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.

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