Children of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY

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"Eight hundred and sixty-three," Merle replied after a moment of thought, glancing at her fingers as she spoke the number in the language of the mus.

C'dera gazed at Merle, grinning as she shook her head. "That still amazes me. You can do all that on your fingers far faster than I can do it with paper and brush, my lady."

"Well, it's what the mice call 'binary'," Merle replied in her language. "It's how we musties have always thought of numbers. You can do it on your fingers really easily, C'dera - see? Up is one, down is none. See, you think of numbers like this:" she explained, and switched to the language of the mus. "One, two, three, for, five, six, seven, eight, nine; then ten and none, ten and one, ten and two, and so on. Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, and so on. Well, we think of numbers like this; Single, pair and none, pair and one, quartet and none and none, quartet and none and one, and so on," Merle explained, and switched to her own language again as she began pointing at the fingers of her paws as she continued. "Single, pair, quartet, octet, hextet, duo-hextet, quadro-hextet, octo-hextet, hexo-hextet, summo-hextet, exotet."

C'dera shook her head and smiled again. "My lady, despite your excellent tutelage in your language and your numbers, I find I can't even pronounce those last words, much less do your mathematics in my head or on my paws. I have learned to be able to read your numbers by sight, but that is all," C'dera replied, then looked down at the account ledger she and Merle were working on. "Still, what is more important is that your answers are accurate - and you are far faster than I at arriving at them, as well. Together, we have finished our lord's monthly accounts in no time at all."

Merle rolled her eyes. "Oh, C'dera! It's really not that hard. Look - I made a little box that does addition and subtraction in our numbers. Here, I'll show you," Merle said, and went over to the small trunk in their room where she kept some of her more recent experiments and inventions. After a moment, she returned, holding a small rectangular wooden box about nine paws long, one paw wide and one paw tall. The box had a little handle on the side. Across the top were several little brass balls in small brass tubes, and Merle opened the top of the box to show C'dera the inside. "I call this Click-Click, after the first one I made years ago out of wood. I called it that because it goes 'click-click' when you play with it. My first one wasn't like this one. It only had ten columns, like ten fingers on your paws, and one turn was 'one', not a thousand and twenty-four. See? This has a series of brass gears - more like levers, really. As you turn the handle around, it makes the first one flip. It has a little pin which catches the next one, and it has a little pin which catches the next one, and so on down the line. There's a little gear attached to the crank so your paw doesn't get tired - each full turn is one thousand and twenty four, and this box has sixteen columns on it. That should be more than enough," Merle explained, and closed the box again. "Now, when you're going to add two numbers, push this toggle up. When you're going to subtract, push it down. Then push the little balls here, like my fingers were for our numbers. One is up, none is down. You have to turn it slowly, though, or it jams. Try it!" Merle exclaimed with a grin.

C'dera nodded, and entered the last equation they had been working on. She turned the little crank a little bit, and suddenly stopped in surprise - the balls on the top row changed position, some going up, and others going down.

"Keep turning!" Merle said, grinning.

C'dera nodded, and continued to slowly turn the little crank, watching the little balls rise and fall according to the pressure of the levers beneath them. After a moment, she could see a pattern. The little ball in the 'single' column bounced up and down to each turn of the crank. The one in the 'pair' column changed position every other time - in fact, each time the ball in the 'single' position went down again. And, in turn, the ball in the 'quartet' column changed position each time the ball in the 'pair' column went down, and so on down the line. C'dera grinned - suddenly, Merle's strange numbers made much more sense. Where the 'decimal' system the mus used was fractions of ten, the mustie way was double-double-double all the way across. C'dera had already learned to read Merle's numbers, but had never seen them work this way - which, in fact, was how a mustie moved their fingers when counting.

Suddenly, the little box made a small -ding!- sound, and the little balls stopped moving. "There's your answer," Merle said. "And if you push that lever there, it resets the whole thing, and moves the answer down to there so you can add or subtract from it."

C'dera looked at the position of the little balls, translating the mustie 'binary' number in her head to the 'decimal' numbers of the mus. After a moment, she smiled. "Eight hundred and sixty-three," she said, amazed at Merle's invention.

"Yep!" Merle replied with a grin, then suddenly sighed. "Eight hundred and sixty-three gold talents. That's all Xaa has to pay for everything - and it's not enough."

C'dera nodded, thinking, then suddenly brightened. "Perhaps, my lady - but you can change that!"

Merle blinked. "Me?! How?!"

"My lady, this invention of yours could be a great boon to accounting! Every lady working her lord's books and every chamberlain working the ledgers of the castle's supplies would want one of these, once they knew what it did. They would pay - and pay handsomely."

Merle rolled her eyes again. "Oh, C'dera! I just made that as a fun little toy. I'd have to teach each and every one how to understand mustie numbers, and that would take forever. And it jams if you're not careful, and-"

"No, my lady," C'dera replied, interrupting. "My lady, it is like your little invention, the Time-eater. With refinement, it could be a tremendous boon to our people. Learning to read your numbers is not that difficult, it is only learning to do mathematics in them that is challenging. You and I could explain how to read your numbers... In writing on a page that is given with each box, perhaps, and have the pages printed."

"Printed?" Merle asked, repeating the mus-word. "What's that?"

"My lady, that is where we carve the words of each page onto wooden blocks, in reverse - such as one might see in a mirror. The blocks are dipped in ink, then pressed onto each page. The inked letters come out the right way around, you see, and it only takes a moment to stamp each page. We have used this technique for nearly a hundred years for books, simple art, and in making patterns on fabric - it's quite simple, actually, once the blocks are made, and is well suited for making many copies of short works."

Merle started to shake her head - she knew far more about how machines worked than C'dera did, and she also knew how difficult it had been to build her little toy. It had taken Merle over a month to build the little machine that sat before C'dera, working during the winter months when things were sometimes boring around the castle. Merle knew it wouldn't be as easy as C'dera thought to make another. Then, Merle paused, thinking. C'dera sat silently, watching Merle think, not wishing to break her chain of thought. After a long moment, Merle spoke. "Hmm... I could work with Bakah," Merle said, mentioning Lord Xaa's blacksmith. "He's almost as good as Var was. We could make the molds to pour the gears and other parts in brass in just a couple days, if we work from this finished version. With his help, I could probably smooth the gears and levers better so it doesn't jam, too. Channa the wood-carver could make the boxes... It's just cherry-wood... Shouldn't be too hard for her."

C'dera nodded. "And once word spreads of how useful it is, all the noble ladies and chamberlains will want one. We could charge a hundred gold talents each - and they would be a bargain at that price, my lady."

Merle frowned. "Still, it would take us a week just to make one - there's only three of us here at the castle who have the skills to do it. That's not fast enough. Xaa needs money now, not a year or two from now, and even after selling part of the harvest, there won't be enough."

"Why not ask the Musties, my lady? Your people are Lord Xaa's allies, after all, and they have many, many more skilled paws than we do."

Merle grinned. "What a wonderful idea, C'dera! Why, most of the musties know how to work metal, and all of them know how to carve wood. Byarl is still in the Southlands beyond the mountains, but we could talk to Ellie!" Merle yelped, and hopped to her feet. "Come on! Let's go to the stables, get our birds and go to the Laughing Wood right now and ask!"

C'dera's eyes widened. "Oh! My lady, we cannot do that! We cannot simply go unescorted - it wouldn't be proper form at all. You are the mate of Lord Xaa, and I his courtesan. We must be properly escorted by at least half a dozen of Lord Xaa's vassals to protect us - preferably more."

"Protect us from what?" Merle asked, confused.

"Nothing - but perhaps something. You never know - and it simply wouldn't be proper form for us to be unescorted," C'dera replied, gently but firmly.

"Pfft. Well, let's round up Lord Jamat, Lord Y'dahk and a few others, then. But let's hurry, so we can get there and back in time for supper. Xaa won't like it if we're late."

C'dera smiled and bowed her head. "Yes, my lady. I'll see to it at once. And while I'm doing that, you can let Lord Xaa know where we are going, and why. That way, he won't worry."

Merle slapped her forehead. "Oh! Yes, I'll tell him - I don't want him to suddenly notice we're gone and start worrying." Merle grinned in appreciation at her large friend - such little reminders were, in the end, exactly what C'dera was supposed to be doing. She was, after all, Merle's partner in her relationship to Xaa, by the traditions of the mus. "Let's go, C'dera!"

C'dera smiled and rose quickly to her feet, and together, the two friends quickly trotted out of the room and down the hallway.

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