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 Exana, 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 serious 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 Exara 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 Exara lords should have taken whatever treasure the Murei had collected. But I’ve learned that in Exana, the normal course of things is not always normal.”

“There are all those stories I heard about hidden rooms that the Exara 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 Exara 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 Tiħāsū; 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 Exara 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 Exara?”

“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. Māni! 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 Māni 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 Exara 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 Kīmu, 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 Exana 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 Exana 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 Exana 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 Exara 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.

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 Phlę̄ri, 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 Adāi, 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 Anu, 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 Phlę̄ri. “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 Anu 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 Aguthāso 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 Aguthāso,” 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 Aguthāso 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 Aguthāso’s face. “Can you tell me what this is?”

“It is a tiny wax tablet with a symbol carved on it,” Aguthāso 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,” Aguthāso 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 Aguthāso to the room where the critical tablet was kept. When I had heard Aguthāso’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. Aguthāso 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,” Aguthāso 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, Adāi 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 Nārintho. 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 Nārintho 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 Nārintho. 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 Nārintho 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 Nārintho 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 Aguthāso 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 Aguthāso 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 Aguthāso 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.”

Aguthāso 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, Aguthāso 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 Aguthāso. “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 Aguthāso reached the end of his recitation. Elerias paid more attention, and when Aguthāso 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. Aguthāso 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.

Aguthāso 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 Aguthāso 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. (Aguthāso 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 Nārintho, 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 Love Affair and Some Old Stories