robertliguoriwritesstuff

The Mercantile Wizard

Some more D&D fiction here.

“Temporary horse! Get your temporary horse here!”

Kelder stopped, curious. The youth looked very much like a failed wizard’s apprentice. The purple robe with pale blue sigils looked very wizardly (or, to be more precise, looked very much like what the untrained thought wizards generally wore). Kelder might well have passed him by, save for the fact that a colorful sign hovered next to him, announcing that temporary horses were indeed on sale, for the low price of 5 gold.

“A temporary horse?” he asked, pausing.

“Yes sir!” the youth shot back. “Courtesy of the Mount spell! An excellent mount for getting around the city’s main thoroughfares, with tack and saddle at no extra charge! My summoned creatures are guarenteed non-fiendish or double your money back!”

Kelder considered. “How temporary is temporary?”

“The default model will last you for two hours, but if you are interested in the deluxe model, you can have an additional two hours of riding time for just five gold more! I can only sell one of those a day at present, however, sir, so please act fast!”

Kelder did a brief bit of mental math. “Mmm. Mount lasts for two hours per caster level…so, you made it to second circle before giving up on dungeon delving?”

“I, uh, never actually’ve been dungeon delving, sir. I prefer to leave that to brave and stalwart heroes such as yourself!” The youth looked nervous.

“Hmm. So, where does the deluxe model come from?”

“Well, I know a little bit of metamagic, sir. So-”

“Ah! The Sudden Extend technique! ‘Course, only works on one spell per day, according to my friend Corim.” said Kelder. “So if you haven’t used it for the day, sure, I’ll take the deluxe model. I’m always happy to support the young entrepeneurs of tomorrow. After all, I need somewhere to spend my dungeon loot, don’t I?”

Kelder looked on as the youth cheerfully summoned a horse, then frowned as he waved his hands and wrote out a quick copy of the advertisement from his sign onto the conjured saddle with another spell, and placed a glowing rune onto the horse’s forehead with yet another.

“Ah, sorry about that, sir. But it’s part of my agreement with the Watch. That way, no one gets the bright idea of trying to sell either horse or saddle to an unsuspecting merchant.”

“And lets everyone know that you…” Kelder scanned the saddle quickly “…Melian the Mercantile Mage, of 16th and Broad, have magic to sell. Hmm. ‘Other Spells By Appointment’. What other spells?”

“Alarm, Endure Elements, Comprehend Languages, and Unseen Servant, sir! Also, a wide variety of cantrips, if you have the need!”

“Seriously?” asked Kelder. “You know no combat magic at all?”

“Well, I leave it off the list because it’s a self-only spell, but I also know Expeditious Retreat. And that, sir, is the first and last spell I plan on casting when trouble is afoot.”

Kelder laughed. “A sound strategy, sir Melian! And now I take my leave. I must see a man about a map and a very dangerous hole in the ground.”

Melian looked over his accounting notebook and sighed. His advertisements had worked beyond his expectations; hundreds of people knew him, and demand for his services wildly exceeded supply. But he couldn’t raise his prices to capture that surplus, because now dozens of other apprentice wizards were stepping up to provide similar services.

Having to struggle and strive, to hustle to find the opportunity to best use his very limited daily magics, had been good for him, he had known. He had grown in power and experience, and when he woke tomorrow, would do so as a third-level wizard, with knowledge of two new second-level spells. But if he was going to stay ahead of his competetitors, he needed to find exactly the right spells, and exactly the right way to sell them…

“Ho, Melian!”

Melian looked around. He recognized the voice, and was all ready to launch into his prepared Repeat Customer Sales Pitch when he recognized the speaker, and noticed his companion.

“Ah! Hello, Kelder! So, I take it the map and the very dangerous hole paid off?”

“Hah!” said Kelder, giving him an affectionate (if rather painful) punch on the shoulder. “Less than we wanted, more than we feared, but all of us came back, so I call that a win! But Corim here was interested in your business here. Thought I’d introduce you two, let you mages get to know each other.”

“I am Corim, wizard of the Tenth Circle.” said Kelder’s companion. It almost wasn’t necessary; Melian could practically feel the magics radiating off of him.

“Uh, Melian. Of…the Third Circle.”

“So! Selling your magics wholesale! Very interesting! How is business, may I ask?”

“Uh. Fine. Good, actually. I have a lot of competition, but that just helps to remind people that I was the first and am still the best!”

“Hmm. So, with many young competitiors springing up, it sounds like you could perhaps use some seed capital.”

“Seed capital?”

“Yes. You know, enough to get a proper shop front, perhaps employ some assistants, that sort of thing.”

“Ah.” said Melian. “And how much would you be thinking of providing, in hypothetical-”

“Ten thousand gold, at ten percent annual interst. Compounded continually. With options for buy-out at the end of each three-month period, since that is when we’ll be back in town. Assuming we don’t die in a dungeon, of course.”

Melian’s mind went blank. Ten. Ten thousand. A hundred hundreds. 25 prime warhorses.

“I…uh. To be frank, sir Corim-”

“Just Corim, please. I do work for a living, after all.”

“Corim, then! I…that is more capital than I currently have invested in…well, anything. Plus…I’m not sure I can ensure ten percent marginal returns on ten thousand. How about five for eight percent?”

“That sounds fair. Five thousand at eight percent it is. I’ll see you in three months!”

And with that, Corim reached into his robe, retrieved eight heavy sacks from what had to be an extradimensional pocket, tossed them at Melian’s feet, and vanished.

Melian groaned, looking at the numbers one more time. The shopfront had been a great investment. He was selling more spells than ever, now that he had an official business. But with that official business had come increased scrutiny from the Watch, and that meant time, and paperwork. And that meant more time, and consulting with barristers, and that meant more money.

There were no two ways around it; he was going to have to diversify his magical services. There were Temporary Horse knock-offs on half a dozen street corners now. His reliable magical service was now going to others, who were so desperate to get into the market they would undercut him on price.

He needed to find something else to sell, something that the other young wizards of the city couldn’t copy. But what could he sell, that no one knew was buying from him?

—-

“Two hundred gold?” The nobleman sucked in his breath through his teeth.

Melian tried not to be intimidated. He knew it was just a negeotiating tactic, but knowing something wasn’t real didn’t always make it less effective, as all illusionists knew well.

“That is quite a sum.” the noble continued.

“You are buying a great deal. Two second-level spells, my presence at a particular place and time, and my discresion.”

“Your discresion?” asked the lord, his voice rising.

“My lord, because I must give no sign of the spells I am going to cast for you, I am forced to essentially launder my own labor. I need to account for how I would have spent the spells in a way that will hold up to scrutiny. This takes effort, and costs money.”

The wizard shrugged. “If you would prefer for me to simply arrive at your wedding party and surrepticiously slip you the vial before nightfall-”

There was a brief look of panic on the noble’s face at the thought of him being linked to Melian.

“Fine, devils take it all! You’ll have your money, wizard. You’ll have your money, and nobody will have the faintest reason to suspect. Nobody!”

Melian nodded, withdrawing the vial. “The potion itself will remain potent for several hours. However, once drunk, the Alter Self spell will last only a single hour.”

The noble looked briefly haunted. “And…it will be me in there?”

“Of course. Polymorph and transformation spells are extremely heavily regulated, as you know. I cannot transform anyone into anyone else without clearly marking them as transformed. Transforming someone into themselves, or into a slightly enhanced version of themselves, however…”

“How slightly are we talking?” the nobleman asked.

“That depends on your specifications. I generally recommend changes of no more than ten percent in any direction. More than that stands a chance of being recognized if you are observed at the moment the spell ends.”

“But you can do more?”

“I can. But-”

“Then I’ll damn well send you the specifications and you’ll damn well give me the body my bride-to-be deserves! Three hundred gold will get me that much!”

“Ah…yes. It most certainly will, my lord.”

“Again?” Melian asked. He had been afraid of this. If he had any sense, he should have stopped this when he realized where it was going to lead. But there was so much money to be made…and it’s not like he was exploiting anyone, after all. A magical service was asked of him, freely, and he took coin to provide it, equally freely. It would be a scandal if it were ever revealed, but…

Just for a little while.

“I…could cast the spells again, yes. But as I do not have them prepared, I would need at least 24 hour’s notice.”

“I can work with that.” said the noble, pacing. “We’re both so busy, consolidating the households and such, I need to schedule our evenings together anyway. And…”

The noble breathed out. “I’m damn glad I did take your offer, wizard. I didn’t imagine they made women like that. If I’d had to have been with her with this old flabby thing…” The noble shuddered. “It was the right thing to do. And I’ll need another vial in…two day’s time? Concealed vial in the pommel of the temporary horse, just like last time?”

“My lord, I should warn you that if this becomes habitual-”

“Bah! Look to your spells and potions and coin, wizard, and I’ll look to my marriage!”

“As you wish, my lord.”

Melian read over his thoroughly-cooked books, sighing. He had committed the actual numbers to memory, using an old psion’s trick he had picked up back in his apprenticeship, but maintaining the cover for a noble who had become addicted to magical transformation was stessful, if lucrative.

Income: 120 gp – Locate Object x2 [Screening pawn shops and tinkers for stolen jewelry, Maudlin of East and 33rd, PIF]
Income: 30 gp – Locate Object [Screening pawn shops and tinkers for stolen jewelry, Maudlin of East and 33rd, PIF, discount due to no results and previous patronage]
Expense: 2x 500 gp – Materals for Pearl of Power I [From Harker ‘Two-Blades’, c.f. recent dungeon excursion]

Melian sighed again. Maudlin was a great help for a wizard in need of creative accounting. He’d managed to recover several thousands gold worth of stolen jewelry (worth more than that in sentimental value), but now that returns were diminishing, as whatever fences and resellers had rapidly gotten the message and disposed of their ill-gotten gains, very little was turning up. It hadn’t stopped her from still retaining him, however.

The Pearl of Power I had been a crucial find. It had been risky, purchasing directly from a delver with a reputation for unpredictable violence, but Two-Blades had been as good as his word, and surprisingly polite besides. The Pearl of Power I let him re-cast any spell of first level he had already cast. It wasn’t as good as an extra spell slot, but if he were going to be casting a spell multiple times in a day, as he had been doing with his Mount business…

There was a heavy knocking on his door. Melian sighed again. It was time to negeotiate once more.

“What do you mean you can’t?”

“I mean exactly what I say, my lord. As of the first of this upcoming month, I will be unable to supply you with phials of Alter Self.”

“What’s stopping you, then?”

“My lord, your patronate, although quite welcome, is monopolizing my second-level magics. I am not able to properly pursue other opportunties and grow my business as I should.”

“But I need it! My wife hasn’t seen me without it! I can’t just stop now! At least give me a chance to taper it off, to use weaker potions…give me something, wizard!”

Melian looked pensive. “I…hmm. There might be something. If I can count on ensured businss, and payment in advance.”

“Payment in…how much?”

“Four thousand gold.”

“What?!?”

“For twenty-five vials of potion. 25 nights, to spend as you choose.”

The noble’s face twisted. “I can pay twenty-eight hundred-”

“Then you will have this week’s, next week’s, and no more, my lord. I require four thousand gold to build the necessary infrastructure to support your business. And to do that, I require magical components which are extremely price-inelastic.”

The noble choked, squeezing his hands as though he wished they held Melian’s neck, then stalked away.

It would have been preferable if he had simply walked away, Melian considered. It had been a gamble, but it was a true one. He simply couldn’t afford to keep preparing Instant Potion and Alter Self, not if he was going to meet his growth targets. But with two Pearls of Power II…

Melian froze, then sighed once more at the familiar sounds of the noble’s approach. Contracting out to cast the same spells 25 times was horrid enough, but doing it for payment in advance, now already spent, meant he didn’t even get the reward of new money coming in each time.

Happily (or unhappily, depending on your point of view), he was only half an hour early. If he’d been an hour early…

“Good evening, my lord.” Melian said, ritualistically. “Will you be sticking to your usual measurements?”

The nobleman came in. As his twenty-five paid-for potions had been consumed, one by one, he had looked increasinghly haggard and haunted. He had threatened him two weeks ago, begged him last week. And still he kept ordering the same measurements.

“Wizard, I…I…”

His voice trailed off as the noble paused, staring into the distance and sniffing the air.

“That smell…”

Melian sniffed himself. …Jasmine scent. Blast and botheration. He had switched from using Prestidigitation to freshen his shop to simply letting the windows air out at the start of this horrible marathon of assistance to imagined noble inadequacy, but this was the first time the noble had varied his schedule.

“Jasmine and lilac! That’s her scent! You! You’re conspiring with her! You’ve told my wife about me!”

To Melian’s shock, the noble drew his dueling sword. Time seemed to slow down as Melian frantically considered options.

His hand grasped for his emergency scroll. If he could read it and trigger its magic before the noble was upon him, he could escape. But what then? What would become of his shop and his reputation if word of this whole sordid story were to reach the Watch?

Melian steeled himself, remained perfectly still, and prepared himself to give the sales pitch of his life (for if he failed, it would very likely be his last.)

“I have told her nothing, my lord. She is, amazingly, still ignorant of the magics you use.”

“She was here!”

“Ordinarily I do not confirm or deny the presence of my customers, but as you are armed and menacing me, yes. Your wife was here. And not for the first time.”

“Not for the first…what do you mean?”

The rage was still there, and so was the sword, but there was curiosity, too. There was a chance Melian could make this work.

“Do you think, my lord, you were the only noble who felt the need to magically augment their body when dealing with matters of romance? Did it never occur to you what I did with my infrastructure payment?”

Melian held up his string of pearls. “Two Pearls of Power II. Two spells, cast twice. Do you understand?”

And then there was something in the noble’s eyes. Some deep, subconscious part of him had to have known, had to have suspected, and was now putting the pieces together.

“I don’t…what do you mean! Explain yourself, wizard!”

“I could, with what you paid me, produce two Instant Potions of Alter Self. But I could only do so if they were going to be used within hours of each other. Who, my lord, both would have a need to alter their body always close to the time you felt the need to do so, and who would speak the same friends that you had, who suggested I might have a magical solution for certain problems-”

“Both of us. You’ve been peddling your potions to both of us! All this time! Blast and botheration, no wonder she was so perfect and yet so clumsy on our wedding night, she was getting used to…hellfire, I…all this time…I was hiding from her…but what was she hiding from me?”

The noble’s sword clattered to the floor, and he looked up at Melian.

“I don’t…I’ve never seen her…and she’s never seen me…no!” he said. “It stops now! Tonight! I’ll…I’ll tell her I know, and I’ll make her show me the real her…and only then can I hope to let her see me-”

“My lord.” said Melian, taking a deep breath. “There is…one thing you should know. I did sell the Instant Potions in paired sets, with one exception.”

“What? What are you saying?”

“Your wife did not approach me until after your wedding night. She had approached me previously, but felt the cost of my services would be too high. It was not until after her wedding night that-”

“Blast it all, this is your fault! You terrified her into buying your magics with that perfect body you gave me!” The noble looked down, possibly preparing to snatch up his sword again, then hesitated.

“But…wait, that can’t be right. The time after our wedding night…it was better, yes, but I was with the same woman! I know I was! And I know damn well she didn’t change in the meantime-”

“The curve of a breast, of a hip, a buttock…the presence or absence of a gap between thighs, or front teeth…the precise line of an eyebrow-”

“Nobody cares about that stuff, wizard-”

“Exactly!” Melian bellowed, stepping forward. “No! One! Cares! In the dark, with your loved one close, do you really think that your exact physical dimensions are what your lover will notice the most?”

“But I…but she…she was different the second time, and all the other times! She was-”

“She was no longer afraid. On your wedding night, she experienced not a body with a certain shape and size, but a husband who loved her and loved himself, and was absolutely unashamed of his own appearance. In increments of a little less than an hour, at least.”

“She really…all those times, and I never even…”

The noble reached down, grabbed his sword, and stuffed it back into its scabbard.

“I…I think, wizard, that I need to go have a very long talk with my wife.”

“That would probably be best.” said Melian.

“I also think I’m done with your brews for now. And your horses. In fact, just forget whatever else you owe me from that four thousand gold.”

“As you wish.”

“Unless I find out that you’ve been lying to me. Then I’m coming back with the whole bloody watch, and my reputation be damned.”

“Then it is for the best, I am sure, that I have not been lying to you. And as we have no more business, my lord, the exit is directly behind you.”

“Good evening, Melian.” the cleric said.

Melian paused to bow his head and offer a brief prayer in the direction of the statue on the altar. “Good evening, cleric.”

“Here about the holy water exports again? Because I’m afraid our answer hasn’t changed.”

“Ah, no. I’m here to offer an oath to Heironeous, actually.”

The priest’s eyebrow raised slightly. Which, Melian considered, was fair. It would be entirely reasonable to assume this was another complicated scheme to make money, given what the cleric knew of him.

“A…personal oath. Witnessed, please, but not public.”

The cleric nodded. “Very well, then! In the sight of the Font of Justice! Let your words be heard, and tested!”

Melian approached the altar, and knelt.

“O Heironeous: Should I ever again be tempted to use magic to meddle in the affairs of the heart in order to seek greater profit, please remind me of the events of this last day. Or, if thy are feeling particularly merciful, instead smite me with thy holy thunderbolts. Amen.”

“Thy oath is witnessed. It is probably best that I don’t know the details.”

“Definitely so. Thank you, cleric.”

As he walked back from the temple to the tiny corner of the shop he called home, Melian was feeling very good about himself right up until the cosh impacted his head. It had been the first time he had suffered serious injury since the accident that had set him on his current course, and the sheer shock of it left him stunned long enough for whoever was behind him to shove him, hard, knocking him to the ground.

Then there were more blows, with boot and cosh. He cried out, and groped for his emergency scroll, but could not get it out under the sustained assault.

“See, boys?” he heard a voice from behind him say. “Wizards ain’t so tough if you get ’em from surprise.”

The owner of the voice stalked forward. He was wearing leather armor, but unlike the assailants surrounding Melian, he was unarmed.

“Now, Meliam, wasn’t it? Got a little message from you from an interested party in the Shambles. You casting all of those spells to track down allegedely stolen loot’s been making it real hard for honest folk to earn an honest living. Now, this party ain’t mad, see? He figures you’re new, you don’t know how the world works, so he sends us to deliver this polite message to you. But get into our business again? The next message is a lot less polite.”

A savage kick to the kidney punctuated the speaker’s statement, causing Melian to howl in pain.

“Glad we understand each other!” he said. “All right, grab the pouch and anything else valuable, then we’re done here.”

“That’s my spell component pouch!” Melian babbled. “It’s worthless to-”

Then a cosh came down directly on his temple, and Melian knew no more.

He woke later, as the sun was rising. He pushed himself up with a groan, then almost collapsed again as the memory of last night overtook him.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not here. Not away from the dungeon. Not as a simple seller of commercial magics. Not like this. Not here.

Melian focused himself, and pushed himself completely upright, willing the pain away. Then, limping, with clenched teeth, he set out in the direction of the nearest Watch house, the memory still replaying in his mind, but now with focused intent.

“…And that would be about it, then.” the Watch sergeant said.

“That’s it, Sergent Kurzik?” said Melian faintly.

“Aye. We’ve got a log of your possessions reported stolen, and if any miscreants matching the description of this lot are arrested-”

“Sergeant, these thieves were clearly a member of some organized group based in the Shambles!”

“Aye, there’s all manner of ill sorts there.”

“This is the sort of thing that should demand immediate action!” insisted Melian. “Do you require additional information? Because I intend to purchase some first-rate scrying spells, and I will gladly point you in the right direction-”

“Now see here, master wizard.” said Sergenat Kurzik. “This city’s never used magic to investigate nonmagical crimes, and I don’t imagine we’re about to start now. And you don’t want to be stirring up trouble.”

“Stirring up…Sergent, these men attacked me! In broad…well, moonlight, but still! And from what I can tell, the Watch intends to do nothing!”

“Nothing?” Kurzik was glaring at him now. “We’re doing to do for you exactlty what we do for every other victim of assault and robbery, master wizard.”

“Every other…you mean this happens frequently?”

Kurzik’s glare softened. “Mmm. You don’t get down to Dockside or near the Shambles much, I recon. Look, go down to the desk sergant, tell ’em Kurzik sent ye, and ask to see the blotter. Take a look at what we’re dealin’ with these days. Son, I’d like to help ye, I’d really would. But even if you could give us a name, an address, an a parade of witnesses…there’s a way these things are done.”

“I…see. I will speak to the desk sergeant. Thank you for you time, Sergenat Kurzik.”

Plans circled in Melian’s mind, chased round by fear and pain. He pushed open the door to his shop, and froze. The speaker from last night was there, with two others. One he recognized from his beating, the other he didn’t.

“Ah! You’re back in. A bit late, you know!” he said, laughing. “There was one other thing we wanted to discuss with you. See, we were looking over our rolls, and it turns out that you had never purchased fire insurance!”

“Fire insurance.” Melian repeated.

“See, these cozy little shops look nice and safe, but…well, it would be tragic if this place were to catch light and burn to the ground one night, wouldn’t it? But a simple payment of 50 gold a week would stop that from ever happening.”

“That is ridiculous.” said Melian. He had lost his emergency scrolls, thousands of gold worth of Pearls of Power, and now the thieves were going to extort him?

“You’re right, sorry, I know. 60 a week.”

Melian opened his mouth again.

“And before you talk, let me make something clear.” The man’s voice had dropped to a low hiss. “Me? I’m small fry. I’m expendable. I’m here because the boss figures there’s, oh, even odds you’re going to turn us into newts or something. And he’s OK with that. ‘Cause the thing about wizards, is that you might be really good at stopping a few people…but you’ll never stop all of us. And if you go to war with the Shambles, we’re going to make you suffer.”

“But for sixty-five gold a week, you can avoid all that!” he said, cheerful once more.

“Sixty-five gold a week. Very well.” said Melian. All of his nebulous plans had fused into a single, solid, diamond-hard intent.

He moved to his back room, noted with a grimace that his safe had been exposed and that there were ugly gouges in the wall where it had been inexpertly pried at, opened it, withdrew the gold, shut the safe, then turned. The man had followed him, without him hearing.

“And one other thing.” he said, taking the money. “I know you’re thinking all sorts of plans of revenge right now. Well, I meant what I said about you being new here. Go find some friends, who’ve bene here a while. Talk to ’em. See what they have to say about people who cross us. There’ve been a few nasty fires just this month, in fact! Some people didn’t even make it out of their nice little shops. And one cart. See you in a week!”

With a smirk, the thief turned and strolled out. One of his henchmen grabbed a colorful display, pulled it from its mounting, and took it with him, laughing.

Sleep. I need sleep. Then I need to take stock of my resources. And then…yes. Then, I talk to people.

“-a pleasure to have you here, Master Wizard!”

“In truth, I’m honored to be here, Guildmaster Miller! Especially on such short notice.”

Melian took a sip of the beverage that had been offered to him. Dvyan brandy, worth over a hundred gold a bottle. Guildmaster Boris was attempting to impress him, apparently.

“So, what can the Guild of Millers do for you, Master Wizard?”

“Tell me, Guildmaster, are you aware of the recent spate of fires, in the building near the Shades?”

Boris gave him a carefully blank look, with only a sidelong glance at his own mostly-healed injuries.

“I have.”

“I had a notion to…prevent such fires in the future. I was considering the construction of a water tower, you see, and-”

“Master Wizard, I’m too old for intrigue, and you’ve no tongue for it. Speak plainly.”

Melian blinked. “Uh. I plan to destroy the Thief’s Guild of the Shambles. To do that and not be arrested for Being Noticed By The Watch, I need respectability.”

“And you plan to buy that with…a water tower, you said?”

“Yes, Guildmaster. I figure that a joint venture with me providing the magic, and you and the Guild of Coopers doing the main construction-”

“And what do we get out of it?”

“Well, the city gets a water tower, with magically-purified water flowing day and night. You live here, and you’re at risk in case of plague, drought, and so forth. But mostly, this is about destroying the Thief’s Guild. I had assumed you would be interested.”

“Not if it means bringing down wild magic on the city.” said Boris.

“I swear to you, in the sight of any gods you choose, I will visit my wrath only upon the Guild.” said Melian.

“Mmm. Just so you know, good men have gone up against the Shambles gang before. At least one good wizard, too.”

“I know, Guildmaster. I’ve done the research. But I also know what that wizard did wrong.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“He fought the Guild like an adventurer. I, Guildmaster, am a merchant. And I know exactly what I am going to do.”

Melian pushed open the door, and squinted. The wizard’s shop was lit by red eldritch light which, in his professional opinion, was far more likely to scare off potential customers than impress them.

“Ware, mortal, for the magics you-oh. Melian. What are you doing here?” said Dyer, dropping the echoing, atonal accent from his voice mid-statement.

“I’m here to ask about the Shambles Thief’s Guild.” he said.

Dyer technically had no hackles to raise, but his mutton-chops very nearly stood in for them.

“What about them?” he asked, in what a very, very oblivous person might consider tones of disinterest.

“Look at me, Dyer.” said Melian. “Raise the lights, if you have to.”

“Heironeous’s prick! They got to you too?”

Melian breathed in and out, levelly. “Yes. It makes me ashamed to admit it, but denying it only gives them power over me. So I say: they beat me, they robbed me. They extort me. And so I am going to end them. But I need your help.”

“My help?” Dyer was instantly cautious.

“For this…I will need backup. It won’t be dangerous. Not very, at least. But beyond this…Dyer, we’ve been doing this all wrong. We’re wizards. We can’t form a guild, everyone knows that. But we can still work together. We can share information, divide up work, pass on client recommendations…we can help each other! And, if need be, stand, as one, against the scum who would take everything from us!”

“You really need my help. Melian, you’re, what, fifth circle by now? Sixth?”

Dyer was first circle, and seemed very likely to remain there for a very long time. He was, in Melian’s professional opinion, a mediocre wizard at best. But Dyer was, for that, and for his terrible impression management, a wizard still.

“I need you, Dyer. Now, against the Guild, and next time, against whoever’s next.”

“What do you need me to do?”

The extortionist’s name, he learned, was Parth. He went by Parth the Black. He was one of the public faces of the Shambles Thief’s Guild, and did most of the collection for the guild’s extortion and rackets. He’d been arrested twice, for assault, and now was very careful to never carry a weapon where the Watch might set upon him.

He had a hidden stash, Melian learned, in a tavern he frequented. He took the coin from his rackets there, and, through a complicated process in which some coins were spent, others changed, and still others destroyed, somehow rendered safe to move to the guild hall.

Melian had to take long moments and concentrate fully on his plan. It would be so easy to go for the stash, or to seek to rob the vault where the take was eventually stored. But that wasn’t the plan.

“Two-Blades! Welcome! Sit! Have a drink!”

“Mmm! Dwarven ale! You must be buttering me up for something, wizard. Although if you want more magic dust, I’m still out, sad to say. Haven’t been delving in-”

“I want to hire you to break into the Shambles Thief’s Guild hall.”

Two-Blades froze, his pint halfway to his lips.

“You’re mad.” he said, after a moment.

Then he drank, deeply.

“I like that in an employer! Tell me more!”

And then it was time.

I should go to a temple. I should pray. I should seek absolution. I should…do something.

But there was only one thing that was to be done. And so he did it. He double-checked the tools in his enchanter’s belt, and strode off into the evening.

The Millers knew how to make buildings tall and sturdy, and the Coopers knew everything there was to know about water-tight vessels. Between the two Guilds worth of expertise, the tower had grown rapidly. It was now nearly complete. The foreman was directing the evening shift when Melian arrived.

“Evening, foreman!” he said. “I’m ready to put the main enchantment in place.”

“What?” the foreman replied. “That’s…that wasn’t scheduled for another two weeks!”

“But look at the moon! It’s a waxing gibbous in the middle of a water sign! The schedule clearly allows for shifts in case of disfavorable astrology, and two weeks from now, we’re going to be in a serpent sign!”

The foreman looked back owlishly.

“Look, I can’t send my men home just because-”

“You don’t have to! Just get me a line, clip me to the top of the tower and I’ll get to work. It’l be eight hours work for me.”

The foreman grunted. “We do have the top solid. OK. We can haul you up, I suppose. But I’ll not be losing any work for any magical foolishness, you hear me?”

“Perfectly, foreman! You won’t even know I’m here.”

Two-Blades moved carefully. You had to be careful when you were invisible; you couldn’t see yourself to know if you were about to bump into anything. And there was a lot to bump into inside the Guild. One room, two rooms…and there was a floor trap, probably just an alarm, but you never knew with Guild thieves…and the Spider Climb potion he had been given by the wizards outside let him climb up and over. Then there was just a locked door, and his destination. It was a closet. He pulled a rope from his pouch, then pulled out yet another potion, and rubbed it on the rope. It was a Rope Trick potion, he had been told, and would open a little pocket dimension, suitable for a rest, or for hiding out for a time. But this Rope Trick wasn’t for hiding him.

He climbed the rope, still using the Spider Climb, and planted his feet firmly in the weird semi-soft surface of the inside of the Rope Trick, then pulled the rope up after him. Now, the only way to find what was here would be to look up while seeing invisible things, or detecting magic.

Now was the tricky part. He had been instructed about this very carefully, and it was important enough that he had been told to dispel his Invisibility so he could see exactly what he was doing.

He did so. Then, he pulled out what looked like a tiny felt cut-out of a raging bonfire. Moving with extreme caution, he placed the felt bonfire on the surface of the Rope Trick. Under absolutely no circumstances was he to drop it, or any other of his cargo. The fire was to be placed on the ground, and the dozen tiny barrels stacked on top of it.

He drank his last potion, carefully climbed out of the Rope Trick without using the rope, re-locked the closet, and left the way he came, moving as swiftly and silently as he could.

Two-Blades didn’t know magic. But he knew traps when he saw them, and this looked like a realy good one to be far away from when it went off.

Parth the Black took another swig of his ale, and scowled. It had been a productive day, true. But there was something fishy going on. He had been on tenterhooks waiting for that Melian to do something. He knew the type. Shingle or no, that wizard was a mad one, made for the delving no matter what he said. But he’d instead gone and been talking to the Guilds, and the other wizards as well. And then there was that water tower.

It was to do with the Guild, that was for damn certain. But he couldn’t just barge in and ask about it. Either Melian would play dumb, or he’d do whatever it was meant to be done. And none of the contacts in the Masons or Coopers were telling them anything.

It was a problem Parth the Black couldn’t solve with threats or beatings, and he hated those kinds of problems more than anything. And it didn’t help that word had apparently gotten back to the bartender of what they had done to that one mage who had given them lip earlier. He was cringing a bit, and his voice had a really annoying whine to it.

He took another sip of his ale, and then froze.

“Gully. Get up. We need to get word to the bosses, right now. I need to see ’em in the Guild Hall.”

Gully looked up. “What? The bosses? All of ’em? Why?”

And the Parth had it, all at once. “I know why that bastard wizard’s building that goddamn water tower.”

Parth the Black was not an introspective man. Had be been, he might have realized that the sudden desire to speak to his bosses had happened before any revealation. He might also have realized that the whine in his bartender’s voice sounded uncannily similar to the one in the voice of a mage who had begged him for mercy several weeks back. He might even have speculated on the nature of magical potions, and what might happen if they were quietly added to a pint of ale.

But Parth the Black did none of these things, and instead dispatched his underlings before setting out for the Guild Hall.

The wizards were right where Melian had told him they would be. He watched them for a little while, just to make sure, then slapped his shoulder, dispelling the invisibility.

“It’s done.” he said. “And ahead of schedule.”

“Then here is your payment, Mr. Two-Blades. You may want to be away from here-”

“Oh, no. I want to see what the fruits of my labor are. Besides, you lot look like you could use a few blades if any of those Shambles bastards slip your net.”

“We’re still waiting them to get into the net, Mr. Two-Blades. Then we Hold Portal every entrance to the Guild Hall we know of, door and window. But if you want to watch the fruit of your labor…”

There was a rhythm to enchanting items. Melian did it very rarely. Enchanting items drained away the life-energy of the enchanter. For adventuring wizards, whose souls burned like shooting stars in the night, this was a small sacrifice. For calmer, more patient wizards like Melian, who didn’t engage in death-defying heroics every day of the week and twice on Godsday, it was a sacrifice. But it was necessary for the work that would be done this night. And it was a price that he would pay gladly.

And so he enchanted, and the rythm flowed through him. He tried very hard not to treat it as a countdown clock.

“All right, we’re here.” said the Guildmaster of Thieves. “Talk.”

“I know what’s going on with the wizards.” Parth said in a rush. He had had far too long waiting for the Master Thieves to be roused. He hadn’t dissapointed them yet, which was why they had all come (and why he was still alive), but he’d had a long time to think about what would happen if he was wrong.

But he wasn’t wrong. The right thing to do had been to call the entire Thief’s Council here. He was sure of that.

“He’s going to war. Real war, with an army, and backing. He’s been unifying the wizards-”

“Hold, Parth. Why did you bring us here?”

“You needed to know! Who knows what he’s planning-”

“Why did you not send messangers?”

“I…” Parth hesitated for just a moment before his quick wit supplied the answer. “…thought it was too serious to trust to them, and you all needed to know at once!”

“Are you sure, Parth the Black? Would you stake your life on it?”

“Yes!” Parth shot back.

“He’s been enchanted.” one of the enforcers said.

“The wizards wanted us here.” said another.

“Kill him, then get the escape portal open-” began another.

In a tiny, little-used supply closet in the Guild, a Rope Trick spell expired. This, without any fanfare, dropped everything remaining in the Rope Trick space back into the physical world.

Quietly, softly, the arrangement fell, then hit the ground. Hitting the ground ended a baker’s dozen Shrink Item spells, all at once. One raging bonfire, Shrunk and quiescent, immediately blazed to life. And inside the bonfire, a dozen barrels, packed with oil, alchemist’s fire, and thunderstones, ignited.

“All right, one more test flow, then I’m unclipping and calling it a night.” said Melian. It was very, very hard not to count down, not to look for the position of the moon, not to tap out time with his foot.

“Nén!”

At the mystic command word, water gushed down from the enchanted stone at the top of the open barrel, flowing into the channels.

“Do we have clear flow? No obstructions?”

“None at all!”

“Excellent! I’ll just turn this off and then-”

Only then did the shouting reach him.

Melian sat across from Sergeant Kurzik once more. He should have been feeling guilt, or shame, or fear. But all he felt was exhaustion, and the gratification of a complicated plan that had come together.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Kurzik growled.

“I am only glad that I followed the astrological signs closely, and managed to have the Create Water enchantment finished in time. It would have been terrible if the bucket brigade hadn’t been able to respond quickly. Well, more terrible. Those pour souls, trapped in that building…what was that building again, Sergeant?”

His voice was flat.

“I warned you about this, Master Wizard.” said Kurzik.

“About what, pray tell? Surely you’re not accusing me of having anything to do with this tragic accident? When there have been four other fires this month alone-”

Kurzik slammed his fist on the desk. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with here, wizard-”

“Yes, I do. I do because you do, Sergeant Kurzik.”

The Watchman paled. “You…you’ve been spying-”

“Let us imagine, Sergeant, that there was a wizard, who was told that there was a way of doing things. Let us imagine that this wizard knew the Detect Thoughts spell, and had lost all faith that the Watch had any hope of enforcing the law.”

“You read my mind?! I’ll see you-”

“Of course not, Sergeant. You’re a dwarf. You’ve a skull of solid stone. No, the imaginary wizard read the mind of Parth the Black. Repeatedly. And learned where he kept his records of the Watch officers he was bribing. And…as I said, you are a dwarf, Officer Kurzik. Resistant to magic, but less so to gold.”

Melian took a breath, then forced a smile. “But I see no reason why your arrangement shouldn’t continue! We know of you and a few others on the Watch who were paid off regularly to ignore incidents. And now you keep getting paid. Or you can not get paid and the others can. I suggest you rapidly find a new career if that is your choice.”

“You can’t-”

“We can and we will. And I am done here, Sergeant Kurzik. Oh, and the pouch at the usual drop-off point will be invisible going forward, so just grope around for it if you don’t find it.”

And with that, Melian stood and exited.

Melian looked at the vault. Dyer had handled the inn fantastically in his guise as the barkeep; for all that he was a mediocre wizard, he was a more-than-competent actor.

“Knock.” he said, pointing at the vault.

The door opened. Parth’s stash poured out in a shower of coin. And amid it…

He stepped forard, grabbing at the familiar twisted string of Pearls of Power, and a battered-but-familiar spell component pouch.

Then he sighed, turning to the other wizards.

“Well, I did agree.” he said. “We share in the rewards of this night equally. And that means-”

“Forget that! You enchanted those yourself. I’m not having ’em.” said one of the mages.

“We agreed-”

“New agreement! Melian keeps his pearls, and pays us the difference for ’em. Bugger’s earning twice what the next-best of us is pulling in anyway.”

Melian sighed, but clutched the pearls to himself. “It would have been nice,” he mused, “to have been in debt to only one wizard at a time.”

“And so the collective is pulling in, on average, 25 gold a member a month.” said Melian. “Our weekly spell-meets are pulling in new members, and-”

There was a brief sparkle, and Corim was suddenly standing in the guild hall.

“Hello! How are things?” he asked.

“Hm. Actually, not at their best.” said Melian. He had prepared for this.

“Sadly, I incurred a rather large expense fighting a war with the local criminal element last month, and so net revenue is down. We have been capitalizing on that opportunity, however, and fully expect to make up the difference in the next few-”

“Good enough for me!” said Corim, and was suddenly gone again.

There was a long period of silence.

“…you owe money to Corim?” one of the younger wizards finally asked.

“Yes. Now, according to my figures, we’re not too terribly behind, so as long as we don’t need to go to war again any time soon…”

“Actually…” said another wizard. “I was wondering about that. I know that regular spell services are our lifeblood, but I feel like we should be looking harder at other opportunites. Frankly, there just isn’t demand out there for first and second level spells – that’s not illegal, of course – and anything third or higher is too expensive for anyone to have us cast regularly.”

“Hmm. Did you have something specific in mind?”

“Actually, yes.” said the young wizard. “But it relies on you getting back in touch with Corim.”

Melian raised an eyebrow. “Right. But since I both owe him money and am delinquent on my last payment, I think we need to get our house in order before we go asking him for any more favors. Which brings me to the delicate issue of member’s dues for the cooperative…”

Melian kept his face as calm and neutral as he could. These meetings were not at all what he wanted to be doing. But his was the face of the Union of Mercantile Wizardry, and he was the one that the nobles respected, more or less. And they were, in their own way, very educational.

“Come on, Lady Bafford, you must have some idea. Even a guess would help me immensely.”

“Well, let me see.” Lady Bafford frowned, considering. “There’s a few dozen in the kitchen, a few more in the pantries and cellars, the scaldery, the saucery, the spicery, the confectionery…then there are the hunters, the falconers…then the scullery, of course. Then the guards, the grooms, the maids, of course… call it a hundred, then.”

“A hundred servants.” he repeated.

“Oh, and then there’s the seneschal, the chamberlain, the Mistress of the Wardrobe, the Marshal – actually, she just took a nasty injury in training, poor dear, you know how it is when you try to keep up with fresh young men every day – well, they’re technically servants, but they’re really more like family.”

Lady Bafford smiled at Melian. It wasn’t a flirtatious, or a particularly pleasant smile.

“Tell me, master wizard, do you plan on conjuring up magical servants the way you do horses?”

“Any apprentice wizard can do that.” Melian snapped. “The Invisible Servant spell is barely above a cantrip in complexity. What I am trying to determine, my lady, is whether or not it would be economical to invest in the economic infrastructure to provide that spell without draining a spell slot from a wizard.”

“Oh, dear! Such technical language! You may have lost me, there.” she said, giggling a little.

“I think not, my lady.”

“No? You’re not going to slow down and explain things for me? Young men do so love explaining.” she said, giving him a sidelong glance.

“When I speak, my lady, I prefer it to be to the benefit of both my audience and myself.”

“Ah! A merchant through and through. And you really don’t understand…ah, no, that would be too far-”

“My lady, there are hundreds upon hundreds of things I do not understand. If you have identified one, then I beg of you, enlighten me. Please.”

That got him a raised eyebrow, and a sigh.

“Master wizard, we do not have servants because we have calculated out the right number of servants to make our lives better, with no more and no less. We have servants because that is what nobles do. Maintaining Bafford Manor is an incredible expense, have no doubt of that. And because of that expense, a hundred men and women, give or take a few, have excellent jobs, and the Bafford family is seen as properly noble and respectable, and doing our duty. We need our servants to show to the other noble houses that we’re rich enough to be important, powerful enough to be feared, and civilized enough to talk to. Invisible servants might be fun as a lark, but they wouldn’t do what we need servants for. And they certainly wouldn’t be any good for the visible servants!”

She smiled at him. “And you know what the funniest thing is? My uncle had a court wizard for a while. He was very good, with a proper beard and eyes that glowed when he was angry, which was often. And you know what? One time, for a very important banquet in which dear Uncle desperately needed to impress some stuffy count, the wizard…oh, how did it go? Ah, yes! He ‘called on the forces of air and darkness to obey his commands’! Sent ghostly figures to pour our drinks and take our plates, and stand in the darkness of the great hall making spooky noises!”

She sighed, remembering. “He earned his retainer that day, dear wizard. Because he made magic dark and mysterious and a little bit dangerous, and then reminded everyone that it was under my uncle’s command. You? You sell your magic like a shepard sells mutton.”

She stretched then, rising. “And unless you learn the play the game, master wizard, no matter how powerful and cunning you get, you’ll always be a shepard. Nothing more.”

Melian rose and bowed slightly, deep in thought.

“Thank you for your…very educational words, Lady Bafford. I will think on them.”

“Master Quarth! So good of you to see me on such short notice!”

“Not at all, Master Melian! So, what can I do for you?” The caravan master was, based on the tone of his voice and the ruddiness of his cheeks, already at least two and a half sheets to the wind. Still, he seemed jovial, and this seemed like a better time than average to ask him for help.

“I had a question about your upcoming expedition to Jamara.”

“Expedition? Hah! It’s a milk run this time of year, me boy! A milk run! Maybe the odd bandit gang or wild ankheg, yes, but nothing dangerous!”

“Excellent! In that case, I was wondering if you might have room for one more.”

“One more? You want to sign on as a guard?”

“As a trader.” Melian replied firmly. “I am willing to offer you my magical expertise, in exchange for your own mercantile expertise.”

Quarth’s eyes narrowed. “Now, what would a wizard what who hobnobs with guild masters and ties the Thief’s Guild in knots want with a humble ironmonger like myself? Can’t you just magic your way to Jamara?”

“I don’t know, and that is why I need your expertise. You see, Master Quarth, I am very aware of my own limitations. I have experience with only one kind of service, sold in only one kind of way. And while you specialize in tools and weapons, your caravans are known for their…eclectic cargos. I don’t know what I don’t know, and the easiest way to know what I don’t know is to find someone who knows what they know, so I can know it, too.”

He gave an apologetic smile, which got a chuckle out of Quarth, who laughed and downed his drink.

“Bah! Gonna have to be drunker than this if I’m going to listen to wizard-talk like that. OK. Caravan take is 20% of our gross profits – not net, I’m not aiming to put my merchants out of business in a bad year – and a fee for your wagon, your horses, and so on. You can earn that back if you bring extra guards, supplies, and so on. You? Hmm. To be frank, wizard, I’ve no interest in depending on those temporary horses of yours out on the road, not when you’re one bad meal or argument away from takin’ ’em all away.”

“I had not intended to replace any vital caravan functions.” said Melian. “I simply want to travel as you do, sell as you do, and learn from you. And 20% is more than fair. Hmm. Should I coordinate with the other merchants in your caravan, to avoid choosing a cargo that would overlap with one of theirs?”

“Hah!” said Quarth. “OK, that’s your first lesson, lad. Sell what you can! Sell what you can buy cheap and know that you can sell dear! If you’re on the road, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to sell! But it does worry me a bit that you’ve no idea what you plan on selling. How much wagon space do you have? How many horses can you muster?”

“Whatever I sell would ideally be relatively small and packable. Wheat, timber, iron-”

“No, not iron, lad. Everyone knows they pay a good price for it down south, but it’s so heavy, you’ll break your wagon and founder your horses moving it.”

“Interesting. How good a price would you say I could get, per unit of iron?” said Melian, reaching into his robe.

“Per…unit? Ah, I see. Ten percent, maybe? Probably 12 with some experience behind you. But lad, iron is really, really heavy. And it’s really not that expensive. It trades to silver at 50 parts to one by weight, call it 55 in Jamara, so you’d be making, per pound of iron you trade…what a copper? You’d need to move a hundred pounds of iron to make a gold, and I’d be taking two silver of that. Then there’s the time you’d be away, the wagons, the risk…”

In response, Melian pulled a tiny wooden cube from his sleeve.

“Master Quarth, are you a gambling man?”

Quarth eyed the cube. “Can’t say as I am, no.”

Melian smiled. “Then this particular die should be of interest to you. Tell me, do you think we could briefly retire to a private room? I wish to show you something.”

It took a little more cajoling and two more drinks, but Quarth had ended up in the room.

“So, what’s so special about this dice?” asked the caravan master. “What happens when you roll it?”

In response, Melian dropped it. The moment a face of the cube hit the floor, there was a quiet whoosh as the Shrink Item spell terminated. Quarth looked down at a cubic foot of pine that had suddenly appeared in his chamber.

“Shrink Item.” said Melian, bending down. He tapped the giant block of wood, and it immediately reduced in size, becoming once again a quarter-inch on each side.

“Pelor’s balls.” said Quarth slowly. “I’m…no, I’m too drunk to do the math right now.”

“Iron weighs…oh, about five hundred pounds to the cubic foot. I can shrink 12 cubic feet of iron per casting. I can cast the spell three times a day, if I do nothing else with my third-level spell slots. And each casting last for 6 days. So, if I do nothing with my spell slots but cast Shrink Item three times a day for six days, and repeat the spells on the next six days, I can maintain 18 cubes, totalling…uh, one-fourty-four times one and a half-”

“Call it two hundred.” said Quarth.

“Two hundred cubic feet of iron, weighing five hundred pounds each…uh. A hundred thousand pounds of cubic iron. So, a thousand gold. Or, 800 for me, 200 for you, per trip.”

“Where are you going to get that much iron, though?”

Melian sighed. “Well, it would have been nice in theory. Hmm. Perhaps…well, the packing would be very complicated…”

“What?”

“What if, instead of just iron, I sold iron, anvils, and smithing tools, with perhaps a few fine weapons? As a supplement to your own weapons and tools?”

“Pelor’s balls, that’s brilliant! The markup on the anvils alone…”

Two thousand one hundred fourty gold, estimated. Melian thought to himself. It was, all things considered, not that princely a prize. Indeed, a simple dungeon delve could return several times that easily. Admittedly, travel with Quarth was far less hazardous than even a simple delve. And the true prize would be not the return from selling the half-dozen Shrunk anvils, ingots, and tools, but the knowledge and expertise he would acquire.

And he had acquired a great deal already. He’d learned about all of the necessary jobs needed to keep a caravan running smoothly. He’d learned of the importance of redundancy and back-ups to back-ups, to ensure that every wagon had spare beasts, spare parts, spare supplies, and spare drivers.

He’d learned a great deal about negeotiation, as well. It had always seemed dishonest to Melian. There were standards for selling magic and magic items. But selling goods for trade, to traders from traders, was far more fluid. The weather, the local political conditions…there were dozens of factors to consider, from the transcendent to the trivial.

And, if nothing else, hours each day spent at the head of his wagon, pulled by conjured Mounts, had given him many more ideas.

It was one of those ideas he had been pondering when he heard the odd whistle in the air. He turned to look at the source, and the first arrow caught him squarely between the eyes, while the next two struck him in the chest.

Fortunately, he had cast Protection from Arrows that morning, as usual, and whoever was shooting at him had not managed to acqurie magic arrows, so the arrows struck an invisible, temporarily-impenetrable field of force and shattered, one after the other.

The Nerveskitter spell he’d tucked away in the recesses of his mind triggered by reflex, granting him a moment of artifical, eldritch clarity amid the rising panic.

“Web!” he screamed, pointing at the souce of the arrow. There was movement at the base of a large tree, deep in the forest.

Only then did he think to shout “Bandits!” and duck for cover as more arrows flew through the air.

“Three of ’em.” the caravan guard said. “Looked like there were a bunch more outside the webbing. One of ’em was floppin’ about and had a dagger out when we got there, so he got put down. The two that got wrapped up but good in the webs we took alive.”

“How many more?” asked Quarth.

“Less than two dozen, more than half a dozen.” said the guard with a shrug. “I’m no tracker.”

“And you are certain they were all bandits?” he asked.

“Yessir. All of ’em had bows, and all of ’em had their arrows stuck deep inna dirt.”

Quarth nodded. “For the benefit of our hero, gentlemen: dirty arrows can go septic easily. Some bandits specialize in harrying caravans, spreading disease among people and animal alike. If you’ve got a lot of sick men and sick horses, it makes sense to cut your losses, drop a wagon or two, and move out when the bandits are busy carrying it away.”

“Thank you, Master Quarth.” said Melian. “What will be done with the captives? Will be pursuing the remaning bandits?”

“Hanging, and no.” said Quarth. “There’s no profit in going after bandits on their own turf.”

“But we have a wizard-” began the guard.

“Aye, and they know it. They saw him laugh off three arrows and capture a bunch of them without so much as blinking. They’re long gone.”

“Perhaps they have a lair?” asked Melian. “If it would be foolhardy to seek it out, I understand…but if you believe that the bandits are fleeing…”

Quarth sighed. “What are you planning, wizard?”

“Twenty-four hours.” said Melian. “I will prepare a set of spells useful for locating hidden things and for extracting information from the prisoners-”

“I’ll have no unnatural magics done to them, I’ll have you know.” Quarth interjected.

“Uh. Is Detect Thoughts or Charm Person unnatural?”

“Just…no messing with the dead, or with demons. And you have 24 hours, wizard! And any loot you find gets counted as windfall and split evenly!”

“Quite fair.” said Melian. “Now, I am off to plan my spells!”

“Nothing?” Quarth asked.

“I prepared only one Detect Thoughts spell, and as it turns out, both bandits managed to resist it when I cast it.” said Melian ruefully. “It happens. Spells cast on people against their will often fail, and often do so at the most inconvenient time. And as the rest of the spells I prepared were contingent on me getting that information, and as I cannot re-prepare spells before the deadline…”

“The guards will be dissapointed.” said Quarth. “But honestly, wizard, I think it’s for the best. Magic’s not the only thing that’s uncertain when you go running off into a hole in the ground to pull treasure out, be it abandoned bandit hideout or full-fledged dungeon.”

“Oh, I was never planning on going in myself.” said Melian. “I had prepared a large number of protective and enhancement spells, that I had intended to distribute among whoever would be going after the bandits. I suppose I can now distribute them against any possible retributive attack from the bandits.”

“Good thinking, wizard. Let’s hope the rest of the journey is less exciting.”

Things in Jamara were going smoothley and educationally, right until the mlinzi stormed up. His shimmering robe was tinged with red and brown, which was probably a bad sign, but his heavy iron-headed club was still tucked away on his belt.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.

Melian looked perplexed. When Quarth had asked him if he could speak Nyambi, he’d said he couldn’t. Quarth had then volunteered to take over translating for him without ever asking if Melian could, courtesy of the Comprehend Languages spell, understand Nyambi without being able to speak it. Still, being able to look confused and wait for Quarth’s input had been extremely helpful.

Mlinzi, what is the matter?” asked Quarth, looking over the displayed iron goods. He gave Melian a quick glance, promising retribution if Melian had played him false in any way, then jerked back as the mlinzi pronounced a long, liquid chant, drew his club, and waved it over the trio of anvils, then frowned.

Melian frowned as well.

That was definitely an abjuration spell of some sort. So, is he warding the anvils? Does he think they are dangerous? I wish I knew more about other magical traditions-

And then he had it. Dispel Magic is fundamentally an abjuration spell, no matter how you cast it. The solution hung in front of him, so perfect and simple that he laughed, before quickly controlling himself.

“Honored mlinzi, I asssure you, my anvils are genuine.” Melian said, hearing Quarth translate as he spoke. “The alteration aura you detect…”

He paused, letting Quarth try out a few phrasings until he saw an eyebrow raise and recognition glimmer in the arcane watcher’s eyes.

“…is simply the spells I used to transport the anvils here. But I understand your vigilance! Please, test the anvils as much as you need to.”

Themlinzi laughed, and the colors on his robe swirled into a pooling mixture of yellow-orange. “I will! I know a smith!” he said, in the common tongue, turning and striding away.

As he did, his robe, now fully yellow once more, swirled around him, and Melian gaped.

And now I know how I will invest the gains from this venture. It will mean delaying the pay-off to Corim, but…perhaps I should delay, act next season…

Plots, plans, and calcluations swirled through Melian’s mind, even as he cheerfully gave a line of patter to the crowd as a Jamaran smith inspected his goods and bought an anvil outright.

“Quarth.” he said, once he was finished. “I need to find out the name of that mlinzi‘s tailor.”

Melian looked at the guildhouse. The lights were out. Hesitantly, he pushed open the door.

Inside, there was nothing but dust and silence.

He sighed. Blast and botheration. I knew leaving Dyer in charge for two months was a risk, but…

He squared his shoulders. “Right.” he announced to the empty air. “First, I need to find-”

“SURPRISE!”

With a shimmer, the dust and darkness all around him wavered and vanished, revealing bright magical lights, grinning faces, none wider then Dyer’s.

“Thought I messed up but good, didn’t ya?”

“Dyer, you bastard-”

“Tut tut! Language in front of the new members!”

“New members?”

“Alain and Breis! Come on, say hello to the madman who’s responsible for all of this. And you, madman! Have a drink! Relax for five whole minutes before your next madcap plot!”

Melian looked down at the drink in his hand. It was an elven wine, either from the Durias vinters or a close imitator. He sipped at it.

“Very well. Five minutes. And then, we’re going to have to have a talk, Dyer.”

Melian closed the door to his office carefully.

“I will never understand the appeal of drinking yourself into a blind stupor-”

“Relaxation. And relaxed expectations. You know, shared experiences!” interrupted Dyer cheerfully.

“Mmm. Those all sound reasonable.” said Melian. “Tell me, Dyer, are you familair with the teachings of Jonas, Son of Daniel, Purifier of Dvas Aven?”

“Er, no. Not really a religious man, myself.”

“He is famed for his wisdom as well as his valor. One quotation of his, in particular, resonates with me. Jonas said that the reward for doing well was the opportunity to do it again.”

“Ah! You mean like if you don’t die in your first engagement you get to fight more…so, what? You’re leaving me in charge of the Guild?”

“While on my journey, I had an…idea, for how I might sell magic to the nobles of this city. It’s not a plan, yet. I had meant to coordinate with you, and any others you can recommend. And we will need others, I think.”

“OK, what’s your idea? Wait, no, different question. Am I still getting paid to run the guild?”

“Yes.”

“OK. Second question before the what, then. The why. Why me?”

“Because, Dyer, I sell magic like a shepard sells mutton. But you, on the other hand…”

Her name was Reyna, Dyer had said. She managed a small travelling troupe, had formal Bardic training, and was wanted in three cities for theft and another dozen for generalized acts of mayhem. Under other circumstances, he would have crossed a very large traffic-filled street to avoid meeting her gaze. Under these circumstances, she was perfect.

“So,” she purred. “Dyer says you need an actress.”

“Yes.”

“A very special actress.”

“Yes.”

“‘Very special’, just so we’re clear, means ‘very well-paid’.”

“And worth every copper, I am sure.”

“No, wizard, you’re doing this wrong.” she said with a laugh. “See, I talk up how good I am, you purse your lips and look doubtful, I cajole and threaten a little, you-”

“Seven hundred fifty gold. The…performance will be for one day and one night, more or less, but will require improvisation and a flexible schedule on the part of you and your troupe. And the utmost discresion, of course.”

“Huh.” she said. “You know, I don’t know if I like this way of doing things.”

A moment later, she frowned. “And if you’re using my troupe, I need to know more before I can commit to anything.”

“Ah.” said Melian. “Well, part of your fee will be to clarify the best way to accomplish certain goals with your performance.”

“Hmm. I can write my own lines?”

“Your own character, if need be. I had some ideas, and some constraints. The Wizard’s Collective does have limits to our support, after all.”

“Mmm. So you’re going to be in this scheme – sorry, this perforamce – with me? Mmm, bringing in amateurs might cost extra.”

“You are being paid extra.” said Melian. “See, my way has advantages, too. And…we can call it a scheme, if you prefer.”

“So, tell me, wizard, on a scale of one to…oh, burning down the thief’s guild, how illegal would you say this is?”

“I have no idea why people keep blaming that on me.” grumbled Melian. “A dozen witnesses all confirmed I was nowhere near the Shambles for long before the incident-”

“Because you arranged for that, yes. If that was even you doing the enchanting that night. We both know you’ve been doing a few unauthorized illusions and alterations before now. Which would also be, oh, a six or a seven on the scale, say?”

“Mmm.” said Melian, considering.

Then he smiled. “What we will do, Reyna, is perfectly legal. But only because it’s never occured to anyone that anyone else would do it. And if we are caught, we won’t be arrested, we’ll be mobbed.”

“I like the way you think, wizard!” said Reyna, smiling brightly. “So, what is this scheme of yours?”

Melian told her. She laughed, then stopped laughing as he explained more.

Finally, she sat, considering.

“I’m not sure whether I should demand a percentage or just run away.” she said.

“A percentage?”

“Twenty seems fair. You do need me or someone like me.” she said.

“Twenty…” Melian gaped for a long moment. “Twenty is ruinous. Indefinite residuals of any kind are going to be out of the question.” said Melian firmly.

“Big risk means big reward. And this is big, wizard.”

“Twenty percent is off the table. It’s off the table, onto the floor, dragged out into the street, and stabbed repeatedly. By well-paid adventurers, who also did not claim a residual percentage. Try something else.”

“Nineteen and a half?”

“Try two, for the first year only.”

“Eighteen for the first five years!”

“Ten percent, for one of the first five years. But only one. Final offer.”

Reyna considered. “Mmm. That would accomodate my schedule…and you’d open your books to me?”

“Yes. We’d need a way to launder the payments, of course-”

“I can think of a few ways to cover you giving me a lot of money.” she said, giving him a sultry smile and leaning in.

“Miss, I have a repututation as a businessman to consider-”

“See, that’s exactly it!” said Reyna, sitting back. “You don’t have a safe reputation, wizard, you have no reputation. The Lady Bafford thinks you’re boring, and she can squeeze gossip from a stone. So, either you’re as good as your reputation, and some kind of weird monk…or what you’re into is so outlandish and risque that you daren’t let the tiniest hint of it escape. Demon orgies or human sacrifice or suchlike.”

“And yet, here you are.”

“Well, I am armed.” she said. “And Dyer trusts you. But I do like to know what kind of man I’m getting in bed with, metaphorically or no. So, before we shake on this, I am curious. Which is it, Melian?”

Melian considered. Reyna didn’t look like she’d burn the deal over him refusing to tell her, and he could always lie…

No. I will tell the truth. The right kind of truth…

“Renya, I am afraid that my outlandish and risque desires, to the extent that they exist, cannot be serviced by anyone I’m giving money to.” he said, putting emphasis on the last word.

“Hah!” said Renya. “All, right then. I’ll shake to this. Now, we’re going to need the right look, the right contacts, and most importantly, the right name…”

Melian walked into the Zithras’s, the third-finest clothier’s shop in the city, keeping his face neutral as instructed. This is just another sale. he told himself. And if I can’t play a role now, I’d best find out before we commit, and the only thing we stand to lose is Reyna’s advance.

And that did it. He gave the shop a cursory onece over, and as the assistant at the front approached, carefully slowing, adopting an exaggerated deferential posture, and took a breath to apologize and ask if Melian knew where he was, he turned away from her, and looked at Dyer, who had just entered and was making a face.

“It looks promising from here.” he said.

“Are you sure?” said Dyer. “I’ll take a few measurements.” And with that, he pulled out what looked for the world like a dressmaker’s measuring tape, marked with arcane runes and a faint glow, and began to carefully inspect one of the very few display suits that the clothier had available.

“Can I help you, gentle sirs?” the assistant asked. Melian took another moment to compose his face. He had magical power, and was well on his way to acquiring great wealth. But there was a code, and those who acquired their wealth from business or adventuring were supposed to approach the nobility, and their accoutruments, with deference and hesitancy. Barring that, people were expected to be crass and dismissive, which showed their envy. Barring even that, the apathy he had previously had shown was acceptable, if rare and questioned.

But people who weren’t nobles weren’t supposed to walk into the third-most-expensive clothier shop in the city with perfect poise, and question whether it would serve their needs.

“We have a…particular order.” he says. “I thought it was about time I added a touch of class to the Wizard’s Collective.”

The assistant’s expression was smooth and unruffled at this. If the suggestion of her shop being patronized by a rapidly growing city guild made her excited or nervous in any way, she didn’t show it.

And this, Melian considered, is someone merely adjacent to someone adjacent to the actual nobility. He would need help to navigate this tangled, treacherous jungle of subtle social cues and misdirection. Thankfully, he had help. Help, and a really big metaphorical machete.

“I visited a city in Jamara recently, and most impressed by the look of some of the clothing there. And…while of course the Wizard’s Collective encourages healthy competition and respects the many freelance wizards of the city…I want the Wizard’s Collective to look distinctive. And to showcase our recent successes, of course.”

“What did you have in mind, gentle sir?”

Melian snapped his fingers and gestured fluidly, and there was a quiet tinkle and a show of lights, from which he pulled a scroll, which he handed over.

“We’d want custom robes for each member, of course.” he said, as the assistant scanned the scroll, her eyes widening.

“Huh. Their craftmansship isn’t bad from an enchanting perspective.” said Dyer, finally. “We’d need to inspect their actual work area-”

“Gentle sirs, if you doubt the quality of our wares, perhaps you would find yourself better served at another shop.” said the assistant.

“That’s fair.” said Dyer. “Shop this size doesn’t look like it’s set to handle a dozen yards of Jamaran silk at one time, let alone the multiple orders.”

“A dozen yards…no one has-”

“We do!” said Dyer. “And we expect more soon. But you’re right, we’d be much better served in Hightown-”

“Gentle sirs, with your permission, I’d like to go and fetch the proprieter of this shop, if you would be so kind.”

Melian nodded and waved, concealing his grin carefully. Step one complete.

Much as he was loathe to admit it, Melian liked his new robe. It was more comfortable, fit him better, and people treated him differently when he was wearing it. It was a deep night blue, with glimmers and points of light evocative of a starry sky sprinkled throughout. It had a few basic protective enchantments as well, and instead of reacting to his mood, it reacted to his magic; casting a spell caused the stars to swirl and glow. (Even better, he could suppress the effect; he wasn’t sure if he’d ever have to cast a spell secretly while wearing the robe, but now he had that option.)

It had been expensive, of course; any kind of enchanting always was. But it had been worth every copper. He had taken meticulous notes as to how he had been treated before, and how he had been treated after. The dark, silken robe, clearly patterned on Jamaran high-magical fashion, made him and the most senior members of the cooperative stand out.

There had been a few speculative glances, and now it was merely time for-

“Bwana!”

Melian had planned the whom and the what and the when. The where had been left to Renya’s discresion, the better for him to be taken by surprise, as the plan required.

But the tall, ebon-skinned Jamaran noblewoman approaching him with distance-devouring strides, her impressively-large retinue trailing behind her as she outpaced them. Behind them, a crowd had already gathered.

“Lady Kabaila.” he said, starting than bowing low. “What an unexpected sur-”

Reyna’s disguse was perfect enough that he’d felt a moment of unfeigned fear at the sight of her. The real Lady Kabaila had inspected his case of high-quality steel weapons, taken a spearhead, wandered to another vender, purchased a spear-shaft and chained hyena, affixed the spear to the shaft herself, then released the hynea and slew it with a single thrust, then proclaimed his weapons of fine quality and purchased the set in its entirety.

It had been a short interaction, entirely in public, with barely any pleasantries and with the final sale made with Kabaila still stinking of spilled hyena guts, but it had made an impression on his fellow caravanners. The rumor had spread that Melian had some sort of relationship with a Jamaran noblewoman and adventurer. He wasn’t an expert, but the looks the crowd were giving him suggested they might have heard the rumors as well.

‘Lady Kabaila’ kissed his cheeks, in the Jamaran fashion, her own robe swirling through a melange of reds and yellows. “I told you I would find you again, my little tumbili!” she said, shaking her finger at him. “Although I cannot stay long. There is much profit to be made in these lands, and many fine goods! But I have time enough for one night.” she said, grinning. “There is a dance tonight, I hear, from one of your northlands noblewomen! It sounds interesting! I shall attend with you! Make arrangements!”

“I-”

‘Lady Kabaila’ patted his cheek affectionally, then turned and began barking orders at her retinue, who immediately reversed course and fell in behind her as she made her way to the market.

Renya’s retinue were used to performing with greasepaint and oft-mended costumes and merely the magic Reyna herself could conjure. They had taken to the mass Minor Image and Disguise Self spells of the mage’s cooperative like ducks to water. Each of them played their part, drawing more attention to Lady Kabaila as she darted around the market, spending money like water, proclaiming some goods fine and others rubbish, all in a swirling, obviously-magical garment.

It was a foundation, but one he would have to build upon.

“This is highly irregular, master wizard.” tittered Lady Bafford.

“I am aware of this, milady.” said Melian with an apologetic head-bow. “And I apologize for the inconvenience, I truly do.”

“I find the timing of this slightly suspicious.” said Lady Bafford with a half-frown. “I was very direct with you before. Men often take exception at that sort of thing.”

“I assure you, milady,” said Melian, “even if I had any designs of complicated revenge upon you, which I do not, making a noblewoman from Jamara turn up unexpectedly is far beyond my power. And so, about the invitation…”

“Ah.” drawled Lady Bafford. “You see, master wizard, my soiree is a very exclusive event, planned well in advance. I simply cannot have just anyone dropping by, especially given the…circumstances.”

“Ah.” returned Melian, steepling his fingers. “I am afraid that you can and will have this specific person ‘just dropping by’. It is your choice, however, if she enters by the front gate and is entertained by the music and dancing and…canapes? Are canapes served at your events? Well, regardless. Either you let her in, or she kicks down your gates and massacres your guards and then the Watch until she grows bored or you manage to find an extremely capable hero on short notice.”

Lady Bafford’s amused drawl froze. She was quite capable of being direct. But she lived in a world where violence was done a long way away, both to and from people nothing like her.

Melian felt more than slightly abashed. Threats, even completely fictional ones, were not a tactic he preferred to employ.

But he knew that the old Lord Bafford had fought in the old border wars, and that his time in the Southlands had convinced him that the Jamarans were nothing but violent, brutish savages.

But Lord Bafford was long dead now. And that meant that having a Jamaran adventurer present would offer a unique degree of rebellious frission, with just an underlying hint of genuine terror at angering her…

“I do apologize for this.” said Melian again, his voice oddly sincere. “But I can assure you, Lady Kabaila will be attending your dance this evening, one way or the other.”

“I see.” said Lady Bafford. “Then I suppose there is nothing to do but cooperate with the inevitable.”

She gave him a wide grin, and gestured for the butler to hand over an invitation. It had been custom-painted, embroidered with Lady Kabaila’s name, and included a single escort. Clearly, work on it had started as soon as Lady Kabaila had made her announcement, if not before.

Melian let out a sigh. “I see.” he said. Either Lady Bafford had seen through him utterly and this was some maneuver beyond his ken, or he had correctly judged the right day for Lady Kabaila to arrive.

“Tell me, master wizard.” said Lady Bafford. “Does our guest intend to bring you along for your dancing skills?”

“I certainly hope not.” said Melian. He gestured in a way which had taken many hours of practice in front of a mirror to look both casual and mysterious, and the invitation was gone, concealed in the sleeve of his robe.

“Ah.” said Lady Bafford, grinning. “There was a song that was sung, as I recall. About a Northlander merchant who traveled to the Southlands, and offered a Jamaran woman his fine longspear, only for her to take it from him and give it back to him. There was a hyena involved as well. I understand that those beasts are frequently mentioned in…symbolic songs.”

“I couldn’t say that I know anything about such a song, milady.” offered Melian. It might be prudent to send an apologetic gift to the real Lady Kabaila when this was all over. “And now, if you will please excuse me, I need to go how to learn to dance in a great hurry.”

In truth, Melian was not blind to the charms of women. He simply considered his attraction to them worthy of no more consideration than his desire to Fireball slow cartiers and drovers, or Baleful Polymorph the city’s auditors around tax time.

Lady Kabaila, however, managed to hold his attention quite rigidly. The dress she was wearing was a beautiful hybrid of North and South fashion, blending the Jamaran polychromatic mood-sensitive cloth with a Northlander-style cut. She had been asked where she had managed to acquire it on such short notice, and merely laughed. She was already the center of attention, and great focus was being paid to her. But this was just the start. Soon, the final phase of the plan would commence, and then-

*Melian, we have a problem. Dyer’s been stopped by the Watch.*

Melian managed to keep his face calm at the magically-whispered warning, but it was a very close thing. Thankfully, the news had been passed onto Reyna as well; she wasted no time in departing from her current crowd of admirers, declaring that it was time for a sensual dance, pulling him bodily onto the dance floor as the musicians followed her command, and positioned herself very close to him, such that their whispers would be seen as communication to each other, and not their magical confederates just outside the ballroom.

*What happened?* asked Reyna, as she mouthed a romantic comment in Jamaran into Melian’s ear.

*He was moving props and potions for the finale over, and he got made. He had to get rid of them in case they searched him.* replied the disguised co-op mage tasked with communicating to him. *We have an understudy in position.* the mage continued. *We just need to improvise, get the understudy up to speed…*

*We abort the finale.* said Melian.

It was a hard decision. The finale, a feigned attack by one of Lady Kabaila’s rivals, would have made the dance notorious for years to come, and would have ensured that no one would forget her, or what she had been wearing that night. But Reyna had already exceeded his expectations, and had focused a great deal of attention to herself.

He would have liked to ensure a grand plan, that would let him pay off his debt to Corim in months, and cement his guild as providers of the most expensive and fashionable magical clothing for years to come. But he had embarked on his current path to eliminate risk, and absent Dyer’s uncanny acting ability and the main preparations already in place, it was simply too risky. He would have to accept a lowered expected payout.

He spent the rest of the evening in an odd mixture of numbness and anxiety, distracted by mental calculations of how much Dyer’s unfortunate meeting with the Watch had cost him, only kept on track by Reyna’s expert direction. But the evening ended, with Lady Kabaila dragging him out of the room, grinning widely. They made their way back to the guild hall, with flirtations and casual touches building, until Melian was genuinely unsure what intentions Reyna had for him once they reached the warded, eavesdropper-proof safe room-

“Phew!” said Reyna, as soon as the door closed. She stepped back, with delicay and grace but also extremely clear intent, and wiped her forehead. Her magical disguse was active, but her body language had changed completely.

“This is really hard work.” she said. “I’m not usually doing these gigs for more than an hour at a time.”

She made a face at him. “Tell me, wizard.” she said. “Would you have rolled the dice and gone for the finale anyways if I hadn’t talked you into a percentage payout?”

“I promise that I would not have.” said Melian. In truth, he’d barely considered the specifics of the payment agreement. All that he had cared about was maximizing return, and minimizing risk.

“I’ll take your word for it.” she said. “All right. I’ve got my last two doses here of Jamaran-in-a-bottle here. Go on. I’ll be out in the morning, and make my departure.”

“Indeed.” said Melian. His mind was still numb.

The cooperative hall was sealed, but Dyer was present when Melian exited the sealed room.

He was grinning, which Melian, in his current state, found extremely worrying.

“Boss, I’m really sorry about the Watch business.” he said. “I didn’t want to take any risks, but…look at this!”

Dyer passed over a piece of paper. It was on Zithras’s stationary. It was, he saw, a purchase order, of the kind he had expected to have to start negeotiating for in the coming days-

A number at the bottom caught his attention. He stared at it, eyes crossing briefly.

“Dyer.” he said. “Is this…genuine?”

“Got it from Zithras himself.” he said. “Signed and everything.”

“And you are sure that Zithras did not…perhaps misplace a decimal point-”

“Two dozen Jamaran style dresses, all in rainbow-silk, provided exclusively by the Mage’s Cooperative, each a unique creation.” said Dyer. “Sorry, boss, I probably should have Messaged at you, but I just happened to run into Zithras outside, we got to talking, there wasn’t time, so-”

Twenty-four thousand gold. He’d need to go immediately south again to pick up more silk, and there’d need to be a very immediate gift for the real Lady Kabaila, and he and the best wizards of the Cooperative would be enchanting for months on end…

There would be a lot of expenses, all sudden and urgent. But if he could stay on top of them-

“Hey, good news!” came Reyna’s voice from behind him. She had apparently decided to exit the safe room. “I’ve decided which year I’m going to claim my residuals from!”

“And so, if at this time, you’d be interested in taking your buy-out in the form of a custom commission, we could settle our accounts right now.” said Melian.

He didn’t expect a positive reply, but Corim made a careful inspection of the robe on display, just the same.

“Not interested.” said Corim. “One of the perks of being an archmage of the fourteenth circle is that you don’t need to wear any kinds of formal robes if you don’t want to.”

“Very well.” said Melian. “In that case, we shall conclude our business in eighteen months.”

He swallowed. Corim was indeed wearing a Robe of the Archmagi. It bore more magic than he or any member of the Mage’s Cooperative could ever handle safely, and would have cost well over a hundred thousand gold to commission, if the mages capable of producing such robes could have been commissioned for mere money. The auras of dozens of magical trinkets and baubles studded Corim’s aura, each worth far more than the entire principal of the loan.

“Corim, might I be permitted to ask you a personal question?”

There were, of course, innumerable formal modes of address for archmages. The problem is that very few archmages agreed on which were appropriate. And Corim in particular had no patience for them.

It was probably for the best. His name was already a synonym for nigh-invincible arcane might across the known lands.

“You may.” said Corim.

“The profit you have made from your investment would have been considerable, for any but an adventurer of your caliber. Even when we had first met, you could surely have earned more than you expected to gain from this loan by taking just one more job, one more delve.”

“You are correct.” said Corim. “In truth, it was never about the money. I aspired for the mantle of archmage, even then, and it is the duty of the archmagi to nurture the study of wizardy, in all its forms. I could have easily afforded the loss, if you had been false. And since you were not, I was able to both earn a small amount of money, and encourage a fellow wizard to learn, to grow, to expand his horizons, to push himself and his magic. It was money well-spent.”

“I see.” said Melian. “Thank you, then. You certainly did encourage me to grow.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” said Corim. “Tell me, Melian. What will you do eighteen months hence? The Cooperative mostly runs itself these days, I am told. What does the great mercantile wizard plan to do next, once he is free and unencumbered by debt?”

Melian looked up, and took a breath. He didn’t think Corim would really grow wroth and unmake him with a word, but…

Well, lying to him wasn’t an option, and neither was dissembling. So, in the absence of any better options, that left the truth.

“Retire.” he said.

Corim blinked.

“Retire?” he repeated.

“Corim.” said Melian. “Magic does not beat in my heart as it does yours. It was, and is, my trade, the means by which I earned my food and shelter. But it was never my first love. Nor, to be honest, was money. If I loved money above all else, then I would have chosen a very different career path.” He gestured hesitantly at Corim himself, who looked at the rings on his fingers, each of which would have been priceless from their metal, their stones, or their enchantments.

“I embarked on my current path because I craved peace, and comfort, and security. The gold and the magic, the Cooperative itself, were only ever a means to that end.”

Corim nodded. “I understand.” he said. “Don’t worry, old friend.” he added with a laugh. “The world needs both kinds of wizard, I believe. Some, like me and my associates, to defend civilization, with sword and spell, when monsters threaten it…and others, to build the inns which shelter us, to earn the gold which pays us, to build the very civilization we defend. Your heart does not sing to the battle-song of war magic, and you are no less a wizard for it.”

Melian breathed out. “Thank you for your understanding.” he said.

“However…there is one small thing.” said Corim. He looked at Melian carefully.

“Yes?” said Melian, involuntarily holding his breath.

“Now that I’ve established I am not spurring you onto greater acts of mercantile magic…would you be terribly offended if I simply forgave the remainder of your loan? To be perfectly honest, I’ve been simply handing out the entirety of your payments to lucky beggars for the past several years.”

“I would not be offended at all.” said Melian, allowing himself to breathe again.

“Then our business is indeed concluded.” said Corim. “Best of luck to you in your retirement.”

“Thank you.” said Melian, bowing his head. “And may you have the best of luck in your next adven…”

He paused as he raised his head. Corim had gone.

Melain remained idle for a long moment, numbers and ledger-pages dancing in his imagination. Retirement would suit him very well, he considered. But there was one last transaction to be done now, to make it offical.

He fetched a quill and some paper, and began to write.

“For sale.” he said aloud. He felt a strange nostalgia as he remembered the past, which lasted until Parth the Black’s face floated through his memory, and he nodded firmly, aware of the rightness of this last transaction.

“One spellbook. Well-used. Spells, discounting cantrips, in order of Circle, as follows: Mount, Alarm, Endure Elements, Comprehend Languages, Unseen Servant…”

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One thought on “The Mercantile Wizard

  1. This is fantastic. Enjoyed every minute of it. Melian is my hero.

    Like

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