The Khalifahs Mirror (Original Fiction In Paperback)
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The Khalifah's Mirror
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Most relevant reviews. He perused the paper as he broke his fast, and discovered that it did indeed look like war. The Pentad and the Syndicate postured and threatened; desperate, last minute attempts at mediation were collapsing. Zipko sighed, and shook his head. Terrible indeed. Yet there was a glum comfort in reading of terrible goings on elsewhere, on this sunny, peaceful day.
The prevailing opinion was the fighting would mostly take place on the Broken Lands, but wherever the war went, it would never touch the Uncanny Valley. Not directly at least, although there would the usual spies, refugees, and opportunities for profit in the Quarantine Zones. He looked up, wondering who was calling his name. But it was only a bird, hopping about on the table, picking at his crumbs.
He noted the black mask around its eyes, and wondered whether it was the same bird he had noticed earlier. He doubted that he could tell one bird of that species from another; although now he thought of it he was not sure what species it was, or whether he had even seen that particular species before, with its unusual call. Zipko drained his coffee to the grounds, then made his way across the square to his shop.
He unlocked the door, opened the blinds, and lit the fire under the boiler.
Just as the water was beginning to bubble, Theeman Kabbij walked in, just as he did every day. Terrible goings on. He drew some hot water into a basin and began lathering his brush. With his fingers Zipko examined Kabbij's plump face, and was inclined to think it was expanding rather than contracting. He made soothing, sympathetic noises though, and brushed the foam onto Kabbij's chin. As he drew the razor across the man's cheeks he was distracted by a tapping sound.
A bird — the bird — had perched itself on the windowsill and was pecking on the glass.
He had nicked Kabbij's skin, and a drop of bloodoil glistened on his quivering jowl. It was the first time he had cut a customer in twenty years as a barber. No extra charge, of course? Theeman Kabbij looked at the dreamleech, and assented with a flicker of his eyelashes. His pupils rolled back into his head as the worm suckled at his temple. There was a steady stream of customers that day, as there was every day; Zipko Brotherlove was proud of the well known and undisputed fact that he shaved every man in the Valley who did not shave himself.
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The bird remained at the window, sometimes pecking, sometimes chirping, sometimes simply peering quizzically through the glass. From time to time Zipko would go outside and shoo it away, but it always came back. As the sun sank behind the western hills, Zipko doused the fire with the remaining water, closed the shutters, and locked his door. The bird fluttered up as though it had been waiting for him, and followed him down the avenue, darting from tree to tree. By the time he arrived at his house, Zipko could stand no more. He flung open his door, and turned round. He walked inside, and the bird landed on the doorstep.
It angled its head for a moment, then hopped inside. Swift as a shadow, Tabul leapt from the hatstand and trapped the bird in his claws. After a long, hot summer of sweaty tension, war broke out in the fall. The Syndicate's first, furious assault slowed and stalled against the Pentad's determined defence.
Both sides settled to a long, grimly attritional conflict. Zipko read of all this in his newspaper, shook his head, and agreed with his friends that it was terrible. Life in the Uncanny Valley though went on much as normal.
Zipko took his breakfast every day at Tetko's cafe, then opened his shop, where he continued to shave every man in the Valley who did not shave himself. He almost forgot about the strange bird, except in his dreams, where he was often haunted by a thin, needling sound:.
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In spring came the owl. At first he was glad when it made its home in the tree outside his bedroom window; owls keep vermin at bay. But night after night it hooted for its mate, its cry mingling with his dreams. After a month of this, he took his gun, and shot it. He went out in the moonlight, picked up the heavy, feathery corpse, and buried it in his vegetable patch, to hide the evidence of his crime. It was bad luck to kill owls. As if vindicating the superstition, that summer a family of rats moved into his cellar. Their rustling and scratching seemed to form a word, which added to the nightmare chorus.
Tabul caught some of the young pups, and Zipko became used to bloody, furred offerings. He could not locate the nest though, despite hours spent searching his cellar, ripping out boards and digging, tormented by the whispering sounds. In the end he resorted to poison, which he spread liberally around the cellar. This silenced the rats, but took an unintended victim. Zipko found Tabul's body, stiff and sick-smeared, lying in the garden. He must have eaten a rat which was already infected.