Sunday, May 12, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 163: A Bandit Accountant, 27.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Cubed

Scene Four: Parting with an Investment

Two rafts ahead, Jack steered around a sandbar. The dirt mound, larger than all of the rafts together and studded with patches of grass, appeared where a brook from the northwest met No Map Creek. Even though the creek had by this point grown broader than some rivers, it swelled even more where the waters joined. The flow pushed the rafts toward the sandbar, which was hard to dodge. It was as big as an island. Shrubs grew on the center of it.

Overhead, the morning light beat down on the crew. The sky was merciless, not a cloud for protection. Every man and dwarf wore a hat. Even then, they squinted to see against the reflections on the water, sun broken into flashes, carried by ripples. The river banks seemed impossibly far away. Jack steered them toward the west, against the current. It was the worst path to take, a lot of work for nothing. The accountant must have eyeballed the back of Jack’s head for a while because the master raftsman noticed. He swiveled to stare back. Then he shook himself. He tucked his punt under his arm, studied a path down the aisle of packages and barrels, and ran. He skipped from gunwhale to gunwhale, first boat to the second. He did this sort of thing so routinely now that the crew took notice only to step aside and give him a better place to land.

Jack touched down. He paused to hand Ulf his punt. Then he repeated the maneuver, middle raft to last. After that, he walked casually to Denario’s place at the rudder of the mallow vessel.

“Had to take a peek at the shore,” he said. “That’s why we’re on the northwest side. There’s no Gemelshausen, this time.”

“What’s that?”

“Gemelshausen is a town. Years ago, when I drifted by here, I spied it just over a hill at the joining of the creek with the Oupens Brook. Five spires from the town center showed over everything.”

“And now it’s destroyed?” Denario followed the gesture. There wasn’t even a hill.

“Doubt it. The town has its own magic. Gemelshausen comes and goes. I’ve encountered it upstream. Once, it was five miles north of the temple. Others have seen it even more. Travelers passing through Oupenli told me that Gemelshausen sometimes appears on the coasts of the Complacent Sea.”

“It’s a town that travels?”

“In a way.” Jack tucked his thumbs under the loop of rope that was his belt. “The place never seems to move while you’re on the border, mind you. But you can go in, spend a while, and come out in a different land. It’s akin to the magic of the creek.”

“A wizard once told me that magical lands are the results of violent explosions that bring melted rocks to the surface. Some of those rocks have augury in them. I don’t know what that is, exactly. But he said that magical wars do it, too. Wizards of old could boil the rocks and imbue them with the force of their spells. Whatever happened around here long ago, the creek and the disappearing town got their share.”

“More share than what’s fair, I’d say. All the same, it’s not so bad that we’re missing Gemelshausen. I’m owed something there but it’s not a good time to collect. I’ve got too much to sell in Oupenli already.”

“Will that be a problem?”

“A merchant is waiting for my last spring shipment. He’s expecting a certain amount of meat, mead, wine, and whiskey. Those are things he can sell. I’ve got more than he expects and all sorts of pickled goods. Can he afford them? Probably not all of them together. That means selling at reduced prices to other traders.”

“Reduced?” Denario frowned. His boat was part of the extra goods.

“Well, now.” Jack lowered his chin and chuckled. “Sometimes it’s higher prices. We’ll see. For sure, I’ll not be poor, and not just me. We’ll all end up with money in our pockets.”

The accountant’s pack was too heavy. He couldn’t have carried it this far on foot. Fortunately, Oupenli had bank offices. Denario leaned back for a moment as he planned his sequence of saving, spending, and selling.

The boatman cleared his throat. “By the terms of our second agreement, you got paid a boatman’s fee.”

“That’s to pay off your guild.” Denario nodded. “Our first agreement is where the profit lies.”

“Yes, a twentieth of the goods plus half of what we get for your raft itself. Maybe you didn’t drive such a bad bargain.”

“You did better. Your fees from my accounting work amount to a third of a raft, quite a bit more than my twentieth share.”

“I admit, I was surprised. You did better than I expected with math and fixing things. Was I worthwhile as your agent?”

“Easily.”

“Soon you’ll be rich for a boatman. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a lot for an accountant. I don’t know. But for a man with one raft and no experience, you did well. You are far enough ahead, I think, that it makes me wonder if you would give part of the proceeds from your raft to the dwarfs.”

“I’d thought of it, yes. I expected Boldor to ask me, considering the work he did. He donated the nails and other materials. Are you making the request for him as his agent?”

“I’m on my own this time. He has never mentioned what his crew spent on the job.”

“He and Dodni need help in bargaining.” The accountant saw the raft ahead of him steer into the current. The dwarfs were striving to avoid the sandbar. He tilted his raft to lend them as much aid as he could, tiller pushed hard to the right. On a suspicion, he grabbed a punt and tested the depth. It hit sand about three feet down. He kept it planted.

“They really are quite bad even after lessons.” The boat captain chose the next best punt and strode to the left corner. He drove it against the sand much harder than Denario had done. “Dodni is the best of the lot, really. Boldor should step back and give his assistant the title of negotiator.”

“You could suggest it.” Denario agreed. He pushed again. Jack leaned and thrust his arms farther. “Anyway, I did think of giving him a portion of the raft. You did too, so I expect it’s the right thing to do. As you say, I can afford it. I was going to give him a tenth. You should tell him I’m offering fifteen brassers or a silver piece and some brass for all that work.”

Jack grunted. “Why so little?”

“So you can encourage him to ask me for more. Maybe he can get me up to more than ten percent.”

“I see.” There was a twinkle of amusement in Jack’s eye.

“Give him some time to work up a few arguments.”

The dwarf chieftain didn’t approach the accountant until past noon, after they’d made two trading stops. First they docked on a riverbank owned by Sir Royval, a knight sworn to Baron Blockhelm. Royval’s agent paid cash for liquor. Second, they landed at Bumper Hausen, an independent town. The citizens there were not sworn to any of the nobles under the Duke of West Ogglia, such as Blockhelm or Royval. They lived under the protection of three independent knights and seemed to have merrier lives for it.

The Bumper Hausen citizens were delighted to meet the dwarfs and awarded them a barrel of beer. Boldor tried to refuse but the giving was too enthusiastic. Politeness was no match. In fact, he was barely heard. Also, the dwarfs were thirsty, so they drank it. Boldor did a favor in return by having his crew make repairs on a rowboat. He tried to leave that chore with no more than thanks but the mayor and the rowboat owner, laughing, said they couldn’t let that happen. The men chased after the rafts as they launched. They heaved fist-sized sacks of pennies into the middle vessel.

“That’s good luck, that is,” remarked Clever Jack.

“I suppose there’s no returning this without giving offense?” Boldor asked. He didn’t touch the money.

“You can give me my share and throw the rest away if you like.” Jack’s gaze narrowed. “But I wouldn’t advise it. You said you wanted to head up the river from Oupenli. We’re nearly there. Oupenli is expensive. So are the towns around it. No matter how you leave, you’ll spend cash along the way. However well you’ve planned, the money won’t go as far as you think.”

“Ah.” The chief conferred with Heilgar and Dodni. Even while they mumbled in dwarfish, Heilgar counted out the portion that belonged to Jack and handed it over. Then they came to some sort of conclusion. Dodni and Heilgar straightened Boldor’s hauberk, boot laces, and skullcap. A minute later, the chief approached Denario to see what the accountant would give for services rendered in fixing his raft. Cheeks flushed, Boldor recounted the materials spent on the task, which were forty wooden fasteners, a pack of sedge, and a two and a half wax-paper packets of waterproof resin.

Boldor asked for repayment of the materials. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to hope for a profit. Denario had to say a few encouraging words before the dwarf suggested that the quality of the work might entitle the dwarfs to something. In the end, the chief got the accountant to agree to five percent of the raft price. The dwarfs agreed to extol the virtues of the raft in return and get the best possible price for it. Boldor thought that was quite proper. Denario threw into the bargain, as a gift, the rest of the ten percent that he’d intended.

The problem seemed to be that the dwarfs valued themselves too little. They started negotiations with the idea that no one deserved anything, especially them. It was a moral point of view but it seemed likely to make their lives among men rather difficult.

“Toss the long rope,” Jack called at the next tie-down.

He had landed them at a dock shared by a knight and a two mid-level merchants, one a dealer in cloth, the other in perfumes. To the accountant’s surprise all three of their organizations wanted to buy a sampling of goods. The only category of produce they disdained was alcohol. Denario figured out why a few minutes later, as Jack talked with some of the dockhands and farmhands who came to do the bidding of their masters.

All of the locals wore the same kind of odd, round cap, even the women. The shape was reminiscent of a dwarfish skullcap complete with the hard leather brim. Their hats were almost as tough as helmets. The men and women had collars on their shirts, a strange thing to see on commoners especially in the heat of late spring, and the skins at their belts did not seem to hold beer, or red wine, or even water. Instead, they drank a concoction that smelled like scented mead and it was made mostly from honey.

“Why so different from the last town?” the accountant wondered.

“Our great-grandparents all came together on the same boat from Similli,” answered an elderly worker who was missing several teeth. He had a dark beard down to his waist. A moment later, seeing that he had failed to enlighten, he added, “It’s to the west of Muntabar.”

“Then your home was on the other side of the Complacent Sea.” Denario smiled, mouth open. “Why so far?”

“It was the damn magical waters.” The fellow shrugged. “The destination island moved or something. The captain kept on with the rest of his schedule. He offered to take our folks back to Similli for a price. They didn’t have the cash. He either put them out here or, according to some, they jumped ship to avoid being sold into slavery. Whatever happened, here we are.”

“Do you like it?”

“Love it, yes. Oupenli is my home. There’s no damn knights to push you around.”

“Don’t some of your relatives work for a knight?” He gestured in the direction of a group of men and two women, all wearing collars and skull caps.

“Ah, he’s all right. What I mean is, no one who reports back to the Duke or to the Marquis. They may call us commoners here but, truly, we are not serfs.”

Denario nodded. It was a sentiment he’d heard before in Oupenli. Despite the rough justice of their city, there was freedom to be had if you liked that sort of thing. This was almost the only area it was safe to voice an opinion in favor of it.

“Is that all of the apples?” the fellow asked as he put his foot on a barrel of pickled fruit.

“You want them all?”

“Hell, yeah. Boss tasted them. Whatever the upstream folks used for the pickling, he likes it. He said, ‘all.’”

“Jack!” The accountant waved his punt to riverman, who was taking a break on a grassy hillock over the dock, giving instructions to a few dwarfs, and generally acting like a boss. “Are you okay to sell the last of the apples?”

Clever Jack nodded happily. He rubbed his chin in thought. Something made him rise to his feet. He watched Denario pop the tie-downs off an apple barrel. In a moseying gait, he made his way down the hillock. He met the accountant and the local workers at the edge between the docks and the rafts.

“How much have we got left of everything?” he asked.

“Not much.” Denario knew exactly but he’d learned not to start out that way. “No beef except what you set aside for your deal. No pork at all. No duck, no chicken. You’ve got a half-keg of dried fish and two of pickled fish. There are four barrels of turnips. Six barrels of cabbages. Forty-eight kegs of wine. Sixteen of beer. Eight lightning. When the last of the apples goes, you’ll have no fruit. You’ve been selling off your provisions all day.”

“Got to, Den. There are only two other stops before the final.”

“Oh.” That made the accountant step back for a moment. The long journey was coming to an end. He’d reminded himself of the fact many times but he could hardly believe it. In fact, he’d memorized the itinerary. “You mean only one more, I guess. Your merchant should be two docks away unless we’re landing somewhere you didn’t mention.”

“My deal is not the last stop. We have to sell the rafts.”

“Oh, right.” He’d forgotten.

In a pair of pants that he hadn’t worn all trip, a fresh, linen shirt, and cap he’d borrowed from the accountant, Jack worked beside him. An absent-minded smile graced his features from time to time. Although he didn’t break a sweat, he helped Denario and the work crew load up a cart for the perfumer. When it could carry no more, he sent them on their way with a wave and a laugh.

“Yer raft is mostly done,” he remarked.

Denario glanced over the long rafts. He found himself nodding.

“Have you noticed how the prices of dried fruits and pickled meats have gone down?”

Denario hadn’t. “That’s bad for you, right?”

“It affects a portion of my shipment. Most of my prices are locked in by the deal. But those low prices are good luck for you and the dwarfs.”

“How so?” This was the first time in years that Denario felt like he’d missed an element in an analysis of the markets.

“We’re getting into the third year in a row of bumper crops coming down from No Map, Dead Kill, Clean Kill, and Riggle. That’s everything that leads into this side of the Complacent Sea. At this point, everyone around Oupenli has supplies to spare, even the semi-permanent military camps. The nobles here want to ship the produce farther. They smell a profit to be made somewhere with a poor harvest, I’ll wager. The destination for their shipments is far away, so when we sell our rafts they will fetch a higher price than usual. I’ve already had an offer of three silver pieces for yours.”

“Actual silver?”

“Don’t get too excited. You can do better. The dwarfs, too. I heard your negotiation with Boldor. He didn’t do as badly as I feared. But he’s not good. The dwarfs are not fit for their quest, not on their own. But Brand is with them.”

“Is he traveling their way?”

“He told me he’ll take them a few miles upstream as they follow one of their maps to a mine prospect. That doesn’t sound like much. Yet I wonder. That’s what he thinks he’s doing. What if his oath still holds? Could that be the reason he’s still with us?”

“It might,” Denario conceded after a moment of thought. “I don’t know how such things work beyond the magical lands.” Or at all, really, he thought. He’d gotten carried away when magic was thick in the air.

“He hasn’t bolted at any of the docks. It would have been easy. Yesterday, he met a merchant he knows. That fellow didn’t seem to like him much but still, he was willing to do business with Brand. That was the moment. The caravan leader I once knew would have seized his chance.”

Denario glanced down the eastern bank of the river, which was covered by red, clayish soil with amber streaks. Strewn throughout the ground were gray rocks, nubs of grass, and tall weeds. The former and likely-to-be-again caravan man stood with one foot on the grass, the other on the clay of the riverbank. His head was inclined downward to the fellow closest to him, who stood on the mallow raft. That was Schmurter, today in a gray shirt and dark trousers. He had coils of rope in his left hand.

The two men tied different knots, compared them, and took them apart. The accountant didn’t know if they were doing anything but wasting time. They didn’t seem to be up to anything sinister. Beyond them stood a couple of dwarfs, one of them Ragna. The stout fellow gave instructions to a dwarf on the third raft. Together, they seemed to be shifting weights on the boats in order to bring them back into balance.

Boldor, their chief, sat with Dodni on the hillock of grass close to the spot Jack had occupied. He stroked his beard. With his partner, he poured over one of their mine maps. The thinner, shorter dwarf gestured toward a symbol on the page. Then he pointed to the boat.

In the center of the third raft, near the dwarfs, sat Goyle. His body crouched to one side. The position hid his lamed left leg. His deformity made him a pariah in this dock – in all ports, actually. Usually the former Ogglian fighter didn’t even bother to climb onto the boardwalk. Today, as with most of the week, his boss avoided him as best as he could. Both knew what was coming. Brand would leave. Schmurter would go along. Goyle couldn’t. Not even the soft-hearted dwarfs would drag Goyle along on their forge cart. His life had been spared for no good reason. He had no prospects.

“What are you going to do about him?” Denario nodded in the direction of the cripple. “The dwarfs don’t feel any obligation. He attacked them. Brand doesn’t tolerate weakness. And I don’t think Goyle knows any trade except as a mercenary. That is a profession for which he no longer qualifies.”

“Why does everyone ask me?” Jack picked up a loose rope. With an impatient snap of his wrist, he coiled the first two feet of it. His hands flew to the wrap-up job. “You could take him in. You could afford to buy him a ride with you on a carriage to your city.”

“I’ve done well enough,” Denario admitted. “But do you think I can manage a sixth apprentice, one who can’t read or write or do basic math?”

“Eh.” The boatman turned his back to the accountant. His fingers finished the tie-up with a sort of cleat hitch. He dropped the packaged rope onto the deck. “In a city, he could beg.”

That's not much of a life, the accountant thought. He was dimly aware that his home town had a reputation for supporting indigents of all kinds, at least on the southeast end near the river shared with Angrhili.

The East Docks neighborhood, a jumble of formerly grand mud-brick palaces, now decaying next to makeshift dwellings built from ship salvage, supported the area's poorest and most vice-ridden citizens. Low-lifes shacked up beside shops that never closed. Boutique importers shared storefronts with small-time smugglers. Sometimes the shopkeepers and smugglers were the same people. Wounded war veterans, reduced to odd-work, beggary, and thieving, found homes next to the unfortunates who had been disfigured by disease. The boardwalk endured flurries of busy off-loading. Those were jobs that sometimes seemed urgent enough to warrant hiring bystanders on the spot. Sometimes ship gangs came through. They hired or kidnapped deck hands to replace those who had jumped ship.

“Goyle could catch on with one of the more desperate exporters,” he ventured.

“Nah. He's not like you. His boating skills are miserable. He doesn't even try to learn.”

He studied the pock-marked face and tried to imagine what a ship gang would see. Goyle did not look like a fast study.

“What if you taught him?”

“No. Anyway, what if he refused? He has shown no interest except in the stewpot.”

“You're making another run down the No Map this season to pick up the harvest.” Denario waved to the raft. “Hey, Goyle!”

The man in the green shirt swiveled his torso, a move that let him face the accountant while keeping his left leg hidden. Goyle didn't seem to feel any more ashamed of his lameness than other men but he didn't feel shame any less. Denario closed the distance to the edge of the raft. Behind him, he heard Jack edging closer.

“What's your plan for when Brand and Schmurter leave?”

The scarred visage scrunched up with a thought.

“Dunno,” he admitted after a moment. “I been asking in the last couple of days when anyone on these Ouplenli docks will talk with me. No one needs me. If I could get to the sea, I'd try to catch on with a ship as a cook's assistant.”

Not a bad plan, maybe a step better than the one that had occurred to Denario.

“Haven't seen you cooking,” Jack drawled. It was a fair point.

“No one wants my help.”

“Haven't seen you cleaning fish.”

“Don't really know how.”

“You don’t cut turnips right. I've seen you do that.”

“What if I pay Jack to give you lessons? For one more trip on the creek?” Denario watched Goyle cringe. He felt Jack next to him doing the same. For an uncomfortable few seconds, Goyle squinted at one of them, then the other.

“Don't the riverman owe me nothing.” He lowered his head.

“That's right,” said Jack.

"No accountant owes me a good turn neither." The former fighter hunched his shoulders. His sullen expression faded, replaced by a sad smile.

“True.” Denario jammed his thumbs into his belt. “All the same, you presently have no way to get from here to the sea. And a cook's assistant who can't clean a fish? I don't think you can sell that to any ship.”

“It's a flaw.”

“You have to change it. Suppose we make a deal. I'll chance some money on you in the hope you'll pay it back.”

“Hah, I'll pay it more.”

“That would be the right thing. But do as you can, no more. Don't put my money back in the bank if you still need it for food or transport.”

“What are you investing in?” Jack asked. His unsaid point was that he still might not agree. A lamed fighter was another mouth to feed, no more, unless proven otherwise.

“A mule first, I think.”

Goyle let out a whoosh of air. Jack whistled. He tried to put a sarcastic expression on his face but the look in his eyes showed that he'd been impressed.

“Too much,” breathed the scar-faced man next to them.

“I've had a few minutes to think.” Denario put his hands on his hips. “How else are you going to get upriver? Jack, do you ride?”

“I walk. I've got deals waiting for me to march with the caravans. I'm experienced. I make a fine wage. Still, I go on foot. Goyle would need some sort of mount, you're right.”

“I've led mules on a tether before,” Goyle volunteered. He rubbed his chin. “I've sat on one, too.”

“We would need to reach at least Barrel Bad before we looked to buy lumber.” Jack scratched his balding head under his cap. “Killem Thal would be better. I have a deal for supplies in that town, plus more deals waiting to the northeast. Picking the right place and right day to start is always tricky. It would be tougher with Goyle along.”

“You would sell the mule at wherever you decide to start making your raft,” Denario reminded them. “That would start the return on my investment.”

“You'd start with a loss, then.”

“Would it be better to trade the donkey for raft materials? Or kegs of beer?” Apparently, Goyle had been listening to the math lessons.

Jack cocked his head and eyed Goyle sideways. “Well, that part is right.”

“So it can be done.” After waiting a second too long, Denario realized that this was the moment to seize. “Are you both agreed to try? For one season, Goyle, you would have to be on Jack's side. I mean truly on it. You would clean and cook. You would guard Jack's interests. That would mean protecting the boats and trade goods with your life.”

“That I can do.” Goyle raised his voice and a short staff in his right arm.

“The creek will be at its toughest,” Jack countered. “It's more than just robbers and sneaks during harvest time. Other raftsmen will challenge us if we look weak.”

Goyle flexed his arm more believably than Denario ever could.

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