Chapter Sporadic Groups
Scene Two: This is the Trap
At the dock in front of East Hogsli, the accountant found himself sniffing suspiciously at a cup of peach beer that Clever Jack had handed to him. He and the boatman were discussing what could be done about Goyle. The fellow’s right leg looked hopeless. Even if it didn’t need cut off, Goyle wouldn’t be able to walk. When the rafts arrived in Oupenli only two towns downstream, the crippled man would be stranded.
“Brand says he’s going to take his other man, Schmurter, and follow the dwarfs west from the city.”
“That’s back up the road that my carriage took to Zeigeburg.”
“Right, there’s only one good way. They’ll travel on foot.”
“Definitely no Goyle, then.” When a sigh, Denario leaned back and took a swig of beer. His tongue rolled around in his mouth. It was an odd taste, more sour than a beer made from peaches should be. But it was better than the local water.
A broad-shouldered man strolled up to them on the chalky path. The metal buttons on his tunic marked him as important. His beard, although short, covered most of his face. It was entirely unlike a dwarf beard, Denario mused. Trailing behind this important man came the short, pot-bellied vendor who had sold them the beer barrels.
“Are you Jack’s accountant?” the larger man boomed. He snapped out his right hand to shake.
“Denario,” he replied. He switched his beer between hands and reached to accept the welcome. “Accountant of Oggli, yes.”
“It’s true!” The shake became almost furious. “My name is Jakob Seidel. I’m the mayor of East Hogsli.”
“What happened to the old mayor, Dickie Muller?” Jack interjected.
Jakob hesitated. “He died. Our knight didn’t appoint anyone to replace him, either, although his squire was there at the time to do it. Instead, the town voted me in, those in the town hall anyway, and Sir Negri’s secretary wrote to me to say that the knight would likely approve. It depends on the tax rolls this fall.”
“If you need the accountant for taxes, forget it.” Jack waved off the idea. “He can’t stay.”
“I only need him to take a look at our records. Really, I need a book keeper, not a full accountant. The Oggli Accounting Guild wage is terrible, too high for the likes of small towns.”
“Are we interested, Jack?” Denario smiled to his friend and business agent.
“Nah.” Jack clapped the mayor on the shoulder. “This is the best accountant in the land, Seidel. He doesn’t work for book keeper wages. Anyway, he’s rich. One of these rafts is his.”
The mayor grimaced at the heavily laden barges. The accountant noted that Jack didn’t reveal the fact that the cargo on every raft belonged to the senior riverman.
“It’s life or death.” The mayor’s lips tightened. “Doesn’t the Oggli guild take an interest in the reckoners living in Ogglian territories?”
“Well, Sir Negri’s secretary wants me to fix our records or hang our reckoner. I would swear our man, Koen, is harmless. And honest. It’s just that the system he inherited is old. There seems to be a way to cheat it. Would you audit Koen? It would clear my conscience one way or the other.”
Denario had to set his drink down. This was guild business. He paced for a few seconds, away from the other two men and back.
From the first they’d met, Winkel had insisted that reckoners, computers, clerks, book keepers, and accountants should never be punished except as the result of an audit. It was technically a rule of the land. It had been decreed by the Duke of Faschnaught and Ogglia, back when that had been one person, and it had been verified in this generation by the Marquis.
Master Winkel had enforced the rule by filing suit against the Count of West Ogglia for hanging a book keeper. In a horrible surprise for the nobility, Winkel had won. He’d argued to the point of law, which was indisputable, and he got the benefit of the count turning in an undersized tax collection to the Marquis de Oggli that year. The case had been heard in the court of the marquis.
As trials went, this one was brief. The marquis had sat in. He’d spent most of his time berating the solicitor for the Count of West Ogglia, referring to his various counts and barons as idiots, incompetents, half-wits, and criminals, and he concluded that they all deserved a stiff fine or a hard ass-kicking, maybe both. The judge, who was sitting on the left of the marquis, got the message and ruled correctly. After a glance at his boss, he’d also ordered an ‘audit of the count, the entire county, and all of his barons.’
That, oddly enough, had not resulted in additional enemies for the accounting guild. Instead of slandering guild members, the barons at the state dinner that night poked fun at their own count and sang a rude song about him. They explained to his face that he should have settled with Winkel before the matter came to trial. Then they would be in no trouble. The count’s face flushed and he tried to shove one of the barons, who promptly pushed back and knocked the older fellow back into his seat. Then the count, humiliated, hadn’t even threatened them. He left with his two senior knights as soon as he could find an excuse. His remaining staff stayed for the juggling acts and the music. They drank, sang, and danced with the impertinent barons and their knights.
“Jack,” Denario hissed. “I have to go.”
“Don’t be daft.” The taller man leaned his bald head close. He breathed his words. “Remember what our sireni friend said.”
“I know that this is the trap.” The accountant shook his head over his own foolishness. “But I can’t let them hang a reckoner without a guild audit. We’re in West Ogglia. This is serious. The town can’t overturn a rule my master fought to uphold.”
“Damn right it’s serious.” Jack found that he had to put down his drink, too. It took him visible effort to not slam the mug on the stump. “These aren’t back-woods, mayor’s-cousin bean counters. This town has connections to power. When the folks don’t like you, and they won’t, they’ll write to their knight. The knight will call on his baron. You could be arrested anywhere between here and home.”
“If they tell their knight that I turned down the offer to audit, that’s going to be seen as permission to convict and hang reckoners, computers, clerks, and book keepers all over this barony.”
“That’s not your problem.”
“I’m the accountant on the spot. Look, I see you follow the rules of the riverman’s guild. You made me set aside a tenth of my rower’s pay for them.”
“I had to, since we’re going to Oupenli. They collect the dues there. But otherwise I don’t stay within the guild laws so much. I follow them when I have to do it or get caught.”
“I’m the first member of the accounting guild to pass through East Hogsli. What do you think will happen if I turn down the audit? Don’t you think news will get back and I’ll be caught?”
“Well, could be.” Jack tilted his head, his eye sockets in shadow as he considered the consequences. In West Ogglia, laws were complicated. Denario could tell that they were both trying to figure out the legal and human entanglements. He sighed at the prospect of a trap. It seemed all too likely. But he shook himself and gave up worrying.
“Besides,” he said with a wave of his hand. “It’s the right thing.”
“There!” Jack jabbed the air. His face rose to the light. His eyes glinted. “That’s the real reason. It worries me, Den. Men get killed doing the right thing.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“I’m your agent. I set the price.”
“But,” the accountant insisted, “I’ve got to go.”
“Maybe. I’ll try to keep it in mind.”
Clever Jack ambled over to the mayor of East Hogsli and hitched up the rope that served as his belt. His hand went to the docking stump to find his cup. He nodded to the beer man as he sipped. Jack didn’t even have to start the negotiation with Jakob Seidel. Seidel made an opening offer. The riverman merely shook his head no.
Within a minute, Seidel’s face started to turn pink. His arms cut through the air to emphasize his declarations of poverty. Maybe that was just Seidel being a good negotiator. But if so, he was out-classed and out-maneuvered by Jack. The boatman had a better position. He could set the price for what the mayor wanted and he didn’t mind saying no. With a calm expression, he shook his head, a sad grin on his face.
Denario leaned close enough to overhear the first round of bickering, during which Seidel agreed to the full price of the audit. The fellow walked away when Jack demanded the money up front. But in less than a minute, he returned for a second round. In that one, Clever Jack demanded the money plus a town guard for the accountant plus free room and board, to which the mayor agreed immediately. Denario listened to those details as he started to unpack and re-pack his accounting supplies. Then the boatman said the town would have to provide room and board for three accounting assistants appointed by Jack from his crew.
At that, the mayor stomped away again. Denario didn’t stop his packing. He wasn’t fooled. Sure enough, Seidel didn’t even get out of sight before he turned around. He marched back with the pale beer man trembling, wide-eyed in astonishment, behind him.
As the negotiations continued, Denario decided that he should take Jack and two dwarfs. The dwarf chief had sidled up to the corner of the raft so as to overhear as clearly as the accountant. Denario stepped in his direction.
“Boldor,” he said. “Could you spare Ulf and Torgrim for this?”
“Hmph.” The stout fellow stroked his beard. He had learned something of human bargaining. “Ulf can provide protection. But the other will be Ragna if our master boatman permits.”
“Ragna?” the accountant stood straight for a moment. He tried to understand.
“He is a great healer. He has business in town. If you must go despite the warning you’ve been given, master accountant, we must think about everyone’s protection. Ragna will improve the health of East Hogsli. That will win a few hearts. He may also save your life, of course, if it comes to violence, but he would do it in a different way from your other assistants.”
The accountant bowed. “You are a wise chief.”
“Now, now.” The dwarf spread out his hand in a magnanimous gesture. Although he seemed to be brushing off thanks, there was a smile on his lips. “It’s not a finished arrangement. If we are to stay even for a single night, we should do it with our truest intent. Jofrid will set up his forge. The local smith will pay for special knowledge or for special tools, I’m sure.”
“What should we do about the trap?” Denario didn’t feel any shame in asking. He had acted strategically once or twice but Boldor might be the better thinker in that respect.
“Tarktich is shrewd.” The chief sighed. “Unlike Jack, the siren lives in this area and can see things that the river master does not.”
“That’s my thought, yes. He’s got to be right. Yet I can’t let the reckoner be hung.”
Boldor gave the briefest glance to his own clothes, which were as good as armor to anyone but a dwarf. The steel bands in his brigandine looked perfect. Then his discerning eye fell to the accountant. Perhaps Denario wasn’t wearing the proper gear or something about his tunic looked slipshod. The chief motioned to Dodni, who caught the eye of another dwarf. They came over and, after a glance from their leader, turned to give the accountant similar inspections. They tugged their beards, looking skeptical.
“None of us know the situation in town,” Boldor continued. He motioned to the others. “We must equip ourselves. And we must have a method of sending messages. Our priest understands such codes. So does Dodni. Speak to them before you leave.”
“Yes, chief.” That was sensible.
Dodni left for a moment to fetch his brother, the dark dwarf, whom Boldor had learned to call ‘the priest,’ although not because he was one. Heilgar couldn’t be an actual dwarf priest anymore, apparently, because he had come above ground. That was the rule. But Heilgar had been studying for the dwarfish priesthood and Boldor had learned to ignore the dwarf rules for the sake of giving his companion respect as they traveled. Humans understood the title of priest, whereas the dwarf clerical positions of Light-Bringer, Breather, and Contemplator, among others, didn’t seem to have matches in the above-ground world.
On the shore, behind Boldor, the negotiations ended. Mayor Seidel nodded. His pale lips pressed tight. He was resolved. Next to him, the curly-headed beer man stood, mouth open. Clever Jack didn’t move.
Seidel stuck out his arm. Jack sighed. He glanced at his right hand. Then he lifted it and shook with the mayor. He nodded. The mayor gave him a smile that didn’t look entirely forced. The two of them, together, turned their heads toward the rafts.
The river master noticed the accountant. He released the mayor’s hand and waved. The deal was done.
Next: Chapter Twenty-Six, Scene Three