Sunday, January 27, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 151: A Bandit Accountant, 25.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene Four: Barking Up the Right Tree

“It's a bit early,” said Jack. In the front raft, he raised his blindfold. Denario saw him do it. He watched the boatmaster blink and noticed him rub his balding head. The accountant had already removed his. That left him a moment to contemplate the crippled man on the raft next to Jack. His name was Goyle. He'd come out of his fever. It seemed fairly certain, now, that he would live.

Goyle's left foot was a crippled mess, still swollen and unable to support his weight. The rest of him had taken a beating in the fight as well. The left side of his head was blue and purple with bruises. The flesh around his skull wasn't swollen, which the dwarfs said was good, but it Denario thought disease might creep in anyway.

Like the rest of the men, but not the dwarfs, Goyle lifted the cloth from his eyes. His gaze drifted down the sandy creek banks and took note of the change in greenery. His mind was apparently still clear. Denario averted his stare to avoid giving offense.

All of them gawked at a waterway straight enough and wide enough to be a river. The No Map Creek had transformed while they had poled along the unseen shoreline. The water had grown clear. Fewer flies rode the breezes. There were no biting insects at all. The vegetation had changed to low ferns and razor grasses on the shore with medium high chestnut, willow, and birch trees upslope. The rocks had diversified. Instead of slates, there were lighter shades of limestone and granites sitting atop piles of ruddy sandstone. Along the banks, Denario noticed that the sandstones were more yellow and joined by conglomerates. The only signs of magic were a pair of ravioli bushes coming into fruit.

Beyond the raviolis, there sat a wooden dock. It poked six stumps into the water and held raw log cross beams. The beams looked dark and waterlogged. The dock seemed to belong to somewhere else, in fact, a transplant from another land, but here it was. No vegetation grew on it.

“All right,” Jack said. “Blindfolds off.”

The men bowed their heads a little sheepishly while the dwarfs followed orders. The smaller fellows smiled and made comments like 'oh my,' 'this looks like camp,' and 'what lovely minnows.' None of the dwarfs remarked on how the men had disobeyed orders although Boldor and Dodni exchanged a glance and waggled their eyebrows.

“Looks like I've managed not to steer us past the stop.” Out front, Jack put his hands on his hips. He faced the out-of-place log platform.

“Did we make better distance than usual?” Denario asked. He instinctively kept from thinking too far ahead about where they might be going. He would write down a coded map later, or try, but he didn't let his mind linger on it.

Denario heard a man vomit into the creek. He glanced and saw Brand's billowy, white shirt leaned over the gunwhales. Next came a disgusted cough. Brand still hadn't grown accustomed to reining in his thoughts. He and his men knew the lands southwest of the lost temple. Probably Brand had started mapping them in his mind.

“We're already at Siren's Tiedown. That's about two-thirds of a day ahead.” Jack kept the line of rafts aimed a few feet from running aground.

“We never even came close to this place,” said Goyle. He shifted in his seat next to Jack.

“For good reason. No human lives in the town anymore,” explained Jack. “That's why it's just a tiedown. There was a run of bad magic. All of the homes were abandoned. But it's safe enough nowadays.”

“If no one lives here,” said Goyle, echoing Denario's thoughts, “then why's it so clean? And why are there dead bodies hanging in the trees?”

“Ah, this is another trade secret.” Jack grimaced. He switched hands with his punt and stuck an end to the deep side. He pushed the rafts toward the dock tiedown. Overhead, he squinted to see the bodies of four raccoons and three gars hanging upside down from vines in the high branches. One of the gars looked to Denario like it had wings. Was that natural or magic? “I suppose there's no avoiding it. This place is maintained by one of the sireni, a male named Barkbark.”

“Oh.”

“They have names?” asked Goyle.

“What kind of a name is Barkbark?” Brand strode up to Denario's right side. He brushed his mouth, then wiped his fingers on his pants.

“Well, it's what I call him. He refers to himself as something similar but I can't imitate it. Ah, he sees us.” Jack waved to a figure in the gloom between the nearest strand of trees. Then he bent and grabbed a coil of rope. “Say, um, we're a larger group than usual.”

“Problem?” Denario asked. He'd grown accustomed to noticing when notes of caution entered Jack's voice.

“No one else get out until I talk with him. No one is to tie down but me and you, Den.”

“Got it.” He turned to reach for his corner coil. Torgrim beat him there. The short fellow bowed and handed over the loops. The cordage had been fresh a few days ago, crafted by the riverman and the dwarfs together, but it had already weathered and developed the right amount of roughness. Sailors on the Paravienteri dock would have approved.

Jack tied the lead raft to the shallowest post. Denario swung the last boat around to finish. He had to back in to form-fit the middle craft to the deepest pillars of the pier. While he maneuvered, Clever Jack stepped up onto the dock. He strode toward the figure in the shade. When he reached a dark line cast by the tree branches overhead, he stopped. He took off his hat. The obscured form moved. Shadows changed. Denario could almost see a human face between the vines. Then the figure sauntered into the light.

Their host showed himself as a greenish man, naked except for a shoulder tattoo and a loincloth that looked as if it served as his toolbelt. He had two knives tucked in, a coil of string, a loop of rope, a hook, a separate cord that carried the spear on his back, and a gauntlet on his right wrist. There were sandals on his feet. He didn't look like he needed armor. His skin was as thick as the alligators he hunted.

He grunted something.

Clever Jack answered, “This time, I'm rich again. It happens. Do you want them to stay on the rafts?”

“No.” That word from the siren was clear. So was the gesture. He turned his reflective, green eyes on the troop of dwarfs. With a swipe of his arm, he invited them to step aboard on his dock. “Come.”

The dwarfs rearranged themselves so that Boldor could ascend first. They seemed to regard the meeting as a formal one since introductions were being made. In fact, as Denario read their postures, the event of meeting a member of a less-encountered race, perhaps one who had never seen a dwarf before, made the occasion ceremonial.

Barkbark returned to the cover of his trees and his makeshift larder. He sat on a barrel, the greatest one of four. His furnishings seemed to have been fashioned as containers in the lands to the northeast and then carried down to him on rafts. He'd worked the pieces into crude chairs, the barrel the highest of them, and placed them in a semi-circle on the ground at the end of his dock.

Clever Jack motioned Denario forward. The accountant glanced to his side and decided to give the dwarf chief room to precede. In return, the chief politely deferred to Denario. That led to both of them stepping once and bowing, each in turn.

“Well, then,” Boldor whispered. “Let’s walk together.”

The dwarf and the accountant strode toward Barkbark's meeting spot side by side although Denario made sure to keep the dwarf a half-step in front. Boldor was a ruler, after all, even if it was over a troop of eleven.

“Greetings, hero of the sireni,” began Boldor. He bowed. His cap, which had been mostly leather a week ago had since been refashioned into a metal helmet. The dwarf had grown wealthier and sturdier in the past week.

Boldor's regal attitude reflected well on Barkbark. The siren male’s accomplishments were appropriately recognized. He had established a wide swath of territory near the epicenter of water magic. He hunted the toughest of creatures, kept an full larder, and apparently attracted females despite them being in short supply.

That much, the accountant deduced by seeing that there were three beds of straw next to the upstream shore. Did Barkbark have three wives? Did they mate with him the beds? In the water? If they mated in the water, were the beds for raising the children? Was there instead only one mate but three children? The questions occurred to the accountant in quick succession but he couldn't imagine a situation in which he'd be allowed to ask.

After Clever Jack made introductions, the siren male surprised Denario by murmuring that he'd heard about the math teacher’s coming. It was the dwarfs who were unexpected from his point of view. He smiled when Boldor spoke his name, which was closer to Tarktich than Barkbark, and the dwarf got it nearly right.

“Chief of the Lost Mines, this is a joyous meeting,” said Barkbark. “And Accountant of Oggli, welcome to my tree hall.” His tongue had a problem pronouncing the 'l' sound but Boldor and Denario could understand him. “You may sit.”

It wasn't an invitation as much as a command. The seats had been crafted somewhat for humans. The account felt reasonably comfortable on his. The dwarf chief had to sit at the edge of his box in order for his feet to reach the ground.

Denario's gaze rose as he noticed that the tree hollow around them had been shaped. Rowan oaks had been encouraged to grow in rows to act as loose-fitting walls. Above, the siren had fashioned a high ceiling from the leafy boughs. He’d even left a gap to let out billows from a campfire. Barkbark smoked his meat, perhaps, or played host to river captains and other guests who needed to cook. The branches of the chimney trees were black from years of soot. The hall was a grand one in its way. But nowhere in view was a house, a lean-to, or even a hole in a tree. Barkbark, unlike a human or a dwarf, felt comfortable living without a water-tight shelter.

“I've heard tales of your folk, Boldor,” he said, not quite pronouncing the name right. “But only of their deeds long ago. Do your people not travel the lands regularly?”

“Not above ground,” Boldor admitted.

“Ah. I think I understand.” He nodded gravely. On his barrel seat, which leaned against the fan of a juniper bush, Barkbark looked like a rough, green nobleman on a throne in his court. His elbows rested on his knees. “It is strange for you to come to shelter here.”

“We are grateful for the dock and for your protection,” Clever Jack interjected.

“Of course.”

“May my men approach to bring you gifts?”

The siren male gave a sad smile. “The remaining ones are bandits, really.”

“Sorry.” Jack titled his head to one side. His opened his hands. “Have you had bad encounters with them?”

“I have never met them, Jack. But I see what I see.” He sat taller and surveyed the rafts full of men and dwarfs.

“May I call a few dwarfs to us, then?” asked Boldor. “We could bring as our boat master instructs. I would like to offer a gift for you, if I may. We would take Jack's instruction on what is appropriate.”

He nodded to the raftman, who returned a cautious grin.

“Huh.” The green eyes flashed at them. “Who are the dwarfs that they be guided by men in their gifts to a host? Are you not your own people?”

“They have lived under Water Mountain, far away from here, for all of their lives,” said Jack. “They do not know the ways of men. They have asked me to advise them.”

“Jack is their agent,” added Denario. “He's mine, too.”

“Ah. Well, that is why he is Clever Jack.”

The accountant could tell by the glint in Barkbark's gaze that his humor had been tickled. He lifted a stump seat in one hand, a casual act of inhuman strength, and set it in front of him. That seemed to be a surface on which gifts to him could be placed.

“And me?” asked Denario. “And the pirates? I mean, sorry, the Caravan of the Kill?” He motioned to where the three other men were waiting on the rafts. “What is expected of us?”

“Of you, no gifts. You have paid into the magic.”

“And how do you know?”

“I listen. You gave to the temple. Besides, you have the power of numbers. Although it is a skill that I do not understand, I respect it. Instead of a fee, what I ask in exchange for my hospitality is that you think about a way for my daughters to live.”

“Your daughters?” The careless grin fled from Denario's face. All too easily, he could imagine how the request had come to be formed. The daughters born here in this hollow had grown a few months old, gotten sick, and died. It had to break the hearts of the mothers. Barkbark himself had probably tried to harden himself to those deaths. He hadn’t succeeded.

“This is terrible,” said Boldor, aghast. “Your children die?”

Although Clever Jack had recounted many tales of No Map Creek, including those of the sireni, he'd done that with Denario alone, not after the dwarfs came aboard. The omission led to an awkward pause in their conference. Jack had to restart things with the tale of the sireni damnation. It was an uncomfortable anecdote. The siren male grew tight-lipped as the boatman described the wizard's curse. But it was the dwarf's reaction that surprised Denario. Boldor burst into tears.

None of the others in the rowan hall knew quite how to react. They gave the chief a minute to compose himself.

“I'm sorry, my friends.” Boldor wiped his cheek with the tip of his long beard. “Children among the dwarfs are precious. I know it is not so with all people. Humans have children by accident, I hear.”

Jack opened and closed his mouth so quickly that it raised Denario's curiosity.

“That is quite understandable,” said their green-skinned host with a touch of emotion.

“Of course I'll do my best, Tarktich,” Denario sighed. “But this problem has defeated better men than me. You must know that.”

“Yes. But how can I fail to ask? If it defeats all men, ask women.”

“All right, I will.” He had no pride to lose.

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.” At this, Denario felt a twinge of guilt that he would never be coming back. Of all the vows that he'd made in bad faith during this journey, and there were many, this was the worst. Surely the sireni deserved better than the deaths of so many young girls.

“Good. Bring your dwarfs over, Boldor. Your bandit men too, Jack. Let them set camp.” Barkbark clapped his hands. He waited while the dwarf chief and the river captain waved to their rafts. He added, “As you prepare, I will talk with my closest woman. Singing time is past. You always choose the safe seasons, Jack. You're the best.”

“That's why I'm alive.”

“And I have a warning for the accountant.” He stood, gestured toward Denario, then strode through the west entrance of his tree hall, opposite the dock. The green underbrush hid his green, tattooed back. He was gone.

Denario glanced to Boldor and Jack. The dwarf chief had already strode toward the dock to meet Dodni. Jack flapped his hands as if to say that the coming warning from the siren male was a mystery to him, too.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 150: A Bandit Accountant, 25.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene Three: Return in Time

“You look sad,” said the priest. “And tired. It's been two days awake for you, hasn't it?”

“Yes, most of that.” He felt drawn out. His fingers kept rising to rub around his eye sockets.

“Ruffina looks fine.” The large man leaned to one side. He peered into the chapel, where the feathers had almost disappeared but not quite. “But you?”

“You're asking?”

The priest shrugged. “Some men take it badly.”

“I thought I was betrothed.” Denario forced himself to stop rubbing his eye.

“You still are. What the gods did with your bodies was done in holiness. You are innocent.”

“No.” He couldn't explain. He wasn't as innocent as all that. “I'm sure you're right about the godly part but no, I'm different. My betrothal is undone. It has been for a while but I didn't realize.”

“Well, it takes some men that way, too.” He didn't seem too put out by the idea. Perhaps he had a limited vision of the type of women who could be betrothed to men wandering the wilderness. “Are you fit to walk?”

“I could manage some speed if it’s needed.”

“If you want to see your friends on those boats again, it is.” The bigger man hiked up the rope he used as a sash around his waist. “Ruffina took you through the spiral path for a reason. That reason was so that she could take you back to where you started.”

“She can do that?” Denario mentally revised his idea of a timeline. He would have to write about this in his accounting log.

“Not now. But only because she's too … tired.” Seigfried seemed on the verge of saying something else, perhaps that Ruffina was too old. He stared down at the dirt for a moment. When his gaze lifted, he waved a thick arm toward the door.

“Come on,” he said. He marched out through the rooms into the main courtyard, the one with the garden that Denario had visited on the way in. He wandered through the green shoots and purple flowers until he paused and dug a hole in the soil with the back of his sandal. “We'll start here.”

The priest set a leisurely pace on a path that was roughly, but not exactly, backwards from how Denario had arrived. They took a lot of the same twists and turns but reversed. They passed among the tallest flowers of the season. They skirted the fringe of small, yellow blooms at the edge of the courtyard.

Together, they climbed the first rise as the sun set over the western horizon. Denario turned to say a silent goodbye to the white walls of quartz. Disconcertingly, they glowed orange in the afternoon light. Next down the path, they passed gardens, some of them gone wild. The accountant gazed over a chunk of milky rock as big as his arm. It was followed by a burst of soft, fat wildflowers. The brightness of the temple clearings gave way to duskiness in the forest canopy. Birches gave way to oaks. Grass dropped to stubble. Soon, there was no grass, all of it replaced by ferns and creeping vines. The ground beneath his boots was damp. The air felt heavy.

Siegfried started to get far ahead. Denario worried and doubled his pace.

The priest swerved right. Shadows moved with him. The priest swerved again. A ray of sunlight shifted from one broad shoulder to the next. The more winding the path Siegried chose, the faster the roots and plants seemed to shift. They walked between rows of stunted juniper bushes and sunlight burst through from overhead. The sun looked higher and whiter than at the start of their journey only minutes ago. Soon they passed the clearing into dense underbrush. Denario felt encouraged by the change.

In time, thick boughs overhead gave way to shafts of light between thinner trees, ash and birch. The roots that gnarled the ground looked smoother. The rocks they turned up were shale.

When the shadows changed again, Denario could smell the water. He could hear it, too, a rush in the distance. A river bird squawked on a branch overhead. They had come to within thirty yards of No Map Creek.

Seigfried raised a hand. The accountant paused.

“This is as far as I go.” The priest nodded to himself.

Denario reached out. He didn't know the other man well. Hardly at all, in fact. But he gripped the fellow's outstretched arm. When he turned his attention to the path in front of him, he let go. Seigfried stepped back along the trail the way he'd come. The shadows shifted.

The no-mapping spell slammed down on Denario's mind with force. He'd gone without it for so long that, perhaps like Seigfried, he'd taken his ability to find his way for granted. What started as a thrill of fear, a sense of being lost, grew into vertigo. He wobbled. His memory reached back to his childhood on the Paravientri docks, where the sailors described 'finding their land legs' or the reverse, enduring their nausea from sea-sickness. The ground wasn't moving but, for a few seconds, Denario felt that it was.

He snatched at the branch of an ash sapling and clung on. It steadied him. He couldn't cast his spell to blank out other spells. The idea certainly occurred to him. But his oath to Ruffina removed the option. Instead, he closed his eyes. He listened.

In a moment, his vertigo eased. He peeked at the ground beneath his boots. His left foot slid forward, then his right. He eased through a gap between bushes. He closed his eyes and listened. He opened them and stepped in the direction of the water. There seemed to be a sandy trail through the rocks. Likely enough, he couldn't go far wrong. For a few more yards, he crept forward. He heard a slap against the water. It sounded as if someone had tossed a rope into the creek.

“Jack?” he called. “Boldor?”

Another three steps took him through trees and scrub. He found himself looking downslope at grayish mud and yellow weeds. Beyond that lay sand, rocks, and water. On a dappled rock stood a short person in a white shirt and leather vest. It was Dodni. The thin-bearded dwarf faced the accountant. It took a moment for Dodni to really see Denario. When he did, his eyes widened. His mouth opened. His fingers began to shake.

“Skilling!” he shouted. He pointed. Then he turned to the dwarfs near him as he stepped from the rock and out of Denario's sight. “I saw Skilling!”

Denario trod down the rocky incline toward the water. He heard voices as he approached, most of them the rumbling and raspy tones of the dwarfs. For the moment, he didn't have to think about where he was going. His feet carried him toward his companions. The other members of the rafting crews, however, seemed to have considerable doubts about coming out to meet him. At least one of the dwarfs didn't believe Dodni and repeated, “Skilling's lost. Skilling's lost.” Brand agreed, although not with the sort of contempt Denario was accustomed to hearing.

“Can't see how he'd get away from the witch,” grumbled the privateer.

“Must have,” Dodni insisted.

“But then he would be confused by the anti-mapping spells.” The observation was made in calm tones. It was Clever Jack.

“Aren't the best accountants also magicians of some stripe?”

“Just with math.”

“That must be it.”

“If you dwarfs have a mind to go looking, we should tie up.” Brand shook something. It sounded wet. “It'll be a lot of rope work. Can it wait until I get dry?”

“Certainly not.”

“What if it's trap?” said one of Brand's men.

At this point, Denario pushed aside a thicket of weeds. He found himself staring at the backs of three men and the fronts of eight dwarfs, none of them more than eleven yards away. The long dwarf beards flapped in a breeze that swept along the stream. They seemed to be in odd states of dress, some of them half in armor, most not. Dodni's brother Heilgar looked like he was wearing a skullcap although, actually, he wasn't. He'd gotten drenched and his hair was matted. His beard dripped.

Dodni raised his arm to point. Another dwarf, Borghild, put a hand to his axe. He froze, trembling, as he stared at the accountant. Boldor and Torgrim noticed. One by one, the men turned around.

Denario stepped through the weeds and onto the stretch of sand and rocks that passed for a beachhead. Jack Lasker, the rearmost man, raised his punt as if to defend himself. He let it clatter to the stones a moment later. He sprinted two skips, a leap over a puddle, and took three more strides to meet Denario on the sands by the creek side.

“Oof.”

Jack knocked Denario sideways with a hug. The accountant hesitated before he realized he needed to return the gesture. In a moment, they were slapping each other on the back.

“How did you know I was real?” he asked.

“Who cares? Are you?” Jack said as the dwarfs and the other men scrambled to catch up. In a moment, they surrounded the accountant. Everyone touched him, some on the shoulders, some on the hauberk over his chest, others on the handles of the tools in his belt, a dwarfish gesture, and two of Brand's men touched his hair. All in all, it felt like everyone had to make sure of him.

“How long have I been gone?” He caught Boldor's gaze.

“It was not quick,” the dwarf chief said. He rubbed his beard.

“At least half of an hour,” said Dodni.

“Your hair is different.” Jack had a keen eye. “You've got something in it, too. Feathers? Goose down?”

“More than a day passed for me.” He calculated. “About twenty-eight hours, I think.”

That gave him space. The crowd stepped back except for Clever Jack, Dodni, and Boldor. Dodni stepped forward, actually, and touched the accountant on his arm.

“The witch?”

“Yes.”

“Are you harmed?”

“Changed. Not harmed, I think.” He found himself with his left hand over his chest. That was where he felt different, in his heartbeat and in his breath. A picture came to his mind of the floating lights of the temple, that peek he’d had of the inside of human bodies, and how he'd seen a human heart throbbing like a mechanical pump. How could his blood be connected to his breathing? It made no sense. He shook his head, convinced he would never understand more than a fraction of what he had witnessed. A small, white feather floated down from his hair to his nose.

“Did you see magic?”

“I saw strange things,” he decided. “The visions came to me with math, so I wrote them down. But I'll have to think for a while before I talk about them. They may be holy.”

The dwarfs, except for Bolder and Dodni, made the knocking motions over their heads, hearts, and shoulders that Denario had come to understand as signs of their superstition. They refused to talk about the gestures directly but Torgrim had once mentioned, by way of an explanation, that his people lived in darkness. They bore witness to creatures of shadow that humans never knew. Knocking on things was a way one dwarf could signal to all of the others.

“There's a bit more to write down,” Denario said. “Before we go. Before I eat, even. I don't want to forget.”

“Hah!” Boldor thumped his stomach as he laughed.

“We missed you, Skilling.” Borghild, Ulf, and Torgrim stepped closer. They touched the axes at their belts. Then they tapped his tool pouch and his baselard.

“Well, damn me,” Brand interjected. “All he did was get taken away. And escape, I suppose.”

“What of it?” Ulf squinted at the former caravan leader.

“You're shedding tears over him!”

The former caravan leader and probable pirate stamped his right boot. His arms rose. His fingers curled.

“That's right and proper for a comrade,” said Boldor. He stepped forward. “Are you saying that it's some kind of weakness? You're wrong, Brand. Entirely wrong.”

“Well, it’s not what I meant, not exactly.” Brand wiped his brow. His broad-rimmed hat was missing. Possibly that was connected with how wet and sweaty he'd become. A drop rolled down the side of his face. His arms fell to his sides. “But it's different. I haven't seen anything like it in … well, a long while.”

“Why are you wet, Brand?” Denario asked.

“Ulf fell into the creek,” the taller man grumbled. A scowl cast a shadow over his eyes. “I went in after him.”

“To the rescue?” Denario paused to try to picture the incident. Brand had quick reactions, true, but he'd never stuck his neck out for anyone. “It isn't what I'd expect.”

“You got that right,” murmured Clever Jack.

“Probably the oaths he took,” grumbled Boldor.

“All the same,” said Jack. He nodded to Brand as if it were the correct thing, a job well done. And it had been, as out of place as it seemed.

Although Denario had been informed that he'd arrived soon after he'd left, he knew it wasn't true. He'd told the others that he hadn't been magically changed but he was pretty sure that was also not correct. The smell of the water, slow but clear, seemed natural, as if the background magic no longer burned his senses. He felt no itch to weave a spell. The stink of Brand next to him, covered in algae and silt, no longer felt threatening, the way it had done when he'd left the group. The man was a danger but he felt like a very predictable one.

Denario glanced to a branch overhanging the creek. A flying frog had landed on it. The leaf-covered twig wavered under the extra weight. Not long ago, the accountant would have been frightened. At best he would have regarded it as an evil omen. Now it was just a frog. He hadn't returned from the temple quite the same person as he'd left.

“Yes, well done.” This time, Denario took a calmer look at Brand.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 149: A Bandit Accountant, 25.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene Two: Rude Awakening

The accountant, to his surprise, woke for the third time that day. He hadn't expected to be allowed a nap.

His second morning was finished, he thought, and he had lasted well into another afternoon of the same day. Somewhere on No Map Creek, if his guess about the spiral path was correct, another, slightly younger Denario was learning to steer a raft blindfolded.

He glanced down at his limbs. They were tanned and scarred in places that had been unfamiliar to him before he left Ziegeburg. He'd hated inspecting his alternately dusky and light brown flesh. He was disgusted by the dark hairs he had acquired in puberty back when he'd been a city dweller. But now he could see muscles where there had been none. The scars forming on his left arm seemed attractive in their way, to him at least, because they were a blend of two different patterns.

His gaze drifted over to Ruffina. Silvery hairs curled around her right ear. He could make out the reddish tint in her roots now that he knew to look. Her face looked relaxed. The prospect of her happiness lifted a burden from his heart. Ruffina appeared frail and old to him in a way that she hadn't earlier. All of his terror over her secret knowledge and her temperament had faded. She would be a vital matriarch for a few years more, probably, but he understood that she was not far from the old age that she pretended.

When he tried to move, he discovered that the witch's right arm had hooked around his neck.

He chuckled to himself. Two people, twined. Two scars on his arm, also twined. He surveyed the room and found other objects in pairs. What did they have in common? Only that there were two of them.

“Oh gods.” He twisted out of Ruffina's arm. He needed to write.

He scrambled across the matted clumps of down. He needed to find paper. His accounting journal still had pages to use. When he'd left Oggli, the book had been fresh, only four pages of notes followed by ninety-two blank ones.

He found the accounting bag by the door next to his waterproof backpack. What he needed to do was formally describe the 'Theory of Groups' in the language of formal logic. It had never been done but he knew that it would lead to the answer he'd been looking for. After flipping to a blank page, he began to scribble furiously.

That was how the witch found him, half an hour and five pages later. She glanced over his shoulder and chuckled.

“You are on fire with this,” she said. She put a hand on his shoulder.

“Yes, yes. Can you see? I'm proving it. I'm really proving it. The number two is the group of all things in the world that have an element in common. That element is there’s two of them. Three is the group of all things in the world that have in common that there are three of them, and so on.”

“You had to write all that?”

“It's only partway done,” he explained. “I'm writing out the logic step by step. It's better that way. I have to show other mathematicians. And it has to be absolutely rigid, done in a formal way they must accept.”

“Ah. This is a compulsion, then?”

“No, no. It's not a sickness. To another mathematician, it would all make sense.”

“Maybe it would,” she allowed, hands on hips. “But that doesn't mean it's not a sickness. Anyway, I don't mean to sound judgmental. Witches get down into this level of detail as well.”

“They get to … what?” The thought derailed him. He couldn't picture it.

“Witches can get lost in the logic. It's happened to me. I've gotten fascinated by how a bit of magic works right down to the number of duck feathers needed for an umbrella spell, down to what happens if there's dirt on one, down to a huff of moisture on a speck of dirt on on a single barb of a single feather. It's easy to get lost like that. It can be a good thing. But in the end, to make it useful, you have to find your way back.”

“Yes.” Denario felt like a dawn was rising in his heart. “That's exactly right. It has to come back. It has to connect to the foundations of useful arithmetic so other mathematicians will find it useful.”

“Now, right here at the top.” She pointed with her bony finger. “Did you mean to write 'Theory of Grouping?'”

“Yes. That's what this is.”

“But you wrote, 'Theory of Groping.'”

“Oh.” He blushed. He tried to correct the mistake immediately but it wasn't easy to fix. His fingers trembled. After a moment, he gave up. He shrugged.

“Five minutes,” he said. He needed more time to write before he could think about anything else. It took him fifteen minutes more to get the basics down. Ruffina forgave him.

He left the last page open for the ink to dry. His lips mumbled a prayer to Melcurio. He caught himself as he wiped the nib of his pen. Then he finished the prayer. This time he knew the god had been involved in some way. Maybe the inspiration had been a mundane one, not holy, but the life-transforming energy of it had come from giving his body to the gods. For this kind of inspiration, he'd be willing to do it again.

Denario returned to the witch full of the familiar, nervous energy. It took her a while to turn his mind back to his body.

A while later, she insisted that they dress. She clasped her hands and whispered a spell into them. The magical down that covered the floor, their belongings, the stones, and some candles, rustled. Her hands parted. The milky sea of feathers swept aside. With a gesture, she pushed the stuff to either wall and revealed her magical tools. Her ceremonial robe flew up to her, a billow of maroon.

“Why?” he complained.

“Because it's time. You must leave.” Ruffina caught the robe and threw it on. It slid on easily over her head. She didn't bother with undergarments. For Denario, getting dressed in his layers of clothing and armor was going to be a chore. He didn't want to go. His attitude must have showed in his face. The witch nodded curtly at him and said, “Remember your apprentices.”

He sighed. The younger boys, Shekel and Mark, were probably begging to be fed at this time of day if they weren't already eating or tearing around the house while their elders cooked. He imagined the smell the burnt bread and unwashed laundry on the floor. He turned to the corner of the temple chamber where he uncovered his belongings.

As he started to dress and to re-pack, he noticed the icon of the fish-goat from the Biscelli Church was missing. That piece had contained the message from Glaistig to Onuava. He'd left it sitting at the top of his travel pack in order to give it to the clergy before he left. Now it was nowhere to be found. Maybe the gods had taken it. He shrugged. He'd find another gift.

At least the gold necklace hadn't been stolen. It was worth as much as the rest of his possessions. His fingers found the clasp. He hooked it around his neck. At that moment, Ruffina stepped closer.

“This is one of Pecunia's creations, isn't it?” Her fingertip ran along the pendant, under its golden hooves. Her gaze narrowed. She tapped the tail.

“Um, yes.”

She gasped and stepped away from him. “You're her man!”

“I was once, I suppose.” His voice sounded tired, to him. He felt drained of emotion.

“No longer?”

“No longer.” His realization of how it had been hit him with a deep breath. He'd been a source of amusement to Pecunia. The infatuation he'd had with her had made him blind to everything about her that should have warned him away. He nodded. “Really.”

“I met her when we were both young,” said the gray-haired woman. Denario's eyebrows went up. “At least, I think she was young. She may have been quite old even then.”

“Older than you?” He started doing some math.

The witch laughed and showed the gaps where she was missing teeth. “Surprised?”

“No.” He shook his head at himself. “Yes. I knew she was older than me. But I wouldn't have guessed how much.”

“Don't feel too bad.” Ruffina put a hand on his should. “She spent gold on you. You must have had favor in her eyes. She's widely known to be selfish. Yet she gave you this. It must have been a powerful charm once.”

“You mean it's not?” He glanced down and touched it with a forefinger. He'd spent a lot of time thinking about his luck in the past two months. Some of it had seemed awful but had turned out good in the end. He'd assumed that all of his best outcomes had been due to the charm.

“Not any longer.” She gave his charm the distant look he'd come to associate with wizards and witches looking into material objects for the magic they contained. Her fingertip reached out to it again. “It's drained. That happened swiftly, at a guess.”

As he dressed, she had him tell his tale. She hadn't expressed interest in his travels before, not even in how he'd come to sail a raft down the No Map Creek. He wouldn't have been willing to tell her much before the ceremony, either. But what they'd done made him feel close. He dared to reveal that he'd been engaged to Pecunia. The witch folded her arms across her chest and seemed to force herself to be patient. She didn't interrupt.

To his surprise, Ruffina understood about the mayor of Zeigeburg or at least about corrupt politicians stealing taxes. She said it happened in towns near the temple, too. When the knights caught anyone at it, they beheaded the criminal and stuck his head on a pike in the town square as a warning. Mayor Figgins must have known that would be his fate if an accountant didn't verify his books. The fact that Denario had escaped with his life while the mayor and his men were determined to kill him was amazing. Ruffina felt it was equal parts skill and luck.

When he described how he'd met Captain Vir de Spitze in Hogsburg, her gaze narrowed. She scowled through Denario's tales of the battles, even the ones in which he'd been the butt of jokes. She chuckled only over the story of the priest who couldn't levitate. Then came more battles and hikes through Mundredi settlements under the rules of the barons and knights. The worst was the devastated town of North Ackerland.

When he reached the part about numeromancy in the graveyard, she threw up her hands.

“Stop,” she said. “That's it.”

“What is?”

“That's when you drained the charm.”

“With an accounting spell? I thought I was taking the magic from the graveyard totem.”

“That should have worked.” Ruffina's hands fell to her hips. She turned and began to pace, the arches of flesh between fingers and thumbs resting on her hip bones as she went. “But the totem pole had been touched by many human spirits and it was more aware of the world than your charm was. The totem had dealt with magic for a very long time and that meant it was almost alive and rather sly, I suspect. Pecunia's trinket was new and rather innocent. It wasn't ready for the forces around the totem to divert the draining effect of your spell.”

“I used up all my luck?”

“You used up the charm. If you were a proper wizard or even a priest, you've have known it as it happened.”

He slapped himself in the forehead.

“Pssh.” The witch made a dismissive sound. She waved her hand. “You're not trained, just clever. A ghost that you can't see, especially the spirit of someone who had magical knowledge in life, would be capable of this and so that is almost certainly how it was done.”

Denario glanced at the pendant in his hand. It was a powerless bit of jewelry now, a knot design, heavy and overly ornate. But he liked it. Once it had perhaps lent him some crucial good fortune. Since then, he'd been making his own luck. That wasn't so bad.

He squinted. The pendant wasn't merely an intricate knot. At the center of the intertwining coils was a crude figure shaped like a stag or a goat. Was it another reference to Glaistig? Or was it a sign of the elder, forgotten god in whose church Pecunia made her home? She might be done with Denario and he might be finished with his crush on her, too, but she remained a source of intrigue for him.

“She's come up in the world since I met her, that witch,” Ruffina said. Her finger reached out to touch the base of the antlers in the pendant. “Years ago, she wore charms made of copper or silver. There was no gold to be had. Where would she get any?”

Denario blushed and shook his head.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 148: A Bandit Accountant, 25.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene One: Encore Performance

“Did you pay attention to our mortal flesh?” she asked. She grabbed her robe and pulled it across her body like a blanket. He guessed that she needed it for modesty, not warmth.

The floor was covered in down. Probably it was magical down, no geese involved. There was no other explanation for the sudden appearance of so much of it. The collection was as tall as the candles even when it was compressed. The puffs of creamy feathers felt soft to Denario's skin and warm under the heat of his sweaty limbs. The hard dirt floor felt like a lumpy blanket. He leaned back into his pile. Even matted as the stuff was, pieces of the down tended to float away when they didn't stick to him.

“You mean, did I watch what we did?” He wiped a lump of down from his arm and started to blush. He'd been fascinated. “Part of the time. It was hard not to.”

“You don't have to get embarrassed about it.” Judging from her smile, she seemed to enjoy his reaction. “It was wonderful for me except for the leg cramps. It's not a kind of fun I have much.”

“You have cramps?”

“My left thigh and my right foot. I'm not as old as you think, maybe. But I'm certainly not young as I was.”

“Should I rub them?” He half rolled and half crawled through the down to her. His fingers nearly touched her knee.

“Would you?” She flexed her right foot. He nodded and shifted his position so that he could touch it. Under most circumstances, he would have felt uncomfortable initiating contact with her. But her foot seemed safe enough. She groaned as he started to knead her instep. He froze. She opened her eyes from a squint. Her thin fingers motioned him to continue. “Ah. That’s good, young man.”

He hadn't felt an older person's foot before except when he was getting kicked. Ruffina's instep and front, thick pad of skin weren’t so different from his own although she had no scrapes or bruises on her toes from wearing boots. Her skin felt rough. Her toe bones felt skinny, too, like her fingers. She seemed fragile. He suspected that she'd grown slimmer with age rather than heavier. Between her skin and bone, her muscles and sinews had become lumps. Maybe they were tied in knots, deep inside. He hadn't known that sinews could get like that. As he rubbed, the hardest knots seemed to loosen.

“Oh, that's nice,” she said. After a moment, she added, “I felt you learning from me.”

“How?” He tried to play dumb or at least not to give away what he'd done.

“You leapt into my arms, my spirit arms, when the goddesses intended to sweep you aside. You stayed twined with me as they played their tricks. You watched. You inspected my spirit. I could feel you studying everything. And then you slipped away. You rode the minds of the gods. That's a good trick. It's one that many witches can't do. And you learned it very, very fast.”

“Are they still here in this room, Ruffina?” He didn't know why he was whispering. If they were here, they'd heard. “In you?”

“No.” She paused to check herself. Her gaze wandered. When it came back, she shook her head in confirmation.

“Good.”

“You're right.” She rubbed her mouth. “The gods might take offense at that sort of thing. They might not, too, but it's best not to take a chance.”

“That's what I thought.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“Those base four number systems that I saw before, like the interaction between 102 123 313 200 233 132 013 and another string, 413 132 233 244 313 123 142, those are the basis for everything inside us, I think.”

“You remember the numbers?”

“Only those. I looked high and low a bit more,. Some number systems form the basis of the universe, others form us. I had a strange thought … that really, numbers are self-created. They form in relation to one another. We're just ideas, really. We're loops of number systems that refer to themselves.”

“That can't be right.”

“Your body isn't what you think. Your mind isn't all that you're aware of. It's more and it's less.”

“Now you sound religious.”

“We're constantly changing. Things move in and out of us all the time.”

“Like food?”

“And air, yes. We think that we stay the same. But we don't. We change from instant to instant, right down to the smallest units of time.”

“Does time have a unit?”

“Yes. I think they tried to show us. But it’s small even to a god’s eyes.”

He went down on one knee and resumed rubbing her foot. Ruffina took a deep breath. Her fingers relaxed their grip on the blanket.

Denario worked in silence for a while. He contemplated the numbers inside him. After a minute, he noticed that all of the candles had gone out while his mortal shell was under the god's control. Two tapers still gave off tendrils of grey smoke. Whatever the multile deities had done to snuff them, probably related to what they had done with his body, it had probably ended the spell that the witch had started.

He felt that a realization was creeping up on him. Unfortunately, it was competing with the realization that he was naked and touching a woman who was covered by a blanket, nothing else.

“Had you done before,” Ruffina asked, “what we did in holiness?”

She had a polite way of putting it. His cheeks warmed as he remembered what he'd done.

“Not really.” He looked down at her foot. “I did something like it with Pecunia. I thought that it was everything. But, um, no. I may be a bit confused. Part of the time you looked like a goat so the pictures in my head may not be quite right.”

“You looked like a satyr to me. Do you know what that is?” She leaned closer. He met her eye for a moment but hers was too knowing.

“A man?”

“A goat-man. It's not a form that Melcurio takes, usually. There were wings, too, early on, and that is more like him. These are the remains of those wings.”

“Why did you, um, do those things to me? In holiness, I mean.”

“You don't know?” She leaned back into the down.

He shook his head.

“You are so young. I like that. I enjoy your spirit very much. We did those things so that you could perform again.” She gave him a sly look over the top of the blanket. “So ... do you want to perform again?”