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.”

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