Sunday, April 24, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 36: A Bandit Accountant, 6.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Half Dozen
Scene Three: The Attack

The light was different in the cell after dusk than it had been on the night before. Then, Denario had barely been able to see his hands in front of his face. Tonight, maybe due to a bright moon outside or maybe just a clear sky, he could make out the features of his fellow prisoner, the bars on the window in the cell door, and a moving shadow outside the door, near the food slot at the bottom. It was probably a rat looking for scraps.

“If ye keep walkin' back and forth, we'll have a first class trench by the end of the night.”

“Sorry,” Denario replied reflexively. “Sorry, I just ... sorry.”

He flopped down on the straw floor next to what he'd started to think of as his wall, the one next to the adjoining cell. The shadow outside the door skittered away.

“Can't rest, eh?” Vir said in his quiet but clear whisper. After a moment of thought, he added, “I thought ye would do math in yer head or some such.”

“Usually.” It was alarming how often the big fellow guessed Denario's thoughts and habits.

Vir scratched himself. Denario guessed that Vir liked the stool because it kept him away from the fleas that a previous prisoner had brought in. Still, there was no escape from them, not completely. Denario had accumulated a dozen little welts. Vir had one or two.

“Ye ever train yer body the way ye do yer mind?” the big man grumbled.

“Uh, no.” The idea sounded ridiculous.

“It's too late for practical use, maybe, but it'll pass the time for a while and settle ye down. I'll show ye how to get stronger over time.”

“Really?” For a moment, he felt some hope. “I have to warn you. Before I left Oggli, I paid a man to teach me basic swordsmanship. He said I was hopeless.”

“Ye can't even lift a sword, can ye?”

“No, not really. That was his point.”

“Would ye start out teaching ...” The bandit struggled to find terms for higher mathematics but apparently he didn't know any. “Teaching, uh, hard counting stuff to a man who don't know his numbers?”

“Oh no, of course not. You've got to have the right foundation before you can start to learn.”

“It's the same with a body,” concluded Vir. “Anyone's body. Ye have to get it to the point where ye can learn.”

Denario softly chuckled to himself. “Probably not my body, though.”

“Anyone's body.” Vir stood. It was like a black tower had suddenly loomed above the horizon. Denario found himself getting back to his feet.

“This is how the emperor's own troops did it, many years ago,” said Vir.

In the dim light, Denario watched a complicated manoeuvre. For an older man, Vir crouched with fluid ease. He let himself noiselessly fall to the floor. Only his palms and toes touched the ground. He sucked in his stomach. Then he gently pumped his arms so that his chest nearly touched the ground and lifted his body up again. After a few repetitions, Vir pushed himself back to his feet.

The hand gesture from Vir's wasn't clear but Denario thought he should try the same thing.

“I saw a dock worker do something like that, once.” Denario crouched. “Does it have a name?”

“It's called a 'push-up.'”

That seemed so obvious, Denario shook his head. But he'd never seen anyone do more than a few of these push-up things before. The dock worker had been showing off. From the way Vir acted, he did stuff like this every day as part of sword practice or something.

Denario fell on his face when he tried to duplicate Vir's start. But he didn't hurt his nose too badly. When he got himself on his hands and toes, he found the first push-up wasn't too bad. He figured he'd do a dozen to start with.

Doing three in a row hurt his arms and his back. On the fifth one, his left arm began to twitch like a cat's tail. By the seventh push-up, his entire body was shaking like a dog drying itself. Except, instead of feeling dry, he felt damp. He'd started to sweat.

He gave up after he failed twice on the ninth push-up.

“Don't think I've seen anyone's whole body do that,” his fellow prisoner mused.

“Ugh.” Denario had to roll onto his side before he could push himself to his feet again. Well, he thought, that must have worked off some nervous energy.

He was right. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before he found himself listening for the sounds of battle again. Those bandits had to attack tonight. But all that Denario heard were the guards in the front room of the guard house. They were making a conspicuous amount of noise but still, there were only two voices involved.

“How many of these push-up things do you need to do each day?” he asked after he stopped feeling his heartbeat through the veins in his forehead.

“How many you do depends on how strong you are.” Vir got down and did more as they waited. “My habit is forty at a time, five times each day. That keeps my arms at the ready without making me tired. But I do other things, too.”

Denario asked what other exercises there were but he didn't get an answer. The big man finished his regimen in silence. Then he sat on his chair and listened.

They listened for so long, Denario ventured another two push-ups. That did it for him, though. He relaxed as much as he could and waited for the fight to begin.

To his surprise, the cell was a bit darker when he next opened his eyes. Vir's silhouette loomed near the door. In the distance, Denario heard the sounds of metal striking metal. Someone shouted the word 'ambush' and the word seemed to be repeated. There were other angry cries, too, all of them unintelligible.

The noises, distant at first, grew louder and closer. 

Someone pounded on the front door of the guard house. Denario jumped to his feet.

The banging continued. There were footsteps to the rear of the guard house, too, and a bang on that door. Denario had trouble keeping track of the noises. He thought he heard a crossbow bolt whip through the air, followed by the clank of metal against stone. The only metal on metal noises came from the front of the building. They broke off abruptly.

There seemed to be footsteps and shouts from everywhere. The front door to the guard house opened. Denario froze.

The heavy footfalls of the fighting men had receded. One side had proven victorious. Which side? Who had entered the guard house and why? Denario was afraid that he knew.

The boots grew closer. There might have been softer footfalls alongside.

The door to the jail hall slammed open.

This is it, Denario thought. At least there had been Pecunia. At least he had taken care of his apprentices. He'd done his best. He'd done his duty. He'd had a pretty good run before he died.

The intruders came running down the corridor. They were carrying a torch or a lantern. Yellow glows sprung up on the far wall. One or two prisoners shouted as men passed their cells. The rest turned silent, probably in fear of their lives. Denario shrunk into a corner. He expected Vir to grab him at any moment. He knew the big man would try to dodge the crossbow bolts.

A stranger appeared at the bars. Even in the odd light, Denario could tell the newcomer's eyes were blue. His long, narrow face looked familiar. He smiled. To Denario's surprise, he showed crooked, gapped teeth.

“Good to see you, chief,” whispered Yannick to Vir, who hadn't moved.

“How much time have we got?” His boss didn't sound grateful. He didn't seem surprised, either.

“A couple minutes.” There was a metallic rattling sound. It was followed by a hushed 'uh oh.'

“What?” said Vir.

“I've got the key,” Yannick answered. “But just this one. No one mentioned anything about a combination.”

“Don't worry.” Vir snorted. “It's not important. The math teacher here knows the combinations for all of these locks.”

Denario glanced at the big man in awe. How had he known? He stepped out of his corner.

“I never said I did,” he replied as he dared to approach the front of the cell.

“But ye do.” Vir's grin was visible in the dark.

“Yes.”

Vir stepped aside to make room for Denario to talk to Yannick. Denario nodded and moved up to the musty, old oak door.

“Hi, Yan,” he said as he looked up through the bars.

“Hello, Furtim.”

“Right.” It didn't even take a second for Denario to adjust to the fake name. He pointed to the lock or what he could see of it from his side. “This one is five, twenty, five. That's right, left, right. You have to spin the combination with the key in place. When you hear a loud click, turn the key counter-clockwise and pull down on the handle.”

Behind him, Vir chuckled.

“You really are a math teacher, aren't you?” said Yannick. He knelt to look at the numbers on the dial. Next to him, a man in chain mail held the lantern for him. Was this the guard from the north gate that Vir had mentioned? He didn't make a sound.

“I'm an accountant,” Denario corrected. Yan turned the dial slowly right, then left. His brow furrowed.

“He's a wanted man,” gruffed Vir. “This numbers fellow. Ain't that funny? He's a killer.”

Yannick stepped back as the lock clicked. The door swung open into the room. But the gap-toothed man had stopped smiling. He surveyed Denario with greater respect.

“Good man,” he said. “I've never done that.”

“It's over-rated.” Denario didn't know what else to say. “Anyway, it was me or them.”

Yannick nodded.

“He's not Raduar, then?” he said to Vir. “I was a little worried. We don't have to kill him, do we, boss?”

“Nah. He won't talk. He's got to leave town anyway.”

A delayed jolt of electricity shot down Denario's spine at the thought of these folks casually executing him.

“He might as well leave with us. In fact, I'm going to a place he can't follow, not right away. So I'm sending him with ye, Yan.”

“If you say so, sir. I've got your stuff from the evidence box.” He handed his chief a steel disk on a strap. It looked like a badge of some sort. The painting on it showed a crown crossed by two spears. The appearance was similar to the Mundredi tattoo except with better detail on the spear points, a fringe of laurel, and some Old Tongue writing around it that Denario couldn't read in the wavering light.

There were vambraces of studded leather for Vir's thick arms and greaves, too, that were meant to tie into his hard boots. Denario noticed that the vambraces bore the scars of edged weapons that must have nearly sliced apart Vir's forearms.

“Our cousin here found your sword. It wasn't with the evidence. It was sitting on the captain's desk.”

“Heh.”

The big fellow buckled on his badge. The strap went from shoulder to waist across his body. Then he tackled the rest. When he finished by tying on his scabbard and sword, he looked like an even match for Captain Eberhardt despite the lack of chain mail.

“In the evidence box,” said Denario as he turned to Yannick. “Was there an accounting bag? You saw me with it. Would you recognize it? It's brown with a yellow and red sigil on it.”

“Yep, it's still there.”

“Move,” said Vir as he started to walk through Yannick as if he weren't there. The men in front of Vir started to run.

“Keep moving,” Vir rumbled. Denario ran to keep up.

Chapter Six, Scene Four

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 35: A Bandit Accountant, 6.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Half Dozen
Scene Two: A Well Informed Captain

There was morning bread and soup but no Captain Eberhardt. The prisoners didn't get much talk from the guards. Vir watched the men in their armor carefully. He was looking for something but he didn't seem to find it. Denario scraped his bowl with the last chunk of bread before he handed it back.

For a few hours after breakfast, Vir slept. It was the first time Denario had witnessed the man in a relaxed state. Even unconscious, his muscles flexed. When the guards locked up another drunk, Vir woke enough to listen. He seemed to decide it was harmless and nodded off again. 

Denario watched the drunk get shut in. The angle was bad but the guards mis-dialed the lock and so they let Denario watch them twice. He was pretty sure they used zero, twenty-five, zero, another default sequence.

The early afternoon passed quietly except for visits by two wives. They entered the cell hall one at a time and it looked like they paid the guards two pennies apiece for the privilege. Their men were sober and vocal. The wives complained about having to bribe the guards and the husbands complained about the food and drink. Both sides wondered why the men were still being held. Denario wondered, too. It was Captain Eberhardt who had refused to release anyone because he thought there were spies in his jail. There had been no sign of the man for half a day.

The second wife, who wore a dark green dress, pulled a green bottle from her bosom. She slipped it through the bars of her husband's cell window. Denario guessed it was wine but, he realized, it could just as easily have been a weapon or a secret message.

As she left, she slipped the guard another penny. 

It wasn't until late afternoon that Captain Eberhardt made another appearance in the jail. He stormed through the door. There was a spring to his step. Denario hopped up to see him approach. He noticed a slight smile on the captain's face.

Eberhardt had changed clothes. His armor shone. His eyes still looked puffy but otherwise he seemed rested and washed. 

“Math teacher!” he shouted as he saw Denario's face in the cell window. “Or is it gambler? Or thief? How are you finding our jail today?”

“Not much fun,” Denario said. Then, lest he be misunderstood, he added, “But fair. We're decently fed. Thank you.”

“Huh.” The captain hadn't expected that last part. He rocked back on his heels for a second. “You're an odd one, teacher. Well, I've got a question for you. Why did the wizard send his goat to talk with you this morning? What business have you had with him?”

Denario didn't ask where the goat was. He couldn't imagine the captain letting it in.

“I hired the Amazing Markar to send a message,” he explained. He opened his mouth again and hesitated. With a thrill of fear, he realized that he'd almost slipped up right then and admitted that he was writing to Ziegeburg. “It was a personal note.”

“Try me.”

“I borrowed something ... by accident ... and I wanted to let my friend know that I'd pay him back.”

That got a laugh. The captain slapped himself on his breastplate. 

“How do you borrow something by accident?” he asked.

“I picked up my friend's leather case in a hurry. It looked like mine. But when I unpacked my saddle bags for the night, I found that I had two cases.”

“Huh. That's almost believable.”

“Any chance of letting me out today, captain?” Denario filled the slight gap in the conversation with the possibility that was most on his mind.

“No one gets out until I say so.” Eberhardt scowled and shook his head. “My informants tell me there's going to be a bandit raid on the jail tonight. They want to break someone free, I'll wager. Maybe your cell mate here. Maybe one of the three or four others we've got. Maybe you. No one leaves. Not until I get answers.”

Eberhardt stopped looking directly at Denario. From the angle of his gaze, he was studying the mountainous, half-bald prisoner at the rear of the cell. The captain must have come from visiting his informants, too, because he seemed to have a better grasp on the situation. He'd already heard the news that Vir had told his man to spread around.

“What about you, mister Badli or Baldy or whatever your name is?” said Eberhardt. “Are you expecting anyone?”

“Captain,” replied Vir, quietly, without rising from his seat “The folks comin' tonight are no friends of mine.”

“And how would you know that, I wonder?”

“Have ye talked to Hans about me?”

“No.”

There was such a long silence that Denario had time to wonder who was lying. He guessed it was the police captain. It was hard to imagine that he wouldn't grill his predecessor about this dangerous-looking fellow.

“Ye could release a few of the drunks,” murmured Vir. “Those that yer sure of. Fer their own safety.”

“So you admit there's danger? Because of you?”

“Ye could save everyone trouble by admittin' that ye've got no reason to hold me here. Yer informants have disappeared, haven't they? There's no one to speak against me. No one at all.”

Eberhardt's face went dark.

“But yer all filled with ideas of being heroic,” Vir continued. “I can tell. Ye think ye can hold off the Raduar. Maybe. Maybe ye can. But ye don't have to do it.”

“You mean I should just let you go? And what about the process of law? You were accused of attempting a robbery. And what about these armed men who came into my town? Some of those fellows have the same markings that you do.”

There was another silence. This time, Vir got an expression on his face that Denario had seen on one or two mules before.

“What would the baron say about you?” wondered the captain. “Does he know that your folks come over the mountain?”

Denario expected Vir to fly into a rage over that. He wasn't sure why. But when he looked, he saw that the big man's face held no emotion at all.

“Screw this!” shouted Eberhardt. He'd noticed the same lack of expression. He pounded his fist against the pommel of his sword. “Manfrit! Douglas!”

“Yes, sir?” Their replies came instantly. They'd been listening as closely as they could from the other end of the hall.

“Do you have courage, men?”

“Well, I ...”

“Ready to stand up to a gang? We'll take them easily, I promise.  I know how to do this.” He started to wind down a little. He was thinking harder. “Anyway, we can't just let strangers roam Hogsburg in full armor.”

“Well, sir ...”

“This town needs law and order!”

“Yes, sir. One o' them got a crossbow, sir.” Douglas approached quietly for such a fat man. His voice was meek. “Fritz says he seen it.”

“We've got crossbows, too,” said Eberhardt.

“There are six or seven, all told. But there's only two or three of us here at any time, usually just one at night.”

Eberhardt laughed. It was a long, pleasant sound, full of confidence. Denario realized that Vir had been right. The captain did like heroics. In fact, he was probably the sort of man who was only comfortable when he had a clear goal and someone to fight over it. 

“There are six regular officers and a dozen men who watch the gates,” said Eberhardt. 

“The gate men will be at the gates.”

Eberhardt chuckled again.

“The foxes are in the henhouse now,” he replied. “I'm not worried about closing the damn doors. Come on!”

He pulled his men to him with a wave of his hand. Then he was gone.

Chapter Six, Scene Three

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Not Zen 183: Cowardice

Arturo wandered down the aisle, a visiting priest from a rural province.  He'd been accepted for service in the city diocese three weeks before.  He'd arrived two days ago.  His duties amounted to following an elderly, senior priest.  That man took breaks and naps, so Arturo had free time.  This morning, he'd decided to review the layout of the church.  It was different from his previous site in details like the size of the choir stands behind the chancel.  Of course, the basics were the same.

Fingers clasped behind his back, he emerged from behind the choir stands continued his stroll.  He smiled at the familiar sights.  The communion table, a masterpiece carved from walnut and inlaid with lighter wood, stood where it did in every church.  Likewise for the chancel railing.  Only at the pulpit and lectern did the parish differences become apparent.

His fingers grazed the pulpit.  Its sides had been crafted from rosy marble.  Its surface was cool.  Beyond, the town's wealthy masons had built a crossing floor from different shades of stone tile.  At either end of the crossing lay transcepts, open rooms with domed roofs.  Centuries before, the church designers had lined the rounded walls with shelves to hold sconces.  The shelves remained, although the candles in the sconces seldom needed renewed.  The local bishop had long since decreed upgrades to the church.  The place had electricity.

Beyond the crossing, the priest saw a handful of early risers sitting in the pews.  That was another difference between the small town and the city.  Not only were the doors open to the public but the public came inside at all hours of the day.  He still hadn't grown accustomed to it.  The steady public presence robbed him of his accustomed moments of solitude.

Up the aisle strode a heavily-muscled, rough-looking man. Behind him and to either side trailed a pair of younger toughs, less well dressed.  Arturo didn't want to deal with them this early in the day.  He turned his back and strode to the sconces.  A candle had tilted.  He straightened it and looked for other errors he might fix.

"Is that gold?"  In the crossing, the heavy man tucked a finger between his belt and slacks.  He snorted.   "Yeah, that's fuckin' gold.  It's the real stuff."

Arturo nearly turned back to the church center.  Surely the parishoners would hear the man and quiet him.  He spared a quick glance.  The heavy fellow wore an expensive-looking suit, no tie. His beady eyes focused on an imprint in the arched wall above the chancel.  The carved figure at the center of the imprint had been outlined, decades ago, with gold leaf.  The bold fellow had spotted it.

That was unusual.  Most people never saw real gold.  Maybe this one had guessed.  His companions didn't seem interested.

"This trim is sandalwood."  He touched the two-tone veneer of the chancel rail.  "The damned stuff is illegal to import.  Remember?"

"Yeah, boss."  His dark-haired underling crinkled an eyebrow.  "Expensive."

"Crooked town, crooked church.  They must have done it in secret."

Two men in the pews had already risen and headed for the exit.  Now a woman stood.  She picked up her handbag.  The fearful glance she gave the three men, as if they were wild animals, made Arturo realize they must have had reputations in the city.

Rather than his parishoners relieving him of a chore by quieting the newcomers, his congregation set a tone of alarm as they abandoned their seats.  The men in the front third of the pews eased away from the benches, one by one, over the next minute.  They sidled, tip-toed, and in one case briskly marched out to the center aisle and west to the main doors.  The fresh, rich air of the city wafted over them as the doors opened and shut.  The elderly ladies at the front stayed through it all.  They seemed to feel they were impervious.  Probably, they were.  But as the only man at the front of the church, Arturo was exposed.

He decided he had to tell the men to leave.  They were disturbing others.  It was his job.

But when he took a step toward them, the young man to the left of the boss gave Arturo a look.  It was the gleeful expression of a bully, someone who enjoys torturing others.  His anticipation of a confrontation was so open and so violent that it stopped Arturo in mid-stride.  He tripped.  His right hand shot out to the back of the nearest pew as he steadied himself.

The others noticed Arturo only to give him a glance of contempt.  It was as if they viewed the act of being a priest as unmanly.

The mobster returned to his avarice for the furnishings of the church.  He strode in Arturo's direction with a smile, toward the transcept and along the border between the nave and sanctuary.  His thick fingers brushed against the silk tapestry, dyed in red and gold, that hung from the front of the lectern.

"Just look at this."  He laughed.  He tugged on the banner, which was never allowed.  "These guys took a fucking vow of poverty?  Shit, should I be concerned about their vow of chastity?"

His cronies laughed.  The nearest bully glared at Arturo.

"Ah, but why should I care where priests put their wankers?" the big man continued.  "I'll sell them the good stuff.  I'd take any of this crap in trade."

Arturo looked for an escape from the transcept wing.  He could duck behind the choir stands, he supposed.  As he considered how that would appear, his eye caught a movement in back of the mobsters.  There was a flicker of silver over one of their shoulders, the hair of a short, older man.

"Embroidered," muttered the boss.  He let the silk slip from his grasp.  "But with what?  Something expensive, for sure."

"Sinners!" the old man shouted.  It was brother Tomasso.  He raised his arms high as if he would bring them down on the shoulders of the bigger men.  The three turned to face him.  Arturo cringed.  He couldn't bring himself to rush forward.

"Tomasso!" the big man yelled back.  He opened his arms to let the frail, older man step into them.  The priest did so. He stretched his arms around the big man and patted his back.

"You shouldn't envy what the church has," said Tomasso as he pushed away.  "Really, now.  You know better.  It's a deadly sin."

"But the church has so much."

"If this place was a dump, maybe no one would come.  As it is, folks in town are here all the time.  You know that.  They like it pretty."  The thin fellow shrugged.  "If the holy one above is strict about avarice, I'll go to hell.  But you shouldn't take yourself there too."

The talk between the old priest and the rough-looking boss devolved into murmurs about mutual acquaintances.  Apparently, the mobster had once attended church classes led by Tomasso.  He must have spent a dozen years growing up in town.  Now he'd returned.  He was settling grudges as well as looking up old friends.  Arturo wondered which category Tomasso felt into or, for that matter, the church.

"So you have come to pray for forgiveness at last?" said the older fellow.  There was a distant look on his face, as if he were remembering something in the younger man's past.

"Not yet, Tomasso.  Not yet."

The priest shook his head.  Then, unfortunately, he spotted his visiting assistant.

"Arturo!" he called.  He waved the younger priest over.  "Why did you let these boys get so loud?  I saw folks walking out.  Men were leaving the pews!"

"I didn't mean to."  Arturo took a cautious step toward his senior priest.

Tomasso waved again.  Next to him, on a generous impulse, the big visitor stepped back.  His bodyguards followed.  That gave Arturo permission to come forward.

"You know," Tomasso grumbled as Arturo drew near, "Cowardice is a deadly sin, too."

"It's not," Arturo corrected.  "It's not on the list."

"Then there's something wrong with the list."  The old fellow scratched his grey head.  "Sloth doesn't belong.  They meant depression, you know, back when they wrote the list, back when Evagrius Ponticus started it all.  Evagrius thought depression was sinful."

"Sloth leads to other evils and to failing to change evil behavior, too.  Cowardice doesn't."

Tomasso gave him a long, solemn look.

He put a hand on Arturo's shoulder and said, "So tell me the other reason why you didn't approach my loud, wealthy friend to correct his sinfulness."

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Five Chapters


A Bandit Accountant


Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 

Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand