Chapter Square Root of Gross
Scene Five: Things Left Unsaid
Back out in the brisk night air, the party had reached full swing. Everyone in town had arrived and none of the children had yet been sent home. A group of young men had taken it on themselves to build a second bonfire. Two different choirs from different religious groups, a quartet in maroon robes and a set of nine in sky blue or white dress, were each singing Denario's song. They didn't quite sing in the same rhythm or same key because, although they'd clearly practiced, they hadn't practiced together.
Fortunately, the dancers didn't care. Young men and women hopped and skipped to the trumpet's tune. Children ran between them. The teenagers were careful not to touch one another in any case. That seemed to be the dancing style. Most of the girls and about half of the young men wore grass garlands around their necks. Many had spring flowers in their hair. All of them kept their hands to their sides.
An elderly friend of Mistress Clumpi – Denario couldn't remember her name – asked him to dance. He did an awful job of it. He felt grateful that no one appeared to notice his awkwardness. Other women, not all of them gray-haired, took turns with him for the better part of an hour. Every now and then he stopped to rest. Hummel or Senli would refill his goblet. They had the sense to give him tea, thank goodness. During one of those breaks, he wondered aloud if Senli wanted to dance but the brown woman pointed to the tattoo on her neck and shook her head no. Denario grimaced but he understood her reluctance. Perhaps she was wise not to act as if she were free.
Finally, Denario noticed Olga Clumpi on the edge of the biggest bonfire crowd. He shouted her name. She didn't hear, so he grabbed his goblet and marched over.
Her dress, he thought at first, was white. But that was a trick of the darkness and his difficulty with seeing colors correctly in the fire's glow. Up close, the fabric of her dress shone with a pale, pink lustre. Her eyes looked wet. Her nose did, too, as if she'd been blowing through it. Denario was pretty sure she hadn't been sick today.
When he got within a few feet, she noticed him. She turned and put her fists on her hips. Her head hung down in a half-hearted, snapping-turtle glare of suspicion. It was then that he noticed her cheeks were wet, too.
“Olga, what's wrong?” He raised his hand instinctively to touch her. Just in time he realized that she wouldn't want that. She flinched a little at his motion.
She took a breath to speak. Then she shook her head.
“Okay. Walk around the edges with me?” He held out a hand for her to take. She didn't touch him but she followed. “The mayor stopped by, you know. You were right. He and the burghers couldn't resist the party.”
“Heh.” She gave an inward smile. “His mum made sure.”
Denario tried not to slap himself in the head. Jack Quimbi's mother was still alive. Olga hadn't even tried to hide the fact. She'd introduced one of her friends as Mistress Quimbi. Denario had been so busy with decoding the tile system that he hadn't noticed. She'd probably thought he was rude.
He was glad Jack's mother was still around and being persuasive. In retrospect he was pretty sure he'd danced with her earlier tonight, a short, slender woman, hair not completely grey. She'd worn a patterned dress and an air of satisfaction. She had probably been one of the citizens demanding that her son treat the visiting accountant decently. Unlike most of them, she could make sure she got her way.
Denario and Olga walked along the southernmost row of torches to almost the end. There, they crossed from one side of the road to the other. As Denario began to lead them back up the row toward the greater part of the crowd, he wondered what could have gone wrong for Olga. She should have been happy. Had she gotten ill? Or had one of her friends gotten sick? Had she heard news of someone's death? Oh, of course, he thought, someone important has already died.
He'd seen the way her friends had looked at her. They'd dealt with her crying by deliberately not noticing it. They'd faced away. It wasn't from lack of caring. They'd formed a protective circle around Olga. Denario hadn't noticed as much as he should have because they'd parted to let him in. They'd all been there, though, and all of them widows, all of them carefully keeping up appearances.
“Do you miss Bibbo, Mistress Clumpi?” He felt unable not to ask.
“Oh.” She stopped and turned away from him for a moment. She wiped something from her face. “I wish you could have seen him, master accountant. I wish he could have met you. He'd have liked you.”
“I hope so. Maybe that isn't saying much. He sounds pretty friendly.”
“He had a quick wit, sure enough. He made folks laugh. But he didn't always put himself at ease. He could have done that around you, I'm sure. He'd have been able to talk math. In all his life, I think, he never had even a handful of folks he could talk to about math.”
“I wish I could have met him.” Bibbo had been all alone, a mathematical genius in the wilderness. How much could Denario have learned from such a man? It was hard to guess.
“I went home and dressed.” Olga turned in a semicircle away from the crowd. Denario followed. He was glad she was taking the lead. They were headed back to the southern end of the torch rows, which meant they weren't far from the counting house. “But you know how it is. I got into my old place and I slowed down a bit. I pulled out the dress I wanted. I'd had it in mind for a while. Then I cleaned up. I started to sing a bit and talk. Like in old times. I got dressed as I sang to myself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed.”
They reached the end of the row. No one else was close to them. Somewhere in the darkness ahead was the counting house but there were no lights on in it. He couldn't see more than a few yards out.
“I sat and waited.” Olga cleared her throat. “It was only when I called his name that I realized I'd been waiting for him. He always dressed by the hearth while I did my business next to the bed. I was expecting him to come over and tell me he was ready.”
She snuffled. Denario found himself doing exactly what the rest of her friends had done. He stared out into the darkness at the end of the torch light. He didn't watch as she dabbed her face.
“When I realized ... well, that's what got me upset. Just for a moment.” They stood in silence for a long while. Then she harumphed. Her postured straightened. “Come on, let's go get some tea.”
“Yes, Mistress Clumpi.”
“I could use something warm.” The sleeves of her pink dress were long and she wore a short coat, too. She shouldn't have felt the chill.
“You know, young man,” she continued. “The last thing I ever said to Bibbo was mean. He wouldn't get out of bed that day, so I had to nearly push him out the door. I called him a lazy bum. He laughed and said that I never let him be lazy.”
“And ...” He hesitated to say the next part although he'd been told. “And then he collapsed at work?”
“Yes. By the time I came to see him, he was half an hour gone at least. But he didn't look in pain. Just blank. No expression on his face at all.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“That part sounds good.”
“I never got the chance to tell him that I knew he wasn't lazy,” Olga mused. “I suppose he knew what I really thought. He usually did. But I would have liked to say so.”
Denario patted his waist and discovered that his accounting bag was missing. He'd left it in his room. At the moment, he wanted a scrap of fresh parchment. He felt desperate to write another letter to Pecunia.
Next: Chapter Thirteen, Scene One