Sunday, August 26, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 131: A Bandit Accountant, 22.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Two: Avoid Magic, Obviously

“Fisherman, if you spare me ...”

Wham. Jack smashed in the fish's skull with his hatchet. The raft near him vibrated.

“You don't talk to the bucca?” Denario exclaimed. He thought about all of the magical stories that began with talking fish. A lot of wishes got granted that way according to the poets. There were at least a dozen such stories around Oggli in the libraries and on the tongues of sailors. There were even more stories of wishes granted if you counting those that involved other talking animals.

“Too many of them around here, close to the Lost Temple.” Jack tossed the body onto his scaling board. A dwarf picked it up and sniffed. “Besides, I've been on this creek for a score of years. These fish don't have anything to tell me that I don't know.”

He pulled up the second line. The fish on the end of it was ready.

“Fisherman, wait!”

Wham. He tossed it in the direction of the makeshift kitchen again. This time, the body was intercepted by a dwarf in dark clothes. This was the dwarf that had been most upset by the prospect of eating creatures that talked, although all of the dwarfs had rebelled against it. It took a long hour of persuasion from Boldor and Jack, followed by a council between Boldor and all of the dwarfs, before anyone was convinced. The shortest, darkest dwarf, apparently Dodni's brother, converted first. That was because no one else dared to go before him. He was their expert in ethics and when he learned that they were passing into a land in which most animals talked and some plants did, too, he declared it all mjohlnar, which as far as the accountant could tell meant 'exempt due to hammers.' It was hard for Denario to be confident of his translation because the dwarfs switched so often between the human, modern tongue and their older one.

At any rate, Dodni's brother insisted on the burden of cooking so that his soul would be tainted – although when he referred to the taint in dwarfish he used lystet, which Denario thought meant 'lightened' – before his friends' souls were. That was in case he were wrong about eating things that spoke. He permitted Dodni to help but he did it with an air of grief about the fact that it couldn't be avoided.

He and Dodni, who dressed mostly in shades of green and brown, scaled the fishes, de-boned them, and popped chunks of meat into separate stew pots for dwarf and human. That seemed to be an invention of Dodni's brother, who had the idea of keeping a sort of ceremonial separation between his folk and humans. No dwarf objected, not even Dodni, because it seemed to be the dark dwarf's job to keep them properly dwarfish. Although the same ingredients, even the same spices, went into both pots, Dodni and his brother said dwarfish blessings over only their pot.

There had been three days of this sort of behavior so far. The dwarfs paid for math lessons and map-reading lessons every night. They liked it when Denario wore his accounting cap and vest to teach. They liked it even more when he berated them about sloppy math or geometry. The dwarfs seemed to feel that yelling was part of teaching and Denario didn't do enough. All in all, they made it clear that theirs was a professional relationship. The separation of meals reinforced that.

Today, Denario was too busy to object to the lunch situation. He had to steer the rafts, call for Jack's help often, which irritated the boat master, and he had to enlist three dwarfs to help him around sandbars without bothering Jack. He'd gotten to know Borghild, Torgrim, and Ulf well enough for them to give him a dwarfish nickname, Skilling. He gathered that Skilling was a) some sort of joke, and b) not very mean, because Dodni and his brother the ethics expert didn't object to it. He'd learned that a skilling was a sort of dwarfish coin. The nickname seemed to be about more than that, though, and the human words kill, meaning river, killing, meaning murder, and skill, meaning probably that the dwarfs liked his teaching, were all tied up together in it.

“Sorry, nothing on line three,” announced Jack. “And our accountant hasn't hunted any flying gars this morning.”

“I told you all, that was an accident.” Denario had been laying out pieces of maps yesterday to see how much of a full chart he could draw before No Map Creek took it. He'd discovered that writing equations to describe the creek produced less reaction. That was interesting. But the area of creek drawn on a piece of birch bark had produced a flying gar, which dropped down and ate the bark. When the map was gone, the creature lingered for a moment. So it hadn't escaped Denario's sword. To his surprise, the baselard's sharp edge had sliced the creature's head off. Well, mostly off. It had been messy.

“May we have another such accident,” mumbled Dodni. He gave Denario a gentle smile. It was a reminder that last night's dinner featuring the gar had been a good one.

“If you'd stop rebuilding the third raft, Jack, I'm sure we'd catch more fish.” Denario took the opportunity to point out that their current meal looked sparse. It would have to be stretched with their trade goods.

“That's true,” admitted Jack. “But then we'd have less raft.”

“There's nothing particularly wrong with the one you built.” Denario pointed to the bright mallow boards. “And the fact that you're rebuilding it while you're floating on it down the center of the creek is worrisome. I'm an inexperienced pilot, there are alligators in the water, we've got flying gars overhead, and none of the dwarfs can swim.”

“You're doing fine.”

“For now.”

“What I made before was rushed,” Jack explained. “You helped me caulk between the beams and spars with sedge. That was nicely done. But it's leaking. And the dwarfs have gotten better with their boat craft.”

“We learned different ways for different water vessels,” explained Boldor next to him. “Now that we understand human ways, we'll make the accountant's raft fit for the darkest ocean.”

That the dwarfs still regarded the raft as Denario's personal property was charming. They were probably right about the comparison between their skills and his, too. They'd proved adept so far at fixing everything he could imagine.

They had repaired his theodolite on the first evening while he taught them basic geometry in their rest area, an old Kilmun church. Then they'd re-made one of his travel bags on the next night, sleeping on the rafts, because they couldn't stand to see its shoddy workmanship glaring at them from the spot outside Denario's tent. This morning, they'd voiced their intentions to do something about his armor. In fact, Denario had counted the human items that met with the dwarfs' approval and found only four: his custom-made backpack from Ruin Thal, his best drawing compass, and the two rafts that Jack had built by himself. The fact that there was anything human-made of which they might approve had surprised both the dwarfs and the humans. Humanity was improving over the generations. Since the invention of writing, the fact that humans didn't live as long as dwarfs had stopped being such a disadvantage.

“There's five of you working constantly, six with Jack,” Denario observed. It looks like you've already rebuilt half.”

“Only about a third,” called Boldor.

Jack nodded at this assessment. He hopped from the middle raft, where he'd been checking the fishing lines, to the last one.

All of the crew except Jack were limited to the particular rafts on which they'd launched. That meant Ulf and a portly dwarf named Ragna were stuck with Denario. Ulf's job was to help Denario steer, so that made sense, but Ragna's job as far as Denario could see was merely to provide companionship for Ulf. Ragna nominally had been given the task of fixing the lead raft that didn't need fixing. Instead, Ragna spent most of his time fiddling with Denario's armor. The accountant was happy to let the dwarf do it because he didn't want anyone re-building the raft he was driving. And Denario didn't know much about armor. If nothing else, Ragna was giving it a good cleaning. Maybe he'd improve something.

The middle raft held Dodni and his unnamed brother. They were in the process of adding cabbage and turnips to the soup pots. The vessel also bore the two other dwarf pilots, Borghild and Torgrim, who realized that they didn't have much to do in their current situation. With Denario steering the lead vessel and Jack pitching in on the trailing end, the pair responsible for the middle raft could take turns napping, so they did.

The rest of the dwarf crew rode the pieces of Denario's failed raft. Those six, counting Jack, balanced on the timbers even while, in the early morning, they divided the vessel into thirds. Later, they rejoined the three sections without sedge reed caulking. They seemed willing to sink low in the water as they re-arranged planks. Waves sluiced over their decks through gaps in the gunwhales. Yet they carried on as if nothing were wrong. The only times they paused were for Jack to steer, to fish, or to poke an alligator that had swum over to investigate the rearmost fishing line. That had led to cursing from Jack and, to Denario's surprise, from the alligator.

He would have sworn that the beast muttered something in Ogglian after the boatman poked it in the eye. But it took the catch, dived deep, and crested near shore with the wiggling tail of a catfish still protruding from its jaws. Denario elected not to mention what he'd heard in case it was his imagination.

By the time the soup was done, the third raft was so well repaired on one side that it leaned toward the Kilmun shore. Even with Jack and the dwarfs arranging themselves and their tools to the good half, they couldn't even it out.

“The progress is heartening,” announced Boldor. He held a hammer in one fist and an awl in the other. “But all the same, dwarfs prefer to eat while sitting on firm ground.”

“Yes, I'd prefer not to eat soup while standing at an angle,” said Jack. “Denario, land us anywhere that there aren't alligators waiting.”

It wasn't hard. The accountant located a slow bend in the No Map, which was protected by a treefall, and steered them into the calms. He checked for alligators and saw only a hanging tree, which he'd come to understand was sort of a home for male sirens. The trees usually held half a dozen reed ropes dangling down in parallel lines from the largest branch. They were where the males hung caught game to eat later or to share with females. This one had only three ropes and no game, so it was probably not in much use. It was also a good sign there would be no other monsters. Denario aimed for the south of the riverbank and managed to drive his craft onto a sandbar. That was perfect. He tied off his mooring lines on birch trees.

“Borghild, Torgrim!” he called to the second raft. The dwarfs were having a slow time of it. They were pushing hard with the punts and he could tell they weren't listening. They'd tossed a rope to Ulf and another to Ragna for help in getting their boat docked. “Ulf! Don't tie off on the tree with the three ropes hanging down.”

“Aye aye, Skilling.” Ulf had started to head for it as if it were a traditional tie-down spot. He veered to his left.

Ragna paused. He had a coil in his hands and an eye on the hanging tree.

“Can we know why?”

“It was shaped by a magical creature that looks like a sort of water troll,” Denario tried to explain. “They're called sireni because they sing. I don't think this one is around right now. But if he stops by and sees that we've used his tree, he'll fight us for it.”

Ragna's eyebrows shot up. He scuttled off to the left and swung his rope around a tree next to Ulf's. Together, they tried to lever the middle raft to shore. Denario finished his knots and leaped in to help Ragna. He didn't think he did much good. Even the weakest dwarf was stronger than he was.

He did better with the last raft. Jack tossed a line to him. Denario moored the boat in a few seconds. The only problem was that the raft had settled at a rough point in the No Map, one with hardly any shore. The crew would need to climb off the gunwhales and shuffle down a narrow path between tree roots and the raft until they reached the point where the riverbank widened.

Before they had a chance to disembark, the dwarfs spotted message bottles.

The two containers were sandy yellow. They'd floated into an eddy current behind a fallen tree. They'd stuck not due to any branch but due to the backwards course of the water. The next rainstorm would have changed the flow and freed them. As it was, Boldor resolved to have both bottles as soon as he figured out what they were. He took the pick hammer from his belt. A team of three dwarfs held him by the back of his brown shirt as he leaned over the gunwhales on the rear of the raft. With the long, hooked end of his hammer, he scooped the closest bottle. His touch was gentle. He never cracked or overturned the thin neck.

“Nicely done,” said Jack when the bottles came close.

“Do these belong to you, sir?” asked Boldor as he took the first one out of the water. He seemed prepared to hand it over.

“No. And these are glass, so they come from somewhere close. If they'd drifted down from far away, they'd be made of pottery.”

“They look akin.” Boldor handed the first one to a dwarf next to him and, with assistance from his compatriots, set about capturing the other. “Could they have the same message, do you think? I was hoping to learn of work. You got us a job in that church but that was more the accountant's line of business. It needed geometry.”

“It's rare that someone calls for employees this way,” said Jack. “Except in the fall, I suppose, when everyone wants field hands. As I've said, northeast of the Lost Temple here, work may be scarce. What are you looking for?”

“Ironmongery would be preferred. But now boat work, too, or building water pumps.”

The accountant and river master exchanged a glance. Then they returned to watching the action. It took the dwarf chief another minute to hook the second message and drag it in. His crew stayed with him for the duration, out of fear for him falling in or simply due to their dwarfish sense of propriety. When Boldor stood and belted his hammer, the rest resumed their disembarkment. The dwarf who had been entrusted with the two bottles grinned as if holding treasure. Boldor, at everyone's urging, agreed to read the messages as they ate.

Denario ladled himself a second helping before Boldor finished his meal. Only then was the first scroll presented. The material looked to have been created from a clean lambskin.

“Oh, it's news from the Gods of the River.” Boldor scanned the rows of the letters. He scowled in the direction of Jack, then Denario. “It isn't directly from them, is it?”

“It's from one of their priests. We repaired their church two nights ago. You should be familiar with them. They were decent. A particular priest of theirs sponsors the news. Saying it's from the Gods of the River tells everyone that he's expecting to make no profit.”

“How unusual. There are four items of news, all laid out separately. I had no idea that humans in the countryside did this sort of thing. I thought it was only a few city humans. Well, the letters are all in the same hand. It's a mixture of the human old tongue and a new one. I'll see if I can work it out.”

He puzzled through each bit of news before he read. Once he had to enlist Jack's help in deciphering a pictograph. The first bulletin addressed the shortage of barley in a Mundrei town, Meye Bad. The Meye Bad spring crop had been transmuted by a magical, heavy dew into a thicket of rose bushes. The roses were excellent in color and taste. But the village wanted to trade most of them for barley.

The second item was a warning. The priest advised travelers to avoid the Mundredi village of Meander Thal. Half of the residents there had broken out in blue bruises. No one knew the cause. The gods said it wasn't them. Several older women, including a priestess, had died. Five children had succumbed to the malady. The dwarf, Boldor, paused in his reading. He rubbed his eyes. The deaths of the young, even human young, seemed to affect him.

The third announcement was a blessing from the Priestesses of Ill. Apparently, the Goddess of Ill belonged to a pantheon of small gods in No Map Creek. She warned everyone to avoid areas of heavy magic this month.

“That doesn't tell us much,” complained Boldor. “Only fools remain in lands of heavy magic for long. It's rare that anyone, even such as Clever Jack, makes it through.”

He bowed his head in the boat master's direction. So did many of his followers.

“The last message is, 'The Story of the Hideous Book Writer.' Is that correct?” He puzzled over a symbol that Denario was sure was a pictograph. “The runes are crude.”

“It's probably meant to convey 'Oggli Accountant,'” Jack offered.

“But the only … oh ho!” Boldor turned his head toward Denario. He burst into a belly laugh. The dwarfs on either side of him laughed as well but they exchanged worried glances. “How official looking this is. 'The Ugli Accountant, Favored of the Mundredi, Said to Be Friend to All of the Clans, Travels This Creek,' the story begins. Heh.”

The news that Boldor read contained brief descriptions of four accounting jobs: the corrections to split-stick records at the Harvest Temple, the repair of the water screws at Barrel Bad, the audit of the books for the Green Caravan, and the repair of the temple floor. Clever Jack was right. The news must have been launched from nearby.

Some of the details seemed exaggerated but otherwise the word-of-mouth between towns along the creek was as accurate as in any city.

“'The accountant is recruiting for an army of joint tribes,'” said Boldor. “That's how it ends. Is that true?”

“No.” Denario waved off the suggestion.

“Yes,” countered Jack. He held up both hands for a moment as he started to explain. “I know you feel you've given up. But in each village, you mention the Mundredi army. You answer questions about it. You write letters of passage to Fort Dred for the most criminally-minded of the young men. Surely you can understand if people see you as a recruiter.”

“This story is floating down the creek,” Boldor held up the second scroll. It had been pulled from the other bottle and unwrapped. “It's in many copies, I must suppose, unless we happened to find the only two.”

“I'm acquainted with the particular priest who writes these bulletins,” said Jack. He had finished his second helping before most of the dwarfs had finished their first. He rose. “He sends two dozen copies at a time, each of them charmed. It's interesting that we would find a single bottle, much less a pair of them.”

“It doesn't seem unusual,” said Boldor. “That's a high number floating around the creek.”

“This is area is thick with magic.” The river master shook his head. He scowled. “The River Gods clergy pray for favors. They get them, too, when their gods show a bit of interest. That's how the clergy get the charms. Were there none in the bottle?”

“What do they look like?”

“To the eye, they are clay beads. There are charms inside the clay. Those are meant to ensure that folks who need the news are the ones who get it.”

“Yes.” The dwarf who'd handled the amber bottles held the mouth of one up to his eye. “There's a round clay ball in each.”

“Right, then. Those who don't need the news can't see the bottles.”

“But we saw them. So we must need to know.”

“There were four items of news.” Jack raised a single finger. “One is for us. Or for only one of us, possibly.”

“It's obviously the story of the accountant,” said Boldor flatly.

“But why?”

“Because … hmm.” The dwarf chieftain rubbed his bare upper lip. All of his compatriots had beards but no mustaches. It seemed to be their family trait. “Because we must need to pay more attention when he teaches us about maps.”

“That could be.”

“Or maybe the accountant needs to hear about himself for some reason?” ventured Dodni.

“I'm just an ordinary journeyman.” Denario felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny. “This news list makes me seem better than I really am.”

“Listen to ya,” Jack scoffed. “What about the church floor repair?”

“It was a simple tesselation.”

The others around the campsite laughed. Jack put his face in his hands for a moment. When he let himself emerge a moment later, his expression was neither of anger nor humor. It was of patience.

“The dwarfs did the work,” Denario explained. The crew had performed more meticulously than humans and, oddly enough, with faster results. “They're craftsman. All I did was explain a bit of geometry.”

“Oh, Skilling,” moaned Ulf. Beside him, Ragna nodded.

“Mathematics is your craft, master accountant,” Boldor intoned. “I've never met a human who is moving their field forward until you. Even Jack, an accomplished master himself, does not seem to be making boats that no one has tried before. But you are going to depths where even dwarfs have not ventured. I tell you that as a sincere compliment.”

“Do I deserve it? The heads of my guild say that I lack years of experience.”

“All human lack years when compared to dwarfs.”

“Den,” said the raftsman rather lazily. He put his hands behind his head. “Didn't you tell me that you'd passed your guild master exams?”

“Oh, yes. I did that two years ago while under Master Winkel.”

“And you had the best scores in the history of your guild?”

“Maybe.” Denario blushed. “Well, yes. I'll train up one of my apprentices to do better still, though, probably Guilder or Shekel.”

“So you're a master teacher as well? Have you trained other teachers?”

“Just my apprentices.” Denario shook his head. “And my old Master Winkel. He was tolerant like that. He enjoyed it when I learned something new and taught it. A lot of the time, someone else had already thought of the same idea, of course. But sometimes I solved the problem in a different way and that was worthwhile. He'd write the solution down in the guild library. Sometimes I solved new problems about prime numbers or posed a new problem about infinities. Then Winkel would write to the masters in Muntar. He took me to the court to discuss the ideas that I had when they seemed new. Sometimes the nobles took an interest.”

“As well they should,” said Boldor, hand on knee. Jack merely shrugged.

“But I didn't teach masters or nobles as a rule. It was a dozen times at most, not counting Barto of Oggli, surveyor to the Marquis, or Winkel himself.”

“You keep saying no,” said Dodni, seated next to Boldor. “Yet the rest of your words say that you taught masters.”


“I'm a journeyman. And back in Oggli, I'm broke, too. I'm just trying to keep our apprentices housed and fed.”

“That's not what we'll say in any bottle message.” Jack scowled. But he clapped his hands. “News of us is what we'll write. We've been given two bottles. We were meant to find them. That means we can add our own news to the mix and it'll be about us and the good things we can do. Everyone should know about the skilled craftsmen coming downstream. Gods, I'll bet these dwarfs haven't even heard about a concept called 'advertising.' It's a human thing.”

The dwarfs huddled together for a moment, more than half of them.

“We've heard the term. We know a bit of how it's done in Oupenli,” said Boldor. “Humans pay other humans to say good things about them. It creates a falsely good reputation. That makes it immoral.”

“Good thing you've got an agent.” Jack's sarcasm made Denario wince.

This time, the dwarfs did more than murmur. Boldor and Dodni's brother fell into a heated debate in their private language, which sounded to Denario like rocks cascading into a landslide. Soon Borghild, Torgrim, and Dodni leaped into it. From the look of their gestures, they were siding with their leader. Boldor swept his arms wide. That cut off Borghild from the dwarfish cleric. It also paused the argument.

“Everything you say about us must be true,” Boldor stated with his eye locked on his cleric.

“Seems fair.” Jack tilted his head.

“No dwarfish hands may touch the page.”

“The writing is a chore for our accountant.” Jack jabbed his thumb in Denario's direction. “After that, I'll set the bottles afloat.”

The dwarfs leaned together for another consultation. It didn't take long.

“Such things are exempt because we are under the hammer. We know this.” The chief looked to his feet for a moment. “Although I am aware of the immorality of advertisement, I made an agreement with you. We are to be guided by you in human ways.”

“It's settled, then.” Jack's tone of voice became more business-like than usual. “We'll add our news to the bottles and let them go ahead of us before we settle in this evening. They'll get a half-day start on us. It's a chance at finding more work.”

“I thought there were no more towns,” Denario noted. “There's only the temple ahead.”

“On the Mundredi side, that’s true. But on the Kilmun shore, there's Druhi Thal and Sadri. They're both small but, well, who knows? Besides those places, the bottles could find their way to towns far past the temple. The River Gods News has made it to Oupenli before.”

That reminded Denario of the rest of the news bulletins. While he spent his paper and ink, for which he was paid with promises, he contemplated the warning from the Priestess of Ill. Everyone was instructed to avoid areas of high magic for a month. The Lost Temple was two days away.

Next: Chapter Twenty-Two, Scene Three

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 130: A Bandit Accountant, 22.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene One: Festival of the Children

“Are dwarfs invited to the Festival of the Children? Or did you invite yourselves? You haven't got any tattoos. I'll bet hardly anyone has noticed.”

“Probably not,” the fellow grumped. “Until you. You have no tattoos either, I see.”

“My name is Denario.” He stuck out his hand. The dwarfs eyed it suspiciously. “I'm pleased to meet you because I would like to talk with someone, anyone, about math. Or if not math itself, then geometry, maps, and surveying.”

“Surveying? That's a bit unusual for a riverman. Are you trying to chart the No Map Creek? I'm told it can't be done.”

“True, maybe. And yet ... I've got a few ideas about that. I'm running an experiment.”

“I don't think mapping lends itself to experiments, lad. Either the measurements are right or they're not.”

“We'll see.”

“You will, maybe. If you live.” The dwarf finished the first peach. He pocketed the second and hiked up his trousers. “Hmph. Is that some kind of human survey instrument I see on your deck?”

“The theodolite? Yes.”

“We'd never use anything like that in a mine. Too inaccurate.”

“Lines of sight wouldn't be very useful, I suppose. You'd use geometry, probably the stake and chain method. Did dwarfs invent that? I always wondered.”

“We claim that we did. It’s so long ago, though, it's stuff of legend.”

“This is how humans do it.” Denario used the wood in his hand to pantomine the action. His audience relaxed and gave advice. The dwarf started rubbing his beard, though, during the accountant's monologue on the perfection of triangles.

“We've learned something about triangles, living underground.” He waited patiently for Denario to pause rather than interrupt. “The way you humans use them is too straight. That's not good enough for the deep, deep dwarfs, the really low down ones. They've discovered that large triangles, especially when you think of joining a lot of triangles together, have curves in them. The whole world curves, they say.”

“You must mean that the triangles are curved in three dimensions, then.”

“You've lost me there, lad. What's a dimension? Something from a human religion? Dwarfs wouldn't know about those.”

That was a brilliant excuse to stay out of religious arguments, Denario realized. He'd claimed something like it himself, from time to time, but it had proved generally better to point out his devotion to Melcurio. He was human. His ignorance wasn't considered an excusable condition by the priests and priestesses who tried to convert him at every opportunity. For dwarfs, it might work.

“A dimension is a natural thing, a direction.” Denario drew in the sand with the tip of his punt. He explained the concepts of length, width, and depth and waited for the usual human argument that they were 'all the same thing.' Instead, the dwarf knelt to caress the accountant's drawing of a cube. He gestured to the shape four times in a stiff, ceremonial way and mumbled phrases in dwarfish.

“This is sacred knowledge,” he said. “I had no idea that humans knew this.”

“The masons understand.” Denario rubbed the crown of his head under his hat. “Probably some carpenters do. How could they not? We think the wizards came up with it independently. And there's the accountants, like me. That's probably the list of major human professions in the know.”

“I thought you were a boatman.”

“For a while. I signed on as crew for this trip. I needed a faster way to get home from my last job.”

“But if you're a human accountant, you should travel by coach.”

“My last employer didn't like the way I worked. He had the coach waylaid. I ended up traveling by horseback, then by foot. Now it's by boat, as you see.”

“Did you try to make off with his money?”

“No, I found that the mayor's brother was stealing from the tax collection.” Denario hesitated to tell the whole story, especially to a dwarf who hadn't revealed his name. But the fellow egged him on with questions. He even carved out a seat for himself in the sand. He planted himself down, hands on his knees, as if prepared to listen all day.

When it came to the point in the adventure when Denario discovered the dead coachman and passengers, the dwarf hissed. As the Mundredi army won a victory and were awarded with a song, he demanded to hear it. He chuckled at how the accountant fumbled through every blow and he applauded at the part added by the citizens of Pharts Bad for the saving of the town's mine accounts. He slapped his leg in time with the tune, a traditional one, apparently familiar even to folks who lived under hills and mountains.

He made Denario chant it a second time so he could sing along. He was still humming to himself when Clever Jack appeared from the alley next to the kiln house. The boat master barely paused. He didn't seem to mind that his assistant had chosen to entertain a guest. By the twinkle in his eye, Denario could tell that the the trading news was good.

“Den,” he said, ignoring what he assumed was a boy who'd turned his back on him. “Business is brisk. We've got a lot of produce to shift. Children are making their parents load up carts for us as we speak.”

“Let me guess. We're taking on high-value 'boring' items and we're unloading sweets.”

“You've got it.” Jack broke into an open-mouthed grin. “I'm going to miss you when you catch the coach from Oupenli. Are you sure you don't want to partner up?”

“Five apprentices.”

“Right. A pity. And who is this little fellow? Are you training up another already? It seems that I can't turn my back without you giving math lessons.”

“This,” Denario began. He swept his arm downward and considered how to continue without a name. “Is one of the dwarfs we've heard about.”

“Wonderful!” The boatman turned and noticed their guest as if for the first time, which it nearly was. He thrust out his right hand. “Jack Lasker, at your service.”

The dwarf responded to the gesture with the same suspicion he'd given to the accountant's offer earlier.

“Might you be Clever Jack?” he said after a moment. “The master boatman?”

“I might.” He lowered his hand. “Out of curiosity, may I know what you've heard about me? The character of the words, at least?”

“Mostly good things.” The dwarf touched his bare upper lip for a moment. Then he nodded to himself. “Yes, mostly good.”

The balding fellow adjusted his woolen cap. That had been one of the clues by which Denario had deduced that he was a dwarf. His skull cap, although not steel, looked much like the helmets worn by dwarfs in the epic poem illustrations published in Oggli.  After he'd straightened his clothing, he let his eyes fall to the accountant and, behind him, to the partially laden rafts. The center one held a lot but there was room for more, at least by weight. With another nod to himself, he rose, admittedly not very far, to his feet. He took two steps toward Denario and, right hand across his stomach, bowed his head.

“Master accountant,” he said. “You may tell your master boatman that the Chief of the Lost Mines, Renegade of Water Mountain, and leader of the first families of the travelers, Boldor Sonsonson, is here.”

“Pleased, I'm sure.” Denario tipped his hat. There had to be some sort of dwarfish protocol involved here but he had no idea what it might be. He had to bluff through.

“Boldor Sonsonson …?” he began. There had to have been a question in his tone of voice. The name begged for an explanation.

“Traditional name,” Boldor offered. “There must have been a first name at the front of all of the 'sons,' eons ago. It has been forgotten.”

“Thank you.” Denario introduced the dwarf formally to the boat master, which he supposed allowed them to talk on some other level than the one they had previously occupied. Jack returned the favor by introducing himself, also with several titles, including Master Raft Maker. He duplicated the dwarf's bow.

“Water Mountain?” he asked the dwarf directly.

“That's what humans call the place. It's also how we name it in our own tongue. The river Rodovnak runs underneath, squeezed beneath boulders at the base. Humans know only the springs and streams on the surface. Those are offshoots. The forces producing them are vast. Someday that mountain will be a canyon. Even now, the place is a spiderwork of rivulets, pools, fissures splitting open with steam, and deadfalls buoyed by the pressure of the Rodovnak. Each part is a trap for the unwary. Every home that's carved out of the slag will crumble in time to mud and grit. Decades spent hollowing out an underground road can be wasted by one rockfall that exposes a trickle of water. The road will soon wash away. The place is impossible to mine. But the jumbled earth there is so full of jewels, we work it anyway.” He sighed for the home he'd left behind.

“What makes you a renegade?”

“I read from our library the maps of some ancient citadels, long deserted. Quite a few were never seen by dwarfs. They were the underground lairs of titans or humans, only crudely mined. Nevertheless someone, probably humans, mapped them and recorded their histories. We know which ones were abandoned due to disease, which ones from cave-ins, which ones ran out of copper, silver, or iron, and which ones still held low-grade ores. A few were taken over by monsters, like dragons. That was hundreds of years ago. I asked myself, how long do monsters live?”

“How long until a mine is clear of disease?” wondered Jack.

“What about those low-grade ores?” Denario asked. “That's the most suspicious circumstance. Or should I say auspicious? Smithies have improved their methods in the past generation, I'm told. For sure, ore that was once cast aside is now carted in from afar.” An image came to him of the rock heaps outside of Pharts Bad.

“Humans have no idea.” Boldor rubbed his hands. “It's been hundreds of years since these underground lands were laid fallow. And some of them were mined by humans, after all. They were probably worth the lives of dwarfs even then if we had only been able to find them.”

“Which you are trying to do.” Jack grimaced with understanding. “That's why you're a renegade.”

“Right. The king felt it was an impossible journey. But I and a few others thought it could be done. We'd planned to be safely underground by now, though. The problem is that we're not accustomed to traveling in the open lands for so long or so far.”

“You're lost.”

“We're between mountains, that's all. Any dwarf would be lost. There are no hills of any size and no place to burrow without water coming in. We need to learn to navigate on the surface.” Boldor gestured to the landscape that mystified him. He might as well be a novice sailor at sea.

“You don't know where you're going?” Denario interjected.

“We've got good choices. I thought we'd explore a little, try to understand which mines both are close and worthwhile and which are worthless or too far away.”

“So ya don't know.” Jack made a rude noise. “Boldor, ya can't go to six places at once. Ya need to pick a spot and march. And ya need to move like ya mean business. If ya don't look hard and act tough as anything, ya'll get robbed.”

“Already happened.” The dwarf closed his hands in front of him. He looked at his feet, then at the gunwhales of the raft only inches away. He helped himself to a seat next to Denario. Maybe it was the result of the formal introduction but he seemed less shy. “We weren't tough. We didn't think to act like it.”

“I can show ya how the caravans operate.” Jack rubbed his chin. “But for a price. I might even hook ya up with a caravan what I know can be trusted.”

“And I could explain how to navigate,” offered Denario. “I can teach you to read maps, human or not.”

“Why would you think you can do that?”

“Because I've figured out the dwarf mapping system. It starts from the center and goes out like a sphere, a round fruit inside a mountain.” The accountant demonstrated with his hands.

The dwarf's mouth fell open. He sputtered. Finally, he threw up his fists, got up, and stomped around the riverbank. After a while, he slumped to a halt. But that didn't last. He kicked the sand and pebbles for a while longer. He knelt and thumped his forehead against a rock. A few moments later, he stood. He staggered.

“What did I say?” he moaned.

The accountant put his head in his hands as he pondered how the secret had been revealed.

“There was nothing in your words exactly,” he concluded. “This relates to something I've been thinking about for a while. Obviously, you've got maps. Why can't humans read them? Why can't you read ours? The only answer I could come up with is that you use a different coordinate system.”

“You came up with it on your own?”

“Not the system. We call it a polar coordinate system, although I don't know why. A wizard in Baggi chose the name. He must be quite old now but he writes letters to the public on occasion to make his case. He argues that polar coordinates are more efficient than using multiple depths of flat maps, which is what we generally do.”

“I'm is more efficient. And more beautiful.”

“Probably. I think he said the same thing. But hardly anyone reads his maps. It's mostly him and his apprentices. And dwarfs, it seems. His maps are useless to human mine foremen.”

Boldor folded his arms.

“Anyway, the wizard sparked a debate between the cartographers and the wizards around the Complacent Sea. It turned out that several other wizards had their own systems that they wanted to propose. A cartographer did, too, but his method involved creating more layers of flat maps and the wizards found that idea dull. The debate has gone on for a dozen years. It doesn't seem to be coming to a conclusion. The only progress in my judgment is that there's finally a human mine using the polar coordinate system. But they need constant help from the wizard and his assistants.”

“All right.” The dwarf stuck out his bearded chin. “Maybe you understand maps. Maybe you can teach. But what makes you think we can pay you for lessons? Our deal with the humans in town isn't settled.”

“Yah've got skills and strong backs.” Jack strode across the corner of the middle raft and onto the last one, the craft he'd built from mallow. Many spars of light wood lay across its deck because it was, as yet, unfinished. “Ya must, to have gotten this far.”

“Master Lasker is my agent for this trip.” Denario turned his left hand in his partner's direction. “I'm sure you could work out a deal.”

“It'll be a deal for no money,” said Boldor. “We're out.”

Jack put his fingers to his forehead for a moment.

“Are you the leader, Boldor?” he asked.

“Yes. I'm Chief of the Lost Mines. I'll be the king of a living mine someday if I find one worth reopening. But I've got to get us back into a mountain range first.”

“Aren't you tempted to go back to Water Mountain?”

“No. I'm a renegade. I must make my own home or die. The others could return, perhaps, if they were willing to endure a lifetime of living in shame. Not me. I left in defiance of the king.”

“Do you think your friends might give up?”

“No. I've asked them three times. The last time was yesterday. They all swore themselves to my service again. Then my closest partner, Dodni, got the bright idea of making false beards and handing them out to the village children as gifts for today's festival.”

“Ah, brilliant! That's why you weren't noticed. I didn't see through the disguises myself. The children often wear fake beards during the festival. Of course, usually they're quite bad.”

“You made those beards in a single evening?” Denario rose from his seat on the gunwhales. “They're fantastic. That was fast work. So you can you work on other materials besides metals.”

Jack raised his hand. “I've already caught on to that.”

“The beards were so we could let off frustration.” The dwarf picked up the stick he'd been using on the burghers. He tapped the accountant on the shoulder with it. That was as high as he could reach. Through the leather hauberk, it didn't feel like much of anything. “Our real work for the village nearly broke us. We spent a week, cutting and hauling pieces of a cordierite altar out of a ruined church. That was what we used to repair the kilns here. I suppose the burghers and the potters had no idea how hard the job was. Or maybe they never intended to pay.”

“That's awful,” said Denario with the sincerity of a young man who's been cheated.

“How much did they promise?” The boatman was busy with pieces of his third raft. He didn't quite look at the dwarf as he waited for his response. Instead, he tested his caulking between mallow boards. When Boldor came out with the amount of cash, goods, and services he was owed, Jack whistled.

“That's a lot for a little place like this,” he said. “On the other hand, it seems fair. And they could pay.”

“Now they claim to charge us for food. And for rent while we worked, even when we weren't in town.”

“Ya didn't bargain on that part?”

“Everyone knows you have to feed and house workers as part of the job. Doing otherwise is criminal.”

“What ya need,” said Jack as he picked up a mallow board, “is an agent.”

There was a pause. Boldor closed his mouth and put his fists on his hips. The boatman never stopped working. He measured out a length of rope. Denario understood there was some sort of fresh urgency to the boat building. Jack moved with clear purpose. He tied his knots. Denario knelt down and used a plank to make a ramp against the gunwhales of the middle raft. Since he couldn't lift a barrel of pickles, it was the only safe way to offload.

“He's good, Boldor,” Denario said. He grunted as he shifted the barrel onto its side. “I've done well with him arranging my pay.”

“But that's easy for you. Who doesn't want a certified accountant? And one from Oggli, the most famous of human cities.”

“It hasn't been like that.”

“Have you negotiated with the children today?” Jack interrupted. He lashed rope around the mallow spar in his hands, ten loops in ten seconds.

“That would be immoral.” Boldor stood up straighter, chin lifted with indignation.

“You really need an agent.” Jack frowned at his work and, probably, at the dwarf's sense of business. Denario felt torn between the two. Boldor had a point about the children.

“Maybe it would be acceptable, this one day. We debated it.” The dwarf relaxed his fists. He gnawed on his lower lip. “Maybe we need human help. I'm chief. I can delegate. But at what price to all of us?”

“For this job, since I'm fixing a done deal, I take one tenth. But for any deal you make with me after, it's one quarter.”

“Does that include lessons on dealing with humans?”

“Hey!” It was Denario's turn to be outraged. “Why does he get a better rate than me?”

“Because he's got a troop of dwarfs. But mostly because you didn't drive a good bargain, my friend. That's lesson one, Boldor. The accountant doesn't understand how to value his services. Neither do you. I'll teach you. Even so, there's more to a good bargain than understanding. For instance, both of you talk like you'll never pass through here again.”

“Because we won't,” said the accountant and the dwarf more or less together.

“How do you know? Anyways, whether you're returning here or not, you need to act like you are. Folks will give you better deals if they think they're establishing a business relationship. If they think it's a one-time deal, they’ll worry that you'll take their money and run. Plus folks who have been cheated in the past, or who remember their fathers or grandfathers got cheated, will be tempted to cheat first.”

Boldor froze for a moment. “That might explain some things.”

“By the way, how many are in your troop?”

“Just eleven.”

“That's a lot.” Jack grunted. “And how much do you weigh?”

“Me, personally? What an odd question.” The dwarf stiffened, a sign that Denario was learning to interpret as Boldor taking offense.

“I need to know for professional reasons.”

Denario looked closer at the next mallow beam in the boatman's left hand. He'd been lashing piece after piece onto the raft as fast as he could, which was faster than Denario had believed possible until now. At last he was sure of the connection between the expansion of the third raft and the question about weight.

“Can I know the reason?” Boldor asked. Denario felt tempted to jump in with the answer.

“If we're going to have a deal, yes,” said Jack. “Will I be your agent and get you paid? If so, you can know. And then we'll have to move quickly.”

The remark produced a lot of beard-wringing. For all of his talk about leadership, the dwarf had been chief of his tribe only briefly. He must have found it one thing to make his decisions underground, where he felt secure and where he could assess the correctness of mine roofs, picks, hammer, packs, food supplies, water, maps, checklists, and other tangible things. It was another, more alien thing to make judgments about human character in the daylight while feeling vulnerable. This was a decision that affected the fate of his expedition. The dwarf's sunburnt skin paled. He let go of his beard. His thin lips pressed hard together in a grim line.

“I don't like it,” he said. “But what better choice is there? The others will be afraid. I know it. But Dodni and I together can calm them.”

“Right, then. How much do you weigh with all of your equipment?”

“You mean all of it and all of us together? I suppose as much as ten men.”

Clever Jack glanced at the six remaining beams. He could extend the raft another two feet in width, no more.

“There's not enough sedge reed,” he said. “Still, with careful placement we can do it. Denario, finish shifting out the pickles. Move the dried fruit last. That stuff weighs next to nothing.”

The accountant nodded. He had pulled up the anchor pegs from around six of the pickle barrels. There were only two more left. Out of laziness, he hadn't done the work of rolling them yet. If the raft had been less firmly rooted in the sand, his boat master would have had something to say about it.

“What does this have to do with getting paid?” Boldor asked. He backed up a few steps to watch the action.

Jack set down his loops of rope. He set down his handful of sedge reed, too, with which he intended to caulk the planks in the raft. Unencumbered and therefore unarmed, he walked to the low gunwhales of the third raft and leaned over. He thrust out his right arm in a formal manner.

“It's traditional to shake on a deal,” he said. “One tenth on this deal and a quarter of future deals if you stay with me. If you come along, you'll be required to work. You’ll see that the accountant does so as well. If your folk are miserable workers, I may let you off at the next stop or I'll charge you extra.”

“We're excellent workers,” Boldor announced. “Better than any humans we've met.”

“Do you know anything about boats?”

“We sail in tall caverns underground. Rivers are part of our lives just as they are part of yours. But Clever Jack, why would we come with you? Sailing in the daylight on a craft open to the birds and to other humans is reckless.”

“You'll come because I'm going to get you all of that pay,” asserted Jack. “I'll see to it that the children hold the potters and the burghers to their deal. But at first dawn tomorrow, the children will be no longer in charge. When that happens, how will you hold onto what you've gained? Even if you march straight out of town with everything on a cart, the villagers will follow.”

“I see.” The small fellow's shoulders sagged for a moment. Then he straightened himself with pride and stepped forward. He raised his hand to shake. “It's all reckless then. Better to be with our pay. And you.”

Next: Chapter Twenty-Two, Scene Two

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 129: A Bandit Accountant, 21.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Five: Small Expectations

On the next day, Denario and Jack sailed into a Kilmun village of about two hundred people, and then another village twice that size a half-mile downstream, each with an all-day party inside.

At the first place, a round-faced boy, knee high, toddled up to the hitching stump and gave Denario a chunk of flatbread glazed with honey. The little fellow had a whole pie of it. He also had a sticky face covered with honey. He wore so many crumbs that the accountant had mistaken his condition for a disease at first glance. Instead of stepping away, he thanked the boy earnestly. He tore off a bite of the bread. Delicious. The boy smiled at his expression. He knew how Denario felt. A moment later, he wandered away.

A red-haired girl approached as he was finishing the tie-down at the third stump. She handed him daisies, which he felt obliged to accept. Her patient expression let him know she was waiting for something. He complimented the flowers. He said her dress was very green. That got a smile and a treat from her, a chunk of nut loaf baked with some kind of sugar.

“You're being very kind,” he said.

“You sure look funny. Where are your tattoos?”

Denario turned to his boat-master for explanation. Jack had elected to change his shirt and trim his beard, as he often did before business negotiations. He was rolling up his cuffs when he said simply, “It's the Festival of the Children.”

“And what's that?” the accountant wondered. The girl, like the boy, had been distracted by the commotion in town, a carnival of some kind. She marched off toward the noise with a bouquet of flowers still tucked under her right arm.

“You don't have this holiday in your city? The biggest children without tattoos get to act important and issue orders to adults for a day. You and I want to stay well away from them. The littlest ones do as they please. Often, that involves hitting adults. But it can involve giving out treats, too, as you can see.”

“Can we do business?”

“Iffy. Over the years, I've established that I'm not a villager and not bound by their rules. But the parents I want to see won't make deals with me today. Their oldest children will take their place.”

“Will the children listen?”

“The girls are usually sensible.”

At the north end of the village, Jack managed to flatter a pair of stern, imperious young ladies into giving him quite a nice deal on two tuns of 'smelly old barley.' They acted like they were being mean but they give out gifts of sweet cheese and in the end they demanded kisses from Jack and Denario as part of the deal. Jack agreed but, with an eye to their parents, made sure to peck them lightly on their blushing cheeks, a gesture that Denario imitated. Their mother nodded gratefully, arms crossed. Denario was sure the daughters would be hearing from her after the festival. Jack, being clever, also pressed his flattery on other tall children, three girls in their turn and a boy who seemed to be running the brewery and wasn't actually pummeling anyone at the moment despite swinging around a wooden mash hammer. The rafts acquired 'smelly old beets,' a dozen 'dirty wash basins' made of brass, and twelve kegs. They traded sour pickles, sweet pickles, cinnamon, beet sugar, and pepper.

At the dock in the second village, a crowd of young boys batted Denario with sticks as soon as he stepped off of the boat. It didn't hurt. They seemed to be doing it out of habit as much as anything. Probably their arms were tired. Four of them wore fake beards. One of those gave him half an apple right from his grubby mouth.

“How long does this go on?” Denario crunched the apple in his teeth. It was sour but fresh.

“Until sun-up on the following day.” Jack waded through the children. The boys had been attracted by the arrival of the rafts, a major event, but there was a stilt parade in the center of town and the strange rivermen weren't doing much. By the time Denario finished tying down, most of the boys had run off to follow a large boy on stilts. That boy had tried to give orders to Jack, who'd ignored them. Then the boy stomped off in a huff, trailed by adoring eight-year-olds.

“The dock master isn't here,” said Jack. “You'll have to stand guard the whole time.”

Denario nodded. He'd done this duty on a dozen occasions.

“He's a decent fellow but he was probably ordered off by the bossy boy. That's the way the holiday is. If the older kids give you trouble, point out your lack of tattoos. That ought to be good for something. Also, I'd prefer you not to draw your sword on them. Their parents would give me grief about it later. Feel free to lay about with the punt if you need to.”

“I wouldn't hurt children unless they look to be thieves.”

“You did well enough against sneaks before. I suppose a city upbringing is good for something.”

The accountant shook his head. A few days back, he’d gotten fooled. A girl had stopped to talk with him. She'd been such a good conversationalist, except about math, that he hadn't noticed as her young man swam up from behind the rafts and tried to remove the closest barrel from the corner deck. The thief had been stymied by his abundance of choices. First, there was the impossibility of stealing the sack of beet sugar by swimming with it through the water. He'd soon end up with only a sack. Then there were boxes and jars to choose from but the tie-down pegs had been a nasty surprise. Denario followed the girl's eyes, turned, and saw the young man trying to pull up a barrel of pigs' knuckles. At Denario's shout, he'd stopped that but then managed to lift a jug of lighting and scamper back into the water before Denario whacked him with the punt. Then Denario had rushed back to hammer at the girl, who was trying something similar, again with a jug of lightning water. Her eyes had popped wide at the sight of him and she'd fled with nothing.

Since her brother or lover had gotten away successfully, Jack had complained to the town burgher. But it turned out that the girl had been found in the wild a week earlier and was admitted to the temple as a charity case. No one knew anything about her partner. So Jack had to be satisfied with the results of hiring an accountant as a guard.

“Get yourself a decent lunch,” Jack suggested. “You've eaten that apple down to the stem.”

Denario tossed his core into the creek. After the splash, a curious fish rose to take a nibble. He watched for a moment to see if the fish would return. Then he took his boss's advice. Denario dipped into the ship rations for jerky, dried peaches, and a skin of sour beer. Jack had warned him against drinking creek water this close to the lost temple and the boatman meant it, too. He'd been drinking only boiled water himself for the past two days. Denario didn't feel like starting a fire. Ale, even if it was half rotten, seemed like a better way to go than wine or lightning.

From his seat on the gunwhales of the middle boat, the third boat being the partial one made of mallow, Denario watched as two boys and a girl clumped along the road in stilts. They might have been members of the parade, which sounded as if it had broken up. The near-adolescents paused to shout at him. Following the boat-master's example, he paid them no attention. They had a hard time staying in one place, too, without getting down from their stilts. They got the hint and moved on.

Later, as he was draining the beer skin, Denario saw four boys, one of them barely old enough to walk, wearing fake beards and holding birch sticks. They patiently whacked a grown man as he pushed a load of earthen bricks in a barrow. He accepted the abuse in a good-natured way even as he passed through the doors of building off of the main road. It had a thatched roof and six chimneys. That meant it was the kiln house. This town looked prosperous despite its odd traditions. Not long after, he saw two more adults as they took a serious beating. They didn't seem as accepting of the abuse as the one with the barrow. From their attitude and clothes, he guessed they were burghers. The kids following looked muscular and their sticks were twice as thick as those used against Denario. They passed around the boat shed more than once and, in doing so, picked up additional children with sticks in their hands.

Denario stood. The punt, which had been laying across his lap, fell into his right fist. With his left, he capped his beer. Something looked wrong. He wasn't sure what it was but he laid down the capped skin and set his feet ready. Twenty yards in front, the two burghers decided, dignity be damned, they were going to flee. They got a few steps' head start. With a lusty shout, the youngsters pursued.

One child lingered at the far corner of the boat house. He was too tired to run or too lazy. His fake beard was the only one that had grey in it, Denario noticed. He looked chubby, which would have been unusual in the Seven Valleys but not so much here to the south. He stood and tugged absent-mindedly at the loose curls above his belly. After a minute, he turned to studied Denario and the rafts. That was when Denario decided that he knew what was wrong.

To be safe, he let his gaze pass over the waters of the No Map. There was no one in the creek sneaking up on him from behind.

He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Hey boy! Want some peaches?”

The figure took a moment to understand that Denario meant him even though they were the only ones around. That proved Denario's point. The accountant found it hard not to laugh. He propped the punt between his elbow and hip. He jammed his hands into his pockets and waited.

“Where'd you get peaches?” The reply came in an unsteady voice. Denario felt even more sure of himself. Still, there would be some uncertainly until he got close. “It's spring, not fall.”

“They're dried. It's just like you've seen with apples, only fancier. We trade them. I've got two small ones left from lunch.”

The short fellow couldn't help himself. Although he stopped fingering his beard, he kept one hand on his stomach. In a roundabout path, he approached. Denario could see, in the sand of the riverbank, how far sideways those stubby feet shuffled. He noticed the boots, too. Most of the children here went barefoot. The richer lads had thin slippers. This one wore hiking boots. They were sturdy enough to kick trolls. The fit of the boot cuffs around those muscular calves seemed tight enough to be waterproof.

The accountant stooped to pull out the remaining peaches from his lunch bowl. His guest hesitated. But when offered the treats with an open hand, he let a grin escape above the wisps of beard. His grey eyes glinted.

He hopped forward, snatched the peach halves like they would disappear at any moment, and shied back out of arm's reach. He popped one in his mouth. Then, to Denario's momentary confusion, he spat it back out into his hand. He seemed to remember his manners. He blushed pink. With the scoop of his left arm, he bowed.

“My thanks, good boatman.” His voice wasn't quite as high as before. After he rose, he allowed himself a bite of the peach. “Ah. I'd almost forgotten how sweet. They remind me of Wizard Valley.”

“So that's where you came from. I thought so.”

“Oh.” His face fell. He knew he'd been caught.

Next: Chapter Twenty-Two, Scene One

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 128: A Bandit Accountant, 21.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene Four: Message in a Bottle

From his sightings of stars in the night sky, Denario realized that he'd missed the spring equinox. It had happened a few days ago when they'd slept under the cover of trees. He realized that it had to be the explanation for the lights he'd seen in the distant houses. The neighboring farmers had stayed up to celebrate.

Clever Jack hadn't sought out the excuse of parties to drink himself stupid in a town. He wasn't a carouser. Denario was grateful for that but, when he’d missed the event, he’d missed his chance at the traditional prayers of thanks.

Belatedly, he made a sacrifice to Melcurio. It was a small, silver coin that he tossed into the creek. While the riverman labored over the cook fire, Denario pretended to rummage for rocks along the shore. He lobbed a few into the shallows. He finished by heaving the silver piece deep into the center of the current. He was careful that Jack wasn't looking when he cast it. He doubted his partner would dive in to rescue the coin, not even for a precious metal, but misdirection removed the chance.

The accountant knelt with his knees at the edge of the water.

“Melcurio, help me look out for Shekel. He's so smart.” He closed his eyes and pictured the fair-haired boy. “His insights need guidance.”

He likewise prayed for Buck to stay out of girl trouble, for Kroner to finish growing and stop accidentally breaking everything, for Guilder to smile, for Mark to show some interest in math, and for Curo, his partner, to find the patience to deal with them all. At least Curo kept a good sense of humor. He was probably finding it hard to do that in these past few weeks. As long as he didn't panic because Denario was late in returning, everything would be fine.

Denario had planned to be home by spring equinox. He'd sent his last message over a month ago when he was beginning to see irregularities in the Zeigeburg tax accounts. He hadn't understood how far wrong the totals would turn out. He'd warned his partner that 'the tax collectors and assistants have made a mess of things' but no more. In retrospect, that seemed inadequate. The Figgins brothers had under-valued every property. Denario had taken a month to realize how much tax value they'd hidden. At that point, he still hadn't worked out who might be behind it. There were a half-dozen possibilities, not including massive group incompetence, an idea that he'd found believable until the end. When he discovered the golden torcs in the burgher's household, he assumed that the younger brother was cheating the older. He hadn't dreamed that the mayor himself would commit fraud, not when he'd hired an accountant to look through the books and give them a guild seal of approval.

Curo had to be worried by the lack of the third installment on their pay. Add to that the puzzle of why his partner had stopped sending messages via the bank wizards and he could suspect nearly anything. Would he think that Denario had run off with the money? That didn't make sense but Curo's mind worked that way. He'd remember that Denario had announced his engagement to a beautiful woman. When the last of the pay didn't come, he'd guess that Denario had bought her a bunch of expensive presents. That's what Curo had always dreamed of doing. 'The way to a woman's heart is through her pocketbook,' he'd said over and over although, he would be the first to admit, he didn't have the experience to prove it. He had been sweet on Emelie Sensperanza, niece of a guild accountant, but she'd married one of the court doctors before he could get up the nerve to talk to her. Then he'd fallen for Kamilla Bergmann, a neighbor, and he'd gotten as far as giving her some gifts before she married a ship's mate who owned a house near the docks. Now he was sweet on a working class girl, a scribe, although he'd been leery of buying her much since his last efforts had failed with no return.

Together, Denario and Curo didn't have enough money to buy Winkel's counting house. But Curo had plenty for everything else. If Winkel's cousin showed up and tried to claim the building, Curo could drive a bargain. The cousin would take his time making an appearance. He had his own farmlands. He had no use for the building. Of course, the place represented a windfall profit. If Denario could get there in time, he intended to see if the man would barter services for it rather than cash that would end up taxed at city rates. It was an idea he'd picked up in his trip through the Mundredi lands.

“Yes, and Curo most of all.” It was a late wish, he knew. “Let him keep his wits until I return. Then there's Carinde Vogel. I miss her. I wish I could get another letter from her.”

That little girl was the only natural mathematician he'd met in months. She might not be in a league with the best, like Shekel and Guilder, but few were. Toward the end of his life, Winkel had been gifted at finding apprentices. Cari was better than most of them already. She was the only person around who wasn't bored by his discussions of math or geometry. He wished he could talk with her.

“Thanks to all of the water spirits who have guided us so far,” he said because he knew Jack was listening. Anyway, it didn't hurt to be polite to the locals.

He sifted through his pack to find a second sacrifice. He didn't find an appropriate object but he did locate a dried pig's ear, part of his pay from Pharts Bad. That made him wonder how Senli, Olga, and Hummel were doing. He sighed. Denario hadn't seen any young men who fit the description of Senli's sons. Nowadays, he was meeting Kilmun tribesmen fairly regularly. There was a chance he’d hear news of dark-skinned men, perhaps as farmhands, adopted sons, or even as still-enslaved book keepers like their mother, since she'd taught them in her style.

He tossed the pig's ear into the stream with a wish for all of those folks, especially the missing boys. Then he rose. His knuckles brushed the mud from his knees.

“Pecunia,” he breathed. He cursed to himself. He'd forgotten about her. In a flash of guilt, he scrambled back into prayer position. He hoped she was fine. He didn't see how any of her letters could reach him on the creek, though, so he didn't bother asking.

When he rose again, he felt that he'd covered all of the angles except maybe for his past acquaintances with small gods, Glaistig, Winkel's ghost, and the Mundredi army. He intoned a few blessings for all of them and, at the end, added a prayer for Jack Lasker to get them through the magical lands downstream.

“Why not say a blessing for the alligators while you're at it?” grumbled Jack. From his cynical smile, he seemed more amused than anything. He paused, ladle in hand, and shifted his position by the fire so that the wind didn't blow smoke into his eyes.

“Fine. By all the gods may they sleep well. Preferably, they should do it the whole time we're passing by.”

“Fair enough.” The older fellow rubbed his brown beard. He kept it trimmed close and neat, much as he maintained his hair and his rafts. He had an orderly system for survival and he stuck to it. He didn't tolerate lazy habits or sloppy thinking. “Fish in the stew pot again tonight.”

“I've got pepper.”

“Ah.” His eyes crinkled. “Ya're the best hire I ever made.”

They settled down to their meal, devised mostly from Jack's supplies and today's catch, as per their arrangement. Denario added spice and what looked like the next-to-last helping of his cabbage from Ruin Thal. They sat facing the water, as was Jack's custom if they didn't take their meal on the boats. That was how they noticed the bottles drifting in, two of them, glazed dark green. Unfortunately, they'd camped on the Kilmun riverbank, as Jack said they'd be doing for most of the reminder of their trip. The bottles floated down the other side along the Mundredi shore. One of them bounced against a fallen tree. Denario had needed to exert himself to dock the rafts away from that tree. It was a huge one that fell from a raised bank and blocked half of the creek. The bottle, though, slid along its algae-covered trunk. Bump by bump, it crossed the water towards them. The combination of current and tree guided it to the corner of the second raft.

Denario set down his bowl. Jack grinned.

“It's not one of mine,” he said. “Do ya think it's from your girl?”

He'd prayed for it, hadn't he? Denario hopped onto the lead raft, which was firmly ashore, only to grab the punt. He stalked the gunwhales, stick in hand. He managed the distance from raft to raft by virtue of the fact that neither was moving. Then he had to sprint in order to reach the far corner in time. He smacked the water with the length of the punt. He slashed again and twisted. Barely, he halted the bottle's progress. It hadn't gotten away.

“Don't break it!” Jack warned from the shore.

More gently, Denario stroked the punt across the top of the corked vessel. Once, twice, three times, four … and he brought it within his reach. Immediately, he switched the punt into his left hand. He dropped it behind him as he reached out with his right. His hand dunked into the creek and pulled up the bottle on the first go.

“Huh.” He lifted it to the light of the evening sun. Not much showed through the ceramic. The surface felt thin but all he could make out was a shadow inside. It could have been cast by a roll of paper tied with a ribbon. “This is a funny method of delivering messages. Do I have to hit it against a rock?”

“Holy whatever ya was saying before, no. Bring it here.”

“Holy Melcurio,” Denario corrected. He eyed the other bottle, which had slipped under the three trunk next to the opposite shore. There was no hope of catching that one. Maybe he would come across it later if it snagged downstream.

When he reached the Kilmun bank, he discovered that the riverman didn't want the bottle right away. He waved it off, more concerned with the stew. Denario took a minute to inspect the prize. The balance of it was odd. It had been made heavy on the bottom and light on the top. That had to be because it was never meant to hold wine or beer. From the beginning, it had been made to float. Also, the plug in it was a cheap one. It looked like a knob of pine fitted with hot wax. Under the cover of grit and slime, Denario had mistaken it for a wine cork. He jostled it back and forth to loosen the wax. A second later, the plug came out.

“Can't wait, eh?” Jack nodded.

“Do I have to?”

The boatman grabbed a sturdy stick from the logpile and slipped it under the handle of his stew pot. After testing the balance of the pot, he lifted it out of the fire. He set it in a shallow bowl shape he'd scooped out of the sand. The broth calmed from its boil.

The nimble man wiped ash from his hands and picked up a twig. It was the right size for prying things out through the narrow neck of the found bottle. Denario handed it over without a word.

“It's parchment.” Jack put his eye to the hole before he began.

“Not paper?”

“Nope. We're lucky it's not birchbark. That happens and it's hard to get the birch rolls out without cracking them. Folks around here know how to make it and they know how to dry vellum. But they don't know paper. They have to buy or barter it so they think it's precious.” He started to wriggle the twig into the bottle. On the second try, he speared the tube of parchment through its hollow middle. He hooked it with a twist and pulled. “Does your girl have the means?”

“Yes, I gave her some parchment.”

“How much?” When Denario told him, Jack whistled. “Got it. Here, the tip is out. Grab on. Watch out for the rag tie.”

The scroll had a loop of rag around it. That held it together. But a knot in the rag threatened to block removal of the message. It was a problem Denario solved, after two failed tugs, by slipping the scroll out of the knot. He was about to poke the cloth back into the bottle but Jack hissed. Instead, he pinched it by a thread, pulled it out, and handed it to Jack, who sniffed.

“Smells a bit like turpentine. It's got a smudge of tar.”

Denario turned the scroll on its side and unwound it. To his dismay, he saw that the writing was primitive pictographs. There were a few words in the old alphabet, too, between the pictures, but they were badly misspelled. Someone didn't know how to use vowels. The same someone had smudged his fingers with ink, too, and trailed them on the corners of the page. This wasn't a note from Carinde, not even a transcribed one. What was it? He stooped his neck until his nose almost touched the writing. Each pictograph looked a bit like a tribal tattoo mark.

“What is this? An ox?” He showed the text to Jack.

“Give me a moment.” The senior fellow tugged the scrap from Denario's hand with a knowing grin. “Not so easy when it's from a farmer, is it? Sorry that it's not your girl. But a local message or really, any message, is important. There's money in them. These folks who can barely read, let alone write, make each one of them a puzzle.”

“Can you figure them out?”

“Almost every time.” Jack rubbed his close-cut beard. “Ah. This one is meant to be sounded aloud. It's about a count. Is that right? A counting man?”

“An accountant?”

“Very funny. Except, I think you're right. Huh. It's a hideous accountant.”

“You're making that up.” He patted his face. Although he'd never liked his nose, other people didn't seem to think it was so bad they had to tell the whole world.

“It's written down. Oh, ugly accountant, not hideous. That's the ox. Ox-ly means ugly. Important difference.” The boatman nodded. He gave Denario a smile that was half-knowing but half-amazed, too. “This fellow didn't know how to write Oggli. Get it? He didn't have a picture to represent your city and he didn't know the spelling. This is his way of putting it.”

“Great,” said Denario, feeling thoroughly deflated. “So he's telling everyone I'm ugly.”

“He's telling all of his relatives that you're a genius. I think he must be a fellow who gave you some debtor sticks to read. Remember after unloading those pickles? This would be the chubby man. From what he writes here, he's heard about your work with the pumps for the cooper.”

“Water screws,” he corrected.

“He says they're working and that his dad and his cousins ought to hire you to teach math lessons to the village of Killem Thal.”

“That's not so bad.”

“Might be some money out of this.”

“Do you think ...” Denario scratched himself. He felt sorry that this wasn't a letter from Cari but really, it was positive in its way. “Do you think I should put it back in the water?”

“Is that even a question?” said the boatman. “Yes, and we should launch some messages of our own. But after dinner.”

Next: Chapter Twenty-one, Scene Five