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.

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