Gresh was yawning, still not entirely awake, when the bell jingled and the just-unlocked door of his shop opened behind him, letting in a swirl of cold air. He blinked once more, flexed his shoulders, and started to turn.
“Don’t you ever sleep?” his eldest sister’s voice demanded.
Gresh finished his yawn, finished his stretching, finished his turn, and then replied, “Good morning, Dina. I slept well, thank you—and you?”
“You certainly didn’t sleep very much,” Dina retorted. She was standing in the doorway, hands on her hips, glaring at him. She wore her wizard’s robe, which generally meant she was on business. “I was trying to reach you until at least an hour after midnight. Twilfa didn’t know where you were, but wherever you were, you were still awake….”
“And having a lovely time, I might add,” he interrupted. He smiled broadly at her, then glanced at the shop curtains he had been about to open and decided not to move them just yet. Dina’s presence in her robe often implied a commission, and that might well mean traveling. If it required an immediate departure he would just need to close up shop again. He leaned back against his counter.
“I’m sure you were,” Dina said. “Are you planning to see her again, whoever she was, or just add her to the long list of pleasant memories?”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll be acquiring a new sister-in-law in the immediate future—but you didn’t come here to inquire about my love life, Dina. I take it you were trying to use the Spell of Invaded Dreams to contact me last night?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And it always leaves you in a foul temper when a spell doesn’t work, even if it’s not your fault. I apologize for the inconvenience. What was it you wanted to tell me?”
“I need the blood of an unborn child,” Dina replied. “I thought I needed it urgently, since the spell was already started when I discovered I’d run out, but it seems to have dissipated safely after all, since I couldn’t find you to get more.”
“You didn’t check beforehand?” Gresh asked, shocked. “You didn’t make sure you had all the ingredients ready? Gods, Dina…!”
“I checked,” she protested. “Of course I checked! I had one vial left.” She held up two fingers perhaps an inch and a half apart, indicating the size of the vial in question. “Then a spriggan spilled it on the cat.”
“Oh.” Gresh grimaced as he pushed himself upright and began fishing in his belt-purse for something. “My sympathies. Spriggans do get into everything, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do. The little monsters are attracted by magic, you know—especially wizardry. Locks and spells can’t keep them out. I hate the stupid things!”
“I, for one, don’t blame you a bit,” Gresh said, pulling out the key he had sought. “They’re a nuisance, no doubt about it.” He turned to look at the magically-sealed iron door of the vault room that young Twilfa could not open unassisted. “How much did you need? And how were you planning to pay?” Then he paused and looked at Dina. “Blood of an unborn child? Was that for the Greater Spell of Transmutation?”
“Yes. Not that it’s any of your business.” She stepped into the shop, pushing the door partly closed behind her, then crossed her arms over her chest.
“You’re sure it dissipated safely? Isn’t that a high-order spell?”
“Of course it is,” she said, marching forward. “You let me worry about it, Gresh. I’m just here for the blood.”
“Yes, well, I have a reputation to maintain…”
“As a supplier of goods and ingredients, not as a confounded babysitter,” she said. “I’m ten years older than you and a master wizard; I can take care of myself.”
“I don’t want anyone thinking I sold you anything that wasn’t exactly as described,” Gresh protested. “If you turn yourself into a toad, then I don’t want a bunch of wizards whispering to each other that it happened because I sold you a bad batch of baby’s blood.”
“The blood was bad?” a new voice asked, worried, and brother and sister turned to see Twilfa, their youngest sister and Gresh’s assistant, emerging from the rear passageway with the freshly filled coal bucket. She set it on the hearth, then looked at Dina. “I thought you said a spriggan spilled it on the cat.”
“No, the blood was not bad,” Gresh said, with a hint of a growl.
“Is the cat all right?” Twilfa asked, as she transferred coal from the bucket to the grate.
“Is anyone… Are you open?” an unfamiliar voice called from the still partially open front door.
Gresh sighed. “Why don’t you two discuss it all while I see to my customer?” he asked, dropping the key back into his purse and heading for the door. “Come in, come in!” he called.
“I can’t open the vault!” Twilfa called after him. “I can’t open the explosive seal.”
“I’ll be right back,” Gresh told her, as he let in the tall, black-haired woman in a red dress. He did not recognize her, and he was quite sure he would not have forgotten a face like hers.
“The door was open, and I heard voices,” the new arrival said uncertainly. She spoke with an odd accent, one that struck Gresh as somehow old-fashioned.
“I was just preparing to open the shop, my dear,” Gresh said with a bow. “Do come in.” He stepped aside and ushered her into the center of the room.
She obeyed and stood on the lush Sardironese carpet, looking around curiously.
Gresh was aware that Dina and Twilfa were both standing by the iron vault, staring silently at the stranger, but he ignored them. “Now, what can I do for you?” he asked.
The stranger tore her gaze away from the endless shelves of boxes and jars and said, “We want to hire you.”
“Hire me?” Gresh smiled indulgently. “I’m afraid I’m not for hire, my lady. I sell wizards’ supplies; I don’t run errands.”
“I’m not a lady,” the stranger said. “I’m a witch. We were told that if we wanted something hard to find, something magical, something wizardly, then you were the man to see.”
Gresh considered her for a moment.
He had assumed she wasn’t a wizard, from her attitude toward him, toward his shop, and toward her own belt-knife; she did not wear her knife quite the way wizards wore their magic daggers, though Gresh could not have explained the difference coherently. Besides, he knew most of the wizards in Ethshar of the Rocks by sight, if not always by name, and he was sure he had never seen her before.
It hadn’t occurred to him that she might be some other sort of magician. From her appearance and slightly stilted pronunciation, he had assumed she was just another wealthy ninny, perhaps a princess from the Small Kingdoms, looking for something exotic to impress someone, or trying to hire adventurers for some foolish scheme.
But witches were rarely ninnies—and for that matter, rarely wealthy. They were also not ordinarily his customers, but perhaps this person had her reasons for coming here. He decided she could indeed be a witch, and telling the exact truth.
“Who is ‘we’?” he asked.
“My husband and I. Really, he’s the one who wants to hire you, but he’s busy with the baby, so I came instead.”
The husband was busy with the baby, so the wife was running his errands? The beautiful young wife who claimed to be a witch and whose slim figure showed no evidence of having recently borne a child? Gresh glanced at his sisters. He wanted to hear this explained, but he had his business to attend to. “I do not run errands,” he said.
“Fine,” the woman said calmly. “Then let me put it this way. My husband is a wizard, and he wants to buy a specific magical item from you.”
Gresh could hardly deny that that was exactly his line of business. “Could you wait here for a moment, please?” he said.
He turned and hurried to the vault door, where he fished out the key again, unlocked the lock, then pried a large black wax seal off with a thumbnail, being careful not to mar the rune etched into the wax. He set the seal aside, to be softened over a candle-flame and re-used later, and placed a glass bowl over it to keep it safe from stray fingers. If anyone else touched that seal, anyone but himself, it would explode violently, and Gresh did not particularly want to risk burning down the shop because Twilfa got careless or a customer got curious.
“There,” he said, opening the vault. “Twilfa, find her blood for her, would you? I’ll help you in a moment. And afterward, I want you to find Tira.”
“Tira?” Twilfa looked at the woman in red, then back at her brother. “What do you want her for?”
Gresh glared at her silently for a moment, then turned back to his waiting customer without explaining. Twilfa ought to be able to figure it out for herself, and he did not care to say anything that the customer might overhear. An ordinary person wouldn’t have heard a whispered explanation at that distance, but a witch would—as Twilfa ought to know. Tira, another of their sisters, was a witch, and Twilfa had certainly had plenty of opportunity to observe just how keen Tira’s senses were. One witch could always tell another and could also evaluate the other witch’s honesty. Tira might be useful in assessing the customer in the red dress.
Twilfa threw one final curious glance at the stranger, then stepped into the vault, Dina close behind.
“Now,” Gresh said, returning to the front of the shop, “what was it your husband wanted to buy?”
“A mirror,” the witch said. “A very specific mirror, about this big.” She held out her hands in a rough circle perhaps five inches in diameter. “He last saw it in the Small Kingdoms, in the mountains near the border between Dwomor and Aigoa.”
“The Small Kingdoms.” That was more or less the far side of the World, and explained her accent.
“Yes. In or near Dwomor.”
“And is this mirror still there?”
“We don’t know.”
Gresh suppressed a sigh. “My dear, the Small Kingdoms are almost a hundred leagues from here, and my time…”
“We have a flying carpet to take you there,” she interrupted. “And we can pay you well.”
Gresh blinked. “A flying carpet?” He glanced at the vault; Dina and Twilfa were out of sight behind the iron door.
Flying carpets required high-order magic; not one wizard in twenty could produce one reliably. And a wizard who had one, assuming he had made it himself, could generally find most of the ingredients for his spells without assistance, rather than paying Gresh. Certainly finding a mirror should not be so very difficult for such a wizard.
“What’s unique about this mirror?” he asked. “Why do you want me to find it for you?”
The self-proclaimed witch replied, “It’s where spriggans come from.”
Gresh considered that for a moment. On the face of it, it seemed preposterous—but then, a great deal of what wizards did was preposterous. She looked calm and sincere, and why in the World would anyone come to him with so absurd a story if it wasn’t true?
“Have a seat, my dear,” he said, gesturing to the maroon velvet chairs in one corner. “I’ll need to hear the whole story, but let me finish with this other customer first.”