Ehomba remained standing. “I do not want to interrupt a private conversation.”
“Not at all, not at all.” The figure in back smiled, though it was a doleful sort of smile, the herdsman thought. It was a ghost of an expression from which all honest sentiment had fled; a shell, a shadow, from which all real contentment had been wrung like washwater from a rag. Nevertheless, he took a seat, crossing his legs beneath him and setting his spear to one side.
As soon as he did so, the other man present let out a groan. “Well, that’s beggared it! We’re both done for now.” He dropped his head.
“Done for?” What odd manner of speech was this? Ehomba wondered. Up close, he considered the other occupants of the room more closely.
The man seated on the mat next to him was of average height, with heavily knotted legs and a stocky, muscular upper body. His black hair was long and tied up in a tail in back while his facial features were like none the herdsman had ever seen before, with narrow eyes and small nose set above a wide mouth. The face was inordinately round in contrast to the athletic build and the forehead high and intelligent.
He wore light leather armor that must have been a burden in the jungle heat. Beneath it could be seen a white shirt of some silken material. Below the waist the man was clad in very little: a loincloth that was bound up between his buttocks over which protective leather straps hung no farther than midthigh. This unusual raiment was matched by its owner’s disposition, which was dyspeptic at best.
“Why couldn’t you have just run?” he was muttering. “Didn’t you see me trying to warn you off when you were peeping in the window?”
“I was not peeping,” Ehomba explained decorously with a glance in the direction of the master of the house. “I was reconnoitering.”
“Well, it sure as Gibra didn’t do you any good. You’re in here now, and he’s got you, too.” The speaker nodded in the direction of the third occupant of the room.
Unperturbed, Ehomba turned toward their nominal host. “Is what he says true?” he asked quietly. “Do you have us?”
“Oh, most certainly,” the other replied in his lugubrious voice. “Once caught, none can escape me.”
“That is strange. I do not feel caught.”
“Don’t worry about it. You are.”
The speaker was not entirely human, Ehomba saw. Or perhaps he was merely representative of a type of humanity the herdsman had not previously encountered. One thing Ehomba was ever conscious of was his unabiding ignorance. That was why he asked so many questions. The habit had frequently driven his elders to distraction.
The squat shape confronting him was massive and blocky, rather like a squeezed-down, compact version of a true giant. It had a lantern jaw and dark, deep-set eyes. Perhaps its most notable feature was its great mane of red and gold hair, which swept back from not only the forehead but the cheeks to flow in a single continuous hirsute waterfall over its shoulders and back until it touched the floor. The nose was crooked and the upper body much too big for the lower, as if it had been grafted onto hips and legs from another person entirely. Ehomba would have called the face apelike had such an appellation not been denigrating to the monkey. It was ugly—there was no getting around it—but not grotesque. There was even a bizarre, alien warmth to it.
It did not warm the man seated next to him, however. “Don’t feel caught, eh? Try getting up.”
Ehomba attempted to comply, only to find that he could not rise from the mat. Looking down, he saw that the tiny fibers upon which he was seated were anything but inanimate. They were twitching and rustling in spasmodic silence. A fair number already gripped his lower legs and sandaled feet, but not by wrapping around them and holding them down.
They were boring into them, skin and sandals both.
Looking to his left, he saw that his neighbor was suffering from the same affliction. He was as tightly fastened to the mat as if he had been rooted there. Which was, in fact, precisely what was happening to him.
After waiting a moment for realization to strike the newcomer, the stocky figure extended a hand. “Too bad for you, but I can’t deny that it’s nice to have some company.” He nodded curtly in the direction of their host. “I was fed up with being able to talk only to him.”
“Tut,” murmured their hairy host, “surely my conversation is not so intolerable.”
“Of course it is, but I suppose you can’t help it.” Despite circumstances that were obviously less than conducive to casual joviality, he grinned as he looked back at Ehomba. “I’m Simna ibn Sind. I come from a country that’s far to the northeast of here. And I sure wish I was there now.”
“Why aren’t you?” the herdsman asked him.
Simna looked away, still grinning. “Dispute seems to dog me the way a sweat bee pesters a runner. I find that I have to keep moving in search of outer as well as inner peace.”
“Have you ever found it?”
The fine-featured face looked around sharply. Then the smile widened. “Not yet, but I understand that it’s a condition devoutly to be desired. I’d hoped someday to be able to appreciate more than just the theory.”
“I am sure that you will.”
“Don’t you get it, uh … ?”
“Ehomba. Etjole Ehomba. I am a herdsman from the south.”
“Yeah, well, it’s time to stop deluding yourself, friend. You’re stuck here just like I am, and neither of us is going anywhere. We’re going to sit here until we rot.”
“Of course you are.” Their host was most agreeable. “That is what people do in my company. That is what everything does in my company.” He sighed resignedly. “I do so wish others wouldn’t take such a negative view of what is after all a most vital and necessary process.” The great-maned head shook slowly. “So few stop to consider what kind of place the world would be without me.”
“And what is that?” Ehomba inquired with interest. “What are you? Who are you?”
“I thought you might have guessed by now, traveler.” Again the intimation of an imitation of a smile. “I am Corruption.”
“I see. By whom were you bribed?”
“No, no; you don’t get it, do you?” A man of short sentences and peppery disposition, Simna looked disgusted. “He’s not corrupted. He is Corruption. Take another look around you. Take a good look.”
Ehomba did so, and found that by squeezing his eyes tight together, certain aspects of his surroundings that had heretofore escaped his notice suddenly stood out in stark contrast to what he had initially believed he was seeing.
All those colorful flowers growing in planters and pots on the porch, for example. Gazing at them afresh, he saw now that they were wilted and dying; the petals wrinkled as the faces of old, old men, the stems shivered with disease. The stench of decay permeated the hut. Instead of a woven mat, he was sitting on a heap of moldering dung from which emerged the tendrils of corrupted fungi that were ever so slowly drilling into his feet and lower legs.
As if his eyes had suddenly refocused, he saw the hut in a new light, a dark and decomposing one. The walls were not made of wood, but of some crumbling earthen material resembling peat. Instead of thatch, the roof was composed of the yellowed bones of long-dead animals—and other things. And their host …
Pustules and boils covered the heretofore smooth skin while the great mane of hair was in reality a compact herd of composting worms that writhed and twisted slowly around and through the stolid skull. A palpable fetidness that oozed from every pore made the herdsman glad he had not eaten since morning, and then very little. Yet for all the quiet horror of his revealed self, Corruption exhibited no excitement at his new guest’s realization, belched no bellow of putrefying triumph. He remained quiet and courteous. Ehomba found this only natural, patience being an important component of the nature of corruption.
“What do you want from us?” he inquired of their host.
Eyes that seethed like the sewage system of a great city turned to him, and maggots spilled from cracked lips. “What your friend said: for you to rot. Don’t feel singled out or put upon. It is what I want everything to do.” Around him, the hut moaned as the molecules of which it was made slowly collapsed.
“I am afraid I do not have time for it,” Ehomba responded. “I have an obligation to fulfill and responsibilities to others.”
Cackling laughter bubbled up from noisome depths and the rankness of the room pressed close around him. On his left, Simna turned his head away from their host and gagged. He did not throw up only because he had done so earlier. Repeatedly.