Alzurid and the Eye of the Great God

Alzurid weighed a pebble in his hand, then threw it at the water and watched it skip along the surface before it vanished into the hidden realm below. He did not turn to look at Aravid as he said, “You’ve come quite some way to find me, haven’t you?”

“Well, you know your sister. Trust me, it was much easier to cross the sea than to turn back halfway and face her again!”

“She will not be happy when you take back my answer.”

He heard Aravid’s barking laugh. “Well, I don’t plan to return just yet. In all this time you’ve spent in Eghana, have you heard of the Murei temples?”

“Of course,” said Alzurid, and finally he met Aravid’s eyes. His cousin looked back with an unusually serios expression on his face. “Everyone in this part of the country knows about them, if only enough to stay well away.”

“And have you visited them? Don’t tell me that you of all people are frightened of ghosts.”

“No, I have not yet been so far south. As for ghosts, I have perfect faith that I am protected from such things.”

“I am glad to hear it,” said Aravid, laughing again, and despite his wariness Alzurid felt himself warming to his cousin. It was the same whenever he and Aravid met, since after all, despite Aravid’s rashness and vanity, he carried about him an air of natural joy that Alzurid envied in his own melancholy life. “I was planning on visiting them myself, and wondered if you would care to come with me. Do you know the language the peasants speak in these parts?”

“No, I don’t know it, but I do happen to be studying its classical form, for whatever that is worth. The Murei temples, you say? When were you going to leave?”

“Right now, Alzurid, right now.”

~

“So what do you know about the Murei?” Aravid asked, tossing Alzurid a piece of bread as they walked along the road, Aravid’s ill-tempered and ill-smelling donkey plodding along between them bearing their packs. “I know very little, apart from their whereabouts and their treasure.”

“The Eghara had many gods of their own before the Duri arrived,” Alzurid began. He was delighted to be able to expound on what he had learned over the past months. “But the greatest of the gods was Fakrawa, who decides the fates of mortals and who fathers all the lesser gods. Fakrawa was at first only worshiped by the highest caste, the hierophants, but with the passage of the centuries this began to change.”

“Yes, yes. Where do the Murei come into it? Were they temples of Fakrawa?”

“I was getting to that part of it. A mystic order emerged eventually that rejected the rigid caste system and built temples whose inhabitants worshiped Fakrawa as brothers and sisters. The official hierarchy vacillated, sometimes accepting the Murei as a way of keeping discontents from becoming truly dangerous, sometimes persecuting them as threats to the old order. In the end this last tendency won, and the Murei were torn from their temples and killed or sold into slavery in other lands.”

“And the treasure? What about the treasure?”

“In the normal course of things the Eghara lords should have taken whatever treasure the Murei had collected. But I’ve learned that in Eghana, the normal course of things is not always normal.”

“There are all those stories I heard about hidden rooms that the Eghara never found. There are traps and curses protecting them, but within is enough silver and gold to…”

“To what?” asked Alzurid. “I cannot say that gold and silver would improve my life much. The historical interest, on the other hand…”

“Well, there is enough silver and gold to fulfill any desire a man may have. Let us leave it at that.”

The road took them through the towns of Shara and Paitho, where Aravid inquired about the Murei but learned nothing. Six miles along the coast from Paitho the cliffs began to fold in on themselves, leaving great pillars of rock that hosted the decrepit walls of stone that had once been the sanctuaries of the outcasts.

“Well!” Aravid said, clapping his hands. “There used to be a bridge of some sort, I would think.” It did not take long to determine that, if there had been a bridge, it was gone long ago. But they did discover an arch of rock connecting the mainland with the closest pillar, two yards down from one side and no more than five feet down from the other. “Good fortune!” Aravid exclaimed as Alzurid took the lead, clambering along the ridge. The donkey they left to graze on the slope, Aravid explaining that the animal was fond of him and would not wander.

It was a perilous climb, with the sea far below raging against the bottom of the cliff. But both of them made it safely to the pillar, where they sat and rested next to a short wall now overgrown with grass and weeds. Not far from the wall was a building with several broken domed roofs, which could only be one of the Murei temples.

“There was a mural here,” said Alzurid, gesturing to the splashes of faded color on the inside of the roof. “I think it may have been of the great god, but I am not as familiar with Ekhara symbolism as I’d like.”

Aravid was already poking around the corners of the room and proceeding into the next chamber, from which he suddenly called, “I’ve found something!” Alzurid hurried after him and found him kneeling by a little stone statue that grinned beatifically at the intruders. Aravid was prying at its base, until finally it tipped over, revealing a narrow hole and a series of steps that descended into pitch black. Excitement appeared on Aravid’s face before vanishing just as quickly. “I forgot to bring lamps.”

“Fortunately I didn’t.”

“Just as I expected,” said Aravid. “I wonder what is down there.”

“We will see,” Alzurid said.

The steps went down far further than either of them had anticipated, until it seemed that they had entered into another world altogether, where there was no sun or day, only eternal nothingness. And in time their descent came to an end, and in the struggling light of the lamps they saw a chamber spread out before them, jagged with stalactites, its rock walls moist. There were chairs and benches carved into the greatest of the stalagmites, and at the far end of the chamber two passages led out.

“Left first, or right?” Aravid asked. Alzurid had been sincerely worried for a moment that he might suggest splitting up.

“Left,” said Alzurid, and so they went forward, keeping a careful eye out to make sure the oil in their lamps was not running out.

They passed crude paintings of men and animals: squat hippopotamuses, long-horned bulls, fleet deer, and savage lions, before finally they entered into an open space whose darkness easily swallowed the light of their lamps. Alzurid walked a little way before he found that his feet were wet, and held up his lamp to reveal an expanse of water, perfectly still except for the occasional drip of water from the unseen roof.

“Will you look at that!” cried Aravid. He had gone in another direction, where Alzurid saw that he was standing by a statue that was carved into the wall of the cave and glaring out at them from its rocky sarcophagus. From the shoulders down it resembled a man, if a giant man, shrouded in robes, but it had two heads, and each of its four eyes was a sapphire that shone in the light of Aravid’s lamp.

“A representation of Fakrawa, do you suppose?” Alzurid asked.

“I don’t care if it’s Fakrawa or Tighaasuu; I want those jewels.” Already Aravid was climbing up its flanks, hammer and chisel tucked under his arm.

“Wait a moment! It might be trapped!” But Aravid paid Alzurid no heed. With a sigh, Alzurid approached the base of the statue and studied the insignia there, making sure to stand on the opposite side of where Aravid was steadily working away at one of the sapphires.

Finally Aravid came down again, half-climbing with one arm and half-jumping, with a sapphire clutched in his free hand. “What do you think of this?” he asked, waving it in triumph. “We’ll come back for the others later: I want to see where that right passage will take us.”

Alzurid looked up at the statue, which seemed to have diminished considerably, its three remaining eyes staring silently into the darkness.

“What were you reading there?”

“These old Eghara symbols,” said Alzurid. “They aren’t runes, so I can’t read them.”

“Then they’re no good to us.”

Aravid led the way back to the junction and down the right passageway, which soon brought them to a wooden door.

“If the Murei were driven out four centuries ago, why does this wood seem as new as if it were put here just yesterday?” Alzurid asked. He struck it with his fist.

It did not open at first, not until both men put their full weight against it and whatever mechanism held it shut broke with a sound like shattering crystal. For a minute Alzurid and Aravid paused, to recover their breath and pick up their lamps again, and in that minute there came another sound from the darkness beyond.

It was the sound of feet padding on rock.

“Is…is someone there?” Aravid called. The sound stopped, and its absence was perhaps more chilling than its presence. Alzurid gathered up his courage and took a step forward.

The light of his lamp caught a shape like a dark clawed hand, and he froze, and when he looked again the hand was gone. Alzurid lunged forward and in the new sweeps of light that were opened up there was no sign of any other presence. He turned and called to Aravid, “Are you coming? I promise you, the Benevolence and the Omnipotence will protect us.”

Aravid swallowed whatever he was about to say in reply and ran to Alzurid’s side. Together they pressed forward, and the noises started up again from both sides.

“Have…have things like this ever happened to you before?” Aravid asked.

“I should tell you sometime about how I found the spear that pierced the crocodile-god,” said Alzurid. “Then I faced shadows blacker and more powerful than this. Do you smell something strange in the air?”

“There is a bitter taste on my tongue.”

“Some of the old Duri mausoleums were filled with a mixture of soils and herbs that would induce fearful hallucinations. I suspect there is something similar here. I know what dark magic feels like, and I do not feel it here.”

“Well, I will have to put my faith in your experience,” sad Aravid, his bravado seeming to have drained away utterly.

“That door still puzzles me, though. I wonder if…is it possible that…”

Before Alzurid could finish, the tunnel took a number of twists and tight turns before opening up into another wide chamber, this one holding in its center a gleaming metal pyramid. “Well, here we are,” Aravid said. “Do you think there’s more treasure in here?” He approached the pyramid and circled it, probably looking for a way to get inside and at the riches he imagined to occupy it.

Then there was a crashing sound, much like that which had accompanied the breaking of the door, and more lights appeared in the distance. As the lights came closer they turned out to be torches held in the fists of tall pale men with bands of cloth wrapped around their foreheads. Aravid stumbled backwards towards Alzurid. The pale men were silent for a long uncertain moment. “Who are you?” Alzurid asked.

“Who are you?” their leader replied, in surprisingly sophisticated Duri. “This is not a place to be lightly entered by outsiders. What god gave you the courage to enter? This is the sacred home of the old god, and we have the power to call down a hundred curses to make your lives a misery to you. What impure urge has lured you here?”

“Are you worshipers of the great god of the Eghara?”

“We are,” the pale leader said. “The old gods never really die. Even when all their priests have perished they only wait for someone to lift them from the mud and cleanse their faces until they are worthy of worship once more. But you, I fear, you have made yourselves His enemies. There is only one way for your souls to leave His temple, but your bodies will never see the sun again.”

“Oh,” Aravid said. “Well, we meant no harm, to you or your gods or your temple. We promise not to speak of what we have seen…”

“It is too late for that. The murderer cannot wash away his crime, and neither can you, not even if you bathed for a millennium in the foam of the ocean. Maani! Isra! Take them!”

Two of the pale men moved forward without the slightest hesitation, and Aravid bolted back into the tunnel. Alzurid remained where he was just long enough to see Maani and Isra’s arms twist forward against the bend of their elbows, and shapes like enormous wings began to unfold from their backs.

It seemed that they were running for a span of time far longer than the brief minutes that had brought them to the pyramid’s chamber in the first place. There had been no branches in the tunnel – yet they still were not to the wooden door. Aravid dropped his lamp and cursed, but kept pace at Alzurid’s side.

Then at last they emerged into the first chamber and reached the steps leading to the surface, Alzurid finding himself grinning. And when they stood on the grass beneath the open sky once more, they felt as if they had wakened from their tombs. But even though the pale men did not emerge from the temple’s mouth, Alzurid and Aravid did not dare to linger.

“I must admit that that was a disappointment,” said Alzurid when they were some distance from the Murei temples, and it was clear that the cultists did not intend to pursue them further. “No tablets, no scrolls, only one sculpture.”

“If it hadn’t been for those intruders, I would have found something in that pyramid,” Aravid said. “At least I have one treasure.”

“Intruders? They would say, with some justice, that we were the intruders.”

“You are taking their side?”

“On the contrary,” said Alzurid, looking back at the stony columns to the south. “I suspect they were nothing more than Duri who were bored with their prosperous lives and wanted to add a touch of excitement and depth to their days. So they set up their little meetings in the caves of the Murei and worship that dead god with rituals no Eghara priest would recognize. But what is worst about them is that they keep everything for themselves.”

“Greedy sons of dogs,” muttered Aravid.

“Yes, but not greedy for silver. Greedy for the past. It does not matter anymore. Where do we go now?”

~

It was many years later that Aravid died. A plague struck northern Kiimu, in what some called a judgment of the gods on the conquering Duri, and others a judgment on the natives who had resisted. Alzurid was the only member of his family whom all could agree to be honest enough to oversee the disposal of Aravid’s possessions, and so it was that while going through the various boxes and chests that he found a scroll on which Aravid had recorded some of the more curious items that had come into his hands. Alzurid’s eyebrows rose when he came across the line: eye of great god Eghana Murei.

Through a careful process of elimination he was eventually able to identify the eye with a gift Aravid had given to his niece upon her marriage to the Duri governor. “Did he ever tell you where he got it?” Alzurid asked, and she started to shake her head, then paused.

“No, I think he did say that he found it when he was going around Eghana with you, back when he was younger. He always did love to talk about his travels.” She smiled and daubed at the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief.

Now a few years earlier Alzurid had saved the governor from an assassination attempt (orchestrated by Alzurid’s sister, though he had not betrayed her involvement), and so the governor was pleased to be able to return the favor by giving him the sapphire. And when all of Aravid’s affairs were finally taken care of, Alzurid set out to Eghana with the sapphire.

The Murei temples seemed little different from when he had seen them last, although his aging muscles found the climb across more difficult. He wondered, as he stood in the temple looking down at the little statue that covered the entrance to the tunnels, where and when Aravid had returned to Murei to take the sapphire. Then he shifted the idol aside and began his descent.

One of the pale men was sitting on a pedestal carved from a stalagmite. He nodded when he saw Alzurid climbing down. “I have been waiting for you.”

“How could you have known that I was coming?”

“Do you really believe that we are no more than children playing at the feet of our elders? Do you think that the secrets of the Eghara of old are utterly closed to us? Return the sapphire, and we will let you live.”

Alzurid met the pale man’s gaze calmly. “I will give you the jewel. Not because you threaten my life, but because it was taken from you unjustly.”

The pale man laughed. “Justice is, in the end, decided by the one with the power to harm or slay. That is the teaching of the great god.”

“Believe what you like,” said Alzurid, and handed him the sapphire.

“You have done well. The great god will bless you.”

Alzurid smiled, and shook his head, and walked away.

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Strange Gods

It is at times a puzzle to me how the common folk of Edazzo keep all their gods straight. It is the duty of bards and priests to know such things, but unaccountably even the meanest denizen of the city can rattle off the names of thirty or so gods whom he honors. Pointless as such a feat seems to me, it proved most useful to an acquaintance of mine when he ran into trouble with an Uste priest, an anecdote which my readers may be interested to hear.

Elerias was a dealer in lamps and in oil, whom I had met when I was searching for something to replace a lamp I had broken in some fashion I do not remember at the moment. I am fairly certain it was an accident, though, as I am not so much of a fool to break a lamp on purpose. There was, I believe, a war on at the time, but Elerias was and is no warrior. He speaks of a wife and children who would starve if he went off into foreign lands, but I, at least, have never seen them.

To give you an idea of his superstitious nature, although he constantly complains about the weather, he always adds a “Teleks most gracious.” (He says Teleks instead of Teleko because he is a native son of of Pleeri, not Edazzo.) He gives a drop of oil each day to beautiful Lagulai, bows his head whenever he sees a shrine of never-sleeping Horoso, wears a bracelet for muttering Adaai, and has gone so far as to be initiated into the mysteries of both Teleko and Sattao. Indeed, he refuses to swear by the name of any god lest he be stricken down, though this may reflect more his lack of honesty than his piety.

I happened to be in his shop when a man entered and at once began arguing with Elerias over a somewhat large container of oil. He was strangely dressed, wearing robes decorated with all kinds of sigils and flaps of cloth. “I cannot pay what you are asking,” he insisted repeatedly. “On me I have these Zurro marks only. I vow before the all-seeing Arraliturom that they are good.”

Elerias laughed at this and called me over. “What do you think of these marks?” he asked me. Let me explain that the lords of this land have not yet begun to mint coins, so the currency in common use consists of metal ingots for larger quantities and various tokens for smaller quantities. Although I had been to the Zurro realm, I had never seen anything like the clay tokens that Elerias put before my eyes now. There was something written on them, but the Bird doesn’t translate writing for me, and although I have a fair amount of mastery over the arcane symbols used in the writing of the Parako and a few other languages, I was able to get very little out of the writing on these tokens. In short, the result was that I could only shrug and confess my ignorance.

“I vow before Arraliturom that they are good,” the strange man said again. He had, for some reason, shaved the hair of his head so as to leave a ring around a bald spot on top, though I am hardly in any position to criticize the choices of others with regards to the decoration of one’s head. On one finger he wore a ring bearing an amethyst, and he touched this often as he spoke.

“I have heard of many gods, but never Arraliturom,” said Elerias.

“Oh, but he is a mighty god, who wherever one of his servants travels is powerful. See!” The man lifted one finger to draw a circle in the air, then breathed on the imaginary figure until it seemed to burst into flame. I, myself, am not a superstitious man, but I felt a chill in the air when he did this.

Elerias, on the other hand, made several complicated motions with his own fingers before saying dismissively, “A juggler’s tricks!” I watched this contest of charms and spells with enormous interest.

“Ah, my friend. How much are you risking in this transaction? Compare that paltry amount to the weight of my soul that I have wagered here on my sacred promise.” He tapped his bald spot and drew from it (or so it seemed) a purple thread a few inches in length.

“You are an impudent juggler, but I need something besides your promise.”

“I am mortified that you doubt my honesty. But I have no doubt eventually that you will convince you of my trustworthiness. I will return tomorrow. My name, if you need it, is Metsinaram.”

As the man walked away, no doubt bearing the weight of his unwieldy name on his shoulders, Elerias turned to the west and invoked Ano, the god of madness, to protect us. “What did you make of that?”

“A strange man, with strange deities.”

“Well, so are you, my friend. The difference is that you are prompt to pay your debts. We’ll see if this Metsinaram returns.”

Despite my grave doubts that Metsinaram’s word was worth anything more than a broken branch in the dirt, he did come back at the same time the next day, carrying a large bag that bulged at the bottom. My curiosity had drawn me there to see the results of Metsinaram’s promise, where I hope I didn’t make too much of a nuisance of myself asking Elerias’s customers about Arraliturom. Elerias did seem moderately more testy than usual, but no doubt this was a natural reaction to his and my uncertainty. In any case, Metsinaram did come, relieving us both.

“By the power of the great god Kolodrinam, I bring you something worth more than the marks I carry, so that you may behold and be satisfied,” Metsinaram proclaimed. Elerias said nothing, merely looking at Metsinaram with crossed arms in what I believe to be one of the bargaining tricks of the Pleeri. “Doubt earth, doubt sky, but doubt never Kolodrinam.” And reaching into the bag, Metsinaram withdrew a thin golden ring a cubit in diameter, with smaller interlocking rings within it.

“Now where did you steal that?” Elerias asked.

“From the treasury at the beginning of the world, from where all things come. May I now have those lamps I asked for?”
“May I see? Ah, this seems to be worth a great deal more than what we agreed on. You do not object if I weigh it?”

“Kolodrinam is generous beyond measure.”

“And Horos is suspicious to a fault. It is lighter than I thought at first, but still a worthy ornament for a lady to wear. I’ll ask again, where did you get this?”

“Kolodrinam gave it when I asked to me. This I swear by Arraliturom so that you may know it is true.” Elerias did his crossed-arm trick again. “You may in earthly terms say that I went to the local shrine and there received it from the hands of the priest. Kolodrinam rewards all his followers.”

“And he does so with a kingly largess, it would seem,” Elerias said aside to me. He told Metsinaram then, “All right. I will take this and you may have your oil.”

Metsinaram smiled, showing teeth as white as pearls. “A pleasure.”

After this peculiar Uste man had left, Elerias asked me again what I thought of the entire matter. I pondered all the things I had seen before giving my judgment. “A strange man, with strange deities. Speaking only for myself, though I do consider myself an excellent judge of character, I trust neither him or them.”

“My feelings are much the same as yours. But if I am a good judge of gold, this is genuine.” I offered to take a look at the rings, but he merely ignored my offer, making sure to put his body between me and the rings. Trust is probably the rarest of wares to come by among the merchants of Edazzo. Since I could sense the atmosphere becoming tenser between him and me, I bade him farewell and returned home.

I thought little of these events the next day, being occupied rather with my futile attempts to find a person of interest to me. I happened to stop by Elerias’s shop late in the day, only to find him pacing back and forth in front of the entrance in a near-frenzy. When he saw me he began waving a wax tablet in front of my face. “What is this? What happened?” he demanded of me.

Since I was less able to answer these questions than he was at the moment, and I suspected I was dealing with a madman, possessed no doubt by Ano after his incautious invocation, I said some calming things and took him inside. There, after a little while, he regained control of himself and said more softly, “I have been cheated by a magician.”

“Whatever do you mean? Metsinaram cheated you, then?”

He waved the tablet in front of my face again. “Can you tell me what this is?”

“It looks like a tiny wax tablet with a symbol carved into it,” I said. I am generally quite perceptive, though my friends dispute that fact whenever I mention it. Jealousy, no doubt.

“I can tell that!” Elerias seemed frustrated. “This morning I was so worried about the gold that I had to check on it, and in its place what do you think I found? This tablet, and that was all. The rings were gone!” He snapped his fingers to demonstrate the suddenness of their disappearance, though it occurred to me that perhaps it had taken them some time to vanish. My readers may recall that this was not my first encounter with vanishing magic, and on the previous occasion it had worked instantly, but who knows the arts of the magicians? Besides other magicians, I suppose.

“I have never seen anything like this symbol before,” I said. Its basic shape was triangular, but there were various curls and flourishes around it. In the upper left corner a number of flourishes combined to form something like a diamond. “If you want my advice, you should ask Agutaaso at the library. He can read the scripts of every people from here to Lordant.”

“I would be obliged if you would introduce me to this Agutaaso,” said Elerias.

So I brought Elerias to the great library of Edazzo, which was and is under the patronage of Lord Agamnu. It is a plain building in itself, but the pools of clear water and the exuberantly colored flowers lend it a certain brightness that makes it a favored place for both lovers and scholars, which, come to think of it, are much the same thing. A scholar is, after all, a lover of the truth, one who takes her in his embrace and kisses her fondly. (This analogy occurred to me just now, and I am quite proud of it, though I worry it suggests either that I spend too much time with scholars or not enough with lovely women.)

I was delighted to find Agutaaso just inside the entrance, sitting in the square courtyard reading something or other. I made the appropriate introductions between the two, and Elerias was quick to thrust his wax tablet in Agutaaso’s face. “Can you tell me what this is?”

“It is a tiny wax tablet with a symbol carved on it,” Agutaaso said.

“I can see that you two are friends. No, no, no! What does the symbol mean?”

“It is an Uste insignia. I am not sure of the exact significance, but this mark in the corner is homologous to the mark we use to indicate the name of a god. Fortunately, I believe I do know where to find an index of Uste gods. It has come to this library through a long and complicated trail, since the Uste priests keep their gods to themselves. There is an entire series of rituals and precautions that we would normally have to follow before studying these matters, to prevent the Uste gods’ wrath from plaguing us, but happily there are enough loopholes in their sacred law that these charms hanging from the ceiling should probably protect us.”

“Should probably?” asked Elerias with a trader’s eye for these details.

“Should probably,” Agutaaso repeated. Elerias was hesitant, but I was not especially frightened of the wrath of Metsinaram’s gods, which I strongly suspected he had made up on the spot. Boldly I followed Agutaaso to the room where the critical tablet was kept. When I had heard Agutaaso’s mention of charms hanging from the ceiling, I had not precisely imagined hundreds of colorful threads tied to a series of stone bars suspended between the two high windows, but that is what filled the room and caused me to momentarily doubt my eyes. Agutaaso pushed through the threads to the pedestal on the other side of the room and there he stood for some time reading. Elerias hung back at the entrance, unwilling to cross the threshold into the space beyond, filled with charms and wrath as it was.

“It is the symbol of Kolodrinam,” Agutaaso said. “Kolodrinam is a god with two primary functions. The first is to govern headwear.”

“That doesn’t seem relevant,” Elerias said. I agreed, though I couldn’t help touching my own hat self-consciously.

“The second is to create and dispel illusions.”

“That is it! That is much better! That man cheated me with the help of his barbaric gods! How can I get my gold back?”

“No doubt, but it may not be possible. The secret gods of the Uste will not help those who have been born outside the Uste cities.”

“It is too late to change that, I fear. You know I am a pious man, but there are certain gods that make one long to be a materialist. I will have to be more careful in my future dealings with gods of whom I have never heard.”

I could tell that despite his philosophical words, Elerias was consumed with inward bitterness over his loss. It was obvious in the way he smiled at his customers and in the way he gnawed at his bread as if it were Metsinaram’s heart. He remarked to me the next day, “It doesn’t matter. My gods are stronger than his. Horos sees them, Adai speaks against them, and the hands of Teleks and Sattas reach out to bind them.” I cautioned him against any foolhardy action and he seemed to heed my advice.

Or so I thought at first. I did not see Elerias again for about a month. During that time, one of my other friends had brought me news of a man he had seen in a neighboring allied city, whose name was Naarinto. That was the city’s name, not the man’s. Due to certain events in my past I am always seeking word of men who seem to live under hills or take children as changelings. I doubted very much that this trail would be a fruitful one, but when one is deprived of fruit, one must search for it on whatever trails one can find.

I am no sailor; salt water does not fill my veins; I would be puzzled to explain the difference between a leech and a clew. I have not enjoyed the few sea voyages I have taken, generally feeling during their duration as if my stomach had been used as the ball in a hard-fought game between two teams of elephants. Happily this voyage from Edazzo to Naarinto was somewhat more pleasant: perhaps I am growing used to the waves. Perhaps I will end up half fish, though I hope not.

I made sufficient inquiries to convince myself that the man my friend had seen was not one of the fair folk, but only an innocent stranger maligned by the suspicions of various fools in Naarinto. This was a bitter, though not unexpected, disappointment to me. As I was retracing my path to the docks, I heard a high voice calling for help. It is one of my virtues that I am both quick and bold to come to the aid of those who need it, and so I turned on my heel and ran to the place where I thought the voice was coming from. As it happened, the place I thought the voice was coming from was not actually the place the voice was coming from, so I lost some time trying to find my way to the proper place.

“Oh,” the woman said. “It’s you.”

This was not an encouraging response, especially as I recognized the woman with her striking blond hair. I didn’t immediately see what help she was in such desperate need of, and since she was a magician of some sort, I didn’t see how I could help her in any useful fashion.

I am afraid I looked at her rather stupidly for a few minutes, and it was she who broke the silence by adding, “I am surprised to see you again, but we don’t have time to talk about it. There’s someone looking for me and I don’t want to be found.”

My gaze was drawn by the array of rings she now wore on both her hands. “Disappearing shouldn’t be a problem for you. Unless you’ve lost some skill since we last met.”

“I have been a fool,” she replied. I denied the statement politely. “No, I have. I lent one of my rings to a friend, but she lent it to a friend of hers. Now it is out of my hands and being used for Heaven only knows what.”

“Another disappearing ring?”

“It certainly disappeared from my sight,” she said. I acknowledged her feeble joke with a nod of my head. “But this one makes things appear. Illusions, not real physical things.”

“Phantasms,” I said.

“Mirages.”

“Fantasies.”

We were getting along pleasantly, but I had concerns of my own and couldn’t dedicate much of my attention to her disappearing or appearing ring. And yet, she was beautiful in her own way, and the mysteries around her only added to the attraction that I admit I couldn’t help feeling for her. I decided to ask her where she learned magic, as this seemed both a pleasant topic of conversation, not to mention a way of delving into the aforementioned mysteries. She only smiled and shook her head. “It is a city and a country of which you will not have heard. I’m afraid the opportunity for you to learn has passed, since I am a mediocre magician and a worse teacher.”

I did not, in fact, desire to learn magic on my own account. It would be easy for me to blame magic for nearly all the misfortunes that have come upon me in the past several years, yet when it is practiced by the charming it cannot help but acquire their charm. Even the most charming fair folk, well, that is another story.

There was a brief silence between us, which I broke with the first thing that came into my mouth to say. “If I happen to come across your appearing ring, I certainly will bring word of it to you.”

“Thank you. It bears an amethyst and the image of a hand with a star. I will be in this quarter of Naarinto for a few months yet.” She gave a quick glance behind her like a startled songbird. I have never been good with birds, and I am not at all sure that the birds in this section of the world are the same as the birds that my tutor tried in vain to identify for me when I was a child. There is, of course, the Bird that sits on my head, but that is only a name I give it out of some vague similarity in its physical shape and the sound of its voice. “Oh!” the woman exclaimed. “I had nearly forgotten! I am sorry, but I really must go now. If I am late for this dinner party, I will never be able to show my face in Naarinto again.”

She gave me a courteous nod of her head and scurried off. That is the best word for it, I think, but it is a remarkable fact that even while scurrying she was quite pretty. I shouted my own farewell after her and returned to the docks. It took me some time to realize that there was a possible connection between the woman’s disappearing ring and the illusions of Metsinaram. It took me some time also to realize that I had forgotten to ask the woman’s name.

Upon returning to Edazzo, I sought out Elerias immediately. The voyage had been a tiring one, but I am always willing to exert myself on behalf of my friends. He was not where I expected to find him in his shop, but a helpful urchin, after the usual abuse directed my way, told me where he had gone.

This destination of Elerias’s was a doorway nestled, nearly hidden, between two more prominent entrances. Written over the lintel of the door were two words that I decided could only be read KELET and ATTAS, whatever that meant. I went in, and was not especially surprised (for he was a pious man) to see Elerias kneeling before a statue of two young gods hand-in-hand.

“We will see now,” Elerias said to me, and there was something in his voice that reminded me of a dog that had scented its prey and was about to run it down. I am not sure why so many animal metaphors were occurring to me at that time. Perhaps I had been in the cities so long that I missed the hunts of my youth.

“What do you mean? See about what?”

“About that Metsinaram and his theft. I have gone to every temple of every god in Edazzo to ask for their help. We’ll see if the Uste gods can beat the gods of Edazzo in their own land, in their own city!”

He sounded triumphant, but I myself do not put much more stock in the gods of the Parako than the gods of the Uste. Nevertheless I attended the events that followed with some interest. Elerias’s mood fluctuated from day to day, as he was always sure either that his gods were about to bring Metsinaram cringing back to repay what he owed, or that the Uste gods were about to bring some calamity on him for challenging them. But neither of these happened, and Elerias’s moods began to settle into a general gloom.

“If one or the other thing had happened,” I remarked in an attempt to lighten his thoughts, “it would at least be an answer. But to leave a question hanging without an answer is a torture I do not believe even the most inventive tormentor has yet devised.”

Elerias did not seem amused. “Very well,” he said, I think half to himself and half to me. “I’ll go to Agutaaso again and learn everything I can about What’s-His-Name and Whoever-She-Is and all the gods of the Uste. There has to be some way I can gain an advantage over that mountebank!”

So we went to the library again and found Agutaaso again. He did not seem especially surprised to see us. “I suppose you have more questions for me, or rather, for the tablet.”

“I want to know everything you can tell me about the Uste gods, from the first to the last.”

“It may take some time.”

“My apprentice can look after the shop. I have as much time as I need.”

As I had no pressing engagements that day, I accompanied them to the room of charms, where shielded by their presence we studied the tablet. I was fully prepared to remain there for the rest of the day listening to the arcane names and tangled properties of a whole array of deities, something like the row of gods I had seen carried through the streets by their respective priests on the occasion of the brief theomachy that had entangled Edazzo not long ago. But I wander from my narrative.

The very first god that Agutaaso spoke of was Arraliturom, whom Metsinaram had invoked earlier. “Arraliturom is a god of vows, but he has a special fondness for broken vows.”

“That explains some things,” said Elerias. “It would be only justice if I could use Arraliturom against him somehow.”

Agutaaso hummed to himself as he read the tablet. I peered over his shoulder in optimistic hopes that I would be able to help, but he moved his shoulders to block my vision. Well, if he wanted to read on his own, that was a burden he would have to bear. I occupied myself by studying the charms that hung down around me. They bore symbols, but I understood none of them.

Around the time that I finished the last of the charms trailing over my shoulders, Agutaaso looked up at us both and shook his head. “Are you sure you want me to go through them all? It is a long and tedious list.”

“By Horoso!” Elerias exclaimed. “In the time it took to read them to yourself, I’m sure you could have explained every single one of their names, genealogy, and powers.”

“There are many arcane terms,” said an unperturbed Agutaaso. “I want to make sure I can read them all properly, so that I do not mislead you or worse, blaspheme.”

I will not weary my readers with an account of every Uste god, most of which I had forgotten by the time Agutaaso reached the end of his recitation. Elerias paid more attention, and when Agutaaso had finished, he stood and paced for a while. “Wuluham,” he said. “There is a shrine for a god named Wuluham at the fringe of the guest quarter. I know because I asked if I could make an offering and was refused on the petty grounds that Wuluham did not accept offerings from foreigners. But I have a plan, and I will set Lurtias against Arraliturom.

“Do either one of you know how to fake an injury?” he asked. Agutaaso scratched his head and said nothing. I rubbed my chin and said nothing. With a sigh, Elerias said, “I suppose I’ll have to figure this out on my own.” We left the library, and as Elerias stepped into the street he was struck by a falling tile.

Agutaaso and I brought him some water, but he insisted loudly that we bring him to the shrine of Wuluham. At first we were inclined to regard this as the ravings of a man injured in the head, but as he kept repeating the phrase, “part of my plan,” we decided to do as he said.

I do not recall precisely I imagined the shrine of Wuluham to be, but vague memories of the charms in the library came to my mind. In fact, the shrine was a rather large space overshadowed by a red-painted portico. Although their shapes were hidden by the shadows, there seemed to be representations of dragons running left and right across the threshold. We were met at the entrance by a pair of priests or attendants or some such officers. Both had their hair cut after the fashion of Metsinaram, and indeed one of them was Metsinaram.

While Agutaaso explained Elerias’s accident, I wandered into the shrine to look around. Or that is what I tried to do, but the other priest, the one I’d never seen before, put out his arm to block my path. “You are not Uste,” he said.

My Bird speaks in many different languages, and although it is not entirely under my control which it uses at any given time, I like to think I have some influence. I tried very hard to think about Uste names when I said, “Am I not?”

“You know the hieratic tongue?” He seemed almost as surprised as I was.

“I do,” I replied despite the Bird’s protests.

“Then you may enter and behold the god.”

As much as I would like to describe a temple full of wonders, the actual shrine was, I am afraid, somewhat on the shabby side. Its only features of interest were the image of the god, which was a slab with a vaguely defined face and a series of identical symbols, and a bowl full of what I assumed to be holy water. Metsinaram came into the shrine, gave me an odd look, and poured some of the water into a cup. He left, and I followed him in time to see him sprinkle the water over Elerias’s face. (Agutaaso was gone by this point, no doubt having returned to the library.) As Elerias sputtered, Metsinaram recited the names of several gods, but it was Wuluham’s name that he repeated multiple times.

I am assuming that it was the names of gods he was reciting, and not the names of his closest relatives, though I have no way of knowing for sure. It was difficult for me to catch everything Metsinaram said, and I am not familiar with his family, which I presume to be living today in some Uste city, memorizing divine names and learning the secret hieratic language. These things are, I believe, peculiar to the priestly families of Uste, as I encountered nothing of the sort during my brief sojourn in their territory.

“I am delighted to see you awake,” Metsinaram said to Elerias.

“I wish I wasn’t,” Elerias replied. His lack of courtesy is understandable, I think, though my readers may disagree. “How did I offend the Bountiful Lord to be sent down next to you in the underworld?”

“You smoothly should recover,” Metsinaram said without any reaction.

“So this is Wuluham’s shrine and you are his priest.”

“It is Wuluham’s grace that we have again run into one another.”

“I know about your magic tricks. You cheated me, and I do not take kindly to cheats.”

“Try to avoid becoming agitated. You should rest and sit out of the sun. This shrine is a hospitable place and you will be allowed to stay until Wuluham fully has healed you. Food and drink will be provided for you at a nominal price.”

“I have a business to run, as you may remember, and I would like to return to it as soon as possible. I have no intention of staying here.”

“Certainly you may leave whenever you wish. Do you wish before you go to have a cup of wine?”

Elerias mopped the holy water from his hair with his sleeve. I wondered if his sleeve was holy now, or if any tear in it would be miraculously mended, but I knew better than to ask these questions, especially after the theomachy. “No, I do not wish before I go to have a cup of wine.”

“Then there is one minor matter only that we must discuss,” said Metsinaram, ignoring Elerias’s mockery.

“Your dishonesty? But no, that is not minor.”

Metsinaram clicked his tongue, looking very pious suddenly. “The money you owe me.”

“The money I owe you? It is the other way around, Metsinaram.”

“Understand that myself, I would be happy to take voluntary donations only. But Wuluham is a stern god and does require repayment.”

“You intend to cheat me again?”

“It would be unfortunate if Wuluham took back his gift of healing. Who knows what would become of you after that? It would be very unfortunate.”

“Nonsense. I was not hurt that badly.”

“Have you forgotten the eidolon of golden rings I made for you? Do you doubt the power of my gods?” And Metsinaram raised one hand. “I invoke thee, great Wuluham of the many faces, and implore thee!”

“No, no, no. How much money do I owe Wuluham?”

“Let me count. Ten, thirteen, twenty of your small weights of gold.”

Elerias turned his head down and to the side, but I, with my keen perception, saw the smile that was briefly on his face. “Give me a day, and I will bring you the money here. And after that I don’t want to see you again, in this or any other part of the world.”

“I will do my best to have it be so,” said Metsinaram, and splashed some more holy water on Elerias’s head. He moved as if to splash me, but I saw him coming and dodged out of his way.

When we had returned to his shop, Elerias dismissed his assistant with a wave of his hand. The boy seemed worried about the bandages he wore on his head, but Elerias ignored him and said to me, “I am sorely tempted to break my vows by cursing in the names of various and sundry gods. Do you think if I say them in my mind, without moving my lips, it would count as breaking my vow?”

“I’m sure the gods would understand. Metsinaram has cheated you left and right.”

“No, no! Metsinaram has done exactly what I hoped he would do.”

I scratched my chin. “You wanted to be cheated?”

“Yes! No! But what am I thinking, explaining it to you?” I was not entirely sure what he meant by this, but I suspected it was not complimentary. “You know that oaths sworn by Lurtias cannot be broken.”

“I have heard that, yes,” I said, though I had never put Lurtias to the test myself. I doubted it was true, but I tend to be overcautious and anyway, it would be silly to go around trying every single thing forbidden by some god or another, many of which are immoral anyway.

“I am tempted to curse because I am worried that this may not work. We’ll see tomorrow, won’t we?”

At this point I had no idea what Elerias was thinking, so I agreed with a certain uncertainty. I returned to my own home, where I believe I dreamed about children playing with a wide variety of toys taken from a basket. They set them up in rows and came up with elaborate stories about their battles with one another, and as they played they became more and more wrapped up in the stories they told. I have heard that the gods often come to visit mortals in their dreams to bring messages and guidance for the future, but it is beyond my capabilities to tell what god would have sent such a dream or what it could be telling me. More often my dreams are the result of too much or too little in my stomach.

Much of the dream has faded from my memory by the time I write. I only recall the bizarre way it ended and the way in which the vast faces stared down at me just before I woke up.

I was eager the next morning to see what Elerias had planned, though my eagerness was not unmixed with a certain amount of trepidation for the consequences if he failed. I met Elerias at his shop and we went together to the shrine of Wuluham. On the way I asked him again what he was thinking, since I observed (worthy of the Hawk of White Mountain, I hope) that he was not carrying any money. Despite my pleas, he refused to say anything apart from terse statements to the effect that I would soon learn what I wanted to know.

“By Teretparam!” Metsinaram exclaimed as he met us at the entrance to the shrine. This time he was wearing a strange translucent headpiece that shifted back and forth as he moved his head. I have made more study of the Uste and their customs since these events, and I am now convinced that Metsinaram simply made up half of the strange things he said and did. No real order of priests could possibly live by such incomprehensible rules. “My debtor returns. Have you brought the money?”

“No, I have not,” said Elerias. “Not yet. First I would like to clarify our agreement slightly. We did not sanctify it by invoking any god, and I tremble to fulfill any such impious bargain.”

“I began to invoke my gods, but you interrupted rudely me.”

“And I regret it now. Come, for the sake of your gods and mine, let us invite them to be witnesses. I shall swear by your healing god. What was his name again? Luluham?”

“Wuluham,” said Metsinaram. I observed by the twitch of his eye that he was irritated by Elerias’s flippancy. Elerias was, as I have written in several places above, a pious man, but I doubt whether he extended that piety to the innumerable mysterious gods that Metsinaram claimed to worship. Every man has his limit.

“Then I shall swear by your Wuluham, and you shall swear by my Lurtias.”

“The god of the forge?” Metsinaram asked. I observed by the tightening of his lips that he was disgusted. Certain orders of priests, I know, regard Lurtias and his clients as unclean. “I will not. You swear by your gods and I swear by mine.”

“Very well, if you think it is best to do things that way around. You may swear by Wuluham that if I do not keep my oath, I will be overtaken by whatever disaster you wish.”

With a smug smile, Metsinaram raised his hands towards the roof of the shrine behind him. “I call Wuluham as witness that if this man’s oath is not kept, the blessing upon him shall be taken away and his injuries shall return.”

“I swear by Lurtias that I will repay everything I owe this man before the end of the next day.”

I observed by the way Elerias and Metsinaram held each other’s gaze that there was a test of wills between them. “I am satisfied,” Metsinaram said at last, his gaze falling. “I will tomorrow see you.”

“Of that you can be sure,” said Elerias. He turned and walked away, leaving me alone with Metsinaram. He smiled pleasantly at me. I did my best to give him a pleasant smile in return, but I was sufficiently confused and worried that it must have been a fairly unpleasant sight.

I followed Elerias and again pestered him with questions, until again he dismissed them and promised that they would all be answered tomorrow. “And tomorrow they will be answered tomorrow, and then they will be answered the next day.”

“No, no! Tomorrow, by Lurtias.” I groaned at this invocation, but Elerias was adamant that I should be patient. I am normally patient to an extraordinary degree, but I admit that this is easier on some occasions than others. Then, in a flash of insight that came to me like lightning, I realized what his hidden plan had to be.

“I figured it out,” I told him confidently.

“Very clever of you, my friend. If Lurtias sends it so, I hope that Metsinaram will be impressed by our cleverness.”

It seemed simple enough to me. All Elerias had to do was trick Metsinaram into invalidating his vow by doing something or other. With that accomplished, Elerias’s vow to pay would no longer be binding, and with a visit to a shrine of Lurtias, all his troubles would be over. It was all very neat and simple, and I went to sleep that night confident that the matter was at an end.

I was not quite so confident when I woke up. I remembered then the magician’s ring, how I had promised to bring it to her, and the curious ring that Metsinaram had been wearing. I realized, and my readers will be surprised to learn this, that I was something of a fool.

In order to avoid forgetting again, I made sure to keep these things in my mind, going over them repeatedly even as Elerias’s shop was in sight. I didn’t even spare a few moments to greet him, but immediately told him about my encounter with the beautiful magician.

“All the better,” said Elerias. “By Horos, I look forward to exposing this juggler, this charlatan, once and for all. He should tremble when we come to his door!”

Metsinaram showed no particular signs of trembling. On the contrary, he ran to meet us when we were still some distance from Wuluham’s shrine. “Now, where is my money?” he asked, his eyes darting around, greedy for his money like the fish in that story I heard someplace that I can’t recall right now. Not that the fish was greedy for money. It was greedy for food, or possibly the sun.

“What money?” Elerias asked.

“I believe you swore an oath just yesterday. You can’t have already forgotten it?”

“I promised only to repay everything I owed you for the services of Wuluham, if you will remember. But you never paid me for the oil you took. The one debt will balance the other. Neither Wuluham or Lurtias can do anything to harm me, and I will be free of any obligation to you or your gods. All is settled between us.”

“That is absurd.”

“Your thing of wax is absurd. This whole situation is absurd. But you did not swear by your unfaithful Arraliturom this time, and you are bound by your vow!”

An objection occurred to me, but I knew better than to say it.

“You think the oil you gave me equals the great gift you received from Wuluham?” Metsinaram demanded, his lips curled to reveal his teeth in a gesture that was aggressive enough to remind me of a wild dog.

“I consulted the priests of Lurtias yesterday. They agree with my valuation, and, if you will remember the words of our vows, it is Lurtias’s judgment that counts.”

Another objection occurred to me, but I knew better than to say this one either.

“Your records and mine show that I paid you in gold for the oil,” said Metsinaram, recovering his composure with what appeared to be an impressive display of self-mastery. “What may have become of the gold, or also what you may have done with it, it is not my concern.”

“I suppose we could bring the matter before the judges, if you like. The judges of Edazzo are, I fear, greedy men, and therefore they suspect everyone else of being greedy. They know what they themselves would do if, say, they came into possession of a ring that could create perfect illusions, and they judge everyone else by their own standards, unfair though this may be.”

“A ring that can create perfect illusions?” Metsinaram asked, but his eyes and voice were duller than they had been. The life had gone out of him.

“That one, for instance. I am sure the judges would like to know about it.”

Here was my opportunity, and I was not slow to seize it. “Give the ring to me,” I said, “and I will return it to its owner. Nothing more will be said to the judges or to anyone of the matter.”

He agreed readily, more readily than I had expected, and gave me the ring with the amethyst. As Elerias and I left the shrine in triumph, Elerias asked me whether I could do any tricks with the ring.

“Perhaps I should have asked him how to use it.”

“Somehow, my friend, I doubt that he would have answered.”

It was some time later that I found occasion to return to Naarinto, and it was some time later yet that I managed through persistent questioning to find the woman I was seeking, just before she was about to leave on a ship to some southern island or other, I believe. I offered her the ring and she accepted it with delight. “I didn’t really expect you would bring this to me!” I was not quite sure how to take this, but from the way she was smiling at me I took it to be a compliment.

“Well, it is a long story. It began with a friend of mine who sells oil in Edazzo.”

She laughed suddenly. “But this is not the right ring!”

“It is the only ring with an amethyst he wore.”

“Don’t you see? He disguised the ring as something else, and as for this,” she said, and rubbed it between her fingers. Suddenly it became a flat thing of dull metal.

“Oh,” I remarked.

“Oh indeed. But do let me know if you ever track down the real thing. Farewell for now!”

When I had returned to Edazzo, I realized that yet again I had neglected to ask her name. I went to find Metsinaram, but he had left the city with no word of where he had gone. So that was the end of that. At least Elerias seemed happy about the way things had turned out.

A Glance at Death

I am a peaceable man, one who does not especially care for the brutal contests of strength that so many denizens of Edazzo believe to be the best way of settling disputes. Admittedly I have taken part in battles and wars when there seemed to be no other choice, but rarely have the results of those battles been happy. So it was with great alarm that I found myself locked in a room with a dead man not many days ago, and indeed my hands still shake as I write this account.

He was not dead at first, I hasten to add. We had a long conversation, Agamnu and I, about the southern pirates. He was of the opinion that they would go away in time, and that it would not be difficult for Edazzo and its allies to fend them off indefinitely. I was not so optimistic. It was and remains my belief that the pirates will be the doom of Edazzo, one way or another, though it is not a matter I am eager to dwell on. I only hope that I and my friends will have passed from the scene before the final act.

We discussed Aayuso, a young man of the city of whom Agamnu had a higher opinion than I. I insisted fruitlessly that Aayuso was a scoundrel, a wastrel, and various other things of that sort, but Agamnu saw some good in him, somewhere deep down. Very deep down, it seemed to be. But never mind Aayuso.

Our discussion turned to artistic matters after this. I keep these literary efforts of mine largely to myself for the time being, but Agamnu has often spoken of his desire to acquire a bard for his house, to sing of the deeds of his ancestors. For a man of the sword, Agamnu had surprisingly many opinions on the proper composition of an epic cycle. “The cornerstone of every epic,” he told me, “is the battle between the hero and the dragon. Is it not written in the stars? Every night you see Daryo fight and defeat Hoostupke under his feet in order to deliver the sun from the underworld.” The science of astrology is a primitive one in Edazzo.

“What about the story of Risseldo in the realm of darkness?” I asked. A tragic story of love and despair, and fairly dragon-free.

“His wife is the sun, and the Bountiful Lord is the dragon. Too easy, my friend. This is one of the tales where the dragon wins, at least for one round. There is the story of how Risseldo came back from the darkness with every song that has ever been sung on his lips, and where did he get those songs if he did not wrest them from the Bountiful Lord himself?”

“True, but I’ve always thought it something of a cheat. I respect the artistry of the old bards, but that is no way to end a story.”

“That is the only way to end a story.” Blatant contradiction is one possible rhetorical technique, I admit.

We argued late into the evening, so late, in fact, that Agamnu invited me to stay the night. The streets of Edazzo can be dangerous in the dark, what with their ruffians seeking the aforementioned brutal contests of strength, so I agreed, and he called for his servant to bring us more wine. Generously, with the spirit of a true host, he offered me the first sip from his cup, and I accepted. There is a lacuna in my memory at this point, and I am confident some knave will bring the charge of drunkenness against me. Pausing only to mention such charges with the scorn they deserve, I continue my account.

The first thing I remember is the way the light of the sun came in through the upper windows. No, that is the second thing I remember. The first thing I remember is the pain in my head, which was definitely not the ache of too much wine, but a peculiar burning behind my eyes. The third and fourth things I remember were standing up and recovering my balance. The fifth thing I remember is Agamnu, lying on his couch with his eyes closed. I made some mocking remark, but he did not move. He was, of course, dead, and I found the door to the room locked from the outside.

It is the belief of my homeland that this body is only a shadow cast by the light of our souls, or something along those lines. I am certainly not a philosopher. Once I knew that Agamnu was dead, I said a prayer to the Flame for his departed soul, that it would escape the maw of the Beast and know true happiness. He was a good man, or at any rate I liked him, and I am rarely perceptive enough to tell the difference between the two. Then I set about trying to alert someone outside the upper room.

First I threw pebbles out through the windows to try and catch someone’s attention, but there was no attention caught. Then I tried shouting, but apparently the street outside was populated entirely by the deaf. I would have to try my luck with the members of Agamnu’s household. It wouldn’t be long before Agamnu’s servant came to bring us our morning meal, and whatever remedy we needed for the quantities of wine we had imbibed. It was not pleasant waiting next to the remains of my friend. From time to time I felt the urge to speak to him, then I would recall that he had departed, and I would have to shut my eyes in grief.

Eventually I heard the bar lift on the other side of the door, and saw the servant’s head poke around the corner. “Your master is dead,” I told him. There was no point in coating the news with honey. “He was like this when I woke up this morning; I don’t know what happened.”

“So I see,” he replied, in a way that drew my suspicions immediately. The mores of Edazzo are not always familiar to me, but he was calmer than I would have expected. “I will see to the body, my lord, if you will come downstairs. I am sure you don’t wish to stay here any longer.”

“No, no,” I said. I was in something of a daze as I followed him down the steps to the great hall, where he promptly abandoned me to go outside. I was left alone with Agamnu’s daughters, who were sitting by the fire tending it and pouring water into bowls. He had had two daughters and one son, and I trembled to think of how I could break the news to them. I can be glib of tongue when the opportunity presents itself, but this was not the time for glibness. Tauruumi, the younger of the girls, looked at me with her lips pressed tightly together, but I am used to that sour look from women, and especially from her. Barzidi, the older girl, was friendlier. She smiled at me and began to bring me a bowl of water, but I shook my head.

“What is the matter?” Barzidi asked me, her eyes wide. There is a bit of poetry, though I can’t remember if it is from this place or my homeland, that starts out, “Cruel the hand that spins the thread of fate,” or something like that. It came to mind then, as I looked at Barzidi and Tauruumi. I still wasn’t sure what to say, and quoting poetry seemed to be the wrong line to take.

“Your father is dead,” I said finally. Better to be succinct and straightforward. Almost immediately Tauruumi began to wail, twisting her neck in a way that made my own neck ache in sympathy. I looked to Barzidi, who carefully set the bowl down on the ground before sitting next to it and putting her head in her hands.

Tauruumi’s wail began to form words, or maybe it had just taken my Bird a while to work out what the words were. “Ruin and death! He comes for all of us, to drag our souls down to the pit of darkness. Her hand is stronger than life and it is stronger than death. Oh, lay your hand upon us! Shield us with your destruction and smite us with your benevolence!”

This was all very awkward, not to mention confusing, and I pondered how to comfort her while maintaining the rather strict propriety of a noble Edazzo household. I wondered at the time where the other members of Agamnu’s family were. No doubt his brother was carousing someplace, but his wife should have been there. And where were the maidservants of the house? I was already disturbed enough from the sudden and mysterious death of my friend, and I began to have the feeling that I was in a nightmare, or a feverish delirium. I do not enjoy writing, and I doubt you care to read, the details of what I felt at this juncture, but after a momentary weakness I was able to control myself again. My mind is as strong as any man’s when I feel the need to exercise it.

I sat with Barzidi and we listened to Tauruumi wail. From time to time I thought of something to say, then thought it would be foolish to say it, then thought it would be foolish not to say it, then thought that it would be foolish to keep thinking about it. This foolish circle was only broken when Tauruumi started to ascend the stairs. I made a desperate heartfelt plea for her to stay and not gaze morbidly on the remains of her father, or at least I did in my mind. I am afraid to report that the only actual sound I made was a kind of anguished squeal that the Bird didn’t bother to translate.

It was at that unfortunate moment that Agamnu’s wife made her entrance at last. She had been out in the courtyard, it seemed, and she entered the hall with a hand pressed to her forehead, moving slowly as if ill, or more likely, as if she was aware in some mystical fashion of the death of her husband. “What is going on?” she inquired. “What is Tauruumi yelling about?” Then she noticed me and asked me rather sharply what I was still doing here. I liked Agamnu very much, but I was never sure how he had come to marry a woman like Lurwi, whose tongue was sharper than a knife and more venomous than an adder, as the Duchess Tailei’s enemies used to say of her.

Breaking the news to Lurwi would be more difficult yet. I pondered the matter for a while, but before I could finish pondering, Barzidi had taken her mother aside to speak with her in whispers. I judged it wisest for me to go out into the courtyard and await the outcome both of their conversation and of Tauruumi’s ascent.

When a good man dies, one expects nature to take notice and put on appropriate scenery involving gloom, clouds, and ideally a light rain. One does not expect the sun to keep shining and the bees to keep visiting flowers, but nevertheless that is what I found when I stepped outside. It was very depressing, especially when I remembered a recent conversation that Agamnu and I had held here. I have lost very many people in the few years I have walked on the earth, yet I hope I will never cease to mourn them.

I stood in the courtyard for a while, thinking about these things, before I noticed that Huro was standing there too. Generally I look forward to meetings with Huro roughly as much as I look forward to wearing deadly serpents around my neck, but this did not seem to be the time for such petty enmities. I cleared my throat and told Huro the sad news.
“Finally drank too much for his stomach, did he? Well, well,” said Huro, turning away from me to look in the direction of nothing in particular.

Needless to say, I was outraged by this, to the point where I briefly considered striking Huro. But as gratifying as that would be, it was not my place to avenge the insult. And then, Huro is a very large man. Instead I asked him what he was doing here. “It is hardly the usual thing to be visiting another man’s wife in his courtyard early in the morning.”
“That’s the game you want to play, is it? Let me put your mind at ease, my friend. I was here to pay a little visit to Agamnu’s brother. I have business with him in the lower city.”

This was plausible enough: everyone knows that Agamnu’s brother has a finger in every pot of stew from the king’s palace to the beggar’s hovel. Yet I had never heard that Huro was interested in the lower city, except maybe something discreditable here or there. Probably if Huro did have business with Bekzamu, it was to pay off some debt to a prostitute or a gambler. I considered saying this, but thought better of it. Now was not the time.

Without another word, I turned and walked away from Huro, leaving him in no doubt that I had judged him and found his soul buried in shadow. Lurwi was sitting inside with her face veiled, Barzidi’s head on her shoulder. I said farewell to them both, expressing my deep sorrow and condolences, and then I proceeded to leave.

That was what I intended to do, at least, but before I had gotten very far into my farewell, Tauruumi came back down the steps, and it occurred to me that she had been very silent the last few minutes. Her hair was free and disheveled, with a mad look in her eyes underneath it. I have not in fact seen many lunatics in my life, but I have seen plays with lunatic characters, and at that moment Tauruumi would have fit right in.

“Murderer!” she shrieked, pointing a shaking finger at me. “You killed my father, and his blood will haunt you until you follow him to the pit!”

I was not at all sure how to reply to this. Her misapprehension was a serious one. “I did not kill your father,” I said to her in a gentle voice, which I presumed would settle the matter.

“You did! You were alone with him when he died!”

“The door was not barred when I left them,” said someone from behind me. Briefly I entertained the notion that one of the heavenly messengers had descended to establish my innocence, before I realized that this was an exceedingly unlikely happenstance. The more pedestrian reality was that it was Agamnu’s manservant, whose name I just realize I have forgotten to give. Labarinud was his name, an odd enough appellation, which I think means something in the Amikni language. The Bird does something funny to names, but this is not the place to go into all that. Labarinud went on to say, “But when I found them the next morning, it was barred on the outside. Someone entered and left again during the night.”

“Who?” asked Lurwi, looking up at Labarinud and me, raising her veil to show her reddened eyes.

A curious expression crossed Labarinud’s face. I do not mean he was curious, I mean I was curious about what it meant. He bowed and said, “I do not know, madam.”

“If you’re lying, I will have you put to the rack. The tormentors know how to get the truth from unwilling churls.”

But Labarinud was, I knew, a steadfast man who would not be swayed by threats such as those. “I do not know who entered the room. After I brought Agamnu the wine he had asked for, I left to make sure everything was in order around the house before I went to sleep in the main hall. I was awakened the next morning by the sound of Barzidi and Tauruumi conversing as they saw to the fire. That is the truth, and I will swear to it by the Father Above.”

“Girls! You must know,” said Lurwi, addressing the two maidservants who I now noticed were standing behind Labarinud. I don’t think she liked the younger maid much, for all the usual reasons. “Don’t you dare hide the truth from me.”

But they, too, had been soundly asleep all night. It seemed that a general spirit of slumber had descended on the entire household, and that only those few who had escaped it would be able to shed light on the darkness. I said so, and immediately Lurwi stood up and rested her fiery gaze on me. Fiery may not be the right word, but it reminded me of nothing less than the siphons of burning oil that I have seen the ships of my home use against pirates.

“That is what the Hawk of White Mountain would do, anyway. He would gather the entire household together and interrogate them all,” I explained. No one here had heard of the Hawk of White Mountain, of course, and I believe they took him to be an acquaintance of mine back home.

“Then that is what we’ll do!” she proclaimed. “My husband’s blood will be avenged!” Dropping her veil, she turned on her heel and walked away with a certain dramatic air.

All this while, Tauruumi had been staring at the ground, her lips moving without words. But once her mother had gone to her own room, Tauruumi said in a voice that hurt my ears, “I will make a sacrifice to Tundargi, and Tundargi will reveal the murderer to me. Then there will be vengeance.”

“Tauruumi, no!” Barzidi said, but Tauruumi escaped her arms and ran out into the courtyard, where she dodged the man who was coming inside. This man tugged on his shiny locks of hair as he watched her vanish into the streets of Edazzo, then he looked at all of us.

“I should have stopped her,” he said with a great deal of rue in his voice. “But I can’t be expected to be her constant guard, can I? Once was enough. Now just what is going on here?”

I looked at Labarinud so I could avoid answering Bekzamu’s question. Labarinud bowed and said, “I fear that your brother is dead.”

Bekzamu wavered on his feet and accepted Labarinud’s outstretched arm to keep himself from toppling over. “How? What happened?”

Now Labarinud looked at me so he could avoid answering Bekzamu’s question. I explained the matter to Bekzamu as delicately as I could, avoiding any hint that his brother’s death might have been less than natural. Yet he was a discerning man, and my lack of hints he took for evidence of the contrary. It is a rhetorical technique that my tutors tried in vain to impress upon my mind, but Bekzamu was a natural master of the art.

“Do you think it was a god that struck him down, or a man?” Bekzamu smiled unpleasantly. “Or a woman?”

“He was poisoned,” I told him. “That much we know for sure. Whether it was a man, a woman, or a god, I do not know.”

Bekzamu’s face paled. “I can think of many men, women, and gods that would want to kill me, but who hated Agamnu?”

It was true, I reflected. I vaguely recall some barbarous eastern tribe that calls its warriors lions in the form of men, and that is how I could describe Agamnu if I were asked to write his funeral elegy. He was braver than any of his companions and nobler than any lord of the Parakoo. No one who met him hated him. But I thought then of Huro, and the reason he had been lurking in the courtyard garden with Lurwi, and I allowed dark suspicions into my mind that do not need to be explained, I trust. More than one kingdom has fallen into bloodshed because of such things.

“No one hated him,” said Labarinud in a voice stiff with emotion. “But there are reasons to kill other than hate.”

“You aren’t going to tell me that someone killed him because of love?”

“It has happened many times before. Where did you go this morning, sir?”

“I went for a walk. You saw me leave. You are not accusing me, are you?”

A pained expression crossed Labarinud’s face. “I am not. I was only asking out of curiosity.”

Bekzamu was still somewhat pale as he asked, “Do you know what kind of poison was used?”

“None of us are experts in poisons or such foreign devilry. Tauruumi has gone to divine the answer from her goddess, but I can offer no better solution.”

“I see. Does anyone outside the household know?”

I thought it depended a great deal on what Tauruumi said as she went her way to whatever shrine she visited. If she met some inquisitive, or even if someone overheard her wailing, which it would be very hard to avoid doing, the matter would spread throughout Edazzo in the blink of an eye. Foolish girl, I thought. Discretion is one of the keys to wisdom. Then I remembered, and I cleared my throat to soften the confession I was about to make. The pre-confessional clearing of the throat is not one of the rhetorical techniques my tutors taught me, though they should have. “I may have told Huro.”

“Huro? What was he doing here?”

“He was meeting you.”

“Blast me to the underworld if he was!” It was very nearly a scream that emerged from Bekzamu’s mouth. “I don’t know why Huro was here. He certainly wasn’t meeting me.” He took a deep breath and tugged on his locks of hair until he had calmed himself down. “Where is my brother now?”

“He is in the upstairs room. I have done what little I can to prepare the body for the pyre.”

“I will see him,” said Bekzamu, and went upstairs.

The demands of family piety often conflict with the desire to seek the truth. It occurred to me, far too late, that it had perhaps not been the wisest thing to have so many people left alone with Agamnu over the past hour. But what the stars have set in place cannot be undone. (If I had the skill of reading stars like the astrologers of my country, what a name I would make for myself in Edazzo! That art has not yet come here.)

I looked down at the ground somberly, glad for the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts. Labarinud was quiet with thoughts of his own, no doubt. Barzidi had gone to her loom where she was contemplating her funeral shroud, no doubt. The maidservants had contemplations of their own. We were all remembering Agamnu, I trust.

And now I leave off writing, as I did not linger much longer, but returned to my own home to set these thoughts down. I am not even sure yet if I will keep them for my readers’ sake. It is a painful tale, and I have a fearful premonition that it will grow more painful yet. But the wound must be opened if the shard is to be removed.

~

My premonition of last night was not a lie. It is clear to me now that I must write and make everything known to my readers, but I can promise that there will be daylight at the end.

It was Huro, of all people, who came to my door the next morning to summon me back to Agamnu’s house. “Lurwi wants everyone there,” he said with an expression on his face that was without a doubt a leer. “She’s holding a kind of inquisition, and I must say she’s charmingly enthusiastic about it. Me, I say Agamnu and you just drank too much. You don’t remember anything, do you?”

“Nothing,” I said coldly.

“You see? It’s a wonder you’re still on your feet and breathing the air of the upper world. You should make a special sacrifice to Soliiriso.”

“Thank you for the advice,” I told him, of course having no intention of sacrificing to a doctor who had died long ago. Not that Huro was sincere in his piety. I once saw him walk, without a single genuflection, past a whole row of priests who were carrying the images of gods. Why there was a whole row of priests carrying the images of gods is another story that I have no intention of ever telling.

I set out for Agamnu’s house without waiting for Huro to lead me. But his long legs kept him nearly at my side as we walked. He kept me company by telling me all about his adventures in the upper and lower parts of Edazzo during the recent war against the Amikni, most of which I cannot write down without shame. It was with enormous, unutterable relief that I saw the pillars at the gate and hurried into the courtyard, leaving Huro behind for a blessed moment. You will not be surprised to read that at this moment I had definite suspicions about who was guilty of Agamnu’s blood. The only question in my mind was how much Lurwi knew.

Lurwi herself was standing in the main hall, upbraiding the four servants, but she broke off her words when she saw Huro and me. She lifted her veil and simpered. At least, that is the only word I can think of to describe the remarkable expression she aimed at Huro. Her greeting to me was less simpering, and indeed was almost brusque. “So you’re here. Good. Now we can finally put an end to all this nonsense and avenge my husband. I have gathered together every member of the household.”

Indeed, Bekzamu was standing against the far wall with his arms crossed, looking far gloomier than he had the preceding day. Barzidi and Tauruumi were sitting together on the couch, Tauruumi whispering words to no one in particular. She had always been an odd girl, but her state now was a sad and distressing one. “Agamnu is not pleased,” I said to myself.

“I should hope not,” said Huro. Apparently I had not been speaking as much to myself as I had intended. “He’s dead.”

“You’ll join him if you don’t keep your mouth shut,” said Bekzamu in a sudden fury.

Huro had been wearing a mocking look on his face, but it vanished quite suddenly, and he sat down on the ground, folding his long legs under him. “All right, my lady,” he said to Lurwi. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Tell us, then, what your Hawk would say,” said Lurwi, facing me and letting her veil drop again.

On the walk from my home I had been thinking about that exact question. Unfortunately, I had yet to think of an answer, and so I spent a great deal of time clearing my throat in a way that was similar to and yet distinct from the pre-confessional clearing of the throat. It reached the point where Barzidi brought me a cup of wine, and I thanked her. By the time I had finished drinking, I had the answer I was looking for.

“This is what the Hawk of the White Mountain would say. He would turn to one of you and ask a simple question that would reveal some flaw in your stories.”

“What stories?” Tauruumi asked.

“I knew I was forgetting something. The servants, I know, say that they were asleep all night. We will let that pass for now, though the Hawk of the White Mountain would find it extremely dubious. That leaves Huro and the relatives of Agamnu.”

“And you,” said Lurwi.

“And me, of course. But it was not I who barred the door, we have established that.” Quickly I turned to Huro. “You! You said you were here to see Bekzamu on business. What business, and when did you arrive?”

“No need for him to speak,” said Bekzamu with understandable scorn, even if he had stepped on the heels of my question. “He was not here to see me. I think we all know whom he came to see.”

“I came here to see Bekzamu,” said Huro with enviable calmness. “I had hoped that he would listen to me concerning a horse-breeding opportunity that I had for him, but I suppose not. I arrived early this morning, and knew nothing of all the messy business inside until you told me. Lurwi can confirm this, since she met me as I entered the courtyard.”

“Of course she can,” said Tauruumi, drawing away from Barzidi and uncoiling herself to point at her mother. “What were the two of you doing in the garden? What have you been plotting against my father? What have you done to him? Liars! Murderers! I hate you both! May Tundargi cut you down at night!”

Huro backed away from her fury, but Lurwi only clicked her tongue. “You will obey me girl, and be quiet. Madness has made you see phantoms, but they are nothing more than that.”

This was my opportunity: exactly the sort of weak point in a suspect’s armor that the Hawk would seize on, and I seized on it. “Phantoms, you say? Then what exactly were you doing in the courtyard this morning?”

“We talked,” said Lurwi coldly. “I was a courteous host.”

“I imagine you were.”

“What, exactly, do you mean by that?”

I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant by that, so I took a moment to think it over. Before I had finished mulling over the implications (though I suspect they were unsavory ones), Lurwi’s maid broke out into words. “I can tell you what she was doing! She was awake all night, weaving and singing to herself. Oh, I knew she was up to no good, and I followed her out when she left this morning. Huro was embracing and kissing her in the garden! She is a traitor to her lord!”
Lurwi struck her maid, knocking her to the floor, and continued to kick her until Labarinud managed to pull her away from her mistress’s wrath. “You are a liar!” Lurwi screamed. “A liar!”

“We could put her to the trial, if you like,” said Bekzamu. I thought he was oddly passionless until I saw the way his hands were working against one another, as if struggling to wring the necks that were his wrists. “We can see whether her accusations are true, and you can meet the consequences. Or we can simply give her a generous dowry and banish Huro from the city.”

“Wait a minute,” said Huro, but no one paid him any attention.

“All right,” said Lurwi. There was a curious noise, which I realized after some time was the noise of her teeth grinding.

“Send her away, send him away. Send them all away and leave me alone to grieve the loss of my husband.”

“I would just like to say this,” Huro said in a high pained voice. “It should be obvious that neither I nor Lurwi killed Agamnu. Unless you are proposing that I sneaked in and back out again.”

“Get out,” Bekzamu told him. He spoke, I think, for all of us, or most of us anyway. Whether he spoke for Lurwi or not is a question beyond my understanding.

“And it is also obvious that I know nothing about poisons. I come from a family of warriors, and I would never stoop so low. If you want to learn about poisons, I have always heard you should ask Bekzamu.” He departed with this final shot. I have not heard what has become of him since. I believe he has left Edazzo, but whither he went from there is not something I know, nor do I care to know it.

I consoled myself with the thought that things did tend to work out like this for the Hawk of the White Mountain. One suspect or another was always eliminated, leaving the Hawk with a significantly easier task. I looked from one to another, wondering who I should address next. Bekzamu? Barzidi? Tauruumi? One of the servants? It was extremely perplexing, and I finally began to empathize with the Hawk’s companions, whom I had previously considered to be somewhat dimwitted, lagging behind his deductions and making obvious remarks as they always were.

“Tauruumi!” I said, largely because she had started to sing about blood and other unpleasant things. “You said you went to meet your goddess yesterday. What did she tell you?” Privately I doubted whether her goddess had told her anything, but it would not do to leave any avenue untraveled.

“She told me that soon I would learn the truth, and so I shall!”

“Bekzamu said he stopped you once. When, exactly, was that?” Memories and bright ideas were coming to me like the spray of a waterfall. It was exhilarating, and for once in my life I thought I understood what it was to be inspired, like a poet or the oracles of olden times.

“Bekzamu will be punished by the goddess,” said Tauruumi sullenly, like a child.

“Early yesterday morning,” said Bekzamu. “I was returning from a brief walk when I met Tauruumi coming out the door.
I was quite shocked, I must say. But I delivered her safely to Barzidi in the main hall, before I went to sleep.”

“She complained to me all night about how cruel Bekzamu was,” said Barzidi, staring down at her hands. In her poise she made such a contrast to her ranting sister, I thought. It was unfortunate that the art of painting was still somewhat crude in this land, else the two of them would have made an excellent subject.

“I’ll complain until your ears bleed,” said Tauruumi. “A walk, he says? Ha! Where did you go on this walk of yours, uncle? Who were you talking to?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Bekzamu said.

“Oh, but it does matter. I wasn’t coming out the door, you liar. I was well on my way to my goddess’s shrine, and I know what direction you were coming from. Despite all father’s admonitions, you were meeting Koludo, weren’t you? How fortunate for you that he was out of the way, never to admonish you again!”

“What spiteful nonsense.”

I was inclined to agree with Bekzamu. Dismissing Tauruumi’s words with a wave of my hand, I addressed Barzidi. “You were in the main room when Bekzamu brought your sister back?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, looking down and blushing. “I thought it might help if I walked around a little bit. I meant no harm.”

It seemed there had been an epidemic of walking around that night. I considered my next question carefully. It was, I am sure, to have been a question that would pierce to the heart of the matter like a keen arrow, laying bare the truth of the entire matter. But Labarinud interrupted it, and so it was lost to the world. I wish I remember it, as it was probably the most brilliant thought I have ever thought.

“Excuse me, but I was wondering something about what you said, master Bekzamu. Forgive me if I am being
impertinent or speaking out of place.”

Bekzamu did not look happy as he pulled on his hair. Something was bothering him. No doubt his brother’s death.

“No, no,” he said. “Please go on. We all value your insight a great deal.”

“We know that the wine master Agamnu drank was poisoned.”

“Yes, yes, by whoever sneaked into the upper room that night.”

“Perhaps. But perhaps the wine was poisoned before that point. If I remember correctly, you stopped me at the base of the stairs to ask me about the preparations for the feast of purification, not previously a subject in which you had taken an interest. I was distracted from the cups I was carrying for a few minutes, and you, I believe, have some skill as a juggler.”

Now I remembered that Bekzamu did have a fondness for entertaining children with such tricks as making trinkets disappear and drawing pebbles from his ears. I looked at Bekzamu in a new light, as I think we all did at that moment. Bekzamu himself seemed utterly stunned, as well he might. After a moment of deep consideration, he said, “I will have you punished for this. I assure you that I can think of many terrible punishments that you would well deserve for accusing me.”

Barzidi’s hands tightened in her lap. “What are you doing, Labarinud? Bekzamu didn’t kill Father.”

“Perhaps not,” said Labarinud through tightened lips. “But Bekzamu’s walk was not as brief as he claims. He was gone when I came down from the upper room, and did not return until he brought Tauruumi back. I suspect he was meeting Koludo as Tauruumi said, though beyond that I would not dare to say.”

“Bekzamu,” I said gently. “If you know something, please tell us.”

“All right,” he said. “But I did not kill my brother, I swear by the Father Above. I know my drugs better than that. I only put him to sleep for a time, and you along with him, I’m afraid. I only wanted an opportunity to talk with Koludo.
Agamnu didn’t understand Koludo, he never did. He would have forbidden me, or raised a storm about it when he found out. I just wanted to make sure the deal was made before Agamnu could protest.”

“And now he never will!” said Tauruumi, jumping to her feet. “Because you killed him!”

“No! I told you that he was killed with hemlock, didn’t I? It was another who added that to Agamnu’s cup, and Agamnu’s cup alone. Why would I want to kill my brother?”

I remembered something then, happily for Bekzamu. “Ah!” I exclaimed, and all eyes fell on me. “Agamnu gave me a drink from his cup, so he couldn’t have been poisoned before then.”

Bekzamu sighed and shut his eyes. “I told you I didn’t kill my brother. I don’t know what evil spirit possessed Labarinud to say such a thing.”

I looked at Labarinud, considering what he had said. Labarinud’s eyes met mine, but I was utterly unable to read his expression. He was Amikni, after all, and I have spent far less time among the Amikni then here among the Parako. It takes one a certain amount of time to grow accustomed to the customs of a people; I think that is true even for the Bird, thing of fairy though it be.

The thought that had been gnawing at me for some time found words at last. I stared at Labarinud as the Hawk of the White Mountain might stare at his prey. “When you said you went to sleep, then were awakened by Barzidi and Tauruumi, did anything happen in between?”

“I saw many things that night,” said Labarinud. “But I would be a fool to keep on hiding the most important thing I saw.” He turned away from me to face Bekzamu. “The answer to your question is simple enough.”

“Labarinud, no!” cried Barzidi rather over-dramatically, jumping to her feet alongside her sister, who had been laughing quietly to herself for a few minutes now. I made a mental note to look for someone in the city who could help Tauruumi out of her distressing state.

“I killed Agamnu.”

The blood drained from Barzidi’s face at these words of Labarinud’s. I remember the terror that fell upon the city of Tiuame during its siege by the Ikkŭsa, but the fear on Barzidi’s face rivaled anything I had seen during that dreadful time. “What are you saying?”

“I came upstairs in the middle of the night to find both of them fast asleep. I took the opportunity to exact revenge for everything his people have done to mine, for all the blood they have spilled, and for my long humiliation as a servant of his household. The deed is done, and I will go to my punishment and to the souls of my fathers in peace.”
It was all very simple, and it made sense of everything I knew about the events of last night. I opened my mouth to say something along those lines, but then it was as if the Hawk himself whispered in my ear, and I reconsidered. I knew Labarinud well enough to doubt that he harbored such hate for Agamnu, and even if he did consider himself bound by pious duty, why did he try to pin the deed on Bekzamu? “No,” I said. “The deed is done, but it was not you who did the deed.” If I had a few minutes to think over my words, I might have phrased that more poetically. The Bird made a small noise of complaint in my head: I’ve learned over the years that it has something of a critical streak.

“Do you call me a liar?”

“It is a harsh word,” I said. “But what would make you, of all people, tell such a lie?” I looked around the room at each of those present, each of whom looked shocked in their own way. I have often been called a fool, but I do not think that is fair. My thoughts do not go where I want them to go, and my words choose their own road out of my mouth, but I can find my footing if given enough time. I had my footing now, and when I spoke it was with all the authority that I and the Bird could muster. “Barzidi, what do you know about this? Why did you protest when Labarinud was about to speak?”

“I don’t know anything,” she said. Her face was so pale that I thought she was about to faint. “I was asleep until Bekzamu brought Tauruumi back.”

“But Bekzamu said he found you in the main hall, didn’t he?”

“Enough of this,” said Labarinud. “Why are you tormenting the girl? I have confessed, and no matter what torture you put me to, you will hear the same thing. I am guilty of my master’s blood, and I must face my punishment.”

“No!” Barzidi cried again. “Labarinud didn’t kill my father!”

“How do you know?” I asked. At this point Tauruumi rose again and began to intone something in the voice of an avenging spirit, but none of us were paying attention. I wasn’t, at least.

“Father was planning to marry me off to Aayuso. You know Aayuso, you know that he is the last man in Edazzo that any maiden would want to marry. But Father never could be turned from his path once he had decided on it. There was only one way to escape. This was the only way.” Then she turned and fled from the house so quickly that none of us who remained were able to do anything but stare at one another in silence. Tauruumi continued to intone, but still none of us were paying attention.

“I loved her,” said Labarinud. “I slept very little last night, and I saw everything. I could not let her perish, no matter her crime.” He sighed, all the breath leaving him until he seemed more like a doll than a man.

With the exception of Tauruumi, we were all too shocked to speak. I believe that I had even forgotten entirely about the Hawk of White Mountain, and what he would do at such a juncture.

After some time it occurred to me to pay attention to what Tauruumi was saying. “My sister killed him, but I will bring him back to life.”

I began to tell her calmly that such a thing was beyond the skill of even the greatest alchemists, but the Bird began to protest at the idea of trying to find a word for alchemy in the language of the Parakoo. So instead I merely asked her how she intended to do that. It is good to humor the bereaved.

I was expecting her to mention some god or mystery, but she did not. She stood up and beckoned for us to follow her out into the courtyard, where the sun had risen over the wall to give a tincture of gold to every stone and leaf. There was a man sitting on the bench with his back to us, and for a moment I thought it was Huro, come back in defiance of all reason and honor, but this man was, though broad-shouldered, not quite thick enough around the waist to be Huro.

He turned his head, revealing that he wore Agamnu’s face. Indeed, he was Agamnu, smiling at us all. “My children, my friend. I am sorry for what I did to you.”

“If you pretended to be dead, that was a cruel trick,” I told him. “And one that has done irreparable damage to your house.”

“It has brought what was hidden into the light, for which I must thank you and your friend the Hawk of White Mountain.”

I decided at this point to say nothing about how the Hawk of White Mountain was, in fact, a character from a popular series of stories that I had enjoyed as a child. He had never existed, nor did he have any worshipers like the legendary heroes of the Parakoo, but this truth would only bewilder my Parakoo friends, among whom literature is a province restricted to the bards. They sing about the history of the great families and of the gods above and below, but never about detectives no matter how brilliant.

“I don’t understand,” said Labarinud. “Did Barzidi really poison you?”

Agamnu shook his head, smiling.

“But she said she did,” Labarinud began to protest.

“She said nothing like that. I do not raise liars out of my seed. Barzidi came to the upper room that night to kill herself with the poison, don’t you see? At that point you were already asleep, my friend. I think you must have taken the lion’s share of the drug that my misguided brother put in the drink.

“Of course I told Barzidi that she would not have to marry Aayuso if she hated him that much, I persuaded her that instead that I would be the one to undergo a sleep that is like death.”

“He and his airy helpers could not fool me,” said Tauruumi, dancing from foot to foot. “I knew the truth as soon as I saw him.”

“You looked quite dead to me,” I interjected.

“I have many resources which you do not know, and of which I cannot openly speak,” Agamnu said, rising until he stood between me and the sun. “Like Risseldo, I bring gifts back from the underworld, though in my case it is not songs but light. There have been too many shadows for too long in my household, and it is good to burn them away. My daughters played their parts well.”

“I’m worried you might have burned the walls down around us. What about Lurwi? What will you do about her treachery?”

“And mine,” said Bekzamu. His head was bowed from the weight of his shame.

“Bekzamu needs to stop playing with potions,” said Agamnu in a rumbling voice that made me glance around for thunder before I realized my mistake. “And if he wants to make deals with Koludo, the two of them can do so in the underworld.” Bekzamu’s head bowed even lower. He was, I thought, in serious danger of falling over. “As for my wife, she has condemned herself, and you all are witnesses. I doubt that she or any of us will be seeing Huro again, but I shall have to keep a close eye on her in the future.”

“You don’t intend to cast her out?” asked Labarinud.

“You don’t intend to burn her?” asked Tauruumi. I have as much respect for marital fidelity as the next man, but this seemed rather extreme.

“Perhaps I should, but I confess to a shameful weakness of mine. I love Lurwi dearly, and I will not abandon her yet. As for you, Labarinud, what shall I do with you?”

“I have spoken out of place,” said Labarinud as calmly as ever. “If you choose to punish me, that is your right.”

“It was noble of you to put yourself in the way of my daughter’s punishment, but it was less noble of you to accuse my brother. You shall leave my service at once; you shall return to your homeland. And you, my old friend, what reward shall I give you?”

My answer was the obvious one, I think. “Only this. The next time you die and come back to life, please leave me out of the entire affair.”