I hope that none of my readers are familiar with the dens of iniquity that blemish the lower levels of the city of Edazzo. I certainly am not, but I happened to find myself in one such den because of an obligation to a friend, the details of which would only bore you. I admit I struggled to understand the lure of the place when I first entered. There were all the usual vices: gambling, drink, and so forth, but vices are less pleasant when covered by layers of dirt and grease and when perfume is a total stranger. A woman approached me asking if I wanted to play a game, but I told her I had no time for her. Here I think my Bird must have failed me, since her description of the game sounded nothing like any game I ever played as a boy, or as a man for that matter.
I found my friend and persuaded him to come with me despite his inebriation. They do not water their wine in Edazzo, and not everyone can hold their wine as well as I can. Many times my companions have remarked that I seem much the same sober as I do drunk. As I was helping my friend out the door of the den, a man with a remarkably large face stopped us and demanded in a remarkably loud voice, “Pay up.”
“I assure you that I owe you nothing!” I replied. “Indeed, I don’t recall us ever meeting before, and my memory is like an iron something or other.” I always find it hard to remember what has and hasn’t been invented.
“Not you, you stone-headed lump. Your friend here has run up a considerable tab.”
“I paid that already,” my friend said. “Ask Luisarsi and she’ll tell you. Ask anybody and they’ll tell you. I paid already.”
“I asked Luisarsi, and she said you’re a lying, untrustworthy, drunken, fool.”
My friend scoffed. “I may be a drunken fool, but I’ve never told a lie in my life.”
This, sad to say, was not quite accurate. In fact, my friend very rarely paid fully for his drinks, a practice that he referred to as shrewd bargaining. Whether or not he was lying on this occasion I really cannot say, since before the argument could get any further, my friend took the opportunity to duck under the large-faced man’s arm and vanish into the night outside.
I looked at the man. He looked at me. The moment seemed to call for a witty remark, and I made one. “It looks like he’s gone,” I said.
“Yes, yes it does. Which means that one of us has to pay for his drinks, and it certainly isn’t going to be me.”
“Why not? Are you out of money?”
He put his arm around me. We were becoming very good friends, I thought. “As I see it, you are a stranger here and so the honor of paying should go to you.”
It was not a good argument, I thought, and I said so. Since when did strangers show hospitality to their hosts, rather than the other way around? Obviously the man had had too much to drink.
“Here are two more arguments for you,” he said, and raised his fists, which were as disproportionately large as his face. I am no fool, despite the assertions of most of my friends, and so I followed the example of my companion and ran under his arm, ignoring the colorful shouts from behind me.
I caught up to my friend somewhere in the vicinity of the docks, where I discovered him crawling around on his hands and knees. “What exactly are you doing?” I asked him curiously.
“I am looking for my ring,” he told me, waving one of his hands in the air like a particularly depressed tree. “I lost it somewhere around here when I was dancing to celebrate my escape.”
“Probably fell in the water.”
He frowned up at me. “And why would a fish want my ring?”
This was a tricky philosophical question. “Fishermen say that fish are fond of bright things. They want to eat them, I believe.”
“They want to eat the sun,” said my friend, sitting back against a post. “Theirs is a cold and dark life, so it is only natural that they seek the light.”
“Maybe so, but metal is cold,” I pointed out.
“The fish doesn’t know that until it’s too late. It’s very, very sad.” At this point he slipped backwards and fell into the water.
It took some effort, but I pulled him out and dragged him to a nearby fire where a few sailors or fishers or aquatic men of some sort had gathered. He thanked me profusely, then added, “But did you find my ring? You know, it might have been stolen. My father is a priest of Adāi and he says that the sacred bracelets have been going missing from their storehouses.”
I sighed to let him know just how weary I was of dealing with his troubles, and no doubt he was pierced to the quick by my scorn. Then I left him there to go searching for that abominable ring, which I was quite certain had fallen to the bottom of the sea, or at least the bottom of whatever ledge stuck out in the way that ledges do. The moon was nowhere near bright enough to help me in my search, so that for once I understood why the men of this nation were tempted to pray to it as if it were a god.
I found the ring eventually, but when I tried to pick it up I discovered that it was around a lovely thin finger. The finger was attached to a hand, the hand to an arm, and at this point I ceased my exploration for modesty’s sake. The woman was looking down at me with an expression that through long experience I understood to be one of puzzlement and vague alarm. “Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” she replied. “I like your hat.”
“Thank you.” I adjusted it slightly, and the Bird squawked within my head. “It was a gift from some old friends of mine.”
“Their taste in hats is unique.”
“Their taste in many things was unique.” It has never been lucky to speak too much about the fair folk, so I changed the subject. “You are very pretty.”
“Well, thank you too. But why are you creeping around this place squeezing strange women’s hands?”
“I am looking for a ring my friend lost.”
“Oh? You don’t suppose this is it, do you? I found it only a few minutes ago.”
“It might be. Let me see.” She held up her hand and I took it in my own, turning it from side to side to examine the ring. After a moment she cleared her throat and I looked up, our gazes meeting. Her eyes shone in the moonlight, and had it been lighter I would no doubt have been struck head-over-heels by the vivid yellow of her hair, but as it was I was only moved.
“I understand the importance of ensuring you have the right ring, but how long are you going to hold my hand?” she asked.
It was then that I remembered I wasn’t actually sure what my friend’s ring looked like. It was an embarrassing moment for all concerned, and as I was reluctant for her to consider me either a fool or a lecher, it seemed I would have to create a slight deception. The Bird sang a pleasant song: this was the sort of thing it enjoyed.
“Ah. I believe so. I mean to say, I believe it is the one he lost.” If it wasn’t, I would have to return it with an apology and blame the dim light. Not, I must confess, my most clever and intricate plan, but it was the best I could do on the spur of the moment. I do not do my best thinking on the spur of the moment, nor, for that matter, under the gaze of beautiful women.
The beautiful woman who happened to be present at that moment made an annoyed sound. “It’s stuck on my finger.”
Indeed it was, and no matter how much she pulled, the band refused to shift. I considered the problem. “It reminds me of when I assisted at the siege of Tīuame,” I said as I thought.
“You were not at Tīuame.”
“I was, and it was largely due to me that the Ikkŭsa were driven away for the time being.”
“You think they’ll be back, then?”
It was a somber moment for me. “I do,” I said. “But not until you and I are long dead, if I have done the figures correctly. I’ve never had a head for figures. Why are you staring at me?”
“I have never seen a lunatic before. I had thought there’d be something different in the brows, but no, they look like those of a normal person.”
After a moment I understood who she was referring to, and I took offense. “I am not a lunatic. For one thing, I do not put on rings that do not belong to me.”
She pulled her hand away from me and crossed her arms. “Well then, I don’t think it belongs to your friend either. I think your friend’s ring is currently to be found in the stomach of a fish.”
“That’s exactly what I told him!”
“Then why have you been pestering me?”
That was a good point, and I had to ponder it. As I was pondering, the woman was twisting her hands together, overcome by emotion. What the emotion was, precisely, was beyond my knowledge. In any case, surprise was the emotion I felt when the woman disappeared from sight. I do not mean that metaphorically. One instant she was there; the next she was gone.
I returned to my friend and asked him what, precisely, it was that the ring did. He waved his hand like a tree again, but he did seem less inebriated than earlier. “The man I bought it from had a ridiculous story about it. Something about how it belonged to the god Horoso when he visited this earth, and how anyone who wore it would be cursed. I didn’t believe him, of course. The people here will say anything, especially about the gods. They either have too much piety or too little, I am not sure which.”
“Yes, and what exactly was the curse?”
He frowned in thought. “Nothing too bad, I think. Horoso will descend and take the wearer away to be judged in his gloomy realm. Something about gibbering ghosts, but I don’t remember what. Nonsense, of course. But where are you going now? You didn’t find the ring, did you?”
“I’m going to look for a priest!”
“Why, by the gods?”
I didn’t bother answering him. Some questions are worthy only of contempt. My friend was right about one thing, at least: the people of Edazzo will say anything about the gods, fair or foul, and have built countless shrines in the city to practice their worship. I recalled passing a shrine to Horoso on my way to the iniquitous den where my story commenced, and I had little difficulty in finding it again.
Horoso, or so his priests say, is a god who keeps watch over every soul, marking all its deeds, from foulest patricide to scratching an itchy wrist. He misses nothing and overlooks nothing, though as I understand it there are donations that can be made to persuade Horoso to turn a blind eye briefly. To be honest I have always been content with the religion of my youth and have never really understood the endless convoluted stories about the gods of Edazzo. To be even more honest, I have never really understood the religion of my youth either, but at least there are fewer gods to worry about.
Finding myself before Horoso’s shrine, I gave the old fellow my best piercing glance. He was, as usual, wrapped up in his shroud, his face just barely discernible in the block of stone from which he was carved. I didn’t see any priest or other attendant at the shrine to interpret Horoso’s words, so I simply gave him a sharp tap with my boot. “Listen up, you,” I said with all the courtesy I could muster. “What did you do with, ah, with that woman whose name I failed to ask? Where have you taken her? Bring her back at once!”
Very rudely, Horoso refused to answer me, so I kicked him again, hurting my foot. After pacing around a little while to allow my toes to recover, I came up with a new plan. Generally I do my best thinking when I’m in pain, and it is really to my injury during the Ikkŭsa invasion that I attribute my victories over the besiegers.
I ran back to the fire at the dock, and ignoring my friend’s baffled questions, I took up a burning brand and returned to Horoso. “By the Flame, I demand that you listen to me! Open your ears, or be swallowed by the shadow!” These sounded like effective phrases, but I was disappointed to find that they had no effect whatsoever. It was not the first time I regretted not paying more attention to services when I was young, and I doubt it will be the last.
I am not too proud to admit that at this point I was beginning to panic. I was willing to do nearly anything to rescue my lovely acquaintance, no matter how brief the acquaintanceship, from the nonexistence that had fallen upon her. I would have to get Horoso’s attention by whatever means necessary. I have done terrible things in the past when pressed to it, and I was prepared to do terrible things again. I held fire in my hands like the fire in my heart, and I was ready to burn the world.
Or at least the wooden shrine around the statue, which seemed enough for the moment. I stood admiring my work for a moment before I remembered what I was doing. “Horoso!” I said again. “Return the woman with the ring at once! You’ve seen what I did to your shrine: if you don’t do what I say, I’ll take your idol and drop it to the bottom of the ocean!”
“What under Heaven are you doing?”
“Threatening you, you stealer of women!” That had sounded fine in my head, but not so much when I said it. It was no doubt the Bird’s fault; I myself am renowned for my eloquence, or I was when I was young. What troubled me more was that Horoso was speaking in a strangely high-pitched voice. I am not an expert in the lore of the gods, but I had never heard that Horoso had a woman’s voice.
“I beg your pardon?”
It was also strange that the voice was coming from behind me, but I had heard that the gods are in many places at once. “If it takes fire to get your attention, then fire you shall have, and rivers of it!”
“Thank you, but I prefer water myself. Why are you talking to that statue? I leave for a minute and you go even crazier than before.”
Here I decided the wisest course of action would be to look around and see who was in fact talking to me. It was the woman who had disappeared. She was holding the ring in an outstretched palm, looking very guilty indeed. “I thought maybe the ring would come off if I turned invisible. It did, but I wasn’t expecting you to do quite what you did.”
My readers may well be surprised that this woman proved to be a powerful magician, but I was not. I go about my business generally assuming that everyone I meet is a magician of one sort or another, and while there is rarely evidence of this, I have the comfort of knowing that I won’t be surprised when a magician actually appears. Or disappears, as the case may be. Far be it from me to say what a magician will or won’t do.
Not only was I not surprised, but my fast-working mind was able to draw a number of conclusions right away. “Turning invisible makes your fingers shrink? Remarkable. Or perhaps turning invisible makes rings grow. It is a fascinating conundrum, and the more I think about it, the less sure I am of how to tell the difference. I propose an experiment in which we make a series of marks on a stick.” Before I could go on to explain the details of my experiment, the woman cleared her throat, looking irritated for some reason, so I postponed it for a later time. “But of course you’re the one who’s been stealing the bracelets from the priests of Adāi. Yes, who else but an invisible woman could slip into their stronghold unnoticed, violating their sanctum and gathering up their holy amulets? No doubt you’re stockpiling them in order to fashion out of their gold and cloth a magical gate through which you can draw the entire city, stealing it from our world.”
“And why would I do that?”
“I, myself, am not sure, but I’m positive you must have a good reason. You see, I like you very much.”
She looked at me in what was becoming her accustomed state of surprise. “Even though I am a thief and a magician?”
I shrugged. “I’ve known worse in my time.”
She began to entwine her fingers together. I had of course taken the ring back by this point, and had put it in my pocket rather than on my finger. There was no point in taking chances. “I’m afraid I’m not enough of a magician to know whether it’s possible to make bracelets into a gate like the one you mentioned. I’m just enough of a magician to turn myself invisible.”
I scratched my head, perplexed. “Then who’s the other invisible person? Someone stole those bracelets, and I doubt it was the birds. On second thought, maybe it was the birds! I have known some very clever birds in my time, and certain species are renowned for their greed.”
“It was not the birds, you idiot!” I was glad to see we had reached the inevitable point in our acquaintanceship where she called me an idiot. “I was the one who stole the bracelets!”
Again I scratched my head. “But why? You aren’t wearing any right now. Unless you turned them invisible.”
“I have a friend who worships Adāi but is in a situation where she cannot afford a bracelet of her own. She will be marrying soon and asked me if I could help her get a bracelet for good fortune.”
“How much good fortune does one person need?” I asked. “Wait a minute, I can work this out. If you’ve stolen a total of thirty bracelets over two months, that works out to a bracelet every other day or some figure in that vicinity.” I did not have my abacus on me.
“Well, my friend had friends of her own.”
I sighed. “Let me tell you a fable from my own land, my dear.”
“Where are you from, by the way? There is something odd about your accent, and your face is not quite like any other I have seen around here.”
“Neither of those are exactly my fault. I blame the first on my teachers and the second on my parents. But I could ask you the same question. I have traveled all across the world and I don’t really remember seeing such a striking contrast between hair and skin as I see on your face.” The Bird sang in my head. I think it liked this woman, though I admit I do like to think that the Bird agrees with me about most things. Needless to say, I had elided the truth somewhat concerning my accent, but the fair folk did warn me not to speak (or write) too freely of the Bird.
“All right, we’ll keep our secrets. Go on with your fable.”
I tried frantically to remember the details of the story as I spoke. “There once was a brilliant man whose city was threatened by a great army. He invented a machine by which the army was driven back, saving the city, and the king invited him to his palace so he could thank him.”
“What kind of machine?”
“I do not know,” I said, irritated by the interruption. “I am not as brilliant as the man in the story. Tiuame would have been far happier if I were. But where was I? I forget now.”
“The king invited him to his palace so he could thank him.”
“That was it. The king offered him anything he wanted, and so he asked for a chessboard. Come to think of it, I might be mixing up two stories in my head, but never mind that.”
It had been gone from her face for a while, but now the familiar look returned. “I didn’t catch that word.”
“I said, never mind that.”
“No, what the man asked from the king.”
It occurred to me then that I had never actually seen anyone playing chess here. What nonsense had the Bird sung in place of the unfamiliar word? “It is a game played on a board.” I made quick precise gestures with my hand. “Square, made up of little squares. There are different forms, but in the most common there are eight multiplied by eight.”
“You are an arithmetician!”
“I am a magician. The two are not dissimilar.”
“Then you will appreciate the brilliant part. The man asked the king to place one grain of wheat on the first square, two grains of wheat on the second square,” I began to say.
“Yes, yes, and the numbers kept increasing until all the wheat in the world couldn’t fit on the board.”
“Oh. You’ve heard the story, then.”
“I can multiply. I’m not sure what it has to do with my situation.”
I saw that I would have to explain it in detail. I knew astrologers who were like that, able to do impressive calculations without an abacus but totally helpless in this world. Patiently I said, “The bracelets stand for squares of the chessboard. No, that isn’t right. The bracelets stand for grains of wheat, or possibly the other way around. Or is it your friends who stand for squares of the chessboard. Wait a minute while I figure this out.”
“I think I understand what you meant.” I looked at her in the hope that she would explain it to me, but all she did was shake her head and look out at the sea. I don’t know what, exactly, she was looking at except for a lot of water. Perhaps she saw an interesting fish. “I thank you for your advice. And it was foolish of me to think I could provide good fortune to all my friends and all my friends’ friends too. I am done stealing bracelets.” She turned back to me and flashed a smile that made me think of the fair folk for some reason. “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“I doubt whether the suspicious people of Edazzo will believe me if I go around talking about a woman who can turn herself invisible again.”
“It is a painful story,” I said, biting my lip. “I’d rather talk about something else.”
“We have seen the end of the world,” she replied, which was admittedly something else. As I struggled to work out how I should respond to that, she disappeared. There was no dramatic flash of light or incantation; she was simply gone.
Some time later, I exclaimed, “But not, I hope, the end of our acquaintanceship!” Satisfied with my reply, I went back to my friend and gave him his ring. He thanked me and asked me where I found it. Well, what was there for me to say? I told him I had found it lying around somewhere and tried to ignore the song of the Bird.