Operating the sorcerous talisman was not as simple as Gresh would have liked. He was sitting in his front room, once again going over the various gestures and commands it obeyed, making sure he wouldn’t forget them, when the front bell jingled. He looked up from the device as Twilfa hurried from the kitchen to answer the door.
He had been practicing with it since Chira left, which had been long enough for Twilfa to clean up the broken jar, wipe up the spilled blood as best she could, and arrange a carpet and a few boxes to hide the bloodstains, which Gresh had promised to have magically removed at the first opportunity. She had scarcely finished that when Tira had arrived at the back door, and Twilfa had barely settled her in the kitchen with a sausage roll and a mug of small beer when the bell rang. Twilfa still reached the front door before Gresh could even slip the talisman into the pouch on his belt. Twilfa was in full bustle this afternoon, rushing around and getting things done with remarkable efficiency. By the time he was upright and had straightened his tunic, she was showing the customers in.
The young man Twilfa ushered into the shop appeared to be in his mid-twenties, but since this was presumably Tobas of Telven, a wizard powerful enough to own a flying carpet, appearances might not mean much in this case. He had dull brown hair and rather pale skin and stood just slightly taller than average. He wore a black tunic trimmed with red and gold, and good leather breeches.
Behind him were two women—the tall, black-haired witch, and a shorter, plumper woman with hair equally black, but curly rather than straight. She had milky-pale skin, whereas Karanissa’s was brown, and the other woman held a bundle in her arms—a bundle with tiny fingers and a face.
The baby was wrapped in fine white linen embroidered in blue and green; its mother wore green velvet and yellow silk. The family could obviously afford to dress well, though Gresh did not think much of their taste—no two of them went together well, not even the mother and child.
“Come in, come in,” he called, tucking the talisman out of sight as Twilfa ushered the foursome through the door. He rose to greet them—and not incidentally, to impress them with his own height and physique. That little bit of psychological advantage might be useful.
Karanissa stepped forward to make introductions. The man was indeed her husband Tobas, the other woman her co-wife Alorria of Dwomor, and the infant was their daughter Alris, who was still at an age where she did little more than stare, wave her hands aimlessly, and occasionally drool.
“She’s named for her grandmother,” Alorria said, as Gresh smiled down at the baby and held out a finger for her to grab. “The queen of Dwomor.”
Gresh managed to hide his surprise at that. When he had first heard the baby’s name, he had immediately wondered whether it deliberately combined elements of both wives’ names, which would have been a remarkable bit of diplomacy. In his admittedly limited experience with polygamists, co-wives tended to treat each other like sisters, which is to say, with a great deal of barely concealed rivalry and an intense interest in maintaining their own place within the family. For a mother to give a baby a name that reflected both women hardly fit that model, so it wasn’t surprising that Alris was not, in fact, named in part for Karanissa, nor that Alorria made sure he knew that—but it was surprising that Alorria’s mother was a queen.
Alorria herself had not been introduced as a princess—but then, she was married to a wizard, and the Wizards’ Guild would not allow someone to be both wizard and royal. Alorria had presumably had to give up her title and her place in the succession when she married Tobas.
Gresh wondered what that place had been. If she had been next in line for the throne then her attachment to Tobas must have been quite intense, but if she had half a dozen older brothers then she hadn’t really given up much of anything. The Small Kingdoms were awash in surplus princesses, due to the tradition that princesses must marry princes or heroes, but princes could marry anyone they chose—emphasis on any one, as multiple marriages complicated the bloodlines and inheritances too much and were therefore not normally permitted for royalty. Which was another reason Alorria’s shared marriage seemed odd.
How in the World had this Tobas wound up married to a witch and a princess? It wasn’t as if it was common for a man to have more than one wife; most women wouldn’t stand for it. Gresh had only very rarely managed to keep company with more than one woman at a time, let alone marry them. Not that he had married anyone, or particularly wanted to.
“Would you like to sit down?” he asked, gesturing toward the velvet chairs.
“There aren’t enough chairs,” Alorria said.
“I’ll be happy to stand,” Gresh said. “Let the ladies be seated.”
“I’m not a lady,” Karanissa murmured.
“I am,” Alorria said, settling onto one of the chairs and cooing at Alris.
Karanissa started to say something else, then bit it off and took the other chair.
“Your mother was queen of Dwomor?” Gresh asked Alorria as he leaned comfortably against the wall by the hearth.
“She still is,” Alorria said. “And my father is King Derneth the Second.” The pride in her voice was unmistakable.
That eliminated any possibility that Alorria had been exiled from her homeland and had made the best of her situation by marrying a wizard. Tobas could not be a prince himself—the Guild would never have allowed that.
But in that case, if Alorria had obeyed the rules at all, Tobas must have been a hero.
That was interesting.
Gresh remembered that Karanissa had said that the three of them had helped the Guild deal with Empress Tabaea. The details of exactly what had become of Tabaea had not been made public. Apparently the Wizards’ Guild had employed some extremely dangerous magic, and rumor had it that all that had remained of the self-proclaimed empress was her left foot. The overlord’s palace in Ethshar of the Sands had reportedly been gutted in the process, as well. Had it been Tobas who did that?
Gresh glanced at the wizard, who gave every appearance of being a rather ordinary young man. It was hard to imagine him flinging around that sort of high-powered spell.
Even if it had, though, that couldn’t have been what qualified him as a hero in Dwomor. The timing was wrong, as little Alris had certainly been conceived well before Tabaea’s downfall.
Karanissa had said that Tobas rescued her from an other-worldly castle and had accidentally created the first spriggans, but neither of those really seemed the sort of thing that Small Kingdoms royalty would consider adequate heroism. If he had rescued Alorria, or one of her parents—well, perhaps he had.
Gresh pushed the matter aside; maybe he would find out later. Neither of the women seemed particularly reticent.
“Well, Tobas,” Gresh said. “I understand you want me to find a mirror for you.”
“That’s right.” The wizard held up his hands. “About this big. Silvered glass. The sort wizards like to use, but glass, not alloy.”
Gresh knew, of course, exactly what he meant—a great many spells required mirrors, so he provided them for his customers. Wizards sometimes preferred to use mirrors that weren’t as breakable as glass, but they were willing to pay for something better than polished copper, and silversmiths had long since settled on a standard form for a silver-alloy “wizard’s mirror.” The exact mix of metals was a trade secret and varied somewhat from one workshop to the next, but the basic design was fairly consistent.
Other wizards, or the same wizards on other occasions, used glass mirrors, breakable or not; sometimes the image quality was more important than fragility, and glass did not need as much polishing.
Gresh stocked both varieties, of course.
“Like this,” he said, picking one from a nearby shelf.
Tobas took the mirror and looked at it critically. “Slightly larger,” he said. “And with a simple edge, not this beveled fancywork.”
Gresh nodded. “And you last saw it somewhere in the mountains near Dwomor,” he said.
“I last saw it—well, I last saw it in my own hand as I fell through a Transporting Tapestry, but a spriggan snatched it away a few seconds later and ran off with it. I haven’t seen it since.”
“Yes, of course. Now, I have an idea where it is—the general area, not the exact spot—and I believe I can obtain it for you, but there are certain things we must settle before I agree to get it.”
“Anything you want.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Tobas hesitated, looking as if he intended to argue, then sighed, his shoulders slumping. “You’re right, I don’t. I mean anything I can give you without utterly ruining myself. Let us hear your terms, then, so we can discuss them.”
“Well, first off, your wife said that the Wizards’ Guild was financing this and would pay any price. Did she mean that literally?”
“Not any price,” Tobas said, with a sour glance at Karanissa. “We won’t give you Alris, for example, or make you master of the World. But the Guild can be very generous if it means eliminating spriggans.”
“Forgive me for being blunt, but I’m a businessman, not a diplomat—how much is that?”
Tobas sighed again. “Name your price, and I’ll tell you whether we can meet it.”
“All expenses, of course—I don’t know just how long it will take me to obtain the mirror, nor what resources I’ll need—plus ten percent interest. To start.”
“I’ll want a deposit of one hundred rounds of gold toward those expenses.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
That brought them to the moment of truth, the moment Gresh had been anticipating and dreading ever since Karanissa’s earlier visit. It was a moment that he had dreamed of ever since he first began working as a wizards’ supplier; he was in a position to demand anything he wanted of the Wizards’ Guild.
He could ask for money, for gold by the ton, but that seemed so pedestrian—and besides, if he did, he might well unbalance the local economy, since it was scarcity that gave gold its value. He could ask for, not the World, but a kingdom—Dwomor, perhaps—but then he would have the responsibility of ruling it, of overseeing the welfare of its inhabitants, and he would have to be careful about using magic, or antagonizing neighboring kingdoms into starting a war. He could ask for his own little world, like the castle that Karanissa had been trapped in—but there were risks there; he might become trapped in it, as she had been, or there might be…complications. Wizardry could be a tricky, unreliable thing. He had heard stories about people opening portals into realities that were already inhabited by creatures that did not appreciate the intrusion, or realities that were so distorted, so strange, that they seemed like an endless series of traps, or even some that were not inhabitable by human beings at all—they lacked air or other necessities, or occupied time or space so alien that hearts could not beat and blood could not flow.
He could have made up a whole list of spells he wanted cast for him—love spells, blessings, transformations, animations, Transporting Tapestries, flying carpets, the bloodstone spell, and so on—but that lacked elegance.
But there was something simple that wizards could do for him, something priceless, something that could not go wrong once the spell was cast properly in the first place—though it could be lost through carelessness or by choice. He had dreamed about this since childhood and long ago settled on what he would demand.
“And as my payment I want eternal youth and perfect health,” he said. “I won’t insist on a specific spell, but it must be permanent youth. I do not want to ever be older than I am now.”
“Um,” Tobas said. He glanced at Karanissa.
“That’s my price,” Gresh said. He nodded at Karanissa. “If she’s told me the truth, exactly such a spell was cast on her centuries ago, so please don’t tell me it isn’t possible.”
“I can’t do that,” Tobas said.”I haven’t been able to provide it for myself or Alorria yet, let alone anyone else.”
Alorria made an unhappy noise in agreement.
“Someone provided it for her,” Gresh said with another nod toward Karanissa.
“Derithon the Mage,” Tobas said. “He’s been dead for centuries. It isn’t immortality, you know; Karanissa can still die, just like anyone else. It just won’t be of old age.”
“I know. That’s good enough.”
“And there are other loopholes.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to explain them to me.”
“You said the Guild would pay any price; well, that’s my price.”
“I’ll need to talk to Kaligir.”
“You do that, then.”
“I’ll see him as soon as I can, and we’ll get an answer for you. I think he’ll agree, but I can’t promise.”
“Well, that’s good enough for now. So that’s the first point.”
“There are others?”
“One more that I know of; others may arise in our discussions.”
Tobas sighed yet again. “What is it?”
“I need to know why you want the mirror. I will not be a party to seriously destructive spells.”
“We want to smash it, of course!” Alorria said before either of the others could reply. “I’m sick of these spriggans!”
Gresh nodded. That was what he wanted to hear. He looked at Tobas.
“She’s right,” he said. “We want to smash it—if that will stop it from producing spriggans. Or destroy it by some other means, or neutralize it somehow. We won’t know for certain until I get a good look at it.”
“No? Why wouldn’t you just smash it?”
Tobas grimaced. “Because we don’t know what that would do. If every fragment then starts spewing out spriggans, or some new sort of creature, that would be even worse, of course.”
“Could that happen?” Gresh asked, startled. He had not thought of that possibility.
“We don’t know,” Tobas said. “Nobody does. The spell that created the mirror only happened once, by accident, when I made a mistake in Lugwiler’s Haunting Phantasm, and I don’t know what the mistake was, so we can’t analyze it and guess at the spriggan spell’s exact nature when we don’t have the mirror in hand. Scrying spells can’t see it, even the most powerful ones, since it happened outside the World. And they can’t find the mirror, or study it. We don’t know exactly why, but presumably it’s just the nature of the spell.”
The project was beginning to sound less appealing again. Being the person who let the spriggan mirror be smashed and unleash some new horror on the World would be very bad for his reputation, even worse than not finding the mirror in the first place. “So you don’t know anything about the spell, except that it makes spriggans?”
“And it was intended to be the Phantasm. That’s right. We know that the mirror pops out a spriggan every so often—the intervals vary, but it seems to generate at least a dozen a day, usually far more. The spriggans are not all identical and seem to be changing slightly over time. The first few spriggans never had any claws, for example, but some of them do now. And we know that if you close the mirror in a box the spriggans will appear anyway until they burst the box from inside….”
“Oh, yes. I tried that, before I lost it. Those spriggans were very unhappy by the time they finally broke free. I think that may be why they were so determined to get the mirror away from me, so I couldn’t do it again with a stronger box. Spriggans do seem to care about each other, in their own confused fashion, and they seem to want the mirror to keep on making more of them.”
“Stupid little creatures,” Alorria muttered, as Alris patted a tiny hand against her mother’s shoulder.
“They can’t help it,” Karanissa whispered.
“So if the mirror is smashed—wait, do we know it can be smashed? Some magical artifacts are unbreakable.”
“We don’t know,” Tobas admitted. “It was dropped onto a hard floor once or twice after it was enchanted and didn’t break, but that was never from a significant height, and its failure to break didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary to me at the time.”
“I think a spriggan caught it every time it was dropped,” Karanissa added.
“That may be so,” Tobas admitted.
“We don’t know what will happen if it is smashed?”
“So breaking it might mean we have dozens of smaller enchanted mirrors spewing out spriggans, or something worse?”
“And if it’s broken, what happens to all the spriggans it’s already produced?”
“We don’t know.”
“I think we might want to find out before we do anything irrevocable.”
Tobas hesitated. “We might,” he agreed. “But I have no idea how that would be possible.”
“If we brought it to be studied, perhaps?”
“Perhaps, and we may do that—but Gresh, there may be a way to ensure that its destruction won’t do anything terrible even if we can’t do any elaborate analysis.”
“Might there? And what would that be?”
Tobas looked at his wives, then back to Gresh. “I can’t tell you,” he said. “Not here, not now. But if you find the mirror, I’m fairly sure we can dispose of it safely.”
“Are you?” Gresh frowned. He hated secretive customers. He had plenty of secrets of his own, of course, but he always resented it when other people had them, as well, even though he knew it was unreasonable of him. “I’m not sure. This thing sounds as unpredictable as the Tower of Flame. I’m afraid I can’t just trust you on this.”
Tobas frowned back. “What?”
“I am not going to just hand the mirror over to you and trust you to dispose of it. It’s too potentially dangerous. If that’s the job, then I’m turning it down.”
Here was his way out of committing himself to a job he might not be able to do, a way to avoid any risk to his reputation—though it might also cost him the greatest fee he could ever collect.
The others all stared at him. Alorria’s mouth fell open. “You’d give up a chance at eternal life?” Alorria asked.
“Gresh, I admit the mirror might be dangerous, but you know the Wizards’ Guild already has spells far more dangerous,” Tobas said. “We used one to kill Tabaea, right in Ederd’s palace, and had to use another one to cancel that one out. We have spells that could destroy the entire World, and you’re worried about giving us a mirror that spits out spriggans?”
“A mirror of unknown capabilities that happens to spit out spriggans.”
“Wizards deal with unknown dangers all the time!”
“But I don’t always care to help them do it!”
“Sir,” Karanissa said quietly. “If I might point something out?”
Gresh turned to her, then glanced toward the passage to the kitchen. He hoped that Twilfa had Tira back there listening, as she was supposed to. “And what would that be?” he asked.
“While it’s true we don’t know what else the mirror may do in the wrong hands, we know what it does do in its current situation,” she said. “It produces spriggans, and it seems to do so endlessly. Do you want the whole World flooded with them?”
Gresh blinked at her. “Oh, they’re a nuisance, but I’m sure….”
“No,” Karanissa said, cutting him off. “You don’t understand. They’re a serious danger.”
“Oh, now, really….”
“They have existed for six or seven years now, correct?”
“Well, I didn’t see any until much more recently, but it’s been a few years….”
“There are over half a million of them in the World now,” Karanissa said, interrupting again. “The wizards could determine that much. More are appearing every day, usually dozens or even hundreds more. They’ve spread everywhere. They get into everything.”
“Have you ever seen one die?”
Gresh blinked again. “What?”
“Have you ever seen a dead spriggan? Have you ever seen one die? Have you ever seen one injured?”
Gresh stopped to think.
“They break things constantly; they trip people; they play with sharp things and hot things and dangerous things; they’re stupid and clumsy, and they’re attracted to magic, which we all know is very dangerous stuff. But have you ever seen one die? Seen one bleed? Seen one missing fingers or toes?”
“They feel pain….” Gresh said slowly. He had observed that a few times.
“Yes, they do—if you slap one, it’ll wail. And they get hungry, and cold, and all the rest—but they don’t die. They can’t be killed by natural means. And that mirror is spitting out more and more of them. If we don’t stop it, spriggans will eventually fill up the entire World, packed side by side from Tintallion to Vond—but we won’t be around to see it, because we’ll all have starved to death long before that, when they’ve eaten all the food.”
Gresh stared at her for a moment. Then he said, “Oh.”
There was no need to ask whether anyone had tried to kill spriggans; the creatures were so annoying that of course people had tried to kill them. He had never really thought about it before, but it was obvious. The witch was absolutely right; he had never seen one injured, never seen a dead one lying in the gutter with the drowned rats after a heavy rain, nor anywhere else. No wizard displayed a stuffed spriggan in his workroom with the snakeskins and dragon skulls and pickled tree squids.
As for disposing of them magically—well, magic didn’t work properly on spriggans. Everyone knew that; it was part of the problem. There were undoubtedly ways to kill them, or at least remove them from the World, but whether those ways could be used safely and effectively was less certain.
A world totally flooded with spriggans was still decades or centuries away. Gresh knew he wouldn’t live to see it without magic, but the idea of a constantly increasing supply of spriggans, more and more and more of them every year….
The risk to his reputation suddenly seemed less important.
“I’ll want to know more about how you plan to dispose of the mirror,” he said. “If not here and now, then when the time is right. I won’t turn it over until I’m satisfied with your plans.”
“Agreed,” Tobas said.
“You’ll provide transportation.”
“You’ll show me where all your adventures with the mirror happened, if I ask.”
Gresh nodded. “Then get Kaligir to agree to a payment of a hundred and ten percent of all my expenses and eternal youth, a contract with no trickery or ways of weaseling out of it, and we have a deal.”
Tobas and both his wives smiled at him.