Sunday, August 5, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 128: A Bandit Accountant, 21.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Four: Message in a Bottle

From his sightings of stars in the night sky, Denario realized that he'd missed the spring equinox. It had happened a few days ago when they'd slept under the cover of trees. He realized that it had to be the explanation for the lights he'd seen in the distant houses. The neighboring farmers had stayed up to celebrate.

Clever Jack hadn't sought out the excuse of parties to drink himself stupid in a town. He wasn't a carouser. Denario was grateful for that but, when he’d missed the event, he’d missed his chance at the traditional prayers of thanks.

Belatedly, he made a sacrifice to Melcurio. It was a small, silver coin that he tossed into the creek. While the riverman labored over the cook fire, Denario pretended to rummage for rocks along the shore. He lobbed a few into the shallows. He finished by heaving the silver piece deep into the center of the current. He was careful that Jack wasn't looking when he cast it. He doubted his partner would dive in to rescue the coin, not even for a precious metal, but misdirection removed the chance.

The accountant knelt with his knees at the edge of the water.

“Melcurio, help me look out for Shekel. He's so smart.” He closed his eyes and pictured the fair-haired boy. “His insights need guidance.”

He likewise prayed for Buck to stay out of girl trouble, for Kroner to finish growing and stop accidentally breaking everything, for Guilder to smile, for Mark to show some interest in math, and for Curo, his partner, to find the patience to deal with them all. At least Curo kept a good sense of humor. He was probably finding it hard to do that in these past few weeks. As long as he didn't panic because Denario was late in returning, everything would be fine.

Denario had planned to be home by spring equinox. He'd sent his last message over a month ago when he was beginning to see irregularities in the Zeigeburg tax accounts. He hadn't understood how far wrong the totals would turn out. He'd warned his partner that 'the tax collectors and assistants have made a mess of things' but no more. In retrospect, that seemed inadequate. The Figgins brothers had under-valued every property. Denario had taken a month to realize how much tax value they'd hidden. At that point, he still hadn't worked out who might be behind it. There were a half-dozen possibilities, not including massive group incompetence, an idea that he'd found believable until the end. When he discovered the golden torcs in the burgher's household, he assumed that the younger brother was cheating the older. He hadn't dreamed that the mayor himself would commit fraud, not when he'd hired an accountant to look through the books and give them a guild seal of approval.

Curo had to be worried by the lack of the third installment on their pay. Add to that the puzzle of why his partner had stopped sending messages via the bank wizards and he could suspect nearly anything. Would he think that Denario had run off with the money? That didn't make sense but Curo's mind worked that way. He'd remember that Denario had announced his engagement to a beautiful woman. When the last of the pay didn't come, he'd guess that Denario had bought her a bunch of expensive presents. That's what Curo had always dreamed of doing. 'The way to a woman's heart is through her pocketbook,' he'd said over and over although, he would be the first to admit, he didn't have the experience to prove it. He had been sweet on Emelie Sensperanza, niece of a guild accountant, but she'd married one of the court doctors before he could get up the nerve to talk to her. Then he'd fallen for Kamilla Bergmann, a neighbor, and he'd gotten as far as giving her some gifts before she married a ship's mate who owned a house near the docks. Now he was sweet on a working class girl, a scribe, although he'd been leery of buying her much since his last efforts had failed with no return.

Together, Denario and Curo didn't have enough money to buy Winkel's counting house. But Curo had plenty for everything else. If Winkel's cousin showed up and tried to claim the building, Curo could drive a bargain. The cousin would take his time making an appearance. He had his own farmlands. He had no use for the building. Of course, the place represented a windfall profit. If Denario could get there in time, he intended to see if the man would barter services for it rather than cash that would end up taxed at city rates. It was an idea he'd picked up in his trip through the Mundredi lands.

“Yes, and Curo most of all.” It was a late wish, he knew. “Let him keep his wits until I return. Then there's Carinde Vogel. I miss her. I wish I could get another letter from her.”

That little girl was the only natural mathematician he'd met in months. She might not be in a league with the best, like Shekel and Guilder, but few were. Toward the end of his life, Winkel had been gifted at finding apprentices. Cari was better than most of them already. She was the only person around who wasn't bored by his discussions of math or geometry. He wished he could talk with her.

“Thanks to all of the water spirits who have guided us so far,” he said because he knew Jack was listening. Anyway, it didn't hurt to be polite to the locals.

He sifted through his pack to find a second sacrifice. He didn't find an appropriate object but he did locate a dried pig's ear, part of his pay from Pharts Bad. That made him wonder how Senli, Olga, and Hummel were doing. He sighed. Denario hadn't seen any young men who fit the description of Senli's sons. Nowadays, he was meeting Kilmun tribesmen fairly regularly. There was a chance he’d hear news of dark-skinned men, perhaps as farmhands, adopted sons, or even as still-enslaved book keepers like their mother, since she'd taught them in her style.

He tossed the pig's ear into the stream with a wish for all of those folks, especially the missing boys. Then he rose. His knuckles brushed the mud from his knees.

“Pecunia,” he breathed. He cursed to himself. He'd forgotten about her. In a flash of guilt, he scrambled back into prayer position. He hoped she was fine. He didn't see how any of her letters could reach him on the creek, though, so he didn't bother asking.

When he rose again, he felt that he'd covered all of the angles except maybe for his past acquaintances with small gods, Glaistig, Winkel's ghost, and the Mundredi army. He intoned a few blessings for all of them and, at the end, added a prayer for Jack Lasker to get them through the magical lands downstream.

“Why not say a blessing for the alligators while you're at it?” grumbled Jack. From his cynical smile, he seemed more amused than anything. He paused, ladle in hand, and shifted his position by the fire so that the wind didn't blow smoke into his eyes.

“Fine. By all the gods may they sleep well. Preferably, they should do it the whole time we're passing by.”

“Fair enough.” The older fellow rubbed his brown beard. He kept it trimmed close and neat, much as he maintained his hair and his rafts. He had an orderly system for survival and he stuck to it. He didn't tolerate lazy habits or sloppy thinking. “Fish in the stew pot again tonight.”

“I've got pepper.”

“Ah.” His eyes crinkled. “Ya're the best hire I ever made.”

They settled down to their meal, devised mostly from Jack's supplies and today's catch, as per their arrangement. Denario added spice and what looked like the next-to-last helping of his cabbage from Ruin Thal. They sat facing the water, as was Jack's custom if they didn't take their meal on the boats. That was how they noticed the bottles drifting in, two of them, glazed dark green. Unfortunately, they'd camped on the Kilmun riverbank, as Jack said they'd be doing for most of the reminder of their trip. The bottles floated down the other side along the Mundredi shore. One of them bounced against a fallen tree. Denario had needed to exert himself to dock the rafts away from that tree. It was a huge one that fell from a raised bank and blocked half of the creek. The bottle, though, slid along its algae-covered trunk. Bump by bump, it crossed the water towards them. The combination of current and tree guided it to the corner of the second raft.

Denario set down his bowl. Jack grinned.

“It's not one of mine,” he said. “Do ya think it's from your girl?”

He'd prayed for it, hadn't he? Denario hopped onto the lead raft, which was firmly ashore, only to grab the punt. He stalked the gunwhales, stick in hand. He managed the distance from raft to raft by virtue of the fact that neither was moving. Then he had to sprint in order to reach the far corner in time. He smacked the water with the length of the punt. He slashed again and twisted. Barely, he halted the bottle's progress. It hadn't gotten away.

“Don't break it!” Jack warned from the shore.

More gently, Denario stroked the punt across the top of the corked vessel. Once, twice, three times, four … and he brought it within his reach. Immediately, he switched the punt into his left hand. He dropped it behind him as he reached out with his right. His hand dunked into the creek and pulled up the bottle on the first go.

“Huh.” He lifted it to the light of the evening sun. Not much showed through the ceramic. The surface felt thin but all he could make out was a shadow inside. It could have been cast by a roll of paper tied with a ribbon. “This is a funny method of delivering messages. Do I have to hit it against a rock?”

“Holy whatever ya was saying before, no. Bring it here.”

“Holy Melcurio,” Denario corrected. He eyed the other bottle, which had slipped under the three trunk next to the opposite shore. There was no hope of catching that one. Maybe he would come across it later if it snagged downstream.

When he reached the Kilmun bank, he discovered that the riverman didn't want the bottle right away. He waved it off, more concerned with the stew. Denario took a minute to inspect the prize. The balance of it was odd. It had been made heavy on the bottom and light on the top. That had to be because it was never meant to hold wine or beer. From the beginning, it had been made to float. Also, the plug in it was a cheap one. It looked like a knob of pine fitted with hot wax. Under the cover of grit and slime, Denario had mistaken it for a wine cork. He jostled it back and forth to loosen the wax. A second later, the plug came out.

“Can't wait, eh?” Jack nodded.

“Do I have to?”

The boatman grabbed a sturdy stick from the logpile and slipped it under the handle of his stew pot. After testing the balance of the pot, he lifted it out of the fire. He set it in a shallow bowl shape he'd scooped out of the sand. The broth calmed from its boil.

The nimble man wiped ash from his hands and picked up a twig. It was the right size for prying things out through the narrow neck of the found bottle. Denario handed it over without a word.

“It's parchment.” Jack put his eye to the hole before he began.

“Not paper?”

“Nope. We're lucky it's not birchbark. That happens and it's hard to get the birch rolls out without cracking them. Folks around here know how to make it and they know how to dry vellum. But they don't know paper. They have to buy or barter it so they think it's precious.” He started to wriggle the twig into the bottle. On the second try, he speared the tube of parchment through its hollow middle. He hooked it with a twist and pulled. “Does your girl have the means?”

“Yes, I gave her some parchment.”

“How much?” When Denario told him, Jack whistled. “Got it. Here, the tip is out. Grab on. Watch out for the rag tie.”

The scroll had a loop of rag around it. That held it together. But a knot in the rag threatened to block removal of the message. It was a problem Denario solved, after two failed tugs, by slipping the scroll out of the knot. He was about to poke the cloth back into the bottle but Jack hissed. Instead, he pinched it by a thread, pulled it out, and handed it to Jack, who sniffed.

“Smells a bit like turpentine. It's got a smudge of tar.”

Denario turned the scroll on its side and unwound it. To his dismay, he saw that the writing was primitive pictographs. There were a few words in the old alphabet, too, between the pictures, but they were badly misspelled. Someone didn't know how to use vowels. The same someone had smudged his fingers with ink, too, and trailed them on the corners of the page. This wasn't a note from Carinde, not even a transcribed one. What was it? He stooped his neck until his nose almost touched the writing. Each pictograph looked a bit like a tribal tattoo mark.

“What is this? An ox?” He showed the text to Jack.

“Give me a moment.” The senior fellow tugged the scrap from Denario's hand with a knowing grin. “Not so easy when it's from a farmer, is it? Sorry that it's not your girl. But a local message or really, any message, is important. There's money in them. These folks who can barely read, let alone write, make each one of them a puzzle.”

“Can you figure them out?”

“Almost every time.” Jack rubbed his close-cut beard. “Ah. This one is meant to be sounded aloud. It's about a count. Is that right? A counting man?”

“An accountant?”

“Very funny. Except, I think you're right. Huh. It's a hideous accountant.”

“You're making that up.” He patted his face. Although he'd never liked his nose, other people didn't seem to think it was so bad they had to tell the whole world.

“It's written down. Oh, ugly accountant, not hideous. That's the ox. Ox-ly means ugly. Important difference.” The boatman nodded. He gave Denario a smile that was half-knowing but half-amazed, too. “This fellow didn't know how to write Oggli. Get it? He didn't have a picture to represent your city and he didn't know the spelling. This is his way of putting it.”

“Great,” said Denario, feeling thoroughly deflated. “So he's telling everyone I'm ugly.”

“He's telling all of his relatives that you're a genius. I think he must be a fellow who gave you some debtor sticks to read. Remember after unloading those pickles? This would be the chubby man. From what he writes here, he's heard about your work with the pumps for the cooper.”

“Water screws,” he corrected.

“He says they're working and that his dad and his cousins ought to hire you to teach math lessons to the village of Killem Thal.”

“That's not so bad.”

“Might be some money out of this.”

“Do you think ...” Denario scratched himself. He felt sorry that this wasn't a letter from Cari but really, it was positive in its way. “Do you think I should put it back in the water?”

“Is that even a question?” said the boatman. “Yes, and we should launch some messages of our own. But after dinner.”

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