Featured October 4, 2019 Fantasy Baldemar wizard Dying Earth

Ten Half-Pennies

By Matthew Hughes
Oct 1, 2019 · 7,499 words · 28 minutes


From the editor:

Baldemar’s path to becoming a wizard’s henchman was not exactly linear, but it was inevitable from the day he hired a local tough to help fend off grammar school bullies. Luckily, Baldemar is a fast learner⁠—and he never forgets his debts.

Matthew Hughes’s path as a writer has taken him from journalism to speechwriting to SFF and suspense fiction. Born in Liverpool, he’s been in Canada for sixty-five years, and has been shortlisted for the Nebula, Aurora, Philip K. Dick awards, and many others.


From the author: This the origin story of Baldemar, a wizard's henchman, one of a series of stories that have run in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.


 TEN HALF-PENNIES 

by Matthew Hughes

 When Baldemar turned ten, his mother said to him, “I have taught you everything I know. Now you must go to school.”

Baldemar said he preferred to stay at home, helping to grow and sell the cabbages and pumpkins that provided a portion of their income. His mother looked up from the great tub in which she was doing someone’s washing and said, “Cabbages and pumpkins will not feed us when I am too old to work. By then you must be able to earn a good income. For that you must go to school.”

The boy conceived a stroke of genius. “But Master Thwack will want money.”

But his mother had foreseen his strategy before she broached the subject. “I have made an arrangement with Master Thwack. I will do his laundry in recompense.”

At that young age, Baldemar had not learned how to keep emotions like surprise and skepticism from leaping onto the stage that was his face. But the impending thunder that clouded his mother’s brow told him that he should keep his doubts to himself. (Later, when he considered the matter from the vantage of the age of twelve, he came to the conclusion that clean clothes were not the only service his mother was providing to the unspoused schoolmaster, and that to raise the issue, especially at that late date, would help no one.)

And so, when the new term began, soon after the tenth anniversary of his naming day, Baldemar took up his copybook and two pencils and set off to walk across the city of Vanderoy to Penandink Close, where Master Thwack maintained his grammar school. But his education began before he arrived.

Penandink Close, as its name indicated, was a short street that dead-ended at the back wall of the Incarcery. There was thus only one way in, and that was also the only way out. Baldemar reached this sole entry by crossing the Plaza of the Moneyers, where money changers and dealers in varying weights of gold and silver plied their trade. Foreigners recently arrived at Vanderoy came here to find coins they could trust, and Vanderovians planning to leave the county bought ingots whose purity was guaranteed by the stamp of the Moneyers’ Guild.

Baldemar paid the booths no heed. Silver and gold were well beyond his young life’s scope. He did, however, have a bronze half-penny in his shoe, given him by his mother to buy bread and cheese for his lunch. But when he reached the entrance to Penandink Close, his way was suddenly blocked by a tall and husky boy some years older than he who was accompanied by two similar specimens only slightly smaller.

“Starting school?” said the big one, with an expression of overt curiosity.

“Yes,” said Baldemar. He sought to pass around the questioner, but somehow positions shifted and he found himself surrounded.

“Got to pay school tax,” said the boy in front of him.

“No, I don’t,” said the new scholar.

The sequence of events that followed was brief and inevitable. Baldemar could have handled himself well enough had there been just one of them; he probably would not have won but he had often convinced opponents that the pain of the struggle was not worth the victory.

But there were three of them: two to hold him, and one—the biggest one—to punch him in the belly until he could not breathe and thought he might throw up his breakfast. They released him, and while he lay curled and winded on the cobblestones, they efficiently frisked him and found the half-penny. They left him his book but broke both pencils, saying, “Let that be a lesson to you.” Then they dismissed him from their thoughts and turned toward the next arriving schoolboy who, experienced in their ways, already had his tax out ready to pay.

Baldemar went to school. His stomach stopped hurting after a while but by the time he was going home, it had started paining him again from emptiness.

The same thing happened the next day and the day after and continued without cease. Baldemar took to putting a cob of bread in his pocket before leaving the house, but sometimes the tax collectors—their names, he discovered, were Bedlo, Wez, and Sheno—took that as well, and tore it into pieces that they ate, smiling, in front of him.

He discussed the depredations with his fellow students and discovered that various attempts to end them had been tried. Two years previously, a bold young lad had organized the braver boys of the school into a desperate squad. They had armed themselves with sticks and rocks, confronted the bullies, and chased them off.

But that afternoon, Bedlo had stealthily tracked the leader of the revolt as he went home. When he came out the next morning, he was set upon so thoroughly he was left with a broken leg. His parents withdrew him from Thwack’s Academy and the revolt lost its spirit.

Baldemar considered other possibilities. Telling his mother could do no good and would only distress her. Going to the City Watch would be equally inefficacious; they confined their interest to the protection of merchants and persons of stature; street boys’ affairs were beneath their notice. He thought about getting a knife and stabbing Bedlo, but spilled blood would upset the money changers and bullioneers; ironically, their discontent would bring the Watch into the situation, and not to Baldemar’s benefit.

One morning as he approached Penandink Close thorough the plaza, hearing the clink of coins being counted and dropped into purses, a new thought occurred. Geberon the money changer, who had his booth on the side of the plaza nearest to the tax-collection zone, was also known as Geberon the moneylender. And to ensure that his loans were repaid on time and with full interest, Geberon employed Vunt.

Vunt was not the largest man in Vanderoy, nor was he the most able with fists and feet. But he was more able than the largest fellow, and larger than the most able; this combination, along with a reputation for his capacity to take a punch that would kill a lesser man, meant that he rarely had to use his abilities. The mere sight of Vunt hoving into view was almost always completely convincing. Geberon’s balance sheet showed very few unrecoverable loans.

Baldemar stopped before Geberon’s booth. The moneyer was counting stacks of aurics minted in the county of Chanseray and making entries in his ledger. Vunt was sitting in his usual place, on a stool next to the booth, using a small knife to peel an apple. He took note of the boy and regarded him at first with a neutral gaze that became an unvoiced question.

Baldemar made up his mind and approached the man. “Do you hire out?” he said.

Geberon glanced over at this distraction, frowned, tsked, and returned to his calculations. Vunt cut himself a slice of apple, put it in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and said, “Sometimes.”

“I have a problem,” Baldemar said.

“So I have seen,” the man said. When he saw the surprise in the boy’s face, he added, “Anything that happens near my employer’s booth, I make note of it.”

“I was wondering—” Baldemar began.

“How much do they take from you?” Vunt said.

“A half-penny a day.”

“That’s below my usual rate. Well below.”

Baldemar thought and said, “If I paid you five pennies, would that be enough?”

“Have you got five pennies?”

“No.”

“Well, then.” Vunt cut and ate another piece of apple.

“If I paid you a half-penny a day for ten days?”

The man studied him for a while, chewing. Then he said, “How old are you?”

“Ten.”

“You’re small for your age.”

Baldemar shrugged.

Vunt stood up and held out one arm, straight from the shoulder. “Grab hold of that,” he said. “Both hands. And show me how long you can hang without letting go.”

Baldemar had to stand on the stool to reach. He got a two-handed grip on the man’s wrist, kicked away the stool, and hung there, feet inches from the ground. If Vunt noticed his weight, he made no show of it.

The boy heard soft sounds and realized that Vunt was counting slowly. When he reached sixty, Vunt gave the arm a small shake. Baldemar clung more tightly. He did not know what this was in aid of, but working in his mother’s garden had put some strength in his arms and he was proud of that.

Vunt continued to count, Baldemar continued to hang, until finally the man said, “Fair enough. You can let go.”

The boy dropped and clasped his hands behind him so the man would not see how his arms shook from strain. “Well?” he said.

Vunt sat again.  He studied Baldemar and some thought went on behind his pale eyes. After a while, he said, “Half-penny a day for ten days.”

“Done.”

Vunt looked at him sidelong and said, “Suppose I just take the money and do nothing?” He poked around his gums with his tongue, dislodging bits of apple. “Suppose I take over the whole racket?”

“You won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Reputation,” said the boy. “Maybe you did that kind of thing when you were a boy like Bedlo, but not now.” He looked Vunt straight in the eye. “That would be . . . cheesy.”

The man put another piece of apple into his mouth and made a sound somewhere down in his throat. Half the fruit was now left, and he cut that in two and handed a piece to Baldemar. “First payment today,” he said.

Baldemar gave him the day’s half-penny while he chewed and swallowed the wedge of apple. “Can you do it now?” said Baldemar. “You can trust me to pay.”

“You can trust me to collect,” said Vunt, pocketing the bronze coin. He gave the boy a look that might have implied amusement then said, “All right, but you don’t tell anybody about the delayed payment.”

Baldemar understood. “Reputation,” he said.

Vunt nodded, eased off the stool. For a big man he moved with smooth and sinuous motions. He cocked his head to indicate that Baldemar should go toward Penandink Close then followed along a few paces behind.

Bedlo, Wez, and Sheno saw him coming and deployed themselves as usual. Baldemar stopped in front of them and Bedlo held out a palm. Their taxpayer made no move to hand over the tariff and Bedlo’s face was in the process of marshaling his outrage when a shadow fell over them.

The big boy looked up at a much bigger man and his expression changed. Wez and Sheno each took a step backwards.

Vunt said, “He’s with me.”

Baldemar watched the trio depart. He said to Vunt, “I am in your debt.”

“Yes, you are,” said the collector, “to the amount of four and a half pennies, payable at a half-penny per day, with nine days to fulfill the obligation.”

“I will fulfill it.”

“You will. All debts must be discharged. That is a simple philosophy, and occasionally a cruel one, but it provides an adequate basis for an orderly life.”

 

Baldemar duly discharged his debt to Vunt. Time passed and Baldemar proved an adequate student at Thwack’s Academy. He could read and write a passable hand, do sums in his head or on the chalk-grayed slate, and name the principal cities of the land and their rulers. But he did not grow much larger, even though he was getting all his daily meals.

Each day as he crossed the Plaza of the Moneyers, he would nod respectfully to Geberon’s collection agent, and Vunt would acknowledge the greeting with a grunt or the tiniest dip of his head. One afternoon, as the boy was making his way home, Vunt stopped him with a raised finger.

“Take these,” the man said, holding out two pieces of rolled iron. They were inconsequential in Vunt’s hand, but Baldemar felt their weight when he took them.

“Here’s what you do,” said the man, and he showed Baldemar how to hold his arms still and bend the elbows, a piece of iron in each hand, breathing out as he lifted the weights, breathing in as he lowered them. “Do it ten times, rest while you count to sixty, then do it ten times again, another rest, then ten times more.”

Baldemar did not ask why. He simply said, “Does this place me in your debt again?”

“If you benefit from it, it does.”

They boy nodded and went off with the iron in his book bag. At home, he did the exercises faithfully as he had been shown. At first, he felt some strain in his biceps before he completed the third set of ten, but by the end of two weeks he was doing four sets without difficulty.

Vunt stopped him as he passed the next morning. He bade Baldemar to flex his arms and felt the hardened muscle. “Good,” he said, and showed the boy another exercise that developed the back of the upper arm. “Alternate one set of that with one of the first I showed you.”

“My debt increases,” said Baldemar.

“You could look at it that way,” said Vunt.

As the weeks wore on, Vunt showed him more and different exercises, designed to strengthen the chest, the back, the legs, and the belly. But he never gave him heavier weights to work with, just more repetitions.

The boy lost some of the roundedness of childhood and began to assume the form of the man he would become. “I’ve grown harder,” he told Vunt after several months, “but no bigger.”

“Size can be a disadvantage,” the collector replied. “The thing is to make the most of what you have.” He looked his pupil over and said, “And you’re doing that.”

 

By the time Baldemar was fourteen, he was running errands for Vunt and being paid in bronze pennies and sometimes even a silver half-ducat. He gave the pennies to his mother to help with the housekeeping, but the silver coin he hid in the little closet-sized room that was his sleeping place.

From his toing and froing for Vunt, he gained useful knowledge. Usually, he was sent only to remind someone that a payment was coming due on a debt to Geberon and that the remittance must be delivered on time. But sometimes he was sent to discover the whereabouts of a delinquent borrower, and from those assignments Baldemar learned how to acquire information without disclosing his interest and how to follow someone who did not wish to be followed. He also gained valuable insights into human nature that aged him beyond his years.

It was after using his developing abilities to locate a defaulting debtor who had gone to ground that he earned his second half-ducat. When he came to report, Vunt slid off his stool and said, “Take me there.”

They went through the winding streets and the boy was interested to see that he had an easier progress than usual. Other pedestrians melted aside as Vunt approached. Even carters urged their beasts into gutters to make room for the collector.

They came to the house where the defaulter was hiding, a multistoried but rickety tenement. Vunt said, “You go and wait beside the back door,’ then began to climb the urine-stained steps with a surprisingly quiet tread. Baldemar did as he was told and positioned himself in the back alley, which reeked of refuse and even less savory leavings. He stood beside a narrow door whose lock was hanging loose.

A little time passed then the boy heard a thumping of descending footsteps, two sets and growing louder. Vunt had not told him what to expect but he put the situation together in his mind and, at the precise moment, he stuck his foot out across the doorstep. A man hurtling toward the exit encountered the barrier and went sprawling into the alley. He got to his hands and knees with admirable speed, but Baldemar kicked one wrist out from under him so that he fell flat again.

By now Vunt had squeezed through the narrow doorway and joined the scene. He picked up the man by the back of his jerkin and shook him like a dusty rug. Then he let him fall to the filthy pavement, put a foot on his lower back to hold him still, and said, “This is what you get for making me chase you.”

Still with his foot on the squirming debtor, he stooped and took hold of the man’s left hand, pulled it toward him. Baldemar heard a crack and the man’s scream.

Vunt said, “Tomorrow you come and pay the installment. If not, I will find you and break the other thumb. I’ll think about the elbows overnight.” He took his foot off the man and added, “You should think about them, too.”

 

At fifteen, Baldemar left school and went to work full time for Geberon the Moneyer, whose affairs were thriving. Vunt vouched for him and he was put on a salary with a commission for the routine collections he began making on his own. Occasionally, an assignment was not quite as routine as it ought to have been, and he would resort to some of the methods Vunt had trained him in.

He kept up his daily exercises but had long since increased the weights he used. Still, he did not make the error of constantly raising the poundage. Vunt had taught him that the biggest muscles were not necessarily the strongest.

“You get into a dooley with some big slab of beef, all you got to do is keep away, let him tire himself out punching and rushing. Then you clip him here, or maybe here, and down he goes.”

Baldemar’s mother no longer took in laundry and Master Thwack’s attentions had ceased when Baldemar began to bring home a steady stream of pennies. When he went on salary and commission, he revealed to her his cache of silver half-ducats and ducats, which was enough to move them to a house in a better quarter of Vanderoy, though she still planted cabbages and pumpkins on the roof. “They’re not much work,” she told him, “and they always sell.”

He did not argue with her work ethic and she did not question too closely what he did for the money changer and his brute. The neighbors treated her with respect and she even made some friends with whom she could gossip in the afternoons, after her garden was properly tended.

“You’re a good boy,” she told her son. “It was worth it to send you to school.”

Baldemar could see no connection between his time in Penandink Close and his burgeoning career, except that if he hadn’t had to cross the square leading to it, he would not have encountered Vunt. But he said nothing, just nodded and said, “Yes, Mother,” because he owed her peace of mind.

 

“You see that rope?” Vunt said.

They were passing along an alley behind a row of tenements. Baldemar looked and saw that the tiers of wooden steps intended to be an escape route in the event of a fire had rotted and collapsed. In their place, someone had hung a thick rope, probably a scrap of ship’s rigging, from the cornice that overhung the roof.

“Yes,” he said.

Vunt was already turning into the little yard behind the building, kicking his way through the mounds of debris—including the parts of the steps that had been too rotted to burn as firewood—which had accumulated over the years. When they reached the wall, he said, “Get hold of that, pull yourself up, then stick your legs straight out in front of you.”

Baldemar, as always, did as his mentor required.

“Now,” said the man, “hand over hand to the top, pause there, then down again. But hands only. Keep your legs stuck straight out.”

It was like pulling on a rope to lift something on a pulley, except it was Baldemar who was lifted, until his head almost touched the cornice. He paused there, looking out over the rooftops, and could see all the way to the Duke’s palace. Then he effortlessly descended.

Vunt studied him as he hung from the rope then said, “Put your feet down now. Let’s go.”

They went on with their day. The collector never mentioned the point of the exercise.

 

A month after Baldemar turned sixteen, on a morning like any other, as they were setting out from the booth to perform their routine duties for Geberon, Vunt said, “I have a job for you.”

“All right,” said Baldemar, expecting to be given a collection to make.

But Baldemar said, “Meet me in the alley down the street from the Weeping Mermaid, after dark. And wear your darkest clothing.”

A shiver of anticipation went through the young man. He did his jobs for the day, wondering what adventure his mentor had in mind for him. When night fell, he dressed in black, kissed his mother’s cheek, and set off for the fountain with its lachrymose fish-maiden. Down the hill a few paces he found Vunt waiting for him.

“Come on,” the man said and led him into the deeper dark of the narrow thoroughfare. Not far along, they came to a tall building whose backyard was enclosed by a stone wall topped with iron spikes. A strong gate of the same metal was locked against them, but Vunt produced a key and let them in.

He had a key to the back door as well, and they entered and climbed worn marble steps to the top floor where another key admitted them to a sparsely furnished apartment.

“Is this yours?” Baldemar said. He had never been invited to Vunt’s home.

“In a manner of speaking,” was the answer, “though my name appears on no relevant documents.”

“I see,” the boy said, though he didn’t really.

On the floor in one of the rooms was a long coil of stout rope with a grapnel affixed to one end. Vunt picked it up and said, “Come.”

In a corner stood a ladder and above it in the ceiling was a trapdoor. Vunt climbed the ladder, undid a heavy bolt, and pushed the trap up, laying it silently on the roof outside. He pulled himself through the opening and Baldemar, following, was led to a corner of the building that faced the alley they had just walked along.

“What are we doing?” he said.

“Discharging your debt,” Vunt said.

It was dark on the roof but enough light came down from the stars and leaked up from the trapdoor for the boy to see where the collector pointed: a building of equal height across the alley that was protected by a high stone wall atop which shards of glass glinted faintly in the starlight. As Baldemar peered to make out detail—the building was unlit from within and without—the big man shook out the rope coil, spun it around his head, then flung the grapneled end across the intervening distance. The metal hooks caught on something on the opposite roof, and Vunt pulled the rope taut and snugged it around a heavy spike driven into the lip of the roof they were standing on.

“Now,” said the man, “you will pass along the rope to the window just below it, go into the room, find an item, and bring it back to me.”

“The window is barred,” Baldemar said. He could just make out the lengths of iron.

Vunt hung something around his neck: a cord with a weight attached. The boy touched it—a disk of metal—and the thing tingled his fingertips. “It is a charm,” Vunt said. “Touch it to the bars, to the window’s sash, to the strongbox you will find bolted to the floor. Do not touch your fingertips to any of them—use the joints of your fingers. All that the charm touches will open. Leave everything open and bring me what is in the strongbox.”

“What will that be?”

“Only a key.”

“Whose key?”

The big man hesitated, then said, “Geberon’s.”

“We are stealing from our employer?” For all his experiences among the kind of people who borrowed from the money changer—some of whom he would never have introduced to his mother—Baldemar was shocked. And, now that he though about it, a little afraid.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” he said.

Vunt strummed the taut rope with a finger. “You have been training to do it since the age of ten.”

“I mean—”

“I know what you mean. But know this: Geberon means to up-stakes and move to Nendigo. He has saved enough to buy himself a seat on the fiduciary pool when one comes open next year. You and I will not be going with him. Indeed, in the unlikely event we were to meet him on the steps of the Nendigo Exchange, he would not deign to recognize us.”

“That seems . . . harsh,” the boy said.

“Geberon did not become Geberon by nursing sick kittens,” Vunt said.

“You know this for sure and certain?”

“It has always been his dream. He used to speak of it often. Lately, he does not.”

Baldemar weighed his concerns only briefly. He owed a great deal to Vunt; not so much to their master. “Will he suspect me?”

“No,” said Vunt. “I have thought this through, over a long time. Now, please, go.”

The “please” somehow made the final difference. Baldemar eased over the lip of the roof, seized the rope, and went hand over hand across the gap. It was no more difficult for him than walking the same distance. He reached the window, hung by one hand while he touched the charm to the bars and the sash. One swung open and the other flew up.

The room was dark but the charm glowed with enough light for him to see the strongbox in the middle of the bare floorboards. Baldemar pressed the charm to its lock and it sprang open. Careful not to let his fingers touch anything but the key that was the container’s sole contents, he picked it up and tucked it into his shirt. Only seconds later he was back on the other side of the alley, handing the key to Vunt.

The man accepted it and pressed it into a small box, took it out again, wiped it clean on his shirt, and said, “Now go and put it back where you found it. Touch the charm to box, window, and bars as you return. They will close themselves.”

Baldemar did as he was asked. The whole process took less than a minute. Then Vunt shook the grapnel clear of its grip and re-coiled the rope. “Good work,” he said. “Now I will buy you supper.”

Over a meal in a tavern, the man leaned across the table and said, “In a couple of days, I will find fault with your attitude and dismiss you from Geberon’s service.”

Baldemar’s first instinct was to protest, but he swallowed his objection half-formed. “All right,” he said.

“I have found you a new position, if you want it. With an old associate of mine. Easier work and the pay will be better.” Vunt fixed him with the stare that so many had found daunting. “And you may consider any debt to me to be discharged in full.”

And thus, at sixteen, Baldemar became a wizard’s henchman, junior grade.

 

The wizard’s name was Thelerion, and after his name he added the sobriquet “the Exemplary,” though Baldemar never heard anyone else do so. The youth had little to do with his employer, however; Thelerion stood at the apex of a pyramidal structure of retainers and dogsbodies who maintained their master’s manse and the exotic flora and fauna of its surrounds: cleaning, tending, feeding, weeding, cosseting, nursing, and occasionally recapturing those that made it over, under, or through its walls. Baldemar’s position was at the pyramid’s very base.

“He’s a wizard,” Baldemar asked, early on in his tenure, carrying the ordure of one of the caged beasts to feed the roots of one of the exotic blooms, “so why doesn’t he have all this done by imps or afrits or spells?”

The recipient of this inquiry was Oldo, a senior under-henchman responsible for the estate’s security. He was the old associate of Vunt’s through whom the collector had secured this safe berth for the youth. His response was to seize Baldemar’s throat in a strong, though not dangerous, grip and say, “There are two answers to that question: first, that the master lacks the thaumaturgical powers to do so; second, don’t ask questions like that if you want to keep your place.”

Baldemar knew a Vunt-taught way to remove Oldo’s hand and bring the older man simultaneously to his knees, but he sensed that the throat-seizure was meant kindly—to emphasize the importance of the lesson. So he said, “You’re telling me I can ask how to do my work, but not why it must be done?”

Oldo released his grip and patted him on the cheek. “Vunt said you were a canny one.”

The work was reasonably varied and not onerous, the pay enough that he could send half of it to his mother and still have a few coins to put away at the end of each month. Baldemar had his own small room and ate what the other retainers ate, though he sat so far down the refectory table that any conversation at the far end, where the majordomo and the wizard’s two apprentices reposed themselves on plush-seated chairs, was inaudible to him. Not that he cared; the few remarks among those senior members of staff he had managed to overhear—discussions of fluxive coherence, asymmetrical resonances, and lay-line convergences—were gibberish.

When he reported on his first day, the majordomo had handed him off to Fantance, the third-year apprentice, a sallow, squint-eyed specimen with a too-prominent lower lip. Fantance, overseen by a representative of the Wizards’ Guild, had required Baldemar to perform a number of mental exercises that made no sense at all to the youth. With eyes closed, he was told to listen for tones he could not hear and count objects he could not see or touch. He was told to repeat strings of syllables he could not keep straight in his head.

“Not so much as a tinge,” the apprentice said as he handed Baldemar over to Oldo. “Couldn’t spell his way out of a room with doors in every wall.”

“Good,” said the senior under-henchman as he led the youth to the pens and cages of Thelerion’s menagerie. “You won’t be tempted to try things that are above you. We had a boy like that, couple years back. Ended up with his feet where his hands should be.”

“And vice versa?” Baldemar asked.

“No. We never found his hands.”

 

Nine months into his new position, Oldo approached Baldemar where he was carefully raking out the scattered bones of small animals he had yesterday introduced into the glass case that housed Thelerion’s half-grown got-you-now. This was a carnivorous plant that, in its maturity, would be replanted just inside the estate’s surrounding wall, at a place where an overhanging tree branch invited trespassers to try their luck. The wizard thought it would be a fine joke for an intruder to drop down and brush against the got-you-now’s waiting thorns.

The senior under-henchman looked about to make sure they were alone then spoke softly. “Geberon has been thoroughly robbed,” he said. “And Vunt is fled.”

“Ah,” said Baldemar.

“You’re not likely to be questioned, but best to be prepared.”

“Mmm,” said the youth. “Would you happen to know if magic leaves traces?”

“I would, as it happens,” Oldo said. “Depends on the strength of the charm and its type.”

“Something, say, that can open a window and a strongbox, themselves protected by charms?”

The man cocked his head in thought, pursed his lips a moment, then said, “Three months for sure, six at the utmost.”

“And after, say, nine months?”

“Too faint to identify.”

“Really?” said Baldemar, fishing out a small rib cage. “Imagine that.”

 

Investigators from the Duke’s provost department came to the estate and questioned the youth, but he told them truthfully that he’d had no contact with Vunt since the former collector had decried his work habits and thrown him out of Geberon’s employ. As part of their investigative routine, the provostmen touched a large cabochon to Baldemar’s fingertips and saw it glow a bright green. But Oldo, who in his role as Thelerion’s security chief had insisted on sitting in on the interrogation, pointed out that their master was a thaumaturge of the red school, twenty-eighth degree.

“Your detector will show the same result if applied to anyone on the estate,” he said. “And most of the livestock.”

The provos left. Oldo saw them safely through the perils that stood between the servants’ quarters and the main gate, then came back to Baldemar.

“You kept your cool,” he said.

“Vunt thought some training in misdirection would stand me in good stead.”

“It has. I’m going to recommend to the majordomo that he take you off plant and animal husbandry and make you my assistant.”

And so Baldemar became a junior under-henchman, charged with helping maintain the estate’s defenses. It was work that suited his abilities and paid more. As well, the uniform was smarter, which he appreciated because he now spent some of his leisure time off the estate, in places where young women were known to congregate. He discovered that he cut a passable figure on the dance floor, and by applying himself became expert in the complex steps and postures that were then fashionable. This won him even closer attention from several young women.

On the day he simultaneously celebrated his seventeenth birthday and said farewell to his virginity, he counted himself more than contented with his lot so far. His ten half-pennies had been well invested.

 

A month later, there came word that Vunt had been found living under an assumed name in the city of Syaskal. A squad of Vanderoy provostmen dispatched to bring him back had done so, though not without sustaining injuries. A chest of gold coins and bullion was also recovered and, except for a sample of each to be used as evidence, returned to Geberon. The money changer soon after departed for Nendigo.

Vunt’s trial was a sensation. The Duke himself presided, flanked by his halberdiers. The stands were packed with former delinquent debtors with whom the accused had had dealings, and Vunt’s every entrance, exit, and utterance was accompanied by catcalls and rude sounds. The Duke let these demonstrations run on, far past the point when he would normally call for decorum, as a way to let the populace discharge tensions that might otherwise be directed at their city’s ruler.

Oldo had said that, since the loot had been recovered, he expected the sentence to be two to four years in the Incarcery. Instead, to the cheers of the attendees, who filled the courtroom and spilled out into the plaza beyond, the Duke decreed Vunt would serve ten. Manacled and fettered, the former debt collector was led out to the square where he had once sat beside Geberon’s booth, down through Penandink Close, and up to the back door of the prison. Filthy words and objects rained upon him from the close-pressing crowd, until his halberdier escorts wearied of receiving the near-misses and began to bruise heads with the flats of their ax blades.

Baldemar saw none of this. Thelerion forbade his staff to attend the trial. The thaumaturge gave no explanation for his ban, but the junior under-henchman surmised that it was probably one of the wizard’s charms, obtained through Oldo, that Baldemar had used to breach Geberon’s security and steal the key to his treasure box.

“He’ll be having a busy time in the tank,” Oldo opined when word of the sentencing reached Thelerion’s estate. “Plenty in there with him who have scores to settle, and plenty outside who would pay to have someone mark Vunt’s slate.” He ran a worried hand over his close-cropped pate. “Or wipe it clean.”

“Vunt can handle himself,” Baldemar said.

“Certainly, against two or three. But ten or twelve?”

The matter nagged at the young man as he went about his chores. He recalled how the Incarcery’s wall loomed over the Thwack Academy, which was only one door down from its high, smooth expanse of fire-formed stone. On the other side of the wall, judging by the sounds of lockstep and shouted commands, was the Incarcery’s exercise yard.

Something might be done, he thought, but when he broached the issue with Oldo—phrasing his thought as an innocent question—the older man discouraged him.

“You might get over the wall,” he said, “but then what?”

“Drop a rope ladder?”

Oldo made a face. “They’re only in the yard for an hour a day, and they’re all in it together. The moment your ladder falls, a hundred men would rush to climb it. Vunt is strong, but not quick enough to win that race. Besides, the guards are there with their hooks and cincture-nooses and they know how to use them.”

“At night?”

“They’re locked in their cells, the corridors outside the cells are barred at intervals, and the staircases are guarded.”

“Mmm,” said Baldemar, his agile mind grappling with the images Oldo had put into it.

“Forget it,” his superior said. “Vunt made his choices, now he has to take the weight.” He fixed the young man with a hard stare. “You may feel you owe him, and you may be right. But you don’t owe him the ruin of your life.”

“Mmm,” said Baldemar, nodding. But his mind kept working.

 

Fantance, now in his fifth year of apprenticeship, was not popular with the young women of the neighborhood. He lacked a good appearance and could not compensate for that natural deficiency with an engaging personality, because he was sadly wanting in that department as well. On top of those flaws, the noxious substances with which he routinely worked soaked into his skin so that he trailed a foul odor wherever he went; arm’s length was the closest anyone could stand his presence. Intimacy was out of the question for anyone with a functioning sense of smell.

He had one advantage, however, though it was an unfair and, Baldemar thought, an unseemly one: he could throw a spell that would overcome repulsion and dismiss inhibitions. This the young under-henchman discovered during one of the weekly evening dances at the summer pavilion in the Ducal Park.

The building stood at the center of tract of wooded and meadowed land bestowed upon the people of Vanderoy by the present Duke’s grandfather. There were formal gardens but also secluded bowers and grottos where couples who found each other agreeable on the dance floor could test their compatibility in allied pursuits. On this night, Baldemar had danced several measures with a number of partners—he was always in demand—and stepped out onto the covered porch to cool himself.

A pale-stoned walkway led down from the porch steps, lit by torches at intervals until it met a copse of trees that offered privacy to those whose activities required it. As the young man stood at the top of the steps, he saw a young woman emerge from under the boughs and walk with a not entirely steady gait toward the hall. As she stumbled through the glow of torchlight, he saw that her clothing was disarranged and there was a blankness to her gaze that put him in mind of a sleepwalker. When she slowly mounted the steps and passed him without a glance, she trailed an unmistakable odor.

A few moments later, Fantance emerged from the bower, adjusting his garments and brushing some evergreen needles from his elbows. Baldemar stepped back into a shadowed part of the porch and observed as the apprentice passed the pavilion and made for the exit that would take him out of the park in the direction of Thelerion’s estate.

The next day, as he and Oldo went about their duties, he asked his superior, “Does our master set guidelines for the use of magic by his apprentices?”

“Of course,” was the answer. “The Guild requires it.”

“Such as what?”

Oldo rubbed his bristly scalp. “No magic off the premises. No spells cast without a proper entry in the apprentice book, noting type, place and time, intent and effect. The usual.”

“What would happen to an apprentice who used his powers to seduce one of the kitchen girls here on the estate?”

“Purely for his personal gratification?” Oldo blew out a puff of air. “Instant dismissal, revocation of all points earned toward a journeymanship. Possibly a facial tattooing.”

“And if the victim was the respectable daughter of a townsman who, say, went to a dance at the summer pavilion and was conjured into the bushes?”

Now the older man sucked in his breath and pursed his lips. “The Guild would take a strong view against. The punishment would be . . . memorable.” He shook his head and grimaced at the thought. “Though not for the miscreant, unless it’s possible for his shade to carry memories into the Underworld. Some say that is the case, the better to torment transgressors with useless remorse.”

“Mmm,” said Baldemar.

“Are we speaking hypothetically?” said Oldo.

The young man was silent for a moment, then said, “So far. But I am thinking of Vunt and his predicament.”

“Ah,” said Oldo, “then we should defer this conversation until we are well off the estate.”

 

“Vunt!” Baldemar said. He shook the sleeping man’s shoulder, the cloth of the thin prison blanket visibly indenting under his unseeable hand.

The prisoner came instantly alert, sat up, peered around, said, “Baldemar?” in a soft voice. Then, seeing himself alone in his cell, sighed and said, “But a dream.”

“No dream,” whispered the young man. “Get up, get dressed, we’re going.”

Vunt’s head turned toward the sound of the voice. “Magic?” he said. “They told me you had no talent for it.” He was pulling on his shirt and now reached for his trousers.

“They were right. But I have other talents . . . developed through a very good teacher.”

Vunt pulled on his prison shoes, laced them up, and stood. “Now what?”

“Hold out a hand, fingers spread.” When the man did so, Baldemar slipped a ring over one of the fingers. “Now you’re unseeable, too, except I can see you as a pale shape.”

“And I you.”

The door to the cell was unlocked. They exited and Baldemar closed it behind them. They did the same with the barred gate at the end of the gallery, which swung wide at the young man’s touch, as did the solid door with its thick glass insert at the bottom of the steps. Here, a guard sat at a desk, his eyes open though his mind was wrapped in a dream of normality.

Moments later, they crossed the prison yard and climbed a rope ladder they pulled up behind them and lowered for their descent down the other side of the wall. Baldemar shook it loose and rolled it up, then looked about him at the once-familiar confines of Penandink Close. He led Vunt to the entrance to the plaza where Geberon’s booth once stood.

“Here is where we met,” he said, “where my life changed. And here is where we say goodbye. Take this purse. There is a boat tied up to the wharf were we used to duck recalcitrant debtors in the river.”

“Magic leaves a signature,” Vunt said, tucking the purse inside his shirt. “They will trace the one who threw the spells, and through him they will find you.”

“Wizards know that there are other worlds than this, and a fifth-year apprentice knows how to reach one without leaving a trail. Fantance is already long gone, and the Guild will be told enough to discourage them from bringing him home to their own embarrassment.” Baldemar looked up at the clock tower on the far side of the plaza.  “Now you must go, too. The spells will not last past dawn.”

“They will wonder why Fantance helped me.”

“Yes, they will. Oldo and I will put forward some interesting hypothetical explanations.”

Vunt laughed and said goodbye. Baldemar watched the pale shadow disappear among the empty booths of the Plaza of the Moneyers.

“Now,” he said to the empty square, “the debt is discharged.”

 

 

 

 

This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.


Matthew Hughes

I'm writing fantasy and science fiction, often in a Jack Vance mode.

1 Comment
  • Jaycroft
    October 5, 6:31am

    A great read from one of my favorite authors. I loved the way the friendship between Baldemar and Vunt became apparent in a wonderfully indirect way.

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