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?”

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 147: A Bandit Accountant, 24.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Seven: Quick, Avatar

“What did you see?” Ruffina lay on her side. Denario crouched next to her. The mossy floor of the temple felt soft beneath his toes. He didn't remember it seeming so thick before.

He was tempted to lie down next to the witch but they were both naked. Even though she was old enough to be a grandmother, he found that he liked her smile a bit too much. He averted his gaze. He tried to describe what the goddesses had shown him.

“More than I could understand,” he said. The heart moved! He'd known that it made a beating noise inside him but that was different than seeing the chambers of a heart in action. Together, they formed a pump like an engineer would make. And the mind is in the brain! He'd heard that doctors in Muntar had performed experiments on animal bodies and discovered that the soul lies in the brain, not the heart. He hadn't believed it. Oggli and Anghrili physicians proclaimed that the brain's function was to cool the blood. The accountant had believed them. “It's all alchemy inside.”

“And that's not math.”

“Underneath it all, in the blood, is math. That part made sense.”

“What about when you got very big? Did you feel the invisible force between the stars?”

He hadn’t. He shook his head.

“I thought so.” The witch let her eyelids narrow. “Even in a magical vision, you can only comprehend a small part of what goes on. There was a lot more happening. You were right there in it. You could see it all. But your mind couldn't perceive it. Your memories couldn't hold it. That's okay. I know what you saw because it's what Ruffina could see her first time.”

“Numbers. The universe is made of numbers. And the stuff in our blood is numbers.”

“Did you notice much about them? Do you know how to extrapolate from what they did?”

“Maybe.”

“If you are a careful thinker, you can see through the numbers you perceive to more of what's really there, more than humans really comprehend.”

“Who am I talking to now?”

“The three of us. Earlier, it was Onuava. Then Glaistig took over and gave you her gift. Now it's mostly me, Ruffina, although sometimes one of the others slips in a few words.”

“Did you receive the same vision, Ruffina?”

“I made sure that you got your gift. I didn't have time to look around. Sometimes the goddesses don't have a good understanding of people. I suggested the inner vision.”

“Thank you.”

“I think you'll earn it.” Her irises sparkled.

“Why are we naked?” He suspected that he could see the presence of the goddesses in her eyes. He wondered which deity sparkled green.

“Glaistig did something.” As she spoke, the light shining through her dimmed to about normal.

“One, two, two, one, three, four, two, one, four, four, one, three. Ruffina, my body is controlled by little golems running on codes. They use a base four system.” They didn't operate through simple addition. That wasn't how things lined up. Although he'd caught a glimpse of the rules only briefly, he knew that much. There had been an interaction between 102 123 313 200 233 132 013 and another string of numbers, 302 021 122 133 202 012 031, but the details had faded from his memory. He'd been puzzled. But at least he'd caught a glimpse of the basic concept. “Why base four?”

“I'll ask.” She titled her head. It took her a few seconds and he got the impression that she repeated her question. “They both say, 'because it's convenient.'”

He added that to his list of what he knew about the mechanisms of his internal organs. Then he concluded, “And spirals are important.”

“What do you know about spirals?”

“They're an expression of math. There are spirals of base four numbers inside me. They're double-spirals because that's how the golem control works. The numbers break out of the spirals to operate. Otherwise, being in spirals is the resting state of the code.”

“I saw some of what you were being shown. Now that I think on it, the sight meant different things to me. All the alchemy in our blood seemed to be symbols and colors.”

“Aha. I saw some colors, too.”

“There was red, green, blue, and yellow on one side. There was another color on the other side, something like a purple.”

“That's right.” Her phrase struck a memory. “There were two base four systems, weren't there? That seems so odd. The process I saw started with transcription from one base four system to another.”

“Why?”

“No idea.” He shrugged. “I suppose because it's convenient, like the goddesses say. But we are golems of alchemy as much as other golems, formed by priestly hands, are forces of wood and gears or, by wizardly hands, moved by clay and magic.”

He felt cheated. His knowledge of blood alchemy didn't do him much good. Maybe it did him harm. It didn't get him home or feed his apprentices. As an accountant and as a man, he wanted more. He ought to learn a spell or be inspired to understand some other sort of practical connection between math and life. But the gods granted him the gift they wanted to give. They took his body in return. There was no haggling. The gods named their price and enforced the deal in the same breath.

Since he'd seen through their eyes, however briefly, he knew they could pierce inside him to his mind.

He turned to Ruffina to voice a suspicion. “Do the gods watch our thoughts?” he asked.

“They can see patterns swirl inside our minds. Our ideas look like fires and sparks to them.” She gave him her smile that reminded him of a younger woman, one with dark red hair. Her yellowed teeth didn't bother him as much. “But still they don't understand how we think until we act.”

“Interesting. Can they tell what I'm going to do next?” He reached out to touch her shoulder. But she was naked. So his fingers went to her chin. That seemed too intimate. He didn't want the gods to learn too much about him. At the same time, he felt sure that he could learn more about his life than what the gods wanted him to know. If they couldn't understand his thoughts, he was free to think of ways to trick them.

Ruffina could tell him how. She could ride on the mind of the gods as they inhabited her. But as he touched her hair, her eyes changed. The glow in them brightened.

“Knowledge of the gods is not for mortals.”

Damn. “How did gods get started in the lives of mortals anyway?”

“Oh, Melcurio,” she said. “You do know how I started, dear.”

Suddenly, Denario realized that he did know. The spark of godhood began with a female goat, not even a river goat. She had been a wild nanny with more muscle and bigger horns than any of the domestic males. The nanny introduced herself to the herd and became its leader. The townsfolk were happy about it. The wild goat protected their herd better than any dog or any person.

Then, one day, a hippogriff attacked. They did that from time to time. They hunted by scattering flocks and separating the young from the rest during the stampede. But the nanny goat wasn't having it. As soon as a kid started bleating, she spun around, pawed the turf, and charged. After her, other goats joined in the combat. They rammed the hippogriff despite it laying into them, talon and claw. It snapped its beak and ripped their flesh. Still, the nanny goat fought.

Together with townsfolk and a handful of goats, the nanny goat drove the hippogriff away. A final, mad butt of her horns knocked the beast over. When it got to its feet, it decided it had taken enough. It flapped once and, as its magic kicked in, rose to avoid the next attack from the nanny goat's horns. The nanny stood bleating in rage. Blood dripped off her fur on every limb and all over her back, even her belly. One of her ears had been ripped off. She watched the beast go. Then she laid down to rest.

She never rose again. She died there, staring in the direction her attacker had departed.

All of the villagers said prayers for the nanny goat that night. They said them again the next day, too. They hoped that the soul of the wild goat, wherever she was, would look over them. Who wouldn't want that? Who wouldn't love to feel her looking out for their common defense? And so the goddess of the river goats, Glastig, got her start. At first, she was just the wildest of animals and could only manifest herself as a sort of ghost. But she could possess warriors and give them fighting spirit. Many fighters along both sides of the river prayed for her. They wanted her blessing, her heroism.

The river folks came to associate Glaistig with the river goats, the makari, even though she had never manifested herself as one. Because people thought of her as a river spirit, it became true. Glaistig found that she could possess the makari. She could, on occasion, communicate with witches, shamans, and wizards. She learned to speak to priests and priestesses. She favored priestesses, as a whole, but she learned never to turn down anyone with religious fervor for her or a talent for magic.

In time, she learned to take over human bodies and project the essence of herself so that she appeared to be a physical being. Taking an independent physical form without a host was more difficult. For that, she needed many worshippers gathered together.

“The gods get their magic from the minds of people?”

“You ask too many questions, avatar.” She reached a hand toward his face. “And you guess too easily.”

If the goddess had stayed within Ruffina's body, Denario wouldn't have seen the opportunity. Her glow stretched out farther than Ruffina's hand. As she came to touch him, he reached through the green glow of her. He touched the pale ghost that was Ruffina. The goddesses hardly noticed.

Coming up from behind the accountant was a golden glow. The bubbles of bright light from it cast themselves among the green. The gods had reached for each other, Melcurio for Glaistig. But the accountant wasn’t lost. He had anchored himself on the witch.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 146: A Bandit Accountant, 24.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Six: Holy Insight

Fireflies, he thought. Purple and green lights spun through the room like creatures in a dark forest. They passed through his head, through his heart, filled his body, his hands, his fingertips. Bubbles of color filled everything, everywhere he could see. The goddess Onuava and the goddess Glaistig combined in the witch Ruffina. Her body glowed. Behind her, something that was brighter than the sun shone, too harsh for his stare. Rays of light blasted through the purple and green.

Now I will show you everything, said the firefly lights inside him, all together, in one voice. It was Glaistig.

And she did.

Everything started out with nothing. Vast, dense nothing. He had the impression of being so small in the nothing that he was very big, which made no sense. Then came a change in the nothing. It was as if the laws of the universe that the wizards were always going on about had been poked while they were compressed. The laws gathered tension in the nothingness. Denario felt himself under physical pressure enduring the change. Then came everything. It was beyond him, all around him, an explosion of bubbles.

The bubbles leapt apart. There was never a single one alone, Denario noticed. There were none or two, sometimes none or many, but never only one isolated from others. He counted them. They danced. They twirled and spun. The dance grew bigger.

Division, not subtraction, Denario noticed. Many bubbles broke into smaller, more interesting bubbles. Sometimes small bubbles joined. Addition, not multiplication. What does that? Are there math rules for this?

There are, said Glaistig. Does that make you happy?

It makes me sad, he thought.

Why? She seemed puzzled. Your belief is proven right. Enjoy.

It looks arbitrary. He felt embarrassed for himself. This was a tremendous insight, a glimpse of the primal math. It made him feel small and foolish. Maybe I should trade rightness for understanding.

The dance became an explosion. Denario felt himself getting bigger. He towered over the explosion. He felt himself pulling back from the primal landscape because he was so enormous. He glimpsed giant shapes in the dark, dangerous things. But in an instant, they shrunk. He realized he'd gotten sizable enough to see that everything he'd witnessed before had occurred on Onuava's fingertip. His focus remained on that fingertip, the old skin from Ruffina, light from Onuava and, oddly, an additional inner radiance from Ruffina. But again his view pulled back. He overlooked the entire temple, then a stretch of No Map Creek, then the creek and the Riggle Kill river.

The accountant looked down at the Complacent Sea as if from above a map. He could see the colors of the lands and clouds. The clouds threw shadows on the ground below. The goddess directed his view of creation into the starry sky. The sun was out above the clouds but he could see the stars. Why? Then the blue of the sky faded and there were only the stars and, to his left, a big star that might have been the sun.

Soon he was too big to see the sun. He lost it in the swarm of stars and felt a jolt of panic as he realized that he couldn't find home. He reached out towards where he thought it might be. His view filled with stars circled by stars, then spirals within spirals. In a moment, he was too big to notice anything more than patterns in a current of glowing dust. They looked like swirls in the sea. An odd sense of repetition struck him. A wizard in Baggi had written about a type of mathematical method he called a recursion. Denario felt convinced that it was that type of math he was seeing. There were brief rules, repeating over and over, referring to themselves and one another. They made little things. They made big things. They made everything.

The patterns fell within other patterns. The process kept going until Denario got so big that even light was too small to reach him. At the edge of his consciousness, he felt constraints. A sense of pressure signaled the end. It felt surprisingly similar to the pressure he'd experienced in the beginning of things.

“Are you back?” a husky, female voice asked.

Denario blinked. He was within himself. The vision had retreated. He was just a rather short, young man standing naked in a wide oval of candles. In front of him stood the witch Ruffina, also naked.

There was a slight, purple-green glow behind her eyes.

“That was … I don't understand ...” His chest heaved to take in a deep breath he hadn't known he'd needed. “How did I lose my clothes?”

“Shh.” She put a finger to his lips.

He put his fingers around her wrist. She felt human. When she leaned forward, it was Onuava who spoke directly into his head.

For real understanding, she intoned, it's best to take a look inside.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 145: A Bandit Accountant, 24.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Five: Are You Ready?

The ceremony didn't entertain Denario with the sort of violent, magical shows he was accustomed to seeing in big city temples. Instead, Ruffina created ovals within ovals, first with pre-arranged candles around the edges of the room, then with bowls of water, then with a trail of red dirt. Her magic seemed geometry-oriented. Finally, she gestured and whispered, “Here.”

Half of the candles snuffed themselves out. Rosy-silver smoke billowed.

“Thank you, Ruffina,” she said. But her voice had changed. Her expression had, too. Denario became aware that she wasn't really herself. The magic had worked. Someone else had taken control of her body.

“Ruffina?” Denario said even though he was pretty sure that it wasn't her behind those grey-blue eyes.

“Mortal.” The woman straightened. Denario hadn't noticed it before but Ruffina had hunched her shoulders. She often bowed her head in thought. She had seemed plenty strong before but she hadn't seemed taller than Denario. Now she did.

“Onuava?” he guessed.

“Thank you, Melcurio.”

“I'm, uh ...” he started to tell her that he wasn't Melcurio. However, it seemed unwise to contradict her.

“And you, accountant,” said Onuava.

“You're welcome.” He bobbed his head. “But for what?”

“For the delivery from Glaistig. That was your decision. When we received that, the knowledge of three hundred years snapped into place. The actions before and since fit properly.”

“Are you saying that you acted on the knowledge before you got it? How does that work?" The idea of a timeline came from wizards, not accountants, but Denario trusted it. He used the same concept when working on proofs. The idea that one event caused the next seemed self-evident. Long ago, he gathered, it had not seemed as obvious. Primitive people had seen only that things happened. The reasons were mysterious, often attributed to the gods. The concepts of cause and effect had been vague. Now they were well defined. “How could you have known the message before it arrived?"

“I see the mistake the accountant makes. Should we just tell him it's magic or should I explain?” Onuava seemed to be talking to someone else. “In some ways, it's better for him to think like a human.”

“You can see inside my head?” He hadn't said anything about time.

“Not normally, no. Thank you, Melcurio. I don't want to ruin the accountant's ideas of cause and effect even if they're wrong. Tell me, accountant, does time have a single direction for you?”

“Yes, it's ... forward. Forward-ish. Events seem to lead one to another. We call that forward.”

“Reality is different from what mortals perceive. Possibly it's different than gods perceive, too, but that's irrelevant. We know that an event 'before' doesn't simply cause one 'after' it. An event 'after' also causes the one 'before.' Human perception is limited about this point. 'Before' and 'after' events can't exist one without the other. They aren't separate. All things depend on all other things.”

“I'm not sure I understand.”

“You don't. You would have to ride on the mind of a god to have the barest concept. You'd make yourself smaller than you can imagine and larger than the sum of all that you've seen. Then you would begin to triangulate on the concept of time.”

The words conjured up an image in Denario's mind. “That much, I think I almost understand. You need at least two vantage points for triangulation.”

“You are owed a favor. For one such as you, an understanding of the scale of life, large and small, might be a welcome payment."

“Yes, I expect so.”

“But you haven't earned that kind of understanding. For bringing us a message, you get a blessing on your next journey.”

“That's nice, too,” he said. An image of his apprentices waiting in front of the counting house came to mind.

“We would be willing to bestow something more if you let us borrow your body.”

“Sure.” Then it occurred to him that he was conducting a bargain and probably doing it badly. “Um, what does that entail?”

“You won't be hurt. You'll be witness to everything in your usual, limited way. Are you ready?”

He threw up his hands. “Am I?”

“Yes.”

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 144: A Bandit Accountant, 24.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Four: Breakfast Before Breakfast

The large man, whose name turned out to be Siegfried De Druli, must have been preparing breakfast before his priestess-witch left him. He gestured to a table in the next room. It was a solid slab of oak, laden with eggs, smoked fishes, butter, a bowl of dried oats, and a bowl of blackberries, some of which weren't entirely black. The priest strode to the cook fire on the other side of the table, where he kept his griddle. The young priestess swept past him, headed for the oven.

On the way to finish the cooking, the priest pulled up an extra stool for his unexpected guest. He seemed a bit put out.

“What sort of fare are you accustomed to, soldier?” he asked. With his left hand, he broke a duck egg onto his griddle.

“I've made bread,” the younger priestess interposed. She slid a ceramic tray into the oven at the other side of the room. “It's from the goddess, beginning to end. I made spares. And we have extra fish thanks to the goddess.”

“It's dinner time for my stomach,” Denario said. He glanced to them in turn as he tried to talk to both clergy at once. He decided to ignore the 'soldier' remark. “Anything you make is good.”

“That's nice,” said the priestess.

“Did you take the spiral path?” Siegfried gazed meaningfully at his senior, the priestess-witch.

“I thought it might come in handy.” Her eyelids narrowed. She wasn't about to give away her reasons.

“So.” The priest cleared his throat. He left the griddle for a moment and paused with his hand on fish. “Is this man a prisoner or what?”

“I haven't decided.”

With a sigh, Siegfried scooped a trio of smoked fish onto Denario's plate.

The four of them sat down to a large meal. The young priestess introduced herself as Lucia. She offered him rich bread and horrible, sour berries both with the careless air of someone who ate more often than she needed. Denario ate everything she put in front of him, even the blackberries, even the second helping of fish. His day of raft work had given him an appetite greater than what he'd had at home after a day in the counting house. In fact, he'd eaten more and sometimes better in the past few weeks than he'd eaten in Oggli, despite his home city's rather rich, gourmet dishes. A couple weeks ago, after he'd struggled through the lands that the barons were ruining in an attempt to starve the Mundredi, he'd found that the rural towns stocked dried and pickled barrels of every type of food. His hosts never let him forget his meals while he was doing math, not the way Winkel and Curo had done.

A stray memory flitted through him. He saw himself, aged twelve, lifting his head out of the accounts. He was startled to find a cold bowl of soup next to him. He'd always been startled. It had almost always been there. He'd been wrong to think that no one cared. Someone had been watching out for him, probably both of the someones.

Reassured by the recollection, Denario patted his stomach. He'd lost weight around his middle despite eating more. His shoulders filled out his shirts better, too. Master Winkle had never mentioned these benefits of travel.

After water, the priest served wine. And after the wine, the elder priestess peppered him with questions.

“So what is it you did?” she asked.

Denario put down his goblet and tried to explain. He had to start with how little his guild knew about magic. There was never a way for them to experiment with it. They'd been able to add scraps of numeromancy to their trove of fragments but the collection spanned hundred of years and still could be copied onto four pages of a single book. He described his discovery of more hexes and the logical theorem he'd devised to put them to use.

“But I'm sure you know all about this,” he added.

“No,” said the witch.

“It's really not how we do things,” said the priest, his brow furrowed in a skeptical scowl.

“The clergy in Oggli cast spells like the wizards do.” Denario stood and helped himself to the pitcher of wine. “Don't you?”

“What you see in Oggli is mostly play-acting,” grunted Siegfried. “Some part of it may be real. If a priest wants to learn magic on the side and has an aptitude, a church might allow it. Spells make for flashy displays at the service. That means a better take from the faithful.”

“But even some of those shows are going to be faked.” The witch propped her cup with both hands, elbows on the table.

“Vir said the same thing.” Denario sighed. He sat back down on his stool.

“Is that your boatman friend?” asked Siegfried. “I thought his name was Jack.”

“Vir de Spitze is the Mundredi war chief,” the witch pronounced. “I get news of him now and then.”

“Ah, right.”

“The important thing is this new way of using hexes,” she continued. “I've never heard of anyone creating a spell entirely out of mathematics before.”

“Really? Never?” Denario didn't think he'd done anything novel. Accountants had learned about hexes from bank magicians, after all.

“Probably there are wizards who do it. It seems like their sort of thing. I don't know that for sure. No witch I've known has done it.”

“But … all those languages … and math underlies then all. It's the foundation of everything in the universe. How can no one speak in the most powerful of languages?”

“Some do. They're not human.”

“That's not for him to know,” Siegfried warned. He returned to his scowl.

“As you already seem aware, accountant, math does indeed underlie fundamental truths. When the gods speak to those truths, someone like you would recognize the language. I can feel the numbers when they flow out of me, when I let a goddess take over my body and she does what she needs to do.”

Denario contemplated the revelation. The essential nature of math was no surprise but the idea of letting a god take over his body was odd. If anything was unnatural, it was that.

“Is that what priestesses do? Let the gods take over and do math?”

“No,” answered Siegfried rather definitely.

“Hardly any.” The older lady cackled. “I don't know why they make use of me. It's like we don't know why Melcurio is curious about you. Sometimes we get an insight as to the reasons. But more often, we can't get a grasp on what motivates deities. Yes, they like to claim more territory and more worshippers. That's for their survival. But they've got more than that going on. One of them granted me an insight about the reasons long ago but it came as a rather unfortunate look at my soul. It wasn't as glorious as I expected.”

The priest gave the entire room a sullen look.

“Could Melcurio be after this man's soul?” The young priestess, Lucia, pointed to Denario.

The priestess shook her head. “No. It's nothing special.”

“His mind, then? The math?”

“The gods don't need mortal math.” The priest shook his head.

Denario cleared his throat. “Novel ideas sometimes capture Melcurio's attention. Maybe the spell I made was sort of new. Even if it wasn't, it made me realize something that I haven't heard before. There's got to be more than one magical language in math.”

“Another?” Lucia put down her bowl of berries. “Why?”

“There are many mathematical languages. Oggli and Anghrili accountants know a few hexes. But hexadecimal numbers divide neatly into languages of eights, fours, and twos. I should think we could translate hexes into octals, for instance, and get the same effects as I got today.”

“The Octavo!” the younger priestess shouted. The older ones frowned at her.

“What's that?” Denario studied her eyes.

“A book.” Lucia blushed. For a moment, she covered her mouth as he spoke. “I heard about it somewhere. It's a book from a different place. We hear about such things.”

“You think it's written in a numeric language?”

“It might be.” Composure regained, she raised her chin defiantly to her elders. “It's an idea we ought to consider.”

“Look, accountant,” the older woman said, munching, apparently not much concerned about theories of magical texts that might not exist, “whether you're inventing a new language or not, you have to agree not to blank out any more of our spells.”

“Okay.”

“Just saying 'yes' won't do it.” She smacked her lips. “I will work on formal wording. Then you'll recite that wording three times.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Maybe more.” She scratched her armpit. “Onuava likes twos and threes. Glaistig likes fives.”

Denario thought about those numbers a bit. At first, it seemed to him that a nanny goat goddess would prefer fours and sixes. But she wasn't a regular nanny goat. She was a makari, at least part of the time. Her hooves and tail made five. Counting horns made seven.

“How does Glaistig come into it?” he wondered. “I've met her worshippers. There are a lot of them, true, but they live thirty miles up the Riggle Kill. What business does she have with Onuava?”

“That not for you to know,” said Siegfried.

“She's another sort of mother goddess,” the witch explained. She waved off her counterpart's attitude. “There are many mothers. Sometimes they share things. That's not something you hear about much. But they do. Onuava takes an interest in Glaistig's health. Gods don't make friends like you and I. But they do have allies of a sort. I think Glaistig gave shelter to Onuava's followers long ago.”

“So,” mulled Denario. An image came to him of the old ladies in Pharts Bad. “Is there a league of mothers?”

“Something like.”

“Melcurio can't be part of it.”

“No. However, there's a story in which he impersonated one of his sisters. So he talked his way into their trust, once. That's a rather naughty one. He fooled the goddesses, got in on a lot of their secrets. To what end? Only to bed down with one of them.”

“I wouldn't know about that,” said Denario, although he did. It was in a scroll of secret stories.

“The second time he tried that, a different goddess switched beds on him instead. He shouldn't have tried it twice.”

He paused as he was reaching for the last cut of bread.

“Serves him right,” said Lucia.

“A happy ending at last,” said Siegfried.

“He was planning to get his sister pregnant,” the witch explained. She seemed to realize that Denario hadn't heard this part of the story before. “But she swapped places with her hand maiden, a wood nymph who had made a bet that she would get the child of a god. And she did.”

“She made the bet with Glaistig,” added the priest. “So it was Glaistig who compelled the god to marry the nymph and make her immortal.”

“Did that work?”

“They say that Melcurio divorced her. But after she gave birth to his child, he had regrets. He reached an agreement and secluded her away on a mountain where he could visit. She got her immortality in the bargain. The story doesn't say much else although I would expect that there's more to it.”

“He played a trick.” Denario leaned back, sure of himself.

After a moment of pondering, he felt the witch's eyes on him.

“I'm starting to get the sense that our tricky god is amused by you. Why? What about you could be appealing to such a disreputable force of nature?”

He blushed. He tried not to.

“You know!” She rose from her seat with a cackle. “Or you think that you do. Maybe you've learned a little part. We'll have to see.”

“If I'm not a prisoner, can I ask a question?”

“Ask all you like. Answers, well, we'll see.”

Denario put down his knot of bread. An idea had been sneaking up on him. Now was the time. Most clergy devoted themselves completely to one god. They knew nothing about the others and declared them to be false. They fought everyone not part of their church. But these three devotees of Onuava listened to what other clergy said. They had ears through a network of like-minded mothers. This was Denario's chance to find out about his former fiance.

“I met the Mistress Ziegetochter at the Temple of the Goat.” He hesitated, unsure of how to put the question. “She didn't seem to like this other woman in Zeigeburg.”

“We know Ziggi. I mean, the priestess.”

“Yet Ziegetochter met with the other woman often. Both of them kept making it clear that they didn't like each other but they conferred anyway. They met quite a lot, a bit like business partners. Do you know what I mean?”

“Was this another witch? Did she call herself Pecunia?”

“I think that was it.” Denario carefully looked the crumbs on his plate. He didn't think it would be wise to look directly at anyone for a few seconds.

“Interesting.”

“Despicable,” said the younger priestess.

“Why?” He raised his head. The clergy were looking at one another until he spoke. Then the young woman glared at him.

“We hate Pecunia because she doesn't acknowledge her local god.” She spit the words out with enough force to send flecks of butter from her lips. “She claims to worship an elder god. She acts like a witch, which is bad enough. But she acts like a priestess, too. And that's ridiculous. That's my business. She went to a magical school. She dresses like an enchantress. So is she a witch or an enchantress or what?”

“What's the difference?”

“There's all the difference in the world, dearie,” the elder woman chimed in. “A witch looks after her village. She watches out for her folks, births them, heals them and, when no more can be done, she lays them to their rest.”

“That sounds like Pecunia a bit. I mean, I don't know about the birthing or the mortuary rites but Pecunia kept an eye on the women of Ziegeburg. I think she dispensed medicines now and then.”

“How much do you know about that, boy?” Her gray gaze narrowed.

“Colored water in glass bottles.”

“There's no healing in what she's done. Believe me, there's not a finger's worth of compassion in the woman.” The grim line of her mouth softened. “Still, looking after female problems, that's a bit witchy. So you understand the confusion among witches.”

“She said she wasn't one.”

She cackled. “That's neither here nor there. Plenty of witches say they aren't. Plenty who aren't try to lay claim to witching skills.”

“What happens in that case?” Denario raised his arm, struck by an obvious idea. “Is there a witches guild?”

“No. What a ridiculous notion!” The grey-haired woman shook her head in bewilderment. “Guilds are city things, organized thuggery by men against other men. Witches are solitary, not that women don't have bullies as well. And most women like to be in groups. But not witches. It's hard to keep witches close together. We don't like to share territories.”

“Except for you,” said the priest, rather earnestly. After a moment's reflection, Denario checked the priest's face for any hints of irony. He found none.

“Oh yes, I let goddesses take control of me. And right now Onuava tells me that wants to take me over and have a look at our guest through human eyes. I'm inclined to let her.”

“What about Glaistig?” the younger priestess asked.

“You think she'll come?”

The response was a vigorous nod.

“Do you want me to stay, Ruffina?” the young one asked. Aha, Denario thought. The old witch's name is Ruffina. Doesn't that mean red-headed? He checked her hairs and noticed a hint of auburn.

“Not this time. You go. Don't clean up.” She waved them in the direction of the door. “Reinforce the wards so that no other presence can slip in. Then help yourselves to Homeward House while I'm working.”

Lucia stuck out her lower lip. It was an expression that Denario felt members of the clergy shouldn't make. It made her seem too young.

Siegfried slapped his thigh. He pushed his chair away from the table. Although he'd eaten more than anyone, he grabbed the last loaf of bread and tucked it into a pocket in his robe. He rubbed his cheek, freshly shaved but dark with stubble. As he rose for the door, he scooped up a sack of odd-shaped objects. Whether he meant to use them for magic or for gardening, Denario couldn't tell.

Denario rose to follow.

“Not you.” Ruffina pointed at him. “The goddess has questions for you.”

Lucia didn't even glance at the accountant. She passed Siegfried as she slipped through the doorway. The priest hesitated, his left foot still inside the room.

“Will you be safe?” he asked. He raised a skeptical eyebrow in Denario's direction as if he wasn't sure that the man he'd taken for a bandit had been cleared of suspicion yet.

In reply, Ruffina rubbed her palms.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 143: A Bandit Accountant, 24.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Three: A Spiral Path

As soon as they'd gotten out of sight of Jack Lasker and crew members, Denario's kidnapper waved her arms. They were thick with blue veins. Her stick-like fingers rose. Her sleeves fell to her elbows. She seemed to lift the heat out of the air. A breeze blew.

“There,” she cracked. “No need to sustain that.”

The accountant's mind raced. He wasn't sure what had happened but this woman looked more like a normal priestess now and less like a harridan. The veins on her arms faded. Moles on her eyebrows and chin turned the color of her skin.

“You kept up a glamour to look worse, not better?” he guessed.

“I knew you'd get it. It's your sort of prank, Melcurio.”

“I wish you wouldn't call me that.”

“Then you shouldn't be such a tricky boy. Didn't your mother tell you not to play jokes?”

“I never knew my mother.”

“Well, then your father would ...”

“No.” His voice sounded flat and final as he felt.

“Oh.” She glanced away for a second.

Denario hadn't tried to save himself from being kidnapped. That had been the influence of the glamour, he supposed. No one else had lifted a hand either. Jack, Boldor, and Dodni would all feel terrible about it in a moment.

An image came to his mind of all of his apprentices standing in a row in front of the counting house. It strengthened his resolve. This woman might know some magic but that didn't mean he had to go along with her plans.

He touched his sword as he considered. The collapsed hood of the cloak didn't even cover her neck. He could see the shadows of her bones. Nothing would stop him. But then what? Had she been cruel enough to justify lopping off her head? She hadn't used force beyond the magic of giving herself a stern face. He could turn and walk away from her. He was pretty sure she couldn't physically stop him. Maybe she could do it with magic but she hadn't turned him into a frog or anything yet. She might not be as powerful as she seemed.

The thing was, he didn't want to fight her if he could help it because clearly the only thing he could do in that regard kill her when she wasn't looking. What if he succeeded? He couldn't tell his apprentices about it. He probably couldn't explain it even to a pirate like Brand. Would he find a return path to the rafts? Would he make it home? The anti-cartography magic didn't seem to bother this woman but he could feel it hovering around the edges of their space. It was a weird force that pressed down on the leaves and branches and rocks. The magic knew the woman and made way for her. If he did her harm, it would probably slam down with all of its weight.

“Where are we going?” he asked. “The temple?”

She gave him a cool glance.

“Why me?”

She stopped. As she turned, her hands pressed knuckles-down on her hips.

“What's your name, young man?” she asked.

“Denario, Accountant of Oggli. And you?”

“I'm the priestess.”

“You must have a name.”

“It's not important. I'm here for Onuava.” She set her mouth in a grim line. “The goddess still lives. She directs the magic that hides her home in the temple. But the upkeep on her great spell is done by wizards, witches, priests, and priestesses who can't always keep the goddess present within them.”

“Does this have to do with either of my questions?”

“You managed to nullify someone's maintenance spells,” she replied testily. Her pace quickened until she whirled around to point her finger at him. “Didn't you realize that we would notice the blank spot? All of the alarms failed at once, all around one person. That person was you.”

“I didn't know magic worked like that. None of the wizards back home ever talked about it.”

“They may not know.” She nodded as she resumed her hiking. “They regard themselves as mighty and wise. But the Goddess knows them as fools.”

“Then I must seem even more foolish.”

“Well, yes, of course. You're an interesting fool, Melcurio.”

“I told you my real name. You didn't tell me yours. And you insist on referring to me as a god, which is silly.”

“That was the goddess talking just now.” She shrugged. “You're an accountant, right? Certified by a big city guild?”

“What do you mean by 'the goddess talking?'”

“Onuava knows Melcurio. She's with me in my head. Her fascination with you as an avatar of one of her children is why we didn't kill you from a distance.”

“Oh.” He paused and fell behind. Immediately, he felt the presence of the anti-cartography magic. It spurred him forward. “By all means, call me Mel.”

“You're so funny.”

“Renowned for it.”

“How old are you, oh avatar of Mel and accountant of Oggli?”

“Seventeen, I think. Possibly sixteen. Certainly not eighteen. Probably born late in the winter.”

“Old enough to be a master accountant.”

Denario let that one slide. As Jack had pointed out, he'd passed the exams for it. The guild would have to confirm him as master sooner or later.

“You've journeyed. You've seen something of the world. And you've brought a message from Glastig. My mistress is pleased.”

“Have I done that?”

“Oh, yes. I thought you might not know. It's in the bottom of your remarkable travel bag.”

Denario tried to think of what lay in there. He recalled an erstwhile gift to Pecunia.

“Do you mean the piece of the Biscelli Church? That thing is hundreds of years old.”

“So it is.”

“Then how can it contain a message?" His hands tried to draw the passage of time in the air. “More precisely, how can it hold one that's still relevant?”

“You'll find out later.” She stepped forward and to the right around a bend in the trail. As she strode, the light of the world changed around her. It happened everywhere and yet it was subtle. The shadows of the leaves tilted as if the sun, far above the canopy, hung in a different position in the sky. The clouds and the branches shifted. Denario blinked. He staggered, tripped up by a tree root that he thought hadn't been there a moment before.

A few yards later, the priestess zagged left. Again, the shadows moved. Denario gaped up at the leaf-blighted sky but he couldn't tell where the sun had gone. It was somewhere overhead, he was sure, brighter than before. His boots felt different. He focused on his feet as he took his next step. What's different? he asked himself.

The soil is darker.

In fact, he thought the difference was more than color. He knelt for a second while keeping a careful eye on the priestess. He couldn't let her move too far ahead. He pinched a bit of black grit between his thumb and forefinger. He doubled his pace to catch up. As he marched, he rolled his finger and felt the moisture. This wasn't anything like the sandy, rock-strewn riverbank. It was deep-woods detritus, the rot of generations of leaves.

The priestess continued. He kept up. The light and all of his surroundings changed with every dip and turn in their trail. The texture of the ground grew hard and dry. Smoky quartzes and chunks of granite appeared in the hard-packed earth. Ferns gave way to grasses. Oaks faded into birches. Light burst through the sparse branches above.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Almost there,” she replied without even a glance to him. Her left hand casually gestured to a bright chunk of quartz. It lay next to their trail.

A few yards later, they turned to find themselves amidst a burst of flowers. The petals were fat and soft, a shade of red that he hadn't seen in the forest or, for that matter, on any other flowers before. At the end of the double row, there rested a chunk of milky quartz as big as his arm. He stared at it for a moment. On the next bend in the path, the priestess passed sprinkles of blue pimpernels. The trees grew sparse. Rock beds rose up, looking natural until he noticed others of the same shape, so they had to be artificial. In almost-regular ellipses, they held rich soil and a mix of lilies, violets and weeds.

The gardens and the chunks of quartz meant they'd gotten close to something, Denario realized.

They crested a rise in their path. Now he could look down on a white wall of quartz. Some of it had been constructed in layers of stone like any other building. But the main two walls facing him were single, solid pieces, each of them gently curved. They gave Denario the impression that they'd been shifted into place ages ago, probably by magic. He stopped for a moment to study them. From his vantage point, he could see over their tops. That was enough to let him comprehend the building's shape. Like the flower beds, the structure was an ellipse flattened to points on each end. Rooms had been built in curved rows behind the walls. The roofs had been laid with slate, not tile, and in a few places the slate had fallen to reveal cedar beams and the insides of rooms.

In the center of the complex all lay a hollow, filled by the greatest garden. Spring plants had begun to bloom around its edges.

The priestess kept moving. She ignored the scenery, which of course she'd seen many times, and marched in a direction Denario thought was east. With the change in the position of the sun and the coming and going of the canopy during their travel, he found it hard to be sure. Regardless, the priestess took him toward one of the rooms. Dark ovals in the walls revealed the doorways. There were no wooden doors to close them. One or two passageways held crude leather door flaps, half-tied to hooks.

“How long did it take to get here?” he wondered.

“You noticed the difference in the light?”

“And the trees. And the flowers. And stones. And dirt.”

“Yes, yes. It's all very magical,” she said in a voice that was utterly jaded about magic. “It took about half an hour to walk.”

“Maybe,” he allowed. He squinted at what he guessed was a bright, morning sun to his right. “You know, you don't talk like most priestesses. And you do magic like a witch.”

“Hah!” That made her spin and look at him for the first time in a while. “Shows what you know.”

“It does?”

“As it happens, I am also a witch.”

“Is that allowed?”

“Don't you know the difference between witches and priestesses, Melcurio?”

“Uh ...” Denario clasped his hands together. A lot of answers went through his mind: Yes? No? I trust what people tell me? He didn't completely trust anyone who said she was a witch. The ones he'd met in the hills hadn't been too bad, though. They'd told the truth. There were a few who didn't announce themselves but he was sure about what they were. They were trying to avoid getting burned at the stake like the family in Haph Fork. Fine by him. But was Pecunia a witch? Was she a sorceress? Was there a difference? What about the women who posed as witches but weren't?

“I don't know much,” he admitted. “But I know that in a temple, you usually find priestesses.”

“Heheh.” She craned her neck around to observe her surroundings. “True enough. Witches don't like temples.”

“But you do.”

“I'm a special case.”

Denario had heard that line before from a village witch. He'd heard it from the wizard in Hogsburg. And from Pecunia, once or twice. And from any number of bank wizards. He hadn't heard those words from priests or priestesses. But everyone else involved with magic thought they were special.

Except me, he thought. He mused on that for a moment.

As he was feeling insignificant, he didn't feel too bad about being held captive. There seemed to be a chance of escape. Anyway, was it urgent? The priestess hadn't talked about punishing him. She marched up to the door with an air of importance. She thrust out her arm in Denario's direction. Someone inside, next to her, poked his head out.

The man wore a priest's vestments, a brown robe and a gold-colored chain. His sleeves carried embroidery of gold thread. His hair was dark but it was thin on top. His shoulders were broad. His stomach plumped. He looked like he would have been a strong, robust fellow if he didn't live indoors.

“I thought you were going to bring back magic,” he said. He nodded at Denario. “Not a bandit from ancient tribes.”

“Squint your eyes for a moment, Siegfried,” she snapped. “Take a real look.”

His puffy eyes slitted nearly shut. Then they popped open.

“Ah! A god.” He almost smiled. It was an expression that looked unfamiliar on his otherwise stern face. “Given the appearance, it’s Melcurio.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Denario complained.

“I thought he had a magic charm,” she explained. “But it was him.”

“A god presence can happen, god knows,” the priest intoned rather logically, “but it never blanks out spells that I've heard.”

“No. Accountants do it, apparently.” She jerked her thumb in Denario's direction.

“Him? An accountant? And the god worked through him?” The old fellow lifted his nose a bit to look down at him.

Behind, a girl appeared. She was a welcome distraction, dressed in a light, brown robe that was equivalent to the priest's darker one. She seemed to be a younger member of the clergy. Nevertheless, she wore a gold chain. Her eyes popped wide upon seeing the guest.

“I'm ... not sure,” said the older priestess. She put fingers to her brow and carefully avoided everyone's eyes for a moment. Her head bobbed as she nodded to herself. Her attention returned to Denario. “He's certainly a tricky fellow. But I think that's just how he is. Anyhow, he's brought a message from Glaistig.”

“You mean from Melcurio?”

“No, from Glaistig. Not at Melcurio's behest. The accountant made the decision. The god must have known about it, though, and he didn't interfere.”

“He wouldn't dare.”

She raised her eyebrows at that and gave her compatriot a faint smile.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 142: A Bandit Accountant, 24.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene Two: Not Playing Dumb

The grateful dwarfs grabbed boxes of food, blankets, and everything else needed for an overnight camp. Brand didn't have any possessions. He pitched in by lugging the crate of dry firewood. So did his man in the foremost raft. Their friend, the third captive, hadn't died yet but he needed two dwarfs to lift him over the gunwhales to shore. If he survived, he would be a cripple.

Everyone seemed glad to get off of the water and have the chance to relax on dry land. No doubt the lack of blindfolds helped the mood. However, Jofnir's assistant blacksmith got lost not thirty feet into the woods as he searched for deadfall branches to add to the fires. He had to call for rescue. It was a reminder that the anti-mapping curse remained. However, the other dwarfs laughed. They felt confident, protected by Jack's expertise. Dodni tied a rope around his waist, gave the other end to Boldor, and had no trouble bringing the fellow back.

“This is a beautiful spot, Jack,” said Boldor after he handed the rope to a lesser-ranking dwarf to coil. “There are lots of rocks. At night, we might forget we’re on the surface.”

“I was surprised that you picked the Mundredi side,” Denario added. “There's more magic here, right?”

“There is,” Jack admitted. He threw up an arm in apparent exasperation. “I tried the other bank as many times as I could. There was barely a place for one raft over there, let alone three in a line.”

“We’re a large crew. Are we the most you've taken through the heart of the magic?”

“A couple of years back, I quick-lashed four rafts together and took a caravan through when their donkeys fell ill. That was when I enlarged my house. I was stinking rich for a year.”

The riverman was content to let the dwarfs and the caravan men set camp. He knelt to his cooking utensils. As he prepared food from his stores and divvied out more for his passengers, he talked about other caravans he'd taken down the creek, the rafters and traders of his father's time, the gangs of rivermen farther south where the No Map met the Riggle Kill, and the dangers posed by those gangs. His father stayed home nowadays but he still paid a yearly bribe, called a membership, to the River Guild. In theory, it protected the Lasker family from everyone else on the lakes, creeks and rivers. In practice, it only protected Jack from being robbed or killed by other members of the River Guild.

“But that's not nothing,” Jack allowed. It was good to travel the water without worrying that other rafts would try to sink him. The style of bargaining employed reminded Denario of how the guilds in Oggli worked. He'd forgotten the use of force because Master Winkel had never exerted any on behalf of the accountants. Most other guilds did.

“Oupenli welcomes travelers, especially those with money,” Jack drawled. “But an open city is a lawless one. The free lances duel with one another. They battle the local knights on the borders. Guilds make war on one another and on everyone else. Even wizards fight. That's always horrible. They’re careless of the bystanders. You'll know when it's happening because everyone starts running.”

“I've heard about those,” said Denario. He noticed that Dodni and Dodni's brother Heilgar had come to take their share of food. They slowed to overhear. “The Ogglie College of Wizardry regulates things back home. But they say that the wizards in Oupenli won't listen. So Oupenli is lawless even with regard to magic.”

“When the wizards aren't fighting, they work,” continued Jack, “That's plenty bad by itself. These aren't college layabouts. They have no guild to regulate them, so they set off spells as they please. Stray magic gets everywhere. You can walk by a chimney that's billowing purple smoke and suddenly you're a chicken.”

“You make it sound like a wild place. But your family lives there.” He kept his eye on the dwarfs. He didn't want them to get too alarmed. Boldor's eyebrows were up. Dodni's expression looked carefully bland. “Lots of families do. And they raise children. It can't be too bad. Anyway, I've visited five times. Nothing bad ever happened to me and I stayed overnight each time.”

“It's one of the nicest places on earth if you're rich.” Jack noticed the three dwarfs around them. He nodded to acknowledge the new arrivals. “Accountants nearly are, Denario, so you have a rich man's perspective. My grand-dad made his fortune on the No Map, bought a winter home on the Riggle Kill near Oupenli and always said that he loved the place. My father got even richer and decided he liked it too. He moved there permanently. Like he says, there's no lord to tell you what to do. You don't have to live in the countryside, hiding from a tyrant who wants to claim the fruits of your work. You get a real city with trained doctors and wealth all around. But there's no lord's police force, either. Each guild has their own police. Each knight or wealthy merchant has theirs. If you can't afford protection, you don't want anyone to figure that out.”

“I see. So I was shielded by the coachman's guild.”

“Yes, and their allied guilds. You'll be protected by the riverman's guild this time. That's plenty. They're allies with the caravaners and others. I'll give you their token. The accounting guild doesn't offer any protection that I've heard.”

“My old master had an arrangement with the bank wizards.”

“With wizards? Really? Well, they have more than enough power when they're paying attention. But they aren't reliable. It seems odd that your master trusted them.”

“He didn't. We kept a close eye on the bank wizards. Always, he suspected they were cheating. Sometimes the wizards hired accountants to check on other wizards, too. Those jobs were the worst. If you got caught, you might end up as a creature that can't talk. But the jobs paid well, often in gold. Winkel took one of them when he was young and lived to get all of the money.”

“In gold?” blurted Heilgar. That got him an elbow in the side from Dodni.

“Yes.”

“Not magical gold? The real thing?”

“Hardly any accountants get to see real gold. But I have seen it. Yes, his pay was in the true metal. There were five pieces, technically, although one was small, almost like an eighth-piece. But because it was gold, the wizards wanted to buy it back from my master.”

“Of course.” Heilgar and Dodni both nodded as if it confirmed something.

“Winkel let them buy back four pieces with silver and gems. But he decided to keep one gold coin in the bank. He went to check it regularly to make sure the bank wizard hadn't tried to substitute magical gold. He brought ways to test it.” Fortunately, the city bankers had tremendous respect for Winkel. He had audited many of them. If they had methods to cheat, they didn't want to use them unless they were sure they'd fool not only the accountants but other bank wizards who worked with Winkel.

“So he didn't trust wizards.”

“No.” Denario scratched his head. He mused, “Even other wizards don't trust wizards.”

“Have you been doing your numero stuff again? That’s a part of accounting I don't quite trust.”

“Oh.” It took Denario a moment to understand but when he did, his face grew warm. “What makes you ask?”

“You look a little ...”

A great cat's roar drowned out the riverman's words. Jack, Boldor, and Dodni turned to look over Denario's right shoulder. For a moment, Denario froze. The rest of dwarfs, one by one, turned to look. Brand did, too. His eyes widened.

Denario put his hand on the pommel of his sword. He started to draw as he swiveled toward whatever it was. But he saw no cat. He saw no animal at all. Was it crouched in the rocks and scrub? As he studied the rise of the riverbank, an old woman stepped out from behind a tree upslope. She took two steps and planted one withered, sandaled foot onto a boulder.

The woman carried a gray bag in her right hand. Her robe looked thick, uncomfortable, and tattered. The pointed hood of her robe fell from her head to her shoulders. It revealed a wild mane of silvery hair. In her left fist, she clutched a walking stick, a knobbly piece of hickory. Her left forearm looked as tough as the wood. All in all, she looked like a witch or hag. She might as well have worn a sign around her neck saying so. The poor woman probably had been normal once. The years had seasoned her skin like wrinkled leather. Her arms rippled with hard sinew.

For a moment, the setting sun behind her seemed to cast a fiery aura on her robes. That was when Denario became sure there was something magical about her.

“Haaaalt!” she cried. She passed her fingers through the air.

The accountant felt the pressure of magic. It didn't stop him the way Tim the Magnificent had done but he knew he was dealing with a person of power. That was enough to keep him from drawing his baselard. He was too far away and anyway, it felt wrong to draw it on an old woman, however stern she appeared.

She hissed. Denario glanced at Jack, who had moved backwards toward his rafts. The man had acquired a punt. But he froze rather than continue with whatever he was doing.

“You should not be in these lands,” the hag croaked.

“Right,” Boldor spoke up. “Well, if we're not wanted ...”

Behind and to Denario's right, Jack took another step backwards. A move from the weathered hag stopped him, whether it was her magic or simply intimidation, Denario couldn't tell.

“What are you doing here?” The blue-grey eyes darted from person to person. She seemed to be speaking to all of them. But after a moment, her focus snapped on Denario. She gave him an assessing look. Denario could swear he saw the math and geometry going on behind her eyes.

She muttered. The air shook.

“Eh?” said Brand.

She mumbled some more. Denario felt the hairs on his arms stand up. This was a magical language she was using. She was casting.

With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the spell he'd made. He could feel it. His hex was gone.

“Aha.” She cackled. With a spry hop, she landed forward off of the boulder. She closed in on Denario with four long strides. “You were blanking. Is that something you cast? Or are you traveling the creek with a charm in your possession?”

Denario gawked. She was a horrible, little anti-grandmother, shorter than even he was, and an archetype for a relative he'd never had and didn't want. He glanced over to Jack for help. Jack was staring at him.

“No speak the language,” he said in his worst Paraveni. Maybe he could play ignorant and she'd go away.

“You don't know modern tongue?” she put her hands on her hips, vexed. She switched to another language. “That doesn't seem right. Do you know Ogglian? If not that, you should have some Old Tongue.”

“No speak the language,” he insisted in Paraveni. It was working.

“What the hell are you saying?” asked one of Brand's men, Shmurter. He was the thick-chested man in studded armor, the one who could stand on both legs. Brand kicked Shmurter but it was too late.

The hag's lips clamped down hard. Her gaze narrowed on the accountant.

“You do speak modern,” she growled. “Of course. You all do. The dwarfs fooled me for a moment. And someone else. Someone is fooling around.”

She peered at him closer. “Melcurio, you naughty boy. You can't stop playing tricks, can you?”

“Madam,” he continued in Paraveni. “I am a humble accountant, not Melcurio.”

“I understood that,” she snapped. “It's one of those sailor languages. And you're here as the god of tricks whether you know it or not. I can feel it.”

“Really,” he said in Ogglian. “I'm not.”

“Hush. You will come with me.”