Fantasy

Osfeo Tales

By Matthew Hughes
Jun 30, 2021 · 5,807 words · 22 minutes


From the author: If you're familiar with the Sufi teaching parables of the mullah Nasruddin, these might ring a bell. If you're not familiar with Nasruddin, you're missing out.


 From the Discourses and Edifications of Liw Osfeo

 by Matthew Hughes

 

The County of Keraph boasted three noble cities, each jealous of its independence and time-honoured privileges, yet each cooperating with the others in mutual endeavours. 

The city of Caer Lyff was largest of the three, and produced the sophisticated baubles upon which, all agreed, civilization depended.   The city of Alathe was somewhat smaller; its ateliers and factories manufactured the less intricate but no less necessary goods without which civilization rapidly descends to barbarism.  Finally, the city of Dai was smallest of all, but its sturdy citizens raised the crops and kine which fed all Keraph.

In the centre of the county, housed in the old ducal grounds, was the Institute.  Here scholars and academes rubbed shoulders with chymists and apparaticists, and all combined to provide Keraph with the refinements of modern learning.  Besides instructing the worthiest of the county's youth in useful arts and abilities, the Institute undertook research into the creation of yet more subtle devices and systems of great value.

It happened that a certain Jever Smee had  attained emeritus rank with the Institute, where he conducted private research into the less obvious relationships among time, energy and what the common folk call matter.  The fruits of his work were not known until the time of his eventual death, when it was discovered that he had designed and built seventeen intricate mechanisms.  The principles by which these machines operated were beyond the ken of Jever Smee's colleagues, but their application was soon understood from notes and jottings left in his workshop.  The mechanisms, if fed with raw materials of the basest sort, transmuted them into rare and precious substances.  Jever Smee's devices promised immense wealth to the County of Keraph.

It further transpired that among his writings was the last will and testament of Jever Smee.  This document ordained that the seventeen mechanisms were to be divided among the three cities according to a formula arbitrarily determined by the deceased.  Caer Lyff was to receive one half of the machines; Alathe would receive one third; and Dai would receive one ninth. 

The will caused immediate consternation among the ruling syndics of the three cities, and among the Institute's Board of Integrators.  All saw at once that the lower orders of mathematics had not been among the disciplines absorbed by Jever Smee.  It was impossible to allocate the seventeen devices in the proportions stipulated, without reducing some of them to useless fractions.

A long and bitter debate ensued.  Some proposed a division according to the respective populations of each city.  Others insisted on the sanctity of wills, demanding that Jever Smee's creations be distributed as specified, and any remaining parts consigned to the scrap heap.  A convocation of fellows of the Institute suggested that the machines be left where they were, under Institute control, and that their output of rare substances be shared according to Smee's formula.  Meanwhile, some merchants who imported and sold such precious wares, in small but profitable amounts, rioted and had to be put down by the provost.

It happened that the Illumino Liw Osfeo was at that time attached to the Institute as a visiting lecturer in applied metaphysics.  When the imbroglio over the will had reached its fiercest pitch, and social war brimmed throughout Keraph, Liw Osfeo put it about that he could adjudicate the dispute for a handsome fee.

Calling together the Syndics and Integrators, he declared that he was in possession of Jever Smee's prototype.  This had been given him by the late emeritus in recompense for certain kindnesses, he said, and it had remained unused in his study.  Osfeo volunteered to add the prototype to the other seventeen, thus making eighteen in all: a number divisible by Smee's formula, without the necessity of reducing any of the mechanisms to fragments.

The Syndics and Integrators readily paid Osfeo's fee, and the division was immediately made.  One half of Jever Smee's machines -- nine of them -- went to Caer Lyff; one third -- that is, six -- were loaded into wagons and transported to Alathe; and one ninth -- or two machines -- were taken to the grange hall in Dai.  Osfeo then ruled that the disaffected merchants be allowed to purchase a monopoly on the export of the machines' products beyond the county's bounds, and pronounced the dispute satisfactorily resolved.

The Syndics and Integrators made much of the sage's wisdom, until it was pointed out by one of his detractors -- for he always had detractors -- that the nine, six and two machines added up to the original seventeen.  There remained one unaccounted for.

"Of course," answered the sage.  "That is the one in my quarters, which naturally reverts to me."

It was agreed that Osfeo should retain his property, since it did not reduce any of the three portions of Jever Smee's estate.  But the enemy was not mollified.  While the illumino was being feted by the dignitaries of Keraph, he stole into Osfeo's rooms and determined that no such mechanism existed.  Returning to where Osfeo sat among the magnates, his purse weighty with their contributions to his net worth, the enemy revealed the deception and denounced the sage for a fraud.

The cream of Keraph were outraged and demanded restitution.  Osfeo rose to defend himself.  It was true, he said, that the eighteenth mechanism was a mere figment.  But what did it matter whether or not a thing existed, so long as it served a useful purpose?

Reason, however, was of no avail.  Judging the temper of the crowd correctly, the illumino wisely exited through a nearby window.  The magnates pursued him, their retainers and flunkies joining the chase.  But the fleet and wily sage soon distanced them, and departed the county by little-used paths. 

Osfeo was in the marketplace at Elizen-Gat when he saw a crowd of people wildly cheering a trio of men, hung about with ropes and grapples.  Inquiring of a seller of baked buns for the cause of the agitation, he learned that the three had just returned from a mountaineering expedition to remotest Hakwert, where they had conquered that region's highest peak.

Eager to hear more, Osfeo pushed through the crowd.  "Is it true," he asked the leader of the team, "that you have conquered the mountain?"

"Yes," was the proud reply.

"And have you brought back any tribute?" asked Osfeo.

"Of course not," scoffed the mountaineer.

"What about prisoners of war?" was the next question.

"Ridiculous!"

"Well, did you at least get signed articles of surrender, and a promise of lasting peace?"

"Who is this fool?" shouted the mountaineer.  "Are you trying to imply that we did not in fact conquer the mountain?"

"Certainly not," replied Osfeo.  "I was just wondering how you can be so sure the mountain has admitted defeat."

Osfeo for a time set up as a diviner in the village of Jaem, near Esrick.  This allowed him an income and the leisure to sit in the village's piazza drinking hot spicy klat.  To amuse himself, he often played practical jokes on the villagers.

After some weeks, his neighbours became annoyed at his constant pranks, and formed a delegation to demand that the disruptions cease.

"Has it not occurred to you," replied Osfeo, "that there might be a deeper meaning to my antics?"

"We require a demonstration," said the neighbours.

Osfeo then directed their attention to a house across the square, where a large can of water balanced precariously upon the partially open front  door.  As they watched, a young boy came out, pushed aside the door, and was drenched.

"Now," said Osfeo, "pay heed.  That youth carries in his pocket a box of lumets, with which he intended to play near the village's communal barn.  The lumets now being soaked to uselessness, the danger is averted."

The villagers rushed across the piazza and examined the boy, finding all to be as Osfeo had said.  After summarily whipping and warning the young miscreant, they returned to the diviner and praised his prescience.

"Regard," said Osfeo, and directed their attention to a potter now entering the square from an alleyway, carrying a large ornate amphora on his shoulders.  Osfeo pulled taut a string which he had stretched across the mouth of the lane, and the potter tripped, dashing the valuable vessel to the cobbles.

"Attend," said Osfeo.  "That man was recently told in a dream that some catastrophe would soon befall him.  Ever since, he has been near incapacitated by dread, fearing the disaster he knew to be looming over him.  Now he will assume that the breaking of a costly pot must be the calamity he feared, and will be able to face the future with an optimistic mien."

The villagers questioned the potter, who  confirmed Osfeo's analysis, and joined in extolling his far-reaching wisdom.  Then all settled down to await the sage's next prodigy.

Soon after, they espied a wealthy merchant, well known for his grasping ways, crossing the piazza in his richest robes.  As he passed the group around Osfeo, disdaining so much as to notice their presence, the diviner peeled a karba fruit and deftly tossed the slippery skin beneath the merchant's heel.  The plutocrat skidded and rose into the air before crashing down on his well-padded fundament.

The villagers laughed and hooted at the merchant's misfortune until the man had limped out of sight.  Then they turned to Osfeo for the hidden meaning behind his prank.

"Has it never occurred to you," he answered, "that I might be doing these things merely from malicious merriment?"

Osfeo, seeking a shorter route between Uz Narim and Yahk, chanced his luck in crossing the Vaandaye panhandle.  The ever-vigilant Vaandayo border guards noted his passage, however, and he was straightway seized, beaten and hauled in chains before their paramount.  The Vaandayos being notorious cannibals, Osfeo listened in trepidation to the guards' argument over how his carcass should be divided among their larders, once the formalities of sentence were carried out.

But as the order for his execution was about to  be delivered, the illumino cried out to the barbarian chief,  "Wait!  Spare my life and I will perform a great service for you!"

Surveying his prisoner's rags and spindly frame, the paramount sneered, "What possible service could be expected of so hapless a wretch?"

Osfeo, who knew of no real service he could render, but who did not want to end his days in a Vaandayo cooking pot, blurted out the first thing that entered his mind.  "I can train dung beetles to gather gold dust instead of dung!"

Now, the Vaandayo value only one thing more than the taste of human flesh in their mouths: the feel of gold in their fingers.  The chief's court put down their knuckle-bones in mid-game to listen.

"Is this true?" they asked the sage.

"Indeed!  Indeed!" he swore.  "In fact, I braved the journey into Vaandaye only because in this land alone are found the least obtuse dung beetles suitable for training."

"Very well," decreed the paramount, "sentence is stayed pending a demonstration of your skills as a trainer.  How long will it take?"

"About ten years," said Osfeo.

"Ten years?" cried the Vaandayos.

"Even the least obtuse dung beetle is a slow learner," he replied.

Amid some grumbling, the Vaandayos agreed to the illumino's terms, and made room in the palace compound for a laboratory and living quarters where he could work under guard.  Men were sent to gather dung beetles and bring them in for training.  A small store of gold dust was weighed out and provided.  Osfeo set to work.

The chief's clown, a shrewd fellow for an anthropophage, had witnessed Osfeo's performance in the court.  He came to congratulate the sage on his wiles, and found Osfeo diligently shaping gold dust into dung-shaped portions and prodding beetles toward them.

"Truly, you are a fellow of surpassing guile," said the clown.  "For you have translated instant death into ten years of comfortable living at the imperator's expense."

"Hmphf," said Osfeo.  He did not look up.

"And, in that time," the cannibal continued, "much may happen.  My master may die.  You yourself may die of natural causes.  You may even be entirely forgotten and thus able to flee.  Or, at the end of ten years, you may contrive to gain an extension.  I applaud your wit."

But Osfeo remained intent upon his beetles, and the fool went away.  "If I can just make this work," the sage muttered to himself.  "Wealth beyond counting!"

Osfeo decided to try his hand as a fisherman, believing that a simple life among those who toil might enrich his enlightenment.  But he found the fisherfolk of northern Baersund a silent and surly lot.  His efforts at friendship sullenly rebuffed, Osfeo lived apart from them, in a salt-stained hut beyond the village precincts.

Baersund was a stony place washed by a cold sea.  Year by year, the fishermen's catch had dwindled, so that they laboured hard for a scant reward.  Osfeo did not sail with them as they traversed their fishing grounds each day.  Instead, he rowed a small boat, which he put together from scraps of wrecks, to places where everyone knew there were no fish to be had.  His gear was a worn and ravelled net rescued from the village midden, yet each evening he brought back his little craft almost sinking under a weight of fish.

The Baersund men, coming ashore with barely a basket or two to show for an entire day at sea, were first amazed, then outraged at Osfeo's success.

"How is it," they snarled, "that we who battle tides and tempests, struggling to wrest a living from the inhospitable sea, can gain so little; while you, who do the least work of all, should receive so much?"

"Perhaps," replied the sage, "you have never offered the fish an opportunity to cooperate."

And with that, Osfeo left them the boatload of fish and went up to the land of Menai.  The Baersundians mocked him in his absence, and continued to wage unequal war upon the elements.

A traveller crossing the wastes of Goroth came upon Osfeo piling stones one atop another.  Thinking the sage deranged by his advanced years or the fierce heat of the sun, the man asked, "Tell me, old one, what inspires you to undertake such gruelling toil?"

"I am creating a structure which, by the properties of its design, will focus certain arcane energies in this region.  These energies will prevent floods," said Osfeo.

Knowing him now for a madman, the traveller scoffed, "Then your construction must focus these energies in both directions of time, since this land has been desert for thousands of years."

"You are unusually perceptive," replied the sage.  "If you would care to assist me in moving this boulder, I would be pleased to enrol you as a disciple."

But the traveller declined with laughter, and continued his journey across the sun-baked bed of an ancient sea.

In the Muzeywan jungle, Osfeo came upon a young bull garoon pinned beneath a trapper's deadfall.  Moved by pity, the illumino braved the predator's venomed spines to lever up the log that held it fast.  The garoon shook its triangular head, regarded Osfeo from its great round eyes, and with a soft exhalation of "hoo, hoo," the beast withdrew into the undergrowth.

Years later, in passing through Urzendhi, the sage transgressed one of the Ten Thousand Canons, and was taken up by the city's harmonizers.  They instantly adjudicated the case and sent the illumino to purge his guilt through combat in the municipal amphitheatre.

Osfeo was handed an antique bombarde, a cumbersome weapon capable of one discharge at short range, then he was pushed into a large enclosure whose sandy floor reeked of old blood.  Across from him, a door opened and into the arena slid a mature bull garoon.

The creature shook its frills, spraying spectators in the lower stands with toxic drops, and undulated across the sand toward the sage.  Then, at lunge's length, the animal abruptly stopped and twisted its sinewy neck to inspect Osfeo from several angles. 

The illumino fired his weapon, and the garoon's head was instantly obliterated.  The harmonizers promptly set him free, and Osfeo left Urzendhi the same afternoon. 

Years later, he related the tale to his disciples, one of whom asked why he had not accepted the beast's friendship.  "You assume," said the sage, "that this was the same monster I had freed, that it would remember my kindness, and that remembering would prompt it to mercy.  These are the elements of a good morality tale, but they are tenuous assumptions on which to hazard one's life.  Whereas a headless garoon is almost certainly harmless."

Osfeo studied as a young man with the revered sage Nassal im-Fatarj.  One day, Master Nassal observed that the man who sits patiently at the river's edge will in time see the corpse of his enemy float by.  The master's words struck a chord in Osfeo's youthful mind, since he was at that time engaged in ritual enmity with the sire and sons of a certain powerful family.  Buoyed by his teacher's lesson, he took staff and bowl and ensconced himself beside the nearest river.

Days piled into weeks and became months as Osfeo waited patiently at the water's edge, eking a meagre living from whatever passersby would cast into his bowl.  Through his constant perspection of the water rushing past his feet, he learned much about rivers that was not apparent to the cursory glance.  By noting what floated past, he deduced happenings many leagues upstream.  As well, he made progress in a number of solitary disciplines requiring ample leisure and few distractions.  But the corpses of his enemies did not fall under his gaze.

After more than a year, Osfeo began to wonder whether he had fully apprehended Master Nassal's teaching.  A few months later, still without a sign of his enemies, he reluctantly concluded that he had erred in interpreting the lesson.  Dispirited, he left the river and returned to the town where the master kept his school.

Stopping at the town gates, Osfeo went to the imprintor's booth to hear what news had transpired during his lengthy absence.  The official put aside his stamps and inks, and regaled the young man with all the noteworthy tidings since Osfeo's departure.  Osfeo was interested to find that the man's report confirmed many of the deductions he had reached from his study of the river.

But when he asked after news of his ritual enemies, the imprintor informed him that the family had some time ago fared west on a commercial expedition.  Crossing a distant river -- not that which Osfeo had sat beside -- their craft had capsized and all were lost.

Hearing this, Osfeo hurried back to Master Nassal.  "Master," he cried, "I am delighted to be able to confirm your wisdom from my own experience!"

The master nodded his acceptance.

"But if only I had stayed longer in school," Osfeo continued, "I would have learned how one goes about choosing exactly the right river."

The illumino visited the temple city of Bandimee to discourse among its college of sages and seers.  Here he found himself in colloquy with a celebrated monast of the Wu-Fen school, a system of thought which Osfeo disdained as vapid and given to overwrought conceits.

Draped in his colourful robes, and surrounded by adoring acolytes, the monast related a dream.  "In my dream, I was a blind worm burrowing in a dung-heap.  When I awoke, how could I be sure that I was a man who had dreamed himself a worm, or a worm dreaming it was a man?" The monast eyed Osfeo with a sly gaze, and concluded, "Can you resolve this conundrum, Osfeo?"

The illumino sucked his teeth and weighed his answer.  "If such a venerated scholar as yourself cannot tell whether he is a man or a blind worm, who am I to judge?" he said.

Then, seeing the glint of triumph in the eyes of the monast and his students, Osfeo went on: "But if I were you, I would definitely hope to be the worm rather than the man."

"Why?" the monast reluctantly inquired.

"Well, obviously you would be a singularly imaginative worm."

An indentor of Syaskal, having amassed a sufficient fortune, resolved one day to dedicate his middle years to the pursuit of wisdom, and sought out the illumino in his school at Khoram-in-the-Waste.

He arrived as Osfeo was conducting his morning colloquy with several new disciples, and sat in the rear of the chamber to watch and judge the worth of the sage.

One of the students approached Osfeo, knelt to make the appropriate gestures, and asked, "Master, what are the limits of the universe?"

The illumino considered for a moment, then replied, "I don't know."

The student thanked Osfeo and returned to sit with the others.  The indentor was puzzled.

Another disciple approached.  "Master," she inquired, "what is the ultimate purpose of existence?"

Osfeo looked at her with an austere kindliness.  "I don't know," he said.

Now the indentor was stirred by annoyance as the student thanked Osfeo and was replaced by a third disciple, who asked, "Master, what is the nature of time?"

"I don't know," said Osfeo. 

"Thank you," said the disciple.

"It is what I am here for," rejoined the sage.

The disciple bowed and all the company retired from the chamber to contemplate Osfeo's answers.  But the indentor remained to confront the sage.

"Fraud!" he accused.  "These younglings come to you for enlightenment, but you deliver them not the least glimmer!"

"On the contrary," was the answer, "I have given them invaluable instruction."

"It is obvious," declared the indentor, "that you have taught them nothing."

"That is not so," said Osfeo, "but the fact that you say it makes it obvious that I cannot teach you anything."

The indentor departed and eventually purchased a place among a cloister of idiosophists, with whom he was content.  Osfeo continued to dispense enlightenment to an appreciative few.

The illumino settled in the town of Gephrire, by the River Tilesaar, to serve the spiritual needs of the inhabitants.  In the spring of his second year there, the townspeople came to him one night, full of fears and dread.

"Wise one," they cried, "we have seen the river rising at a rate never before known.  Surely a great flood will soon break upon us, and all that we own will be lost."

"We must flee for our lives," said Osfeo.

"But then we will be destitute, unable even to provide for your own esteemed self," said the people.

"In that case," said the sage, "we must defeat the river.  We must raise the dykes to twice their present height."

"It cannot be done," the people lamented.  "We lack time."

"It can be done, because it must be done," replied the seer, and lapsed for a moment into thought.  When the moment had passed, he leapt to his feet and declared, "I have it!  You require an inspiration.

"Accordingly," Osfeo continued, "I shall mount the highest tower on the town walls, there to remain through night and day, until the dykes are raised."

And, when the Gephrirites arose the following dawn, they saw the form of the illumino silhouetted against the morning sun, his arm extended in a gesture that silently urged them to their struggle.

Heartened by his determination, all Gephrire ran to the river's edge and there performed prodigies of labour throughout the heat of the day and the chill of the night.  For three days they toiled without cease or rest, men, women and children, the wealthy and the mean as one, to raise an earthen wall against the river.  And always, whenever they cast their eyes to the town walls, there stood inspiration, arm ever extended, summoning them to a desperate effort.

Then, late on the third day, the flood came rushing down the Tilesaar, thickly brown and thrashing with torn-up trees and bloated cattle.  The torrent crashed against the stones and earth of the dykes, lapping almost to the top -- but the barrier held.

Tired beyond endurance, the Gephrirites sent up a cheer for their deliverance, and straggled back to the town to praise the one who had given them the strength to prevail.  But, when they climbed to the tower, they found not Osfeo, but a rough wooden effigy garbed in his oldest robe and hat.

Incomprehension gave way to rage, and the people rushed to his house, only to find the sage at leisure in his garden.  They set upon him with harsh recriminations and threats of worse to come.

The illumino assumed a position of vantage in the top of a tree by the garden wall, and sought to reason with his flock.

"Were you not inspired to do what must be done?" he demanded of them, and they admitted the truth of this.

"Then what does it signify that I was not with you in the flesh, when I was with you in spirit?"

But the Gephrirites were not inclined to Osfeo's view, and began to hurl stones from his garden at him, causing the sage to conclude that they were not yet worthy of his wisdom.  He moved from the tree to the top of his wall, and thence to the street, by which he departed Gephrire.

The townspeople advertised for a less erudite divine and felt themselves well served by the hierophant who accepted the incumbency.  Osfeo took up residence in Drom, where sophisticated hylotheism is better appreciated.

The sage wasconducting arcane researches in the metropolis of Nendigo, and had taken rooms in the quarter near to the Bibliodrome.  Each morning he would depart his lodgings at precisely the same hour, and follow precisely the same route to his academic labours.

A large and ill-tempered woman who dwelt in a house a few streets away had conceived a strong dislike for the illumino, the cause of which she did not make clear.  However, it became her daily habit to fling from her window whatever slops and ordure had accumulated in the night, at precisely the moment he passed. 

Seeing the sage so regularly splashed with muck and mire each morning, one of the neighbours at length asked him why he did not take action against the termagant, or at least alter his route or schedule.

The illumino replied, "That is not the way  these things are done."

And so the daily affront to his person continued for some weeks, until the woman seldom bothered to glance out the window before jettisoning her contempt upon him.

But it happened one day that Osfeo's progress was delayed by several hundred Asepsites making their annual procession to a local shrine.  The sage waited until the militant monks had passed his door before following along behind.  He took the occasion to admire their spotless white habits, and to reflect upon their fanatical adherence to outward cleanliness as a mark of inner worth.

At precisely the moment the sage would have passed beneath, the woman let fly from her window, drenching the Asepsite abbot in unmentionable filth.  Moments later, a few score brawny monks entered the harridan's premises and impressed upon her the weight of their disapproval.

The next day, skirting the rubble of the woman's house, Osfeo encountered the well-meaning neighbour.  "You see," he told the man, "you just have to know how these things work."

His school at Toch Meevie having been closed by a narrow-minded clique among the ruling polyarchy, Osfeo went west into Carbingdon, and became to that god-rich land a purveyor of enlightenment and used deities.

His progress brought him in time to the city of Wal, where he soon attracted the attention of the fuglemen.  The sage was brought before these sharp-eyed officers and instructed to display his wares.

"I have a fine selection of small gods and petty numens," he told them, "each commanding its particular sphere of power.  As well, I offer a very good line in general enlightenment."

The fuglemen were drawn largely from the mercantile guilds, and knew to a groat the value their citizens placed on the exercise of religion.  They quickly inspected the illumino's inventory, cannily rejecting depleted demiurges and patron spirits of obsolete arts and mechanistries.  When the culling was done, they were left with a handful of deities dedicated to various particulars.

"These seem serviceable," they agreed.  "Let us chaffer for terms."

Osfeo bowed and declared that any of the gods might be acquired for a few minims each, but that enlightenment would cost not less than ten myriads of the Walis' major currency.

At this the portly bursar snorted.  "You seek to abuse our naivete," he said.  "By grossly undervaluing these present deities, while demanding an outrageous fortune for some nebulous mental state, you would blind us to the true goods and bleed us of our pelf.  You would have us pay dearly for an 'enlightenment' which doubtless consists of a few time-worn homilies and tatterdemalion revelations."

"My prices are as they are, and unalterable," replied the sage.

"Hah!" said the bursar.  "Then know that you have matched wits with the fuglemen of Wal and found us one too many for you.  We shall take your entire stock of deities at the price stipulated.  The enlightenment you may retain for yourself."

Osfeo bowed again, but cautioned that some of the gods were captious, and that each was jealous of all the others.  He recommended that they choose but one.

The fuglemen were not swayed.  "The bargain is struck!" they cried, and bore away the various effigies and icons, casting a few coins at the sage's feet.  Osfeo bowed a final time and withdrew to an inn beyond the city wall, there to pass a few days in contemplation.

The fuglemen of Wal, meanwhile, installed their new deities in a street of derelict temples, and invited the people to use them in exchange for substantial donatives.  Incited by novelty and individual aspirations, the Walis did so in great numbers, and the fuglemen saw the civic coffers swell.

Now, the gods Osfeo had supplied to Wal were a varied assortment.  Some commanded aspects of the weather; others had taken as their provinces the human passions of rage, lust and avarice; yet others tendered general services in return for strenuous acts of devotion from their adherents.  Most had been long out of service; all were eager to put their powers and potencies into practice.

And, as the sage had warned, each was mindful of its perceived precedence over the others, and quick to take umbrage.  So it was not long after the temple opened that Wal was visited by the first in a series of unfortunate outcomes, when a petitioner of the god Dezmajk failed to wash his elbows thoroughly before entering the sanctum.

Scarcely had Dezmajk's floodwaters subsided, than the goddess Inana-yon was pleased to broaden the blessing asked by one devotee, and apply it to the population at large.  The ensuing frenzy of eroticism took days to extinguish itself.

The god Ghanfo, piqued at Inana-yon's display of power, ordained that her saturnalia would be succeeded by his wave of holy violence.  Fortunately, the Walis were so enervated by their exertions in service to the lusty goddess that fatalities were few.

Other deities now joined in the contest, each glad to demonstrate a potency or attribute, all combining to enliven the city with a synergy of wonders and marvels.  At the end of the third day, the surviving fuglemen managed to escape from the wreckage of Wal and fled to the inn, where they roused Osfeo from his meditations.

"We require you to take back that which you sold us," they said.

The illumino bowed.  "I must confess that I am unable to return your money, having spent it for my accommodation at this hostelry.  And it is much more difficult to confine a god -- even a minor one -- than to set it at liberty.  But I am willing to recoup what you have bought."

A glimmer of suspicion showed in the bursar's haggard eyes.  "So," he told his colleagues, "now we come to the cusp of his stratagem.  He will extort an onerous fee to reclaim the gods."

"Not so," said Osfeo.  "I will recover them without charge."

"Then we are blessed," exclaimed the fuglemen, seeing their deliverance.  "And we have learned a lesson: Wal will traffic no more in deities and numens."

"Oh," said the sage, "in that case, you owe me the ten myriads."

Osfeo experienced a need for guidance in the conduct of his business affairs.  He resolved that he would take for his source of counsel the first person he met on the way to market.  But the first individual he encountered was a well known madman.

"A resolution is a resolution," said the sage, and approached the fellow where he squatted in the dust, gesticulating at phantoms.  "How may I gain wealth?" he inquired. 

"Cawbers," said the madman, naming a staple vegetable of low value and near universal availability.  Osfeo went off and spent all his money to buy a storehouse full of cawbers.  Soon after, a great blight destroyed all the cawbers in the fields, and the value of the illumino's holdings multiplied many fold.

He went back to the madman.  "How may I gain more wealth?" he asked.

But the loon mistook the sage for a demon and struck him senseless with a stone.  Osfeo toppled bleeding to the ground, where he was found by a kindly man who took him to his home to convalesce.  Here the sage was able to perform valuable services for his benefactor, and left a few days later with his purse well filled.

The illumino went to the madman a third time.  "How may I gain yet more wealth?" he asked. 

"Howl at the stars," was the reply.

That night, Osfeo stepped into the street and began to howl.  His neighbours remonstrated fiercely with him, finally hurling objects to drive him away.  One of these, an ornate carboy of antique design, struck the sage on the knee.  When he examined it, he found it to be a rare piece, and traded it the next day for a considerable sum.

He was limping along to see the madman when his friends stopped him.  "Wise one," they said, "it grieves us that you place your destiny in the hands of a raver.  Can you find no better source of counsel?"

"Apparently not," said the sage, and went on his way.


Matthew Hughes

I'm writing fantasy and science fiction, often in a Jack Vance mode.