Sunday, January 29, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 65: A Bandit Accountant, 11.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow
Scene One: Facts Explained

Morning brought a crisp feel to the air. Denario sniffed. It smelled as if there should have been a frost. But it was probably too late in the spring for that. He kicked and rolled out of bed. After he dressed, he descended his lonely staircase, careful to miss the snares he'd set before. The sun hadn't quite risen. There was barely a blue-gold glimmer over the eastern mountains. Yet when he reached the front door of the counting house, he found that the place was already bright. The book keepers, both of them, had risen to build a stove fire and light candles.

“Good morning, Master Denario,” said Senli in a clear, almost cheerful voice. Fire cast a warm glow over the shelves, stacks, pots, and tables.

A minute behind Denario, Olga Clumpi reported to work with two of her friends in tow, both elderly women in thick, wool cloaks. They'd brought steaming bowls of hot porridge for breakfast. Senli was so touched that she didn't know what to say. She made a complicated and confused curtsy. Or was it a bow? Hummel stared at the bowl and spoon they'd placed in his hands, bewildered. Maybe no one had fed him breakfast before.

The older women never stopped talking, although the subjects weren't related to accounting. Often it was about the weather, their knees, or the lax morals of young people. They seemed determined to help Olga get off to a good start. However, they had their opinions on creature comforts, too, and they didn't think much of the spices in the kettle Senli that had hung above the fire to make tea. They'd brought their own and added them to the mix.

Mistress Clumpi had worn a severely plain, off-white dress, sensible shoes, a shawl and a headdress. She'd brought a matching shawl and headdress for Senli. As soon as he saw them, Denario understood the effect she'd intended. Unlike the weather or the old ladies' knees, this was an area in which he could take action.

“Keeper Hummel,” he said. He motioned for the little man to get up from his desk. “I understand there's a tailor in town. Do you know where he lives?”

“Yes, sir.”

Denario put down his porridge on the edge of Hummel's desk. He grabbed a scrap of parchment and began writing a note.

“Hurry over to his place and buy us both shirts that are the same color as the women's shawls and headdresses. If the man makes hats or skull caps, buy those. They need to be of the same color, too.”

“But ...”

“I don't know how I'll make it work with my Ogglian guild reds but we'll find a way.”

“But people will see me without my chains!”

“That's right!” Denario pushed the note into Hummel's sweaty hands. As a concession, he added, “Show the note if anyone gives you trouble. And tell the tailor to come on over to get the best pick of his trade items.”

“Yes, Master Denario.” Hummel bobbed his head. He stumbled out the door, full of butter and oats but seemingly not too tired or terrified to carry out his simple deed.

That was how all of the book keepers came to be in uniform before the burghers arrived. Denario and Hummel had just changed into their off-whites. Even better, two muleteers had arrived with otter furs to trade for tin. That kept everyone busy with the basic counting and judging. Olga Clumpi was in the midst of her first official negotiation for the town when a short, heavy-set man poked his head in the the main door.

The book keepers stiffened. They didn't like the burgher. Denario recognized that the strong-jawed, double-chinned visage belonged to the man who had been introduced two days before as Vernon Dumm. After a brief apology to the muleteers and Olga Clumpi, who didn't need him, Denario marched over to meet Dumm.

Whereas Hummel looked smaller than he was, Dumm seemed bigger. He matched the height of the book keeper, no more, but something about his presence took up a lot more room. He wore layers of heavy linen over his torso. His breeches looked plain, not much more than sack cloth. His cloak had a hood but he'd pulled it off to reveal his severely short hair. His head was shaped like a brick. He saw the accountant coming for him and stepped into the room like he was ready for a fight, arms at his sides, cloak pulled back to reveal a sheathed dagger at his belt.

Denario didn't blame him. He'd worn his baselard today in case he faced something like this. But smiled at the tiny blade Dumm had chosen.

“Burgher Dumm,” he said. His eyes swiveled to the right as a tall figure stepped in behind the first man. “And Burgher Haphnaught, I see. I gather the mayor had a chance to talk with you.”

“Accountant,” said Burgher Dumm. He hesitated, unsure of how to respond. He gave the appearance of someone who had come with a prepared speech but had forgotten the lines.

“Master Denario,” rumbled the deeper voice of Mark Haphnaught. His pale, spotted face was crowned with grey hair. His eyebrows were as fuzzy as milkweed. He turned his stern look on his fellow burgher but not on the accountant or book keepers.

“Oh, right.” Vernon tugged on his pants to pull them up over his impressive belly. “I understand you've discovered thefts from the warehouse.”

The boldness of the words made Denario step back for a moment. Just a few months ago, he wouldn't have had anything to say to a man like Dumm. Was the burgher going to pretend that he hadn't taken anything? Was he going to blame the thefts on the book keepers? That would be ridiculous. A bark of laughter escaped Denario. His reaction surprised the burghers.

“Oh, yes. I know who took what,” Denario motioned Vernon Dumm toward a stool. He gestured to burgher Haphnaught, too, who seemed strong and alert but was in fact the first grey-haired man that Denario had met in the last twenty or so Mundredi towns. Old men and young women were both in short supply in these valleys. “Everyone else knows who took things, too.”

“Who knows?” demanded Dumm. His voice dropped from a shout to a whisper. He grunted and took the seat offered to him. “Who's heard what you've been saying?”

This was a question Denario had thought about during the night. He knew his answer.

“Everyone important to you,” he said. “The mayor, of course. The mine supervisor. The other town leaders know. Our book keepers are aware, obviously, including Mistress Clumpi.”

“My gods!” The stout man scruntched lower on his stool. He was nearly spherical for a moment. His fingers went to his neck as if he were thinking about being hanged. “And wait, wait. Olga Clumpi, she's a book keeper now? She's certainly not a town leader. That woman can't keep a secret.”

“I expect … not.” Denario drummed his fingers. “Well, that's your problem. I suppose a polite talk with her might be in order. Very polite, you understand.”

“But ...”

“You did give a gift to her church, didn't you?”

“I gave to all the churches and temples this year.” Vernon looked to his senior, Mark Haphnaught. The elder burgher's face remained stern. “Every burgher gave something.”

Denario nodded. “It might be good to remind her of that.”

“The mayor,” harumphed Haphnaught as if reminding the other man of his lines, “seemed to feel that the town was in danger. Can you prove that?”

“Easily enough.” Denario motioned toward the negotiation between the book keepers and the muleteers. All of the people involved had been sneaking looks at him anyway. It wasn't hard to catch Senli's attention. “Keeper, will you bring the new scroll I started yesterday? Also another stool to rest it on would be welcome.”

It only took a few minutes for Denario to explain, as he'd done last night, precisely how the town had been driving away business. He showed the two burghers what the consequences would be. Everyone else could overhear, of course. Even the counting house guard, who Denario had bribed with soup from Mistress Clumpi, listened in. The burghers seemed shocked at first. But their dismay turned quickly into anger – with each other, with the rest of the burghers, and with the accountant. Denario had to repeat himself to be heard over their bickering. He named the caravans that had gone missing. He took the burghers on a walk through the inventory so that they could see for themselves the lack of food stores.

Really, they should have seen this coming. Only their sense of denial, of believing things would always be the way they'd been, had kept them from seeing the trends.

After they returned from their walk-through, Denario sensed that Burgher Haphnaught was still skeptical. He didn't have a chance to reiterate his case, though. The mayor, Jack Quimbi, staggered in through the front door.

“Mayor? You look awful,” Denario said as he strode over to greet Jack. He stuck out his hand before he realized he was being a bit too honest. “I mean, awfully tired. You look tired.”

“I didn't get much sleep last night,” the mayor mumbled. “First there was you. Then I spoke to a few burghers. Later, the gate guards woke me to say that they turned away some strange armed men at the gates. They didn't even recognize the clan signs on those fighters. The tribe markings were all Raduar. One of them looked sick.”

“That's bad.” Denario's memory flashed back to the injured Raduar he'd seen. There had been no prisoners, no quarter, but there had been reports of a few escapes. The traitor Piotr was among them. “But it's not unexpected, surely. Vir did warn you.”

“Finally, they woke me before dawn to tell me that they'd seen a caravan go by.”

“That's good news, then.”

“No! It's bad news. Why would a caravan drive past us?”

“Because you've been cheating them?”

That made for a long look between the mayor and the burghers. No one seemed happy with anyone else. On the other hand, no one was drawing a weapon on Denario at the moment.

“That could be it,” the mayor allowed after a while. “The guards said the caravan looked headed to Timberburg.”

“What have they got in Timberburg?”

“I don't know.”

“Granite,” grumbled Haphnaught. “No copper.”

“Oh, I've heard they have copper,” interrupted Vernon Dumm. “Of course it's ours, really. It's the scrap ore that we let sit out. We even paid some mule drivers to dump a bunch of it outside of town.”

“Would anyone in Timberberg know how to turn that kind of scrap ore into a useful metal?”

“They might. We've had any number of copper smiths and tin smiths come in. Half a dozen, at least. Not all have stayed. We can't employ everyone.”

“So there must be smiths in nearby towns. They probably buy from you. And some of them know how to use the scrap ore. Has there been a lot of scrap?”

The mayor nodded glumly.

“Maybe we should go to war with Timberburg?” suggested Burgher Haphnaught. He rubbed his gray-stubbled chin. “That would keep them away from our scrap heaps. I don't know how hard our men would fight, though. We need a mayor who's tough enough to lead them.”

Quimbi paled.

“Wait a moment,” Denario interjected. “As the Raduar and Ogglian forces are closing in, you want to fight with your neighbors? How long would be before someone from a smaller town got the idea of pointing those armies toward Pharts Bad?”

“What proof do we have that any armies are headed this way?” said Haphnaught. “That's just your say-so. You even admit that you haven't seen them yourself.”

For his answer, Denario knelt and drew in the dirt. It didn't take him long to re-create a map of the seven valleys. His problem was that none of the three men had seen a map before. He spent a long time explaining that it was 'like what a bird would see from high above.' Even then, only the mayor seemed to understand the concept.

The accountant tried to use words and numbers to help him. He drew tally marks for the Raduar soldiers, who he put at 280 strong based on what Vir described.

Baron Ankster of Cumbria had at most twenty knights devoted to razing the Mundredi villages, Denario was pretty sure. Those knights came with four or five men at arms each so Denario put their number at 120. They were better armed, of course, than anyone in the valleys, but at the moment their numbers were small. After the Faschnaught war finished, such men-at-arms would become available in the thousands. The knights fought from astride their horses, too, which made them unstoppable except by Vir's trained spearmen. Even then, Denario guessed that the fatality rate among spearmen had to be high.

“So the Raduar are marching to the northeast now?” the mayor pointed to where tally marks had spilled over into Hard Valley. Denario wasn't sure how far the Raduar army had progressed against the Tortuar tribes there.

“Are those bumps you drew supposed to be mountains?” complained Dumm. He put both of his hands on his head. “I don't understand any of this.”

“Well, I don't understand this drawing either,” spat Haphnaught as he crouched down to speak louder to Denario. “But I do know what you said, accountant. Those armies may never get here.”

“That's possible. But I think they will. If they do, you'll have warning. You'll start meeting a lot of refugees first.”

“We're already getting refugees.” The mayor tried his best to use a threatening tone of voice. He glared at Dumm and Haphnaught.

“More of them, maybe? And you'll see scouts.”

“Like last night?” quipped the mayor.

“Well, I already said I think those troops will make it here. You're too rich a target to be ignored.” Denario stood and turned to the burghers, arms outstretched. “But I'm sure, too, that you've got time. From Vir's description, the armies are still distant. Vir's worried about Phart's Bad. But he knows there's time to act. That's why he brought me here.”

Denario was never sure how the two burghers got into an argument. It wasn't anything that Denario had said, really.

They'd talked about how the Ogglian army seemed to be looting caravans. No one seemed too upset about that. Then Dumm tried to blame Haphnaught for their bad relations with the caravans. He thought they should have been willing to come to Phart's Bad despite the looting. The older man turned the accusation back around and said that Dumm had mis-handled the counting house math, had gotten greedy with the merchants, and had been too weak at managing his home life, which had led to 'foolishness' about an extravagant bedroom. The mayor seemed delighted by their falling out. He clapped as Haphnaught scored his points.

A few minutes into their argument, another burgher arrived. He was no taller than Dumm and a good deal less heavy. With him came the mine supervisor, a wiry, dark man who saw what was going on between Dumm and Haphnaught and excused himself to get back to his work. Denario got the impression that the mine supervisor would have cut off a limb to escape. Hadn't he been the boss here before Denario? He should have been curious to stay and see the new boss at work. He obviously regarded the contentious burghers as a source of danger.

“This all started with you, Vernon,” said the other burgher and, at that point, everyone started to blame Burgher Dumm. They talked so fast that Denario couldn't completely follow their conversation. In a minute, Dumm was looking for someone else to blame.

The burgher's gaze fell on Keeper Senli for some reason. Last year around this time, Denario would have frozen in the knowledge that something bad was about to happen. But with a year of help from Curo, Pecunia, and more recently Captain Vir, Denario finally understood that he needed to step forward. He positioned himself between Dumm and Senli.

Red-faced, the burgher yelled at Denario for a minute. It wasn't as bad as Denario had feared.
“And this didn't start with me!” Dumm continued. “This started with your book keepers. If your folks had known who owed what, the town would never have gotten into this mess.”

“I'm sure that's true, Mister Dumm.” Denario resisted making a holy symbol over his chest. Technically, he was lying. But still it could be true. If Dumm and Haphnaught hadn't felt cheated by the first few caravans, they might not have behaved as badly afterwards. And they wouldn't have felt so cheated if they'd known the amounts owed.

“Well, what are you going to do about it?” The portly man rested his fists on his hips. He took a deep breath. Now that Denario had agreed with him, he'd lost his momentum.

“We'll fix our end, Mister Dumm.”

“When? When will you tell us the truth? You should tell us all of it. Can you even tell me yet who owes what?” A snort of derision escape him. He gave a knowing smile. “Of course not.”

“We will. I'll have the counting house straightened out within the week. Whether you burghers get the town straightened out is up to you, Mister Dumm.”

The burgher started to say something in anger but he caught the looks from his fellow town leaders. He shut his mouth. After giving them a defensive, worried grimace, he turned and stomped off down the street. droplets spilled from his beard. They splashed onto the dirt floor by his feet.

Next: Chapter Eleven, Scene Two

No comments:

Post a Comment