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 Āyuso, a young man of the city of whom Agamnu had a higher opinion than I. I insisted fruitlessly that Āyuso 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 Āyuso.

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 Hōstupke 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. Taurūmi, 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 Taurūmi. 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 Taurūmi 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.

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

“Taurūmi, no!” Barzidi said, but Taurūmi 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 Parako. 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. Taurūmi 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 Taurūmi 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 Solīriso.”

“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 Taurūmi were sitting together on the couch, Taurūmi 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?” Taurūmi 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 Taurūmi, 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 Thundargi 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? Taurūmi? 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.

“Taurūmi!” 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 Taurūmi sullenly, like a child.

“Early yesterday morning,” said Bekzamu. “I was returning from a brief walk when I met Taurūmi 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 Taurūmi. “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 Kholudo, 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 Taurūmi’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 Taurūmi back. I suspect he was meeting Kholudo as Taurūmi 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 Kholudo. Agamnu didn’t understand Kholudo, 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 Taurūmi, 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 Taurūmi, 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 Taurūmi 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 Taurūmi 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 Taurūmi 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 Āyuso. You know Āyuso, 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. Taurūmi 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 Taurūmi, 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 Taurūmi 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 Parako. 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 Parako, but this truth would only bewilder my Parako 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 Āyuso 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 Taurūmi, 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 Kholudo, 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 Taurūmi. 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.”

Strange Gods

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