“You want to sell this?”
Standing in the middle of their shop’s storeroom, Quicksilver stared at the goods with a thoroughly perplexed expression. On the floor, in a dozen baskets lined with straw, lay piles of objects with most unusual shapes. Some were utilitarian, some decorative, but they all related to the same subject with an astonishing level of creativity. The images of carnal union took on every imaginable form. The depictions of male and female attributes ranged from the most realistic to the most stylised, going through all the symbolics, with many flowers, fruit, vegetables, fish and shells.
“It was Old Stump’s collection,” said Mahogany with pride. “She died last week. I met her nephew at the baths and convinced him to entrust us with the sale.”
“Really? I heard many of her political rivals had died prematurely. I would have rather thought she has been collecting poisons...”
“Stop speaking ill of the dead. It brings bad luck.”
The young woman patted her black hair, tightly coiled on the top of her head.
“You’re right. Business is business. Do you think we’ll be able to get much for it? Sandalwood is the one with expertise in these kinds of antiques. She has her contacts… Some potential clients wouldn’t even dare to come to our shop.”
Her partner made a meaningful frown. “Well, I have been thinking for a while about expanding our range. Opportunities like this don’t come up very often.”
“Yes, but still, it requires some preparation…”
“I have a plan. I talked to Parrot, the poet. He’ll help us attract prospective buyers. We are going to organise an evening for some hand-picked literati. He’ll give a talk on the mystical meanings of the games of love in the ancient philosophy of the Old Empire. I’ll also invite a priestess of the Fertility Goddess. She’ll explain the ritual use of certain objects. Afterward, there will be a little debate. It’ll be the most serious cultural event of the year. All the learned people of the City will come here to discuss the philosophical implications of one love position or another. Then, the most respectable citizens will come to visit our shop in broad daylight!”
Quicksilver pulled a skeptical frown. “If you say so… And what do you plan to pay Parrot for his trouble?”
“I promised him a book of his choice.”
There was a discreet knock at the front door. Quicksilver turned towards the sound.
“Who’s calling? We’re not open yet!”
“That must be him. I promised him a first look at the collection, so that he can choose his book.”
“By the nascent horns of the Golden Calf, I have never seen him up so early!”
The poet was indeed at the door, looking a little disheveled as usual, but perfectly sober. He rummaged expertly through the pile of books, before extracting one and stuffing it in his pocket.
“So, which ones are you thinking of presenting at the event?” asked Mahogany.
“We could start with ‘The Aphorisms of Desire,’” replied Parrot. “A great classic and most consensual.” He tapped the gilded back of a thick volume. “Here you have a copy signed by the great courtesan Red Orchid.” He then pulled out a small, scuffed book: “‘The Thousand Virtues of Ecstasy’ would be nice to add a little controversy.”
“‘The Practice of the Thirty-six Sacred Positions’…” mumbled Quicksilver as she leafed through a worn codex. “My back hurts just by reading the introduction! I did not know you were knowledgeable in this kind of work, Master Parrot.”
“A true scholar must have a broad general culture. What’s this?”
He was holding a small book, bound in lizard skin. The edge was blackened. The first page displayed a couple in a convoluted erotic pose, languid, as if exhausted by the effort they had to make to put themselves into this position. He flipped through it with interest.
“Well, I would say here you have something very rare.”
“Really?” asked Quicksilver.
“It looks like a copy of ‘The Midnight Flowers.’”
“Never heard of it. Is it a well-known work?”
“Only to a specialist. It was a collection of erotic sonnets by Golden Voice. He wasn’t a great poet, technically, but the only one who dared to write such poems at the time of The Great Righteousness in the Three Cities. As with his other writings, he distributed them in secret, and was lucky enough to die from a bout of swamp fever the day he was due to be arrested. Of course, their Guardians of Purity destroyed most of his work. Only two copies of this book remained, one in the Great Library of the Old Empire and one in the library of the Jade Philosopher, until a fire destroyed his house.”
The poet examined the pages. Their edges were clearly blackened by fire.
“Looks like it was saved from the fire after all...”
“It’s not a fake, is it?” asked Mahogany.
“Er… I’m not an expert, unfortunately. However this book is not very well known. Personally, I have only heard about it because I visited the Great Library a few years ago. As I said, it’s not a very valuable piece of literature. What’s more, this copy is not even supposed to exist.”
“Fantastic,” exulted the antique dealer. “‘A very rare volume saved from the pyre’… Exactly what we need.”
There was another knock on the front door. It opened without waiting for an answer, and Sandalwood, their neighbour, burst into the shop. She ran the special interest antique shop around the corner. Quicksilver realised a little late that she’d forgotten to put the lock back on after Parrot entered. As usual, the old woman headed straight for the storeroom.
“Hi youngsters, could you lend me some turpentine?” She stopped dead in front of the baskets. The two partners exchanged an embarrassed look. “Hum… you’ve pretty things here but nothing really extraordinary… except maybe this and… my word, it’s the Ivory Tower!”
She pointed at an oblong object, about eight inches long, in the shape of a circular tower topped by a dome. On the walls were depicted the Seven Gods of Pleasure embracing their consorts in voluptuous poses. She came close, lifted it carefully, and examined it with her short-sighted gaze.
“That’s it, all right. Nice specimen. It belonged to Queen Night Storm. It’s worth 2,000 golden ronals at the very least.” She scrutinised the rest: “This looks like a royal virility ring from the Red Island… some ritual balls of the Fertile Goddess… some more interesting pieces… where on Earth did you find all that?”
“Ahem, it so happens that an old friend of Mahogany has just inherited the whole lot and insisted that he handles the sale,” harried Quicksilver.
“But we would love to have your expert opinion,” added her partner, holding out the jar of turpentine. “For your usual percentage, of course.”
The antique dealer nodded.
“No problem. I’ll come over to take a closer look this evening.”
Once their colleague had left, Mahogany breathed a sigh of relief and resumed: “Let’s move on to the practicalities. I was thinking of doing the event on Thursday. Light food, refreshments, quality wine, of course. Nothing pretentious. A party of between twenty and thirty people, so they can fit comfortably in your atrium.”
“My atrium? Does it have to take place at my home?” Quicksilver asked.
“Well… you’re a respectable family mother. For me, everyone knows I’m a hopeless party animal. You’ll give off a better image. Don’t worry, I'll help you…”
The space reverberated with the contained hubbub of polite conversation, soft laughter and tinkling dishes. Quicksilver gave one last smile to the attractive architect she’d noticed earlier in the evening and reluctantly came back to her hostess duties. Mahogany was speaking with the High Priestess of the Way of The Illumination, a religion on the rise in the City. The young woman was talking with animation, no doubt seeking one more conversion. Quicksilver helped herself to a glass of wine. She leaned back against the wall, near the archway leading to the front door, and took a sweeping look around the atrium. She allowed herself a little sigh of satisfaction. She had made it. It felt like a century ago, the day when she came to the City as a little barbarian slave with her baby on her back. Or even the days when she used to scale the walls of wealthy mansions to steal the same trinkets she now sold in her shop. Now she had everything she wanted: money and a good life in the City she loved. She spent her days examining, buying and selling ancient art. Her evenings were filled with discussions with philosophers and poets, and she was beautiful enough to get attentive lovers to occupy her nights. She had buried her rough temper under a thick veneer of sophistication and enjoyed to the full the pleasures of life.
There was only one shadow in the picture: her son had refused to stay by her side, to learn the role of the gracious host. An evening talking about art! It was utterly boring. Wise had mumbled he promised earlier to visit a friend and fled long before the first guests arrived.
Mahogany, who had managed to get rid of the priestess, was now talking with two actors. Actually, the woman of faith had a strange look on her face. She was leafing through a little book. She glanced furtively around and slipped it into her sleeve before sailing to the door.
Quicksilver saw red. But how to recover her property without causing a scandal? She was within her rights to confront the thief, but this kind of incident was bad for business. She caught sight of the little table on which she had just put her cup of wine. With the tip of her foot, she pushed it on the path of the priestess as she passed under the archway. She hit it hard, lost her balance and waved desperately her hands before toppling over. The book fell out of her sleeve and landed on the carpet, three paces ahead.
The guests gathered around the unfortunate, offering appropriate comments. No one noticed the small volume, even the priestess, still in shock from her social faux pas. Quicksilver was about to rush into her role as the sympathetic hostess, when her son’s tall, gangly frame appeared in the entrance. The boy distractedly stepped on the precious volume. Quicksilver managed to refrain from screaming for the thirtieth time since day rise:
“Can’t you pay attention to what you’re doing?”
Instead, she gave him her most maternal smile and made him bow to kiss him on the forehead before saying in a calm voice:
“My darling, raise your left foot, you are stepping on an extremely rare work.”
Wise knew this tone well. He quickly lifted the aforementioned foot and looked on the ground, at the copy of ‘The Midnight Flowers’.” His mother picked up the wounded book, dusted it off and went to put it back among the others, whispering to Mahogany and the butler to keep an eye on the priestess.
At that moment, she met Ebony’s imploring gaze. The ship owner’s expression seriously alarmed her. A few days later, he was to set sail for the Old Empire with two of her precious vases for an important client. He went straight to her and said in a barely audible whisper:
“Can I talk to you of a very personal matter?”
She motioned for him to follow. They sneaked through the crowd to her office. There she filled two tiny glasses with her best nectar. The man swallowed a sip, and paused for a long moment, but under her empathic gaze, he cleared his throat and began:
“Don’t repeat this. It’s an extremely delicate issue…”
“By all the Gods, Ebony, do you have money troubles? I can help you with no problem and—”
“It’s not about that… Business is going well, may the Golden Calf be thanked. No, it’s about my wife…”
Quicksilver made a discreet sigh. Ebony’s wife was much younger than him and from a modest family. When they got married a few months before, everyone had agreed that she was after his money.
“You see,” he continued in a barely audible voice, “she… she’s insatiable when it comes to love… she wants to do it all the time, once, twice, even three times a night, sometimes in broad daylight… she exhausts me! It can be very pleasant of course… but I can’t take it anymore! I would like to spend a few evenings in peace and quiet with a good book… or even a simple conversation… It is only when she has her scarlet flowers that I have a few days of peace, but then she throws herself at me with a redoubled appetite! So, I thought about you: you dabble with potions in your spare time, could you make one for me?”
“You want a potency potion?”
“No, no, I think I’m in good health on my side… What I need is a potion to calm her down!”
Quicksilver struggled to keep a straight face. “Um… this kind of behavior is not unusual at the beginning of a marriage… You know, a lot of men would envy you!”
“They don't know what they are talking about. Do you have a potion that would do the trick?”
“Frankly, I think you are making a mountain out of a molehill. Talk to her, explain you love her, but you’re a little tired. Business is very hectic at the moment… and then, offer the refined pleasure of conversation…”
“No, no! How could I do such a thing? She would find a lover and…”
She patted her chin. “Are you saying the woman you have just married doesn’t have much affection for you?”
“Oh, no! I know she loves me dearly. I don't want to disappoint her. I want to remain the perfect man she met. I’m… I’m not young anymore. Sometimes I wonder if this marriage was a good idea… Besides, you know that I’m sailing to the Old Empire for several months. How will she do without me? She’ll probably take two dozen lovers! I’ll be the laughingstock of the City! Is there a potion which…”
She repressed an irritated gesture. Men never knew what they wanted. Even Ebony, who was a cross between wolf and fox when it came to business. She had always found it surprising that the City’s sophisticated laws allowed them to choose their wives. In her own barbarian nomadic tribe, this would have been unthinkable. There, they were only allowed to do two things on their own: hunt and war, and for the latter, only after the Council had clearly explained who the enemy was. But Ebony had been a long-time friend. They had shared their funds when they had laboriously set up their business. At that time, he was perhaps a little less pretentious… so, she started to explain, in that slightly pedantic tone which her friends found so irritating:
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. I suppose you have read the writings of the Healer of the Golden Mountain, like many people here. He postulated that the seat of desire in women was in their womb. However, he had abstained from carnal trade during his entire life and could only speculate. On the contrary, The Mage of the Silver River had made a series of practical demonstrations which proved beyond doubt that the seat of desire in a woman is in her mind. It is therefore impossible to extinguish it without plunging her into sleep. I am afraid there is no way to calm your wife’s ardor while keeping her awake.”
“Couldn’t you put her to sleep for a little while then? Just for, say… two days? I’d love to take a breather.”
“No way, Ebony. Don’t you think you’re going a bit far?”
“Please, Quicksilver. I need help. I don’t know how I’m going to make it until my departure. Find something!”
“Just tell her you have to work late.”
“She can wait for me all night long!”
“Tell her you’re sick, then.”
“She won’t let me out of bed, and she will stuff me with homemade potions. She’ll send for the doctor and he’ll soon realise that I’m in perfectly good health!”
“Hmm… let me think for a moment.”
Ebony stared at her, full of hope. She poured him a fresh cup of nectar and sipped hers silently for a few minutes. She would have helped him out with a difficult transaction without hesitation, but his marital problems were a different kind of fish. Moreover, she knew he would not follow any reasonable advice in this area. An idea crossed her mind. It may not have been the best one, but it was the only one she had at this late hour. She put down her cup.
“It seems to me that you are looking at the problem from the wrong angle. You’re sailing in less than three weeks. You should be able to satisfy your wife for that time. You won’t be seeing each other for months, so I would advise you, on the contrary, to make the most of these last few days. In fact, if I were you, I would be much more concerned about what will happen once you are gone.”
“No problem, I have acquired a charm to keep men at a distance.”
She rolled her eyes. “There are counter-charms for that… So, what will you do if she takes a lover? Or a dozen, as you say? Maybe there can be an arrangement whereby she can replace you without harming anyone…”
“What do you mean?”
“One of the artifacts in the collection we are selling once belonged to Queen Night Storm. This woman had sworn eternal fidelity to her husband. Unfortunately, he died very young. She used it for a long time in memory of him and never remarried or took a lover. It has the shape of a tower symbolizing a male organ. The faces are covered with sculptures representing gods in the most evocative positions. It is a very elegant object…”
“Do you want me to give this to my wife? But that’s unthinkable!”
“Why? Coral Coast women routinely use similar instruments when their husbands and lovers are at sea.”
“It’s… it’s unseemly! And besides, it would be confessing my weakness.”
“It depends on how you present it. You could—”
“No, that’s enough! I will bear my misfortunes like a man.”
The evening was a success. The following days brought a refined clientele who admired the graceful curves of the Gods of Pleasure, the work of chased gold on the statue of the Spark of Creation and the complexity of the filigrees on the tiara of the Goddess Horizon embracing the raising sun. Half of the collection was sold in a fortnight.
Sitting at her workbench, Quicksilver was holding her latest acquisition with thick leather gloves: a three-hundred-year-old kriss from the Thousand Islands. The mineral poison coating the blade was as fast and lethal as on the first day. It would take a good week to remove it without damaging the niello. As she prepared her mixtures, she listened absentmindedly to the noises of the shop and thought about her previous night with the handsome architect.
She perceived more than heard the change of atmosphere in the front room, the slightly quivering intonation of the eldest clerk and finally Mahogany:
“Councillor Victorious, it’s a great honor!”
A male, controlled, musical voice replied, “Good Day, Master Mahogany. I heard that you have put Old Stump’s collection up for sale. She was a great friend of mine. My mentor, so to speak… I would like to buy something as a keepsake…”
Quicksilver carefully put the kriss away, took off her gloves and opened the door: indeed, the politician himself was standing at the counter. He was the rising star of the City Council. It was whispered that he was preparing to run for the supreme magistracy the following year. In the meantime, he was showing great zeal and empathy. He never went out without his personal guard of warrior slaves, and the four burly, dour and tattooed men were taking up a lot of space in the shop. The other customers looked at him with admiration or disgust. Either way, he was the center of attention and was delighted.
Mahogany beamed. “Of course! Do you have any preference?”
“Um… Now that I think about it… the last time I saw Old Stump, she had in her hand a book of poems, a little volume bound in lizard skin with an edge that looked burnt…”
“Ah, ‘The Midnight Flowers’! Of course!”
Mahogany looked around the shelves. Then he went to the storeroom, to his office, searched everywhere, questioned the clerks…
Very embarrassed, he came back to Victorious:
“Your Excellency, I am sorry. It must have been misplaced, but I am sure we will find it soon. Unless you wish to take something else?”
The politician’s smile seemed a little forced. “Oh, well that memory of Old Stump holding this book is so vivid that I don’t want anything else. Here, I’ll reserve it. I’ll pay you half its price, but please don’t sell it to anyone else.”
Mahogany bowed. “Naturally, Your Excellency. My apologies again.”
The councillor left with his retinue.
Quicksilver came out of the storeroom and whispered into her partner’s ear. “Are you sure nobody stole anything after that night? This book is small and easy to hide…”
“No, I’m sure I saw it afterwards. I should have been careful, but I had my eye on more expensive items…”
At that moment, a clerk waved to them. A gentleman from the Three Cities, over six feet tall, was leaning against the counter. He wore fine clothes and his beard was freshly trimmed and coated with ointments. However, something in the way he moved slightly disturbed Quicksilver.
Mahogany bowed. “What can we do for your service, my lord?”
“I hear you have a rare copy of ‘The Midnight Flowers,’” uttered the man with a strong accent. I want to take it back to my country, where it came from.”
“Um. It has already been booked and—”
“I raise the bid.”
“Unfortunately, this is not the custom here,” said Quicksilver in her most apologetic tone.
The man’s eyebrows met above his nose.
“The buyer is a very important person,” her partner hastened to add. “We can’t break the sale. Perhaps would you be interested in something else?”
He turned on his heels and walked out.
She shook her head and went back to the kriss, wondering why that little book was in such great demand. She was running through the episode of the priestess, when the imposing figure of Ebony appeared in the doorway. He had bags under his eyes. Another lively night.
“I have changed my mind. I’m ready to try that thing you told me about.”
“At last! You should introduce it to her as a gift from a loving, caring husband. Tell her about the edifying example of the Queen Night Storm and the women of the Coral Coast.”
“By the way, how much?”
“For you… let’s say 1,700 golden ronals.”
“Ebony, I don’t sell junk in this shop! Sandalwood estimated it at 2,000 and it’s a royal implement!”
The merchant breathed a sigh. “Agreed.”
She went to the shop and looked around the shelves.
“Mahogany, have you seen the Ivory Tower?”
“Uh… I sold it two hours ago.”
“By the Horse Goddess! How unfortunate! And to whom?”
He leaned close to her ear. “To the High Priest of the Golden Calf.”
“That’s right. The transaction took place discreetly, in the office.”
“Who would have thought it? The austere Patrician!”
“After the success of our collection, perhaps he thinks of it as a good investment?”
Quicksilver returned to Ebony with a sigh.
“Unfortunately, it has just been sold.”
He made a dismayed face.
“Hmm… You can get a similar object in the Wine and Pleasure District,” she added hastily. “For much less.”
“Are you crazy? What will my little butterfly say if I offer her a vulgar piece of wood sold by cheap women? And it will touch her most delicate parts! I’m sure she will refuse to use it... And I don’t want to be seen in that neighbourhood in broad daylight. How would I look?”
“You’re right… You know, maybe Patrician would agree to sell you that thing…”
“Enough. I’m leaving with the tide tomorrow anyway.”
Quicksilver walked home deeply troubled. Ebony was going to make it through one more night, but by the Mother of All Gods, where was that little book? If so many people were after it, perhaps its disappearance was no accident. However, this obscure series of poems was far from being the most precious item of the collection. She was missing something. With a sigh, she pushed open the door of her house. A little divine intervention would be very welcome. The next day she would pay a visit to the Golden Calf. She had promised Him a tenth of her profits for the year. It was time to honor her pledge. Perhaps He would ease her troubles?
She was taking off her sandals when her maid came to inform her that a visitor had been waiting. It was Master Calculus, the head of her son’s school. The old man had the serious face he put on for grave occasions. After courteous greetings, he got straight to the point: “Mistress Quicksilver, I think you can guess the purpose of my visit.”
She sighed. “Indeed. What has my son done this time?”
“Nothing, unfortunately. He hasn’t attended school for three days. He was seen hanging around the port and going out to sea with fishermen.”
“Thank you for letting me know. I’ll have a word with him right away.”
“Um… if I may… it is useless to talk to him when you are angry. It will have no effect. He is at an age where children like to rebel. On the other hand, um… Maybe you should think seriously about his future. I know you are considering a career as a scribe, but if it goes against his nature, no good will come out of it.”
The old master stood up. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Once again, talk to him when your mind has rested.”
Quicksilver sat down and drank a large bowl of tea to calm herself. Talk to him! In her distant nomadic tribe, she would probably have already broken something on his skull. Preferably something hard and heavy, like a jug or a tent pole. These civilised ways were useless. But the old man was right. She would never make a scholar out of him. Even a merchant… He was incapable of calculating proportions! What was she going to do with that child? Why did she call him Wise? Well, she would start by telling him to go back to school. Then they would have a serious conversation in a few days’ time. In any case, she would speak with calm and poise.
She went to knock with authority at his bedroom door. A grunt was the only reply. She opened the door and went in, nearly tripping on the astrolabe on the floor.
“Master Calculus told me you haven’t been in school for three days. You have been seen hanging around the harbour.”
The boy was staring through the window open to the night.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“I’ve already told you. I don’t like school. It’s all dusty stuff I have to parrot all day long. The port is fascinating… There are sailors from the Red Island who told me—”
“You talked to sailors from the Red Island? Do you know they use to earn small change by kidnapping reckless people like you and selling them as slaves? What were you thinking?”
“I knew you were going to yell at me again! You can’t understand!”
At that moment, her gaze fell on a small book on the corner of the table.
“By the Mother of All Gods, what’s this?”
She picked it up: it was ‘The Midnight Flowers.’ Wise turned bright red.
“Oh, that? Um… I just borrowed it, the other day… The illustrations are um… interesting.”
Without pausing to think, Quicksilver brought the book down on her offspring’s head.
“By the Seven Hells, what sacrilege have I committed to be saddled with such a child? It can have been only in a previous life, because in this one I did nothing to deserve such a punishment!”
Wise rubbed his head, more upset than in genuine pain.
“I haven’t damaged your precious book! You only think about money, don’t you?”
She went out and slammed the door shut before being tempted to repeat her move again. It was not something to be inflicted on such a venerable book.
She sat at her desk and poured herself a shot of cane liquor, which she downed in one gulp. By all the Gods, what had she done wrong in bringing up her son? She had always been careful not to spoil him, despite her fortune. Not to be too strict. Not to impose her tastes on him. And now all he could do all day long was to go fishing!
She breathed out a long sigh. She’d gone through enough emotion for the day. The next morning, she would go and pray. She put the book in her desk drawer.
On the way to the temple, she looked at her son’s problem under seventeen different angles. Her own mother had never had this kind of concerns: she had entrusted her sons from a very young age to her brothers, who took them hunting or tending to the cattle. They only came home in the evening, dirty and tired, wolfed down whatever she put in their bowls without a word and fell asleep with no discussion. No doubt her mother would have said that Wise wasn’t getting enough exercise.
What’s more, all he thought about was traveling… When he wasn’t wandering around the port listening to sailors’ tales, he was avidly reading all the travel books he could get his hands on. Actually, now that she thought about it… When she had been eighteen, hadn’t she loved hanging around on the quays herself? Not just to listen to tall stories, but also to admire the athletic shapes of some of the sailors? And as for traveling, hadn’t she crossed the Continent herself, at fourteen, to follow a mage? Her own mother had given her blessing. She had enjoined her to always behave with honor and never have children with a rogue. As a respectful daughter, she had always stuck to these rules. No wonder Wise has itchy feet. It was in the blood…
Quicksilver entered the Temple. At this early hour, it was almost empty. The first thing she saw was Ebony’s solid back, bowed in prayer. She coughed discreetly: “Are you still here? I thought you had to sail this morning.”
“That’s why I’m praying! The crew is already a bit short, but on top of that, one sailor broke his leg when he came home drunk as a cow and another one disappeared. Must still be sleeping it off somewhere. So, the captain is trying to find men to replace them.”
“That should be easy.”
“That’s where you’re wrong! It’s getting more and more difficult to recruit a decent crew here! Young people think that being a sailor is too tiring. But we need to leave tomorrow, one way or another, otherwise the wind could change.”
“Good luck,” she whispered. “I’m sure your wife will be pleased to have you for one more night.”
“Don’t talk to me about it. I’m starting to think I need a charm or a talisman. I won’t manage without supernatural help!”
While Ebony implored the Golden Calf to find him some providential crew and strength, the young woman headed toward the corridor which led to the back of the temple, where the offices were. To her great surprise, no priest was posted at the entrance to the corridor. She cleared her throat loudly. There was no answer. She took a few steps, perplexed, when she saw Thrifty—the second priestess of the Golden Calf—on the stairs to her left. Thrifty bore a worried expression on her stern face. Quicksilver smiled.
“Good morning, Very Wise.”
“Don’t stay here, Mistress Quicksilver!”
“Uh… I brought you the donation I had pledged: 1,000 golden ronals.”
“Ah…” The priestess hesitated for a moment, but the call for money overcame her apprehension. “Come along.”
Quicksilver went up the stairs, more and more perplexed with each step.
“What’s going on, Very Wise?”
“Well, don’t repeat this.” whispered Thrifty, ushering Quicksilver into her office. “Patrician has been behaving very strangely for the last few hours. We think he’s possessed by a spirit.”
“Hm, that is indeed a problem. Spirits usually seek to express an emotion. Is it a serious emotion, like anger?”
“Er… it must be a very unusual spirit. He is throwing himself at any woman he sees, making very direct proposals, even trying to match his words with action. We tried to lock him up, but he escaped and he is now prowling somewhere within the temple. We haven’t found him yet. We have sent for an exorcist, but she is on the other side of the City.”
Quicksilver squeezed the talisman she was wearing around her neck, as though it would protect her from curiosity, which, like a weed, was sprouting in her mind. A scientific curiosity that she had given up at the same time as the practice of sorcery, but which still tormented her on occasions. She had met aggressive, poets or sadistic spirits, but never a lecherous one.
Thrifty opened the account book. The antique dealer was rummaging through her satchel, looking for her purse, when the priestess let out a piercing cry. Quicksilver raised her head and saw her running away through the back door. She turned around with a sigh. There, in front of her, stood the High Priest of the Golden Calf himself. Only he didn’t look at all like the Patrician that she knew. His aristocratic face had a lewd smile, and there was a noticeable bulge under his purple tunic.
“Pretty gazelle, come here and quench the fire that has been burning me for centuries!”
“I’m sorry, Spirit, but not only am I not in a playful mood, but you are not attractive at all within this body.”
“There’s never a bad time for this kind of game, and you’ll see, I’ll make you feel so good that you will forget all about this shameful envelope!”
“I’m afraid not. I would rather you told me how you got here.”
“That’s simple. This man fondled the Goddess of Pleasure’s breasts on the Ivory Tower, which was my prison for three hundred years. All that time without a single embrace, it was awful!”
“Hm… is it true that it belonged to Queen Night Storm?”
“Of course! A lustful woman, if ever there was one, not like all these pompous priestesses here! Every night I entered the body of one of her guards…”
“Ah! That explains her legendary celibacy.”
“Please, come here! You won’t be disappointed, I promise! I am a spirit, I have much more stamina and experience than an ordinary human, and—”
“No way. But… Perhaps we could come to some arrangement, if you promise not to do anything silly.”
“Yes, one of my friends needs a little… help in your area of expertise. If you do exactly what I say, not only will you have a very pleasant night, but I will break this tower which is keeping you prisoner. What do you say?”
“Yes… What do I have to do?”
“It’s easy. Come with me.”
With a great sigh of satisfaction, Quicksilver pushed open the door of her shop. The Golden Calf was definitely a most benevolent deity, capable of solving the most diverse problems.
“I’ve found ‘The Midnight Flowers’!” she whispered to Mahogany.
“Phew! Where was it?”
“Wise had taken it. He liked the illustrations! By all the Gods, what am I going to do with him!”
He smiled. “That seems quite normal to me. What did you do when you were sixteen?”
“I was pregnant with him.”
“You see,” he chuckled. “One is always interested in those things at that age. But I have a surprise for you: the priestess of the Way of The Illumination, you remember, the one who stole this book, is waiting for you in the office.”
“Huh? What does she want?”
“She didn’t say. Apologise, maybe?”
“A priestess? Apologise?”
“Before you go there, where is the book?”
“I left it at home. It’s too late to send it to Victorious, anyway. I’ll bring it back tomorrow.”
She took a deep breath and the ritual tea before opening the office door, all her senses on high alert. She bowed politely on the threshold. The priestess was sitting behind the low table at the centre of the room and greeted her with a blessing. Quicksilver put the tray on the table and started to pour the drink.
“It’s terribly hot, isn’t it?” she asked. “But I understand you are from the Southern Continent. You must be used to it. Would you like some lemon with your tea?”
“Oh no, my dear. Back there we had a delicious sea breeze which blows all the time. Yes, a slice, please.”
“To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”
“Well, you know that our creed just recently came to this City. We have built a temple, a modest building, near the Lagoon Quarter, but we are not an ostentatious religion. However, we would like to help the many poor folk in the area. Especially, there are a lot of abandoned children hanging around. We have decided to build a shelter for them.”
Quicksilver went to pick up the lemon on the sideboard, her eye on the copper surface of the vase standing in the middle. It proved to be a good idea. As quick as a flash, the priestess took a tiny vial from her sleeve, and emptied it into the young woman’s bowl. Quicksilver returned with the lemon.
“In short, you would like a donation?”
“Indeed. Within your means, of course…”
“I think I could part with a dozen golden ronals.”
“That is extraordinarily generous.”
“I believe in staying in the good books of all the divinities. Business is difficult right now. You never know which god might be in a position to favor your transactions. However, I am a little obsessive about paperwork… Would you mind signing a receipt?”
“Of course not! You are very organised, Mistress Quicksilver. Incidentally, I have heard nothing but good things about you.”
The antiquarian went to her desk near the wall, got out her accounting book and opened it.
“If you please…”
The priestess rose gracefully from the low table and came to bend over the pages. With the tip of her foot, Quicksilver turned the tray behind her so the two bowls switched position.
“So, you were telling me,” she said, while the priestess was returning to her place, “you were going to builda shelter. Have you already found a place for that?”
The priestess took a sip from her bowl.
“Well, a very good man has promised us a plot of land.”
“That’s really very commendable. I’m always surprised to see the number of people with kind hearts, deep down.”
The priestess’s eyelashes began to flutter.
“And now, tell me what you really came here for?” Quicksilver asked sharply.
“‘The Midnight Flowers,’” answered the holy woman in a monotone voice, her face expressionless.
“The hidden incantation.”
“Hidden in the book? Not in the metaphysical sense?”
“Yes, written on one of its pages.”
“And uh… what do you want to do with it?”
“Summon the demon who will destroy our enemies… Exterminate the worshippers of false gods… Purify the face of the world from all the ungodly. Then everyone will see the radiance of the Way of The Illumination.”
“Ah… and, uh… how could the incantation be in this book? They’re erotic poems, aren’t they?”
“It is hidden there. We will find it.”
“Very well. Now you will forget all about this conversation. We have discussed your plans, and I have made a small donation. Moreover, this book is an abomination, and it is out of question for worshippers of the Way of The Illumination to have any dealings with a demon of any kind. The world will stay impure a little longer, but the glory of converting it will be all the greater. Come on.”
The priestess got up and walked mechanically out of the room.
Quicksilver sank into her seat and bit her lip. A hidden incantation! No wonder this book was sought by the high priestess of a group of fanatics, an ambitious politician and a curious individual she knew nothing about. What could she do? She should get rid of it as soon as possible, but she was going to have them after her. Maybe she could put it back into circulation after neutralizing the incantation somehow, but it was going to take time.
She was tempted to explain the situation to Mahogany, but quickly dismissed the idea. This might degenerate. Her partner thought she came from the gutters of the City. This did not bother him because he was himself the son of a labourer. But no one on the face of the Earth knew that she was the last surviving pupil of the Strayed Mage. And she had no desire to be burnt at the stake like her master.
“Well?” asked Mahogany when she returned to the shop.
“Well, she wanted a donation. The nerve! I’m going home. I have a terrible migraine.”
“It’s the monsoon.”
She spent the evening examining the book. She even read it from cover to cover, frowning because she was unfamiliar with the Three Cities idiom, and this made most of the metaphors totally unpalatable. There did not seem to be any code in the text, nor anything hidden in the binding. The illustrations were done with care but were not masterpieces. There was no trace of invisible ink either, she thought as she examined it page by page again and… there was a greenish stain above the Goddess of Pleasure’s buttocks. A mark in the shape of a letter. A Kal or a Tal. She held a magnifying glass to the image. She guessed more than read “By Heaven and Earth…”
An invocation from the Troubled Times. This damn book was a palimpsest overwritten atop a text of ancient magic. In the times of the Great Righteousness, many parchments which were deemed incomprehensible were gathered up in secret, hastily erased and re-used to put down forbidden texts.
She scanned the pages. Most of them revealed only bits and pieces. Two, however, contained an almost complete invocation. Some words were missing, but for those who knew the Old Tongue, they were easy to guess. It called upon a genie and enjoined him to destroy all those who had offended the summoner.
Things were quite simple, she decided. The pages were not numbered. She would simply take away the incriminated ones, burn them, and put the book back into circulation. Nobody would suspect a thing. The only problem was removing and replacing the binding without leaving a trace. She was used to this kind of work, but all her tools were at the shop. She would need to return there discreetly.
Quicksilver slipped inside and found the candle placed in a niche for emergencies. She lit it, opened the door of the back room and froze on the threshold. The place was in chaos. A pair of four-hundred-year-old vases were lying on the ground, beside overturned books and broken ornaments. They had been worth a fortune. A burglar would not have done so much damage. Someone had been looking for something in a hurry. This book business was starting to turn really bad, and… a huge hand clamped over her mouth, while another grabbed her arm.
“Not a word, or I’ll kill you.”
She couldn’t see her aggressor, but he seemed to be much taller than her. The voice reminded her of someone. It was her frustrated customer from two days earlier. Curiously, he had lost his accent from the Three Cities. He turned her around to face him. A kerchief covered his face. He slowly removed his hand from her mouth.
“Where is it?”
A hard slap burned her cheek.
“Don’t play games with me. I want the book. ‘The Midnight Flowers.’ Quick, or I’ll cut your pretty face.”
She needed to buy time. Her chances were slim. Her only advantage might be surprise. The man hadn’t thought it necessary to take out a weapon. He didn’t think a well-bred wealthy woman would attack him. Moreover, he would expect her to run toward the door, not toward the far wall. She pretended to falter.
“I’m not feeling we-ell…”
He shook her roughly. “Enough of that. Where is that book?”
“Er… it’s there.”
She pointed toward the workbench. Still gripping her, the man pushed her toward it and tried to pull on the handle of the drawer. It was locked.
“Open that and give it to me.”
She pulled out her keys with a trembling hand. She opened the drawer slowly and slid her hand inside. Her fingers grasped the handle of the kriss. With a quick move, she thrust backwards and stuck the weapon into the man’s thigh. Then immediately, she wrenched herself from his grasp and raced towards the back wall.
He grabbed a piece of her clothes and yanked hard. Quicksilver fell over backwards. She just had time to throw the kriss as far away as possible. Better take on the man barehanded rather than risk cutting herself with the weapon. She turned on her side, expecting a blow. But instead, his full weight fell on her, drawing the air from her lungs. His body was shaken by spasms. She struggled to break free. Eventually, she crawled out from under what was now a corpse. The poison had lost none of its strength.
She caught her breath and went on examining the body. Rather than being a gentleman from the Three Cities, the man seemed to belong to the local underworld. At the crease of his groin was a tattoo representing a tarantula. So, an assassin. It wasn’t hard to imagine what a professional assassin could do with a killer genie. That would raise his small-scale business to a whole new level. He wouldn’t even need to risk his skin any more.
His colleagues would soon learn about his disappearance in the shop. She was going to have them on her back. The Assassins’ Guild was very serious about those who disposed of its members in the course of their work. And then, there was still the book and the other people who seemed to covet it… she should have hidden it better than that.
Now, she had to prioritise. First, the body. Fortunately, no one would imagine that a polished, five-foot tall, wealthy woman would have beaten a trained killer. With the right staging, she could make it look like he had met another nocturnal visitor who had killed him and made off with the book. The mess in the store would eloquently tell of a fight, she just needed to add a murderous-looking wound. She rummaged through the storeroom and ended up finding an ancient dagger. It was a shame to sacrifice such a nice piece, worth almost 700 golden ronals, but…
She plunged it into the base of the corpse’s neck, removed it, carefully retrieved the kriss on the floor, gathered her tools and walked out.
Quicksilver slipped soundlessly into her room. The sky was beginning to clear. The book was waiting for her in the drawer. She hesitated for a second. Maybe she should invoke the genie and ask him to get rid of the Assassins’ Guild and the worshippers of the Way of Illumination for her? But as a sorceress, she knew it would be too difficult. First of all, she would need to give him an exhaustive list of the individuals to slay. And what’s more, magical interference might reveal her presence to other practitioners of the Art and bring all sorts of complications. Finally, the interested party in the spell wouldn’t take it very well. Genies were creatures living in another dimension, and in the human dimension they had disproportionate powers. Luckily, invading this world was of no interest to them. On the other hand, the temptation to enslave a magical being was irresistible to some sorcerers. Needless to say, genies hated it. Being interrupted by a frail human in the middle of their dinner and sent to butcher some stranger was not to their taste. It was even said that they had, back in their dimension, exorcists who specialised in disarming this kind of spell. Thus, it wasn’t rare for a magician to be turned to pulp by his genie when he forgot a few precautions. In short, sensible sorcerers avoided that kind of incantation. One had to be megalomaniac or desperate.
Quicksilver heard the maid, tapping on Wise’s door. The boy had been taking an incredible amount of time to get out of bed lately. He had to be woken up earlier and earlier.
A knock, on her door this time, interrupted her thoughts. The maid entered with a frown and mumbled, “Mistress… the young master is not there…”
“What do you mean, not there?”
That was all she needed—for her son to run away. She hurried to his room. The window was open. On his bed, clearly visible, was a sheet of paper folded in four. On it was written:
We have your son. You have the book. If you want your son, bring the book to the tomb adorned with lions, at the back of the Old Necropolis, before noon. Come alone.
She barely repressed the tide of rage which went to her head. If whoever had taken Wise had hoped to scare her, he had badly miscalculated. The only thing that poured into her mind was fury. Not only had he kidnapped her child, but he thought she was an idiot. It was not reasonable to upset a sorceress who was in possession of such an incantation.
She thought for a moment. She loathed the idea of using the services of the creature, but she had no choice. However, she had no desire to deal with the tricks of a furious genie. But they had a reputation for being reasonable. Her former master used to say that the best tactic with magical beings was negotiation. Perhaps she could offer him a mutually satisfying arrangement?
Quicksilver hurried down to the cellar. She drew a pentacle on the ground between two rows of barrels, and stood with her back to the door, just in case. She took a deep breath and lifted the book. The incantation was two hundred hexameters long. Personally, she would have shortened it by a good sixth, but the Ancients liked florid texts. So, she had to submit to the repetitions, quotations, and references to minor gods who had nothing to do with the situation and must have been quite surprised to hear their names mentioned throughout space and time.
With the last word, an eight-foot-tall outline appeared in the middle of the pentacle. The genie was as black as night. It was impossible to make out his features in the shadows of the cellar. The only things Quicksilver could see clearly were his eyes, the color of flames, staring at her enigmatically. She cleared her throat and began in her most polite tone:
“O Genie, please accept my humblest greetings. I would never have disturbed you if I didn’t desperately need your help. I’m sure that you have much better things to do than taking care of a human’s business.”
The creature moved slightly.
“Actually, you interrupted me in the middle of a very pleasant conversation with my girlfriend. This is the first time a human being has ever cared about what I was doing.”
“I am terribly sorry, O Genie, and I offer you my humblest apologies. However, if you grant me a few moments of your precious earthly time, I can free you forever from the spell that keeps you enslaved.”
“And what do you want in exchange?”
“It’s very simple. I want you to kill some people who are holding my son prisoner. I would also want you to do it in such a way that their death doesn’t appear like it was caused by supernatural forces. In exchange, I will destroy the book containing the incantation binding you.”
The creature lowered its eyes in reflection, then stared at her again. “That seems reasonable. Where are these humans?”
“In the Old Necropolis. I will take you there. Make yourself invisible and do not attack until I raise my hand.”
A misty dawn was rising over the City. The winds had changed, bringing a welcome coolness to the air. Quicksilver followed the familiar path between the tombs to the back of the Necropolis, which overlooked the sea. A hundred years before, part of the coast had crumbled during an earthquake. That was why the city of tombs ended abruptly, a thousand feet above the port, with a spectacular view over the whole bay. She had enjoyed the place in her youth when she was hiding there. However, the view she saw now was much less pleasant. Under a collapsed pillar of the Lions’ Tomb, a fire had been lit to drive away the mosquitoes. On either side stood four Northern slave-warriors, each slightly taller than the assassin who had attacked her a few hours earlier. Behind them, on a folding stool, sat Victorious. A little further back was lying Wise, tied up and gagged. Finally, two fresh graves had been dug a few steps to her left. The politician gave her a brilliant smile.
“Ah, Mistress Quicksilver. Do you have my book?”
“Of course, Your Excellency. I am very sorry that it took so long, but you did not need to take such extreme measures. We are a respectable business. Here it is…”
She raised her hand. There was an indefinite noise. The first slave-warrior didn’t realise what was happening to him when he fell, his throat slit from ear to ear. The second barely had time to grab his axe, the third had time to raise it, and the fourth slashed his through the air. Victorious stood up, his eyes wide, before having his head literally unscrewed from his neck.
Quicksilver raced over to untie her son. The genie appeared in front of the fire, his face surly.
“I hate doing that kind of thing.”
She nodded. “Believe me, if I had the strength, I would have done it myself, and taken great pleasure in it, I’m afraid. Anyway, you have all my gratitude.”
“We had a deal.”
Quicksilver nodded. She took out the book and threw it in the fire. The image of the genie began to vanish. Just before it disappeared completely, she thought she saw a slight expression of surprise on his face. Well, yes, some humans kept to their word without haggling.
“What… what was that?” stammered Wise.
She didn’t answer, but hugged him as tightly as she could.
“It was a genie…” she said in a hoarse voice. “Let’s get home before somebody asks us what happened here. I will tell you everything on the way. By the Horse Goddess, it’s more exciting than all the sailors’ stories rolled into one!”
After they had walked a few hundred paces, Quicksilver’s mind resumed working at its usual speed: her troubles were not over. She would have to come up with a plausible explanation for this mess. The maid knew Wise had disappeared. By midmorning, she would have told all the neighbours. There might be questions about the corpse in the storeroom. Maybe even more questions about the book from unknown parties. She would invent some story, but Wise would struggle to play along, or even to keep his big mouth shut.
She knew her son’s weaknesses all too well. She had to get him away from here, at least for a while, and make sure he didn’t do anything stupid in the meantime. He also had to carry on with his education. And his physical exercise and… come to think of it…
Once they got home, she brought the boy to her room. She went to the side table to help herself to a large measure of liquor, then poured some for him.
“On reflection, a little shot won’t do you any harm either.”
He didn’t need to be asked twice, and downed his little cup in one gulp. They remained silent for a minute, staring at each other.
“I see you are somewhat used to strong drinks,” she finally said. “But after all, that will be useful.”
“Yes, I have thought long and hard, and I came to the conclusion that you were totally right.”
He cast her a suspicious glance. “About what?”
“About your future. It’s true that you’re not made for studies… and seeing a bit of the world wouldn’t hurt. So, I am going to ask Ebony to take you with him as a ship’s boy. They’re short-handed, from what I hear.”
Wise’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”
“But… that’s… fantastic! He’s going to the Old Empire, through the Thousand Islands! I will see lots of things, and…”
She gave him a half-smile, although she could feel a lump forming in her throat. “We’ll talk about it on your return, in eight months. You are leaving in two hours with the tide.”
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