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.”
“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."