The Contrary Traveler's Story
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Listen well, O traveler, for I shall only tell this once.

You were born in a city far from here. Towards the east, from whence the sun rises.

Located at the juncture of three warring kingdoms, its threefold walls had been built up high and thick, from dense granite and heavy mortar, each surrounded by a moat, then lined with spikes for good measure. The only way in was through a solitary gate, reinforced so as to be ram-proof and watched at all hours of the day. Emergency stores of food were rigorously maintained. It was accustomed to siege and strife, attempts at conquest, and every form of incursion under the sun.

The last attempted invasion had been over a century ago. Rejvadk the Terrible, conqueror of the north, had led thirty thousand men up to your gates in the autumn—only for his army to starve when winter came. The magistrate used to boast that your walls would never again be breached.

And, as a girl, you believed him.

Even so, your city was not a rich one; the ever-shifting alignments of its surroundings made trade difficult. Your childhood had been a succession of lean days. There had been a mother who helped patrol the walls, and a father who worked at the papermaker’s shop. But they were often busy, and you spent your days running wild with the other children who roamed the streets, some with parents and some without.

One day, a man came into your city.

Nobody knew the direction from which he had come. An elderly matchmaker said she had seen him walk in from the north with a spring in his step; while a cobbler claimed he had spied him coming from the south, on a resplendent chariot drawn by horses with sharpened spinels for teeth. A poet described with care the strange feathered mongoose he had ridden in on, from the east; and a mendicant monk recalled riding in with him on the back of a cart loaded with grain. A little boy even swore up and down that he had seen him step from thin air, right into the city square.

The first thing he did was go to the magistrate. He claimed to be a traveler from another world, and was generally believed—not for any evidence that he could produce, but merely for his eccentricities. They said that you could tell his otherworldly nature from the blueness of his beard, and the twinkle in his eye, which glittered like spinels.

The children, you among them, would stare as he passed by.

For although he had many odd devices and illuminating texts to show the magistrate and his council, the man would favor your bunch with the choicest baubles. Green-glowing mushroom lanterns, prisms of soft glass, little metal birds that moved on their own.

And then—well, you remembered this day clearly.

You were sitting by the edge of the city’s central well. It was wide and deep, and although there were other wells, nearly everyone had drawn water from this one at least once.

You were plucking the petals off a flower and blowing them off the rim of the well. Then, as soon as a petal had drifted, you would grab it right out of the air. It was a delicate task, fraught with the danger of pitching over and falling in.

And, in fact, you had just lost your balance.

Your arms swung wildly. The well’s dark mouth came up to meet you… until someone grabbed you by both shoulders, and steadied you. You looked back. It was the blue-bearded man.

He crossed his arms, smiling.

“Hello, little grouse. Why the long face?”

You dangled your legs over the rim of the well. “Why do I have to be a grouse?”

“Would you prefer to be an elephant? Or a seal? An elephant seal?”

You could, in fact, balance things on the tip of your nose. It was a particular skill of yours. But you didn’t trust this man, with his effusive cheer and violently pink eyes.

You shrugged your shoulders. Your stomach growled.

He raised an eyebrow.

Finally, you relented. “…We’re running out of food, at home. Everyone has to give to the emergency stores.” Not that there was ever much at marketplace to begin with. The few farmers that made it here charged high prices, complaining of long routes through disputed territories. And the fighting had gotten worse of late.

“That magistrate of yours looks perfectly well-fed.”

“Not him. Or the council. Just…” You waved a hand. “Regular people.”

The man pulled an exaggerated frown. “Well, that won’t do. Tell you what, little grouse—what if I could ensure that no one in this city ever goes hungry again?”

You blinked at him in astonishment.

“How?”

“Oh, it’s quite simple. All you have to do,” he said, smiling again, “is drop this into that well.” He opened his hand. Inside lay a small pink crystal, barely the size of your smallest finger, and exactly the same shade as his eyes.

“Why can’t you drop it yourself?”

“Hmm, well, it doesn’t work that way. I’m afraid it has to be you.”

For long moments, you considered. Something about this felt off. But then, what could such a small thing do?

You looked him in the eye. “Do you promise?”

“With all my heart.” The smile was beatific now. “Not another moment of hunger.”

Carefully, you plucked the crystal from his palm. Then you turned and watched it fall into the well, until the darkness swallowed it. As it might have swallowed you.

A sudden chill. You glanced around, expecting to find the man gone, perhaps disappeared into thin air—but he was still there.

“Thank you,” he said. It was getting dark. All around you in the city square, people were walking to and fro, going about their sundry tasks. But none of them seemed to have noticed what you’d done. “Shall I walk you home?”

You shook your head. Then you pushed yourself off the well and scampered down the street, all the way back home, as fast as you ever did.

In the next few days you tried to forget what had happened. And for a little while, it truly seemed as if nothing had. Life went on. Your parents would return home tired, with what little food they could afford, and you would fall asleep to the growling of your stomach, wondering if the man had merely lied.

Just to be safe, you stopped drinking the well-water. When your parents weren’t looking, you began to secretly collect rain, in a little tin pot that your grandmother had given you before she passed. It tasted faintly of dirt, and of guilt. But you told yourself that was ridiculous. Nothing was happening, after all.

Then, one day, the news came that the magistrate was stepping down. For his replacement, he had chosen one Nal Natal: a name that no one had ever heard.

Next the council turned in their resignations, one by one. No one replaced them.

The strangest thing was—not a single person seemed surprised. Everything continued as usual, and the other children kept on running the streets, though perhaps with bigger smiles. And the gate was opened more often, to let in emissaries from the surrounding kingdoms, who were invited by Lord Natal to taste your water and broker a peace treaty. Each of them left with pink crystals in their pockets, and soon the news was coming in that each kingdom had acknowledged him as their rightful ruler and ceased their wars. For the first time in your life, food became plentiful.

When you finally decided to ask your parents, your mother simply frowned and felt your forehead.

“Are you feverish? Or…” She sighed. “Would that we had the money to pay for classes. Lord Natal has always ruled this city, and we have always been his subjects. It says so in the histories. He is immortal, dear, and built this city for himself. All those walls, raised by a single man! Our people came later, as invaders. Can you imagine the folly? He subdued our ancestors easily, but because he was lonely, kindly allowed them to stay.”

“But mother—” you insisted, through the sense of sinking futility. “The walls were raised by Gan Utay, the thirty-seventh magistrate! He commissioned Yulin Dar-Vayna, the blind architect, because his father had been killed when the Knimic army breached the previous walls. I don’t need classes to know that. Everyone does!”

In your panic you rushed over to ask your father, only to receive the same answer that you had from your mother. And all through the city and the three kingdoms beyond, the very same story was being told, by matchmakers and cobblers and poets and mendicant monks, and even by your friends the other children: of what a wonderful, gracious, generous ruler Lord Natal was, and always had been. To allow your wretched people to stay, all those centuries ago, and now to broker this long-overdue peace between your neighbors.

Finally, you’d had enough.

You marched your way up to the magistrate’s palace, past the guards that lowered their spears for you, past the gilded doorframes inlaid with spinels, all the way until you reached his seat.

And there he was. The same man, that otherworldly traveler, blue-bearded and rosy-eyed. The man who had done all of this. Who had made you into his accomplice.

“Hello, little grouse,” he said. “Are you happy? Is this what you wanted?”

“No!” you spat, your hands balled into fists. “How could you do this? How could you think this would make me happy?”

He blinked, and for a moment something like genuine confusion passed over his features.

“But you are well-fed, aren’t you? All of you. And happier than you have been.”

You tried to search for the right words. “But it’s not real. None of it! They’re all living in… in a lie! It’s as if our history never even existed.” You stabbed a finger at him. “Undo it! You can undo it, can’t you?”

He gave you an apologetic look.

“I’m afraid not. It’s in their blood now. Blood and water—it all permeates, you see?” He leaned back in the seat, looking thoughtful. “But I needn’t go any further. This city, these three kingdoms… it should be enough to keep you all fed and happy. And I hope you know—that is really what I want, in the end.”

You didn’t believe him. But what could you do? You were only one girl against this otherworldly traveler, this immortal god-magistrate. So you turned around and went back home.

For years you lived like that, like everyone else, hoping to grow used to it. Warning them of the water was useless. Your parents merely stared at you like you’d sprouted dewtoes, or a mouthful of eyes, and warned you to cease such talk.

Several times you felt the urge to drink from that well, and wash away your guilt. But you never quite managed. And so the knowledge of the truth remained in your mind, cold to the touch and lodestone-heavy.

Then one day you awoke and looked down at your hands. And you realized that you did have power, in your own way. For you were the only one left in this city who still remembered. Who would ever have the motive to do something like this.

After so many years, surely he would not expect it.

In the dark of night, you grabbed your mother’s old dagger (for the walls no longer needed manning) and snuck out of the house. Even now the city was merry and bustling, for it was said that Lord Natal liked merriment at all hours of the day, and that he could remove the need for sleep. You passed through the streets unnoticed.

Retracing the path you had once walked as a girl, you came to the magistrate’s seat once more. Only now it was more like a throne. Spinels of all sizes jutted from it, pink and blue and green, glittering violently.

The man was waiting for you.

“So you’ve come again! And not so little anymore.” He sounded almost sad. “But I fear the result will not be as you wish.”

He stood, stretching out his arms. Spread them like an invitation.

“Try it.”

You stared at him. Then you took several steps forward, and plunged the dagger into his chest.

He staggered, but did not fall. His flesh had the texture of a cloth doll. And his heart—

In the cavity where his heart should have been, there was only a lump of spinel.

“Now do you see? I cannot die, even if I wanted to. And if I were to leave, the people would be lost without me.”

In the moonlight his smile was wan. “Perhaps it is you who should leave, little grouse. I’ll take good care of them. I promise.”

Slowly, you lowered your hand. He said something else you did not hear, and then you turned around and marched your way out of the room. No one stopped you. There were no guards, as there had been none on your way in. For who would ever want to harm the exalted Nal Natal?

And so, seeking only to forget, without bidding farewell to anyone, you walked, and walked, and walked all the way out of the city of your birth, with only the clothes on your back and the hat on your head.

And you have been walking ever since.

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