A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Fourth Prime
Scene Three: Lessons from the Master
The group passed through a town called Haph Bad that seemed no larger than four houses at the intersection of the road and a stream. Haph Bad had a mayor, though, and a welcoming party of more than twenty, most of them children. Denario filled his canteen and lay down on a flat, warm rock to rest while everyone else conferred with the mayor, a tall man with a short, rather severe-looking wife who followed him around everywhere, arms folded as if she disapproved of everything anyone said.
At some point, Denario must have dozed. He awoke when shadows passed across his face. He squinted at them.
“Are you sleeping?” shouted a silhouette. He guessed from the voice that it was a young girl.
“Not now he isn't, dummy,” said a boy's voice.
“Why are you sleeping?”
“Are you still a boy?” the male voice continued. “Because if you are, how come you have a bit of beard, then?”
“Are you a girl?” asked the girl. “Girls grow beards.”
“No, they don't.”
“Yes, they do!”
“Uh huh! They do!”
The two children went at it for half a minute while Denario stretched and sat up. He got a view of the girl, who was maybe seven and wore a simple, brown dress and quite a lot of mud. Her brother, probably, looked about ten years old. He was dressed in pants and a linen shirt like a young man. They both had dark blue eyes, a pointed nose, and straight, black hair cut above their shoulders.
The girl huffed, “Aunt Mimi! So there!” and the boy was quiet for a while.
“Maybe some do,” he allowed. “But this one's a boy or a waldi. Aren't you?”
He gave Denario a respectful yet demanding look.
“I'm not a waldi,” groaned Denario. He rose to his feet. He was only a head taller than the boy.
“Then why don't you have any markings? Aren't you old enough in your clan?”
“Oh.” Suddenly Denario felt he almost understood. “Is a waldi someone without a clan?”
Both children bobbed their heads.
“That's me, sorry.” His gaze searched for their parents. The mayor and his wife were still conferring with the Mundredi. However, the other town adults had gone off somewhere. The kids were on their own. Vir's scouts, Klaus and Piotr, had re-packed their equipment. They looked ready to march away.
“How do you live without a clan? How do you know which gods are watching you?”
“I know,” answered Denario with a certainty that surprised him. He hadn't thought of himself as particularly religious. When the wizards claimed that gods were nothing special, just bits of magic with a personality, Denario believed them. But he also believed that those bits of magic cared in their own way.
Denario couldn't think of a rational answer. Gods were like the numbers pi and the square root of two. They seemed unsettling at first blush. Ultimately, though, they proved satisfying in the spirits. A full explanation as to how they came to occupy their place in the world would have to wait for a wiser age.
He glanced right and left to make sure none of the remaining adults were watching. The children noticed. They craned their heads around to help him check. There were smiles on their faces. They knew they were about to be let in on a secret.
“I do have a tattoo,” he whispered. “But just one.”
He wasn't sure why he wasn't comfortable telling most people. He'd shown it to Pecunia. And he hadn't been able to hide it from the other apprentices in Winkel's office. Plus Winkel had known, of course. But he had never shown the accountants outside his home. They had learned about his former slavery but he didn't think they were entitled to the details. He'd never let anyone in Ziegeburg besides Pecunia see the symbol either.
He crouched. The children knelt at his feet. Slowly, because his legs were stiff and swollen, he pulled up his left trouser to the shin. At the same time, he pulled down the left front of his shoe.
“It looks like a bee, almost. They marked you on the foot?” The lad whispered. His eyes were wide with amazement. The Mundredi apparently didn't consider the tops of feet as appropriate places for tribal marks.
“The original sign looked like this.” Denario let go of his pants and shoes. He grabbed a stick. After a moment to pick the softest ground, he drew a rectangle and a semi-circle in the dirt. “See? A helm over a block. It showed that I was the property of Baron Blockhelm.”
“He lives a long way off. That's why you haven't heard of him. Anyway, after I was free, my teacher had a man tattoo this number eight through it. Watch.” He drew the number eight sideways through the helmet figure.
“Oh! You made an angel,” said the girl.
“The number eight is sacred to our guild,” Denario explained. “It was a funny accident. The man doing the job turned me around and wrote sideways. No one asked him to do that. He was supposed to cover the old mark. But instead he made my slave tattoo look like a winged messenger. When my master saw that the mark hadn't been turned into an eight, he was upset at first. Then he got worried. He said we mustn't change the tattoo any more or we might offend the god.”
“I know that one!” shouted the boy. “Is he watching you?"
“He's the most important one to me.” Denario smiled. He'd been pretty sure that the children would understand. “You see how I know? It came from an accident but it's the symbol for the god of accountants. He's known as the winged messenger in some lands. He runs around the world and measures it. That's my profession, in a way. I'm an accountant.”
“You're a kind of ant?'” muttered the girl.
“Do you just do measuring and numbers?” said the boy, disappointed. He ignored his sister. “I already knows my pluses and minuses. What I need is to learn is how to make a house for our dog.”
“Ol' Enri has fleas again," the girl explained. “So me mam kicks him out.”
Denario scanned the village dwellings. He could see three structures from where he was standing. All three were made of logs laid on their sides with mud between. They weren't quite square and that was a problem for the roofs. The A-frame beams didn't quite meet the corners of the walls. Also, the bales of thatch on the beams were forced to rest at odd angles. They probably leaked pretty often. On one of the houses, a wall looked about to fall over.
“Would it help if I taught you how to make the strongest kind of house? I don't know the wood work. But I do I know the math for that.”
“There's math to make a strongest house?” the boy seemed leery.
“Absolutely,” Denario asserted, confident about this point of geometry. “The strongest houses use right triangles and rectangles. I can draw those. And I can teach you how to measure for them as you lay the wood. That's the real trick that folks are missing around here. You'll have the best dog house ever.”
“Wow! Yeah, I want to learn that.”
“Can I build the dog house, too?” asked his sister.
The three of them walked around by the stream for a moment as Denario stretched his legs. He learned that the boy's name was Kurt, which was a funny coincidence. It reminded Denario of the young man who had helped him get to Hogsburg. But this Kurt's little sister was named Oleggia, which of course her brother and probably everyone else shortened to 'Leggi.'
They walked to the road to check on the adults but there were even less of them than ever. Only Vir and the mayor stood together in a clearing. Everyone else had been given work.
Denario's experience as a slave and an apprentice told him that if he didn't want to get assigned a job he didn't like, he needed to get busy with something else.
“Where do you want to build?” he asked the boy. The children led him to a spot by the corner of their house, which was the largest structure in the village.
Young Kurt had gathered sticks for the dog house. Denario promptly threw half of them away. They were too small, dead, or rotted. Kurt accepted the implied criticism with a hung head and no protests. In fact, Denario seemed to have the children's respect up until he pulled out his axe. He tried to use it to notch a piece of wood. That made Leggi laugh.
“Like I told you,” he explained as he set the ruined piece down. “It's the math that's important.”
Her brother ran to get his axe and join in. Denario sat crossed-legged in the dirt. He practiced notching as he waited. He got better fast, at least to the point of no longer splintering sticks.
He'd done this kind of crude work on surveying trips before. He just needed to get used to his new, stolen tool. While he learned, he employed Leggi to dig a rough trench for rain run-off so that he wouldn't get into trouble for letting her use a blade. In about half an hour, the three of them had made enough progress for Denario to begin his lesson.
“I hope you were listening when I explained what a right angle is,” he started. He laid down two beams inside the area that Leggi had cleared. “Because that's the key. The triangles we'll make have right angles inside them. And rectangles have only right angles.”
As he expected, he had to re-explain. This time, young Kurt and Oleggia seemed to understand, although it had never occurred to them that they could make the angle perfect by measuring the logs.
“Have you got our measuring stick, Leggi?” He reached out for the straight piece in her hand. He had cut it for her. And she had seemed proud to hold it.
“I'll make this easy enough to memorize,” he told them. The boy nodded. “But it's up to you to remember, okay?”
“Is this a guild secret, Master Denario?” The boy, for no good reason, had started referring to him as a master.
“Yes.” The idea made Denario a little uncomfortable. He had sworn not to reveal this method except when unavoidable in the course of his professional duties. “I suppose you should have to pay to learn it but I don't think you can meet the price. Let's worry about that part later, okay?”
If anything, the boy seemed more interested than ever.
“I'll pay,” he swore. He drew a symbol on his chest to show he was in earnest.
“Fine. Let's make this spot a corner of the room.” Denario pointed to where the children needed to lay the first piece. “This strength building method will work on any room you make, okay? So from the corner, measure three units in one direction. That's where the first wall will go.”
“It's important to measure?” Young Kurt had taken over. His sister stood an inch away from him as she watched him use the stick.
“Yes. The numbers three, four, five are important. If we're going to make this the best it can be, you need to mark three on one wall and four on the other wall.”
“Where does the number five come in?”
“It's the special measurement that makes the corners perfect. I'll have to show you. Come on, let's measure four units on the other wall.”
Together with the two children, Denario measured out to four units on the other wall and made a mark. Then he checked the work at three units on the first wall. Then he checked the other wall. Finally, he was satisfied.
“Now comes the trick,” Denario announced. He measured between the marks. The distance came to less than five units. So he knew that the walls were angling too close together. “See? We need to move the base of the walls. Now you try.”
He guided both Leggi and Karl through the measuring and adjusting process. The boy understood. He hopped up and down through his sister's turn. He clearly thought it was one of the neatest things ever.
“It works on walls and roofs?” he asked. “Just the magic numbers three, four, and five?”
“It works on anything.”
“Yep. You can make a doorframe that's a perfect rectangle. You can use the same technique to cut a wooden door to go into it, too.”
The boy looked over at the door to his home, which was a rough shape just tall enough for his father and wide enough for his mother. It was nothing like a rectangle and the door was fox hide. Getting in and out in the winter must have entailed tying and untying knots in the cords that held the skin taut.
“Ahem.” A deep voice rumbled behind them. It was one that Denario recognized. He spun around.
While he'd focused intently on the ground, Vir had approached with the mayor, the mayor's wife, Yannick, and a rail-thin village girl. Behind them, Denario could see other adults approaching. The scouts, Piotr and Klaus, had returned with short, recurved bows that they hadn't been carrying before.
A few feet from Denario, the mayor knelt to the rough beams laid out for the doghouse. He ran his fingers over the marks on the wood. He took the measuring stick from the unresisting hands of Leggi who, Denario now recognized, must be his daughter. Young Karl visibly held his breath while his father measured the south wall, three units to the mark. Then the mayor measured the west wall, four units to the mark. He measured the hypotenuse of the triangle, the imaginary line that showed the distance between the marks.
“Three, four, five?” He looked up to Denario. “This smells like a guild secret.”
“Um.” Denario hesitated so that he answered with the children when he finally admitted, “Yes, it is.”
“Are you going to get in trouble with your guild? This looks useful. It's how the houses in town are made isn't it?”
“Definitely. The carpenters and masons know the secret, too.”
“They charge money. Money that we don't have.”
The mayor stood. It reminded Denario of how very tall the man was.
“I know!” shouted Leggi. She ran off before anyone could stop her. Really, no one cared or paid her much attention.
“Can we barter for it?” the mayor asked. “Your secret, I mean. You've already given it away but ...”
“No, sir. I offered to pay him.” The ten year old boy stepped forward.
His father scowled.
“With what?” he finally demanded. His son seemed unprepared for the obvious question. Denario tried to think of something to say so that Karl could save face. After all, they hadn't really negotiated a bargain.
The boy shrugged. He moved his mouth for a while without making a sound. His father remained admirably patient.
“Here!” shouted Leggi. She came running from her house towards Denario. “I've got it. Here!”
Out of breath, she slammed into Denario's leg. That slapped a new layer of mud and dirt onto his pants, not that it mattered. She pressed a small figure into his hand. Denario turned it over. The statuette was a pretty little thing, a carving of Melcurio or The Winged Messenger or whatever he was called around here. The material looked like deer bone. It was worth practically nothing. Besides, the Oggli and Angrili Guild of Accountants didn't accept barter. The very idea was odious to the members.
“It's wonderful,” he said.
“It's not legal, though, is it?” Vir stepped forward. Again, he seemed too shrewd a judge of Denario's face and posture.
“Hey, now,” said the mayor. He folded his arms, much like his wife behind him. “That's an important job, carrying idols to the temple. Folks pay us in copper, sometimes. There have been a occasions when the gods granted favors for it.”
“Really?” Denario smiled as an idea occurred to him. But he wiped that from his face. The other adults were taking the situation seriously. He knew he'd better not mess around. “I think ... I really think we can solve the guild problem, then. Have you got any birch paper?”
“Well, somewhere.” The mayor eyed the trees. He strode over to a young birch. “It's all in use or gone to rot, though. I'd better just make you a scrap.”
“Right.” The accountant found a sharp rock.
When the bark was ready, Denario wrote a promissory note. It took him a few minutes. One or two of the Mundredi behind him grunted with impatience while they waited. Denario had to push hard with his make-shift stylus to gouge out the marks. But when he was done, his words on the birch bark were visible in good light. That would be enough.
“Maybe you don't know what this is ...” he began.
“It's an I.O.U. isn't it?” The mayor cut him off. “I can't read it, though. It's that waldi writing. I know some of the old letters but that's all.”
“Oh, well, you're right or close enough. This is a legal promissory note. I've written here that you promise to pay me forty silvers for the secret of making right angles in walls, doors, and ceilings. That's the guild rate.”
The tall man made a rude noise. “I haven't got it.”
“You won't need to. Do you trust me?”
“Should I?” The adults behind him had started whispering. If Denario let himself listen, he knew he'd start to panic. He was already close. He talked over his own sense of doubt.
“If you sign with an X and Vir signs as a witness, it's legal. You'll really owe the money. You'll buy the secret for the town of Haph Bad.”
“What are you up to, accountant?” Vir growled. But he grabbed the rock and signed against the side of the tree.
The mayor shrugged and signed, too. He handed the piece of birch paper to Denario.
“Am I foresworn?” he asked. “I told you, we don't have the money. We just don't use much. For sure we never see silver around here.”
“How much is a gift from the gods worth?”
The mayor shook his head. “Who knows? A lot? A little? Sometimes the gifts can be burdens.”
“Right. I'll take a gamble then. Everyone here is a witness. I want to pay 40 silvers for the right to take all of your carved idols to the temple.” He handed the birch paper back to the mayor. “I'll say whatever prayers you want for the village or whatever else you usually do.”
There was a long, drawn out moment of silence.
“Hah!” Vir laughed. He clapped down on Denario's shoulder so hard that he spun Denario around. “I like it. Good trick.”
The other adults began to laugh.
“But are we fooling the gods in some way?” worried the mayor. “Or are we cheating your guild?”
“My guild is a bit tricky anyway,” answered Denario. “Some of the men in it are overly sly. My old master wouldn't trust them. I'm not worried about their opinions. It was legal and I can swear to it. That's what matters. As far as the gods, well, that's a bit tougher, maybe, but it's on me.”
“You said you're an accountant?”
The mayor rubbed his chin. “Do you have enough apprentices?”
“Five.” Denario shrunk back a bit. He knew where this was leading. He couldn't afford to take on more. Just supporting this many boys had driven him into the wilderness after Ziegeburg's crazy offer. “I barely support them.”
The mayor grinned rather sheepishly. He didn't seem offended.
“Go get the other idols, then,” he told his children. “Magda, will you get the one of Glaistig? That one came from the river temple. I picked it up from the Hogsburg priest, remember, and I've got a feeling that it's special.”
She snorted. But with an oddly triumphant smile, she flounced off, her children in tow.
“Are you always going to be like this, accountant?” Vir said. Suddenly, he was leaning over Denario's right shoulder.
“I didn't mean to cause trouble.”
“Five apprentices?” he hissed.
“They're great boys.”
“And your master died. So now you provide for them.”
Denario nodded. Vir had a way of summing up situations a little too keenly.
“The fee that Ziegeburg paid must have been so high you couldn't refuse.”
Since Denario didn't know what to say, he held still. In fact, the whole group stood in awkward silence for a while. Another adult and two children wandered in to join the crowd but they kept quiet. Magda appeared at the door to her cottage. She held aloft a vase of some sort. People clapped.
Then Magda proceeded towards them, her children coming up behind. All of them carried an idol of some sort. Leggi held a shabby bird woman, probably a tribute to Naakia. The boy showed off a crude but heroic figure of the local lightning god, Leir, who bore the enraged expression that law givers so often have.
The sealed vase that Magda carried in front was something different entirely. It was not a totem. In fact, it looked like it must hold something. As she presented it to Denario, he felt immediately that it was too light. How could such a precious vessel be empty? It couldn't. Yet it felt even lighter than its clay. As he bowed his head and thanked her, he guessed that she and her husband were right. The vase was special.
The scene painted on the outside of the vase, even over the clay seal at the top, was full of Makari. There were swimming fish-goats everywhere. But there was more than that: a priestess, a storm, a mysterious set of horns and eyes. One of the Makari figures seemed more alive than the rest. It looked ready to jump out from between the great horns that framed everything else.
“It's beautiful,” he whispered to Magda, who curtsied as if he'd complimented her. Perhaps he had.
Vir raised one hand and announced that they were leaving. The rest of the travelers started saying their goodbyes. Denario found himself presented with the remaining two icons. Leggi gave him a hug after she gave him the Naakia doll. Young Karl bowed after his gift. Soon Denario followed the crowd to the hay cart, where he was told to stow his belongings. He put the icons into his travel bag. Then he made a nest for his two bags in the hay. It would be a relief to not be forced to carry them for a while.
The ox lurched forward. Next to Denario, Yannick turned to wave. Denario did the same. There was a tall woman in front of Denario. She was, perhaps, the mayor's sister from her height and features. She had a pretty nose and beautiful green eyes. She also had a light-colored, downy beard that ran from her chin right up into fuzzy sideburns at her ears. You wouldn't notice unless the sun caught it just right.
“Aunt Mimi!” he blurted in a moment of revelation. She put her fingers to her lips and blushed. Along with everyone else, she waved goodbye.
Chapter Seven, Scene Four