Two days later, I hunched in the morning drizzle on the upslope side of town. I could have strained cheese with my ancient cloak, and I was as wet as any tadpole. I detested the man trudging downhill toward me, making me suffer more with every tedious step. The dimwit was coming from the direction of civilization, and that just made me despise him more. I figured killing him would gratify me as much as bedding any woman I’d known since my first gray hairs sprouted.
The dolt slipped and almost busted his ass. Only his staff saved him from flopping onto the mud, and that staff was substantially too tall for him in my opinion. He caught his footing with one arm flapping for balance, and then he tramped on, head down.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Hurry on down here and get killed, you dawdling son of a bitch! I want to go inside and get warm!”
He didn’t walk any faster, but I felt better.
I raised my hand when he was a dozen paces away, and he skidded a little as he stopped. He pulled back his cloak’s hood, and I saw he was young. Well, he was old enough to have made two or three babies already, but nobody would call him seasoned. He was middling height and weight, balding, and had impressive roly-poly cheeks that got pudgier as he blinked away raindrops. I wanted to remember his face when I added him to my tally of murders, but otherwise, his looks meant nothing. He likely hauled his internal organs around in the same places as everybody else, so stabbing any one I wanted would be easy.
I slipped out my sword, and I almost walked over and killed him right away. I held my weapon behind my back and rooted my feet. “Go around, or I’ll kill you deader than your sister’s virtue.”
“Hello there, Bib.”
That was a surprise, and not a nice one. It was like pulling down your bedcovers and finding a sweaty bison. “Have we met? Did I kill your father? Or your mother?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m so glad I found you. I’ve been following you for what seems like forever. I’m Desh Younger. I’m a sorcerer.”
It was sad to see men go this crazy so young. “Well, magic me up something, Desh the Sorcerer. Maybe a chair that flies and shoots lightning, or a mug that never runs out of beer.”
The young fellow glanced up into the rain for a moment, and then shrugged. “I’m not ready for magic quite that complicated yet.”
“Well, what the hell good are you?”
Desh reached across his body to a big leather satchel, flipped it open, made a show of letting me see inside, and pulled out a bundle of cloth. “Here, I brought you a present, Bib.”
“If it doesn’t make beer, I’m not sure I want it.” I waved him over and took the bundle with my free hand. It was the nastiest looking parcel of cloth I’d ever seen. It must have been dyed by a blind drunkard, and it had been stained in ways only the gods could understand.
“It’s a cloak. See? Hold it up and see if it fits.”
“I wouldn’t get buried in the damn thing.”
“Go ahead and try it on. It can’t hurt you.” He raised his chin, and I saw that this floppy dandelion was daring me to do it.
“Scoot back over there.” I sheathed my sword, dragged off my cloak with a slopping sound, and shrugged into his. “What now? It better be good, or I’m going to break your foot for making me touch this awful thing.”
“Hold on a minute.”
I almost killed him right then.
“Just wait!” Half a minute ambled past us. “All the rain’s shedding off it, right? I bet you’re starting to feel warmer. Don’t lie.”
After a deep, searching breath, I nodded. “But it doesn’t let me fly, so don’t think too much of yourself.”
He smiled for the first time. “Bib, let me buy you a drink.”
Less than a minute later, we sat at my table in the tavern, close to the scorched stone fireplace, with Sunflower hissing and clearing her throat over our trails of rainwater. I held up my new cloak’s collar. “So, what do you want from me? And I still haven’t decided against breaking your foot.”
“You’re the only sorcerer I know of.”
“Well, that’s a stupid-ass thing to say. I am not. Not anymore.” I flicked water at him. “You aren’t, either. No sorcery has happened since before you got a whisker.” He started to talk, so I bellowed, “So did the gods abjure mankind, destroying the men of legermain, abandoning humanity to the whims of famine, storm, disease, frightening beasts, gossiping neighbors, disturbing dreams, ungrateful children, and so on and so on? You get the idea. Sorcery doesn’t exist anymore, so there’s no way you can be a sorcerer, can you?”
Desh nodded at the dry cloak draped over the chair between us. “What about that?”
“You just have a talent. Every scrubby, grit-choked village in the world has somebody with a talent. Green thumb, a way with horses, never gets lost, can cook a feast with just flour and salt.” I pointed at the cloak. “Makes clothes that are unaccountably useful. Not too lovely, though. You’re not a sorcerer. Go home. Sew like a madman and be happy.”
“I’m never going back there.” Desh set down his mug with a clack. “Bib, I can feel the magic power in me. It’s a beautiful thing.”
I snatched his mug. “I’m not wasting beer on you. You’re going to live a life of disappointment and die young.”
“I paid for that. Give it back.”
I held it out to him, and he waved me off. “I give it to you as a gift, Bib. But you can’t steal from me. It’s not fair.”
“You’re definitely not a sorcerer. I hear the first thing they teach little sorcerers is that nothing’s fair.”
He leaned forward and watched me sit there and drip.
“I don’t know what else you expect me to say, son.”
“I expect you to tell me how to use magic.”
“You’re too naïve for such things. You’d disintegrate yourself the first day.”
“You might be surprised. It’s rare that I decide to do something and fail.”
The young man was worse than a tick. I decided to load him up with some half-truths and misdirection, and then send him on his way. “Desh, I bet you another beer that every single thing you know about magic is wrong.”
“Done.” He held out his hand to shake.
“Very well. Where does a sorcerer get his power?” I said.
“From hard work, study, and prayer. Lots of prayer.”
It was so ridiculous I almost tossed him out into the street. But I felt a sliver of pity for him, being such a damp meat pie of a man. “Wrong!”
“Fine. If you’re so horny to know the mysteries, I will skip most of the boring-as-bird-shit religious overtones, and we can go to the heart of the matter.” I rubbed my hands together and lowered my voice. “Every time you do magic, it’s the result of a juvenile, mean-spirited pissing match with some god. I mean, it’s so petty it would embarrass naked children on a dusty street in the nastiest village on civilization’s ass.”
Desh’s jaw twitched, but he kept quiet.
“Have you ever bartered with your neighbor for a pig or a quilt?”
“It’s exactly like that, except your neighbor is an inconceivably powerful, immortal crybaby, and the pig is a three-hundred-foot-tall pillar of fire you need to burn down a city. It’s the same thing, fundamentally. Just the details are different.”
Desh swallowed twice. “That’s crazy.”
“Let me ask you this. What does a man have to sacrifice in order to do magic? Or a woman. As a rule, women are better sorcerers than men.”
“They have to sacrifice whatever else they might have wanted to do with their life.”
“Not that, either.”
“I . . . don’t . . .”
“Himself, Desh. He trades himself away to the gods, one piece after another.”
“What kind of pieces?”
“I’m asking the questions, but I’ll humor you since you just found out that everything you ever knew was horseshit. A god will make a sorcerer do something, or have something done to him, to get power. Or maybe he’ll give up something or accept something he doesn’t want. For a little bit of power, the sorcerer could agree to get three bad colds that winter. For more power, he might have to steal money from his brother and throw it in the river. For a lot of power, he might have to take the blame for a murder he didn’t do.”
Desh leaned back and squinted at me. “Is this all true? Bib, don’t lie to me.”
I guess I should have been offended, but lying does happen to be one of my weaknesses. I couldn’t get too mad at him for seeing it. I was abusing the truth a little now, but I wasn’t smashing it all to hell. “I’m not lying, son. Now, based on your vast reservoir of sorcery knowledge, what’s the greatest danger to a sorcerer?”
“Disintegrating yourself. Well, you did mention it. Also, cooking yourself and blowing yourself up. You know, losing control of the magic.”
“Nope. Oh, control can be an annoyance, but the biggest danger is paying too much. Gods will ask a sorcerer to give up memories, forget how they feel about people, do things they thought only a monster would do—until they agreed to do them. A sorcerer has to decide for himself what price is too high, because the gods will take everything they can. In the old days, you’d see sorcerers as crazy as blowflies or wandering in the forest until they froze to death. They traded it all to the gods.”
Desh didn’t say anything.
I said, “And if you were an actual sorcerer, you might say, ‘Bib, how can I avoid paying too much?’ I’d tell you never to make the first offer. Making the first offer is a sure way to end up paying too much. Make the god extend the first offer. Do you understand?”
He nodded. “Don’t pay too much. How do I know if it’s too much? What are things worth? How do I know if it’s a good deal?”
I leaned across to tell him the one thing that was unequivocally true. “There are no good deals. There are bad deals, and there are deals that are less bad.”
“You’re just trying to confuse me now.”
“No, I’m just telling you things that are confusing. Last question. What is the most important thing for a sorcerer to know?”
Desh looked down and curled his lower lip. “I used to think it was knowing your enemy. Now I think it might be knowing what you don’t know.”
“Hah! You should know that sorcery is less about magic than you might think. Mainly, it’s about looking tough, being sneaky, and waving your hands around a lot.”
Desh crossed his arms and stared at me. “You must have given up a lot. What was the worst?”
“Ah, the worst. I can only make love six times a night now. It used to be a lot more.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Really, I don’t remember. Nothing too bad. It probably just made me tougher and better looking.”
“Bib, I chased you through three countries for five months. You’re not so petty that you won’t tell me this one thing, are you?”
Maybe I had indeed become petty living out in these little rat-suck towns where everything was small and slow, and that was the way they liked it. Without thinking too much, I said, “I am on what we call an open-ended debt. I didn’t give up anything. Instead, I owe the repugnant, ever-to-be-regurgitated-upon Harik, God of Death, a certain number of murders. I’d be thrilled to tell you what that number is, but only Harik knows. So, I have to murder people until he says I’ve done it enough.”
“If the gods are gone, you can just stop killing people.”
“I thought that myself. I did decide to stop killing, but soon I got sick, and then disgustingly sick, and then grotesquely miserable. I decided not to find out what would happen after that.”
“Bib, if the gods are gone, how can Harik tell you when you’re done?”
“That is a problem, isn’t it?”
Desh coughed, shifted away from the table, bent over, and caught his breath.
“All right, relax. Don’t be such a dimpled daisy—you’ll embarrass me.”
“You’re crazy! Why did you agree to that?”
“It was the best deal I could get at the time.” I drank off my beer and held up the mug to get Sunflower’s attention. “So, do you still think you’re a sorcerer?”
“No. I’m not a sorcerer. Not until you teach me how. I have clearly found the right man. And I owe you a beer.”