His looks belie his success. That his length equals his width, his golden robe a tent maker's and his sandals a raftmakers makes him look weak. That he keeps his eyes wideopen and his mouth smiling and that his skin, even of his bald head, lacks the slightest flaw renders him child like. Still, I have remained with him because wisdom is more necessary than looks.
Recently, his wisdom had proven especially useful. When our card tricks had angered the Goswinans, we traveled to Varicose Veritas, the City of Truth. Here Zar knew our tricks would flourish because all manner of tricks did.
A procession we watched shortly after, showed a few such tricks. There, though a few feet away, Zar peered through a spyglass.
"As I suspected," he declared. "this lens is authentic; the merchant must have sold it by mistake." I ignored that remark then, so it could dog me later.
"Why the spyglass?" I asked.
"To pierce an illusion of government officials here."
"Let me peek?"
He passed me the spyglass. I settled on a handsome young general on a sedan chair with a chest that could span a sea and biceps that rivaled grapefruits. The spyglass rendered him a decrepit old man with wrinkles that resembled an alligator's and biceps that barely outsized a twig. I laughed heartily. What a clever device!.
Returning the spyglass to Zar, he peered on the procession again. Suddenly he stopped laughing; his eyes and mouth opened too wide for that.
"The Princess of Varicose!" he exclaimed. "She's beautiful!" I gazed at her; and, yes, she was. Then I remembered Zar has incredibly bad taste in women.
"Let me see,"
"But of course." Surely enough, through the spyglass, his taste once again proved awful since the princess' weight must have equaled a horse's. The porters strained at her sedan chair. Her robe could have covered three women of her illusion; I have seen slenderer boars. Her gilded boots could have served as temple columns; her cheeks, not her breasts, were as pomegranates.
"Why she's a fat boar," I declared disgustedly.
"You like only starvelings," he replied.
After that, I could waste no more time.
"Let us eat," I suggested. "I'm hungry."
"When she passes," Zar replied. Then he asked,"Didn't we eat a few hours ago?"
I nodded yes.
A few days later we were feasted but still hungry. Zar was sustaining a winning streak. How, I'll never know. The townsfolk opponents altered the cards by illusion.
Amid this honest labor, a young lass sat at the next table. She possessed the body of an ox, but the face of a demigod; and skin fair as a cowmaid's and smooth as a skimming stone. Unfortunately, this was tarnished by tears reddening her eyes and soaking her lashes; her ripped burlap peasant dress; and her pillarlike feet being bare. Also, mud caking her dress, and making her legs resemble unfinished pottery.
I feared she would soften Zar's heart -- and cause trouble.
"Is she the Princess?" Zar remarked.
I avoided saying anything.
"Excuse me, good fellows," he said. "I wish to talk to the woman there." Because our opponents were afraid he would win more, they excused him. Would they had strapped him to the chair!
"What's wrong, my dear?" asked Zar.
"How can you talk to someone as disgusting as I am?" The Princess bemoaned.
"I find you radiant," Zar extolled. She grimaced a bit.
"You need not be nice to me," she whined.
"But I wish to."
Then Zar repeated: "What's wrong?" She wept and wailed a second.
Finally, she replied in a voice still high: "I'm Princess Bazazinka. When I awoke this morning, I found myself fat; my wazir, Kovenhova, had stolen my illusion. Without it, no noble or commoner, not even the servants, recognized me; and considered me a commoner sow pretending to high station; and shunned me. Even the servants did. Then the palace guards, seeing an unknown in princess garb, forced me into peasant attire; and dragged me out of palace and into a nearby ditch. As a parting humiliation, they told me if I ever returned, they would tell the Princess.“ At that point she cried "Whaaah!," and wept.
"Dry those tears, I--" Zar began.
"But that's not the whole tale," she broke in. "Later, Kovenhova ordered that I in my present state would be beheaded if I approached within five miles of the palace ever again." She wailed another time,"Whaaah!" Then she took a burlap sleeve and blew her nose with it.
"A fiend in human form," Zar declared.
"No," said the princess. "Without my illusion, I'm the lowest trash." Zar disagreed.
"I'll regain your throne," he asserted. I shuddered.
Weeping, she replied: "That's nice but na-nobody can help me nowww. I can only hope some kind pig lets me sleep nearby." Again she cried.
"My dear," asked Zar,"if I regain your throne, will you marry me?" At least Zar's years as a trickster taught him self-interest. She had yet to learn.
"Most certainly," she replied kindily. "Most, most certainly."
"You'll also appoint my friend general." He pointed to me. Would that he had forgotten our friendship!
"Most most certainly." Then she remembered her unpitying self-pity.
"Don't get involved on my account; I'm not worth it. I know you feel sorry for me, but -- "
"It's nothing," he assured her.
That business finished, he returned to our table. There, his mouth took on a hard serious smiles to convince my hardheaded self. Yet he betrayed his passion: his eyes gazed heavenward.
"You heard that, a generalship," Zar began.
"A nonexistent one," I pointed out.
"More possible than you think." his eyes lowered, and pierced me for a second, and then they raised heavenward again.
"How? You refuse to cast spells, remember?" He had a good reason too.
"Ah, but I undo spells," Zar said slowly for full effect.
"How will you undo this Kovenhova's illusion?" I believed I had him.
"A scroll," Zar announced. "The first king here was Groda the First, an illusionist known worldwide, but he gave the world only his lowest wisdom. Those for building kingdoms are buried with him in a scroll on a pedestal."
"Why has no one stolen the scroll before?" I asked.
Zar replied. "First, it is written in Naacal; which few know today."
"But you do?"
"Yes, from an old master." That satisfied me .
"Second," Zar continued,"the tomb is cursed."
"Should we go then?" I wondered as an objective observer.
"But I should be able to overcome them." Then Zar again dissatisfied me.
"Third," Zar continued,"such tombs are usually guarded."
"Perhaps, you can go alone."
Then Zar added: "But lightly guarded."
"All the better for you," I replied.
"Do you not retain soldierly skills?" He goaded.
"One of which is remaining alive," I replied. But he had hit me in my pride. "I'll go though I've doubts. Perhaps the demons have again addled my brain."
To sate our gnawing stomachs, we ate two owls stuffed with squid. Then that night , we were off.
We crept silently through bushes in the darkness opposite the great king's tomb. Zar, despite his girth. For the attack, he held a staff and I my trusty axe from mercenary days. Shortly we gazed at the tomb, and more importantly its guards. The three were fiercesome since one measured 6 feet tall, one 7, and one 8. I would have feared them unarmed without their giant swords. Beside them, my axe and Zar's staff seemed puny. Light guard?, I wondered.
Instead of asking, however, I rustled the bushes. I expected they would send a guard to inspect. And wham!, my axe would fall on him. Alas, the six foot guard mumbled an incantation, and the bushes disappeared..
Zar was unfazed.. He spoke rapidly,"I'll take the two larger ones, you the shorter."
"With so little fighting experience?"
"No time to explain," he replied.
As I approached the six footer, he tried to slice me from above, but I blocked his sword with my axe. Then I kicked him in the groin. He yelled, and bowed to hold his pained member. Yet I only knocked off his helmet; and, before my next swing of the axe, he had raised his sword again. I cursed the small member that preoccupied him so little.
Next, with his sword, he pushed my axe and me as hard as he could, and that left my midsection unguarded. Fortunately, I jumped backwards out of harm's way. Then, his sword's momentum turned him so his head was again exposed. This time, long enough to clomp him on the head. He fell, and then I split his head open with my axe. Amid the blood rushing from the gash, he was dead.
I was so proud of my gentlemanly fight I almost forgot about the giants. Shortly, I found I could have forgotten them completely. When I went to Zar's aid, I found the two enormous guards with swords had vanished, and been replaced by two short figures with staffs. Whom Zar threatened with his own staff as they crouched under him.
"Please don't hit us master," one pleaded in a boy's voice. "We'll go, and we won't tell."
"Be sure you don't!" he warned caricaturing sternness. Next, Zar ordered, "Away with you!" They fled.
"Where are the other two guards?" I asked.
"There," Zar said smiling and pointing at the boys. "Their size and weapons were but an illusion."
Then, I asked, "How are we to enter Groda's tomb?"
"Let us see," he said with confidence.
Illuminated by the guard's torches, the front of the tomb revealed no entrance. Neither did the sides, amid reliefs and statues of fiercesome dieties,.
"Let's go to the back," he replied. "Maybe there's some illusion I can manipulate."
To my surprise the lamps showed an entrance; the builders had even neglected even to attach a door to it.
"I guess," said Zar,"to the Varicoseans, front is everything.
We entered the gaping hole.
The inside unnerved me a little. I spotted a robed body laying on a slab with intricate reliefs of gargoyles. Then, from the walls, wraith-ish, lifelike creatures smiled at us -- sardonically. However, I felt relieved when I saw the scroll laying on a separate pedestal. Now, how could anything disturb our plans?, I chuckled.
Unfortunately, something did.. After a blinding light, a giant monster appeared, which mixed man and tiger, with a claw on its tail. To accommodate it, the tomb's ceiling extended 10 feet. A creature worse than my nightmares.
Presently it spoke in the bassest of bass voices.
"You have violated the tomb of the Great Groda," it intoned. "For that you will die." Against this creature, my axe would be useless; but Zar must have readied some magical defense, hadn't he?
Apparently, he hadn't.
Instead it pounced. on Zar, and cut him to ribbons of flesh and shards of bone.
Next, it turned me. I tried to flee, but an invisible force blocked the door. Helplessly I watched as the creature pounced.
Fortunately, I seemed to have died long before I became another morsel. I entered a dark, soundless void. At first, I was bored; then I lost even that emotion. This was death, I thought, Zar could not rescue me now; no method under the Gods could.
Suddenly, Zar, huffing and puffing, dragged me from the tomb's back entrance.
"Simple," said Zar. I prepared for much complexity. "While most people would presume themselves dead and die under that illusion, I, a trained sorcerer, presumed I was living and this was an illusion. It is not magic that can survive skepticism." His explanation made a perverse sense.
From sense, I turned to my senses.
"That last meal didn't satisfy me," I declared.
"I neither," Zar replied. With the scroll we returned to the inn.
Roast mastodon trunk there did not satisfy us either. But it satisfied more than the scroll from the tomb.
"First, the scroll gives impossibilities," he complained. "To unseat Kovenhova requires a snake from Antillia's lower hills that shortens from birth on, a virgin who has bedded, and the milk from a milkweed. Next the scroll gives allegories: a man rides while the virgin, and the old man sits on a hill; while a snake surrounds them and bites its tail. No one can reason out what these allegories portend. ...Finally the scroll gives gibberish! Line upon line of meaningless symbols!" He shoved the Naacal curlicues before my face. In his anger, he had forgotten I know no Naacal, and the entire scroll would be gibberish to me.
"See!" he exclaimed. I obviously didn't. But I did see something.
Zar threw the scroll on the table, and shouted: "This scroll's worthless!"
"So all our efforts were in vain," I pointed out. But, Zar would not accept failure. He frowned. He held his chin in thought. He held one cheek then another, as if this gave his thoughts passage to different brain parts. Finally he lit up in a grin.
"For illusionists, there is a real answer," he declared,"when the given one's nonsense!"
Then he added: "See where Kovenhova next speaks."
It was the Hall of the Betelnut Merchants.
At the podium stood a physically perfect youth, his shoulders and chest as grapefruits. His youth's cumberbund and pantaloons revealed more brawn than the naked athletes of Lemur Foder. The illusionist had worked delicately as well. The youth's facial features rivaled a maid's in softness. And his voice recalled a lark's song and a warm zephyr's calm. Such was Kovenhova.
Furthermore, he enthralled on that most boring topic -- the betelnut trade. Even his numbers fascinated me: can you conceive that 805,252 betelnuts were exported last year, a 45% increase over the previous year? After speaking for half an hour, Kovenhova extolled betelnuts as the lifeblood of the city and the center of the universe. When the speech was over, everyone clapped, including me and Zar.
Then, Zar turned to the turbaned burgher beside him, and waxed, "Great speech, one of the greatest." The burgher agreed it was a great speech. He could not have failed to.
"That Kovenhova," Zar enthused, "truly a great man." Again the burgher agreed.
"Too bad about those rumors," Zar remarked.
"Rumors?" the man wondered.
"To be discounted," assured Zar.
"Of course, of course. . . .What rumors? . . .to be discounted!"
"That falsehood the scurrillous are passing about," pontificated Zar,"that Kovenhova is losing his grip. ...Perfectly ludicrous." They both laughed.
Then the man walked away, and left his laughter with Zar.
The burgher strided to the afterspeech feast of skewered glyptodont. There he spoke to a matron. She in turn spoke to another rich merchant. He in turn spoke to a guard. The guard in turn spoke to a noble woman. Would talk spread and spread?, I wondered. I never learned. It did diminish around Kovenhova, however. First, where once a covy conversed with him, now two or three did. Finally none. Therefore, Kovenhova called a lackey. But he chose not to hear. Next Kovenhova called a mistress. She chose not to hear either. Angered, he started screaming. And all heard: they fidgeted over his ravings.
"Speak to me!" he cried. "Speak to me! Or I'll have you all beheaded!"
He mocked his own words when he shrank, and turned to a thin and wrinkled old man lost in robe, cumberbund and pantaloons 8 sizes too large.
At this point I took a piece of glyptodont from a skewer, and asked Zar,"How could such a vague and offhanded rumor destroy such a great illusion?"
"The problem lies with the illusionist," replied Zar. "Since most present themselves as perfect, the slightest doubt erases their illusion. Therefore, as Prince Consort, my illusion shall include gluttony, lechery and some incompetence."
By this time, Kovenhova was crying: "Thpeak!, you twaitors! Thpeak!"
Surfeit with Kovenhova's unpleasantness, the guards threw him out.
While I ate a 1/10 of a giant ground sloth haunch, Zar dragged a large bag toward me.
"Doesn't the Prince Consort-to-be have servants?" I chided. Zar didn't hear me; instead, he spoke to the absent Princess.
"O' princess, if only you would reveal your true beauty, and not hide behind ugly thinness!" I hoped the fool hadn't given up her hand. And Zar made a sad fool at that: he slumped into the chair beside me. He did not even relish drink; he could barely order his ragweed wine.
"If only I could feel your true breasts," he further lamented.
"Am I still a general!" I shouted to penetrate his sorrow. He did answer, but I didn't like it.
"No," he said quickly. Then he continued: "If only I could feel your true thighs."
"What happened?!" I demanded. "Why have I been deprived of honor -- and a source of bribes?" But Zar had lapsed too far.
"If only such a vision of beauty could -- !" Zar said. The rest must have been finished in his mind.
"Why am I no longer a general ?!" I re-asked. Again I penetrated a short time.
"I resigned you," Zar said quickly. Then he returned to his most annoying passion: "If only -- " I didn't wait for him to finish.
"Attend cuckoodial!" I cried. "I make my own decisions!" But this didn't penetrate. Thus I substituted a question even worthier of an answer to compensate for my effort.
"Well, did we gain anything?!" I demanded. And I did so again and again until he answered my question, and not his insipid longing.
"Oh yes, two bags of gold," he said speedily. Then he returned to his dodoish love.
"Two bags when we could have a whole kingdom?!" That enraged me. I was as consumed with disgust, as he with longing. Then Zar awoke unprompted. Would he had slept on!
"I spent the gold on this sack," he said. Then he returned to his slumber. His words awoke me, though. I took the sack from the floor, and unloaded its contents onto the table. Sprawled there were -- Bedpans! That damned Zar had spent our well earned Vestalians on bedpans! That son of a Hyperborian slime-eater! That uncle to the Toad of Aquilonia! What had gotten into him?!
Whatever it was, it should die with him.
"If I had remained a barbarian," I cried,"I would axe you this second! But, gods curse me!, I am citified and effete." I merely satisfied myself for now with an evil look, which didn't satisfy me. Nor harm him. In fact, not one cuion of murder traveled from my murderous eyes to his heart.
Then fortune shined: Zar awoke completely.
"Oh, apologies," he finally said," I haven't explained recent events; melancholy overtook me." This was the first sign the old Zar had returned; the second sign was he gobbled down the ragweed wine.
But anger hadn't left me yet.
"No, you haven't explained! For that you'll require some clever words."
"The truth will suffice," he replied. "I inspected the illusions register. To keep order, all illusions must be registered in Varicose. That book explained our recurring hunger. All food here's an illusion: kitchen slops, acorns, grass. No wonder the food's so cheap--"
"Well," I broke in,"as nobles we would be fed real food, would we not?"
"No, the nobles' food's worse," Zar replied. "I checked the firms that service them. While their illusions are grander, the actual food's lower quality -- "
"That decides for you," I again broke in,"but I fancy a generalship."
"I was coming to that. The illusions register shows that children compose most of Varicose's regiments. If some enemy discovered this, you'd be doomed." Saddened, only a straw of an objection remained.
"But why did you purchase those bedpans?" I asked.
"I noticed," Zar replied,"the illusions for bedpans requires real gold. It makes sense: the Varicoseans have depended so much on illusion they've forgotten real value."
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