Azar set Kleitos Leonidas’ water – with its precise double helix of lemon and orange peel twined around four cubes of ice – on the small table between their two chaises. “I gotta say, boss, this is a great place.” He clambered into his own chair with an umbrella-topped Mai Tai. “I thought we were going to blow this Popsicle stand as soon as you nabbed me back from Moru, and good riddance. But,” he ratcheted the chaise back a notch and spread stick-like arms to soak up the August heat, “a body could get used to this. I almost feel dried out again.”
“Not as dried out as Moru and his clan,” Kleitos glanced over the low railing at the cracked summer bed of the seasonal lake and returned to scribbling notes on his tablet.
“We’ll have enough fish food for the next decade or two,” Azar chuckled.
“A felicitous side effect of the venture. The chromis and firefish do seem to have grown exceedingly vibrant on merskin.”
“Do you think,” Azar sipped cautiously around the umbrella threatening to poke him in the eye, “that we could trap another clan when the food runs out?”
“We shall see when the time comes.” He set his tablet and stylus down and leaned forward to peer at his manservant. “Do you think you’ll have quite recovered by then?”
Azar jumped up and snapped to attention, spilling his drink. “Ready and willing and able to serve, boss!”
Kleitos assessed him skeptically. “Because maintaining the fire ring that trapped Moru in the lake should have been child’s play for you. But I had to bolster the effect several times.”
“I just, uh,” he hopped nervously from one foot to the other, “I’m out of practice.”
“I’m not planning to dis-animate you at present.” Kleitos tapped his tablet. “But something bigger is afoot than irritating mermen, and if you’re not in top form I need to know.”
“I thought as much. You need to recharge.” He turned toward the house, leaving his books and glass behind. “When you’re done cleaning up, get dressed and meet me at the car.”
Azar’s hopping grew more energetic. Because his child-sized gnarled frame and orange eyes attracted attention, he didn’t get out very often. “Where are we going, boss?”
* * *
Before Moru spirited him away back in the 1970s, Azar had served his master in innumerable large metropolises – with their ready access to centers of culture and vice – for almost more decades than he could remember. So the country house with its lake and the neighboring properties with their horses and goats and chickens drifting in and out of sight and sound were a strange and not entirely welcome surprise. Cities masked their teeming life with pleasantly uniform odors of carbon monoxide and ozone. But here the musky stench of dirty possums and the pungent sting of all manner of manure assaulted his nose with relentless organicity.
It was all so…rural. And the neighborhood surrounding the fairgrounds, pastel clapboard houses with oak-shaded lawns unrolling to white-pillared porches was no improvement. It resembled the city only in its fair-born crowds; even Kleitos with all of his power couldn’t make a free space for his car materialize closer than six blocks from the main gate. Azar was about to comment on the crudely hand-lettered sign reading, “Parking, $10” when, as if summoned on command, a burly man in a ripped t-shirt rose up from an unraveling wicker chair at the chirp of the Jaguar’s alarm. “Nice evening,” he said, surly eyes taking in Kleitos’ XKR and Armani wool pants.
Azar trembled with the urge to pull them from their sockets, but Kleitos rapped the top of his head in warning and said, “It is.”
“All kinds of folks here for the fair.”
“No doubt.” Kleitos displayed his best sardonic smile, the smile before which centuries of nobles and financial executives had trembled, knowing their kingdoms were about to fall. “4H poppets grooming livestock, elderly matrons spritzing their flower displays, that manner of individual.”
The man frowned, his insolent gaze making another circuit of Kleitos’ form. “Can get rowdy at night with the concerts.”
Azar tugged at Kleitos’ shirt sleeve and pointed at the sign. A quick, sharp shock jolted him and with a suppressed squeak he stuck his fingers in his mouth. “I believe I can manage.”
“I’m sure you can.” His tone suggested he thought nothing of the sort. “But a nice car like yours,” he jerked his head toward the Jaguar, “can’t run away if it attracts attention. I’d be happy to keep an eye on it for you. Just asking a little something in return. Fair enough, right?” He laughed at his own joke.
Kleitos did not, but followed the man’s line of sight to the sign and started as if seeing it for the first time. “Of course,” he murmured. Reaching into his trouser pocket he pulled out a bill clip; Azar widened his eyes at the ostentatious fold of cash. “Do you have change for a hundred?”
The man eyed it greedily. “No, but I can have it by the time you get back. Mostly.”
“No matter.” Kleitos shrugged. “Doubtless a car like mine requires more tending. Azar, I believe there is a little something else that the gentleman might appreciate.”
Azar grinned happily at the snick of the trunk latch disengaging with the promise of cocked gun. Now this creature would have his comeuppance. But instead of a flamethrower or a vial of hydrofluoric acid he found only a twelve pack of Bud Light.
“Give it to the man, Azar,” Kleitos snapped as he hesitated.
When they were out of earshot he asked. “So what was really in the case, boss? A self-expanding cage containing an explosion of honey and fire ants? The captured essence of a solar flare fragment?”
“Beer.” He lengthened his stride. “Come along, we don’t want to be late.”
* * *
Azar remembered the old carnivals on the Continent: their spritely chamber orchestras, their flashing eyed beauties with faces hidden behind bejeweled and feathered masks. Those carnivals did not stink of pigs and sheep and the anxious adolescents displaying them for slaughter. They did not feature arrangements of cymbidium orchids penned like flighty birds into rusty cages or of African violets sprouting from the nostrils of plastic cow skulls, competing for blue ribbons before they wilted in the July heat. Red-faced matrons with feet swelling over their flip-flops did not stare covetously at masticating juicers and miracle stain removers. And a smirking young man with a straw cowboy hat and chiseled abs rippling through a baby blue plaid shirt did not pluck a sample from a bin at the jerky booth and wave it contemptuously under his master’s nose. “Hey, old man, have a taste of this.”
The girl on his arm, her shirt a sleeveless twin of his with assets poking out from regions further north, squealed. “Deke, isn’t that habanero jerky?”
Kleitos eyed the strip of dried meat. “Habanero? Middling high on the Scoville scale.”
“The what?” the girl asked, twirling sun-bleached hair around a tan finger.
“A measure of capsaicin concentration in chili peppers devised by Wilbur Scoville in 1912.” The girl leaned toward Kleitos – wide-eyed, confused, just a little entranced. His master had a voice that could render the periodic table fascinating. And he had been making profligate use of it since he’d fished Azar out of the lake, a seemingly endless succession of sweet young things and well-preserved dowagers parading through the bedroom. Azar had never washed so many sheets. “Of course given the era his methodology was highly qualitative, but now that we have access to more advanced quantitative analysis such as high-performance liquid chromatography we can enjoy far more precise – ”
Frowning, the youth shoved the jerky in Kleitos’ face. “Are you going to try it, or talk it to death?”
Without further ado his master popped the jerky into his mouth, chewed conspicuously, swallowed. And choked violently. “Oh!” the girl squeaked while her boyfriend laughed. “Oh, sir, are you all right? Deke, it’s not funny!”
“He’ll be fine,” the boy scoffed.
She ran to a nearby drink stand, pushed to the head of the line and slapped down money for bottled water. Kleitos accepted it gratefully. “You’re – too – kind,” he said between labored coughs.
Kleitos was turning into a spectacle. Passersby eyed him with pity and scorn. Several pulled out cell phones to take pictures or text madly, while the flame-haired and freckled owner of the jerky stand looked as if she wished he would have his fit somewhere farther from her booth.
Azar felt an angry burn igniting in the center of his chest, a fire that forty years of Moru’s watery prisons had nearly extinguished. Energy pulsed around him from a hundred thousand sources; as small as the hibachi a few booths over, as innumerable as every colored bulb lighting every ride and game on the midway. He could feel them all, could gather them into himself if he felt so inclined, could direct their energy back out like a laser. And he wanted to; oh how he wanted to: right onto his pathetic excuse for a master.
In another time, Kleitos Leonidas raised his hand and villages burned while Azar capered on hillside overlooks. He plucked crowns from kings’ heads to bestow them on others and no one dared contest him. Now he offered cheap booze to opportunistic blackmailers and wheezed on a sno-cone sticky floor, gulping down water while punks guffawed. Was this who Azar had been formed out of the primal fire to serve? He thought not.
But Kleitos recovered his wits before Azar could focus the energies, and if he was paying attention there was still no question who would win a head-to-head confrontation. He gave the girl a repulsively gallant kiss on the cheek. Then he patted the young man’s back and held out a bag of dried meat that Azar hadn’t seen a moment earlier. “What do you say? No hard feelings?”
The youth snickered. “Sure.” He bit off a piece and swaggered as he chewed. “What is this? It isn’t hot at – ” His eyes bulged and to the disgust of onlookers spat the jerky onto the floor. “God, oh God, what – ?”
“Here, wash it down with this.” Kleitos held out the water.
Deke emptied the bottle and sucked in labored breaths. Kleitos crouched next to him, his back to the girl, saying softly enough for her not to hear, “Trinidad Scorpion Moruga. I see your puny three hundred fifty thousand Scoville Heat Units, and raise you one hundred and fifty million.” He plucked the remaining jerky from the boy’s spasming fingers, chewed, swallowed, smiled. “For future reference, water makes the burning worse. Try beer next time.” He rose and faced the crowd as Deke’s wheezing worsened. “Oh dear, he seems to be having an allergic reaction, and I’ve forgotten my phone. Could someone call 911?”
* * *
In the end the paramedics carted Deke off to the hospital for observation. Kleitos, of course, kept the girl, tucked into the crook of his arm as the cowboy’s resentful face receded into a crowd already forgetting the incident. She remained in their company for an hour. She clapped delightedly in the flower pavilion when Kleitos helped a bereft elderly woman revive her wilting moss garden just in time to snatch the blue ribbon from a smug front runner. She giggled like a child when he won her a giant pink stuffed elephant at the mechanical horse races and cooed delightedly when he handed out six more to random children passing by. At the end of the hour he called a cab and had Azar escort her to the hospital to see her boyfriend; she was so flustered and fascinated she forgot he’d said he didn’t have his phone.
Azar was in a foul mood by the time he rejoined his master at the beer pavilion. Kleitos had bought a table full of cowboys – friends of Deke’s, as it happened – several pitchers of piss-light lager and was passing out tiny slivers of Trinidad Scorpion Moruga jerky. The pavilion echoed with drunken howls of pain and delight, and Deke was widely mocked as a lightweight. “She didn’t even want to see him.”
“No?” The corner of Kleitos’ mouth flipped up in a sly grin.
“Something about having a taste of a real man and never being able to go back.”
He handed his servant a cube of something deep fried, slapped a few cowboy backs in farewell and headed toward the midway. “Azar, have you ever read the teachings of the Compassionate One, Gautama Buddha?”
The smell of burnt oil was tantalizing, and Azar swallowed the morsel without stopping to examine it. “Is that the one where you’re not supposed to inhale insects?”
“That’s Jainism. Buddhism teaches that whenever one acts, one should mindfully consider whether one’s action will tend to reduce net suffering in the world.”
Azar stopped and stared up at his master. “I must have heard you wrong. I thought you said reduce net suffering.”
“You heard precisely what I said. But perhaps you weren’t considering the implications.” His smile broadened. “Take that fried Snickers bar you so mindlessly ate just now.”
He replayed the flavors that had so briefly passed through his mouth, oily and crunchy and sweet and…bitter. He raised his hands to his face and saw the faintest of violet flames dancing on his fingertips. He raced to the side of the Super Himalaya carnival ride and under the mute, disapproving gaze of a bare-chested, sun-faded hero astride a tiger disgorged the remnants of the treat moments before he would have burst into a gout of purple fire. “You dosed that with potassium chlorate. Could have burned me up like a torch.”
Kleitos stopped at the Ferris wheel, Azar trailing in his wake. “Don’t think I can’t smell your disdain. I have granted you some latitude in light of your long confinement, but my patience has limits. And a calculus for minimizing suffering has any number of uses.”
To Azar’s mortification, the carny made him stand at the child’s height sign to verify that he was tall enough for the ride. He was, if barely. In retaliation, he burned a subtle half inch off the edges of the display. Maybe enough for some squirmy, too-small little cherub to slip onto the ride and through the restraints, falling to his death and shutting it down, to the carny’s ruin. It might happen next month, it might happen next year. But that was all right by Azar. He served Kleitos Leonidas. He was used to the long game. “I get it, boss. It’s a symmetrical philosophy. But – ” he sucked in his thin lower lip, hesitant to incur any further displeasure. It still tasted of chocolate and potassium chlorate, just a trace. To amuse himself he set it alight as the ride began to move; a little girl gasped and hid her face in her confused mother’s skirt.
“I mean, what are we even doing here, boss? Not at the fair – I feel better already – but here in this podunk excuse for a town.”
Kleitos tapped around the edges of the cage that semi-enclosed them, wiggled the bar across their laps. “The short reply is that I am exploring the boundaries and manifestations of anonymity and celebrity.”
Their seat spun to the top of the wheel. Twilight was deepening to night and the fairgoers fluttered moth-like toward game booths and rides and other sources of light, seeking comfort where they were too dull-witted to feel power. Azar felt it though: the heat of the lights, of the people, of the fading day, rising up like pleasing sacrificial offerings. “Seems to me like you could do that better in a real city.”
“Have you spent any time on the computer since your return, Azar?”
“Not so much.” The truth was computers and cell phones – warehouse-sized and rare when he last walked freely, ubiquitous now – made him uncomfortable. There was something a little too much of the homunculus about them Azar had the not so irrational fear that if he tested the limits of his master’s displeasure Kleitos would blend him into an energetic pulp, drizzle him across a motherboard and force him to spend a millennium or two translating electrical impulses into text.
He pulled out his tablet and began typing. “It would behoove you to make a study of the Internet. It encourages a free – and peculiar – flow of information. Bathing hedgehogs attain a pinnacle of celebrity that eludes the most talented artist. Personalities are constructed and deconstructed from casual encounters at coffee shops and county fairs and Costco, as bright as a bolt of nearby lightning and immediately forgotten when the next one crackles overhead. What attracts attention, and what dies in obscurity? How are patterns of celebrity and anonymity on the Internet reflected, if at all, in the physical world? How difficult is it to construct a fun house of false images when thousands of virtual eyes are upon you?”
For a moment Azar forgot himself in his irritation. “What does that have to do with making a scene at a stupid jerky booth? With handing some schmuck a hundred bucks and beer? With an endless stream of nubile things parading in and out of the house? What’s anonymous about that? Because it sure isn’t celebrity.”
“It is data.” He turned the tablet toward Azar, who saw his orange eyes reflected in a decoupage of Kleitos Leonidas’ doings at the county fair. “It is a single night’s face to meet the faces that one meets. And it means that no one will suspect such a genial, overdressed, out of place urbanite when I do…this.”
The wheel had spun around to the top of its arc again, and with no word of warning Kleitos grabbed Azar by the back of his neck and hurled him into the night. Azar tried to pull himself to the ground but his course was set; Kleitos had imprinted a trajectory that wouldn’t waver until it reached its terminus. The bleary-eyed carny, brain dulled by fatigue and cheap beer, watched him fly over without interest; if no one else was going to raise a fuss, far be it from him to call attention to an incident near his ride. There was nothing for it, then. He closed his eyes and reached out for the strongest energy source he could find on short notice.
Patrons shrieking with delight as they dervish whirled among the rainbow-bright bulbs of the Techno-Power jerked to a whiplash halt, screaming in alarm as the shattering glass of ten thousand lights rained down on their hair and faces. The energy from the bulbs and the computer controlling the ride was enough – just barely – for Azar to convert himself into a ball of magma hurtling toward Kleitos’ distant goal. At his core he created a hollow space and a slender straw-sized opening to the outside air. Goldfish already traumatized by ping pong ball shock waves found themselves gasping for breath as Azar evaporated all the water from the fish bowl toss to reconstitute himself when he landed.
Reasonably confident that he wouldn’t splatter and spark into mud and flame on impact Azar tried to guess where he might land. Four blocks away from the fairground he had a pretty good idea. It might have been funny if Kleitos had let him in on the joke.
* * *
Even with the water from the fish toss it took Azar a little while to put himself back together, and he managed to crawl away from the ruins of clapboard and wicker and creep to the Jaguar just as Kleitos strolled up. A small crowd had gathered to gawk and video the distraught, disheveled owner in his ripped and now sooty t-shirt clutching a sweating can of Bud Light. “It was – it was like a meteor hit the house,” he was stuttering to a reporter. The local news outlets had decamped from their 4H coverage as soon as they heard the explosion. “And I was having such a good – ” His frightened rabbit gaze landed on Kleitos and he began fumbling in his pocket. “I have – some of your – ”
Kleitos stepped into camera range as he waved the man off, a beatific smile on his face. “Keep the change. In fact – ” he reached into his own pocket and pulled out the ostentatious wad of cash. “Take this. Under the circumstances…” Microphones swung toward him, but he shook his head and turned away. “Come, Azar. I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day.”
A woman stood in Kleitos’ way on the path to the car. Azar couldn’t quite pin down her ethnic extraction – Greek? Chinese? She had an athlete’s body and a philosopher’s eyes, a perfume that smelled of citrus and water lilies and long black hair with a single scarlet-dyed micro-braid. She offered Kleitos a warm, inviting smile, but he brushed her aside with a nod and a curt, “Excuse me.”
She was still staring as they drove away; Azar checked his side view mirror. “Surprised you didn’t bring that one home, boss.”
“All that’s best of dark and bright, meet in her aspect and her eyes?” If cowboy Deke’s girlfriend were still with them, she would have melted at the mellifluous tones. “Hardly,” he scoffed. “Really, Azar, I think we need to have you fitted with glasses if you can’t recognize Zosimos of Panopolis when you see him.”
“Zosimos? Then – they’re back?” It had been over a century since he and Kleitos had tangled with Zosimos and his companions; Azar had dared to hope they were finally gone.
The Jaguar purred onto the freeway. “So it would seem. And in some degree of force or she – he – it – wouldn’t have revealed themselves so openly. Be on guard.”
Still aching from the landing and the hard work of reconstitution, Azar reclined the car seat. “Lucky thing you found me when you did.”
“Luck had nothing to do with it.”
Azar knew what that meant. Kleitos had already known about them when he came to fetch him. If they hadn’t returned, hadn’t been plotting, Azar likely would have spent more watery decades enslaved to those repugnant, stupid mermen. Not for the first time in his long, long history with Kleitos Leonidas, he wondered if he’d chosen the wrong side.