Sunday, December 11, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 59: A Bandit Accountant, 10.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene One: A Token of Affection

Denario woke up in a panic. He'd had a dream that Pecunia and Curo had seen him trapped in a giant fishing net. They'd looked right at him and turned away. Then he lifted his head in real life and found he couldn't move. It took him a second to remember that he'd dozed off in a feather bed. The mattress was pinning his arms. He was fine. With a grunt of effort, he kicked up his legs and rolled out of the linen-covered pile of feathers.

The fact that he'd remained in armor made the job difficult. It was good, he realized, that the mattress wasn’t thicker. The bedding was too lavish. It was as well constructed as any he'd slept on, even the best in Oggli, even the cushions in the Marquis' palace. Barter and slavery worked well enough for this sort of thing, he supposed, although the idea of slaves being forced to stuff the pads of his room made him sad. He rubbed the quilted cover and hoped it wasn't true.

The depression he'd felt at being left alone in this strange, violent land left him as tiptoed across the chilly floor to unshutter the window. He looked down from his apartment atop the mine warehouse onto a crossroads below. There, in the pre-dawn light with an ox-led cart and crates of new baggage piled in the back, stood the Mundredi army.

Well, it was fourteen men. To Denario, that seemed more like an army than it would have three weeks ago. Vir hadn't joined his troops yet. There was just sergeant Alaric, his battle-tested platoon, and the new recruits.

Last night, Vir had hunkered down to a long discussion with the mayor of Pharts Bad. At the conclusion, he'd traded Denario's services “as an accountant until yer records get fixed” in exchange for supplies, two healthy slaves, and “a criminal to be named later.” That gave Pug some men to tease or at least a couple of draftees to deflect the worst of the army's abuse. There was no one lower in status than a slave recruit.

Now that he looked closer, Denario saw that there were only thirteen bodies milling around on the frost and dirt. Someone was missing. Behind him, he heard footfalls on the staircase. A floorboard creaked.

“You're up?” a second later, the Mundredi corporal opened the door without knocking. It was a real door, too, with a metal hinge. It reminded Denario of how well the whole town was built. “Good, the captain wants you. Come on.”

Denario turned and took in Gannick's new apparel. Phart’s Bad had given the bandit army a pile of cast-off clothing. It was quality stuff. Under his chain mail, Gannick wore a heavy linen shirt. He'd laced on a pair of new breeches, too, dyed black.

“Just let me get my hat.” Denario was in his armor but this seemed like a good time to put on a red cap with gold braid. He wanted the men to think about who he was. “My snares on the staircase didn't bother you?”

“Neh. There's light.”

“Oh.” Vir had insisted that the accountant set snares to guard himself. Apparently they wouldn't do much good here in town.

“Good that ye keep in practice. They look well pegged.”

Near the bottom of his pack, Denario found his accounting gear. His hat had taken a beating in recent weeks but the dye was bright. It told everyone that he was a professional. He felt he needed some prompting in that way himself. His guilt over leaving the dangers of bandit life to work in the counting house made him feel like a traitor. He wasn't even one of the Mundredi. He was an accountant. The mark of his guild, a yellow number eight stitched diagonally across his hat brim, reminded him of the duty to his apprentices.

The corporal nodded in approval as Denario put it on. He was familiar with the idea of a uniform. Good.

“Did ye understand the captain's advice last night?” the corporal asked as they descended the narrow staircase. They stepped over the loops of leather cord and the snare pegs.

“I think so.” There had been a lot of it. Denario couldn't absorb it all at once. For instance, he doubted that he was going to use his hunting bow or his non-existent trail-reading skills. He sure hoped he never needed his armor. He had every intention of wearing it, though. It took no expertise and therefore, he'd decided, it was perfect for him.

About the only survival skill he'd picked up from Vir and Alaric was the making and setting of snares. But none of his traps had caught anything. He couldn't light a fire. That last failing was his own because he hadn't dared to tell anyone that he didn't understand how it was done. He'd only ever used pre-packaged alchemy and magic fire-starters before.

Despite the frost on the hard dirt this morning, the wind whipping in from the south felt warm. Spring was a tangible force today. Denario smiled and waved to the soldiers as he approached.

“Do ye remember which towns?” a gruff voice bellowed in his right ear.

Denario spun. The captain stood a few feet away dressed his armor and a fur overcoat given to him personally by the mayor of Pharts Bad.

“Vir!” he exclaimed. He gave the big man a hug and then belatedly realized that these Mundredi didn't do that sort of thing. He had to back away.

“Well, accountant.” Vir gave him a stern look but there was a twinkle in his eye, too. He wasn't mad.

“Yes, sir,” Denario remembered. “I mapped out all of the towns you mentioned last night.”

“Good man.” Vir reached out to clap him on the arm.

Suddenly, all the Mundredi swarmed up to Denario and began whacking him, good-naturedly, on his shoulders and back. Someone plucked off his hat to ruffle his hair and, a second later, someone else jammed it back on. How strange, Denario thought, it's as if they like me.

He heard well-wishes from everyone, he thought, even Moritz and Reinhard, who had openly despised him. It was hard to respond to all of the kind phrases, they came so rapidly. In half a minute, he was left with nothing more coherent to do than saying, 'Thanks, thanks,' over and over again.

“Hush, now,” Vir said eventually. His men turned to him, even Pug and the former slaves.

“The accountant won't get to go home until he straightens out this mess in Pharts Bad.” Vir reached under his armor with his right hand. He fumbled through the layers of shirts beneath. “When he does leave here, though, he's got instructions from me on what to do.”

“Send three recruits!” Denario blurted.

“Yeh. If ye can. No slaves or children, of course.” Vir found a leather cord between the layers of his shirts. With his index finger, he worked it out into the open. “I meant what to do to survive, though. There's one last thing I didn't tell ye. Ye'll need to send this back to me.”

Off from around his neck, the captain pulled a pendant attached to the cord. It was a coin, really, but cast in the strangest of ways. For one thing, it appeared to be made of glassy, blue stone. The surface glowed faintly, as if from magic.

“Now, this isn't magic,” Vir warned him, maybe for the last time showing off his ability to read Denario's mind. “This is one of the tokens of Muntabar that Prince Robberti carried with him from his home in the outside lands to his new home here in the valleys. They were cast in a furnace, so I'm told. I've no idea why they're all blue but there aren't many left.”

“My gods!” gasped Alaric. He stepped between Denario and Vir and stopped just short of grabbing the coin. He touched the cord and then barely restrained himself, it seemed, from falling to his knees in worship. “I had no idea! Your family managed to preserve your coin? They're just a legend anymore.”

“Yeah, well, my family had three, once. I don't know where the others are. I think one's under my grand-dad's shed.” Grasping the cord with both hands, Vir held it aloft for a moment, away from his sergeant's touch. Then he lowered it around Denario's neck. “This is a powerful sign, see? People know about these. Oaths have been passed down from father to son about them. So if ye use this token wisely, other Mundredi tribesmen, even those in distant villages under waldi control, will help ye. They'll hide ye. They'll feed ye. But don't show it off. Hide it until ye have a real need.”

“Yes, sir!” Confused, Denario saluted. He quickly whisked the hand down to his side and stood at attention.

“Vir!” cried Alaric.

“What?” The captain raised an eyebrow, as much as to say, 'What could you possibly have to add, Sergeant?'

“It's just that ... that's an important thing, sir. You can't just give it away. It's your proof of your inheritance.”

“What inheritance?” Vir snorted at his younger relative's simplicity of mind. “Me family was poor. I walked away from our lands. I'll not return. And the coin isn't proof of rulership of the valleys. Even if it ever were, so what? I'm Chief of the Mundredi right now and of all the clans of our tribe. The job isn't doing me any damn good. It's nothing but a duty. No one pays their taxes to me. But somehow I've got to protect ye lot anyways.”

“Well, that's true,” Alaric admitted. “You do it well, too.  But I'd bet you'd get more respect from the town mayors and the other chiefs if you showed that around.”

“Only for a few hours. Then they'd go to bed and wake up thinking, 'Why the hell did he have to show me that? Don’t he deserve no respect without it?' That's the way it works, see. Besides, there must be twenty of these left just in the Mundredi plus more in the other valleys. They were common once.”

"Not any more, sire. I mean, sir." Alaric caught himself. It was an interesting slip of the tongue, Denario thought. Did the blue coin mean that much? The disc was inscribed with the sign of the Mundredi tribes, a crown crossed by two spears.

He took at moment to lift it closer. As a coin, it seemed fairly ordinary, if ceremonial. It couldn't have been meant for spending because there was no denomination stamped on it, no number. Above the crown, between the crossed spears, were five stars. Denario had no idea what they signified. There were two inscriptions, both of them hard to read in the bluish glass. The top edge said, quinque procer unus imperator which meant in the Old Tongue, he thought, five of something under one emperor. On the bottom, there was just semper promptus pugnare. The old word pugnare meant 'fighting' or 'to fight,' he was pretty sure.

On the reverse of the coin there appeared the parapet of a castle and, over it in large letters, eternus regnum. That phrase meant 'eternal kingdom.' They must have thought so at the time, the forgers of this coin. Their empire had lasted for twenty years. That wasn't much. It was better, though, than any other force that had attempted to establish itself all the way around the Complacent Sea. In smaller letters underneath the castle, the coin-makers had inscribed, usque ornamentum in unus pars, which Denario thought translated roughly as 'all the weapons on one side.' Our side, they meant, Denario realized. That must have looked like a prescription for an empire to last forever. All the weapons had been owned by one side, sure enough. But that side had divided into factions. The empire had fought itself.

“It's beautiful,” he breathed.

“Priceless,” added Alaric.

“I'm not worth this.” He started to remove the cord. His arms were met by the unmoveable force of Vir. Just the touch of the big man's fingertips was enough to prevent him from lifting. “I don't deserve this much trust.”

“Could be,” Vir allowed. His face had that guarded expression he got when something was important enough. “Maybe ye'll never amount to anything. I don't trust slaves, even if they've been set free. But a debt is a debt. I'll honor it.”

“You've saved my life more than once ...”

“After I took ye from Hogsburg. And who knows if I would have gotten out alive if ye hadn't decoded the Raduar knocks or memorized the cell door combinations? So never mind about all that. With my folks and within my towns, this token will make ye safe. People will take ye into their homes.”

Denario turned his eyes to the coin again. With a smile, he decided to give Vir's mind-reading one more try. He couldn't resist.

“Which towns?” he asked.

Vir's face passed through a range of emotions. He'd spent all the night before giving advice and making Denario memorize the towns. And for what? Yes, Denario had never seen the captain's thoughts quite so visibly before. For a few seconds, Vir's ears turned bright red. Then, when he figured out that Denario was joking, he stopped holding his breath. He roared like a lion.

The captain gave Denario such a shoulder slap that, if Denario hadn't been standing so close to Moritz and Reinhard, he would have been knocked to the ground. The two men caught him. Everyone laughed.

“All right, accountant,” said Vir after he finished chuckling. “Stand smart.”

Denario did his best. He only came up to everyone else's chin level, though, even at his straightest.

“Ye came from a big city, sure enough. The fancy tooth brushing and baths and all spoiled ye. But we made a start on fixing ye up for valley life. Ye'll have to do the rest for yerself. If ye don't, ye won't make it back to yer apprentices.”

The words were grim. But they had to be correct. Denario bobbed his head.

“Five boys, sir,” he said.

“That's right.” Vir raised a massive fist. “Don't forget yer mission. Don't let anyone get in yer way. Ye take care of yer own. That's what ye do. Whether yer a low-down bandit like me or a sissy accountant, well, ye got take care of yer own.”

“I will.”

“Even if they're just boys, just apprentices like ye say. I respect that. We Mundredi troops ain't got no use for ye. But maybe, just maybe, that's because yer a good man.”

“Sneaky,” someone said.

“Yeh, sneaky. And that's good.” Vir nodded to himself.

Denario was so surprised that he saluted again. It was a day for that mistake, it seemed. He was doing everything slightly wrong. But Vir smiled at him in a not unkind way.

“Go to it,” he whispered in his voice that carried just exactly far enough.

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Two

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