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SHAZRAD: City of Veils
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TALAAL YBIZA

A character created and played by Owen Gjertsen.


Appearance

"Why--Yeeka's milk, why--WHY does this guy not shut up?" That's what I was thinking to myself, you know. "What a mouth on him!" Looks, yai, I was too busy trying to shut out the noise to look at him. Pretty normal, I guess. Middle-aged. Thirties. Maybe forties. Hard to say. Definitely weathered a bit by time. I mean, he had some wiry muscles, but dark...and a lot of wrinkles and that little belly... Definitely past his prime. A little on the short side, maybe two or three stones shorter than you. Dirty... you know, the sort of dirty which pretty much seals it that the guy doesn't get many opportunities to groom himself. I'm not saying I'm not sorry for him, I'm just saying that with that sort of look about you I sort of doubt you got a home to go to. No body hair to speak of, but dirt, you know. Not even on his chest. Did I mention he was barechested? Yeah, that's why I say he had some sort of muscles long ago. You could tell, on his back. He used to be a lot more built, but he took a fall sometime, that's what I think. Hair all matted and straight back from the scalp, like some kind of storm. At least it wasn't long. Have you seen them whatsits? Imans of Khybuz? Hair all down their back. Nasty.

I'd say he had a pretty wild crazy in his eyes, but maybe I'm jumping to conclusions. I mean, I don't think I could yell like that if I tried. Big jaaz mouth, that's for sure. It's not like his eyes were bugging out or anything... No, creepier than that, they were just... He was just staring into the distance, nonchalant. He was just, you know, standing there screaming. Hands at his sides, leisurely as could be, head up to the sky, feet planted firmly on the ground. Oh yeah, no shoes. But he didn't seem the sort that would, you know. Poor, sure, but severe too. Like, simple leather belt, old dun pants, maybe some sort of rag around his arm. Like, not a care in the world except he had to scream for ten minutes, like that was the most important thing.

Oh and the dog! He had a dog...at least I think it was his. Black, jackal-like thing. Slunk like a cat, or a rat, didn't stand like most of the dogs you see in the markets. Bone-thin, you could see the bones poking out all over. But it wasn't about to keel over. That dog knew what it was doing. Mangy, shifty, head always low and mean. Kept looking up at people, right in the eye. I swear, it had human eyes. You know, you could see the whites. Freaky, made it look like it was about to speak all the time. But it didn't make a sound, didn't even howl along with its master. I suppose it was with him, although aside from proximity and just general weirdness there was nothing to suggest that.



Background

"Some call me 'the tongue,' and it is little wonder. My brozer Azif has even gone so far as to suggest that I am a tongue dreaming I am a man. It is possible. My tongue is certainly the most noticable thing about me, and it is the source of all my joy and all my shame. My story is the story of my tongue, and, Enstarrah, when my tongue ends so shall I."

Talaal Ybiza has something modern medicine might diagnose as Tourette's Syndrome, or Tourette's plus complications. In Shazrad, he is generally considered somewhat insane, although sometimes considered prophetic. Here is how it manifests. His tongue moves much faster than he, has a sort of wit of its own. It is nearly always running, taking words and ideas and turning them inside out, regurgitating conversations, voicing thoughts and unconscious grumbles alike.

But! It does not always run the same way. Sometimes it is content to burble almost inaudibly, other times it demands a scream. It does not always speak Drakash. Sometimes it is a low intimidating grumble making dire predictions. Sometimes it is a song, half-familiar to those who hear it, sometimes a poem, or a poem backwards. At other times it spills forth with incredibly relevant conversation, or remarkably glib lies, and Talaal gets to (if only momentarily) bask in the glow of being understood, accepted, believed.

And there was a time--not so long ago though it seems like ages to Talaal--when his tongue was usually of this sort. He was a poet, and a man of esteemed wit and charm. His tongue spilled forth witticisms and bon mots and odes of breathtaking beauty. He was a figure that was rising through the ranks of the House of the Thousand Tales, and not without reason. His songs exalting Shazrad were sung from every street. Inevitably, this tongue also gained a reputation more physical in nature, for Talaal had "quite a way with the ladies." Rumors that he sometimes burst into gibberish, or into screaming, were dismissed as jealousy.

This tongue, the good tongue -- which had audiences reeling in laughter, or swooning in passion, or otherwise flicked and flitted the broad expanse of human emotion about as if it were a cherry stem -- revisits rarely these days, and always it seems for far far too short a time. The ground won by the occasional deftly excecuted greeting is more often than not relinquished by the growls and yips that follow. Or even if for one whole night he finds himself able to perfectly deceive and impress every person he comes across, the same people will the following morning only spit at him as he finds himself unable to avoid screaming and screaming and screaming.

What happened to the Tongue of old, the silver tongue, the rascal? He serenaded the wrong official's wife, or barked up the wrong tree somewhere. Some say it was Shazrad herself he offended, others say it was the House of the Starborn Word, upset at his pretentions at prophecy. It could have even been just bad luck, if you beleive in such things. Whatever the cause, the result is the same. He stepped (or was pushed, thrown, what have you) from one Veil to the next, and although the same shops were on this side and that, he left the silver of his tongue on the other side, and emerged screaming uncontrollably.

The real rub of the situation is that his friends and even family on this side say, eyes downcast, that this is how it has always been. They all give him piteous looks when he tries to explain what obviously comes across as a new chapter of a lifetime of mad rambling. And so forth in all aspects of his life. Instead of the notable position his brother Azif had obtained with the aid of Talaal's tongue, Azif here sold baubles half-successfully. His songs are sung here, some of them, but slightly, unexplainably different. Some are missing entirely, others exist in changed form. Talaal would have given up, believed like everyone else that his old charmed life was a delusion, were it not that in his dreams (and occasionally in reality) he was still that glib devil.


Azif

His brother, for instance: in this world and in the world of his past, his younger brother Azif was the only family he had left. But whereas in the silver-tongued world of Talaal's prosperity, Azif more or less revered his clever, successful, charming brother...Azif the bauble-merchant feels at least as much anger and resentment as affection towards Talaal. All his life, and especially since the death of their parents, Azif has had to try to keep Talaal out of trouble: a difficult task given that Talaal was extremely adept at getting into trouble at the drop of a hat. Certainly, Azif loves poor Talaal in his way, and would be/has been the first to defend him against jeers and bullies. But Talaal has been as much of a burden to this Azif as he was a dream-granter to the Azif of the old world.

In public, Azif wants nothing to do with Talaal, and screams at him to leave his sight at once during business hours. However, if Talaal can keep his mahkat at low volumes, Azif will agree to see him some nights, and even pass on a few coins (generous, given how few he makes) to help his big brother along. Indeed, if a month went by without these covert talks, Azif would almost certainly worry.

Talaal makes friends from time to time, but none are as dependable or forgiving as Azif, who can slough off the foulest of insults that Talaal's mahkat may hurl at him. He may be frustrated with Talaal almost every minute he is with him, but he does his best to help.


Names and the charity of others

In the more chaotic and run-down areas of the City (read, those areas that Talaal is tolerable), Talaal is somewhat well-known. This is not to say he knows many of the people in these areas, or they him. His voice and reputation precede him. He is called by most merely "Almakhat"--"the tongue" and by some (mostly those who regard him with superstitious fear) "Uredji Mahkat,"-- "Afflicted Tongue." There are dozens of other lesser-used nicknames for him ranging from the crude to the curious, but for someone to call him "Talaal" is rarest yet. Even those who he befriends (usually such relationships are built on him amusing them, or else them pitying him, rather than some sort of solid bond) often use some nickname, never inquiring.

Many will give him a coin or a laugh or a pardon, but it takes a special sort of charity to actually talk to him person-to-person rather than to regard him as an entertaining performing animal. Deaf-mutes (and there are a few, almost always amongst the wretched) tend to enjoy his company, fascinated and perhaps sympathetic to his affliction. Many vendors and merchants are friendly to him, but not everyday friendly, not too friendly. They tell him in their undertones. "You must understand, I run a business here. I'm sorry. I twist your wrist and push you through the threshold now, okay? Come back after dark, I have something for you then." Or priests tell him, in their firm and pious way, "there are so many among the wretched, and you, child, are among the most capable. I hope you slept well, but now you must allow another this space. Enstarrah, go well."


Mutmaat

For a game that so transparently speaks of the machinations of class warfare, Mutmaat cuts through class lines astonishingly well. The idle rich, the sophisticated, play Mutmaat with pieces of contrasting colors of precious stones and rare minerals, else exotic woods from distant shores. To win at Mutmaat, to them, shows culture, grace, and status. Interestingly, on the other side of the coin, playing on their grandfathers' reed boards, else with pieces made from painted stones and string, are the wretched. In-between these extremes, there are certainly Mutmaat players and even Mutmaat masters... but in-between these extremes, people generally are occupied with work.

But the sultans in their towers and the wretched in their garrets both have the time... for certain, the leisure time of the rich varies in many ways from the despondent time of the disenfranchised, but so too varies their Mutmaat game. In general, those among the elite who choose to play Mutmaat are better schooled, have scrolls and mentors to enhance their strategy and understanding of the game (to say nothing of a life's experience of actually telling servants where to move and when in order to attain greater power). In general, however, they have a hundred thousand entertainments to select from, and as a result few have the dedication to devote themselves to Mutmaat. The wretched, on the other hand, while often shorter of mind and without schooling to speak of, have few things as entertaining as a game of Mutmaat. Of course, many among the wretched do not find it entertaining in the least, or are too short of logic or patience for its strategy, but for those who do choose to play, some of them play for upwards of ten or twelve hours a day.

Talaal is not one of these, the super-dedicated. However, he does play often, for he finds it relaxes his tongue, and besides, the Mutmaat players are on a whole kinder and sharper than the rest of the wretched. Talaal's mind, of course, is one of the sharpest of all among the wretched, even if his tongue obfuscates this fact more often than it confirms it. He has a very good mind for Mutmaat's sort of strategy: planning ahead, second-guessing, logic. And best of all, his tongue cannot interfere. He is certainly not the best Mutmaat player in the Shazrad slums, but he has likely played the best (having no board and pieces of his own, he plays whoever is willing) and held his own. It is one of his favorite pastimes, and it is often during a Mutmaat game that he thinks (and talks) the clearest. Some part of his subconscious seems to think (insofar as his voice keeps him up-to-date on what's going on in his subconscious) that Mutmaat--the Mutmaat board and pieces--somehow hold a key to his riddles.



Personality

Talaal is fundamentally unhappy; haunted by dreams of his former glory, he cannot help but agree with everyone around him and label himself "freak," "afflicted," "unwanted." As a result, he is sullen and not much in the mood for socializing (although his tongue sometimes pulls him into conversations). He tries to avoid attention, but in the not-unusual circumstance that he has attracted it, he resignedly gives in to whatever linguistic fits his tongue demands. His humor is caustic and self-depreciating. His tone is erratic, but usually either frustrated or despondent.

He would love to regain the tongue that once served him so well, although his resentment for his tongue's influence on his life grows by the day. Curiously, he has gained somewhat of a monastic appreciation for the simple things that are available to him. He does not desire a return to rooms lined with velvet pillows, or perfumes and fine silks, or exotic game broiled for dinner. He merely seeks a return to the company of humankind, for few now extend their friendship to him. He harbors doubts, though, that it would any longer be enjoyable to him, for he is not entirely fond of his prior self.

He angers at injustice, especially the cruelties of the rich, although these moral qualms have recently arisen in response to his own situation. In his life as a smooth-talker, he was worse than most at ignoring those beneath him. He is well aware of this, and part of his self-depreciating humor stems from his shame at remembering the immoral abandon with which he lived his charmed days. If someone was to confront him with the fact that he is easily a better person now despite his worsened condition, he might agree, but would draw little satisfaction from the realization.

He is very suspicious of people--the higher ranked, the more his suspicion. In his post at the House of the Thousand Tales, he was privy to a lot of the secrets of the powerful. A few of these secrets it was his job to voice, but most of them it was his job to bury. It is likely that not all these secrets hold true post-fall (some of the people involved plain don't exist here), but he still carries a healthy streak of skepticism.

He doesn't care much for himself, for his own life, but he is not without passion. He loves Shazrad as much as the most loyal subject, and would unflinchingly die to defend his home. He is also intensely loyal when it comes to friends: his brother, certain other afflicted and unfortunate souls, and various understanding members of his immediate community. He would go to great lengths to help those who have helped him, or even taken the time to listen. He is also gaining an affection for his constant, silent companion, and although he never sought to own a dog, he would be very upset if he lost it.

He is very clever, even if his words do not follow his plans every time, and he is attentive to what makes people tick. He has a knack for figuring out what people want, what will anger them and what will make them acquiesce. Unfortunately, more often than not, the path he sees has to do with words, which usually he is unable to voice.

Oh, he is a firm beleiver in the power of words. A zealot, even, who has performed character assassination with a libelous phrase, turned public opinion with a leaked secret, and won hearts with blank verse. He is thusly more afraid of words, his own and otherwise, than he is of swords. He has respect for skilled orators, and worries about the content of speeches.



Introduction

I

The sun was low over the skins, cloths, and roofs of the Bazaar, sending fractured amber beams across at Talaal, cornered in a corner. He was not certain how he had agreed to sit here and converse -- he was, after all, a potentially disastrous conversationalist. The last place he had expected to find himself was exchanging religious riddles with a priest -- but for now, for now, his makhat was actually behaving.

The priest was a narrow-faced woman with far too much laughter in the wrinkles around her eyes. "The candles go out one by one," she intoned in a voice usually reserved for errant acolytes, "yet one eye remains open. The candles return one by one, yet all eyes are closed." She paused thoughtfully, then added, "Except those of the Lightfoot Cats. What is your answer, O wanderer, O river of words?"

"My answer?" A pause, to swallow, for there was much that wanted to come up. These sorts of words: "romancer laughster candleabracadaver trickwicky sunnymoon." Words that slid across the surface of his tongue but for now did not spill over. Words that still swam.

"With all due respect to your calling, Sister -- missedherlosther -- I don't worry about answers anymore. Questions, now they intrigue me. And riddles. I thank you for this one. twothreefour." He quickly turned his eyes to his right hand in hope that his tongue would be content to stop. "...five." Silently, he recounted his digits, counted on both hands up to nine (his left had been less lucky), divided by three, subtracted three. Having quelled his counting, he stole a nervous glance at the thugs walking two-by-two towards him. The dog kept its gaze trained on the priest, who was nodding almost imperceptibly, as if pleased at Talaal's nonanswer.

Talaal found Crescent Sword guardsmen were becoming very predictable. An older guard, he found, was far more likely to show him mercy and understanding. It was unclear whether this was because the older guards were more experienced and more compassionate, or simply more weary and more deaf to his constant din. This generalization had proven true in encounter after encounter. He had a run-in with them nearly every day: he'd be running on, and they'd come running in.

The priest emitted a low chuckle as the two astonishingly young guards drew to a halt beside them, and Talaal realized in shame that he had once again been narrating the scene out loud. He clamped shut his mouth and looked down at his feet, watching the sandals of the Crescent Sword patrol stop aside them, watching the dog scurry out from underfoot. They paused to stand opposite the setting sun, burning wing-halos at their backs, shadows falling heavy across Talaal and the priest. "Salaam, Sister" said the taller of the two, giving a pathetic, parasitic salute.

"Salaam, Sister," echoed the shifty, shorter one. "Is this Uredjaal giving you trouble?" He did not even cast an eye down at Talaal as he spat out the word. This particular young ruffian didn't know Talaal. He was basing his slur on the yellowed card that Talaal wore about his neck -- his explanation, his excuse -- "Uredji," it read. Afflicted. An "Uredjaal" was one afflicted with leprosy in specific, but it was clear that this particular guardsman had no qualms with making this semantic leap. There was after all no word for Talaal's ailment.

"Salaam, honorable sahipi," said the priest, not answering nor looking at them. Her gaze was fixed on Talaal's mouth, on his golden gobbling melodic mahkat, as if to discern its malady, unlock its secrets. Open it, and find the pearl. And sure enough, the silence could not last. Talaal met her eyes and opened his mouth.

"Trouble? Me? Us?" He gestured between himself and the priest, as if to suggest that they were above such trifles as trouble. But trouble indeed stirred mutinously just beneath his own tongue "Unlikely, don't you think? stink stick stareyes fourfive?" He closed his eyes and tried to imagine his hand, his right hand, lest he try to count the eyes of the Lord, but could only see a clenched fist. "Sicks kiss kick kill..." He dared to look into their faces, flashed them his most reassuring smile, hoping they'd see the good teeth and not the stew of words beneath.

"No troublemaker I, young sirs. Muddlebaker sungyours! The Sister and I were just conjurereverse convergecon -- talking -- about...about." He tried to think of what they had been talking about, but a nervous wave of words overtook the riddle, "deathallsortsof the lighthouse! And me and windupsong souls... and dusk and youngtongueyellingtellher not speaking notspeakingabout..." He was madly trying to avoid something that lurked on the edge of his tongue, something vastly poisonous. Don't say it, Talaal. Swallow! Swalaal it! Don't... say "... the babble bitter bitbat blindness of the fallacying all-seethrough all-seasoned God."

He hadn't said it... He had nearly screamed it. Both guards drew in a sharp intake, and both looked from Talaal (whose earthquake was followed by underbreath aftershocks: "Stabbing I God! Flightfootcataract!") to the priest, who definitely seemed to be smirking, her eyes on his ever-moving lips. "All these things and more too riddleinthemuddle probably don't you think all at once?" Talaal's eyes tried to hide his panic at the explosion, to pretend that there was nothing strange about this last outburst; his tongue tried to return to casual conversation. He grasped for the thread of it. "The way it goes, the clockwork. Once. The beginning of all stories. Once. Up. On. Don't you think? New story: She's got as many tongues as there are stairs in the sky so so so she can't help it vainverdigris viscissitude revealing... veiling words behind words behind words."

"The Uredjaal blasphemes!" burst the shorter man, blood in his face. The exclamation had clearly been building inside him since the comment about the blindness of God. "His wagging tongue would spit upon Our Lord!" His wild looks pleaded to the authority of the priest, his hairy hand on the peace knot of his scimitar. But his shadow and his words alike fell over her unheeded; she looked up for neither. It may have been a trick of the light, but her grin seemed to have grown wider.

"Swords behind swords thus is the way of the notpeaceunravel world... words are likely like me love me like that, like stacks like racks stretch me! -- they..." Talaal felt the words welling behind his voice, and struggled to release them in the correct order. Like a garden swarmed with scorpions, he knew that there were many possible missteps. He had this regrettable tendency: to concoct sacrilege most swift in the company of a priest, to slip words of pain and punishment into conversations with Crescent Sword patrols. Because of this tendency, he had been in stocks, in jail, injured and interred -- he supposed he was lucky that his only his left pinky, and not his whole hand (or more appropriately tongue) had been lost to the chopping block of Hamuad-code justice.

But as he opened his mouth again he realized "stretch" was not a rebound on his palette, but on the right track after all: "They stretch see wordsworlds? To fit to size like wineskins skeinwise sidewinds and like a dream of the heat beatme! Mememiasma -- they are never exactly where you see them seething seemstress seawhat drowning..." a gasp for air, eyes rolled up to the roof and further. "dowryring"

The guards looked back and forth in confusion and anger, the short one especially demonstrating a short fuse to match his stature. But Talaal's tongue continued to fling the words out -- the right words even, in some sense. "See, you see, they are betides, they ebb and flow! And they are salt water tears hearme salteaters tearing me! Drink something else or you'll die of thirst! Reversed! Rehearsal! Kill me! Poke it in!" He let out a pained yip-howl and gnashed at his tongue.

"Sister, the blasphemer has confessed and wishes punishment. Listen to him." The shorter guard pleaded in his most reasonable and authoritative tone. He had overhastily undone his peace-knot, clearly anticipating inflicting whatever pain the Priest deemed appropriate on Talaal's form -- itself already wracked with the overflow of words.

"Salty allseaing! Seabound gagging! Nourishpunishspent! Split me! Right foot category ... awash in drag God..." The words came slower now, in staccato bursts that threw his head forward and back like violent sneezes. "gobblingholding olden ham... stabbing stubborn worse... the owls entail..." He had lost it. Whatever uncertain path his words had been following -- a circular path, it seemed, self-descriptive and tightening like a noose about his throat -- had been lost and now there was room only for the echoes trailing off, his verbal razing of the Houses, with one to go: "cessant...words."

There followed a silence and a still, heavy and awkward. Talaal, gulping salty words, looked down at the dog. The dog looked at the priest. The priest looked at Talaal. The guards were outside of the burning triangle of scrutiny -- had come too late for the game, were fourth and fifth wheel to this medja-cart -- and were clearly a little rattled by it. The sun burned across at them, freezing the tableau in its perfect horizontal beam.

"Sister?" broached the taller guard, worried at her refusal to answer his partner. He looked fearfully at Talaal's wicked mahkat, as if the source of the spill was instead the spell of a sorceror. Finally, the priest blinked, broke off her gaze, cracked her neck on one side with an audible pop and looked up to regard the anxious guards who stood between she and the Sun. They looked pleased that someone was finally yielding them the attention they deserved. Her eyes traveled languidly from their faces to their feet, and back. Then she turned wordlessly back to Talaal and flicked her wrist over her shoulder, waving them off without a second glance.

Shocked, they straightened, reddened, and the shorter one hurriedly tied the peace-knot back. But they did not leave. Another heavy moment. "You may leave us, sahipi." the priest uttered, each word fully a command of its own, and with a huff they turned and did exactly that. Talaal felt a pressure leave his world as they stalked off, griping to each other about respect.

In Talaal's head, candles lit and went out, and a sun spun into a golden band, but breath came easier, and his mouth was remarkably empty of words. He knew he should be grateful to this smiling priest for not turning him over to the myrmidons, for humoring his word tangle, perhaps even for untangling it. He had been lucky. Priests, like soldiers, had varying patience for him, especially when he ungraciously mangled the One God in his mumbles. But he couldn't help but notice the dog, head slunk low, regarding the Priest with undisguised mistrust. Of course, his brother had been telling him he shouldn't trust the dog. For that matter, if memory served him correctly (and there was no way of knowing if that was the case) he shouldn't really trust his brother fully either. When it came right down to it, he had a healthy share of distrust for just about everyone -- but he had some affection for the dog, who never minced words.

She waited for him to catch his breath, smiling encouragingly. She popped her neck again and continued, in the same tone, as if she were addressing a novice. "An admirable rain have you bestowed, wanderer. And now you are dry and it is my turn?" Wary, weary, he nodded his head, and her smile grew wide. "Good. If questions empty you so, perhaps answers will replenish. I have three names I would give your mahkat, but for each it has thrice thirty-three more."

Perhaps Talaal looked puzzled at this. In truth he was doing a calculation -- such numbers could keep him counting and recounting for days! She looked both ways, then bent towards him and continued in a conspiratorial hiss. "No name might hope to contain it. Each is but a facet, a possibility. As soon as it is named, it will turn and eat that name. I offer it the three names not as cages -- as you and I have names -- but as sustenance, lest it starve of silence." Talaal was not at all sure he comprehended, and was unnerved by the priest's sudden whispering, the urgency and the secrecy. It occurred to him that this did not sound like the normal Starborn dogma.

"Tell me, the Khalim's fish; you know of it?" she hissed.

Talaal nodded. The Khalim's estate was on the same avenue as the Temple of the Starborn Word, and was often criticized for its irreverent grandeur. Its marvels were public and colorful, bursting with excitement, sometimes overshadowing the pious Temple. His fish was one of the primary attractions. A large section of wall facing the avenue had been replaced with a sheet of thick wavy glass. One could see through it to a modest-sized room entirely filled with water of the brightest blue. This shocking and irresponsible use of tankards of water was the home to but one fish. But what a fish it was! Its body was lithe and large as a hyena's, and shimmered iridescent by the glow of the scores of lanterns installed beneath the tank. Where other fish sprouted fins, it sported scarves: long, gauzy sheets that danced through the water. It was hard to imagine something more exotic, more unnatural: an enormous freshwater fish of pure beauty on public display in enough water to serve the surrounding six blocks. And yet, somehow, with the ever-flowing veils languidly floating about it, Talaal had always felt as if the Khahlim's fish was a symbol of the City of Veils herself. He had himself used the metaphor more than once, but long ago in the life that he had lost; the life he had almost convinced himself was just a mirage.

The priest's whispers in his ear: "If you feed that fish, it will eat. If it is already full, it will eat. It will eat until it dies. This fish is named Insatiable Dancer, and this too is your mahkat's name."

Talaal considered this, and felt the words alight in his dry mouth. Insatiable Dancer. Intangible Answer Sensational Danger. His mouth drew wet with the possibilities. The priest cracked her lips open by his ear and spoke again.

"There is a thought we all think, whether we know it or not, when we close our eyes to rest. The thought is this: 'One is One and Many is Many. Nothing can be in two places at once. Things do not change. When I awake, sky will be above and ground beneath.' Without this thought, we think all is lost. Our thought is named Comforting Falsehood. This is also the name of your mahkat. See how easily it has shed the one for the other?"

Comforting Falsehood. Crumbling Horsehead. Mumbling Forcefed. Talaal was intensely curious now at the mysterious priest's intoxicating words, thirsty for the third name.

"Finally, there is a wonderwork of mankind, second to divine in finesse of form and mastery of function. It would be life, were it not born to serve. It has but one reason: to be an extension of the will of its maker, and it performs its duties with adroit dexterity and without complaint. Your mahkat once bore the name of this marvel, and it still carries it, deep inside." She laughed a brief laugh, overly loud in his ear. "Mayhap it is stuck in the back of your throat."

Talaal felt the closest to exultation he had felt in months. He cleared his throat, wishing that the analogy was true, that he could cough his obedient tongue back into place. But the harsh sound only made the priest straighten, as if suddenly aware that she was conspiring in daylight. She grew very nervous, looking at the position of the sun in the sky in alarm. Hastily, she whispered a few sentences more, but they weren't the ones Talaal was looking for. "I apologize, wanderer, but I have misled you. I promised answers and have given you instead another riddle. For this third name I cannot tell you. Not now. It must be... tasted."

wasted, state it, namestint!

The priest rose to her feet with a creak and a pop and looked furtively about, suddenly seeming far more concerned about patrols than she had been when faced with one. As there were none in immediate evidence, she dared a quiet valediction as the sun breathed its last into the sky. "Fare you well, o wayfarer, o new-old tongue. The Will of the All-Named be with you." But Talaal still found himself wordless as a fish, and could summon neither questions nor gratitude nor farewells for her. He weakly raised a hand, but she had dissipated between the fruit vendors, quick as a dream, the dog left sniffing at her absence.

Several words bounced around in his head, before landing on the one that sizzled. The All-Named? Oh yai, he needed this like he needed a dagger to the back. He looked around nervously and did his own disappearing act. The dog had been right in its instincts -- Talaal expected he would probably be burned at the stake for having looked at her.


II

"Good day to you, my screaming friend. How have you been?" Talaal gave a strained smile and nod back at Marud, a portly merchant. The dog, sensing a conversation was coming, found an unobtrusive place to settle by Talaal's feet. "What, ha! Tongue lost in the sand?" The merchant asked mirthfully. When all he got was another twitch in response he looked genuinely mystified, stroking his chin. "Yeeka's Milk, it is lost, is it? The one thing I never thought I'd hear from you!"

Scrunching up his forehead, Talaal parted his lips enough to let out a short hiss, then clamped them shut again.

"Oh ho!" boomed the merchant, then lowered his voice to a conspiratoral whisper. "A secret is it?"

Talaal nodded forcefully, sighed, and opened his mouth again. As softly as he could manage, he let his mouth's cargo spill forth. "Nono not really a sacredseekerstick...notreallyasecret no not exactly. I wanted to telltaletoll tell you. I'm g-g-geh...guh...gnnnnah! GOD! GOD! GOD'S EYES! SPOON THEM OU..." He threw his hands tightly over his mouth, while the merchant quickly turned from him to the passersby who had stopped, shocked, at the outburst.

"Move along, folks. He's sick, is all. Yai, MOVE! Give a man some air." Something about Marud -- perhaps his tree-trunk forearms and the way he punctuated the request by cracking both sets of knuckles -- hurried onlookers on their way.

He turned back, and leaned in close enough that Talaal grew hungry from the fowl on his breath. "You were saying? " He noticed Talaal wincing, his teeth clenched around his tongue. ""Hey now, quit that. Nothing you can say I haven't heard afore." He waited, and when Talaal remained silent and pained, tried another tactic. "Let me put it this way. Suppose you *did* spoon out God's eye? What's the big problem? He's got a couple hundred more, doesn't he?" He boomed a hearty laugh and looked to the dog as if it would also laugh to validate his heretical humor.

"I was...trying...to say. I'm getting... better." Talaal smiled a weak smile and began muttering variations on "better" in an undertone.

"Aye, I'll say. I mean, that little blasphemy was nothing next to the time you suggested..." The burly merchant looked about him, scratched the dog behind the ears, whistled through his teeth. "Well. Anyway. "

On instinct, Talaal reached out his hands to the sides of Marud's head and gently turned it so he was looking directly into the eyes of the baffled merchant. This formed in his mind the image of a perfect circle. He held the eye contact and the circle remained, its line crisp and absolute. He began speaking. His voice was hurried, but also remarkably clear and cultured. "I am getting better, my friend. Much better. Sometimes I can even manage like this, but I have no idea when it will happen or how long it will last." The merchant grunted, taken aback by this sudden clarity. "But. I have a problem, Marud. I know not if you can help, but I do not think I have ever brought you shame or offense and no one else may understand." Marud nodded slowly, slightly wary-eyed. He seemed to know that the eye contact was important, and kept his dull eyes trained on Talaal's.

Talaal drew in a sharp breath and steeled his will. His eyes were beginning to sting from not blinking. He went on, faster and quieter than before. "The All-Named have been trying to contact me. Three times in the last fortnight. I do not know why: why me or why now. I know only that it is on the tip of my tongue at all times and any moment I am going to let it slip. And also..."

"Can it be? Is it 'The Dog's Tongue,' talking like a man?" jeered a nosy young man who happened by, pointing. Marud and Talaal both looked up at him, and the perfect circle broke into a thousand shards in an instant.

"Gnnah... ROWWWRR! RWWOWRRLL!" The young man leapt back, almost colliding with an older couple, and then turned and fled, terrified. Marud began to clap.

"Bravo," he said, clapping Talaal once again on the shoulder. "Had I had my eyes closed, no one could convince me that these latest noises hadn't issued from the throat of a wild..." Talaal had turned to his friend, his face still contorted, eyes lit; his voice was a low growl, a hum.

"Easy, now." Marud gingerly removed his arm from Talaal's bony shoulder. At his side, the dog began to lick Talaal's fingers, which tickled but calmed him. After a few false starts that were still growls and yips, he managed: "I am to be prrrrrrowwwwd of this?" He put his face in his hand as the dark cloud of frustration and despair settled back in its familiar place about him.

Marud ignored the question as rhetorical and addressed Talaal again in reassuring, low tones. "Alright, here's how I see it. First of all, take this." He handed Talaal a stoppered clay jug with a simple circle glazed on the side. It was light: empty. "I want you to go out into the desert, or else maybe to someplace really really noisy, right? And then you pull out this stopper here and you yell all this stuff that you don't want anybody knowing about into the jug. Then quick as you can put the stopper back on." Talaal looked from the jug to Marud and back, dubious. Was he really expected to believe this folktale? The merchant saw the look and leaned in closer. "I know what is in your head. But I tell you, this was once a djinn jug. It's got, what you call it, special properties." He tapped the jug while nodding his head earnestly. "You trust your secrets to this here jug... Then you *bury* it, hear?" Talaal nodded. He was still skeptical, but the dog perked up its ears and sniffed at the jug, which he took as a good omen.

"If you're still having troubles after you do that, come back here, alright? I know of someone you might want to talk to."

"Marud." Talaal grasped Marud by the elbow in the military gesture called the Compatriot's Farewell. "Thank you." They regarded each other: fondly, smiling. It was a quiet moment of almost unprecedented contentment. Then it was cut short by Marud's booming laugh. He pointed over Talaal's shoulder.

"Whoops, you probably want to walk on now. That son-of-a-jackass is coming back with a few 'peace-nots' in backing him up. Looks like he's going to want you to buy him a new pair of pants after all." Only vaguely alarmed by this familiar situation, Talaal dashed off to lose himself in the crowd, followed by the silent dog and the ringing of his friend's laughter.



Read about Talaal in the archives



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