Sunday, March 18, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 114: A Bandit Accountant, 19.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene One: On You It Looks Good

At the gates to Ruin Thal, as at the gates of so many towns in Denario's recent memory, the guards were happy to see him leave. The carters coming the other way were happy. The mayor's nephew had strolled along to make sure the accountant headed off. A tattoo artist had come, he said to check the art on the accountant's buckler. Of course, Karla and Addler Vogel had come because Udo didn't want to close his store. They were all happy to see Denario leave.

Everyone seemed to feel the same way with one exception. Carinde wanted him to stay.

The girl was as resplendent as she could be in her green-and-white temple dress. She'd taken off her bonnet and didn't care about the rain. Karla, beside her, wore her shop dress with a gray shawl flipped over her head. Addler wore a hat and leaned on his cane. He cursed the late-morning drizzle and the pain in his knees. He kept stopping to rest. If Cari hadn't paused now and then to point out geometric shapes along the way, Addler couldn't have kept up. Fortunately for him, his grand-daughter's mind seemed to be exploding with ideas about shape and structure. She'd noticed how the domed buildings in her town weren't as curved as they first appeared. They were built from triangles latticed together. Cari had twice asked Denario how it was done but he'd been forced to admit he didn't know.

“I've been spoiled,” he said. “One of my apprentices, Buck, used to tell me about the details of carpentry and engineering. He knew some of the secrets. But I must not have paid enough attention. I remember the geometry, not the methods.”

Karla stooped to pick up her two year old, who was too tired to stand or perhaps just felt a lack of attention. The guards beside the gate smiled at the suddenly happy little girl. They knew the Vogel family. They knew the mayor's nephew. They'd heard that Denario the Dramatic was leaving today and they seemed relieved.

“Good day for it,” the younger, darker fellow said. “We've got news from Small Ephart. Two carters came from there, the first travelers up from the south in weeks. They say that the town managed to kill off some mercenaries who'd surrounded it. You won't have to fight your way in like you did here.”

“Great.” Denario hadn't realized such a problem was possible. Were the baron's damned foot soldiers everywhere now? On top of praying that Small Ephart would let him pass, he had to hope there weren't stragglers from mercenary troops who would be out to murder and rob every traveler they could.

“That's why the accountant waited,” chortled Addler. He knocked Denario's elbow playfully with his own.

“Not that you couldn't do it,” said the guard. But the guard had to squint as he said it. Apparently, it was hard for anyone to gaze directly on Denario and state aloud that he was a fighter. “I mean, you're Denario the Dramatic and all that.”

“He's got the gods on his side,” Addler asserted.

“He's got magic!” Carinde chimed in.

“He's got a bandit coin on his neck,” said the second, taller guard. He leaned against his pike and gazed on the blue medallion. “That's not going to do you any good along the creek, you know.”

“It might,” said the first guard.

They fell into lazy argument about the Kilmun tribesmen who lived along the creek. The issue in their minds seemed to be whether or not the Kilmun observed the sanctity of the royal Muntabi. They said they did. But they actually disrespected all royalty. Addler, the tattoo man, and the mayor's nephew joined into the debate.

Carinde turned and grabbed Denario by his left hand.

“Don't go,” she whispered. A few feet away, her step-mother took a deep breath, as if about to issue a reprimand. But she pressed her lips tight and refrained.

Denario understood something about heroic poems and about how people behaved in them. He knew this was where, as a departing warrior, he was supposed to say something noble, like 'But I must go, for I'm on a mission,' or 'I'll return when I'm most needed,' but he knew those were lies. The first one was even technically true but to say it like a hero would still be a lie.

What actually came out of his mouth was, “Forty triangles.”

“What?” said Karla, not quite under her breath. She had maintained a polite distance from her step-daughter, far enough to appear disinterested but close enough to hear what Cari said and Denario, too. Now she seemed bewildered.

“You mean in the last dome?” Cari gripped his hand even tighter. Her gaze rose to the cupola atop the tower slightly behind her and to her left. “Yes, I figured it was that many, too.”

“You did?” He gaped at her. “Really? No one ever notices. I've never met anyone else who counts shapes within shapes.”

“I saw you looking at the triangles earlier. Your lips move when you count. Did you know that?”

“No, I didn't.” He put his right hand over his mouth.

“Anyway, you can't see all forty of the triangles. You had to count the half you do see and double it, right?”

“Of course.” He stared into her green eyes. A razor-sharp intelligence gazed back. Of course, it was in the body of a young girl, which might have been why she misinterpreted his momentary astonishment for something else. “Don't worry,” she added with a quick curtsy, “I won't tell any other heroes.”

“About that ...” He really felt like he should reiterate that he wasn't really a hero. On the other hand, no matter how many times he said it, no one paid attention. “Oh, never mind. Just write to me. Write lots. Send me math. Send me your every thought. Do you remember the code I showed you?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

He leaned close, his eyes on Karla Vogel. Karla was trying very hard not to lean forward.

“I can use it to send you another code, you know,” he murmured softly. “So we can say anything. And you can write as often as you like.”

“What if I want to write to you every day?”

Denario opened his mouth. He closed it again. His bags were heavy with money. He knew he was carrying too much. The custom-tailored pack felt better than he deserved but it was still over-full. The problem had been occupying his thoughts since yesterday when he had balked at putting so much copper and brass within the reach of a man as greedy as Udo Vogel. True, Denario trusted Addler. But Addler was getting feeble. If he died or went lame, well, Udo might try to claim Denario's funds as his own. Karla Vogel could keep her husband from outright theft but she might not, too. For one thing, her interests lined up with her husband's.

Udo wasn't here to see what the accountant was doing, though. Denario made a decision. He scrambled out of his pack straps.

The thick ox-hide felt as rough as his armor. His fingers fumbled with the ties to the flap. Like the primitive Mundredi leather doors, his backpack had to be tied and untied. After he got the cord out of it, he was able to survey the contents but only the top layer. Fortunately, he'd packed a money pouch last and it hadn't sunk far. It was almost as if he'd planned for this. He wondered if he had, in a way, with a vague hope in the back of his mind that he'd get Carinde away from her father.

“Here.” He grabbed the sack with his right hand, grabbed the girl's wrist in his left, and put the money in her palm.

“Oh!” The sack was heavy enough to nearly knock her down. He'd forgotten how small she was. He cursed himself but only for a second. Carinde laughed. “Are these rocks or something?”

“Yes,” he replied with the literal truth. “Brass is two rocks melted together.”

Karla overheard that remark. She gasped. Denario hadn't bothered to keep his voice down. Well, it was too late now. He would have to place some faith in Karla's good character.

“Just write,” said Denario. He knelt to re-tie his backpack. It was a slow process. After a moment, Cari set down her money bag. She didn't seem to think that money was precious, not in the way her father did. She scooted between Denario and his work. She crouched on the hem of her dress and took over the re-stitching. Her fingers were more nimble than his. He'd been wondering if he'd been right to insist that his bag be made water-tight. The tailor had given him trouble over that demand. Cari had no problem, though, fitting the fat, rawhide cord through the series of holes. In a minute, she was finished.

As she tied a slipknot in the remainder of the cord, her fingers shivered. She paused. There was water on the back of her hand. A raindrop had hit. A second later, more of them sprinkled the backpack. The rain was starting up.

For a few minutes, the moisture had slowed. The droplets had grown so small they were like a mist, easily ignored. Now it appeared that the clouds were about to let loose another volley. Dark, wet dots peppered the accountant. He felt them on his head. He'd taken off his hat during the dry spell, just as Carinde had removed her bonnet. Now he dug into his belt and found the floppy brim again.

As he jammed the hat back on, he saw Cari patting her waist. Where had she put her bonnet? Denario didn't remember. Then Karla stepped forward and pushed the bonnet into Carinde's hands.

“Herr Vogel,” Karla said to her father-in-law. Her gaze stretched up to the high, purplish clouds above. “This is looking bigger than I like. I want to head back.”

“Does this seem magical to you?” Addler wondered, ignoring his daughter-in-law. He raised his good arm above him to catch the rain.

“It smells funny,” said the taller guard.

Karla snorted. She shifted her toddler from her right hip to her left. Addler scowled. The other guard and the mayor's nephew did, too. After a few seconds, Addler brought his hand down and checked what he'd collected in the cup of his palm.

“It's green,” he croaked. He cleared his throat, coughed, and bent to smell his hand. Denario glanced at the water. It did, in fact, have a mossy tint to it. “Smells like pickle brine.”

The accountant looked at his own hands. He sniffed. Sure enough, there was the vinegar odor of sweet pickles. He grabbed his pack and hoisted it over one shoulder. Carinde finished tying her neck strap and stooped to get the money pouch she'd left on the street. Denario held out his hand while she was down there. She took it to help herself back up.

“Thanks,” she breathed.

She felt so light that Denario nearly pulled her off of her feet. Her mind was so impressive, really, that he kept forgetting it belonged to a child. She was small for her age, too. Even when she grew up, she wasn't going to be a tall woman. She was probably lucky that she didn't have to fight anyone for her inheritance. Or did she?

“Could be a carry-over from the shaman's work last week,” said Karla. She cast an eye to Denario but managed to keep from blaming him openly. “We did ask for rain. And we got it.”

At that moment, Carinde tried to get a glimpse of the magically purple cloud. A spot of green rain hit her right between the eyes.

“Oh!” She began to laugh. Denario did, too, but he was concerned. Cari squeezed her eyes shut hard.

“Does it sting?” Denario tried to clean off the brine.

“Uh huh.” For a moment, she raised a hand to clean herself. But she let Denario wipe her with a dry corner of his sleeve.

“I don't think it's a good idea to look straight up at the moment,” he said.

“I figured that out, thanks.”

“Right.” He gazed at her white bonnet, already half-wet with verdant droplets. “At least, on you, green looks good.”

She laughed again. It was a ringing sound that seemed to go straight through him and made his ears and toes tremble. Her face was clear. She blinked, squinted, and gave him a brave smile. A moment later, she leapt up and snagged her right arm around his neck. Denario hugged her back but he heard Karla Vogel make a clucking noise. So he let go. Cari did, too, as if she were suddenly aware of the other people watching.

“Every day,” the girl said. Denario knew exactly what she meant.

“As often as you can,” he corrected. He knew that it wasn't possible to get a letter sent between towns on most days. He didn't want the poor girl to burden herself with an impossible promise.

“Every day,” she restated in a voice that brooked no argument.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 113: A Bandit Accountant, 18.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene Five: The Value of Holiness

“So ...” said Denario. He hesitated, goblet in hand. He felt a bit lost in the dinner discussion about Mundredi customs. The problem wasn't eating different cuts of meat with three different knives. It was the relationships of tribes to clans and also of clans to houses. The combinations were worthy of their own subset of math. “You belong to the Mundredi Tribe, Clan of the Spears, House of the Goat. But the Clan of the Spears is also known as the Kallikar?”

“That's right,” Addler nodded approvingly. “It's like the Raduar you bin fightin', the Killimar and the Juttari. Men there belongs to clans with names and tattoos that any waldi can understand but they've got the old clan names, too. The old names don't always mean what the tattoos say.”

“Then what do they mean?”

“Mostly, no one remembers,” Udo announced dourly.

“We know the Raduar Juttari are the biggest clan,” said Addler. “And they wear the sword crossed with an axe. The Killimar clan wears the sword crossed with a spear. We don't know what those names mean. Everyone has guesses.”

“I'd guess that the old, old tongue for spear could have been something close to 'kallikar' or 'killimar,'” said Denario.

“You and everyone else.” Udo spoke into his cup. His eyes never rose to meet Denario's. “But it's just a guess.”

Addler grinned and nodded. Denario let his gaze drift between father and son. Udo's nose had the same slight hook as his father's. They held their cups the same, too, in both hands. But they were quite different in temperament. The father, Addler, had dominated the dinner conversation. The curly-headed Udo had limited himself to snide remarks. Yet they both seemed to be selling something to Denario and he couldn't figure out quite what it was.

The table had been laid out with comfort foods, solid fare like turnips, fried oats, stewed meats, and cheeses. Karla and Carinde had performed the serving but, Denario noticed, had done very little of the talking. It wasn't like the young girl to keep quiet but she had done so in a determined way. She'd put her hands in her lap when she wasn't eating. Karla, even when seated beside her step-daughter, had been aggressively maternal with her serving portions. The only times she'd spoken were when she'd urged the men at the table to eat more lentils or, once, when she'd given an order to Cari to fetch another ladle. Karla's toddler was asleep, thank goodness. For her part, Cari had volunteered to serve the wine. She'd seemed poised and nearly adult. But as Denario had thanked her, she'd looked directly into his eyes and spilled a fingers-width of the beverage onto his leg. He had to pretend not to notice. Cari had acted as if everything was fine, too, or she'd tried. She'd turned her head for a moment so her parents couldn't see her.

The dining room and kitchen looked neater than usual. Normally, a few items from the store inventory cluttered the table. There was usually an abacus next to Udo's chair but it hadn't survived the cleaning. Udo had kept wads of imported sharkskin nearby that he normally sold to the woodworkers for their use in sanding but which he also used to repair nicks and bumps in his merchandise. Those were gone. So was the pot of hardened shellac that had been gathering dust for months. One of the window shutters had been replaced, probably yesterday.

They'd cleaned up for him. Addler had trimmed and shaved a bit. What were they thinking? The mystery put Denario on edge.

“The mayor asked about your health,” said Udo. Again, he spoke to his cup rather than look across the table to the accountant or at his father.

“Is that a hint?” asked Denario. “He gave me a letter to carry. Does he want me to move out tomorrow?”

“No. It's not that kind of a hint.” Addler's eyes crinkled. He rubbed his close-cropped beard, now mostly grayish stubble, neatly trimmed. “See, the carter's guild has gone to him about you. So have the carpenters. They want to bring accountants into town. I'd like that, too.”

“Do you mean my apprentices?”

“No! Idiot!” Udo snapped. He pounded his fist on the table. “They want you to stay.” In a smaller voice, he added, with a glance to his oldest daughter, “So do we.”

“You'd do well here.” Addler shrugged as he weren't committed one way or another. “It seems to me that you already have a thriving business.”

“And you don't need to make yourself any competition from your apprentices,” Udo said.

“Now ...” Whatever Addler tried to say, his words were drowned out by his son.

“Besides, you could have an apprentice right here if you're serious about letting Cari work. You could have others, too. Folks would pay you to learn.”

“I'd like that. I think the world of Cari.” Denario tried to remind Udo of what the man should already know. “But I've sworn an oath to my previous apprentices in Oggli. You wouldn't think so well of me if I broke my word to them or their parents. What worth would my word have anywhere then?”

“Um.” Udo hesitated. Promises didn't seem to mean much to him but he understood Denario's point. Most of anyone's business was done on trust. Even Udo, who relied on the mayor and the local priests to enforce his contracts, also relied on his craftsmen, carters, and caravan masters to keep their commitments. He couldn't fight legal battles over every little thing. He set down his wine cup.

“Of course we don't want you to foreswear yourself,” Addler jumped in. “But there's a place for you here. If you're gone too long, some junior book keeper will fill it. We want to make it easy for you to come back to town.”

“How?” Denario didn't need to tell them that it was a long trip. Addler already knew.

Denario didn't intend to come back to this area, regardless. He tried to imagine the consequences of bringing journeymen accountants with him. It would be a disaster, possibly with fatalities. Even a marginal success would come at great expense. He'd need to pay a caravan or he'd have to arm and march his apprentices for a week upstream without suffering ambush. The trip might take longer than a week. He wasn't sure how far northeast he was or how difficult the paths beside No Map Creek might be.

Addler grunted. His left hand patted his chest. Denario wondered if the old fellow were feeling indigestion. Then he wondered if he could be suffering something worse. The fellow's pale, trembling hand drifted down to the side pockets sewn into the lower half of his shirt. After failing to find what he wanted there, he put his hand to his belt. He had a pocket belt similar to the outfits worn by wealthy merchants in Oggli. Denario had never owned a pocket belt himself. They were made of fine leather. It took a skilled tailor to design hidden compartments on the inside. Someone with problem hands, like Addler, could barely use them. The accountant knew Addler had trouble with his left hand in particular, which curled semi-permanently into a half-fist. The fingers on that side were pale and cold, nearly blue-green at the tips. It took the old fellow's gnarled digits half a minute to open the hidden nook.

In stages, Addler eased his treasure out of the belt. Whatever it was, Denario could tell the shape was rectangular and not much more than two fingers wide. The accountant’s eyebrows went up when he saw that the piece shone like steel. It had been stamped or inscribed. The elder Vogel palmed it. He turned over his trembling hand. With pride, he presented the piece to Denario.

Steel was so rare here that it was probably worth quite a lot just for that. The inscription showed four donkeys in a row. The accountant had never seen anything like it before but it teased at his memories. The icons recalled something important. Winkel had mentioned an artifact like this but Denario couldn't bring the name of it to mind.

“It's beautiful,” he said. He wondered how anyone had managed to make such detailed pictures on steel. Perhaps the tablet had been stamped into a die while soft and blazing hot. “What is it for, Herr Vogel?”

“This, accountant, is an Oupen Teamster piece. It's a token of transport.”

“Oh.” Suddenly the memory came flooding back. He rubbed his fingertip around the edge and felt a sense of awe. Yes, Master Winkel has mentioned these. Accountants couldn't get them. Even upper class travelers couldn't get these. They were only available to the wealthiest of the wealthy.

“It should suit you and your apprentices when you come back here. I meant to sell it to our local caravan masters but they never gave me the price I wanted. You can have it. If there are mule teams hauling rafts back up the Riggle Kill, the teamsters will honor this. So will any Uberwaldi mule-led caravan.”

Addler Vogel must have been as rich as a prince, once. It changed Denario's opinion of Ruin Thal. He was closer to civilization than he thought.

“This ...” Denario tried to put it back in Addler's palm. The old fellow had anticipated the move, though, and he jammed his hands into his pockets. The accountant was left dangling the steel wedge in the air. “This is more than my accounting practice could ever afford. We do well. But not this well. How ...?”

“I did a mule captain a favor. He paid me in this.”

“Must have been an amazing favor.”

“Saved his life. He felt it was worth a pair of these.”

“He gave you more than one?”

“Long story ...”

“Dad!” said Udo. Next to her grandfather, Cari groaned. Apparently, they'd heard the story more often than they liked.

“Anyway,” said Addler, not much bothered by their reactions. “They are good forever. This is the one I kept. It will help you get back up here. I know all the boat masters to take you down to Oupenli, too."

“Long ago you did,” corrected Udo. “Da, those fellows are dead. Well, most of them.”

“I know families doing business on the creek. I get news from there. I know that you can catch a ride down No Map straight into the Lamp Kill.”

“Who among the boatmen take passengers?”

“All of them if they're not full to the brim with cargo. The best is the Bowman family. Hans Bowman's son is Otto. Otto goes all the way down the creek like his dad did and sometimes he goes all the way down the Lamp Kill into County Oggli. Then there's Ingemar Scheller. He's a great raft maker. He's old now but when he's on a run down to the Lamp, you can't do better. It's just that he doesn't go all the way down to the end of the creek anymore. He's gotten superstitious. Doesn't like to pass by the forgotten temples.”

Karla took the lid from her table stewpot. The rich scent of venison wafted across the table. She dutifully spooned out a tiny morsel for the accountant although he hadn't asked for another helping. He was the guest and therefore was always served first. Then she scooped up a much larger portion for her husband, who patted his belly and bowed his head. Fatty juices from the meat had gotten on his hands, lips, and beard. That gave him a moist smile but a genuine one. He seemed pleased to have his wife anticipate him.

“Forgotten temples ...” mumbled Denario. “Those sound like sources of magic.”

“Hah. The whole creek is lousy with magic. That reminds me. There's a crazy man you could try named Jack Lasker. He'll be making the run to Oupenli if he hasn't gotten himself killed. He takes too many chances. That's how he gets in three or four rafting runs a year. In the spring and fall, he gets iced in upstream but he breaks through it with rocks tied to ropes.”

“Like anchors?”

“That's what he calls those things.”

It didn't sound foolish to Denario but he didn't know much about icy water except that the Mundredi feared it. They tried to ward off magic, too, and he was pretty sure they were wrong. Magical light was practical. So were flying carpets. If you feared such tools, you might as well fear math, alchemy, or engineering.

“So Helmut Zimmerman told me you were packing to leave,” Addler ventured after a rather long silence.

“There's no reason to linger except to teach Cari some more,” Denario admitted. She smiled at hearing her name and that made him feel warmer. “I had to unpack my supplies and take a full tally of what I've got and how long it'll last. Also, I had to weigh it. Now that's done.”

“I'll bet you've got at least ninety pounds of stuff.”

“I weighed out one hundred seven pounds in eight bags.” Denario shook his head at the craziness of it. He had fifty pounds in cash alone. “I need to lose about thirty-seven pounds and get down to four bags. If I don't catch a ride at No Map Creek, I'll have to leave equipment there.”

“Can't you take less food and money?”

“If I can keep working for food, yes. In fact, I wondered if I could leave some money with you.”

“There's a holding fee,” said Udo.

“Now, now,” Addler drawled with a smile. “You can leave anything with me, personally, no holding fee.”

“Really?” Most tradesmen charged holding fees. Even the Oupenli-Oggli Bank charged fees. Next to the accountant, the women of the family blinked. Their gazed drifted between the elder and younger Vogel men in confusion. Karla's face seemed to resolve in an expression of suspicion towards her father-in-law.

“You have to come back within two years to collect, though.” The elder Vogel leaned back in his chair, hands over his stomach. Karla nodded at his remark. “I'm not getting any younger.”

“Understood, sir.” Denario brightened at his prospects. True, he didn't expect to return but the option was good have. He slipped the Oupen Teamster token into his pants pocket. “It's extremely kind of you to offer. I accept.”

“Will you stay a few days to teach Cari? She could come to classes with those other merchants if you let her.”

“Some of them have objected to the idea,” he admitted. He could see that Addler and Udo knew about that. One of Denario's worst students, a master carpenter, had voiced his opinion loudly on the proper place for women. He didn't think they belonged in school. “But as far as I'm concerned, she really should come. If another student doesn't like it, he can leave.”

“Heh.” Father and son both laughed. Even Karla and Cari dared to share smiles.

“I'll write to Cari when I'm gone. I'll send more lessons. After all, I write to other folks.”

“So we've heard,” said Udo. “But your messages to our chief won't make it across Sir Fettertyr's territory.”

“I have to try.”

“Why? Why did you send them with a caravan? It marks you as a spy in other men’s eyes.”

“Well, I'm not,” he retorted. Several other voices spoke at the same time, one of them a rare comment from Karla that he didn't catch.

“Look, son,” said Addler over everyone else. “The accountant has the token of the royal Mundredi. That's important. He's got to write to the chief.”

“Dad, all that 'chief' stuff went out a generation ago. This town has a knight, a real, powerful knight with a horse and armor and everything. Our knight appoints the mayor. Believe me, Sir Fettertyr is not going to tolerate any talk about a Mundredi chief.”

“And what a crap-ass job Fettertyr did of appointing our mayor! Not that Tobias Brauer is immoral, mind you, but on his own merits he'd be the hundredth man in line to hold office. His wife would be ahead of him in line.”

Udo had to chuckle at that one. He settled in his seat, content to have made his point. The chief had no power in Ruin Thal.

“Anyway,” said Denario, getting back to what he thought the subject of conversation should be. “I have to lighten my packs. And I want Cari to write back to me in Oggli if she can. She can send to the Bank of Oupenli-Oggli and they'll find me. That's the way it's done.”

“Nonsense,” snorted Udo. “We can't afford it. She's a mere girl. She's got no call to write. The price of parchment is ridiculous.”

“I have extra parchment. I could leave her with blank scrolls and some money to send them.”

“That's a fortune! You could feed forty men for a week on the trade for that.”

“Well,” said Denario. He pulled out the steel Oupen Teamster pass from his pocket for a moment. He turned it over to gaze on the four donkeys. “You've been more than generous yourselves. If I'm going to teach Cari math, I'll want to see that she's making progress.”

“Is this on top of the chalk?”


Udo stood up and stuck out his hand. Denario palmed the teamster token. Without rising, he shook on the deal with the shopkeeper.

“Done!” said Udo. He sat back down with a smile.

“So ...” Denario turned to Carinde. To his surprise, she was biting her lip. He plowed on anyway. “Cari, your grandfather told me you've been keeping up with your geometry. Do you have anything new to show us?”

She nodded. She put the edge of a napkin in her mouth. Suddenly she seemed very childish. She just stared at Denario, wide-eyed. Then she made a choking sound. She spat out the napkin. To his shock, the poor girl burst into tears. A moment later, she hopped off of her stool and dashed out of the room.

“What just happened?” Denario looked to her step-mother, then to her father. Udo looked as surprised as Denario felt. “Did I do something wrong?”

Someone patted him on the knee. He turned. It was Karla. Beneath her braided, blonde hair there was a gentle smile.

“You were fine,” she said. She rose from her stool with a barely audible huff. Her belly was heavy but it didn't seem to inconvenience her much. “You men sit here and talk. I'll come back with Carinde. She's been worked up, Denario, about your accounting, and about everything else you've taught her. She showed me some of her work. Very clever, I think. But Carinde has been on edge for days. She's worked herself into a fit.”

“Over math? Really?” She was more motivated than Denario had realized.

“She'll be back to show you her work in a few minutes. You'll see.”

In fact Karla and Carinde returned in less than a minute. The young girl led the way. She marched from the storeroom to the front of the house holding two slates in front of her. Denario noticed that Udo didn't like that. His daughter must have appropriated the slates against his orders.

Carinde wore her best dress tonight, which was white with green trimmings. It was the one she took on family trips to the temple. She was proud of it because it had belonged to her dead mother and Karla had trimmed it down for her. There was nothing tribal about it. The cloth was linen. The pattern was simple. In fact, the only thing that seemed Mundredi about Cari was the stubborn tilt of her jaw. She gazed meaningfully at her left slate, then her right. She offered the right one to Denario like it was a fragile present.

“Beautiful,” he murmured. He held the diagram close so he could see the details. Carinde had drawn a star with straight-sided rays, one called a mullet in heraldry. This mullet was good enough to grace a herald's shield. It had eight points, each colored with yellow chalk. How had she done that? Then there was the piercing in the center, also an eight-sided mullet. The chalk marks had been removed from the pierce. “How did you color it?”

“We sell sulfur,” she explained. “It leaves crumbs in the bins. I mixed those with the chalk.”

“Smart,” he said. Carefully not glancing at her father, he added. “Economical, too.”

“It's the holy star,” Karla added. “The women at temple love it. We're going to have Carinde help us to stitch the design into blankets. We can all have new blankets for winter mass.”

“Could we, um ...” Udo reached across the corner of the table to touch the edge of the slate. “Could we sell a few of the blankets, do you think? To single men and to older women?”

“Of course. I hadn't thought of that. And not just to them. For intricate designs like this, there will be quite a few middle-aged women who need help.”

“Interesting.” The price of blankets in Ruin Thal went up twenty percent on his smile.

The accountant passed the eight-pointed star to Udo, who contemplated it with an air of satisfaction. Denario accepted the second slate from Carinde. The drawing on this one was also colored, probably with rust. The girl had seen the 'flying 8' painted on Denario's buckler and she'd attempted to duplicate it with a compass, protractor, and straight-edge. Her design, in fact, was closer to the official seal of the Oggli and Angrili Accounting Guild than his own.

How had she duplicated the seal so exactly without seeing it? Was it an accident? Was it inevitable? Did Melcurio himself have something to do with it? The rust color couldn't be helped but everything else was correct.

“I will never forget this one,” he said truthfully. If nothing else, it presented a puzzle.

“We, uh ...” Carinde wrung her hands. She glanced to her step-mother. “After I was done, someone, uh, pointed out that, uh, well, it's your god sign, right?”

“For Melcurio,” said her father darkly. “The trickster.”

“The god of accountants, yes,” Denario corrected.

“We were worried that Melcurio would be mad if we erased it. See? But we need the slate back. Could you …?”

Denario laughed. Still, the child was right. The gods took offense to this sort of thing. He'd seen it before in Oggli.

“Here's a penny,” he said. It was a copper piece that he was going to leave with the Vogel family anyway, so it was no loss. Melcurio would appreciate that. “And now, my accounting bag. Can you go get that for me, Cari? It's by your side door.”

When she came back, Denario dug into the bag and found his chalk sack. The dark leather bag, about the size of his fist, opened large enough to fit around one corner of the slate. He tilted the slate in his lap. With the edge of his skinning knife – animals skinned so far, zero – Denario scraped off the chalk and rust. The debris from the drawing fell into the bag. Sometimes he had to nudge it along with the tip of the knife. In all, the process took a few minutes and proved to be a neat solution.

“Back to where it came,” he said when the remains of the flying 8 lay with his chalk shards. He wiped off the pale residue with his bare hands. “Near enough, anyway.”

“And you'll write with the chalk, which is now covered in holiness,” observed Addler. “Nicely done. Cari should be able to do the same with the star and our priest's blessing.”

“That's a relief,” snorted Udo. On the other side of the accountant, Karla smiled and let out the breath she'd been holding. Carinde stopped wringing her hands.

“Geometry does have power,” Denario said. He tied the drawstring on his chalk. “Numbers formed the world. They can re-form it in ways that we don't want if we're not careful.”

“Is … is her math safe?” asked Karla. That was a question Denario had heard from the lips of Shekel's parents and Guilder's parents, too. He replied with the same answer Master Winkel had given.

“All of the math lessons I give will be safe, you may be sure.”

“But ... all the exploring ...”

“Explorations are normally safe, too. I trust that she won't venture far into trouble with you to guide her.”

Karla folded her hands in her lap. She didn't seem completely satisfied but she'd had enough reassurance for now. Denario didn't know the woman well but he could already see more holy symbols in Cari's future, especially whenever her step-mother felt uncomfortable about her step-daughter's work in higher math.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 112: A Bandit Accountant, 18.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene Four: Knotty Problems

An hour after my negotiations with Udo, I thought I'd made myself a bad deal. The breakfast he provided that morning was sumptuous with poached eggs, fried eggs, two different loaves of bread, bacon, onions, and the first crop of tomatoes, which folks farther north and west consider poisonous. Ruin Thal knows how to grow them. I suppose Udo wanted the meal to put me at ease and help him talk me into his idea. Carinde helped. I found it hard to refuse.

So they became my agents. They agreed to sell my services to other merchants in exchange for a cut of the pay. It seemed like poor exchange for my teaching but I didn't care. I would have taught Carinde for free. I couldn't say that but I think Udo knew.

The arrangement turned out to be more profitable than I could have imagined. The money I've made borders on inconvenient. I can't transport my wealth. It would overflow my bags or wear a hole in any sack even if I were strong enough to walk with it. Ruin Thal has no trusts or thrifts, not even a branch of the Bank of Oupenli-Oggli. I'm going to have to leave a portion of my earnings with the Vogel family. That may have been Udo's plan from the beginning.

Regardless, the work he's provided me has been interesting. Ruin Thal uses a lot of writing, more than any other Mundredi town so far. It has parchment. It has paper and a few books. It has an example of the Yullamar double-entry system at the Church of the Carpenter although here in this town they call it the Oggli System. The town holds several living examples of the Tomaru single-entry system that Senli uses back in Pharts Bad. Most of those are in waldi merchant houses. The mayor uses something called the Old Counting, which is a single-entry system I haven't seen before but I find easy to understand. The mayor even has an abacus made of strings of colored beans. No one knows how to use it but it has been preserved. I'm sure I could figure it out, given time.

For that matter, Carinde may figure it out now that she knows it exists. She helped me decode the knot system in the Small Gods Temple. There, an ancient rope of beaded, knotted strings has sat in the accounts for over a century. For the past forty years at least, it has been accompanied by a scroll initialed 'BFS.' It was possibly written by a master accountant who traveled here before me. His notes proved incomplete. Long after he passed through, the temple discovered more records. Some of those were knotted records but others were parchments with pictures in ink of the knot-keeping method. If anyone before me had understood the math, they would surely have figured out the archive of knots from a comparison with the written records.

That was the job that made my fortune. The knots revealed the locations of buried holy objects.

On five strings in the rope, the distance between the knots was proportional to the center of the temple and the burial spots. Part of the system was, in essence, a map. The temple unearthed one treasure straight away, a wooden chest that had been crushed by the stones and dirt over time. Inside the chest had been five thumb-sized golden idols. Those survived. The priestess was absurdly grateful to me and she proved practically-minded as well. When I said I couldn't carry all of the silver dollars she wanted to pay, she offered me the services of her parish instead. Now I have blank paper. I have parchment. Her tattoo artist painted the Flying 8 sign of Melcurio on my buckler and scabbard. Her tailors fitted me for new shirts and pants. The tanner adjusted my leather hauberk so that I don't look like I'm wearing a bigger man's raincoat. Before all of this kindness, I was worried that the priestess would have a problem with Melcurio but she said he was decent god, kind to the smaller gods like hers. Her holiness was fine about helping me.

The cobbler I worked for later that week paid Udo in coins, I noticed. But he paid me by re-sewing my boots and re-dyeing them. The Goat Clan tanner, not the one at the temple, modified my accounting bag and repaired my vest. With money from other jobs, I was able to trade in my snake jerky, which I knew I would never eat. Instead, I bought dried fish and dried beef. I exchanged three of my travel bags for a single backpack, custom-stitched to fit over my armor. I paid Udo's favorite tailor to repair my accounting vest, which had an arrow hole in it, and to refit two of my hats.

Although I was ready to leave after a few days, I found it hard to do. I kept making money. I moved into an apartment in the center of town above the mayor's office. The local book keeper, a woman, stopped by for lessons with her apprentice, her son. Carinde seemed almost jealous. The greatest reason it was hard to leave, really, was Carinde. She learned her math so thoroughly that I wanted to take her on as an apprentice. Casually, I mentioned it. Apparently that was a mistake. She informed her father. Udo ran into my apartment the evening of my eighth day in Ruin Thal, outraged.

'You want to take my own daughter?' He stormed around the room. 'It's an insult! A crime! Yes, you … y-you're a criminal or a f-fool. Don't you understand her position? She's neglected here, yes, and sh-she's … she's not pretty but she's mine. She's valuable. I won't just give her away.'

'I understand,' I told him. 'But she should have an apprenticeship.'

'You’d take on a girl in your practice? As an accountant?'

'She’s a genius, Udo. My guild hasn't allowed girls but we've come close before. Cari's brilliance would sway the ones who have been reluctant.'

'That’s not a good reason. She hasn’t got many prospects so far, I admit, but we're wealthy. She’s no beggar or whore. What would people say, her living and traveling with a single man? And never mind what they'd say. Would even she make it to Oggli? I doubt it. This is nearly a plan to kill her.'

Then he banned me from his home.

The next day, my business came to a halt except for the teaching. Whatever Udo said about me, it affected his tradesmen but it didn't make me less popular for lessons. I often had three or four of merchants in my house at once learning multiplication and division. A few wanted to hear my ideas about money. One of them, a relative of the mayor named Wilmut Ziegler, asked me about banking. Old Addler Vogel came to visit, too. He sat in on the lessons although he didn't offer to pay and I didn't ask. He laughed at us and corrected other men's mathematics but no one seemed to mind. During the few times we were alone, Addler chatted about his grand-daughter. She had been teaching him algebra. He didn't understand it but he liked it. His problem was that he needed to learn how to multiply. I helped him a little.

After our talk at the end of his third visit, I presented him with a note for Carinde. It was a math lesson. Addler took the precaution of reading it, approved, and said he would deliver it for me.

On the morning of the next day, my eleventh in Ruin Thal, Addler stopped by to invite me to dinner. I said that would be a problem because I was still banned. Addler pointed out that he owned the house. I hadn't realized that. Anyway, he said, if it made me feel any better he'd persuaded Udo to make peace in exchange for math lessons.

I remembered to dicker with Udo that night. I declared that my letter to Carinde counted as a lesson. To my surprise, he and his father agreed.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 111: A Bandit Accountant, 18.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene Three: Carry, the One

“It’s 2,348, not 2,338,” said a voice.

“What?” said Denario. He looked around. For hours, the shopkeeper's back office in Ruin Thal had been empty except for him.

“I don’t know how you made that mistake.” It was a young girl with brown hair. She had crept in and sat down on the inventory bench behind him so quietly that he'd never heard a thing. Her stealth seemed aided by her size, which was tiny. She was so thin and short, Denario had no problem believing that she walked everywhere in silence. “You must have carried wrong.”

He gaped at her for a second or two. Her face was plain but with a nice nose, deep, dark brown eyes and an intense gaze. She wore a white blouse under a blue, sleeveless dress. It looked like the sort of functional arrangement chosen by mothers everywhere. She was as cute a child as there could be, elf-like in her proportions, but his instant impression was one of intelligence. Working under her stare felt like having his thoughts laid open to the point where she could see to the back of his skull.

He hadn't quite listened to her so he hesitated. In his mind's ear, he replayed her words.

“No, I didn’t,” he said automatically as he re-summed the figures in his head. He didn't bother to look at the chalk. There weren't that many rows. A moment later, he added, “Yes, I did. Damn. I put an eleven above the ten's place but I dropped the one.”

“You see?”

“I'm glad that wasn't the ink draft.” He cursed Melcurio. Then he covered his mouth. “My apologies. I meant to say 'thank you.'”

“I hear cursing all the time.”

“From customers?” Hadn't he seen this girl in the front of the shop? Yes, he was sure that he had. This must be the shop owner's daughter. She had been the one handling the money.

“Usually from my da after the customers leave.”

Her father, Udo Vogel, was a distant relative of Mayor Ilse Richter of North Ackerland. As a maiden, Ilse had been a Vogel, too, and had belonged to the Goat Clan. When Ilse had left the clan for marriage, she had deftly kept in touch with everyone, including Udo and his father, Addler.

Addler Vogel was still alive although he'd reached nearly sixty, ancient by almost any standard. He didn't write much and he couldn't travel the way he once had but he still liked getting letters from Ilse. He and his son Udo had been surprised to learn Ilse was now the mayor. Addler had remarked, though, that if any woman could do it, it was her.

This girl’s grandfather, in his youth, had been a mule driver for caravans. He'd been born to modest means, a middle son among many children, but he'd taken an understanding to mules as soon as he met them. By the age of twelve, he saw a way to escape his village. After he got himself hired by a desperate caravan manager, he mastered the previously-unruly animals and moved up the ranks. He saved up goods and money to trade for armor. The armor helped him live through several caravan raids. In a few years, he was a senior driver and the assistant chief of a caravan. Various clans had made him a member. He'd collected more tattoos. He'd traveled beyond the Mundredi lands.

Udo Vogel had hinted that there was more to his father's story than that but the family didn't like to talk about it. Denario knew that Addler's caravan jobs had made him a fortune. After amassing too much wealth to carry on three burros, he'd left his final caravan as he passed Ruin Thal. Here, he'd settled down to provide services the town had never seen before. Addler had a plan for his retirement and he stuck to it. To begin with, he married a woman from a prestigious family. He could afford the bride price. Hence, by luck or by Addler's design, Udo Vogel was second cousin to the mayor of Ruin Thal.

When the mayor, a thin and nervous man, had held a victory party for the arrival of Denario the Dramatic, Accountant of Oggli, Hero of the Mundredi Army, the shop keeper had been invited. He'd sat at the head table with Denario and the town leaders despite the fact that Udo had no official post. He was not a burgher. He simply ran his father's store, the most popular general store in town. Indeed, Udo and his father seemed to have cornered the market on most manufactured household goods in Ruin Thal by way of exclusive contracts with the craftsmen. It was a new idea to the area. Probably no one had understood what old Addler was up to when he built up his business.

The knight, Sir Fettertyr, was not happy with Addler's arrangements. But even Fettertyr didn't seem to know what to make of them because they were sworn to in every church, written, sealed, and testified to by priests and judges. The craftsmen weren't opposed to their contracts, either. Once Addler accepted their merchandise he promised them payment in pigs' ears, dried fish, coins, goats, knots, debtor sticks, or furs regardless of whether or not he could sell what they'd made. No other merchant in the area offered that bargain.

It was Udo to whom Denario had given the silver trinket of a goat entrusted to him by Ilse Richter. To his credit, Udo had known immediately what it meant. When he found out what Denario's profession was, he offered room and board in exchange for a review of his shop's records and inventory.

“Your father is smart to promote the use of money,” the accountant said. He'd tried to like Udo for Ilse Richter's sake but he hadn't been very successful. The man seemed obsessed with wealth. Here he was, promoting the use of coins but Denario couldn't root for him as a person. At least he was bright and energetic. Udo seemed open to new ideas.

His daughter shrugged.

“I like money better than dried fish. Yuck. But coins aren't as practical as furs,” she said. “Furs are easier to carry and you can wear them, too.”

“That's not right. Gold and silver ...” Denario prepared to launch into a speech about how money made everyone more wealthy by increasing the efficiency of trade. Her age made him re-think his strategy. After a moment spent rubbing his chin, he settled for, “You're not wearing furs right now.”

“It's almost summer.”

“Well, in the warm lands around the Complacent Sea, no one uses furs as money. They're not wanted for clothes so much. But coins are still valuable. Coins are good from one end of the old empire to the other.”

“Oh, I see. Metal is always useful, no matter how hot or how cold you are.”

“Yes!” he exclaimed, please that she'd seen the point so quickly.

“That's why we use it as money. But why do we use metals that are hard to find?”

Denario scratched his head. “We're not meant to, really. There's plenty of money that's made of copper, iron, lead, nickel, or tin. But the smithies say that gold is the easiest metal to work with and it doesn't rust. Silver tarnishes black. Copper turns green. Cheap iron and lead rust or break. That's why everyone wants gold. And it's hard to mine, too, so that makes it more prized. I suppose it's the smithies who set the price, more or less.”

“I don't know of any coins made of lead or nickel or tin.”

“Those metals are included in lesser coins. Brassers are a combination of copper, nickel, and tin. Munis are mostly lead.”

“Doesn't that spoil them for their worth as metals? If you mix them all up, you make more work for some smith or an alchemist when he has to melt them down to make something.”

“You're right. I think the idea is to make the coins themselves worth more in trade than they are for melting down.”

“But if they're really worth more, not just getting higher value because our knight says so, that worth needs to come from somewhere. Doesn't it? Does it come from the gods?”

“Um … the extra value of a coin is that you can use it instead of barter. That's about it. But that means more than you'd think. Say, what's your name?” Denario stopped himself from adding, 'little girl.' She was just old enough that it would be annoying. And Denario had heard plenty of 'little boy' comments when he was growing up.

“Carinde. My da calls me 'Cari.' He says it's because he had to carry me so much when I was little. I didn't walk until I was over a year old. One of my legs got broke when I was born.”

“You look fine now.”

“I'm not lame.” She stuck out her chin in a defiant way that reminded him of Valentina Ansel. Then she showed him her left leg and wiggled it. She had some kind of leggings on under her dress so she didn't have to bare her ankle. “But if I was, I wouldn't care. I can do my jobs just fine.”

“I'm sure you can.” He looked her over for signs of weakness. Plenty of peasants were deformed in some way or another. Carinde looked better than most. “It's funny. I think I would have called you Cari, too, because you're good at math.”

She tilted her head at him without a word.

“Cari? As in, 'Carry the one?',” he explained. “I mean, like I should have done just now and you noticed?”

She squealed. “Ha! That's so funny!”

Denario felt like a fraud. He'd never known anyone named Carry or Cari but he realized that Carinde would have heard the joke many times if she'd grown up in the vicinity of Oggli. She simply had gotten no chance at an education here in Ruin Thal. She must have picked up math from her father and grandfather.

“You understand money better than anyone I've met in a while. You know addition, too.” He hazarded a guess. “Do you know subtraction?”

“Of course!” she rolled her eyes. “You can't do business without it.”

“What about multiplication?”

“What's that?”

He spent less than a minute describing it. Carinde nodded at various points and told him what 6 x 6 was before he asked.

“So that's what it's called,” she said. “Multiplication. I thought it was memorizing the tables and I know that up to ten times ten. It makes my grandda laugh when I do it. Sometimes he adds in his head and I do my tables and beat him. It's a race. And then he laughs and laughs.”

“I really ought to talk with Herr Addler,” Denario mumbled. He'd barely spoken to the old fellow, partly because Udo didn't seem to like anyone to talk for long with his father but also because, like many old men, Addler at the first handshake had been full of complaints about his teeth, his back, his feet, his eyes and about everything else, really, including how Denario smelled.

The accountant had taken the hint about his odor and had accepted the offer of a bath, cold with gray, gritty soap. He only wished that he'd known he could talk with Addler about math, economics, travel, and other serious matters. The cloudy-eyed fellow had gone to bed before Denario was done drying himself and that was more than an hour before sunset. If he'd arisen yet this morning, he'd done so after Denario had walked down to the storeroom with Udo.

At least Addler had taught his grand-daughter well. Carinde seemed ready to advance to the next level of mathematics. Maybe she had grown beyond ready, advancing whether anyone intended it or not. She couldn't get enough attention from her parents nowadays with a toddler in the house and another on the way.

According to Udo's tale last night, his first wife, Carinde's mother, had died years ago. Carinde's younger brother had died a bit later, leaving her an only child. Naturally, Udo had taken a new wife and together they'd had another girl. Three years later, that wife was pregnant again. The poor woman cooked for the family, helped run the store, and did her household chores with the toddler by her side. By rights she should have put Carinde to work as her assistant. But that option had been denied to her because Carinde had, between the marriages, become essential to the store. Denario had seen that Cari negotiated and tracked all of the sales and purchases. He knew it had to be her handwriting in the log scrolls, too, because it wasn't her father's unreadable scribble and there weren't other folks who touched the scrolls. Cari's script was curlier than most men preferred. It was also neater than that of some professional scribes.

“Tell me, Cari,” he said, intending to test her, “if you got an order for forty of those place settings you offer to rich customers, the ones with a plate, a bowl, a knife and two spoons each, would you know how to calculate the spoons you need? Assume that you have twenty spoons on hand.”

“Forty is a lot.” She tapped her lips as she considered. “I need eighty of them total. I've got twenty spares in the bin. So I just subtract twenty to get the amount I need to fill the order. That's sixty.”

“Very nice.” She'd solved it easily.

“But I'd order more than that, you know. We always need a few spoons on hand.” She pointed to the front of the store. Then she clasped her hands together and placed them in her lap. At that moment, she looked like a young lady, not merely a girl.

“Naturally. But what about something harder?” He gestured to the corner of the warehouse. “What if a caravan came in and sold you two thousand brassers worth of furs?”

“We don't keep that many brassers around. No one does.”

“Banks do. You wouldn't know about banks, I suppose. Anyway, after you talk with the caravan leader a bit, he agrees to value your knives at twelve brass apiece, your copper bottomed pots at eight brass apiece, your oil lamps at three, and your white linens at a silver dollar per yard. He buys up all the linen, four bolts, and then he asks you to calculate the other amounts so that his account comes out exactly even. Could you do it?”

“That's too hard. I'd need the abacus. He's being too generous about the oil lamps, too, but I wouldn't say anything against it.”

So he'd managed to find a problem she couldn't simply do in her head. He told her to go get her father's abacus from the storefront. Carinde came back with a bare, wooden board with eight slots carved into it. In her other hand, she brought a small fist of white beans. Those were her counters. After they moved four baskets of store inventory, mostly wooden bowls, flax seeds, and scraps of cloth, they re-positioned themselves at a long table. Denario watched her manipulate the beads in various slots as she to tried to arrive at an answer to the problem. There were many possible answers and she was aware of that. Nevertheless, she couldn't couldn't come up with a single one that was right. After a while, she gave him a very suspicious, narrow-eyed look.

“Can you do this?” she asked.

“Let me show you.”

He had been using her father's slate earlier. It was a nice, flat one, bigger in all dimensions than he could afford to lug in his pack. Udo had hidden his chalk except for a nub the size of his pinky nail that Denario felt too proud to use. He drew with his own piece instead.

2000 = (4 bolts)(3 yards/bolt)(35 brassers per silver)(12)(n of knives)(3)(n of lamps)(8)(n of pots)
number of knives = K, number of lamps = L, number of pots = P

Patiently, he stepped through the multi-variable equation, explaining each step and shortening his notation along the way. Carinde didn't get impatient as he erased and drew and erased and re-drew each simplified equation again. In fact, she seemed fascinated. She'd never encountered the idea of a variable before. She'd been solving single-variable equations for all of her remembered life but she'd never had a name for them.

At one point, she hopped up, ran to the front of the store and ran right back. Denario didn't ask why but he found out the reason when she did it again.

“That's three solutions in about ten minutes,” she announced as she returned. She must have gone to check the store clock, a huge, primitive thing with a wooden windup key they kept behind the front desk. The family wound it every morning and they reset it by the town sundial when the weather was good. “I'll bet you could move faster.”

“Yes, this is just a math lesson. I thought you might enjoy it.”

“It's amazing. Did you think of this all by yourself?” She clapped her hands just below her chin. It made Denario wish he could take credit for inventing algebra. He had to settle for explaining what history of algebra he knew, which wasn't much. It had been invented by foreigners and brought to the city of Muntar at the southern tip of the Complacent Sea many years ago. Master Molto Numat had brought the discovery from Muntar to Oggli along with other forms of advanced math when he revived the practice of accounting.

“What does the first problem you gave me look like in algebra?” she asked.

Denario erased the slate. It was big but only two equations could fit on it at the same time.

Number of spoons needed = (40 place settings)(2 spoons/setting) – 20 spoons on hand
N = (40)(2) - 20

“That's just so easy,” Carinde remarked. “I would solve it for 'n' before I finished writing it.”

“For one variable, yes. But even for one variable, it can help to write the problem out like this. It makes the solution more obvious. Even someone who isn't good at math can see it.”

“This would be perfect for Klara,” Carinde said. Klara was her step-mother. The girl didn't seem to intend any sort of insult to the woman. She got along decently with her step-mother or so it appeared. Nevertheless, Denario understood not to comment.

Carinde took over the slate. She spent half an hour working through permutations of the multi-variable equations with no sign of losing interest. She worked fast. If Denario hadn't already known some of the answers, he would have been hard pressed to keep up. The girl rendered her ninth solution before her father, Udo, barged into the inventory room.

“How's the ...” he began before his mind registered the situation. A moment later, he roared, “What's this?”

Denario was suddenly aware that Carinde was female. These locals had rules about men not being left alone with women. Udo didn't act like a Mundredi in most respects – he hadn't tattooed his wife or daughter with the goat sign, for one thing, and had only three tattoos himself, the minimum – but he sounded upset. The accountant was surprised when the man's next words were, “You're using my chalk?”

“No, father,” Carinde piped up. “These pieces belong to the accountant.”

“It's true.” Denario let out the breath he'd been holding in. “I travel with my own. Compass, rule, ink, paper, ropes, theodolite, pen, chalk … these things and a few others are tools of my trade.”

Udo's blue eyes darted between the accountant and his daughter. Something had been going on and the shopkeeper was coming to the decision that he didn't like it. But he didn't know how to put it into words. His fingers pulled at his blonde curls. Denario had time to think that the shopkeeper must have gotten many of his features from his mother. Except for his nose and perhaps his quick mind, he didn't take after Addler Vogel. He had a quicker mouth than Addler, too, and Denario could practically see rejoinders rise to his lips only to be discarded.

What Udo settled for was, “Well, I'm not paying for that chalk.”

“No need, Udo. I'm giving it.”

“What, giving it to my … I mean, giving it to me?”

“I hadn't thought of it as a present. But you know, your daughter is so good with her math lessons, I think I ought to give her a chalk when we're done.”

“I'm not paying for these lessons, am I?”

“The first one is free,” Denario countered. With that statement, he almost felt he could get a handle on talking with Udo. To the shopkeeper, everything was a negotiation. The accountant understood the type. He'd encountered the need to haggle in many places and Master Winkel had instructed him in how to bicker properly. If you didn't make shopkeepers pay, he'd warned, they thought you weren't worth anything. “You can sit in on the lesson, too, if you like, and then you and I can discuss the price for more.”

Denario's words calmed the man, as he'd been pretty sure they would. Now Udo didn't see Denario as a threat but as another tradesman. Udo knew how to deal with tradesmen. He took a slow, deep breath. He rubbed his blonde beard. His hands dropped to his waist.

“First one free, eh?” He smiled.

“That's right.” Denario tried to match the man's cunning expression. Winkel had told him this was a rule you were to follow when making bargains but Denario had never been good at it. His master had told him that bargaining was his weakest skill. Vir had said something similar to that. Denario didn't feel like he was getting better. “I can show you what I showed your daughter.”

“Not so fast,” countered Udo. “If you're any good as a teacher Cari will have learned something useful already. She's the one who should show me what she's learned. While using your chalk.”

“Cari, how confident to you feel about ....” He turned to find he was talking to a mop of brown hair, the back of the girl's head. She erased the slate with her right hand. The chalk had moved to the fingers on her left. That was an interesting thing he'd noticed about her. She seemed equally comfortable with either hand. She switched between them constantly.

“Okay, da,” she said. She pulled her long, brown hair behind her left ear. “I'm going to write down a problem so easy that you won't see the point. But it's just to get you used to this way of writing. It's called algebra.”

“And then we'll do something harder?”

“Yes, da.”

Carinde wrote the first line so confidently that Denario worried she might overreach herself. She didn't, though. She changed the constants in the equation on a whim. And she picked good constants.

Number of spoons needed = (30 place settings)(2 spoons/setting) – 5 spoons on hand
N = (30)(2) - 5

She paused, switched the chalk to her right hand, and wrote the solution. When her father complained there was no need for algebra, she talked over him and moved, with a snappy, left-fisted erasure, to a multi-variable example. This one proved to be her own concept, perhaps one pulled from her real experiences in running the store. Her father shut his mouth for a few minutes. He rubbed his silk-bearded chin.

It didn't take long for Udo to be convinced. Denario could tell. But the shopkeeper didn't care to say so yet. His bright eyes darted from the slate to his daughter and back. Sometimes he studied Denario when he thought the accountant wasn't looking at him. He kept relatively quiet through Carinde's third iteration of the solutions in which she made a variance in the caravan price for cloth, when her step-mother cried out, “Udo!”

The shopkeeper grunted and rose.

“Udo! Mister Kleincarver is here and says you promised him five pence per bowl on wooden bowls.” Although her voice was distant, it was growing closer.

“Coming,” Udo muttered. Out of the side of his mouth, he said to Denario, “This is an improvement on what we've done before, accountant. I'll discuss a price with you tomorrow morning at breakfast.”

The thin, little girl clapped her hands. She leapt to her father before and squeezed him in a hug before he could pass out through the doorway. He gave her a bewildered and slightly begrudged smile. Then, with another call to his wife, he was gone.

Carinde finished the exercise she'd begun for her father. There was no real reason. She just wanted to keep going and Denario didn't mind. It surprised him, though, when she next asked about geometry. She didn't know to ask for it by name. She had heard the town story about something he'd done the day before and she wanted the details.

“It was a star you made inside a circle?” she asked. “And you used your tools to make it perfect?”

“Something like that, yes. There were other shapes, too. I had to get out my compass and protractor.”

Carinde erased the slate. Denario chuckled and reached into his accounting bag. First, he spent some time showing the girl how to read a protractor. She'd never seen one before and the idea of angles was new to her. She wanted to know why a circle, according to the protractor, had 360 degrees of measurement rather than 10, 100, or 1000. Denario had no definite answer, only his own guesswork.

“Whoever figured out circles first had been accustomed to base twelve mathematics,” he said. She didn't know what that meant so he told her he'd explain in later lessons. “Why they used three hundred sixty instead of twelve or one hundred forty-four degrees, I've no idea.”

“Three hundred sixty divides in a bunch of different ways. Maybe it just turned out to be more practical,” Cari suggested.

“It is practical.” He nodded.

As he drew a simple cross, he let Cari measure the right angles. She chose the radius of the circle, too, and decided to let it go to the edge of the slate. From the center of the cross to the mark of the radius, he drew a circle with his compass. He told her she could trace it later. With his protractor, he pinpointed the 72 degree angle. Where the line of the angle intersected the edge of the circle would be one of the tips on his five-point star. He repeated the procedure several times and measured the distance between the points carefully to make sure the star would be symmetric. It was a tricky procedure but it was worth it because, in the end, Cari was impressed.

“That is enormously clever,” she said.

“It does look nice, doesn't it?” This one had turned out well.

“I've never met a real hero before,” she said. “I thought they were all supposed to be dumb.”

“That's what the guards at the back gate thought, too.” He tried not to roll his eyes at the idea. “Maybe I'm more dramatic than I am heroic.”

“It's modest of you to say that.” She touched a finger to her lips. He brow made a tiny knot of concern. “Is that the right word? Modest?”

“Maybe. What about your grandfather? He was a hero. And he was smart. It's allowed.”

“Grandda? I suppose he was a bit heroic. He says he was anyway. But that was a long time ago. There's no one to gainsay him. You killed those men just yesterday. Or was it the troll who helped you?”

“It was a troll.”

“And the troll didn't eat you? It ate the others?”


“Why? No one told me why.”

“No one asked me why. Until you, just now. It's simple. I gave the troll some food. It was a lucky guess that trolls eat rocks. And she did. So she decided I was nice.”

“She? I thought all trolls were male. But I guess that doesn't make sense or else how would there be new trolls ...” Carinde trailed off. Denario could have sworn she was blushing. “Anyway, you have a sword.”

“Um, yes.” What did that have to do with anything? Denario scratched his nose.

“That's heroic. And you helped our shaman do his rain dance. We haven't had a good rain in the longest time.”

“Sorry about that.” He stopped scratching and sighed. “I know a lot of geometry. I know how to dance a few Ogglian dances. I thought I could fix his problem.”

“Geometry. That's your funny word for the math you use to make shapes.”

“I was sure the shaman was doing his geometry wrong. I made suggestions. He invited me to dance. We followed my geometry. I didn't know that we would end up with a rain of pickle relish.”

“Don't be sad.” Carinde patted his hand like she was a grandmother and he was a little boy. Then she rubbed her tummy. “I like pickles. And it was sweet relish, too. Yum.”

“Some citizens complained.”

“Poo on them.” She took on the demeanor of a little girl again. “Anyway, it made the highwaymen turn back.”

“So I hear.” When he put down his chalk shard, Carinde picked it back up. She put it into his cloth wrapper for him. To her, it was a precious thing. He definitely wanted to give her all that he could spare when he left. She was a great student. Chalk was cheap in Oggli. “That's strange, isn't it, Cari? The mercenaries marched away. Maybe they were frightened by the magic. Magical storms can be dangerous.”

“So you were a hero again!” She clapped for him in an endearing way.

“If so, the shaman must be one, too.”

“You're being modest. Again.” She gave him a stern look.

“They probably ran out of food.” He nodded to himself. That was the most likely explanation although he hoped his geometry had helped to speed them on their way.

“No, they were scared of you.” Carinde folded her arms. The child seemed sure of herself. Her jaw stuck out in that certain way, very like Ilse Richter and Valentina Ansel. Maybe it was a common gesture among Mundredi women.

“I don't think ...”

“They didn't run out of food. I saw them from the top of the west wall. They were filling their pockets with relish. I mean, they were doing it as they left. One of them had bread because he was making a green sandwich.”

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 110: A Bandit Accountant, 18.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene Two: Experience Shows

A few weeks ago, I complained in one of my journal entries about Ziegeburg roads. I cursed the builders, who didn’t level out the highways as they do in Oggli. All of the hills need flattened, I said. 

That seems mathematically naive to me now. As a traveler, I am seasoned. I have thought more about the amount of effort it would take. Even small hills are equivalent to a cylinder one hundred yards high and an equal amount in radius. That gives my small, example hill a volume of 3,141,593 cubic yards. A good wheelbarrow holds about a tenth of a cubic yard. Leveling a hill with men and wheelbarrows would generate at most a cubic yard per day per man. There is too much digging and walking involved to get more.

Even 10,000 men would take all year to do the job. Yet it is said that the King of All Ogglia, in the days before the Muntabi Empire, leveled so many hills that he filled every swamp within fifty miles. Did he have 10,000 men? In fact, the court history lists a permanent engineering force of 100,000. I’d considered it a fanciful number, a myth. It seemed like an accounting joke. But looking at the feats accomplished by that ancient empire forces me to acknowledge that the population reports may be real.

Also, a bit of consideration reveals that if I had written an official complaint, the Marquis would have assigned me the Ziegeburg roads job as a surveyor. He would have thought it was funny.

My other complaints from five weeks back:

  • There are too many rocks.
  • The deer are aggressive.
  • Ducks are cruel. 
  • No one cleans up ox poop.
  • Foxes steal my food.

A week later, my entries are wiser already.

  • There’s no point in trying to get even with a fox that stole food by eating all the berries off of the bush near the fox den. Those berries make you vomit.
  • It is more efficient to wipe your nose on your sleeve than to stop and find a broad leaf. But only for two weeks. Then you start wishing you could wash your shirt. 

Another week in, I had learned more. 

  • There’s no use in praying for a magic coat to keep you warm. These hillmen have no use for magic. Even their priests don’t like it.
  • The Mundredi taught me to warm rocks in the fire and then roll them out and sleep between them and the fire. That keeps a body from shivering; it is primitive but it works. Unfortunately, midnight is my turn to wake up, stoke the fire, and shift the heated rocks.

At one point, I got so wise with my trail craft that I understood the difference between danger and magic. The villagers in Nickle Bad warned me about deadly magic beside the road between their home and North Ackerland. The place was a flat-topped hillock near a spring. Normally, it would be a good camping spot. When I ventured there I found none of the usual signs of enchantment, no flying frogs or talking animals. Rather, there were anthills the size of a man. I’ve seen them before in the desert north of Oggli. The local Mundredi, when they moved into the area a few generations ago, had never seen such mounds. To them, they hurt travelers and so they must be bewitched.

The ants bite. Or they sting. I’m not sure which. I didn’t stay. The locals were right in that respect, at least. The ant mounds might as well have been the result of an evil wizard.

My last entry on hiking shows my veteran progress, I think.

  • Narrow straps on packs are fine for walking short distances in a city. They are agony for walking far in the countryside. Ideally, I believe, the straps should be wider than the person. I will find someone to re-make my pack.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 109: A Bandit Accountant, 18.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene One: Nearly Geology

It was late in the morning when Denario said goodbye outside the south gate of Furlingsburg. Valentina and Hermann stood off to the side of the crowd. A dozen other people, mostly women, had come along. At least four of them he recognized as street beggars.

They pressed him with clothes to deliver, messages to remember, and gifts. He did his best to memorize their exact words and the names of their relatives. He had a feeling he'd need to stop after he cleared the first rise so he could jot down a note to help him keep it all straight. The Mundredi were fierce and proud, even the women. They were reluctant to show affection. That made their embraces more touching.

"They know you," Valentina murmured. She sounded surprised.

Denario was astonished to be honored by some of the folks he'd written up in his tax report. They knew about it, too, and still they had come. His luck had extended even to the weather. The sun was warm. The breeze was cool. He'd left off his leather armor because the mail shirt was plenty. In the clan mail sack, he carried a dozen notes including one from Ilse Richter in North Ackerland to her relatives in Ruin Thal. Two of the Furlingsburg letters were written on birch bark, the rest on scraps of parchment. In his own bags, he kept his writ of free passage from the head of the Hammer Clan and a letter of protection from Mayor Jolli, the latter given grudgingly but legible and official.

Among the other letters, Denario noticed love notes from three smitten teenaged boys to girls they knew in Ruin Thal. Two of them, he noticed, had written to the same girl. Denario himself had written another message to Pecunia. He'd paid to have it carried toward Ziegeburg, or so he hoped, but he knew it was a hopeless gesture. Pecunia was beautiful. Soon she'd have other, more handsome or more wealthy suitors. She was surrounded by strong, young men who weren't wanted for robbery.

“Are you feeling better?” Valentina asked as she straightened the mail pouch slung over his shoulder. He nodded, understanding. She would never have inquired as to his bruises from the fight. However, Denario's fever was an acceptable subject.

When he'd contracted an illness the day before, he'd felt paralyzed by the fear of it. His body was racked with sweats for hours. That night, the Hammer Clan had sacrificed to their gods in his honor. It had seemed to do the trick. His brow and cheeks had cooled by morning. Today, as he flexed his arms, he noticed he was as fit as he'd been in a month. The clan had fed him well. He'd gained weight.

“Watch out for magical creatures as you head down the Furlings Brook,” warned Hermann Ansel from behind his wife.

“I'll be careful,” Denario promised. Two months ago he would have trembled at the idea of passing through magical lands. Now he knew he'd find his way through the menagerie of creatures in No Map Creek. Because he had to. He'd survived in magical places already. The evening of the glue snow on Tree Stump Hill had seemed dangerous at the time. In hindsight, it seemed comical.

At the top of the rise in the road, he turned and waved to the gate. Most of the Mundredi had left. There were two beggar women watching. They and the gate guards waved back. Finally, Denario was free. He continued his march. Three hillocks later, he stopped and scribbled out the messages he'd been given by the clan's poor and illiterate. In order to keep from using any more of his precious supply of paper, he dug to the bottom of his accounting bag for his wanted poster. He hadn't had a chance to scrape it clean yet, not with so many people watching. He hadn't dared to take it out in front of Wilfried. Now the back of it, at least, served him.

Mrs. Wikfort To Dona Abrams Any sign of my husband?
Khrys Hamgen To Zytel Hamgen Your cousin Greta is sick.
Evangeline Burke To Piotr Burke Here is the shirt you left. Send food or money.
Mrs. Crumkill To Johann Crumkill You are a father again. Send food or money.
Mrs. Crumkill To Piotr Burke I swear if you don't send money to Evangeline I will tell everyone.

Denario had tried to slip a silver piece into Evangeline Burke's hand but she had given it back with a funny look on her face. She'd mumbled something about not being able to trade. Then, as the other women had stared at her, she'd blushed. There was a long, awkward silence among the beggars. In that silence, it seemed to the accountant, there was a mystery.

There had been many mysteries in Denario's life but most of them had involved mathematics. Lately, he'd encountered more and more of them involving women. He'd counted two dozen in the last eighteen months. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a fruitless task for Denario to try to figure them out. Arithmetic came more naturally.

For half a mile, he tried to tackle the problem of proving that 3 = 3. He couldn't concentrate on the logic. His imagination kept recalling the odd expression on the oval face of Evangeline Burke. He pictured it again and again. He listened to the wistful lilt in her voice. He replayed the scene in his mind from different angles because he found that he could remember and focus on the expressions of the other beggar women. Those were telling, those shocked, approving, scandalized, and above all knowing countenances. They knew Evangeline had been forced to trade her body for food or other favors. They approved of her turning down Denario's money.

They were surprised, too. Denario felt flattered by their reaction. But he felt a little insulted. He told himself he was being silly.

I'm engaged, he thought. At least, I might be. Probably not any longer, in fact. But I wouldn't have taken advantage of Evangeline, not even if she'd made the offer.

He strolled a few paces and reconsidered. Fraulein Burke had such a sincere face. She kept herself clean and reasonably attractive.

No, I really wouldn't have, he concluded. It would be icky. And there were all those other people there.

A few minutes later, he found himself mentally reviewing the account totals for the shopkeepers in Furlingsburg. His mind had relaxed. His last returning thought for Evangeline Burke was, That's a mystery solved.

For a mile, the road stayed level. Denario passed a farm boy pushing a barrow of onions the other way into town. Then the path narrowed. Farm lands gave way to wild woods. A hill rose up and the road curled around it. As the way narrowed further, barely enough for a man with baggage, it turned toward a clearing on the side of the hill where Denario would need to walk sideways across a rocky cliff face. He cursed his luck. It was a long, slow walk. At one point, he peered over the edge. Below him, he saw that the cliff ended forty feet down in a muddy rivulet of water that had been eating away at the side of the hill for ages.

It was the Furlings Brook, of course. Denario had been told his path would run parallel to it. He'd also been warned against the area's magic but he didn't see any problems. The walk had been tough but uneventful. The air had grown quiet, barely a breeze in the clearing. That was unfortunate but not sinister. Up high on a rise and in the morning, the weather felt good. When he got back down to the Ruin Thal farms, the heat would undoubtedly become draining.

Maybe it was the thought of the hike ahead or maybe it was the way he could see so much of the land from the heights but he decided the hill he was on would be a good place to stop and draw maps. With luck, he'd think of something to write in his journal. He inched away from the cliff face until he felt safe a few yards into the tall grass. There was shade under the tree boughs. He even saw a pair of boulders past the bushes that would make for a seat and desk. He unpacked his pens, scrolls, and accounting books and laid them out on the lower boulder. It had a curve to it and a useful set of nooks and prominences. It was a bit like using the back, shoulders, and head of a giant stone man.

On the larger rock, which was curved and angled in a way unsuitable for a work bench, Denario struggled to find a comfortable spot. Eventually, he nestled into the crevices at the front so that his body was pointed toward the stones he would use to write. He took a deep breath and turned his mind back to formal logic. He scribbled in the dirt between the stones.

Unfortunately, he had a hard time arriving anything worthy of the journal. When he didn't get anywhere with formal proofs of 3 = 3, his attention drifted to his problems in the Furlingsburg accounts. No one else minded them, of course, but he regretted not being able to do the sort of job that noblemen should expect.

He wrote a quick paragraph about the affects of taxes on the types of businesses in Sir Fettertyr's district. The history of the Mundredi Sickel clan stood out. The way that group had degenerated from skilled craftsmen to peasant farmers alarmed him. He hoped their example would resonate with other accountants. He added details on the belt leather accounting system, too, because he knew the guild members would find the ancient history of it interesting.

Denario shifted. The crevice had begun to feel like it was squeezing his buttocks. Then, as he sat up, the rock shifted. He hopped to his feet and spun around. The stone changed shape as he stared.

In reality, the shape didn't change so much as his impression of it did. What he'd regarded as movement was something different. The boulder’s surface seemed to soften. The curves and lumps became body parts, a magic as much in his mind as in the creature. The slope of smooth stones became hips and legs. Knobbly parts digging into the dirt became fingers and toes. The oval of granite on one end became a wide, expressive face with a flat nose. The beast opened her eyes. Denario was pretty sure this was a troll. He'd never seen one before. He was also sure the troll was a female although he couldn't say why. Her eyes were as dark as onyx. Maybe they were made of stone. They looked it. Her lips smacked and the noise they made was like bones clicking together covered by aged, cracked leather.

“Stupid human,” she said. “You sit on me.”

“My apologies,” said Denario. He backed away. But he couldn't leave. His accounting materials were spread out on the other boulder. He glanced to his right. I've put everything on another troll, he guessed. He hoped that one wouldn't wake up. He was sure that trolls were supposed to sleep during the day. It didn't seem fair to have to deal with one mid-morning. Maybe the problem was that he'd chosen a cool, shaded spot. Or maybe it really was just that he'd sat on her.

“Oh, hungry,” said the waking troll. She sat up and itched her belly.

Denario wasn't sure what trolls ate but he hoped it wasn't people. He fumbled in his pouches for something to placate her. Rocks, he thought, would be the thing. Didn't they eat rocks? Their mouths were full of diamonds and other hard things for chewing, he'd heard. A glance at her mouth told him it was true. However, the only rocks he could find in his traveling materials were a few bits of coal from the Hammer Clan ovens in Furlingsburg. He offered them up.

“Oh, thanks,” said the troll. Gingerly, she plucked them from his hand. Her fingers were each as big as four of Denario's own. “Mmm. Dat's nice.”

The creature munched coal the way a human child might masticate a crumbly bit of sweetbread. It was low quality stuff, too, the kind that could barely be used to bake bricks. A human wouldn't want to put it into a food oven, hearth fire, or anything else that required a clean flame. It billowed poisons as it cooked. Sometimes it popped, too, from gasses trapped between the veins of coal and shale, not unlike the sounds it was making in the troll's mouth.

“Got more?” she said. Crumbs of shale dribbled from her chin.

“Just one.” Denario handed over his last piece.

“Lignite.” She hmmm-ed to herself and made a pleasant face. “'S not as good as anthracite. But nice.”

“I wish I had more,” Denario said truthfully.

“You nice.” The troll decided. But she leaned toward him dangerously. He understood that she could rise up and rip him in half at any second. “Got nothin' else?”

“Chalk? Quartz?” He remembered that he had pyrite, too, but he couldn't give it up. That was the main resource in his fire starting kit.

“Bah, quartz.” She waved off the idea. “Let me see chalk.”

It took him a minute to find the wax wrapper with the six shards of greyish mineral. Most of the pieces were left over from Ziegeburg. There hadn't been much of it to find in any of the Mundredi settlements, not even these large towns to the west and south of the valleys. No one bothered to mine it. Caravaners apparently didn't find any trade by hauling it.

The troll sniffed at his offering. With fingers as wide as two of his own, she plucked up a long shard, his cleanest, whitest one. Her diamond-edged teeth nibbled off the end. Then she put the piece back onto the wrapper with the others. He had the impression that she knew in advance that his chalk wasn't much good for eating but she was trying to be polite.

“You female?” said the troll. “Cause I don't eat females.”

“Can't you tell?” Denario asked. He closed the wrapper around his chalk pieces.

“Humans all look same.”

“Oh, I'm definitely female,” he decided. He drew tight a small, clean knot in his string around the wrapper. Then, in case the troll needed a reminder, he added, “The kind of human you don't eat. That's the kind I am.”

“Oh. Okay.” After a while, the troll pointed to the southeast and said, “Youse goin' dat way?”


“Deze two trails.”

“Yes?” He'd heard that the road to Ruin Thal forked, east and south. The eastern route was safer.

“That one,” she said as she pointed to the unseen eastern fork in the path. It was somewhere far ahead of them, down off of this rise. “Deze lots of men in armor. Too many. Enough to hurt me. Take the little one. Deze just three men there.”

“Three.” Denario's heart sank. He'd been nearly killed several times. There was a reward on his head. This could be his last, fatal encounter with mercenaries. Still, he supposed he could walk off of the path to get around a small contingent of them. It was dangerous because, if he got lost, he might starve before he found a safe town. He'd have to risk it. Even one man in armor was too much for him.

“Stomped them flat.” Perhaps she read his body language. She couldn't seem to read his face but she understood his hesitation. “Dey is no problem.”

“That's, uh, fine. I-I mean, it's wonderful for me.” He stammered as he envisioned the poor soldiers. That was countered in his imagination by the prospect of those same soldiers killing him. Caught between horror and relief, he settled for a bowing to the troll. His body did it, actually, before he could think too much about using courtly manners on a beast. She seemed to understand the gesture and watched patiently, if a bit sternly, as he removed his books and papers from the back of her traveling companion, currently asleep.

When Denario got to the fork in the cart paths later that day, he turned to the right. This was the long way, they'd told him in Furlingsburg, and dangerous due to lingering magicks in the area. But Denario guessed there would be no other option that allowed him to avoid the mercenaries outside the main walls of the town. Probably the troops were engaged in a standoff with Ruin Thal, much as they were with the other Mundredi towns in Sir Fettertyr's district. In theory, Denario's letters of passage should protect him, especially the one from Lieutenant Dvishvili. He doubted, though, that anything would help if someone recognized his face from a wanted poster.

Besides, there was no point in getting slain and then making the the soldiers regret it. They might feel sorry for what they'd done after they'd found his papers but it wouldn't help. Only his ghost would return to his apprentices – if ghosts existed and were allowed to do things like that. His visions of Winkel probably weren't real. Even if they were, he didn't like his prospects for an afterlife. If ghosts didn't do math, he'd have no way to occupy the time.

The narrow trail became an animal path. Denario, a city dweller, had been traveling on foot long enough to recognize deer tracks. He saw signs, too, of a raccoon or a bear or something large enough to make the hairs on his arms and neck stand up. He expected a creature to charge from the underbrush at any second. That was why, when he stepped on leaves and something hard wobbled beneath them, he hopped back and bumped into a spider web. The sight of the fist-sized black-and-green spider in the web made him dance for a minute until his panic subsided. The spider retreated to a nearby tree and clicked its mouth at him resentfully.

When he recovered enough to see what he'd stepped on, he picked it up for closer inspection. He normally didn't see helmets in this shape – flat. A creature of tremendous strength, presumably a troll, had plucked it off of a man's head, squeezed it, and then had taken a bite out of it like a fruit pancake. Maybe the trolls had gotten hungry and the armor had look as tasty to them as a soldier. Metals might be better for their diets than human bones for all Denario knew.

“Poor fellow,” Denario whispered. He set the steel pancake back on the forest floor. Then he thought better of it. This was no time for squeamishness.

A careful search recovered five bodies instead of three. Troll math was not the most reliable. But the soldiers had been, as promised, thoroughly stomped. Their organic possessions, such as food, papers, clothes, and limbs were strewn everywhere. Denario had to fight off a pair of foxes who were determined to worry at the bodies. He couldn't make them leave the corpses entirely. The cur and vixen kept eating the bits farthest from Denario. He tried not to mind. They were probably very economical and family minded, from their point of view, taking those bits back home to their litter.

It took the accountant a full hour to build a sledge out of fallen branches. The huge, green-and-black spider jabbered at him as he gathered his materials. He almost didn't have enough twine to pull off the job. It was a great lesson in thrift. Vir and Alaric had taught him about sledges. They were good for pulling loads. He gathered a fortune in armor, most of it barely eaten, and loaded it on.

Back when he was with the Mundredi army, Denario hadn't pulled a sledge. Today, he learned why. He could barely move one. But he kept at his task, inch after painful inch. He felt stubborn about the money. The last mile into town, unfortunately, went straight up a hill to a spiked, wooden wall. There was no visible door in the wall but, when he got there, Denario shouted until someone showed up anyway.

“It's a foreigner!” someone called. There was a general rustling and bumping of armor behind the wooden poles.

“Don't shoot!” Denario hastily clarified. “I'm only a little foreign. I've been sent by Furlingsburg.”

“Aha! I thought so,” said a more mature voice. A moment later, a face with a helmet on top appeared above the wall. There was a bit of gray in the brown hair that poked out around the helmet. The eyes, from a distance, looked wide and blue and perhaps a little amused. “He sounds foreign but he doesn't look it.”

“Are you crazy?” A younger, narrower face popped up. The man took a look at the accountant, saw the accountant looking at him, yelped, and ducked back down. “He looks like a damned bandit, Werter.”

“My uncle Morris did, too.”

“Your uncle Morris was a bandit.”

“Not really. Because he got away with it.”

“Except once.”

“Sad ending, that.” The older man sighed. “Well, well. How did you get past those mercenaries, stranger?”

“They're all dead!” Denario shouted. “Are you going to let me in? Because I can't very well go around to the front and I've got a fortune in armor to share.”

“Oh, you do, do you?”

Werter, who seemed to be the senior guard, disappeared. There was a hasty conference on the town side of the wall. A third voice joined in. Someone said, “Get a burgher.” After a minute or so, Werter's kindly face popped back up.

“Are you a hero?” Werter asked.


“Are you a hero? You've come a long ways. Very heroic. You killed those mercenaries on the trail. Was it a big battle? Is there anyone left? We haven't been able to get anyone past them.”

“They're dead, I told you. But that ... no, I'm no hero.”

“What's your name, then?”

“Denario.” Suddenly, it seemed important to have a heroic sounding name. “Um, Denario the Dramatic.”

“Good name, that. Pretty good, anyway.”

Werter ducked back down. There was another hasty conference.

“Dramatic about what?” called someone without revealing himself.

Denario took the chain off of his neck. He held the blue coin high enough for the men on the wall to see if they were peeking through the cracks in the woodwork.

“Dramatic about anyone who denies me refuge,” he said. So there. “The Mundredi Chief and the Mayor of Furlingsburg have granted me passage. Your local rulers agreed.”

Three men stood up, a young thin one, a young fat one, and the solid fellow called Werter. Old Werter's mouth fell open. The eyes of the younger guards had gone wide.

“I haven't seen one of those in years!” Werter whispered with a smile.

“Never have, myself,” said the young thin one. “They really are blue. I thought that was just a wives' tale.”

“I didn't think the Seven Valleys were real,” admitted the young fat one.

“He's a hero, all right.” The three of them crouched lower and held another conference. The whispering went on for over a minute. Denario wondered if they were waiting for the burgher. Maybe they were but, in the meantime, the guards tied a knot into a heavy rope and threw it over the wall.

After they tied off their end behind the wall, they lowered down the knot.

“Go ahead and send up the armor you talked about,” the older one said. “Let's have a look.”

“Nice try,” said Denario. He crossed his arms. He wasn't giving them his most valuable items, especially not before their burgher got here as a witness.

“Ah, well, worth a shot.” Werter crouched again. The rope rose back up. All of the helmets visible at the top of the town wall disappeared.

A moment later, there appeared a crack in the wall. It was a hidden door. Slowly, behind a fair amount of pushing from the two younger men, the crack widened enough for a man to step through sideways. That man was the senior guard, Werter. He walked out, hands on hips, and gave the accountant a yellowed, slightly gap-toothed grin.

“I always heard that heroes were sort of dumb,” the man said. “Are you sure you're not a bandit?”

“Which one gets inside the walls?” snapped Denario. It had been a long, sweaty day. He put the blue medallion around his neck and displayed it as prominently as he could.

The guards tittered as if he'd made a joke. Denario understood. The citizens of Ruin Thal weren't going to believe that a troll had killed the mercenaries. They were looking for a hero. Denario had already half-decided to sell them on the idea that Vir, the Bandit Chieftain, had something to do with it. And in a way, he had.