The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 1

© 2016, 2023 by Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

"Magick," said Jamie Grimmstone, smiling, "is where you find it." He pointed his wand - an enchanted length of ash the thickness of his finger and length of his forearm, and engraved with a simple pattern of the double helix - at the stack of firewood waiting on the dock behind The Incomplete Enchanter, there to be loaded into the shop's kindling box.

A few feet away, Garvin Kinsmith, Jamie's best friend and co-worker at the shop, watched intently, doubt written plainly across his features. "You really think you can move all that wood at once? Come on, Jamie. Bet that stack weighs forty stone. Why don't we just load it quickly and be done?"

Jamie shook his head. "Why use our muscles when magick will perform the task more quickly?"

Garvin crossed his arms and put on a tolerant smile. "Because sometimes your magick goes slightly awry, that's why. At least the wood is stacked proper now. Once you're done knackin' the stuff, it may be all over the place."

Jamie sighed, shaking his head. "Have some faith. I've been studying. And, I do have the knack. You heard the Master say so."

"I got a lot of faith." Garvin laughed. "And some bruises, too, from the last time you worked your magick. I know the Master said you were full of power, but he also said it was like a cart got away from its horse. You need to be disciplined, my friend, and the Master has not had the time yet to do it."

"I have been training myself," Jamie supplied, his focus still on the stacked wood. Oak, sixty-two lengths, force equals mass times acceleration.

Garvin looked pained. "You said that before the last explosion, Jamie. I love you, but I am not yet set to die with you. Now, the Master is about, and you know he's getting ready to be off to the Conference on the Arts. He wanted that wood set proper in the box, not thrown all about the back of the shop. I suggest we use muscles this time, and use them right now."

Jamie smiled, his eyes focused on the pile of wood. The magick is within, he reminded himself, gathering his forces.

"There now," he breathed, pointing the wand at the stacked wood, and then moving the wand to point to the open doors at the back of the kindling box.

There was a small noise of air moving, and things unseen rustling somewhere beyond the pale; and then one, and then another, and then all of the lengths of firewood started moving, playing follow-the-leader, rising from the old stack and moving to form a new one within the kindling box.

Garvin watched, his mouth open, as the movement increased to a blur and then was done. The wood was now stacked within the kindling box. Jamie gave a last wave of the wand, and the outer doors closed, and the padlock leaped from the cobbles and thrust itself through the hasp and closed with the smallest of snicks.

Jamie grinned and turned to his friend, unable to keep a small smile of triumph from his face. "You thought I couldn't do it."

Garvin came closer, looked at the locked doors of the kindling box with something akin to wonder. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't believe it." He grinned. "Jamie, that was as fast and as neat as the Master could do his own self." He came a little closer, looked about the narrow back alley, and leaned in to give Jamie a fond kiss.

As their lips touched there was a crack of small lightning, and both boys were flung in opposite directions. Jamie landed flat on his back, dazed, his mouth feeling as though it had been kicked by a wild horse.

It took him a moment before he could sit up. When he did, it was to see Garvin laying on his back a short stone's throw away.

What have I done!

Jamie scrambled to his feet, walked unsteadily to his friend and looked down at him. Garvin's hair seemed to be standing straight out, as if charged by static electricity; and his eyes were open, and he wore a silly smile on his face. He looked up at Jamie, and the smile grew wider.

"Stars," he breathed, blinking his eyes. "You are the best kisser ever, Jamie!"

Jamie laughed and dropped to his haunches. "I would be honored to claim that kiss as my own, Garv. But we were struck by an equalization of forces, not love. I forgot to discharge the accumulated energy stored by moving all of that mass of wood." He smiled. "Are you hurt?'

Garvin blinked again and sat up. He looked at Jamie a moment, then smiled again. "I still think it was a kiss for the ages, and I won't forget it soon." He looked momentarily bashful. "Sure you can't bottle that one for our play later tonight?"

Jamie grinned. "No. Well, not exactly. But now that I know you liked it, I can think of a few other magicks that might work as well."

He grabbed his friend and helped him to his feet, and they moved over to where Jamie's wand lay upon the cobblestones. Jamie retrieved it, and willed it away into storage in the nether, where he could retrieve it at any time.

Just then, the rear door of the shop burst open, and the Master appeared. He was wearing his best black robe, and a toothbrush hung from his mouth. His piercing eyes darted about like flails seeking to thrash the enemy.

"Whoon itz threwing linningbultz all abit me ship?" he bellowed, around the brush.

Jamie felt a small quake at his employer's temper; but managed to smile and shrug his shoulders. "I didn't get that, most powerful one."

The Master pulled the toothbrush from his mouth, sending foam flying in every direction. "I said, 'Who is throwing lightning bolts all about my shop?'"

Jamie looked at Garvin. "You see a lightning bolt, Garv?"

The other boy frowned. "No. I believe I heard the rumble of thunder off in the distance, but I've seen no lightning."

Both boys looked up into the absolutely clear sky.

The Master narrowed his eyes at them. "Is that ozone I smell?"

"The dung wagon just went by, I believe," Jamie said, looking anxiously off down the narrow alley.

The Master turned and looked to where the firewood had been stacked, then at the closed and locked doors of the kindling box; then looked back at them. "Well, that was quick, anyway. Come back into the shop, you two. I am almost set to leave." He squinted at Garvin a last time, and shook his head. "Brush your hair, boy. You look a mess."

Then he looked at Jamie and grinned, a little evilly. "Forgot to discharge the excess potential again, did we?"

Jamie tried to look innocent, but knew it wasn't coming off well.

"Never mind!" the Master bellowed, turning back to the door. "Get yourselves inside so I can take my leave!"

Jamie frowned, but put an arm around Garvin's shoulders and moved him towards the door.

As they passed, the Master put out a hand and stopped them. "Not hurt, either of you?"

"No, sir," Jamie said, looking at the ground.

The Master smiled, looked about as though there might be listeners, and leaned closer to whisper, "Know how many times I set fire to my Master's shop when I was your age, before I learned to control that build up of force? A round dozen. So you are not in poor company, young Jamie."

Jamie gaped. "A dozen?"

"And singed the fur off my Master's lucky cat, Basilisk; and took some of the hair off the Master's wife." He shook his head. "The Master was quite upset about the cat."

Jamie could not keep a small grin from coming onto his face. The Master could be fair intimidating in temper, but that he cared about his shop clerks was something Jamie had long understood. "I can't imagine, Master, you being any less than proficient with simple mass."

The old man laughed, and tugged at the graying beard attached to his square chin. "Well, that was three hundred years ago, too, boy. You are but sixteen. I have stockings for my feet older than you."

He extended his arms and gathered Jamie and Garvin in front of him, ushered them into the dimness of the shop. He flicked the toothbrush behind as they entered, and the rear door of the shop closed with a solid thud, and the crossbar dropped neatly into place.

"Look lively now," the Master said, as they drew up to the front counter. "I want to show you what I have set in place before I go." The Master waved a hand, and both the toothbrush and the foam in his mouth vanished.

I've got to learn that one, Jamie decided. After all, I am to be a mage myself one day.

He took a quick look about the shop, and couldn't help smiling proudly. The place was neat, if very cluttered. Jamie and Garvin spent some of each day in the war against dust, some of which was otherworldly in nature and was created by the very items they fought to keep clean. Other simply drifted in from the streets, from the town itself, which was considerably less than tidy. Smoke residue, street filth, age, and humanity.

The Incomplete Enchanter was one of the finest shops of its type in all the land, and Master Thorvil one of the most potent of mages to be found anywhere. In his travels and years of study, he had accumulated a sheer mass of arcane knowledge, items of power, and supply connections to stocks of materials for the arts second to none that Jamie had ever heard tell of. The shop was a place of wonder, with shelf after shelf and cabinet after cabinet just stuffed to bursting with potions, powders, charms, and elements; talismans, runes, hoodoos, and bewitchments. There were vials of strange essences and beakers of mysterious extractions; cages of crawlies, and claspers, and other malevolent motiles.

The library by the front counter was extensive: volumes and tomes and racks of scrolls, filled with hexes and chants of powerful nature; and complex invocations, formulas, curses, and exsufflations that only a master should dare to handle. Everything one would need to take on both the world of light and the world of darkness, if one could learn quickly enough to survive the education. Jamie had read much of the Master's library since he'd first arrived at the shop. He could claim to understand a very small percentage of what he had viewed, and could actually attempt the magicks in but a handful. Time, it would take. And practice.

And very, very much care.

The big sign above the door of the shop proclaimed, in bold, black lettering: The Incomplete Enchanter - Always Offering and Seeking the Finest in magicks. Master Thorvil, Proprietor. And then below, in smaller print: Sorcery by command; necromancy, thaumaturgy, and alchemy performed; enchantments lifted or laid; auguries read, devilries interpreted, astrologies compiled, and exorcisms laid down. Reasonable rates, no job too small, financing available. See proprietor, within.

For three years now, Jamie had been both clerk and apprentice to Master Thorvil, and he felt he had learned much in that time. The Master himself had seen the knack in Jamie, told him right off he might be a mage himself someday, if he studied, and learned, and practiced - and didn't accidentally do himself in first.

"Your patience needs work, lad," the Master had told him, smiling through his gruffness. "Experimenting with the forces of the world can be quite dangerous, especially to a small one like yourself. Be careful. Be very much more careful, and you may just survive to manhood."

Not long after Jamie had started, the Master had brought home Garvin. Small as Jamie, and wet and cold and frightened; found in an alley by the man on his way home from an exorcism. Garvin was a product of the streets, on his own since he could first walk, when he had, in fact, walked away from whatever unpleasant life he had been living. He was not much to look at at first: all bone and gristle and wild hair. But the Master and Jamie had cleaned him up; and after a period of good food and honest work and the company of those not out to do him in, Garvin had filled out, gentled his survivor nature, and returned mostly to being just a boy.

The Master had a soft heart underneath all the armor of his magicks and temper, and Garvin had found a quick place as shop boy, cleaning and supplying and just being useful wherever was needed. He did not know his birth date, but appeared to be Jamie's age, and was blond haired and blue eyed, and endowed with the sweetest of smiles; and the two of them shared a tiny room at the back of the shop, a single bed and a single blanket. At first there had been nothing to that; but then, there just had. The two had grown close, and then they had grown inseparable.

And then they had become more. Now they were a pair, Jamie with his brown hair and blue eyes, Garvin his blond mirror image; and both had become part of the establishment and life of Master Thorvil.

The Master knew of their new closeness, and he tolerated it, even if he didn't always understand it. That two boys living under his roof could be quite so fond of each other was a mystery to him still; a magick quite beyond the ones he was used to wielding. But he also seemed to see something special in the bond, some spell at work whose potency was obviously extreme, but still yet to be measured. And so he'd looked the other way as his two lads grew close, figuring that time would eventually reveal the secret of that particular tale.

"Pay attention now," the old man said, snapping his fingers. "The Conference on the Arts will last about one week. I expect to return laden with potions, incantations, philtres, and charms of the first order. Invitees to the conference exist on the cutting edge of the art, and I am taking some of my finest creations to trade."

He narrowed his eyes, leaned a little closer. "Take care of the place. Keep an eye on the groogs, don't let the nilches eat too much slort, and water my dreamstalks each day at noon, as you know you should. The shop is to open promptly at nine, close just as promptly at seven, and you must remember to sedate the stock of willowisps each evening to make certain they do not steal away in the night." The Master frowned gravely. "And, most of all, place all funds of gold obtained during the business day into the nether safe each night, so that they cannot be spirited away by those twice-be-damned snoopfilches. Now - do you understand?"

Both boys nodded.

Master Thorvil watched them a moment, his green eyes tinged with doubt, before smiling and placing a hand on each boy's shoulder. "You're good lads, and I trust you." He waved a hand at the shop's cluttered interior. "The charms I have placed here are potent, and will protect both the shop and yourselves. Do not touch them, do not move them. In fact, just ignore them, and you will be fine." He leaned down then, and fire danced behind his eyes. "Just don't screw up, you understand?"

Again, both boys nodded.

The Master looked towards the heavy open front door of the shop, where a large wooden gargoyle stood just to one side. "Snave? Watch out for them."

There was a creak of stressed wood, and the hulking figure nodded.

"The charms should take care of any pilferers that enter, and Snave will take care of any troublemakers; but be alert, anyway. The streets are full of arty thieves these days, and I can only guard against the things I know or suspect. Always the chance that some talent from far off will enter the shop, for which we might not be prepared."

"Yes, Master Thorvil," Jamie said. "We will be alert."

The Master looked at them a moment more, and then he was gathering them close. "You're like my sons," he said softly, squeezing them fondly. "Be alert, be careful. I'd seal the shop while away, but to do so would not allow you to live inside, and I will not put the both of you in the streets for a single day, let alone a full week." He stepped back. "If you feel trouble is afoot, bolt the door and await my return. But I sense no worrisome portents looming, and the future I can see looks clear." He smiled. "And most interesting, as well."

There was a twinkle in the old man's eyes that Jamie could not define, and he was about to ask about it when the Master stepped away from them. He snapped his fingers, and a large black travel bag sailed down the steps from the Master's quarters on the upper level and came to rest at his side.

"I'll be back in about a week," Master Thorvil said, looking again at them sternly. "Jamie, I expect to find the building still standing when I return. So no experiments with forces you've yet to understand, am I making myself very clear?"

Jamie nodded, but smiled, as the twinkle was still within the Master's eye.

"Fair trip, sir," Garvin said, also smiling. "We are missing you already."

A smile tugged at the mage's whiskers, but he harrumphed grandly and waved a finger at the travel bag. "Come, Ursa."

The boys watched as the Master stepped outside the front door of the shop; and then he was off, lifting into the sky, his travel bag at his side as though attached by an invisible leash. The Master turned to the south, accelerated, became smaller and smaller, and then was gone.

"I wish I could do that," Jamie said, his eyes still on the patch of blue where the Master had vanished into the sky.

Garvin clapped him on the shoulder, squeezed him. "You will, in time. After today I have little doubt."

He glanced about, pulled Jamie deeper into the shop, away from the door. "Kiss me?"

Jamie smiled, pulled the other boy close, touched his lips to Garvin's. In the back of his mind, a small enchantment he had been working on, but hadn't quite gotten right, suddenly unlocked and became potent. A tiny charge ran throughout his body, transferred itself to Garvin's. The other boy gasped, and quite suddenly, Jamie was feeling the bulk of Garvin's maypole pressing against him.

"Oh - what?" Garvin looked down at himself, astonished.

Jamie laughed. "My, that worked just as promised."

Garvin smiled at him. "You just magified my goodfellow in some fashion, didn't you?" He closed his eyes a moment. "Oh, Jamie. It feels wonderful!"

Jamie stepped back, admired the pleasing bulge in the front of the other boy's pants. "Unfortunately, I've yet to learn to reverse it, so I hope you really like it."

Garvin's mouth dropped open. "You aren't serious."

Jamie laughed, gave his friend a hug and another kiss. "No. It will wear off soon, just as a natural one would." Jamie's eyes twinkled. "Unless certain stimulations continue, somehow."

Garvin swallowed. " you think we could get away with closing shop for a brief period?"

Jamie considered. It was early in the day, and the shop really saw no business until the afternoon and evening. But he had promised the Master to look out for things, and immediately closing the front door the moment the Master was out of sight seemed a betrayal of that promise. But then again, there was simply never any business at this early time of the perhaps just a few minutes...?

Jamie just could not decide.

There was a final arbiter available, however, whom he could ask.

Jamie turned to look at the large wooden gargoyle by the door. "Snave? Do you think we could close the door long enough for Garvin and I be together a moment?"

The wooden figure turned its head to gaze down at them with its blank wooden eyes. Blank, and yet Jamie had always fancied that he could see a soul of sorts within those polished ebony orbs.

The gaze continued upon them a moment; and then, with a small creak of polished wood, the gargoyle smiled. A larger creak ensued as one of the gargoyle's thick, muscled arms extended; and then, with a mere flick of the clawed hand, the front door sailed shut with a tremendous thud. The deadbolt slid over into the jamb, and the crossbar magickally lowered into place.

Snave looked at them a moment longer, and then the gargoyle returned to immobility, looking once again a figure carved by a loving if slightly demented hand from a wood never twice seen in the land.

Garvin smiled. "I guess that's the word, then."

Jamie looked at him, went closer, put his arms around the boy. He squatted a bit, hefted, and had Garvin off the floor in a moment. Garvin wrapped his arms about Jamie's shoulders and his leather-clad feet about Jamie's thighs, and pressed his face against Jamie's neck and smiled as Jamie carried him back to the small room they shared in the rear of the shop.

"I like where this is going," he said softly, as they arrived beside the bed. He wiggled his hips a bit, feeling the new bulk in Jamie's crotch as it pressed against his own. "More magick at work?"

"No," Jamie breathed, setting Garvin on his feet. "It's nature, and it is caused by the closeness of someone loved. An eternal spell, if you will, writ by the Creator, himself."

They kissed, and then they undressed each other, and then they crawled into bed together. Jamie felt the pleasant thrill of the other boy's skin against his own; Garvin's warm nakedness, always enchanting, and the firm pressure of the magickal wand that Latin called a penis as it pressed against Jamie's body.

Garvin kissed him, rubbed his face against Jamie's. "I love you, wizard boy," he whispered.

Jamie offered a pleased smile. "And I, you, boy of the streets." It was a ritual chant they often shared, slightly foolish, but too fond to dispense with.

Garvin laughed then. "Can we speak more plainly now?"

"Yes. Really, Garvin, I don't know how I existed before I met you."

"The life of a dullard, no doubt," the other boy teased.

Jamie smiled. "You joke, but it's true." He kissed Garvin, and squeezed him close. "You are the best magick in my life, you know."

Garvin sighed, and closed his eyes. "Work your spells upon me, Jamie."

Time passed slowly as they lay intertwined, doing the things together that always thrilled them. Each such session seemed to draw them closer, to firm the bond already strong as stone between them. By now each knew what delighted the other, and each was quick to offer that which pleased. For Jamie it was a wonder, as always, and when they were through, he settled back against the pillow and sighed, squeezing his friend close. "How you learned such things is beyond me," he said, smiling. "Each time is as wonderful as the first."

"Your love is one of your better magicks," Garvin said, returning the smile. His blue eyes were devilishly bright. "It heals the bruises I sometimes get whilst standing in the lee of your powers."

Jamie eyed him. "You should be safe in the lee, if anywhere."

"I should be, yes."

Jamie kissed the other boy gently. "The very last thing I wish is to harm you, sweet Garvin."

"I know. I don't mind it, Jamie, not at all. To be with you is the greatest gift ever, so I don't pay attention to the occasional bumps in the road."

Jamie kissed him again, and squeezed him, and then sighed. "We should dress and reopen the shop. Let's not take advantage of Snave's generosity."

They crawled from the bed, gave each other a last hug, and returned themselves to a clothed state.

Out front, traffic in the streets had picked up a bit as the sun had moved upwards in the sky. They reopened the front door, stood upon the threshold a moment, side-by-side, and looked out at the street.

Foot traffic here never ceased, and was quite thick by this time of day. Horses and tyrbeasts labored to pull laden carts across the uneven roadway, while pedestrians somehow managed to evade them automatically, sometimes by just the slimmest of margins. A crowd-chant of voices filled the air as people called and conversed and laughed together in a dozen languages, some of which the boys had never heard before. Children ran and scampered and played and cavorted; older citizens walked slowly to the sides of the road, often in pairs, sometimes even in groups, safety in numbers being the order of the day.

In reality, few - if anyone - traveling the streets carried anything that anyone else would want. Food, perhaps, if one were starving; clothing, maybe, if one were chilled. But for the most part, the citizenry was too poor to offer up much in the way of loot to tempt the many thieves who walked among them. Only in the market square, crowded with stands and carts and shops too busy to be watched entirely - and which drew even the nobles from their gated compound in the very shadow of the castle - were the pickings rich enough for those with quick fingers to survive.

Garvin had tales to tell of such adventures, a boy living on his wits and the process of sleight-of-hand, some of which made Jamie's heart quail to think of his friend in such circumstances. That Garvin had weathered a harsh existence before being taken in by Master Thorvil was plain; that the boy was strong enough and kind enough at the base of his nature to embrace a quieter life as a shop boy only made Jamie love him that much more. Truth be told, Garvin had managed to embrace a life civilized, at least around the edges, just a little too well for Jamie not to suspect that the other boy had at some point been exposed to care and love in his life. That Garvin seldom spoke of his past was a fact that Jamie respected, and one he really did not care about, anyway. Jamie loved the other boy for himself, without concern for where he had come from, or the things he had done.

A caravan of merchants drove by, wagons creaking under their loads, wooden wheels scraping against cobbles smoothed and even rutted in places by the passage of many such before them. There were five wagons, and women, and children; a family business of some kind, no doubt.

Lyrix was a plains town, even though it stood at the feet of the massive Black Tooth Mountains. The pointed peaks arrived from the west and then marched off east to the horizon, there to vanish into the sea. To the south stretched plains, league after league of tall grasses, grazed in portion by herds of lummox and wild tyrbeast, and crossed daily by caravans of merchants and tradesmen. The life's blood flow that connected the region and caused it to thrive. And, to the south, not a day's walk away, began the deep and dark realms of the Forest of Night, a woods so tall and so thick and so deep that it was said that sunlight had never once touched the ground.

The forest was known to be the home of strange beasts, magickal peoples, and forces of nature dark and powerful. These latter - sprites, boggarts, and even more terrible things - had no form, no bodies; forces as invisible as they were potent. They roamed the forests at will, seldom dabbling in the affairs of mortals unless trespassed upon. They were not to be tempted, and few men had lived to speak of their wrath once unleashed.

Above the town, in the foothills of Peregrine Peak, loomed Castle Cumberstone, a massive edifice of native granite, old as the mountains themselves. The seat of power for the government of the King - currently one Myron the Morbid, rumored to be a fair man, if quite humorless - the castle seemed as large as the town, and considerably more forbidding.

"Beautiful day," Garvin noted, for at least the sky was blue and the sun was warm. To the east, far above them, sea ernes rode the high currents, fair winds down off the peaks and driven to the sea. Small lines of fat, puffy white clouds trailed across the deep blue to the south, visibly moving in the same high pathways of air.

"Help me tidy," Jamie said, turning back into the shop. They got themselves rags, dabbed them in sail oil, and set about giving the interior of the shop a rubdown. Both boys had careful built into them now, after dealing so long with ancient and often fragile things; and in less than an hour they had the place sparkling without so much as jarring a single magickal item from its rest.

After, they pulled stools behind the ornate counter and climbed atop them, placing their elbows on the oak inlays and looking out into the street as the crowds went by.

Few would enter here without true business on their minds. Mages were well known for their failure to tolerate sightseers and browsers, and the common folk had no desire to tempt fate just for curiosity's sake. Magick was magick; the word held power in itself, simply because it defined a talent so few possessed and so many feared. To have the word displayed in so large a lettering above the door was insurance against intrusion by the casual shopper or tourist - or thief - and the morning grew long without a single visitor brave enough to cross the shop's threshold.

The boys were talking and laughing, just very much enjoying each other's company, when Jamie looked up, thinking he'd seen a shadow at the door.

But no one was there. He looked around the shop, his eyes suddenly alert, and he reached out a hand to silence Garvin, who was talking about the prices of caramel apples in the market.

"What?" Garvin whispered, picking up on Jamie's new intensity. "Is something wrong?"

Jamie continued to scan the shop, unsure of what had troubled his awareness.

Suddenly, with the creaking of stressed wood, Snave's head came up, and the gargoyle stared at a point in the center of the shop. The wooden beast's arm came up and pointed; and without warning, golden lances of fire erupted from points high atop several display cases and converged on the spot Snave had indicated.

There was a screech of terror, as though a large cat had been frightened to spitting; and an outline, short and dumpy, took form in the golden pool of light where the lances of fire met.

Jamie stared, his eyes absorbing the outline slowly coming to visibility; and then he was off his stool and around the counter, calling to the gargoyle.

"Don't hurt her, Snave," he said quickly. He grinned. "Just make her visible."

The color of the fire lances shifted from gold to silver, and then to red.

"Give it up, Wanda Pegfoot," Jamie said gently. "You are no match for Snave. I would be saddened to see you get hurt."

Slowly, the outline grew sharper; and then, with a small pop of displaced air, a short, very ugly woman came into view. The fire lances mellowed to a soft blue, faded, and then were gone. But Snave continued to look at the new arrival, his gaze somehow seeming alert and focused despite being wooden in the making.

"Blasted, bedamned, and bedeviled! Outdone by the son of an old crypticon tree!" the old woman cursed, shaking her arms as if seeing if they still worked properly.

Jamie smiled at the expression on Wanda's face. The old witch looked angry enough to eat stone; but her anger was tinged with just enough fear that Jamie felt unthreatened.

"You should have known better than to come inside still invisible, Wanda," Jamie gently scolded. "Snave has defense duty, and he is not the tolerant sort."

"I wasn't thinking," the old woman said, approaching the counter and Jamie. Her wooden leg made a tap-tap-tap sound against the floorboards as she moved. "So much on my mind these days." She smiled, causing her ugliness to take on the suggestion of something less volatile to the eyes - the escaping shadow of a sweet nature hidden very much below the surface. "How are you, child? Is that nasty old man keeping you well?"

Jamie smiled. Wanda was scarcely as tall as he, and the Creator had obviously bent over backwards in his experimentation with ugly while forming the old witch. She was, according to the Master, even older than he; and it showed in her pasty skin, all one wrinkle it seemed, and her dumpy little figure, wrapped in brown robes, that showed lumps where there should be no lumps on a woman, and bulges where there should just be lumps.

But her brown eyes held a gentle kindness as she looked at him, and Jamie had long ago decided that, no matter the witch's outer appearance, her insides were quite attractive to see.

Wanda's gaze traveled to the counter, to Garvin. She raised a short arm, waved gnarled fingers at the other boy. "Hello, sweetness. You look well today."

Garvin smiled and came around the counter. "Thank you, Miss Wanda. I am well."

The old woman tittered, perhaps at being referred to as a Miss, perhaps just pleased to be in the company of two such handsome young men.

"What brings you to see us today?" Jamie asked, taking the witch's arm gently and leading her to a table across from the counter. He pulled out a chair and held it while the old witch sat - or rather, draped herself, as sitting in the normal fashion seemed an action counter to her physical form.

She leaned forward on the tabletop as Jamie took a seat across from her, while Garvin came to stand to his rear. Wanda glanced about the shop in a conspiratorial fashion. "Odd things at work in the land, young Jamie. Strange things. Have you heard your Master speak of them?"

A small thrill crawled up Jamie's backside. "No. What things do you mean?"

Wanda sat back a bit. "To speak of them openly is to invite their attention, and I shan't. If your Master has not spoken of them, likely he feels it safe here." She glanced in the direction of Snave, and frowned. "That was a guaranteed spell of invisibility, yet the wooden one saw right through it. Powerful must be your Master's magick."

That was a given, in Jamie's mind. Thorvil was not your run-of-the-mill magick-caster.

And yet, Jamie was aware that he himself had somehow sensed Wanda's presence within the shop. Perhaps the spell of invisibility was not so great a spell as Wanda had thought. Or, just maybe, Jamie's own powers were sharper than he had thought.

He knew better than to pry. If Wanda was not going to volunteer information, there was no way in the world that Jamie would learn more.

"You have a reason for coming today, though?" he persisted, at least hoping to make some business for the Master out of the event.

Wanda nodded. "I need some hair of the devil, if you have some."

Jamie blinked. A very rare, very expensive commodity. "Yes, we do. How much do you need?"

"Twelve hairs. Dark ones, if you have them."

Jamie looked back at Garvin, who scampered off to fill the order.

In his mind, Jamie reviewed the possible uses for hair of the devil. None of them were simple, none of them less than dangerous.

All of them very powerful.

Garvin returned, a tiny vial made of bone in one hand. "A dozen, Miss Wanda. All dark." The boy set the container on the table between Jamie and the witch. Neither made to touch it.

"Cash or trade?" Jamie asked, smiling.

"I have coins," Wanda said, producing a small purse from out of her left sleeve.

"Twenty-four gold," Jamie said. The current rate.

Wanda tsked as she removed the coins from her purse. "My soul. Things are so expensive these days." But she counted out twenty-four of the gold coins, formed two stacks of them on the tabletop, and then smiled and added another. "For you boys. Get yourselves some sweets, you hear?"

Jamie felt his eyebrows go up. A single gold would buy sweets for him and Garvin, both, for months. He was aware of Garvin taking a surprised breath next to him.

"We can't take that," Jamie protested. "It's far too much."

Wanda closed her purse, and it vanished back up her sleeve. "You can and you will." She smiled, again lessening the impact of her ugliness. "You two are sweet beyond words. Your souls shine like lighthouses on night's shore. So much that is ugly in this world - I will have the satisfaction of making you two happy."

Jamie smiled. "Oh, well, when you put it that way --"

Wanda actually laughed, a little bit of a frightening sound, but her heart was in it, and Jamie could feel it there.

They got up, and only then did Wanda pick up the vial from the tabletop. "I have to be going, Jamie. Places to go, things to do, demons to exorcise, maidens to terrorize." She winked at that last one, but Jamie knew there was some truth to it, somewhere.

They walked her to the door, tap-tap-tap, said farewell while Snave looked on. Only after the witch had departed did the wooden gargoyle return to his state of repose.

"I like her," Garvin said, as they returned to the table. Jamie picked up the extra gold coin from atop the one stack, felt its weight in his hand. It felt true, but it also had a new feel to it that could not be missed. Alchemy. Not so long ago, this coin had been lead. The talent it took to make the conversion was considerable, and Jamie knew that alchemy was one of Wanda's specialties.

Well, it all spent the same, whether the gold came from the earth as such or was created out of spells on a witch's stove. He took all the coins to the counter, opened the cash box behind, and changed their one gold coin for ten silver partlets. The twenty-five gold coins he dropped into the open maw of the nether safe, where they came to land with other monies in a dark spot between dimensions only accessible to the Master.

He took five of the silver partlets and gave them to Garvin, took the remainder and dropped them into his pocket. Snoopfilches could smell gold, but not silver, and so partlets were the safest form of money to carry about, after coppers.

"So much money," Garvin breathed, looking down at the silvers in his open hand.

Jamie smiled, in love with the look of wonder his friend wore. He glanced about the shop, noted that Snave was inactive, and leaned over and kissed Garvin on the cheek. The other boy beamed at him, leaned in and returned the kiss.

"Worth more than gold," he said softly, looking into Jamie's eyes.

There was magick in this affection, Jamie thought. That he and Garvin were one at some level was now a given. The other boy was as much a part of Jamie as was his own soul. It brought a satisfaction beyond words to have someone so close.

Garvin was watching him, seemed equally entranced. "My beautiful Jamie," he said softly, smiling. "I love the very day the Master found me and brought me to you."

Jamie nodded, closed his eyes, nuzzled Garvin's face. "The best of all days," he whispered.

Behind them, there was a creak of wood, and both boys turned to see Snave looking at the front door.

"More business?" Jamie said, regretfully pulling away from Garvin and settling himself back on the stool behind the counter. He was aware of Garvin taking his five silver partlets and thrusting them deeply into his clothing. Then both boys turned to watch the door along with the gargoyle, waiting to see who came in.

But it was not a person that entered.

A large golden scroll, ornate with splendiferous engravings, wandered into the shop, unrolled before them, and a deep, powerful voice rang out:

"Master Thorvil, you are summoned."

Jamie and Garvin looked at each other, amazed.

A royal summons!

Somewhere, far off in the foothills of the Black Tooths, in the shadow of Peregrine Peak, and deep within Castle Cumberstone, mages of the King were clustered, guiding the scroll, and speaking from it.

"Step forth," the voice commanded.

"What do we say?" Garvin whispered, leaning close to Jamie.

Jamie thought fast. That the Master was not here was poor timing. A royal summons was not something you tossed off in simple fashion. Jamie could simply say that the Master had gone away for the week; but what opportunity might they thus be missing? Certainly, if the royal mages learned that Thorvil was unavailable, they would seek out another mage, and whatever opportunity was here would also go by the way.

Jamie's thoughts whirled within his head, and then his mind was made up.

He slid off the stool and went around the counter. "I am Thorvil. Speak."

Behind him, he heard Garvin gasp; and then the other boy was standing beside him, grasping his shirtsleeve. "What are you doing?"

Jamie waved a hand for silence.

The scroll hung motionless for a moment, and Jamie suddenly realized he could hear whispered voices.

"That can't be him," one voice said. "He's just a lad. Thorvil is ancient, I was told."

Ah. The scroll was visual, as well.

Jamie tried to make his voice as deep as possible. "I am working an age regression at the moment, and you see me as I once was. What is your business in my shop, may I ask?"

"Oh, that's good," another voice whispered. "Why, the regression is perfect. Not a single whisker anywhere. I've never seen better."

Someone cleared their throat, and the deep voice resumed, sounding just a little bit less impressive. "Um - you are commanded to appear before Sedwick the Soft, son of Myron the Morbid, and Prince of the Realm. Come along."

Jamie blinked. Not the King then, but his son, the Prince. For just a second, Jamie smiled. He had seen Sedwick, passing with his entourage in the streets. The Prince was sixteen, and handsome, and rumored to like boys his age over any woman in the land.

This could be interesting.

But at the same time, Jamie had no intention of showing up at the castle in the Master's stead. He would need to postpone, somehow, until the Master returned and could take up the business himself.

"I have much to do this day, and this week," Jamie said, trying to sound important. "Will next Tuesday do as well?"

There was a shocked silence. Then: "Certainly not! The Prince commands you now."

Jamie sighed, disappointed. Nothing to be done about it, then. Jamie could only beg off, and hope another mage was not found before Thorvil returned.

"Then I must decline. I am far too busy to come today."

Again, the shocked silence.

"You don't understand," the voice resumed, sounding irritated now. "The Prince commands. You will come now."

"Sorry, I can't," Jamie said, pulling Garvin with him as he went back around the counter.

Another voice spoke up, high-toned and excited. "Why, you unbelievable git! Lackwit! Booby! Goose! Whom do you think you are speaking to?"

A shiver of fear coursed throughout Jamie, and he tried to duck behind the counter. Maybe this had not been such a good idea after all.

There was a crack like thunder, and suddenly Jamie felt himself being pulled back around the counter, towards the big scroll. Garvin grabbed him, trying to stop him, and both boys were dragged around the counter and nearer to the scroll. They dug their feet against the ancient floorboards of the shop, but to no avail.

They were about to be captured by the scroll!

Jamie heard again the creak of ancient wood, looked up as Snave pointed at the scroll. From the display cases beyond leaped four lances of crimson flame, which converged on the scroll in a flash as briefly violent as a dying star. Immediately, the force pulling upon Jamie and Garvin ceased to exist.

"Ouch! Oh, that smarts! What are you doing! Stop!" The high voice was not righteous sounding now. It sounded quite tamed, in fact.

The scroll rocked and bucked in the grip of the crimson flames.

"He's too powerful!" another voice yelled. "I cannot fight him!"

Jamie grinned. This was why the Master was a master.

He waved a hand at Snave, and the crimson lances vanished.

"Naughty," Jamie said, waving a finger at the scroll. "Trying to kidnap me from my own shop. Such manners can only be dealt with sharply, as you see."

"That was awful," the high voice said. "I believe I pissed my robes, you wretch."

"You called me what?" Jamie asked, quietly.

"Nothing, nothing, my fault."

"Oh, look, sir," the other voice began. "You simply must come along. The Prince commands. If you do not respond, troops will be sent."

That was scary. But Jamie felt his bravado now. "A shame to banish so many fine men to the nether regions of darkness," he said, with a confidence he was hardly feeling. "You trifle with my powers, sir."

The whispering resumed, but so softly that Jamie couldn't make it out.

A new voice was heard now, firm, calm, far more pleasant. "Master Thorvil, this is a need. Our master, your Prince, ails from a malady cast upon him by a dark mage. He suffers, sir. He needs your wisdom and power."

Jamie felt a stir inside. The Prince was suffering? He looked at Garvin, and the two of them imagined the handsome face of the young Prince twisted in pain at the whim of some awful magick.

Jamie looked into Garvin's eyes. "What to do?"

Garvin bit at his lip. "You have some powers, Jamie," he whispered. "I have seen them. Perhaps you can help."

Jamie looked into his friend's eyes, saw love and trust there. That settled him.

He looked back at the scroll. "I will assist. But I will make my way to you on my own, do you hear? No dragging me through the dimensions doorwayed by your scroll."

"Oh, that's very fair," the new voice said, sounding pleased. "Most kind of you. So we can expect you later today?"

"I suppose," Jamie decided. "Yes. My apprentice and I will be along shortly. I presume this new politeness of yours will be the rule of the day?"

"You have our word, Master Thorvil."

Jamie waved a hand dismissively. "Be gone, then."

The scroll rolled up so quickly it flapped in the wind of its own closure, and then it was off, out the door, into the sky.

Jamie sighed, looked at Garvin. "I have a bad feeling about this."

Garvin put a hand on his shoulder, but had no words of comfort to share.

Jamie turned to look at the gargoyle. "Are you mobile, Snave? Can you accompany us?"

There was a further creak, and the wooden gargoyle nodded. Jamie relaxed. That was something.

"We'll need to seal the shop. Can that be done so that it will be protected?"

Again, the gargoyle nodded.

"Then, let's begin."

Jamie turned to Garvin, put a fond hand upon him. "I've no right to ask you to come."

Garvin laughed. "Try to stop me. I go where you do, my love."

Jamie nodded. "Let's be off, then."

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