Sunday, September 6, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 10: A Bandit Accountant, 1.3, 1.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One
Scene Three: One to the N Ponies

“What are you waiting for, sir?”

The broad-shouldered, short man stood next to Denario, hands clasped behind his back as if he had been waiting there in the shadows the whole time. But the eaves under the stable house had been empty a moment ago. Startled, Denario took a hop to his left and turned to face the farrier. 

Master Conli must have stepped out from a stable door. It was the only explanation.

He wore dark, green leggings and a brown, loose, burlap shirt with a lighter shirt underneath.  He tied back his black hair in a knot. His bear-hide boots, matted and stained by years of tromping through manure, carried bits of straw and a reek so strong that the farrier could be detected for half a mile away on the rare occasions that he left his stable. Of course, anyone could have done the same by catching a whiff of Conli's breath. His teeth were rotting. He chewed willow bark or birch bark constantly to dull the pain, although not the smell.

“You gave me a start, Master Conli.” Denario hadn't realized it but he was getting nervous at the thought of approaching dusk. He rubbed his hands together. “I'm just waiting for the stagecoach. I heard it was leaving a bit before sunset.”

“A bit.” Conli spat shards of bark on the ground next to his stable. “Yes, you could say that if you thought that the afternoon from noon to sunset is just 'a bit.'”

“You mean the coach already left?” Denario's heart sunk. That had to be the reason he saw wheel ruts but no cart or coach.

“With four passengers and many packages, sir. Right before noon. Yes, all them passengers wanted to leave after they broke fast. They didn't want to shop no more in Ziegeburg. A bit rude, I think. But seeing as the vote was unanimous and there were no new passengers to take on, the driver packed up his lunch and decided to go. He probably figured the bandits would miss him that way and I daresay he could be right.”

Denario crouched with his hands on his knees and shuddered. He reminded himself that it was important not to panic. He wouldn't survive a trip on foot, not without better equipment. Fortunately, a stagecoach wasn't the only way to travel. Horse prices were steep but he might be able to arrange something, maybe a pony or a donkey.

“Do you have a horse I could rent?” he wondered aloud.

“Rent, sir? What's that?”

“Oh, er, buy, then. A horse I could buy. Or a mule. Anything.”

“We've got almost a dozen good horses in town. Not a one for sale, though. The only gelding not in steady use is the mayor's plugger, name of Feldi. He's the one in the barn right now.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the darkened stalls. “The mayor might sell Feldi to a friend, sir, but I knows him and he'll want a fair price.”

Denario thought about it for an instant and realized how ridiculous it would be for the mayor to sell him an escape from the mayor.

“Any draft horses?”

“I've heard tell of those but there's no such creatures around here, sir. It's oxen in these fields when it's not men. And if ye can tolerate magical beasts, there's pegasi and griffins. But it takes wizards or witches to ride those, not ordinary folk.”

“Just Feldi, then, and a few personal horses you say no one wants to sell.” He squinted over the top half of the split level door. Maybe he could make out a silhouette that was horse shaped. If it was Feldi, the gelding looked about fourteen hands tall and likely to be fast, if spoiled on oats and good hay.

“'S right.”

“And what do you reckon is a fair price for a plugger like him?”

“I've seen 'em go for as much as twelve gold, sir. Never less than four.”

“Not less than four.” Denario straightened his back. Buying a horse was beyond him. So maybe he could steal one. But that would be terrible. Besides, he had a suspicion that he couldn't do it. He didn't know the location of any horse but this one and the farrier was a tough man. Besides, with the stagecoach gone and only one horse to watch, Conli would keep a close eye on it.

“Maybe the missus could lend ye a broom,” said the farrier with a sly smile. The look Denario gave him must have been pretty desperate or angry because the Farrier glanced down to his feet for a moment, shuffled, and added, “Didn't mean nothing by it, sir. Just trying to help. I know yer with the witch woman, is all.”

“I'm going to get a few things,” said Denario. He had the inklings of a plan. He thought he might be able to get to the next town without leaving an obvious trail if he could survive. So he lied and told the farrier, “I'll be back.”

Scene Four: A Tip on Poison

With a few coppers, Denario should have been able to purchase supplies for his travels. He badly needed an extra canteen, bedding, hard tack, and jerky, at the very least. Dried apples would have been welcome. But the general store south of town was closed, as it often was, and the store at the foot of The Towers was owned by a dowager whose husband had been a distant relative of the mayor. That wide-nosed woman barred her door, crossed her arms, and refused to let him in. She was a stern woman in the best of times, with hands like knotted tree roots. Now, from her unintelligible shouts, she seemed ready to hang Denario herself. She called for her sons. Denario didn't stick around to see if they would show.

He dashed back to Pecunia's house but Pecunia had gone to visit Emmie Figgins and she wasn't expecting Denario back. It probably hadn't occurred to her that he wouldn't be able to get out of town. She'd given him the amulet for luck and everything. 

He tried the south end store again out of desperation but it was still closed. That was how he found himself across the street at Bottoms Up, the worst drinking establishment for miles around. The bartender gave him a hostile look and two-thirds of a beer for a penny. Denario sipped and wondered if this awful cat water might be his last drink.

“You have darts,” he remarked as he watched a couple unshaven field hands play a game of Three Handfuls. They were using a traditional board made from the cross section of a tree. The tree rings were darkened with charcoal for better scoring.

“'Course we do,” said the barman. He pounded the hinged bar door with a fist. “Tho' ak-chewally what we has is boards. Me Jim cut 'em last week from a cork tree by the river. Ye supply th' darts, see.”

“Ah.” Either the customers stole the bar's darts or the barman didn't like to keep pointed objects around. Denario made a quick count of the nine men occupying the tables and came up with sixteen blades among them.  So it wasn't a general problem with pointy-ness.

He wondered if it were true, as he'd heard for months, that some of these men were bandits. They certainly looked the part. Aside from their weapons, many wore leather jerkins that were as thick and tough as armor. A blonde, bearded fellow showed a bit of chain mail underneath his tunic just above his collarbone. He had the heaviest sword, too, and boots that fit. That put him above almost everyone else. About half of the men wore rags stuffed into their shoes. They couldn't buy boots of the right size. Yet their homemade cat-gut laces, fur patches, and tongue wedges that looked like greaves were all suspiciously competent. They might have been in the same band of thieves.

Here Denario was, in a bar in broad daylight, and it was half full of men who looked like they'd kill Denario if they knew he had a single gold piece, let alone the four golds and nine silvers he kept in his belt. At it was, a pair of well-armed characters eyed his vest and seemed to know what it meant. They exchanged knowing looks that Denario didn't enjoy. 

His sense of danger gave him an inspiration. He knew where he could purchase a smidgen of protection, maybe, just possibly, if he was lucky. He hoped he could arrange it. The kind of protection he was contemplating wasn't as good as magic but, then again, maybe it was better. He slapped down another copper for the barman, who grunted in surprise. Denario ignored him and kept going through the swinging doors of Bottoms Up. 

He hiked the road to the south end marketplace. He didn't think to check on whether or not he was being followed until he reached the market square. There, he turned around. The two men who had noticed his vest were standing at the foot of the slope outside Bottom's Up. He waved to them and they carefully looked away.

In the square, Denario found the vendor stalls mostly empty. The fisherman had closed up his shop. Other booths and carts were open for apples, figs, piglets and chickens. There was a rag man at one end and a tinker in the center. There weren't many customers for any of them, though, only a few middle-aged women and a scruffy-looking, gray-haired man. In addition, there was a lonely figure at the end of the east row. Denario smiled to see him. It was the gypsy poisoner. The gypsy traveled from town to town trying to sell his rat poison to farmers who already had cats. Business was poor, as usual, and he would have plenty of time to talk.
Denario paid for a half-penny apple because he might not get anything else for a while. With his late lunch in hand, he made his way to the east corner.

“What’s the best poison you’ve got?” he asked. He knew the gypsy, whose name was Farli, and Farli knew him. They'd crossed paths twenty times or so, mostly in Ziegeburg. But Farli had given up trying to sell to Denario. Accountants didn't have much call for poisons.

“For rats, I’ve got extract of appleseed,” he said. He regarded his only possible customer with suspicion. He didn't seem to like the look of the apple. 

“How about for two-legged rats?” Denario took a bite.

“What? Oh.” The Gypsy Poisoner looked around. No one was paying attention. He nodded to his trailer. “Maybe extract of cherry pit? Let’s step inside.”

He led the way through the curtain to the inside of his traveling home. His quarters were as dark as an underground burrow. Denario suspected the burlap drapes would have been chopped into rags by anyone living in a respectable, mud-walled yurt. But it was hard to tell for sure because they let in so little light it was hard to see anything. They were so effective that even the street noise disappeared behind them.

“All right, then,” said the gypsy. He sat on his nightstand. “I won't ask anything but practical questions. The first one is, can you get them to drink it?”

“No, I need something that works on contact.” He didn’t want to say he needed it to battle highwaymen. For all he knew, the poisoner’s cousins were among the highwaymen he would fight. There were bound to be a few gypsies among the brigands.

“That’s different.”

“You can’t do it?” Denario turned to leave, although he hated the thought of hiking out of town without supplies or defenses. 

“No, I can. But it’s different. I have a poison made from the skin of blue frogs. You don’t see any blue frogs around here, do you?”

Denario looked around him. He wondered if he was being put on. “No.”

“It’s an expensive poison. I have to go a long ways south to get it and even then, I'm not dealing with the men who make it, only merchants who buy and sell from them. The frogs live on some islands in the Complacent Sea.”

“Interesting,” said Denario, who really was trying hard to be interested. But the thought of his approaching death distracted him. He hoped he was conceiving a workable plan. “How much for enough to kill one person?”

“At least a silver. More, maybe. Two silvers, if that’s all you’re going to buy.”

“I want enough for twenty men.”

The gypsy shrugged. “I’d have to take gold. But I'd throw in some hollow-tip darts for the price.”

“A gold and eight silver.”

“That’s enough for ten men, not twenty.”

They haggled for a while and it went pretty much the way Denario had expected. He agreed to part with two gold pieces if the poison could be demonstrated. Farli, the poisoner, turned to his stack of burlap covered crates along the wall. He lifted one by its strap and set it on his small, standing-height table. When he pulled back the burlap cover, he revealed a wooden cage and, in a corner of the cage, a greyish rat. 

“Do you want me to use one of the darts you're buying?” he asked.

“No.” Denario shook his head. “The pin is fine.”

As a poisoner, Farli had to keep a dozen or so rats around for precisely this purpose. He nodded and dipped his pin in a sample of the poison. Deftly, he pricked his test subject on a hind leg. In a few seconds, the rat twitched and fell over. Its paws scrambled in the air. 

“It doesn't take much longer on a man.” Farli cleared his throat. “Or so I'm told.”

“But the rat is still breathing.” In fact, its lungs seemed to be moving double time but in shallow heaves that didn't seem to take in air.

“That goes on for a few minutes. What do you expect? The paralysis in the limbs is almost immediate. That's the important part. And there's no cure. Death comes when the paralysis spreads deeper and reaches the chest.”

Denario turned his back to prevent Farli from seeing that the money came from a flap inside his belt. His thumb dug out two golds. There was no way he could haggle any more over the amount, not after seeing the demonstration. Besides, Denario wanted those steel-tipped darts. The lines that defined the shafts were exponential curves, irresistibly beautiful. He already had his copper-tipped set, of course. He kept those wrapped in a soft, bleached, goatskin sleeve. He'd won them three years ago in a contest outside the Accountant's Guild hall. It had been the spring equinox and a fair had lined the streets. Wimple and Curo had waited, hands on hips, irritated by Denario and his fascination with throwing games. On the other hand, they hadn't quite had the heart to stop him. And he hadn't quite been able to stop winning. When he failed in the grand finale match, beaten by a magician, it came as a shock.

The shock lasted for a moment. But the magician's master ruled against his apprentice and awarded the darts to Denario. Wimple shook the man's hand and, as usual, said the wrong thing, that he was happy to meet an honest wizard. The wizard had been smiling until that moment. But he allowed that Wimple was probably, against the odds, an honest accountant, and Wimple didn't understand he was being insulted, so everything ended up all right.

“Farli,” said Denario. “I'm told that I'm not much good with people.”

The poisoner laughed. “You're great with math. I've overheard you working.”

“Really? Well, I only mean that I've seen you a dozen times at the least and I'm sorry that I won't get the chance to talk longer. I'm going to have to leave town by sunset.”

“It's an occupational hazard.” Farli waved away Denario's concerns with both hands. “Not for you. For me. A small percentage of my customers leave the area suddenly or have to keep secrets. And I don't ask questions.”

“Is it a hard job?”

The poisoner smiled. He walked a few paces to the left, shot his left forearm into a stack of burlap cloth, and rustled through it. His hand reappeared, this time attached to a bottle of wine.

“Come,” he said. “Most of my customers won't break bread with me. They won't share a drink.”

“Oh, I get it.” Denario would have accepted food from Farli without a thought to being poisoned. But he understood, now that he thought about it. Not everyone would feel the same way.

“You're an honest fellow, Denario. Maybe too honest.”

“You know about my problem?”

“No, no.” He chuckled as he wiped a dirty cup with his thumb, making it slightly dirtier. Then he poured his wine into it. “I only know people in a certain way. A bad way, maybe. I see dukes, kings. Oh, yes, kings have called on me. It doesn't impress my wife but, still, I enjoy the memories. A little. They never have nice requests for me, the nobility and their wives and sons. I'd have to say that noble families are the worst.”

“I'm sorry,” said Denario.

“What for? No matter the trouble you're in, be glad you're not in line to a throne. Even an earldom or a barony can be deadly.”

“I wish I had that trouble. I'm just looking for a safe road.”

“Is that all?” He pushed the cup of red wine to Denario's side of the table and proceeded to fill a second cup. “Well, your payment excepted, I don't carry much money. For me, most roads are safe. I pay the bandits a tribute, on occasion, when they catch me and remember that I'm good for it. But nothing more.”

“I'll be on foot.”

The poisoner made a sad, guttural noise. He thumped his clay wine bottle in the center of the table. With his other hand, he lifted his drink.

“Too bad,” he said. He slurped from his cup. “You missed the coach?”

“It left before noon, I'm told. I thought maybe I could catch up to it if it stays in the next town overnight.”

“No chance. If you want to try, you can take Wort Cart road. That's what the coach follows up above the flood line and between the foothills. You won't catch the coach, though. There are no stops until Angstburg and that's nearly thirty miles.”

“I can't think of what else to do.”

“If you're looking for advice, I'd say to take Brine Road. It's small but it stays close to the Rune Kill. You'll have plenty to drink. Don't be tempted by Pig Trickle Road. That trail looks like it's going to follow Trickle Creek to the river because the land is nearly level when you run into it. The bank soon rises and curls north. You'll realize then that it's taking you up into the Blue Hills. That's bandit country.”

“Bandits there. Okay, thanks for the tip.”

“Speaking of tips ...” The poisoner wandered around the inside of his trailer for a few steps. He peered under burlap sacks, peeped through his curtain, felt along the windowsill, pulled out two drawers and, finally, in an oblong box that held other boxes, he found what he was looking for. It was a flat case, about as thick as a human finger. The poisoner thrust it out at Denario. “This completes the set. You'll find that the vial of poison fits into a cleft in the wood. There are also two spare flight feathers, three steel tips, and glue for your darts.”

“Wonderful.” He accepted the cherrywood case with reluctance. This dart set was too good for him. He didn't know how they made steel but it was as expensive as silver and a lot more useful. It could cut softer metals.

He leaned against the poisoner's table and took out the steel tips. They were threaded inside to screw onto the brass shafts. He assembled his trio of darts with care and cradled them in his palm for a moment before setting them down. His gaze drifted to the vial of poison. The black drum top would load poison into the darts exactly the way Farli had said it would. A poke through the seal would fill the hollow needle and shaft. 

Denario didn't try that now. The poison was too precious to test. Instead, he loaded the wooden case.

Idly, he threw the last dart into a knot of wood on the cage that had held the rat. The poisoner smiled, so Denario removed the second bolt, threw it into the knot, and followed it with the third. He'd hit three bulls-eyes. 

“You're good,” grunted Farli. “You're almost starting to scare me. I don't see why you haven't made your money betting on darts.”

“I wish I could.” Denario strolled one step, crouched, and removed a dart. “Right now, I'd play for a canteen, flints, and a hand axe, if anyone would play.”

“Well, why not? Some of the men on this side of town will bet on anything. What do you have to wager?”

“My life?”

“No,” Farli held his stomach and chortled. “You’ll need something they can spend on beer.”

Chapter One, Scene Five

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