Sunday, May 27, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 121: A Bandit Accountant, 20.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Score
Scene Two: Embarrassed Cough

To my dismay, I discovered as I rinsed my clothes that I'd lost my sketch of No Map Creek. It probably fell out during my encounter with the Raduar assassin although it’s possible, barely, that it could have happened earlier. Regardless, I took Jack Lasker's advice and used an 'even smaller scrap' to make its replacement.

Jack is crazy. He thinks something is wrong with how I'm mapping but he won't tell me what. Crazy or not, though, he is decently educated. He reads well. He writes a little. He understands math, geometry, and even cartography. Jack's father sent him to a school in Weighbigh, a town just west of Oupenli. It seems that Jack lived at the school from the age of six to nearly the age of twelve. His experience there gave him traits I would normally associate with city men. He can recite poetry, for instance, and he owns a toothbrush.

But before he turned twelve, his father took him out of school and raised him to be a riverman. Jack knows a surprising amount about magic for someone who seems otherwise unconcerned about spells or charms. For my sake, he pointed out magical animals such as the flying frogs in the trees along both shores. They're hard to spot but Jack has a knack for seeing their shapes. He says the frogs get as heavy as wolves farther downstream. I don't like the sound of that. He says they're big enough to share the sky with flying alligators.

He could also identify the sounds we heard during the night. A loud screech came from a type of bat, not an owl as I'd thought. A splash downstream turned out to be a gar, which is a kind of small alligator, I think.

At dusk there was a keening noise. Jack said it was the mating song of a male siren. It didn't seem to worry him so I didn't ask more about it. We slept in shifts and took turns keeping a small fire lit on our main deck. Jack visited the other boat a couple times during the night. Around dawn, both of us slept at the same time. But then we heard the keening again. It sounded rather like a sad, young man who was wandering the opposite shore, singing to himself. But the song had no words. Other than that, he could have been a drunk human.

'Aye, that's the siren male again,' he told me, instantly awake and observing that I was, too. 'They're a danger to the women around here.'

'Not to us?' I asked. I remembered the blonde-haired, strong-armed Simone. I found the thought of anyone doing harm to her distressing.

'A male that small, no, he'd ignore us while we were in his territory. He's looking for a mate. Too bad for him. It's the end of their season, maybe a little past. And there are no siren females hereabouts.'

I wondered how women could live near No Map Creek if the sireni were dangerous. Jack explained that the individuals can be lethal but that the sireni on the whole are dying out. They live in the waters from just north of Shore Kill to a place called the Invisible Temple. At the Invisible Temple, background magic gets too strong for the sireni to set up permanent homes although a few siren heroes go hunting in the area. As to their biology, they appear to be men and women with thick, green skin. They have webbed feet and hands. For tools they carry primitive spears and a little in the way of clothing. Either the sireni breathe water or they hold their breath for so long as makes no difference. The larger magical river beasts like flying alligators, hippopotami, nessi, and bishopi are dangers to the sireni, which is why even the un-mated males don't wander far into the Riggli Kill.

Local lore tells that the sireni hunted the alligators in No Map Creek until there were none left except around the Invisible Temple.

'Me great-grandad was a boatman,' Jack told me. 'But he had a weak moment and got et by them sireni. Their women give out a mating call, ya see, and some men just can't help it. They gots to go to 'em. Oh, he'd heard them sireni before but not out of season and not so far upstream. This one, she was early and she was out of place. And her draw was too strong for me great-gran. So he went. He ran into other fishermen and boatmen from the nearest village. They fought. That's what the song does to ya.'

'And the other men killed your grandfather?'

'Nah. My great-gran beat those other human men. But a male siren, he killed granddad. Drowned him. It probably didn't even mean to do it, just thought it was fighting another male siren for the right to mate. If it wasn't for the male, the female would have drowned granddad anyway. She wouldn't mean to do it. It's just the way they are. They're okay when it's not their mating season. Ya can talk to them. They don't say much but they know words.'

'Amazing.' Then I asked, 'When did it change and get more dangerous for women?'

'Two years after great-granddad died. A wizard came through. Don't know his name. But he wandered right into the heart of mating season and almost got killed. It scared him something awful. So he cast a curse against the sireni. About half of their females got sick and died.'

'How long ago?' It was a question I had to ask several times.

'Nearly sixty years, give or take. The next generation of sireni didn't recover. Nor the next, nor the next. The disease they've been cursed with, it takes half the girls right dead before they can swim alone. I gather that if a girl makes it through her first year, she's almost always going to be okay. But that year is hard on the parents, especially the mother. Their dads is worse than human dads. They spends most of their time away, hunting or fighting with alligators or cougars or hippos or magical water creatures for territory.'

'But the females still sing their mating songs. Isn't that dangerous?'

'They don't have to sing for long to attract mates now, do they? And the lonely males started to sing in response to their situation right away. It was in the very year of the curse. The story goes that they sung mostly sad songs, at first, but then they noticed that they were luring human women. They ain't stupid. Pretty soon, all the losers of the mating fights would start singing songs while the scent of their females was still in the air. And our women would go over to them.'

'And the sireni males would drown them? Why?'

Jack cleared his throat. He gave me a sort of embarrassed cough.

'Ya know,' he choked. 'It's the same reason the females drown our men.'

I was slow to draw the full picture in my mind.

'Fighting?' I said.

'Mating.' The boatman's voice dripped with disdain. 'Not everyone drowns, of course. Most do. Not everyone.'

'Oh.' For a moment, I was afflicted by the same, embarrassed cough.


Next: Chapter Twenty, Scene Three

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Not Even 'Not Even'

Not everyone likes a story about the limits of inner peace. No matter how in touch with the De, no matter how observant of the way of things, we still find that the world moves as it does. Cruelties reach us. Mental illness affects our loved ones. Tragedies continue to happen in their ordinary and inevitable way.

We die. Saints perish; Daoists and Buddhists pass on; the stoicly virtuous come to their ends. Not everyone is tested the same but bodies and spirits are put through their hardships and no one is physically immortal. There is not coming or going, as they say, but all pass away.

Not Zen 195: Times of Madness

Not Zen 195: Times of Madness

Beheading 1894
"The gate guard surrendered!" cried the monk. He pointed to where the short fellow in front of the monastery had put down his ceremonial staff. He'd stood aside from his usual position and had opened the gate. His red pennon flapped in the breeze beside him. In the distance, invading soldiers rose up out of the fields. The crests on their helmets bent in the mountain winds. They advanced on the gate.

"I told him not to lay down his life," replied the lama. He commanded the monastery. He had expected the walls to be breached in a few minutes one way or another. "Come on, this way."

Together, the lama and his assistant trotted through the stone-walled courtyard. They walked under an arch built with grey marble blocks and turned into the now-empty halls of the monastery. As they progressed, they passed tapestries on either side. They saw plaster cracked where someone had removed a piece of artwork during an earlier evacuation.

At an intersection between hallways, the lama came to a fallen table. He sighed when he saw the playing cards strewn next to the table top. Card games were against monastery rules. He knew which monk had been caught with them before.

"All have left," his assistant observed as they kept moving. "Why must you be the last?"

"Because the army comes for me," said the lama.

"Why? No one said."

"That is because they do not know. I am not sure, myself. The monastery was until a few days ago at peace with the local warlords."

"Do you have a guess?"

"I'm told that members of the court convinced a warlord that I have conspired against him."

"Have you?"

He shook his head no. "Only in his imagination. He has grown old and afraid, perhaps, and he indulges his passions for jewels and drugs. Now he lashes out against the monastery and its lack of drugs, its lack of attachments, and its lack of fear."

"Is he against the monastery or just you?"

"By the reports we received, I'm the one he wants to kill."

"What insanity could make him want to commit murder?"

"Beneath violence lies fear, usually, and perhaps a touch of insanity. I knew the warlord when he was a young man, tortured and abused by the previous lord. He led a rebellion. Now, perhaps, he dreads that he will be overthrown in his turn."

The lama turned the final corner in the last hallway on this side. He stepped left into the northeast corner meeting hall.

"There is no exit from this room, master," said his assistant. A note of worry crept into his voice. They could hear shouts from the invaders in the courtyard. A voice deeper than the others rang out. The warlord himself had come. He ordered his men to search for the lama. He ordered a search for treasures, too, although he should have known better.

"There is a way." The lama bent to the fireplace in the east wall. "Help me move the wood."

"Why are these logs here?" his assistant asked. He accepted an armful of sticks. "We won't use the fireplace for another month."

"I brought them in yesterday." As the wood was set aside, the lama placed most of the pieces into an iron hearth. That, he pulled aside to get to the grate. Beneath the grate, he revealed a steel door. "They better hide the tunnel. See?"

"Ah." His assistant relaxed for a moment, relieved.

"I was not able to crawl all the way through this path yesterday. But it looks like it still exists. If it does, our escape route should come out in the forest."

The tunnel was more than two hundred years old. It had been created under the direction of the original lama of the monastery. Unfortunately, no one had tested it even in idle curiosity for twenty years. When they had last done so, the lone explorer noted that part of its ceiling had fallen in. The lama was aware there might be no escape. The last man had dug his way around the obstacle. The path he'd cleared might hold. But there might have been another collapse, too.

The lama stepped down into the tunnel. He ushered his assistant to one side, replaced the grate, reached through the bars with a stick, and pulled the hearth of fireplace logs back over the grate.

"There." He smiled for his assistant, who again seemed nervous. He closed the door beneath the fireplace grate.

The solid door cut them off from what little light had remained. They were cast into complete darkness. The lama reached out and found that his friend was trembling.

"Come," he said. "Although we can't see, there is only one way to go. I will lead you."

He turned and preceded his assistant through the blackness. For a few steps, he could shuffle forward with a hand to the wall. Soon, the ceiling lowered. He stooped. A moment later, he bent further. Finally, he scraped his head. He crawled on his hands and knees.

After a few minutes, he found piles of rubble on the floor. They were composed of rocks and loose dirt. The mounds grew larger, filled with heavier stones, and joined in an upwards slope. The rising floor reduced him to worming along on his belly. The man behind him whimpered. After a while, the floor fell away by a few inches. Two body lengths later, it sloped downwards by another foot. The lama found that he could crawl again. They'd made it through the collapsed part of the tunnel.

A few minutes after the worst section, the lama glanced forward from his crouched position. He could see the shape of the walls around him. Light was coming into the tunnel from someplace ahead.

He reached back to touch his friend. His hand landed in the right place, near the shoulder.

"I can see the outline of you," he announced.

"Well, I can see the hand in front of my face," his friend said. "It's getting better."

"Not much farther to go."

The path, at its end, opened into a hole in wall of a vertical shaft. They had made it to an old well that sat at the center of a clearing. The clearing was deep in the woods. This, at last, was their exit from the monastery grounds. But they would have to climb up the side of the well.

"Is that water below us?"

"Yes," the lama answered. He glanced down at the faint shimmer. "Let's keep conversation to a whisper. I know where we are. Sound will carry upwards."

"Right." The other man's voice grew low and soft. "I'd always thought that, at this depth, the well was in shadow even at noon. But it is bright here compared to the cavern-blackness of our escape."

"Had you ever wondered about the raised tiles on the inside of this well? They lead from here all the way to the top."

"I thought they formed a pattern."

"They do."

"Then I considered them to be a decoration. But it was hidden beauty, subtle and and spiritual. No one could see the design except for those who made it."

"We are seeing it now." The lama smiled and began his climb.

The brick pattern became a set of handholds and footholds for them. The lama took two minutes to reach the top. His arms trembled by the end. If he were older, he realized, the climb would have posed a serious risk. As it was, the only danger came from outside the well. He heard the noise of someone pacing back and forth.

Above him, over the stone rim, he glimpsed the top of a person's head. He paused to be sure. As he did, the person turned. She leaned over and proved to be, as he'd hoped, the senior nun from the convent. Her grey hairs shone in the sun of the clearing, even with most of them tucked under her hood.

"Thank you, sister," the lama said as he accepted her hand. She helped him over the lip of the well. He rolled down to let his feet touch the grass. He bowed.

She put a finger over her lips and pointed in the direction of the monastery. He nodded, understanding. There were soldiers in the woods. Together, he and the nun helped his assistant from the well. Then, as quietly as they could, they marched through the forest. Once they had to hide to let a pair of soldiers pass. Soon after, they found an animal trail. When they left that, they exited the cover of the trees. They discovered a footpath to take into town. Only when they'd reached the edge of town did any of them feel safe to speak.

"The abbess says there have been about forty men killed, perhaps twenty women raped," the nun announced.

The lama paused. He scanned the town below and noticed the burnt remains of a house to the south.

"Town leaders expected the troops would refrain," he said.

"The warlord led the murders. He shouted to anyone who could hear that he blames you. He said he was killing your village supporters to hurt you."

"Did I have supporters? Or were they simply good people?"

"He says you molested children. Did you?"

"Of course not." He studied the nun's face and reminded himself not to be insulted. "Haven't you known me for almost forty years?"

"But I don't know you well. You are the lama, after all."

He sighed. "If you find it believable, then others must. There are always some who believe a thing simply because it has been said."

The lama bowed his head and marched on. The journey across town took him longer than he'd planned. Soldiers stalked the streets. He had to avoid them. The nuns and the monks from his temple, together, had arranged for a safe path. Nevertheless, it was difficult because many of the streets were empty. The lama and his assistant felt conspicuous in their robes.

Where ordinary citizens worked in the alleys, they pretended not to see the lama as he passed. They turned away. Before they did, their eyes widened in recognition. The looks they gave him, in those brief moments, were usually loving and reassuring. But sometimes their expressions turned suspicious. The warlord's campaign against the lama had already taken effect. A few of the younger faces seemed resentful. They couldn't blame the warlord, not without being beaten, so they blamed the lama. The lama nodded to himself. He knew that people worked this way.

"Over here." The nun crooked her finger to him. He followed her through the doorway of a house as they dodged the eyes of more soldiers.

In the house, his eyes adjusted to the dim light. The lama noticed the inhabitants, a mother and her son. Like the other residents of the town, they recognized him in a second. Then, with a sad look, the mother turned away. The boy took a moment longer.

"Is this one of the safe houses?" his assistant asked the nun.

"Yes. Ssh." The nun put a hand over her mouth.

The three of them remained silent until a pair of infantrymen outside passed the shuttered window. After the footsteps faded, the lama approached the mother of the house.

"May I ask a question?" he said. She nodded. "Thank you. Have you heard the warlord's slanders against the monastery and against me?"

She nodded again. "Yes."

"Do you not believe them?" He gestured to her son. "Are you not afraid of my behavior towards your son?"

"We were told that you molested girls."

"Ah. I have not been fully informed. But the campaign against the monastery is likely to continue for some time. The army will say many more things, especially if they discover what people are willing to believe. Do you think your friends will be persuaded?"

She thought about this for a long time. "Some of them."

"Why do you care?" the nun asked.

"I'm not sure," said the lama. "But the monastery relies on the good will of the town. Should that be lost ..."

"We will fight," his assistant volunteered. "We have truth on our side."

The nun made a disparaging noise.

"The lama is possessed by demons and abuses children," she said. "All monks are possessed by demons. The monastery is rich but keeps the warlord poor. The monastery is in a league with the warlord's enemies. The monastery is poisoning the town wells. The monastery is poisoning the warlord and making his hair fall out. Those are all things that the warlord's men have said."

"That's quite a lot." The lama raised his eyebrows.

"Getting old makes hair fall out," his assistant responded.

"Careful." The nun narrowed her eyes. "Men were killed for saying those words this morning."

The lama bowed to their host. He bowed to her young son. He was feeling flustered by his confrontations with violence and insanity. Nevertheless, he was not so confused as to fail to realize that he must continue on his way.

The journey across town took two days. What was normally a stroll of a few hours was constantly interrupted and re-routed by soldiers on patrol. The lama saw the insides of many homes, some rich, some poor. The nun knew which were safe. No matter whether the house was great or small, the people who lived inside were hardly ever home. When they were, they failed to notice the presence of uninvited guests. Sometimes they had to go into other rooms in order to not notice.

"This is very wise," said the lama when they were inside the garden shed of a rich man's estate.

"I know," said the nun. She caressed the clay jars on a low shelf against the wall. "This fellow is an ally of yours. Yesterday, he stored clean water in these pots."

"But no food," complained the lama's assistant.

"Food would be hard to explain," said the nun, "if anyone else should have walked in."

"Let's call this an evening of fasting," said the lama to his friend. "Anyway, we should rest."

"Good idea. This is the best spot to spend the night." The nun pointed to the closed shed door and beyond, to the border of the estate. "There is a curfew in town. We saw the soldiers lighting torches at intersections. We can't travel while the torches are burning."

"Let's wait until just before dawn," suggested the lama. "In the weak light, we will appear to be early-rising citizens. Very few people will be inclined to look closely. At the least, the villagers will be able to plausibly deny that they noticed us or gave us shelter."

"That is good." The nun smiled. "If we are lucky, we can make it to the bridge above the river before the light grows strong. That is a hard path, I know. But if there are no soldiers on it, it works to our advantage. No one uses those stairs but the trail goes up to the mesa and the convent."

"Are the stone steps still hidden by bushes near the bottom?"

"Somewhat," she allowed. "Even if we are spotted as we reach the bridge, the people below will need half an hour to climb up the winding path to reach us."

During the night, the lama's assistant awoke several times. He kept a heavy shovel by his side and clutched it when he stirred. He had been troubled by the signs of murder and torture during the day. At the last safe house, he had stepped in a pool of blood outside the back door. During their long night, he rubbed his foot. He shivered in his sleep. Groans escaped him each time he awoke.

The lama sat in meditation for a while. He held his friend's hand and wished for him to have peaceful dreams.

Only once did the nun cry out in her sleep. The sound seemed to the lama like the weeping they'd heard behind closed shutters as they passed houses in town.

In the morning, on little rest, the lama roused his companions. Together the three strolled out into the twilight before dawn as if they were trudging to work. The lama's assistant insisted on carrying a shovel. He said it helped disguise them. Perhaps it did. There were few tradesmen out but the farm laborers dared to go to work. The lama passed soldiers without drawing attention. In only half an hour, he and his friends reached the southeast edge of town. They crossed the stream and clambered up into the bushes that hid the mountain staircase. No one stopped them.

It was only when they stepped out onto the great bridge at the top of the stairs that they were spotted. The winding path was long but it didn't take them very high in the end, really, just above the buildings and trees. The lama's assistant leaned against the rail to take in the view. He gazed over the town and pointed out signs of the occupying army. He gestured to a pair of soldiers. As they noticed the motion, the soldiers raised their heads. They pointed to the lama.

The bridge was not so high that they couldn't hear the voices below. The lama felt that he had been recognized because the soldiers shouted something about hills. They didn't seem to know if the monastery was to the west or the east. Nor did they seem aware of the convent in any way. A moment later, the two guards spotted a group of officers and hailed them over to look at the bridge and the people on it. The officers ambled forward. The lama and the nun did not try to hide.

After a moment, the nun gasped. The pointed to the center of the group below.

"That is the warlord."

The lama narrowed his eyes. He studied the uniforms and saw that, yes, with bright medals on his chest and armor on his head and legs, it was the warlord himself. He was the leader of the officers.

"Laborers!" the warlord shouted. His men parted for him to be seen better. "How did you get up there?"

"We climbed," said the nun, but she did not raise her voice. She gave the lama a sidelong glance. Her expression told him how humorous she found their situation. But her quiet voice let him know that she didn't not want to be well understood by the men on the road.

"Do you not recognize me?" called the lama down to the warlord.

"You are a peasant." A guffaw shook his chest. The men around him dared to smile.

"Am I not the man you are looking for?"

"No, I seek the lama." Again, he shook with a derisive laugh. "You are not he, you worthless farmer. You are not even a pretender. The lama travels in rich robes."

The lama looked at his assistant. His assistant shrugged. Neither of them had ever worn other than plain robes.

"But I have a message for the lama," bellowed the warlord, "should you happen to see him. You may catch up with him on some back trail, laden with his jewels, money, and drugs."

"He has drugs?" the lama cried in disbelief.

"All of the poppies they grew in the monastery. Just because those monks carted them away doesn't mean I don't know about them!" The warlord wagged his finger. "That's my message for the mighty lama. We will find him. We will take away his opium. We will make him suffer before he dies."

The lama slowly nodded.

"But ..." The assistant turned to him, confused. "But master, this man was in our monastery. He knows there was nothing. He admits it. How can he not see the truth?"

"We will carry your message!" the lama shouted down to the officers.

The men below chuckled. They cried out rude names to the peasants. These same people had been polite visitors in the town only a few months before. Now their warlord spurred them to acts of cruelty. They had killed villagers for pointing out baldness. They had searched for drugs that they knew didn't exist. They met the object of their hatred but didn't understand it because they were so mislead by their master's expectations. Only one of the men in the group seemed to hesitate. Instead of shouting, he leaned forward as if trying to see the lama better. He shook his head.

As they walked through the farms on top of the mesa, taking the best path to the convent, the lama's assistant complained that the warlord's men did not rebel against him.

"He is insane," the man breathed. Their travels seemed to have winded him although he was full of anger. His arms swept the air. "You could see it. From the way they moved, you could tell that his men have doubts about his behavior."

"Did not your own teacher, the lama, tell you exactly this?" The nun stopped. She put her fists on hips for a moment.

"I had not seen it for myself," the fellow explained.

"We have not given him the response that he wants," the lama mused. "I wonder if that is a problem. He attacks us in the hope of provoking a hatred similar to his."

"Should we hate him, then?" asked the nun. "It would not be hard."

"I don't know that I can. Well, I suppose I could pretend. But then there is the fact of my presence. While I live, everyone is at risk."

"You could raise an army to oppose the warlord," said his assistant.

The nun gave the lama and his assistant a skeptical look.

"That is one way," the lama admitted. "But I was thinking that once I've seen you to safety, I will turn back and give myself up. That should prove there was never a conspiracy."

"Bah. Don't bother," the nun said. "It won't stop the beatings. They'll just kill you and move on to more torture and more beatings."

"What else, then?"

The nun shrugged. "Am I a lama that I should offer a lama advice?"

"Are you without confidence in your own wisdom that you can't bestow it on someone who asks?"

For a moment, the nun blushed.

"That's not been said of me in years," she said as she nodded to herself. "My reputation is for impudence."

"Or determination," he offered. He knew her from many conversations.

"I will consider the situation, worthy lama."

"That is all that I ask." He raised the walking stick he'd picked up after his ascent to the bridge. He gestured to the fields. "Tomorrow, I am scheduled to teach the precepts in town. Instead, I feel that I should teach the farm children here. They must work but I can toil alongside them as I speak."

"Lama," said his assistant. "This is not a time for lessons."

The lama did not even bother to reply.

At noon, the men arrived at the convent and were promptly denied entry. The nun stepped inside to converse with her peers. She raised her voice once or twice. Soon, the abbess came out to greet them. She escorted them to a small chapel where male visitors could stay.

"Teaching tomorrow seems like a good plan," she nodded. "However, I can see that it worries one of you. Should I arrange for you to visit with the most trusted families and the most gentle children? That is a sort of compromise."

The lama gestured polite refusal.

"My assistant should stay inside tomorrow," he said. "For two years, he has been promising you translation work. He knows the old languages. Get him your ancient manuscripts. Give him tools to write."

"And you?"

"Any children, any fields."

The abbess blessed him with a smile. She vowed to make the area as secure as she could. Her attendants came to feed them. Others came with bedding, drinks, and guests from the village, a few people who had seen the lama and wished to speak with him.

That night, the lama slept in peace, content in his heart. His assistant kicked and cried out in his dreams.

At dawn the next day, the mesa swarmed with soldiers. The warlord's officers had discovered the convent and the fields. Although the military men bore weapons, they did not seem to have a goal beyond exploring the area. They did not stop the farm children from working. They saw the lama from a distance and did not rush forward to arrest him.

The lama knelt in a field and began to speak about the second precept, which is that no one should take what is not freely given. It was, as usual, an attractive lesson for children. Several of boys and girls began interrupting with questions. Another offered an example of her older brother taking something without asking her. The lama offered his own examples and stories.

Thus the conversation proceeded for most of the morning. Two children showed him how to separate the two-row barley and six-row barley spikelets. In the two-row barley, an old crop that their parents grew for malt, only the central spikelet was deemed important. The six-row barley had been introduced recently by a large farming organization. Its spikelets were all big. It was superior to the old crop as a cereal or for animal feed.

One boy asked for math lessons, so the lama taught that subject for an hour. Even the children who at first weren't interested had questions.

"Such earnestness," said a stranger's voice. It was the nun who had guided him up the path to the mesa. Today, a fine hat hid most of her silver hair. It could not hide the lines in her face. Her smile seemed forced. "Your time is almost up, lama. The soldiers know who you are. They have been watching you in rotation."

"Like those two over there?" He let his gaze drift to the main road.

"Yes."

"If my time is up, then it is." He rose from his knees. His hands brushed the dirt from the front of his robe.

"Are you at peace?"

"Well, I suppose. But a quiet life does not always grant one a peaceful death."

"I always wondered if your inner calm was an illusion caused by your isolation from evil people."

"Perhaps." He laughed. "But not entirely, I find. When you speak to the peace of my heart, you go straight to the issue. This is when my understanding of the way of life is shown. In this moment, I feel that my path is good. Will you guard the children for me?"

"Must you leave them?"

His spirit felt as wholesome as ever but it would not protect him from death. It had not even protected him from the confusion of dealing with insanity. That would be a hard lesson, however, for his students. It seemed wise to spare them too close a look.

"This is the middle way, I think."

With that, he strode across the fields towards the soldiers in the dirt road. They saw him coming. Immediately, one of them turned his back. Such an odd gesture, the lama thought. He kept on. It wasn't far. Soon, he looked the nearest soldier in the eye. To his surprise, he recognized the young man. This fellow had grown up in the village. He had received lessons from the monks, including the lama.

It answered any doubts about being recognized.

"My friend," he said as he grew close. "I have come to make this easier. I give myself up to you."

The soldier turned slightly. He watched the children at work in the fields, some of whom had stopped to regard the meeting in the road. He considered the farmers nearby. He gazed at the nun, who kept her arms around two of the girls as they observed the soldier. He studied everything except the lama himself.

"I want to help," the lama continued. "But I cannot make things right for you. I can't undo a general's madness. I can only do what one person can do."

For a moment, the soldier glanced in his direction. An instant later, he looked away, down the road toward the convent. A crow landed in the road. He studied it.

The lama walked over to the other soldier, the one who had turned his back. He didn't recognize this man. That didn't mean the man didn't know the lama, however. As the lama started to speak, the stranger turned his back again. He wanted to pretend not to see.

"Ah," said the lama. It was funny, he thought, how he had realized that his inner peace did not protect him from violence or confusion. Here he was again, in another moment of confusion, hesitating between the soldiers.

He turned and saw a figure farther down the road, not in the direction of the convent but back towards the village. It seemed likely to be another soldier. With a sigh, he headed that direction.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 120: A Bandit Accountant, 20.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Score

Scene One: Theolodite Work

Mundredi army. That was Denario's first thought. This fellow could be a mercenary of some stripe but that didn't seem likely. He'd come without a caravan. It was hard to imagine, too, that he would take orders from refined, well-groomed Ogglian officers. Denario tried to read the tattoos on the man's arms but the fellow kept moving. Half of the marks were under leather greaves but they seemed to be clan and house markings of some sort.

Everyone looked to Denario. The stranger did, too. There seemed to be no point in trying to hide. Denario rose. He smiled. Although he didn't salute, it occurred to him that he'd heard rumors about one of Vir's sergeants leading troops through Long Valley. Killim Thal wasn't too far southwest of the mountains around the valley. This fellow might be a messenger from Sergeant Kaspir. He could even be the sergeant himself.

“I'm your accountant,” Denario said.

The fellow took a slow step closer. A grin spread across his face.

“I've got a message,” he repeated.

Denario swallowed. He nodded. He edged his left.

“Ya killed my friends, ya bastard!” The soldier pulled out his sword. Its edge swept free of the scabbard with a ringing sound. The blade was bigger than Denario's arm. “Did ya think ya'd got away?”

Denario scanned for exits. There were eight windows. There was a door in the back for those who needed to use the privy.

“Draw yar blade, ya murderin' scum!”

Although the Raduar fellow was trembling with rage, he seemed to be willing to let Denario fight. He wanted a duel. It was precisely the sort of military encounter that Vir had railed against. Ogglian ideas of noble honor had affected everyone who came in contact with them, even this Raduar vagrant. Probably, this fellow hadn't even had direct contact with Ogglians. He was getting his ideas about dueling second or third-hand.

Denario rested his fingers on the pommel of his baselard. His weapon was steel and that made it theoretically better than the brass scimitar. It was too small, though, to go against a heavier, longer weapon.

“How did you find me?” he asked, stalling for time.

“Ah've been tracking ya for days and days.” The Raduar's voice was a growl. “When we heard what been done three weeks ago, we got friends together. We set out to assassinate them Mundredi army men. My cousin led us down from the mountains. We all made our way through the edge of Long Valley.”

Denario drew a map in his head of Long Valley and the places beyond. The Raduar to the northeast in Fat Valley were cut off from the rest of the world by mountains. If they tried to go around the mountains, they would run into their Mundredi and Kilmun neighbors. A small group could hike through the mountain range the long way but it would be dangerous. The end of the range would take them to the headwaters of No Map Creek. There, the group would need to travel through hostile territories and would end up at the wrong place regardless, far to the southwest of where they wanted to be. But it seemed that they had made the trip.

“No one would help us. Everyone shot at us. They killed half my friends. They starved us. I had to steal and murder to survive. And everywhere I went, I heard about ya. I knew ya was close. Yar an Oggli fool! But ya walked in the Mundredi valleys. And the Chief of the Mundredi treats ya like a hero. Ya killed my chief, they say. Everyone says. They sing a song about it.”

The accountant regretted the tribal musical tradition more than ever. Naturally, the Raduar wouldn't think it was funny because the joke was on them. And Denario did kill someone in battle. He'd been told that the fellow was a clan leader of some kind. Maybe the self-declared assassin came from that clan. The math of (many clans = one tribe) came back into his head as he considered the geography of it all.

“And so you came for revenge?” he blurted. That wasn't the right thing to say. He should have found a better diversion, anything to stave off the fight.

“Draw!” screamed the Raduar.

Denario pointed to the figures, silhouettes in the sunlight, that had come up to the front door of the Drowned Sorrows. Whoever they were, they'd heard the screaming from inside and they'd hesitated in the doorway. Denario didn't blame them. But he was desperate enough to use them.

“Do I have to fight all of you?” he asked.

The assassin turned. He didn't just look over his shoulder, either. He swung around so that his whole back faced Denario. If the accountant had been a certain type of man, he could have stabbed his opponent right between the shoulder blades. But he wasn't like that. Maybe. Anyway, the man's back was armored.

Instead, Denario ran. He headed for the back way out of the pub as fast as his tired legs could take him. It was a stupid thing to try. He couldn't outrun this killer. He couldn't hop on a raft. The rafts were tied to the docking stump and they weren't his. His own raft lay in pieces. Besides, he wasn't going to leave all of his accounting gear.

That last thought made his decision. As he headed out of the door, he turned to the right, towards No Map Creek. That's when he heard someone scream. Surprisingly, the killer's roar of outrage shook him to his spine. He found more speed. He was surprised he had anything more. He'd already been moving faster than he ever had in his armor.

The accountant ran around the back of someone's house and straight through a hedge bush. There was no other way to go without doubling back. He had to hope the bush would slow his pursuer down. Behind him, he heard the pounding of heavy boots. Then came the sound of bush branches snapping, followed by cursing.

Denario wheeled to his right, out from behind the house and toward the path that led to the landing site on the creek. To his surprise, he saw someone waiting for him on the path. He tried to draw his sword as he ran. But he held back as he recognized who it was. The man was Jack Lasker. He had the strangest, wildest smile on his face. How had he gotten here so fast?

“Ya crazy little bastard!” Jack yelled. “Hah hah hah!”

Denario didn't waste any of his breath with a reply. He rumbled past the boatman, turned left and entered what he hoped was the final stretch of his escape. Ahead of him, down on the sandy banks, he saw the top of Achim's head. The poor farmhand was staring off into space. He'd taken of his hat and he was scratching himself. His body was pointed in Denario's direction. But Achim didn't notice the accountant pounding toward him in boots and armor. He didn't hear the labored breathing. The young man was lost in his daydreams.

Denario huffed as he leapt from the path to the sandy docking area. There, he slipped and nearly fell. The thought of his attacker jumping on him in the next second lent extra strength to his knees. He had to press down with one hand but he managed to stay upright.

A shadow passed over him.

It was Crazy Jack. The man was laughing and skipping through the sand. He was far, far faster than Denario. He hopped aboard his lead raft. He kicked equipment aside. Then he moved one of Denario's bags with the toe of his shoe. He grabbed a hook and tossed it aside.

Denario ran to catch up.

“Hey!” said Achim. He seemed to be just noticing them.

Jack leaned over and reached for the loop of rope that connected his rafts to the anchor stump on the bank. Don't remove the line, Denario prayed. Don't cast off. Don't leave yet. Don't leave me. I can't jump. I can't.

Denario jumped. It was three and a half feet from the bank to the gunwhales of the lead raft. He almost didn't make it. Certainly he didn't clear the gunwhales. He stepped on them. But he came down on the deck of the boat with his right foot and then his left. He wobbled. Barely, he managed to stay upright.

“Grab the punt!” yelled Jack. He'd cast off. The rope was in his hand, hanging loose. He was looking at someone over Denario's left shoulder. Denario knew who it was.

“Where?” Denario scrambled frantically. He had to remind himself what a punt was. In the second it took, Jack snapped it up from in front of his tent.

“Grab something!” yelled Jack. He turned his punt point-on toward the shore.

Denario bent over and grabbed his theolodite. It had been a spear before. It could serve as one still. He turned.

Over his right shoulder, he saw the Raduar assassin. The fellow had made the turn in the trail where dirt turned to sand. He ignored Achim, who wasn't even looking in the right direction. He sprinted directly for Denario. His legs prepared for the leap.

There was no doubt in Denario's mind. The Raduar was going to make it. He was huge. He was strong. He was faster in armor, holding a heavy sword, even in the sand, than Denario would be naked and running downhill.

Denario had an instant to set himself. He realized he was holding the spear the wrong way around. It was too late to fix it.

“Diiiieeeeeeeeooooww!” The Raduar's battle cry ended in pain.

Next to Denario, Jack Lasker grinned. Crazy Jack had punched the soldier right in the solar plexus with the end of his punt. Even through the banded armor, the knob of thick wood had to hurt. Their attacker was caught in mid-leap. He fell backwards into the water.

It was only a foot deep where he was standing. But the assassin went down hard. He lost his sword.

“Aaaaargh!” He rose back up again, screaming. He charged the boat.

This time, Denario helped Jack. The butt of his spear and the tip of the punt hit the Raduar man at the same time, both near the collar bone. Denario had been aiming at the man's mid-section. He missed by a foot. Jack, though, had probably aimed at the man's throat and had missed by less than an inch.

The man went down without a sound. Jack must have punched some of the air out of him. The Raduar fell into more than two feet of water.

A few seconds later, Denario's attacker rose again. This time, it was a struggle. The bottom of the creek where he stood was covered by rocks. They were slippery with water-moss. The armor was a deadly weight, almost too heavy for him to move. It took both arms and both legs for him to get back up.

As the accountant watched, he realized how close he'd come to dying on his own foolish raft. He wasn't as strong as his opponent. His chain mail was just as heavy as banded steel. If he'd fallen in a few feet of water, he'd never have lifted his head above it again.

“Once more!” Jack yelled. He laughed like he was having the time of his life.

The riverman was right. The Raduar attacker took a couple more steps toward the rafts. But the rafts were floating away. The back boat had reached mid-stream and was about to become the front one. In a last-ditch effort to catch and throttle the accountant, the attacker lunged.

Denario poked the Raduar in the shoulder. Jack hit him in the eye.

This time, they were farther away and the blows landed without as much force. But the shot to the eye still did damage. It knocked the assassin's head back. A second after, the Raduar staggered and groaned in pain. He didn't fall. He recovered enough to smack the water with his fists. He'd made it up to his waist but he could go no further.

The accountant was strangely glad not to see his attacker go down. He didn't really want the man to drown. He just didn't want to get murdered.

“Sorry about your friends!” he yelled as the rafts drifted away.

The Raduar let out a cry of despair and frustration.

“Sorry! It was them or me.”

Denario turned to find Jack giving him a look of disbelief.

“Yah're crazy!” he exclaimed. Coming from him, that was a strange assessment. The accountant wasn't sure how to take it.

He nodded and turned his attention to staying on his feet. The boats had drifted a long way already. They bounced up and down in the current. Now that the trailing raft had become the leading one, the situation would become a problem. He turned and pointed upstream. Jack clucked his tongue but he didn't seem worried about their prospects. He stirred the creek bottom with his punt. It looked like he could guide both boats from the back, as difficult as that seemed. The front raft turned to the left around a sandbar as the aft one edged its corner in the opposite direction.

“All right,” said Jack. The grin crept back onto his face. On some level, he had loved the encounter with the assassin. Both of them glanced back as they watched the dejected man standing there, still waist-deep. “We got out with all of our goods and all of our money. We're fine.”

“I'm sorry about that fellow.”

“Now I know ya ain't a liar about the army. Ya want to hire on?”

“On your boat? Under what terms?”

“Ya gets some of my cargo money, a tenth of a tenth. I gets more of yar math money, let's say two thirds.”

“Change that to a twentieth of the cargo and half of my math money but you also get half of the money we bring in when we sell my raft.” Denario stuck out his hand.

“Done!” Jack dropped the punt and shook the accountant by both hands. “Hah, I'd of forgotten about yar raft. Good one. And now, if we're going to be partners for this run, there's something I got to say.”

“Go ahead.”

“Bathe. Take off yar armor and wash.”

Next: Chapter Twenty, Scene Two

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Not Zen 194: The Meditation Business

By Bart Van den Bosch - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5">CC BY-SA 2.5</a>, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=797813">Link</a>

"The past is a construct that your mind creates from fragmented memories as it tries to link them into a meaningful story," said the teacher, a woman in a sky-blue robe at the front of the room. "Likewise, the future is a mental construct. It is an extrapolation from the past."

Her class of fifteen students nodded. They sat on blue mats laid out on the wooden floor in front of her. They wore ordinary clothes, not robes.

"Meditation makes you aware of the De," she continued, "of your immediate surroundings, of your body's present condition, your mind's condition, the world inside you and the world outside. When you're advanced, it makes you aware of the flow between what we regard as the self and the not-self."

A handful of the older students smiled.

"Meditation puts you in touch with the present moment. Only the present moment is real, not an illusion of the mind like the past or future."

One student, a young woman, frowned.

"Only awareness of the present moment can make you successful."

Another student, an older man in a white shirt, opened his eyes and scowled.

"You become successful," continued the meditation teacher, "because awareness is your greatest power. It lets you notice things as they are and observe things that less aware people do not. It lets you take action at the right time for the highest level of accomplishment and impact."

The same handful of older students who had smiled, now sighed. The line of the young student's lips pressed tight with impatience.

"Let us meditate again."

The faces in the studio classroom grew calm. For another seven minutes, the class sat in silence, each student in their place on a mat. A timer sounded. The instructor stood, announced a break, and stepped out the studio door. Another woman was there, also in a robe, and engaged in a conversation about the logistics of the next class.

Several of the meditation students walked to the water cooler in the back of the room, farthest from the door. In the line with a cup in his hand, an older fellow shook his head and laughed.

"What's so funny?" said the young woman, Jennifer, who had been the first to frown and grown impatient with the instructor's talk. She occupied the spot in front of him in the line.

"Ah, well." His hand titled to the side. His smile faded. "It's only that I don't think that the practice of meditation should be about material success."

"That seemed ... questionable," Jennifer admitted. She put her hands on her hips. "There was something wrong about the direction she was taking."

"For someone in the meditation business, better meditation is certainly a key to advancement." He shrugged.

"It still seems like the wrong reason. Anyway, the benefit of transcendental meditation applies to everything, everywhere."

"Let's ask a physicist. Madeline," he said to the person in back of him, "has meditation made you successful?"

"That's entirely the wrong question, Jonathan." The woman folded her arms over her gingham blouse. "Meditation has got nothing to do with achievements in physics."

"There you go." The older gentleman, Jonathan, turned to the woman in front of him and laid out his hand as if his friend's opinion was all of the proof he needed.

"But you're here to improve your practice," countered the younger woman. She turned to Madeline. "To what do you attribute your success if not meditation?"

"For me, although this will sound strange," said Madeline as she raised her glass to her lips for a sip, "I would say that drawing well was important. It was a small but critical element in my successes. That's not a skill that was critical for others. But for me, it was."

"Interesting. And I believe you're also a physicist, Donald. Is that right?" Jonathan leaned to address the man in back of Madeline.

"Yes. Math is the key." Donald nodded, as if to himself. He was a short, thin man. He wore an eggshell white, button-down shirt and glasses. "Math plus imagination. That's how you achieve."

"Putting imagination to work can be successful," interjected a business woman nearby. She had been the first to get her cup of water. "But by itself, it's nothing. Work is the key."

By the murmurs of assent, everyone agreed with her point.

"There you go," said Jonathan. "Meditation isn't important to success."

"But our teacher says it is."

"Our teacher is a wise woman. I'm happy to learn this form of meditation from her. But you should be concerned to hear her referring to meditation and success in the same sentence."

"Her words are true for a few people," allowed Madeline.

"But they're not for everyone. More importantly, as you, Jennifer ... that is your name, yes? As you pretty much said yourself, there is something wrong with using meditation for worldly attainment. That is not the point of meditation."

"Does that even matter?" Jennifer wondered if her classmates were simply too experienced. Perhaps they took some of the benefits of their practice for granted. "Does your motivation make any difference to the discipline?"

"What is it that you do for a living, Jennifer?" he asked.

"I'm a surgical assistant." That was her job title. She had learned to do more. And she had discovered that calmness and timing were critical factors in her success.

"When you cut someone," replied Jonathan, "does it matter if you intend to do surgery or to kill them?"

"Hmm."

"Yes, good." Behind him, Madeline nodded.

"I think that intent probably matters," Jonathan concluded. "Meditating with the idea of worldly success is a different journey than doing it for enlightenment, peace, or awareness."