Lavie Tidhar is author of Osama, The Violent Century, A Man Lies Dreaming, Central Station, Unholy Land, By Force Alone, The Hood and The Escapement. His latest novels are Maror and Neom. His work encompasses children's books (The Candy Mafia), comics (Adler), anthologies (The Best of World SF) and numerous short stories. His awards include the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Neukom Prize and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, and he has been shortlisted for the Clarke Award and the Philip K. Dick Award amongst many others.

Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God by Lavie Tidhar

A legend tells of the Mirror of Falang-Et: a magical object in the city of the frog tribes, which can tell all manner of truths…

There is only one truth Gorel of Goliris – gunslinger, addict, touched by the Black Kiss – is interested in: finding a way back home, to the great empire from which he had been stolen as a child and from which he had been flung, by sorcery, far across the World

It started out simple: get to Falang-Et, find the mirror, find what truth it may hold. But nothing is simple for Gorel of Goliris… When Gorel forms an uneasy alliance – and ménage à trois – with an Avian spy and a half-Merlangai thief, things only start to get complicated. Add a murdered merchant, the deadly Mothers of the House of Jade, the rivalry of gods and the machinations of a rising Dark Lord bent on conquest, and things start to get out of hand. Only one thing's for sure: by the time this is over, there will be blood.

Not to mention sex and drugs… or guns and sorcery.

CURATOR'S NOTE

I love writing the Gorel of Goliris stories, about a drug-addled gunslinger riding a giant scorpion creature across a seemingly-endless world. This one won the British Fantasy Award, which was nice. I'm not done with Gorel just yet, but this is as good an introduction to his world as any. – Lavie Tidhar

 

REVIEWS

  • "Makes no apologies for its pulp sensibilities, while simultaneously exploring questions of human sexuality, chemical addiction and the loss of home and purpose; all subjects that are regularly grappled within modern, mainstream literature… a highly entertaining and exotic piece of genre fiction."

    – Mithila Review
  • "A delightfully Weird pulp tale that could easily sit on a shelf alongside Leiber, Vance and Moorcock… an excellent planned and exuberantly executed fantasy."

    – Pornokitch
  • "Like discovering Michael Moorcock for the first time… vibrant and visual… every bit as rich and riveting as a much longer fantasy."

    – Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Part One

The Road to Falang-Et

When they came to the city of Ankhar, a carnival was in progress, and fireworks lit up the night. But there are men whose business allows no respite for celebrations, and they found one such man, and unburdened themselves of the gemstones called Buried Eyes, and exchanged them for a less unpleasant currency. The trader with whom they had dealt was later seen fleeing the city, his graal moving slowly under heavy cargo.

'He was eager enough to buy them wholesale,' Jericho Moon said, and looked troubled. Gorel sat opposite with his beer untouched and a glazed look in his eyes. He had paid a visit to the temples and returned with his pocket lighter, and the fine powder they call gods' dust already absorbed into his blood-stream. There were always gods, and where they were so could the black kiss be eased. Into his silence, Jericho said, 'I heard a new dark mage is raising an army to the north and west of here, in the No Man's Lands. It is possible the stones were meant for his service.'

Gorel shrugged; the craving of the black kiss had been sated, and he was at peace. 'You think we should seek employment again so soon?'

His friend laughed. 'Which direction were you thinking of following?' he asked.

'North, and then east,' Gorel said. 'Do you know the people they call falangs?'

'The frog-tribes?' Jericho looked taken aback. 'They are distant cousins to us Merlangai. Distant, mind, and I prefer it that way.'

'Unpleasant?'

Jericho seemed to consider. 'Their girls hold some charm,' he allowed, and Gorel laughed.

Jericho took out his smoking implement, the translucent-blue pipe of the Merlangai: like a shell it looked, made for summons or the calling of war, but its carapace was stained on the inside from the passing of much smoke and resin. Jericho stuffed the pipe's mouth with the precious sea-weed they call derin, or gitan, and lit up. 'Then I shall go west,' he said, blowing out smoke, 'for as much as I like you, Gorel, you are undoubtedly bad for your friends' health –' and he touched his hand to his mouth, and grimaced.

'You'll grow new teeth for the broken ones,' Gorel said complacently. 'It is a benefit those of us without a fish for a mother must do without.'

Jericho's eyes flared. 'Not fish,' he said, and Gorel grinned. 'Not fish?'

'Mammal. Like human.'

'As you like.'

The light subsided in the half-Merlangai's eyes. The two friends grinned at each other.

* * *

Frogs are ubiquitous. They can be found across the World, in swamps and rivers and lakes – and since humans, by dint of need, must settle close to water, so must they encounter frogs.

The falangs, the so-called frog-tribes, were different. Their own origin myths were shrouded in mystery. One fable, often told, is without doubt fallacious, yet retains its hold on the popular imagination. In this story, it is told of a princess who fell in love with a frog. When this story is told in the drinking-establishments of urban places, such, indeed, as the pleasant city of Ankhar where Gorel and Jericho Moon had momentarily stopped for the twin purposes of trade and recreation, this opening of the story is usually followed by several rude comments regarding rural people's "affinity with their animals" and much ribald laughter. Nevertheless. There was once a princess who fell in love with a frog. The princess was not the princess of a particularly important kingdom. She was not even an heiress to a throne. She was a girl who grew up in a royal household, the household in question likely consisting of nothing more than a thatched hut slightly larger than the others in the kingdom. She had few friends, and her parents were too busy, the one waging a war against the neighbouring kingdom, the other lavishing all attention on the princess' elder brother, who was the heir to the throne (this not being a matrilineal succession), and so she played by herself, on the bank of the great river Tharat that ran beside the royal enclosure, upriver from where the washing of pots and garments was done.

It was there, on the river bank, that she one day saw a nyaka emerging from the water, holding the biggest, fattest frog the princess had ever seen in its jaws. The nyaka, a night-hunter rarely seen during the day, was crawling along the reeds, searching for a place to consume its prey in solitude. Its senses weakened by the sunlight, it did not notice the princess' approach until the wooden stick she was wielding connected with the nyaka's body. The nyaka hissed and clamped tighter on its meal. The frog squealed, and the princess hit the nyaka again, catching it – by luck rather than skill – on the back of the skull. The nyaka, perhaps shocked by such behaviour, loosened its jaws; and the frog flopped down and remained on the ground, taking deep breaths that inflated and conflated its body and made it look like a magical toy.

The princess brandished her weapon a third time. The nyaka hissed at her, rising and opening the great poison flaps of its head. The princess took a step back. The nyaka prepared to spit its poison. The princess, knowing she could not outrun it, did the only thing left to her, and in a fit of berserk bravery ran at the nyaka, staff held before her, and speared the nyaka through its open mouth, driving the improvised stake into the ground with such force that it penetrated the nyaka's flesh, tearing its mouth and nailing it to the ground. She then scooped up the enormous frog in her hands, held it close to her chest, and ran.

* * *

Gorel left at daybreak. The city of Ankhar was in the dying throws of revelry at that time. His graal was sluggish before sunrise; the great multi-legged beast moved slowly, its carapace opaque since there was no sunlight yet to absorb. A drunk staggered through the opening of an alleyway; a last, desultory firework exploded overhead; and then he was over the bridge and on the other side of the river, and the graal, gratefully absorbing the moisture in the air, moved quicker.

They followed the river Tharat, skirting the small villages that lay on its banks, houses on stilts leaning-to on the water, naked children playing in the shallows, smoke rising from early-morning fires. Journeying is a long and weary affair. There were quicker ways to go about the World: sorcery, and dragons, but either one was as liable to kill you as to get you to your destination faster. And so, he mastered patience. For many years now he had been seeking Goliris, his home and his birthright, and patience the thing that had to be learned, absorbed, made as much a part of him as the guns at his sides. And then, too, he had the dust: and as he stopped at noon beside a tributary of the river he let the graal stand motionless, absorbing sunlight, while he sat with his back against a tree and opened the packet, one of the many he had purchased at a dark temple, and let its contents into his body, into his mind, and relived again the terrible black kiss of the goddess Shar, terrible and yet of the most intense pleasure he had ever known, better than any lover's kiss, better than a mother's kiss, stronger and more endurable, binding him forever. He sighed, and leaned back against the tree, and the bark was warm on his back, and he closed his eyes. Time spread out before him like a great river, its flow unhurried and smooth.

* * *

The princess kept the frog in the gardens of the palace (such as it was). In secret, she built it a pool of its own, safe from the nyaka and the hunting garuda birds, and she came and sat with the frog every day and spoke to it, and whispered her secrets. And so it went for several years.

There are conflicting versions of this story, and those of a more ignorant nature like to tell their children that one day the princess kissed the frog, and so a curse was broken, and the frog was revealed as a handsome young prince, and they married, and lived hap–

What happened, and how it is told in the taverns of Ankhar, a city closer to the domain of the falang than most, is different, and it goes like this:

On a night of the full moon, when its light touched the river and turned its water into molten silver, and a lone garuda bird, hunting late, cried across the valley, the princess bled. She knew what it meant, but that did not make it any less frightening, or any less exciting, for that matter.

She was becoming a woman.

She should have shared this with her mother or, failing that, at least with her maid, but she did not. As the moonlight shone over the river and the grassy land of the gardens, making them appear like the fuzz on an unshaven man's face, the princess came to the water and sought out her frog.

The frog was enormous. Fat and corpulent, a dark green like the tears of a grass-giant, it sat and wallowed in its pool, its great shining eyes inscrutable. The princess came to the frog, and she slipped in her hurry, and fell into the pool, and held on to the frog she had once rescued, and was now nearly as large as a man.

It was then that the frog kissed her. She felt its smooth, warm skin against hers, and something inside her gave way, and her arms felt weak. The frog's tongue burrowed deep into her mouth, and it tasted sweet, a thick and cloying taste Gorel would have recognised immediately, for he had tasted of it before, to his ruin.

The princess held on to the frog. The frog caressed her in a strangely-human way. And then it spoke.

What words the frog spoke no one knows. It is said that the sacred scrolls in the great wat of the falangs hold within them the text of the frog's speech. In the popular retelling, the frog said something like this, and it is set in song:

* * *

I am the falang-god.

I am the god of the frogs.

I who was here in the shallows before men

I who will be here when all men are gone

I who have waited in the warm shallow ends

Waited for you, my love, my love.

* * *

It was some time towards the middle of the next day that the princess' absence was finally noticed. A search was organised, but no trace of her was found. A war was declared on two neighbouring kingdoms in retaliation for the princess' kidnapping, perhaps unwisely. For, as the two kingdoms, having joined forces, came to the fight, they were victorious. The princess' father was killed in battle. Her mother was executed the following day. Her brother was taken as a slave, put to work in the water gardens of his enemies, and a week later was dead, killed by an angry nyaka who seemed to have come out of nowhere. Even the name of the kingdom no longer survives, though we know it had existed on the banks of great Tharat, father-river to countless lives. It is said, however, that the frog-tribes of the falang came out of that union, and that in the years since, they had multiplied and, in stages, taken over a large part of the lands on both sides of Tharat, driving away the humans who lived there. They are, on the whole, a peaceful folk, much taken with eating, spawning and song, and they are fond of a dirty joke. In other words, they resemble the vast majority of the World's dwellers.

* * *

The carnival followed Gorel all along the banks of the river Tharat. In every concentration of dwellings he passed through the carnival was celebrated, a month-long period of festivities that involved water, carnality, and drunkenness. Humble offerings were made to small, local gods: in every village was a shrine, and on it were laid flowers, and choice meats, and oily essences whose fumes suffocated the still, humid air. Scented water was poured over the statues of gods, and children ran in the streets and along the bank and threw water at each other, and the adults drank home-brewed whisky made from whatever fruit had been gathered the summer before, and danced, and ensured that more babies will be born in time for the next summer, too.

The dust of the gods was everywhere in the carnival. It was even in the air Gorel breathed. It was in the water in which he bathed himself. When it rained, the drops touched his skin like sensuous fingers tracing a lover's pattern on his arms and neck. When he swam in the river, it was Tharat he felt, father-river, mother-river, asexual and yet sexual, like all gods, with the power of the black kiss Gorel was helpless to refuse.

He travelled alone and discouraged conversation. Mostly, he listened: to the talk of travellers, to the chatter of revellers, to the gossip and rumour and word of the road. Occasionally, he asked a question, often biding his time until the right moment, waiting for the conversation to turn this way or that.

In a shack on stilts above the water at sunset: lanterns hanging overhead and the air thick with mosquitoes and incense, the water a calm dark-green below, men and merlangai (for the water-folk, too, had settled Tharat long ago, in the great migration north when the great war of the sea destroyed the city of Suraat-of-the-Infinite-Realm and sent its people refugees) drinking and shouting and throwing dice, Gorel letting his coat open, the guns just visible, listening. Others, too, were there: Ebong mercenaries sitting in a group by themselves, not speaking, their great helmet-like heads as opaque as polished black stone, drinking the potent wine of their species from earthen jars, sucking it through slender straws; a solitary falang, fat and shiny-green, throwing the dice and losing and croaking laughter, drinking beer from a jug and letting it drip down his wide mouth, who Gorel paid much attention to; in a corner two white-skins with guns strapped to their sides, sharing a table with a minor sorcerer from Duraal with the tribal scars thick on his face; out by the water a rare Avian, great wings folded, drinking the same potent whisky Gorel was sipping at, talking to a Nocturne wrapped in shadows. A gaggle of locals: human, drunk, and merry.

Carnival. Laughter and shouts and the drinks flowing faster than Tharat himself, the spilled liquors themselves offerings to the river-god, and there, in another corner, a solitary figure shrank like the fungus growing from the roots of a wizened tree, not human, exactly, but of what nature, what species, even Gorel couldn't say, but he knew the merchandise. Gods' dust.

He drew a line of dust on the counter and snorted it. No need to pay just yet. He had his own supply, and it was plentiful. Gods' dust, flaring in his brain, gods' dust, easing him, soothing him, brightening the World. An abundance! Riches beyond compare! Carnival a time of plenty, and Gorel a captive market, and with money to spare.

Stillness, but of an unobtrusive form. A man sitting in a bar, conversation flowing past him like a river.

'The crops are good this year –' from one of the local men.

'And will be good again next year.'

'More drink?'

'More drink!'

'Not when the shadow from the west falls on the banks of Tharat –' from the Avian on the balcony, a high voice and melodic, and the local men – farmers, fathers, out to have a good time, it's carnival, looked at him accusingly. 'What shadow from the west?'

'Who asked you?'

'Foreigners up to no good.'

'Shadow from the west.' Someone snorted. The Avian said, 'I flew from Der Danang to Ankhar. There is an army growing in the No Man's Lands, and it won't stay there forever.'

The Ebong mercenaries suddenly still. 'I was shot at over Black Tor –' the Avian again.

'Too bad they missed.'

Laughter. But the group of Merlangai did not laugh with the men.

'I heard of this army,' one of the sea-folk said. 'They talk about in Ankhar, and of the mage who leads it.'

'A mage?' the falang merchant. 'There are always mages. Good for nothing –' and he hissed something in a language inhuman, and unknown to Gorel, though the meaning was clear. The Duraali sorcerer stood up. 'Say that again, friend?'

The falang looked at him and shrugged; his whole body rippled with the motion. 'No offence meant.'

'But was taken.'

The falang roared with sudden laughter. 'Suit yourself, then, scar face!'

The Duraali made a motion with his hand. One of the white-skins with him stopped him. 'What are you going to do?' the falang sputtered, more in amusement than fright, 'turn me into a frog?'

A long moment of silence. Then the Duraali shrugged, and smiled, and sat down again.

'Bloody foreigners –' from one of the local humans, and from the Avian – 'better us than that army when it comes.'

'Let it come!'

'Yes!'

'Let them come, if they think they can take us!'

'Yes!'

'You think no army ever came here, Avian? Tharat is a great god –'

'Father-river, giver of life –' from one of the men, dressed like a priest –

'He at least would not object to a generous offering of blood!'

'Foreigners' blood!'

'Well, as long as it's not your own,' the Avian said.

'Silence!' the falang merchant suddenly roared. He turned to the Avian on the balcony. 'You think we are children playing in the river mud? You think we can't protect ourselves? There's more sorcery in the clay of this river then there is in the drylands of the west. Let them come, and Tharat would rise to swallow them. Let them come, and they will find the frog-tribes, at least, ready and waiting for them. Yes!' he shouted, turning now to the men, pointing at them an accusing finger – 'We of Falang-Et have heard of this mage, this warlord gathering an army in the west. The water speaks, and the falang listens, we say. Let his army play with the humans down south, if he so wishes. Or let him remain in the drylands, in No Man's Land, where the Black Tor broods like the forgotten, shrunken god he is. A mausoleum of gods… well, here on the banks of Tharat our gods are very much alive, and fat with our offerings –'

'Surely not as fat as you –'

Laughter, albeit nervous, and the falang visibly deflated, which caused more laughter.

'So Tharat feels horny one day,' one of the Ebong says, the great helmet-like head rising from its drink to stare at the crowd, who fell silent. 'And thinks, what can I find to fuck around here?'

'Sacrilegious!' from the man dressed like a priest. The Ebong ignored him. 'So he wanders through his domain, until he sees a leaf, floating on the water, and squatting on the leaf, an enormous frog.'

'I think I heard that one already –'

'So he goes up to the frog and says, 'I wish, my friend, to have intercourse with you.' The frog looks at him for a long moment, says, 'I don't know about that.' Tharat looks at the frog and it looks pretty good to him. He wants to fuck this frog. 'I want to have intercourse with you!' he says again. The frog says, 'I don't know…' Tharat asks it again. This goes on for a while. Finally the frog says, 'Fine, I can see you're very passionate about this, so… bend down and we'll give it a go, but I think my dick is too small for your ass!'

For a moment, there was absolute silence, broken only by the Ebong mercenary's loud, rasping laugh. On his seat, Gorel tensed, one hand easing towards the gun at his side. There was the sound of great wings beating, and the Avian took to the air. The Nocturne who was standing beside him, silent as smoke, melted into the shadows. Gorel turned in his seat. The falang merchant was staring at the Ebong. The local men all stood at the same time.

In a corner, the dust merchant, solitary, inhuman, indistinct. Gorel watched him. No one else paid the dope-peddler attention. The atmosphere in the place was of the kind one could cut with a knife – or shatter with a bullet. And so it was only Gorel who saw the figure moving unobtrusively onto the wooden platform that hung above the water, open to the sky, and there it turned a face – smooth, indistinct, like water – back and smiled, and dropped down into the river below, like water, falling, and melted into the river's darkness.

'You are going to die,' the falang merchant stated, and he stepped forward and in his hand now was a knife, with a handle the colour of reeds. And now there was a gun in the Ebong mercenary's hand, and his companions too were standing, a group with hard, black exoskeletons forming a unified shield against these local peasants who can't take a joke. 'One more step, frog-spawn, and I burst you open like a clay jug.'

Gorel was already by the entrance when the first shot was fired. After that there were shouts, and more shots, and a couple of screams (one cut short) and things breaking. He walked unhurriedly away along the river, and saw two of the Merlangai who had been in the bar swim away from it now and, a little later, the first of the corpses to come floating down great Tharat, and he was somewhat surprised to notice it was not human or falang, but one of the Ebong mercenaries, looking like a black obsidian boat without a prow: it was his head that had been burst open.

* * *

He waited on the river bank. It was a deserted spot. The road passed close by. The graal was sitting motionless in the vegetation, almost invisible, its carapace a dark green. It was approaching night, the second since he'd left the last settlement. He had been tracking the falang merchant. They were both going in the same direction, though Gorel suspected that, after tonight, there would only be one of them left on the road. He harboured no grudge towards the merchant, no ill-feelings. And yet he would do what needed to be done.

For a moment he raised his head, alerted by a soft whispery sound. Did something fleet across the night sky? But there was nothing there. He turned his attention back to the river, and waited. Presently, the falang merchant's caravan approached.

It came gliding softly on the water, two long boats, with sails the colour of algae. Gorel had chosen this spot for a reason. The ground on the other side of the river was firm and the trees provided shade, and there were rings of stones where fires had burnt, and the stones were blackened from use. And so: a well-frequented place, a convenient stop-over on the river road.

His surmise was correct. For, as the two boats came they slowed, and soon stopped and dropped anchor in the shallows the other side of the river from him. Gorel was motionless, sitting with his back against a tree, watching. There were only two others beside the merchant: two young falangs, a boy and a girl. The boy drove the second boat. The girl, from what Gorel had observed, was there to service the fat merchant, a service he seemed to demand with some frequency. It would, possibly, make Gorel's task easier.

He watched them set up camp. The boy was left to light a fire and prepare food. The merchant shelled his green-blue robes and waddled into the shallows. The girl joined him there. She was smooth-skinned, the greenish tinge of her skin lovely in the light of the setting sun. Her nipples were the colour of dried blood. Her webbed hands were busy underwater. The merchant gurgled, and his body shook in the water. 'Use your mouth, girl,' he said. 'The god gave you a mouth for a reason.'

Yes. It would make it easier.

The boy had lit a fire. In the water, the merchant's thrashing had subsided. 'Go and prepare the food,' he said, and the girl rose, glistening, and hastened to oblige. The merchant was alone, and seemed in no hurry to follow. Good.

Gorel eased himself up. He was a little up-river from the falang camp. Now he entered Tharat, and the warm waters of the river rose to cover him. Gorel too was naked. Even his guns were left behind. All he had were a knife, strapped to his left arm, and a sharp, hollow needle, made from a reed, inside which was another needle, filled with gods' dust. He paddled deeper into the river and then let the current drag him. His breathing was slow, his body relaxed. He could have been a nyaka, hunting. Like in the old story about the falang god. Though there would be no princess to save this frog tonight. Only the truth might.

The problem was simple. He needed certain information. That information had not been forthcoming. He had listened for it in vain. Offers to purchase the information had met with blank incomprehension, flat refusals, and innocent displays of ignorance. The subject was the falang god's mirror.

He had killed an old man, a traitor of Goliris. But before he killed him, the old man told him of the mirror. Just that, and nothing more. And yet it was enough. Gorel had sworn to return to Goliris, avenge his family, the fate, the treachery that sent him across the World and left him stranded, a child in strangers' lands. If the mirror could show him Goliris, could show him the way, then that was enough.

He was going to steal it.

And yet, every question, every mention of the mirror brought nothing but silence, from falangs and human dwellers of Tharat alike. He needed to have the information before he came to Falang-Et. If he had to kill to get it, so be it.

He paused, resisted the current, and swam stealthily to the river bank. He raised his head minutely above the reeds, observing the falang camp. The girl was crouching beside the boy. They were talking, too softly for Gorel to hear. But he noticed that they had chosen such a place that was obscured from view of the merchant, were he to turn and look for them. He wondered who they were.

He returned to the water. They would not be disturbed. He let the current take him again, slowly, slowly. When he raised his head above water he heard a rumbling sound and almost smiled: the merchant, it seemed, was taking a nap in the shallows. He let the water swallow him again.

The falang never even noticed him. Gorel rose from the water beside the merchant and in the same movement stuck the sharpened needle into the falang's neck, depressing the lever that pushed the second tube out, delivering a carefully measured dose of dust into the falang's blood stream.

The corpulent falang sighed and relaxed further into the water. There had been no need for the knife. Gorel grabbed the merchant and began to tow him, gently. The river carried them both downstream.

* * *

He had prepared that spot, too, in advance. There was natural cover here, a grove of sweet-smelling trees with a small clearing easily-reached from the river. He surfaced at the shallows, dragged the merchant along with him. The falang was heavy.

He deposited the merchant in the clearing and tied him up, arms spread out and up, lifting him almost off the ground. The dust had subdued the merchant, but Gorel could not afford to wait long. The merchant's young companions would soon notice him missing, and might decide to look for him.

Earlier, Gorel had lit a fire in the clearing. Now only dimly-glowing coals remained. They emitted little light, but their heat was still strong. He had also left stones in the fire. He picked one up now, using makeshift wooden tongs. He turned to the merchant and slapped him on the face. The falang did not stir. Gorel lifted the stone and touched it briefly to the falang's chest.

The smell of burning skin was sickening: and at the same time it had affected Gorel's stomach, divorced from his conscious mind, and made it growl. The falang opened his eyes. There was drool at the corners of his mouth. Gorel touched him with the burning stone again, but this time he applied it to the man's armpit – and he didn't remove it quite so quickly.

When the falang began to scream Gorel slapped him again and roughly shoved a piece of cloth in his mouth. Then he returned the stone to the mouldering fire. He went and stood close to the falang merchant, and looked into his eyes. 'If you scream again,' he said, 'I will kill you.'

He took out the cloth. The falang spattered but otherwise remained silent. 'Good,' Gorel said. He put his hand to the falang's throat. The merchant tried to turn away. 'Please,' Gorel said. The merchant's skin felt slimy. A strong pulse beat against the tips of Gorel's fingers. 'What is your name?'

'My… my name?'

Gorel's fingers tightened around the falang's throat. 'Your name,' he said, patiently.

'D… Dornalji Spawn-Son, of the Fifth Pond Lineage, M… Master of Procurement to the… to the…' Gorel released him. He wiped his hand against the bark of the nearest tree. 'Who is the girl?'

'The girl?'

Gorel reached for the small cache he had left there to serve him. He picked up a small, sharpened knife. Dornalji's eyes moved rapidly in their sockets, looking in turns at Gorel and the knife. 'My niece.'

'And the boy?'

'Apprentice.'

'You like your niece?' the knife was coming closer to the falang's neck. 'Please,' Dornalji said. 'I have money. I can pay you –'

The easy questions came first. Once a man started talking, it was easier for him to go further.

'Are you a religious man, Dornalji Spawn-Son of the Fifth Pond Lineage?'

'What –' the falang stared at Gorel in what seemed like true confusion. 'I serve the god like all must do.'

'Where is he now?'

Gorel hated to do this thing. And yet… a part of him, the part that was cast out of Goliris, that was exiled to the harsh lands of Lower Kidron, the part that was rejected and banished and put together the way a pistol is made – that part was almost gleeful. That part delighted in the cruelty, and in the fear of the being that hung, naked and cowering, before him. And if his whole conscious being might deny it, nevertheless he knew it to be true. A gun must have no illusions as to its nature. And a bullet has but one true course.

'Falang-Et!' the merchant said. 'Falang-Et!'

'He is in the city?'

'The god will help me,' Dornalji said. 'He is in the water. He is in the reeds. He watches over his people. Falang-Et!'

The knife landed on the merchant's neck with some force, drawing blood. Gorel pulled it softly towards himself, holding the falang merchant's mouth shut with his hand, stifling his cries. 'Can he move faster than a knife?' he whispered, leaning close to the falang's ear. 'Tell me.'

'What?' the merchant dribbled vomit against Gorel's hand. It oozed through Gorel's fingers. 'What do you want from me?'

Gorel removed his hand. 'Tell me about the mirror of Falang-Et.'

'The… the mirror? But –' There was momentary wonder in the falang's eyes. 'What do you want with the mirror? It is of no use to you.'

'I want to know where it is. I want to know what it looks like. I want to know how heavy it is. I want to know who has access to it, and when, and why. And I want you to tell me these things, or I will, very slowly, kill you.'

'It is in the Wat! In Wat Falang! In the inner sanctum of holy, in the realm of the god himself!' the merchant suddenly laughed. Then, with his whole body expanding, he spat in Gorel's face.

It burned. Gorel bit hard on his lip so as not to scream. It ran down his face like an acid, burning, splitting his skin, drawing blood, causing his nerves to flare with pain. He lashed out with the knife, blinded, and thought he connected but couldn't be sure. He dropped the knife and ran for the river.

He fell twice, the second time hitting a log that sent him, head first, into the water. He submerged his head in Tharat and could still hear the merchant's laughter echoing in his ears. When he raised his head above the surface of the water he could at least see, but the pain was still there. He dunked his head in again, and cursed underwater. The bubbles that rose sounded like laughter.

At last he returned to his clearing. The falang was still there, hanging with his arms up. His belly had been sliced open. His entrails fell from the gash in his body onto the ground. A pool of rancid, dark-green blood collected at his webbed feet. His eyes were open, staring into nothing.

I did this, Gorel thought; but he felt nothing.

* * *

He spent the night sitting in the clearing, though he knew he had to get away. He could not make himself move. The compulsion of the dark kiss was on him again, made stronger by the spilled blood, by the needless killing, and he took out his bag of dust and cooked it, and used the same syringe he had used on the dead merchant to deliver the drug into himself.

Gods' dust. It coursed through his veins, infecting his head like the soft tread of perfumed feet, loosening his limbs, rendering him incapable of movement, incapable of all action, of all thought. A river ran through his head and its flow murmured soothing words in a woman's voice, a loving voice, barely remembered, never forgotten. It showed him Goliris, the way it was, and him a child running through the palace, and it brought back the salt-scent of the sea and the smell of the deep dark jungles, a smell of rot and renewal which had no name. It made him a child again, and eased his loneliness. And at last he slept. When he woke it was morning, and the sun shone through the tree-tops, and Goliris was a memory from long ago. He cursed and got up to his feet. The merchant stared back at him with dead eyes. His body was clothed in a cowl and black robe. When Gorel stepped closer the merchant's coverings moved, as if blown by the wind. Gorel clapped. A cloud of thick, fat black flies rose from the falang's dangling corpse and flew in all directions. Gorel covered his face with his arm, but even so one fly lodged itself in his mouth. Gorel spat and cursed again. He went to the bank of Tharat and looked up-river.

The falang merchant's two long boats were gone.

He scanned the river but could find no trace of them. The river stretched empty before him in both directions. The sun glinted on the water. Gorel looked at the ground. There, his feet, and there the heavy bulk of the merchant as he dragged him. And there… there were other marks there, of smaller naked feet of a different sort. Webbed they were, and light, but very pronounced there in the mud. Two pairs of feet, not one, and going away from the river, following his own running steps as he came the other way, and fell blinded into the water.

He followed his own footsteps back now, and saw how the others matched them. They ended in the clearing. His knife still lay on the ground. Its blade was crusted with blood. He picked it up. He had hit at the merchant, yes. But did he cut? He bent down and tried not to gag. Shit had crusted on the merchant's legs where it dripped out of him the night before. He examined the gash in the merchant's belly. A wide, deep cut – and another, and another, sending out a river of blood, splattering whoever held the knife. And yet, Gorel remembered no blood on his hands, on his face. The falang's acid, yes. But that, and nothing more. Two pairs of feet, and he could put faces, if not names, to them. Apprentice and Niece, he thought, and for the first in a long time a smile came to his face. With Gorel cast as Culprit, and thank you so much. He followed their footsteps again. Back to the river, by a different route, leaving him well alone. He followed them into the river. The water of Tharat soothed his aching skin. He paddled up-river and onto the other side of Tharat, to the place where the falangs had made their camp.

Packed in a hurry, he thought, looking at the ground. Packed and glided down-river like two fleeting shadows, and well on their way home now, Uncle and Master Procurator left behind for good. He almost felt nostalgic. To be young again… he laughed.

When he looked at his reflection in the water he saw puss. The falang had hurt him. But Gorel had been hurt before.

To work, then. Quickly, yes, but methodically too. First, the body. He removed the ropes and stowed them away. What to do with the corpse? He glanced at the river and thought – no. It was not meant for Tharat.

In the end he dug a grave, and rolled the merchant into it. He covered up the pool of drying blood and body fluids. He removed all traces of himself from that spot. The grave could be noticed – would be noticed. But he would be long gone by then.

He returned the short distance up-river. His graal was still there, still hidden in the shrubbery. It was absorbing sunlight, its jade carapace glimmering. Its long, curved tail was up, gathering moisture. A desert animal, getting drunk on the abundance of water in the air. Gorel roused him. The Graal stood, insectoid legs graceful against the ground. Then they rode away from that place.

* * *

For two days and two nights Gorel encountered no living being. He stayed away from the river and the river-road, and skirted any sign of habitation, human or otherwise. Only once did he sense something nearby, a sound as of great beating wings, and a shadow fleeing in the sky, but nothing more than that. This was pleasant, temperate land, but he was now in a buffer zone, of sorts, this almost-empty land separating the human settlements of the south with their falang neighbours up north. As pleasant as it was, the land here was a sort of fence, and he knew that once he'd crossed from one side of it to the other he would be a trespasser, and worse: they may be expecting him.

The merchant would be missed. And when the young couple, really not more than children – and certainly as cunning – arrived with their story already prepared and tested for faults, it would be a human killer the falang will be looking for. And yet the children would not want him caught. No doubt they were praying – but to which god? – that he was long gone, and in the opposite direction to Falang-Et. Well, Gorel thought, in that he'd have to disappoint them.

On the third night he camped by a tributary of Tharat, a narrow and clear brook whose water was cold and its touch refreshing. The burns on his face were healing. Having washed, Gorel built a small fire and dried himself beside it. For a long moment he was still. He felt no urgency. There was always the road, and he must always follow it, until Goliris could be found, until revenge could be exacted and right of birth returned. But he had learned patience, he had no choice. And so he sat and stared at the fire and remembered… there was a secret room his father once showed him, its entrance concealed in one of the disused corridors of the Dark Wings of the Palace, where the immense building faced onto the impenetrable jungles which seemed always to whisper in a voice like the rustling of leaves, and to conspire endlessly, and fight against the Palace's intrusion into their grounds. To be of Goliris was to be of sea and of jungle, and to be king and ruler of both. His father had taken him into the corridor and pressed a hidden lever and a section of the wall opened before them. They entered the space beyond. Another corridor, a secret one. They followed it, deep down under the palace, where the space opened and the darkness was of a humid, itching quality, the darkness of the jungle. His father had lit a torch. A wind tried to blow it away and the king of Goliris hissed and the wind silenced at his command. In the light of the torch Gorel saw a great hall, or perhaps it was a cave, naturally made. There were many ancient roots dug into this place from high above. Ancient, but very much alive. 'They had conspired against us, my son,' his father had told him, 'they had tried to impose chaos upon our order, and failed, and so now they belong to the jungle, as they must. Watch!'

And Gorel watched, and felt pride in his father. There were many men down there, in the dark, pale and naked like earthworms. Some women too, as naked and fleshless as the men, crawling in the dirt, speaking in no human tongue but in soft, pitiable moans and hisses. The roots were alive. The great fleshy roots of the trees high above moved here, in this underground cavern, with no water, no wind to move them. Of their own accord they writhed and thrashed, like questing fingers, and when they found the humans in their midst the fastened on to them with slow, but sure, greed.

'Some of them have been here for decades,' his father had told him, quiet pride in his voice. 'From the time of your grandfather, and before. Look –' and he took Gorel by the hand and they walked amidst the ploughed fields of the prisoners, and the roots shied away from them, and the prisoners whispered in their soft, sad voices and crawled away. They came to the opposite end of the tavern. Roots hang from the ceiling. 'Every year he is fading more. But still he remains. Since before your grandfather's days, he who was once a mighty sorcerer, and now there is no man living to remember his name. Look at him!'

Gorel looked, and saw the fat pale grub that clung amidst the roots, almost headless, merely a wide, gummy mouth fastened on the flesh of trees, and they in their turn had entered him throughout the years, had found his orifices and grown shoots inside them. The man was a fungus, feeding of the roots just as they fed of him. 'I hope,' his father said with the same quiet pride, and held Gorel's hand stronger in his, 'that one day you might take your own son down here, and show him the greatness, the durability of Goliris. Even our enemies we keep.'

'You seem deep in thought, gunslinger. Missing home?' the voice, cool and smooth and mocking, jerked him out of a half-dream and the guns were in his hands before the voice had finished speaking. A shadow rustled in the canopy of the trees. The voice had come from above. 'Please refrain from shooting, if you possibly can.'

A mocking voice, and too close for comfort in its assumptions. 'Show yourself,' Gorel said.

'Gladly.' A shadow dropped down from the canopy and stretched itself lazily before Gorel. A high-pitched voice, melodic enough. An elongated, pale face, and a wiry body, and two great wings, now folded about him. An Avian – the same he had seen, a week or so before, stirring a fight in a drinking hole by the river. Gorel said, 'You?'

'So you remember me?' the Avian's eyes twinkled. They were large and black, looking like twin bruises set in his delicate face. Gorel made no reply, and the Avian chuckled. 'I remember you,' he said.

'What do you want?' he did not lower his guns. The Avian shrugged. 'I saw your fire and desired some company.' From a fold of cloth (he was very lightly dressed) beneath his wings he extracted a bottle. 'Care to join me in a drink?'

No visible weapons, though he wouldn't necessarily need them. He had flight, and nasty talons if he needed them, on both hands and feet. Gorel had fought for a time alongside a company of Avians in the Mesina Campaign; fought against them, too, when it came to that. 'Sure,' he said, holstering the guns without flourish. He was not fool enough to think this meeting was accidental, nor was he meant to think so. And he was curious.

'Name's Kettle,' the Avian said, uncorking the bottle, taking a long gulp, and passing it to Gorel. Gorel drank. It was local rice whiskey, and potent; it nearly made him cough. 'Gorel,' he said. He sat back down, and the Avian joined him. He stretched against the trunk of a tree, wings rustling with the motion, opening a little on either side of him. There was something strangely sensuous about that movement; Gorel saw smooth, exposed skin, and muscles…

'Where do you go, Kettle?' Gorel said. Kettle titled his head sideways and looked at Gorel, smiling. Mocking, yes, but below that, something else too. 'I rather fancy I am going the same way you are, Gorel.'

'And where would that be?'

Kettle's smile grew larger in reply. 'What happened to your face?' he said. Gorel touched the damage on his face. Already, new skin was growing there. 'A little hunting accident,' he said.

'Nasty,' Kettle said. 'What were you hunting?' and his smile grew even wider, revealing long, narrow, pointed teeth that glinted in the light of the fire. Gorel didn't reply directly. 'What are you hunting?' he said, instead. 'When you're not fermenting brawls, that is.'

'But it was fun, wasn't it? Too bad you didn't stay until the end,' Kettle said.

'Neither did you, if I recall correctly.'

'Oh, I was there,' the Avian said, and there was something so childishly gleeful in his voice that Gorel found himself smiling back. 'Hovering?' Gorel said. The Avian laughed. 'I was, as you say, hovering,' he agreed.

'Why did you do it?'

'Find the lay of the land. Find out what the locals think of the rising threat in the south, and if so what their plans may be.'

'You said you flew from Der Danang to Ankhar, over the No Man's Lands,' Gorel said, remembering. 'And that you were shot at over the Black Tor…'

'You have a good memory, friend.'

'I don't know about that,' Gorel said, 'but I can recognise shit when I smell it, and call it by its name.'

'I'm not sure I get your meaning…'

'If you came from anywhere, Avian, it would be from the Black Tor, I would say. An agent of this mysterious new mage I keep hearing about?'

Somehow, Kettle contrived to look both bored and amused. 'It's a possibility,' he agreed. 'And you, Gorel? Do you have an employer?'

'Not at the moment.'

'But sometimes you are for hire.'

'Sometimes we are all for hire, Avian.'

Kettle laughed. It was a laugh like the call of birds, high and penetrating. He made himself more comfortable against his tree and made a sign with his hand. Gorel passed him the bottle. 'To your good health, Gorel not-for-hire,' he said, and drank. 'And to the health of Dornalji Spawn-Son, of the Fifth Pond Lineage, and M… Master of Procurement – or is it too late for that now?'

The gun was back in Gorel's hand, and it was pointing at the Avian's head. Kettle sighed and corked the bottle and leaned it gently beside him on the ground. 'You are very attached to these toys of yours, aren't you?' he said. 'Please, put the gun away. You cannot resolve an argument with a gun.'

'On the contrary,' Gorel said, the gun steady in his hand, pointing directly between Kettle's eyes, 'I believe you can always resolve an argument with a gun.'

'So direct,' the Avian said, 'so simple. If only life were like that, gunslinger.' He raised his hands, stretched them upwards, a faint grin etched on his face. Gorel couldn't help but be distracted somehow by the way the Avian's flesh moved under his wings, tender skin covering lithe, sinuous muscles. 'Please.'

'You were spying on me.'

'It is my job,' the Avian said, and for the first time all hint of a smile disappeared from his face. 'It's what I do. I spy. You kill, but do I hold that against you?'

'I kill when I have to.'

'If you say so.'

'Why were you spying on me?'

'Oh, I was curious,' the Avian said, and the smile returned to his face. His wings opened and closed, creating a slow, steady beat against his body. 'A lone human, and a gunman besides, travelling up river to the frog-tribes' lands – I had to ask myself why. And on whose behalf. And so –'and the smile widened again, and he licked his lips, with a small darting tongue that seemed to point, for just a fleeting moment, at Gorel – 'I thought it might be enlightening to watch you. And it was! Imagine my surprise when I saw you crawling, stealthily, naked, through the water of mighty Tharat, and kidnapping that annoying little froggie, and tying him up!'

Was it Gorel's imagination, or did Kettle put an accent on naked? Gorel felt suddenly uncomfortable. He lowered the gun. He was reacting to the Avian, he realised. Something within him was responding to the Avian's voice, his body, attracting him, clouding his mind. He sighed and put the gun away. 'Pass me the whiskey,' he said.

'Gladly.'

Gorel put the bottle to his lips. He was uncomfortably aware that, only moments before, Kettle's lips had fastened on to the same place that his touch, his breath, still remained on the mouth of the bottle. He tipped the bottle into his mouth and drank. Suddenly he was desperate for more dust – but he would not use it in front this stranger. 'So what do you want?' he said.

'The same thing you do,' Kettle said amicably. He lowered his arms and his wings stilled. The flames were low in the fire now, and Kettle's face looked covered in fleeting shadows. He seemed closer now – perhaps it was a trick of the light – more physical than before. Gorel could almost feel him beside him. All I have to do is reach out and I can touch him, he thought. He is too close. Yet he didn't move.

'I want the mirror of Falang-Et,' Kettle said. His voice was soft, throaty. It seemed to come from close to Gorel's ear. Almost, he thought he could feel the Avian's breath against his cheek. But Kettle hadn't moved at all. 'So, evidently, do you,' Kettle said. 'And it occurs to me we could better achieve that goal if we cooperated.'

'I work alone.'

'That's not what Jericho Moon told me.'

That shook Gorel. 'You met him?'

'He left Tharat and went into the No Man's Lands and, once there, offered his services to my master. He was gladly accepted.'

'He did mention going that way…'

'So what do you say, Gorel? Partners?'

Some inner rage, some baffled anger made Gorel stand up. He had been happy in his solitude, before this intruder came. He grabbed the Avian by the throat and lifted him up, pinning him against the tree. 'Why should I help you, servant of sorcery?'

The smile had left the Avian's face. In its stead was something different, harder to categorise. A look in his deep black eyes… Gorel was aware of Kettle's wings spreading, opening around the two of them, cocooning them together in a dark, warm silence. 'If you go alone,' Kettle said simply, his breath, the smell of cardamom seeds, soft against Gorel's face, 'you will fail. I am offering you a chance at what you want.'

'What I want…' Gorel said, and he shook his head, and Kettle smiled. 'What do you want, Gorel of Goliris?' he whispered, and suddenly his face was against Gorel's, and his wings were wrapped around him, holding him, warm and close, and his lips touched Gorel's, and his tongue was in Gorel's mouth, hot and spiced and questing, and Gorel, captured not unwillingly, surrendered himself to the Avian's embrace.