Sunday, April 28, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 162: A Bandit Accountant, 27.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Cubed

Scene Three: Threat of an Audit

“They will get wind of this in Oupenli, you know,” Brand murmured.

“This what?” Denario lifted his head.

“This accounting trick.” The tall man crouched on a stool in the front room of the town hall. Since he sat taller than anyone else, it put him at roughly the same height as the dwarf next to him, Ulf. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they learn about your rebellious views on slavery.”

Other men huddled together on benches along the walls. A few stood next to the sconces. A handful more, including the dwarf Ragna, found spots on the floor and leaned their backs against the wall. Ulf stood and waited, hands at his belt. His gaze drifted from Brand to the accountant.

“Well, I should hope they are well acquainted with my views,” Denario explained, “as they are also the official views of their nearest neighboring city.”

“Oh, yes.” Brand opened his mouth to say something more. After a moment’s thought, he closed it. Perhaps he had forgotten that Oggli proper was a free land.

Despite how the oil lamps had been turned to full wick, the hall seemed dark. There were so many people in the room that they couldn’t keep from blocking the lights. The town citizens, mostly farmers, peasant laborers, and boys, had filed into the main hall to rest and await the decision of the judges. A few farmwives accompanied them as well as Lady Ragophile and four of her staff. One other gentlewoman looked in on Samuel Brumsbeard. She soon retreated for her home. The place smelled of fear, blood, and sweat.

“What accounting trick do you mean?” Denario asked.

“Has an auditor from the Ogglie and Anghrili Guild ever enforced his decisions this way, in battle?” The question made Denario think, Isn’t there something in the guild history? But an incident didn’t spring to mind. His pause made the big man grin. “That’s the trick, you see. It’s a good one, but the knights around here will not favor it.”

The knights were a problem, it was true, prone to violence and suspicious of anything that threatened their place in the hierarchy. In many cities, Oggli included, there were restrictions on who could own weapons. Accountants weren’t forbidden, exactly, but they didn’t have a professional reason to wear them so sometimes they were challenged to explain themselves as they headed out on a survey with a load of equipment.

“Sir Negri never seemed to give a damn.” Denario nodded to himself as he reached the conclusion. “He doesn’t trust men like me, it’s true. But he doesn’t fear me, of course. Why would he? Anyway, we came in on the side of his sheriff and his mayor.”

Brand grunted.

In the window to his side, the sun had barely begun to glow in the east. The raid on the Grimsli mansion had been conducted in the cold of the night in the rain. Every breath of every man had steamed from his body as he marched. Only after the fight had the misty air cleared. The good folks, or at least the best peasants and the nearly-good gentlemen, had been able to see the results of their violent scrambles and know that they had won. In truth, the weather had helped them get inside the walls of the Grimsli estate. It turned out that the man at the gate had opened up for the sheriff. He hadn’t noticed the rest of the troops. That seemed incredible but, since the others weren’t visible in the fog, the man had assumed it was about a cow that had escaped the eastern fence.

Four gentlemen had come along for the raid. They’d marched at the edges, leery of the crowd, and each had kept a servant between himself and the peasants. They were the youngest of the landed gentry, the allies of Jakob Seidel. Denario didn’t know them, really. They didn’t talk much. But they’d come to the town hall along with everyone else now that it was over. The exception among them was Friedrich Muller. He was the eldest of the gentlemen and he was lame, useless with his polio-wracked body, but his father, the previous mayor, had been hung. Friedrich sought revenge against the families who had committed the deeds that had, in their way, killed his father.

“The cripple keeps trying to catch your eye,” Brand said.

“I’m aware of that.” Denario kept dodging. He didn’t have any news yet for Friedrich.

“He’d be fine with you enforcing the audit, I’d say.” The tall man’s smirk was accompanied by a raised eyebrow.

“Aha,” replied Denario as a memory stirred. “Master Magister Numat. He brought the double-entry system from Muntar. When he arrived in our city, he imposed his rules on the local accountants. Then he imposed them in Anghrili. In fact, by the force of his personality and integrity, he started the guild.”

“A campaign against other bean-pushers? That is not the same at all.”

Denario rubbed his chin. “The other best example is Master Jon Contanti. After he gained influence in the court of the Duke of Greater Ogglia, he led two raids on tax-cheating knights. He caught them selling barrels of pickled meat from herds they’d hidden from their duke.”

“That sounds more like it.”

“I remember reading how one knight kept his pigs in a cave that lay underneath a hill on his property.” The accountant could feel the scroll in his hands, dry but not yet brittle. As a child, he’d imagined Master Contanti as a sort of warrior brandishing a deadly, three-foot quill pen. “But he had to process and pickle the flesh. He had to transport the lot of it in barrels. There was no easy way to hide the money he spent on coopers. Once Contanti saw signs of the money, he knew the barrels had to show up. He traced the records to them and found them complete with fresh cooper’s marks in a fair on the outskirts of Oggli.”

“So there is a precedent for an accountant’s enforcement.”

“Yes.”

“It sounds more like an accounting legend, really.”

“Maybe it is, just a bit. On the pages of the Book of Contanti, the story is told in epic verse in one column and math in the other column. It’s quite beautiful. At the back, young men have added entries of their own, mostly poetry about Contanti’s deeds. Some of those entries may be romanticized.”

“Accountants writing things untrue? Creating poetry?”

“I know.” Denario felt that the story about Contanti leading a raid on a castle had to be exaggerated. The master’s decoding of the Yulimar mechanical system seemed quite possible, though, as it fit with his powers of deduction. “Poetry leads to excesses, I suppose.”

“That’s quite proper,” piped in Ulf.

“It’s quite dwarfish, anyway.” Brand grumbled. He turned to find out who was else was speaking. Another voice had joined in at the same time.

“Is the accountant still here?” The call came from a shy-looking young assistant. He hadn’t come along on the Grimsli raid. However, the mayor had pulled him into the courtroom to take notes or something and so here he was, on the other side of the courtroom door, wearing a fancy shirt with three stripes of color. His expression seemed good-natured but dazed. He turned his head to the window. “The accountant?”

“Over here,” grumbled Brand.

The fellow perked up. He turned but, when he spied Brand, he leaned backwards for a moment. Then his gaze fell on Ulf. Unlike about two-thirds of the town, the fellow reacted like he’d never seen a dwarf before.

“Good lord,” he huffed. An instant later, he stood up straight and put on a polite but wary smile. He strode forward, right hand extended. “Are you the man I’m looking for, sir?”

“I’m not a man.” Ulf’s chest got bigger. “I’m a dwarf. Can’t you tell?”

“Ah. Aha.” The right hand hesitated. It fluttered near the fellows face as if he were caught between fanning himself and waving hello. “Sorry. They told me we had dwarfs. No one quite explained everything, though. Sorry.”

Ulf nodded benevolently.

“Well, are you ...” The young man leaned toward Brand but he couldn’t finish the sentence. The caravan master leered at him.

“They told you the accountant was a short man with a scar and a beard. And in armor, right?” Brand chuckled. He couldn’t help glancing at Denario if only to then roll his eyes at how ridiculous this young man was being.

Finally, the fellow turned in the right direction. A light dawned. His eyebrows went up.

“Oh, are you …?”

“Yes.” The accountant thrust out his right hand. The other man touched it in a gesture that was so far removed from a hearty handshake that the words ‘hearty’ and ‘shake’ needed to be sent back. The other man’s attitude seemed to be that their fingers hardly needed to get acquainted. He dipped his shoulder in a sort of apology.

“Wonderful,” the fellow breathed. “You’re quite wanted for the judgment.”

“Quite,” Brand mocked.

“Yes, quite.” The fellow insisted. He seemed unaware of the fun at his expense.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come along?” Brand raised his eyebrow, then a hand in Denario’s direction. “I’m feeling judgmental.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” The accountant nodded. Rationally, he knew it was a terrible idea. Irrationally, it was tempting. He was feeling ready to condemn these townsfolk himself.

At the door to the courtroom, they paused. The young man rapped the wood so politely that he barely made a noise. He did it again. Behind them, a farmer who had leaned against the wall and started snoring half an hour ago, finally woke with a cough. On the other side of the door, the conversation stopped.

“Is that the cat?”

“Hubert? Is that you? Hubert, are you knocking at the door?”

The young man leaned down to the latch, which had a handle made of low-quality brass. The metal had dents in it, probably from too much tin in the mix, not to mention rude handling by the townsfolk. Hubert’s fingers pressed on it. The door made a gentle pop as it opened an inch. Several people around them, who previously seemed to be asleep, unlidded their eyes. These folks had participated in the raid. Now they waited for justice. Many of them were barely conscious, some not, but they all knew that the mayor, the newly-appointed sheriff, and the priest had gone into the courtroom to act as judges. The court was the jail, which was convenient for the judges but not for the audience, who had to wait outside.

“I found him,” Hubert said through the crack.

“Well, come in. Come in.” That was Jakob Seidel. There was a sigh of disappointment from the crowd behind Denario as he stepped through. Hubert gently pulled the door closed behind them.

Inside, the mayor had turned up all of the lamps. He and Sheriff Voight looked extra alert as if it would not occur to either of them to rest for another day. The sheriff was standing, in fact, on the balls of his feet as if he’d been pacing the floor. In contrast, skin sagged around the priest’s mouth and eyes. He leaned back against the bars of the jail cell. On the other side of the bars lay two of the Grimsli sons-in-law, both wounded. One breathed shallowly, his eyes closed, his right arm at an odd angle. The other looked bruised, his face bloodied although he appeared to be conscious. Neither had been bandaged. The one who had trouble breathing seemed the worst off, as Denario looked closer. Something with his ribs or lungs was wrong.

The Grimsli men occupied the benches. On the floor between them waited the former Sheriff Fischer. He knelt, head bent. His arms trembled. The floor was wet below him. It took Denario a moment to realize that the fellow was crying again.

“Fischer to hang?” Denario asked. He pointed. The priest lifted his head from the bars and turned to squint at the figure behind him.

“That’s what we need to decide.” Seidel motioned to a chair left empty for the accountant. “Father Lutz takes the view that hanging is the normal penalty for those who have stolen from our knight. That includes Fischer. Sheriff Voight would like to see mercy for our former sheriff. I’m wondering how it seems to you. Since you know Sir Negri, I’ve decided that your voice should count double.”

Denario accepted the chair. He sat in silence for a while, elbows on his knees, face in his hands. He thought about how many of the other gentlemen in the town had done what Grimsli did. The accountant had picked out Abelard as the worst of the bunch but he wasn’t the only one. At least, he realized, the other gentlemen who should hang aren’t delivering judgment.

“Sir Negri would chop off Fischer’s head, probably,” he concluded after a moment.

“Ah.” It was a very uncertain reply from the mayor. Both he and Denario stole glances at Voight’s anguished face.

“It’s not just Voight. You both want to spare Fischer.” It was obvious, if unfortunate. There were other cases here in contrast. His right hand swung toward the others in the jail cell. “What are you going to do with the Grimsli sons-in-law?”

“Hang them.”

“Did they commit crimes like the rest of the gentry?”

“Maybe.” Jakob Seidel said it definitively, as if it were the word ‘yes.’ He brightened for a second. But his expression grew more severe. His shoulders rose and fell. “We’re not as sure of them as some others. Mostly, we’re doing it because we think Sir Negri would like them hanged.”

Denario nodded. “He probably would.”

“But the sheriff is the executioner, usually. I’m not sure that I should make Voight hang Fischer. Do you see what I mean?”

“Fischer let an innocent boy be beaten and threatened with death.”

The mayor’s face darkened. He held the accountant’s gaze for a moment, then looked away.

“The boy was an instrument of evil,” said the priest. His fingers went to Denario’s chest. “He would hang if you hadn’t asked the mayor to pardon him.”

The accountant started to rise from his chair. Whatever he was going to say, the mayor and sheriff beat him to it. They shouted Lutz down. Sheriff Voight, at least, had seemed offended by the idea from the beginning. He leaned over into the older man’s face. Lutz shied away, his bleary eyes coming open much wider. When tempers calmed, though, Voight turned on the accountant.

“Please,” he said. He didn’t need to add anything more.

Denario spent another moment rubbing his forehead.

“I’ll make a deal,” he said eventually. “Fischer to live. But only if he takes a severe corporal punishment and a pilgrimage.”

“A whipping, of course. We’d counted on it. A journey as well? That may be good. What kind? For what god?”

“Lutz has a stake in it.” The accountant nodded to the nerve-wracked priest. It seemed wise to give him something. He would be staying, after all, and Denario would not return. “He should decide on the god. I have a say in the rest. Fischer allowed a boy to be tortured. He should have the same done to him, blow for blow. Then, wherever he goes on his travels, he will defer to children. He will protect them. He must swear to his gods to do it. I will make him swear. The priest will make him take similar pledges.”

Seidel rose to his feet. His fist pumped the air.

“This could be it,” he said. “A pilgrimage on foot, yes, begging for alms. The march must go right to the doorstep of our knight. Fischer must visit the Temple of Law. There are four lawgiving gods there, I hear. A spot for Contadin is among them. It’s perfect.”

“The usual rules of pilgrimages must apply,” said Lutz. “The pilgrim must have a quest. The quest must achieve some manner of holiness. He must wear holy symbols at all times, use a single, simple robe, and must live from the proceeds of begging. If he can’t plead his case successfully as he goes, he must starve.”

“If Sir Negri is at home when Fischer passes through, he can beg for the knight’s forgiveness,” Voight interjected.

“Risky.” Lutz steepled his fingers. His judgment seemed correct in Denario’s view.

“Fischer?” The mayor finished pacing to the end of the room. He spun back in the direction of the cell. He leaned forward and let his hands each catch on a bar. The conscious but beaten Grimsli son-in-law opened his eyes. On the floor, the former sheriff stirred. He lifted his head to the mayor. “Will you do it? Can you meet the conditions of the accountant and the priest? It will save your life.”

The red-nosed man couldn’t seem to stop sobbing. Eventually, he was able to nod. His tears seem to have switched from fear to relief without halting flow. He took two deep breaths, as if trying to prepare himself to speak, but he gave up.

“Fine,” muttered the mayor.

“Let’s begin with the robe. Hubert?” The priest gestured to the young man taking notes in the corner. Hubert smiled in an absent-minded way and put down his quill. Lutz continued, “I want you to find farmer Klempt or his wife. One of them must go to the closet at the back of the church. There are two robes. They are to bring the heaviest, roughest one.”

“Yes, father.” In a sing-song voice, he repeated to himself, “Klempt. Heaviest robe.”

“While our scribe takes care of that part,” Lutz continued as Hubert let himself out, “let’s start on the oaths of pilgrimage.”

In his cell, Fischer made a choking sound.

“I have no children,” he blubbered. How that was relevant, Denario couldn’t guess. But he repeated it. “I have no children.”

“Just as well ...” The mayor began. He stopped himself. Whatever unkindness he was about to impart, he thought better of it.

“Tell me what to swear,” Fischer pleaded.

Denario lifted himself from his chair. He was surprised to discover that his legs were trembling. Why am I tired? he wondered. Then he reflected that he’d spent two nights of bad sleep followed by an evening with none. He steadied himself. The mayor caught his eye. Together, the two of them stepped up to the bars of the jail cell.

The accountant modeled Fischer’s oaths after the ones that he and the dwarfs had elicited from Brand. There was still some magic around here, after all. A promise might be binding even before Father Lutz called on his god to enforce it. Denario rubbed his brow during the process. Partly because he was tired, he made himself very formal and his phrases very logical. It came naturally. Next to him, Jakob Seidel nodded. From the floor, Fischer repeated every syllable. He would have promised anything.

“I’m sorry about the boy,” the older man confessed. They were his first spontaneous words in several minutes. His wits seemed to be returning. “It was wrong to hurt Leonid. I knew it. I’m so sorry. So sorry.”

“That’s another thing.”

“Please!” the former sheriff raised his voice. Perhaps he was worried that Denario would regret his mercy. “I’ll never lay a hand on him. Of course. But I’m going away. When I’m gone, I won’t be here to protect him.”

Denario had included oaths about protecting children.

“Yes. It’s another thing, as I said, but it’s for everyone else. Did you know I was born a slave?” He glanced at Lutz. The priest opened his mouth. The accountant stared him down. Lutz’s gaze drifted to the hands in his lap, either from intimidation or shame. It was hard to tell. “I know how it is. Just in case any of you get ideas about how Leonid is to be treated. Just in case anyone in the town gets the wrong idea. When I return to this area, even as far as Sir Negri’s court, I'll ask about Leonid.”

“Ah,” next to him, the mayor gave a wistful smile. All eyes turned to him. “If you don’t mind, I may repeat those words to some of the townsfolk.”

“Sir Negri knows where I came from.” Denario tilted his head as he thought. The details of his life had never been a concern of the Marquis, of course, but everyone else in his court knew that Winkel had purchased his apprentice from Sir Blockhelm. If Negri wasn’t aware, it could only be because he, like most knights, had never regarded Denario as important enough to deserve attention. “East Hogsli might as well be aware too. Say what you will.”

He didn’t expect that the spectre of an accountant watching over the town would help. It was an especially idle threat when the accountant would be three days away on the fastest coach ride. If the mayor felt it would help to imply a threat, though, he was welcome to try. At the very least, the gentlemen in East Hogsli ought to be frightened by the prospect of another audit.

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