Author: David Barber
These days visitors were few. The slim guidebook mentioned the Palace of the Red Emperors, famed once, but felled by an earthquake and never rebuilt; also the market, where travellers of discernment might purchase items from ages lost; a broken radio, wrist clocks, a set of X-ray plates.
His guide, who called himself Jamshidi, seemed friendly enough, though sly. He led Masterson through the marketplace, waving away stall-holders and dismissing their wares as fakes.
All fakery, he insisted, and vowed to show Masterson the real thing. Doubtless, he had deals with select vendors to recommend them to the outworlder.
“Very delicate,” the merchant began, proffering an ancient light bulb at a price so trifling it would mean robbing himself and depriving his children.
“Very rare,” he added, though a dozen more lay on his stall.
Masterson towered over them both. The outworlder radiated good health and common sense. “And why would I want this?”
Jamshidi and the merchant exchanged glances. “To remember your visit.”
“All recorded.” Masterson tapped his head where the implant was.
His guide’s gold-toothed smile faded.
Perhaps the merchant was less perceptive, or more optimistic. He angled a nameless data disc so that interference patterns chased colours across its surface.
“Like magic,” he said.
The outworlder raised an eyebrow. “You know about magic?”
Afterward, Jamshidi took him aside. “I see you are not here for ruins and trinkets. There is a place of magic the guidebook does not mention. It has a reputation.”
Masterson gave a disinterested shrug; anything more would inflate the price. He would ask about the reputation later.
They perched on local beasts, long-legged and imperious.
“I visit a desert and get sea-sick,” laughed the outworlder as their mounts swayed and lurched across the sands towards an ancient walled building.
Jamshidi pulled at the bell-rope. “The sorcerer will have sensed our coming. If he approves, the gates will…”
The gates opened a little and they squeezed through. An ancient fellow in a threadbare brown cowl greeted them and they followed him down long dim corridors.
Jamshidi translated. “He says his master bids you welcome.”
“Tell him I’m paying for real magic,” Masterson said. “Not card tricks.”
His guide blinked in puzzlement. “Real magic, yes. This apprentice will take you. I shall wait behind because of the risk.”
“Magic wastes the flesh of those that use it, using them in return.” Jamshidi lowered his voice. “This fellow here is younger than you.”
Masterson glanced uneasily at the apprentice’s gaunt features.
“You know Jamshidi, I think…”
“His master will already have begun; at much cost to himself. You cannot just leave.”
At last, something Masterson understood. He drew himself to his full height. “I’d like to see them stop me.”
“Magic also makes its users cruel. I fear a spell would be cast against you. I have witnessed dreadful things.” He shrugged. “Perhaps this fellow can be bribed to forget you.”
“The sorcerer would need your true name. Have we used your true name?”
“I… I don’t think so.”
“Then distract this fellow with money and go.”
“What about you?”
“You already spoke my name.”
Masterson held out banknotes but the man barely glanced at them. He studied the outworlder’s anxious face. In the end, Masterson flung them down and fled back the way they came.
The monk did not understand.
“Outworlders,” Jamshidi said, as he gathered up the money. “They do not comprehend the Godly life.”
He considered almsgiving, and felt pleasantly virtuous. Yes, perhaps the next timed he brought traveller to the hallowed monastery at Isfahan.