Aworo, Lord of Horses, god of the Western plains, walked into the marketplace in Kalub in the third hour of the morning. It was early summer, and at this hour the sun was warm and comfortable. Pens of livestock and slaves, rickety stalls, rows of fish staring blankly, baskets of fruit, orange and red and purple, clay jars of wine and beer, surrounded a fountain twenty feet across. The water came from the Nalendar, the river a short walk to the east, the supreme god of the city, the one being Aworo didn’t want to meet right now.
Down the street was the gilded roof of the temple of the god Smerdis, who Aworo did want to meet. But he was tired, and hungry and thirsty.
Perched on the lip of the fountain was a wide, shallow bowl and in it sat a large, gray–green frog. “Aworo!” the frog croaked. “You bastard! I thought you’d gone back to the plains! Does the Nalendar know you’re here?” Aworo shrugged, and the frog asked, “Where have you been? You look awful, and you smell worse.”
“Out in the hills, to the west.” Aworo scooped up water and drank from his hands, and then, “With atheists,” he confessed.
“Atheists!” The frog gaped. “You?”
“I didn’t say I was an atheist. I’ve just been living with them.” He leaned against the stone edge. “Do you know what they believe?”
“All sorts of things,” the frog said, “some of them less sane than others. I had one tell me right to my face that I wasn’t real.”
“These particular atheists,” said Aworo, “believe that this world is a fake. A copy of the real one. They say the real one is pure mind and perfect, incapable of change. Which is how they know the difference.”
“Oh,” croaked the frog. “And that’s why they camp in the hills, eating grass and never bathing?”
“They don’t eat grass. They meditate on Truth.” Truth was changeless, single, distant from this world. Above the noise and clamor of the market, past it, the roof of the temple of Smerdis shone in the sunlight. When he’d last been in Kalub, a year before, he’d paid no attention to Smerdis’ cult.
“Meditate, eh?” asked the frog. “Not the most reliable way to determine the truth, in my experience. How’s it been working for you?”
“I don’t know yet.” The frog honked derisively. “Look,” Aworo said, determined to change the subject. “I want some cash, but I don’t want to ask the Nalendar for it.”
“I wouldn’t either, if I were you,” said the frog. “You’ve got some nerve just setting foot in Kalub. You seduced one of her best fraud investigators!”
Aworo had thought he was master of himself, until he’d met Saest. He’d never felt such an exquisite, breath–catching feeling before. Marry me, he’d said to her that night on the river’s edge, and why not? He was living a man’s life. There was no reason he shouldn’t marry.
He was incredulous at her refusal, and then furious. Can’t leave the Nalendar? Have it your way! Turn away from the river and die! And he’d felt it go out of him, the power that would make his words the truth, and horrified at himself, he’d turned and run, and left Saest to her fate.
Even a year later he didn’t want to think about it. He pulled his seal up out of his dirty tunic. “Do you know who’ll take a voucher? Without tossing me out the door?”
“Not me,” said the frog. “I can’t afford to make the river angry at me.”
A year ago the frog had made a small but sufficient living fishing lost objects out of wells and ponds in exchange for prayers, but it hadn’t had any money. “You? Got a new line of work?”
The frog puffed proudly. “Have I! I remove wrinkles and moisturize skin. It’s very minor work, really, just a little tweaking of muscles and skin cells. I don’t know why more gods aren’t doing it, it keeps me in prayers. And sacrifices! I never got many sacrifices before.”
“Where does the money come from?”
“I have a boy,” said the frog. “He makes up a sort of lotion and sells it. And look here.” The frog leaned aside. On the bottom of the bowl were several coins. “People just toss them in now and then! I’m telling you, I should have thought of this years ago. I have an account at the temple of the Nalendar. I’m saving up, going to have a little shrine built if I can get enough together.”
Aworo eyed the coins, calculating. “If you’ve got a tablet, I can seal a draft for the coppers you’ve got there. I’ve got enough in my account to cover it.”
“I’m sure you do,” said the frog, “but like I said, I’m not going to risk angering the Nalendar. Unless you’ve come to clear up the mess you’ve made.”
“How can I?” Aworo asked, bitter. “Some things can’t be undone.”
“Well, it’s not like she’s dead!” exclaimed the frog, and then it croaked in surprise. “Did you think she was dead?”
A strange feeling fluttered in Aworo’s stomach. He was afraid to try to name it. “Yes.”
“Oho! So now the whole atheist business makes sense. You thought you’d killed her. But she’s not dead yet. The Nalendar took her to an island in the river. Didn’t think of that, did you? But if that’s not why you’re back, what are you doing here?”
Aworo was suddenly embarrassed. “It’s… haven’t you ever wondered? If there was… more?” He didn’t mention the temple of Smerdis.
“More?” asked the frog. “You mean like the perfect universe of your atheists? Or are you asking about what happens to humans after they die, or gods who tell big enough lies? Easy enough to find out, isn’t it? Just make a statement out loud, you’ll know soon enough if it’s not true!” It chuffed and rumbled a bit, amused at itself.
The witticism was an old one. Aworo ignored it. “Sometimes, out in the hills, meditating, I’ve felt… something.”
“The right sort of head injury will do that,” said the frog.
It took Aworo a few moments to organize his thoughts, to be sure he didn’t say anything regrettable. “I notice you’re not saying straight out that there’s no such thing as fate, or a higher power, or an afterlife.”
“That’s because I’m not an idiot,” said the frog. “Whatever my private suspicions, I don’t like gambling with those stakes. And neither do you, or you’d have tried it yourself by now. But enough of this. You’re scaring customers away. And I’ll only help you if it’s worth my while.” It puffed thoughtfully. “I’m not above currying favor with the river. I’ll give you cash in return for your draft if you say, right here and now, that you’ll remove the curse you put on Saest.”
Aworo blinked. The strange feeling was back. He opened his mouth to say I don’t know if I can but his attention was arrested by the sound of his own name.
Slightly around the circumference of the fountain, a man in a long green coat held the reins of a nicely groomed, spavined black horse. “Sired by one of the sacred stallions of Aworo, on the plains,” he was saying to another man. “But as you can see, these white markings here disqualified him—the stallions of Aworo must be without flaw! Which is how I got him so cheap.” That horse had never been sired by one of Aworo’s own, Aworo was certain. The other man, examining the horse, nodded sagely, impressed.
Aworo narrowed his eyes, drew a breath to speak.
“Temper!” warned the frog.
“I need to raise the money right away,” the green–coated man was saying, “or I’d never part with him, let alone at this price.”
The frog was right. Whatever Aworo said would be made true—or Aworo would regret it. Like all gods, he was circumspect from habit, but sometimes… Aworo took another breath. “He’s cheating you,” he said, loud enough for the green–coated man’s customer to hear. “That’s not one of Aworo’s horses, and it’s half–lame already.”
The green–coated man gave Aworo a dubious look, took in the dirty tunic, the bare feet. “How do you know that, sir?”
The customer gaped, and the green–coated man laughed. “Of course you are.” He caught his prospective buyer’s eye and made a gesture towards his forehead. The two men and the horse moved away from the fountain.
“You,” Aworo began. A few words would strike the man dead, but Aworo wanted something more satisfying.
“Lord of Horses!” croaked the frog, quietly. “Don’t say a word.”
“He’s using my name.”
“It’s not a good idea to speak without thinking, Aworo!” The frog scrabbled at the bottom of its bowl, agitated. “Look here, take the coppers, pay me back later. Get a bath and some clothes and finish your business with Saest!”
A bath and a shave, and a visit to a second–hand clothes stall, made Aworo presentable enough to get a room in a decent guesthouse on the strength of his seal. After rolling it across a clay tablet and agreeing to the charges for room and food and drink, he sat down in the house’s common room to a bowl of fish stew and a stack of flat bread, and didn’t look up for a full twenty minutes.
When he’d finished he saw that the room was more crowded. The woman who’d brought his bowl was fetching cups and pitchers, and he stopped her as she passed, her arms full of crockery, and asked her for beer. It came sooner than he expected, and he sat drinking, watching the people around him.
Saest was alive. He had cursed himself for his cowardice and now he was even more disgusted with himself, both for not thinking of the obvious solution that the Nalendar had seen immediately, and for abandoning a woman he loved. He’d spent the last year wondering if what some humans said was true, that something survived after death. If somehow he could tell Saest he was sorry, get her forgiveness. And now he found she was alive after all and he sat here afraid to actually face her, dreading that moment.
“Mind if I join you?” The speaker was a short, stocky man with a neatly trimmed beard and an expensive–looking dark blue coat. Aworo made a gesture of assent, and the man pulled out a stool and sat. “Crowded today!” Aworo agreed that it was. “I’m Nes Imosa.” His accent said he was from the northern Nalendar valley.
Nes Imosa’s eyes widened. “Distinguished name! I suppose your parents hoped you’d be good with horses.” Aworo opened his mouth to say something noncommittal, but the other man kept talking. “I came down yesterday with a boatload of grain. I love Kalub at this time of year, and there’s nothing like the baths! I mean, a man can get a hot bath at home, but there’s something special about the hot springs. Not to mention the pretty serving girls at the bath houses.” He winked.
“You left your wife at home, then?”
Nes Imosa laughed as though Aworo had told a tremendously amusing joke. “Ah! Ha ha! I did. Though the wife likes a soak when she can get it, too. And,” his expression was suddenly earnest. “I don’t give her reason to complain. Take my advice, and never give your wife reason to complain! It makes it much easier to take the waters at Kalub every now and then.” He winked again. “Married yourself?”
“Oh, I know that look,” said Nes Imosa. “She left you?”
“She wouldn’t marry me to begin with.” Aworo looked around for the serving woman, hoping for more beer.
“Hah! When a woman says no, it wasn’t meant to be, it’s better that way.”
“I’m convinced you’re right,” said Aworo.
“I am, I am! So, what are you here for? You’re not from Kalub, not with that name and that accent.”
Aworo thought of the frog, skeptical by the side of the well. “I’m curious,” he said. “I’ve been hearing a lot about this god, Smerdis… ”
“Smerdis!” Nes Imosa said, surprised. “Smerdis. Yes, I’ve heard of him. The One, the Supreme, his followers call him, but I’ve never heard that he’s done much for anyone. Well, there’s Smerdis’ bull—pure white, they say, with gilded horns.”
Aworo had heard of devotees who, laying a hand on the bull as it passed, had been granted inner peace and enlightenment. “There’s a procession…”
“Every month. They’d like to do it more often, of course, but they can’t get the permit. Can’t have gods parading around the city whenever they like, we’d never get anything done!”
Aworo nodded. “Do you know when it is?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, I think. Or you can go into the temple, and for a fee you ask a question and the bull nods or stamps or what have you, for an answer. For a slightly larger fee a priest watches it walk round its ring and then produces a few lines of doggerel.” Nes Imosa shook his head. “Supposedly Smerdis so transcends this corrupt world that only the specially trained can receive his messages, and even then they’re garbled. And what good is that, I ask you?”
“I’ve heard,” Aworo ventured, thinking of the perfect world of the atheist’s teachings, “that the benefits he confers are spiritual rather than physical.”
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard that too, and I don’t say I think much of it. My spirits are always in good shape when my body is too!” He laughed again, very amused at himself. “It’s true that some people seem to have… something wrong. And maybe Smerdis helps them. I couldn’t say. I’d rather deal with a god I can get an answer from, one who’s got a track record.”
“I don’t blame you,” said Aworo. The serving woman set down a pitcher on the table, took the old one away.
“Yes, girl, that’s just what we need,” said Nes Imosa, with good–natured enthusiasm.
The woman was broad–shouldered and tall—a good six inches taller than Nes Imosa. She hadn’t been a girl for a few years at least. But she turned and asked, pleasantly enough, “What, sir?”
Nes Imosa grinned up at her. “More beer!”
As the evening progressed, and the serving woman brought more pitchers, Nes Imosa became even more voluble. How he’d learned the rumor and gossip—some of it from across the continent—Aworo wasn’t sure; Nes Imosa never seemed to stop talking long enough to learn a new story. But somehow, in the very early hours of the morning, Aworo was struck with a confessional impulse and found Nes Imosa listening intently, if drunkenly, to his intentionally vague tale of having fallen in love last year, been turned down, and left the woman in trouble.
The words in trouble had a galvanizing effect on Nes Imosa. “You can’t leave a woman in that condition!” He punctuated his exclamation by striking the table with his cup. “Where is she?”
“An island in the…” Before he could finish, Nes Imosa had Aworo by the arm and was pulling him up off his seat. “It’s not that kind of trouble,” Aworo insisted.
“Girl!” cried Nes Imosa, “put it all on my bill!” And next thing Aworo knew they were stumbling down to the river to look for a boat.
The sun was just rising as the boat scraped the shore of the island. “I doubt anyone’s awake,” said the fisherman they’d paid to row them over.
“No worries,” said Nes Imosa and staggered onto the beach. Birds twittered, and somewhere along the shore a heron made its scratching croak. The fisherman shook his head doubtfully and Aworo climbed out. “Hallooo!” called Nes Imosa. “Aworo’s lady!”
Appalled, Aworo listened to the echoes of Nes Imosa’s shout die down. Five minutes later Saest came out of the woods, her dark hair down, a large brown shawl wrapped around her. “You!” she said, striding up to where the two men stood. “You’re drunk!”
“Best way to do this sort of thing,” said Nes Imosa.
“I’m not drunk!” said Aworo, and then staggered and dropped to his knees as the lie hit. A wash of nausea overtook him. “I didn’t think I was,” he said.
“Lady,” said Nes Imosa, with a courtly bow. “I am…”
“I don’t care who you are,” Saest said. “And you.” She turned to Aworo. Her voice had suddenly turned flat. He’d never seen her so angry. “Unless you’ve come to remove the curse you put on me, you can leave right now.”
Aworo looked over his shoulder—carefully, sudden movement was too disquieting. The boat was gone. He looked back to Saest. “I don’t know if I can.”
Nes Imosa pointed. “You! I know who you are! You’re Aworo!”
“I told you I was,” said Aworo, irritably. The sun seemed awfully bright for so early. “The boat left.”
“Swim!” said Saest, and turned and walked back the way she’d come.
Saest lived in a house with two other priestesses of the Nalendar, who tended a beacon at the end of the island. What Saest did wasn’t clear. Perhaps nothing more than tend the garden and feed the chickens, which, Aworo thought, would certainly have contributed to her resentment at being stuck here.
Inside, once the shutters were open, was warm and bright—though not so bright as outside. Food cooked over a low fire at one end of the room. One woman rolled up mats and blankets on the floor, while another took crockery off a shelf. “What exciting work!” said Nes Imosa, digging into a plate of eggs with a chunk of flat bread. “Chasing down swindlers.”
“Yes, it was,” said Saest, with venom. She sat at the end of the table, still wrapped in the shawl, though her hair was now tied up in a blue scarf. A priestess put a plate of eggs in front of Aworo. He waved it away and put his head in his hands.
“Everyone knows who you are now,” said Nes Imosa, blithely. “I’ve always wondered, why doesn’t the Nalendar just say something like everyone who tries to cheat me will die?”
“Too broad,” said the woman who was still holding Aworo’s spurned breakfast.
“She could narrow it down.”
“No,” said Aworo, still looking at the table. It was plain polished wood with a swirling, convoluted grain. “It’s too dangerous.”
“There are hard ways to do things, and easy ways,” said Saest. “The hard ways cost more. If a god makes a general statement, it could easily come true the hardest way possible. And it might have other consequences.”
“The more specific you can be, the more control you have,” said Aworo, not looking up. “For instance, if I knew what caused hangovers.” Saest made a derisive snort. “If I knew how they worked, I might be able to make a statement that would affect a very small thing, something that would ultimately end the hangover. If I were just to say that I didn’t have a hangover anymore—imagine all the conditions under which that might be true. Anything could happen.” He considered for a moment whether it would be worth the risk. He was revered on the plains, prayers and sacrifices were regular and plentiful, he was powerful. But he remembered the blow of the untruth down by the water, and decided he’d taken enough chances for one day. “The more things that would have to happen to make it true, the more power it would take.”
“What causes hangovers?” asked Nes Imosa.
“Drinking too much,” said Saest, acerbic. Nes Imosa laughed.
Aworo winced. “I never made it a study. There are other gods for that. I think it’s a couple of different things.”
“So it’s easier,” said Nes Imosa, “for the Nalendar to send out investigators pretending to be rich young widows.”
“We’re not all undercover,” said Saest, “but yes.”
“I’d be afraid to defraud the Nalendar,” announced Nes Imosa. “Much, much too powerful. Besides, the whole temple deposit system makes it so much easier to do business up and down the river. Very convenient. I would hate to do anything to compromise it.”
“You’d be amazed what people try,” Saest said. “People come in with forged seals every day. Sometimes they’re obvious, but sometimes they’re very well done. Or there’ll be a team—one person will deposit money in Kalub and get a seal for the account, and make a copy. Then a confederate will take the copy to another city, and they’ll both withdraw most of the money on the same day. It takes the messenger with the day’s numbers a while to reach the other temples, and meantime they’ve gotten away with twice the money they started with.”
“Ingenious!” Nes Imosa was clearly impressed. “And you track these people down and catch them in the act.”
“I used to.” She was bitter again.
“Friend Aworo,” said Nes Imosa, his voice scolding. “This won’t do. You’re just going to have to remove that curse.”
“The Nalendar has lots of people working for her,” Aworo said. “It’s not like Saest was the only one.” He couldn’t see Saest’s reaction, but he could imagine it. “Besides, I have to be careful how I do it.”
“You’ve had a year to think about it,” Saest pointed out.
He looked up. The sun shone in the open shutters, making her brown skin glow warmly, and her eyes… His breath caught for a moment, a stomach–turning combination of desire and shame. “I thought you were dead.”
“Ridiculous!” said Nes Imosa. “You should have known better.”
“Thank you,” said Saest. “So what have you been doing for the last year?”
He owed her the unevasive truth, but couldn’t bring himself to say.
“Looking for the mythical Higher Power,” Nes Imosa said. “The god of gods.”
Aworo was struck with horror at how much he’d said, that he’d thought had been vague and equivocating, during last night’s drunken conversation. “I really did think you were dead,” he said. “I wanted… If there was something beyond this world, or someone to forgive me what I’d done…”
“You were looking for justification,” Saest said. “When you decided to be human you went all out, didn’t you.”
Aworo sighed and put his head down on his arms.
He woke stiff and sore, still bent over the table. The sun no longer shone in the unshuttered window, the fire at the end of the room was banked, and he was alone. He pushed himself up, creaky and unsteady, and went outside.
One of the priestesses was throwing grain to the chickens. Without speaking, she gestured down the pathway that led to the shore.
A rowboat rested on the beach. A few yards away, Saest was conferring with Nes Imosa. “Drinking too much indeed,” Nes Imosa was saying as Aworo walked up. “But it seemed like such a good idea at the time.” Saest snorted and Nes Imosa flinched. “I beg you madam. The light, the noise… I can hardly bear it.”
“Saest,” said Aworo.
“I don’t want to hear it,” said Saest, her voice even. “I don’t want your apology, I don’t want you to tell me you love me, or that it was all your fault, or all my fault.”
“You nearly killed me because you loved me?” asked Saest, angry again. “You leave me trapped here for a year because you loved me? You can’t decide whether or not to free me because you loved me?” Nes Imosa winced, and backed away from her, but she ignored him. “I can do without that sort of love!”
“Aworo, don’t say anything more,” begged Nes Imosa. “Just get in the boat.”
Back on shore, they parted ways, Nes Imosa to a bath house and Aworo back to the guesthouse common room. Guests sat at a few tables, and over in a corner a knot of men were throwing dice. Aworo ordered cheese and bread and beer and sat by himself for some time, thinking.
Before he’d tried being human, he’d never thought much about Truth in the abstract. Truth was what was, the way things were. Once he’d been human a while, truth became a slippery concept. Things that seemed true were provably not. Convictions presented themselves to him from nowhere he could trace. He’d thought Saest was dead, believed it utterly, and yet it had been untrue, and Nes Imosa was right, he should have known it.
He was afraid to state his motives for anything aloud, because he could never be sure if what he thought was true, or something his human mind had provided after the fact in some attempt to make order out of its own chaos.
Running away from the river that night, he had first been horrified at what he’d done, and the fact that he was running away. By the next day he began to entertain the idea that it had all been beyond his control, not his fault. The teachings of the atheists he’d spent the fall and winter with had reinforced that idea—this world was broken, corrupt. Nothing went as it should. Living creatures were merely following their natures, and no one was at fault but the power that had brought this flawed world into being. And none of it mattered. The only important thing was to purify oneself so that one could shed one’s imperfections and reach the universal Truth.
Over at the table where the men were dicing a familiar voice cried out. Aworo looked up and recognized the man in the green coat, who the morning before had sold the horse he’d claimed was one of Aworo’s own.
Before Aworo could get up, Nes Imosa sank into the seat across from him. “You’re looking better. Ha ha! Girl! Some bread!” He grimaced. “And a pitcher of water.” When the food came he took a chunk of bread. “I don’t think I’d like being a god. I mean, I’d like the power, who wouldn’t? Girl! Cheese!” He took a swig of water. “Feeling much better now, must be the food. But as I was saying. Can you imagine, never being able to lie?” He laughed. “Oh, ha ha! You can! Well, you can twist words around, but there are some things you just can’t get past. But now.” Nes Imosa looked up as the woman brought the cheese. “Some of those mussels as well, my dear.” He looked around and then lowered his voice. “What are you going to do about this curse? She’s safe as long as she stays on the island, it’s true, but I know I wouldn’t want to be stuck there. Not if I couldn’t leave. Ha ha!”
“The thing is,” Aworo said, and then waited as the dice–players shouted, variously triumphant or disappointed. “The thing is, I didn’t specify how she would die if she turned away from the river. And I don’t know what would be likely to happen right now if she did.”
The mussels arrived in a steaming bowl of broth. “Help yourself,” Nes Imosa invited. “So is it something that’s likely to hurt you really badly?” He picked up an open shell and blew on the meat inside. “If it’s something that big, then it’s going to cost you that much to begin with, right?”
The mussels smelled good. Aworo took one while he tried to make sense of what Nes Imosa was asking. “Are you asking if since I spent a certain amount of power when I made the statement, it should take the same amount of power to take it back?”
“Ha ha. Right.”
“Imagine I’d said that a particular person was dead. And a certain amount of power was to have made that true. How much would it take, for me to take that back?”
“Ah! I see your point,” Nes Imosa said genially, scooping up another mussel. “So. I’m curious. Most gods possess a person or an animal some of the time, but that’s not what you’re doing.”
Aworo sighed. “No.”
“In fact—correct me if I’m wrong—gods hardly ever use humans that way.”
“I wouldn’t say hardly ever.” The dice players shouted again, and the serving woman brought a new pitcher of beer. Aworo reached out to fill his cup again, and then remembered the night before and took some cheese instead. “But not like this, not very often.”
“So, ha ha! Why are you doing it?”
“Because sometimes—not very often, understand, but it happens—humans do something completely unpredictable. You make such careful plans, and you think you know someone—I can know, from the moment a particular human is born, what they’ll look like and mostly how they’ll act when they’re grown. But sometimes…”
“Ah!” said Nes Imosa. “I understand you. All your ideas about humans are one thing, but being one is quite another. So, what have you learned?”
Aworo took another mussel. “Sometimes I think even humans don’t understand why they do what they do.”
Nes Imosa grinned. “Ha ha! Nothing I didn’t know already.”
As Aworo left the guesthouse, he glanced at the green–coated man. But there wasn’t time, not if he wanted to see Smerdis.
At this late afternoon hour the market stalls were empty and shuttered, the street eerily quiet, even with people gathered to watch the procession. As he walked by the fountain, he heard a familiar croak. The frog was still perched in its bowl on the edge of the basin. Next to it sat a young man, pale, almost girlishly pretty, eating something wrapped in bread.
“Aworo!” called the frog. “This is my boy.” The boy nodded perfunctorily, all his attention on his food.
“The one who sells your lotion?” Aworo asked. “What does it do, anyway?”
“It smells very nice,” said the frog.
The boy swallowed. “It moisturizes and refreshes the skin,” he said, his voice surprisingly deep. Aworo couldn’t place the accent.
“Isn’t he wonderful!” said the frog. “I got him from one of the slave pens down the street. He was a scrawny little thing, the dealers didn’t know what they had! Half of what he brings in I spend feeding him, but he sells a lot. Very popular with the women. They love the accent. So where are you off to?”
“I’m here to see Smerdis.”
The frog croaked in surprise. “Smerdis!” It shifted uneasily in its bowl. “Look here, Aworo. I’ve never met Smerdis, and none of the gods I’ve asked have either.” The boy laughed, at what Aworo wasn’t sure. “He doesn’t have an account at the temple of the Nalendar, it’s in the name of the temple itself, as a business entity. The Nalendar refused to open one if he wouldn’t come in person.”
“Then where did he come from?” asked Aworo. “How did he get any worshippers at all?”
“How should I know?” asked the frog. “I could give you a string of theories longer than my tongue, but who knows if any of them would be the truth?”
“What if his followers are right? What if he’s the Supreme? The god of gods?”
The boy snorted and wiped his now–empty hands on the front of his coat. “Smerdis is a fraud,” he declared, and before he could say anything else a long chorus of jingling started, and in the near distance, the procession came out from the temple gates and into the street.
First came a dozen men in conventional dress—the coat and leggings most men in the Nalendar Valley wore—shaking long strings of small bells. Behind them, stepping sedately, came one of the largest, whitest bulls Aworo had ever seen. As Nes Imosa had said, its horns were gilded, and they shone bright in the afternoon sunlight. Behind it came more men, singing. “Is that the bull?” Aworo asked. “The one that answers questions?” Spectators reached out to touch it, and the great bull merely walked, slow and calm, behind the bell–shaking priests as they approached the well. Not what you’d expect from a bull. But definitely what Aworo would expect from a bull that was possessed by a god. His breath caught, and his skin prickled.
The priests and the bull were circling the well, still singing. He moved slowly forward and reached out his hand as it came by. It didn’t react to his touch, just stepped slowly forward, muscle moving and warm under his hand. He looked up at its head, its calm face, its eye…
Aworo dropped his hand and stepped back. Behind him the frog’s boy swore. “Hey, watch where you’re going!”
“Well?” asked the frog. “What do you think?” The bull was still walking sedately around the fountain, its attendants before and behind it.
“That bull,” Aworo said, and then hesitated. But he was sure he was right. “That bull is drugged.”
“How can you tell?” asked the boy.
“Its eyes.” The singing, and the chaotic jingling, continued, but the procession was moving away, back the way it had come. Aworo shook his head.
“It doesn’t necessarily prove Smerdis isn’t the Transcendent One,” the frog said. “But you’d think the Supreme God of Gods wouldn’t have to resort to that sort of thing.”
Aworo looked at the boy, who said, “I’m still hungry, can I buy a cake?”
“Yes, my dear,” said the frog, “and get a basket of crickets too.” The boy ran off into the swirl of dispersing onlookers, and the frog puffed a few times. “So, and what about this business with Saest?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Thinking!” The frog considered that for a moment. “Well, maybe that’s best, after all.”
Back at the guesthouse, the dice game was still in session, and Nes Imosa was watching it with great interest. “You’re back!” he cried as Aworo came in the door. “Girl! A drink for my friend here. And everyone else!”
“You seem to be feeling generous,” Aworo said as the woman brought him a cup of beer.
“A salute to Nes Imosa!” called one of the dicers, and Aworo saw that it was the green coated horse salesman. The other dice–players cheered.
Nes Imosa smiled and bowed. “Ha ha! Yes, I come to Kalub to enjoy myself. So how did your errand go? Did you find what you were looking for?” Aworo hesitated, and Nes Imosa suddenly turned serious. “No simple answer, eh?”
“That depends,” said Aworo, surprised, but Nes Imosa’s solemn mood was gone as soon as it had come, and his normal genial expression had returned.
The man in the green coat tossed, and then gave a cry of defeat. “I’m out!”
“Pay up!” said another man. “You’ve been throwing on promises for the last hour.”
“I don’t have anything!” protested the green–coated man. “I meant to win it back. I’ll seal…”
“I’ll go to the temple of the…”
“You won’t go anywhere!” said the other man, and stood and crossed his arms. “I want the money you owe me.”
The man in the green coat looked over to Nes Imosa. “Friend! Can I seal a draft for some coins?”
Nes Imosa frowned. “I’m not sure how much I have on me… ”
“Nes Imosa, don’t,” said Aworo.
“I have plenty,” said the man in the green coat, “but as you can see, this man—” he gestured to the other man. “Won’t let me leave to get it. I’ll make it out for whatever you can give me, plus fifty gold more.”
“Fifty!” Nes Imosa looked pleased. “That’s a nice profit. Let me see what I have.” He pulled out a purse and poured its contents on a nearby table, a spill of gold and silver coins and a few coppers. “How much do you owe?”
“A hundred ten,” said the threatening man, and the green–coated man nodded.
“Nes Imosa,” Aworo began, “this man…”
Nes Imosa dismissed him with a wave. “Now, friend, please don’t interrupt.” He turned back to the dicers. “So I’ll give you a hundred and ten, and you’ll seal a draft for a hundred and sixty. Your gambling debt will be paid and I’ll be fifty richer! Ha ha!”
“It’ll be worth it,” said the green–coated man, casting a glance at his antagonist.
“I’ll bet it will,” said Nes Imosa, and waved over the serving woman and asked for a tablet. She stood by while the man in the green coat rolled his cylinder seal across the clay, and Nes Imosa handed over the gold.
“Now sir,” said the serving woman then, putting her hand on the green–coated man’s shoulder. “We’ll be off to the temple of the Nalendar.” Before he could move she had a knife at his throat. The other dicer swore, and spun around and ran out the door. “He won’t get far,” said the woman. “There’s half a dozen of the city guard outside.”
“What!” exclaimed Nes Imosa. “What’s this?”
“You’re too trusting, sir.” The green–coated man made as if to struggle and she tightened her hold and pushed her knife just a bit harder against his throat. “Move and you’ll bleed to death.” He stood very, very still. “I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. You’d have presented that draft at the temple and found there was no money to back it up.”
“Look into his horse dealing as well,” Aworo suggested.
The woman shrugged. “Not my area.” She tugged at her captive. “Come on, you.”
As they left Nes Imosa sank into the nearest seat. “Well!” he said, serious again. “That’s that, then. Now, friend Aworo, what are you going to do about lady Saest?”
It was as though Aworo had blinked and his vision had cleared, or as though Nes Imosa had taken off a mask. “Who are you?”
“I’m Nes Imosa,” said Nes Imosa. “A foolish merchant from upriver who came to Kalub to take the waters and have a bit of fun.” No ha ha, only a pleasantly serious expression. “Sometimes—because of my generous nature, you understand—I get swindled.” He smiled, but there was no sign of the expansive, affable Nes Imosa of moments before.
“Did the Nalendar send you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Why not just say so?”
Nes Imosa lifted his cup, looked at it a moment, and then drank. “You could probably be forced to remove the curse one way or another, but it’s better for everyone if you’re persuaded instead.”
Aworo thought about that for a moment. “Is that a threat?”
Nes Imosa betrayed no surprise or indignation. “Does it sound like one?” When Aworo didn’t answer, he sighed. “Yes, it’s a threat. The island is as much as the Nalendar can do and it’s hardly satisfactory. Saest is unhappy there, and it’s a terrible waste of her abilities.”
“The Nalendar wants me to just take it back?”
“I’ll be frank. You’re a very powerful god. But so is the Nalendar, and she could probably force you to do what she wants.” Nes Imosa picked up a pitcher, looked inside it, looked around for the serving woman, and then shrugged. “But if you were killed, or too badly weakened, someone else would fill your space. There are several candidates, none of whom appeal to the River Nalendar. She likes stability. Stability means peace and prosperity. Open trade routes.” He set the pitcher down again. “You’re powerful enough that taking the curse back would be a temporary inconvenience. At worst it might jeopardize your hold on the body you’re inhabiting.”
“But I haven’t…”
“Haven’t caused enough trouble?”
“Haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Nes Imosa laughed. “What is it you’re looking for, Lord of Horses? Do other gods worry about things like that?”
Aworo thought about Smerdis’ bull, shining white, groomed and gilded. Drugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t, before I was human.” He caught Nes Imosa’s dubious look. “Does that mean it’s not a valid question?”
Nes Imosa shrugged. “I have no idea. But I do know that the Nalendar has very little patience for your spiritual crisis. And I’ll tell you what I think. I think it suits you to have Saest trapped on that island. When she can go where she wants, she won’t go where you want her to.”
Angry and indignant, Aworo opened his mouth to protest.
“Don’t speak without thinking,” Nes Imosa cautioned. “Being human is a game to you. You can always try it again some time, if you lose this body. But Saest only has this one life.”
Aworo wanted to say it’s not a game to me. But he knew Nes Imosa was right. “Saest won’t die when she turns away from the river,” he said, and was suddenly sick to his stomach, heart pounding, unable to speak. He collapsed forward, head hitting the table, glad he was already sitting.
“I was going to suggest going upstairs and lying down first.” Nes Imosa’s voice came from somewhere distant. “You’re a little impulsive, Aworo.”
When he was well again, Aworo went to the marketplace. The summer was well–advanced by now; the heat rising off the flags wouldn’t dissipate until well after sunset, if even then, and the golden roof of Smerdis’ temple shimmered in the afternoon sun. The street was deserted, except for the frog resting in its bowl, chin on the rim, eyes closed, and the boy leaning nearby, drooping in the heat, perceptibly taller than he had been when Aworo had first seen him. He nodded negligently as Aworo approached.
“I’m going,” Aworo said.
The frog opened one eye, and then closed it. “Where?”
The frog opened both eyes this time and fixed its beady gaze on Aworo. “Saest went downriver.”
“I know,” Aworo said. “I hope she does well.”
“I think she will,” said the frog. They were both of them silent for a few moments.
“Gets hot on the plains,” the boy said. “The sun beats down.” His surprising baritone turned suave and melodious. “It does terrible things to your skin.” He reached into a box at his feet and pulled out a small bottle, black glass wound with a spiral of red.
“Clever boy!” said the frog. “You know, Aworo, you could import this…”
Aworo tossed a coin in the bowl and took the bottle from the boy. “I think it’s better if I just go home.”
The frog puffed thoughtfully. “But what about the god of gods?” it croaked. “Truth through meditation?”
Aworo shrugged. “I can meditate on the plains.”
“I imagine so,” agreed the frog. “But where will you get the drugged cattle?”
The boy snorted, limply in the heat, and Aworo looked at him, eyebrow raised. But he couldn’t summon any real anger. “It’s safer if I go.”
The frog wiggled down further into its bowl of water. “For that body, likely. You barely managed to hold onto it. But do you think you’re going to do something this stupid again?”
“Probably not this particular kind of stupid.” Aworo brought a handful of water out of the well and emptied it into the bowl. “But I’m not making any guarantees.”
The frog croaked its amusement. “Do I detect wisdom at last?”
Aworo thought of the long ride west, the hills that would give way to his own sparsely wooded plains, his home. He had been away too long. “I hope so,” he said. “I hope so.”
© 2010 by Ann Leckie. Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy. Reprinted by permission of the author.