Sunday, November 26, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 100: A Bandit Accountant, 16.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene Four: Still Wanted 

Half a mile into their march to Frühlingburg, Hermann Ansel began to stomp. It was as if he'd come back to life. His grey-faced, deadly pallor lifted. His limbs moved with constrained anger.

“He belongs to Baron Ankster, that lieutenant.” Stomp, stomp, stomp. The peasant plodded onward for another hundred yards. Denario had time to wonder where the man's mind was traveling. “He's one of Fettyrtyr's men now.”

“He's a mercenary,” Denario pointed out. “Dvishvili thinks there's a difference. The barons think so, too, even if you and I might not care. The barons aren't liable to the families of mercenaries the way they are to sworn subjects. But yes, the lieutenant is helping your knight patrol these lands.”

“We should have killed him like we should kill Fettertyr.”

“There were eight of them.” Denario gasped at the enormity of the failure to understand. “That's not how the battle would have ended, Hermann.”

For a few seconds, Herr Ansel's face turned dark red. The man trembled. His hand fell to his sword. It remained there and it made Denario wonder. Would he be struck down at any second by his own guide? He waited. After they traveled about another hundred yards, Hermann's hand fell away from the pommel.

“Maybe not,” the man breathed. “But it should have. It should.”

“Career soldiers like the lieutenant are a danger. But they're only a danger when they're being paid by Baron Ankster. If you could afford mercenaries, you could hire someone like Dvishvili yourself.”

“Really? He'd switch to us, that fancy officer?”

“It might not be as simple as offering a wage. For Lieutenant Dvishvili to switch to your side, he'd need to feel you were going to win. But believe me, Dvishvili and a lot of the low-level officers and even the enlisted men in the army aren't committed to killing the Mundredi in the way the nobles are. They're just trying to make a living.”

“A living. You mean the soldiers don't do anything else? They don't farm? They don't hunt?”

“No. They're not farmers or clock makers or anything else while they're soldiers. It's like with Vir's men but for much longer. The Oggli soldiers stay in the army for twenty years, some of them. When they make enough money or they get wounded, they might need to find a different profession. But while they're in the army, all they do is train and fight.”

“They must be great fighters, then.”

"Among the best that money can buy, I believe.”

Valentina snorted. It took her husband a few more seconds to catch the accountant's meaning. But he did. His eyes glinted. His jaw jutted out.

“We fight, too, most of our lives,” he muttered. “And we're loyal. We can't be bought. We're not so bad.”

“I think the Mundredi and Raduar fight more than any people I've known. If it came down to bravery, not numbers or equipment, you wouldn't be in danger from the nobles.”

Hermann grunted. His face twisted as he tried to digest the thought.

“Back there ...” Valentina hesitated. “In the graveyard, back there, it was brave of you to cast that spell. I should take back all the bad things I said about accountants.”

It was Denario's turn to think for a moment.

“You never said anything particularly bad,” he ventured.

“Then I take back the bad things I thought. I had no idea that someone could lie with numbers. I suppose it should have occurred to me but I've not seen many numbers written down. And then there's the idea that you could detect a lie with numbers. That's almost useful.”

“Thank you.” Denario tried to keep the sarcasm from his voice without much success.

“I already knew the maps might be useful. I'm rather disappointed.” Valentina strode a little closer, just a pace or two behind the men. She touched her lip with a finger. “I mean that I'm disappointed the army men understood them. I thought maps were more of a secret than that.”

“They're common among the educated classes in Oggli,” said Denario. Around the coast of the Complacent Sea, in fact, maps were the most popular sort of publications written. There was even a subscription for wealthy navigators, captains, merchants, and wizards called Magical Islands Monthly. It tracked the latest changes in geography around the sea. It was worth reading simply for the outraged letters to the editor that cast blame on wizards, witches, pirates, and underwater kingdoms for the inconvenient transformations. Coastlines changed constantly everywhere around the Complacent Sea. The editor printed at least one entertaining complaint each month.

“You didn't tell us that you were taking maps to Oggli.” Hermann didn't sound as full to the brim with anger as he'd been but he seemed to be making an accusation. Denario needed to set the matter right.

“That's because I'm not. We were lying, remember? I've been planning to update the guild library, it's true, but I would never take my maps to Marquis de Oggli. I wouldn't even do it for a reward. You'd have to meet the marquis to know why. I wouldn't want my maps put to military use, not by him or his soldiers.”

"But you're fine about sending them to Vir," Valentina pointed out.

“That's different." Was it? He'd never questioned it before. He glanced from wife to husband. “Vir needs these. He didn't ask. He's not paying me. I know he needs maps. Anyway, I've told you my intentions. Do you doubt me?”

“Well ...” Hermann slowed his gait. Really, when he wasn't insane over the loss of his daughters, he was a mild fellow. “I suppose not.”

“Then you'll swear to it, won't you?” Valentina nagged from behind them. “If those are your intentions, it should be no problem.”

“Yes, that sounds good.” Hermann agreed.

“Damn it!” Denario felt insulted. But he'd known that Valentina never gave up. She was still trying for some sort of advantage. “Again? Well, maybe I will. But if I do, you'll have to swear to something, too.”

“Fine.” Hermann would have sworn to anything, probably. “In Frühlingburg? We're making good time. If we don't stop of at Einferd Wad, we should be there tomorrow morning.”

“You mean you want to swear at a church?” Denario didn't even want to talk about Einferd Wad. He wasn't sure the lieutenant's note would protect him there.

“Of course. They're not completely foreign. They worship Tannus there.”

“Right. You too, Valentina?” Denario said. He glanced over his shoulder at Hermann's wife. He'd meant it as a statement but somehow seeing her impassive face had turned it into a question.

“What do you want me to swear to, accountant?” she asked.

“I don't know. I'll think of something.”

She chuckled but not in a mean way. At least she didn't outright refuse.

“You sent maps to Vir but your loyalty is still to your home city of Oggli,” she added by way of an explanation. “It's not unreasonable to ask you to swear.”

“Aye, you're not loyal to a clan.” Her husband gave Denario a slow, mournful look.

“Yes, I am.” Denario thought fast. What would these folks understand of loyalty to friends in a city? “My clan is my guild. Or maybe it's my accounting practice. There are only six people in the practice now aside from me. There's my partner Curo, then there's Kroner, Buck, Shekel, Guilder, and Mark.”

“That's your house, then. A clan is many houses. Your clan would be your whole guild at the least.”

“Right. Well, Vir said that the senior members of my guild tried to take advantage of me. And he's right. I think they tried to get me killed.”

"So now you're loyal to your house and nothing more?”

“If saying that helps you to understand me, yes.”

“Not to your marquis?”

“He's not loyal to me, so no.” As he said it, he paused. Those words were nearly treason back home. Denario had met John de Nack, the current marquis, any number of times. He was a tall, pompous man. His hair was blonde and his shoulders were as strong as his father's had been. He kept his beard trim but let his mustache grow huge and floppy. He wore perfume and fine clothes. He expected everyone to bow to his every whim. Everyone did.

John was good-looking and charismatic in his selfish way. He had grown into a talented swordsman and had become a lot of other things, too, that Denario wasn't but wished he was. But in the end, John de Nack was so openly self-serving that Denario had come to despise him regardless of the admirable stuff.

Going beyond his usual, venal manner, the marquis had killed one of his civil engineers in a tantrum. He'd slit an unarmed man's throat because the engineer had dared to tell him that building a bridge the way the marquis wanted it would cost too much money. Later, he'd sacked his treasury room staff because they'd reported, as required, the real account numbers. So Denario bowed to the marquis and he did the marquis' work but he never forgot. It was impossible to give fealty, even measly-journeyman-accountant fealty, to someone who didn't value it. The marquis was loyal to no one but himself. So Denario guessed that almost no one in his court could be completely loyal to him.

“And to Vir.” Valentina stepped closer, almost between the two men. “You must be faithful to Vir. After all, he had enough faith in you to give you that coin.”

The men slowed down further to contemplate the idea.

“He was a fool to give me anything.” Denario felt he had to say it. Vir was a killer, a brute, and superstitious farmer all at once. And he was more than that. He was rudely honest, unfearing, and an inspiring leader in a terror-inducing sort of way. He was loyal to his troops all the time, every second of every day of the rest of his life, however brief that might be. Despite what local women said, he was not good looking. He was the opposite of the marquis in every way. “We did save each other's lives, I suppose. But ...”

“But you don't think he can win.” Valentina was smiling. She loved a fight and she wanted to start one now just for the sake of the conflict. He knew that if he'd been praising Vir, she'd have found a way to criticize him instead.

“He's got one hundred men against six hundred Raduar.” Denario couldn't seem make the Mundredi believe the numbers. Of all the people Denario had known, Vir deserved loyalty as much as anyone but Master Winkel. Nevertheless, those were the numbers. “Valentina, that's what he's guessing he needs to face in his first major battle. That sounds hard and it's probably harder than it sounds. He thinks there are two Raduar armies. If a miracle occurs twice and he wins through those, he's got to go against Ogglian forces numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands, all of them equipped with steel and with horses.”

“We can get horses, too, if we want them.” Valentina stuck out her jaw. It was a gesture that her husband used, too, and Denario was struck by how similar they were. Maybe that was why they didn't seem to get along.

“Hundreds of them? I doubt it. And Vir has got brass swords,” Denario continued. “He's got brass spear tips. He fights on foot. It's crazy to go up against plate steel and cavalry like that. So to top it off, he gives me the only proof of his royal heritage.”

“Well, what good was it doing him?”

Denario took a deep breath. “Not much, that's true.”

“Maybe … maybe this is why the goddess wanted us to travel with you. We've kept you safe. You've kept us safe. And we can make you see why you should be loyal.”

“I am loyal. I'm going to save my accounting practice and everyone in it.”

“So you swore. But aren't you faithful to Vir even a little?”

“He's a fool.”

“That's not answering the question. I've been loyal to fools all my life.”

Denario decided not to look at Hermann.

“Valentina,” he began, “even most of the Mundredi don't really follow Vir. In the valleys, they've never given much tax power to the chieftains. Outside the valleys, some of your folks don't even consider him their leader. They think of him as a bandit.”

“We'll settle those people,” grumbled Hermann.

The road to Frühlingburg crested a hill and turned. Ahead, Denario could see lush, cultivated fields. He couldn't make out the type of crops from this distance and for that matter, he'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between celery and cabbage. The important thing was seeing the farms at all. Surely the presence of plowed and planted lands meant they were coming close to a town.

Around the bend, there was an better sign. Off the side of the road to the left on a boulder exposed by erosion sat a covered gazebo. It served as an outdoor temple of some sort. Its roof looked expensive, not covered by thatch but by wooden tiles, some of them carved with icons. The posts of the shelter had been chiseled with the local clan signs. Denario recognized a plow and a double-sickle. On either side of the steps leading into the shelter were totem poles for the local deities.

"This is the harvest god shelter,” explained Valentina. “I've been here before. Hermann must have passed by it three or four times himself. We're only three miles from Frühlingburg.”

“Do the totems mark the border?”

“Of a sort, yes. The territory of Eleus begins here. Worshipers of Haphrometer drop off their god-tokens, sometimes, and pick up the tokens of Eleus as they head into Frühlingburg. Travelers from Frühlingburg toward South Ackerland do the same. Or they did, once. I expect there are no tokens left.”

“Isn't that cheating?” asked Denario although he didn't disapprove. “You're currying favor with the local harvest deities going both ways. Won't they mind?”

“Not so long as it's sincere.”

They continued down the slope beside the temple. There was obviously no one in it and no good reason to stop for a visit but Denario felt regretful about passing it by. He wouldn't have minded a moment of prayer to such understanding gods. Besides, he could have had a few minutes to tell them about accounting. As he slowed down to mention that he'd like to see the temple, he noticed that Hermann had already stopped.

The Mundredi man turned back and met his wife. He muttered something to her. She shrugged in reply.

“That could be another wanted poster of Vir up there by the totem,” said Hermann as he turned to explain to Denario.

“You mean a picture of him as a bandit?” Denario shaded his eyes from the late afternoon sun. He could see that someone had posted a scrap of parchment to one of the uncarved beams of the gazebo. Whoever had done it had possessed enough sense to avoid covering a god mark or clan mark. That might mean a Mundredi priest had put it up or it could have been an Ogglian subject with an earnest desire to avoid provoking fights.

“I'm going to take it down.” Hermann didn't wait for anyone to reply. He spun and headed across the slope and up toward the temple stairs. The path to the harvest god site was inlaid with crude stones, shiny, gold-colored shale made dull with dirt and constant wear. The last few yards of the path led to steps cut into a small rise. The steps were paved with the same shale.

“Someone may see you!” Valentina exclaimed. Her arms fluttered. She walked after him for a yard or two. But she stopped at the edge of the road that her husband had left. Anyway, Denario knew that if Hermann hadn't offered, she would have wanted to take it down herself. It was just they way they were. “Anyone could be watching you from the south, you know.”

“So what?” he called.

“Hmph.” Valentina raised her chin in his direction. She folded her arms and waited.

Hermann trudged along the path about forty yards before he reached the temple stairs. He was getting good at plodding heavily, in a temper, for long distances. Denario wondered if the man was hurting his feet. The winter had been so hard on him that he didn't fill out his clothes correctly. That included his loose boots.

When the Mundredi came to the top of the short staircase, he stopped to make a holy sign. Whether it was to Tannus or to Eleus or some other local deity, Denario didn't know. The gesture ended when he dipped his right knee to kneel on the top step. After that, Hermann rose and ambled into the open-air temple. He touched a few holy signs and a clan sign, too, paying his respects. He didn't seem to be in a hurry to grab the parchment. Eventually, he came to it. He reached for for the top of the page and stopped.

His fingers made contact. He pulled back. Denario knew something was wrong. Maybe the magic of the image was tainted. Maybe the poster had been hung with a curse on it to prevent anyone from removing it. Either one of those could happen. All the way out here, though, Denario realized they had to be unlikely. Magic was expensive. Tracings from a magical portrait were cheap. From a distance, this one looked like a tracing if only from the thin, ragged edges of the parchment. It didn't make sense for anyone, even a baron, to pay for truly magical images. If they did, they wouldn't put them on sub-standard parchment.

Hermann trembled. Denario could see him building up his nerve. He touched the nails as if he expected them to burn him. When they didn't, he grabbed them hard. He sawed them back and forth bare-handed until they came out, first one, then the other. Denario knew he could never have done that himself. His grip wasn't strong enough and his fingers would have been torn to bleeding.

As if in a daze, Hermann held the parchment high. Then he folded it over. His boots clumped down the temple stairs. He failed to make god-signs as he left.

When got within a few yards from the accountant, Denario could see tears in the man's eyes. But he had a smile on his face. It was such an odd expression, sadness and light, that Denario couldn't tell if the man was crying or laughing. He kept unfolding and refolding the parchment. At last he came to the space between his wife and the accountant.

“Look,” he said. He unfolded it again although he held it the wrong way around. The page faced Hermann. “It's another magic picture.”

“We've seen it before,” said his wife. She didn't even try to look. “'Wanted for Banditry,' right?”

“Oh, I think it says 'Bandit' just fine.” Hermann was definitely laughing. His lungs made a quiet, tittering noise. “That's the letters up at the top. But you haven't seen this picture before, I think.”

Hermann turned the parchment around.

“Look, accountant! Without the beard and without the scar on your head, you look like a boy.”

Denario gawked at the image. It was him as he'd appeared six weeks ago in Ziegeburg. Some wizard, probably the one at the bank, had been able to provide a magical portrait to the authorities. In this particular view, the teenaged accountant wore his guild cap with gold brocade. His jaw was shaven. His accounting vest was visible. His gaze looked happy and slightly vacant. His hair rested, dark and beautifully combed, on his shoulders. Denario wished he had that hair now. He'd had to cut it and cut it again because it kept getting tangled. In comparison to the portrait, he looked like a mess.

Above his younger face, the poster said, “WANTED FOR BANDITRY.” Below, it read, “ALIVE OR DEAD” and in slightly smaller letters, “PREFERRED DEAD.”

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene One

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Not Zen 193: Anxious to Perform

Auditions made her sweat. But she wanted to keep acting, so she kept going.

She trembled so much during one casting call that the director marked her feedback card as ‘disability.’ A week later, a different director told her she'd never get a part on television. In the months after, camera crews complained that she was glistening. Nevertheless, after a year of auditions, she managed to land a role as a police detective in a spin-off of a successful crime drama.

It was the sort of production she'd looked down upon early in her stage career. The crime show was full of cliches. But it was full of those cliches with her, a woman, as part of a police force. She tried her best. During the work on the first two episodes, she surprised herself by finding some depth and strength to her character.

For the third episode, she was told she would need to break through a door. She studied the director to see if he was serious. He was. The announcement, coupled with her initial read-through of the script, triggered her anxiety again.

"There's a holiday coming up," the director said after the read-through. "The union says that some of our crew have to have a break. We've decided that everyone will get five days. Sound, stage, and lights crew will meet here next Monday. Cast and makeup report on Tuesday."

Everyone clapped except for her. A break was the last thing she wanted. Her gaze drifted to the nearest door. She knew that the time to think about her stunt would make her performance worse. Even before she walked off the set, she started to think about all of the ways her scene could go wrong.

That evening, she went home and practiced on her apartment door. It was impossible. The wood was solid. It would never break. She tried to be quiet about testing it so her neighbors wouldn't complain but as she tried it over and over, she hurt her shoulder. Now, she realized, she had an injury on top of her impossible stunt on Tuesday.

For the next couple of days, she decided to limit herself to working out at the gym. She focused on not creating more trauma for her left shoulder. Part of her hoped she could make the rest of her body stronger. At the gym, she found a hollow, interior door. She practiced bumping it with her other shoulder, her right one, but she bruised herself. As she struggled to practice without making things worse, she avoided both shoulders and bumped her head. As a result of that, she gave herself a bruise that a makeup artist would have to cover.

She observed her own compulsions about the stunt and wondered if she were mentally ill. But she couldn't stop thinking about it and the ways it would get her fired. Eventually, she realized that she couldn't practice any more.

She devoted the last day of her break to memorizing the script. By the end of a late lunch, she'd memorized her own part and everyone else's.

That night, she tried to sleep. She's only gotten an hour the night before. She knew it was important to get the right rest. Still, her body wouldn't relax. She resorted to doing another workout to build up her strength and expend her nervous energy.

In the morning, she asked her makeup artist if there were anything unusual today for the stunts.

"What stunt are you doing?"

"Just breaking down a door."

"Sometimes there's a special request from the director. Not this time, though. You aren't supposed to get bloody or anything."

"Good." It was reassuring except for how she hadn't considered that before.

When she reported for costume, the women there gave her the standard, generic police uniform outfit.

"I don't need shoulder pads or anything?"

"For what?"

"Breaking down a door."

"No one told me anything, honey. Kick it, I guess."

The script called for a shoulder into the door above the handle. On the set, she wanted to ask if that were really practical but the director went straight to a different scene. That one had a lot of dialogue and she was perfect with it but another actor, critical to the storyline, kept missing his cue. The director demanded retakes and more retakes. Once, she jumped her partner's cue as she got impatient with him. The director seemed sympathetic but he had to remind her to wait and let the conversation happen naturally. Embarrassed, she struggled to be spontaneous. The words came spilling out. Their next take was perfect.

When they finally reached the rescue scene where she had to slam into the door, she got no hints from the director. Instead, she got instructions from the stage crew and the sound man.

She wasn't quite listening to them because she was watching the director talk to someone else. After the crew stopped giving her advice, she tried the latch.

"Hey, the door is really locked," she said in surprise.

"Yeah, you won't have to act that part," said the sound man.

"But how will I get through?"

"Don't worry. Just kick it a couple of times or body slam it, if you're up for it. We built it to give in."

He sounded so calm that it steadied her nerves for a moment. She decided that she liked the sound guy. He looked like Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoons but he had an air of competence that was different. He had an affection for his job and that resulted in his part of the production always going right. He was better muscled than Shaggy. It made his ugly, green t-shirt seem acceptable. He smelled musky, maybe from his sweat, but she didn't mind. She took a deep breath.

There were only four lines in the scene before she had to rattle the doorknob. It felt cold and slick in her hand. Or maybe that was her perspiration. There were two more lines before she had to back up and body slam the door. She did it on her left shoulder, exactly the way she'd trained, and she hit it hard.

She expected to hurt herself. Instead, she tore through the doorframe. The strikeplate pinged as it shot through the air. It hit the sound man, who'd been waiting on the other side of the wall, not part of the scene, just recording it. Her body had so much momentum that she staggered another two steps and tumbled. She landed in a roll and, from her knees, started her lines, "Freeze! Don't move."

She aimed her prop gun at the closest man sitting at the table, who had started to rise from his chair.

"You're under arrest!" she shouted.

Everyone looked shocked. The closest man stopped rising. The other actors slowly lifted their hands above their heads. Her policeman partner, who was supposed to rush in after her, stood in shock for a moment before he remembered his part.

"Great! Great expressions of surprise," said the director as they wrapped up the first take. "We can use those expressions. Remember that. Remember that feeling."

Then he motioned for the stage crew to reset the door. While they did, she decided she'd better apologize.

"Sorry," she told the sound technician, who had gotten hit with the loose strikeplate. "I'm so, so sorry. It wasn't anywhere near as hard as I imagined."

"It's like everything else," said the sound man.

"All of the walls are fake? That can't be right. I've leaned against them. Most of them must be real."

"They're all real in their way. I watched them get built. I wired a bunch. You need to be careful because of the wiring. Remember to ask us if the director wants you to open a hole in one or something. He forgets."

"You mean I could hit a live wire?"

"Just ask us. But for anything else, don't worry. I've seen you get worked up over all the ways things can go wrong. Believe me, all of the barriers are easier to beat than you think."

"You mean on this set." She waved her hand to indicate the sound stage.

"No," he said after he thought about it for a while. "For you, it's all barriers."

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 99: A Bandit Accountant, 16.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene Three: Reputation 

Half a minute after the spell was done, the lieutenant took Denario's hand in both of his and shook it. He beamed. Around him, his men and the Ansels too had sunk to their knees or fallen flat to the ground. The corporal was crying and another enlisted man was hiding his face. Valentina had her head in her hands. Her husband knelt next to her, one arm up to protect her from magic. Only the lieutenant and his senior mercenary remained standing although the mercenary had crept backward. Dvishvili hardly noticed anyone else's reaction. He hadn't been bothered by the magical light show at all.

“Fifteen miles a day,” he said. “Not twenty! I thought so. We owe the barons a patrol of no more than a hundred miles per turn. That was according to Heimdahl and this order, his real order, confirms it. Someone else scraped off Heimdahl's numbers.”

“Someone changed a fifteen to a twenty,” Denario conceded. He nodded and relaxed his grip. The lieutenant slowed down his arm pumping. “But that wasn't the only ghost number we saw.”

“Right.” Dvishvili took the hint and let go. “The nine got another nine?”

“You were looking at it sideways.” Denario clenched and unclenched his right hand to restore circulation. Then he pointed to the mark in question. “The nine showed a six underneath. That's because Heimdahl thinks you're walking a circuit for six days. Then, if you're derelict in returning to the nobles, you don't get paid for the rest of your march. If you're ordered to stay out for longer instead of being tardy, you get paid double for the days beyond six. That's according to the original. The orders were changed to say that you don't get paid extra until nine days have passed. And then you only get ten percent more, not double.”

“These orders came through two barons. One of them must be corrupt.”

“Maybe. It's hard to tell who. Even if it's Baron Ankster, what can you do? Sir Fettyrtyr may be in on it or he may be honest. He wouldn't necessarily know the terms of the deals his master is making.”

“That rings true enough.” The light in the lieutenant's eyes dimmed. “Besides, I can't come out and accuse the man, not when I depend on his hospitality. That's where you come in.”

Denario hesitated. After a few seconds, though, he nodded. This was what accounting was about. Someone had to tell the truth. Usually, it was him.

He and the lieutenant discussed the details of the numeromancy for a while and dwelt on the numbers revealed. That led to speculation about what they meant, if their colors indicated something, why some ghost numbers faded quicker than others, and why numbers had ghosts in the first place. The last two were guesswork. Were numbers alive? Not even the accounting masters could agree. Numerals failed most of the tests of life. Certainly they couldn't reproduce on their own. The mystic accountants would reply, again and again in their journals, that humans can't reproduce on their own, either. Humans need other humans. Does it matter if numbers need humans too? Some kinds of life need special hosts.

While they talked, the corporal's shame overrode his fear. He wiped his eyes. His legs twitched. He lifted himself to a crouch, then to his feet. The Ansels, a minute later, did the same. Hermann stood first out of gallantry and Valentina seemed to wait for her husband to lift her by the hand even though she didn't look as afraid as most of the men.

“Personally, I think it's the intent behind the numbers that makes for stronger or weaker ghosts,” Denario said as he eyed the remaining solders. Two mercenaries had gotten to their knees. It wouldn't take them much longer to rise fully and tease their comrades.

“You mean if Heimdahl really, really, sincerely meant that we get paid double past our six day tour, his number for that is stronger?”

“Yes. You'll remember that his numeral 2 was a vibrant, bright yellow. I don't know what the color has to do with it.”

Denario and Dvishvili shook hands once again. The senior armsman and Corporal Frederick shook with accountant, too. Fred glanced at Valentina. He seemed offended by her presence. His gaze barely flickered over Hermann, who seemed to frighten him. The other men didn't seem worried by the presence of the peasants but Fred looked to the bits of armor and the trappings of wealth on them.

He tiptoed to his boss and whispered something. After a minute of listening, Dvishvili shrugged. His furry, black eyebrows waggled up and down in mock alarm.

“They're a bit roughnecked, it's true,” whispered the lieutenant. “But I don't think they're as bad as all that.”

Corporal Fred whispered his case one more time.

“Well, the accountant doesn't seem worried,” concluded Dvishvili. “I know him from court. He's a good one. His peasants have shown no signs of disloyalty. They fell to the ground fast enough when the magic began, too. They were rightly damned impressed.”

“Yes, sir.” The corporal bowed his head and stepped back. “Apologies for speaking out of turn, sir.”

“Not at all, Fred. Not at all.”

“I just think there's something wrong in that man's head sir. He wears his sword like a nobleman.”

“Yes, well, that's a problem with all of the peasants around here, isn't it? We'll soon put that down.” The lieutenant turned toward Denario. “Accountant, did you say that your guides have sworn an oath to you, didn't you?”

“Yes, they have.”

“Well, then I don't suppose they'll kill you. They're a superstitious lot, these hillmen.”

They shook hands one last time before parting. A man walked back to the road to hold the reins of the lieutenant's horse. Another muttered to Corporal Frederick that he'd seen Denario's face before.

“You have?” Denario couldn't help overhearing. “Where, do you think?”

“Um. Don't rightly remember, sir.”

For such a rough-looking fellow, he seemed embarrassed to have been caught speaking of the accountant. His beard was thick. The hair on his head was thin. His skull and, for that matter, his arms looked hard as stone. He was tanned, too. Denario took a long look at him. You could never tell when an acquaintance would be important. Was this the face of someone he'd seen at the docks in Oggli? It was possible.

“Did you ever work near the Paravienti? Or maybe you carried goods across the river from Anghrili?” he asked.

“No, sir. Our ship came to the West Port dock.”

“Hmm. Well, I don't recognize you. Sorry, I can't think where it would be that we've met.”

“I've never been to the court or anything. I'm no one important. Just had the feeling I'd seen you, sir. Probably a mistake.”

“Maybe.” Denario stuck out his hand anyway. “Best of luck to you anyway.”

The fellow bobbed his head like a relieved puppy. He shook firmly and apologized a moment later when it turned out that he'd squeezed Denario's fingers a bit too hard.

Next: Chapter Sixteen, Scene Four

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Not Zen 192: The Prescription

"Look, that pill makes me dizzy," Linda's patient said. His name was Benjamin Perry. She looked down to where that was written at the heading to his chart, then back to him, a heavy, middle-aged man. Except for his hair loss and his pot belly, he appeared to be healthy. He pointed to one of the pills from the set that he'd brought in with him. "I can't take that in the middle of the day."

"You have to take it on schedule," Linda told him. She raised her hand for a moment to hold off his next comment. She stuck her head out into the hall. The paint on her clinic walls was new but beige. The lights weren't friendly but they were bright. She didn't love the building. But she did like the clinical staff. She felt lucky to get her first job after residency in a place this nice.

The co-worker she wanted was the oncology nurse. Linda's patient Ben, who kept complaining about dizziness and other side-effects of his treatment, had a form of thyroid cancer. The oncology nurse could usually get uncooperative people to return to their drug regimens. She was an expert at it. And if, for whatever reason, she couldn't persuade the patient, she always seemed to know what the next-best solution would be.

Linda saw that the nurse's office door was closed. It was probably a day off for her. At the same time, she saw the counselor step into the hall. He would be the next logical choice.

"Do you have a moment?" she waved at him.

"Is this for a patient?"

She nodded.

"Let me finish the last paragraph of this report. I'll be right there."

Linda turned back into the exam room and smiled at Mr. Perry. Here in the examination areas, the walls were a brighter shade of beige. It made a difference. She felt more comfortable during the exams than she did when walking through the building. She felt confident that she could get her patient back onto his drug regimen.

She set herself down on the pale blue stool. It was elevated and had no back to it so she would keep alert. Her patient remained where he was on the exam table, also not letting himself relax, hands on the edge.

"It says here," she said, glancing at her notes, "that you're having problems with other parts of your treatment. Did you come in because you feel that the cancer has progressed or are you looking for help with the regimen?"

"Just need different drugs, really," Ben grunted.

"Okay, I'm going to check you for symptoms and ask you a few questions about the thyroid cancer. Then I'm going to have Dr. Harrison come in to talk with you about the specifics of your regimen."

"Good." Ben brightened as she rose. He bared his neck cooperatively when she manipulated the bulge of his thyroid. Linda glanced at her notes. The prep nurse hadn't done this part. A blood sample hadn't been taken, either, and it was necessary. She had to make sure that Ben wasn't coming down with any of the immune disorders that would complicate his cancer treatment. When the thyroid stopped regulating his body's hormones, as would happen if the cancer progressed much more, a lot would start to go wrong.

The first sign of progression would probably be a difference in metabolism. Ben already had a hoarseness to his speech, a symptom that was barely noticeable. Linda had heard an occasional cough from him.

"How's your voice?" she asked.

"Better than last month," he said.

"Any changes in weight?" She wanted to get a sense of how his thyroid was functioning. "Problems in getting up in the morning? Or in staying asleep?"

"Thought I'd gained a few pounds but your scale says no. I guess I feel slower. That's probably the medicine."

A moment later, the doorknob turned. The staff counselor poked his head through the door, nodded at Linda, and smiled. He reached out and shook the patient's hand.

"Jim Harrison," he said.

"Ben," came the response. The patient followed up with a polite nod before he released his grip.

Jim tucked one hand into his pocket as he accepted the patient's file from Linda in the other. He was a man of middling height and build, about a half-inch shorter than Linda. He wore a white coat like hers. His demeanor was pleasant at all times, at least as far as she'd seen. Aside from administering to patients who came in with mental or emotional disabilities, Jim held weekly, private sessions with each of the medical staff. The clinic allowed him to counsel them professionally as part of their benefits package. Not everyone took him up on it but Linda had gone for counselling a few times. She felt better for it.

He spent a moment on the file. Linda called for the prep nurse.

"Okay, I see four drugs listed in this regimen," Jim said. He turned to Ben Perry to begin his interview. "They're taken at six different times. Tell us about the effects of the drugs, as you see them, and about any problems you're having with the schedule."

"The green one makes me sick," Ben told them. He turned to Linda, explaining to her as much as to the counselor. "That's why I'm here, really. Is it supposed to make me throw up? I can't take it as much as I should."

"It's part of the regimen, Mr. Perry," Linda said. She couldn't resist reiterating her point, especially since he'd addressed her directly. "You're on the best treatment that's available for you. If you don't follow it ..." she started to say he would die but held back out of a well-trained reflex. "It's going to have serious consequences. Very serious."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Well, let's take the drugs in the order I see on the chart," Jim reiterated. "I'll name each one. Let's check the pharmacy notes on the bottle. You tell us about the side effects as you see them personally."

Jim was a good listener. With a great deal of patience, he stepped through the regimen and listened to the complaints about each medicine. In turn, he explained the benefits of each and how they all worked on the body together.

While her patient conferred with the counselor, Linda scheduled a cancer screening for Mr. Perry at their imaging facility.

"That's the second time you've mentioned the dizziness, Mr. Perry," said the counselor. He raised his voice slightly as if trying to get Linda's attention. She put her work aside to look at him. "What is it about that symptom that concerns you. What's your job in the day?"

"I'm a line repairman."

"Up on a cherry picker?" Jim clarified.


"What's a cherry picker?" Linda asked him.

"The right name is a bucket lift," Ben answered from his seat on the examination table. "I get into an open-top cage that looks like a metal bucket. Then the truck operator lifts me into the air with a hydraulic arm and sets me next to the wire that I need to repair."

"Dizziness would not be optimal," the counselor said.

Linda hadn't known the name but she knew exactly what equipment they meant. She'd seen it many times.

"Can't you do something a bit different?" she asked.

"Like what?"

That stopped her for a moment. While she put her hand on her chin and thought, she heard two beats of hollow patting sound. She glanced down to notice that Jim Harrison giving her the notepad-tap signal. It was the clinic's common way, between staff, to ask 'let's go talk.' He wanted to get some privacy from the patient for a few minutes.

"Excuse us, Mr. Perry," she said. "We're going to look at your records for a moment and confer. We'll be right back."

Ben nodded. He leaned back on the examination table and sighed.

Linda gave him a polite wave as she left. She led the counselor over to a side office. Jim trailed in and half-closed the door, not enough for the latch to hit the metal strikeplate but enough to stop their voices from carrying.

"I know you want Mr. Perry to take those drugs," he said. "I want to back you up. You're one of our best GPs. But I can't tell a patient to do something that puts him at risk of injury."

She thought about how the clinic had three other women doctors on staff. They all seemed to like Jim. She didn't get any bad vibe from him. He wasn't in her specialty, didn't try to compete with anyone, and he wasn't butting in. She'd invited him. She had the sense, even before he said it, that he would have preferred to defer to her opinion.

"Okay, what is it?" she said.

"Try something else." It was a statement that, in his voice, sounded like almost a question. "Maybe you could prescribe the older chemotherapy method for him. Send him back to the oncologist and say this one isn't working."

This is why you're not a medical doctor, she thought. But she kept it to herself for the moment.

"Why would you want an oncologist to prescribe the old way? Those drugs were full spectrum against all cells. They were brutal. And they don't have the best chance of success."

"In my experience in counseling to this urgent care unit, the old stuff works better for a lot of patients."

"You don't follow the scientific literature."

"I do." He leaned closer and lowered his voice rather than backing up and getting louder. "And I know that you can make a case for your treatment above others. As a counselor, I have to urge you to prescribe for each specific patient. That means not simply looking to the journals for the treatment with the best overall success rate."

"According to clinical trial outcomes, this is the recommended treatment."

"Have any of your patients been cured by using it? Ever?"

"Not mine, personally. Others." There were some, weren't there? She couldn't remember who had seen the successes. She tapped her forehead as she struggled to remember. "Anyway, the issue is that my patients haven't followed the regimen."

"It's a difficult one."

"It gives people the best chance to live," Linda insisted.

"But only if they follow it exactly, according to a schedule that gives them six times per day to take varying doses, sometimes of multiple medicines together." This time, Jim backed up as he spoke. He turned to face the wall she'd been looking at but not noticing. "And only if they continue despite how it makes them feel worse."

"I've had a handful of cases. None of them have continued for the full regimen." She stepped into his field of view. "That's the problem. They should. I warn them in advance. They agree. They just don't follow through."

"A warning is not enough," he said. "Can your patient come in every day to be supervised in the treatment?"

"None of them can afford that." She almost laughed. "Anyway, my schedule wouldn't permit it. I can't watch them three times a day, much less five, to make sure they take their doses exactly as prescribed. We can't even spare a nurse that much."

"In the testing of this treatment, that is what doctors did."

"That was in a lab. I mean, it was a clinical setting." She had interned at a place doing drug trials. She understood the situation. "The trial subjects lived in the hospital for the duration. But with ordinary lives, in ordinary circumstances, that's not possible. I can't follow them around and given them pills and injections when they don't want them."

"Do you see why I feel the old, simple treatment will have a better outcome for Mr. Perry?"

She shrugged. "Maybe."

"I don't know oncology, it's true. But I'm hired to be good with the people. That includes the doctors like you."

"Like me?" She smiled. "Not the patient?"

"You as one of the doctors. I can see that good doctors know what solutions to try. But they don't always anticipate what will go wrong with the patient. And the best doctors, only a top few, have seen enough treatment failures to know more than the illness. They know the patient's environment. They understand what a patient can do and can't. They aim at a solution that fits the disease, the environment, and the patient all together."

"That's a lot," she said. "For a fifteen minute appointment."

"Yeah," he agreed. "But that's a life."