The Bookkeeper’s Boy

Book Cover: The Bookkeeper's Boy

The boy brought the King's Chancellor a solution to a problem...which brought to light another problem that was going to have to be solved sooner and not later.

Excerpt:

John knew something had to be done, but he had gathered from his father’s stories—and rantings, depending on the day—that asking for personal increase was likely to be met with an offhand refusal and subsequent disfavor. But what if it wasn’t just personal? He went out with a graphite stick and figuring paper and started making a survey of the oil use in the castle. He made note of gleaming lamps in dusty, disused rooms, spoke to servants, even talked to the guards. And then he went back to the ledger room and summarized his findings neatly in ink on better paper, after which he gathered up all of the courage he could find and went to request a word with the King’s Chancellor.

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The King’s Chancellor of Arendelle was a rather stiff, formal man who spent most of his time being frustrated by living in a kingdom whose situation prevented it from being run properly—or profitably. The castle’s staff tended to avoid him for these reasons unless it was at all necessary for them to speak with him, and so he was rather more than surprised when a servant came to tell him him that the old bookkeeper’s son was requesting a few moments of his time. Curiosity made him agree, and the boy was ushered in to stand nervously before him. He raised an eyebrow. “You wished to speak with me…you know, I don’t believe I know your name.”

The boy bowed. “John Kepperson, my lord. I had noticed an issue with one of the accounts and thought to bring it to your attention.” He approached, somewhat nervously, and handed over a paper. “The castle’s current allotment system for lamp oil requires updating. As you can see, we’re spending money keeping lamps maintained in mostly unused rooms while several high-usage areas are running short each month.”

The chancellor looked at the provided numbers, which did back that assertion up. “You have proposed a solution, I see.”

“Yes, my lord. If we remove the standard per-room allotment for oil and put the steward in charge of the stores instead, he can monitor the usage of it on an as-needed basis. This will prevent waste while assuring that those who need it have access to it.”

That was actually a good plan. “You’ve spoken to the steward?”

“In the course of investigating the issue, yes. He is already in charge of the castle’s store of oil, and he expressed some frustration with the amount of time his underlings are spending maintaining lamps in rooms which aren’t used more than once or twice a year, if that. Mainly because some who run short are apparently taking what they need from those rooms, necessitating the servants having to go in to check them all at least once a month.”

The chancellor checked the list again; yes, the ledger room was on it as one of the ‘short’ areas. “Is that what you do, young Mr. Kepperson?”

The boy shook his head. “No, my lord, we have never done so in my lifetime.”

He didn’t sound offended, more like he was simply making a factual correction. “Supplementing with daylight, are you?”

“No sir, the ledger room does not have a window. And the ledgers are not allowed to leave the room unless yourself or the king requests them.”

If the King’s Chancellor could have allowed himself to wince, he would have. He’d forgotten about that, the ledger room being the old counting room of the original keep. And of course their stiff and stubborn old bookkeeper wouldn’t have attempted to address the problem; the man had always been a martyr to his duty, oftimes to a ridiculous extent.

This boy, though…the boy was obviously not so afflicted, and clever besides. He’d wanted the problem solved, but he’d found a way to do it that benefited the castle as a whole and would save expense, thereby guaranteeing that his proposal would be given serious consideration. He was also holding more papers. “I believe your plan is a good one, I shall speak to the steward,” the chancellor told him. “Any way we can save expense is a good thing. Was there anything else?”

“Yes, my lord.” The boy handed over the other two papers. “The guards in the royal wing are complaining of the cold, and when I was there speaking to them it was indeed uncomfortable. They have been responsible for some of the…reallocation of lamps due to this, as they’ve been using them for warmth. I calculated their approximate usage, and determined that it would cost less were they to be provided with a small brazier and an allotment of coal. They claim the problem comes and goes, so I believe the expense would be minimal - coal is far cheaper than lamp oil - and the brazier would be more aesthetically pleasing than a stove.”

The chancellor did not quite blanch. “You didn’t go into the royal wing?”

“Of course not, sir, that’s forbidden. I merely spoke to the guards - they were warming their hands over an appropriated lamp when I arrived. The steward oversees the royal family’s needs in those areas, they aren’t part of the allotment system.”

“No, of course not. You’ve done very well, young Mr. Kepperson, very well.” The last paper, in fact, was a general report of the castle’s expenditures showing where the suggested changes would have an impact, and he tapped that with his finger. “I’ll want more of this, this could be very useful to me. You’re to work with the steward on a report each week and then present it to me, along with anything else you think I need to know about regarding the books.” The boy bowed his assent. “You are dismissed.”

He left, and the chancellor sank back in his chair, frowning at the papers. The boy had a neat, precise hand…a very familiar hand, in fact. Which hinted at another problem he was now going to have to solve sooner and not later.

First, though, he would speak to the steward. The man knew everything that went on in the castle, and the chancellor wanted his opinion of John Kepperson.

The King’s Chancellor summoned the Royal Bookkeeper and his son to the chancery the next morning, and was not at all surprised when the boy came in leading a scowling father. Yes, this was why he’d always avoided speaking to the elder Kepperson if it could be at all avoided; he was an unpleasant old man and always had been, even before he’d had good reason. And now he was stone blind due at least in part to his own stubbornness; the fact that the boy was already wearing spectacles—most likely for the same reason—pointed to that stubbornness having become an unreasoning obsession with ‘making due’. “Mr. Kepperson,” he drawled, and they both bowed. He could tell the boy was worried, which displeased him as his talk with the steward on the previous day had led him to guess the reason for it. “Sir, your son has done me quite a service, and the Royal Steward as well. His investigation into some discrepancies in our household accounting practices was well thought out, and his reporting is going to be a large help in these difficult times. One thing came to my attention, however, when I was looking at his reports—a small thing, but I think a very important one.” He leaned forward, staring up into the eyes that he well knew couldn’t see him. “Royal Bookkeeper, how long have you been blind?”

Oh, that scowl. “The work has been done, my lord.”

“Yes, it has - by young John here, going by the handwriting I’ve grown accustomed to seeing. You’ve trained him exceptionally well and he’s a fine young man, you should be proud.”

The older Kepperson got even stiffer. “We do our duty, my lord.”

“Take a compliment when it’s given,” the chancellor scolded, albeit mildly. “You know I don’t give them lightly.” He turned his attention to the boy. “John, how long have you been doing this job?”

The boy didn’t hesitate or look away; another mark of the strength of his character, he realized the lie was his father’s to be ashamed of and not his own. “Since I was twelve, my lord—three years now.”

“I am impressed. And so was the steward, who says he’d have had you working for him long ago if you hadn’t already had a duty of your own. Now, I have arranged for you to go help him set up the new system for distributing and tracking the castle’s use of oil, and to seeing about the brazier for the guards—he said we’ve got some somewhere, and he agreed with you that they could be employed ornamentally even though their purpose will be practical. He’s waiting for you, so go to him now and then return to your duties in the ledger room when you’re finished there.”

This time the boy almost hesitated, but then he bowed and left. The chancellor waited until he must be well away before speaking again. “Well, Sir Jonas, what do you have to say for yourself?”

The grizzled chin lifted. “I have my duty, as you have yours. All that matters is the work is done and the kingdom runs smoothly.”

“And your son?”

“As you said, he’s well trained. Nothing has been left undone or poorly.”

“No, that it hasn’t. But how much of it would have been done better, or more quickly, if you had not been acting out a deception about who was actually doing it?” That got a reaction; the blind eyes turned toward the ground. “It turns out I’m as much at fault as you on that score, though—I’m told nearly everyone else knew, or at least suspected. They didn’t want to see you and your son thrown out of the castle with nothing, so nothing is what they said about it. I must admit I’m somewhat offended at being cast as that sort of villain, but I can’t deny that I, like you, think of the kingdom first and personal considerations after.”

“As it should be.”

“Perhaps. But not to the extent you’d take it, or that people believe I would. Not that I’m displeased they’re afraid of me.” He smiled. “Your son isn’t.”

The blind eyes lifted again, and the old man’s expression was…well, perhaps not proud, but definitely satisfied. “I taught him that fear and respect aren’t the same, my lord, and shouldn’t be mistaken for each other. It’s neither your fault nor mine that some others can’t tell that difference.”

“No, it most certainly is not.” The chancellor sighed. “You know I can’t keep you on, correct?” The old man nodded. “However, since your son has been doing the work…I have decided to replace you with him. Young John will be the Royal Bookkeeper from here on forward, and you may remain to continue his training as you like. I’ve already confirmed his appointment.” He hesitated, and then decided the thing he really didn’t want to talk about actually did need to be acknowledged. “You don’t know how sorry I am about what happened to the royal pensions, Jonas. If I could have stopped it, I would have.”

He knew he’d been right when the old man marginally relaxed. “There was nothing any of us could have done, you know that.”

“Quite so,” the chancellor agreed. “Just like…well, that other matter.”

“Yes.” Even now, after everything, they were both still too loyal to speak ill of their king and queen directly. “So you’ve heard…”

“Nothing—you’d have heard me shouting the news from the rooftops if I had. So we’ve five more years to wait until the princess comes of age.”

Jonas nodded. “We can make it, so long as we’re careful. And so long as the Northmen continue to trade with us.”

“You’ve all the numbers in your head, don’t you?”

The first smile he’d seen made an appearance. “Of course, and so does my son. It’s our responsibility to know these things.”

“Of course,” the chancellor echoed. Jonas, he’d just realized, saw young John mainly as an extension of himself, a way of upholding his responsibilities to Arendelle. He didn’t think the boy saw himself that way, but it was a rather horrible thing all the same. Of course, the way the boy had come to be had been a fairly horrible thing for Jonas Kepperson…but the chancellor really didn’t want to remember that incident. Bad enough he cursed their absent king inside his head, he didn’t need to add the queen to that litany.

Or even worse, to entertain the already oft-repressed thought that the kingdom was possibly better off without them both.

COLLAPSE

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