Posts tagged ‘Rudolph’

July 4, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter IX

by Mallard

The dean brought himself up short when he saw me, slumped against the far wall. He blinked in surprise and looked around the room for anyone else. When he saw no one, he sighed and relaxed out of his ramrod-straight posture to his more usual slouch.

“Victor,” he said by way of greeting, shoving his hands in his pockets and glaring at me. Jedediah is a short and stocky man, half as wide as he is tall, and nearly bald but for a few stray hairs combed carefully across his pate. He wore slacks and a plaid waistcoat, and had an unlit pipe hanging out of his mouth. He sighed. “What have you done to my university, Victor?”

I snorted. “I saved it, you great lout. Fine show of thanks you give me, too.”

Millston made a great show of turning over his shoulder and examining the misty, damaged storeroom. “Mm, yes. You’ll forgive me if I delay the award ceremony. What did you say you saved it from? The monotony of a quiet and event-less evening?”

That seemed a little rich. “What, are you blind, man? Surely you don’t think I had–”

Millston waved a hand, dismissing my retort. “Of course not.” He started across the room in his usual hasty stalk, always as if in the greatest hurry to get where he is going. He stopped in front of me, staring down at where I was sitting, before dropping to a comfortable squat.

“All right then. Explain. Why did every alarm in the building go off in a gods-awful clatter a few minutes ago, and why did I come down to find one of my storages destroyed, and a machine that looks like the idiot offspring of an army tank and a particularly ugly insect? And how are you involved?” He shook his head. “I wish I could say I am surprised to see you, Victor. But I’m really not.”

Robert stirred next to me, partly roused by Jedediah’s rough voice. The dean glanced over at the child. “And what brain-dead fool entrusted you with a child?”

“That all, then?” I asked, a little frustrated. I wanted to shout at him, but I consoled myself by merely raising an eyebrow. He had every right to be on edge, after all.

“It’ll do for now. So talk.”

I sighed, and talked. I started from the beginning, giving him an abbreviated account of Emelia Withers’s predicament and her request, of my conversation and search with Scott, and of our descent into the sewers. Millston listened quietly for the most part, but when I started describing the kidnappers, he interrupted me several times, making me go back and repeat portions, asking me specific questions about their appearances and attitudes.

“Look, you want to tell this story?” I asked finally. “I’ve told you all I can remember about these people.”

“‘All’ hasn’t been very much. Where’s that famed illusionist memory, Victor?”

“I had a few other things on my mind at the time, beyond what the buggers looked like,” I blew out, exasperated.

Robert stirred again, and Jedediah’s frustrated frown eased slightly. “I guess you did,” he said, and motioned for me to continue.

The rest of the story went fairly quickly. The dean snorted when I described shooting the wrong pipe, then shrugged. “It’ll be hell to fix, but probably better over all. There’s no way that thing will be getting up and walking again any time soon after a shower like that. Couldn’t you have stopped it before it entered my storeroom, though?”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”

Jedediah nodded. “Fair enough.” He fell silent for a moment, frowning in thought. “You know who those men were, do you?”

I shook my head. “Who they were? Just malcontents, as far as I could tell. Obviously war vets, hurt by magic and full of wrath against it.”

He nodded again. “Malcontents, yes, but not ‘just.'” He was silent for a few moments, staring of into space. Robert settled back into a deeper doze. “They started during the wars, after the Patchwork Folk were driven back, and our armies were turned on the Republic. The second war lasted less than a year, but the Republic were fierce fighters, and much more willing and able to employ the arcane arts in battle. More and more of our soldiers were harmed or permanently transfigured by magic. Some of them formed a sort of support group. They called themselves the People for the Abolition of Weaponized Magic.” Jedediah shrugged irritably, his face lined with frown lines as he recalled the events, less than three years previous.

“The group started out tame enough, but their purpose changed over time from peaceful protest to actively opposing magic users. I don’t recognize the descriptions you gave me, but judging by their actions and the rifles, they were likely members of this organization. I thought it had mostly died out after the wars, but it appears I was wrong.”

I didn’t say anything. What would I say? I hadn’t known such a group had ever existed. I couldn’t help but wonder if this group I had encountered were the bulk of the remaining members, or if they were only one small branch of a cancer we could not entirely see.

At the moment though, it didn’t matter.

“Guess that’s one more thing to keep an eye out for, then,” I said and yawned and stretched. I shook Robert lightly, and his eyes fluttered sleepily open. “Come on, kid,” I said, and stood, pulling the boy to his feet. “Time to go.”

I turned to Jedediah. He was standing as well, and now I was the one looking down at him. “I should get the kid back to his mom. You think cleanup can wait until morning?”

Millston snorted. “Of course not. But I hardly need you here. Go home, get out of my university. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you and not had some trouble right before or shortly after.”

“Hey now, that’s not fair,” I started to protest, then thought better of it. I shrugged. “Okay, so maybe it is. I’m sure I’ll see you soon, anyway. Old grouch.”

“Just don’t make it too soon,” he grumbled, and led the way back across the room, through the still-icy grave of the automat, and to the elevator that would take us back to the surface.

 * * * * * * * *

Sergeant Major Hattie Morrison frowned at me for several long moments from the business end of her spartan oak desk. She had a good frown. A deep, commanding frown that took over her face, wrinkling her brow, thinning her eyes, turning her mouth into an upside-down U. Had she worn glasses, she would have been the spitting image of every school-child’s worst nightmare. “What are you playing at, Victor?” she asked at last.

I said nothing.

“Victor,” she sighed. “I can’t authorize payment for this. It’s good work, but we didn’t assign it to you.”

“True,” I said, slowly. I was standing on the other side of the desk, to one side of the proffered chair. I kept my coat close around me, as a sort of barrier between myself and the sergeant major’s discontent. “You would have though, if you’d known about it.”

The sergeant major waved that away. “We don’t deal in ifs here, Victor. You know that. When we assign you a job, we pay you. When we don’t, we don’t.” She picked up the typed list I had handed her a few minutes previous, and scanned through the items. “And what is some of this, anyway? Expenses for a train ride, dry cleaning charges, a single replacement bullet? A single bullet, Victor? Is this a joke to you?”

I fought not to smile. “Not at all, ma’am.”

Hattie put the list on the table and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Gods I hate working with you, sometimes. What are you playing at? I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, because you’re a good worker. You’re probably one of our best, to be honest. So if this is some big joke, then laugh laugh, well played, and get going. But if you have any legitimate reason for this farce, out with it.”

I grimaced. “All right, I’ll level with you. But you’ll hear me out?”

“I just said I would, didn’t I?”

“Okay. You’re right: the Peace Workers didn’t assign this job to me. I did it on my own time, and my own dime, and I’m not strapped for money.”

“You make a compelling case for why we should pay you,” Hattie interjected, sardonically. She was tapping the list with a thick forefinger, a sign of her impatience.

I ignored her. “Have you ever dealt with kidnap victims? Especially ones as young as Robert Withers?”

Hattie frowned at the seeming non-sequitur, and her tapping finger paused. She nodded, slowly. “A few, yes.”

I swallowed, remembering my own experiences. “Well, they aren’t happy kids. Something like that happens to you when you’re nine? It sticks with you for life. With proper care, you can get over it, work around it. But that kind of care costs money. Quite a bit of it. And, well, I don’t think the boy’s mother is hurting, but she shouldn’t have to pay for her son’s therapy, shouldn’t have to worry and struggle to make sure she can manage that and make a living.”

Hattie spoke slowly. “So, this bill…”

I nodded. “I did some checking around. That’ll cover a good chunk of the initial expenses. She doesn’t need to know who it came from. But I think she needs it to come.”

The sergeant major said nothing for a while. I could almost see it in her head: the battle between what her job told her to do, and what her heart said.

“Nine years old, Hattie,” I said quietly.

“You’re a bastard, Victor,” she said. “And you know I’m going to do it.” She tapped the paper with a finger in idle thought. “Officially, this is an advance payment on your next job. You used all your funds on drink and drugs. I’ll make sure the paperwork gets lost somewhere, so you’ll get your next paycheck in full, when the time for that comes.” She suddenly turned the full force of her frown on me again. “This happens only once, Victor. This isn’t going to become a normal thing.”

I nodded, and turned to leave. “I sure hope it isn’t,” I said agreeably. “Thanks, Hattie. I owe you one.”

“You’re damned right you do,” she muttered, but made no more protest as I showed myself out.

 * * * * * * * *

There was an enormous tarpaulin-covered bundle in front of the bakery when I got back. It sat on a wooden pallet easily eight feet to a side, and blocked much of Lowering Way. I could see traffic backed up a good bit as autos and walkers crept by in single file, many directing disgusted looks and rude gestures at the enormous package.

A boy stood on the corner of Lowering and Second, directing customers to Annabella’s bakery around the bundle, as it sat entirely in front of the door, leaving only a narrow alley through which customers could enter and exit.

I saw no labels on the bundle, but there was little doubt in my mind who it was for. I walked up to the bakery a little apprehensively, running through the list of possible culprits, and coming up blank. Who would leave such a large gift–if gift it was–at Annabella’s? Should I be worried about bombs or other dangers?

The boy, I saw as I neared, was none other than Rudolph, who gave me an enthusiastic wave when he spotted me coming through traffic.

“Mr. Haas! Mr. Haas! Package for you!”

I snorted at his childlike understatement. “Thanks, Rudy,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Mind telling me where it came from?”

Rudolph shrugged. “I don’t know! A bunch of men came and dropped it off not half an hour ago. It came on a great big sled pulled by a truck. You going to open it?”

“Yes, please do,” another voice chimed in. I winced as Annabella herself came around the corner, arms folded across a floury, aproned chest, a look of half amusement and half exasperation across her face. “You’ve caused ruckus enough in this neighborhood, Victor, gods know. But I believe this is the first time your mail has made me problems.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “No idea who it’s from, then?” I asked her.

She nodded. “Oh, I know exactly who it’s from. Came with a letter and everything.” She fished around under her apron and pulled out a folded piece of heavy card stock, embossed with an all-too-familiar crest of a tree, sun, and moon.

My laughter died out as I took the card. “Victor,” it started. “This is rightfully yours. Or maybe it isn’t, but I surely don’t need it cluttering my storage room. So have a pleasant birthday, or autumnal equinox, or whichever bloody holiday is near enough to justify a gift. Sincerely, Jedediah Millston.” A series of titles and honorifics followed, only half of which I recognized.

I looked at the bundled automat–for that was what it no doubt was–and silently cursed Millston. What was I going to do with this great big useless machine? I’d have to hire someone just to haul it away, which wouldn’t come cheaply.

“Oh, and Serah sent a message with Rudy here,” Annabella added, as an afterthought. She patted Rudolph on the back. “Go on, son, tell him.”

Rudy beamed at me. “She said your bike is ready, and you owe her dinner.”

I blinked. Then I began to smile. And laugh.

“Oh dear,” Annabella said, and turned with a sigh to return to her shop. “I know that look well enough. Nothing good ever comes of that look.”

 * * * * * * * *

“You have,” Serah Villifree said, staring at the automat. “Very possibly discovered the ugliest machine ever built by mortals or gods.”

“I know,” I said, grinning. “Do you like it?” We were standing in her warehouse, the back room of her shop where she stores spare parts and works on her own projects. The space isn’t very large, and the destroyed automat took up much of the clear floorspace remaining.

It hadn’t been cheap to get it to her shop, but it had been worth the look on her face when I arrived on a great cargo walker in the late afternoon, dragging behind the enormous and ugly shell of the beetle-like automat. Millston had, fortunately, stripped off all the explosives before sending it my way.

“Like it?” she said, walking around the automat. “It’s ugly as sin, and built on the most chaotic school of mechanical engineering I have ever seen. The legs are all wrong, the boiler is far too small, and none of the gear teeth inside mesh properly at all. There is absolutely nothing mechanically or logically sound about this monstrosity. And you say it actually functioned?” I nodded, and she smiled. “I love it.”

I laughed. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“But,” she said, turning away abruptly. The windows to the warehouse were beginning to glow orange, as the late afternoon sun began to slant across the floor. “This can wait. You, I believe, owe me dinner.”

“Well,” I said, and offered her my arm. “I can’t have an outstanding debt on my record, can I?” Serah laughed and hooked her arm through mine as if we were at a fancy ball, though I was dressed in my old and worn coat, and she in oil-stained overalls and heavy leather work boots.

I led my lady out into the waning sunlight, away from the broken shell of the automat, away from the madness and danger of the last day, and back to some small semblance of a normal life.

At least for an evening.

* * * * * * * *
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May 30, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter I

by Mallard

Hanging above the door to the building where I live, on the corner of Second Street and Lowering Way, and near enough to the eastern airship tower to hear the clacking of enormous rotors as the ships set sail in the night, is a wooden sign that flaps in the breeze. This sign is painted in dark forest green on white, and reads: Annabella’s Fine Corner Bakery and Cafe.

This is not me.

Annabella is a short, middle-aged woman with a smile on her face, usually found wearing a flour-dusted and coffee-stained apron. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen her otherwise. She has owned and run that bakery for as long as I can remember, which isn’t saying terribly much, as I first came to Kestral eleven years ago, and I lived further south for nearly half of those in the meantime. But even when I was a young lad first attending university, Annabella’s bakery was already a well-known landmark, a convenient place to grab a quick breakfast on the way to class, or a mug of strong coffee before final exams.

The inside of the cafe tends to be hot and noisy, what with the soft hissing of the gas ovens that run from dawn to dusk, the periodic clacking and whistling of the ceiling-height, steam-powered coffee machines, the hum and crackle of the roaster spinning in the background. And of course Annabella herself, who greets everyone who comes in the door with a hearty welcome and, for friends, a hug that raises a cloud of flour and crushes your breath away.

If you were to walk inside the bakery, weave past the haphazard arrangement of little wooden tables, sneak by the ovens and avoid the rattling and anxious pipes that feed the coffee makers, and finally pass through the tiny wooden door shoved in a corner behind the counter, you would find yourself at the base of a narrow and poorly-lit–but much quieter–flight of stairs. Climb this, past the creaky step and the dusty window that looks out into an alley choked with pipes and weeds, and through the door at the top which sticks in winter, and you’d find my flat, and in most evenings, me.

That is, me: Victor C. Haas. Peace worker with the Kestral Armed Forces, humble master of illusion, and friend to cops, dogs, children, and other strange creatures. And, though I’m not proud of this part I played in recent history, ex-soldier and spy for the fledgling Republic, which of course no longer exists.

I first moved into the flat above Annabella’s Fine Corner Bakery and Cafe when I returned to Kestral, two years ago. I got lucky. Immediately after the wars–commonly and inaccurately referred to as the Mage Wars–there was no housing to be found for a magic user, let alone one who had served the Republic for much of the war. Not many would deny me outright to my face, for fear of some arcane retaliation, but everywhere I went I found closed doors and barred windows. Though, honestly, what was I going to do to them? The scariest illusion I can summon goes away the moment I stop concentrating. Illusion magic is only frightening if you don’t know it is happening.

Why Annabella was not only willing to let me live above her shop, but even helped me move in and defended me with her sharp tongue and blunt rolling pin, I still don’t know. Maybe she remembered me as one of many gangly youths who bought a bun and a coffee nearly every morning, downing both in a tongue-burning rush before calling a quick thanks and rushing off to class. Or maybe she’s just not the judgmental sort. I’ve never asked; seems a little ungrateful to question someone’s good will. I just help her where I can and try not to think about the debt I would owe her if she wasn’t half so kind as she is.

As for my flat itself, it’s a single room deal with a tiny attached bathroom, but spacious for all that. The door opens from the south wall, so the first thing you’d see upon entering would be my desk, underneath the window that faces north across Second Street. Another window opens east over Lowering Way, with a sill wide enough to sit on and watch the traffic pass by, of which there’s always plenty. Lowering is a busy street, which makes for some loud nights when the cargo transport walkers come out, too large to easily travel in the day.

My bed is on the west wall, a fold-down sort that I can push up and out of the way during the day. I don’t really need the extra space, but I do it to make the place look nicer for guests, and on the rare occasion that my superiors drop in. Near the foot of the bed is a dual-burner gas range, though if I want an oven, I have to go downstairs.

I placed my mother’s grandfather clock in the corner, which tolls the time for all the square to hear, and a small fireplace takes up another corner, with a fire crackling at almost all times. It’s nice in winter, but stifling in summer, even with the windows open. I keep the flames lit though, as a favor to Kristopher.

Ah, but you don’t know who Kristopher is, do you? You barely know who I am. My name, as I mentioned before, is Victor Haas. I’m with the Peace Workers, which is part of the post-war reconstruction and reconciliation effort. It really serves two purposes: to showcase the enemy troops working to better the community, and to investigate and clean up remnants of the wars. It’s this second one that makes the job interesting, but I can get into that later.

As for Kristopher, he–at least, I consider Kristopher a he–is the salamander to whom I owe my life and my sanity. He found me in the fireswamps to the southwest near the end of the wars, and he’s stayed with me the two years since. I figure the least I can do is keep a fire burning for him to nest in while we’re at home.

* * * * * * * *

The Peace Workers keep me busy, but in spurts. Occasionally, I’ll have a few days off between jobs, and I spend a lot of that time wandering the city. Though I guess I never really stop working, since I always wear the green and blue armband that marks me as a member of the organization. And since most Peace Workers are, like me, former members of the Republic, it doesn’t take much of a leap for most people I meet to recognize me as such. It’s been two years, and most folk are at least accepting of my presence now, especially those who live near Annabella’s.

I like wandering around the city. I live in an older part of town, well overgrown with independent businesses and practices. The rails run overhead, the frequent trains crushing any hopes of conversation until they pass. Airships are constantly docking and departing from the tower, one of the the tallest structures in all of Kestral. The streets are always crowded with pedestrians like myself, the occasional privately owned automobile or walker, a plethora of bicycles, autobikes, monowheels, and some wilder contraptions that look hacked together in some garage. There are also the taxis, which are a whole class unto themselves. Anything that moves can become a taxi, from horse-drawn carriages to autos to spider-like automats that convey a single rider, who’s forced to sit cross-legged atop the machine to avoid its many legs. And there are the golems, rare though they are. Clockwork automats that, honestly, make me a little uncomfortable. Anything that’s not alive but can think for itself–or has a spirit thinking for it–is something to be wary of.

And of course, there are the people. Everyone in my neighborhood knows me by now, and most of them are friendly. There’s the grocer who refuses to sell me anything but his finest produce, and speaks with an accent so thick I can only understand one word in three. I think he assumes I make a lot of money since the army cuts my checks. I can assure you this is a mistaken assumption. Then there’s the clockmaker, never without a pair of multi-lens goggles, an array of tiny screwdrivers, and an insult on the tip of his tongue. He calls me that winter-blasted untrustworthy mage, I call him that cranky old bastard. We get along all right.

There are always the street vendors, too, who come out before sunrise and often stay out until late into the night, hawking food and jewelry, crafts and drinks. A couple of booths are run by handymen who’ll work minor repairs on small automats and golems for less time and money than it takes to go to a proper shop. Though you always have to worry about getting what you’ve paid for. Most of these guys are friendly, and half of them are drunk by nightfall. The street markets are always a party it seems; it’s a wonder they manage to make a living.

And of course, there’s Serah, who is one reason I never take my autobike to those street handymen. Or any other garage. I don’t think Serah’s jealous of other women I talk to, but she’d smack me good with a wrench if she found I went anywhere else for repairs. Women. I’ve learned a lot since I met Kristopher, but women–or rather, Serah–I still don’t understand. What sort of woman couldn’t care less for a bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers, but will gush with pleasure over a new monkey wrench or set of well-oiled planetary gears? Though, perhaps that’s why I like her so much.

* * * * * * * *

It was a Saturday, and a cloudy one. It didn’t look like rain, but it was a sunless and chilly day, weather for coats and scarves. I own several of the former, but my favorite of the lot is a knee-length frock coat, light brown rather than black. I also wore a thick grey scarf to keep my neck warm. It wasn’t really cold enough to warrant both, but one thing about living with a salamander: you get used to warmth.

I took a stroll through my usual neighborhood, thinking maybe I’d stop by and see Serah. The streets were just as crowded as ever, and several times I had to squeeze to one side to let a bicycle or autobike by. I snuck past the grocer’s, intent on avoiding being forced to buy yet another basket of fine prunes. Because, honestly, regardless of how fine they are, who ever has a need for a basket of prunes? Let alone one of the blasted things?

“Mr. Haas! Mr. Haas!” A shrill voice called above the murmur of the crowd, and I sighed.

“Hi, Rudolph,” I said, turning. The boy beamed and skidded to a halt in front of me, cheeks red from the cold and exertion. A girl about his own age lagged behind and came to a stop a moment later.

“This is Hester,” Rudolph said proudly, and the little girl waved shyly. Then she turned and smacked Rudolph on the arm.

“I told you to wait up!”

The kid had the grace to at least look abashed, for a second. “Sorry. But I wanted you to meet Mr. Haas!” He turned and looked up at me. “Do a trick, Mr. Haas!”

I sighed. “Come on, Rudolph. You know my rules.” I flicked my hand and held forth a white card that hadn’t been there a moment before.

Well, let’s be clear: it wasn’t there, period. And though Rudolph “took” it from me and “handed” it to his little girlfriend, neither of them felt a thing, though Hester could shake the little card and watch it bend. I went through a lot of real cards before I had the motions and images memorized well enough to mimic them through illusion.

Neither of them read the card, sadly. I’d clearly printed on it in block letters:

Victor C. Haas, Illusionist

No Parties, No Entertaining, No Tricks

This Means YOU, Rudy

“Can I keep it?” Rudolph asked, as he does every time.

“It’s not real, stupid,” Hester said, and the card obligingly vanished as I let go of my concentration. “See?”

“Aww.” Rudy scuffed the ground with his foot, more because the girl he wanted to impress had called him stupid than because he couldn’t keep the card.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. Rudy’s a good kid. Sometimes, those are worth breaking a few principles for. It had been a long while since I had last sat in a clearing in the forest and just watched nature pass by, so it took me a moment to find the right memories.

The cobblestones around the two children vanished beneath a thin layer of mossy green fuzz, which rapidly grew forth into a small field of grass. I heard a gasp, and couldn’t help smiling. Next came flowers, tiny buds creeping upward, then unfolding all at once into a rainbow of yellows and whites, blues and purples, reds and oranges. The grass continued to grow until it ran waist high and the flowers towering over the childrens’ heads, filtering the wan light from the clouds into pastel colors.

“Wow,” Hester breathed, and I opened my eyes to see her standing very close to Rudolph, gripping his arm tightly enough to hurt, but he was beaming at me. I winked and held the illusion a moment longer before letting it fade away.

“See?” he said to Hester once the world had returned to gray clouds and dusty cobblestones. “I told you he was the world’s best mage!”

“That…was okay,” she forced out finally. I rolled my eyes. Never try to get praise from a kid.

“Thanks, Mr. Haas!” Rudy called as they ran off toward the next big thing he wanted to share with her.

(Heads up,) Kristopher said, in the musical language of the salamanders. I can’t actually understand what he says, so much as get a general impression of his meaning. It’s a side effect of the bond between us, a bond I don’t understand and Kristopher has never bothered to explain.

“Mr. Haas?” another voice called tentatively from behind me. An older voice this time, a woman, and one I didn’t recognize.

“Yes?” I said, turning. I blinked.

She wore a long yellow dress, though it was the beginning of autumn and she looked chilly in the cool breeze. Her dress was clean but rumpled and unkempt, as if she had not changed in days, and her eyes were stained with lack of sleep and tears.

“You are Victor Haas, yes?” she asked, and there was a quaver to her voice that might have been from the chill, and might have been from something else entirely. Somehow I suspected the latter. “That illusion…you surely must be Victor Haas?”

“I am,” I said gently. “How can I help you, ma’am?” I almost added “aren’t you freezing in that?” but managed to restrain myself. Let it be known I do have some class, despite what Jedediah Millston will have you think.

The woman glanced around at the crowd passing us by, and a few idlers snapped their gaze back to their path, as if they hadn’t been eavesdropping. “Is there somewhere…” she started, and I nodded.

“My office isn’t far from here,” I assured her. “We can talk there. Please, come with me.” I offered her my arm, which she clung to with more force than strictly necessary, and I led her briskly back to Annabella’s. My “office,” of course, is just my flat. But it sounded much better to say “my office” than “my bedroom.” And with the bed folded up against the wall, a welcoming fire in the hearth, and a stack of meaningful-looking papers sitting neatly in a corner on my desk, the place looks professional enough.

I seated the woman–whose name was Emelia Withers–in the easy chair I keep for visitors by the fireplace and sat myself at my desk, readying a quill to take notes.

“What can I help you with, Ms. Withers?” I asked when she had settled in. She had started to looked a little better by the fire, color returning to her cheeks as she warmed up. But when I asked her that, her face fell and she looked down, clasping her hands tightly in her lap.

“I, um. My son,” she said, and stopped as if upset by the sound of her own voice. She coughed and started again. “My son, he is missing.” And then she began to weep.

* * * * * * * *

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