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.”

“Aye.”

“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.

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