by Rosamund Hodge
SOURCE: Lightspeed Magazine
The people of Ipu needed a god.
Of course they already had one. His name was Kuromasai, and he had ended three droughts, cured seven plagues, and defended them from an army of Heccan raiders. But he was also old, and each morning when he appeared for his offering of praise, he had grown a little bit fainter. Soon he would disappear completely, and what is a city without a god?
So the seven Elders of Ipu met to discuss the matter. It had been over two hundred years since they had needed a new god, and though the scrolls said that the Iputians had once made their own, the method was lost.
“The Nimbagi seek their gods in the desert,” said the Second Eldest.
“Yes, and their gods smite them for the least offense,” said the Fourth Eldest.
“The Sornese gods last millennia,” said the Fifth Eldest.
“But what do they ever do?” asked the Third Eldest. “Sit on a pillar and give them ethical advice. That’s not our kind of god.”
Indeed it was not. Theirs were not the leather tents and warrior ways of the Nimbagi, nor the marble temples of the Sornese and their pursuit of virtue. Ipu was a small city of wood and sandstone, and its people were practical and loving; and they prided themselves that their gods protected and loved them.
The solution was obvious. “We must purchase a god from Tsubarime’s factory,” said the Eldest. “Nothing else will do.”
They consulted the oracle, and she told them to send the three sons of the Seventh Eldest. So the Elders gave them advice and a map, along with a diamond, a bag of gold, and a chicken’s tooth. With the faded blessing of Kuromasai they set out, and they walked all day until at sunset they made camp on the shore of the Commotionless Sea, which lies still across half the world.
The next morning they gazed at the water, dazzled golden by the rising sun, which they would have to cross; for Tsubarime’s factory lay beyond the curved horizon, at the eastern end of the world.
“Stupid oracle,” said the eldest son.
“But just think of how we’ll help our city,” said the youngest.
The eldest son snorted. “By walking halfway across the world!” He turned to the middle son. “Come on, don’t you think this quest is crazy?”
The middle son smiled and shrugged.
“Hell,” muttered the eldest son, wading into the clear water.
The youngest son followed him. “Dulce et decorum est.”
It was easy going, for the Commotionless Sea is never more than knee-deep and its bed is of sand and rounded pebbles. So they walked eastwards all day, until the land was gone and they waded through a circular infinity of blue, until sunset turned the water silver and gold and left it darkest cobalt. And still they kept walking deep into the night, for they could not lie down without drowning.
“Damn water,” said the eldest son.
“It’s nothing to what our people will bear if we don’t bring a god back quickly,” said the youngest son.
“There are fish sniffing my toes,” said the middle son.
Suddenly a mighty wind buffeted them—though the water barely rippled—and a great serpent with three horns and a pearl on its forehead descended from the sky. It circled them three times and then hovered before them, its iridescent scales gleaming in the moonlight.
“I am the great serpent ferryman of the west,” it said. “I bear travelers across the Commotionless Sea. Would you care to avail yourselves of my services?”
“Gladly,” said the eldest son, leaping onto the serpent’s back.
“What of my fee?” asked the serpent.
“Do you take gold?” asked the eldest, raising the bag.
“Certainly,” said the serpent.
“But if you give it the gold, how shall we pay for our god?” demanded the youngest.
“Easy,” said the eldest. “I still have the diamond. Coming?”
Neither of his brothers moved, and after a few moments the serpent said, “In that case, we’ll be off. Good night.” With a flick of its tail, it rose into the air and bore the eldest son to the land of Jorongheer, where it devoured him and took both gold and diamond. Serpents are not the most honest of creatures.