Sunday, June 2, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 165: A Bandit Accountant, 28.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Second Perfect Number

Scene One: The Remainder

Saying goodbye to the dwarfs took hours. A few minutes into the first speech, Jack Lasker figured out how things were going. He set a plank between two posts, tapped a barrel of peach beer, and cracked open a box of dried figs. Sir Redumonde, apparently unwilling to appear outdone by a commoner, ordered his men to dig into his mule packs and pass out pieces of hardtack. Boldor, dwarf chief, saw the makeshift table set with beer, fruit, and bread and ordered his folks to add to it. That meant a slice of cheese, two fresh grapes apiece, and a chunk salted fish for everyone. Only Brand protested. He didn't want the dwarfs to part with anything, probably because he intended to live off of them for a while.

"It is a shame that we must leave behind a friend," said Borghild during his turn. He spoke from a bench that had been turned into a sort of dwarf lectern. He leaned forward, hands against the plank, when he wanted to emphasize his points. "Especially before finding our home. We would be blessed to travel in such company all the way into darkness. Yet I tell you, with his interpretation of maps and his lessons in geometry, our friend has helped us find our way down in the world."

The knights looked at each other, bewildered. Men would say that a friend had 'helped them see the light,' not the dark, or had 'helped them up' but dwarfs didn't consider that a safe direction. Denario had been listening to the dwarf idioms for long enough that he'd forgotten how strange they sounded at first.

"There are some dwarfs who advance their professions," Borghild continued. "We pride ourselves on it. But we have heard of few men who advance any art at all. This accountant, whom we have called Skilling for these past weeks, is one of them. He is a master to the masters."

In fact, the accountant had only spent a bit more than two weeks in their company. Denario rubbed his eyes. He had grown to be friends with Borghild, Torgrim, Ulf ... well, all of them. That had happened fast, hadn't it?

He felt awful for leaving the group. It was worse than abandoning Vir and Alaric, really, because those two had an impossible task and were destined to die striving for it. The whole Mundredi countryside, caught between their Raduar brethren and their West Ogglian noble rulers, was doomed. The dwarfs, though, had a chance to find safety in a mine before the worst of the fighting swept over these lands.

The only thing that made this a rational decision for Denario was his boys. Buck, Guilder, Kroner, Shekel, and Mark were waiting.

Each dwarf said words of thanks to the accountant for the geometry they'd learned from him, for his minor proofs of mathematical theory, for his advice on humans, for his ideas on mines that might be worthwhile, and even for what they called his bravery.

"It has truly been a blessed meeting!" Jofrid burbled during his farewell session. He surprised the accountant by breaking into sobs. His lot in life, a fortnight before, had been reduced from master craftsman to almost a dwarf commoner. His group had suffered from thefts of materials, such as iron ingots, and no one had felt the losses more than Jofrid. That the accountant had helped to recover equipment and had traded for raw materials had changed Jofrid's life.

About halfway through the testimonials, salutes, hugs, and toasts to Denario's health, the knights and squires approached the accountant. Except for the best-dressed squire, everyone had a cup of ale in hand.

"Did you really fight brigands?" Duval leaned close. His eyebrows had raised higher and higher during the dwarf speeches. His disbelief seemed matched by his surprise.

"Very badly," Denario assured him. "I'm only an accountant. Your protection and courtesies will be needed to see me safely through my mission and into Oupenli."

"You're alive with only scars on your arms. And your forehead."

"Luck."

That was the truth but the fighting men took the statement as a sort of modesty. Duval whispered to one of his retainers. Denario didn't realize it but the fellow had ordered his saddlebags removed from his squire's roan pony. The steed would be loaned to the accountant for the duration of their trip together.

"Who taught you swordsmanship?" ask Redumonde. If the knight had belonged to the Ogglian court, it would have been a dangerous question. Nobles didn't like just anyone to learn. The decision to teach was never carelessly made, despite Denario having been involved.

"Squires in the court of Oggli, with permission," he replied in an offhand manner since he was being vague. He left out his lessons from the swordmaster, Sir Giles Compte. Giles had discouraged him. "I was hopeless, really."

Everyone had felt he was awful except for a few squires who thought he was funny and perhaps Vir De Acker. Denario knew it would be dangerous to mention Vir, however. Outside of the Seven Valleys, the man was a bridgand who had killed a knight, probably murdered other knights, and had definitely slain squires and men-at-arms besides. In the eyes of city men, Vir was a criminal who would be put to death by public torture if captured.

For weeks, Denario had thought of Vir as a tribal leader. It was the truth. But in his tour of the valley edges and in the towns south of the mountains, he had lost track of the West Ogglian view. Sharing the company of knights brought the matter home.

"The ways of the gods are mysterious," said one of youngest men-at-arms.

"Eh." Redumonde grunted. "Someone trained you right."

Fortunately, Redumonde was the senior man, so no one said a word to oppose him and that settled that.

At a break in the speeches between Dodni and Boldor, the master boatman Jack approached his former crew member and accountant.

"Time to settle my debts," began Jack. That was an odd way to start because they had already settled. "One of the best bargains I've made was being your agent, Den. Never thought of accounting as a place for greatness before. But your math is something. Your boating is fine, too. All right, you can't jump a lick. You can’t run. But you would make a fine riverman all the same. Please send my blessings to your boys."

He pressed a bit of extra cash into Denario's palm. The trader, Solvetkin, took note. So did the squires. Without looking down to see the amount, Denario, flipped about half between his fingers.

"I will surely give them your blessing. We will seek you out someday, at least to break bread together. More, if we find journeyman jobs along the creek."

"Aha!" Jack seemed pleased by the latter idea. "If I find those, I will write to Denario of Oggli."

"Good. Probably 'Ugly Accountant' would still find me."

They shared a laugh. Denario slipped half of this coins back to the Jack as they clasped hands.

"For your temporary apprentice. A rising tide lifts all boats, they say." Denario put his hands on his hips and nodded at the crippled man to the left.

"Yes, I take your meaning." Jack did not smile. He accepted the partial payback with a grim nod. "But you'll notice that they don't say that the rising tide lifts all anchors."

"I'd pray to Melcurio that Goyle rises to the task but, as you know, Melcurio doesn't work that way. So we'll have to see."

"Hah."

Behind Jack, Goyle gave a quick wave of the hand. He had decided either that he was friends with Denario now or he understood that the accountant and river master were talking about him.

At last, the chief of the dwarfs stepped over to the lectern. He leaned against the wood, knuckles pressed on either side. His beard flattened against the stomach of his smart-looking hauberk. A few weeks before, he had worn wool on his head. Today, he set down his steel cap before he began his speech. He wore boots with polish. His companions had dressed his calves with greaves of steel. On his forarms lay bands of metal that were much like the gauntlets of a knight. By some dwarfish art, his leather and metal armor had been blackened to nearly the same shade. It had been done in a pattern that was, almost surely, useful and morally approved. But it was also smart-looking.

Oddly, a part of the speech that Boldor gave proved to be identical to one that Master Winkle had given, year after year, during the Wintertide festival in the guild hall in Oggli, when he was faced with the assemblage of accountants and book keepers.

"In this world, we see great math and small math," said Boldor, hands on either edge of the lectern. "Do not underestimate the little additions and substrations of our lives. Do not think that they are frivolous. For what lies in them? Only our accomplishments and our debts, our feasts and our famines, our promises kept and our vows broken. Does it matter if we are cheated by a currency exchange? No, not unless such exchanges are part of our everyday business, which they are. Does it matter if a cabbage gives us fifty leaves or only five? No, not unless the harvest is affected, as it so often is. By such small math do we live or die. By such modest deeds and markers do we adjust the course of our lives."

The choice of words seemed dwarfish but, for a moment, Denario's gaze scanned the dock area for Winkel's ghost. Dwarfs and dock workers smiled at him.

"Those who remain ignorant of their math, of their circumstances in life, do not know how to pilot themselves," Boldor continued. "They become confused by light and reflection. They steer wrongly. They grow frustrated by obstacles. They do not understand how minor deeds change their course. They can't read a map."

Boldor gave his audience a regal, sly smile.

"Thanks to our friend, Master Denario, we know better than once we did. We are endarkened. We feel the bones of the earth. We will find ourselves a mine. We will delve deep and make it our home."

After the dwarf finished his speech, he lumbered in his half-armor to where the dirt road met the dock. There, he stretched out his arms and embraced the accountant. Denario had to crouch to meet him shoulder to shoulder, something that didn't happen to him often.

Boldor murmured a few words in dwarfish to which Den nodded in agreement even though he didn't understand. Behind the chief came other dwarfs in a line, each to give a hug and a blessing in their turn.

After the hugs and handshakes had come around for a second go, after the food had been packed away, and after everyone had shared another drink, the dwarfs looked around and got the hint. They could see that the teamsters had hitched their mules to Denario's raft. The merchants had loaded their carts. The dock hands had started leaving for home.

"It's time," allowed Boldor with a sigh.

"We can't see you off in the style we should," said Heilgar.

"Look us up when we have our mine." The chief gestured for his subjects to board Clever Jack's rafts. He remained on the dock closet to Denario, himself. "Then we can host a celebration for our benefactors."

"Master accountant!" called one of the knight's men. He was leading a pony by the bridle.

The look that Denario gave him must not have shown much perception of the situation.

"Here is your steed, master." The fellow tried to hand over the reins.

"This will save time," said Sir Duval. He nodded permission to the accountant, perhaps because he thought the accountant's relucance was due to a sense of social class. "Besides, it will be an honor to ride beside the hero of many battles."

Denario looked around for the hero. After a moment, he patted his chest as he realized that the knight meant him.

"Um." He felt his cheeks warm.

"Go on." The knight smiled with a kind sort of humor.

Denario mounted awkwardly. The assistant had to cup his hands and help him into the saddle as if he were a woman or the spoiled son of a merchant. That seemed to set everything right, though. Everyone had a laugh. Denario's gaze passed wistfully to his possessions, most of which were tied down on his raft. He wished he could ride with them. But the mules begrudged every ounce that they had to drag upstream, so Den was probably fortunate that the teamsters didn't know how much his bags weighed. If they did, they would have demanded that he shift the burden to his poor pony.

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