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.

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