Sunday, January 31, 2016

Not Zen 180: Most in Need

Vincent sat in a cafe by the window. Clara, his wife, wanted to look out over the thick, white ice of the river. The weather had gotten warm in the past two days. Everyone in the area had ventured out. Some folks played on the ice. Others biked or jogged along the paths beside it. By noon, it seemed as if the whole town had decided to go for a stroll by the riverfront.

Shoppers thronged the sidewalks by the water. They bought groceries and luxury items they hadn't considered in months. The warm spell was their opportunity.

"We got here just in time," Clara said. She hung her red purse over the back of her chair. "The hostess is starting to make everyone wait for seats."

"The ice is looking patchy already," observed Vincent. Sections of the whiteness had turned grey.

His wife flipped open the menu. She raised her hand and caught the waiter's eye. As he approached, she launched into her order. Clara was decisive woman. She was efficient. He liked both of those things about her.

After the young man in the apron strolled away with their orders, they settled on their elbows and discussed the folks they'd met. They'd exchanged greetings with a dozen neighbors on the sidewalks, a couple of co-workers apiece, a cousin, a few other relatives, and school friends of their children. Most of the teenagers they'd noticed had been out on the ice. The high-schoolers hung out in clusters of three or four, sometimes as many as eight, always in too few clothes. Clara didn't approve.

"You could see those girls' navels." She rolled her eyes. "It's warm but it's not that warm."
"There's a college student trying to cross the short way." Vincent pointed to the east. Crossing on foot east or west across the ice was always called 'the short way' even if it took longer than by bridge.

"He made it." His wife nodded to the college-aged couple behind the student. "Those two are on a dark patch, though."

"Eh, I guess it's still strong enough." He grabbed the water glass their waiter had left for him and sipped. He gazed across the deeps of the river to where the ice was grey or transparent. It was a relief to see that no one else was trying to cross.

His attention drifted to his wife and hers focused on him. He'd heard a new gardening joke at work. She surprised him by laughing at his re-telling of it. Clara's arms rose. Her hands made chopping and hoeing motions in air as she explored the idea of building an addition to their garden. A smile bloomed on her face. A moment later, someone at the next table stood up and cursed.

Vincent knew immediately that it was about the ice. Everyone did. The heads of the other lunchtime diners turned towards the windows. He stood up to see over them better. It didn't take long to spot the hole where someone had broken through. Other diners started to point at it.

His gaze darted from the jagged, dark circle below to the students nearest to it. He could easily fill in the gaps in the scene he'd missed. He knew that the college couple had crossed safely. They'd strolled to within a few yards of their friend. But from the spacing between the teens near the riverbank and the break over the deeper water, the young man from the couple had separated himself from the crowd. He'd doubled back toward the college and fallen through the weakest part of the surface.

Even as Vincent watched, the young woman below dashed toward the hole. 'No, no, no!" someone with a window seat yelled. Everyone in the cafe knew she was doing it wrong. Vincent stretched out his hand as if he could stop her. Her pounding feet generated a long crack in the ice. Other diners yelled, 'Stop!'

The young woman fell. It looked like she hurt her hip. But she didn't break the ice under her. Everyone sighed with relief. 

A moment later, she rolled up and kept going. Everyone's jaws dropped in astonishment.

She got ten strides farther. That's when her left boot hit a grey patch. A sliver of ice popped up. After that, the breakthrough happened slowly, piece by piece, but inevitably. Dark lines appeared around her. The surface cracked into five big sections, each as large as the woman falling through, plus dozens of smaller fragments. Shards floated up as small as a mitten. Others crumbled to white dots or grey swirls of slush in the black water.

The young woman went under. A few seconds later, she bounced to the surface. Her arms flailed against the shards of ice, cracking them into smaller pieces.

Clara grabbed his arm. "Vince, do something!"

Vincent had been on the volunteer firefighter squad. He knew a handful of things he could do. From the fragility of the mid-river ice sheet, though, he ruled out having the teens down there form a human chain. They'd probably think of that themselves and, if they acted, the chain would be a disaster. The rescuers would break more ice and start to drown. What Vince needed to bring into this situation was a rope. There should be a float or a handle at the end of it, too, although he doubted he'd find one. He was sure he could put his hands on a rope, though. He'd seen one lying coiled on top of a milk crate on the back of the restaurant's loading dock.

His legs made him run even as the concept was forming in his mind.

At the back of the restaurant, on the raised concrete slab, he found the coil of shipping cord. He shook it once to knock off scraps of paper. For a second, he judged its length: at least thirty feet, he thought, maybe forty. It was an irregular cut with black tape at one end. His gaze skimmed over the loops to check for cuts or frayed points. There were none. It would do.

Vincent started to jog across the road and down to the river. A man with a pot belly wearing a blue smock dashed out of the shop across from him. 

"Hey!" he yelled. He dodged in front of Vincent.

"Can't wait." Vincent shook his head.

"I have these." The man held up plastic hoops as he huffed. Even a few feet of running had winded him. "I was just looking for a rope."

"What are they?" Vincent almost pushed past him. But as he put a hand on the fellow's shoulder, he took a closer look at what was being offered. The rings seemed sturdy.

"Hula hoop knock-offs, kid size." The guy held up his other hand in a gesture of apology. "I know. But these are tough. Kids come to my store all the time, bite them, sit on them, and hit each other. They don't break. Put one on your rope."

Vincent grabbed one and resumed running. The guy behind him shouted something. Vincent didn't listen. He struggled to tie a clove hitch as he moved.

He kept bumping into people. After half a minute of making his way like that, trotting downhill, watching mostly the rope and trying not to fall, he heard his wife. She yelled from behind for everyone to move out of his way. She must have put on her coat to head out. But he didn't turn around to see because he'd reached the shore.

He hovered at the edge of the ice for a moment as he tested the knot. After two tugs, it tightened and felt strong. He added a couple of extra hitches and tugged again.

"All right!" a teenaged boy said as he made way for Vincent on the ice. "Someone found a rope, man. She's drowning or something."

"I don't think they can reach her," someone added.

"Do you need a coat?" his wife asked from behind his right shoulder.

"No." He shook his head. Then he gave her a smile. A flash of worry showed in her eyes. He conceded, "Maybe after."

Whether this worked or not, he was going to have to lie down on the ice. There was no way he'd run all the way to where the two college students fell in. He wasn't going to repeat their mistake.

He took a few slide-steps. He nearly fell. The surface was slipperier than he'd expected. Of course, part of the reason that teens took to the ice was to show how cool they were. Mostly they stood around and talked. If they did much, they'd fall and embarrass themselves. Vincent didn't have to worry about that. He set a steady pace. After a few seconds, his stride lengthened. He gazed farther ahead to see the college girl in the dark water, her head barely above the surface. She looked tired.

He forced his gaze lower. It wouldn't do any good if he rushed and made mistakes. He focused on his path. A half-dozen teens saw him coming and stepped aside. He sighed with relief when they didn't argue. A handful of others came into view. They were lying down. He grimaced to see that they were organizing into a human chain. The ice sheet under them wavered under the stress of so many bodies.

Vincent knew they couldn't make the rescue but they were still trying as sensibly as they could. None of them seemed panicked. About a half-inch of water had swept up to them as the river current, freed by the breakup, pushed itself over the top. The tallest boy at the front end of the chain had gotten wet and maybe one or two others behind him. But he didn't kick away from his friends. He let them hold his ankles.

"Don't go any farther," Vincent said as he approached. "I've got a rope."

A few of the boys, although at least two of them turned out to be girls, turned their heads. They gave him determined grins. He carefully sank to his knees and crawled on all fours for the length of their chain. They shifted to make room. He felt the ice waver under them. He stopped. Even after the tremor passed, he laid on his belly.

"You can go farther," said the tall, thin teen.

"I don't know," Vincent said honestly. It felt as if they were about to sink through, all of them together. "If you guys can move back and hold my ankles, I'd appreciate it. I'm going to have to go up on my knees again to make the throw."

The teens slithered across the slime and frost. They swapped places with hardly a word spoken. They seemed to have no fear. A patch of ice had grown translucent under the front of the chain. Did they know how close they were to breaking through?

Ahead of them, maybe fifteen yards away, the woman stared blindly at Vincent. The expression on her face was so strange that it took him a second to understand that she was crying from exhaustion. Her arms slapped the water around her.

"Crap," he muttered to himself. In only a few minutes, the accident victim had worn herself out. One of the teens grabbed his left ankle. The grip felt firm.

"There!" he heard Clara's voice. He dared to glance back. He spotted his wife on the ice about ten yards behind the last teenager in the human chain. She was pointing to something in the water. "See the other?"

He spun his head toward the gap of water in the breakthrough. He found what his wife had noticed. The man who had first gone under had reappeared. His body had come up, though, floating face down. He must have surfaced after his girlfriend had busted the ice around them.

"Get the drowning one first!" Clara said.

The fellow's dark blue coat had turned the color of the water. That made him hard to see. He was at least ten yards farther away than the girl. Vincent wasn't sure he could throw the rope well enough. On top of it, the poor fellow wasn't moving on his own. He had to be unconscious.

Vincent wondered if he should tell the freezing, nearly drowning girl to turn around. Maybe she could grab her boyfriend's body. Could she keep swimming after she did it? Her face kept dropping into the water. She couldn't keep her head above the current.

Vincent watched her go under. It only took a few seconds before she surfaced again. But he held his breath the whole time. She started to cry again. Her hair froze. The air just above the ice was colder than everywhere else. Her dark locks turned grey for a moment. They shed crystalline flakes as she flung herself against the nearest, half-solid ice sheet. 

The girl kept trying to grab the cracked edge. She couldn't find a grip.

"Throw it!" said a teenaged girl behind him.

"The drowning one, Vince!" called his wife.

Behind the girl in the water, the current swirled. It pushed her boyfriend's unconsious body under the shelf of ice on the opposite side. He was the most in need, true. In a few seconds, he'd be gone. But Vincent couldn't reach him.

He threw. His knees ached as he did it. As he leaned forward, his kneecaps dig into the water-soaked ice. His arm felt heavy. The hoop hardly left his hand before it fell back down, a terrible attempt.

Of course, he'd forgotten how the weight of the rope would drag on the hoop. He'd been taught how to hurl a coil of rope along with it but, in his haste, he'd forgotten. He cursed himself for needing the reminder as he pulled back the errant toss.

When he recovered, his hands flew through the motions. He twisted a few, fast loops of the rope in preparation for the next try. He bunched the coils together with the red, rubber hula hoop in his right hand.

This time when he heaved the line, he pushed forward with his entire body. His arm felt strong. The rope dragged on the hoop but not too much. The throw didn't make it all the way to the drowning girl before it hit the ice but the hoop and the cord kept sliding. Together, rope unraveling, they skidded all the way to the water right in front of the girl.

She opened her mouth in surprise. A high-pitched gasp escaped her.

Her first lunge at the hoop missed. Her second knocked it sideways. She almost hit herself in the jaw with it. On her next try, she aimed with her whole body, willing to risk going under. Her right arm jabbed through the band. Her left hand snuck in along the edge of the circle. She tugged the rope close to her body and yelled.

"Pull!" Her teeth audible chattered. Her voice wavered.

"Pull!" all of the teens behind Vincent answered. They yanked on his ankles. He fell from his knees to his chest and his face. He tasted dirty ice chips. Fortunately, he'd tied the end of the rope around his left arm. In a second, he got both of his hands on it and started reeling in the girl. The human chain behind him slithered and backed up. He could feel the combined power through his arms.

There was a frightening moment when the group started to lift the victim over the lip of half-frozen ice and slush. The girl made a noise like the edge had hurt her. But she kept her grip. The crowd kept pulling. Vince felt the cord burn his fingers.

A few seconds later, the girl flopped onto solid ice. Something fell from her hair, a beret or a flake of ice. Other hands stretched out to help Vince with the rope. In a moment, he had the gang pulling with him. The soaked young woman glided up to their feet. 

Two of the teen girls stood with their coats off, ready to warm up the victim. Clara, behind them, wore a strange smile on her face, half elation and half grimace. Her eyes darted back to the dark water. Vince followed her gaze. He knew what she was thinking.

As he watched for the other body, hoping it might resurface, he heard a siren. An red and white ambulance had arrived. It was making its way down to the nearest river path. The teenagers wrapped up their college-aged friend. Everyone headed toward the whirling lights.

Later, on the asphalt path next to the ambulance, shop keepers gave everyone who'd gotten wet some hot cocoa and blankets. Throngs of witnesses to the incident milled around, commenting on what had happened. Clara apologized for not giving Vincent her coat.

"But I wish you could have saved the drowning man," she said.

She sipped her paper cup of hot chocolate. One of the rescue workers from the ambulance, a sturdy, short-haired woman in a uniform, tilted her head as she overheard Clara. She turned away from the stretcher and marched back to them.

"Have you ever visited a homeless shelter?" she asked Clara.

"What does that have to do with this?" Vincent's wife lowered her cup. 

"I volunteer in one," the paramedic said. "After you've been there for a while, you realize that you can't rescue everyone."

"The man drowning was the one most in need." Clara stated it as a plain fact.

"That's not who should get help. I know it's something people don't like to hear. But you've got choose the right folks to rescue. Otherwise, hospitals would only serve the most in need, the dying."

"Triage," Vince muttered to himself. The paramedic's eyes opened wider.

"Yeah." She nodded to him. "It's important and you did it right. That guy under the water never came back up. He couldn't be saved. Probably."

"Are you still looking for him?" Clara asked.

"Yeah. But from what the dispatcher and the eyewitnesses told us, there was no way throwing a line to him would help the guy."

"What would have been the harm in trying?"

"The woman who got the hoop, she couldn't grab it with her fingers." The paramedic curled her hands as if to show them how the girl's had locked up in that position. "They were frozen and numb. In a few minutes, if your husband had gone after the drowning man, she wouldn't have been able to grab the rescue line."

"We'll never know, will we?"

"Sir," the paramedic turned to Vincent, hand outstretched to shake. "That young woman is passed out now. But I'm darned sure she's going to live. You made the right decision. You helped someone who could reach back to you."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 28: A Bandit Accountant, 4.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Pair
Scene Five: A Foolish Gamble

“Hey! Math teacher!” 

Denario turned when he heard the shout. He probably shouldn't have done that but there was something about Yannick that was hard to resist. Maybe it was his enthusiasm. Anyway, Denario reasoned, he didn't know anyone else in town besides Yannick and Moritz. And he had a couple of hours to kill before he could get a result from the wizard.

The gap-toothed man waved from his seat next to a low, stone table. He and four other men crouched stoop-shouldered over their playing cards. They clutched the red-backed rectangles close to their chests, much like the gamblers Denario had met in Ziegeburg. Denario's gaze naturally drifted to a place across the street. Sure enough, there was a sign in block letters reading POLEIZI. There really was a card game across the street from the guard house.

Denario didn't have a plan. He had just eaten a wonderful but early lunch in the stable, right out of his saddlebags. There had been two different wedges of cheese, apples, beef jerky, what might have been rabbit jerky, and a skin of beer. He'd fed his horse the apple cores and she apparently loved him for it. She'd licked his hand.

On the down side, Denario hadn't liked the way the stable master kept peering over at him. At least the man had disappeared from time to time. He had multiple visitors, one of them a pickle merchant with three mules. That kept him out of Denario's business.

“Come on, teach. Take a break from the math and have some fun.”

“But card games are math,” Denario insisted. The opportunity to show them what elementary arithmetic could do felt appealing. It had been a long time since he'd taught. He strolled up to the table, prepared to give them a numbers lesson, although not to actually play cards.

“Seat's open,” grumbled the oldest, baldest man. His gaze flicked across the tree stump to his left. Denario supposed that was a designated spot since only the bald man had an actual chair. Everyone else rested on oak stumps.

The fellow flashed a grin and Denario could see he was missing most of his front teeth. Either he was even older than he looked or that was the state of dentistry here. On his right side hunkered a withered-looking fellow in brown robes. He had a pair of chisels on his belt, so he was probably a carpenter or wheelwright. Next came a soldier or someone who looked close enough to one. His neck was thick, he wore a hard leather jerkin, and he was covered in crude, blue tattoos. Denario recognized his face, too. The soldier had been one of the horsemen who had arrived at the Hogsburg gate this morning.

Denario's gaze came back to Yannick for a moment but then he noticed something odd. The tattoos on the soldier's forearm looked similar to those on Yannick's. In fact, the largest ones were identical. They both showed spears crossed over what appeared to be a giant crown.

“Roll up your sleeves and have a seat, Furtim,” Yannick said.

“What are the stakes?” Denario put his hands on his hips.

“Half-penny limit per hand.”

“Okay, fine.” He pulled on the stump, intending to scoot it out. But it was heavier than it looked. He nearly pulled himself over. The other men smiled.

After he took his spot, Denario started to roll up his sleeves. But a breeze came up. He shivered. It reminded him of how cold it had gotten during the night. He decided to stay covered.

“It's still a bit chilly,” he said.

The muscular man chuckled. Yannick grunted. 

“How can ye be cold?” he asked incredulously. “It's springtime.”

“I grew up in Oggli, next to the sea. We don't get these frosty nights or, for that matter, these skin-burning days like you do here in the high lands.”

“True enough,” said the old man as if he didn't much care. “So do ye know how to play Glaistig's Fingers?”

“Is that the one that starts with four cards down?”

“Right.” The toothless man shuffled the deck one more time. “Like goat hooves. I think ye've got it.”

In fact, Denario used to play this game with the other apprentices, back in Oggli. Winkel had disapproved of them gambling but in such a relaxed, boys-will-be-boys way that everyone soon came to understand how much he would tolerate. Winkel frowned over the money lost, particularly if it was more than fifty pence, but he said repeatedly that the math practice was good for everyone. At any rate, he let the apprentices borrow his solitaire decks twice a week and made them a gift of their own deck, a red and yellow one with the Oggli and Angrili Accounting Seal on it, for a group present one holiday.

Games of chance turned out to be the best way for Curo to learn fractions. His mind really turned on full force when spending money was on the line. He'd been the first player to introduce bluffing. Since he was a bit older and could read the younger fellows well, he knew exactly when to raise the pot. It didn't matter what the others suspected. The force of his personality made them give up.

“Winner deals,” said the old man as he started. “If no one wins, deck passes to the left. Costs nothing to see your down cards. Bids are a lead ring apiece after that. Limit, like I said, is a half-penny total. I'm Dolph. That's Jarl.”

He jutted his thumb to the probable carpenter in the brown robe.

“Gerhardt and Yannick, ye know.” He finished his deal as if he'd been tossing down from this deck for twenty years, which maybe he had.

Of course, Denario didn't know Gerhardt beyond recognizing his face but he nodded. Gerhardt inclined his head in return. Yan seemed to be sulking for some reason.

Denario lost a lead ring on the first hand. He'd been dealt a 2, a 4, and a 5, nearly the worst possible unmatched low cards. On the first turn from the four center cards, Dolph had showed them a knight. Jarl's eyes had twinkled. So Denario had folded and watched. Dolph chuckled at that.

He's really good at reading faces, Denario realized. He's been taking money from Jarl and men like him for years.

Sure enough, Jarl won with three knights to beat Yannick's tens and sixes. Dolph stayed in until the cards were all shown but, unlike the others, he seemed to know the outcome already. It felt as if he had decided to give Jarl some of his money.

On the next hand, Jarl dealt Denario a three, a duke, and a goddess. The first card up was Aeolian, the wind goddess. In these local decks, the goddess cards meant figures of Naakia, Obscura, Aeolian, or Glaistig. Denario held Glaistig as a down card so he knew he had to stay in. But he bid only a single lead ring to avoid scaring off anyone else.

The rest of the turns revealed a seven, the goddess Obscura, and a king. Everyone had good hands, of course, but Denario knew his was the best and, sure enough, he won nearly two pence from the group. Only Dolph dropped out at the end. Somehow, despite Denario's casual manner, Dolph had known the outcome again.

“Thank Mel,” Denario mumbled anyway. It was good to give thanks to the god Melcurio after winning his first pot of the game.

Denario lost two rings on the next hand. He dealt himself trash cards and he was relieved to see them because he didn't want to be a big winner, not during his first game in a small town. He cursed his luck as he won the next two hands in a row. It took eight hands for Yannick to take a pot, finally, and he did it when the up cards showed two dukes and he had another. Six more hands went by before Gerhardt finally won. The big fellow took the pot twice in a row. Denario finally relaxed.

The next hour of play went by so fast that Denario almost felt like he was back in Oggli. He went down by two pence at one point but mostly kept to the positive side of the ledger. So did Dolph. Denario got the impression that the old man could start playing in earnest at any moment but the stakes weren't worth it to him. Even the losers, Gerhardt and Yan, didn't seem upset. The amounts they lost were affordable.

Then came a strange hand. Yannick had won just before, so he was the dealer. That meant Denario was nearly the last to bet, a good position. And Yan had rolled down the sleeves of his yellowish shirt. Whatever he said about the weather being fine, he felt the breeze, too. Without his tattoos showing, he looked less like a rascal and more like a farmhand in brown overalls.

The first unusual event occurred after the cards-down bidding. Denario held the goddess of rings, Aeolian, and a pair of 8s in rubies and rings. That felt fine. Everyone else stayed in, too, and Yan reached to turn over a center card. But he picked up his own cards instead and turned them face up. He yanked them back in a flash but it was too late. Everyone had seen the 2 of ringlets, 7 of rubies, and 9 of ringlets.

“Damn it,” he cursed. The other men laughed except for Dolph. The old fellow pursed his lips as he considered saying something. Denario thought Dolph might make Yannick pay a fine since he'd made a mistake as dealer. That was a rule they had. But Yan had made the mistake with his own cards. Dolph tapped his lips and kept his peace.

The second strange event took place more slowly but it was more important than a mistake by the dealer.

I'm in,” said Gerhardt after the first up card, which was Faschnaught, the king of rubies. Jarl and Dolph stayed in. Denario's pair of 8s were still good plus he had a goddess, so he considered raising the pot. That seemed greedy. Anyway, from the grins of Jarl and Gerhardt, they were holding royal cards, probably kings. So Denario tossed in his lead piece like everyone else.

Dolph hesitated with his bid in hand. He seemed to considered dropping out right then. He'd noticed their reactions, too. But he stayed in. Denario worried about those kings but it was only a tenth-penny to stay, after all. Then the next card up was Obscura, goddess of rubies. That did it for Denario. There were only two cards up and he already had two pair, goddesses and 8s.

“Red again,” said Yannick.

That was the first sign of oddness. Denario glanced around the table. Gerhardt and Dolph didn't seem happy to have two red cards up, although their color wasn't important. It was strange, though, that Yannick had accidentally shown three red cards, Denario held three more, and the first two up cards were red. The chances of that were only 1 in 128 deals. More importantly, it made it likely that the next card up would be one of the blue suits, swords or maces.

“Ssh,” hissed Jarl.

The carpenter's irritation made it apparent that he was holding red cards, too. That wasn't incredible by any means but it affected the odds again. If Jarl held three ringlets or three rubies, he was closer to a flush than Yannick.

“Who's in?” Yannick asked. Gerhardt tossed his bid into the center. So did Jarl, who had been waiting impatiently. 

Dolph sighed. He knew he was getting beat. His fingers found a lead piece from his stack but he held onto it. Then he tossed his cards down instead of his bid.

“I'm out,” he said.

Denario and Yannick stayed in to see the next card. 

“Huh.” The dealer turned over the 6 of rubies. The face up cards were all red, two rubies and one rings. Foolishly, Yan seemed pleased about it. Didn't he realize that he'd needed a ringlet card, not a ruby? Denario had needed it, too, for a flush. Yannick couldn't make a decent hand anymore, no matter what the last card revealed. At most, he'd have four of the same suit, not five.

“Ye wonder,” Gerhardt said, “Who has the highest flush? And can anyone beat that? I doubt it.”

“Don't worry,” Denario answered automatically. “The odds are way against it.”

“Mmm?” Gerhardt studied the red center cards. He didn't seem to be aware that Jarl probably held red but he knew that Yannick did. After a moment, he said, “Ye didn't deal, did ye?”

That was tantamount to accusing Denario of cheating somehow. But Yannick chuckled. So did Dolph. And Gerhardt didn't seem to mean anything much by it. He didn't even seem aware that Yan was out. He still thought his friend could make a flush in the next turn.

The only one not laughing was Jarl. His best hand included a pair of kings, probably, which was good but not good enough. Two pair happened pretty often with five players. So he wanted to get that flush. He must have held two ruby cards. That explained why he couldn't take his eyes off of the last center card awaiting its turn.

“I'll pass,” murmured Gerhardt.

“I'm in,” Jarl countered quickly. He added two rings. “Up to the half pence.”

Denario matched. He nearly choked when Yan matched, too. That was crazy. He had nothing, not even a deuce pair. There was no card that could make him beat the pair of kings he should have known that Jarl had.

For Jarl's part, if he had four rubies between his hand and center cards, the odds of him getting the suit he needed in that one card were, at best, seven out of forty-two. That was because Denario and Yan each had one of the suit, making six cards total already out of play. Taking six from the thirteen of the suit left seven. There were ten cards known, meaning that there were forty-two unknown. Seven chances out of forty-two worked out the same as one in six. Jarl had a slight chance, yes, but five times out of six, Denario would beat him.

“I'm done,” said Gerhardt. He must not have had anything to go with his kings. He pushed his cards into the discard pile with Dolph's.

“Ready?” said Yan as he reached for the last down card.

“Yer awfully sure about this, Furtim.” Jarl put his hand out to make Yan wait for a moment. He wagged his eyebrows at Denario. “Care to make a side wager? Half pence, like the limit.”

“Is that allowed?” Instinctively, Denario turned to Dolph.

The old man cracked a grin. “Sure. I'll hold 'em.”

“Okay. My half penny is on blue.”

“'Course. Mine's on red.”

So Denario and Jarl each gave a half penny to Dolph before the dealer turned over the last card. Which was blue, the 8 of swords.

“Wow.” Denario felt awed. With that 8, he would have beaten a flush anyway.

Dolph immediately scooted the pair of half-pennies over to Denario. When Jarl revealed his kings, goddess high, Gerhardt swore.

“Damn me. I had kings, goddess, duke. Should have stayed in.”

“No,” said Denario. He showed. “Eights over goddesses. Full boat.”

Gerhardt chuckled. Jarl and Yan cursed.

“Full boat?” cracked Dolph. “We call it a full house, here. But that's damn good. Tell me, why were ye so sure that blue card was coming up? I know it weren't even odds. But it weren't too far off.”

“Oh, but it was!” In a strange way, no question could have made Denario happier. “Can I show you? I mean, are we all agreed that this is a friendly game and I can teach the math?”

He checked Yannick's face for any signs of resentment. But he saw none. The others were a little suspicious but mostly they were plain curious. 

“Sure,” said Dolph. The other men echoed him. Someone, probably Yannick, murmured the phrase 'free math lesson' and then everyone was chuckling, even Jarl.

Dolph rose slowly to his feet. “Go on. We'll all draw in the dirt.”

Denario threw himself into it. In Ziegeberg, he hadn't needed any side jobs and, after he met Pecunia, he didn't have time for teaching. He'd forgotten how much he missed the wonderful sense of holiness that came from sharing his little discoveries about math.

As Dolph copied, he immediately began to argue about the number of cards per suit and how Denario had known. It was fun. He was laughing. Within a few minutes, so was Jarl. Gerhardt and Yannick were left scratching their heads as they tried to keep up.

All of the various gambling games, whether in dice, tiles, or cards, involved an understanding of odds. And odds were all really fractions, so Denario enjoyed working on them. With four suits in a deck, the odds of drawing the suit you wanted seemed to be one in four. But they weren't. If, in a five card draw, you held four of that suit in your hand, the odds nowhere near as good as that, only 8 in 47. Little factors like keeping track of how many of a suit or number had been played made a lot of difference to a careful player when calculating the odds of getting cards you wanted.

He could tell by Dolph's smile that he was making a friend. This wasn't like the gambling in Ziegeburg at all. In Hogsburg, everything was going right.

“Thank Mel,” he whispered as he momentarily thought of his escape from the larger town. But he'd done it. He'd had to defend himself from those Ziegeburg gamblers and he'd gotten lucky there, no doubt, but he'd managed. He was wanted man in Ziegeburg if for no other reason than the mayor feared that Denario would run to Baron Ankster with information on the mayor's tax fraud. And then there would be war.

Or would there? Would the baron really attack the town over that? It seemed a shame. Denario tried to tell himself that it wasn't his business. He'd fulfilled his contract. 

The death of the gamblers weighed on his mind but not for his soul's sake. He'd worried about Kurt ever since they'd parted ways. The boy would be home by now. He'd get over it, surely. He'd bury the shovels and hide everything else. He was a smart lad.

Denario had been careful not to wear the gambler's clothes in Hogsburg. He was as safe as he could be.

“So seven is to forty-two as one is to six,” he said as he finished his drawing. 

“By the gods!” Yannick fell to his knees in front of the dirt picture. “I see it now. It makes sense. Do you see it, Gerhardt?”

There was a scowl of concentration on the bigger man's face as he counted the lines Denario had drawn.

“Seven is to forty-two as one is to six!” Yannick shouted. He began repeating it. Gerhardt and Jarl joined in. Dolph laughed and tossed down the stone he'd used to draw.

As they chanted and laughed, Denario sat back and put his arms around his knees. He thanked Melcurio, the god of accounting, one more time. But at that moment he felt a hand on his shoulder. It gripped him hard enough to hurt.

“Yer nicked, chum,” said a steady voice.

Chapter Five, Scene One

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 27: A Bandit Accountant, 4.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Pair
Scene Four: Familiar Words

“The wizard's not awake!” said the magical door knocker, a wrought-iron griffin whose jaws opened and shut with a creaking noise. “The wizard's not awake!”

Denario paused with his hand in the iron loop that hung down from the griffin's front paws.  So far, the wizards he'd met had proved to be vain, pompous, greedy, drunk, and competitive among one another to a fault.  They also, for some reason, tended to be late risers.  You hardly ever saw one taking breakfast in an Oggli cafe, for instance.  Lunch, yes, that happened for wizards but usually with a patience-strained, it's-far-too-sunny-outside kind of attitude.  They had their lunches with heavy amounts of tea, coffee, and hangover remedies.

But I've got to send this message.  Denario steeled himself. 

The stable master had given him directions to 'the only wizard in town' with a sneer on his face.  His opinion of men who didn't do honest labor was plain.  Not that he seemed honest himself – all too likely to help himself to saddlebag contents, in Denario's judgment – but at least he hadn't lied.

Next to the wizard's door sat a brass plaque on which were engraved the words, 'Amazing Markar, BThau, Master of Aquamancy, PhD Animage Emeritus.'  The fellow had managed to get his degrees from somewhere.  You couldn't fake that.  Real wizards would object and their objections took the forms of fireballs and lightning.  So Markar was probably competent.  Probably.

Denario knocked again.

“The wizard's not ...”  The wrought iron griffin paused.  Its oak panel swung open. The hallway beyond the half-opened door was empty. 

Magicians of all sorts went in for this sort of cheap theatre.  Master Winkel had theorized that it gave them better bargaining power.  Their magical homes contained a fair number of self-opening doors, self-lighting candles, flasks of green ooze, bubbling beakers over flames, pictures with eyes that moved, and books that slammed shut when you tried to look at the pages.

“Amazing Markar?” he called.

“Down here, mate.”  A goat strode into view.

“Where?”  Denario eyed the horned beast suspiciously.  He didn't trust any animal that could knock him down.

“It's me.”  This time, he saw the goat's lips move.

“You're Markar?”

“No, no.  I'm makari, not Mark.  Common mistake.”  The animal laughed, which sounded quite a lot like braying.  “Mark's never out of bed until the restaurant next door lays on a buffet.  I'm just his answering service.”

“You mean, 'leave a message with the goat' and that sort of thing?”

“I'm not a goat, lad.  I just look like one.”

“I'm not a lad.  I'm seventeen.”  Denario's mind raced as he tried to remember what he'd been told about the festival of Glaistig.  It was the biggest event of the year, in Ziegeburg.  “And makari, I happen to know, have fins and tails like fish.  You have four hooves.”

“I've changed.”

“And makari don't talk.  Except Glaistig talks, of course.  Are you ...?”

The animal bowed its head for a moment, possibly out of modesty.

“Look a little lower, lad.  I'm not a female.  Nor am I favored by the goddess.  I'm just a poor male from an ordinary makari herd.  Not hers.  Not from the Lady's herd.”

“All right.”  His hands went to his hips.  “So what happened to you?”

“I got lucky with the lead nanny.  The top bull was going to kill me over it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Goats and makari don't usually go in for that sort of thing.  But he'd beaten me half to death already.  I was trying to swim away. When I was flopping up on shore, the wizard stepped in.  He levitated me.  Then he waved his staff and suddenly I found that I could talk.  Plus I had hind legs.”

“It was that simple?”

“To me.  To hear Mark tell it, no, it was completely stupendous magic, of course, and I should be forever grateful.  Anyway, first thing I had to contemplate with my heightened mental powers was my predicament.  The figure in orange and blue wizard robes asked me what I wanted.  I looked down at that bull in the river, who was still trying to get at me with those horns, and I said, well, that I wanted to be friends with the wizard who saved my life.  It was that or death, I figured.”

“Mark sounds like a nice enough fellow.”

“He'd turn you into a carp and toss you in the privy just for laughs, when he's had a few.  Just so that you know.”

“That sounds very wizardly of him.  But I need him to send a message to another wizard.”

“Messages are two silver quarters per stanza delivered, no message sent for less than two silvers.”  The goat sounded as if he were giving the speech by rote.  Perhaps he was.  But his fee was high.

“That's double the price in Oggli.”

“Oh, so you're Oggli?”

“Ha, ha.  I apprenticed there so I'm not falling for that line.”

The goat slumped, disappointed for a second.  It chewed on its beard for a moment.

“Well, you ain't back at home in the city,” it said finally.  Its ears pricked up.  “Two silvers is the going rate here.  My master is the only wizard in town, too, so don't waste your time trying to shop around.”

That confirmed what the stable master had said.

“When can I see your master?” asked Denario.

“From the look of the whiskey bottle, about an hour after lunch.  But you don't have to wait.  You can leave the message with me and I'll make sure he sends it.”

“Can't I ... doesn't he ... I mean, some wizards ...”   Denario  felt awkward, so he stopped.  He thought he was better with people than Pecunia realized but maybe, he was willing to concede, he wasn't so good with talking goats.  “What I mean is, doesn't the Amazing Markar have a magic thing that I can speak to and it'll remember the message? That seems like something a wizard would have.”

“Yep, he does,” said the goat with a shake of his head.  “It's me.”

Chapter Four, Scene Five

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Not Zen 179: Attention

"I have a healing rope," announced the magician. Between his hands, he lifted a golden cord for the audience to see. It was as thick as his thumb. "It automatically repairs itself whenever I cut it."

The strand wasn't long, no more than the length of his forearm. The ends looked neatly cut. The magician flipped the rope in the air, let it fall into his left palm, flipped it again, caught it, and bent it in the middle. With an elaborate gesture, he produced a pair of steel scissors in his right hand. He pressed the blades together to cut the strand. He grunted. The scissor blades closed with a loud clack.

"Very nice," said a middle aged man in the audience.

"He did something with his other hand," said his six-year-old niece. Her fingers intertwined with his. She tugged on him, imploring him to agree.

"Oh?" The man was a lama, a master of his temple. 

"When he got out the scissors," she whispered.

The lama instructed the most serious, dedicated initiates in the valley. He considered himself a student of religious arts and physical sciences. There always seemed to be more to learn about the human spirt and the human mind. There always seemed to be room to improve his devotional practice. Even as a child, he'd worked hard to refine his meditations. As a young man, due to his dedication, he'd been offered the post of lama despite the availability of more senior monks. He'd served as his temple's master for twenty years but his body was still strong. His mind was sharp.

He'd thought that his powers of observation were better than most. Yet he hadn't noticed the oddness that his niece had seen.

In front of him, the stage performer lay the two sections of golden rope together in his open palm. He closed his fingers over them to make a fist, shook the rope, and flipped it into the air. He captured it in his other hand by one end. Clearly, the rope was in a single piece as if it had healed.

The fellow tossed and caught his prop a few more times to make his point.

"I know what you're thinking," he told the audience. That raised the lama's eyebrows. He'd been asked for his religious opinion on allowing magic acts to come to town. He'd offered to review this one. The magician, who the lama had known when they were both children, had promised not to pretend to contact the afterlife. In fact, the man had offered to drop his mentalist act from the show entirely in deference to the temple's wishes.

"You're wondering, 'what good is a self-healing rope?'" He twirled his golden strand with a smirk. "What if I could tie knots in the rope but no one else could cut them? What if I could escape from being tied up by cutting a rope that heals up later?"

"Wow!" said a little boy in the front row.

"I'll tie a knot in my self-healing rope." He looped the strand in his fingers. He used elaborate gestures that were hard to follow. "Then I'll cut it again."

"Let me!" screamed a teenaged boy three rows from the stage.

Using both hands, the magician wound up a large knot. It looked like a ball in the middle of his golden cord.

"Let me do the cutting!" This time the teenager stood up. He hopped on his toes and shook his fist. He raised his arm higher and made cutting motions with his fingers.

The magician had seemed annoyed a few seconds earlier. After the second round of pleading, he slumped. It was a theatrical gesture. The lama was sure that his old school friend had decided to let the teenager come up on stage. Why else make such a reluctant show?

Sure enough, after a moment the magician nodded. He motioned to the stage guards. He made the teenager promise to be good then allowed the guards to guide the young fellow onto a set of stairs beside the stage. Unfortunately, the lama knew this particular young man. He was the son of a local furniture merchant. In the past year, his parents had five times consulted the temple about their child's defiance of their authority. Today he'd come to the show in an orange t-shirt with a military symbols emblazoned on it, the sort of clothes of which his parents did not approve.

The lama worried for the magician. His rope trick had to be a delicate thing and the teen seemed unlikely to cooperate. The magician, not much taller than the teen, had a sense of the problem. He crouched close to confer. Then he backed away a few steps and teased the boy about his shirt and bright shoes in front of the audience. 

"You look like a rebel. Can you follow my directions?" he asked. 

Of course, the boy agreed that he would behave. In return, the magician made the steel scissors appear and handed them over. Then he asked for them back. Reluctantly, the boy returned them as a scowl deepened on his brow.

"Ta da!" announced the magician. The audience laughed and clapped. The adults in the seats, at least, thought that making the teenager follow directions was a good trick. The lama joined in the applause. He noticed that his niece was frowning, though.

"You'll cut the knot once, right?" the magician said.

"Yes," replied the boy.

"How many times?"

The magician gave the boy the scissors again. He asked for them back. He showed the boy how to cut. They went over it several times. The boy kept nodding and growing more impatient.

"Aren't you ready yet?" the boy said.

"All right." The magician presented the rope. The boy raised the scissors. The magician took back the rope back before the boy could cut it, which produced laughter from the audience. Then, as if giving in to good sportsmanship, the magician presented the rope again. This time, there was a loop in the knot that stuck out from the rest.

"Cut the rope in any part of the knot. It's looser now, so I know you can do it. Just cut once. I'll still be able to put the ends back together."

"Hah!" The boy avoided the loose loop of the knot. Instead, he worried the scissor blades into the middle of the rope tangle. He pressed in hard and jostled the stage magician off balance before he succeeded in digging between the layers of cord. Scissors blades shredded through strands with a clack. He opened them again and shifted. The shears gave another snap. "And hah!"

The teenager had made a second cut. The audience gasped. A stage hand strolled in from the left and put his hand on the teenager's shoulder. With a smirk on his face, the teen handed over the scissors not to the magician but to the authority figure. That figure led the boy to a spot offstage rather than back into the audience. Apparently, the youth had been kicked out of the show.

"Well, what good would a magic rope be if it couldn't heal from two cuts?" the magician said as the teenager strolled away. He turned to the audience and lifted the ruined knot for them to see. "This is harder. But the rope can do it. At least, I think it can. I won't find out for sure, of course, until I undo the knot."

The magician pushed on his rope. The balled-up part moved a bit, turning slightly as it went. It looked as if the fellow were going to push the tangle right to one end. However, after a couple more pushes, the knot seemed to tighten and proved unable to move further. Very theatrically, magician shook the rope. He dangled it for a few seconds and shook it again. The knot loosened. Finally, he wiggled and shook some more. What apparently had been a slipknot unraveled. The rope swung loose. The lama could see there were no rips or tears. The cord remained whole.

The lama applauded along with the rest of the audience. He leaned to his niece. 

"I didn't see how he did it," he admitted to her. "Did you?"

"No," she shook her head. "But the knot was funny."

He nodded. She was his favorite relative but it bothered him that she'd noticed something that he hadn't.

He wondered about the nature of sleight of hand tricks and of his own powers of observation through the rest of the act. At the end of the performance, the stage magician vanished in a flash of gunpowder and smoke. The lights of the theatre rose to full. The audience filed out of the auditorium. As had been arranged beforehand, several theatre staff approached the lama to offer him an escort to the back of the stage. He had been scheduled to meet with the magician and deliver his review of the act.

In the wings, a member of the theatre staff presented him with a promotional poster. The lama bent to examine it. He knew it wasn't a present for his niece but part of the act to be reviewed. He saw immediately that the references to mind reading had been eliminated.

"The temple has no problem with this advertisement," he announced. "The magician does not claim to contact the afterlife. He does not use religious garb or symbols in the act. This poster says 'magic act' and 'tricks to amaze' but the performer does not claim to have special powers. You have our gratitude."

"The temple approves?"


"Many thanks, lama," said the stage manager. "Can you give us general guidance for the future so that we don't have to re-print posters next time?"

"Of course. If the temple perceives ethical problems with stage magic, our issues will arise from the claims made. A mind reader who admits that he is playing tricks is allowable. One who seeks money with false claims of contacting the afterlife is not."

"Thank you again, lama," said the manager. He bowed his head.

"Where is the star of the show, my old schoolmate?"  He turned around slowly as he gazed at the darkened wings, the curtains, props, lights, and backdrops.

"Hah!" The magician gave a shout from behind a white curtain. The curtain billowed. A few seconds later, a hand emerged from the right side and swept the cloth barrier aside. The lama's old acquaintence emerged from his changing area while wiping his face with a rag.

The lama saw that his friend had worn makeup. Sweating under the stage lights had partly removed it. Now he finished the cleanup. His handkerchief looked like one of those he'd used on stage, which the lama found amusing. Apparently there was nothing special about it. His jacket looked shabbier in ordinary light. He'd doffed it, too, and tossed it over one shoulder. However, doing so revealed sweat stains on his white shirt. 

He bowed to the lama. The lama, in remembrance of their time together at school, stepped forward and embraced him. They smiled like the children they'd been. The lama's niece dashed forward to grab them both around the knees. The lama introduced her.

"You look bright-eyed," the magician observed with a smile.

"She's smart and observant. She noticed things you did that escaped everyone else." The lama sighed. "That includes me. Everyone else fell for your tricks. For instance, I did not see how my old friend healed the rope."

"And you figured out how it was done, dear?" He wiped his brow again. His smile seemed to put the girl at ease.

"While you made the magic scissors." Like the teenaged boy had done earlier, she made a cutting motion with her fingers. "That was when the other hand did something."

"How interesting." With a nod, he stuffed the handkerchief in his pocket.

"Old friend," the lama said. "I have a question about this. I am renowned for my careful attention. Yet I could not see the trick. Did you perform it in plain sight as my niece thinks?"

"I did." The magician gave the girl a smile. "It is a good test, in its way. The trick relies on people seeing what they expect to see. You anticipated. Your niece did not."

"I find this upsetting."

"It is the way of humanity. Don't trouble yourself. We're alone." He glanced at the theatre staff carting away props. "Close enough, anyway. I'll tell you what I did. For the first trick, I pretended to cut the rope in the middle but I actually cut it close to the end."

"But then a piece of the rope must be missing."

"Yes. The rope is about a half-finger shorter. No one notices. People see what they expect."

The lama put a hand to his forehead. He, too, had failed to observe that.

"What about the second rope healing?"

"For the, ah, problem teenager?" The fellow gave an amused grin. 


"That was different." His eyes narrowed as he thought about it. "Doing the second trick takes more skill. In it, you see, I first attach a knot made from a different length of rope."

His niece laughed and clapped. 

"When it's cut in two places it doesn't matter?" she asked.

"The way it was done made me worry about dropping one of the pieces. But I was pretty sure that boy would disobey and cut twice. Boys like him do."

"But you shook out the knot," the lama objected.

"Shaking out the knot is not the illusion." With a flip of his left hand, the magician made the cord appear. It looked less golden than it had under a yellow-filtered light. He twisted it in his fingers. "At first, I make the knot with a different length of cord. When I push on it to make it smaller and then push again, on the second push I take away the separate rope that's knotted and replace it with a real slipknot in the rope. I've trained myself to make a slipknot one-handed. Even so, I have to keep moving the rope. If I held still, you would see that the knot is not the same."

"They're not similar?"  The lama scowled at what that meant about human attention.

"Not as much as I'd like." He shook his head. "That's why I push on the first knot to make sure I change the shape. The second time it changes, no one thinks it's so odd. Plus no one gets a good look."

"I feel upset that I didn't notice what you were doing." 

"Because it reveals your expectations?"


"My esteemed friend, I will perform the first healing rope trick again for you only. You will see that it is your expectation of the cause that makes you fail to see the true cause. This time, don't trust my words so much even though I'm your old friend. Let us see if you set aside your preconceptions."

Quickly, the fellow tossed the rope, caught it, and began. When he produced the scissors, the lama's niece squealed with delight. She bounced on her toes.

"Look, look," she screamed. "He did it again! With his other hand."

The lama slumped. "I did not see."

"Oh, my honorable friend." The magician halted. He stuffed the rope and scissors into his pockets and strode forward to take the lama in his arms. The lama returned his embrace for a moment. Then the magician stood back to arm's length, hand on the lama's shoulder. "You are a great man to care about this. But you are human."

"If I, who have striven to remove preconceptions, cannot understand what I see, what hope has anyone in this valley? Do we see criminals where we expect them? Do we fail to find the true culprits because of our biases? We must doubt our own witnessing of our lives."

The magician frowned. Then, slowly, he nodded.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 26: A Bandit Accountant, 4.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Pair
Scene Three: Space to Breathe

His guide shook Denario awake while it was still black-dark. The moon was busy elsewhere and the stars had disappeared overhead except for one or two of the brightest. Clouds must have rolled in while Denario slept. He sniffed the night air. It was moist with a hint of that burnt resin odor the fire had made.

“Are we going to ride?” he asked as he shook himself to wake his limbs. He rubbed his face to get the blood flowing there. His words had come out mumbled.

“Mister, we're going to walk. That's what you wanted. I put our packs on the horses. We'll lead them.”

Ah, so it's like with a donkey, Denario thought. His comfort level increased. 

He experimented with his dry tongue, then fumbled for his canteen. So he was a 'mister' to Kurt now despite only four years of age difference. Had that come from the afternoon's talk about accounting or was it the evening's lucky killings that had gotten him respect? He might never know. Probably, Kurt himself couldn't answer that question. Denario wiped his mouth.

“I'm ready.” He rose to his feet. But even with Kurt doing most of the work, there was enough digging and lifting to distress his cramp-wracked body.

The fire needed buried. Kurt stamped down grassy sod on it. The bed mats needed rolled. Kurt found places to store them. The horses needed a bribe to get moving. Kurt pulled an apple from his pocket and cut it in half.

“It's cold.” Denario couldn't keep himself from complaining. How did these farmers do it? The dew was forming and it felt like a fog of barely-melted ice crystals.

“We're in luck,” said Kurt. He was staring upward. His grin was barely visible from two feet away but his shadowy arm was clear as it gestured to the heavens above. “Looks like a bit of rain. It's going to cover our tracks.”

“Oh yes. That's lucky all right.” Denario shivered and grabbed an extra shirt from his bag.

His guide gave him the easier horse to lead, as far as Denario could tell. She was a brown mare, not too much taller than Denario, a bright spark in her eye. The dappled gray ahead of them kept straining at its reins. It was half a head taller, too. Kurt almost got jerked off his feet once as the larger mare tested his strength. He re-wrapped his fist into the leather straps.

The brown one followed at Denario's shoulder as if she'd made up her own mind to travel to Hogsburg although it was, Denario admitted to himself, more likely that she'd decided to follow wherever the apples were going.

His guide, in a low voice, gave tips on the critical aspects of night hiking like taking smaller steps than normal, although Denario found that his body did this naturally. Navigating was the harder task, especially with cloud cover, but Denario had an idea of what he was missing from Kurt's instructions. He'd learn it all soon enough. Guiding by the stars sounded suspiciously like geometry. Anyway, Master Winkel had several times pointed out the architectural high points of the heavens.

The boy taught Denario to stop and listen every now and then, a practice which he found useful for getting his bearings. He noticed, too, that Kurt paused once in a while to close his eyes and let them readjust if he'd been staring at the mostly-clouded stars. During those times, he kept walking. He didn't want to let the horses lead, even for a step. He explained several times when he guided them around ruts in their path that the steeds could trip and break their legs.

“Ssh,” whispered Kurt at the top of a hill. He held them there for a minute.  Denario thought the young man was listening to something but he was sniffing the air. “We smelled maple trees all the way up. But you can smell oak and willow on the down side.”

“I can?”

“Yes.” He sounded impatient. “Willows smell strong at night.”

What Denario smelled most strongly was a chimney. But it was faint and a fair distance behind them now.

“We've reached the other side of the Guntaffson's farm. Lucky we didn't run into the sheep. In another mile, we'll hit the Hogsburg road. Things are looking up, I'd say. We can part ways there around dawn. Maybe we'll be riding the horses then.”

Denario glanced skyward. He got hit in the eye with a raindrop.

“Everything's going to be all right.” Kurt hummed as he led the dapple gray down the slope. “I knew it. We can expect rain every morning, this time of year.”

“Every single one?” Oh no, thought Denario. The high hills weren't that different from the Ziege, were they? He wasn't dressed for damp or cold weather.

“Maybe not every morn, but most. Got to prepare for the wet. Dew is pretty much like rain when yer up high. Ye know that from night before last. Ye've got to dress for it to gather on ye and maybe freeze on ye, if it's chilly.”


“Is there enough accounting work for ye to do in Hogsburg, do ye think?” Kurt's voice sounded fresh. “Ye might need an odd job or two.”


“Can ye do anything besides adding and all that?”

Denario sighed. “Not really.”

It began to pour. Drops splashed off his hat. As he slogged through the thick grass with rainwater creeping up under his pants legs, he wondered if the hill folks needed book keeping of any sort. Who cared if the peasant farmers cheated on their debts except for the knights and burghers who lent to them? Even if they wanted help, rural folks probably couldn't pay much. Master Winkel had worked his way up as an apprentice in Oggli but he'd spent the minimum twelve months and a day as a journeyman before he settled back down in his home town. It had been a year of poverty, apparently. He spoke of it often, in delight or in disgust, usually with rude gestures.

“I'm glad I have the rope,” he said.

“What has that got to do with accounting?”

“It's for earth-measuring, really.” Some of the tales his old mentor had told him dealt with the surveying he did for the rebel kingdoms around Faschnaught, north of Oggli. Tools were primitive in the mountain regions but Winkel had been able to make them do what he needed. 

Denario passed the remainder of his journey with Kurt talking about the associated trades of accounting – old ones such as auditing, banking, lending, taxing, time keeping, census taking, and surveying – and new ones, such as futures trading, numeromancy, leveraged purchasing, and architecture, which was a craft more associated with masons but it had developed its own guilds in Oggli and Angrili. The Architect Guild accepted properly trained accountants as long as they performed a "year of supplemental apprenticeship." Kurt hadn't heard of any of the new professions, though. When pressed, he said he thought architecture was something performed by carpenters, not masons.

The rain let up just before sunrise. By then, there was enough light for riding. Denario was grateful to cling to a horse's back for a while. His ankles felt like they were on fire. His toes were blistered. Plus, if nothing else, the beast was warm beneath him.

“That's our road,” Kurt said as they crested a grassy mound.

“But which way to Hogsburg?” To Denario's eyes, it seemed that both directions were wrong. His guide pointed toward the rising sun. 

“It looks east but curves north. Ye'll see.”

“Thanks. Things will get better from here, I guess.” Although he was tired, he managed a chuckle. “How can they get worse?”

“Bandit country.” Kurt growled at him. “Get off of the road soon.”

“Ah, right. Every time I say it can't get worse ....”

After a minute or two of hand-shaking, they managed their goodbyes. Kurt seemed quieter now that the sun was up. He looked almost as weary as Denario felt. 

The road curved to the left after a while, as his guide had promised. Before the turn took him out of line of sight, he looked back. His horse sensed his movement and waited for him. At first, it seemed as if there was no one else in the countryside. In a few seconds, however, he managed to find a small figure on horseback at the top of a ridge. Denario waved but the young man apparently didn't notice. A minute later, horse and rider trotted down behind the hill. It was just as well.

Within a few hundred yards of turning north, Denario found his sense of fear settling in again. It felt worse than when he was just walking. On the back of his mare, as fast as she might be, he was a target. Riding in the middle of a road in broad daylight seemed idiotic. Soon he encountered hoof prints that had been only partially washed away by the passing rain clouds. Those meant, maybe, that someone else had been riding to Hogsburg at night.

Sure enough, in less than a mile he noticed smoke climbing above the trees. It was a campfire. Moreover, there were at least two campfires and at least two chimneys farther to the north. The closest smoke plume couldn't be more than ten yards from the road. There was no way to avoid being seen by whoever made it if he continued. Scrub and short trees on either side of the trail made going anywhere else unlikely. He let his mount plod onward. He didn't know what else to do.

For a while, he thought he might make it. It was still early. But his heart sank when he saw an eager face peer out from behind a row of budding dogwoods.

“Howdy!” The stranger waved.

Denario nodded. What else could he do? The stranger hopped out onto the road as he was pulling on his brown overalls.

“Headin' ta town?” The broken toothed grin confronted Denario and made him rein back to keep from running into it.

“Sure.” His voice sounded unsteady.

“Ye've made an early start. We're just getting on the road now ourselves.” Behind the gangly fellow in the road, the dogwoods rustled. Their branches swayed and popped. A large man emerged from behind the greenery. He marched onto the road leading two scraggly horses tied together with a very cheap cut of twine. “See?”

“Sure.” Denario's voice didn't sound as frightened as before, he noticed with relief. He was starting to feel annoyed that these two men looked so desperate for company.  They hadn't bothered to snuff out their fire. They were intent on riding with him. But he didn't want to arrive with a big group to the gates of Hogsburg. He didn't want to draw attention. What if the Ziegeburg mayor or burgher had sent a message to Hogsburg? Come to think of it, maybe arriving in town with a group would help. An incognito accountant might be less noticeable that way. The guards in Hogsburg would be looking for a single man in a red vest and red shoes, traveling on foot, not a non-descript member of a group on horseback.

“Nice morning,” said Denario, having made up his mind. These other two were mounted, so they would catch him anyway. If they intended to rob him, he couldn't do much about it. But his odds of going unnoticed were better than among a larger group. And there were those other smoke trails ahead. It might be better to ride through them in company.

“Beautiful horse you got.” The possible-robber nodded. He gave Denario a cheerful leer as he climbed into his saddle. “Looks like it could sure run away from our old nags. But if you're not going to run her, we wouldn't mind to ride beside ye for a while.”

“Of course.” He could hardly say no without being rude. And he couldn't ride away without making it clear he thought they were up to no good.

“Me name's Yannick.” He jerked a thumb at his larger companion, who was still trying to mount up. His steed looked skittish. “That's Moritz. He don't say much.”

“I'm ...” He hesitated a moment. He'd almost given his real name. But that name might have gone out on wanted posters or descriptions to the sheriffs. “I'm Furtim.”

It was the old language for 'stealth.' He wasn't sure how he'd chosen it. His old master had taught him bits and pieces of lore, mostly related to accounting, and that word had stuck in his mind. He was pretty sure no one else would know what it meant.

Yannick squinted at him. “Do folks ever call ye 'Tim?'”


“Folks just call me Yan.” He kicked his horse to draw even with Denario, whose mount had decided to stroll without him urging it on.

“How about your friend?” Denario craned his neck to see the big man getting up in his saddle. There was no danger of leaving him behind, not that it probably wouldn't be a good thing, one less stranger at his back to worry about.

“Oh, he's got someone to visit in town,” said Yan, possibly misunderstanding. “How about ye? What ye headed to Hogsburg fer, if ye don't mind? Ain't seen ye in town or on this road ... Tim.”

“That's because ...” He thought fast. “I'm a teacher. Just passing through. Might teach a few lessons and move on.”

“A teacher? Ye ain't got no robe. Well, I guess there ain't no rule about it. What do ye teach? Got books?”

“I've got math books.” He could tell by the looks on these men that he was puzzling them and they didn't like it. The big man had hurried his horse and he had caught most of the conversation. “Plus some playing cards, dominoes, and that sort of thing.”

“Oh,” said the big one. He had tattoos on his forearms, blue. Some showed letters or numbers. One displayed spears crossed behind a crown. When he saw Denario gazing at them, he grunted. He started rolling down his sleeves.

“Oooh.” Yan nodded and made an overly friendly face. “That kind of teacher. Well, why didn't ye say? No, I guess ye wouldn't. Hogsburg gets a few too many of that kind, if'n ye don't mind me saying so.”

“The math books are real, if it comes to that.” Denario was confident he could teach. He was pretty sure, too, that he should stay away from the cards or dominoes. It was just that a teacher traveling all alone didn't make much sense. Even these fellows understood. Teachers traveled in groups for safety. Only fools and desperate men traveled alone.

I'm both, Denario realized glumly.

“I know where you can find a safe game of cards in town,” volunteered Mister Friendly. “It's right in front of the poleizi.”

Denario snorted. He knew from his talks with Kurt that the Hogs-Poleiz were the local law enforcement in Hogsburg. They certainly wouldn't allow gambling in front of the guard house.

“No, really.” The thin man leaned from his horse and brought his face close enough for Denario to smell this morning's shot of whiskey. “Ye have to pay a cut of any winnins to the guards, it's true, but there's never any fightin', there. A man alone, he takes some risks playing cards just any old wheres. But in front of the Hogs-Poleiz, everyone is safe. Sort of.”

“Only sort of.” It wasn't a question. But the statement made Yannick redden a little.

“Every now and then, something happens. Just stand clear and ye'll be okay.”

“Are you going to this game?”

“Might be, might be.”

“What about that friend you're going to meet?”

Yannick hesitated. His big friend started to answer the question. But Yannick glared at him. Moritz shut his mouth.

“He's not quite ready,” Yannick explained. “We can't see him until later.”

Denario had the impression that these two men were up to something but he couldn't figure out what. Anyway, whatever they were hiding might be normal for Hogsburg. He didn't want to accuse them. He had the impression that Yannick was sizing him up, maybe for a fight. He spent half an hour of riding conversation being alternately respectful and mocking. Denario was accustomed to the mocking. It didn't bother him. But the respect was new and worrying. The thin, crazy-toothed fellow wasn't an impressive physical specimen. If it were just between him and Denario, a wrestling match might last for a while. There was no doubt that Moritz could squash either of them like a bug.

It was almost a relief when they passed the next campfire. One of the campers waved to the riders. Another one asked if he could jump up on back. He seemed go have decamped, too, with his pack tied to his shoulders so he was ready to hop aboard. Fortunately, Yannick and Moritz ignored his request. Denario, for an instant, had a bad vision of scores of their friends climbing up, pushing each other, jostling Denario, and finally just knocking him off his horse. Of course, they would take everything he had. He was waiting for it to happen.

He almost felt disappointed when he reached the town gates safely. His group had picked up two more riders from a side trail that swung down from a hill to their right. Those riders, one a grumpy fellow on a fat, golden pony with an expression at least as surly as that of its owner, rode ahead at a leisurely pace. In a few hundred yards, the trail curved left and into the closed gates of a town. Presumably, it was Hogsburg.

A lone traveler with a wheelbarrow of turnips was negotiating with a pair of guards. One of the guards was testing produce from the top of his barrow. He didn't appear to be enjoying himself.

“Come on, now,” said the barrow driver. “I can't pay no two pence. Ye got to take turnips.”

“These are worse than yesterday,” said the guard who had bitten one. “And that's saying something. Where did you keep these all winter?”

“Is there a problem?” Yannick smiled cheerily at the scene. “Town gates open at dawn.”

“Well, what's yer business then?” The surly guard squared off against the riders, including the surly pony. He held up his halberd crosswise to block the road, not that there was any need with the gate locked behind him.

“Ye knows us, Jim. It's the same business we've always got, seeing our friends.”

Denario thought there would be a fight. But the guards were wary of so many mounted men. Jim, the one with his pole across the way, hesitated.

“Ye know, we gots lots of friends. More than we ever had here before.” The calm words from Yannick seemed to worry the guards, not reassure them. 

Again Denario felt there was something going on that he couldn't understand. The guards in their rusted chain mail gazed uneasily at the riders, none of whom wore armor. They wore arms, though, Denario realized. Everyone kept at least an axe at his belt, even Denario, who had one he'd looted from the dead gamblers. Most of the travelers had daggers or cudgels at the ready as well. The fat, surly fellow had a sword at his belt.

“It's five pence for the lot o' ye,” said the guard who wasn't named Jim. He was tall, young, and almost clean-shaven.

Moritz chose that moment to descend from his horse. The poor beast snorted with relief. 

“And that's a half-penny apiece,” further explained the guard. Denario did a quick calculation and arrived at the fact that Moritz's presence was worth half-price admission. Either that or the guards couldn't do math.

Someone on the other side of the gate unbarred it. The door swung open silently. Without paying, the turnip farmer grabbed both handles of his wheelbarrow and pushed forward. The mounted men followed at a lazy pace, surly pony and its rider first. Except for that first man, who pretended not to notice, the riders tossed coins to the man behind the gate. He was a filthy-looking fellow with hair unkempt and beard badly cropped. His chain mail was no more rusted than the other guards but the rust seemed to tarnish his clothes. Denario dug frantically in his shirt to find a half-penny. He tossed it in his best imitation of Yannick's gesture. That won him a yellowed, gap-toothed smile. 

Denario could smell the man's breath from ten feet away. It felt like biting into a rotten lunch but he managed to smile back. Against all odds, he'd made it safe to Hogsburg.

Chapter Four, Scene Four