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The Wonder of Dedi

A Reading from
The Acts of Simon Magus in the First Century AD
by Glendenning Cram

Note: Simon's village witch has foretold that he will meet someone who will lead him to the ultimate power...

I have found him! The one Pirhah foretold, who will make clear the purpose of my enforced continence, the purpose of my life really...

His name is Dedi. I was heading to class this morning, after a scribing all-nighter that nearly sent me blind. And just outside the stadium there was a small crowd gathered, and I stopped to look at the man doing magic on the steps. Now this isn't that unusual here. You can't go down the market or the port without getting begged on by a bunch of jugglers or star-readers, though by now the regulars know better than to ask me for anything. I'd never seen this one before, though.

He was old, like very old. His Sun-black flesh was shrunken, almost transparent over his tiny bones; his head bore a red skull-cap and a few wisps of white hair, though his sparse beard came down to his waist. His robe was worn and patched, but its colour was the brightest green, almost dazzling in Ra's rays, that might have been dyed an hour before, and bound with buckles of -- pure gold?

"Who is he?" I asked, and ten people looked at me like I was the veriest dolt in town. "Dedi's back," said one, as if that said it all. The name sounded familiar but I couldn't place it, so just settled back to watch the show. And it was some show, no doubt about it!

"Now watch!" he commanded in a high reedy voice. "I, Dedi, cast this spell before King Cheops Himself, when I was helping him in his great work at Memphis. I know thou all know how Dedi made the mighty building blocks of his great Pyramids lighter than a feather, so one slave could carry ten on his head and lay them down tight. That spell is gone, but this one, thou will see now, endures. Like Dedi! Dedi is the rock in the Nile of Time, that flows past Dedi, and around Dedi, but Dedi heeds not her ebbs and her flows. Peoples and kings rise to glory and fall to dust, but Dedi stands! Somebody pass Dedi a chicken."

Somebody did, and he took her in his two hands, speaking softly to her, blowing gently in her face, then seized her by the neck and ripped her head right off in a spurt of gore! The crowd gasped as he held up the headless bird, still twitching in his gnarly old hands.

"Let all know that Dedi holds in him Life and holds in him Death, that no wizard in this or any land can be greater than this Dedi here and now, and this chicken is the proof. Live again, happy hen!"

He held up the head he had torn away and jammed it back on the chicken's neck. And that bird looked up and around at the crowd, and we all cheered. He handed her back to her owner and removed his tiny cap. This he passed around and the people dropped in their coins, but however many they put in, it never filled! People who had dropped in one dropped two, three, four and more, but they disappeared as soon as they hit the cap, and it seemed to me that nothing could be so magical as this.

I didn't have a penny to pay, so when he approached me, I tried to slip away in the crowd. But his gaunt hand grabbed mine, and he pulled himself close to my ear and whispered something in a tongue I knew not, then moved on to the next donor. I felt suddenly faint and stumbled over to squat against the nearest pillar to clear my head. What was I doing? I had to get to Akademy fast or Philo would kick me out for sure. And I would have too, if I hadn't seen something. Something white, feathered, beady-eyed... in the dust before me, behind Dedi's magic pack, lay the chicken's head! And yet... not ten feet away strutted the fowl herself, alive and clucking!

I grew dizzy. I shook my head in wonder. Did she have two heads? Or what...? What could it mean? Class forgotten, I reached over and picked up the head, then stood back to watch as Dedi carried on with his feats of magic. Some I knew, for they were like unto Ba's, involving disappearing coins, sudden flames, perception of hidden thoughts and objects, and I wondered if he too had studied with the Bookitoons... But no, he had served Cheops 2000 years past, and according to Ba the Brethren were barely 1200. Perhaps Dedi had been among their founders? Ba said they couldn't accept payment for their magical services, yet here was Dedi passing the cap. What can I say? It's Egypt. They do things different here.

This, I knew, was why I was here. The one foretold was before me in the flesh. And he knew it too; when he announced his last feat, he pointed right at me and beckoned. I walked up front slowly and he turned me round to face the lookers, took a quill and dipped it in a jar of blood, then traced a single line around my neck. His rheumy red eyes gazed deep into mine, piercing me to the soul, and I couldn't have resisted if I tried.

A long knife appeared from nowhere in Dedi's hand. "That's sharp," said he, and passed it around, and all agreed that yes indeed, it was just about as sharp as sharp could ever be. He picked up a burlap bag and pulled it over my head. Through the rough fabric I could barely see him raise high the nasty-looking blade. The onlookers held their breaths in awed anticipation. I myself was sweating arrows. Yes, he was Dedi, and yes, he'd already shown he could take off a head and put it back without ill effect. But the lore is full of tales of spells gone wrong. He was so old; might not he flub a word or gesture? Suddenly in the musty dark I saw Uncle Khain drilling me for the Fest, and thought how mad he'd be if he found out someone else got to slit my throat. I smiled at that, and a sudden and strange nostalgia filled me for that world I came from, so different from this, all the people and places I'd never see again if Dedi fucked this up.

Luckily he didn't. At least I came out of it in one piece, and the crowd was suitably impressed. As I'm sure I'd have been too if I'd seen what happened, but truth to tell I don't know what happened. As the knife touched my throat I felt no pain at all, but I did feel another touch to the back of my neck, and it seemed my head flopped right off, attached to me by only flesh, no bone at all, dangling free as a something-or-other, and I fell to the ground numb and weak as the sorcerer held high the bag containing... my head? But that was on the ground... I think... that's where my eyes were anyway...

And then the bag was back on my neck, and that neck snapped up stiff again, he pulled me to my feet and tore away the bag, and I blinked in sudden blinding daylight. The audience was ecstatic and plied him with coins and comestibles--including the glamoured chicken, whom he kissed before placing into a large sack. A sad-faced old lady came up to me and hesitantly touched the drying blood on my neck.

"Healed up so fast too," she marveled. "What was it like?"

"What was what like?"

"Death's realm. What didst thou see? Was it like they say?"

Well, if they say it's like your head falling off and being two places at once, I guess it was. They say a lot of things about Death, and in this place they're all different. When Philo asked me that time what happens when you die where I come from, I knew the answer. But the yellow hills of home and their Lords are far from here, and it's becoming more and more conceivable that Mot's Place (under the next mountain but one from Gitta) might not—do I blaspheme?—be the ultimate destination of every dead soul in this whole wide world.

That woman was still staring at me, leaning close for a revelation from beyond the veil. I took a dramatic breath and hollowly imparted my answer:

"Yes."

She squealed in delight.

"I knew it! Get ready, Ampelios; we'll be doing it again soon!"

She skipped off like a girl. I was glad she was glad, but certain others seemed less so, eying me cautiously. I knew what they were thinking; I too have heard tell of certain folk of the western desert, ripped from Death's bony grip through necromancy or worse but leaving their spirit behind, so that they become as ravening beasts, wandering the wastes devouring all they meet, until the spell be broken and they find peace once more. I was tempted to lunge at them growling, but restrained myself. I'm good at that.

 

My resurrection was the last feat of the morning, and Dedi began packing up his accoutrements as the crowd dispersed, chattering excitedly. I watched him in silence. What marvels can I learn from him, what part of his great power can I gain for myself? For we are bound now, he and I. He has killed me and he has remade me; my life is his life. All I can do now is wait for him to tell me what to do.

Dedi finished up—how could so much stuff fit in such a tiny bag?—and started back down the avenue. I followed some steps behind. He used a serpent-headed cane to support him, but was remarkably spry for a duomillenarian (which is to say still not very). We made our way slowly west, then north through Agora into the heart of the native quarter. He stopped at a tiny hut and entered. So did I.

It wasn't exactly what I'd expected: a true sorcerer's den replete with exotic charms and mystic devices. No, it was just a hut like any other, humble and sparsely furnished; quite a nice rug though. Dedi dropped his pack and reached for a skin, sucked back a long draught. I looked at it enviously. I'd had nothing to drink in an hour, and here in Egypt you can't let yourself dry out.

"Please..." I started, and he jerked around with an ancient oath, raising his cane as if to defend himself. His eyes narrowed and he lowered it.

"Thou, boy, why thou here?"

I held out the chicken's other head.

"You tell me."

He stared at it.

"Who knows this?" he asked.

"No one."

He snatched the head and stashed it in his magic pack. We looked at each other for a minute.

"Wantst money?"

Was this a test?

"I want to learn your secrets."

"I don't need a boy," said he, reaching into his pouch. "I give thee 2D. Thou shut up."

"And I don't need your money. You summoned me, I'm here. As foretold."

He seemed confused. Had he forgotten already? Was that ancient mind finally decrepitating?

"I called thee... Yes. All right. Go now, come back Sundown. I show thee good tricks."

"Thank you, Master!" I would have embraced him but feared he might crumble to dust in my arms, so I just turned and hied me to Akademy as fast as I could.

 

When I got there, the seminar was half done, and I quickly scurried about distributing notes. But I needn't have rushed. Apparently last night as he meditated on some or other holy text, our prof was rapturously transported into the presence of the Divine Radiance, and is determined to take as many words as necessary to impart that ineffable encounter unto the rest of us (just what about the word "ineffable" doesn't he get?). So I'm sitting here pretending to take notes, but instead writing up this account of my day so far. I know, I know, I shouldn't get too excited. I remember in Tyre so looking forward to my first sea-voyage, and the nightmare that turned into. Maybe this thing with Dedi is not it after all. Or maybe it is. Lords, I hope so. This old fool can stuff his mystic crap. I've found the real thing!

 

After class I spent the afternoon so excited, more than I've ever been. Dedi, Dedi was all I could think. I'm going to learn all his secrets! Maybe I'll be his heir; is it time for him to retire? No, he said he was eternal and would endure forever, so how can I take his place? Ba told us it took many years to reach the proficiency of the Brethren, and Dedi has 800 years (at least!) on them; how long must I serve him before gaining the smallest part of that knowledge? But surely it's worth it.

So I was back at Dedi's hut just as Sun kissed Earth, and found the great magician naked and senseless in the middle of that very attractive carpet, black belly distended with the contents of several scattered-about wineskins. In all Ba's tales, a Man of Knowledge must (like me) be abstinent (or at least moderate) in all things. But perhaps when you reach a certain level you can indulge. Something to look forward to maybe.

I wasn't sure what to do, or what to expect if I bothered him. But he had promised to receive me and teach me, and a man of such power can afford to keep his word. /* Such an innocent lad was I! /sm */ I bent and touched his chest. "Master Dedi," I said. No response. I repeated it louder. Nothing. I took and shook his bony shoulder. He just squirmed and farted. I shook again, harder. Wake up! I need you! Are you dead? He may as well have been for all the rise I got out of him. I looked around the hut and found a skin with something left in it, shoved it between his toothless gums and squeezed. His eyes flew open as he choked and puked purple out and over the carpet I had admired. I grabbed his robe and mopped it up, as he succumbed to a fit of coughing.

When he recovered, I passed him the robe and he donned it, heedless of its stinky wetness. He was probably used to it.

"Well?" said I.

He glared at me blearily, then sighed.

"Pass my pack,"

I did. He took out a bag of tiles and handed it to me.

"Call three."

"Snail/AAI/Long Boat."

He closed his eyes, stuck his hand in the bag and without hesitation pulled out three tiles, rolled them round and about in knotty, deft fingers, muttered a spell and cast them true. My mouth fell open and I started back in wonder. For there, face-up on my rug, were the very figures, in the very order, I had specified!

I cannot say all the thoughts that filled me in that moment. The first, of course, was strictly practical, namely how such power might best be applied to the nightly gaming sessions at Aboud's, and the pleasure I would surely take in sharking certain classmates who had treated a poor acolyte less than respectfully. By You, the tiles would dance in my fingers, and their daddies' coins should surely feed my rapidly depleting pouch!

This pleasant fantasy lasted several seconds longer than it should have, suddenly replaced by hot burning shame. These powers are not, I knew, for unfair gain. It's all right for Dedi to perform for pennies; it is his only skill, after all, and from his surroundings he is certainly not profiting unduly from it. No matter what he said about enduring eternally, the centuries are catching up with him, that's plain, and what's plainer is that I am in fact his intended heir. But now I think on it, if this is the life I may expect as successor to the most powerful wizard in the land, do I really want it? Pissed every night in a shack in the slums? Have I even the strength for the necessary training? But Pirhah thought so, and Dedi seems to too. So I resigned myself to whatever may come. It's a beginning.

I picked up the tiles and handed them to Dedi. He winked and handed them back.

"Close thine eyes. Feel," said he.

I did so, and opened my soul to receive the enchantment by which the magician must have infused the lowly tiles, with which I myself must surely learn to align, to feel its flow, to combine the essence of the tiles with my own and make them part of myself, so that I may move and manipulate them as easily as my own fingers...

Of course I felt nothing like the above, nor did I really expect to--though naturally I hoped. It would take time to build up the requisite sensitivities. How much time? I opened my eyes and attempted some stumbling apology for my lack of whatever, but he'd have none of that.

"Feel tiles. Only tiles. No bullshit."

So I try again, this time to feel only--but all of--what's actually between my fingers. I don't know how long I turned them, and all their bagmates, round and round in my hands, taking in the sensuous smoothness of the age-yellowed ivory, like warm hard flesh; the worn, nicked edges, slightly rounded through centuries of manipulation; every detail of the figures and characters engraved thereon. I continued until the light had long faded, but the darkness only heightened my sensitivity, and slowly I began to distinguish with a touch the sharp arc of Scorpion from the soft curves of Sandcat, Hipsu's oblique intersections from The House's angles, Natronicos from The Three (that was easy anyway!). And there's something else about these tiles of Dedi's too: when I turn them some ways they seem to subtly resist the company of their fellows, but in other ways they are almost eager to unite. And when I let them fall, they tend to favour certain alignments, unless--Dedi had started to guide my hands by this point--flipped or tapped in a specific spot in the course of tossing. He seemed genuinely pleased with my progress, and I felt a thrill whenever he nodded in approval.

I left Dedi's shortly after daybreak, still buzzing on all I had learned under his guidance. My fingers yet manipulated tiles of air, feeling in their tips those subtle variations... Obviously I haven't learnt all the secrets of the tiles, and to actually put those secrets to useful purpose will take more than a single night's instruction, and many, many nights of practice.

No class today, and I hadn't slept since Gods, when? and when I hit the tomb I crashed hard into dreamless slumber. I just woke up now to write all this. But Sun is already almost down again, and I must return to Dedi's to continue my instruction in the

magical arts. That's what I was going to say. But they're not, are they? With the same instruction and sufficient will, might not anyone with half-dexterous fingers accomplish the same? This is not what I need from Dedi. Does he think to fob me off with trickery? Of course now I think on it, tricks are all he promised. He yet conceals the real magic: the materializations from thin air and disappearances back into it; the decapitations and restorations, the

Shit. They're all tricks, aren't they? If he can throw any configuration of tiles, he can surely flip a coin in and out of a sleeve. And the hen's second head... no wonder he offered me money to shut up! But he couldn't have faked the heart-reading, the clear-seeing, the spirit-talking... Friend Dedi has secrets yet, and I will know them all!

Got there at dusk. This time he was awake and ready for me. He held out the bag as I entered.

"Wheatcake/Scorpion/Shitbug," said he, and I plunged in my hand. The first two were easy, but the last had too much in common with Liver Jar, as he well knew. I hesitated, felt again, but still couldn't tell for sure.

"Pick!"

I pulled the two I knew and the one I didn't, and cast them. All good! I looked up triumphantly, but Dedi just smiled sadly.

"Thou wert lucky. Good luck now, bad luck then. Thou gotst to know."

He named a harder arrangement, and of course I didn't get but one. But at least it wasn't quite good luck this time. So he set me learning those I found hardest to tell apart: manipulating them behind my back; in fullest light and deepest dark; with toes, nose and everything between, over a full week (reluctantly interrupted by my scribal duties; I still need to eat) until every part of me knows every nook and cranny of every tile in Dedi's bag of tricks, and I can indeed make them dance to my desire.

At this point the old temptation returned, to get me to Aboud's game-table and make a killing. I tried to force such base thoughts from my mind, but Dedi saw them. He was rather less condemning than I had expected.

"Wouldst practice that Art with pros? They'd catch thee out in a flash. Thou wantst to win? Learn to lose. Just a little less than win. Win when it's right. And most important, never let them know thee a winner. Who'd ever play Dedi?"

"Not me."

"But anybody'd play thee, a dumb barleypicker from Hickopolis. Lose quiet, win loud, like it never happened before in thy life. Or maybe lose loud and win quiet? Whatever. Thou'lt find thy way. And now..."

He collected the tiles and deposited them in their bag.

"...thou'st learnt well. These are thine, a gift from Dedi. Go thy way."

"But..."

"What?"

"I need to know," said I boldly, "the real magic. As it was foretold."

"I know not who told that. Dedi deals no more in that. Yes, once, long ago, maybe, no more. Dedi's a trickster now. He goes not outside this world any more. Right here is fine."

"Come on. You told that woman her dead man's name, and we all heard his message. You read a sealed paper you couldn't possibly see. And the rising rope... the floating fire..?"

"Tricks, all tricks! Go away, thou'st got the price of thy silence."

"No. Show me all."

"I'll show thee the rest of thy life as a toad."

"Yeah? Do it."

He raised his serpent staff and pointed it right at my belly.

"Go now or I sure will."

I trembled, but stared him in the eyes. He sighed and lowered the staff.

"Fine."

He made to turn, but instead swung it right at my head before I could react. But my skull was uncracked, for that staff dissolved in smoke and reformed intact on the other side.

"Now that's magic," said I, still shaken. "No Earthly way you did that."

He laughed out loud.

"Yet Dedi did it, and it's easier than the tiles. Look."

And he showed me, and damned if it's not a lot easier than the tiles. In fact, a simple... you know what? I'm not saying any more. You want to know how Dedi's magic works, find him and ask him. He probably won't tell you, but I think right now he's actually happy to share with someone, anyone, after all those centuries of secrets.

Some of his feats are just easy but truly effective, like the staff, and some take perception and perseverance, like the tiles, and some need long and careful preparation. The floating fire is one such, requiring the gathering of very specific ingredients and their combination in exact proportions to avoid either a lost finger or a dud (the former being preferable for the true performer).

The subtlest effects involve the perception of the thoughts and feelings of an audience member, to divine their innermost fears and desires, the names and words and pictures floating through their guts. "I can't teach this," says he, but he has given me some general principles which I must try to apply, and confirm if possible, whenever I'm around other people. "But thou'rt not reading their soul," he reiterates, "and don't try. Just face, voice, hands, body, smell. It's all there if thou canst but take it in." It'll take much practice, many failings and learnings before I can truly

Ba. Fuck. You old faker! I just now had a flash of you pulling coins from our ears, reading hidden texts, knowing our minds… there's not one of your magicks I couldn't do now myself eyes closed, probably better. What a liar! Was anything you ever told us true? All those tales of far-off wonders, did you just dream those up for kicks on you travels? Did you even go anywhere, or just spend your time away screwing around and doing You-know-what for money in Tyre or someplace, listening to travel stories from people who actually went somewhere, and coming back and spewing them over us. Damn you anyway.

You know the Epicurean boys in class say Kosmos has no mind, things just happen because they happen, and the Gods are far and away and don't give a shit about us mere mortals, if they even exist at all. When you're dead you're dead, say they, and all that is is what's right before before our eyes, and once you accept that you'll be a lot better off. So is there no real magic? Was Pirhah wrong? Or did she maybe send me to Dedi to learn just that?

No, I don't believe it. Dedi's given up on it, that's all. Why? Well I know it can be dangerous. Maybe something happened, something that scared him off, made him give up the Art forever. I've tried to ask him but all he says is, "Don't go there." I want to go there!

 

Still, what I've learned so far from the ancient wizard is proving quite useful. I'm following his advice and making a reasonably good killing at the tiles table at Aboud's. Lose quiet and win loud seems to be the strategy that works for me. When I lose, I grit my teeth in silent desperation and immediately ante up for another cast. My friends look at me worried. Sometimes Marcus whispers in my ear to stop, I'll ruin myself, and I smile bravely and reduce my stake, only to bust again, win a bit, then lose again. And on the next round the stakes are higher still and I throw everything in, mouthing silent prayers to all the Gods of all lands, and everyone rolls their eyes. But Fortuna touches my tiles, and I cheer and toast Her, and my companions breathe again in relief as half my net gain disappears up my sleeve, so you'd really have to be paying attention to know what I'd actually made. As far as anyone can tell I walk out with half what I came with (which is twice what I should have for my recklessness) but actually it's just a little more.

A very little. For, after all, my needs are modest. Dedi says greed'll kill thee, and I believe him. I live the life of a poor student in my little crypt, with rare indulgences, but the main use for my profits is my growing text collection.

Every now and then a tilesharp comes in, someone with the same general training as myself, and tries to swindle us ignorant students. But we're the cream of the philosophical crop, and we all know what he's up to. He's not as subtle as I. He'll join the running game, and lose and lose again with desperate cries of "Fates don't fail me now!" but somehow they always do, and then he offers to go all-in if we'll all do the same. At this point everyone loses interest and the cheater is left to plead for someone, anyone to make some easy money off his obvious ineptitude.

Last night one of these was in attendance, and I watched him carefully as we all played out our roles in his little drama. He was good, and sometimes even I couldn't quite figure how he'd managed to lose so dismally. But I had Dedi and his 2000 years experience on my side, and at the climax of the piece, when he threw in his last 20D and looked around for for a final round, I thought I'd try out my skills against a worthy foe.

"I'll go," I called. Marcus took my arm and pulled me aside urgently.

"Art touched? That guy will take everything thou'st got, and thou'st not got that much. Art even even?"

"I've got a bit left from last time, and the prof pays me tomorrow, no, Hermday. I'll survive. Anyway, I got a good feeling. Maybe I'll get lucky again."

And so it proved. The slicker looked disgusted as I dropped 3D on the table, but no one else had taken the bait, so he had to go through with it and take what he could get. Everyone else gathered round to watch their hapless classmate crash and burn before his better. But after a couple of dismal test rounds, poor Shim, perennial loser, held both The One and the Twins, and Aboud's erupted in cheers as the con man turned three shades lighter and his eyes widened in utter incomprehension.

"That's that's not… No way… Cheater!" he bellowed. This elicited a roar of even louder laughter.

"Again, one more!" he begged.

"Sure," smiled I, raking it in, "show me thy money."

Of course he couldn't, as he'd supposedly just dropped his very last obol on a dud pull (I didn't embarrass him further by exposing what was still up his own sleeve; we were colleagues after all). He stood and stormed out, and such was the benevolent spirit in the place that night that no one even followed him with a cudgel and a boot into the the canal, as is customary upon these occasions. And Marcus just looked at me like, well, like he wasn't going to play me again soon.

 

I think, I know, that Dedi will soon reveal his real secrets. I am winning him over slowly. But how did he come to his present state? If I could find that out, maybe I could find out why he refused to show the real Power. I understood why he couldn't show it in public, but this is me, his chosen successor.

When I went for my lesson last night, I was determined to confront him and demand my right. But when I pushed open his door, he wasn't alone. He was leaning up against the far wall, and there was a woman leaning over him. She was veiled, but by her robe she looked pretty well off, a high-class hooker maybe? He must be doing better than I thought. In one hand she held a small glass bottle, and in the other Dedi himself. I must confess he was quite a good size for his age, and he throbbed in her tiny hand as she massaged him vigorously.

"That's it, like that, oh yes girl, thou'rt blessed..."

She licked all round the head, and he started writhing.

"Oh Gods yes, oh yeah, come to Dedi! Ahh..."

And with that his seed—not copious, but surprisingly white; I would have expected black—spilled forth, and she caught it expertly in her vial as he sagged backwards with a sigh. She gave him a couple of tugs for the "last ten drops", then stoppered her precious load and tucked it away in her purse. From the same purse she took out a silver D and placed it on his belly, but he was too gone to notice. She stood up and made sure her veil was in place, and I ducked out of sight and watched her hurry out and off down the alley.

I pushed the door wide and went in. Dedi was still lying back on my carpet, breathing hard.

"Who was that?" I asked.

"Who?" he mumbled.

"She seemed quite taken with you."

He looked down and saw the coin, and without a touch it was gone. I'd have been impressed if he hadn't taught me a dozen ways to produce the same effect. Fake magic. And now I thought I knew why he couldn't do the real thing. He'd fallen to temptation—when?—and lost his real powers. But can he still teach them to me? He has the knowledge, the words, does it matter that he has fallen while I remain pure?

"Ah, those succubi! They never leave Dedi alone! They all want Dedi's seed to make a magic baby, or spice their man's wine, or… thou knows..."

I didn't like to think.

"Everyone needs a wizard," he went on philosophically. "We got to serve best we can."

Serve. That's what Ba used to say. I want them to serve me.

The lesson that night was capping and snapping, and at the end the forks and skewers were dancing on my fingers. I was about to go when he seized my wrist in his skeletal hand and squeezed hard.

"That was good. Come on."

He grabbed up his pack and pulled me out the door and down the street. There's a big public square there, and he marched us to the centre of it and threw down his pack. A couple of loiterers approached as the other occupants of the square slowly turned their attention to us. Dedi went into his spiel, did a fast-fingering or two, and suddenly pointed at me.

"And here's Dedi's 7-greats grandson, lost to Dedi these long many years, come back to me at last! Here boy!" He tossed me a handful of utensils. "Give breath!"

I started animating them, making them leap and dance about my hand, then onto the tabletop, making scissor lions chase and devour paper sheep, cotton birds hover in air, mortar perform a lewd dance with pestle... It went very well, if I say so myself, and I was showered with small coins. Dedi bowed as I conjured these into the magical cap.

He brought me out a couple more times during the show, including the head-lop and "For my last marvel, I see one of thee lost someone last week... month... One of thee? Thou!"

He pushed into the crowd and up to a prosperous-looking woman with teary red eyes. She nodded dumbly.

"Come up here, my dear, that's good. Tell Dedi thy tale."

He pushed her in front of me.

"Or better, Dedi's 7-greats grandson will tell it for thee. Come on boy, say it out."

I looked closely at her. She looked like she'd been weeping, but trying to maintain a solid facade. She had a small object in her right hand and some braided flowers around her left wrist. I took a deep breath and went for it.

"Someone dear to you is gone." She nodded again and looked down. I took her hand gently. "He…" Her hand tensed. "No, she, of course…" She relaxed. "Not… or… your mother? Sister?" she tensed again. "I thought not. A dear, dear friend…"

"Yes! Thou hast the gift! What else?"

"…a true and faithful companion; you'd spend hours together, your most precious moments…"

"Gods yes."

"…days and nights, sharing your most secret thoughts, all your disappointments and hurts, knowing she would never betray them…"

"Of course."

"…and she'd tell you hers…"

She tensed again and looked up suspiciously. What, was her friend dumb?

"…or she would have, if…"

If what? Come on lady, give me a clue here! I looked at Dedi. He looked back nonchalantly. Obviously he'd already sussed it out, but gave no sign.

"…if she could have…"

What was she holding? I stroked her wrist and her hand opened slightly to reveal a strip of red leather. A collar?

"…wait now… a beloved beast!"

Yes.

"Maybe not a cat… a toad…?"

Her reaction said no, but… damn it, what else do people keep as pets here? And what did the flowers mean? Suddenly I felt a faint scratching on my back. Someone was using a fingernail to write…

"A monkey!"

That was it.

"And you called her…"

Her lips moved, as if to say a name.

"…Me… Mate…"

"Manesep," she sobbed.

"Yes, it's so clear now, your dear Manesep. Oh, the funny tricks she'd get up to! "

She smiled in spite of herself.

"There she is! I see her plain now, hopping about, trying to reach out to you, saying…"

I paused and listened.

"What?" she cried. "Tell it, I pray thee!"

"It's in monkey talk… wait… flowers, something about lotus flowers…"

"Yes," she gasped. "How… how couldst thou know? She loved to eat them. I couldn't keep them in the house. Look, I made this in her memory." She held up the wrist with the floral bracelet. I touched it.

"Yes, I feel that. Manesep says it looks delicious."

She laughed, and I put my hand on her head.

"Don't be sad, she says. Just remember her as she was, and when you do, laugh just like that."

"I will, I will. The Gods bless thee, sweet boy!"

She gestured to her slave, who pressed a silver as into my hand as the crowd applauded.

"Men and ladies, thank thee all so much!" cried Dedi, deftly spiriting my tip out of my hand before it could reach my pouch. "Dedi and Dedi's boy will be this way again, so watch out! Boy, pass the cap."

I did, and we did very well. On the way back, he passed me a few coins worth about a quarter of what that lady gave me, but I didn't complain. Soon I'll have it all. Next time for sure.

------

As usual, he was out like a candle when I arrived. I squatted and shook him. "Master!" He didn't answer and I was about to revive him in the usual way when he started mumbling. There's truth in the tipple, said Babu, so I bent close, straining to hear what he might reveal. But it was in native lingo, strangely accented in what was likely the dialect of his youth, and I could catch only a few phrases.

"Nen re saphat... Pe re su... Ma ra..." Magical phrases maybe? Spells? I pulled out my notes and tried to write them down. "Mo hoto..." Drunken gibberish or words of power? I started to read them back.

"Nen re saph..."

His eyes flew open and his gnarly little hand grabbed my neck.

"Don't thou say that!"

His grip was not very strong, but I stopped.

"Why not? What does it mean?"

"Never thou mind. What thou want?"

"I want what you promised me."

"Dedi promise thee nothing. Dedi give thee too much already. Go away."

"I can't. You're why I'm here. You're the one."

"Thou keep saying that. Dedi don't know what that means."

He couldn't still be holding out. I'd invested everything in him. A full month I'd served basically as his slave, indulging his peculiar and sometimes downright alarming habits. If that's not long enough to tolerate the old bastard go before he trusts me enough to vouchsafe me the true magic, I don't know what is. If you've lived two millennia, that may not seem much, but to me it seems a lifetime. I'm here for a reason. We both know it, though he persists in denying it. I need it now!

"Yes you do, damn you!"

He just turned over and ignored me. I... well what was I supposed to do? His magic pack was lying beside him. I reached in and pulled out his knife, the super-sharp one he cuts my head off with, and put the point of it to his throat. He started up, but I pressed it in, drawing a drop, and he flopped back.

"What you do?" he gasped.

In truth I didn't know what I did. Threatening the most powerful wizard in history with a knife, it looks like. How did that happen? I was just so mad... with a knife? He's lived this long, no way an earthly blade's going to... but it is a magic knife, so maybe it can kill a magic man, he's bleeding already... but it's his magic knife. Shit. He just has to give a word and it'll turn right round and skewer me, no, probably fly up and snip snap slish slash slice my tendons so I can't resist, just lie there as it flays me slowly, peels the skin right off my meat and, when I'm a bleeding mass of anguished flesh, take my ears, my eyes, and only then deliver my final mercy right through the

These thoughts seemed to be taking an awfully long time, during which the handle of same knife remained firmly in my fist, and himself's own neck at the other end of it, and most importantly, my skin still clothing me. I looked down at Dedi. His whole face was scrunched up, his whole body rigid, almost as if he were... afraid? So the knife did have power over him after all? I pushed it in a little more and he cringed.

"Why thou do this? Dedi treat thee so good."

"Why thou keep asking?" I mocked him. "Why thou keep pretending? I've passed my tests. Give me the prize!"

"Thou'st got all Dedi's got. There's no more..." He stopped, and a strange expression moved over his face, as if something had thrust something into his mind. Something he wanted to say but couldn't find the right words. Then he smiled, an even more devious smile than usual. "Except the last thing. But it's not time."

"Trust me, it's time," I said.

"Boys never be patient," he said. "Dost know how long Dedi waited to be Dedi?"

"More than a month?"

"Thou funny boy," he cackled. "That's why Dedi keep thee here."

Yeah, that and... but I said all that before. And of course because he thought I was still extorting him over the chicken thing. And because he liked to show off. And the main thing, because I wouldn't leave him alone.

He became serious.

"Thou wants to know all Dedi knows? Do all Dedi does? Be all Dedi is? Fine. Time is soon. Art truly truly ready for that?"

"You know I am. It's what I'm here for, what I'm alive for. You know that."

"Dedi knows it now. He didn't think so first, but now, yes, thou's proved thyself good, strong, loyal. Thou can suffer it... Yes I think so... Thou will be Dedi!"

I pulled away the knife and sat back on the carpet. Gods, could it be? I was his chosen heir, successor to the greatest magician ever! And Whatever rules my fate had ensured that I meet him at the end of his allotted lifespan... wait...

"How much longer?"

"Very short. Jackal's sniffing Dedi's arse, canst see Him? He says I'm done, and—what's thy name?"

"Shim."

"—Simi's next. Before next flood he's Simi no more. He's Dedi!"

Very short, said he? Flood time's half a year away! But I supposed it would take at least that long for him to teach me the real Knowledge. Would Pirhah believe it? Had she foreseen that this would be the one who completed me? She didn't seem to have much of an idea, just that it would happen. And it sure had! But I wasn't going to be this wizened little gnome, busking for mites in the marketplace. Well maybe in 2000 years I would be, but now I was going to be as Dedi was in the court of King Cheops, full of power and glory. The stones will fly, and so will I! I'll arrive back home in a sweet high flaming chariot, swing low over Gitta, and they'll all look up and say is that an eagle? no, it's one of the Lords, wait now, that looks like... it can't be... Shim, is that thee??? And down I'll sweep and land in the middle of town, and Soch will be like, "Nice ride, man!" and Khain will be sorry he ever doubted me, and Ma will be so proud. And that's the last time they'll ever call me "thee"!

All of a sudden six months didn't seem too long at all. I didn't care if it took nine!

But...

"But... you're Dedi. How can you die?"

"I'm this Dedi. Soon thou'll be the next one. Did think even Dedi can keep a body alive so long? This one's not even seen 10 20-years."

So not 2000, but close to 200's not bad either. One can do a lot in 200 years with that kind of power.

"You mentioned suffering?"

He flicked his hand dismissively.

"Worry not on that," he said. "For a moment, no more, yes, Simi maybe feel something. For this me, like all of me is my balls, crushed and skewered over coals. For thee, maybe better, maybe worse. Only a moment, might feel longer. Can stand it?"

I'm not a fan of pain, but I nodded even as I winced inside.

"I know thou can," he said admiringly. "I'd feel it for thee, but it's thou must live it. Thou's sure?"

"I already said so. No more talk. Let's get started."

"Start what?"

"My training, or whatever it is. Teach me those secrets I must know to take thy place!"

"No need," said he. "In the moment I go from here, all I am now will pass into thee. Thou be me, I be thee. And all be Dedi!"

"Wait, so I have to be right here at that moment?"

"Of course. My last breath will fill thee with Dedi. Thou must be by my side. Jackal said before flood-time, but could be any time. Could be tomorrow. Could be now."

"But I have to..." I started. But really, what did I have to do? Give Philo my notice? Say goodbye to my friends? Once I'm Dedi, I can show them all!

He shrugged. "If thou's not here, Dedi will find someone. A passing camel, a beggar, a shitbug, till World is ready for Dedi once more. Stay or no?"

With him. Here in his shack. 24/8 for six months. Or shorter. Not longer, though; he'd promised, and Dedi doesn't lie. Correction: Dedi always lies, but why would he this time? He doesn't even like me.

"Fine. I'll stay."

"If thou must." He reached in his magic pack and threw me a coin. "Long as thou's here, could go pick Dedi up a bird-and-herb-on-a-leaf and some beer? Extra cumin sauce, hold the ameset."

"I don't think so. You said we must be together at all times. What if you go while I'm gone?"

"Wait." He closed his eyes and listened. "Jackal says it's not now. When He comes, we know an hour before. Thou gots lots of time. Get thee something too if thou like, but thou's not freeloading off Dedi for next half a year. Thou'll earn thy keep here."

"Of course," I sighed, pouching the coin. It wouldn't be fun being his slave, and I knew he'd take full advantage. I almost missed Philo. But how great the reward! "Need anything else?"

He rubbed his red eyes, and looked up at me. They were filled with tears.

"Brave lad!" he cried suddenly. "Thou passed thy last test! Dedi knows now how much Simi love him. None else would do that for Dedi, to their shame. Kiss me!"

And he came up close and planted his foul lips on mine, and with one hand reached out and started rubbing my cock, and with the other pulled mine onto his, which grew under my hand like an evil serpent ready to

"Hey! What the fuck?" I shoved the old perv away in disgust, and he tumbled to the floor as I leapt away from his repulsive embrace. He leered up at me.

"What's the matter, boy? Didn't promise whatever it takes?"

"But I need to... I can't do that. I have to stay pure or it won't work."

"Was a witch told thee that. They hate men's desire. Think thou this body was clean when Dedi took it? Come on, thou's not got long. Have some fun with Dedi!"

"Not long? You said 200 years."

"Art deaf? Dedi said six months tops. Then"—pointing his bony finger at my belly—"Dedi be in there, young and strong again, ready for new years and years! And Simi"—touching his shrunken chest—"be in here. For an hour, anyway. Even Dedi can't know where thou go after that. But know he will bury thee in best way, and remember Simi's so big love for Dedi every day, till he change again."

A hot chill exploded in me, and I stared at him in open-mouthed horror. He was right. I hadn't been listening. I'd let my lust for power overrule any common sense I may ever have had, and now I was bound to... No, actually I wasn't.

"Extra cumin, you said?" I moved casually towards the door .

"And no ameset. It give Dedi the farts."

"Got it. Be right back."

I didn't run this time, just headed briskly down the street that led to Ghost Town and home. From the hut behind me rose a gust of gleeful laughter, and I smiled. He won't be laughing so hard when he realizes that wrap's not coming, and that he'll have to find another sucker to body-snatch!