2. Life is Wonderful!
By Angmar and Elfhild
Goldwyn watched the wain door close behind Tushratta and the slave girl, and then turned to face Aziru, who was sitting across the aisle. The Khandian doctor sniffed, pulled his bulbous nose, and then smiled politely. He reached forward to place a hand on her arm, but Goldwyn quickly jerked back and stared at him, her blue eyes snapping with indignation.
"Sir, keep your hands to yourself! You are most presumptuous if you think that you can take liberties with me!" She had suspected that the moment when they were alone, this obnoxious little man would make advances towards her. Surely a reprimand would remind him of his place, but if it did not, she would scream for the guards. Then after they had torn open the door, she would swear that this man had tried to rape her and demand that they put him in chains!
Shocked at her rebuke, Aziru sat back stiffly on the seat. Placing his hands upon his knees, he glanced down and then back into her eyes. "My lady, never was it my intention to offend you. My gesture was meant only to reassure you." He looked at her sadly, his dark brown eyes suddenly appearing very weary.
"Sir, there was nothing reassuring about it!" she huffed. "In my land, if a stranger attempts to touch a lady, he could be signing his own death warrant! Either her father or her brothers would cut out his heart and toss it still throbbing to the hounds!"
"But, my lady," Aziru remarked incredulously as he drew back against the cushioned seat, "I thought by now we were becoming friends!"
"Friends? Friends?" She quickly rose to her feet and stared down at him. "You... think.... WE... are... friends?" she spat out the words with so much venom that Aziru wondered if she might strike him. "I would rather be friends with an adder than with you, you lecherous little toad!"
Sighing deeply, Aziru slumped into the seat before finally daring to confront her blazing eyes. "My lady, I am a physician, my life dedicated to the Goddesses of Healing. I mean you only good. Please calm yourself and resume your seat!"
Goldwyn glowered at him before sitting back down on the cushions. "I warn you - attempt to touch me again, and I will scream for the guards! I am sure they would not hesitate to call the master physician. When your superior is told of your reprehensible behavior, I think you might find that you are the recipient of a sound beating!"
"My lady," Aziru held up a protesting hand, "peace! There is no need for such extreme measures! Since we must be companions upon this long, monotonous journey, let us at least attempt to be friends." Aziru forced a benevolent smile. "I pity Esarhaddon," he thought sympathetically. "He desires to make his bed with this insane shrew!"
"Just remember what I told you, and we will get along quite well," she warned him, careful not to let even the toe of her shoe touch one of his. Her body held straight and stiff, she was poised to dart from his grasp at any moment.
"By Bël!" Shaking his head in consternation, Aziru sent up a silent plea to the deity. "Last night the woman resembled a she-djinn in heat, throwing herself at Tushratta like a crazed whore! Today, she has become a paragon of chastity, virtue and modesty, and even an innocuous touch is offensive to her! It is apparent that she has no recollection whatsoever of her behavior last night. I must do nothing that would disturb her any more than she already is. Very sad, very sad! Poor little Sang-mí is so afraid of the Lady Goldwyn that she begged Tushratta to send her away. If the patient does not settle down soon, it will be necessary for the guards to restrain her while I administer a calming draught! I do not possess the strength to hold down such a strong woman!"
Clearing his throat, Aziru tried to appear calm and dignified, though he felt intimidated by this hostile barbarian woman. "Soon Barsud, your new handmaid, will be here, and she will make every attempt to see to your comfort. Now if you will pardon me, I will peruse one of my books."
"I could care less for your book." Goldwyn raised a contemptuous eyebrow at him. "It is probably an abominable volume on sorcery or some other equally reprehensible devilment. If you try reading one word of such wicked drivel to me, I will stop up my ears!"
"I had no plans to read to you, lady." Aziru looked at her blankly, wondering why she would ever think that he would want to read anything to her.
"Well, I am glad of that, for I have no intentions of listening to anything you might read!" With a haughty twist of her head, Goldwyn turned and stared out the window. The wain lurched as it hit a bump in the road, and as the lady held tightly to the leather strap on the side of the wain, she gave him a hostile look. "Curse the Enemy and His blasted road!"
For the sake of peace, Aziru ignored her comment, and she went back to staring sullenly out the window. Relieved that the woman had finally stopped haranguing him, he bent down and opened up a leather case by his foot. Taking out a thick volume bound in worn leather with a hairline crack of age running down its center, he placed the tome upon his lap. The book was very old and smelled faintly of mildew and mold, but Aziru did not mind. He reverently traced a finger across the faint gold lettering on the cover.
After opening the book, the physician's assistant carefully leafed through the yellowing pages. The calligraphic script, which had once been neatly lettered by some long dead scribe, was now faint and difficult to read in places. On other pages, the writing was smudged, as though water had once intruded. Aziru paused in his reading, glancing up and allowing his mind to drift. He wondered, as he often did, if tears had distorted the text, but he put the thought aside, for idle speculation accomplished little. He turned back to the text. Even more frustrating and intriguing than the illegible print were the missing pages. He hated to think of what priceless knowledge had been lost forever. In spite of all its difficulties and unanswerable questions, he found himself drawn over and over to the ancient tome.
The book had not been long in his possession, and as he carefully turned the pages, he found his thoughts wandering to the day when he had found the wondrous volume. Shortly before leaving Nurn, he had decided that he must buy a new book of recipes to take along on the long journey. Though Tushratta never complained of the fare, Aziru knew that the meals of late had lacked variety, tending to be on the monotonous side. The only remedy for this deplorable situation was to purchase another cookbook as soon as possible, and with this decision finalized in his mind, he had left everything which he had been doing and set out for the Grand Souk in the city.
As he left the modest home which he shared with Tushratta, Aziru decided that since he was going to the bookstore anyway, he might as well look for something more stimulating than a prosaic cookbook. His mind immediately went to those delightful volumes which titillated the senses with utterly salacious depictions of lovely women in various states of undress. If he were extremely fortunate, he might even find one of those beautifully illustrated works depicting couples engaged in all the many positions of coitus. The idea was so delicious that he found his heart beating faster. For a moment he closed his eyes and gave himself over to the erotic sensations which such contemplations always inspired. With this delightful anticipation stirring his heart, his pace quickened and he found himself walking rapidly towards the souk.
Then a most unpleasant thought intruded upon his mind, and he felt his pleasant mood slipping away. Many of these desirable volumes were imported from Khand or even farther East, where the people had made the act of love an art form. All imports had to be transported by camel and mule caravans, and the trains were constantly at the mercy of marauding brigands. These books were expensive enough in their native lands, but when the price of transportation was added, the cost of a single book was often more than ten times as high as other volumes. Even if he had the good fortune to find one of these treasures, had he brought enough money with him to purchase it?
He considered stopping at the side of the street and inspecting his money pouch. Then when he realized the folly of such an act, he slapped the side of his face with his palm. "Not even a lunatic who had escaped from an insane asylum would do anything so incredibly stupid as to stop and count his money on the public street! Where is my mind?" he berated himself, feeling even more foolish when he realized that his cheek stung from the self-inflicted blow.
Although he was in a better section of the city, there was always the possibility of being victimized by one of the many footpads and pickpockets who preyed upon unwary citizens. What if some despicable cutthroat pulled him into an alley, stole his money, took his pleasure with him, and then slit his throat? Anxiously he peered from side to side, halfway expecting some villain to materialize right behind him. Sweat popped out on his forehead and he felt his buttocks clench tightly in fear. What a foolish thing it had been to leave his two body servants at home! Shuddering, Aziru hurried down the street.
Mopping his brow, which glistened with sweat from the exertion of walking quickly, he relaxed when he turned the corner and beheld the great domed roof of the souk rising before him. Whenever he viewed the gigantic rotund silhouette poised above the outline of the city, he was reminded of a single magnificent breast. The sight was somewhat disconcerting though, for another dome, though of far inferior height and proportions, had been built close by. Aziru always thought of the other dome as a smaller breast, although when he viewed them together, his impression was of a woman with one huge breast and a dwarf one alongside it. If he let his imagination play too long over the torso of the imaginary woman, he became disoriented. He closed one eye, blocking out the sight of the miniature mammary, and let his other eye dwell on the impressive sight of the larger dome. He then strode briskly down the street to the entrance.
Inside the great souk, there was a grand hallway with other hallways branching off from it. Passing by the foreboding guards at the doors, he gave them a deferential smile and a bow, but they did not acknowledge him, and only watched him through disinterested eyes. He always found them disturbing, for if they thought someone was even the slightest bit suspicious, they could always bar the way with their spears and detain him. The unfortunate person would then be escorted by armed guard to the Commander of the Garrison of Durbûrzkala. Aziru did not even want to speculate about what horrors would await the wretched one in the grim depths of that great fortress. He had nothing to fear from the guards, of course, for he was a decent, upright citizen who always paid his taxes and never caused any trouble. Still, he did not want to do anything to attract their attention, so he tried to appear nonchalant as he strode down the great arched hallway.
Aziru passed by corridors where colorful signs above the doors advertised the wares which were sold there. As he walked, he read the names of the halls - Goldsmiths, Coppersmiths, Silversmiths, Saddlers, Basket-makers, Sandal-makers, and others. "I should have taken a litter," he cursed to himself, for his feet were sore from walking so far. Inwardly he railed at the planners of the Grand Souk for placing the Hall of the Booksellers so far from the main entryway. The halls of the wealthy metalsmiths were located much closer to the entrance. "Of course, the smiths bribed the planners, but nothing can be done about it now." He shrugged his shoulders, resigned to the certainty that the man of modest means would always struggle while the rich did nothing but grow fatter.
His legs were aching by the time that he finally turned to the right and strolled down the Hall of the Booksellers and Scribal Artisans. He knew this hall very well, for he often went there to buy supplies for his master and himself. He inclined his head and smiled at the shopkeepers whom he knew. Then as he strolled on down the broad way, he saw that a new shop had opened.
As soon as Aziru entered the shop and glanced around, his forehead wrinkled in a deep frown. The shop was far too small to offer much of a selection in any subject. He was about to turn around and go out the door when the shopkeeper, an austere looking old man in a long black robe and a close-fitting black skullcap, gestured for him to stay. "Please, good sir, take a seat. I will be with you in a moment. After this illustrious gentleman and I have concluded our business, I would be greatly honored if you would accept a glass of tea in my humble establishment." Aziru realized just how parched he was after his strenuous walk, and certainly a glass of sweet hot mint tea would quench his thirst. He sat down cross-legged in front of the low table which the shopkeeper had pointed out to him.
While he waited for the shopkeeper to finish helping the other customer, Aziru's eyes roved over the meager collection of books. He found his first impression had been correct. The selection of cookbooks was limited, comprised of books which he had already read. What was equally disappointing, if not more so, was the total absence of those provocative Eastern works which stirred the erotic side of human nature. Aziru groaned inwardly. What a waste of time it had been to come here! His expression sour, he studied the ornate patterns engraved on the metal table top. When the other man had concluded his purchase and left, the shopkeeper turned to Aziru and bowed politely.
"Illustrious sir, how may I help you?" The shopkeeper asked, exhibiting the proper air of humility which was expected when dealing with a person of higher social class. He folded his hands across his middle, waiting in apt attention.
"Perhaps you might be able to help me," Aziru told the proprietor as he watched him pour the tea. Aziru studied the old man, noting his thin, stooped shoulders; his leathery, wrinkled face; and the long white beard which went almost to his waist. Aziru thought him an unprepossessing fellow, even though the black skullcap and robes reminded him of a vulture perching in a tree.
"Possibly I could," the bookseller replied as he peered over at him through rheumy eyes.
"I wish to buy a book of recipes," Aziru announced, making his voice sound casual. He supposed that the old man was probably deaf and wondered if he should speak louder when he addressed him.
"For your wife or yourself?" the man asked in a voice which cracked with age.
"For myself," Aziru replied coolly, feeling suddenly embarrassed. He added with a slight cough, "I have no wife." Such questions always made him uncomfortable, as though he had been judged and found inadequate.
"I am truly sorry, sir," the shopkeeper apologized, bowing his head deferentially.
"You are sorry for what?" Aziru bristled. What was the old devil apologizing for anyway? He sent him a look as sour as unsweetened preserved lemons.
"Sir, for mentioning your state of conjugality -- I mean --" the shopkeeper stammered, definitely flustered.
"I came here to buy a book, not discuss my life," Aziru snapped. "Now if you have anything worth showing me, then do so!" Was the old bookseller deliberately trying to be insulting? Why did people always assume that just because he was not married, he much preferred catamites? The old man was very rude! His questions sullied some of the anticipation he had felt on finding the shop, and Aziru resented what he took as a snide innuendo.
"Forgive me, sir. I meant no harm." Hastily changing the subject, the proprietor gestured to a low table nearby. "There are some outstanding books in the shop. If you are interested, you will find books over there which contain recipes for soup, mezes, lamb and beef, meatballs, chicken, vegetables, pilaf, bread and pita, desserts, and sherbets. All of them come highly recommended."
Aziru's eyes glanced over at the table and skimmed some of the titles. "No, my bookshelves are already overflowing with such recipe books as that." Affecting a disinterested air, he sniffed loudly and stroked the end of his nose. In truth, he was actually intrigued by some of the cookbooks, but he was far too offended at the bookseller's imagined insult ever to admit this interest to the man. Surely there must be some way to make the scoundrel pay for his offense, but what could it be? Aziru thought a while, and then he had it! He would get his revenge by confounding the bookseller's mind with requests for books which probably did not even exist. He would watch the old man squirm and sweat.
"Sir," the bookseller looked at him questioningly, "what sort of cookbook do you want?"
"Something beyond the range of these elementary books on cooking..." Aziru sniffed haughtily as he brushed his finger across his mustache. "Something uncommon, exotic... possibly even a book which addresses the methodology of cooking." Seeing the man's uncomprehending face, Aziru began to feel vindicated. "The scheming old devil! He knows he has nothing worth selling, and he hates losing a sale," he chortled to himself, waiting eagerly to see what the distressed fellow would suggest next.
"Good sir, I have a book which was written by the recently retired master cook of the King of Khand. In the volume, which has many well-drawn illustrations, he gives a number of superb recipes. Adding to the value of the book, he also relates some antidotes concerning his life as the Captain of the Kitchen."
"The old vulture is trying very hard to sell me something; he must be desperate by now," Aziru thought gleefully. "A little more bait, and I will tow him in like a fish on a line! Then I will crush his hopes and walk out the door without buying anything. What a look of surprise he will have on his face! That will serve him right for offending me!"
"Shopkeeper, you may show the book to me," Aziru informed him in a voice that was superciliously condescending. He gloated as he saw the look of anticipation on the old man's face. "Certainly, sir," the shopkeeper replied as he went to a bookshelf. His wrinkled, leathery old face was almost appealing in its eagerness. Soon returning with the book by the Khandian cooking master, he placed the volume on the table in front of Aziru. Frowning, the physician's assistant gave the handsome volume a perfunctory examination and then looked down his nose. "No, I realize now that I already have this book in my library. Unfortunately, I have found it to be a grossly inferior work which has been praised far too much by novices who fancy themselves experts in the field of gastronomy."
"I understand, sir," the old man nodded dejectedly. "If I may beg your indulgence, I might have other books which would interest you..."
"No," Aziru interrupted as he rose abruptly to his feet, "that will be quite all right. I have wasted enough time here already. You should realize that I am a very busy man. Now I must be going." The old man did not even deserve the customary farewells, but tradition demanded it of those who were civilized. Politely bowing his head, he touched his fingers to his heart. "Peace and prosperity be upon you and your house. Now farewell."
"No, wait, please!" the old man cried as he sprang to his feet and touched Aziru's sleeve. "What exactly do you want? Perhaps I might have it." The old man's eyes were pleading as they searched Aziru's face.
With a disdainful look, Aziru glared down at the shopkeeper's hand on his sleeve and coldly drew away. Cringing, the man dropped his hand to his side. As though it were tainted by something unclean, Aziru vigorously brushed off his sleeve as he told him, "Thank you. Do not attempt to detain me further. Now I must be on my way."
"Please, sir, just take your seat and tell me what you seek. I will do everything I can to help you!"
Aziru laughed to himself; the shopkeeper must be in great need of money. He would tarry a while longer in hopes that the old fool would provide even more amusement. Sighing dramatically, Aziru lowered himself back to the carpet. "I wonder if he realizes just how ridiculous he is," Aziru thought with satisfaction. He tugged his nose thoughtfully and let the old man wait while he fabricated an entirely bogus book which could not possibly exist. "I will let the old man dither a while longer," Aziru chortled to himself.
"Shopkeeper," he announced pompously after several minutes had dragged by, "nothing that you have shown me so far can hold my attention for long. You must realize that I am an expert on cooking and have read many books. I am even considering writing a book on the topic myself," Aziru added. "What I seek is a tome that is much more... complete."
"More complete?" The old man raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Almost any good cookbook will tell how to prepare pilaf or kebabs, and unless the cook were a complete simpleton, he could prepare a dish which would turn out reasonably well." Aziru put his hands on the table and glanced down at them for a few seconds. "What I want, however, is a book which delves more into the... composition of the various ingredients and addresses the... elemental transformation which occurs during the cooking process."
In truth, Aziru had searched for such a book for years, and had never been able to find the elusive volume. After he had suffered disappointment after disappointment, he had relinquished all hopes of ever finding the incredible tome. The idea was foolish anyway, for, after all, how many other men had sought the secret to life everlasting and the panacea for all the world's ills in a book about such ordinary things as onions and turnips?
As the old man peered into Aziru's face, his bleary eyes lit up in a sudden flash of illumination. "More complete, eh? Let me think... There is a book, but I do not know if it is what you would want. The volume is very old, and its condition has deteriorated over the many years since it was written. Most people pass it by because of its quaint old language and the complexities contained in its pages. You know how people are... They want something that is very simple." Under thin arched brows, the old man's eyes demanded some reply from Aziru.
Aziru's heart skipped a beat. He sensed that the balance of power had irreversibly shifted, and concluded there must have been some unsettling influence in the mystical ethers. He must be careful not to give away any indication of his interest, and so he picked up his glass of tea and looked at it with an indifferent expression. "Yes, yes, I know how people are," he agreed. "But we can talk about that subject all day. Now tell me about this book." With a feeling of alarm, Aziru suddenly realized that his hand around the glass was shaking so hard that the tea inside was sloshing around. He quickly set it down on the table. "Too hot," he explained with a curt air of defiance.
"Indeed, sir, tea is often hot." The old man smiled faintly. He started to rise to his knees but then eased back down, as though thinking better of the idea. "No, it was foolish of me to assume that you might be interested in such a work. The book itself is in deplorable shape and much of the script is barely legible. I fear you would find it totally inadequate, for the author scarcely addressed cooking, only ruminating at length on a few obscure theories."
"Obscure theories?" Aziru could scarcely believe what the old man had said. The book which he described sounded much like the one he had dreamed about for so many years. He wished the man would hurry on and show him the book, but the old fellow seemed content to ramble.
"Yes, the author prattles on and on about his own far-fetched notions." The shopkeeper frowned and glanced down at the table for a few seconds. He thought a while and then his face brightened. "Now let me see... Perhaps if you are interested, a book on the herbs of Eastern Khand came into my possession not too long ago. You will be pleased with the text, for it is written neatly and clear, and many recipes have outstanding illustrations. Bound in fine camel leather, the book would make an excellent addition to any library..."
"I am not interested in the herbs of Khand! I probably know more about herbs than the author ever will!" Aziru raised his voice impatiently and waved his hands back and forth in excitement. Annoyed at this irksome old man who had wasted so much of his time, Aziru demanded, "I want to see the other book which you mentioned!"
"As you wish, sir," the shopkeeper shrugged. "Now where did I put that volume? Sometimes I am forgetful..." Tapping his finger on his lips, he rose to his feet and walked to the shelf of books which lined the entire back of the shop. After running his fingers over a number of volumes, he selected one and placed it upon the table where Aziru sat. "Good sir, kind sir, wise sir, perhaps you would care to peruse this volume," the bookseller told him as he sat back down at the table. Aziru thought he saw a flicker of derision cross over the old man's face, but his features changed so quickly that Aziru could not be sure.
"Yes! I want to look at it!" Aziru angrily reached for the book as the old man held it out for him. When he read the name on the cover, his eyes became great round circles - "The Philosophy of Cooking, or The Metaphysical Transmutation of Basic Elements found in Simple Components into the Sublime Key." Opening the well-worn cover, Aziru turned through the pages, gasping when he saw the secret symbols. The physician's assistant felt tears of joy pricking at the back of his eyelids. At long last the coveted book was within his grasp! He could almost kiss the old man's hand, or dance the ritual dance of joy, but he caught himself. A man of his social class must never humble himself before a man of such low estate.
"Sir, there have been others who had a casual interest in the book, but they found little of value in it." The shopkeeper looked across the table as Aziru greedily poured over the pages. "Perhaps only a man of your acumen has the judgment to comprehend such a book." Aziru barely heard the man, for he was too engrossed in his reading. "Perhaps this book contains the completeness for which you are searching. I would not know, for I am only an humble seller of books." He dropped his eyes briefly back to the table.
Struggling to regain his composure, Aziru took a deep breath and looked into the old man's watery eyes. "I believe I will take it. What price do you ask?"
"Sir, I see you are pleased. I will sell it to you, but you must realize that I cannot let it go cheaply. I paid a great deal for it. The volume will cost you."
"How much?" Aziru asked, trying to make his voice sound nonchalant. He knew that he had failed miserably when he saw the glitter of greed in the shopkeeper's eyes.
The shopkeeper counted off on his fingers. "Ten silver zûbardh."
"Ten zûbardh!" Aziru shouted. A sharp pain struck him in the head as his heart turned over in his chest. Holding his throbbing skull, he rose clumsily to his knees, gripping the table as he almost pitched forward. "That is outrageous! I could buy a good horse or a team of fine donkeys for that price!" The physician's assistant coughed, his throat feeling as though he were about to choke on phlegm.
"Then buy them," the old man cackled out a challenge.
Aziru felt like a fool, but he knew he had to have the book, whatever its cost. "All right, I will take it!" Opening his money pouch, he counted out the coins and flung them on the table. He picked up the book and turned to leave without saying a word of farewell.
"Wait!" the shopkeeper called to him as he quickly gathered the coins and scooped them into his money box.
Aziru whirled on his heel. "What do you want?" he asked angrily.
"I thought you would want it wrapped... things will be less dangerous that way." The old man smiled broadly, showing his evenly spaced yellowed teeth.
"Yes, yes, all right, that will be satisfactory," Aziru mumbled as he waited while the shopkeeper tied a scrap of cheap linen around the book. Slipping the wrapped book under his arm, Aziru strode briskly out of the shop. When he reached the street outside of the Grand Souk, he hailed down a litter and instructed the bearers to take him home as quickly as their legs could carry them. Only when he had the curtains securely drawn over the doors did he dare unwrap the book and slowly turned through its ancient pages.
Had he known of it, Aziru would have been extremely angry, for the bookseller had convulsed into laughter as soon as the physician's assistant was far enough down the hall to be out of hearing range. Resting his hand against the doorframe, the old man watched as Aziru disappeared into the crowd. "Fate must have brought me to this souk!" the bookseller chortled to himself. "I have been trying to get rid of that worthless old book for years, and finally I found someone gullible enough to take it off my hands! Such opportunities do not come every day! Life is wonderful!" He grinned as he thought of his now bulging coffers.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.