A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Two Cubed
Scene Four: More Lessons from the Butcher
The smell of smoke woke him. He blinked at Vir, whose balding head and stern face were lit with an orange glow. The bandit chief had cleared a patch of ground in the darkness and built a campfire out of pine needles, pine cones, and dead wood. A ring of stones enclosed the makeshift fire pit. The single, thick log in the center had just caught and begun to crackle.
Denario sat up. Dry needles fell in clumps off of his shirt. He couldn't help noticing that they were caked with frost. Even though it was spring, up here on the high slopes there was ice in the air.
“It's brave of you to sleep without fire,” Vir murmured. “We could have maybe made it through the night that way. But it's a chancy thing up this high. Bad enough in the low lands.”
“Thanks,” said Denario. He brushed off the pine needles to keep them from catching fire as he got close to the flames. He scooted toward the heat.
“I've got a pan and some oats,” he volunteered.
“That would be welcome.”
Yesterday, he'd thought to slip his magic darts into his accounting bag, which Vir ignored because he considered it useless. Denario felt lucky that he'd thought so far ahead. The Mundredi chief no longer had a cart full of supplies with him. He took more interest in Denario's travel supplies. In fact, he leaned close while Denario dumped out the half of the kit to sift through the important packages. Vir's hands joined his own as they unwrapped the cheese, the pad of butter that was going bad, the goat jerky, and the dried apples.
“Nice. Ye travel better than I'd realized.”
“I can't take credit.” Denario gestured with an arm toward the bountiful goods. “Some of this came from friends. Some was luck.”
“Ye mean loot from those bounty hunters? That kind of luck?”
“They were gamblers, mostly, not soldiers like you.”
Denario's gaze drifted to the playing cards, dice, and other game tools that had spilled out along with the packs of food. Vir made a clucking noise with his tongue. He picked up a ball of string and put it back into Denario's bag. He played with a bit of wire that he found interesting.
“I'm sorry that I wasn't thinking straight before,” Denario offered by way of apology while he unwrapped fat for the pan. He remembered his odd thoughts of his home in Oggli and the puddings from the family next door.
Vir grunted. He was never much interested in excuses or apologies, Denario realized. They probably needed to be there to fill some sort of politeness requirement but they were irrelevant to him or maybe a sign of weakness. He continued to fiddle with the hooked wire. Back and forth it swung between his fingers.
“I can see that this holds a playing card,” he said. “But what's it really for? Cheating?”
“I don't know how the previous fellow used it,” Denario replied. “I've used it to poke myself in the eye while I tried to figure it out.”
“Uhn.” Vir grunted and tossed aside. He continued to rummage through Denario's bag. Denario didn't feel he could say anything about it.
All he could do was cook. He wasn't much good at it, or so his old master had maintained, but at least he had fine ingredients this time. While he and his companion tried to render the oats edible with butter and beef fat, they discussed how to track Alaric's missing Mundredi troops.
Vir did most of the talking. He described the slopes, trails, and streams on the mountain. He thought aloud about the possibilities, some of them grim, some not. There were patches of magical lands in the area where Alaric could have taken his men to hide after an ambush. But he could have been ambushed while passing one of them, too.
After a few minutes, Vir changed the subject to describe how an accountant would need to train to become a spearman. He had definite plans that way. Funny, Denario thought, I'd worried that the bandits would kill me out of hand because they didn't like my looks. He hadn't considered the possibility that they might simply work him to death.
As the meal wound down, Vir hunkered as close as he could get to the fire.
“That's better,” he said. He wiped a bit of oatmeal from his mustache. “Let the pan cool down, save the grease, and then let's sleep until dawn.”
“Really? That long?” Denario hadn't meant to be sarcastic. The words had slipped out. Luckily, Vir didn't notice.
“We've got no choice,” he growled. “Got to see the footprints in the trails, if there are any. I suppose we're lucky that the sky is clear. No rain coming.”
“I knew I had to have some good luck.”
“More than ye know.” Vir lay on his back. He stopped staring into the fire and glanced around them for a few seconds. He made a sign of demon warding over his chest. Whether that was superstition or whether he knew real magic, Denario wasn't sure. In either case, he supposed Vir was trying to keep any wandering spirits out of the warmth of the fire. “I'm sure that you being out here is no accident, at least.”
“You mean it was fate?” Denario raised his eyebrows in doubt.
“Someone planned it. Not ye, not yer master, I think, but maybe the gods. It can be hard to tell about them kind of things. Could be other types of magic in men's minds. Could be the maliciousness of yer elders with no magic spirits involved. That happens. But doesn't it strike ye as odd that the Mayor of Ziegeburg had to send all the way to Oggli for an accountant?”
“Not really. It's not so easy to find an independent accountant outside of the big cities. The contract specified someone who was an independent journeyman or master accountant. If you were a member of a nobleman's court, you weren't eligible.”
“From the mayor's point of view, that makes sense. But I know there are plenty of towns between Ziegeburg and Oggli. Some of them are large, too. They've got men who can do numbers. Why do ye think the mayor didn't hire them?”
“I don't know. He could have, I suppose. He only needed a book keeper. He didn't have to specify a journeyman accountant. Never figured out why he did.”
“I'll tell ye want I think happened. The mayor tried to hire a book keeper from the next town down the river, whatever that one is. And the book keeper refused. Why?”
“Well, I realize now that the book keeper there probably knew that the mayor and burgher were cheating the baron out of tax money.”
“Right. So that man had to turn it down. He didn't want the baron to lop off his head. And if he didn't play along with the mayor, the Figgins brothers would kill him. Either way, the job meant death.”
“I see what you mean. Then the next fellow in line, whoever that was, probably a book keeper in Angstburg, he got offered the contract. And he probably got offered more money, too, because Angstburg is a bigger, more expensive place.”
“But he turned it down.”
“Right. He must have heard from the book keeper in Druli that there was a problem with the offer. Maybe there was even a hint that taking the contract would put him in trouble with the baron. He would be competing with the baron's accountants. No one wants that.”
“I think ye've got it now.”
“So the mayor gave up looking inside the borders of the barony. He decided to skip over the next barony, too. The book keepers are too chummy from town to town. That must be why he sent his high-priced contract to the Oggli and Angrili Guild of Accountants.”
“That's the funny part,” said Vir. “Don't the senior masters have precedence?”
“Yes,” said Denario, although the thought made him unhappy.
“How did you learn about the contract from Ziegeburg?”
“My partner, Curo, rushed in one afternoon, all excited. He'd heard a couple of the older accountants talking about it. They hadn't wanted to send anyone. They said it was too far to go. They were going to turn the offer down.”
“But you and your partner wanted in on it.”
“The Ziegeburg offer was practically made for us, Vir. We'd held onto enough of Winkel's business to get us by for a while but we were eating into our former master's savings. And were we entitled to his money? We didn't know. We were using the funds because old Winkel didn't have any relatives who showed up to claim them. But there was a real chance that we didn't even own the house we were living in. Master Winkel had a cousin outside of town and it was only a matter of time before someone from another accounting office found him. Then the cousin would lay claim.”
“He'd turn you out?”
“Probably not,” Denario admitted. “But he'd want us to buy the place or pay him rent, for sure. We couldn't do it. We'd lost some of Winkel's business and there were too many boys to feed. We could barely keep ourselves in clothes and equipment.”
“And two elders talked about Ziegeburg in front of Curo?”
“Yes ...” Denario started to follow Vir's line of thought.
“They wanted him to overhear,” concluded Vir. “He was all excited, wasn't he? It must have sounded like just the thing to build up your cash and buy yer house if ye had to do that.”
“It did.” Denario threw back his head. It sounded so obvious now.
“But the old men in Oggli knew what the book keepers and accountants along the way from Ziegeburg all knew. The job was something that would get ye in trouble with the nobles. And ye said that those old men didn't like ye.”
“Some of them resented Winkel. They were angry with me, too, since I saved so many accounts, especially the Paraventeri shipyard account.”
“Did the dock workers like you?”
Denario paused to think about the exact words spoken by the dockyard owners. They were all ship engineers, fleet owners, or sons of engineers and they'd met with him around their drafting table.
“They said they wouldn't trust anyone else.” He remembered being flattered.
“Then they were right.” Vir grunted. “The others in yer guild couldn't be trusted. Ye should have known just from that.”
“We thought we weren't being trusting.” Denario slumped almost to the point of collapse.
“Ach, they were too smart for ye. But yer young. And ye lived through it. Ye got paid?”
“Most of the money. But not all.”
“Well done to get anything, I think. When ye get back to the city, ye'd best beware. The old men who sent you away aren't going to be pleased to see ye back.”
“I'm sure you're right.”
Denario lay down next to the fire and felt extra sorry for himself for about half an hour. Then he replayed Vir's words in his head. The bandit chief had talked about when Denario would return to Oggli, not if he would. That gave Denario hope. He went to sleep dreaming about how he'd rescue all of the boys, maybe even as they were standing outside their home waiting for some relative of Winkel's to evict them. He could see them standing on the porch in his dreams, all of them except for Curo who was off working somewhere. They were all looking towards Denario, eyes wide as if they could see across the miles.
He felt as if he could walk to them now. There were wings on his back and he was headed for home.
Chapter Eight, Scene Five