Gresh sat at his kitchen table across from Twilfa and Tira, stroking his short-trimmed beard. “She said they’d tried wizardry, theurgy, demonology, warlockry, science, and ritual dance. She didn’t mention witchcraft, but since she’s a witch herself I think we can take that for granted.”
“Then why did you want me here?” Tira asked.
“To see whether she was telling the truth,” Gresh replied. “Whether she’s really a witch and really as old as she claims.”
“But you let her go!”
“She’ll be back this afternoon.”
“You want me to stay here all day? Gresh, Dar and I have our own customers to attend to.”
Gresh sighed. “Are any of them coming today?”
“I’m not going to tell you my entire schedule.”
“I won’t keep you, then, but can you please come by this afternoon? Naturally, I will pay you for your time.”
“Tira, I’m sorry I dragged you over here for nothing, but I didn’t know how the conversation was going to go, and this way you’ll know what I want when you come back, and I won’t need to try to signal you surreptitiously. And you can tell me if you’ve ever heard of this Karanissa of the Mountains, or her husband Tobas of Telven, or a mirror that makes spriggans.”
Tira considered that for a moment, then relented. “Fine, I’ll be here this afternoon and will tell you whether they’re lying,” she said. “And I never heard of Karanissa or Tobas, but didn’t you say they were from the Small Kingdoms? I don’t know anyone there. The Sisterhood doesn’t operate openly there.”
“And you will indeed pay me my full consultation rate this afternoon.”
“I don’t want you thinking you can get a discount just because you’re my brother, or because you’re the famous Gresh the Supplier.”
“Of course not.”
“Good.” She pushed back her chair and stood up. “I’ll be back this afternoon. If I have a chance, I might talk to a few people about this Karanissa.”
“Thank you,” Gresh replied. He and Twilfa watched silently as Tira straightened her shawl and marched out the back door. Except for Dina, his sisters almost always used the back door, at his request. He didn’t want anyone wondering why all these non-wizards were coming to his shop.
And they did come fairly often. His sisters were his most important trade secret. Oh, he had plenty of other sources and contacts, a network of agents scattered across the western half of the World, but his family was at the heart of his unique ability to acquire the things his customers sought. He had based his entire business on sisterly affection and sibling rivalry—what one sister could not find, another could, and would, because to refuse would be to disappoint their only brother and miss a chance to crow.
Gresh was only eight when he first realized he could play off Dina, who was then a freshly accredited journeyman wizard, against Difa, then an apprentice warlock, to his own benefit. He had known all along that Difa had originally intended to be a wizard and had only become a warlock because the possibility was new and exciting and as a warlock she would not be once again following in her older sister’s footsteps. Still, it was not until Dina made journeyman that Gresh had discovered he could exploit this rivalry, challenging each sister to show that she could do more with her magic than the other. Warlockry was still relatively new and unfamiliar at the time, which had helped—questions of which sort of magic was better at what had not yet all been settled.
Tira was already in her third year of apprenticeship then, and she, too, had joined the competition quickly enough. Chira and Pyata and Shesta joined in their turn. No two of Keshan the Merchant’s daughters chose the same school of magic—that would have been copying—but all were determined to demonstrate that their magic was best.
Then Gresh had reached apprenticeship age himself and faced the prospect of learning his own magic. Dina had not yet been ready for master’s rank, but she could have found him a place with a wizard somewhere.
Or Difa could have found a master warlock. Tira could probably have found a witch. The others were still apprentices themselves, but….
But it didn’t matter, because Gresh had decided he didn’t want to be a magician. It would have meant choosing one sort of magic—and one of his sisters—over all the others. Whichever school of magic he chose, the sister in that school would have deemed it a victory and the others a defeat; factional lines within the family that had always been fluid would become fixed.
He might have chosen a variety of magic that none of them had studied, which would have avoided choosing sides by rejecting all of them, but even at twelve he had been able to foresee a lifetime of being told, “You chose your magic instead of mine, so I can see you won’t want my help!” Although finding a magic none of his older sisters had chosen would have worked as far as not choosing sides at first, it ignored the question of what might happen when his younger sisters began choosing their apprenticeships.
No, there were too many potential complications with any school of magic. Appealing as learning magic might have seemed, he did not want to alienate any of his sisters, or choose one over the others. He liked being able to call on all of them.
So he had apprenticed to their father, which had made both their parents happy, and he had learned the merchant’s trade, learned bookkeeping and bargaining, buying and bartering—and he had made use of all his twelve sisters in his business, older and younger, from Dina the wizard to Ekava the seamstress, and had eventually taken on Twilfa, the youngest, as his assistant. Because of the family’s competitiveness no two had pursued exactly the same occupation, even after their contacts could no longer find new varieties of magic, and he now had available for consultation representatives of eight different schools of magic, as well as a seamstress, a sailor, and a guardswoman.
That didn’t include the husbands or children his sisters had acquired over the years—nine of the twelve were married, and three of them had offspring old enough to have begun their apprenticeships. His nephews, nieces, and brothers-in-law were not as usefully diverse as his sisters, but they did add to the mix.
“So do you want to talk to Chira?” Twilfa asked, when Tira was out of sight. Chira was the family sorcerer, and Karanissa had not mentioned trying sorcery.
Gresh considered that, then nodded. “I think that’s a good place to start, and she definitely owes me one.” He had located several sorcerous items for Chira over the past few years and had been generous in pricing them. Karanissa’s omission of sorcery from her list was probably just an oversight, and Gresh did not see how any sorcery he was familiar with might help, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
“I’ll fetch her,” Twilfa said, rising.
“And if you see any spriggans on the way, try to catch one,” Gresh said.
Twilfa paused. “You want to have one here for Chira to try her talismans on?”
“I want to ask one a few questions,” Gresh answered. “For all I know, we may not need any magic to find this mirror.”
Twilfa blinked. “You think it might just tell you where the mirror is?”
Gresh turned up a palm. “Why not?” he asked. “Spriggans are stupid little creatures, and they seem to want to be cooperative—why wouldn’t it tell me?”
“If it’s that easy, wouldn’t this Karanissa have already tried that? Or her husband?”
“They’re magicians, at least in theory. She’s a witch; he’s a wizard—they’re accustomed to doing things magically. It may have never occurred to them just to ask.”
Twilfa started to say something, then stopped and thought for a moment. “You could be right,” she admitted.
Gresh smiled at her. “You’re learning,” he said. “Magicians are just as fallibly human as anyone else.”
Twilfa stuck her tongue out at him and turned away.
Gresh watched her go, then leaned back and began planning.
The mirror was probably still somewhere in the Small Kingdoms—why would the spriggans have taken it anywhere else? He could accept Karanissa’s offer of transport by flying carpet, but how big a carpet was it? How much could it carry? It might be better to travel on the ground.
Although his customers were nominally buying the mirror, what they really wanted was its destruction; should he bring tools for breaking it? An ordinary mirror could be smashed readily enough, but enchanted items had a tendency to be uncooperative in unexpected ways.
Of course, depending on just what he did to locate it, he didn’t necessarily want Tobas and Karanissa to know how he found it; if customers found out how simple some of his methods actually were it could hurt his business.
He needed to talk to a spriggan, no question about it, to find out as much about the mirror as he could. He glanced down the passage toward the shop; naturally, no spriggans were in sight. When he was busy and had no use for the little pests they were everywhere, getting underfoot and making a mess, but now that he wanted one, there were none to be found.
Well, Twilfa might have better luck in apprehending one. Or he could stroll down Wizard Street later and listen for outbursts of profanity or the sound of falling crockery.
Then the doorbell jingled, and he rose hurriedly to attend to his customer.
Ordinary trade filled the remainder of the morning. Twilfa returned shortly before lunch with word that Chira was busy at the moment but would be along later and that all the spriggans seemed to be hiding.
“Of course,” Gresh said.
They had finished a meal of salt ham and cornbread, and Twilfa was clearing the table when Gresh heard a thump. “What was that?” he said.
“What was what?” Twilfa asked, stacking the pewter plates.
A loud crash sounded from the front of the shop.
“That,” Gresh said, as he leapt up and dashed down the passage.
As he had expected, he found a spriggan sitting on the floor below a high shelf, surrounded by broken glass and drying blood. The creature looked up at him as he entered, then sprang to its feet and ran for the door.
Gresh darted in front of it, cutting off its escape. It stopped dead and looked up at him, crestfallen. Its big pointed ears drooped.
“Sorry sorry sorry,” it said, in a high-pitched squeak of a voice.
Gresh smiled. “Of course you are,” he said. “I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm at all, did you?”
The spriggan stared up at him uncertainly, its bulging round eyes fixed on his face.
“You were just curious about what was in the bottle, right?”
Hesitantly, the spriggan nodded, never taking its eyes from Gresh’s face.
“And you certainly didn’t mean to spill dragon’s blood worth five rounds of gold all over my carpet, did you?”
The ears drooped even further. “Sorry,” the spriggan said.
“Do you know how much five rounds of gold is?”
The spriggan blinked once, its thin, pale eyelids seeming to appear out of nowhere. “No?”
“It’s a very great deal of money. You now owe me a very great deal of money.”
The creature looked panic-stricken. “Spriggan doesn’t have money,” it squealed.
“I can see that,” Gresh said. The spriggan was naked and only about eight inches high; there was nowhere it could hide a purse, or even a single coin.
Gresh had never bothered to take a good hard look at a spriggan. The first few he had encountered had been glimpsed from afar, or in the process of fleeing, and by the time he saw one close up and relatively still he had lost any interest in the little pests. Now, though, he stared down at the creature that crouched before his feet, studying it.
It was roughly human in shape—but it also looked a good bit like a frog, an impression aided by its lipless, oversized mouth and bulging pop-eyes. Its shiny, hairless skin was a dull green—Gresh thought he had seen a few that were more of a brown color, but this one was definitely an ugly shade of drab green. It came no more than halfway up his shin; if it stood straight and stretched its bony arms, those long-fingered little hands could probably reach his knee.
This one apparently had no fingernails; some of them did, though. He remembered hearing that some could use their fingernails to pick locks.
Why did some have nails, and some not? Was there any significance to the different colors? There were plenty of unanswered questions about spriggans. No one knew whether they had one sex or two—or, Gresh supposed, more. No one knew why they all seemed to speak the same sort of broken Ethsharitic, or whether they had names. Not one had ever, so far as Gresh knew, admitted to having any name but “spriggan.” They generally spoke of themselves in the third person, but Gresh wasn’t sure if that was universal.
One thing he discovered, having one this close, was that they did not seem to have any odor at all. He was fairly sure he would have been able to smell a person at this distance, but all he could smell right now was the spilled dragon’s blood.
He was going to need to clean that up, but right now dealing with the spriggan seemed more urgent; the blood and broken glass could wait. He supposed he probably should have kept that in the vault, with the other expensive materials, but wizards used so much dragon’s blood that he had never bothered—he and Twilfa would have spent half the day locking and unlocking the iron door. It seemed as if half the spells used in Ethshar of the Rocks required dragon’s blood.
The stuff had a sharp, metallic odor, and Gresh’s nose could detect nothing else. On a whim, he leaned forward and sniffed at the spriggan.
It backed away a step, startled. “No money,” it said. “You let spriggan go now?”
The creature had no scent at all, so far as Gresh could discern. He could smell the blood and the carpet and a dozen other normal shop odors, but nothing at all that might be the spriggan. That was odd, like so many things about the little pests. “You’ll just have to pay me with something other than money,” he said.
“But spriggan not have anything,” the spriggan wailed woefully.
“You can pay me with answers,” Gresh said.
The spriggan calmed down slightly. It blinked up at him, then looked from side to side, as if hoping to see an explanation standing nearby.
Twilfa was standing in the passageway, watching the conversation, but there were no explanations in sight.
“What answers?” it asked warily.
“You owe me five rounds of gold,” Gresh said. “That’s forty bits. Let’s say each answer is worth, oh, two bits—which I’m sure you’ll agree is very generous of me. Then you owe me twenty answers.”
“What kind of answers?”
“Answers to my questions.”
The spriggan considered that carefully, then brightened visibly, its immense ears straightening. “Yes, yes!” it said. “Answer questions! Then you let spriggan go, yes?”
“Yes,” Gresh said.
“Good, good! Have answers, have fun!” It ventured a tentative smile.
“Don’t get too happy,” Gresh warned. “You still have to give me those twenty answers.”
“Will! Will! Ask questions!”
“Indeed I will. First off, did you come out of a mirror, as I’ve heard?”
“Not know what you heard. That one answer.” It blinked up at him.
Gresh grimaced. Obviously, he would need to be more careful about his phrasing. “Fair enough,” he said. “Did you come out of an enchanted mirror?”
“Yes. That two answers.”
“You’re counting…. Can you even count to twenty?”
The spriggan hesitated. “Not sure,” it admitted. “Can try. Can count to twelve for sure. Twenty is more than twelve, might not get all the way. Try, though.” It smiled happily. “That three answers!”
Gresh sighed. “I suppose it is. Now, do you know where the mirror you came from is?”
“No. Not know. That four.”
“No, it isn’t!” Gresh protested. “That’s not an answer!”
“Is, too. ‘Not know’ is answer. Just isn’t good answer. You not say good answers!”
Gresh put a hand to his forehead. “I’m being outwitted by a spriggan,” he said. “I don’t believe this.” Then he lowered his hand and said, “Where was the mirror when you last saw it?”
The spriggan turned up empty hands. “Not know,” it said. “Five.”
“You have to give me honest answers, you know.”
“Did. Have. Will.”
“How can you not know where it was?”
“Not good with places. Not good with names. Not remember well. Six.”
“Well, how did you get here from wherever the mirror was?”
“Walked, mostly. Ran some. Got thrown once by pretty woman who found spriggan in her skirt—maybe eight, nine feet? Rolled down slope once. Is seven? Yes, seven.”
“Seven down.” Gresh sighed again, and rubbed his forehead. “Which direction did you walk?”
“Not know names of directions. Walked away from sun. Not like light in eyes. Eight.”
“But the sun moves!”
“Sun moves, yes. Spriggan know that. Spriggan is not that stupid.”
“But then you’d walk west in the morning, and east in the afternoon, and you’d wind up in the same place—was the mirror here in the city?”
“No, mirror not here! Silly. Walked in mornings, had fun in afternoons—talked to people, played games. Nine.”
“So you went west.”
“Away from sun in morning.”
The spriggan turned up an empty palm. “You say is west; spriggan not argue.”
“So you came from the east—which makes sense, since we’re on the west coast. You didn’t turn aside, go north or south?”
“Went other direction when water got in the way. Ten.”
“Water? You mean the ocean?”
“Mean big, big water, great big huge water. Is ocean? Ocean’s eleven.”
“So when you got to the coast you turned aside and walked up the coast to the city.”
“Turned aside twice. First time long ago, then not so long at all. Twelve.”
Gresh struggled to remember his geography. The second time would be when the spriggan reached the west coast, of course, but the first time….
That would have been the Gulf of the East, the water between the Hegemony of the Three Ethshars and the Small Kingdoms.
“The first time you turned aside—you walked around the very big water and crossed a long bridge across more water, and then headed west again?”
“Yes, yes! Long bridge with guards.”
“Across the Great River.”
“What comes after twelve? Thirty?”
“Thirteen,” Gresh said automatically, as he tried to choose his next question.