Chapter Three Cubed
Scene Five: Handshakes All Around
News of the deal spread from dwarf to dwarf. By the time the rafts cast off again, most of the short folk seemed to know about the arrangement. Dwarfs on Denario's raft approached him about it, one by one.
Ragna lumbered over to him first. He wrapped the accountant in a heartfelt embrace.
“Rightly are you called Skilling,” he said. He thumped Denario on the shoulder.
Next was Torgrim, who happened by to give him a silent squeeze of the forearm. That turned into a handshake, then a bow. After he left, Ulf waited for a moment. He was the last companion on board with Denario and he held an oar, which gave him the pushing and steering job. Nevertheless, he found a calm spot in the water, during which his help was clearly not needed, and he put down the oar.
He approached, clasped hands with Den, and murmured, “Well done.”
Foremost among the dwarfs, Ulf had taken to wearing fishmail armor. It was likely due to his experiences near the Forgotten Temple and East Hogsli. At least, the habit had begun then. It continued due to the presence of so many men on the river and around the docks. The other rafts on the water made him wary. He looked and acted tougher than he had two weeks before.
On the other the watercraft, fore and aft, men and dwarfs took the news differently. Schmurter shook hands with Clever Jack and turned to Goyle for a playful shove. His boss, also on Jack's boat, remained silent for nearly a quarter-hour. The tall fellow spent his time sulking and glowering at his men, the one who would be going with him and the one he'd planned to abandon. When at last he reached some sort of decision, he strolled over and punched Schmurter, apparently for the show of affection. He stalked over to master Jack, afterward. He bent his head for a quick word. It looked like a respectful moment but not a warm one.
When Brand lifted his gaze, his eyes locked on Denario. He glared. It was a challenge. That seemed odd.
The accountant wondered what it was about. What was going through the big man's mind? Den had his boat-work to keep him busy, though. He had to run to the other side to push his raft away from a sunken log. By the time he could shoot a questioning look over to his captain, Jack, that man wasn't paying attention. When Jack finally noticed Den, he indicated Brand and shrugged. He didn't know why the caravan captain was angry about the arrangement either. It was just another mystery of a complicated personality.
“Ahoy, Jack!” cried the dock attendants of their last delivery site. Five of them scrambled, short and tall, muscular and thin, to bring the rafts to their master's pier.
“You've been overly clever this time, Jack,” said the merchant when he arrived partway through the unloading. “You have a third raft. Extra goods. This is not part of our bargain. I can't accept the excess produce. Under the circumstances, I might be able to take a raft or two, just the wood pieces, off of your hands but only if they come cheap.”
“Ho, Master Solvetkin.” Jack laughed at the thought of parting with his rafts like that. He did not take off his hat before he began to deal with the merchant, Denario noticed.
Solvetkin wore a fine, linen shirt, dyed burgundy red, with a brown cloak thrown across his shoulders. He did not wear breeches or trousers. Instead, he had a sort of kilt or skirt with sharp, military gray lines woven in. Beneath, there were burgundy leggings, apparently silk. The curled tips of his shoes arched back toward his shins like small bows. They even had bowstrings to hold them. Gem stones encrusted the tips. Denario looked higher up and saw a white broach on the man's shirt. The fellow played with the broach for a moment. There were rings on all of his fingers.
“How is the pickled beef?” asked Solvetkin.
“The best.” The boatman smacked his lips, perhaps in memory of the taste. “But I've got too much. You can take your pick before the knights arrive.”
“Well, Sir Redumonde since this is his home harbor, too. And one of his fellows sent word to us that Sir Redumonde has invited his friend Sir Duval. Duval will buy my remainders.”
“I had no idea that Duval was getting into the army supply business.” Fingers worried at the many rings.
“I don't know his aims, I'm sure. Both knights have made offers on my rafts.”
Solvetkin yanked the burgundy cap off his head and slapped his knee with it.
“Now, now,” said Jack. “I haven't accepted any offers for the vessels yet.”
“You have spotted the lay of things, though.” Solvetkin sighed.
“I'm not deaf and dumb.” Jack gave a sardonic smile. He opened his hand as if to indicate the path that his partner had chosen for them. “I'll entertain a fair offer. If you're outbid, Solvi, that's business. You always tell me, it's a business.”
“Aye.” The merchant had to be the sort who liked to keep things calm and not overly friendly. Master Winkel had been that way himself. He had approved of traders who felt the same. He probably would have trusted Solvetkin, in his way. Only so far. That was the point. But Denario had seen a contrasting example in the way Vir De Acker did business. The clan chief made deals based almost entirely on a slow build-up of his grudging trust. He inspired people to believe in him. It was not done in the way of a confidence man or a trickster. It was something else. Denario had not yet figured out what it was but it bore some consideration as a way of life.
Resigned, Solvetkin swung his cap back onto his head.
He and Jack proceeded to count up. Denario listened to how Solvetkin rated the produce in each barrel, flask, and crate. Those deemed good enough to attract the highest prices from the nobility got an A grade. The sort of fare that local tradesmen would buy from one another got a B. Provisions that were acceptable but not popular, Solvetkin stamped with a letter C. The C grade items got sent to the military. Although the army quartermasters inspected their goods, they did not insist on the best. Rather, they insisted on the cheapest.
Solvetkin seemed to regret the pickled cabbages and rhubarb. However, they were part of his bargain and he could find no fault with them. Jack's business with the merchant was so ordinary, in fact, that it was overshadowed by the arrival of two knights in informal dress. They arrived together, each on horseback, with two squires and a pair of Redumonde's freemen walking alongside. Behind them came a teamster crew, four men with mules. Denario had seen teamsters from afar before, usually from the safety of a coach or from the Paravienti office on the south Oggli docks.
The mule drivers were rough men, famously so. They led teams of animals to pull rafts and barges through the canals around Oupenli, Oggli, and Angrili. The nature of their jobs took personal force. Muscles bulged in their arms. Veins throbbed in their muscles. They wore beards cut close and their hair cut long like donkey tails. Scars showed on their hands and on their faces.
“You are Clever Jack?” called one of the knights from his horse.
“I am, sir.” The boatmaster gave a friendly nod that hinted of a formal bow. Again, he failed to remove his hat but this time his manner changed. The knights demanded a cautious sort of respect.
Their necks were thicker than their arms. Their boots were laced tight to their calves. One of the knights pulled his right foot from its stirrup and swung himself around to stand entirely on the left stirrup before he dismounted. He conveyed a sense of motion that would have made poets swoon if they were the sort who wrote about martial arts. In all, both noblemen looked at least as tough as the teamsters but with a veneer of education rubbed over top. Their haircuts looked freshly trimmed. One of them, perhaps Duval because he was quiet, had shaved his blonde beard except for the mustache. His plain brown hauberk was not as stylish as the red and gold one worn by his companion but there was no mistaking that it was expensive.
“Take your pick, Redumonde,” the fellow said. “Just leave me something.”
“Not a problem.” The larger knight remained on his horse. He nodded to one of the squires. That man, on foot, wore chainmail even though it was clearly unnecessary. Perhaps the attire was a matter of pride for him. He looked about Denario's age although, of course, half again larger. “After my last trip to the armorer, I don't have funds left to buy a whole raft of goods. My men and I are after what we can defend at the crossroads. We'll resell it at the Riggle Dock. That means mostly liquor and metals.”
“Don't you have to take the tariff road?” Duval sounded curious.
“We don't pay that.” Redumonde snorted. “Not paying it is where I get the money for my men. Build up your own fighting force and you won't pay, either. Your four are not enough, by the way.”
“A score, more like. The knights there, Huber and Von Brandt, are the worst bastards. They kill a couple of people every year, usually hired men-at-arms trying to protect their merchant. The merchant is almost always someone a bit isolated from others of his class and surprised at a sudden hike in the tariff.”
“There's no sailing past?”
“Not at all. That's worse. At least Huber and Von Brandt allow coaches on the trail. Most foot travelers pass with a standard fee. On the river, the knights who control the canals have a wooden portcullis they can drop. They don't much care if it sinks you or kills the crew. They have posted bowmen along the river banks to put arrows into your eyes. They have two wizards. Two!”
“How can they afford all that?”
“River shipping is where the money is. Due to the tolls, only the wealthiest of merchants have the means. You have to be able to deal in bulk or there isn't enough profit. Of course, many of the guilds can afford to get through. They arrange for the best rates. The West Ogglian army, too.”
“Ah, well, the army has its own wizards. And they can do better than a handful of archers if they have a mind to it." Duval stared into the distance for a moment. "It wouldn't surprise me to find that the knights along the river pretend to take the army's money but give it right back in bribes. That's how the Bagrian army does things.”
“Ogglian, too, I think. They all take bribes now, I suppose, since the breakup of the empire.”
“Those were better days,” said Duval.
While the knights conversed in front of Denario, their men selected goods from the rafts. As Redumonde suggested, his squire gathered the lightest and most expensive items. The man was pleased to find, along with the whiskey and meat, that there were finished goods remaining. Those included two boxes of high-end candles with timer marks, two hourglasses, a bolt of cloth, a case that had previously held twelve compasses but now held six, a mechanical clock, four wooden cog wheels, and brass parts for a distillery.
“I suppose you want the compasses, Duval.” Redumonde grunted.
“Yes, but the cheap turnips and any other food you leave is fine. Cloth, too. The army will pay for anything that can be pickled or worn.”
“If you're thinking they'll want to buy uniforms from you, you're mistaken.”
“Why not? Clothes wear out.”
“It's that they're cheap bastards. You've got almost no chance. Even if you hire the cheapest seamstress in town, you'll make nothing but a loss.”
Duval nodded. “I'll take your recommendation.”
The elder knight rubbed his beard. “The cloth goes with me this time. It's mid-grade linen, which is more of a luxury than the army likes. You've got the compasses. That's an item for the officers. They'll take the rest of your goods more seriously because you've got those. Make your best profit, of course, so you can acquire more from the next vessel.”
“Can I afford one of these rafts?” Duval returned to his horse. He placed his left foot in a stirrup and swung up onto the dangerous beast as gracefully as he'd dismounted.
“Take it up with the boatman and his guards. I don’t know about affording but I do know Jack. He's a decent sort.”
Redumonde gestured in the direction of the master boatman on the dock in front of his vessels and barrels for trade. The shorter, lighter-haired knight sighed.
Denario, timing his movement with care, stepped out in the path of the gesture so that both men looked at him. He strode forward a few paces. Both men were a head taller than he was, rested atop their horses besides, and in addition the horses stood on the rise of land above the dock, so they looked down at him in a rather dramatic fashion.
“Are you going directly to the army camp?” he asked Duval.
“That is the idea, yes.” A finger ran over the curly end of his mustache. “Who are you?”
“I am Denario, accountant of Oggli.”
The young knight leaned back. “You don't look like an accountant.”
“I have business with the army.” Denario shrugged. He couldn't do much about his lack of an accounting robe at the moment. “There is a report I must submit for them. And I also own one of these rafts.”
The knight nodded.
“From the way you and the others act, I suppose it's balsa one.” A smile of regret led him to an open-hand sweep toward the mallow timbers. Except for giving the wrong name to the type of wood, he had made a shrewd guess. “That's the most expensive of the three, surely. I can't afford it.”
“True, that one is mine. However, I owe the dwarfs a share of the raft for their repairs to it. I owe Jack as well. If you buy them out for your share of the raft, we could take it together to the army camp. That was your plan, yes? It must be why you brought teamsters along.”
“I've already paid them a fee.”
“Well, I won't take advantage by charging more than the going rate for my raft.” He couldn’t help feeling a smile creep onto his face. The knight was talking. He was willing to let Demario try to persuade him. “If you manage to sell it to the army for a profit, you'll get your share.”
“Damn. Dealing with commoners feels unnatural. You're an accountant? A city native?”
“I'm returning from work in Zeigeburg.”
“Good gods. That's practically the end of civilization, isn't it? The last city in the most western county of these lands, I hear. But you look like a foreigner. Your skin is dark like a native of Muntar, maybe, or one of the islands.”
Denario shrugged. He knew how he looked.
“Right. It doesn't matter. I'll have to see what's fair for the raft.”
Denario had been to several docks and had listened closely. He named a seven-silver price. Duval got a far-off look for a moment. He leaned his horse to the right and it trotted off so that he could talk to the teamsters.
“Half that,” he shouted after a minute.
“Six for the whole raft, three for your part,” Denario called back.
The knight consulted his his men.
“Two and ten for my part, as if the raft is five. But you take an extra ten percent of the profit from the army, if there is any. There might not be any at that price.”
“If the army won't buy it, others will,” Denario pointed out.
That got the group of them nodding. The squires and teamsters agreed with that assessment.
“Two and fifteen, then? For half of the boat?”
“That's low. But you'll feed me, protect me with your caravan, and extend to me your usual courtesies?”
“Absolutely.” The man smelled a good deal getting close.
“Fine. I want to get home. It's done.”
Denario marched over to Duval to shake on it. He knew that was how knights did their business. Sir Duval looked a bit taken aback for a moment but he laughed at himself. Then he leaned down to take the accountant's hand.