Sunday, March 31, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 159: A Bandit Accountant, 27.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Cubed

Scene One: Childhood Incident

Half a minute ago, Denario had been worried about being too soft-hearted to conduct an investigation. Now he realized that he’d been too hard on a boy who had, after all, been beaten. Probably Leonid had been threatened and pressured to other commit crimes for the gentry. Now, as he’d known in his heart had to happen, he’d been caught.

“Leonid,” he said. He didn’t know how to reassure the slave. If the town decided he was someone’s property, he was at the mercy of their whims. “Boy. Get up.”

As Leonid continued his blubbering, looking more and more like a frightened child, Ulf appeared in the doorway to the church. Brand joined a moment later.

It took the newcomers a while to take in the scene but they seemed to understand. The leap in logic couldn’t have been hard. Unfortunately, from the way the two reacted, Brand and Ulf seemed to assume that Denario had done the beating. The difference was that Brand nodded with approval while Ulf sped over to join Ragna at the lad’s side.

They all had to wait for the sobs to subside enough for the boy to breathe.

“No one’s going to hurt you anymore,” Ragna said, perhaps seeing that Ulf had not quite understood. “There are no gentlemen here.”

“We know you were pressed into this crime,” added Denario. “Rise from the floor, Leonid. We need you to tell us who beat you. And why. Explain how this all happened.”

“Huh, huh, huh,” Leonid said. He scooted to his knees. His mouth moved as he tried to speak through his heaving. “Huh, huh, he. He … he bought me!”

“Who did?”

“The gentleman!” He wailed. He leaned back on his feet, still seated, the way a child would. He wiped the dripping tears out of his mouth. “It was Master Grimsli. And then he b-beat me.”

He rolled up one sleeve of his robe. Along his left arm there was a row of fresh bruises, still hot and pink with the centers beginning to swell and purple. One mark, the size of a fist, had started to turn green. The boy had been tortured by someone who was rather expert.

One of the dwarfs, Ulf, grunted in outrage. Ragna merely sighed. It was the sigh that attracted Denario’s attention. It felt to him as if the heavy dwarf had expelled his faith in humanity in that breath. The accountant felt ashamed. He’d seen this sort of thing before. The dwarfs hadn’t. Even many humans never did, of course. When they did see something like it for the first time, their reactions usually surprised Denario. They seemed so shocked and dismayed, sometimes even outraged. He forgot that not everyone knew about this part of life.

Leonid leaned forward on his hands and knees. His legs struggled to move, to get his body upright.

“Was there a record of the transaction, Leonid?” Denario felt that he shouldn’t let the boy’s thoughts run on too far or too fast. He needed to pose questions to occupy his mind. “That is, of your sale to the master?”

“I-I don’t know.” The boy lifted his head as he tried to remember. He lifted into a crouch. “A paper passed between the old Grimsli and young Brumsbeard. I didn’t see what was on it.”

“It was illegal from beginning to end.” For a moment, he thought he’d have to prove that. But he didn’t, not really. He only needed to sway the opinions of the most important people. “We need Jakob Seidel. He’s the main one.”

“Oh, yes.” The deputy had been standing in shock. He seemed to wake from a trance. “I got to go and get the mayor. That’s my duty. Bring in the mayor.”

“Good.”

“It’s a shame. Shame to hang the boy. Don’t want to see it.”

Denario shot out of his chair before a thought entered his head. He looked down to see his knife in his hand. He’d taken it from his belt on instinct.

He pointed it at deputy Voight.

“You watch your mouth.” To the left of Denario’s vision, he could see the dwarfs staring aghast. “This boy isn’t going to hang. You can tell your mayor that. Leonid acted as a slave doing his master’s bidding. If you try to blame this cheating on him, you’ll prove to your knight that you’re the lot of cowards and thieves that he suspects you are.”

“I ...” Voight seemed at a loss for a moment. “I don’t want to see it. Really. I know it’s unfair. How could … how could anyone not see it’s unfair? But Mayor Seidel said the penalty was death. He won’t back down. The old mayor hung those children last year because the priest said they were guilty like men.”

A hiss escaped Ulf’s lips.

“Bring your mayor, then,” said Denario. He returned the knife to his belt. To himself, he dared this town to do more evil.

“I’ll walk with you, Voigt.” There was a twinkle in Brand’s eye as he spoke.

“I know the way.” The deputy’s brow darkened. His lips set into a heavy-looking sulk.

“There are nasty gentlemen about. This is their work. Anyway, Voight, I insist. After all, you are in some danger.”

The deputy paused to think. He must have realized that the person most likely to put a blade in his back was Brand. He also could see that the former caravan master was going to follow anyway, permission or not, and he wasn’t going to be intimidated. The deputy froze. One heavily-booted foot moved forward. He pulled it back. His glance swept the room. He couldn’t find comfort in the gazes that returned.

“Oh, come on.” Voight’s hand rose and fell, his gesture of concession. He marched out into the misty night.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 158: A Bandit Accountant, 26.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene Seven: Clever Boy

“We were too obvious,” Denario grumbled. He unbuckled his sword and tossed it on his makeshift bed next to his accounting tool bag. Next came his hat, which he set by the pillow.

“Nothing like,” answered Brand. A chortle escaped through his mustache. “You could have announced that you were leaving the doors open in the church tonight, winked while you said it, and nudged the closest fellows with your elbow for good measure. They’re going to try. Really, they are.”

Ulf shut the door to the guest house. Ragna peered through the shutters of the window. After what the dwarfs had seen from the gentry, their sense of the danger had grown. They’d paid a local boy a penny to run a message down to their chief asking for reinforcements. The boy had returned from Bolder with a simple command, ‘Follow the seam,’ which apparently meant no change in plan. Oddly, the boy had returned Ragna’s penny. Denario had been puzzled by that part until Brand murmured the obvious, that Boldor had paid the young fellow double to return it. Now Ragna had the same penny to send another message if that was his desire. The dwarfs had a method to send endless messages without carrying more than a few pence.

Ulf, Ragna, and Brand set up their beds on the wooden floor surrounding Denario as they’d done the night before. Ragna made the two men hand over their armor for inspection and, in Brand’s case, for repair.

“What’s this on your brigandine? Rust?” said the dwarf.

“Blood.” Brand leaned down to make sure.

“You shouldn’t have left it. It’s ruining the rivets.” Ragna started to clean the riveted brass buttons that gave Brand the best part of his brigandine protection.

“I don’t like this roof,” said Ulf, hands on his hips, looking up.

“You liked it fine last night,” pointed out Brand.

“That was before I thought about fires.” He pointed. “Dry planks, thatch, and tar on top. We would never build like this underground.”

“Do you have to build roofs when your ceiling is the top of a cave?”

“Caves are wetter than humans know. Still, I take your point. Tar makes for good waterproofing. We dwarfs in Water Mountain use a type of clay. Other dwarfs kingdoms might build differently. Our clay keeps out drips better than tar and does so without the threat of fire when it’s dry.”

Denario thought to ask if it was a special type of clay or regular clay that was specially treated. He’d heard potters go on about different marshes of clay when he was a slave child. When he expressed surprise that there were so many different kinds of material they used, the potters realized he was listening and beat him. Then they sent him to do chores so they could finish their conversation.

“Ulf,” said Brand before Denario could speak, “no one’s going to sneak up on us with a torch. Not a chance.”

“What makes you sure?”

“Because we’re going to take turns watching the small gods church tonight. Remember?”

“Oh.” The dwarf nodded to himself as if he’d forgotten. “I suppose we’ll see anyone who passes between here and the church.”

“Boss, I want to take Ulf to the overlook now.” Brand turned to Denario as he spoke. A grin twitched the corner of his mouth. He probably meant to be sarcastic as he acknowledged that the accountant was in charge.

“Overlook? You mean our tree on the rise behind the hedge?” That was the place they’d surveyed. Denario folded his arms. He pictured looking down on the church from the lowest branch of the tree. “I’ll come along for part of the first shift to see how Koen and that deputy, Voight, have set their guard. After I’ve had a chance to think, I’ll head back and send one of the dwarfs.”

“Right, boss.” The smile faded. Brand didn’t care for the accountant’s close supervision.

Outside, a mist had fallen with the night. The sky above was black except for the glow of the tiny droplets. Those were illuminated by the moon that was otherwise hidden behind the clouds. A few, flickering oil lamps shone in front of the main church. Sconces inside both of the churches added to the gleam in a haphazard way. Beams shone through the half-shuttered windows and illuminated patches of the muddy street. Beyond that, the glow of the mist overwhelmed everything else. The air everywhere in this part of town, especially in front of Small Gods, shimmered.

Brand climbed into his place between two trees. He didn’t make a sound. Denario tried to emulate him. He put his foot directly into a patch of old leaves and froze. To himself, he cursed. Fortunately, the sound didn’t carry. The accountant edged up next to the taller man. He surveyed their position.

The hedge protected them from view. It also presented an obstacle. They would have to run around two bushes to reach the doors of the church. Still, they could see the deputy, Voigt, as he stood outside. He’d kept on his white shirt. It stood out. He paced in front of the open door. Denario saw no other movement and that was troublesome because Koen should have been visible, too. Perhaps the reckoner was watching through one of the tiny windows or he had gotten re-involved with his math. Maybe he’d taken a hidden position to be clever. The sheriff’s deputy would draw the attention of the cheaters who tried to get in. But the reckoner could lurk somewhere and not be available for an arrow shot, a bribe, or a threat from the gentlemen or their servants.

“What if they come with swords drawn and ten men?” Denario wondered.

“That’s most of the gentry,” drawled Brand. “I don’t think they can field that many what with all of their infighting. They’re not on the same side, really.”

“Damn,” Denario muttered. “What if two men walk straight up to the deputy and bribe him?”

“Our best bet when it happens is to kill one of the gentry straight out. Then we can bring the other to justice, as they say. Beat a confession from him. That’s the sort of thing to satisfy the mayors, priests, knights, and all that lot.”

Denario took a moment to contemplate the mindset that lumped those three professions together. The caravan master really was an outsider to most of society.

“Sneakiness is the next favorite way in this town,” Brand continued. “We should watch the church windows. A grown man couldn’t fit through them but they might send a boy.”

Denario nodded. He sat and considered the ways the town gentlemen would try to repair their records before the final day of the audit. Popping a child through a window seemed likely enough but it posed the problem of finding a ten-year-old who could be trained to grab the right bag and hand it over. It might be easier to send an adult through the hatch in the roof. There was a hinged, wooden panel, clearly visible in the ceiling, that had been left over from church construction. It was big enough for grown men. The height of it would require a ladder on the inside or the ability to withstand a hard drop from the hatch onto the benches from above. Also, anyone going up onto the roof would make enough noise to alert the guards.

“If they come through the roof, they’ve already bribed at least one man inside,” the accountant concluded.

“Why not both?”

“What a helpful outlook you have.” With that, Denario climbed down from his spot. He hiked over the marshy field between the Church of the Small Gods and the mayor’s guest house. It took a minute to find the stile that let him climb the pig fence. He nearly turned his ankle on a divot. Fortunately, the pigs were in their pen and no one else was around to witness his near-pratfall.

As he drew near the Seidel home, Denario stopped. He squinted. He could see a figure outside his house door. It was a man, not a dwarf. With a sigh, the accountant drew his sword.

Someone came without a lamp, he realized. He began to stride toward the silvery shape. The visitor had intended to arrive in stealth.

He approached with the worst of intentions, perhaps, but after half a minute Denario saw in the silvery, mist-filled night, that the figure was shaking. He heard a moaning noise. For an instant, he suspected a ghost. The house and its field were next to an area of high background magic, after all. Then he recognized the voice.

“Koen?” he said.

The figure paused.

“Master accountant?” the man replied. It was the reckoner dressed in his pale robe. He did look a bit ghostly. Trembling, Koen stepped off of the wooden platform that raised the hut from the muck.

“Why are you here?” Denario’s mind snapped back to the guarding of the tax records.

“They’re taking my apprentice away, master,” said Koen. He squelched closer in the mud. “They signed him over to me, I swear, years ago. But my paper from the old mayor, Dickie Muller, they say it’s gone missing.”

“Why would anyone care about that?”

“The sheriff says that without the paper, the boy belongs to Master Brumsbeard.” The thin, older men bundled his stick-like fingers into fists. “It’s not fair.”

The sheriff needed to hang, Denario realized. That fellow was entirely in the thrall of the gentry. Maybe he could be politely retired but it was getting harder and harder for Denario to feel polite.

“It’s not fair,” the reckoner repeated. He stood three feet away, breathing heavily.

“What does Voight say?” Denario asked out of curiosity.

“The deputy? I don’t suppose that he can know yet.” Koen wiped his face with his sleeve. “His boss didn’t say a word to him. And now Voight will be wondering where Leonid is. And me. He doesn’t know why the sheriff came to take me.”

“I see.” The accountant glanced back across the dark field to the light poking through the doors of the Small Gods Church. A silhouette stood there even now. It was tempting to return. But the reckoner was soaked through. Someone had taken his hat, perhaps knocked it off of his head. Koen needed loaned clothes and maybe a weapon for standing guard. The dwarfs needed to be informed. As an act of retribution, this part of the affair seemed like a petty gesture, almost cruelty for it’s own sake.

Inside, the dwarfs gaped when they heard the story. But they seemed not much more enlightened about human nature than they’d been before. Ragna tightened his grip on his toolbelt.

“What would make a person think to do such a thing?” the dwarf asked.

Humans do this all the time, Denario replied but only to himself. To Ragna, he merely shook his head.

After the accountant kitted out the reckoner with his third-best hat and a dwarf cudgel, the two dwarfs seemed to come to a conclusion. They wanted to re-unite with Brand. In a contradictory way, they also wanted to stay and guard their temporary home. They considered the accountant’s belongings to be valuable. They had also acquired more armor, themselves, than Denario had realized they possessed. All of it looked valuable.

He’d forgotten how much weight the dwarfs could pull along on their sledge. Thankfully, they’d left their man-sized scimitar on their raft.

In the end, the dwarfs agreed to wear most of their armor and Koen agreed to guard the hut. That solved the immediate problem. Ragna and Ulf accompanied the accountant through the hut door. Partway across the field toward the church, they split up. Ulf excused himself to tell Brand what was happening. Ragna unhooked his axe from his belt strode close to Denario.

“Who’s that behind the deputy?” The stout fellow asked as they drew to within a few yards of the church. The accountant had spotted the motion, too. Voigt stood in the open doorway. He was waving at them now that he’d recognized they were allowed visitors. In the back of the church, though, there was a figure in a disheveled robe, a hood pulled up over his hair.

“Voight!” the accountant called. “Behind you! Someone’s gotten in.”

The deputy spun. His hand dropped to the club by this belt. For a few seconds, he surveyed the scene inside the church. Then he relaxed. He looked over his shoulder as Denario grew near.

“It’s the reckoner’s apprentice.” He gave an apologetic grin. “He’s allowed.”

That’s right, Denario thought. And yet it’s wrong.

“Is the lad not feeling well?” Ragna asked. “He’s limping.”

Leonid couldn’t help but notice their presence in the doorway. He gave them a furtive look that made his his white, round eyes shine out from beneath his dark hair and gray, linen hood. His robe did not disguise the bruising on his face or the blood under his nose. His hands trembled as he returned to work. Leonid seemed to be done with whatever work he’d started. Without another glance in the accountant’s direction, he clutched a tax bag to his chest. After a few, unsteady steps, he returned it to its former place. He let out a slight groan as he set it down.

Denario couldn’t see the marks on the bag. He wondered if the account belonged to the obvious suspect, Samuel Brumsbeard. He got a sinking feeling in his stomach. This was the moment. This was the crime. He’d rather liked the young gentleman Brumsbeard until now.

“Leonid didn’t say nothing.” Voight shrugged. The deputy didn’t seem to be aware that anything had gone wrong. “Reckoner Koen may have beat him a bit, I suppose. They’re under all kinds of pressure to set things right. Sometimes a boy gets lazy.”

“Ah.” Denario realized the rest of what had actually happened. “No, I don’t think so. He’s been beaten. But not by Koen.”

He strode into the rows of tax bags. There were six, three filling the benches, three beneath. It was just the way Koen did things. The reckoner had sorted the accounts by family names but then he’d rotated the positions and adjusted them as bits and pieces came in like private bags, split sticks, or signed parchment tallies. That made it hard to memorize the families by position. Denario didn’t think this area belonged to Brumsfield but he was prepared to be shown that the layout had shifted.

It hadn’t. He checked the mark on the bag and saw, to his surprise, that it belonged to the Grimsli family. Weren’t they enemies of the Brumsfield’s? He tried not to let his confusion show.

He turned his back on it and strode toward the lectern that had become his accounting desk.

“Leonid,” he said as he walked.

The boy affected not to hear. He kept his face hidden, although that made his guilt more plain than ever.

“Leonid,” he said again and waved his arm. He paused. There was no response. He raised his voice. “Apprentice!”

The boy let out a yelp. He jumped a little as he turned to face Denario.

“This bag.” The accountant pointed at it. The boy refused to look. “This bag right here that you last touched. I’m going to the table. You bring the bag to me for inspection.”

He turned toward the table again and he would swear he heard the boy’s knees knock. Although he didn’t know precisely what Leonid had done, Denario felt confident that he’d get to the bottom of it. He’d watched his old master do this sort of thing.

The accountant reached the stool behind the lectern, sat, and folded his hands in front of him. He waited patiently or, more accurately, as if he had all night to spend. It was almost the same thing. His math and geometry tools were sitting out. He grabbed his string rule and, a moment later, his compass. He adjusted the mechanism of the compass to mark a circle with a radius of one inch. A moment later, he measured the circle with the string rule. With satisfaction, he noted it was a bit more than three.

Across from him, he saw Leonid try to take the wrong bag from the Grimsli accounts. His hand reached for a smaller, sealed one, not the large one that he’d rigged. Denario raised his hand to redirect the lad but the dwarf Ragna reacted first. Ragna murmured a helpful and apparently innocent correction. Leonid hesitated. Then he gave in. The boy was forced to carry the bag that he’d altered across the room to the accounting desk. He had to look at Denario as he came, too. As he got within five feet of the edge of the table, tears burst forth from his puffy face. His arms shook. He dropped the bag.

It ruptured. Beads spilled out for a foot or more. Denario rose.

The evidence had been destroyed. He felt aghast at how clever this was but Leonid, age of perhaps eleven, fell crying on top of the spilled bag. His trembling had grown so pronounced that his legs and now his arms strained to hold his head from the floor. In a moment, he fell to pounding his head against the church floorboards as he sobbed.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 157: A Bandit Accountant, 26.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene Six: Desperate Plots

The deputy pulled the sheriff out of his sickbed so that they could approach the gentry together. That said everything about the town that wasn’t already described in Denario’s account. At least the officers of the law, working in concert, managed to get their job done. With a mixture of pleas and threats, they made the important families come.

The accountant set up his tally boards inside the church of the small gods. His assistants arranged sconces and lamps along the transcepts in front of the first row of pews. Even with the windows thrown open and the sun in the sky behind the trees, the nave inside seemed dark. The benches were narrow and short, barely enough for five seats apiece at their widest. The accountant remarked that the entire church could hold no more than thirty.

“Not even that,” Ulf remarked. “The back benches can’t have more than four, not even if they’re dwarfs.”

“It’s gentry only,” Brand assured them. “We’ll be fine.”

But Brand was wrong. It wasn’t that the gentlemen themselves numbered so many but that they brought servants. One had a butler, another a dog boy. The fellow with the dogs was offended when told he’d have to leave his animals outside. Other fellows brought their men-at-arms although, thankfully, without weapons longer than a hunting knife. Friedrich Muller had been crippled by a childhood disease, probably polio, and he needed to have his doctor. That man was a sort of gentleman himself, a distant relative from the outskirts of Oupenli. He’d been touched by the disease, too. With his left arm so thin and paralyzed that he could barely move it, he made his living by caring for wealthier men, like Friedrich, who had been more severely crippled.

The elderly Abelard Grimsli arrived with a retinue of seven. He and his sons-in-law took seats in the back row. Abelard, withered but as tough-looking as the inside of a birch log, had been about to help himself to the front bench. He’d stopped when he saw his estranged son there along with Samuel Brumsbeard, son of the man he’d killed. That made two enemies together.

The master snorted at Brumsbeard and cast an alarmed glance to his son. Then he waved the rest of his party back.

Several of the younger fellows in attendance, all lesser members of the servant class, stood at the rear by the church doors. The priest shook hands with them so much that some lads might have thought the nervous, bald fellow had organized the gathering. But the mayor, the power that brought them all together, embraced only a few men who came to him, heads bowed as they paid their respects. Jakob Seidel exchanged warm words with them and often clapped them on the shoulder while they shook. They were all about the same age as the mayor.

Everyone ignored the accounting team. They tried so hard not to stare at Brand that it became obvious. Eventually, one of the Grimsli sons-in-law approached Seidel about it.

“Your accountant and his assistants are armed,” he hissed.

“With my support,” the mayor said.

“There’s a regulation about the length of blade anyone can carry.” The sturdy fellow jabbed his thumb in Brand’s direction. “That man’s blade is clearly too long. Only a knight can carry that, not a man-at-arms.”

“Why don’t you mention it to him?” the mayor suggested.

The brown-haired fellow considered it for a moment. His narrow-lidded eyes blinked.

“The squire will hear about this,” he finally said.

“Our knight,” Seidel emphasized, “will get a detailed report about everything. I’ve already sent Sir Negri the announcement of our town audit.”

That produced a gasp, not only from the fellow the mayor was addressing but a man sitting nearby who overheard.

As the last seating arrangements were negotiated, a woman arrived. The priest dashed up to greet her with a handshake, as he’d done for other gentry, but this time he brought a short, wooden stool. The lady smiled at him rather coolly. Her eyes surveyed the room. Like the others, she pretended not to see Brand but she took note of Denario. He stared into her hazel eyes. Her hair would have been light brown once but now it was mostly grey. Her skin looked clear, not wrinkled, and her forearms, revealed by her floral dress, had no age spots on them.

After the priest placed his stool in the doorway of the church, the lady nodded. She allowed the clergyman to help her sit, in a formal way, under the arch of the door. Her hands crossed each other over her left knee. Behind her, the broad-shouldered manservant she’d brought along locked his hands behind his back in a parade-rest stance. He looked like he’d come from service in the military.

“Lady Ragophile is the head of her house,” the priest explained as he returned to the transcepts. He leaned his head close to Denario. “She is not a lender nor a borrower but she insisted that she come to witness the accountings.”

“That sets a good example.” The accountant wished more gentry and nobles would take a civic interest in their neighbors.

“She can’t sit in the church with the men.”

“Really?”

“Not in my churches. I know, other priests are different. But they aren’t priests of Contadin of the Field Laws. Others, maybe, can let women and men attend services together. I can’t. Contadin forbids it.”

“And he’s your main deity.” Denario raised an eyebrow at the practice but he’d learned how insistent local law-givers could be. They always went beyond the basic axioms of moral order and created petty, little rules for a certain kind of social structure that the particular god liked best. Their followers could become deranged about it. Here in East Hogsli, the god Contadin almost certainly had declared that stealing was a sin. All gods did that. But if more trivial things like eating the wrong type of bird or holding hands or singing were regarded as equivalent sins, then soon everyone was a sinner and people started justifying some very strange behavior. They could act like thieving from their neighbors was no worse than humming a quiet tune. After all, they were both on the same list of religious crimes.

The priest began the meeting with a prayer. After a brief mention of the smaller gods of the area, he drifted from his plea for mercy into an appeal to the gentry to correct their sinfulness in the eyes of Contadin.

“These deceptions not only break the commandments against falsehoods, theft, greed, and faithless oaths,” he said, “but they also go against Contadin’s guidance to live within our means.”

“Easy for a god what don’t eat,” someone muttered.

“We must not borrow for today what should be put off for tomorrow.” The priest raised his voice. “Some men in this town buy and sell debts. It compounds sin after sin.”

“The church collects a tithe on every loan!” shouted a Grimsli son-in-law. Up front, the sickly Muller fellow nodded in agreement. Even young Samuel Brumsbeard clapped.

“My predecessor did not do enough to discourage these practices.”

“Your predecessor left the doors of this church unlocked every night,” said a woman’s voice, the Lady Ragophile. A few of the men applauded her. “He did not guard the common records.”

“We have incurred a great spiritual deficit.” His voice rose higher in volume.

“You too!” shouted one or two gentry. “You most!”

Their servants, Denario noticed, didn’t join in the backtalk but they had started to share half-secret smiles between them. They found it amusing to see their masters uniting against a common and apparently unpopular foe. A glance at Brand revealed that the man had a similar expression. He wasn’t actually smiling but every other part of him, every fiber of his being, trembled with the excitement of a fight.

The high point of the afternoon was the near-riot against the priest. He lashed back with dire warnings about their damnation in the afterlife. The gentry came right back with citations of religious rules against interest payments. They reminded him further that the church had collected interest and bought and sold at least four debts, which the priest had forgotten.

“We’re all damned,” said the crippled Friedrich Muller and that seemed to sum it up.

Denario’s presentation, shortly after the gentry shouted down the priest, was brief. He kept to the facts.

First, he demonstrated what a written checksum was. He drew with charcoal on a clean plank. All of the audience understood his writing or were too embarrassed to admit otherwise. Heads nodded at the math. Even the leaders got quiet.

“Have there been these checks on all of our records?” young Samuel Brumsbeard asked.

“Not consistently. However, there have been many checks we can use. There are even some for your tax debts.” He listened to the hisses of breath. The older men, especially, knew this was the worst, their lethal fear. Technically, Denario was telling them the truth. There had been at least one written check of the six largest tax debts. That had been a generation ago. The sums had been long paid but Denario didn’t need to explain that detail. Besides, there was a written note about two more checksums sheets. Those sheets had been lost or stolen and the debts had not been paid. Everything about them except the note on the checksums had gone missing.

The accountant brought up his tally boards and explained what he’d found in the debt bags. Tapping his charcoal on each total, he moved to the amount of the discrepancy. Back and forth he tapped, showing the amount of cheating in each case and the direction it had gone.

As he reviewed the first two cases, men protested his totals. Denario explained how he knew. He showed them the altered tally marks, the holes in the bags, the alternate clay tokens someone had sneaked through through the holes, the broken wax seals on others, the crude attempts at forgery in a checksum record, the lead bearings one thief had used to add weight, the crude attempt at magic that had burned one bag and turned half of the clay counters inside it into glass.

The audience quieted. After he’d given seven such explanations, no one spoke up again to challenge his findings. This may have been because the majority of the cheating had been done in favor of the gentry. Time after time, they had managed to add to the liabilities of the tradesmen and peasants. This fact, Denario supposed, was why the mayor had ordered the gentry to attend but had not invited the peasants to be witnesses.

Although no one dared to protest the audit, the gentlemen nevertheless cursed and swore to their servants and at one another.

“I’ll kill him!” the accountant heard more than once.

When Friedrich Muller learned that his father had been tricked into overpaying old Tibalt Brumsbeard, he gave young Samuel next to him a dark look. And when Samuel Brumsbeard understood that there had been cheating on the debt between his father and the the Grimsli family, the one his father had died for, he turned to give them a hard stare. His hand fell to where his blade would normally be, a gesture that did not go unnoticed. Other men touched their knives.

During the pauses between his assessments, Denario heard muttering about duels. It was the traditional way to settle points of honor. He wondered if the adult male population could be cut in half by it. The amount could be more than half, actually, since men could challenge as many others as they liked. If there was one particularly adept duelist, he could kill everyone else who’d wronged him. All of the town’s most powerful families except the Seidels and Ragophiles would be affected. Still, no one issued a formal complaint. The main fear heard in the whispers of the old men, once they had time to think, was that the knight would send a squad of executioners.

“They killed Dickie last time,” one hissed. “That was an example.”

Everyone glanced uncomfortably at Friedrich, his son, to see if he would break down in tears or rise up with a knife. But this was one of those times when a man who had been crippled by a disease could pretend to be a little feeble-minded, too, and hard of hearing.

“The tax count is the important part,” said the mayor. “You gentlemen see what we’re in for.”

Jakob Seidel seemed to be testing his fellow gentlemen. The accountant nodded to himself as he listened. The mayor’s remarks served his purposes, too. On either side of Denario in the transcepts, the dwarfs kept track of the accounting tools. Every now and then, Ragna needed to get him another lump of charcoal or Ulf needed to prop up a tally board. Otherwise, they watched in wide-eyed silence. Brand, in contrast, had positioned himself in a standing slump in a corner. One hand rested on the pommel of his sword. His face bore a slightly cruel grin.

“This material that I’ve shown,” said Denario. “Has already gone out in a report to Sir Negri.”

There was a stifled cry of anguish from the back pew.

“That account covers the resolution of private debts only. There will be a second letter. I won’t be able to make my report on public debts until tomorrow.”

“Why not?” asked young Samuel Brumsbeard.

“There are too many debt bags.” He shook his head. “My assistants and I haven’t finished with them. It will take another half a day before I can arrive at the family tax totals.”

“Ah,” breathed an older voice.

“When the sums are final, I’ll send those to your knight. Also, I’m willing to meet with you all again if your mayor thinks it’s good.”

“I don’t think a second meeting is necessary,” said Jakob Seidel. He rose from his bench looking grim. He put his hand on the accountant’s shoulder. “The report to Negri will be sufficient."

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 156: A Bandit Accountant, 26.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene Five: Not the Plan

The afternoon sun turned the split timbers to a shade of gold on the western wall of the church. Inside, Koen and his slave boy assistant, Leonid, kept busy in the shadows. They lugged debt bags along the bench rows. They followed Denario’s orders. The accountant had made them prepare for a re-counting. From their point of view, the work was onerous but they understood it. After all, the system had been rendered unfit by the former mayor. They had longed to fix it for years.

That man, Dickie Muller, had been hanged a few months ago, as it turned out, by officers of Sir Negri’s retinue. After a dozen years of tax rolls coming up short, the retinue had arrived, younger and more energetic than before thanks to the death of the senior squire and his man-at-arms, and they demanded back payments for the East Hogsli debts. The mayor had blamed everything and everyone but himself, as usual, but this time instead of killing a few slaves or taking some cattle as penalty, the knight’s men had clapped the former mayor in irons, held a short trial, and executed him in front of his own courthouse. The sheriff had pissed himself on the spot, apparently.

From the story, Denario knew that Barkbark must have been the one to kill the squire and other armsmen. The siren hadn’t understood the ranks of men or details of military strategy but he seemed to have judged everything else about right. His assessment of the situation in East Hogsli was accurate.

“Master accountant!” Koen called from the shadows. Denario stepped inside. He nodded to encourage the reckoner. He also gestured to Brand, who had rolled a keg of beer into one corner to drink while he watched. The bigger man, from his seat in darkest shade, grinned and raised his tankard to his lips.

“Yes?” said Denario.

“Another from the back. That we need to set aside.” The older man held up a debt bag. It wasn’t easy to see, at first, what was wrong with it. “As per your instructions.”

“Set it on the corner bench.” Denario gestured. He squinted to make out what Koen had noticed before, a difference in the paint marks on the front of the bag.

He’d told Koen to set aside debt bags that had suffered from tampering. On some, visitors has painted crude marks in attempts to change the names of debtors. For others, folks had poked holes under the bottoms of the bags to let counters dribble out. Originally, the counter bags had been sealed with ribbons covered by cast wax. Now at least a dozen wax seals had been broken. Koen swore that he’d tried to get the sheriff and the former mayor to investigate those but the sheriff wouldn’t do it. In more sophisticated cases, bags had been re-sealed with a counterfeit mark. On the whole, it appeared that the citizens of East Hogsli had invented a dozen ways to cheat.

Several of the bags, the accountant noted, stated that Sir Negri owed debts to the local landholders. That was possible, even likely, but two of those bore cracked seals. Denario wondered if the gentry were subtly increasing the knight’s debts as a way to make up for their taxes.

The accountant stepped back into the sunlight. He ignored his tally board for the moment and bent to pick up his inkpot. He dipped his quill.

It is impossible to place trust in this mechanical system, he wrote in the accounting journal at the bottom of his report. He had already detailed the methods of cheating to Sir Negri. Now he needed to submit a letter along with his report to explain what he’d shown with math. He didn’t trust Negri’s retinue to grasp the impact of the accounting without being told. Even a straightforward person, as I judge the reckoner Koen to be, cannot protect the counter bags from corruption. The system does not lend itself to fixes, the way keeping a second set of books would do. As you know, that is the method the marquis prefers.

Your holdings would perform more to your liking with verifiable, written reports. Such reports need to be administered by good people, of course, and a well-trained accountant would be best. Denario tapped his chin. If you can’t afford city rates, I have two apprentices who are approaching the age of journeymen. One might suffice if your location suits him and he likewise appeals to you, Sir Negri.

Either one would, I judge, in short time save you more money than he would cost in upkeep.

Denario set down his quill. He leaned away from the paper for a moment because he felt unsure of how to persuade the knight. Sir Negri hardly said a word in court. Even removed from the influence of the marquis, he came across as a no-nonsense man of arms, ignorant of anything not related to warfare and, moreover, proud of it. By most tales, Kaden Negri was a better knight than his grandfather Jacinto de Negri, who had been enobled. That man had shown shrewdness in court, not bravery in arms. Likewise, Kaden Negri’s father had not distinguished himself in battle except, if it counted, by dying in one. The current Negri was likely the first in his family with any victories on the battlefield.

His main source of acclaim was not the killing of a rival knight but a display of toughness. A few years ago, in a skirmish against Faschnaught, he’d risen from his slain horse and fought his way back to his own side. He’d arrived, cursing, covered with arrows, all of which had been stopped by the chain mail under his hauberk. Then he’d demanded a second horse, got one from someone’s wounded squire, and headed out for another series of calvary charges. In his hurry, he didn’t bother to remove the arrows.

The Marquis de Oggli had been impressed at the sight of Negri returning. So had the other knights. That evening, Kaden Negri been promoted to Endoumo, a position responsible for holding the edge of the battle line. He’d become a trusted man. It probably helped that, like the marquis, Negri disdained education. This was despite the rumor that his grandfather had possessed one. Negri remained suspicious of merchants, too. He regarded them as always looking for ways to cheat honest knights.

Kaden Negri resisted attempts to persuade him. As much as Denario wanted to follow Vir’s advice to promote his skills better, he judged that Negri would most appreciate a just-the-facts approach to writing. All he could do, considering the man on the other end of the report, was to lay out the situation in a few, simple words.

“Accountant!” called someone from a distance. Denario pivoted to gaze down the grassy path that served for Main Street. In the muddiest center rut strode the mayor, Jakob Seidel.

Beside the mayor were the lads who had found the planks and the writing-quality lumps of charcoal for Denario’s public tally. They wore rough, burlap breeches tied with hemp-rope belts. Their feet went bare. Two had patched shirts. One, perhaps because he was the youngest son in a village of hand-me-downs, wore what could best be described as half of a linen tunic. To the side of them walked another man, a sheriff’s deputy with a cudgel slip-knotted to his belt.

“I went to visit Clever Jack. He send his greetings,” barked the mayor as he grew closer. “He also asks if you’re done.”

“Nearly,” Denario allowed with a nod.

He felt rather than saw the presence of Brand in the doorway to the Church of Small Gods behind him. Only the former caravan master could have made the mayor and the boys lean backward. The deputy’s eyes widened. A moment later, Denario felt the taller man join his side.

“How are your assistants doing?” Seidel asked. He meant the dwarfs, most likely.

“Everyone’s as they should be.” Denario meant Koen and his slave more than the others. “It’s a pity about Leonid. The young fellow has taught himself to write a bit. I wish I could stay to show him more but I’m obligated to return to my apprentices in Oggli.”

“Yes, your partner kept telling me you had to leave. He seems a bit impatient for a tradesman making sales. From two towns over, folks have come to see him. But he rushes them all. He’s charging them more than his usual prices, too.” Seidel put his hands on his hips.

“Jack is accustomed to my audits being finished in a day. This one will need three. I’ve managed to reveal the flaws in the mechanical system but counting out the bags will be tedious. Some of these accounts have to be settled tomorrow. We can start this afternoon on the private debts and make a beginning on the taxes but only that. The rest of the taxes will start after a night’s rest and breakfast.”

His left arm swung toward the tally planks. On them, he’d added up seventy-one columns with the names of the local debtors at the top. He’d managed to fit only twenty-two names across the first plank. That’s why he’d needed to ask for another, then another. It had taken him a morning and most of an afternoon of hard work, adding and writing. Even getting the locals to locate clean, flat slabs of wood had been a chore. Now most of the town names were up there. Only twenty-three families in East Hogsli were neither borrowers nor lenders.

Below the debtors, mostly the peasant family names, Denario had listed the lenders in rows. There were fewer of those. Naturally, Sir Negri came foremost. That was out of politeness. Several of the local gentry had larger amounts owed to them than the knight. They were the masters Grimsli, Brumsbeard, Baggophili, and Muller. The Seidel family alone among the gentry did not appear to owe back taxes, nor did they extend loans to their poorer neighbors. Only two families owed the Seidel family and their debts were trifling.

“Masters Grimsli, Muller, and Brumsbeard have experienced discrepancies in their records, I’m sorry to say.” The accountant tapped the board with his lump of charcoal. “Their split-sticks don’t match their debt bags. Criminals must have tampered with the bags.”

“Peasants, then?” asked the sheriff’s deputy all too hopefully.

“That’s not likely, as I’ll reveal tomorrow.”

Denario watched as the deputy froze, then glanced to his right and left. He avoided catching the eye of his mayor. He licked his lips.

“Does it have to be tomorrow?” he asked.

“I just told you it can’t be sooner. I’ve got more bags to go through. In fact, I can’t verify the correct amounts or reveal the direction of the cheating until I open up the majority of the bags. That means breaking the seals on them and re-sealing them with your beeswax, mayor. I’ll fix them with the Guild of Ogglie and Anghrilie seal.”

“You can have my store of wax, of course.” Jakob Seidel gave a grim nod. He motioned to one of the older boys, one who could have been his son. The young fellow stepped close and received an order to go to the mayor’s office to fetch the box with a brass hinge.

“When the crimes are revealed ...” the accountant said. He kept his gaze on the mayor, careful to avoid the fearful, shame-ridden face of the sheriff’s deputy. “What will you do about them?”

“Well, stealing is theft. Hanging is the usual solution.”

For a second, the sheriff’s deputy made a choking sound. Perhaps he had witnessed the mayor’s hanging along with his boss. Yes, that must have been unavoidable. Again, Denario tried not to stare at him although it was difficult to avoid. The man kept shuffling his feet from side to side.

“A town can only spare so many backs before the harvest,” mused the mayor. “We’ve lost two entire households in the past year and the heads of other households. I’m reluctant to hang anyone for private debts unless the lender insists. Taxes are another matter. Failure to pay those is a crime against Sir Negri. We must set an example.”

The accountant nodded. This was what he’d expected.

“Since these will be capital crimes,” Seidel continued, “we’ll want witnesses to your adjustments before you re-seal those bags. Families will miss their fathers dearly. Many borrowers, maybe all of them, will want explanations they understand.”

“I want to understand, too,” echoed the deputy.

“I mean even for corporeal punishments,” the mayor clarified.

“I’ll give what explanations the math provides,” Denario answered. “I was going to say, I’ll provide written explanations. But I can tell you mean for me talk to your citizens, too. I’ll leave time for that. It doesn’t excuse me from providing my report to Sir Negri.”

“Nor my report beside it,” agreed Seidel as he made a holy sign over his chest.

“Tonight, I need to protect against last-minute cheating. When I go to bed, I’ll take the tally boards with me. I can’t take all of the counter bags, so Koen will need to sleep with them.”

“Koen is the guard?” wondered the deputy.

“That’s my intention,” said Denario.

“There’s a bad history with these debts.” The deputy rubbed the beard stubble on his neck. “You don’t know what it’s been like here. When I was a boy, Abelard Grimsli killed old Tibalt Brumsbeard in a duel. That was just the beginning.”

“Why a duel?”

“Brumsbeard accused Grimsli of cheating on a personal loan. There was one hundred twenty pence what Brumsbeard owed. Everyone remembered that number, one hundred twenty. But the debt bag showed one-hundred sixty. Grimsli insisted on the amount in the bag.”

Denario glanced at Seidel. The mayor nodded. Interesting that this was a detail no one had mentioned before.

“Have there been other incidents?”

“Like I said, that was the beginning,” the deputy told them. In contrast to his dark hair, his irises were pale green. They added to the sense of alarm the man conveyed as his eyes opened wide. “There were more duels and people stealing back what they said was rightfully theirs. It’s been getting worse and worse.”

“Last year,” said Seidel as he cleared his throat. “Two peasant families refused to pay their debts. They said they had kept their own records and they were done. That implied that some of the gentry were crooks. The accusation couldn’t stand. Other peasants started to give us similar talk. Master Grimsli led a raid on their houses.”

“The same man from the duel?”

“Yes, he’s old but not yet feeble. His son refused to accompany the raid. The two split apart over it. The son has his own lands from marriage but he’s been disinherited from the main plot. Anyway, Abelard persuaded his two sons-in-law. He hired a few strongmen from Oupenli, too. They put a stop to the peasant rebellion.”

Denario remembered the pair of burned cottages. This far into the countryside, the gentry made their own justice, much like noblemen.

“Let the gentry observe my work before dark sets in,” Denario advised. “Then they can have confidence that their taxes will receive the same fair reckoning on tomorrow morning.”

“You plan to leave by boat tomorrow noon?”

“That seems about right.”

“It’s a good plan.” Seidel took off his cap for a moment to reveal locks of thinning, brown hair. The shape of his skull showed. The mayor rubbed his half-bare scalp for a moment before putting on the cap again. “You may want to pre-load the boat for a quick cast-off. It’s best if you make two copies of the accounting parchment. You can deliver one to the post office in Oupenli in case something happens to the copy here.”

Without saying so, the mayor had informed Denario that he didn’t trust his own people.

“I can do that,” acceded Denario. Making copies is what he had assistants for, didn’t he? They weren’t only bodyguards.

“That sounds very safe as far as the math goes,” said the deputy. “Are you still planning to leave the bags with Koen tonight?”

“What would you prefer?” Denario asked.

“A real guard.”

“Are you volunteering?”

“No.” His eyes widened again, almost comically. “I mean, well, maybe. Yes. Yes, I will.”

Next to the accountant, Brand chuckled softly at the wavering voice and trembling knees of the man who held a job enforcing the law. He’d probably never prosecuted any case against the wishes of even the lowest child of the gentry before. Denario talked to the fellow for a few minutes, trying to figure out if having a sheriff’s deputy on the site would scare away cheaters and ruin the plan.

It came out that the sheriff himself wasn’t feeling well. That had been a problem for two months, apparently. Nowadays, the deputy did most of the walking around. He was the one enforcing religious rules, spanking rebellious children, catching escaped livestock, and generally keeping things in order. To hear it, more than half of the sheriff’s job involved recovering pigs that escaped from their stalls.

When Denario asked if the man had guarded anything before, the answer was, ‘pigs.’ Fortunately, the accountant didn’t want an overly experienced guard. Unfortunately, the deputy seemed like a man who might stay alert. Denario tried to put off the decision.

“So that’s final,” concluded the mayor. “We’ll have two guards.”

The accountant regretted not including Seidel in his plan. He’d hinted to the man but without effect.

“Then the first thing the deputy needs to do,” countered Denario, “is get those gentry here to see the initial results of the audit.”

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 155: A Bandit Accountant, 26.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene Four: All of Them Guilty

At the end of the first day, Denario flopped back, exhausted, onto a blanket laid over the wooden floor of the one-room guest house. Seidel had provided their place to stay. It had a door and a shuttered window. Brand, Ulf, and Ragna had set out their camp beds near the exits. They’d surrounded the accountant, in fact, as if they took their jobs as his assistants and bodyguards seriously.

“Not a dirt floor,” remarked Ulf.

“Raised an inch off the mud. No insects.” Ragna snapped out his spare hauberk. He stuffed it into his travel bag to form a tough pillow. “Seems like we’re honored with a bit of a luxury.”

That was true. Seidel’s guest house, which hadn’t been visible from the road into town, seemed to be better quarters than most of the permanent thatch houses. The mayor had moved his mother-in-law into his own home for the night and had, not without humor, remarked that he hoped the accountant would finish soon so that he could return his mother-in-law to the distance at which she belonged.

On one hand, Denario had worn his full accounting uniform all afternoon and had been treated with respect. On the other, the respect had boiled over into fear among many of the peasants and gentry. The isolation of the guest house made it a target for violence.

“This place was richer, once.” He propped himself up on his elbows. “Did you see the smithy at the end of the road?”

“Where the stream runs into the No Map?” Brand grunted.

“There used to be a bridge past it. You can tell. Folks must have ventured out into the magical lands across the stream. Now they don’t.”

“The smith doesn’t know how to make steel,” Ragna remarked with the sort of mild tone of disapproval that to dwarfs was the equivalent of a shout.

“Not any kind of metal that other smiths would accept as steel, anyway.” Ulf nodded in agreement. “I heard the mayor tell you that a nobleman killed his smithy master.”

“That’s how skills get lost.” Denario knew it was how it had happened on his old baron’s estate. Even among slaves, some were more skilled than others. When a man got worked to death, it meant that critical pieces of knowledge went missing, at least for a while. “The smith has omitted steps from the steel making process but he doesn’t know it. Let’s hope he makes the visit to Jofrid.”

“Not much time for it,” said Brand. The accountant had the impression that his human guard was barely restraining himself from some sort of violence against the peasants. He seemed to be infuriated by their cowardice. “You should be almost ready to leave.”

“I’m closer than I thought I would be,” Denario admitted. “The problem is that I need to catch some of the thieves in the act. I want to do it tomorrow or tomorrow night, by preference. It doesn’t seem wise to stick around.”

“The peasants are practically fleeing from your shadow,” Brand spat. “The gentry, too.”

“Yes, it’s bad. Did you notice the ones who didn’t come to see me today? The town’s not that big. If you think the ones who we met are bad, Brand, the folks avoiding me are worse.”

“Ah, I didn’t think of that.”

Ulf’s brow creased. “Is this a human thing?”

“It’s a dwarf thing, too,” Brand replied before Denario could find more tactful words. “Those who have the most anger from self-denial or the most bloody, red-faced guilt don’t want to confront us.”

“They worry that Denario will arrest them.”

Brand sighed at this naive notion of law enforcement.

“The problem is,” said the accountant, “they’re all guilty.”

“You mean, they have guilty consciences,” Ragna corrected.

“No.” The accountant felt terrible for telling the dwarfs how things really were. “Every family with debts in this town has been cheating the system.”

“How can you know that? All you did was look into bags of stones for a day. You didn’t even check them all.”

“There are too many tax accounts for a full review, that’s true. But Ragna, for private debts tracked by the churches, there are side tallies. Most of them are still relevant. Moreover, because so few people understand them, they’ve gone untouched.”

“I don’t remember side tallies from our lessons,” said Ulf.

“Sixteen of them are scrolls I found in a broken box at the back of the pile of bags. Each scroll is about as big as my finger. They have checksums written on them.”

“Aha!” yelled Ulf.

“Aha?” asked Brand.

“It’s a fast way of detecting a misplaced number or letter,” said Ulf, practically reciting his lesson word for word. He made a leap in logic by continuing. “Or it could be a way of tracking animal marks and counting stones too, apparently.”

“Yes.” Denario watched the dwarf lie down on his temporary bed. To the accountant’s left, Brand did the same. Denario relaxed and rested his head on his clothes-bundle pillow. He gazed at the ceiling. “Parts of the East Hogsli system have degenerated, Ulf. I can see that because Koen’s former master, Horst, and Horst’s former master, Ely, could write numbers. Koen can’t. He hasn’t got the hang of anything more than tally marks.”

“Is that all?” Brand asked.

“The scheme has failed in other ways, too. The ancient ones in the Mundredi towns were better kept. The side tallies Horst wrote reveal cheating as far back as forty years. Just the existence of the tallies reveals that. It’s why citizens insisted on having their own methods. Even during that era, they didn’t trust the town records.”

“So Koen can’t run his own tallies to check?”

“He can. He uses the split-stick method. The recent side tallies of debts are his. He keeps a collection of the records privately but he said pieces have gone missing from it.”

“I saw eight notched sticks,” Ulf offered.

“That’s not many,” said Ragna.

“There were fifteen until the records went missing, if Koen is to be believed. And I do believe him. His arms tremble. His breathing is wrecked. Half of the time, he’s in tears. It’s the same for the slave boy he’s taken on as an apprentice. They know their lives are on the line. They’re trying their hardest to find every bag, every counter stone, and every record of every type.”

“Does the knight know of their work, do you think?”

“Not in the least. Sir Negri likely isn’t aware of the side tallies, either. They weren’t used for taxes. I’ll describe how they work for him. But he won’t like the fact that it’s the taxes where there’s the best opportunity to lie and claim you’d paid more than you did. The side tallies were created for the most important and most carefully watched private debts among the gentry. You wouldn’t expect anyone to dare to cheat on those.”

“But someone did.”

Brand guffawed. He seemed to know what was coming.

“Oh, Ragna,” Denario said. He wanted to soften the lesson but he didn’t know how. “Out of twenty-four checksums, six were settled. The other eighteen don’t match their debt counters. They’ve all cheated.”

“All?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“This is the trap,” said Ulf with certainty.

All of them lay back their heads on their pillows. Denario stared at the ceiling. He noticed that Ragna crossed his arms over his chest. Brand closed his eyes and sighed.

“Yes,” the accountant admitted. “It is.”

“Well,” huffed Brand. He opened his eyes and sat up. The candle was closest to him. He was clearly too upset to rest yet. “You can’t accuse the sheriff of lying. Or maybe you can. But if you accuse everyone in town, we can’t fight our way out for you.”

“I understand. Still, whatever happens, I can’t let East Hogsli go on cheating their knight.” Denario rose to one elbow. To his right, Ulf sat up to look at him. “Sir Negri would never accept my audit if I did.”

“Neither would I.” Brand gave a bitter laugh. “Maybe he’s not an idiot. I’m sure there must be a way to beat this. We can do it.”

“How?”

The man shrugged. “You’re the accountant.”

“Right.” Denario thought back on the accounting history books. Among the thick tomes in brown leather that Winkel had introduced him to as a child, there were many smaller notebooks and scrolls. In those, there had been over a hundred journeyman diaries, ledgers, or daybooks. One of them leapt to his mind, pages of bluish, irregular script. “Once I read about how someone in the guild encountered this situation. It was a generation ago. The accountant in a rural barony assembled evidence against the worst seven offenders. The knight hanged all seven.”

Ulf cleared his throat.

“Surely,” ventured Ragna. “In a town of no more than ninety citizens, that would be too many.”

Denario could practically hear Brand’s smile. It spread slowly but widely. It exposed the man’s canine teeth. His skin stretched enough to dimple. His dark eyes glinted in the light of the single candle, anger and humor rising to the fore together.

“We must expose someone, Ulf,” Denario stated. He was sure that he didn’t want Brand to speak. “If the audit doesn’t name any guilty parties, it will be meaningless to Sir Negri.”

“But you know him.”

“Yes.” Did the dwarf imagine that a knight would hold a commoner’s opinion in esteem simply because it was expert? That he would exert mercy because an accountant asked? Perhaps in the underground chambers of the dark, dwarf kingdoms, expertise was held in that much reverence. It was not the case among humans.

“How will you catch anyone at all?” asked Ragna. His hands opened in a gesture of bewilderment. “You know the counters in their debt bags have changed. That is not the same as determining how even one person can be found guilty.”

Denario nodded. “That’s another reason that we need to ensnare someone. A man or a household must be taken in the act of rigging the system.”

“Brand’s point earlier is right, I think,” said Ulf. “All of the people in East Hogsli except for a few of the gentry, perhaps, are frozen in fear. They won’t try to rig the accounting system while you’re around.”

“They must. We mustn’t let them wait.”

The four of them lay in the artificial dusk of the candle for a while. Ulf picked up his axe and lay it over his chest. He often slept with the weapon. Ragna adjusted his pillow and sighed. Meanwhile, the accountant tried to imagine how he could arrange for the locals to take a chance on cheating the system.

“This is easy,” Brand offered. “You can always catch a thief.”

“Even a scared one?”

“Put out something for them to steal. Let everyone know.” The big man chuckled softly. “Human nature doesn’t disappoint in that respect.”

“That always works?” He could imagine the number of times a caravan master would have the chance to uncover sneaks. Would the men who were shown to have been stealing from their boss survive the revelation? It seemed unlikely.

“It's never failed me.”

“Damn.” It was believable. “I would have to announce to the town that the accounts aren't right but, as long as they're not touched, I can discover who cheated whom.”

“Yes, but make a show. Draw something in the ground, maybe a picture they can understand. Then leave the tax bags sitting out. Maybe even invite the sheriff to arrange a guard. Don't worry if he does. That will only reassure the townsfolk that they can fool or bribe one man. Someone will come to fix their shorted bag.”

“I’d have to make a tally of what the taxes should be,” Denario mused. It was a fair bit of work. But he did have assistants, after all. “Maybe the private debts, too. Yes, I’d start with those.”

“There aren’t that many people,” Brand pointed out. “If you work on the private debts and the last two years of taxes, no more, you could write it up in a day.”

“I'll leave my marks on a board, not the ground.”

“So long as everyone sees them. Post the totals as they should be according to the tax rolls and the side tallies, then leave blanks where you’ll count up the bags.”

“Damn.” Denario hated the plan in every respect. The worst part was that he was sure it would work.