Sunday, September 23, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 135: A Bandit Accountant, 22.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Six: Cast Away 

“Ah, Boldor.” Brand swung his arms wide in greeting, prepared to ignore the fact that he'd tried to kidnap them all. His greatcoat fell open. It showed a dirk strapped to his shirt. “Yer a good dwarf. A great one, even.”

Denario stood next to his tent on the deck of the first raft. He'd shut down his spell so the negotiations could proceed without distraction. The caravan had stolen jugs of lightning from the downstream two rafts and everyone accepted that or at least felt there was nothing they could do about it yet. But the caravan had taken Ragna captive as well. Brand had made the grab himself. The dwarfs had to do something about that situation. It was the reason they'd agreed to negotiate with the caravan.

Brand's plan had been superb. He'd given a silver token of Onuava to them. He'd kept another in secret. The two were attracted to each other. That was the point of the sigils. They turned the tokens into witchly charms.

“She's the goddess of finding stuff,” Brand had revealed when he came out to call for a conference. “After all, who's better at knowing where ye've lost something than yer ol' mum? Mother Earth in her case, o' course.”

An image came to Denario of his mother, a quiet, brown-skinned woman with ink-black hair. He couldn't remember her finding anything. She never found her lost freedom.

The horrible thing about negotiating was that Brand had a sort of charm even when he'd been caught committing a grievous crime. He'd calmed the furious dwarfs by saying it was nothing personal. He'd kidnapped Ragna as part of a business deal he wanted to discuss. The reason he didn't take all of the rafts and inhabitants hostage from the beginning was that half of his troops had gotten lost. If everyone had shown up on time, he would have taken the sentinels in silence and then stormed all three rafts and taken everyone at spearpoint. That would have worked with all fourteen members of his caravan. As it was with only five of his men on the site, he'd had to resort to kidnapping. Even that had to stop when the attempt on Jofrid went wrong.

Then, as far as the dwarfs could tell, Brand and his men had disappeared with Ragna for an hour. No amount of shouting and stomping through the outskirts of the woods had brought their companion back. The dwarfs barely managed to spot and fend off a small alligator attracted by their noise. After that they began to discuss how to organize the search party and whether to wait for morning. The Caravan of the Kill returned to interrupt the discussion.

Brand, despite finally being in possession of his full force, did not attack. He put his spearmen in front, swordsmen behind, and formed a military fighting square before he sent his smallest man forward with the offer to parley. The dwarfs stoked the fires until everyone could see along the riverbank. Denario marveled at the job. He could make out the members of the caravan – not like it was daylight but well enough. Only Jack Lasker hung back from the two lines meeting at the fires. He stuck close to the third boat with his bow drawn. Denario had never seen the bow before but apparently Jack owned one. He'd kept it in the back of his tent at the bottom of nearly everything he owned.

“You're a ...” Boldor, even furious, had trouble finding impolite words. “What should I call you, Captain DeLadro? Is this a caravan that you lead? Or a gang of kidnappers?”

“We live as fortune finds us,” he said. Beside him, his wounded man muttered and cursed.

“And where is my friend Ragna?”

In answer, the captain raised his left hand high and snapped his fingers four times. It was a lengthy signal. But his troops responded. Behind him, at the edge of the clearing, two men stepped away from the group formation. They were the Ogglian deserter and his companion in green armor. Between them, tied and gagged, marched a stout dwarf in a leather skullcap.

“You see? I deal in good faith. I had planned to acquire dwarfs of skill tonight. But that was never my whole intent. That's why I'm here to bargain. I have one skilled dwarf, who is a healer, a bowyer, and probably more. But my heart's desire is for something else.”

“Shouldn't you negotiate with Master Lasker as well then?”

“Maybe. Clever Jack is not the trusting sort. I see him back there with his bow. And I confess, my men got a little too happy about seeing so much liquor aboard his boats. I didn't come to raid him. I mean no harm to Jack. I hope to do business with him again, perhaps even later this year.”

“I hardly think you will.”

“We'll see. Jack is a practical man, I know, and I will pay him dearly. My caravan owes a considerable sum for what my men stole. We'll make good on that and dole out punishments besides. You see? I offer my sincere apologies to Jack.”

“You won't return what was taken?”

“All three jugs of lightning have been opened.” The captain lifted his right arm in a gesture of apology. “They've been emptied more than I thought possible. Yet my men are still standing. I like to think that testifies as to their strong constitutions.”

The dwarfs grumbled about this. It was beneath their chief's dignity to deal with thieves, that was clear from their tone. A few of them glanced to Jack Lasker as if they wanted to plead with him to speak to Brand. But half an hour earlier, Jack had wanted to push the rafts into the river and leave Ragna, which they couldn't bear. Jack had given them the right tactical advice. He'd cursed them when they stubbornly stayed and searched. Now they understood that they were about to receive a ransom demand for their friend. The most likely source of cash was Jack. So they didn't like to look at the boat master too closely. When they dared, guilt flashed in their eyes.

“Out of curiosity, who wounded my rear guard?” Brand flipped his left hand in a breezy way. At his gesture, the man in purple leaned forward. He grimaced in a rictus of near-death. His right hand dripped blood through a thick bandage. The entire limb hung useless by his side. He swayed, his teeth visible in anger and pain.

This stopped conversation for a moment. The caravan leader's light tone conveyed a sense of threat. Boldor's head hung lower. He didn't take his eyes off of his opposite number on the other side of the fire. The rest of the dwarfs. though, over the course of a few seconds, let their gaze drift to the first raft. Brand followed their gaze. All of the men in Caravan of the Kill understood. They knew who'd done the deed.

If there had been any doubts, the dwarfs had removed them. Denario stepped forward. He figured he might as well let himself be seen in the firelight. He kept his eyes on the caravan's crossbows. At least one of them worked. But they were pointed down and unloaded at the moment.

“The accountant?” Brand grinned. “I suspected as much. Yer good dwarfs, Boldor, as I said. But ye're not fighters. Not yet.”

“Kill 'im,” groaned the wounded man.

“Kill the valuable, certified accountant? The one who does magic with numbers?”

“He broke my hand!” The man in purple stepped back from his leader. He staggered like a drunkard. Maybe he had something to numb the pain, too, on top of his blood loss. “Yer always slow to punish the weak ones.”

“Really.” Brand drew his sword.

The man in purple tried to draw his own weapon. Probably he would have tried to cut down his captain but his right arm didn't obey him. He got as far as touching the pommel with his bandage. Then he froze, a pained expression on his face while his captain readied for a strike. He managed to cross his body with his left hand, prepared to defend himself that way. But it was too late. The point of Captain DeLadro's blade took him in the throat. A foot of steel emerged on the other side just below the man's head. The body shook. The captain placed a foot in the chest of his former opponent, as he seemed to have done a few times before, and extracted his sword while at the same time pushing the corpse to the ground.

There was a gurgle, then almost nothing, barely even twitches from hands and feet. It seemed that cutting up the inside of the neck shut down most of the human body.

“He always was a complainer,” Brand said. He turned to the horrified dwarfs, not much bothered by what he'd done. At least he didn't try to charm them with a smile. That would have been too much. The man knew his audience.

“You see, Boldor,” he continued as he snapped out a rag from his trouser pocket and started to clean his blade. “You dwarfs are valuable, each and every one of you. Together, you're worth much more than the accountant. But could I feed all of you? Find work for you all? It would be a burden.”

“Why? Oh, why?”

“We wanted Ragna and Denario.” This time, the captain allowed himself a slight smile. “But I would trade Ragna for the man. I hear things, see. There's a group of wild fellows who are looking for book keepers and accountants. They'll pay a ransom. Then there's a reward out for a particular accountant. And there's yet another reward for a different one, I think. Then there's me. You see, I want one even without the incentives. I need numbers, too.”

“You said you don't like math.”

“I've no love for it but, come now, it's necessary. There's a town northwest of here, Kraphtali. The leaders there have ambitions. They host a large market already and they want it larger. They think they can compete with Oupenli.”

That got a snort from someone on Denario's side, which the captain acknowledged with a nod.

“Technically, of course, they're on the border between Baron Ankster and Baron Blockhelm. Sir Royval also has some sort of claim. They're not free in the way Oupenli is. But they pay a lesser tax to two barons. That's an opportunity. Traders there can do a few things that Oupenli can't. They've got easier access to raw goods and to magical items. These bloody-minded tribesmen who have invaded here on all sides of us seem to have brought a fair bit of magic with them. And the area itself burps out oddities at a steady rate.”

“You supply Kraphtali with magical things,” Clever Jack interrupted from the back, in the dark.

“I do.” The captain smiled at being recognized for such cleverness. “It's a growing business. And growing big means Kraphtali needs someone with numbers. I mean to supply that person.”

“No,” said Boldor flatly.

Denario took a deep breath. He hadn't been aware of it but he hadn't been breathing for a moment.

“Don't be so quick to fail yer own.” Brand gave the dwarf leader a calculating look. “Ask yer priest. He'll tell ye that this time yer under the hammer.”

“I'll not ask. And as he is a holy dwarf, he would not dare to suggest that a free man, our teacher and an ally, who has been a host to us, can be given over to the likes of you.”

As Boldor spoke, Denario felt the planks beneath him vibrate as if a weight had shifted suddenly. He stepped back from the gunwhales and looked around. There was another dwarf on board, Torgrim, but no one, not even a dwarf in armor, had enough mass to shake the raft without noise. It felt as if someone had cast off the line. But that made no sense. The deed would have had to be done from the inside the raft and it would have meant abandoning the precious rope.

Denario swiveled to look at Torgrim behind him. The fellow stood low, arms folded over his wide chest. His gaze swept past Denario to the downstream corner of the raft by the riverbank. The accountant turned this attention there and saw Ulf. When had he come aboard? He had a punt in his hand and a wild glint in his eye.

When Denario looked to the shoreline again, he saw the raft drifting. Ulf must have cast them off and pushed them into the creek. For a moment, they were silent. The boat drifted.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 134: A Bandit Accountant, 22.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Five: From the Shadows

“Accountant! Grab the punt!” Dodni's brother shook him by the shoulder.

Denario blinked. He woke to the dwarf's face, upside down above him. His visage was lit by a magical glow.

The spell had gone off. Stars twinkled in the air beside him. Denario had fallen asleep with his head near the entrance in order to be woken up by the light if it came. That hadn't worked. He'd slept through it, more tired than he'd realized. In fact, he'd been dreaming that his home was under attack. He'd been roaming through the counting house in Oggli to find weapons with which he might, somehow, defend his apprentices.

“Someone stole from the boat,” the dwarf hissed. “And Ragna's missing!”

“Crap.” Denario struggled to get up. The dwarf backed away to give him room. “Were you still on duty?”

“No. It was Ragna's turn.”

Allowed a second to think, the accountant wondered if Ragna had gone off to relieve himself in the woods. That would explain his disappearance from standing guard. But it wouldn't explain the spell. Ragna would have needed to take something or someone with him when he abandoned his post, otherwise the circle of stones wouldn't have set off its alarm. Denario knew that only Ragna was missing, too, or the other dwarf would have said. Could the trouble be due to the silver token? If so, the accountant could didn't see how at the moment.

“A jug of hard lightning got ripped out of its mooring pegs.” Dodni's brother pointed to the shore side of the raft.

“Who would take lightning?” Denario glanced around in all directions as the answer came to him. He noticed a log floating in the creek. It was a dark, silent silhouette against the reflective surface of the water. He had suspicions about it. “No alligator would want it. Only pirates would.”

“What pirates?” The dwarf let his arms down, puzzled. Denario had forgotten that he'd only mentioned the idea of ship deserters to Jack.

“I mean the Caravan of the Kill.”

“They're asleep, far away.”

“Not far enough.” Denario had been searching for the punt because that's what Dodni's brother thought was important. On further consideration, he fumbled through the pile of clothes and blankets in his tent. He grabbed his sword belt. After checking to make sure the pommel of the baselard was unbuckled from its scabbard, he strapped it on. “Let's move.”

Together, they roused Dodni and Ulf. The four of them, at the next raft, found Jofrid the smithy lying on the ground. Denario crept up to Jofrid in silence. He saw no motion from the fellow. He was heavily armored and had collapsed without a mark on him. Was there blood in the sand? Denario found it hard to tell in the shadows. He feared the dwarf was dead. But no, Dodni hissed. He kicked Jofrid, who had apparently been given a turn on watch at the same time as Ragna but had fallen asleep.

“Quiet,” Denario warned. Jofrid groaned upon waking.

“Why?” said Dodni.

“I'm sure it's the caravan. And you fixed their crossbow.” Denario scanned the southern riverbank. He meant it as a gesture toward a vague, unseen threat but, in fact, he did see something. There was a walking figure, either a crouched man or the tallest-ever raccoon. It moved out from the woods into the moonlight.

Denario reached for his buckler. But he didn't have it. He'd left it in his tent. Instead, he drew his sword. Next to him, he heard a whisper of metal on leather. A dwarf had picked up a weapon. He heard Jofrid stagger to his feet, too, and wished that was quieter.

The intruder emerged from the background of trees and proved to be a lean, armored figure. He wore a helmet that hid his features. When he turned to look at the twinkling lights on the deck of the first raft, the motion revealed a wide, distinctive moustache with the ends curled up. Denario recognized the tallest troublemaker in purple.

The fellow stared at the magic stars for almost half a minute. He was probably trying to figure out what they were. Meanwhile, Denario crept up on him, sword drawn. He had to make a roundabout path of it. The campfire lay between them. Denario tried to stay away from its glow.

“Who's that?” a dwarf shouted, Jofrid from the voice.

The troublemaker turned. He crouched, ready to spring. His legs weren't, Denario noticed, set to run. Instead, they were ready to pounce. The man had come to carry out a raid. Coils of rope dangled from his left hand. The top strands showed up in the ruddy light of the fire. He slunk toward the voice.

“Accountant?” said Jofrid. Maybe he'd gotten confused when Denario tiptoed into the darkness.

So far, the intruder hadn't noticed anybody else. He hadn't looked uphill, Denario's direction. He couldn't see more than one dwarf standing close to a campfire. So he focused on that one, the smithy. Maybe he assumed that everyone else was still asleep. Ragna and Jofrid had been on watch duty together, after all. On top of that, the intruder didn't seem to like the magic on the first raft. He shied away from it as he crept. His path was going to take him only a few yards downhill from Denario.

To Denario's surprise, the man in purple cursed. The words came out in a low growl. The remark was something unkind about accountants.

“But ye dwarfs are soft,” he hissed.

“Pardon?”

He leaped so fast that Denario missed it. He closed the distance to Jofrid in a single bound, cast a loop of rope around the dwarf, pinned his arms, and started to truss him up like an animal. But he stopped. He cursed as he glanced side to side. He'd noticed the other dwarfs. They advanced on him, hammers drawn. He pulled on the hilt of his longsword.

Denario charged. Well, it was running downhill, and part of it was stumbling, but he closed the distance between them as fast as he'd ever moved. The whole time, he focused on what he could see of the man's sword arm. He didn't want to let that blade come out. He swung. It was a wild stroke. But it hit.

The armored man screamed.

Denario fell to the ground. He rolled and yanked on his baselard to keep it from hurting him. The blade had sunk into his opponent's wrist. It wrenched back out as Denario tumbled into the water. He hadn't considered this part. Failing to knock the bigger man into the creek, which had been his intent, meant that he was bound to get wet. He smashed into the water awkwardly, sword and right arm first. The rest of him followed with a faceplant into an inch of slurry.

The stricken man was still screaming as Denario rose. The accountant blinked away the grit. He lifted his sword to defend himself. Maybe it was time to attack again? He wasn't sure what he should do. Fortunately, it didn’t matter. His opponent dropped the rope attached to Jofrid and fled. His scream lasted into the woodline and beyond. The wailing moved from tree to tree.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 133: A Bandit Accountant, 22.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Four: Broken Circle

“There's a bit of moon,” Jack whispered before they launched. He looked up at the gray clouds, through which a reasonable amount of light shone. “Can you steer the lead raft? I told Brand we were going to sleep on board and he doesn't like it. He's planning something. I want to be on the last boat. Got to protect the dwarfs.”

“Brand doesn't know we're leaving?”

“Not unless the dwarfs have let it slip. Boldor is the only one I've told.”

“Good. Yes, I'll lead. Can you tell me where I should take us?”

“Not really.” Jack took a deep breath. He pointed. Denario could see make out shape of his arm against the background of shadowy tree boughs. “Ahead is where the creek changes. There's no way to know what we'll find. Pole us to the first spot you come to that's long enough for the three rafts. Don't get out of your raft unless I say.”

“Not even to tie down?”

“No, 'cause of alligators. You heard Brand's story. His caravan lost a wounded man that way last night.”

The accountant shuddered. Armor hadn't helped that man. The alligator had bitten through his metal greaves, snapped his leg, and dragged him into the water. Except for a scream that lasted for a few seconds, no one had heard from or seen the man again.

The launch, when it happened, was sudden. The last dwarf, Jofrid, stepped aboard carrying a pair of tongs he'd almost forgotten. Jack crouched to ask him a question. The short smithy nodded. Then Jack pulled his rope off of the hitching tree. An hour earlier, Ulf had untied the lead raft. Torgrim had untied the middle. Jack's rope was the only thing holding them down. When he unwound it in a swift, two-second swirl of his right arm, the third raft bounced an inch in the water. He leaned hard on his punt. Boldor and another dwarf did the same. So did Denario, Ulf, and every dwarf that could wield a stick on all of the rafts. It was, as things done with the dwarfs tended to be, a precise move.

“You're leaving?” Brand shouted. He ran up to the shore. There was nothing he could do about it now unless he was prepared to wade. “I haven't paid you for the medicines. I thought we'd have more time. Where's that dwarf who helped our wounded?”

“We've got to sleep,” explained Jack.

“We forgot about Ragna's pay,” said Boldor. “We'll accept anything you care to toss over to us, Captain DeLadro. Or you can owe us for the next time we meet.”

“Your smithy said you wouldn't pass through again. Anyway, here.” The caravan master fumbled at a pouch by his side. “I've got a couple brassers tied up in a rag. It was pay for a man who died yesterday. That should make it fair.”

“That's very correct of you,” said Boldor. He relaxed.

Brand tossed the rag toward Jack, who didn't move to catch it. The parcel would sailed over the deck and into the water but a dwarf snagged it at the last moment on the far side of the boat. He passed it to Boldor to give to Ragna. The dwarfs, once again, bowed, saluted, and otherwise expressed their gratitude to the Caravan of the Kill. Ragna strode to the end of Denario's boat to announce his presence. Brand noticed the move even though the rafts were drifting into the current. He waved his arms and gave Ragna a tremendous smile. He bowed dramatically in return to all of the respect shown to him. But Denario didn't like it. When the caravan passed out of sight, he heaved a deep breath from relief.

Around the next corner, Denario saw a place to stop although he had to slide up close to be sure. The scrub trees to his right, half-buried in the water, gave way to a flat stretch of riverbank unburdened by anything more than the occasional fist-sized patch of grass. The moonlight shone down on the open land. Denario could see that the slope curved upward a bit too steeply but there was a grove of trees not far inland. He'd found visibility and shelter both. There were no logs on the riverbank or anywhere on the creek that he could see and hence, he hoped, no hidden alligators.

“Nice,” Jack called from two rafts back.

“It's not too close to the caravan?” he asked.

“Two hundred yards away from those caravan drunkards is as good two hundred miles at night Cleat-hitch anywhere you want. Ulf, Torgrim, Borghild, follow him ashore.”

Denario disembarked, rope in hand. His mind was still occupied with the Caravan of the Kill. Their captain had controlled his men's liquor supply too carefully for Denario's taste. The men in purple had taken a break from tormenting the poorer members of the troop. Brand and Zaggi, his second in command, had dispensed token amounts of lighting to everyone in four wooden cups that had to be shared. One of the men in purple had started to point out, politely, that they had plenty of goblets but a wild-eyed look from Brand shut him up. None of it reassured Denario. Clever Jack had expected them to get violently drunk. So why hadn't they done that?

To be safe, after Denario made sure the rafts were anchored to exposed tree roots, he pulled out his animal traps. In a sort of walking crouch, he planted them facing out. He didn't want to catch a dwarf hurrying off the boat to pee, after all, and he could hope that the return trips wouldn't be as rushed. Besides, maybe the rockers that flipped up the twine loops were too tall for dwarf feet.

While the accountant worked on the geometry of his snares, the river master organized the dwarfs to deploy a different sort of defense. They posted spears in the drain holes around the gunwhales of the rafts. That made them look like porcupine quills. Jack said the arrangement would stop alligators from climbing aboard at night.

“I don't trust the dwarf watch,” he whispered to Denario. “They're all too tired. To an alligator, these little fellows look like human children.”

“I don't trust the caravan,” Denario responded.

“Stop thinking about them. Brand is tricky but I watched how the land twists around.” The wiry man relaxed, hands at his hips. “His crew has farther to travel than we did by creek and it's on foot for him and through a marsh. On top of that, he can't find us. Whatever he planned, and you're right to think he was up to something, it's done now. These traps of yours are a good idea. They'll warn us if an animal tries to sneak aboard from the woods.”

The dwarfs set up their campsites on the riverbank in a matter of minutes. Their work produced three fires, one beside each raft. Each had been arranged to dry out more wood for the morning. Denario had to shake his head at seeing how promptly they finished. The dwarfs, as a group, needed to sleep as Jack had guessed. Denario brushed his teeth as the dwarfs built lean-tos on the decks. Jack, farther upstream, did the same. Both men relieved themselves from the gunwhales. The dwarfs were too modest for that. As Denario had expected, they wandered off into the woods in ones and twos. Denario counted them several times to make sure they'd all returned. As soon as he determined they were missing one, Ragna appeared out of the darkness from upstream along the riverbank, a direction Denario hadn't expected. The portly dwarf held aloft a coin sack.

“Is that your pay from the healing?” Borghild asked him.

“Three brass and a silver.” Ragna broke into a grin as he announced the last part. He held the bag higher.

“Silver?” Borghild and Ulf exclaimed. Torgrim trotted over when he heard. “Are you sure?”

“It's small. But it's as close to pure as the humans make, I think.”

That piqued Denario's curiosity. The silver in most coins wasn't even close. It was carefully mixed with lead, nickel, or tin to make amalgam that was profitable to pass off as silver. Once, Master Winkel had cut open a Baggi Half-Dollar to show his apprentices the cheap lead core. The apprentices had oohed and aahed. Then Winkel had explained how all of the big cities and big banks cheated on their minting process. Everyone, even young Mark, had mustered a bit of outrage about it. The bank of Oggli-Anghrili did it too, though. An Oggli Silver Quarter was was small but it wasn't pure. The Marquis de Oggli would have lopped off heads at the mint if anyone had tried to cast a quarter out of nearly a quarter's worth of precious metal. So Denario wondered if Ragna had gotten an old coin or an extremely foreign one from a place that hadn't discovered cheating yet.

“That's not a coin,” Denario said as he stepped closer. He saw the metal disk in the dwarf's hand. It did look like a human casting but the accountant knew immediately that it didn't represent money. Now he just had to figure out why he knew.

“But it's silver,” said Ragna, looking up. “It would buy something at home. So it's real money to me. A lot, too. It's worth a hundred weight of brass.”

“That's ...” The shape on the front was something Denario had seen before. But he couldn't place it. “That's an odd design. It's a broken circle.”

“Got the human number 2 above it. So it's worth two of something,” said Borghild.

“Or it's meant to show two halves.” That would almost make it a coin depicting a coin, wouldn't it? That couldn't be right. The symbol looked old but the numeral came from the new system. “What's on the other side?”

The round-faced dwarf smiled and flipped it over.

“A large zero followed by an little eight. That's a god mark,” Denario found himself saying. It was familiar. He couldn't put a name to the deity but he was sure that, in time, he would.

“I'd say it's more of a big circle over the dwarf sign for infinity.” Borghild sounded sure of himself. The other two dwarfs nodded. “Don't you humans have a sign for infinity? You talk about it often enough.”

“We use three different symbols. It's confusing.” His mind raced down the path toward geometric shapes that had no end. The most famous geometer in Muntar had converted his symbol for a line, a double-headed arrow↔, into his city's standard for infinite quantities. A wizard in Baggi had used three parallel lines, ≡, which in a magical tongue made a vowel sound from the beginning of the word 'infinity' and so that was the standard in his area. A court minister in Anghrili had decided to use a circle because 'it has no end.' That became an unpopular choice when everyone adopted the number zero along with the rest of the Muntar mathematical notation. By the force of the court rule, though, his old choice still remained. “A zero and eight could be just eight or, flipped over, eighty. But then why put a number two on the other side? No, this is a diagram meant to call out to a god.”

“A human god, though.” To the dwarfs, that would seem perfectly fine. The religions of men hardly touched them. Dwarfs were superstitious only of the forces they met deep underground.

“A god of what?” Denario pulled off his hat and scritched. “I don't remember.”

“Then it can't be important.”

“What if someone put magic into the silver?”

“Ah, I see your point. Best to be careful.” It was Borghild who spoke first but Ragna joined in, then Torgrim. Ulf strode into the gathering, too. He agreed that the magic would need to be handled with care or drained off into a more appropriate, dwarfish item.

“I'll have Boldor use his looking glass on it in the morning.” Ragna nodded.

Denario couldn't say why he felt so suspicious. “Let me see the front again.”

The more he looked at it, the more he felt that the first image on the token represented a split coin. His accounting instincts didn't like it. But he had to admit to himself that he was surrounded by dangerous magic already. One more dab of the stuff, especially a pinch as small as this, wouldn't make any difference. He complimented Ragna on the silver's purity.

The dwarfs, because they were so polite, felt compelled to compliment his animal traps. Naturally, they also saw improvements to be made. He felt lucky that they were too tired to do anything tonight. Torgrim actually staggered as he spoke. He'd fallen asleep on his feet for an instant.

“I'll take first watch,” Denario volunteered. “I'm not tired.”

“Bless you, accountant,” said Ragna and Borghild. Behind them on the middle raft, Dodni called out the same.

While the rest of the raft crews sorted out their sleeping arrangements, spreading dwarfs fairly evenly on the three platforms, Denario got out his accounting tools. He nestled close to his fire on shore. From his largest ledger, he cut four scraps of paper. These were the ones on which he'd draw his fragmentary maps. The first one was the best and most complete because it consisted of coordinates. It took twice the amount of geometric math to rouse the anti-mapping spell on the creek as it took by ordinary cartography. The ancient spell on this area had been cast to block certain methods. So Denario could pack a good deal more information in numbers than in sketches without losing his work.

He scribbled his initial drafts in the dirt. That had the benefit of letting him know when he'd drawn too much. As he did, mistakes started to appear. Then he erased down to a size the No Map Creek would allow. At last, when he understood what he needed to write, he crouched down to the paper. This time was different. Almost immediately, he smudged the numeral 9 into a 7. The pebbly soil had shifted beneath his right foot. He cursed. Then, almost as quickly, he muttered the accountant's prayer to reverse the mistake, “Hex one ten.” The page flashed. He blinked. He leaned close to inspect his error. It wasn't there. The blotted 7 was a 9 again.

Had he imagined it? No. He wasn't that tired. He closed his eyes and listened to the dwarfs on the rafts. They hadn't noticed.

If a simple hex could work here, so could other numeromancy. The accountant shivered at the thought. He hadn't known. And because he hadn't, he might have injured someone with a muttered spell during math lessons.

“How's it going?” A few long strides displaced some pebbles. Jack Lasker had arrived from the upstream raft, punt in his left hand. Denario opened his eyes to see Jack's face above his, outlined in the ruddy glow of the fire.

“Better, I suppose.” He doubted that timing of the riverman's arrival was an accident. “I keep learning more about how the spell surrounding No Map Creek works.”

“Did you do magic a moment ago?”

“Yes. I ran an accounting spell, Jack. It never works. Except time time, it did.”

“Aha. Why doesn't it usually work?”

“Accountants don't know how to store magic. We're not any good at wizard skills in general. We know only a few bits and pieces of the lore. Most of what we do has to be said in numbers rather than languages.”

“Well, you sure don't need to store magic around here. It's in the air.”

“Yes.” Denario found that he'd been holding his breath a bit due to his awareness of it. His gasps sounded shallow. “And in the ground. And water. Doesn't it bother you?”

“Nah.”

“Now I remember where I saw the back of Ragna's silver piece before.”

“Is that important?”

“Maybe. The front has a broken coin on it. Have you seen it?”

The riverman shrugged. In the dark, it could have meant anything.

“The back face shows a circle above a sideways eight,” said Denario. “Those two shapes together are the sign for Onuava. She's the mother goddess.”

“Onuava. Name's a bit familiar. Wasn't she popular once? It would have been long before our fathers' time. The other gods rose up around her.”

“Other gods got more popular.”

“Right. She lost supporters, then most of her temples. Then the Muntabi tribes came in and wiped out the last of her folks.”

“In some creation stories, Onuava gave birth to all of the original gods.”

“Your god among them, I suppose.”

“How is it that we can forget our mother?”

“Hah. You're getting theological.” Jack rose. He brushed off the knees of his pants and headed back to his campfire.

“Maybe.” Part of what bothered Denario, now that he thought of it, was that the token looked new, not hundreds of years old. Who in the world had minted it? And why out of such pure silver? It wouldn't last. Already the grooves in the casting were filling with black tarnish.

Denario finished his maps and hid them on the lead raft around the edges of his tent. None of the dwarfs on board woke. Dodni was the only one who stirred. The little fellow made a grinding sound, studs against studs in his armor, as he moved his arm.

While on watch, the accountant considered the goddess Onuava and what she might represent aside from motherhood. There had to be something. But Denario didn't remember his own mother. Judging from the maternal women he'd met, Onuava might be the goddess of slapping. Or of yelling. He sat on the gunwhales and gazed downstream. The moon cast a glow over the creek, enough to see alligators coming. There wasn't a single shadow in the water. At one point, on the other side of the campfire, he noticed a pair of eyes. They weren't human. They edged closer. He saw they were set in the bandit face of a raccoon. It was the largest raccoon he'd ever seen but it looked scrawny at the shoulders. Swamp life had been hard on it.

“Scraps?” it said. It crept a few feet out of the woods and stopped. Its body glistened with water droplets and squelched with mud laid over its natural fur of grey and black stripes.

Denario leaned closer in the direction of the fire.

“Oh, come on.” The raccoon's jaws moved as it struggled with modern speech. “Any food scraps at all?”

“Not really,” Denario replied. He'd always suspected that raccoons were practical. “We're a tidy bunch. If you're willing to travel a couple hundred yards upstream, you'll find a troop of drunk men who've left their stew pots out.”

“How far is that?” The creature raised its head to stare in the right direction. Denario sighed to himself. Naturally an animal wouldn't understand distance measurements.

“About twenty lengths of these rafts.” He gestured to the vessel behind him.

“Not too far. I thought I smelled another fire.” The raccoon started to amble off, to the north and east.

“Fire doesn't scare you?” Denario asked as it left.

“No. And those traps aren't catching anybody, mister.”

“Huh.” Denario kicked a rocker with his heel. It turned up and threw a loop of rope very nearly over the toe of his boot. All the same, he understood the point. Magical animals had to be a little smarter than others and the traps lay out in the open.

For a minute, Denario contemplated taking other security measures. They didn't seem to be any. He drew a number 8 in the dirt and calculated the area it encompassed using the formula for ellipses twice. He spent a while approximating areas under curves using rectangles. He yawned. Eventually he rose, took out his baselard for a few practice swings, and hiked around the campfires until Jack came over to meet him.

“We're wearing down,” he said. “Put the sword away. Wake a dwarf.”

“Which one?”

“Doesn't matter. It's been hours. You've got to pilot tomorrow.”

“Who among them got rest?”

“Well, not the smithy. Anyone else can stand their turn.”

The accountant wandered over the downstream rafts, first the one he piloted, then the middle one. After a few minutes in the aisles between the cargo bins of the middle raft, he chose Dodni's religious brother. The sturdy fellow roused easily enough. After Denario dispensed a bit of most-likely-unwanted advice, including mention of the talking raccoon, he trudged to his own raft and from there to his tent. He checked over his shoulder to see the dwarf setting up watch by the campfire. The accountant nodded. He laid down. He shimmied under his low-hanging rawhide roof to get snug and discourage insects and closed his eyes.

He crossed his arms. He uncrossed them. He removed his sword belt and rolled onto his left side. After a few minutes, he wondered if he should burn a candle. Maybe he could write a letter to Pecunia or to Carinde. For that matter, maybe he didn't need a candle. Wizards made light without flame. How hard could it be? Denario sat up. He dabbled with magical commands. He tried number combinations like “Hex two ten” to put a ghost star in the air. It wasn't bright enough to illuminate more than his fingers. Out of curiosity, he found that a “Hex one eight” command removed it. When he brought the ghost star back, it wasn't even as bright as a firefly. There was a limit to the magic.

His thoughts raced. He wanted to see Ragna's silver token again but he would have to wait until morning or maybe the next lunch. The sigils on it made him nervous. Ever since the raccoon, Denario felt he was being watched. Probably he was, of course, either by other woodland animals or by alligators, but the feeling was more sinister than that.

For the first time in his life, he wanted to write his own numeromancy.

He had a particular spell in mind. Master Winkel had worked on it with him when he was twelve. That was the year Winkel discovered thefts from the guild hall. Small things had gone missing like wooden cups and plates, scraps from old scrolls, a copper candlestick, a small ceramic vase, and some inkpots. As leader of the guild, Winkel felt obliged to stop to the petty crimes. He toyed with numeromancy as the solution. But his spell proved hard to sustain. It was formed correctly, no problem, but the amount of magic a long-lasting spell took was prohibitive. He couldn't afford to call in a real wizard to manage it, so Winkel discussed the theft problem with the senior guild members, each of whom conducted a search of their homes. They discovered the apprentice responsible and dismissed him rather forcibly – five lashes from a professional torturer and a note to his parents.

The spell had been of no use in Oggli. Here, there was a chance it would feed off of the background magic and not require any effort to sustain.

Denario had to leave the raft to draw in the dirt. That meant a discussion with the cleric dwarf, who would rather have seen the accountant stay in bed. Denario made it clear this was his professional business. That ended the objections.

An Ogglian wizard would have chanted something like, “While the number of objects in the circle are not equal to the number of objects on the raft, run the 'send star' command.” Such a man, full of secret training, could do it in a simple way because the wizards knew arcane languages that gave them access to the world at a fundamental level. Accountants didn't know those languages. All of the tricks Denario understood were numerical fragments of the underlayer. Five years ago, he and Winkel had spelled out their commands in the number system that seemed to define reality. Winkel asserted, as a matter of faith, that magical numbers formed the basis for the wizard's languages. But how anyone could translate from numbers into those other tongues was beyond him and, possibly, beyond the wizards, too.

The column of hexadecimal numbers took form rather quickly under Denario's hand. He remembered nearly all of their purposes by heart. Most of his thinking went into making the spell as simple as he could. Then he walked a path around the gunwhales of the raft, marked the packages and people as he went, assembled his stones, made his circle, and ran a test.

The spell burped. It sent bright stars immediately. Denario had to run a 'Hex ought three' to shut it down. It had gone wrong. Why?

He crouched, hands in his hair, as he struggled to troubleshoot the problem. A mosquito took a lazy bite out of his left arm. Denario re-read the spell three times, trying to find the flaw. But he couldn't find one. Could the problem be in the circle? Yes. Aha. He put a finger on the pile of stones. He glanced behind him to see his mistake. He'd gotten the number of barrels and boxes on the boat correct. But he'd forgotten to include people. The dwarfs had to be counted in. He found stones for them, re-drew his circle, and re-ran the spell.

This time, everything remained quiet and dark. That was as it should be. To test the spell, he stepped onto the raft. Lights appeared, partially obscured by the glow of the campfire. Good. He stepped off. The twinkling lights faded.

“You're counting things on the boat?” murmured the dwarf beside the fire.

“Yes.”

“Well done. You really are quite smart for a human.”

Denario didn't know quite how to reply to that. Eventually, he settled for, “Thank you.”

He canceled the numeromancy, gathered up his tools, and headed back to the the raft. On the deck outside of his tent, he re-cast the spell, this time with one extra stone to account for his presence. Finally, he felt calm. He stood, hands on hips, and surveyed the dark landscape around him. Master Winkel would have been proud.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 132: A Bandit Accountant, 22.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Three: Land Pirates

The stop in Druhi Thal took less than half a day. The citizens were delighted to meet the dwarfs. They shared a dozen skins of beer with them. But then the locals left to do their chores. Simply put, there weren't enough people in town. There were no children except infants. The rest had died of a pinkish spotting sickness two years back. None of adults seemed wealthy enough to afford the dwarfs' work. They couldn't even pay a fair price for the commodity goods on the rafts. Jack made a few bargains out of pity for the citizens of Druhi Thal. He likely hoped, too, that he would get better trade from them in later years.

To Denario, the prospects for that looked slim. The mayor was a pasta farmer. It was a common enough trade in magical areas. Denario had seen rigatoni bushes on the banks of the No Map. The mayor said his fusilli trees were in bloom. Tending to them kept him busy. So he turned over his tour guide duties to a pig named Alf. Alf spoke common language with an old tongue accent and claimed to have gained the power of speech during a sacrifice ceremony. He'd really wanted to shout, 'Don't do this!' and, what with the help of magic, he'd said it.

The pig showed Denario a temple that had, among other holy symbols, the number 8 on its walls. Denario excused himself from the tour. He prayed to Melcurio and the local gods. He ate cheese, bread, and pickles. He drew math in the dirt and contemplated things that were infinitely large and infinitely small.

Back at the rafts, they cast off with barely a wave to Alf. Denario felt an increasing sense of concern about the Lost Temple and the magic around it. The mid-water was too deep for punts. They'd been forced to steer with oars. Yet Jack hadn't revealed his secret method of navigation through the temple straits. The accountant pressed. The river master replied, “Not quite yet. Tomorrow.”

The creek felt quiet. No flying gars glided by. A squid as large as a raft floated to the surface twenty yards away, thrashed, and dived deep. After that, even alligators were nowhere to be seen. Jack pulled up the fishing lines, all empty except for one that had been cut through. The crew ate lunch from a cheese wedge and a barrel of dried apples.

That's why it was a surprise to encounter another group of travelers.

Late in the day, as Denario steered the lead raft around a bend, he caught sight of a troop, partially armored and completely armed. They lined the Mundredi shore of the creek, the more magical side, and there were fourteen of them in all. For a few seconds, Denario gaped. His eyes took in the uniforms, which didn't match. One fellow wore a steel breastplate and carried a sword and shield. He looked like a deserter from the Ogglian infantry. Two wore armor plates with jerkins of purple, gold, and black, the colors of a foreign army. Six others looked like pirates. The accountant recognized that these men must comprise a caravan because they had four burros and two push carts among them. But he reversed his judgment a moment later. At the sight of Denario and his raft, they raised their weapons and let out a shout.

In their cast-off armor and with the eccentric but deadly-looking weapons in their hands, they looked like killers that had broken out of an Oupenli jail.

“Ahoy! Clever Jack!” A tall, piratical man raised his amber bottle high. There was no mistaking it for anything other than one of the two that Jack had let sail.

The raft master leaped from the middle boat to the front to join Denario. He had been working with the dwarfs on his equipment repairs since they'd declared the third raft finished. He cursed, not too loudly.

“Who are they?” Denario asked.

Jack cursed again. He shot the accountant a look of uncertainty. He hesitated before he raised his long oar in a salute toward the shore and the men in front of them. Ulf noticed the body language. He joined Denario in leaning closer to Jack.

“They call themselves Caravan of the Kill,” Jack murmured. “They're a rough bunch, worse than they look and that's pretty bad. I've dealt with them twice before, which is just enough to suspect they don't come by their goods fairly.”

“They looks like robbers,” said Ulf.

“I'm pretty sure they ambush other bandits or other caravans or both.”

“Is that 'kill' as in 'river' or 'kill' as in 'murder?'” Denario asked.

Jack snorted.

“Do we steer clear?” asked Ulf. “My chief will want to know. We can see they have one our our messages. That means they were meant to find it.”

“To their advantage or ours?”

“To everyone's, I hope. But Boldor trusts your judgment.”

The caravan leader, followed by four, then five, then a full half dozen men, walked out onto a spit of rocks, grass and sand. He resumed his waving. But while he shook the bottle, his men raised their bows, spears, swords, and a quarterstaff. Without asking, the accountant set down his oar. He reached through the front flap of his tent and pulled out the baselard. Ragna had cleaned it and put a fresh edge on. In a similar vein, Ragna and Ulf had adjusted Denario's hauberk so it fit him like a nobleman's. He was already wearing it, so he didn't need to adjust his clothes. Even his boots had seen repair. If it came to a fight, he'd die well dressed.

“Good man,” said Jack. He watched his assistant don the scabbard. “You steer the lead raft toward them. I'll hop back to the middle.”

“They outnumber us,” Denario pointed out.

“If I say 'Kilmun' or start pushing us in that direction, away from the caravan, you do the same. Got it?”

“Yes, captain.”

“We'll get our folks ready.” Ulf made a complicated gesture to his chief on the middle raft. But life underground didn't lend itself to such ways, apparently. Ulf achieved more by picking up his hammer and axe. Everyone knew what that meant. One by one, the dwarfs dropped their softer tools and picked up harder ones. Ragna grabbed a lever bar.

From the middle raft, Jack exchanged hand signals with the Caravan of the Kill and with more success than the dwarfs. The leader on the riverbank wore a red longcoat that had seen better days but there was no doubting the high quality of it. Denario could make out the brass buttons. The man kept a curved sword by his side. His curly black hair hung down to his waist. On his brow lay a line of fur that looked almost like a mustache for his forehead. Under it, his eyes glowed with a penetrating stare.

“Bags of stuff, Jack!” he shouted. His beard shook like a flag. It was as long as his hair. “We've got loads that's new! We have equipment that needs repairs!”

“They've heard of us.” On the raft behind Denario, Boldor sounded hopeful.

“No doubt,” said Jack. “Remember what I said last night about acting tough? And deadly?”

“Aye.”

“This would be a good time.”

The captain found a shallow spot and poled the middle raft towards the Mundredi side of the creek. Denario dipped in his punt and did the same. They still had space for a good landing by the sand spit. In fact, Denario saw that the best natural dock would nestle the second and third rafts around the spit while his own raft tied off at the trees twenty yards downstream. It meant sliding over a calm stretch of marsh reeds but he managed it. Naturally, Jack landed both of the other crafts perfectly. The caravan members didn't storm his boats, either. They accepted the ropes tossed to them, all except their leader, who handed his coil to someone else. The caravan aided in the tie-down. Denario disembarked alone, braid in hand, amidst three rough-looking armed men.

To his surprise, their captain screamed at them to help. They hopped to it, asking for ropes. Not at all to Denario's surprise, they proved experienced hands with the knots. He was even more certain that they'd jumped ship from somewhere.

“Good thing we found ya in time,” roared their chief. “Ya might 'ave sailed into the temple waters.”

“That's my job, Brand.” Jack's voice betrayed his irritation but only someone who knew him well could hear his change in tone. “You lot go around. I go through.”

“How?” Brand, the caravan chief, wailed theatrically. He threw up his arms. “How are ya alive? I know a captain what went out by the temple. He and three men, they never came back. They aren't the only ones.”

“What do you have to trade, Brand?”

“It's like that, is it? Well, I've got riches, Jack. Finished goods. Cloth out of the Oupenli market, linens and silk. I've got gold cups, silver spoons, steel knives, brass, and a bag of copper pennies and half-pennies. We left most of the lead munis on the ground. This stuff is heavy, Jack. We don't want to carry it all the way west.”

“Your donkeys must be tired,” the raft master said judiciously. He was being polite. They didn't look worn out, which begged for an explanation.

Brand barked a laugh. “I can 't fool ya, can I?”

“I didn't ask.”

“Well, I'll tell ya. It's funnier than it looks. We was attacked, Jack! Can ya believe it?” Brand snapped his fingers. “Mohi! Come here!”

An Ogglian man in a green shirt, a tattered hauberk, and leather boots hurried over.

“Did you lot attack us, six men on twenty?”

“We did.” Mohi had light brown hair and a fair complexion. When he blushed, his ears turned red. “Numbers don't matter.”

“Numbers are tricky, Mohi. Were ye carrying a bunch of silver and copper?”

“We were. My corporal said caravans were easy.” He shuffled his feet. “The first one was.”

“And the second one was me! What luck! They had two crossbows.” He gave Mohi a push, perhaps for association with those weapons. But Brand smirked. “Neither of them worked a lick. That's a great relief, Jack, let me tell you. When a bolt is pointed your direction but you see that the man's crank gear has broken teeth and the whipcord is just mulberry root twined for the look, it puts a smile on your face, it does.”

“Where were you when it began?” Lines etched Jack's face as he struggled to form a picture of the action. “This kind of fight happens on the southwest side of the creek. We're on the north.”

“You've got it exactly right. They laid an ambush not too far into the southwest trail. And Mohi's corporal wasn't the problem. Zaggi and I made quick work of him. The rest of them kept together. That was hard. We had to chase them through the forest.”

“You went off the path?”

“I know what everyone says. And it's true. We lost our way. We lost some men. But we kept up with Mohi. He led us to the their treasures and more. Lots more. We saw strange things. A bird taller than a man. A plant that eats birds.”

“And you came out here?”

“Yes. But we never saw the temple, Jack. We should have. All of that trouble to get through the magic and still we missed it. I'd like to see the white stones someday.”

“You're alive.” Jack shook his head, although whether it was in amazement at Brand's good fortune or in regret that of all the people who could have gotten so lucky, these fellows were the ones.

It took three quarters of an hour to get down to business. Brand insisted on giving a blow by blow account of his latest battle, which was interrupted by the politeness of the dwarfs, who demanded introductions. There were so many dwarfs and so many miscreants in Caravan of the Kill that the process took twenty minutes all by itself and called for a snack toward the end.

Jack shared out his saltiest hard tack. The caravan guards, especially the wounded, expressed their gratitude with trembling hands. As it turned out, they had looted the gold and silver so energetically that they'd scattered their food on the forest floor to make room. They'd had a day of fighting over scraps and another of starving since they'd escaped to the road. That was plenty of time to contemplate mistakes made in haste.

Brand's tale didn't dwell on their errors. He focused on heroism, mostly his own. During the battle and chase, his caravan members avoided giant snakes, saw blue men who disappeared into the bushes, lost four of their number although no one was sure how, tied themselves together by their shirt sleeves, found Mohi's treasure, fought off a giant black cat, and followed a blue man to the road. Brand didn't seem sure if the warrior painted in blue had led them to the road deliberately or by mistake. Regardless, Brand had the sense to forbid anyone from following the man back into the bushes. He understood that he now had to be on the north trail in spite of having never seen it before. So he followed it to water, which his men desperately needed, and here Mohi had found the bottle with messages in it waiting in an eddy current as if it had been meant for them.

Denario listened to the story from the edge of the lead raft, where he stood guard. One of Brand's men realized that the crates and barrels tied down over most of the deck held food. He tried to approach. The accountant drew his baselard. Ulf stepped next to him, hammer and axe in either hand. Faced down by the two of them, the man backed up all the way to Brand. But Denario sensed that this sort of hunger could start a riot. He wanted to kick Jack to make him start the negotiations before things got out of hand.

“It was all worthwhile, as you'll see,” said Brand. He strode smartly to his closest cart. His long, hairy hand reached into the top sack. A moment later, he pulled out a goblet. It was gold or at least plated with a metal that looked like gold. “Beautiful, isn't it? And we've got loads.”

Denario's gaze slipped over to the dwarfs. Boldor, Torgrim, and Dodni's brother were scowling at the goblet. Unlike the humans, they did not seem impressed.

“It's got jewels on it, too.” Brand gestured to a purple spot in a goldish setting.

“Paste,” announced Torgrim.

“Eh?” Brand peered closer at what he was holding.

“No, look. The next one around is amethyst.” Boldor squinted and pointed at a different side, hidden from Denario. “That's good. Keep turning the cup please, captain.”

Brand let himself be guided. It didn't come easy to him, Denario guessed, but the dwarfs were so polite and his curiosity about the treasures so intense that he gritted his teeth in the semblance of a smile. He listened. The dwarfs pronounced some metals to be good and some not, some jewels to be fakes and some real. After the caravan had received three appraisals informally on cups and plates this way, Jack stepped between the men and the dwarfs. He declared that it was time to negotiate.

He introduced his accountant and had him draw the Ogglian exchange rates in the sand. Brand gave Denario a thoughtful look.

“Who carries around this stuff in his head?” He scowled. But a moment later, he cracked a brown-toothed grin. “You're the one we read about in the news bottle!”

“I'm his agent here,” Jack said. “Let's hear what you want the dwarfs to do. If you have work for the accountant, I'll hear that too.”

“Hah! I don't use numbers. They're too tricky.” Brand lifted a harp out of the pile. It looked like it had been carved from pearwood. The strings were tight except for one, which had been damaged at its post. The caravan master wanted it repaired for resale. Boldor handed it over to Ragna, who spoke a price to the chief, who murmured to Jack.

With each piece, the process was nearly the same. Whether the job was to stitch leather, re-forge metal, fix a gem setting, or even reconstruct paste jewels, the dwarfs were careful to understand what was being asked before they offered an opinion. They passed their estimates through Jack Lasker. They even turned down some work. When they came to a broken silver pot that they declared, by use of a magnifying prism passed over the inspecting eyes, to be leaking raw magic, they advised Brand to abandon it. When presented with a broken fiddle, they recommended using it for scrap. When the talks came to a brass idol, they declined to melt it down.

“Mohi,” said Brand. He thrust out the eagle-cat idol in the direction of his lowest-ranking man. “Where in the hells did this come from?”

“I don't know,” said Mohi. “I'd swear to the gods that I never saw it until we rescued our cart. And I knew everything on the cart before. Things changed somehow in the times when we were gone.”

“From the magic?” Brand didn't like the idea.

“Maybe. Or the blue warriors traded us some things for some others.”

“Odd thought. They were around the carts, sure. But if they did that, why would they leave us anything, much less brass and gold?”

“Maybe they don't use the stuff they traded. A box of brass and silver necklaces is missing. On all of the blue men I saw, there was at least one bone necklace. I think one was wearing silver.”

Everyone puzzled over that for a moment. As the negotiations continued, the dwarfs got interested in the repair work. They forgot to act tough. They slouched. They picked up softer tools and supplies like weaving combs, crochet hooks, and cuts of scrap leather. Every now and then, Boldor would glare and then they'd remember. They'd puff their chests, swing their hammers wide, and stride with a longer stance. But Denario watched the Caravan of the Kill as they witnessed the dwarfs' act and saw that the real toughs found it amusing. They weren't fooled. Brand chuckled. But although the dwarfs were faking their martial readiness, they weren't pretending about their expertise as craftsmen. They offered to repair the caravan's armor and weapons, to the delight of all. They finished with an announcement that they could turn the pieces of the two battered crossbows into one that functioned the way a crossbow should. Brand cackled.

Jack drove hard bargains. The leader of the caravan waved his arms, stamped his feet, pulled his hair, pulled his beard, and even yanked off his hat and stomped on it. That was when Denario put a hand on the pommel of his sword, sure it would come to fighting. But Brand kept himself under control. After a while, Denario realized that the theatrics were part of Brand's bargaining style. He had a big voice and wide, brown-toothed grin. Even though he wasn't unusually tall or strong, everyone looked smaller next to him.

“How much for the lightning water?” Brand swiped a finger in the direction of Denario's raft. It was thick with clay jars. Denario glanced at the diagonal 8 written along the sides of them. He would be sorry to see them go.

Apparently Jack felt the same way. He eyed the alcohol warily. The riverman didn't seem to want the Caravan of the Kill to get drunk. But they were determined. Brand kept raising the price until Jack, for a whopping 15 silvers, agreed to supply a dozen jugs. The men whooped.

“I'll help ya,” Jack called to his partner. When he climbed aboard next to Denario, he shook his head to one side, a gesture for the accountant to come closer. Denario did. He had so many things to say, he could barely speak.

Finally, he settled for, “Do you think this is clever, Jack?”

“No.” Jack grimaced. “But there's no choice. Either we sell them liquor or they try to steal it.”

“The fellows in purple are already picking fights with the men in lamellar jackets.”

“I see.”

“And the Ogglians, damn them, would bully the dwarfs already if Brand didn't call them back. Is there anything we can do?”

“Yes.” The river master pulled off the last tie-down for the jug at his feet. He paused to whisper, “When the dwarfs finish work, no matter how late it is, we push off and float downstream.”

“Into the magic?” Denario worried. “At night?”

“Just enough to get away from the drunkards.”

Denario nodded. When it was put that way, it made sense.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 131: A Bandit Accountant, 22.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Two: Avoid Magic, Obviously

“Fisherman, if you spare me ...”

Wham. Jack smashed in the fish's skull with his hatchet. The raft near him vibrated.

“You don't talk to the bucca?” Denario exclaimed. He thought about all of the magical stories that began with talking fish. A lot of wishes got granted that way according to the poets. There were at least a dozen such stories around Oggli in the libraries and on the tongues of sailors. There were even more stories of wishes granted if you counting those that involved other talking animals.

“Too many of them around here, close to the Lost Temple.” Jack tossed the body onto his scaling board. A dwarf picked it up and sniffed. “Besides, I've been on this creek for a score of years. These fish don't have anything to tell me that I don't know.”

He pulled up the second line. The fish on the end of it was ready.

“Fisherman, wait!”

Wham. He tossed it in the direction of the makeshift kitchen again. This time, the body was intercepted by a dwarf in dark clothes. This was the dwarf that had been most upset by the prospect of eating creatures that talked, although all of the dwarfs had rebelled against it. It took a long hour of persuasion from Boldor and Jack, followed by a council between Boldor and all of the dwarfs, before anyone was convinced. The shortest, darkest dwarf, apparently Dodni's brother, converted first. That was because no one else dared to go before him. He was their expert in ethics and when he learned that they were passing into a land in which most animals talked and some plants did, too, he declared it all mjohlnar, which as far as the accountant could tell meant 'exempt due to hammers.' It was hard for Denario to be confident of his translation because the dwarfs switched so often between the human, modern tongue and their older one.

At any rate, Dodni's brother insisted on the burden of cooking so that his soul would be tainted – although when he referred to the taint in dwarfish he used lystet, which Denario thought meant 'lightened' – before his friends' souls were. That was in case he were wrong about eating things that spoke. He permitted Dodni to help but he did it with an air of grief about the fact that it couldn't be avoided.

He and Dodni, who dressed mostly in shades of green and brown, scaled the fishes, de-boned them, and popped chunks of meat into separate stew pots for dwarf and human. That seemed to be an invention of Dodni's brother, who had the idea of keeping a sort of ceremonial separation between his folk and humans. No dwarf objected, not even Dodni, because it seemed to be the dark dwarf's job to keep them properly dwarfish. Although the same ingredients, even the same spices, went into both pots, Dodni and his brother said dwarfish blessings over only their pot.

There had been three days of this sort of behavior so far. The dwarfs paid for math lessons and map-reading lessons every night. They liked it when Denario wore his accounting cap and vest to teach. They liked it even more when he berated them about sloppy math or geometry. The dwarfs seemed to feel that yelling was part of teaching and Denario didn't do enough. All in all, they made it clear that theirs was a professional relationship. The separation of meals reinforced that.

Today, Denario was too busy to object to the lunch situation. He had to steer the rafts, call for Jack's help often, which irritated the boat master, and he had to enlist three dwarfs to help him around sandbars without bothering Jack. He'd gotten to know Borghild, Torgrim, and Ulf well enough for them to give him a dwarfish nickname, Skilling. He gathered that Skilling was a) some sort of joke, and b) not very mean, because Dodni and his brother the ethics expert didn't object to it. He'd learned that a skilling was a sort of dwarfish coin. The nickname seemed to be about more than that, though, and the human words kill, meaning river, killing, meaning murder, and skill, meaning probably that the dwarfs liked his teaching, were all tied up together in it.

“Sorry, nothing on line three,” announced Jack. “And our accountant hasn't hunted any flying gars this morning.”

“I told you all, that was an accident.” Denario had been laying out pieces of maps yesterday to see how much of a full chart he could draw before No Map Creek took it. He'd discovered that writing equations to describe the creek produced less reaction. That was interesting. But the area of creek drawn on a piece of birch bark had produced a flying gar, which dropped down and ate the bark. When the map was gone, the creature lingered for a moment. So it hadn't escaped Denario's sword. To his surprise, the baselard's sharp edge had sliced the creature's head off. Well, mostly off. It had been messy.

“May we have another such accident,” mumbled Dodni. He gave Denario a gentle smile. It was a reminder that last night's dinner featuring the gar had been a good one.

“If you'd stop rebuilding the third raft, Jack, I'm sure we'd catch more fish.” Denario took the opportunity to point out that their current meal looked sparse. It would have to be stretched with their trade goods.

“That's true,” admitted Jack. “But then we'd have less raft.”

“There's nothing particularly wrong with the one you built.” Denario pointed to the bright mallow boards. “And the fact that you're rebuilding it while you're floating on it down the center of the creek is worrisome. I'm an inexperienced pilot, there are alligators in the water, we've got flying gars overhead, and none of the dwarfs can swim.”

“You're doing fine.”

“For now.”

“What I made before was rushed,” Jack explained. “You helped me caulk between the beams and spars with sedge. That was nicely done. But it's leaking. And the dwarfs have gotten better with their boat craft.”

“We learned different ways for different water vessels,” explained Boldor next to him. “Now that we understand human ways, we'll make the accountant's raft fit for the darkest ocean.”

That the dwarfs still regarded the raft as Denario's personal property was charming. They were probably right about the comparison between their skills and his, too. They'd proved adept so far at fixing everything he could imagine.

They had repaired his theodolite on the first evening while he taught them basic geometry in their rest area, an old Kilmun church. Then they'd re-made one of his travel bags on the next night, sleeping on the rafts, because they couldn't stand to see its shoddy workmanship glaring at them from the spot outside Denario's tent. This morning, they'd voiced their intentions to do something about his armor. In fact, Denario had counted the human items that met with the dwarfs' approval and found only four: his custom-made backpack from Ruin Thal, his best drawing compass, and the two rafts that Jack had built by himself. The fact that there was anything human-made of which they might approve had surprised both the dwarfs and the humans. Humanity was improving over the generations. Since the invention of writing, the fact that humans didn't live as long as dwarfs had stopped being such a disadvantage.

“There's five of you working constantly, six with Jack,” Denario observed. It looks like you've already rebuilt half.”

“Only about a third,” called Boldor.

Jack nodded at this assessment. He hopped from the middle raft, where he'd been checking the fishing lines, to the last one.

All of the crew except Jack were limited to the particular rafts on which they'd launched. That meant Ulf and a portly dwarf named Ragna were stuck with Denario. Ulf's job was to help Denario steer, so that made sense, but Ragna's job as far as Denario could see was merely to provide companionship for Ulf. Ragna nominally had been given the task of fixing the lead raft that didn't need fixing. Instead, Ragna spent most of his time fiddling with Denario's armor. The accountant was happy to let the dwarf do it because he didn't want anyone re-building the raft he was driving. And Denario didn't know much about armor. If nothing else, Ragna was giving it a good cleaning. Maybe he'd improve something.

The middle raft held Dodni and his unnamed brother. They were in the process of adding cabbage and turnips to the soup pots. The vessel also bore the two other dwarf pilots, Borghild and Torgrim, who realized that they didn't have much to do in their current situation. With Denario steering the lead vessel and Jack pitching in on the trailing end, the pair responsible for the middle raft could take turns napping, so they did.

The rest of the dwarf crew rode the pieces of Denario's failed raft. Those six, counting Jack, balanced on the timbers even while, in the early morning, they divided the vessel into thirds. Later, they rejoined the three sections without sedge reed caulking. They seemed willing to sink low in the water as they re-arranged planks. Waves sluiced over their decks through gaps in the gunwhales. Yet they carried on as if nothing were wrong. The only times they paused were for Jack to steer, to fish, or to poke an alligator that had swum over to investigate the rearmost fishing line. That had led to cursing from Jack and, to Denario's surprise, from the alligator.

He would have sworn that the beast muttered something in Ogglian after the boatman poked it in the eye. But it took the catch, dived deep, and crested near shore with the wiggling tail of a catfish still protruding from its jaws. Denario elected not to mention what he'd heard in case it was his imagination.

By the time the soup was done, the third raft was so well repaired on one side that it leaned toward the Kilmun shore. Even with Jack and the dwarfs arranging themselves and their tools to the good half, they couldn't even it out.

“The progress is heartening,” announced Boldor. He held a hammer in one fist and an awl in the other. “But all the same, dwarfs prefer to eat while sitting on firm ground.”

“Yes, I'd prefer not to eat soup while standing at an angle,” said Jack. “Denario, land us anywhere that there aren't alligators waiting.”

It wasn't hard. The accountant located a slow bend in the No Map, which was protected by a treefall, and steered them into the calms. He checked for alligators and saw only a hanging tree, which he'd come to understand was sort of a home for male sirens. The trees usually held half a dozen reed ropes dangling down in parallel lines from the largest branch. They were where the males hung caught game to eat later or to share with females. This one had only three ropes and no game, so it was probably not in much use. It was also a good sign there would be no other monsters. Denario aimed for the south of the riverbank and managed to drive his craft onto a sandbar. That was perfect. He tied off his mooring lines on birch trees.

“Borghild, Torgrim!” he called to the second raft. The dwarfs were having a slow time of it. They were pushing hard with the punts and he could tell they weren't listening. They'd tossed a rope to Ulf and another to Ragna for help in getting their boat docked. “Ulf! Don't tie off on the tree with the three ropes hanging down.”

“Aye aye, Skilling.” Ulf had started to head for it as if it were a traditional tie-down spot. He veered to his left.

Ragna paused. He had a coil in his hands and an eye on the hanging tree.

“Can we know why?”

“It was shaped by a magical creature that looks like a sort of water troll,” Denario tried to explain. “They're called sireni because they sing. I don't think this one is around right now. But if he stops by and sees that we've used his tree, he'll fight us for it.”

Ragna's eyebrows shot up. He scuttled off to the left and swung his rope around a tree next to Ulf's. Together, they tried to lever the middle raft to shore. Denario finished his knots and leaped in to help Ragna. He didn't think he did much good. Even the weakest dwarf was stronger than he was.

He did better with the last raft. Jack tossed a line to him. Denario moored the boat in a few seconds. The only problem was that the raft had settled at a rough point in the No Map, one with hardly any shore. The crew would need to climb off the gunwhales and shuffle down a narrow path between tree roots and the raft until they reached the point where the riverbank widened.

Before they had a chance to disembark, the dwarfs spotted message bottles.

The two containers were sandy yellow. They'd floated into an eddy current behind a fallen tree. They'd stuck not due to any branch but due to the backwards course of the water. The next rainstorm would have changed the flow and freed them. As it was, Boldor resolved to have both bottles as soon as he figured out what they were. He took the pick hammer from his belt. A team of three dwarfs held him by the back of his brown shirt as he leaned over the gunwhales on the rear of the raft. With the long, hooked end of his hammer, he scooped the closest bottle. His touch was gentle. He never cracked or overturned the thin neck.

“Nicely done,” said Jack when the bottles came close.

“Do these belong to you, sir?” asked Boldor as he took the first one out of the water. He seemed prepared to hand it over.

“No. And these are glass, so they come from somewhere close. If they'd drifted down from far away, they'd be made of pottery.”

“They look akin.” Boldor handed the first one to a dwarf next to him and, with assistance from his compatriots, set about capturing the other. “Could they have the same message, do you think? I was hoping to learn of work. You got us a job in that church but that was more the accountant's line of business. It needed geometry.”

“It's rare that someone calls for employees this way,” said Jack. “Except in the fall, I suppose, when everyone wants field hands. As I've said, northeast of the Lost Temple here, work may be scarce. What are you looking for?”

“Ironmongery would be preferred. But now boat work, too, or building water pumps.”

The accountant and river master exchanged a glance. Then they returned to watching the action. It took the dwarf chief another minute to hook the second message and drag it in. His crew stayed with him for the duration, out of fear for him falling in or simply due to their dwarfish sense of propriety. When Boldor stood and belted his hammer, the rest resumed their disembarkment. The dwarf who had been entrusted with the two bottles grinned as if holding treasure. Boldor, at everyone's urging, agreed to read the messages as they ate.

Denario ladled himself a second helping before Boldor finished his meal. Only then was the first scroll presented. The material looked to have been created from a clean lambskin.

“Oh, it's news from the Gods of the River.” Boldor scanned the rows of the letters. He scowled in the direction of Jack, then Denario. “It isn't directly from them, is it?”

“It's from one of their priests. We repaired their church two nights ago. You should be familiar with them. They were decent. A particular priest of theirs sponsors the news. Saying it's from the Gods of the River tells everyone that he's expecting to make no profit.”

“How unusual. There are four items of news, all laid out separately. I had no idea that humans in the countryside did this sort of thing. I thought it was only a few city humans. Well, the letters are all in the same hand. It's a mixture of the human old tongue and a new one. I'll see if I can work it out.”

He puzzled through each bit of news before he read. Once he had to enlist Jack's help in deciphering a pictograph. The first bulletin addressed the shortage of barley in a Mundrei town, Meye Bad. The Meye Bad spring crop had been transmuted by a magical, heavy dew into a thicket of rose bushes. The roses were excellent in color and taste. But the village wanted to trade most of them for barley.

The second item was a warning. The priest advised travelers to avoid the Mundredi village of Meander Thal. Half of the residents there had broken out in blue bruises. No one knew the cause. The gods said it wasn't them. Several older women, including a priestess, had died. Five children had succumbed to the malady. The dwarf, Boldor, paused in his reading. He rubbed his eyes. The deaths of the young, even human young, seemed to affect him.

The third announcement was a blessing from the Priestesses of Ill. Apparently, the Goddess of Ill belonged to a pantheon of small gods in No Map Creek. She warned everyone to avoid areas of heavy magic this month.

“That doesn't tell us much,” complained Boldor. “Only fools remain in lands of heavy magic for long. It's rare that anyone, even such as Clever Jack, makes it through.”

He bowed his head in the boat master's direction. So did many of his followers.

“The last message is, 'The Story of the Hideous Book Writer.' Is that correct?” He puzzled over a symbol that Denario was sure was a pictograph. “The runes are crude.”

“It's probably meant to convey 'Oggli Accountant,'” Jack offered.

“But the only … oh ho!” Boldor turned his head toward Denario. He burst into a belly laugh. The dwarfs on either side of him laughed as well but they exchanged worried glances. “How official looking this is. 'The Ugli Accountant, Favored of the Mundredi, Said to Be Friend to All of the Clans, Travels This Creek,' the story begins. Heh.”

The news that Boldor read contained brief descriptions of four accounting jobs: the corrections to split-stick records at the Harvest Temple, the repair of the water screws at Barrel Bad, the audit of the books for the Green Caravan, and the repair of the temple floor. Clever Jack was right. The news must have been launched from nearby.

Some of the details seemed exaggerated but otherwise the word-of-mouth between towns along the creek was as accurate as in any city.

“'The accountant is recruiting for an army of joint tribes,'” said Boldor. “That's how it ends. Is that true?”

“No.” Denario waved off the suggestion.

“Yes,” countered Jack. He held up both hands for a moment as he started to explain. “I know you feel you've given up. But in each village, you mention the Mundredi army. You answer questions about it. You write letters of passage to Fort Dred for the most criminally-minded of the young men. Surely you can understand if people see you as a recruiter.”

“This story is floating down the creek,” Boldor held up the second scroll. It had been pulled from the other bottle and unwrapped. “It's in many copies, I must suppose, unless we happened to find the only two.”

“I'm acquainted with the particular priest who writes these bulletins,” said Jack. He had finished his second helping before most of the dwarfs had finished their first. He rose. “He sends two dozen copies at a time, each of them charmed. It's interesting that we would find a single bottle, much less a pair of them.”

“It doesn't seem unusual,” said Boldor. “That's a high number floating around the creek.”

“This is area is thick with magic.” The river master shook his head. He scowled. “The River Gods clergy pray for favors. They get them, too, when their gods show a bit of interest. That's how the clergy get the charms. Were there none in the bottle?”

“What do they look like?”

“To the eye, they are clay beads. There are charms inside the clay. Those are meant to ensure that folks who need the news are the ones who get it.”

“Yes.” The dwarf who'd handled the amber bottles held the mouth of one up to his eye. “There's a round clay ball in each.”

“Right, then. Those who don't need the news can't see the bottles.”

“But we saw them. So we must need to know.”

“There were four items of news.” Jack raised a single finger. “One is for us. Or for only one of us, possibly.”

“It's obviously the story of the accountant,” said Boldor flatly.

“But why?”

“Because … hmm.” The dwarf chieftain rubbed his bare upper lip. All of his compatriots had beards but no mustaches. It seemed to be their family trait. “Because we must need to pay more attention when he teaches us about maps.”

“That could be.”

“Or maybe the accountant needs to hear about himself for some reason?” ventured Dodni.

“I'm just an ordinary journeyman.” Denario felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny. “This news list makes me seem better than I really am.”

“Listen to ya,” Jack scoffed. “What about the church floor repair?”

“It was a simple tesselation.”

The others around the campsite laughed. Jack put his face in his hands for a moment. When he let himself emerge a moment later, his expression was neither of anger nor humor. It was of patience.

“The dwarfs did the work,” Denario explained. The crew had performed more meticulously than humans and, oddly enough, with faster results. “They're craftsman. All I did was explain a bit of geometry.”

“Oh, Skilling,” moaned Ulf. Beside him, Ragna nodded.

“Mathematics is your craft, master accountant,” Boldor intoned. “I've never met a human who is moving their field forward until you. Even Jack, an accomplished master himself, does not seem to be making boats that no one has tried before. But you are going to depths where even dwarfs have not ventured. I tell you that as a sincere compliment.”

“Do I deserve it? The heads of my guild say that I lack years of experience.”

“All human lack years when compared to dwarfs.”

“Den,” said the raftsman rather lazily. He put his hands behind his head. “Didn't you tell me that you'd passed your guild master exams?”

“Oh, yes. I did that two years ago while under Master Winkel.”

“And you had the best scores in the history of your guild?”

“Maybe.” Denario blushed. “Well, yes. I'll train up one of my apprentices to do better still, though, probably Guilder or Shekel.”

“So you're a master teacher as well? Have you trained other teachers?”

“Just my apprentices.” Denario shook his head. “And my old Master Winkel. He was tolerant like that. He enjoyed it when I learned something new and taught it. A lot of the time, someone else had already thought of the same idea, of course. But sometimes I solved the problem in a different way and that was worthwhile. He'd write the solution down in the guild library. Sometimes I solved new problems about prime numbers or posed a new problem about infinities. Then Winkel would write to the masters in Muntar. He took me to the court to discuss the ideas that I had when they seemed new. Sometimes the nobles took an interest.”

“As well they should,” said Boldor, hand on knee. Jack merely shrugged.

“But I didn't teach masters or nobles as a rule. It was a dozen times at most, not counting Barto of Oggli, surveyor to the Marquis, or Winkel himself.”

“You keep saying no,” said Dodni, seated next to Boldor. “Yet the rest of your words say that you taught masters.”

“Aye.”

“I'm a journeyman. And back in Oggli, I'm broke, too. I'm just trying to keep our apprentices housed and fed.”

“That's not what we'll say in any bottle message.” Jack scowled. But he clapped his hands. “News of us is what we'll write. We've been given two bottles. We were meant to find them. That means we can add our own news to the mix and it'll be about us and the good things we can do. Everyone should know about the skilled craftsmen coming downstream. Gods, I'll bet these dwarfs haven't even heard about a concept called 'advertising.' It's a human thing.”

The dwarfs huddled together for a moment, more than half of them.

“We've heard the term. We know a bit of how it's done in Oupenli,” said Boldor. “Humans pay other humans to say good things about them. It creates a falsely good reputation. That makes it immoral.”

“Good thing you've got an agent.” Jack's sarcasm made Denario wince.

This time, the dwarfs did more than murmur. Boldor and Dodni's brother fell into a heated debate in their private language, which sounded to Denario like rocks cascading into a landslide. Soon Borghild, Torgrim, and Dodni leaped into it. From the look of their gestures, they were siding with their leader. Boldor swept his arms wide. That cut off Borghild from the dwarfish cleric. It also paused the argument.

“Everything you say about us must be true,” Boldor stated with his eye locked on his cleric.

“Seems fair.” Jack tilted his head.

“No dwarfish hands may touch the page.”

“The writing is a chore for our accountant.” Jack jabbed his thumb in Denario's direction. “After that, I'll set the bottles afloat.”

The dwarfs leaned together for another consultation. It didn't take long.

“Such things are exempt because we are under the hammer. We know this.” The chief looked to his feet for a moment. “Although I am aware of the immorality of advertisement, I made an agreement with you. We are to be guided by you in human ways.”

“It's settled, then.” Jack's tone of voice became more business-like than usual. “We'll add our news to the bottles and let them go ahead of us before we settle in this evening. They'll get a half-day start on us. It's a chance at finding more work.”

“I thought there were no more towns,” Denario noted. “There's only the temple ahead.”

“On the Mundredi side, that’s true. But on the Kilmun shore, there's Druhi Thal and Sadri. They're both small but, well, who knows? Besides those places, the bottles could find their way to towns far past the temple. The River Gods News has made it to Oupenli before.”

That reminded Denario of the rest of the news bulletins. While he spent his paper and ink, for which he was paid with promises, he contemplated the warning from the Priestess of Ill. Everyone was instructed to avoid areas of high magic for a month. The Lost Temple was two days away.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 130: A Bandit Accountant, 22.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
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.”