Sunday, November 19, 2017

Not Zen 193: Anxious to Perform

Auditions made her sweat. But she wanted to keep acting, so she kept going.

She trembled so much during one casting call that the director marked her feedback card as ‘disability.’ A week later, a different director told her she'd never get a part on television. In the months after, camera crews complained that she was glistening. Nevertheless, after a year of auditions, she managed to land a role as a police detective in a spin-off of a successful crime drama.

It was the sort of production she'd looked down upon early in her stage career. The crime show was full of cliches. But it was full of those cliches with her, a woman, as part of a police force. She tried her best. During the work on the first two episodes, she surprised herself by finding some depth and strength to her character.

For the third episode, she was told she would need to break through a door. She studied the director to see if he was serious. He was. The announcement, coupled with her initial read-through of the script, triggered her anxiety again.

"There's a holiday coming up," the director said after the read-through. "The union says that some of our crew have to have a break. We've decided that everyone will get five days. Sound, stage, and lights crew will meet here next Monday. Cast and makeup report on Tuesday."

Everyone clapped except for her. A break was the last thing she wanted. Her gaze drifted to the nearest door. She knew that the time to think about her stunt would make her performance worse. Even before she walked off the set, she started to think about all of the ways her scene could go wrong.

That evening, she went home and practiced on her apartment door. It was impossible. The wood was solid. It would never break. She tried to be quiet about testing it so her neighbors wouldn't complain but as she tried it over and over, she hurt her shoulder. Now, she realized, she had an injury on top of her impossible stunt on Tuesday.

For the next couple of days, she decided to limit herself to working out at the gym. She focused on not creating more trauma for her left shoulder. Part of her hoped she could make the rest of her body stronger. At the gym, she found a hollow, interior door. She practiced bumping it with her other shoulder, her right one, but she bruised herself. As she struggled to practice without making things worse, she avoided both shoulders and bumped her head. As a result of that, she gave herself a bruise that a makeup artist would have to cover.

She observed her own compulsions about the stunt and wondered if she were mentally ill. But she couldn't stop thinking about it and the ways it would get her fired. Eventually, she realized that she couldn't practice any more.

She devoted the last day of her break to memorizing the script. By the end of a late lunch, she'd memorized her own part and everyone else's.

That night, she tried to sleep. She's only gotten an hour the night before. She knew it was important to get the right rest. Still, her body wouldn't relax. She resorted to doing another workout to build up her strength and expend her nervous energy.

In the morning, she asked her makeup artist if there were anything unusual today for the stunts.

"What stunt are you doing?"

"Just breaking down a door."

"Sometimes there's a special request from the director. Not this time, though. You aren't supposed to get bloody or anything."

"Good." It was reassuring except for how she hadn't considered that before.

When she reported for costume, the women there gave her the standard, generic police uniform outfit.

"I don't need shoulder pads or anything?"

"For what?"

"Breaking down a door."

"No one told me anything, honey. Kick it, I guess."

The script called for a shoulder into the door above the handle. On the set, she wanted to ask if that were really practical but the director went straight to a different scene. That one had a lot of dialogue and she was perfect with it but another actor, critical to the storyline, kept missing his cue. The director demanded retakes and more retakes. Once, she jumped her partner's cue as she got impatient with him. The director seemed sympathetic but he had to remind her to wait and let the conversation happen naturally. Embarrassed, she struggled to be spontaneous. The words came spilling out. Their next take was perfect.

When they finally reached the rescue scene where she had to slam into the door, she got no hints from the director. Instead, she got instructions from the stage crew and the sound man.

She wasn't quite listening to them because she was watching the director talk to someone else. After the crew stopped giving her advice, she tried the latch.

"Hey, the door is really locked," she said in surprise.

"Yeah, you won't have to act that part," said the sound man.

"But how will I get through?"

"Don't worry. Just kick it a couple of times or body slam it, if you're up for it. We built it to give in."

He sounded so calm that it steadied her nerves for a moment. She decided that she liked the sound guy. He looked like Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoons but he had an air of competence that was different. He had an affection for his job and that resulted in his part of the production always going right. He was better muscled than Shaggy. It made his ugly, green t-shirt seem acceptable. He smelled musky, maybe from his sweat, but she didn't mind. She took a deep breath.

There were only four lines in the scene before she had to rattle the doorknob. It felt cold and slick in her hand. Or maybe that was her perspiration. There were two more lines before she had to back up and body slam the door. She did it on her left shoulder, exactly the way she'd trained, and she hit it hard.

She expected to hurt herself. Instead, she tore through the doorframe. The strikeplate pinged as it shot through the air. It hit the sound man, who'd been waiting on the other side of the wall, not part of the scene, just recording it. Her body had so much momentum that she staggered another two steps and tumbled. She landed in a roll and, from her knees, started her lines, "Freeze! Don't move."

She aimed her prop gun at the closest man sitting at the table, who had started to rise from his chair.

"You're under arrest!" she shouted.

Everyone looked shocked. The closest man stopped rising. The other actors slowly lifted their hands above their heads. Her policeman partner, who was supposed to rush in after her, stood in shock for a moment before he remembered his part.

"Great! Great expressions of surprise," said the director as they wrapped up the first take. "We can use those expressions. Remember that. Remember that feeling."

Then he motioned for the stage crew to reset the door. While they did, she decided she'd better apologize.

"Sorry," she told the sound technician, who had gotten hit with the loose strikeplate. "I'm so, so sorry. It wasn't anywhere near as hard as I imagined."

"It's like everything else," said the sound man.

"All of the walls are fake? That can't be right. I've leaned against them. Most of them must be real."

"They're all real in their way. I watched them get built. I wired a bunch. You need to be careful because of the wiring. Remember to ask us if the director wants you to open a hole in one or something. He forgets."

"You mean I could hit a live wire?"

"Just ask us. But for anything else, don't worry. I've seen you get worked up over all the ways things can go wrong. Believe me, all of the barriers are easier to beat than you think."

"You mean on this set." She waved her hand to indicate the sound stage.

"No," he said after he thought about it for a while. "For you, it's all barriers."

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 99: A Bandit Accountant, 16.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene Three: Reputation 

Half a minute after the spell was done, the lieutenant took Denario's hand in both of his and shook it. He beamed. Around him, his men and the Ansels too had sunk to their knees or fallen flat to the ground. The corporal was crying and another enlisted man was hiding his face. Valentina had her head in her hands. Her husband knelt next to her, one arm up to protect her from magic. Only the lieutenant and his senior mercenary remained standing although the mercenary had crept backward. Dvishvili hardly noticed anyone else's reaction. He hadn't been bothered by the magical light show at all.

“Fifteen miles a day,” he said. “Not twenty! I thought so. We owe the barons a patrol of no more than a hundred miles per turn. That was according to Heimdahl and this order, his real order, confirms it. Someone else scraped off Heimdahl's numbers.”

“Someone changed a fifteen to a twenty,” Denario conceded. He nodded and relaxed his grip. The lieutenant slowed down his arm pumping. “But that wasn't the only ghost number we saw.”

“Right.” Dvishvili took the hint and let go. “The nine got another nine?”

“You were looking at it sideways.” Denario clenched and unclenched his right hand to restore circulation. Then he pointed to the mark in question. “The nine showed a six underneath. That's because Heimdahl thinks you're walking a circuit for six days. Then, if you're derelict in returning to the nobles, you don't get paid for the rest of your march. If you're ordered to stay out for longer instead of being tardy, you get paid double for the days beyond six. That's according to the original. The orders were changed to say that you don't get paid extra until nine days have passed. And then you only get ten percent more, not double.”

“These orders came through two barons. One of them must be corrupt.”

“Maybe. It's hard to tell who. Even if it's Baron Ankster, what can you do? Sir Fettyrtyr may be in on it or he may be honest. He wouldn't necessarily know the terms of the deals his master is making.”

“That rings true enough.” The light in the lieutenant's eyes dimmed. “Besides, I can't come out and accuse the man, not when I depend on his hospitality. That's where you come in.”

Denario hesitated. After a few seconds, though, he nodded. This was what accounting was about. Someone had to tell the truth. Usually, it was him.

He and the lieutenant discussed the details of the numeromancy for a while and dwelt on the numbers revealed. That led to speculation about what they meant, if their colors indicated something, why some ghost numbers faded quicker than others, and why numbers had ghosts in the first place. The last two were guesswork. Were numbers alive? Not even the accounting masters could agree. Numerals failed most of the tests of life. Certainly they couldn't reproduce on their own. The mystic accountants would reply, again and again in their journals, that humans can't reproduce on their own, either. Humans need other humans. Does it matter if numbers need humans too? Some kinds of life need special hosts.

While they talked, the corporal's shame overrode his fear. He wiped his eyes. His legs twitched. He lifted himself to a crouch, then to his feet. The Ansels, a minute later, did the same. Hermann stood first out of gallantry and Valentina seemed to wait for her husband to lift her by the hand even though she didn't look as afraid as most of the men.

“Personally, I think it's the intent behind the numbers that makes for stronger or weaker ghosts,” Denario said as he eyed the remaining solders. Two mercenaries had gotten to their knees. It wouldn't take them much longer to rise fully and tease their comrades.

“You mean if Heimdahl really, really, sincerely meant that we get paid double past our six day tour, his number for that is stronger?”

“Yes. You'll remember that his numeral 2 was a vibrant, bright yellow. I don't know what the color has to do with it.”

Denario and Dvishvili shook hands once again. The senior armsman and Corporal Frederick shook with accountant, too. Fred glanced at Valentina. He seemed offended by her presence. His gaze barely flickered over Hermann, who seemed to frighten him. The other men didn't seem worried by the presence of the peasants but Fred looked to the bits of armor and the trappings of wealth on them.

He tiptoed to his boss and whispered something. After a minute of listening, Dvishvili shrugged. His furry, black eyebrows waggled up and down in mock alarm.

“They're a bit roughnecked, it's true,” whispered the lieutenant. “But I don't think they're as bad as all that.”

Corporal Fred whispered his case one more time.

“Well, the accountant doesn't seem worried,” concluded Dvishvili. “I know him from court. He's a good one. His peasants have shown no signs of disloyalty. They fell to the ground fast enough when the magic began, too. They were rightly damned impressed.”

“Yes, sir.” The corporal bowed his head and stepped back. “Apologies for speaking out of turn, sir.”

“Not at all, Fred. Not at all.”

“I just think there's something wrong in that man's head sir. He wears his sword like a nobleman.”

“Yes, well, that's a problem with all of the peasants around here, isn't it? We'll soon put that down.” The lieutenant turned toward Denario. “Accountant, did you say that your guides have sworn an oath to you, didn't you?”

“Yes, they have.”

“Well, then I don't suppose they'll kill you. They're a superstitious lot, these hillmen.”

They shook hands one last time before parting. A man walked back to the road to hold the reins of the lieutenant's horse. Another muttered to Corporal Frederick that he'd seen Denario's face before.

“You have?” Denario couldn't help overhearing. “Where, do you think?”

“Um. Don't rightly remember, sir.”

For such a rough-looking fellow, he seemed embarrassed to have been caught speaking of the accountant. His beard was thick. The hair on his head was thin. His skull and, for that matter, his arms looked hard as stone. He was tanned, too. Denario took a long look at him. You could never tell when an acquaintance would be important. Was this the face of someone he'd seen at the docks in Oggli? It was possible.

“Did you ever work near the Paravienti? Or maybe you carried goods across the river from Anghrili?” he asked.

“No, sir. Our ship came to the West Port dock.”

“Hmm. Well, I don't recognize you. Sorry, I can't think where it would be that we've met.”

“I've never been to the court or anything. I'm no one important. Just had the feeling I'd seen you, sir. Probably a mistake.”

“Maybe.” Denario stuck out his hand anyway. “Best of luck to you anyway.”

The fellow bobbed his head like a relieved puppy. He shook firmly and apologized a moment later when it turned out that he'd squeezed Denario's fingers a bit too hard.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Not Zen 192: The Prescription

"Look, that pill makes me dizzy," Linda's patient said. His name was Benjamin Perry. She looked down to where that was written at the heading to his chart, then back to him, a heavy, middle-aged man. Except for his hair loss and his pot belly, he appeared to be healthy. He pointed to one of the pills from the set that he'd brought in with him. "I can't take that in the middle of the day."

"You have to take it on schedule," Linda told him. She raised her hand for a moment to hold off his next comment. She stuck her head out into the hall. The paint on her clinic walls was new but beige. The lights weren't friendly but they were bright. She didn't love the building. But she did like the clinical staff. She felt lucky to get her first job after residency in a place this nice.

The co-worker she wanted was the oncology nurse. Linda's patient Ben, who kept complaining about dizziness and other side-effects of his treatment, had a form of thyroid cancer. The oncology nurse could usually get uncooperative people to return to their drug regimens. She was an expert at it. And if, for whatever reason, she couldn't persuade the patient, she always seemed to know what the next-best solution would be.

Linda saw that the nurse's office door was closed. It was probably a day off for her. At the same time, she saw the counselor step into the hall. He would be the next logical choice.

"Do you have a moment?" she waved at him.

"Is this for a patient?"

She nodded.

"Let me finish the last paragraph of this report. I'll be right there."

Linda turned back into the exam room and smiled at Mr. Perry. Here in the examination areas, the walls were a brighter shade of beige. It made a difference. She felt more comfortable during the exams than she did when walking through the building. She felt confident that she could get her patient back onto his drug regimen.

She set herself down on the pale blue stool. It was elevated and had no back to it so she would keep alert. Her patient remained where he was on the exam table, also not letting himself relax, hands on the edge.

"It says here," she said, glancing at her notes, "that you're having problems with other parts of your treatment. Did you come in because you feel that the cancer has progressed or are you looking for help with the regimen?"

"Just need different drugs, really," Ben grunted.

"Okay, I'm going to check you for symptoms and ask you a few questions about the thyroid cancer. Then I'm going to have Dr. Harrison come in to talk with you about the specifics of your regimen."

"Good." Ben brightened as she rose. He bared his neck cooperatively when she manipulated the bulge of his thyroid. Linda glanced at her notes. The prep nurse hadn't done this part. A blood sample hadn't been taken, either, and it was necessary. She had to make sure that Ben wasn't coming down with any of the immune disorders that would complicate his cancer treatment. When the thyroid stopped regulating his body's hormones, as would happen if the cancer progressed much more, a lot would start to go wrong.

The first sign of progression would probably be a difference in metabolism. Ben already had a hoarseness to his speech, a symptom that was barely noticeable. Linda had heard an occasional cough from him.

"How's your voice?" she asked.

"Better than last month," he said.

"Any changes in weight?" She wanted to get a sense of how his thyroid was functioning. "Problems in getting up in the morning? Or in staying asleep?"

"Thought I'd gained a few pounds but your scale says no. I guess I feel slower. That's probably the medicine."

A moment later, the doorknob turned. The staff counselor poked his head through the door, nodded at Linda, and smiled. He reached out and shook the patient's hand.

"Jim Harrison," he said.

"Ben," came the response. The patient followed up with a polite nod before he released his grip.

Jim tucked one hand into his pocket as he accepted the patient's file from Linda in the other. He was a man of middling height and build, about a half-inch shorter than Linda. He wore a white coat like hers. His demeanor was pleasant at all times, at least as far as she'd seen. Aside from administering to patients who came in with mental or emotional disabilities, Jim held weekly, private sessions with each of the medical staff. The clinic allowed him to counsel them professionally as part of their benefits package. Not everyone took him up on it but Linda had gone for counselling a few times. She felt better for it.

He spent a moment on the file. Linda called for the prep nurse.

"Okay, I see four drugs listed in this regimen," Jim said. He turned to Ben Perry to begin his interview. "They're taken at six different times. Tell us about the effects of the drugs, as you see them, and about any problems you're having with the schedule."

"The green one makes me sick," Ben told them. He turned to Linda, explaining to her as much as to the counselor. "That's why I'm here, really. Is it supposed to make me throw up? I can't take it as much as I should."

"It's part of the regimen, Mr. Perry," Linda said. She couldn't resist reiterating her point, especially since he'd addressed her directly. "You're on the best treatment that's available for you. If you don't follow it ..." she started to say he would die but held back out of a well-trained reflex. "It's going to have serious consequences. Very serious."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Well, let's take the drugs in the order I see on the chart," Jim reiterated. "I'll name each one. Let's check the pharmacy notes on the bottle. You tell us about the side effects as you see them personally."

Jim was a good listener. With a great deal of patience, he stepped through the regimen and listened to the complaints about each medicine. In turn, he explained the benefits of each and how they all worked on the body together.

While her patient conferred with the counselor, Linda scheduled a cancer screening for Mr. Perry at their imaging facility.

"That's the second time you've mentioned the dizziness, Mr. Perry," said the counselor. He raised his voice slightly as if trying to get Linda's attention. She put her work aside to look at him. "What is it about that symptom that concerns you. What's your job in the day?"

"I'm a line repairman."

"Up on a cherry picker?" Jim clarified.

"Yeah."

"What's a cherry picker?" Linda asked him.

"The right name is a bucket lift," Ben answered from his seat on the examination table. "I get into an open-top cage that looks like a metal bucket. Then the truck operator lifts me into the air with a hydraulic arm and sets me next to the wire that I need to repair."

"Dizziness would not be optimal," the counselor said.

Linda hadn't known the name but she knew exactly what equipment they meant. She'd seen it many times.

"Can't you do something a bit different?" she asked.

"Like what?"

That stopped her for a moment. While she put her hand on her chin and thought, she heard two beats of hollow patting sound. She glanced down to notice that Jim Harrison giving her the notepad-tap signal. It was the clinic's common way, between staff, to ask 'let's go talk.' He wanted to get some privacy from the patient for a few minutes.

"Excuse us, Mr. Perry," she said. "We're going to look at your records for a moment and confer. We'll be right back."

Ben nodded. He leaned back on the examination table and sighed.

Linda gave him a polite wave as she left. She led the counselor over to a side office. Jim trailed in and half-closed the door, not enough for the latch to hit the metal strikeplate but enough to stop their voices from carrying.

"I know you want Mr. Perry to take those drugs," he said. "I want to back you up. You're one of our best GPs. But I can't tell a patient to do something that puts him at risk of injury."

She thought about how the clinic had three other women doctors on staff. They all seemed to like Jim. She didn't get any bad vibe from him. He wasn't in her specialty, didn't try to compete with anyone, and he wasn't butting in. She'd invited him. She had the sense, even before he said it, that he would have preferred to defer to her opinion.

"Okay, what is it?" she said.

"Try something else." It was a statement that, in his voice, sounded like almost a question. "Maybe you could prescribe the older chemotherapy method for him. Send him back to the oncologist and say this one isn't working."

This is why you're not a medical doctor, she thought. But she kept it to herself for the moment.

"Why would you want an oncologist to prescribe the old way? Those drugs were full spectrum against all cells. They were brutal. And they don't have the best chance of success."

"In my experience in counseling to this urgent care unit, the old stuff works better for a lot of patients."

"You don't follow the scientific literature."

"I do." He leaned closer and lowered his voice rather than backing up and getting louder. "And I know that you can make a case for your treatment above others. As a counselor, I have to urge you to prescribe for each specific patient. That means not simply looking to the journals for the treatment with the best overall success rate."

"According to clinical trial outcomes, this is the recommended treatment."

"Have any of your patients been cured by using it? Ever?"

"Not mine, personally. Others." There were some, weren't there? She couldn't remember who had seen the successes. She tapped her forehead as she struggled to remember. "Anyway, the issue is that my patients haven't followed the regimen."

"It's a difficult one."

"It gives people the best chance to live," Linda insisted.

"But only if they follow it exactly, according to a schedule that gives them six times per day to take varying doses, sometimes of multiple medicines together." This time, Jim backed up as he spoke. He turned to face the wall she'd been looking at but not noticing. "And only if they continue despite how it makes them feel worse."

"I've had a handful of cases. None of them have continued for the full regimen." She stepped into his field of view. "That's the problem. They should. I warn them in advance. They agree. They just don't follow through."

"A warning is not enough," he said. "Can your patient come in every day to be supervised in the treatment?"

"None of them can afford that." She almost laughed. "Anyway, my schedule wouldn't permit it. I can't watch them three times a day, much less five, to make sure they take their doses exactly as prescribed. We can't even spare a nurse that much."

"In the testing of this treatment, that is what doctors did."

"That was in a lab. I mean, it was a clinical setting." She had interned at a place doing drug trials. She understood the situation. "The trial subjects lived in the hospital for the duration. But with ordinary lives, in ordinary circumstances, that's not possible. I can't follow them around and given them pills and injections when they don't want them."

"Do you see why I feel the old, simple treatment will have a better outcome for Mr. Perry?"

She shrugged. "Maybe."

"I don't know oncology, it's true. But I'm hired to be good with the people. That includes the doctors like you."

"Like me?" She smiled. "Not the patient?"

"You as one of the doctors. I can see that good doctors know what solutions to try. But they don't always anticipate what will go wrong with the patient. And the best doctors, only a top few, have seen enough treatment failures to know more than the illness. They know the patient's environment. They understand what a patient can do and can't. They aim at a solution that fits the disease, the environment, and the patient all together."

"That's a lot," she said. "For a fifteen minute appointment."

"Yeah," he agreed. "But that's a life."

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Fifteen Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross


Chapter Baker's Dozen


Chapter Pair of Sevens


Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Being Geek in a Warrior Culture - Fifteenth Chapter

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Not Zen 191: Time is a Lemon

"We spent almost two hours replacing five planks in that last footbridge," the park ranger said. She looked down at her handwritten schedule. "I'd planned for half that time."

"Is it a problem?" Her seasonal park assistant, Darren, sat up straight in his saddle. He stopped petting his horse's flank and lifted the reins.

"Maybe." The trail was wide enough for both mounts side by side but Isabella's mare insisted on leading, which is why she'd chosen it. She wanted to be out front even if she had to turn to her right to talk.

Darren's assignment, unlike hers, was temporary. Isabella had picked him out of the volunteer pool because she'd met him in her yoga class. He was a known quantity, a gray-haired older fellow who kept physically fit without being fanatical. He didn't carry extra weight. He knew how to use the only tools that were important on this trip, a pry bar, shovel, hammer, and saw. Although he'd never ridden a horse, he was delighted to try and he proved to be a natural. Better, he showed affection for his animal. He had so much going for him that she felt reluctant to push him to hurry.

"The two of us are supposed to perform four miles of repair per day," she said.

Darren's smile faded. His posture changed. Perhaps unconsciously, he let his gelding know that he wanted to speed up. That made Isabella's mare whinny and match pace to stay ahead.

"That seems like a lot for only two workers," he said after a while. "We're hauling timber. There are more footbridges ahead."

"The schedule is ambitious."

"Did your bosses make it? Is this their way of giving you crap about your leg?" Perhaps it was his age but Darren wasn't squeamish about Isabella's artificial foot. He didn't seem to care about it one way or another so he didn't avoid the topic. That made her uncomfortable but in a way she guessed was healthy. She had lost the limb while in the army. The government had paid for her artificial foot and it was the best.

"The schedule was my choice. And my bosses are literally not allowed to make my an issue about my leg."

"They follow the rules? Good."

"They gave me funny looks when I handed them my trail maintenance plans. I let them shuffle around and clear their throats for half a minute before I told them I was going to take my horses."

His laugh cut across the hard dirt. It echoed, for a second, from hill to hill. They'd left the trees behind them. Ahead of them rose only scrub grass and rocks.

"Anyway, that's why I've got an eye on the time."

His lips twitched with a gentle smile. He spent a moment lost in thought. Whereas Isabella had worn her regulation green park ranger uniform, Darren had dressed sensibly for the heat. He had a light, blue shirt, khaki pants, a spoonbill cap, and sensible shoes rather than heavy boots.

"In yoga class," he observed, "you were the one who insisted that time doesn't exist."

Isabella sighed and nodded.

"I meant that in a Buddhist way," she told him. "The idea that time doesn't exist is good."

"I'm acquainted with it. The past is a construct in the mind. The future is, too. Those parts make sense. From the viewpoint of our immediate situation, both are imaginary."

"Not just past and future but time itself is an illusion."

"Isn't it important to be able to dismiss that illusion?"

Isabella pulled back on the reins. Her horse drew to a halt. In a second, she grabbed a wax paper wrap from her saddlebag and dismounted.

Inside the wax paper were samples of living horsemint. Despite the name, they were simple, purple flowers that had grown wild on the mountain before wildfires had swept through. Part of her job was to repopulate the mountain with native species. Another team had planted saplings. She'd gotten flowers assigned to her and she was good at it. She pulled out her hand spade from her belt as she stepped to the spot she wanted. It took her no more than 20 seconds to kneel, plant the horsemint, and splash the ground with a half cup of water.

"Done," she said. She slipped the shovel into her belt. A second later, she hopped her left foot into a stirrup, swung her right leg over the back on the horse, and settled into the saddle. She hooked her artificial foot into the other stirrup. With effort, she returned her mind to their conversation. "As far as dismissing the illusion of time, I think that's where the modern teaching goes slightly wrong. Traditional Buddhism has units of time like the ksana. The old masters knew time was a mental construct, yes, but it was more, too."

"Isn't the ksana a subjective measure?"

"Ninety ksanas is how long a reflective moment of thought is supposed to take. Based on that, a ksana is about a seventy-fifth of a second. It does seem like a subjective estimate. But the point is that the ancient Buddhists understood the need to take measurements of time. They wanted to do good works in the world. Managing time is part of that."

"Yeah, anyone wanting to do work has to deal with it."

"That's because time isn't insubstantial in the usual sense of an illusion. It's a mental construct, yes, but pointing that out is like pointing out that a lemon is yellow. That's true but it's not an end to the description."

"A lemon is more than yellow. It's sour."

"It's lots of things. It has many aspects. So does time. Time can be a construct of the mind and it can have other attributes like duration or relativity. That seems to be a hard concept for people to grasp, even people who I would otherwise regard as clear thinkers."

They rode another eighth of a mile. Darren tipped the bill of his cap down to keep his face shaded. Isabella saw a flat shelf of dirt next to the trail and decided it would be her next stop. She halted the horses, swung down from her saddle, and planted more flowers.

When she remounted, she found that Darren had walked his gelding close to the mare. He'd untied her wide-brim ranger hat from her saddlebag. He offered it to her. With a nod, she accepted. It was sensible now that the midday heat had begun. As soon as she put on the hat, her face felt cooler.

"Is time an illusion, actually?" Darren asked. "Is it right to say that?"

"Yes." She had no doubts. "It's created by our minds. We need to be skeptical of it. People have the misconception that life is a path like you'd make as you tramp through a field. You can see what you've left behind you, a lot of flattened grasses or maybe you picked some flowers or planted something along the way."

"That sounds natural. Isn't that the way of things?"

"Yes, it's natural." She left it at that.

They rode a bit farther. In a few minutes, they came within line of sight of the next footbridge. It had been partly burned by the wildfire. Repairing it would take hours.

Isabella sighed and decided on another stopping point before they reached the repair job. She slipped off of her mare and planted another set of flowers.

"I think Dogen said that existence is time," Darren mentioned. As he waited for her to adjust her hat, he put his hands on the pommel of his saddle. "And that the annihilation of time would be the annihilation of everything."

"Fair enough." She didn't actually expect Darren to resist the seduction of over-simplification. Everyone fell for that, including her. Maybe it wasn't an important point to understand anyway.

"But that's still incomplete," he said. "I like your explanation better. Time is an illusion but it's more. It's not limited to a single idea. It can be illusion and existence. We have to hold multiple concepts in our minds to begin to understand."

"And to let them go." She couldn't help smiling.

"Yeah."

Isabella stood. She looked to her assistant but he had turned his head. So she followed Darren's gaze back down the trail they'd climbed. They saw the trees below, the close end of the bridge they'd repaired, the burned stumps, the rocks, a curve in the trail, and the grasses springing back to life after the fire. Alongside the trail, winding to the north, she noticed the dark patches of watered soil. In them stood purple flowers. They dotted the landscape with bits of color and they rose, closer and closer, right up to the ones by her feet, to mark their progress.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 98: A Bandit Accountant, 16.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene Two: An Accounting 

The Oggli forces numbered eight men and one horse. The shiniest fellow was the lieutenant. He led his tired-looking gelding a few steps behind him. The horse seemed content to amble. It was a chestnut with a star pattern on its nose and a vacant look in its eyes. Unlike the lieutenant, it bore no armor. Apparently the beast had been drafted into the military to carry burdens. Yet it was healthy and probably the only horse within forty miles, a curiosity.

The officer let his animal snatch clumps of grass as they drew close. Denario gawked. The horse reminded him of his home in Oggli, where streets near the palace could get several inches deep in manure during the winter.

Denario recognized the lieutenant, moreover, a young man named Dvishvili. They'd met in the court of the Marquis de Oggli. He seemed to recognize Denario as well. As the accountant grew near, he ordered his men to lower their weapons.

Dvishvili was the only one wearing a full breastplate. In the center he bore a white, triangular pennant on a blue field, the colors of the marquis. Sewn on the lieutenant's shoulder was the purple hippogriff of Baron Ankster. His assistant, a corporal, also wore the hippogriff. The rest of the men looked like mercenaries of some sort. They were dressed in different styles of chain mail. Someone in authority had issued them swords but they were odd sizes. One was curved. Their weapons bore each a different insignia, none of them Oggli or Mundredi. Denario wondered if these were pirates caught and pardoned for the sake of conscription into the army. They looked scruffy and smelled like brine.

“Denario the Accountant, is it?” The lieutenant smiled but he raised a hand for Denario to halt.

“Yes. Lieutenant Dvishvili, I think?” Denario stopped. He felt abruptly grateful that he'd remembered the fellow's name. He must have met a hundred lieutenants in the court. “You were in the palace for several weeks.”

Dvishvili scowled. He had a thin, angular face and a rather pointed beard. His ebon hair, dark eyes, and relatively fair skin made him a striking figure. Denario remembered that a few matrons of the court had pressed themselves upon young officers and Dvishvili had been one. He'd seemed uncomfortable receiving the older women's attentions.

“It was a temporary assignment. Now I'm patrolling the borders of Baron Ankster's lands. No one told me we had an accountant out here. If you don't have legitimate business, I'll have to place you under arrest for your own protection.” He cast sinister glances at Hermann and Valentina but, in a way, he hardly noticed them. His glare was nothing personal. They were just peasants.

“I had a job in Zeigeburg,” said Denario. He felt determined to stick to the truth as closely as possible but his story was tricky. “The coach was attacked. I escaped with my life but I couldn't get back to the coach road. Nor could I risk it. So I headed northeast and, since then, I've been working my way west toward Oggli.”

“Working?”

“Book keeping, deciphering, and figuring out the odd accounting systems they have here. It's been interesting. I get paid in food. I've been surveying, too, on my own initiative. The marquis has a standing award fee for new maps. I've built up a collection.”

He patted the roll of scrolls and papers.

“I'll have to see those.” The lieutenant held out his left hand. With bad grace that was only partly feigned, Denario handed them over. He hoped the man understood how precious any halfway decent map could be.

Dvishvili harumphed and mumbled to himself. Although he was an educated man, he didn't seem like an avid reader. Denario remembered someone mentioning that the lieutenant was the youngest bastard son of a nobleman. He'd probably gotten his reading lessons a bit late in life. He struggled with the charts and the words as much as Valentina had done. Valentina, at least, had the excuse of reading in a foreign language.

“This looks useful.” The lieutenant handed the first map to his corporal. He peeled off another from the roll. “Nice. Very detailed.”

Denario began to sweat. Close to the center of the map roll were parchments that showed the way into Long Valley. The border mountains of Easy Valley were drawn, too. What would the lieutenant make of the fact that Denario had traveled through those hills? And could he read the obvious fact that there were wealthy, large towns left mostly undefended? The accountant had been a fool to leave those in the center of everything.

“This one is fine, too.” Dvishvili whipped off another, rather too carelessly for Denario's tastes. “You know, accountant, I received a new set of orders for me and my men. It came by courier a few towns back. What was that crossroads … Sniffleburg? Dam Thal?”

“It was Damnet Thal,” growled the tallest pirate-henchman.

“These little places have such funny names.” Dvishvili flashed a genuine if slightly mischievous smile. “Anyway, my orders told us news of a Mundredi spy headed this way. Can you believe it?”

Denario started to rub his hands. They were wet, so he stopped.

“It's good to see we've got our own spy.” The lieutenant pushed the unrolled maps on his corporal, a thin fellow who seemed too young to grow a decent beard. “Don't worry, we won't disturb your cover story. But you've got to do me a favor. You're a real accountant, right?”

“Of course!” Denario felt offended.

“Guild certified?” The lieutenant narrowed his gaze. At the same time, his corporal wrapped the last two maps around the roll and prepared to return them. Denario began to relax. He really didn't want anyone to see the charts on those few center scrolls.

“Yes, yes.” It was true, he'd passed the certification exams with ease. He'd been through the long ceremony that came after and he'd gotten his red sash.

“You can do a bit of magic, then.”

“No, I can't.”

“Come on, now. All Oggli and Anghrili certified accountants can do a bit of numeromancy.”

“How would you have heard about something like that?” He stalled for a few seconds of time. He needed to think.

“They can?” The corporal gaped. The enlisted men looked dumbfounded, too.

Dvishvili gave Denario a sly smile.

“Did you think the military doesn't know your guild secrets? We have our own trained accountants in the home office.”

“But they swore.” Denario realized it as his fingertips touched the roll of maps. He yanked them out of the hands of the corporal. “Damn it, they swore ...”

“What do you care ...”

“They swore to their gods! They were on their honor to the guild masters!”

“What makes you think it wasn't the guild masters themselves? You accountants can be had for a price.”

Whatever the look on Denario's face, the lieutenant closed his mouth. He studied Denario in silence for a moment. His corporal shrunk away from him. Hermann, who stood to Denario's left, leaned forward just slightly. It was a subtle movement but the accountant realized that his Mundredi friend was readying himself to draw his sword. However insulted Denario felt, it was nothing compared to the rage of the peasants who had seen their friends and family killed by Oggli men at arms. Hermann had been acting half-crazy for hours.

But as tempted as the accountant had been for an instant, he had no idea how his lighter baselard would hold up against an army sword like Dvishvili's. Actually, he did have an idea; that was the whole problem. He wasn't keen to prove his blade. He was more interesting in staying alive. The tension was broken when one of the Dvishvili's men cleared his throat.

“Merely as an enlisted fellow,” he said, “I wonder if I might have a word with the accountant and the lieutenant?”

“What?” The lieutenant seemed totally taken off guard. He blinked at the larger man.

“The favor, ahem.” The brute was comically concerned. He put a hand to his chest. “It is a matter of wages, after all.”

“Oh, yes. It is.”

“And the peasants should not stand so close to our men while we're gone or there will be a fight.”

“That's outrageous, Imesh, I ...” Dvishvili hesitated. He seemed to absorb the physical attitudes of everyone in an instant. He nodded and waved to his assistant. “See to it, corporal. Let the peasants go pray in their heathen graveyard or something.”

“Thank you, sir.” The burly henchmen led the way off of the road without looking back. He clearly intended for others to follow. The lieutenant, as his expression flashed with annoyance, gave in. Denario trailed after.

“Very well, you have your conference,” the lieutenant said as the accountant arrived to a spot thirty yards away. “What's this all about, Imesh?”

“You shouldn't have told those two peasants that the accountant is a spy, sir,” grumbled the henchman. Yes, he was definitely a senior man, probably in his late twenties. He looked older even than Dvishvili. Flecks of grey marred his dark, brown beard. “That's going to make trouble for him.”

“Oh.” Dvishvili rubbed his jaw. He leaned closer to Denario so he couldn't be overheard. “Do you want us to kill those peasants or something?”

“No, don't hurt them. They're good servants.” Denario had to pause and re-think. He was still upset over the slander about accountants. There was the loss of guild secrets to consider, too. It was one thing to tell a spouse or a foreigner such privileged information, quite another to admit to magic in front of a wizard or a nobleman. That was an act undertaken only for guild jobs at guild rates. The guild expected discretion. “They swore oaths to help me and they've taken the oaths seriously. They're on our side. Well, they're on my side, at least.”

“On the side with the most money for them, more like.”

“There may be something to that. But they've been very useful. And faithful to me. I won't break the faith.”

“Good on ye.” The piratical enlisted man gave a gap-toothed grin.

The lieutenant took a deep breath.

“I apologize for what I said about accountants,” he mumbled.

“No, I was angry, but maybe that's because I think you're right about our guild masters. They seem to be for sale.” Masters Spioniladro and Filchi fit the lieutenant's idea of crass bead-counters all too well. “But it wasn't always that way. I'll do my best to set things right in the future.”

“Well. Nicely said.” The lieutenant nodded.

“So ...” Denario put his hands on his hips and looked at his boots for a moment. They weren't accounting boots but they had a dark brown-red color. He felt they went well with his vest. He wondered for a moment if he could wear them in the city or if his friends would think it too strange. “What is this favor you're leading up to ask me about? It must have something to do with numeromancy.”

The lieutenant and his man took turns clearing their throats.

“Well, I wouldn't want it to get about.” Dvishvili rubbed his black-furred chin. “But I'm here as a mercenary. We all are. We're not the knight's men or the baron's, exactly, despite our uniforms. We're paid by contract to a whole group of barons. And we're not sworn in by them.”

“But you got to keep your uniforms.”

“Well, I got out of the service on the same day as a few of my friends. There was a lot of pressure to re-sign with the marquis, of course. Half of us did. But I'd fulfilled my oath. I wanted something new. And it grew clear that when decommissioned troops reported to the paymaster for our final bit of silver, we wouldn't get it. Instead, we'd be handed an IOU like the other low officers and we'd have to turn in our uniforms on top of that insult. I've been with the Marquis for eight years. I hardly have any other clothes. So that didn't appeal.”

“How did you hear about the barons?”

“One of Blockhelm's men came for us in the officer's bar. He bought us a round of drinks and said he'd heard we didn't want to fight against the King of Faschnaught. We said we didn't care about Faschnaught one way or the other. But he went on and said that the upriver barons were paying good wages to officers on six month contracts. It was payment in silver plus all we could pillage. We only needed to recruit our own troops.”

“Which you did.”

“Yes. Imesh and his friends needed to jump ship. I needed soldiers.”

“We all needed paid,” grunted Imesh.

“Right,” said Denario. “Are they supposed to get cash to you all the way out here?”

“No. That wouldn't do much good. And we missed our first pay because we had to hike along the Lamp Kill.” The lieutenant threw up his arms. “It was either that or hire a coach and they hadn't given us enough spending money for that. Last week we were supposed to turn back to Sir Fettertyr's castle, rest for a few days, and collect two pay allotments. Instead, we got orders to march north and west to check out some fighting. That used the last of our provisions, so we're on our way back.”

“And you'll collect three allotments now?” Denario wondered. He remembered what Vir had said about how the nobility treated mercenaries. He caught the mention of provisions, too. These men weren't living off the land or off the hospitality of towns.

“We'll be almost due. But I'm suspicious.” Dvishvili reached into a pouch on his left hip. From it, he took a parchment scroll that looked fresh. It was hardly creased and still had a red ribbon around it. “Here's our last set of orders. You see, when I signed my contract, it said we'd patrol a certain amount each day with breaks for rest and provisions. I'd swear we've already patrolled more miles than we should. We're doing more work for less pay and no rest. But the orders say they come from Sir Hiemdahl, whom I trust. He would never work us more without offering to pay.”

“Should I know him?”

“Probably not. He was never at court. He was just a good soldier, knighted for bravery. But he's been wounded so that he has to take desk jobs. I never heard anything dishonest about him.”

Denario held out his hand. The lieutenant hesitated. He glanced to his enlisted man and then to the more distant group that included his corporal. Then he gave the scroll to the accountant.

After slipping off the ribbon, Denario handed that part back. He unrolled the sheet of fine parchment and held it up to the light, in front of the sun.

“How can you read it like that?” Dvishvili asked.

“I can't.” Denario let his gaze run across the lines of ink. Yes, there were a few spots on the parchment that might have been scratched with a razor. The work had been done by an expert. There were no remnants of the old numbers.

On paper, this sort of forgery would have been difficult to disguise. An attempt to cut or erase would have been obvious. On the calfskin used for vellum, though, it was possible. All it took was a good artist. In this case, the artist had matched ink colors too well. It was going to be difficult indeed to work out what had been changed.

Denario turned the page so that it was edge-on to the sun.

“Now what?” said Dvishvili. “Oh, hello, corporal.”

The accountant glanced to his right. The rest of the baron's troops were approaching. At the back of their line, a man led the lieutenant's horse. Denario heard footfalls behind him, too. Valentina and Hermann must have seen the troops move and decided to protect Denario. He glanced to his left and saw Mundredi boots. Well, that was fine as long as no one started fighting.

“I think these orders were changed along the way to you,” said Denario. “But the inks match almost perfectly. We're going to have to check the bank sum. I don't think that's been touched.”

“What's a bank sum? Is that magic?” The lieutenant rubbed his hands eagerly. His men, however, stepped back. Even Hermann moved off further to one side.

“It's math,” said Denario. “Maybe we'll use magic later. For now, I want some volunteers to draw numbers in the dirt. Who can write?”

To the accountant's surprise, only the Oggli corporal and Valentina raised their hands.

“Come on, now,” said the corporal. “We can't have a woman do it. Surely you can write, lieutenant.”

“Not sums, I'm afraid.” Dvishvili shrugged. “Never saw the point in math. And I'll be glad to have a native woman show you up, Fred, if she does.”

The corporal moved his mouth for a moment but he gained control of his emotions. His lips closed tight and pale.

“Just tell me what to do,” he said tersely. He pulled out a long, slim dagger and knelt in the grass and dirt. On the other side of Denario, Valentina did the same and adopted a similar pose.

“Right, then. See these little numbers in the upper left corner, lieutenant?”

“Barely. Are those numbers? I thought they were part of the military seal. They look funny. And they never mean anything to the message, I know, or someone would have told me.”

“They provide a way to check every written military order or bank note if you know how. You see, the banks in Muntar started the practice of writing checksums on messages about four hundred years ago. They did it in base 16 arithmetic back then, perhaps because they had those fancy counting machines. And that's why they put letters among the numbers to allow for sixteen digits including a zero. Most of those old calculating machines are lost but accountants know how to do checksums by hand. When I was a boy, I noticed that the marquis and the military still use the old Muntar bank checksums. They've got the method duplicated right down to the hexadecimal. I worked out a few of the military checksums just for fun.”

“For fun, eh? What a strange boy you must have been. And now what?”

“Now we do the first step. We find out if your orders have been changed on the way from Heimdahl to you.”

Denario gave orders to Valentina and to Corporeal Fred as if he were a pompous master accountant who brooked no backtalk from the help. They dutifully scratched their numbers in the dirt. Hermann even assisted his wife by pulling up clumps of grass to give her more room to work. Strictly speaking, the accountant didn't need assistance. He could have done the math faster himself. But the situation seemed similar to those he'd encountered with his apprentices. Sometimes boys wanted to fight. And what could you do then? You could keep them busy thinking about something else for a while. Enlisting aides was a way to keep hostilities to a minimum.

“Have you got the first row?” he asked as he saw the corporal draw the last loop in the number eight. Each letter in the alphabet was assigned its ordinal value in the Muntar system. The checksum for a row was simply the ordinals summed and summed again until they produced a number less than 16, in this case 'A,' which stood for ten.

Denario had to correct the corporal's addition twice. Fred wrote and calculated sums quickly but he kept making mistakes. Valentina worked at half the speed but she never wrote a sum without being very, very sure it was correct. So she'd been faster to finish the first line, which the corporal didn't like.

“Excellent,” he continued. He tried to jolly the army man along. “Now we chop the total into pieces, right to left, and add again.”

He led them both to the correct answer. His results matched the first digit of the first line of the checksum. He'd expected that. The opening line was just the date the order was written, the author's name, and the name of the officer for whom the orders were intended. It would have been a surprise if Sir Fettertyr or someone else along the way had felt the need to change those. The accountant felt he'd discover the forgeries in later lines, particularly around the references to patrol miles and to pay. He divided the Mundredi woman's work and the corporal's work into separate batches of message lines. That kept the corporal from being irritated by being constantly compared to a woman. Due to there being an odd number of lines, it also gave the fellow one extra job to complete, another face-saver.

Halfway through the process, Denario saw that the Sir Heimdahl's orders had indeed been changed by someone who didn't understand checksums. That was a relief because if Denario had suspected changes but the checksums matched, he'd have had to worry about the sophistication level of the espionage. It was possible for wizards to fool numeromancers by inserting magical numbers in place of the true ghosts, for instance, and accountants hadn't worked out how it was done. Denario felt sure now that he didn't have to deal with that. By the end of the mundane summing process, he knew the lines 5, 7, 9 though 11, and line 14 had been edited even though the alterations weren't obvious. The sums for the lines didn't match the places in the military code up top.

When he told Dvishvili the news, the lieutenant clapped his hands. His dark eyes glowed.

“Brilliant!” he said.

“Thanks to Frau Ansel and Corporal Fred.” Denario had almost forgotten to be polite. When he got engrossed in math, he had to remind himself. His weeks spent traveling alone had made him worse, he judged. But the Ansels had re-civilized him a bit and the adrenaline thrill of nearly being arrested had sharpened his social wits.

“You did a lot of it in your head.” Dvishvili waggled his eyebrows. He was comically good at it. Denario remembered that the ladies in Oggli had laughed. “I could see it.”

“My old master trained me on finding forgeries like this,” Denario said.

“Have you figured out the original numbers?” When the lieutenant said this, two of his mercenaries leaned in to get a look at the orders. Denario realized they didn't understand what he'd done. They expected to see a change on the page. Did they think checksums were magic? Probably they did. The accountant felt a surge of sympathy. They didn't know the difference between math and magic. Maybe they'd never get it.

“No, sorry, lieutenant. If the forgery had been done on paper, we might have some idea. But on parchment, well, whoever did this was skilled and careful.” He turned the page so that everyone could see that the marks on it hadn't changed.

The lieutenant barely took the time to rub his beard.

“So it's down to numeromancy, then,” he said.

“Could be. Do you understand that numeromancy will only uncover the missing numbers, not the text?”

“You can't magic the words?”

“No. I'll get the erased digits. That's my best. Advanced practitioners can get the numbers when they're written out as words but that's not me. I've only done this in the guild hall before. Also, it's a form of death magic. Are you sure you want to do it?”

“What does this have to do with death?”

“Erased numbers have a sort of spiritual existence. We'll be raising the ghosts of the buried numerals. They hover around the page for a while. Apparently, they can linger for years near tomes that haven't moved much. But the more a document is moved around and touched, the more faded the ghosts of numbers past become. Eventually, they get lost entirely.”

“But we've walked near thirty miles!” Dvishvili wailed.

“Expect pale ghosts. Maybe a few will be gone. But your orders are fresh. I don't think we'll have lost too many. The magic should be worth the price.”

“Ah, the price. We're not carrying much money, you know. What's this going to cost?”

“The guild rate is ten gold for attempting numeromancy.” Denario said it automatically but he knew it posed a problem.

“Two gold,” countered the lieutenant. “And we don't arrest you.”

“Lieutenant, it's the rate.” He threw out his hands. “It doesn't move except upward. You can write an IOU if you like but I can't be foresworn to my guild.”

“We're in the service of the barons. That must count for something.”

“I've had a moment to think about it.” Denario put his fists on his hips. “Let's see if the barons are good for the money. Don't bill it to them directly. Charge it to Sir Heimdahl. Let him bill it back to his employers.”

“Ah.” That got a smile from the dapper lieutenant.

“Pay a token amount, whatever makes sense to you. That's so we have a down payment and I can swear it to my guild. Then write a note for the rest. Explain that an accountant found signs of forgery on your orders so you had pay a numeromancy fee to discover the truth. Then send a copy of the true order and the falsified order back with me, sealed. Leave it to Heimdahl to pay me.”

“Are you sure? I love him but he's tight with funds.”

“Is your word good with him? You know him personally, right?”

“Yes.”

“Will he be offended if the barons are changing his orders?”

“It's a stain on his honor.”

“Then his paymaster will take care of me. If he won't, it's out of your hands, lieutenant. The debt won't be held to you. The guild will say it's up to me to collect. I can give your note to my guild bosses if your superiors try to haggle. The guild will take a cut but they'll uphold the honor of the deal. That's what a guild is for, after all.”

“Excellent.” Dvishvili rubbed his hands together. He heaved a small sigh of relief and ordered his corporal to take out paper and ink. “We'll compose a note for your right of free passage. I'll mention that your coach from Zeigeburg was attacked. Should I include details?”

Denario thought back to the scene of the broken carriage and the bodies being looted. He shuddered. The lieutenant looked deep into his eyes and he saw the answer.

“Maybe not, then,” said Dvishvili, hardly missing a beat.

It took the man a few minutes to compose his letter, which he did mostly through dictation. His corporal's writing was not the best. As Fred had done with his math in the dirt, he made mistakes. He wasn't good at recovering from them. So despite the official letterhead of the mercenary headquarters in Oupenli – it said at the top, 'Free Lances of the Five Barons' – the lieutenant's note didn't seem as impressive as the ones from local Mundredi mayors. Of course, it didn't need to rely on looks. It was backed by military authority. Denario's hand-crafted letters of passage appeared impressive but that was because they needed help. They were backed by nothing.

Even as the ink was drying, Denario had a disturbing thought. Now I've got an official letterhead. I can forge military orders if I need to. Then he wondered where that treasonous idea had come from. It would be a bad thing to do, he told himself. But another part of him, the one concerned with math, added, I know the military checksums. It would be easy.

The accountant realized that, as of today, the barons would know an accountant understood their checksums. They might see it as expected. Or they might see it as a startling revelation. One way or another, though, Sir Heimdahl would surely tell them.

What Denario said as he accepted the scroll was, “Is Oupenli my destination?”

“Yes. Heimdahl has set up a military camp inside its borders for legal reasons. That should be fine, shouldn't it? I'd think you'll have to pass through it on your way to Oggli.”

“Yes, the coach stopped there on my way to Zeigeburg. It's an amazing place.”

Embassy Row in the city of Oupenli was a colorful sight. Many of the buildings were painted outlandish hues and flew strange flags. If they didn't show off with their architecture, the embassies erected pavilions out front to do the same thing.

It was strange that Oupenli was still allowed to exist, a free city sandwiched between the lands of many sworn barons and knights of West Ogglia. But it had been traditionally free for ages and somehow that made it acceptable. It was a home to smugglers of all sorts, many of whom paid bits of cash to local knights to keep it lawless. Plus there were the free lancers, knights of no allegiance but of some means of support. Along with such alarming figures were worse ones: mercenaries, rogue wizards, witches, priests of small gods, and nobles from far off places, most of whom came to Oupenli for the fun. Apparently, the nobles regarded it as a place to relax where there were no formal rules and a bit of money was respected, especially when accompanied by men with weapons.

“If your servants won't go as far as Oupenli, you should take advantage of Heimdahl's protection.” Dvishvili pounded his fist in sort of an 'aha' moment. “That city is nice to rich folks but for everyone else it's a risk. Men gamble. They get into fights over women. Could there be anything sillier? Yet it happens. There are duels in Oupenli nearly every day.”

“No one would challenge an accountant, I hope.”

“Perhaps not. But stay away from the women. And you should take what protection and supplies you can. I must say that you seem well provisioned. You might be better off than I am. Look at us.” Dvishvili pressed his fingers to his breastplate. “Do you see any bows? Arrows? No, not a single one. We can't fight our way into these larger peasant villages and they know it. They stand back and fire at us until we go away.”

“That's ...” Laceo struggled. The words 'good' and 'appropriate' would seem treasonous. He scratched his oiled hair before he let his thoughts change course. “That's too bad. Does that mean you get no food from the locals? They don't sell to you?”

“Sell? They won't even talk to me. They shoot before they can even meet us properly. How the hell have you managed to get from town to town without armor?”

“My servants are carrying my armor, lieutenant.” He gestured to the hard, leather hauberk. “I've taken four shots to the chest from a long distance. But I'm still here.”

“And they talk to you after they shoot you?”

“One man alone or one man with native guides must seem more harmless than you. And aren't they right to think so?”

“Of course. It's a compliment, in a way.” The lieutenant smiled for a moment. But the expression faded. “But it makes for lonely marches. And we've come across two other towns like this one, all burnt out from fighting.”

“That's what's put you at the limit of your provisions so fast, then.” That was interesting. It seemed important in a military way, so Denario almost turned to the Mundredi to say something about it. Instead, he stammered, “Uh, me, too. But I can continue to perform accounting along the way for my food. I don't need anything from you.”

“I wasn't implying that I could give anything.” The lieutenant waved off the idea. “At least now I'm relieved of the task of arresting you. You've got a military mission now, legitimate business.”

The idea made Denario's palms sweat. He wiped one hand on his trousers.

Attempting to appear casual, he said, “I really could use the money.”

“Well, I've done my part. Stick to the main roads and wave your pass around. I think the hostility among the peasants here is overblown.”

“If you say so, lieutenant.”

“How were we going to feed him?” asked Fred. The corporal's eyes narrowed. He turned on his officer.

“Eh?”

“If we arrested the accountant, how were you planning to feed him? I don't think we can actually make arrests after a week of travel. We can't afford to feed anyone besides ourselves on the return trip or we'll all starve.”

“You talk a bit too much, Fred.” The lieutenant leaned over his subordinate. He was nearly half a head taller.

“That seems like a flaw in your orders,” said Denario.

“It does, doesn't it?” Dvishvili grinned as if caught like a child stealing sweets. “Well, I won't bother Sir Heimdahl about it. He's got enough to worry about. From here, I'm going to take the road west toward Sir Fettyrtyr. I suppose you should continue south.”

“Yes.”

“No arrest or fine, as I said, but I'll have to report on you.”

“That's only natural. If any knight or baron has a problem with me crossing their lands unannounced, he can take it up with my guild when I get to court.”

“There is that.” Dvishvili nodded, comforted. “And now I'll write you the IOU in Sir Heimdahl's name. I'm only going to give you two silvers. Is that okay?”

Denario paused to consider but it was only for effect.

“Any down payment is good,” he said. “It's on your honor and I'll sign for the receipt of it on your IOU, too, so Heimdahl doesn't have to pay that part again.”

The appeal to the lieutenant's honor was good for an extra silver piece. It probably would have been more but, as a disinherited bastard son, Dvishvili was about as poor as officers got. Denario vaguely remembered the man's half-brother, a staggering drunkard. The drunkard was the legal heir, though. That one would get the estate money, knew it, and had made a start on spending it all.

Here was an example of the downside of primogeniture. Denario had just been writing in his journal about how bad tanistry was. Now he was reminded that, in Oggli, only the eldest legitimate sons inherited. Competent men like Dvishvili, who should have inherited something, anything, had to scramble for funds. Now the lieutenant had turned into a mercenary. His armor was probably technically stolen, too, although no one would call him on it.

“Do you have a magic token?” asked Denario. He was already thinking ahead to the next step. “Anything with a blessing on it?”

“That's for richer men than I, accountant. Or for religious fools, I suppose.”

“Then we'll have to use the graveyard.” Numeromancy needed a source of magic. Accountants weren't wizards. They couldn't make magic or store it up, just manipulate it.

There were many components to the spell he was going to try. The first of them was a magical item. Back in Oggli, the best accountants kept a charmed trinket on hand in case numeromancy was demanded. Denario didn't have anything magical to spare but he could try a substitute. The natural background aura created by worshipers would work in theory. He'd never tested the theory. He'd never known anyone who'd tried. The Secret Accounting Guide said it would work. That's all he knew. But he worried about what would happen if the Sun God or some other magical creature objected to what he was doing. The Secret Accounting Guide had warned of it.

“Let's stand on the east side of the Pillar of the Sun.” Denario reasoned that the totem pole was damaged and probably leaking enchantments anyway.

“You mean the one that they desecrated?” growled Hermann Ansel. They were his first words he'd spoken to anyone other than his wife in quite a while. His tone was such that three of the mercenaries put hands to their sword pommels.

“Not us,” said the lieutenant. He hadn't been bothered by Hermann's accusation. His expression remained carefully pleasant. “You saw us arrive. In any case, no mercenary would anger local gods without direct orders.”

“How can we know?”

“You can't.” Dvishvili rubbed his chin. “But I think the gods would know. Wouldn't you agree?”

Hermann had no answer for a long while.

“I will go pray for us,” he said eventually. “I pray that we may all be forgiven.”

“A good prayer for mercenaries.” The lieutenant nodded. His men relaxed and took their hands from their swords. Everyone marched onward, following the native guides.