Chapter Three Cubed
Scene Two: The Proper Sheriff'
“Justice must be done in front of the whole town. Nothing less will serve.”
Jakob Seidel sat in the church with his night shirt tucked into his trousers. He laid out his open hands as if what he said was self-evident. He had smallish fingers for a man with such strong limbs. They made him look cultured. They revealed that he was a gentleman farmer, able to do a bit of his own work but from a position of ownership. He could leave the dullest, hardest labor to his staff.
“Leonid was told he was a slave,” Denario countered. He sat on the bench opposite the mayor. “He certainly can’t cheat for himself. He has no taxes to pay. He has no private debts. He has nothing.”
That was the central point. It was so completely true that the mayor couldn’t find a direct counter to it. For the moment, his lips moved in silence. He seemed to struggle to find the reasons
why letting the slave boy go unpunished seemed unjust.
“He’s been beaten,” Denario pressed. “And threatened with death.”
“That is his claim,” the mayor corrected, as if the bruises weren’t obvious.
“Look at him.” The accountant gave his counterpart a moment to glance at the still-crying boy. “Do you think he knocked himself blue and green? His limbs were almost broken and with some care, too. I’ll bet someone in Grimsli’s service served as an army interrogator.”
After a moment, Seidel shook his head. He couldn’t pretend that the facts were other than how Denario presented them. His own sons, slightly older than Leonid, had tagged along. Now, rather naturally, they comforted one of their friends. Did they understand that their father meant to hang Leonid? They showed no sign that they were aware of it.
“He should have come to me,” the mayor finally answered.
“Really? Abelard Grimsli killed two different men over debts. Why would you be different? Being mayor won’t protect you. Master Grimsli told Leonid he would kill you if you stood in his way.”
“He wouldn’t dare.” As he announced it, the calm fellow got an uncertain look in his eyes. “Sir Negri wouldn’t stand for anything like that.”
“When his family does the deed, they’ll blame you. They’ll make your knight think the whole town is corrupt except for them and they’re the only ones who can lead.”
“Abelard has said something like it.” Seidel shook his head at the memory.
“They will come before you know. Before you’re ready. Unless you act. You have to move now, before they’re ready.”
The brown-haired man took a deep breath. He raised his strong shoulders, flexed his limbs. He was in the prime of his life. His gaze appeared to take him into his future. What he saw there bewildered him. He gazed down into his hands, elbows on his knees, and shook his head once more.
“Why him? Of all of these cheaters and thieves, why does it have to be Master Grimsli?” said the mayor. “His family estate is a wooden castle. This will not be simple.”
“Do you think it will get easier if you wait?” Denario asked. “At this moment, the Grimsli family thinks they’re cheating on the taxes one last time. They don’t know that the boy, Leonid, has testified against them.”
“If he’s their slave, he’s not allowed to testify.”
“He’s not theirs. As you were on the way here, I started drafting a report to Sir Negri. It begins with how illegal the kidnapping of Leonid was.”
“Is he Koen’s slave, then?”
“He’s the reckoner’s apprentice. Leonid is free. He was a slave, once. But he was given to Koen. The reckoner gave him the accounting oath, not a slave brand. You should write it out officially. You should recognize Koen’s decision from years ago. Do it in your capacity as the mayor. There will be no question about Leonid’s rights.”
Seidel’s face darkened in shadow. He couldn’t help stealing a glance at his sons. One of them sat on a church bench with Leonid. The older one was talking with them both. The mayor looked down again.
“This is not going to look good to my lord,” he sighed.
“Do you think that backing down like a coward and trying to hang a slave,” said Denario, “instead of the guilty gentleman will look better?”
It took the mayor a while to answer. “No,” he whispered.
“The whole town will know what you do. Everyone will be watching. We have evidence. This is the moment. This is your chance to save the rest.”
“The rest? Rest of who?”
“As I read the accounts, nearly all of the town gentlemen cheated, plus some merchants and peasants. If you hang Abelard Grimsli, you could blame the rest on Abelard’s bad influence. The alternative for Negri is to hang half of the town. He won’t do that if you act decisively. Not if you stop cheating and make the town pay up.”
“Where will we get the funds?”
The accountant had wondered about that himself as he began this argument. Now he had the answer. “The Grimsli estate.”
“Do we steal from his grandchildren? No, I suppose the tax penalty is legal. We are the arm of our knight’s law.” Seidel leaned his head back and beseeched the ceiling of the church. “Oh Contadin! Why does no one keep your precepts?”
“What does the knight’s arm need, then? Or Contadin?”
“More men for this enforcement. As many as we can get. The leadership of a proper sheriff.”
“Yes, well, I can see that Voight is back from that errand you sent him on. He’s got his boss tagging behind.”
Through the wide-open doors of the church, three figures could be seen in the night mist. They wandered into the light of the torch that sat under the awning of the Temple of Contadin. They blocked the candles of the town hall behind them, too, which made their silhouettes clear. The one in front carried a lantern. It swayed unevenly. That was Voight. The man next to him slouched away from the light as if he didn’t want to be seen. He couldn’t drop back any farther. A tall man with a sword walked behind him.
“Your assistant, Brand, seems to have kept Sheriff Fischer from going astray.”
“I would expect no less.” It was the truth.
“Your crew,” the mayor paused to rub the chin of his beard, “is sterner than I would have expected from accountants.”
Denario had no answer so he kept his peace. The mayor did not press him about the nature of his staff. That two of the assistants were dwarfs must have seemed unusual. That the dwarfs did not strike this town’s gentlemen as the oddest part of the crew spoke to the history of East Hogsli.
A moment later, Voight trundled through the door. He set down his lantern and paused to shake his coat. Drops spattered the floor. The young man seemed better dressed for the weather and better equipped for a fight than when he’d left. His boots had been re-tied. There was a loop of rope tucked into his belt. There was a sheathed dagger on the other side above his cudgel.
Next to him, the sheriff stepped in. He hesitated. He only moved after Brand prodded him in the back. When the older fellow saw the mayor, he stiffened. He seemed to recover his courage. But as he was about to turn to Brand and say something, he caught sight of the boy, Leonid. The tears on the boy’s face froze him.
“What’s this?” he croaked.
“Step in,” said Brand. Voight and the sheriff made room for the former caravan leader. That interrupted whatever line of thought had formed in Fischer’s mind.
“Who’s that in the far back?” asked Denario. He squinted into the misty night.
“The reckoner,” Brand replied. He didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know. He must have spied the fellow taking a path to the road that would meet up with his own. “He’s soaked through. Did you send for him?”
“With the master here, I suppose I should take care of Leonid’s status first,” Seidel said. He huffed to his feet. “You’ve convinced me, accountant.”
Everyone shuffled into place. The sheriff and deputy looked uncertain. They moved to one side as Koen stepped into the doorway. They trailed him into the aisle and up to the open space of the nave, where the mayor took a high seat behind the pulpit. Koen noticed Leonid and the mayor’s boys. He waited, hand outstretched for a moment. It was apparent that he hoped the boy would come over to him.
“Reckoner Koen, welcome.” Seidel gestured with his left arm to the position he wanted the reckoner to take. “You look tired. Are you feeling well?”
“I have a complaint to make,” said Koen. He trembled. It could have been from being wet and cold.
“Is this about your apprentice being taken?”
“Yes. Yes it is, mayor.” Koen remembered his hat and removed it. “That was wrongly done, sir, by them gentleman. Seeing as you’re a gentleman, too, and our mayor as well ...”
The reckoner’s speech trailed off. Seidel waited a moment to see if it would resume. When it didn’t, he waved to catch the attention of his sons.
“Boys, come on over,” he called. “You, too, Leonid.”
The mayor’s eldest stepped smartly over to him. The younger one held back enough that Denario glanced up to see what was the matter. He was trying to remain in the company of the reckoner’s apprentice. But the apprentice was slow. Leonid approached the mayor as if walking to the gallows. His friend took his hand.
“Leonid,” said the mayor, “step forward.”
With effort visible on his face, the reckoner’s apprentice increased the pace of his short strides. His breathing grew heavy. His trembling increased.
“You have been beaten into committing a crime,” the mayor began. He waited until the boy would obviously come no closer. “Normally, that would be no excuse. But since you are young and thought yourself their slave, you saw no means of protest or escape. Therefore, as mayor, I pardon you, and you will not hang.”
Leonid bowed his head. Not moving from his standing position, he started sobbing again. The mayor’s younger son opened his mouth, aghast. He had at last realized what had been at stake. In half a minute, Leonid fell to his knees, hands to his face. Seidel’s youngest knelt next to him, right arm around his friend’s shoulder.
“However,” continued Seidel, “you must testify against the men who ordered you to steal from our knight. There must be justice. In our knight’s name, it must be done in front of the whole town. Do you understand?”
The boy started to shake his head no. Then he paused and nodded.
“Very well. Stand up, Leonid.”
That was the process of another half-minute. This time, all three boys banded together. It sort of looked like the sons had sided against their father.
“Reckoner Koen, you swore this boy, Leonid to be your apprentice?”
“Yes, mayor.” Koen clutched his hat, although actually it was Denario’s hat, to his chest. He leaned toward Jakob Seidel.
“That is an implicit announcement that Leonid was set free. Yet you didn’t write the papers.”
“Don’t write much, sir. Didn’t see the need. He was my charge. He didn’t have no slave tattoo. I never gave him one. I swore him to learn my trade. Thought that was enough, sir. One of the gentlemen Grimsli said it was. Master Ragophile agreed, years ago, when he lived.”
“Johann,” the mayor said as he turned to his eldest son. “Go to my office for my book, pen, and seal.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy bowed his head. He left without another word.
While they waited in silence, the mayor turned to take notice of his sheriff. Fischer looked like he had been a former village tough. But he had aged badly. His nose had been broken on three occasions at the least. His left ear had grown disfigured, its lobe a bumpy mass of scar tissue. One of his front teeth was missing. Most of the East Hogsli men grew full beards but Fischer grew a patchwork. Swathes of skin showed through it. His eyes were dark, puffy, and small. He reeked of sour beer. Taken all together, he did not inspire confidence.
On top of all that, the sheriff’s glances around the Small Gods church seemed filled with shame. From time to time, Fischer leaned toward the door. He scowled when he noticed Leonid. The more Denario watched the sheriff, the more the direction of the scowl stood out. Fischer averted his gaze when the mayor’s youngest son draped his arm over the apprentice’s shoulder.
The anger and fear in the man’s face let Denario know the truth without being told.
“Sheriff Voight?” he called to the deputy.
“Ah, master accountant.” Voight smiled as he stepped forward. He seemed grateful for the distraction from this awkward pause in events. “I’m flattered but I must remind you, I’m only the deputy.”
“Right.” The accountant took the man by the elbow. He walked them a few steps over to the desk. “Mayor, you ought to appoint Voight as the sheriff. Right now.”
Denario tilted his head so that he could see his murderous assistant, Brand. The caravan master and he exchanged a look. The accountant was never sure what his expression said precisely but Brand did the right thing. He knew that Fischer had participated in the thievery. It was provable tonight, at least, and probable at other times. The big man drew his sword.
Fischer caught the accountant’s expression, too. He understood what was about to happen. When he saw Brand grab the hilt of his sword, he foresaw his death and fell to his knees.
“Oh, my gods! Please, Seidel! Please, Jakob! Don’t let them kill me.”
There was the barest flicker of expression on the mayor’s face as he caught up. It must have seemed as self-evident to him, in hindsight, as it had been to Denario and Brand.
“Did you participate in this tonight, Fischer?”
“They were going to kill me, Jakob.” Still on his knees, he crawled to the desk. He grabbed the mayor’s hand in two of his own. The mayor didn’t pull away. “Please. Please don’t.”
“Fischer, really. I can’t make another exception.”
“Please! You showed mercy to the boy because he was frightened for his life. Can’t you show me the same mercy?”
“You were the sheriff, Fischer. You are a man, not a boy.” He dismissed the officer of the law with a snap of his wrist. It was meant to shake off the pleading hand. But Fischer clenched and remained. His bald spot, when his head was bowed, pointed right to the mayor’s heart. On his hands and on his head, there were age blotches on his weathered skin. He began to cry in a manner not quite like the slave boy, for it was a man’s sorrow, deeper and more self-conscious. After a moment, his chest began to wrack so loudly that even Leonid lifted his head to stare.
The frantic, low noise threatened to go on and on.
“I will think on it,” the mayor conceded. Denario started to lift his arm to object. He felt surprised by Seidel and also by his own objections to mercy. Perhaps his time in the wilderness had hardened him. He had never felt so opposed forgiveness before.
Brand caught his eye. Even one of the dwarfs, Ulf, seemed open-mouthed at this development. The mayor’s words seemed to calm Fischer. The stout fellow started taking longer, deeper breaths.
“Much of what transpires tomorrow morning will depend on how it goes with tonight with Master Grimsli.” Jakob Seidel turned. Fischer’s hold on him loosened. A moment later, the mayor slipped from the older man’s grip. Then he focused his attention on the deputy. “In the meantime, you, Rikart Voight, must be appointed as my new sheriff.”
Voight stood taller, excited. In his nervousness, he glanced to Denario and tried to smile.
“The role of sheriff comes with greater honor and pay but, I must warn you, Rikart,” the mayor said, “it is also a greater responsibility. Will you swear to me?”
“Seidel!” The fellow was too young to have been friends with the popular boys in town who were the mayor’s peers. But he was at a perfect age to have idolized them. “Of course I shall.”
The mayor patted Voight on the shoulder. His gaze fell on Denario for a moment, as if to ask, Are you satisfied? His son’s eyes drifted to the accountant, too. For a moment, everyone turned to look at Denario. He gave a curt nod, such as he’d seen Vir do when people waited on his response, but the mayor had returned to the task at hand, moving events ever faster.