Thursday, October 29, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 15: A Bandit Accountant, 2.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Four: Friends Like These

Denario had to pay his money to the gamblers before anything else.  He was glad he'd negotiated for a new limit of ten coppers.  He asked for his canteen.  The curly-haired man gave him a knowing smirk but nothing more.  His friends pleaded for another game.  They'd get him a canteen later, they said.  They didn't want their audience to lose interest.

“Do you want to go first?” they asked.  “Hey, Tim, do you mind if the accountant shoots first?”

“What?” roared Tim over his tankard.  “Shoot to start, same as before!”

“I didn't say I would play,” Denario pointed out.  “No canteen, no play.”

“Come on, you can get that later,” the tallest gambler whined.  “I'll buy one off of someone here.  I don't want to run home for mine.”

“Give me two brassers to buy one,” said Denario.  He was taking a risk.  But he'd been taking chances the whole time.  Anyway, he had a plan.  It was even stupider than his first plan but it depended on going last in the game.  Tremelo the Magnificent had already agreed to that, basically.  “Make it three.”

“What stakes?” said the gambler as he palmed the brass pieces.

“Double?”  Denario was probably being too bold.

“You sure?”  The tall one dropped his coins into Denario's hand.  “Hey, Tim!  Double the money on this one.”

The men standing around the wizard laughed and that included one of the mercenaries.  The wizard, though, hesitated.  His gaze focused hard on Denario.  Then he threw back his head and guffawed mechanically.  It was a calculated move, though.  He knew Denario was up to something.

A trio of old farmhands in overalls strode to the tables to place bets, followed by a pair of newcomers.  While the customers haggled, the proprietor of Bottom's Up marched from behind his bar to light the torches along the south wall.  A new group of day laborers wandered in through his front door and waved.  Sunset glowed fiery red behind their backs and through the corner windows.  Denario knew from the color of the light that he should have left Ziegeburg already.  He told himself that he was on the edge of town, still relatively safe.  If he ran up the path over the nearest hill, he'd be gone.

Denario was mentally measuring his distance to the front door when Stanli Wisenheimer walked in. Stanli was a thin, wry-mouthed cabinet maker who built clocks on the side. None of his clocks ever seemed to work right but that didn't stop him.  He had no competition in Ziegeburg.

Stanli's hair was fading from blond to white so gradually that hardly anyone in town had noticed. He didn't look his age, nearly fifty. He drank whiskey instead of ale. He knocked out his own teeth when he got toothaches, only five of them so far. And he fancied himself a darts player. He'd lost a fair amount of money to Denario.

“Hey there, accountant,” he drawled in a casual tone, as if it weren't unusual for him to be missing from the Proud Pony at this time of day. He waved one hand in Denario's direction. With his other, he pulled back the curtain that served as the bar's door. To someone behind him, he shouted, “They were right! He's here.”

He shuffled forward. Behind him rolled in Kingli Baker, a heavy, round-faced man. His eyes widened as he passed the threshold. Dressed in white to hide the flour stains from his shoulders to his knees, he looked exactly like the kind of man whose family had been making bread in the area since it was a stand of trees in which goat herders took refuge from wild hippogriffs. Probably none of his ancestors had ever set foot in Bottom's Up. It was beneath his class.

Next through the door was Elgin Farmar, the tailor, and finally came Gordi Smith, the farmer.  Gordi’s look of astonishment made Denario feel very, very guilty for not taking the stagecoach out of town.

“What are you doing here?” Denario asked him.

Stanli gnawed on a reed in the corner of his mouth. He often kept one there against his bottom gum, where he had self-extracted a couple teeth.

“Same as you,” said Stanli.  “We’re bettin’ on darts.”

“A man came into the Pony,” Gordi explained. He strode forward and clasped Denario's elbow. “He said there was a big match here tonight. Lots of money changing hands. And the unusual part was, the games were played by the best shooter he'd ever seen and a wizard with enchanted darts.”

“The best shooter was wearing a red vest,” said Kingli.

“With gold trim on it.”  Gordi's voice was hoarse.  “We knew it was you.”

The four tradesmen stepped a little closer. Denario was almost surrounded by them. But as short as he was, they didn't seem imposing to him.  In fact, they looked small and out of place among the young farm hands, bandits, caravan guards, and other roughnecks.

“The mayor,” Stanli breathed.  “He'll know, too.”

“How come you're here?” Gordi pleaded.  “The stagecoach ...”

“It left this morning.”

That stopped the four tradesmen for a moment. But they were on a mission to rescue him or thought they were, so they couldn't be steered aside by mere facts. In fact, Denario was pretty sure what they were going to suggest next.

“But how about ...” began Gordi.

“No one would sell me a horse,” said Denario.  “Not even a donkey.”

“But then, with the right traveling gear ...”

“Do you have any?  I don't.  I've been trying to buy it.”

“I don't.  Not with me.”  He hung his head.  “Maybe at home but that's half a day away.”

“None at all, for me,” added Elgin.

“Me, neither,” Stanli drawled, the hay dangling from a gap in his bottom teeth.

“My gods, the farthest I've walked is about two miles down to the stream for the temple festival, Eve of Glaistig,” said  Kingli.  “Why would I have anything like that?  You're the traveler, I thought.”

“I've traveled by coach and a little by horse.  No one in Ziegeburg will sell marching supplies to me.  Still, I could travel by foot for a few miles if I had a canteen.” At those words, most of the men nodded to one another. But Gordi was still trying to find a solution.

“If you stick near to the river, you might not need the canteen so much.”  He rubbed his chin.

“On the way here,” replied Denario, “I was warned to keep away from the water.”

The locals turned to one another and exchanged puzzled glances. Then, slowly, comprehension dawned. Their open mouths closed. They remembered the problem of enchantments further downstream. Where the Rune Kill met the Riggle Kill, ancient magical springs bubbled up into the water. They added to the already potent Riggle Kill, which was fed by streams of magic from farther north.  It had been that way longer than anyone could remember and when wizards traveled through, they said there had been a magical battle in the area in the ancient past, before written records.

From the battle grounds or from the springs, raw spell-force sometimes radiated.  Often it took the form of purple fogs or lime-green waves of enchanted vegetation.  Even the river got weird blooms in the winter every now and then.  Trees would suddenly bear apples or, just as likely, cuckoo clocks.

“Oh yeah,” said Stanli.  He chewed on his straw. “Flying gars live downstream, I hear.”

“And alligators,” Gordi remembered.

“And giant frogs.”

“And then there's the Naiads.”  Stanli made shapes with his fingers.  His friends raised their eyebrows.  “They  look like Nixies but instead of dragon wings, they have dragonfly wings. Naiads are human in their faces, though.”

“You don't say.”

“Ah, but they never reach more than a hand tall.  And they're poisonous, of course.”

“And don't forget the poisonous snakes.”  Gordi tapped his forehead.

“And the makari.”

“And the manticores.”

“And the sireni.”

“Wait, what are all those?” Denario interrupted. It was all going too fast. He remembered the names of some of those creatures from the warnings he'd heard as he passed through towns on his way here last spring.

His friends threw up their hands.

“Dunno.”  Kingli shrugged.  “They're downstream.  Ain't seen 'em.  But I heard you got to stay away from 'em.”

“And the gods, of course,” said Gordi.

“Oh yeah, the gods.  Best to stay away from those.  Except for ours, of course.”

“Oh, right.” Gordi looked up at the ceiling nervously. Everyone else looked up, too.  You couldn't tell when a divine presence would show up.  “Wouldn't hear nothing said against our own, of course. But foreign gods. That's not right.”

“Right,” everyone chimed in.

There was a slight pause, as if Denario's bar friends had to catch their breath.  The talk of supernatural deities made everyone nervous, as it should when you knew for certain that they turned up for most holidays.  They weren't dependable; that wouldn't seem very holy, perhaps.  But from what Denario had seen and heard, there might be no appearance by Leir at the spring celebration and no goat-fish woman at the Festival of Gaistig for a season or two.  But then a storm would arrive with the next equinox and a man made of ball lightning would stride the country.  Or the goat-fish tribe would stop playing in the water with humans and scatter to announce the arrival of Gaistig herself.

“Forgot about all them things.” Gordi scratched his head.  “Our part of the river is mighty quiet.  There just 'taint much magic here that the Makari can't fight off.”

Right, that's the local name for the goat fish, Denario remembered.

“What does this have to do with playing games?” said Stanli.  He hitched up his loose, cotton pants.

“Not much,” Denario explained.  He put out his arms.  “I thought I could win a bunch of things that I need.  You know how gambling is, Stanli.  You think you've got a bright idea and then it doesn't work.”

Kingli Baker stared at the unfinished walls.  The heavy man catered to the wealthiest families in town and it had been a long time since he'd seen the inside of a poor person's hut, if he ever had.  Likewise, Elgin Farmar made clothes for the richest Ziegeburg familes, not that anyone was truly wealthy out here, not compared to a big city like Oggli or Baggi.  But Elgin gaped at his surroundings, too.  The windows in Bottom's Up were uneven because they hadn't been cut so much as constructed where the felled trees had left shorter logs.  Openings had appeared naturally and, although they'd been widened, they'd been left rough.  The kegs of homemade beer and casks of wine weren't stored in the basement of Bottom's Up because there wasn't one.  The proprietor had dug a hole in the floor behind the bar and that served to keep the drinks cold or at least slightly cool.

“I ain't seen good magic since I was a kid,” said Stanli, hands on hips.  “I want to get a hand on those magical darts.”

“You see the priest cast spells all the time,” Gordi reminded him.

“Oh, well, that don't count.  Anybody could do a few things with the gods on their side.  I want to see darts.”

Denario glanced to the center of the room, where he saw a robed figure headed in their direction.  Tim the Militant was ready to play.

“I think you're in luck,” he said.

Chapter Two, Scene Five

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Not Zen 176: Projection

"I'm not even interested in how it started," the prosecutor said. He trailed the detective through her office doorway. The reek of rotting food hit him as soon as he stepped in.

"With ordinary fights. About a year ago," answered the detective. She carried a blue notebook under her left arm and a coffee cup in her right hand.

"Really, no. Just why."

Over her shoulder, she flashed an impatient glance. She was short woman with broad shoulders. Her hair was brown, probably dyed from the uniform color of it, and she had what he guessed was a nice face ruined by her constantly cynical expression. She downed the dregs of her cup.

"You want to know why adults encouraged kids to fight?" She leaned over her desk and shoved a stack of notepads and wax paper sandwich wraps to one side. She set down her current case notebook. Her right hand pushed the empty cup next to it. "How is that going to be part of your court case?"

"Motive is always important." He hesitated. She was a cop. He didn't have to explain. "You're right, I don't really care." 

She snorted. With a wave of her arm, she indicated the shelf next to her office window. There, she kept a serving tray like the ones in the police canteen. It held a coffee maker with a half-full carafe, two bags of sugar cubes, a thermos mug of cream, and three empty cups.

She looked like someone who cared about her coffee - not that it was good so much as it was available. He wondered if she'd stolen the elaborate service. He couldn't believe that she'd swiped all of the pieces from the canteen. The other cops wouldn't have stood for it.

"I'm trying to ease off," he said. He waved away her offer.

"Suit yourself." She kicked her rolling chair, swiveled it, and took a seat.

"Back to the motive." He raised his index finger as he made his point. It was a habit he'd established in the courtroom. "I'm sure that those charged will get attorneys. They'll try to plead they had bad childhoods or something. I want to be ready."

"I've talked to all of the scout troop leaders, pack leaders, and administrators."

"I know."

"It's simpler than you think." She crossed her legs. Her fingers intertwined over her belly. "There's no bad childhood necessary." 

"You think ordinary people could do this?"

"Ordinary people did." She nodded.

"That can't be right," he snapped. "The ringleader, the main guy, he has to be cruel. He had no sympathy for the kids."

"He was manipulative." Her full stare fell on him. "We know that manipulative people have good empathy. That's not the same as sympathy."

"It's close enough." He thought he ought to make himself comfortable. He looked for a guest chair. There were two, both filled, one by a stack of notebooks and manuals, the other with fast food wrappers and bags. He chose the one with the food.

She shook her head.

"What's wrong?" He put his hands on an empty cup and a greasy napkin. "Are you still using this stuff?"

"Help yourself to the chair." She shrugged. "I just don't think I should have to explain that regular folks do bad crap all of the time."

The prosecutor stacked the cups and wrappers into the two bags. His gaze swept the room for the trash can. She had to have one, he was sure. He found it under the ledge of the desk, half hidden and more than half full. He added the fast food bags to the top. Now the can was overflowing with white bags, papers, shreds of lettuce, a bit of tomato, and plenty of grease.

"So he's normal," he guessed. He needed a place to wipe his hands but he resisted using his pants. They were charcoal grey. Oil stains would probably show. "The scout leader understands what he did. What happened to his sympathy for the kids who he made fight?"

"His sympathy was overridden by how he projected himself into the situation. This is one of those guys who doesn't remember how young and confused kids are. Instead, he imagined his forty-year-old self in their circumstances. He didn't understand that the losers would feel confused and hurt. He didn't imagine that the winners would feel like bullies. He thought everyone was a prizefighter. He gave them all badges."

"You're kidding."

"That's what he told them they were, prizefighters. That's how he says it when you meet him. You'll see. He's all gung-ho."

The prosecutor swiped his hands on the side of the chair so he felt less greasy. Then he sat and crossed his legs like the detective. He tried to picture the sort of defense opposing attorneys would make at the bargaining table. The evidence was good. It probably wouldn't come to a full trial, only a plea. But during plea bargaining, a prosecutor's job was to disprove as much as he could of the defense narrative.

"Is he a war hero?" he worried. That story was all too common in these hearings. "Any kind of veteran?"

"He wishes he was." She knew he liked hearing that. Her lips curled in a smug half-smile. "He thinks the kids were losing honorably and winning through virtue and all that."

"There's got to be something else wrong with him." He uncrossed his legs. He felt like he wanted to get up and pace the floor. "No, no, not really. Not that I wouldn't beat that argument in court."

"Rest easy. It's not abnormal." Her hint of a smile disappeared. She returned to being completely analytical. Her left hand rose to brush something off of her blue shirt. "People project themselves into situations. Authorities condemn kids all the time for making decisions that would be terrible for adults. Of course, they're not grown-ups."

He listened to the tone of her voice with a growing sense of suspicion.

"Are you the one I heard about?" he asked. "The detective who's against charging kids as adults? We have to do that."

"Morally, it's about the same as this guy." She laid open her hands as if she were welcoming his argument or maybe surrendering to it. "I know judges say that it's fine if we charge a twelve year old with murder. And we do it. But we're doing the same thing as this fight guy. We're beating up kids because we imagine that they make decisions like we do."

"Oh, come on." The line of reasoning disturbed him mostly because he'd read a psychology article about brain differences by age. He worried there was something to it. It was his job to defeat the scientists in court even if they were right. "Don't they think a little like us?"

"A little. But if you think they should be sentenced as adults, you've got the same mentality as this guy organizing a fight club for kids."

"'Fight club for kids.' Good turn of phrase. I'll use that."

He rested his hands on his necktie for a moment. When he remembered the grease, he moved his hand. The tie looked clean. He sighed.

"Context is everything," said the detective. She ignored the catch-phrase she'd given him. Her pretty hands rose up when she spoke as if she were framing her argument with them. "This guy thought that his scouts were full of stoic virtues and honor. That made him watching them fight seem reasonable. You think sentencing kids to life in an adult prison is reasonable because of the same bias. We've all got the problem. We're all flawed. Every person projects their wisdom onto those who can't possibly have it."

"You seem to be arguing for leniency in a serious crime."

"No, I'm not worried about that. The police are judged for split-second decisions by people who don't make any. This guy will be judged by folks who sure don't want to hear about Greek history, Sparta, Athens, or any of that crap. They're going to project themselves into the situation. And they're gping to hate him. It'll make your job easy."

"You know, I think I will have that coffee." The detective had gotten him sidetracked for a moment. He needed to return the focus to his case arguments. He rose. "You want a cup?"

She gave him a shrug. He ambled to her half-full pot. As he touched the handle, he turned and raised an eyebrow in her direction. She met his gaze for a moment. Then she squinted into the depths of the dark, glass carafe. It revealed the level of her temptation. She had a serious habit. He waited.

"Yeah, what the hell." She blinked.

He grabbed the pot and one of her cups. After he poured, he plopped in a sugar cube and wondered just how sweet she wanted it.

"How many?" he asked.

"None." She scowled and waved him off. Whatever good will he'd been earning from the deed was gone. "That one is yours now. I drink my coffee with cream, no sugar."

"What? You've got all these sugar cubes." He indicated the tall bag of fancy sweetener. The cubes were half purified white, half natural brown. They looked expensive. Were they a gift from a fellow officer? They weren't standard issue.


"No one keeps sugar cubes anymore. Jeez, if I kept them in my office, they wouldn't be just for my guests." The situation irritated him. He'd been trying to be nice. "I thought you'd have at least one."

She cocked her head to one side and gave him a meaningful look.

"People make that mistake all the time," she said. "That's my point exactly."

"What point?"

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 14: A Bandit Accountant, 2.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Three: Fallen

Denario drew back.  He pinched a brass tip lightly between his fingers and thumb as he took aim.  To his right, a row of spectators sipped from their mugs.  To his left, the wizard chuckled and rubbed his hands in front of the other row of men.  Tremelo had ordered his magic darts to close out the 20 wedge and they had, leaving no chance for Denario to win the round.  Some ale was already being drunk up through gritted teeth.

At that moment, as Denario squinted at the wide base of the 19, he forgot about the mayor and the threats to his life.  But he was reminded.  Because that was when, finally, Jordin Lamar looked up from his drink.

“You!” Jordin roared.  Lager and foam sprayed from his mouth and drenched everyone within a yard.  Even Denario, a dozen feet away, felt droplets.  His hand twitched.  The shaft veered off course.  It missed the board and sunk into the post below.

“Foul!” someone cried.  “That didn't count!”

The bettors were angry and one of them grabbed Jordin by the elbow.  The big man hardly noticed.  He was striding hard for Denario.  It took the wizard's frantic waving, two men clinging, and someone's pet dog hanging off his pants to slow him down.  And Denario still had to backpedal to stay out of his way.

“It is!  Accountant!”  The big man stopped and stretched out his arms in wonder.  He didn't seemed to notice the men he dragged along.  “Why?”

“Well,” said Denario.  “Why not?”

That threw Jordin for a moment.  He scratched his noggin.  A thin man dropped off his arm and scurried away.

“You's supposed to be dead on the stagecoach,” he mumbled, as if reminding himself.  “And we looked for you, yep, at your room.  But you was gone.  So you was stagecoach, for sure.  That's what the boss said.”

“What do you mean, dead on the stagecoach?”

“By the gods, the mayor put a silver quarter price on your head.  That's, uh, a lot of brass!”  The huge man pulled a huge knife out of his belt.  It looked small in his fist.

“Thirty six brassers,” said Denario automatically.  Apparently, he was compelled to be an accountant to the end.  “A silver ring is worth a dozen brassers and a silver quarter is, around here, worth three silver rings.”

“Uh.”  Jordin stopped.  The math prompted more head scratching, this time with the knife, but he failed to cut himself.  “Well, how much is a silver dime, then?  Is it more than a ring?”

“It's supposed to be.  It takes two and half dimes to make a quarter instead of three rings.  But I've noticed that a dime doesn't buy as much here in Ziegeburg.  For instance, you can almost always get a healthy goat for a ring.”

“That's right,” an old timer's voice chimed in.  “It's the standard.”

“But you hardly ever seen anyone trade the same goat for a dime.  They might give you a sickly goat or a baby goat ...”

“A kid,” the same voice interrupted.

“Right, but they won't sell you a goat for a dime.  Doesn't happen.”  Part of him continued to work through the figures.  So his life, to the mayor, was worth three goats?  He felt insulted.  “Just three?  That's cheap.  A good accountant should be worth thirty goats, at least.  And I know I'm a good accountant.”

“Uh,” said Jordin.  He put his hands down, including the one with the knife.  Everyone relaxed.  “How much is thirty goats?”

Denario didn't know how to answer that one.  Thirty goats equals thirty goats.  Or was the huge, slow man wondering how many silver rings that meant?  Well, that was thirty, too.  There were thirty-six goats to a dollar at that rate.  Of course, when talking about such a huge amount, farmers usually cut better deals on a per-head basis for livestock.  Denario should have been worth at least two dollars in his own estimation. It seemed wrong to explain that to the mayor's stooge, though.  The man would probably kill him for a dollar – less, apparently, since he didn't understand how little he was being paid.

“It was not a foul!” someone said.  “No one touched him.  That shot counts.”

“It does not!”

Suddenly, two men were shoving each other and everyone, even Jordin Lamar, backed up to give them room.  They fell to the center of the floor and rolled back and forth.  Fortunately, after a bit of wrestling, the combatants seemed to lose interest.   They huffed and grappled, but did it more slowly.  Everyone else shouted at them to get up.

“Play on!” someone shouted.  Other folks repeated it.  They pumped their fists in the air.

“Keep playing!  Play on.”  They clapped and stomped.

The wizard picked up his ash-wood staff and bowed as if the commotion was all for him, which drew laughter and made the combatants hesitate to look around.  Tim hammed it up, bowed some more, and levitated the two men off the floor.  As they began to wail and kick to escape the magic, he made a complicated pass in the air with his hands, which stood them upright.  Then he put the backs of his hands together, pulled them apart, and the two men found themselves pushed away from each other by at least twelve feet and with considerable force.  One of them ended up falling over a table.  The man seated there grabbed his mug of ale just in time.

As the audience applauded, the wizard turned his attention to Denario, who had backed out of the playing area.  Denario felt a tug on the darts.  He turned his palm half-open to look at them.  The wizard, yards away, made a grasping motion with his fist that levitated one of Denario's bolts out of his hand.  Denario clutched after it.  Too late.  It swooped through the air, almost fell to the floor, rose again, and with a mighty but awkward looking swing, the wizard propelled it magically to the board.  He whispered a word that no one could hear but which nevertheless made the hairs on their necks stand up.  And the dart, at the last instant, directed itself with a thunk into the 19 wedge. 

“There!  Hah!”  This time, it was the wizard pumping his fist, cheering for himself.  His friends laughed.

That should have been Denario's shot.  He opened his mouth to say something but he couldn't think of what.

“You can't complain about that, now, can you?” said the wizard.  “Come on, little man.  Get back out here and play.”

“Play on!” someone shouted.  Others repeated it.  “Play on!”

“You ain't supposed to be here.” said Jordin Lamar.  But the fight had gone out of him.  He slumped down, sullen, onto a bar stool.  A moment later, as Denario took the final shot of the round, the despondent man began the long process of getting back to his feet.  When he succeeded in rising upright, he staggered to the door of Bottoms Up.

“Missed!” cheered the wizard.  At first, Denario stared at his shot, which hit the line of the 19 wedge, and said no, he was fine.  But he said it quietly.  His feet were taking him closer.  When he closed to within an arm’s reach, he could tell the wizard was right.  His dart wasn't on the charcoal line.  It had fallen low by a few hairs.

“Just one hit, this round,” Denario admitted.  It was the one the wizard had scored for him, which made it worse.  He gathered his darts as the magic ones pulled themselves out and flew, over his head, back to their owner.

The bar seemed a little darker or perhaps it was Denario's mood.  He'd noticed that the mercenaries had bet less money on him this time and at as much higher point difference.  They relaxed against a wall, arms folded, and quietly waited for the wizard to trounce him.  On the other side of the playing alley, the wizard's friends were enticing bets from the latecomers to Bottoms Up.  They were succeeding, too, but with half-penny wagers or less.  Denario saw lead rings and even smaller munis change hands.  The munis were thin ovals of pot metal.  Each was shaped like an egg, a reference to the fact that they'd started out as markers for poultry-based barter.  Nowadays, you could buy about two eggs for a muni unless the local hens were sick.

Denario's next shot fell squarely into the 18 wedge but didn't sink deep enough.  After a second, it dropped out.

“Doesn't count!  Doesn't count!”  The wizard did a jig.

“All right, fine.”  He shook his head.  It was a standard game rule in most parts of West Ogglia.  Darts that dropped off the board before the end of a round didn't count.  That was why, in games between bad players, there was no advantage to going first.  After all, your shots had to stay up longer.

As it turned out, another one of Denario's hits dropped off the board in the next to last round and that spoiled his only chance to close out a number.  Worse, it meant another 45 points for Tremelo the Malevolent.  When they tallied the final score, Denario knew in advance that he'd lost 315 to 114.

“I can do better,” Denario announced.  The wizard chuckled.  So did a few of the gamblers.  They were still checking the tally.

“Who had two hundred?” shouted one of the wizard's friends.  He held up a marker scrap of parchment.  “Whoever you are, you lost by a fallen dart!”

One of the mercenaries grumbled.  He threw his marker scrap to the floor.

“And someone had two hundred on the over?  Wow!”  The same voice shouted.  “You're a big, big winner.  You bet early, too.  Best odds!”

“Keep it down!  Keep it down!”  An old farmhand rose from his seat on the floor.  He was trying to smile as he shushed the odds-maker but Denario guessed he was joking in earnest.  He really meant to keep his winnings quiet.

“Let's see ... a half-penny down but it's five pence back!”

The old man put his hands over his ears as he ambled through the tables.  That got a few guffaws from everyone.  Another old farmhand got up to follow, though, and that got even more laughter.  From the shouts, the old men often owed each other money, so both of them were likely to collect from the same pot.

“Look,” said Denario above the din.  “Look, besides adding numbers ... not much else, really ... this is the only thing I do well.  I can score better.  A lot better!”

“How much?” someone shouted back.

Silently, two of the mercenaries crossed the aisle.  They were smiling.

“I've never lost by more than a hundred points.  Never, not even in my first game.  Not even to the wizard I played in Baggi.  It won't happen again.”

“What?” Tremelo the Malcontent sloshed the tankard of red wine he'd just picked up.  He roared, “What's this fool saying?”

“Don't worry, Tim.”  The group around him muttered reassuring praise.  One of the farmhands patted him on the back.  For once, the wizard didn't seem to mind.

The men in leather armor eased into place on either side of Denario, between two tables.  The farmers around him made room.  The shorter mercenary looked and talked like a native.  He had hair that could be euphemistically called dirty blond although it might just as well be called greasy brown.  His friend, though, a head taller and just as muscular, had hair the color of bright rust.  Denario wondered where he was from and how far he'd traveled to get here and why he had bothered.  In the port of Baggi, a few red-headed sailors arrived in dugout canoes each spring.  They were rare visitors, though, and no one knew where they came from.

"I'm Airecht," he said as he stuck out his arm.  He had similar rusty hair on his bare forearms, slightly lighter than the locks on his head.  "And ye've met Kabir, I ken."

“Never less than a hundred, eh?” said Kabir, the one who was not much taller than Denario.  “Still trying to win a canteen?

“Not any more.”  Denario shook hands with them both.  “The gamblers promised me one.”

“Really?  Then why didn't they give it to you?”

“I don't know.”  Denario blushed.  He knew the answer had to be that they didn't intend to pay up.  What could he do?  “I don't know anything, I guess.  Except that this is something I have to do.  Because I can win.”

“Ye want to win, ye mean.”  Airecht scratched his beard, which was the color of a leaf in the fall.

“Well, yes.  Of course.”

“It's the magic, lad.  I don't think ye can beat magic.”  He sighed and hoisted his belt by his thumbs.  “The wizard, now, he's none too bright.  I've fought alongside his type before and against ‘em, too.  Killed one, along with me old mate.  Yah, put a sword right through him.  But he bled some kind of magical fire.  Burned us up.”  He turned over his forearm and rolled the sleeve from his elbow to his shoulder.  The exposed flesh was disfigured with a brownish-blue burn not unlike the burn across Tim the Malignant's pock-marked face.

“Ever faced a wizard before?”

“No.”  But the instant he said it, he knew that wasn't true.  He'd come up against them several times and knew what to expect – in darts, at least.

“Braggarts, the lot of 'em.  But they've got the knowing of things we common folk doesn't. Like ye with yer numbers.  But yer numbers won't help ye here.”

“They might,” said Denario.  Adding up numbers did, in fact, help him during the first game.  He supposed these fellows weren't likely to have seen that since the advantage was nearly invisible to anyone not tracking potential scores in their heads.  “There's got to be some way to beat him.  Those magic darts ....”


“Do you think ...?”  An idea was starting to form.  “Do you think that, if his darts didn't cooperate, he could do the magic by himself?”

“Could he make more o' them?  Doubt it.”

“Not him,” said Kabir.

“Aye.  He's not a man who fiddles with things.  He got those off of another magician of some stripe, I'll wager.  They're always trading magic back and forth.  But if he had the knowing of making things, he wouldn't be a hedge wizard, would he?”

Would he? Denario wondered.  But he had to guess not. 

“At any rate, I'm sure his friends would like another round of betting."  Kabir idly fingered the axe at his belt while he talked.  It was a throwing axe, Denario noted, since he took an interest in things that could be aimed.  Kabir looked like he could toss it fifty yards.  Of course, his forearms looked good for tossing beer barrels for fifty yards, too.  For hours on end.  “They finally pulled in some money but they're wanting more.  And I'd like another bet, too.  Some of the money they pulled in was mine.”

“Sorry,” said Denario.

“I lost by a fallen dart.”  His smile was menacing but, at the same time, kindly, as if the threat of violence were deflected to somewhere else.

“Oh.”  Denario shuffled his feet.  “That was you.”

“Don't worry it, lad.”  Kabir clapped him on the shoulder, which rocked him almost off his feet.  “My wagers are my own.  For all you know, I'm going to walk across to those men over there and bet against you.”

Denario gave the gambling tables a look.  There weren't many men waiting around them to collect.  The odds for Denario winning wouldn't be good on the next game.

“Ach, he's joshing ye.”  The red-haired fellow clapped Denario on the shoulder and nearly sent him tumbling in the other direction.  “We're going to bet on a hundred or under.  Maybe we'll even bet on ye to win.”

He winked at Denario as the two men tromped in their leather and greaves, to the farmhands.  At this point, various pairs of men had set up at least three competing gambling tables.  Each of them were giving different odds and the calls for bettors were loud, as were the yells of affirmation in return.  Even louder was the bartender, who strove to be heard above the rest.  But the loudest of all was the wizard.

Tremelo the Miscreant bellowed and threw red wine down the sides of his patchy beard.  Denario stepped around an ox that someone had shaved, stood upright, and dressed in a cotton shirt as he made his way towards the wizard.

Chapter Two, Scene Four

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 13: A Bandit Accountant, 2.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Two: Speak to the Point

“Sixty to thirty-eight!” shouted the short mercenary.  He jingled his money purse meaningfully as he headed to the gambler's table after the first round of throws.  He was about to win his bet and the foursome of gamblers weren't looking happy about it.

Tim, the wizard, waved his hands and summoned the golden darts.  They wriggled like fish on hooks for a moment before they worked themselves free.  He'd plunked them into the 20 wedge, which closed it out and meant that Denario couldn't score there.  The next best thing was the 19 wedge.  After a wayward first shot that nearly hit a bystander in the toe, to the laughter of all, Denario had landed a pair of 19s.  The three men dressed as mercenaries clapped.

As he retrieved his darts, the first one from the floor, he thought about the wizard's horrible throwing style.  Was Tim really as bad as he appeared or was it a deliberate ploy?  Maybe it was his way of showing off his magic.  There was a possibility, however slim, that the wizard was genuinely a bad darts player, though.  Denario allowed himself some hope.

He pondered the possibilities for a moment.  It would be smart for the wizard to close out 19 on his next turn, so the best Denario could do was close out 18 (minus three pennies for the round), then 17s for the wizard and 16s for Denario the next round (minus three pennies again), then the wizard would close out wedge 15 and that would be the end (another 45 pennies lost but Denario would only pay the maximum of 40). Hold on, what if Denario didn't close out 16?  That would mean losing by 17 pennies on that round but, in the next round, if he closed out he'd only be down another 3 pennies for total of twenty.  So it paid to miss on the 16 wedge!  He'd save twenty-five pence.

While he pondered that, he turned around.  His hesitation nearly cost him an eye.  He noticed as the phoenix feathers adjusted and directed the needle tip to the left.

“Score!” shouted Tim.

Denario heard him but he didn't see anything for a moment and it wasn't because he'd taken the needle in his eye.  It was because he'd thrown himself backwards on the ground with his left arm covering his face.

There was cheering around the bar.  Everyone on the wizard's side got a laugh.  Those few who had bet on Denario, though, didn't like to see him nearly killed and said so.  One man, who'd bet on Denario making 80 points, sounded like he would refuse to pay up.

Denario just lay on the floor and shivered.  The magic dart had swooped up above his head on its way to the board.  He took a few deep breaths, trembled, and re-lived his near death experience with the added bonus of smelling the beer-stained and pee-stained hay that covered the dirt floor.  After a minute, a pair of large men lifted him by his shoulders and tossed him back to the throwing line.

“You're a bit slow there, accountant,” sneered Tim the wizard.

Denario didn't say anything.  He just sat, hands by his sides.  His eyes focused on the board.  For a moment, he couldn't comprehend why he was seeing something odd.  His opponent had shot an 18, not a 19.

The men lining both sides of the path to the dartboard jeered and guffawed at the contest but they hadn't noticed what was wrong.  They jostled one another.  They jostled Denario.  But he didn't move.  He watched Tim whisper to the magic dart in his hand.  His words seemed plain.  He told it to aim for the 18 wedge again.  Yes, it was true.  The wizard was aiming for the wrong number.  And no one had noticed.

When it was his turn, Denario hopped up and threw a 19.

“Can he do that?” asked the wizard.  Suddenly, everyone realized that he could.  The wizard's friends were livid.  The darts felt like old friends in Denario's hand.  He'd had exactly enough ale to relax his muscles, which was tricky considering how little muscle he had.  His throwing motion felt smooth.  Now that he'd closed out the 19, he hit hit next two shots on the 17 wedge for a total of 53 points.  The score was 114 to 91, although the gamblers didn't know it yet.  They were furiously tallying, one side with a crude abacus, the other with slashes and crosses.

“We have winners already!” someone shouted.  Three men held up their scraps of parchment.  The laughter was different this time, surprised and not cruel.  Someone slapped Denario on the back, which knocked him into the bar.  The bartender shoved him back to the throwing line with a hearty chuckle.

Denario smiled and nodded.  He noticed that the caravan mercenaries were counting their winnings at a table near the door.

“By the gods, Tim,” hissed a gambler to the wizard, loud enough for Denario to overhear.  “Are you taking it easy on that runt?  Just nod.”

“I made a mistake.”  The wizard didn't seem troubled.  He waved and the golden darts wagged their bottoms again as they pulled themselves out of the board.

“Well, if you make too many more, we'll need another game to break even.”

“Go back to your cards.”  Tim sneered as masterfully at his friends as he had at Denario.  Temporarily defeated, the farmhand stalked back to his companions.

Denario got his darts and waited.  For the first shot of the next round, Tim aimed for and hit the 19 wedge. All the men around the bar groaned when they saw it.

“He's closed that, dammit!” shouted several at once.

“Oh.”  The wizard pegged his remaining two into the 17 wedge. But Denario was on his best game.  Before anyone could spoil the moment, he plunked a shot into the 17 wedge to close it out and followed that with two 16s for a total of 49 this round.  The score was 148 to 140. 

“He's winning!” someone shouted as he mis-added his columns of slashes and crosses.

“No, he's not!” shouted a different gambler. 

Denario had drunk at the Proud Pony all winter without hearing this much shouting.  He tried to correct the bad addition but, over the sound of the argument, no one heard him.  He retrieved his darts with an eye on the wizard to make sure no more practical jokes got played on him.  Back at the throw line, in the confusion, Tim the Malignant made exactly the opposite mistake he'd made before.  Instead of hitting the sixteen, which he could have done, he went for the 15 wedge.  This time, though, his friends caught it instantly.

“Wait, Tim!” two of them shouted.  One raised his arm as the wizard lazily took aim for his second shot.  “He hasn't closed 16s yet.  You can hit those.”

“Easy enough.”  He wagged his bushy eyebrows. 

It was the wrong decision.  Denario couldn't believe it but they weren't bothering to do the math.  Sure enough, the next two magic darts scored 16s.  That made a total of 47 for the round.  The score stood at 195 to 140, two points better than if Tim had finished a 15 triplet.  But now Denario could hit 15s.  The wizard could have limited his maximum score to 156.  Now, with perfect luck, Denario could get as high as 201.

Unfortunately, he wasn't perfect.  He missed his first shot at the 16.  His second one just barely caught the lower edge of the line.  His third hit in the 15 but it looked like it was barely hanging onto the cork.  Denario ran to take it before it fell.  Now the score was 195 to 171, although the scoring tables still hadn't caught up.

When the wizard hit a 16 on his next shot, men chuckled.  No one corrected him, though, so he did it again. Someone jostled Denario's arm as he watched.   Denario turned and saw that it was one of the caravan guards, the red-haired one. 

“De ye think his friends will na' see?” he whispered.  But at the same moment, two of the wizards companions leaped to their feet.

“Tim!”  The kept him from making a third mistake.  Still, he only scored 15 points on the round.  That made it 210 to 171.

Denario's hands began to sweat as he approached the line for the final round.  Trembling, he made a terrible shot that hit the 15 and wobbled.  His next was the same.  It landed.  The game was over.  Men began to cheer.  But the dart flopped like it would fall out of the wood.  Denario took his final shot just for practice and it sunk in deeper, right on the outer edge of the 15.  A dozen men rose to their feet.  The cheers grew louder.

“Closed it like that!”  One fellow snapped his fingers.

“Made an extra!”

Maybe they were easy to please but it was a new experience for Denario.  He had been popular before, in a way, but only with other accountants.  Certainly, he'd never felt a crowd of any sort pulling for him to win.

There was a rush between tables as friends collected bets or placed them with one another on the next match.  Denario listened to what was going on with a growing sense of alarm.  He checked his path to the door.  No, there was no way through the farmhands.  The window was closer and only a few men stood between him and the freedom there but Denario remembered that someone was waiting outside.

To the west, he noticed, the sunlight had turned that paler, fainter shade of yellow it got just before it went to orange.

“Great match!” someone shouted.

“Well, he couldn't have been much of a wizard,” said a quieter voice.  Denario turned in time to be hit by the dragon's-breath odor of red wine and spiced meats that seemed to be the wizard's diet.  Tremelo the Magnificent raised a mug to his lips.

“What do you mean?”

“You'll see.” said the wizard.  But Denario already knew what he meant.  Tremelo had let the game stay close.  For whatever reason, he had deliberately cost his friends their bets.

He'd probably wanted to see what Denario could do.  Now he knew.  Now he'd get his friends to place their bets again for higher amounts and this time he'd throw perfectly.  Denario wouldn't.  Chances were pretty good that he wouldn't play as well again tonight.

One of the gamblers argued with his customers loudly.  He tossed coins on the floor and threw scraps of parchment.  The farmhands scooped them up.  Then he calmly paid the largest man in the room his five pence.  Other gamblers rose from their chairs and left him to his job.  They had their eyes on Denario.  The blond one dashed up to him.  His nostrils flared as he poked Denario in the chest.

“You owe us forty coppers!” he shouted.

“Nine,” said Denario.

“Pay up!”

Denario reached for his purse.  He was glad he'd separated the pennies from the rest of his money.  Nevertheless, he didn't let the other men see how much he hadn't got.  For their part, the taller two, who tried to peer in, gave up when he caught them.

“We need another game,” said the tall gambler, to Denario's total lack of surprise.  He put out his hand to accept Denario's money.

“Six ... and eight, nine.”  Did they think he was a fool?  And was he?  Only a fool would play another game.  But the wizard was a terrible darts player.  Denario thought that somehow, despite the magic, he could win.

“I don't know ...” he began.

“I'll bet you want to win some coppers back, eh, accountant?”   The wizard leered at everyone and swung his mug in a wide circle.  If he wasn't drunk, he was getting close.

“He's not stupid, Tim.  Look, we could, uh, pay you.”  The tall man said this in such a whisper that Denario had to read his lips to understand.  “A little share afterward, eh?”

“Are you kidding?” roared Tim.  He could read lips too, apparently.  “I'll shut out this little jerk!”

No one had paid much attention to Denario or to the gambling men.  But everyone noticed the wizard.  The room lit up brightly with smiles.

“Come on, accountant,” hissed the tall one.  “What'll it be?”

Denario tried to avoid answering.  Instead, he started reading the numbers on the scraps of parchment at the gambler's table.  Besides those, there was a scrap of slate bearing chalk marks from a stub of low-grade chalk. 

“You're actually up seven coppers?”  He was surprised.  He lowered his voice.  “Well, you were down two before I paid.  But anyway, you're down down six brassers on the other side.  So that's eleven pence to the red for your total.”

A glance at their faces told him that his math might not have been welcome.  But the closest gambler, the tall one, hunched his shoulders and rubbed his stubbly chin.

“That's not as bad as I thought,” he muttered.

“Figured we were out almost twenty,” said his friend. 

“We still want that game.”

“Yes, well ...”  Denario was about to cut his losses and leave.  It was crazy to stay.  But as he turned in the direction of the door to Bottom's Up, a shadow loomed in the doorway.  It blocked the waning afternoon light.  From the shape of the silhouette, he recognized it as Jordin Lamar, the most dim-witted of the mayor's stooges.  Jordin was bearded.  He snarled when he spoke.  He stood at the height of an upright bear.

But even bears have eyes.  Denario hid his face.

“Well?”  The blond gambler tapped his feet.

“I'll play for a canteen,” whispered Denario.

“Done.”  The curly-haired, blonde gambler laughed.  But it wasn't a pleasant sound.

Chapter Two, Scene Three

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Not Zen 175: Tides

An otter muscled through the wild seas from its kelp beds toward an intruder. Gusts blasted the sea from the west, the otter's right flank. Storm clouds tumbled overhead, pushed by the winds. On the shore, a few men and a woman watched.

"Out!" yelled the otter. "Get back to the shore where you belong!"

A man had stepped from the sand into the surf. He'd struggled through the crush of the incoming waves, his heavily-muscled arms and legs impelling him beyond the sand shelf. He'd passed the few other human swimmers. Finally, he'd come out too far. He'd skirted the boundaries of the otter territory.

"Turn back!" the otter shouted again.

The man laughed to see a creature half his size swimming so aggressively towards him.

"I'm no invader," he said. "These ocean currents are taking me where I don't want to go."

"Don't you know how to swim?" The otter slowed. An ocean swell drove water over his reddish-brown coat.

"I'm strong. I'm a champion fighter," the man announced with a laugh. He turned his body against the swirl of the currents. "I'll beat this, don't worry."

"I am a champion, too." The otter flexed his mighty claws. They had broken clams, crushed spiny urchins, and helped him beat his rivals. "It had never occurred to me to fight the ocean."

He stared in fascination as the man struggled with the riptide. The thick arms pulled with great power. The man swam better than others of his kind, at least.

The otter blinked, awed by the size, strength, and energy he saw. Of course, the fellow was losing to the current but he was a champion nonetheless. Any creature would admire the man's fighting spirit. Despite the way the sea tossed him around, he kept fighting.

On a hunch, the otter dove for a look below.

"The ocean floor is close beneath you," he said when he surfaced. "Maybe you should use it."

"No!" the man roared. He churned his arms and legs harder. Again, he chose to battle the direction of the ocean rather than cross to the calmer swells only a few body-lengths away.

The otter flipped on his back to watch. The man seemed to be no threat. The ocean flowed the way it always did here on a stormy day with the tide beginning to wane. The man was oblivious to his circumstances, too. He didn't stop struggling to look around.

Twice, the man dropped down under the surface to push off of the bottom despite his anger about it. He rocketed to chest height each time but he didn't take the opportunity to observe his surroundings. The different flows were clear to see. Meanwhile, the otter noticed there had been no good effect from the man's efforts. The speed and volume of the sea tides were such that they carried the man on an inevitable course, an arc back toward a rocky outcropping of the shore. There, the otter guessed, the warrior would have no problem.

"Do you panic because of unthinking emotions?" the otter asked. He swam in and out of the currents around the man, mystified. "I have always wondered about other animals."

"I don't panic. I fight. All my life, I have done so. I will always fight."

"But the emotions in you, the fear and the anger, they are greater than you can overcome. The ocean is greater still. You should observe yourself for a moment."

"No!" the man roared.

"If you continue to resist the tidal force, it will sweep you against these rocks. While if you understand the waves and swim as you must, you'll move to safety."

The man spun. He saw the arc of the ocean swells at last. He faced the shore so that he was not pushed onto the rocks unknowing. But but he was forced to them nonetheless. A tumble of whitewater sent him headfirst into a group of three boulders. He raised his arms for protection. Such was his strength that he remained conscious. Blood poured from his forehead. He turned to face the next wave. He threw an arm over the largest boulder and shook his fist at the sea. He roared as he was battered by another great wave.

The otter swum over to the rocky outcropping, slipped up onto the shore through the calm spot the man should have used, and skipped over to the strange fellow.

"I'm amazed that you are alive," he blurted.

"I won't let the ocean win."

"Oh human," the otter chuckled. He lay down on the rocks above the man's head. "The ocean is not trying to beat you."

"It keeps pushing me around."

"The ocean doesn't know you. This is the way of the world." He rolled onto his back and lifted his claws in a stretch. He folded them over his chest and closed his eyes. "Life only feels like it's fighting you when you're trying to fight."