Sunday, June 16, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 167: A Bandit Accountant, 28.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Second Perfect Number

Scene Two: Army Business

Denario had forgotten how political and miserable modern civilization could be. He had said a kind hello to one of the teamsters. Both men had glared at him in silence. They were laborers. They did not make friends with fools among the merchant classes.

Likewise, Duval’s squire stalked off to the side of their traveling party. They young man had been born to the gentry, it seemed, and he was proud to keep his soul clean of merchant class talk. Besides, Denario had taken his ride. So there was a feeling of being slighted to add to his attitude as well.

All of this meant that the accountant’s pony cantered alongside Sir Duval. Unlike the others, the knight took no offense. In fact, he seemed bored by his usual retinue and happy to ask for news about his homeland, which was a town between Bagghi and Agrabar called Chinnupbar. However, Den had not heard of Chinnupbar except for the Third Great Abacus there. It was a mechanical device with levers and gears. The main difference between it and other old machines was that the item in Chinnupbar was intact. In fact, it resided in a bank attic along with other calculating machines, also mostly in working order.

Duval had led a spoiled existence in his hometown even by the standards of other knights. As a second son, he stood to inherit no lands but he got an education just in case something befell his older brother. His father paid for equipment, sword lessons, and girls. He didn’t force Duval into a marriage. When his father at last fell ill, Duval’s brother had paid for the knight to travel. In effect, Duval was being told to shove off to somewhere else permanently. But the instruction came with money and a shipping fee for Duval’s favorite horse, Chumpy.

“Chumpy is the most agile steed ever ridden into battle,” the knight asserted. He patted the flank of his black beast. “Although I have only been in one battle, the Eastern Defense of Agrabar, and I didn’t see much action. Chumpy nimbly stepped through the ranks of the fallen and never threw a shoe, twisted a hoof, or jostled me. When a cowardly knight, in his retreat, tried to turn and attack me, his horse hit an armored body and keeled over. The knight fell unconscious, as you might expect.”

“Did you then fight him on foot?”

“Good gods, no. Wouldn’t have been fair. When he woke up, I accepted his surrender and sent him back to the capture tent. That’s where he had to await his ransom.”

Denario tried to imagine this style of comabt going up against the Mundredi or Raduar. It was hard to fit both types of warriors into the same mental picture.

“You know,” said Duval that afternoon, “I do wish you would put on your guild robes or something.”

“I have the vest. And the hat.” Den patted the only bag on his pony. “Will that do?”

“Quite. I don’t now if you’ve noticed but the soldiers that we passed a few minutes ago gave you a dirty look. It’s one thing to be the toughest accountant. It’s quite another to be the weakest warrior in sub-standard armor.”

Denario hadn’t noticed. In his profession, he was accustomed to expressions of contempt from armed men. It wasn’t the rule but that was probably because they didn’t notice him most of the time. In court, it was common. If the marquis or a count or some other noble invited ‘bean-pushers’ to the court, it was to prove a point. No one wanted to be at the wrong end of that point. To most fighting men, there was something unfair about it. Using accountants was regarded, literally, as a lower-class move.

With his vest and hat showing over his base armor, Denario drew amused glances from the next batch of soldiers they passed. At the gate to camp, however, the guards greeted him like a hero. It took Den a moment to realize that their enthusiasm was for the raft of supplies they saw being dragged upstream behind Den by the mules. One of the teamsters had to use a punt to steer. Still, the greeting made everyone feel welcome.

“Report to the quartermaster tent to receive your appointment.” The sergeant at the desk behind the gate handed Den and Sir Duval each a set of travel passes. “At this time of day, the best you can hoe for is tomorrow morning. If Sir Heimdahl’s secretary likes you you’ll be second or third on the schedule. If you slip him an extra brass, he’ll write you out meal passes for the night.”

Sir Duval insisted that the accountant should lead the way through camp. Even though Den had never set foot inside this particular training area, he remembered how they worked based on his trip with Master Winkel. Back thenm, they had helped the army engineers plot out camp roads and order the correct numbers of paving stones, supports, bridge beams, and the like. The camp north of Oggli had been used to build war engines. Those were expensive and the marquis would have had the senior engineer whipped if a trebuchet, for instance, had gotten stuck in the mud before even rolling out the main road to Faschnaught.

“Right. Second appointment tomorrow.” The secretary hardly looked at the coins he accepted. He turned straight to his quill and ink. “Do you want into the mess hall?”

“No need.” Duval added a few pence to the coins Den had contributed. “Here’s a little something for your trouble all the same.”

“In that case,” said the well-shaved man with a grin, “I’ll write you a note for the wine garden.”

After they were out of earshot, Den asked why the knight hadn’t paid for dinner as they’d agreed.

“Change of heart,” said Duval. “Or rather, change of stomach due to what Sir Redumonde told me about the army food. The mess hall is not for the officers. I’d rather treat us to a meal from my supplies.”

On their return to the raft, which had made it to the army dock, Denario discovered that the squire and man-at-arms had kept their eyes on the teamsters. Likewise, the mule drivers had viewed the upper classes with suspicion. No one had been able to thieve from the raft or from Den’s personal bags. His long hair lay untouched across the top of his best backpack. The clock spring inside the accounting bag pressed against the leather cover, waiting to pop out a penny with the gouge across the face of it. All of the distinctive puzzle pieces to the accountant’s arrangement of his belonging had gone undisturbed.

That night, he slept on the raft and traded stories with the knight and his retinue until they all fell asleep. It felt a bit like the Muntabi army except for not being huddled in a dogpile to protect against the cold.

“And you are the famous accountant,” said the quartermaster, Sir Heinrich Heimdahl, in the morning. He accepted the appointment vouchers, one in each hand, and returned them to his secretary. His secretary, Albrecht, stacked them on his lectern, which was shorter and narrower than his boss’s desk. He also took the beer cup from his boss’s hand and casually swapped it for another that was full.

“Oh, you know him, too?” Duval laughed. “He really is famous.”

“I have heard from one of my lieutenants named Dvishvili. The lieutenant comes from a good family, quite well connected. He complains about his terms and pay but in a way that seem fair. He said that he met the best young accountant from the Court of Oggli while on patrol in a war zone. The accountant’s name was Denario.”

“Yes.” He was surprised that the courier system had beaten him here. “That’s correct.”

“Dvishvili said his orders had been illegally changed. The accountant, by means of mathematics, could prove the accusation.”

“Also true.”

“Dangerous stuff.” The quartermaster brushed a crumb from his captain’s insignia, which was a tab of metal engraved with a double-lance. It had been sewn onto his hauberk. The hauberk itself was thin, strictly ceremonial, and it was painted with his personal coat of arms, now fading. “That made me think. Wasn’t there a wanted poster up for an accountant? Very unusual, that. Not the sort of thing you forget.”

He stared at Denario. Den didn’t move. Sir Duval gawked at them both.

“So.” Sir Heimdahl cocked his head and lifted his elbow. He tossed back half of his second morning drink in a gulp. “I took a stroll over to the message offices. That’s where they keep the wanted notices. And do you know what I found?”

Denario let his hands swing free. He glanced to the door flap of the tent, just in case. No one was standing in his way.

“Nothing.” The older man laughed. “The poster had been taken down and replaced with an X mark. That’s what they put up when a job has closed out. No more reward, you see. No way to check if it was for you.”

The accountant didn’t smile but he allowed himself a nod.

“Do you play cards, accountant?” For the first time since they’d arrived, the quartermaster limped a few paces from behind his desk. “You seem like you might. It would be fun to have a game sometime. Anyway, here you come to me wanting your pay for an accounting job, which by Dvishvili's description was tricky, and for which I’ll want proof. And you’ve brought trade goods to me as well. You appear to be quite the young businessman. Do I understand correctly that you jointly own a balsa raft that is loaded with supplies for my army?”

“We do,” said Duval and Den more or less together. Den clarified, “The logs are from mallow trees.”

“That’s a type of balsa,” Sir Heimdahl replied knowledgeably. A moment later, he paused and touched his lip. “Or anyways, I don’t think that anyone around here knows the difference. Light, strong woods and especially those woods made into decent rafts are in short supply. I’ll tell you, the army could use a better vessel in our canal.”

“What happened to your previous?” asked Duval.

“The best one got sold.” Heimdahl stole a look at his secretary. “The price was so good, I couldn’t stay angry. We had our enlisted men build a replacement raft, of course. But it is terrible.”

“We are looking ...” Duval began. He tilted his head in the accountant’s direction for a moment. “At least, I myself am looking to establish a supplier relationship with the army. If the deal is generally good and assures me of decent treatment next time, then the price for the raft becomes less important.”

“So that’s your half.” Heimdahl clasped his hands behind his back. He turned to the accountant. “What about you?”

“I’m looking for the best price,” said Den, confident that his partner would be happy to hear it. Duval didn’t feel it was honorable to haggle. Nevertheless, he would be delighted to have a tradesman do it for him. “The army won’t give us that. And that means I had decided to go elsewhere. There is the matter of my accounting pay, though. My guild would not be happy if I didn’t demand payment in full. Perhaps we can work something out.”

“Gentlemen, have a seat.” Sir Heimdahl gestured to the rickety stools on the other side of his desk. Next, he swung toward his secretary, who took the cup from his hand without a word. “Albrecht, get me another. Drop by my tent and ask my wife to send over a slate and chalk.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Before we get to the details of your trade goods, I need to hear about how you met my troops in a war zone. Then I need to know how you could tell that my written orders had been changed.”

Outside, the morning had turned out to be both overcast and bright. The sky was uniformly silver-grey. When Albrecht lifted the flap, it didn’t enliven the tent much. Fortunately, Sir Heimdahl kept a tall oil lamp in his office. The court in Oggli preferred magical lights but only the marquis and the duke could afford them. The rest of the nobility depended on candelabras, lamps, sconces, and sometimes bonfires. Torches were left to the lower classes. Heimdahl had been elevated to his position, not born to money, but the army could still afford a good light for him. In addition, his tent walls were white sailcloth. The place would have been cheery except for the furniture.

The quartermaster’s desk looked solid but in the center there was a groove just the right size for an axe head. The rest of the wooden pieces in the room were awful, badly made, and they were aged by years of soldier’s backsides, their armor, dirt, grease, and to judge by the look, a few hard kicks from a horse.

Denario glanced around, tried not to wince at the presence of Sir Duval, and launched into his tale. He could not ask his business partner to leave but the man amounted to a foreign soldier. There could be no military codes revealed. Instead, Den stuck to his standard story minus his weeks of cooperation with ‘the rebels,’ as the Mundredi, Kilmun, and other hillmen were collectively known. He focused instead on the crimes of the Ziegeburg mayor, the maps he’d made of rebel territories, his luck running into Dvishvili, his verification of the changed orders, and his hunt for a river master willing to take him to Oupenli.

With the ease of planning ahead, he reached into his accounting bag and produced a map of North Ackerland. Duval gaped at it. Heimdahl made a clicking noise with his tongue. Den then offered his copy of the Dvishvili orders, which he cited as proof of the illegal changes. At this point, his explanation of accounting mechanisms was interrupted by the return of Albrecht. The secretary handed his supervisor a slate and a cut of chalk as long as a man’s finger but Sir Heimdahl set them aside on his desk. He gave a meaningful nod toward Sir Duval, which indicated that he understood the issue of military codes.

“Enough,” he said. He buried his head in his hands for a moment.

“The promise of payment made by the lieutenant,” said Albrecht. He pushed a scrap of paper in front of his boss.

“I said enough!” The quartermaster slammed his fist on the table. A moment later, he changed his posture, nodded, and accepted a mug of ale from his man. “The damn barons are betraying my word. It’s got to be them. Only three knight were privy to the deal. None of them would consent to treating fellow warriors like this.”

“I don’t know who yet.” Den leaned closer. To him, Sir Heimdahl looked like an optimist for assuming that his brother knights wouldn’t betray commoner men-at-arms. “But the orders were changed within nine miles and within eleven days of when I saw them.”

“Ugh. Ankster.” There was only one baron in that area.

“Or a knight.”

“Ugh.”

As they sat in contemplation, Heimdahl probably with darker thoughts than the rest, his secretary reached under the lectern and came up with a stoneware pitcher. It sloshed. He set it next to his boss’s cup.

“Well done.”

“Accountant,” said the secretary. He had a high-pitched voice for a tall man. “When I was a younger fellow, drafted into the war against Faschnaught, my troop marched ahead with the surveyors. The Marquis de Oggli told one of his men to lead the survey team. That man brought an assistant, a curly-haired fellow. Wimple? He had a name like that.”

“Winkel.”

“There was an apprentice with him, a brown-skinned boy. It amazed me to see that boy give orders to the surveyors.”

“I’m sure that’s not what ...”

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

The expression on Denario’s face was enough to make Sir Heimdahl laugh.

“Good,” he said. “Your passage through the rebel lands is the only right thing to come from this situation. You escaped the mayor of Ziegeburg, marched through the hills, got shot with arrows, but nevertheless you survived. You’ve returned home in triumph.”

“This is triumph?”

“Well, alive. That’s plenty. This isn’t an epic poem. In real life, lots of travelers die. Do you read poetry? I used to love those long poems about epic journeys and great battles.”

“The accountant was in one of those, too.” Duval picked up one of the empty cups and waved it in the direction of the secretary, who obliged. “Thanks, Albrecht. Anyway, Denario hasn’t mentioned it but you should have heard his friends go on about his fights on the river.”

“There was never a great battle.” With a sigh, the accountant picked up the remaining cup. Albrecht gave him a wry smile, turned a little, and filled it. “And my part was small. I blocked attacks with my sword in order to prevent my friends from getting killed.”

“Some of his friends were alligators,” continued Duval. “And one of those claimed to be a former knight.”

“Ah, so this took place directly upstream from here.”

Denario nodded.

“Did the knight give his name?”

“Sir Robert.” The alligator had said a last name or town name too, hadn’t he? Den sipped from his cup and tried to remember. “I think he was born to the gentry, not the nobility. He said he was enobled for bravery on the field. Then he and his friends got hit with battle magic. They turned into beasts. Robert and others like him had to dive into the water to avoid magical fire or something.”

“Is this Robert of Locksli?”

That didn’t sound familiar. Denario shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

“Damn. I think you just described the battle of Hastili. From the account I remember, at least two knights named Robert were presumed killed. Both were put down to wizards as the cause. At any rate, it sounds like you did well enough in your battle. Defending your friends, even if they are … changed, I suppose … is an honorable thing. It’s all part of the triumph.”

This time, it was Denario who let out a bark of laughter.

“Don’t dismiss it,” said Heimdahl. “You have changed, haven’t you? If I spent a winter in a small town like Ziegeburg, it wouldn’t matter much to me. I’ve been in a hundred. But you, at seventeen, going away from your home for the first time, that makes it a life-changing event. Being on your own is the key. No one brought you meals. No one cleaned up your messes. No one introduced you to strangers. You had to do it all for yourself.”

Den paused with the cup in front of his mouth. He thought about the friends he’d made like the pudgy baker, the wiry farmer Gordi, the square-jawed clock maker, the tailor Elgin, and so many more. Even Kurt, the farmer’s rooster of a son, held a fond place in his memory. Beyond those, of course, was his vision of the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, the one he’d asked to marry him. Pecunia’s eyes seemed to gaze down at him for a moment, her elfin cheekbones, her elegant, raised chin, the blonde ringlets by her ear.

“It did change me,” he said. “I thought I'd grown up. Completely, I mean.”

“And then you went off and had an even bigger adventure.” said Heimdahl.

“Adventure?” The word seemed out of place.

The quartermaster shrugged. "You passed through the badlands, where no one but bandits go. And you came out.”

“That means something,” Duval agreed.

“We've sent plenty of troops. They don't stray from the main roads even when under the protection of the knights. They don’t hike the wilderness. They don't cross the mountains like you did. They don't wander far from the protection of their troop. Even so, even with all of those protections, many don’t return. But you did. You have come back to civilization."

“Never to return to the wilderness, believe me.” He set down his half-empty cup.

This time, everyone laughed, even Denario after a moment of reflection, and even Albrecht.

“All right.” The quartermaster leaned forward across his desk. “This has been fine but I have other appointments. Let’s get down to the last details of business.”

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