Monday, May 27, 2019

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Twenty-Five Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One

Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 

Chapter Two Pair

Chapter Full Hand

Chapter Half Dozen

Chapter Fourth Prime

Chapter Two Cubed

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve

Chapter Binary Two

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow

Chapter Square Root of Gross

Chapter Baker's Dozen

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Chapter Twice Eight

Chapter Seventh Prime

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Chapter Normal Magic Hexagon

Chapter Score

Chapter Octagonal Number Three

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Chapter Four Factorial

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Being Geek in a Warrior Culture - Twenty-Fifth Chapter

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 164: A Bandit Accountant, 27.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Cubed

Scene Five: Handshakes All Around

News of the deal spread from dwarf to dwarf. By the time the rafts cast off again, most of the short folk seemed to know about the arrangement. Dwarfs on Denario's raft approached him about it, one by one.

Ragna lumbered over to him first. He wrapped the accountant in a heartfelt embrace.

“Rightly are you called Skilling,” he said. He thumped Denario on the shoulder.

Next was Torgrim, who happened by to give him a silent squeeze of the forearm. That turned into a handshake, then a bow. After he left, Ulf waited for a moment. He was the last companion on board with Denario and he held an oar, which gave him the pushing and steering job. Nevertheless, he found a calm spot in the water, during which his help was clearly not needed, and he put down the oar.

He approached, clasped hands with Den, and murmured, “Well done.”

Foremost among the dwarfs, Ulf had taken to wearing fishmail armor. It was likely due to his experiences near the Forgotten Temple and East Hogsli. At least, the habit had begun then. It continued due to the presence of so many men on the river and around the docks. The other rafts on the water made him wary. He looked and acted tougher than he had two weeks before.

On the other the watercraft, fore and aft, men and dwarfs took the news differently. Schmurter shook hands with Clever Jack and turned to Goyle for a playful shove. His boss, also on Jack's boat, remained silent for nearly a quarter-hour. The tall fellow spent his time sulking and glowering at his men, the one who would be going with him and the one he'd planned to abandon. When at last he reached some sort of decision, he strolled over and punched Schmurter, apparently for the show of affection. He stalked over to master Jack, afterward. He bent his head for a quick word. It looked like a respectful moment but not a warm one.

When Brand lifted his gaze, his eyes locked on Denario. He glared. It was a challenge. That seemed odd.

The accountant wondered what it was about. What was going through the big man's mind? Den had his boat-work to keep him busy, though. He had to run to the other side to push his raft away from a sunken log. By the time he could shoot a questioning look over to his captain, Jack, that man wasn't paying attention. When Jack finally noticed Den, he indicated Brand and shrugged. He didn't know why the caravan captain was angry about the arrangement either. It was just another mystery of a complicated personality.

“Ahoy, Jack!” cried the dock attendants of their last delivery site. Five of them scrambled, short and tall, muscular and thin, to bring the rafts to their master's pier.

“You've been overly clever this time, Jack,” said the merchant when he arrived partway through the unloading. “You have a third raft. Extra goods. This is not part of our bargain. I can't accept the excess produce. Under the circumstances, I might be able to take a raft or two, just the wood pieces, off of your hands but only if they come cheap.”

“Ho, Master Solvetkin.” Jack laughed at the thought of parting with his rafts like that. He did not take off his hat before he began to deal with the merchant, Denario noticed.

Solvetkin wore a fine, linen shirt, dyed burgundy red, with a brown cloak thrown across his shoulders. He did not wear breeches or trousers. Instead, he had a sort of kilt or skirt with sharp, military gray lines woven in. Beneath, there were burgundy leggings, apparently silk. The curled tips of his shoes arched back toward his shins like small bows. They even had bowstrings to hold them. Gem stones encrusted the tips. Denario looked higher up and saw a white broach on the man's shirt. The fellow played with the broach for a moment. There were rings on all of his fingers.

“How is the pickled beef?” asked Solvetkin.

“The best.” The boatman smacked his lips, perhaps in memory of the taste. “But I've got too much. You can take your pick before the knights arrive.”

“What knights?”

“Well, Sir Redumonde since this is his home harbor, too. And one of his fellows sent word to us that Sir Redumonde has invited his friend Sir Duval. Duval will buy my remainders.”

“I had no idea that Duval was getting into the army supply business.” Fingers worried at the many rings.

“I don't know his aims, I'm sure. Both knights have made offers on my rafts.”

Solvetkin yanked the burgundy cap off his head and slapped his knee with it.

“Now, now,” said Jack. “I haven't accepted any offers for the vessels yet.”

“You have spotted the lay of things, though.” Solvetkin sighed.

“I'm not deaf and dumb.” Jack gave a sardonic smile. He opened his hand as if to indicate the path that his partner had chosen for them. “I'll entertain a fair offer. If you're outbid, Solvi, that's business. You always tell me, it's a business.”

“Aye.” The merchant had to be the sort who liked to keep things calm and not overly friendly. Master Winkel had been that way himself. He had approved of traders who felt the same. He probably would have trusted Solvetkin, in his way. Only so far. That was the point. But Denario had seen a contrasting example in the way Vir De Acker did business. The clan chief made deals based almost entirely on a slow build-up of his grudging trust. He inspired people to believe in him. It was not done in the way of a confidence man or a trickster. It was something else. Denario had not yet figured out what it was but it bore some consideration as a way of life.

Resigned, Solvetkin swung his cap back onto his head.

He and Jack proceeded to count up. Denario listened to how Solvetkin rated the produce in each barrel, flask, and crate. Those deemed good enough to attract the highest prices from the nobility got an A grade. The sort of fare that local tradesmen would buy from one another got a B. Provisions that were acceptable but not popular, Solvetkin stamped with a letter C. The C grade items got sent to the military. Although the army quartermasters inspected their goods, they did not insist on the best. Rather, they insisted on the cheapest.

Solvetkin seemed to regret the pickled cabbages and rhubarb. However, they were part of his bargain and he could find no fault with them. Jack's business with the merchant was so ordinary, in fact, that it was overshadowed by the arrival of two knights in informal dress. They arrived together, each on horseback, with two squires and a pair of Redumonde's freemen walking alongside. Behind them came a teamster crew, four men with mules. Denario had seen teamsters from afar before, usually from the safety of a coach or from the Paravienti office on the south Oggli docks.

The mule drivers were rough men, famously so. They led teams of animals to pull rafts and barges through the canals around Oupenli, Oggli, and Angrili. The nature of their jobs took personal force. Muscles bulged in their arms. Veins throbbed in their muscles. They wore beards cut close and their hair cut long like donkey tails. Scars showed on their hands and on their faces.

“You are Clever Jack?” called one of the knights from his horse.

“I am, sir.” The boatmaster gave a friendly nod that hinted of a formal bow. Again, he failed to remove his hat but this time his manner changed. The knights demanded a cautious sort of respect.

Their necks were thicker than their arms. Their boots were laced tight to their calves. One of the knights pulled his right foot from its stirrup and swung himself around to stand entirely on the left stirrup before he dismounted. He conveyed a sense of motion that would have made poets swoon if they were the sort who wrote about martial arts. In all, both noblemen looked at least as tough as the teamsters but with a veneer of education rubbed over top. Their haircuts looked freshly trimmed. One of them, perhaps Duval because he was quiet, had shaved his blonde beard except for the mustache. His plain brown hauberk was not as stylish as the red and gold one worn by his companion but there was no mistaking that it was expensive.

“Take your pick, Redumonde,” the fellow said. “Just leave me something.”

“Not a problem.” The larger knight remained on his horse. He nodded to one of the squires. That man, on foot, wore chainmail even though it was clearly unnecessary. Perhaps the attire was a matter of pride for him. He looked about Denario's age although, of course, half again larger. “After my last trip to the armorer, I don't have funds left to buy a whole raft of goods. My men and I are after what we can defend at the crossroads. We'll resell it at the Riggle Dock. That means mostly liquor and metals.”

“Don't you have to take the tariff road?” Duval sounded curious.

“We don't pay that.” Redumonde snorted. “Not paying it is where I get the money for my men. Build up your own fighting force and you won't pay, either. Your four are not enough, by the way.”


“A score, more like. The knights there, Huber and Von Brandt, are the worst bastards. They kill a couple of people every year, usually hired men-at-arms trying to protect their merchant. The merchant is almost always someone a bit isolated from others of his class and surprised at a sudden hike in the tariff.”

“There's no sailing past?”

“Not at all. That's worse. At least Huber and Von Brandt allow coaches on the trail. Most foot travelers pass with a standard fee. On the river, the knights who control the canals have a wooden portcullis they can drop. They don't much care if it sinks you or kills the crew. They have posted bowmen along the river banks to put arrows into your eyes. They have two wizards. Two!”

“How can they afford all that?”

“River shipping is where the money is. Due to the tolls, only the wealthiest of merchants have the means. You have to be able to deal in bulk or there isn't enough profit. Of course, many of the guilds can afford to get through. They arrange for the best rates. The West Ogglian army, too.”

“Ah, well, the army has its own wizards. And they can do better than a handful of archers if they have a mind to it." Duval stared into the distance for a moment. "It wouldn't surprise me to find that the knights along the river pretend to take the army's money but give it right back in bribes. That's how the Bagrian army does things.”

“Ogglian, too, I think. They all take bribes now, I suppose, since the breakup of the empire.”

“Those were better days,” said Duval.

While the knights conversed in front of Denario, their men selected goods from the rafts. As Redumonde suggested, his squire gathered the lightest and most expensive items. The man was pleased to find, along with the whiskey and meat, that there were finished goods remaining. Those included two boxes of high-end candles with timer marks, two hourglasses, a bolt of cloth, a case that had previously held twelve compasses but now held six, a mechanical clock, four wooden cog wheels, and brass parts for a distillery.

“I suppose you want the compasses, Duval.” Redumonde grunted.

“Yes, but the cheap turnips and any other food you leave is fine. Cloth, too. The army will pay for anything that can be pickled or worn.”

“If you're thinking they'll want to buy uniforms from you, you're mistaken.”

“Why not? Clothes wear out.”

“It's that they're cheap bastards. You've got almost no chance. Even if you hire the cheapest seamstress in town, you'll make nothing but a loss.”

Duval nodded. “I'll take your recommendation.”

The elder knight rubbed his beard. “The cloth goes with me this time. It's mid-grade linen, which is more of a luxury than the army likes. You've got the compasses. That's an item for the officers. They'll take the rest of your goods more seriously because you've got those. Make your best profit, of course, so you can acquire more from the next vessel.”

“Can I afford one of these rafts?” Duval returned to his horse. He placed his left foot in a stirrup and swung up onto the dangerous beast as gracefully as he'd dismounted.

“Take it up with the boatman and his guards. I don’t know about affording but I do know Jack. He's a decent sort.”

Redumonde gestured in the direction of the master boatman on the dock in front of his vessels and barrels for trade. The shorter, lighter-haired knight sighed.

Denario, timing his movement with care, stepped out in the path of the gesture so that both men looked at him. He strode forward a few paces. Both men were a head taller than he was, rested atop their horses besides, and in addition the horses stood on the rise of land above the dock, so they looked down at him in a rather dramatic fashion.

“Are you going directly to the army camp?” he asked Duval.

“That is the idea, yes.” A finger ran over the curly end of his mustache. “Who are you?”

“I am Denario, accountant of Oggli.”

The young knight leaned back. “You don't look like an accountant.”

“I have business with the army.” Denario shrugged. He couldn't do much about his lack of an accounting robe at the moment. “There is a report I must submit for them. And I also own one of these rafts.”

The knight nodded.

“From the way you and the others act, I suppose it's balsa one.” A smile of regret led him to an open-hand sweep toward the mallow timbers. Except for giving the wrong name to the type of wood, he had made a shrewd guess. “That's the most expensive of the three, surely. I can't afford it.”

“True, that one is mine. However, I owe the dwarfs a share of the raft for their repairs to it. I owe Jack as well. If you buy them out for your share of the raft, we could take it together to the army camp. That was your plan, yes? It must be why you brought teamsters along.”

“I've already paid them a fee.”

“Well, I won't take advantage by charging more than the going rate for my raft.” He couldn’t help feeling a smile creep onto his face. The knight was talking. He was willing to let Demario try to persuade him. “If you manage to sell it to the army for a profit, you'll get your share.”

“Damn. Dealing with commoners feels unnatural. You're an accountant? A city native?”

“I'm returning from work in Zeigeburg.”

“Good gods. That's practically the end of civilization, isn't it? The last city in the most western county of these lands, I hear. But you look like a foreigner. Your skin is dark like a native of Muntar, maybe, or one of the islands.”

Denario shrugged. He knew how he looked.

“Right. It doesn't matter. I'll have to see what's fair for the raft.”

Denario had been to several docks and had listened closely. He named a seven-silver price. Duval got a far-off look for a moment. He leaned his horse to the right and it trotted off so that he could talk to the teamsters.

“Half that,” he shouted after a minute.

“Six for the whole raft, three for your part,” Denario called back.

The knight consulted his his men.

“Two and ten for my part, as if the raft is five. But you take an extra ten percent of the profit from the army, if there is any. There might not be any at that price.”

“If the army won't buy it, others will,” Denario pointed out.

That got the group of them nodding. The squires and teamsters agreed with that assessment.

“Two and fifteen, then? For half of the boat?”

“That's low. But you'll feed me, protect me with your caravan, and extend to me your usual courtesies?”

“Absolutely.” The man smelled a good deal getting close.

“Fine. I want to get home. It's done.”

Denario marched over to Duval to shake on it. He knew that was how knights did their business. Sir Duval looked a bit taken aback for a moment but he laughed at himself. Then he leaned down to take the accountant's hand.

Next: Chapter Twenty-Eight, Scene One

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 163: A Bandit Accountant, 27.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Cubed

Scene Four: Parting with an Investment

Two rafts ahead, Jack steered around a sandbar. The dirt mound, larger than all of the rafts together and studded with patches of grass, appeared where a brook from the northwest met No Map Creek. Even though the creek had by this point grown broader than some rivers, it swelled even more where the waters joined. The flow pushed the rafts toward the sandbar, which was hard to dodge. It was as big as an island. Shrubs grew on the center of it.

Overhead, the morning light beat down on the crew. The sky was merciless, not a cloud for protection. Every man and dwarf wore a hat. Even then, they squinted to see against the reflections on the water, sun broken into flashes, carried by ripples. The river banks seemed impossibly far away. Jack steered them toward the west, against the current. It was the worst path to take, a lot of work for nothing. The accountant must have eyeballed the back of Jack’s head for a while because the master raftsman noticed. He swiveled to stare back. Then he shook himself. He tucked his punt under his arm, studied a path down the aisle of packages and barrels, and ran. He skipped from gunwhale to gunwhale, first boat to the second. He did this sort of thing so routinely now that the crew took notice only to step aside and give him a better place to land.

Jack touched down. He paused to hand Ulf his punt. Then he repeated the maneuver, middle raft to last. After that, he walked casually to Denario’s place at the rudder of the mallow vessel.

“Had to take a peek at the shore,” he said. “That’s why we’re on the northwest side. There’s no Gemelshausen, this time.”

“What’s that?”

“Gemelshausen is a town. Years ago, when I drifted by here, I spied it just over a hill at the joining of the creek with the Oupens Brook. Five spires from the town center showed over everything.”

“And now it’s destroyed?” Denario followed the gesture. There wasn’t even a hill.

“Doubt it. The town has its own magic. Gemelshausen comes and goes. I’ve encountered it upstream. Once, it was five miles north of the temple. Others have seen it even more. Travelers passing through Oupenli told me that Gemelshausen sometimes appears on the coasts of the Complacent Sea.”

“It’s a town that travels?”

“In a way.” Jack tucked his thumbs under the loop of rope that was his belt. “The place never seems to move while you’re on the border, mind you. But you can go in, spend a while, and come out in a different land. It’s akin to the magic of the creek.”

“A wizard once told me that magical lands are the results of violent explosions that bring melted rocks to the surface. Some of those rocks have augury in them. I don’t know what that is, exactly. But he said that magical wars do it, too. Wizards of old could boil the rocks and imbue them with the force of their spells. Whatever happened around here long ago, the creek and the disappearing town got their share.”

“More share than what’s fair, I’d say. All the same, it’s not so bad that we’re missing Gemelshausen. I’m owed something there but it’s not a good time to collect. I’ve got too much to sell in Oupenli already.”

“Will that be a problem?”

“A merchant is waiting for my last spring shipment. He’s expecting a certain amount of meat, mead, wine, and whiskey. Those are things he can sell. I’ve got more than he expects and all sorts of pickled goods. Can he afford them? Probably not all of them together. That means selling at reduced prices to other traders.”

“Reduced?” Denario frowned. His boat was part of the extra goods.

“Well, now.” Jack lowered his chin and chuckled. “Sometimes it’s higher prices. We’ll see. For sure, I’ll not be poor, and not just me. We’ll all end up with money in our pockets.”

The accountant’s pack was too heavy. He couldn’t have carried it this far on foot. Fortunately, Oupenli had bank offices. Denario leaned back for a moment as he planned his sequence of saving, spending, and selling.

The boatman cleared his throat. “By the terms of our second agreement, you got paid a boatman’s fee.”

“That’s to pay off your guild.” Denario nodded. “Our first agreement is where the profit lies.”

“Yes, a twentieth of the goods plus half of what we get for your raft itself. Maybe you didn’t drive such a bad bargain.”

“You did better. Your fees from my accounting work amount to a third of a raft, quite a bit more than my twentieth share.”

“I admit, I was surprised. You did better than I expected with math and fixing things. Was I worthwhile as your agent?”


“Soon you’ll be rich for a boatman. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a lot for an accountant. I don’t know. But for a man with one raft and no experience, you did well. You are far enough ahead, I think, that it makes me wonder if you would give part of the proceeds from your raft to the dwarfs.”

“I’d thought of it, yes. I expected Boldor to ask me, considering the work he did. He donated the nails and other materials. Are you making the request for him as his agent?”

“I’m on my own this time. He has never mentioned what his crew spent on the job.”

“He and Dodni need help in bargaining.” The accountant saw the raft ahead of him steer into the current. The dwarfs were striving to avoid the sandbar. He tilted his raft to lend them as much aid as he could, tiller pushed hard to the right. On a suspicion, he grabbed a punt and tested the depth. It hit sand about three feet down. He kept it planted.

“They really are quite bad even after lessons.” The boat captain chose the next best punt and strode to the left corner. He drove it against the sand much harder than Denario had done. “Dodni is the best of the lot, really. Boldor should step back and give his assistant the title of negotiator.”

“You could suggest it.” Denario agreed. He pushed again. Jack leaned and thrust his arms farther. “Anyway, I did think of giving him a portion of the raft. You did too, so I expect it’s the right thing to do. As you say, I can afford it. I was going to give him a tenth. You should tell him I’m offering fifteen brassers or a silver piece and some brass for all that work.”

Jack grunted. “Why so little?”

“So you can encourage him to ask me for more. Maybe he can get me up to more than ten percent.”

“I see.” There was a twinkle of amusement in Jack’s eye.

“Give him some time to work up a few arguments.”

The dwarf chieftain didn’t approach the accountant until past noon, after they’d made two trading stops. First they docked on a riverbank owned by Sir Royval, a knight sworn to Baron Blockhelm. Royval’s agent paid cash for liquor. Second, they landed at Bumper Hausen, an independent town. The citizens there were not sworn to any of the nobles under the Duke of West Ogglia, such as Blockhelm or Royval. They lived under the protection of three independent knights and seemed to have merrier lives for it.

The Bumper Hausen citizens were delighted to meet the dwarfs and awarded them a barrel of beer. Boldor tried to refuse but the giving was too enthusiastic. Politeness was no match. In fact, he was barely heard. Also, the dwarfs were thirsty, so they drank it. Boldor did a favor in return by having his crew make repairs on a rowboat. He tried to leave that chore with no more than thanks but the mayor and the rowboat owner, laughing, said they couldn’t let that happen. The men chased after the rafts as they launched. They heaved fist-sized sacks of pennies into the middle vessel.

“That’s good luck, that is,” remarked Clever Jack.

“I suppose there’s no returning this without giving offense?” Boldor asked. He didn’t touch the money.

“You can give me my share and throw the rest away if you like.” Jack’s gaze narrowed. “But I wouldn’t advise it. You said you wanted to head up the river from Oupenli. We’re nearly there. Oupenli is expensive. So are the towns around it. No matter how you leave, you’ll spend cash along the way. However well you’ve planned, the money won’t go as far as you think.”

“Ah.” The chief conferred with Heilgar and Dodni. Even while they mumbled in dwarfish, Heilgar counted out the portion that belonged to Jack and handed it over. Then they came to some sort of conclusion. Dodni and Heilgar straightened Boldor’s hauberk, boot laces, and skullcap. A minute later, the chief approached Denario to see what the accountant would give for services rendered in fixing his raft. Cheeks flushed, Boldor recounted the materials spent on the task, which were forty wooden fasteners, a pack of sedge, and a two and a half wax-paper packets of waterproof resin.

Boldor asked for repayment of the materials. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to hope for a profit. Denario had to say a few encouraging words before the dwarf suggested that the quality of the work might entitle the dwarfs to something. In the end, the chief got the accountant to agree to five percent of the raft price. The dwarfs agreed to extol the virtues of the raft in return and get the best possible price for it. Boldor thought that was quite proper. Denario threw into the bargain, as a gift, the rest of the ten percent that he’d intended.

The problem seemed to be that the dwarfs valued themselves too little. They started negotiations with the idea that no one deserved anything, especially them. It was a moral point of view but it seemed likely to make their lives among men rather difficult.

“Toss the long rope,” Jack called at the next tie-down.

He had landed them at a dock shared by a knight and a two mid-level merchants, one a dealer in cloth, the other in perfumes. To the accountant’s surprise all three of their organizations wanted to buy a sampling of goods. The only category of produce they disdained was alcohol. Denario figured out why a few minutes later, as Jack talked with some of the dockhands and farmhands who came to do the bidding of their masters.

All of the locals wore the same kind of odd, round cap, even the women. The shape was reminiscent of a dwarfish skullcap complete with the hard leather brim. Their hats were almost as tough as helmets. The men and women had collars on their shirts, a strange thing to see on commoners especially in the heat of late spring, and the skins at their belts did not seem to hold beer, or red wine, or even water. Instead, they drank a concoction that smelled like scented mead and it was made mostly from honey.

“Why so different from the last town?” the accountant wondered.

“Our great-grandparents all came together on the same boat from Similli,” answered an elderly worker who was missing several teeth. He had a dark beard down to his waist. A moment later, seeing that he had failed to enlighten, he added, “It’s to the west of Muntabar.”

“Then your home was on the other side of the Complacent Sea.” Denario smiled, mouth open. “Why so far?”

“It was the damn magical waters.” The fellow shrugged. “The destination island moved or something. The captain kept on with the rest of his schedule. He offered to take our folks back to Similli for a price. They didn’t have the cash. He either put them out here or, according to some, they jumped ship to avoid being sold into slavery. Whatever happened, here we are.”

“Do you like it?”

“Love it, yes. Oupenli is my home. There’s no damn knights to push you around.”

“Don’t some of your relatives work for a knight?” He gestured in the direction of a group of men and two women, all wearing collars and skull caps.

“Ah, he’s all right. What I mean is, no one who reports back to the Duke or to the Marquis. They may call us commoners here but, truly, we are not serfs.”

Denario nodded. It was a sentiment he’d heard before in Oupenli. Despite the rough justice of their city, there was freedom to be had if you liked that sort of thing. This was almost the only area it was safe to voice an opinion in favor of it.

“Is that all of the apples?” the fellow asked as he put his foot on a barrel of pickled fruit.

“You want them all?”

“Hell, yeah. Boss tasted them. Whatever the upstream folks used for the pickling, he likes it. He said, ‘all.’”

“Jack!” The accountant waved his punt to riverman, who was taking a break on a grassy hillock over the dock, giving instructions to a few dwarfs, and generally acting like a boss. “Are you okay to sell the last of the apples?”

Clever Jack nodded happily. He rubbed his chin in thought. Something made him rise to his feet. He watched Denario pop the tie-downs off an apple barrel. In a moseying gait, he made his way down the hillock. He met the accountant and the local workers at the edge between the docks and the rafts.

“How much have we got left of everything?” he asked.

“Not much.” Denario knew exactly but he’d learned not to start out that way. “No beef except what you set aside for your deal. No pork at all. No duck, no chicken. You’ve got a half-keg of dried fish and two of pickled fish. There are four barrels of turnips. Six barrels of cabbages. Forty-eight kegs of wine. Sixteen of beer. Eight lightning. When the last of the apples goes, you’ll have no fruit. You’ve been selling off your provisions all day.”

“Got to, Den. There are only two other stops before the final.”

“Oh.” That made the accountant step back for a moment. The long journey was coming to an end. He’d reminded himself of the fact many times but he could hardly believe it. In fact, he’d memorized the itinerary. “You mean only one more, I guess. Your merchant should be two docks away unless we’re landing somewhere you didn’t mention.”

“My deal is not the last stop. We have to sell the rafts.”

“Oh, right.” He’d forgotten.

In a pair of pants that he hadn’t worn all trip, a fresh, linen shirt, and cap he’d borrowed from the accountant, Jack worked beside him. An absent-minded smile graced his features from time to time. Although he didn’t break a sweat, he helped Denario and the work crew load up a cart for the perfumer. When it could carry no more, he sent them on their way with a wave and a laugh.

“Yer raft is mostly done,” he remarked.

Denario glanced over the long rafts. He found himself nodding.

“Have you noticed how the prices of dried fruits and pickled meats have gone down?”

Denario hadn’t. “That’s bad for you, right?”

“It affects a portion of my shipment. Most of my prices are locked in by the deal. But those low prices are good luck for you and the dwarfs.”

“How so?” This was the first time in years that Denario felt like he’d missed an element in an analysis of the markets.

“We’re getting into the third year in a row of bumper crops coming down from No Map, Dead Kill, Clean Kill, and Riggle. That’s everything that leads into this side of the Complacent Sea. At this point, everyone around Oupenli has supplies to spare, even the semi-permanent military camps. The nobles here want to ship the produce farther. They smell a profit to be made somewhere with a poor harvest, I’ll wager. The destination for their shipments is far away, so when we sell our rafts they will fetch a higher price than usual. I’ve already had an offer of three silver pieces for yours.”

“Actual silver?”

“Don’t get too excited. You can do better. The dwarfs, too. I heard your negotiation with Boldor. He didn’t do as badly as I feared. But he’s not good. The dwarfs are not fit for their quest, not on their own. But Brand is with them.”

“Is he traveling their way?”

“He told me he’ll take them a few miles upstream as they follow one of their maps to a mine prospect. That doesn’t sound like much. Yet I wonder. That’s what he thinks he’s doing. What if his oath still holds? Could that be the reason he’s still with us?”

“It might,” Denario conceded after a moment of thought. “I don’t know how such things work beyond the magical lands.” Or at all, really, he thought. He’d gotten carried away when magic was thick in the air.

“He hasn’t bolted at any of the docks. It would have been easy. Yesterday, he met a merchant he knows. That fellow didn’t seem to like him much but still, he was willing to do business with Brand. That was the moment. The caravan leader I once knew would have seized his chance.”

Denario glanced down the eastern bank of the river, which was covered by red, clayish soil with amber streaks. Strewn throughout the ground were gray rocks, nubs of grass, and tall weeds. The former and likely-to-be-again caravan man stood with one foot on the grass, the other on the clay of the riverbank. His head was inclined downward to the fellow closest to him, who stood on the mallow raft. That was Schmurter, today in a gray shirt and dark trousers. He had coils of rope in his left hand.

The two men tied different knots, compared them, and took them apart. The accountant didn’t know if they were doing anything but wasting time. They didn’t seem to be up to anything sinister. Beyond them stood a couple of dwarfs, one of them Ragna. The stout fellow gave instructions to a dwarf on the third raft. Together, they seemed to be shifting weights on the boats in order to bring them back into balance.

Boldor, their chief, sat with Dodni on the hillock of grass close to the spot Jack had occupied. He stroked his beard. With his partner, he poured over one of their mine maps. The thinner, shorter dwarf gestured toward a symbol on the page. Then he pointed to the boat.

In the center of the third raft, near the dwarfs, sat Goyle. His body crouched to one side. The position hid his lamed left leg. His deformity made him a pariah in this dock – in all ports, actually. Usually the former Ogglian fighter didn’t even bother to climb onto the boardwalk. Today, as with most of the week, his boss avoided him as best as he could. Both knew what was coming. Brand would leave. Schmurter would go along. Goyle couldn’t. Not even the soft-hearted dwarfs would drag Goyle along on their forge cart. His life had been spared for no good reason. He had no prospects.

“What are you going to do about him?” Denario nodded in the direction of the cripple. “The dwarfs don’t feel any obligation. He attacked them. Brand doesn’t tolerate weakness. And I don’t think Goyle knows any trade except as a mercenary. That is a profession for which he no longer qualifies.”

“Why does everyone ask me?” Jack picked up a loose rope. With an impatient snap of his wrist, he coiled the first two feet of it. His hands flew to the wrap-up job. “You could take him in. You could afford to buy him a ride with you on a carriage to your city.”

“I’ve done well enough,” Denario admitted. “But do you think I can manage a sixth apprentice, one who can’t read or write or do basic math?”

“Eh.” The boatman turned his back to the accountant. His fingers finished the tie-up with a sort of cleat hitch. He dropped the packaged rope onto the deck. “In a city, he could beg.”

That's not much of a life, the accountant thought. He was dimly aware that his home town had a reputation for supporting indigents of all kinds, at least on the southeast end near the river shared with Angrhili.

The East Docks neighborhood, a jumble of formerly grand mud-brick palaces, now decaying next to makeshift dwellings built from ship salvage, supported the area's poorest and most vice-ridden citizens. Low-lifes shacked up beside shops that never closed. Boutique importers shared storefronts with small-time smugglers. Sometimes the shopkeepers and smugglers were the same people. Wounded war veterans, reduced to odd-work, beggary, and thieving, found homes next to the unfortunates who had been disfigured by disease. The boardwalk endured flurries of busy off-loading. Those were jobs that sometimes seemed urgent enough to warrant hiring bystanders on the spot. Sometimes ship gangs came through. They hired or kidnapped deck hands to replace those who had jumped ship.

“Goyle could catch on with one of the more desperate exporters,” he ventured.

“Nah. He's not like you. His boating skills are miserable. He doesn't even try to learn.”

He studied the pock-marked face and tried to imagine what a ship gang would see. Goyle did not look like a fast study.

“What if you taught him?”

“No. Anyway, what if he refused? He has shown no interest except in the stewpot.”

“You're making another run down the No Map this season to pick up the harvest.” Denario waved to the raft. “Hey, Goyle!”

The man in the green shirt swiveled his torso, a move that let him face the accountant while keeping his left leg hidden. Goyle didn't seem to feel any more ashamed of his lameness than other men but he didn't feel shame any less. Denario closed the distance to the edge of the raft. Behind him, he heard Jack edging closer.

“What's your plan for when Brand and Schmurter leave?”

The scarred visage scrunched up with a thought.

“Dunno,” he admitted after a moment. “I been asking in the last couple of days when anyone on these Ouplenli docks will talk with me. No one needs me. If I could get to the sea, I'd try to catch on with a ship as a cook's assistant.”

Not a bad plan, maybe a step better than the one that had occurred to Denario.

“Haven't seen you cooking,” Jack drawled. It was a fair point.

“No one wants my help.”

“Haven't seen you cleaning fish.”

“Don't really know how.”

“You don’t cut turnips right. I've seen you do that.”

“What if I pay Jack to give you lessons? For one more trip on the creek?” Denario watched Goyle cringe. He felt Jack next to him doing the same. For an uncomfortable few seconds, Goyle squinted at one of them, then the other.

“Don't the riverman owe me nothing.” He lowered his head.

“That's right,” said Jack.

"No accountant owes me a good turn neither." The former fighter hunched his shoulders. His sullen expression faded, replaced by a sad smile.

“True.” Denario jammed his thumbs into his belt. “All the same, you presently have no way to get from here to the sea. And a cook's assistant who can't clean a fish? I don't think you can sell that to any ship.”

“It's a flaw.”

“You have to change it. Suppose we make a deal. I'll chance some money on you in the hope you'll pay it back.”

“Hah, I'll pay it more.”

“That would be the right thing. But do as you can, no more. Don't put my money back in the bank if you still need it for food or transport.”

“What are you investing in?” Jack asked. His unsaid point was that he still might not agree. A lamed fighter was another mouth to feed, no more, unless proven otherwise.

“A mule first, I think.”

Goyle let out a whoosh of air. Jack whistled. He tried to put a sarcastic expression on his face but the look in his eyes showed that he'd been impressed.

“Too much,” breathed the scar-faced man next to them.

“I've had a few minutes to think.” Denario put his hands on his hips. “How else are you going to get upriver? Jack, do you ride?”

“I walk. I've got deals waiting for me to march with the caravans. I'm experienced. I make a fine wage. Still, I go on foot. Goyle would need some sort of mount, you're right.”

“I've led mules on a tether before,” Goyle volunteered. He rubbed his chin. “I've sat on one, too.”

“We would need to reach at least Barrel Bad before we looked to buy lumber.” Jack scratched his balding head under his cap. “Killem Thal would be better. I have a deal for supplies in that town, plus more deals waiting to the northeast. Picking the right place and right day to start is always tricky. It would be tougher with Goyle along.”

“You would sell the mule at wherever you decide to start making your raft,” Denario reminded them. “That would start the return on my investment.”

“You'd start with a loss, then.”

“Would it be better to trade the donkey for raft materials? Or kegs of beer?” Apparently, Goyle had been listening to the math lessons.

Jack cocked his head and eyed Goyle sideways. “Well, that part is right.”

“So it can be done.” After waiting a second too long, Denario realized that this was the moment to seize. “Are you both agreed to try? For one season, Goyle, you would have to be on Jack's side. I mean truly on it. You would clean and cook. You would guard Jack's interests. That would mean protecting the boats and trade goods with your life.”

“That I can do.” Goyle raised his voice and a short staff in his right arm.

“The creek will be at its toughest,” Jack countered. “It's more than just robbers and sneaks during harvest time. Other raftsmen will challenge us if we look weak.”

Goyle flexed his arm more believably than Denario ever could.

Next: Chapter Twenty-Seven, Scene Five