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.

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