|The God Box
The God Box
by Barry B. Longyear
My story does not start very long ago. I was then, as you see me now, a handsome figure of a man. From inclination, rather than necessity, I was always interested in the possibility of learning more efficient ways of increasing my fortune. Gold is not my sole motivation in life, I assure you, but the reasons I do things do make an occasional visit in that neighborhood. On one such an occasion was my visit to the Omergunts and Oghar the Valiant, Chief of the Omergunts. But I am getting ahead of myself.
A few days before, on my piece of the square at the Iskandar market, for I could not afford a stall, there was a lesser magician named Jorkis who was shopping for a flying carpet. I had the usual weaves imported from the sleazier districts of Iskandar's blemished jewel bearing labels from as far away as the exotic kingdom of Ahmrita. What eventually transpired concerning this alleged magician, incidentally, was not entirely my fault. After all, the fellow was shopping for a carpet that any fool would expect to cost thousands of reels. Here he was in the market square with a purse holding barely enough coins to weigh down a mosquito. I believe at least a portion of the blame should rest upon his shoulders.
Be that as it may, this magician was searching among my carpets, and when his back was turned I blew upon a silent whistle. A carpet, one of the better blue designs on loan from the Zivenese, began twitching.
"Great Yhandra!" he cried as he invoked the ancient Itkahn goddess of flight. Inwardly I smiled, for I knew I already had my fingers in his purse. As I silently whistled my signals, the carpet crawled around left, then right. "Yhandra herself is in this carpet, Korvas."
"She is there, true enough," I answered. "She only awaits a great magician such as yourself, Jorkis, to bring her chariot to life."
"Then the carpet would fly?"
"Fly? That is such an ordinary word---such a feeble word." I looked toward the sky and pointed toward a cloud. "Say instead that it would soar." I pointed with the movement of my hand at an imaginary flight far above consisting of dives, loops, and great reaches of height and speed. I was about to blow the signals for the rug to roll and wrap itself when Dorc, a local fool the merchants use to send messages, ran up to us.
"Master Korvas, I have---"
I quickly hid my whistle. "Silence, Dorc! I am with a customer." I turned to the magician saying, "My apologies, Jorkis."
"What is this?" Jorkis's voice sounded quite puzzled.
"I beg your pardon?" I looked at where the magician was pointing and saw about fifty of my trained mahrzak beetles running from under the carpet pell-mell into the square. I could not spare the time to explain them away to Jorkis. It had taken me years to train those bugs, and of course I ran after them.
"Hold, sir! Madam, watch where you step!" I confess, my composure was already threadbare just wondering what Jorkis would do, but suddenly a madman from one of the stalls came at me with a horrible contrivance surely designed to be used by Quaag the Torturer in the king's dungeon.
It was a huge drum run by a handle. As the drum rolled, it rumbled like an earthquake. It quite stopped me in my tracks. Before I could get moving again, the creature had run his contraption over my precious mahrzak beetles.
I was aghast. I was ruined. Who wants to buy a carpet that just lies there? To add more distress to my portion, I thought of the beetles I had known well enough to name.
There were Benthia and her children, Nab and Tib, that I had nursed through the croup, brave Bomba who lost a leg to a hungry mantis and who still carried his share of the rug using the tiny peg leg I had whittled for him, ancient Hadrubba who was the first to come to me after I had been cut down from the whipping post and had nothing....
I was devastated. Before I could recover, the creature with the torture instrument returned, his face beaming. "There is no charge, brother, for my services."
"Charge? Charge! Charge for what, you maniac? And don't you brother me, you crawling, muck-sucking, son of a Vulot slug!"
The color came to the fellow's face. "I find your words a trifle offensive, ragman."
"Ragman? Ragman? I am Korvas the rug merchant, and I sell the finest magic carpets in this or any other universe. Just who and what are you?"
"I am Obushawn the Shrubber. I am a merchant, as well."
"Merchant," I sneered. "What merchant rolls about on such a torture instrument?"
He laughed at me, and I would have throttled him had he not placed that thing between himself and my aching hands. "Brother Korvas, this is no torture instrument. I sell these. This is a lawn roller."
"Lawn roller?" I looked at the thing, the surface of its drum stained with the corpses of my faithful beetles. "What is it for?"
"Why, it is for rolling lawns."
I shook my head and laughed back at him. "Do I look like I have hay in my ears, fellow? Just why, madman, would anyone want to roll a lawn? There would be nothing left but mud, and the grass would die from lack of sun."
"No, Korvas. Rolling means to flatten."
"No, it doesn't. A roller rolls; a flattener flattens."
Obushawn sighed and nodded. "Very well, it is a lawn flattener. It's for flattening lawns."
"I see no purpose in it. If I wanted a flat lawn, that's what I would have planted in the first place. I think you are a failure at business, you obviously drink to excess and beat your wife, dog, and children, you steal from the temple and blind beggars, and are most likely well on your way to being put away in a home. I do not want to talk to you anymore. Go away."
I turned back to my place of business to find the magician Jorkis, as well as his golden reels, gone. In his place was the fool Dorc. He groveled to excess. "Forgive me, Master Korvas! Forgive me!"
He picked up a stick, handed it to me, and presented his back. "Beat me, master. I deserve it. Please beat me!"
"Make up your mind, idiot!" I broke the stick across my knee and threw the pieces into the dust. "Give me your message, Dorc, before I obtain a small piece of drainpipe and reacquaint you with the experience of birth."
"Eh?" He froze as he attempted to discern the meaning of my words.
"Never mind what I said, fool. Just give me the message."
"What message do you have for me?"
Dorc appeared to panic. "Forgive me, master, but it seems that I have forgotten."
"What?" I took a step toward him and he fell backward onto my remaining rugs. As fate would have it, in the process of falling upon those rugs he also landed upon my remaining mahrzak beetles, ruining both beetles and rugs forever. I have never found a cleaner who could remove the dark purple mahrzak stains. So much for the vaunted wizardry of Iskandar.
I rubbed my eyes as I shook my head. The gods of commerce play jokes every now and then, and I do not begrudge them their recreations. However, the number of times I have been singled out as the object of their humor often gives me pause. Surely there are others who could amuse the gods for a bit.
I opened my eyes and Dorc was standing. He nodded toward the market's Sunset Gate. "The magician said that he was going for the King's Guard to have you flayed alive for fraud?"
"Did you have anything else to impart to brighten my day? Has the Heterin faith reopened the Unbeliever Pogroms again? Have the bug monsters of Chara's Sea attacked the city?"
"I was only joking, idiot."
"You aren't laughing, master."
"It was only a joke," I shouted. "Tell me what you want now. Ruined carpets? I have a fine selection."
"This." In his outstretched hand was a piece of paper. "Here is the message I was supposed to deliver."
He dropped the piece of paper and ran. From every side of me there were snickers as my colleagues and their customers found amusement in my suffering.
I pulled out my whistle and blew assembly. Only three of my mahrzak beetles---Amram, Tiram, and Iramiram---managed to struggle out of the carnage. I put them in the pocket of my robe, wiped away a tear in memory of their faithful comrades, and picked up the paper containing the message.
After reading those words, my feelings were quite uncertain. It was warming to feel so generous, as well as so generously remembered. However, I could not for the life of me call to mind any beggar named Olassar, nor indeed any beggar to whom I would have given ten gold reels without the beggar first holding a razor at my throat.
the demise of my beetles, and the subsequent fouling of my carpets, I
headed my footsteps past the end of the bazaar and up the hill toward
the Nant Temple. There was little point in waiting here for the King's
Guard, and perhaps my inheritance might be enough to purchase the
indulgence of Jorkis the angry magician. It should be at least
sufficient, I thought, to have my rugs replaced.
I suppose if there were a god of justice with a realistic sense of proportion regarding humor it would have been sufficient that even the thought of approaching the fearsome mercenaries who guarded the Nant Temple curdled my phlegm. Of course, I wouldn't have a tale to tell if the gods led more balanced lives. It is always wise to remember that it was the gods who put nipples on men, seeds in pomegranates, and priests in temples.
Temples make me nervous, priests and priestesses bring anxiety, conversation not concerned with making money causes stress, and my least favorite color is black. In addition, I am not fond of the dark. So there I was, in a black anteroom in the Nant Temple speaking to a Nant priestess named Syndia about a beggar whom I had no memory of ever having met, for the purpose of---
Well, I had quite forgotten the purpose. Perhaps I should also mention that the priestess Syndia was a great beauty. She was beyond beauty. She was a veritable goddess. Her beauty was such that it made me feel unworthy to look upon her.
"Your name, sir?"
"Yes! My name!" I swept my hat from my head, caught a feather from it with my teeth, and stood there looking as though I had just eaten a raw pheasant. Quickly I pulled the feather from my mouth and attempted to hide it behind my back. The swing of my hand knocked over an immense iron candle stand. The clatter was shattering, to say the least. In addition, the room was now even darker. Again, the humor of the gods. It does not take much to amuse them, for they keep playing the same tired jokes over and over.
"You appear to be a bit nervous," she said with a smile. Oh, that smile! For another such I would have taken on the entire Nant Guard with a hairpin. She nodded at a temple servant and the fellow bent to the task of restoring the candle stand to an upright position and cleaning the wax from the flagstone floor. Oh, friends, her diamond-ticked black gown was so, and contoured just so; their temple gowns are nothing like those dull rags they wear on the street, I can vouch truly.
Her face, her hair, her lips, her scent, by the Great Nasty's toenails I would have converted on the spot could I have remembered the god or gods to which I belonged. The form beneath that cobweb of a gown. Great Elass, my hair fairly smoked with imagination!
"Korvas!" I burst out.
Her lovely brow knit in a wee sign of confusion. "Korvas?"
"Yes! My name! Korvas!" I must have sounded like some pimpled whelp trembling in the parlor of a bordello for the first time. My face was so red it must have glowed in the darkened room. There was nothing left to do, so I pulled the message from my sash and held it out.
Her hands gently enclosed mine. Mine could feel the warmth of thine, and she held my hand for so long that I could see us writhing in endless passion, rearing children, growing old together. Why else would she have held my hand so gently, so long?
"Korvas, I cannot read it until you let go of it."
open and quickly hid within the folds of my robe. The movement was done
such deftness and speed that I managed to punch myself right in my, eh,
"Of course," I gasped. "My apologies . . . ."
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