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?”

“Yep.”

“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?”

“Sometimes.”

“Jack ...”

“Ya?”

“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.”

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