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Twenty True Stories: A Translation from the Aja'ib

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In a large house in a small city, on a small planet in a small galaxy in a small universe (relatively speaking), there lived a man who called himself the Doctor. If he had another name, he kept it secret. He was a man much given to dreaming, and in his dreams he was a great healer, not of flesh but of worlds. Outside his dreams, he liked to sit in the garden.

The Doctor shared his house with two friends. One, called Compassion, spoke little but knew much. She had built herself a radio--which wasn't a radio, but you have no word for what it was--from things she found in neglected cupboards and dusty boxes. For hours on end she listened to it and seldom left her room.

The other friend was Fitz. His soul and the Doctor's inclined together, and their bodies obediently followed. He comforted the dream-burdened Doctor with music and with love, and though he had once been a restless man, he made himself steady for his friend's sake.

One day, walking in the city, the Doctor met a black-bearded stranger whose name, he said, was Koschei. The Doctor loved travellers and their tales, so he brought Koschei home to dine. He didn't know Koschei was a wizard, but if he had, he would have invited him anyway. Hospitality is the greatest of virtues because it is the most dangerous.

There are many stories of what happened next, and all of them are true.

1. They had an excellent dinner with many bottles of wine. The marvels Koschei recounted moved them to awe, sorrow, and delight, and for many years thereafter he sent extraordinary letters that Fitz would read aloud on winter evenings.

2. In his excitement, the Doctor burned the meal and they all went hungry. Koschei left the city that night, swearing never to return.

3. Koschei so loved the large house and its fair garden that he travelled no more and grew dull.

4. Koschei so loved the large house and its fair garden that he bespelled the Doctor into giving them to him.

5. At the stroke of midnight, the enchantment that long had clouded the Doctor's mind fell away. He knew Koschei to be his true love from boyhood and embraced him. Fitz departed with much weeping and was never seen again.

6. Koschei alone knew the magic of the Doctor's dreams: raw wizardry in a man unaware and helpless. Power, and Koschei sought power above all things. He ripped it from the Doctor's mind and made himself the god-ruler of the world.

7. Compassion saw from the crook of Koschei's eyetooth that he was a wizard. All evening she hummed to herself, low buzzing notes that broke like surf against his sorceries and washed them away.

8. Offering to heal the Doctor's troubled mind, Koschei instead trapped him in dreams forever.

9. Such was Koschei's charm that in the seamless wall of love between the Doctor and Fitz, a gate opened. That night he lay with them both. Whether he left trouble behind, or only a warm memory, no tale-teller knows.

10. Evil in one heart can spark it in another; so it was with Koschei and the Doctor. Their names were spoken with terror ever after.

11. When Koschei made a toast to the health of the beautiful queen of Atlantis, a small blue box tumbled unseen from his pocket. As slowly as an oak tree, it grew into a magical room that would take its occupants to any place and any time, although not always where they wished to go. Fitz and the Doctor saw great wonders and met many people, including the queen of Atlantis. She did not remember a traveller called Koschei.

12. Koschei offered the Doctor all his love and all his wizardry. "I will make you a lord of time," he said, "if you will only come away with me." In silence, the Doctor took Fitz's hand.

13. After dinner, Compassion felt unwell. All her bones ground roughly together and her heart throbbed and skipped. By morning she had enamel skin, mirrors for eyes, and a brain of the most delicate clockwork.

14. Koschei asked Fitz to show him the garden. In the darkness, he choked Fitz until the soul left his body, then put his own envious spirit in its place. While Koschei lived out his stolen life, Fitz's ghost drifted, endlessly squeaking its alarms. The Doctor heard them sometimes, but the false Fitz assured him he was only dreaming.

15. Hours after Koschei departed, the Doctor, hopelessly ensorcelled, followed him. In the morning, finding himself alone, Fitz followed the Doctor. For fifty years they searched each for his heart's desire but never found him, only the place he had been. Koschei enjoyed it greatly.

16. Loathsome monsters came from the stars in flying boats. They killed by thousands and by tens of thousands. Koschei could have stopped them, but he did not care. The Doctor wanted to but didn't know how.

17. Wizards have no laws and no morals, but they can be generous when the whim takes them. Koschei, well-fed and well-pleased, gave each of his hosts a gift. To the Doctor he gave the secret names of all the stars; to Compassion, understanding of all languages; to Fitz, a book that forever renewed itself with fresh tales. Perhaps it was this book, reader, the one that you hold in your hands.

18. The universe blinked out. When it came back after some dark infinity, everything the Doctor had dreamed was real. It was a grander cosmos and much less safe.

19. Four travellers left the house in darkness, and it stood empty for many years. The Doctor came back eventually, alone. He had a stock of tales that no one believed, and when he smiled, which was not often, he smiled like a man remembering.

20. The unlikely story in your mind, wildly perfect or wildly dire--it, too, is true. Turn the page and you will find it.