baker's Dozen


Chapter Pair of Sevens


Chapter Fifth Triangular Number


Chapter Twice Eight

Chapter Seventh Prime


Chapter Third Semiperfect


Chapter Normal Magic Hexagon


Chapter Score


Chapter Octagonal Number Three


Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately


Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime



Sunday, April 7, 2019

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 159: A Bandit Accountant, 27.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Cubed

Scene One: Childhood Incident

Half a minute ago, Denario had been worried about being too soft-hearted to conduct an investigation. Now he realized that he’d been too hard on a boy who had, after all, been beaten. Probably Leonid had been threatened and pressured to other commit crimes for the gentry. Now, as he’d known in his heart had to happen, he’d been caught.

“Leonid,” he said. He didn’t know how to reassure the slave. If the town decided he was someone’s property, he was at the mercy of their whims. “Boy. Get up.”

As Leonid continued his blubbering, looking more and more like a frightened child, Ulf appeared in the doorway to the church. Brand joined a moment later.

It took the newcomers a while to take in the scene but they seemed to understand. The leap in logic couldn’t have been hard. Unfortunately, from the way the two reacted, Brand and Ulf seemed to assume that Denario had done the beating. The difference was that Brand nodded with approval while Ulf sped over to join Ragna at the lad’s side.

They all had to wait for the sobs to subside enough for the boy to breathe.

“No one’s going to hurt you anymore,” Ragna said, perhaps seeing that Ulf had not quite understood. “There are no gentlemen here.”

“We know you were pressed into this crime,” added Denario. “Rise from the floor, Leonid. We need you to tell us who beat you. And why. Explain how this all happened.”

“Huh, huh, huh,” Leonid said. He scooted to his knees. His mouth moved as he tried to speak through his heaving. “Huh, huh, he. He … he bought me!”

“Who did?”

“The gentleman!” He wailed. He leaned back on his feet, still seated, the way a child would. He wiped the dripping tears out of his mouth. “It was Master Grimsli. And then he b-beat me.”

He rolled up one sleeve of his robe. Along his left arm there was a row of fresh bruises, still hot and pink with the centers beginning to swell and purple. One mark, the size of a fist, had started to turn green. The boy had been tortured by someone who was rather expert.

One of the dwarfs, Ulf, grunted in outrage. Ragna merely sighed. It was the sigh that attracted Denario’s attention. It felt to him as if the heavy dwarf had expelled his faith in humanity in that breath. The accountant felt ashamed. He’d seen this sort of thing before. The dwarfs hadn’t. Even many humans never did, of course. When they did see something like it for the first time, their reactions usually surprised Denario. They seemed so shocked and dismayed, sometimes even outraged. He forgot that not everyone knew about this part of life.

Leonid leaned forward on his hands and knees. His legs struggled to move, to get his body upright.

“Was there a record of the transaction, Leonid?” Denario felt that he shouldn’t let the boy’s thoughts run on too far or too fast. He needed to pose questions to occupy his mind. “That is, of your sale to the master?”

“I-I don’t know.” The boy lifted his head as he tried to remember. He lifted into a crouch. “A paper passed between the old Grimsli and young Brumsbeard. I didn’t see what was on it.”

“It was illegal from beginning to end.” For a moment, he thought he’d have to prove that. But he didn’t, not really. He only needed to sway the opinions of the most important people. “We need Jakob Seidel. He’s the main one.”

“Oh, yes.” The deputy had been standing in shock. He seemed to wake from a trance. “I got to go and get the mayor. That’s my duty. Bring in the mayor.”

“Good.”

“It’s a shame. Shame to hang the boy. Don’t want to see it.”

Denario shot out of his chair before a thought entered his head. He looked down to see his knife in his hand. He’d taken it from his belt on instinct.

He pointed it at deputy Voight.

“You watch your mouth.” To the left of Denario’s vision, he could see the dwarfs staring aghast. “This boy isn’t going to hang. You can tell your mayor that. Leonid acted as a slave doing his master’s bidding. If you try to blame this cheating on him, you’ll prove to your knight that you’re the lot of cowards and thieves that he suspects you are.”

“I ...” Voight seemed at a loss for a moment. “I don’t want to see it. Really. I know it’s unfair. How could … how could anyone not see it’s unfair? But Mayor Seidel said the penalty was death. He won’t back down. The old mayor hung those children last year because the priest said they were guilty like men.”

A hiss escaped Ulf’s lips.

“Bring your mayor, then,” said Denario. He returned the knife to his belt. To himself, he dared this town to do more evil.

“I’ll walk with you, Voigt.” There was a twinkle in Brand’s eye as he spoke.

“I know the way.” The deputy’s brow darkened. His lips set into a heavy-looking sulk.

“There are nasty gentlemen about. This is their work. Anyway, Voight, I insist. After all, you are in some danger.”

The deputy paused to think. He must have realized that the person most likely to put a blade in his back was Brand. He also could see that the former caravan master was going to follow anyway, permission or not, and he wasn’t going to be intimidated. The deputy froze. One heavily-booted foot moved forward. He pulled it back. His glance swept the room. He couldn’t find comfort in the gazes that returned.

“Oh, come on.” Voight’s hand rose and fell, his gesture of concession. He marched out into the misty night.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 158: A Bandit Accountant, 26.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene Seven: Clever Boy

“We were too obvious,” Denario grumbled. He unbuckled his sword and tossed it on his makeshift bed next to his accounting tool bag. Next came his hat, which he set by the pillow.

“Nothing like,” answered Brand. A chortle escaped through his mustache. “You could have announced that you were leaving the doors open in the church tonight, winked while you said it, and nudged the closest fellows with your elbow for good measure. They’re going to try. Really, they are.”

Ulf shut the door to the guest house. Ragna peered through the shutters of the window. After what the dwarfs had seen from the gentry, their sense of the danger had grown. They’d paid a local boy a penny to run a message down to their chief asking for reinforcements. The boy had returned from Bolder with a simple command, ‘Follow the seam,’ which apparently meant no change in plan. Oddly, the boy had returned Ragna’s penny. Denario had been puzzled by that part until Brand murmured the obvious, that Boldor had paid the young fellow double to return it. Now Ragna had the same penny to send another message if that was his desire. The dwarfs had a method to send endless messages without carrying more than a few pence.

Ulf, Ragna, and Brand set up their beds on the wooden floor surrounding Denario as they’d done the night before. Ragna made the two men hand over their armor for inspection and, in Brand’s case, for repair.

“What’s this on your brigandine? Rust?” said the dwarf.

“Blood.” Brand leaned down to make sure.

“You shouldn’t have left it. It’s ruining the rivets.” Ragna started to clean the riveted brass buttons that gave Brand the best part of his brigandine protection.

“I don’t like this roof,” said Ulf, hands on his hips, looking up.

“You liked it fine last night,” pointed out Brand.

“That was before I thought about fires.” He pointed. “Dry planks, thatch, and tar on top. We would never build like this underground.”

“Do you have to build roofs when your ceiling is the top of a cave?”

“Caves are wetter than humans know. Still, I take your point. Tar makes for good waterproofing. We dwarfs in Water Mountain use a type of clay. Other dwarfs kingdoms might build differently. Our clay keeps out drips better than tar and does so without the threat of fire when it’s dry.”

Denario thought to ask if it was a special type of clay or regular clay that was specially treated. He’d heard potters go on about different marshes of clay when he was a slave child. When he expressed surprise that there were so many different kinds of material they used, the potters realized he was listening and beat him. Then they sent him to do chores so they could finish their conversation.

“Ulf,” said Brand before Denario could speak, “no one’s going to sneak up on us with a torch. Not a chance.”

“What makes you sure?”

“Because we’re going to take turns watching the small gods church tonight. Remember?”

“Oh.” The dwarf nodded to himself as if he’d forgotten. “I suppose we’ll see anyone who passes between here and the church.”

“Boss, I want to take Ulf to the overlook now.” Brand turned to Denario as he spoke. A grin twitched the corner of his mouth. He probably meant to be sarcastic as he acknowledged that the accountant was in charge.

“Overlook? You mean our tree on the rise behind the hedge?” That was the place they’d surveyed. Denario folded his arms. He pictured looking down on the church from the lowest branch of the tree. “I’ll come along for part of the first shift to see how Koen and that deputy, Voight, have set their guard. After I’ve had a chance to think, I’ll head back and send one of the dwarfs.”

“Right, boss.” The smile faded. Brand didn’t care for the accountant’s close supervision.

Outside, a mist had fallen with the night. The sky above was black except for the glow of the tiny droplets. Those were illuminated by the moon that was otherwise hidden behind the clouds. A few, flickering oil lamps shone in front of the main church. Sconces inside both of the churches added to the gleam in a haphazard way. Beams shone through the half-shuttered windows and illuminated patches of the muddy street. Beyond that, the glow of the mist overwhelmed everything else. The air everywhere in this part of town, especially in front of Small Gods, shimmered.

Brand climbed into his place between two trees. He didn’t make a sound. Denario tried to emulate him. He put his foot directly into a patch of old leaves and froze. To himself, he cursed. Fortunately, the sound didn’t carry. The accountant edged up next to the taller man. He surveyed their position.

The hedge protected them from view. It also presented an obstacle. They would have to run around two bushes to reach the doors of the church. Still, they could see the deputy, Voigt, as he stood outside. He’d kept on his white shirt. It stood out. He paced in front of the open door. Denario saw no other movement and that was troublesome because Koen should have been visible, too. Perhaps the reckoner was watching through one of the tiny windows or he had gotten re-involved with his math. Maybe he’d taken a hidden position to be clever. The sheriff’s deputy would draw the attention of the cheaters who tried to get in. But the reckoner could lurk somewhere and not be available for an arrow shot, a bribe, or a threat from the gentlemen or their servants.

“What if they come with swords drawn and ten men?” Denario wondered.

“That’s most of the gentry,” drawled Brand. “I don’t think they can field that many what with all of their infighting. They’re not on the same side, really.”

“Damn,” Denario muttered. “What if two men walk straight up to the deputy and bribe him?”

“Our best bet when it happens is to kill one of the gentry straight out. Then we can bring the other to justice, as they say. Beat a confession from him. That’s the sort of thing to satisfy the mayors, priests, knights, and all that lot.”

Denario took a moment to contemplate the mindset that lumped those three professions together. The caravan master really was an outsider to most of society.

“Sneakiness is the next favorite way in this town,” Brand continued. “We should watch the church windows. A grown man couldn’t fit through them but they might send a boy.”

Denario nodded. He sat and considered the ways the town gentlemen would try to repair their records before the final day of the audit. Popping a child through a window seemed likely enough but it posed the problem of finding a ten-year-old who could be trained to grab the right bag and hand it over. It might be easier to send an adult through the hatch in the roof. There was a hinged, wooden panel, clearly visible in the ceiling, that had been left over from church construction. It was big enough for grown men. The height of it would require a ladder on the inside or the ability to withstand a hard drop from the hatch onto the benches from above. Also, anyone going up onto the roof would make enough noise to alert the guards.

“If they come through the roof, they’ve already bribed at least one man inside,” the accountant concluded.

“Why not both?”

“What a helpful outlook you have.” With that, Denario climbed down from his spot. He hiked over the marshy field between the Church of the Small Gods and the mayor’s guest house. It took a minute to find the stile that let him climb the pig fence. He nearly turned his ankle on a divot. Fortunately, the pigs were in their pen and no one else was around to witness his near-pratfall.

As he drew near the Seidel home, Denario stopped. He squinted. He could see a figure outside his house door. It was a man, not a dwarf. With a sigh, the accountant drew his sword.

Someone came without a lamp, he realized. He began to stride toward the silvery shape. The visitor had intended to arrive in stealth.

He approached with the worst of intentions, perhaps, but after half a minute Denario saw in the silvery, mist-filled night, that the figure was shaking. He heard a moaning noise. For an instant, he suspected a ghost. The house and its field were next to an area of high background magic, after all. Then he recognized the voice.

“Koen?” he said.

The figure paused.

“Master accountant?” the man replied. It was the reckoner dressed in his pale robe. He did look a bit ghostly. Trembling, Koen stepped off of the wooden platform that raised the hut from the muck.

“Why are you here?” Denario’s mind snapped back to the guarding of the tax records.

“They’re taking my apprentice away, master,” said Koen. He squelched closer in the mud. “They signed him over to me, I swear, years ago. But my paper from the old mayor, Dickie Muller, they say it’s gone missing.”

“Why would anyone care about that?”

“The sheriff says that without the paper, the boy belongs to Master Brumsbeard.” The thin, older men bundled his stick-like fingers into fists. “It’s not fair.”

The sheriff needed to hang, Denario realized. That fellow was entirely in the thrall of the gentry. Maybe he could be politely retired but it was getting harder and harder for Denario to feel polite.

“It’s not fair,” the reckoner repeated. He stood three feet away, breathing heavily.

“What does Voight say?” Denario asked out of curiosity.

“The deputy? I don’t suppose that he can know yet.” Koen wiped his face with his sleeve. “His boss didn’t say a word to him. And now Voight will be wondering where Leonid is. And me. He doesn’t know why the sheriff came to take me.”

“I see.” The accountant glanced back across the dark field to the light poking through the doors of the Small Gods Church. A silhouette stood there even now. It was tempting to return. But the reckoner was soaked through. Someone had taken his hat, perhaps knocked it off of his head. Koen needed loaned clothes and maybe a weapon for standing guard. The dwarfs needed to be informed. As an act of retribution, this part of the affair seemed like a petty gesture, almost cruelty for it’s own sake.

Inside, the dwarfs gaped when they heard the story. But they seemed not much more enlightened about human nature than they’d been before. Ragna tightened his grip on his toolbelt.

“What would make a person think to do such a thing?” the dwarf asked.

Humans do this all the time, Denario replied but only to himself. To Ragna, he merely shook his head.

After the accountant kitted out the reckoner with his third-best hat and a dwarf cudgel, the two dwarfs seemed to come to a conclusion. They wanted to re-unite with Brand. In a contradictory way, they also wanted to stay and guard their temporary home. They considered the accountant’s belongings to be valuable. They had also acquired more armor, themselves, than Denario had realized they possessed. All of it looked valuable.

He’d forgotten how much weight the dwarfs could pull along on their sledge. Thankfully, they’d left their man-sized scimitar on their raft.

In the end, the dwarfs agreed to wear most of their armor and Koen agreed to guard the hut. That solved the immediate problem. Ragna and Ulf accompanied the accountant through the hut door. Partway across the field toward the church, they split up. Ulf excused himself to tell Brand what was happening. Ragna unhooked his axe from his belt strode close to Denario.

“Who’s that behind the deputy?” The stout fellow asked as they drew to within a few yards of the church. The accountant had spotted the motion, too. Voigt stood in the open doorway. He was waving at them now that he’d recognized they were allowed visitors. In the back of the church, though, there was a figure in a disheveled robe, a hood pulled up over his hair.

“Voight!” the accountant called. “Behind you! Someone’s gotten in.”

The deputy spun. His hand dropped to the club by this belt. For a few seconds, he surveyed the scene inside the church. Then he relaxed. He looked over his shoulder as Denario grew near.

“It’s the reckoner’s apprentice.” He gave an apologetic grin. “He’s allowed.”

That’s right, Denario thought. And yet it’s wrong.

“Is the lad not feeling well?” Ragna asked. “He’s limping.”

Leonid couldn’t help but notice their presence in the doorway. He gave them a furtive look that made his his white, round eyes shine out from beneath his dark hair and gray, linen hood. His robe did not disguise the bruising on his face or the blood under his nose. His hands trembled as he returned to work. Leonid seemed to be done with whatever work he’d started. Without another glance in the accountant’s direction, he clutched a tax bag to his chest. After a few, unsteady steps, he returned it to its former place. He let out a slight groan as he set it down.

Denario couldn’t see the marks on the bag. He wondered if the account belonged to the obvious suspect, Samuel Brumsbeard. He got a sinking feeling in his stomach. This was the moment. This was the crime. He’d rather liked the young gentleman Brumsbeard until now.

“Leonid didn’t say nothing.” Voight shrugged. The deputy didn’t seem to be aware that anything had gone wrong. “Reckoner Koen may have beat him a bit, I suppose. They’re under all kinds of pressure to set things right. Sometimes a boy gets lazy.”

“Ah.” Denario realized the rest of what had actually happened. “No, I don’t think so. He’s been beaten. But not by Koen.”

He strode into the rows of tax bags. There were six, three filling the benches, three beneath. It was just the way Koen did things. The reckoner had sorted the accounts by family names but then he’d rotated the positions and adjusted them as bits and pieces came in like private bags, split sticks, or signed parchment tallies. That made it hard to memorize the families by position. Denario didn’t think this area belonged to Brumsfield but he was prepared to be shown that the layout had shifted.

It hadn’t. He checked the mark on the bag and saw, to his surprise, that it belonged to the Grimsli family. Weren’t they enemies of the Brumsfield’s? He tried not to let his confusion show.

He turned his back on it and strode toward the lectern that had become his accounting desk.

“Leonid,” he said as he walked.

The boy affected not to hear. He kept his face hidden, although that made his guilt more plain than ever.

“Leonid,” he said again and waved his arm. He paused. There was no response. He raised his voice. “Apprentice!”

The boy let out a yelp. He jumped a little as he turned to face Denario.

“This bag.” The accountant pointed at it. The boy refused to look. “This bag right here that you last touched. I’m going to the table. You bring the bag to me for inspection.”

He turned toward the table again and he would swear he heard the boy’s knees knock. Although he didn’t know precisely what Leonid had done, Denario felt confident that he’d get to the bottom of it. He’d watched his old master do this sort of thing.

The accountant reached the stool behind the lectern, sat, and folded his hands in front of him. He waited patiently or, more accurately, as if he had all night to spend. It was almost the same thing. His math and geometry tools were sitting out. He grabbed his string rule and, a moment later, his compass. He adjusted the mechanism of the compass to mark a circle with a radius of one inch. A moment later, he measured the circle with the string rule. With satisfaction, he noted it was a bit more than three.

Across from him, he saw Leonid try to take the wrong bag from the Grimsli accounts. His hand reached for a smaller, sealed one, not the large one that he’d rigged. Denario raised his hand to redirect the lad but the dwarf Ragna reacted first. Ragna murmured a helpful and apparently innocent correction. Leonid hesitated. Then he gave in. The boy was forced to carry the bag that he’d altered across the room to the accounting desk. He had to look at Denario as he came, too. As he got within five feet of the edge of the table, tears burst forth from his puffy face. His arms shook. He dropped the bag.

It ruptured. Beads spilled out for a foot or more. Denario rose.

The evidence had been destroyed. He felt aghast at how clever this was but Leonid, age of perhaps eleven, fell crying on top of the spilled bag. His trembling had grown so pronounced that his legs and now his arms strained to hold his head from the floor. In a moment, he fell to pounding his head against the church floorboards as he sobbed.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 157: A Bandit Accountant, 26.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene Six: Desperate Plots

The deputy pulled the sheriff out of his sickbed so that they could approach the gentry together. That said everything about the town that wasn’t already described in Denario’s account. At least the officers of the law, working in concert, managed to get their job done. With a mixture of pleas and threats, they made the important families come.

The accountant set up his tally boards inside the church of the small gods. His assistants arranged sconces and lamps along the transcepts in front of the first row of pews. Even with the windows thrown open and the sun in the sky behind the trees, the nave inside seemed dark. The benches were narrow and short, barely enough for five seats apiece at their widest. The accountant remarked that the entire church could hold no more than thirty.

“Not even that,” Ulf remarked. “The back benches can’t have more than four, not even if they’re dwarfs.”

“It’s gentry only,” Brand assured them. “We’ll be fine.”

But Brand was wrong. It wasn’t that the gentlemen themselves numbered so many but that they brought servants. One had a butler, another a dog boy. The fellow with the dogs was offended when told he’d have to leave his animals outside. Other fellows brought their men-at-arms although, thankfully, without weapons longer than a hunting knife. Friedrich Muller had been crippled by a childhood disease, probably polio, and he needed to have his doctor. That man was a sort of gentleman himself, a distant relative from the outskirts of Oupenli. He’d been touched by the disease, too. With his left arm so thin and paralyzed that he could barely move it, he made his living by caring for wealthier men, like Friedrich, who had been more severely crippled.

The elderly Abelard Grimsli arrived with a retinue of seven. He and his sons-in-law took seats in the back row. Abelard, withered but as tough-looking as the inside of a birch log, had been about to help himself to the front bench. He’d stopped when he saw his estranged son there along with Samuel Brumsbeard, son of the man he’d killed. That made two enemies together.

The master snorted at Brumsbeard and cast an alarmed glance to his son. Then he waved the rest of his party back.

Several of the younger fellows in attendance, all lesser members of the servant class, stood at the rear by the church doors. The priest shook hands with them so much that some lads might have thought the nervous, bald fellow had organized the gathering. But the mayor, the power that brought them all together, embraced only a few men who came to him, heads bowed as they paid their respects. Jakob Seidel exchanged warm words with them and often clapped them on the shoulder while they shook. They were all about the same age as the mayor.

Everyone ignored the accounting team. They tried so hard not to stare at Brand that it became obvious. Eventually, one of the Grimsli sons-in-law approached Seidel about it.

“Your accountant and his assistants are armed,” he hissed.

“With my support,” the mayor said.

“There’s a regulation about the length of blade anyone can carry.” The sturdy fellow jabbed his thumb in Brand’s direction. “That man’s blade is clearly too long. Only a knight can carry that, not a man-at-arms.”

“Why don’t you mention it to him?” the mayor suggested.

The brown-haired fellow considered it for a moment. His narrow-lidded eyes blinked.

“The squire will hear about this,” he finally said.

“Our knight,” Seidel emphasized, “will get a detailed report about everything. I’ve already sent Sir Negri the announcement of our town audit.”

That produced a gasp, not only from the fellow the mayor was addressing but a man sitting nearby who overheard.

As the last seating arrangements were negotiated, a woman arrived. The priest dashed up to greet her with a handshake, as he’d done for other gentry, but this time he brought a short, wooden stool. The lady smiled at him rather coolly. Her eyes surveyed the room. Like the others, she pretended not to see Brand but she took note of Denario. He stared into her hazel eyes. Her hair would have been light brown once but now it was mostly grey. Her skin looked clear, not wrinkled, and her forearms, revealed by her floral dress, had no age spots on them.

After the priest placed his stool in the doorway of the church, the lady nodded. She allowed the clergyman to help her sit, in a formal way, under the arch of the door. Her hands crossed each other over her left knee. Behind her, the broad-shouldered manservant she’d brought along locked his hands behind his back in a parade-rest stance. He looked like he’d come from service in the military.

“Lady Ragophile is the head of her house,” the priest explained as he returned to the transcepts. He leaned his head close to Denario. “She is not a lender nor a borrower but she insisted that she come to witness the accountings.”

“That sets a good example.” The accountant wished more gentry and nobles would take a civic interest in their neighbors.

“She can’t sit in the church with the men.”

“Really?”

“Not in my churches. I know, other priests are different. But they aren’t priests of Contadin of the Field Laws. Others, maybe, can let women and men attend services together. I can’t. Contadin forbids it.”

“And he’s your main deity.” Denario raised an eyebrow at the practice but he’d learned how insistent local law-givers could be. They always went beyond the basic axioms of moral order and created petty, little rules for a certain kind of social structure that the particular god liked best. Their followers could become deranged about it. Here in East Hogsli, the god Contadin almost certainly had declared that stealing was a sin. All gods did that. But if more trivial things like eating the wrong type of bird or holding hands or singing were regarded as equivalent sins, then soon everyone was a sinner and people started justifying some very strange behavior. They could act like thieving from their neighbors was no worse than humming a quiet tune. After all, they were both on the same list of religious crimes.

The priest began the meeting with a prayer. After a brief mention of the smaller gods of the area, he drifted from his plea for mercy into an appeal to the gentry to correct their sinfulness in the eyes of Contadin.

“These deceptions not only break the commandments against falsehoods, theft, greed, and faithless oaths,” he said, “but they also go against Contadin’s guidance to live within our means.”

“Easy for a god what don’t eat,” someone muttered.

“We must not borrow for today what should be put off for tomorrow.” The priest raised his voice. “Some men in this town buy and sell debts. It compounds sin after sin.”

“The church collects a tithe on every loan!” shouted a Grimsli son-in-law. Up front, the sickly Muller fellow nodded in agreement. Even young Samuel Brumsbeard clapped.

“My predecessor did not do enough to discourage these practices.”

“Your predecessor left the doors of this church unlocked every night,” said a woman’s voice, the Lady Ragophile. A few of the men applauded her. “He did not guard the common records.”

“We have incurred a great spiritual deficit.” His voice rose higher in volume.

“You too!” shouted one or two gentry. “You most!”

Their servants, Denario noticed, didn’t join in the backtalk but they had started to share half-secret smiles between them. They found it amusing to see their masters uniting against a common and apparently unpopular foe. A glance at Brand revealed that the man had a similar expression. He wasn’t actually smiling but every other part of him, every fiber of his being, trembled with the excitement of a fight.

The high point of the afternoon was the near-riot against the priest. He lashed back with dire warnings about their damnation in the afterlife. The gentry came right back with citations of religious rules against interest payments. They reminded him further that the church had collected interest and bought and sold at least four debts, which the priest had forgotten.

“We’re all damned,” said the crippled Friedrich Muller and that seemed to sum it up.

Denario’s presentation, shortly after the gentry shouted down the priest, was brief. He kept to the facts.

First, he demonstrated what a written checksum was. He drew with charcoal on a clean plank. All of the audience understood his writing or were too embarrassed to admit otherwise. Heads nodded at the math. Even the leaders got quiet.

“Have there been these checks on all of our records?” young Samuel Brumsbeard asked.

“Not consistently. However, there have been many checks we can use. There are even some for your tax debts.” He listened to the hisses of breath. The older men, especially, knew this was the worst, their lethal fear. Technically, Denario was telling them the truth. There had been at least one written check of the six largest tax debts. That had been a generation ago. The sums had been long paid but Denario didn’t need to explain that detail. Besides, there was a written note about two more checksums sheets. Those sheets had been lost or stolen and the debts had not been paid. Everything about them except the note on the checksums had gone missing.

The accountant brought up his tally boards and explained what he’d found in the debt bags. Tapping his charcoal on each total, he moved to the amount of the discrepancy. Back and forth he tapped, showing the amount of cheating in each case and the direction it had gone.

As he reviewed the first two cases, men protested his totals. Denario explained how he knew. He showed them the altered tally marks, the holes in the bags, the alternate clay tokens someone had sneaked through through the holes, the broken wax seals on others, the crude attempts at forgery in a checksum record, the lead bearings one thief had used to add weight, the crude attempt at magic that had burned one bag and turned half of the clay counters inside it into glass.

The audience quieted. After he’d given seven such explanations, no one spoke up again to challenge his findings. This may have been because the majority of the cheating had been done in favor of the gentry. Time after time, they had managed to add to the liabilities of the tradesmen and peasants. This fact, Denario supposed, was why the mayor had ordered the gentry to attend but had not invited the peasants to be witnesses.

Although no one dared to protest the audit, the gentlemen nevertheless cursed and swore to their servants and at one another.

“I’ll kill him!” the accountant heard more than once.

When Friedrich Muller learned that his father had been tricked into overpaying old Tibalt Brumsbeard, he gave young Samuel next to him a dark look. And when Samuel Brumsbeard understood that there had been cheating on the debt between his father and the the Grimsli family, the one his father had died for, he turned to give them a hard stare. His hand fell to where his blade would normally be, a gesture that did not go unnoticed. Other men touched their knives.

During the pauses between his assessments, Denario heard muttering about duels. It was the traditional way to settle points of honor. He wondered if the adult male population could be cut in half by it. The amount could be more than half, actually, since men could challenge as many others as they liked. If there was one particularly adept duelist, he could kill everyone else who’d wronged him. All of the town’s most powerful families except the Seidels and Ragophiles would be affected. Still, no one issued a formal complaint. The main fear heard in the whispers of the old men, once they had time to think, was that the knight would send a squad of executioners.

“They killed Dickie last time,” one hissed. “That was an example.”

Everyone glanced uncomfortably at Friedrich, his son, to see if he would break down in tears or rise up with a knife. But this was one of those times when a man who had been crippled by a disease could pretend to be a little feeble-minded, too, and hard of hearing.

“The tax count is the important part,” said the mayor. “You gentlemen see what we’re in for.”

Jakob Seidel seemed to be testing his fellow gentlemen. The accountant nodded to himself as he listened. The mayor’s remarks served his purposes, too. On either side of Denario in the transcepts, the dwarfs kept track of the accounting tools. Every now and then, Ragna needed to get him another lump of charcoal or Ulf needed to prop up a tally board. Otherwise, they watched in wide-eyed silence. Brand, in contrast, had positioned himself in a standing slump in a corner. One hand rested on the pommel of his sword. His face bore a slightly cruel grin.

“This material that I’ve shown,” said Denario. “Has already gone out in a report to Sir Negri.”

There was a stifled cry of anguish from the back pew.

“That account covers the resolution of private debts only. There will be a second letter. I won’t be able to make my report on public debts until tomorrow.”

“Why not?” asked young Samuel Brumsbeard.

“There are too many debt bags.” He shook his head. “My assistants and I haven’t finished with them. It will take another half a day before I can arrive at the family tax totals.”

“Ah,” breathed an older voice.

“When the sums are final, I’ll send those to your knight. Also, I’m willing to meet with you all again if your mayor thinks it’s good.”

“I don’t think a second meeting is necessary,” said Jakob Seidel. He rose from his bench looking grim. He put his hand on the accountant’s shoulder. “The report to Negri will be sufficient."