A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene One: A Bargain Purchase
Denario would have liked to be able to say that he didn't remember his slavery. But, in fact, he remembered the beatings quite well. As a young boy, he had never been strong enough or fast enough for the carders or the dyers or the weavers or for any group of the workers who produced cloth for the baron. He fell so low in status that no one called him by name.
“Boy! Hurry up with that spool!” the weavers would bellow. Someone else would shout, while he was stooped over a wrapped pack of wool he couldn't carry, “You'd better not drag that bale through the mud, boy! Keep it clean for the spinsters, else they'll have your hide!”
He was just 'boy' to most of the other slaves and servants. He made his anonymity worse, almost a sort of notoriety, by the way he stopped work when he got distracted by the beauty of the cloth making process. Eventually, someone would notice and yell at him again.
“Boy! What are you day-dreaming about?”
It got him into more trouble than any other child. Unlike some of the other slave children, who had mothers around to look after them, Denario's mother had died, accidentally beaten to death by a headman. He had no allies or friends among the other slaves. Oh, he tried to get along. He tried to be interested in his work. But no one wanted to hear his ideas for improving the looms. No one understood when he tried to re-sort the dyes and threads by frequency of use. What was the point of keeping the red spools farthest away when everyone knew that the weavers used them most? It made sense to keep them close. But he got beaten for that, too, when he tried to explain.
“Boy, you're putting on airs!” a foreman or a weaver would shout. They'd give Denario a swift kick and that would be that.
“What a lazy boy!”
For months in a row, sometimes, he would work only on machine threading. He would crawl on the floors to prepare the spinners or he'd climb on chairs for the looms. If he were lucky, he would be allowed to help the knotters or the knitters, usually middle-aged women who worked in groups together and were kind to him. They praised his skill with jobs that took small, precise hands. If he were unlucky, the more privileged slaves would take his indoor jobs and he would be sent to retrieve bolts of cloth or spools of thread, which nobody else wanted to do in the winter.
When he ran errands, that was the worst because he was always getting smacked by the weavers for being slow with the spools or by the head purchaser for dropping things or stacking bolts in the wrong order. Denario could get a whipping just for being too slow to with the water jug or with any of the other things that the children with mothers didn't need to worry about. Everyone knew where he ranked and it was at the bottom. They never let him forget.
“You don't get first in line with your bowl,” the cook would say. “Don't tell me you don't know that, boy. I don't care how long you've been waiting. You get to the back.”
Being smart didn't help. That just made other slaves and overseers angry. They could see that he was bored with spooling thread. They listened to his suggestions on improvements and it would usually be to their benefit if they took him seriously. But if they didn't like what he said or took his words as criticism, he got beaten. He got walloped by the herders for pointing out that they hadn't carded the wool correctly. He got knocked down by the dyer for noticing that the purple dye had been diluted. He got kicked by the shearers just for watching because they'd heard of the trouble he caused in other places. Finally, he got beaten by the purchaser for noticing that he'd shortchanged the baron on a sale.
The last one made him feel the worst because the stock room was one of the places where he'd been able to take refuge. In the bustle of supply and sales, the purchasing men appreciated his accurate hand on the spools and his nimble mind with the maths they wrote out on the floor. He was good at figuring the numbers and, at times, the assistants asked him to check their work. On slow days, the young men taught Denario how to help them with math. Even better, they hardly beat him for mishandling the bolts of cloth. They preferred to carry the bolts themselves when a nobleman or a wealthy merchant came in to bargain.
“Putting on airs, again,” said the master purchaser, an elderly, tough servant who no longer cared or was even much aware of what his assistants thought. Fortunately, his blows weren't as brutal as those delivered by the bigger foremen in the other work houses.
Denario cried anyway. The master purchaser was clever and he knew how to hit where it hurt. Denario kept his arms high to shield his face. When he dared to lower them, he saw the purchasing assistants and a customer, a thin, pot-bellied man in a robe, staring at him. He felt ashamed.
“What has the boy done?” the customer asked. He worried the end of his long, salt-and-pepper beard.
“He corrected the master,” said the head assistant deferentially.
“An apprentice then? Can't learn the math?”
“He's no apprentice of mine!” screeched the master. “He's just a slave child who hasn't learned when to shut up.”
“Was he wrong, then? Did he figure the sums incorrectly?”
The master paled. He looked as if he'd just remembered something.
“Oh, I'm sorry, Master Winkel.” He bowed, slightly. “I've got to go inform the baron of something. It's an important matter. Do you mind working with Tom, here?”
The master gestured to Junior Master Tom Lamplighter. Everyone nodded. Mumbling an additional apology, the elderly purchaser stumbled off toward the main house. He was, for him, moving quickly.
The customer turned toward Denario.
“I gather you were right, then.” The bearded man let go of the ringlets in his beard. He gave Denario a kindly smile. “And the sum involved was not insignificant.”
Out of their master's hearing, the assistants and apprentices laughed.
“Ah, but we shouldn't poke too much fun,” said Tom. “He's not a bad master and we'll all get old someday, gods willing.”
“Yes, but I'll be better at math when I'm my dotage,” said the lowest assistant. He was quite good already and got cuffed only lightly, with a laugh, for his impetuousness.
“Careful, or we won't teach you percentages.” Tom wagged his finger.
“I've already learned them from the slave!”
“Well, there's no surprise.” Tom shook his head. “Come on over, Denario. We won't bite.”
“From the slave? His name is Denario?” The man seemed a bit distracted but thoughtful. He had laughed with the assistants, initially, but had resumed stroking his beard and making 'hmm' noises to himself. He crouched as Denario approached them so he was almost on eye level. “You're teaching math, boy? But you look awfully young. Who's been teaching math to you, a slave?”
“No one,” said Denario. He was still sobbing. It was hard to speak. “I shouldn't do math. I won't do it again.”
“Now, now.” Winkel tugged on the collar of his robe. It was a warm day. Denario later learned that the master accountant had left his vest at home. He wore a faded, brown tunic underneath an over-robe that went to his ankles. “How old are you?”
“Oh, hmm, you're a bit small for nine. And you look starving, almost. Don't they feed you?”
Denario froze, afraid of another beating. It was the head assistant who spoke. Tom Lamplighter had been a skilled slave and he'd bought his freedom six years ago. Now he was working to buy freedom for his mother.
“He's got no parents,” said Tom. “He gets scraps, mostly. I think he's learned most of his math from listening to us. We haven't been giving him any formal lessons, I'd have to say, but I was going keep him here this winter and make his place in the stock room official. He's not as much use anywhere else around the estate.”
In fact, Denario had learned almost everything from Tom as the head assistant corrected everyone else, including the master purchaser.
Winkel's fingers tugged at the ringlets of his beard again.
“No parents, no math lessons,” he mumbled. “But you know what percentages are?”
“They're fractions,” Denario replied.
“Yes, they are. They're fractions of one hundred.”
That opened Winkel's eyes. He crouched down to Denario's level and started to ask Denario questions about math that Denario had never considered before. He used some words that Denario had never heard, either, like interest, accrual, and depreciation, but Denario caught onto the idea of interest quickly, which made Winkel smile, and he succeeded in working out the monthly and annual interest percentages in his head.
Then there were questions about denominators, multipliers, and concepts that Denario partially understood from discussions around the purchaser's table but for which he'd never learned the correct language. Finally, there had come questions about angles, bisectors, and circumferences. Denario had been ignorant of those and worried he was disappointing the scholarly man. Winkel kept asking.
“If I told you only the width of a circle, like that wheel over there,” he said, pointing to the pulley used to lift spools of cloth from the high shelves. “Could you tell me how far around it ought to be?”
“Can I just take a rope around the circle and measure it?”
“No. You can't see the circle. For this case, imagine that I'm in a distant land and I've written you a letter asking how to know if my engineers have built it right. I want to make sure it's an exact circle, not merely something close.”
“And there's a rule for getting the distance around from the distance across?”
“Could I measure other circles for the distance across and the distance around, then work out the rule and tell you?”
Winkel pulled at his beard for another minute. It was, maybe, the longest minute in Denario's life.
“A word with you, Tom,” he said. He rose to his full height.
“Naturally, master.” The head assistant gave him a smile but the rest of his face was so solemn, the effect was rather grave. The two men strolled off to the road, together out of easy hearing for the rest of the stock room workers. One of the older boys leaned out of doors with a hand to his ear. He wouldn't have dared it if it was the master purchaser in conversation but he apparently knew Tom wouldn't beat him for it.
“Keep him in here for a while, won't you?” Winkel said after the whispering finished. “I'm going to talk with your slave handler.”
“Go to the baron's niece first. Ask for Mattie.” The purchasing assistant pointed to the big house across the courtyard. Denario had never stepped inside but the purchaser and his head assistant went there often and sometimes got invited to eat.
After the accountant had gone, Tom walked to the store room door and rested there with his hands on his hips. He gave Denario a self-satisfied glance. Denario didn't understand why. He stared for a moment, trying to figure it out.
“Should I see if the spinners have more spools to store?” he asked.
“Do you have any personal items in the barracks house?” Tom ignored Denario's question in favor of his own. He didn't even look at Denario when he spoke.
“A few,” lied Denario. Most slaves had something. But the others had stolen most of what Denario made for himself. All that he had at the moment was a spare tunic, a piece of broken slate, and a wad of stuffing he kept in rawhide for his pillow.
“Go get them now.”
“But the barracks master ...”
“Tell him Tom ordered it.”
"But he'll be cleaning and ...”
“Tell him. And come right back.” Tom turned slightly. Denario could see a tear run down his cheek. Startled by the sight, he turned his back on it. After a second's thought, he ran out to do as he was told. Partway to the barracks room, though, he spun around on the dirt path. He stared at the expression on Tom's face and tried to figure it out.
Chapter Three, Scene Two