Sunday, January 8, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 63: A Bandit Accountant, 10.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene Five: Broken Chains

Armed with three different sizes of knitting needles, Denario opened the main door to the counting house. He'd seen the lights on through the shuttered windows. He knew at least one of the book keepers was working. That made him feel guilty for being so well fed. For all he knew, he was supposed to arrange for the slaves' dinners now. Well, he hadn't asked to be their master. That wasn't what he'd bargained for.

At their desks, Hummel and Senli sat. They faced away from each other, as usual.

“Where's the guard?” Denario wondered as he stepped in. At the opposite corner of the room, Senli rose. He knew she could hear him. “I was told there was a guard at night. Hells, I met him yesterday. Not a tall man but burly enough and he had some armor.”

“They send him away on gate duty, most nights now,” answered a voice from behind. That was Olga Clumpi. She felt obligated to tag along with him to watch after her needles, she'd said. Anyway, she wanted to satisfy her curiosity. He was counting on that part of her although he still wasn't sure what he hoped to achieve by bringing her here.

“Damn it, look at this place!” He waved his hands at the piles of copper plates and ingots of tin. There was a new stack of otter furs in the middle of the floor, too. A tradesman had stopped by in the afternoon. “Anyone can just walk in at night and take what they want?”

“It's not ... it's a small enough town.” Olga sounded like she didn't quite accept the explanation herself. “We would know ... eventually.”

Senli approached in silence. Her wary gaze seemed to avoid even seeing Olga Clumpi. She bowed her head.

“I reviewed the tallies, master accountant,” she said. Denario opened his mouth to correct her – he was a still just a journeyman – but she continued. “The thefts are all reconciled with the inventory.”

“And now I understand them, too,” mentioned Denario. He led her back in the direction of her desk. “Have you and Hummel taken your evening break?”

“No, sir.” Her lips got tight as she pondered his understanding of the thefts. “Can we go? I have dinner waiting at Small Gods.”

“Not quite yet. You should see this.” He marched to the space between the desks. “Hummel, turn this way. Rise. No, wait, sit back down on your stool. Just prop your legs up on my knee.”

“Master?” Hummel tried to do everything at once and ended up confused. He missed resting his leg on Denario's knee. He nearly fell off his seat.

“Just one heel up, like that.” Denario went down on his right knee with his left one higher to act as a workbench.

“Have you ... did the mayor ...?” Once Hummel saw the knitting needles, he started to panic. It wasn't that he didn't understand Denario's intentions. He did.

“Shut up, Hummel. That's an order. I have some things to explain to all three of you. I'm glad you're here together.” With the largest needle, he dug into the primitive key lock on the shackle. It took only a few seconds to be sure that this device had two pins on springs inside. The springs kept the latch inside closed; the latch kept the shackles locked around the slave's ankle. Two pins were all that kept Hummel in chains. Denario grinned when he was sure. He switched needles and shifted his grip. “You'd better take a look at one another now and think about trust. You'll need to rely on those around you. Because it's going to be the whole town against the three of you for a while.”

“Not the whole town,” Olga said. She struck her fist against her thigh. “Not the whole town, by the gods.”

“The town leaders, then. The ones who've been running this place like their private piggy bank.”

She nodded. Denario could feel one of the pins giving way under pressure from the mid-sized knitting needle. He rolled the biggest needle in his hand and decided it was too thick. He set it down as he held the first pin back and got ready to tackle the second pin in earnest.

“You leave them to me, understand?” He paused as he picked up the smallest needle. He checked their faces. The slaves looked stunned. “If any of the town burghers or the mayor or a priest or priestess or foreman ... if any town leader at all gives you any trouble, you just send them to me.”

“Yes, master,” said Senli.

“But what if they won't go to see you? What if they're afraid of you?” Hummel asked rather sensibly, if oddly to Lamero's ears. It was hard to imagine anyone being afraid of him even if he did walk around with a short sword these days.

“I'll be here in the counting house most of the time. If something bad happens when I'm not around, well, there are three of you now. Someone should always be able to slip away and tell me. I'll stop whatever I'm doing to return.” He rocked on his heels and thought harder.
“Honestly, who are the ones who are going to cause trouble?”

“Burgher Dumm,” said Senli. “And Burgher Hapfnaught.”

“And Mayor Quimbi,” added Hummel.

Denario felt the second pin click. The manacle popped open a little in his hand. Rust on the hinge kept it from opening all the way. He yanked out his baselard and used it as a wedge. Hummel jerked for a moment when he saw the blade leave the sheath. But then he held still for Denario to continue.

“I said I'm going to pay you. All of you. So I am.” He wrenched the manacle open or close enough. Hummel's leg was a mess of sores beneath the iron but he had to ignore that. He pushed the man's right foot off his knee and pulled up the left. “Now look around at the bins and shelves. Because you're going to be paid out of this stock. This is yours to care for. It's part of your job to protect it.”

He liked giving this part of the job to them. No one would understand the details better than these folks.

“Tell me,” he said to Senli and Olga. “Do we need a guard?”

Senli shook her head. She gazed uncertainly at Hummel and at Mistress Clumpi. Neither of them spoke up, so she continued.

“I think ... not yet. We sleep close by. And things aren't bad enough in town for any real trouble. If we close late and open early, we'll be all right. When the Raduar troops get close enough, that's when we'll have to fight looters.”

“When the Raduar or the Ogglian troops come, inventory will be the least of the problems.” Denario shrugged. The first pin of the second lock was nearly rusted solid. He switched to the biggest needle. “So, no guard. What's our next biggest problem, aside from theft?”

“The tiles,” murmured Senli. The other two nodded in agreement.

“That's the other part of your job, Olga. It's not a big part. But at times when you're not negotiating with fur traders or caravan drivers, I need you to return the tile system to the state it was in when your husband died. I'll take it from there.”

“You will?”

“Oh, you'll all help. You're smart. And this kind of work is always interesting.” His voice was much more confident than he was. He listened to himself sounding positively fearless and wondered how much of that was true. “I'm sure you'll have ideas and you can work on it in your spare time as much as you like. But I won't be decoding in spare time. I'll be devoting myself to it entirely. It'll take a week or two.”

He could almost hear Olga Clumpi shaking her head. Senli's hands were trembling, he could see. But he was right. It would take two weeks at the outside or it wouldn't get done.

Just then, the second manacle clicked. The hinges were even rustier than on the first one but he could leverage them with the edge of his sword.

“I ... well ...” stammered Olga. “I don't know about fixing up those tiles but I know the burghers well. They never set Hummel free before. Aren't ye afraid he'll run?”

Denario hardly had to look up. He knew it was the unspoken question in Senli's eyes, too.

“Well, Hummel?” He couldn't help giving the little man a smile as he put the man's leg down. He rose. With a jaunty air that was nearly real, he sheathed his baselard. “You must have a dozen plans for getting away. But you don't look well suited to travel. Do you have a store of dried food? Prepared snares? Canteens? Have you ever lived off the land before?”

“No. No, none of that.”

“You're going to earn your freedom for real, if you stay. You may even like it.” Denario surveyed a corner of the room where he thought he was most likely to discover a problem. “But in exchange, you're going to return the material you've stolen from the warehouse.”

“Sir?” Hummel nervously licked his lips. His eyes, sure enough, drifted to the problem corner, as far from Senli's sleeping corner as was possible.

“I know how it goes, Hummel. They weren't paying you. It's no problem to set a few things aside. That's what people do. So I'm not going to go dig it out. But, in time, as your pay comes in, I expect you to return whatever seems appropriate, whatever makes you honest again.”

“Yes, sir.” He bowed his head.

After a moment or two, the little man started hiccuping. It took Denario another half minute to realize that Hummel was crying. He had to see the tears plopping on that big beard.

“Never been free of shackles in these past six years, sir.” The man raised his arm to cover his face. “Not in any place what owned me.”

Denario felt a lump in his throat. But he wasn't going to give in to it.

“You're good at what you do, Hummel,” he said. “So is Senli. So is Mistress Clumpi. You three have always been able to run this place. The only difference now is that we'll to make sure that everyone knows it. That starts now.”

He couldn't stick around the bearded book keeper another moment without succumbing, so he turned his back. It was getting late. And he still had work to do.

“Are you looking for loyalty from Hummel?” Olga whispered in his right ear. “Because I don't think you're going to get it. He's not a strong man.”

“Everyone gets treated decently while I'm here.” This time, Denario wasn't acting. He wasn't pretending to be like Vir or Alaric. This was him. “Everyone.”

He caught Senli's eyes, too, to make sure that she understood he was including her. Then, with a nod to them both, he took his to leave. He reached the door before Mistress Clumpi called out.

“The mayor goes to bed early,” she said “Not that it's a bad time to see him. Get him while he's tired.”

“Are you a mind reader, Mistress Clumpi?” he stopped and turned to see her smile at him. It was a turtle-ish expression with her head poked forward on her long neck. Her hands were fists on her hips.

He couldn't help returning her war-like grin. Am I enjoying this? he asked himself. Yes, he decided, despite his fear. He was looking forward to confronting the mayor. How odd.

“You're moving awfully fast,” Mistress Clumpi replied. The words were reproachful but her tone radiated approval. Next to her, Senli wrung her hands. Hummel kept his face covered. Watery droplets spilled from his beard. They splashed onto the dirt floor by his feet.

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Six

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