Sunday, November 29, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 20: A Bandit Accountant, 3.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Three: Lucky Find

By noon, Denario felt too famished to be exhausted.  He could have eaten a whole cow.  Well, no, he probably couldn't.  He'd passed them in the fields and they were huge.  They snorted when he got close.  He was sure they were looking for an excuse to trample him.  Then their owners would trample him further.  But he was hungry enough to wish he understood how cows were raised.  It looked like they just ate grass but he knew it couldn't be that simple.  It never was.

As he strolled along the cart path, he gave up on a tricky geometry problem regarding how to define curves and, instead, counted common objects to relax.  He counted ox poop for a while but it depressed him.  He stopped at sixty-three piles of poop.

The Marquis should have someone clean this place, he thought, as he stepped over another pile.  He shuddered at the thought of writing to the Palace of the Marquis.  Even if someone read his complaint, he'd likely be ordered to do the job himself.

Another item he counted during his hike was fences.  There had been seven fences so far, one hundred sixty-one fence posts along the road, nineteen cattle, four horses, one of them gray, thirty seven sheep in a single flock, and two streams, both full of fish too fast to count.

Denario had filled his canteen at the first stream.  The water tasted so good he'd turned around and headed back to it after he drained the canteen.  He hadn't thought to grab for a fish. 

At the second stream, he tried it. 

"Damn!"  After his sixth failure to even touch a fin, he gave up.  His face had gotten wet.  His sleeves dripped.  Beneath them, his arms shivered up to his elbows.  Shivers crept to his shoulders before they faded.

He hiked a quarter-mile with a stone in his shoe.  He paused, removed the stone, and limped for another half-mile as if it were still there.

At one of the fences, behind thirty seven sheep, there was a girl too young to be a shepherdess.  At least, that's what he thought when he noticed her, although she seemed to be watching a flock.  She noticed Denario, too, and stared at him for a while.  Since she didn't say a word, Denario didn't feel right trying to start a conversation.  That kind of thing could get misinterpreted, which might lead to fathers and brothers with angry expressions and thick wooden staves that they'd use to protect their girl.  As soon as he'd passed her, though, and she was on the other side of a hill, he wished he'd asked her for food.

Denario followed a wooded turn in the path.  Trees grew thicker here.  Even with the sun directly overhead, the grove was dark.  He trudged on and wondered how many miles lay between Ziegeburg and the next town, which he remembered as a crossroads with four houses and two barns.

He accidentally kicked a piece of metal in the road.

It pinged off a rock.  He crouched at it and rubbed off the dirt and mud.  The object was the right size for a penny.  But no, it was part of a buckle.  It had been broken with considerable force.

He stood and looked around.  There, by the side of the cart road, was a wooden chest.  Its sides were inlaid with fine woods and a metal that might have been gold.  Amazing.  But the strangest thing was that it had been smashed and thrown away in the brush.  It made no sense and, as he approached it, he glanced around again to make sure the road was deserted.  Odd, he thought, that the owner hadn't tried to keep the chest and repair it.  It had been worth sixty pence, at the least, when it was whole.

He hefted it onto his shoulder.  It pressed a broken edge into him but he was determined to take it as far as the next town.  He was sure he could trade it for something.

Unfortunately, he'd overestimated himself.  The chest was small and it wasn't heavy but a hundred yards was enough for him to realize he wasn't going to make it.  He set it down, rested, and hoisted it again.  A few yards later, as he rounded another bend in the path, he noticed the dead body.

It didn't completely surprise him.

“Hello?” he said, even though he knew the blonde-headed figure was dead from the smell.  He set down the wooden chest and approached.  The corpse must have been lying in the road for hours.  It rested in the ruts left by a recent cart and Denario could easily imagine that this man had staggered out of the trees in order to flag down the cart but had been too slow.  Maybe he had tried to crawl after it.  Anyway, he'd left a trail of blood behind him.

Despite the smell, Denario knelt and turned the dead face so he could see it.  To his relief, he didn't recognize the man.  Denario felt around the neck and the wrist for signs of a pulse.  None.  He listened for breathing.  There was none of that, either.  There was a lot of blood on the brown pants and tan shirt.  It had crusted.  Flies landed on it, rubbed their forelegs, and buzzed away.

As he leaned down lower and lower, concentrating on hearing a breath or a heartbeat, Denario realized he could hear a horse on the road in front of him.  Someone was headed his way.

“Ahoy, there!” he shouted.  He hopped to his feet and waved.  There was no one he could see but surely any traveler would help.  Then, as he saw a distant figure appear on the path, he doubted himself.  Who had killed this man?  A bandit?

“Ahoy?” he said more quietly.  He squinted.  The figure on the horse didn't seem to be getting any closer.  There was motion around the horse, too, another person or an animal.

Denario ducked off the path.  With a glance at the horseman, he darted back to the splintered wooden chest, hefted its remains, and took them with him into the underbrush.

About that time, the horseman seemed to notice him.  At any rate, Denario heard a shout that could have been meant for him.  He dropped the chest near a tree and slunk back into the shadows of the deepest woods.  The horse didn't come any closer, although it moved back and forth across the road.  After a few minutes, Denario's curiosity overcame his fear and he snuck closer to the horse and the people moving around it.

“Is that all?” someone cried quite clearly.

“Someone else got most of it, my boy,” said another voice.

“Probably bandits,” said the first voice, the one on top of the horse.

“Probably not.  Shh.”

Denario paused in his tracks.  The one on foot, an elderly woman, had glanced into the woods.  Her gaze passed over him but she didn't seem to take note of his presence.  He was glad, now, that he'd covered his red vest with the raggedy, plain farming shirt.

“We don't have to worry,” ventured the figure on horseback.  “They must be long gone to the hills by now.”

“Real bandits don't leave this much behind, my boy.  Who knows what folks did this?  But someone else came after, that's for sure.  At least one cart came through.”

“Do you think they got the tax box?”

The woman in her shawl grunted.  Now that Denario had gotten close, he could see the debris through which she walked, mostly broken bits of wood, a carriage wheel, a fine wooden door, and a dead horse.  The woman removed the bit and bridle from the mouth of the dead horse.  Then she strode toward a rectangular shape in the shadows at the other side of the road.  It took Denario a moment to realize what he was looking at.  This was the stagecoach he'd missed.  What had happened to it?  Everyone knew there were no bandits this close to town.  Then he remembered Jordin had said, “You's supposed to be dead on the stagecoach.”

He'd been meant catch the coach out of town.  He was supposed be dead.

This had been the mayor's plan all along.  For weeks, maybe, Figgins had intended to put the accountant onto the stagecoach along with the baron's taxes.  Then he'd have his men attack the coach, steal the money back, and blame it on bandits.  But it had gone wrong.  Denario hadn't played his part.

That explained why the mayor hadn't been serious about killing Denario in town.  He wanted to keep to his plan and, not the least, keep his money.

Denario's escape had been narrower than he'd thought.

“Of course they got the tax box,” said the old woman.  In her way, she looked sturdier than her son.  “Someone came behind and got other things, too, things that bandits, real bandits I mean, wouldn't leave.  They didn't even check for jewelry!  Can you imagine?”

“Ugh.  Mom, that's gross.”  The lad turned away from his mother as she pawed at a body that had an arrow through its chest.

“I'll bet it was the Farmars.  Old Gordi comes through here every other day but he's the type who wouldn't stoop to searching the bodies.  Or he took a couple things, I'll wager, because there are cart tracks all around.  He couldn't help himself.  Hmm, no, it would be more likely that his boys did it while he wasn't watching.  But they didn't loot properly, not in front of their dad.  And they'll report the loss of the stagecoach.”

“They will?”

“No question.  They're probably in Zeigeburg right now, gathering up folks to come back and clean up, maybe even to send a letter to the baron.  The coach is under the baron's protection, after all.”

“Ouuh, ma.”  Something his mother did made him shudder.  Denario didn't like the sound of it.

“Got to do it, my boy.  Do you have any idea how much this stuff is worth?   And look.  Look at this chain.  She had it around her, well, never mind.”

“That's awful.”

“That's gold, that's what it is, or near enough.  And it's jewels, too, or pretty glass.  Doesn't make much difference.  Someone will pay well.  Get down and search the driver.  Make yourself useful.”

“He won't have nothing,” the young man complained as he dismounted.

“If bandits searched these folks, they weren't any bandits we know.”

“Do we know any, ma?”

“Oh!  Like you don't know your uncles!  Just keep looking.”

Denario felt sorry for the young man, who was trying to brush away flies and not look at the body he was pawing rather ineffectively.  The driver had dressed in a classic black suit jacket that hid most of the damage from view, Denario was pretty sure.  Well, there was no point in sticking around.  Part of him itched to rush at these grave robbers and give them a scare.  Maybe they would think he was a bandit and flee.  Or maybe the boy would turn and stab Denario.  Or maybe his mother would do it.  That seemed more likely.

He could hit them with poison darts.  The idea struck him as he took his first step away.  But that didn't make sense.  Probably they weren't bad people.  They just saw a chance at free money.  And if he killed them and then took their money and their horse, what would that make him?  No, it was better to keep going.  He would come to the fork in the trail soon.  Then he'd make his way downhill to the Rune Kill and, with any luck, find a boat to carry him to Oggli, where his life would be sane.

That was a prospect he could look forward to.  He would have skipped through the forest except for his need to be quiet.  He'd almost forgotten that his partner Curo had gotten most of the money from this venture.  Curo would have needed to spend some of it but still there would  be a tidy sum awaiting Denario when he got back.  He rubbed his hands together as he contemplated it.

Chapter Three, Scene Four

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 19: A Bandit Accountant, 3.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Two: New Shirts

“Down over the second hill, turn left.” The farmer pointed from the grassy hillock on which they stood.  His finger led to a pair of other hills in the distance. The second was full of trees.

“How big is the cart path?” asked Denario. He shielded his eyes and squinted. There was no trail through the greenery that he could see.

“Can't miss it,” the farmer assured him.

The day had begun cold and miserable, as far as Denario was concerned. He'd never slept out of doors before. He'd huddled beneath a low fir tree as best as he could but he'd found nothing but pine needles to keep him warm. It turned out he was no good at making a fire so he shivered all night. He'd gotten up when the sky turned from black to purple and marched until dawn.

In the morning twilight, an aggressive rabbit had harassed him from the mouth of its burrow to a nearby border fence. 'Back!' he'd shouted as if the rodent were dog but it kept coming and trying to nip his feet. He'd hopped over a knee-high stack of shale stones to get away. Those rocks had turned out to be a fence and that was how he'd found the farm. 

Farli Haphmeyer was the farmer's name. He was the youngest adult member of the oldest family on the Ziege. Although his father had married into the clan, the rest of his ancestors had been tilling the rocky soil here when stone tablets were used for the local temple records. His eyes had a sunken, weather-beaten look, a feature shared by many local families. Otherwise, his gaze was direct and clear. His lanky arms had, as shown by his rolled-up sleeves, the kind of strength that came from wrestling goats and sheep every day.

“Much obliged.” Denario touched his forehead. He missed his hat at a moment like this. In his room at the boarding house, he'd kept three fine hats, one of them an official journeyman's accounting cap, red with gold braid around the brim. It would have been good to have it to tip in thanks. That was always a friendly gesture.

He would miss his spare clothes even more when it rained, he suspected. Why had he grabbed his accounting bag and not his traveling bag?

“Going far?” The farmer recognized Denario and didn't seem to think there was anything unusual about an accountant hiking through the countryside. But he had an opinion about the way Denario was doing it.  “Only, there ain't no more carts today and I see you got a pack on but no jacket.”

“Farli,” Denario began. He stopped. There was no way to know if he could trust this fellow. On the other hand, he felt ashamed to lie. “Maybe I should tell you why I'm traveling on foot.”

He tried to make light of his problems with the mayor and of how he was nearly broke because he'd sent his money ahead to his partner. He concentrated on the fight in the bar, which got a few chuckles. But Farli didn't ask many questions. He just nodded, most of the time. After a while, Farli raised his arm in almost the same direction he'd given before.

“Well, if you turn left between the hills, you'll see a sheep shed that I put up a few years back. I can't loan clothes to a fellow who's wanted by the law. I could get strung up for that. But I'm a busy man. Can't fight with criminals. Can't watch everywhere at once. If someone was to steal my spare work clothes from that shed, why, I probably wouldn't notice for days. Can't stop that sort of thing, ya know.”

Denario knew this young farmer was one of the poorest landowners in the hills. He came to town only twice all spring. Each time, he ordered exactly one pint and nursed it along for an hour. The offer made Denario feel ashamed. Then a thought struck him.

In a rough voice, he said, “The thief might leave some money for the clothes, of course.”

“No need, now. No need.”

“But you can't stop that sort of thing, you know.”

The young man laughed.

“You're all right,” he said. He jostled Denario on the arm. “In that case, there's a slate out in front of the shed door. It's covers a hollow space in the ground.”

Denario marched a few steps and turned.

“I only wish I could pay what I really owe you.”

“'Taint nothin.'” Farli shook his head. “But ya won't find many carts on the road, mind. Most of 'em have already gone by. There's been three to Ziegeburg, one to Pickle Bad.” 

“Is that all of them?” Denario wondered. He had forgotten how small the town was compared to Baggi or Ahngrili. In only a few months, he'd come to regard it, the way the locals did, as the largest metropolis in West Ogglia. Ziegeburg seemed completely immune to bandits. The town walls were easily climbed or, for that matter, pushed over. The gates were always open. But no bands of men attacked, apparently intimidated by its size.

“Well, my ole aunt Ursula and her sons has got a crop of spring wheat coming in. Haven't seen them today. But if I ain't seen their cart by now, I won't see it till tomorrow. That's the way it is.”

“Right. Thanks, Farli.” Denario started to extend his hand, unsure of whether he was being polite or not. The farmer accepted the gesture and took him in a two-fisted, bone crunching shake. The pressure lasted only an instant, as if Farli hadn't realized how soft an accountant's hands would be. Then he grinned and Denario found himself smiling back at him.

Nodding, they parted. Denario glanced back once, caught the farmer's eye, and they exchanged nods again. Finally, Denario started huffing up the hill and began to wonder what he would discover over the rise. The farmer's shed turned out to be well built, although largely made of scrap logs. He ambled down to it and let his bag slip from his shoulder. It felt good to be free of it. As he rubbed his right shoulder, he stepped inside. 

The floor of the shed was dirt. The shelves were filled with jars of sheep linament. Farm tools adorned the wooden hooks on the walls and, where they had filled all of the hooks, they sat in piles at the corners. Denario couldn't guess at the purpose of some of the implements.  They were just bits of carved wood with stones or twists of metal lashed to them, each one different from all the rest.  Some had blades.  Some had tines.  Many ended in barbs or curled shapes of some kind.  They must be used for shepherding, Denario figured, although perhaps there were general farm tools among the wool-oriented collection.  The shovel, for instance, didn't have any use for tending to lambs except, possibly, to bury them.

A pair of tatty overalls hung on a peg that had been pounded between beams of the log wall.  Under the overalls were two shirts, both so full of holes they were barely fit for wiping up grease.  But Denario felt grateful for them.  He dug into his money pouch and got out double the value he thought Farli would put on them.  That was the hard part.  He was sure that, if he left too much, Farli would feel cheated of his honor or maybe he would guess that Denario was rich and could have left more.

Denario had never understood about people, not really.  But he was lucky in this case because he was fairly certain he'd met a kindred soul in Farli.  The old-looking young man didn't seem to understand anyone either.  He didn't have any real friends in town, Denario knew.

“Damn,” he muttered to himself, money in one hand, clothes in the other.  He didn't think the taller man's clothes would fit into his accounting pack.

So he stole a hard, leather tool pack from one of the corner piles of junk. It had two pairs of shears in it.  Denario dumped them out.  Then, feeling horribly guilty, he picked a pair of shears back up. He needed them to cut the cuffs of the farmer's pants so they didn't hang down past his shoes.  He stole a bone knife, too, and left four brassers and eight pence under the paving stone.  He hoped that was enough.  And he hoped it wasn't twice too much.

Chapter Three, Scene Three

Friday, November 20, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 18: A Bandit Accountant, 3.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene One: A Bargain Purchase

Denario would have liked to be able to say that he didn't remember his slavery. But, in fact, he remembered the beatings quite well. As a young boy, he had never been strong enough or fast enough for the carders or the dyers or the weavers or for any group of the workers who produced cloth for the baron. He fell so low in status that no one called him by name.

“Boy! Hurry up with that spool!” the weavers would bellow. Someone else would shout, while he was stooped over a wrapped pack of wool he couldn't carry, “You'd better not drag that bale through the mud, boy! Keep it clean for the spinsters, else they'll have your hide!”

He was just 'boy' to most of the other slaves and servants. He made his anonymity worse, almost a sort of notoriety, by the way he stopped work when he got distracted by the beauty of the cloth making process. Eventually, someone would notice and yell at him again.

“Boy! What are you day-dreaming about?”

It got him into more trouble than any other child. Unlike some of the other slave children, who had mothers around to look after them, Denario's mother had died, accidentally beaten to death by a headman. He had no allies or friends among the other slaves. Oh, he tried to get along. He tried to be interested in his work. But no one wanted to hear his ideas for improving the looms. No one understood when he tried to re-sort the dyes and threads by frequency of use. What was the point of keeping the red spools farthest away when everyone knew that the weavers used them most? It made sense to keep them close. But he got beaten for that, too, when he tried to explain.

“Boy, you're putting on airs!” a foreman or a weaver would shout. They'd give Denario a swift kick and that would be that.

“What a lazy boy!”

For months in a row, sometimes, he would work only on machine threading. He would crawl on the floors to prepare the spinners or he'd climb on chairs for the looms. If he were lucky, he would be allowed to help the knotters or the knitters, usually middle-aged women who worked in groups together and were kind to him. They praised his skill with jobs that took small, precise hands. If he were unlucky, the more privileged slaves would take his indoor jobs and he would be sent to retrieve bolts of cloth or spools of thread, which nobody else wanted to do in the winter.

When he ran errands, that was the worst because he was always getting smacked by the weavers for being slow with the spools or by the head purchaser for dropping things or stacking bolts in the wrong order. Denario could get a whipping just for being too slow to with the water jug or with any of the other things that the children with mothers didn't need to worry about. Everyone knew where he ranked and it was at the bottom. They never let him forget.

“You don't get first in line with your bowl,” the cook would say. “Don't tell me you don't know that, boy. I don't care how long you've been waiting. You get to the back.”

Being smart didn't help. That just made other slaves and overseers angry. They could see that he was bored with spooling thread. They listened to his suggestions on improvements and it would usually be to their benefit if they took him seriously. But if they didn't like what he said or took his words as criticism, he got beaten. He got walloped by the herders for pointing out that they hadn't carded the wool correctly. He got knocked down by the dyer for noticing that the purple dye had been diluted. He got kicked by the shearers just for watching because they'd heard of the trouble he caused in other places. Finally, he got beaten by the purchaser for noticing that he'd shortchanged the baron on a sale.

The last one made him feel the worst because the stock room was one of the places where he'd been able to take refuge. In the bustle of supply and sales, the purchasing men appreciated his accurate hand on the spools and his nimble mind with the maths they wrote out on the floor. He was good at figuring the numbers and, at times, the assistants asked him to check their work. On slow days, the young men taught Denario how to help them with math. Even better, they hardly beat him for mishandling the bolts of cloth. They preferred to carry the bolts themselves when a nobleman or a wealthy merchant came in to bargain.

“Putting on airs, again,” said the master purchaser, an elderly, tough servant who no longer cared or was even much aware of what his assistants thought. Fortunately, his blows weren't as brutal as those delivered by the bigger foremen in the other work houses.

Denario cried anyway. The master purchaser was clever and he knew how to hit where it hurt. Denario kept his arms high to shield his face. When he dared to lower them, he saw the purchasing assistants and a customer, a thin, pot-bellied man in a robe, staring at him. He felt ashamed.

“What has the boy done?” the customer asked. He worried the end of his long, salt-and-pepper beard.

“He corrected the master,” said the head assistant deferentially.

“An apprentice then? Can't learn the math?”

“He's no apprentice of mine!” screeched the master. “He's just a slave child who hasn't learned when to shut up.”

“Was he wrong, then? Did he figure the sums incorrectly?”

The master paled. He looked as if he'd just remembered something.

“Oh, I'm sorry, Master Winkel.” He bowed, slightly. “I've got to go inform the baron of something. It's an important matter. Do you mind working with Tom, here?”

The master gestured to Junior Master Tom Lamplighter. Everyone nodded. Mumbling an additional apology, the elderly purchaser stumbled off toward the main house. He was, for him, moving quickly.

The customer turned toward Denario.

“I gather you were right, then.” The bearded man let go of the ringlets in his beard. He gave Denario a kindly smile. “And the sum involved was not insignificant.”

Out of their master's hearing, the assistants and apprentices laughed.

“Ah, but we shouldn't poke too much fun,” said Tom. “He's not a bad master and we'll all get old someday, gods willing.”

“Yes, but I'll be better at math when I'm my dotage,” said the lowest assistant. He was quite good already and got cuffed only lightly, with a laugh, for his impetuousness.

“Careful, or we won't teach you percentages.” Tom wagged his finger.

“I've already learned them from the slave!”


“Well, there's no surprise.” Tom shook his head. “Come on over, Denario. We won't bite.”

“From the slave? His name is Denario?” The man seemed a bit distracted but thoughtful. He had laughed with the assistants, initially, but had resumed stroking his beard and making 'hmm' noises to himself. He crouched as Denario approached them so he was almost on eye level. “You're teaching math, boy? But you look awfully young. Who's been teaching math to you, a slave?”

“No one,” said Denario. He was still sobbing. It was hard to speak. “I shouldn't do math. I won't do it again.”

“Now, now.” Winkel tugged on the collar of his robe. It was a warm day. Denario later learned that the master accountant had left his vest at home. He wore a faded, brown tunic underneath an over-robe that went to his ankles. “How old are you?”


“Oh, hmm, you're a bit small for nine. And you look starving, almost. Don't they feed you?”

Denario froze, afraid of another beating. It was the head assistant who spoke. Tom Lamplighter had been a skilled slave and he'd bought his freedom six years ago. Now he was working to buy freedom for his mother.

“He's got no parents,” said Tom. “He gets scraps, mostly. I think he's learned most of his math from listening to us. We haven't been giving him any formal lessons, I'd have to say, but I was going keep him here this winter and make his place in the stock room official. He's not as much use anywhere else around the estate.”

In fact, Denario had learned almost everything from Tom as the head assistant corrected everyone else, including the master purchaser.

Winkel's fingers tugged at the ringlets of his beard again.

“No parents, no math lessons,” he mumbled. “But you know what percentages are?”

“They're fractions,” Denario replied.

“Not quite.”

“Yes, they are. They're fractions of one hundred.”

That opened Winkel's eyes. He crouched down to Denario's level and started to ask Denario questions about math that Denario had never considered before. He used some words that Denario had never heard, either, like interest, accrual, and depreciation, but Denario caught onto the idea of interest quickly, which made Winkel smile, and he succeeded in working out the monthly and annual interest percentages in his head.

Then there were questions about denominators, multipliers, and concepts that Denario partially understood from discussions around the purchaser's table but for which he'd never learned the correct language. Finally, there had come questions about angles, bisectors, and circumferences. Denario had been ignorant of those and worried he was disappointing the scholarly man. Winkel kept asking.

“If I told you only the width of a circle, like that wheel over there,” he said, pointing to the pulley used to lift spools of cloth from the high shelves. “Could you tell me how far around it ought to be?”

“Can I just take a rope around the circle and measure it?”

“No. You can't see the circle. For this case, imagine that I'm in a distant land and I've written you a letter asking how to know if my engineers have built it right. I want to make sure it's an exact circle, not merely something close.”

“And there's a rule for getting the distance around from the distance across?”


“Could I measure other circles for the distance across and the distance around, then work out the rule and tell you?”

Winkel pulled at his beard for another minute. It was, maybe, the longest minute in Denario's life.

“A word with you, Tom,” he said. He rose to his full height.

“Naturally, master.” The head assistant gave him a smile but the rest of his face was so solemn, the effect was rather grave. The two men strolled off to the road, together out of easy hearing for the rest of the stock room workers. One of the older boys leaned out of doors with a hand to his ear. He wouldn't have dared it if it was the master purchaser in conversation but he apparently knew Tom wouldn't beat him for it.

“Keep him in here for a while, won't you?” Winkel said after the whispering finished. “I'm going to talk with your slave handler.”

“Go to the baron's niece first. Ask for Mattie.” The purchasing assistant pointed to the big house across the courtyard. Denario had never stepped inside but the purchaser and his head assistant went there often and sometimes got invited to eat.

After the accountant had gone, Tom walked to the store room door and rested there with his hands on his hips. He gave Denario a self-satisfied glance. Denario didn't understand why. He stared for a moment, trying to figure it out.

“Should I see if the spinners have more spools to store?” he asked.

“Do you have any personal items in the barracks house?” Tom ignored Denario's question in favor of his own. He didn't even look at Denario when he spoke.

“A few,” lied Denario. Most slaves had something. But the others had stolen most of what Denario made for himself. All that he had at the moment was a spare tunic, a piece of broken slate, and a wad of stuffing he kept in rawhide for his pillow.

“Go get them now.”

“But the barracks master ...”

“Tell him Tom ordered it.”

"But he'll be cleaning and ...”

“Tell him. And come right back.”  Tom turned slightly. Denario could see a tear run down his cheek. Startled by the sight, he turned his back on it. After a second's thought, he ran out to do as he was told. Partway to the barracks room, though, he spun around on the dirt path. He stared at the expression on Tom's face and tried to figure it out.

Chapter Three, Scene Two

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Two Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One

Chapter Root Two Squared

Being Geek in a Warrior Culture - Second Chapter

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Root Two Squared

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 17: A Bandit Accountant, 2.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Six: Quit While Ahead

The second part of Denario's plan, well, his newest plan, fell into place after they shot to go first.  Not only did the wizard win – he could hardly miss after he made his intentions clear to his enchanted missiles – he ignored the score, which wouldn't matter to the game.  Tremelo the Miscreant turned his back and helped himself to another flagon of wine. He was treating Denario as his servant.  That was fine.  Denario didn't mind retrieving the wizard's darts.

“See this?” whispered Denario to the first dart. He showed it the steel tips on his brand-new set of three.  “Feel it.  If you're on the board when I shoot, I'm going to hit you with it.”

He tapped the steel against the gold.  Although he hadn't filled the heavy shafts with poison, he imagined they had a deadly force anyway.  If the magic darts could read his intentions now, they should be scared.  He held the image of a steel point splitting the  gold in his mind   He knew the steel could crack it, shave it, cut off a flight feather, and shear off the tip. He pictured it all.

He was sure the golden ones could figure out what he was planning.  They were, in a weird way, a bit alive.  Something about how they'd been created gave them a spark of intelligence.  And like any other creatures that could think for themselves, or so Denario reasoned, the golden darts would try to save their own lives.

He felt one of them tremble.  Denario noticed a mark on the shaft, the letter 'D' embossed in gold.  How tacky, he thought.  He added it to the sense of hatred he tried to project to the darts.

“You'd better miss,” he whispered.  “You'd better not be on the board when I throw.”

Something about the way Denario hid his hand from the crowd must have made one of the wizard's friends suspicious.  He was a short, hawk-nosed man who Denario hadn't noticed before now, when he scowled and pointed.

“Hey, Tim,” he drawled.  “That accountant is touching your golden darts.”

“Heh,” Tim chortled.  He waved his long, thin arm.  “This simpleton's got as much magic as my bootlaces.  He can't hurt them.”

All the same, he grabbed his staff – an item which, Denario had  noticed, the wizard couldn't seem to go without for long.  Tim had to have tools in his hand.  He levitated his darts, clutching the air with his fingers.  Denario let them go as soon as he felt the tug.  They hovered for a second, long enough to give them one last flash of the mental image steel tipped darts striking them dead on the cork board.

“Are you going to use that staff this time?” Denario asked.  It was a spur of the moment question but, he realized, it might be important.

“Don't be ridiculous.”  Tim snorted.  Once the bolts were in his grasp, he thrust his magical rod aside.  “I don't need anything more than these to beat you.”

“Hey, Stanli!” Denario shouted.  “He's not using the staff.”

“Oh.  Right, then.”  Stanli seemed non-plussed for a moment.  He had caught on instantly that Denario was up to something.  That was because Stanli was often cooking up schemes himself.  But he didn't know how to react for a moment.   “Hear that, Gordi?”

“What about it?” said Gordi, genuinely befuddled.

“I reckon I'll place another bet on the accountant to win, then,” Stanli announced.

That got laughter.  But more than that, it got everyone agreeing that the wizard wouldn't use his staff.  A couple of men followed Stanli to the betting tables.  Incredibly, they wanted in.  Even the wizard's friends shared the sense.  They were uneasy as they took the bets and didn't offer the odds they'd allowed before.

If Denario lost big, a lot of men would want to lynch him.

“There he is!” came a booming voice.  Jordin Lamar's huge body occupied the front door of the Bottom's Up.  To his back, there was the orange and purple glow of sunset.  Sundown had come to Ziegeburg.  Denario's time had run out.

In strode the mayor's thug and, behind him, two more brutes.  One of them wore the brown vest of the local guard uniform, complete with the embroidered gold arrow. He wore a brown cap with a matching arrow pin, which struck Denario as excessive.  Everyone had to know the deputy chief of the guard anyway.  Ziegeburg was home to hundreds of people, which was big for these parts, but it wasn't so big that anyone important could go unrecognized.

“This man's a thief!” the deputy shouted.  “A bandit!”

“Really?  Who does 'e work for then?”  For some reason, this remark from one of the roughest characters in the bar drew a few guffaws.  It changed the way the mayor's men stood.  They relaxed a little.

The deputy glanced around him and re-assessed his audience.

“Well, the mayor says ...”

“No one 'ere cares what the mayor says.”

“Now look, you ...”  The deputy started forward towards the second heckler, who was smaller than the first, but Jordin caught him by the arm. The deputy shook it off but he stopped his advance.  “You've all got to understand, this fellow here, he's a wanted man!”

“Wanted for what?”  The second heckler insisted.  “For math?”

“I ...”  The deputy hesitated.  At that moment, Denario realized there was no charge against him.  This fellow would have come out with it instantly because he was that type.  The mayor wanted Denario out of town but he hadn't bothered to accuse Denario of anything.  “I don't remember but I know he's done something.  'Cause the mayor says.   It's not your business, anyway.  He's got to leave or hang here.  And he hasn't left.”

“You're early,” Denario countered.  He said it from behind Tremelo the Magnificent, just in case the thugs made a sudden move.  “The mayor said I had until nightfall.  And it's not night yet.”

“Hear that?  He knows he's wanted!”

The statement didn't have the effect the deputy had hoped for.  The men in the bar didn't draw away from Denario.  If anything, a couple of them leaned closer.  The interesting part, from Denario's point of view, was that most of the men didn't seem  concerned one way or another.  The mayor's associates were part of their bar's entertainment.  At the Proud Pony, of course, all of the tradesmen would have been worried indeed.  Even now, Gordi stood behind Stanli.  And Elgin and Kingli were nowhere to be seen.  But these farmhands and travelers had no worries.  The mayor could take almost nothing from them. They didn't own anything.

“I'm playing darts,” said the wizard in a calm voice. He had a slight smile on his face.  “I don't know the mayor.  Never met him.  But if he or anyone else wants to know what it's like to have green skin, swim with amazing skill, and croak all night on a lily pad, well, they only need to say.”

Instead of an uproar, the announcement caused a hush.   The wizard took a slow sip from his mug.  The gamblers and spectators turned to the mayor's men to see how they would react.  The deputy didn't move. He gaped at the wizard, apparently just starting to realize what Tim was.  A few seconds later, he didn't move all over again.  After a few more seconds, the wizard touched his staff.  The mayor's men and about a half dozen other fellows standing near them sat down.

“That's good,” said the wizard.  With a theatrical flourish, he turned toward Denario.  “Are you ready, my notorious accountant?  Let's begin!”

For a moment, Denario felt ashamed about what he was going to do.  Then Tremelo the Miscreant returned to his condescending insults as he proceeded to mis-fire his darts and let them do all the work.  That made Denario feel better.  Also, as Denario kept an eye on the mayor's men, he could tell they were intimidated by the wizard's show of status and power.  Wizards ranked as high as mayors, in their book.  For now, they'd forgotten about carrying out their orders.

Not too far from them stood Stanli, trying to look brave and not at all worried about his money.  He pressed his fingers into a steeple and rubbed them together just beneath his chin.  He kept his jaw set tight until he saw the magic.  Then his mouth fell open in awe and, a moment later, outrage.

“No one can win against that!” he wailed.

“There!”  The wizard spun with his arms spread wide.  “Twenties are closed out.  The best you can do is the nineteens, accountant.”

“That's what I thought, too,” said Denario as he stepped to the line. “But then I realized, the darts have to stay on the board.  Right? That's the rule.”

The wizard cocked his head to one side.  He seemed prepared to make a snappy comeback but his brow wrinkled in concentration.  Denario turned from him and took aim quickly.

He knew how to throw hard.  True, with him, a shot never carried much force, really, but he knew how to aim when he was at his strongest and his darts took less of an arc.  It was different.  For a short period of time, a few minutes maybe, it could be more accurate than his regular throw.

His shot hit deep between two of the golden darts.  They began to tremble.

“That doesn't count,” said the wizard.  Other voices repeated his sentiment but Denario heard suspicion in them.

“It will,” Denario told them.

He threw again, harder and straighter.  This time, he had the lowest, most centered dart dead to rights.  He knew it even before he released.  His steel tip was going to split it down the middle.

But the magic dart dodged.  It bent to the right more than Denario had thought possible.  His shot caught it in its brass tip instead of the more vulnerable gold body.  Then, slightly nicked and knocked about, it tumbled from the board.  It clattered to the floor, followed by Denario's dart, which hadn't sunk into the remains of the brass tip.  The enchanted one tried to rise.  It flexed and flopped but gave up, tired.  It reminded Denario of a tortoise knocked onto its back.

“It does count!” someone shouted.  It might have been Stanli and Elgin both together.  All the gamblers began shouting.

“That's illegal!”

“That counts!”

“They have to stay on the board to count,” said Denario.  “That's the rule.”

“But you're aiming at them,” complained the wizard.  “That's not fair!”

“You aimed at mine.  And you're the one who wanted to go first.  You insisted.”

To Denario's surprise, almost the entire bar shouted, 'Yeah!' or 'You started it!' or 'Play on!'  It seemed that no one really liked the wizard, not even his companions.  They feared him, of course, and they laughed when he was funny or just when he was trying to be.  But they didn't want to see him win.  Even the men who had bet on the biggest point differences didn't seem to mind it if Denario won.  Not if he actually won.  In fact, that would be a lot better if he won than if he just got close, making winners of a few and losers of the rest.

How often did anyone get to see magic lose to ordinary skill?  It didn't happen.  Oh, every now and then you heard about some fool with more muscles than brain cells who'd cut off a wizard's head because he got lucky between spells and managed to land a blow.  Otherwise, no.

“Play on!  Play on!” came the shouts.  Denario checked the mayor's men to make sure they weren't about to try anything.  Then he put them out of his mind.  He aimed and took his last shot.  This time, he came close to the topmost golden dart.  It leaned far away from his shot. But he didn't connect.  The targeted dart, although it trembled, didn't fall.

“Tie score!” shouted someone from a gambling table.

Tremelo the Magnificent put a hand on the knob of his staff and summoned his magical flights from the board and from the floor.  He did so with a deep, thoughtful frown.  Denario could tell that the wizard was trying to adjust his plans.  Meanwhile, the mayor's men were whispering to one another.  Denario could almost overhear them as he
retrieved his shots.

The next round, the wizard mechanically fired three shots into the 19 wedge.  He ignored his friends, who screamed for him to finish off the 20s.  Once again, Denario checked on the mayor's men before he stepped to the line.  They were wide-eyed in awe of the wizard.  Denario wondered if it were possible to entertain them so much with the match that they completely forgot about killing him.  Maybe it was worth a try.

In the game, Denario didn't fall for the trap of trying to close out the 20s.  That shot felt like he'd miss it.  What he was aiming at now was the golden darts.  And they needed to feel his intentions.  After he took aim, he stopped for a moment.  The steel tip looked fresh, as if it had never been used.  He sure hoped there was no poison on it.  He let it prick him.  It smarted.  Then he took aim again with his blood on the dart.

“Stay up!  Stay up!” the wizard hissed.  He was staring at the cork board, trying to counter what Denario was doing.  But, as Denario threw, two of the magical shafts wriggled out of the board.  They clattered to the floor as his shot hit.

“Nineteen!” someone shouted.

“It counts!  It counts!”

Half of the bar stood up and roared.  Denario dared a glance around, since he figured these were the bettors who had taken a chance on him in one way or another. They weren't the young farmhands he expected.  They were the older men, often wearing pieces of armor.  Quickly, before he could think too much about it, he turned and fired off a shot at the 20 wedge.  He hit.  Then he tried back at his golden target sitting near the top of the 19 wedge and he missed high, almost off the board.  It was embarrassing but still acceptable, he told himself.  He was in the lead, now, 79 to 59.

The gambling tables announced the scores before the next round and, as luck would have it, their totals were correct and agreed.  The wizard looked worried as he tried to calm his magic darts.  One of them almost wriggled out of his hand.  He took a deep breath and exerted as much patience as he could.  He didn't dare yell at the things.  Then he shot for the 17 wedge.

“Oh, damn,” he muttered.  Apparently, he had forgotten that the nineteen and eighteen wedges were still open.  He quickly put a shot into the 18 and then the 19, too. When he was finished, he stepped back from the line, hands on hips.  A faint smile crossed his face.  He had made things harder for Denario.

“What will you aim for?” asked the wizard.

“I don't know,” Denario admitted.  But he knew a second later that the right move was obvious.  He had to close out the 19s and ignore the golden darts.  He wondered if that would cause a problem later, though.  Who knew who those magic, almost-intelligent minds worked?  They might stop dodging and dropping.

To his dismay, his first shot felt weak.  At first, it seemed headed for the 19 wedge.  But it dropped just shy.  No points at all.  The wizard laughed.

Denario tried to ignore his self doubts.  But then he took a terrible second shot, wobbly and too hard.  It landed in the 19, close to the wizard's shot, but Denario knew it was luck.  He was pretty sure the wizard would know, too.

He wiped sweat off his forehead, stepped back from the line, and stepped back up a second later, so as to avoid showing weakness.

“That was awkward,” murmured the wizard loud enough for Denario to hear him.  “But it landed heavily.  Different darts, aren't they?”

Denario stepped back.  He knew the wizard was playing with his head.  Tim had noticed the change right away but he hadn't cared until he started losing.

“Yes,” said Denario.  He felt more resolute now.  “They're steel.”

“Larger, I see.  With hollow tips.”  The wizard seemed to know everything.

“Yes.”  He bowed his head.  For a few seconds, the wizard said nothing more.  Denario hopped forward and threw at the widest point of the wedge.

“It fell!” cried a voice.

“He closed it!” shouted Stanli and Gordi.

The shot had landed deep into the cork just above the golden dart, which had flickered like a fish's tail and leaped backwards.

“So that's how it is,” grumbled the Tremelo the Irritated.  He grabbed his staff and summoned the golden missiles before Denario could step out of their path.  They dodged around him, however, before they floated gently into the wizard's left hand.

“One hundred seventeen to ninety-five,” Denario replied.

“Is that all you can think of?  Numbers?”

The anger in his voice surprised him as he said, “I want my canteen.”

There was a pause, long enough for Denario to look up at the wizard.  Tim the Magnificent was staring.

“Really?” he asked.

Denario just returned the stare.  After a while, Tim twitched.  He seemed to hear the whistles and calls from his friends.  He stepped to the line.  Before he could raise his arm, however, he noticed Denario's shots still on the board.  Denario dutifully marched to the target and pulled out the bolts.  While he was there, he heard footsteps.  But when he spun, it was only Gordi.

“You're doing it.”  The farmer seemed stunned.  “You're really winning.  Are you going to really beat a wizard?”

“I don't know.  I really don't, Gordi.”

“Well, I heard the deputy just now,” Gordi mumbled.  They turned to walk back.  “Me and Stanli are going to try to get in the way if anything, you know, happens.”

“You, Gordi?”

“Gonna stand there, at least, to give you time to run.”  The diminutive farmer shrugged.  “What else can we do?  Anyways, keep shootin.”

Denario crossed his arms and thought while the wizard whispered the word “eighteen” twice and sent his darts to the target.  He couldn't help noticing how bad the throws still were.  Tim would have speared at least one man in the foot and another in the eye if he hadn't had magical help.  As it was, the golden bolts swung in arcs that Denario would have liked to draw, if he had more time, in order to work out the functions that described them.

After the wizard finished with a 17, Denario stepped to the line.  This time, he heard the mayor's deputy whispering to his men.  His mouth formed the word 'rope' and the thug whose face Denario didn't know, leaner and more cruel looking than Jordin, smiled to show his rotten, knocked-out teeth.

The wizard was still shooting perfectly.  Any more mistakes might cost Denario the match.  He was losing right now, 148 to 117 and the wizard had closed out another number unless Denario could threaten his darts again.  He felt exasperated.  And yet, when he hesitated at the line, he heard the cheers.  Strangers were pulling for him to win.

He threw for the 17 and hit it.  All around the bar, men sighed or groaned.  Denario wondered, didn't they understand math?  If he could close out this wedge, he'd be leading 168 to 148.  He didn't have to murder the magic darts to win.

Everyone's ignorance made him mad.  He hit the 17 again and again.  He'd closed it out.  But then, as he crossed the line to retrieve his shots, one of his steel tipped darts fell out of the cork.  It fell flights-down onto the dirt floor.

“By the gods!” someone screamed.  “No!”

Denario froze, emotions reeling.  Suddenly he was only leading by three points.  And the wizard was still throwing perfectly every time.

Someone laughed.  Oddly enough, it wasn't Tim the Malingerer.  It was the cruel looking man with the deputy chief, the one who looked like he was unshaven all over.  His crazy teeth had dark spots on them and Denario could smell his breath from ten feet away.  But he didn't dare to confront him about the laughter.  Instead, he gathered his fallen dart, then the others off the board.

When he got back to the shooting area, the wizard looked almost sorry.

“That was a good one,” he said.  “They can't all stick.”

“I'm going to have to go after your darts again,” Denario replied.  He felt bitter.  “I'm sorry about it because they're wonderful.  But it's the only way I can win.”

“Right.”  Tim pushed his sleeves up to his elbows.  He whispered the word 'seventeen' into his right hand, which held the darts.  Then he threw them all at once.

“Wow!” shouted Stanli.  Even Denario's friends were impressed at the way the  bolts had rocked the cork board.  They slapped one another on the back.

Denario didn't stop to think much about it, an urge based on the suspicion that too much awareness would make him nervous.  He directed his fear and rage to the golden targets sitting in the 17 wedge. He took a fast swipe at the center of the three.  His shot sailed straight and hard.  One of the magic darts leaped off the board.  Another did the same but a little too slowly. Before it could fall, Denario's shot clipped its flight feathers.  A small flake of gold drifted down after the rest of the magic thing, which flopped on the floor as if it were in agony.

“Yes!”  Half a dozen men roared.  The rest of them, the entire bar, rose to their feet.  Whether they were on Denario's side or not, they shouted out their views.

“That closes 17,” Denario reminded himself amidst the noise.  He took his next shot, a wobbly arc that struck the 16 at the bottom of the wedge.  It was luck, the good kind.  During the previous round, he'd gotten the bad kind, so that seemed fair.  Denario shrugged.  He finished with a perfect shot, just above the lucky one.  His fingers felt fine about that.  However, he hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath this whole.  When he exhaled, he felt so dizzy that he staggered forward a step.

“One hundred ninety-nine to one hundred sixty-five!” shouted a gambler.  “The accountant is winning!”

“Two hundred,” Denario muttered as he went to retrieve his shots.

After a heated argument and a minute of bystander shouting, the gambling tables managed to agree on the score.  Even the mayor's men got involved.  The deputy laid down 2 brassers on the wizard.

Tim, for his part, seemed concerned about the health of his magic darts.  He petted them.  He cajoled.  Nothing seemed to calm them down.  The one with a nick in its flight feather could barely hold still in his hand.  Nevertheless, he grasped it between his thumb and forefinger and whispered, 'sixteen.'

As usual, his throw was a bit wild.  He would have missed the board high and to the right.  But the dart flexed it wings.  It dove. The things looked like it was trying to hide.  Then, probably by mistake, it swooped down into the leather boot of a spectator who had been drinking beer nearby.

He couldn't have been a totally innocent bystander, not in this bar.  But he swore the way any innocent man might if he suddenly noticed he had a needle through his toe.  He arms jerked and he threw his beer as he grabbed for his foot, hopped, and fell over.  On his way down, he took out a  rickety chair.  Two legs smashed off of it.

A broad-shouldered fellow with a mouth like a frog had gotten splashed by the beer.  He turned and punched the man next to him on the assumption that the thin and helpless farmhand had done it.  Of course, several men were already laughing at the fellow who had fallen with a dart in his toe.  One of them got a kick in the shin from the fellow in agony, which prompted more howls.

Someone threw an empty mug at the group.

Denario would remember that.  The thrown mug had changed the room.  Suddenly, fighting wasn't strictly local.  Battles broke out everywhere.  Angry gamblers filled the air with projectiles.  One picked up a broken chair leg and heaved it.  Of course, the man who was first beaned by the thrown mug swept it from the floor and threw it back.  It wasn't likely that he hit the man who'd started it, either, so he spread the violence a bit more, not that it wasn't getting around the room just fine already.

Tim grabbed his staff and hissed, “To me!”  His dart flew out of the foot of the injured man and back to him.  Two men rumbled over a table not ten feet from Denario  and they broke it.  They crashed to the floor, punching each other.  The proprietor gave a shout and leaped over the bar, cudgel in hand, ready to protect his furniture.

Elgin, Kingli, and Gordi melted away to the sides.  That was what Denario noticed.  Suddenly only Stanli remained between the mayor's men and Denario.  He looked confused. While his head was turned, apparently looking for where Gordi had gone, the deputy shouted, “Grab the accountant!” and lunged.

Denario dodged behind the wizard.  Three large men barreled through the tables, through Stanli, and over another bystander on their way to get him.  Denario ducked behind a table for good measure.  He crouched down low and tried to be hard to see.

The wizard raised his arms.  Everyone hit the floor.  It wasn't a choreographed fighting move that all the patrons had decided on.  No, it was the wizard's doing.  He waggled his staff, mumbled something in a language that pricked Denario's ears, and then an invisible weight caught everyone by the shoulders and forced them down.

It wasn't too hard on Denario. He'd already been nearly lying down anyway. He just flattened his small body deliberately and hoped no one would notice. An unhappy result of the spell was that the mayor's goons, with their cheeks pressed to the straw floor, were looking him in the eye.  But they were too far away to kill him.  The force of the magic had hit them hardest, perhaps because they'd lunged in the wizard's direction.  He might be doing whatever he was doing mostly to them.  They weren't able to crawl, at least not yet, but they were trying.  Their arms stretched.  Their fingers clutched.

As he panicked, Denario felt a weight lift from his shoulders. The spell had relaxed or shifted a bit, somehow, and he was free. He hopped up, although not like a nimble deer, more like a drunk sheep, because his legs felt numb. He knocked over a stool and nearly lost his balance. A roar of outrage from the deputy got him skipping over the furniture.  Even sheep try not to become mutton.

He lumbered towards the door, trying to be careful not to step on anyone but not succeeding.  He murmured, “Sorry, sorry,” to someone in a burlap shirt when he trod on the poor fellow's fingers. 

Halfway across the room, he noticed that he was the only man standing besides Tremelo the Magnificent. He turned and locked gazes with Tremelo but the wizard was too good an actor for Denario to tell what he was thinking. Without even a blink, Tremelo pounded his staff on the dirt.  He seemed to increase the force of his spell. Denario could feel a buzz in the air like the muted hum of a thousand beehives. It set the hairs on his arms tingling. Still, a few men near the walls were rising to their feet despite the pressure.  The chief's men were down but not for much longer.

Denario hesitated. Then, hardly believing himself, he turned back. He'd almost forgotten his accounting case. He couldn't leave it behind.

“What are you doing?” someone rasped from the vicinity of the floor.  Denario picked up speed.  He leaped over the fallen chair.  He grabbed the case and spun around.

From a few feet away, the mayor's deputy howled at him.  Denario  threw the bag strap over his shoulder.  Then, as he took his first step back toward the door, he noticed his darts case lying on the table.  He had his darts in his hand because of the way everything had gone wrong so abruptly while he was playing.  He needed the case.  So he scooped it up as he ran.

Someone in front of the open doorway grabbed Denario by the pants.  He lashed out with a dart.  The sharp metal tip connected with flesh.  Drops of blood spattered his forearm.  The grip on his pants leg loosened.  He stumbled out into the the open air.

Sunset, he thought.  The breeze was cool.  Azure clouds hovered overhead.  There was an amber glow from behind the hills.

Most people who say things like 'he ran for his life' have never run from danger. If they had, Denario realized, they would have known that desperation doesn't add as much speed as it should.  Denario went huffing and puffing up the nearest hill in his trademark, legs-barely-lifting-off-the-ground gait.  It was his fastest, yes, but it wouldn't win races.  In fifteen seconds, he was still close enough to hear someone laughing at him.

Denario turned around just in time. Otherwise, he wouldn't have gotten hit in the forehead.

“Ow,” is what he said as his jaw clacked shut.

The thing rebounded into the air and landed a yard in front of his feet. It was a wooden canteen. Denario rubbed the spot between his eyes.  He wasn't badly hurt.  The canteen was waxed and covered by soft wool.  It was tied to an assortment of other items on two loops of string but Denario hardly noticed them.  He was thinking about the water he could carry.  He might die of hunger in the wilderness but, with this, he wouldn't die of thirst.

He stooped for the canteen and squinted down the hill to see who had thrown it. The light was poor but Denario could see a mercenary soldier in front of the door to Bottoms Up, about thirty yards away.  It was the short one.  He studied Denario with a grin.  He waved his fist.  There was no one else nearby.

Denario waved back.  The mercenary had hit Denario in the head at a good distance while he was running uphill.  He was a better shot than Denario.  Luckily for Denario, the soldier hadn't been trying to hurt him.  Or playing darts.  The fellow finished waving.  He turned his stout back and stepped back into the alehouse.

Denario watched the figure disappear through the door.  Then he headed up the hill to get on with his business of starving to death in the woods.

Chapter Three, Scene One

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Not Zen 177: Name-Calling

Their guest, Matais, left a stack of his underwear, combs, and a toothbrush on top of his sandals in the common room. Their youngest housemate, Leslie, stood over the pile and pointed down.

"This is disgusting," she said. "Not even sandals are to be left here."

"My apologies," said professor Aiken. He'd invited the visitor. "Apparently our friend doesn't understand the rules. I thought I'd explained."

"Well, I've started reading them," Matais said, "but there's a list. Anyway, I didn't know anyone would be so uptight."

He'd overheard the complaint from the kitchen. The thin, wild-haired fellow strode into the common room and picked up his belongings under one arm. Instead of taking them to his guest quarters in the basement, he set them on a kitchen chair. From another chair nearby, he picked up a psychology journal and returned to his reading as if he'd forgotten the interruption.

The professor approved of Matais's dedication to scholarship. He'd seen others like him, dressed haphazardly, as Matais was in a stained t-shirt and unwashed shorts. The fellow had arrived from a foreign university, where apparently they didn't require social sensibilities. Or teach them. But the professor had seen many men and a few woman pick up such skills late in life. He had hopes that Matais would acquire some during his visit.

The fellow had written a paper on the development of the human mind. Although he'd done it from the perspective of psychology, not neurobiology, Matais's views on the history of cognitive science had piqued the curiosities of many scientists. He'd received invitations to give lectures, first in his own country, then internationally. At one of the lectures, associate professor Daniel Aiken had met Matais and invited him to speak to the local college labs and also a private lab.

As was his custom, the professor offered a free room to his guest.

Unfortunately, on his first day Matias not only left out his clothes but a stack of wet towels on the hallway floor. The next lunchtime, he helped himself to the newly-bought food that belonged to another roommate, Samuel. The professor's wife, Hannah, caught him in the act.

"I'm sorry," he said. His cheeks flushed dark. "I didn't think."

"Have you never lived with roommates before?" she asked. When he began to tremble, she bit back her harsher words. She folded her arms.

"I lived with my mother in undergraduate school," Matais offered.

"Then no." She could almost see him rationalizing his limited experience. His gaze narrowed.

"That counts. Doesn't that count?"

"Our home has four bedrooms, five housemates, and a guest, you." She counted on her hands, pointed at him, and brushed away all of it with a gesture. "None of us are your mother. None. Our food is not yours."

"It looked like leftovers." He hunched his shoulders.

"No matter what it looks like, it's not yours." She watched him go from being contrite to thinking hard and trying to make an excuse.

"Most people aren't anal retentive about food remains." He pointed to himself. "And I'm used to eating them."

She sighed and shook her head. He marched out of the kitchen.

"Something about his language bothers me," she told her husband that night.

Daniel folded his arms. He knew that Hannah was quicker than he was to see the bad in people. That was a useful thing. When someone was lying, she spotted it. When a friend was victimized by theft, she deduced the probable culprit and, just as useful to friendships, deduced who could not have done it.

As for Dan's abilities, well, he'd grown up as a youngest child. He'd never needed to be mindful of cheats. Hannah had been the oldest of four siblings. Since she'd grown into a sort of caretaker role, she'd learned to ferret out the truth from her younger brothers, sisters, and cousins. Daniel was a decade older than Hannah. Nevertheless, he found himself learning a lot about people from her. He knew that she struggled to articulate her observations. That was a trait both of them found frustrating. If she couldn't describe her problem with their guest, it would be up to him.

"Matais seems to speak well enough," the professor ventured.

"That's not what I mean." She walked around the bed, hands on her hips. "There's something in his culture or his expectations that's putting our housemates on edge. He feels superior and inferior to them at the same time. He gets defensive in conversations. Then he can't listen to what we're saying."

"Defensive. Not listening." Those sounded right. Maybe Hannah would be the one to explain it to the young fellow after all. But Matais, as she pointed out, wasn't paying attention to her words as a voice of authority.

The next morning, Daniel rose early to make breakfast. In the kitchen, he found Matais awake. The young man had slicked back his hair with some kind of gel and he'd chosen one of the professor's neuroscience journals to read. He'd dressed himself in clothes from a local thrift shop, blue jeans and a faded, yellow shirt. They didn't look worse than what any other student on campus wore. Unfortunately, Matias reeked of sweat. He hadn't gotten into the habit of morning showers, it seemed. He'd simply masked his odor with cologne.

The professor took note of a few changes in Matais's habits. They didn't leap to mind because they were things the young man hadn't done. He hadn't left a pile of his clothes in a hall. He hadn't failed to brush his teeth. He hadn't raided the pantry for someone else's leftovers. He was making progress.

Another graduate student housemate, Samuel, joined them. He was a quiet, bearded young man. Samuel ate simply. He fixed plain toast. As he did, Matais finished his sandwich. He set down his plate in the sink. The professor noticed that Matais was adding to a stack. He must have left a couple of plates in the sink last night, too.

Samuel spoke up faster than the professor. Politely, he pointed out the problem.

"You don't have to be obsessive-compulsive about it," Matais complained.

"Other people need to clean their dishes in this sink," Samuel said. "Other people need to use them later. Yours are in the way. That's how the house works. I know you've had the rules explained."

"I can help you clean, Matais," the professor offered.

"Professor Aiken!" His guest rose from the chair. "There is no need. I will do it."

While Samuel quietly ate his toast, Matais cleaned his dishes, including the ones he'd left from the night before, and set them on the drying rack.

The professor thought about his wife's observation. Now he saw the pattern in the young fellow's words. The worst ones came from the field of psychology. Matais didn't use them in a medical way. That was the key. As Daniel considered how to broach the subject gently, Matais finished his last dish, set it in the drying rack, and left. Next, Samuel rinsed his plate in turn and said goodbye to the professor. Daniel finished cooking a second omelette, one for Hannah, in silence. He felt that he'd missed his chance.

A moment later, his guest returned. Matais clutched a note in his hand.

"This was on my door," he said. He offered the paper to his host. "Who is Elton?"

"Oh." The professor grimaced. He accepted the note but he let it fall to his side for a moment, unread. After a sigh, he lifted it up and scanned the careful handwriting. "'Matais,'" he read, "'if it was you who chipped the Asthma Cigarettes ashtray, please know that you should not use it. I have glued the chip back on but it is not meant to be used. It is very old. Elton.'"

"Is this the small, square tray by the window?" Matais asked.

"Yes. Did you chip it?"

"I maybe have." He folded his arms over his chest. "But who is Elton?"

"He's the housemate you haven't met. He works at night."

"Professor, it is a very passive-aggressive thing, this leaving of notes."

"Should Elton have woken you at four in the morning when he came home?" He knew it must have been tempting. The young computer scientist loved his old, thrift store knick-knacks. Elton treasured the humor of Asthma Cigarettes in particular. "You are calling him names but he was trying to be considerate."

"I do not call names, professor."

"If I'm remembering them all correctly, you've said that our housemates are uptight, anal-retentive, then obsessive-compulsive, and now passive-aggressive." Daniel counted them out on his hands.

"How is that calling names?"

"Once, people hid their insults behind references to religion." He paused to turn off the stove. "Later, upper classes slipped them into references to bad breeding or to natural selection. Now you hide them behind your popular psychology."

"They are real terms."

"You use them as insults." Daniel grew calmer as he grew more sure of his central observation. His young guest wasn't alone in using language this way. He'd probably had examples of such misuse from his professors in undergraduate school. "Now that I think about it, I suppose that's all they ever were. The terms never really had explanatory power. They were mean spirited right from the start. Even when a term had some use, like how 'passive aggressive' could describe a slave rebelling by doing the job poorly, some people quickly turned it into a crude way to deflect criticism."

"I do not think of it this way."

"You know what? Until now, neither did I." Daniel shook his head at his own acceptance of the insults. "I've said similar things. I was fooled by the references to science. But it's important to see things as they are. The terms are used to denigrate people. They've become the terminology of bullies."

"I'm sorry that you feel this way."

"Don't say it's belief-bias effect." He raised a hand to stop his guest, who seemed to be taking a breath in order to ward off such criticisms of psychology. "Don't say it's transference or it's projection. Don't talk about our defense mechanisms."

That got a smile from Matais. Maybe he'd been about to refer to one of those terms.

"For once, don't defend yourself." Daniel picked up the wooden spatula and the frying pan. With the spatula, he slipped the omelette from the frying pan onto a plate. "You don't need to, with me. I know you're a fine man. But just think. You don't have to use your intellectual strength to to insult anyone. You'll be better off without doing that."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 16: A Bandit Accountant, 2.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Five: Another Plan

“Two silvers!”  Stanli Wiesenheimer thumped his money down on the table in front of a startled farm boy while Denario gazed on in horror.  A young gambler at the next table gasped at the amount.  “To win!”

“We can't accept bets to win.”  The bet taker frowned.  He lifted one of the silver pieces with angry suspicion.  “Everyone knows who will win.  We're only betting on the points.”

“You already know the accountant will win?”

“What?”  The farmhand turned gambler had been studying the back of the silver piece as if he'd never seen one before, which was possible.  He set it down.  “The magic darts are going to win.  Are you daft?”

“Two silvers on the accountant to win.”  Stanli leaned closer.  “What kind of odds will you give me?”

“Two to one,” was the automatic answer.  But the man taking bets at the next table rose from his stool. 

“Here, I'll give three to one,” he said.  “Bet with me.”

“Seven to two!” another gambler shouted.  He ran forward to join the brewing argument.  Denario immediately pegged him as someone who understood numbers.  Most of the gamblers didn’t.  A few didn’t even seem to realize when they were losing money.

It was an auction.  Denario had seen cattle auctions in Ziegeburg during the winter.  He'd witnessed similar sales of fresh slaves in Sikkli and Oupenli during summers there, although not in his hometown of Oggli, where slavery had been outlawed.  This was like any other occasion for bidding.  Hands went up.  Voices grew loud.  A knot of five of six people seemed to talk all at once as the bet collectors raised their odds higher for Stanli Weisenheimer.

Other bettors got in on the deal.  The old man who'd won big on the wizard last time decided to take a chance on Denario at the odds of five to one.  One of the mercenaries joined in at nine to two odds – he was the tallest one, who Denario hadn't met.  He put down a silver piece.  Stanli placed his bets, a silver apiece with two different gamblers because both of them were afraid to cover for the whole nine.

When the wagering was done, Tim the Self-Proclaimed Magnificent glared at everyone, one hand on his staff, the other resting on his hip.

“Is he angry?” whispered Stanli as he walked back to Denario.

“Yes.”  Denario tried not to stare at the wizard.

“Good,” said Stanli.

Denario didn't think it was good.  On the other hand, he knew what Stanli meant.  The wizard had been rude to the four tradesmen and, although they were accustomed to a bit of condescension from their social betters in town, there wasn't much difference between them and the upper class.  Gordi owned prime lands.  Stanli had skills no one for miles around could duplicate.  Elgin and Kingli catered to the local nobility.  Their servitude was a matter of tradition and physical force but not of wealth.  In fact, Elgin and Kingli had married distant relatives of Baron Ankster over in Angstburg, although Elgin's wife Gretel, by all accounts, treated him like her tailor and Kingli’s wife Berta clearly liked to eat lots of Kingli's food.

“Is there any chance of you winning?” Stanli asked hopefully.

“Not much,” Denario admitted.  “But I've got an idea.”

“I hope it's a good one.”  Gordi shook his head.  “Two silvers, Stanli!  I don't know what you were thinking.”

“Yes, you do,” replied Stanli, his arms folded.  “You were thinking the same thing.”

Gordi darkened but he didn't deny it.

Denario unslung his accounting bag.  The oblong, wooden case the poisoner had given him was too big for his waist pouch and too uncomfortable for his shirt or vest pockets.  So he’d slipped it into his buckskin satchel with his accounting tools.  Some of the tools, of course, were those carried by every accountant: a slate, chalk, blank ledgers, parchment rolls, inks, and quills.  Others were more advanced tools that Master Winkel had insisted on, such as graphite, protractors, compasses, a straight-edge, logarithm rods, and the ingredients for making his own inks.  Winkel had taught him how to make ink once, years ago.  Denario had never touched the ingredients again but he still carried them around.

He fumbled behind the slate and found the cherrywood case.  He didn’t want to let the wizard and his friends see that he’d chosen a new set of darts.  The right thing to do would be to put the steel tipped set into the same goat-leather case he’d been using to lose to the wizard so far.  He looked for a place to make the switch.

“Cover me for a minute,” he said.  The wizard had his back turned but his gambling friends were watching. 

The four tradesmen followed Denario to a table.  Without him saying anything more, they gathered around on all sides.  Everyone but Gordi was taller than Denario.  They blocked him from view effectively while he laid down his wooden case.  A moment later, from his inside vest pocket, he pulled out the set of copper darts.  He laid them down next to the others.  He opened both cases at the same time.

“What are you doing?” Gordi whispered.

“Switching to steel tips.”  Denario put his forefinger across the flights of all three copper darts and slipped them out of their leather pocket.  Then, with care, he plucked the new, brass shafts from their notches in the wood.

“Will that help?” asked Stanli.

“Maybe.”  Denario slid one of the steel tips into the leather pocket.  “If I can hit one of his golden darts, it will.”

“You mean, break it?” asked Elgin.

“No, wait,” Stanli breathed.  “I think I see ...”

“What’s that vial right there in the case?” Gordi pointed to the poison in its glass and wax.  As usual, he had spotted the one thing Denario didn’t want anyone to notice.  The farmer had a knack for it.  He noticed every booger on any face, politely but pointedly looked away when Denario readjusted his pants, and knew when Pecunia had kissed him goodnight or hadn't.  But there was nothing Denario could do.  There was no time.  Denario slid another steel tip into place and then another.  He wrapped up the leather case while his friends waited.

“It's poison,” he admitted.  He didn't have time to think of a believable lie.  Anyway, he didn't want to mislead them.  They had come out of their way to lose their money on him and, although they were decent tradesmen, they didn't have too much money to spare. They deserved a little honesty.

“Oooh,” Elgin sighed.  Kingli, who knew a bit about poison because he had to avoid it in his food, pressed his lips shut.

In the silence, Denario finished up by pressing the copper bolts into slots in the wooden case.  He slammed it shut.

“I'm sorry,” he said.  His gaze fell on each of them in turn.  Their faces looked shocked and a bit grim.  “I bought it after I realized the coach was gone.  I thought I needed something to protect me on the road.  Couldn't think of anything else.”

“No, no,” said Gordi.  He touched Denario's forearm.  “It's fine.  Probably smart, you know.  I just didn't think.”

“Yep.”  Elgin nodded.

Kingli clapped Denario gently on the back.

“Damn right, he's smart,” Stanli drawled.  “Now let's see just how smart.  I've got two silvers riding on this, mind ye.  Not to put any pressure on but I'd like to see that wizard knocked down a peg.”

“So would we all,” said Gordi, who finally felt free to admit it.

“Fine,” said Denario.  He dropped the wooden case into his satchel and picked up his leather one.  “Now I've just got to talk to his darts.”

Chapter Two, Scene Six