Chapter Six: The Priory

"At some point," Nyssa remarked to Pomodoro, while the curiosipede sped them along the road through the wilderness, "no matter how curious I am, I'm going to need to eat something for lunch. It's all wilderness here, but when we find a place that looks like it might have a kitchen I want to stop and ask for food. Do half-hours eat?"

"We do," said Pomodoro, "but not the same way you do. We eat activity and thought and even sleep, especially if it's good sleep. I personally have a weakness for reading and can't resist a good walk-and-talk. But we eat it like plants do; the sun won't go out however many trees there are under it, and we're just the same."

"That's a rather cheerful thought," remarked Nyssa.

They had yet to see or pass any buildings other than the Observation Deck, but the scrub was getting less scrubby and the place was beginning to look more habitable. The road ran parallel to a stream for a while, and then the stream turned right and the road turned left, arching over the water on a wooden footbridge just barely wide enough to accommodate the curiosipede.

In the distance, Nyssa could finally see a building. "I wonder what that is," she said loudly, and the curiosipede obligingly paused at the fork in the road, where there was a sign:

The Priory

Under the Auspices of Her Majesty the Queen

No Frequentists Need Multiply

And beyond this sign was a large churchy sort of building, stony and peaked and windowed with stained glass.

"It looks pretty," said Nyssa, "but I wonder what a priory is? It looks like a church, but the Observation Deck looked like a lighthouse."

The curiosipede took Nyssa and Pomodoro closer to the building and deposited them on the front steps. Nyssa climbed the stairs with Pomodoro at her heels, and gave a few sharp raps on the double door with one of the heavy knockers that hung there. There was a delay, and then the door swung inward.

Nyssa was greeted by a woman in grey robes that brushed the floor, with sleeves long enough to completely cover her hands, and a hood that obscured her ears. Under the hood, the woman wore a blindfold, and aimed her lack of gaze vaguely over Nyssa's head. "Welcome to the Priory, pilgrim," she said. "I am Sister Hypothesis, one of the nones here."

"I'm not a pilgrim," said Nyssa, who associated the word exclusively with the buckle-hatted inventors of Thanksgiving.

"Most people who come to the Priory are pilgrims," said Sister Hypothesis, waving them inside. It was poorly lit - the windows admitted a little sunshine, but not much, darkened as they were with the colors. The designs on the windows looked a little like different kinds of graphs and charts, like what Nyssa had paged past in math books before.

"I see," said Nyssa. "I thought nuns lived in convents."

"Perhaps they do, but I'm a none," said Sister Hypothesis. "Nones are people who strive to operate with None of the preconceptions, prejudices, incentives, or biases that can influence thinking. For instance, if most days you leave your house it rains on you, you might start to think that it just rains a lot where you are. We maintain a distance and objectivity that allows us to consider that you are simply having a run of bad luck and your climate is overall dry, or even that it's an anomaly that the location of your house has an atmosphere in the first place, on a long enough time scale - it all depends on the scope of the question, you see."

"Oh," said Nyssa dubiously. "What is the Priory?"

"The Priory is our retreat for contemplation and reflection," said the none, "and home to those of us who devote our lives to meditating on a naive, unbiased state of belief."

"I don't think I understand," said Nyssa.

"Most people understand that explanation," frowned the none.

Pomodoro translated, "They sit and think a lot."

"Oh," said Nyssa. "Is that fun?"

"We find great fulfillment in the entertainment of pristine conjecture," replied Sister Hypothesis.

"You're using a lot of words I don't know," said Nyssa, "and in ways I don't know them."

"Treasure that uninformed state!" exclaimed Sister Hypothesis. "It is beautiful! Untarnished! As soon as you learn something, you run the risk of being carried farther from the truth."

"I thought that learning was the opposite of that," said Nyssa.

"Ah," said the none. "Perhaps you are right and I am wrong. I do spend all my time contemplating and reflecting, so I may have taken a wrong turn somewhere, and built errors upon errors, but you're beginning from clean, new guesswork..."

"Someone might have told me, I don't think I made it up," Nyssa admitted.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear you say that," announced Sister Hypothesis.

"...okay," said Nyssa.

"Now, since you're a pilgrim, you're probably expecting a tour," said the none.

Nyssa gave up on saying that she was not a pilgrim. "Yes, please," she agreed. "Oh, and, uh, do pilgrims get lunch?"

"Most people eat lunch on most days," said Sister Hypothesis serenely, leading Nyssa and Pomodoro deeper into the Priory. "Over here is the Calculation Room, where we make sure that all of our numbers cohere, because it wouldn't do to imagine a fifteen percent chance of a coin landing heads and a sixteen percent chance of it landing tails and a four percent chance of ambiguous or other results. That only comes to thirty-five! It's just got to add up right, and that's where we do it." In this room, several nones were adding columns of figures, on paper, on a squeaky whiteboard, and with a calculator respectively, occasionally leaning toward each other to ask questions or correct each other's figures.

"They just do math all day?" said Nyssa.

"At least most of the time," said Sister Hypothesis. "I don't work in that room myself, so I only know in general terms." Unhindered by her blindfold, she continued into the recesses of the Priory. "There are the dormitories, and there the kitchens."

"Can we stop and get something to eat?" Nyssa asked.

"Well, most people in the building are entitled to the food in the Kitchens," mused Hypothesis, and she didn't move to stop Nyssa when she ducked in and, finding the place empty, took a brown paper lunch sack. Hypothesis waited till Nyssa had verified that no one had written their name on the sack, then moved on.

"And here is the Reference Library!" The Sister indicated a huge yet cramped hall full of shelves upon shelves of books and filing cabinets, arranged dozens high and thousands deep. Nyssa wasn't sure how it fit in the building. Flickering lights overhead cast long shadows into each aisle. Nones walked the spaces between the stacks, peering into the books and drawers, adding things to them or copying information out of them. "The Reference Library contains all our data on what sort of question is relevant to every other sort of question. For instance, if you have a blue cat and wish to know if it will eat corn on the cob, the Reference Library will tell you whether to consider the question as being one about blue animals, or about cats, or about things that have historically eaten corn on the cob."

"Does that matter?" asked Nyssa.

"Oh, enormously," said Sister Hypothesis. "And we're much better at it since we built the Reference Library out where we used to have the tennis court. It's one of our most important tasks! Or, well, it used to be, when anyone came here to ask things..."

"Did they stop?" Pomodoro said.

"Oh, yes, around the time the Princess was banished. We were once a valued part of the realm, consulted on every question and problem, respected for our commitment and our meticulousness!" cried Hypothesis. "But lately we're a much more hermetic order. It has its advantages, we're less contaminated by the outside world, but it was nice to be useful. If this keeps up," she sighed, "then eventually over the entire lifespan of the priory most of our work will not do anyone any good."

"They said something like that at the Observation Deck, too," Nyssa said.

Sister Hypothesis gave a delicate shudder. "I suppose most things would be affected negatively by the Princess's disappearance, though I'm sure I don't know all the specifics."

"We're on our way to the next island and we're going to stop in Ference to find out more," Nyssa said.

"Well, whatever you do," said Hypothesis briskly, "don't you tell us about it." And she ushered Nyssa and Pomodoro back out the door and down the steps and onto the curiosipede.