Sunday, July 29, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 127: A Bandit Accountant, 21.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Three: Cartomancy

Denario searched for his map even though he knew it had gone missing. This one had sixteen miles of creek on it, his worst loss by far. He stalked the deck, knife in hand, ready to pin it down or stab any animals, large or small, that had gotten hold of it. Maybe a fish had the vellum in its mouth. Stranger things had happened already. He searched among the tied-down packages, jars, and crates. Certainly the raft had started to fill up with trade goods in the past few days. There were more hiding places than he'd realized. But there weren't so many that he couldn't tell there was no map. It was not on the deck.

“Damn!” he kicked the useless tie-down peg. It was a traitor to him and to cartography in general. “Gone! I still remember what I drew. I can re-create it. But not on parchment, not this time. Paper and parchment get lost.”

He paced. He felt Jack's eyes on him across the water from the trailing raft.

“I'll scratch it on a timber. I'll transfer it to parchment later.” He knelt and stabbed the bark. This wasn't going to be easy but it would be so sturdy as to be nearly permanent.

A stick smacked his hand as he started to draw in the wood with his dagger.

“Hey!” The knife skittered across the deck but it didn't leave the boat. He shook his stinging wrist.

“Bad idea.” The boatman shook a warning with his oaken punt. He had managed to cross the gap between their vessels in a single, silent leap. “Don't write your map on anything you can't afford to lose. The river doesn't like to be mapped.”

“That's ridiculous.” Denario found it suspicious how the bird and the wave took only his best, finished maps of the waterway, though. “Isn't it?”

“I knew ya wouldn't believe me until ya'd lost a few. But don't write down any charts or even any directions on a beam of the boat. We'll crash for sure.”

“Ridiculous. What kind of magic resents cartography?” Denario put fingers to his bottom lip. He remembered what he'd been taught about the making of magical diagrams: cartomancy. It was a mathematically-based type of magic. With it, wizards made their geometric algorithms to trace the world. He'd thought it enormously clever and close to godly work from the three examples provided in the guild hall. “Wait. There is something ... I've read about spells for creating magical maps. And I've heard there are some to prevent mapping. This could be like that. The formulas could be the same. I hadn't recognized the similarity because this is on such a grand scale.”

“Maybe you have more book-learning about the magic than I do. All I know is, anyone who tries to write down a map or instructions or directions around here is sorry about it. I hear the big sea downstream is like that, too.”

“The Complacent Sea? It's not like this. It's hard to chart, yes. But it doesn't fight back. The main problem is that the islands keep changing positions. Then there's the shore and apparently that's even harder.”

“Does it change shape?”

“Not exactly. I heard a wizard try to describe it. Didn't make a lot of sense. But I gather that something about the Complacent Sea makes the outside of it hard to measure. Sometimes, it takes more than a year to travel around the sea. Travelers report passing through all the usual cities and towns. Plus, sometimes, they pass through unusual ones, towns that aren't there except every other year on a Thursday, that sort of thing. On top of that, there can be special conditions like high magic storms, fogs, and the like. The record for travel in those circumstances is nine hours around the whole Complacent Sea rim on horseback.”

“Now that sounds like a fairy tale.”

“If so, it's a good one. The caravan left in front of a crowd of witnesses during a high magic sandstorm. The caravan members said they traveled for a long while and lost track of their location in the dust. Landmarks were obscured. But they arrived in Muntar, their destination, before it got late in the afternoon. So they figured, hey, that's good magic, and they unloaded. They were months ahead of schedule and earned a bonus in Muntar. They spent an hour loading up with fresh cargo and headed out through the east gate. They'd come in through the west gate, see, and their captain decided to follow the dust storm.”

“Did that work?”

“The sun never set on them. All of the cities they expected to see, even the really large ones, seemed to go missing. Some in the caravan reported seeing Baggi and a pair of men turned toward it. When they left the edge of the dust storm, the rest of the troop lost sight. Those two appeared to be gone from the earth. No one in Oggli heard from them for months. But by early evening, when the dust clouds were clearing, the caravan could make out that Oggli lay ahead. They were coming up on the east gate, just as if they'd traveled around the whole of the Complacent Sea.”

“Had they?”

“I’m not sure. The two who left the storm for Baggi sent a message from there later to report they were safe and to ask if the others had made it home.”

“Hadn't heard that one although I've come upon a few others like it. I'd say that this river is about the same. What I figure is, the anti-mapping magic is natural. Wizards must have twisted it to suit them.”

“What makes you think it was wizards?”

“A school of them used to live in the temple down at the intersection with Marsh Stream. That's the one that's lost now. Actually, I say wizards but stories are that it was mostly women.”

“Women? Consorting with wizards?”

“Yah, that's frowned on by the serious fellows nowadays. But it's how the story goes. Maybe they were priestesses or something.”

“Or sorceresses.”

“Aren't they against the rules for wizards? I'm not sure. Anyway, the temple is mostly gone. I seen it. The walls are hundreds of years old. Still, it looks like the place keeps itself up somehow. The trees have grown around the windows instead of through them. The roof is cracked but it hasn't fallen in. The gardens are wild but ya can still recognize the terraced stone boxes on the north and east sides. Flowers have seeded outward more than other plants have moved in. That's magic, if ya know how ta look.”

“You've seen a lot.”

“Too much, maybe. Nothing in years. Nowadays it's blindfolds all the time, like my dad before me.”

“How long do you need to stay sightless?”

“Two days.” Jack rubbed the crown of his hat as if it were his balding head. He squinted into the distance as he thought. “Three and a half, tops, if the creek has gone all bendy.”

“That's … an awfully long time to work that way, Jack.”

“But as long as I can't see, I know where I am.” He shrugged. “When we stop, I have to peek to eat or pee off of the side of the boat, that sort of thing. The magic always kicks in and gets me lost. It'll alter the river if I look around for too long.”

“You mean the landscape changes if you look at it?”

“Yep. I don't know how it does that. I put the blindfold back on and wait. Then it gets better. Over time, I get to know where I am again.” He paced around the front raft. Absent-mindedly, he poled them a half-foot more to the center of the waterway. Denario went to find his lost knife. He'd seen it skitter into the front, portside corner.

“Didn't Oleg tell his guards all of these things, too?” he asked as he found the blade next to a pickle barrel. He sheathed it in the knifestrap at his waist.

“I'm sure.”

“Then why did they get lost?”

Jack bowed his head. He closed his eyes for a moment. With the sun to his back, his features looked sunken and dark. When his eyes opened again, the whites seemed to shine.

“I got to tell ya, Den.” His use of Denario's former nickname seemed unconscious. “The temple and the area around it seems safe. When ya take off your blindfold and peer around, like I know most folks actually do, ya don't see nothing. Yah're lost but ya feel fine.”

“But it's not fine.”

“Not if ya want ta get out.” The boatman shook his head. “Ya've got to find your way without eyes. But for that, we've got the easy path.”

“We're taking a path?”

“I mean the creek.” Jack allowed himself a faint grin. “The water knows where it's going, even if ya don't. The stream flows southeast. It's simple. When ya have to walk back, it's harder. I do it a few times a year. There have been times when I got turned around and ended up back where I started. That's why I try to travel with the caravan masters. They take the shortcut by the temple when they can because sometimes there are bandits on the other trails. Whichever way they go, it's better for them to have a big group. It hardly ever happens that every member of the caravan gets turned the wrong way round at the same time, for instance.”

“But still, whenever someone glances around, it looks safe?”


“No alligators?” Except for the one, maybe.

“Oh, plenty of alligators.” Jack waved it off with one arm. “It's the only place they've got to live after the sireni took most of their territory.”

“They're dangerous, Jack. At least I think they are. I've heard they hunt men. No flying ones, though?”

“A few. And some flying frogs.”

“But no giant snakes?”

Jack snorted. “The damned trees are lousy with them, usually.”

“Great. You haven't mentioned any hostile warriors, at least. Do the red men ever take to the paths?”


“Jack ...”


“What about this place is safe?”

The riverman sighed. “I make it through every time.”

“Huh.” Denario leaned on his punt. “Yeah, there is that.”

Next: Chapter Twenty-One, Scene Four

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 126: A Bandit Accountant, 21.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Two: Wave Goodbye

“So when were you planning to tell me about the lost temple, Jack?” Denario pushed the lead raft off of a sandbar with his punt.

Clever Jack occupied himself with the trailing raft for a few minutes. The lashed-together hitch line had gotten snagged between the center timbers as they'd rounded a bend. He lay down to dig it out, careful to avoid losing his fingers to shifts in the rope as it changed direction, pulled by differences in the tension between forward and rear watercraft.

Denario waved his punt to the caravan, now far in this distance but still visible. One of the guards waved back to him.

Jack clambered to his feet, checked the rafts, and nodded to himself.

“I wasn't,” he admitted.

“Why not?”

“Because we're going through the heart of the magic. It's safer if ya sit in the boat with your blindfold on.”

“You're planning to blindfold me? What about the talking crocodile?”

“Don't listen to him.”

Denario poled to the center of the creek. The waters ahead looked calm for as far as he could see. Over his shoulder, he saw and half-felt, under his feet the way a real riverman might, the second raft as it swung into line behind the first.

“It's not the conversation that worries me. It's the teeth.” He titled his head. “And the magic, too. Talking animals. That always means a lot of magic.”

“I've never lost anyone who kept on the blindfold.”

They pushed against the layer of mud and rocks four feet beneath them as the front raft drifted askew. It took them a minute to get things back in line. When they did, Denario noticed the continuing lack of tree cover. He strolled to the tent and pulled out his largest travel pack. From that, he pulled out a travel hat. Jack, behind him, acknowledged the wisdom of this with a nod. The accountant decided he wasn't feeling too angry, really, so he fetched out a spare hat and tossed it to Jack.

“How many folks have you ferried through?”

“I dunno. Three dozen?”

“And how many took off their blindfolds and got lost?”

“Four. Five, if ya count the merchant what refused to go near the temple but still got robbed and killed trying to go around on the Mundredi side.” Jack jammed the hat on his head one-handed.

Since Jack didn't seem to know the exact number, the account tried a different approach to the same issue.

“How many of your passengers have you gotten safe to Oupenli?”

“At least two dozen, plus some more in a group together.”

“Oh.” That meant there could be roughly a thirty percent chance of dying. Denario didn't like those odds. “How is it that you're still alive, Jack?”

“I always keep on my blindfold.”

“What, you don't get to see anything either? Who does the steering?”

“That's the secret.”

“Steering blind?” The front raft would hit something, throw Denario off, and he would drown. That didn't seem merely bad odds. “You're an amazing riverman, Jack, but that doesn't sound right. You can't feel your way through a marsh of man-eating monsters. For one thing, the creek carries you at the pace it decides. For another, even in this part of the creek we have to find our way around obstacles. I don't think I could do it in the dark.”

“You could. You'll see. Or at any rate, you'll understand.”

“How do you know that the talking crocodile is a crocodile? How do you know about the man-eating plants and the giant snakes if you haven't seen them? You must be peeking through the blindfold some of the time. I know a lot of sailors in Oggli, Jack. There are no blind sailors.”

There were sightless carpenters and stone masons, though. He reflected on that for a minute. A plague had struck Oggli when he was still a slave in the Blockhelm cloth factory. He'd missed the disease. It had slain thousands in the city. When it hadn't killed them outright, it left its sufferers blind, their faces scarred. The Marquis de Oggli had issued a rule stating that no plague victims were to appear in court, on pain of death, unless summoned.

The marquis had been happy to summon a blind master stone mason when Denario was ten. His job had been to lay a marble floor in a tessellated pattern, light triangles and dark triangles interleaved. The mason had been the best. Perhaps the marquis had expected the mason's apprentices would do the work. But they didn't divide the labor that way. The mason himself mapped the rooms and hallways without seeing them. Winkel, sworn to secrecy, had observed the master in action and revealed to his apprentices no more detail about the method other than it was clever. Could Jack have invented something similar? And if he had, could Denario lift his blindfold enough to witness the method and write it down?

“Do you have the geography of the creek memorized?” he wondered. Pushing through from landmark to landmark, discovering them carefully with the punts – that might work for a while. It would be tedious, though, and mathematically it wouldn't be interesting.

“That isn't possible when yar close to the temple. Maps won't stay in anyone's head. It's part of the temple magic. And if they did, that wouldn't matter 'cause the lands keep changing.”

“The riverbanks move?”

“Everything is different, every trip through. When I was younger, I used to dare to take off my blindfold. My father steered back then. I could see how the waterway changed in unnatural ways. Sometimes the place was a swamp with routes so twisty and full of mangroves that ya could walk from root to root. Sometimes it was a straight shot through groves of maples on either side, cool and sweet. The view shifts beyond the trees, too. Sometimes I glimpsed hills. Once, I saw high shelves of red sandstone. Usually, there's no one around. But sometimes there are abandoned villages in the woods. And sometimes the abandoned villages have people in them.”

“Logically ...”

“I seen mud huts with short men. I seen rock walls with lean, red men behind. I saw a blue woman, once. But I put the blindfold right back on that time. 'Cause she was nekkid.”

Denario thought that wouldn't have been his reaction.

“There are not beautiful, blue-skinned nekkid women just hanging around in a magical forest, waiting for an adolescent boy to speak with them,” Jack explained, showing a bit of his cleverness. “Even back then I knew that. Either she was a sorceress … she carried a spear or a staff, could be magic … or she was a trap.”

“Oh, like a string molly.”

“A what?”

“In the city, sometimes gangs rob tourists by dressing up someone's sister or cousin as a prostitute. She gets some of the money, of course. It doesn't sound too dangerous for her but, well, she's the string. The girl catches a stranger's attention, talks him up a bit, leads him around the corner into an alley and, wham, there's the gang, waiting to jump the tourist. If the fellow is lucky, they'll only take his money.”

“Huh. Yeah, I thought something like that could be going on with the blue woman. But I was just as worried about my father's tales of the Bog Beast.”

“A scary story? Or something real?”

“He says real. He met a weird kind of magical creature that looks like anything, could be a patch of swamp or another lost temple, dark but unthreatening. Whatever it looks like, you won't notice it. All you really see is the pink lady.”

“Is she pretty?”

“He never said. Pink is the color of the beast's tongue, it seems. If ya look close, the lady isn't a perfect imitation. The illusion is helped by magic, maybe, but it must seem more like a statue than a person. Seen through the trees, though, or from a distance … my father figured it had to be convincing. It nearly caught him once, he says, when he was hiking near the temple.”

“Come on, Jack. Hiking?”

“That's what he likes to say. I know he was treasure hunting.”

“Interesting. The treasure is real, then.”

“Depends on what you mean. After all, the temple is real enough. The walls are laid with white stones. As to gold or jewels in there, I never seen 'em. My father had a boatman friend come out of the temple, he says, with a gold statue of a goat almost too heavy to carry. So my dad and his shipping partner, Berti, went to look for more. It was Berti who spied the pink lady. They were lost in the middle of the woods. My dad tried to warn Berti but he was too late. Besides, Berti saw there was something wrong with the lady and started to back off. It's just that he didn't make it. That's when my father got a look at the jaws. Then there was the tongue, too, as it stretched out and wrapped around Berti to keep him from escaping.”

“That's awful.” Denario thought about how everyone in Oggli, even the wizards, avoided the area. Wizards said that it was because the land had 'too much magic.' That made it sound like a technical problem. It was worse than they let on. “Can I walk around? Meet you on the other side?”

“It's twenty miles extra if ya know the shortest ways. I thought ya was in a hurry.”

“Guilder. Mark.” Denario muttered his boys' names. “Shekel. Yeah.”

“The temple won't hurt ya unless ya get out and visit it.”

“I hope so.” But now Denario knew the odds.

They poled the rafts in silence. A deeper mood settled between them and the minutes passed until they became an hour. The lead raft drifted by houses on either side, isolated farms not near any town. Denario spied a boy on the Kilmun side. The shock-haired fellow stumped around on stilts as he herded a flock of sheep. Stilts seemed to give him an advantage in the tall grass. He could see the whole flock from there. Jack stopped his work and stared at the shepherd for a while before he returned to his construction task. He crouched among the pieces of the third raft-to-be, which he'd partially lashed together from dried mallow logs.

Denario hardly needed to steer. He spent most of his time trying to picture the lands to the southwest where the lost temple lay in his path. The choices ahead seemed grim. However, they reminded him that he had cartography to do. He set down the punt and picked up his theodolite. Instrument in hand, he swiveled to the northeast. He made sightings on the river banks and the lands behind. Between his piloting stints, about a minute at a time to keep the crafts in the middle of the waterway, he transferred his best judgments of distance and angle, along with approximated landmarks onto his map of No Map Creek. As always, he found it difficult to draw on the moving raft. Even in calm waters, it took concentration.

When he finished, he rested his parchment on top of a flat-topped jug. He picked one near the front of the raft, close to the center. That was the best place to keep an eye on it while the ink dried. His gaze passed along the trees to either side. He and Jack had left the fields behind. Sparse birch boughs had sprung up. They replaced the clearings made by farmers and ranchers. Even on the Kilmun side, Denario saw no sheep nor any sign of them.

The young trees weren't wide enough to provide shade in the middle of the stream. Denario continued to need his hat. However, he noticed that the white branches offered likely homes to owls, hawks, and other birds of prey. He recalled what had happened to one of his previous maps. He set down the theodolite. At the same time, he lifted the punt in his other hand, ready to swipe at any bird who dared.

A shadow passed overhead. Denario flinched.

He squinted into the sun and raised his weapon. But the silhouette kept moving. Mouth open, he studied the shape. It was a flying frog. This one was as big as a fox. He watched it flutter, dip, and glide upward to land on a spindly green-white shoot off of a white birch trunk. He didn't think the twig would hold it. He waited for the bough to break. It didn't. The green and spotted-yellow creature blinked. It swiveled an eye toward him. Huge as it was, it had to weigh no more than ten pounds in order to rest on that branch.

Under Denario's feet, the raft bumped. He put his hands down to steady himself. A splash of water swept across the front deck. He turned to face it. What had they hit? A sandbar? Not likely, in the middle of this deep channel. A sunken log? It would have needed to be large to shake him. He glanced behind. There was no sign of the obstacle. Whatever it was, it hadn't bothered the trailing raft.

Jack was holding his carving knife. He wasn't looking at the timber in front of him. Rather, he was turning his eyes to the effect of the splash. He blinked. His expression melted from one of concern to resignation. His mouth twisted in a sad grimace as his focus turned to Denario.

The accountant turned and his eyes searched the deck. Water had receded through gaps in the gunwhales. Everything up front was soaked but otherwise looked fine. One jug had popped a tie-down peg and moved a few inches. The rest of the cargo sat unbothered. Denario's focus switched back to the jug and the loop of twine next to it. The slipped peg looked like a daisy that had dropped its petals. The twine dropped to rest against the jug. It was the jug that had held the map.

The parchment was nowhere in sight.

“Funny thing,” drawled Jack. “There's never a wave in that part of the creek.”

Next: Chapter Twenty-One, Scene Three

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 125: A Bandit Accountant, 21.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene One: A Foreshadowing

“A bridge!” shouted Denario. He hopped to his feet. The raft wobbled under him as he pointed to a nearly golden structure ringed by willow-oaks. It stood at the edge of his line of sight past a long, wide clearing where nothing grew but sand, scrub grass, and rocks.

At half a mile distant, the bridge was as far away as anything Denario had ever seen on No Map Creek. The waterway tended to shorten his line of sight with bends, trees, reverse-bends, and more trees. This time he had a clear view for nearly a mile. The lush border of poplars and birches parted on the Mundredi side to reveal a magnificent, amber monument. It had a dozen farms clustered on either end. The structure was out of proportion to the modest roads leading up to it. That only made it more impressive.

“It's not just any bridge,” answered Jack. “This, accountant, is the Dwarf Bridge.”

“But it's not small.” He eyed the keystones. There were only two visible, one for each arch, but they were each as large as a man.

“No, it’s human-sized. But it’s old, strong, and maybe a bit magical. The dwarfs craft things that way, they say, although I think the line between their skills and their magic may seem blurred to those of us over four feet tall.”

Aha, realized Denario. Magical creatures built it, dwarfs. And I've seen dwarfs in Oggli. They talk to wizards.

“Nothing happens to people crossing it, right?” Or passing under it? Denario wondered. That seemed more important as he realized he would soon float between the shore and the center column.

Maybe the structure only seemed magical to the locals because, not too long ago, they hadn't known how to build arched bridges except via the corbel method. A corbel arch was a false arch in Denario's opinion. It needed abutments and thick walls. But the dwarfs had known how to construct true arches long before men. For ages they had built them underground, out of the sight of humans, and so they'd avoided sharing their secrets.

“A feeling comes over ya, they say.” Jack gazed wistfully ahead.

“What kind?”

“A feeling that those dwarfs knew what they were doing.”

A light rain the night before had stirred up the silt of No Map Creek. The water roiled with brown mud. Visibility had fallen to about an inch straight down. Denario felt compelled to test the depths with his punt. In three tries, he got measurements of four feet, three feet, and five feet. That's why he was gazing off into the distance and thinking about right triangles ... 3,4,5 ... 5,12,13 ... 6,8,10 ... 7,24,25 ... 8,15,17 ... when he noticed a glint from the top of the bridge.

An second later, he saw another brief, metallic flash. He heard Jack's feet patter across the wood.

“There they are.” The riverman sprinted to the front of the forward raft. “A caravan.”

“Is it?” The accountant squinted straight ahead until he saw the movement, human heads bobbing up and down as they crossed the bridge. “I've only seen them at Phart's Bad. Do you know this one?”

“The mule bags are dyed green. The men have got steel gorgets on over their shirts. Even this far away I can see the shine around their necks. The shirts are green, too. That's a color that Oleg Thalberg likes. He wears it to advertise dyed cloth. It's got to be his caravan. That's one of the best. We have to stop and see if they've got anything to trade or send downstream.”

Denario pushed against a rock on the bottom of the creek with his punt. When he'd started this journey, he'd understood that a gorget was an armored neck brace. That wasn't new to him. Squires at the court had worn them. Hermann Ansel had owned one. What he hadn't understood was how they worked.

A neck brace could stop a sword from slicing your head off your shoulders. That's good. But if the rest of you goes unarmored, the gorget itself is ridiculous. Anyone able to cut off your head is capable of lethal blows everywhere else. So what was the point? After Denario finally got up the nerve to ask the question one evening, the Ansels explained how the armor worked.

“A gorget might mean something different in richer lands,” Hermann had said. Like most educated people in the duchy of West Ogglia, he'd allowed as how most advancements came from elsewhere. Everyone took it for granted that foreign places were better. “We haven't learned the secrets to good armor here. But among the mercenary classes and among the Mundredi royalty, the circle of steel around a man's neck is a promise.”

“A promise of what?”

“It means his family is saving up for more armor,” Valentina had interjected.

“Aye. My father bought me the gorget. I bought the bands from the ring to my shoulders.”

“My father bought him the two shorter brass bands,” said his wife, “front and back.”

“The framework is complete. Valentina sewed it all into my padded shirt.”

This was how banded armor started in the Oggli and Mundredi styles. A gorget coupled with the skeletal straps provided support to the bands. Even a rather poor smithy could fashion metal bands that could be welded or stitched into the frame. However, the frame was tailored to the man. Even when a particularly lucky and inventive bandit chief like Vir was able to rob a man of his armor, he'd have to cut it to pieces in the process or he'd discover that it fit no one else but the original owner. Either way, Vir needed an armorer to make his thefts useful.

Mundredi armor, even that of commoner-nobles like Hermann Ansel, was brass. Brass was more sanitary than steel. It didn't rust. But it was a tenth heavier than steel and only eight-tenths as strong. Denario figured that a warrior in brass armor had to be thirty percent better than an opponent in steel armor to stand an even chance in a fight. Vir might say that math didn't mean anything but Denario was sure that it meant something real. Calculations about weapons and armor were clues about the proportions of deaths in battle. All of the Oggli knight said that men in brass armor wouldn't stand up to steel weapons for long. Denario believed them.

“They're coming from the Kilmun side. Lay us up on the the Mundredi bank. We'll meet them there,” said Jack. He was reaching for a pole as he spoke. Denario was too slow. “Eh, never mind. I'll do it myself. You get our personal gear into the tent.”

“Do we have to worry about thieves?” The accountant's eyes widened. He trotted to his bags and grabbed the closest strap.

“Some traveling men think they move fast enough to escape the consequences of what they do. It doesn't hurt to be careful. You've got armor and scrolls and whatnot. It's not hard to imagine that something will look tempting.”

The accountant stashed his heaviest pouch first. That was the one, besides his main pack, that held the most money. His main pack, custom tailored in Ruin Thal, was already inside the tent. It took a minute to stow everything else. All that he left out were his third-best quill, a piece of dried fish on birch bark, his drawing compass, and a re-used scrap of parchment. He'd used the parchment to draw a map of the last few miles of the creek. He'd had time to add to it, as well, a rough sketch of the earlier parts of No Map.

The ink still shone. It needed a few minutes to dry., He left it in the center of the deck and made a mental note to himself to watch the caravan guards so they didn't steal it or step on it.

Oleg Thalberg, the caravan master, clapped his hands as Denario and Jack tied down. Oleg was a sandy-haired man, going to gray, with a thick, light brown beard. Behind his smile were the strongest looking teeth Denario had seen in weeks. Maybe Oleg saw a dentist in Oupenli or maybe he simply knew how to brush his teeth. Oleg's body, despite his advancing years, remained solid. He filled out his green tunic with broad shoulders. The lines in his face showed him as well past thirty but he looked more fit than most younger men.

He put his hands on his hips. “Clever Jack! You're looking well.”

“I'd swear you're younger than when I saw you last year.” Jack grinned. He stuck out an arm. The two slapped each other's shoulders with their left hands as they shook with their right. It took a few minutes for them to exchange pleasantries about their health and the weather. Denario stared at the big man's tunic, which held an emerald clan sign atop a lighter green background. As he studied, he felt the guards studying him in turn. By their expressions, they were wary of his armor. It was only the hauberk, this time. His single weapon was the baselard, still sheathed.

“Ya Mundredi? Kilmun?” asked the closest one. He was either clean-shaven or not mature enough to grow a beard. “Not Waldi, surely.”

“No tattoos,” muttered his friend. He was old enough to sport a tattered chin curtain. “Ya can't be Muntabi of any sort, can ya?”

“I marched with the Mundredi army for a while,” admitted Denario. “But I grew up in Oggli.”

“Oggli!” they breathed. That was a name that dredged up respect.

“Fooled me.” Oleg turned to him for the first time. His gaze narrowed. “Is that an accounting vest I see beneath yar hauberk?”

“It is.” After waking from a dream about the Paravienteri docks., Denario had thrown on his work shirt this morning. Wearing it felt natural. Anyway, he'd covered it, or so he’d thought.

“Oleg,” drawled Jack. “This is Denario the Dramatic, a warrior and certified accountant. He's returning from his last job in a roundabout way.”

“Very roundabout, I'm sure.” Oleg tugged his beard. “A great warrior, you say?”

“Never seen any like him before.” There was a twinkle in Jack's eye.

“So ya got yourself some security. Good.”

The riverman folded his sinewy arms. He leaned back with satisfied expression. “He started out as a paying customer, if ya can imagine.”

“Ya always were clever.”

“That's what I'm supposed to say.”

“Certified in Oggli? Damned expensive. Too rich for the likes of me.”

“Are you hinting, Oleg? We could cut ya a deal.”

“Are you his agent?”

The boatman hooked his thumbs under the drawstring of his pants. A smirk spread across his lips. Oleg developed a furrow along his forehead but the big man calmed and it disappeared. The calmness seemed to be his professional disposition because he negotiated with an bland face. He only interrupted the conversation when he needed to order his muleteer to unpack. The muleteer, a thin, middle-aged fellow, directed the guards to assist. It seemed clear that men carrying spears were on the bottom rung of the ladder of commerce.

Each leader traded goods and services. It was a complicated deal with several items, large and small, changing hands. Denario settled down on a stump to review the caravan's books. Oleg used real books with modern writing in them, his own semi-legible script. There were so many mistakes and missing entries that the review took hours. The caravan had to throw in a full meal, an agreement to carry Denario's messages, and a bottle of ink. Oleg noticed Denario's map on the raft deck, too, when the accountant leaped up to stop someone from trampling it. At the end of the review process, he bargained for a review of his trail charts with corrections and annotations for magical changes in the geography.

The caravan carried no trail charts showing lands within a mile of the creek, Denario noticed.

In exchange for the work, Oleg gave Denario a roll of maps for which he had no use but which could presumably be sold to someone else. The accountant mentioned how the caravan's trail maps didn't include the most obvious one, the road they traveled.

Oleg laughed. “Well, of course. This one runs by No Map.”

Denario glanced at his sketch of the creek's course so far. It was where he'd left it. Someone had kindly set a rock on one corner to hold it in place against the breeze. He tried to read Oleg's face as he caught the older man glancing at what was written there. A moment later, he tried to read Jack's expression as the riverman did the same thing. The leaders exchanged a look of knowing. Denario would have sworn they were innocent of any evil intent. They merely regarded the parchment in progress as object of humor.

After the caravan and rafts exchanged their last round of goods, the men swapped news of the towns upstream and downstream. Jack told the story of the Raduar assassin's attempt on Denario, to the laughter of all. Oleg told them about a troop of dwarfs he'd met.

“They've got hammers, mostly, and a few axes, but those are used more as tools than they are as weapons. For armor, they've got poor stuff. Really bad.”

“Are you sure? Beyond Oupenli, dwarfs are the only folks I've met with good steel.”

“Not this lot. They've got steel caps, true, but very little chain mail. Their hauberks look like they were studded with iron but they've been using the studs as ingots.”

“They're doing forge work with pieces of their armor? They must be really hard up.”

“I think so. They claim to be traveling craftsmen. They pull along an anvil in a little cart. That lets them move from town to town, earning their keep with fix-work.”

“That's a nice setup. Should be making them rich.”

“They've been robbed. Twice. On top of that, some folks aren’t paying. It's tough being small. I hired them to fix our gorgets. They did that and more, grateful for the money and the extra food. Out of pity, I let them trade for my worst supplies with their surplus maps. That's what brought the whole mapping business to mind.”

“So you gave us dwarf maps.”

“They say no. The maps were drawn by humans. That's what's been giving them trouble. But I can't read the damn things either. They're like no maps I've seen. All I'm saying is, don't try to trade them back their own scrolls. I doubt that would work.”

“Dwarfs are the best tool makers around,” mumbled Denario. He put a hand to his chin to hide his smile. He'd glanced at the scrolls and knew them for what they were. They were a series of mining maps. To most folks, the three dimensional coordinates of topographic maps looked like a sort of code. A good Oggli-trained accountant could read the code. Dwarfs couldn't. That must mean they used a different system. Denario wondered what it was. Whatever they did, he bet they didn't think in terms of a layered set of representations as seen from above. From below, maybe? From a center outward, using polar coordinates? As a description in pure math, no flattened model at all? There had never been a member of the accounting guild who had learned the secrets of dwarfish math.

“They could fix your spear,” offered Jack.

“You mean my theodolite. Yes, that would be handy. I could chart a better map.”

“That's not what I meant.” The boatman and the caravan members all stole glances at the parchment on deck. “All the same, we should stop and talk to them if we get the chance. Where did they say they were from, Oleg?”

“Some place with a dwarfish name I can't remember in the mountains between South Valley and Wizard Valley.”

“Kilmun territory, then.” Jack rubbed his balding head. Out away from the tree cover, he was starting to feel the sun.

“Worse, near the Mystic Desert.”

“Not from the south. Pity.” He folded his arms across his chest. “They didn't come by way of the hidden temple.”

“Surely not.”

“I hoped they might have a better way through. You know, being magical creatures and all. Someone must have a way.”

“You've sailed it and walked it many times, Jack. You're not like the rest of us.”

Jack dropped his arms out to his sides. “Ya went the long ways around again Oleg?”

“Had three men die during my final stump along the Lost Path. It kept losing us, as it so often does. I'll not attempt the straight route any more.”

“Where did that happen?”

“In different places. One listened to the talking crocodile. That was south of the center. Another went after a siren, I think. My captain … former captain ... caught sight of the white walls or so he said.”

“Near the center, then.”

“He bolted for the temple. Of course he was after the gold or jewels or something. He never came out.”

Oleg and Jack bowed their heads and made holy gestures over their hearts. It was the only time that the accountant had witnessed Clever Jack showing signs of religion. Next to the older men, the young guards stood slack-jawed. Their eyes were wide and round. Had they realized what they were missing when they skirted the lost temple? It seemed not. They turned their gazes on Denario. The short one with close-cut hair ogled the accountant's armor. He breathed from his mouth as he contemplated:

a) how brave the warrior in front of him was
b) how dead the fellow soon would be

although he caught himself after half a minute. He blinked. Self-consciously, he shifted his focus down to his feet. One of his heavy-set companions gripped tight to his spear. His lips pressed together, hard and pale.

“How do you always get through, Jack?” asked Oleg.

“Trade secret. Anyways, I pretty much showed ya.”

“You do that every time?” The caravan master shuddered. He turned a pitying look on the accountant.

Next: Chapter Twenty-One, Scene Two

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 124: A Bandit Accountant, 20.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Score
Scene Five: Screwing Up

“But I tried this before and it didn't work!” complained Marcel. He adjusted his grip on the end of the wooden tube. He'd gotten the side with the handle. Denario grabbed the open end, the bottom. The shape lent itself to a good grip but the accountant knew he'd regret choosing the lower side. He was already standing in the water. He'd have to wade deeper.

Marcel's older brother held the middle of the tube. Opposite him stood a tall man with hairy arms. A boy too young to help tried to take part. His face was faintly purple with effort. Men chuckled as they strolled around and joined the team. The thick-bearded man who Denario thought of as a pickle farmer gripped the other half of the low end. From his grimace, he didn't enjoy putting his feet into the water any more than Denario did.

Jack Lasker, in contrast to everyone else in the group, laughed as he waded in. He directed the remaining bystanders to where they were needed. He even told the boy to join his younger brother and shore up the ramp of stones and dirt. A few second later, he dismissed Denario.

“We've got this,” he grunted. “Make sure yar ramp is ready.”

The accountant gave way to the riverman in relief.

“What is it that you tried, exactly?” he asked Marcel as he resumed their conversation. He slogged over to where he'd built most of the ramp out of shale, sandstone, and conglomerates from the creek. The slope of his construction wasn't quite sixty degrees but it was close.

“I put the end deeper into the water.”

“Aha. So you didn't make the angle steeper?” Denario surveyed the damage done by the overenthusiastic boys as they tried to mold the ramp with mud. It didn't look too bad.

“The steeper the angle, the harder the pump has to work.” Marcel grunted with effort. One of his friends was helping him keep the high end aloft.

“Yes, that would be true if this were a pump.”

Denario had to acknowledge that Marcel had done the right thing for someone with a wrong understanding of the problem. Pumps needed to dip an end into the water, no more. The steeper the angle of entry for a pump, the more effort to force liquid to the top. Denario didn't understand pumps to the level of detail that his apprentice Buck knew them but Denario had seen two laid open, each of a different design. Both had forced up water by pushing down on a bladder. If Buck had made these devices, he'd have made them just as Marcel expected, using underwater bladders. They wouldn't have had screws.

Despite the fact that he'd looked straight into the mechanism of a broken tube, Marcel still imagined that we was cranking a bellows or possibly some kind of gear shaft that compressed a bladder. He thought he had to force the water upward by pushing down on something else.

“It is a pump,” insisted Marcel. He couldn't dislodge his idea of how it should work. “I told you. It lifts water.”

Denario shook his head. He'd tried to explain but, after a failed attempt he'd shrugged and got on with his ramp. He knew that a description of geometric shapes wouldn't bring any enlightenment to these farmers. He might as well say the device was magic. Anyway, it was advancing toward him, step after step, and he needed the water and the land both lined up correctly for it to work. That was his theory, anyway. He was still working on the reasons.

The water screw arrived before he was ready. It didn't matter. The heavy oak casing didn't crush his fingers or toes. The underside came to rest on the slope of rocks. It dislodged mud and stones. The overall structure held firm. Boys on either side of the log began to shore up the ramp with more dirt.

“Is it the right way round? Do we need to roll it?” Marcel regarded the crank handle on the top of the tube as if it were the face of a clock. He meant to spin the cylinder to make sure the pump intake rested in clear water, not in silt or air. Denario checked to make sure the screw hadn't settled into the dirt too far. Otherwise, he didn't worry. His end was in the water. He was pretty sure that was all they needed. Not quite, he corrected himself. The screw blades need to rest at the correct angle. And they need to turn.

“It's fine,” he announced.

“Do you need to fix the mechanism?” Marcel asked.

“As long as the barrel doesn't leak too much, this one should carry water.”

“If it wasn't working before,” Marcel objected. “It's not going to work now. You haven't fixed anything inside it.”

“Just turn the crank.”

“But ...”

“Do you need me to turn it?”

“No, no.” Marcel threw up his hands. He eyed the gentlemen around him as if to say, 'You understand this man is crazy, right?' Then he crouched forward over the handle. He wiped his right hand, grabbed the knob tight, and pulled down. A grunt vibrated through his lips.

“Go on! Go on!” His friends shouted at him.

Marcel put his elbow into it. He lowered his shoulder. He kept the handle moving around clockwise. He clamped his left hand over his right and put the force of his whole body behind the length of the jointed wood.

Inside the casing, the water screw turned unseen and creaked like it might come apart. After a moment, the sound quieted. Denario put his hand on the barrel. He imagined it had grown cooler. Did that mean water had crept into it?

“Is something happening?” one of the men asked. He put his hand on one of the iron rings that held the held the contraption together.

“Keep going,” Denario huffed.

“Go on! Go on!” others shouted. Marcel picked up his pace in response to the shouts. Men and boys started patting the barrel of what they thought was a pump. They were feeling the temperature or maybe they were just imitating the accountant. A couple of the young men started to climb the rise from the creek shore to the field above. They seem to think they could help Marcel.

“Something's happening,” a man breathed.

“Go on!” everyone shouted.

“What's that smell?”

“Water!” someone shouted. There's water trickling down my side of the ramp.”

“The barrel staves aren't completely sealed,” announced the pickle man. He sounded disappointed. “It's been too long.”

At that, Marcel stopped. “Go on! Go on!” the calls resumed.

He shrugged at them as if they were all as crazy as Denario but he dug into his task again.

“I think you have to turn faster if it's leaking.” Denario rubbed his chin as he tried to picture what was going on. He thought the angle of the screw meant that the wooden spiral was picking up water and carrying it to the top. It was a strange idea. Why didn't the water slip back down? It had to be the angle of the blades. To the current that flowed in through the open bottom, downhill was always kept in the direction of the inside of the barrel. That's what kept it in the curling slope of the screw. But the screw couldn't possibly succeed if too much water was lost between the the edge and the cylinder surrounding it. If that happened, all the liquid that had been gathered up by the trick of the screw angle would drip back out.

“It sounds a bit like you're killing a pig,” someone said. Everyone stopped to laugh, even Marcel. But Marcel saw Denario's face and started again.

“Kill the pig faster,” said the pickle farmer. “Come on, Yonni, help him.”

One of the young men who had climbed the river bank hopped to the aid of his friend. Yonni, as Denario saw, was an energetic fellow with a shock of light brown hair. He was thin, young without much beard, and he had a barrel-maker's limbs. Yonni's forearms strained against the cuffs of his shirt, which reached only to halfway between his elbows and wrists. Together, he and Marcel didn't turn the screw handle much faster than Marcel had done by himself. But this time they didn't stop.

Denario walked to the other side of the cylinder so he could study the leak. It came from beneath, so he could infer there was rot or flaw in the oak slats. It caused enough of a problem to darken the mud. On the other hand, that was a sign that the water screw was working at least to the halfway point. There seemed to be only one leak or a few small leaks in one place. He saw no seepage higher up the barrel. Either the water wasn't rising that high, which meant defeat for his repair-by-geometry attempt, or the ends of the cylinder were water-tight and only the middle had degraded.

“Gods!” Marcel jumped back suddenly.

“What? What?” his friends called. Next to the cooper, Yonni kept cranking. He was a reliable young fellow.

“Water!” Marcel leapt back to his task. He helped Yonni spin the crank. Water sloshed again. Even down below, Denario heard it. Droplets hit Marcel in the face and he smiled. He hesitated. Again his friend didn't stop. The screw turned around inside the barrel and drew up another handful of muddy water.

All of the men and boys scrambled up the slope at once. It was such a rush that Denario, who had started to do the same thing, stopped. He'd been the slowest off the mark anyway and, if he waited, he would surely get a turn. In the meantime someone had to stay with the main body of the device if only to make sure it remained on the ramp.

Men at the edge of the grass, four feet upslope, jostled for position to see. The cooper stepped back to let them look with an expression of bewildered delight on his face. The hint of world-weariness around his eyes vanished as he began to understand what this meant. He was witnessing a shift in fortunes. Before, he'd had no quick way to bring water into his fledgling foundry and he'd needed to irrigate his fields by hand. Now, with the prospect of these working water screws, he could smelt and shape metals in quantity, probably at double or triple the best speed he'd estimated. His dream of riches could become real.

At the top end of the screw, the steadfast Yonni kept the handle moving. The counter-clockwise spin he imparted brought up water in a succession of gulps. Young boys crept between bigger men for a close-up view. Their jaws dropped. Their expressions started to look like Marcel's.

“This isn't a trick, is it?” Marcel poked his head over the rise. “You didn't just fix something in the pump mechanism? You're not sneaking up the water somehow?”

“No and no,” answered Denario.

“You're not using magic?”

Denario sighed. He took off his hat to cool down. “This is geometry.”

“It that like magic?”

“A little,” he allowed. He wondered how much he could explain. “Now that this machine is working, I'm sure I can draw you a picture of how all of these water screws are meant to operate. I'm not a barrel maker, so I can't fix the broken ones. But I can give you instructions on how to repair and run the rest.”

“There's a matter of payment,” interrupted Jack Lasker.

“Right.” Denario had been about to offer his parchment for free, not to mention his services. First he'd failed to learn good haggling from Master Winkel. Then, when he had a chance to improve himself after his rescue two months ago, he'd been unable to follow Vir's advice. Denario should at least have been able to imitate old Addler Vogel. When that man was young, he had been the best of friends with everyone around and had apparently kept his eye on the main chance, too. Denario was trying. But he certainly hadn't found an equivalent attitude.

He shook his head as he realized he might forever be a slave in his mind, doomed rely on others to drive his bargains because he couldn't speak up for himself. He pressed a hat back on his head and made himself listen, silently, as the riverman arranged for the job payments to be doled out in stages. Denario had time think about how such an arrangement helped Jack, who seemed to be have earned his self-appointed title of Clever.

The accountant climbed to the top of the riverbank to shake on the deal.

In stage one, Denario got paid a handful of money and Jack took half. That exchange that took place immediately. The accountant accepted eight coins from Marcel, five copper and three brass. Half of the coppers were green with rust. They had a metallic, tangy smell that Denario associated with purity. The better the copper, the faster it rusted.

He divided the coins, two brassers and one pence for himself, a brasser and four pence for Jack. The riverman moved his lips as he checked the math. He nodded. Denario handed them over. Then he tucked his portion into the fold on the inside waist of his pants. He didn't want anyone to catch a glimpse of his other coins.

Next came agreement on stage two. Denario negotiated for a wage of twenty brassers, a lordly sum to these folks. It showed how valuable a supply of water from these aqueducts would be. However, Denario wouldn't get his portion until he delivered a diagram to show how a water screw could be repaired. He figured he could do that overnight.

“How will I eat? Where can I work on the diagram?” he asked.

“You'll stay at my place, of course,” answered Marcel. In a minute, he agreed to feed Jack Lasker in the bargain.

When Denario stuck out his hand to shake on the second deal, he found a drawing compass in it. That made him smile. His fingers had dipped into his accounting bag as he'd considered the job and had decided on the right tool. He switched the compass to his left hand and shook.

“What about the third installment?” he asked.

“Well, most of the money gots to wait until I repair at least one pump, don't it?” Marcel replied. He let go of the accountant's hand.

Denario tried not to scowl. He knew the man was being sensible. No one wanted to part with their life savings without some proof that this better geometry would fix the water screws.

“Jack and I have to be sailing before then.”

“You can stay. No one is making you leave.”

“But ...”

“I'll pick up the money next time I swing around,” said Jack. “I usually come up this side of the creek by caravan on my return.”

“But ...”

“You'll get your half when we meet again, accountant.”

Denario cleared his throat. He had no words to add. The fact that he was going to sail away in the morning and never return to Barrel Bad for what was owed to him wasn't anyone's fault. Jack would collect. It was possible, barely, that Denario would meet Jack again someday in Oupenli to get the rest of his money. Maybe he wouldn't, either, but to Marcel and his friends, it made no difference.

“That'll do,” he sighed.

Next: Chapter Twenty-One, Scene One

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Not Zen 197: One Life
Macaque in West Sumatra by Sakurai Midori
A troop of macaques lived in a forest of mahua, bael, and banyan trees. Near the edge of the forest, there stood a grove of the tallest bael. In the thickest of those, on the branches with the best fruit, a matriarch ruled.

She had been the queen of the macaques for years, the youngest daughter of the previous ruler. Her birth had given her status in the troop during the prime of her life. Her wisdom had solidified her place. She had become the mother of many and the surrogate mother to two generations of macaques. Now her youngest daughter held the status of heir in her prime. Her daughter did not try to push her out onto a lesser branch of the great tree but instead gave her a good resting spot, food, and comfort.

The queen aged gracefully as the hair around her face grayed. Nevertheless, in time she fell ill. Her family members brought her tendu leaves to numb the pain.

"For you, grandmother." One of her granddaughters scurried up the branch to the foot of the queen's nest. She placed a gift of cuscuta flowers.

"Another useful herb, I see." The queen gave her grandchild a smile. The young female nodded. "Thank you, dear. Bring your father to me. I want to talk with him before I pass."

Her granddaughter scurried off along the branches. She hopped to the next tree, then another, farther from the center, as she searched for her father.

The queen's eldest son had been the lead male for a summer but that was many years ago. His small group had lost their battle for dominance. Now he lived on the perimeter. He had been allowed to retire with as much grace as males did. He and his allies did not contest the current leadership, nor were they pushed further down the ladder of status. They stood guard against predators and against other troops of macaques. Sometimes, the son visited his mother. He was a thoughtful fellow.

In a few minutes, she saw him. His broad shoulders curved when he paused to rest. His neck crooked with the slight stiffness of middle age. When he moved, his muscles rippled beneath his fur. His body still had the strength of a veteran defender.

With a shout, he hopped onto her tree. He let out another whoop when he swung onto the base of her branch. He stood and approached her with a smile.

"You called, mother?" he said. He rested his left arm on an upper branch for support.

"It's good to see you." She smiled. He hadn't lost his sense of play. There were many reasons he had not remained in the leadership, among them his lack of planning, his forgetfulness about his own promises, and his tendency to retire from struggles. But his loyalty to his friends, his humor, and his calmness in difficult times made others respect him. He had become known as a male of wisdom. "For the past two days, I have been thinking about you."

"About me?" He waggled his head in disbelief.

"Well, you and your father. There are differences, I know, but there are similarities."

"If you say so."

"Come now, you knew your father as well as males ever do."

"Truly? He seemed distant." He sidled up to her and held her shoulder as if to illustrate the point. He was a male who stayed close to others. Usually, other macaques groomed him. But he had learned caring from his mother. He offered comfort to others, even to children.

"As I said, you knew him as well as males ever do. If you had paid more attention when you were young, you would have noticed that he had a character trait that you do not."

"He was very sure of himself." Her son started to groom her. Her fur had grown matted, she knew, but that was because the touch of others had grown painful. She was willing endure her son's attention for a while, not that it would help her health or her appearance. "That, I remember."

"Yes. So you understand a little." She reached out and stayed his hand for a moment. "And what gave him that certainty?"

"No one can know that of another." He shook his head.

"But I know." She wanted to turn to face him. Her neck stiffened. Her son understood her discomfort. He walked around so that she could see him. Her fingers went to his strong jaw and traced the line of it. "Son, you are getting older. I do not want to wait any longer for you to understand this."

"I'm a simple fellow. Just tell me what made him that way."

"He created for himself a purpose to his life."

He paused. For a moment, his gaze drifted across the tree boughs. He took in the other macaques resting, playing, and eating leaves. A glance to the ground showed him two males in plain view, friends of his. They crouched over a jasmine bush as they foraged for beetles. When his attention returned to her, he seemed calm.

"Are you thinking about death, then?" he asked. "Does the nearness of it turn your mind to the meaning of life and to eternal life?"

"There is no eternal life. That is not something I believe."

"But mother, then what do you believe?" He stood back. "There is no purpose in this life we are living, not in the muck of eating, fighting, pooping, finding water, or falling ill with disease."

"This, I've heard from you before." Although it was a truth, it was a small one, a speck on the body of truths. "It is what fools say. You do not find a cause. You make one."

"What about the afterlife?" he said.

"Your father believed in that," she sighed. "But even he saw the folly of trying to make it his cause. After all, in believing in a life after, you assert your soul's existence. So even if you are right, when you get to the afterlife you will still be looking elsewhere for purpose. You will still say, 'it is not here.' Because it is not. That is not how it is done. Purpose must be here with you, in your existence now, because it is always now in your existence."

Since he had no response, he threw his arms up in anger. He marched along the wide branch. His fist hit the trunk of the tree. Then he turned around and marched back to his mother.

For a while, he paced. He grabbed the upper branches and shook them, not deliberately but with the force of emotion. When he tired, he sat across from his mother. He rose and shook himself. He grabbed an adjacent branch, swiveled, and sat back down.

"Well," he said. "Perhaps that is how it is done. But I must aim at a goal greater than myself. I can't love this muddy world of fighting, drinking, and grooming, no matter when times are good."

"Exactly." She bowed her head, glad her son wanted to focus on something better than himself.

"How could you and my father live side by side? You had different ideas about purpose."

"Our ideas were different as each stick made for grubbing, as each leaf made by a tree, as every bed made by a mother resting in the crook of the tree. We made our causes in life to be different because our souls were different. And yet they were the same as a leaf to a leaf, as a stick to a stick."

He cocked his head to one side, considering. "What was your purpose?"

"It was this troop around us. It was the lives of those before us and those coming after, all in a big tangle of vines, everyone caught up in everyone else, everyone heading towards an unknown goal together."

"And my father?"

"He believed in a great spirit. He told me, from time to time, how there was a soul that connected us all, that touched everything there was. He could see it in the interactions between us."

"And could you see it?"

"Sometimes I felt, well, maybe."

She leaned back, satisfied that she had managed to express the main part of what she wanted to say. However, she was no longer in her safe spot near the trunk. Her left arm slipped off of the side of the branch. She lost her balance. In a moment, she started to tumble.

The queen's fingers stretched out. She knew what to do but her weakness betrayed her. Her right arm did not rise high enough for her to catch the branch above. Her grip closed on a twig and broke it. She fell. It was her son who stopped her. He put his arms on her shoulders. He did not let her feet slip. With ease, he lifted her upright.

"You are so light," he murmured with surprise.

He hugged her. She surrendered to his embrace as she shook with the thrill of fear. He trembled, too, as he held her, but only for a short while until he remembered himself and grew calm.

"You can't stay up here," he said. "Let me guide you elsewhere."

"Back to my deathbed?"

"No. Well, to someplace different, at least. To the ground. You could rest there."

"If I lie on the ground, I will never have the strength to climb back up in this tree."

"I will stay with you."

"Until you need to sleep, perhaps."

"I'll remain for as long as you need," he replied. He did not need to explain to her that he expected this to be her last day. She felt it more keenly than he realized.

With care and with help from another granddaughter, the queen climbed down. She needed breaks to rest. Her son and her granddaughter lowered her between branches. She was careful because she remembered that other macaques had died from falls. She rested on each rung, each branch, and her son supported her until the base of the trunk.

The last was the worst. The tree was too large at its base. There were no handholds. Younger macaques simply ran up or down. The queen needed to do the same but she couldn't manage it even after a rest. She tumbled and rolled. She was lucky. She broke nothing, took no injury worse than a bump on her head.

"Rest here," her son said when they reached the shade of a jasmine bush. "I will see if my friends will bring you some food."

Although she lived on the ground for two more days, her son never returned to the trees without her. He remained in the undergrowth of ferns and jasmine. Together they rested in the midst of the sweet-smelling bushes. Her granddaughters brought her tendu leaves and cuscuta flowers to chew. Her son's friends brought them bael fruits, mahua, and beetles. They wanted for nothing, not even warmth or protection from the rain.

At night, the nearest macaques came down to the lower branches of the bael trees. They watched over their former queen and her son. Two of her son's friends, veteran males, slept on either side of them at night to keep her safe from predators.

In the middle of her last day, she waited until her son's friends had gone for food.

"Have you decided yet?" she asked.

"On what?"

"Tell me," she said. The words seemed to be coming to her slowly. "What is it that makes your life worth living?"

"Friends, I suppose."

"Doing good things for them?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Can you make it a purpose or a guiding principle of your life, this love of friends?" She smiled, knowing the answer.

"If there is anything for me, it is that."

"There is no uncertainty. As I told you the day before yesterday, this is not something you discover. It is something you make." For a moment, a sense of urgency gave her the energy to shake him by the arm. "Do you wish to make your love of your friends into your reason for living?"


"Then do so. Do it now." She let him slip from her. Her body relaxed. She leaned back onto the ground and lay there, out of breath. A moment later, her son took her hand. His fingers felt so strong. "Like a leaf to a leaf, like a stick to a stick. Your cause is right for you."