Sunday, May 29, 2016

Not Zen 186: Maybe It's Not You

The counselor finished reading the excuse note, which a teacher had scrawled on the back of a blue, half-page hall pass. He folded it over. With a glance at the pass mark on the opposite side, dated two days previously and apparently reused at need, he set it on the table. 

"Well?" said the brown-haired girl across the table from him.

He rubbed his chin. He'd seen the girl twice before this week. He'd formed an opinion of her symptoms. But he was loathe to share it.  His words would likely get misinterpreted. 

"You were ..."

As he began, someone knocked on the frosted glass door panel. He glanced up at the rattling noise. His principal, a broad-shouldered woman twice his age, opened the door without waiting for him to respond.

His student's tearful expression vanished. She wiped her face. With a wary glance at the intruder to the counseling office, she leaned back in her seat. 

"Can I help you, ma'am?" the counselor said. His principal shrugged. She folded her arms and leaned against the wall in her pantsuit. 

"Not yet." She waved an arm. "Continue." 

His eyebrows rose. This would normally be a circumstance in which he'd send either the administrator or the student out of the room. But since his supervisor knew she was breaking the confidentiality code, he couldn't point it out or she'd accuse him of undermining her authority in front of a student.

He turned to the girl. She blinked.

"You were about to tell me your symptoms," he reminded her. "Can you can describe in detail how it is that you're feeling today?"

"Okay." The girl bit her lower lip for a moment. "My arms are jittery. My heart feels funny. My breath is too fast. I think that's it. No, I'm sweaty, too."

"So it sounds like a panic attack."

"Or asthma," she said, sitting up straighter. He knew that she loved to be contrary. If he'd suggested it was asthma, she'd have said it was from taking the wrong dose of medicine. The girl's fingers brushed away a strand of her brown hair. 

"It's your third attack this week." He rubbed his forehead. "I have to say, for asthma, it's discouraging how your medicine doesn't seem to help."

"If you'd send me to the doctor again, I'd change my prescription." She gave him a brave smile. She was getting good at that expression. Her fingers linked together in her lap. She relaxed in her chair, apparently satisfied with the argument she felt she was making. 

The counselor glanced at his supervisor. Her face presented him with an impassive scowl but that was normal for her. She said nothing. Her fists remained folded under her grey suit jacket. She gave him no real indication of her approval or disapproval. 

"I think you should change something else," he said as he turned his gaze back to the girl.

"What's that?"

He hesitated. It would help, he thought, if he could encourage the student to voice opinions that the principal wouldn't want to hear from a guidance officer. 

"Your environment." He nodded. But from the blank look on her face, the girl didn't get the hint. Next to him, the principal tapped her foot.

"You mean like nature and stuff?" the student wondered.

He closed his eyes. The foot tapping continued. His chest rose and fell with a deep breath.

"Your environment," he explained as he indicated the walls around him, "can also mean the circumstances that you find yourself in. It's your surroundings."

"Like what, the school building?"

"Ah," he murmured. "Have you noticed these attacks are all school related? You don't have them during your after-school job. You don't have them when you go home. No, you only have them in the morning when you're faced with coming here or, sometimes, when you've just arrived."

The girl looked down at her knees. Perhaps it was her hands on her knees. Either way, she studied herself for a while before she spoke. She kicked her school backpack twice before she seemed to realize that it was her turn to offer some thoughts.

"I'm not faking," she said.

"Of course not," he replied immediately.

"So is it the building that's making me sick?"

"Maybe not." That phrase wasn't definitive enough, he realized. "Probably not."

Next to him, his principal grunted. The girl glanced at her, not at him.

"I remember the history of your problem." He laid open his left hand. "There was a fight in the school. Your friends were hurt. You got anxious about more threats and more fights. There were plenty. So I sent you to a doctor. He prescribed medicine. You took the medicine."

"Sure." She nodded, happy to confirm. "Plus my asthma medicine."

"Then some of your friends left the school. Other girls decided they weren't your friends any more." He watched her sense of satisfaction vanish. "That made you depressed. I recommended you to a psychiatrist. He prescribed medicine."

"Ugh, yeah." 

"This year, you couldn't get into the class you wanted. So you took a class that bored you. You had mood swings in that class." He waited for her to nod. "I recommended you to a different counselor. She recommended you to a psychiatrist. He prescribed medicine again."

"Those pills make me sick to my stomach." She bent over as if she were ill.

"Yes, you're taking a lot of medicine now. It must seem like you're very sick."

"I guess." Fortunately, she didn't seem pleased about it. Some students were.

"What if the problem isn't you?" He leaned closer. "What if it's your abnormal situation?"

"I don't understand." She sat up straighter. From her blank expression, she didn't think that anything in her school circumstance was strange.

"These things go on in every institution this large, Harold," said the principal, who understood the point.

"Until a hundred years ago, most schools were the size or one or two of our classrooms, maybe a hundred students in all grades, together." He rested his hands on his knees and returned his principal's glower for a moment. Then his gaze drifted back to the girl he was obligated to advise. "All ages learned what they could according to their skills. Factory-style learning wasn't the rule."

"Now it is," insisted the principal.

"It's normal for a person to become anxious after being involved in a fight." Now he was nodding to his own point. That wasn't a good sign. He couldn't help it. "It's normal to get depressed about being alienated from your old friends. It's normal to be unhappy in a class that bores you. Did you ever stop to think about that?"

"Not really."

"What I'm saying is," he continued, "whatever your problems have been, we've dealt with them by treating you."

"That's the obvious approach," the principal offered. She had stopped propping herself against the wall. Her arms had unfolded, too.

"Yes, it's one thing you can truly control, yourself." With this much, he had to agree. "Taking the self-improvement approach makes sense. You can manage your responses to these tough situations. But there's another plan of attack that's just as obvious."

"I'm working on getting better," the girl replied automatically.

"All I'm suggesting is," he made a calming motion with his hand and slowed his words, "you should be open to the possibility that the problem isn't you."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Six Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One

Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 

Chapter Two Pair

Chapter Full Hand

Chapter Half Dozen

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 38: A Bandit Accountant, 6.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Half Dozen
Scene Five: Another Escape

He took two steps and nearly fell.  He took three more steps and paused to catch his breath.

The horrible part about stumbling to the west gate with Yannick in tow was knowing that the tall man's unconscious form would have been twice as heavy without the wizard's help.  The Amazing Markar had definitely done some good.  It was too bad that he couldn't levitate Yan completely.

Denario took three more steps.  Yannick nearly slipped from his shoulder.  He readjusted his grip on the fellow's shirt.  There was no point in saving the man only to drop him headfirst onto the rocks and dirt.  After another minute of slow progress, Denario turned the corner of the ink-black alley.  He stepped into the moonlight.  Ahead of him, he saw the west gate.

He carefully lay down the unconscious man.  He had to rest.

After a minute, his head stopped spinning.  He become uncomfortably aware of how bright the moonlight was outside of the alley shadows.  Anyone passing by would notice him and that would surely lead to questions.  He rolled to his feet, got his hands under Yannick's armpits, and started to drag him again.

He got ten steps before he had to change his grip.  He turned to face the gates and pulled the body behind.

The gates loomed as a gaping blackness, an empty space, in contrast to the silvery walls on either side.  The heavy doors had been pushed open.  They looked unguarded, too.  Denario's only worry was that he wasn't in any condition to make his escape.  He couldn't get far while dragging Yannick and it seemed monstrously unfair to leave him behind.  Yan would be arrested or, worse, would be found by the Raduar agents and killed while he slept.

Silently, Denario dragged the taller man onward.

“Accountant?”  A deep voice seemed to come from nowhere.  Denario stopped.  He squinted right, then left, then directly ahead to the shadows around the gates.

“Vir?” he whispered.

“What the hell happened?”  An armored man, looking as broad as he was tall, strode from the darkness next to the gate post.  There was a sword in his left hand.  His bald spot gleamed.  Beneath the glint of his eyes, his most distinguishing feature was the thick mustache.

“It was Eberhardt,” Denario breathed.  He let Yannick's body slump to the ground.  He had to.  He couldn't hold him another second.

“No.”  Vir glanced up to the alley from which Denario had emerged.  He seemed prepared for the police to arrive at any moment.  “How did ye get away?  Was there a big fight and lots of confusion?”

“Just Eberhardt.  He didn't cut Yannick.  That was lucky.  He only punched him.”

Vir put a foot on Yannick's body.  He rolled Yan to get a better look at his bloody face.  To himself, he nodded.

“Eberhardt thinks he's a frog at the moment.  That's going to change, though.  He'll come after us again.”

The Mundredi chief laughed at the news.  He turned serious an instant later.

“I'll get the story when we're on the road.  The important thing is, ye made it.”

“Not the way I'd intended.”

“And ye brought Yan.  I'd sent him with ye to keep ye from doing a runner.  Ye must have thought about it.”

“Um, well, a little, yes.”  Denario felt sad and a bit trapped as he admitted it.  “But I couldn't leave him there.”

Vir clapped him on the shoulder, which nearly knocked him over.

“Good on ye.  And good for Yan, too.  We can get him out of here, no problem.”


The man made a motion with his thick, right arm.  When nothing happened in response, he raised his voice, “Bring out the cart, boys.”

From behind the shed that served as the gatekeeper shelter, a pair of farmers emerged.  One led an ox by the ring in its nose.  The second sat in the driver's seat of the cart behind the ox.  It was a short vehicle with tall side panels, built for hay.

On the right side of the hay cart strode three armored men.  Denario recognized one of them, Moritz, by his bulk.  He was half a head taller and a full stomach thicker than the others.  His chain mail didn't make it down to his navel.  They probably didn't make armor in his size.  His spear, though, was taller than he was and he must have picked it up in town because he hadn't smuggled it in.

As the cart creaked to the center of the gate, two more armored figures emerged.  They had been hidden by the tall panels on the left side.  Although they weren't as big as Moritz, they looked tough and well equipped.

“Sergeant Alaric,” said Vir.  He waved to a young man on the left who was about his height.  Even at night and under a helmet, Alaric's hair was clearly blonde.  “A word with ye.”

“Yes, captain?” said the bright-eyed sergeant.  His lip looked funny to Denario.  It took a moment to realize that the man was too young to grow a mustache like Vir but that hadn't stopped him from trying.

Denario noticed the word 'captain,' too.  He doubted that Vir commanded a boat.  So the Mundredi were organized enough to have regular military ranks.

“This little fellow was my cell mate.”  Vir jerked his thumb toward Denario.  “He needs to leave town quickly.  So do I.  So does Volfie with his new bride.”

“I want to come with you, sir,” Alaric said quickly.  He seemed to understand instantly where the conversation was leading.

“I know.”  Vir's voice lowered to that clear whisper he had.  “But yer the only one I trust.”

“Sir, I would trust some of the lads with both of our lives.”

“Let me rephrase, then.  Yer the only one with half a brain who I trust in this town right now.”

“Sir.”  Alaric seemed non-committal.  Denario could tell that he was trying to think of which Mundredi men seemed reasonably bright to him.  He hadn't arrived at a name he liked yet.

“Someone on our end told the Raduar I was coming here.”

“Yes.  I thought of that.  I ... I ...”  There was doubt in Alaric's eyes.

“It wasn't ye.  I'm pretty sure.  If ye ever want me out of the way, ye know ...”

“Never, sir!”

“Ye just say.  That's all.  Just say.”

“Vir, I don't think the Raduar are done here.  They're going to be looking for another chance to  assassinate you on the way back over Mount Ephart.  You need protection.”

“I'll have the accountant with me.”  The words were said so lightly that it took Denario a second to realize that Vir was talking about him.  Alaric shot him a dirty look.  Vir noticed and tried to wave it off.  “All right, all right.  I'll take whoever ye send with me.  I trust yer choices.”

“Sir?”  The sergeant looked startled by those words.  He didn't know what to do for a moment.  Then he went down on one knee like a knight to a liege lord.  “After all this ...”

“Get up!  Get up!”  Vir grabbed his sergeant under one armpit and lifted him to his feet.  “Just go ahead.  Choose someone.”

“Klaus,” said the sergeant, although he grimaced just afterward.  “Moritz, too, because otherwise he'll sulk again.”

“Has Moritz given ye trouble?  Ye'll need him.”

“He's ...”  When Alaric hesitated, Vir leaped right in.

“Send him over.”  He sheathed his sword.  “I want ye to take him and work him hard.  Send another man with me if ye feel ye have to.”

“Piotr, then.”  Alaric nodded to himself.  He waved his men over.  Then, because they didn't move much in response, he started walking.  He didn't trust his voice not to carry.  He didn't have the perfect whisper that his captain had mastered.

The young man was giving orders to men older than he was, so Denario felt sympathy.  He'd had to do that with his partner Curo, sometimes, and it was hard.

After the sergeant sent Moritz to his captain, the rest huddled around him.  Denario wasn't invited, so he stayed where he was.  Moritz marched over with a strange, lurching gait.  Denario recognized that it was a mix of eagerness and fear.  On one hand, he seemed happy to see the captain.  On the other, he seemed to understand that he had a beating coming or a lecture.

Denario couldn't hear a word, which was probably as Vir intended.  He understood the tone of voice, though.  Even in the moonlight, Moritz's face and ears turned visibly pink.  Every few seconds, he nodded.  Once or twice, he mumbled 'Yes, sir' or 'No, sir' in his thick, mountain accent.

The talk only took a minute.  That was long enough for Denario to peer into the dark alleys up the street, back from where he'd come.  He strained his eyes at the shadows and listened for the footfalls of the police.  Eberhardt, bless him, either still thought he was a frog or hadn't figured out which way to follow.

To Denario's left, the low, urgent conversation came to an end.  Moritz stood to attention.  He saluted his commander.

“Now go out there and be a damn soldier!” Vir finished in his angriest voice.

“Sir!” said Moritz with half a smile.  For someone who'd just been chewed out, Moritz seemed oddly pleased.  He put his hands on his hips for a moment as he studied Yannick.

The injured man still lay on the ground.  He'd come to consciousness long enough to groan once or twice.  He still had blood on his face.  Moritz stooped to grab him by the shirt.  Then he shuffled his feet and changed his grip.  He scooped Yannick into his arms as if he were no heavier than a child.  With a nod to his boss, he turned and plodded toward the hay cart.

“All right, accountant.”  Vir glanced back at Denario.  He tilted his head in the direction of the gate.  “What we Mundredi do in town is none of yer business but when we leave, well, yer coming along.  So get over here and listen up with everyone else.”

He didn't wait for Denario to follow.  By the time Denario caught up, they were halfway to the gate.  Denario had been watching the armored figures as he hurried.  Something about them seemed wrong.  At first, he'd been impressed by how many there were.  Now they seemed too few.

Denario wondered where Volfie's bride was hiding.  For that matter, where was Volfie?  None of the soldiers looked like the white-haired, clean-faced lad that had visited them in jail.

“Vir?”  Denario doubled his speed so he could tap the big man on the elbow.  “We aren't leaving without Volfgang, are we?”

“Ye didn't recognize 'em?”  Vir slowed.  He graced Denario with a sly grin.  “Good.  At night and from a distance, then, he and Elsa might pass for farm boys.”

Denario stopped.  He stared at the men in front of the ox cart.  Behind them, Moritz was already laying Yannick on top of a pile of straw.  One of the farmers watched the procedure from the driver's seat.  The other farmer had joined the armored figures huddled around Sergeant Alaric a few feet away.  He had bright, blonde hair.  He looked familiar.  Denario checked the cart driver again.

The driver wore his hat low so that the brim shielded most of his face.  Denario could see a pointed chin.  The farmer's neck looked a bit thin, too.  He wore two or three layers of padded clothes.  He wasn't as big as he'd seemed.  So he had to be Elsa, actually.

At that moment, the ox-holding farmer, Volfie, noticed Denario's stare.  Denario waved to him.  Volfie grinned and waved back exactly like an ecstatic, nervous young man who had just eloped with his sweetheart.

“Crazy, isn't it?” said Vir.  He'd noticed when Denario slowed down.

“He looks very happy.”

“Elsa seems all right, too.  Her dad and her sisters think she's locked herself in the shared bedroom.  They were giving her a good talking-to through the door as we slipped out.”

Denario had to chuckle at that.

“How long do you think it'll take before they catch on?” he asked.

“Her window is about twenty feet up.  I reckon it'll take 'em a while.  We would have been faster but she had to write a note for them.  Women!”

The way he snorted, Denario thought maybe he shouldn't mention that he'd left a note too.  It has been easy.  He'd been holding a piece of parchment in his hand.  The police captain had been sitting there just three feet away thinking amphibian thoughts.

I'm innocent, Denario had written.  You know I didn't rob the stagecoach.  That was the Figgins brothers.  I was their accountant and I found that Burgher Figgins stole tax money from Baron Ankster. That's why the mayor hired bandits to rob the coach and kill me.  But I wasn't on the coach.

He'd tucked the note in the folds of the man's chain mail.  The captain would find it eventually.  Maybe he'd take it to his knight or to his baron.  Or maybe not.

“Piotr, Klaus,” Vir called.  “You two are the scouts.  You march out ahead of the cart.  Are you packed and ready?”

The two men separated themselves from the group.  They stepped toward their captain and stood up straight.  The taller one nodded.  The shorter one hitched up a leather bag over his shoulder.  He grunted in the affirmative.

“This should be fun,” Vir continued.  He strode among the men.  “If there are Raduar waiting for us, we'll handle them.  Then we'll visit the priests at the Three Gods Temple.  After all, we want to do this right.”

That got a huge grin from Volfie.  It was an infectious expression.  Most of the men smiled back.

“So, ye two,” he told the newlyweds, “keep bundled in that cart and keep her dressed like a man.  No messing around.  Hear me?”

Even at a distance, Denario could tell that the girl's eyes were wide with fear.  Or was there a hint of excitement in her expression, too?  Certainly there was a determined set to her jaw.  Even though she hadn't said a word, Denario guessed she had a pretty forceful personality.  It had to be strong enough, at least, to defy her father and run off with a bandit.

“Yes, sir!” whispered the young soldier.  Elsa nodded in silence.  “We'll stay in the ox cart.  She'll drive and I'll hold the crossbow.”

“That's my boy.”  The bandit chief patted him on the arm.  His gaze passed over the disguised girl with a sort of grudging approval.

“Are ye set on yer end, sergeant?”  He turned to Alaric but his voice was for everyone.

“All ready, sir!”  Alaric saluted.  Behind him, the remaining men straightened into a line.

“Right.  Klaus and Piotr, move out.”

One of the scouts saluted.  The other simply turned and left.  As soon as they passed through the open gates, they turned to the right.  

“Farmers, line up your cart and wait.”  The fair-haired boy scrambled aboard.  After a few false starts, his bride got the ox moving.  The vehicle bumped ahead a few paces.  Vir turned to Denario and the remaining pair.

“What fort do ye want?” he said to Alaric.

“Hah.  Forte Dred, by preference.”

The words sounded like they were meant as a joke.  Vir did not laugh.

“Our first logical meeting spot is the South East Ephart fort.  That's number fourteen.   If there are Raduar waiting for us and we look outnumbered, we'll go around.”

“They'll be there,” muttered sergeant Alaric.

“Probably,” Vir conceded.

“You need more men.”

“Ye've got to get the rest our folks out safe, Alaric.  There are a lot of reasons why it has to be ye.  The men are watching ye.  I am, too.”

“Sir.”  Alaric half bowed. 

“Ye and me are going last.”  Vir's gaze narrowed on Denario.  “Understand, accountant?”

“But I'm headed to ...”  Denario stopped himself in mid protest.  He could see by the expressions on the faces around him that those were the wrong words to say.  Watching Vir's blank expression carefully, he asked,  “Do I have a choice?”

“Time for the cart,” Vir called.  He turned his back on Denario and waved his hand.  “Go on!”

The ox snorted.  The hay cart, which had already gotten pointed in the right direction to follow the scouts, rattled onward.  Vir marched in its tracks for a dozen steps until he was through the town gates.  Then he spun smartly and continued his progress behind the cart.

The Mundredi group was headed north and west, far from the southern roads that Denario needed to take.  But as he hesitated, he felt the eyes of the other bandits on him.  They were holding their breath, waiting to see if he was a fool.

Denario hitched up his two, heavy bags on his shoulders and sighed.  He strode in Vir's giant footprints.  Behind him, he heard the remaining Mundredi pull blades from their scabbards and march off in the opposite direction.

Chapter Seven, Scene One

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Not Zen 185: The Possum Army

"Sisters, brothers, we must overthrow the bear." The opossum at the center of the gathering clambered onto a great rock. She raised her snout and her front paws.

"He takes one or two of us in most years." She leaned forward for emphasis. "That's as our mothers and grandmothers told us. But this spring, he didn't stop. This autumn, he's eaten more of us than we can count. He's killed our neighbors, friends, and strangers. How many of you have seen their pups grow to maturity?"

She turned to her left flank. Her snout swept to indicate the members of the crowd that she could see. Although she was near-sighted, she understood there were opossums in the crowd behind the range of her vision. She could smell them. She lifted her voice.

"Any?" she cried. The others knew that she had lost her litter to the bear. An account of it had made the rounds, as had many sorts of similar news this year.

The possums lived as nomads. They hiked well-established trails within their territories. They built temporary dens and leaf nests for shelter. Sometimes they used one another's dens and traded stories but that was as close as they came to being social. As a rule, they did not gather together in groups of more than four or five adults. There weren't enough snakes, slugs, and berries to eat for that. Only their dire situation with the bear had forced them into a community response. They risked going hungry every time they gathered to talk.

"We must act now, to flee or fight," she said.

"Flee," murmured a nearby female. "He digs open our dens and slays everyone inside them. He finds us in the trees. Even at night, he attacks. Lying like the dead appears to be no defense."

The opossums close to the center rose up on their hind legs to see the two speakers better. All of their kind bore fur that mixed brown, white, grey, and black hair. The female on the ground seemed to be gray and white. The one atop of the rock bore an unusual amount of brown streaks. The white around her snout and her black ears, however, seemed more dramatic.

"Individually, we are tough," the leader countered. "We all catch and eat lizards."

"I withstood a cougar," said one male, possibly just bragging.

"I fought off a fox," said another. The other males leaned closer. That seemed believable.

"Individually, we are smart," she said. She seemed to understand that the other opossums prided themselves on this. Even the female who had wanted to flee dipped her head in agreement.

"I don't just play dead," she spoke up to her cousin on the rock. "I can smell dead, too."

"Yes, but I find eggs wherever they're hidden," said another.

"I follow the squirrels and dig up their food," announced the male who had beaten back a fox. The other opossums in the circle turned to look at him. Many seemed to take note of his trick. They opened their mouths and panted in anticipation of cracked nuts. Surely, there would be a few more opossums following squirrels next fall.

"We are smaller than the bear," announced the leader. "But we are tougher."

"Right," the female below her tilted her body as she thought. "We stay awake all winter. We brave the snows while the bear hides."

"We could attack the bear while it sleeps!" a male shouted.

"Yes! Sisters and brothers, that is the way." Their leader twitched and danced on her perch. "We know the cave. The hibernation season is beginning. This is the time. Tonight at dusk, we must gather and attack."

That evening, a horde of opossums crept across a meadow to the mouth of the bear's cave. From above, an owl stared down in disbelief. The backs of the animals were visible as they parted the grass. How had they gathered into an army? They seemed to be a well organized one, too. The leader, in the middle of the pack, deployed her heaviest males to the front and to either side. The opossums, incredibly, seemed to be aware that they were advancing on the lair of their greatest predator.

Below, their leader reminded the males in front of her to claw at the bear's eyes. If they could reach them while the bear was asleep, they had a chance. Failing that, they had to drive their enemy crazy with bites and force it to flee their mountain. Let it sort out its territory problems with other bears. If even that proved impossible, their only hope was to infect the bear. The leader herself had gnawed on a decaying bird corpse in the hope of poisoning herself and the killer of her children. She felt prepared to die.

"Tell the others to block the mouth of the cave," she said to the female in front of her. The opossums communicated as they always did, relaying messages from one individual to the next. "Give the monster no escape."

The message passed down the battle lines.

At the mouth of the cave, the lead males could see the bear. The leader herself could hear it. She could smell the creature's mighty breath right down to the bits of rotten flesh in its teeth. She knew that it was time for the bear to hibernate but she feared that it had not yet settled. The opossums would not gather like this again. This was her only chance.

The males grew nervous. They hesitated to cross from the grass to the rocky shelf of the cave.

The bear huffed. He turned over in his sleep so that he faced the army of opossums. Their battle reflexes took over. For a moment, every member of the army thought of himself or herself first.

Then the bear awoke. His eyeslits parted. He gazed out from the cave. What he saw in the meadow beyond was a battlefield of opossums. That had all turned over in the grass. They appeared dead, flat on their backs, legs curled at their sides or in the air. 

The odd lay of the clumps of grass in the distance hinted to the bear that there were even more opossums that he couldn't see.

He lumbered toward them. He snuffled the closest body. How could this animal, he wondered, and how could all of them in a herd come to be poisoned or diseased? Why would they collapse together? He had lived alongside these animals for many years. He thought he knew their tricks. They didn't form groups. It took him a long time to understand what might have happened. 

"You are not a pack," the bear snorted. He nudged the closest one. It wobbled as if its limbs were locked by rigor mortis. "You are all individuals, really. You don't work together. This tactic can't apply to a whole team."

The leader among the opossums twitched her nose. With a tremendous effort, she threw off her instincts. Her force of will, powered by rage, overcame her fainting response. With a kick of her legs, she turned over. She faced her opponent.

"Today we are an army," she said.

"Oh brave possum," he replied. "Even if you trained yourself so that your body would not betray you, even if you trained all of your cousins, you would need more than this. I have met packs of wolves. I have followed the buffalo. I know that, in a team, not everyone gets to keep the honey they find. No one gets their own territory. Hardly anyone gets to spend their lives nibbling berries or singing to the trees. Most must do the work that the group needs done. So you can train mighty warriors. But until you learn to sacrifice for one another, you can't have an army."

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 37: A Bandit Accountant, 6.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Half Dozen
Scene Four: An Escape

“Is this your stable?” Yannick pointed to the dark doorway of the Hogsburg Handlers.  “Why isn't the door barred?”

“Maybe someone's keeping watch inside?” Denario ventured.

The thin man got a hitch in his step, for a moment.  Then he forced himself to continue forward.

“No help for it,” he said.  “You got the marker for your horse, I hope.”

Behind him, Denario clutched his accounting bag.  He had spent the last few minutes feeling doomed, then saved, which was followed by feeling smart, then so foolish he didn't want to look too closely at his recent memories.  If Captain Eberhardt or any of his men had recognized the accounting sigil on his bag, the Hogs-Polizei would have turned him over to Ziegeburg.  That would have been yesterday.  He'd be dead by now.

He might still get himself killed, of course, if he and Yan were caught by stray Raduar agents roaming the streets.  Denario wasn't armed.  Yan had a sword but it looked so short and light, it would probably only help them against someone who didn't know enough to pick up a stick and swing.

“We were warned not to use this stable,” whispered Yan as they came close.  The door, left ajar, looked ominous.

“Well, this was the first one I saw.”  Denario felt defensive about it.

Bright silver light shone on the buildings around the main square.  All of the windows were dark.  Denario had assumed that everyone would have woken up from the noise made by the fighting.  Maybe it had happened too far away.  Or maybe they had woken and decided to stay in their homes.  That would be smart.

He and Yan had seen no one else in the streets.

“No more talking.”  With an unsteady hand, the bow-legged bandit pulled his blade from the sheath.  As he reached the open entrance, he spun and put his back to the outer wall.  It looked professional to Denario, who knew that he knew no better.  But then Yan poked his head through to see inside and Denario half expected someone to chop it off.

After a few seconds, Yannick stepped into the stable.

“No one,” he whispered.  “There's no one here.”

His hand beckoned for company.  Denario's feet responded.

Between the left row of stalls, they proceeded in a crouch.  There were unshuttered windows high around them but the light that squeaked through was dim.  Denario started to doubt Yan's assessment that the divided barns were deserted.  Anyone could have been hiding in a corner or behind the short doors that closed the animals in their pens.  The farther they crept, though, the more Denario noticed something odd – not dangerous, necessarily, but wrong.  Three quarters of the way through the place, he was sure there was a problem.  He stopped where he was.

“No horses,” he choked.  He pointed to his own stall first, where his mare was missing.  He'd noticed other empty spots as they crept.  “There are no horses left in here at all.”

“How?”  Yannick turned around.  His mouth hung open in shock for a moment.  He licked his lips.  “The Raduar fled toward the southeast gate.  The Hogs-Polizei were in pursuit.  How could they have doubled back to do this?”

“All the mules and donkeys are here.  Not the horses.  There were at least three horses yesterday, including mine.”  Denario pointed to where a lonely burro rested its chin on the door.  But he kept walking toward the empty corner stall.  Maybe he was wrong.  Or maybe the thieves hadn't taken his saddlebags and he could recover his weapons, pots, and other heavy items, although he'd have to choose which one of them to carry.

“I can't believe it,” Yannick muttered.

Denario believed.  The closer he got, the more he knew how it was.  Part of him had expected this.  He was a stranger in town.  When he hadn't shown up the next day, the farrier had probably asked around, found out that this horse's owner was in jail, and had taken the horse for himself.

“There's no reason to hang about, then,” Yan said.

“Yes, there is.”  Denario pulled open the half-door and stepped into the stall.  For some reason, the farrier had put him in the west corner.  It was the farthest spot from the entrance.  At the time, that had annoyed Denario.  But now he was glad.

“What are you doing?”

Denario kicked aside some straw and dung.  It took him half a minute to find the loose boards.  They were about at knee height.

“This wall is hollow,” he said, as he found the one that had tipped him off in the first place.  The slat had rotted and discolored.  He tugged on it.  The nail he'd pushed into it by hand popped back out.  He caught the rusted sliver of metal and dropped it into his pocket.

This was something that maybe no one who hadn't been a slave would have done.  He hadn't liked the shifty look of the farrier so he'd hidden a bag of supplies.  He'd gotten lots of practice hiding his personal belongings when he was younger.  Even when he'd gotten to be an apprentice, he'd had to deal with Curo and the younger boys as they grew jealous or inquisitive. He was good at finding crevices, gaps behind shelves, or dusty old jars that no one ever touched and could hold his tools.

“Just a minute.”  He twisted the loose board high up on its remaining nail.  Then he reach into the wall and tugged on the board beneath.  Now he could reach his pack.  “Here we are.”

It wasn't an accounting bag but, where he was going, it might be more useful.  He'd slipped his money, except for a few coppers, into it along with most of his food.  He'd included every little tool he could fit although, unfortunately, none of the big ones.

“You're a genius!” Yannick exclaimed.

“Hah.”  He felt a little uncomfortable with the praise.  But he gladly hitched the strap over his shoulder.  “Now we can go.”

“We'll be early to the west gate.”

As they reached the door to the stable, Yannick froze.  So did Denario.  They could both hear faint, distant footsteps outside.

They footfalls came quickly, like there were several pairs of heavy boots involved, someone chasing someone else.  In the empty streets, the noises echoed everywhere.  It was hard to tell if the men were coming closer or getting farther away. Yannick peered out carefully and Denario knelt to sneak a look, too.  He saw no one.  In a few seconds, the footsteps and the echoes faded.

“Right, then,” whispered Yannick.

The taller man led them down an alley to their right.  That alley connected to a wider street, on which they could see several lamps that had been lit in second story windows. They strolled through the lighted area into another dark passageway.

Yannick stumbled once in the relative blackness before they came open another wide street.  This one not only held lit windows but music, too.  A tavern sprouted up in their field of view.  A few men stood outside of its front door with flagons in hand.  They had a lady with them.  Her laughter carried a long way.  As a group, they seemed unaffected by the bandits roaming their streets.

At this point, Denario realized, he was one of the bandits.  And he wouldn't have been scared by the sight of him either.

“Nice place but we can't stop in.”  Yannick sheathed his short sword.  He led them toward the revelry.  “Not this time.”

“Do we have to go past all those folks?” Denario hissed.

“Just beyond the Hog's Head tavern is the west gate.”  Yan gestured with his empty hand.

As the voices of the singers and the strains of the ukeleles and drums grew loud, a pedestrian opened the gate of the tavern yard.  His dog hopped out.  He followed it.  Then he turned left with his dog leading the way.  He looked like an old, bent fellow in robes but he was headed toward them and he took up almost the entire road with his unsteady walk.

Yannick put a hand to the hilt of his sword.  Denario took a second look at the white-haired animal that he'd assumed was a large poodle.  As it stepped into the light of another window, he recognized it.

“Goat!” he exclaimed.

“Math teacher?”  The goat stopped moving, only two yards away, and dipped its head.  It peered up at Denario through suspicious eyes.

“Oh.  Oh, really?”  The robed figure stopped a few seconds later.  Suddenly, what had appeared to be an old man in robes leaning on a stick was now, quite obviously, a younger man weaving drunkenly with his staff.  He had dark eyes that glowed in the lamplight.  “Is this the fellow who sent and got a message, then?”

“What's going on?” asked Yan.  He glanced from the goat to the wizard to Denario.

“That's the one,” muttered the goat.  “Not the one with bad teeth.  The other one, the boy.”

The wizard started patting his robes.  The material he wore looked like heavy silk.  It was covered by eldritch patterns of stars, comets, and crescent moons, all of them yellow on a purple background.  This fellow looked like he lived a class above Tremelo the Magnificent in the magical hierarchy.  He couldn't find the right pocket, though.  He had too many.

After a few seconds, the wizard exclaimed 'Aha!' and pulled out a wad of cloth.  He unfolded it into a pointed hat, muttered a magical word, and let it float up into the air to settle on his head.

“It's in your left bottom side pocket,” sighed the goat.

“What is?” said the wizard.

“The note.  You started out looking for the note to give to the math teacher here.”

“I did?”  The wizard blinked.  “Oh yes!  I did!  You're quite right, Mack.  Now, let's see ...”

He patted his robes again to the accompaniment of the goat, who urged him, 'Left, left,' a few times before saying, “The other left,” followed by an exasperated noise that an animal shouldn't make.  The sound shook the goat's wispy, white beard.

“Aha!”  Markar found the correct pocket.  He yanked out something from it and held it high.  It was a folded slip of paper.  He waved it.

“What's that?” asked Denario.

“You have a reply from the sorceress.”

“Sorceress?  What sorceress?”  He reached out for the envelope but he felt nagged by suspicion.  “I sent a message to Tremelo the Magnificent.”

“He didn't reply.”  The wizard hiccuped.  Instead of handing the envelope to Denario, he covered his mouth with the folded paper.  He belched loudly before he continued, “Only a moment after I finished the Message spell, you got a return Send from a woman named Pecunia.  Her bank wizard referred to her as the town sorceress.”

“Oh.”  Everyone in Ziegeburg assumed that about Pecunia, apparently, even folks who should have known better.  “Thanks.  Say, you must be the Amazing Markar.  It's very good to meet you at last.”

Denario stuck out his hand.

“Oh, yes.  Right.”  The wizard eyed Denario's hand uncertainly.  Then he came to some sort of decision and nodded as if remembering what he was supposed to do.  He put the paper into his staff hand, steadied himself, and shook.  Up close, he smelled like whiskey would if it could spoil.

“What do I owe you?” asked Denario.  “Or did Pecunia pay?”

“Well ...”  The Amazing Markar hesitated.  Denario could tell he'd said the wrong thing.  Fortunately, the goat intervened.

“She paid,” said Mack.  “But hold on there, math teacher.  Weren't you in jail?”

“And weren't we just leaving town?” whispered Yannick into Denario's ear.

“Well, yes,” Denario answered both of them.  “I probably shouldn't linger.”

“Sure you can't stay for one drink?”  Oddly, Markar hadn't let go of Denario's hand.  Or rather, he had started to disengage, wobbled backwards, and grabbed on tightly again.  His grip hurt Denario's fingers.  “Or we could get a different drink, different from the first.”

“He drinks to forget,” grumbled the goat.  “And sure enough, he forgets how many drinks he'd had.”

“The police captain ...” Denario began.

“The new one?”  The wizard's voice rose to a shout.

“Um, yes.”

“That stuck up bastard.  He wouldn't let Mack into the guard house.  Then he wouldn't let me in, either.  Me!”  The wizard let out a belch.  His eyes widened as if this one had surprised him.  But then he remembered what he was talking about and scowled.  “I should have turned him into a frog.”

“That never works,” said the goat.

“I can do it.  I can.  I just don't.”  Markar stood up proud and straight.  “Anyway, anyway ... what was I going to say?”

“The note.  You were going to give him the note.”

“Oh, yes.  That's right.”  He fumbled in his pocket.  Then he remembered that he'd tucked it between the fingers of his staff hand.  “Aha.  This is yours, my good chap.”

“Thank you, Markar.”  Denario bowed his head as he accepted the sealed letter.  In the silver light and shadows, however, he couldn't tell if it was on pink paper or blue.  “I didn't think about sending a note to my fiance.  I suppose I should have.”

“She's ... do you mean the sorceress?”  Markar inched backward, agog.  He started patting himself down again.

“We don't have time for this,” said Yannick.  He put a hand on Denario's shoulder.

“Don't be rude, man!” shouted the wizard.  “Aha!”


“A scrap of parchment.  Of course ...”

“Aha!” shouted a totally different voice.

Everyone turned to see who it was.  But even before he spun around, Denario knew.  That roar had come from the barrel chest of Captain Frederich Eberhardt.  Somehow, the Hogz-Polizei had caught up with them.

“What luck!” The policeman approached from the other side of the street.  There was no one behind him, oddly enough.  Maybe he'd outrun his fellow police officers.  “I've been chasing bandits every which way.  Now I find the math teacher.  And I didn't even know you were missing!”

His sword made a metallic grinding sound as he pulled it from his scabbard.  Denario was afraid that the man was preparing to kill him.  But the captain didn't seem to be in a hurry.  If anything, his expression was curious.  He had that look of pleasant exhaustion that some men get, although Denario had never felt it himself.  A bead of sweat ran down the side of the captain's face.  A link of chain mail had gotten twisted, somehow, above his left shoulder.  But he didn't look hurt.

Denario stared at the kink in the armor and wondered how that had happened.  Surely, any blow strong enough to bend metal would have injured the captain.  Yet he seemed unharmed.  Would a spear have done that if it caught part of the mail, lifted it, and twisted?  Would a crossbow bolt that missed – or didn't completely miss – do that?  Something had bent the rings without breaking the man inside.

When the captain stepped close, Yannick started to draw his sword.  Eberhardt responded in a blink.  It was the kind of acceleration that must have served him well on the battlefield with Sir Mekli's troops.

The captain could have cut Yan in half.  Instead, he punched with his weak hand.  At least, Denario assumed it was his weak hand.  Certainly it must have been a punch, although it snapped out and back so fast that Denario barely saw it.  The skinny bandit's head popped backwards.  A tooth flew into the air.  The man and the tooth hit the cobblestones at about the same time.

“How brutish!”  The Amazing Markar wobbled.  His eyes bulged with outrage.  He wasn't the slightest bit afraid, although his goat, Mack, had immediately hidden behind him.  The animal crouched low and gave the policeman a wary eye.

“You stay out of the way, old man.”  Eberhardt kept his eyes on Denario.  He apparently hadn't recognized the wizard.

“Well, I never!”  Markar took half a step.  That's all the distance he got before the captain popped forward to give him a push.  The wizard stumbled.  He had to grab his pointy hat to keep it from falling.

Eberhardt kept his distance from Denario as if he regarded the accountant as dangerous.  It was almost funny.

“How did you get here, math teacher?”

The captain hadn't returned to his jail.  There hadn't been enough time.  So he hadn't learned about the escape until this very moment.  He couldn't guess who had helped or how many men had left his cells.  He might even still suspect that Denario was a Mundredi bandit or a stagecoach robber.  Why wouldn't he?  His suspicions were almost impossible to disprove.

Then the wizard's hat fell to the ground.

Denario hardly glanced at it.  The Amazing Markar had been staggering even before he'd been pushed, so it was no surprise.  Captain Eberhardt, ever professional, didn't let his gaze slip from Denario for an instant.  What happened next caught them both off guard.

The wizard let out a roar of anguish.  He pounded his staff and stamped his foot against the ground.  The entire street went quiet.  The distant music stopped.  Even the rats stopped scurrying through the bracken on the other side of the gate.

“Right, then,” Markar said in the stillness.  “I've had enough.”

The captain finally realized who the old man in robes actually was.  His gaze flicked down to the hat on the ground.  The stars, moons, and comets embroidered onto it confirmed the wizard's identity.  Eberhardt stared at Markar for a second as the wizard muttered his spell.  Then he leaped forward to stop him from finishing it.

“You're a frog!” shouted Markar.  He thrust his finger in the captain's face.

The captain started to grab the wizard's finger as if he were going to break it off.  Markar's face contorted with pain.  But a moment later, he sighed in relief.  Eberhardt's thick fingers changed shape.  His skin turned green.  He began to shrink.  In a few seconds, the spell was done.

“That's it?” Denario said as he surveyed the result.  “I mean, he does look a bit green but he's as big as your goat.  And he's dressed in armor.”

“So long as he thinks he's a frog.”  The wizard tucked his staff under one arm.  He rubbed his hands together as he looked down on the policeman.  “That's the important thing.”

“Ribbit,” said Eberhardt.  It wasn't a noise that he made in imitation of a frog, either.  It was a word.  He crouched on his hands and toes like a bad actor in a child's play.

“That's amazing.”  Denario suddenly realized he had nothing to complain about.  Markar had probably saved his life.  Besides, he was standing next to a wizard who could make him think he was a frog, even if he couldn't actually turn him into one.  “How long will the spell last?”

“A few minutes?  An hour?”  Markar shrugged.  “Hard to say.”

The captain, who definitely looked pale green even in bad light, stared downward.  His sword lay in front of him.  In his current state, however, he seemed unable to comprehend what he might do with it.

“Ribbit?” he said.  He gazed up at the Amazing Markar.

“Thank you.  That was wonderful.”  Denario turned to the wizard and bowed his head.  That's when he noticed the goat, Mack.

“You were helpful, too,” he told the goat.

“Hmph,” Mack replied.  The goat stepped away from his master.  “We got lucky.  A second slower and we'd be three buckets of bruises.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” echoed the wizard.  He levitated his hat back onto his head.  Denario wasn't sure if Markar was too lazy to stoop to pick it up, too proud, or just too drunk.  “That was the best I could do on short notice.  What did he want, anyway?  Is this about whatever you took from Tremelo?”

“It's ... no, not exactly but it's related.” Denario shuddered at the prospect of explaining his true situation.  The best thing he could think to do was move on to a more hopeful subject.  “I don't have money for a Send, of course.  But do you think Tremelo would pay you to return his darts?”

“Nope.  He hasn't got the money.”  The wizard laughed.  He resumed walking toward his house but bumped into the unconscious body of Yannick.  “Oops.  Oh yes.  You see, I charge two hundred gold to do a Sending of any accuracy.  But even then, the problem is ...”

“He can't do a Sending,” muttered the goat.

“Not with any accuracy,” the wizard explained.  “How about another Message?  That's what I'm best at.”

“Just for curiosity's sake ... assuming I got the money somehow and I can't think how I would ... how accurately can you Send?  Within a few feet, maybe?”

“Could be.  Or a few miles.”

“Miles?”  Denario's jaw dropped.  That wasn't a professional Sending at all.

“Miles or years, to be honest.”  Markar folded his arms as he began to pontificate.  The action seemed to have sobered him a bit.  “I've developed a bit of a temporal slice to my shot.  Always had it, really, since I was nine and made my first pass.  Back then, I'd get the object across the room within a few minutes.  It was a little embarrassing, of course, when the object I was supposed to Send popped into existence a little while before I made the effort.  But as my professor said, at least I knew I was going to succeed.  To an extent.”

“Years?  Really?”

“When I've stoked up on a lot of stored magic, I can Send reasonably far.  But my accuracy suffers.  It's still quite good on a cosmic scale, though.”

“What scale is that?”

“I mean, most of the things I Send end up circling the same star.  As far as I can tell.”

Denario paused.  He glanced up at the sky.  He thought about measuring things from tiny distances to great divides.  He wondered how many continents made up the world, how many world travels it might take to reach the sun, and whether or not the stars in the night sky were actually other suns as the wizards claimed.

“I think I'd better concentrate on the local scale.”  He prodded the unconscious Yannick with his toe.  With a sigh, he asked, “Do you think you could help me move my friend?”

Chapter Six, Scene Five

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Not Zen 184: Misleading Smiles

Food to homeless veterans, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
A young noblewoman left home with a few attendants and armed guards. Her family sent her in black linens, embroidered in gold, to marry the king of a neighboring country. 

She found that her new home was a castle inside a fort atop an arid hill. After the marriage, her attendants left her. Alone at her bedroom window, she looked out over the smaller hills, brick houses, wooden huts, acres of dry scrub, sparse flocks of sheep, and pale fields of barley. The king held a lavish party for her, then another and another. They were all widely attended by the citizens of her town. But the queen, friendless in a strange place, grew depressed. She tried to imitate those around her who seemed happy. Those were the dancers, the drunkards, and the revelers. She forced herself to laugh. She drank. She danced. None of it helped.

She asked one of the king's advisors to go out among the people of the kingdom.

"Discover how it is that I, who have so many riches, can be unhappy," she said. "Find out why others seem pleased with themselves or merry. How does anyone have a good life? I want to know."

"My queen, this is a sensible aim." The counselor was young for his post, having inherited his noble title from his father. "I will talk to the people in your court, in your city, and in your countryside. Next week at this time, I will return and tell you who is happy, who is not, and I will endeavour to understand why."

In a week and a day, he returned to the court. He sat himself on a comfortable stool below the queen, who occupied the outer chambers of her suite. She reclined on a chair of pillows that sat atop a thick layer of rugs and blankets.

"Madam, I've talked to the revelers at your parties." He clasped his knees and shook his head. "I'm sorry to report it but none of them seemed happy with their lot in life. Indeed, although they all came to celebrate your marriage, many of them were bitter to have a foreign queen."

"You are making me even sadder." The young woman put her head in her hands.

"Don't feel too bad." He rubbed his moustache. "The outwardly blissful gentlemen and ladies of the court often hide spite and melancholy. They do not seem to like themselves much, nor one another, and as a general rule they envy those who they feel are having more fun than they are."

"But the dancers are different," she asserted. She sat up straighter. "They show great joy. They smile."

"Yes, I've spoken with several dancers. You've been forcing them to teach you." The advisor sighed. "You have frustrated them by making them pretend to be happy. One of the poor girls goes to bed crying each night out of fear that she might displease the queen."

"That's horrible."

"She's really a very good girl. She tries hard. Please, let her show her sorrows if she feels the need."

"I know who that is." The queen hopped up from her pillows and rushed from the room. In the hall, she called for the dancers and plucked one from the group. She led the girl by the hand over to the advisor.

"Yes." The advisor bowed his head with a wary look.

"I'm so sorry," the queen said to her dancer. She hugged the girl and began to cry. Soon, they were both crying.

In a few minutes, they calmed themselves. The queen kept a grip on her friend's hand.

"Is no one in this world happy?" she wailed.

"I found one person," replied the counselor. "The chance meeting happened two nights ago. I checked on him in the following morning, to be sure, and during his midday meal because I could not believe it. He seemed reasonably happy each time. But he is a slave, a miner."

"Why would a slave be happy?"

"Your mine works him to death. Yet he seemed so at peace with himself that I couldn't pass him by. It wasn't my plan to visit a miner. After all, he was tired, dirty, and solemn."

The queen glanced out her window for a moment in case she could see the mine. It was hidden by the hillsides, it seemed. Her dancer friend followed her gaze.

"I thought you said he was happy," said the dancer.

"This man is at peace. I tried to convince him that he wasn't." The queen's man stood and threw up his arms. "I told him, 'The mine is dangerous. The stones fall in. The shafts are narrow. The digging is hard. Any relief from it that you feel must be an illusion.'"

The young women laughed at him. The queen nodded for him to continue.

"So he told me, 'Each night I go home to my wife and children. It's to their benefit that I work.'"

"I replied, 'I have met men with families who feel differently.'"

His audience nodded.

"'At the end of each day, I haul out ore,' he told me. 'I take it to the smelter. I watch it. It glows. Through it, I see the part I play in a great task.'" 

At this, the dancer walked to the window off of the queen's outer chamber. She stared over the fields at a distant hill. A road ran around the hill, so the queen guessed this was where the man must work. 

"I asked, 'Do you search for happiness in that great task?'" He stretched his arms as if to encompass something large. Then he dropped them to his sides. "'Why would I search?' the miner replied. 'Happiness is not given to the likes of me. So I can say that I've never thought look for it. I'm satisfied by what little good I can do in the world.'"

The queen studied the hill and the pale, dusty road around it. After a moment, the counselor joined her. Together with the dancer, they looked out over the kingdom.

"What does that mean for me?" asked the queen. "I am not a slave."

"Madam." The young man bowed. "I ask you, do not imitate the dancers. Do not imitate the revelers. Do not imitate the drunkards. You've mistaken their shows of joy for the real thing. Bliss is quieter. But you have no need to imitate the miner, either, except perhaps in one thing."

"Work? Children?" She put her hands on her hips. Bearing children was her foremost duty, she knew.

The counselor shook his head.

"That is for you to decide, perhaps. The only people who I have known to be happy are those who do things with a purpose."

"What purpose?"

"It changes. I think it can be almost anything." The counselor turned away from the window. He strolled back to his stool. The queen and dancer followed. "The mining slave reminded me of other people I've met, a handful of them, who are at peace with their lives. They all have a calling, a purpose larger than their selfish interests. In following their calling, each one of them looks back at the end of the day and says, 'I strove toward a good purpose.'"

The queen sat. The counselor remained standing, hands clasped behind his back. His gaze lifted to the window and the distant hill.

"For them," he continued, "and perhaps for anyone, that is enough."