Chapter Sporadic Groups
Scene Three: That's Good
“No, there’s no paper.” The mayor raised his hands as they marched. It was as if he were holding bags of something in the air. “The accounts aren’t on parchment, either.”
“Seidel,” Denario remonstrated. “We are in West Ogglia now. All modern records, by law, are kept in one of the four systems approved by the Accounting Guild.”
“Yes, so I’ve heard. And I’ve heard my knight’s response to your rule many times. The same law that mandates written systems also allows for traditional systems to be maintained.”
“That is technically true. But ...” Now the accountant found himself grabbing at the air but he observed the difference between his gestures and those of the mayor. “The accounting law is three generations old, Seidel. How long has your town been using a mechanical system?”
“I wouldn’t call it mechanical, exactly.”
“It’s bags of something, isn’t it?” he said, cynically.
“How did you know?” Seidel’s eyes widened.
“So the guild would classify your method as mechanical.” Denario withheld his sigh. He waved off the explanation of how he knew. It had been by guessing the worst method possible. “You know, just because you’re allowed to do something in a bad way that doesn’t mean you should.”
Seidel frown grew so pronounced that Denario worried that the fellow was about to cry.
“We’ve had gentlemen killed over this, if you must know. Peasants have died, too.”
Rather belatedly, he understood that Seidel’s life had to be on the line. He was an older fellow, at least thirty, but his teeth looked strong. He was many years away from the pains of age and longing for death. When he’d let his friends vote him into this position, he’d taken a risk. He’d made a bet on himself and his ability to put the town right.
“Would you be willing to put your words in writing?” Seidel asked. “For our knight, I mean. He’s not a literate man. That’s why he doesn’t trust ledgers. But his attendants can read and write. They’ll tell him what you say. Who knows? They might persuade him to listen.”
“I know Sir Negri.” He was a tall, brown-eyed man with a scar on his nose and a thick beard. Negri’s hair was mostly black with a few strands of gray. He was a stout knight, a loyalist and a traditionalist. “I’ll compose a reminder from the guild.”
“You know a knight?” Brand, the dread land pirate, stepped away from the group as if offended.
“I know many knights, Brand,” Denario said, glad to irritate the man a bit more. He hadn’t asked for him to come along. “I’ve met those who’ve come to the court in Oggli. They are the most important ones who aren’t free lances.”
After a moment of thought, the other men gave him extra room on the path. In this countryside, even knowing a knight was a dangerous thing. The beer vendor, Bitten, trembled. That was the way he regarded the mention of nobility. Denario was coming to realize that Bitten might be a good example of the remaining East Hogsli peasants. After all, the best and bravest had been killed. The rest lived in fear of their masters, who had executed so many, and of the monster upstream, who had slaughtered them when some knight or squire ordered them into battle against it.
That meant Mayor Seidel, although he seemed to be an ordinary fellow, might prove to be a fount of courage compared to his peers.
In a few minutes, the town of East Hogsli came into view. There were eight buildings made of of split wood or logs, two of them churches, and there were eleven thatch houses visible. Razed plots off to the northeast turned out to be, on closer inspection, places where another pair of thatch houses had stood until recently. They’d been burnt to the ground. In the center of town, a courthouse stood with a gallows in front. Three bodies hung from the rafters.
A pig roamed along the main street, apparently loose from its pen. To the west, one of the wooden houses fronted a fenced yard with animals. There were goats visible, chickens, and another pig.
“Stinking farm town,” Brand muttered. Since Jack wouldn’t leave his rafts, he’d sent the former caravan captain into East Hogsli as the sole human guard. Brand towered above the other men in the group. Even in his faded greatcoat, there was an air of superiority and sophistication about him, a bit like a wine that had gone slightly bad.
“For what gods are the churches?” Denario asked the mayor.
“The big one is for Contadin, our farm god,” Seidel responded as he directed a scowl at Brand. “We need a better harvest this year, urgently, so we can pay our tax. That’s the spire.”
“Humph.” Brand made a disgusted noise.
“The smaller one,” the mayor continued with a gesture, “is for the traveling gods. It has no spire. It gets the same priest. We can only afford the one.”
“I may want to visit the traveling gods.”
“Yes, sir.” Seidel nodded with approval. He liked his visitors to be religious, it seemed. That made sense from a practical point of view. If the town was dying, it would have a harder and harder time getting the attention of local gods. Any sort of worship probably seemed worth a try. “I think the location should be convenient to you, accountant.”
“Damn.” Denario thought for a moment. “You’re about to say that the mechanical book keeping system is kept there, aren’t you? In bags.”
The mayor and the beer man exchanged a glance.
“Why isn’t it kept in the town hall?”
“It was. The former mayor ordered it moved when it started taking up too much room.”
That was likely when the worst of the cheating started, Denario realized.
“When was that?” he asked.
“Back in the double harvest, wasn’t it?” Seidel conferred with Bitten for a while. After they counted multiple summers, witches hanged, duels among the local gentry, visits by their knight, and differently unusual pigs berths, including a litter of one, they at last decided that the book keeping move must have happened fifteen years ago.
“Wonderful,” Denario said.
“That’s good, is it?” asked the mayor in a hopeful tone.
Out of the corner of his vision, the accountant caught Brand rolling his eyes.