“Psst! Hey, friend! Aye, you with the green scales! Buy me!”
I looked around.
I was browsing one of the myriad jumble sales that beckoned to me, not in the Bazaar, where the voice was probably that of the innocent-looking Deveel vendor behind the table, but on market day in the town square, in a dimension called Ittschalk. I’d stopped off on a tour of the provinces just for the hell of it, where the people were covered by masses of long, wavy hair like Rastafarians and the wide-open skies were greenish.
For the first time in years I wasn’t dependent on anyone else for a ride to the next dimension—thanks to a gift from a friend. I was enjoying the novelty of being able to travel in my own company, staying as long as I pleased, where I pleased. If I felt like having a weeklong drunk in Pookipsie with the Pookas, I could do it. If I discovered the annual Broaching of the Casks festival in Harv was a bust, I could book out of there without having to wait around for a magician to give me a boost. Liberty was more of a kick than any champagne I’d ever drunk.
The Prounvip Annual Village Fair was a forest of tents set up in a wide-open square, amid the few scattered buildings on the dusty prairie plain. An oom-pa-pa band was tuning up under a conical, blue tent in the middle of the clearing. The savory smell of frying sausages and bubbling pots of spicy chili drew my nose’s attention to the stringy-haired cooks laboring over pit stoves under an adjacent pavilion. Kids were having their long locks plaited into tiny dreads and tipped off with colored beads by nimble-fingered hairdressers, or sprayed in undulating patterns with glitter that their mothers were undoubtedly hoping would wash out easily later on.
Off to one side the hairy denizens were trying their luck at shying coconuts, trying to hit inflated colored bladders with darts, or attempting to knock down a pyramid of amphorae with a stuffed cloth ball. Pretty primitive games, to my sophisticated Pervish eye, but the locals seemed to be having fun trying their luck. I wasn’t sucker enough to throw away my coppers on the games, which were always rigged, at every fair in every dimension, or, from what I could see, on the merchandise set out for sale on rackety tables arranged under the hot sun for my delectation. I surveyed it all with a phlegmatic eye. Most of the stuff for sale was unmitigated junk, but I was enjoying a look anyway before checking out the quality of the local brew in the hostelry across the way. Enough of the patrons were staggering out to give me a good feeling about the place.
“Hey! Look down! Please, good fellow, get me out of here!”
I looked down. An eye peered up at me. It was reflected in the inch or so of dull silver blade protruding from the worn leather scabbard on the table. I glanced up. There was no one nearby from whom it could be reflected. Intrigued, I grasped the darkened brass hilt and pulled the sword out a few more inches. A second eye appeared reflected in the blade. They were long, steel-blue orbs outlined in black, keen and summing. I glanced up to see if it was the black-braided merchant casting a spell on the blade to make it more appealing to passersby, but he was at the end, talking to an old lady covered by long, silver hair about a flowered china chamber pot.
The voice murmured again. “Thank the Smith, I thought you were never going to listen to me!”
“I heard you,” I said, pleasantly. “Have a nice day.”
I prepared to pass on to the next pile of goods.
The voice grew frantic. “Pray, friend, don’t go! You may hear something to your advantage!”
My ears pricked up. Pervish ears are well designed to hear things to our advantage, being shaped not unlike those of bats, who can hear noises up into the highest decibels. We can hear sums well up into fifteen figures.
“What could you possibly do for me?” I asked, keeping whatever interest I might have out of my voice.
“First, friend, cleanse me of the grime of this place.”
“How?” I asked.
“If there be no enemy to strike, a sharp rap upon a stone will do it.”
“Why not?” I said.
I don’t carry weapons. Pervects like myself are well furnished by nature with defensive armaments, such as hide tough enough to turn a fairly sharp blade, yellow claws that could as readily disembowel an opponent as poke open a can of beer, and four-inch, pointed teeth capable of ripping into anything including the cheap steaks at a truckstop. Still, I know how they’re used.
Scaring the pair of arachnoids next to me into dropping their egg sacs prematurely, I swept the sword up over my head and knocked the blade on the ground. It hummed. The corrosion just exploded off it. I covered my eyes to protect them from flying rust. When the dust storm ended, I found I was clasping a gleaming brand with a blade of white-hot silver and a hilt of chased gold studded with cabochon gems of the pure colors of ruby, amethyst, emerald and sapphire that made my palms itch with unrealized profits.
The eyes, now free of the film that had veiled them, were sharper than ever. I had seen eyes like that while playing Dragon Poker, over the top of a hand of cards, as my opponent wondered if I really held an Elf-high flush, or if I was bluffing. These made an intelligent search of my person from head to feet.
“A Pervert,” it said. “I have both aided and killed your kind.”
“It’s Pervect, you hunk of tin,” I snarled.
The eyes closed briefly as if the unseen being was bowing its head in apology. “As you will. Your people have attained a higher status, then, than they had when last I saw Perv. Pray, friend, buy me, and hastily. I would be away from this place. I will see to it that you will be reimbursed tenfold.”
“Tenfold, eh?” Well, that was a pretty good return on an outlay. Still, I didn’t have amniotic fluid clinging to me anywhere.
“In case you didn’t know it, Skinny, you’re a sword. Where are you going to get the money?”
“I will tell you my story, if only you will remove me from this locale. I fear that danger may lurk about us soon.”
I observed just then that more people than me had taken notice of the transformation of the flea-market sword from letter opener to museum piece. I gave them a good glare and showed my teeth. They backed away, careful to keep their hands and feet far away from my mouth. I shoved the sword back into its shabby sheath and dragged it carelessly over through the dirt to the being who owned the stall.
“Ah, good…sir,” the Ittschalkian said, turning his mass of braided fur my way. He eyed me nervously, but he wasn’t about to drive away a potential sale. He peered at the weather-beaten tube of leather in my hand. I kept my fingers wrapped tightly around the hilt. “I see you have chosen one of my favorite artifacts. I am sure you appreciate its value.”
“I sure do,” I said. “Five gold pieces, and not a copper more.”
“Five?!” the man asked, his face transforming spectacularly from oily accommodation to outrage. “How could you ask me to part with a family heirloom for a mere five coins, scaly sir? It’s worth at least forty!”
I always thought it was amusing how a shopkeeper could set out a tableful of crap, ignore it unless it was being openly stolen, abuse it to his friends and family as the garbage it was, then instantly start spouting the woe-is-me-my-family-will-starve line. I’d heard the litany so often I could recite it along with him. If the guy’s a good salesman, I will sometimes join in the banter just to enjoy the show, but this clown had no natural style. He was clearly one of the guys who’d bought the course advertised on the back of a magazine that was headlined, “If you can draw Sparky, you, too, can be a filthy huckster!” He just didn’t have it in him. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood.
“Too high an opener, brother,” I said, shaking my head reprovingly. “A Deveel wouldn’t have had the nerve to ask me for twenty for this pig sticker.”
“Pig sticker!” echoed the voice in the scabbard. It was muffled, but there was nothing wrong with its hearing. “I’ll have you know, varlet…”
“Shut up. Not you,” I said to the merchant. “Five’s my offer.”
“Then I will say fifty!”
I sighed lustily. He had not seen the sword’s transformation, and not only was I not going to tip him off about it, I gave a warning eye to everyone in the crowd gathering around us to make sure they didn’t, either. “Six.”
“Sixty!” the merchant responded.
“E…what?” The runaway freight train just piled into a brick wall.
“You’ve just tripped into absurdity, brother. The price goes down from now on.”
“Why, you can’t do that!” His braids flapped with outrage.
I grinned, giving him the benefit of my last dental prophylaxis. He blanched at the sight of my Pervect smile.
“Sure I can. Do you want to make a sale or not?”
“That’s the stuff, friend…!” the voice from my hand mumbled out.
“Shut up. Where were we? Four.”
“Nay, good Pervect, I am worth at least a hundred times that!”
“Shut up!” I growled out of the corner of my mouth. “Do you want me to leave you here?”
“Nay, I beg you!”
“Then, zip it before someone hears you! Four,” I repeated.
“No, sir, please!” The merchant was aghast. He wrung his hands together. “It cost me far more than that! I obtained it from a hairless, old soldier down on his luck.”
“Probably out of drinking money,” I said, coolly. I had the upper hand, and I wasn’t letting it go.
“Give me twenty, at least.”
“That’s more like it,” I said approvingly.
“Then you’ll pay it?”
“No way. My original offer was five, and you’re going to be lucky to get that.”
“Ten. That’s just a single coin more than I paid for it. That’s my last offer.”
The truth rolls out if you give it time, and so does the local police force. I noticed a quartet of hairy pikemen trotting down the street towards us with purpose. Someone in the crowd must have decided that I looked dangerous. I could probably get away with stiffing the merchant at nine gold pieces, after his admission, but I didn’t feel like tangling with the constabulary. This was supposed to be my vacation!
“Done.” With an air of magnanimity I felt in a pocket for the right change and tossed the money onto the table. The coins rang as they clattered to a stop on a brass commemorative coronation platter. “Nice doing business with you.”
I turned away nonchalantly, tucking the sword under my arm. In a cloud of hair, a bunch of people rushed toward the table to talk to the merchant, probably to tell him what a sucker he had been to sell a prize piece of cutlery like that at cut rates. I sauntered idly toward the inn.
“By heaven, friend, you are a frighteningly good businessman even for one of your kind.”
Normally, flattery feels good, but it had just occurred to me that there was now a ten-coin-shaped hole in my purse that hadn’t been there before. I snarled.
“Shut up. I just paid out good money for a sword that I don’t need.”
I needed a drink. I stalked into the inn, took sole possession of a corner table, planted myself with my back to the wall and my eye on both the front and back doors, and signaled to the barmaid, a fetching lass with long red hair all over her shapely form.
“Hey, babe! Whaddaya got on tap?”
A moment passed while I persuaded the girl that the egg-cups that Ittschalkians drank out of wasn’t enough to keep a Pervect alive over lunchtime. By the time she reappeared with a hastily scrubbed bucket filled with beer, the sword could no longer restrain itself.
“By the Smith, it is good to be away from those pathetic artifacts and their master! Unsheath me, friend. I sense that we are in a reasonably defensive location with few potential foes nearby.”
It was exactly the same assessment that I might have made of the situation. The main room of the inn was empty except for a few locals chatting earnestly over the long table right in front of the bar, and a couple of oldsters with thinning, gray locks playing a board game under the window on the opposite side of the room. I felt mellowed enough by the first mug of beer to indulge the sword’s whim. I pulled the it free of its case.
“What hight you, friend?” it inquired, giving me another one of those summing, X-ray looks.
“You mean you can’t read it off my underwear band?” I countered. “Aahz is the name.”
“Ah. It was the green color that put me wrong. I hight Ersatz.”
“Yeah, sure,” I chuckled, taking a pull at the second bucket of beer. “So is every other talking sword in the dimensions, and most of the ones who can’t talk.”
“But I am THE Ersatz.”
“That, my shiny friend, is what they all say.” I looked down at the eyes. They were angry. “Okay, maybe the guy who forged you and set the intelligence spell in your metal told you your name was Ersatz, but I gotta tell you, you couldn’t be the real one. That sword was made about ten thousand years ago. It fought in about a million battles…”
“One million, four hundred thousand, eight hundred and two—no, three. I have never been defeated.”
“Listen, pal, you can spout off fake statistics until you’re blue in the…er, steel, but there are hundreds or thousands like you.”
The eyes blazed. “There is no one like me! I am unique! I, the leader of the Golden Hoard, am nothing like those hundreds or thousands who may have followed. They are named for me! I was at the side of the hero Tadetinko who saved Trollia from the blazing monsters from Lavandrome! I was in the hand of the conqueror who bested the usurper of the Deveel Corporation! I, and I alone, was the weapon who held back the gate that protected the capital of your very dimension and kept it from becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of that very business concern. I am no imitation! I am the REAL Ersatz!”
At that moment I remembered where I had seen a sword that looked like Ersatz. It was woven into a tapestry that hung on the wall of the Perv Archaeological Museum in the city where I grew up. In particular, I had noticed the unusual pattern of jewels in the golden hilt. About two or three thousand years before I was born, a Pervect named Clonmason had defended the dimension against the invasion of Deveels that had attempted to occupy our main city. He drove them back to their infernal regions with a legendary sword named…
“Nah…” I breathed. “The Golden Hoard is a myth!”
“Indeed,” said the sword, “we are not.”