Hiatus

As the next stage of Kësil’s journey (which becomes entangled with that of many others) will require more time to plan out and prepare, there won’t be any updates for a while.

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Blossoming Flowers

We held a sort of small council, Rosédan, Iddan, and I, for the purpose of determining what we should do next. I was in favor of returning directly to Edazzo, thinking of our friends there. “It’s as close to a home as we have in this part of the world,” I said.

“Let us go to Turīsū or some city in Dūrī first,” said Iddan. “From there we can decide our next moves.” (I hardly need to mention by now that I played my role as translator.)

Rosédan listened to our arguments with a slight smile that made me suspicious. “But what do you think, Rosédan?” I asked her.

“Oh, I think you can go wherever you like. As for me, I can tell you that in that brief moment when I was caught between closing doors, I saw a door that was opening, and I tried to reach it, I really did. But I fell short and landed in Dumun. I saw where that opening door was, however. It was in the hills north of here, under an archway carved with figures like birds. That’s where I plan to go.

“Why?” Iddan asked with a tilt of his head.

“I have a fondness for doors.”

“As do I. I’d prefer to see Edazzo first, but if you go north, I’ll follow you,” I said.

“Oh, the same goes for me,” said Iddan.

Here I came to a decision I had been mulling over for some time. I have not gone into great detail about the emotions that existed between Rosédan and me, but I assure my readers that they were warm ones. Now that we were reunited, I didn’t want ever to leave her again, and I trusted that she felt the same. It seemed the appropriate time, then, for our romance to be completed. I cleared my throat and said to Rosédan (whose shining eyes only confirmed me in my decision), “Indeed, if you will have me as your husband, I will marry you.”

Iddan dropped his cup. Rosédan jumped when it hit the ground, but she didn’t say anything. I flatter myself that she looked overjoyed at first, before a cloud passed over her face. “Oh my,” said Iddan as he rose to his feet. “I’ll leave you alone.”

“No,” said Rosédan, sinking my spirits to the bottom of the western sea. “No, don’t go, Iddan,” she added, leaving my spirits in an ambiguous state. “I, I need to think it over. You understand, don’t you? If I do find my way back to my home, and you find your way back to yours, what will we do then?”

I was about to answer, though I’m not entirely sure what my answer would have been, but she shook her head and I refrained. “All right,” I said. “I’ll ask the king about these avian figures in the northern hills. Perhaps he knows where they are.”

Rosédan laughed. “I already asked him. He said it’s one of the holy places of the Lsin’arun kingdom, and he’ll send us there with a letter for the servants of his brother king.”

We left a few days later, and Iddan went with us for no particular reason that I was aware of at the time, though I have a better idea now. Happily, Lsin’arun was not Dumun. That is to say, there was plenty of commerce between Ramzun and its northern neighbor, so our journey was a safe one. We were accompanied by a guide, an unobtrusive man who kept to himself and at night sang quiet songs as he looked up at the stars. He led us along a main road northward, then along a winding path through the hills. Occasionally Rosédan whispered, looking at our surroundings, “This is what I remember.”

Then she squeezed my hand and cried, “Here’s the door! Here it is!” We were on a slope overlooking a village in the valley below, and although I looked as hard as I could, I didn’t see anything like the arch she had described. But she seemed certain it was the place.

“Xuadhali,” our guide said with a gesture down toward the village. “The god Ixtufi lives here.”

We passed through plots of barley to a tall mound of earth with a tree at its summit. Although we remained at the base, I could see a chair under the branches of the tree where a man sat alone looking out over the village. “Ah,” I said. “This must be the headsman of the village.”

Our guide chuckled. “After a manner of speaking. Don’t go up there until I’ve fetched the priest.”

“If that’s a man,” said Iddan after a moment, “he’s remarkably short.”

“If that’s a man,” said Rosédan, “he must be asleep. He hasn’t moved at all.” I was about to head up the hill to see for myself when she caught my sleeve and reminded me of our guide’s warning.

He returned in the company of a fat man whose hair glistened with oil. “This is Ahvil, the priest of Xuadhali,” he told us. “He’ll see to your needs now. I’m returning to Ramzun.”

“Awfully lonely place, isn’t it?” asked Ahvil with a grin. Our guide gave him a tight smile in return and walked away singing. “Well! Shall we pay our respects to Ixtufi?”

The three of us exchanged glances. It was an awkward moment for Rosédan and I, who shared an aversion to such things. I decided to change the subject by asking who was in the chair under the tree.

“Why, Ixtufi, of course!” My attempt to change the subject had proved a miserable failure. “Come, follow me.”

A narrow path lined with stones led up to the summit of the mound, where it was now apparent that the man in the chair was nothing more than a statue, propped up in its seat with its legs hanging over the edge like a child’s. From each of its shoulders sprouted a bird’s head, the two heads looking in opposite directions as the human head looked straight ahead with wide eyes.

There was something familiar about the image, but it remained at the back of my mind, like a memory that could not quite be placed. I considered Ixtufi and he seemed to be considering me. I can’t be sure what the birds on his shoulders were considering.

Ahvil raised his hands in the air and said in a brisk but clear voice, “Oh Ixtufi who opens the womb for woman and for beast, blessed are ye among the gods, for without you the life of the world would perish. Grant us a share of your blessing and protect us from the arrows of death.”

He made a low bow before Ixtufi, and Iddan made a smaller one. Fortunately, Ahvil didn’t look to see whether Rosédan or I had bowed. He waved for us to follow him back down the hill. I had the distinct feeling, absurd as it was, that as I turned my back on them the birds’ heads twisted to watch me.

Ahvil’s home was a small but comfortable one. He promised us as he disappeared into the back room that he would bring us the most delicious meal we had ever tasted. I doubted this, but was willing to suspend judgment until we had eaten.

It was not Ahvil who brought it to us, however, but two young women whose dark hair fell in curls around their faces and who moved in such a way that their physical charms were made apparent. As I looked at them with one eye, I saw Rosédan looking at me with the other. But they were very beautiful. I can honestly say as I write this that I cannot remember the flavor of the meal, so entranced was I. In my defense I was perturbed at the time by Rosédan’s reluctance to give me an answer. More than that, there seemed to me to be a new distance between us and a new coldness in her voice. It was very alarming, and I wondered if our love had merely been an idle diversion for her.

“I am Kar’ixtu,” said one of the women as she refilled my cup with wine. I realized then that we had forgotten to introduce ourselves, and resolved to amend this at once.

“I am Kësil.” Ahvil nodded his head in the rapid fashion of a bird.

“I am Iddan. I have come from the Holy Island and I hope for a continued friendship between Mimiris and Lsin’arun.” Ahvil bobbed his head again.

“I am Rosédan.”

“Yes, but why are you here?” asked Ahvil. “The letter from the king in Valax was not clear. Indeed, I wonder if I shouldn’t just send you up to ‘Sārk so the king there, my lord, can decide what to do with you.”

“We came to Xuadhali for a reason,” I said, then hesitated, uncertain exactly what that reason was other than the person of Rosédan herself, which I had found persuasive but Ahvil was unlikely to.

“I came to Xuadhali because you have a door through which I desire to pass,” said Rosédan.

Ahvil’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward on the opposite couch. “What, exactly, do you mean by that?”

Kar’ixtu and her sister exchanged glances and I thought they were going to leave, but they remained, hovering over Ahvil’s couch as he stared at Rosédan, who remained perfectly poised despite his attention.

“The gate with the figures like vultures,” she said. “Surely you know about it?”

“We do,” he said. “But I am surprised that you do. You are from the Holy Island too? You look a great deal like Iddan, that’s why I ask.”

“I had a vision of the gate, and I know that I must go through it.”

“Do you know what lies on the other side?”

“The way for me to go home.”

“I think you are being honest,” said Ahvil slowly. “But you can’t be from the Holy Island, then. The gate certainly doesn’t lead there. This is very strange, and almost I suspect some snare of Dumun or Samara. I must think it over and seek the counsel of Ixtufi and the important men of Xuadhali. I would be honored if you would stay here in the meantime. I live alone, with my two daughters and a pair of servants.”

“We would be delighted,” said Rosédan.

I found an opportunity to speak with Rosédan later that evening. It was a clear night and the stars were out, so we occupied ourselves by pointing out the constellations and our different names for them. To any observer it would have been obvious, I think, that we were mutually avoiding speaking about more personal matters. This went on long enough that I eventually decided it was time to put an end to it. “Rosédan,” I said boldly. “If there’s something in the way of our marriage, anything at all, name it. I will shift the mountains to move it.”

She was quiet long enough that I thought maybe she hadn’t heard me. “Rosédan. If there’s something in the way,” I said, but was interrupted.

“No. Kësil, my dear Kësil, by Heaven I can’t put into words how much your companionship has meant to me these past months. But our paths must diverge soon. My home, the place where I was born, is in the wastelands north of here. But when I was born, they were not wastelands yet. There was a kingdom there long ago, I am not sure exactly how long, ruled over by magicians. I learned my art there and I must return to there, but when I return, it will be by stepping backwards across the count of years. It sounds absurd, but it is the truth.”

“I believe you,” I said. “My own home is in the eastern mountains, or it will be. Over a thousand years from now by my uncertain reckoning, there will be a great empire with its seat in those mountains, and I was a child of that empire. Or will be a child of that empire. I’m not certain of my verb tenses in this situation.”

“No. But you see? We’re separated by countless miles and centuries. We’ve been brought together for a time, but only a time. I thought before that maybe we didn’t have to part, but now, well, now I know there’s a chance we might be able to go back to our homes. It would be best, I think, if we accept that now. I cannot marry you.”

“Rosédan,” I said, holding out my hands in a pleading gesture.

“What? You’ll go with me? You’ll forget your own home and your own time to be with me?” Disastrously, I hesitated before speaking. I did miss the city of Tarinzar and the lands around it, my family and all my lost friends. Rosédan saw my hesitation and smiled with tears in her eyes. “You see? No, please don’t say anything.” She kissed me on the cheek and went back inside, leaving me to make a more detailed study of the stars.

I admit I was perturbed by our conversation. More than that, I was angry. It was well and good to say that we were to be parted forever and all that, but what use was a love that wasn’t willing to overcome vast barriers? From all the stories I’d heard it wasn’t much use at all. I concluded, at least at that time, that if that was truly Rosédan’s opinion of me, it was better that we separate after all. (Perhaps this was an absurd thing to think, but nevertheless I thought it.)

Iddan and I slept in the main room of Ahvil’s house. Ahvil slept in his own bedroom, the servants had a small house of their own, and I assumed at first that Ahvil’s daughters had a room somewhere else in the house. I was disabused of this assumption when, as I lay on my blankets talking with Iddan about something that has escaped my memory entirely, Kar’ixtu and Run’ixtu came into the room. Run’ixtu reclined next to me and Kar’ixtu reclined next to Iddan.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, flustered. I have encountered many strange customs throughout my travels, but this was far too strange for me to accept with any aplomb.

Iddan reacted more quickly than I, sitting upright and pushing himself away from Kar’ixtu. “What? What, by the living mother beneath, are you doing?” he demanded.

“Don’t you think we’re pretty?” Kar’ixtu asked.

For a horrifying moment the possibility that Ahvil had sent them flashed through my mind. I cleared my throat and said, “You’re very pretty, but this is improper.”

“You’re not from Ramzun, are you? Why so cold?” asked Run’ixtu as she slid under the edge of my cloak.

The priests of the Flame, I’ve heard somewhere, have mantras against desire, but I knew none of them. What I could do, however, was envision Laras in her chastity accompanied by Ris to ward off the passions, and this helped. It also helped that, pretty as Run’ixtu was, she was not nearly as beautiful in my eyes as Kar’ixtu. “Listen,” I said. “We’re very tired from our journey.”

Here Run’ixtu made a suggestion that I will not record. I was sufficiently shocked that I got up and began walking around the room despite the chill in the air. “All right then,” said Run’ixtu with an offended air (I was not and am not sure why she was offended), and went over to Iddan’s side. Kar’ixtu stood up, and I began to walk faster.

“You must be cold,” Kar’ixtu whispered in my ear, having outmaneuvered me and approached from the side.

“Not especially.” But she was beautiful, and the paint on her eyes only accentuated their captivating darkness. I was alarmed when I discovered that my mental image of Laras suddenly wore her face.

Run’ixtu was saying something to Iddan, but without me to translate I am not sure what she attempted to accomplish. I suppose some things transcend differences in language. At any rate, Iddan decided to join me in walking around the room. If the women wanted our blankets, they were welcome to them as far as I was concerned.

Kar’ixtu turned to Iddan, determined apparently to try with him again. This left Run’ixtu for me, and by now my alarm had changed to annoyance. All I wanted was a good night’s sleep after our journey, and Run’ixtu and Kar’ixtu seemed intent on denying us that.

“Enough!” said Iddan through gritted teeth, in the voice of a man who would have shouted but was restraining himself out of courtesy for those who were asleep in neighboring rooms. “I’ve had more than enough of this! I love Rosédan, don’t you understand? Rosédan!”

I didn’t understand, in fact. It would be accurate to say that I was astounded, if not dumbstruck. I could well believe that any man could be overcome by Rosédan’s charms, but Iddan hadn’t shown any sign of it that I could tell. (Perhaps if I examine again what I have already written, I will notice something.)

Kar’ixtu and Run’ixtu exchanged nervous glances. “Sorry for disturbing you,” said Run’ixtu quietly and withdrew to the room where I believe Rosédan was sleeping. Kar’ixtu lingered a few seconds longer to give me a look that I couldn’t understand, before she followed her sister.

“Well,” said Iddan in a rush. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Neither was I,” I said with a significant glance.

“Oh, you mean the thing I said about Rosédan? I suppose I should explain about that.”

“Please do.”

He sighed and lay down and after a long silence said, “I am the last of the Shaddar. When I die, they will be no more, and the Mimiris will have lost their link to the ancient days. There is no one but me who can read the future in the markings on the tortoise shells. In a few centuries, no one will remember that it was even possible. An age of the world will have ended.”

This was very sad, and I said so, but I didn’t see what it had to do with Rosédan.

“Don’t you understand? Rosédan is one of the Shaddar. A long-lost branch of the caste, maybe, but she has to be! There’s no one else in the world who looks like we do, simply no one. As soon as I saw her, I thought to myself that if I married her, we could restore the Shaddar.”

I did some quick calculations. “For one generation, maybe.”

“Yes. In the dwindling days of the Shaddar, brothers were known to marry sisters, but the offspring of those unions were not what one would call healthy. But one generation is enough, if the world ends.”

I took this for a joke and laughed.

“Don’t be so quick to mock me,” said Iddan sharply. “We have prophecies, you know. My own father read it in the fire. The end may be coming sooner than you think.”

“Maybe,” I said, not wanting to argue. He was wrong, of course, as my readers and I know very well.

“But it’s more than just that. She’s beautiful, and witty, and there are depths in her eyes that it would take a man decades to explore. She knows more than she lets on, but she isn’t arrogant or anything like that.” He sighed. This was all very true, but it still rankled me to hear Iddan say it for some reason.

“I don’t think you’ve said a word to her without me translating,” I pointed out.

He surprised me by denying it. “We’ve both picked up a little of the Magharun tongue for ourselves, here and there. Anyway, I didn’t want to step between you and her. I know there’s a bond between you.”

“There was,” I said sadly. “I don’t know if there still is.”

Iddan was quiet after this, so that eventually I fell asleep. When I woke up again it was in a flash; I sensed that I had slept longer than I usually did, and I half-expected everyone else to be up already, probably having eaten and washed. But Iddan was still snoring, even though the light shone brightly through the screen on the window. I went outside and walked around a little, until Ahvil called out to me. He was returning from an errand, apparently, but his face was downcast. “Bad news,” he said, confirming my impression of his face. “Are your companions still asleep?”

He gathered us together in the main room. I couldn’t meet Rosédan’s eyes, so I don’t know what she thought, but I do know that while Run’ixtu seemed displeased with me, Kar’ixtu gave me a teasing smile. I confess that I am not so insensible as to be unmoved by the teasing smile of a beautiful young woman.

“I have consulted with the elders of Xuadhali, and with the god. The elders, for their part, were more than willing to let you try the gate. If I may let you in on a secret, it has been many generations since anyone has passed through, and we are all eager to see it attempted. The obstacle lies with the god. It is Ixtufi who has authority over whether the gate is open or closed, and something about you has displeased him. He will not let you pass.”

It all seemed ridiculous to me. What by the Flame could have displeased this god of theirs, and why by the Flame should we have to pay it any heed? But Ahvil seemed serious, and I didn’t express my doubts out loud. I glanced at Rosédan, who was looking down with pursed lips. “Is there anything we can do?” she asked.

Ahvil crossed his arms and rubbed his shoulders. “Interpreting the god’s will isn’t a simple thing. It’s your good fortune that we happen to have an oracle staying in Xuadhali recently. He said a great deal at our council, most of which is beyond my understanding, but he also said that you three are facing the wrong way.”

This was beyond my understanding too, and I said so.

“Well, as a god of journeys and doorways, Ixtufi is always looking in different directions, hence his three heads. If you’re looking the wrong way, it’s very hard to walk on the right path.”

“Remarkably sound advice, but I have no idea how to apply it to our problems,” said Iddan.

“As the priest of Ixtufi, I have the authority and the duty to teach you what is good and what is evil in his sight. But this is a difficult question, and I will have to consult the god again. For the time being I’d advise you to remain here in my house until the matter is clearer.”

Kar’ixtu smiled at me again. This time I smiled back. There was, after all, no point in being rude. And with Rosédan having rejected me, I thought, there was nothing preventing me from a closer acquaintance with Kar’ixtu, even if not quite so close as she wanted.

I am sure my readers are not overly interested in the details of my later conversations with Kar’ixtu, which were quite frequent over the next few days. It will suffice to say that we came to understand one another better. I no longer fault Kar’ixtu and her sister for their alarming intrusion into our room that night: it is the custom of that land, foul as I may find it, to in that fashion to entreat some goddess and gain her blessing. “But I’m glad we didn’t,” she said. “Iddan is infatuated with Rosédan, isn’t he?”

I said, rather ruefully, that I wasn’t sure. But certainly Iddan was walking around with Rosédan as much as I was with Kar’ixtu. While my Bird prevents me from having a full appreciation of other tongues, by the way they were talking freely I judged that their mutual understanding of the Magharun language was sufficient for their purposes.

“You’re not jealous, are you?” she teased me. “Are you in love with Rosédan too?”

“We’re going our different ways,” I said tactfully. Though it seemed to me that if she was so worried about our being separated forever, she ought to be equally worried about being separated from Iddan.

For a brief time we forgot about the gate we had come here to find. Or at least I forgot about it for a brief time. The thought even crossed my mind that I should stay here in Xuadhali with Kar’ixtu rather than follow Rosédan. When I broached the idea to her (to Kar’ixtu, that is), a smile lit up her face but then vanished. “I’m not so sure I should stay in Xuadhali,” she said. “I dream about the western sea, and I seem to hear a voice calling me.”

“Even better,” I said. “I was not born there, but I spent several years in Edazzo, in the land of the Parako.”

She laughed and pressed herself against my side. “Edazzo,” she said, the word sounding surprisingly pleasant in her mouth. “The men are cruel and greedy there, aren’t they?”

“No more than elsewhere, I think.”

“That’s a pity, then.”

But eventually, after a couple weeks or so, Ahvil called us together at the top of the hill where the god Ixtufi sat. He asked Kar’ixtu to come as well, leaving Run’ixtu pouting at the door to the house. He looked at us somberly, and I could swear an oath that he frowned when he saw how close Iddan and Rosédan were standing. This is understandable, as my sentiments were similar.

“After much prayer and hardship, I can reveal the will of Ixtufi to you at last,” he said, and we were all expectantly quiet. “The royal jubilee is approaching, and he desires for the four of you to go to ‘Sārk and give the king a gift from Xuadhali.”

“Three of us are foreigners,” said Iddan, running a hand through his yellow hair. “Is it the right thing for us to represent this town?”

“It is the will of Ixtufi,” said Ahvil, and it was clear from his tone that there would be no further questioning. “The gift you are to bring our lord is this rod.”

He produced it and gave it to each of us to examine. It was silver and marked in a spiral fashion with curious symbols, almost like prancing animals in their shape, that wrapped around it in a line from bottom to top. “Remarkable,” said Iddan. “Where is it from? I don’t recognize these figures.”

“It comes from the other side of the gate. If you want to know more than that, you must ask the gods. Regardless, it is a gift worthy of King Xamnai. Kar’ixtu knows the proper etiquette, but when you present it to him, say that the elders of Xuadhali honor their father just as Ixtufi honors Ār. Then return here as quickly as you can and, if Ixtufi is pleased, the gate will open for you.”

I was still baffled, but nonetheless we left Xuadhali that day. Ahvil promised us that the road from Xuadhali to ‘Sārk was safe enough that “a child with golden toys could walk it and not come to harm,” but our experiences in Dumun had left us all wary of travel by foot. In the future I fully intend to stay at home, probably to compile all these records I have written.

Fortunately, Ahvil was right about the road. The only discomfort we faced, besides sore feet, was the tension between myself and Rosédan, and between Iddan and Kar’ixtu. I think she still resented him for spurning her. She said she didn’t, but, with my usual keen insight into these things, I can only think that she was deceiving me for some reason.

“Mother died some years ago,” she told me when I inquired regarding her family, and I was reminded of Līwam and his two daughters. (For one thing, both Līwam and Ahvil had shown a striking lack of creativity in naming their offspring.) There was a philosopher whose name I have forgotten who claimed that we all have counterparts elsewhere in the world who live lives parallel to our own, and perhaps Ahvil was a counterpart to Līwam. Perhaps somewhere in the world there is a man who is my own counterpart, who like me has stranded far from his home. Maybe he had encountered some antipodal equivalent of the fair folk and been granted a magic like my Bird. But these are foolish thoughts, of the kind that come to one late at night after too rich a supper. I didn’t mention them to Kar’ixtu, obviously, but only expressed my sympathy.

She thanked me and went on to say, “It was a long time ago, and her name survives with my sister and me. Do you have any family back in your home?”

“Yes, a large one, of which I was always the least favored.”

“I find that hard to believe,” she said, pressing my hand.

Another time our conversation turned to Edazzo and our plans there, but this time Iddan and Rosédan were walking close enough to us that discussion proved difficult

“Your friends in Edazzo must be eager to see you again,” she said to me. “I can’t wait to meet them.”

“Yes, well,” I began to say.

“No matter what we find on the other side of that gate,” Iddan said to Rosédan, “I promise I’ll use every single bit of insight and power I have to figure out how to get you back home.”

“I appreciate it, but,” Rosédan began to say.

“Do you have any land in Edazzo?” Kar’ixtu asked me.

“I’m afraid not. I’ve been a guest,” I started to tell her.

“I’ve inherited the gifts of my father and his father before him, and I’m a student of the College of Urshut. My foresight is simply formidable.”

“I’m sure it is. Among my own people,” Rosédan started to tell him.

“Hush!” said Kar’ixtu. Once it was silent, I could hear the sound of music and singing. At that point we were in a low spot between two hills, and the sound was coming from somewhere on the road ahead, hidden where it curved around the hill on the left. “It’s the oracles!”

“And who are the oracles, exactly?” asked Rosédan.

“Let’s go see!” She danced ahead of us and we followed, exchanging confused glances among ourselves.

The oracles, we discovered, were a group of men of various ages, from youths to bearded elders, some with tambourines and some with lyres, who were playing the music we had heard. They were marching along the road and singing, but if there were coherent words to their song, my Bird couldn’t interpret them. Kar’ixtu seemed delighted by the sight of them, practically springing from foot to foot.

“By the bull, who or what are they?” Iddan asked her.

“You don’t have oracles in your own land?”

“We do, but nothing like this.”

“They’re the mouths of the earth. She speaks to us through them to give us insight into the things that are going to happen, and what we should do if we want to prosper. We’re fortunate to have met them here!”

“Hear our judgment!” one of the bearded men called to us, ceasing his singing as he drew near. “Hear the judgment of our mother! The burden that you carry has been defiled by strange sorcery, and before you present it to the son of the gods who sits in ‘Sark, it must be made clean again. Take it to the shrine of ‘Vihlarāth so the priests there may purify it.”

Kar’ixtu bowed and kissed the ground. “We will do as you have commanded,” she said. The oracles went on their way, continuing to sing loudly. When they had passed out of earshot, I asked her where exactly this shrine was.

“I hope it’s not too far,” said Iddan.

“No, not too far. It’s on the other side of that valley there,” she said, pointing past one of the hills. “It will take us off the road, though, and we’ll probably have to spend the night in Kiam’uvdar. But we should still make it to ‘Sark well before the celebration of the jubilee.”

So we followed Kar’ixtu’s guidance up and over the hill she had indicated. Iddan asked her if she had been to the shrine of ‘Vihlarāth before, and she nodded. “It’s a common pilgrimage to make between Ixtufi and ‘Vihlarāth. ‘Vihlarāth is a favored daughter of Ār, and though Ixtufi was a stranger in the beginning, by his love for her he has been adopted into the divine family.”

At the crest of the hill we could see the valley she had described, and at the other end of it another hill surmounted by a wall and buildings. We were descending, Kar’ixtu pointing out the safest way to pass between the rocky crags from which furry animals something like large mice peeked out, when the ground moved under our feet. The furry animals hid themselves, and we looked at one another in doubt.

Then the earth shook again, this time accompanied by a noise like a great bellowing. The side of the hill above us broke away, and Kar’ixtu barely had time to scream before a dark wave came crashing down between us. I found Rosédan’s hand in mine, and for a long time, or what seemed like a long time, that was the only thing I was sure of. Otherwise there was total confusion: we were running, but the ground itself seemed to fight us; we were shouting to one another, but the earth itself out-shouted us.

Then, finally, there was peace and silence. Rosédan and I were lying side by side in an open field on the hill’s side. Or rather, what had been the hill’s side, because when we looked around we saw that the hill had been hollowed out and the rock and soil piled in a mass at its foot down in the valley. Neither of us dared to speak at first: I think we were both terrified of what might have happened to Iddan and Kar’ixtu. (I’ll mention here that it was Kar’ixtu who had been carrying the rod, though of course that was far from our minds at the moment.)

“We should never have listened to those oracles,” Rosédan said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“Stay here,” I told her.

“If you’re going to look for them, I’m going too. And if you tell me it’s too dangerous, I’ll shut my ears and come with you anyway.”

Although I had been planning to tell her exactly that, I saw that there would be no persuading her. So we climbed down to the edge of the hollow and called out the names of our companions. There was no reply, and my fears grew stronger. I looked down the pile of earth below and I took Rosédan’s hand in mine. After some time I squeezed it and let go. “What shall we do now?” I asked.

“Keep looking,” Rosédan said. “We have to.”

We circled that mound until darkness was beginning to fall, then, with no hope left, we went on to the town on the hill opposite, where at least we could find shelter until we figured out what to do next.

“I’m sorry,” I told her as we walked. A cold wind was beginning to blow, so I gave her my cloak. I wasn’t quite sure what exactly I was sorry for, but I did feel vaguely apologetic.

“No, I should apologize for the way I teased you, and poor Iddan too. I meant what I said about leaving all this behind when I return home. It’s the only way.”

“No it isn’t,” I said. “I don’t care if it isn’t my home, or even my century. I want to go with you, wherever and whenever you go. I meant what I said when I offered to marry you.”

She made a sound that was either a laugh or a sob, I couldn’t be sure which. “But it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever get home now, does it?”

“Who can say? I don’t particularly trust those oracles myself, but did they mean to wreck our fortunes like this?”

“We’ve learned, haven’t we, that under Heaven there are many powers in this world. Is their earth god an enemy of that bird-headed idol?”

I shrugged my shoulders. In my travels I had indeed encountered many spirits, ghosts, and gods, and I could hardly keep them all straight, let alone their alliances and enmities. “Better just to do what’s right, I think.”

“I wish it were that simple,” said Rosédan. I am no fool, and so when I say that Rosédan is the more insightful of us two, it means something.

I have drawn my readers on long enough. I will spare them the pain that Rosédan and I suffered that evening. The shrine of ‘Vihlarāth was a hospitable place where we found a meal and lodging. Then, at the stroke of midnight, Iddan and Kar’ixtu came to the door.

They did not look well, not in the least. Iddan’s face was drawn with pain and he walked with a limp. In his arms he was half-carrying Kar’ixtu, whose face was so bloodied that I couldn’t recognize her at first, but identified her through deduction that would have made the Hawk of White Mountain proud. She was conscious and able to walk, but barely so.

That night we weren’t able to talk to Iddan or Kar’ixtu, so occupied were they with the attendants of the shrine who were seeing to their wounds. We were disturbed and alarmed, but at least we had some hope now. And then Iddan came out to the bench where we sat. He was leaning on a staff, but he had been given new clothes and his face was washed and anointed. “Kar’ixtu, she’ll be all right,” he said immediately.

“What by the Flame happened to you?” I asked, and so he explained.

Iddan and Kar’ixtu had been swept away by the landslide just as we had been, but they had lacked the good fortune that had left us uninjured. “My leg was broken,” he said briefly. “But Kar’ixtu was hit in the head, and for a few seconds I thought that her soul had left us. By the mother below, if I see those oracles again I’ll have some things to say to them!”

“You must have been on the far side of the fall from us,” Rosédan said. “We looked as much as we could, but we didn’t find you.”

“And when she saw me and recognized me, I thought I was happy enough to die. Certainly I forgot my leg. They say I’ve done such damage to it that it can’t ever be made better, but I don’t care. It was worth it.”

We stayed in Kiam’uvdar for several days, two weeks perhaps, while Kar’ixtu recovered. One of the first things she said to me was to find the rod where she had dropped it. It seemed a relatively impossible task, but with Iddan’s help I was able to find it, lying on the ground a few yards away from the edge of the pile of rocks. We, the four of us, argued briefly over whether we should have it purified as the oracles had said, but Kar’ixtu insisted that we do, and her word prevailed. Iddan was now utterly and completely devoted to her, as far as I could see. I was glad that Kar’ixtu was mending, and I admit I was also glad that Iddan was no longer pursuing Rosédan.

I made inquiries and learned that the king’s jubilee extended for the span of a year, so we were in no hurry to leave. Iddan was so concerned about Kar’ixtu and Kar’ixtu was so concerned about Iddan that it seemed as if we would never be on our way. Eventually, though, we found that there were limits to the hospitality of the shrine, when its attendants made it quite clear to us that both Iddan and Kar’ixtu were capable of traveling to ‘Sark. There were, I believe, threats of divine judgment if we tarried on our mission to the king, which frightened Kar’ixtu enough that we left shortly thereafter.

There is a saying, though I can’t remember the exact wording, that the love of a man and a woman is like the rain and snow: just as no one knows where the rain and snow come from, so no one can explain where the love of a man and a woman comes from. I had a great deal of opportunity to reflect on this saying as we continued north, due to the way Iddan and Kar’ixtu were fawning on one another. At times they seemed to have forgotten that Rosédan or I were even present.

My curiosity gained the advantage over my prudence at one point, and I found an opportunity to speak with Iddan in private and ask him what had become of his plan to beget children of the Shaddar caste. “Oh,” he said, looking embarrassed. “That was just an idle dream of mine. Like you said, it would only last one generation, wouldn’t it?” I suspected that his reasoning here was not entirely disinterested, but I knew better than to push the matter.

When we reached ‘Sark it became clear that just as Ramzun was a greater kingdom than Dumun, so Lsin’arun was greater yet. ‘Sark was much like Valax in a way, built in a hilly region where no doubt it was safe from raiders, but it was two or three times as large and every corner was inhabited by a god, where in Valax only the Father of Fates was worshiped.

Fortunately, Kar’ixtu knew where we were going. She led us directly to a building that could only have been the palace, where after a brief conversation with a servant, we were brought into the presence of the king himself. He was young, practically a boy, and did not seem much interested either in us or the rod, but he accepted it politely and gave us a blessing for ourselves and for the town of Xuadhali. With that accomplished, we made preparations for the journey back.

At least, Rosédan and I made preparations for the return journey. Iddan and Kar’ixtu disappeared on some errand while we searched for lodging for the night. When they returned to us, it was with the news that they were going to be married, and some cakes with which to celebrate the aforementioned news.

“To whom?” I asked in some confusion.

“To each other, naturally,” replied Iddan, waving his walking stick in the air. I think he was confused by my confusion, but there wasn’t much I could do to help him there.

“Congratulations,” said Rosédan, managing to hide whatever bewilderment she was experiencing. “But why didn’t you wait until we were back with your family in Xuadhali?”

“Oh, we’re not going back to Xuadhali,” said Kar’ixtu. “I’ve been there long enough, and anyway, it would be awful if my father decided to forbid our marriage. So we’re going to Mimiris instead. And from there, who knows?”

It all seemed very dubious to me, but I was neither their father nor their guardian, so I merely joined in Rosédan’s congratulations. We shared the cakes and gave them our blessings in the name of Heaven and of the Flame. Then we parted. I don’t know whether we will meet again, but I hope so. I hope they are happy.

Our journey back to Xuadhali was nowhere near as eventful as our journey away from it. We spent most of it arguing over how we should tell Ahvil that his daughter had run off with Iddan. “Should we mention the earthquake?” I asked.

“Your daughter ran off with Iddan after she suffered a serious blow to the head. No, I think we can leave the earthquake out.”

The other major topic we discussed was, of course, our own marriage. But despite all my persuasive arguments, and despite the brave example of Iddan and Kar’ixtu, Rosédan continued to insist that we could not marry, that our paths must diverge at last.

“Well, if we’re traveling together, we should at least say we’re husband and wife, for safety’s sake,” I told her. She agreed to this. “And you don’t have any reason to be in fear of me,” I started to say, but she began laughing. I don’t know why.

There was something different about Xuadhali when we came to it again, something that I couldn’t quite name. There seemed to be more people there, and they were more eager to greet us. When Ahvil came forth with outspread hands, Rosédan and I exchanged glances. The moment had come.

“I suppose you’re wondering where Kar’ixtu is,” I said after clearing my throat. “The fact of the matter is that she and Iddan, well, I don’t suppose you’ve heard that the love of a man and a woman is like the rain and snow?”

Since, to judge by Ahvil’s expression, I was failing to communicate my meaning, Rosédan took over and said, more bluntly than was perhaps necessary, “Kar’ixtu and Iddan decided to go to his home to get married.”

Run’ixtu, who had been standing demurely behind Ahvil, sprang into life at this. “I knew it!” she said. “I knew she was going to take advantage! Why didn’t you send me with her? Now see what’s happened? She’s abandoned and disgraced us all!”

“All right, Run’ixtu,” said Ahvil. “It’s not every family that has a son-in-law from the Holy Island, is it? I think this is a jewel in our crown more than anything else.” Being, as my readers are aware, a keen judge of character, I could tell from the twisting of his fingers that there was a chance he was not as pleased as his words would suggest.

“We did bring the rod to the king,” I pointed out.

“Good, good. Well, I suppose you’ll want to rest, and I’ll want to hear more about my daughter. Tomorrow let’s go and see if the gate is open.”

~

The town of Xuadhali was built of bricks and mud, but here and there were pieces of stone that must have been remnants of some old structure. The stone ring of the well was largely intact, and around its rim were carved death’s heads in a style utterly different from any art I had seen elsewhere in Magharun. And tucked into a crevice in the corner of the valley was a ruin, an assemblage of pillars and arches all centered around one tall arch covered from ground to apex with carvings of birds. Specifically, they seemed to me to be vultures, though it is questionable how precisely those rather crude drawings could be identified.

As we came closer to the arch, the strange feeling of difference returned to me, even stronger. Something about the cast of the sky did not belong with the light that fell on the ground. It was almost as if another world was overlapping ours, so that anything I saw or heard or smelled could be from one world or it could be from the other. “Is this the gate you saw?” I asked Rosédan, though I was confident of the answer.

“This is the gate that Xuadhali hides,” said Ahvil. “And Ixtufi has blessed you: the gate is open.”

“How can you tell?” Rosédan asked.

“Can’t you see what’s on the other side?”

I squinted at the gate, but for all I could tell it was a perfectly normal arch. Through it I could see the rocks of the hill and a broken base for a column. Then I blinked, and I saw something different. I saw a different sky, pale and empty of the clouds that hung above us here. Instead of a broken column, there was a series of columns, all intact, supporting a long block of black stone that ran for a distance and then ended abruptly.

“You see?” Ahvil asked. “Now all you have to do is take a single step.” I nodded. We made our farewells and thanked Ahvil for his help, but he only shook his head. “All I ask is that if you find an opportunity to return, you tell me what you found on the other side.”

I took a deep breath and stepped through. It was not at all like the gate under Edazzo. For one thing, it was light that swallowed me rather than darkness, blinding and burning me. For another, it hurt terribly, twisting my gut and pounding in my head. I was unable to think clearly, which was probably a mercy, as I certainly would have believed that the gate was broken and I was trapped in my pain forever. But it ended at last, and I was somewhere else.

This account of mine has gone on long enough. I don’t know if I’ll ever see Ahvil again, but I certainly will explain to my readers what Rosédan and I found on the other side of that gate.

Stories on the Mountaintop

How shall I describe Valax? Perhaps by saying that it reminded me somewhat of my home in the mountains to the east, though the mountain beneath Valax was not so high nor the air so cold as those peaks. Olive trees grew on its slopes, and sweet-smelling herbs too. After our ordeal in Dumun, it was bliss to be able to rest here. We were honored guests of the king, whose council was eager for any information about their southern enemies.

I remember one evening in particular, when we ate at the king’s table and afterward reclined on couches to tell stories, which was a favorite pastime in Ramzun just as it was in Dumun. Rosédan told the first story, her voice quiet as she recalled her time on the shores of the Irlasa lake. I translated for the king whenever she paused.

“I was confused when I first came there; I didn’t know where I was at all, and I didn’t know the language. More than confused, I was terrified. I could tell that they were a cruel people in that city, but they didn’t hurt me. They only took me to a room, that upper room where we hid. They sang songs to me that I didn’t understand, and they showed me strange pictures. It was women, mainly, which was some comfort to me, but they were not pleasant company in the least. I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything more.”

The king shook his head. “That’s all right,” he said, offering her a cup of wine. “The Father of the Fates will not salt a wound, and neither will I.”

“But there is one incident that I remember clearly, though it wasn’t especially significant in itself. The women who were guarding me took me out for a walk by the shore of that horrible lake. It was early in the morning and the sun was just starting to rise. A bird landed on the ground in front of us, which greatly amused my companions. They laughed and pointed for no particular reason that I could see. It reminded me of a story I heard when I was young, and this is how the story goes.

“There was a young girl who had a pet bird that she cossetted and pampered as if it were an infant. But it happened one day that she was playing with it in her garden that it looked up at her and spoke in human words. ‘Why did you clip my wings?’ it asked her.

“She accepted this without wonderment, since she was a small child. ‘Because I wanted to keep you here,’ she told the bird, in the simple way of children.

“‘But I want to be free,’ the bird said, in the simple way of birds.

“‘I love you,’ said the child, hugging the bird to herself.

“‘I would rather have the love of my mate and my flock. Heaven did not give us our wings to be clipped, but gave us the sky as our inheritance. The earth is yours with all its rivers and mountains; let me have the sky.’ As this didn’t persuade the child, the bird went on to say, ‘Let me go free, and I will tell you your fortune.’

“‘All right,’ said the child. ‘I’ll let you grow your feathers back, and when they do, you must tell me my future before you go.’

“So the child and the bird made an oath before Heaven. Time passed until the bird was at last ready to fly again. The child was sad, but she had given her word. She bade farewell to the bird and asked it for the fortune it had promised.

“‘You will come to a room with two doors,’ the bird said, tilting its head to one side and looking directly at her. ‘Whichever door you choose, you will lose your way for a time.’ But before it could say anything more, the child grabbed it and tried to tie its leg to her finger. The bird cried out and bit her, then flew up to the wall of the garden.

“‘Come back!’ the child cried.

“‘I will not. We must part now, I to the sky and you to the earth. And now you will never learn your future from me.’” Rosédan clapped her hands and sat back on the couch.

“Is there a meaning to the story?” asked the king.

She shook her head. “It is just a story.”

“I’m afraid that there is a meaning to the story I have to tell. It will make some things clear for you, I hope. There were once three sisters, born to the same parents and raised in the same home. When they grew to womanhood, men came from all over the world to their father’s house to seek to marry them. The oldest was named Odhūmk, and she was distant and pale of skin. The middle sister was named Oramzix, and she was buxom and cheerful. The youngest sister was named Olusin’ārk, and she was the most beautiful of them all.

“‘Very well,’ said their father. ‘When you were young I betrothed you all to the prince of the mountain, but I will not hinder you in your choice. You may see your suitors and decide for yourselves.’

“The three sisters went out onto the roof and looked out over their hundred suitors. After a moment’s contemplation, Olusin’ārk sprang up from her seat and went to her father. ‘I will marry the man with the purple crown. Purple is a rare color, and he must be rich indeed. He is handsome as well, so handsome that my heart races when I look at him.’

“So Olusin’ārk went to her chosen husband with joy. He was a wealthy merchant and she had many children with him, but after a time her heart became restless and she found more lovers. Now no one can tell her legitimate children from her bastards, not even she herself. She taught them to sing this song.

I love life; I adore the life of the world.
My leaves grow green; my flowers bear fruit.
Grow from me; O blossom from my body!
The world is mine; I am of this earth.

“As for Odhūmk, she went to her father and told him, ‘I choose the older man with the fringed cloak. He seems to me to be wise.’

“She had always longed after hidden knowledge, and she thought that her chosen husband would be able to teach it to her. He gave her what she wanted, and more. Under his tutelage she became a mistress of potions and poisons, so that no one was surprised when he died suddenly. She had no children, nor any new husband except for perhaps the shades that slipped into her house at night. Everyone in the town knew to keep their own children away from her house, and the shadows swallowed it. But to any child who was unwary enough to approach her, she taught this song.

Old Man Ār built a house; Old Man Ār locked the doors.
Who will break down that old house? Who will tear open those old doors?
Take the left and make it the right; take one hand and make it the other.
Take the outside and make it the inside; take the skin and make it the heart.
Take love and make it hate; take the blessing and make it the curse.
Take the world and make it the house; take the sky and make it the doors!

“Oramzix was the last sister to choose. After much contemplation she asked her father who was the prince of the mountain to whom she was betrothed. Her father took her away from the crowd and to an inner room, where a man sat waiting for her. His face was veiled, but a light shone from his skin. They were married that hour, and he took Oramzix to his palace on the mountain. There she bore many children, to whom she taught this song.

When the people passed through the mountains, ye opened the door.
When the people passed across the river, ye made a path.
Ye set the heavens above the earth; ye framed the depths under the earth.
Ye divided the light; ye cut the brilliance with a knife.
Ye fashioned the sun; ye worked the moon.
We have built a city for you; we have made a home for our children.
They shall dwell in it forever, they shall live in it until the end of the age.

A cloud passed over the king’s face as he finished speaking. He made a motion with his hand, the first sign of hesitation I had seen in him since we met, and went on to say, “There are some of the northern priests who prophesy that Oramzix’s husband will prove cruel and abandon her and her children to beg in the wilderness. There are some of our own priests who prophesy that Oramzix will grow wayward like her sisters, will abandon her husband herself and thereby lose everything she has. But I pray that neither prophecy will prove true, at least not as long as I rule in Ramzun.”

Iddan had been listening to the king’s story with a faint smile on his face. Now he glanced at me and said, “I have a story to tell, if Kësil doesn’t mind my going first.” I didn’t, so with his smile gradually broadening, he began. “There was once a man who wandered from shore to shore seeking his fortune, since he was an orphan and had no home of his own. He happened to spend the night in a village on the coast where the men were all fishers and the women were all gardeners, but when dawn woke him, he discovered that the humble guesthouse where he slept was in truth a rich palace, and the village was a royal city. The men were all great lords and the women all great ladies.

“He was alarmed to learn that the woman he had laughed with the previous evening was in truth the king’s daughter, and was even more alarmed to learn that he was summoned to stand before the king.’”

I myself was somewhat alarmed by the direction this story was taking. I had heard jokes about travelers who dallied with young women as they passed through town, and most of these jokes were not especially suitable for the ears of maidens or really anyone’s ears.

But Iddan went on regardless of my concerns. “‘So,’ said the king. ‘You want to marry my daughter?’

“I suppose I do,’ said the man, because he was certainly not a fool. Anyway, he did love the girl.

“‘Are you of royal blood? No? Then you must accomplish three tasks to prove yourself worthy of my daughter. First, you must pull the sun down from the sky and give it to me. Second, you must slay the Bull of Fate that ravages my kingdom. Third, you must bring me an apple from the garden in the east where the sun rises.’

“‘Easy enough,’ said the man. With a bow for the king and a salute for his daughter, he left the palace. As he walked, he saw a sparrow caught in a fowler’s trap, and feeling compassion for the creature he freed it. After all, he was caught in a remarkable kind of trap too.

“He continued walking, and saw a snake with a wriggling toad in its mouth. Feeling compassion for the creature, he struck the snake and pried the toad free to hop away. After all, he’d be lucky not to be swallowed up himself.

“He continued walking, and saw a beautiful young woman standing by a tree wringing her hands. Her skin was pale and her hair was silver, and though she was not as beautiful as his intended wife, she was beautiful enough that he stopped and asked her what her trouble was.

“‘I’ve lost my pearl in the branches and I can’t get it back down.’

“So the man climbed up into the tree, found the pearl nestled between two twigs, and threw it down to her. But by the time he had climbed back to the ground, she had run away.

“He reached a high point from which he could survey all the land around him, and yet the sun still seemed impossibly far away. He sat and pondered until night fell. Then, as the moon shone brilliantly down on him, he felt the touch of two hands on his shoulders and heard a soft voice in his ear. ‘You did well to retrieve my pearl. Now accept this gift that I give you in thanks.’ Something fell down around him, which he discovered to be a net woven from fine silver threads.

“He slept, and in the morning when the sun was just beginning to rise, he threw the net over it and wrapped it up. When he brought the sun into the palace, the king was amazed by his success, and his daughter smiled to take his breath away. But since people were starting to complain about the darkness, the king told him to throw it back up into the sky. Yet something of its light remained within him, and from that day forward his hair was a golden yellow in its color.

“After this he went to find the Bull of Fate, which was not difficult, as its bellowing could be heard for miles around. When he saw it he was amazed by its size and ferocity. ‘My people are taught from infancy how to leap the backs of the wild bull,’ he remarked. ‘But killing it might be trickier.’

“From the mud nearby he heard a tiny voice. ‘This might help. It came from the bones of the earth and the strength of the earth is in it.’ He knelt and found the toad half-buried in the mud, holding up a stone knife twice its size.

“‘So it might,’ he said, and thanked the toad. He went down to battle the Bull, and it was a remarkable battle that I cannot tell in full or even in brief. But he leaped over the back of that bull and slew it with the stone knife, then carved out one of its horns as a drinking vessel to show the king what he had done. When the life passed from the Bull of Fate and its vision faded, that vision passed into the eyes of the man, and from that day forward he was granted visions of what was to come.

“After this he went south and east to the holy mountain where the sun rises. At the peak of that mountain was a garden where sacred apples grow. It was a difficult climb to the top, but the truly difficult part of his task was to get past the dragons that guarded it. He thought it over, watching the dragons as they watched him.

“Then he heard a high voice in his ear. It was the sparrow that was speaking to him, and it told him to drink water from the horn of the Bull of Fate. So he scooped up water from the stream that flowed down the mountain’s side, and as soon as it went down his throat, he found that he was able to understand the speech of the dragons. They were at that moment commenting on how delicious he looked, so he thought it prudent to interrupt.

“‘Excuse me, sirs and madams,’ he said, ‘but may I have an apple?’

“The dragons made a remarkable sound that he didn’t recognize, seeing as after all he had never heard a dragon laugh before. ‘A polite morsel, aren’t you? But since you are so polite, and you are the first man in a very long time to address us in our own tongue, you may have two apples.’

“The man took one apple to bring back to the king and one apple to eat himself. He ate, and the holiness of the apple passed into him. It is said, therefore, that his line will never disappear from the earth. He returned to the palace of the king, who was astounded by his success and gladly gave him his daughter in marriage. They lived, as the old saying goes, happily ever after.”

“I enjoyed that story very much,” said the king, then looked to me. “But now it is your turn, Kësil.”

During Iddan’s story I had been pondering what I should tell, with little success, but now that the decision was upon me, I made it quickly. “This is the story of how one of the Shimases was lost and then found again.”

“I’m sorry, the Shimases?” asked the king, leaning forward. Apparently my Bird had decided not to translate the name, leaving me only able to speculate as to what sounds the king had heard.

“The Shimases are the gods of my people. Well, not gods exactly. Messengers, perhaps. Ideals, you might say. But I suppose the story will make the most sense if you think of them as gods. There are eighteen of them, and it happened in one age that they were summoned before the vice-regent of the Flame.”

“What is the Flame?”

“I believe it is what I call Heaven and you might call the Father of the Fates,” said Rosédan in a murmur.

“All of them were there, or almost all of them. There was indomitable Ibkilis and pure Laras and Ris with his helmet and spear. There was Aras with the flower of her navel bared and Makiprun with her blazing tongue and Shis with his cauldron. There was Tagsis with his scales and Saras with his harp and Tagzanas with his club. There was Kizuskar at the helm of his ship and Liktus the sorceress and Fasan mounted on her horse. There was Uilas with her bow and Tis on her pillar and Kizusilun with his mirror. There was Unizal and there was Dubas, but frail Aral was not there.” I was not at all sure that I would be able to remember them all, but I did. If I have made any errors, may the Flame forgive me!

I continued. “The vice-regent of the Flame looked over their number and counted them twice to be sure, but each time the total came up to seventeen. ‘Where is Aral?’ he asked.

“Kizusilun peered into his mirror, but he saw nothing. Liktus consulted her invisible companions but they were unable to help her. Even Unizal and Dubas with all their insight into things both seen and unseen could find no trace of Aral and no hint as to where he had gone. ‘Very well,’ said the vice-regent. ‘If Aral will not come to you, you must go out into the world and find him. There is a different section of the world for each of you. Go, and do not return until you find your brother or the Flame bids it.’”

I remembered at this point that this was a very long story and it would take me a great deal of time to go through each of the eighteen adventures. Thinking quickly, I settled on the portion of the world that, if my knowledge of geography does not fail me, includes Magharun. “This is the story of what Shis found. He descended from the heavens to the land of, well, you wouldn’t recognize the name, but he came to a mountain overlooking the sea. It was a long way to the base of the mountain, so he brought out his cauldron, climbed into it, and slid down the slope to the foothills.” The stories about Shis are often on the lighter side. ‘In the first village he passed through, there was a famine, so he gave them food out of his inexhaustible cauldron. In the second village, the sheep were barren, so he laughed and waved his hand so that the flocks increased. In the third village, the people were afflicted by leprosy, so he poured out water from his cauldron on their sores and healed them.

“Shis came to the sea and set out in his cauldron to cross it. Nowhere had he found any sign of Aral, not on the land or the sea or the air. The waves kept him from crossing to the other side, but bore him to a place on the coast to the north, where he set out on foot again. There was a great city here, where he spent some time feasting and drinking and giving generous gifts to his new friends.

“One of his new friends was a young woman who always seemed to be on the melancholy side. He asked her what it was that saddened her, and she told him that she was in love with a young man.

“‘Why on earth would you be sad about that?’ he asked, roaring with laughter.

“She smiled, but said, ‘Because I cannot marry him. I have no dowry.’” Here I had to pause to explain what a dowry was to the king and to Rosédan.

“‘That is no difficulty,’ said Shis. ‘Is there any other problem?’

“‘My father hates him.’

“‘Well, fathers can change their minds. Is there any other problem?’

“‘He is a slave.’

“‘And what of that? If a freeman can become a slave, surely a slave can become a freeman. Come with me and I will take care of all these little problems. First, your dowry.’ Shis reached into his cauldron and took out bags stuffed with gold coins for the woman.

“‘Next, that father of yours.’ He led the woman to her house (for he knew exactly where it was) and greeted her father with a boisterous slap on the back, congratulating him on the marriage of his daughter.

“‘What are you talking about? My daughter is not getting married yet.’

“‘Of course she is!’ Shis said, and gave the groom’s name (for he knew exactly what it was).

“‘Nonsense! Not as long as I have anything to say about it!

“‘Very well,’ said Shis, and stuffed her father in his cauldron. While no doubt he had plenty to say from in there, none of it was audible to those outside.

“‘He was easier to deal with than I thought. Now lead me to your husband.’ Again Shis knew exactly where he was without the woman saying a word. This unfortunate man had sold himself into slavery to pay his debts, and Shis found him toiling under a heavy burden. ‘Straighten your back!’ said Shis, clapping his hands and laughing. ‘You are a slave no longer.’

“‘Tell that to my master,’ said the man. ‘He is cruel, and his whip is cruel, and his brand is cruel.’

“‘I will!’ Shis found the man’s master and struck him with a heavy hand until he yelped and begged for mercy. ‘Set free that slave of yours!’ he said, and the master agreed at last.

“The wedding was a happy one, which is always the case when Shis is present. I’ve heard that even the woman’s father relented once Shis let him out of his cauldron and he saw the festivities. Shis blessed their marriage bed and then went on his way.”

I realized as soon as I reached this point that I couldn’t remember how or even if Shis found Aral in the end, but fortunately this was a good place to stop without giving away my unfortunate failure of memory.

“We have all told stories, and I at least have enjoyed them all,” said the king, leaning forward from his couch. “I am grateful that the Father of Fates brought you to my city. Please take some bread. In Dumun they love to reverse things, and so they mistreat their guests, but we honor and give thanks for our guests.”

“And we’re certainly grateful beyond words for your hospitality,” I said.

“We had a taste of Dumun’s hospitality,” said Rosédan once I had translated the king’s words. She shuddered and leaned against me, so I did my best to comfort her.

“Take some wine,” the king, and refilled our cups himself. “I see that your fate will lead you away from here soon. Wherever you go, remember the time you have spent in Valax. The name of the city is said by the elders to mean peace, and peace is what I hope you take from here.”

Blossoming Flowers