/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: The Labyrinths of Echo

The Stranger

Макс Фрай

Max Frei's novels have been a literary sensation in Russia since their debut in 1996, and have swept the fantasy world over. Presented here in English for the first time, will strike a chord with readers of all stripes. Part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy, part dark comedy, the writing is united by a sharp wit and a web of clues that will open up the imagination of every reader.

Max Frei was a twenty-something loser-a big sleeper (that is, during the day; at night he can't sleep a wink, a hardened smoker, and an uncomplicated glutton and loafer. But then he got lucky. He contacts a parallel world in his dreams, where magic is a daily practice. Once a social outcast, he's now known in his new world as the "unequalled Sir Max." He's a member of the Department of Absolute Order, formed by a species of enchanted secret agents; his job is to solve cases more extravagant and unreal than one could imagine-a journey that will take Max down the winding paths of this strange and unhinged universe.

Contents:

Debut in Echo

Juba Chebobargo and other nice folks

Cell No. 5-OW-NOX

The Stranger

King Banjee

Victims of Circumstance

Journey to Kettary


Chapter 1 Debut in Echo

YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU’LL LUCK OUT. TAKE IT FROM ONE WHO knows. For the first twenty-nine years of my life, I was a classic loser. People tend to seek (and find) all manner of excuses for their bad luck; I didn’t even have to look.

From earliest childhood I couldn’t sleep at night. As soon as morning rolled around, though, I slept like a lamb. And as everyone knows, this is exactly the time when they hand out the lucky tickets. Each morning at dawn, fiery letters spanned the horizon spelling out the most unfair of all possible proverbs, “The early bird catches the worm.” Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed!

The horror of my childhood was waiting, night after night, for the moment when my mother would tell me, “Sleep tight—don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Time seemed to drop its anchor under my blanket; endless hours were eaten away by my vain attempts to fall asleep. To be sure, there are also happy memories, of the sense of freedom that descends upon you when everyone else is asleep (provided, of course, that you learn to move around quietly and cover the traces of your secret activities).

But most tormenting of all was to be woken up in the morning right after I had finally dozed off. This was what made me despise kindergarten, and eventually all my years at school. True, I did get assigned to the afternoon shift two years in a row. For those two years, I was nearly an A student. That was my final (and only) brush with glory as a star pupil—until I met Sir. Juffin Hully, of course.

With time, not surprisingly, the habit that prevented me from merging harmoniously with polite society became more firmly entrenched. At the very moment when I was absolutely convinced that an inveterate night owl like me would never shine in a world ruled by larks, I met him. Sir Juffin Hully.

With a wave of his hand he put me at the maximum possible distance from home, and I found a job that corresponded absolutely to my abilities and ambitions: I became the Nocturnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the city of Echo.

The story of how I came to occupy this position is so curious that it deserves a space of its own. For the time being, I will limit myself to a brief account of those distant events.

I should begin by saying, I suppose, that dreaming has always constituted an important part of my existence. Waking up from a nightmare, I was always certain deep down that my life was truly in grave danger. Falling in love with a girl from a dream could easily make me break up with my real-life girlfriend (in my youth, my heart couldn’t accommodate more than one passion at a time). If I read a book in a dream, I would quote from that book to my friends as if I had read it in real life. And once, after I had a dream about a trip to Paris, I felt no compunction about claiming that I had actually been there. It wasn’t that I was liar; I simply didn’t see, nor did I understand, nor even feel, the difference.

I should add that I met Sir Juffin Hully in my dreams. Little by little, you could say, we became acquainted.

Sir Juffin could easily be taken for Rutger Hauer’s older brother. (If your imagination stretches that far, try to augment his striking image with a pair of light, slightly slanting eyes.) This effervescent gentleman, with the mannerisms and flair of an emperor of the Orient or a ringmaster in a circus, immediately won the heart of the boy I once was, the boy I remember still.

In one of my dreams we began nodding hello to each another. Soon we would chat about the weather, like regulars in a café. Such superficial banter continued for several years, when out of the blue Sir Juffin offered to help me find employment.

He announced that I had, as he put it, an extraordinary bent for magic, which I simply had to develop if I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in an asylum. He then offered his services as a coach, employer, and considerate uncle, all rolled into one. This absurd announcement was nevertheless very attractive, considering that until then I hadn’t discovered a single latent talent in myself. Even in my dreams I realized that no matter how you looked at it, my career wasn’t going anywhere. Sir Juffin, inspired by my apparent willingness, plucked me out of reality like a dumpling from a bowl of soup. Up until then, I was certain that I had been a victim of my own imagination—how strange we humans are, when all is said and done!

I will, I think, postpone the saga of my very first journey between worlds—if only because I remembered almost nothing during the earliest days of my sojourn on Echo. In fact, I couldn’t make sense of anything that had happened. Quite frankly, I suspected that it was all a protracted dream, if not a convoluted hallucination. I tried not to analyze the situation, but to concentrate on solving the problems at hand, since there seemed to be plenty of them. For a start, I had to undergo an intensive period of adaptation to my new life, for I had arrived in this World far less prepared than an ordinary newborn. From the first moments of their lives babies squall and dirty their diapers without disrupting the local traditions. But from the very first I did everything all wrong. I had to sweat like a horse before I could even pass for the village idiot.

When I found myself in the home of Sir Juffin Hully for the first time, he was absent from the premises. Indeed, being the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the Capital of the Unified Kingdom was a busy job, and my protector had been detained somewhere.

The Head Butler, Kimpa, who had strict instructions from his master to give me the red-carpet treatment, was somewhat perplexed. Until now he had welcomed only respectable people to the house.

I began my new life with a question: where to find the bathroom. Even this turned out to be a faux pas. Every citizen of the Unified Kingdom older than two knows that the bathroom facilities of every dwelling occupy the basement and are reached by a special staircase.

And my attire! Jeans, a sweater, a vest made of thick un-dyed leather, and heavy blunt-nosed boots, all succeeded in shocking the old gentleman, usually as unflappable as an Indian chieftain. He looked me up and down from head to foot for ten seconds at least. Sir Juffin swears that Kimpa hadn’t fixed his stare on anyone for so long since the day of his wedding, two hundred years before, to the now-departed Mrs. Kimpa. The result of this inspection was that he suggested I change my clothes. I didn’t object—I simply couldn’t disappoint the expectations of the old fellow with ruffled feathers.

What happened next was painfully awkward. I was given a pile of colored fabric. I bunched up these masses of formless material in my hands, damp from agitation, and blinked my eyes wildly. Luckily, Mr. Kimpa had led a long and undoubtedly colorful life. In his time he had seen many wonders, not excluding cretins like me who lacked the most rudimentary of skills. So as not to bring shame upon the good name of his “Most Venerable Master” (as he called Sir Juffin), Kimpa set to work. In ten minutes, I looked fairly presentable from the point of view of any local resident of Echo; though, in my own humble opinion, I looked and felt extremely clumsy. When I was convinced that all these drapes and folds wouldn’t inhibit my movements, and wouldn’t tumble to the floor when I took a step or two, I regained my composure.

We then undertook the next test of my nerves: dinner. In a noble gesture, Kimpa deigned to keep me company at the meal. The time was thus put to good use. Before tasting each of the dishes, I would observe the performance of my teacher. After I had scrutinized the spectacle, I attempted to put the accumulated wisdom into action; that is, I dispatched toward my mouth the corresponding utensils filled with the necessary ingredients. I even went so far as to copy the expressions on his face, just in case.

At last I was left to my own devices, and was advised to take a look around the house and gardens. This I gladly did, in the company of Chuff, a charming creature who looked like a shaggy bulldog. Chuff was my guide. Without him I would most likely have gone astray in the huge, half-empty house, and been unable to find the door that led into the dense, overgrown garden. When I reached it I lay down in the grass and finally relaxed.

At sundown the elderly butler marched ceremoniously to a diminutive, elegant shed at the end of the garden. He soon emerged from it on a small wonder of technology, which, to judge from its appearance, could only be propelled by a team of horses. Nevertheless, it moved forward on horsepower of its own. Kimpa maneuvered this contraption with a speed that, it seemed to me, corresponded to his age. (Later I learned that at one point in his long life Kimpa had been a race-car driver, and the speed at which he drove the amobiler—this was the name of the peculiar vehicle—was the maximum of its capacity.)

Kimpa was not alone when he returned: my old friend, denizen of my wondrous dreams, Sir Juffin Hully himself, was enthroned on the soft cushions of this motorized carriage.

Only then did I realize that everything that had happened had, indeed, happened. I rose to greet him, and in the same movement dropped to my knees in the grass, rubbing my eyes, my mouth hanging open in wonder. When my vision returned, I saw two smiling Sir Juffins coming toward me. With an intense effort of will, I merged them into one, pulled myself up on my feet, and even managed to close my jaw. This may have been the most courageous act of my life.

“That’s all right, Max,” Sir Juffin Hully said soothingly. “I’m not quite myself, either, and I have a tad bit more experience in these matters. I’m glad to finally make your acquaintance, body and soul!” After these words he covered his eyes with his left hand and announced solemnly: “I see you as though in a waking dream!” Then he removed his hand from his eyes and winked at me.

“This is how we make someone’s acquaintance, Sir Max. Repeat after me.”

I did as I was told. It turned out that my performance was “not bad for a start,” after which I had to repeat the whole thing about seventeen times. I felt like the dull-witted heir to a throne, for whom they finally must enlist the help of an accomplished mentor in good manners.

Alas, the training in local etiquette didn’t stop there. The fact is that Echo, from time immemorial, has been inhabited by magicians. I suspect that all Echo natives are magicians, to some degree. Luckily, exactly one-hundred fifteen years before my arrival here, the ancient rivalry between the innumerable Orders of Magicians ended in the triumph of the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover and King Gurig VII. Since then, citizens of Echo are permitted to indulge in only the simplest kinds of magic, mainly of a medicinal or culinary nature. For instance, magic is used in the preparation of kamra, a substance that serves as the local alternative to tea or coffee, and is intolerably bitter without some magic to ease the effect. A touch of magic is also useful for warding off grease from plates—a groundbreaking achievement, in my opinion!

So I simply can’t describe the sincere gratitude I feel for the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover. Thanks to their scheming intrigues that determined the course of history, I didn’t have to learn, say, the two-hundred thirty-fourth degree of White Magic—which experts consider to be the apex of human capability. I decided that as far as I was concerned, the officially permitted tricks were the limit of my meager abilities. In a sense, I am a virtuoso-invalid, not unlike the legless British flying ace, Douglas Bader. Sir Juffin insists, by the way, that my greatest virtue is that I belong to the world of wizardry, albeit not that I know how to cope with it . . .

On the evening of the first day of my new life, I stood before the mirror in the bedroom assigned to me and studied my reflection. I was wrapped up like a mannequin in the thin folds of the skaba, a long roomy tunic, and the heavy folds of the looxi, an overgarment that resembled a delightful compromise between a long raincoat and a poncho. The extravagant turban, strange as it may seem, looked very becoming on me. Maybe in this guise it was easier to preserve my equilibrium while straining to grasp just what was happening to me, for that guy in the mirror could be just about anybody in the world—except a close acquaintance of mine by the name of Max.

Chuff came up and began yapping and nudging my knee with his nose. You’re big and kind! I suddenly thought, in a voice not my own. Then I realized that the thought was not mine, but his. The intelligent dog became my first teacher of Silent Speech in this World. If I am even mildly adept at White Magic of the Fourth Degree, which includes this kind of communication, I would kindly ask you to direct all compliments toward this remarkable canine.

The days reeled quickly by. I slept away the mornings. Toward evening I got up, dressed, ate, and then hovered around Kimpa with endless questions and observations. Luckily, I was never troubled by any linguistic barriers between myself and the other residents of the Unified Kingdom—why, I don’t know to this day. All I found it necessary to do was master the local pronunciation and take note of a few new idioms, but that was just a matter of time.

My training progressed under the gentle but rigorous supervision of Kimpa, who had been entrusted with the task of making a “true gentleman out of this barbarian, born on the border of the County Vook and the Barren Lands.” Such was the “legend” of my origins for Kimpa and all the others.

It was a very cleverly concocted legend, as I now know: a true masterpiece on the part of Sir Juffin Hully, in the genre of improvised falsification. See, County Vook is the part of the Unified Kingdom most distant from Echo. These Borderlands are sparsely populated plains that gently merge into the endless, inhospitable expanses of the Barren Lands, which are not under the domain of the Unified Kingdom. Almost no one from the capital had ever been there, as there was no point in taking such a trip, one that was not without danger. Those who dwell there—the good half of whom (according to Sir Juffin) were ignorant nomads, and the rest, runaway rebel magicians—don’t lavish their praises on the capital, either.

“However quirky you may seem,” Sir Juffin Hully mused, rocking cozily in his favorite chair, “you won’t have to make any excuses for yourself. Your origins are the best explanation for anything that constitutes a blunder in the eyes of the local snobs. Take it from me: I myself arrived in the capital from Kettari, a small town in the county of Shimara. That was long ago, but they’re still expecting outlandish pranks from me. I sometimes think they feel affronted that I behave with such aplomb.”

“Excellent, Sir Juffin! Then I’ll go ahead and start acting like one right here and now!” With that I did what I had been longing to do—I snatched up a tiny warm tart from my plate, without the aid of the miniature hook that looked more like an instrument of torture from a dentist’s arsenal than silverware. Sir Juffin smiled indulgently.

“You’ll make a first-class barbarian, Max. I don’t doubt it for a minute.”

“That doesn’t bother me in the least,” I said with my mouth full. “You see, Juffin, all my life I’ve been absolutely certain that I’m fine just as I am, and that I’m immune to the consequences of a bad reputation. That is to say, I have too much self-love to trouble myself with the torments of self-doubt and the search for self-affirmation, if you know what I mean.”

“But you’re a true philosopher!”

Sir Juffin Hully seemed to be quite satisfied with me.

Let me return to describing my studies. My passion for the printed word had never been as useful to me as it was during those first days. At night I devoured books by the dozens from Sir Juffin’s library. I learned about my new surroundings, at the same time grasping the idiosyncrasies of the locals and cramming my head full of colorful turns of phrase. Chuff tagged along at my heels and was fully engaged in my schooling for he gave me lessons in Silent Speech. Evenings (the middle of the day, by my personal clock), I reported to Sir Juffin. He kept me company at dinner and unobtrusively monitored all aspects of my progress. An hour or two later, Sir Juffin would disappear into his bedroom and I would move on to the library.

One evening, roughly two weeks after my abrupt arrival in Echo, Sir Juffin announced that I now fully resembled an ordinary person, and thus deserved a reward.

“Today we’re dining in the Glutton, Max! I’ve been looking forward to this moment.”

“Dining where?”

“The Glutton Bunba, the most elegant mangy dive of them all: hot pâtés, the best kamra in Echo, the splendid Madam Zizinda, and not a single sourpuss to be seen at this hour of day.”

“What do you mean, not a single sourpuss?”

“Actually, not a single unpleasant face of any kind—but you know this place better than most Echoers!”

“How’s that?”

“You’ll see. Put on your shoes and let’s go. I’m as hungry as an armless thief.”

And so for the first time I changed from my house slippers into tall moccasins that aspired to look like real boots. I also had a driver’s test—ha! As if that was anything to worry about! Having mastered the rusty heap that had belonged to my cousin, and even inherited it when he hit the big time and treated himself to some swanky new wheels, driving the amobiler didn’t pose any problem for me. Several days before, Kimpa had demonstrated for me the simple steps of operating the car, carried out with the help of a single lever. After a short ride in my company, he announced, “You’re going to be fine,” and left. Now Juffin was admiring my professionalism, saying: “Take it easy, young man! Life’s short enough as it is!” After a few minutes he added: “Too bad I don’t need a chauffeur. I’d hire you in a minute.” I swelled with pride right then and there.

Driving did not distract me from my first real encounter with Echo. First we threaded our way through narrow lanes weaving through the magnificent gardens of the Left Bank. Each yard was illumined in keeping with the taste of its owner, so we rode through bright dappled patches of color, yellow, pink, green, and lilac. I had often admired the nighttime gardens of the Left Bank from the roof of our house, but floating from one lush lake of color to another—it was something else entirely!

Then we entered what appeared to be a broad avenue lined with the bright little lights of stores still open. It turned out though that I hadn’t understood a thing about this particular urban landscape. This wasn’t an avenue, but rather, Echo Crest, one of the many bridges that connected the Left Bank with the Right. The waters of a river declared the finest in the Unified Kingdom, the Xuron, sparkled in the spaces between buildings. Halfway across the bridge I even slowed down, struck by the splendor of the view on both sides. To my right, on a large island in the middle of the river, was Rulx Castle, the royal residence, glittering with all the hues of a rainbow, while on the left another island gleamed with a steady sapphire light.

“That’s Xolomi, Max. The Xolomi prison is there. A splendid little place!”

“Splendid?”

“From the point of view of the Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force, such as I am, if you will remember, it is the most exquisite place in the World!” Juffin gave a short snort.

“Oh, I forgot who I was contending with . . .”

I glanced at Juffin. He twisted his face into an evil grimace, winked, and we both burst into laughter.

After we composed ourselves, we continued on our way until there it was, the Right Bank. Juffin began issuing abrupt commands: “Right, right, now to the left!” in response to which I assumed the dignified bearing of an army chauffeur, though where that particular bent came from I have no idea. A bit farther and we were on the Street of the Copper Pots.

“Over there is our House by the Bridge,” Juffin remarked, waving his hand toward the orange mist under some street lights. “But your visit there is yet to come. As for now—stop! We’re here.”

I halted the amobiler and stepped onto the mosaic sidewalk of the Right Bank for the first time. Oh, was it really the first time? But I suppressed the dangerous dizziness, nipped it square in the bud, and passed over the threshold of the Glutton Bunba Inn. Of course—it was the pub from my dreams, the very place I had met Sir Juffin Hully and frivolously accepted the strangest job offer anyone could ever imagine!

Without even thinking, I walked over to the familiar spot between the bar and a window onto the yard. A plump brunette smiled at me as though I was an old customer (this was Madam Zizinda herself, granddaughter of the original glutton named Bunba). But why “as though”? I was, indeed, an old, a very old, customer.

“This is my favorite little spot,” Juffin announced. “I’ll tell you a basic principle for choosing future colleagues. If they like the same food and, in particular, the same table you like, psychological compatibility with the team is guaranteed.”

Madam Zizinda, in the meantime, had placed pots with hot pâté on our table. As for the other events of the evening that followed, someday I will commit them to paper, when I sit down to write my tourist guidebook: The Finest Taverns of the City of Echo.

My second foray into society took place two days later. Sir Juffin returned home very early, even before dusk. I was just about to have breakfast.

“Tonight is your debut performance, Max!” Juffin declared, confiscating my mug of kamra without waiting for Kimpa to pour him his own. “We’re going to test your progress on my favorite neighbor. If old Makluk still says hello to me after our visit, we may conclude that you are ready for independence. In my view, you can already manage very well on your own. But I’m not being objective: I’m too eager to put you to work.”

“But just think, Juffin; he’s your neighbor! You’ll have to live with him afterward.”

“Makluk is kind and inoffensive. Moreover, he’s practically a hermit. He found society so unbearably cloying while he was the Long Arm for the Elimination of Irksome Misunderstandings at the Royal Court that now he can endure the company only of me and a few elderly chatterbox widowers—and that very seldom.”

“Are you a widower?”

“Yes, more than thirty years now; so it’s not a forbidden topic. For the first twenty years or so, though, I preferred not to talk about it. We marry at a ripe age, and, generally (we hope), for a long time. But we are accustomed to suppose that fate is wiser than the heart, so don’t fret!”

And so that I would fret as little as possible, he seized the second mug of kamra, which, I must admit, I had wanted very much myself.

We arrayed ourselves in formal dress and set off to pay our visit. Fortunately, visiting costume differed from everyday dress only in its richness of hue and ornament, and not in its cut, to which I had already grown accustomed. I was on my way to an exam, and my heart leapt about in my chest, looking for the shortest route to my heels.

“Max, what’s with the serious face?” Juffin asked in a knowing tone. He always could tell what I was feeling; I supposed that for him, my emotional state was like the headline on the front page of a tabloid: utter nonsense, but written in boldface type that makes glasses superfluous.

“I’m getting into the role,” I improvised. “Any barbarian from the Borderlands would be nervous before meeting someone who had gotten cuffs on the ear from His Royal Highness all his life.”

“Ingenuity, B; erudition D-plus: ‘Barbarians from the Borderlands,’ as you phrase it, are supercilious, proud, and ignorant. They scoff at our public servants and officials in the capital. Intuition, A-plus! How else could you have guessed that once, under the reign of Gurig, Sir Makluk really did earn a royal box on the ears when he trod on the hem of the royal robe?”

“To be honest, I was trying to joke, not playing a guessing game.”

“That’s what I meant when I mentioned intuition. Just like that, apropos of nothing, you let something slip, and it’s right on the nose!”

“Okay, suppose I am a prodigy. Also, according to your legend, I’m a barbarian who has serious intentions of settling down in Echo and embarking on a career. So I must be somewhat different from my ignorant but proud countrymen. And when a person wears a veneer of studied hauteur, shyness is usually lurking underneath. I know: I’m the same way. Do you take back your D-plus?”

“All right, you’ve convinced me. I’ll take back the ‘D,’ and you can keep the ‘plus.’”

We crossed our garden and entered the neighbor’s through a side gate. Then we were at the front door, with an inscription that read “Here lives Sir Makluk. Are you sure you’ve come to the right place?” I laughed halfheartedly, as I was not at all sure. On the other hand, Sir Juffin had enough conviction for both of us.

The door opened silently, and four servants in identical gray uniforms invited us in chorus to enter. A quartet that was nothing if not professional; I had to hand it to them.

And so began that for which I was not prepared; but then, Juffin claims that no one is ever prepared for a reception by Sir Makluk, except inveterate society lions—the most important and useless creatures in the world.

A horde of strapping young fellows advanced ominously upon us from the corner, with two palanquins atilt. At the same time, the servants in gray handed us each a pile of multihued rags of ambiguous purpose. There was only one thing for me to do: watch Juffin and try to mimic all his actions.

First I had to take off the looxi, without which I felt somewhat naked: the thin skaba that gave my body a high-definition contour did not at the moment seem appropriate dress for appearing in public. Then I began studying the garments I had been given and determined it wasn’t a pile of varied rags, but a one-piece construction—a large crescent made of thick fabric, with enormous patch pockets. The inner edge of the crescent was adorned with a kind of necklace made from bright scraps of sheer material. I stared at Sir Juffin. My only guide through the labyrinth of good manners donned his crescent with a careless gesture like it was a baby’s bib. Shuddering, I repeated his performance. The band of butlers remained expressionless. Juffin wasn’t putting on an act for me, apparently; we were doing just what was expected of us.

When we were finally appropriately decked out, the fellows with the palanquins went down on their knees before us. Sir Juffin mounted the contraption and reclined gracefully upon it. I gulped and clambered onto my own glorified stretcher in turn. We were carried along in this way for quite some time, gazing down deserted corridors as broad as streets as we progressed. The sheer spaciousness of Sir Makluk’s dwelling made an indelible impression on me, and judging by the outside of the house, you’d never have known—it appeared to be just an ordinary house of modest dimensions.

Finally we arrived at a large hall, half-empty, like all the rooms in the only house in Echo with which I was acquainted. But the similarity to Sir Juffin’s interiors stopped there. Instead of a normal dining table and comfortable armchairs, my eyes beheld something quite extraordinary.

A narrow and seemingly endless oval table cut through the length of the room. Its centerpiece was a fountain, surrounded by a thick paling of low podiums. On one of the podiums was a palanquin that resembled those in which we had just had the distinct pleasure of arriving. A lively-looking gray-haired old man, who didn’t appear in the least like a grandee, peered out of the palanquin. This was Sir Makluk, our hospitable host. When he saw me he covered his eyes with his hand and greeted me:

“I see you as though in a waking dream!”

I reciprocated his gesture: Juffin and I had gone through this one. Then the little old man held out his hand to Juffin, doing this with such ardent warmth that he nearly tumbled off the podium, together with his dubious means of transportation.

“Hide the food, here comes Sir Hully the Hun!” he exclaimed gleefully. I readily concluded that this was an official form of greeting, and stored it away for future reference. It turned out I was mistaken, however: the host was in the mood for joking. I was more than a little insulted. I tried to grin and bear it, but, come what may, one’s emotional health is more important than emotional equilibrium. Did you wish to spend the weekend in the company of Mad Max, dear Juffin? Well, that’s just what’s in store for you! Here goes nothing . . .

But nothing came of it, for again I was thrown into a state of bewilderment when a very young creature of indeterminate sex came up to me. To distinguish a girl from a boy here, you need a keen eye and a great deal of experience, since they dress identically, and the hair of both sexes is allowed to grow as it will and then bound up, so that it doesn’t get in the way. The child was holding a basket with appetizing little bread rolls, which I had already grown fond of while devouring the breakfasts prepared by Kimpa. As fate would have it, I was the first stop for the little peddler of delicacies. No one was there to save me, as Juffin had been steered to the other end of the room to join the hospitable host. I helped myself silently to one bread roll. The little creature seemed surprised, but quickly slipped away. When it took the offerings to the gentlemen who had more experience in such matters than I, I realized what had caused the reaction—my very modesty and restraint! Juffin, and Sir Makluk, following suit, began raking up bread rolls by the handfuls and stuffing them into the roomy pockets of their “bibs.” It looked like I was going to starve.

In the meantime, my stretcher-bearers had begun shifting their feet, as though they couldn’t figure out where to deposit me. Judging by their blank faces, I was supposed to make this decision myself.

Raise your thumb, resounded someone else’s thought through my poor brain, and they’ll start walking. When you want to stop, show them your fist.

Thank you, Juffin, I answered, trying with all my might to address my mute message with maximum accuracy to its destination. You just about saved my life. I wish you always would!

Excellent. You’re getting the hang of Silent Speech, he declared happily.

I carried out the first part of his instructions and found myself floating in the direction of my dinner companions. When I was close enough to observe their actions, I threatened the bearers with my fist; they stopped, and raised me up onto a podium. I sighed with relief; finally, I had a moment to catch my breath.

Altogether, we journeyed around the table several times. The system was as follows: opposite every podium stood one dish. Having tasted it and wiped your mouth with one of the bright scraps that decorated the “bib,” the idea was to raise your thumb and travel around the table at a leisurely pace. When you came upon a dish that aroused the interest of the taste-buds, you were supposed to drop anchor for a spell.

For the first half-hour I was still rather timid, and stayed put even when the food in front of me did not deserve such a lengthy pause. Finally, with a “what the hey,” I got into the swing of things. I tasted everything there was to taste, some things more than once. After downing some “Jubatic Juice,” the local firewater, with its unassuming, yet somehow fitting name, I even ventured to join in the conversation of the old friends—and judging from Sir Makluk’s jovial demeanor, not without some success.

In short, the dinner went off without any untoward surprises.

As soon as we left Sir Makluk’s, I could no longer constrain my curiosity.

“Well, how did it go? You discussed me with your neighbor, didn’t you? Of course, Silent Speech allows you to do that in your victim’s presence—”

“My fabrication unraveled completely!” Sir Juffin said, grinning with fiendish pleasure. He paused dramatically, during which time I berated myself for being a miserable, dull-witted imbecile. Then he rescued me from my despair: “The old man kept trying to weasel out of me where I had dug up such well-mannered specimen of barbarian! Much more, and he would have offered you a position at court.”

“Oh no! What will happen now?”

“Nothing much. In a week or two we’ll find you an apartment and furnish it according to your inclinations, after which I’ll get you off my back and you’ll get down to work. For the time being, you still have a few lessons left with me.”

“What kinds of lessons?”

“Very interesting ones. Don’t worry, the lessons in dining etiquette are over. It’s time to get down to business. At long last, I’ve acquired an assistant who has a distinct proclivity for Invisible Magic. You’ll be surprised to discover how easily it comes to you.”

“Wherever did you get the idea that I—?”

“Whenever did you stop trusting me?”

“The moment we stepped inside the home of your neighbor Sir Makluk! You never warned me about the palanquins and all the rest. I nearly died right there on the spot!”

“But you didn’t!” Sir Juffin Hully said. “Who would have thought!”

That night I not only retired to bed long before dawn, but slept like a log, to the great surprise of little Chuff. He already took it for granted that life only starts to get really interesting after midnight.

The next two days were busy and pleasant. During the day I read old newspaper files from the Royal Voice and Echo Hustle and Bustle. Sir Juffin had immodestly marked all the enthusiastic articles that had to do with the affairs of the Secret Investigative Force.

This made for far more exciting reading than the most piquant literature. It was the first time I had read newspapers in which dull announcements about the misuse of forbidden magic far exceeded stories about everyday murder, revenge, and extortion—though such things happen here, too, of course. I quickly learned the names of my future colleagues: Sir Melifaro (for some reason his first name was never mentioned), Sir Kofa Yox, Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, Lady Melamori Blimm, and Sir Lookfi Pence. They pretty much made up the entire Minor Secret Investigative Force—and a fairly diminutive one it was.

Here in Echo, photography had still not been discovered, and portrait artists would not condescend to squander their talents on newspapers. Thus, I put my imagination to work, summoning up portraits of them in my head. (Whatever Sir Juffin might have said about my intuition, it turned out that I hadn’t guessed right a single time!)

At sunset, I took the amobiler and set off for the Right Bank. I got out and meandered along mosaic-laden sidewalks, gazing this way and that, made brief stops at cozy inns, and got a feel for the topography. Indeed, what kind of figure would I cut as a Nocturnal Representative of the Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force if I couldn’t even track down the street where my own department was located? It turned out to be fairly easy, however. I’ve never heard of a wolf getting lost in the woods, even if they’re not the woods in which he was born. I suspect the existence of some as-yet-undiscovered “urban instinct,” whereby if you can navigate one city, you won’t feel daunted by any other metropolis.

Then I was on my way home. As it had ever been in my life, nighttime still proved to be the most enchanting time of day. Sir Juffin, by his own admission, had had a temporary quarrel with his blanket. After dinner, he didn’t retire, but steered me into his study, where we undertook to “meditate on the memory of things.” This aspect of Invisible Magic, the most abstract and obscure science of this World, was the simplest and most indispensable one for my future profession.

There are few in the World who have any inkling of its existence. A knack for Invisible Magic, as far as I understand it, is in no way linked to the wondrous qualities of the Heart of the World. Indeed, this talent had been discovered in me, an alien. Sir Juffin himself, the undisputed expert in this area, hails from Kettari, a small town in the county of Shimara. The residents of that place lag significantly behind residents of the capital when it comes to knowing how to enhance their lives by means of magic.

But back to the lessons. I discovered very quickly that if you let your eyes rest on an inanimate object with a “special gaze” (I don’t know how else to describe it), the object would reveal its past to the observer—that is to say, events that happened in its presence. Sometimes these events were quite horrific, as I learned after an encounter with a pin for a looxi that had belonged long ago to a member of the Order of the Icy Hand, one of the most sinister and wicked of the ancient orders of magic. The pin showed us the rite of passage into the Order: a frenzied, exultant bear of a fellow voluntarily hacked off his left hand from his arm, after which a handsome, spry old fellow in a shiny turban (the Grand Master of the Order, as Juffin informed me) launched into some bizarre, incomprehensible fumblings with the amputated piece of anatomy. During the finale, the hand was presented to its former owner in the center of a glittering ice crystal. It turned my stomach.

Juffin explained that as a result of this procedure the fresh-baked invalid had gained an eternal inner fountain of marvelous youthful energy, and his missing digits would become a kind of “supersponge” that provided him with the powers indispensable to that occupation.

“Does he really need that?” I asked in naïve wonder.

“People will do strange things to sate their hunger for power and glory,” Juffin replied with a shrug. “You and I are lucky. We live in a much more moderate age. The opposition is complaining about the tyranny of the King and the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover, yet they forget the true tyranny of several dozen omnipotent orders of magic, of which almost none has ever chosen the path of rejecting vice and ambition altogether.”

“Why didn’t they tear the World to shreds?”

“They almost did, Max. They almost did . . . But we’ll have time to talk about that later. This is the night when you to begin your studies in earnest. So, grab that cup there . . .”

This was all too good to be able to last for very long. The idyll was shattered on the evening of the third day, when Kimpa announced the arrival of Sir Makluk.

“Strange,” Juffin said. “In the ten years we have been neighbors this is the first time Makluk has ever honored me with a visit. And so casually! Too casually, by far. My heart fears that there is some business to take care of.”

Little did he know how right he was.

“I’m afraid circumstances force me to request a service of you!” Makluk exclaimed, still standing in the threshold, holding one hand to his chest, and gesticulating wildly with the other. “I beg your pardon, Sir Hully, but I am in great need of your help and advice.”

They exchanged a long, meaningful glance; the old fellow had switched to Silent Speech. A moment later, Juffin frowned, and Sir Makluk shrugged, looking a bit shamefaced.

“Let’s go,” Juffin said abruptly, and stood up. “And you, Max, come with us. Don’t bother to dress up. This is business.”

For the first time I was witnessing Juffin Hully on the job—or, more precisely, on the verge of one. The speed at which he crossed the garden exceeded in all likelihood the cruising speed of the amobiler. I automatically undertook to pacify Sir Makluk, who clearly felt a bit unmoored without the four heavyweights who carried his palanquin. We reached the finish without breaking any records—but also without doing any damage to his weak knees. Along the way, Sir Makluk took advantage of the opportunity to confide in the “Gentle Barbarian.” He seemed to need to get it off his chest.

“I have—or, rather, had—a servant named Krops Kooly, a good lad. I had even planned to secure a place for him at court in fifteen or twenty years, when he had some experience under his belt . . . But I digress. A few days ago, he disappeared. Disappeared—just like that. He had a sweetheart on the Right Bank. Naturally, his colleagues decided that since you’re only young once, they wouldn’t make a fuss about it. You know, simple people are also capable of noble discretion . . . His disappearance was reported to me only today. My cook ran into his girlfriend at Linus Market, and the girl asked him why Krops hadn’t been to see her in so long—didn’t they allow him any Days of Freedom from his professional commitments? Then everyone began to panic. How could Krops just up and leave? Where had he gone, and why? About an hour and a half ago, Maddi and Shuvish went to clean the room of my late cousin, Sir Makluk-Olli, as they always did at that time. Yes, Sir Max, I had a cousin, a big bore, I’ll have you know. It even took him ten years to die. He finally decided to go at the beginning of the year, soon after the Day of Foreign Gods. Yes . . . and in there, in the room of my late cousin Olli, they found poor Mr. Kooly; and in what condition!”

Sir Makluk shivered visibly, as if to say that he had never expected such antics from poor Krops Kooly, even posthumously.

In the meantime, we had arrived at a small door—the backdoor of Sir Makluk’s luxurious living quarters. The old fellow had grown somewhat calmer after relating the recent events. Silent Speech is all well and good, but it’s not for nothing that psychotherapists make their patients talk out loud.

Without wasting time to call for a palanquin, we made our way into the late Sir Olli’s bedroom. Almost half the room was taken up by a soft floor. Here in Echo this is the way beds are constructed. A few tiny marquetry tables were scattered haphazardly around the giant lair. One wall was an enormous window onto the garden. On the opposite wall there was an ancient mirror with a small vanity table to the side.

It would have been preferable if this had about summed things up, but there was another element of the room’s interior. On the floor, between the mirror and the window, lay a corpse, a dead body that resembled, more than anything else, slobbery chewing gum. The spectacle was not even grisly; it was, rather, awkward, even absurd.

Somehow, it didn’t fit my notions of a crime victim—no streams of blood, spattered brains, no icy gaze of a dead man. Just some sorry, rubbery ABC gum.

I didn’t see Juffin at first. He had retreated to the farthest corner of the room. His slanting eyes shone phosphorescent in the dusk. When he saw us, he abandoned his post and came up to us with a deeply troubled expression.

“For the time being, two pieces of bad news; I daresay more will follow. First, this is no ordinary murder. You don’t end up with someone looking like that with your bare hands alone. Second, I’ve not discovered any signs of Forbidden Magic. I’m very suspicious of the mirror, as it seems to be too close to the body. This looks like a case of Black Magic of the Second Degree; the Third Degree, at most. And, it already happened long ago.” In his hands Juffin was pensively rotating a pipe with a built-in gauge, which conveyed precise information about the degree of magic that it detected. Now the arrow pointed to the number “2” on the black half of the round dial. Sometimes it shuddered visibly, trying to crawl up to “3”; but the kind of magic locked in the ancient mirror wasn’t strong enough for that.

“My advice to you, neighbor, is to go get some rest. Just, tell your vassals that Max and I will still snoop around here. Have them assist us in the investigation.”

“Sir Hully, are you sure I can’t help you?”

“I’m positive,” Juffin sighed. “It’s possible that your people can—so give them your orders, and retire to bed. Whatever has happened, it’s no reason to neglect your own health.”

“Thank you,” the old man said, drawing his lips into a troubled smile. “I’ve truly had all I can handle for one day.”

Sir Makluk turned toward the door with an expression of relief. At the threshold he met someone who looked to be the same age as he, though a very colorful character. The face of the stranger resembled that of some Grand Inquisitor—putting him under the gray turban of a servant that he wore was an inexcusable waste. But I wasn’t the one who made this World, and I was certainly in no position to change the way things are.

“Dear Govins,” Sir Makluk said, addressing the “Grand Inquisitor.” “Be so kind as to assist these superb gentlemen in all their efforts. This is our neighbor, Sir Juffin Hully, and he—”

“How could I, an inveterate reader of the Echo Hustle and Bustle, not know Sir Most Venerable Head?” A servile smile spread over the Inquisitor’s face.

“Splendid,” Sir Makluk, said almost in a whisper. “Govins will take care of everything. He’s still stronger than I am, though he fussed over me in the blessed days when I was too small to sneak a little bowl of jam from the kitchen.”

On that sentimental note, Sir Makluk was hoisted onto the palanquin by the eager stretcher-bearers and borne away to his bedchamber.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll have a few words with you in a minute. I hope in your wisdom you’ll agree that our first acquaintance could have taken place in more . . . er . . . less messy circumstances!” Juffin said to Govins, smiling with irresistible aplomb.

“The small parlor, the best kamra in the capital, and your humble servant await you whenever you wish.” With these words, the elderly gentleman seemed to dissolve into the half-gloom of the corridor.

We were left by ourselves, not counting the chewed up fellow on the floor, and he didn’t really count any more.

“Max,” Juffin said, turning to me, his joie de vivre suddenly snuffed out. “There’s another bit of bad news. Not a single thing in this room wants to reveal the past. They—how should I put it to you . . . No, let’s try it again, together! You’ll see what I mean.”

And try we did, concentrating our attention on a round box with balsam soap, randomly selected from the dressing table. Nothing! More to the point, worse than nothing. I was suddenly stricken with a fright, the kind you feel in a nightmare when your feet are planted to the ground and they are creeping upon you out of the darkness. My nerves gave out; I let go of the box. At almost the same time, Juffin’s fingers released it, and the box fell to the floor. It bounced rather awkwardly, turned over on its side, and instead of rolling in the direction of the window, it seemed to try to slip into the corridor. Halfway there, it stopped short, clattered plaintively, and made a comical little leap. We stared at it spellbound.

“You were right, Sir Juffin,” I said, whispering for some reason. “The things are silent, and they’re . . . scared!”

“What are they afraid of, is what I’d like to know! It is possible to find out—but for that we need magic of at least the hundredth degree. But in this case—”

“Wait, what degree was that?”

“You heard right! Come along, let’s have a talk with the leader of the local serfs and his underlings. What else can we do?”

Mr. Govins was waiting for us in the “small parlor” (which was actually just slightly smaller than your average football field). Mugs of kamra were steaming on a miniscule table. Juffin relaxed ever so slightly.

“I must know everything concerning these premises, Govins. And I mean everything! Facts, rumors, tall tales. And, preferably, first hand.”

“I am the oldest resident of this house,” the old man began pompously, then broke into a disarming smile. “Wherever you might turn, I’m the oldest! Well, in Echo there are a few old stumps that are even more ancient than I am. I assure you, Sir Venerable Head, it’s a very ordinary chamber. No wonders or miracles—whether permitted or outlawed. For as long as I can remember, that has always been someone’s bedroom. At times, it was occupied, at times it stood empty. But no one ever complained about family ghosts. Moreover, before Sir Makluk-Olli, no one had ever died there. And even he lived five years longer than he was expected to.”

“How did he die?”

“There were a number of causes. He had been ailing since childhood. A weak heart, delicate digestion, nerves. And about ten years ago, he lost the Spark.”

“Sinning Magicians! Do you mean that?”

“Absolutely. But he had amazing tenacity of spirit. For you know, of course, that people without the Spark seldom hold out longer than a year. Sir Olli was told that if he remained immobile and refused to take food he would live another five years or so, provided there was a good Seer in attendance on him. For ten years, he didn’t leave his room. He fasted, hired a dozen mad but powerful old crones who guarded his shadow in voluntary confinement with him all those years . . . As you see, Olli established a kind of record. But the old crones did their spells at their own homes, so in Olli’s bedchamber nothing out of the ordinary went on.”

Sir Juffin didn’t neglect to send me a Silent Message: To lose the Spark means to lose the ability to protect oneself from whatever might happen. Even ordinary food may be poisonous for the unlucky person, and a common cold can kill him in a few hours. And that the crones guarded his shadow . . . well, it’s quite complicated. I’ll explain later!

“Old Sir Makluk-Olli led the quietest of lives. A year before his death he gave one sign of life when he threw a washbowl at Maddi, who was waiting on him that day. The water he had drawn was a tad warmer than it ought to have been. I gave Maddi compensation for the blow, but even without the money he wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss. Sir Olli made a pitiful spectacle. The servants never made any more mistakes like that. As for Sir Olli, he didn’t get up to any mischief again, and nothing unusual, it would seem, ever occurred . . .”

Juffin frowned.

“Don’t hide anything from me, old man. I admire your loyalty to the house, but I’m the one who helped Sir Makluk hush up the unpleasantness half a year ago, when that young fellow from Gazhin cut his own throat. So do give me some balm to ease my aching heart: did that happen in the bedchamber?”

Govins nodded.

If you think that Govins’ confession solves the case, you’re mistaken , Juffin said soundlessly, with a wink in my direction. It only confuses the matter, though, further down the line . . . This all smacks of magic from the time of the Ancient Orders, but the blasted magic gauge, a hole in the heavens above it . . . Then again, that’s what makes life worth living: you never know what to expect!

He turned to Govins.

“I want to see: the person who first discovered the poor blighter today, the person who discovered the bloody fountain last time, the crones hired by Sir Olli, and a mug of your excellent kamra for everyone present. Oh, and just to be sure, ask the unhappy victim of domestic tyranny to come, as well. The one who was wounded by the washbowl.”

Govins nodded. A middle-aged man in gray with a proud bearing appeared at the door carrying a tray of mugs. This was Mr. Maddi himself, victim of the erstwhile fury of Sir Makluk-Olli; and, as if by design, the primary witness of today’s crime. That’s true organizational genius! Take note, gentlemen—one person entered the room, and three of five requests had already been carried out!

Maddi was burning with embarrassment, but good bearing never served a man amiss. Eyes cast down, he reported without undue circumlocutions that this evening he had entered the room first, looked out the window at the sunset, then looked down to see something one couldn’t miss. He quickly realized that it was best not to touch it and instead to send for Mr. Govins. Which he did.

“I asked Shuvish to stay in the corridor. He’s still too young to see the likes of that,” Maddi said, hesitating, as though he might have overstepped his bounds.

“You didn’t hear any noise?”

“The bedchamber was soundproofed, Sir Olli ordered that it be made so. What I mean is, even if you were screaming fit to burst, no one would hear. Nor would you hear any noise, naturally.”

“Fine. That all makes sense. But what was this fight you had with Sir Olli? They say he really let you have it.”

“No fight, Sir Venerable Head. A sick man doesn’t want to die; he’s unhappy about everything. He always explained to me how he wanted the water for his bath. But then the next day he wanted the water to be another way altogether. Every time I went and did as he ordered, but one day Sir Olli got mad and threw the washbowl at me. And you should’ve seen the man throw! He never should have died,” Maddi let out a low whistle of admiration.

I was sure that if he had been a basketball coach, he would have tried to recruit Sir Olli onto his team without a second thought.

“The bowl hit me straight in the face, the edge gouging my eyebrow. It started to bleed, and like an imbecile, I tried to turn away, and crashed into the mirror with all my might. Luckily, it was a sturdy thing. Old craftsmanship! I was soaking wet, my face covered in blood, the mirror all bloodied up, too. Sir Olli panicked, he thought he had killed me. Raised quite a commotion. And when I washed my face, it turned out that it was nothing at all—a scratch half a finger’s length long. It didn’t even leave a scar! It never entered my head to complain—you can’t let yourself get insulted by an old man. He didn’t even have the Spark anymore; he was all but dead already—and I’m still strong and kicking. I can grin and bear it.”

“Fine, fine, my friend. That’s all we needed to know. Don’t worry—you did just what you were supposed to do.”

Maddi was dismissed, and went off to contemplate his dreams—and simple and innocent dreams they were, of that I’m certain. Sir Juffin glanced at Govins questioningly.

“The crones have been sent for. I hope they’ll all be found. They have the same sort of nomadic profession that you have. For the time being, I may be able to assist you myself, since the death of Nattis, that unfortunate young man, took place right under my nose.”

“That’s news to me! How did you manage that?”

“Such was the order of things. The boy was my ward. You see, Nattis wasn’t a servant in the house. An ordinary servant, that is. Two years ago he came to Echo from Gazhin. He arrived with a note from his grandfather, one of my oldest friends. The old man wrote that his grandson was an orphan, and was still wet behind the ears. The kind of knowledge he could pick up in Gazhin wasn’t much use here in Echo. But the boy was quick-witted—that was plain as day. My friend asked me to help his grandson in any way I could. Sir Makluk promised to give him the highest recommendation. He even intended to set him up with someone at the Court. You understand, it’s a real privilege to be offered a place at Court! But in the interim, I taught him to the best of my abilities. Believe me, I had just as much reason to praise him when he was still alive. Occasionally we gave him a Day of Freedom from Some Chores. On those days he wasn’t free to go off on his own, as he was on ordinary Days of Freedom, but stayed home. He was relieved of his duties, however, and was expected to live the life of a gentleman.”

At this point, I couldn’t repress a sigh of sympathy. Poor guy!

Govins interpreted my sigh in his own way, shook his head sadly, and continued: “What I mean is that if you wish to go far in life, you need know not only how to work, but also how to give orders. On those days, Nattis got up in the morning, called for a servant, bathed and groomed himself, dressed like a gentleman, ate like a gentleman, read the newspaper. Then he would go for a walk on the Right Bank, and there he also did his best to look like a young gentleman of the capital rather than a young upstart from Gazhin. And on those days he was permitted to use Sir Olli’s bedchamber—the poor bloke had just died when Nattis arrived and began his apprenticeship. The fellow would sleep in that bedroom, and in the morning would call for a servant—and the servant was me! The idea was not only to put on a charade, but to be able to observe all his shortcomings and mistakes, and so to correct them. In short, on those days I was inseparable from the lad, and this was both instructive and pleasant . . . So on that fateful morning, I answered his summons, as usual. I brought in the bath water. Of course, this was only a ceremonial ritual—there is a bathroom attached to the bedchamber. But a real gentleman begins his morning by demanding his rightful portion of warm water for a bath!”

At this point in the narrative I became a bit glum. I’d never become a “real gentleman”; and Sir Juffin wouldn’t either, I’m afraid. The finicky Sir Govins, in the meantime, went on with his story: “Nattis washed and went into the bathroom to shave. But the poor lad remembered all of a sudden how I had scolded him for this. As long as you’re god-knows-who, whether you shave in the bathroom or don’t bother to shave at all is no one’s business but your own. But if you’re a gentleman, you must shave in front of a proper looking glass! It turned out that my efforts hadn’t been for nought. The young chap came back into the room and very contritely requested a shaving kit. I feigned not to hear. Then he drew himself up, his eyes sparking—and I was there with the shaving kit and a towel, on the double! And then—how it could have happened, my mind simply cannot fathom. That a hale and hearty young fellow could cut his throat with a razor in a split second! I was standing a few steps away from him, as is the custom, with a towel and some balsam soap; but I had no time to do anything. I didn’t even realize what had happened . . . and what happened afterward! Well, you know as well as I do, if you’ve been trying to hush up this sorry affair.”

“You’re a wonderful raconteur, Mr. Govins!” Juffin nodded approvingly. “So I will with great satisfaction hear the ending of the story from your lips. I was, of course, very busy during those days. All I could manage to do (and it was enough for me!) was to pick up the ‘suicide file’ from the department of General Boboota Box, whose subordinates so pestered everyone in this house. I had no time to delve into the matter more deeply.”

The door opened, and fresh kamra was served to us. Govins cleared his throat, and resumed speaking. “There’s really nothing more to add. Of course, Sir Malkuk informed the House by the Bridge about what had happened. It was a straightforward case, so they sent it to General Box, Head of Public Order. Then his subordinates inundated our house—”

“Listen, Govins, maybe you can tell me. Did they check the level of magic present in the room?”

“It never even occurred to them. At first they thought it was all clear and simple: the man was drunk. When I told them that Nattis had never once been drunk in his whole short life, they decided again that it was all clear and simple: I had killed him. And then they just disappeared. As I understand, now, Sir Venerable Head, through your intercession.”

“How typical that is of Boboota’s boys,” Juffin groaned, clasping his hand to his forehead. “Sinning Magicians, how very typical!”

Our interlocutor remained tactfully silent.

Just then, three of the twelve wise crones arrived. It was revealed that six more of them were keeping watch over patients, two were simply nowhere to be found, and one old woman, according to the messenger, refused point-blank to return to “that black house.” She’s gone off her rocker, poor thing, I thought compassionately.

Juffin thought for a moment, then ordered all three of them at once to come in. I received a silent explanation about this from him: When you want to interrogate several women, it’s best to question them all together. Each of them will try so hard to outdo the other that they will end up telling you more than they intended. The only problem is trying not to lose your mind in the hubbub!

And so the ladies entered the parlor and seated themselves ceremoniously at the table. The eldest was called Mallis. The two others, by no means young, were Tisa and Retani. I grew a bit sad. For the first time I was in the company of otherworldly ladies, and just my luck—the youngest of them was pushing 300!

Juffin’s behavior deserves separate commentary. First, he sculpted his face into the gloomiest frown that you can imagine. Then, in addition to the mournful expression of his physiognomy, the grannies were fated to witness him cover his eyes with the palm of his hand in a pathetic gesture, and further to hear the emotionally burdened recitative of his initial greeting. His intonations were wracked with a wailing of the spirit, more akin to the cadences of tragic drama than an interrogation. The order of his words and sentences started slipping around in the most peculiar way. Of course, in Echo one must address wisewomen with due respect and solemnity, as one would be expected to address a university professor in my homeland. In my opinion, however, Mr. Venerable Head went a little overboard. But my opinion would hardly have interested any of those present, which is why I modestly lowered my eyes and kept my mouth shut. Actually, I returned to my kamra, which I had clearly drunk too much of already, since it was there for the taking.

“Excuse my haste and the inconvenience I may have caused you, my wise ladies,” Juffin declaimed with lofty precision. “But without judicious counsel, my life has no meaning or purpose. I have heard that your wondrous powers were able to extend the measure of life of an inhabitant of this house, one who had lost the Spark, to a most remarkable degree.”

“Ah, yes; Olli, one of the young Makluks,” Tisa replied knowingly.

One of the young Makluks? I must admit, I thought the old woman had gotten it all wrong, but Juffin nodded right back at her. Then again, she had most likely known their common grandfather. (Later I found out that the crones were far older than I could ever have imagined. Here in Echo, the lifespan of an ordinary person is three hundred years, and greater longevity is a matter of personal stamina. So in their line of work, at the age of five hundred you’re still a spring chicken!)

“Olli was very strong,” Lady Mallis announced. “And if you think about the fact that the twelve strongest ladies in Echo guarded his shadow, you will understand that his life was too short by far! We, of course, thought that the Spark would return to him. In days long ago, that happened often, though you young ones don’t believe it. Young Olli didn’t believe it, either; but that wasn’t necessary. He still had a chance to get back the Spark!”

“I’ve never heard the likes of it, my Lady!” Juffin declared, his curiosity piqued. (Later he admitted to me that he had lied—“just to liven up the conversation.”) “I thought the poor fellow had lived surprisingly long, but it turns out that he died before he should have!”

“No one dies too early or too late; everyone dies in his own time. But you, a Kettari man, should know that! You look into the darkness, don’t you? But it wasn’t our fault that Olli died.”

“Of course, I have never had any doubt on that score, my Lady!”

“You doubt everything, you sly old fox. And that’s as it should be. I can tell you one thing—we don’t know why Olli died. And we should know. We need to know.”

“Braba knows, but won’t tell,” Lady Tisa broke in. “That’s why she refused to come to the house of the Makluks. And she won’t come. But there’s no need for this. Retari visited her the day after Olli’s death. Tell them, Retari! We never asked you about it, because we had other worries. But now, it seems the Kettarian has only one worry—to find out why Braba is afraid to come here. And until he finds out, he’s not going to give us a moment’s peace.”

Silence reigned. Then Juffin bowed graciously to Lady Tisa.

“You read my heart like an open book, my Lady!”

The old wisewoman smiled coquettishly at Juffin and winked. After this interlude of gallantry, everyone present stared intently at Lady Retari.

“Braba doesn’t understand a thing herself, but she’s mortally afraid. She hasn’t been able to work since then, so fearful is she—like a young girl. She says someone lured away Ollie’s shadow and nearly snatched her own. We were all sure that his shadow had departed on its own. We didn’t know why; but it departed. Quickly—like a woman who doesn’t want to give her love. But Braba says someone lured it away. Someone she couldn’t discern. But she was so frightened that we decided, why bother asking? You can’t get the shadow back. Why take on someone else’s fear?” and Lady Retari fell silent, at least a year, it seemed.

The witches sipped kamra in the stillness and crunched their cookies daintily. Sir Juffin meditated. Mr. Govins was portentously silent. I gazed at this quaint group of people in innocent admiration. Without warning, however, I felt the air in the room had grown so thick that it was impossible to breathe. Something horrible and disgusting entered for a moment, then instantly retreated, not touching anyone in the room except myself. And even I hadn’t time to realize what was happening; but a viscous lump of absolute terror penetrated my lungs when I breathed in as the shadow of some vile enigma encroached upon me, and then to my great relief disappeared as abruptly as it had come. It was probably “someone else’s fear,” as the old crone had just mentioned; but at the time I considered the episode to be a groundless mood shift—something very familiar to me. I didn’t even consider sharing this silly inner anxiety with Sir Juffin.

Later, I understood that I had been imprudently reticent. Those “silly inner anxieties” were an extremely important part of my future occupation, for it is the sacred duty of an employee of the Secret Force to report every vague presentiment, nightmare, skip of a heartbeat, or other spiritual tremor (though analysis of the situation and other deductions you can and ought keep to yourself). At the time, though, I just tried to forget about this unpleasant lump of someone else’s fear. My efforts met with almost immediate success.

“I know how a shadow departs,” Juffin finally announced. “Tell me wise Ladies, did none of you except Braba really sense that something was amiss?”

“We all sensed it,” Lady Mallis said. “Sensed it—and that was that. None of us knows what it was we sensed. We can’t always say what it is. It’s too strenuous a task for us, and it will be for you, though you peer into the darkness much more often than we do. And the lad there won’t be any help, either.”

I suddenly realized with horror that the old woman had focused her undivided attention on me.

“’Tis a secret, Sir. Just someone else’s bad secret,” Lady Tisa said, saving me. “None of us likes it. We didn’t wish to talk about it, for it’s pointless to talk about what you don’t know. But when you’re in the company of two gentlemen whose fate it is to peer into the darkness—well, we decided to tell all, though it won’t be of any benefit to you.”

And the three old crones, with the gracefulness of young felines, disappeared through the door.

Juffin! I started badgering him with my Silent Speech as soon as they were gone. What was that business about “two gentlemen peering into the darkness”? What did that mean?

Don’t concern yourself with nonsense. That’s just how these ladies see you and me. They know precious little about Invisible Magic; that’s why they imagine it to be “darkness.” It’s simpler for them that way. In general, you shouldn’t attach too much importance to what they say. Those old wisewomen aren’t too bad in practical matters—but in matters of theory, they’re no great shakes.

And with that Sir Juffin Hully stood up from the table.

“We’re leaving, Govins. We’ve got to do some thinking. Tell the master that he need not send anyone to the House by the Bridge. I’ll take care of all that myself. In the morning I’ll send you written permission allowing you to bury the poor fellow. But I can’t promise that everything else can be taken care of as quickly as the bothersome paperwork. You’ll just have wait it out, and moreover, I’ll be very busy in the next few days. And make sure no one hangs around in that bedchamber. Let it remain untidy, for Magicians’ sake! If I don’t show up for a time, Sir Makluk shouldn’t worry; I won’t forget about this matter, even if I wish I could . . . but if—”

“Yes, Sir. If something happens?”

“Let’s just hope nothing does. Better not go in there, all the same. See to it, dear Govins.”

“You can rely on me, Sir Venerable Head.”

“Wonderful. Sir Max, are you still alive? And you haven’t turned into a jug of kamra? Because that stuff can do that to you, you know . . .”

“Juffin, may I go into the room one last time?”

He raised his brow in surprise.

“Of course, although . . . all right, we’ll go together.”

We entered the twilit bedchamber. Everything was quiet and tranquil. The needle on Sir Juffin’s pipe jerked, and began again to seek a compromise between the “2” and the “3.” But that wasn’t why I wanted to return. Looking around, I immediately found the box with balsam soap that we unsuccessfully tried to charm earlier in the evening. It was still lying on the floor, halfway to the corridor. I lifted the box and put it in the pocket of my looxi, praise to the skies, an opportunity furnished by the local fashion.

I looked at Juffin guiltily. He chuckled. Never mind, Juffin would be none the worse for it; and he certainly deserved some light entertainment.

“What do you need that thing for, Max?” Juffin asked, when we had gone out into the garden and were traipsing toward home. “Do you always clean up the premises when you’ve been on a visit? Why did you rob my neighbor—’fess up!”

“You’ll laugh . . . you’re already laughing, Magicians be with you! But you saw yourself how scared it was! I just couldn’t abandon it there.”

“A box? You’re talking about a box?”

“Yes, the box. Why? I felt its fear, I saw it try to roll away, and if things can remember the past, it means that they are sentient, they are able to perceive and feel. That means they live their own inscrutable lives, doesn’t it? In that case, what’s the difference whether one rescues a damsel in distress or a box?”

Juffin burst out laughing. “I suppose it’s a matter of taste, of course! What an imagination you have, young man! Good going! I’ve lived a long time on this earth, but I’ve never taken part in the rescue of a box!”

He teased me until we reached the gate, then grew suddenly serious.

“Max, you’re a genius! Fantastic! I’m not sure about the inscrutable lives of boxes, but if you remove it from a zone of fear . . . Sinning Magicians! You’re absolutely right, Max! Of course we may be able to charm at home! Not right away, of course, but perhaps it may remember something, your sweet little thing. You thief you! And the old crone can eat her skaba! As if you and I can’t solve this case together! We’ve had harder nuts to crack, and we managed.”

I decided to take advantage of the fortuitous moment and inquire cautiously: “But still—what do you think they meant when they were talking about the darkness we peer into? That all makes me a bit uneasy.”

“And you should be uneasy about it,” Juffin snapped. “It’s completely understandable. Remember how you got here?”

“I do,” I murmured. “But I try not to think about it.”

“Very well. You’ll have plenty of time to think. But you have to agree, it doesn’t happen to everyone—to flit from one world to another, with all your wits about you and your body in one piece! You and I are the kind that happens to—and that’s not all that happens to us. The old crones practice magic, but not like everyone else here—once a year in their own kitchens. They practice very long and hard. You might say it’s the only thing they do. And experience tells them there’s something not quite right about us. That ‘not quite right’ is what they call ‘darkness.’ Understand?”

“Not really,” I admitted.

“Okay, let me put it this way, then. Are you sometimes scared, or happy, just like that, out of the blue, apropos of nothing? You hurry out on some stupid errand, and suddenly you feel a thrill of improbable, intense, boundless joy? Or it happens that everything seems to be in its rightful place, your beloved is sleeping sweetly next to you, you’re young and full of as much energy as a puppy—and suddenly you feel you are suspended in emptiness, and a leaden sorrow clamps down on your heart, as though you were dead. Not only that, but as though you had never been alive. And sometimes you look at yourself in the mirror, and you can’t remember who that chap is, or why he’s there at all. Then your own reflection turns around and walks away, and you watch silently as it retreats. You don’t have to say anything. I already know that this happens to you from time to time. The same thing happens to me, Max; only I’ve had enough time to get used to it. It happens because something ineffable is reaching for us—we never know where and when it will show up and start tugging on our sleeve. The fact is, you and I have a talent for a strange craft that no one really understands. And, frankly, I can’t tell you anything about it that makes any sense. You know, it’s not customary to talk about this aloud. And it’s dangerous. Things like this should stay secret. There is one person here in Echo who understands more than we do about these things. You’ll meet him at some point. But until then—nary a word. Agreed?”

“Who am I going to talk to, I wonder, besides you? Chuff?”

“Well, yes—you can talk to Chuff, of course. And to me. But soon you’ll embark on a much stormier existence.”

“You’re always threatening that . . .”

“Wasn’t tonight enough proof for you? I would be glad to take you with me to the House by the Bridge, but things move slowly in Echo. I submitted the request for your appointment to the Court . . . yes, the day after our trip to the Glutton. As all matters in my department are decided with maximum efficiency and promptness, everything should be settled within two or three dozen days.”

“You call that ‘maximum efficiency and promptness’?”

“Yes, and so must you.”

Then we were home. Juffin went to his room, and I stayed behind, alone, just the time to think about the darkness into which I was peering. Those dames had given me a scare! And then Juffin, with his lecture about the secret reasons behind the jumps and starts in my moods . . . arghhh!

When I was in my own room, I pulled out the salvaged “box-in-distress” from the pocket of my looxi. Take it easy, sweetheart, Uncle Max may not be all there, but he’s kind and good! He’ll protect you from all misfortune; he’s just going to peer into the darkness . . . But at the very moment of the deepest flowering of my honestly acquired phobia, a warm clump of fur jumped out this very darkness: Max sad—don’t be sad! My little friend Chuff wagged his stumpy tail so violently that the devilish darkness scattered into little bits. I relaxed, banished from my mind the paranoid murmurings of the matronly sirens, and Chuff and I went to the living room to find something to eat while we read the evening news.

As it turned out, I didn’t go to sleep before dawn that day. I waited for Juffin to talk over the events of the evening one more time over a mug of kamra. I must admit, I expected that from that moment on, Sir Juffin would be wracking his brains over the mysterious murder. In other words, like good old Sherlock Holmes, or the equally old and good Commissioner Maigret, he would suck on his pipe for hours on end, and wander about at the scene of the crime. And at the end of yet another sleepless night, and not without my help, he would crack the case of the “ABC Gum Corpse.” Then everyone dances with delight.

I was sorely disappointed. Our morning conference lasted all of twenty minutes. The entire time, Sir Juffin speculated about my lonely future—that is, how I would survive the next three days without him. It turned out that the time for his annual friendly visit to the Royal Court had rolled around, and as this joyful occasion is granted by King only a few times a year, he was generally in no hurry to release his charming vassal. On average, according to Sir Juffin’s calculations, these forced circumstances lasted about three or four days. Then the cries of distress of his subjects, abandoned temporarily to the caprices of fate, would force the monarch to loosen his embrace and return his captive to the World again.

I must say, I understand His Majesty. In the literature of the Unified Kingdom, the detective novel does not seem to exist at all, and newspaper articles and dry accounts of the courtiers about all the other courtiers cannot compete with the juicy worldly gossip of Sir Juffin Hully, Venerable Head of all that transpires.

For my part, I coped fairly well with the loneliness. I walked a lot, gazed at passersby, learned the names of streets. At the same time I inquired about the prices of houses for lease. I was very particular about my choice of a future home. I wanted it to be close to the Street of the Copper Pots, at the end of which stood the House by the Bridge, the residence of the Headquarters of Perfect Public Order. At night I “did my homework”—again and again I grilled the objects of material culture about their past. It was pleasant to realize that I could already perform these tricks without Juffin’s guidance. Objects were increasingly willing to share their memories with me. Only the box from the bedchamber of the late Sir Makluk-Olli held its tongue with the obstinacy of a partisan of the Resistance, we observed no more outbursts of uncontrollable fear in it. Thank goodness for that!

Late on the evening of the fourth day, Sir Juffin Hully returned, laden with royal gifts, fresh news (to me all quite abstract), and problems from work that had accumulated in his absence. In short, neither that evening, nor the next, did we return to the subject of the Mysterious Murder in the Empty Room.

Eventually, life began to resume its normal pattern. Juffin started coming home earlier. We took up our leisurely dinner discussions again, and even our evening seminars. Two weeks had passed since the event of the murder in Sir Makluk’s house. That is to say, two weeks by my count—the locals don’t divide the year into weeks and months. They count days by dozens, and define their temporal coordinates very laconically—around such and such a day in about such and such a year. That’s all. So if we use the local method of calculating time, more than a dozen days had passed since our nocturnal visit to our neighbor’s house. This was too long to sustain the flame of my curiosity: it sparks like lightning, but it dies just as quickly if it finds no immediate sustenance.

Oh, if only the balsam-filled box that I rescued had begun to talk before I forgot about it and turned my attention to more garrulous objects! Then Sir Juffin gradually began to teach me more captivating things. Who knows how humdrum this silly matter could have ended up, had it not been for my own amnesia?

Somehow or other, the next sign of a fast-approaching tempest caught up with me early in the evening of what had otherwise been a delightful day. I was enjoying the masterpieces of the ancient poetry of Uguland, having dared for the first time to drag the weighty folio out of the dust of the library into the garden. I scrambled onto the branch of a spreading Vaxari tree, a wonderful variety of tree exceptionally well-suited for climbing by men of middle age who have fallen back into the habits of childhood.

From this vantage point, I noticed a man in gray hurrying over to our grounds from the direction of Sir Makluk’s house. I remembered immediately the circumstances of our prior visit, and decided to go inside the house just in case. Sir Juffin had still not returned, and I was determined to hear the news firsthand. I descended the tree too slowly for my own taste; but all the same I crossed the threshold before Sir Makluk’s servant reached the home stretch—the path of transparent colored pebbles that led up to the house.

In the hall I ran into Kimpa, who was already hurrying to admit the visitor. As soon as the door was opened, I declared:

“Sir Juffin Hully isn’t here at the moment, so I’m the one to talk to!”

Sir Makluk’s emissary was somewhat nonplussed, perhaps because at that time I still hadn’t gotten rid of the accent that so grated on the ears of the capital-dwellers. But my debonair appearance and deliberate manner, and maybe a sign from old man Kimpa that went unnoticed by me, had the desired effect.

“Sir Makluk requests that I inform Sir Venerable Head that old Govins has disappeared. In fact, no one has seen him since morning, something which hasn’t happened in more than 90 years! In addition, Sir Makluk commanded me to report that he is troubled by dark forebodings.”

I dismissed the emissary with a stern nod of my head. There were no two ways about it: I had to alert Juffin immediately. I had had no experience with this kind of situation until that moment, and while it isn’t so hard to use Silent Speech when your interlocutor is sitting right next to you, communicating with him when his whereabouts are unknown is an entirely different game. Sir Juffin had once tried to convince me that it didn’t make any difference. If it had worked once, the next time it would work just as easily. I was of another opinion, but perhaps I just lacked the experience or imagination.

Of course, I could have asked Kimpa’s help. There were no obstacles to this—it was not classified information, and my own ambition wouldn’t have stood in the way.

The truth is, it just didn’t occur to me to turn to Kimpa. And Kimpa, the most tactful of servants, wouldn’t have dared interfere in my affairs.

And so I tried to establish contact with Sir Juffin. Within the space of three minutes, I was wet with perspiration, disheveled, and on the verge of despair. It wasn’t working! I felt I was pinned up against a wall. That’s a short route to the conclusion that you’re a worthless nothing.

When I had given up all but the faintest of hopes, I tried one last time. And suddenly—it worked! I made the connection with Sir Juffin, though I can’t imagine how.

Juffin had summed up the situation in no time. What gives, Max?

He had tried many times in the past, always unsuccessfully, to challenge me to this metaphysical problem for “the advanced learner.” So he had reached a corresponding conclusion—“If this blockhead has finally managed to get through to me, the circumstances that prompted it must be dire, indeed!”

I gathered my wits about me and tried to explain it all in a single thought.

Good, Max. I’m on my way. Juffin was almost curt—generously sparing my depleted energies.

Having done my part, I sighed with relief and went to change—I hadn’t sweated like that in a blue moon! Kimpa looked at me with indulgence, but he tactfully refrained from making any remarks, God bless him!

By the time Juffin had arrived, I was completely ready—but still I neglected our “witness number one”: the little box with balsam. I would probably have remembered it with time, but Juffin wasn’t alone when he arrived and I got distracted. He was with his second-in-command, Sir Melifaro, and believe me, meeting this gentleman is like being at the epicenter of an earthquake that registers 5 to 6 on the Richter scale. Sir Melifaro is not only the Diurnal Representative of the Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force—he is the main traveling show of Echo. I’m sure you could get people to pay to see him. I’d buy a ticket myself once every dozen days if I weren’t forced to have this pleasure on a daily basis free of charge, as a bonus for good work.

On that day, though, I still didn’t know what was in store for me.

Into the living room rushed a handsome, dark-haired fellow—judging by appearances, of the same age as me. He was a “type” that was much coveted in postwar Hollywood, the kind that was recruited to play the “good” boxer or detective. However, the stranger’s attire made an even stronger impression on me than his face. Underneath his bright red looxi, an emerald-green skaba was just visible. His head was piled high with an orange turban, and bright yellow boots the color of egg yolk adorned his feet. I’m sure that if the daily costume of Echo-dwellers consisted of a hundred pieces, this clotheshorse would have chosen for himself every imaginable color and shade. But social custom did not yet permit him to blossom in his full glory.

The newcomer flashed his dark eyes, and raised his eyebrows so high that they disappeared under his turban. He covered his face with his hands in a theatrical gesture, and wailed, “I see you as in a waking dream, O marvelous barbarian, and I fear that your image will haunt me in my nightmares!” Then he turned a complete pirouette on the shaggy carpet, as though it were made of ice, and collapsed into an armchair, groaning from the exertion. After that, he froze as still as death (he even seemed to stop breathing), and studied me with a penetrating gaze, unexpectedly serious and somehow empty, completely at odds with his recent acrobatics.

I realized I had to greet him in some manner, too, so I covered my eyes with the palm of my hand, as one is supposed to do. But all I could utter was: “Okay.”

Melifaro grinned and unexpectedly (as everything he did was unexpected) winked at me.

“You, Sir Max, are quite a guy! The future nocturnal backside of our ‘Venerable Head.’ Don’t worry, I’m his diurnal backside, have been for sixteen years now. A person gets used to everything, you know.”

“It’s just a matter of time before the reputation of our office is toppled once and for all in the eyes of Sir Max!” Juffin hurried to intervene. “All my labors will turn to dust. He’ll realize that I’m a humble director of a Refuge for the Mad and rush back to the Barren Lands, suddenly seeing the advantages of life in the fresh air.”

I blinked helplessly.

“Was that everything you knew?” Juffin asked me. “No more news?”

“That wasn’t enough for you?”

“Of course it wasn’t, old chap!” Melifaro retorted. “They failed to tell you where the fellow disappeared to, what happened to him, and who’s to blame in all of this. And they didn’t take the trouble to bring the criminal to justice. So now we have to do their work for them!”

“Melifaro! Sir Max has already figured out that you’re the wittiest, the most irresistible, and the most magnificent of them all. He is beside himself with joy, having discovered the very source of the glory and might of the Unified Kingdom. And now we’re going to get down to work,” Sir Juffin commanded, somehow very calmly and tenderly. Melifaro snorted, then started issuing instructions.

“Max, you’re coming with us. Three is a crowd. I signed an order granting Sir Lonli-Lokli and his magic hands five Days of Freedom from Chores, and he wisely left town yesterday morning. Melamori is relieved of duty, as her influential daddykins missed her. And Sir Kofa Yox is keeping watch at our Pleasure Factory by the Bridge, instead of methodically chewing a steak in some Sated Skeleton or other, the poor bloke. But we ourselves will have a little snack, otherwise Sir Melifaro will lose the ability to think once and for all. And you are always up for that, as far as I’ve been able to find out, aren’t you?”

We snacked abundantly, but in great haste. Sir Melifaro, by the way, attempted to make it into the Guinness Book of Records in that category of strapping fellows who consume sources of nourishment in huge quantities before you could say Jack Robinson.

All the while, he regaled us with questions, asking me whether it was difficult to get along without sun-cured horsemeat, and asking Sir Juffin whether it might be possible to get a sandwich with the meat of some pickled mutinous Magician or other. (I was able to appreciate this joke only later, when Sir Kofa Yox gave me a comprehensive lecture about the most enduring urban legends.)

We walked over to Sir Makluk’s house in silence. Sir Juffin was thinking troubled thoughts, Melifaro whistled a tune absently, and I waited expectantly for my first slice of true adventure. I’ll say right off that I got much more than I had bargained for.

The usual man in gray admitted us at a small side door. I immediately felt ill at ease—not so much frightened as sad and disgusted. I had experienced something like this before, in those rare cases when I had to visit my grandmother. In that hospital there had been a special ward for the terminally ill and dying. Sweet little place . . .

Juffin cast a warning glance at me. Max, do you notice it, too?

“What is it?” I asked aloud, confused. Melifaro turned away in amazement, but said nothing.

Juffin preferred Silent Speech. It’s the smell of a foul death. I’ve come across this before. None of this bodes any good. He then continued out loud.

“All right, let’s go into the bedchamber. My heart tells me that the old man couldn’t resist and popped in this morning to tidy up. Melifaro, today you’ll take Lonli-Lokli’s place.”

“I won’t be able to pull it off. I can’t puff out my chest like he does.”

“Never mind. You don’t have to, just throw yourself into the scorching fire; that’s all there is to it. According to instructions, I can’t subject you to the risk of being deprived of my company. And Sir Max doesn’t have a clue about what to do after you enter the room.”

“So in that case, you won’t miss me, will you? I know, I know, you got sick of me a long time ago. Maybe you can just kick me out of the service and you’ll have a clean conscience? Think about it before it’s too late!” Sir Melifaro said with a smirk.

“Yes, you see, I’m planning to take your place,” I explained. “And for your boss, it’s easier just to kill someone than to offend him without cause. So—”

“Well, fine,” Melifaro replied with a sigh of resignation. “Of course, otherwise why would he have fed me? He was granting me my last wish.”

“Gentlemen, could you perhaps be so kind as to shut up?” said Juffin.

We bit our tongues and fell in step behind our stern leader until he halted by the door to the bedchamber.

“It’s here, Melifaro. Welcome.”

Melifaro didn’t try to pull any stunts in the tradition of a brave storm-trooper from the movies. He simply opened the door and entered the empty chamber. The epicenter of the “smell of a foul death” was right here—judging by how unwell I felt. But what must be done, must be done! And so I followed right behind Melifaro.

For a brief moment it seemed to me that I had died many years before. Then I began to feel wracked with a longing for death—a peculiar kind of nostalgia; but a tiny part of the phlegmatic, sensible Max was still alive in me. So I got a grip on myself—or, rather, the sensible kid gathered up all the rest of the Maxes, all howling in a frenzy of morbid longing.

Sir Melifaro, who until that moment had remained blissfully ignorant, was now also on the alert. He mumbled gloomily, “Not the cheeriest place in Echo, Chief. Why did you drag me in here? Bring on the music and the girls!”

Then Sir Juffin spoke in a voice that sounded like it came from someone else:

“Back off, boys! This time my pipe is going off the scales!”

The dial on the pipe was calibrated to detect magic up to the hundredth degree. This should be plenty, as even during the romantic Epoch of Orders, masters who had greater abilities were few and far between. So if the wand was going “off the scales,” the magic here must be greater than the hundredth degree—say, the 173rd or 212th. From my perspective, it was all the same at that point.

“What’s going—?” Melifaro tried to ask, but Juffin shouted:

“Clear out! On the double!”

In the same instant, he tugged me by the leg, and I crashed onto the floor, just in time to notice Melifaro’s legs flying up in a bizarre somersault as he jumped out of the window. Well, almost jumped out. The sound of shattering glass rang out, and shards flew everywhere, but Melifaro’s flight was broken off abruptly. He slid down onto the floor, turned around, and started walking slowly away from the window.

“Where are you going, you fool! Get out, I say!” Juffin shouted, but without much hope. Even I understood that the fellow wasn’t walking of his own accord. I thought I could see a spiderweb, glistening like cold crystal, envelop Melifaro. His face became completely childlike and helpless. He looked at us from someplace far away, from a dark, intoxicated distance. He smiled awkwardly, blissfully. Slowly, he walked toward the source of the web that had ensnared him, toward what had recently been the large, antique mirror.

Juffin raised his hands above his head. It seemed to me that a warm yellow light flared up inside him, and he began to glow like a kerosene lamp. First the spiderweb that enveloped Melifaro became illuminated; then Melifaro himself grew bright. He stopped and turned toward us. Now he’ll be all right, I thought. But the warm yellow glow faded, and died. Melifaro, still smiling his beatific smile, took another step toward the mirror’s dark maw.

Juffin bunched himself up into a tight mass and started hissing. The spiderweb shuddered, and several threads broke off with a strange sound that made my stomach churn. In the darkness, the thing we took to be a mirror started to shimmer and shift. Two empty eyes were staring at us, gleaming with the same crystalline chill as the spiderweb. Something that looked like the face of a dead ape materialized around the brilliant, fiery eyes. In the place where mammals usually have a mouth, a gaping, moist darkness appeared, repulsive and yet captivating. The cavernous black hole was framed by what appeared at first to be a beard, but peering closer, I saw with horror that the “beard” was alive. Around the creature’s hideous mouth, hairy growths like spider legs wriggled madly, writhing of their own accord. The creature gazed at Melifaro with a cold curiosity; it didn’t seem to notice us at all. Melifaro smiled, and said quietly, “You can see that I’m on my way.” And he took another step.

Juffin tore off like a whirlwind. Screaming in an unnatural, strangled voice, and beating the floor rhythmically with his feet, he crossed the room at a diagonal, then again, and yet again. The rhythm of his stamping and shouting, oddly enough, comforted me. I stared transfixed at this dizzying shamanic frenzy. The spiderweb trembled, then faded and went dark. I watched the mirror creature follow Juffin’s every move with its fading gaze.

It’s dying, I thought calmly. It was always dead; but now it’s dying—how very odd.

Juffin quickened his pace; the pounding of his feet became louder and louder, his cries became a roar that drowned out all my thoughts. His body seemed disproportionately large and dark to me, like a huge shadow, and the walls of the room shone with an azure light. One of the small tables suddenly rose up into the air and dashed toward the mirror, but burst into pieces halfway there. The splinters of wood mixed with the shards of broken glass.

Then I realized that I was falling asleep . . . or dying. If there was one thing I had never had any intention of doing, it was dying in the presence of a dead ape with a hairy mug.

Then, from somewhere in the depths of the room, an enormous candlestick flew out with a shrill whistle. It seemed to be aimed directly at my forehead. I was suddenly possessed with fury. I jerked violently, and the candlestick crashed down, an inch from my head. Then it was all over.

Well, to say that it was “all over” was an exaggeration. But the light, the spiderweb, and even the “smell of a foul death” were gone. The mirror again looked like a mirror—but it didn’t reflect anything. Sir Melifaro stood motionless in the center of the room among the domestic ruins. His face was now a sad, lifeless mask. The crystalline spiderweb drooped in dull, stringy, but completely real fibers that looked like spun sugar. Melifaro, poor fellow, was completely wrapped up in the sticky mess. Sir Juffin Hully sat next to me on his haunches and examined my face intently.

“You okay, Max?”

“I don’t know. Better than him, anyway,” I said, nodding at Melifaro. “What was that?”

“That was magic of the 212th degree, my friend. What did you think of it?”

“What do you think I think!”

“I think it’s all very strange. Technically, you should be in the same condition he’s in.” We both turned around to gaze at the frozen figure of Melifaro.

“Tell me, you did begin to fall asleep, didn’t you? What happened next?”

“To be honest, I didn’t know whether I was falling asleep or dying. I thought . . . I didn’t want to die in the company of that monkey. Dumb, wasn’t it? And when the candlestick flew at me, I finally got furious—at the stupid piece of iron, at the monster in the mirror, even at you, for some reason. And I decided, no way, I’m not dying here! And, that’s about it.”

“Well, you’re a piece of work, kid! Until now it was thought to be absolutely impossible; and then he up and gets offended! And refuses to die, to spite all his enemies . . . Funny. But all the same, how do you feel?”

Suddenly I wanted to laugh. Who does he think he is, Doctor Dolittle? But paying attention to my sensations, I realized that I really didn’t feel quite right. For example, I understood perfectly what had happened here. I didn’t need to question Juffin. I already knew that twice he had tried, unsuccessfully, to conquer the strange power that resided in the mirror. The third time he simply made the world in the room stand stock-still. I even knew how he had done this, although I couldn’t have repeated it even to myself. I also understood that now it was impossible to destroy the creature in the mirror without harming Melifaro—the spiderweb had bound them together like Siamese twins.

At the same time . . . at the same time I was tormented by other, unrelated, questions. For example, how would Sir Juffin look if I took a splinter of glass from the broken window and dragged it across his cheek? And what would his blood taste like? And . . .

I licked my parched lips.

“Max,” Juffin ordered sternly. “Get a grip on yourself, or else you’ll crack up. I can help you when we leave this room, but it would be better if you managed on your own. Compared to what you’ve already done, it’s a piece of cake!”

I fumbled around in the basement of my soul in search of the small, sensible fellow who often comes to the rescue during emergencies. It looked like he wasn’t home.

Suddenly, I thought of some old B-movie about vampires. The main characters had faces white with greasepaint and mouths unappetizingly smeared with blood—like babies left with a good-for-nothing nanny and jam for breakfast. I imagined myself in that guise: Max, the regular guy, beloved of girls and house pets. At first I felt ashamed; then I burst out laughing. Juffin joined in.

“What an imagination you have, lad! Oh, you kill me!”

“It’s not my imagination, I just have a good memory. If only you could see that movie!” I cut myself off abruptly, and asked, “Wait, you read my thoughts, too?”

Juffin, unperturbed, confirmed my suspicions. “Sometimes. If it’s necessary for the task at hand.”

But by then I wasn’t even listening to him. I was consumed again by the desire to take a sip of his blood. One small sip. My stomach knotted up in a spasm of hunger. I couldn’t think of anything but the taste of Juffin’s blood. Ugh, how vile! I’m getting obsessed!

“Am I losing my mind?”

“Something like that, Max. But it’s doing you good, it seems. You know, I think that if you were able to withstand my curse, you can certainly deal with your own madness! I can cure you, so if you’re in trouble, let me know. But . . . you know . . .”

I did know. Along with madness came the secret knowledge, which I had so suddenly come to possess. And the circumstances were such that the qualified help of a psychologically unbalanced vampire were far more useful to Sir Juffin than the confused bleating of the normal, ignorant Max. On the other hand, if he accidentally cut his hand, I could . . . again, I started to drool. I feverishly swallowed my bitter saliva, grabbed a shard of glass, and slashed my own palm. Sharp pain, the salty taste of blood—it brought me an unprecedented sense of relief.

“Could you help me up, Juffin. My head’s spinning . . .”

He smiled, nodded, and held out his hand. I stood up, wondering how I could have spent my whole life at such dizzying heights. The floor was on the other side of the universe, if anywhere. Leaning on Juffin for support and carefully shuffling my benumbed feet, I moved out into the corridor.

I knew what was in store for us. The powers summoned to life by the curse of my protector had upset the balance of the World. Nothing to write home about, even by the standards of the Left Bank—but on the scale of the house! Any closed space is immediately saturated through and through with this harmony-destroying radiation. We had to “stop life” in the place right away, already gradually losing its contours, to restore order to it. There was no time to spare.

All that happened is still right before my very eyes, though at the same time the memory is vague.

At first we seemed to roam aimlessly through the enormous house. The people in gray tried to run away from us, although some of them snarled at us and bared their teeth.

Sometimes they behaved even more bizarrely. In the large salon with the fountain, where Sir Makluk had received us the first time, two boys executed an intricate ritual dance in complete silence. They gracefully ensnared themselves in what looked like neon streamers. When we approached them, however, we saw with horror that the streamers were their own intestines, which the boys were pensively drawing from their own stomachs. There was no blood—and no pain, either, apparently. The viscera glistened in the twilight of the huge hall, reflected in the streams of water from the fountain.

“There’s nothing we can do to save them,” Juffin whispered. With a careful gesture he suspended the scene. Now that the curse that stopped the World had been carried out, there was no need to start the whole process all over each time. The curse followed behind Juffin like the train of a garment, and I, in some way, helped him carry it. The only thing to do was to wrap each room as we came to it in the shadow of the curse, forcing people to freeze in the most eccentric poses.

We wandered through the house; our journey seemed to have no end. Sometimes I was beset by the thirst for blood, but I was too preoccupied by warding off the attacks of the frenzied household items hunting us down. More than anything else, I was insulted by the attack of a thick volume of the Chronicles of Uguland.

“Hey! I read you, you jerk!” I shouted indignantly, fending off the assault of the savage fount of knowledge with a weighty cane with which I had sensibly armed myself at the start of our campaign. Sir Juffin put a stop to this scene, as well.

In one of the rooms I saw my own reflection in a mirror and shuddered. Where had those burning eyes and sunken cheeks come from? When had I become so emaciated and haggard? I had eaten not so very long ago! Actually, from Count Dracula’s point of view, I had never eaten anything worthwhile. Ugh! How disgusting! But it wasn’t too difficult to keep myself in check. A person grows used to everything. We’ll leave it at that.

We roamed through the house. It seemed that was the way it would always be from now on: time had stopped, we had died, and ended up in our individual, honestly earned purgatory. In one of the rooms, we came upon Sir Makluk himself. He was occupied with domestic duties: he was industriously rolling up an enormous bookcase, with all the books inside it. The most amazing thing was that he was already halfway finished. The old man turned to us and asked amiably how we were doing. “Soon everything will be well,” Juffin promised, and Sir Makluk froze in the middle of his monstrous labors. Yet another statue in this newly established wax museum. A youth in gray was shuffling around on the threshold, quietly snarling and clapping his hands rhythmically. In a moment, he froze, too.

Then we walked through the empty corridor, and it seemed to me that I was lagging behind ourselves, because for a fraction of a second I observed the backs of two heads. One belonged to Sir Juffin, and the other was my own.

“Are you tired, Sir Max?” Juffin asked with a smile.

“Let’s get out of here,” I replied mechanically.

“Sure. What is there left for us to do here? Get ready. Soon you’ll be fine.”

“I already feel pretty normal. Everything has passed, except for the nausea.”

“That’s just hunger. A couple bucketfuls of my blood and it will disappear like magic!”

“Very funny.”

“If I didn’t laugh I’d retch at the sight of you. Have you looked in the mirror?”

“You think you looked any better when you hissed at the monster in the bedchamber?”

“Yes, I can only imagine. Onward, Max! We both truly deserve a breather.”

We went out into the garden. It was already getting dark. The bright round orb of the moon lit up Juffin’s weary face; his light eyes shone yellow. The yellow light enveloped me, and I thought stupidly, surprised: Why do people need eyes! Aren’t lanterns enough for them? That was my last thought. To be honest, I could have gotten along without that one, too . . .

Then I looked at my wounded hand, and blacked out.

Do you think I came to a week later in a soft bed, holding the hand of a pretty nurse? Think again! You still don’t understand what it means to work for Sir Juffin Hully. Do you think he’d let me lie around unconscious? Not he!

They brought me around immediately; true, in a very pleasant way. I found myself slumped against a tree with my mouth full of some amazing potion. Kimpa was kneeling at my side with a cup, which I reached out for eagerly. Another gulp of the reviving liquid was administered to me.

“Yum!” I said. And then demanded, “More!”

“That’s enough!” Juffin insisted. “I’m not stingy, but Elixir of Kaxar is the strongest tonic known to our science. Black Magic of the Eighth Degree! But I didn’t tell you that.”

“And who could I possibly tell? You, I suppose.”

“You never know . . . Well, still hankering after a little blood?”

I listened attentively to my body’s voice. It wasn’t calling out for blood. Then I turned my attention to the other aspects of my existence. Hm, newly acquired wisdom also nowhere in evidence. Although . . .

“Looks like there’s still something left from all that happened—though not like back there, of course.”

Juffin nodded.

“That shake-up did you good, Max. You never know what’s coming. Boy, what a day it was! But all joking aside, Melifaro is in deep trouble.”

“Those pathological specimens back at the fountain are in it even deeper.”

Sir Juffin waved his hand indifferently.

“It’s too late for them already. Helping the others will be as easy as one-two-three. But Melifaro, poor lad, has only a small chance. Let’s go home, Sir Max. We’ll feast, mourn, and think.”

At home, the first thing we did was to consume everything in sight in the kitchen. This revived me even more. The process of meditative mastication stimulates mental activity. My own, at least.

Just before dessert a belated ray of enlightenment visited me. I sat suddenly upright in the armchair, swallowed a piece of something that went down the wrong way, started coughing, and reached for a glass of water. To top off all the other misfortunes and mishaps of the day, I mistook a jug of the strongest Jubatic firewater for regular water, and chugged it down in one burning swig.

Juffin observed me with the interest of a research scientist.

“Whence this sudden passion for alcohol? What’s gotten into you?”

“I’m an idiot,” I admitted despondently.

Juffin rushed to console me. “Naturally, but don’t be so hard on yourself. You have plenty of other abilities.”

“I completely forgot about our witness! The little box! I had planned to chat with it at my leisure, but—”

Sir Juffin’s face underwent a sudden change.

“I also have plenty of other abilities. And now is just the time to think about them. An inexcusable blunder! You had every right to forget about the box—but me! I always suspected that the dimwittedness of Boboota Box was contagious. All the symptoms are there—I’m terribly sick. Go get your treasure and bring it here, Max. Let’s see what it can tell us.”

I went to my room. One of my slippers was lying on top of my pillow. On top of it, Chuff was dozing peacefully. I gingerly touched his shaggy ruff. Chuff smacked his lips, but didn’t wake up. And he was right not to—this was no time for waking up.

I found the little box at the bottom of one of the drawers, and tip-toed back out. My hands trembled slightly, for some reason. I felt a foreboding in my heart. What if it didn’t want to talk this time, either? Never mind, Juffin would think of something. He would shake the soul loose from it. I wonder what the soul of a box looks like? I cleared my throat, and the heavy feeling in my chest began to dissipate.

The dessert that goodhearted Kimpa decided to regale the exhausted heroes with exceeded my wildest expectations. This meant that the interrogation of the box was postponed for another quarter of an hour.

Finally, Sir Juffin made his way into the study. I followed behind, squeezing the smooth body of our singular and precious witness in my cold, moist hands. No denying, I was nervous. Something told me the little box was ready to talk to us, and this unnerved me all the more. I had always been fond of horror films, but now I would have been glad to watch The Muppet Show. Just for the sake of variety.

This time, the preparations for communicating with the box were far more elaborate than before. Sir Juffin rummaged around for a long time in the drawer where he kept the candles. Finally, he chose one, bluish-white, with an intricate design formed by tiny dark-red smatterings of wax. For five minutes or so he tried to start a fire using some kind of awkward flint stone, the workings of which I couldn’t fathom. At long last his efforts met with success. Placing the candle by the far wall, Juffin lay on his stomach in the opposite corner and gestured to me to join him. This I did. The floor in the study was bare and cold; there were no rugs. I thought: perhaps these inconvenient little rituals qualify as a kind of bribe to the “powers of the unknown.” Are the “powers of the unknown” really so petty?

Everything was ready. The little box occupied a spot exactly in the middle, between us and the candle. I had to exert very little effort to reach the little box’s memory. The box seemed even to have been pining for the opportunity to talk to someone. The “picture show” began with a bang—we just had to watch.

Sometimes my attention wandered. I had never had to perform this feat of concentration for more than an hour at a time in the past. When this happened, Juffin silently handed me a cup of Elixir of Kaxar. Once in a while he also took a nip of the herbal infusion. I don’t know whether he really needed it, or was just taking advantage of the situation.

The box, a clever little thing, showed us only what we were really interested in! True, Sir Juffin had often said that objects are inclined to remember first those events in which magic is present. He must have been right. But I liked to think that the little box was very much aware of what we were seeking. They say that we become sincerely attached to someone we help without expecting anything in return. Judging by my involuntary tenderness toward the box pilfered from Makluk’s bedchamber, this was certainly the case.

It started with the fracas involving the tub, which the injured party had told us about recently. There was the fragile old man with the handsome, weary face of an ascetic, the capricious expression of a spoiled child frozen on it. Our acquaintance Maddi is holding the washbowl. The old man’s little finger dips into the water. His lips curl in displeasure. The servant gets up off his knees, goes toward the door. The face of the sick man, contorted with rage, assumes a kind of demonically cheerful expression . . . he pitches and scores! The washbowl made from the finest china (we must presume) strikes the forehead of the unlucky fellow and smashes to smithereens.

Stunned, blinded by water and a thin stream of his own blood, Maddi executes an agile sideways leap worthy of an Olympic medal—if the Olympic Committee recognized the sideways leap as a full-fledged sport. The fatal mirror lay in the direct path of the poor Maddi, and blocked his flight. Nevertheless, everything turns out all right—no broken noses or missing teeth. No irreparable damage has been done—Maddi just bumps his face against the mirror, smeared it with his blood mixed with the water, and that is all.

Astonished, he turns to Sir Olli. At the sight of his face covered with blood, the fury of the old man turns to fear; the capricious grimace to an expression of shamefaced guilt. Peace negotiations get underway.

None of those involved in the event noticed what we were able to see. About the surface of the old mirror skittered a light ripple, like a sigh. In the places where the unlucky servant’s daubs of blood had touched the ancient glass, something began to pulsate and move. In a moment, it was all over. Only the mirror had become slightly darker, and deeper. But who pays attention to things like that? Sir Olli’s lips began to form sounds, a timid smile of relief appeared on Maddi’s bloodstained face. From behind the door someone’s head appeared. End of scene. The gloom thickened in front of us for a moment.

In a few seconds this gloom became the cozy darkness of the bedchamber. The weak light from a sliver of moon played over the sunken cheeks of Sir Olli. Something woke the old man up. I could tell that he was frightened. I felt his fear with my whole body—his helplessness and despair. I heard how he tried calling out to the servants; I felt that for the first time in his life something didn’t happen when he wished it to; just like today, when I couldn’t reach Juffin with my call. But in my case, I just lacked experience, though I had enough strength. Plus, in the end, I did manage to get through. Sir Olli, however, no longer had the strength to use Silent Speech. He was overcome by an icy horror. Something utterly alien and uncanny, which he could neither control nor understand, was in the room with him. For a moment it seemed to me that I saw a tiny object crawling along the old man’s cheek. I was seized by a shudder of disgust.

“Max, do you see that tiny vile thing?” Juffin asked in a whisper.

“Yes, I think I do.”

“Don’t look directly at it. Even better, don’t look at it at all. It’s a very powerful nasty little thing! The Master of the Mirror can take away your shadow, even now, when it is just a vision. Now I understand why old Lady Braba was frightened out of her wits—she’s the most gifted Seer in Echo. Not everyone has the strength to discern something like that—thank goodness! Take a sip of the elixir Max; a bit of protection wouldn’t hurt you at this point . . . There—the monster is going back into the mirror. In the places where the blood had smudged the mirror, he now has a door. You can look now. Have you ever seen a shadow disappear? Look, look!”

My trembling passed; my fear, as well. I concentrated again, and almost immediately saw the familiar outlines of the bedchamber. A semi-transparent Sir Makluk-Olli, looking younger but deathly scared, stood beside the mirror and looked at the other Sir Makluk-Olli, lying immobile in the bed. The surface of the mirror shuddered. The shadow (apparently, it was a shadow) sobbed helplessly, turned to the mirror, then tried to step back, to no avail. It didn’t melt, but seemed to disperse into the air in thousands of little shimmering flames of light. The flames burned out quickly, but I had time to notice that several of them disappeared into the mirror’s glassy surface. Five little flames: the exact number of poor Maddi’s spots of blood on the mirror.

Then the fear subsided, sharply and absolutely. The darkness of the bedroom became cozy and comforting—although there was now a dead man in the room. After all, death is something natural and predictable, unlike Magic of the 200th and Something Degree, be it black, white, or gray-brown-raspberry colored.

I realized I had stopped distinguishing the outline of our vision. Sir Juffin nudged me with his elbow. The show went on.

It was light again in the bedchamber. I saw a nice-looking young man in a festive bright-orange skaba. That was, of course, the hapless Nattis, the apprentice-courtier, who regrettably had not stayed home in the grand city of Gazhin. The young fellow smiled shyly, revealing the childish dimples in his cheeks. Then he concentrated hard and assumed a comically threatening countenance. Just then, Mr. Govins appeared in the frame—there was no longer any doubt in my mind about his sad fate. The mentor handed the pupil a razor, the handle of which might have inspired a nervous tic in any antique collector. Even I appreciated it.

I became hopelessly distracted and reached for the miracle elixir. Sir Juffin looked at me slightly askance, and not without suspicion.

“Just a drop,” I whispered guiltily.

“Never mind me, boy! I’m simply very envious . . . Well, give me a slug, too!”

When my vision returned to me, Nattis had already gotten down to work. He dragged the razor carefully over his cheek, smiling slightly at his own thoughts. The razor gradually crawled closer and closer to the pulsing, bluish vein on his slender boyish neck. Nevertheless, there was nothing unusual about it—it was an ordinary shaving routine.

But the mirror was not sleeping. At a certain moment, several points on its surface shuddered, and the icy horror again gripped my heart, fastened on it like an old Lovelace eyeing the appetizing derrière of a young girl.

Sir Juffin tweaked my chin gently.

“Turn away. Another improper scene. I myself try not to watch things like this. You know, they told me about these kinds of things long ago. And at the end of the story they hinted at the fact that it was better to make peace with such a creature than to struggle against it . . . Mmm, my neighbor has nice furniture, you can’t deny it! And yet he looks like such a nice man . . . Well, the boy, of course submitted to its whispering . . . Ah, Max! Now you must look very carefully. I’ve never seen anything like it! Only, be careful—don’t overrate your own strength.”

The first thing I saw was a helpless grin on the fellow’s face that closely resembled the awkward smile on our unfortunate Melifaro. The dimples froze forever in his cheeks, the smooth left one, and the unshaven right one. And blood, a great deal of blood. Blood poured over the mirror, which shivered in excitement under its spurting. This is how the breath of an inexperienced diver quickens as he struggles to reach the surface. There was no longer any doubt: blood returned life to the mirror, which only seemed to be a mirror, but was really a slumbering door to another, very foul place, to such a vile little place I sensibly averted my eyes and took a deep breath, as I had begun to give in to the nauseating rhythm in a very unpleasant way. Again I peeked cautiously. Nattis, of course, was already lying on the floor; Govins stared at his face, transfixed, and didn’t see how the bloody mirror, sated now, shuddered one last time, then grew dark and quiet—for the time being, of course. People crowded into the room. The vision disappeared.

“Juffin,” I said quietly. “So you know what this is?”

“I know what there is to know, insofar as it’s possible to know at all. This, Max, is a legend, you see. And it’s a legend I haven’t allowed myself to believe up until now. Well, I mean, whether I believed it or not—that’s not the point. I just didn’t bother to give it much thought. And lo and behold . . . well, never mind. Look! Now comes the most interesting part.”

“I wouldn’t mind something slightly more boring, Juffin. I’m feeling sick already.”

“What did you expect? Sure it’s sickening . . . It’s okay, though. After a debut like this, your job in the service will seem like a piece of cake! Things like this don’t happen every day, you know. Generally they don’t happen at all.”

“I hope not. Though I am lucky when it comes to entertainment.”

Next episode. We saw how Krops Kooly appeared in the bedchamber, another nice-looking young fellow with hair the color of an orange—which, by the way, is considered to be an undisputed sign of masculine strength and beauty in Echo. In the case of Krops Kooly, this belief was absolutely justified. There are many attractive people here, I thought suddenly. Many more than where I come from. Although they themselves aren’t aware of it, they have completely different esthetic norms. I wonder if I am considered to be attractive here, or a total scarecrow? Or what?

A very relevant question, indeed.

Meanwhile, the redhead went robustly through the motions of tidying the room. What else can you do if someone sends you to clean up a long-empty room, which is nevertheless cleaned up every day? He busied himself in every corner, menacingly waving his feather duster about—the only tool of his trade. Several minutes later it wasn’t even worth going through this. The room was in a pristine state. Then young Krops apparently decided that he had earned a rest. He stopped in front of the mirror and studied his face. With his fingers he pulled the corners of his eyes slightly. Then he let them go with a sigh of regret. It seemed that the almond-shaped variety had been tried before many times, and each time he found it more to his liking. Then he examined his nose with a critical air. (Show me a young person of either sex who is satisfied with his or her nose.)

I’m afraid that this trifling dissatisfaction was the last feeling he experienced in this life. The transparent spiderweb was already glistening on his sleeve. In a few seconds the boy ended up in the middle of an almost invisible cocoon. I felt in my stomach the dull relief that gripped the poor fellow—everything became irrevocably simple. YOU MUST GO THERE! And orange-haired Krops Kooly stepped into the depths of the looking glass. His helpless smile again resembled the expression on the petrified Sir Melifaro.

I turned away when I realized that my feelings coincided unpleasantly with the experiences of young Krops: I already almost felt how I was being consumed; and most disgusting of all, I felt I could easily grow to like it! The decomposing ape face appeared before me. The cavernous orifice of the mouth surrounded by squirming spider legs seemed so calm and inviting, such a desirable haven . . .

I took a bracing gulp of Elixir of Kaxar. Yes, Magic of the Eighth Degree—it’s really something! It’s devilishly delicious, and all your delusions seem to blow away like a puff of smoke! Since childhood I had been taught that only the bitterest, most foul-tasting concoctions could do you any good—and here I had discovered that it was all poppycock! Good news!

Convinced that my good sense was still in working order, I forced myself to return to the vision. Again, the empty bedchamber, tidy and clean.

“You see, Max?” Juffin’s elbow jabbed my long-suffering side. “You see?”

“What?”

“That’s exactly it—there is ab-so-lute-ly nothing there! Everything ended right then and there, like it had been switched off. It’s no wonder my gauge read only two to three that evening.”

It suddenly dawned on me. Evidently, the cheerful adventure in loving memory of Count Dracula really had raised my poor little IQ.

“After it eats, it sleeps . . . right? And nothing happens, because the mirror sleeps with its victims inside. And there’s no magic! Right?”

“Right. That’s how it fooled us. All our suspicions came to naught with one glance at the indicator on my pipe. Magic usually exists in the object in which it is invested. It either exists or it doesn’t. But this monstrous piece of furniture—it’s alive. And a living creature is sometimes wont to go off into the world of dreams. When a magus sleeps, all gauges fall silent. Most likely they are going crazy in other worlds, if such gauges were to exist in other worlds. Which, frankly speaking, I doubt. Well, let’s go back into the living room, Sir Max.”

“You know me—always ready for a snack!”

Sir Juffin got up off the floor, cracked his knuckles, and stretched. I carefully picked up the little box and put it in my pocket. I had always wanted a talisman. Now, it appeared, I had one at last. This one was plenty.

The candle, in the meantime, had burned out. I reached out mechanically to lift the stub up off the floor. There was nothing there. Nothing! By then, I wasn’t surprised, and I just filed it away.

We returned to the living room. The sky was growing light behind the window. We had a nice little sit-down, I remarked to myself indifferently. It had been twelve hours since Sir Makluk’s messenger arrived! Think of that!

The kamra was exquisite. The imperturbable Kimpa brought us a plate with tiny cookies that melted in the mouth. A sleepy Chuff came out to join us, wagging his tail. Right away, Juffin and I began a silent contest: who could feed Chuff the most cookies? Chuff succeeded in pleasing and amusing both of us, flying through the room like a small, shaggy torpedo. Having eaten his fill, he settled down between us under the table.

“Max,” Juffin said, suddenly sad. “Now I’m not sure whether Melifaro has even the slightest chance. We can’t just grab him by the scruff of the neck, pull him out of the room, and then bring him to his senses. He already belongs to the mirror, and it’s impossible to break those kinds of ties while life is on hold. When the mirror comes to life again, it will demand its victim, and take it anywhere it can get it—even from another world. I could, of course, destroy the monster. Shurf Lonli-Lokli can, too. But I’m not sure that anyone will be able to kill it fast enough to keep Melifaro on this side of life. And I can’t let everything remain as it is now. That can’t go on indefinitely. I must put an end to the mirror and its ravenous Master. But you can’t just destroy anything you want to while the world stands still! To kill the monster, I need to wake him up. And that means sacrificing Melifaro to him after all. You understand that that isn’t a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I don’t even want to consider the possibility! It’s a vicious circle, Max, a vicious circle.”

I reached for another cookie absently. I was sad. Before this, it would never even have entered my head that Sir Juffin, a man who had transferred me from one world to another in his spare time (tell me, what could be more improbable!) could grow so despondent and weary. I understood that there were limits to his might. This made me feel lonely and uncomfortable. I crunched my cookie loudly in the quiet room. A vicious circle . . . suddenly, an idea took my breath away. No, it couldn’t be as simple as that! If it had been that simple, Sir Juffin would certainly have thought of it himself. And yet . . .

“Juffin!” I called out hoarsely. I stopped, cleared my throat, and began again. “This is probably very stupid—but you said ‘a vicious circle.’ So, when one mirror is placed opposite another, that’s also a vicious circle. I was thinking—maybe if the monster sees its own reflection, they’ll want to feast on each other?” I finally plucked up the courage to look Juffin in the eye. He was looking at me, his mouth agape. Then the dam burst.

“Sinning Magicians! Do you have any idea what you’ve just said, lad? Are you aware of what a unique specimen you are? Tell me honestly!”

I must admit, I never expected such a storm of enthusiasm. The first few seconds I enjoyed the effects of my performance; then I began to feel embarrassed. I hadn’t made any shocking discovery. And it wasn’t even certain whether it would work, though something told me it would. A similar presentiment seemed to flood Juffin’s heart. “It will work—and how, it will work!” he cried jubilantly.

I stood up from the table, stretched, and went over to the window. The beauty of the sunrise could compensate for any sleepless night. I’ll tell you, the dawn is much more impressive when it comes as a surprise than when you dread its arrival.

“Go to sleep, Max,” Juffin urged me. “I’ve summoned Lonli-Lokli. He’ll be here in a few hours. Sir Shurf and his wonder-working hands. You’ll like him. But now you can rest awhile. I’m not going to let this chance slip by, either.”

“What do you mean by ‘wonder-working hands’?”

“You’ll see, Max, you’ll see. Sir Lonli-Lokli is our pride and joy. Try not to garble his name—he’s a real stickler in the matter of his own moniker . . . and not just that. I can’t begin to convey to you the pleasure that’s in store. But now—beddie-bye!”

In no mood to protest, I headed for my room. I fell onto the soft floor and wrapped myself in a furry blanket, as happy as I had ever been. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until that moment. All the same, something interfered in my bliss. I raised my head with difficulty; I almost had to pry open my eyelids with my fingers. Of course—on the pillow lay a single slipper, left there by a small fetishist named Chuff. The soft tap-tap of paws warned me that the culprit wasn’t far. I put the footwear back in its proper place. Then Chuff decided there was room for two on the pillow. I had no objections.

“Wake me up when this handyman Lonli-Lokli shows up, okay?” I asked, turning away from the excessively moist nose.

Chuff gave a conciliatory snuffle. Max sleeping. Tomorrow guests. Need to get up. Wake him. The logical deductions of this understanding dog drifted through my brain. And then I wasn’t there.

Strangely enough, I woke up without any help an hour before I needed to. I felt amazingly well. It was probably the aftereffects of that bracing Elixir of Kaxar. Wonderful stuff!

Chuff wasn’t around. He was probably wandering about in the hall, eager not to miss the arrival of Sir Lonli-Lokli so that he could carry out his instructions. For another ten minutes I just lolled around, stretched, and lazily indulged in the morning thoughts that afford real pleasure only when you’ve have a good night’s sleep. Then I got up, washed with enjoyment, and even made myself shave—a man’s daily forced labor; only the bearded are truly happy and free. I confess that the bathroom mirror awakened no unpleasant associations in me. It wasn’t that I was so thick-skinned; I just knew that it was an ordinary mirror. And I had come to know a bit more about things in my midst after my metamorphosis into a vampire the day before. Hm, yet another glorious page in my biography. I’ll definitely have something to talk about with girls—if only there were any girls. As for bedtime stories, there’s no shortage of those.

I went into the living room. Kimpa materialized by the table, a tray in his hands. Then Chuff appeared, surmising correctly that a good half of the breakfast would be coming his way. I gathered the dog in my arms, settled him on my lap, took my first cup of kamra, opened yesterday’s paper, and fished a cigarette from my domestic supply out of my pocket. I hadn’t had any luck trying to switch to the local pipe tobacco, the taste of which threatened to cast a pall over my existence. In this sense I am very conservative. It seems that it’s far easier for me to change my profession, my place of domicile, and even my perception of reality, than to get used to a new kind of tobacco.

“It’s good you didn’t remain a vampire, Max!” Juffin said by way of greeting. “Or I wouldn’t know what to feed you! I’d say to Kimpa in the morning: ‘Please, dear fellow, kamra and some toast for me, and a ladle of blood for Sir Max!’ I’d have to exterminate the neighbors one by one, use the privileges of office, cover up the tracks. I wouldn’t want to drive away such a clever and useful chap over such paltry nonsense. I just praised you, did you notice?”

“You’re just rubbing salt into the wounds!” I smiled, automatically examining the palm that had been hurt yesterday, which I had completely forgotten about. It wasn’t hard to forget, since the hand was almost completely healed already. The very faint, thread-like scar, which could pass for an extension of my lifeline, looked like it had been there for a few years already.

Juffin noticed my surprise.

“It’s just Black Magic of the Second Degree. That salve isn’t half bad! Kimpa rubbed it on your hand yesterday while you were making up your mind whether to return to consciousness. Why are you so surprised?”

“Oh, because of everything.”

“That’s your right. Oh, look! We’re all here.”

Sir Lonli-Lokli, whose absence had grieved his colleagues more than me, seemed to have been created with the specific purpose of shaking me down to the soles of my shoes. Me, and no one else, mind you! The indigenous people of Echo will never be able to appreciate the fellow’s merits until the Rolling Stones have played this World. Therefore, no one but me will be surprised at the remarkable likeness of Sir Lonli-Lokli to drummer Charlie Watts.

Add to that the stony immobility of his facial muscles; the exceptional height, combined with exceptional leanness, of his physique; wrap the result in the white folds of a looxi; crown him with a turban the color of alpine snow; and top it off with enormous leather gloves adorned with the local version of ancient runes . . . Well, you can imagine my surprise!

On the other hand, the ceremony of introduction to my future colleague unfolded without any deviations from the protocol. Having just finished with the formalities and sat down decorously at the table, Lonli-Lokli consumed his due portion of kamra. I kept waiting for him to draw some drumsticks out from under his armpits; I was on pins and needles in anticipation.

“I’ve heard all about you, Sir Max!” my new acquaintance exclaimed courteously, turning to me. “In my spare time, I often delve into books, and so I am in no way surprised at your upcoming appointment. Many authoritative sources mention the remarkable traditions of the inhabitants of the Barren Lands, which foster the development of certain magic skills that we, inhabitants of the Heart of the World, are deprived of. Sir Manga Melifaro himself called attention to your countrymen in the third volume of his Encyclopedia of the World.

“Melifaro?” I cried out in astonishment. “You mean to say that that chap also wrote for the Encyclopedia? I would never have suspected that!”

“If you mean my colleague, I completely endorse your suspicions. Sir Melifaro hardly has a bent for systematic scholarly labor,” Lonli-Lokli agreed. Then he went quiet, not bothering to explain himself.

“Manga Melifaro, the author of the Encyclopedia of the World, is the father of the candidate for the position of forever being in your debt,” Juffin explained. “If the imminent adventure ends well, I’ll make Melifaro promise to present us each with a set. He’ll be delighted—the poor man’s house is so stuffed with his father’s scribblings there’s no room to turn around.”

“You didn’t allow me to finish, gentlemen. I had intended to say that in the third volume of his Encyclopedia Sir Manga Melifaro wrote, ‘The border area of the Barren Lands is inhabited by the most diverse, sometimes extraordinarily powerful people, and not just wild barbarians, as capital-dwellers are sometimes inclined to believe.’ Therefore, I am glad to see you here, Max.”

On behalf of all the inhabitants of the Borderlands, I expressed my gratitude to the magnanimous Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives. (Such was the official name of the position held by this gentleman, extraordinary in every way.)

“The time has come, gentlemen!” Juffin said finally, getting up from the table. “By the way, Sir Shurf, we need to take a mirror with us. The largest one is hanging in the hall. I bought it at the Murky Market, at the very beginning of our Codex Epoch, when antique stores in the Old City weren’t yet open and the demand for luxury goods was just starting to grow. Best time to buy. I’m afraid it was the most expensive mirror in the whole Left Bank—I gave a whopping five crowns for it. And now look—ah, the sacrifices one has to make!”

We all went into the hall. The mirror was truly gigantic, and it seemed to me that it was worth every bit of five crowns, though at the time I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the local economy.

Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us! How are we going to haul it over there? I wondered in dismay. Although, with the three of us . . . maybe.

But Juffin had something else in mind.

“Pick it up, Sir Shurf, and let’s get a move on!”

I was about to conclude that this ceremonious Sir Lonli-Lokli had a mystical weightlifting gift. That would have come in handy. But the fellow had no intention of lifting a finger to carry it. Instead, he casually ran his hand, encased in its huge glove, over the surface of the mirror from top to bottom. The mirror disappeared—as far as I could tell—into his hand. My jaw dropped.

Jufffin, could you teach me that?

I had enough presence of mind not to shout it out loud, but to use the opportunity for Silent Speech—just in case.

Sure, Juffin replied calmly. Or Sir Shurf will teach you. Remind me sometime, when we’re taking it easy.

Upon return, Makluk’s house resembled a huge, abandoned crypt. Sir Lonli-Lokli, observing official protocol, opened the door and was the first to step over the threshold to the bedchamber. We followed close behind. The room was exactly as we had left it.

At the sight of poor motionless Melifaro, I must admit that my spirits plummeted. How could I have been so certain that I could save the day? What if my idea didn’t work? What would that make us, then—murderers? Or just fools? Good question. Rather, a moral dilemma. Bring on the anguish!

Sir Lonli-Lokli took a simpler view of things. “It’s a good thing he’s silent,” said this compassionate man, nodding in Melifaro’s direction. “If only he were always like this!”

In his tone there wasn’t a trace of spite—it was just a factual observation that he liked Melifaro more when he was quiet than when he was chatty. A purely aesthetic preference. Nothing personal.

Having expressed his opinion, Lonli-Lokli shook his fist vigorously, then opened it up and spread out his hand. The huge mirror from Juffin’s hallway dropped neatly to the floor between the Statue Melifaro and the secret entrance to another, baneful dimension.

“It’s a little crooked,” Juffin remarked. “Let’s try moving it a bit to the right, the three of us together.”

“Why all together, Sir?” the magnificent Lonli-Lokli asked. “I can manage on my own.” And with stunning carelessness, he shifted the huge bulk of the mirror with just his left hand. It turned out that the “mystical weightlifting gift” existed after all. I looked at him and held my breath in wonder, like a scrawny adolescent looking at a real-life Hercules.

Juffin looked over the layout critically. Everything was ready: the reflection of the bedchamber mirror fit snugly into ours, with even a bit of surplus around the edges. And the most important thing—the valuable antique of Sir Juffin’s completely concealed Melifaro.

The Chief of the Secret Investigative Force threw a parting glance at his treasure and began issuing commands.

“Get ready, Shurf! Max, get behind my back. Or, better yet, go stand by the door. You’ve already done everything you could. Your job now is to stay alive. I’m serious, Max!”

I took up position by the door. I had no objections to staying alive.

Sir Lonli-Lokli finally deigned to remove his gloves. Only then did I realize that what everyone said about Lonli-Lokli’s “capable hands” was not just a pretty expression. My eyes beheld two hands that were semi-transparent, and shone brilliantly in the midday sun. The long sharp nails cut through the air, then took refuge under the snow-white looxi. I blinked my eyes, dumbstruck, unable to express my admiration in any other way. Then I suddenly remembered—I had seen something like this, and not so very long ago. Where, I wondered, in a nightmare, perhaps? Sir Juffin took pity on my poor head and prompted in a whisper, “Remember we were studying the memory of a pin? The ceremonial severing of a hand? The Order of the Icy Hand—remember?”

I remembered, and opened my mouth to ask how the severed hands had become the hands of our esteemed colleague. But Juffin had anticipated my question:

“They’re gloves. I’ll explain later. Now it’s time to get down to work!”

With these words Juffin approached the motionless Melifaro. He stood at a vantage point that allowed him to observe the reflections of both mirrors. Then he stood absolutely still, on tiptoe. I held my breath, waiting.

This time there was no dance. But Juffin’s face and stance betrayed an unbelievable tension. Then, suddenly relaxing, Juffin made a slight gesture, as if he were removing a delicate covering from a priceless vase. At almost the same moment, and with all his might, he shoved the poor Melifaro. The body, immobile at first, then bent over convulsively, flew to the other end of the room, and collapsed onto the soft floor that served as a bed. Sir Lonli-Lokli immediately rushed over to him. Hiding his left hand behind his looxi, with his right hand he seemed to be rummaging about the figure of the stunned Melifaro. I realized what he was doing: Lonli-Lokli was destroying the glistening fibers that had enveloped the unlucky fellow. This was no small task; it was like looking for fleas on a stray dog. Sir Juffin stood out of the way, not taking his eyes off the mirror.

“Max!” he shouted all of a sudden. “We’re quite a pair! Amazing! It’s working! You can take a look—but be careful, even more careful than yesterday.”

Not everything was visible from where I stood, but I sensibly decided not to step any closer.

The mirror began to move. The newly awakened mirror-dweller was hungry and cranky; but its double was already stirring to life in the second mirror. The two monstrosities groped toward each other in curious wonder. I stared at the heavy, formless body of the creature, which looked more like the body of a huge, white frog suffering from obesity than anything else. The creature’s body was covered in the same disgusting, living hair that surrounded its mouth—dark, moist, drawing me in with a magnetic attraction . . .

I averted my eyes, but the mouth still stayed in the inmost depths of my consciousness. Then I forced myself to remember the bracing taste of Elixir of Kaxar. That helped, but only somewhat. If only a flagon of the potion was within reach!

To rid myself of the hallucination, I boxed my own ears and screamed silently, get a grip on yourself, man! After a few seconds I was so sober and clear-headed that curiosity got the upper hand. I looked again at the mirrors.

The first thing I saw was the silhouette of Lonli-Lokli, hanging over a sticky, mucous-like ball between the two grappling monsters. The powers were evenly matched. The double—I have to give him that—was not to be outdone by its original. The vile little ball rolled along the floor, and I went faint at the thought that it might make a rush for my leg. I didn’t even think about the danger, so great was my feeling of revulsion.

Lonli-Lokli’s left hand swept upward, slowly and solemnly—it was a strikingly beautiful gesture, laconic and powerful. The tips of his fingers shot out sparks, like sparks from a welder’s arc. A shrill scream, undetectable by the human ear, which nevertheless seared my insides, forced me to bend over in pain. Then the scream stopped just as abruptly as it had begun. The creatures erupted into white flames. I thought that these fireworks signaled the successful end of the operation; but then something happened that was completely not of this world. The mirrors themselves actually began to move. The abyss behind the mirror and its reflection attracted each other like magnets. Their collision, I understood, threatened us with unpredictable consequences.

“Max, get down on the floor!” Juffin barked. “NOW!”

I flung myself down, as he had ordered. He himself somersaulted over to the window that had been smashed the day before, then stood stock-still and alert. Sir Lonli-Lokli retreated backwards in one smooth motion, over to Melifaro’s body. There he sat on his haunches, clasping his hands prudently in front of him.

A quiet, but clearly hostile rumble started up from the matching depths. The glass in the mirrors buckled and grew convex, like sails billowing in the wind.

It seemed to me that we were in no real danger, for the mirrors had absolutely no interest in us. Instead, each revolting infinity advanced on its copy, until they merged into a kind of rabid Möbius strip, as each tried to swallow the other, just as the Mirror Monsters had just done. When it was finished, a dark, twisted up clump of some dark sticky substance was all that remained.

“Well, Sir Shurf, that last piece was your job, I suppose,” Juffin observed with obvious relief.

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

Another moment, and nothing was left of the nightmare.

Juffin jumped to his feet. The first thing he did was to go over and examine Melifaro, who was writhing around in the blankets.

“An ordinary faint,” he reported cheerfully. “The most common, everyday sort of fainting spell. He should be ashamed of himself! Let’s go, Max. Help me put this house in order. And you, Sir Shurf, deliver this priceless piece of meat into the arms of Kimpa. Let Kimpa bring him around, prepare oceans of kamra, and no less than a hundred sandwiches. Scarf down the food as soon as it’s served, and we’ll come and join you. Come on, Sir Max! Do you realize what has just happened? We did it! Sinning Magicians, we did it!”

Sir Shurf pulled on his thick protective gloves, grabbed up Melifaro, and carried him off under his arm like a rolled-up carpet.

And Juffin and I set out on a new journey through the house as it shrugged off the curse slowly, step by step. The spell of petrifaction that reigned over its dwellers merged into a deep sleep. It was far better this way. Sleep smoothes out the alien grimaces of another world. All would be forgotten; none of the survivors would be marked for the rest of their lives by the curse of the previous night. Tomorrow morning everything in this big house would be almost back to normal. The only thing that remained to do was to bury the unfortunate fellows who had been capering about the hall by the fountain, organize a spring cleaning, and call in a good medicine man to administer a calming herb to all members of the household for the next two dozen days.

It could have been worse. It could have ended very badly, indeed.

We went out into the garden.

“How nice it is out here!” I said with a sigh with relief.

Sir Juffin Hully took the liberty of patting me on the back, which is only allowed to the closest of friends in the Unified Kingdom.

“You turned out to be a wild wind, Sir Max! Much wilder than I expected. And I already had a high opinion of you, you may be quite sure!”

“A ‘wild wind’? Why ‘wind,’ Juffin?”

“That’s what we call people who are unpredictable. The kind about whom you never know what they might pull off next, how they’ll behave in a fight, what kind of effect magic will have on them—or Jubatic Juice! You never even know how much such a person will eat: one day he’ll empty the whole pot, and the next he’ll start preaching moderation . . . That was exactly what I needed: a wild wind, a fresh wind from another world. But you turned out to be a real hurricane, Sir Max! Lucky me!”

I was about to feel embarrassed, but then I thought—why should I? I really was pretty good; at least my part in the story of the mirrors. I’ll start indulging in modesty once the number of my exploits exceeds one hundred.

At home we found not only Lonli-Lokli waiting for us, decorously sipping his kamra, but also Melifaro, pale but quite lively, devouring the sandwiches from a tray resting on his lap. Chuff followed all his motions with great interest. Judging by the crumbs that had collected abundantly around the dog’s mouth, Sir Melifaro also had a soft spot in his heart for him.

“It’s too bad you saved me,” Melifaro said, grinning from ear to ear and bowing to Juffin. “Your pantry is running low with me around!”

“As if that matters! My pantry has long been in need of an airing. By the way, Max is the one you should thank. He was your main rescuer.”

“Thank you,” Melifaro purred, his mouth full of food. “So you, my fine friend, ate up the frog? And I thought it was our baleful sorcerers who took care of it.”

“Shurf and I, of course, worked with our hands,” Juffin explained modestly. “But only after Sir Max worked with his head. If it hadn’t been for his crazy idea about a second mirror, you would have been someone’s sandwich. Do you remember anything at all, you lucky devil?”

“Not a thing. Loki-Lonki described the scenario briefly—but his account lacked picturesque detail. I require a literary description!”

“You’ll get your picturesque detail. Chew up, first, or you’ll choke!” Sir Juffin said, shaking his head sternly.

“Sir Melifaro, my name is Lonli-Lokli. Please oblige me by learning how to pronounce it. It’s high time. There are only ten letters; it’s not such a daunting task!”

“That’s what I’m saying—Lonki-Lomki!” And Melifaro turned to me abruptly. “So in fact you’re my main rescuer? Well, what do you know, Sir Nocturnal Nightmare! I owe you one.”

That was the moment of triumph for me. I had been preparing my acceptance speech on the way over.

“Nonsense. Where we live, in the Barren Lands, every beggarly nomad has a mirror like Makluk’s in his household. I don’t understand why here, in the capital, people make such a big fuss over something so trivial.”

Shurf Lonli-Lokli expressed polite surprise. “Really, Sir Max? It’s strange that scholars make no mention of this.”

“There’s nothing strange about it.” I snapped, putting on a malevolent leer. “The ones who could have told the story are now forever silent. We have to feed our favorite house-pets somehow!”

Sir Juffin Hully burst out laughing. Melifaro raised his eyebrows in surprise, but realized almost immediately that I was just teasing and let out a guffaw. Lonli-Lokli shrugged indulgently and reached again for his mug.

“Save your strength, gentlemen,” Juffin warned. “Today in the Glutton a public holiday has been declared: it’s Melifaro’s resurrection. You do as you wish, but Max and I are going out to carouse. We’ve earned it! Sir Shurf, you’re coming too; and that’s an order! Melifaro, you’re probably still too weak. You stay here and get better. We’ll carouse for you!”

“Me, weak? You can just drive me to the Glutton.”

“Well, all right. We’ll drive you right to the doorstep. But you don’t know how Sir Max drives the amobiler! He’ll keep you in check—he’ll shake the living daylights right out of you!”

“Sir Max? You mean to say you’re a real racer?”

“I didn’t think so,” I said proudly, “but Sir Juffin was very dissatisfied when he came for a spin with me. He kept asking me to slow down, even though I was virtually crawling. Actually, everyone here drives slowly. Why is that I wonder?”

Melifaro leaped out of his chair.

“If that is true, then you’re perfect! Why is it that you haven’t conquered us yet?”

“The military potential of border-dwellers is extremely low,” Sir Lonli-Lokli remarked pedantically. “On the other hand, their intellectual capabilities are without doubt higher than ours. Unlike you, Sir Max learned to pronounce my name on the first try. An impressive debut, wouldn’t you say?”

Chapter 2 Juba Chebobargo and other nice folks

“MAX, ARE YOU SURE YOU’RE GOING TO BE COMFORTABLE here?” asked Juffin. He himself looked rather uncertain. “Or have you not yet come to terms with the fact that the King will be paying for your lodgings now?”

It all seemed quite funny to me: just yesterday the very idea that I could move into this massive empty house made my head spin. Sure, it was only two stories high, with one room on each story; but each room was the size of a small stadium. For some reason, they don’t seem to feel the need to economize on space in Echo. Local architecture features only low buildings, two or three stories high, which are, nevertheless, incredibly spacious. The house that I chose on the Street of Old Coins was smaller than its neighbors, which I rather liked about it. Judging by Juffin’s expression, however, it seemed I was enchanted to be living in a slum.

“We Border Dwellers are slaves to habit,” I said proudly. “If only you could see the yurts we inhabit in the Barren Lands.” This secret ethnographic reference was for the benefit of the house’s owner, who stood deferentially to the side. After all, you can’t very well tell a respectable citizen that the person who wants to rent his house is an émigré from another world. The poor fellow was, of course, delighted by his good fortune, but not enough to let this intriguing information about my origins slip by unnoticed.

“And besides, I made my choice out of a sense of duty. The more wretched my conditions at home, the more time I will spend at work.”

“Sounds reasonable, Sir Max. Very well, you can sleep upstairs and entertain guests on the first floor. But where do you propose to keep the help?”

I decided it was time to stand my ground with my boss.

“I don’t approve of keeping servants. I can’t have strangers walking around in my house—closing books that I leave open, going through my private belongings, stealing my cookies, and looking into my eyes with devotion while waiting for me to give orders. I should pay money for that? No, thank you.”

“I see, Sir Max. You’re suffering from a bad case of asceticism, complicated by pathological stinginess. How do you plan to spend the money you’ve saved?”

“I’ll collect amobilers. With my driving habits, I’ll go through them in no time.”

Sir Juffin sighed. For him, forty miles an hour was insufferable recklessness, and perhaps that wasn’t too far from the truth. Before my arrival, people in Echo were under the impression that thirty miles per hour was the absolute limit for this cutting-edge miracle of local technology. That was how I first became something of an attraction in those parts.

“You really are an oddball, Sir Max, moving into a house with only three bathing pools!”

Here I had to admit I had slipped up. In Echo, the bathroom is a special place. Having five to six small swimming pools with water of varying temperatures and aromas is considered not a luxury, but the norm. But even that wasn’t enough to turn me into a sybarite. In Sir Juffin’s house, where there were eleven such baths, I felt that bathing was hard work, and not something to be enjoyed. So I was quite sure that three baths would be more than enough for me.

“I suppose you’re right,” Sir Juffin said. “What difference does it make where you make your bed at night? Oh, well, it’s your life and you can indulge in self-deprivation if you wish. Let’s go over to the Glutton, Sir Max. It would be great if we made it over there an hour before everyone else.”

The amobiler sent by the Ministry of Perfect Public Order was already waiting for us. The owner of the house had us sign the rental papers, and, still unable to believe his luck, disappeared before we could reconsider.

We were given a warm welcome at the Glutton Bunba, the best pub in Echo. We sat down at our favorite table between the bar (they say it’s the longest in the whole city) and the courtyard window. I sat facing the unprepossessing landscape. Sir Juffin sat across from me, with a view of the bar and Madame Zizinda’s unbelievable bust thrown into the bargain.

As we had hoped, we were the first to arrive. Today was to be my official introduction to my colleagues, and Sir Juffin traditionally held such meetings at the Glutton. The protocol would be somewhat simplified, as I had already become acquainted with two combat units of the Minor Secret Investigative Force. I had met Sir Melifaro, the Diurnal Representative of Sir Juffin Hully, and Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, the Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives (a delightful little job that fellow has, I must say), when we had to restrain Sir Makluk’s berserk mirror. My new acquaintances were more than willing to share the story with listeners over a cup of kamra. Juffin’s remarks would only fan the flames of interest.

As a result, I got the reputation of being some sort of superman. That was enjoyable, of course, but it also gave me certain responsibilities to live up to. I was nervous and grateful to Juffin for suggesting we arrive at the Glutton before the others. At least I would have a warm seat beneath me before my colleagues arrived, and I might even be in high spirits if someone offered me a glass of Jubatic Juice.

It turned out, however, that Jubatic Juice was not considered the acme of liquid perfection. They brought us some excellent kamra and a jug of aromatic liqueur, the name of which—Tears of Darkness—gave me an uneasy feeling. As I soon found out, though, that this was just a poetic name given to the drink by its ancient inventor, and had nothing to do with its taste.

“Take it easy, Max,” said Juffin. “Melifaro and I talked about you at such length, and Sir Lonli-Lokli was so eloquently silent, that the poor fellows are going to show up here draped in protective amulets of every kind.”

“Yes, I thought as much . . . Juffin, that old lady at the next table—is she by any chance one of your crew? She seems to be eyeing me suspiciously.”

To my surprise, Juffin stared at me with a nearly threatening gaze. I didn’t know what to think.

“Why do you say that, Max?”

“I’m sorry. I was just trying to be funny. That sweet lady definitely had her eye on me. She still does.”

“You surprise me, Sir Max.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that tomorrow I’ll be wearing protective amulets too, just in case.”

Meanwhile, enveloped in the folds of her dark looxi, the sweet lady, who was in fact a large old woman, stood up gracefully from her table and approached us. The woman’s face underwent a transformation as she made her way over to us. By the time she arrived at our table, she was an elderly gentleman of ample and squat build. I blinked my eyes, unable to grasp what was going on.

“I see you as in a waking dream, Sir Max,” he said politely, covering his eyes with the palm of his hand, as one does upon first being introduced. I automatically returned the gesture.

“I’m glad to speak my name: I am Kofa Yox, Master Eavesdropper. Congratulations, son. You saw right through me.”

“But sir, I didn’t mean to,” I began, embarrassed. “I was just making a joke.”

“Right. Next thing you know, you’re going to say you’re sorry, and that it won’t happen again,” said Juffin, laughing out loud. “Just look at him, sitting there with a guilty expression. Anyone else would be gloating over it!”

Kofa Yox smiled gently. “That’s reassuring. It’s great to have at least one humble person working in our organization.” He sat down next to Juffin, facing me, and took a sip of kamra.

“This place has the best food in all of Echo, to be sure!” Sir Kofa Yox said, and smiled again. “I have news for both of you. Everyone in the city is talking about the Venerable Head’s new Nocturnal Representative—that’s you, son. There are two popular versions of the story. The first is that Juffin Hully brought a creature from the World of the Dead to Echo. Is that a look of delight I see, Sir Max? The second version is that the Venerable Head gave a job in the Force to his illegitimate son, whom he had been hiding away since time immemorial. What do you think of that, Juffin?”

“They couldn’t come up with anything more interesting than that?” my boss asked with a snort. “Capital City lore seems to thrive on only two topics: forbidden magic and the amorous adventures of my youth. The latter seems to arouse particular interest, because instead of being born in Echo like most normal people, I came here from Kettari. People think that there’s nothing to do in the provinces but indulge in daily fits of shameless lust. Yes, Kofa, the King will have to raise your salary. What a job, having to listen to such idle nonsense, day in and day out!”

“It’s all right. It annoyed me for the first eighty years, but I got used to it after that. I’ve worked with Juffin for a long time, Max,” said Kofa Yox, giving me another soft paternal smile.

“Before that, Sir Yox was Police General of the Right Bank,” said Juffin, “and tried to have me arrested for many years. On several occasions, his efforts nearly succeeded, but in the end, they all fell through. That was during the Epoch of Orders, a long time before the battle for the Code of Krember. In those days, any citizen could perform magic of the fortieth degree on a whim. Can you imagine?”

I shook my head. It was hard to adjust to the fact that people here lived no fewer than three hundred years. As for more prominent persons, who made up the majority of my acquaintances, they managed to extend their existence almost indefinitely.

How old was Kofa, anyway? I wondered. I would have said he was no older than sixty, and a sixty-year-old is a teenager by local standards. Melifaro, for example, who was about my age, I had thought, turned out to be one hundred and fifteen years old. He was born on the very morning that the Code of Krember had been established. In other words, he was born on the first day of the first year of the Code Epoch, something he liked to joke about, though in his heart I believe he was very proud of it. As for Juffin’s age, for some reason I was too shy to ask. Or maybe I was afraid of whatever mind-boggling number the answer might be. In any case, at the ripe old age of thirty I cut a strange figure in their midst. At my age they were only children, just learning to read and write.

While I was doing this arithmetic, our numbers had grown. A young man with a disproportionately long, skinny body hidden in a violet looxi stood in the doorway, smiling shyly. Walking toward us, he managed to knock over a stool. He apologized so sweetly to the middle-aged lady sitting near ground zero that she followed the clumsy young man with a tender gaze. The affable creature began talking even before he got to our table, gesticulating as he advanced.

“I am most honored to be able to pay you my respects in person, Sir Max! I have so many things to ask you. I must admit that I have been burning with anticipation for the past few days, if you will forgive my lack of discretion.”

“And you are—?” I asked.

The corners of my mouth began to spread into a smile. I felt like a rock star in the embraces of a fan who had been raised by his elderly grandmother, a countess.

“Please forgive me! I am very glad to speak my name. Sir Lookfi Pence, Master Keeper of Knowledge, at your service.”

“This little marvel of nature looks after our buriwoks, Sir Max,” Sir Juffin said. “Or, rather, the buriwoks look after him in their spare time.”

My interest in Mr. Pence grew. I had already heard about these clever talking birds endowed with absolute memory. Buriwoks are rare in the Unified Kingdom. They come from the distant shores of Arvarox, but there are several hundred such wonderful creatures at the House by the Bridge. They serve as an archive for the Ministry of Perfect Public Order. The bird’s prodigious memory can store thousands of dates, names, and facts. I can certainly imagine that it would be much more interesting to talk to a buriwok than to sift through reams of paper. I was desperate to see one of these amazing birds with my own eyes, so the man who spent all his working days with them seemed to be a useful acquaintance.

“Why are you alone, Sir Lookfi?” asked Juffin, smiling at the Master Keeper of Knowledge, who had already seated himself beside me. One of the edges of his expensive looxi accidentally ended up in a mug of kamra though this was his only mishap for the moment.

Now, having studied his face for a time, I saw that Sir Lookfi was not as young as I’d first thought. Rather, he belonged to that rare breed of men who look like boys until they are old, when all of a sudden they begin to look their own age.

Lookfi smiled and said, “I’m alone, Sir Juffin, because the others stayed behind to discuss a philosophical matter: the question of necessity versus free will.”

“Sinning Magicians! What’s going on over there?”

“No need for concern, sir. They are trying to come to a decision. After all, someone should stay behind at the Ministry. On the one hand, that is Sir Melifaro’s responsibility. He is your Representative, and when you can’t be at the House by the Bridge, his presence there is required. He already knows Sir Max, so his presence here as a matter of etiquette would seem unnecessary. On the other hand, as your Deputy and our Senior, he has the right to appoint any substitute he judges to be competent.”

Juffin chuckled, and Sir Kofa smiled.

“When I left,” Lookfi continued, after absent-mindedly taking a gulp from my glass of Tears of Darkness, “Lady Melamori was saying that of the three of them, she was the only one who had not yet met Sir Max. She said she didn’t want to hear any more of their philosophical wrangling, and that she was going to sit in the next room until they finished their idiotic debate. Allow me, if I may, to disagree with her view of the matter. I think the discussion was very interesting, and I believe there is a moral to be learned from it. But I thought it might occur to Sir Melifaro that I am also a member of the Secret Investigative Force. In short, I thought it best to be impolite and leave on my own accord.”

“Give that glass back to Sir Max and take your own. There’s more in it,” Kofa Yox whispered. “Be careful, my boy: what if that’s considered a terrible insult among the inhabitants of the Barren Lands? You can’t imagine how frightening Sir Max is when he’s enraged.”

“Oh dear . . .” Sir Lookfi’s face expressed both of fear and curiosity at the same time. “Is that true, Sir Max?”

“You’re in luck,” I said. “According to our traditions, that signifies the beginning of a long and close friendship. To seal this pact, however, I must finish your glass. Besides, it’s brimming over!”

Sir Juffin Hully looked at me with almost fatherly pride. Lookfi was radiant:

“You see, Sir Kofa! And you said it was an insult. I have very good intuition, you know. When I was still just a schoolboy, I already . . . Oh, forgive me gentlemen. I get carried away sometimes. My school years are not the most interesting subject for table-talk.” He turned to me. “Sir Max, is it true that you will be working alone and only by night? You know, night is the most interesting time of day! I’ve always envied people who don’t feel the need to go to bed as soon as the sun sets. For example, my wife Varisha also believes that real life only begins after nightfall. That’s why I almost never get enough sleep.” He finished his speech abruptly, looking quite sheepish.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Your habits also have their advantages.”

“It seems that the idea of responsibility has won in the philosophical debate,” Juffin said. “I salute the victors!”

Now I saw a couple, charming in all respects, approaching us. One of the two was the tall, lean Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, who resembled Charlie Watts. He was dressed, as usual, all in white. Leaning on his arm was a petite, spry lady, wrapped in an elegant looxi the color of the night sky. Instead of the broad-shouldered Amazon I had expected as my colleague, she was a celestial creature with the face of Diana Rigg, the English actress who played James Bond’s erstwhile girlfriend. I wonder how they feel about office romances here? I made a mental note to ask Juffin about that.

Jokes aside, the lady was indeed lovely. Her eyes twinkled with intelligence and humor. I had always thought those were two sides of the same coin. I sensed with all my body—only recently awakened to all the wonderful possibilities—the power that exuded from this little lady, no less dangerous than that of the phlegmatic Sir Lonli-Lokli, whose deadly hands I had already seen in action.

“I am happy to speak my name: Melamori Blimm, Master of Pursuit of the Fleeing and Hiding,” the lady introduced herself quietly. Much to my surprise she seemed visibly nervous. Sinning Magicians, what had they told her about me?

“It gives me joy to hear your name spoken,” said I. Not out of a sense of courtesy. I sincerely meant it.

Lonli-Lokli nodded at me politely with the surreptitious pride of an old friend and sat down next to Lookfi Pence. Melamori moved closer, and my head felt giddy from the pungent scent of her perfume.

“Forgive my familiarity, Sir Max, but I decided to come with a gift. Sir Juffin would surely think me a miser if I had done otherwise.” With these words she drew out a bottle from the folds of her looxi. “I am sure you have not tried wine of this kind before. I myself have rarely had the pleasure to enjoy it, although my uncle, Kima Blimm, favors me above everyone else in the family.”

Handing me the bottle carefully, she sat down on a stool next to Kofa. I examined the bottle.

“You’re a lucky man, Sir Max!” Juffin exclaimed. Suddenly he looked two hundred years younger. “That is indeed a rarity. Eternal Dew is a wine from the deepest cellars of the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover! Kima Blimm, Melamori’s uncle, is the Supervisor in Chief of the Order’s wines. That’s why I hired her. There, there, don’t take offense, Lady Melamori! We didn’t meet just yesterday. You could very well make a list of Sir Juffin Hully’s Worst Jokes and sell it to the Echo Hustle and Bustle.”

“Well, Sir Max has just met me, and he’ll think that I got my job in the Secret Investigative Force because of my relatives,” Melamori said, sounding hurt.

“Sir Max knows me too well, my dear. Besides, I suspect he’s already sensed your worth. Not even half an hour ago he pointed out Sir Kofa, who came disguised as a lady of grand proportions, and asked me if he wasn’t one of the Secret Investigators. Isn’t that right, Sir Max?”

Three pairs of eyes fastened themselves upon me. I felt a strong urge to study the contents of my cup.

“You’re exaggerating, sir. Suppose that my guess was right, just for once . . . All right, I admit that when I saw Lady Melamori, I thought that she must be at least as dangerous as Sir Shurf, that’s all,” I said, winking at the pouting beauty. “Am I right?”

Melamori smiled like a cat who had eaten a filling meal.

“I think the men I dragged by the collar and threw into Xolomi, or someplace worse, would agree with you, Sir Max,” she said, then added with the expression of a sweet little girl, “Still, you do me too much credit. Sir Shurf is an unparalleled killer. Me? I’m still learning. But I am good at manhunting!” Melamori smiled again, showing her sharp little teeth. “And I need only start trailing a man for his luck to turn and his strength to wane,” the dangerous lady said, then looked at us quizzically. “Forgive me, I seem to have allowed myself to get carried away!”

“It’s quite all right,” said Juffin. “You should take advantage of Melifaro’s absence while you can, dear girl. At what point do you think he would have interrupted that fiery speech of yours?”

“Right after the second word,” said Melamori, and giggled. “That’s for sure! Although when Sir Melifaro and I are alone, his gallantry knows no bounds. He lets me say at least five or six words at a time. Can you believe it?”

“No, I can’t. Even I am rarely able to accomplish that; and I am the Most Venerable Head! By the way, Shurf, how did you manage to get past him?”

“That was easy. I asked your personal buriwok, Kurush, to quote from the section of the Code that Sir Melifaro received upon being appointed to his job. It clearly stated that—”

“I see,” said Juffin, laughing. “There is no need to continue. A hole in the heavens above you both! You’re two of a kind!”

Harmony in the Minor Secret Investigative Force, I surmised, was based on the ancient dialectical principle of the unity and struggle of opposites. Temperamental Melifaro and cold-blooded Lonli-Lokli; unpredictable Juffin and steady, reliable Kofa Yox; harmless, gangly Lookfi and the formidable little lady Melamori Blimm. I wonder, which of them I would have to counterbalance? I suppose it would have to be all of them at once. I am, after all, a creature from another world.

In the meantime, everyone’s attention seemed to be fixed on the bottle of Eternal Dew.

“May I ask you, Sir Kofa, to divide this luxury between all of us fairly?” My intuition told me that this elderly gentleman was a person one could depend on in such sticky everyday situations.

My generosity won me the heartfelt goodwill of all present. Later, Sir Juffin told me that if I had taken the gift home with me it would have been accepted as a matter of course—they know how to respect the gastronomic weaknesses of others here. But my decision came as a pleasant surprise to the gathering of gourmets.

During the tasting, Lonli-Lokli astonished me yet again. From beneath the snow-white folds of his looxi he produced a wooden cup, darkened with age, and handed it to Sir Kofa. This in itself did not surprise me: I could very well imagine Sir Shurf carrying an ancient family heirloom around with him everywhere he went for just such an occasion. Then I noticed that the cup had no bottom. Sir Kofa paid this no heed and impassively filled the holy chalice with the rare drink. Not a drop spilled from the cup. Juffin understood that I was in urgent need of a brief history lesson.

“Don’t look so surprised, Max. In his time, Sir Shurf was a member of the Order of the Holey Cup. He served there as a Fish-Fellow, Keeper of the Order’s Aquariums, which had as many holes as this honorable vessel. Members of the Order ate only fish, which they bred in those very aquariums, and washed down their meals with drinks from jugs with holes in the bottom. Isn’t that right, my friend?”

Lonli-Lokli nodded gravely, and downed his portion of the drink.

“Before the Troubled Times,” Juffin continued, “the Order of the Holey Cup was in good standing with the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover.” This he said with a respectfully comic bow in the direction of Lady Melamori. “So it was dissolved on very agreeable terms. Like his other former colleagues, our good Sir Shurf still has special permission to adhere to the ancient traditions of his order. In other words, he may drink from a holey cup. Because he is using forbidden magic, he is obliged to offset the potentially dire consequences of his actions with all his might. This he does every time, although it consumes a great deal of the power he gains from the ritual. Have I left anything out, Sir Lonli-Lokli?”

“You have explained the reasons and consequences of my action in a succinct and informative manner,” Lonli-Lokli intoned with a nod. He held the cup in both hands, and his impassive face radiated an intense serenity.

After a tray filled with pots of delicacies and a portion of Eternal Dew had been sent off to poor Melifaro at my insistence, I could be certain that from then on, every one of my colleagues would be willing to die for a smile from me. I wasn’t going to be the one to impose that fate on them, though. I smiled a lot that evening, and absolutely free of charge. I managed to maneuver around the thorny ethnographical questions that poured from the curious but trusting Lookfi, to flirt with Lady Melamori, to listen to Sir Kofa, to pronounce Lonli-Lokli’s name correctly, and to amuse Juffin. It was amazing! For the first time in my life I was the life of the party, and a significant one at that. When the number of dirty dishes finally exceeded the capabilities of any local dishwasher, we decided to part ways. Sir Kofa Yox kindly deigned to take Melifaro’s shift, and in an equally compassionate gesture, Sir Juffin Hully awarded them each an extra Day of Freedom from Chores. Then he extended an invitation to both of them for dinner tomorrow around sunset at the Glutton. So it seemed that Melifaro had only gained from missing today’s event.

The Ministry of Perfect Public Order had to do without me for one last night. I planned to spend it moving into my new place. The next day, after lunch, I was supposed to report to the House by the Bridge and officially begin my job. Put simply, I had to figure out what was required of me in the course of a few hours, though doubts about my abilities were gradually disappearing.

The family amobiler arrived for Lady Melamori. The fragile, petite Master of Pursuit smiled as we bid each other goodnight and told me quietly that Sir Max was a strange name: a bit too short, but it sounded nice all the same. And off she rolled toward home in truly royal pomp and splendor. Besides the driver, her amobiler boasted two musicians, whose job it was to fulfill the role of a car stereo.

Lookfi and Lonli-Lokli set off for home in the company amobiler. Everyone has the right to do this, though not everyone takes advantage of the privilege. Old Kimpa, Sir Juffin Hully’s butler, came to pick us up. Juffin always leaves for home in his own amobiler, which he justifies by saying that the company vehicle makes him feel like he‘s still at work. In his own amobiler, however, he feels like he’s already home. And you’d have to be the last fool on earth to refuse to knock off work a half hour early. I think that makes perfect sense.

On our way back home we sat side by side in silent contentment. When you know what to talk about with someone, it’s a sign of mutual sympathy. But when you are moved to be quiet together—well, that’s the start of a real friendship.

“Should we sit another half hour over some kamra?” asked Juffin. It wasn’t really a question, but more a statement of fact on his part, as we stood in the doorway of the house. Little Chuff met us in the foyer, wagging his stubby tail. Max has come! But he is leaving, going far far away, the mournful thoughts of the old dog reached me.

“I won’t be that far, Chuff!” I said to the dog. “I’d take you with me, but I know you couldn’t stand being away from your master. Besides, unlike Kimpa, I don’t know how to cook, and I know you have gourmet tastes. I’ll come visit you, all right?”

My furry friend sighed and licked his chops. You’ll come visit. For lunch, he responded with enthusiasm.

Sir Juffin was pleased.

“So you see, everything is taken care of. That a boy, Chuff! A healthy, pragmatic attitude, and no sentiment whatsoever!”

We settled ourselves in comfortable armchairs in the parlor, and Chuff lay down at my feet, allowing himself this slight disloyalty to Juffin in view of the occasion. Kimpa served us kamra and cookies. I enjoyed lighting up my last cigarette, as my reserves had finally run out. My new life was about to begin. I would switch to smoking a pipe or quit smoking altogether. Neither choice seemed particularly appealing, but there were no others in sight.

We exchanged a bit of gossip about my new acquaintances—Juffin’s curiosity seemed to know no bounds. Now he wanted to know my opinion: Did I like Kofa? What about Lookfi? And Melamori? Since the topic had come up anyway, I decided to ask about office romances. Were they outlawed by some regulation in the Code of Krember? Because if they were forbidden, Juffin was free to arrest me right then and there for criminal intent.

“I’m not aware that such things are forbidden. A strange idea, really . . . Is it where you come from? Forbidden, I mean?” he asked in surprise.

“No, not really. But having a relationship with someone at work is frowned upon. Although that’s all anyone ever does.”

“Your World is an odd place, Max! You think one thing, but you do the opposite. We don’t ‘think’ anything. The law stipulates what is required of us, superstition is a matter of inner conviction, traditions attest to our love of habit; but even so, everyone is free to do what he wishes. Go ahead and give it a try, if you feel like it. Although, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. Lady Melamori is a strange young woman. She’s an incurable idealist, and I do believe she enjoys her solitude. Melifaro has been courting her for several years now, without success. She enjoys telling everyone about it; but what good can come of it?”

“Oh, I can just imagine what Melifaro’s attentions are like! ‘Please be so kind as to remove your splendiferous backside from my presence, dear, for its divine shapeliness is distracting me!’”

Sir Juffin laughed. “You guessed it, Max! You really are clairvoyant!”

“Not at all. It’s just that some things go without saying.”

“Regardless, Melifaro is a favorite among the ladies. Although he is no redhead; but then again, neither are you! Do as you wish, though I fear your efforts will not meet with success.”

“I’ve never really had any luck with women in my life. Well, at first I was fairly lucky. Then all of a sudden, they all thought they had to get married for some reason. And not to me. It’s especially strange, because I almost always fell in love with very smart girls. Even that didn’t help matters. I don’t see how any intelligent person could seriously want to get married. In any case, I’m used to it.”

“Well, if that’s how it is, it means you’re either the most thick-skinned or the slipperiest son-of-a-werewolf in the entire Unified Kingdom.”

“Neither. This is probably another one of those cultural differences. We forget pain quickly, and those who can’t at least dull it are apt to inspire pity mixed with incomprehension. Their relatives may also try to persuade them to see a psychoanalyst. I suppose that’s because we don’t live very long, and spending several years on one sorrow would be a ridiculous extravagance.”

“How long do you live?” asked Sir Juffin in surprise.

“About seventy or eighty years. Why do you ask?”

“You die so young? Every one of you?”

“But you see, we’re old by that time.”

“How old are you, Max?”

“Thirty . . . at least, I will be soon. Perhaps I already am. When is my birthday? I’ve lost count since I came here.”

Sir Juffin became seriously alarmed.

“Still a child! Oh dear! I hope you’re not going to die prematurely in forty or fifty years time. Now, let me take a good look at you.”

Juffin jumped out of his chair. A second later he was poking my back with his hands, which suddenly became ice-cold and heavy. Then his hands grew hot, and I felt that my mind, which always used to occupy a place somewhere behind my eyes, was shifting, moving down my spine. I could “see” the warm radiance of his coarse palms with my . . . back! Then it ended, just as unexpectedly as it had begun. Sir Juffin returned to his place, thoroughly satisfied with the results of his examination.

“It’s all right, boy. You’re no different from me, though you may find it hard to believe. That must mean that it isn’t your nature, but your lifestyle that determines your life expectancy. Here in the World you can live for well over three hundred years—as long as no one kills you, that is. You had me frightened for a moment there, Sir Max! What kind of place is your homeland anyway? What sort of hellhole did I pull you out of?”

“The World of the Dead, apparently,” I said with a rueful laugh. “Your city’s taletellers had it almost right. But it’s not all that bad. When you’ve known only one world since childhood, it’s inevitable that it all seems natural. When I left home, I didn’t regret a thing. I doubt, though, that you’ll find many like me. I don’t count, anyway, because I was always a dreamer. I suppose I really was a classic loser. Most people would tell you that nothing good could come of dreaming. The life expectancy you have here, on the other hand, could get a lot of folks to switch sides. If you plan to recruit more of my people, keep that in mind.”

“As if I needed your countrymen.”

“What if another guy makes a habit of seeing you in his dreams?”

“Well, then we’d have to find another vacancy for him. Okay, okay; you’re right. I won’t make a promise I can’t keep.”

Alas, all things have the idiotic habit of ending at some point. Sir Juffin went to bed and I began to get ready to move.

I was sure that I had almost nothing to pack. Boy was I wrong! My earthly riches consisted of a catastrophically overgrown wardrobe and library. There were also Juffin’s gifts and the fruits of my walks about the city, when I had visited all kinds of shops, frittering away the advance I’d received on my salary. As for the library, it included the Encyclopedia of the World by Manga Melifaro, kindly given to me by his youngest son. That unwieldy eight-volume set was but a drop in the ocean of my possessions.

Along with all the rest, I packed the outfit I had been wearing on the day I first arrived in Echo. It was highly unlikely that I would ever again need to wear that pair of jeans and a sweater, but I couldn’t just throw them out, either. Perhaps I’d get a chance to go home for a visit, if only to pick up some cigarettes. Who knows?

Trips between my bedroom and my new amobiler parked by the gate outside took almost an hour. But even this work was finished eventually. I drove home with my heart beating happily and my head a complete void. “Home.” How strange the word sounded to me!

I crossed over the Echo Crest Bridge, full of the inviting lights of shops and bars, still doing a lively trade even at this late hour. Here in Echo people really get the meaning of night life. Maybe that’s because even permitted magic allows you to carouse for a night or two without seriously harming your health.

Across the bridge I found myself on the Right Bank. Now my path led straight to the heart of the Old City. I preferred to dwell in its narrow alleyways rather than the wide streets of the New City, Echo’s wealthy downtown.

The mosaic sidewalks of the Street of Old Coins had lost almost all of their original color. Still, I preferred the tiny stones of the ancient mosaics to the big bright tiles that covered the new streets. My newly gained experience told me that material objects remember events and can tell us about them. Juffin had taught me to listen to their murmurings, or, rather, the visions they transmit. I had always loved ancient history. I’d have something to do in my spare time, anyway!

My new house was glad to see me. Not long ago I would have thought I was letting my imagination get the better of me. Now I knew that I could trust my vague inklings as much as obvious facts. Well, good; we like each other, my new house and I. It was probably tired of standing empty. The landlord said that the prior inhabitants moved out some forty years ago, and since that time, the only visitors had been the cleaners.

I got out of the amobiler and took my belongings into the parlor. The room was almost empty, as is the custom here in Echo. I’ve always liked interiors like that, but until now I had never had the opportunity to develop this aesthetic. There was a small table covered entirely by a basket of provisions I had ordered from the Glutton Bunba, several comfortable armchairs like the ones Sir Juffin had in his sitting room, and several shelves nestled against the wall. What more does a man need?

I spent the next two hours arranging my books and trinkets on the shelves. After that, I went upstairs to the bedroom. Half the enormous space was taken up by a soft fuzzy floor: no risk of falling out of bed here! Several pillows and fur blankets were heaped together at the far end of the stadium-sized dream-dome. A wardrobe loomed somewhere in the distance, and there I stuffed a pile of colored fabric—my newly acquired clothes. My nostalgia garb—jeans, sweater, and vest—was stashed nearby. There was a little bathroom next to the bedroom that would only be suitable for my morning toilette. The other facilities were in the basement.

My work was done, and I was neither hungry nor sleepy; yet I didn’t want to leave the house to take a walk, either. I would gladly have sold my soul to the devil for a single pack of cigarettes.

I sat in the parlor, awkwardly filling my pipe with tobacco and bemoaning my bitter fate. In this hour of sorrow, the only comfort I found was in the view from the window. Just opposite stood an ancient three-story mansion with little triangular windows and a tall peaked roof. As someone who has spent most of his life in high-rise apartment blocks, my heart begins to beat faster at even the slightest patina of age. Here every stone cried out “days of yore!”

After I had my fill of the view, I went up to the bedroom with the third volume of Sir Manga Melifaro’s Encyclopedia under my arm. The book expounded on my so-called countrymen, the inhabitants of the County Vook and the Barren Lands. Everyone should love his homeland, even an invented one. It’s very important to study it—especially in my case, since I was aware of good Lookfi Pence’s curiosity and the grilling I expected to get from him. Besides, I found this reading to be dreadfully amusing. Page forty dealt with a certain tribe of nomads from the Barren Lands, who, in an act of unbelievable absent-mindedness, lost their juvenile chief in the steppe. After I reached the part of the chronicle in which these dunderheads put a curse on themselves, I fell asleep and dreamed my own version of this mad tale with a happy ending. Their chief, now an adult, appealed to our Ministry for assistance, and Sir Juffin and I helped the guy track down his poor people. In parting, Sir Lonli-Lokli drew up a clear and concise code of conduct for Tribal Nomad Chiefs in their far-flung workplace.

I woke up before noon, which by my standards is still very early. I spent a long time getting ready: after all, this was my first day on the job. I went downstairs and splashed around in my three bathing pools, one after the other. No matter what they say, three bathtubs are better than one . . . and way better than eleven, with all due respect to the snobs of the capital, headed by Sir Juffin Hully.

The hour had come to open the basket of provisions from the Glutton. To my great delight, I found a jug of kamra inside that I could reheat. As for attempting to make the drink myself, thus far I had had to dispose of all the fruits of my experiments. Sir Juffin Hully had suggested using my kamra as a deterrent to especially dangerous criminals. The only thing stopping him was the fact that he feared this method might be considered too ruthless.

So I warmed up the kamra on a miniature brazier (an indispensable feature of any civilized sitting room). It was a lovely morning. Finally I even lit the pipe I’d prepared for myself the evening before. It wasn’t so bad after all. Not even the unfamiliar taste of the local tobacco could put a dent in my optimism.

I went to work on foot. I planned to show off my expensive dark, intricately patterned looxi and black turban, which transformed me from your everyday good-looker into a prince. No one in the city besides me seemed to take any notice of this, though. People hurried about their business or stared dreamily into storefront windows in the Old Town. No gapes of wonder, no beautiful damsels eager to throw themselves into my arms in fits of trembling exaltation. So there was one thing that hadn’t changed.

I turned onto the Street of Copper Pots. I had just a short way to go before I took my first steps over the threshold of the Secret Door leading to the House by the Bridge. Before that day, I hadn’t had the right to enter the Ministry of Perfect Public Order through that door. Of course, I could have used the visitor’s entrance, but I decided against that. There had been nothing for me to do there before, anyway.

A short corridor led to the half of the building occupied by the Minor Secret Investigative Force, the organization that would soon be home to me. The other half of the building belonged to the Echo City Police Department, under the command of General of Public Order Sir Boboota Box, of whom I had never once heard a kind word spoken. I passed an enormous empty reception hall (the courier dozing off on the edge of his chair didn’t count) and entered the Hall of Common Labor, to find Lonli-Lokli writing something in an oversized notebook. I was immediately disappointed. Well, whaddayaknow: paperwork, even here! What about those self-inscribing tablets and buriwoks who memorize every word you say?

My worries were premature, though. Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli kept a personal work diary for his own pleasure. I was not inclined to disturb his bureaucratic serfdom, and went into Juffin’s office, which was a relatively small and comfortable room.

Sir Venerable Head was sitting at his desk, choking with laughter, while trying to scold Lady Melamori, who stood frozen before him with the look of a timid schoolgirl.

“Oh, it’s you, Sir Max. Your first mission is to go into the city and commit a bestial murder of some sort. The fellows are going mad with boredom. Do you know what the first and only lady of the Secret Investigative Force has been up to? She began shadowing Captain Foofloss, who is deputy, brother-in-law, and brother in arms to General Boboota Box. The poor fool started to get chest pains, and he was consumed by a terrible feeling of dread. For the first time in his life, he started asking himself the fundamental questions of life, and was none the happier for it. Only the quick wit of young Lieutenant Kamshi saved Mr. Foofloss from suicide. They sent him off to an estate to unwind, and Lieutenant Kamshi was obliged to write me an official report. The City Police is held together by people like that. If only Sir Kamshi were in Boboota’s place . . . Isn’t that hilarious?”

“You seem to think it is,” I said. “Don’t fight your natural inclinations; you look like you’re about to burst!”

Juffin nodded, and heeding my medical advice, gave vent to his laughter. Melamori looked at us almost reprovingly, as though she had broken the law once in a lifetime and we had the temerity to snicker about it.

“Well, what am I to do with you, young lady? Count yourself lucky that Kamshi seems to have taken a fancy to you. Can you imagine the uproar it would have caused if he had been eager to enforce the letter of the law, or had been more concerned about his boss’s state of mind?”

“Then we would have proven that Captain Foofloss was a criminal!” Melamori retorted, smiling her irresistible smile. “You’d be the first to enjoy it.”

“I assure you, I have enough to enjoy without your help. So this is how it’s going to be, Miss. As boredom seems to have addled your brain, you are being sent to Xolomi for three days. There you will help the commandant to study the Secret Archive. I don’t know anyone better than you for getting the job done. Keeping secrets is in your blood. You’ll feel like a prisoner, as well you should! If anything happens here, I’ll send for you. So pray to the Dark Magicians for a bloody crime. Oh yes, and don’t forget to bribe Sir Kamshi. A kiss would be cheaper, but I’d advise you to warm him up with something from your Uncle Kima’s wine cellars. That way you won’t have to make a commitment, and it will certainly surpass even his wildest expectations. Now off to jail you go.”

Lady Melamori rolled her eyes in mock martyrdom. “You see, Max? There you have it: the fist of tyranny! Sending me to Xolomi for three days because of an innocent prank!”

“That’s what you think!” Juffin said with a caustic chuckle. “The old commandant will treat you like royalty. Have you heard about his chef?”

“Yes, and that’s the only reason I haven’t poisoned myself right here in your office.” Melamori stopped short, and added petulantly, “Forgive me, Sir Juffin, but Foofloss is such an idiot. I couldn’t help myself.”

“I’m not surprised in the least!” And with that, Juffin started laughing again.

I had little doubt that in the past Melamori Blimm had gotten away with other, less innocent, pranks.

Before the lovely criminal was whisked off to Xolomi in one of the company amobilers, she whispered to me quickly, “I’m not always like this.” I’d have liked to believe it.

“I am afraid, Sir Max, that today I will have to address you on an official footing,” said Juffin, whose manner had become instantly solemn. “Let me first tell you a bit about Kurush.”

The story of Lady Melamori’s malfeasance had occupied my full attention. Only then did I notice the shaggy owl-like bird, seated on the back of an empty arm chair. The buriwok (and it was definitely a buriwok) deigned to study my personage from on high.

“It’s all right, he’ll do,” the feathered wonder said at long last. As far as I could make out, it was referring to me.

“Thank you, Kurush,” I said. I had wanted to joke, but it came out sounding quite serious. Sir Juffin nodded.

“That means a lot coming from him. If you only knew the things he said about the others!”

“What did you say about the others?” I asked the bird.

“That is classified information,” Kurush answered stolidly. “And you have business to attend to.”

The “business” was that Sir Juffin made me repeat some mumbo-jumbo in an unintelligible language. Apparently, it was a powerful ancient spell that bound me to serve the interests of the crown.

“But I don’t feel a thing,” I said in confusion, having gotten through the tongue-twisting text with some difficulty.

“You aren’t supposed to feel anything. At least, when I said it I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary either. Maybe it’s just an old superstition. Then again, perhaps it does work; who knows? Now get ready. I must read you the Employee’s Code in Kurush’s presence. You don’t have to pay too much attention to it; just try to think about something pleasant. The reading will take some time. Kurush will be able to quote from any chapter, if necessary. Isn’t that right, dear?” Juffin looked tenderly at the buriwok, who in turn swelled with pride.

I won’t take it upon myself to repeat the instructions read to me. In a nutshell, I was told that I should do everything I am supposed to and not do anything that I am not supposed to do. To convey this simple truth, some bored court bureaucrat wasted several sheets of first-rate paper, and Sir Juffin spent more than half an hour reiterating this literary masterpiece. He finished with a sigh of relief. Another sigh escaped me at the same time. Only Kurush seemed to get any pleasure out of the procedure.

“Why do birds as smart as yourself work for humans?” I asked the buriwok. The question had been nagging me for the last half an hour. “There aren’t very many of us here,” the bird answered. “It’s hard to make a living, but some of us find living with people to be peaceful and interesting. Where there are more of us, we live in isolation and possess great powers. But here there are so many different words, so many stories!”

“That’s a good answer, Kurush,” Juffin said, smiling affectionately. “Do you understand, Max? They find us amusing!”

After that I was ceremoniously handed my “battle weapon,” a miniature dagger that looked more like a manicure accessory than a deadly instrument. There was a gauge in the hilt that signaled the presence of both forbidden and permitted magic. In fact, I had already seen one of these things in action and concluded that it wasn’t all that powerful. Well, all the better. It’s best not to be under any illusions from the outset.

Having finished with the formalities, we went up to the top floor of the House by the Bridge, where I was introduced to a plump, kindly little man in an orange looxi.

“I am glad to speak my name. I am Sir Qumbra Qurmac, Chief of Great and Minor Awards for the Ministry of Perfect Public Order. I am one of the most personable subjects in the whole of this forbidding place, as I am in charge of awarding prizes and other such pleasant things,” said the friendly man, who vaguely resembled a tangerine.

“Sir Qumbra Qurmac is the only official representative of the Royal Court in the Ministry,” Juffin added. “So no matter how intensive our efforts, without the weighty backing of Sir Qumbra they would vanish into obscurity.”

“Don’t believe a word Sir Hully says,” the fat man countered, clearly flattered. “He is one person whose opinion is always welcome at court. Still, I do believe, Sir Max, that I was the first one to report your outstanding deeds to the King.”

I stared at my boss, dumbfounded. What outstanding deeds? asked my bewildered expression.

“He means the affair with old Makluk’s mirror,” explained Juffin. “Of course you weren’t yet employed in the Ministry, but that makes it all the more of an honor! The Unified Kingdom must celebrate its heroes.”

“You, Sir Max, are the first person I recall entering the service with an award already under your belt,” said Sir Qumbra Qurmac, and bowed. “And believe me, I have been in the service for many years. I ask that you kindly accept this gift.” He gave me a little box made of dark wood. I knew that upon receiving a gift in Echo one is expected inspect it very closely. I tried to open the box, to no avail.

“Max, that is a gift from the King!” Juffin chastised. “You can’t open it just like that. I believe white magic of the fourth degree is required. So you’ll have to open it at home; casting spells in public places is forbidden. And there is a reason for that: one should enjoy a royal gift in private.”

“I’m sorry,” I said blushing. “I’ve never gotten a gift from the King before.”

“It’s quite all right, Sir Max,” Sir Qumbra said consolingly. “Just think of how many employees there are here who know exactly what to do with a gift like that, but have never had the honor of receiving one. I’d say you’re in an enviable position.”

I thanked the King and his court, and in particular Sir Qurmac, profusely. Then Juffin and I departed.

“You should have told me,” I grumbled. “But you enjoy watching my blunders, don’t you?”

“Believe me, it’s better for everyone that way. What kind of ‘barbarian from the borderlands’ would you be if you did everything right? Have faith, my boy; conspiracy is a great power, indeed!”

“Yeah, right. Give me a hand with this box, will you? I don’t think I can do it myself.”

“Don’t be so modest. You try first, and if nothing comes of it then I’ll give you a hand. Let’s lock the door first, though. It’s all right, don’t worry! Stranger things have taken place in my office.”

I put the box on the table and tried to relax, recalling all the things I had been taught. Nothing happened. Ashamed, I made a helpless gesture.

“Sir Max, I am afraid I could be mistaken. Let’s see here . . . Yes, all you need is magic of the fourth degree. You know that already; give it another try.”

Then I got angry. Angry at the box, angry at the King who had foisted it on me in the first place, angry at Juffin who just didn’t want to help . . . Fine, we’ll try something different for a change! In my rage, I called for the courier so imperiously that he probably fell off his chair in alarm. I even imagined that I heard the smack as he hit the floor, although that was impossible, of course. A few seconds later, he knocked on the door timorously. Sir Juffin was taken aback.

“What’s come over you?”

“I won’t be able to get through this without a warm cup of kamra!”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

The frightened courier, his whole body shaking, left the tray on the edge of the table right underneath my nose and promptly vanished. Juffin stared at the door in bewilderment.

“What was wrong with him? I know they’re afraid of me, but not that afraid!”

“Not you; it’s me he’s afraid of. I think I went a little overboard when I summoned him.”

“Oh, that’s all right, then. They should be afraid of you. You’re new here. If you don’t frighten them right from the start, you’ll end up spending the rest of your days waiting for the lazy fellows to answer your calls. But Max, are you really angry?”

“Yes!” I barked. I drank the mug of kamra in one gulp and hit the table with my pinky finger near the box, just as I had been taught to do. To my astonishment, the box turned to dust. But the small object that was hidden inside fortunately remained intact. I relaxed.

“Uh-oh,” I said, “What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing much. You just used magic of the sixth degree instead of the fourth. And black instead of white. And you ruined a nice little trinket to boot. But it could happen to anyone, really. Anyway, all’s well that ends well. It’s a good thing that my office is sealed off from the other rooms. I can only imagine what a fuss they’d make at the Ministry!” The boss seemed thrilled by my escapade.

“But Juffin, you didn’t teach me that, and I wasn’t much of a student to begin with. How can that be?”

“Who in the name of Magicians knows, Max. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: you’re a wild wind! Please limit the area of destruction to this office, and everything will be just fine. Let’s see what’s inside.”

We both stared at the little bundle lying in the pile of ashes. Carefully I unfolded the fine cloth. A pea the color of dark cherry was hidden inside. I rolled it around on the palm of my hand.

“What is it?”

Juffin smiled pensively.

“That, Sir Max, is a myth. Something that doesn’t exist. It is a Child of the Crimson Pearl of Gurig VII. The funny thing is that no one, not even the late King himself or his heir who now reigns, has ever seen the ‘mother’ of this pearl. Her presence in the palace was discovered by a wise old Magician—a good friend of mine, by the way. He decided not to tell anyone the exact location of this miracle. He said he didn’t know; but I think he could have come up with something a little more convincing. Her children turn up regularly in all the palace’s nooks and crannies. His Majesty gives the ‘orphans’ to citizens who have proven themselves worthy. I have three of them already. But you got yours very quickly. I’m not saying you don’t deserve it, though. You had a rough time of it at my neighbor’s house the other day.”

“Are they magic pearls?”

“Yes and no. It’s clear that they have some power. But what exactly is it? Someday we’ll find out; but for the time being, no one has discovered it. You can keep it at home or have the jeweler mount it for you, whatever suits your taste.”

“I suppose I’ll go for the first option. I never much cared for baubles.”

“A typical sentiment for a barbarian, you scourge of couriers, you!” said Juffin with a laugh.

After this I was left to the winds of fate. Juffin left me in charge and headed for the Glutton Bunba to have dinner with Melifaro.

“Tell him he owes me one!” I called after my boss as he slipped away. “A whole helicopter of humanitarian aid; and it had better be on him!”

“Humanitarian aid? Is that a hot appetizer?” asked Sir Juffin.

“That just means a whole lot of food at the right moment,” I explained.

That night was so uneventful that I was slightly disappointed. Kurush amused me as best he could. The wise bird turned out to be just as much of a night owl as myself. As a kindred spirit, I was obliged to tell the buriwok my life story. But before I did, I made Kurush take a dreadful oath to keep the information confidential and file it under Far More Secret Than Top Secret. The buriwok bore himself like an Indian chieftain, which greatly impressed me.

The following morning began with a visit from Kofa Yox, who arrived before the first light. He, too, often worked at night, since his main job was to listen to the idle talk in Echo’s taverns and glean grains of useful information from the idle chitchat. When the Master Eavesdropper showed up at the House by the Bridge most mornings, he would transform his ever-changing countenance into one appropriate to the harsh realities of life. He would share these intriguing facts, and occasional brilliant ideas, with Sir Juffin Hully over a cup of kamra.

“In the city they’re saying that you’re the King’s illegitimate son, my boy!” Kofa Yox greeted me. “My conclusion is that you received a royal honor on your first day at work. Juffin and I even made a bet. He wagered in your favor, and I against. The old fox earned six crowns on your luck and His Highness Gurig VIII’s sentimental mood. No matter though, I won several handfuls at dice, so at least I have something to pay him with.”

“Where do rumors come from, Sir Kofa?” I was truly curious to know the answer.

“Where don’t they come from? I suppose the majority of rumors are a combination of leaked information and the astounding imaginations of numerous storytellers. And, of course, the hope that things aren’t really as boring as they seem on the surface. I don’t know, Max, I just don’t know . . .”

“People love to talk,” Kurush noted condescendingly.

“Do you know what sorts of things people say about our Most Venerable Head?” Kofa asked. “We start half of those rumors ourselves: the Secret Investigative Force has to inspire superstitious fear in the general populace. Did you know, for example, that Sir Juffin Hully is said to have a ring called the Master of Lies that lets off invisible deadly rays? Anyone who tells a lie in his presence soon dies a painful death. The first version was far more modest. It went something like this: Sir Juffin can tell a liar with the help of a magical object. We owe the story’s terrifying details to the common folk.”

“What else?” I asked.

“That Juffin eats the dried flesh of rebellious Magicians, whom he holds captive in his basement. One should never look directly into his eyes, or one will lose the Spark forever and pine away. Oh, and of course, Juffin takes the Spark for himself. Hmm, what else . . . That he is immortal; that his parents are two ancient Magicians who modeled our boss out of sand and their own saliva; that he had a twin brother whom he ate; that he becomes a shadow at night, and—”

“Gossiping about me again?” asked the hero of urban folklore, as he fell into his armchair.

“I’m just trying to warn the poor young man,” Kofa said and smiled.

“‘Poor young man?’” You should see him when he turns into a vampire! So how was the night, hero?”

“Boring,” I complained. “Kurush and I chatted and rummaged through the gifts that you and Melifaro have received. Terrible.”

“My night was nothing to write home about, either,” said Sir Kofa. “Just a few small house robberies in rich neighborhoods. The thieves took the most valuable possessions; but it’s a case that even Boboota can solve. The boy is right, it’s terrible! Echo, for so long a stronghold of criminal romance, is becoming a provincial swamp.”

“That isn’t terrible, it’s wonderful! It’s terrible when things really start hopping here. Go get some rest, Sir Max. Take advantage of the opportunity.”

So I set off to get some sleep. When I got near the main doors to the street, I heard a roar coming from outside.

“Bull’s tits! You can save that for your own tail end in the latrine!” A powerful bass, sometimes breaking into a shrill falsetto, shook the old walls. “I’ve been in this cesspit for sixty years, and not one single butt—”

I threw the door open. A bearded goon of impressive stature draped in crimson silk, who looked like a cross between a sumo wrestler and an athlete, was hanging over the frightened driver of the official amobiler of the Ministry of Perfect Public Order.

“Silence!” I barked menacingly. “The Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force has vowed to smite anyone who dares disturb him! And don’t you yell at the coachman; he is in the King’s Service!”

I pulled the aged hooligan off the driver and got into the amobiler. I had wanted to walk home, but now I would have to help the driver out: I couldn’t just leave him there to be tormented by that bully.

“Bull’s tits! So who is this new turd in my cesspit?” It seemed that the gift of speech had returned to the brute.

“You must have had a bit too much to drink, sir.” I was having fun. “Your latrine is at your house; this> is the Ministry of Perfect Public Order of the capital of the Unified Kingdom. Do yourself a favor and think about that, because there are quite a few angry men around here who didn’t arrest anyone last night, and are raring to go. Let’s move it!” I said, addressing the driver, and we rode off to the sound of another volley of improvisations on the topic of latrines.

“Thank you, Sir Max,” said the old coachman, and bowed to me.

“Why did you let him yell at you like that? The guy looks frightening and all, but you work for the King and Sir Juffin Hully. You’re an important person, my friend.”

“Sir Boboota Box doesn’t usually take things like that into account. He thinks I shouldn’t have parked the amobiler so close to the doors; but his own driver parks practically inside the corridor every day!”

“So that was General Boboota Box? Whoa! He’s gonna get it!”

The foul-mouthed culprit reminded me of one of my old bosses. I felt an ominous satisfaction. That’s it, your time is up; now Sir Max will assign you each a latrine. Such spitefulness does me no honor, but what can I do? I’m a human, not an angel. This is who I am.

As soon as I got home I realized I was exhausted. The coziest bed in the Unified Kingdom was at my disposal. As for dreams, I guess you could say that they betrayed me.

Dreams have always been an extremely important part of my life, so a bad dream can throw me into a funk more easily than real misfortune. That morning there was a nightmare in store for me.

I dreamed I couldn’t go to sleep, which I guess shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering that I was lying on top of the living room table. I lay there like a hearty lunch, gazing at the windows in the building opposite, that elegant architectural masterpiece of the olden days that I had admired during my first night in the apartment. In my waking hours, I had liked the building. Now it inspired a vague but powerful loathing in me. The gloom behind the triangular windows didn’t promise anything good. I knew that the inhabitants had died long ago, and only seemed to be alive. But by themselves they didn’t pose any danger.

For some time, nothing happened. I just couldn’t move, and I felt very uneasy about that. More than that, I disliked the strong premonition I had that something was about to happen. Something began to approach me from afar. It needed time—and it took it.

This arduous process seemed to drag on an without end. I began to think that it had always been that way, and always would be. But at a certain point I was able to wake myself up.

With a headache, wet and sticky from sweat—the vile companion of nightmares—I was happy. Waking up was so wonderful! I dug around in the closet and found the precious bottle of Elixir of Kaxar. “Take care of this, Max; it should be for special occasions, not every day,” Juffin had advised me. But my body was begging for mercy, and I didn’t torment myself with doubt, either. Before I had gotten my hands on a bottle of that wonderful remedy, a dream like that could have stripped me of all spiritual strength for weeks. Now, I felt immediate relief, and I hoped that it would last for a while. I smiled at the afternoon sun and went downstairs to enhance the pleasant change I was experiencing with a bath and some good kamra.

In an hour’s time I was fully dressed, but it was too early to go to work. I spent some time in the living room with a book on my lap. The view from the window no longer pleased me as it used to; but for some reason I didn’t dare turn my back on the scene.

Finally, I had to admit that it was no use. I put aside the third volume of Manga Melifaro’s Encyclopedia and went out into the street to get a closer look at the house opposite. I got out my brand new dagger and took a look at the gauge on its hilt. The building was innocent as a babe. There were traces of permitted second-degree black magic. Perhaps the owners were making kamra, or trying to remove oil spatterings, which they had every right to do.

But my heart was of a different opinion. “This is a foul place,” it thumped anxiously. That invaluable muscle had become a good advisor to me of late. I knew I should heed its judgment; but I wanted something entirely different. I wanted to calm down and go on living. I did my best.

You have to stop listening to scary stories before bedtime, my dear boy! I told myself breezily.

To distract myself, I took my new toy down the block, checking my neighbors’ observance of the Code of Krember as I went along. Judging by the gauge, they were law-abiding and singularly devoted to culinary experiments. Black magic of the second degree oozed out of almost all the windows. When after a time the needle began to careen dangerously between the permitted two and the highly undesirable three, I looked around. In front of me was a small tavern with the menacing name of The Sated Skeleton. The cook there must really love his work, I thought, and decided to stop in for breakfast. The Glutton Bunba is, of course, my all-time favorite; but I do like to try new things for a change.

Nightmares or not, I had a good appetite that called for more than my usual humble breakfast rations. At the table next to mine, two local women were discussing a certain Lady Alatan, who had been robbed while she was out shopping; and “those whelps taught her a good lesson!” In my thoughts, I gave my condolences to the hapless lady: I had already met the gentleman whose duty it was to protect her possessions. But even that didn’t spoil my appetite.

After breakfast I set off leisurely for work, tracing a concentric circle around the Old Town. There I spent all the money I had in my pocket on completely useless but charming housewares. Where I come from, it is believed that retail therapy can save housewives ground down by routine. I can bear witness to the fact that it also saves certain gallant members of the Secret Force from the vestiges of the previous night’s bad dreams.

Weighed down with packages, I arrived at the House by the Bridge only a half hour earlier than I was supposed to.

“Settling into your home, then, are you, O Policeman’s Blight?” asked Juffin, as he studied my packages. “You know, Max, Boboota thinks that because you yelled at him, you have the right to do so. He respects you. I believe he is also looking forward to strangling you. Good job, my boy. Tell me the truth, did you really think he was just a run-of-the-mill ruffian?”

“He was being a troublemaker! It’s inappropriate for government officials to act like that. I’ll have this place cleaned up in no time!” I made a scary face and then admitted, “I’ve always dreamed of being in a position of power, sir.”

“That’s good,” said Juffin. “Maybe together we could tame him. What’s the matter with you, Max? You seem a bit odd today.” I was shocked.

“Is it really that noticeable? I thought—”

“It is to me. I hope Boboota hasn’t hired a witch. No, he wouldn’t do that. He’s actually one of the most law-abiding of citizens. He even has his wife do permitted magic at home, and he doesn’t lift a finger. So what happened, Max?”

I was glad for the opportunity to get it off my back. Maybe that’s why I ended up getting to work early.

“It’s nothing really, just a dream I had last night. In my case, though, it’s a problem. I had a nightmare, that’s all. A disgusting nightmare; nothing really even happened in it but it left me with the most loathsome feeling.” And I told him my dream down to the last detail.

“Did you check the house when you woke up?”

“Yeah. Black magic of the second degree. I guess the former tenants brewed kamra. But you know better than I do that sometimes the sensor can be wrong.”

“I know; but sealing off a house in such a way that the needle doesn’t stay at zero, and shows more or less average readings . . . theoretically, it’s possible, but who would be capable of doing that? I certainly wouldn’t. No, not even me, boy! I may not be the most powerful wizard in the world, but I am certainly not in the minor leagues. You said that you had an unpleasant reaction?”

“To put in mildly. My heart almost gave out in the madness.”

“Well, Max, I’m going to take a little walk around that neighborhood on my way home. I had nothing planned anyway. I even gave my diurnal rep permission to go frolic at his parents’ mansion. And Sir Lonli-Lokli returned home an hour earlier than usual, which hasn’t happened in several dozen years. Let’s go to the Glutton for a glass of kamra. Will you look after things here, Kurush? Max will bring back something tasty for you. Maybe later, we can take a stroll down to the Main Archive. I don’t know about your kinsmen, but Sir Lookfi Pence would be thrilled. Anyway, my heart tells me that tonight will be even quieter than last night, if that’s possible. Let’s go, Max.”

“Don’t forget the treat,” Kurush reminded us.

All the while we were at the Glutton Sir Juffin was the embodiment of paternal concern. It was amazing—he really showed sympathy for me and my silly problem.

“Whatever it is, Max, you’re not the type of kid to get a nightmare from acid indigestion. Sometimes your dreams are unusual. If this happens again, I think you had better spend a few days at my place, at least until we get to the bottom of it.”

“Thank you, Juffin. But I don’t want to leave my house. All my life I’ve wanted a house like that, with a bedroom beneath the eaves, a living room downstairs, stairs that creak, and no extra furniture. Now, at last I’ve found the house I’ve been looking for. And you know what? Like hell they’re going to chase me out of it!”

“So you’re going to sleep at home and entertain yourself with a half dozen nightmares every night?”

“I certainly hope not. Maybe it won’t happen again. Everyone has nightmares, and they usually don’t mean anything at all.”

“And what about your chest pains when you went outside? You think that was just a coincidence? A cat has nine lives, but you’re no cat.”

I jumped in surprise at hearing the old turn of phrase.

“Do you have cats here?”

“Who doesn’t!”

“Why haven’t I seen one yet?”

“Where could you have seen one? You’ve never been to the countryside. We don’t keep cats at home; they’re like cows and sheep.”

“That’s odd. I guess yours are the wrong sort of cats.”

“You mean yours are the wrong sort of cats,” Juffin retorted. “Ours are the rightest sort of cats in the entire Universe!”

Then we parted ways. Juffin Hully set off for a stroll around the Street of Old Coins, and I went to the House by the Bridge to hang out. Kurush got a cream pastry. According to my colleagues, they’re his favorite. It turned out that the buriwok was unable to clean the sticky cream off his beak, and I had to run around the office in search of a napkin.

Then I went upstairs and regaled Sir Lookfi Pence and a good hundred or so buriwoks with tales from the Barren Lands, which I’d borrowed from the third volume of Encyclopedia. When the long twilight shadows had thickened into night, Sir Lookfi began getting ready to go home, knocking over chairs all the while. That was how I learned that his working day lasts from noon to nightfall. The rest of the time the buriwoks like going about their own business, and it’s best not to disturb them. They looked upon dear old Kurush as something of an oddball for spending all his time with humans.

I invited Sir Lookfi for a mug of kamra in my office. He seemed pleased and shy at the same time. He sent a call to his wife, after which he said:

“Varisha has agreed to miss me for another hour. Thank you, Sir Max! I apologize that I didn’t accept your invitation immediately. You see, we’re newlyweds and . . .” Embarrassed, the poor fellow got tangled up in the folds of his own looxi. I had to catch him so he wouldn’t fall.

“Don’t apologize,” I said, smiling. “You did just the right thing, my friend.”

Once I was back in the office, I called for the courier, who darted in seconds later and looked into my eyes with fawning devotion. I could just see it, the title of a horror movie: Max, Devourer of Underlings. Quite a nice ring to it, I thought!

Lookfi sipped his kamra with evident enjoyment, all the while soaking the intricately-patterned hem of his looxi in his cup. I didn’t waste any time, and started asking him about the buriwoks. I had already heard Kurush’s take on things, and now I wanted to hear the opinion of one of the other parties involved.

“I was offered this job by the buriwoks themselves,” said Sir Lookfi. “I don’t know why they chose me, but one day, a long time ago—a long long time ago—a courier came to my house and brought me an invitation from the House by the Bridge. The birds said that they would find my presence most suitable. They rejected the other candidates out of hand—even the cousin of the King’s Advisor. Do you know why, Kurush?”

“I’ve told you many times—because you can tell us apart.”

“Kurush, you’re just as much of a joker as Sir Juffin! Who in the world wouldn’t be able to tell you apart?”

“I would probably have a hard time telling one buriwok from another,” I confessed in perplexity.

“There you have it. I’ve been telling him the same thing over and over for more than a hundred years, and he still doesn’t believe me,” Kurush grumbled. “Although, it’s true, his memory isn’t too bad; for a human, of course.”

“I suppose I do have a good memory,” said Lookfi. “Yet all my life I thought others were forgetful and I was only average.”

“He remembers how many feathers each of us has,” Kurush told me confidingly.

“No kidding!” I whistled. “If that was the one and only thing you remembered, Lookfi, I would still be a dimwit compared to you.”

“Don’t say that, Sir Max,” said Lookfi. “You’re not a dimwit at all; you’re just a bit absent-minded.”

Sinning Magicians, I thought, look who’s talking!

Finally, Lookfi took his leave, and Kurush and I were left alone together. I think the buriwok had fallen asleep. I found some newspapers on Juffin’s desk; some fresh, and others less recent. It’s good to be new in someone else’s world: the evening papers are as enthralling as a fantasy novel. The only difference is that you can open the door at any moment you please and go for a walk in this imaginary world.

Sir Kofa Yox arrived again before dawn. He grumpily informed me that there was no news and that none was expected: four more house robberies for the valiant police force to deal with. So boring! That was why he was turning in for the night. I nodded sympathetically, sighed, and became absorbed once more in a copy of the Echo Hustle and Bustle dating back to the previous year.

Sir Juffin Hully showed up for work rather early, demanded some kamra, and then stared at me thoughtfully.

“No news yet, Max. I mean no real news, at any rate. But I do have one idea. This is what it comes down to. My house is always open to you, you know that. But you were right. Try sleeping at your place for another day or two. If you don’t have any more nightmares, great! If you do, though . . . I understand that it isn’t pleasant, but there’s a chance the plot might start to unfold. Perhaps something interesting will come to light.”

“What do you think? What should I prepare myself for?”

“Honestly? I think you should prepare for the worst. I didn’t like the look of that house from the start. I didn’t like it one bit, but there was nothing I could put my finger on. I can’t remember anything like this happening before. Maybe my imagination is running away with me out of boredom, but I don’t think so. I think we’ll dig something up on that house. When Lookfi gets here we’ll find out something about the owners. And about the neighbors, as well. About how they feel living there. For the time being, take this.” Juffin offered me an unsightly scrap of cloth. “Wrap this around your neck before going to sleep. This will definitely wake you up.”

“What? Could it really be that dangerous?”

“Life is full of extremely dangerous things. Most dangerous of all are the things we don’t understand. Or things that don’t exist at all. All right, let me know when you wake up.”

A sense of obligation is not the best kind of sleeping pill. After tossing restlessly from side to side, I surrounded myself with volumes of Manga Melifaro’s Encyclopedia and began studying its excellent illustrations. I was interested in the local cat species and hoped to find pictures of them. It took me a long time to find them, but at last I was successful. At first glance, these wondrous beasts seemed like ordinary fluffy cats. What was striking about them, though, was their size. These furry shortlimbed creatures were no less than three feet in length. Their shoulder height was around a foot and a half. I determined this by comparing the picture of the cat with that of a gentleman in a knitted looxi. Turning to the accompanying text, I learned that the gentleman was none other than a shepherd. Reading further I discovered that “the peasant folk of Landaland breed cats for their warm coats.” Just like sheep! I was surprised and fascinated. Maybe it’s time I got myself a kitten. So what if the snobs from the capital consider them to be petty livestock that should be kept on farms? A barbarian from the Barren Lands, I was certain, would be forgiven more serious eccentricities than that.

Lulled by thoughts of my future status as the first cat-owner of Echo, I finally fell asleep. Alas, it would have been better if my insomnia had continued! The merciful sleep of oblivion quickly dissolved into a clear vision: again, I was lying on the table in the living room, helpless and motionless.

Worst of all, I had lost all sense of myself. Who I was, what I was like, where I was from, where exactly I was just then, what I was doing, say, a year ago, what type of women I preferred, what my friends’ names were, where I had lived as a child—I didn’t have the answer to any of those questions. Worse yet, I didn’t have any questions. My understanding of the world was limited to the sitting room and the triangular windows of the house next door. That, and great fear. Yes, that’s how it was: all I knew about the world around me was that it was a terrifying place, and that I felt wretched.

At last, the window of the house began to open slowly. Someone was staring at me from inside the room. Then, in the window, someone’s hand appeared briefly. A handful of sand flew out of the darkness, but instead of scattering onto the sidewalk below, it froze in midair like a small golden cloud. Then came another handful of sand, and another, and another. Now there was much more than just a cloud—a whole pathway was quivering in the sky. It was a short path and I was certain I knew where it led. So, the plot is developing, I thought. Well now, isn’t this just dandy? The plot has to unfold . . . Wait, that isn’t even my own thought, those are Juffin’s words! That’s just what he said, word for word.

As soon as I remembered my conversation with Juffin, I remembered who I was, too. That made me feel a bit better. The fear, unfortunately, remained; but it was no longer the sole component of my existence. Now I knew that I was sleeping. And I knew that I wasn’t simply sleeping, but sleeping with the purpose of observing the nightmare unfold. I also knew that I needed to wake up just then, but for some reason I couldn’t.

Idiot! I forgot to put on that scrap of cloth! I thought in panic. Praise to the Magicians, I suddenly woke up. Lowering my feet down off the table—

Heavens above! So I did fall asleep on the living room table and not in the comfortable bed upstairs, surrounded by eight volumes of the Encyclopedia of the World. What nonsense! No, it wasn’t just nonsense. It looked like a fairly solid storyline for your average B horror movie.

I went upstairs. My knees were trembling. More than anything I was afraid of finding another Max sleeping in my bed. Go figure which one of us was the real one. The bed was empty. With shaking hands I reached for the bottle of Elixir of Kaxar that I’d had the foresight to leave at the head of the bed. I took a gulp, then another. I felt a great deal better. I collapsed onto the bed. Even if I didn’t get any sleep, I could rest a bit, at the very least. But I had to get in touch with Juffin. Luckily, I had something to report to him, as well.

I’m awake, Juffin. Things are pretty bad.

Well, if you’re awake then all is not lost. Come to the Glutton, I’ll treat you to breakfast. In fact, I have some news for you as well.

I’ll be there in an hour. Over and out.

Over what?

Over and out. It means: that’s all, this thought-exchange is over.>

Over and out, Juffin repeated with delight.

The Glutton is a truly magical place. Those walls could make anyone feel right at home. I was describing my adventures and starting to relax. That was more than I could say for Juffin, who looked like someone paying a scheduled visit to the dentist’s office.

“So you say that you woke up on the table. That means things are more serious than I thought. I think you should move back to my place for a while. But I am going to spend the night in your bed. Maybe I’ll dream of some horrible thing as well.”

“I have a better idea. How about I sleep at home, and you hold my hand like a kindly nurse?”

“I had a similar idea to begin with, but—”

“But what, Juffin? It’s already happening to me, and the plot is unfolding; but if you stay there, you’ll have to start watching from the first episode, then the second. We’ll lose two days that way.”

“That may be, but I don’t like the way this whole thing is affecting you. I’m afraid you’re still too vulnerable when you’re asleep.”

“Well, that depends on how you look at it. Because I did remember that it was a dream. And I woke up, even though I forgot to put on that scrap you gave me.”

“Oh, but that was very unwise, Max! You can’t neglect things like that. By the way, that ‘little scrap,’ as you call it, is merely the personal kerchief of the Grand Magician of the Order of the Secret Grass.”

“Isn’t he one of those guys whose dried flesh you partake of daily to strengthen your powers?”

Juffin gave a quick laugh and then scowled again.

“I think you got a little carried away with the Kaxar, Max. Your joie de vivre is beginning to frighten me.”

“It scares me, too. So, do you agree to sing me a lullaby?”

“I suppose I could try, though I suspect that the presence of a person awake, especially one as notable as me, might hinder events as they develop.”

“At least I’ll get some sleep. What if we both go to sleep?”

“Yes, I suppose we could try that. Although,” Juffin grew more animated, “who says I have to be in the same room? I can watch you without even leaving my office. It’s settled, then. I think that’s what we should do. But first I’ll spend a night at your house, to be on the safe side.”

“The house is at your disposal. But I only have three bathing pools, remember? Not even that will dissuade you?”

“What lengths wouldn’t one go to for the peaceful well-being of the Unified Kingdom . . . and for one’s own well-being, for that matter! I had a bad feeling about that place from the very beginning; I shouldn’t have let you move into that doghouse at all!”

“It’s all right,” I said, trying to comfort my boss. “When I grow up and I’m big and strong, I’ll learn to take bribes, and then I’ll build a palace for myself on the left bank. What about your news? You said you were going to consult the buriwoks.”

“That’s what I spent half the day doing. I have some news, and it’s rather worrying. It’s just too bad that I didn’t take on this case a couple of years ago. But if it hadn’t been for your dreams, it never would have occurred to me to make a connection between some of the facts that on their own just aren’t very interesting. Let’s go to the Ministry, so you can hear for yourself.”

And we headed straightaway to the Main Archive.

“Lookfi, I’d like to listen again to the information that you gathered today.”

“Of course, Sir Hully. Good day, Sir Max; you’re here early today! They say nothing much has been happening lately.”

Lookfi approached one of the buriwoks.

“Please tell us one more time about the Street of Old Coins, Tatoon.”

It looked to me like the bird had shrugged, as if to say, “I’d rather not repeat the same trivial story twice, but since it’s my job—here we go again.” With that, the buriwok began to recite:

“Information regarding owners of real estate as of Day 208 of the Year 115. Street of Old Coins, house #1. Owner: Ms. Xarista Aag. No criminal record. Lives in the countryside. In the year 109 of the Code Epoch, the house was temporarily leased to the Poedra family. Three dozen years’ rent was paid up front. In the year 112, Gar Poedra lost the Spark and died. His wife, Pita Poedra, and daughter, Xitta, are known to inhabit the premises to the present day. The daughter still suffers from a childhood illness, but does not seek the assistance of specialists and does not leave the house. They live in a reclusive fashion and do not entertain guests. No criminal record.

“House #2. Owner: Kunk Stifan. Lives in the house with two underage sons. His wife, Trita Stifan, died in the year 107. In the year 110, he was suspected of killing the maid, one Pamma Lorras. He was proven innocent and received compensation for damages. A witch-doctor confirmed that his wife died in her sleep of heart disease. Uses the services of a daytime maid and four tutors for the boys. Does not employ full-time help. He was obliged to leave his position at the Ministry of Big Money due to illness at the beginning of this year.

“House #3. Owner: Rogro Zhil, editor-in-chief of the Royal Voice and co-owner of the Echo Hustle and Bustle. His detailed dossier is kept in the archives. He currently lives on Ginger Dream Street in the New City. The house on the Street of Old Coins is neither for rent nor for sale, as the owner is in no need of funds.”

“His dossier is something of an epic poem,” whispered Juffin. “But at the moment that’s not what we are interested in. You may enjoy reading it, though, in your spare time. I highly recommend it.”

Houses #4, #5, #6 . . . All the stories bore a certain resemblance to one another. The inhabitants of the Street of Old Coins turned out to be the most miserable wretches in all of Echo: they got sick, lost their loved ones, and then they died. No criminal records, no suicides, nothing mysterious. But a whole street full of terminally ill widows and orphans? And in Echo, of all places, where your average witch-doctor was nearly capable of bringing the dead back to life! Talk about coincidence.

“House seven,” the bird repeated patiently, “Owner: Tolakan Enn; wife: Feni Enn, no children. In the year 54 of the Code Epoch, the house was left to him by his father, Sir Genelad Enn, the Royal Court’s Chief Supplier. Altogether his inheritance was worth a dozen million crowns.”

I whistled in surprise. Sir Tolakan was absurdly wealthy. You could live for a week on just one crown—if, of course, you didn’t buy large quantities of the expensive nonsense that is displayed in the windows of antique shops.

“No criminal record,” the buriwok continued. “They do not socialize. A detailed dossier on these individuals can be found in the archives.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Sir Juffin remarked. “For the last five dozen years already, one unfathomably rich man has been a resident of this wretched slum. Oh, sorry Max, don’t get me wrong. I was just quoting public opinion on the matter. Anyway, of all the people on the whole street, he and his wife are the only ones who are neither stricken with illness nor on their deathbeds.”

“House eight,” the buriwok continued in a monotonous voice. “Owner: Gina Ursil. No criminal record. The house’s prior owner, Lea Ursil, Gina’s mother, lost the Spark and died in the year 87 of the Codex Epoch. Since then, the house has been empty, as the owner lives in her Estate in Uruland.”

“I assume you’ve already heard the most important bits,” said Juffin and sighed. “It goes on and on like this. Empty houses, sick widows, frail widowers, dead parents, and children in weak health. And, finally, your little bachelor pad, which, as we already know, has its own mournful history. Well, thank you Tatoon. I think that will be all for now. I’ll ask Kurush for the details.”

“What about the pub?” I asked. “The Sated Skeleton. I had breakfast over there yesterday. Is it all right?”

“That’s the brightest place on your cheery little street. Mind you, people work there and eat there, of course, but they don’t sleep there. Even the proprietor, Goppa Talabunn, lives above the Drunken Skeleton, one of his other pubs. I think he has about a dozen of them, but the word skeleton figures in all their names. Goppa thinks it sounds amusing, and most of his clientele thinks the same.”

Juffin thanked Lookfi and the buriwoks and we set out for the office. Kurush, as always, was dozing on the back of an armchair.

“Wake up,” said Juffin, tenderly ruffling the feathers on the buriwok’s soft neck. “We need to get some work done.”

Kurush opened his round eyes and said, “Peanuts first.”

While the smarty-pants consumed his peanuts, Juffin and I managed to drink down a mug of kamra and even ordered refills.

“I’m ready,” Kurush announced finally.

“In that case, start digging through your memory, buddy. We are interested in anything that has to do with Number Seven on the Street of Old Coins. Once you’ve collected all the material, you may begin reciting it. Sir Max is collecting gossip about his neighbors, so I do hope you come up with something worthwhile.”

Kurush puffed himself up and then fell silent. I imagined him quietly humming like a small computer. Several minutes later, the buriwok shook his feathers, and began.

“Number Seven on the Street of Old Coins is one of the oldest in Echo. It was built in the year 1140 by a Master Blacksmith, one Stremmi Broh, and later inherited by his son, Kardu Broh, then by his heiress, Vamira Broh. In 2154, during the Epoch of Orders, Vamira Broh sold the house to the Gusot family. Mener Gusot, known as Grand Magician of the Order of Green Moons was born in the house in 2346. Later the house was presented to him as a gift after his coming of age, and he lived there, cut off from the rest of the world. As everyone knows, in the year 2504, Mener Gusot founded the Order of Green Moons. Until the power of the order became common knowledge, they held their meetings at the Grand Magician’s apartment. Number seven on the Street of Old Coins never stood empty. Even after a new residency was built for the Order in 2675, the Grand Magician said that he was involved in ‘especially important work’ there.

“During the Troubled Times, the Order of Green Moons was one of the first to fall, because it belonged to a number of groups that made no secret of their rivalry with the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover. Almost all the Order’s disciples, novices, and Magicians were killed. The Grand Magician, Mener Gusot, committed suicide in the courtyard of the burning residency of the Order on the 233rd day of the year 3183 of the Epoch of Orders, five years before the beginning of the Code Epoch. It is known that twelve initiates of the movement survived. According to information from the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover they all left the Unified Kingdom immediately. Information about each of them can be found in the Main Archive and is updated whenever new information becomes available.

“All the late Mener Gusot’s property, including the house on the Street of Old Coins, passed into the possession of the King. In the 8th year of the Code Epoch, the house was sold by order of the highest authority to Sir Genelad Enn, Chief Supplier to the Royal Court. In the year 10, Sir Genelad Enn died and Sir Tolakan Enn, Chief Advisor to the Department for the Dispensation of Allowances, and the only son of the deceased, inherited the house. The Estate stood empty until the year 54, when the Enn family moved back from their country home. In the year 55, Sir Tolakan Enn left his position at the Department for the Dispensation of Allowances. Since then, they have lived in a reclusive fashion, employing only day servants. Popular opinion attributes the adoption of such a lifestyle to the extreme stinginess sometimes found in the very wealthy. And give me some more peanuts.”

After that imperious demand, Kurush fell silent.

“What a story, Sir Max.” Juffin chuckled, gathering peanuts from his various desk drawers. “So, the father gets the house and dies two years later. All is fine while the house stands empty. In 54 an heir moves in. Not even a year goes by and he undergoes a complete personality change. He leaves his job for no apparent reason, dismisses all the help, and becomes one of Echo’s most reticent inhabitants. And Lady Feni, the most famous socialite of the first half of the century, doesn’t object? His old friends don’t get any explanations, believe me, I’ve checked. There is no solid proof of foul play, however, and when it comes to people’s private lives . . . well, even the richest man in the city has the right to keep to himself. Everyone is perplexed by it at first, but then they just forget about it and get on with their business.”

“So those two just never leave their house?”

“Well, not exactly; Lady Feni does. She goes out at least once every dozen days or so. And she is just as cold and impenetrable as back in the day when her beauty was the greatest sensation at the royal court. But she makes no visits of any kind. Lady Feni goes shopping. She buys mounds of stuff—sometimes necessary, but for the most part useless. She seems to have set herself the task of acquiring the most extensive range of hodgepodge in the shortest possible time. However, for a woman of her standing, and with the fortune and the amount of free time she has at her disposal, such behavior is completely normal.”

“Juffin, you’ve done a lot of research!”

“Oh Max, I’m afraid I haven’t done enough; but it was all I could manage in such a short amount of time. Just thank the Magicians that you can rest at work. Gather your strength and enjoy life. I’m off to your place. I’ll try my best to sleep in that slum. A hole in the heavens above you, Max! Just when I thought my days of ascetic adventurism were over . . .”

Sir Juffin left, and I stayed at the House by the Bridge. All night long I tried to go about honorably fulfilling my boss’s orders to rest and enjoy life. Not the easiest task in the world, but I did my best.

Morning began, as always, with Sir Kofa’s arrival. He looked befuddled. I must add that this expression suited him far better than his usual squeamish grimace of unending boredom.

“The robberies have continued, Max,” he reported. “You know, this is starting to get absurd. And absurdity is always unnerving. People are now saying that the robberies are being committed by the same person. But how does this elusive creature manage to visit houses at opposite ends of Echo at the same time? That’s what I want to know. And if the perpetrators are indeed different people, then what manner of genius was able to train them so well? And, more important, why? So that even Boboota gets the news that it might be a single criminal gang working together? Right then, son. Tell Juffin to get in touch with me if he gets bored. Of course, these events aren’t really interesting, nor are they matters for our department to deal with. But as the saying goes, at night even a skinny woman can seem like a blanket.”

“Better a small fish than an empty dish,” I translated automatically. “I’ll give him your message, Sir Kofa, but I have a feeling Sir Juffin won’t be bored today. I found a little job for him to do . . .”

“Oh, to hell with the robberies, then! They can wait for a rainy day. Have fun, Max. I’m planning to stop in at a few more places on my way home, so if you’ll excuse me.”

I waited around for another half an hour before receiving a message from Juffin. I’m quite fine, except for the bath that awaits me in your tiny tubs. I’ll be out soon, so let’s call over to the Glutton for breakfast.

With great enjoyment I took to fussing over our menu. By the time Juffin arrived, our office had all the qualities of a good restaurant: a splendid centerpiece on the table, tempting aromas, and a hungry gourmet exemplified in my person. Sir Venerable Head was satisfied.

“Allow me to report, sir,” said Juffin, who parodied a new recruit just returned from his first assignment. “The results of the investigative experiment just conducted prove that: a) there is something inhabiting the house opposite, and b) it is scared of me. Or, alternatively, it is disgusted by me. Or finds me unappetizing. Or it subscribes to the Echo Hustle and Bustle and is an admiring and devoted fan. In any case, no one so much as touched a hair on my head. No, it was more amusing than that. At first, I dreamed I was lying on that dinner table of yours; but it lasted for only a second. Then I stopped dreaming. All at once there was nothing. I was free as a bird and I could sleep for as long as I wished! But I wouldn’t let myself off the hook. I tried to close in on our mysterious friend myself. He had already surrounded himself with such unassailable defenses that inside that worthy mansion I wasn’t able to find anyone except its owners, who were fast asleep. Still, we did find out something new.”

“Like what?”

“That this could not possibly be the work of human hand. That is to say, there might have been someone who awoke other, inhuman, forces that are inhabiting the house. As a matter of fact, I suspect that history even preserved that person’s name for the curious. Of all the former inhabitants of the house, who but the Grand Magician of the Order of Green Moons could have pulled off such a prank? That doesn’t change the fact that you are being harassed by some wretch from another world, though. Pretty exotic, huh?”

“I thought I was the exotic one,” I spluttered. “Well, what does it want from me, anyway?”

“What do you think? Yum-yum!” said Juffin, and let out a bloodthirsty chuckle. “In any case, its intentions are unkind, make no mistake! Why else would residents of the neighborhood be kicking the bucket left and right? Let’s see, what else do we know about the enemy? Judging from last night, I would say that he acts carefully and is choosy. He wouldn’t risk coming up against a serious opponent such as myself. Furthermore, our little friend makes mistakes sometimes, which became quite clear today when he first invaded my dreams and then shamelessly fled. That’s comforting. I do not like getting involved with unmitigated evil—it’s a lot of bother. No matter how you look at it, Sir Max, the information that we have now is simply not enough. So you’re going to have to undergo nightmares for the sake of the cause for another few nights. I’ll shut myself up in the office and oversee your adventures from here. But don’t you even think of going to bed tonight without the protective amulet I was considerate enough to provide you with!”

“You mean that rag?”

“I mean the kerchief of the Grand Magician of the Order of Clandestine Weeds. Your frivolousness is killing me! Without that ‘rag,’ as you so irreverently call it, no one can guarantee that you will ever wake up again. Do you fancy that prospect?”

“Not particularly. I won’t forget, Juffin. I can’t believe I forgot about it yesterday! Could that unknown beast, hidden in ambush, have caused my absent-mindedness?”

“That could very well be. All the worse, Sir Max, all the worse.”

“If you really are going to be looking out for me, then please recite the safety measures to me just before I climb into bed. I’m either becoming absentminded, or the creature is turning me into an idiot.”

“You’re right. Stranger things have happened. In any case, an extra reminder never hurt anyone. You’re not eating enough. Don’t let nonsense like this spoil your appetite. Problems come and go, but your belly stays with you. Its needs are sacred.”

“I promise I’ll be good, sir.”

And indeed I was. I devoured a plateful of food, and after wiping my plate clean, I reached for a second helping. Sir Juffin Hully looked at me with the approval of a loving grandmother.

Soon it was time to go back home and see this night’s screening of Nightmare on Elm Street, starring poor Max. I can’t say that I was really looking forward to it. Now I was struck by my own idiotic heroism, under the influence of which I had refused to stay over at Juffin’s the other day. It was supposedly in the “interests of our mission,” but to tell the truth, it was just plain stubbornness.

Home was cozy, in spite of it all. Rays of sunshine beat through the new chocolate colored curtains I had procured to turn the bright light of day into the warm half-gloom of an underwater grotto. Of course, the main reason for my purchase had been to get rid of the view from the window, which only a few days before had been one of the main arguments in favor of my choosing this place as my home.

I noticed the evidence of Juffin’s presence in the living room (an unwashed glass and an empty kamra jug), and in the bedroom (the pillows and blankets had migrated to the far corner of the gigantic bed, and my library at the head of the bed had undergone thorough censorship, with the consequent scattering of all books deemed improper about the room). Following a strange logic of free association, I started thinking about cats. As soon as this is all over and done with, I’m getting a kitten, I promised myself. I tried to settle in more comfortably.

Hey Max, Juffin’s call jangled in my head, importunate as the sound of an alarm clock. Don’t forget to put on the scarf!

Sinning Magicians! I nearly forgot the talisman! How was it possible? I was so frightened there could have been no question of absent-mindedness. I quickly wrapped the protective cloth around my neck.

Looks like you were right, Max. You’re able to focus your attention on anything but matters of your own safety. Thoughts about the amulet were blocked, and in a very interesting way, I might add. It’s too bad you wouldn’t be able to understand my explanation of the matter yet. It seems we’ve come upon a very curious phenomenon. Perhaps you have some other amulets as well? Just objects that you especially like, or things that calm you down, like a child with his favorite toy. Lie down with things like that arranged from head to toe. They can’t do any harm, and who knows what small talismans are capable of? And don’t huff and puff so much trying to send me a message! I’m near you all the time in a sense. I see everything and I hear everything. Everything is under control. So just relax. What was it that you said recently? Over and out? Well, that’s all. So long!

I tried to think. Amulets. What sorts of amulets could I have? Actually, I do have one thing I could probably use: the balsam box from Sir Makluk’s bedroom, which was my very first trophy. I had removed it from the place it had so clearly not wanted to stay, and I had the feeling that the trinket was especially fond of me. So I placed my little friend carefully at the head of the bed.

But what else? Was that all? Except maybe the Child of the Crimson Pearl, which was, after all, a royal gift. It couldn’t hurt to have it around. And the third volume of Sir Manga Malifaro’s Encyclopedia of the World, too. I really had grown used to falling asleep with it, like a child with its teddy bear.

I built an elegant barricade of amulets and touched my neck to make sure that the magic rag was still there. Then I lay down in bed with a distinct feeling of despair. I flipped through a book for a while. Sleep crept into my eyes stealthily and quickly, although at first I was sure that today’s experiment might fail due to “technical difficulties.” To tell the truth, I usually get insomnia from fear and stress. But not tonight. I felt as though I’d been pumped full of sleeping pills; and I bet that Freddy Kruger next door had seen to it that his patient had no problems with fitful sleep. I must remember to ask Juffin whether that was true, I thought, falling asleep. Then again, why bother. Wasn’t it obvious?

This time the nightmare wasn’t as horrid. I was conscious of the fact that I was sleeping. I remembered who I was, why I was there, what I was waiting for, and so forth. I didn’t feel Juffin’s presence, but at least I knew who he was subconsciously.

I lay on my dining room table again, in the usual ostentatious serving-dish pose. The curtains, of course, had been parted by some invisible jerk, so I couldn’t escape the lovely view of the ancient palace. My heart tightened in terror, as if an invisible hand was giving me painful intramuscular injections, but for the moment I had the strength to resist. To my great surprise, I even started getting angry. Of course, anger didn’t help me in any way; but then again, I didn’t know what would happen next. In any case, I latched onto this rage, as it seemed to me to be one of the better alternatives to fear.

Some wretch won’t let me get a good night’s sleep in my own house, which I pay good money for, for crying out loud! Some foul, loathsome thing is preventing me from getting any rest! And instead of a suspenseful nightmare, I am being subjected to this moronic boredom, I told myself angrily. I did all I could to get myself worked up. And I ended up getting myself worked up with a vengeance.

Good show, Max! Juffin’s voice in my head interrupted my furious inner monologue. Good show, and it’s working! Now try to be scared again. Your fright is excellent bait. If you don’t show any fear at all, this thing might leave you alone. And we have to lure it out of its foxhole somehow. Be a good boy now, act as if you’re giving up.

It’s easy enough to tell someone to “be scared.” By then I was ready to go on a rampage and smash everything in sight. On the crest of my own righteous anger, I think I was nearing victory over the horrible stupor that had turned me into the most helpless creature in the universe.

One good thing about this kind of situation is that if you really want to be frightened, then all the scary stories in the world of nightmares are at your disposal. I needed only to focus on the dark triangular window in the house across the street, and the pathway of sand leading from it, and all my anger turned to a fear that was almost panic. By way of experiment, and for my own emotional well-being, as well, I tried to get angry again. It worked! I enjoyed being able to change my own mood at will. Not having to choose the lesser of two evils, but rather having both at my command—that was variety for you!

At last I managed to find a balance between fear and anger: to be frightened, but not to the point of losing all other feeling; to be angry, but to remain conscious of my own helplessness.

Then the hand inside the darkness again threw a fistful of sand, then another, and another. The ghostly path between our windows grew longer. An eternity went by, and a second eternity followed. As a third eternity drew to a close, my heart again tried to refuse to take part in the drama, but I was able to negotiate with it. I could have woken up, but I didn’t feel like waiting until tomorrow to see the next episode. If Juffin wanted to get a glimpse of the star in this matinée, I would try to give him the pleasure. I would tolerate as much as I could, and then just a bit more. It was sort of like going to the dentist: the kind of satisfaction you don’t want to drag out for too long.

When the edge of the sandy path neared the table with the heap of fear and anger formerly known as Max lying on it, I actually felt relief. The denouement was near.

Sure enough, a dark silhouette appeared in the window and took the first step along the ghostly pathway. Step by step, he drew nearer to me: a middle-aged man with indistinct facial features and empty, shining eyes.

All of a sudden, I realized I was no longer in control of the situation. Not because the whole situation was too ghastly, and not even because the creature was not (and could not be) human. In theory, I was ready for that. But I could already feel some kind of connection between us, and it was a great deal worse than any fear or spiritual turmoil. I not only felt, but saw, how something started pouring out of my body. It wasn’t blood; it was some kind of invisible substance. All I knew was that my further existence in any form would be impossible without it.

Something started squeezing my throat. I can’t say it was violent, but it was unexpected enough to wake me up. So the “rag,” the merits of which Sir Juffin Hully had talked so much about, worked beautifully. And most important of all, it had worked just in the nick of time! One more second, and I’m not sure there would have been any of me left to wake up.

I swung my legs down off the dining room table, unsurprised by anything anymore. The frame of the open window creaked balefully in the wind. I closed the window and shut the curtains with relief. My body hinted, embarrassed, that it felt like fainting dead away. I shook my fist in reply: just you try!

Good morning, Max! Juffin’s energetic voice was honey to my tormented senses. Good show, boy! Good show! Congratulations on reaching the end of this unpleasant adventure. Now we know everything we need to know, so the finale can’t be too far away. Take a swig of Elixir of Kaxar as though it’s your wedding day, brush off your feathers, and run over to my place. Righto? Over and out.

All right, I answered, and dragged my feet back into the bedroom. Five minutes later, I went down to the bathroom with a hop, skip, and a jump, restored to life by the most medicinal of all drinks in this World.

Juffin’s words about “reaching the end of this unpleasant journey” only now began making sense to me. Did that mean it was over? Could it possibly mean that I would never have to have that terrible nightmare again? Sinning Magicians, what else did a man need to be truly happy!

On my way to work I decided that one thing a man definitely needs is a light breakfast at the Sated Skeleton. With that, I turned off into the warm half-gloom of the pub. Sir Juffin Hully never required his subordinates to go to work on an empty stomach, even in the line of duty.

There were more people than usual at the House by the Bridge. Sir Lonli-Lokli was crouched on the edge of a chair writing in a thick notebook in a pose so uncomfortable that it was painful even to look at him. Sir Melifaro, who had only just returned from a visit to his parents’ estate, leaped out of his office like a genie from a bottle. He crowed that the most famous of illegitimate princes was among us and that he was unspeakably glad to bask in the glow of my fame. I thought that the poor guy had gone nuts until it occurred to me that he was referring to the royal gift that had been given to me three days . . . no, an eternity ago. Nightmares can convince anyone that life is all vanity of vanities and weariness unto death. Shaking my fist at my daytime counterpart, I swore I would “tell Dad,” and went to see Juffin.

I found Lady Melamori in his office, looking much too gloomy for a recently released “prisoner.”

“Glad you could come so quickly, Max. Our business can wait for an hour. It seems that we have some family matters that need taking care of. I think I should call the others in as well.”

“Family matters? What do you mean?” I asked in dismay.

“I’ve been robbed,” Melamori said. “I came home and saw that everything had been turned upside down. All of my jewelry boxes were opened. A hole in the heavens above that thief! I am so upset! When I joined the Secret Investigative Force I was sure that crooks would go three blocks around my house to avoid me.”

“What’s the problem, my lady?” I asked. “Start tracking the scoundrel and the case will be closed before you know it.”

“But there’s not a track to be found!” said Melamori. “It’s as though everything missing simply picked up and left.”

“I’ve always said that living alone is not the life for a lovely little lady!” announced Sir Melifaro as he entered the office. “If I had been in your bedchamber, nothing like this could have happened, my precious!”

“I’d rather get a dog,” said Melamori pursing her lips. “It would guard the house, and eat a whole lot less too. They say that dogs can even understand human speech, which is more than I can say for you.”

Lonli-Lokli politely let Sir Kofa enter the room first. Everyone was there except for Lookfi, who, as I understood, was not usually called in on such occasions. Our affairs had little to do with his work at the Main Archive.

“Well, what do you think of the news?” Juffin asked, fixing each of us with a hard gaze. “We’ve taken a hit! I hope you all agree that Melamori’s possessions should be returned immediately! The lady is upset, which does not bode well for our general humor, and the whole city is waiting on pins and needles to witness the retaliatory acts of the Secret Investigative Force. Dear girl, I know that you haven’t told anyone anything, but Echo is full of two-bit clairvoyants. Sir Melifaro, I’m assigning this to you. Do whatever you see fit. Max and I have other urgent matters to attend. I’m sorry.”

Melifaro immediately seated himself on the arm of Melamori’s chair. I noted without any particular pleasure that she buried her nose in his shoulder.

“I need a list of the stolen objects, sweetie,” said Melifaro, toying with the ends of his colleague’s long bangs.

“Thirty-eight rings, all with the Blimm family crest on the inside. Money . . . I don’t know how much there was, I didn’t count . . . A lot of money. A couple thousand crowns maybe . . . In other words, I don’t know. Eight necklaces, also with the family crest on the clasp. In my family we always engrave precious jewelry. I’ve always teased my parents about it. I guess I shouldn’t have . . . I think that’s about it. They didn’t touch the talismans. Oh, I almost forgot, they also took the little doll that you gave me on Middle of the Year Day. Remember Sir Melifaro?”

Melifaro winced.

“Of course I remember. You don’t easily forget such huge burns in your pocket! It was a beautiful toy. Strange that they would have taken that. It stands to reason they’d want the rest of the stuff. Sir Juffin, perhaps you’ll treat us to some kamra, since we’re all here. Then we can think through this one together and chat. I’ve been feeling a bit listless in that little village lately. I’m sure that your important business can wait for just another half hour, can’t it?”

“Anything can wait for half an hour, except the bodily functions General Boboota is so fond of discussing! All right, may there be a sea of kamra brought over from the Glutton; only you’ll have to work to deserve it, old boy!”

“Don’t I know it! Say Juffin, don’t you think it’s a bit odd to steal the smallest and most expensive things in a house, which one can carry away in the pocket of a looxi, and then grab a doll that’s the size of a three-year-old child as an afterthought? It isn’t a worthless trifle, of course; but in that case, why not take all the dishes, or the armchair from the living room? As far as I know, they would have been more valuable than the doll.” Melifaro had left his place on the arm of Melamori’s chair and was squatting next to the boss, who was forced to look down at him from above.

“I knew you’d catch that. You already deserve one portion of kamra.”

“I may have deserved it, but if we are to drink, then let’s do it together! Well, then, Sir Kofa, which of the honorable city policemen comes first on our White List?”

“Sir Kamshi, but he’s not at the Ministry right now. Try to get in touch with Lieutenant Shixola. He occupies fourth place, and he also specializes in burglaries.”

“All right, I’ll be back in just a moment. Anyone who so much as touches my kamra will choke on it!” With that, Melifaro was gone.

His pace impressed me. If somebody wanted to make a movie about the great Investigator Sir Melifaro of Echo, they’d have to settle with filming a series of shorts.

“What’s this White List?” I asked Sir Kofa. He laughed heartily. Even Lady Melamori let out a giggle.

“Oh Max! That’s just a little game of ours. From time to time we make an objective list of a dozen of the brightest members of the Police Force. The ones we’d want to be involved with, should the need arise. In fact, they do have smart people working over there, but with bosses like Boboota and Foofloss the poor fellows will still end up a laughing stock. And making it onto our White List is a great honor for them. They swell with pride if they get listed. For them it’s even more important than Royal Gratitude, which Boboota is awarded once a year because of his rank. I see you’ve caught on!”

I’ll say! I couldn’t stop laughing, impressed with the clever idea of such a chart. “The Top Twelve” at the House by the Bridge! Extra, extra, read all about it! Get your copy of the new chart!

Even Lonli-Lockli livened up.

“The White List really helps bolster the work ethic over there, Sir Max,” he said in an edifying manner.

“Sir Shurf is one of the movers and shakers behind the List,” chuckled Juffin. “And here is our kamra!”

The jugs of kamra weren’t even visible from behind the mountain of treats that arrived from the Glutton. Melifaro reappeared instantly, as if led by his own nose, and he came bearing a pile of self-inscribing tablets. He leapt over the back and into his chair, and was the first to snatch a pastry and pop the whole thing into his mouth. He looked a bit like Kurush: rumpled, smeared with pastry cream, but very happy. He emptied his cup in one gulp and buried himself in a tablet. For a minute and a half—an eternity by his standards—he read, deep in concentration. Then he jumped up for another pastry, and began holding court with his mouth full. A few seconds later his speech became comprehensible for the rest of us.

“Ah-hah! Just as I thought! In every case a doll like that one was stolen. Besides a load of valuables, of course. But the main thing is that dolls feature in each and every list of stolen goods. Unbelievable! Darling, it seems I gave you a rotten apple. And not without reason! Slighted suitors are terrible in their fury. Now, where did I buy that thing? At some stall in Twilight Market. Well, no matter. I’ll turn the place upside down when I get there.”

“Hold on a minute,” said Sir Kofa. “Tell me, what kind of doll was it? What did your doll look like, Melamori?”

“It looked like a redheaded boy of around twenty years old. It looked almost like a real boy; just shorter. Very handsome face. And the hands were made so beautifully. I examined them closely. Long slender fingers—even the palms were lined. It was wearing some foreign attire made of expensive cloth. I can’t say I know where it was from. The garment began above waist length and flowed down to the floor. And it had a splendid collar, something like a short looxi. It was even a little bit warm, like a human. I was somewhat afraid of it. I put it in the parlor, although people usually keep gifts like that in their bedrooms.”

“Enough said, my girl! There is no need to go to Twilight Market, Melifaro. Eat, take your time. I’ll wager there’s only one craftsman in all of Echo who does that kind of work: Jubo Chebobargo, the man with the magic hands!” Kofa announced triumphantly.

“Sweet,” Juffin purred. “Now all three of you have something to do this evening. And Max and I will take Sir Shurf and go introduce ourselves to . . . Oh, what is it now! A hole in the heavens above you, boy!” This was addressed to a terrified courier who had blundered in to the room without even knocking.

“An evil force is on the loose!” He mumbled breathlessly. “An evil force is on the loose in the Street of Old Coins! It savaged someone already!”

“Oh, I see. An emergency call; that’s what it is. An emergency call,” said Juffin impassively, giving him a curt nod. “Run along then, boy. Why are you shaking like a leaf? Haven’t you ever seen an evil spirit before? Are you new here?”

The courier nodded feverishly and dissolved into the gloom of the corridor.

“Let’s go, boys,” said Juffin. “I can’t imagine why such a thing would want to savage a human. As far as I know, creatures like that usually prefer other games. If it hadn’t been for your appetite, Sir Melifaro, we wouldn’t have missed the beginning of the show! Okay, you have your own business to attend to. Cheers!” Then he turned to me. “Don’t just sit there. Let’s go!”

The whole time we were in the office I had been feeling somewhat sedated, and at that moment I can’t say my condition had improved. Nonetheless, I did somehow manage to stand up and drag myself to the amobiler.

More than anything else I wished someone would tell me what was going on. But Juffin made it clear he had no idea himself.

“You see, Max, you kept a firm grip on yourself, and that gave me time to study the beast. I was absolutely certain that it wasn’t capable of that—of attacking people in broad daylight . . . By the way, Sir Shurf, keep in mind that there is only one course of action in this situation: destroy it. So you’ll be the only one getting your hands dirty. We’ll just watch. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Lonli-Lokli said, nodding. His face looked as though he’d just been told to wash the dishes.

“Do you know what was visiting you, Max? The remains of your honorable neighbor: Sir Tolakan Enn himself.”

“How’s that possible?”

“I think he made a mistake moving into that house. The place is inhabited by a Phetan; it’s clear to me now.”

“A Phetan?”

“A Phetan is a spirit from another world, taught to do specific tasks and sent on a mission here. Even during the Epoch of Orders, the appearance of such beasts was extremely rare, because as they master new skills they become more useful, but also more dangerous. The longer a Phetan lives, the more powerful it becomes. Sooner or later it rebels against the Magician who summoned it, and . . . Most of the time the Phetan will take the body of its master. You see, Phetans miss having a body of their own; and once they get one, they set off in search of food.

“It’s not too difficult to destroy a Phetan—you’ll see that for yourself very soon—but it’s next to impossible to detect its presence. A Phetan surrounds itself with an almost impenetrable protective field. Its main goal is not to attract too much attention. This protective field prevents you from homing in on it. You can’t even detect it. Even if you do notice something, you won’t be able to recall it later. The Phetan feeds its new body on the energy of sleeping people, and after they wake up—if they wake up—they can’t remember what happened. We really are lucky, Sir Max. Very lucky! I’ll tell you why later; that’s another story. There’s one thing that still bothers me, though. Since when does a Phetan attack someone who’s not asleep? I’ve never heard of such a thing before. But no matter—we’ll figure this thing out.”

“But if it flees,” I asked, “how are we going to find it?”

“Out of the question, Sir Max, completely out of the question! Not one Phetan can leave the place it inhabits. It’s a law of nature. That’s exactly why some Magicians involve themselves with Phetans: because you can always escape if you have a head on your shoulders. Sell the house together with its inhabitant, and other people will have to deal with the consequences.”

“But how could Lady Feni go out shopping, if—”

“Good question, boy! I think that having two bodies at its disposal, the Phetan could allow one of them to go free from time to time; though not for long, of course. I’m quite certain it was not Lady Feni going out shopping, but a pitiful semblance of the person she once was, programmed to do certain things. It was a diversionary tactic; a good way of maintaining secrecy. And Phetans covet secrecy. Here we are gentlemen, we can get out now.”

We got out of the amobiler right in front of my house. The Street of Old Coins was pretty crowded. There were a few policemen, half a dozen housewives, and a crowd of gawkers who had come out of the Sated Skeleton. In the center of the circle they formed we found a modestly dressed middle-aged woman whose head was nearly severed from the rest of her body. A basket of nuts lay nearby. The scattered nuts formed a sort of pathway between my house and the Phetan’s, as though the invisible sandy bridge from my dream was casting a very real shadow on the earth beneath it.

My observations were interrupted by the voice of Sir Juffin demanding an explanation from the policemen.

“Witnesses say that it was a very little man, sir,” said the policeman, perplexed.

“Where are the witnesses?”

A young couple emerged from the crowd of onlookers. They seemed pleasant, and very youthful, probably around sixty years old by local standards. The lady turned out to be more talkative than her companion.

“We were taking a stroll around the city, and we chanced upon this street. It seemed quiet enough; there wasn’t anyone around, just one lady with a basket, walking along ahead of us. Then all of a sudden a little man jumped out from behind that house.” Here the girl pointed to the ancient architectural masterpiece that I was already so sick of.

“Are you sure he was small?” asked Juffin.

“I’m sure, sir! You can ask Frud here. He was very small, like a baby, or even smaller. But he was dressed like a grownup, all nice and fancy. At first we didn’t understand what was going on. We thought that the man recognized the lady and ran up to hug her. Well, he jumped up; because of course how else could he hug her, being so little and all. We thought it was cute. But then the lady fell over, and we got scared. The man jumped up and down on top of her a few more times, and then left.”

“Where did he go?”

“He just left . . . Well, he didn’t come toward us, praise to the Magicians! Frud wanted to chase after him, but I got scared. Then we started crying for help.”

“Thank you my dear. Very good,” said Juffin. He then turned to the police officers. “Did you see anyone leaving the house, boys?”

“No, Sir Venerable Head! And we didn’t go inside, because—”

“And a very good thing you didn’t! Max, Shurf, let’s go!”

So we went to pay a visit to my neighbors, a thousand werewolves on their nuptial bed! Inside, the house was dark and very quiet—and very foul, I might add! A massive parlor laden with valuables gave the impression of an odious museum built in the foyer of hell, a collection comprised of belongings stolen from sinners. And I’m not saying that just because I suffered at the hands of the house’s owners. The atmosphere of the house was truly disgusting. Even Lonli-Lokli winced squeamishly; and I’m quite sure that doesn’t happen often.

For the first time since I arrived in Echo, the oversized spaces annoyed me. It took us several minutes to search the first floor, even though we worked very quickly; to no avail. Our search yielded nothing but a thoroughly rotten mood.

We went upstairs. The second floor was as dark and quiet as the first. Lonli-Lokli stepped onto the staircase that led to the third floor. I followed him with a feeling of certain doom. It would have been so nice to wake up just then, but I couldn’t have been more awake.

Hey Max, don’t get depressed! Juffin sensed that I was losing heart and magnanimously sent me a call. No matter what happens, this is work for Shurf; and it’s not difficult, either. You and I are just here out of curiosity. It’s not the most pleasant outing, but it’s nothing more than that. Chin up, my boy!

I felt a bit better. I even mustered a weak smile and had it sent General Delivery to Sir Juffin.

Finally we were on the top floor of the house. Above it there was nothing but sky.

They were waiting for us—Tolakan and Feni Enn: fabulously wealthy, smitten with love for each other, and happy together till the end of time. But, no, they’d been gone for a long time already. Only the formidable Phetan remained, extending his longevity with the two sequestered bodies.

The beast knew very well that the situation was hopeless, and knew what awaited him. It didn’t even try to put up a fight. Suddenly, I got an uneasy feeling. I think I was beginning to sympathize with this unknown beast, who was not even here of its own will; it was merely trying to survive in the only way it knew how. What if some crazy Magician summoned me? And with my talent for getting into trouble, even in my sleep . . . I felt a chill, and shivered.

Five snow-white rays raced toward the motionless couple. Sir Lonli-Lokli’s left hand smote the double-bodied beast quickly and efficiently. Painlessly, as well, I hoped.

“Juffin?” I asked in the ringing silence. “Is there anything left of the Enns themselves? A soul, I mean, or whatever the scientific word for that is . . .”

“No one kno—Oh, Max!”

Quick as lightening, he struck the back of my knees, and I collapsed to the floor. As I was falling, I realized there was something wrong with the nape of my neck. I felt a painful incision in the very place where the hair turns into frivolous fluff. Then a cold sensation spread over my neck. I cried out, and then lost consciousness.

After a few seconds of total darkness, I realized I was still alive. A sharp pain in my right knee and chin witnessed to that. The back of my neck was numb, as though from a shot of Novocain. Something warm was dripping down my neck. If that’s blood, then it’s goodbye to my favorite looxi, I thought darkly.

I felt a hot hand on the back of my neck. It was an extremely pleasant sensation. I relaxed and floated away into a land of tender forgetfulness. But I didn’t stay there for long.

When I opened my eyes, I felt better, though far from ideal. My knee and chin admitted that they had been badly mistreated and were on the road to recovery now. But my neck and the back of my head worried me. Sir Juffin Hully looked around fastidiously for something to wipe off his bloodied hands.

“The curtains,” I said, surprised at my own falsetto croak. “I doubt the heirs will sue you.”

“Good boy, Max! What would I do without you?”

“Drink kamra quietly in your office without a worry or care. What was that, Juffin?”

“It was the comprehensive answer to several theoretical questions that armchair philosophers sometimes feel compelled to examine. See for yourself. Come on, you can turn your head. I’ve stopped the bleeding, and the wound has closed. And it wasn’t such a bad injury to begin with. Your head didn’t fall off, anyway. And if it did, I’d sew a new one on you, even better than the last.”

“Very funny. So where is this comprehensive answer?”

“Here it is, Sir Max,” said sir Lonli-Lokli, and he kneeled down to show me two small objects, which he held in his right, less dangerous hand. It was a figurine broken in half, the figure of a small woman with a trident. The face, though not attractive, was extremely lifelike, and full of a threatening intensity that made it unforgettable. An impressive trinket.

“Sinning Magicians! What is it?”

“One of the masterpieces from the beginning of the Epoch of Orders,” he explained. “An amulet to protect the household. And a powerful thing it was. I think the ghost of Lady Feni picked it up randomly at one of those places at the market where prices start at several hundred crowns. As for the craftsman who made the thing—Sinning Magicians, may werewolves bite off his ears!”

“It is striking,” I agreed, “And look at the face . . . Was it a magical object?”

“Well, yes. In her time, this damsel protected the house from thieves and other unexpected visitors. And she did a good job of it, too; she was no less fierce than an armed thug. It’s all right as long as amulets like that end up in ordinary households of ordinary families. But in a house inhabited by a Phetan, anything can happen to a magical object. This is an age-old truth that is every so often called into question by certain armchair philosophers. The ancient object that attacked you went completely nuts. That’s what I call a comprehensive answer to theoretical questions. It was my fault, of course; you can never let your guard down in a place like this. If you and I had just waited a little longer with our conversation, then your neck would’ve been in much better condition now. Not to mention your morale. Anyway, let’s get out of here. The House by the Bridge is a good deal cozier. Or perhaps you want to go home and get some rest, Sir Max? You are injured, after all, and your house is just across the street.”

“Oh, right! Sleep is just what I need now, while you stuff yourselves with pastries and make a big fuss about our adventures today. The only way you’ll get rid of me is to kill me!”

“Curiosity and gluttony will be the death of you in this job,” Juffin said. “Well, then, let’s be off.”

Lonli-Lokli helped me stand up; but to do this he had to wrap his hand in the cloth of his cape, since he had forgotten his protective gloves in the amobiler. It occurred to me that leaning on the elbow of a fellow like him was probably as dangerous as passing the time by throwing a party at a nuclear power plant. So I tried to make it downstairs without assistance. I made my way down, not exactly bouncing, but energetic nonetheless.

We had just gotten to the amobiler when Juffin’s face suddenly looked like he had eaten a whole lemon.

“Dinner’s postponed, boys. Melifaro is screaming for help. I think they’re in big trouble. And if even Sir Melifaro is complaining, then it must be something serious. The poor fellow didn’t even have time to explain himself. He says an evil force is abroad, and it’s running amuck. Sounds like fun. So we’re heading for the Street of Little Generals. Get behind the wheel, Sir Max! We could use some of your reckless driving right now. As for you, son, get back to the House by the Bridge and read the paper there or something. Come on now, clear out!” said Juffin, and nudged the bewildered driver from the driver’s seat.

I took his place, and we were off. Juffin hardly managed to keep up with my driving, shouting “to the left, now right, now left again!” I believe that evening I was able to squeeze sixty miles per hour out of the technological miracle.

Our speed was justified, as the Street of Little Generals was all the way on the western edge of the city; but we made it there in about fifteen minutes. Juffin needn’t have taken the trouble to announce that we had arrived. To be honest, I didn’t doubt it for a minute.

I can’t say that Echo is the quietest place in the world in the evening. Even so, it’s unusual for locals to run around in groups of twenty to thirty, dressed only in their underwear and accompanied by their young children and hysterical domestic animals. As far as I know, shrieking so loud that the sound carries above the rooftops is not common, either. But that is precisely what everyone was doing at the moment.

“Juba Chebobargo’s house. It’s that dirty pink chicken shed over there,” said Juffin, pointing.

A barefoot man, whose firm body was only just covered by some pathetic scraps of a ragged tunic, ran out of the building just described to me in such unkind terms. A bright shiny object, too large to be a piece of jewelry, was attached to the hem of the tattered garment. The next instant I noticed that the “object” was alive.

A rat! I thought. Could it really be a rat? Ugh!

I’ve been afraid of rats since childhood. This common phobia even has a long scientific name, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is.

A moment later I calmed down. I told myself that multicolored rats like that don’t exist in nature. The creature known as a rat has to be the same grayish or dun color, no matter what world it’s in. Besides, this thing had clearly anthropomorphic features.

“It’s a little man!” I shouted happily. “Just a little man! Exactly like the one the girl described!”

The white flame that leaped out of Lonli-Lokli’s left hand consumed the little man completely, leaving not even a pile of ashes. The sturdy fellow in the tattered tunic carried on, frightened but completely unhurt, his pale backside flickering mysteriously in the gathering twilight for the benefit of any incidental fans of male striptease.

“Should I stop him?” asked Shurf.

Juffin shook his head. “It’s not Juba. Let him run around, there’s no harm in that. And what on earth are you so pleased about, Max? Is it something to do with the little man?”

“Not exactly.” I felt myself blushing. “I was just glad it wasn’t . . . a rat.”

“A rat? What’s a rat?”

“You don’t have rats here?”

“I guess not, unless we call them something else. Let’s go see what’s going on inside the house. Sir Shurf, you go first; and you, Max, keep your wits about you. Today doesn’t seem to be your lucky day.”

That day I realized that I truly enjoyed being in the company of Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli. Shurf was a consummate killer. To be standing so close to death, and yet to be certain it won’t touch you, is a unique feeling. It gives you an unfounded but absolute confidence in your own powers. It made my head spin!

In the hallway of the pink chicken coop, my inappropriately buoyant mood hit the skids. Another little tot was smacking his lips and chewing happily as he sat on the stomach of an ample, middle-aged dead man, upon whose innards he was snacking. Lonli-Lokli quickly put an end to this grotesque scene. If it had gone on a second longer, I would have run the risk of parting with the pastries I myself had eaten only a short time before.

“Why, that’s Krelo Shir!” Juffin exclaimed, approaching the mutilated body. “What a shame! I never would have thought Juba could afford such an excellent chef. Poor artist my foot!”

We entered the living room. The scene before us deserved to be sculpted in bronze. The heroic Sir Melifaro, in a cloud of fluttering remnants of a turquoise looxi, was ripping apart a writhing, angry little body with his bare hands. A good ten miniature bodies lay motionless, strewn about like a splendid backdrop to this immortal exploit. I couldn’t help but laugh. Lonli-Lokli shot out of the room like a bullet.

“Was he really that repelled by my laughter?” I asked Juffin in confusion.

Melifaro brandished the beheaded torso, and grinned at the same time. He was probably imagining how this scene must look to an outsider.

“Oh, no, Max, not at all. I simply sent him to go after the others.”

“There’re more?”

“No less than a dozen running about. And Mister Juba made a run for it, too. But I wouldn’t worry about him. Our friend Melamori doesn’t take kindly to men who don’t lavish attention on her,” Melifaro assured me. “She’ll smoke him out wherever he is.”

“Just what are these little freaks? Can you tell me, O slayer of trolls?”

“Why do you call them freaks? They’re sweet, really; take a look!” Melifaro held out a little head that had been separated from its body. I winced. Then I saw that the head was made out of wood. And the face was truly lovely. Sinning Magicians!”

“Is that a doll? The same one you gave Melamori?”

“The same one, or a different one. It doesn’t matter. There were several dozen of the little monsters and they just went mad. When we first arrived they were having a meeting, discussing whether they should kill Juba or swear loyalty to him. He was a sorry sight.”

“Let’s go, fellows,” Juffin said, cutting short our intriguing conversation. “We’re no match for Sir Shurf, but we should each try to make ourselves useful, insofar as our humble abilities will allow us. Where, by the way, is good Sir Shixola? Could he possibly have deserted?”

“Just about! No, just joking. He called for a backup, too, and now he’s heading up the races on the rooftops, in the company of the city police. I hope they’ve managed to catch one or two. Patch me up, will you, Juffin? Jokes aside, I don’t think I’m in very good shape.”

I watched, enchanted, as Sir Juffin Hully stroked Melifaro’s arms, which were covered in tooth marks, with the tips of his fingers. Melifaro winced.

“That’s nothing; my stomach is in a much worse state.”

“Ah-hah!” Sir Juffin’s palms darted to the spot where Melifaro’s bright yellow tunic was darkening with a maroon stain. “Goodness, my boy! It looks like these beasts are crazy about human bellies! Are you still on your feet? Good show! There you go. You’re lucky that these critters can jump so high. A little lower, and even I wouldn’t be able to redeem your personal life.”

“Werewolves take you, Juffin! That’s no occasion for joking!”

“No worse than your jokes. Alright then, let’s go.”

Outside, the apocalypse raged on. A child ran right past me with a shriek. Horrified, I noticed that a tiny figure was prancing right at its heels, emitting a barely audible hissing noise. In the twilight it looked so much like a rat that I had to summon all my courage to perform a deed worthy of renown. Bending over, I grabbed the beast by its fragile leg and, shuddering with fright, smashed the horrid creature on the cobblestones. The doll shattered to bits.

“Is that how you punish disobedient children in the Barren Lands?” asked Melifaro with acerbic admiration. “Let’s go look for some more to finish off. Maybe we’ll get lucky!”

But lucky we were not. No sooner had we started our excursion around the block when we came upon Sir Lonli-Lokli, who looked tired, but absolutely calm. His snow-white looxi was still flawlessly draped.

“That’s that,” he announced. “I told the police to start restoring the peace. There are no dolls left.”

“Are you sure there are no more of them?” I almost asked, but restrained myself in the nick of time. If Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli says something, then it must be true. I should have learned that by now.

“Thank you for your expediency, Sir Shurf. I have been dying for some kamra for an hour and a half now,” Juffin said, and yawned.

“That is just why I made haste, sir.”

If I didn’t know Lonli-Lokli better, I would have sworn that he was teasing. We went back to the amobiler, but on the way a familiar operatic growl caught our attention.

“Crap like that should stay in a pig’s toilet where it belongs! Bull’s tits! You’re going in there, and you’ll eat your own turds until they stop coming out of your skinny little butt!”

“Boboota’s leading the operation?” I asked.

“But of course!” said Juffin. “It’s great publicity, restoring the peace and whatnot. Do you really think he’d miss a good opportunity to go wild? Boboota jumps at the chance to wave his sword around. It’s his only talent, after all. Praise to the Magicians, have my dreams come true? Looks like one of the little monsters managed to bite him!”

“No, sir,” said Lonli-Lokli. “Captain Foofloss arrived along with General Box. Sir Foofloss, as you know, is a very disciplined soldier. If ordered to open fire with a Baboom slingshot, he does it.”

Juffin and Melifaro exchanged glances and guffawed.

“Captain Foofloss is the worst marksman under the sun!” Juffin explained through his laughter. “If he aims for the ground right under him, he shoots into the sky.”

Then he turned to Lonli-Lokli, “So, what happened?”

“Captain Foofloss’ shot ricocheted off the wall and hit General Box. The injury isn’t serious, but it’s liable to cause him a good deal of discomfort. I mean it will be difficult for him to sit down for a while.”

I joined in the mirth with my colleagues.

Finding myself in the driver’s seat of the amobiler, I decided that I, too, needed a bit of kamra. So we drove back even faster than we had on our way here. I’d swear the darned jalopy was about to take off flying. If anyone besides me got pleasure out of the ride, it was Melifaro. In any event, I had to promise that I would reveal the secret of speed to him. As if it was a secret!

All of a sudden I thought, I’m one to laugh at Captain Foofloss! I don’t even know how to shoot a Baboom! In fact, I don’t even know what it is.

Juffin intercepted my inner monologue, and rushed to comfort me. If you like, we could practice a bit together at the shooting gallery in our free time. But you must keep in mind that we are Secret Investigators, and thus find it beneath our dignity to be involved in such nonsense. And keep your eye on the road, for goodness’ sake!

It was indeed comforting.

An unusually heartwarming sight awaited us when we returned to the House by the Bridge. We found Melamori lounging upon the table in the Hall of Common Labor. She looked disheveled, but very happy. Her narrow feet, covered in scratches, were clamped around the muscular neck of a sturdy blond young man whose face had gone burgundy for lack of oxygen. He had had no choice but to settle into a position so uncomfortable that if I had been the Venerable Head of the Office of Quick Retribution (the Supreme Court, in other words), I would have thought such a punishment to be more than enough.

“He’s all yours, Sir Melifaro,” the sweet lady twittered. “I’ve been sitting with him here for an hour already.”

“It’s your own fault. You could have settled for a less ravishing pose. We would have appreciated you anyway,” Juffin grumbled. “Get that fright into Melifaro’s office. I can’t bear the sight of him. What hands, what talent! And to waste it all churning out those odious monsters. What’s up, genius? Were you too broke for a jug of kamra?”

Juba Chebobargo was not in the mood for conversation. He didn’t seem to understand what was going on. Lady Melamori hopped off the table gracefully. The poor fool didn’t even react to his sudden liberation from her embrace. She grabbed him roughly by the wheat-colored locks that sprouted from the top of his head, and dragged the mountain of meat into Melifaro’s office with no visible effort. Melifaro followed after them, shaking his head in amazement.

As soon as I sat down at the table, I began to whine. With the exhausted manner of a hero of all world wars in succession, I demanded that we put in our order at the Glutton without waiting for the rest of our colleagues to return. To be honest, I suspect that events would have shaped up that way even without my insistence. Juffin himself was in a hurry to get his kamra.

“I think we should add a few bottles of good wine to our order. I feel a tad tired today,” said Lonli-Lokli. “I don’t think anyone would object.”

Indeed, no one had any objections. The devil take it, we had something to celebrate! Just a few hours ago we had unmasked and disarmed a Phetan, one of the most formidable forces of evil in this World. Not to mention our joint munchkin-extermination mission, and our happy introduction to Juba Chebobargo, the person with the magical hands.

When the trays arrived from the Glutton, Lonli-Lokli produced the familiar cup with the hole in the bottom from under the folds of his looxi. But he slyly managed to surprise me a second time. Uncorking a bottle of Shining, Sir Shurf took his time pouring its entire contents into his cup. Of course, the size of the cup would not seem to accommodate such greed. It turned out, however, that nothing would spill over the brim of the cup, either. The quivering aromatic column of greenish-yellow wine froze above the vessel. Lonli-Lokli sipped from the top of this liquid iceberg.

I felt the urge to cross all my fingers, just to be on the safe side; but then thought better of it, as this could be interpreted as magic of some forbidden degree.

“Do you feel better, Shurf?” asked Juffin.

“I certainly do. Thank you, sir,” said Lonli-Lokli. And, indeed, not a trace of weariness remained on his face.

There was still much that remained unclear to me, so I requested an explanation.

“So it was Juba Chebobargo who made those dolls come alive?”

“Almost. As I understand it, Juba’s skills were so great that he made the dolls using only permitted magic—and his amazing hands, of course! It wasn’t that the dolls were really alive; but they were very lifelike, and they could perform certain simple tasks. Collecting all the money and valuables they could carry, for example. And he taught them to return to their master. It was an excellent plan, I’ll grant him that. If Melifaro hadn’t taken on the case, I don’t think anyone would have caught on for a few more years; and by then he would have made a fortune. Although today’s events probably would have put an end to his scheme, anyway.”

“So what happened? What made the dolls go mad like that? Nothing like that has ever happened before, has it?”

“It certainly hasn’t! What do you think—who was the kid that jumped out of your neighbors’ house and gave the poor lady that overly passionate kiss?”

“One of Juba Chebobargo’s dolls!” It finally dawned on me. “Lady Feni bought it, along with the rest of the antique junk that she collected. And the doll went crazy in that lovely little house, just like the protective amulet that attacked me. I can’t say I blame them. I’d probably go nuts in that place, too. But what happened to all the other dolls? Was it some kind of epidemic?”

“You can be very perspicacious when you wish to be, Max. That is exactly what it was, an epidemic. The crazed object returned home, and thus made a huge contribution to science. Now it is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that the properties of magical objects not only change in the presence of a Phetan, but can also share their newly acquired qualities with other magical objects. Today was quite a fruitful day in the area of scientific discovery. And in the area of bodily injury, for that matter.”

“And conflicts with one’s neighbors,” I grumbled.

“I told you not to move there from the very start, if you would care to recall,” said Juffin, and kindly poured me some more kamra. “And I told you from the very start that by moving there I was acting in the line of duty. How many souls would he have destroyed if he hadn’t come across me?”

“Inhabitants of the Borderlands have a highly developed faculty of intuition; I’m convinced of this now more than ever,” said Lonli-Lokli, summing things up.

“And a highly developed lucky streak,” said Juffin. He turned to me and said, “You have no idea how lucky you were to receive that royal gift when you did. And I have one more scientific discovery that I can share with you. I hope it’s the last one today. I was able to discover the magical properties of the Children of the Crimson Pearl.”

“Ah, while we’re toiling away, state secrets are being revealed in here,” said Lady Melamori, flushed and disheveled, as she appeared in the doorway. She stood at attention, then reported.

“Everything is fine, Sir Juffin! Melifaro will join us in just a moment. He’s finishing the interrogation of Juba with Mister, oh what’s-his-name, from the police. You know, the one who’s fourth on the List. He really is a nice guy. Poor Juba isn’t in his right mind. When I started trailing him, I was already terribly angry. I’m even a little ashamed of myself now. He still isn’t in very good shape after the run-in with his babies. Still, why is Shixola only fourth on the List? I think he deserves to be second, at the very least.”

“If I am not mistaken, Lieutenant Shixola’s intellect manifests itself in the following: he is smitten with you, my lady, and does nothing to hide it.”

“Nothing of the sort!” Melamori retorted. “We only talked about work.”

“As far as I’m aware, that’s all that’s necessary. There, there; I’m just joking! Go on my girl, what were you saying?”

“Well, it doesn’t really matter. I see you have more interesting news here. Sir Juffin, you look truly elated. Come now, don’t keep it a secret!”

“I wasn’t planning on it. You were the one who interrupted me. Couldn’t you have just listened quietly from behind the door? So, gentlemen, in answer to Max’s question about Phetans: these creatures are capable of concealing the recollections that people have of them in the dimmest recesses of people’s consciousness. The poor victims are unable to remember their terrifying nightmares. They blame their sickly state on other factors. So they stay home and rest, and in their slumber they again fall victim to the hungry beast. In observing your dream today, I had the opportunity to see the Child of the Crimson Pearl in action with my own eyes. It wasn’t even necessary to keep it at the head of your bed. It was enough for you hold it in your hands just once. It turns out that the pearls help their owners recall events under any circumstances. That’s it! Finish chewing that morsel, Melamori, and tell us what went on over there.”

Melamori, heedless of this wise piece of advice, began speaking with her mouth full. Dining etiquette was obviously not held in very high regard among the Echo aristocracy—though I must admit that this sight only made her more attractive to me.

“I told you; everything’s fine. I started tracking Juba Chebobargo. Not that it was really necessary—his home address is certainly no secret—but I was really furious. It was all for the best, though. By the time we arrested him, the criminal was as tame as a kitten. Well, we set off for the Street of Little Generals, Melifaro and I and the handsome Sir Shixola. When we arrived, Chebobargo appeared to be in quite a pickle. He was sitting on the floor in the parlor, with those little beasts swarming over him from head to toe. They were trying to decide what to do with him. From what we could make out, some of the dolls considered him to be a sort of parental figure, and the other camp dubbed him a tyrant. When we arrived, they were in a heated discussion. Oh, gentlemen, they weren’t actually saying anything at all. They just ground their teeth rhythmically, like a cross between normal and Silent Speech. When we killed a few of the dolls from the doorway, total chaos broke out. They were running every which way, and Chebobargo, too. I don’t know whether he was running from them or from us! I guess the poor fellow didn’t really know what was going on at that point. So I went after him, and Melifaro and Shixola stayed behind to kill the little critters. You know the rest. Oh, one more thing. The police found almost all the stolen valuables in Juba Chebobargo’s bathroom—and mine too, of course. They were on top because I was the last person to be robbed. What about that important business that you fellows had to take care of? What have you been up to? Tell me!” And Melamori gave Lonli-Lokli a pleading look. She’d certainly picked a loquacious bard!

“Sir Juffin will tell you himself, I am sure.”

Yes, Sir Shurf was far from being the greatest gossip in the Unified Kingdom.

“I’ll tell you when everyone else gets here. Don’t be angry dear, I just can’t stand repeating the same thing over and over.”

“Fine! But I may drop dead of curiosity right here in your arms, I warn you!”

Before half an hour had passed, Melifaro arrived. In contrast to everyone else, he had already managed to change his clothes. He was wearing a lettuce-green skaba and red and blue checked looxi. Maybe he kept a whole closet full of garments at work, I mused.

Soon Sir Kofa poked his head into Juffin’s office. He said he was just passing by and decided to drop in to find out how things were, because there were amazing rumors making the rounds in the city. For instance, it was said that Juba Chebobargo was the leader of a gang of midgets. And Mister Venerable Head had apparently killed Tolakan Enn, former Heir to the Throne, with his bare hands, because of some debt at cards from way back. And he knocked off the wife of the victim while he was at it. He then falsified the report, to the effect that the Enns were involved in forbidden black magic and were penpals with two dozen Rebel Magicians.

“Nice rumor,” Juffin said with a grin. “There’s a moral to be learned from it. People should remember it’s best to pay their gambling debts on time!”

But the real joke of the day was sir Boboota Box, who, despite his serious injuries, had already written up an official report in which he said that the “city police were following up on a lead that could result in solving the mystery of the recent robberies that had been taking place in Echo.” Luckily for Boboota, his more intelligent subordinates were in no great hurry to send the letter and prudently saved their boss from embarrassment.

Juffin spent the rest of the evening telling everyone about our adventures. I almost fell asleep in my chair, lulled by the warmth, my own full stomach, and the opportunity to hear the story of my own adventures recounted so thrillingly, even though the story was horrifying.

“Sir Max, I am sending you home,” Juffin announced. “All the mysteries have been solved, and all the pastries have been eaten. What you really need now is to sleep for twenty-four hours without a single nightmare.”

“I have no objections to that,” I said with a smile, “but I have one last question. Sir Melifaro, do you have any cats at your estate?”

“Of course. Why do you ask?”

“I promised myself that when this ordeal was over, I would get myself a kitten. But since two missions have come to a close at the same time, I’ll need two kittens.”

“I could give you a dozen if you ask; but tell me what do plan to do with them? Do you eat them?”

“We Border Dwellers eat anything!” I announced. Then, taking pity on my nonplussed colleagues, I said, “I’m going to stroke them, and they are going to purr. Those, I believe, are the ideal relations between humans and cats.”

Before half an hour had passed, Melifaro arrived. In contrast to everyone else, he had already managed to change his clothes. He was wearing a lettuce-green skaba and red and blue checked looxi. Maybe he kept a whole closet full of garments at work, I mused.

Soon Sir Kofa poked his head into Juffin’s office. He said he was just passing by and decided to drop in to find out how things were, because there were amazing rumors making the rounds in the city. For instance, it was said that Juba Chebobargo was the leader of a gang of midgets. And Mister Venerable Head had apparently killed Tolakan Enn, former Heir to the Throne, with his bare hands, because of some debt at cards from way back. And he knocked off the wife of the victim while he was at it. He then falsified the report, to the effect that the Enns were involved in forbidden black magic and were penpals with two dozen Rebel Magicians.

“Nice rumor,” Juffin said with a grin. “There’s a moral to be learned from it. People should remember it’s best to pay their gambling debts on time!”

But the real joke of the day was sir Boboota Box, who, despite his serious injuries, had already written up an official report in which he said that the “city police were following up on a lead that could result in solving the mystery of the recent robberies that had been taking place in Echo.” Luckily for Boboota, his more intelligent subordinates were in no great hurry to send the letter and prudently saved their boss from embarrassment.

Juffin spent the rest of the evening telling everyone about our adventures. I almost fell asleep in my chair, lulled by the warmth, my own full stomach, and the opportunity to hear the story of my own adventures recounted so thrillingly, even though the story was horrifying.

“Sir Max, I am sending you home,” Juffin announced. “All the mysteries have been solved, and all the pastries have been eaten. What you really need now is to sleep for twenty-four hours without a single nightmare.”

“I have no objections to that,” I said with a smile, “but I have one last question. Sir Melifaro, do you have any cats at your estate?”

“Of course. Why do you ask?”

“I promised myself that when this ordeal was over, I would get myself a kitten. But since two missions have come to a close at the same time, I’ll need two kittens.”

“I could give you a dozen if you ask; but tell me what do plan to do with them? Do you eat them?”

“We Border Dwellers eat anything!” I announced. Then, taking pity on my nonplussed colleagues, I said, “I’m going to stroke them, and they are going to purr. Those, I believe, are the ideal relations between humans and cats.”

Home, sweet home. My nightmares were over, and I was exhausted by the ordeal I had been through. I lay down in bed and stretched so exquisitely that I almost cried with joy. I slept, not like a baby, but rather like a bear in its den. And I only came to on the evening of the following day. I was hungry. Unlike a member of genus ursus, I lacked a layer of fat to sustain me.

An hour later, there was a knock at my door. It was the young courier from the Ministry of Perfect Public Order.

“A package from Sir Melifaro for Sir Max,” the boy reported, and handed me an enormous basket. I could hardly lift it. Closing the door after the courier, I removed the ornate blanket that covered the basket. Two dark fuzzy creatures with bright blue eyes were peering out at me. I took them out of the basket. Each of them weighed more than a grown cat in my homeland! I studied them carefully. The black one was a boy, and the coffee-colored one was a girl. The kittens seemed possessed by an utter calm that bordered on extravagant laziness. Naturally, plump as they were! I was so thrilled with my acquisition that I sent a call to Melifaro.

Thanks, buddy! The beasts are awesome! Totally awesome!

Sinning Magicians, Max. You speak so oddly when you use Silent Speech, who would have known . . . They’re just cats, no big deal. Bon appétit!

What else was I expecting to hear? I named the boy Armstrong and the girl Ella. The idea came to me when they reminded me in their low-pitched mews that animals must be fed. My pets definitely knew how to croon. And in the old days, before I was Sir Max of Echo, I used to like listening to a bit of old jazz. 

Chapter 3 Cell No. 5-OW-NOX

THERE’S A SIGN I ALWAYS WATCH FOR: BEFORE EVERY MAJOR CASE, everything goes quiet in the House by the Bridge. If I find myself dozing for several nights in a row in my armchair, my feet up on the desk, it means that some hullabaloo or other will soon be in full swing.

And, in point of fact, I don’t mind. Serving in the Secret Investigative Force isn’t yet just a routine for me. And if everything continues the way it’s going now, it’s unlikely that it ever will be.

When urgent matters crop up (and there are more of them than there are agents), my personal time-frame stops coinciding with the pace of the hands on the clock. Sometimes I seem to live through a few years in just one day; but at the end of the day I’m not any older.

I like this. I’m hungry for life. Even those several hundred years that are almost guaranteed to every inhabitant of this World seem like a very short allotment of infinity to me. I admit, hand on heart, that I just want to live forever—preferably without becoming too decrepit, though being old doesn’t really frighten me. If you take one look at Juffin or at Sir Kofa, you understand that solid old age is rather an advantage than a burden.

That morning Sir Kofa Yox showed up exactly ten seconds earlier than Juffin. During that time he managed to sit down in a chair, wipe the workaday mask off his face (low forehead; long, fleshy nose; high cheekbones; sensitive lips; double chin), and stretch sweetly, with a bit of creaking here and there.

As though agreeing with his colleague, Sir Juffin gave a leisurely yawn in the doorway. He planted himself in his chair, and yawned again—a protracted one, mingled with a little squeal. These things are highly contagious: I too started to yawn, although I hadn’t slept too poorly on the job that night. In fact, I felt completely rested. Finding a night job was all it took to help a night owl like me switch to the ordinary schedule of most of humanity.

I could have gone home if I wanted to. I even should have. But I had already decided beforehand to drink a mug of kamra in the company of my senior colleagues, because I know how they work: as soon as I leave, they start talking about The-Most-Interesting-Things-In-The-World. No more missing out on that! These days you had to drag me off duty by force.

“Judging by what a rotten sleep I had last night, we could arrest the entire population of Echo for abuse of forbidden magic,” Juffin spluttered angrily, gulping down half the mug of kamra at one go. “Only where could we lock them all up? There aren’t that many free cells in Xolomi.”

“That bad?” Kofa asked, frowning skeptically.

“Worse than bad. Every time I started to doze off, another misuse of magic signal would sound, and I’d just about jump through the roof. I was cursed to be born with such sensitive ears. What’s been going on, Kofa, do you have any idea? The Let’s Make Potions Festival, featuring members of all the Ancient Orders?” The boss drank down the rest of his kamra with an indignant slurp, then proposed with obvious relish, “Is it possible that I have slept through a government revolt?”

From the depths of his chair, Sir Kofa observed Juffin’s fuming with paternal benevolence. He waited until he was quiet then permitted himself to launch into an explanation.

“I feel for you, Juffin, but it wasn’t really that entertaining. In fact, it was rather sad.”

“It sure must have been. Well, don’t keep me on tenterhooks! What happened?”

“What’s there to say that you don’t know already? Old Sir Fraxra is in very bad shape. The wisemen are absolutely powerless to help—after all the fellow’s already over 1,000 years old. Not every magician lives that long and Fraxra was just a young novice of some bedraggled Order. They booted him out of there pretty quickly, too, and found him a position at Court. That’s where the matter ended.”

“Yes, I know all that. Did the old man really decide to try to prolong his existence? There’s something suspicious about it. He’s a sensible man, and he’s well aware of his own limits.”

“He is, indeed, a very sensible man. Sensible enough to understand that there are things you have to part with in due course in the World before leaving it. The household staff and servants adore him. Including the cook.”

Juffin’s face brightened.

“Ah, yes. Sir Shutta Vax, the youngest son of the legendary Vagatta Vax, Head Chef of the Court of Gurig VII. The one who retired after the Code of Krember was introduced.”

“And right he was to do so, too. Old Cuisine is Old Cuisine, after all. A kitchen wizard like Vagatta Vax—what would he do without magic of the 20th or 30th degree? Boss around the kitchen boys? I think not.”

“But Shutta learned a thing or two from his daddy, from what I understand,” Juffin mused.

“But of course. You know that Shutta Vax would go through hell and high water for his old master. And to break the law a little for the dying Sir Fraxra with a speciality of the family house is the least he could do. In short, last night a Chakkatta Pie was born. And the nocturnal merrymakers kept their noses to the wind without knowing why themselves.”

“I forgive him for my troubled sleep,” said Juffin. “The young fellow, of course, found you and asked you to put in a good word for his blasted noggin?”

“Shutta Vax did, in fact, find me and warn me that he was going to break the law,” said Sir Kofa. “His loyalty to the King, of course, is hereditary, not a matter of conviction. The fellow decided to save us the extra trouble. He said that if we considered it necessary to send him to Xolomi, he was ready for it. He requested only that we wait until morning, so he could feed the old man—then off to the executioner’s block he’d go.”

“That wily old fox knows that Juffin will never lay a hand on a kitchen magician. Well, I only hope that Sir Fraxra dies happy. I wish I could be in his shoes!”

“Shutta really is counting on your kindness. And as a sign of his gratitude, he decided to share responsibility with you,” said Sir Kofa. He drew a box out from the folds of his looxi and handed it to Juffin.

Juffin accepted the box as though it were a priceless treasure. I swear I have never seen such a reverent expression on his face! He lifted the lid and carefully folded down the sides of the box to reveal an enormous piece of pie. It looked like a neat triangle of the purest amber, gleaming from the inside with a warm light. Juffin’s hands trembled, honest to Magicians! With a sigh, he took a knife and sliced off a thin piece.

“Take it, Max. You can’t imagine how lucky you are!”

“You can’t imagine what an honor this is,” Kofa said with a smile. “If Juffin gave his life for you, I could understand it. But to share a piece of Chakkatta Pie! What’s gotten into you, Juffin?”

“I don’t know. He’s just lucky,” Juffin said. “I’m not sharing anything with you, Kofa. I’m sure that you already had your share.”

“That’s right. So don’t let your conscience bother you.”

“And I’m sure that slice was even bigger than this one.”

“Your eyes are bigger than my stomach! My slice was almost half as big as yours.”

I fingered the piece of pie as though enchanted. What kind of pie could this be? I carefully bit off a corner of the shining baked wonder.

There are no words to describe, in any human language, what happened in my mouth that wondrous morning. And if you think that you have already experienced all the pleasures that could possibly tantalize your taste buds . . . well, then, you are living in blissful ignorance. I will seal my lips, because the taste of Chakkatta Pie is simply beyond words.

When the tasting orgy was over, we fell silent for a time.

“Are you sure the ban can’t be lifted, at least for cooks?” I asked plaintively, shaken by the injustice of the ways of the World. If this is one of the dishes of Old Cuisine, I simply can’t imagine what the rest of it was like. My senior colleagues sadly cast down their eyes. Their faces wore the expressions of people whose dearest possessions have been irretrievably lost.

“Unfortunately, Max, it is thought that the world can come to ruin even through this,” Juffin said somberly. “Moreover, we weren’t the ones who wrote the Code of Krember.”

“The one who wrote it had probably been on a strict diet for about a hundred years, and hated humanity to boot,” I grumbled. “Is it really possible that His Majesty and Grand Magician Nuflin can’t allow themselves a piece of Chakkatta Pie for breakfast? I don’t believe it.”

“You do have excellent intuition. Regarding the King, I have my own doubts, while in the city there is talk of a secret kitchen, hidden in the basements of Jafax, the Main Residence of the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover,” Sir Kofa remarked with studied indifference.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have joined the Secret Investigative Force at all,” I said, gazing at Juffin reproachfully. “Put in a good word for me at your Seven-Leaf Clover, will you? Maybe they’ll take me on as a janitor.”

Juffin nodded absently, chugged down the rest of his kamra, then turned a dazzling smile on us.

“Life goes on,” he announced. “Therefore, tell me, my dear friend: a pie is a pie is a pie, but did anything else happen here?”

“Everything, one might say, that falls under General Boboota’s jurisdiction,” Kofa said. “Trifles. Simply too many to count for one night. That’s why you couldn’t sleep. For example, the idiot smugglers tried to hide their contraband from Customs by applying black magic of the fifteenth degree. Can you believe it?”

“Yes,” Juffin said drily, nodding his head. “Exceptionally dull-witted. You might as well steal an old skaba, and then blow up the whole Right Bank so no one will find out.”

“Then there was a counterfeit job. Black magic of only the sixth degree. And there was an awkward amateur attempt to mix a sleeping potion. Piffle . . . Oh, here’s something of a more serious order. Belar Grau, former apprentice of the Order of the Secret Grass, has become a pickpocket. A real professional, by the way! They just about caught him last night . . . see for yourself.”

He handed Juffin several self-inscribing tablets. These are an extraordinarily convenient little invention, let me tell you. Just think a thought or two, and it up and writes them down. It must be said that some people think less than grammatically—but there it is. That’s one thing you can’t change.

Juffin studied the tablets with respectful concentration.

“What I’d like to know is what Boboota Box does all day during working hours. And what part of his body does he use for thinking, when it becomes absolutely unavoidable. I doubt it’s his behind—it’s so big that it would be capable of coming to some weighty conclusions eventually. Okay, then. We’ll let him deal with the bungling sorcerers and smugglers. The counterfeiter and pickpocket we’ll keep for later.”

Sir Kofa nodded gravely.

“With your permission, I’d like to take my leave. I want to drink some kamra in the Pink Buriwok on my way home. They don’t know how to make it worth a darn, but the biggest tongue-waggers in Echo gather there early in the morning on their way from the market. I don’t think . . . although . . .”

Sir Kofa fell silent and almost mechanically passed his hand over his face, which underwent a sudden change. Rubbing his nose, which was growing before our very eyes, he went off to squander the remains of the treasury.

“Juffin,” I began in confusion. “Tell me, why don’t you give Boboota Box all the cases at once? He’s a jerk, of course; but a criminal at large—that’s not right, is it? Or have I misunderstood something again?”

“Have you misunderstood something? You’ve understood absolutely nothing! A petty criminal at large is a mild inconvenience, but a Boboota running around the House by the Bridge is a disaster! And I do have to try to get along with him. To my way of thinking, that means ‘taking charge of the situation.’ And ‘taking charge of the situation’ means that Sir Boboota Box will be forever in our debt. It’s the only state of mind that allows for constructive dialog. At the same time, we always need to have something up our sleeves that Boboota doesn’t know. What if we suddenly have to give him a present; or, on the contrary, to give him a scare? The gratitude of Boboota Box is as loud as the gases he lets out at his leisure—and as fleeting as their odor.”

“How complicated it all is!” I exclaimed ruefully.

“Complicated? It’s very simple, boy. And, by the way, what’s a ‘jerk’?”

“A jerk is—Sir Boboota Box. But you, sir, are a true Jesuit!”

“You can cuss a mouthful when you’re in the mood,” Juffin said admiringly.

“Excuse me,” said the stranger formerly known as Sir Kofa, peeping into the study. “That blasted pie made me completely forget about the most important thing. All night rumors have been circulating through the city that Burada Isofs died in Xolomi. I checked up on it—it’s true. He was in cell No. 5-Ow-Nox. How do you like them apples, Juffin!”

“I’m just wondering,” the boss muttered, “how do nighttime revelers find out things like that? All the more since it happened in Xolomi.”

“You said yourself that Echo is full of two-bit clairvoyants,” I reminded him.

“So I did. Thanks, Kofa! You’ve made me happy. How many people have expired in that cell over the last few years, Kurush?”

The sleepy Buriwok raised his head reluctantly, but starting recounting information about the 225th day of the 115th year.

“Dosot Fer died on the 114th day of the 112th year in cell No. 5-Ow-Nox in the Royal Prison of Xolomi. Tolosot Liv died on the 209th day of the 113th year in the same place. Balok Sanr died on the 173rd day of the 114th year. Tsivet Maron died on the 236th day of the 114th year. Axam Ann died on the 78th day of the 115th year. Sovats Lovod died on the 184th day of the 115th year. Burada Isofs died in the same cell on the 224th day of the 115th year, if I have understood Sir Kofa correctly. Somebody give me some peanuts,” Kurush concluded, on an unexpectedly informal note.

“Certainly, my dear fellow!” Juffin reached into the desk drawer for the peanuts, which were far more abundant than secret documents.

“You can be on your way, Kofa. Good work, for remembering to report that to me. Think about what our next step should be.”

Our incomparable Master Eavesdropper-Gobbler, as Melifaro had christened him, nodded, and disappeared into the darkness of the corridor. The door closed silently behind him. I shivered under the penetrating gaze of Sir Juffin Hully.

“Well, Max, what do you think? Will you take the case?”

“How do I get a handle on something like this?”

“You look for the only handle we have. You set out for Xolomi, and you sit in the cell yourself. If you throw yourself into the fray, you’ll find out what’s going on there. And circumstances will instruct you about how to proceed.”

“Me? In Xolomi?!”

“Where else, my dear friend. That’s where they’re dying. You’re leaving tomorrow. Oh, don’t look so alarmed! All things considered, it doesn’t look like it will take too long for events to unfold. And I’m certain no one can manage this case better than you can.”

“Manage how? By staying in prison?”

“That, too,” Sir Juffin said with an acid smile. “What’s wrong with you, Max? Where’s your sense of humor?”

“Somewhere out there. I’ll go look for it,” I said, with a dismissive wave of the hand, as if to show that things weren’t really that bad.

“Listen carefully, Max. Sooner or later it would have happened anyway.”

“What, you mean that sooner or later they’d clap me in Xolomi prison?”

“Enough already about the prison! I’m serious now. Sooner or later you’re going to have to start acting on your own. So it’s better that it happened now. It’s not a matter of earth-shattering importance for the World. And it’s not the most difficult case, it appears. I can jump to your aid at any moment, though I’m sure that won’t be necessary. I’m at your disposal, Max: day, night, tomorrow morning, and in between. Think, make a plan. Everything you need will be made available to you. And this evening, instead of reporting to duty, come to see me. The last supper for the future prisoner. Your every gastronomical wish will be fulfilled.”

“Thank you, Juffin.”

“You’re very welcome!”

“But now maybe you’ll explain to me—”

“No explanations, don’t even ask! Treating you to dinner—I’m always ready to grant that wish.”

At that we parted.

In the evening I set out for the Left Bank, armed with the hope that someone would finally tell me what the devil I was supposed to do in Xolomi. But what do you think—would that monster change his mind? Not on your life! You came here to eat, he’ll say. Well, make me happy, Max, and move your jaws. All this talk about work, work, work—that’s what I’m fed up with!

According to Kimpa, dinner had been personally prepared by his Master, the Venerable Head.

As it turned out, Sir Juffin Hully was an excellent cook. But I hungered for something completely different. I wanted instructions.

“Take it easy, Sir Max, relax. Tomorrow is tomorrow. Besides, I’m absolutely sure that once you get there, some silly thing will pop into your head, and it will turn out to be the only real solution to the problem. Take a bite of this, I dare you . . .”

Chuff, Juffin’s little dog and my best friend, began to whimper sympathetically under the table. Max worried. Bad, the dog’s compassionate Silent Speech reached me. Only you love me and understand me, I answered.

And I whined out loud, “Juffin, instead of compliments from you I would have preferred a piece of paper with the steps I should take carefully detailed and numbered, and with every action I should perform printed in bold block letters.”

“You’d still get confused. Eat up, Max! It’s the pinnacle of my accomplishments. For forty years already I’ve been dreaming of retiring and opening a restaurant. It would even outdo The Glutton.”

“I don’t doubt it. Only the King won’t let you retire.”

“That, of course, is only a matter of time.”

“Does it ever occur to you that people might be afraid of eating at a restaurant like that? And what rumors will start up about the food you serve there? They’ll say you slice up carcasses of rebel magicians and add them to all the dishes; that you siphon the blood of innocent children into the soup!”

“Good golly, boy, that’s the best kind of advertisement! But innocent children—that’s a new one. I’ll have to start up a rumor about it.”

I didn’t expect to get anything more concrete out of him. There was one idea that dawned on me that night just before I left, though.

“I’ve decided to take Lonli-Lokli with me,” I announced, shocked at my own genius. “That’s possible, I hope?”

“Actually, the cell is just meant for one. Will you sleep locked in his embrace? Then again, with your notions of comfort—”

“No, you don’t understand. I’m planning on shrinking him and hiding him in my fist. Sir Shurf taught me that himself a few days ago. He says I’m quite good at it. True, I haven’t had the opportunity to use it on living people, yet,” I added uncertainly. Suddenly my confidence dried up like a puddle in the desert.

“Objects or people, it works just the same,” Juffin said. “It’s a fine idea, Max. I told you that no one could handle this case better than you.”

“That remains to be seen. Will Lonli-Lokli agree, do you think?”

“In the first place, Shurf will be flattered by your confidence in him. He takes you far more seriously than you might imagine. And, second, his opinion is beside the point. An order is an order. You’d better get used to it, by the way. You are second in command, and giving orders isn’t a choice, but a duty.”

“Sinning Magicians! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s giving orders,” I said with a grimace.

“Is that so? And who frightened the junior clerks out of their wits with his menacing growls in our half of the House by the Bridge? And who nearly drove Boboota into a conniption fit? Don’t sell yourself short, Sir Max. You’ll make an excellent tyrant—one of those who kills with pleasure during palace coups.”

“The first few times I had the opportunity to give orders, I must admit I enjoyed it,” I said sheepishly. “Then I realized that it just wasn’t for me. Even when I send the errand boy for kamra I feel that I cease to be that sweet, kind Max I’ve known all these years. So I feel like it’s someone else who gives orders. And I can’t say I like that someone else.”

“How fastidious we are,” Juffin said with a sniff. “Fine. Don’t worry. I’ll send for Shurf myself and explain everything to him. Any other requests?”

“None for now. I just know that I’ll feel much safer in the company of Lonli-Lokli. Juffin, have I ever told you that I’m a rather cowardly fellow? Keep it in mind.”

“If you can believe it, I’ll feel safer myself,” Juffin admitted. “Have I ever told you that I’m a sly old fox, but careful beyond measure? Learn the art of description, Max. I said almost the same thing you did—but how much more flattering to my pride!”

I left the hospitable home of my boss in a tumultuous state of mind. I told myself that if Juffin were foolish enough to entrust the operation to me, I wasn’t going to answer for the consequences. But a newly awakened A-student syndrome prompted me to do everything to the max (as it were), or to die of shame. Where was it, this A-student syndrome, when I had been going to school, I’d like to know?

However much I grumbled, I knew all too well that when it was over I’d be happy to see the smile on Sir Juffin Hully’s face, and to hear the proud exclamation to his protégé (an exclamation, which could buoy up someone who had just fallen off a mountain). “You see Max? I told you everything would work out! And you didn’t believe me.” I just had to reconcile myself to the thought that I would undertake any exploit to earn the indulgent smile of my mentor. That’s how far things had come!

It was a cold night, one of the coldest that winter. In my homeland, the thermometer would probably have read around 32°F. The climate in Echo is more than moderate. There are neither hard frosts, nor heat waves—which, to be sure, is fine with me. The romance of a snowy winter never did capture my imagination. I can’t stand going to work in the dusky morning twilight, shuffling along a dirty white sidewalk, feet completely benumbed in soaking boots, and contemplating how much a pair of new ones would cost. And in the heat of summer, I’m ready to sell my soul for a breath of fresh, cool air. So the mild climate of Echo suited me down to my toes. Well, at least something makes me happy, praise be the Magicians.

I was driving home, trying to think not about tomorrow, but about something else—namely, whether I would get the chance to see Lady Melamori in the morning. By that time, my interest in Lady Melamori had begun to assume dangerous proportions. The worst thing was that for the life of me I couldn’t figure her out. Since the evening we had met the first time, she had looked at me with undisguised adoration—sometimes even with slight fear. But excessive admiration, as far as I’ve been able to judge, rarely gives rise to true intimacy. So I didn’t know myself whether I should still have hope, or simply get a grip on myself before it was too late. Whether it was already too late—of this I wasn’t sure.

Then several days ago she had thoroughly disarmed me by saying, “Come to my place this evening, Sir Max. You don’t know where I live yet? It’s very easy to find. I live next to the Quarter of Trysts. Amusing, isn’t it?”

My head started spinning. I took a deep breath, scrubbed myself in the baths for about two hours, and donned the best looxi from my modest collection. I almost started powdering my nose, since here in Echo men are not ashamed to use makeup—at least on special occasions. But my conservative upbringing restrained me from taking that last fateful step.

I ordered Kurush to guard the office—that bird really beats all! When I got to Melamori’s house, though, I found the Minor Secret Investigative Force assembled nearly in its entirety. At first I couldn’t get over my disappointment:

“My lady, you could have warned me that this would be business as usual. Do we not see enough of each other during working hours?”

When I’m upset I always grow tactless. Luckily, I didn’t offend anyone.

“On the upside, I don’t have Boboota here, Sir Max,” the hostess boasted proudly. “What’s more, he’s not in any of the neighboring houses, either! Amazing, isn’t it?”

“Ah, but that’s a shame, my lady! Who am I to converse with? I was planning on talking with a competent expert about everything that floats in the swamps and outhouses. Let me just drop in on Lady Melamori, I thought. I’m sure General Boboota is already there.”

I tried to make light of the situation. My colleagues were clearly amused by this. At last I cheered up, too—but there was no glimmer of a romance that would eventually burst into flame that night. The iconoclastic Lady Melamori flirted with Sir Melifaro and Sir Kofa, but to me she only threw tender glances from a distance of a dozen steps, no fewer.

I realized I was becoming despondent, and I tried to distract my thoughts from her. But how could I distract myself right there in her presence! The vagueness of our relationship tore me apart. If she had just told me where to go, everything would at least have become clear. No means no. The interested parties hang themselves in the outhouse; life goes on. But every time we met, she stuck to me like a leech, like a five-year old girl to a three-foot tall Mickey Mouse. She stood up on her tiptoes, batted her eyelashes in rapture, and all but called over all her girlfriends to take a look. My heart, obviously, melted from her attentions. And I sank in deeper and deeper . . .

Fie on you, devil! I awoke from these sad meditations when I noticed all at once that I had been sitting for a long time in my own dining room, chewing my food mechanically. My stomach groaned, letting me know that I had already gone overboard. Sinning Magicians, how much had I stuffed in? And why!

The bells were ringing in the city. Morning was breaking. Time for certain gentlemen Secret Investigators to extricate themselves from their armchairs and head for Xolomi prison to while away the hours in a cell where prisoners had a habit of dying.

I still didn’t want to go to Xolomi—but not because prisoners kept dying in that cell. After all, that was their problem. I was embarrassed to admit it, but it was the very prospect of being locked up in jail that worried me. Until then, it had never entered my head that I might end up in prison. Especially here, in Echo! It was in the interests of my profession, of course—but, still. Frankly, my knees started shaking when I thought about myself in prisoner’s garb, standing before the bars of a window.

By the way, are there any barred windows in Xolomi at all? Actually, why would you need bars, when the jailers have magic of every description and degree at their disposal?

Juffin had been very vague about the term that Lonli-Lokli and I were supposed to be serving. Come back once you’ve completed the mission—or something to that effect. What did that mean? If we don’t complete the blasted thing we’ll stay there forever? What a future!

It’s one thing for me to be there, but why should poor Lonli-Lokli have to suffer? On the other hand, if they refuse to let us out, we’ll tear the whole island of Xolomi to pieces! The very second that Sir Shurf starts missing his neglected wife, we’ll start right in.

I had met Lonli-Lokli’s wife at the party at Melamori’s. Marvelous woman! Brilliant, beautiful, and very amusing. Her good nature probably determined her choice of her significant other. There is nothing more amusing than seeing the two of them together. She is diminutive and plump, and hardly reaches the belt of the spindly Sir Shurf. Moreover, with his lady at his side, Lonli-Lokli, always the butt of many jokes, is incapable of taking offense. She learned to pronounce his name only after many years of conjugal life.

They appeared to me to be very much still in love with each other. When Sir Shurf looked at his wife, his impenetrable gaze became very human. Well, it was a good thing that Lonli-Lokli had a happy family life. The personal welfare of a professional killer promotes social tranquility and equilibrium. After reaching that conclusion, I cheered up a bit.

I could have stayed in that armchair forever. Everyone wants to postpone unpleasant fuss and bother until tomorrow. But it was already tomorrow. It was time to archive the cozy, festive “yesterday” and forget about it. The short, warm “today” was still in the soft armchair, right under my backside. It couldn’t last forever.

I stood up and started getting ready. Armstrong and Ella, my erstwhile kittens who by this time were no spring chickens, let me know, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for their breakfast. I was generous, even profligate, before my departure.

“From now on it will be our errand boy Urf who feeds you,” I told the beasts, filling up their bowls to the brim. “They say he’s a good person and grew up on a farm, where he also fed fat furry creatures like you. And I’ll be back soon. I’m just going to jail for a while, and then I’ll return.” I laughed, aware of the flatness of my own joke.

Armstrong and Ella looked at me with their thoughtful blue eyes, as impenetrable and deep as Sir Juffin Hully’s.

The morning was just as cold as the night had been. I walked to the House by the Bridge, appreciating every step along the way. The thought that I could expire prematurely like my predecessors at Xolomi honed all my senses and perceptions. Although . . . maybe it was just a chain of improbable coincidences? Could be!

But you can’t fool the heart. My heart, at least. And slowly, but surely, it seemed to fill up with lead. What would happen when I showed up at Xolomi? I was getting more and more unnerved by the minute. Even the thought that the terrifying Lonli-Lokli would be hiding in my fist, that I was keeping him in reserve so that I could thumb my nose at danger, gave me only the slightest comfort. I still had to manage to let him out at the right moment, if need be.

Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli was waiting for me in the Hall of Common Labor—unruffled, dependable, as always. He was noting down something in his “work diary” so as not to waste time. Looking at him, I livened up a bit.

“Are you ready to become my victim, Sir Shurf?”

“Victim? Sir Max, you clearly overestimate the significance of the impending event,” he objected phlegmatically. “Believe me, I have no cause for alarm—and you even less.”

“Well, thanks for the reassurance.”

And I made a motion with my left hand, undetectable to the prying eyes of others. Lonli-Lokli disappeared. In theory, I knew that he hadn’t disappeared, but was to be found between the thumb and the index finger of my hand. But this useful knowledge somehow didn’t fit into my head.

“Dandy, Mr. Nightmare!” Melifaro beamed, emerging from his office. “Tell me, might you not be persuaded to keep him there for the next two hundred years or so?”

“Lady Lonli-Lokli would object, and I wouldn’t want to grieve her,” I replied, smiling. “And why are you here so early?”

“Juffin woke me up. Sent me a message that he wouldn’t be here before midday. He ordered me to see you off. He wants me dead! Usually he’s here at the crack of dawn, but today . . . Well, there you are.”

“He’s hiding from me,” I informed him proudly.

“From you? You’re making progress! To my knowledge (and I do know something about the history of the Unified Kingdom), Juffin Hully hasn’t hidden from anyone for the past one hundred years. Well, in the Epoch of Orders there was a case—and it wasn’t the only one. Then again, everyone ran from each other during the Epoch of Orders. How did you scare him?” asked Melifaro and sat down in front of me.

“Give me some kamra and I’ll tell you,” I said, crossing my feet and placing them carefully on the table. It’s frightening to think of the number of dumb movies that inspired me to assume this pose. “You’re here to see me off, so you must see to it that I leave here happy. Thus, you must bribe me with every possible means at your disposal.”

“Well, that’s the limit! Bribing a jailbird!” Melifaro grumbled. “Fine. Take advantage of my generosity.” He sauntered into the office and brought out a jug of kamra and two mugs of completely improbable dimensions.

“So why is our ‘Sir Venerable Head’ running away from you?”

“I ask too many questions. Actually, that’s why he decided to stick me in Xolomi.”

“Oh, is that all? Questions! And here I was thinking that yesterday you tried to get him drunk on Elixir of Horse Dung, the national drink of your Barren Lands.”

“That actually did happen,” I admitted. “But Juffin said that his Diurnal Backside usually does the dirty work. Thanks for reminding me—I’ll have to treat you to some!”

“No thanks!” Melifaro screwed up his face in anxious trepidation, and he shot into his office like a bullet. Several times he peeped out timidly; then the joke grew stale, and he returned.

I killed another half-hour in this pleasant manner. Lady Melamori, for whose sake I was dragging it out, didn’t appear. Finally, I got behind the wheel of the amobiler and set off for Xolomi to turn myself in.

“I see you as though in a waking dream!” The senior commander of Xolomi covered his eyes respectfully, in the ritual of a first meeting. “I’m happy to speak my name: Sir Marunarx Antarop.”

I introduced myself, and they led me off to be served breakfast.

“You’re so skinny, Sir Max! They really work you hard in the Secret Investigative Force. I know all about it! You need to eat more!” Sir Marunarx exclaimed, refilling my plate over and over again. “Never mind. You’ll fill out here with us, I promise you that!”

The sumptuous breakfast was suspiciously reminiscent of a formal banquet. The commander fussed over me like a doting uncle. I thought I was going to prison, but it looked like I had ended up in a resort. And so, it turned out, I had.

“Whew, I’ve already filled out! By about ten pounds,” I said an hour later. “Thank you, Sir Marunarx. I should go to the cell now, I suppose. That’s why I came, after all.”

“I’m so sorry, Sir Max! I’m afraid it will be uncomfortable for you there! But Sir Hully requested that I put you not in the guest quarter, but in a prison cell. What do you think—could it have been a joke?”

“You never know with him,” I laughed. “No, Sir Marunarx, I’m really supposed to go to the cell. No one has died in your guest quarters, I hope?”

“I understand,” the old man said with a sigh. “Well, let’s go then. By the way, Sir Max, you know that when you’re in the cell you can’t use Silent Speech? I can’t change that for you, I’m afraid. The prison is built that way. You know yourself, Xolomi is a magical place. It’s not for us, the employees, to decide what is permitted here and what isn’t.”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been told.”

“So if you need to get in touch with Sir Hully or anyone else, tell the guards that you wish to take a walk, and they’ll bring you to me, at any time of day or night. Here you can do anything your heart desires. My people have already been informed about you, of course.”

“Excellent!” I nodded. “And now, arrest me, please!”

Cell No. 5-Ow-Nox seemed to be quite a cozy little place. And, by the way, in my homeland you’d have to plunk down several suitcases of greenbacks for a pad like this! But for a native of Echo, it would probably be difficult to reconcile oneself to such cramped quarters—only three “small” (by local standards, miniscule; by ours, enormous) rooms, all on one floor. And also a bathroom with a toilet one floor below, as is the custom here. In the bathroom there were only three tubs, the same number I had at home. Now I began to understand why my landlord had been unable to find a tenant for so long. When I got home, I’d have him put in a fourth tub. I can’t live like I’m in prison!

But praise be the Magicians I had still not completely adapted to local customs, so the modest prison cell seemed to me to be the height of luxury. A half-hour later I realized I had already gotten used to being there.

Actually, I get used to things very quickly. If I move my belongings to a new home in the morning, by evening I feel I have lived there my whole life. It even occurred to me that in a few days I’d grow so used to Xolomi that I’d “remember” why they had thrown me in prison. And then I’d repent, and try to reform with all my might!

And so I sat in my cell and gazed at the ceiling. The marvelous Lonli-Lokli lived some sort of ineffable life between my thumb and the index finger of my left hand. I was terribly curious—what was he feeling about all of this? In any case, the fellow had taken his “work diary” with him. How he could comfortably pass the time away with that notebook is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.

Finally, I decided it was time to go to sleep. I’d have to rest, since the most interesting things would happen at night, I assumed, if they were to happen at all.

I was still afraid that nothing untoward would happen. I wondered how much time I would have to spend in Xolomi before I realized that seven deaths in the space of three years was very sad and awkward, if not idiotic—but finally, that it was just a coincidence after all. Would I be here a year? Two? More? Well, never mind. The gentlemen Secret Investigators would be able to survive for about twelve days without us, after which they’d be the ones raising hue and cry to get us released themselves. Sir Juffin would no doubt be the first to decide that our business trip had dragged on too long.

I slept remarkably well. When I woke up, it was already dark. I received a prisoner’s meal, which tasted curiously like the recent festive breakfast. Why do Juffin and I always eat at the Glutton Bunba? The food is great there, of course, but prison fare seemed to be more refined. We’d have to introduce the tradition of carousing at Xolomi: purely out of professional considerations, of course. Or perhaps we could spend Days of Freedom from Care on the premises—it’s quiet, cozy, and there’s nobody to bother you.

Night was coming on. So as not to waste precious time, I tried to do what I truly know how to do well (and it wasn’t much): to chat with the objects around me, and to see that part of the past that they “remembered.”

It was hopeless. All the prison flotsam and jetsam that surrounded me answered my appeals with surging waves of fear. We had seen that before!—in Makluk’s bedchamber, where the little balsam box had sent out the same currents of terror. There was no doubt about it. I had stumbled upon a real story, not a chain of awkward coincidences.

Just then a guard appeared to “convoy” me to a business meeting. One of my guards, by the name of Xaned Janira, had been dying to meet me since morning, but the good commander had tried to preserve my peace and quiet, and ordered him to wait until I woke up.

Mr. Janira bears the title of Master Comforter of Sufferers. As I came to understand it, he was a sort of psychotherapist. He visits the prisoners regularly, asks them how they slept, what they are anxious or worried about, and what messages they want to send home. In Echo, prisoners are treated very humanely. It is thought that if a person has landed in Xolomi, he has no farther to fall, and to subject a prisoner to further discomfort and inconvenience is senseless and cruel. The psychological and emotional comfort of a prisoner is a matter of great concern, and this is, of course, only proper.

“I thought you’d be interested, Sir Max, in some information I possess,” Xaned Janira said, after the ritual greeting was over.

He turned out to be an exceedingly youthful fellow, with a round face and a melodic voice, and narrow green eyes that settled on me with a penetrating gaze.

“Strange things have been happening here recently,” he said. “I suppose this is the reason for your stay. It seemed only right that before investigations get underway you should hear me out. I’ve been waiting all day for you to call me, but I finally could wait no longer. At the risk of being importunate, I decided to take the initiative.”

“I ate too much for breakfast, Sir Janira! So much that I just couldn’t think straight,” I said, trying to excuse my behavior. “I should have turned to you as soon as I crossed the threshold, but I didn’t sleep very well last night, and I just collapsed in my cell right after breakfast. Forgive me. Thank you for inviting me to talk with you.”

From the expression on Xaned Janira’s face, I understood that at that moment he was prepared to go through hell and high water for me.

I don’t know what it was in me that won him over—the respectful “sir,” a form of address not warranted by the station of junior psychotherapist, or my willingness to admit my mistakes. Somehow or other, though, I had traversed the path to his heart without much trouble.

“Not at all, Sir Max! You had every right to rest before getting down to work. I just wanted to explain to you the reasons for my own persistence—I thought I might be able to assist you. Maybe my information will prove useless, but . . . well, just listen to what I have to say, and then you decide. Two days ago the prisoners from cells 5-Soya-Ra, 5-Tot-Xun, and 5-Sha-Pui, which are adjacent to cell 5-Ow-Nox, complained to me about bad dreams. Strangely enough, the content of all their dreams was very similar.”

“I can only sympathize with them, poor fellows! And what did they dream?”

“All three of them dreamed about a ‘small, transparent man,’ as they described it. He came out of the wall, and they all experienced inconceivable horror. From then on their versions of the dreams diverged. Malesh Patu claims that the transparent man wanted to poke his eyes out, and Sir Alarak Vass complained that he ‘was groping for his heart.’ The third case is rather amusing,” Janira related with downcast eyes. “The prisoner insists that he tried to plug up his backside. His biggest fear is that his next dream will see the attempt succeed.”

“Goodness! I wouldn’t want to be in his place.”

It sounded to me as though the prisoners’ nightmares had been an eccentric combination of real dangers and individual phobias. This transparent fellow had most likely done something wicked to all of them, but each of them had a personal interpretation of the events. That made sense. What didn’t make sense was where this creature who haunted all their dreams had come from in the first place. Sorcery was not supposed to be possible in Xolomi; that’s why it had become a prison for those who had a penchant for forbidden magic.

“How is their overall health?” I asked. “Have you shown them to the wiseman?”

“Yes, of course. We cannot just ignore complaints like that, all the more since the trouble began simultaneously with three prisoners. These gentlemen hadn’t been acquainted before, and here in Xolomi, you understand, they couldn’t organize any kind of conspiracy. And why should they? It turns out that the health of all three of them is hardly anything to brag about, but the organs that the transparent ‘dream man’ allegedly targeted are in perfect condition.”

I noted with pleasure that my theory about the influence of personal phobias on the interpretation of nightmares wasn’t so far from the mark. Not bad for a dilettante like myself.

“What could be wrong with them, then?”

“All three of them are gradually losing the Spark,” Janira said in a portentous whisper. Then he went quiet, waiting for the significance of what he had just said to sink in.

I let out a low whistle. To lose the Spark means to suddenly lose the life force, becoming so weak that death comes like sleep after a hard day, when you cannot resist it and don’t even want to. According to my competent colleagues, this mysterious condition is the most dangerous thing that can befall a person born in this World.

“What’s strange is that these unfortunates are getting weaker only gradually, whereas a person usually loses the Spark suddenly, without any alarming symptoms,” said Janira. “In spite of that, our wisemen are absolutely sure of the diagnosis. They say that they can still save them, but medicines don’t seem to be helping.”

“Well, why don’t you try this: move the poor souls to other cells—the farther from cell 5-Ow-Nox the better—and let their cells remain empty until I can discover the cause of this misfortune. You can manage that, I hope?”

“Yes, certainly,” said the Comforter of Sufferers, nodding. Then he added apprehensively, “Are you certain it will help?”

“Almost certain. But that’s always how it is. I can never be completely sure of anything. In any case, give it a try. And do it right now. We may still be able to save them. I don’t know what they did before that landed them in Xolomi, but not a single person deserves such a terrible punishment as sleep filled with nightmares. I’m speaking as a longtime expert in this field.”

“Do you know how to prevent nightmares, Sir Max?”

“I do,” I said, and grinned. “My own, anyway.”

I went back to my cell. It looks like I’ll have my fill of bad dreams here, I mumbled to myself.

I had hardly returned to my senses after the nightmares from the house next door had paid a call, when I was treated to another round in Xolomi, where prisoners are tormented by bad dreams. A plugged up backside, for instance . . .

Nevertheless, I had slept excellently during the day myself. Perhaps it was because it had really been daytime? The heavy cell door closed behind me and . . . disappeared. Here in Xolomi every door exists only for the person in the corridor. From the vantage point of the prisoner, it isn’t there at all. Amazing!

Now I was burning with impatience. Would the “transparent man” appear tonight—and what would he do if I didn’t fall asleep? I was absolutely sure that I wouldn’t. I had slept too soundly and well during the day. What would you have done?

I began waiting for events to unfold, which, in their turn, they didn’t exactly hasten to do. The night brought no answers to my questions. On the other hand, it was generous with strange experiences and sensations.

I felt neither fear nor anxiety, but I constantly sensed I was being scrutinized by somebody’s gaze. And it was so intense it tickled. The tickling irritated me like a caterpillar that had crawled under the covers. I grumbled and scratched and ran to take a bath three times—but it was no use.

At dawn, everything stopped, and I tumbled into sleep. During the night, however, I had a bright idea—though putting it into practice could wait until dinner. (Putting things off until later is a hobby of mine. From morning to evening all I do is put things off.)

I woke up from the rumble of the cell door. My food was brought in to me. Tasting the cheese soup, I started seriously contemplating what kind of crime against the state I should commit. Being held captive for twenty years in these conditions—not a single Royal Honor could compete with “punishment” like this!

When I had finished my soup, I asked to go for a “walk” to Mr. Commander’s office. The time had come to consult Juffin. That night I had realized that the part of the story of Cell No. 5-Ow-Nox I knew about only went back to the first of the seven deaths. Since then three years had passed. What had happened there before? Who had been kept in the cell? That was what I meant to find out. In Echo you have to be on top of things like that. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find out that a few thousand years ago, some shady Grand Magician or other had been held here, and that today’s misfortunes were a logical consequence of that.

I didn’t doubt that Sir Juffin knew every detail of the history of this little place. But in sending me to Xolomi he kept as quiet as a fish—either out of perversity, or because he was just waiting for me to ask the right questions. (In the interests of professional training, of course!)

But look at me! Instead of pedantically collecting information, I wasted time and energy on gathering personal amorous experience. It’s my own fault! I concluded, and settled myself more comfortably in the commander’s chair. After beating myself up like this for a while, I sent a call to Juffin.

Now tell me how it all started, I demanded. What happened here before the 114th day of the 112th year? One of your mutinous Grand Magicians was held in the cell, I’m guessing?

Very good, Max! Juffin was ecstatic about my knack for putting two and two together.

I have no idea why you’re praising me, I grumbled. Well, yes, I asked the question that I should have started with only today, and not a year later. For an idiot like me, that’s probably an achievement.

I have any number of acquaintances who would have needed not one, but two hundred years, if they needed a day. You’re angry at me; but you’re even angrier at yourself. But I meant it when I said “very good.”

I don’t recognize you, Juffin. Such compliments! You must miss me or something.

I had already forgiven him, of course. I was as happy as a pig in a puddle. Praising me is definitely the right strategy. Someone who praises me in good conscience can twist me around any number of little fingers.

In any case, I received an exhaustive answer to my question, and a half hour later I was home. In Cell No. 5-Ow-Nox, that is. I sat sprawled out in a soft arrestee’s chair. I was trying to digest the information I had received. Naturally, you couldn’t get around the requisite crazy Magician—that was as clear as day. Maxlilgl Annox, Grand Magician of the Order of the Sepulchral Dog, and one of the fiercest opponents of the reform, served a prison term in Xolomi during the height of the Troubled Times. According to Juffin, the combined efforts of a dozen of the best practitioners of the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover were needed to imprison his person, remarkable in all respects. At the same time, even the Grand Magicians of other Orders, who had long ago lost any capacity for fear, trembled before him.

He wasn’t such a madman, though, this head of the Order of the Sepulchral Dog. Of course, he had traveled a strange and winding road. But if you believed the historical chronicles, which I devoured by the dozens in my spare time, you’d discover that few of the Grand Magicians were guilty of banality and lack of imagination in their chosen paths.

And so, Mister Annox was deeply preoccupied with the problem of life after death. Not only there, where I was born, but here in the World, as well, no one really knows the answer to the question of what awaits us after death. There are myriad hypotheses—murky, frightening, and seductive—but not a single one of them has much value for someone who isn’t inclined to take a stranger’s word on faith alone.

Of course, the interest in immortality wasn’t solely theoretical for the prisoner of Cell No. 5-Ow-Nox. Those Magicians of yore, one must realize, were serious fellows and didn’t waste their precious time.

As far as I could understand, Sir Annox expended unimaginable effort trying to continue ordinary earthly existence, even after death, in the human body so dear to his heart. In simple terms, he wanted to be resurrected. I didn’t doubt that this old geezer had discovered a sneaky way of returning to the land of the living. But then he died. In this very Cell No. 5-Ow-Nox.

The victors never meant to kill him. It seems they very reluctantly killed their enemies, supposing that every death was an irreversible event. And the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover maintains the belief that an irreversible event should occur as seldom as possible. This so that the World can become stronger—or something like that . . . I hadn’t yet had time to figure out all the fine points of the local eschatology.

Nevertheless, the Grand Magician Maxlilgl Annox had died. It wasn’t a suicide in the ordinary sense of the word; I think this death was some sort of “laboratory experiment” essential to his research.

The fact that the walls of Xolomi were the most impenetrable barrier for magic of any degree did not infuse me with optimism. On the contrary, it forced me to think that the posthumous existence of Sir Annox was limited to the walls of his cell. It was evident that proximity to the dead Magician didn’t have a beneficial effect on his latter-day cellmates. Being condemned to life in this cell was a kind of death sentence. That was no good, I decided. Unjust. In this sense, prisoners are far more vulnerable than ordinary citizens. They can’t change their place of domicile, even when they feel it is urgent to do so. I wouldn’t want to be in their place . . . but, in fact, I already was.

I whiled away the night reading the next volume of Manga Melifaro’s Encyclopedia, which I was able to find, to my delight, in the prison library. Nothing supernatural happened, except that I again felt someone’s attentive eyes prickling me. They were even more ticklish this night than they had been the night before. Several times I heard a quiet, dry coughing, which seemed more like an auditory hallucination than the real thing.

Toward morning I got another strange sensation—I felt as if my body hardened like the shell of a nut. So much so that the tickling, to which I was already accustomed, felt not like something touching my skin, but like a slight trembling of the air around me. This wasn’t very pleasant, but I felt that the invisible being who monitored my every move all night long was even less pleased. His displeasure translated itself in part to me. Soon I would start berating myself for not letting the possessor of the powerful gaze tickle me to his heart’s content. What spiritual callousness and disrespect for a stranger’s desires, I would say to myself in reproach!

I couldn’t explain these events with any originality. Maybe I’m just imagining it? Or maybe Juffin put a protective spell on me, without my knowing it? He very well could have. And what if the true explanation was that I was a creature from another World—almost like a space alien?

I was so tired from all these conjectures that I went to sleep before dawn. I wonder how poor Lonli-Lokli is spending his time, I thought when I was dozing off. He’s probably bored. And hungry. What a jam he’s in!

But I had no opportunity to be bored. I had no opportunity to sleep, either. I woke up at noon from the familiar tickling sensation. I was amazed. Was this creature, whoever he might be, really able to operate during the day? On the other hand, why not? All of the most terrible things I had witnessed during my sojourn in Echo had happened in broad daylight. It’s possible that assuming nightmares lie in wait for us only at night is the most foolish of superstitions, born in that long-distant past when our forebears finally lost the ability to see in the dark.

I washed myself, drank a mug of kamra, and began to go over things in my mind. My predecessors in the cell had died only at night. A coincidence? Or was the reason much simpler—they died at night because they slept at night, like all normal people? And because of me the local ghouls had had to change their schedule? Questions, questions, and no answers.

But what unnerved me most of all was my own equanimity. For some reason, I was still not afraid of anything. Not of what had already happened, not of what, theoretically, could happen still. Somehow I had become certain that nothing bad would ever happen to me. Not here, nor in any other place. Never. Bravery verging on lunacy. Until recently I had never suffered from such a syndrome. Maybe the secret of my courage was the trick up my sleeve—or at the end of my fingertips: the well-concealed Sir Lonli-Lokli. But maybe the person whose identity I was interested in discovering derived some advantage from dealing with a myopic daredevil? And he was boosting my mood, unbeknown to me?

For whatever reason, I didn’t fall asleep again that day. Until twilight, I kept pouring myself mugs of kamra, and I read my beloved Encyclopedia, which made me smarter with every line.

Then I came to understand that events were unfolding precisely in the tradition of fairy tales. The first and second nights I was just teased mildly. Predictably, the real horror was postponed until the “fateful” third night.

When dusk set in, I was overcome by a heavy somnolence. This was more than strange, since I usually experience an excess of liveliness and energy at that time, regardless of how I spent the day.

Now, though, I had to stave off sleep, and I didn’t manage very well. I tried to spook myself by summoning up the lurid horrors that lay in wait for me on the far side of my closed eyelids. No use. Even thinking about the unprecedented shame that would cover me if I failed didn’t work. Melifaro’s stinging remarks, Juffin’s consoling gestures, and (the apotheosis) Lady Melamori’s contemptuously pursed lips. Even that didn’t help. A blissful drowsiness enveloped me like a downy pillow, the weapon of choice of a gentle strangler. I was just one wink away from the land of nod.

A bottle of Elixir of Kaxar saved me from slumber. It was pure luck that I had decided to bring it with me. I had to drink quite a bit. But I’m not complaining—Elixir of Kaxar is not only a powerful tonic, but darned tasty, too.

Afterward, Juffin explained that drinking the elixir galvanized the force into action. Apparently, the mysterious being decided that if I was using magic only of the eighth degree for self-defense, I was-n’t a force to contend with. My seeming helplessness forced it to take the most thoughtless course of action in all its strange career.

I didn’t want to argue with Juffin; all the same, it seemed to me that this malevolent chap, fairly unhinged by the loneliness of his transparent existence, just couldn’t wait anymore. It wasn’t a matter of logic at all. The dead Magician wanted to take my life. He was compelled to try—the sooner, the better. Most likely, my “Spark,” or whatever it is, was just the amount or intensity he needed. He had been moving toward his goal for so long already! Drop by drop he had absorbed the strength of those who had ended up in that cell. The time came when Maxlilgl Annox was strong enough to take the first life of another—a life he needed to redeem his own, partly spent, life. Then he was able to claim another, and another . . .

The last portion made the ghost of the Grand Magician so powerful that he was able to invade the dreams of the inhabitants of the neighboring cells, who were soundly protected by impenetrable walls (for magic of the living, but not for him—the dead). He wanted just one thing: to take as many lives as he needed so that he could resurrect himself once and for all. He was already on the threshold of completing this experiment that lasted a lifetime, with a death thrown into the bargain. He needed only a final gulp of the mysterious and precious substance that goes by the name of the Spark. And for the third night in a row, his tantalizing “gulp” had been almost within his grasp—but wouldn’t fall asleep. Naturally, the old geezer tried to go for broke. I would no doubt have done the same if I had been in his shoes.

What’s more, no matter what Sir Juffin Hully said, my opponent was very close to getting what he wanted. Much too close for comfort!

When the silhouette of the intruder materialized like a shadow in the corner of my prison boudoir, I froze in horror. Of course, I had enough information at my disposal to prepare myself for this eventuality. But I wasn’t ready. I was completely unnerved.

To be absolutely honest, I was terrified. And I didn’t know how to bring myself to my senses, even though the appearance of the intruder was more funny than fearsome. The ghost of the Grand Magician was exceedingly small in stature. This was the result of his disproportionate physique—an enormous head; a powerful, muscular torso; and stumpy little legs with feet as small as a child’s.

A comical figure, to be sure; but the brown, wrinkled face of the intruder made an entirely different impression. He had huge blue eyes, a high forehead, and the finely chiseled nose and nostrils of a predator. His long hair, and a beard of the same length, branched out in a multitude of tiny braids—most likely, an ancient fashion. Well, it’s hard to keep up with the trends from a prison cell. Especially for a ghost, I thought. This observation was very much in my style, and it suggested that things weren’t really so bad.

Having mastered my fear, though, I realized that something worse was happening. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t budge. I stood there gazing dully at the reluctant recluse—I was lucky I didn’t fall flat on my face. Do something, you moron! shouted the clever little fellow inside me. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much influence over the rest of me. Do something already! This is for real! Move it!

Nothing helped.

I knew exactly what I needed to do: free Lonli-Lokli with a few energetic shakes of my hand. But even this rudimentary action was too much for me—this fatal thumbing my nose, so to speak, at the night visitor. I was helpless in this situation. It was no longer up to me. I realized that I was goner.

“Your name is Perset. You are a piece of life. I’ve been looking for you,” the ghost whispered. “I have come to you down a long road—one end was prison, the other the grave. And only the wind cried ‘Oooooooh!’; but still I came.”

He came, you understand. I’d rather he not speak at all, this unsung symbolist poet. A person who burdened his interlocutor with such trite and highfalutin turns of phrase upon first meeting was absurd. I decided to refuse the burden. Besides, I had written better dialogs when I was eighteen. I didn’t know how, but I was determined to get the better of him.

At that moment, something utterly bizarre began happening to me. I felt that I was starting to “harden” again. It seemed to me that I had turned into a small, hard apple—one of those that only a seven-year-old boy can munch on (since boys that age are known to chew on everything that comes their way).

Then I had a completely mad thought—I began thinking that there was no way a grownup man like my opponent was going to munch on the hard, bitter apple that I had somehow become. This delirious notion seemed to me to be so self-evident that there was no way around it. And this restored my belief in my own powers. To be honest, I had completely forgotten about my human nature and about the human problems that beset me. We sour green apples live our own inscrutable, carefree lives . . .

My guest began to grimace. He wore the expression of a person who has been wandering around for the last twenty-four hours with a mouthful of vinegar and unripe persimmon. The ancient fellow grew quite upset—and at that very moment the little green apple became a person again. And the person acquired the ability to act. He gave his left hand a good shake—a single deft motion was all it took. In the middle of the prison cell stood Sir Lonli-Lokli.

“You brought Thumbkins!” Maxlilgl cried with indignation.

It was as if we had agreed on the rules of battle beforehand, and I had breached the hypothetical contract.

“You’re not Perset!” the ghost added vehemently. Evidently, he was still hoping that I would feel ashamed of my behavior and stuff Sir Shurf back in the closet. I think Sir Annox had become considerably softer over the past years of associating only with defenseless, frightened inmates.

“Don’t ‘Perset’ me!” I growled.

The ghost’s confusion was palpable. Sir Shurf needed time to peel off his protective gloves, covered with runes. While the dead Magician and I were squaring off, Lonli-Lokli managed to carry out the necessary preparations. The brilliant light from his death-dealing hands illuminated the cell walls, and life seemed all of a sudden to be a devilishly simple and precious matter. A story with an untold number of happy endings—take your pick.

I didn’t even suspect that my chances for staying alive were still approaching zero.

It was my own fault, of course. I had never had to deal with retired Grand Magicians. I foolishly assumed that there was no hurry in killing him. My vanity demanded that I deliver this mistake of nature to the House by the Bridge and drop it screaming and kicking at Sir Juffin’s feet. How I was going to capture a ghost I had no idea. But then again, I had had a miserable, third-rate education. I didn’t have classes in the foundations of metaphysics, either in high school—which I got through on a wing and prayer—or in college, from which I was unceremoniously expelled. I shared my half-baked thoughts on the matter with my colleague—but Sir Shurf is the most disciplined creature in the universe. As he saw it, I was the leader of the operation. Consequently, my orders had to be summarily carried out. Even the most half-baked ones.

Lonli-Lokli’s paralyzing right hand did not achieve the desired effect. Instead of freezing submissively to the spot, the ghost began to increase in size, threatening to assume gigantic proportions. At the same time, he became increasingly transparent. It all happened so quickly that within the fraction of a second his indistinct head was hovering somewhere up near the ceiling.

“Stupid Thumbkins!” Maxlilgl Annox screeched. “He knows not how to kill! Begone, Thumbkins!”

And without paying any more heed to Lonli-Lokli, the thick mist, which by now had almost lost its human form, lunged at me. It managed to touch me—a cold, damp, sticky pudding—that’s what it felt like. The touch left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, for some reason, and the cold pain that shot through my body was such that I still can’t imagine how I survived it.

I didn’t even lose consciousness. Instead, I screamed at the top of my lungs:

“Liquidate him!”

Sinning Magicians! Where was my head?

As though from a great distance, I watched Lonli-Lokli join his remarkable hands together and cross his forefingers. This promising gesture had no visible consequences, though. Another tormenting second passed. I didn’t understand a thing. Why didn’t Shurf kill him? The human pudding was already thickening around me.

And then another improbable thing happened. It was like the icing on the cake of this bewitched night. The shining fingers of Lonli-Lokli drew the outline of a wondrous curve in the darkness, and a waterfall came crashing down on us. Tons of cold water swallowed up the transparent silhouette. I still didn’t understand what was happening, but I turned my face to the refreshing streams of water. A good wash was surprisingly welcome right then.

Our opponent, however, turned out to have a very tenacious vitality. Of course, the water wasn’t able to do serious harm to him, although it did engender another metamorphosis. After his bath, the ghost began shrinking at an alarming rate. As huge and transparent as he had just been, he now became tiny and dense.

My insights into astronomy are catastrophically limited. I don’t even know what super-dense heavenly bodies are called. That they are “dwarves” I know for certain. But whether they’re “white,” or “black” I have no clue. Our dwarf was, in any case, white, a miniscule homunculus, shining with the same blinding whiteness as Lonli-Lokli’s hands reaching out for him. In spite of his miniature stature, he looked very threatening.

“You were mistaken, Sir Max,” my imposing partner remarked evenly. “Water can’t harm him.”

“I, mistaken?! Wherever did you get the idea that water would do the trick?!”

“But you yourself told me to liquify him!”

“Sinning Magicians, Shurf! Liquidate, not liquify! It means to kill! And the sooner the bet—”

I broke off in mid-sentence. Suddenly I couldn’t go on. I wasn’t up to talking anymore. The tiny creature glittered in the air, very close to my face. It was muttering something. The bastard’s putting a spell on me, I thought indifferently. I didn’t have the strength to resist him . . .

. . . I was blinded by the bright light of the sun. I was standing beneath the spreading branches of a tree, and an unkempt girl, milky-white, as short in stature as Sir Maxlilgl Annox, was offering me an apricot. “Accept the gift of a fairy, Perset!” Why, I don’t know myself, but I took it and bit into it. The fruit was worm-ridden. A pale little caterpillar slipped into my wide-open mouth and dove into the tender depths of my gullet. I felt its sharp jaws pierce the sensitive membranes. Poison began coursing through my body, filling me with weak nausea. I should probably have died of pain and disgust, but a blinding hatred filled me, and I began to shout. I shouted so violently and fiercely that it set a rushing wind in motion. Leaves, scorched dry, began falling from the tree, and the milk-white girl, her face distorted from horror, slithered through the withered grass, hissing like a viper. Finally, I spit out the poisonous caterpillar at the feet of Lonli-Lokli, who wasn’t in that garden at all; and then the glaring light began to subside.

What I really admire in our Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives is his unflappability. He won’t be caught out! While I was wandering through the sunny fields of my nightmare, the guy did what had to be done. He finally put his death-dealing left hand into action—something he should have done straight off. In such cases, everything goes off without a hitch. Whether you’re a human being, or a ghost, or a Magician-knows-what, death will be easy and instantaneous.

Then this remarkable fellow pulled on his protective gloves, and with the dexterity of a professional nurse poured the remains of the Elixir of Kaxar into my mouth.

“It’s very helpful in cases like this, Max, so drink up. I regret that I didn’t understand your order properly. I concluded that you were talking about a new method of destruction by water. It cost me considerable effort to get him wet. Here in Xolomi, even I have a hard time working wonders—although Sir Juffin, naturally, gave me special training.”

From the Elixir of Kaxar I not only came to, I also cheered up—a clear sign of an overdose.

“A method of destruction by water—Sinning Magicians! How could that be expected to work? Why water? You should have just pissed on him! That would have killed him, I’m sure! Loki, have you never tried pissing on a ghost?”

“Sir Max,” my savior protested in an injured tone, “my name is not Loki, but Lonli-Lokli. Until now you have always managed to pronounce it correctly. I would hope that the ability will return to you in the near future.”

The poor chap had decided, apparently, that I was as big a dunderhead as Melifaro.

“That was no slip of the tongue, Sir Shurf. I was simply reminded of a menacing god whose name resembles yours. Please don’t take offense, my friend.”

“I’ve never heard of a god by the name of Loki,” he admitted in surprise. “Do your fellow tribespeople worship him?”

“Some of them, anyway,” I didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. “We of the Barren Lands have a multitude of divinities, you know. Everyone believes whatever he wants to. Every second nomad is a high priest. And some chaps, myself included, don’t believe in anything in particular, but take a lively interest in everything.”

“It isn’t secret knowledge, is it?” Lonli-Lokli inquired. “You could enlighten me about these matters?”

“Yes, I can,” I nodded resolutely. “For you—I’d do anything.”

For the next hour and a half, over the cold remains of the excellent prison kamra, I waxed eloquent on the subject of Scandinavian mythology, passing it off as legend of the Barren Lands.

I must give Sir Shurf his due—the Scandinavian epic was very much to his liking. He especially liked Odin, the chief of the gods and dead heroes, who brought the honey of poetry to earth. The Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives viewed poetry with profound reverence, if not outright trepidation.

Inspired either by the unexpectedness of our shared literary passions or by overindulgence in Elixir of Kaxar, I patted my imposing colleague on the back. I had forgotten that in the Unified Kingdom this gesture is only allowed to close friends. Luckily for me, Sir Shurf didn’t object to this official acknowledgment of our newly established friendly footing. Indeed, he seemed very flattered.

Then it occurred to me that I had no idea what obligations my status as close friend of Sir Lonli-Lokli would entail. Here in Echo there must be myriad peculiar rites and customs surrounding true friendship. I decided I’d have to consult Juffin about it. Let him teach me how to be a friend here. And I’d write it down in my notebook and try to check every move I made against it. I just hoped that in the next hour and a half I wouldn’t offend him; that would be just like me.

Finally we finished our divinity tutorial and began sending signals to the world outside the cell. We were immediately released and led to the commander’s office. They fed us an excellent breakfast and plied us with fresh, hot kamra. It was wonderful. When I began to feel quite chipper again, I hastened to relieve my curiosity.

“Tell me, Shurf. How did you pass the time when you were small? I’m not asking about your childhood, of course. I mean when you were hidden from prying eyes in my tightly clenched fist.”

“Time?” Lonli-Lokli asked with a shrug. “Time, Sir Max, passed as it always does. During these few hours I even managed to work up an appetite.”

“What? Few hours!”

“Do you mean to say that I miscalculated?”

“We’ve spent three days and nights here!” I exclaimed.

“A curious effect,” Lonli-Lokli concluded impassively. “But it’s for the better. Three days and nights is too long an interval to go without sandwiches. One might call it a lucky thing that my temporal perception was distorted.”

I would have liked to delve into many more details about his existence in the palm of my hand, but Sir Shurf said that in matters like this you have to take it as it comes—you can’t learn about it secondhand. Then he generously offered to give me the experience firsthand—but I decided I’d had enough excitement for one day, and tactfully changed the subject.

After breakfast, we took our leave of the hospitable Sir Marunarx. It was time to head back to the House by the Bridge. I felt superb—though my body felt a bit weightless under the effects of the outsize portion of Elixir of Kaxar. I was tempted to fill my pockets with rocks to prevent inopportune levitation.

“I really don’t think you should sit behind the levers, Max,” Lonli-Lokli announced, getting into the amobiler. “You are the best driver I know, but even in former times, when it was possible to buy Elixir of Kaxar in any store, driving the amobiler in such a condition was strictly prohibited.”

I had to reconcile myself to it.

“Nevertheless, you Borderland dwellers are marvelous creatures,” said Lonli-Lonkli, driving onto the wooden planks of the ferry that traveled between the island of Xolomi and the Old City. “I must admit that I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that distinguishes you, but you are not at all like other strangers. Unfortunately, I am a poor theoretician.” With these words, the fellow buried his nose in his famous “work diary”—to register his fresh impressions, I could only suppose.

“What do you mean by that, Shurf?” I asked with unfeigned interest.

“Don’t take offense, Sir Max. It’s just that some are of the opinion that Elixir of Kaxar, like ordinary cheering beverages, acts as a depressant on the psychological state of so-called barbarians—please forgive the crudeness of the term. Some wisemen even claim that Elixir of Kaxar endangers the mental balance of your countrymen. It is thought that only natives of Uguland can cope with the effects of magic drinks. But you don’t seem to suffer any harm from it. On the contrary, this beverage has a much milder effect on you than it does on many representatives of ‘Civilized Peoples.’ That is what I meant to say. Again, forgive me for my tactlessness.”

“Have you forgotten, Sir Shurf? You are now my friend, and you can say anything you wish.”

Needless to say, I heaved a sigh of relief. When Lonli-Lokli started talking about my idiosyncrasies, I almost thought I had given away my true origins, and that all Juffin’s labor had been dust in the wind. But no—he was just amazed that I didn’t dance naked on the table after a few gulps of Elixir. Well, next time I’d have to make him happy.

Sir Juffin Hully himself was quite happy when he saw us, alive and triumphant, and all in one piece.

“I doubt that the problem of life after death is still relevant for the Grand Magician Maxlilgl Annox,” I quipped from the doorway. “If we had killed him when he was alive, anything could have happened. But we killed him after he had already died. Sinning Magicans, what am I saying! Stop me!”

“In any case, I’m sure his research is finished once and for all,” Juffin assured me.

“One hopes so. I didn’t much like your Grand Magician. By the way, I wanted to deliver him to you alive—well, as alive as it was possible to consider him to be. But it just didn’t work out.”

“Magicians be with you, my boy! You might not have come back alive yourselves!”

“That’s what I assumed,” Lonli-Lokli observed. “But an order is an order.”

Juffin shook his head reproachfully. I couldn’t figure out which of us he was more dissatisfied with.

“I was an idiot. I’ll mend my ways,” I repented. I collapsed in a chair, and right away realized I was falling asleep. Just as my eyes were closing, I muttered, “Don’t forget to tell him about the water, Shurf. That was something else!”

I was still feeling the beneficial effects of Elixir of Kaxar, and so I awoke only an hour later. I felt as light as a feather, and surprisingly chipper. My colleagues were drinking kamra that they had ordered in the Glutton, and were conversing quietly.

“Aha, he’s up and about,” said Juffin.

He stared at me with suspicious enthusiasm, as though I were a holiday pudding that may just have reached the proper consistency. It wouldn’t have surprised me if his mouth were watering.

It didn’t. But he did launch into a medical examination, though this didn’t really resemble an ordinary medical procedure.

Juffin asked me to stand by the wall, and for some time I felt his motionless, light eyes drilling into me—not a very pleasant sensation, I’ll have you know. For the first time since I had made his acquaintance I felt uncomfortable under his gaze. Then he told me to turn my face to the wall, which I did with relief. For a time, the boss studied my backside and its environs. Not satisfied with a visual examination, he began patting me on the back. This massage, in contrast to the “I spy” game, was enjoyable. Then his relentless hands—the sizzling hot right one and the ice-cold left one—were on my head, and I felt wretched. It was as if I had died and nothing was left of me. Nothing at all. And then I began shouting—not from pain, but to prove to the whole world that it wasn’t true. I shout, therefore I am. A stupid phrase, but it worked.

“Easy, Max,” Juffin said, his voice full of sympathy and concern, helping me into the nearest armchair. “Unpleasant, I know; but it’s over now.”

Almost immediately I felt better physically, but I couldn’t vouch for my emotional equilibrium.

“What was that all about?”

“Nothing, really. The ordinary dialog between the body of a healer and the body of a patient. Not everyone likes it. You, for example, didn’t. But you have to grow accustomed to these things, and you haven’t yet. Are you ready for some news?”

“Depends,” I answered cautiously. “Is it good? Bad? Or what?”

“Or what. Depends on your sense of humor.”

“Well, that’s never been too much of a problem for me.”

“We’ll put it to the test now. You see, Max, your . . . how can I put it most accurately . . . your physiology has undergone a change.”

“What kind? Have I become a woman? Or do I just never have to go to the bathroom again? What do you mean, Juffin?”

“No, everything is fine below the belt,” Juffin said with a chuckle. “As for the bathroom and other little joys of life—there’s no need to worry.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“Nothing really terrible has happened. But you do have to know, all the same. You’ve become poisonous.”

“Poisonous? Me?” Juffin’s revelation sounded simply absurd. “Do you mean to tell me that if someone eats me he’ll die? Alert the local cannibals, on the double! They may become victims of their own appetites,” I laughed like it was the last laugh of my life.

“No, eating you is no problem. Neither is touching. Someone could even use your silverware or a towel after you with no dire consequences,” said Juffin. “There’s just one danger. If you become angry or scared, your saliva will become poisonous. The most deadly kind of poison, I might add. It kills instantaneously if it so much as touches the skin—of a person, at least. And you will spit this venom at your offender come what may. Let me assure you that self-discipline and training is of no use here. No amount of willpower will change the situation. It’s not a matter of choice. You’ll spit even if you decide not to. The only thing you can do if you wish to avoid the instantaneous destruction of your offender is to spit off to the side somewhere. So look to your character, boy. Don’t let trifles annoy you, or you’ll spit the whole of Echo into oblivion.”

“It’s not all that bad,” I observed uncertainly. “I’m not malicious. If something like this happened to Boboota, humanity really would be in grave danger. Of course, it would be nice to try, at least once. If you don’t watch out, I’ll leave to become Sir Shurf’s assistant.”

“Well, that wouldn’t hurt,” Lonli-Lokli remarked, maintaining his placid, unruffled demeanor. “You know yourself, Max, that I sometimes have more work than I can handle.”

“And what about my personal life, Juffin?” I sighed. “No girl will want to kiss such a monster! Maybe we should keep the news a secret?”

“Explain to the girls that kissing you is completely harmless. As long as you’re not angry, at least,” Juffin shrugged. “As for keeping it secret—I wasn’t intending to call a press conference about it, but you know that—”

“. . . that Echo is full of two-bit clairvoyants,” I finished his thought.

“Precisely.”

“But why did this happen to me, anyway?”

“It’s your fate, boy. When you’re mixed up in magic at high levels, it affects you differently from how it would affect . . . let’s just say ‘normal people.’” Juffin then glanced over at Lonli-Lokli meaningfully.

Sir Shurf is as trustworthy and reliable as a cliff inside a safe inside a Swiss bank, but it was perhaps not worth announcing to him that I was a refugee from another World. Besides, everything was already as clear as day to me.

“You never know beforehand what or how something will affect you,” Juffin added. “Remember what happened when we were at my neighbor’s house?”

“But I was only very briefly a vampire,” I objected plaintively. “After a few hours everything was back to normal.”

“Right. Because my spell was the kind that is only short-term. But the ghost wanted to kill you. That’s why the spell he put on you worked like a charm, so to speak—a very permanent one. What can be more permanent than death?”

“Well, you’ve consoled me. Thanks a million!”

“Deal with it, Max. Don’t think this incident is the last one in your life. Everything is for the best! At Makluk’s house you became a bit wiser. Now you have a useful weapon at your disposal. Who knows what’s next?”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

For a few seconds I sincerely tried to feel sorry for myself. Then I shook my head and burst out laughing.

“Maybe I just need to see a wiseman. I’ll come to him and say, ‘Doctor, I have poisonous saliva. What should I do?’ And he’ll say, ‘No problem. A strict diet, a walk before bedtime, and an aspirin for the night. In five hundred years, you’ll be right as rain!’”

“Aspirin? What’s that?” Lonli-Lokli asked.

“Oh, it truly is a magic potion. It’s made from horse dung, and it helps everything!”

“Well, I’ll be! And our scholars write that in the Borderlands sorcery is very backward. It does seem to be the case that reason often falls victim to prejudice.”

Sir Juffin clutched at his head.

“Stop, gentlemen! I can’t laugh anymore. My face will become permanently contorted. A last piece of advice, Max. I suggest you consider yourself to be very lucky. You have plenty of useless and inoffensive habits. It’s about time you acquired some dangerous ones. Your new acquisition might come in very handy in our profession. And if some hysterical lady refuses to kiss you, just spit in her direction and all will be well. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Excellent.” With that, he threw open the door, took a sizable package from the hands of a courier, and tossed it on my lap. “Now try this on.”

I opened the package, and out fell a black looxi embroidered in gold, a black skaba, a turban in the same style, and a pair of marvelous boots. On the boots were stylized heads of toothy dragon-like creatures; the black boot-tops were strewn with tiny golden bells. Of course, I would never wear anything like that in my homeland—but here in Echo, I was stylin’!

“Is this a gift, Juffin?”

“Something like that. But please do try it on.”

“Thanks!” I started pulling on the boots.

“You’re very welcome. Do you like these?”

“I’ll say!” I plunked the black turban on my head. It was decorated with the same tiny gold bells.

“And the looxi?

“Just a second.”

I wrapped myself up in the black and gold garment and looked at myself in the mirror. It turned out that the gold patterned embroidery formed glittering circles on my chest and back, like targets.

“It’s great! Fit for a king.”

“Well, as a matter of fact it is for a king. I’m glad you like it, Sir Max. Now you have to wear it.”

“Gladly. But why do I have to? And it’s a pity to wear such finery on a daily basis.”

“You’ll get as many outfits as you need. You still haven’t understood the main thing. These are your work clothes, so to speak. Your uniform. You’ll have to wear it all the time from now on.”

“Fine, but I still don’t understand. You yourself said that in contrast to the police, members of the Secret Investigative Force don’t wear uniforms. What is this, some kind of innovation?”

“Not exactly. This uniform is just for you. You, Sir Max, have become Death. Death in the service of the King. And for such occasions, one must wear the Mantle of Death.”

“And when people see me passing by, they’ll run from me like the plague. Is that it?”

“It’s not all that bad. When they see you, they’ll tremble blissfully and think with nostalgia about the good old Epoch of Orders, when people in garments like this were much more common. Your social stature is so high that . . . to put it bluntly, you are a Very Important Person of the highest rank. You’ll see what I mean.”

“Ah, a ‘big boss,’ eh? Well, I can deal with that. But why don’t you wear a uniform like this, Shurf? You of all people should be wearing one.”

“At one time I really did wear the Mantle of Death,” Lonli-Lokli confirmed with a nod. “But times change. The time for white garments has come for me now.”

“Oh, and I thought your clothes were just a matter of personal taste. And what do your white clothes mean?”

Lonli-Lokli didn’t reply. He clearly didn’t want to discuss the subject.

“The times when Shurf was Death have passed,” Juffin announced solemnly. “Now he has become Truth. At least, that’s how his position is listed in the Secret Registry of Practicing Royal Magicians. To put it more simply, our Sir Lonli-Lokli isn’t capable of anger, fear, or taking offense—in contrast to you, for example. He can bring death, it’s true, but only when it’s absolutely necessary, not because he wants to himself. Not even when he is ordered to do it. If, let’s say, I order Sir Shurf to pulverize an innocent person, he will, in the line of duty, try to carry out my orders, but his hand will refuse to obey its master. So it turns out that our highly disciplined Sir Shurf, for the most part, answers to no one. That is why he is greater than death. He is Truth because he is, in the last instance, as impassive as the heavens. Whew! I’m getting carried away. All that is, of course, a shameless mixtures of naïve philosophy and bad poetry. But you understand the gist of it.”

“I’m glad I don’t have to wear orange or raspberry,” I said. “Still, I’m not crazy about this idea.”

“You don’t have to be crazy about it. Come to terms with it, and try to get some satisfaction out of it, at least. Case closed. You won’t be working tonight, at least, so let’s go to the Glutton. I’m starving, and so are you. Any questions?”

“Yes,” I muttered. “Who’s paying?”

By the end of the evening, all the Secret Investigators were sitting around the table. There was nothing unusual in this, of course. Juffin had probably sent out a silent call and told everyone to join our little feast, though it was nice to think that there was some mysterious connection between my colleagues and me, and that walking around the city, everyone inevitably gravitated toward the place where the others had gathered. We attract each other by some principle of collective magnetism: that’s how I imagined it.

When she took her leave, Lady Melamori, who hadn’t taken her eyes off me the whole evening, invited Melifaro and me to visit her at dawn to drink a mug of kamra. According to her strategic plan, we would arrive together and neutralize each other. I wondered whether she was making fun of us or—worse—whether she, herself, didn’t understand what she wanted.

“Spit at her, man!” Melifaro hissed. “Spit at her, I dare you. She deserves it!”

“No kidding,” I murmured. “But my spit is a matter of state. To use it for my own purposes is abuse of office. And I’m just out of Xolomi.”

I did finally make it home that night, and was greeted by Armstrong and Ella, looking sleek, well-fed, and well-groomed, as promised. I decided that from now on I would use the services of the courier, who had been charged with looking after my little beasts. Unlike me, the fellow was made for this kind of work.

All night I stuffed my furry friends with delicacies from the Glutton and was rewarded by their grateful purring. I at last grew weary of this pastime; but they wouldn’t leave me in peace.

I was awakened by a knock at the door. Only a civil servant of a fairly low rank would dare knock so boldly. Sleepy, grumpy, and befuddled, I crawled over to open the door. Armstrong marched beside me on my right, and Ella spun around in circles on my left, meowing indignantly. It must have been a sight to behold.

At the door stood an extremely proper-looking gentleman whose elegant, gold-rimmed glasses and graying temples cast an aura of intelligence over his pedigreed face.

“Please accept my apologies, Sir Max,” he said, bowing. “Allow me to introduce myself, Kovista Giller, Master Verifier of Sad News. I know that it isn’t entirely proper to appear at your door at this time of night, but His Majesty King Gurig VIII insisted on it.”

My innate sense of hospitality and the servile tone of the visitor conspired to make me invite him in. Moreover, there was nearly a full jug of kamra from the Glutton and a pretty assortment of tidbits, as well. I just had to find some clean mugs. In a large house that’s not so easy.

“What happened?” I inquired when the objects of my search were found. “What is this ‘sad news’ you wish to verify? Did someone finally rat on me? We’ll have to celebrate that.”

“I’ll explain everything to you, Sir Max, but please don’t be alarmed. Nothing untoward has happened, I assure you.”

“Judging from what you’ve just told me, you already know about my new position,” I remarked acidly. “To be honest, I wasn’t about to get alarmed. Whatever may have happened, the death penalty is not held in high repute here, and I just returned from Xolomi. I had a lovely stay there, I hasten to add . . .”

“Generally speaking, my main occupation is to verify the legitimacy of denunciations that make their way to the Royal Court. That really is true,” my guest admitted, somewhat abashed. “But I beg you, Sir Max, do not think that the King gave any credence to General Boboota Box’s memo. I’m here about another matter altogether.”

“Well, well, well! Our conversation has taken a much more interesting turn! Do me a favor, sir, and tell me what kind of memo that might have been. I haven’t been at the Ministry for three days. I was carrying out an investigation on the orders of the Venerable Head. What, according to General Box, was I up to?”

“I’m embarrassed even to mention such trifling matters to you, Sir Max. General Box found out that in your absence one of the junior staff members of the Ministry of Perfect Public Order visited your home and—”

“And fed my animals,” I nodded. “It’s the truth. He groomed them, too. What else are junior staff for?”

“I agree with you one hundred per cent, Sir Max. I’ll let you in on a secret: General Box always forgets that the Secret Investigative Force and his Police Force are very different organizations, that what is acceptable in his half of the House by the Bridge is not necessarily so in yours. Boboota Box has not seldom delivered denunciations about the behavior of the Venerable Head himself, not to mention your other colleagues.”

“And what exactly does Boboota object to?”

Kovista Giller broke into a shy smile.

“Well, he objects to everything. For instance, that Sir Kofa Yox doesn’t show up at work when he should be on duty, because he rarely leaves the tavern.”

“Well, yes,” I agreed. “That truly is bad form! He should just stay in his office, occasionally making a trip to the john to hear Boboota’s underlings rake him over the coals in secret. Instead, he haunts all the dives in town.”

My visitor nodded in satisfaction.

“The King even collects letters of denunciation about your department. He sticks them in a special album and illustrates them personally. He says he’s going to give the album to Sir Juffin Hully when the pages run out. That’s why His Majesty read General Box’s letter carefully before adding it to the others. The King was curious: why do you keep beasts at home, and what kind of pleasure do you derive from this?”

“See for yourself,” I smiled tenderly. “Look how beautiful my Armstrong and Ella are. And so smart!”

The instigators of social discord heard their names and clambered into my lap. I groaned under their bulk, which was nothing to joke about. The long, carefully groomed fur flowed down almost to the floor. Blue eyes peered out from fuzzy cheeks, and their plume-like tails tickled my nose. I had reason to be proud of them!

“If you only knew how sweet it is to sleep to the sound of their purring,” I murmured dreamily. “That, if you will permit me, is pure delight.”

“Where did you get them, Sir Max?” my guest asked.

To this very day I don’t know what made me tell a fib. I think I felt the cats would be hurt if I admitted to a complete stranger the secret of their plebeian origins.

“These cats are the direct descendants of wild cats of the Barren Lands and a mysterious, wild black beast that inhabits the land where the sun sets.”

I tried my best to imitate the speech of an exultant savage until I could no longer restrain myself. I burst out laughing, then said in a normal tone of voice:

“At least that’s what it said in the note I found in the basket when the little critters were delivered to me by a merchant. They were a present from an old friend.”

“To think of it!” the Royal Messenger exclaimed. “His Majesty guessed correctly! He told me right off, ‘I’m sure that this Sir Max has cats that are as unusual as he is. Go over and find out—I’m dying with curiosity!’ Now I see with my own eyes, Sir Max, that your cats don’t resemble in the least the cats that live on our farms.”

“If His Majesty considers Armstrong and Ella to be such marvels, I will be the first to agree with him,” I declared, pressing the heavy mounds of fur closer to me. “They are nothing if not extraordinary.”

The local farmers simply don’t have the time or the strength to groom the resplendent fur of their animals, I thought to myself. My cats, it was true, looked nothing like the scraggly, matted specimens that lurked about the peasants’ gardens in search of extra scraps of food.

The Master Verifier of Sad News apologized profusely for taking up my valuable time, and sent out a call to Rulx Castle, the main Royal Residence. Evidently, such a serious matter requires lengthy deliberation—the fellow remained silent for nearly an hour.

Finally, Kovista Giller again turned his attention to me. I was already dozing off in my armchair.

“Sir Max,” he began in a respectful whisper. “The King would like some cats just like these. Oh, I don’t mean to suggest that His Majesty intends to take your own beasts from you. But you do have a girl and a boy, and it stands to reason that that will eventually result in offspring. Might we have the honor of receiving a cat from the litter?”

This was a sensible solution to an impending problem. Kittens were in the bargain sooner or later, there was no getting around it. I had been planning on sending the Armstrong-and-Ella descendents to the same place their parents hailed from—Melifaro’s estate. But the Royal Palace was more convenient. And it was closer to home.

“Of course! When the little ones arrive, I’ll be happy to send the King the pair of them with the chubbiest paws!” I promised solemnly.

Kovista Giller showered me with thanks, apologies, and compliments, and then disappeared out the door. I went off to bed.

I didn’t have a chance to sleep in the next morning, though. A few hours later my new acquaintance sent me another call. It seemed all the courtiers had to have Armstrong and Ella’s future offspring, too. Kovista Giller insisted that we meet again.

That evening I held in my hand a note with the names of all the eager recipients of this “rare” (and with Royal stamp of approval!) breed. It was a list of ninety names. And I suspected this was only the beginning.

Poor Ella, even a very long lifetime was too short to produce that many litters. But all these men of the world hungered to appear on the glorified waiting list, if nothing else.

Naturally, Juffin found out about my dealings with the Royal Court in no time, and summoned me for a meeting. I set out for the House by the Bridge anticipating the amusement to come.

“What are you doing to my World, Max? What kinds of transformations are you unleashing?” demanded the Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force with mock severity. “And, be so good as to tell me: why only cats? You should have inspired them to take horses into their homes and to ride from the living room to the bedroom! Why were you so grudging?”

“I can still try, if you wish,” I replied, giving the matter some thought. “The size of the apartments in the capital would certainly allow it.”

“I don’t doubt that you’d succeed! The Royal Courtiers are so eager for novelties . . . but wait a few years, why don’t you? At my age, it’s hard to get used to newfangled notions.”

“I’ll wait. But never mind the horses. Let’s just stick to cats.”

“Really? Well, thank you for that, at least. Sinning Magicians, sometimes I really start believing myself that you grew up in the Borderlands. You don’t even take offense anymore!”

“Just watch how I can take offense! Just see me spit!” I grimaced madly.

“I might otherwise be struck with terror, but my position won’t allow it,” Juffin said, grinning. “It is widely believed that I fear nothing and no one. I can’t just up and fly in the face of the honored traditions of the Secret Investigative Force.”

“By the way, apropos of traditions,” I said, recalling recent events. “What are so-called close friends expected to do for one another? I’m not joking, I really need to know.”

“What are you talking about, Max? Who are you calling your ‘close friends’? Give me some background.”

“Well, last night I overindulged in Elixir of Kaxar and patted Sir Shurf on the back. He seemed perfectly happy with this, so everything’s fine. There must be some friendship traditions I have to uphold so as not to offend him, though. Am I guessing right?”

“No, I don’t recall anything of that nature,” Juffin said, furrowing his brow. “I don’t think anyone is required to do anything in particular. You don’t have to address him as ‘sir’ anymore, although you seem to have stopped doing that already anyway. Sinning Magicians! What am I trying to explain? Friendship is friendship! By the way, if you recall, I once did the same to you.”

“Yes, but—”

I grew confused and fell silent. It’s awkward to admit to a person that you consider him to be the Great Exception to all possible rules. It’s too close to crude flattery.

But Juffin understood already anyway.

“You mean to say that I’m just one of the guys, but Lonli-Lokli is a true gentleman? Yes, that’s one way of looking at it, but you’re in luck, Max! There are no particular rituals for such a situation. Well, except for the fact that now when you visit Shurf, you have the right to take a bath at his house and spend the night. And he has the same right—though I question whether he would take advantage of it. All right, Sir Max, a few Days of Freedom from Care are no less than you deserve, so I won’t detain you any longer.”

“That sounds like you’re showing me the door,” I said with a smile. “I even feel a bit hurt. Not show up on duty for two days? I’ll die of boredom!”

“I’m glad you like your job. Now you’ve got to get some rest, though. And no adventures! I’m saying that to you as a healer. Understand?”

In the corridor of the Ministry I ran into General Boboota Box. He bared his teeth in the semblance of a smile, his face crimson. The poor chap seemed to be on the verge of fainting. When he saw my Mantle of Death, the illustrious General Boboota understood that he had acquired a very dangerous enemy. I could only sympathize.

Joking aside, passing by the Sated Skeleton I heard two middle-aged ladies in heated argument. If I’m not mistaken, they were playing Krak, the local version of poker. And, inevitably, they were both cheating. They made so much noise that they couldn’t hear the melodious tinkle of the bells on my boots. “May Sir Max spit on you!” one of them screamed at the other.

Unbelievable! I plunked myself down on the mosaic sidewalk and let my head fall into my hands. I sat like that for ten minutes or more. I kept repeating, like a mantra, Juffin’s advice: “Get used to it, and try to enjoy it.”

Then I got up and walked home. What else could I do?

Chapter 4 The Stranger

AS SOON AS SOMEONE DECIDES THAT HE HAS MADE HIS PEACE WITH himself and the world around him, his best friends, as though on cue, will start doing everything in their power to relieve him of the illusion. This has been tested on a live human being. On me, to be exact.

I returned to the House by the Bridge after several days of blissful lethargy, clouded only by the installment of a fourth bathing pool in my house. I walked down the corridor, wrapped in my splendid Mantle of Death, anticipating a pleasant meeting with colleagues. And, to tell the truth, they didn’t let me down.

At the door leading into our side of the building, Melifaro rushed up to me. The fact that in his haste the guy stomped on my foot and elbowed me in the side was a trifle. He then tried to turn this petty incident into a kind of vaudeville act.

Melifaro bounded away from me like a tennis ball. His face froze in an expression of utter horror. He collapsed onto all fours and began beating his head against the threshold. To top it off, he let out a scream so shrill it made my ears ring.

“Spare me, O Sir Max the Terrible, who spews death from out of his fire-breathing maw! Do not snuff out my existence with your burning spittle, which flows abundantly over the heads of your sworn enemies! I am unworthy of such a magnificent demise.”

Terrified policemen came running up when they heard Melifaro’s shrieks. It appeared they sincerely thought that someone was being murdered. They stared at my grimacing colleague. At me they only glanced surreptitiously, as though trying to size up the situation—was he going to spit or not? From our side of the Ministry, only Lonli-Lokli poked his stony physiognomy out of the doorway. Taking it all in at a glance, Sir Shurf sighed and slammed the door shut. In the meantime, the curious policemen still lingered.

Enjoying the all-round attention, Melifaro jumped up suddenly and sidled up close to me.

“Am I forgiven?” he asked innocently. “Or did I overdo it?”

“You overdid it.” I tried to stay calm, since I really was becoming a bit overwrought. “In such cases, it’s considered only proper to repent for no less than an hour. Moreover, it should be done in the most public place in town. Get thee hence to the Victory of Gurig VII Square, my poor friend, and fulfill your duty. Then you will be absolved of all guilt.”

At that, I retreated, slamming the door so hard the handle was left hanging limply by one screw. After that I really did start to calm down.

What’s wrong, Max? Melifaro sent me a call posthaste. Are you actually offended? I just wanted to amuse you.

Content yourself with the thought that you amused a whole crowd of cops and your own sweet self, I replied.

Where did your sense of humor go, Max? Well, never mind. If you’re still in a huff, I’ll stand you a drink. Come along to the Glutton and I’ll treat you to something stronger than your own nerves. Over and out.

He really was sucking up, tossing out my favorite expression. This only made me angrier.

“What if I actually do kill him, Shurf?” I asked.

Lonli-Lokli proceeded to regale me with legal advice, as thougt I really did intend to get even with my friend.

“Lifetime imprisonment in Xolomi, since you are both in government service. That will be an aggravating factor. Or there may be no consequences whatsoever, if you can prove that he committed a particularly heinous crime. All in all, such a situation is very undesirable. You ought not take offense at Melifaro. You know him, Max. It’s unfortunate that he was spoiled by his mother and older brothers, since his father, Manga Melifaro, was always busy—”

“Gadding about the World writing his famous Encyclopedia, I know. World travelers shouldn’t start families. Their passion for adventure gets passed down to their offspring. Well, never mind. I’ll just go to the Glutton and give him a shiner. He’s waiting for me, after all. Did you see the expressions on those terrified policemen, Shurf?”

“Naturally.”

“Make sure that none of them gets into the Silver Leaflet for the next thousand years. There wasn’t an intelligent face among them. And they really believed that I might kill him, the idiots. It’s obvious they learned their stuff from General Boboota.”

After venting my spleen on innocent people I felt a deep sense of satisfaction and went to make peace with Melifaro in the Glutton. There was plenty of time. Already bored at home, I had shown up for work much earlier than necessary.

Melifaro did everything he could to improve my mood—which he had done so much to spoil. When the time came to go on my night shift, I was no longer a menace to society.

Sir Juffin Hully sat in his armchair, his nose between the pages of a book. This idyll attested to the peace and tranquility that had already returned to Echo.

“Greetings, traitor,” he mumbled. “So, you’re sitting in the Glutton with Melifaro instead of relieving an old man on duty.”

“First of all, I came a half hour early. Second, Melifaro was atoning for his sins.”

“I know all that. And third?”

“And third, I’m ready to do it all again in your company.”

“What, exactly?”

“Go to the Glutton.”

“You won’t burst at the seams, Sir Max?”

“No way.”

“I’m too lazy to go anywhere. Let’s have them bring something over here. Sit down. I’m going to gossip.”

“For you, Sir, I’m prepared even for that.”

“Ha! He’s prepared. You’re the main character of this story. Do you know what Lady Melamori has been up to? I just found out today. When did you last see her?”

“Two days ago. Melifaro and I went to visit her. If you’re talking about that, Juffin, you can rest assured—everything was all above-board and proper. Too much so for my taste.”

“I see. I could have predicted the outcome of that visit without the help of clairvoyants—even twelve years before your birth. That’s not what I’m asking. Did you see her after that?”

“No. True, Melamori sent me a call several times. She inquired about my health and asked about my mood. Very sweet of her. I was touched.”

“By the way, how have you been feeling all this time?”

“You mean after my incarceration in the death cell? I haven’t spat any poison, at least, if that’s what you want to know.”

“What I want to know is something I’ll figure out for myself. Give me more details.”

“There’s nothing in particular to tell. Right afterward I felt I was in tip-top shape. My mood was good. Even too good. I felt cheerful, without any grounds for it, as though someone were tickling me. I wanted to laugh apropos of nothing. So I wandered around the house giggling like an idiot—children would say ‘I was feeling punchy.’”

“And that’s all?”

“Well, yes. Isn’t that enough?”

“Because of you, Sir Max, I have to be surprised so often it’s almost indecent,” said Juffin.

I couldn’t quite tell whether he was praising me or mocking me.

“So what happened? Tell me now—I’m on pins and needles!”

“Well, sit for a while without the pins and needles, and I’ll chew my food,” Sir Juffin snapped, biting off nearly half of the Glutton Pie, specialty of the house, which had just arrived.

He was really as eager to talk as I was to hear, and he began talking with his mouth full.

“The First and Last Lady of the Secret Investigative Force, Melamori, decided to test whether you were indeed worthy of her adoration.”

“I know one good way to test it,” I murmured. “If she doubts whether I am at her service any time of day or night, let her try me. You can tell her that.”

“Oh, Max, come on. Lady Melamori is a very serious woman. She has her methods. That’s why our cruel huntress has decided to shadow you.”

“What! Has she lost her mind?”

“No, I wouldn’t put it that way. She’s always been like that.”

“Are you sure that she’s on my trail? I feel absolutely fine.”

“Exactly. You feel wonderful. How did you put it—you feel ‘punchy’?”

I didn’t know what to think anymore. Lady Melamori on my trail! Unbelievable. But what usually happens to people in such cases? Deep depression at the very least. That’s the job of the Master of Pursuit—that’s why she’s hired. But I’m a rare bird. The queen of my heart is hot on my trail, and I feel nothing at all. Just a bit giddy. I’m a callous, insensitive pig. A monster. I hate myself.

There was another reason for my distress.

“And I thought she was asking because she was really worried. That she thought I was sick, since I wasn’t at work. And that she couldn’t wait until I turned up at the House by the Bridge again. But it was just her idea of an experiment. How humiliating.”

“Don’t worry,” said Juffin. “The old gal was interrogating you with the best of intentions—according to her own lights. If you had betrayed any sign of suffering, she would immediately have stopped. And she would have been completely happy. You see, for Melamori, her dangerous gift is a question of honor and fate. It’s the only thing she really has. Don’t worry. All our boys have had to undergo the same torments. Even I did—at the very start of my career, the lady decided to find out what kind of fish or fowl it was ordering her around.”

“I can only imagine the blow she got.”

“No, it wasn’t so bad. For her benefit I demonstrated my ‘Primary Shield’—though I could really have lost my temper. I have to hand it to her—the girl came to her senses in under an hour. She’s a fine damsel, that Melamori.”

“What is this ‘Primary Shield’?” I asked. “Is it something you can teach me?”

“The ‘Primary Shield’ is a poetic name for my own kind of Secret Weapon, Max. ‘Primary’ means it’s the least dangerous for my opponent. What can I teach you? You’ve got stronger shields than any person in this World. Stronger than I dared hope. And you’ll gradually learn to use them, but only through experience. Don’t sell yourself short. You just lack the terminology.”

“What a formidable character that Lady Melamori has turned out to be,” I sighed, pouring myself a comforting portion of kamra. “Such potent gifts at her disposal, yet she behaves like a little child.”

“Are you angry with her, Max? Don’t be. It’s not worth it. The poor thing is already moping around as it is.”

“No, I’m not mad. Just bemoaning my broken heart.”

“I warned you from the start that choosing her as a sweetheart wasn’t a very wise move. Does it never occur to you to listen to your elders, Sir Max?”

I sighed and cut myself a second slice of the Glutton Pie. I’m a callous human being. No broken heart can spoil my appetite—it’s been proven time and again.

“You don’t have anything to add regarding this incident except the sad story of your broken heart?” Juffin asked when we had polished off the pie.

“I don’t know. Actually, I should be asking you. How can it be that I don’t feel anything? Strange things are afoot.It seems that if I commit some crime, I can just calmly flee the scene. I’m a dangerous guy.”

“Yes, much more dangerous than many,” Juffin observed with a satisfied air. He looked like an artist whose hands had just put the finishing touches on a masterpiece.

“It’s all so strange. When I lived at home, I didn’t notice any miraculous inclinations in myself at all. I was as ordinary as the next person. I had peculiar dreams, but that was a personal matter. Maybe others dream the same way, but they just don’t talk about it? But as soon as I end up here, some novelty or other surfaces every day. Maybe you should just cut me in half to find out what’s inside!”

“Excellent idea, Sir Max. But you aren’t as invulnerable as all that. You’ve got your limits. Remember what happened to you in the Old Thorn?”

“The place that funny lanky fellow runs? What’s his name—Chemparkaroke.” I smiled, feeling a bit sheepish.

What happened there wasn’t an achievement I wanted to recall. Juffin had taken me to the Old Thorn when I was still waiting for my appointment to the service. He decided that I just had to try the Soup of Repose, a dish favored by all citizens of the Unified Kingdom.

As far as I understood it, this soup had a light narcotic effect, so harmless and pleasant that the whole family was accustomed to partaking of it, even the littlest tykes.

For that reason I plunged into the psychedelic adventure with no trepidation at all, although my whole life I had felt a cowardly antipathy toward drugs and drug users. My smattering of experience in this area was acquired, of course, in the last years of high school, and was so unsuccessful that rather than developing a habit, I developed a phobia.

I really fell face-first into the Soup of Repose. All my foreignness, which I simply forget about from time to time, came to the surface as soon as I had finished slurping up the first serving. Juffin suddenly found himself in the company of a blithering idiot, giggling over his empty bowl in a fit of hilarity. For me it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, either. In an instant I had become a hallucinating nutcase with compromised coordination. The respectable habitués of the Old Thorn, I imagine, were shocked by my behavior.

After this incident followed twenty-four hours of agony, as though I had stopped taking drugs after twenty years of rampant indulgence—and that despite the qualified medical help of Sir Juffin Hully. But even his healing arts were in vain. I had to endure it.

After I recovered, I vowed to make an enormous detour—of at least twelve blocks—around the Old Thorn.

Juffin approved of my decision and solemnly vowed not to indulge in Soup of Repose in my presence.

“Just don’t tell anyone that I can come undone merely by eating that soup. Someone might pour some into my kamra just to see the effect it has on me.”

“What are you saying, Max! That’s an attempt to poison a high-ranking government official—exactly the sort of crime that falls under our jurisdiction. Anyway, I think I’ll go home. And you try to be kind to Lady Melamori tomorrow. Our Lady is quite beside herself. After this little drama I think she’ll have to refrain from working for a few days. In our line of work, self-confidence is as necessary as the air we breathe, and every setback can mean the loss of one’s gift.”

“You don’t have to ask, Juffin. I’ll be nice to her. And not because . . . but because . . . well, never mind. Just don’t worry about a thing. If I had known what was happening, I could have complained to her about being in a bad mood right off—I wouldn’t have minded. And everything would have turned out fine.” “Don’t grieve, Max. Just think about how many wonderful things there are in the World! That’s an assignment. See you tomorrow.”

And Sir Juffin hurried out, to where the faithful Kimpa was already waiting for him in the amobiler.

The chief was absolutely right. The World is full of wonderful things. It was best to acknowledge the wisdom of what Sir Juffin Hully said. It was best to relax, stop sniveling, and start a new life—with a visit to the Quarter of Trysts.

This, by the way, is what the majority of lonely ladies and gentlemen do in Echo. And there is no shortage of them. Marriage in the Unified Kingdom is something people embark upon in their mature years—and not everyone decides to get married even then. It isn’t customary here to consider a family to be an unmitigated boon, and a lonely old age synonymous with failure in life. No one tries to claim the contrary either, though. Public opinion is simply silent on the matter, allowing everyone to arrange one’s affairs as one sees fit.

I had quite recently received a detailed briefing about the Quarter of Trysts from Melifaro, who fairly took me to task for being so ill-informed. You may be a barbarian, he said, but that doesn’t excuse you from knowing something so basic.

This aspect of local custom was completely unexpected for me. Despite my almost panicky desire to embark on some sort of “private life” I wasn’t sure I was ready to visit the Quarter of Trysts.

Let me explain. When you are returning home from a party in the company of a girl you don’t know very well, and you both realize where things are headed—well, it doesn’t always look like the Great Amorous Adventure that you dreamed of in childhood, but the scenario is simple and predictable. Everything happens by mutual consent. Two grown people make a more or less conscious decision. For one night, or longer—the ensuing sexual experiences of a new combinations of bodies will show.

In Echo, however, chance encounters are another matter altogether.

Visitors to the Quarter of Trysts fall into two categories: the Seekers and the Waiters. Every person decides for herself or himself which category to join that day. On one side of the Quarter one finds houses of male Seekers and female Waiters; on the other side are female Seekers and male Waiters. There are no signboards. Everyone knows where to go and why.

Upon entering the appropriate house, every Seeker must take part in a curious kind of lottery and pull a token out of a vase. By the way, there are also blank tokens. They signify that on that particular day fate is preventing you from having an amorous encounter with anyone whatsoever. In that event there is nothing to do but turn around and go home. Theoretically, the unlucky person may proceed to the neighboring house and repeat the process, but this is considered to be a sign of blatant disregard for one’s own fate, and there are not many who would want to challenge it.

Once the Seeker gets a token he goes into the living room, where the Waiters are to be found, and starts counting each person in turn—one, two, three, etc.—until he reaches the number that appears on the token. That Waiter is, so to speak, waiting for him or her.

I hasten to add that there is no one there to supervise the activities, so there is nothing to prevent cheating. But Melifaro himself said he couldn’t understand how such an idea could even enter anyone’s head. He couldn’t imagine anything more outrageous. Upon witnessing his reaction I concluded that no one in the Quarter of Trysts engages in such fraud. Here it is taken for granted that Lady Fortune is quick to take offense, and it’s best not to play pranks on her.

The newly fledged lovers then leave the Quarter of Trysts, set out for home or a hotel, and try to extract as much pleasure as possible from this arrangement of fate. In the morning, they must part forever. That’s a mandatory condition.

As far as I understand it, no one is there to enforce this unwritten contract down to the last point and to punish violations. Nonetheless, the rule is considered sacrosanct, and my suggestion that it would be easy to cheat fate met with a grimace of disgust, as though I had undertaken to expound on the charms of necrozoophilia and had warmly urged Melifaro to accompany me to the nearest pet cemetery. “Please, no more jokes of that kind,” he advised me grimly. “Especially around people you don’t know. And not around people you do know, either.”

So I never was able to understand the real reason for my friend’s offended sensibilities. I dismissed his prejudices and soon came up with my own high-minded explanation: the mutual agreement of the lovers, that separation for all time was inevitable, was not the worst means of lending an aura of romance to “intimate relations with a chance partner.” (I think this is how such phenomena are described in cold officialese.)

After recalling the above information, I realized sadly that it was still too early for me to make my way over to the Quarter of Trysts. My knees would shake, my tongue would twist into knots, my armpits would become small inverted lakes—and afterward in bed I would hardly show my most flattering side. The manner of acquaintance was too abrupt and unconventional. And what if “my fate” delivered me into the arms of an ancient, toothless giantess with elephantine legs? How, I asked myself, would I survive till morning? No. Better to place my bets on a more conservative approach to courtship, since it isn’t prohibited by local tradition.

After reaching this decision, I looked around in search of a way to kill time. The only possible conversation partner, our buriwok Kurush, was dozing, head tucked away under one wing. I reached for a book that Sir Juffin Hully had left lying on his armchair. The title was The Philosophy of Time; the author, one Sir Sobox Xes. Sinning Magicians! What people won’t read.

All in all, I had a rather distressing night. Thumb-twiddling boredom, fruitless deliberations about the Quarter of Trysts, and philosophical literature can plunge one into a funk much faster than the magical shenanigans of our incomparable Master of Pursuit.

The morning brought with it some favorable changes. Sir Kofa Yox amused me with a few risque jokes. Juffin decided to stay home until lunchtime, but he sent me a good-morning call. At the same time he asked me to wait for Melifaro, so that the Secret Investigative wouldn’t be without someone in charge. I didn’t object, since I was-n’t planning to leave anyway until I saw Melamori. She most likely felt guilty, and I’d be a fool not to use such a chain of coincidences to my advantage.

The lady finally made an appearance. She slunk around the Hall of Common Labor, unsure of whether to approach me. The door to the office was open a crack, so I had the opportunity to overhear a series of bitter sighs, too loud to be spontaneous.

After enjoying the concert, I sent a call to the Glutton and ordered kamra for two and a lot of cookies. The order arrived in a matter of minutes. When the courier opened the door, Melamori flitted to the far corner of the hall, fearful of remaining in my field of vision. She seemed to be listening to the clatter of dishes with bated breath.

When the messenger had left, I asked loudly through my wide-open door:

“If I have a tray with two jugs of kamra and two mugs delivered to my room, do you think it’s because I suffer from a split personality? I need help—there are no two ways about it.”

“Is that for me, Max?” came the plaintive squeak.

“It’s for my late great-grandmother, but as she’s in no condition to join us—well, I’m not angry, and the kamra’s getting cold.”

Melamori appeared at the door. Two expressions struggled for mastery on her face: a guilty one, and a satisfied one.

“Did Juffin tattle on me? He might have saved himself the trouble, since I’m so ashamed as it is,” she muttered.

“There’s no need to feel ashamed, Melamori. I’m just made a bit differently, that’s all. Don’t worry your head over it. My wise Mamma said that if I ate a lot of horse dung every morning, I would grow up strong and handsome, and no one would be able to shadow me. As you can see, she was right.”

My heart ordered me to be magnanimous, but it would be wrong not to admit that I hoped for a little reward. After all, her admiration (albeit treacherous) was a rather pleasant sensation; far better, it seemed to me, than polite indifference. Polite indifference, which I had experienced more than once, was something I didn’t even want to contemplate.

As a result of my carefully planned operation, I seemed at last to have charmed the First Lady of the Secret Investigative Force. Sipping her kamra, she exuded ingenuous cheer. Our fingers touched accidentally a few times over the cookie platter, and she didn’t cringe from my touch by any means. Suddenly emboldened, I suggested that we stroll through Echo in the evening. The lady admitted honestly that she was afraid, but she promised to be brave—not today or tomorrow, but very soon. No later than a few days from now. We just had to fix the date for accomplishing this feat. It was a serious victory. I hadn’t counted on it.

I went home ecstatic. For two hours or so I tossed and turned, unwilling to forfeit my happy excitement to the oblivion of sleep. Finally I dozed off, lulled by the purring of Armstrong and Ella curled up at my feet. I wasn’t able to sleep for long, though.

At midday I was awoken by a terrible noise. My head still fuzzy with sleep, I decided that a public execution (not customary in Echo) was underway beneath my window, or that there was an itinerant circus in progress (which does happen here from time to time). Insofar as it was impossible to regain slumber in the midst of that hubbub, I went to see what was going on. When I opened the door, I suddenly felt that I had either lost my mind, or that I wasn’t really awake yet.

On the street in front of my house, an orchestra made up of a dozen musicians had taken up its position. The musicians were trying desperately to coax some mournful melody out of their instruments. The magnificent Lonli-Lokli stood in front of them, wailing at the top of his lungs a sad song about a little house in the steppe at the top of his lungs.

This can’t be happening, because—because it just can’t be happening, I thought, dumbstruck. Hardly waiting until the end of the serenade, I rushed over to my colleague to find out what was happening.

“What is this, Shurf? Why aren’t you on duty? Good golly, what’s this all about?”

Sir Lonli-Lokli coughed, unfazed.

“Is something wrong Max? Did I pick the wrong song?”

“The song is wonderful, but . . . let’s go into the living room, Shurf. They’ll bring us some kamra from the Sated Skeleton, and you’ll explain everything to me. All right?” I was ready to cry from bewilderment and vexation.

Dismissing the musicians with an expansive gesture, my “official friend” followed me into the house. Beside myself with relief, I collapsed onto an armchair and sent a call to the Sated Skeleton. Not the worst pub in Echo, it was, moreover, the closest to home.

“I’m not on duty, since they offered me a Day of Freedom from Care and Chores,” Lonli-Lokli began calmly. “And so I decided to use this opportunity to carry out my duty to you.”

“What duty?”

“The duty of friendship!” Now it was his turn to be surprised. “Have I done something wrong? But I consulted the handbook . . .”

“What is this handbook, and where did you get it?”

“You see, Sir Max, after you and I became friends, I started thinking that the customs of the places you spent your youth might differ from ours. I didn’t want to offend you accidentally, out of ignorance. So I turned to Sir Melifaro, since his father is the preeminent specialist on the subject of the customs of peoples that inhabit the World.”

“Aha! Sir Melifaro!” I exclaimed, beginning to understand.

“Yes, insofar as the books yielded no information about this aspect of the lives of your countrymen. The only reliable source for this information is Sir Manga Melifaro. Considering that we are both acquainted with his son—”

“Yes, we are acquainted. And Melifaro told you that you must regale me with romantic folk ballads?”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to be angry. Someone knocked on the door. The delivery boy from the Sated Skeleton had arrived just on time.

“Sir Melifaro told me about this particular custom of the Barren Lands, and about a few others, as well. He said that at the full moon, you and I had to exchange blankets, and on the Last Day of the Year—”

“Yes? And what, in his opinion, must we do then?”

“Visit each other and clean the bathing pools with our own hands. As well as other hygienic spots, including the toilets. Was he mistaken about that, Max?”

I tried to master my emotions. I realized that I needed to spare Lonli-Lokli’s feelings. It would be unpleasant for him to find out that he had become the victim of a practical joke.

“Of course not, Shurf. That’s all basically true. Only, you don’t have to do any of this anymore. I’m an ordinary, civilized person who ended up living in a strange place for a time. Much stranger to me than you can even imagine. But I’ve never held fast to the barbaric customs of my homeland. So, for one thing, friendship means the same thing there that it means here—straightforward, good relations between two people who are sympathetic to each other and wish each other the best. Exchanging blankets or mutual toilet-cleaning isn’t necessary. Agreed?”

“But of course, Max. I hope I haven’t offended you in any way. I simply wished to show my respect for the customs of your forebears and to please you.”

“You have pleased me with your considerate attentions and companionship, in any case. I assure you.”

After feeding and reassuring my guest, I ushered him out the door and was left alone with my own fully justified indignation. The first thing I did was to send a call to Melifaro.

You’re forgetting that I can fly into a terrible rage, pal! I growled fiercely (insofar as it’s possible to growl fiercely using Silent Speech).

What’s wrong? he asked innocently.

What’s wrong! Lonli-Lokli was just here with a whole orchestra!

Are you upset? Melifaro asked in a sympathetic tone. My father said that was the custom where you come from. You didn’t like it? Does our Lonli-Lokli have a bad voice? I’d always heard his voice was most pleasant.

Well, that beats all!

I still didn’t know whether to laugh or to get angry. So I decided to take refuge in dreamland.

And it was the right thing to do. As it turned out, it was my last chance to get some sleep. That evening I went off to work—and ended up being detained for several days, embroiled in one of the most desperate of classic criminal cases.

The nightmare began suddenly, and coincided precisely with my arrival at the House by the Bridge. A block away from the Ministry, I heard a familiar bellowing:

“Buffalo tits! If those bony-butts can’t find their own crap in an outhouse full of it, they can eat it until the hole is empty! Give the case to those Secret Investigative Crapsuckers? Those Generals of Steppe Outhouses who can’t extricate themselves from their own crap without a horde of bare-butt barbarians?”

I was amused. The old geezer was waxing so eloquent that he didn’t hear the warning bells on my boots.

You just wait, my fine fellow! I’ll fix you, I thought with irrepressible glee, as I neared the Secret Entrance to the Ministry of the Perfect Public Order.

Right, “Secret” . . . as if! The door was wide open, and at the threshold stood General Boboota Box, no longer red, but purple with malevolent rage.

“Now those bare-butt denizens of barren outhouses will be wiping the foam from my crap!”

At this point, Boboota noticed me, and he shut up so fast it seemed that the World had stopped.

I looked wonderful, in my own humble opinion, my Mantle of Death unfurled and my face bright with fury. I summoned all my meager acting abilities so that my malice appeared convincing. The nervous tic—which, according to my directorial method, was supposed to strike Boboota with fear that my venomous spit was headed his way—was particularly effective. I don’t know how believable I really was, but it worked on Boboota. Fear hath a hundred eyes.

There are many grounds for reproach of the Dashing Swordsman Boboota Box, though cowardice is usually not one of them. But there is an immutable law of human nature: all people are mortally afraid of the unknown. My newly acquired gift, which had caused so much speculation in the city, belonged to the realm of the unknown. So you could understand the poor guy.

General Boboota gulped frantically. Captain Shixola, his hapless audience, looked at me almost with hope. I advanced toward them steadily. I wanted to push the joke to its bitter conclusion, to spit at him just to see what would happen. Theoretically, my spit didn’t threaten the life of the Chief of Police, since I was neither angry nor afraid. But I stopped myself just in time. I decided that it might put too great a strain on the poor fellow, and I would be left to clean up the mess afterward. So I traded malice for mildness, and smiled good-naturedly.

“Good evening, Sir Box! Good evening, Captain!” My politeness dealt the final blow to Boboota, though it seemed to disappoint his subordinate. I left them to their perplexity and sailed off to Sir Juffin Hully’s office, which was considered a safe haven for me, his right-hand man.

Juffin was there, and in high spirits.

“Have you heard, Max? We’ve just been assigned a very unusual murder case. It’s really not our department, but Boboota’s boys can’t cope with it. He’s aware of that himself. That’s why the poor fellow just isn’t himself today. You probably heard his harangue out there. Well, let’s go look into this murder.”

We went out into the corridor. There we were joined by Lady Melamori, gloomy as I’d never seen her before. Strange, for I had cheered her up considerably that very morning. Or was it the murder that had gotten her upset? Doubtful. For me a human death was an event—for Melamori it must have already been routine.

“Why is it so quiet?” Juffin wondered aloud, listening to the whispering behind the wall that separated our rooms from those of the City Police. “I thought Boboota was going to keep up his ranting until dawn. Could it be that he has lost his voice? I don’t believe it. It would be too good to be true.”

“Well, I was just passing by, and I pretended to be angry,” I announced modestly.

Juffin stared at me in amazement.

“Sinning Magicians! I’ll arrange it so that your salary is bigger than my own. You’re worth it!”

Melamori didn’t even smile. It was as if the brave General Boboota had never even been her favorite butt of jokes. Rather, she looked as though she were about to cry. I put my hand on her shoulder and was about to make some lighthearted, offhand remark, but I didn’t get a chance. When I touched her I understood everything. I can’t imagine how the secret mechanisms were set in motion, but now I knew exactly what Melamori was feeling as well as she knew it herself. Our Master of Pursuit was temporarily out of order. The unsuccessful attempt to trail me had upset the delicate balance of her dangerous gift.

She needed time to put things to rights again.

It’s like the flu, which, thankfully, is unknown to the people of Echo. Whether or not you want to admit it, getting better takes time. And now Melamori was going to the scene of a crime as though to her own funeral, for she already sensed what the outcome would be—failure, and a new blow to her self-confidence. But she was going anyway, because she was not used to backing down, even before insurmountable obstacles.

And however foolish, I would most likely have done the same. I was starting to like the damsel more and more.

I sent Juffin a call.

Melamori can’t work today. She won’t be able to do her stuff. And she knows it. Why did you call her here? To teach her a lesson?

Juffin stared at me intently, then at Melamori, and suddenly smiled his blinding smile:

“Go home, on the double! March, my lady!”

“Why on earth should I?”

“You know why. Your gift belongs not to you alone, but to the Secret Investigative Force of the Unified Kingdom. And if there is something that endangers your gift, you must take measures to protect it. That’s also a talent, like all the rest of it. And no shifting your problems onto the shoulders of a tired old boss, who will inevitably forget about them. Is that clear?”

“Thank you,” Melamori murmured. It was painful even to look at her.

“You’re welcome,” Juffin snorted. “Go home, Melamori. Better yet, drop by to see your Uncle Kima. He’s a great Master. He’ll patch you up in no time. In a few days you’ll be right as rain. The sooner the better.”

“How will you find the murderer?” she asked uncertainly.

“Sir Max, this lady is insulting us,” the chief said with a grin. “She considers our intellectual faculties to be on the wane. She thinks that we’re good-for-nothing nincompoops who can only cling to the skirt-tails of the Master of Pursuit, hot on the trail of the criminal. Shall we get offended, or kill her on the spot?”

“Oh, please, I didn’t mean it that way,” said Melamori, and a timid smile spread across her face. “I’ll get better. I’ll bring you something from Uncle Kima. And please forgive me, won’t you?”

“I will forgive you, of course,” Juffin assented. “But Sir Max, here—they say he’s terrible when he’s angry. General Boboota completely lost his bearings!”

“I’ll make it up to Sir Max somehow,” Melamori assured him.

Understandably, I was beside myself with joy.

The darling of my demise graciously retreated and disappeared around the corner, toward the parking lot for official amobilers.

Her parting smile was the last pleasant moment of the day. The rest of it was too lousy for words.

A woman had been killed a few steps away from our favorite pub, the Glutton Bunba. Young, beautiful, though not quite to my taste. A rich brunette with large eyes, generous lips, and broad hips. In Echo, this kind of female beauty is particularly prized. But this woman had had her throat slit—a second horrific grin that reached from ear to ear.

If Juffin is to be believed, this is not how people are killed in Echo, neither women nor men. No one. As a matter of fact, murder of any description is exceedingly rare (unless, of course, one of the banned Orders of Magic is involved—then anything can happen). But this didn’t smell like magic, whether forbidden or permitted. No magic at all.

“To be honest, the thing that surprises me most about this whole mess is the location of the crime,” I said when Juffin and I returned to the office. “It’s common knowledge that the Glutton Bunba is your favorite haunt, Juffin. Not even a crazy paranoiac would get up to no good within a dozen blocks of the place.”

“Well, whoever it was sure did,” the chief said with a sniff.

“Maybe it’s a newcomer?”

“Most likely. In Echo, even in the Troubled Times, damsels weren’t treated like that. How inconvenient! We need Melamori now more than ever. She’d solve it in an hour. But here we sit, dwelling on every little piece of nonsense.”

While we sat, a second murder occurred, this time not far from the Street of Bubbles. The same bloody “smile,” but this time the Mona Lisa was a bit older (three hundred years of age). She was the local wisewoman, old Xrida, whom everyone on the street consulted for toothaches or all manner of bad luck. She was still youthful, energetic, and, in contrast to many of her colleagues, a very sweet lady. The residents of all the neighboring quarters had loved her, and the Echo Hustle and Bustle published letters of gratitude several times a year from people she had healed.

I should add that neither of these murders was carried out with the goal of robbery, since no valuables belonging to the victims had been touched. As for money, the women probably didn’t have any with them. Here in Echo, it is thought that touching coins cools off love. For this reason, no woman will ever take money into her hands, and only the boldest consider gloves to be sufficient protection. Men, too, prefer to take precautions; but ladies are especially superstitious in this regard.

By the way, this is why the inhabitants of the Unified Kingdom gradually introduced the custom of using various kinds of bonds and IOUs. Several days at the end of the year are set aside for clearing these debts. I myself prefer to pay with cash, and have occasionally gotten into awkward situations because of this. You hand your money to the bartender, and he glares at you because, you see, he’s left his gloves in the kitchen and now he has to run hither and thither all on account of you.

Thus, in the space of an hour, we had two corpses on our hands. And very few fresh ideas. The night was generous: we received five more “smiles” that were the spitting image of each other, while the victims differed significantly in age, appearance, and social standing. They even lived in distant regions of the city. The criminal seemed to be mixing work with pleasure—grisly murders cum nocturnal excursion: “Echo by Night.”

Close to morning we had a breathing spell. The murders seemed to have ceased. Most likely the protagonist was exhausted and had decided to take a nap. Juffin turned the matter over to Melifaro and Lonli-Lokli for the time being. Sir Kofa Yox went to gather information about the murders in the pubs, and our Venerable Head ordered me to stay right by his side. So far I had been of no use to him whatsoever. Maybe I provided him with inspiration—his muse, so to speak? In that case, I was a pretty lame muse; Juffin hadn’t been visited by a single interesting notion the entire night.

The seventh murder was bequeathed to us at noon, with the same “signature” and no return address.

Strictly speaking, this was what we knew: the killer was probably a man (the tracks he had left in the dust had all but disappeared, but the size was impressive); he was in all likelihood a newcomer (quite unconventional behavior); he possessed a knife of extraordinary size by local standards; he was indifferent to the property of his victims; and he seemed to have no connection with the rebellious Orders, since he didn’t even practice traditional magic in his own gruesome kitchen.

Moreover, he wasn’t insane, since madness in this World leaves behind a weak but distinct stench. Sir Juffin Hully detected no trace of it at any of the crime scenes.

“Max, you seem to be present at a historic moment,” Juffin said, putting aside his pipe, which he had been turning around and around in his hands for the last five hours. “This time I am absolutely baffled. We have seen seven corpses in the past twenty-four hours, a slew of clues that don’t add up to anything, and no magic to speak of, whether outlawed or permitted. It’s time to give the case back to Boboota’s department and try to live down our shame.”

“But you yourself know that—” I began cautiously.

“I know. But it doesn’t smell like there is any kind of sorcery afoot here. And using True Magic for such bestial murders? Highly unlikely. I can’t even imagine it. Unless he’s mad—but it didn’t reek of any kind of madness.”

“You know best,” I sighed. “Let’s go eat, Juffin. These walls need a rest from us.”

Even the Glutton was gloomy. Madame Zizinda looked like she had been crying. The food exceeded all expectations, as usual, but we weren’t in any mood to appreciate its merits. Juffin ordered a glass of Jubatic Juice, sniffed it critically, and pushed it away.

This was perhaps the most incoherent, senseless night I had experienced in all the time I had been here. Hm. In all the time I had been here. It hadn’t been too long, to be honest. It wasn’t at all hard to imagine that in addition to tourists from neighboring cities, inhabitants of other worlds had made their way to Echo, just as I had done. Sinning Magicians!

“Juffin,” I whispered. “What if it’s a countryman of mine?”

My boss raised his eyebrows and nodded slowly.

“Let’s go to the Ministry. A conversation like this isn’t for strangers’ ears. Tell Madame Zizinda to send kamra and something harder to my office. Only not this stuff,” he added, looking at the liquid distastefully.

In the office the chief stared at me with his penetrating gaze.

“Why?”

“Because it explains everything. No magic, right? In any case, no obvious magic. That’s number one. Number two, if I’m here, why might there not be other guests like me? A door, no matter how well locked, always remains a door while a house is still standing. And Juffin, you yourself say that it’s not customary to kill like that in Echo. Where I was born, back there, treating ladies that way is quite popular among madmen. Some madmen. We call them ‘maniacs.’ That’s my third, and most important, argument. It’s all too familiar. I’ve seen similar things on television.”

“Where did you see it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I mumbled. I tried to think of a quick and comprehensible way of describing television to a person who had never seen it. “Let’s just say that it gives you the ability to stay home and watch what’s going on in other places. Not everything, of course, but the main things. Things that are surprising or important. And then there are movies. With the help of a special apparatus. No magic. Although who knows what the gauge on your Magic Meter would show?”

“Exactly. Oh, you should have brought that television along with you—what a fascinating little gadget!”

“But what do you think about the murderer?” I asked, trying to steer my chief back to the problem at hand. “Do you think he might be a native of my country?”

“Well, it’s an elegant and logical hypothesis—just something you’d come up with. We’ll have to try it out. I’ll go see Maba Kalox, and you’ll come with me. Maba knows your story, so don’t try to impress him with the legend of your origins.”

“Sir!” I exclaimed, indignant. “It’s not my legend, it’s yours. A prime example of the genre of fictional falsification. ‘Sir Max is from the Borderlands of the County Vook and the Barren Lands—an uncouth barbarian, but one heck of a sleuth!’”

“It’s mine alright,” Juffin sighed. “At least I’m good for something. Let’s go.”

At this point, I must elaborate on how I ended up in Echo, since, strange as it may seem, it is directly connected with how these events further unfolded.

For the first twenty-nine years of his muddled existence, Max, the Max I was then, nocturnal dispatcher at a newspaper, average in every possible sense of the word, had grown used to attributing special significance to his dreams. Events in dreams seemed even more real to me than everyday reality. It even went so far that when matters in my dreams weren’t going very well, nothing could comfort me when I was awake. Moreover, even on the best of days, when reality was absolutely agreeable to me, I didn’t quite see the difference between the dream world and the waking world. I dragged all my problems around with me, there and back—as well as joys and satisfactions, when there were any, of course.

Among the myriad dreams I saw (for it was like watching myself starring in a strange movie) there were several that stood out for their frequency. A city in the mountains, where the only kind of municipal transportation was a cable car; a shady English park, divided into two parts by a babbling brook; a series of empty beaches on a gloomy seacoast. And another city, whose mosaic sidewalks enchanted me at first sight. In this city I even had a favorite café, though I could never remember the name of it after I woke up.

Later, when I found myself in the real Glutton Bunba, I recognized it immediately. I even discovered my favorite table between the counter and window onto the courtyard. I felt immediately at home in this place—the smattering of customers who stood along the lengthy counter all seemed strangely familiar to me, and their exotic mode of dress didn’t daunt me in the least. I might add that they, too, looked upon my trousers without any particular curiosity. Echo is, after all, the capital city of a large country. It is also one of the largest seaports in the World. It’s hard to shock the local residents, least of all with exotic attire.

In time, one of the regulars began greeting me. I greeted him back. Even a cat, as everyone knows, appreciates a kind word—no less so when it’s asleep and dreaming.

Gradually, this person established the habit of sitting down at my table just to chat. And Sir Juffin Hully can do this as no one else can—just give him the chance, and he’ll talk your ear off. Things went on like this for a fairly long time. Sometimes when I woke up I would relate to my friends some of the marvelous stories I had heard from my new acquaintance. They all told me to write them down, but I never got around to it. I somehow felt that certain things shouldn’t be entrusted to paper. Well, laziness was a factor, too; why hide it?

Our curious friendship began suddenly—and, for me, completely unexpectedly. One day my conversation partner broke off his story in mid-sentence, and with the mock seriousness of a conspirator, glanced around furtively, then said in a mysterious whisper: “But you’re sleeping, Max. This is all just a dream.”

I was thoroughly shaken, and my body jerked so that I fell off the chair and woke up safely on my floor at home.

For the next seven years I dreamed about everything under the sun except the mosaic paving tiles of the wondrous city. I was sad not to be visited by those dreams, and in my waking life things got worse and worse. I lost interest in my old friends, broke off with my girlfriends, and changed jobs more frequently than underwear. I threw all my books away, since they could no longer comfort me, and when I drank too much I invariably got into fist fights, as though I wished to smash to bits the reality I could not abide.

In time, however, I calmed down. I adopted the whole package of life-affirming values: friends, girlfriends, a tolerable job, decent living quarters, a large library attesting to the affluence of its owner, rather than to his literary tastes. In bars I began ordering coffee instead of spirits. I showered in the morning, shaved no less than every other day, took my underwear to the laundry, and kept my wits about me, resorting to withering glances and biting comments instead of using my fists.

Instead of justified pride, however, I still experienced that dull longing and boredom that drove me out of my mind in my youth. I felt like a walking corpse that had risen from the grave, and had for some reason settled down to a quiet, unobtrusive existence among people who were only half-alive, just as he was.

But I got lucky—and how!

One day, early in the morning, as soon as I had fallen asleep after work, I saw in a dream the long counter of the bar, my favorite table, and my old acquaintance waiting for me at the neighboring table. I remembered right away how our last conversation had ended. I knew I was having a dream. But this time I didn’t fall off my chair. I didn’t wake up. I wasn’t even afraid. I guess as I had grown older I had learned, from necessity, to keep my wits about me.

“What’s happening?” I inquired. “And how is it happening?”

“I don’t know,” my old friend answered. “I don’t think anyone knows how things like this happen. But they do happen. My hobby is examining that fact, when I’m up to it.”

“You don’t know?” I asked, flabbergasted. For some reason I assumed this person was bound to know the answer to my every question.

“That’s not what matters just now,” he interrupted me. “But tell me—do you like it here?”

“Do I? It’s my favorite dream! When I stopped dreaming it I thought I’d lose my mind.”

“I understand. And do you like it there, where you live?”

I shrugged. Around that time problems had been piling up at home. No major difficulties—they were all in the past by then—but dull, trivial, everyday problems. I was the proud owner of a mediocre, uneventful life, and delusions of grandeur about what I actually deserved.

“You are a nocturnal creature,” my conversation partner observed. “And not without eccentricities, am I right? Where you live, it’s a problem when you can’t sleep at night, I suppose.”

“A problem! You’re not kidding!”

Before I knew it, I was unburdening my heart to this sympathetic old man. And when all is said and done, why be ashamed of it? It was only a dream, as I had been frankly informed seven years before.

He listened to me rather indifferently; but he didn’t laugh at me, either, for which I am grateful to this day.

“Well then,” he began, after I had gone quiet. “That’s all quite sad, but I have an excellent proposal for you: an interesting, well-paid job here in this city, which you have already come to love. Moreover, you’ll work only at night—just like you’ve always wanted.”

I didn’t have to think twice. It still hadn’t sunk in that a decision I made there, in my dream, could have any real consequences. But I wanted him to fill me in on the details, purely out of curiosity.

“Okay, let’s say you’ve already won me over. But why do you need me? Do you mean to say that there are no other night owls in this entire city?”

“Of course there are plenty of those,” he said with a grin. “By the way, my name is Juffin. Sir Juffin Hully, at your service. Don’t trouble yourself, I already know your name is Max. And your last name is immaterial to me. You’d be surprised, but I know quite a bit about you already. In particular, I know that you have a certain rare talent that is relevant to the organization I head. It’s just that it hasn’t revealed itself to you yet.”

“What kind of talent might that be? Not a criminal streak, by any chance?” I snickered foolishly.

“You see, you’ve guessed it already! Fine work!”

“Are you serious? What are you, some sort of a Mafia boss?”

“I don’t know what a Mafia is, but I can assure you, what I am is much worse.”

“A Mafia boss is the head of a criminal organization,” I explained. “A big-shot bandit. And what are you?”

“I, on the contrary, am head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the city of Echo. Another version of a ‘big-shot bandit,’ you might say, but in the service of the law. By the way, my department concerns itself only with magic crimes.”

“Tragic crimes?” I asked incredulously, fearing I hadn’t heard correctly.

“No. You heard right. Magic crimes. There’s no need to wince. I’m not playing a joke on you. I’m quite serious. But never mind about that for now. If we are able to work together, you’ll get answers to all your questions, and even answers to questions you didn’t know you had.”

“Well, I guess you could say we’re already working together.”

“Really? Well, that’s good. I thought it might be hard to persuade you. I even thought of making a speech.”

“Why don’t you tell me what my job will be, since we’re working together?”

“Nocturnal Representative of the Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force. You see the Force is usually getting some shuteye at night. So you, Max, will be the Nocturnal Head.”

“Not a bad career for a migrant worker.”

“You’re right about that. Tell me, if I really were this ‘Mafia’ boss, would you nevertheless have agreed to work with me?”

“Oh yes,” I replied honestly. “I don’t know the ins and outs of life here. So for me there’s no real difference between those who commit crimes and those who catch the criminals.”

“Good for you, friend; you didn’t lie. Keep going in that spirit. The truth isn’t such a weighty thing that it ought to be concealed.”

This Sir Juffin, with the profile of a bird of prey and the cold eyes of a predator, had a surprisingly gentle smile. I realized I hadn’t been that charmed for a long time—either awake or asleep. I truly did want to stay here, with this extraordinary person. What he did, and what role he wanted me to play, didn’t really matter at all. This may be why I decided to take our conversation as seriously as I would have if I had been awake. I wanted to believe him; I hadn’t desired anything so deeply for a long time.

“Now we just have to sort out the technical details,” said Sir Juffin Hully and sighed.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Max, that you still have to get here.”

“Am I not here? Oh. Well, yes . . .”

“That’s just it. Do you think it’s the real you here now? You’re an ordinary ghost. Well, almost ordinary. People don’t shriek and dash aside when they see you, but someone with a trained eye will see through you instantly. And you’ll have problems with your body, which is now lolling around under a blanket. If you die, it’s curtains for you. No, you must be present here with all your engine parts and accessories, which are who-knows-where at the moment.”

“The engine—yes, that’s a problem,” I said, crestfallen.

“Right you are. But listen carefully. You have to do something well-nigh impossible when you wake up. First, you must remember our conversation. I hope that won’t pose a problem for you. And if it does—well then, we’ll have to start all over again. Second, you must remember that all this is extremely serious. You have to convince yourself that some dreams can continue while you’re awake. And if it doesn’t work, you must persuade yourself to verify it. Out of curiosity, or out of boredom, as you wish.”

“No problem. I have enough of both in my life.”

“Wait before you speak! People are made in such a way that if something inexplicable happens to them, they write it off to an overheated imagination. You have only a few hours here to convince yourself of my existence. There I’m powerless to help you. All I can do is hope for success.”

“Have a little faith in me,” I protested, a bit hurt. “I’m no dimwitted fool.”

“Neither dimwitted, nor a fool. But the capacity to believe in miracles isn’t the strongest trump card in your deck. I’ve had the pleasure of studying you for many years now, Max.”

“How?”

“Not ‘how’ but ‘why’. That’s just the way it happened. I saw you here by chance many years ago. I realized you weren’t a local. Then I thought that you weren’t old enough to be hanging around in bars. Only then did it occur to me that you weren’t real. You know: a phantom, a ghost, a pale shadow of a distant dreamer. Around here such things do happen, but I didn’t sense any of our magic in you. That’s why no one caught on to you. Except me, of course.”

“And you—”

“I noticed you because I’m well-versed in these things. And you know what? I took one look at you, and I knew: this guy would be an ideal nocturnal replacement for me one day. And he’d be a pretty good one even now!”

I was stunned. It had been a long time since I had received any compliments, and such pleasantly unexpected ones were a first for me. Now I understand that Juffin was praising me in advance, as it were, so that I could more easily believe in his existence. No matter how loudly my common sense shouted that it was just another stupid dream, to accept the fact that the charming Sir Juffin’s overweening flattery was also only a stupid dream—well, that just wasn’t my style.

“When you’re convinced that it’s worth a try—if, of course, it comes to that—do the following . . .” Here, Juffin fell silent, rubbed his forehead, closed his eyes, and then commanded, “Give me your hand!”

I extended my hand, which he then grabbed hold of painfully. Then he began muttering quietly, hurriedly, almost incoherently, as though trying to keep up with some invisible understudy.

“Late at night, go to . . . yes, that place called Green Street. Remember. Don’t stand still, just keep walking. Well, for an hour, two hours—however long you need to. You’ll see a carriage—you call them ‘streetcars.’ An empty streetcar. It will approach you then stop. Get in and sit down. The streetcar will start moving. Do whatever you wish, but don’t take the coachman’s seat. It’s better not to risk it, you never know with these things. Don’t get nervous, and don’t worry. It could take a long time, so be sure to bring some sandwiches or other provisions. You should be prepared to spend a few days on the road. I don’t think the trip will take terribly long, but anything can happen. And, most important, don’t tell anyone anything. They won’t believe you, and other people’s doubts always interfere with real magic.”

Finally, he let go of my hand, opened his eyes, and smiled.

“Remember that last bit of advice well—it will come in handy in the future. Is everything clear?”

“Yes,” I said, rubbing my sore extremity.

“Will you do this, Max?”

“Sure I will. But streetcars don’t run on Green Street.”

“Maybe not . . .” Juffin said indifferently. “What, did you plan to travel between worlds on an ordinary streetcar? By the way, what’s a streetcar?”

When I woke up, I didn’t have to make any extra effort to remember my dream. I remembered it down to the most minute detail. Trying to figure out where I was at that very moment proved to be more difficult, but I managed.

It was three in the afternoon. I made myself some coffee. Then I sat in an armchair with my cup, and with the first, best cigarette of the day, intent on mulling over everything. By the last gulp, I decided there was nothing more to think about. Even if it was an ordinary dream, what did I have to lose? Taking a walk to Green Street wasn’t much trouble. I like to walk, and I didn’t have anything to do at night. But if the dream was prophetic . . . then it was the chance of a lifetime!

There was nothing to keep me here. My life stretched before me like a meaningless, empty expanse.

There wasn’t even anyone I needed to call to say goodbye to.

Well, there were, of course, people to call. A good fifty names in my telephone book, which I had acquired only a month ago. But there was no one I wanted to talk to, much less see. Maybe I was just depressed. In that case, long live depression! That hypothetical malady made it very easy for me to make the most important decision in my life. It surprises me to this day.

I was possessed by a strangely pleasant lightheadedness. I was moved neither to try to put my effects in order, nor to share my plans with trusted friends. I spent the evening not in tormented deliberation, but over endless cups of tea in front of the TV. Even the last episode of Twin Peaks didn’t seem to me to be a bad omen. I just thought that if I had been Agent Cooper I would probably have continued wandering around the Black Wigwam—anything was better than returning to reality and messing up the lives of others, along with one’s own.

Rather, I behaved as though the most intriguing event of the evening would be the ritual of taking out the trash. Packing my backpack with only a thermos of coffee and a three-day supply of sandwiches, I felt like a first-class idiot, but I thought that even being a first-class idiot would be a welcome change. In recent years I had been a paragon of sensible behavior, and the results were not impressive.

I left home at one o’clock in the morning, and it took me about twenty minutes to Green Street. I had to hang around there for quite a while. One of the last things I recall in that world was the sight of the enormous numbers on the electric clock hanging above the telephone company building: 2:22. I don’t know why, but symmetry like that has always struck me as an auspicious sign.

The loud rumble of the approaching streetcar shattered the stillness of the night, interrupting my contemplation of multiple twos. I wasn’t exactly afraid, but my head started spinning, my eyes saw double, and I just couldn’t get my mind around how the streetcar tracks had suddenly appeared in the middle of the narrow cobble-stone street. I was able to make out a sign that indicated I was at the stop for streetcars following route 432. For some time, the number struck me as even stranger than the very existence of the streetcar. In our city there had never been more than thirty routes, at most. I chuckled nervously. The sound of my own laughter seemed so terrifying to me that I immediately stopped. Then the streetcar appeared from around the corner.

I wanted very much to peer at the driver’s cabin. (People have a habit of doing on occasion what they know they shouldn’t.) When I did, I saw a broad, carnivorous-looking face sporting a sparse growth of whiskers. His tiny eyes, drowning in abundant flesh, burned with unearthly ecstasy. It was hard to determine what frightened me most about his appearance. Let’s just say that at that moment I understood what a soul wandering through Bardo must feel when it first comes across the procession of Divine Furies. Ordinary epithets (“fear,” “horror,” “shock”) cannot begin to describe what I felt.

The streetcar slowed as it approached the stop. Then I realized that this was the end: if I got in, it was the end of me, and if I turned tail and ran, all the more so!

I glanced again at the driver’s seat. Now it was empty, to my relief. A streetcar without a driver, on a street where streetcars don’t run, along route 432, from nowhere to nowhere—that was alarming, but bearable. This form of distorted reality was more to my liking.

The streetcar came to a halt. It was a completely unidentifiable old model with crude letters scrawled on the side that read “Sex Pistols” and “Michael is an ass.”

I’ll always be grateful to this Michael. He saved my life, or my reason, or both. Contemplating the animal nature of the person immortalized on the side of the streetcar reassured me, and I entered the empty semidarkness of the compartment. I sat down by a window and arranged my backpack on the next seat. The door closed. It closed very gently. There was nothing in the least bit frightening about it. We started moving. Even our speed seemed just right.

The nighttime landscape outside the window was in no way unusual—half-familiar urban streets illumined by the pale globes of streetlights, now and then cheerful yellow patches of windows, the weak neon shimmer of store signs. I felt happy and calm, as though I were on my way to my grandmother’s house in the country, where I hadn’t been since I was fourteen. My grandmother died, the house was sold, and I had never again been as free and happy as I was then. I looked at my reflection in the glass: cheerful, eager, youthful. What a nice guy I can be.

On one of the seats I discovered some sort of magazine, and I reached for it happily. The magazine was a news digest, a genre I am especially fond of. Some people like things that are a bit hotter, but at that stage in my life I liked to numb my brain with digests—an ecologically clean drug. It made time pass the way I like it to: imperceptibly.

This probably all seems very absurd—jumping without a backward glance into an old jalopy of a streetcar, reaching for an out-of-date magazine, and devouring the day before yesterday’s news over fresh sandwiches. But that’s just how I am: when I don’t understand what’s going on, I try to find some activity that will distract me. In everyday life I often behave like a lunatic, but as soon as things start getting strange, I become a psychologically balanced bore. It’s no doubt my unique version of the instinct of self-preservation.

When my attention wandered away from the magazine, I noticed that it was getting light outside. Suddenly I felt like there was a taut string inside me, quivering and ready to snap. Two cheery suns were clambering up into the heavens above the horizon—each one above its own horizon, that is. Two sunrises in one—or one sunrise twice? To the left and to the right, so that neither eye would feel left out.

Come what may, I had to gather my wits about me. So as not to panic, I turned away from both windows, screwed up my face, relaxed, yawned, and tried to get more comfortable on the hard seat. Surprisingly, it worked—the seat seemed to become roomier and softer. I laid my head down on the sandwich-stuffed backpack and fell asleep.

I slept soundly. No nightmares haunted me. Apparently, the demons in charge of my dreams were taking a smoke break. Good for them.

All in all, the streetcar-microcosm was kindly disposed toward me. When I woke up, I realized I was lying not on a hard seat, but on a short, soft leather divan. It was possible to fit my whole body on it if I pulled my knees way up near my chin. In addition, a scratchy plaid throw, almost as comforting as the one I had left at home, had appeared out of nowhere.

“How sweet you are to me,” I mumbled, and fell into an even deeper sleep.

When I woke up again, the streetcar compartment looked like a dormitory for gnomes. All the seats had turned into short, leather divans, which suited me to a tee. After all, it would be a crime not to take advantage of such creature comforts in the face of the complete unknown. I slept a lot, munched on my provisions, and discovered new magazines now and then, sometimes in the most improbable places—one of them turned up tucked under my armpit; another was stuck in the ticket puncher like a monstrous, interstellar transfer pass.

As for surrealistic landscapes like the double dawn, there were no further surprises. A permanent darkness settled outside the windows of the streetcar, making it easier to preserve my emotional equilibrium.

According to my approximate calculations, this idyll continued for three or four days. Who knows, though, how much time really passed in this extraordinary streetcar? To this day, the most inexplicable phenomenon of that experience remains the fact that I never once felt the call of nature or noticed the absence of a bathroom. This, to put it mildly, contradicts what I know of human capabilities. The whole time I waited with trepidation for the familiar distress signals from my plumbing system, all the while trying to come up with a somewhat hygienic solution to the awkward problem I anticipated —but it turned out to be unnecessary.

My final “awakening” was strikingly different from the previous ones, beginning with the fact that I found myself wrapped not in the scratchy throw, but in a fur blanket. And I could finally stretch out my long-suffering legs. Looking around, I discovered that I was lying not in a bed and not on a divan, but on a very soft floor in a huge, half-dark, and nearly empty room. At the far end of this room, someone was breathing heavily, menacingly, as it seemed to me. I opened my eyes wide, then turned over awkwardly and got up on my hands and knees. The breathing ceased, but a few seconds later something softly nudged my heels. To this day, I don’t know how I kept myself from screaming out.

Instead, still crouched on the floor, I pivoted around and found myself nose-to-nose with another one, very soft and moist. Then something licked my cheek. Indescribable relief nearly robbed me of my senses. Before me was an absolutely charming creature—a shaggy puppy with the face of a little bulldog. Later, I found out that Chuff wasn’t a puppy at all, but a seasoned canine. His compact size and exuberance had misled me.

Soon, a small figure draped in capacious garments flowing down to the floor materialized in the twilight of the room. Peering closely at him, I realized that it was not my dream companion. It was someone else. Could I have come to the wrong address?

“Mister Venerable Head is expected later this evening. If you please, sir, inform me of your wishes,” requested the stranger, a fragile, wizened old man with radiant eyes and a pensive, thin-lipped mouth. This was Kimpa, Sir Juffin Hully’s butler. Juffin himself did indeed arrive later that night.

Only then did it sink in that the unimaginable journey from one world to another had really taken place.

That is how I ended up in Echo—which I have never had cause to regret, even on days as hopeless as this one seemed to be.

While I was lost in reminiscences, the amobiler, manned by Sir Juffin Hully, was winding in and out among the luxuriant gardens of the Left Bank. Finally, we turned into a narrow driveway that seemed to be paved exclusively with semiprecious stones. At first I didn’t see the house amid the thick undergrowth. Sir Maba Kalox is probably a philosopher, and his philosophy requires that he become one with nature. That’s why he lives in a garden without any architectural superfluities, I thought cheerfully, just before we nearly ran smack into the wall of his house, all but invisible under the opaque curtain of vines.

“This is what you call camouflage!” I exclaimed admiringly.

“You can’t imagine how right you are, Max. Now do you see why I sat behind the levers of this blasted buggy? During my lifetime I have paid several hundred visits to Maba, and I have always been forced to find my way to his lair by guesswork. It’s impossible to memorize the way here. Every time you just have to arm yourself with the hope that you’ll get lucky. Maba Kalox is an unsurpassed master of discretion!”

“Is he hiding from someone?”

“No, not at all. People just have a hard time discovering his whereabouts. It happens of its own accord, with no help from him. One of the side effects of studying True Magic.”

“And why is your house so easy to find?”

“In the first place, we all have our eccentricities. And, second, I’m by no means as old as he is.”

“Do you mean to say—”

“I don’t mean to say anything. But I have to, since you asked. The Order of the Clock of Time Backwards has existed . . . let me see . . . yes, around 3,000 years. And I have yet to hear that there has been a succession of Grand Magicians.”

“Wow!”

I had nothing more to add.

Sir Juffin turned behind the well-concealed building. There we came upon a decrepit plywood door, more fitting for a toolshed than a Grand Magician’s villa. The door opened with a creak, and we found ourselves standing in the middle of a large, rather chilly hall.

Maba Kalox, the Grand Magician of the Order of Time Backwards, was known for having peacefully disbanded his Order several years before the onset of the Troubled Times, after which he managed nearly to disappear from sight without ever leaving Echo. This living legend was waiting for us in the sitting room.

The “living legend” was quite ordinary looking. He was a shortish, stocky fellow of indeterminate age with an animated expression. His merry, round eyes were the true embellishments of his face. If he could have been said to resemble any of my companions, it would have had to be Kurush, our wise buriwok.

“Haven’t set eyes on you in ages, Juffin!”

Sir Maba Kalox said this with such unfeigned enthusiasm that it seemed Sir Juffin’s presence filled him with cosmic joy.

“I’m happy to see you,” he said to me, making a low exaggerated bow. “You could have brought your marvel around sooner, Juffin. May I touch him?”

“Go ahead. As far as I know he doesn’t bite. He doesn’t kick. It’s even safe to drop him on the floor.”

“On the floor! That’s a good one.”

Maba Kalox really did probe me with his index finger, then immediately drew back as if he were afraid of getting burned. He winked at me conspiratorially, as if to say, “You and I know this charade is just for Juffin’s sake—so bear with me. Let’s humor the old geezer.” Sir Maba didn’t use Silent Speech, but somehow I knew just what the wink meant. I liked his approach, in spite of the fact that he had called me “marvel” and pinched me like fresh dough.

“Sit down, friends,” Sir Maba Kalox said, gesturing broadly toward the table. “I’ll rustle up some of your best black poison.”

By “black poison” he meant kamra, of course.

“It will probably be some potion of boiled herbs again,” Juffin commented peevishly. He could grow savage when someone took aim at one of his little weaknesses.

“Well, at least it’s not any of that liquid tar of yours. Whoever decided that was fit for drinking at all? No matter how often those misery-mongers muttered spells over it. Don’t pout, Juffin. Just try this. It really is something special.”

Sir Maba Kalox was absolutely right. The steaming, ruby-hued beverage that appeared on the table had a flavor somewhat reminiscent of Elixir of Kaxar, of which I was particularly fond, infused with some kind of celestial flower.

“Well, at long last I get offered something decent in this house,” Juffin said gruffly, beginning to come around.

“I haven’t seen you this tired since the Code was adopted,” our host said, standing up and stretching creakily. “Why worry so much about these murders, Juffin? When the World might really have collapsed you were much calmer about it—and for good reason.”

“First, if I can’t solve a case within an hour, it makes me very irritable, you know that. Second, Max has gotten an idea into his head that I don’t like one bit. At the same time, it would explain everything. If we left the door open between Worlds—well, Maba, you realize it’s nothing to joke about.”

“The door between Worlds is never really closed, Juffin. It’s time you realized that. In any case, I’m at your service, on the condition that you both drink another cup of my concoction. I’m extremely vain, you know.”

“And I was worried that you had left all your human weaknesses far behind,” Juffin said, grinning. Then he turned to me, “Sir Max, don’t sit there looking so stiff and awkward. This may be the only house in Echo where you have no cause to feel shy.”

“I’m not feeling shy. I just always need a little time to—”

“Sniff things out?” Maba Kalox asked. His eyes were the kindest X-rays I had ever been subjected to.

“Something like that. It usually lasts just a short time, and then I realize that I’m already used to things. But sometimes—”

“Sometimes you understand that you’ll never get used to it. You don’t have to, but you try to swallow it anyway,” Maba said, finishing the end of my thought. “Well, I’d say that’s a very sensible approach to things. Sniff it out, Marvel. As for me, I’ve already sniffed you out.”

I nodded and reached for the second cup.

“You can check out whether Max is right or not, can’t you?” asked Juffin, drumming his fingers on the tabletop nervously.

“Of course. But why check it out? You already know he’s right, Juffin. You’re just tired. And not only because of this. But it was your choice—wasting your life on trivial nonsense.”

“Somebody has to do it,” Juffin grumbled.

“And not just anyone, but you in particular. So it’s all well and good. You want me to look into the matter, do you?”

“Of course I do. If a fellow from another World is roaming around Echo, I have to know at the very least whether he ended up here just by chance, or—”

“Why don’t you call a spade a spade, Juffin? What you really want to know is how many other uninvited guests are likely to fall into your warm embrace.”

“Well, you’ve got my number. Of course that’s what I want to know. That’s my job.”

“Fine. If you want a refill, the jug’s on the table. I hope you won’t be bored. I’ll be back shortly.”

With this, Sir Maba, much to my astonishment, crawled under the table. I stared at Juffin, dumbfounded.

“Look under the table and you’ll understand.”

I looked. There was nothing there. What else did I expect?

“The door between Worlds can be anywhere, Max,” Juffin said softly. “Even under the table. What difference does it make? But whoever wants to find it has to hide from the eyes of others. Maba needs only seconds. I’d need a minute or two. How long did you have to wait for that curious contraption that delivered you to my bedroom?”

“About an hour.”

“Not bad for a beginner. It’s just a matter of practice, son. Pour me some more of that potion. I think I’ve found just what the wiseman ordered for a weary man.”

“I’d like to get the recipe for this out of him,” I murmured dreamily.

“The recipe? It doesn’t exist. I know how Maba makes his concoctions—he just throws in everything that comes to hand.”

“Sinning Magicians, Juffin! That’s beyond me.”

“Me, too, for the time being. And I’ve been around on this earth a bit longer than you have, if you care to remember. I haven’t wasted my time, either. The problem is that everything happens gradually, Max.”

“My problem is that everything happens too suddenly.”

“In that case, you’re lucky. Try to get used to it.”

Somewhere in the far corner of the sitting room a door slammed. Sir Maba Kalox came back to the table, as cheerful and animated as ever.

“Thank you, Juffin. It was a pleasure to examine the Door you opened, and to see the curious place that lies beyond it. I must say, it was grand!”

“I’m glad you liked it. But the more Max tells me about the place, the less I like it.”

“I’m not saying it appeals to me. It was simply very interesting. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything like it. Are you glad you stole away from there, Max?”

“I can’t imagine my life working out any other way. When I first arrived here I felt like I had landed in clover! I felt that someone was rubbing the part of my brain that makes me purr.”

Sir Maba Kalox nodded, settled himself more comfortably in his armchair, and thoughtfully drew out a plate with small rolls from under the table. He tasted them, nodded his approval, and placed his souvenir on the table.

“They’re edible, and very tasty. But, I won’t stall, I’ll tell you everything that happened while I was there. In the first place, Max, you were right. One of your countrymen really is at large in Echo. By the way, Juffin, it’s the first time I’ve come across someone of his age and sex who has such a highly developed faculty of intuition.”

“Same here,” my boss said.

I blushed with pleasure.

“I congratulate you both. Eat up, don’t be afraid. I don’t know where they came from, but nevertheless . . .”

“Poisoner,” Juffin mumbled, stuffing a roll into his mouth. “Chow down, Max. If we die, we’re going out together.”

The rolls were excellent. The flavor seemed familiar to me, though I couldn’t quite place it.

“I don’t know how you managed,” Sir Maba Kalox continued. “But you, my boys, came up with the craziest mode of transportation between Worlds I’ve ever seen.”

“What do you mean ‘we’? Juffin thought it up. I just obediently followed instructions,” I protested. I certainly didn’t want to be burdened by someone else’s laurels. I didn’t even know where to put my own.

“Judge for yourself, Max,” Juffin replied. “How could I have invented that ‘streetcar’ when to this day I don’t know what it is? Someday it will get through to you that we did it together. But for now, you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

“Just resign yourself to not knowing what you’re doing for the next few hundred years,” Maba Kalox added. “It’s only frightening at first. After that it gets interesting. Now then, let’s get back to my impressions. I found myself in the dark and lonely street where the Door between Worlds opened for you, Max. There was some lunatic wandering around who was obsessed with murder. Nothing so unusual in that, and anyway, I love madmen. However primitive they may be, they always have access to marvels. As for this fellow, it was obvious to me right away that he was tripping over the marvelous with both feet. Some kind of eccentric buggy, clearly man-made, drove up and stopped right in front of him. I’ve never seen anything more ungainly in my life. A means of transportation should be able to drive anywhere, and not be confined to a little path! All the more since no path is infinite.”

“That ‘little path’ is called ‘tracks,’” I interposed, just to set the record straight.

“Thank you, Max. That, of course, changes everything. When I realized how this strange buggy was made and what it was for, I split my sides laughing. But for the madman, the arrival of the streetcar was also a surprise. You see, he was aware that on that street there was no little path like the one I have already mentioned. Yes, yes, Max, I remember. ‘Tracks.’ Consequently, the poor fellow was sure that this contraption couldn’t be there at all. Sinning Magicians, how little it takes for some people to lose their minds!”

“Tell me, Maba,” Juffin said, frowning. “How great is the probability that other people will come across this streetcar?”

“The chances are almost nil. The appearance of this anomaly of nature is in some way connected with the phases of the moon there, as well as the positions of the other planets. The necessary conditions of alignment are fairly rare. Also, it’s a deserted street. And, more important, this passage between worlds was created especially for him”—a nod in my direction—“so normal people not only cannot use the thing, they don’t even see it. Only an experienced person or a lunatic, whose own personality has disintegrated due to the onset of madness, is able to pass through the Door to Beyond. You may rest assured, Juffin, such auspicious conditions occur very seldom, unless we’re talking about a few of their Magicians who manage to pass through. But that’s possible at any time, under any circumstances.”

“All the more since there are no Magicians there,” I added.

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” said Sir Maba Kalox. “Are you personally acquainted with all the inhabitants of your world?”

“Of course not, but—”

“Just what I thought. Just because you haven’t met any of them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Be optimistic, we Magicians are everywhere.”

“So you’re saying there won’t be any invasion from those parts,” Juffin said, visibly relieved.

“Of course not. Oh, and one more interesting detail. This ‘streetcar’ had a coachman. I wish I had had more time to study this strange creature. I’ll pursue the matter at my leisure, to be sure.”

“A zealous-looking fat fellow with a thin mustache,” I said slowly, my lips growing numb with horror at the memory. “As monstrous a mug as earth can produce—was that him?”

“Yes indeed it was. Who else? The first being you ever created, Max. You might be a little bit more charitable. I’ve never seen the likes of him.”

“Who is this coachman you’re talking about?” Juffin demanded. “You never mentioned him to me, Max!”

“I thought you knew everything already, without me. Besides, I tried to forget about him as soon as I could. I almost died when I saw him! Praise be the Magicians, he disappeared almost immediately!”

“Oh, right—you no doubt thought he was a good buddy of mine. Well, I’ll be. I should have questioned you about your journey. My pragmatism foiled me—I thought that since you had arrived in one piece that was all that mattered. Maba, what kind of creature is he?”

“I can’t say. I don’t know yet myself. There’s only one thing I can tell you: I’ve never seen anything like him before. If I find time to study him, I’ll certainly inform you of the results of my research. But you are so severe toward your own creation, Max! The lunatic, for example, liked this coachman very much. He decided to talk to him and to find out how the streetcar had found its way to a street where it didn’t belong. And at a certain moment he thought that the coachman might become his best friend. You could say they were made for each other, each obsessed in his own way. In short, the streetcar stopped, the fellow got in, greeted the coachman, and off they went. I can’t tell you all the details of their journey together, since I was too lazy to investigate any further. But after some time, the lunatic ended up in Echo, in the back courtyard of the Glutton Bunba. He was hungry, frightened, and he had finally ‘flipped his lid.’”

“He flipped what?” asked Juffin asked.

“His lid. I’m just using his own term. Nuances are very significant in such matters. Max, can you translate?”

“Well,” I began. “It means to ‘lose your mind’ all at once, but at the same to sink deeper and deeper into it, step by step. That’s how I would explain it.”

“Well said,” Sir Maba exclaimed, sounding pleased. “And what happened next you know better than I do, as the Door between Worlds closed and I lost interest in your companion.”

“Listen, Maba, couldn’t we—” Juffin proposed, before Maba cut him off.

“No, we couldn’t!”

“Fine. Goodbye then. Don’t forget to let me know about the mysterious mustachioed creature when you figure him out.”

“And you come back in a dozen or so days, or even before, but not with such a despondent countenance. You come, too, Max. With Juffin or by yourself. If you can find me, of course. But I can’t help you there. Well, gentlemen, you have given me great pleasure, dropping in like this and dumping your personal problems on me. That’s a true art. Farewell.”

And Sir Maba overturned the table we were sitting at with a violent shove. The table crashed to the floor, shards of dishes went flying in all directions. I ducked instinctively, the chair flipped over, and in the wink of an eye I had landed on the most reliable of all points of rest, after executing a somersault à la Sir Melifaro.

A moment later I realized I was sitting not on Maba’s floor, but in the luxuriant grass beside a garden path. I glanced around, stunned. Next to me sat Juffin, roaring with laughter.

“Maba adores surprising novices. After meeting him for the first time I found myself at the bottom of a lake, crawling on all fours looking for some stairs, since I had completely forgotten I knew how to swim. In fact, the very notion that there existed such a useful skill as swimming never entered my head! It was several hours before I reached shore, and several years, if I remember correctly, before I understood how I had ended up there. But by then I couldn’t be angry at Maba, even if I tried very hard. Believe me, Sir Max, he was very humane in his treatment of you.”

“You call that humane? All the same, I liked Sir Maba very much.”

“I’m glad you did. Let’s go. You can sit at the levers—finding the way back is a piece of cake.”

“What were you and Maba discussing just before we left, Juffin?” I asked when I had come to my senses after our unorthodox parting from the Grand Magician. “I’m pretty quick on the uptake, but that was too fast even for me. ‘Couldn’t we—’ ‘No, we couldn’t.’ Forgive me for being importunate, but I’m terribly curious.”

Sir Juffin Hully waved his hand vaguely. “It’s no mystery. I meant to ask whether we might be able to find your countryman more quickly using you . . . well, as a model. Maybe there is some scent from your world so subtle that I can’t detect it. Or something of that nature, which might speed the case up a bit.”

“So?”

“You heard him—it’s impossible.”

“You mean my homeland has no smell? That’s disappointing.”

“It may very well smell, but you, Sir Max, are no reliable model.”

“I’m hurt,” I admitted in dismay.

“You needn’t be. Studying True Magic has already changed you too much. You yourself may not notice these changes, but you can take my word for it. If we use you as a model, we might just as likely find me—or Maba Kalox himself.”

“That’s also relevant,” I remarked. “You yourself said that seeking him out to pay a visit was no easy matter.”

“Yes, but I’d prefer to find this ‘lunatic’ for a start—and only then undertake a more intellectual pursuit. Sleeping, for instance. Ah, here we are already.”

“And his clothes, Juffin?” I asked, getting out of the amobiler. “I’m willing to bet they are no more fitting for a walk around Echo than the trousers I showed up in.”

“Oh, but this is the capital of the Unified Kingdom. There are dozens of visitor here at any given time. It’s no secret to the local residents that half the World wears trousers, including those very citizens of the free city of Gazhin, not to mention the inhabitants of the Borderlands so dear to your heart. Trousers will surprise no one here. The time when locals were ready to gawk at every foreign costume is long since past. Now they don’t even turn their heads. How are things, Melifaro?” Juffin asked our colleague, whom we found stretching his legs in the main foyer of the House by the Bridge, nonchalantly studying the artwork that adorned the walls.

“Not bad, that is to say, no more corpses,” Melifaro reported briskly. “The fellow has wound down, I suppose. He really should take better care of his health. Sir Juffin, are you ready to save my skin from this poison-spewing monster? Not long ago he threatened to do me in!”

I stared at Melifaro in bewilderment.

“When was that?”

I had already clean forgotten about Lonli-Lokli’s serenade yesterday, after which the ‘diurnal backside’ of the Venerable Head really had run the risk of my wrath. Vanity of vanities, to be sure.

“You won’t be offended, Melifaro, if I do you in later? In light of recent events, murder seems like a terribly trivial and humdrum affair. I don’t want to be just a pale imitation of an unsung genius.”

“Give me a break! The victims are ladies, and I’m a man at the height of my powers.”

“Death has no gender preferences.”

“Spoken like a true philosopher,” Juffin remarked approvingly. “Come with me, Melifaro. We need a quick-witted ne’er-do-well like yourself who isn’t completely befuddled by these goings-on. I’ve already sent a call to Sir Kofa. He promised to join us in half an hour.”

“Right. He just has to consume half a pie and listen to another new joke,” Melifaro quipped, nodding vigorously. “You can’t hold it against him, though; it’s his job.”

When he got to the office, Juffin collapsed in a chair and smiled broadly.

“We’ve done all we could, Melifaro. Now it’s your move. It’s clear beyond the shadow of a doubt: the killer is Max’s countryman. What do you suggest?”

“Clothes are out,” Melifaro observed coolly. “Time was when a person in pants was considered a novelty.”

“I told you,” Juffin said, turning to me.

“Likewise his accent. Well, we have a few leads to work with, but it’ll take some time,” Melifaro said, slipping his fingers under his turban.

“Think, Max. What else is there that would distinguish your compatriot from, er, normal people? No hard feelings, of course. Is there anything that might draw attention, something impossible to conceal in a motley crowd?”

“I have to concentrate,” I replied. “And the best place to do it is sitting on the porcelain throne. Maybe there a brilliant idea will dawn on me. Excuse me, gentlemen. I’ll return in a moment.”

I left for the shortest vacation of all—a rest stop to which every person in any imaginable world has an inalienable right.

Passing down the corridor, I heard one of my favorite “arias” again, and I decided to sneak over to catch another performance.

“Bull’s tits! What kind of crap does she want from you, Foofloss? She can go over there, where they wallow in it!” General Boboota Box looked around warily and glimpsed my friendly face just as I rounded the corner.

“. . . insofar as those good people will undoubtedly be interested in everything she has to say,” Sir Boboota finished in a hollow voice without taking his eyes off my face.

In response, Captain Foofloss, his relative and deputy, eyes popping out of his head, carried out the curious and entertaining breathing exercise know as spluttering.

“I was just giving orders that a material witness in the case Hully has been investigating since yesterday evening be sent to you,” Boboota reported respectfully. He can actually express himself decently when he wishes! I marveled.

“Excellent,” I drawled. “You have acted fully in accordance with the law, Sir Box.”

I could have sworn he sighed with relief.

I returned to find a cheerful hubbub in Juffin’s office. A spry, red-haired lady in an expensive bright-red looxi was holding a mug of kamra in her hand and beaming coquettishly at Melifaro’s chiseled Hollywood features. I had thought that the heyday of the frivolous flirt had passed, but the lady herself clearly knew otherwise.

“And here’s Sir Max,” Juffin announced solemnly, for some reason finding it necessary to state the obvious. “Please begin, Lady Chadsy.”

The lady turned to me. Upon seeing my garment, her face fell. Then she broke into the falsest of false smiles and turned away from me again hastily, all of which I found quite distressing. I took my place without any fanfare, arming myself with a full mug of kamra.

“Thank you, sir. You can’t imagine the brutes I had to deal with at the City Police department. They didn’t know how to offer a lady a sip of kamra, much less a comfortable chair. I was forced to sit on a rickety stool!”

“Oh, I can imagine,” said Juffin. Sincere sympathy was written all over his face. “But I am under the impression that it was an even more serious matter that brought you here.”

“Yes, indeed, Sir Hully. Already this morning I had a premonition. I knew I ought not to go shopping. And I didn’t, because I trust my premonitions. But then my friend, Lady Hadley, sent me a call. She was very anxious to see me, and I couldn’t refuse her. We agreed to meet in the Pink Buriwok. I decided not to call for an amobiler, but to go on foot, since I live on the Street of High Walls, so—”

“Yes, the Pink Buriwok is just a stone’s throw away,” Melifaro nodded. Lady Chadsy looked at him with unfeigned interest, and not a trace of maternal tenderness.

“Exactly, sir. I’m surprised at how quickly you understand me. Perhaps you also live nearby?”

“No, but I’m planning on moving there soon,” Melifaro informed her in a confidential tone. “Please go on, my lady.”

The lady blushed with pleasure. I could hardly keep from laughing aloud, though it would have been quite awkward if I had lost my composure. The lady would no doubt have refused to give a deposition until they had me strung up and quartered—all the more since my Mantle of Death reduced any hypothetical manly charms to zero.

“I left home despite the premonition. And it hadn’t misled me. I had not gone a block when some horrible barbarian came around the corner wearing a disgusting, dirty looxi with sleeves, and dreadful-looking trousers. And the boor was swaying back and forth! I had never seen such a drunk man—well, with the exception of my cousin James, whom I once found in a similar condition. But that was well before the Code Epoch, so Cousin James can be forgiven. But this drunken scoundrel started waving a knife around at me. He even slashed my new skaba, which I bought only yesterday at Dirolan’s! You can imagine how much it cost. I can’t stand men like that, so I gave him a punch in the nose before I really got frightened. He hissed some strange words at me. ‘Who-are, who-are!’ At first I thought he had the impudence to ask me who I was. But then he hissed ‘Old-who-are!’ and ran away, so I think it must be some primitive barbarian curse. I went home to change and sent a call to Hadley so she wouldn’t be angry that I was late, and I explained the reason I had been delayed. Hadley said that it might be the murderer they wrote about in the Echo Hustle and Bustle, and that truly frightened me. And she advised me to come to you—well, not to you personally, Sir Hully, but to the House by the Bridge. Then I hailed an amobiler and hurried over here. That’s all there is to tell. Do you think it might be the same killer? But he was such a weakling! I can’t understand why those poor women couldn’t wrestle him down. Just one punch was all it took.”

“Thank you, Lady Chadsy,” Juffin announced ceremoniously. “I think your courage has saved not only your own, but many other lives, as well. And now, you may go home. I regret that our meeting was so short, but it is our duty to find the culprit who insulted you as soon as we are able.”

“You will find him, gentlemen. Of that I am certain!”

The lady made her exit, swaying her hips gracefully, and now and then casting sultry glances at us over her shoulder. Melifaro, the lucky man, received such a passionate parting smile that he nearly crashed to the floor under the weight of it. When Lady Chadsy had finally disappeared from sight, the poor guy rolled his eyes heavenward.

“Sinning Magicians, what did I do to deserve such punishment?”

“Well, if worse comes to worst, you’re guaranteed a position as a salesman at Dirolan’s,” Juffin said with a grin. “Max, have you remembered how you differ from ‘normal people,’ to use the terminology of this poor man?”

I shrugged, and drank the rest of the cold kamra. I differed from “normal people” in many ways, especially just now. I would have to try to discern how all my former compatriots differed from my present ones, but the amusing episode with Boboota and the heart-wrenching confession of Lady Chadsy distracted me from my thoughts on the matter.

“Here I am!” Sir Kofa Yox beamed at us with the complacent smile of a man with a full stomach. “I’m sorry I’m late. I was detained by a very amusing incident. I was just going into the Old Thorn when your call came, Juffin.”

I leaped up and knocked over my chair. The mug, blessedly empty, clattered to the floor.

“What an idiot I am!” I cried. “How could I have forgotten! The Soup of Repose! Remember what happened to me, Juffin? Of course he was swaying back and forth on his feet! He sure must have been! Of course, it was my countryman. The guy tried the soup! No more murders for him!”

“Well, that’s that,” Juffin sighed in relief. “Our troubles are over. Though we have nothing to be proud of. We’re just lucky. Theoretically, the killer could have wandered around Echo forever, eating something else.”

“What happened when you ate the soup?” Melifaro asked, perplexed. “I don’t quite get the connection, gentlemen.”

“Max can’t eat Soup of Repose,” Juffin explained. “But don’t even think about joking about it, son. It affects him like poison. He was knocked out flat for three days after eating a bowlful, and I was powerless to help.”

“Poor guy,” Melifaro said sympathetically. “That’s why you’re so overwrought all the time. As though Lonli-Lokli were sitting on your backside. You’re really missing out, mate.”

“I hope it’s the worst loss I experience,” I said indifferently. “I can get along fine without the soup.”

“Everything makes sense to me now,” Sir Kofa announced suddenly. “You can send Lonli-Lokli to the Old Thorn. The killer’s there. He’s the reason I was late.”

“I’ll go myself.” Melifaro jumped up and made it to the doorway in a single bound. “You can’t just kill a miracle of nature like that! Moreover, the Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Smiles is busy with my paperwork. It would be a sin to deprive him of the pleasure.”

“We’ll go together,” said Juffin and stood up. “I’m curious, too, not to mention Max, who simply must exchange greetings with his compatriot. And Sir Kofa has full right to his portion of the laurels.”

Frankly speaking, I wasn’t especially eager to accompany them. I would have to encounter a person who had traveled the same road I had, through the Door between Worlds, to use Juffin’s terminology. If it were up to me, I would have postponed the meeting. But no one thought to ask me.

They put me behind the levers of the amobiler—we had some distance to go, and time was short. Along the way, Sir Kofa recounted his experiences.

“Just after midday, a strange fellow entered the Thorn. As everyone knows, Mr. Chemparkaroke adores oddities. The stranger, the better—that’s his motto. Chemparkaroke is still just as curious as the day he arrived in Echo for the first time from the island of Murimax. Anyway, the visitor made his entrance by shouting out something from the doorway: ‘All women are . . .’ something or other. A hole in the heavens above, I can’t remember for the life of me.”

“Whores,” I prompted. “He probably said ‘all women are whores.’”

“That’s it, Sir Max! You’re not a medium, by any chance?”

“No, it’s just that maniacs like this guy usually get fixated on one idea or phrase, and they keep repeating it over and over. He said the same thing to the red-headed lady. He called her an ‘old whore.’”

“What does it mean?” Melifaro wanted to know.

“Nothing, really. Something like ‘bad woman.’ Or, let’s say, ‘very bad, depraved woman.’”

When he heard my translation, Melifaro colored deeply. But I thought it necessary to continue my lecture.

“Guys like that always bear grudges against women—against all of them without exception, or just against blondes, or plump ones, or tall ones. It all depends.”

“Let’s not get sidetracked, here,” Juffin grumbled. “Let Kofa have his say.”

“Chemparkaroke was in ecstasy over this incomprehensible word. So he agreed with his guest out of politeness. The guy asked whether Chemparkaroke had anything to relieve his suffering. The innkeeper concluded that the visitor wanted to taste some of his legendary soup. He poured him some of the most potent stuff. At first the visitor didn’t want to eat it, but Chemparkaroke swore on his mother’s grave that it was the best cure for suffering. So the fellow tasted it. He liked it. Did he ever like it! Chemparkaroke claims that he had never witnessed such unequivocal enthusiasm about his homemade soup. When the visitor had finished, he fled. Chemparkaroke realized that the fellow had no money and didn’t know that the King picked up all tabs for the hungry in Echo. Visitors are often unaware of this, and so end up getting into scrapes. Chemparkaroke was used to it. He was happy with the new acquisition for his ‘oddball collection’ and returned to his innkeeping tasks.

“An hour later, his newfound friend came back. Chemparkaroke noticed that he was shuffling his feet uncertainly in the doorway, and shouted to him to come in, since he wasn’t obliged to pay for anything if he didn’t have the money. Then he served him some more soup. The fellow kept muttering about ‘relieving his suffering. ’ By the time I dropped in to the Old Thorn, curiosity-seekers were already gathering. Chemparkaroke was doing a brisk business, so his generosity was rewarded tenfold. And people got what they were looking for. Something extraordinary was happening to the visitor. After the second bowl of soup, he began to babble, and after the third, he broke into the most enigmatic dance I’ve ever seen. It was probably some kind of folk dance. Then he dozed off, and I thought he was there for the long haul, since he was in no condition to leave. Chemparkaroke promised to keep an eye on him, because by then it had occurred to me that this strange bird could well be one of your clients. I even started to wonder—is he really a human being? But what didn’t occur to me was to recall Chemparkaroke’s story about how you, Juffin, dragged this poor boy into the Thorn one day.”

The “poor boy,” of course, was me. Juffin sighed penitently, remembering his recent blunder.

At the threshold the Old Thorn I winced. It was no doubt a great place, but my digestive system refused to agree with that opinion, and a feeling of nausea hit me the moment I entered. The Thorn was so packed that it looked as though the entire citizenry of Echo had received a Day of Freedom from Care at the same time. When our rather intimidating posse entered the tavern, the patrons slowly began to disperse. The red-haired Chemparkaroke assumed a knowing expression and began wiping off the already spotless dishes.

My countryman was asleep on a broad wooden bench. Luckily, he didn’t seem to be one of my childhood friends. That would have been too much. As for his age, he could have been my father—or perhaps the pressure of being a maniac had aged him before his time. This guy looked ghastly—a dirty raincoat, wrinkled trousers, week-old stubble, dark circles under his eyes . . . poor thing. Moreover, he had clearly overindulged in Soup of Repose. His ragged breathing was not a sign of physical well-being. If he had died right then and there, it wouldn’t have surprise me. It looked like that’s where things were heading.

Juffin sniffed fastidiously.

“We’ve spent a whole day looking for this . . . this natural phenomenon? Ugh, how unattractive! Take him, Max, and get him out of here. Chemparkaroke, do you have anything to add to Sir Yox’s story?”

The good-natured redhead shook his head:

“What’s there to add, Sir Venerable Head? An ugly affair. At first he was so funny. Then he started to snore, to moan, to chase an invisible person around the tavern. The customers were amused. People love a clown, even a sick one. But then he fell on the bench and went to sleep. Only I think that soon he’ll be chatting with the Dark Magicians. I often get a hunch about things like that. If you give him something to drink, his legs will start twitching, and it’ll be all over.”

“Thanks for the good news, old boy. I’m all for it,” Sir Juffin muttered. “Good work, Chemparkaroke.”

The innkeeper was flattered, but he clearly didn’t understand why he was being praised. Juffin looked at him wearily.

“Take him, Max. What are you waiting for? He’s not going to dance anymore, that’s for sure.”

I sighed and did the usual prestidigitation with my left hand. The half-dead maniac fit comfortably between my thumb and my forefinger. Chemparkaroke’s jaw dropped. He had arrived in Echo during the height of the Code Epoch and was unaccustomed even to small wonders. I frowned in distaste, and we left. I even had to drive the amobiler holding this fistful of iniquity.

In the Hall of Common Labor I was able to rid myself of this unpleasant burden, depositing my countryman right on the rug.

Then I went to wash my hands. I’m a typical neurotic, so things like this can easily knock me off course. And I really didn’t like this maniac. It was probably because we had too much in common. At the same time, his appearance was extraordinarily repellant to me. I steeled myself and plunged back into the fray.

“Should I bring him back to his senses?” Sir Juffin Hully pondered aloud, staring at our quarry with unconcealed disgust. “It would be a lot of fuss and bother, but I’d like to know.”

It seemed I could imagine what my boss wanted to know. Blessed are the ignorant!

“Don’t worry about it, Sir Max,” Juffin said jovially.

Usually he begins to understand what I’m feeling before I even notice a change of mood in myself. But today he seemed to lag behind a bit with his consolations.

“This is no test of your nerves. It’s a form of pleasure, because we have a chance to find out something we didn’t know before. Keep your chin up, son!”

“I’m not so sure that this arcane knowledge is going to improve my appetite,” I murmured.

Sir Kofa and Melifaro looked at us with incomprehension.

“It’s nothing,” Juffin told them. “Just a little family quarrel. I’ll deal with this handsome devil.”

“I’m afraid it’s already too late to help him,” I replied. “Remember, I was almost done in by one bowl of it. This lucky man polished off three.”

“I wasn’t planning to help him. But perhaps he wants to make a confession.” Juffin crouched down beside the malefactor and began massaging his ears. Then he reached for his throat. The rhythmic motion soothed and lulled me, if no one else.

Better turn away, Max. The silent advice of Juffin resounded in my head. You really don’t have to play any part in this.

I averted my gaze reluctantly. And just in time. Sir Juffin Hully executed a feat that I never would have expected from such a staid, respectable, middle-aged gentleman.

With a piercing yelp, he leapt on the stomach of the hapless maniac, after which he rolled head over heels out of the way.

“It’s been some time since I had to amuse myself that way,” Juffin remarked, getting up to his feet. “Well, now he’ll talk.”

And my countryman did begin to stir.

“Kela!” he called out. “Is that you, Kela? I knew you’d find me! Way to go, mate!”

As though in a dream I moved closer to this unsightly creature.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Dumb, of course. Why could I possibly have wanted to know his name? But it was the first thing that came into my head.

“I don’t know. No one calls me by my name anymore. Is there any more of that soup left? It really does help with the pain.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say so.” I stuck to my guns on that point. “Besides, you could die from eating it.”

“No matter. I already did, but they woke me up again. Who woke me up?”

“I did,” Sir Juffin Hullly answered. “Don’t bother to thank me.”

“Can someone explain to me where I am?” the unhappy specimen asked. “A person has a right to know where he died.”

“You’re too far away from home for the name of this city to mean anything to you,” I replied.

“All the same, I want to know.”

“You’re in Echo.”

“Is that in Japan? But none of you looks like Japs around here. You’re fooling me, right? Everyone here laughs . . . It took so long to get here. I don’t remember why. And those whores, they didn’t want to tell me where I was, either. They were probably glad that I got stuck here! Never mind. In the place I sent them, they won’t think it’s funny anymore.”

I noted with astonishment that no amount of violent upheaval could inspire this single-minded man to doubt the rightness of his own actions. A lunatic, Sir Maba had called him, and he was right. He was possessed.

“Kela promised me that they’d help me die here,” the tormented soul suddenly informed us. “Are you the ones who will help me?”

“Who is this Kela?” I asked.

“A streetcar driver. I don’t know who he is. He promised me that everything would be over soon. So I felt calmer. He was going to kill me, but then he changed his mind. He said that other people would do it. Kela’s my friend. I used to have another friend, when I was a kid. I killed his dog because she was in heat. It was disgusting. Kela’s also my friend. The best one of all. I don’t know—” He made an effort to raise himself up, and stared at me with something like horror, or maybe with love. “Oh, a familiar face. I’ve seen you somewhere before, friend. Only without that cape. In a dream . . . I saw . . . yes.”

He started to grow weaker. Then he closed his eyes and was silent.

“Where could he have seen me?” I asked in surprise.

“What do you mean ‘where’? In the Great Battle of Horse Dung, when you were the brave commander of a mighty horde of five men!” Melifaro prompted.

“Shut up,” Sir Kofa muttered. “Can’t you see? Something is happening here that neither you nor I can understand, or even hope to.”

“It’s not all that bad, Kofa. Hope is the last thing to die,” Juffin piped up gaily, and turned to me. “He said ‘in a dream’! Where else? Whether you like it or not, there is some very strong bond between you two, Max. And a very dangerous one. This is a special problem. In short, you’re going to have to kill him.”

“Me?!”

I was beyond dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe my ears. The world felt like it was collapsing around me.

“Why do I have to kill him, Juffin? The death penalty was abolished long ago—you said so yourself. And he won’t hold out for very long as it is.”

“That’s not the point. It’s about you. This stranger used your Door. I can’t explain it all right now; it isn’t the time or place. You must understand one thing: if the man dies his own death, he’ll open another Door for you. It’ll be there waiting for you. It could be anywhere. No one knows how things will transpire, and you have too little experience to figure it out on your own just yet. And behind this new Door will be Death, because now his path leads only there. And by killing him with your own hands, you will destroy this unnecessary and fatal connection you share, which you had no part in choosing. And mark my words, there’s no time to lose. He’s dying. So . . .”

“I understand, Juffin,” I nodded. “I don’t know why, but I understand everything. You’re absolutely right.”

The world around me shuddered and melted away, subsiding into a million tiny flames. Everything became shiny and dull at once. It was, as I saw—no, sensed, felt—a kind of short corridor that stretched between me and this dying madman. And I very much doubted that we were two distinct people. We were Siamese twins, freakish sideshow monsters, connected not by a tissue of skin, but by something else, concealed from the gaze of the crowd in some other dimension.

Perhaps I hadn’t been aware of this from the start, but when I rushed off to wash my hands, as if that would help, I already knew. I had managed to hide this terrible knowledge from myself, until Juffin uttered out loud what I had been too afraid to think.

I dropped down on my knees next to my abhorrent double, and took the splendid Profiline butcher’s knife from the inner pocket of his coat. And I planted the knife in his solar plexus, without shrinking back and without even flinching.

I’ve never been a strong man, rather the opposite. But this act completely changed my notions of what I was capable of. The knife went into his body like it was butter—though it doesn’t really happen that way.

“You got me, friend . . .”

In the last words of the dying man I heard more reason than I had heard during all the other events of that absurd, sickening day.

And then I went to wash my hands again. It was the only way I knew to reward myself for my courage.

When I returned to the place of execution, junior officials were already bustling about with buckets and mops.

“Thank you for removing the body so quickly,” I said, taking my seat. “You’ll think it’s funny, but I’ve never killed anyone before. I’ve never even gone hunting. Juba Chebobargo’s doll doesn’t count, I suppose. It’s a loss of innocence in a way, so please be kind.”

“No one removed him, son,” Kofa said in a quiet voice. “He simply disappeared, as soon as you left. The blood on the carpet stayed, though. They’re already cleaning up the mess.”

“How’s it going, Sir Max?” Juffin shoved a mug of hot kamra over to me.

“You already know. Fine, I guess. It’s strange, though. The World hasn’t completely come back to me, if I may express it that way.”

“I know. But that will soon pass. You did everything just fine. I didn’t expect you to manage as well as you did.”

“I’m wearing the Mantle of Death, after all,” I laughed. Laughter is the best way I know to return you to your senses.

“Sir Juffin, I need a drink,” Melifaro announced. “I thought I was used to everything in this job at the Refuge for the Mad. Now I understand that I desperately need a drink. Right this second.”

“I’ve already sent a call to the Glutton. Do you think you can hold out another two minutes?”

“I’m not so sure. First those pagan rites of yours, then the disappearance of the primary material evidence. And you have no intention of explaining anything, I suppose?”

“No, I don’t. I’d be glad to, but . . . we had to do it that way, old chap. Take my word for it.”

“Really? Or maybe it was just a new form of entertainment, and I’m lagging behind? Sir Kofa, you, at least, might try to calm my nerves.”

“I need a drink, too,” Kofa Yox said, smiling good-naturedly. “Then I’m at your service.”

“This is no Secret Investigative Force. It’s some kind of orphanage,” I snorted. “So I kill a guy. Just one, mind you. He disappears afterward. It’s really no big deal! Besides, I think I need a drink, too. I’ll join you.”

“My team has taken to drink,” Juffin moaned. “Lonli-Lokli is my last hope—where is he, by the way?”

“Did you call, sir?” Lonli-Lokli appeared suddenly at the door. “Have you still not found our killer?”

Turning around to look at him, the four of us burst out laughing. At first it resembled mass hysteria, but in a few seconds we really did begin to find it funny. Shurf stepped into the office, sat down in a chair, and regarded us with warm interest, waiting until we had regained our composure. Then he asked:

“So, what about the murderer?”

“Everything has been taken care of, since Max killed him and the corpse disappeared,” Melifaro informed him, laughing heartily again.

I didn’t have the strength to join in his merriment. Luckily, the messenger with a tray from the Glutton Bunba was already at the door. Excellent timing!

I had never in my life thought I would be capable of drinking a whole mug of anything at one go, much less Jubatic Juice. Evidently, however, the body knows its own needs. If necessary, it will perform miracles.

“Sir Juffin,” Lonli-Lokli urged calmly. “Perhaps you will tell me.”

“Melifaro is absolutely right, Sir Shurf. That’s just about how it all happened, save a few spicy details.”

“Max, why did you do it on your own? And in such a primitive manner?” objected the professional in Lonli-Lokli, somewhat scandalized by the shoddy job of a dilettante.

“I’m bloodthirsty, Shurf,” I admitted eagerly. “Sometimes I just can’t help myself.”

This time it was Juffin Hully who laughed loudest of all. I think it was just relief for he realized I was finally myself again.

“But that’s very bad, Max!” Lonli-Lokli exclaimed in alarm. “With your abilities you need to learn to exercise self-control. If you don’t mind, I’ll demonstrate some simple breathing exercises that will aid in the development of your self-control and peace of mind.”

For the sake of my “official friend” I tried to be more serious.

“Thank you, Shurf. I’d love to see them. But to be honest, I was just joking. Later I’ll explain everything that happened. Everything I can, anyway. I’m afraid it isn’t much.”

“If this has anything to do with a mystery, I’d prefer to remain in the dark, since a mystery made public is an insult to Truth.”

“Do you understand?” Sir Kofa asked Melifaro. “That’s an answer to all your questions at once.”

“I couldn’t give a flying buttress,” Melifaro announced dreamily. “I’ve had my drink and all is well. You can go to the Magicians with your terrible mysteries. Even without them, life is wonderful. Oh, by the way, since Sir Shurf is here with us—do you still think that I was making fun of you both, O Bloodthirsty Monster? Sir Max, I’m talking to you!”

“Of course,” I said indifferently. “But I didn’t give a flying buttress, as you expressed it, either.”

“Then you absolutely must meet my father, who will give you evidence of my innocence. Sir Juffin, can you possibly do without us both at the same time? At least for one day?”

“What would I need you for? Get out of my sight this instant, if you wish,” Juffin said. “But just one day, mind you! Agreed? Sir Kofa, Sir Shurf, get used to the idea that tomorrow the two of you alone will answer for the safety and security of the Unified Kingdom. And tonight—only Kurush. Right, my friend?” Juffin stroked the bird’s fluffy little cap of feathers tenderly. “As for me, I intend to sleep for a whole day and night. Lady Melamori is probably already sipping expensive wine under the watchful supervision of her uncle. These two are planning an outing to the country to terrorize cats. We’re a pretty pack of Secret Investigators, bulwark against threats to our society’s well-being. It can’t be denied.”

“Well, how about it, Max?” Melifaro said, turning to me. “We’ll leave tonight, and get there in a few hours. If you’re at the levers of the amobiler, we’ll get there in one. Fresh country air, heaps of good food, and my Pa. It will be something, believe me. And Mama’s a treat, too.”

“Heaps of food, Papa, and Mama,” I repeated in rapture. “That sounds perfect. And a fast drive sounds even better. You’re a genius, Melifaro! I’m forever in your debt. Thank you, Juffin. You’re both lifesavers.”

I wasn’t exaggerating. A change of scenery was exactly what I needed just now. I hadn’t dared dream I would be lucky enough to get it.

“Well, shall we go?”

Melifaro was already dancing in the doorway in anticipation. He didn’t like sitting in one spot for very long, especially after a plan of action had been laid down.

“Yes, yes. Juffin, tell me, am I required to wear these rags of baleful splendor wherever I go?”

I meant, of course, the Mantle of Death. Not the most appropriate attire for a jaunt to the country.

“No. You only have to wear it within the city limits,” Juffin said acerbically. “But I thought you liked your little uniform.”

“I do like it. I’m just afraid the chickens out there will stop laying eggs from fright. Did I say something wrong?”

“Oh my gosh, another mystery!” Melifaro exclaimed wringing his hands. “Max, a hole in the heavens above, what on earth are ‘chickens’? Only turkeys lay eggs. Take it from a country boy!”

While Melifaro looked over my apartment in bewilderment, trying to understand whether it was asceticism or stinginess that had inspired me to settle down there, I cuddled with Armstrong and Ella, delighting in their throaty purrs and murmuring whatever banal endearments came into my head.

Then I went up to the bedroom and rummaged around in the closet until I found some duds that more or less corresponded to my foggy notions of the requirements country living. I went back down to the living room with a half-empty weekend bag in tow.

“I’m ready. I’m afraid you’ve gotten a sad impression of my way of life. I can’t do anything to change it. I love tenement living!”

“What do you mean? It’s great here!” Melifaro cried, brushing off my remark. “No frivolous extras. A real den for a lone hero. Truly, Max, it’s very romantic.”

“Shall we have a drink for the road? I’m the most inhospitable host in the whole darn town. Actually, I don’t have anything to offer you, unless we decide to go out to the Sated Skeleton.”

“I took all we needed from the Ministry. Drink, kamra, and everything else I could grab. Let’s go, Max, or I’m going to collapse. You, no doubt, are even more exhausted.”

“I’m nowhere near collapse. You forget I’m the ‘nocturnal backside. ’ My shift is just beginning. Off we go!”

“You know, Max, there is an aura of evil about you,” Melifaro remarked, getting into the amobiler. “Your nocturnal habits, your fast driving, your gloomy expression, the black looxi, you don’t eat soup, like normal people do . . . Not to mention your absurd habit of killing crown criminals. It’s too much for one person. It’s no wonder Melamori is afraid of you.”

“Afraid of me!”

“Of course, didn’t you know? When I saw how she looked at you, I thought, ‘That’s it, pal. You can go scratch your backside. You’ve got a serious competitor!’ Then I realized that my stakes hadn’t fallen so low. The lady fears you like a nightmare.”

“That’s ridiculous. Why should she be afraid of me? Melamori isn’t one of those prissy city girls who are ready to pee in their pants whenever I go out to the store for some useless crap.”

“That’s just it. She’s no priss. She understands people better than anyone. That’s her job. Ask her yourself. How should I know? Anyway, I think I’ll doze off while we’re driving.”

“Then we’ll be on the road for a very long time. Because the only road I’d be able to find without your advice leads directly to the Barren Lands.”

Of course I was lying shamelessly, since I didn’t even know that road.

“And I thought you knew everything, like Juffin.”

“Everything except addresses, birthdays, and other such nonsense.”

“Too bad. Besides those things, there’s usually nothing to know about people. Well, all right. I’ll be the navigator. You’re not going to tell me anything about what happened today, either, Max? Mystery of mysteries, but I’m dying of curiosity!”

“He was my illegitimate brother,” I answered in a malicious whisper. “And since we both claim the inheritance of our Papa—two old nags and a heap of their manure—I just took advantage of the privileges of office and finished off my rival.”

“Very funny. So it really is a terrible secret?”

“If it were up to me, it might not necessarily remain a secret. But terrible it certainly was. So terrible that it’s not even funny. Actually, if I hadn’t killed him, he would have died anyway. It was something like losing the Spark, only even more unpleasant.”

“How exciting!” Melifaro had an unending supply of good humor. “Fine. Never mind. You can keep your secret to yourself. By the way, there’s a left turn here. Wow, you’d make a great race car driver, mate!”

“What should I know about the customs you keep at home?” I asked, changing the subject. “When Juffin dragged me over to old Makluk’s to pay a visit, I nearly had a heart attack: bearers, palanquins, packs of servants everywhere, dressing for dinner. I shouldn’t expect anything like that, should I?”

“Take a good look at me, Max. How could I be the son of people who observe formalities? Mama believes that every guest has one sacred obligation: to remain full at all times. My father adheres to only one rule: no stupid rules, end of story. Do you know that it’s because of this I don’t have a name?”

“Really? I couldn’t understand why everyone always called you by your last name. I wanted to ask, but I thought maybe the problem was that you had some completely bizarre first name.”

“And you spared my vanity? You shouldn’t have. I don’t suffer from that, and I wish others didn’t, either. I just don’t have a name. When I was born my father had already left on his famous journey. Mama sent him a call every day asking what to name me, and every day he had a new idea. Each day she would ask again, just to make sure—always with the same result. When I turned three, my mother finally got tired of this shilly-shallying, and she asked the question point blank. Well, magnificent Sir Manga was very busy at the time, and his answer was: ‘Why does he need a first name at all with a last name like ours?’ My mama has her own notions of marital harmony. She said, ‘Well, may everything be as you wish, dear. You’ll be the one to protest later on.’ So she didn’t argue with him, all the more since it wasn’t a matter of her name, but of mine! And that’s how I’ve gone through life, though it’s the only thing I have to complain about—that’s for sure.”

“That’s great. I have the opposite situation. I was lucky with my name; but that’s the only thing I’m grateful to my parents for.”

“That’s right—you have just one name, too.” Melifaro nodded sympathetically. “You’re happy with it?”

“Actually, no. But you saw my living quarters. I don’t like anything superfluous.”

“You’re right there, too. Now you have to turn left. Slow down a bit. The road gets bad here.”

“Slow down? Never!” I cried out proudly, as we flew over the bumps and potholes, and the landscape whizzed by.

“Here we are,” Melifaro said with relief when we had come to a high wall hung with fragrant, trailing greenery. “But are we still alive? No, Max, there’s something monstrous about you! And I’ve invited this monster to my own home. But what can I do? I won’t call for Juffin to come to the rescue. He’s even worse. Let’s go, Mr. Bad Dream.”

The inhabitants of the enormous estate were already asleep, so we went out to the kitchen, where we silently devoured everything we could get our hands on. Then Melifaro showed me to a small, cozy room.

“When I was a child, and I was sick, or just sad, I would always sleep here. It’s the best place in the house, believe me. Make yourself comfortable. This room does wonders for people who’ve had a hard day like you have. First, you’ll fall asleep right away, no matter what your ordinary habits are. And then—well, you’ll see for yourself. My runaway grandfather, Filo Melifaro, built this part of the house himself. And he was not the least significant person in the Order of the Secret Grass.”

“Really? Juffin gave me a turban from their Grand Magician as a gift.”

“That’s really something! You’re a lucky man. Try not to lose it—it’s a powerful thing. I’m off. If I don’t go to sleep right now, I’ll expire, that’s for sure.”

And I was alone. A pleasant weariness lay on my chest like a pillow of soft ivy. It was wonderful. I undressed, got down on all fours, and fastidiously examined the local “dream station.” I discovered the blanket and wriggled down into the warm darkness underneath. I felt calm and happy. I didn’t much feel like sleeping, but lying on my back and silently contemplating the ceiling—what could be better!

The dark beams above enchaned me. They seemed to undulate ever so slightly, like waves of a tranquil sea, and eventually their rhythmic motion lulled me to sleep. In my dreams I saw all the places I loved—the city in the mountains, the English park, empty beaches. I didn’t dream about Echo anymore, though. There was nothing surprising about that—Echo had become part of another life, and I roamed its streets awake now.

This time it was very easy for me to pass from one dream to another. I changed dreams at will. When I was bored by walking in the park, I stepped over to the beach. Sad and lonely among the sandy dunes, I suddenly found myself in the cabin of the cable car. Several times I thought I heard the quiet laughter of Maba Kalox nearby, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. Even this seemed like a remarkable incident to me, however.

I woke up before noon, feeling absolutely free and happy. Events of the recent past seemed to me to be part of a good adventure film, the future didn’t scare me, and the present suited me to a tee. After I had washed, I wrapped myself in a skaba and looxi of fiery bright colors, which I had picked out yesterday for the vibrant contrast they made with my malevolently glowering uniform, and sent a call to Melifaro.

You’re already up? You’ve got to be kidding! And I’m still so tired I can’t move! Well, go downstairs and drink some kamra with my esteemed father. Or by yourself, if he’s already gone. I’ll join you in an hour and a half.

I went down to the living room, where my eyes were met by a remarkable spectacle. A fellow of enormous proportions, his eyes downcast, stood by the table, wheedling and moaning.

“But Father, why?”

“Because it will be better that way,” answered his elder in the voice of someone losing his patience. It belonged to a shortish, elegant man whose red hair was woven into a luxuriant braid. I swear to the World, the braid extended all the way to the floor! Sizing up the situation, I realized that this must be Sir Manga Melifaro, the author of the Encyclopedia I so ardently admired.

“A good morning to you, gentlemen.”

I was beaming with pleasure as I entered the living room. This was strange, since I am usually shy around new people, and I can’t stand introductions.

“Good morning, Sir Max Baxba, greet our guest.”

“Good morning, Sir Max,” the sad giant repeated obediently.

“Well, all right. Go to your trader, boy. Only remember—we need six horses. Six, not twelve! As far as I’m concerned we don’t need them at all, but since you have your heart set on it. But not a dozen! Is that clear?”

“Yes, Father! Goodbye, Sir Max. You’ve brought me luck!” And the giant, already cheerful, bounded out of the room.

“My eldest, Sir Max,” Sir Manga said with evident disbelief. “A child of ‘youthful passions,’ as they say. I can’t fathom how I produced something like that!”

“You are truly a man of passion, Sir Manga,” I smiled, and poured myself some kamra. It was as good as the kamra from the Glutton, hands down.

“I can’t believe it myself. Besides Baxba and Melifaro, which would be more than enough to break a father’s heart, I have another, middle son—Sir Anchifa Melifaro. I’m embarrassed to admit that he’s a pirate. And one of the most cutthroat, if I’m to believe the dockside rumors. Although he’s quite as homely and diminutive as I am myself.”

“That’s good for a sailor,” I said. “It’s best to travel light, and insofar as it’s hard to leave one’s own body at home, it should be as compact as possible.”

“You no doubt bonded with my youngest,” Sir Manga grinned. “You’ve both got the gift of gab.”

“Moreover, he just has a last name, and I only have a first name. Together we make up one whole person.”

“True, that. Were you really born on the border of the County Vook and the Barren Lands? I don’t recall meeting any young fellows like you there.”

“Me either,” I had to shrug indifferently. “Maybe I’m just one of a kind.”

“It looks that way. Sir Max, I’m afraid I owe you an apology.”

“Sinning Magicians, why?”

“While Melifaro’s still sleeping I can let you in on a secret. Recently he asked me about some customs of your countrymen. Now I understand why he needed to know.”

“Close friendship rituals?”

“Exactly. Did Melifaro already engage in some strange antics?”

“No, but someone else did.”

“A hole in the heavens above, Sir Max! You see, I’m quite vain. And when there’s something I don’t know . . . In short, I couldn’t shame myself in front of my youngest son. I had to think up a story about singing some idiotic songs outside at midnight.”

“That fellow sang them at midday. Besides, I work the night shift, so I couldn’t be present for a midnight serenade. But I came to an agreement with him. He promised to limit himself to the music that sounds in his irreproachable heart.”

“Praise be the Magicians! Because I got carried away and told him that—”

“That on the Last Day of the Year we had to clean each other’s toilets? That certainly came as a surprise to me.”

“Oh no, Max. I could never have said anything of the sort! I know a thing or two about the Barren Lands. There are no toilets to speak of, much less to found a friendship on!”

“Hm, so that was a collaborative invention. Melifaro swore on the veracity of your story.”

“Don’t give me away, Max! It could be very awkward,” Sir Manga begged, laughing heartily.

“Throw you to the lions to be torn apart limb from limb? Never!” I swore. “But only on the condition that you let me taste some of that dish over there.”

I helped myself to the tiny crumbling pastries in culinary ecstasy.

After breakfast I left the house without waiting for Melifaro to wake up, and wandered about the countryside until I got hungry. I rolled around lazily in the grass, sniffed the flowers, and filled my pockets full of little colored stones. I stared at the clouds in wonder. In short, it was one of the pleasantest days of my entire life.

In the evening I met Melifaro’s mother, whose monumental stature gave away the secret of the giant Baxba’s origins. At the same time she was so beautiful that it took my breath away. Not a human being, but a sculpture; moreover, a vibrant, life-affirming one.

I was surprised at myself. I fell asleep just after midnight like a good boy! And I had a serious motive. That night the little room treated me to another round of magical dreams. And I was worn out after a long day of prancing through the fields and meadows.

Morning began with a race with the wind in the amobiler. I had to deliver Melifaro, who had overslept, to the House by the Bridge in record time. He received no pleasure from the race, as he was in dreamland, blissfully unaware in the back seat. I had a hard time persuading the Diurnal Representative of the Venerable Head not to carry on his engaging pastime in his own office after we finally arrived. Upon my success, I went home to enjoy the advantages of my nocturnal schedule: I crawled under the covers again, back in the company of Armstrong and Ella.

At sunset I reported to the House by the Bridge and was pleasantly surprised. Lady Melamori had already returned, cheerful and ready for new feats of derring-do and renown.

“Well, you’re a sight to behold!” I said from the doorway. “You owe me a walk, my Lady, remember?”

“I remember. Shall we go now? Sir Juffin will let you go.”

“Sure I’ll let you go,” the gloomy voice of the boss resounded through the door to his office, slightly ajar. “I’ll be here till late, anyway.”

“Has something happened?”

“Has something happened? The annual report to the Royal Court happened. In a dozen days this blasted year ends, remember? But in a disaster of this magnitude, you can’t assist me, unfortunately. So enjoy life—but only till midnight.”

I whistled ecstatically—there were still five hours left until midnight, by my calculations. Somehow, things had recently taken a sharp turn for the better. It even made me a bit wary.

“I have just one condition, Sir Max,” Melamori announced as we were about to leave. “No amobilers. I’ve heard frightening tales about your driving.”

“All right,” I agreed. “We’ll go on foot, along crowded, well-lighted streets. When the full moon rises and I start turning into a werewolf, you can call for help. By the way, you can follow the example of Melifaro and drop the ‘Sir’ when you address me. Why stand on ceremony with werewolves?”

Melamori smiled, somewhat taken aback.

“Oh, I can’t simply call you ‘Max.’ I wasn’t raised that way.”

“But I can call you Melamori. Practice for ten minutes or so—and I’ll just be rude for the time being, all right?”

“Of course, Sir Max. You probably think I’m silly, but—actually, your suggestion about a crowded place is just what I had in mind. For the time being.”

“‘For the time being.’ That sounds promising. Onward, my lady!”

We walked very chastely and modestly through the center of Echo. Only I kept having the feeling that something was missing. Then I realized: Melamori didn’t have a bag or a purse that I could offer to carry, to display my chivalry. Nonetheless, at the very end of our sojourn we enjoyed the local version of ice cream in a small artificial garden on the Victory of Gurig VII Square. Thus, the illusion of childhood revisited was complete. I felt I had grown younger by about twenty years, and Lady Melamori, all things considered, by ninety. Our babbling conversation was playful and innocent, until I felt it was proper to touch upon a matter that greatly interested me.

“Melamori, I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time—”

“Don’t, Max! I think I know what you want to ask, dear Sir, uh, yes—”

“Really? I’ll bet a crown that you can’t guess what it is.”

“Can’t guess!” she cried, her voice growing shrill.

I had found the perfect ruse. She was as reluctant to let a wager slip as a habitué at the horse races.

“You wanted to ask why I was afraid of you,” she blurted out. “Hand over the crown!” She blushed with pleasure at this absurd, small victory.

“Take it, my lady,” I plunked down a gold coin on the table where we were sitting. “Shall I wrap it into something, or are you superstitious?”

“Please do. I’m not superstitious, but . . . you never know.”

“Excellent! But I’ll bet ten crowns that you don’t know yourself why you’re afraid.”

“Don’t know? I’m not so crazy as to be afraid of who-knows-what nonsense. It’s just that you, Sir Max, are—I don’t know what you are! And the unknown is the only thing I’m afraid of. You lose, Sir Max. Money on the table! I’ll treat you to something a bit more pricy. Would you like some King’s Sweat?”

“How about some King’s Piss! Whatever is it?”

“The most expensive liqueur available. Over the counter, that is.”

“Fine. We’ll order some of your ‘Sweat.’”

“Not mine, the King’s! Anyway, it looks like you have managed to loosen my tongue after all, Sir Secret Investigator.”

“Frankly, I don’t understand. I’m a fairly ordinary person. Well, not without a few quirks that may be explained by my origins. Sir Manga Melifaro could deliver a whole lecture on the subject.”

“I don’t give a flying buttress about his lectures. Let him read them to Lookfi, he adores any sort of ethnographic nonsense. Try some of the liqueur, Max. It’s truly out of this world, despite the dubious name. But it’s time for us to go. Sir Juffin is bored without you, Sir Max . . . uh, just plain Max.”

The liqueur really was superb, though I’m not very fond of liqueur in general.

Naturally, I accompanied the damsel home. This is probably the custom in all Worlds, even when the lady is the incomparable Master of Pursuit. Along the way we were silent, until Melamori decided to dot and cross the leftover i’s and t’s.

“There’s nothing amiss, Max. It’s just that I have some doubts that I can’t completely dispel—not that I attach much credence to them, either. Of course, you’re no evil spirit. And you’re not a Mutinous Magician, recently returned to Echo. That’s obvious. But you still don’t strike me as being a normal person; even one with eccentricities. I really can’t figure you out. I like you very much, if you wish to know. But I sense some sort of threat emanating from you. Not just a vague, general kind of threat, but one that concerns me, personally. Though it’s hard to say for sure. Sir Juffin could probably help me, but he doesn’t want to. You know how he is. So I have to sort it all out myself. And I will, a hole in the heavens above you!”

“Go ahead and sort it out,” I said. “And when you’ve sorted it out, share the information with me. Because I for one am not aware of this hypothetical ‘threat.’ Do you promise?”

“I promise. But this is the only thing I can really promise. Good night, Max.”

With that Melamori disappeared behind the massive, ancient doors leading to her living quarters. And I went to the House by the Bridge, unsure about how to interpret the results of our evening together. On the one hand, they seemed more than promising. On the other . . . Well, time would tell. In any case, I would have to remind Lonli-Lokli to teach me some of those breathing exercises. I sensed that I would need some superhuman self-discipline in the near future.

A few days later, when it had started to seem that the incident involving my countryman had receded into the past, a call from Sir Juffin Hully got me out of bed somewhat earlier than I would have wished.

Wake up, Sir Max! the voice of my boss boomed through my sleepy brain. There are things in the World that are much more interesting than the dull slumber you’ve been plunged in for six hours straight. A visit to Maba Kalox, for instance. I’m coming to pick you up in an hour and a half.

I leaped out of bed as though on fire. Ella meowed indignantly at the disruption. Armstrong didn’t even twitch an ear.

I bathed, dressed, and downed a mug of kamra in record time—a quarter of an hour. That still left time for me to sit down in a chair and properly wake up.

“Maba says he’s ready to answer a few questions. We’re in luck, Max. The old man doesn’t keep his promises very often!” Juffin seemed quite pleased. “Have you already begun your training with Sir Shurf? You might need to exercise some self-control.”

“I’ve just started, but it will be enough for me just to see Sir Maba. His face is the most effective tranquilizer I know.”

“You’re right about that, lad. Although this is, of course, an illusion. In fact, I don’t know a more dangerous creature; or a more peaceable one,” Juffin mused, leaving me completely confounded.

It didn’t take as long for us to find Sir Maba Kalox’s house as it had the first time. The living room was empty, but the master of the house came out to greet us in a few minutes.

In his hands, Sir Maba held an enormous tray that he was examining curiously.

“I wanted to surprise you with something tasty, but this seems to be quite inedible.” He hurled away the tray, and I shrank back, anticipating a thundering crash. But the tray disappeared before it reached the floor.

“I know you don’t like repetition, Maba, but we would be thrilled to be offered some of that red potion you treated us to last time,” Juffin suggested hopefully.

“Well, by all means—if you are such dullards that you spurn new sensations.” Sir Maba crawled under the table and drew out a pitcher and three small, delicate cups. They looked familiar.

“You haven’t caught on yet, Max? Maba has compassionately stuck his nose into your own past,” Juffin said laughing.

“Of course! Sinning Magicians, these are the cups from Mom’s best tea set! I’ll tell you a secret, Sir Maba: I hated it! And the rolls you served us last time—they sold them in the greasy spoon across the street from the editorial office where I used to work! Gosh, I’m slow.”

“Probably just not very observant. Besides, you weren’t expecting evidence of things from your world. A person usually sees only what he is expecting to see beforehand. Remember that for the future!” With these words he pulled a pie out from under the table.

“My grandmother’s!” I exclaimed with absolute certainty. “My grandmother’s apple pie! Sir Juffin, now you’ll understand that my homeland isn’t all that bad!”

“No, Max,” Sir Maba said, surprising me yet again. “Not your grandmother’s, but her friend’s. The one who gave your grandmother the recipe. I thought the original would be better than the imitation. Now then, as you have already understood, boys, I solved the riddle. Congratulations, Max. You have created a Tipfinger! Which is quite extraordinary for a novice in our profession. For that matter, is quite extraordinary any way you look at it.”

“What have I created? What’s a Tipfinger? How could I have created something when I have no clue what it is?”

“That’s how it usually works,” Juffin observed. “I don’t think the creator of the universe had any clue what a ‘universe’ was, either.”

“I hate giving lectures, but for the sake of such a promising student, I am willing to abandon my scruples,” Sir Maba said with a sigh. “Everything boils down to this—that in the World there are many ineffable creatures. Among them are Tipfingers. It isn’t that they are so terribly hostile to human beings; but we are too different to arrive at a mutual understanding. Tipfingers come out of nowhere and feed on our fears, anxieties, and forebodings. Occasionally they take on the appearance of a particular person and visit his acquaintances, scaring them with the most uncharacteristic capers, or simply with a look. I can tell you whose appearance you unwittingly gave to the Tipfinger you created. You saw his face only once, on the street, when you were a small child. The face scared you and you began to howl. Then you forgot it, until it came time to open the Door between Worlds. You were well-prepared for this event—you lost no time or energy on unnecessary doubts. I think you both simply chose an opportune moment, Juffin. My congratulations—that took real skill. In fact, Max, you not only opened the Door, you also planted this uncanny creature there, so you would have something to fear. You thought that the unknown had to be terrifying. And insofar as Juffin had not prepared any nightmares for you, you rectified his oversight yourself—unconsciously, of course. I could explain things in more detail, but you wouldn’t understand beans about it, no offense. But you, Juffin, I’ll dream you up tonight without fail and show you everything. It’s very exciting! By the way, Max, until now no one knew exactly where Tipfingers came from. With your help we cracked another mysterious nut. They are the offspring of someone’s inclination to fear of the unknown.”

I really understood almost nothing of these explanations, though a thing or two did actually sink in.

“But that ghost, the one that lived in Xolomi, that’s what he called Lonli-Lokli! He said to me, ‘You brought the Tipfinger here, fellow!’ Could our Shurf also really be—”

Sir Maba burst out laughing.

“Ah, Maxlilgl Annox! Don’t give it another thought. That was his favorite curse. He called nearly all adepts of other Orders ‘Tipfingers.’ And your Lonli-Lokli, back in the day, as far as I know, was . . . where did he seek the Power, Juffin?”

“In the Order of the Holey Cup.”

“That’s right, the Mad Fisherman. He made some heavy-duty mischief in his day.”

“Sir Lonli-Lokli? Heavy-duty mischief?” I was flabbergasted.

“Why are you so surprised, Max? People change. Take a look at yourself. Where is the pathetic little chap who trembled at the approaching footsteps of his boss?” Sir Maba said with a grin.

“This is true.”

“By the way, I saw how you put the old man out of his misery. The waterfall was priceless! That was the best show I’ve seen since the beginning of this dreary Code Epoch.”

“You saw that?” I was becoming accustomed to this nature of surprise.

“Of course! It’s my hobby—keeping track of the fates of my former colleagues. That’s why I couldn’t pass up such a performance. But don’t you entertain any illusions about the future, young man. I never intervene. I only observe. That’s why Juffin Hully exists—to intervene. For the time being we have some differences of opinion on life.”

“Which has never prevented you from accepting fees for your, let us say, ‘consultations,’” Juffin interposed drily.

“Of course not. I love money. It’s so pretty. Actually, as for your personal Tipfinger, Max—you’ll have to kill it sooner or later. It’s not good to litter the Universe with any old thing. Besides, a Tipfinger in the Door between Worlds is an unprecedented outrage. There you have my consultation; and just try to accuse me of taking money from the King’s coffers without deserving it!”

“Oh, that’s a good one. Suddenly he’s the guardian of the State Treasury!”

“How does one kill a Tipfinger?” I asked.

“When you kill it, you’ll know it. Don’t worry, Max. Theoretically, the matter can wait for a few hundred years. But sooner or later, you just won’t have any other choice. Life is very wise. By that time, you’ll certainly know what to do.”

“Well, if you say so, then I will,” I said. “You have confused me once and for all.”

“That’s how every good story must end, Max. When a person stops understanding something, he’s on the right track,” Juffin assured me. “We won’t take any more of your valuable time, Maba. All the more since we’ve already eaten everything up. Don’t forget: you promised to dream me up tonight.”

“I won’t forget. Farewell.”

I was expecting some kind of escapade or outburst, but nothing of the sort happened. Sir Maba Kalox left the living room by the same door he had entered, and we went out into the front hall.

“Have I been promoted?” I asked. “Have I been accepted into the ranks? Somehow there don’t seem to be any more surprises in store.”

“Are you sure, Max?” Juffin said, smiling, as he threw open the door into the garden.

“Of course, I—” I stepped over the threshold and froze. Instead of the garden we found ourselves in our own office.

“Well, what do you think of that?” Sir Juffin Hully winked at me. “Never let down your guard when you’re dealing with Maba Kalox.”

I sat down in my chair and started to practice those very breathing exercises that the unflappable Sir Lonli-Lokli had taught me. I had only the faintest hope that they would help.

Chapter 5 King Banjee

IN MY HOMELAND, WE CELEBRATE THE NEW YEAR. HERE IN ECHO, AT the end of winter, they see the old year out. At home we say, “Happy New Year!” Here they say, “Another Year Has Passed.”

About a dozen days before the year ends, the citizens of Echo begin to recall that life is short, and they try to do everything they didn’t get around to in the past 288 days: fulfill the promises they have to others or themselves, to pay off their debts, receive what they are owed, and even willingly plunge into all kinds of unpleasantness so as not to sully the bright vista of life that awaits them (so they think) just on the other side of the “terrible year” now coming to an end. Practicality taken to an absurd extreme. In a word, the Last Day of the Year is no celebration, but a ridiculous excuse to begin—and just as suddenly to cease—mind-boggling activity.

This frenzy passed me by completely. Sir Juffin Hully was drawing up the annual report. After rushing around tearing his hair out for two days, he transferred this task onto the iron shoulders of Lonli-Lokli. The only thing I had to do was pay the debt I had run up at the Sated Skeleton, which took exactly fifteen minutes. In other establishments I always paid right away in cash, not so much out of contempt for local superstition, but rather in the hope that “touching metal” really would cool off love. In my case, however, it was ineffectual.

Troubles, it seemed, were not on the horizon for me. The bad habit of making promises didn’t apply to me, either. The only thing left to do was to pick up the rest of my annual salary from Dondi Melixis, the Treasurer of the Ministry of Perfect Public Order, who, it must be said, parted with the treasury funds with such a display of relief that it seemed they were burning a hole in his hands.

After wrapping up my affairs, I was forced to contemplate the haggard faces of my colleagues. They glanced enviously at my healthy pink glow, that of a lay-about who got more than enough sleep. Sir Melifaro was the most assiduous of all during these trying days. His exuberance disappeared, and he even seemed to get thinner.

“It’s not just a matter of work and other troubles. I have too many relatives, too many friends, I’m too goodhearted to refuse them anything, and there are too few Days of Freedom from Care for me to be able fulfill my promises! Only orphaned ascetics like you, friend, are happy and free,” Melifaro said bitterly.

It was after midnight, about four days before the End of the Year. I had arrived, as usual, for night duty. Melifaro, working practically since dawn, had just finished putting in order the next of a pile of self-inscribing tablets, wherein records of 300-year-old interrogations, and letters from one Lady Assi, peacefully coexisted. (Melifaro swore on the health of his own mama and all departed Magicians that he had no clue who she was.) He dragged himself to my office to drink some kamra in more comfortable surroundings. About eighteen distant relatives from all corners of the Unified Kingdom, who had long ago been invited to visit, had descended on Melifaro’s house. I knew I had to save the poor guy.

“Send them a call and tell them . . . Well, for example, that someone is planning to assassinate Grand Magician Moni Mak, and no one but you can prevent this dastardly deed. Make something up. Then go to my place and get some sleep. True, I have merely four bathing pools as well as two cats, but when it comes to the lesser of two evils—”

Melifaro wouldn’t let me finish.

“O Lord of the Endless Plain! My savior! From this day onward I am forever in your debt. Max, you’re a genius. Now I know the value of true male bonding.”

The pale shadow of Melifaro began again to resemble that natural disaster to which I was accustomed. He even bounced slightly in his chair—a far cry from his normally unmitigated exuberance, but it was better than nothing.

“Nonsense,” I said, making light of Melifaro’s praise. “You can hit the sack as soon as you get there, and sleep as long as you like. I’ll stand in for you in the morning until you show up for work.”

“You’ll stand in for me? No offense, Max, but I’m irreplaceable. Although . . . maybe. Why not? Yes, of course! Oh, thank you!”

“I’m doing it for myself. I’m a person of habit. When I see you in this state, I feel like the World’s caving in. My offer is valid until your relatives pack up and leave for their respective homes.”

“The day after tomorrow. They’re leaving for the estate to torment my papa and mama. But that’s no longer my problem. Gosh, Max! I’m going to cry.”

“Cry in the morning when you want to take a bath. Don’t forget, I have only four bathing pools: just one more than a prison cell has.”

“Shall I let you in on a secret, Max? I have nine washtubs, but I usually finish after the second. I’m a terrible slob. Well, I’m off. To sleep, a hole in the heavens above, to sleep!”

I stayed alone with the slumbering Kurush, somewhat abashed by my own magnanimity.

An hour later I had left the bird all alone and was hurrying to the outskirts of the Old City, to a tavern with the gothic name of Grave of Kukonin. Sir Kofa Yox had sent a call for help.

The matter was more funny than serious. It struck me as some kind of “pre-holiday fireworks.” The unpleasant moment of paying the bill had arrived for a certain Mr. Ploss, one of the regular patrons of the Grave. A bill for the whole previous year, no less! He had no money on his person. Mr. Ploss would have had to wait only until the next day to get his salary for work and to discharge his debts.

If he had just explained this to the innkeeper of the Grave, everything would have been fine. People in Echo are peaceable and compassionate. But the chap had downed a few too many. I suspect that he just felt awkward asking for an extension in the presence of a dozen of his acquaintances. Mr. Ploss took the risk of casting a spell that required magic of the 21st degree. That’s a serious overdose of the stuff. He made the innkeeper “remember” that he had already paid off his debt the day before. The misled innkeeper even began apologizing for his mistake, saying it was a result of the confusion of that time of year. The scoundrel humbly accepted the apology.

Mr. Ploss could have gotten away with his little prank in the pre-holiday madness if Sir Kofa Yox hadn’t blown into the Grave of Kukonin like an ill wind. Our Master Eavesdropper has the unique talent of appearing just in that place where his presence might spoil the lives of basically good people to the maximum degree. The magic-meter on Sir Kofa’s miniature snuff box reported to him that someone was dabbling in Forbidden Magic. Discovering the fledgling sorcerer was just a matter of technique.

When Mr. Ploss realized that his naïve practical joke and the twenty crowns he saved were worth a decade in Xolomi, he figured he had nothing to lose, knocked back another glass of Jubatic Juice, and decided to do battle rather than surrender. To this day, I don’t understand whether it was courage or imbecility that drove him to this reckless act.

Locking himself in the bathroom, Ploss began to heckle the other patrons, claiming that his esoteric skills would suffice to turn everyone there into swine, which he could sell to the neighboring tavern for good money.

The other visitors, just in case, quickly fled from the establishment, and the innkeeper, in tears, began begging Kofa not to destroy his family, moreover right before the End of the Year. Then, at the request of numerous members of the public, Sir Kofa Yox summoned me. Our Master Eavesdropper could make short shrift of a dozen amateur Magicians like Ploss, but not with a gaggle of kitchen-boys sobbing in terror.

Wrapping myself tighter in the black and gold Mantle of Death, and twisting my face into a terrifying grimace, I burst into the tavern. The bells on my boots tinkled like a Christmas carol. My mouth kept twisting into a crooked smile. Unruly locks of hair stuck out every which way from under my turban. I didn’t resemble Death in the Service of the King so much as the victim of a pre-holiday tussle. But the innkeeper of the Grave sighed in relief. His workers gazed at me like intellectually backward adolescents ogling Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now that’s what reputation can do for you!

Stopping on the staircase that led to the bathroom, I sent a silent call to the hapless criminal. Sir Max here, pal. You’d best come out now, before I get real mad. Don’t play any games with me; the food in Xolomi is first-rate!

That worked. To my indescribable astonishment, Mr. Ploss abandoned his lavatory hideout then and there. He was so frightened that Sir Kofa and I had to bring him to his senses again. I even turned my pockets out for him, standing him a glass of Jubatic Juice. Actually, he had afforded me great pleasure. I think the owner of the Grave of Kukonin cherishes the coin he got from me to this day, certain that it is the most potent of protective amulets.

Finally, the officials from Xolom