Magic is unchancy stuff and the wise man doesn’t get involved, but unfortunately involvement can be thrust upon you. To a degree I can lay the blame at the feet of Madam Mudfold. The celebrated, indeed notorious Mudfold and Cockeren feud was over. Order had been restored and both ladies had quietly drifted back into Port Naain, and under the keen eye of family and friends were being forced to keep up at least the appearance of affability.
Still, a rivalry remained, and when somebody told Madam Mudfold that Madam Cockeren had served a truly remarkable hare as the centrepiece of the dinner, Madam Mudfold wasn’t going to be surpassed. I think her plan was to serve a really fine joint of horrocks, but with the hare as a side dish. Of course you can see the message that would send out. “Yes we can serve hare, but frankly it’s not a serious dish if you’re entertaining properly.”
Between ourselves, I feel Madam Mudfold was correct in this. Given what her cook could do with decent horrocks, hare is very much a lesser meat. Still no sooner had I voiced my agreement than she thanked me and asked me to find out where Madam Cockeren had purchased the hare and to get one at least as good.
I am not without my sources and they led me to the Arcade Market in the Commercial district. There I found the stall of Benilda Twirlton. I enquired about hares and she promised me one the next day. Mind you the price she charged I would have thought I was purchasing the soul of her firstborn!
Still next day I came with the money. I was just in time to see the hare delivered. A young woman, similar in age to Benilda was delivering it. I was introduced to her. She was Reyna, and apparently she was Benilda’s sister.
When I examined my purchase, it was indeed a most considerable hare. Not only that, but there was no mark on it. So I asked how she managed to catch it. She rather looked at me is if it was none of my business but explained, “If I catch them as they’re just waking up, they’re befuddled, and I can just reach down and break their neck.”
Well by my reckoning it would have cost perhaps three times as much as the horrocks Madam was going to serve at the same time, but still, some people take their quarrels seriously. I thanked the two ladies, paid for it and with it over my shoulder, made my way to Madam Mudfold’s establishment.
I didn’t think a lot about it to be honest until a week or so later. I was making my way along the edge of Dilbrook. There are some nice houses there, very nice houses. They’re intermingled with little clusters of cottages that were built originally for servants and others who didn’t ‘live in.’ It was a remarkably windy day and as I was striding out, my hat blew off. Somehow the wind got under it and I had no option but to set off in pursuit. Luckily for me a young man, coming out of one of the cottages, saw my plight and joined in the pursuit. He managed to get ahead of the hat and with a most graceful leap, plucked it out of the air and presented it to me. I thanked him and we walked along chatting. He was a nice young fellow; I guessed he wasn’t quite twenty. He was one of those people you just somehow warm to, a thoroughly decent human being. Anyway we came to a junction and there we’d part. He had to go south into the Commercial district, whilst I wanted to head north to the house of a patron. As we parted, I noticed a gig come out of the gate of one of the houses near us. As it drew closer I could see that it was Reyna who was driving it. As the gig passed the young man (whom I had discovered was called Bagwis) it slowed down and Reyna hailed him, asking him if he wanted a lift. He cheerfully agreed, climbed up onto the gig and they disappeared down the road. I turned and headed to the house of my patron.
It was as I walked back later that afternoon, I was stopped by an elderly lady.
She peered at me. “Sorry I thought you were somebody else.”
“Who are you looking for madam?”
“My grandson, Bagwis.”
“I talked to him some hours ago. A couple of hours before noon, when he left me he got into a gig driven by a young lady called Reyna.” I turned and pointed, “She came out of that gate there.”
The old lady looked worried. “I saw Reyna pass my house in her gig, I’d come out with Bagwis’s coat for him. He’d forgotten it. He certainly wasn’t on her gig.”
Now that was a mystery. I could think of no reason why Bagwis should give up his lift. Indeed the street at that time of day had been empty; it’s not as if he’d have seen another acquaintance he had to talk to. I pointed to the house, “Perhaps if we ask there, Reyna will be home and can tell us what happened.”
She looked distinctly worried. “That is the house of the Archmage Boalides. I’m not sure I want to disturb him.”
Now Boalides may need some introduction. Most mages in Port Naain are dark snivelling creatures, best avoided. Boalides may also be best avoided, but he does not shun society. He is a Sinecurist, the quarter husband of at least three elderly ladies, and he performs his duties punctiliously. He has considerable interests outside the city and apparently spends little time here, but still maintains a house.
I took the old lady’s arm. “Madam, Boalides is a respectable citizen, and I’m sure he’ll understand your concern.”
With that I set off for the house. We walked up the drive, contemplated the front door and by unspoken agreement went to a servants’ entrance down the side. Yes I know poets always enter by the front door, but this is the house of Boalides, not some self-opinionated patron who needs gently keeping in their place. I knocked, and within a few minutes the door was opened by Boalides himself. He is unmistakable; a tall, portly man with a distinguished profile and eyes that seem to see through you to your very soul.
I took the coward’s way out; I let the lady start the conversation. I then explained I had seen Bagwis get on Reyna’s cart.
The mage pondered our story. He turned to me, “How did you know Reyna?”
Now this is a difficult question. I didn’t know whether she was his mistress, his pupil, or just somebody who kept his grounds clear of vermin. I decided that honest was probably the best policy, if only because it’s so rare and unexpected. “I met her at her sister’s meat stall in the Arcade Market. I purchased a hare from her.”
I’m not sure what it was that I said, but he looked concerned. He rang a bell and a man in his thirties appeared. He was smartly but casually dressed, I’d guess a pupil rather than a member of staff. “Castar, please take this lady home and make sure she’s safe and comfortable.” He then bowed to the old woman. “Madam, I am going to make enquiries and I’ll do my best to fetch your grandson home safe and sound. Young master Steelyard here will remain to help me in this.”
So that was my evening’s plans out of the window.
No sooner had the old lady left than he took me to a study and looked at a table. The table had a cloth over it, and when I looked carefully the cloth was a map of the city and a number of manikins were standing on it. He picked up the one nearest to where the Arcade Market was marked. He blew gently into its ear. “Sossin, please go to the stall of Benilda Twirlton. If she has a hare that was brought in today please buy it and bring it here. If it has already been sold, discover who purchased it, buy it off them and bring it here.” He put the manikin down and it immediately began to stride towards the Arcade Market.
Then he turned to me. “Master Steelyard, I am afraid you and I shall have to await events. I suggest the time will pass more pleasantly if we shared a glass or two of wine. He left the study and returned bearing two bottles and two glasses. “I thought we’d try these, one bottle is Phodrum’s High-Slope, Year of the Doubtful Rathseiger Sighting, the other Bassman’s Spur reserve, “The Foiled Taxman” from the year of the Double Salvation.”
I could only bow. Never in my life would I expect to be served such wines, but then I have no doubt he had shares in the vineyards.
We sat and sipped, and frankly I have never tasted such wine. Boalides poured with a generous hand and we discussed poetry and literature. I sat entranced at times. My host had met and talked to poets dead a thousand years or more, he dropped their names casually into the conversation to show where they might agree or disagree with me. It did strike me that in a thousand years time, he might be drinking with another poet and it might be my comment that Boalides passed on.
Eventually there was a knock on the study door. A young man came in, tall, bronzed, well dressed in dark green jacket and britches. “Your hare, sir. Also I thought to ask Mistress Twirlton, she gets them regular, every third day.”
Boalides made a casual gesture, “Another pupil of mine, Tallis. This is Dacart.”
He arose, took the hare of Dacart and laid it reverently on the floor. Then he made a series of complex gestures and spoke a different syllable for each gesture. When he fell silent and watched the hare. Slowly and in a manner I can only describe as eye-watering, the hare stretched and grew and became Bagwis. Boalides examined the body. “Dead, with a broken neck.”
He turned to Dacart. “Could you arrange for the body to be returned to the grandmother. Tell her that he met with an unfortunate accident.”
“An unfortunate accident,” Dacart repeated.
“I leave the details to you. Also ensure she is provided for.”
“Yes sir. If my memory serves me correctly, the cottage next to where the late Bagwis lived is empty. I shall rent that, move in and keep an eye on her.”
“Excellent. Be as a son to her. You can continue your lessons with me as time permits.”
Dacart picked up Bagwis’s body, cradling it in his arms and made his way out of the study. Boalides turned to me. “I am afraid it is as I feared. Still I am glad you are here.”
He could tell I was obviously perplexed so he poured us another glass of wine each and sat down.
“It’s like this young Tallis. There are parts of this city which are not necessarily safe for a young lady to venture into. Yet I might need her to go there. So I taught her a cantrip. A simple enough thing, it will turn somebody into a hare, for a year and a day. It is perfectly adequate to ensure a young woman is safe from rape or murder.”
I thought of the young man who had rescued my hat. “I wouldn’t have considered him a rapist or a murderer, sir.”
Boalides waved his left hand slightly as if waving aside my comment. “Frankly what you or I might or might not think isn’t particularly moot my friend. But Dacart pointed out that these hares are being supplied regularly. Every three days. I would suggest that it is unlikely that Reyna is being attacked on such a regular basis.”
He sank back into his chair. I asked, “Do you want me to stay, sir?”
He was briefly silent and said, “Yes. Believe it or not, I need you.”
This genuinely surprised me. “You do?”
“Yes. Do you know the most important thing a mage has?”
That, I must confess, stumped me. “I’m sorry sir, I don’t.”
“Humanity, Tallis, simple humanity. It is too easy for us to become estranged from our fellow man and woman. Take my pupils. They have already studied as students in a university somewhere. I take two or three a year. Even with me guiding them, I will lose one a year who inadvertently kills themselves because they were careless or overconfident. After ten years with me, they will be in their thirties. They are knowledgeable and powerful enough to live a life of ease, but still they press on. Perhaps half will see their fiftieth year. Of those perhaps one in ten will be around a century later, and I have one pupil who is still my friend and who is over five hundred years old. Those who survive will be those most grounded in humanity, most in touch with what you might think of as the real world.”
I was silent during his speech. There wasn’t really a lot I could say. He noticed my silence. “So, Tallis, for me the important thing is justice. It is my link with humanity. Justice must be seen to be done. There can be no secret justice, that way leads to madness.” He passed me a ring. “Put this on your finger.”
We sat in silence a little longer, and then there was a knock on the study door. Boalides said, “Enter.” I could hear the overtones of sadness in his voice.
Reyna entered. I could see the tension in her, she moved like a cat.
Softly, gently, Boalides said, “I saw the hare, Bagwis.”
Instantly Reyna crouched and flames seemed to wash over both Boalides and me. Nothing seemed to touch me, although the seat I was sitting in started to char. Through the flames I could see the archmage raise a hand. “Enough.”
Instantly the flames stopped. Reyna started to say something, but Boalides merely said a word. I call it a word; it was a collection of four syllables, none of them easy on the tongue. In front of my eyes Reyna seemed to shrink and twist. Boalides stood and took a step towards her. Suddenly there was a hare, huddled in front of him. He reached down and snapped its neck with subtle fingers.
He looked long at the sprawled corpse of the hare at his feet. Slowly and almost tenderly he picked the hare up. “Dacart will take this to Benilda Twirlton, she can do with it what she wants. But he will tell her there will be no more fine hares for her to sell.”
As a special treat I’ve got not one but two new novellas for your delectation and delight!
Benor learns a new craft, joins the second hand book trade, attempts to rescue a friend and awakens a terror from the deep. Meddling in the affairs of mages is unwise, even if they have been assumed to be dead for centuries.
No good deed goes unpunished. To help make ends meet, Benor takes on a few small jobs, to find a lost husband, to vet potential suitors for two young ladies, and to find a tenant for an empty house. He began to feel that things were getting out of hand when somebody attempted to drown him