The Brazen Bull

Simon Whitechapel

During the days before the foundation of the third Empire, the city of Yihh was fallen away to a minor and unregarded place, though retaining some of its former renown to students of the nigromantic arts throughout the lands of men for the excellence and antiquity of its libraries, in which there were deposited many thousands of manuscripts of magic and divination, most grown unique over the centuries through the vagaries elsewhere of fire and flood and religious intolerance; and to the city one day, drawn by the promise of these very libraries, came an apprentice wizard, sent by his master to read and make notes from a certain supperannuated codex, wherein was recorded the nefandous wisdom of a centuries-dead wizard of Yihh.

The name of the apprentice was Nhoan-Lingth, and in future years he would gain much fame on the multitudinous planes of existence for the puissance and subtlety of his magic. He wore a dark, hooded robe with a cinerous stripe at its hem, signifying he held as yet merely an uncompleted apprenticeship in the nigromantic arts; his purse was heavy, but mostly with copper, and his first evening in the city was occupied in discovering a hostelry in which an acceptable balance was struck between comfort and expense, with more weight attached by the fledging magus to the latter, for he suspected that his search for the codex might be a long and wearisome one.

And so it proved. The libraries of Yihh were indeed well-stocked, but the ancient volumes were stored without discernible order; and perhaps it could be said that the devising of an ordering for the shelves of the libraries of Yihh would have taxed the resource and ingenuity of the cleverest librarian, for there were volumes from every age of history, written in every alphabet and ideography used in the lands of men, and many drawn from places other — the deciphering merely of a title might occupy the most knowledgeable scholar for a week or more. Nor could spells of uncovering or clairvoyance be used within the libraries, for many of the goetical volumes were bound themselves with goetry, which would be triggered in unguessably awful ways at the recitation of the simplest cantrip.

So the finding of a particular volume was prosecuted by enquiry, diligence and luck, and if the volume were an ancient and rarely consulted one, as the codex in question was, the last would be of considerably more value to the searcher than the former and latter. Nhoan-Lingth was forced to sojourn in the city for many days (as he had anticipated) and he became gradually conversant by his daily presence in its tavernries with the convolved and tonal tongue of the city, and so grew acquainted with its state of affairs. Thus it was that he learned that the city groaned under the rule of a tyrant, the King Pholh-Yihhi, who had ascended the throne after the heavy pruning by fate (or by poison, it was whispered) of the tree of succession, which had seen him perched, at his birth, upon a lowly and heavily shaded bough.

Having assumed the throne, Pholh-Yihhi swiftly demonstrated that he had not thrown off the cruel and evil passions for which his youth and early manhood had been remarked. He took for his chief catamite the calm and virtuous son of a prominent nobleman of the city, and one night as the city lay bathed in the silver rays of a round bright moon there was heard from the royal apartments as brief screaming as though of a youth in mortal pain and fear, and in the morning the catamite was not to be found, though the King, with a dissembling show of solicitude, sent his officials to make sedulous inquiry throughout the city after him who had disappeared.

And he had taken a catamite four times more, and each youth had disappeared on a moonlit night, and it was said that on the night of the final disappearance, a guard of the royal regiment, patrolling the city walls at an early hour, had seen a vast and nebulous shape, more like a cloud of nigrescent smoke or mist than a being possessing true and wholesome corporality, emerge from a window of the King's dormitory tower and slither some one-hundred-and-thirty-three elgs of sheer naanh-stone to the earth, where it vanished into the inspection slots of a cloaca in the tower's base.

From this time the King sodomized those of high estate no more, for no noble house would permit its male offspring to enter into catamitic contract with him, fearful though it might be of his displeasure, desirous though it might be of enhancing its name by a son's intimate connection with the monarchy. Yet the whispered rumours of the King's depravity, whispered afresh at each catamiticide, and brought daily to his ears, it was certain, by his spies, did not cause him to curtail in any way the cruelties he practised upon those who incurred his displeasure. The dungeons beneath the palace were swiftly emptied of prisoners, and as swiftly re-filled, as the declivitous appetites of the King and the court sought fresh material for fulfilment.

When Nhoan-Lingth came to Yihh, Pholh-Yihhi was entering the sixth year of his reign, and the outward prosperity of the citizenry concealed an inward despair of spirit. As the span of the apprentice's stay in the city lengthened into weeks, he heard a fresh rumour, a rumour of the King and the Festival of Spring, formerly a time of great celebration and joy, but now converted by the King into a hateful bacchanalia of dissipation and depravity, during which the riches of the royal treasury were squandered in swinishly gluttonous feasts and more-than-sybaritic fantasias, and a day of execution by torture took place, the victims selected not for crimes against the person or property (else the King himself and his ministers were the first dragged to the trepalia), but for the legitimate expression of grievance and reproach at the evils of the King. It was on this particular day of the Festival, the rumour ran, that the King intended to unveil an awful engine of destruction, upon which workers of metal from every corner of the Kingdom were even then working in secret in a vast workshop delved beneath the deepest level of the royal dungeons.

As the eve of the Festival grew near, so the whisperings grew, but there remained nothing substantial in them, for the workers of metal, if such there were, were kept in the strictest seclusion during the work, and it seemed unlikely in the highest degree that the King's ofttimes displayed sense of irony would preserve them finally from experiencing at first hand the operation of whatever instrument of death they had constructed.

And yet all this formed to Nhoan-Lingth merely a background to the task on which he was engaged. Daily he set out to search the libraries of Yihh carrying letters of introduction from his master, who had studied in the city in his own apprenticeship. He consulted priests and library attendants, but although all had heard of the wizard whose codex Nhoan-Lingth sought, for that worthy's name shone with a dark lustre in the annals of the city, of the book itself they had no knowledge, and many times Nhoan-Lingth was told that what he sought did not exist, or had it once existed, were lost centuries before.

And by the eve of the Festival of Autumn, after five weeks of fruitless endeavour, Nhoan-Lingth was himself beginning to adopt this disinclination to belief in the existence of the codex. He composed himself to sleep that night with gloomy realization that even if it seemed so, he must search on until all hope were finally exhausted, for his master, a stern and easily angered man, had impressed upon him the very great importance of the codex in a sequence of spells he purposed for the year of the return of the great comet that bore the name of ancient astronomer Hriom-Hsilf, the first to calculate the ultramundane orbit of the body, some fifteen centuries before the time of which this tale treats.

* * *

Nhoan-Lingth rose the following day at dawn, and after a meagre breakfast set out to visit the small but many-volumed library attached to the Temple of the Snake-God Sissessusso. But when he arrived, the gates of the library were barred, and when he asked a passer-by in his halting Yihhian why this might be so he received the simple reply, "It is the Festival of Autumn." He enquired further and discovered that for the duration of the Festival all worship ceased, and all temples were barred to all but the most senior hierophants.

Nhoan-Lingth returned to his lodgings to compose a letter to his master, in which he would attempt to outline the difficulties that faced him, and ask if a little more money might be sent, to ease the hardships he was forced to endure in the name of economy because of the increasing length of his stay in the city. He was still in the middle of this task when he heard the faint sound of upraised voices and music from without, and drawn by curiosity and boredom he put down his mhraq-fowl quill and went to see that in which the sound originated.

Outside, he found that it was coming from quite some way off, and he was forced to pick his way through a maze of backstreets, avoiding the boisterous importunities of three female beggars and a boy-prostitute with a skill sharpened considerably since his coming to the city; finally, he emerged onto a wide avenue running beside the shimmering waters of the river Isth.

From both sides of the avenue, and from roof-tops overlooking it, dense crowds watched the slow progress of a festal procession, but Nhoan-Lingth, casting his glances as much at the watchers as at the watched, saw nothing of the laughter and delight he had associated with similar occasions in other cities. Instead, a sad silence lay heavy on the crowds, and the music and singing he had heard in his room came from the ranks of the procession, whose participants wore white staring masks like the faces of week-dead corpses, and extravagant costumes of silk in purples, greens and yellows that called to mind the varying hues of putrefaction. Nhoan-Lingth shivered a little as he watched the procession wend by him, for his nostrils caught the vile stinks of sorcerous evil — metaphorically, and in actuality, for ever and anon horsemen of the procession, riding steeds hung with wide panniers of beaten silver, dipped yellow-gloved hands within the panniers and threw up into the air handfuls of thin dust, which swirled and hung on the air and stank of the ashes of fires fed with human flesh and graveyard herbs.

At the procession's head, though Nhoan-Lingth had to strain a little to see, for the procession was half-past the point at which he stood, rode another horseman, a tall man on a thin white horse, both rider and mount draped in pale cloth cut and arranged to suggest the cerements of the tomb; and Nhoan-Lingth knew, though the rider's head was turned forward and was covered beside in a wide white mask, that here was the mad King of the city, Pholh-Yihhi himself.

When the procession had passed the crowds dispersed, and Nhoan-Lingth set off to return to his lodgings. He mused as he walked, and when he was once more in his hostelry he did not return to his room and the letter, but sought out the keeper of the house, a retired priest of the Selenotheon who spoke many languages and with whom Nhoan-Lingth could converse at his ease in one or another of the tongues they held in common. He talked with old man an hour and then retired to his room to cast a horoscope.

The following day was the second day of the Festival, and all mouths and ears were full of the talk of the feast that had been held the previous evening in the banqueting hall of the Palace, at which half-a-dozen priestesses from the Temple of the Thorn-God, Pholh-Yihhi's especially favoured deity, had flagellated themselves into the gloomy chthonic halls of their algolagnic Master after draining goblets of powerfully drugged wine. What the King planned for the fall of darkness that evening, and what horror would be revealed on the morrow, which was the day of executions, all tongues strove to guess, and all hearts dreaded to discover.

But Nhoan-Lingth, having heard all he wished in an alehouse near his lodgings, returned to his room, where he smiled as he read the symbols and significances of the horoscope he had cast. The letter to his master lay uncompleted on the low writing table beside the pallet  A< on which he slept, and he waited impatiently yet calmly for the day that was to come.

He did not sleep at all that night, and dawn found him cross-legged before the window of his chamber, breathing slowly through alternate nostrils in preparation for the rigours of the day ahead. As the afternoon hour approached at which the horrid ceremonials of execution had always commenced on the great square before the Palace, he unfolded himself from the posture and made his way onto the streets.

The square, as always on the day, was crowded. Some, who licked their lips and cast widened eyes in unhealthily flushed faces about them, were there undoubtedly there to batten with ghoulish appetites on the sight of prolonged and painful death; others, who trembled and turned pale, unhoping looks towards the great gates through which the victims were always dragged, were perhaps the relatives and friends of those whose present incarceration in the dungeons beneath the Palace argued an imminent and intimate participation in the day; yet others, who wore bleak, shrouded expressions and looked around themselves narrowly and often, he guessed to be members of a hidden conspiracy in the city, come to feed their hatred of the King by what they witnessed, and strengthen their spirits for the day of rebellion that must surely come, though what spark it would be to trigger it, none could guess.

The faces of all these Nhoan-Lingth saw and read with an unnaturally sharpened sensibility. But he himself, as he waited, muttered lightly under his breath a spell of warding, so that all who looked in his direction saw his form mistily, yet did not think this odd, and shortly passed their gaze elsewhere.

An hour passed and as no activity became apparent in the Palace and no stained apparatus of torture and blocks of execution were set up within the square, voices began to say, quietly at first, but with increasing hope, that the King had had a change of heart -- praise be to the Snake-God or the Selenotheon or Ghao-Aojh or the Primordial Poison or the Living Flame or to whatever deity or cosmocratic entity the speaker held sacred — and no blood would run that day. And then, as the first purple shadows of dusk began to steal into the square, spying out the way for the coming of night, there stole gradually upon all ears the sound of bellowing of a bull, which came, it seemed, faint yet unmistakable, from the depths of the very earth beneath them. Shivers of superstitious dread passed amongst the waiting crowds, and like ice out of season before the rays of the sun, they began to melt away. And the sound seemed to swell as they went, and shrivelled, though they knew not why, the hopes they had held of the King's mercy and restraint.

The square was left to darkness, and Nhoan-Lingth, a dark shape amongst the ranks of the shadow-soldiers of night, slipped forward to a side-portal of the Palace, and gained an entrance, unseen, before the very eyes, it seemed, of a phalanx of guards. Inside, he walked with assurance, following corridor after corridor without hesitation, until he reached at last, deep within the palace, the huge gates that guarded the entrance to the dungeons. Here, once again, guards were heedless of him and he passed through to the chill darkness beyond the gates.

There were three levels to the dungeons of Pholh-Yihhi, and the wizardling descended them all, cat-sure in the darkness upon the worn steps of the stairways that led from one level to the next. As he walked the great voice of the bull grew ever louder in his ears, until it shook the walls of dripping stone between which he passed. Finally, ahead of him at the end of the furthest, narrowest corridor, he saw the glimmer of torches through a doorway whose outline suggested that of a sarcophagus. He redoubled his muttering of the spell of warding and crept forward to the threshold of the doorway, and peered through to the scene that lay beyond. Here, before him at last, was the vast workshop delved for the construction of the vast engine whose rumour had been circulating for weeks.

The workshop had been dug from the rock in the shape of an arena, round and with a high, domed ceiling; along the single, curving wall, at intervals of six or seven paces, lamps of crystal hung in which burned flames of curious, unflickering brilliance; the floor was set with great, seven-sided flags of black marble, flecked with tiny splinters of quartz that flashed like stars in the chiaroscuro of movement within the workshop, for the King, standing aloof from those around him like a judge or god, and his ministers, and, dressed anew in the thanatomimetic robes and masks, the processioners Nhoan-Lingth had seen beside the River Isth the previous day, and whom he now knew to be the lords and ladies of the court, and a patrol of the Royal Guard, were gathered within the workshop, clustering before a huge, gleaming shape that was raised towards the far wall. And the shape was a bull of bronze, five times as high as the tallest man, and correspondingly broad, and cast in such fashion as though to suggest that it were bellowing a challenge to some rival.

The bull rested, with legs thick as the trunks of the swamp-trees of the littorals of the southern ocean, on a platform of black, symbol-englyphed marble, and from a pyre of burning wood heaped up beneath it tall flames danced up to embrace its huge belly, wide and round as the hull of a war-galley of the fleet of the Admiral Ghio-Angqwo. The smoke of the burning swirled up to roil ever thicker at the ceiling, and Nhoan-Lingth seemed to see in the smoke the protean physiognomies of algolagnic demons, who smirked down at the bull and those gathered before it. From the mouth and throat of the bull came the bellow whose strains were powerful enough to ascend to the ears of listeners in the square before the Palace, which lay many feet of stone and earth above. Within this bellow Nhoan-Lingth began to pick out the accents of men, and he felt his skin horripilate with the sweat of a horrid certainty.

But as he listened in the bellowing of the bull there came a faint slackening, and the King, who wore robes purple as blood mixed with wine, gave a gesture of command. Four guards ran forward with brimming containers of oil, which, having ascended the steps of the platform upon which the bull stood, they dashed upon the pyre, the flames of which leapt higher, casting back the shadows at the foot of the platform, so that Nhoan-Lingth saw what he had not seen before, that in the front ranks of those who watched the bull was a line of men and women, bound and gagged to immobility, and that on the floor before them, at the very foot of the platform there were coupling pairs and trios of members of the court, men with men, women with women, men with women, flesh glistening between the rent cloth of their robes with the sweat born of congress and the heat of the bull as penis or tongue hammered or probed for ecstacy in the fleshly wells of mouth and anus and vagina.

The leaping flames urged the bull's bellow higher, one, two, three, four, five heartbeats, and then it was slackening again, swiftly, like blood draining into the dust of the desert of Yihh, and presently had died away to nothing, and the crackle and song of the pyre could be clearly heard. The coupling pairs and trios disconnected and climbed to their feet with varying expression of triumph or chagrin, and the other members of the court pushed forward through the line of the bound and gagged, and coins that glinted like eyes in the gloom began to change hands.

When certain disputes were resolved -- an exclusively female troilate, in particular, it seemed, having difficulty in presenting its case — and all transactions were completed, the King gave orders in a high, cracked voice. Soldiers of the Royal Guard ran onto the platform and began to beat and pull at the fire with long staffs of bronze, hooked or spatulate at their ends. In this way the heart of the fire was broken, and the fierce beating of the soldiers with spatulate staffs presently subdued the flames altogether, at which point other soldiers came forward onto the platform carrying between them lengths of cloth, which they had soaked in a great tun of water against the wall. These lengths of cloth the soldiers swung like the  A< nets of fishermen, and threw up and onto the flanks of the bull, where they clung in place with steam rising from them in fierce hissings. As the lengths of cloth were parched by the heat of the bronze, they were pulled free and fresh were thrown in their place.

In time the bronze grew cool, and the soldiers, flushed and sweating from the heat they had tamed, retired from the platform.

The King, standing still aloof, now uttered a further series of orders. The bonds around the legs of the prisoners were loosened with calculated minimalism, and they were shepherded forward onto the platform, though they moved with the greatest reluctance and thinnest-disguised fear. A bronze ladder was lifted from where it lay beside the tun of water and carried onto the platform, where it was raised and set into place, two hooks at its upper end settling firmly into slots in the bronze hide of the bull. A soldier climbed the ladder and tugged at the bull's hide and a hatch suddenly gaped open there, through which a heavy steam and smoke instantly rose, whose odour seemed nowise to appeal to the soldier, for he turned his face aside at once and came swiftly down the ladder.

When the gush of smoke and steam through the open hatch had dwindled away to nothing, and the prisoners were urged forward at sword point to the ladder. Here, their legs bonds were again and cruelly tightened, and one by one they were seized and hoisted bodily onto the ladder by a trio of soldiers who seemed more like apes than men with the hugeness of their musculature, the easy strength with which they lifted the pathetically struggling prisoners, and the agility with which they carried them up the ladder and lowered them into the bull's interior.

When the last had been lowered into place, the soldier atop the ladder swung the hatch closed, climbed down, and unhooked and carried away the ladder. Animated discussion took place amongst the ranks of the court, and further pairs and trios of would-be copulators were formed, who walked forward to the foot of the platform and readied themselves like athletes for the commencement of the wagers. The King's voice rose again, and soldiers hurried once more onto the platform to attend to the fire, but this time, from the heavy pithoi of oil and the huge ox-hide bellows in their hands, to awaken its smouldering to fierce life.

But even as they did this, a soldier of the Royal Guard, from the rust-dappled persimmon of his cloak and the phallic meatus of his helmet an officer of high rank, drew his sword and shouted aloud. Nhoan-Lingth thought the words were (they employed a gerundive future perfect optative idiom with which he had never been entirely at his ease), "Let there be about to be being death to the King!", and though he was not sure, it seemed very likely, in the light of what followed, that his translation struck tolerably near to the mark, for many of the soldiers immediately hurled themselves into a ferocious assault on their fellows, with five, headed by the officer who had shouted rebellion, racing for the King himself, who, had he not shown tidy speed in discarding his aloofness and diving into the ranks of the members of his court, would have lost his crown and his life in the same instant.

But the briefest glance sufficed to tell Nhoan-Lingth that such a double loss was merely postponed, not obviated, for the rebels amongst the ranks of the Royal Guard, not content with a slight numerical advantage in the first moments of the rebellion, had also swiftly taken advantage of the surprise of their actions, and now, well in the majority, would, having disposed of the professional wing of those loyal to the King, doubtless have little difficulty in cutting their way through the ranks of the court to the person of the King, about whom effete-looking nobles were clustered, tremblingly presenting swords and daggers whose bejewelled appearance argued a utility greatly more ceremonial than practical.

Nhoan-Lingth turned and flew back along the corridor, cursing himself for a malinterpretation of a faint nova in the tenth deciquadrant of the constellation of fh-Pohh-Veglo, the Hippogriff,  A< which he had taken to signify an attempt on the King's life by twelve of the Royal Guard, when it had of course, he now realized, signified twenty-one.

He was forcibly reminded, in his pounding ascents of the stairs carrying him back to the level of the Palace, of the myth of the high-priest Zraa-Engmangwe, who had been punished by the Selenotheon for apostasy by being set to climb, bare-footed, an eternal stair of melting ice, but at last he saw the glow of light beyond the final gates, through which, seconds later, he gaspingly burst, to the astonishment of the guards stationed at the gates, who gaped at him dumbly before reaching for their swords.

"No, fools!" Nhoan-Lingth croaked, pointing whence he had come. "The King! Rebellion! Raise the alarm!"

The guards, convinced by the wildness of Nhoan-Lingth's gestures and features either that he was mad or that he told the truth, and reasoning that it were far safer to trust in the latter than not, dispatched one of their number to raise the alarm and, snatching up unlit torches of resinous ddiukh-wood from holders in the walls, spoke the single word that served to ignite the cantrip-treated devices, and raced clatteringly into the dungeons.

Nhoan-Lingth, calculating that this initial band of rescuers was rather too small to warrant his accompaniment, lounged back in the shadows of an alcove until the far larger band raised by the dispatched guard should appear, to the rear of which, when it had, he attached himself for a second descent into the dungeons.

This second descent of his was far noisier than his first, and not only noisier, but swifter, and greatly more perilous to his wellbeing, for the smoke that blew back in his face from the ddiukh-wood torches of the second band was stingingly pungent, and more often than not his vision was jewelled fantastically with tears, which, though undeniably beautiful, was hardly the firmest basis on which to guide the placing of his feet upon the treads of the stairs.

Finally, however, the workshop was reached. Nhoan-Lingth hung back on the threshold, blinking away his smoke-tears, and the guards pounded in, overwhelming two of the rebels stationed just within the doorway as the waves of an autumnal tide overwhelm the sand towers of a child's play on the shore of the inland sea of Gholh. Much apparently had taken place since Nhoan-Lingth had last observed the scene with the workshop, and almost all of it of an excessively sanguinary nature. Corpses and limbs were scattered everywhere upon the floor, and the rebels, who seemed to have disposed of the loyal guards of the initial and the first rescuing batch in their entirety, were engaged in chasing members of the court to and fro on the floor, the weight of their armour partly discompensating them for the quickness of their sword-arms. Nhoan-Lingth could not recognize the King amongst the shrieking nobles and courtesans fleeing gladiate death upon the sparkling shambles of the floor, but his confidence in the horoscope, though somewhat undermined by the noval malinterpretation, was strong enough to cause him no qualms as to the possibility of the King's being amongst those lying decapitated or semi-quartered upon that floor.

And indeed, when the band of rescuers had overwhelmed the rebels, the King revealed himself as still amongst the living, tugging from beneath his robes a length of cloth with which he had simulated the appearance of breasts, and wiping away with this the blood with which, for further disguise, he had smeared his face; and hearing him begin to enquire (at first, before he adjusted the tension of his vocal chords, in the falsetto with which he further added by way of shrieks to the verisimilitude of his disguise) how the alarm had been raised, Nhoan-Lingth came forward from the doorway, and was pointed out to the King as he to whom the preservation of the royal person was owed.

The King's response to this intelligence was to order the seizure and binding of the apprentice, who turned too late to seek the stairs leading to possible safety. Thereafter he endured a length interlude of sweating apprehension, for the bull still contained the prisoners it had been filled with, and the King wished, once these were seen to, that the handful of rebels who had survived the arrival of rescue should be next to provide the bull with a voice.

Finally, all was done, and Nhoan-Lingth was dragged before the King, who was attended by a skeletally thin man in the white and yellow robes of a torturer, who carried a lovingly polished lacquer case of torture instruments, and twitched and trembled with incipient madness (possibly simulated: it was a professional sine qua non in royal torturers of that period).

"Do you speak the tongue of Yihh?" asked the King.

"A little, sire," said Nhoan-Lingth, "but I am a native of the deserts around Mnaal-Nh, if your highness pleases."

"I am told it was you who saved me," the King said in one of the tongues of the south that served as a lingua franca for the region mentioned by Nhoan-Lingth.

"It was," said Nhoan-Lingth.

The King laughed and the torturer at his side loosened the straps of his torture case.

The King, "Are you too perhaps a lover of the dark way? Many should have loved to see to see me slaughtered. But I am not, as you see, and presently the ranks of those many shall be swelled, for I shall tighten my fist from this day. Tell me, how did you come to do what you have done?"

"I am a wizard's apprentice."

"And that is all you have to say?"

"It is."

The King laughed again. He indicated the torturer at his side.

"Shall I have him wring the secret out of you?"

"I would rather not, sire."

The King flung back his head and screamed with laughter, and the torturer, twitching even more furiously than before, and with a drooling smile climbed high into his features, undid a complete strap of the case.

The King controlled himself, and gurgling a little, said, "Shall we throw a coin for the success of your venture? If you win, I shall reward you for your efforts on my behalf; if you lose, I shall have you put to death in such fashion as should be most pleasing to me and my surviving nobles."

Nhoan-Lingth made a gesture that was probably a shrug, though it was difficult to tell, so extensive and well-tightened were his bindings.

The King said, "Very well", and turned to a noble amongst those encircling the drama.

"Huhh-Soglh, an omnha, if you please."

The noble pulled a coin from his robes and handed it to the King, who stepped close to Nhoan-Lingth, holding the coin before the apprentice's eyes.

"This is wioq, the, uh, pomegranate."

He turned the coin.

"And this, mngaa, the, uh, vulva, do you say?"

"Aye, sire."

"Very good. Call, if you will, wizard's apprentice."


The King balanced the coin upon his thumb and flicked it into the air. It rose, rose, hung for a moment, high in the air, spinning, and fell, to be caught on the King's palm and slapped over onto the back of his other hand.

"Wioq, you said?"

"Aye, sire."

The King took away his hand, and a look of such pitying sympathy came into his face that the torturer began to busy himself with the remaining straps of his torture case and Nhoan-Lingth's guts twisted with horror, seasoned with the mortification of the thought that he had once more mis-read a significance of the horoscope he had cast for the royal madman before him.

Then the King laughed again, and dipped the hand before Nhoan-Lingth's face, so that the apprentice saw that in fact he had won. The torturer tutted with frustration and re-did the straps of his torture case.

"Tell me," said the King, "what reward do you seek for my life?"

"There is a book," said Nhoan-Lingth. "I have been sent to this city by my master to find it. I have searched long and hard, but without success. Of course, I am one, and your majesty has the power to command thousands..."

"Very well," said the King, "you shall have your book, and my blessing with it."

"I do not seek to be ungrateful, your majesty," said Nhoan-Lingth, "but the latter I would forego, if I may."

The King began to laugh, so hard that he was unable to command the loosening of Nhoan-Lingth's bonds by mouth, and had to gesture his wishes, with the result that Nhoan-Lingth was very nearly split in two by the sword of a miscomprehending guard. Shortly, however, he was free, and able to return to his lodgings to prepare for the morrow, on which, the King had promised him between intervals of hysteria, he would be able to supervise a city-wide search for the codex.

Thus it proved. With several thousands of priests and librarians at his disposal, Nhoan-Lingth was swiftly rewarded with the discovery of the codex, with which he immediately left the city, for he guessed that the gratitude of the King would prove a transient thing.

And so, in the end, he had not merely notes from the codex, but the codex itself, and his master treated him with a new respect, and lightened the harshness with which he had previously been wont to treat his apprentice. Yet Nhoan-Lingth paid for the deed he had performed, for the saving of a tyrant from a just tyrannicide can be seen in no wise as a good thing. He paid in that his sleep was haunted for many months afterwards with the bellowing of the brazen bull, and he would wake often in the night sweating and sick from a dream in which he himself danced and shrieked inside the burning bronze belly. Yet his feet were set firmly on the pentagonal basalt flags of the Thanatocrator's path, and he could not fathom this manifestation of conscience, until in time it left him, and his sleep was dark and quiet as ever.

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