Saturday, December 27, 2008

141. The Gift-Giving

Contest winner: greyniffler

Merlin rocked on his feet impatiently. As if the queue to turn in his room key hadn't been moving slowly enough, now it seemed an Elvis impersonator was having fisticuffs with somebody disguised as Einstein. The wizard-of-fortune rolled his eyes, fingering the last of the probability-magic-proof chits with which the Aladdin's Cave Consortium had paid him for his work.

It wasn't enough, he reflected, that he had lost all the money he had earned testing the casino's security system; but now that they had recouped everything they had paid him, the Consortium was threatening to cancel his exemption from the Do Not Pass binding unless he started paying for his room and board.

Merlin gritted his teeth, wondering for the eleventh time what it would have felt like simply to break out of the vault and take everything with him when he had the chance, rather than reporting to the Consortium how he had gotten through their spelltraps. It was just as well that he was on the list of people prevented, by a magical binding, from crossing the threshold of Aladdin's Cave. It would be too easy, he knew now, to get away with millions - and after the way the Consortium had treated him, he had more motives than money for doing it. He didn't need that kind of temptation. It was time to leave.

Someone nearby cleared his throat. Merlin looked over and saw three men watching him: a large, bald man in an expensive suit, leaning on a silver-capped cane, and flanked by two obvious flunkies - one tall, skeletally thin, with huge expressive eyes and a sensitive face; the other very short, scarcely taller than a goblin, but stoutly built and animated by a fidgety, restless energy. Something about the three men struck Merlin as familiar. Had they been watching him as he moved about the casino?

The fat wizard beckoned Merlin toward him with a slight twist of his head. Merlin hesitated, glancing toward the front of the line, where Elvis was now being arrested by the casino police. He turned back toward the three men and saw them walking away through the crowd. With a groan of frustration, Merlin abandoned his place in the queue and hurried after them.

Their trail led him past the Lizard Lounge, around the far end of the Roc Concert Hall, up several flights of steps, and down a hallway lit by glowing stars on the doors. The three men came to a door that had three stars stuck to it, opened it and walked through without another glance in Merlin's direction. He followed them through the door, and heard it close behind him.

The room beyond the three-star door contained three dressing tables, placed in a row beneath a single mirror. On another wall hung a large, silver horn, hung above a brightly painted carousel horse with a hinged door built into its side. The tables were covered with jars of paint, sponges, brushes, pencils, and wigs - Merlin only saw them for a moment before the thin wizard waved his hand, clearing all these things away and conjuring a plain, white cloth in their place. The short wizard vanished with a pop, then reappeared carrying a tray full of demitasses, a pitcher of steamed milk, a bowl of sugar, and the powerful aroma of espresso. The fat wizard sketched four chairs out of thin air with the tip of his cane: four papasan chairs, covered with tasseled rugs, one sized to fit each of the men in the room. No one said a word until all were seated and slurping strong coffee out of tiny cups that never fell below half-full.

Tall-and-thin mutely offered Merlin a mouthwatering, chocolate-shaving-covered canole. Shaking his head, Merlin broke the silence to ask if they might have a plain digestive instead. "No offense meant," he added. "I promised my wife. She swears she can smell my weight, and if I gain much more she'll have her own bedroom. Her nose is that sensitive."

The fat wizard tutted sympathetically, but his mouth was too full of pastry and cream to comment.

It was, finally, the short wizard who spoke in a thick accent Merlin had never heard before. For the first time, Merlin began to doubt the sense of familiarity he had felt since he had first spotted the three men. Perhaps he hadn't met them before, after all.

"We would like to engage your services," said short-and-stout. "It is a dangerous business. We understand you are one of the best for this kind of work."

"I have references, if you need to see them," said Merlin, dipping his biscuit in the coffee.

"No need," said the short wizard. "We already know your abilities. We are currently in funds, thanks to a fifty-show contract at this casino, so money is no object. We know you are between jobs. The only question that remains is whether you will accept this very difficult mission."

"Name it," said Merlin.

The fat, bald wizard spoke up with an Italian accent Merlin instantly recognized: "We wish you to teach Maledicto di Bestemmia what it is like to feel ashamed."

"Pagliai?" Merlin exclaimed, almost choking on his coffee. "Are these two - ?"

"Excuse us for appearing out of character," said the leader of the clown wizards, with a gracious smile. "We thought that, with our make-up, wigs, and squeaky shoes on, it would be harder to impress on you the serious nature of our mission."

Merlin almost laughed with relief. "I was afraid you were hiring me to rob the casino," he confessed. "Or maybe, to track down someone who had robbed it."

"But that is exactly what we are hiring you to do," cried the short wizard (who was, in fact, Signor Subito). The thin man, whom Merlin now easily recognized as Boccachiusa, nodded firmly.

"Which one?" asked Merlin. "The robbery, or - ?"

"Both," said Subito and Pagliai together.

"You must remove an item Maledicto keeps in the vault," said Subito.

"Something he keeps here because he fears what would happen if the goblins knew he possessed it," added Pagliai.

"And then you must make sure the goblins catch him in possession of it," Subito concluded.

Merlin chewed thoughtfully on a bland mouthful of digestive. He swallowed, sipped his coffee, thought a moment longer, then shook his head. "I don't see how it can be done," he said regretfully.

"But you have already proved more than a match for the Consortium's security!" Pagliai cried. "That's half of your task as good as done already!"

"Be that as it may," said Merlin, "though it may not, since I will not be able to return to the casino after I leave. If I don't clear out by sunset, the Consortium will put a lien on my Gringott's account until I settle my bill. And I won't be able to leave without setting off a Do Not Pass alert. They will search me and take away anything that doesn't belong to me."

"Yes, yes," said Pagliai. "But there is a simple solution. You don't leave; we will pay your full bill when you check out; and before you leave, you will give Il Comte's little toy to Signor Boccachiusa here. Then you can walk out of the casino" - here the clown wizard whistled - "clean as guess-what."

"That leaves the really impossible part," said Merlin. "Not only do I have to lure Il Comte out of his lair with all its defenses, but then I have to..."

"Name your fee," Subito insisted.

Merlin suppressed a laugh. "All this, just to bring that old loony to justice!"

"On the contrary," said Pagliai. "We do not expect Il Comte to come to justice. Men with his means and powers are beyond the reach of law, and unfortunately he knows it and uses this knowledge shamelessly. We only want him to taste a bit of the humiliation he inflicted on us for so many years. We want him to feel regret over his own actions, just once."

Now it was Merlin's turn to whistle. "Gentlemen, I don't know how to begin - "

"Name your fee," Subito repeated; then he added, "We will double it."

Merlin shook his head. "What I need for this is not a promise of great reward. I have been a victim of Il Comte's evil myself, remember? But how can I even approach the man? He is so slippery, so resilient. He has survived things no one should survive, escaped from every binding and imprisonment man has devised, recovered from Lilly Grate faster than anyone thought possible - even the laws of magic seem to bend out of his way. He can be momentarily thwarted. You can run from him, hide from him, and eventually recover from the curses he puts on you. But he just doesn't stop. He may be a fool, and his powers may not be great, but he seems to have - if I may risk sounding silly - a charmed life!"

"That is what you must change," said Pagliai. "Il Comte seems to be surrounded by some magic-dampening shield. While it doesn't stop curses, potions, or magical objects from taking effect, it lessens their effect, going in both directions. Take that shield away and he will be more vulnerable to - let us say, justice."

"But then, he will also be more dangerous," Subito murmured, by way of full disclosure.

"And the key to doing all that," Merlin said, "is in the vault."

"A talisman Il Comte obtained from the goblins by deceit," said Subito, "many, many years ago. Its influence over him will only end if he returns it to its rightful owners."

"This sounds like the kind of thing that can only be given, not taken," Merlin observed.

"Exactly," said Subito.

"How could Il Comte steal it, then?"

"He did not. They loaned it to him, but he broke his word. He was supposed to use the talisman to do something for the goblins, and return it afterward. We are not sure what he was supposed to do, or how he explained his failure to return the talisman. All we know is that, if the goblins can ever prove that he kept it, he will regret his bad faith. We heard him speak of this long ago. When he worries about anything, it is this."

Merlin stood up and paced. After several lengths of the dressing-room, he faced the clown-wizards again. "So what you're asking," he said, "is to do the very thing against which Il Comte is most on guard; to provoke the two parties in the world that have the best reasons to hate me; and to get them to turn on each other without suspecting that I set up the whole thing."

As he finished this summary, he found himself looking at Boccachiusa. The mute clown nodded.

"I'll never survive," he concluded.

Pagliai said, "Pish," a second time, then went over to the painted, carved horse and tapped one of its eyes with his left ring-finger. The door in the horse's side sprang open. Silk handkerchiefs, arm-length gloves, and mountains of garish clothing spilled out on the floor as Pagliai rummaged.

"What do you think of our clothes-horse?" Subito asked conversationally.

"Does it clean and press your costumes, as well as store them?"

"Only if we give it food, water, and exercise. These days we don't have the time, but the concert hall has a couple of house-elves who are happy to do the washing for us, when they're not busy clearing up spilled drinks and cigarette butts."

"All right, I've found it," said Pagliai. "We thought it might come to this, so we had our old friends put together a survival kit for you - "

" - should you choose to accept this mission," Subito added.

Subito vanished the coffee things, enabling Pagliai to set his find on the table. It was a leather satchel with a shoulder strap. There seemed to be no way to open it. Pagliai explained: "The bag itself is a gift from our friend Karl, the survival wizard. It will resist fire, water, sharp objects, corrosive substances, most spells, and the vacuum of outer space. Its interior is exactly as big as the contents require. You could hide inside it, if the need arose."

"How does it open?" Merlin asked, intrigued.

"Only you can open it," said Subito.

Pagliai added: "After it was closed, Karl tuned it to respond to your body, using a lock of hair that your wife provided."

Merlin stroked the bag. A simple, flap closure became visible. He pulled it back, revealing a collection of bottles and other objects within.

Pagliai pulled out a smooth, flat, round stone with a hole in its center. Uncut by human hand, it was threaded on a thick, coarse string. "This is Slavik's gift," he explained solemnly. "While you wear it, neither claw nor fang can penetrate your skin. I believe he found it during his childhood in Transylvania."

"I can see how that would be handy against dark creatures."

"And the undead," Subito agreed.

"This," announced Pagliai, pulling out a slender, tapering stick at least thirty inches long, "is a wand our friend Jaan designed specially for you. Its core is the nose hair of a cave troll."

"A what?" Merlin dropped the wand. Boccachiusa gracefully caught it.

"Its chief virtue," said Pagliai, "is that, if you are ever confined indoors or underground, a Four-Points spell will cause it to point toward the route of quickest escape."

"Wow," said Merlin, gingerly plucking the wand out of Boccachiusa's fingers. "I could have used this years ago."

"Evidently Jaan thought so, too," said Subito.

Pagliai proffered a small, tight roll of parchment. As Merlin took it, the fat clown explained: "This is the gift of Anatoly. Write on the scroll the names of the six curses you fear the most. Draw a line through the name of one of them. Then place the written-on side of the parchment against your bare skin. Anatoly has infused the paper with a special type of ink he invented. It print seven tattoos on your skin, magical defense tattoos. Each tattoo will protect you, once only, against one of the curses you wrote down."

Merlin had already decided what he was going to write - Crucio, Sectumsempra, Petrificus totalis, Legilimens, Obliviate, and with a line through it, Imperius. The six curses he feared most, in ascending order.

"Why seven tattoos, if I only wrote down six curses?"

"You will have a double protection from the curse you strike through. Unfortunately, the Killing Curse cannot be on your list. No spell can protect you from that."

Merlin squinted into the bag. There were still several glass vials in it. Who could they be from?

Pagliai held up a single earring. "This is half of a matching pair," he said. "Your protégé Rigel designed them, and he has sworn to wear the other one until you return."

"That's touching," said Merlin, rubbing his earlobe, which had never been pierced.

"If, while wearing this, you say 'Rigel help,' he will hear you through the pin in his ear. Five seconds later, it will become a portkey, transporting him to wherever your half of the set happens to be."

"Could be useful," Merlin said grudgingly. He was beginning to feel like nothing could stand in his way now. "What's with the potions?"

"We were going to save those for last," said Pagliai, looking a bit put out. "We haven't gotten to our own gifts yet."

"I'm dying to know what's in those bottles," Merlin insisted.

The fat clown shrugged. "All right. This is your wife's gift. Endora invented it herself. There are only seven doses of it in existence, and four of them are here."

Merlin was growing impatient. "What is it, then?"

"Endora calls it Liquid Skill," said Subito.

Merlin frowned.

"It is a working title," Pagliai added hastily. "Once it is approved by the magical patent office, it will no doubt receive a much more evocative trade-name. For now, all you need to know is that each vial contains one dose, each dose lasts twenty-four hours. Think of a skill as you drink it, and that skill will be yours while the effects last. But only once per skill. If you drink it wishing to be a master carpenter, you will have twenty-four hours to build your masterpiece; after that, the skill will be gone. Then you will have to choose a different skill with each dose of the liquor."

"So I could be a circus acrobat, or an opera singer, or - "

Boccachiusa brightened up and pointed at himself.

" - or a mime," Merlin added.

"Anything you want," said Subito. "But only once, and only for a night and a day. But look here, you get to experience four different things."

"You need only be clever enough to recognize what skills you will need to complete your mission," said Pagliai.

"Or to get out of trouble," Merlin agreed.

"This little pouch thing is from Harvey. Once you open it, you'll never get it back in again. It's a rapidly-inflating, portable wall that will camouflage itself like part of the background. Its usefulness might be somewhat limited - once somebody bumps into it, they'll be onto you - but it might just buy you a moment to make good your escape. If you're the first person to touch it when the pouch opens, it will erase you from the picture, basically making you invisible to anyone standing on the other side."

"The rest of these things are from us," said Subito. "The Turbo Gum is from me."

Pagliai nodded, holding up a small tin of chewing-gum lozenges. "While you chew one of these, you'll be able to run so fast that most people will only see a blur. You'll have five minutes of super speed, while only five seconds pass for the rest of the world. Be careful, though. The effects wear off quite suddenly, and bad things can happen - "

"Like being hit by a train you were trying to outrun," Subito said sadly. "It happened to my cousin Veloce."

"Family recipe," Pagliai whispered to Merlin, aside.

"The Peekaboo Kit is from Boccachiusa," Subito explained eagerly, passing Pagliai a handkerchief folded into a perfect, but lumpy, square. "If you put on the blindfold and hold very still, no one will be able to see you, even if they are searching right in front of you."

Pagliai caressed the kit fondly. "It comes with ear plugs. While they're in, you can sneeze, cough, or even burst into tears, and no one will hear you."

"Is that everything?" Merlin asked. Somehow, all these helpful gimmicks had convinced him that he had a job to do, a job he could do, and he had better start soon.

"Just one more gift," said Pagliai, drawing a final item out of the depths of the bag.

It was a round, red clown nose.

"Wear this," he said reverently, "and His Pestilency will be unable to look at you without going into fits of laughter. It's almost as good as a paralyzing spell. Without it, I wouldn't have survived my years of service to him. I used it sparingly, but even so, it will only fool him once. After that, he won't be able to aim accurately, not daring to look straight at you, so you may be able to dodge his spells. So it's not much; but as I said, once he loses the talisman he will become a very dangerous customer. Even a slight advantage may be a matter of life and death."

In Merlin's hands the clown nose felt like some kind of leather. He didn't know whether it was magical or, simply, something Il Comte found irresistably funny. With a fitting display of respect, he passed it back to Pagliai.

"Thank you," he said. "I accept the mission."

"Well done," said a voice with a lilting, Italian accent. It wasn't one of the clown wizards. Merlin looked up and saw, looming over him, the huge, handsome face of a middle-aged man. He trembled, thinking: What have I done?

"Well done," Il Comte said again. "I knew you would make a fine addition to my mews." He cut the heart out of the lark Merlin had brought him and held it toward Merlin's beak. The wizard-of-fortune darted forward and devoured the heart while the count laughed.

"What a fine merlin you are," the evil count gloated, stroking Merlin's feet, or rather claws, as they gripped the padded gauntlet on Il Comte's arm. "That rascally falconer was a fool even to try keeping you from me. Come, my feathered friend. Let's introduce you to your housemates, or rather rivals."

As Il Comte strode back toward his manor, Merlin gripped his outstretched arm, fighting hard to concentrate on who he was and how he had gotten there. Liquid Skill, he thought. I've become an animagus. For some reason he felt concerned about how long he had been in this form. He couldn't remember why it mattered, though...his mind was increasingly clouded by the exhiliration of flying, which he had just experienced, and the hunger for flesh which that morsel of lark had stirred up.

"Ah, here we are, Master Merlin," Maledicto purred, and suddenly he was engulfed by darkness, the smell of feathers, and the sound of strange birds shuffling nervously around. A door slammed, a lock clicked... Merlin was trapped.

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE +++

You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! First, go to the forums, or send Robbie feedback. Then, in 250 words or less, answer the following Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]

SURVEY: greyniffler suggested (in the discussion thread for TMQ #139) a grudge match between Il Comte and Uncle or Aunt Leslie. What do you think? A) Yes, that would be a great fight to witness! B) No, they're both evil, so they should work together. C) No, let's keep their storylines separate.

CONTEST: Describe a historical person or incident that would be even more interesting if we only knew the "untold story" (involving witches or wizards from Harry Potter's world).

[Originally posted 8/17/08]