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.”
Next: Chapter Twenty-Six, Scene Six