Sunday, September 27, 2015

Not Zen 174: Responsibility

Plainsville. On Tuesday night at 200 West street, a pedestrian was struck by an object hanging out of the open window of a vehicle. Emergency responders reported loss of blood from the injury. The victim, a minor, was transported to the city hospital where she was reported in stable condition.

"Give me your gym towel," Laurel said. She held our her hand.

Her friend backed away. "Are you going to get blood on it?" she asked.

"What kind of question is that?" Laurel returned her attention to their classmate. The girl was bleeding from the shoulder. Fluid kept coming, more than Laurel had ever seen. She pressed on the shoulder. Her fingers stemmed the flow a little. She would have felt better if she could make a tourniquet. Or if an adult would step in to do everything. Where were the grown-ups? She knew she'd seen a couple of teachers standing around. Somebody needed to tie off this arm.

A blue truck had struck the first girl out of class. 

Actually, the vehicle itself hadn't made contact. There had been a pole sticking out of the back window on the driver's blind side. Something on the end of the pole must have been sharp because the truck wasn't moving fast but the girl, when hit, yelled, "Ow!" She'd spun as if nearly knocked over but she managed to stay on her feet. She had chuckled in embarrassment for a moment. She'd taken a step. The truck had kept going. 

The girl had taken two more strides, staggered, and fell to her knees in the street. She'd dropped her bag. Her right hand had risen to her left shoulder. Her eyes had rolled up. She'd collapsed.

That's when Laurel had rushed forward. It shocked her that no one else did. The street and sidewalks were full of people.

"Forget the towel, then. Call the police," Laurel ordered her friend. When her friend didn't move, she shot a meaningful glance at the next girl over, another member of their class. But that girl was staring at the blood. It had a rhythm to it. 

Laurel leaned over the shoulder wound and added more of her weight to the act of preventing the bleeding. It seemed to work although she could still feel the surges of the blood. It felt like something squirming beneath her fingertips.

"Why is no one moving?" she shouted. 

She spent half a minute trying to get the other girls to tie tourniquets for her or at least lend them her gym towels. A couple people moved a little. One opened her backpack. Everyone else did nothing more than stare. Finally, man with a beard and a white, button-down shirt poked his head over the gathering crowd. She recognized him, a teacher. 

"You're blocking traffic," he said.

"What?" At first, she couldn't believe she'd heard him correctly. Then she realized that he must not know what was going on. She shouted at him, "Make a tourniquet!"

He pressed forward between students until he could see the figure lying on the ground. That made him step back.

"Is that blood?" he asked.

"What do you think?" Now he was starting to seem timid and a bit slow-witted. She had liked him before this although mostly by reputation.

"I'm not qualified to help." He held up both hands as if to absolve himself.

"Get someone who is!"

"Right, right." He continued stepping backwards. "I'll get Mrs. Laudine."

"Fine." Two years ago, Laurel had been in the woman's class for a semester. Mrs. Laudine seemed like the best choice among the faculty if she were nearby.

"I'll be back soon." The teacher turned to go.

"Call for help first!" Laurel shouted at his back. He paused to look around at the school girls. 

"All of you stay here. Keep blocking traffic," he said. Then he decided on a student to make the call. He gave her instructions. The student nodded.

As soon as he left, the by-standers started to talk about the accident. New arrivals to the throng of onlookers posed questions to anyone willing to admit they were a witness. No one asked the important ones, though, like how they could help. No one stepped forward from the crowd. 

"I didn't notice the truck," said one of her friends.

"It was a van," someone else countered.

"Did you get the license plate?"

Laurel wanted to scream at them for occupying themselves with irrelevant things. They needed to save a life. But the other girls kept their distance from her. Meanwhile, the blood flow slowed. Laurel didn't think that was a good thing. The pulse that she felt beneath her fingers had nearly disappeared. 

She studied the face of the victim for a minute. The lips had grown pale. 

After a while, a set of heavier footfalls announced the arrival of more grown-ups. The crowd began to part. The first sign of Mrs. Laudine was the wide, brown dress. Next came a glimpse of her grey hair. The older woman swept aside the students and non-students alike with a grim expression. Behind her followed a pair of other teachers. One of them carried a first aid kit. 

"Laurel, right?" said Mrs. Laudine with a look of recognition. She set her stance wide and placed her fist on her hips. "Don't move. Don't let up on the pressure while we look. Can you do that?"


Laurel almost cried with relief as adults at last took over the care of the accident victim. For a while, she closed her eyes. She didn't have to think so much about everything that was going wrong. Mrs. Laudine had her assistants spread out a blanket. One of them used a towel to wipe blood off of Laurel's arms. They cleaned up the scene enough for Mrs. Laudine to kneel down on yet another, folded towel. She bent closer for a look. Her hands moved folds of cloth with care.

In her fist, she held a professional, pre-made tourniquet. It was a thick strand of rubber. But even after two or three minutes, Mrs. Laudine couldn't find a place to tie it off. She frowned.

"How are you holding up, Laurel?" she asked.


"There's nothing we can do with our equipment that's better than direct pressure. You seem to be on the right spot. I'm afraid to let you move." The matron sighed.

"Yes, ma'am." She gulped.

"Marty?" The woman shouted to one of the other teachers. "It's been, what, ten minutes since this happened. That's a lot of blood. What's the status of the ambulance?"

"I didn't make the call myself," he said.

"I did." A girl raised her arm. "But I don't know when it's coming. They told me to hang up."

"That's not right." Mrs. Laudine shook her head. "Try again. No, you, Marty. You've got a nice, deep voice. Call and ask about the ambulance that should be on the way to this address. Don't let them tell you to get off of the line. Make sure they know you're serious."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Laudine put her hands over Laurel's. That was how she took turns applying direct pressure to the wound. Rather than have Laurel remove herself from the effort, which would mean the patient losing blood, Mrs. Laudine added her own physical force. She was strong. Her thick forearms bulged. When she pressed down, Laurel leaned against the larger woman to rest.

She noticed that the teacher's dress was a thick one. The material felt coarse on the inner layer as folds of the skirts turned the wrong way but it was glossy and almost waterproof on the outside. She smelled faintly of perfume. Her shoes were sensible, flat and black.

Twice, the teacher eased up and asked Laurel to lean harder. That was so Mrs. Laudine could check for breath and other vital signs. There still were some good signs, which Laurel tried not to think about. If she let her hopes rise too high, her dread of being told to give up rose as well. She couldn't bear the thought of someone telling her it was over, that there was no point in going on. She kept pressing. She kept leaning against the teacher when she could.

"At last," Mrs. Laudine breathed when the ambulance arrived.

"Where is she?" a man called, someone sounding casual, almost careless.

"Dispatch said someone was hit by a car?" said another man. Voices in the crowed on on-lookers started to answer.

It took less than a minute to untangle the caretakers from the cared. The ambulance men started to speak sharply to Mrs. Laudine but a few seconds in, they gave up. They moved with polite, fast attention to detail. They put their equipment in place, including a stetcher. It took them less than half a minute. They helped Mrs. Laudine to her feet. The men ignored Laurel. They didn't so much push her aside as set themselves up where she was and expected her to move.

"What did you say?" she asked one who mumbled. The smell of the blood had started to bother her. It was sticky and it smelled that way, salty and clinging.

Instead of responding, one man moved her hands while the other replaced her. The man who dropped into her place seemed sure of himself despite the renewed bleeding from the unconscious girl. He found a pressure point under her armpit. He pressed on the shoulder and the pressure point at the same time. The second man pulled out a white tourniquet that seemed too large. It looked like someone had cut away part of a straightjacket.

As she watched, Laurel began to shiver. 

The men appeared to make mistakes. The tourniquet took three tries. They kept at it. Eventually, they fit it into a position they felt was sensible and inflated it. That was clever. The tourniquet naturally tightened. The main thing going wrong, it seemed to Laurel, was the way in which the ambulance crew showed they didn't know the girl. It wasn't as if Laurel knew her very well either. Their acquaintance was mostly for a smile and a wave but it seemed wrong to leave any kind of friend in the company of people who didn't care.

Someone, a teacher, started wiping the dried blood from Laurel's fingers. A student patted her knee with a gym towel. Laurel couldn't stop shivering. The ambulance driver, the third man of the group and the last to step out of the vehicle, approached from her left. He tried to push her aside. He told the girls, including Laurel, that they shouldn't be here.

"You shouldn't watch," he said.

It didn't make any sense. Laurel didn't know what to say so she ignored him. Two of the teachers spoke to the driver. Together, the teachers and the driver asked the crowd to step away from the ambulance doors. Everyone did. Before Laurel knew it, the two paramedics lifted the fallen girl on a stretcher and carried her into the ambulance. The driver hesitated, hand on one of the doors.

"Do you want to ride along, ma'am?" he said to Mrs. Laudine.

"She shouldn't go alone," the matron answered. "However, it would be more proper if someone from the administration accompanied you."

She pointed out the assistant principal. He had been merely another figure in the crowd. At Mrs. Laudine's direction, however, he put a hand over his tie and clambered in. He sat on the riding bench next to a paramedic. The last Laurel saw of him, as the driver closed the doors, he was holding a hand over his stomach. He looked sick.

Mrs. Laudine turned to Laurel as the vehicle pulled away.

"You keep shivering, dear," she said. She took Laurel's left hand and wrapped it in both of her own.

"I c-can't stop." Her lips quivered as she spoke. Her head bobbed in affirmation.

"Come inside with me. Let's clean up."

"Yes, ma'am."

Laurel concentrated on walking. She kept Mrs. Laudine's brown dress in her field of vision as they went. As they passed through the doors into a wide hallway, the matron spoke over her shoulder.

"You made the right decisions, Laurel." She gave a curt nod of approval. "I want to make sure you understand that. You gave critical care. You told your friends to do correct things."

"It was all messed up." Laurel squinted. She felt tears starting to flow. With an effort, she held them back.

"It always is. This was your first time. Every emergency is chaotic."

Mrs. Laudine's long strides outpaced Laurel. She paused, turned, and waited. Laurel removed her hands from her face. She tried to march at a steady. pace

"Sometimes," her teacher told her, "you learn that you're the one. You're the responsible person."

"In emergencies?" She laughed. She hadn't felt that way.

"In everything, probably." Mrs. Laudine tapped Laurel's arm with her meaty fist, a gesture of camaraderie that seemed awkward because it was forced and genuine because it was meant. It was followed by a quick hand clasp and a release. "When others around you don't step forward, you'll organize your office farewell party. You'll invite out the friend who's going to cry about her relationship or her dead grandmother. It's going to be you."

Mrs. Laudine led her around a corner and down another hall. Laurel tried to understand what the older woman was saying. It didn't sound so bad.

The woman started to lead the way through an open door. Laurel froze.

"This is the teacher's lounge," she said. It was one of the few rooms with a carpet, dark and brown. It took up three-quarters of the floor. The remainder of the floor, a kitchenette, displayed a pattern of alternating-shade olive tiles.

"We'll walk through. My office is on the other side." The teacher said it so confidently that Laurel stepped forward. But as she passed into the doorway, her standard, school conditioning took over. She stopped.

"I'm not allowed," she said.

"You are this time." Mrs. Laudine kept striding. She pointed to a countertop ahead and to a door on her right. "I'm going to use the kitchen sink. You're going to wash up in the teacher's bathroom. Then join me for tea. You need something hot to calm your nerves."

Washing up made a sort of sense that was alluring. Still, Laurel crept into the room as if she could be caught at any second. In the bathroom, she discovered her pants weren't as bad as she'd assumed. On the other hand, they were probably still ruined. She doubted her mother would let her wear them anymore. 

The cold water on her legs and arms made her shivering worse. For a few seconds, she vomited. It was only snot, not much stomach acid, as if she'd cried a bunch even though she hadn't.  She wiped it with a paper towel.

Laurel had seen the inside of Mrs. Laudine's office before. It had second door through the teacher's central classroom. Nowadays, it appeared to be locked.

The office space was the biggest in the school outside of the principal's suite. It was easily wide enough to hold a small class. Wooden panels lined the walls. Soft, yellow light shone from the lamps. The carpet was thicker and greener than the one in the teacher's lounge. Framed pictures of important figures in literature, science, and history seemed hung as decoration and to describe an underlying theme. One of them was a famous scientist with his tongue sticking out.

The teacher led Laurel to a chair. It was a real, padded one, meant for adults, not a kid-sized seat or one with a desk arm. Laurel remembered that other teachers and administrators visited here. The principal herself sometimes called on Mrs. Laudine and had probably sat in the same guest chair. Laurel relaxed in the fabric-covered divan.

"You did a good deed." Mrs. Laudine rose from her desk as soon as her teapot rumbled. A moment later, it let out a pre-boiling growl. She snapped it up by the handle. "I want you to recognize that. Maybe no one else really understands it. Maybe your friends and parents won't ever really get it."

Laurel hadn't thought about any of that. She watched her old teacher pour from the teapot. She accepted a cup. There was a saucer under it. She wasn't sure how to hold it.

"It doesn't matter about them," she said, confused.

"Good. That's right."

"Did I really help?" She set the saucer in her lap and balanced the cup on it after her first sip. Her mind flashed to an image from a few minutes ago, her knees against the pavement, her hand on the girl's shoulder. "Is she going to live?"

"I can't be sure whether she'll live or not." The woman put her hands on her hips. "Clearly, you've given her a better chance. She would have bled out on the spot if not for your quick thinking."

Laurel took another sip. The warmth calmed her for a moment. But then, unexpectedly, a sob wracked her. She burst into tears.

"That's fine, dear." Mrs. Laudine crouched over her teacup. She took a sip.

Together, they drank in silence for a minute or two. Laurel wiped her face.

"Why her? Why me?" she asked. Her knees hurt. Her wrists, too. She was just noticing the rewards of her effort. "Why do I have to be responsible? Why didn't any of my friends do something?"

"I don't know." Mrs. Laudine rose from her chair, which had leather pads on a sturdy, wooden frame. She strolled around her office. She touched a portrait of a woman who'd written a novel that was required reading. "You'll find that this keeps coming up in your life."


The woman shrugged.

"It just happens. Sometimes you'll stumble upon a situation in which the experts are ignorant. The authorities abdicate. The official responders don't arrive. It's up to you. With the type of person you are, you may discover that it's always been up to you, really."

Laurel set down her tea. She didn't quite understand what the woman was getting at but it felt important.

"Doesn't everybody help out? I thought they did."

"Mostly, yes. But did everyone lend a hand this time?" Mrs. Laudine strolled to her desk and picked up her tea.

"Some helped. They just seemed a bit late to me." She let out a sigh that she didn't know that she'd been holding in. The trembling in her hands hadn't stopped but it had faded. The tea warmed her. She felt almost calm.

"You are a clear thinker, Laurel. Who knows? You're already paying things forward, I'd say. Perhaps you'll make a job of it."

None of those phrases made any sense to Laurel. It didn't seem polite to say so. Instead, she wrapped her hands around the teacup. It didn't feel scalding, just nice.

"Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Laudine."

The older woman set down her cup.

"Thank you for everything, dear."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Being Geek in a Warrior Culture - First Chapter

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One

Not Even Not Zen 12: A Bandit Accountant, 2.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene One: Going Fourth

The bar filled with smoke.  Half a dozen men joined the crowd waiting for the competition to begin.  The poorest-dressed of them reached into his rawhide pouch and pinched a mixture of weeds and snuff.  Slowly, his jaw grinding sideways with bits falling from the corner of his mouth, he began to chew.  A friend of his did the same.  The rest, not watching their companions but driven by some instinct to join in, pulled out their pipes.  They crammed their weeds into the clay bowls and lit up.  They solemnly shared a twig coal from the hearth.  Soon they were billowing bigger clouds than the damp wood the bartender kept stacked around the fireplace.

Denario's plan had gone wrong.  But he couldn't give up.  Really, he felt, it should be working by now.  He checked to see who among the newcomers had brought wine sacks with them.  There were five.  One of the men wore three sacks for a total of seven.  The newcomers, except for two, seemed to be hired hands coming in from their day jobs.  They laughed too much, punched one another, and spat gobs of chaw on the straw floor.  Denario tried to ignore them.  It was hard when they gave him suspicious looks.

The smallest of the men with wine skins seemed the most imposing.  He had a chest like a beer barrel.  Denario got the impression that the man could walk through a wall.  In this flimsy place, that probably wasn't an exaggeration.  He wore bits of leather armor underneath his clothes.  His boots were stuffed with rags and laced expertly almost to his knees.  He wore brass greaves up to his knees, too, not quite covered by the leather and rags, and vambraces from his wrists to his elbows. Strapped to his back was a short sword.

“Is this the fellow?” he gestured to Denario as he listened to one of his field hand companions. “Don't look like much.”

“'Taint,” mumbled the gangly farmer.  His shirt would have been regarded as less than a rag in the wealthier Ziegeburg homes.  “Ah knows him.  Wee bit of a lap dog.  The witch's man.”

“She's not a witch!” Denario objected.  That got a laugh from everyone in range to hear.

“Can't tote a bale.  Can't whittle.  Can't do nought.”  The hayseed spat his chaw onto the the dirt by the fire.

“I'm an accountant!”

“So you knows numbers?” The one who looked like a bandit or, more likely, a caravan guard took a step closer.  “Then do you remember, say, how many arrows are shown up on the banner outside Hippogriff's pub?”

Denario closed his eyes as the image formed in his mind.  It was a welcome distraction.

“Ten,” he whispered.  “Seven on one side, three on the other.  I don't know why.”

“They say a hippogriff was killed there, hundreds of years ago.  That's the arrows it took to bring him down, seven to the right heart, three in the left.”

“Hippogriffs have two hearts?”

“So they say.”  The man shrugged.  He took another step closer and Denario caught a whiff of sweat, leather, oil, and road dust.  The rest of the newcomers drifted off to the nearby tables to talk to their friends and, not incidentally, to place bets.  This one showed a keener interest.  He spit a hard weed stem and was careful not to hit Denario's foot.  “Tell me, man, can you shoot?”

“I thought I could.”  Denario shook his head.  He shouldn't have come back to Bottoms Up.  He should have run out of town and trusted his luck along the stream beds.

“It's going to be magic against you, you know.”

“I do now,” he said bitterly.

“You're thinking of running, I can tell.”

“You can?”

“Part of my job, sometimes, to know things like that.  A few of the men here are waiting on it.  It might be part of the fun, beating you to death.  You could make it as far as the near window, I think, before the gang caught you.”

Denario glanced at the golden rectangle without a window pane.  It was only there to let the smoke out, he thought.  Now he felt hopeful about it.

“Don't try.  There's someone waiting for you outside.”

“Oh.”  He'd never make it, then. 

“Better to stay and lose gracefully.  Of course, everyone's making wagers.  Maybe you could do a business on the side.”

“I need to win a canteen.”

“Is that all?”  The man shook one of the skins that were slung over his shoulder. “Easy enough.  Do well by me and I'll give you mine.”

“That sounds all right.”

“You've got a bit of confidence.  Thought so.  I just heard those fellows there say they want to bet on a shutout against you.  I'll wager on you getting at least sixty points.  Sounds safe.  And they'll give me five brassers to four for it, too.”

“You're betting brassers?”  It was eye-opening.  Each brasser was worth three copper pennies.  These poor-looking men had real money.  But Denario didn't get an answer.  The stranger was already walking away. 

At the same time, the quartet of gamblers came in through the pub door.  Behind them strode a thin man, tall enough for his curly, dark hair to be seen over their heads.  He wore a wizard's robe, purple, but badly faded and stained.  The afternoon sun threw shadows across the many moles on his face and made his patches of beard look like a fungus.  His odd facial hair cried out for some sort of explanation.  Denario got one a moment later, when the wizard stepped into full light.  It was obvious he'd been burned by a magical fire. 

The exposed flesh on his right side was scarred and blue.  That probably explained why he couldn't shave or grow hair.  His right hand was bluish, too.  His fingers were long-boned and knobby.  His toes were a normal, pink color, but they were notable for the way they stuck out over the edge of his sandals.  Despite the wizard's thin frame, his belly looked like he'd sneaked a lump of bread dough from the kitchen.  It was out of place.  It almost looked as if he'd tied the drawstring of his robe under it to keep it from slipping down.

His brown eyes took in the scene and marked Denario instantly.  He didn't need to be told by his gambling friends.  He sneered.

“Just him?” the wizard asked his companions.  Denario didn't recognize this particular wizard but he remembered the attitude.  Lots of magical folk who trained in Baggi had the same contempt for ordinary people.

“Look, I told you about the side bets, right?” the blond ruffian explained.

“It's hardly worth the magic.”  But as the wizard said the words, he rested his staff against the pit of his arm so he could take out a white, soft leather wrap.  It looked much like Denario's, small enough to fit inside a generous pocket.  “I'd better get some wine out of this.”

“Done.  Oi, Kev!”  The gambler turned and shouted at the barkeep.  “Bring out a tankard of wine.  The good stuff!  Not that yellow piss you serve to ladies.”

The barman looked for a moment as if he might say something but, with a glance at the wizard, he nodded.   In a little while, the half-bearded fellow had his tankard of blood red wine.  His friends pushed aside some farm hands who didn't have the nerve to object and cleared three tables.  The blond one, apparently the ringleader, set up some kind of betting shop at the table closest to the door while his friends propped up their boots on another.  The wizard claimed the cleanest table for himself.  He rested his staff against his chair.  Then he laid leather wrap on the rough-cut pine surface and faced the dart board.

After he drank deeply from the wine mug, he laughed in Denario's direction.

“Scared, little man?”  He took another pull of wine.

“Not of darts.”  It was a lie, though.  Denario's breeches were starting to cling to him, he was sweating so much.  But he couldn't let his opponent know.  He crossed the room and plunked down his wrap of copper-tipped darts next to the wizard's own.  When he opened them, the robed man gave him a sarcastic ooh of surprise.

“My, copper!  Don't they look pretty.”  He put his hands on his hips.

“Yes.”  Denario tried to ignore him.  “I won these darts from a wizard.”

Quick as an arrow, the wizard's hand went to a sack at his side.  He snatched a round bauble and, before Denario could backpedal out of his reach, pressed it against the side of Denario's head.

“Blue.  A bit dark.  You're hiding something.  But blue.”

“What on earth are you doing?”

“You did beat a wizard at darts.  That's interesting.”  The bauble went back into its pouch.   Denario caught a glimpse of it as it went.  It was blue, as the wizard said.  What did that mean?  It sounded like the large bead was some sort of truth-telling device.  Maybe it turned a different color for a lie.  In any case, the splotchy wizard had gone pink in the cheeks.  “I do hope this isn't a fair fight.”

He did something complicated with his hands.

“Hey!” Denario shouted.  “This is darts, not magic.”

His voice attracted the attention of some bettors who had been standing well back. Even the wizard's friends rose.

“Have you gone daft?  What are you up to, Tim?” hissed the closest.

The wizard's eyes turned black.  The strange effect took place not just in the irises, which went from brown to onyx, but in the whites of the wizard's eyes, too.  Those turned a glowing, near-black shade of purple.  The transformation lasted only a few seconds but it made the wizard's friend change his tone. 

“I mean, what are you doing, Tremelo the Magnificent?  Because we're trying to get these men here to lay down their money and no one's going to do it if they think you're putting a curse on this fool.  Or on his darts.”

The wizard continued to spin his hands for a few seconds.

“Nothing,” he said.  His arms dropped to his sides.  The dark glow in his eyes faded.


“They're not magic.  No sign of an aura.”  The wizard chuckled softly.  He reached for his wine mug.  “Had myself worried for a moment.  But no, these are regular brass bolts.  No problems, uh, Will.”

“Warren,” corrected his friend.

“Go on, now, shoo.”  Still chuckling, the robed man waved off all of his companions.  “Ah, these farmhand rapscallions.  What will they get up to next?”

“A robbery?” wondered Denario aloud.  He winced when he realized that he was giving everyone bad ideas.

That only made his opponent laugh louder.

“Look, little man,” he said.  He sloshed red wine on his robe as he plunked down his nearly empty mug.  “Look, look.  Have you ever seen darts like this?”

With that, he reached across to the folded lambskin sheath, flipped back the top flap, and opened the inside cover.  What shone from the recesses were three golden darts.  Even the flight feathers were cut from a golden bird, probably a phoenix.

“Watch,” he whispered.  A robed sleeve flopped over the lambskin as he chose the middle bolt and lifted it by the the tip.  He stroked the shaft and the flight a few times.  His lips mumbled what might have been magic words or could have been, Denario admitted to himself, utter nonsense.  Then the wizard added, “Come on, now, show him how it's done.  Right in the center.”

He whirled and threw.  Immediately, Denario could tell that Tim – or Tremelo the Magnificent, as apparently he liked to be called – was a terrible darts player.  He used a kind of three-quarter swing, not an overhand, underhand, or sidearm motion.  It definitely wasn't a straightforward push, which is what almost everyone else used.  On top of the weird swing, he was being deliberately awful.  The gold peg left his hand with a wobble, headed for the chair beneath and to the right of the cork wood, but then the magic took over.  The body of the dart curved, then straightened.  It arched toward the center of the board, flexed its feathers to correct its path, and swooped into the center.

“Bang!” screamed Tim.  The needle tip thunked into the wood at the edge of the crudely drawn inner circle.  “Ha!”

He slapped his knee and chortled.  Then, grabbing his mug, he sloshed his beard and robe with the red stuff.  While Tim drained his cup and bowed to some smattering of applause from the other customers, Denario decided to walk over to the board.  He had nothing better to do.  Anyway, he was curious.  He leaned on his tiptoes to see that the magic point had sunk into the wood to the depth of forty hairs, which was as deep as Denario's brass points got on these cheap corkwood cuts.  He wondered how anything made of gold managed to make itself hard enough to do this.

“More wine!” Tim roared.  He waved his arms and yelled at his friends.  He shook his head and called to the barkeep, too, who shouted back a few words that didn't seem polite.  While everyone glared at one another, Denario put his fingers around the stem of the golden dart and tugged.  It gave a faint hum that startled him.  He almost dropped it when it slipped from the wood.

He cursed.  The golden shaft vibrated in his open hand.  He was scared to clamp down too tightly on it since it acted like it was alive.  He thought it might stab him if he hurt the feathers.  But as he walked and stared, he noticed that the tip wasn't made of the same metal as the body.  The sharp part was brass.  It was no different than the tips Denario had been using.

“Ready?” shouted the wizard.  He levitated the bolt out of Denario's open palm and laughed when Denario jumped backwards from sheer surprise.

“I suppose I am,” said Denario.  What else could he do?  The thing hovered in the air for a moment and floated down gently into the wizard's hand.

There were shouts from the bar as another trio of farmhands wandered in.  The gamblers shot out of their seats to greet them, which immediately made the newcomers suspicious.  However, everyone immediately began to bellow out their own opinions and advice.  That led to laughter and more bellowing, which made Denario red-faced, and the chaos led to another round of drinks.  Denario's mouth was dry but he wasn't thirsty.  Anyway, another customer walked in, greeted by more shouts.  The wizard announced that the contest was about to begin and some of the patrons passed that on to the latest arrivals. 

Denario drew sharp looks from the caravan guards.  They would be sure to help the farmhands and bandits hunt him down and kill him if he tried to escape.  As the short one had mentioned, they seemed to be looking forward to it.

“You said you're starting, Tim?”  The blond gambler approached.  He tucked his thumbs into the drawstring of his trousers and hiked them up.  “Might as well  You pretty near scared everyone off.  They want to see the first game before they'll bet heavily.”

“I'll go first,” said Denario and the wizard at the same time.  That got another laugh from the wizard, who was dripping with wine and confidence.

“Don't win by too much, hey?”  The gambler tried to clap Tremelo the  Magnificent on the shoulder.  But something on the wizard's robe stung him or burned him so that he gave a yelp.  He trotted back to his table, holding one hand with another and cursing.

“Tell you what," said the wizard.  He rubbed his hands together and winked at Denario.  “We'll shoot to go first.”

Chapter Two, Scene Two

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 11: A Bandit Accountant, 1.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One
Scene Five: A Desperate Game

Denario had less than an hour to get out of town. No one was going to sell him a horse or supplies. But he had a plan. And for his plan to work, he needed a few idiots. This bar had them in abundance. It shouldn't be too hard to attract them, should it? Farli had thought it would be easy. There had to be seven or eight men who looked greedy enough to lose their canteens or flints to Denario. Two of them were carrying cotton bedrolls. He didn't suppose he could win one of those but if he were to have any chance at all, he would need to hurry. There was only an hour until sunset. 

To begin, he played a game of darts.

He tried not to use either of his own sets. The steel tips would have been a giveaway for sure. So he went from table to table saying, 'Got darts? Got darts?' but no one would loan any to him. The fellow with chain mail under his tunic didn't even acknowledge his presence. Finally, beer in hand, Denario pulled out his copper-tipped set with the black and white feathers to play a round by himself. This board had no bulls-eye. Most dart boards in this part of the countryside didn’t have one. Players scored in the wedges only. It was different than Denario had learned in Oggli but he’d gotten used to it. He deliberately missed to the right of the 4 and 13 wedges. Then he retrieved the darts from the tree slice, spilled his beer, bought another, and played again.

He missed the edges of the 4 and 13 wedges again. This time, he thought the other customers noticed. 

“Ah, this is boring!” he shouted.

He sloshed as much beer onto his shirt as he could stand. He'd seen this trick done in many a pub in the midst of many a darts tournament. 

“I'd fancy a game,” said someone. Denario took a long moment to turn around. He wanted to figure out who was talking but, more importantly, he wanted to put on a show of carefully focusing his eyes, like a patient drunk.
“Who're you?” he said to a farm boy in a tan shirt. The fellow didn't look like one of the bandits. He didn't wear enough weapons, for one thing, just a hand axe. His fur-trimmed boots barely fit him, like hand-me-downs from someone smaller.

“Jake.” The boy rested his thumbs in the drawstring of his trousers. “Don't got my own darts, though.”

“That's all right. That's all right.” Denario allowed himself a smile. He hoped this was when the plan started to work for him. “You can use mine.”

They played Three Handfuls, which was the only darts game that the boy seemed to know. Denario did his best to spill his beer, knock over barstools, and generally make a drunken nuisance of himself. He remembered to aim to the right just a bit on all of his shots. The farmboy was a good sport about it. He seemed to think Denario was funny.

“I need another drink!” said Denario, after letting himself be thrashed 315 to 66. “Let’s play another. For a beer, this time!”

“All right,” said the boy. He measured Denario out of the corner of his eye. He was a sharp lad, really. He seemed to know he was being put on. “You owe me a beer for the last one, then.”

“Right! Barkeep!” He waved, a little too drunkenly. He was worried he was overacting but no one seemed to notice. “Two more over here!”

“Keep it down!” said the bartender, as if Denario were any louder than his other customers. But he brought the wretched ales. Denario had tipped him a copper and he knew it would get him good service the rest of the night, no matter how loud he was.

The second game was slower. For one, the farm boy tugged on his forelocks and concentrated. He took his time, played his best, and didn’t let the sudden changes in Denario’s skill bother him. For his part, Denario felt the touch come upon him. He could miss or make his shots as he pleased. He was careful not to be too good. He didn’t want to scare anyone off. For all he knew, this boy was the best in Bottoms Up. Certainly, he was better than most of the players in The Proud Pony. The final score, when Denario let his opponent close out with a double 15, was 215 to 185. Denario had won by too much but it couldn’t be helped. For a while, the boy had gone cold.

“Hah!” he crowed. For good measure, he added a long, chilling laugh, thumped his chest, staggered into a table, and pounded it to grab everyone’s attention. “I’m the best!”

“That was just one game,” said the boy.

“The best!” roared Denario, ignoring him. The boy had clearly come straight for the fields. He had no real money and no evil heart, either. What Denario wanted, no, needed, was someone with field equipment and a taste for wagering. It had to be someone greedy.

“I guess I owe you a beer.”

“I can lick anyone in this bar!”

A huge, bald-headed ox of a man at the end of the bar rolled his eyes. “It’s only darts, innit?” he said.

“I’ll take all comers!” said Denario. “I’ll teach you a lesson in darts. I’ll show you the art. The art of darts. The lessons are cheap, too! I'll play for a canteen of water or for a wine sack. I'll play for hard tack. Heck, I'll play you a beer a game.”

“Thirsty fellow. You want to play for wine or beer, do you?” A mean-looking fellow at one of the tables raised his eyebrow. He and his mates had been playing cards for the past hour or more. They'd been playing when Denario first stopped in. A lot of money had changed hands without really going anywhere. “Is that all?”

“Is that all? I’ll play you a copper a round. No, a copper a point!”

“A copper a point?” The man half-rose, alarmed or just too interested. A hush fell over the entire inn. For a moment, Denario was afraid he’d been reckless. The stakes were too high for these fellows.

“That would be thirty coppers for our last game!” the farm boy exclaimed. “No one’s got that!”

“Yes, yes.” He felt abashed and showed it. But he waved it off. “Within limits, within limits. We couldn’t let it get too high. I'll take a good canteen or wineskin instead.”

“Really?” said the fellow at the tables. He smiled at the other card players. “Well then, how about a limit of forty coppers?”

There were gasps. The farm boy wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how much money could change hands in a game of darts. But this fellow was all too aware. He wasn’t playing along in quite the way that Denario wanted. Maybe it was close enough, though. If these greedy men lost money to him, they might well feel they were getting off cheap if Denario took their wineskins or food instead. None of them had a bedroll but they had fine boots. It was going to be a long hike alongside the Rune Kill in just his counting-house slippers if Denario couldn't buy something better.

This green-shirted fellow had the look of a local gangster. He was shifty without being poor. He had money to play cards, plus he cheated so anyone could see him but no one dared to call him on it. He had to be bad news if even his friends were scared of him. On top of all that, he wasn’t too bright. He would have lost all his money hours ago if he hadn’t been cheating.

“Forty is most of what I’ve got on me,” said Denario. Normally, it would have been a mistake to admit to having even half that much.

The other fellow stood up. He thought he knew a Loud-Mouthed Slow-Wit when he saw one and Denario was displaying all the traits of the species: bravado, ignorance, drunkenness, and money. Forty coppers was apparently worth this fellow’s time.

“Me and my pals have got that much, easy,” he said. “We might be willing to place a wager.”

“Sure. I’ll taken you all on!”

“Oh no,” said the green shirt. “Not one of us.”

Some of the other fellows in the bar groaned. They knew what was coming. The card players shot them dirty looks.

“Everyone can see that he bet forty coppers!” the fellow shouted to the bar crowd.

“A copper a point,” clarified Denario. He was starting to get just a bit nervous. “A copper a point, up to forty.”

The gambler grinned. “I'll be right back with our magician ... I mean, our darts player.”

Chapter Two, Scene One

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Not Zen 173: Anxiety

Willow knew that everyone was watching. The sensation of their eyes upon her made it worse. Her lips trembled. She pressed a finger to her mouth to keep it steady. To her surprise, her skin felt cold. Was that normal? Could her face die off somehow, strangled by a lack of blood, while the rest of her kept going? She tried to clamp down on her sense of panic.

The man at the podium announced another name. Willow couldn't make out the words but she knew the call had been for Missy, the girl ahead of her. It was her turn to walk up onto the stage. Sure enough, a second later Missy grunted, stood, and turned to the right.

Willow started to hyperventilate. Her chest heaved with short, shallow breaths. She summoned the will to clamp down on her body. She held motionless. Her body reacted by forcing a long, gasping breath. Her head started to pound. She squinted. She tried to make herself breathe normally or at least quietly.

They called her name. Her head nodded. Her body rose. She felt her arms shaking. Her legs wobbled under her.

Willow turned to the right and took two steps. On the second one, her knees buckled.

"Oh, good." She heard a voice, her mother's. A hand pressed to her forehead or rather, tried. There was a damp cloth between her forehead and the fingertips. 

Willow kept her eyes closed. She could relax this way for a moment longer. Where was she? She'd fallen. They must have moved her while she was unconscious. But they couldn't have put her anywhere near the stage or it would be noisy. And where had her mother gotten a washcloth?

She blinked. Her mother's face blurred above her. Then it snapped into focus. Beyond the face, Willow noticed green walls and a beige ceiling. There was nowhere else with walls like this. They had to be in the room beside the stage. Stuck on the green paint were random-looking fuzzy tiles in not-quite-matching shades of speckled brown. Beneath a row of those stood the carpeted door, and odd thing for any room to have. It was closed. Another adult hovered in front of it but Willow hardly glanced to see who it was. Her gaze returned to her mother.

"I'm sorry, mom," she said. "I must be sick again or something."

"That was a panic attack," said her mother in an unreasonably cheerful voice. "It's the first time I've seen you collapse with one. You've had at least three, I'd guess."

"What?" She started to rise. Her stomach knotted with a twinge of panic at the news that she'd been found out. "Why would you think that?"

"Based on your previous sickness reports."

Willow knew there had been more. Those hadn't been discovered, at least. She relaxed back to the yoga mat that someone had rolled out for her. 

"When I was around your age, I got panic attacks too," her mother said. "I didn't think they were something that could be inherited. But from what I gather of your father, he used to panic and get into fights. I used to panic and freeze up. Now, here you are. And you also panic."

She tried to picture her dad fighting with other boys. But she couldn't even picture him as a teenager. He was such a bald, pot-bellied, middle-aged man. She never even saw him out of his suit during the work week.

"Why didn't I hear this before?" she asked.

"Why didn't you mention your anxiety before?" Her mother's voice grew sharper, a bit more reproachful. "You would have heard it all then. You'd have had cause. But you didn't speak up. Instead, you lied about having stomach cramps and the flu."

She didn't have a good reply for that so she stared at the ceiling for a while. There were two specks of dust on it. Willow had always wondered how dust could get up onto ceilings.

"You're so calm, mom." Maybe she should start with a compliment.

"Well, I am now. I wasn't so much when you collapsed." Her mother let out a light, tense laugh. Her hands fluttered. "But there was a nurse here. She said she's seen this plenty of times before."

"I mean you're usually calm," Willow corrected. "I never see you panic. Daddy, too. He's brave. I've seen him talk drunks out of doing something stupid. So he's better. You're better. Will I just grow out of this?"

"No, I grew into my anxieties. They got worse and worse. Even now that I'm better, I still get hysterics on the inside. What I learned to do was cope. It helps that I've changed my way of thinking. That's most of it. My panic response has subsided. But it's still there, deep in."

"How did you fix it?"

"I had to learn to welcome it."

Willow didn't realize she was rolling her eyes until her mother did it right back to her, the way she always did.

"Yes, I know that's a tough thing to hear." Her mother's lips pressed in a grim line. Her gaze flickered to the side for a moment as she watched the other adult leave through the carpeted door. "It takes a sense of perspective on getting better to allow in all of the nervousness. But you have to. Let it fill you up."

"It's already killing me. If it fills me up, I'll be dead."

"Great. So no more embarrassment. No more anxiety."

"That all?" Willow laughed. Her elbows propped her up. "It's impossible but is that all you do, really? You let it happen?"

"It's been a while since I had to work through this." Her mother tapped a finger against her lips as she remembered. It was a gesture that Willow had to suppose she'd also inherited. "I had a few steps that I went through. I let the bad feelings in, explored them, laughed at myself, and then thought about something else important, like a boy that I loved."

"Oh." That seemed a little too personal. Maybe there was a story behind it. "Was it dad?"

"I hadn't even met him." Her mother started to shake her head. But she stopped and smiled. It was a mischievous expression. "What makes you panic at some of these events and not others? Is it a boy?"

"I don't want to say."

"It is, isn't it?" Her mother clapped her hands like a hummingbird flapped its wings.

"I really, really don't want to say, mom." She gazed back up at the ceiling. It was a nice ceiling, very calm.

"Okay. Well, next time you talk to that boy, welcome in the panic. It's okay. So maybe you care about his opinion too much. That's fine. You care about other people's opinions too much anyway. And you can't please them all. So you might not be everything the boy wants. You should know that you can't be everything that you imagine other people want you to be. If you're trying to be perfect, you're going to be anxious all of the time."

"Jeez, mom." She let herself flop back down on the yoga mat. But it wasn't comfortable. The tile floor beneath it was hard and cold. She sat up again.

"It's okay. Enjoy your panic." Her mother stepped back to give her room. "It's your body letting you know it realizes how important the moment is to you."

"Next time, I'll try to do that." Willow nodded and rose to her feet. It took a few seconds but she discovered that her body wasn't as wobbly as she'd expected. Her right arm flexed. She massaged the muscles in it. She felt like a truck had run over her but not in a bad way. She was sore.

"Good. The next time is right now."

"Sure, mom." She adjusted her blouse.

"I mean really, right now. You're up on stage next." Her mother strode to the door with the carpet on it. She cracked it open. Noise from the stage poured in. "The nurse left to tell them. When you were passed out, I got them to agree to call your name when they could, even if it was last. The nurse went to tell them the plan is still on. They'll call you in a minute."

"Already? Mom, I don't know if I can do it."

There was a pause in the outside noise. She heard the announcer say something brief.

"Listen. They're calling your name."

"Okay, jeez." She took a step. Her mother pushed on the handle. The door swung open wide. Lights from the stage cast a golden pathway on the floor, shadows to either side.

Beyond the shadows, in another row of light, Willow saw the faces. Her gait faltered. Time slowed. She welcomed in the surge of emotion. Her cheeks flushed. She caught herself tensing up for a moment but she relaxed and let it happen. As she crossed the threshold onto the stage a thrill shot through her. She could feel it down to her toes and her fingertips.

"Here goes," she whispered back to her mom. It occurred to her that someone might overhear. But there was nothing she could do about it. She tried to smile but then thought, why bother. She squared her shoulders. She marched over the stage.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 10: A Bandit Accountant, 1.3, 1.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One
Scene Three: One to the N Ponies

“What are you waiting for, sir?”

The broad-shouldered, short man stood next to Denario, hands clasped behind his back as if he had been waiting there in the shadows the whole time. But the eaves under the stable house had been empty a moment ago. Startled, Denario took a hop to his left and turned to face the farrier. 

Master Conli must have stepped out from a stable door. It was the only explanation.

He wore dark, green leggings and a brown, loose, burlap shirt with a lighter shirt underneath.  He tied back his black hair in a knot. His bear-hide boots, matted and stained by years of tromping through manure, carried bits of straw and a reek so strong that the farrier could be detected for half a mile away on the rare occasions that he left his stable. Of course, anyone could have done the same by catching a whiff of Conli's breath. His teeth were rotting. He chewed willow bark or birch bark constantly to dull the pain, although not the smell.

“You gave me a start, Master Conli.” Denario hadn't realized it but he was getting nervous at the thought of approaching dusk. He rubbed his hands together. “I'm just waiting for the stagecoach. I heard it was leaving a bit before sunset.”

“A bit.” Conli spat shards of bark on the ground next to his stable. “Yes, you could say that if you thought that the afternoon from noon to sunset is just 'a bit.'”

“You mean the coach already left?” Denario's heart sunk. That had to be the reason he saw wheel ruts but no cart or coach.

“With four passengers and many packages, sir. Right before noon. Yes, all them passengers wanted to leave after they broke fast. They didn't want to shop no more in Ziegeburg. A bit rude, I think. But seeing as the vote was unanimous and there were no new passengers to take on, the driver packed up his lunch and decided to go. He probably figured the bandits would miss him that way and I daresay he could be right.”

Denario crouched with his hands on his knees and shuddered. He reminded himself that it was important not to panic. He wouldn't survive a trip on foot, not without better equipment. Fortunately, a stagecoach wasn't the only way to travel. Horse prices were steep but he might be able to arrange something, maybe a pony or a donkey.

“Do you have a horse I could rent?” he wondered aloud.

“Rent, sir? What's that?”

“Oh, er, buy, then. A horse I could buy. Or a mule. Anything.”

“We've got almost a dozen good horses in town. Not a one for sale, though. The only gelding not in steady use is the mayor's plugger, name of Feldi. He's the one in the barn right now.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the darkened stalls. “The mayor might sell Feldi to a friend, sir, but I knows him and he'll want a fair price.”

Denario thought about it for an instant and realized how ridiculous it would be for the mayor to sell him an escape from the mayor.

“Any draft horses?”

“I've heard tell of those but there's no such creatures around here, sir. It's oxen in these fields when it's not men. And if ye can tolerate magical beasts, there's pegasi and griffins. But it takes wizards or witches to ride those, not ordinary folk.”

“Just Feldi, then, and a few personal horses you say no one wants to sell.” He squinted over the top half of the split level door. Maybe he could make out a silhouette that was horse shaped. If it was Feldi, the gelding looked about fourteen hands tall and likely to be fast, if spoiled on oats and good hay.

“'S right.”

“And what do you reckon is a fair price for a plugger like him?”

“I've seen 'em go for as much as twelve gold, sir. Never less than four.”

“Not less than four.” Denario straightened his back. Buying a horse was beyond him. So maybe he could steal one. But that would be terrible. Besides, he had a suspicion that he couldn't do it. He didn't know the location of any horse but this one and the farrier was a tough man. Besides, with the stagecoach gone and only one horse to watch, Conli would keep a close eye on it.

“Maybe the missus could lend ye a broom,” said the farrier with a sly smile. The look Denario gave him must have been pretty desperate or angry because the Farrier glanced down to his feet for a moment, shuffled, and added, “Didn't mean nothing by it, sir. Just trying to help. I know yer with the witch woman, is all.”

“I'm going to get a few things,” said Denario. He had the inklings of a plan. He thought he might be able to get to the next town without leaving an obvious trail if he could survive. So he lied and told the farrier, “I'll be back.”

Scene Four: A Tip on Poison

With a few coppers, Denario should have been able to purchase supplies for his travels. He badly needed an extra canteen, bedding, hard tack, and jerky, at the very least. Dried apples would have been welcome. But the general store south of town was closed, as it often was, and the store at the foot of The Towers was owned by a dowager whose husband had been a distant relative of the mayor. That wide-nosed woman barred her door, crossed her arms, and refused to let him in. She was a stern woman in the best of times, with hands like knotted tree roots. Now, from her unintelligible shouts, she seemed ready to hang Denario herself. She called for her sons. Denario didn't stick around to see if they would show.

He dashed back to Pecunia's house but Pecunia had gone to visit Emmie Figgins and she wasn't expecting Denario back. It probably hadn't occurred to her that he wouldn't be able to get out of town. She'd given him the amulet for luck and everything. 

He tried the south end store again out of desperation but it was still closed. That was how he found himself across the street at Bottoms Up, the worst drinking establishment for miles around. The bartender gave him a hostile look and two-thirds of a beer for a penny. Denario sipped and wondered if this awful cat water might be his last drink.

“You have darts,” he remarked as he watched a couple unshaven field hands play a game of Three Handfuls. They were using a traditional board made from the cross section of a tree. The tree rings were darkened with charcoal for better scoring.

“'Course we do,” said the barman. He pounded the hinged bar door with a fist. “Tho' ak-chewally what we has is boards. Me Jim cut 'em last week from a cork tree by the river. Ye supply th' darts, see.”

“Ah.” Either the customers stole the bar's darts or the barman didn't like to keep pointed objects around. Denario made a quick count of the nine men occupying the tables and came up with sixteen blades among them.  So it wasn't a general problem with pointy-ness.

He wondered if it were true, as he'd heard for months, that some of these men were bandits. They certainly looked the part. Aside from their weapons, many wore leather jerkins that were as thick and tough as armor. A blonde, bearded fellow showed a bit of chain mail underneath his tunic just above his collarbone. He had the heaviest sword, too, and boots that fit. That put him above almost everyone else. About half of the men wore rags stuffed into their shoes. They couldn't buy boots of the right size. Yet their homemade cat-gut laces, fur patches, and tongue wedges that looked like greaves were all suspiciously competent. They might have been in the same band of thieves.

Here Denario was, in a bar in broad daylight, and it was half full of men who looked like they'd kill Denario if they knew he had a single gold piece, let alone the four golds and nine silvers he kept in his belt. At it was, a pair of well-armed characters eyed his vest and seemed to know what it meant. They exchanged knowing looks that Denario didn't enjoy. 

His sense of danger gave him an inspiration. He knew where he could purchase a smidgen of protection, maybe, just possibly, if he was lucky. He hoped he could arrange it. The kind of protection he was contemplating wasn't as good as magic but, then again, maybe it was better. He slapped down another copper for the barman, who grunted in surprise. Denario ignored him and kept going through the swinging doors of Bottoms Up. 

He hiked the road to the south end marketplace. He didn't think to check on whether or not he was being followed until he reached the market square. There, he turned around. The two men who had noticed his vest were standing at the foot of the slope outside Bottom's Up. He waved to them and they carefully looked away.

In the square, Denario found the vendor stalls mostly empty. The fisherman had closed up his shop. Other booths and carts were open for apples, figs, piglets and chickens. There was a rag man at one end and a tinker in the center. There weren't many customers for any of them, though, only a few middle-aged women and a scruffy-looking, gray-haired man. In addition, there was a lonely figure at the end of the east row. Denario smiled to see him. It was the gypsy poisoner. The gypsy traveled from town to town trying to sell his rat poison to farmers who already had cats. Business was poor, as usual, and he would have plenty of time to talk.
Denario paid for a half-penny apple because he might not get anything else for a while. With his late lunch in hand, he made his way to the east corner.

“What’s the best poison you’ve got?” he asked. He knew the gypsy, whose name was Farli, and Farli knew him. They'd crossed paths twenty times or so, mostly in Ziegeburg. But Farli had given up trying to sell to Denario. Accountants didn't have much call for poisons.

“For rats, I’ve got extract of appleseed,” he said. He regarded his only possible customer with suspicion. He didn't seem to like the look of the apple. 

“How about for two-legged rats?” Denario took a bite.

“What? Oh.” The Gypsy Poisoner looked around. No one was paying attention. He nodded to his trailer. “Maybe extract of cherry pit? Let’s step inside.”

He led the way through the curtain to the inside of his traveling home. His quarters were as dark as an underground burrow. Denario suspected the burlap drapes would have been chopped into rags by anyone living in a respectable, mud-walled yurt. But it was hard to tell for sure because they let in so little light it was hard to see anything. They were so effective that even the street noise disappeared behind them.

“All right, then,” said the gypsy. He sat on his nightstand. “I won't ask anything but practical questions. The first one is, can you get them to drink it?”

“No, I need something that works on contact.” He didn’t want to say he needed it to battle highwaymen. For all he knew, the poisoner’s cousins were among the highwaymen he would fight. There were bound to be a few gypsies among the brigands.

“That’s different.”

“You can’t do it?” Denario turned to leave, although he hated the thought of hiking out of town without supplies or defenses. 

“No, I can. But it’s different. I have a poison made from the skin of blue frogs. You don’t see any blue frogs around here, do you?”

Denario looked around him. He wondered if he was being put on. “No.”

“It’s an expensive poison. I have to go a long ways south to get it and even then, I'm not dealing with the men who make it, only merchants who buy and sell from them. The frogs live on some islands in the Complacent Sea.”

“Interesting,” said Denario, who really was trying hard to be interested. But the thought of his approaching death distracted him. He hoped he was conceiving a workable plan. “How much for enough to kill one person?”

“At least a silver. More, maybe. Two silvers, if that’s all you’re going to buy.”

“I want enough for twenty men.”

The gypsy shrugged. “I’d have to take gold. But I'd throw in some hollow-tip darts for the price.”

“A gold and eight silver.”

“That’s enough for ten men, not twenty.”

They haggled for a while and it went pretty much the way Denario had expected. He agreed to part with two gold pieces if the poison could be demonstrated. Farli, the poisoner, turned to his stack of burlap covered crates along the wall. He lifted one by its strap and set it on his small, standing-height table. When he pulled back the burlap cover, he revealed a wooden cage and, in a corner of the cage, a greyish rat. 

“Do you want me to use one of the darts you're buying?” he asked.

“No.” Denario shook his head. “The pin is fine.”

As a poisoner, Farli had to keep a dozen or so rats around for precisely this purpose. He nodded and dipped his pin in a sample of the poison. Deftly, he pricked his test subject on a hind leg. In a few seconds, the rat twitched and fell over. Its paws scrambled in the air. 

“It doesn't take much longer on a man.” Farli cleared his throat. “Or so I'm told.”

“But the rat is still breathing.” In fact, its lungs seemed to be moving double time but in shallow heaves that didn't seem to take in air.

“That goes on for a few minutes. What do you expect? The paralysis in the limbs is almost immediate. That's the important part. And there's no cure. Death comes when the paralysis spreads deeper and reaches the chest.”

Denario turned his back to prevent Farli from seeing that the money came from a flap inside his belt. His thumb dug out two golds. There was no way he could haggle any more over the amount, not after seeing the demonstration. Besides, Denario wanted those steel-tipped darts. The lines that defined the shafts were exponential curves, irresistibly beautiful. He already had his copper-tipped set, of course. He kept those wrapped in a soft, bleached, goatskin sleeve. He'd won them three years ago in a contest outside the Accountant's Guild hall. It had been the spring equinox and a fair had lined the streets. Wimple and Curo had waited, hands on hips, irritated by Denario and his fascination with throwing games. On the other hand, they hadn't quite had the heart to stop him. And he hadn't quite been able to stop winning. When he failed in the grand finale match, beaten by a magician, it came as a shock.

The shock lasted for a moment. But the magician's master ruled against his apprentice and awarded the darts to Denario. Wimple shook the man's hand and, as usual, said the wrong thing, that he was happy to meet an honest wizard. The wizard had been smiling until that moment. But he allowed that Wimple was probably, against the odds, an honest accountant, and Wimple didn't understand he was being insulted, so everything ended up all right.

“Farli,” said Denario. “I'm told that I'm not much good with people.”

The poisoner laughed. “You're great with math. I've overheard you working.”

“Really? Well, I only mean that I've seen you a dozen times at the least and I'm sorry that I won't get the chance to talk longer. I'm going to have to leave town by sunset.”

“It's an occupational hazard.” Farli waved away Denario's concerns with both hands. “Not for you. For me. A small percentage of my customers leave the area suddenly or have to keep secrets. And I don't ask questions.”

“Is it a hard job?”

The poisoner smiled. He walked a few paces to the left, shot his left forearm into a stack of burlap cloth, and rustled through it. His hand reappeared, this time attached to a bottle of wine.

“Come,” he said. “Most of my customers won't break bread with me. They won't share a drink.”

“Oh, I get it.” Denario would have accepted food from Farli without a thought to being poisoned. But he understood, now that he thought about it. Not everyone would feel the same way.

“You're an honest fellow, Denario. Maybe too honest.”

“You know about my problem?”

“No, no.” He chuckled as he wiped a dirty cup with his thumb, making it slightly dirtier. Then he poured his wine into it. “I only know people in a certain way. A bad way, maybe. I see dukes, kings. Oh, yes, kings have called on me. It doesn't impress my wife but, still, I enjoy the memories. A little. They never have nice requests for me, the nobility and their wives and sons. I'd have to say that noble families are the worst.”

“I'm sorry,” said Denario.

“What for? No matter the trouble you're in, be glad you're not in line to a throne. Even an earldom or a barony can be deadly.”

“I wish I had that trouble. I'm just looking for a safe road.”

“Is that all?” He pushed the cup of red wine to Denario's side of the table and proceeded to fill a second cup. “Well, your payment excepted, I don't carry much money. For me, most roads are safe. I pay the bandits a tribute, on occasion, when they catch me and remember that I'm good for it. But nothing more.”

“I'll be on foot.”

The poisoner made a sad, guttural noise. He thumped his clay wine bottle in the center of the table. With his other hand, he lifted his drink.

“Too bad,” he said. He slurped from his cup. “You missed the coach?”

“It left before noon, I'm told. I thought maybe I could catch up to it if it stays in the next town overnight.”

“No chance. If you want to try, you can take Wort Cart road. That's what the coach follows up above the flood line and between the foothills. You won't catch the coach, though. There are no stops until Angstburg and that's nearly thirty miles.”

“I can't think of what else to do.”

“If you're looking for advice, I'd say to take Brine Road. It's small but it stays close to the Rune Kill. You'll have plenty to drink. Don't be tempted by Pig Trickle Road. That trail looks like it's going to follow Trickle Creek to the river because the land is nearly level when you run into it. The bank soon rises and curls north. You'll realize then that it's taking you up into the Blue Hills. That's bandit country.”

“Bandits there. Okay, thanks for the tip.”

“Speaking of tips ...” The poisoner wandered around the inside of his trailer for a few steps. He peered under burlap sacks, peeped through his curtain, felt along the windowsill, pulled out two drawers and, finally, in an oblong box that held other boxes, he found what he was looking for. It was a flat case, about as thick as a human finger. The poisoner thrust it out at Denario. “This completes the set. You'll find that the vial of poison fits into a cleft in the wood. There are also two spare flight feathers, three steel tips, and glue for your darts.”

“Wonderful.” He accepted the cherrywood case with reluctance. This dart set was too good for him. He didn't know how they made steel but it was as expensive as silver and a lot more useful. It could cut softer metals.

He leaned against the poisoner's table and took out the steel tips. They were threaded inside to screw onto the brass shafts. He assembled his trio of darts with care and cradled them in his palm for a moment before setting them down. His gaze drifted to the vial of poison. The black drum top would load poison into the darts exactly the way Farli had said it would. A poke through the seal would fill the hollow needle and shaft. 

Denario didn't try that now. The poison was too precious to test. Instead, he loaded the wooden case.

Idly, he threw the last dart into a knot of wood on the cage that had held the rat. The poisoner smiled, so Denario removed the second bolt, threw it into the knot, and followed it with the third. He'd hit three bulls-eyes. 

“You're good,” grunted Farli. “You're almost starting to scare me. I don't see why you haven't made your money betting on darts.”

“I wish I could.” Denario strolled one step, crouched, and removed a dart. “Right now, I'd play for a canteen, flints, and a hand axe, if anyone would play.”

“Well, why not? Some of the men on this side of town will bet on anything. What do you have to wager?”

“My life?”

“No,” Farli held his stomach and chortled. “You’ll need something they can spend on beer.”

Chapter One, Scene Five

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 9: A Bandit Accountant, 1.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One
Scene Two: Something Does Not Add Up

“But Den, darling, you were supposed to find that old John Snouter had done it,” said his fiancée. “He carried the sacks for Burgher Figgins. Everyone knows that.”

“But Pecunia, he couldn't have done it. For one thing, it wouldn't explain the bank draft that Burgher Figgins stupidly deposited in his name. Not to mention the stack of ten Muntab brass 50-piece rings that the Warter farm used for payment. Those are distinctive and they're written in the tax log, both at the farm and in the master record. Burgher has five of them on his mantle. I saw them.”

Pecunia Brightli batted her eyes. She had the deepest, sea-blue irises that Denario had ever seen and he was fascinated by them. They matched the amulet she always wore, an oval stone that hung from her pearl necklace. In the bars, Ziegeburg's local farmers had tried to tell Denario that Widow Brightli was older than she looked. When he said he didn't care, one of them called her a witch. Denario would have struck the man then but he was the size of a cow and Denario couldn't see how that would do anyone any good. So he'd settled for ignoring all those gossiping farmers because, really, it was too late. He'd already kissed her and fallen in love. 
Besides, everyone knew that witches were hags, generally, with warts and bad teeth. Pecunia's skin was excellent, barely wrinkled except around her mouth and eyes. She had all her teeth. She didn't show them much, not even in a smile, but they were there. She was unsure about the subject of children and frowned at them when she saw them playing in neighbors' yards. It was the only aspect of her that gave Denario hesitation.

“I'm quite sure the mayor hinted as to how it should go.” Her tone was slightly disapproving. She pulled, with a white-gloved hand, at the golden ringlets of her hair. “Well, anyway, you've got lots of money. You can just move back to your home city, can't you? Or to another town that needs you?”

“I sent it all.”

“You spent it?” she misheard. Or perhaps Pecunia, who was on the whole much more concerned with spending than with saving, heard what she expected to hear.

“No,” said Denario patiently. “Through the bank here in Ziegberg, which has a staff magician to make transfers, I sent it all to Oggli. My journeyman partner needs it to take care of our apprentices.”

“How can you have apprentices if you're both journeymen?”

“I told you, our master died. We've picked up some of the practice. But frankly, there were more experienced accountants who moved in and stole important accounts away. They were just waiting for old Winkel to die. They hated him.”

“Oh, that's right. I thought it was a good thing because you're established. You've already got a lot of business.”

“A lot, yes, but not enough for two journeymen and five apprentices, one of whom can't really do the math. He's inattentive.”

“Well, why did your master take him on as an apprentice?”

“He was going a bit dotty toward the end. To be honest, I'm not sure he was ever all that great a judge of people. His first apprentice, years ago, stole from him and cheated him and finally raided his accounts and left. After that, Winkel didn't keep apprentices for over twenty years. He only got keen on the idea again when he couldn't lift his books off the upper shelf in his den. That's when he hired Curo.”

“So you're not the senior journeyman?”

“Oh no, I am. I thought I explained this once before. Maybe it's confusing. Winkel didn't really train Curo, you see. He didn't think Curo showed any aptitude or interest. It was only when I came along that Winkel started teaching again.”

“So he taught you first?”

“He taught only me, no one else, for years. That went on until Curo started begging me for lessons and I gave in. Once I started training Curo, Wiimple felt shamed a bit, I think. He gave in and admitted Curo to the practice, too. They never completely made up, Winkel and Curo, but they got along in a polite, distant sort of way.”

“And you left Curo with the accounts you saved from those predatory members of your guild?”

“Yes. Well, Curo couldn't have saved the accounts himself but he can run them. He's good with people. Plus he'll have help with the actual figures, which aren't complicated. But I didn't trust Curo to go out and get any new business by himself. Then there's the fact that neither of us have served out our minimum journeyman term yet. Winkel didn't register us with the guild until a few months before he died.” 

His fiancée leaned back and studied him. Her perfect eyes seemed to penetrate into his soul, his past, his childhood. He felt suddenly aware that she was older than him and she knew more than she let on about accounting. She understood how the world worked. She knew the nearby towns and traveled between them unmolested, one of very few women who could. She was also the only woman in town, aside from the mayor's wife, who carried a silk handbag. A few farmwives wore packs on their back but it wasn't the same. Pecunia had style. 

Years ago, she had traveled with her first husband to the really big cities like Baggi and Tortua. She'd discovered fashion. She'd learned how to deal with cosmopolitan creatures like noblemen, vampires, high priests, tax collectors, and wizards. She'd taught some of those things to Denario. But apparently, he hadn't really learned. 

“You've never been that good with people, have you?” She tapped her gloved finger to her chin.

“Well, I think I'm okay. Thanks to you, I'm better.”

“Plus your master wasn't good with people.”

“He was decent. Well, in a sense he was. Well, no.” He scratched his head. “He wasn't any good with people. Not in the sense you mean. Not any good at all, really.”

They stared at each other for a few seconds, long enough for Denario to grow self-conscious and stop scratching his head. A bird screeched at them from its nest in the cornice on the wall of the temple next door. Song birds, yellow and black, swirled around one another in the midday sky. It was a beautiful, late spring day. The icy breeze blew down the mountain pass and cooled the town. It was especially strong here on The Ziege, which was a rise of land that included several low hills, all of which took on a shape, as seen from above, of a goat's head. That's what the locals said, anyway. Denario wasn't sure who could possibly have seen The Ziege from above. Wizards? Gods? Anyway, Ziegeburg was centered on the right 'eye' of The Ziege. It was the highest hill near the Rune Kill stream.

The old Temple of the Goat, across the street, occupied the defensible ground. The place looked like a fort, which it once had been. Where its roof had fallen in, anyone could see there were ramparts to be used by archers defending the congregation. In the past, the entire town had been able to fit inside the building and defend itself, first from barbarians, then from the conquering troops of Muntab, then as Muntab citizens from various other invaders. All of that had happened in the distant past. No one was sure when the temple had first been constructed. It had been re-built a dozen times.

The granite blocks had fallen, only to be propped up by patchworks of shale. At some point, quartz had been cheap, probably mined from a large hill nearby named Runetop. The village built a new outer wall for their temple from the vein of quartz and it must have been beautiful, the color of milk. All but the bottom two feet lay in rubble now, the result of a long-distant siege. The survivors had rebuilt with wooden beams and bricks. The first layer of bricks was poorly baked, so they had contributed to the temple's demise. For a century, they'd formed part of the foundation but they'd crumbled.

Finally, when the Temple of the Goat had decayed beyond rebuilding, the citizens of Ziegeburg constructed a Church of the Goat opposite the original. It was done in the modern style with spires rising from the corners, a central basilica, and carved figures of arboreal vines, nymphs, and goat-headed gods around the edges.

Pecunia had inherited the house next to the church. Her place had been done in a similar, modern style, right down to the carved vines above the front door. Although it was a narrow place, it was tall. One could, without trying hard, get lost in its many rooms. There was an upper story and a basement, both rare in Ziegeburg, a town that had the word 'architecture' only because the outside world had brought it. Pecunia decorated her halls and stairs with mirrors. She filled her cabinets with glassware. Each bottle, if not empty, held a homemade concoction. That was one of the things that had impressed Denario early on, when he’d just arrived in town and met Pecunia. She spent many hours of hard work cooking, canning, and bottling.

“Pecunia,” he began. But she had come to the conclusion of her thoughts at the same time.

“So what will you do next?” she asked.

“Pecunia ... oh, right. The barman at Proud Pony thinks I should take the stagecoach out of town.” He gestured in the direction of the stables. They occupied the east side of this section of town.

“I'm sorry to say it but, from everything you've told me, I have to agree. The mayor's men will come for you tonight and I doubt I can talk them out of lynching you.”

Denario found that the idea of her even talking to a ruffian was disturbing. Pecunia was so feminine and so delicate, her conversation with anyone less than a bank clerk was unthinkable. He reached for her. Her limbs were lithe and graceful. He felt privileged to know the touch of them. His fingers grazed the lace of her sleeve. Her hand turned and caught his. 

“Oh, Den,” she murmured as she squeezed his hand. She was the only person in the world who had ever called him by a nickname. He savored the sound of it on her lips before he spoke.

“Pecunia,” he breathed. “I don't know how to say this. You had wanted to be married and, well, this is sooner than planned. But we could wed in the next town, Angstburg, I think. Would you like to tour the Blue Hills with me? The coach follows the river path until those magical creatures show up where Rune Kill and Bad Kill make the Lamp Kill. We could stop at dozens of towns on the way to Oggli.”

“Most men would be concerned with escape.” Her laughter rang as clear as a bell. “Do I have that much affect on you? I'm flattered. But you have business and I mustn't be a distraction.”

“You're not coming.”

“No. It's sweet of you to offer but you're forgetting so many things. By the way, you don't have the money for two fares, do you?”

“I hadn't thought of that. Actually, I don't have money for a single fare, not all the way to Oggli. I think I could go as far as Wortsburg. That's probably it.”

“Well, you need to spend it.”

“Pecunia, I hate to ask ...”

“But you want the money you gave me.” She nodded. Her left hand dipped into her handbag.

“Well, yes, part of it. Do you have any left?”

“I've got a silver and six pence. You can have it all.”

“No, no.” He waved it off. That little an amount wouldn't help him. He was disappointed because, in Ziegeburg, that many gold pieces was more wealth than most farmers ever saw in their lives. It should have lasted Pecunia for months even with her lavish lifestyle. Apparently, she'd spent most of it in just three weeks.

“Den, darling, I'm sorry. You gave me those eight golds simply ages ago. Of course I spent it all on my cooking and my clothes. I never hold onto money for long.”

Pecunia dressed well, it was true. Today she'd chosen to wear an elaborate gown, pink and white, with cupped skirts. There were pearls in her high collar and on the top of her sleeves. Silver floral glitter adorned her satin front panel. Her bodice, cut from pink velour and trimmed with blue satin, pinched her waist and accentuated her ample bosom. 

Denario ached to undo the bodice laces. But he realized what he was thinking and blushed. 

“Yes?” She had caught him looking.

“I'm terribly sorry, darling.”

“Don't be. I'm flattered, I think. But you need to catch that stagecoach. Do we have time to stop into my house for a minute?”

“A minute?” Denario felt confused. “Wouldn't it take us longer?”

“Not that, silly.” She elbowed him in the ribs. “I just wanted to give you a little something, a sort of parting gift that's occurred to me.”

“Oh.” He tried not to sound disappointed. 

On the second floor of her home, between two hallway mirrors, Denario waited for his fiancée to come out of her bedroom. The reflections of his face, the reflections inside the reflections, and the endless recursion of images between the mirrors made him uncomfortable for a moment or two. Then he realized, when he stepped to one side, that he could draw a line from the bottom left corner of one mirror to the mirror image of it inside the other. The same curve, extended, would continue to pass through the other, smaller corners in what seemed to be a hyperbolic path.
It reminded him of a problem he'd been working on in his idle time, a way to divide by zero. 

Infinitesmals were his favorite trick for getting around the impossible, although there were other methods. All of the methods seemed to involve recursive functions in some form. He needed to approximate the solution by approaching zero, he found, rather than by actually reaching it.
As amounts of anything changed over time, the way they changed often approached a limit. It took on a function, although describing that function took a series of approximations, so that was what Denario practiced while he waited. He was measuring the mirrors with his hands and then measuring the images inside the mirrors when Pecunia came out of her room.

“Darling,” she breathed in a husky voice. “More math?”

“Well, yes, but it's magic.”

“It is?” She seemed so startled, she almost dropped what was in her hands, some kind of locket on a chain. She grasped it again, as if it had slipped, and a moment later, she laughed with relief. “Funny you should say that.”

“How funny?” he said, not sure.

“This locket,” and as she introduced it, her left hand fluttered over her heart, where she held the tiny bauble, “has a charm on it.”

“Are you sure? Did you have it verified when you bought it?” He peered closer. The engraving on the flattened cylinder reminded him of a number eight or an infinity sign but it was stylized and incomplete. It took him another moment to recognize one of the sigils he'd seen engraved on the old bricks in the Temple of the Goat. “It's beautiful. But I don't know anything about magic except that Master Winkel always advised me to get a reputable wizard to verify charms before estimating their value.”

“I'm sure that's quite wise for accounting.” Something about her tone warned him that he was saying the wrong thing but he couldn't figure out what it was. Her hands lowered to her waist. “Magic, at least some particular charms and spells, can be more common out here in the smaller towns. I suppose that makes it less valuable.”

“It would depend on what is does, wouldn't it? I mean, a life saved is the same here or in a large city.”

She brightened. With a nod, she pushed the trinket toward him. “Here.”

“Pecunia, are you sure? It looks like gold.”

“Of course it's gold. Darling, some charms don't work without the right materials. But take it. I have a lot of them. Wear this one to remember me.”

“I'll remember you regardless, Pecunia.”

“I know you will. You're young. Humor me, Den. This one is supposed to give travelers luck on the road. I always wear one or two like it when I leave town.”

“Oh, all right. It'll feel a little funny to be wearing a necklace, though.” The chain was too small to fit over his head. He tried. Then his thumbs fumbled with the clasp but it defied him until Pecunia took a section of chain away from him, unsnapped it, and nodded for him to let her put it on. He crouched and bent his neck.

“Just about right,” she announced. She tugged on the chain when she was done.

Denario tucked it beneath the collar of his accountant's vest. It hid the necklace from view. Aware that he might be doing something wrong again, perhaps rude, he looked to his fiancée for approval.

“Is it all right to wear it out of sight?” he asked.

“The locket needs to stay close to the skin.” Her voice rang with authority. A moment later, she inclined her head to one side slightly and added, “Or so I'm told.”

He put his hand on his vest, over the locket. Already, the metal felt warm. He wondered if it was an effect of the magic or if this bit of jewelry, like so many things his master had seen during their years of estate valuations, was simply a cheap imitation designed to fool innocent but well-to-do people like Pecunia. 

Her blue eyes bore into his. One thing he'd learned about Pecunia was that she had a sense of certainty like no one else. It made everyone around her hesitate. But when she wanted to, she could inspire Denario with a confidence almost the match to her own.

He tingled with alarm at her intense expression. She leaned closer. The ringlets of her hair swung forward, blonde curls framing her elven face. Her jawline came nearly to a point at her chin. Her lips parted. Her gaze never wavered. She continued to stare at him with an anger or a passion that he failed to understand until she leaned a little farther and her lips touched his. Suddenly, he was drowning in her embrace. 

Her mouth covered his and then covered it again as she changed positions. Her arms flailed behind his back, up between his shoulder blades. He did his best to respond but he was swarmed. He’d never seen this side of Pecunia. She was usually demure. Her previous kisses had been delicate. She had always leaned back to pull him in. This time, she pushed hard against him and knocked him into a wall. Her fingers wandered over his body as the kiss went on for a minute. Fifty-nine seconds of that minute were devoted to learning experiences for Denario. 

When she was done, she stepped back and took a deep breath.

“There,” she said. “Now you'll remember me.”

Her eyeDenes, long and black, fluttered. Denario's heart did, too, or maybe that was the muscles around his diaphragm. He gasped. 

“I don't want to leave,” he replied.

“Of course not.” She snapped her gloves against his chest. “That's because you're a darling. But the stagecoach is your only option. What's the schedule?”

“It rides out at sunset, apparently.”

“Have you checked?”

“No, but ... well, no. I haven't checked.”

“Run down to the stable and ask Mister Conli how much time you have. That's the first thing. I'll go see if I can talk some sense into Emmie Figgins. It's likely enough that I can, you know. She and I aren't friends but we've known each other for a long time and we aren't enemies. Often, that's enough. The problem is that Emmie doesn't have much sway over her husband nowadays. It'll take her a week or so to turn him around.”

“She can do that?”

“After she does, it should be safe for you to return. But don't try to re-enter Ziegeburg until you get a note from me, Den. I'll send it through your bank courier. Does that sound all right?”

“It sounds perfect.”

“Of course, if Jim Figgins has friends at the banks, and he does, he'll spy on any note that I send. Maybe it's best if we have a code.”

“Wouldn't he just have his friend tear up anything written in cypher?”

“Oh, no. I didn't mean anything that obvious. Look at my desk. I have pink card paper and blue paper. If I write to you on a pink card, that means it's still dangerous here. If I use a blue card, you'll know that things are patched up or settled one way or another. I suppose you've sided with old Baron Ankster. That one way things could settle. If the baron brings his men in to enforce the tax collection, you'll be fine. It doesn't seem likely, though.”

“Why not?”

“I think most of his troops are assaulting Fashnaught, wherever that is.” She snapped her gloves again.

On the way out, Pecunia led him through her kitchen, which was filled with shelves of various concoctions, all laid out in neat rows in stoppered, glass jars. The glassworks wasn't cheap, either. Among the colored potions kept in glass, she kept soups, jams, and other mixtures in clay canning pots. Some of them were quite intricate and a few weren't ordinary fired clay but carved porcelain. One or two jars, he thought, had naughty pictures engraved on them but he always felt it would be rude to look too closely. Pecunia might not realize what the fig leaves or ivy vines weren't quite covering.

She had quite a few paintings, too, on the few patches of wall that weren't covered by mirrors or shelves of glass and pottery. Some of the pictures were old and cracked, now but the rustic scenes of satyrs and nymphs, goats and sheep, mountains and sky, had a local look to them, as if they'd been painted from life around the Ziege. 

Pecunia plucked a vial of purple fluid from a shelf next to the arch of her foyer.

“A gift for Emmie Figgins,” she explained.

In front of her door, almost in the street, she gave him a kiss almost as forceful as the one inside. That wasn't like her because Pecunia normally concerned herself quite a lot with what other people thought. He supposed that was why she was so much better than him at judging everyone's intentions. 

“Wish me luck,” he said.

“I don't need to.” She laughed and waved. “Just keep the locket on.”

Scene Three