An Ethshar Story

The God in RedThe God in Red

A Tale of Ethshar


This short Ethshar story was written as our 2007 Christmas card, and then included as an illustrated chapbook with copies of The Vondish Ambassador that went to readers who had donated to the online serialization. Like all short Ethshar stories, it's also included in Tales of Ethshar (Wildside Press, March 2012).

I posted it here to celebrate Christmas of 2008.


The God in Red

by Lawrence Watt-Evans


Darrend the apprentice theurgist paused in his invocation long enough to take a deep breath, then moved his fingers in the odd, jerky rhythm his mistress, Alir of Priest Street, had taught him. He continued, "Awir thigo lan takloz..."
      He hesitated. That didn't sound right. Alir wasn't stopping him, though, and he could still feel the peculiar pressure of gathering magic. The spell to summon the goddess Piskor the Generous was almost complete. "Takloz wesfir yu! Your generosity is needed!" he finished.
      And then he sensed a presence in the room, and he closed his eyes quickly lest he be dazzled by Piskor's radiance, but there was no burst of light, no increase in pressure, none of the feeling of being somehow both in the World and out of it simultaneously that ordinarily accompanied the presence of a deity.
      He opened his eyes, unsure whether he would see the empty room, or the majestic beauty of the goddess Piskor.
      Then he blinked once, and stared. He glanced up at his mistress, but she, too, was staring.
      Someone had appeared, but he was definitely not Piskor. He didn't look like a god at all, and Darrend remembered that sometimes when an invocation went wrong it would summon a demon instead, but this didn't look like a demon, either. It looked like a fat old man in a bright red coat trimmed with white fur, his beard and hair long and equally white, his mouth turned up in a broad smile, his eyes twinkling. He had scuffed black boots on his feet, and a large brown sack slung over one shoulder.
      And he looked at least as surprised to be there as Darrend was at seeing him.
      "The word is takkoz," Alir said, without taking her eyes off this apparition. "Not takloz, just takkoz."
      "Oh," Darrend said. "So I didn't summon Piskor?"
      "No."
      "Who did I summon instead, then?"
      "I have no idea," Alir said. Then she addressed the stranger. "Do you speak Ethsharitic?"
      "I speak everything," he said, in a deep, rich, cheerful voice. "It's part of the job."
      Alir and Darrend exchanged glances.
      "Who are you?" Alir asked.
      "You don't recognize me?" His merry eyes widened still further in surprise.
      "Should we?"
      The red-clad figure set down his bag and laughed heartily at that. "Pardon me," he said. "I'm accustomed to being recognized everywhere I go, and it's a good lesson to me to be reminded there are places I don't go." He chuckled, and set his sack on the floor. "If you'll forgive me for asking, where am I?"
      "You're in my workroom on Priest Street, in the Wizards' Quarter of Ethshar of the Spices."
      The stranger nodded thoughtfully. "And where is Ethshar of the Spices? Asia, perhaps?"
      Again, Darrend and Alir looked at one another before Alir replied, "It's the largest city in the Hegemony of the Three Ethshars."
      "And that is . . . where?"
      Baffled, Alir said, "Between the ocean and the mountains, from Tintallion to the Small Kingdoms."
      "My dear, you have yet to say a name I recognize, and I had thought I knew everywhere."
      "And you have yet to tell us who you are," Alir pointed out.
      "So I haven't! Well, I have many names, but the most popular is Santa Claus."
      "Takloz!" Darrend exclaimed.
      "That would explain how we got you instead of Piskor," Alir acknowledged. "Are you a god?"
      "My heavens, no!" the stranger said, with another laugh.
      "A demon?" Darrend asked.
      "Certainly not!"
      "Then what are you?" Alir demanded.
      "Oh, now, you'd think that would be easy to answer, wouldn't you? But I'm afraid it's not. I'm a myth, a saint, an elf, a spirit, a jolly old man -- it all depends on who you ask."
      "A spirit, you said. Spirit of what?"
      "Oh, of giving, of kindness and generosity, of..." He paused, looking surprised. "How curious; your language doesn't seem to have a word for 'Christmas,' or even one that comes close."
      "'Christmas?'"
      "A holiday in winter. There's quite a story that goes with it, if you're interested -- many stories, really."
      "I don't think we're interested. Not just now."
      "What a pity!"
      "A spirit of generosity named Santakloz." Alir frowned. "Well, I can see how we got you, though I never heard of you before. Thank you. You can go now."
      The stranger looked around the room, at the shelves of books and scrolls, the platform with its inset silver circle, the table strewn with mirrors, notes, candles, and bells, and asked, "How?"
      Alir blinked at him; she had never before encountered a supernatural being that didn't know how to leave. She turned to her apprentice.
      "Darrend, you summoned him; I suppose you need to dismiss him."
      Darrend cast her a worried look, then nodded. He gestured, and recited, "Dagyu forrek woprei shenyu mei ganau! Empro em!"
      Nothing happened. The red-clad spirit watched the theurgists expectantly.
      Alir frowned. "Tur menadem i di ali!" she called.
      Santa Claus still stood there.
      With growing urgency, the two theurgists ran through every dismissal spell they knew; then Alir started on exorcisms and wardings, which Darrend hadn't yet studied. None of them worked.
      Finally, practically weeping with frustration, Alir asked, "How do you usually leave a place?"
      "Well, usually, I've arrived by sleigh," Santa explained. "I just get back in the sleigh and give the reindeer their head."
      Darrend wondered what reindeer were -- apparently the word existed in Ethsharitic, since the red-clad spirit had known it immediately, and it sounded like an Ethsharitic word, but he had never heard it before.
      Alir didn't worry about that. "Do you think this sleigh of yours might be nearby? Maybe we summoned that, too."
      "We could look."
      They did. There was no sign of a sleigh in Priest Street, or in the courtyard behind the shop -- hardly surprising, since there was no snow.
      "I'll check the roof," their guest suggested, stepping back inside.
      "The roof? I don't..."
      Alir didn't finish the sentence; instead she stared in silent amazement at the fireplace in her parlor.
      The strange spirit had put a finger alongside his nose, and somehow slipped up the chimney.
      Alir had never really given that chimney a close inspection, but she was quite sure the flue was far too small for so fat a man to have fit through it. Nonetheless, he had zipped up it quickly and easily.
      Obviously, he did have some magic, even if he wasn't a god or a demon.
      And then suddenly he came back down the chimney, somehow miraculously unstained by the soot in the flue, and stepped out of the fireplace. "No," he said, with a shake of his head. "They aren't up there."
      "I guess we didn't get them," Darrend said.
      "And you don't know any other way to get back where you belong?"
      Santa Claus shook his head. "No. And... excuse me if this sounds strange, but while I was up there I looked at the sky, and the horizon -- this isn't Earth, is it?"
      "I'm sorry?"
      "I think this is an entirely different world from the one I live on. You have a pink moon."
      "Yes," Alir said.
      "And an orange one," Darrend added.
      "My world just has a big white one."
      Alir and Darrend exchanged glances again. "Other worlds?" Alir sighed. "Theurgists don't do other worlds. For other worlds you need wizards."
      "And you two aren't wizards?"
      Alir drew herself up to her full height. "Certainly not!" she said. "We are theurgists, and proud of it!"
      "Theurgists aren't wizards?" The fat man looked so puzzled that his usual smile vanished. "You're all magicians, aren't you?"
      "Yes, but there are many kinds of magicians." She shrank back down a little. "And if you're really from another world, you need a wizard to get you home."
      "Ah. Well, I think we'd best find a wizard, then, because millions of children are counting on me. And it's only a few...." He paused, looking baffled again. "Sixnights? A few sixnights until Christmas." He shook his head. "Where I come from, we use seven nights, not six."
      "But that's silly," Darrend said. "Seven doesn't divide evenly."
      Santa laughed. "No, it doesn't, does it? Well, well."
      "We need to find you a wizard," Alir said. "And if you're really in a hurry, the sooner the better." She frowned. "I just hope this isn't going to be too expensive; professional courtesy only goes so far."
      "Oh, dear," Santa said. "I don't want to be a bother."
      "No, it's not your fault; my apprentice scrambled the summoning. It's just one of the costs of doing business." She sighed. "Come on, then."
      A few minutes later they were two blocks away, at a run-down shop on Wizard Street, explaining the situation to Alir's old friend Tazar the Magnificent.
      "He's a spirit?" Tazar said, looking at Santa. "He looks solid enough."
      "Perhaps a better word would be avatar, or incarnation," Alir said. "That's not the point. The point is that we inadvertently hauled him from his own realm to Ethshar, and now we want to send him back, and theurgy isn't suitable to the job."
      Tazar nodded. He turned to the fat man. "Where are you from, then?" he asked.
      "I live in a magical workshop at the North Pole," Santa replied. "On a world called Earth."
      "Oh, an earth elemental? Fertility-related, perhaps?" Tazar gestured at the visitor's generous belly.
      "No," Santa said. "The world is called Earth; I'm not, and I'm not the spirit of Earth. I'm a jolly old elf who brings presents to all good little boys and girls on Christmas morning."
      Tazar frowned. "Elves are extinct in our World, and a good thing, too."
      Santa looked hurt.
      "Can you get him home?" Alir demanded.
      Tazar sighed. "Other worlds -- I hate other worlds. No, I can't, but I know how it can be done, if I can find someone who knows the spell." He turned. "Can you draw?" he asked the red-clad stranger. "Or even better, paint?"
      Santa's usual smile returned. "Oh, certainly! I like to think I'm quite an artist, really, though I do my best work carving, rather than painting."
      "Then I'll need you to paint me a picture of your home, as detailed and accurate as possible, just as it was at the instant you left. If we get it right you'll be able to step right back to it, and it will be as if you'd never been gone -- well, except that you'll be a year older."
      "Oh, age isn't a problem for me," Santa assured him. "But why a year older? Is that a part of the spell?"
      "No," Tazar said. "But the spell takes a year to prepare."
      At that, Santa, Alir, and Darrend all looked shocked and dismayed.
      "And it's very expensive," Tazar said to Alir.
      "Oh," Alir said unhappily.
      When a wizard said something was very expensive, that implied a level of cost beyond the imagination of most people. Alir didn't have that sort of money, but she would need to find it somehow.
      "It would seem you'll be my houseguest for a year," the theurgist told the red-clad spirit.
      "Well, that's very kind of you," Santa said.
      Alir waited for a second, hoping he would say something about payment -- after all, he was supposed to be a spirit of generosity, and he had that bag, which might have valuables in it.
      He didn't.
      She sighed again. It looked as if she might be paying this off for the rest of her life -- or at least, until Darrend completed his apprenticeship and started repaying her for his error.
      "How are you going to send him home?" Darrend asked.
      "A Transporting Tapestry," Tazar said.
      That explained to Alir why it would take a year, and why they needed a picture of the destination -- a wizard would have to weave a perfect life-sized image of the fat man's home, and that took time.
      And that was also why it was so expensive; paying for a full year of a wizard's time could hardly be anything else.
      "If I'm going to find someone who can do this, I had better get started," Tazar said. "And you should start on preparing a picture, while you should start raising the down-payment."
      "Of course," Alir said.
      "And the picture must be as exact, detailed, and accurate as you can make it," Tazar warned the fat man. "Don't let your imagination contribute anything!"
      "I think I can manage," Santa said.
      With that, Alir, Darrend, and Santa took their leave, and returned to Alir's shop to settle the sleeping arrangements.
      Alir really, really hoped that some sort of payment would be forthcoming, and hinted broadly, but the old man paid no heed. He inspected the spare bed in the attic, and pronounced it good; he ate his share of the ham at supper with relish, and drank two pints of Alir's best beer. He accompanied Darrend down to the shops in Southgate and helped the apprentice pick out a good large board and half a dozen paints, but made no offer to pay for these materials. Throughout, he laughed and smiled; in the street he stopped several times to talk with children and ask them whether they had been behaving themselves. In general, he seemed to be having the time of his life, completely untroubled by his enforced exile.
      Alir's mood, on the other hand, sank steadily as she realized just how little cash she had on hand, how few favors she could call in, and how expensive her houseguest appeared likely to be.
      Over the next few days Santa spent some of his time familiarizing himself with Ethshar of the Spices and the rest working on his painting, while Alir sent Darrend out to solicit whatever business he could. Tazar searched for a weaver-wizard capable of creating the tapestry, and willing to tackle the job.
      When she had a free moment, Alir watched the other-worldly spirit industriously painting a strange scene of a quaint, toy-cluttered wood-shop decorated with holly and bright red ribbons. It was still sketchy, of course, but looked quite bizarre.
      One night, as Alir was once again going over her accounts and seeing no way to avoid financial ruin, the otherworldly spirit said, "You know, even if you don't have an actual Christmas in Ethshar, today is the fourth day of Midwinter, isn't it? Four days past the solstice? I think you might want to hang a stocking by the chimney tonight."
      "I might... what?" Alir stared at him.
      "Hang a stocking over the hearth."
      "What are you talking...?" She stopped without completing the sentence.
      He was a spirit. She was a theurgist. She was used to gods making bizarre, seemingly random demands. He claimed not to be a god, but he had appeared when summoned, like a god.
      "A stocking?" she asked. "Any particular kind of stocking?"
      "One of your own. The largest you have."
      She nodded. "Hung by the hearth?"
      "Above the fireplace, if possible." He blinked, as if suddenly thinking of something startling. "Open end up, toe down."
      "All right," she said.
      "Well, good night, then." He waved a hand, then turned and headed for the attic.
      Feeling foolish, Alir found a pair of stockings that had started to lose their shape, and took one of them down to the shop, where she turned down the ankle half an inch, then hung the sock from a pothook on the chimneypiece.
      It looked strange and foolish, dangling there. She stared at it, then turned up an empty palm. "The gods are mysterious," she said, as she turned and headed for her own bed.
      She was awakened by Darrend gently shaking her. "Mistress?" he whispered.
      She blinked sleepily.
      "Mistress, I think you need to see this."
      She sat up, suddenly alert and dreading whatever had driven Darrend to rouse her. "See what?"
      "There's a sock..." the apprentice said.
      She sagged. "Oh, is that all? I know there's a sock. I hung it there myself."
      "But it's full of gold!"
      Alir was not entirely sure just how she got from her bed to the hearth, still barefoot and in her nightgown, but an instant later she was staring at the stocking.
      It was indeed full of gold -- so full that it was gradually tearing loose from the pothook. She reached out and touched it, and the fabric tore further; she caught it with one hand as it fell, and spilled gold coins out into her other hand.
      She stared at them, then smiled at Darrend.
      "It would appear that our guest will be covering some of his expenses," she said.
      "But why put it in a sock?"
      "Who knows?" Alir said. "He's a god, or something like one; who knows why they do anything they do?"
      Darrend looked at the gold, then at the stairs that led up to where their guest was sleeping. "Should we thank him?"
      Alir, too, looked at the stairs. "I'm not sure," she said. "I think... well, let's just see how it goes, shall we?"
      Darrend nodded.
      Santa did not appear until the morning was half-over. Alir had wearied of waiting for her guest to arise, and had gone to Tazar's shop to make a long-delayed down-payment on the tapestry, so when Santa did finally descend from the attic he found Darrend sitting alone at the kitchen table.
      "Ho!" he called. "How is everything this fine morning?"
      The apprentice smiled at him. "Good," he said.
      "Did Alir find her gift, then?"
      "Yes, she did."
      Santa winked at him. "You know, my lad," he said, "Christmas properly lasts for twelve days. Particularly when it's never been celebrated here before."
      "It does?"
      Santa laughed. "It really does," he said.
      Darrend absorbed this, then hesitantly asked, "So should I put up a stocking, too?"
      "You, and every other good boy or girl in this city!"
      That didn't sound right to Darrend; what did anyone else in Ethshar have to do with this red-clad spirit? But he certainly thought he should put one up.
      "Thank you," he said.
      "Now, I believe I should finish up that painting of my workshop, don't you?"
      "Yes, sir."
      The fat man laughed so hard at that that his belly shook like a bowlful of... well, actually, like a bowlful of one of those nasty seafood puddings Darrend couldn't stand. Then he turned, gathered up his board and paints, and settled in a sunlit corner to finish his illustration.
      When Alir returned Darrend pulled her aside, out of earshot of the fat man -- or at least, he assumed it was. "Mistress," he said, "he says there are twelve days of this Christmas thing, and we should put up stockings again."
      "Stockings? Plural?"
      "One for me, and one for you." Darrend frowned. "And he said, 'and every other good boy or girl in this city.' But I don't know how he means that."
      "He's a god," Alir said. "He probably means it literally." She stared thoughtfully across the room at the red-clad spirit. "That much gold could unbalance the economy, though. And why 'boy or girl,' rather than man or woman? And we don't know how he defines 'good.'" She shook her head. "I don't think we want to worry too much about that part, but perhaps we could speak to a few people. Tazar, for example."
      Santa looked up from his work. "And tell them to leave the dampers open on their flues," he called. "It makes it much easier for me."
      Alir and Darrend stared at him, then looked at each other, remembering how the god in red had vanished up the chimney, then come back down. "What is this thing about him and chimneys?" Darrend asked. "What does that have to do with being a spirit of giving?"
      Alir turned up an empty palm. "Who knows?"
      On the far side of the room Santa Claus laughed. Darrend tried not to think about that shaking belly.
      The next morning Darrend hurried to the hearth to see whether the two stockings were really filled with gold. He knew that as an apprentice he would need to turn his over to his mistress, but still, the prospect of holding all that money was exciting.
      And there the stockings were, bulging very promisingly -- but they looked different. He frowned, and took his down. He turned it over.
      No gold spilled out, but there was definitely something in there, something that was snagged in the fabric. Carefully, he reached in and worked it free.
      It wasn't gold. It was a book, a very old, very worn little book in a soft leather binding. Darrend stared at it, and read the title inked on the cover: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Deyl Karneggi, translated into Ethsharitic by Lieutenant Kelder Radler's son. Darrend opened it carefully, and read a few lines here and there; it seemed to be a collection of advice.
      Very interesting advice. Darrend began reading in earnest, forgetting about the other stocking.
      He was roused from his reverie by Alir's arrival. "What's that you have there?" she said.
      He showed her the book. "It was in my stocking," he said.
      She stared at it for a moment, then hurried to her own stocking.
      "No gold," she said. "But..." She looked at the objects she had shaken out of her sock.
      "What are they?" Darrend asked.
      Alir shook her head. "I'm not sure," she said. "But there's a pamphlet..." She opened the little booklet. "It's instructions." She glanced at Darrend.
      "Instructions for what?"
      Alir was staring at the mysterious little cylinders and boxes. "They're cosmetics," she said. "But they aren't like any I ever saw before." She looked back at the booklet. "Hmmm."
      Darrend was not very clear on the concept of cosmetics, beyond the fact that they were things rich women used to improve their appearance. He supposed it was a minor sort of magic -- a branch of sorcery, perhaps, or wizardry, or maybe just herbalism. It wasn't anything that concerned him. He turned back to his book.
      Later that day Alir called on Tazar, and virtually the first words the wizard said were, "How did you do that?"
      "Do what?"
      "This," he said, pointing at a small table by the door of his workshop.
      An empty sock lay at one side of the table; beside it were several cones of bluish incense, two cut roses, a small bunch of pine needles neatly bound up in a black ribbon, and an assortment of other junk. Alir stared at this uncomprehendingly.
      "It's the ingredients for the Transporting Tapestry!" Tazar said. "Some of them, anyway -- we'll also need all the yarn, of course, and threads of gold and silver, and a loom. But the rest of it is right there! How did you know what was needed? How did you get it into the sock? And where did you get that incense? It's the right kind, and I didn't know there was any of it in the city! I thought we'd need to make it ourselves!"
      "I didn't do anything," Alir said. "Santa did."
      "Well, he's pretty amazing," Tazar said, staring at the table.
      "Ten more days," Alir said, staring at the sock.
      By the sixth day of Christmas Alir had told virtually everyone she knew about the stocking trick, and various people had received gifts of sorcerous talismans, rare and precious ingredients for spells, books on a dozen subjects, candy, coins, toys, jewelry, clothing accessories, and various other small treasures. Tazar had all the materials for the tapestry spell, and Alir, after collecting her fee for telling everyone how to obtain mysterious gifts with nothing but a sock, had paid half of the total cost.
      Santa had finished his painting, and Alir stared at it in fascination. The workshop in the picture was amazingly cluttered, but still very clean. Toys and tools and devices were everywhere, most of them very alien.
      The painting was delivered to Tazar, who assured Alir, Darrend, and Santa that a tapestry-capable wizard had at last been found, and that she would be starting work on the spell immediately. Tazar was as fascinated by the picture as Alir had been, and Santa began identifying and explaining the various details to the wizard. After a few moments Alir decided the conversation was going to continue all day; she made her excuses and slipped away.
      Santa had not come back by the time she went to bed, but she didn't worry; after all, he could always come down the chimney. She had hung her stocking once again.
      By the eleventh day of Christmas virtually the entire city of Ethshar of the Spices had heard about stocking magic, and the overlord had sent a magistrate to question Alir and Santa about it.
      At first, neither of them understood just why the overlord was concerned; the magistrate wearily explained, "These gifts are putting a large amount of new coinage into circulation. That can affect prices. Meanwhile, certain merchants have complained that their business has suffered, because their customers have received goods from this godling without making any payment. As for all these sorcerous talismans, and potent herbs, and other magic, well, you know that magic is tricky stuff, no matter what form it takes. Having more of it in circulation is not helping the overlord sleep more easily."
      "Oh."
      "And there's the matter of fairness -- one person gets a stockingful of gold, another a stockingful of candy. The obvious injustice is troubling."
      "Everyone gets what they want and deserve," Santa said.
      "And how is that determined, sir?" the magistrate asked.
      "I have a list," Santa explained. "I know who's been naughty and who's been nice. I know when anyone writes to tell me what they want; I know what they tell family or friends."
      "Naughty or nice?" The magistrate glanced at Alir, who turned up an empty palm.
      "He's not from the World," she said. "I know nothing about his standards or abilities."
      The magistrate frowned. "Is this stocking phenomenon going to continue indefinitely, then?"
      "Oh, no!" Santa exclaimed, with a laugh. "No, no. Just one more day, and Christmas will be over for another year."
      "And a year from now, we hope to send him back where he came from," Alir said.
      "A year?"
      "We're having a Transporting Tapestry made."
      "I'll ask the Wizards' Guild to make that a priority."
      "Thank you."
      "But, sir..." Darrend began.
      The magistrate turned to glare at him. "Yes, apprentice?"
      "Is it really so terrible, that people are being given these little gifts? I've mostly seen happy children playing with the toys they found in their stockings, not the problems you describe. Do we really need to send him away?"
      The magistrate considered for a moment, then said, "Yes."
      Santa laughed. "After Twelfth Night I'll be going, then. I'll come back when the tapestry is ready."
      "Wait, going?" Alir asked. "Going where?"
      "North," he said. "Where I always go after Christmas."
      "But... but..." Alir looked at Darrend and the magistrate.
      "That will be satisfactory," the magistrate said. "I will inform the overlord."
      The following morning Alir found a bottle of fine Dwomoritic wine in her stocking, and a note reading, "Thank you for your hospitality! -- Santa Claus."
      Santa Claus himself was gone, though; his attic bed was empty, and there was no evidence he had ever been there.
      At first, Alir kept expecting the fat man in the red coat to turn up again, or at least send word, but there was no sign of him. As the months passed she gradually turned her attention to other concerns.
      It was on the first day of Midwinter that Tazar came around to Alir's shop and said, "The tapestry is almost ready; where's your spirit?"
      "I don't know where he is," she admitted. "I haven't heard from him since last year."
      "Well, we've put a great deal of time and effort and magic into that tapestry, so I hope it hasn't all gone to waste!"
      "I'm sure it hasn't."
      "If he turns up, tell him it'll be ready in a sixnight."
      "Thank you, I will."
      That started her thinking -- where had Santa gone? She had heard no reports of sightings anywhere in the World. Over the next day or two she asked a few gods, but none of them admitted knowing anything about any red-garbed spirit from another world. She considered using the spell that had brought him in the first place, but summoning him when he was already somewhere in the World did not seem like a good idea.
      At last, though, when she realized that it was the fourth of Midwinter, she had an inspiration. She hung a stocking on the chimneypiece, and stuffed a note in it.
      She did not go to bed that night; instead she fell asleep in a chair near the hearth.
      She was awakened by the sound of laughter. "Santa!" she exclaimed, sitting up.
      "It's traditional to leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, and slip the note under the plate," he said gently. He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. "I'll come around on the seventh, shall I?" Then he stepped quickly to the fireplace, and vanished up the chimney.
      She stared at the spot where he had stood, and wondered, in her half-asleep state, how he did that. Then she stood up and took down her stocking.
      Candy, a few unfamiliar coins, an orange -- nothing of any real value, but still, she found herself smiling. She thought about eleven more days of little treasures -- but then she decided not to be greedy.
      Besides, in three days Santa Claus would be going home to his own world.
      She wondered whether anyone else had thought to put up a stocking.
      On the afternoon of the seventh of Midwinter it was snowing, and Alir was wondering whether that would keep Santa away, when there was a knock at the shop door, and Darrend opened it to let Santa in. He had his bag slung over his shoulder, and was laughing heartily. "Merry Christmas!" he called.
      "Merry Christmas, Santa!" Alir replied.
      They chatted for a few minutes; Santa wanted to know how business had been, how her three brothers were, and so on, and she wanted to know where he had been all year.
      "Srigmor," he said. "And Kerroa, and Aala, and both Sardirons." Before she could ask for more details, though, he said, "Isn't there somewhere we should be going?"
      "Yes, of course!"
      Twenty minutes later they were in Tazar's shop, where he cautiously unveiled the tapestry.
      "My goodness!" Santa exclaimed at the sight of it. "That's very realistic, isn't it?" He reached out.
      "Don't touch...!" Alir began, but it was too late; the fat man in red had vanished.
      For a moment the three magicians stared silently at the tapestry and the empty patch of floor where Santa had stood.
      "Well, it apparently works," Tazar said at last. "You understand, we couldn't test it -- there's no way back."
      "Then how do you know he wound up in the right place?" Darrend demanded.
      Tazar turned up an empty palm. "We don't," he said. "But if that picture was accurate, that's where he is."
      "I hope it is," Alir said, staring at the image of that weird workshop.
      That was, she realized, a god's home.
      Well, more or less. Santa had said he wasn't a god, but Alir really wasn't sure the difference was meaningful. He was something like a god.
      No one had ever seen where the gods lived. None of Ethshar's gods were willing to say anything about their homes; when asked, they would either deny the existence of any home, or say that mere humans could not comprehend it.
      But there was Santa's workshop, looking fairly comprehensible. And she could step into it, if she wanted.
      But she couldn't come back.
      "Well, now that he's gone, what do you want to do with the tapestry?" Tazar asked.
      Alir started. "What?"
      "You paid for it," Tazar explained. "It's yours. What do you want to do with it?"
      "Put it away somewhere safe," she said.
      "You said there's no way back?" Darrend asked.
      "Somewhere very safe," Alir said.
      Tazar nodded. "We can do that," he said.
      Alir stared at the tapestry a moment longer.
      She was almost tempted to reach out and touch it herself, to fling herself into that alien world that had produced Santa Claus, the world where there was an annual holiday dedicated to peace, generosity, and good will.
      But it was a world without theurgists; she would be out of a job there. And there was no way to know what lay beyond the workshop door. She turned away.
      "Somewhere very safe," she repeated. She hesitated, glanced at the tapestry once more, then asked, "But could I have the original painting?"


- end -


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