Sunday, December 9, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 144: A Bandit Accountant, 24.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Four: Breakfast Before Breakfast

The large man, whose name turned out to be Siegfried De Druli, must have been preparing breakfast before his priestess-witch left him. He gestured to a table in the next room. It was a solid slab of oak, laden with eggs, smoked fishes, butter, a bowl of dried oats, and a bowl of blackberries, some of which weren't entirely black. The priest strode to the cook fire on the other side of the table, where he kept his griddle. The young priestess swept past him, headed for the oven.

On the way to finish the cooking, the priest pulled up an extra stool for his unexpected guest. He seemed a bit put out.

“What sort of fare are you accustomed to, soldier?” he asked. With his left hand, he broke a duck egg onto his griddle.

“I've made bread,” the younger priestess interposed. She slid a ceramic tray into the oven at the other side of the room. “It's from the goddess, beginning to end. I made spares. And we have extra fish thanks to the goddess.”

“It's dinner time for my stomach,” Denario said. He glanced to them in turn as he tried to talk to both clergy at once. He decided to ignore the 'soldier' remark. “Anything you make is good.”

“That's nice,” said the priestess.

“Did you take the spiral path?” Siegfried gazed meaningfully at his senior, the priestess-witch.

“I thought it might come in handy.” Her eyelids narrowed. She wasn't about to give away her reasons.

“So.” The priest cleared his throat. He left the griddle for a moment and paused with his hand on fish. “Is this man a prisoner or what?”

“I haven't decided.”

With a sigh, Siegfried scooped a trio of smoked fish onto Denario's plate.

The four of them sat down to a large meal. The young priestess introduced herself as Lucia. She offered him rich bread and horrible, sour berries both with the careless air of someone who ate more often than she needed. Denario ate everything she put in front of him, even the blackberries, even the second helping of fish. His day of raft work had given him an appetite greater than what he'd had at home after a day in the counting house. In fact, he'd eaten more and sometimes better in the past few weeks than he'd eaten in Oggli, despite his home city's rather rich, gourmet dishes. A couple weeks ago, after he'd struggled through the lands that the barons were ruining in an attempt to starve the Mundredi, he'd found that the rural towns stocked dried and pickled barrels of every type of food. His hosts never let him forget his meals while he was doing math, not the way Winkel and Curo had done.

A stray memory flitted through him. He saw himself, aged twelve, lifting his head out of the accounts. He was startled to find a cold bowl of soup next to him. He'd always been startled. It had almost always been there. He'd been wrong to think that no one cared. Someone had been watching out for him, probably both of the someones.

Reassured by the recollection, Denario patted his stomach. He'd lost weight around his middle despite eating more. His shoulders filled out his shirts better, too. Master Winkle had never mentioned these benefits of travel.

After water, the priest served wine. And after the wine, the elder priestess peppered him with questions.

“So what is it you did?” she asked.

Denario put down his goblet and tried to explain. He had to start with how little his guild knew about magic. There was never a way for them to experiment with it. They'd been able to add scraps of numeromancy to their trove of fragments but the collection spanned hundred of years and still could be copied onto four pages of a single book. He described his discovery of more hexes and the logical theorem he'd devised to put them to use.

“But I'm sure you know all about this,” he added.

“No,” said the witch.

“It's really not how we do things,” said the priest, his brow furrowed in a skeptical scowl.

“The clergy in Oggli cast spells like the wizards do.” Denario stood and helped himself to the pitcher of wine. “Don't you?”

“What you see in Oggli is mostly play-acting,” grunted Siegfried. “Some part of it may be real. If a priest wants to learn magic on the side and has an aptitude, a church might allow it. Spells make for flashy displays at the service. That means a better take from the faithful.”

“But even some of those shows are going to be faked.” The witch propped her cup with both hands, elbows on the table.

“Vir said the same thing.” Denario sighed. He sat back down on his stool.

“Is that your boatman friend?” asked Siegfried. “I thought his name was Jack.”

“Vir de Spitze is the Mundredi war chief,” the witch pronounced. “I get news of him now and then.”

“Ah, right.”

“The important thing is this new way of using hexes,” she continued. “I've never heard of anyone creating a spell entirely out of mathematics before.”

“Really? Never?” Denario didn't think he'd done anything novel. Accountants had learned about hexes from bank magicians, after all.

“Probably there are wizards who do it. It seems like their sort of thing. I don't know that for sure. No witch I've known has done it.”

“But … all those languages … and math underlies then all. It's the foundation of everything in the universe. How can no one speak in the most powerful of languages?”

“Some do. They're not human.”

“That's not for him to know,” Siegfried warned. He returned to his scowl.

“As you already seem aware, accountant, math does indeed underlie fundamental truths. When the gods speak to those truths, someone like you would recognize the language. I can feel the numbers when they flow out of me, when I let a goddess take over my body and she does what she needs to do.”

Denario contemplated the revelation. The essential nature of math was no surprise but the idea of letting a god take over his body was odd. If anything was unnatural, it was that.

“Is that what priestesses do? Let the gods take over and do math?”

“No,” answered Siegfried rather definitely.

“Hardly any.” The older lady cackled. “I don't know why they make use of me. It's like we don't know why Melcurio is curious about you. Sometimes we get an insight as to the reasons. But more often, we can't get a grasp on what motivates deities. Yes, they like to claim more territory and more worshippers. That's for their survival. But they've got more than that going on. One of them granted me an insight about the reasons long ago but it came as a rather unfortunate look at my soul. It wasn't as glorious as I expected.”

The priest gave the entire room a sullen look.

“Could Melcurio be after this man's soul?” The young priestess, Lucia, pointed to Denario.

The priestess shook her head. “No. It's nothing special.”

“His mind, then? The math?”

“The gods don't need mortal math.” The priest shook his head.

Denario cleared his throat. “Novel ideas sometimes capture Melcurio's attention. Maybe the spell I made was sort of new. Even if it wasn't, it made me realize something that I haven't heard before. There's got to be more than one magical language in math.”

“Another?” Lucia put down her bowl of berries. “Why?”

“There are many mathematical languages. Oggli and Anghrili accountants know a few hexes. But hexadecimal numbers divide neatly into languages of eights, fours, and twos. I should think we could translate hexes into octals, for instance, and get the same effects as I got today.”

“The Octavo!” the younger priestess shouted. The older ones frowned at her.

“What's that?” Denario studied her eyes.

“A book.” Lucia blushed. For a moment, she covered her mouth as he spoke. “I heard about it somewhere. It's a book from a different place. We hear about such things.”

“You think it's written in a numeric language?”

“It might be.” Composure regained, she raised her chin defiantly to her elders. “It's an idea we ought to consider.”

“Look, accountant,” the older woman said, munching, apparently not much concerned about theories of magical texts that might not exist, “whether you're inventing a new language or not, you have to agree not to blank out any more of our spells.”

“Okay.”

“Just saying 'yes' won't do it.” She smacked her lips. “I will work on formal wording. Then you'll recite that wording three times.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Maybe more.” She scratched her armpit. “Onuava likes twos and threes. Glaistig likes fives.”

Denario thought about those numbers a bit. At first, it seemed to him that a nanny goat goddess would prefer fours and sixes. But she wasn't a regular nanny goat. She was a makari, at least part of the time. Her hooves and tail made five. Counting horns made seven.

“How does Glaistig come into it?” he wondered. “I've met her worshippers. There are a lot of them, true, but they live thirty miles up the Riggle Kill. What business does she have with Onuava?”

“That not for you to know,” said Siegfried.

“She's another sort of mother goddess,” the witch explained. She waved off her counterpart's attitude. “There are many mothers. Sometimes they share things. That's not something you hear about much. But they do. Onuava takes an interest in Glaistig's health. Gods don't make friends like you and I. But they do have allies of a sort. I think Glaistig gave shelter to Onuava's followers long ago.”

“So,” mulled Denario. An image came to him of the old ladies in Pharts Bad. “Is there a league of mothers?”

“Something like.”

“Melcurio can't be part of it.”

“No. However, there's a story in which he impersonated one of his sisters. So he talked his way into their trust, once. That's a rather naughty one. He fooled the goddesses, got in on a lot of their secrets. To what end? Only to bed down with one of them.”

“I wouldn't know about that,” said Denario, although he did. It was in a scroll of secret stories.

“The second time he tried that, a different goddess switched beds on him instead. He shouldn't have tried it twice.”

He paused as he was reaching for the last cut of bread.

“Serves him right,” said Lucia.

“A happy ending at last,” said Siegfried.

“He was planning to get his sister pregnant,” the witch explained. She seemed to realize that Denario hadn't heard this part of the story before. “But she swapped places with her hand maiden, a wood nymph who had made a bet that she would get the child of a god. And she did.”

“She made the bet with Glaistig,” added the priest. “So it was Glaistig who compelled the god to marry the nymph and make her immortal.”

“Did that work?”

“They say that Melcurio divorced her. But after she gave birth to his child, he had regrets. He reached an agreement and secluded her away on a mountain where he could visit. She got her immortality in the bargain. The story doesn't say much else although I would expect that there's more to it.”

“He played a trick.” Denario leaned back, sure of himself.

After a moment of pondering, he felt the witch's eyes on him.

“I'm starting to get the sense that our tricky god is amused by you. Why? What about you could be appealing to such a disreputable force of nature?”

He blushed. He tried not to.

“You know!” She rose from her seat with a cackle. “Or you think that you do. Maybe you've learned a little part. We'll have to see.”

“If I'm not a prisoner, can I ask a question?”

“Ask all you like. Answers, well, we'll see.”

Denario put down his knot of bread. An idea had been sneaking up on him. Now was the time. Most clergy devoted themselves completely to one god. They knew nothing about the others and declared them to be false. They fought everyone not part of their church. But these three devotees of Onuava listened to what other clergy said. They had ears through a network of like-minded mothers. This was Denario's chance to find out about his former fiance.

“I met the Mistress Ziegetochter at the Temple of the Goat.” He hesitated, unsure of how to put the question. “She didn't seem to like this other woman in Zeigeburg.”

“We know Ziggi. I mean, the priestess.”

“Yet Ziegetochter met with the other woman often. Both of them kept making it clear that they didn't like each other but they conferred anyway. They met quite a lot, a bit like business partners. Do you know what I mean?”

“Was this another witch? Did she call herself Pecunia?”

“I think that was it.” Denario carefully looked the crumbs on his plate. He didn't think it would be wise to look directly at anyone for a few seconds.

“Interesting.”

“Despicable,” said the younger priestess.

“Why?” He raised his head. The clergy were looking at one another until he spoke. Then the young woman glared at him.

“We hate Pecunia because she doesn't acknowledge her local god.” She spit the words out with enough force to send flecks of butter from her lips. “She claims to worship an elder god. She acts like a witch, which is bad enough. But she acts like a priestess, too. And that's ridiculous. That's my business. She went to a magical school. She dresses like an enchantress. So is she a witch or an enchantress or what?”

“What's the difference?”

“There's all the difference in the world, dearie,” the elder woman chimed in. “A witch looks after her village. She watches out for her folks, births them, heals them and, when no more can be done, she lays them to their rest.”

“That sounds like Pecunia a bit. I mean, I don't know about the birthing or the mortuary rites but Pecunia kept an eye on the women of Ziegeburg. I think she dispensed medicines now and then.”

“How much do you know about that, boy?” Her gray gaze narrowed.

“Colored water in glass bottles.”

“There's no healing in what she's done. Believe me, there's not a finger's worth of compassion in the woman.” The grim line of her mouth softened. “Still, looking after female problems, that's a bit witchy. So you understand the confusion among witches.”

“She said she wasn't one.”

She cackled. “That's neither here nor there. Plenty of witches say they aren't. Plenty who aren't try to lay claim to witching skills.”

“What happens in that case?” Denario raised his arm, struck by an obvious idea. “Is there a witches guild?”

“No. What a ridiculous notion!” The grey-haired woman shook her head in bewilderment. “Guilds are city things, organized thuggery by men against other men. Witches are solitary, not that women don't have bullies as well. And most women like to be in groups. But not witches. It's hard to keep witches close together. We don't like to share territories.”

“Except for you,” said the priest, rather earnestly. After a moment's reflection, Denario checked the priest's face for any hints of irony. He found none.

“Oh yes, I let goddesses take control of me. And right now Onuava tells me that wants to take me over and have a look at our guest through human eyes. I'm inclined to let her.”

“What about Glaistig?” the younger priestess asked.

“You think she'll come?”

The response was a vigorous nod.

“Do you want me to stay, Ruffina?” the young one asked. Aha, Denario thought. The old witch's name is Ruffina. Doesn't that mean red-headed? He checked her hairs and noticed a hint of auburn.

“Not this time. You go. Don't clean up.” She waved them in the direction of the door. “Reinforce the wards so that no other presence can slip in. Then help yourselves to Homeward House while I'm working.”

Lucia stuck out her lower lip. It was an expression that Denario felt members of the clergy shouldn't make. It made her seem too young.

Siegfried slapped his thigh. He pushed his chair away from the table. Although he'd eaten more than anyone, he grabbed the last loaf of bread and tucked it into a pocket in his robe. He rubbed his cheek, freshly shaved but dark with stubble. As he rose for the door, he scooped up a sack of odd-shaped objects. Whether he meant to use them for magic or for gardening, Denario couldn't tell.

Denario rose to follow.

“Not you.” Ruffina pointed at him. “The goddess has questions for you.”

Lucia didn't even glance at the accountant. She passed Siegfried as she slipped through the doorway. The priest hesitated, his left foot still inside the room.

“Will you be safe?” he asked. He raised a skeptical eyebrow in Denario's direction as if he wasn't sure that the man he'd taken for a bandit had been cleared of suspicion yet.

In reply, Ruffina rubbed her palms.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 143: A Bandit Accountant, 24.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Three: A Spiral Path

As soon as they'd gotten out of sight of Jack Lasker and crew members, Denario's kidnapper waved her arms. They were thick with blue veins. Her stick-like fingers rose. Her sleeves fell to her elbows. She seemed to lift the heat out of the air. A breeze blew.

“There,” she cracked. “No need to sustain that.”

The accountant's mind raced. He wasn't sure what had happened but this woman looked more like a normal priestess now and less like a harridan. The veins on her arms faded. Moles on her eyebrows and chin turned the color of her skin.

“You kept up a glamour to look worse, not better?” he guessed.

“I knew you'd get it. It's your sort of prank, Melcurio.”

“I wish you wouldn't call me that.”

“Then you shouldn't be such a tricky boy. Didn't your mother tell you not to play jokes?”

“I never knew my mother.”

“Well, then your father would ...”

“No.” His voice sounded flat and final as he felt.

“Oh.” She glanced away for a second.

Denario hadn't tried to save himself from being kidnapped. That had been the influence of the glamour, he supposed. No one else had lifted a hand either. Jack, Boldor, and Dodni would all feel terrible about it in a moment.

An image came to his mind of all of his apprentices standing in a row in front of the counting house. It strengthened his resolve. This woman might know some magic but that didn't mean he had to go along with her plans.

He touched his sword as he considered. The collapsed hood of the cloak didn't even cover her neck. He could see the shadows of her bones. Nothing would stop him. But then what? Had she been cruel enough to justify lopping off her head? She hadn't used force beyond the magic of giving herself a stern face. He could turn and walk away from her. He was pretty sure she couldn't physically stop him. Maybe she could do it with magic but she hadn't turned him into a frog or anything yet. She might not be as powerful as she seemed.

The thing was, he didn't want to fight her if he could help it because clearly the only thing he could do in that regard kill her when she wasn't looking. What if he succeeded? He couldn't tell his apprentices about it. He probably couldn't explain it even to a pirate like Brand. Would he find a return path to the rafts? Would he make it home? The anti-cartography magic didn't seem to bother this woman but he could feel it hovering around the edges of their space. It was a weird force that pressed down on the leaves and branches and rocks. The magic knew the woman and made way for her. If he did her harm, it would probably slam down with all of its weight.

“Where are we going?” he asked. “The temple?”

She gave him a cool glance.

“Why me?”

She stopped. As she turned, her hands pressed knuckles-down on her hips.

“What's your name, young man?” she asked.

“Denario, Accountant of Oggli. And you?”

“I'm the priestess.”

“You must have a name.”

“It's not important. I'm here for Onuava.” She set her mouth in a grim line. “The goddess still lives. She directs the magic that hides her home in the temple. But the upkeep on her great spell is done by wizards, witches, priests, and priestesses who can't always keep the goddess present within them.”

“Does this have to do with either of my questions?”

“You managed to nullify someone's maintenance spells,” she replied testily. Her pace quickened until she whirled around to point her finger at him. “Didn't you realize that we would notice the blank spot? All of the alarms failed at once, all around one person. That person was you.”

“I didn't know magic worked like that. None of the wizards back home ever talked about it.”

“They may not know.” She nodded as she resumed her hiking. “They regard themselves as mighty and wise. But the Goddess knows them as fools.”

“Then I must seem even more foolish.”

“Well, yes, of course. You're an interesting fool, Melcurio.”

“I told you my real name. You didn't tell me yours. And you insist on referring to me as a god, which is silly.”

“That was the goddess talking just now.” She shrugged. “You're an accountant, right? Certified by a big city guild?”

“What do you mean by 'the goddess talking?'”

“Onuava knows Melcurio. She's with me in my head. Her fascination with you as an avatar of one of her children is why we didn't kill you from a distance.”

“Oh.” He paused and fell behind. Immediately, he felt the presence of the anti-cartography magic. It spurred him forward. “By all means, call me Mel.”

“You're so funny.”

“Renowned for it.”

“How old are you, oh avatar of Mel and accountant of Oggli?”

“Seventeen, I think. Possibly sixteen. Certainly not eighteen. Probably born late in the winter.”

“Old enough to be a master accountant.”

Denario let that one slide. As Jack had pointed out, he'd passed the exams for it. The guild would have to confirm him as master sooner or later.

“You've journeyed. You've seen something of the world. And you've brought a message from Glastig. My mistress is pleased.”

“Have I done that?”

“Oh, yes. I thought you might not know. It's in the bottom of your remarkable travel bag.”

Denario tried to think of what lay in there. He recalled an erstwhile gift to Pecunia.

“Do you mean the piece of the Biscelli Church? That thing is hundreds of years old.”

“So it is.”

“Then how can it contain a message?" His hands tried to draw the passage of time in the air. “More precisely, how can it hold one that's still relevant?”

“You'll find out later.” She stepped forward and to the right around a bend in the trail. As she strode, the light of the world changed around her. It happened everywhere and yet it was subtle. The shadows of the leaves tilted as if the sun, far above the canopy, hung in a different position in the sky. The clouds and the branches shifted. Denario blinked. He staggered, tripped up by a tree root that he thought hadn't been there a moment before.

A few yards later, the priestess zagged left. Again, the shadows moved. Denario gaped up at the leaf-blighted sky but he couldn't tell where the sun had gone. It was somewhere overhead, he was sure, brighter than before. His boots felt different. He focused on his feet as he took his next step. What's different? he asked himself.

The soil is darker.

In fact, he thought the difference was more than color. He knelt for a second while keeping a careful eye on the priestess. He couldn't let her move too far ahead. He pinched a bit of black grit between his thumb and forefinger. He doubled his pace to catch up. As he marched, he rolled his finger and felt the moisture. This wasn't anything like the sandy, rock-strewn riverbank. It was deep-woods detritus, the rot of generations of leaves.

The priestess continued. He kept up. The light and all of his surroundings changed with every dip and turn in their trail. The texture of the ground grew hard and dry. Smoky quartzes and chunks of granite appeared in the hard-packed earth. Ferns gave way to grasses. Oaks faded into birches. Light burst through the sparse branches above.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Almost there,” she replied without even a glance to him. Her left hand casually gestured to a bright chunk of quartz. It lay next to their trail.

A few yards later, they turned to find themselves amidst a burst of flowers. The petals were fat and soft, a shade of red that he hadn't seen in the forest or, for that matter, on any other flowers before. At the end of the double row, there rested a chunk of milky quartz as big as his arm. He stared at it for a moment. On the next bend in the path, the priestess passed sprinkles of blue pimpernels. The trees grew sparse. Rock beds rose up, looking natural until he noticed others of the same shape, so they had to be artificial. In almost-regular ellipses, they held rich soil and a mix of lilies, violets and weeds.

The gardens and the chunks of quartz meant they'd gotten close to something, Denario realized.

They crested a rise in their path. Now he could look down on a white wall of quartz. Some of it had been constructed in layers of stone like any other building. But the main two walls facing him were single, solid pieces, each of them gently curved. They gave Denario the impression that they'd been shifted into place ages ago, probably by magic. He stopped for a moment to study them. From his vantage point, he could see over their tops. That was enough to let him comprehend the building's shape. Like the flower beds, the structure was an ellipse flattened to points on each end. Rooms had been built in curved rows behind the walls. The roofs had been laid with slate, not tile, and in a few places the slate had fallen to reveal cedar beams and the insides of rooms.

In the center of the complex all lay a hollow, filled by the greatest garden. Spring plants had begun to bloom around its edges.

The priestess kept moving. She ignored the scenery, which of course she'd seen many times, and marched in a direction Denario thought was east. With the change in the position of the sun and the coming and going of the canopy during their travel, he found it hard to be sure. Regardless, the priestess took him toward one of the rooms. Dark ovals in the walls revealed the doorways. There were no wooden doors to close them. One or two passageways held crude leather door flaps, half-tied to hooks.

“How long did it take to get here?” he wondered.

“You noticed the difference in the light?”

“And the trees. And the flowers. And stones. And dirt.”

“Yes, yes. It's all very magical,” she said in a voice that was utterly jaded about magic. “It took about half an hour to walk.”

“Maybe,” he allowed. He squinted at what he guessed was a bright, morning sun to his right. “You know, you don't talk like most priestesses. And you do magic like a witch.”

“Hah!” That made her spin and look at him for the first time in a while. “Shows what you know.”

“It does?”

“As it happens, I am also a witch.”

“Is that allowed?”

“Don't you know the difference between witches and priestesses, Melcurio?”

“Uh ...” Denario clasped his hands together. A lot of answers went through his mind: Yes? No? I trust what people tell me? He didn't completely trust anyone who said she was a witch. The ones he'd met in the hills hadn't been too bad, though. They'd told the truth. There were a few who didn't announce themselves but he was sure about what they were. They were trying to avoid getting burned at the stake like the family in Haph Fork. Fine by him. But was Pecunia a witch? Was she a sorceress? Was there a difference? What about the women who posed as witches but weren't?

“I don't know much,” he admitted. “But I know that in a temple, you usually find priestesses.”

“Heheh.” She craned her neck around to observe her surroundings. “True enough. Witches don't like temples.”

“But you do.”

“I'm a special case.”

Denario had heard that line before from a village witch. He'd heard it from the wizard in Hogsburg. And from Pecunia, once or twice. And from any number of bank wizards. He hadn't heard those words from priests or priestesses. But everyone else involved with magic thought they were special.

Except me, he thought. He mused on that for a moment.

As he was feeling insignificant, he didn't feel too bad about being held captive. There seemed to be a chance of escape. Anyway, was it urgent? The priestess hadn't talked about punishing him. She marched up to the door with an air of importance. She thrust out her arm in Denario's direction. Someone inside, next to her, poked his head out.

The man wore a priest's vestments, a brown robe and a gold-colored chain. His sleeves carried embroidery of gold thread. His hair was dark but it was thin on top. His shoulders were broad. His stomach plumped. He looked like he would have been a strong, robust fellow if he didn't live indoors.

“I thought you were going to bring back magic,” he said. He nodded at Denario. “Not a bandit from ancient tribes.”

“Squint your eyes for a moment, Siegfried,” she snapped. “Take a real look.”

His puffy eyes slitted nearly shut. Then they popped open.

“Ah! A god.” He almost smiled. It was an expression that looked unfamiliar on his otherwise stern face. “Given the appearance, it’s Melcurio.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Denario complained.

“I thought he had a magic charm,” she explained. “But it was him.”

“A god presence can happen, god knows,” the priest intoned rather logically, “but it never blanks out spells that I've heard.”

“No. Accountants do it, apparently.” She jerked her thumb in Denario's direction.

“Him? An accountant? And the god worked through him?” The old fellow lifted his nose a bit to look down at him.

Behind, a girl appeared. She was a welcome distraction, dressed in a light, brown robe that was equivalent to the priest's darker one. She seemed to be a younger member of the clergy. Nevertheless, she wore a gold chain. Her eyes popped wide upon seeing the guest.

“I'm ... not sure,” said the older priestess. She put fingers to her brow and carefully avoided everyone's eyes for a moment. Her head bobbed as she nodded to herself. Her attention returned to Denario. “He's certainly a tricky fellow. But I think that's just how he is. Anyhow, he's brought a message from Glaistig.”

“You mean from Melcurio?”

“No, from Glaistig. Not at Melcurio's behest. The accountant made the decision. The god must have known about it, though, and he didn't interfere.”

“He wouldn't dare.”

She raised her eyebrows at that and gave her compatriot a faint smile.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 142: A Bandit Accountant, 24.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Two: Not Playing Dumb

The grateful dwarfs grabbed boxes of food, blankets, and everything else needed for an overnight camp. Brand didn't have any possessions. He pitched in by lugging the crate of dry firewood. So did his man in the foremost raft. Their friend, the third captive, hadn't died yet but he needed two dwarfs to lift him over the gunwhales to shore. If he survived, he would be a cripple.

Everyone seemed glad to get off of the water and have the chance to relax on dry land. No doubt the lack of blindfolds helped the mood. However, Jofnir's assistant blacksmith got lost not thirty feet into the woods as he searched for deadfall branches to add to the fires. He had to call for rescue. It was a reminder that the anti-mapping curse remained. However, the other dwarfs laughed. They felt confident, protected by Jack's expertise. Dodni tied a rope around his waist, gave the other end to Boldor, and had no trouble bringing the fellow back.

“This is a beautiful spot, Jack,” said Boldor after he handed the rope to a lesser-ranking dwarf to coil. “There are lots of rocks. At night, we might forget we’re on the surface.”

“I was surprised that you picked the Mundredi side,” Denario added. “There's more magic here, right?”

“There is,” Jack admitted. He threw up an arm in apparent exasperation. “I tried the other bank as many times as I could. There was barely a place for one raft over there, let alone three in a line.”

“We’re a large crew. Are we the most you've taken through the heart of the magic?”

“A couple of years back, I quick-lashed four rafts together and took a caravan through when their donkeys fell ill. That was when I enlarged my house. I was stinking rich for a year.”

The riverman was content to let the dwarfs and the caravan men set camp. He knelt to his cooking utensils. As he prepared food from his stores and divvied out more for his passengers, he talked about other caravans he'd taken down the creek, the rafters and traders of his father's time, the gangs of rivermen farther south where the No Map met the Riggle Kill, and the dangers posed by those gangs. His father stayed home nowadays but he still paid a yearly bribe, called a membership, to the River Guild. In theory, it protected the Lasker family from everyone else on the lakes, creeks and rivers. In practice, it only protected Jack from being robbed or killed by other members of the River Guild.

“But that's not nothing,” Jack allowed. It was good to travel the water without worrying that other rafts would try to sink him. The style of bargaining employed reminded Denario of how the guilds in Oggli worked. He'd forgotten the use of force because Master Winkel had never exerted any on behalf of the accountants. Most other guilds did.

“Oupenli welcomes travelers, especially those with money,” Jack drawled. “But an open city is a lawless one. The free lances duel with one another. They battle the local knights on the borders. Guilds make war on one another and on everyone else. Even wizards fight. That's always horrible. They’re careless of the bystanders. You'll know when it's happening because everyone starts running.”

“I've heard about those,” said Denario. He noticed that Dodni and Dodni's brother Heilgar had come to take their share of food. They slowed to overhear. “The Ogglie College of Wizardry regulates things back home. But they say that the wizards in Oupenli won't listen. So Oupenli is lawless even with regard to magic.”

“When the wizards aren't fighting, they work,” continued Jack, “That's plenty bad by itself. These aren't college layabouts. They have no guild to regulate them, so they set off spells as they please. Stray magic gets everywhere. You can walk by a chimney that's billowing purple smoke and suddenly you're a chicken.”

“You make it sound like a wild place. But your family lives there.” He kept his eye on the dwarfs. He didn't want them to get too alarmed. Boldor's eyebrows were up. Dodni's expression looked carefully bland. “Lots of families do. And they raise children. It can't be too bad. Anyway, I've visited five times. Nothing bad ever happened to me and I stayed overnight each time.”

“It's one of the nicest places on earth if you're rich.” Jack noticed the three dwarfs around them. He nodded to acknowledge the new arrivals. “Accountants nearly are, Denario, so you have a rich man's perspective. My grand-dad made his fortune on the No Map, bought a winter home on the Riggle Kill near Oupenli and always said that he loved the place. My father got even richer and decided he liked it too. He moved there permanently. Like he says, there's no lord to tell you what to do. You don't have to live in the countryside, hiding from a tyrant who wants to claim the fruits of your work. You get a real city with trained doctors and wealth all around. But there's no lord's police force, either. Each guild has their own police. Each knight or wealthy merchant has theirs. If you can't afford protection, you don't want anyone to figure that out.”

“I see. So I was shielded by the coachman's guild.”

“Yes, and their allied guilds. You'll be protected by the riverman's guild this time. That's plenty. They're allies with the caravaners and others. I'll give you their token. The accounting guild doesn't offer any protection that I've heard.”

“My old master had an arrangement with the bank wizards.”

“With wizards? Really? Well, they have more than enough power when they're paying attention. But they aren't reliable. It seems odd that your master trusted them.”

“He didn't. We kept a close eye on the bank wizards. Always, he suspected they were cheating. Sometimes the wizards hired accountants to check on other wizards, too. Those jobs were the worst. If you got caught, you might end up as a creature that can't talk. But the jobs paid well, often in gold. Winkel took one of them when he was young and lived to get all of the money.”

“In gold?” blurted Heilgar. That got him an elbow in the side from Dodni.

“Yes.”

“Not magical gold? The real thing?”

“Hardly any accountants get to see real gold. But I have seen it. Yes, his pay was in the true metal. There were five pieces, technically, although one was small, almost like an eighth-piece. But because it was gold, the wizards wanted to buy it back from my master.”

“Of course.” Heilgar and Dodni both nodded as if it confirmed something.

“Winkel let them buy back four pieces with silver and gems. But he decided to keep one gold coin in the bank. He went to check it regularly to make sure the bank wizard hadn't tried to substitute magical gold. He brought ways to test it.” Fortunately, the city bankers had tremendous respect for Winkel. He had audited many of them. If they had methods to cheat, they didn't want to use them unless they were sure they'd fool not only the accountants but other bank wizards who worked with Winkel.

“So he didn't trust wizards.”

“No.” Denario scratched his head. He mused, “Even other wizards don't trust wizards.”

“Have you been doing your numero stuff again? That’s a part of accounting I don't quite trust.”

“Oh.” It took Denario a moment to understand but when he did, his face grew warm. “What makes you ask?”

“You look a little ...”

A great cat's roar drowned out the riverman's words. Jack, Boldor, and Dodni turned to look over Denario's right shoulder. For a moment, Denario froze. The rest of dwarfs, one by one, turned to look. Brand did, too. His eyes widened.

Denario put his hand on the pommel of his sword. He started to draw as he swiveled toward whatever it was. But he saw no cat. He saw no animal at all. Was it crouched in the rocks and scrub? As he studied the rise of the riverbank, an old woman stepped out from behind a tree upslope. She took two steps and planted one withered, sandaled foot onto a boulder.

The woman carried a gray bag in her right hand. Her robe looked thick, uncomfortable, and tattered. The pointed hood of her robe fell from her head to her shoulders. It revealed a wild mane of silvery hair. In her left fist, she clutched a walking stick, a knobbly piece of hickory. Her left forearm looked as tough as the wood. All in all, she looked like a witch or hag. She might as well have worn a sign around her neck saying so. The poor woman probably had been normal once. The years had seasoned her skin like wrinkled leather. Her arms rippled with hard sinew.

For a moment, the setting sun behind her seemed to cast a fiery aura on her robes. That was when Denario became sure there was something magical about her.

“Haaaalt!” she cried. She passed her fingers through the air.

The accountant felt the pressure of magic. It didn't stop him the way Tim the Magnificent had done but he knew he was dealing with a person of power. That was enough to keep him from drawing his baselard. He was too far away and anyway, it felt wrong to draw it on an old woman, however stern she appeared.

She hissed. Denario glanced at Jack, who had moved backwards toward his rafts. The man had acquired a punt. But he froze rather than continue with whatever he was doing.

“You should not be in these lands,” the hag croaked.

“Right,” Boldor spoke up. “Well, if we're not wanted ...”

Behind and to Denario's right, Jack took another step backwards. A move from the weathered hag stopped him, whether it was her magic or simply intimidation, Denario couldn't tell.

“What are you doing here?” The blue-grey eyes darted from person to person. She seemed to be speaking to all of them. But after a moment, her focus snapped on Denario. She gave him an assessing look. Denario could swear he saw the math and geometry going on behind her eyes.

She muttered. The air shook.

“Eh?” said Brand.

She mumbled some more. Denario felt the hairs on his arms stand up. This was a magical language she was using. She was casting.

With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the spell he'd made. He could feel it. His hex was gone.

“Aha.” She cackled. With a spry hop, she landed forward off of the boulder. She closed in on Denario with four long strides. “You were blanking. Is that something you cast? Or are you traveling the creek with a charm in your possession?”

Denario gawked. She was a horrible, little anti-grandmother, shorter than even he was, and an archetype for a relative he'd never had and didn't want. He glanced over to Jack for help. Jack was staring at him.

“No speak the language,” he said in his worst Paraveni. Maybe he could play ignorant and she'd go away.

“You don't know modern tongue?” she put her hands on her hips, vexed. She switched to another language. “That doesn't seem right. Do you know Ogglian? If not that, you should have some Old Tongue.”

“No speak the language,” he insisted in Paraveni. It was working.

“What the hell are you saying?” asked one of Brand's men, Shmurter. He was the thick-chested man in studded armor, the one who could stand on both legs. Brand kicked Shmurter but it was too late.

The hag's lips clamped down hard. Her gaze narrowed on the accountant.

“You do speak modern,” she growled. “Of course. You all do. The dwarfs fooled me for a moment. And someone else. Someone is fooling around.”

She peered at him closer. “Melcurio, you naughty boy. You can't stop playing tricks, can you?”

“Madam,” he continued in Paraveni. “I am a humble accountant, not Melcurio.”

“I understood that,” she snapped. “It's one of those sailor languages. And you're here as the god of tricks whether you know it or not. I can feel it.”

“Really,” he said in Ogglian. “I'm not.”

“Hush. You will come with me.”

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 141: A Bandit Accountant, 24.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene One: Mathemagic

The air smelled warm. Sunlight lay like a blanket on his exposed arms. Denario couldn’t see but that no longer mattered. Guided at first by sound and smell, he poled closer to the shore. He could feel the reeds, mud, and rocks press against the right side of his body through the stalks.

“Any shape bigger than a fist,” he murmured to Torgrim, the dwarf nearest. “That’s how much I can feel.”

“You sound pleased,” said Torgrim.

“Surprised.” From the shape of the nudge under his armpit, he was pretty sure he was feeling a clump of weeds. Rocks pressed in a more definite way.

Jack’s method seemed insane. But it worked better than the accountant had dared to hope. Intimidated by Jack’s expertise, he’d been content to let Jack do the steering for most of the afternoon. He’d thought he was doomed by his lack of boating proficiency. But when he'd grown tired of waiting, he’d decided to test his skills. He’d wanted to understand the suit even though he hadn't believed it could be as simple as this.

It was. The feeling of things came naturally. Knowing what to do about those sensations given his lack of direction and rafting instincts was another matter. Still, those were problems that might be solved in time.

He had already spent a few hours at rest. He'd napped. He'd slapped at insects with no less effectiveness than usual. After a while, his blindfold had filled up with sweat. The pegs under his tunic, even rounded as they were, had dug into his armpits. He suspected the outfit could get annoying at a level he hadn't experienced since his escape from Zeigeburg weeks ago, when he had fast-marched with pebbles in his accounting shoes.

It was hard to move while dressed as a porcupine. But now, after his experiment, he found it reassuring. He could perceive the riverbank. He could feel a tree trunk. That last expectation was confirmed in the next moment when his punt struck roots in the creek bed.

“I'm getting accustomed.” He turned in the direction of his other close companion. “How are you holding up, Ragna?”

“Not too bad,” the dwarf didn't sound drowsy. All of the dwarfs had found work that they could do without using their eyes. Ragna had chosen weaving. Ulf tailored clothes. Borghild carved. Torgrim and Jofried put edges on steel tools.

“Am I the only one bored almost to death?” Brand, the former caravan chief, complained.

“Yes,” said Ragna and Torgrim without pity.

“How many times have you pried off your blindfold?” asked Denario.

“How would you know about that?”

“You got ill. I heard retching.”

“Well, I was trying to figure out when we'll get back to my trade routes. Shouldn't be too far.”

“And looking around while wondering about that made you sick.” Denario hoped the anti-cartography magic was near its peak. From comparing this to Jack's descriptions, it might be. “You swore to secrecy about Jack's methods. Weren’t you serious about the oath?”

“The oath, yes, the method of traveling through magic, no. Come on, accountant, this is insane. We heard a flock of flying frogs overhead. What if they'd been something worse? How can we defend ourselves? Other raftsmen come through here. I wish my troop had run into them instead.”

“Jack knows the methods of the other raftsmen. Or he thinks he does. He chooses not to use them.”

“They can't be worse than blindness.”

“You put your trust in magic charms, I suppose.” Denario was thinking of how Brand had used the tokens of Onuava to track them. He wondered if the caravan master had slyly left out part of the story about his travels through the forest around the lost temple. Could he have used the tokens in some way? Ideas churned in his mind.

“Not at all. Magic never does what you want it to unless you're a wizard.”

“You lied about using accounting, Brand. Now you're lying about magic.” The dwarfs hissed. To them, accusing someone so boldly was nearly a crime. “There were tokens to the goddess Onuava in the treasure you captured. Either you or Mohi had a token to help you find those others. If you hadn't, you'd be dead now.”

“Well done. Smart bastard. But I'm still right about magic and numbers. There's something wrong with using them.”

“That is a strange argument for you to make,” said Borghild to Brand. “A few dwarfs, long ago, argued that particular tools, including magicks, encourage immorality by making lives too easy. But I was not aware than you were opposed to having an easy life.”

Brand made a sullen lack of comment. Denario thought he heard the man fold his arms across his chest.

“A battle between the wisest or most clever of opponents is no more different morally, I think, than a battle between the strongest or the quickest. Are you saying that you didn't outwit your attackers even a little when they attempted to rob you?” Borghild drove the point home further. “Was it all luck, then?”

The middle raft felt the tug of the front one as it moved eastward into the center of the creek. Jack Lasker wasn't ready to set up camp, apparently. Denario ceased feeling the edge of the riverbank through the quills of his suit. Only the tap of his punt against the creek bottom let him know that his leader hadn't taken them out into the depths yet.

After a few minutes, the dwarfs in the third raft shouted to the first that they wanted to land, build a fire, and cook dinner. The first raft shouted back that they were looking for a place to moor. Jack said that he had a method for landing while blind but that he was going to proceed with care no matter how hungry anyone got.

When they were told that the raft master had a method, the dwarfs quieted. For half a day, they'd felt reassured by Jack's smooth navigation. It was almost a parlor trick, albeit one done in the world’s largest parlor, the outdoors. Intellectually, Denario understood how the man could do such a thing, but he also knew that he wasn't up to it on this scale himself. Probably no one except Jack or maybe his father could steer three vessels through sandbars, boulders, and fallen trees.

Jack guided the rafts through the deeps to the Kilmun shore. A while later, he took them back west. Denario could feel the difference. No one else could. He knew that Jack wasn't finding a spot that he liked.

Denario did math in his head for a while, mostly numeromancy. He found himself reviewing the hex codes he understood. He wanted to write real spell, one that the Guild of Accountants knew existed but had never been able to duplicate. Book keepers had reported seeing wizards cast it. They had written down their observations in the guild scrolls. But to date, no accountant had managed to create it, the magic 'echo' command. That was despite the fact it was one of the simplest spells that any wizard knew.

The echo spell detected incoming magic and exposed the hexes in it. It was the means by which wizards studied one another's creations. It also seemed to be how some wizards studied their own work and tweaked their spells. What a marvelous thing the echo hex would be in the hands of a certified accountant! Such a mathemagician could reveal the fundamental equations underlying the world.

The guild had recorded fragments of the spell. While the hexes were numbers greater than zero, the conjuration chopped up those numbers into hexadecimal digits and spit them back to be seen. It was an elegant thing, much like a geometric proof, very formal and very exact. It treated letters as if they were numbers, which made perfect sense to Denario. He didn't find coding letters to numbers and back again to be anything other than a amusing pastime.

He leaned back as best as he could in his suit. He thought to himself, What if I were reckless? How would I solve the problem if I didn't care so much about what other accountants thought? Well, he would try every hexadecimal number combination he could think of in rapid succession. No one here could see his failures. There was no guild master to warn him off. There was no wizard to stop him. He had a ready supply of magic at his fingertips. When would these circumstances ever occur again?

This was the best opportunity an accountant had ever had to figure out the math behind all life. This was it.

With that thought in mind, he started running through all of the hex codes, even the ones unknown to the guild, the total guesses. The first line was a given. That was the one that said while the incoming magic wasn't zero ...
While 'hex twenty-four hex twenty-one hex thirty-thirteen hex thirty'
because the number zero, it had been determined, was 'hex thirty' in the only magic the accountants knew. Then he needed the codes for 'shift right' and 'show.' But he already knew the code for showing. He'd used it to show magic stars. So it was really only the 'shift right' he needed to guess. Or was it 'shift left?' How did wizards decide? Did the magic decide for them? Was it hidden from them in their higher-order tongues? Whatever the command meant, the wizards used it as if numbers were mechanical, like balls in an abacus, and they could drop digits with it.
shift right
then show
Denario translated his letters into hexes. It was almost too easy. For a reason known only to wizards, letters emerged as hex numbers in a simple, positional notation. It wasn't a matter of encoding so much as it was adding a hexademical forty-one to the value of the letter you wanted. He could do that in his head.

He mumbled and drew with his finger on the deck, repeating the process over and over. He was sure of most of the spell, especially the parts that had been stolen from wizards over the many years of the guild. For the shift, he started with 'hex 1,' the second hex because there was a 'hex 0' that blanked out other hexes. He already knew that one and he knew 'hex 7,' a sort of magical alarm. He didn't need to try those.

“Um, accountant, what are you doing?” asked Brand.

“Math. Important math.”

“Oh, all right.” Apparently Brand hadn't been the only one worried. Denario could hear the dwarfs closest to him relax. Their sleeves rustled as they returned to their work.

“I'm finishing something that no accountant has completed before.”

“A good thing?” Everyone paused a little.

“It'll be something to write down when we stop.”

He returned to reciting the spell but, by the fifth iteration, he noticed a mistake. He had to back up and try again from the beginning. When Brand coughed, Denario messed up the eighth try. He started to understand why wizards got cranky when they were interrupted. The whole spell, the entire mathematical proof of it, had to be perfect. Distractions were not welcome. Denario repeated the eighth and ninth tries to ensure that he'd given them a valid test. He almost missed hex fourteen. At the end of the cast, he readied himself for a try at hex fifteen. Then he realized that he'd felt something. Had the spell succeeded? How could he know? Sickness be damned. He pulled up his blindfold.

In the air in front of him, numbers scrolled by. He read 0, 0, 7 followed by 0, 0, 7, followed by 0, 0, 7, and so on. Somehow he'd produced the alarm hex. He mumbled a cancel. The numbers stopped.

Where had he gone wrong?

He puzzled over it for a minute and then ran through his incantation once more using the hex fourteen code. Again, he got 0, 0, 7 followed by 0, 0, 7, followed by 0, 0, 7 ... and then a 0, 1, 7. He blinked. The hex was gone, scrolled off into the air, replaced by more zeros and sevens. Had it really happened? Had he seen a hex 17 instead of a hex 7? He waited. He counted.

After a couple minutes, he knew. It was real. Every sixteenth command revealed by his spell was a hex 17. What was that for? He had no idea. But it proved that he hadn't done something wrong and set off a magical bell. No, he had figured out the long-sought-after echo command.

Hex 14 was the shift hex that accountants had been looking for. He had written his spell completely in numbers. It had worked. He would never have been able to do it without coming to this swamp of high background magic.

“Thank Melcurio,” he mumbled. He made the sign of eight.

Truly, he was blessed. He canceled the spell and ran it again to watch the results. They didn't change. There were a lot of hex 7 charms in the air, followed every sixteenth by hex 17 and only occasionally interrupted by other hexes that Denario assumed were part of the background magic.

Lots of alarms. Huh.

He hadn't taken his eyes off of the magic but he started to get a queasy stomach. He pulled the blindfold down over his eyes and wondered.

Why so many alarms?

He snapped off the blindfold to study the landscape. There was wasn't any danger that he could see on either shore. The rafts had left the east side and were drifting west. Ahead of him, Jack stood like the river master he was. His punt guided the rafts in steady strokes. The cat-tail quills of Jack's suit gave him a feel for what lay ahead. The tip of his pole told him a lot about the bottom, no doubt. It was amazing to look at. But Denario didn't stare for long.

What's dangerous? he wondered. Nothing. So why any alarms at all?

He canceled his spell. His fingers dragged across the blindfold and pulled it down. But even though he couldn't see the magic, he knew it was there. Everyone is warned to avoid areas of heavy magic this month, he remembered. Maybe there was a storm on the way. It might be as simple as that. Would that set off alarms? No. After all, danger lay all around them in this ominous and twisty creek. Only the presence of an intruder or some other special circumstance should do it.

Maybe we set off the alarm when we got too close to the temple. If so, no harm would come from it. The temple was long abandoned. There was no one to take notice of the warning.

But what if something eavesdropped in an automatic way? What if magical traps detected geometers in these lands? The spells might set off further hexes. Anti-cartography magic might tune itself according to the alarms in order to be more effective at confusion. Maybe he was feeling a different kind of magic right now and didn't know it.

He thought about the problem for half an hour as Jack in the lead raft took them to the west bank and then east bank. The riverman still couldn't find a landing spot he liked.

Denario listened to the creek. Twice, he heard fish come to the surface. Many times, he heard frogs calling from the water and from the trees above. Once, he peeked under his blindfold. He caught Brand doing the same. The dwarfs sat patiently in their assigned spots and worked on their tasks. The accountant pulled his blindfold down. He leaned back as well as he could in the suit and wondered about the alarm hexes. He'd done good math to discover them. It would be a shame to stop. If the alarms caused spells to be cast, maybe he could halt those. All he needed to do was cast a short loop of a hex.
While the incoming hex is an alarm
set the alarm to null
With that, he could create magical silence. The curses that he imagined would trigger on those hexes would remain in hibernation, waiting for signals that would never come. That would be perfect.

Denario spent a while considering the logic of the spell. Wizards might cast as easy as they spoke but for accountants, naturally, it had to be different. Aside from a smattering of words in magical tongues, hexes were all that any accountant knew. And hexes, perhaps unlike other methods, had to be written or spoken in order. Any letters that were needed had to be created from numbers. He practiced. As he created his formal spell, which took a few minutes, he reflected how lucky he was that a previous accountant had learned how two hexes, thirty-ten and thirty-thirteen, combined to make the hex for 'assign equality.' Without that fellow's hard work, Denario wouldn't have been able to continue.

When he was ready, he pulled up his blindfold to see. He whispered the incantation as he drew the numbers. At the end of it, he felt a difference. He saw a glimmer of zeros in the air before they faded.

It was working. He knew it. He felt so pleased that he squirmed in his seat.

“What did you just do?” said Brand. A few yards away, he writhed. Although a look of pain crossed his face, he didn't touch the cloth strap over his eyes. “Did you spit? I felt something.”

“Nothing like that,” Denario assured him. “Just math. I proved something.”

“What was the conjecture?” Borghild asked. He was one of Denario's best pupils in the group.

“Trade secret. This will be written down for the Guild of Accountants.”

Borghild muttered something in dwarfish. The other dwarfs made grunting sounds of resignation. They were curious but Denario could count on them to respect his craft.

Finally, with the sun long descended below the treeline but not yet turned orange at the horizon, the lead raft swung toward a broad expanse on the Mundredi shore. Denario took the opportunity to watch Clever Jack as he steered by feel. After he scraped his raft's starboard edge along the bank, Jack plucked one of the long reeds out of his suit and swept it through the sand and grass. He kept doing it as he punted left-handed to keep his raft close to the landing. After this had gone on for a minute, he yanked off his blindfold. Denario, now sick to his stomach, put his back on.

“All rafts, hove to shore!” Jack shouted. Denario enjoyed the feeling of the clumps of grass as they pushed the butts of the cat-tail reeds gently into the right side of his suit. As he felt it, he leaned into the sensation and pushed with his pole on the left side of his body.

“Blinders off!” Jack called. “Tie down!”

Denario heard the dwarfs scurry fore and aft. They gathered coils of rope, clambered over the gunwhales, and looked for rocks and roots suitable for hitching. One of the dwarfs behind him mis-stepped and fell into the creek. His friends waded in. Denario didn't. He’d been slow to untie his blindfold. He was in the midst of unbuckling his navigation suit. For every cat-tail reed that he lost in the process, he'd have to spend a minute re-inserting it and maybe whittling it again, too, so he took care. In front of him, Clever Jack unbuckled and untied himself so deftly that it was impossible to copy. He had his suit laid down on the deck, spines up, in less than half a minute. He didn't glance back to Denario. He strode to his stewpot and utensils.

Denario took so long that a pair of dwarfs came to help.

“Thanks, Ulf, Torgrim,” he said as they laid the suit down, cat-tails up to the sky. The ends drooped so that all three of them needed to crouch and step away.

“How did it work, Skilling?”

“Sensations to the sides are good. As to feeling obstacles to the front, I won't have much opportunity for that.”

“Not likely with Master Jack navigating.” They laughed. As his nausea passed, the accountant joined in. The suit was a good trick. His numeromancy had been even trickier. And even better.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 140: A Bandit Accountant, 23.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Five: Getting a Feel for It

Jack directed his crews through the process of unhitching the raft train. He and Denario left the dwarfs on the Kilmun shore to keep watch on the captives. Although the caravan leader probably could have fled, he showed no signs of an attempt. Jack sighed as he poled away. Probably, he wished Brand would run off. It would be less trouble.

Meanwhile, the mallow craft, which was partly under Denario's power and totally under Jack's command, steered to a rough landing on an island in the creek. It wasn't much of an island. It was more of a sand bar full of grass, reeds, rocks, and a few examples of a single type of bush with long stalks. Unlike most other vegetation around, this place looked temperate. The weeds would have been at home anywhere.

“This is the stuff,” said Jack as he moored to a rock. For a moment, the accountant crouched down to the mixture of clay, conglomerates, shales, and quartz pebbles. The river master snorted. He cast his arm toward the plant life. “Not the rocks, Den. Look upslope. See those bushes? Our method depends on me finding these cat-tail things. Fortunately, they're here every time, no matter what else the magic does to the landscape.”

“Cat-tails are not usually bushes.” Denario pointed to a real cat-tail downslope, not the imitation at the crest of the sand. Two rows of actual cat-tails grew along the water's edge, about a dozen plants. “They're reeds like these.”

“Right. But it's the bushes that I mean. The stalks on them are longer. They haven't got much of a feather-tail on them but it's there. As plants, they might have another name, I suppose, among accountants or wizards. To me, they're cat-tail bushes. That's as they seemed to my father and his father before.”

“The stalks at the base must be fifteen feet long.” Denario walked to within touching distance of one. It was a tough-looking plant. He didn't want to brush up against it.

“About that much. Those gossamer strands you see at the ends make them longer than you think. They're as strong, too, and sharp. Be careful.”

“Careful how?” Denario squinted. The sun was bright and hot overhead.

“We're going to harvest these.” Jack pulled out the big knife from his waistband. He knelt to one of the flowering stems.

“What for? Is this like sedge? Are you going to weave something from them?”

“Almost. You've almost got it.” He sawed at the stem with the serrated edge.

“I have?” Denario glanced up the creek at the next hundred yards of wilderness ahead of them. He peeked over his shoulder at the two rafts in the clearing on the Kilmun side. The dwarfs stood calmly near them. Brand knelt in the center of the closest raft. He seemed to be talking with one of his wounded men.

“Have you ever seen a blind man walk?” asked Jack. That brought the accountant back to what they were doing. Jack finished sawing through the base of a stalk. He set his prize down where he'd cut it.

Denario rubbed his bearded chin. He pictured his home. “There are blind beggars in Oggli. The wealthy ones have friends to pull them around. The rest get long sticks and push them out in front.”

“That's exactly right. That's what I mean.” Jack swiveled to flash him a sly smile. He returned to his task.

“Oh no.” The image that came to Denario's head wasn't believable. “You can't possibly steer the rafts with these.”

“Not with them in my hands, no.”

“Oh.” Denario felt let down. It almost made sense for a moment.

“That's why I have a pair of these suits. I wear them.” Jack tossed down the second stalk. He dropped the knife beside it. Calmly, he reached to his shoulders and unstrapped the old, brown pack he'd brought along. Denario had wondered what was in it. His companion fiddled with the rawhide knots at the top. In about half a minute, he pulled out a thick, goatskin tunic. There were holes in it. At first, Denario thought it was a rag. But the pattern of holes was regular. "My father has a suit, too. I brought it. You can wear his.”

“You put the stalks through the holes?" Denario guessed. “You dress up like a porcupine?”

“More like a beetle. I've seen a few that travel their whole lives this way. They feel around for directions by means of quills.”

“But can you feel what's happening? You're not a beetle.”

“It's hard. I don't deny it. That's why my granddad came up with the idea of these suits. It's why I wear one. Inside, you see, are these pegs.”

Denario leaned forward. There were carved bone cups woven into the holes. Those were places for the stalks to fit, he saw. On the other side of the cups were rounded pegs. “That looks uncomfortable.”

“When a cat-tail quill gets hit hard, yes, it can hurt to have the peg press into your skin. But the rest of the time, it's comfy enough.”

“So when you're fifteen feet from shore, you feel the brush of it on one side of your body.”

“A gentle caress.”

“You must punt away to starboard when you feel the riverbank to port.” He gazed at the Mundredi side of the creek. Soon there would be no Mundredi or Kilmun sides, he supposed, only Ogglian peasants. The forgotten temple acted as a divider between the lands of the invaders and those of the established settlers to the southeast.

“Usually. Sometimes I like to stay close to the banks if I feel the water is strange. Or maybe I want to stop for a break. Then I'll head for the shallows.”

“Do you take off your blindfold to eat?”

“Yes, it's safe enough when we're not going anywhere. If we try to think too hard about where we're going with our eyes open, bad things happen. Some people forget how to see. If you get to that point, close your eyes and give a shout.”

“This is some weird magic, Jack.” Denario sighed.

“It is. But this way of charting reminds me of my school lessons in geometry when I was a boy. It should seem familiar to you.”

“It does. It's brilliant.”

“Glad to hear it. Put on the suit.”


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 139: A Bandit Accountant, 23.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Four: Swearing

“You're feverish.” Ragna wiped Denario's brow.

“It's not bad.” The accountant pulled out his most ragged hat. It had been over-used when he got it and it had grown thin enough for him to see his fingers through the cloth. Its linen had grown soft. He used it to mop the sweat from around his ears.

“I've done what I can.” The dwarf screwed a lid onto a jar of smelly oils. Denario tried to remember the last time he'd seen a screw-on top to anything. It had probably been in Ziegeburg. “The flesh looks healthy enough, Denario. But it's going to scar.”

“It'll match the other arm, then.” If that was going to be the worst of it, he was lucky. He'd gotten the sweats but he still felt good. He stuffed his rag back in his pocket.

At the tiller, Torgrim kept the raft steady. Denario took a moment to survey the landscape. On the Mundredi side of the creek, the underbrush looked like the diagrams that wizards drew of vegetation on tropical islands. On the Kilmun side, the rafts passed row after row of spaghetti trees. Denario was amazed that anyone could be stubborn enough to build an orchard here, let alone a large one that implied generations of hard labor. Someone's great-grandfather had arrived, put his hands on his hips, and said, 'This looks like home.' Despite the heavy magic, possibly because of it, the settlers had prospered by harvesting magical pasta.

Within an hour, the sun grew bright enough to dry Denario’s wound. The scabs hardened on his arm. Medicinal oils baked into his skin. He poled for a while, handed over the duty to Borghild, switched to a wider hat, and changed into a clean undershirt before he re-donned his dwarf-tailored hauberk. Although he'd stopped wearing his mail shirt, he needed some sort of armor. Without it, he felt like he was the easiest target on board.

They took lunch on the creek because there was no good place to stop. After their meal, word came back from the lead raft that it was time to pass out blindfolds.

“Are you sure about this?” Torgrim asked him. He nodded to the other dwarfs as they cut strips of cheap cloth.

“No,” Denario replied. “But Jack comes and goes through here as much as five times a year if the creek is fast. He must know something.”

He picked up an oar. The water had gotten too deep for a pole, even on the Kilmun side where it should have been shallow. The accountant glanced over a row of tied-down packages to spy on Brand, who was lying in the shade. He knew he should either drag the caravan leader to the gunwhales and over the side, which might be beyond his strength no matter what he'd said, or he should make certain that Brand wouldn't break free to kill them all.

The dwarf Borghild had stopped poling. There was no point. So he got the duty of blindfolding Brand. He strode the middle aisle, cloth held high. Perhaps out of a sense of politeness, he paused to wave the cloth for a moment so that the caravan captain could wake and see. Then he crouched down to tie it around the man's eyes.

Despite Borghild's attempt at politeness, Brand seemed surprised. He woke to the blindfold as it went on and immediately fought against it. He shook his head from side to side. He thrashed. When his eyes were clear, he swiveled on his left hip and aimed a double-legged kick at his captor. It knocked Borghild over.

A second later, Brand swung around and kicked at nothing. Denario didn't understand it at first. But with a further whip of his body, Brand popped to his feet.

Denario scrambled forward, oar in his hands. He had to lean across the packages as he took his swing. The bigger man saw it coming. The whites of his eyes grew large. He ducked. The blade of the oar bumped his shoulder. Denario reared back to try again. But just then he saw that the caravan captain had his hands free. That was an unpleasant surprise. He would have sworn there was no way to undo those knots. The dwarfs were so careful. Yet Brand had managed. All he had to do now was unwind the loops, which he was doing as he moved.

The accountant's second swing met Brand's arms as they rose up. Brand still had his left arm wrapped and he used that to block the oar. Despite the thick layer of jute for protection, he howled in pain. At the same time, Borghild rose to his feet. One thing everyone had learned from the night before was that a human couldn't out-wrestle a dwarf. Brand had compared them to the Chim Pan-Zee people, who were short and strong but who were savages on the islands of the Complacent Sea, bereft of tools or language.

Brand blinked at Borghild, then turned to flee. Denario hopped over a box of dried meats to follow. It was awkward. He lost the oar. The oar tripped the dwarf, who fell again, cursing. Fortunately, Brand had his ankles tied. He could barely move. Denario caught him at the corner of the middle aisle.

Denario swung his fist. Brand dodged and rolled over a crate into the outer aisle of the raft.

“Damn it!” A moment later, the account vaulted to the outer aisle.

This time, he chased Brand down before the man reached the next corner. He hit Brand with a flying tackle, shoulder to shoulder, as the larger fellow paused to try in vain to undo the knotted rope around his legs. It was reassuring that the bigger man made a 'woof' sound when Denario hit.

The accountant kept driving forward with his legs. He figured that if he could knock Brand down, the dwarfs could come to his rescue. But Brand wouldn't cooperate. He was too strong. Even with his feet tied, he managed to keep hopping backwards instead of toppling over. All Denario could do was persist. He pushed harder, legs churning on the deck. He drove the fellow right up to the gunwhales. Even with the beams there to trip him, Brand refused to go down. In frustration, Denario decided to push the man overboard. As luck would have it, there was a dark shape in the water right behind Brand. Maybe it would all work out.

“No!” Brand yelled. He saw what was coming. He dug his heels against the gunwhales. But Denario had momentum on his side. He finished his thrust. The big man toppled. His arms flailed.

At that moment, Borghild leaped over a barrel and grabbed the caravan captain by his left arm.

“What are you doing?” Denario gasped. It had taken all of his energy to get this far. He took a deep breath. From the other side of the barrel, he pushed on Brand's body.

“You can't kill him!” the dwarf shouted.

“I can if you stop helping him!”

“Ragna!” Borghild cried. Denario was surprised to hear the dwarf sound desperate. “Help me! Hold back Skilling!”

“Ragna!” Denario pleaded over his shoulder. He didn't know where the heavy dwarf was but he hoped it wasn't too close. “Look at what happened. Brand got out of his ropes. We have to toss him over.”

He heard footsteps. The accountant craned his neck to see the dwarf in the heavy, brown tunic. Ragna stomped up the aisle towards Denario.

“Please, Ragna,” he said.

His plea was drowned out, though, by Brand. The caravan captain and murderer had gotten a closer look at the shadow in the water below him. He bellowed. His legs trembled. Between his strength and Borghild's, he had gotten a firm toehold. He inched back into the boat despite Denario's best efforts.

When Ragna arrived, Denario thought it was all over. He almost stopped pushing. But instead of plucking the accountant out of the struggle, Ragna reached past to push on Brand's leg. That stopped the progress that Borghild and Brand had made.

“Ragna, no!”

“Yes!” Denario felt a renewed strength. “One more shove!"

He'd thought it would take only one more. But he was working on his second shove even as he finished the words. The force he could bring to bear didn't match anyone else's.

“Ragna!” Borghild cried again.

“Please,” said Brand. He looked directly into Ragna's eyes. That made the dwarf hesitate.

“Torgrim! Jofrid!” Borghild seized the moment. “Drop the oars. Come here!"

“But I'm steering!” called Torgrim. His spot at the tiller was hidden by tall crates.

“Ragna and Skilling are trying to kill Brand!”

“But ...” The tiller oar hit the deck with a clatter. Jofrid, who had been sleeping in plain view, jumped up. He started the wrong direction, turned to see what was going on, and corrected course.

“Come!”

A moment later, all five of them, Denario, Ragna, Jofrid, Borghild, and Torgrim clustered together. And each of them push or pulled on Brand, who still hung over the gunwhales. He tried to get his second arm over to Borghild but thankfully, he couldn't with Jofrid blocking him. The thing in the water below him had surfaced to reveal the head of a snapping turtle or something similar in shape. The main difference was that it was overlarge. Its body seemed to be a third of the size of the raft. The creature looked capable of biting an alligator in half.

Denario pushed harder. The thing might take care of Brand even if the man couldn't be pushed into the water.

“Accountant, why?” Torgrim asked.

“Because we can't trust him!” Denario yelled.

“I'll swear!” volunteered Brand.

Denario backed up a step and lunged. But even after the hard shove, he was afraid that he and Ragna were losing. Brand was tilting in the wrong direction. That was happening because of Torgrim and Jofrid. The smithy had joined Ragna in pushing. Torgrim, however, had decided to pull and he'd gotten a grip on Brand's trouser leg. The only hope Denario had was the expression on Torgrim's face, which was a conflicted one. He didn't really want to rescue Brand.

“No!” Denario shouted at Brand.

“Swear what?” Torgrim asked.

“Don't listen!” shouted Ragna and Jofrid.

“Anything you want!” said Brand.

“His word's not worth anything,” counseled Denario. He gasped for breath. He backed up and tried again.

“Will you swear not to escape?”

“Yes.”

“No!” Denario knew he was losing. He tried a different tactic. Reaching over the crate, he put his hand on Borghild's face and pushed. That gave him more leverage. “It's not enough.”

“What more?” Torgrim asked.

“Anything at all,” Brand answered.

“Anything the accountant decides?”

“The accountant?” Even hanging over the edge, Brand had to think about that for a moment. He must have sensed that he'd hurt Denario's feelings. Probably it was the way Denario was trying to kill him. “As long as he doesn't have me swear to jump into the jaws of a beast.”

“Everybody stop,” Torgrim announced. To emphasize his point, he stilled his own body. “Swear the oaths right now and I'll pull you to safety. Don't, and I'll help Ragna and Skilling.”

The struggle quieted. Denario had already lost. On his side, Ragna was doing most of the work. He was overmatched by Borghild but together, they had no trouble keeping Brand suspended above the water. Jofrid and Torgrim didn't have room to maneuver so they didn't have much effect.

“First, you have to swear not to try to escape,” said Torgrim.

“I swear,” intoned Brand seriously. Denario didn't trust it at all.

“Not enough!” He raised his hands as if he were going to push again but he stopped himself. They were in a truce situation. Besides, he couldn't win. “Swear to fight on the side of the dwarfs.”

“What dwarfs? Every one here?”

“Every dwarf on this raft, every dwarf allied with Boldor, and every dwarf you meet by chance. All of them. Really all.”

“All right, I swear. I'll harm no dwarf. I'll fight on their side. All of them.” Brand said it easily. He seemed to know that he'd never meet another dwarf aside from these.

“You'll take no slaves, neither dwarf nor human.”

“What have you got against my business?”

“Swear.”

“Slavery is a tenth of my enterprise. I can't promise anything like that!”

“If you don't swear, I'll go and grab my sword.” Denario was ready to hack this slaver to pieces. His fingers itched for it. “They may pull you back onto the deck but it won't do you any damn good.”

“Do you hear him?” Brand turned to Borghild and Torgrim. “He's crazy.”

“Swear,” said Torgrim.

“Right, no slaves,” said Borghild. He had the best grip. He shook the man. “Swear.”

“You're serious?” After he finished rattling, Brand looked around for sympathy. He saw none. Behind the raft, the giant snapping turtle head appeared. The creature seemed confused for a moment by the presence of the trailing raft although it must have known about it from its visit before. It searched for the low-hanging animal it had noticed. When it turned and saw Brand, it opened its jaws. It started paddling toward the middle raft. “Oh, come on! I swear! Pull me in! Pull me in!”

“Swear to follow orders until we release you.” Denario had resigned himself to Brand's rescue but he was in no hurry.

“Will you release me? Pull, damn it!”

Denario considered the question. “I'll swear. I'm sure that Jack would never sell you off as a slave or abandon you if he had no need, but if he does, I'll gainsay him.”

“Then I swear, too! Of course! I'll follow orders! Pull!”

The beast was a slow swimmer. But when it made its final move, it proved faster and bigger than Denario had realized. He tried to pull. With the dwarfs helping, he brought Brand's outstretched form upright. They all leaped backwards when the giant turtle head rose. The monster had a long neck. As a group, they brought Brand into the boat so fast that he tumbled face-first onto the boards. Everyone else fell backwards. Then they scrambled away from the maw of the creature.

The beady, dark eyes followed Brand. There was a snap, followed by a crunching sound. The mighty beak gouged a chunk out of the oak beam next to Brand. It had missed. Even stunned by his fall, Brand was fast enough to dodge. The beast chewed the wood and spat it out. It turned its head sideways and glared at the passengers on deck with one eye. Then it sank back into the water.

Denario heard a rippling sound. Currents swept around the brown-green body as the creature dove under. A shadow moved off toward the Kilmun side of the creek. It grew fainter as it dove farther down. In a moment, it faded entirely.

“Well, that was interesting.”

Denario turned to see Jack Lasker standing on the far corner of the deck.

“How long have you been aboard?” He picked himself off of the flooring and plucked a splinter out of his trousers.

“Long enough to keep the raft from tipping.”

“Really?” Denario had thought of the possibility but not seriously. “I figured the weight of the packages would hold us level.”

“That helped. And my rafts don't tip. There was nothing in the water for the raft to hit. I thought a big rock was the only thing that could have done the job and, even then, not with you on the corner, only if you all moved to the starboard side. But as it turned out, that beast lifted up one side of the raft a few inches as it leaned over. That’s even with my weight on the opposite.”

Denario gazed around the deck at the jugs, crates, boxes, and barrels tied down in rows. They totaled over one thousand five hundred pounds of material, he estimated. To tilt them, even with the help of the men and dwarfs foolishly collected at one spot on the raft, the monster had to be of comparable weight.

He scanned the waters. The rafts floated through another twisty bend in the creek, much like the last one and the one before that.

“It was pretty big," he said with his eyes on the spot where the creature had disappeared. "Have you ever seen something like it before?”

“No. But I've had the sense not to dangle bait over the water.”

“Ah, well, that wasn't something I’d intended.”

“It was good, though. You're not the strongest warrior but you train. You have good reactions. It's a pity the dwarfs stopped you. But maybe Brand will be useful now that he's sworn to follow your orders. Who knows?”

Denario must have rolled his eyes. Jack put his hands on his hips and grinned.

“I'm going to talk to him now. One of his men has caught a fever. I'm inclined to let Brand visit him if only to lift that fellow's spirits.”

“In that case, I'll need to have further talk with him myself.” This was exactly the kind of thing he'd always been bad at. Even when it came to his apprentices who weren't tough killers, Curo had always been there to help keep things in order.

Denario forced himself. After listening to the discussion about Brand's freedom and his sick men, the accountant sat down with the dangerous fellow. He made Brand swear all over again, repeating each word formally. It took twenty minutes at the least. The dwarfs, one by one, stopped by to listen in and offer suggestions. They loved formal logic in their math lessons and they enjoyed hearing it in oaths, too.

“Yes, I swear,” Brand finished. He raised his right arm. “I'll follow your orders. Yes, Jack's too, if I must.”

“Very well. Now I'll free your legs.” It seemed the height of insanity. Would he need to tie the fellow up at night? But Brand had sworn to harm no one and to follow orders. Anyway, he'd proved that he could escape. They were going to have to kill him or trust him.

“But you're still going to blindfold me,” Brand said accusingly.

“We're all going to be blindfolded,” Denario replied. He glanced to Jack for confirmation. “And for all of that, you'll still have your hands free.”

“If you take off the blindfold, the blame for your death is on you,” said Jack. “It won't be by my hand. I only know that anyone who tries to sail by the temple with eyes open either dies or gets lost.”

“That's your secret?” Brand asked.

“Part of it.” Jack turned to Denario. He folded his arms across his chest. “You, Den, ought to know some of the rest. But only you. We've got an extra raft and many passengers. I think someone else ought to know understand how to proceed.”

“Under what circumstances? You'll come through fine. You always do.”

“I've had rafts get separated before. Wouldn't you like to stand a chance of staying alive for a while if that happens?”

“Go, accountant,” said Brand. He waved his free arms grandly. “By all means.”

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 138: A Bandit Accountant, 23.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Three: Brief Moments of Mercy

“I was going to say we should toss Brand overboard. But now ...” Denario rubbed his bearded chin. He tried to think like Vir. Letting the robbers live was a mistake because Vir wouldn't do that. On the other hand, the dwarfs objected to killing helpless men.

The accountant strolled along the deck, robbers and dwarfs on either side of him in the aisles between crates. It had turned out to be a beautiful morning. Denario was allowed to look at it and know that it was possibly his last glimpse of sunrise for a while. Clever Jack felt it was nearly time to start his secret navigation method that depended on everyone being blindfolded.

There were three rectangular aisles on the raft. There was an outer section of bare planking between the packages and the gunwhales. There was an inner ring between the rows of boxes. Then there was the core, the area for Jack's tent plus room to walk around his quarters, cook, and so on. It was all reasonably symmetric and pleasing to Denario's eye. The three captured men occupied the middle aisle. Two of them had to lie down. Brand DeLadro, however, had recovered from his beating enough to sit up. He leaned his back against a crate of rawhide. He glared at Denario in fear and anger. On the outer aisle stood most of the dwarfs. Their leader waited with his arms crossed over his hauberk.

“I can't deny your objections, Boldor,” Denario continued, “especially not after you opposed trading me into slavery on moral grounds.” Self-defense was no longer an issue. The accountant knew he couldn't argue that point. Incredible as it seemed, the dwarfs had won the fight.

The dwarf chief nodded. “That is proper.”

Denario glanced around at the weird, semi-tropical landscape. None of the dwarfs liked to walk far into it. The plants were different from those only a mile upstream. The bushes were leafier. The tip ends of plants were spikier. The flowers weren't pin-pricks of color. They were explosions of vibrant pink, red, or blue. They smelled musky. Uphill from their camp, tall mounds stood, occupied by ants with stingers. Even the insects lived differently in the heavy magic.

“I agree that the land looks hard. But there are moral considerations aside from mercy.” Denario turned his attention back to the dwarfs on board. “You demand that Master Jack Lasker feed these men. The chore will come out of his profits because these bandits don't work. On top of that, they robbed him. Jack has been injured. He's owed compensation, not an additional fine. I don't think you have the right to demand that he pay for your decision.”

“That is a very good point,” said Heilgar. He raised his right finger. But he put it down when he caught the glare from his chief.

“What you say is true,” Bolder acknowledged. “But we dwarfs have made enough additional profit for Jack to pay for them as passengers. He should speak for himself. Does he wants us to take on more of the burden? I admit that it would seem fair. He advised us rightly in every step. We are learning the ways of men from him. And none of us have died although it was a close thing last night.”

“I was just feeling that I owe Ragna my life, maybe, for patching me up,” called Jack. He didn't occupy a place on the raft. Out of a sense of duty to the others, he stood guard on the shore. He touched his bloodied shirt.

Ragna said to him, “It was a debt I owed you already. You saved me and my friends.”

“Denario did the most, along with Ulf and Torgrim and those alligators that Denario befriended. The blow Ulf struck was fantastic. Ragna, I played my part but I didn't march out across the penninsula to risk my life the way Denario did. By the way, accountant, you should let Ragna look at your arm.”

“Maybe.” He hadn't been aware of his wound when it happened. As he looked at it now, that seemed amazing. He'd been ripped down his left arm, elbow to wrist, and he'd never felt it.

As he stared at the laceration, it oozed another drop of bloody fluid from its scab.

“Do we have to decide right now?” Ragna asked.

“It'll get more dangerous as we get closer to the temple,” Boldor replied. “If we let them go now, the captain will have a decent chance of finding his men.”

“These other two will die, though.” Dodni said it casually but sadly with a wave of his arm.

“There's another problem, Boldor,” said Jack. “I've got trade secrets. Honestly, I figured to drop off you dwarfs before this if I decided I didn't trust you. But I do.”

“I thank you.” Boldor nodded. “Although I also understand your problem.”

“I can trust Denario to keep his word not to reveal my trade secrets. His guild has their own secrets and he’s got some more, too. But why should I trust these men? If it was my decision, I'd dump them overboard.”

“Their word is no good.” Boldor hung his head. To the dwarf chief, it was a tragic revelation. “Couldn't they entrust something of theirs to you?”

“They don't even love each other that much. What could I hold? One of them? They'd let us kill any hostage we had even if we had the stomach to be so evil. Boldor, they'd betray us if we held their grandmothers.”

“Can they pay for the trade secrets? That's a practice that's common among men as well as dwarfs, I understand.”

“Pay me? With what? They're getting their lives and my secrets. How much is that worth? Besides that, they're separated from their treasure. How much money do you think they can carry, anyway?”

Several of the dwarfs looked at their own feet. Then they looked at one another.

“They have some money?” Jack understood at a glance what Denario had been trying to figure out. “Fine. So we've already got our hands on it.”

“Oh, no. It's theirs.”

“Didn't you search them?” Denario had walked to a corner of the aisle. He turned to face the leaders. “Didn't you take their weapons?”

“We looked for obvious weapons,” acknowledged Dodni. He clasped his hands behind his back. “We didn't look for small things. That wouldn't be seemly. Even in our quick search, we couldn't help finding some valuables. When we were done, we returned everything that wasn't a weapon.”

Denario and Jack exchanged a look. The accountant felt ashamed. The dwarfs were an ethical folk. Whereas Denario had taken good morals for granted during his apprenticeship with Master Winkel, he hadn't seen them much in his travels. He'd stopped expecting them. He could appreciate the dwarfs' philosophies better because he’d met so many burghers and mayors who were cheating their citizens and so many citizens who were cheating their towns.

“The day is getting on,” Jack sighed. “We're not going to solve this in the next minute. We should head downriver.”

“Why now?” asked Boldor. “There's no reason to hurry.”

“There might be. I've been watching the bushes for Brand's men. That was the way it happened before. We're not so far from them. If they come hunting for their missing friends, they'll find us.”

“Did Captain DeLadro have more of those silver coins, Dodni?” asked Boldor.

“Yes, chief.” Dodni nodded and tugged his wispy beard.

“Everyone separate onto all three rafts, then. Right away.” Boldor clapped his hands. He lifted his own pack by his feet, by which he indicated that he intended to go with the river master. The other dwarfs scrambled to comply.

Jack Lasker issued orders making it clear that he was about to change the position of the rafts. This was a section of the creek in which he felt he needed to lead. For the sake of simplicity, he announced that he would navigate from what was formerly the middle raft, the one with his tent. Denario would continue to pilot what had formerly been the lead raft, the one with the lean-to and supplies. There would be no need to transfer possessions.

Denario marched to his position with relief. The surprised dwarfs had considerably more work to do and more questions. Jack intended to push the middle raft to the forefront by unhitching the tether lines before his launch and then by re-hitching them in the new order while midstream.

Most of the dwarf tents occupied space on the third vessel, also known as "Denario's raft," the one of mallow wood. They had built smaller tents on the other two barges but they were lonely outposts in comparison. Their troop members shifted assignments so that Ulf could be in the lead with Boldor and Jack. That was the position of honor. Ragna, in contrast, was separated out, put in the back, and eventually re-shuffled to the middle with Denario, a demotion that the dwarf accepted with grace.

“Hello, accountant,” said a rough voice. The only mobile captive, Brand, marched from one raft to another. A pair of dwarfs tethered him by his elbows. His arms remained behind his back, tied at the wrists. His hobbled gait demonstrated the strength of the rope he wore from ankle to ankle. “Seems we're to be boat mates.”

Denario glanced to Jack for confirmation. He got a nod. The balding man had the courtesy to look chagrined. He put his head down and, a moment later, plunked his travel hat on top of it, brim pulled low.

At Denario's side, Ragna turned pale. Borghild and Torgrim scowled. No one liked Brand. Yet this was the smart thing to do, Denario realized. The river master saw an advantage in keeping the caravan captain away from his men so they couldn't conspire. Since the dwarfs weren't willing to abandon the bandits to the magical wilderness, someone had to think about such things.

The accountant gestured his assent to come aboard. When the dwarfs turned their captive toward the center of the raft, though, he shouted.

“Hey! Middle aisle for him.” He gestured with the punt. Jofrid didn't like it. He grunted. But he nodded and pulled Brand along.

That meant Brand wouldn't get a tent and neither would his guard. But Denario wasn't going to have the man sleep next to him, tied up or not.

Denario could tell that most of the dwarfs didn't like the idea of saving the bandits but they couldn't speak against their chief. For that matter, the accountant couldn't disagree. Still, he knew that Vir de Acker wouldn't let anybody live who'd attacked him, not unless that man had swung around completely to his side and had proved it.

This was where Denario needed to do something like Vir, like a real leader. Jack wouldn't. He didn't think about organizing men. If he'd thought that way, he'd already own a caravan to go with his rafting business. The dwarfs wouldn't do it although Boldor showed potential for this sort of thing. Maybe someday he'd think the right way. But not now. No, it was up to Denario and that was scary. He didn't understand the how and why.

He launched the raft as he considered. Behind him, Jack untethered and ordered Denario to steer to the middle. When the rafts were in position, Jack jumped from stern to prow to re-tether the vessels in the right order. All the while, Denario pondered the ways in which Brand could kill them in their sleep. Jack was agile. He was fast. But he didn't like having people around, which meant he kept to himself pretty often. He also couldn't watch the captured men every moment of every day and night.

It wasn't only Jack who had a hard time during the re-ordering of the rafts. Everyone on the three rafts got involved with rowing, pushing, pulling on ropes, and tying. It took fifteen minutes and when Jack ran from the last raft to the middle to the first, he teetered on the final gunwhale, exhausted. Everyone slumped in relief. The pilots resumed course.

An hour before lunchtime, as they meandered along the snaking path of the creek, Denario set down his punt. His opinion had formed. It wasn’t a generous one. He motioned for Torgrim to take over with his paddle.

“Convince me, Brand.” Denario picked up an oar. He strolled into the middle aisle. When he reached his captive passenger, he sat down across from him. “Tell me why I shouldn't stab you and dump you over the side.”

The captain gave him an airy smile. “The dwarfs would object.”

“You'll have to do better than that.” He leaned in so he could whisper. “In a fair fight, you would beat me every time. Every time. You know it. I know it. But you're tied up. I'm not so small that I can't lift you over these gunwhales.”

“I'd make some noise.”

“I have five apprentices waiting for me in the city. When you attacked, you woke me from a dream about them. Did I mention that? I swore to protect them, Brand. Being away from them for so long … it’s made me crazy.”

Brand had no answer. He studied the accountant's face.

“Why wouldn't I dump you to the alligators? You were going to take me from my accounting practice, from those children, from everything I have in the world.”

“I didn't ... wait, you can't dump me overboard because you can't lose the rope.”

The look Denario gave him must have been unkind.

“I guess you're already making more ...”

Denario inched closer. He dropped his hand to his skinning knife, the one he'd never used.

“Wait, wait!” Brand squirmed away from him. “Accountant, give me time to think. Can't you give me time?”

“Some.” Denario took his hands off of the knife. He hadn't been intending to use it. The grip sat against his thigh where he'd needed to rest his hand for balance. Maybe it wasn't bad for the caravan master to think otherwise. Because Denario truly had no idea what to do.

Vir would have known. The chief would have killed Brand or turned him into a soldier on his side. There was no middle course.