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Fiction

His Elbow, Unkissed

Previously on The Kaslo Chronicles: The far-future civilization of the Ten Thousand Worlds will soon collapse as the universe’s fundamental operating principle shifts from rationalism to magic. Only a handful of people on the long-settled world of Novo Bantry know the change is coming, and they are murderously rivaling with each other to be the wizards who will dominate the new order. Hardboiled confidential operative Erm Kaslo has acquired some ancient magical paraphernalia and is experimenting to see if he has what it takes to be a thaumaturge.

“His Elbow, Unkissed”

Erm Kaslo arranged the materials of the experiment on the scarred and scorched workbench in his new lodgings. He had recently had to relocate to new quarters on the outskirts of Indoberia, after the custodial agent of his former lodgings had complained to the Commune about the noises, smells, and other disruptions arising from Kaslo’s suite of rooms. He had taken this isolated cottage in a clearing of the Forest of Shades, where his nearest neighbor was well out of earshot.

“Integrator,” he said to the device that was his assistant, “we will now repeat the procedure using the second interpretation of bazzizzat.

“Very well.” A device on the bench produced an extensible arm that ended in a multi-digited grip. The grip closed around a short length of dark wood, cylindrical in cross-section, and moved to place it in a downward-pointing position above a blackened crucible of dense metal.

“Wait!” said Kaslo. He crossed to where a shield of copper alloy, taller and wider than he was, leaned against a wall. Its inner surface featured leather straps and thick, soft padding; its outer surface was dented and smeared with deposits of oily soot. He dragged it to a point two arms’ lengths from the bench, then used a grimy sleeve of his singlesuit to wipe away some of the muck that clouded the hand-sized pane of heavy, clear crystal set at eye height in the metal. He got behind the safety barrier and peered through the narrow window. “Proceed,” he said.

“For the record,” the integrator said, “this attempt assumes that the term bazzizzat means ‘in a counterclockwise motion at moderate speed.’”

The device’s arm descended until the wand of dark wood entered the contents of the crucible. There was a pause while both the man and the integrator waited to see if there was a reaction.

“Nothing,” Kaslo said, after a long moment. “Continue.”

The arm moved and the stick stirred the materials in the container. “Once, twice, three times,” Kaslo said as the revolutions continued. “This could be it.”

At that point, a column of bright light shot straight up from the crucible, pure white energy alternating with vertical striations of brilliant crystalline non-color. The metal arm that held the wand became soft and began to droop, although the dark wood was unaffected by the upward torrent of force. The ceiling, however, instantly developed a hole where the energy had struck it, so that what was now a pillar of light went straight up into the chamber above.

“Remove the wand!” Kaslo said.

The integrator caused the machine on the bench to withdraw its appendage, which now had the appearance of a length of rope. The digits at its end managed to maintain a grip on the wood long enough to lift it from the crucible, whereupon the wand fell to lie on the bench’s battered top. When the wood left the cauldron, the tower of force abruptly winked out, leaving a perfectly round hole in the ceiling. Faint wisps of smoke hung around the edges of the opening for a little while, then dissipated.

Kaslo, experienced now, waited a few moments longer. Then a few moments more. When nothing further happened, he laid the shield on the floor and cautiously approached the bench. Even more circumspectly, he peered into the crucible. The materials he had placed inside were gone, except for the small black sphere called a nouble that had been the key ingredient of the spell he had been trying, for weeks now, to cast.

He reached in and lifted it out, felt again the strange sense that when he held the thing, everything else—including himself—somehow took on an air of insubstantiality; as if the ball of stygian blackness was the only real thing in existence, and he and all the universe mere shadows cast by a dim light on the thinnest of vapors.

The black nouble was neither hot nor cold to the touch, neither weighty nor slight in his hand. As always when he touched it, he had a nagging intimation that he was of no consequence whatsoever. He quickly slipped it into the pouch of supple leather that he had acquired when he had taken the nouble and two others from the dead thaumaturge, Choter Gozon.

He still found it odd to think that such persons actually existed, that spells and cantrips and incantations were not just the trappings of imaginary adventures and fusty old legends, that magic was about to become, once again, the fundamental principle by which the universe went about its business.

But that’s how it is, he told himself, not for the first time, and those of us who want to survive in the new environment had better start adapting now.

The problem was, he was not making much progress at mastering the arcane arts. Indeed, it could not be said that he was making any progress at all.

He had the noubles and the crucible. He had the wand and several other items he had lifted from the premises of the dead Gozon. He had more arcane goods, including some apparently ancient tomes in lost languages, that he had taken from the same place. And he had the collection of magical paraphernalia that used to belong to Gozon’s former partner in thaumaturgical studies, the man who had hired him to help bring the noubles safely here to Indoberia, on the Grand Foundational Domain of Novo Bantry. The client—his name had been Slovan Ballameer—had had no more use for his books and curios. He had winked out of existence when Gozon had pointed the wand at him and uttered a few syllables, which Kaslo, for all the rigorous mental training he had undertaken to become a top-echelon confidential operative, could not keep in his head.

Now he picked up the wand and examined it. As always, no matter what he did with it, or to it, the length of unidentifiable wood was unaffected. He laid it down on the bench, then rested both hands on the hard-used piece of furniture and leaned his weight on them.

He was trying to think, but nothing useful came. He looked up at the hole in the ceiling, then asked his assistant, “What is above that?”

“In sequence,” the device said, “the floor of the chamber above, a carpet, then the wardrobe and its contents, the room’s ceiling, the rafters, then the roof.”

“Damage?”

“The roof will need repair, as will everything below it. And you will not be able to wear your blue formal garment again.”

“Did the beam of force extend far?”

“It did not travel at lightspeed,” the integrator said, “but it covered distance faster than the speed of sound. Fortunately, we discontinued the experiment before the energy reached low orbit.”

“What would it have hit?”

“The Gunter Line’s freight orbital. But casualties would have been moderate. The orbital has excellent safety systems.”

Kaslo sighed and looked down at the bench again. “This is not working.”

“No,” said his assistant. “Random experimentation absent a theoretical base is not an optimum strategy. Besides, the premises of the work are irrational.”

“Never mind that. How do we acquire a theoretical base?”

“Find another thaumaturge?”

The op sighed again. “I suppose there is nothing for it. Contact Diomedo Obron.”

* * * *

Erm Kaslo’s experience with Diomedo Obron had not been pleasant. The magnate had hired the op to travel to the secondary world Cheddle with a warrant to arrest one Binnie Varshun for defrauding Obron. But the client had not been comprehensively open about the business relationship between himself and the fraudster. It emerged, after Kaslo had been imprisoned in an unofficial forced-labor camp from which he quickly escaped, that Obron and Varshun were actually engaged in some experimental wizardry. Their intent was to create a device that would allow them to reach into other planes and retrieve substances of supernal power. But events had spiraled out of control. Varshun ended up dead at the hands of Captain Maduc and his deputy, two corrupt Cheddle provostmen Varshun had himself hired but who had decided to become free agents. During the operation, Kaslo had been required to kill two men, one of them by means that still disturbed his quiet moments. As soon as the business was completed, he had left Obron to deal with the aftermath and refused further contact with the magnate.

Thus he was not greatly pleased to see Obron’s luxury-model volante ease silently down from the sky to alight before the door of his cottage. The canopy opened and the magnate stepped to the ground with an attempt at a casual air, but Kaslo could read the eagerness in the man’s eyes as his gaze darted here and there.

“The items,” the op said, “are in my work room.”

“I can spare you a few moments,” Obron said, with an affected flourish of one slim, pale hand, “though I doubt the things are of much value.”

He spoke off-handedly, but all the time he was moving toward the open doorway. Kaslo stepped into his path and took hold of the other man’s arm in a grip that was not to be gainsaid.

“Let us first clear away any doubts or misconceptions,” he said, stopping Obron as effectively as a stone wall. “As I said when we spoke earlier, I have acquired the collections of Slovan Ballameer and his associate, Choter Gozon.”

“Who?” said Obron.

But Kaslo was an adept in the art of informed listening. “This business will end right here and right now,” he said, “unless you cease these pathetic attempts at subterfuge.”

The magnate swallowed. His narrow face showed a struggle between greed and fear. After it continued for a few seconds, Kaslo said, “Having dealt with you and Varshun, as well as with Ballameer and Gozon, I understand that treachery is rife among practitioners of sympathetic association. I, however, am a licensed confidential operative. I am sworn to a standard of conduct, and I take the swearing of oaths very seriously.”

Obron’s inner struggle continued. He clearly wished to say something but it seemed he could not find the words.

Kaslo said, “If you are honest with me, I will be honest with you. If you are not honest with me, I will make you wish you had been. And then I will load what remains of you into your aircar and tell it to take you home.” He used his free hand to draw the magnate’s face close to his own. “Is this clear to you?”

Obron swallowed again. “You swear not to gull or cozen me?”

“On my license, I swear it.”

He saw a moment of calculation, then the other man’s fear broke. It was replaced with the look an optimistic child wears upon awakening on a birthday morning. “All right,” Obron said, with one final swallow, “let me see them.”

* * * *

At first, Obron skipped from one object to another, touching some of them lightly, as if he could not quite believe they were real. Finally, after he had surveyed them all, he stepped clear of the bench and stood, his long face still as he ordered his thoughts. He gestured to the crucible and the measuring and sifting implements. “This is elementary paraphernalia, but of good quality. Seventeenth Aeon, I would say.”

Kaslo was surprised. “That old?”

“They were made to last, by practitioners who counted their lifespans not in years but in centuries.”

The op blinked. It was not a factor that he had considered. “Go on,” he said.

“The books,” Obron said, indicating the five small and one large volumes Kaslo had placed on a shelf above the bench, “range from the commonplace to the deeply arcane. This one”—he touched a fat-spined tome bound in scaly black leather—“may be the only unabridged copy of Hentero’s Compendium to have endured across the ages.”

Obron licked his thin lips, then overcame whatever had caused his brief hesitation. He looked directly at Kaslo. “You should not let it be known you possess it. There are people who would go to extreme lengths to acquire it, if they heard even a rumor of its existence.”

“It’s that valuable?”

“It’s priceless, but that’s not the issue.”

“Then what is?”

The magnate reached out and touched the book’s tattered cover. A shiver went through him. “Power,” he said. “If you can learn to wield it.”

“I see.”

“With all respect,” Obron said, “I’m not sure you do. In the world as it is, wealth brings power, and power is usually employed to gain more wealth. In the world to come, power will be everything, wealth an afterthought.” He shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Why strive for riches when a roomful of precious gems can be whiffled up by any hedge sorcerer who knows one of a half-dozen medium-level spells?”

“Then what will power be used for?” the op said, though he thought he already knew the answer. The magnate confirmed it when he answered, “Power will be used to gain more power, and yet more, and so it will go.”

“To what end?” Kaslo said.

Obron’s face said the question was naïve. “To be on top, when all others are below.”

“And then?”

“To stay there.”

Kaslo understood ambition, the urge for prestige. But the picture Obron painted seemed excessive. “Are you all tyrants waiting to chip your way out of the egg?”

“In past eras when magic ruled,” Obron said, “whenever one thaumaturge rose too high above his competitors, they would combine to bring him down. Or her; it’s an equal-opportunity discipline.”

Kaslo frowned. “Not an attractive world.”

“Except to those who are ravished by its appeal.”

“As you are?”

Obron sighed. “I will admit, it calls to me. I can hardly bear the wait.”

Kaslo tasted a sourness in his mouth. “What else do I have here?”

The other man looked around. “That,” he said, pointing to a skull about the length of his hand but narrower; it was written all over with symbols and characters in faded red ink, “is a nygrave’s skull. Useful in divination.”

“And the wand?”

“A general-purpose instrument used for focusing the fluxions of several different kinds of spells.”

Kaslo remembered seeing a ball of blackness appear at the wand’s tip when Gozon spoke the cantrip that vanished Ballameer. He nodded. “What else?”

“These three cubes are dice made from the bones of a fourth-plane creature—that realm’s equivalent of a chicken. To those who know how to read them, they tell the futures.”

“Futures?” Kaslo said. “As in, plural?”

“To a well-versed thaumaturge, any moment may be a point of departure in several directions. They are—soon I hope to say we are—exempt from the strictures that confine ordinary lives.”

The op made a noise in his throat. The sourness had grown worse and had to be cleared. Obron took the message and quickly said what he could about the gold plate and the small doll with tufts of coarse hair, and the small black tube with an ivory eyepiece at one end.

“Of course,” he said, “the scryer is only useful if you charge it with the right spell. But I believe there are two such in the Hentero. You should be able to peer into any room that is not defended by the correct counterspell, anywhere.”

“You mean anywhere on Novo Bantry?”

“No, I mean anywhere on this plane. When the change comes, the laws of physics will no longer apply. The power of will, focused and aptly applied, will be the only law that matters.”

It was a lot for Kaslo to take in all at once. The other man was showing him a bleak future ruled by ruthless wielders of unusual powers restrained only by their equally ruthless competitors. His years as a confidential op had shown him all too clearly that will was as often concentrated in the worst of humanity as in the best.

Meanwhile, Diomedo Obron was looking around the room, as if fresh wonders might be found. He noticed the hole in the ceiling over the workbench. “You’ve been experimenting?” he said.

Kaslo came back to the needs of the present. “I have.”

“And it hasn’t gone so well?” Obron’s smile verged on the smug. “Unless you thought the room needed more ventilation.”

“The last thaumaturge I dealt with was Choter Gozon,” Kaslo said. “When I left him, he lacked a head.”

The magnate had seen Kaslo in action. He now showed the op a pair of pale palms raised in a combination of apology and surrender. He looked up again at the ceiling and said, “You were trying something out of one of the books?”

Kaslo nodded. “It seemed to be one of the simpler spells. It should have resulted in a bubble appearing in the air above the crucible, its surface lit with scenes from antique times.”

He moved his hands in a way that expressed frustration. “But the book is written in a long-forgotten language and script. My integrator was able to translate it only partially. Some of the words have no linguistic descendants, so meaning must be inferred from context. Bazzizzat, for example, appears to have something to do with how one stirs a cauldron.”

Again, Obron fought off a condescending smile. “You are thinking like an inhabitant of a universe based on physical laws. Bazzizzat refers to . . .”—he sought for the words—“let us say the ‘attitude’ of the spellcaster as he stirs the mix.” He thought again, then said, “Or perhaps the frame of mind.”

“Then it takes more than will to be a wizard,” Kaslo said. The future now looked even bleaker.

“Well, yes,” said the other man. “Think of it as the need for strength to be focused by coordination. The will must be shaped, and that requires both aptitude and training.” He looked again at the hole above their heads. “It is just as well. If you’d succeeded with the spell, you would have drawn attention. And this place is completely undefended.”

“How do I know if I have aptitude?”

“I will test you,” Obron said.

He posed a series of questions, none of which made sense to Kaslo. One of them was to imagine himself as a four-dimensional object, then describe how he could touch his tongue to his elbow. Kaslo found the exercise annoying.

“Well, there it is,” said Obron. “You require me to be honest. I will tell you bluntly that you do not have the wherewithal to be a thaumaturge. You are what the old-time mages called a ‘mutton-thumper.’ If you persist in trying, you will achieve one of two ends: Either you will do yourself a painful, perhaps fatal, mischief; or you will come to the notice of someone against whom you have no defenses.”

“Someone ruthless,” Kaslo said.

“We are all ruthless,” Obron told him, “but some of us are simply cruel. And a few are complexly cruel, which is worse.”

Kaslo surveyed the objects he had acquired. “I suppose you are going to suggest that I sell these items to you. You clearly covet them.”

He had expected an immediate answer. Instead, the magnate’s face took on a thoughtful cast. “That was my intent when you told me what you had collected,” he said. “But now I am leaning toward another arrangement.”

“Say it.”

“We spoke of honesty,” the magnate said. “In all candor, these materials are not only useless to you, but pose a lethal danger. I can use them as they should be used, though it will take me years to master some of the intricacies.”

“You have the aptitude?”

For answer, Obron spoke three syllables and made a sharp gesture with one hand. Then he applied his tongue to his elbow. Kaslo found the spectacle disconcerting, but honesty impelled him to say, “You do.”

“If you wish, I will buy these from you,” Obron said. “Name your price. But I would prefer it if you gave them to me freely. In return, I will engage you as my full-time security agent, at a handsome salary.”

“How handsome?” When Obron named a number, Kaslo said, “Handsome indeed. How long will the engagement last?”

“It will be permanent,” the magnate said. “It would have to be.”

“I value my independence. I have built a career.”

“Here comes honesty again,” Obron said. “When the universe shifts to sympathetic association, your career ends. The framework of society will collapse. This location”—he gestured to the room and the forest without—“will not be safe.”

“I am capable of looking after myself.”

The magnate glanced at the hole in the ceiling. “No, you are not.”

The dismal prospect again presented itself to Kaslo’s inner vision; he saw vistas of desolation, the Grand Foundational Domain of Novo Bantry reduced to barbarism and want, the glittering cities the haunts of feral gangs, the once-fragrant boulevards strewn with stinking dead.

He sighed. “How will we proceed?”

“I am readying my estate for the transition and after. My current majordomo is not equipped for the task.”

The op thought about it. “Once the change comes, what will the salary buy?”

“Nothing. The economy will shift to a different mode. All my accounts, all my fiduciary arrangements, will melt into the air. But the powers here”—Obron touched one of the books on the shelf—“will see us through the years of transition.”

“May I think about it?”

The magnate spread his hands. “I would not advise too long a meditation. Some of us have probably noticed already that Choter Gozon and Slovan Ballameer are no longer registering on their horizons. They will wonder why that is. At first they will think in terms of a threat to themselves; when they cannot find one, they will want to know how their absence might accrue to their benefit. Once they begin to look in earnest . . .” He brought his hands together and the clap they made was considerably louder than it should have been.

“I see,” said Kaslo. It took him only a moment to weigh the situation, then he said, “You may remove the goods to your volante. I will pack a valise and prepare my integrator to travel.”

“Good,” said Obron. He extended a hand. After a moment, the op took it.

The magnate turned and picked up Hentero’s Compendium, handling it carefully. His eyes on the book, he said, “Along with your other packing, you should include some weapons.” He looked up and noticed the stained shield leaning against the corner, and gestured with his chin. “What’s that?”

“From my days with the Constabulary, a riot shield.”

“Better bring that, too.”

* * * *

The volante rose silently, its gravity obviators perfectly tuned. The upholstery was luxurious, but Kaslo could not settle. After he lowered the canopy, Obron drew from his upper garment a pad of soft material that unfolded into a map of paper-thin leather. It was marked with lines of several colors that sometimes ran straight, sometimes curved, occasionally crossed each other. He studied the pattern, then gave directions to the aircar’s integrator. They flew south and a little east.

“Ley lines,” he said, when he noted Kaslo’s interest. “Conduits of the force that bind reality together, at least on this plane. They have lain dormant for millennia; now some are regaining their strength. It is one of the signs of impending change.”

“What do they mean to us, up here?” the op said.

“Probably nothing. But if we carry your goods—now my goods—across the wrong one, and if someone is paying heed in one of several ways, we will become at the very least an object of unwelcome curiosity.”

“Nothing happened when I carried them here from Gozon’s and Ballameer’s.”

“And probably nothing will happen now,” Obron said, tracing a finger along a red line that was faded to pink, then looking out to find a landmark. He told the aircar to alter course slightly. Then he drew Kaslo’s attention to a line that ran north and south, broader than most and drawn in faint mauve ink. “There is no way to avoid crossing this one. However, there are as yet no practitioners of the purple school of magic—or, at least, I certainly hope no one has come that far—so I’m hoping we’ll just zip across unnoticed.”

Kaslo looked at the sky around them and down to the ground sweeping past below. For a moment he had a flash of memory, from when he had been a fresh-skinned recruit at the Commune of Indoberia’s Constabular Academy. “If there is a threat,” he said to Obron, “what form will it take, and where will it come from?”

“Watch for something that does not fit,” the magnate said. “And perhaps for the hair on your neck and arms to rise.”

The op drew a self-aiming energy weapon out of the carryall he had packed before locking up the cottage. “Let me know when we are nearing the purple line,” he said.

They flew on, angling upwards to increase their height. Obron said greater altitude might lessen the “twang” as they crossed the invisible line. Kaslo routinely checked the weapon, although he always maintained it in full readiness. Its power magazine was full, its sensors operational. The moment he activated it, its percepts synchronized with those of the aircar’s integrator.

They were well out of the forested zone now, passing south of Indoberia’s green suburbs, the crystalline spires of the Old City glistening far off in the afternoon sun, throwing the convoluted patterns of shadows and reflections for which the place was renowned throughout the Ten Thousand Worlds.

Kaslo imagined the place wrecked and burning, mobs surging through the streets beneath the towers, innocents drowned in blood and brutality. Did he want to live in the world that would follow? Might it not be better to go off to some quiet place—he remembered how at peace he had felt angling for brimtails in the shallow waters of Grand Shoals—and end with dignity?

He contemplated such a scene for a long moment, then the inner image shattered. He would not do that. He might not be able to kiss his elbow, but he was as full of will as a man could be. He would not let the world put him under, however grim and horrid it became, not until it had fought him to the last gore-filled ditch. And even then, he would take as many with him as he could reach.

“Here it comes,” said Obron.

Kaslo turned his attention outward again. They were flying over open pastureland, the ground sloping up here toward a bare tor that rose abruptly out of the green.

“That would make an interesting spot to build on,” the magnate said. “It’s marked on the map as some kind of node.” He told the aircar to steer away from the prominence, then held up an expectant finger. “Three, two, one, now,” he said, then blinked twice and looked at Kaslo. “Did you feel that?”

Kaslo signaled a negative. He had felt nothing.

“I experienced a definite frisson,” Obron said. “Let us hope no one else did. Or, if they did, they’re tardy about looking into it.”

He directed the volante to drop down to ground-skimming height and to increase speed. From here on, they would make straight for his estate and its defenses. Kaslo nodded. He cradled the weapon and watched the sky, the ground, the distant row of trees that separated this pasture from another. He saw nothing out of the ordinary.

The volante sped on. Although the canopy shut out the flow of air, Kaslo felt a chill run down the back of his neck. He glanced at Obron and saw the other man’s eyes meet his with a flicker of alarm.

Kaslo looked up and down and all around. To the energy weapon, he said, “That bird, high and to the left. What do you make of it?”

“There is no bird,” said the weapon.

“What is it, then?”

“There is nothing there.”

“Check your percepts.”

“They concur with the aircar’s.”

Kaslo watched the dark shape above them. It matched their velocity and course. “Go to manual operation,” he said.

“Done,” said the weapon.

Obron had glanced up once at the birdlike shape, then began to sort through the container in which he had packed the books and paraphernalia. He drew out Hentero’s Compendium and began to leaf through its pages.

Kaslo tapped a spot on the canopy and said, “Tell the aircar to open this section.”

Obron did so, then returned to the book. Kaslo poked the snout of the weapon through the gap and used the imaging sight. But when he squinted through it, the target seemed no larger nor clearer than to the naked eye. And, strangely for a speeding bird, its wings made no motion at all.

“It won’t work,” Obron said, without looking away from the page.

“Don’t distract me,” the op said. His thumb touched the activating stud.

“That’s a reciprocating weapon, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” That meant that its systems had to establish a connection with the target. Once made, the connection could not be broken until the weapon had discharged a molecular disruptive surge.

“You won’t get a connection.”

After a futile effort, Kaslo had to admit that the magnate was right. The weapon could not establish a linkage. He set it down and drew a plain energy pistol, aimed it over open sights, and squeezed the activator. A thin line of force arrowed up into the air, and the op saw that his aim was true. He also saw that it didn’t matter; the narrow beam passed through the seeing bird and continued up into the sky.

He released the activator and holstered the pistol. “What is it?”

“There’s a technical term,” Obron said, still flipping through the book, “but it won’t mean anything to you. In practical terms, it’s an extension of someone’s vision, routed through another plane. Something like flying a spaceship through a whimsy, except that all that is being passed is a perception.”

“What can we do about it?”

“Nothing, except congratulate ourselves on the watcher’s arrogance, leaving that thing up there so long.” He stabbed a finger at a page. “Here it is.” He quickly scanned the text, then touched fingers to his eyelids and ear openings and read a string of syllables from the Hentero. An image appeared in the air above the open tome—of a moon-faced man with a head that was bald except for a fringe of white hair; he sat staring into a shallow saucer that seemed to be filled with a clear oil. In the oil could be seen a magnified image of the volante’s cabin, with a clear view of Kaslo, Obron, and the picture of the watcher staring at his pool.

Suddenly the man started and looked up. One hand made a sharp motion and he spoke a word. The image Obron had conjured up suddenly disappeared. When Kaslo looked up, the bird shape was gone as well.

The magnate laughed. “I might have known,” he said.

“Who was that?”

“Phalloon is his name,” Obron said, “to which he appends the sobriquet, ‘The Illimitable,’ though no one else does. He thinks of himself as outstanding in the field. The last time we spoke, I told him that he was more like some dolt out standing in a field—and the wrong field at that.”

“He found us, though,” Kaslo said.

“And didn’t have sense enough to take a quick look then close the connection. Instead, he gave me all the time I needed to consult Hentero and learn how to reverse the spell. You saw how that shook him. I’ll bet he’s changing his small clothes right now.”

Kaslo was acquiring experience of thaumaturges. Clearly, overweening pride was a common trait. “Be that as it may,” he said, “he now knows that you have a box full of interesting items, including the Compendium. And he knows that you have me. What do we know about him?”

His tone somewhat sobered the other man. The op saw him engage with the question. “Good point,” he said. “When we get home, I’ll recall the image and study it.”

* * * *

Kaslo had visited Obron’s estate once before, when the magnate and Binnie Varshun had made what they called a speculon, a mirror-like device that was actually a portal into higher planes. The exercise had been interrupted by the arrival of Maduc and his thug, who had come to seize the speculon and any other magical paraphernalia they could scoop up. But one of them had ended up dead—and if the other wasn’t, he was probably wishing he were.

Before they expired, the hirelings had let slip the information that they were working for someone else—someone who had been using them to keep tabs on Obron’s and Varshun’s doings. It was unfortunate, Kaslo thought, that he had not tried to find out who their paymaster was before incinerating Maduc’s head.

While Obron and his servants unloaded the aircar, the op took the opportunity to assess the estate’s defensibility. The place consisted of a large house, strongly built of impermeables, intended to keep thieves and burglars out and valuables safe within. The house was surrounded by sweeping stretches of lawn, except at the rear and front where there were wide aprons paved in flagstones. A group of utilitarian outbuildings stood at some distance. There were copses of mature shade trees, a geometrically laid-out ornamental garden, a long, narrow lake, and a substantial wall surrounding the whole. The wall was topped by spikes and pierced by two substantial gates. The house integrator’s percepts, both the noticeable ones and the clandestine, were well distributed.

It would keep out the common run of criminal, Kaslo concluded. Those who made their way past the passive outer defenses would have open ground to cover, giving the estate’s active systems plenty of opportunity to engage them. He examined the roof of the main house with an expert eye and saw ison cannons and heavy-duty disorganizers disguised as decorative sculptures, sited so as to offer overlapping fields of fire.

No one would drop in here uninvited, unless they came in an armored atmospheric cruiser. But suppose they came on a flying carpet? Kaslo asked himself, recalling how his self-aiming weapon and his energy pistol had been of no use against Phalloon’s false bird. He would have to confer with his client.

He found Obron in the basement room where he and Varshun had made the speculon. That item was not in evidence, but the scorch mark was still on the sideboard where a scoop of “soil” extracted from the Sixth Plane had briefly rested. The strong wooden door that Maduc had blown in with explosives had been replaced by an even stronger-looking metal barrier.

The budding thaumaturge was putting away his new possessions in several multi-shelved cupboards bolted to an inner wall. Books went in one, the crucible and its accoutrements in another, and the other items were distributed among three others. Obron was humming happily as he worked.

Kaslo spoke over the music. “What is the likelihood that it was Phalloon who sent Captain Maduc to steal the speculon?”

The magnate paused to think about it, then went back to work, saying, “Strong, I should say. He considers me his chief rival.”

“How much do you think he knows of”—the op gestured to take in the room and its contents—”all this?”

“Not as much as he’d like to. No one can scry into this room. There are . . . barriers to distant perception.” He held up the black tube with the ivory eyepiece. “Even if he had this, all he would see is a gray blank.”

“Yet he knew this was the room to send his men to.”

Obron paused in the act of putting the tub away. His brow wrinkled. “That’s true.”

“And he knew what you were up to in here.”

“I suppose he did.”

“And he knew to wait until the moment when you had succeeded.”

“What are you saying?”

“That there are other ways, besides magic, of finding out what you want to know.” He closed the door behind him. “I am now your security chief, am I not?”

“You are.”

“Then I will start earning my stipend. Please tell your majordomo that I will interview each member of the staff.”

His employer’s brows rose. “You think Phalloon has a spy amongst us?”

“Either that or a highly-trained mouse.” When Obron’s gaze went worriedly to the floor, Kaslo said, “It was a joke.”

“Do you often make jokes?”

“No.”

“Good.” Obron instructed the house integrator to tell the majordomo that all staff were to make themselves immediately available to the new chief of security. There was an office next to the magnate’s study that would now be Kaslo’s. The interviews would be conducted there.

When the op arrived at the office, he found a small crowd of cooks, maids, footmen, gardeners, and the like gathered there. He saw worried looks on the junior servants, and received indignant glances from the senior staff. The majordomo, who introduced himself as Wals, was a plump, smooth-skinned man past his middle years, with thinning hair and soft hands.

There was a brief exchange of words in which the op settled the question of whether or not his position fell under Wals’s authority. The outcome of that discussion was clearly not to the majordomo’s taste. He said, “Our people have an estate to look after; I trust you will not keep them too long from their duties.”

Kaslo told him that the process would take as long as it took. But he had envisioned a shortcut. He asked Wals if any of the staff had not responded to the summons. The man looked around, showed irritation, then said, “Integrator, where is Upper Footman Broyce?”

“He has left the estate,” said a mellow and modulated voice from the air.

Wals’s face lost much of its smoothness. “What? When? How?”

“Just after he was told to report to Ser Kaslo,” said the integrator. “He departed on a skimmer that he kept in the hut where masque lamps are stored.”

A bright flush spread from Wals’s neck up into his cheeks. He seemed to be having trouble finding words, so Kaslo asked the integrator, “In what direction did he travel?”

“A little north of west.”

“And in what direction does the dwelling of a man named Phalloon lie?”

“Approximately the same.”

“Good,” said Kaslo, opening the door to his new office. “I will interview the staff now. Wals,”—he deliberately did not include an honorific—“you may send them in, one at a time, in order of those whose work is least dispensable to the proper running of the estate.”

He did not wait for a reply but went in and sat down. Two hours later, as the boy who fed the fish in the lake departed, he stood and stretched. Then he went next door to Obron’s study, where he had heard his employer moving around, and said, “Phalloon had a spy in your service: Broyce, who has fled. The rest of them I judge to be blameless. Wals is incompetent.”

“Broyce?” the magnate said. “But he’s been with me for years.”

“Such make the best spies.” He told Obron that he wanted to connect his own integrator to the house’s device, in case Broyce had installed any attributes that the estate’s integrator might not be aware of. The idea obviously came as a novel concept to his employer, but he agreed. Kaslo made the necessary connections and, as he had expected, found several interferences that the in-house integrator had been cozened into ignoring. He left them in place, but arranged to have his own integrator—a sophisticated system he had designed and built himself—“take charge” of the intrusive elements. Now they could be used to feed false information to whomever—probably Phalloon—they reported to.

He also had his own integrator check the integrity of the self-aiming weapons on the roof—and was not surprised to find that they, too, had been skillfully touched and tickled.

“It is in the calibration function,” his device told him. “The weapons will treat as non-actionable any motion incoming from a certain direction.”

“And that direction is?”

“A few points north of west.”

“When Captain Maduc and his helper attempted their raid on your employer, was that the direction they came from?”

The integrator checked the weapons’ memories. “Yes.”

“And who was on duty when they arrived?”

His integrator consulted with the house. “Upper Footman Broyce,” it reported.

“Well, there you have it,” he told Obron. “Probably.”

* * * *

The op’s integrator had long-established relationships with other such artificial entities throughout Indoberia and in many places across Novo Bantry. It circulated an image and other information about the missing footman and made inquiries about his recent movements. Less than a second later, it told Kaslo, “He is in a rented room in the Solonj district. He is pacing and appears to be talking to himself.”

“What is he saying?”

A man’s voice spoke from the air, desperate, pleading. “You promised you would look after me. I did everything—” He broke off as if interrupted. “But—” Again the caesura.

“To whom is he speaking?” Kaslo said.

“To himself,” said his assistant. “There is no one with him and he has accessed no communications channel.”

“Assume some other channel.”

“What, like a magic seashell?”

Kaslo knew that integrators could resent nonsensical orders. “Well, yes. That sort of thing.”

“Why don’t I assume that he speaks into a cup of alabaster linked by a gossamer to the High King of Hummeldance?”

“As you like,” said the op, “but can you tell me anything about who is on the other end of the conversation?”

“There is no other end. The man is plainly delusional.”

It added a few more words. Kaslo told it to keep its opinions of his sanity to itself. Then he asked to hear the rest of the conversation.

“There is no more,” the integrator said. “He said, ‘Very well,’ then, ‘I will.’ Now he has stopped talking. And pacing. The chair in the room made the little sounds it makes when fitting itself to someone’s form.”

“He sits and waits for something,” Kaslo said.

“That is the rational conclusion.”

The op ignored the implied comment and said, “Summon one of Obron’s less opulent vehicles.”

Solonj was on the outskirts of the Commune, not far from Obron’s estate—but not in the direction that Broyce had originally fled. He wanted to ask the spy about that, as well as several more questions that were ranged in his mind when his assistant caused the hostelry’s integrator to open the door of Broyce’s room.

Kaslo burst in, an energy pistol in his hand, but found the room rank with smoke and his quarry in no condition to answer.

“Analysis,” he told his assistant.

“He appears to have spontaneously combusted.”

“Isn’t that impossible?”

“Nevertheless, he has burned from the inside out.”

* * * *

When Kaslo returned to Obron’s estate, he found the magnate sitting alone in his basement workroom. He had discharged all the servants, giving each an honorarium in the form of precious metals and jewels. “I wished them luck, but I no longer need them,” he said, the Compendium open on his lap. “Once I have mastered this,”—he tapped a page—“I can bind Fourth-Plane entities. Very capable.”

“You may not have time. The most likely scenario is that Phalloon has attacked you once and that he intends to do it again.”

“There is an unlikely scenario?” Obron said.

Kaslo scratched his chin. “Possibly, someone has contrived to make Phalloon seem the villain. But that would take a thaumaturge of, shall we say—and I mean no disrespect—a wider intellectual scope than I have yet seen.”

Obron started to say something but cleared his throat instead. After a moment’s consideration, he said, “But whoever he is, he is now thwarted, is he not?”

“No. He just knows that he has to try harder.”

The magnate closed the book with trembling hands. “What will we do?”

Kaslo shrugged. “No one ever won a war by defending.”

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Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes writes science-fantasy. His SF novels are: Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, Majestrum, The Commons, The Spiral Labyrinth, TemplateHespira, The Damned Busters, The Other, Costume Not Included, and Hell to Pay. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Postscripts, Storyteller, Interzone and a number of “Year’s Best” anthologies. Night Shade Books published his short story collection, The Gist Hunter and Other Stories. Formerly a journalist, he spent more than twenty-five years as a freelance speechwriter for Canadian corporate executives and political leaders. His works have been short-listed for the Aurora, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. His website is at matthewhughes.org.