Chapter Fifth Triangular Number
Scene Four: Companions“Really,” said Mayor Richter. She wiped the sweat from her brow in the hot, noonday sun. Around them, a gaggle of children warred with one another using wooden hand rakes they'd gotten to do their morning chores. “It's most unseemly of you, Valentina. Travel is not safe, not even for the men.”
“I'll have guards.” Valentina tied the silk sash around her waist. The sash held her dagger. The blade of it was at least two thirds the size of Denario's baselard.
“Yes, but one of them is me,” Denario pointed out. Like the mayor, he wiped his forehead. The day had gotten hot. It had started out as nice. It had been calm and not too dry, no dust in the air, not even from the tilled fields or from the children swatting and kicking in the dirt. The heavy dew had had taken care of that overnight. Even now, the moisture was burning off under the glare of the sun. Unfortunately, enough of it hung around to encourage Denario's body to sweat. “I'm the one who travels with guards, usually. And now I've just sworn to rescue my apprentices, thanks to you. Will that force me to run away when we get into a fight? I probably can't protect you as well as you'd defend yourself.”
“I know how to handle a short blade. And you've traveled a long ways although you're only a book keeper.”
“An accountant,” he corrected automatically.
“So it can't be that hard.”
Denario continued to adjust the straps on his leather hauberk. He'd gotten better about changing in and out of the layers of armor but it was still awkward. He knew he was lucky that most of the pieces were too big.
“Maybe. I'm guessing it's riskier than it looks,” he said. “Plenty of people almost killed me. I'm alive because I'm unimportant.”
“To us, you mean. Not to your apprentices.”
“Yes.” Denario was momentarily stalled by the unexpected words of support. He tightened the top buckle. “But the point is, I don't have much worth stealing. There's no profit in kidnapping me. No one would pay ransom.”
“You have no clan.”
“That's right. And you do. You want to travel while dressed like someone with money. You bear your clan signs on your arms. My lady, I've been shot with arrows four, no, five times so far. I'm wearing thick leather so I'm fine. Barely a scratch. But in that dress of yours, you would have been killed by the first shot.”
“You'll walk in front, then.”
“You should take padding and another weapon, Valentina,” said one of the older burghers. He was dressed not much better than a farmhand today. His light brown robe was stained with grass and dirt. His silk belt included a twist of cheap rope. Like several of the town leaders, he hadn't seemed surprised by the Ansels' determination to travel south. Instead, he'd wondered aloud if other former citizens of South Ackerland would try to return home or to migrate to other towns. “You may run into Sir Fettyrtyr's men, you know.”
“I'll have my husband. He'll have his sword.”
“But no armor,” someone muttered.
“Well, he can't wear the accountant's armor. It's too small.”
“And that would be immoral,” the stout burgher pointed out with just a hint of irritation, “since we've all sworn oaths to send the accountant on his way unharmed.”
“Yes, and that.”
“What I'm saying,” explained the older burgher patiently, “is that you should take a woman's hunting bow. My wife had one. She has no use for it where she's gone now, bless her. I've sent one of my son's little boys to fetch it. She had a quiver of arrows, too, five left in good shape although pretty near fifteen years old.”
“Oh.” Valentina curtsied. She did it perfectly and yet, for a moment, it seemed odd. Denario had expected her to bend at the waist with a half-salute like a Mundredi man.
“You know how to hunt, I hope?”
“I shot a few rabbits as a girl. But I preferred swords and spears. It's not very lady-like of me.”
“Very Thalberg-like, though. I always enjoyed seeing your house compete at the clan games. Your women always won the wrestling. Well, with only a few arrows at your disposal you'll have to practice carefully. The accountant has a hunting bow. I'm sure he can teach you.”
He smiled absent-mindedly at Denario, who did his best to return the expression of confidence. That would be all he needed, he thought, to fail in front of Valentina and Hermann Ansel at a skill they'd learned as children. Denario had been taught to use a theodolite when he was seven but not a hunting bow. He could survey anyone's lands to an error margin of inches. He could measure exactly where in a field anything sat in his line of sight. But he couldn't hit it with an arrow. Valentina must have sensed it. She glanced in his direction and snorted at the idea of him teaching her.
“Have ye been paid enough, accountant?” whispered one of the burghers into Denario's left ear. “Seems like escorting her may be a hardship. I know ye Ogglis and Waldis place importance on coins. We haven't got many but I've brought a few with me today to see ye off.”
Denario had already been paid in brass, more than he deserved. These people were nearly starving to death and they'd filled his backpack with acorn bread and dried meats, too.
“No, you've already been very kind.”
“Here,” the fellow said. He shook hands with Denario as he searched his pockets with his other hand. “Yer our chief's man, somehow, and ye've done well by the town. Take good word of us, will ye? This goes to the temple in Ruin Thal. It's just a bit southwest of Fruhlingsburg.”
Denario remembered that there had been towns with names ending in 'Thal' along his stagecoach route to Ziegberg last fall. So he was approaching those. Thank heavens, he thought, as he understood that he was making progress. It felt like he'd been walking an awfully long time, although it had only been a few weeks. Before he could ask about the villages to the south, however, the burgher pressed a small scroll into his hand. Denario accepted it without hesitation. He was headed to the southwest anyway, in the hope of finding the place ridiculously named No Map Creek.
“Unless I die, I'll take it there myself,” he swore. He made the sign of 8 to show he was serious. The burgher gave him a gap-toothed smile.
“That's the spirit,” he said. “Anyway, Valentina can't be as bad as all that.”
“I'm sure you're right.” She was more fit for travel than he'd been when he left Zeigburg. His problem wouldn't be getting her to keep up. It would be keeping her from harming him. But he had to do it. He wasn't sure how he'd ended up in this situation but Valentina and her husband were taking him in the right direction. Maybe it would work out for the best. “Anyway, I trust Hermann Ansel. He's a good man.”
Hermann had stood off to one side, mostly ignored by the crowd. The spectacle, after all, had come from the announcement that a free woman was going to voluntarily travel between towns without a small army. Hermann had felt humiliated by the announcement, although Denario didn't quite understand why. At least when he heard Denario's words, he stood a little taller.
The Mundredi are picking up weird notions of honor, Denario heard Vir's voice in his head. But it's honor we can't afford.
Denario felt more alien than ever in the throng of two sets of town leaders. He couldn't wait to leave the farmlands behind. He stuffed the coins and scroll into his travel pouch, thanked the burghers and everyone else around him several times, and tried to make his way down the road. Valentina had said he should lead the way, after all.
The mayor grabbed him before he could escape.
“We've been a bit hard on you,” she said as she held him by the elbow. “But it's been a tough year on us. Try to understand.”
Denario wanted to scream that he did understand. How did anyone think he could fail to see the rail-thin children?
“You haven't been paid enough for explaining those maps. And the readings. And you wrote a letter to Vir, I heard, along with letters to a woman named Olga, a woman named Senli, and a woman named Pecunia. You left payment in meat and in copper for a caravan to take it the other way. Now you're taking messages southward for us, too. So are Hermann and Valentina, of course. But they've been paid.”
“You've been very good to me. You gave me a letter of transit.”
“Shh. We don't have any more broken brass, you know. But I do have a few things. I want you to take this.”
She pried the fingers of his fist apart without much effort and sneaked a trinket into his palm.
“It's just a token of my family. It may help you if you show it off in some places although not as much as the coin around your neck. The main thing is, it's silver. If you need to, you can sell it.”
“I wouldn't ...”
“Shh. When you get to Ruin Thal, you can give it to my cousin's cousin there. He's a shopkeeper, name of Udo Vogel. He'll make good on it, see, so it stays in the family.”
“Mayor Richter! Ilse, I ... I'm honored.”
“Of course you are. Because you're a good boy. I can spot the good ones from miles away, you know. The bad ones, too. It's the in-between ones like Wilmit who give me fits.”
“I've done some bad things ...” he began to confess. Of course, she'd heard the stories from him already minus the magical parts.
“Shh,” she said again. She patted his hand. “You've done what you needed to do to stay alive. Now I want you to keep my Valentina alive, too. Promise me that you'll do your best.”
“I do. I mean, I will.”
“Good. Wilmit and his men will see you on your way.”
Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Five