A Love Affair and Some Old Stories

“I am in love,” Bekrao announced to me one day not long ago. My readers may recall that Bekrao was the inebriated friend whose ring I recovered. My readers will be pleased to read that at no point in this account do I search for a ring of any kind. (A ring is, alas, involved, but it is not lost: it is firmly on my finger as I write.) Up to this point I had not known Bekrao to be particularly amorously inclined, as absorbed as he was in his drinking, so it was with skepticism that I received this announcement. “I am in love,” he said again, though the repetition did not make his statement any more persuasive

“All right, you are in love,” I said. “Who is the unfortunate girl? Your father will be pleased if it is Sāletinai.”

“You speak our language very well for a foreigner, but the proper word to use in this case is ‘fortunate,’ not ‘unfortunate.’ Her name is Ripāti.”

“Not Sāletinai, then.”

“My father governs many things on my life, but not my love. Ripāti is the most beautiful thing between earth and sky.” Bekrao went on in this vein for some time, describing her eyes (sweet raisins), her nose (as gracefully curved as a tower, yet as precious as a pearl), her lips (red as coral), and so on and so forth through a litany of analogies that showed greater enthusiasm than originality or taste.

“Yes, yes,” I said at last. “But who is she? Have I ever met her? Whose daughter is she?”

“If you had met her, you would never have forgotten her. She is a nymph in human flesh. I don’t know who her father is, but does it really matter? Her voice is the voice of the pure stream running down to the sea, and all her words are full of wisdom and insight beyond any bard.”

“All right. But where did you meet her?”

“It was at one of Agamnu’s dinners.” He sank into a reverie, staring off into the distance, or possibly at a piece of dirt on my left shoulder.

“Was she a kinswoman of Agamnu? Someone’s daughter or maiden sister? A courtesan?”

“I don’t know,” he said softly.

“But you know her name, and what she looks like. That is something, at least. You spoke with her?”

“Yes! Well, no, not personally. I saw her on the other side of the room, and I heard her talking to someone else, an older man, who called her Ripāti.”

“Not her husband, I hope.”

“No, no. Some of us in this room are not fools.” Since I hadn’t been aware that there were any fools in that room, this remark puzzled me, but I let it pass without comment. “I am not sure what he was to her, exactly, but he was asking her questions about the nature of the world that she answered without hesitation. She must be a remarkable woman. She is a remarkable woman. I am in love with her.”

“If you want me to find out who she is, you only have to ask.”

“Thank you,” said Bekrao with a certain edge to his voice. “But I am quite capable of finding out who she is on my own.”

“By which you mean you will ask Yaretzamu.” Yaretzamu is Bekrao’s faithful and knowledgeable manservant.

“I only wanted to tell you about her. Love is like a fountain, as the poets say, overflowing with its abundance. If I hadn’t told anyone, my heart and kidneys would have burst with bottled-up passion.”

This sounded unpleasant, if not obscene. “All right,” I said again, and lay back on the couch to listen to him praise Ripāti for some considerable time. I did not actually fall asleep as he spoke, but I did decide to shut my eyes and ponder other things. It was while I was pondering a three-headed ogre that asked me if I knew the way to the southern ocean that Bekrao shook my shoulder and told me to pay attention.

“I am paying attention,” I told him. “You were saying that Ripāti is beautiful.”

“So I was. She is like,” he began to say, but any further metaphors were interrupted by the arrival of Yaretzamu, who was staggering under the weight of a lidded basket. He dropped it, not entirely intentionally I think, on the ground in front of Bekrao.

“There,” said Yaretzamu. “Did you need anything else? A griffin’s egg from the lands of the far east? The scepter of the Father Above? A drink from one of the rivers of the underworld?”

“No, no, my friend, this is enough.” Ripāti, it seemed, was completely forgotten as Bekrao crouched by the basket and took the lid away. He took out a tablet and gave it to me. “Read this,” he said.

Reading is always something of a gamble for me, at least in this part of the world. With my Bird to help me, I do not truly understand the languages here, so if they were written in an alphabet like those used in my home, I doubt I would be able to read anything at all. But happily many of the symbols represent words or suffixes rather than sounds, so fairly often I find myself able to piece together the meaning.

As for the tablet that Bekrao gave me, I was able to tell immediately that it described a group of craftsmen and their attempt to create a masterwork of some kind. After further perusal, I discovered that the craftsmen were in fact fashioning from gold and silver and jewels the figure of a woman. In fact, the account seemed to be a version of the story of Letellusi, the first woman the gods made, and I told Bekrao so.

“A version? My dear friend, it is the version. You know the new temple they’re building on that hill in the north?” I didn’t, but it seemed easier to nod and pretend I did. “While they were doing some digging, they found these tablets buried. Do you understand what that means?”

“I don’t understand how you got them.”

Bekrao waved his arm vaguely. “I have connections.”

“I still don’t understand how you got them.”

He waved his arm vaguely again. “My connections were able to make these copies for me to look over and see what insight I could offer with my vast learning.”

“Your connections are menial workers, and you bribed them to let Yaretzamu make copies for you.”

Bekrao waved his arm, but this time in a somewhat more specific fashion. “I have always been interested in the beginning of things. You should know that. The womb from which all things were born. You know that is why I always try to, shall we say, forget myself.”

“I understand,” I said, though I didn’t. It sounded vaguely religious, but I hadn’t been aware that Bekrao was involved with any of the mysteries. His father was a priest of Adāi, but Bekrao was a disappointment to him in many ways. I think I saw Bekrao talking to an unrelated priest once, but that was about some money that was owed to one party by the other party.

“Well, these tablets are the beginning. Once I read them, I will know.”

Bekrao was admittedly on the inebriated side during most of my conversations with him, but I had never known him to be this nonspecific before. I suspected then that my Bird was beginning to fail me. It will be a gloomy day when that comes to pass, and I hope that it never will. I can only trust that the craftsmanship of the fair folk will last for a very long time yet. “What will you know?” I asked him, prodding his shoulder.

“Pay attention! I always knew your mind was an earthbound one, but you are being amazingly obtuse. Here, give that tablet to me. In your hands it’s not doing anyone any good.”

I shrugged and gave him the tablet. As he brought it to his table to examine it, I took the second tablet from the basket. This one appeared to describe a war between two groups of deities. I provide my best rendering of its meaning below, for anyone who may be interested. Names or words I did not recognize are indicated with alternative readings of characters, my best guesses, or simply dashes when the character was completely foreign to me.

~

When the Spear Gods had finished building their stronghold, they took council with one another as to how they should pay the Earth Men who had laid the foundations. It was agreed that because of the – – they would not be able to pay the Earth Men with gold or silver, nor were any of the Spear Gods willing to go among the Earth Men as a hostage. Burning spoke and told them that he knew a way to trick the Earth Men. Agreement was made.

Burning went among the Earth Men disguised as a – – and offered them a golden apple taken from the West Garden as payment. [I do not understand why this Burning character needed to be in disguise. I rather think I made an error in translation here.]

He gave them the apple; Burning gave them the golden apple.

He repaid the debt of the Spear Gods; the debt for the building.

But the apple was – – truly – – from the orchards of the Bowl Gods.

When the Earth Men knew they had been cheated, they were angry, but their vow bound them, and so they left for another part of the cosmos. They will – – when the day of – – comes. The Spear Gods sat down to feast, and Burning received the – –, but the Bowl Gods came to the stronghold of the Spear Gods in a storm and demanded that Burning be handed over to them for punishment. Sea Beard chief of the Bowl Gods proclaimed that Burning had stolen the – – from their orchard, but Burning denied it. Old Bark chief of the Spear Gods demanded that the Bowl Gods leave, and with a thunder blow he struck Sea Beard in one of the Great Blows of – –.

~

This was the extent of the second tablet, and I set it aside to pick up the third. But before I could begin to read it, I heard the noise of a faint conversation right outside Bekrao’s gate. Yaretzamu entered again and said in a low voice, “A woman is here to see you.”

“Me?”

Yaretzamu coughed like a trodden frog. “To see my master.”

“I have no time for women!” Bekrao cried, his hand flying up above his head, where it froze. “Wait. Would this particular woman be Ripāti?”

“That was the name she gave.”

I have seen men move quickly in times of peril, fleeing from the enemy or from a wild animal, but I don’t recall having seen anyone move faster than Bekrao did at that moment. He returned from the gate accompanied by a woman whom I deduced to be Ripāti herself. She was indeed very pretty, though I didn’t think she quite lived up to Bekrao’s description. In particular I did not find that her nose reminded me either of a tower or a pearl. Nor had she mentioned that she was rather on the short side.

“Ah,” Bekrao was saying, sounding something like a trodden frog himself. “This is a friend of mine, who was just leaving.”

“Oh, but there’s no need for that. I only wanted to say one little thing,” Ripāti said, smiling pleasantly at both of us. I smiled back, wanting to be polite, but something seemed to be bothering Bekrao, and he kept looking from me to the entrance and giving me nods that were probably meant to be significant, though it was beyond my powers to tell what he wanted. My Bird does not bother translating pantomime.

“Ah?”

“Give back those tablets.”

“But they’re only copies,” Bekrao explained. “The originals are still in the keeping of the man in charge of the new temple. His name actually escapes me at the moment.”

“Phumalluo. And he is my father.” Bekrao began speaking very quickly, and in fact I believe he was trying to say multiple things at once. He stopped when Ripāti held up her hand. “My father is also a learned man, an initiate of the oldest mysteries, and when he says that you should not keep these texts, it would be wise to listen.”

“I read one and it seemed harmless enough,” I said.

“And what do you know about the mysteries? Have you ever been to the caves beneath Edazzo? Have you ever seen what is hidden under Teleko’s lamp? Have you heard the words that Adāi mutters?”

“Very little, no, no, and no.”

“Then you shouldn’t talk. You are half-blind, at best. As for you, you thief whose name escapes me at the moment. I will be taking those tablets now.”

Bekrao’s courtship of Ripāti did not seem to me to be getting off to a prosperous start, but I am an optimist. There have been happy marriages that began under worse circumstances.

“My father is a priest of Adāi,” said Bekrao. “I know what I am getting into by reading these tablets, and I welcome it.”

“Do you really? I doubt it. This is something that lies behind Teleko and Adāi.”

“Good!”

Ripāti’s eyebrows rose. She sounded impressed as she said, “You are bold.” As I remarked, I am an optimist.

Bekrao snatched the third tablet out of my hand and put it back in the basket. “I can assure you that I will be the only one to read these tablets, if you think they are dangerous.”

“No one reads these. Not even you.”

“Then I’ll go with you and speak to your father. He’ll see that I am not such an ignoramus as you think me to be.”

She smiled and shook her head. In her smile I could glimpse something of why Bekrao was so enraptured with her. If I may turn to poetry for a moment, it seemed to me to offer a mountaintop from which I could see whole rivers and fields of beauty in the distance. (You see, Bekrao, that is how you write a poetic metaphor. Not that you will ever read this, I trust.) “I wasn’t sent here to bring the tablets and a fool, only the tablets.”

“In that case I refuse. They belong to me and I will read them as I wish. Tell your father that.”

She reddened. “Tell my father? You can tell your father, that old priest of Adāi, that Phumalluo father of Ripāti demands his texts back. Else a thousand curses will fall on all your heads, but it will not be he who casts them.”

“It will be you?” I wondered. The imprudence of this was demonstrated when she turned her fury on me.

“Do I look like a witch?” she demanded.

I was not entirely sure what a witch looked like. To be honest, I had never met one, but because Ripāti bore no distinctive signs such as preternatural ugliness or spiders crawling in her hair, and because she was glaring especially fiercely at me, I said no.

Immediately she picked up the basket and, struggling somewhat with its weight, went out into the street. Bekrao and I looked at one another, no doubt thinking much the same thing. Why hadn’t she brought someone with her to help her carry the basket, and to protect her in the streets?

“She is wonderful, isn’t she?” asked Bekrao. Maybe we hadn’t been thinking the same thing after all. “And now that I know she has those amazing texts, it is as if everything I desire in the world has been set in one place for me.” I thought to myself that this would only be true if Ripāti was also a brewer.

“What now? I assume you’ll try to see her again, not to mention those tablets.”

He nodded solemnly, but before he could expound on whatever plan he had in mind, Yaretzamu spoke up. “I do know a little something about Phumalluo, if you would like to hear it.”

“I would,” said Bekrao, and began pouring wine for himself in a large cup and for me in a smaller.

“He is, as I’m sure you know, the most powerful man in the upper section of the city. His wife died some years ago, and Ripāti is their only child. This is what everyone knows, but fewer know of Phumalluo’s interest in the gray lords.”

“The who now?” asked Bekrao. I searched my memory, wondering like Bekrao if I had ever heard that phrase before.

“There are fewer still who know who the gray lords are, sir. I am not among them. All I know is that they are said by the wise to be the true rulers of Edazzo, and by the rulers to be a rumor spread by seditious plotters. But Phumalluo’s interest is on a more esoteric plane.”

“A more what?”

“A more esoteric plane.”

“A beggar’s scraper?” One of the unfortunate effects of relying on my Bird is that I have no awareness of when two phrases in the Parako language sound similar to one another. I therefore miss puns and lose much of the effect of poetry.

Yaretzamu wisely ignored Bekrao. “The details are beyond my knowledge. But it does not surprise me that Phumalluo would be interested in texts such as these. It would not surprise me if he made those excavations for the purpose of acquiring them.”

“My curiosity is piqued,” said Bekrao. The Bird’s rendition of this sentence was halting enough that I suspect Bekrao was beginning to feel the effects of the unmixed wine he had been pouring into his mouth whenever Yaretzamu was speaking. “I think I’ll have to pay Phumalluo a visit.”

Yaretzamu and I exchanged glances. Our thoughts were as one: it would be disastrous imprudence for Bekrao to call on Phumalluo at any other time, but now that he had been drinking it would be especially disastrous. “I’ll see what I can do to arrange a meeting, but I wouldn’t be optimistic. He is a very private man.”

“That’s all right. He’ll know who I am. He’ll want to talk to me. I want to love Ripāti. I want to die.” I heard these words with alarm and saw that Bekrao was staring into the distance over my shoulder. Generally Bekrao was not the kind of man who became melancholy when he drank.

“You’re talking nonsense,” I told him.

“Do you want to know what the story I was reading was about?”

“It was about the first woman, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but it’s not the version you typically hear, either from men or women. It’s darker, sadder, better.” He rested his chin on his hand, suddenly sounding much more sober than he had a moment earlier. “It’s the story of how destruction came over the first world, and how mankind utterly failed to save themselves from the wrath of the gods.”

I raised my hand in protest. “Perhaps this is not the best time for such a gloomy story.” I am honestly not sure what the best time for a gloomy story is, myself preferring those stories that end in triumph, reconciliation, weddings, and general happiness.

“There is no better time. And if I wait any longer I’ll forget the story.” He made a clicking sound with his tongue and a motion with his hand, both of which I found utterly incomprehensible, but which I suspect to have represented the story falling out of his memory. “This is how it went, I think.

“The gods met in their council above to decide what should be done about humanity, which had grown to be something of a plague on the earth. Their sins were without number. Name a sin, and they committed it.”

“Wait a moment,” I said. “Is this before the first woman was made? How did humanity grow without women?”

He considered this question. “I think I got the order of things mixed around. Let me see. No, that’s right. I think this was before the gods made the first man too.”

“That makes even less sense. I think the wine you drank has muddled your story.”

“No, no. These are old stories! They’re meant to be strange! Humanity, which was around before the first man or the first woman, had grown to be something of a plague on the earth.” He paused here and thought for a moment. I myself was trying very hard to imagine what this primeval mankind was like.

“I believe you may have misread one of the pertinent symbols,” said Yaretzamu.

“Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m starting to forget the story already, so please, no more interruptions. Something of a plague on the earth, sins beyond number. The gods met in their council above to debate and decide and argue. Some gods said one thing, some gods said another thing. The text was kind of confusing here and I’m not entirely sure who took what position, but in the end they all decided to create the first man.”

It was at this point that it became clear to me that Bekrao was mangling the story out of all sense and order, but I kept listening in order to humor him.

“This first man was not like you or me, but his skin shone like gold and his eyes gleamed with fire. Or maybe it was the other way around, his eyes shining like gold and his skin burning like fire. In any case, he was given precious gifts and sent down to his descendants on earth. He led them to a sacred tree atop a sacred hill, where he proclaimed himself their king, and was accepted.”

“How exactly did this solve the problem of humanity being a plague on the earth?” I asked.

“I forget that part. Anyway, this first man was very lonely.”

“With all the other people around?”

“They were a plague, remember. You should pay more attention. He was lonely, so he implored the gods and they granted him a companion, the first woman.”

“Generous of them.”

“The text didn’t say, but I assume she had gold and fire skin and eyes like the first man. So he took her as his wife and they were happy for a time.”

“I’m still waiting for the disaster.”

“The people grew tired of the first man’s rule, and they banished him into the wilderness with his wife. Then they built a thing that I don’t have the slightest idea how to translate, but it apparently brought the wrath of the gods down on them. Each god did something to punish mankind. It’s like that old joke about the gallant who gets beaten by a whole series of outraged fathers, brothers, and husbands, until at the end there’s nothing left of him.” Bekrao began to laugh, which delayed the continuation of his story for some time until he was able to recall what he was doing and where he was. “So all that was left was the first man and the first woman. A new beginning for us all!”

“I’m not sure I see the point of the story,” I commented, assuming he was done.

“The point is very simple. The man, for reasons the story does not bother to explain, promptly goes and gets drunk and dances around making a fool of himself until the woman uses the arts of love with him. And so we are all cursed by our fools of ancestors, who squandered the gift the gods had given them. And that is the world.” Bekrao looked around in triumph, his story finished, and fell asleep.

I left him, bidding farewell to Yaretzamu, and returned to my own home. I said before that I am an optimist, but even so I was doubtful that Bekrao would have much success in his pursuit of either Ripāti or the tablets.

~

It was a few days before I saw Bekrao again, passing him in the street outside his house. He was no longer drunk, fortunately, but he might as well have been, the way he was calling out for alms. In fact, I assumed at first that he was drunk, and approached him to chastise him. “What are you doing, Bekrao?” I asked. Better to begin one’s chastisement with soft words.

“I am looking for Ripāti. What else does it look like I’m doing?” was his answer. I had to admit it was a good one, but there remained problems with his method, and I pointed these out to him.

“How exactly are you doing that by begging on the street? You haven’t lost all your fortune in the past two days, have you?”

He sighed and shook his head, and only then did I notice that he was wearing the simple garments of a laborer. “I am in disguise,” he explained slowly, as if I were a foolish child.

“Why?”

“Listen. Yaretzamu informed me that Lord Phumalluo is hosting a great feast to celebrate the festival of Madopolōi. Ripāti is sure to be there, but unfortunately, if any invitation was sent to me, the messenger fell into difficulties on the way.”

“But if Bekrao can’t go to the feast, why would the guards permit some random beggar to pass?”

“Yaretzamu suggested it, and his advice has never steered me wrong. Except for that incident with the, you will recall this, the theomachy.”

I did recall it, and the memory made me somber for moment. How poor Bekrao had ended up fleeing from those crazed dancers is a thing that will always puzzle me and distress me at the same time. Still, the affair had had a comic side to it, if one thinks about it in those terms. So long as one is not being chased by them oneself, there is not much more comic than a mob of Anu’s dancers all running in one direction with their arms flailing, like a stampede of cattle who happen to overhear someone insult their god while dressed in the outfit of some rival order of cows. I do not know if this happens with cattle much, but it certainly happens with Anu’s dancers.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t understand what exactly Yaretzamu had been thinking with this particular suggestion. “You’re sure you heard him correctly?” I asked.

“I’m not deaf,” he told me. “Go ask him yourself, if you don’t trust me. He’s inside doing something, Adāi only knows what.”

So I went inside and found Yaretzamu bent over a tablet, pressing his pen into the clay carefully, pausing between characters to consider. I cleared my throat, which had the unfortunate effect of him marring his writing as he jerked in surprise. “Ah,” he said. “I should have known it would be you who did this.”

This comment did not seem entirely fair, since I am hardly the only man who could have startled him, but I let it pass. “Is there a particular reason,” I wondered out loud, “why Bekrao is begging for alms outside?”

Yaretzamu sighed. From various hints he has dropped in the past, I believe him to have an erroneously low view of my intelligence, placing it somewhat below even Bekrao’s. “What did he tell you?”

“He said it was your scheme to get him into Phumalluo’s feast.”

“He is mistaken. I suggested that he should disguise himself as a servant, but it would appear that my master has very little idea of the distinctions between the classes. What I am doing here is, as usual, much more useful. I’m preparing the pass that will actually let him into the feast to help with the food.”

“Oh. Should I tell Bekrao he’s wasting his time and spoiling his dignity?”

“No, it’s better that he stay there and not bother me, or go looking for a drink either.”

I put my head around the gate and saw that Bekrao was missing. “I believe he has gone looking.”

“I suppose I should bring him back, then,” said Yaretzamu with another sigh. But I told him that I would go find Bekrao instead, so Yaretzamu could finish his current task. I thought I had a good idea of where to find Bekrao, and I set out right away.

As it happened, my first idea of where to find Bekrao was not such a good one, and I found my steps taking me down towards the unsavory parts of Edazzo that I believe I have mentioned in an earlier account. Fortunately, before I had gone too far, I heard Bekrao singing the infamous song about Madopolōi and the farmer. I ducked into the side alley from where his voice came, and found him leaning against a wall, still dressed like a beggar, waving one arm as he entertained an audience of other beggars. They all gave me unfriendly looks when they saw me, even Bekrao, and I began to feel quite nervous. “Excuse me,” I said with an inoffensive smile. “I was wondering if I might speak with my friend here a moment?”

“Once the song is over,” a member of the audience said, or rather grunted.

So I was forced to stand and listen to Bekrao’s not especially pleasant voice for some time. Finally he reached the conclusion of the song, to cheers and applause. Then Bekrao turned my way and asked me if I wanted to hear another song. Politely I refused and added that Yaretzamu had something to tell him. “About Ripāti,” I added, which was perhaps true only in the broadest sense. I had the feeling a certain amount of broad interpretation was called for at the moment.

“Ripāti!” exclaimed Bekrao, his eyes lighting up. “You will pardon me, gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen. I have somewhere that I must be.”

There was grumbling, but to my relief it remained as grumbling and did not take fire. As I led Bekrao back to his home, he lectured me about whatever came into his head, from the nature of the clouds above to some ridiculous story about a hunter running through the sky. He said more loudly once this story had trailed off into incoherent mumbling, “This is the end for me.”

“What?” I said, confused.

“It is my last chance. If I do not escape myself through Ripāti, I will die. It is the only way out.” He laughed and asked me if I had ever been in love.

It was a question that caused me to think the matter over for some minutes, not entirely happily. Certainly there have been many woman in my life I have admired greatly, but before I came to this part of the world I was prevented by my duties from ever truly pursuing one or another of them. My readers will perhaps recall that there is one woman in this part of the world I have described in terms that could be viewed as somewhat lovestruck, but at the time I thought I had little hope of meeting her again.

In any case, Bekrao had by this time forgotten that he asked the question. “It’s like I’m trapped in here,” he said. His voice was quiet enough that I wasn’t sure if he was addressing me or not, but I answered anyway.

“In this world?” I am, you will understand, familiar with some of the more esoteric schools of philosophy.

“In myself,” he replied, which was a bit beyond the limits of my aforementioned familiarity. So I simply made a noise of understanding while Bekrao continued to speak. “When I saw Ripāti, I was allowed out of my prison for a brief time, and I would give anything to be let out again. It is not like the madness of drink. Lagulai is a kinder deity than Anu: she at least gives me the pleasure of enjoying my freedom.”

By this time we had returned to his house, and I delivered him to Yaretzamu. I was about to leave when Yaretzamu raised his arm and said, rather rudely, “Wait here a moment.”

So I did, exchanging meaningful glances with Bekrao. What I meant by my glances was roughly, “Are you sober enough for whatever Yaretzamu has planned?” What he meant was, I believe, “Where am I?”

There is no need for me to go into great detail about Yaretzamu’s plan to get Bekrao into the feast. I myself would be there on my own accord, and Yaretzamu wanted to make sure that I did not inadvertently reveal him, as if I would be such a fool. With that settled, I left at last.

~

The festival of Madopolōi was a few days later, and although I have no particular reverence for Madopolōi, I do enjoy the prospect of a table full of food. Even in a port city like Edazzo, the Parako have never struck me as a people who are especially gifted in culinary matters. Olive oil and barley are very well in their way, but a certain martial austerity stands gloomily over Edazzo. Nevertheless, Phumalluo is reputed to have a very fine table indeed, and I was looking forward not only to the feast itself, but to seeing how things would turn out with Bekrao and Ripāti.

I did not see Bekrao at first among the servants who were offering perfume to and washing the feet of the guests, but Ripāti was sitting at her father’s side. It was strange that she was not with the ladies in the other room, I thought. Surely Phumalluo wouldn’t put his daughter at risk of Madopolōi’s wrath? My neighbors, whom I did not know and who must have been from some other part of the city, seemed similarly confused. One of them even asked me if I didn’t think that Ripāti was a man made up in a feminine manner. This seemed unfair to Ripāti’s figure, which was not generous but was still clearly that of a woman.

In Edazzo it is the custom to celebrate the reunion of Madopolōi and her children by hiring a bard to sing some portion of the sacred hymns, yet I saw no bard, which made me wonder even more than Ripāti’s presence did. I even considered whether Phumalluo didn’t plan to have Ripāti sing, but dismissed this as absurd. More likely he planned to have us all join in song together, which would be an interesting innovation, though I feared I would face difficulties both in my philosophical convictions and lack of musical ability.

To my immense surprise, when the appropriate time came in the evening, Ripāti stood and produced a lyre. I heard someone drop a plate somewhere behind me, but didn’t pay it much mind at first, being more interested in what Ripāti was doing. But Bekrao startled me by whispering in my ear, “She’s going to sing?”

“Impudent knave,” I declared, enjoying this opportunity to play the tyrannical master. It was alarming how much I enjoyed it, in fact. Edazzo is in many ways a crueler part of the world than where I came from, and I try to avoid letting it change me into something I would prefer not to be. “What are you babbling about? Leave me alone! Does Phumalluo hires lunatics now?”

This seemed to remind Bekrao of the part he himself was playing, and muttering something that I presume was an apology, he left me. I knew he was not such a fool as to approach Ripāti in his disguise, so I sat back again and permitted myself to enjoy the song. As I have mentioned, I cannot always appreciate songs in the way I would like, thanks to the Bird’s interference, but the best of these songs tell stories whose power is undiminished by the loss of artistry in their telling.

It was a new song that Ripāti sang that afternoon: its melody was a familiar one but the story spoke of the gods and their affairs in a strange way. It must have been from the old tablets, though I was never able to find a chance to confirm this theory of mine.

In the story that is usually told concerning Madopolōi and her children, the goddess watches her children with a watchful eye until she is drawn away by a strange bird that the Bountiful Lord created (different stories give different names to this bird). Servants of the Bountiful Lord than rise up from the underworld to drag her children down into the pit. He marries her daughter and makes her son his vizier. Through various forms of trickery he prevents Madopolōi from recovering them, though some say she is permitted to visit them for part of the year: this is a convenient explanation for the seasons. Bereft of her children, Madopolōi waters the earth with her tears and wanders from land to land looking for something to please her again: this is a convenient explanation for the festivals that are held in Edazzo and the rest of the Parako cities.

The story Ripāti told went like this. The Father Above was in love with Madopolōi and in the normal course of things he begot upon her a son and a daughter. The Bountiful Lord saw and seethed with jealousy (in this story he also was in love with Madopolōi, who seemed very popular), so he took a heap of dust and created children for himself from it. These children were of a violent nature and did all kinds of terrible things until finally they seized Madopolōi’s children and served them to the kings of men at a feast. It was this detail that put an end to my appetite, and I would suspect that of my fellow guests also. I maintain that Phumalluo showed an extraordinary lack of consideration for all of us by choosing this song. But I have lost the thread of the story.

The kings of men were outraged and appalled, with good reason, and called upon the Father Above to avenge his children. So the Father Above stirred up the heavy clouds and the deep springs and drowned the earth, which seemed excessive, and I couldn’t help wondering how this story connected with the one Bekrao had drunkenly recounted about the wrath of the gods.

Ripāti concluded her song with a beautiful description of the new world after the flood. It is possible that she had more poetry in store for us, but if she did she was interrupted by Bekrao, who chose that moment to run up to her, fall on his knees, and proclaim his immortal love. I have my doubts as to whether this was part of Yaretzamu’s plan. When I brought it up with Yaretzamu later, he only looked pained.

As my readers can imagine, this caused a great deal of confusion and uproar in Pullamuo’s hall. I expected Phumalluo himself to find his ax and cut off Bekrao’s head, which would have been a distressing end to his story and the feast. Instead Ripāti laughed and said, “Father, someone has fallen into your trap already.”

“What’s that? What did she say?” my neighbor asked.

“I don’t know,” another neighbor replied. “What language was that?”

My Bird does have its advantages, I admit. I considered whether I should have a work with Bekrao, who was standing in the center of the hall looking remarkably pathetic, but was forestalled by Phumalluo’s next words. “He is not such a one as we want, daughter. Release him at once.”

Ripāti knelt and whispered in Bekrao’s ear. He jerked back, as if her words were a stinging fly, and with a bow returned to his supposed work of clearing away our dishes. For the first time I noticed that he was doing a remarkably clumsy job of it. No doubt he would lose his position before the evening was over. I was exceedingly curious to know what Ripāti had said to him to send him away like that, but found no opportunity to speak with him until the end of the feast. Little else of note happened during the feast itself, and even Ripāti withdrew into the other room.

The conversation during the remainder of the dinner was somewhat subdued. We were all bewildered by Ripāti’s song, and Pullamuo did nothing to make the mood more convivial. In fact, he sat watching us all like a cat watching mice until one by one we began to leave, somewhat earlier, I think, than any of us had attended. On my way out, Bekrao caught me by the shoulder and told me that he wanted to talk with me.

“So?” I asked him. “What did she say to you?”

“She said that I wasn’t who she was looking for, and she wasn’t what I was looking for. For some reason I believed her entirely at the time, but I’m not so sure anymore. You heard her sing, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and I didn’t know what to make of it,” I said. “I don’t think I liked it.”

He looked at me as if I had just admitted that I dined on minced infant every evening. “It was beautiful,” he insisted.

“Very well, it was beautiful. But what are you going to do now? Clearly she’s rejected you.”

“I was foolish in my first approach. Why, after all, should she love a random man who interrupts such a beautiful performance as she gave, only to babble nonsense? If I want to win Ripāti, I’ll have to be cleverer than that. Or rather, Yaretzamu will have be cleverer than that.”

Here I took my leave of Bekrao, feeling rather over-stuffed with food and drink as I was. It was no surprise that my dreams were strange and dark, but I do not remember them and doubt it would be necessary to report them if I did. Dreams are often significant portents, but these signified nothing except a heavy meal the preceding evening.

It was with some dread that I anticipated what Bekrao’s plans for his further wooing of Ripāti might be. Dressing up as a servant had already been absurd enough, and my mind was filled with fairly distressing images of Bekrao masquerading as a priest of Adāi, as a woman with beard shaved off, as a clown.

My guests the next day did nothing to relieve my mind. I had barely finished my morning bread when I was accosted by a priest who demanded to know what his son was thinking. I had met Bekrao’s father once or twice, but even though I like to think I have an excellent memory for faces, it took me a moment to recall who he was. “I don’t know,” I said politely and honestly.

“I am a fool to ask you. You don’t even know what you’re thinking most of the time. Come in here, Sāletinai.” And Sāletinai entered, looking meekly down at the ground. I had met her once or twice also, and had rather more pleasant memories of her than of Bekrao’s father. “Look at this poor girl, abandoned by my son.”

This was awkwardly phrased, I thought, and suggested rather indelicate things about Bekrao’s treatment of her. I was pondering how to ask the inevitable question when he asked me if I would spy on Bekrao for him.

“Bekrao is my friend,” I said. “I will not.”

“Just keep him away from Ripāti. That’s all I ask. Remember that I am a priest of Adāi. I know her mantras in my heart. If I ask, I can bring her wrath down upon you.”

“I am not afraid of Adāi.”

“No, I suppose not. In time you will learn better. For now maybe Sāletinai can convince you.”

Sāletinai bowed her head even further than she already had, but she didn’t say anything. I felt sufficiently awkward that it was almost a relief when yet another visitor appeared, a young man who genuflected to us all, to me, to Sāletinai, and to Bekrao’s father, but with a sort of tension in his movements that I admit made me flinch. I couldn’t be sure whether he was going to kneel or strike me.

“Get out of my sight,” said Bekrao’s father. I was impressed by his tone, which struck me as the appropriate one to use when addressing a worm or some such vermin. I wondered if he addressed worms often.

“My uncle wouldn’t be pleased to hear you say that,” the young man said.

“This is not Lord Phumalluo’s affair.”

“But it is mine.” This was very dramatically said. I generally try to avoid paying attention to gossip and who is in love with whom, but all this had piqued my curiosity.

“Adarzamu, no,” whispered Sāletinai. I don’t think Bekrao’s father heard her, which was probably for the best.

“Your son is a drunkard and a wastrel,” said the young man, whose name was Adarzamu if I interpreted Sāletinai’s whisper correctly. “Sāletinai deserves better.”

“Oh?” said Bekrao’s father. “I suppose you think she deserves you? Let her say so, then.” At this he turned his face on Sāletinai. She trembled, understandably so given the expression on his face.

“No,” she said quietly.

“What was that? I didn’t hear you.”

“No,” she repeated. “I will marry your son.”

At this, Adarzamu undid one of his sandals and threw it on the ground in front of Bekrao’s father. “That is what I think of you!” he said. Bekrao’s father only smiled and took Sāletinai by the shoulder.

“And here’s a good daughter-in-law,” he said. This was all very uncomfortable for me, a stranger, and I could only imagine how Sāletinai and Adarzamu felt. I wondered whether it would be good manners to return Adarzamu’s sandal, but he left before I could make up my mind. “As I was saying. Keep Bekrao away from Ripāti. He already has Sāletinai waiting for him.”

It should go without saying that I was not persuaded by these arguments, and indeed inclined to do the opposite. I have my honor and my compassion, and I was not about to watch as three young hopes, or rather, the hopes of three young people, were ruined. (Ripāti’s hopes were and are a mystery to me.)

My worries about Bekrao’s plans returned to me, so I was relieved when I paid him a visit and discovered that Yaretzamu had talked him out of any further schemes involving disguises. “Based on the outcome of her father’s feast, I don’t think it would be prudent to trust Bekrao to govern his passion to the necessary extent,” Yaretzamu said, or something to that effect. I was too busy trying to catch the olives that Bekrao kept throwing at me for some unfathomable reason to listen properly.

“So what do you two have planned?” I asked.

I did not like the looks that the two of them gave me then. I am no fool, so I wished them both a good day and turned to leave.

“Ripāti will of course not allow Bekrao near her, so a substitute must take his place.”

I sighed and explained to them that I was not the man they wanted to plead Bekrao’s cause.

“But your words are always so poetic,” said Bekrao. This was new to me, and I suppose it has to be counted to the Bird’s credit, not mine. “I’m sure that Ripāti will listen to you if you tell her all my good points.” I considered making a joke here, but restrained myself. There are times to joke with a friend and times to help him.

“Indeed, I have often admired the speed of your thoughts,” said Yaretzamu.

While it is true that I can be eloquent and quick-witted on most occasions, this was obvious flattery concocted to convince me to do something I had no intention of doing. I wasn’t sure what Phumalluo and his daughter were up to with those tablets and her song, but I wanted to stay as far away from it as I possibly could. I said this, and although the two of them were obviously disappointed, they accepted my decision. I turned and was about to leave when I almost bumped into a woman with striking yellow hair.

I stammered for several minutes before I was able to put my thoughts into words. “It’s you!” I said.

“Yes, it is,” she replied. “Are you a friend of Bekrao’s? It seems you are everywhere in this city.”

“Not everywhere,” I said wittily.

“What does that mean?” This question of hers puzzled me, as I wasn’t sure what exactly I had meant, only that I had meant it wittily.

“I hate to interrupt this reunion,” said Bekrao, spreading out his arms as if to embrace us both. “I hadn’t realized the two of you knew one another! And I had thought Edazzo was a large city.”

“I never mentioned her to you? I could have sworn I did at least once,” I said. I was, I admit, somewhat displeased by the apparent fact that Bekrao had developed a close acquaintanceship with this woman while she remained almost a stranger to me.

“Probably I was inebriated at the time. In any case, do you have that ring for me, Rosédan?”

“I do,” she said, and slipping one of the rings off her fingers handed it to him.

“If you intend to woo Ripāti by hiding your face, I commend your humility,” I said, bewildered. “If you intend to woo Ripāti as an invisible thief, I condemn your deviousness.”

“Nothing like that!” Bekrao said, and dropped the ring so that Yaretzamu had to pick it up and give it to me for examination. “What do you think this ring does? Explain it to him, Rosédan.”

“It is not a disappearing ring,” she said.

“Or an appearing ring,” I added.

“I made this ring at Bekrao’s request so that he could read the tablets Ripāti took from him,” said Rosédan mildly. It was wonderful to have learned her name at last, and I repeated it silently to myself several times. “You mark the seal on the top?” I did: it was a flat oval with the image of an open eye. “With this ring, Bekrao will be able to see something far away. In this case, those tablets.”

I scratched my chin. It did not seem the most straightforward way for Bekrao to accomplish his aims, but I was not about to criticize any strategy that had brought me to see Rosédan again. “Ingenious,” I said, and returned the ring to Bekrao.

He slipped it on his finger and peered at it intently for a long time before he lifted his gaze and said, “How do I get it to work?”

“Patience,” said Rosédan in a way that I found thrilling. To avoid wearying my readers, I will try to abstain from rapturous accounts of her charms, but they can be assured that said charms were plentiful. “You must concentrate on the tablets and be patient.”

But Bekrao’s patience didn’t last long before he threw his hands up into the air. “No, I must find another way. This makes my head hurt worse than drink.”

“I am sorry it didn’t work right away. You should keep trying with the ring.”

He gave the ring to me instead and asked me to find out if I could see anything in it. “If it works for him, I’ll give you the rest of your payment, Rosédan. But I don’t intend to throw away money on a useless trinket.”

Her eyes flashed. (I am tempted to break the promise I just made to you.) “I do not sell useless trinkets, and I demand my payment.”

“I will give you what he owes,” I said as I examined the ring. “I, at least, trust you.” I stared very hard at the seal on the ring and thought about the tablet I had read before Ripāti took it. For a moment I thought I saw a line of characters in place of the eye, but there is an excellent chance I was deceiving myself. Nevertheless, I doubted Rosédan was a liar, and I resolved to keep trying as often as I found opportunity.

“Thank you,” she said, frowning at Bekrao. As soon as she had left I realized I hadn’t asked her where I could find her, but was cheered by the notion that I could simply ask Bekrao or better, Yaretzamu.

“There,” Bekrao said. “Two plans drowned in the water. I think it’s time for a drink.”

“I think not,” said Yaretzamu. “I have yet a third plan waiting, if you would care to hear it, sir.”

“Oh, go ahead. Let’s see if it stands up any better.”

“It is a sort of combination of the first and the second, using the failures of both to accomplish its aims.”

“Yes, yes, go on.”

Yaretzamu turned to me, and with my keen intuition I felt a shadow fall over me. He was, I could tell, about to say something that I would not like. “You would like to meet the beautiful Rosédan again, wouldn’t you?”

“I would,” I said, though I had the feeling of having stepped into a trap.

“I can tell you where you can meet her.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

“On one condition. You must go to Ripāti and do your best to persuade her to allow Bekrao to court her.”

“All right,” I said. The trap had caught my feet fast. “I’ll do it.”

Bekrao clapped his hands. “That was clever, Yaretzamu!” I found it hard to share his enthusiasm.

I spent some time trying to work out what I would say to Ripāti, but wasn’t completely pleased with any of my ideas. After all, Ripāti knew Bekrao as a thief and as a pathetic lover overcome by song. I considered telling her that he had been drunk on these occasions, but doubted whether that would make anything better. Finally an acceptable notion came to me, and with some muttered complaints, directed at no one in particular (I was alone; there was no one to hear), I went to call on Lord Phumalluo.

To the servant who greeted me at the door, I introduced myself and said, “I have news of some ancient texts that your master may be interested in obtaining.” This was not a lie, as it happens. Back in my homeland I had knowledge of many ancient texts unknown to the people of Edazzo. Most of them have not yet been written.

“Is he expecting you?”

“Not as such, no, but I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear what I have to say.” Of course I dreaded more than anything else actually having to speak to Phumalluo, who was reputed to be rather fearsome in person. But for a chance to see Rosédan again, it was worth it.

The servant looked skeptical, which was fair. I would have been skeptical myself. He did tell me to wait a moment, and when he came back to the gate he was followed by Ripāti herself. When she saw me, she rolled her eyes in what I thought was a remarkably rude gesture. “I suppose you’re here because of Bekrao. Will that fool never leave us alone?”

“He was remarkably affected by your song the other night,” I said. “As was I.”

“That was the point of it. Not that we care about either of you, but there are others who will be drawn by it.”

“Who?”

“Not you.” A fair response, but I felt compelled to dig deeper.

“Someone else you invited to the feast, then. But what do you want with them, I wonder?”

“You can keep wondering that until the end of the world. You are a foreigner, and although your simplicity and smooth empty words may have bought you entrance into many noble circles, there are things going on in Edazzo of which you have not the slightest glimpse. My father brought me into this world so that we we might be allowed to see them more clearly.”

“I think I understand.”

“I would be very surprised if you did. Have you ever heard of the gray lords?” I hadn’t, and my hesitation betrayed me. “Then you are a bigger fool than Bekrao.” She reddened in obvious anger. “And no, I am not going to let you in to talk to my father, though I doubt you really want to. Go back to your friend and tell him that Ripāti never wants to see him again.”

That did seem to be that, so I left Ripāti with some courteous words and reported what she had said to Bekrao. He listened, but half his attention seemed to be elsewhere. Possibly he was thinking about dinner.

“Have you heard of the gray lords?” I asked him. Actually I asked Yaretzamu, who was more likely to know such things.

“It is a rumor, sir, nothing more. According to those who credit such things, the city of Edazzo is ruled in fact not by the noble families, but by a secretive group of outlaws called the gray lords for no reason that I have ever been able to discover, but which may have to do with a fanciful association between their own invisibility and omnipresence and that of the sea mists.”

“Phumalluo would seem to credit it.”

“Yes. I am surprised. I would not have described him as a fanciful man.”

“Perhaps there are more things in Edazzo than you would imagine,” said Bekrao. “Thank you for all your help and advice, Yaretzamu, but I have a plan of my own now which I believe will finally get what I want.” I wondered whether he meant the tablets or Ripāti in this remark. Perhaps he meant both, though it was beyond my imagination to come up with a way for him to do that. If I had been in his place, I thought that I would simply abandon both as lost causes, but then an image of Rosédan came into my mind and I doubted my own thoughts. Perhaps, after all, I would risk everything.

“Do you, sir?” Yaretzamu asked. “What is your plan, if I may be so bold?”

“You’ve used the right word. It is bold. I am going to go to Phumalluo’s house and ask Ripāti to marry me.”

“That strategy was something of a failure the last time you tried it.”

“I remember. But this time it’s going to be different. This time I won’t be in disguise, and I won’t be drunk.”

“You were drunk before?” I asked him.

“I may have been helping myself to the wine. It wasn’t as if I was going to be paid for my service in any other way. Never mind that. Will you come with me, my friend, to witness my triumph?”

I agreed, though I suspected it would not be his triumph I witnessed. We went back to that place from which I had so recently withdrawn in shame, where I watched with great interest as Bekrao demanded to see Ripāti. The baffled manservant who came to the gate left and returned soon afterwards with a taller and more authoritative-looking man, who upbraided Bekrao. “Get out of here, you dog!”

“If I am a dog,” Bekrao began, then scratched his head and hesitated. He had been more quick-witted and fluent in his drunken proposal than he was now that he was sober.

“I see that you have fleas like a dog, at least.”

“That was well said! A good answer, quickly thought of. I wish I could think of things that quickly. But where was I?”

“You are drunk,” said the authoritative-looking man, lifting his nose as if he smelled something unpleasant.

“No! That I am definitely not. Not with wine, anyway. I am drunk with love. I love Ripāti with all my heart and I might as well die without her.”

“So?”

Bekrao seemed stumped by this, as was I. When it came down to first principles like this, it was hard to know what to argue. We exchanged glances. Bekrao was, I think, about to say something bold and clever when a high voice rang out behind us like a bell. “Let him speak to her.” It was Sāletinai.

I was sufficiently surprised by this turn of events that I could only stand and watch as Sāletinai and Bekrao entered. When I finally made a move to follow, the authoritative-looking man stepped in front of me, and I thought it wiser not to argue with him. I must therefore rely on Bekrao’s account to explain what happened afterwards.

He was fairly jubilant when he returned, and Sāletinai wore a smile of satisfaction, so I assumed that things had gone well. “I will have to remember to reward Yaretzamu especially well for his service today. Finding Sāletinai and sending her after me was divine inspiration.”

“But what happened?” I asked.

“Oh, Ripāti was surprised to see us both. I think she was happy to see Sāletinai but not so happy to see me. Couldn’t be helped. I had things to say to her, and I said them.” Knowing both him and Sāletinai as I did, I suspect that Sāletinai did a great deal of interpreting for him.

“And she accepted you then?”

“Yes,” Bekrao said, but not before we both saw Sāletinai shake her head. “Well, not right away. She was still fairly angry with me.”

“She admired you, you know,” said Sāletinai softly. “You weren’t part of the plan her father had made, but you put yourself into the middle of it anyway.”

“Anyway, she told me I was a fool. She then proceeded to tell me several things that I don’t think she would have if she hadn’t been angry. I’m not sure I should tell you.”

“About the gray lords?”

“Yes, and some other things. About herself. The circumstances of her birth weren’t usual ones. I must have been inspired by Lagulai to say the things I did after, that, but it must have softened her heart. She didn’t agree to marry me, not right away, but she said I could visit her.”

“And what did Phumalluo have to say about all this?”

Bekrao glanced over his shoulder nervously, then laughed and said, “I don’t know what Phumalluo has to say, and I don’t care either.”

It seemed to me that it would be prudent of Bekrao to care about Phumalluo, but now did not seem to be the time to correct him. Instead I asked Sāletinai about Adarzamu.

“He was there too,” she said, blushing. “We made arrangements of our own.”

“Good,” I said. I was happy for them all. Phumalluo would have to be dealt with, but that was not an insurmountable obstacle. All would be well, I was sure of it. There was only one thing that was missing. “Now, about Rosédan,” I added and trailed off, hoping Bekrao would catch the hint. He continued to smile at no one in particular and showed no sign of catching anything, so I explained myself. “I would like to meet Rosédan very much.” My voice may have caught in my throat as I said this, and I wonder whether the Bird imitated my emotion in its words.

“Oh, that? You’ll have to talk to Yaretzamu about that. I don’t remember where she spends her time, myself. Good luck, by the way. I’ll make a sacrifice to Lagulai for you.”

“Thank you, but you don’t have to go to the trouble. I will pray to my own god.” I went to find Yaretzamu then, and he told me where I could find Rosédan. Our ensuing conversation is not, I think, of interest to my readers, who would perhaps rather know more about Ripāti and the gray lords. So would I. That is to say, I wouldn’t rather know more about Ripāti than I would talk to Rosédan, but her mystery is still on my mind as I write this. Perhaps soon I shall convince Bekrao to confide in me. For now let my readers be content in the knowledge that Bekrao, Ripāti, Sāletinai, Adarzamu, Rosédan, and I will all be attending the festival of the dead in a few days, and that we are happy. I pray that we will remain so, and that this story will end in triumph, reconciliation, weddings, and general happiness.

The Gray Lords

Alzurid and the Treasure-Spinner

The child ran on ahead of his parents, eager for the edge of the pool. He was quickly lost to their sight, but they did not fear for him. All paths led to the gate or the pool in this place, and no evil would enter. So they walked together, whispering soft words.

And the child came to the pool surrounded by the lonely rocks. He knelt and gazed into the waters as the cold wind ruffled his hair. As he looked into the water he saw the reflections of the stars, a thousand tiny pinpoints surrounding the argent disk of the moon.

~

“True, Ham, the senators were fools to think the Zhoṇ could be kept pacified, pure fools,” said Zhili.

“And we’ll all pay for it.” Ham sighed. “We should have crushed the Zhoṇ while we had the chance, but it’s too late now.”

A man approached the two men as they were talking, and when they turned to their ales he cleared his throat and said, “Excuse me. Do you know where a man named Isuru Gurin lives?”

Neither of them were surprised to hear his question. Zhili nodded for Ham to speak, and he said simply “Yes.”

“And that place would be?”

“He lives and arranges his business in the second house on the left of this inn, in the house with the hill-and-trees emblem.”

“Thank you. Health to your mother’s name.”
When the stranger was gone, Zhili shook his head slowly. “Wonder what he’s looking for.”

“He speaks excellent Duri, but he doesn’t look Duri.”

“Wonder if the Spinner’s still doing business.”

“Oh, he’ll be doing business until the Zhoṇ soldiers are running through the streets, and may not stop then.”

Zhili shook his head again. “Well, that’s none of our concern.”

“True.” Ham finished his ale, then stood and bowed. “I’d best be leaving now. Palir’s waiting with the children. She wants us to be well out of the town before nightfall. Think that’s probably wise.”

“Kara and me have been preparing to leave, too. Everyone’s fleeing from the Zhoṇ.” Zhili chuckled. “Heard the governor’s beside himself. Hope he has enough sense to get out in time.”

“Good fortune to you, Zhili.”

“If it speeds our reunion.”

Ham bowed to the innkeeper and passed through the screen to the streets outside. He glanced at the Spinner’s house for a moment, then muttered under his breath and made his way home.

~

Alzurid checked the sign to make sure it was the one the man in the inn had spoken of, then struck his fist on the door. The reply came almost immediately in a thin hollow voice, “Come in.” When Alzurid entered, a little man sitting behind a table looked up, his heavy eyes observing the stranger closely. “A customer, I presume?”

“Are you Isuru Gurin?” Alzurid asked, eyebrows raised. The other was small and wiry, his eyes dark and lifeless despite the rapid emotions that passed over his face. There was a definite Duri touch to his features.

The little man smiled quickly. “I hear that often. You were expecting a towering sorcerer or a wizened old sage, weren’t you? Yes, I am Isuru Gurin, the Treasure-Spinner. Please, have a seat. The price for the journey is five hundred narits. We leave tomorrow.”

All of this had been said before Alzurid had reached the table. He hesitated, gripping the back of the chair. “Five hundred?”

“Treasures don’t come cheap. But then, you are an islander, aren’t you? Money is worth less every day here on the mainland. A hundred, then.”

Alzurid sat down. “You said journey, and that we leave tomorrow. What did you mean by that?”

A corner of Isuru’s mouth twitched. “I am but one half of the magic that brings the past to life. The other is in the forest nearby. A hundred narits.”

“Fifty before you spin your magic, fifty after.”

“I make no guarantees that you will find what you want. A hundred now.”

Alzurid’s lips tightened. He closed his eyes as he brought dim memories to surface, fogged by his many years and long travels. Finally he nodded and, opening his eyes, took the coins from his purse. “I have only eighty narits with me, but I am a peddler. I have goods I can sell to the people here.”

A strange look appeared on Isuru’s face. “I will buy from you then, as much as I think will complete the bargain.”

“Very well,” Alzurid said, furrowing his brow. With forced jocularity he added, “I would never turn down a customer.”

“Neither would I.” And Isuru smiled again.

~

When Alzurid arrived the next morning a few minutes before the time Isuru had set, he was surprised to find three people seated at the table. A young woman dressed in finery, a man of about the same age, and an aged woman all showed relief when he entered. “Finally,” the boy muttered.
Alzurid carefully took the last remaining chair. He glanced back and forth between the others for a moment before he allowed his curiosity to overcome him. “If I may ask, who are you?”

“Your fellow travelers,” the old woman said, smiling. “We’ve been waiting quite a while for you to show up.”

“Today?”

“Several weeks,” the young woman said.

“That old Spinner won’t talk much about it, but apparently there need to be four people besides him,” the boy said.

“It was disappointing to have to wait for so long, but what other choice do we have?” said the old woman. “We seemed to have missed introductions, though. I’m Saru Tara, a healer from the Manati village.”

“I am Alzurid of Lazu, an itinerant peddler.”

The young woman gave him an odd look, and seemed about to say something but apparently changed her mind. “I am Nirala Hisaldun.” By the darkness of her complexion she was Duri, and the Hisaldun name was associated with one of the great senatorial families. Alzurid wondered what she was doing here. Whatever she wanted from the Treasure-Spinner must have been very important to her indeed.

The boy spoke up. “And I’m Hirës Įtsun, a fisherman from a tiny village I’d just as soon forget.”

There was an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes before Nirala leaned forward. “So, what is everyone looking for?”

At the same moment she spoke, the door opened and Isuru came through. “Hirës is looking for his lost love,” he said softly. “Saru wishes to undo a mistake or a choice she made and see what would have resulted.”

Hirës choked and stared at Isuru, eyes wide, but Saru merely gave him a sharp glare. “Are you diving for an answer, Treasure-Spinner?”

Isuru seemed somewhat embarrassed by his own interjection. He clutched his hands together. “No, no, it is just that so many have come to me that I can tell what you desire from your manner, your speech.” He looked closely at Alzurid. “There are times when I am puzzled, though. You, peddler. Your eyes have a strange light in them, one I have never seen before. And Lady Hisaldun, I can make nothing of you. Both of you intrigue me. I look forward to satisfying my curiosity.” He came to himself suddenly. “Well! We should be leaving now. Does everyone have supplies for a couple days? Of course you do. Let us depart at once.”

“You seem in rather a hurry,” Alzurid said.

“If you’d been waiting for one of us to arrive, you’d be in a hurry too,” Hirs replied as he stood and hoisted his pack. “Time flows quickly and we don’t want it to leave us behind.”

“I have two slaves, if any of you don’t want to carry your packs,” Isuru said. “Saru? No?”

“A slave can take mine,” Nirala said.

“Tirin! Sholom!” Isuru called. Two muscular men dressed in slave-blue emerged from another room and bowed their shaven heads. One already wore Isuru’s pack. “Sholom, help the lady with her supplies.”

Sholom bowed again. He lifted Nirala’s pack and swung it over his shoulder.

“Well!” Isuru said again. “Let us depart.”

The two slaves went out first and then Isuru. Alzurid was about to follow when he felt someone plucking at his elbow. He turned to see Saru’s lined face. “Wait until the others are gone,” she whispered. Alzurid watched as Hirës and Nirala filed out, then turned his attention to Saru, curious as to what the old woman would have to say. “You’re from some distant part of the empire, aren’t you?” Saru asked in a quiet voice. “How long have you been in Tusiva?”

“Only a day.”

“Then you might not have heard about the Zhoṇ. Didn’t you wonder why there were so few people in the town? The Zhoṇ are coming. They’ve made no secret of it. Ah-ah, don’t say anything. The three of us have made our decision to continue. Just thought you should know all the risks.”

Saru slipped out, leaving Alzurid to his thoughts. So the Zhoṇ were coming, were they? He had known an attack was imminent, but not that it would be here in Tusiva. But it didn’t matter. The chance to see that place again, to wander it once more, was worth any danger when he returned. If Isuru had been trying to keep the Zhoṇ invasion a secret from him, he could have spared the effort. Alzurid would not turn back now, not when his desire was almost within his reach.

Isuru poked his head in. “Alzurid? Are you coming?”

“Of course,” Alzurid said, and stepped outside to join the rest of the group. As Isuru took a key out of his belt and locked the door, Alzurid glanced out of the corner of his eye at Tirin and Sholom, the slaves. Most of the slaves kept in this part of the world were Zhoṇ, forced into service as payment for the aid the empire gave their country. If Tirin and Sholom were Zhoṇ, that could be trouble.

“The past is lost,” Isuru said, his face suddenly solemn and devoid of all expression, “yet still longs for new life. I call it forth, what has faded set free.” He pointed along the street to the gate that marked the town’s end, then his finger slowly started to shake. “Follow me.”

The forest was old, most of the trees great pillars that rose to envelop them in a dark canopy. Many of the smaller trees had been cut down for wood, leaving forlorn stumps bordering the path. The travelers would occasionally cross simple wooden bridges over rushing streams. On each of these bridges Isuru would stop and stare into the water for a moment, then hurry on.

The ground began to rise and the trees thin out as they continued onward. Alzurid glanced at Saru occasionally to find her almost keeping pace with the rest of them. They came to the top of the hill, where stood a cluster of large wooden buildings capped by bell-shaped roofs that shone with many colors. At the bottom and at the rim of the bells sprouted roots and branches. Then Alzurid realized that the buildings were not buildings after all.

“Are those trees?” Nirala asked.

“Yes,” Isuru answered. “Have you never heard tales of how the fair folk live within the trunks of trees, to steal you away if you wander at night?”

They passed between the tree-buildings, circling stone plinths set in the ground, arriving at last at a building wider and taller than all the others. Two saplings bordered a fissure that led into the heart of the great tree. “This is the place,” Isuru said. “This is where your past awaits.” He took his pack from Tirin and nodded for Nirala to receive hers from Sholom. Then he knelt to the slaves. “Tirin. Sholom. The balance is restored. You may return to your people now. I thank you for your faithful service.”

Without a word, Tirin and Sholom bowed and walked away. A sour smile flitted across Isuru’s face as he stood. “Well,” he said to the others. “Aren’t you going to enter? Those are just stories, you know, about the fair folk. The builders of this place, whoever they were, are long gone.” He darted between the saplings into the fissure. A few seconds later his head poked out. “Well?”

Alzurid smiled despite himself and entered the tree. Inside was a dim cavernous space, in the middle of which was a circular table formed of some dark glossy stone. At five points around its circumference it flowed smoothly down to join with the ground and then rose suddenly into cup-like seats. Isuru was taking his place in one of these seats. “Sit down,” he said upon seeing Alzurid. His voice was tense now.

Alzurid approached one of the seats and lowered himself into it, adjusting his trousers. He noticed a small ray of light coming down from a hole in the ceiling to the center of the table, filling a depression of the same size. Out of the depression flowed several channels, one of which led straight to his seat.

Hirës, Nirala, and Saru were filing in and sitting down. “Is this,” Hirës began to say. His words broke an almost sacred silence, and he winced, but continued. “Is this table what you use for your magic?” Hirës asked.

“All of the buildings around us are part of it,” Isuru replied. He glanced from face to face. “Is everyone ready? Then we begin.”

He closed his eyes and said something under his breath. The illuminated circle in the middle of the table began to grow, overflowing into the channels. Five streams of light formed, dividing the table. Alzurid felt his hair standing on end with crackling energy. Isuru was still muttering. A white brilliance was beginning to eat around the edges of Alzurid’s vision, a light that carried with it searing heat.

Isuru took a deep breath, and his face contorted as he declared, “Aqalo naloma ratousini.” And a voice in Alzurid’s mind said in response, “Focus.”

The light faded, both within Alzurid’s mind and on the table. Nothing else had changed. Isuru was holding his head in his hands, rocking back and forth.

“We didn’t go anywhere,” Nirala said. “Spinner, what happened? Why did nothing change?”

Isuru laughed harshly. “Nothing changed? Go outside and look, then. Everything has changed!”

Nirala hesitated, then stood and walked out of the tree. Hirës followed immediately after. Alzurid and Saru exchanged glances, then got to their feet. Alzurid found his legs were strangely tired, making it difficult to walk. After a few steps the weariness faded, though, and he stepped into the light. The tree-buildings surrounding him were all the same as they had been. He looked carefully around for any sign of something different as he walked forward.

Then he came to the place where the hill began to slope down. There was the forest, just as before, but there was no town, no sign of settlement. The forest continued on to the horizon, a single sea of green from his sandals to the curve of the sky.

Nirala had gone several yards farther ahead, while Hirës stood at Alzurid’s side. The younger man shook his head. “Had doubts that he could really do anything. Even up to the moment we sat at that weird table. Yet here we are, in another world. She’s down there. She has to be.”

Alzurid looked at Hirës, at the enthusiasm shining from him, and nodded. He set his pack on the ground and sat on it. Somewhere far away a bird called, and Alzurid thought irrationally that it was welcoming them. But then, he’d abandoned rationality when he set out in search of the rumors of the Treasure-Spinner. And now his treasure was at hand. He stared out at the forest and nodded again. “Yes, it’s all down there. It calls to me through the earth and through the air. After all these years.” He trailed off and continued to gaze wonderingly at the endless trees below.

~

As it was noon, they had paused at the bottom of the hill for a simple lunch from their supplies. Isuru had pointed out a thin stream of water flowing from underneath a pile of jagged rocks. All except him had eaten quickly, eager to be getting on with their journey. He told them about strange animals that lived in the woods, fan-tailed songbirds and squirrels as long as his arm.

“Is anything else different here from the real world?” Nirala asked as she closed her pack.

“Well, the river stemming from this spring has a power its counterpart lacks. It will heal me from all my wounds,but only me. I am, after all, the thread connecting this world to ours.” He shook his head and said something quietly, then forced a smile that quickly died. “Well, well! Whose treasure will we find first?”

Alzurid watched with concern as he stood and picked up his own pack. From the beginning he had been concerned about Isuru’s mind, about the odd things he did and the way he bounced from topic to topic. Ever since they had arrived here, though, a melancholy had descended upon the little man. His face was as blank as his eyes now, and he spoke more slowly. Alzurid remembered his mother’s decline after the garrison riot, her ravings and eventual death. But what he remembered most was the same dull look in her eyes, as if nothing mattered any more and nothing ever would.

“I have waited many years, and I can wait a little longer,” said Alzurid.

Isuru glanced back and forth, then opened a side pocket on his pack. He put his hand in and withdrew a clenched fist. “Saru, Hirës, Lady Hisaldun, you will draw straws then. Short straw goes first.

Hirës stepped forward and eyed the straws as if he could discern any difference in the portions that were visible. He drew one cautiously, then grinned widely. “The short straw!” He immediately dropped the grin. “So, how do we find her?”

“Stand still,” Isuru said. He tucked the straws back into the pocket and then rested his hands on Hirës’s head. He stood like that for several moments, his eyes fluttering rapidly, then stepped away. “Again, follow me.” Isuru looked around as if getting his bearings. Then he lifted the pack onto his shoulders and started to walk, following the line of the water into the shadow of the trees.

~

“I rarely understand why people come here,” Isuru said, his voice caustic. “But in general I do not look too hard at the source of gifts I receive.”

“You’ve never been in love then.” Hirës replied sharply.

“Only the kind of love money can buy.”

Alzurid was growing rapidly tired of the argument. It had flared up for no discernible reason a short while ago and had continued burning for quite a while. He and Saru had remained wisely silent, but Nirala had tried to intervene, ending the conflict only long enough to be dismissed by both men. His doubts about Isuru’s sanity were only increasing. What worried him most was that Isuru was their only way back. If he lost his mind, they could be trapped here forever, or worse.

Then he felt the call, stronger than it had ever been in forty years. It came from a clear direction off at a right angle to the path they were following. Alzurid halted, the memories overpowering him. He looked ahead at the others. Isuru and Hirës were absorbed in their repartee while Nirala was staring up at the trees as she walked. Saru was closer, but she had turned aside for a moment.

He made his decision. He needed to find the past, but his confidence in Isuru was waning. Alzurid stepped behind a large tree and set off for the source of the call.

~

Saru finished coughing and turned back to the path wearily. Perhaps her son had been right in that she should not have come. She was already ill and the journey had only worsened her condition. But her regrets and hypotheticals had always plagued her, and if she died in settling the issue once and for all, so be it.

She quickened her pace to catch up with the other three. Something was wrong though. She looked back for Alzurid and saw no sign of him. “Alzurid’s gone missing,” she said, bringing Isuru and Hirës’s bickering to an end.

Isuru ran back a short way and peered back and forth. He ran a hand over his brow. “I don’t know what could have happened to him. He might have, yes, he probably did go to find his treasure on his own. People have done that from time to time. They often get lost. It is awful work finding them again. There is nothing we can do about it now, though.” He shook his head. “Well, let us continue. You will be with your beloved soon enough, Hirës.”

Saru saw a glance of Hirës’s eyes as he turned away. There was the eagerness in his face of course, but his eyes seemed thoughtful, almost somber. Maybe the boy was finally coming to his senses. Too late for his narits, of course, but she did hope he would reconsider his foolish quest. She coughed again, harder, into her hand, then examined it. There was no blood. At least, not yet.

~

After an hour of walking they arrived at a broad clearing filled with lush grass. Someone was picking flowers in its center, and Hirës recognized Tira in an instant. She was singing quietly, her voice filled with life and strength again. “Tira!” he called.

She looked up and smiled radiantly. “Hirës, my love,” she said, and all of Hirës’s doubts flooded away. He smiled back.

Then looked at the others. “Would you mind leaving us alone for a short while?”

“Do whatever you want,” Isuru said unpleasantly. “We will be back a ways. Drawing straws to see who goes next.”

Hirës watched them leave. When they were no longer visible, he ran to Tira and wrapped her tightly in his arms. “I’ve missed you,” he whispered. The image of her lifeless face had burnt itself into his memory, but at last it was gone. He kissed her.

She laughed and pushed him away playfully. “And I’ve missed you.” She offered her free arm. “Come, walk me back to the village.”

Hirës wondered faintly at this. Was the village here as well? And the lake beyond? He certainly hadn’t seen the lake from the top of the hill. The sense of unreality returned to him, and for a moment his head swam.

“Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing. Nothing important, at least.”

She gave him a curious look, but didn’t inquire further. “Was gathering flowers for the wedding,” she said as Hirz took her arm and they started walking. “My mother has been telling me about the things each flower portends. These violet tears are for many children.”

It was exactly what she had said on that last day together, before she had taken suddenly ill, the same words, the same voice. It was like a memory. It was not what he wanted. He had his memories already. In desperation he gripped Tira’s shoulders. “Kiss me,” he said.

She looked at him, her face slightly puzzled. Then she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his. He held her closely, feeling the warmth of her body, her reality. She was there, not in the intangible past. After a moment she stepped back and touched his cheek softly. “The wedding will be soon enough,” she said. “We can’t stand here too long, or people will start to whisper.”

“By ‘people’ you mean Ginal, of course.” He remembered saying that before.

“Who else?” She had said that in reply.

And Hirës realized at last that Tira was gone forever. This was not Tira here, only an amalgam of his own memories. This was not his betrothed, it was how he saw her, it was himself. He was like Ulimarin in the story, who had made a wife out of wood. He had been a fool.

He looked sadly at the woman before him, wondering about her. What was she? She could not be a real person like himself or Saru, could she? What would he say to her now?

Suddenly his head pounded with pain. He stumbled forward and Tira steadied him. “Hirës?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“ʈi?” a strange voice asked from behind him, and Tira cried out, dropping the flowers. A tall man with a burning brand in one hand and a long knife in the other was staring in disbelief at them. “ʈi ŋaɣa ʃai?”

“Who are you?” Hirës asked, trying to sound like he knew precisely what was happening.

“ŋaɣa ʃai dorəɣa!” The stranger’s eyes passed over the two of them, spending much more time on Tira than on Hirës. He knelt and placed the torch face down in the dirt, extinguishing the flame. Then he raised the knife. Before Hirës could react, he felt a terrible pain rip through him and looked down to see the knife buried below in his side, below his rib cage. He collapsed as he heard Tira scream.

With the pain from the knife, he hardly felt the ache in his head. The stranger disappeared, as did the knife. Blood gushed out from the now-open wound. “Tira. The old woman who was with me, she was a healer. You find her.”

Tira left at a run. Hirës looked away from his body, up at the leaves and the sky beyond, trying to distract himself from the pain. His hands and feet were cold, he was going to die, he was going to die. “No,” he told himself. “Saru is coming. Everything is going to be fine.”

The sun was warm on his face. And although his heart was hammering, his thoughts began to calm. He remembered finding Isuru, so confident that he was going to see his love again. He was a fool. And what of the narits he had paid?

Hirës began to laugh at himself, at what he had done. What he had given for so small a gain. He laughed and laughed, even though it wracked his insides and sent fresh pain through him.

“Oh, Tira, you won’t believe what I’ve done.”

~

Saru was fortunate enough to have drawn the short straw and now was leaning against a stone, waiting. She wondered how long it would be before Hirës returned. Night would be falling soon, and the sooner she found her treasure, the better. All of them were in an angular cleft in the ground, which rose at both ends to join with the floor of the forest.

There were rapid footsteps and then a girl emerged from above, breathing heavily. She was Hirës’s betrothed, but what was she doing here without Hirës himself?

“He’s hurt,” the girl gasped. “Badly. He sent me to get you. A man appeared from nowhere and threw a knife at him. You hurry!”

“The Zhoṇ,” Nirala whispered.

Saru was stunned by the news for a moment, then shook her head. “Don’t have any of my herbs or tools. See what I can do.”

The girl turned to start back up the path. Then, like a burst bubble, she vanished. A faint wind curled around Saru’s face.

“It is too late,” Isuru said, voice trembling. “He’s dead. Everything in this world that was formed from his memories has faded. The Zhoṇ must have broken in somehow.”

A drop of cold water struck Saru’s hand. Then another on her neck, and then it began to rain in earnest. She shivered and wrapped her cloak tighter around herself. She glanced at Isuru. His hands were shaking, his eyes tightly shut.

“You killed him,” Nirala said suddenly, and Isuru shuddered. “You brought us here even when you knew the Zhoṇ were coming. You only cared about yourself and what you could get from us. You did not concern yourself with what harm would befall us, or if you did, you hid it so you could keep your precious narits.”

“Nirala,” Saru said sharply. “Hirës knew the danger. He chose to come and risk himself of his own volition.”

“But it was Isuru who tempted him. It was a guide I came to find, one who would show me what I wanted and teach me what I should learn. Instead I found a greedy man who asked money for the journey and knows nothing of guiding, leaving us to stumble around and learn what we can by accident!”

“Nirala, that is enough.”

“I will not go any farther with him,” Nirala said. Her temper had subsided, and her voice was now proud. “I will travel back to the hill by myself.”

She marched past them and started out of the cleft. Her dignity suffered briefly when she slipped on the slick rock, but she recovered her balance and was gone.

“Isuru,” Saru said. She stepped over to him and shook his shoulder when he didn’t respond. “Will we be leaving now?”

His eyes opened. He seemed to be staring at something beyond her.

“Isuru?”

Slowly life seemed to return to him. “Of course. Yes. This way.”

He began to walk up the same path Nirala had, then turned back. “Saru, I’m sorry,” he said in a faint voice.

“I’ve been disappointed before. Let’s just get back to our homes alive.”

~

Alzurid spread out his arms and listened to the sound of the pins of rain upon the leaves. He hoped the rain was a token of good hope for his search. He was very near to the place now. If he was judging distance correctly, it would be only a hundred paces or so.

The trees were much thicker here, obscuring much of his vision. Fortunately he could hear the river, giving him a way back to the place he had started from. The rain began to fall harder. He pulled his hood up and walked in the direction of the pull.

It took even less time then he thought. After clambering over a few fallen trunks and ascending a slope, he came to a flat piece of rock in which curving symbols were inscribed. They were in the old Lazu runes and as he read them, he broke into a smile. So it was really here.

He went on swiftly. A thin mist began to swirl beyond the trees. He passed the marker stone and then the ward, the cliff into which was carved the figure of a robed warrior. The stone robes were covered with Lazu writing. Unable to help himself, he paused and traced the letters with his finger, reading quietly to himself the words of protection.

Ahead would be the gate. He continued onward, and after several long steps the trees became fewer. Then he saw the gate, and inhaled sharply as he remembered.

“Do you see, Alzurid-li?”

“Yes, mother,” he breathed. “I see.”

The two great stone pillars rose to twice his height, and although barren compared to the surrounding trees, they had a unique life and vitality in every crevice and outcropping. The metal gate binding them was worked in ornate spiral patterns. Curving away from the great pillars were smaller stones that bounded the garden. It was a garden, even if not filled with flowers like the ones he had been accustomed to while traveling the empire.

He stepped forward and opened the gate. The memories were returning faster now. He remembered several occasions when he had come here with his parents, and one in particular where he had seen the night sky reflected in the central pool. Such beauty, beauty that made trivial all other concerns.

Within he could see nothing but the rain. His smile slowly faded and he passed into the garden. There were more trees there, and he went on, glancing back and forth for the lonely stones. He stopped after several steps and took a deep breath, centering himself.

He could no longer feel the pull.

Alzurid closed his eyes. The pack he was wearing suddenly felt much heavier. He turned and left the garden forever.

~

Isuru stared at the ground as he walked, shielding the outside world away. He was trying to keep his thoughts away from what had happened, trying hard. He thought about the discomfort of the rain, the rain that would never end, the rain that was the death of Hirës, the rain he had caused. No. He thought about the pleasures he had once known, the money that would buy them. No.

His mind whirled around, trying to avoid the pit that, deep down, he truly wanted to fall into.

“How far are we?” Saru asked, and he blessed her for the distraction. He looked up for a moment at the trees surrounding them, at the ridge along which they walked.

“Maybe fifty minutes. I cannot be sure,” Isuru said. He heard the ragged sound of her coughing and desperately retreated back into himself, further inwards. He had to hide deep within, for on the fringes of his mind was a gnawing danger, unraveling his thoughts, his self. He had never felt that before, not in all his years of doing this. Perhaps it was related to the Zhoṇ breaking through.

Isuru balanced between the unraveling and the pit. Then he stepped onto a clump of wet leaves, lost his footing, and both void and pit fled as he fell.

~

Isuru woke, his head aching badly. He thought fuzzily he had a hangover, though he couldn’t remember drinking. No, he hadn’t been asleep, he recalled. He had been with Saru, he had stumbled and fallen, then there had been the sudden awful stop.

“Master,” a voice said.

“Sholom? Sholom, how did you get here?”

“You never could say it right, could you?” Isuru saw with a jolt of surprise that Sulum held a knife near his throat. “Bring your tongue back on the sh, then drop your jaw on the o. Sholom.”

“Sh…Sholom.”

“Good enough.” Sholom stepped back and nodded. “You know about my people, of course. Your senators made that cursed bargain, tʃi ɖum fulumiregɣa, with our leader. I was made a slave so that you would give the Zhoṇ aid. Pomɣa!”

Isuru couldn’t speak. The void and the pit were back in his mind. He stared blankly at the ranting Sholom, letting the words wash over him without taking root.

“The noble Eight Kingdoms of the earth are bound by ancient ties. Miregɣa ʃul taiɣa mɛkauʒ kɛmɔ. Your conquests of our brothers could not go unpunished. You will say we are dishonored, that we broke the bargain. Miʃ drum, ʒelu tijaŋ miʃ. That is a proverb we have. A wise man watches a bargain that is cursed.”

“I am sorry, Hirës, I killed you,” Isuru whispered, beginning to slide into the pit. “I am sorry, Saru, Alzurid, Nirala, for the same may yet happen to you. I am sorry, Palun, Kara, Hazin, Yahot, I took your money and gave you nothing. I am sorry, Bala.” He trailed off, finding himself unable to remember any more names.

Sulum was not listening. Both victim and assailant, master and slave, were speaking to only themselves. “Li ʃa xɛv. ʈiɣ miʈ ʒog xutəm. Filt miregɣɔ ɳo ʒoɳ ɳo ʃolomgɔ hum nelagɔ ʃə fuluŋa!”

There was a sudden motion and Isuru screamed, jolted out of himself. He grabbed at his shoulder in agony. The knife came back up, then stabbed into his other shoulder. He fell over, groaning.

“The wrath of the winds and of the Zhoṇ and of Sholom son of Nela are upon you!”

“Mercy!” Isuru gasped in a mad desperation, and Sulum withdrew the dagger again.

“Mercy?” he asked. The expression on his face was dark and strange. “When did you ever show me mercy, that I should give it to you? In your drunken rages? In your cold sobriety?”

Isuru did not answer. The pain seemed dim somehow, as did all his thoughts and memories.

“The eight winds are harsh,” Sulum whispered.

“ʃolom! ŋa gis ʃi?”

~

“Sholom! You are here?”

Sholom lifted Isuru from his position against the tree. The man’s eyes were vacant, though he still breathed. He put the blade to Isuru’s throat and turned with him to face the voice. It was the last of the warriors who had entered this world before him. So be it. If he was to break the heavenly laws, he would not break them half-heartedly. The eight winds would favor him.

“I was sent to find you,” Sholom said. “The others have already returned to the true world, and the Kush was concerned for your safety.”

“You know a way back?” the warrior asked.

“I often accompanied my master on his journeys here. I have memorized his incantations and spells.” In truth, Sholom suspected being brought out of this world was only a matter of time, and he could lead this warrior on a winding walk through the woods, muttering nonsensical syllables, until that time came.

“Thank the winds. Was this Duri prisoner your master?”

“He was, which gives me a special claim to vengeance.”

“It does not. To sin against one Zhoṇ is to sin against all.”

Sholom glared at the intruding warrior. “It is almost finished. He draws near to death.”

“Do you know the locations of others?”

“The old woman was nearby.”

“Then why did you not kill them both when you could? You take your special claim to vengeance too far, I believe. I don’t think the Kush sent you at all. Kill him and be done with it.”

Sholom gripped the handle of the dagger tightly, turning to face Isuru. The man was still staring blankly ahead. He released Isuru’s arm and struck him sharply on the head.

“What are you doing?”

“He wanders in his thoughts,” answered Sholom.

“Better for him. Hurry. We have more collaborators to hunt.”

“I want him to be attentive to his death,” Sholom said, voice trembling. A voice in the back of his head spoke, reciting the code of vengeance, telling him that death alone was the greatest of punishments, there was no need to add torment. He silenced it quickly, digging out memories of his life as a slave, feasting on them.

“I obey, honored one. But one who violates the Xutëm loses his honor,” the warrior said.

“My honor is not lost!” Sholom turned back, raising the dagger in front of the warrior’s face. “I am honored by my service. You, who have kept your freedom all these years, cannot argue.”

The warrior laughed and took a step back. “Go ahead. Kill him then.”

Sholom turned to see Isuru was no longer standing there. He was somehow, impossibly, running away into the wildness of the forest. He stared for a moment as the warrior laughed again. Then he followed. Thoughts of the Khutem and honor were gone. There was only Isuru and the chase.

Sholom was strong and healthy, Isuru weak and wounded. It was only a few moments before Sholom caught up to his quarry, who was struggling over the trunk of a fallen tree. And then he saw before his eyes two choices, present in perfect clarity. There was the order of heaven on one hand, the laws of authority and honesty that he had violated, and on the other hand the eight winds, who favored the bold and the victorious. Isuru turned back around, his arms flailing uselessly. And Sholom, with victory before him, chose the winds and brought the blade down.

Somehow in his panicked waving, Isuru must have struck the dagger. For suddenly Sholom’s hands lost their grip on the hilt. He fumbled for a moment and fell forward, having put his body behind the blow and overbalanced. There was a horrible pain in his side, and he heard a great noise of wind howling, a gust to bear him far away.

~

Saru’s head, chest, and back all hurt badly. She coughed for the thousandth time, wondering what she was doing. She couldn’t leave Isuru to be killed by the Zhoṇ, of course. Even putting aside basic human decency, if he died, so did they all.

Saru was not afraid of being killed. She suspected she would die soon anyway. Her reluctance was far deeper. Something about the forest around her was very wrong. Maybe it was the way the branches hung down from the trees, or perhaps it had to do with the light and the patterns in which shadows were cast. In any case, although she could identify no specific cause, she was afraid on a very deep level of her being.

“Mudfish and nonsense!” she said under her breath.

When Isuru called to her from right above her head, she nearly jumped. Then she looked up to see him nestled in the fork of a tree. “Spinner, what by Palātū are you doing up there?”

“Hiding from one of those Zhoṇ. He’s gone now.”

“Are you all right?”

“No.” Isuru hopped down with a curious economy of motion, and Saru saw blood drenching his arms, mixing with the endless rain. He took a step towards her and quite suddenly fell down. She knelt to examine him. There were two wounds in his shoulders. They were not bad at all, but Isuru seemed exhausted by the exertion of some superhuman activity. She opened her pack to get out a few of the items she had brought and bound up the cuts. Then she waited. After a while he stirred and blinked at her, and then continued to speak as if nothing had happened. “Hirës is not. He is not all right.”

“Well, we can’t do anything about that. We must go on to the hill.”

“We have no idea where Alzurid is, or what happened to him. Nirala,a young woman, among those brutish Zhoṇ?” He shuddered. “I nearly died. Too many lucky escapes.”

“Isuru! We must keep going.”

“I do not think we will survive. All our lives lost. Because of me.” He sank against the tree and his voice dropped to a murmur. “Because of me. My greed and arrogance.”

Saru stepped forward and struck his cheek with the palm of her hand. “Enough of that!” she said in a voice like iron. “Lead us to the hill, Isuru.”

He stared at her, rubbing his cheek. Then he smiled, a little smile, and stood back on his feet. He tilted his head to one side for a moment. “Follow me.”

They walked on, and as they walked pains burst in Saru’s chest, and Isuru mumbled to himself. They reached the hill at last. Isuru drank of the water of the spring, feeling the hurts in his arms recede. It did nothing for his mind, though, nothing for what ate away at his thoughts. He looked back and saw Saru was lying on the grass, not moving.

~

Alzurid was following the river back to the hill, whistling an old melancholy tune. He had left many things behind in a life of wandering, but of all those things the garden cut the deepest. He looked away from the rush of the water and saw Nirala walking along the bank towards him. She stared wide-eyed when she noticed him, then stepped back, picking up a rock. She watched Alzurid cautiously.

“I will not harm you,” he said, voice gentle. “I swear that by my mother’s name. What happened to the others?”

“The Zhoṇ are here somehow. They killed Hirës. And Isuru knew that could happen, knew our lives would be at risk.” Her chin went up. “So I left him.”

Alzurid shook his head. “You went off into a forest you knew little about, possibly filled with soldiers who would think nothing of killing you or carrying you off? Are you mad or a fool? You were going the wrong way, you know.”

Her tone changed subtly, becoming more formal and annoying. “You will regret speaking that way to a Lady of the Empire.”

“What could your empire do to me that it has not already?”

There was silence after that. Nirala reversed her footsteps, heading towards the hill now, and Alzurid followed. He started whistling again until Nirala told him to stop. After a while, she spoke again. “What were you looking for, anyway?”

“Something dear to me.”

“You won’t tell me, then?”

He sighed. “Very well. In my homeland there was once a sacred place known to my family and those close to them. It was surrounded by stone and enshrouded by mist, and in the center was a deep dark pool. It was more beautiful than I can say, especially as I am no poet. My parents would take me there often. When I was ten, the soldiers at the nearby garrison went on a drunken rampage. The garden was supposed to be guarded from evil, but it seems that ward had been growing weaker over the past seventy years.” He raised an eyebrow.

“Your people blame everything on our arrival.”

“The soldiers pushed the great stones down and desecrated the pool,” Alzurid said, ignoring her interjection. “My mother never recovered from that loss. It was if her soul had been located there, and with its destruction, she was unable to live.”

“Did you find that place here?”

“No,” he said simply, and looked up. “What of you, my lady? What did you seek?”

“This may surprise you, but I did not know what I was looking for. I knew stories of this place and of the people who used it. Guides, they were called. They would take visitors here to show them their past and give them lessons for the future. I wanted to know what I should do, more than just the mumblings of a fortune-teller. So I arranged for my maidens to spread the story that I was sick, and then I left home to find Tusiva and a Guide. Unfortunately, the latest in the succession turned out to be Isuru.”

“I guess you did not find what you were looking for either.”

“I did not even get to look.” She glanced upwards. “Confound this rain, will it ever let up?”

“It is a brief joining of the sky and the earth,” Alzurid said. He lowered his hood and turned his face to the sky, letting the water dance on his face. “The sky weeps for the earth’s exile. The earth reaches up with her green hands, but there is no living tree that can tie them together once more.”

“You are a very strange man, do you know that?”

“Oh, it is just something I heard in a distant land. My own philosophy is drier, but I enjoy the poetry of it nonetheless.”

~

They had been walking for a time and Alzurid estimated there was still an hour to go. It had not stopped raining. Although Nirala had relaxed somewhat, he was still watchful. The Zhoṇ were fearsome warriors, especially once they had sworn on the winds by their Xutëm, their oath of vengeance.

“I say we stop until the storm passes,” Nirala said. “This is no weather to be walking in. We will catch cold, or worse, if we keep going.”

“The Zhoṇ will not be so delicate,” Alzurid said. “Our best chance is to get to the hill as quickly as possible and hope Isuru does the same. In any case, I would not put too much hope in the rain ending soon. This world is not like ours.”

They went on for a short while. Alzurid was glancing around warily when he caught a dark outline against a bluff nearby. He stopped and stared at it for a moment, then raised his hands and called “Health to you!” in the Zhoṇ language, and raised his hands.

The Zhoṇ man hesitated, then approached them, his hands raised also. “Who are you?” he asked.

“Your Xutëm is not against me. I am a citizen of no land.”

“What about her?”

Alzurid swallowed. “She is under my protection.”

“If she is of the Duri empire, she will be taken in repayment for my people’s enslavement. Who is she?”

“She fled from the Duri,” Alzurid said carefully.

The Zhoṇ snorted. “She is Duri. Do not try to hide it from me. Her skin is shaded, her hair cut short. Release her from your protection, as I do not wish to harm one who speaks the glorious tongue.”

“I will not.”

“Then we will fight, citizen of no land,” the Zhoṇ said with a mixture of sadness and anticipation. “Do you have any weapons?”

“A dagger only.”

“That is a pity.” The Zhoṇ’s hand darted to his side. Alzurid spun away just in time. The knife tore into his pack and he shrugged his arms out of the straps, grabbing his dagger from his belt. He and the Zhoṇ watched each other for a moment.

He turned to Nirala and nodded for her to run, then the Zhoṇ raised his sword and charged.

Alzurid waited until the Zhoṇ was almost upon him before dodging aside and hurling his dagger. He slipped in the wet grass and barely kept his balance. In the instant that the Zhoṇr shied away from the blow, Alzurid leapt at him and grasped for the hilt of the sword, kicking as hard at the Zhoṇ’s groin. His opponent gasped and drove his small shield up into Alzurid’s face. Then he vanished, and Alzurid fell backwards.

Nirala was at his side immediately. “Are you all right?”

He rubbed his face and grimaced in pain. “I think my nose is broken.” He got up, wincing as his joints started to hurt, and wished he were twenty years younger. “It seems that the Zhoṇ have little control over when they enter or leave this world.”

Alzurid went to his pack and examined it. There was a good-sized hole in the leather near the bottom, but fortunately the blade had missed the water bladder, the only object that could be damaged beyond repair. He put the pack on upside down so nothing would fall out, and underneath his cloak to keep the rain from getting in. Then he picked up his dagger and nodded to Nirala. “Let’s keep going.”

Alzurid and Nirala reached the source of the river at last, with no further attacks by the Zhoṇ. As thunder boomed, they ascended the hill and were met by Isuru. The Treasure-Spinner’s clothes were ragged and dirty. His face was no longer blank, but transformed by a mixture of sadness and peace, although once in a while a spasm would contort it into an ugly mask. “The Lady Hisaldun and Alzurid,” he said in greeting. “This world is dying. It draws me along with it. The trees of the fair folk in the real world are wounded to the core. I feel it. We must leave at once.”

Nirala stared at Isuru mutely. She had seemed about to say something harsh and accusatory, but the sight of his condition had stolen the words from her.

“Where is Saru?” Alzurid said when he saw Nirala would not speak.

Isuru guided them into the large tree where the table sat. Saru lay in one of the seats, her arms crossed, her eyes closed. “She was sick when she set out on this journey,” he said quietly. “She made it back here before she died.” His eyes shone now with tears. “Come. Take your places.”

They sat, as they had several hours ago in another world. One of the seats stood out in its emptiness. None of them dared look at it.

The strange words poured from Isuru’s mouth and the light came down and divided. But this time there was a strange imbalance to the energy Alzurid felt around him. The light was flickering and pulsing, as if uneasy in its existence.

“Aqalo naloma ratoparalini!” Isuru cried.

Focus.

They were back in their own world. Isuru’s head sagged forward, almost touching the table. “I will be fine,” he said in response to Alzurid’s coming to him in concern. “Bury her.”

When Alzurid and Nirala emerged into the light, Alzurid carrying Saru’s body, they thought for a moment that Isuru had brought them to a different world by mistake. Many of the trees were burnt into twisted black things, and others bore deep marks. The stone plinths were toppled.

They found the pile of stones just as it was in the alternate world, except without the flowing water. There was a gap through which they entered into a dim chamber beneath the hill. It was there that they laid Saru to rest.

“Find peace,” Nirala said simply, and when they were outside, Alzurid moved a great stone to block the entrance.

When they turned away they saw Isuru watching them quietly. “Where do you go now?” he asked.

“Home, for a while at least,” Alzurid said. He heard branches breaking and as his eyes traveled across the forest line he caught a hint of brown behind the trees.

“I do not know,” said Nirala. “I have deceived my family and gained nothing for it. I do not know.”

“It will be difficult to go anywhere,” a new voice said. A dark-haired man in a brown shirt and leggings emerged from the forest. “Health to your families. I am Udai Tanu, a servant of the empire and an enemy of the Zhoṇ, who, incidentally, surround this area. They were on this very hill an hour ago, so your timing is fortuitous.”

Several more brown-attired men came out of the trees and bowed.

“What are you doing here?” Alzurid asked pointedly.

Udai rubbed his chin, then spoke. “I belong to a band formed several months ago in order to resist the Zhoṇ when it became apparent the senate would choose inaction, despite the growing menace. We had been aiding the evacuation and now make it our goal to irritate and set back the Zhoṇ war effort. We also give aid to fellow citizens of the empire whenever possible, which brings me to our purpose here. I would be glad to guide you to relative safety, beyond the Zhoṇ presence.”

Alzurid was certain the Zhoṇ would follow their Xutëm’s call to honesty, so he trusted Udai, but wondered if he could bring them past the Zhoṇ without loss of life on either side. He glanced to Nirala and Isuru. The latter’s eyes were closed. He almost seemed to be asleep on his feet.

Udai saw his hesitation. “You need not decide immediately. At least allow us to lead you into the security of the forest.”

“Very well,” Nirala said at once.

Alzurid shook his head, but followed the others into the forest. Udai warned them to keep their voices low and to avoid walking noisily, and they set out.

It was in a small clearing dotted with fires and men that they came to a stop. The sun was low in the sky. “Some of us are retiring here for the duration of the night,” Udai said. “You will be my guests, if you wish.”

There were women among the men: Nirala commented on this and Udai nodded. “Many would not abandon their husbands and brothers,” he said. “A few are even learning of tactical and military matters.”

As Alzurid watched the expressions on Nirala’s face, he realized that she would stay here, with them.

“They say they will be skilled at irritating the Zun because of their years of practice on us,” Udai continued. He glanced away. “I am sisterless and not married, so I cannot judge their expertise.” Nirala laughed.

Alzurid looked for Isuru and found him sitting against a tree nearby. He went to him. “You don’t look well,” he said.

“I am dying. I am bound tightly to the hill of wonders, and with its fading I fade as well. I will not be mourned, I think.” Isuru sighed wearily. “I don’t want to die here in the forest. If I sleep, I will not awake again. Yet still less do I want to die upon a Zhoṇ sword.”

“You will not be slain and you will make it to the great ridge of Tusiva before you die, I swear it.”

“Have you such foresight?”

Alzurid placed his hand on Isuru’s thin shoulder. “I will see it so.” He went to Udai and, bowing, said to him, “The Zhoṇ often bring shamans along with their soldiers. Do you know if there is one in Tusiva? An old man, maybe, with skulls and bones?”

“Yes,” said Udai, rubbing his chin. “I remember a scout telling of a person with that description.”

“Then I thank you, Udai Tanu, for the offer of your aid, but Isuru and I will find our own way past the Zhoṇ.” He turned to Nirala. “Farewell, Lady Hisaldun, unless you wish to go with us instead. Health to your name.”

“Farewell, then, Alzurid, and farewell, Isuru Treasure-Spinner. Health to your mothers’ names. The blessings of the empire upon you,” Nirala replied.

“Do you think you can saunter through the town unmolested by the Zhoṇ, or pass through the wood and not encounter one of their patrols or bivouacs?” Udai asked, then waved a hand. “Forgive me, but I do not wish to see citizens of the empire fall into the hands of the Zhoṇ.”

“I thank you for your offer, but we will trust to our own resources,” Alzurid said.

Udai nodded and bowed. “Very well. Perhaps our paths will meet again one day.”

Alzurid bowed in turn, then went to help Isuru to his feet.

~

Night covered Alzurid and Isuru as they emerged from the forest into the outskirts of Tusiva. They were met immediately by armed warriors who swiftly surrounded them. “Who are you?” one who seemed to be the leader asked. “What are you doing here, Duri?”

“Bring us to your shaman,” Alzurid said in a loud voice. “We have news for him: ancient things of fairy are loose in the forest.”

There was no response for a minute, then the leader spoke. “Very well. Give me any weapons you may carry. After you have told the shaman your news, you will die.”

Isuru moved as if stung and glanced at Alzurid, then fell back into his trance. Alzurid handed the leader his dagger, then he and Isuru were brought into the heart of the town. The Zhoṇ stopped at one of the houses, where the door had been replaced with a curtain of fabric. “Two Duri men wish to see the shaman!” he announced.

Isuru seemed to come to life. “Alzurid!” he whispered. “This is my house!”

“The shaman is within,” their Zhoṇ guide said. “Do not even think of treachery, for he is wrathful and keen of sight.”

A tall wizened man with a hawkish nose moved the curtain aside and stared at them for a moment. Then he beckoned them in. Alzurid and Isuru stepped into the familiar room while the warrior remained outside. Little had changed from Alzurid’s last visit, except a variety of bones now lay on the table along with pieces of wood in which were inscribed charms. The shaman took a chair. “What do you have to say to me, Duri?” he asked in a voice hoarse, dry, and tired. “Who are you?”

Alzurid looked intently at the shaman. Then he spoke in a language that had been dead for almost a thousand years. It had once been the speech of the common people, then the formal speech of the elite, then used only for sacred purposes, and at last was forgotten by all but a very few. “We are Alzurid,” he said, “of the house of the Swans. We give thee good greeting, Son of Falcons.”

The shaman stared at him mutely, then rose from his chair. He seemed about to touch Alzurid, as if to make sure he was real, then knelt and bowed his head. “Ye are the brother of Zhoṇ my mother. I thank you, King of Lazu.”

Isuru suddenly came to life again. “Alzurid, what is he doing? What is happening?”

The shaman continued to speak. His words echoed from wall to wall, drowning out Isuru’s voice. “Think not that we have forgotten the old alliances of the Eight Kingdoms. If ye wish, we shall drive the Duri from your lands and restore unto you your rightful territory and more besides. Ye shall be King of the West! Fat and greedy lords of the Zhoṇ have already divided the West among themselves in their minds, believing the Kingdoms there to be forgotten, but the shamans will bring the wrath of the eight winds upon those lords if they do not remember you.”

“No,” Alzurid said firmly, and the shaman looked up at him, eyes ablaze with vision. “No. We wish not to be king. We are a peddler, Son of Falcons. The glory and honor of our family is fallen forever. We tell this to thee only so that thou wouldst remember the friendship of our ancestors and the Zhoṇ rulers of old, and give mercy to us and our companion.”

“Ye do have that mercy.”

Isuru began to speak, when suddenly he pressed a hand to his head and collapsed into a chair.

“Is he ill?” the shaman asked, lapsing back into the common Zhoṇ tongue.

“Badly.”

“Bring me outside,” Isuru said quietly, painfully. “I am sick of this place.”

They passed out of the town and ascended the great ridge that overlooked it. Isuru was gasping for breath by the end. His face was pale, and he did not speak again, but pointed at the forest beyond the town. Then he lowered himself to sit on the grass. He remained like that for a long time. Finally he smiled. His eyes closed and his head slumped forward to his chest.

“Find joy, Hirës, Saru, Isuru,” Alzurid said, looking straight ahead. “Find happiness, Nirala.”

He looked back down at Isuru and was reminded somehow of his mother’s death. Was that why he had given such care to Isuru after they had emerged into this world? To give Isuru the peace his mother did not have? He looked up at the brilliant stars studding the heavens. The moon was dark, but he did not mind its absence. Not anymore.

He lifted Isuru’s body, impossibly light, and made his way back down to the town. The shaman was there to greet him along with his guards. “There is a mausoleum where you may inter him after the fashion of his people,” he said.

Alzurid followed them to the pillared building. He accepted a candle, opened the door, and stepped within, into the silence and dustiness of the hall, and descended the great stairs to the catacombs below. Many of the dark slots were already occupied by pale skeletons. The Zhoṇ would not desecrate this place, fearing the vengeance of the spirits of the dead. When he came to an empty slot, he placed the body within and crossed Isuru’s arms.

Then Alzurid came out into the clear night. He closed and bolted the door. “I thank thee,” he said to the shaman, who bowed deeply.

He was then showed to the inn, where he found his old room, though he was, it seemed, the only guest remaining. Keeping the dagger in his hand just in case, he sank onto his bed and fell instantly into sleep.