Sunday, August 4, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 173: A Bandit Accountant, 29.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Prime and Sum of Three Primes

Scene Three: Schooling

It turned out that the wizard’s name was Dumford.

“Just ‘Dumford?’ No grand title?” Denario asked.

“It should be Dumford the Distinguished or the Dangerous or the Dejected or the Destructive or something, shouldn’t it?” He wiped back the mop of curls that had strayed down his forehead and into his eyes. “You’re not the first to call me on it. But when I left the University a couple years back, it always seemed like the fellows with huge titles were the worst of the small-town spell casters. The professors at U Bag, the real ones that we hardly ever saw, didn’t give a damn what anyone called them.”

They didn’t sound like other classes of powerful men – like the West Ogglian nobility, for instance. But Denario understood that wizards were different.

“In a faraway land, I used to go by ‘the Astonishing Dumford’ or similar when I needed to sell my skills. Here, it doesn’t seem worth the effort.”

His shoulders heaved. The young fellow looked awfully tired, Denario thought. The bank employee, Reginald, had been right. Dumford gave the impression of being far from home. Wherever he’d gone, he’d already traveled such a distance that he had given up, apparently. If he had actually intended to see Baggi again, he would be on his way either by magical means or by boat. He wouldn’t be working as a guard for caravans on the trail loops or doing magical odd jobs around the city.

Den wanted to persuade him that he was on a hero’s journey. In all of the epic poems, the hero returns home. Of course, Den had rolled his eyes when other men had said that about his travels. He didn’t know how to persuade someone of a thing he didn’t believe in himself.

The barkeep lumbered up alongside Den’s table. Dumford had moved from the bar to the seat across from Den half an hour ago. Naturally, the keep, a muscular man with brown hair that didn’t come all the way down his neck, continued to track his best customer. When Dumford had ordered food, a thing that he did not always do, the server had shouted, ‘Oh ho!’ A minute after the order, a cook emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of stew in one hand and a bowl of cream in another. He personally ladeled cream onto the broth, beans, and turnips.

Despite the large meal with stew, a slice of meat, bread, and even a lump of cheese, Dumford gulped down more liquids than anything else. The wizard shared a round of drinks with the accountant and then he had another. Den found himself telling the staff to put six drinks, all at once, onto his tab so that the wizard would stop footing the bill. After their talks about math, Dumford revealed details of his past, including the fact that he had traveled beyond the Complacent Sea and out of the bounds of the old Muntabi Empire. He had discovered that the people in foreign lands were truly odd. Their gods were not known here. Even their magic took on curious changes. The math in spells stayed the same, though. Math and alchemy worked the same everywhere.

“Makes sense,” Den nodded. His head felt a bit loose. “Math is steady.”

“Too steady,” the wizard countered. “A good mind should be attracted to things that are new.”

“I agree.” He meant new things in math, of course.

Finally, the conversation turned, as good conversations do, to the details of particular branches of mathematics. Den remarked that magical spells worked very much like algorithms or proofs, to which the wizard snapped, “prove it!” Then he slapped his knee, had a laugh, and finished his drink. Den was slow to realize the pun had been made, so he started on a proof of his point, which involved a demonstration alarm spell, which of course did not work until the wizard opened his mouth and belched for several long seconds into the air that Den had stirred with his finger.

“Even my burps are powerful,” Dumford remarked. The eruction of wind had been long enough for him to mouth several syllables.

The area around the accountant lit with colored hexes. He had drawn them but of course he had not been able to cast without a source of magic. It was as if his drinking companion had breathed a ‘reveal codes’ spell. Moreover, it fired up alarms. Not only did the ghosts of the hexadecimal numeral 7 appear, conjured by the spell, but each one popped into existence with the sound of a handbell. The ringing continued as Den gaped. Around them, other patrons of the bar leaned away, except for two women sitting together, who clapped. In a minute, the clapping faded but the ringing did not.

“Well that’s annoying.” Dumford’s brow creased. With a wave of his left hand, he dismissed the hexes.

“Amazing,” sighed Den. “I can’t even cast a hex 24 myself, so I couldn’t have stopped it.”

“Never seen anyone string hexes together like this for real.” Dumford's curly mop let a stray ringlet flop down over his right eye. He blew it away with a puff. “I thought it was a theoretical thing that professors talked about. It seems that it is an accounting practice, in truth.”

“Yes?” It wasn't, really. But technically, it was.

“Before now, I could count on one hand, well, on no hands, the number of spells I’d seen cast by accountants. That was in Baggi. Apparently, Oupenli is different.”

“The guild teaches a bit of math-related magic,” Denario admitted. “It’s not much. The problem isn’t computational course but that there is seldom a source for magic. The University of Oggli won’t send us a professor. We get instruction from expelled members of the wizardry guild, who come over rarely and always on the sly. Mostly, we teach ourselves. It’s all business that happens under the table, so to speak.”

“Most wizards would say that teaching yourself is dangerous.” He tapped on his empty goblet. “It’s what I’m supposed to say.”

“Go ahead.”

“No. I teach myself most of the time. Even in school, that’s what I did. Just following the formulas worked out by others … that’s not really learning. That does not lead to understanding.”

“Exactly. My guild school had too many students who were only learning what was taught.”

“Lots of wizards like that, too. Awful.”

They complained about mediocre classmates for a while. It was like meeting an old friend for the first time. Dumford seemed to have more to bemoan then Denario. For one, the accounting guild school had been small, no more than eight in the class. Wizarding classes had more than fifteen students, which was too many when the mistakes turned deadly. For another, Winkel had been a strict teacher who assigned rote learning but no more than was necessary for mastery. So there was some boredom but it certainly wasn’t all there was. Winkel got lively in front of a classroom. He encouraged student accountants, even book keepers, to understand math and not to simply make use of it. When a student asked a good question, he put everything on hold to pursue it.

In contrast, classes at the University of Baggi, despite being full of brilliant students, relied on rote lessons. Young wizards cast the same spells over and again. Instructors swatted the little boys who tried making up their own. At times, they confiscated wands or staves so the troublesome students couldn’t do anything at all. They assigned meaningless work to keep the brightest students busy. They turned the most exciting profession in the world into something that felt like drudgery.

“Why don’t the students leave?” Den wondered.

“Some do. The University announces that they have flunked out, though. They do that even if the boy was the best in the school. And the school does dismiss some of the worst students. So there is reasonable doubt in the community. If a capable wizard leaves, maybe he wasn’t all that good, really. Maybe he failed a critical test.”

“That’s awful.” He hoped that Spinaldri and Filchi never heard about that method of reducing the number of accounting apprentices in their classes.

“You run into old classmates now and then. I mean, the ones who didn’t make it. Some of them are doing quite well. That feels a bit odd, dealing with specialists who are selling you a magical ingredient and then they notice who you are. They look at you a bit sideways. But the worst to meet are the real failures. Fortunately, you don't see them much because they go back to their home villages and set up shop. The villagers don’t even know that they have failed. But if they haven’t learned enough to do even that, they take jobs as battle wizards in the army. You do meet those, unfortunately, from time to time. The problem with that is, they're not real wizards. They don’t last. It’s a step up for them if they are able to catch on as caravan guards. Anything is better for them than fighting the more senior wizards, the ones who passed all of their battle magic classes.”

“Did you work your way back here by hiring with a caravan?”

“Several of them. I got to know that part of the trade all too well. No one could stand against me, as you might expect.”

Dumford had some unusual traits for a wizard. He was quicker to cast spells than anyone Den had met before. He also had direct access to the dark forces of the world. He didn’t seem to need a handy store of magic. Either that, or he hid his source of the stuff. It wasn’t in a staff or a wand. Did he keep a magical stone in his pocket? It would seem daringly low-brow to other wizards. Perhaps they would not suspect it.

“Did anyone try?” It was hard to imagine.

“Two magical snipers at a distance. They thought they were clever. A few screaming barbarians, of course, but those don’t count.”

“Can’t swordsman hurt you?”

“If they are close and fast, sure. Or if I’m asleep. Or looking the other way. Everyone can get killed. But regular fighting men facing a wizard on a battlefield don’t stand a chance. Even a wizard who quit school or failed out can usually throw some lightning around.”

“Or fire,” Den suggested.

“Yeah, fireballs are classic. Tim, a wizard I knew from my first couple of years at U Bag, he was good with them. He left school. First, he found a job in the military. Later, he caught on with a salt caravan. Makes a decent living.”

“So he was good?” The accountant wondered if it was the same Tim he had met. “Did he leave the school because he hated rote learning?”

“Not exactly. They were going to fail him. He hated them anyway, so he figured he might as well quit. But he kind of liked the rote learning, or at least that’s what I judge from hearing him talk. You have to listen carefully for it. When you hear him go on, it comes out like he hated everything. But he doesn’t complain about the boring practice that we did. That’s because, I think, he needed it.”

Den remembered one or two of his classmates who had seemed to like the most boring parts of math.

“Tim was slow to learn most spells. He was also amazingly impatient when he had to figure things out on his own. He got angry. So the standard spells like fireballs got to be his friends. I’m sure that he is still out there, somewhere.”

“I met a wizard named Tim,” Denario ventured. He found himself leaning forward as he spoke.

“I’ve known three.”

That was when Den realized it might be hard to relate his side of the story if Dumford kept interrupting with witty, or possibly just drunk, observations. What Den wanted to explain was how he had ended up with magic darts. He wanted to get rid of them. They weren’t his. He had grabbed them by mistake.

He was lucky that the men who had robbed him a few times during his journeys had been more interested in food than in searching for valuables. It was hard to convey how he’d obtained magical gold in the first place. That was because the event in which it happened had been confusing even for someone like Den who had been there. It all hinged on contestants who had used same-looking cases. Denario didn’t have either darts case with him. He tried to describe one but Dumford picked another point to focus on.

“Thin man but strong?” the wizard interrupted.

“Yes, with curly, dark hair.”

“That’s all three Tims. It could be every Tim in the world for all I know.”

“Uh, wizard’s robe … that doesn’t help … purple but faded and stained. His beard was odd, I thought, rather patchy. There were some burn marks.”

“Any scars?”

“Blue ones. One of his hands looked that color, too, although he used all of his fingers on that hand just fine.”

Dumford slammed down his goblet. “It’s him!”

“I would like to return ...”

“Tim's a good man, good man,” slurred Dumford the Nothing. “Not much of a wizard, really, but he works hard. Decent lightning. Good fireballs.”

“I've gotten the impression from the University of Oggli and, well, everywhere,” Den noticed, “that there really aren't many good wizards here west of the city of Oggli. They train in Baggi or Muntar and then travel as far as Angrili. But then they stop.”

“Thas pretty much right,” said Dumford. “Except for me, of course. I'm the best, even in Baggi.” He paused to reflect for a moment. “Best student, I mean. When I'm sober.”

“Not much chance of that, then,” Den snapped before he had a chance to call it back from his traitorous brain.

“Not nowadays, no.” Dumford grimaced.

The accountant sighed. He decided that he would have to go back to his room for the darts. It wasn’t far. Showing them in public was a calculated risk, of course, but with a wizard by his side, he should be all right.

“Do you know any other wizards?”

“A few,” Den allowed with a nod. His mind went back to Oggli, where he had not known any well but had met, he realized, over a dozen wizards of various sorts in the court of the marquis. Adding in bank magicians and other, less mystic professions brought the total to twenty-two, now twenty-three including Dumford.

The wizard kept drinking and kept asking about people Den might have met. He mentioned sorceresses and witches by name but Den didn’t know many of them and he didn’t want to bring up his engagement to Pecunia. More related to accounting, it came out that Denario had worked with a bank wizard who Dumford had met in an Apparition Masters Class held at the University of Angrhili. The class had visited Baggi often. Den had also done an audit of the duke’s army, which employed wizards, and there he had met a fellow who had graduated from U. Bag two years ahead of Dumford. That tall, stout man was now a battle wizard, one of the full-fledged kind who found that other wizards were nowadays quite polite, even the ones who had been bullies in school.

They traded travel stories. Dumford had been attacked by a magician with a bow that shot arrows of lighting. Each arrow was guided by magic, which solved the problem of lightning never quite going where it was wanted, but each one also traveled only about the speed of a real arrow. Against Dumford, that hadn’t worked. His opponent had shot from the top of one hill to the next, so he must have known in advance where the caravan would stop. Dumford had been tethering his horse when he noticed the missile incoming.

He had transmuted the arrow into raw magic, although in his telling he didn’t reveal how, and then he took care of the follow-up shot in the same way. Using the raw magic of the two bolts, he created a swarm of a dozen wasps, which he sent to sting whoever held the magical bow. He’d meant to punish the other wizard, not kill him. To his surprise, the fellow was unwilling to let go of his bow, his bags, or any of his magical belongings. The insects drove the man, running full force, down the hill for nearly half a mile into a pond, where he had either drowned or made his escape.

“There are ways to travel from lake to lake by means of portals to the mer-kingdoms. It’s possible that he lived. But he went in with a bag of equipment, a metal staff, and magical lighting arrows on his back.”

“If there wasn’t a body ...”

“There was a blue puff in the water. It could have been the lightning arrows going off. But that could also have been a fast-thinking spell to open a portal.”

Denario had previously tried to describe the problems involved in his raising five apprentices. But that had only made the wizard shake his head. It was like a puzzle he couldn’t quite work out. So Den decided a story about magic would be better. They had already established that Dumford, like most civilized people, had never been near the Seven Valleys.

The accountant told the story of the snow on Tree Stump Hill. The impatient wizard interrupted him in less than a minute.

“A small, purple-black stone, you say?” Dumford wiped his beard with a corner of his sleeve. “And it took away the magic?”

“That's right.” Den nodded.


“Excuse me?” He had to wonder for a moment if it had been a word or a cough.

“That rock you were talking about that you used to clean off magic glue. That was obviously octiron. It would have had an odd glow about it in the right light. And it absorbed magic. Octiron. Probably it was old Pimmepoli who sent it.”

“Pimply?” said Denario, chuckling.

“What? Oh, yes, the name. True, we used to call him that behind his back at the school. But Pimmepoli was a damned solid wizard all the same He was a better professor than he let on. Miserable at combat magic. Fantastic at everything else. He collected bits of octiron.”

“It's a magical metal?”

“It’s more than that. It absorbs magic naturally. They say the crust of the world is thick with it. Sometimes, around an old volcano, you can find bits that have been spit out with lava. They'll be thick with primordeal magic. That's the stuff that went into making the world.”

“And this pimply fellow uses it?”

“Oh, yes. A drained rock of octiron absorbs magic, as I said. The pieces can be recharged. That's what old Pimmepoli is doing.”

“So he's come over to this side of the river? He's in our area?”

“Oh no, he never travels. That's not for him. He would never leave his post at the University of Wizardry. Posh job. Of course, anything's a posh job when you're good enough with magic.”

“And you're not that good?”

“I'm more powerful than Pimmepoli but, no, I'm not as sophisticated. That's where it's really at if you want to make life better.”

“So ...” Lacero buried his head in his hands for a moment as he tried but failed to get a grip on what Dumford meant. “Your old professor sent this stuff here. How does he get it back?”

“He siphons off the magic remotely, I suppose. He's pretty good at that sort of thing. If he can't retrieve it, then maybe he's just doing a good deed by lending it out. But no other wizard knows he's done it, that's for sure. They'd kill for it. They wouldn't have to kill, even. They'd just march in and take it.” Dumford scratched his head and thought for a moment. “Don't tell any other wizards, okay? In fact, safest not to tell anyone. Not even me.”

Denario gave that some thought.

“I know,” he said. After all, he’d already made his arrangements with the barkeep. “I’ll buy you a drink.”

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