Resalet had told him to avoid the magician and give up all his plants and powders. Whandall hadn't seen Morth in just under a year. The boy Seshmarl had grown older. Had he come to look too dangerous?
Two kinless customers looked at him nervously. The magician flickered a smile at him, then finished serving them. When they had left, the magician said, "Seshmarl! Tell me a story!"
Information for information. "If you follow the Deerpiss north out of the city, you get to a meadow, then a guardhouse with masked and armored men. They'll take some of what you're carrying. What they're guarding is the old path where my people cut their way through the forest to the Valley of Smokes. But don't go there, right? Just look."
"You have been busy," Morth said.
"Is the path still open?"
"I don't think so."
"What if I want to leave Tep's Town?"
"I can't go near the sea. I tried going south once, but it's all marshes."
"I don't know anything about that. Nobody goes that way."
"Seshmarl, the forest-"
"Not through the forest. Been two hundred years. The woods grow back. There's poison plants and lordkiss and morningstars and hemp and foxglove." He didn't intend to speak of the vineyard.
"Curse! And a guardhouse too?"
"You face them, you'd better have a story. But don't you have some spell for finding paths?"
The magician didn't answer. He told a story instead. "The fire god lost many battles. Sydon drowned his worshippers in Atlantis, Zoosh used the lightning against him in Attica, and is said to hold him in torment. Wotan and the ice giants battled him in the north, and again they torment him still. In many places the Firebringer bears a great wound in his side. Here too, I think. Your people must have fled Zoosh's people. You Lordkin may well be the last worshippers of Yangin-Atep."
"Yangin-Atep gave us everything. Heat, cooking-"
"We don't burn the whole city, Morth. Only tellers say that. At any Burning we lose... Resale! says three or four hands of buildings."
"It's still crazy."
Whandall said, "Even a wizard might want to avoid Yangin-Atep's anger."
Morth smiled indulgently. "Yangin-Atep is near myth. His life uses the magical strength that would give my spells force, but there's little of that to start with. In these days magic works poorly everywhere. Yangin-Atep does not stir. I would sense him."
"Can you predict the Burnings?" Tras Preetror would pay well for that information.
"Sometimes," Morth said mysteriously.
He couldn't. But he knew when Yangin-Atep would wake. He had to. "Why did you want to know about the forest?"
"I want to get out," Morth said.
I can't go near the sea, he'd said. Whandall took a wild guess. "Will the ice chase you?"
Morth swallowed a laugh; it looked like a hiccup. "What do you know of that?"
"You brought a mountain of ice once. I wondered how. But if ice would chase you, the Lords would pay well, so it's not ice. Waves? Saltwater?"
"You know a lot," Morth said, no longer amused. The wizard took Whandall's hand again, stared, and nodded. "You have destinies. Most have only one, but you have choices. One choice may lead to glory. Be ready. Now tell me about the path through the forest."
Whandall persisted. "Why do you want to leave? Is it the elemental?" He still didn't know what the word meant.
"Last month I hired a wagon to take me to the harbor. I'd heard nothing of a water sprite in many years. As 1 crossed the last hill, a single wave rose and came toward me. The sprite is still out there in the harbor."
"Does Yangin-Atep protect you, then?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes, Seshmarl. The fire god won't permit a water sprite here. I'd heard about the Burning City all my life, but I never wanted to live here. Few do. Seshmarl, I came to hide! "
"The lookers come."
"Oh yes, tellers have made this city famous. Fools used to visit every spring to see the Burning. I suppose the lookers bring money that helps pay the cost of rebuilding. To me it all seems quite crazy. But it does make your city safer."
Whandall swallowed his anger. A Lordkin should have guile ....ever remember a killing after the Burning. ... "Yangin-Atep protects us most of the time. Fires don't burn indoors." Not here. "Are there other cities where fires can't start by accident?"
"Oh, magic can protect a building," Morth said, "and I know a spell to douse a fire that works even in Tep's Town."
"The Lords cook indoors," Whandall said. "And they lit torches in the big room after dark. Not just candles, torches."
Morth said nothing.
It had been dry in Tep's Town for two years. "You brought water once."
"A water elemental chased me, embodied in an iceberg from the southernmost end of the earth. It hunted me, to kill me. Seshmarl, when things move, they want to keep on moving," Morth said. "The bigger and heavier it is, the harder it is to stop. The iceberg was the biggest and heaviest thing that ever came here."
"What stopped it? Yangin-Atep!" Whandall realized suddenly. "You used Yangin-Atep to turn that curse to an advantage."
"Destinies," Morth muttered to himself. "Yes, Seshmarl. That's a lot of what magic is, understanding how things work and turning them to your advantage. I let it chase me until there was no manna to move the iceberg farther."
"But you can't do it again."
"The elemental won't do it again," Morth said. "It would have to go far away to find ice. It won't go that far from me." The magician looked out the window, but he wasn't seeing the street outside. "This tale is not one to be told, Seshmarl. It might reach the Lords."
And that was valuable information, Whandall thought, though he didn't
know how to use it. "My teacher says I can have a tattoo now," he said diffidently. "My brother wanted to do it, but I said 1 knew an artist."
For a breath he wasn't sure Morth had heard. Then the magician said, "Wonderful!" and wheeled around. "The same? The winged serpent of Atlantis? Let me show you."
He took a box from a shelf and reached inside. He unwrapped a fine cloth and let it hang from his fingers. It was a scarf in gold and scarlet and blue. "Here, do you like it?"
"Oh, yes." The scarf was new. It was far finer than the faded painting he'd once seen on Morth's wall... which had disappeared sometime in the past year.
Whandall couldn't take his eyes off the serpent in flight. It sported a crest of feathers, and little feathered wings on either side of its neck, like no serpent he'd ever heard of. The colors blazed.
But it was big. It would cover his face and shoulder and half his arm! Whandall remembered getting his thumb tattooed. "If it won't... how much does it hurt?"
"Hurt? No. Here, sit." He settled Whandall cross-legged on a rug.
Morth spread the scarf over the box and moved Whandall's arm until the scarf was under his upper arm and shoulder. The lines and colors of the scarf lifted and crawled along his skin. Whandall's eyes tried to cross. He felt a stirring as if a snake were settling on his arm, squeezing, sliding up his shoulder, his neck, his face. There was no pain, no swelling, no blood.
He hid out for a night and a morning. "I stayed the night. I didn't want to face anyone. It just hurt too much," he told Resalet.
Resalet's eyes were popping. He stripped off his tunic in one angry maneuver and moved against Whandall, arm to arm, to compare his own faded blue snake, fifteen years old, to Whandall's four-color god-thing. He cursed. "It's wonderful! How can I get one?"
"Ask who? Is it Morth again?"
Whandall admitted it. Resalet said, "Tell me all about it."
Whandall thought it prudent to describe near-unbearable pain, as if a snake's fangs had sunk into him.
"I don't care if it hurts. It just floated off the scarf and crawled up your shoulder? Did he say anything? Gesture?"
"Picked it up, put it down. Shall I ask if I can bring a ... Mmm ... an uncle? It might cost a lot."
"No, don't bother. Does he know who you are?"
"Seshmarl, Of Serpent's Walk. He had to know that much." "You he careful with Morth of Atlantis, Whandall. No more powders! No more hemp!"
Whandall went back on another day and waited until the shop was empty before he entered. He'd gathered a wine flask, and he set it on the counter. They sipped it together.
Then Whandall asked, "Is this magical?"
Morth laughed. "No: It's not very good either, but there's not enough here to hurt us. Can you tell me any more about how a man might leave Tep's Town?"
Whandall shook his head. "But I know of a safe place. Most of the city is afraid of the Black Pit."
Morth was astonished. "How did you come to know that?"
"I've slept near the Black Pit. Nobody bothers you there, and the monsters can't touch you."
Morth nodded. "If there was manna about they'd be dangerous enough. The cats of Isis, the hounds of Hell, the birds of Wotan, some tremendous war beasts, they all died by thousands of thousands in a war of gods. Only a tiny fraction wound up in the tar. Gods themselves went myth in that last battle," he said.
"Morth, tell me again about the iceberg."
Morth looked thoughtful. "You know the story."
"Yes, but I don't understand it all. Magic doesn't work here, but you make it work."
"And should I tell you?" Morth said, half to himself. "Let me see your hand again." He studied Whandall's palm. Then the magician sipped wine, and settled himself to tell the story.
"The wells of Atlantis dried up ages ago. We were too many for the rivers to support, and nobody likes rain. For a thousand years the people of Atlantis drew their water from the end of the world. Atlantis magic has ruled water for as long as we can remember. We send-sent-water sprites south to fetch icebergs and bring them to be melted for our water. When ..." Morth considered, then went on. "When I left Atlantis instead of staying to fight, an iceberg was in sight of the harbor. The priests commanded the water sprite to hunt me down and kill me. I crossed an ocean and a continent and I reached the coast with a mountain of ice chasing me.
"At Great Hawk Bay the mers at Lion's Attic told me about Tep's Town. I was almost here before my ship sank down in the desert.
"I knew the elemental could get this far. I could hope it couldn't get any farther, not in the fire god's domain. To the Lords I swore I could bring an
iceberg to that dry lake they call the Reservoir now, in the Lordhills. Yangin-Atep had power there in those days. I told the Lords to pay me on delivery, and I hoped that Yangin-Atep had the power to stop the ice."
Whandall nodded, then sipped the last hall-swallow of wine.
That amused Morth. "Don't you wonder how I knew they'd pay? Never occurred to you? Lordkin! Two or three Lords were very irritated. That cursed sprite took a mountain of ice across land they owned."
Whandall nodded. "Samorty's turf. Chanthor's."
Now Morth looked surprised. "You knew?"
"That much. How did you make them pay?"
"I led them to wonder what their houses would look like if another iceberg crossed Blawind Hills."
"What about the water thing? Melted?"
"No. The damned elemental is waiting offshore. I can't ever go near water. But I spent the Lords' money long ago, and I can't pull that stunt again."
"Are you afraid of the Burning?"
"Oh, no. I'll sense when Yangin-Atep rises. I can see that much. There will be one, maybe two small Burnings, then a big one," Morth said. "Then I'll get out. I never want to see that again."
Whandall wondered if Morth wasn't whistling through Dead Town. Not Seshmarl's problem. He said, "The Toronexti-the tax guards-will take almost everything you own."
"Perhaps they won't see it all," Morth said.
"Were you here last time?" When my father died!
"Yes." The alien face turned haggard. "I could have been killed. There was nothing, nothing to tell me that Yangin-Atep was awake, not even after I saw smoke and fire pluming up. I went home to keep my house from burning. That night I went back to the shop. Stupid. Thieves-gatherers-had already stripped it bare. I was looking around and planning how to rebuild when more gatherers came in and saw me."
His mouth was very dry. Whandall asked, "What happened?"
"I used a calming spell."
Belligerent and guilty, Morth said, "It's simple magic, so simple it even works here. It takes the anger out of a man, and puts out fires too. I've used it before. It isn't as if I wanted to hurt them. I threw a calming spell at the big one when he came at me with that knife. He went down like u handful of sticks. The others screamed and ran away."
"Dead and cold! I pulled him outside and left him. A barbarian pulling
a dead man by the ankles and nobody paid any attention! Seshmarl, does Yangin-Atep really possess people?"
"I think so." Shouldn't a wizard know?
"That thug was all anger, all fire. Yangin-Atep must have had him, and when I sucked the anger out of him, I think his life came with it." Morth looked up. "The Burning. What did you see?"
"I was only seven."
"Did you feel Yangin-Atep? I've sometimes wondered what that's like."
"No. Maybe next time."
Four kinless came in then. Whandall sensed their unease and left.
And maybe Yangin-Atep heard Morth's insults, sluggishly, in his coma.