Sunday, September 9, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 133: A Bandit Accountant, 22.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Four: Broken Circle

“There's a bit of moon,” Jack whispered before they launched. He looked up at the gray clouds, through which a reasonable amount of light shone. “Can you steer the lead raft? I told Brand we were going to sleep on board and he doesn't like it. He's planning something. I want to be on the last boat. Got to protect the dwarfs.”

“Brand doesn't know we're leaving?”

“Not unless the dwarfs have let it slip. Boldor is the only one I've told.”

“Good. Yes, I'll lead. Can you tell me where I should take us?”

“Not really.” Jack took a deep breath. He pointed. Denario could see make out shape of his arm against the background of shadowy tree boughs. “Ahead is where the creek changes. There's no way to know what we'll find. Pole us to the first spot you come to that's long enough for the three rafts. Don't get out of your raft unless I say.”

“Not even to tie down?”

“No, 'cause of alligators. You heard Brand's story. His caravan lost a wounded man that way last night.”

The accountant shuddered. Armor hadn't helped that man. The alligator had bitten through his metal greaves, snapped his leg, and dragged him into the water. Except for a scream that lasted for a few seconds, no one had heard from or seen the man again.

The launch, when it happened, was sudden. The last dwarf, Jofrid, stepped aboard carrying a pair of tongs he'd almost forgotten. Jack crouched to ask him a question. The short smithy nodded. Then Jack pulled his rope off of the hitching tree. An hour earlier, Ulf had untied the lead raft. Torgrim had untied the middle. Jack's rope was the only thing holding them down. When he unwound it in a swift, two-second swirl of his right arm, the third raft bounced an inch in the water. He leaned hard on his punt. Boldor and another dwarf did the same. So did Denario, Ulf, and every dwarf that could wield a stick on all of the rafts. It was, as things done with the dwarfs tended to be, a precise move.

“You're leaving?” Brand shouted. He ran up to the shore. There was nothing he could do about it now unless he was prepared to wade. “I haven't paid you for the medicines. I thought we'd have more time. Where's that dwarf who helped our wounded?”

“We've got to sleep,” explained Jack.

“We forgot about Ragna's pay,” said Boldor. “We'll accept anything you care to toss over to us, Captain DeLadro. Or you can owe us for the next time we meet.”

“Your smithy said you wouldn't pass through again. Anyway, here.” The caravan master fumbled at a pouch by his side. “I've got a couple brassers tied up in a rag. It was pay for a man who died yesterday. That should make it fair.”

“That's very correct of you,” said Boldor. He relaxed.

Brand tossed the rag toward Jack, who didn't move to catch it. The parcel would sailed over the deck and into the water but a dwarf snagged it at the last moment on the far side of the boat. He passed it to Boldor to give to Ragna. The dwarfs, once again, bowed, saluted, and otherwise expressed their gratitude to the Caravan of the Kill. Ragna strode to the end of Denario's boat to announce his presence. Brand noticed the move even though the rafts were drifting into the current. He waved his arms and gave Ragna a tremendous smile. He bowed dramatically in return to all of the respect shown to him. But Denario didn't like it. When the caravan passed out of sight, he heaved a deep breath from relief.

Around the next corner, Denario saw a place to stop although he had to slide up close to be sure. The scrub trees to his right, half-buried in the water, gave way to a flat stretch of riverbank unburdened by anything more than the occasional fist-sized patch of grass. The moonlight shone down on the open land. Denario could see that the slope curved upward a bit too steeply but there was a grove of trees not far inland. He'd found visibility and shelter both. There were no logs on the riverbank or anywhere on the creek that he could see and hence, he hoped, no hidden alligators.

“Nice,” Jack called from two rafts back.

“It's not too close to the caravan?” he asked.

“Two hundred yards away from those caravan drunkards is as good two hundred miles at night Cleat-hitch anywhere you want. Ulf, Torgrim, Borghild, follow him ashore.”

Denario disembarked, rope in hand. His mind was still occupied with the Caravan of the Kill. Their captain had controlled his men's liquor supply too carefully for Denario's taste. The men in purple had taken a break from tormenting the poorer members of the troop. Brand and Zaggi, his second in command, had dispensed token amounts of lighting to everyone in four wooden cups that had to be shared. One of the men in purple had started to point out, politely, that they had plenty of goblets but a wild-eyed look from Brand shut him up. None of it reassured Denario. Clever Jack had expected them to get violently drunk. So why hadn't they done that?

To be safe, after Denario made sure the rafts were anchored to exposed tree roots, he pulled out his animal traps. In a sort of walking crouch, he planted them facing out. He didn't want to catch a dwarf hurrying off the boat to pee, after all, and he could hope that the return trips wouldn't be as rushed. Besides, maybe the rockers that flipped up the twine loops were too tall for dwarf feet.

While the accountant worked on the geometry of his snares, the river master organized the dwarfs to deploy a different sort of defense. They posted spears in the drain holes around the gunwhales of the rafts. That made them look like porcupine quills. Jack said the arrangement would stop alligators from climbing aboard at night.

“I don't trust the dwarf watch,” he whispered to Denario. “They're all too tired. To an alligator, these little fellows look like human children.”

“I don't trust the caravan,” Denario responded.

“Stop thinking about them. Brand is tricky but I watched how the land twists around.” The wiry man relaxed, hands at his hips. “His crew has farther to travel than we did by creek and it's on foot for him and through a marsh. On top of that, he can't find us. Whatever he planned, and you're right to think he was up to something, it's done now. These traps of yours are a good idea. They'll warn us if an animal tries to sneak aboard from the woods.”

The dwarfs set up their campsites on the riverbank in a matter of minutes. Their work produced three fires, one beside each raft. Each had been arranged to dry out more wood for the morning. Denario had to shake his head at seeing how promptly they finished. The dwarfs, as a group, needed to sleep as Jack had guessed. Denario brushed his teeth as the dwarfs built lean-tos on the decks. Jack, farther upstream, did the same. Both men relieved themselves from the gunwhales. The dwarfs were too modest for that. As Denario had expected, they wandered off into the woods in ones and twos. Denario counted them several times to make sure they'd all returned. As soon as he determined they were missing one, Ragna appeared out of the darkness from upstream along the riverbank, a direction Denario hadn't expected. The portly dwarf held aloft a coin sack.

“Is that your pay from the healing?” Borghild asked him.

“Three brass and a silver.” Ragna broke into a grin as he announced the last part. He held the bag higher.

“Silver?” Borghild and Ulf exclaimed. Torgrim trotted over when he heard. “Are you sure?”

“It's small. But it's as close to pure as the humans make, I think.”

That piqued Denario's curiosity. The silver in most coins wasn't even close. It was carefully mixed with lead, nickel, or tin to make amalgam that was profitable to pass off as silver. Once, Master Winkel had cut open a Baggi Half-Dollar to show his apprentices the cheap lead core. The apprentices had oohed and aahed. Then Winkel had explained how all of the big cities and big banks cheated on their minting process. Everyone, even young Mark, had mustered a bit of outrage about it. The bank of Oggli-Anghrili did it too, though. An Oggli Silver Quarter was was small but it wasn't pure. The Marquis de Oggli would have lopped off heads at the mint if anyone had tried to cast a quarter out of nearly a quarter's worth of precious metal. So Denario wondered if Ragna had gotten an old coin or an extremely foreign one from a place that hadn't discovered cheating yet.

“That's not a coin,” Denario said as he stepped closer. He saw the metal disk in the dwarf's hand. It did look like a human casting but the accountant knew immediately that it didn't represent money. Now he just had to figure out why he knew.

“But it's silver,” said Ragna, looking up. “It would buy something at home. So it's real money to me. A lot, too. It's worth a hundred weight of brass.”

“That's ...” The shape on the front was something Denario had seen before. But he couldn't place it. “That's an odd design. It's a broken circle.”

“Got the human number 2 above it. So it's worth two of something,” said Borghild.

“Or it's meant to show two halves.” That would almost make it a coin depicting a coin, wouldn't it? That couldn't be right. The symbol looked old but the numeral came from the new system. “What's on the other side?”

The round-faced dwarf smiled and flipped it over.

“A large zero followed by an little eight. That's a god mark,” Denario found himself saying. It was familiar. He couldn't put a name to the deity but he was sure that, in time, he would.

“I'd say it's more of a big circle over the dwarf sign for infinity.” Borghild sounded sure of himself. The other two dwarfs nodded. “Don't you humans have a sign for infinity? You talk about it often enough.”

“We use three different symbols. It's confusing.” His mind raced down the path toward geometric shapes that had no end. The most famous geometer in Muntar had converted his symbol for a line, a double-headed arrow↔, into his city's standard for infinite quantities. A wizard in Baggi had used three parallel lines, ≡, which in a magical tongue made a vowel sound from the beginning of the word 'infinity' and so that was the standard in his area. A court minister in Anghrili had decided to use a circle because 'it has no end.' That became an unpopular choice when everyone adopted the number zero along with the rest of the Muntar mathematical notation. By the force of the court rule, though, his old choice still remained. “A zero and eight could be just eight or, flipped over, eighty. But then why put a number two on the other side? No, this is a diagram meant to call out to a god.”

“A human god, though.” To the dwarfs, that would seem perfectly fine. The religions of men hardly touched them. Dwarfs were superstitious only of the forces they met deep underground.

“A god of what?” Denario pulled off his hat and scritched. “I don't remember.”

“Then it can't be important.”

“What if someone put magic into the silver?”

“Ah, I see your point. Best to be careful.” It was Borghild who spoke first but Ragna joined in, then Torgrim. Ulf strode into the gathering, too. He agreed that the magic would need to be handled with care or drained off into a more appropriate, dwarfish item.

“I'll have Boldor use his looking glass on it in the morning.” Ragna nodded.

Denario couldn't say why he felt so suspicious. “Let me see the front again.”

The more he looked at it, the more he felt that the first image on the token represented a split coin. His accounting instincts didn't like it. But he had to admit to himself that he was surrounded by dangerous magic already. One more dab of the stuff, especially a pinch as small as this, wouldn't make any difference. He complimented Ragna on the silver's purity.

The dwarfs, because they were so polite, felt compelled to compliment his animal traps. Naturally, they also saw improvements to be made. He felt lucky that they were too tired to do anything tonight. Torgrim actually staggered as he spoke. He'd fallen asleep on his feet for an instant.

“I'll take first watch,” Denario volunteered. “I'm not tired.”

“Bless you, accountant,” said Ragna and Borghild. Behind them on the middle raft, Dodni called out the same.

While the rest of the raft crews sorted out their sleeping arrangements, spreading dwarfs fairly evenly on the three platforms, Denario got out his accounting tools. He nestled close to his fire on shore. From his largest ledger, he cut four scraps of paper. These were the ones on which he'd draw his fragmentary maps. The first one was the best and most complete because it consisted of coordinates. It took twice the amount of geometric math to rouse the anti-mapping spell on the creek as it took by ordinary cartography. The ancient spell on this area had been cast to block certain methods. So Denario could pack a good deal more information in numbers than in sketches without losing his work.

He scribbled his initial drafts in the dirt. That had the benefit of letting him know when he'd drawn too much. As he did, mistakes started to appear. Then he erased down to a size the No Map Creek would allow. At last, when he understood what he needed to write, he crouched down to the paper. This time was different. Almost immediately, he smudged the numeral 9 into a 7. The pebbly soil had shifted beneath his right foot. He cursed. Then, almost as quickly, he muttered the accountant's prayer to reverse the mistake, “Hex one ten.” The page flashed. He blinked. He leaned close to inspect his error. It wasn't there. The blotted 7 was a 9 again.

Had he imagined it? No. He wasn't that tired. He closed his eyes and listened to the dwarfs on the rafts. They hadn't noticed.

If a simple hex could work here, so could other numeromancy. The accountant shivered at the thought. He hadn't known. And because he hadn't, he might have injured someone with a muttered spell during math lessons.

“How's it going?” A few long strides displaced some pebbles. Jack Lasker had arrived from the upstream raft, punt in his left hand. Denario opened his eyes to see Jack's face above his, outlined in the ruddy glow of the fire.

“Better, I suppose.” He doubted that timing of the riverman's arrival was an accident. “I keep learning more about how the spell surrounding No Map Creek works.”

“Did you do magic a moment ago?”

“Yes. I ran an accounting spell, Jack. It never works. Except time time, it did.”

“Aha. Why doesn't it usually work?”

“Accountants don't know how to store magic. We're not any good at wizard skills in general. We know only a few bits and pieces of the lore. Most of what we do has to be said in numbers rather than languages.”

“Well, you sure don't need to store magic around here. It's in the air.”

“Yes.” Denario found that he'd been holding his breath a bit due to his awareness of it. His gasps sounded shallow. “And in the ground. And water. Doesn't it bother you?”

“Nah.”

“Now I remember where I saw the back of Ragna's silver piece before.”

“Is that important?”

“Maybe. The front has a broken coin on it. Have you seen it?”

The riverman shrugged. In the dark, it could have meant anything.

“The back face shows a circle above a sideways eight,” said Denario. “Those two shapes together are the sign for Onuava. She's the mother goddess.”

“Onuava. Name's a bit familiar. Wasn't she popular once? It would have been long before our fathers' time. The other gods rose up around her.”

“Other gods got more popular.”

“Right. She lost supporters, then most of her temples. Then the Muntabi tribes came in and wiped out the last of her folks.”

“In some creation stories, Onuava gave birth to all of the original gods.”

“Your god among them, I suppose.”

“How is it that we can forget our mother?”

“Hah. You're getting theological.” Jack rose. He brushed off the knees of his pants and headed back to his campfire.

“Maybe.” Part of what bothered Denario, now that he thought of it, was that the token looked new, not hundreds of years old. Who in the world had minted it? And why out of such pure silver? It wouldn't last. Already the grooves in the casting were filling with black tarnish.

Denario finished his maps and hid them on the lead raft around the edges of his tent. None of the dwarfs on board woke. Dodni was the only one who stirred. The little fellow made a grinding sound, studs against studs in his armor, as he moved his arm.

While on watch, the accountant considered the goddess Onuava and what she might represent aside from motherhood. There had to be something. But Denario didn't remember his own mother. Judging from the maternal women he'd met, Onuava might be the goddess of slapping. Or of yelling. He sat on the gunwhales and gazed downstream. The moon cast a glow over the creek, enough to see alligators coming. There wasn't a single shadow in the water. At one point, on the other side of the campfire, he noticed a pair of eyes. They weren't human. They edged closer. He saw they were set in the bandit face of a raccoon. It was the largest raccoon he'd ever seen but it looked scrawny at the shoulders. Swamp life had been hard on it.

“Scraps?” it said. It crept a few feet out of the woods and stopped. Its body glistened with water droplets and squelched with mud laid over its natural fur of grey and black stripes.

Denario leaned closer in the direction of the fire.

“Oh, come on.” The raccoon's jaws moved as it struggled with modern speech. “Any food scraps at all?”

“Not really,” Denario replied. He'd always suspected that raccoons were practical. “We're a tidy bunch. If you're willing to travel a couple hundred yards upstream, you'll find a troop of drunk men who've left their stew pots out.”

“How far is that?” The creature raised its head to stare in the right direction. Denario sighed to himself. Naturally an animal wouldn't understand distance measurements.

“About twenty lengths of these rafts.” He gestured to the vessel behind him.

“Not too far. I thought I smelled another fire.” The raccoon started to amble off, to the north and east.

“Fire doesn't scare you?” Denario asked as it left.

“No. And those traps aren't catching anybody, mister.”

“Huh.” Denario kicked a rocker with his heel. It turned up and threw a loop of rope very nearly over the toe of his boot. All the same, he understood the point. Magical animals had to be a little smarter than others and the traps lay out in the open.

For a minute, Denario contemplated taking other security measures. They didn't seem to be any. He drew a number 8 in the dirt and calculated the area it encompassed using the formula for ellipses twice. He spent a while approximating areas under curves using rectangles. He yawned. Eventually he rose, took out his baselard for a few practice swings, and hiked around the campfires until Jack came over to meet him.

“We're wearing down,” he said. “Put the sword away. Wake a dwarf.”

“Which one?”

“Doesn't matter. It's been hours. You've got to pilot tomorrow.”

“Who among them got rest?”

“Well, not the smithy. Anyone else can stand their turn.”

The accountant wandered over the downstream rafts, first the one he piloted, then the middle one. After a few minutes in the aisles between the cargo bins of the middle raft, he chose Dodni's religious brother. The sturdy fellow roused easily enough. After Denario dispensed a bit of most-likely-unwanted advice, including mention of the talking raccoon, he trudged to his own raft and from there to his tent. He checked over his shoulder to see the dwarf setting up watch by the campfire. The accountant nodded. He laid down. He shimmied under his low-hanging rawhide roof to get snug and discourage insects and closed his eyes.

He crossed his arms. He uncrossed them. He removed his sword belt and rolled onto his left side. After a few minutes, he wondered if he should burn a candle. Maybe he could write a letter to Pecunia or to Carinde. For that matter, maybe he didn't need a candle. Wizards made light without flame. How hard could it be? Denario sat up. He dabbled with magical commands. He tried number combinations like “Hex two ten” to put a ghost star in the air. It wasn't bright enough to illuminate more than his fingers. Out of curiosity, he found that a “Hex one eight” command removed it. When he brought the ghost star back, it wasn't even as bright as a firefly. There was a limit to the magic.

His thoughts raced. He wanted to see Ragna's silver token again but he would have to wait until morning or maybe the next lunch. The sigils on it made him nervous. Ever since the raccoon, Denario felt he was being watched. Probably he was, of course, either by other woodland animals or by alligators, but the feeling was more sinister than that.

For the first time in his life, he wanted to write his own numeromancy.

He had a particular spell in mind. Master Winkel had worked on it with him when he was twelve. That was the year Winkel discovered thefts from the guild hall. Small things had gone missing like wooden cups and plates, scraps from old scrolls, a copper candlestick, a small ceramic vase, and some inkpots. As leader of the guild, Winkel felt obliged to stop to the petty crimes. He toyed with numeromancy as the solution. But his spell proved hard to sustain. It was formed correctly, no problem, but the amount of magic a long-lasting spell took was prohibitive. He couldn't afford to call in a real wizard to manage it, so Winkel discussed the theft problem with the senior guild members, each of whom conducted a search of their homes. They discovered the apprentice responsible and dismissed him rather forcibly – five lashes from a professional torturer and a note to his parents.

The spell had been of no use in Oggli. Here, there was a chance it would feed off of the background magic and not require any effort to sustain.

Denario had to leave the raft to draw in the dirt. That meant a discussion with the cleric dwarf, who would rather have seen the accountant stay in bed. Denario made it clear this was his professional business. That ended the objections.

An Ogglian wizard would have chanted something like, “While the number of objects in the circle are not equal to the number of objects on the raft, run the 'send star' command.” Such a man, full of secret training, could do it in a simple way because the wizards knew arcane languages that gave them access to the world at a fundamental level. Accountants didn't know those languages. All of the tricks Denario understood were numerical fragments of the underlayer. Five years ago, he and Winkel had spelled out their commands in the number system that seemed to define reality. Winkel asserted, as a matter of faith, that magical numbers formed the basis for the wizard's languages. But how anyone could translate from numbers into those other tongues was beyond him and, possibly, beyond the wizards, too.

The column of hexadecimal numbers took form rather quickly under Denario's hand. He remembered nearly all of their purposes by heart. Most of his thinking went into making the spell as simple as he could. Then he walked a path around the gunwhales of the raft, marked the packages and people as he went, assembled his stones, made his circle, and ran a test.

The spell burped. It sent bright stars immediately. Denario had to run a 'Hex ought three' to shut it down. It had gone wrong. Why?

He crouched, hands in his hair, as he struggled to troubleshoot the problem. A mosquito took a lazy bite out of his left arm. Denario re-read the spell three times, trying to find the flaw. But he couldn't find one. Could the problem be in the circle? Yes. Aha. He put a finger on the pile of stones. He glanced behind him to see his mistake. He'd gotten the number of barrels and boxes on the boat correct. But he'd forgotten to include people. The dwarfs had to be counted in. He found stones for them, re-drew his circle, and re-ran the spell.

This time, everything remained quiet and dark. That was as it should be. To test the spell, he stepped onto the raft. Lights appeared, partially obscured by the glow of the campfire. Good. He stepped off. The twinkling lights faded.

“You're counting things on the boat?” murmured the dwarf beside the fire.

“Yes.”

“Well done. You really are quite smart for a human.”

Denario didn't know quite how to reply to that. Eventually, he settled for, “Thank you.”

He canceled the numeromancy, gathered up his tools, and headed back to the the raft. On the deck outside of his tent, he re-cast the spell, this time with one extra stone to account for his presence. Finally, he felt calm. He stood, hands on hips, and surveyed the dark landscape around him. Master Winkel would have been proud.

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