Sunday, March 18, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 114: A Bandit Accountant, 19.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Normal Magic Hexagon

Scene One: On You It Looks Good

At the gates to Ruin Thal, as at the gates of so many towns in Denario's recent memory, the guards were happy to see him leave. The carters coming the other way were happy. The mayor's nephew had strolled along to make sure the accountant headed off. A tattoo artist had come, he said to check the art on the accountant's buckler. Of course, Karla and Addler Vogel had come because Udo didn't want to close his store. They were all happy to see Denario leave.

Everyone seemed to feel the same way with one exception. Carinde wanted him to stay.

The girl was as resplendent as she could be in her green-and-white temple dress. She'd taken off her bonnet and didn't care about the rain. Karla, beside her, wore her shop dress with a gray shawl flipped over her head. Addler wore a hat and leaned on his cane. He cursed the late-morning drizzle and the pain in his knees. He kept stopping to rest. If Cari hadn't paused now and then to point out geometric shapes along the way, Addler couldn't have kept up. Fortunately for him, his grand-daughter's mind seemed to be exploding with ideas about shape and structure. She'd noticed how the domed buildings in her town weren't as curved as they first appeared. They were built from triangles latticed together. Cari had twice asked Denario how it was done but he'd been forced to admit he didn't know.

“I've been spoiled,” he said. “One of my apprentices, Buck, used to tell me about the details of carpentry and engineering. He knew some of the secrets. But I must not have paid enough attention. I remember the geometry, not the methods.”

Karla stooped to pick up her two year old, who was too tired to stand or perhaps just felt a lack of attention. The guards beside the gate smiled at the suddenly happy little girl. They knew the Vogel family. They knew the mayor's nephew. They'd heard that Denario the Dramatic was leaving today and they seemed relieved.

“Good day for it,” the younger, darker fellow said. “We've got news from Small Ephart. Two carters came from there, the first travelers up from the south in weeks. They say that the town managed to kill off some mercenaries who'd surrounded it. You won't have to fight your way in like you did here.”

“Great.” Denario hadn't realized such a problem was possible. Were the baron's damned foot soldiers everywhere now? On top of praying that Small Ephart would let him pass, he had to hope there weren't stragglers from mercenary troops who would be out to murder and rob every traveler they could.

“That's why the accountant waited,” chortled Addler. He knocked Denario's elbow playfully with his own.

“Not that you couldn't do it,” said the guard. But the guard had to squint as he said it. Apparently, it was hard for anyone to gaze directly on Denario and state aloud that he was a fighter. “I mean, you're Denario the Dramatic and all that.”

“He's got the gods on his side,” Addler asserted.

“He's got magic!” Carinde chimed in.

“He's got a bandit coin on his neck,” said the second, taller guard. He leaned against his pike and gazed on the blue medallion. “That's not going to do you any good along the creek, you know.”

“It might,” said the first guard.

They fell into lazy argument about the Kilmun tribesmen who lived along the creek. The issue in their minds seemed to be whether or not the Kilmun observed the sanctity of the royal Muntabi. They said they did. But they actually disrespected all royalty. Addler, the tattoo man, and the mayor's nephew joined into the debate.

Carinde turned and grabbed Denario by his left hand.

“Don't go,” she whispered. A few feet away, her step-mother took a deep breath, as if about to issue a reprimand. But she pressed her lips tight and refrained.

Denario understood something about heroic poems and about how people behaved in them. He knew this was where, as a departing warrior, he was supposed to say something noble, like 'But I must go, for I'm on a mission,' or 'I'll return when I'm most needed,' but he knew those were lies. The first one was even technically true but to say it like a hero would still be a lie.

What actually came out of his mouth was, “Forty triangles.”

“What?” said Karla, not quite under her breath. She had maintained a polite distance from her step-daughter, far enough to appear disinterested but close enough to hear what Cari said and Denario, too. Now she seemed bewildered.

“You mean in the last dome?” Cari gripped his hand even tighter. Her gaze rose to the cupola atop the tower slightly behind her and to her left. “Yes, I figured it was that many, too.”

“You did?” He gaped at her. “Really? No one ever notices. I've never met anyone else who counts shapes within shapes.”

“I saw you looking at the triangles earlier. Your lips move when you count. Did you know that?”

“No, I didn't.” He put his right hand over his mouth.

“Anyway, you can't see all forty of the triangles. You had to count the half you do see and double it, right?”

“Of course.” He stared into her green eyes. A razor-sharp intelligence gazed back. Of course, it was in the body of a young girl, which might have been why she misinterpreted his momentary astonishment for something else. “Don't worry,” she added with a quick curtsy, “I won't tell any other heroes.”

“About that ...” He really felt like he should reiterate that he wasn't really a hero. On the other hand, no matter how many times he said it, no one paid attention. “Oh, never mind. Just write to me. Write lots. Send me math. Send me your every thought. Do you remember the code I showed you?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

He leaned close, his eyes on Karla Vogel. Karla was trying very hard not to lean forward.

“I can use it to send you another code, you know,” he murmured softly. “So we can say anything. And you can write as often as you like.”

“What if I want to write to you every day?”

Denario opened his mouth. He closed it again. His bags were heavy with money. He knew he was carrying too much. The custom-tailored pack felt better than he deserved but it was still over-full. The problem had been occupying his thoughts since yesterday when he had balked at putting so much copper and brass within the reach of a man as greedy as Udo Vogel. True, Denario trusted Addler. But Addler was getting feeble. If he died or went lame, well, Udo might try to claim Denario's funds as his own. Karla Vogel could keep her husband from outright theft but she might not, too. For one thing, her interests lined up with her husband's.

Udo wasn't here to see what the accountant was doing, though. Denario made a decision. He scrambled out of his pack straps.

The thick ox-hide felt as rough as his armor. His fingers fumbled with the ties to the flap. Like the primitive Mundredi leather doors, his backpack had to be tied and untied. After he got the cord out of it, he was able to survey the contents but only the top layer. Fortunately, he'd packed a money pouch last and it hadn't sunk far. It was almost as if he'd planned for this. He wondered if he had, in a way, with a vague hope in the back of his mind that he'd get Carinde away from her father.

“Here.” He grabbed the sack with his right hand, grabbed the girl's wrist in his left, and put the money in her palm.

“Oh!” The sack was heavy enough to nearly knock her down. He'd forgotten how small she was. He cursed himself but only for a second. Carinde laughed. “Are these rocks or something?”

“Yes,” he replied with the literal truth. “Brass is two rocks melted together.”

Karla overheard that remark. She gasped. Denario hadn't bothered to keep his voice down. Well, it was too late now. He would have to place some faith in Karla's good character.

“Just write,” said Denario. He knelt to re-tie his backpack. It was a slow process. After a moment, Cari set down her money bag. She didn't seem to think that money was precious, not in the way her father did. She scooted between Denario and his work. She crouched on the hem of her dress and took over the re-stitching. Her fingers were more nimble than his. He'd been wondering if he'd been right to insist that his bag be made water-tight. The tailor had given him trouble over that demand. Cari had no problem, though, fitting the fat, rawhide cord through the series of holes. In a minute, she was finished.

As she tied a slipknot in the remainder of the cord, her fingers shivered. She paused. There was water on the back of her hand. A raindrop had hit. A second later, more of them sprinkled the backpack. The rain was starting up.

For a few minutes, the moisture had slowed. The droplets had grown so small they were like a mist, easily ignored. Now it appeared that the clouds were about to let loose another volley. Dark, wet dots peppered the accountant. He felt them on his head. He'd taken off his hat during the dry spell, just as Carinde had removed her bonnet. Now he dug into his belt and found the floppy brim again.

As he jammed the hat back on, he saw Cari patting her waist. Where had she put her bonnet? Denario didn't remember. Then Karla stepped forward and pushed the bonnet into Carinde's hands.

“Herr Vogel,” Karla said to her father-in-law. Her gaze stretched up to the high, purplish clouds above. “This is looking bigger than I like. I want to head back.”

“Does this seem magical to you?” Addler wondered, ignoring his daughter-in-law. He raised his good arm above him to catch the rain.

“It smells funny,” said the taller guard.

Karla snorted. She shifted her toddler from her right hip to her left. Addler scowled. The other guard and the mayor's nephew did, too. After a few seconds, Addler brought his hand down and checked what he'd collected in the cup of his palm.

“It's green,” he croaked. He cleared his throat, coughed, and bent to smell his hand. Denario glanced at the water. It did, in fact, have a mossy tint to it. “Smells like pickle brine.”

The accountant looked at his own hands. He sniffed. Sure enough, there was the vinegar odor of sweet pickles. He grabbed his pack and hoisted it over one shoulder. Carinde finished tying her neck strap and stooped to get the money pouch she'd left on the street. Denario held out his hand while she was down there. She took it to help herself back up.

“Thanks,” she breathed.

She felt so light that Denario nearly pulled her off of her feet. Her mind was so impressive, really, that he kept forgetting it belonged to a child. She was small for her age, too. Even when she grew up, she wasn't going to be a tall woman. She was probably lucky that she didn't have to fight anyone for her inheritance. Or did she?

“Could be a carry-over from the shaman's work last week,” said Karla. She cast an eye to Denario but managed to keep from blaming him openly. “We did ask for rain. And we got it.”

At that moment, Carinde tried to get a glimpse of the magically purple cloud. A spot of green rain hit her right between the eyes.

“Oh!” She began to laugh. Denario did, too, but he was concerned. Cari squeezed her eyes shut hard.

“Does it sting?” Denario tried to clean off the brine.

“Uh huh.” For a moment, she raised a hand to clean herself. But she let Denario wipe her with a dry corner of his sleeve.

“I don't think it's a good idea to look straight up at the moment,” he said.

“I figured that out, thanks.”

“Right.” He gazed at her white bonnet, already half-wet with verdant droplets. “At least, on you, green looks good.”

She laughed again. It was a ringing sound that seemed to go straight through him and made his ears and toes tremble. Her face was clear. She blinked, squinted, and gave him a brave smile. A moment later, she leapt up and snagged her right arm around his neck. Denario hugged her back but he heard Karla Vogel make a clucking noise. So he let go. Cari did, too, as if she were suddenly aware of the other people watching.

“Every day,” the girl said. Denario knew exactly what she meant.

“As often as you can,” he corrected. He knew that it wasn't possible to get a letter sent between towns on most days. He didn't want the poor girl to burden herself with an impossible promise.

“Every day,” she restated in a voice that brooked no argument.

Next: Chapter Nineteen, Scene Two

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