Sunday, August 19, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 130: A Bandit Accountant, 22.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximate
Scene One: Festival of the Children

“Are dwarfs invited to the Festival of the Children? Or did you invite yourselves? You haven't got any tattoos. I'll bet hardly anyone has noticed.”

“Probably not,” the fellow grumped. “Until you. You have no tattoos either, I see.”

“My name is Denario.” He stuck out his hand. The dwarfs eyed it suspiciously. “I'm pleased to meet you because I would like to talk with someone, anyone, about math. Or if not math itself, then geometry, maps, and surveying.”

“Surveying? That's a bit unusual for a riverman. Are you trying to chart the No Map Creek? I'm told it can't be done.”

“True, maybe. And yet ... I've got a few ideas about that. I'm running an experiment.”

“I don't think mapping lends itself to experiments, lad. Either the measurements are right or they're not.”

“We'll see.”

“You will, maybe. If you live.” The dwarf finished the first peach. He pocketed the second and hiked up his trousers. “Hmph. Is that some kind of human survey instrument I see on your deck?”

“The theodolite? Yes.”

“We'd never use anything like that in a mine. Too inaccurate.”

“Lines of sight wouldn't be very useful, I suppose. You'd use geometry, probably the stake and chain method. Did dwarfs invent that? I always wondered.”

“We claim that we did. It’s so long ago, though, it's stuff of legend.”

“This is how humans do it.” Denario used the wood in his hand to pantomine the action. His audience relaxed and gave advice. The dwarf started rubbing his beard, though, during the accountant's monologue on the perfection of triangles.

“We've learned something about triangles, living underground.” He waited patiently for Denario to pause rather than interrupt. “The way you humans use them is too straight. That's not good enough for the deep, deep dwarfs, the really low down ones. They've discovered that large triangles, especially when you think of joining a lot of triangles together, have curves in them. The whole world curves, they say.”

“You must mean that the triangles are curved in three dimensions, then.”

“You've lost me there, lad. What's a dimension? Something from a human religion? Dwarfs wouldn't know about those.”

That was a brilliant excuse to stay out of religious arguments, Denario realized. He'd claimed something like it himself, from time to time, but it had proved generally better to point out his devotion to Melcurio. He was human. His ignorance wasn't considered an excusable condition by the priests and priestesses who tried to convert him at every opportunity. For dwarfs, it might work.

“A dimension is a natural thing, a direction.” Denario drew in the sand with the tip of his punt. He explained the concepts of length, width, and depth and waited for the usual human argument that they were 'all the same thing.' Instead, the dwarf knelt to caress the accountant's drawing of a cube. He gestured to the shape four times in a stiff, ceremonial way and mumbled phrases in dwarfish.

“This is sacred knowledge,” he said. “I had no idea that humans knew this.”

“The masons understand.” Denario rubbed the crown of his head under his hat. “Probably some carpenters do. How could they not? We think the wizards came up with it independently. And there's the accountants, like me. That's probably the list of major human professions in the know.”

“I thought you were a boatman.”

“For a while. I signed on as crew for this trip. I needed a faster way to get home from my last job.”

“But if you're a human accountant, you should travel by coach.”

“My last employer didn't like the way I worked. He had the coach waylaid. I ended up traveling by horseback, then by foot. Now it's by boat, as you see.”

“Did you try to make off with his money?”

“No, I found that the mayor's brother was stealing from the tax collection.” Denario hesitated to tell the whole story, especially to a dwarf who hadn't revealed his name. But the fellow egged him on with questions. He even carved out a seat for himself in the sand. He planted himself down, hands on his knees, as if prepared to listen all day.

When it came to the point in the adventure when Denario discovered the dead coachman and passengers, the dwarf hissed. As the Mundredi army won a victory and were awarded with a song, he demanded to hear it. He chuckled at how the accountant fumbled through every blow and he applauded at the part added by the citizens of Pharts Bad for the saving of the town's mine accounts. He slapped his leg in time with the tune, a traditional one, apparently familiar even to folks who lived under hills and mountains.

He made Denario chant it a second time so he could sing along. He was still humming to himself when Clever Jack appeared from the alley next to the kiln house. The boat master barely paused. He didn't seem to mind that his assistant had chosen to entertain a guest. By the twinkle in his eye, Denario could tell that the the trading news was good.

“Den,” he said, ignoring what he assumed was a boy who'd turned his back on him. “Business is brisk. We've got a lot of produce to shift. Children are making their parents load up carts for us as we speak.”

“Let me guess. We're taking on high-value 'boring' items and we're unloading sweets.”

“You've got it.” Jack broke into an open-mouthed grin. “I'm going to miss you when you catch the coach from Oupenli. Are you sure you don't want to partner up?”

“Five apprentices.”

“Right. A pity. And who is this little fellow? Are you training up another already? It seems that I can't turn my back without you giving math lessons.”

“This,” Denario began. He swept his arm downward and considered how to continue without a name. “Is one of the dwarfs we've heard about.”

“Wonderful!” The boatman turned and noticed their guest as if for the first time, which it nearly was. He thrust out his right hand. “Jack Lasker, at your service.”

The dwarf responded to the gesture with the same suspicion he'd given to the accountant's offer earlier.

“Might you be Clever Jack?” he said after a moment. “The master boatman?”

“I might.” He lowered his hand. “Out of curiosity, may I know what you've heard about me? The character of the words, at least?”

“Mostly good things.” The dwarf touched his bare upper lip for a moment. Then he nodded to himself. “Yes, mostly good.”

The balding fellow adjusted his woolen cap. That had been one of the clues by which Denario had deduced that he was a dwarf. His skull cap, although not steel, looked much like the helmets worn by dwarfs in the epic poem illustrations published in Oggli.  After he'd straightened his clothing, he let his eyes fall to the accountant and, behind him, to the partially laden rafts. The center one held a lot but there was room for more, at least by weight. With another nod to himself, he rose, admittedly not very far, to his feet. He took two steps toward Denario and, right hand across his stomach, bowed his head.

“Master accountant,” he said. “You may tell your master boatman that the Chief of the Lost Mines, Renegade of Water Mountain, and leader of the first families of the travelers, Boldor Sonsonson, is here.”

“Pleased, I'm sure.” Denario tipped his hat. There had to be some sort of dwarfish protocol involved here but he had no idea what it might be. He had to bluff through.

“Boldor Sonsonson …?” he began. There had to have been a question in his tone of voice. The name begged for an explanation.

“Traditional name,” Boldor offered. “There must have been a first name at the front of all of the 'sons,' eons ago. It has been forgotten.”

“Thank you.” Denario introduced the dwarf formally to the boat master, which he supposed allowed them to talk on some other level than the one they had previously occupied. Jack returned the favor by introducing himself, also with several titles, including Master Raft Maker. He duplicated the dwarf's bow.

“Water Mountain?” he asked the dwarf directly.

“That's what humans call the place. It's also how we name it in our own tongue. The river Rodovnak runs underneath, squeezed beneath boulders at the base. Humans know only the springs and streams on the surface. Those are offshoots. The forces producing them are vast. Someday that mountain will be a canyon. Even now, the place is a spiderwork of rivulets, pools, fissures splitting open with steam, and deadfalls buoyed by the pressure of the Rodovnak. Each part is a trap for the unwary. Every home that's carved out of the slag will crumble in time to mud and grit. Decades spent hollowing out an underground road can be wasted by one rockfall that exposes a trickle of water. The road will soon wash away. The place is impossible to mine. But the jumbled earth there is so full of jewels, we work it anyway.” He sighed for the home he'd left behind.

“What makes you a renegade?”

“I read from our library the maps of some ancient citadels, long deserted. Quite a few were never seen by dwarfs. They were the underground lairs of titans or humans, only crudely mined. Nevertheless someone, probably humans, mapped them and recorded their histories. We know which ones were abandoned due to disease, which ones from cave-ins, which ones ran out of copper, silver, or iron, and which ones still held low-grade ores. A few were taken over by monsters, like dragons. That was hundreds of years ago. I asked myself, how long do monsters live?”

“How long until a mine is clear of disease?” wondered Jack.

“What about those low-grade ores?” Denario asked. “That's the most suspicious circumstance. Or should I say auspicious? Smithies have improved their methods in the past generation, I'm told. For sure, ore that was once cast aside is now carted in from afar.” An image came to him of the rock heaps outside of Pharts Bad.

“Humans have no idea.” Boldor rubbed his hands. “It's been hundreds of years since these underground lands were laid fallow. And some of them were mined by humans, after all. They were probably worth the lives of dwarfs even then if we had only been able to find them.”

“Which you are trying to do.” Jack grimaced with understanding. “That's why you're a renegade.”

“Right. The king felt it was an impossible journey. But I and a few others thought it could be done. We'd planned to be safely underground by now, though. The problem is that we're not accustomed to traveling in the open lands for so long or so far.”

“You're lost.”

“We're between mountains, that's all. Any dwarf would be lost. There are no hills of any size and no place to burrow without water coming in. We need to learn to navigate on the surface.” Boldor gestured to the landscape that mystified him. He might as well be a novice sailor at sea.

“You don't know where you're going?” Denario interjected.

“We've got good choices. I thought we'd explore a little, try to understand which mines both are close and worthwhile and which are worthless or too far away.”

“So ya don't know.” Jack made a rude noise. “Boldor, ya can't go to six places at once. Ya need to pick a spot and march. And ya need to move like ya mean business. If ya don't look hard and act tough as anything, ya'll get robbed.”

“Already happened.” The dwarf closed his hands in front of him. He looked at his feet, then at the gunwhales of the raft only inches away. He helped himself to a seat next to Denario. Maybe it was the result of the formal introduction but he seemed less shy. “We weren't tough. We didn't think to act like it.”

“I can show ya how the caravans operate.” Jack rubbed his chin. “But for a price. I might even hook ya up with a caravan what I know can be trusted.”

“And I could explain how to navigate,” offered Denario. “I can teach you to read maps, human or not.”

“Why would you think you can do that?”

“Because I've figured out the dwarf mapping system. It starts from the center and goes out like a sphere, a round fruit inside a mountain.” The accountant demonstrated with his hands.

The dwarf's mouth fell open. He sputtered. Finally, he threw up his fists, got up, and stomped around the riverbank. After a while, he slumped to a halt. But that didn't last. He kicked the sand and pebbles for a while longer. He knelt and thumped his forehead against a rock. A few moments later, he stood. He staggered.

“What did I say?” he moaned.

The accountant put his head in his hands as he pondered how the secret had been revealed.

“There was nothing in your words exactly,” he concluded. “This relates to something I've been thinking about for a while. Obviously, you've got maps. Why can't humans read them? Why can't you read ours? The only answer I could come up with is that you use a different coordinate system.”

“You came up with it on your own?”

“Not the system. We call it a polar coordinate system, although I don't know why. A wizard in Baggi chose the name. He must be quite old now but he writes letters to the public on occasion to make his case. He argues that polar coordinates are more efficient than using multiple depths of flat maps, which is what we generally do.”

“I'm is more efficient. And more beautiful.”

“Probably. I think he said the same thing. But hardly anyone reads his maps. It's mostly him and his apprentices. And dwarfs, it seems. His maps are useless to human mine foremen.”

Boldor folded his arms.

“Anyway, the wizard sparked a debate between the cartographers and the wizards around the Complacent Sea. It turned out that several other wizards had their own systems that they wanted to propose. A cartographer did, too, but his method involved creating more layers of flat maps and the wizards found that idea dull. The debate has gone on for a dozen years. It doesn't seem to be coming to a conclusion. The only progress in my judgment is that there's finally a human mine using the polar coordinate system. But they need constant help from the wizard and his assistants.”

“All right.” The dwarf stuck out his bearded chin. “Maybe you understand maps. Maybe you can teach. But what makes you think we can pay you for lessons? Our deal with the humans in town isn't settled.”

“Yah've got skills and strong backs.” Jack strode across the corner of the middle raft and onto the last one, the craft he'd built from mallow. Many spars of light wood lay across its deck because it was, as yet, unfinished. “Ya must, to have gotten this far.”

“Master Lasker is my agent for this trip.” Denario turned his left hand in his partner's direction. “I'm sure you could work out a deal.”

“It'll be a deal for no money,” said Boldor. “We're out.”

Jack put his fingers to his forehead for a moment.

“Are you the leader, Boldor?” he asked.

“Yes. I'm Chief of the Lost Mines. I'll be the king of a living mine someday if I find one worth reopening. But I've got to get us back into a mountain range first.”

“Aren't you tempted to go back to Water Mountain?”

“No. I'm a renegade. I must make my own home or die. The others could return, perhaps, if they were willing to endure a lifetime of living in shame. Not me. I left in defiance of the king.”

“Do you think your friends might give up?”

“No. I've asked them three times. The last time was yesterday. They all swore themselves to my service again. Then my closest partner, Dodni, got the bright idea of making false beards and handing them out to the village children as gifts for today's festival.”

“Ah, brilliant! That's why you weren't noticed. I didn't see through the disguises myself. The children often wear fake beards during the festival. Of course, usually they're quite bad.”

“You made those beards in a single evening?” Denario rose from his seat on the gunwhales. “They're fantastic. That was fast work. So you can you work on other materials besides metals.”

Jack raised his hand. “I've already caught on to that.”

“The beards were so we could let off frustration.” The dwarf picked up the stick he'd been using on the burghers. He tapped the accountant on the shoulder with it. That was as high as he could reach. Through the leather hauberk, it didn't feel like much of anything. “Our real work for the village nearly broke us. We spent a week, cutting and hauling pieces of a cordierite altar out of a ruined church. That was what we used to repair the kilns here. I suppose the burghers and the potters had no idea how hard the job was. Or maybe they never intended to pay.”

“That's awful,” said Denario with the sincerity of a young man who's been cheated.

“How much did they promise?” The boatman was busy with pieces of his third raft. He didn't quite look at the dwarf as he waited for his response. Instead, he tested his caulking between mallow boards. When Boldor came out with the amount of cash, goods, and services he was owed, Jack whistled.

“That's a lot for a little place like this,” he said. “On the other hand, it seems fair. And they could pay.”

“Now they claim to charge us for food. And for rent while we worked, even when we weren't in town.”

“Ya didn't bargain on that part?”

“Everyone knows you have to feed and house workers as part of the job. Doing otherwise is criminal.”

“What ya need,” said Jack as he picked up a mallow board, “is an agent.”

There was a pause. Boldor closed his mouth and put his fists on his hips. The boatman never stopped working. He measured out a length of rope. Denario understood there was some sort of fresh urgency to the boat building. Jack moved with clear purpose. He tied his knots. Denario knelt down and used a plank to make a ramp against the gunwhales of the middle raft. Since he couldn't lift a barrel of pickles, it was the only safe way to offload.

“He's good, Boldor,” Denario said. He grunted as he shifted the barrel onto its side. “I've done well with him arranging my pay.”

“But that's easy for you. Who doesn't want a certified accountant? And one from Oggli, the most famous of human cities.”

“It hasn't been like that.”

“Have you negotiated with the children today?” Jack interrupted. He lashed rope around the mallow spar in his hands, ten loops in ten seconds.

“That would be immoral.” Boldor stood up straighter, chin lifted with indignation.

“You really need an agent.” Jack frowned at his work and, probably, at the dwarf's sense of business. Denario felt torn between the two. Boldor had a point about the children.

“Maybe it would be acceptable, this one day. We debated it.” The dwarf relaxed his fists. He gnawed on his lower lip. “Maybe we need human help. I'm chief. I can delegate. But at what price to all of us?”

“For this job, since I'm fixing a done deal, I take one tenth. But for any deal you make with me after, it's one quarter.”

“Does that include lessons on dealing with humans?”

“Hey!” It was Denario's turn to be outraged. “Why does he get a better rate than me?”

“Because he's got a troop of dwarfs. But mostly because you didn't drive a good bargain, my friend. That's lesson one, Boldor. The accountant doesn't understand how to value his services. Neither do you. I'll teach you. Even so, there's more to a good bargain than understanding. For instance, both of you talk like you'll never pass through here again.”

“Because we won't,” said the accountant and the dwarf more or less together.

“How do you know? Anyways, whether you're returning here or not, you need to act like you are. Folks will give you better deals if they think they're establishing a business relationship. If they think it's a one-time deal, they’ll worry that you'll take their money and run. Plus folks who have been cheated in the past, or who remember their fathers or grandfathers got cheated, will be tempted to cheat first.”

Boldor froze for a moment. “That might explain some things.”

“By the way, how many are in your troop?”

“Just eleven.”

“That's a lot.” Jack grunted. “And how much do you weigh?”

“Me, personally? What an odd question.” The dwarf stiffened, a sign that Denario was learning to interpret as Boldor taking offense.

“I need to know for professional reasons.”

Denario looked closer at the next mallow beam in the boatman's left hand. He'd been lashing piece after piece onto the raft as fast as he could, which was faster than Denario had believed possible until now. At last he was sure of the connection between the expansion of the third raft and the question about weight.

“Can I know the reason?” Boldor asked. Denario felt tempted to jump in with the answer.

“If we're going to have a deal, yes,” said Jack. “Will I be your agent and get you paid? If so, you can know. And then we'll have to move quickly.”

The remark produced a lot of beard-wringing. For all of his talk about leadership, the dwarf had been chief of his tribe only briefly. He must have found it one thing to make his decisions underground, where he felt secure and where he could assess the correctness of mine roofs, picks, hammer, packs, food supplies, water, maps, checklists, and other tangible things. It was another, more alien thing to make judgments about human character in the daylight while feeling vulnerable. This was a decision that affected the fate of his expedition. The dwarf's sunburnt skin paled. He let go of his beard. His thin lips pressed hard together in a grim line.

“I don't like it,” he said. “But what better choice is there? The others will be afraid. I know it. But Dodni and I together can calm them.”

“Right, then. How much do you weigh with all of your equipment?”

“You mean all of it and all of us together? I suppose as much as ten men.”

Clever Jack glanced at the six remaining beams. He could extend the raft another two feet in width, no more.

“There's not enough sedge reed,” he said. “Still, with careful placement we can do it. Denario, finish shifting out the pickles. Move the dried fruit last. That stuff weighs next to nothing.”

The accountant nodded. He had pulled up the anchor pegs from around six of the pickle barrels. There were only two more left. Out of laziness, he hadn't done the work of rolling them yet. If the raft had been less firmly rooted in the sand, his boat master would have had something to say about it.

“What does this have to do with getting paid?” Boldor asked. He backed up a few steps to watch the action.

Jack set down his loops of rope. He set down his handful of sedge reed, too, with which he intended to caulk the planks in the raft. Unencumbered and therefore unarmed, he walked to the low gunwhales of the third raft and leaned over. He thrust out his right arm in a formal manner.

“It's traditional to shake on a deal,” he said. “One tenth on this deal and a quarter of future deals if you stay with me. If you come along, you'll be required to work. You’ll see that the accountant does so as well. If your folk are miserable workers, I may let you off at the next stop or I'll charge you extra.”

“We're excellent workers,” Boldor announced. “Better than any humans we've met.”

“Do you know anything about boats?”

“We sail in tall caverns underground. Rivers are part of our lives just as they are part of yours. But Clever Jack, why would we come with you? Sailing in the daylight on a craft open to the birds and to other humans is reckless.”

“You'll come because I'm going to get you all of that pay,” asserted Jack. “I'll see to it that the children hold the potters and the burghers to their deal. But at first dawn tomorrow, the children will be no longer in charge. When that happens, how will you hold onto what you've gained? Even if you march straight out of town with everything on a cart, the villagers will follow.”

“I see.” The small fellow's shoulders sagged for a moment. Then he straightened himself with pride and stepped forward. He raised his hand to shake. “It's all reckless then. Better to be with our pay. And you.”

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 129: A Bandit Accountant, 21.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Five: Small Expectations

On the next day, Denario and Jack sailed into a Kilmun village of about two hundred people, and then another village twice that size a half-mile downstream, each with an all-day party inside.

At the first place, a round-faced boy, knee high, toddled up to the hitching stump and gave Denario a chunk of flatbread glazed with honey. The little fellow had a whole pie of it. He also had a sticky face covered with honey. He wore so many crumbs that the accountant had mistaken his condition for a disease at first glance. Instead of stepping away, he thanked the boy earnestly. He tore off a bite of the bread. Delicious. The boy smiled at his expression. He knew how Denario felt. A moment later, he wandered away.

A red-haired girl approached as he was finishing the tie-down at the third stump. She handed him daisies, which he felt obliged to accept. Her patient expression let him know she was waiting for something. He complimented the flowers. He said her dress was very green. That got a smile and a treat from her, a chunk of nut loaf baked with some kind of sugar.

“You're being very kind,” he said.

“You sure look funny. Where are your tattoos?”

Denario turned to his boat-master for explanation. Jack had elected to change his shirt and trim his beard, as he often did before business negotiations. He was rolling up his cuffs when he said simply, “It's the Festival of the Children.”

“And what's that?” the accountant wondered. The girl, like the boy, had been distracted by the commotion in town, a carnival of some kind. She marched off toward the noise with a bouquet of flowers still tucked under her right arm.

“You don't have this holiday in your city? The biggest children without tattoos get to act important and issue orders to adults for a day. You and I want to stay well away from them. The littlest ones do as they please. Often, that involves hitting adults. But it can involve giving out treats, too, as you can see.”

“Can we do business?”

“Iffy. Over the years, I've established that I'm not a villager and not bound by their rules. But the parents I want to see won't make deals with me today. Their oldest children will take their place.”

“Will the children listen?”

“The girls are usually sensible.”

At the north end of the village, Jack managed to flatter a pair of stern, imperious young ladies into giving him quite a nice deal on two tuns of 'smelly old barley.' They acted like they were being mean but they give out gifts of sweet cheese and in the end they demanded kisses from Jack and Denario as part of the deal. Jack agreed but, with an eye to their parents, made sure to peck them lightly on their blushing cheeks, a gesture that Denario imitated. Their mother nodded gratefully, arms crossed. Denario was sure the daughters would be hearing from her after the festival. Jack, being clever, also pressed his flattery on other tall children, three girls in their turn and a boy who seemed to be running the brewery and wasn't actually pummeling anyone at the moment despite swinging around a wooden mash hammer. The rafts acquired 'smelly old beets,' a dozen 'dirty wash basins' made of brass, and twelve kegs. They traded sour pickles, sweet pickles, cinnamon, beet sugar, and pepper.

At the dock in the second village, a crowd of young boys batted Denario with sticks as soon as he stepped off of the boat. It didn't hurt. They seemed to be doing it out of habit as much as anything. Probably their arms were tired. Four of them wore fake beards. One of those gave him half an apple right from his grubby mouth.

“How long does this go on?” Denario crunched the apple in his teeth. It was sour but fresh.

“Until sun-up on the following day.” Jack waded through the children. The boys had been attracted by the arrival of the rafts, a major event, but there was a stilt parade in the center of town and the strange rivermen weren't doing much. By the time Denario finished tying down, most of the boys had run off to follow a large boy on stilts. That boy had tried to give orders to Jack, who'd ignored them. Then the boy stomped off in a huff, trailed by adoring eight-year-olds.

“The dock master isn't here,” said Jack. “You'll have to stand guard the whole time.”

Denario nodded. He'd done this duty on a dozen occasions.

“He's a decent fellow but he was probably ordered off by the bossy boy. That's the way the holiday is. If the older kids give you trouble, point out your lack of tattoos. That ought to be good for something. Also, I'd prefer you not to draw your sword on them. Their parents would give me grief about it later. Feel free to lay about with the punt if you need to.”

“I wouldn't hurt children unless they look to be thieves.”

“You did well enough against sneaks before. I suppose a city upbringing is good for something.”

The accountant shook his head. A few days back, he’d gotten fooled. A girl had stopped to talk with him. She'd been such a good conversationalist, except about math, that he hadn't noticed as her young man swam up from behind the rafts and tried to remove the closest barrel from the corner deck. The thief had been stymied by his abundance of choices. First, there was the impossibility of stealing the sack of beet sugar by swimming with it through the water. He'd soon end up with only a sack. Then there were boxes and jars to choose from but the tie-down pegs had been a nasty surprise. Denario followed the girl's eyes, turned, and saw the young man trying to pull up a barrel of pigs' knuckles. At Denario's shout, he'd stopped that but then managed to lift a jug of lighting and scamper back into the water before Denario whacked him with the punt. Then Denario had rushed back to hammer at the girl, who was trying something similar, again with a jug of lightning water. Her eyes had popped wide at the sight of him and she'd fled with nothing.

Since her brother or lover had gotten away successfully, Jack had complained to the town burgher. But it turned out that the girl had been found in the wild a week earlier and was admitted to the temple as a charity case. No one knew anything about her partner. So Jack had to be satisfied with the results of hiring an accountant as a guard.

“Get yourself a decent lunch,” Jack suggested. “You've eaten that apple down to the stem.”

Denario tossed his core into the creek. After the splash, a curious fish rose to take a nibble. He watched for a moment to see if the fish would return. Then he took his boss's advice. Denario dipped into the ship rations for jerky, dried peaches, and a skin of sour beer. Jack had warned him against drinking creek water this close to the lost temple and the boatman meant it, too. He'd been drinking only boiled water himself for the past two days. Denario didn't feel like starting a fire. Ale, even if it was half rotten, seemed like a better way to go than wine or lightning.

From his seat on the gunwhales of the middle boat, the third boat being the partial one made of mallow, Denario watched as two boys and a girl clumped along the road in stilts. They might have been members of the parade, which sounded as if it had broken up. The near-adolescents paused to shout at him. Following the boat-master's example, he paid them no attention. They had a hard time staying in one place, too, without getting down from their stilts. They got the hint and moved on.

Later, as he was draining the beer skin, Denario saw four boys, one of them barely old enough to walk, wearing fake beards and holding birch sticks. They patiently whacked a grown man as he pushed a load of earthen bricks in a barrow. He accepted the abuse in a good-natured way even as he passed through the doors of building off of the main road. It had a thatched roof and six chimneys. That meant it was the kiln house. This town looked prosperous despite its odd traditions. Not long after, he saw two more adults as they took a serious beating. They didn't seem as accepting of the abuse as the one with the barrow. From their attitude and clothes, he guessed they were burghers. The kids following looked muscular and their sticks were twice as thick as those used against Denario. They passed around the boat shed more than once and, in doing so, picked up additional children with sticks in their hands.

Denario stood. The punt, which had been laying across his lap, fell into his right fist. With his left, he capped his beer. Something looked wrong. He wasn't sure what it was but he laid down the capped skin and set his feet ready. Twenty yards in front, the two burghers decided, dignity be damned, they were going to flee. They got a few steps' head start. With a lusty shout, the youngsters pursued.

One child lingered at the far corner of the boat house. He was too tired to run or too lazy. His fake beard was the only one that had grey in it, Denario noticed. He looked chubby, which would have been unusual in the Seven Valleys but not so much here to the south. He stood and tugged absent-mindedly at the loose curls above his belly. After a minute, he turned to studied Denario and the rafts. That was when Denario decided that he knew what was wrong.

To be safe, he let his gaze pass over the waters of the No Map. There was no one in the creek sneaking up on him from behind.

He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Hey boy! Want some peaches?”

The figure took a moment to understand that Denario meant him even though they were the only ones around. That proved Denario's point. The accountant found it hard not to laugh. He propped the punt between his elbow and hip. He jammed his hands into his pockets and waited.

“Where'd you get peaches?” The reply came in an unsteady voice. Denario felt even more sure of himself. Still, there would be some uncertainly until he got close. “It's spring, not fall.”

“They're dried. It's just like you've seen with apples, only fancier. We trade them. I've got two small ones left from lunch.”

The short fellow couldn't help himself. Although he stopped fingering his beard, he kept one hand on his stomach. In a roundabout path, he approached. Denario could see, in the sand of the riverbank, how far sideways those stubby feet shuffled. He noticed the boots, too. Most of the children here went barefoot. The richer lads had thin slippers. This one wore hiking boots. They were sturdy enough to kick trolls. The fit of the boot cuffs around those muscular calves seemed tight enough to be waterproof.

The accountant stooped to pull out the remaining peaches from his lunch bowl. His guest hesitated. But when offered the treats with an open hand, he let a grin escape above the wisps of beard. His grey eyes glinted.

He hopped forward, snatched the peach halves like they would disappear at any moment, and shied back out of arm's reach. He popped one in his mouth. Then, to Denario's momentary confusion, he spat it back out into his hand. He seemed to remember his manners. He blushed pink. With the scoop of his left arm, he bowed.

“My thanks, good boatman.” His voice wasn't quite as high as before. After he rose, he allowed himself a bite of the peach. “Ah. I'd almost forgotten how sweet. They remind me of Wizard Valley.”

“So that's where you came from. I thought so.”

“Oh.” His face fell. He knew he'd been caught.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 128: A Bandit Accountant, 21.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Four: Message in a Bottle

From his sightings of stars in the night sky, Denario realized that he'd missed the spring equinox. It had happened a few days ago when they'd slept under the cover of trees. He realized that it had to be the explanation for the lights he'd seen in the distant houses. The neighboring farmers had stayed up to celebrate.

Clever Jack hadn't sought out the excuse of parties to drink himself stupid in a town. He wasn't a carouser. Denario was grateful for that but, when he’d missed the event, he’d missed his chance at the traditional prayers of thanks.

Belatedly, he made a sacrifice to Melcurio. It was a small, silver coin that he tossed into the creek. While the riverman labored over the cook fire, Denario pretended to rummage for rocks along the shore. He lobbed a few into the shallows. He finished by heaving the silver piece deep into the center of the current. He was careful that Jack wasn't looking when he cast it. He doubted his partner would dive in to rescue the coin, not even for a precious metal, but misdirection removed the chance.

The accountant knelt with his knees at the edge of the water.

“Melcurio, help me look out for Shekel. He's so smart.” He closed his eyes and pictured the fair-haired boy. “His insights need guidance.”

He likewise prayed for Buck to stay out of girl trouble, for Kroner to finish growing and stop accidentally breaking everything, for Guilder to smile, for Mark to show some interest in math, and for Curo, his partner, to find the patience to deal with them all. At least Curo kept a good sense of humor. He was probably finding it hard to do that in these past few weeks. As long as he didn't panic because Denario was late in returning, everything would be fine.

Denario had planned to be home by spring equinox. He'd sent his last message over a month ago when he was beginning to see irregularities in the Zeigeburg tax accounts. He hadn't understood how far wrong the totals would turn out. He'd warned his partner that 'the tax collectors and assistants have made a mess of things' but no more. In retrospect, that seemed inadequate. The Figgins brothers had under-valued every property. Denario had taken a month to realize how much tax value they'd hidden. At that point, he still hadn't worked out who might be behind it. There were a half-dozen possibilities, not including massive group incompetence, an idea that he'd found believable until the end. When he discovered the golden torcs in the burgher's household, he assumed that the younger brother was cheating the older. He hadn't dreamed that the mayor himself would commit fraud, not when he'd hired an accountant to look through the books and give them a guild seal of approval.

Curo had to be worried by the lack of the third installment on their pay. Add to that the puzzle of why his partner had stopped sending messages via the bank wizards and he could suspect nearly anything. Would he think that Denario had run off with the money? That didn't make sense but Curo's mind worked that way. He'd remember that Denario had announced his engagement to a beautiful woman. When the last of the pay didn't come, he'd guess that Denario had bought her a bunch of expensive presents. That's what Curo had always dreamed of doing. 'The way to a woman's heart is through her pocketbook,' he'd said over and over although, he would be the first to admit, he didn't have the experience to prove it. He had been sweet on Emelie Sensperanza, niece of a guild accountant, but she'd married one of the court doctors before he could get up the nerve to talk to her. Then he'd fallen for Kamilla Bergmann, a neighbor, and he'd gotten as far as giving her some gifts before she married a ship's mate who owned a house near the docks. Now he was sweet on a working class girl, a scribe, although he'd been leery of buying her much since his last efforts had failed with no return.

Together, Denario and Curo didn't have enough money to buy Winkel's counting house. But Curo had plenty for everything else. If Winkel's cousin showed up and tried to claim the building, Curo could drive a bargain. The cousin would take his time making an appearance. He had his own farmlands. He had no use for the building. Of course, the place represented a windfall profit. If Denario could get there in time, he intended to see if the man would barter services for it rather than cash that would end up taxed at city rates. It was an idea he'd picked up in his trip through the Mundredi lands.

“Yes, and Curo most of all.” It was a late wish, he knew. “Let him keep his wits until I return. Then there's Carinde Vogel. I miss her. I wish I could get another letter from her.”

That little girl was the only natural mathematician he'd met in months. She might not be in a league with the best, like Shekel and Guilder, but few were. Toward the end of his life, Winkel had been gifted at finding apprentices. Cari was better than most of them already. She was the only person around who wasn't bored by his discussions of math or geometry. He wished he could talk with her.

“Thanks to all of the water spirits who have guided us so far,” he said because he knew Jack was listening. Anyway, it didn't hurt to be polite to the locals.

He sifted through his pack to find a second sacrifice. He didn't find an appropriate object but he did locate a dried pig's ear, part of his pay from Pharts Bad. That made him wonder how Senli, Olga, and Hummel were doing. He sighed. Denario hadn't seen any young men who fit the description of Senli's sons. Nowadays, he was meeting Kilmun tribesmen fairly regularly. There was a chance he’d hear news of dark-skinned men, perhaps as farmhands, adopted sons, or even as still-enslaved book keepers like their mother, since she'd taught them in her style.

He tossed the pig's ear into the stream with a wish for all of those folks, especially the missing boys. Then he rose. His knuckles brushed the mud from his knees.

“Pecunia,” he breathed. He cursed to himself. He'd forgotten about her. In a flash of guilt, he scrambled back into prayer position. He hoped she was fine. He didn't see how any of her letters could reach him on the creek, though, so he didn't bother asking.

When he rose again, he felt that he'd covered all of the angles except maybe for his past acquaintances with small gods, Glaistig, Winkel's ghost, and the Mundredi army. He intoned a few blessings for all of them and, at the end, added a prayer for Jack Lasker to get them through the magical lands downstream.

“Why not say a blessing for the alligators while you're at it?” grumbled Jack. From his cynical smile, he seemed more amused than anything. He paused, ladle in hand, and shifted his position by the fire so that the wind didn't blow smoke into his eyes.

“Fine. By all the gods may they sleep well. Preferably, they should do it the whole time we're passing by.”

“Fair enough.” The older fellow rubbed his brown beard. He kept it trimmed close and neat, much as he maintained his hair and his rafts. He had an orderly system for survival and he stuck to it. He didn't tolerate lazy habits or sloppy thinking. “Fish in the stew pot again tonight.”

“I've got pepper.”

“Ah.” His eyes crinkled. “Ya're the best hire I ever made.”

They settled down to their meal, devised mostly from Jack's supplies and today's catch, as per their arrangement. Denario added spice and what looked like the next-to-last helping of his cabbage from Ruin Thal. They sat facing the water, as was Jack's custom if they didn't take their meal on the boats. That was how they noticed the bottles drifting in, two of them, glazed dark green. Unfortunately, they'd camped on the Kilmun riverbank, as Jack said they'd be doing for most of the reminder of their trip. The bottles floated down the other side along the Mundredi shore. One of them bounced against a fallen tree. Denario had needed to exert himself to dock the rafts away from that tree. It was a huge one that fell from a raised bank and blocked half of the creek. The bottle, though, slid along its algae-covered trunk. Bump by bump, it crossed the water towards them. The combination of current and tree guided it to the corner of the second raft.

Denario set down his bowl. Jack grinned.

“It's not one of mine,” he said. “Do ya think it's from your girl?”

He'd prayed for it, hadn't he? Denario hopped onto the lead raft, which was firmly ashore, only to grab the punt. He stalked the gunwhales, stick in hand. He managed the distance from raft to raft by virtue of the fact that neither was moving. Then he had to sprint in order to reach the far corner in time. He smacked the water with the length of the punt. He slashed again and twisted. Barely, he halted the bottle's progress. It hadn't gotten away.

“Don't break it!” Jack warned from the shore.

More gently, Denario stroked the punt across the top of the corked vessel. Once, twice, three times, four … and he brought it within his reach. Immediately, he switched the punt into his left hand. He dropped it behind him as he reached out with his right. His hand dunked into the creek and pulled up the bottle on the first go.

“Huh.” He lifted it to the light of the evening sun. Not much showed through the ceramic. The surface felt thin but all he could make out was a shadow inside. It could have been cast by a roll of paper tied with a ribbon. “This is a funny method of delivering messages. Do I have to hit it against a rock?”

“Holy whatever ya was saying before, no. Bring it here.”

“Holy Melcurio,” Denario corrected. He eyed the other bottle, which had slipped under the three trunk next to the opposite shore. There was no hope of catching that one. Maybe he would come across it later if it snagged downstream.

When he reached the Kilmun bank, he discovered that the riverman didn't want the bottle right away. He waved it off, more concerned with the stew. Denario took a minute to inspect the prize. The balance of it was odd. It had been made heavy on the bottom and light on the top. That had to be because it was never meant to hold wine or beer. From the beginning, it had been made to float. Also, the plug in it was a cheap one. It looked like a knob of pine fitted with hot wax. Under the cover of grit and slime, Denario had mistaken it for a wine cork. He jostled it back and forth to loosen the wax. A second later, the plug came out.

“Can't wait, eh?” Jack nodded.

“Do I have to?”

The boatman grabbed a sturdy stick from the logpile and slipped it under the handle of his stew pot. After testing the balance of the pot, he lifted it out of the fire. He set it in a shallow bowl shape he'd scooped out of the sand. The broth calmed from its boil.

The nimble man wiped ash from his hands and picked up a twig. It was the right size for prying things out through the narrow neck of the found bottle. Denario handed it over without a word.

“It's parchment.” Jack put his eye to the hole before he began.

“Not paper?”

“Nope. We're lucky it's not birchbark. That happens and it's hard to get the birch rolls out without cracking them. Folks around here know how to make it and they know how to dry vellum. But they don't know paper. They have to buy or barter it so they think it's precious.” He started to wriggle the twig into the bottle. On the second try, he speared the tube of parchment through its hollow middle. He hooked it with a twist and pulled. “Does your girl have the means?”

“Yes, I gave her some parchment.”

“How much?” When Denario told him, Jack whistled. “Got it. Here, the tip is out. Grab on. Watch out for the rag tie.”

The scroll had a loop of rag around it. That held it together. But a knot in the rag threatened to block removal of the message. It was a problem Denario solved, after two failed tugs, by slipping the scroll out of the knot. He was about to poke the cloth back into the bottle but Jack hissed. Instead, he pinched it by a thread, pulled it out, and handed it to Jack, who sniffed.

“Smells a bit like turpentine. It's got a smudge of tar.”

Denario turned the scroll on its side and unwound it. To his dismay, he saw that the writing was primitive pictographs. There were a few words in the old alphabet, too, between the pictures, but they were badly misspelled. Someone didn't know how to use vowels. The same someone had smudged his fingers with ink, too, and trailed them on the corners of the page. This wasn't a note from Carinde, not even a transcribed one. What was it? He stooped his neck until his nose almost touched the writing. Each pictograph looked a bit like a tribal tattoo mark.

“What is this? An ox?” He showed the text to Jack.

“Give me a moment.” The senior fellow tugged the scrap from Denario's hand with a knowing grin. “Not so easy when it's from a farmer, is it? Sorry that it's not your girl. But a local message or really, any message, is important. There's money in them. These folks who can barely read, let alone write, make each one of them a puzzle.”

“Can you figure them out?”

“Almost every time.” Jack rubbed his close-cut beard. “Ah. This one is meant to be sounded aloud. It's about a count. Is that right? A counting man?”

“An accountant?”

“Very funny. Except, I think you're right. Huh. It's a hideous accountant.”

“You're making that up.” He patted his face. Although he'd never liked his nose, other people didn't seem to think it was so bad they had to tell the whole world.

“It's written down. Oh, ugly accountant, not hideous. That's the ox. Ox-ly means ugly. Important difference.” The boatman nodded. He gave Denario a smile that was half-knowing but half-amazed, too. “This fellow didn't know how to write Oggli. Get it? He didn't have a picture to represent your city and he didn't know the spelling. This is his way of putting it.”

“Great,” said Denario, feeling thoroughly deflated. “So he's telling everyone I'm ugly.”

“He's telling all of his relatives that you're a genius. I think he must be a fellow who gave you some debtor sticks to read. Remember after unloading those pickles? This would be the chubby man. From what he writes here, he's heard about your work with the pumps for the cooper.”

“Water screws,” he corrected.

“He says they're working and that his dad and his cousins ought to hire you to teach math lessons to the village of Killem Thal.”

“That's not so bad.”

“Might be some money out of this.”

“Do you think ...” Denario scratched himself. He felt sorry that this wasn't a letter from Cari but really, it was positive in its way. “Do you think I should put it back in the water?”

“Is that even a question?” said the boatman. “Yes, and we should launch some messages of our own. But after dinner.”

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 127: A Bandit Accountant, 21.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Three: Cartomancy

Denario searched for his map even though he knew it had gone missing. This one had sixteen miles of creek on it, his worst loss by far. He stalked the deck, knife in hand, ready to pin it down or stab any animals, large or small, that had gotten hold of it. Maybe a fish had the vellum in its mouth. Stranger things had happened already. He searched among the tied-down packages, jars, and crates. Certainly the raft had started to fill up with trade goods in the past few days. There were more hiding places than he'd realized. But there weren't so many that he couldn't tell there was no map. It was not on the deck.

“Damn!” he kicked the useless tie-down peg. It was a traitor to him and to cartography in general. “Gone! I still remember what I drew. I can re-create it. But not on parchment, not this time. Paper and parchment get lost.”

He paced. He felt Jack's eyes on him across the water from the trailing raft.

“I'll scratch it on a timber. I'll transfer it to parchment later.” He knelt and stabbed the bark. This wasn't going to be easy but it would be so sturdy as to be nearly permanent.

A stick smacked his hand as he started to draw in the wood with his dagger.

“Hey!” The knife skittered across the deck but it didn't leave the boat. He shook his stinging wrist.

“Bad idea.” The boatman shook a warning with his oaken punt. He had managed to cross the gap between their vessels in a single, silent leap. “Don't write your map on anything you can't afford to lose. The river doesn't like to be mapped.”

“That's ridiculous.” Denario found it suspicious how the bird and the wave took only his best, finished maps of the waterway, though. “Isn't it?”

“I knew ya wouldn't believe me until ya'd lost a few. But don't write down any charts or even any directions on a beam of the boat. We'll crash for sure.”

“Ridiculous. What kind of magic resents cartography?” Denario put fingers to his bottom lip. He remembered what he'd been taught about the making of magical diagrams: cartomancy. It was a mathematically-based type of magic. With it, wizards made their geometric algorithms to trace the world. He'd thought it enormously clever and close to godly work from the three examples provided in the guild hall. “Wait. There is something ... I've read about spells for creating magical maps. And I've heard there are some to prevent mapping. This could be like that. The formulas could be the same. I hadn't recognized the similarity because this is on such a grand scale.”

“Maybe you have more book-learning about the magic than I do. All I know is, anyone who tries to write down a map or instructions or directions around here is sorry about it. I hear the big sea downstream is like that, too.”

“The Complacent Sea? It's not like this. It's hard to chart, yes. But it doesn't fight back. The main problem is that the islands keep changing positions. Then there's the shore and apparently that's even harder.”

“Does it change shape?”

“Not exactly. I heard a wizard try to describe it. Didn't make a lot of sense. But I gather that something about the Complacent Sea makes the outside of it hard to measure. Sometimes, it takes more than a year to travel around the sea. Travelers report passing through all the usual cities and towns. Plus, sometimes, they pass through unusual ones, towns that aren't there except every other year on a Thursday, that sort of thing. On top of that, there can be special conditions like high magic storms, fogs, and the like. The record for travel in those circumstances is nine hours around the whole Complacent Sea rim on horseback.”

“Now that sounds like a fairy tale.”

“If so, it's a good one. The caravan left in front of a crowd of witnesses during a high magic sandstorm. The caravan members said they traveled for a long while and lost track of their location in the dust. Landmarks were obscured. But they arrived in Muntar, their destination, before it got late in the afternoon. So they figured, hey, that's good magic, and they unloaded. They were months ahead of schedule and earned a bonus in Muntar. They spent an hour loading up with fresh cargo and headed out through the east gate. They'd come in through the west gate, see, and their captain decided to follow the dust storm.”

“Did that work?”

“The sun never set on them. All of the cities they expected to see, even the really large ones, seemed to go missing. Some in the caravan reported seeing Baggi and a pair of men turned toward it. When they left the edge of the dust storm, the rest of the troop lost sight. Those two appeared to be gone from the earth. No one in Oggli heard from them for months. But by early evening, when the dust clouds were clearing, the caravan could make out that Oggli lay ahead. They were coming up on the east gate, just as if they'd traveled around the whole of the Complacent Sea.”

“Had they?”

“I’m not sure. The two who left the storm for Baggi sent a message from there later to report they were safe and to ask if the others had made it home.”

“Hadn't heard that one although I've come upon a few others like it. I'd say that this river is about the same. What I figure is, the anti-mapping magic is natural. Wizards must have twisted it to suit them.”

“What makes you think it was wizards?”

“A school of them used to live in the temple down at the intersection with Marsh Stream. That's the one that's lost now. Actually, I say wizards but stories are that it was mostly women.”

“Women? Consorting with wizards?”

“Yah, that's frowned on by the serious fellows nowadays. But it's how the story goes. Maybe they were priestesses or something.”

“Or sorceresses.”

“Aren't they against the rules for wizards? I'm not sure. Anyway, the temple is mostly gone. I seen it. The walls are hundreds of years old. Still, it looks like the place keeps itself up somehow. The trees have grown around the windows instead of through them. The roof is cracked but it hasn't fallen in. The gardens are wild but ya can still recognize the terraced stone boxes on the north and east sides. Flowers have seeded outward more than other plants have moved in. That's magic, if ya know how ta look.”

“You've seen a lot.”

“Too much, maybe. Nothing in years. Nowadays it's blindfolds all the time, like my dad before me.”

“How long do you need to stay sightless?”

“Two days.” Jack rubbed the crown of his hat as if it were his balding head. He squinted into the distance as he thought. “Three and a half, tops, if the creek has gone all bendy.”

“That's … an awfully long time to work that way, Jack.”

“But as long as I can't see, I know where I am.” He shrugged. “When we stop, I have to peek to eat or pee off of the side of the boat, that sort of thing. The magic always kicks in and gets me lost. It'll alter the river if I look around for too long.”

“You mean the landscape changes if you look at it?”

“Yep. I don't know how it does that. I put the blindfold back on and wait. Then it gets better. Over time, I get to know where I am again.” He paced around the front raft. Absent-mindedly, he poled them a half-foot more to the center of the waterway. Denario went to find his lost knife. He'd seen it skitter into the front, portside corner.

“Didn't Oleg tell his guards all of these things, too?” he asked as he found the blade next to a pickle barrel. He sheathed it in the knifestrap at his waist.

“I'm sure.”

“Then why did they get lost?”

Jack bowed his head. He closed his eyes for a moment. With the sun to his back, his features looked sunken and dark. When his eyes opened again, the whites seemed to shine.

“I got to tell ya, Den.” His use of Denario's former nickname seemed unconscious. “The temple and the area around it seems safe. When ya take off your blindfold and peer around, like I know most folks actually do, ya don't see nothing. Yah're lost but ya feel fine.”

“But it's not fine.”

“Not if ya want ta get out.” The boatman shook his head. “Ya've got to find your way without eyes. But for that, we've got the easy path.”

“We're taking a path?”

“I mean the creek.” Jack allowed himself a faint grin. “The water knows where it's going, even if ya don't. The stream flows southeast. It's simple. When ya have to walk back, it's harder. I do it a few times a year. There have been times when I got turned around and ended up back where I started. That's why I try to travel with the caravan masters. They take the shortcut by the temple when they can because sometimes there are bandits on the other trails. Whichever way they go, it's better for them to have a big group. It hardly ever happens that every member of the caravan gets turned the wrong way round at the same time, for instance.”

“But still, whenever someone glances around, it looks safe?”

“Yep.”

“No alligators?” Except for the one, maybe.

“Oh, plenty of alligators.” Jack waved it off with one arm. “It's the only place they've got to live after the sireni took most of their territory.”

“They're dangerous, Jack. At least I think they are. I've heard they hunt men. No flying ones, though?”

“A few. And some flying frogs.”

“But no giant snakes?”

Jack snorted. “The damned trees are lousy with them, usually.”

“Great. You haven't mentioned any hostile warriors, at least. Do the red men ever take to the paths?”

“Sometimes.”

“Jack ...”

“Ya?”

“What about this place is safe?”

The riverman sighed. “I make it through every time.”

“Huh.” Denario leaned on his punt. “Yeah, there is that.”

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 126: A Bandit Accountant, 21.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Two: Wave Goodbye

“So when were you planning to tell me about the lost temple, Jack?” Denario pushed the lead raft off of a sandbar with his punt.

Clever Jack occupied himself with the trailing raft for a few minutes. The lashed-together hitch line had gotten snagged between the center timbers as they'd rounded a bend. He lay down to dig it out, careful to avoid losing his fingers to shifts in the rope as it changed direction, pulled by differences in the tension between forward and rear watercraft.

Denario waved his punt to the caravan, now far in this distance but still visible. One of the guards waved back to him.

Jack clambered to his feet, checked the rafts, and nodded to himself.

“I wasn't,” he admitted.

“Why not?”

“Because we're going through the heart of the magic. It's safer if ya sit in the boat with your blindfold on.”

“You're planning to blindfold me? What about the talking crocodile?”

“Don't listen to him.”

Denario poled to the center of the creek. The waters ahead looked calm for as far as he could see. Over his shoulder, he saw and half-felt, under his feet the way a real riverman might, the second raft as it swung into line behind the first.

“It's not the conversation that worries me. It's the teeth.” He titled his head. “And the magic, too. Talking animals. That always means a lot of magic.”

“I've never lost anyone who kept on the blindfold.”

They pushed against the layer of mud and rocks four feet beneath them as the front raft drifted askew. It took them a minute to get things back in line. When they did, Denario noticed the continuing lack of tree cover. He strolled to the tent and pulled out his largest travel pack. From that, he pulled out a travel hat. Jack, behind him, acknowledged the wisdom of this with a nod. The accountant decided he wasn't feeling too angry, really, so he fetched out a spare hat and tossed it to Jack.

“How many folks have you ferried through?”

“I dunno. Three dozen?”

“And how many took off their blindfolds and got lost?”

“Four. Five, if ya count the merchant what refused to go near the temple but still got robbed and killed trying to go around on the Mundredi side.” Jack jammed the hat on his head one-handed.

Since Jack didn't seem to know the exact number, the account tried a different approach to the same issue.

“How many of your passengers have you gotten safe to Oupenli?”

“At least two dozen, plus some more in a group together.”

“Oh.” That meant there could be roughly a thirty percent chance of dying. Denario didn't like those odds. “How is it that you're still alive, Jack?”

“I always keep on my blindfold.”

“What, you don't get to see anything either? Who does the steering?”

“That's the secret.”

“Steering blind?” The front raft would hit something, throw Denario off, and he would drown. That didn't seem merely bad odds. “You're an amazing riverman, Jack, but that doesn't sound right. You can't feel your way through a marsh of man-eating monsters. For one thing, the creek carries you at the pace it decides. For another, even in this part of the creek we have to find our way around obstacles. I don't think I could do it in the dark.”

“You could. You'll see. Or at any rate, you'll understand.”

“How do you know that the talking crocodile is a crocodile? How do you know about the man-eating plants and the giant snakes if you haven't seen them? You must be peeking through the blindfold some of the time. I know a lot of sailors in Oggli, Jack. There are no blind sailors.”

There were sightless carpenters and stone masons, though. He reflected on that for a minute. A plague had struck Oggli when he was still a slave in the Blockhelm cloth factory. He'd missed the disease. It had slain thousands in the city. When it hadn't killed them outright, it left its sufferers blind, their faces scarred. The Marquis de Oggli had issued a rule stating that no plague victims were to appear in court, on pain of death, unless summoned.

The marquis had been happy to summon a blind master stone mason when Denario was ten. His job had been to lay a marble floor in a tessellated pattern, light triangles and dark triangles interleaved. The mason had been the best. Perhaps the marquis had expected the mason's apprentices would do the work. But they didn't divide the labor that way. The mason himself mapped the rooms and hallways without seeing them. Winkel, sworn to secrecy, had observed the master in action and revealed to his apprentices no more detail about the method other than it was clever. Could Jack have invented something similar? And if he had, could Denario lift his blindfold enough to witness the method and write it down?

“Do you have the geography of the creek memorized?” he wondered. Pushing through from landmark to landmark, discovering them carefully with the punts – that might work for a while. It would be tedious, though, and mathematically it wouldn't be interesting.

“That isn't possible when yar close to the temple. Maps won't stay in anyone's head. It's part of the temple magic. And if they did, that wouldn't matter 'cause the lands keep changing.”

“The riverbanks move?”

“Everything is different, every trip through. When I was younger, I used to dare to take off my blindfold. My father steered back then. I could see how the waterway changed in unnatural ways. Sometimes the place was a swamp with routes so twisty and full of mangroves that ya could walk from root to root. Sometimes it was a straight shot through groves of maples on either side, cool and sweet. The view shifts beyond the trees, too. Sometimes I glimpsed hills. Once, I saw high shelves of red sandstone. Usually, there's no one around. But sometimes there are abandoned villages in the woods. And sometimes the abandoned villages have people in them.”

“Logically ...”

“I seen mud huts with short men. I seen rock walls with lean, red men behind. I saw a blue woman, once. But I put the blindfold right back on that time. 'Cause she was nekkid.”

Denario thought that wouldn't have been his reaction.

“There are not beautiful, blue-skinned nekkid women just hanging around in a magical forest, waiting for an adolescent boy to speak with them,” Jack explained, showing a bit of his cleverness. “Even back then I knew that. Either she was a sorceress … she carried a spear or a staff, could be magic … or she was a trap.”

“Oh, like a string molly.”

“A what?”

“In the city, sometimes gangs rob tourists by dressing up someone's sister or cousin as a prostitute. She gets some of the money, of course. It doesn't sound too dangerous for her but, well, she's the string. The girl catches a stranger's attention, talks him up a bit, leads him around the corner into an alley and, wham, there's the gang, waiting to jump the tourist. If the fellow is lucky, they'll only take his money.”

“Huh. Yeah, I thought something like that could be going on with the blue woman. But I was just as worried about my father's tales of the Bog Beast.”

“A scary story? Or something real?”

“He says real. He met a weird kind of magical creature that looks like anything, could be a patch of swamp or another lost temple, dark but unthreatening. Whatever it looks like, you won't notice it. All you really see is the pink lady.”

“Is she pretty?”

“He never said. Pink is the color of the beast's tongue, it seems. If ya look close, the lady isn't a perfect imitation. The illusion is helped by magic, maybe, but it must seem more like a statue than a person. Seen through the trees, though, or from a distance … my father figured it had to be convincing. It nearly caught him once, he says, when he was hiking near the temple.”

“Come on, Jack. Hiking?”

“That's what he likes to say. I know he was treasure hunting.”

“Interesting. The treasure is real, then.”

“Depends on what you mean. After all, the temple is real enough. The walls are laid with white stones. As to gold or jewels in there, I never seen 'em. My father had a boatman friend come out of the temple, he says, with a gold statue of a goat almost too heavy to carry. So my dad and his shipping partner, Berti, went to look for more. It was Berti who spied the pink lady. They were lost in the middle of the woods. My dad tried to warn Berti but he was too late. Besides, Berti saw there was something wrong with the lady and started to back off. It's just that he didn't make it. That's when my father got a look at the jaws. Then there was the tongue, too, as it stretched out and wrapped around Berti to keep him from escaping.”

“That's awful.” Denario thought about how everyone in Oggli, even the wizards, avoided the area. Wizards said that it was because the land had 'too much magic.' That made it sound like a technical problem. It was worse than they let on. “Can I walk around? Meet you on the other side?”

“It's twenty miles extra if ya know the shortest ways. I thought ya was in a hurry.”

“Guilder. Mark.” Denario muttered his boys' names. “Shekel. Yeah.”

“The temple won't hurt ya unless ya get out and visit it.”

“I hope so.” But now Denario knew the odds.

They poled the rafts in silence. A deeper mood settled between them and the minutes passed until they became an hour. The lead raft drifted by houses on either side, isolated farms not near any town. Denario spied a boy on the Kilmun side. The shock-haired fellow stumped around on stilts as he herded a flock of sheep. Stilts seemed to give him an advantage in the tall grass. He could see the whole flock from there. Jack stopped his work and stared at the shepherd for a while before he returned to his construction task. He crouched among the pieces of the third raft-to-be, which he'd partially lashed together from dried mallow logs.

Denario hardly needed to steer. He spent most of his time trying to picture the lands to the southwest where the lost temple lay in his path. The choices ahead seemed grim. However, they reminded him that he had cartography to do. He set down the punt and picked up his theodolite. Instrument in hand, he swiveled to the northeast. He made sightings on the river banks and the lands behind. Between his piloting stints, about a minute at a time to keep the crafts in the middle of the waterway, he transferred his best judgments of distance and angle, along with approximated landmarks onto his map of No Map Creek. As always, he found it difficult to draw on the moving raft. Even in calm waters, it took concentration.

When he finished, he rested his parchment on top of a flat-topped jug. He picked one near the front of the raft, close to the center. That was the best place to keep an eye on it while the ink dried. His gaze passed along the trees to either side. He and Jack had left the fields behind. Sparse birch boughs had sprung up. They replaced the clearings made by farmers and ranchers. Even on the Kilmun side, Denario saw no sheep nor any sign of them.

The young trees weren't wide enough to provide shade in the middle of the stream. Denario continued to need his hat. However, he noticed that the white branches offered likely homes to owls, hawks, and other birds of prey. He recalled what had happened to one of his previous maps. He set down the theodolite. At the same time, he lifted the punt in his other hand, ready to swipe at any bird who dared.

A shadow passed overhead. Denario flinched.

He squinted into the sun and raised his weapon. But the silhouette kept moving. Mouth open, he studied the shape. It was a flying frog. This one was as big as a fox. He watched it flutter, dip, and glide upward to land on a spindly green-white shoot off of a white birch trunk. He didn't think the twig would hold it. He waited for the bough to break. It didn't. The green and spotted-yellow creature blinked. It swiveled an eye toward him. Huge as it was, it had to weigh no more than ten pounds in order to rest on that branch.

Under Denario's feet, the raft bumped. He put his hands down to steady himself. A splash of water swept across the front deck. He turned to face it. What had they hit? A sandbar? Not likely, in the middle of this deep channel. A sunken log? It would have needed to be large to shake him. He glanced behind. There was no sign of the obstacle. Whatever it was, it hadn't bothered the trailing raft.

Jack was holding his carving knife. He wasn't looking at the timber in front of him. Rather, he was turning his eyes to the effect of the splash. He blinked. His expression melted from one of concern to resignation. His mouth twisted in a sad grimace as his focus turned to Denario.

The accountant turned and his eyes searched the deck. Water had receded through gaps in the gunwhales. Everything up front was soaked but otherwise looked fine. One jug had popped a tie-down peg and moved a few inches. The rest of the cargo sat unbothered. Denario's focus switched back to the jug and the loop of twine next to it. The slipped peg looked like a daisy that had dropped its petals. The twine dropped to rest against the jug. It was the jug that had held the map.

The parchment was nowhere in sight.

“Funny thing,” drawled Jack. “There's never a wave in that part of the creek.”

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 125: A Bandit Accountant, 21.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene One: A Foreshadowing

“A bridge!” shouted Denario. He hopped to his feet. The raft wobbled under him as he pointed to a nearly golden structure ringed by willow-oaks. It stood at the edge of his line of sight past a long, wide clearing where nothing grew but sand, scrub grass, and rocks.

At half a mile distant, the bridge was as far away as anything Denario had ever seen on No Map Creek. The waterway tended to shorten his line of sight with bends, trees, reverse-bends, and more trees. This time he had a clear view for nearly a mile. The lush border of poplars and birches parted on the Mundredi side to reveal a magnificent, amber monument. It had a dozen farms clustered on either end. The structure was out of proportion to the modest roads leading up to it. That only made it more impressive.

“It's not just any bridge,” answered Jack. “This, accountant, is the Dwarf Bridge.”

“But it's not small.” He eyed the keystones. There were only two visible, one for each arch, but they were each as large as a man.

“No, it’s human-sized. But it’s old, strong, and maybe a bit magical. The dwarfs craft things that way, they say, although I think the line between their skills and their magic may seem blurred to those of us over four feet tall.”

Aha, realized Denario. Magical creatures built it, dwarfs. And I've seen dwarfs in Oggli. They talk to wizards.

“Nothing happens to people crossing it, right?” Or passing under it? Denario wondered. That seemed more important as he realized he would soon float between the shore and the center column.

Maybe the structure only seemed magical to the locals because, not too long ago, they hadn't known how to build arched bridges except via the corbel method. A corbel arch was a false arch in Denario's opinion. It needed abutments and thick walls. But the dwarfs had known how to construct true arches long before men. For ages they had built them underground, out of the sight of humans, and so they'd avoided sharing their secrets.

“A feeling comes over ya, they say.” Jack gazed wistfully ahead.

“What kind?”

“A feeling that those dwarfs knew what they were doing.”

A light rain the night before had stirred up the silt of No Map Creek. The water roiled with brown mud. Visibility had fallen to about an inch straight down. Denario felt compelled to test the depths with his punt. In three tries, he got measurements of four feet, three feet, and five feet. That's why he was gazing off into the distance and thinking about right triangles ... 3,4,5 ... 5,12,13 ... 6,8,10 ... 7,24,25 ... 8,15,17 ... when he noticed a glint from the top of the bridge.

An second later, he saw another brief, metallic flash. He heard Jack's feet patter across the wood.

“There they are.” The riverman sprinted to the front of the forward raft. “A caravan.”

“Is it?” The accountant squinted straight ahead until he saw the movement, human heads bobbing up and down as they crossed the bridge. “I've only seen them at Phart's Bad. Do you know this one?”

“The mule bags are dyed green. The men have got steel gorgets on over their shirts. Even this far away I can see the shine around their necks. The shirts are green, too. That's a color that Oleg Thalberg likes. He wears it to advertise dyed cloth. It's got to be his caravan. That's one of the best. We have to stop and see if they've got anything to trade or send downstream.”

Denario pushed against a rock on the bottom of the creek with his punt. When he'd started this journey, he'd understood that a gorget was an armored neck brace. That wasn't new to him. Squires at the court had worn them. Hermann Ansel had owned one. What he hadn't understood was how they worked.

A neck brace could stop a sword from slicing your head off your shoulders. That's good. But if the rest of you goes unarmored, the gorget itself is ridiculous. Anyone able to cut off your head is capable of lethal blows everywhere else. So what was the point? After Denario finally got up the nerve to ask the question one evening, the Ansels explained how the armor worked.

“A gorget might mean something different in richer lands,” Hermann had said. Like most educated people in the duchy of West Ogglia, he'd allowed as how most advancements came from elsewhere. Everyone took it for granted that foreign places were better. “We haven't learned the secrets to good armor here. But among the mercenary classes and among the Mundredi royalty, the circle of steel around a man's neck is a promise.”

“A promise of what?”

“It means his family is saving up for more armor,” Valentina had interjected.

“Aye. My father bought me the gorget. I bought the bands from the ring to my shoulders.”

“My father bought him the two shorter brass bands,” said his wife, “front and back.”

“The framework is complete. Valentina sewed it all into my padded shirt.”

This was how banded armor started in the Oggli and Mundredi styles. A gorget coupled with the skeletal straps provided support to the bands. Even a rather poor smithy could fashion metal bands that could be welded or stitched into the frame. However, the frame was tailored to the man. Even when a particularly lucky and inventive bandit chief like Vir was able to rob a man of his armor, he'd have to cut it to pieces in the process or he'd discover that it fit no one else but the original owner. Either way, Vir needed an armorer to make his thefts useful.

Mundredi armor, even that of commoner-nobles like Hermann Ansel, was brass. Brass was more sanitary than steel. It didn't rust. But it was a tenth heavier than steel and only eight-tenths as strong. Denario figured that a warrior in brass armor had to be thirty percent better than an opponent in steel armor to stand an even chance in a fight. Vir might say that math didn't mean anything but Denario was sure that it meant something real. Calculations about weapons and armor were clues about the proportions of deaths in battle. All of the Oggli knight said that men in brass armor wouldn't stand up to steel weapons for long. Denario believed them.

“They're coming from the Kilmun side. Lay us up on the the Mundredi bank. We'll meet them there,” said Jack. He was reaching for a pole as he spoke. Denario was too slow. “Eh, never mind. I'll do it myself. You get our personal gear into the tent.”

“Do we have to worry about thieves?” The accountant's eyes widened. He trotted to his bags and grabbed the closest strap.

“Some traveling men think they move fast enough to escape the consequences of what they do. It doesn't hurt to be careful. You've got armor and scrolls and whatnot. It's not hard to imagine that something will look tempting.”

The accountant stashed his heaviest pouch first. That was the one, besides his main pack, that held the most money. His main pack, custom tailored in Ruin Thal, was already inside the tent. It took a minute to stow everything else. All that he left out were his third-best quill, a piece of dried fish on birch bark, his drawing compass, and a re-used scrap of parchment. He'd used the parchment to draw a map of the last few miles of the creek. He'd had time to add to it, as well, a rough sketch of the earlier parts of No Map.

The ink still shone. It needed a few minutes to dry., He left it in the center of the deck and made a mental note to himself to watch the caravan guards so they didn't steal it or step on it.

Oleg Thalberg, the caravan master, clapped his hands as Denario and Jack tied down. Oleg was a sandy-haired man, going to gray, with a thick, light brown beard. Behind his smile were the strongest looking teeth Denario had seen in weeks. Maybe Oleg saw a dentist in Oupenli or maybe he simply knew how to brush his teeth. Oleg's body, despite his advancing years, remained solid. He filled out his green tunic with broad shoulders. The lines in his face showed him as well past thirty but he looked more fit than most younger men.

He put his hands on his hips. “Clever Jack! You're looking well.”

“I'd swear you're younger than when I saw you last year.” Jack grinned. He stuck out an arm. The two slapped each other's shoulders with their left hands as they shook with their right. It took a few minutes for them to exchange pleasantries about their health and the weather. Denario stared at the big man's tunic, which held an emerald clan sign atop a lighter green background. As he studied, he felt the guards studying him in turn. By their expressions, they were wary of his armor. It was only the hauberk, this time. His single weapon was the baselard, still sheathed.

“Ya Mundredi? Kilmun?” asked the closest one. He was either clean-shaven or not mature enough to grow a beard. “Not Waldi, surely.”

“No tattoos,” muttered his friend. He was old enough to sport a tattered chin curtain. “Ya can't be Muntabi of any sort, can ya?”

“I marched with the Mundredi army for a while,” admitted Denario. “But I grew up in Oggli.”

“Oggli!” they breathed. That was a name that dredged up respect.

“Fooled me.” Oleg turned to him for the first time. His gaze narrowed. “Is that an accounting vest I see beneath yar hauberk?”

“It is.” After waking from a dream about the Paravienteri docks., Denario had thrown on his work shirt this morning. Wearing it felt natural. Anyway, he'd covered it, or so he’d thought.

“Oleg,” drawled Jack. “This is Denario the Dramatic, a warrior and certified accountant. He's returning from his last job in a roundabout way.”

“Very roundabout, I'm sure.” Oleg tugged his beard. “A great warrior, you say?”

“Never seen any like him before.” There was a twinkle in Jack's eye.

“So ya got yourself some security. Good.”

The riverman folded his sinewy arms. He leaned back with satisfied expression. “He started out as a paying customer, if ya can imagine.”

“Ya always were clever.”

“That's what I'm supposed to say.”

“Certified in Oggli? Damned expensive. Too rich for the likes of me.”

“Are you hinting, Oleg? We could cut ya a deal.”

“Are you his agent?”

The boatman hooked his thumbs under the drawstring of his pants. A smirk spread across his lips. Oleg developed a furrow along his forehead but the big man calmed and it disappeared. The calmness seemed to be his professional disposition because he negotiated with an bland face. He only interrupted the conversation when he needed to order his muleteer to unpack. The muleteer, a thin, middle-aged fellow, directed the guards to assist. It seemed clear that men carrying spears were on the bottom rung of the ladder of commerce.

Each leader traded goods and services. It was a complicated deal with several items, large and small, changing hands. Denario settled down on a stump to review the caravan's books. Oleg used real books with modern writing in them, his own semi-legible script. There were so many mistakes and missing entries that the review took hours. The caravan had to throw in a full meal, an agreement to carry Denario's messages, and a bottle of ink. Oleg noticed Denario's map on the raft deck, too, when the accountant leaped up to stop someone from trampling it. At the end of the review process, he bargained for a review of his trail charts with corrections and annotations for magical changes in the geography.

The caravan carried no trail charts showing lands within a mile of the creek, Denario noticed.

In exchange for the work, Oleg gave Denario a roll of maps for which he had no use but which could presumably be sold to someone else. The accountant mentioned how the caravan's trail maps didn't include the most obvious one, the road they traveled.

Oleg laughed. “Well, of course. This one runs by No Map.”

Denario glanced at his sketch of the creek's course so far. It was where he'd left it. Someone had kindly set a rock on one corner to hold it in place against the breeze. He tried to read Oleg's face as he caught the older man glancing at what was written there. A moment later, he tried to read Jack's expression as the riverman did the same thing. The leaders exchanged a look of knowing. Denario would have sworn they were innocent of any evil intent. They merely regarded the parchment in progress as object of humor.

After the caravan and rafts exchanged their last round of goods, the men swapped news of the towns upstream and downstream. Jack told the story of the Raduar assassin's attempt on Denario, to the laughter of all. Oleg told them about a troop of dwarfs he'd met.

“They've got hammers, mostly, and a few axes, but those are used more as tools than they are as weapons. For armor, they've got poor stuff. Really bad.”

“Are you sure? Beyond Oupenli, dwarfs are the only folks I've met with good steel.”

“Not this lot. They've got steel caps, true, but very little chain mail. Their hauberks look like they were studded with iron but they've been using the studs as ingots.”

“They're doing forge work with pieces of their armor? They must be really hard up.”

“I think so. They claim to be traveling craftsmen. They pull along an anvil in a little cart. That lets them move from town to town, earning their keep with fix-work.”

“That's a nice setup. Should be making them rich.”

“They've been robbed. Twice. On top of that, some folks aren’t paying. It's tough being small. I hired them to fix our gorgets. They did that and more, grateful for the money and the extra food. Out of pity, I let them trade for my worst supplies with their surplus maps. That's what brought the whole mapping business to mind.”

“So you gave us dwarf maps.”

“They say no. The maps were drawn by humans. That's what's been giving them trouble. But I can't read the damn things either. They're like no maps I've seen. All I'm saying is, don't try to trade them back their own scrolls. I doubt that would work.”

“Dwarfs are the best tool makers around,” mumbled Denario. He put a hand to his chin to hide his smile. He'd glanced at the scrolls and knew them for what they were. They were a series of mining maps. To most folks, the three dimensional coordinates of topographic maps looked like a sort of code. A good Oggli-trained accountant could read the code. Dwarfs couldn't. That must mean they used a different system. Denario wondered what it was. Whatever they did, he bet they didn't think in terms of a layered set of representations as seen from above. From below, maybe? From a center outward, using polar coordinates? As a description in pure math, no flattened model at all? There had never been a member of the accounting guild who had learned the secrets of dwarfish math.

“They could fix your spear,” offered Jack.

“You mean my theodolite. Yes, that would be handy. I could chart a better map.”

“That's not what I meant.” The boatman and the caravan members all stole glances at the parchment on deck. “All the same, we should stop and talk to them if we get the chance. Where did they say they were from, Oleg?”

“Some place with a dwarfish name I can't remember in the mountains between South Valley and Wizard Valley.”

“Kilmun territory, then.” Jack rubbed his balding head. Out away from the tree cover, he was starting to feel the sun.

“Worse, near the Mystic Desert.”

“Not from the south. Pity.” He folded his arms across his chest. “They didn't come by way of the hidden temple.”

“Surely not.”

“I hoped they might have a better way through. You know, being magical creatures and all. Someone must have a way.”

“You've sailed it and walked it many times, Jack. You're not like the rest of us.”

Jack dropped his arms out to his sides. “Ya went the long ways around again Oleg?”

“Had three men die during my final stump along the Lost Path. It kept losing us, as it so often does. I'll not attempt the straight route any more.”

“Where did that happen?”

“In different places. One listened to the talking crocodile. That was south of the center. Another went after a siren, I think. My captain … former captain ... caught sight of the white walls or so he said.”

“Near the center, then.”

“He bolted for the temple. Of course he was after the gold or jewels or something. He never came out.”

Oleg and Jack bowed their heads and made holy gestures over their hearts. It was the only time that the accountant had witnessed Clever Jack showing signs of religion. Next to the older men, the young guards stood slack-jawed. Their eyes were wide and round. Had they realized what they were missing when they skirted the lost temple? It seemed not. They turned their gazes on Denario. The short one with close-cut hair ogled the accountant's armor. He breathed from his mouth as he contemplated:

a) how brave the warrior in front of him was
b) how dead the fellow soon would be

although he caught himself after half a minute. He blinked. Self-consciously, he shifted his focus down to his feet. One of his heavy-set companions gripped tight to his spear. His lips pressed together, hard and pale.

“How do you always get through, Jack?” asked Oleg.

“Trade secret. Anyways, I pretty much showed ya.”

“You do that every time?” The caravan master shuddered. He turned a pitying look on the accountant.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 124: A Bandit Accountant, 20.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Score
Scene Five: Screwing Up

“But I tried this before and it didn't work!” complained Marcel. He adjusted his grip on the end of the wooden tube. He'd gotten the side with the handle. Denario grabbed the open end, the bottom. The shape lent itself to a good grip but the accountant knew he'd regret choosing the lower side. He was already standing in the water. He'd have to wade deeper.

Marcel's older brother held the middle of the tube. Opposite him stood a tall man with hairy arms. A boy too young to help tried to take part. His face was faintly purple with effort. Men chuckled as they strolled around and joined the team. The thick-bearded man who Denario thought of as a pickle farmer gripped the other half of the low end. From his grimace, he didn't enjoy putting his feet into the water any more than Denario did.

Jack Lasker, in contrast to everyone else in the group, laughed as he waded in. He directed the remaining bystanders to where they were needed. He even told the boy to join his younger brother and shore up the ramp of stones and dirt. A few second later, he dismissed Denario.

“We've got this,” he grunted. “Make sure yar ramp is ready.”

The accountant gave way to the riverman in relief.

“What is it that you tried, exactly?” he asked Marcel as he resumed their conversation. He slogged over to where he'd built most of the ramp out of shale, sandstone, and conglomerates from the creek. The slope of his construction wasn't quite sixty degrees but it was close.

“I put the end deeper into the water.”

“Aha. So you didn't make the angle steeper?” Denario surveyed the damage done by the overenthusiastic boys as they tried to mold the ramp with mud. It didn't look too bad.

“The steeper the angle, the harder the pump has to work.” Marcel grunted with effort. One of his friends was helping him keep the high end aloft.

“Yes, that would be true if this were a pump.”

Denario had to acknowledge that Marcel had done the right thing for someone with a wrong understanding of the problem. Pumps needed to dip an end into the water, no more. The steeper the angle of entry for a pump, the more effort to force liquid to the top. Denario didn't understand pumps to the level of detail that his apprentice Buck knew them but Denario had seen two laid open, each of a different design. Both had forced up water by pushing down on a bladder. If Buck had made these devices, he'd have made them just as Marcel expected, using underwater bladders. They wouldn't have had screws.

Despite the fact that he'd looked straight into the mechanism of a broken tube, Marcel still imagined that we was cranking a bellows or possibly some kind of gear shaft that compressed a bladder. He thought he had to force the water upward by pushing down on something else.

“It is a pump,” insisted Marcel. He couldn't dislodge his idea of how it should work. “I told you. It lifts water.”

Denario shook his head. He'd tried to explain but, after a failed attempt he'd shrugged and got on with his ramp. He knew that a description of geometric shapes wouldn't bring any enlightenment to these farmers. He might as well say the device was magic. Anyway, it was advancing toward him, step after step, and he needed the water and the land both lined up correctly for it to work. That was his theory, anyway. He was still working on the reasons.

The water screw arrived before he was ready. It didn't matter. The heavy oak casing didn't crush his fingers or toes. The underside came to rest on the slope of rocks. It dislodged mud and stones. The overall structure held firm. Boys on either side of the log began to shore up the ramp with more dirt.

“Is it the right way round? Do we need to roll it?” Marcel regarded the crank handle on the top of the tube as if it were the face of a clock. He meant to spin the cylinder to make sure the pump intake rested in clear water, not in silt or air. Denario checked to make sure the screw hadn't settled into the dirt too far. Otherwise, he didn't worry. His end was in the water. He was pretty sure that was all they needed. Not quite, he corrected himself. The screw blades need to rest at the correct angle. And they need to turn.

“It's fine,” he announced.

“Do you need to fix the mechanism?” Marcel asked.

“As long as the barrel doesn't leak too much, this one should carry water.”

“If it wasn't working before,” Marcel objected. “It's not going to work now. You haven't fixed anything inside it.”

“Just turn the crank.”

“But ...”

“Do you need me to turn it?”

“No, no.” Marcel threw up his hands. He eyed the gentlemen around him as if to say, 'You understand this man is crazy, right?' Then he crouched forward over the handle. He wiped his right hand, grabbed the knob tight, and pulled down. A grunt vibrated through his lips.

“Go on! Go on!” His friends shouted at him.

Marcel put his elbow into it. He lowered his shoulder. He kept the handle moving around clockwise. He clamped his left hand over his right and put the force of his whole body behind the length of the jointed wood.

Inside the casing, the water screw turned unseen and creaked like it might come apart. After a moment, the sound quieted. Denario put his hand on the barrel. He imagined it had grown cooler. Did that mean water had crept into it?

“Is something happening?” one of the men asked. He put his hand on one of the iron rings that held the held the contraption together.

“Keep going,” Denario huffed.

“Go on! Go on!” others shouted. Marcel picked up his pace in response to the shouts. Men and boys started patting the barrel of what they thought was a pump. They were feeling the temperature or maybe they were just imitating the accountant. A couple of the young men started to climb the rise from the creek shore to the field above. They seem to think they could help Marcel.

“Something's happening,” a man breathed.

“Go on!” everyone shouted.

“What's that smell?”

“Water!” someone shouted. There's water trickling down my side of the ramp.”

“The barrel staves aren't completely sealed,” announced the pickle man. He sounded disappointed. “It's been too long.”

At that, Marcel stopped. “Go on! Go on!” the calls resumed.

He shrugged at them as if they were all as crazy as Denario but he dug into his task again.

“I think you have to turn faster if it's leaking.” Denario rubbed his chin as he tried to picture what was going on. He thought the angle of the screw meant that the wooden spiral was picking up water and carrying it to the top. It was a strange idea. Why didn't the water slip back down? It had to be the angle of the blades. To the current that flowed in through the open bottom, downhill was always kept in the direction of the inside of the barrel. That's what kept it in the curling slope of the screw. But the screw couldn't possibly succeed if too much water was lost between the the edge and the cylinder surrounding it. If that happened, all the liquid that had been gathered up by the trick of the screw angle would drip back out.

“It sounds a bit like you're killing a pig,” someone said. Everyone stopped to laugh, even Marcel. But Marcel saw Denario's face and started again.

“Kill the pig faster,” said the pickle farmer. “Come on, Yonni, help him.”

One of the young men who had climbed the river bank hopped to the aid of his friend. Yonni, as Denario saw, was an energetic fellow with a shock of light brown hair. He was thin, young without much beard, and he had a barrel-maker's limbs. Yonni's forearms strained against the cuffs of his shirt, which reached only to halfway between his elbows and wrists. Together, he and Marcel didn't turn the screw handle much faster than Marcel had done by himself. But this time they didn't stop.

Denario walked to the other side of the cylinder so he could study the leak. It came from beneath, so he could infer there was rot or flaw in the oak slats. It caused enough of a problem to darken the mud. On the other hand, that was a sign that the water screw was working at least to the halfway point. There seemed to be only one leak or a few small leaks in one place. He saw no seepage higher up the barrel. Either the water wasn't rising that high, which meant defeat for his repair-by-geometry attempt, or the ends of the cylinder were water-tight and only the middle had degraded.

“Gods!” Marcel jumped back suddenly.

“What? What?” his friends called. Next to the cooper, Yonni kept cranking. He was a reliable young fellow.

“Water!” Marcel leapt back to his task. He helped Yonni spin the crank. Water sloshed again. Even down below, Denario heard it. Droplets hit Marcel in the face and he smiled. He hesitated. Again his friend didn't stop. The screw turned around inside the barrel and drew up another handful of muddy water.

All of the men and boys scrambled up the slope at once. It was such a rush that Denario, who had started to do the same thing, stopped. He'd been the slowest off the mark anyway and, if he waited, he would surely get a turn. In the meantime someone had to stay with the main body of the device if only to make sure it remained on the ramp.

Men at the edge of the grass, four feet upslope, jostled for position to see. The cooper stepped back to let them look with an expression of bewildered delight on his face. The hint of world-weariness around his eyes vanished as he began to understand what this meant. He was witnessing a shift in fortunes. Before, he'd had no quick way to bring water into his fledgling foundry and he'd needed to irrigate his fields by hand. Now, with the prospect of these working water screws, he could smelt and shape metals in quantity, probably at double or triple the best speed he'd estimated. His dream of riches could become real.

At the top end of the screw, the steadfast Yonni kept the handle moving. The counter-clockwise spin he imparted brought up water in a succession of gulps. Young boys crept between bigger men for a close-up view. Their jaws dropped. Their expressions started to look like Marcel's.

“This isn't a trick, is it?” Marcel poked his head over the rise. “You didn't just fix something in the pump mechanism? You're not sneaking up the water somehow?”

“No and no,” answered Denario.

“You're not using magic?”

Denario sighed. He took off his hat to cool down. “This is geometry.”

“It that like magic?”

“A little,” he allowed. He wondered how much he could explain. “Now that this machine is working, I'm sure I can draw you a picture of how all of these water screws are meant to operate. I'm not a barrel maker, so I can't fix the broken ones. But I can give you instructions on how to repair and run the rest.”

“There's a matter of payment,” interrupted Jack Lasker.

“Right.” Denario had been about to offer his parchment for free, not to mention his services. First he'd failed to learn good haggling from Master Winkel. Then, when he had a chance to improve himself after his rescue two months ago, he'd been unable to follow Vir's advice. Denario should at least have been able to imitate old Addler Vogel. When that man was young, he had been the best of friends with everyone around and had apparently kept his eye on the main chance, too. Denario was trying. But he certainly hadn't found an equivalent attitude.

He shook his head as he realized he might forever be a slave in his mind, doomed rely on others to drive his bargains because he couldn't speak up for himself. He pressed a hat back on his head and made himself listen, silently, as the riverman arranged for the job payments to be doled out in stages. Denario had time think about how such an arrangement helped Jack, who seemed to be have earned his self-appointed title of Clever.

The accountant climbed to the top of the riverbank to shake on the deal.

In stage one, Denario got paid a handful of money and Jack took half. That exchange that took place immediately. The accountant accepted eight coins from Marcel, five copper and three brass. Half of the coppers were green with rust. They had a metallic, tangy smell that Denario associated with purity. The better the copper, the faster it rusted.

He divided the coins, two brassers and one pence for himself, a brasser and four pence for Jack. The riverman moved his lips as he checked the math. He nodded. Denario handed them over. Then he tucked his portion into the fold on the inside waist of his pants. He didn't want anyone to catch a glimpse of his other coins.

Next came agreement on stage two. Denario negotiated for a wage of twenty brassers, a lordly sum to these folks. It showed how valuable a supply of water from these aqueducts would be. However, Denario wouldn't get his portion until he delivered a diagram to show how a water screw could be repaired. He figured he could do that overnight.

“How will I eat? Where can I work on the diagram?” he asked.

“You'll stay at my place, of course,” answered Marcel. In a minute, he agreed to feed Jack Lasker in the bargain.

When Denario stuck out his hand to shake on the second deal, he found a drawing compass in it. That made him smile. His fingers had dipped into his accounting bag as he'd considered the job and had decided on the right tool. He switched the compass to his left hand and shook.

“What about the third installment?” he asked.

“Well, most of the money gots to wait until I repair at least one pump, don't it?” Marcel replied. He let go of the accountant's hand.

Denario tried not to scowl. He knew the man was being sensible. No one wanted to part with their life savings without some proof that this better geometry would fix the water screws.

“Jack and I have to be sailing before then.”

“You can stay. No one is making you leave.”

“But ...”

“I'll pick up the money next time I swing around,” said Jack. “I usually come up this side of the creek by caravan on my return.”

“But ...”

“You'll get your half when we meet again, accountant.”

Denario cleared his throat. He had no words to add. The fact that he was going to sail away in the morning and never return to Barrel Bad for what was owed to him wasn't anyone's fault. Jack would collect. It was possible, barely, that Denario would meet Jack again someday in Oupenli to get the rest of his money. Maybe he wouldn't, either, but to Marcel and his friends, it made no difference.

“That'll do,” he sighed.