Sunday, January 28, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 108: A Bandit Accountant, 17.8

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Eight: Deal with the Devil

“Then what happened?” said Torsten, head of the Hammer Clan. He had been interrupted as he was training a pair of hunting hounds so he was dressed in his heaviest pants and a light tunic over top, covered in dirt. His arms were shielded by heavy leather gauntlets from which he'd untied the gloves. His left hand rested on his hip.

Beside him and on all sides of Denario stood the other senior men of the Hammer Clan and many of their women. They were in the main hall of the clan, surrounded by whitewashed walls with ample windows, two doors, and armaments that hung from hooks. The late evening sun glowed through the western windows. Even with over two dozen people inside, there was a lot of room, too much for Denario's comfort as he stood alone at the center of attention.

“Well, he was just so ... I'm not sure exactly ...” Denario put his hands to his temples and held himself still. He tried to collect his thoughts. His right hand came away bloody when he removed it. The scar on his head had re-opened. “I-I told your mayor that I'd uncovered accounting errors, as we'd expected, and he laughed at me.”

“And then you pushed him?” The headman strolled over to a tall chair. One of his sons held it out for him. Everyone in the room shifted positions.

“No! I would never do that,” Denario protested.

“But you did.” Torsten hesitated. He put his hand on the back of the chair but he didn't take the seat.

“Yes.” The accountant felt his face flush. “I didn't mean to. I asked where Friedrich had been. I could hear those bodies swaying in the breeze outside my window all day. He'd hung them up. For nothing. For mistakes that amounted to a few pennies. I asked him why. I asked why he'd done that. On top of the killings, he'd left me there as the townspeople were getting ready to rise up for revenge. I could hear them as they shouted.”

Torsten traded glances with some men off to his left. They nodded.

“And what did Friedrich say?” he asked Denario.

“He said those men were dirty and disrespectful and they had it coming. Besides, Sir Fettertyr wanted some Mundredi men hung.”

All around the room, people gasped.

“He admitted it?” The headman almost smiled. A dangerous glint passed through his eyes.

“That's what he said.” Denario lifted his arms. “Is that admitting something? I don't know. But then he said those men were stupid and I was stupid, too.”

“Is that when you pushed him?” said another voice. Denario turned to face it. This was a burly fellow. Next to the burly fellow stood Hermann Ansel. Behind Hermann stood his wife.

“No.” Denario pulled his gaze from the Ansels and back to the fellow who had spoken. “Friedrich said I had hung them, not him. That's ... that's when ...”

“You picked a fight with the mayor.” Torsten snorted. Denario turned to his right in order to face him again.

“I didn't mean to!” Denario wiped his eyes. “I know you must think I'm a fool but I didn't kill those men. I would never have wanted to see anything like that happen. Those men were innocent.”

“Well, I don't know if Zyrich was completely innocent. But the other one ...”

A murmur swept the room as people conferred with their neighbors. Several men spoke quickly and in quiet tones.

“He just came in last year. Lived on the back of the west hill. Good fellow.”

“One of ours?”

“No, Goat Clan. All on his own except for six goats.”

“Ah,” said Torsten, having overheard it all. “Accountant, it's awful of the mayor to kill men to send a message. But still it's a damned lucky thing we had our men coming to pick you up. We need you. The mayor's guards might have killed you.”

“Yes. Thank you for the rescue. It was funny, though ...” Denario rubbed his sore chin. “Those guards let the mayor and I yell and punch each other for a long time before they did anything. They only stepped in when Wilfried started yelling at the mayor, too. Him, they knocked down. When I came to his defense, finally they came after me. That's when I got beaten.”

“You never pulled your knife?”

“No. I wasn't thinking like that. I could tell they weren't trying to kill me.”

“Maybe it's just as well. You didn't do anything too serious. You can go back to work tomorrow and finish.”

“Are you saying the mayor will accept me back?”

“Of course. You're young. And I can see you don't know Friedrich the way I do. He's the forgiving type. Compared to a Hammer man, he’s damned easy. He really had to work himself up into a foul mood to hang those men. It's not something he's done before. Oh, he's hung a few thieves and murderers but that's it. These are the first innocents he'd killed for Sir Fettertyr. So he's furious and he took it out on you.”

“But I gave him a bloody nose. He's going to be angry ...”

“Good. He did worse and he deserved worse.”

“Damned right!” someone shouted.

“Shame on Friedrich Jolli!” said a woman. To Denario's surprise, he recognized that the voice belonged to Valentina Ansel. “He's a coward, having those men hung and then hiding. And then blaming this naive fool as if he'd given the order. Shame!”

A few other women took up the cry of 'shame' and several people talked at once.

“I really would have liked to see the fight,” one of the men drawled, loudly above the noise. A few folks chuckled.

“I would have disappointed you,” Denario said truthfully. Everyone acted like he'd meant to be funny. There was laughter around the edges of the room.

“Just as well, just as well,” the headman bellowed with a grin. “As I said, you'll go back to work tomorrow. I'll make sure of it.”

“That will take some persuasive talking, I think.”

“Hah.” Torsten waved off the problem. “Friedrich needs you more than ever. He's killed innocents to try to protect his reputation with Fettertyr. If he can't get you to sign off on his tax report or even if you die and Sir Fettertyr can't talk with you to vouch for your report, what good is your work? Friedrich needs you and your reputation intact. Nothing less will work for him.”

Denario was sorry that Mayor Figgins in Ziegeberg hadn't thought the same way. But Figgins had been a criminal from the start. He hadn't intended to prove his loyalty to his superiors. He'd planned to cheat them.

“My letter to Fettertyr isn't finished,” Denario said as he recalled that he had at least half a sheet of vellum to go.

“Yes, I should talk with Friedrich tonight. The time has come to raise our price.”

“Really?” Denario paused, mouth agape. He'd just reported that the Hammer Clan hadn't paid enough taxes. He'd just gotten into a fight with the mayor. He'd worried about escaping this town with his life. And Torsten was going to demand more money. All he could think was that he didn't understand how negotiations worked.

“Yes, you won't sign off without extra money from him. I'll see to it.”

“But ...” Denario could never have done it himself. He bowed his head. “Thank you, Master Torsten.”

The head of the clan gave him an indulgent smile.

“Oh, the pay from the mayor will pass through my hands,” said Torsten. “You will be thanking me. And the mayor will pay his thanks to me as well. The Hammer clan will come out on top, as it should.”

“As it should,” several of the men and women repeated as if it were a litany. To them, it was.

Denario was still standing in shock when Valentina came forward, her husband half a stride behind. Her expression was so teary-eyed and fierce that his vision flashed back to the moment four days ago when she picked up an axe. She raised her right arm, exactly as she had when she'd looked to him then. But this time she grabbed his shoulder, pulled him close, and hugged him.

He was more beloved for fighting and losing than he was hated for being an accountant. The Mundredi didn't understand math. But they understood honor.

Next: Chapter Eighteen, Scene One

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 107: A Bandit Accountant, 17.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Seven: Preliminary Assessment

By the end of the second day, I achieved a reasonable understanding of the town's tax history. I found 284 taxpayers. Their reports were jumbled together in clan and house records. It took a great deal of time to tease them apart. My master table of free men, carved onto five planks of oak, puts each in a row with amounts declared this year and last. By nightfall, I achieved a simple but complete diagram. There proved to be only 58 serfs in Furlingsburg. They are not slaves but neither are they free, as they are not permitted to move elsewhere. By the duke's edict they can't leave the farms on which they work without prior forgiveness of their families' debts. This is as near to slavery as makes no difference but they pay a form of tax as well, which is seven-eights of what they produce. Naturally, none of the serfs produce finished goods. They can't afford the taxes. The price of the raw materials they need is higher than any profit they can make. So all they can do is grow food to survive.

When Sir Ulrich died without an heir, his estate reverted to Baron Ankster. The baron awarded the farms and the serfs on them to Sir Fettertyr. Fettertyr received many such farms in nearly a dozen towns but serfs are no longer enough to make a knight wealthy. Even seven-eights of their farm output is not much.

According to these records, Sir Fettertyr has executed two men in Furlingsburg, both serfs, one for witchcraft and the other for looking at the knight in a disrespectful manner. He may also have killed a Mundredi farmer according to Wilfried, who says that an unapproved farm was burned to the ground last year, three months before the razing of South Ackerland.

Despite the knight's inheritance of serfs and his treatment of free men, the majority of the town's families are rather happy free farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Many of the Mundredi have looked at their knight disrespectfully and lived. Many have failed in their tax payments, too, as one can expect to discover in an audit. I'm sure that most of the mistakes are honest ones because a full third have resulted in slight over-payments. Mayor Jolli was shocked to discover this. I reassured him that accidental over-payments are normal. He wanted that in writing and so I have provided it for him in a introductory paragraph of the report to Sir Fettertyr.

All of this work on the knight's finances makes me wonder how Sir Fettertyr compares to Vir de Spitze in the eyes of Furlingsburg citizens. Vir has respect among the Mundredi clans and technically, he rules them. Yet many here consider him ruler only of Easy Valley and West Valley and even then, only in name. Their town is considered mostly beyond his reach.

Nevertheless, I have wondered if the citizens here might look to him to deliverer them from oppression? I would say they do. He visited this town more than once when he was a young man. He has friends here. Unfortunately, his contemporaries like Hermann Ansel and Valentina regard him as ineffective, not much more than a bandit. Counter-balancing this is the view of younger men who feel that Vir's defeat of Sir Ulrich makes him a hero.

In the chapel at the back of the great hall of Hammer Clan, there is a picture of Vir under which the word WANTED can be read. Around the edges of the picture, holy symbols have been drawn.

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Eight

Not Even Not Zen 106: A Bandit Accountant, 17.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Six: Warning About Poems

A figure moved through the darkened office. Denario squinted. He concentrated harder on the shadow. Then he realized he was dreaming. If I'm not really here, his sleepy logic told him, I should be able to see better. A moment later, he could. He watched the figure move from bookshelf to bookshelf. There was barely a sound in the room.

As soon as Denario got a view of the visitor's hair, he knew it had to be Winkel. No one had a mop of dark curls quite like his old master. The movement of elbows and hips gave it away, too. Winkel had once admitted that, even as a boy, he had walked with a distinctive gait.

The venerable fellow had dressed in his best, nearly-white tunic and his favorite sandals. He wore a master's robe over the tunic. The sash had come untied so that his torso shone white in the darkness. The double-weave cloth on his arms and back had browned from its original red, as Denario knew from experience. In the shuttered office of the mayor, the robe looked even darker. Master Winkel stroked his beard. He leaned over to read an open page. From his closed mouth came a soft, humming sound as he studied a livestock tally that was a dozen years old and had been of no use in the audit.

For a while, Denario watched the spirit of his former master. Winkel seemed to know he was being observed. He cast a glance in Denario's direction. He made his way toward Denario, in fact, but the haphazard town accounts were his main interest. His long-fingered hands caressed a leather scroll on the top of a pile on the second shelf. He surely wanted to read it but he couldn't move anything. The long-dead man ambled from place to place. He locked his hands behind his back. He found open scrolls and read them. Every now and then, a page rustled as Winkel succeeded in inducing a bit of motion in the records although the sounds were so faint that Denario wasn't sure if they came from him.

Winkel's touch drifted lovingly over a curled page. It traced the pictographs for wheat and for barley. Tallies made him smile. He smacked his lips. After a while, he wandered closer, only a few feet from the desk where Denario had worked all day.

"Shouldn't you be haunting the counting house?" Denario found his voice. "I mean, if you're here at all, I would think our practice is where your duty lies."

Winkel hesitated. A light glinted in his dark pupils.

"Your work is more interesting," he replied. He rested his hand on the top of the farm records stack.

"No it isn't. This stuff wasn't even sorted when I started out."

"Yes. That reminds me." The master nodded to himself. "I have something to tell you."

"Aha," Denario tried to lean in. It didn't work. After all, he was asleep. "You're about to give me a warning."

"What makes you say that?" Winkel backed up.

"I don't know." He threw up his arms. "Because it's what ghosts usually do, I suppose."

"You've been reading too many epic poems. Or is that Kroner?"

"It's Kroner." His master had always been hazy on details like who liked beets and who had living parents. Who liked poetry was one of those things.

"He's been telling you about them, hasn't he? Putting all those ideas about heroism in your head. You shouldn't concern yourself with emotional things. I've told you before, you must concentrate on the math. It's where reality begins. It's where it all ends, too, I'm sure."

"I'm also sure," Denario answered.

"Anyway, I have a warning for you."

"I thought you said no."

"Your assistant, Willhelm ..."


"Such a careless young man." Winkel shook his head. He turned and place his right hand on top of a records stack. "Here, this scroll with no name, the one you deduced must to belong to the Harfelt family."

"Oh, yes. It matched so well with the amounts in the previous year that it could only belong to them."

"He put it in that year!" The words came out in an exasperated sigh.

"In the wrong place?"

"As he was leaving. You told him where to set it down. He dropped it into the wrong stack."

"That's my warning?"


"No dire portents about my journey?" The accountant gazed around at the secret office. Records of truth and lies rose in columns to the ceiling. "No caution against taking a wrong path? No doom of diseases on the waterway or murderers in the forest?"

"How would I know about any of that?" The silhouette scratched his head.

"Can't ghosts predict the future?"

"Not even in epic poems, I believe. You might be thinking of scryers or oracles."

"Perhaps the ghost of an oracle, then ..." His mind couldn't help seeing the potential.

"Den. What did I tell you about the afterlife?"

"That it's probably a scam." He'd memorized that one.

"I did? Yes, I suppose so."

"Also that ghosts are a figments of our imagination."

Winkel opened and closed his translucent mouth as he pondered his past aphorisms.

"Anyway," he muttered. "I had to warn you."

"About a math error I might make in the morning."

At that, the master smiled with relief. "Precisely."

With that, Denario woke up. He rolled onto his side and wiped his mouth. His gaze drifted around his bedroom, which was the altar room at the north end of the meeting hall of the Hammer Clan. His candle had burned out. The lamp in the foyer, beyond his door, still shone.

"Ugh." He flopped back onto his bed. Why can't I dream about great ideas? he wondered. If he were a hero in a poem, he would have been haunted in a dramatic way. His mentor would have been murdered, of course, not fallen ill. The ghost would have warned Denario about a terrible plot against him or something similar.

There had been a terrible plot, of course, but it was done. It would have been foolish to warn him after it was revealed. Anyway, portents and divine epiphanies weren't Winkel's style. For a moment, Denario cursed the unjust lack of poetry in his life. Then he got more sensible and cursed his lack of sleep. He pulled the cover up to his chest.

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Seven

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 105: A Bandit Accountant, 17.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Five: Wealth, Not Money

This is a place that has at least heard of accountants. Nevertheless, the lack of guild means the lack of a school, Denario wrote in his journal. My assistant, Wilfried, can't write more than his initials. He can't read. He doesn't know how to detect fraud in tallies. He accepts all numbers as they're given even when they contradict one another. From year to year, one farmer increased his herd of dairy cows from 15 to 30 but declared that only 2 calves had been born, none traded or inherited. This raised no suspicions in Wilfried, who never checks the old tallies. It's a stretch to call the man a book keeper when he has no books, keeps no master records, and his main qualification for the job is his birth as a second cousin to both Sir Ulrich and Mayor Jolli.

Tax figures have never been reconciled from year to year in Furlingsburg. Wilfried seems shocked by the idea that someone would do so. I found that out on my first day with him. Now I understand why Friedrich Jolli wants to revise his reports to Sir Fettertyr. He'll improve his relationship with the knight. How can updating the town's book keeping do anything else?

Still, there's a limit to how much we can achieve. It isn't practical to read back further than the last two years of tax payments. Even in sorting out the last two years, I took over the mayor's office, most of the hall outside, and part of another second floor room. My assistant moved shelves for me and brought in new ones so we didn't need to lay down leather belts on the stairs. It's amazing how much Friedrich Jolli stored in these heaps. Toward the end of the day, Friedrich and his men brought in a set of wooden tablets that a merchant had delivered to his house. Wealthy folks visit him at home more than they see him in the town hall. He keeps their records in his shed, apparently.

Merchants of the right kind can be rich in Furlingsburg. The same is true for guildsmen and for the Mundredi houses, which are usually two to six home networks, all of the homes related by blood or marriage. The town as a whole is great producer of goods even though it lives under threat from Sir Fettertyr as a result.

Perhaps I should explain my thoughts in that regard.

Once I assumed that nobles didn't understand wealth. Now I suspect that they do. They regard it as a threat. The wealthier that their peasants become, the harder it is for nobles to keep them in their place. They blame the immigrant Mundredi but the greater issue is the rise of the caravans and tradesmen. The Mundredi simply represent a convenient minority of free workers to attack. There are many others as well, some of them too powerful for the nobles to confront. Local guilds, for instance, are led by traditional waldi families. They have good connections and fix prices in their favor. They avoid taxes through barter systems. The knights, meanwhile, rely on their traditional lands farmed by serfs. Those lands have not seen improvement in one hundred years. The rest of the barony continues to bring in new technologies such as ox-plows, horse-plows, yokes, clocks, smithies, dams, and irrigation. But not the serfs. The serfs have not changed their methods.

Irrigation in various forms is known throughout the former Muntabi empire. But here, in Furlingsburg, the serfs seem to have been forgotten it. So it was re-introduced by the free farmers. Mundredi clans practiced step irrigation in the Seven Valleys for as long as they can remember. When they migrated to this area, they turned lands once thought to be useless into lush fields of barley, sometimes supplemented by peas or lentils. They've hunted bears and wolves to near extinction, which has greatly endeared them to the better-established peasants. But that doesn't matter to the knights. What I believe motivates Sir Fettertyr, his baron, and perhaps the Count of West Ogglia is that everyone's lands are improving but theirs. The serfs have not adopted the irrigation techniques, according to Wilfried. It's too much work and too little in return for them because the knights take the profits.

I find it strange that the Mundredi immigrants should be so much more productive than the better established citizens but this appears to be the case. Although the Mundredi had irrigation, they otherwise arrived with sub-standard, primitive technologies for tilling, planting, and crafting. Most of them had no oxen or draft horses when they came. They had to till by hand. Yet in only two generations they've created incomes equal to or exceeding the more established peasant families. How did they do it? Does freedom account for any part of it?

There is a particular case I find revealing and troubling.

The Mundredi Sickel clan, according to a leather rope record about twenty years old, once owned a thriving lamp and candelabra business. They imported enough metal to show up in the records of tradesmen. Making the basic wood forms took effort and the brass fittings were expensive. When taxes rose past a certain point, the clan slowly stopped making lamps, candelabras, or indeed any finished goods. Today I can see in their records that they have no craftsmen. They have become simple, peasant farmers like the more established families. They arrived poor, worked their way up, grew sophisticated, encountered a tax ceiling designed to discourage certain kinds of wealth, and settled back into trading and land-owning.

This makes me wonder: are the knights making their lands poorer? It seems possible. Moreover, it looks like a strategy. Even in the distant past, rather than avail themselves of the advances of the guildsmen and merchants, they murdered the most troublesome of those classes. They strove to keep their peasants poor rather than allow greater equality between peasants and nobility.

That brings me back to a suspicion that the nobles don't understand wealth. Despite what I wrote above, I think they only understand money. The nobles don't see how wealth is generated or how it turns into money.

For instance, a look at Sir Fettertyr's tax code shows that he doesn't comprehend bartering. He taxes his peasants as if they deal in cash. Perhaps they once did. If so, the locals are regressing to barter under the cultural influence of the Mundredi and the tax incentives imposed by their knight. The levy on cash holdings is one-eighth per year, a rate that's as ruinous as it is unenforceable. It relies entirely on spies. How else can authorities know who has coins hidden?

When the knight doesn't collect enough cash through the spy network, he simply demands finished goods from each town's tradesmen. There aren't enough tradesmen to supply what Sir Fettertyr and his superior, Baron Ankster, need to support their wars. As a result, the baron increases his taxes year to year. He's created an environment in which no skilled journeymen will move from Oggli to smaller towns, like Furlingsburg, because the taxes on goods in the farmlands have grown higher than in the cities.

I have not made friends with the mayor by telling him that his tax rates are ridiculous. He is on his knight's side in that regard. The guilds in town give him more trouble than any other groups. He feels they need kept down.

One problem with the rates is that services such as healing, book keeping, and tattooing go untaxed because the knights don't seem to know what to make of them while services such as shoe making and milling, which produce tangible products, are taxed highly. Carting is an unusual case in that it is not taxed in towns but suffers high rates for use of the roads between them.

On top of learning much about the area, I met an excellent ink maker. From him, I learned that tattoo artists are among the wealthiest of Mundredi men. They can accept money and pay no taxes. It was a surprise to me to find that there are women working as tattoo artists as well. My ink maker spoke highly of them. Such women are wealthy and respected. They touch the bodies of other women and it is considered a sacred trust. They are lent in a cautious way from clan to clan when there is a need, such as there seems to be from time to time.

The ink maker and I tested his products on an edge of vellum scroll. They do not produce the cleanest or darkest marks but his pigments will do for the final draft. For the early work, I returned to carving my math in the dirt and in wooden planks. I'll scrape the vellum clean later and use it for the letter to Fettertyr.

I asked Friedrich if I should write to Sir Fettertyr about the corruption in Ziegeburg. I thought Friedrich might be against revealing the problems of another mayor.

'Write, write,' he said. 'Tell your story. Anything to distract from Furlingsburg.'

So I composed a short, formal report on the taxes in Zeigeburg in addition to my other duties.

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Six