by James Alan Gardner

From EOS books

Copyright © 2002, by James Alan Gardner

This excerpt comes from the very beginning of the book.

The Pot of Gold

It began, as many things do, in a tavern: about eight o'clock on a Friday evening, in The Pot of Gold on Post-Hoc Lane in Simka. Contrary to its end-of-the-rainbow name, The Pot of Gold was a dreary blood-clot of a place—the sort of vomitous swill-hole where the lamps had to be locked in wire cages to prevent drunks from swigging the kerosene, where the tapman's only insurance policy was a trio of flintlock pistols worn on a grease-smudged bandoleer, and where the Steel Caryatid squashed a cockroach <bang> with her tankard before asking, "Why would anyone go on a quest?"

"For glory," said Sir Pelinor.

"For God," said Sister Impervia.

"For kicks," said Myoko Namida.

"For Gretchen Kinnderboom," said I, "provided the task didn't take too much effort, and Gretchen promised to be extravagantly grateful."

The Caryatid slapped my foot (which was propped on the table beside her). "Be serious, Phil," she told me. "I'm talking about real, honest-to-goodness quests, not trotting down to Dover-on-Sea to fetch peach-scented soap."

I sat up straighter. "They've got a new supply of peach-scented soap?"

"Vanity, vanity," murmured Sister Impervia, whose own taste in soap could be described as, "The more lye, the better."

"We're talking about quests," said the Caryatid, "and I don't understand why a sane person would go on one. Not that anyone at this table qualifies as sane."

Sir Pelinor sucked on his mustache, producing a wheezy, bubbling sound that was amusing the first time I heard it, irritating the next dozen times, totally maddening the three hundred times after that, and now a source of complete indifference. "Depends what you call a quest," he said. "Suppose a village hereabouts was having trouble with a largish animal—a bear perhaps, or a cougar. I wouldn't call it insane to gather a few friends and go hunt down the beast."

"Especially," Myoko added, "if the villagers offered a reward."

"Or suppose," Sister Impervia said, "a gang of heathen bandits stole St. Judith's jawbone from the academy chapel. Wouldn't we be honorbound to organize a party and retrieve the saint's remains?"

The Caryatid made a face. "Those aren't quests, they're errands. You'd leave such business to the town watch...if Simka had a real town watch, instead of Whisky Jess and the Paunch that Walks Like a Man. I'm not talking about junkets to the countryside, I mean real live quests."

"What qualifies as a real live quest?" Myoko asked. "Finding the Holy Grail? Slaying the Jabberwock?"

"Saw a Jabberwock once," Sir Pelinor said with another mustache-suck. "Rusty mechanical thing in the remains of an OldTech amusement park. Four hundred years ago, parents paid for their kiddies to ride its back. No wonder OldTech society collapsed—if I'd seen that monster when I was a child, I wouldn't have slept again till I was twenty."

"I don't care about your Jabberwock," the Caryatid said. "I don't care about quests at all."

"Then why," Myoko asked, "do you keep talking about them?"

"Because," the Caryatid answered, staring moodily at the cockroach guts on the table, "this afternoon I had a sort of a prophecy kind of thing."

"Uh-oh," said the other four of us in unison...even Sister Impervia, who's theologically obliged to treat prophecies as Precious Gifts From Heaven. We all knew the Caryatid had flashes of second sight; alas, her gift of prophecy only raised its head when something really ugly was about to happen.

I won't bother you with the full story of how the Caryatid got this way, but here's the gist: twenty years ago, when she still had a normal name and was doing her bachelor's in thaumaturgy, the Caryatid got shanghaied into a necromantic experiment run by a grad student. Like most sorcerous projects, this one required a long disgusting ritual...and partway through a procedure involving two tubs of lard and a hand-puppet, the grad student lost his nerve and ran shrieking from the room. Our friend Caryatid managed to slide off the pony and shut down the calliope before she could be incinerated by eldritch forces; but the experience gave her a serious sunburn and an incurable case of the premonitions.

Personally, I have nothing against premonitions if they provide useful information about the whether your partner has a stopper in spades, or if Gretchen Kinnderboom will be in a forthcoming mood two weekends hence. But the Caryatid never foresaw anything helpful; she only perceived disasters, and then only when it was too late to avert them.

An illustrative example: at Feliss Academy's most recent staff party, all of us teachers had just finished dinner when a trout skeleton on the Caryatid's plate proclaimed, "You're sure going to regret eating me." The entire faculty rose as one, hied ourselves to the closest commode and desperately stuck our fingers down our throats. Alas, to no avail—everyone from the chancellor down to the lowest lecturer in Latin literature succumbed to a dose of the trots.

If the Caryatid had received another vision of the future, the only sensible response was bowel-chilling dread. We therefore sat in clenched silence for at least a count of ten before anyone mustered the nerve to speak. Finally, it was Pelinor who ventured to ask the obvious: "So, er...what did this sort of a prophecy kind of thing say?"

"Well..." The Caryatid kept her gaze on the crushed cockroach rather than making eye contact with the rest of us. "I was in the lab cleaning up after Freshman Class 4A??"

"May they burn in hell for eternity," Sister Impervia said.

We looked at her curiously.

"It's book report week," she explained.

We all said, "Ahh!"

"I was cleaning up after Freshman 4A," the Caryatid resumed, "and I peeked into the crucible of Two-Jigger Volanté know him?"

We nodded. I had no direct acquaintance with the unfortunate Mr. Volantés, but word gets around. The Freshman collective unconscious had appointed Two-Jigger the Official Class Goat—the brunt of their jokes, the person nobody sat with at mealtimes, and the one whose underclothes were most often on display atop the school's flag pole.

"So what I found in the crucible," continued the Caryatid, "was what I call Goat Stew. Someone always convinces the Class Goat you can make an infallible love potion from eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog...the whole Scottish formula. Let me tell you, that does not make a love potion."

"What does it make?" asked Pelinor.

"Blind newts, lame frogs, cold bats, and a cocker spaniel who makes god-awful sucking sounds when he's trying to drink from his dish. So I'm staring at this mess when suddenly the newt's eye turns my way. Then the dog's tongue says, You're going on a quest."

"Do dogs have deep voices?" Pelinor asked. "I've always wondered. It stands to reason a Chihuahua would have a higher voice than a bloodhound, but if you got, say, a male Doberman and a female, would the male be a bass and the female an alto? Or would they both be baritones?"

"This particular dog was a tenor," said the Caryatid. "I don't know its breed or gender. So it told me—"

"Did it have an accent?" Pelinor asked.

"No," the Caryatid snapped. "And it had flawless diction, even though it didn't have lips or a larynx, all right? It told me, You're going on a quest. I said, What kind of quest? and it answered, A dangerous one. I asked, Why on Earth would I go on a dangerous quest? It said, Hey lady, I may be a talking dog tongue, but I'm no mindreader."

"Don't you just hate it," Myoko murmured, "when animal parts get uppity?"

"So," the Caryatid went on, "I say, What's this quest about? The tongue tells me, Love, courage, meaning...the usual. A lot of good that does me. Details, I say, give me details! The tongue wiggles around like a long strip of bacon, then finally gasps out, Future cloudy: ask again later."

"That was the end?" Myoko asked.

"I thought so," the Caryatid said. "But as I set down the crucible, a piece of chalk flew into the air and scrawled on the blackboard, Your friends have to go too."

Myoko and I groaned. Pelinor and Impervia exercised more restraint, but both showed noticeable bulges around their jaws as their teeth clenched. "Well," said Pelinor after a few moments' silence, "a quest, eh? What jolly fun."

We all glared at him. None of us truly believed his "knight of the realm" persona—rumor had it he was a retired corporal from the Feliss border patrol, and he'd faked both his resumé and his accent to get the cushy post of academy armsmaster. Still, he did his job well...and one had to admire the way he gamely kept up the facade of being a sword-sworn crusader. "Never fret," he told us, "a little adventure is just the thing to chase away our winter blues: battling monsters, righting wrongs..."

"Finding lost treasure..." Myoko added.

"Doing God's work..." Impervia put in.

"And perhaps impressing Gretchen Kinnderboom," I finished. "Won't that be ducky."

The Caryatid sighed. "If nothing else, maybe we'll be too busy slaying dragons to proctor final exams."

"I'll drink to that!" Myoko said, her face cheering up. "To our quest—may it get us out of promotion meetings."

All five of us clanked cups and tankards with exaggerated enthusiasm...trying to pretend we weren't terrified.

"Why are you so goddamned happy?" growled a voice from the door.

We turned. Three burly gentlemen had just entered, accompanied by the pungent odor of rancid fish—probably boat workers who'd docked at Dover-on-Sea and headed straight to Simka because of our higher quality night life (i.e., ladies of the evening who still looked female after they'd removed their clothes). These particular fishermen had already sampled copious liquid refreshment at other drinking holes, judging by the volume of their voices and the way they slurred their words.

"I'm afraid," said Myoko, "it's hard to explain the reason for our toast."

"'It's hard to explain'," the most voluble fisherman repeated, mimicking her voice and accent. "You come from that goddamned school, don't you?"

"We're teachers there, yes."

The talkative fisherman sneered. "So you sit around all day, kissing the arses of rich goddamned thumbsuckers who think they're too good for a normal school."

Sister Impervia pushed back her chair. "That is three times you've said 'goddamned.' The clergy occasionally debate whether such talk is truly blasphemous or simply vulgar, but they're universally agreed it's ignorant and rude."

"Are you calling me ignorant and rude?"

"Also drunk and smelly," Impervia said.

The tapman behind the bar removed a flintlock from his bandoleer and thumbed back the hammer. "Closing time," he announced.

"What the hell?" said the fisherman.

"The bar-owner says to close this time every night."

"What time?"

"Thirty seconds before the fight." The tapman pointed his pistol at the newcomers. "We reopen thirty seconds after. Come back if you're still on your feet."


"Quite possibly," Impervia replied. "On the other hand, we have little to fear from your fists."

"Out," said the tapman. "Now."

We complied, taking a roundabout route to the door so we didn't pass within arm's reach of the fishermen. In the doorway, Impervia turned back to the tapman. "Could you please make more tea while we're gone? We'll be back before it's cold."

The lead fisherman made a belligerent sound and blustered angrily after us.

So the Divian and his six buddies tottered drunkenly down the street. Add in the three from the tavern, and that made the odds ten-to-five against us. "I think we just got outnumbered," I said.

"Maybe," Myoko whispered, "that bunch are from a rival fishing boat and they'll side with us against these other lollies."

"Hey, are you calling us lollies?" shouted a keen-eared someone at our backs.

"What's that?" yelled the Divian, clearly one of the boys even if he was a slave. "Something wrong there, Nathan?"

"Nothing wrong," replied the most outspoken man behind us. "We just got some eggheads to crack."

The new group roared their approval. "Goddamned time we found a fight in this town! They insult you, Nathan?"

"They sure did," answered the one called Nathan. "They didn't like the smell of fish."

"To be accurate," said Impervia, "I have nothing against the smell of fish. It was your odor I found objectionable."

Myoko sighed. "That line Blessed are the peacemakers went right over your head, didn't it, Impervia."

Before the good sister could answer, Nathan loosed a mighty bellow and charged straight at her.

Given that I haven't described Impervia, you might be picturing her as some elderly antique: the sort of wizened gray-haired woman who gravitates to the teaching profession for the love of smacking young knuckles with a ruler. Nothing could be further from the truth...except the part about smacking knuckles. Impervia was twenty-six and as lean as a bullwhip, with black skin and even blacker hair shaved within a millimeter of her scalp. Between classes, she had a fondness for dropping behind her desk and doing one-armed push-ups until the next bell rang.

Impervia's Holy Order claimed to be spiritual descendants of the Shaolin monks, those soft-speaking folks who gave the world kung fu. I suspected this claim was false; for one thing, the Shaolins were Buddhist while Impervia was a Handmaid of the Magdalene. (Basically Christian, but with some exotic notions about Mary Magdalene being "purified" by Jesus and thereafter divine herself: the Trinity's Spirita Sancta.) More likely, the early Magdalenes thought the Shaolin name would give them added credibility, so they invented a fictitious lineage tracing their sect back to China. I judged this more probable than any genuine historical connection...but I never told Impervia I doubted her kung fu heritage. Whether she was true Shaolin or not, she could still kick a bull's testicles straight through its body and out the ring on its nose.

This explains why none of us tried to help the good sister as bull-like Nathan charged forward. In fact, we retreated to give Impervia more room. I planted my back against the door of a chandler's shop across the street and prepared to contribute to the fight by playing referee.

Impervia met the fisherman's charge in a business-like kickboxing pose, fists up, chin down: no showy Crane-stance/ Dragon-stance nonsense when she had real opponents to scuttle. She wore loose black clothing and black leather gloves—the gloves protected her against winter's cold, but also against getting her hands carved up in forceful collisions with an opponent's teeth. Nathan, in contrast, had no special fighting outfit, and attacked like a man who was

  1. drunk;
  2. experienced only in fighting other drunks.

As a result, he took a single clumsy swipe at our friend: an ill-defined move that might have been a punch, a slap, or an attempt to grab her throat. Impervia sidestepped and smartly tossed a jab to the man's nose, a palm-heel to his floating ribs, and a full-force stomp on his foot. Not surprisingly, Nathan fell to the cobblestones, with nothing more than a grunting gulp. It was only two seconds later that he began howling obscenities.

"Why doesn't she ever try a good hard knee to the groin?" Myoko asked, slipping into the doorway beside me.

"She says it's overrated," I replied. "First, it's not the guaranteed man-dropper everyone believes—many men can shrug off the pain, especially under the influence of drink, dope, or adrenaline. Second, experienced bar-brawlers often stuff their crotches with padding before they go to the pub; they intend to get into fights, so they protect the family jewels. Third, a groin attack is the only fighting maneuver a man can block instinctively. It takes practice to cope with a punch to one's face, but every male in the world has a built-in reflex to avoid getting kicked in the balls."

" What an education Impervia is," Myoko said admiringly.

At that moment, Impervia was educating the other two men who'd accompanied Nathan into the tavern. One of these men learned what it felt like to have an ax kick fracture his collar bone; the other came to a greater understanding of how a fist to the solar plexus can paralyze the nerves required for breathing. The kicked man staggered back cursing, but the recipient of the gut punch simply dropped to the pavement making surprised little wheezes.

Impervia's speed, skill and strength also made an impression on the remaining seven fishermen—her flying fists looked like blurs. Then again, even a snail might have struck that group as blurry: all seven had reached the stumblebum stage of intoxication, and I think they knew it. No doubt they still felt obliged to help their friends, but none wanted to be first into the fray.

While those at the front of the fisherman pack hesitated, I caught sight of a metallic glint somewhere to the rear. The globe-eared Divian had pulled out a big fancy broadsword he must have had sheathed down his back. "Blade!" I shouted. "The alien's got a sword."

"On my way," Pelinor said.

Pelinor, of course, had a sword of his own. Pelinor also had armor, though he wasn't wearing it at the moment—one doesn't wander the back streets of Simka dressed up for a coronation. If, however, a coronation spontaneously broke out, Pelinor's room on the far side of town held enough arms and armor to equip a complete honor guard. In his decades of wandering as a knight errant (or more likely, impounding contraband on our province's border and keeping the best for himself), our school armsmaster had amassed an eclectic assortment of war-toys: everything from curare-tipped blowdarts to a slightly dented Sig-Sauer P-220 autoloader... sans bullets alas, but still quite splendid for administering an effective pistol-whip.

Tonight, Pelinor carried a simple cutlass—heavy as a meat cleaver but with a lot more case you wanted to chop pork from a distance. The pork in question (i.e. the Divian) shoved past his comrades and prepared to thrust his sword at Impervia; but before the blade could strike home, Pelinor's cutlass was there, slapping away the weapon with a loud metallic clank.

"A true swordsman doesn't attack an unarmed opponent," Pelinor said. "A true swordsman tests his mettle against an evenly-matched foe."

The Divian just blinked at those words, his eyelids flicking from the bottom up instead of top down. Perhaps on his home-planet far across the galaxy, nature had never evolved the concept of "fair fight." His species might be more at home with the "leap from the shadows, stab in the back" school of combat. Still, the Divian collected himself with commendable speed and made a tentative stab in Pelinor's direction.

Even I could see it was a graceless attack; the alien held his weapon awkwardly, as if he'd never used it before. Perhaps he was hampered by the decorative fripperies on the sword's pommel—a profusion of braid and curlicues that must have interfered with getting a good grip. It looked more like a ceremonial weapon than a practical tool in rough-and-tumble situations. A cynic might even suspect the sword had been acquired under questionable circumstances, by mugging a wealthy merchant or drawing a hidden ace out of a shirt cuff. The weapon looked too ornate and expensive for an ET slave to own legitimately.

But no matter how the Divian got his sword, Pelinor parried the attack easily, exactly the way he did when facing a freshman who couldn't tell her quarte from her quinte. "Slant your blade slightly upward," our armsmaster said. "See how easily <clang> I can knock the sword down <whang> if you don't keep up the tip? <bang> That's right, just a little tilt. Not too much though, or I can bap the blade back into your... <twang> Sorry, did I hit your nose?"

Pelinor had clearly ensured he didn't hit the alien's nose. He'd given his cutlass an extra twist so the Divian's weapon would turn and slap with the flat of the blade. This was, after all, a bar fight with drunks, and neither Impervia nor Pelinor wanted to dole out life-threatening injuries. Therefore, Pelinor used some quick flicking strikes to separate the swordwielding extraterrestrial from the rest of his fellows, making it less likely the others would get accidentally nicked.

This left Impervia with nine opponents, three of whom were already nursing wounds while the remaining six wobbled half a beer short of passing out. It was now an even contest...barely. Six against one made for hefty odds, even when the six were staggery-sloppily stewed.

You must understand one crucial point: Impervia was undoubtedly faster and tougher than your average lager lout, but she was, in the end, just a school teacher. Not a professional fighter. Not an elite commando. Not even a third-order Magdalene, one of those select women within her sisterhood who were trained for "specialized" assignments. Impervia was only impressive when compared to untrained oafs—against topnotch champions, she was barely an also-ran.

There is, alas, a heartbreaking gap between the Good and the Best. As many of us have realized to our sorrow.

Even against drunken fishermen, Impervia was not a surefire winner. She almost never finished one of these Friday-night brawls without an eye swollen shut, a few cracked ribs, or a dislocated shoulder. Twice, she'd been battered unconscious before the rest of us could intervene. One had to wonder why she kept provoking these scuffles when she often got the worst of them; but she'd never opened up about her inner demons, and the rest of us didn't pry. We simply crossed our fingers and hoped she never truly got in over her head.

At the moment, it was the fishermen who believed they were out of their depth. The uninjured six stayed bunched together, blearily waiting for someone to make the first move. Finally the man on the ground, Nathan, shouted, "Get going, you fuckwits! The lot of you! Just pile onto her!"

The fisherfolk looked at each other, then shuffled reluctantly forward.

Impervia leapt to meet them. The man she reached first went down under a fast jab to the jaw followed by a teeth-cracking uppercut. In other circumstances, he would have toppled back; but his friends were behind him, still moving forward. Accidentally or intentionally, they shoved the man's semi-conscious body toward the good sister, giving it a good hard push. She tried to dodge, but didn't quite get out of the way—the dazed man thudded into her shoulder like a deadweight sack of flour and Impervia was spun half-sideways, ending with her back to three of the attackers.

She realized her danger and snapped out a low donkey kick: not even looking at the men behind her, just lifting her foot and driving it backward, hoping to discourage anyone from coming too close. One man groaned, "Shit!" and crumpled, clutching his leg...but the other two blundered forward, one cuffing the back of Impervia's head while the other seized her arm. She tried to wrench away from the man who'd grabbed her, throwing a distraction kick at his ankles to make him loosen his grip. By then, however, the men in front were attacking too—one with a punch to the face that she managed to diminish by jerking away her head, and one with a fist to the gut that she didn't diminish at all. The breath whooshed out of her as she was lifted off her feet by the blow. A second later, she flopped to the cobblestones.

"Myoko!" I shouted, "do something!" But Myoko, still in the doorway by my side, was already on the job: staring at Impervia with intense concentration, her hands clenched tight into fists.

Unlike Impervia, Myoko didn't look dangerous. Though she was almost thirty, she could pass for fifteen: barely four foot eight and slender, with waterfall-straight black hair that hung to her thighs, always pulled back from her face with two ox-bone barrettes. At the academy, outsiders mistook her for a student—perhaps the daughter of a minor daimyo, a quiet schoolgirl destined for flower arranging and calligraphy. But Myoko was neither quiet, nor a schoolgirl...and if she ever wanted to arrange flowers, she could do it at a distance of twenty paces by sheer force of will.

Much as I wanted to keep my eye on Impervia—twisting and writhing across the cobblestones as the fishermen threw clumsy kicks at her—I couldn't help be distracted by the movement of Myoko's hair as her concentration increased. Individual strands began to separate from the long straight whole, lifting up like puppet strings. In less than three seconds, all the ends splayed out from each other, fanning wide into the air. As a man of science, I assumed the effect came from static electricity; but the electrical charge was created by a source far more esoteric than the Van de Graaff generator we'd used to do the same trick back in college.

With a sudden lurch, Sister Impervia's body heaved off the ground and rose into the air. The tips of Myoko's hair lifted too, curling up like a counterbalance...and I told myself perhaps Myoko's brand of telekinesis needed the curling hair to produce counteracting leverage.

What, after all, did I know about the physics of psionics? Nothing. As a scientist, my only certainty was that psychic powers had been foisted on humankind by outer-space high-tech, courtesy of the ultra-advanced aliens known as the League of Peoples. Before the League visited Earth, psionics were a myth; after the League had passed through, ESP and suchlike abilities became undeniable fact, easily reproduced in the lab (and on the back streets of Simka). No one knew how or why the League had given one human in a thousand such a gift; all we could do was marvel at its effects...such as now, when Impervia soared aloft on Myoko's mental hoist, raised high above the mob's clamoring reach.

At first, the fishermen didn't grasp what was happening. One of them actually made a bumbling attempt to leap up and slap Impervia's legs, the way boys jump to tag dangling store signs as they walk down the street. The man missed and thumped heavily to the pavement...which seems to have been the moment at which he and his companions realized there was something less than ordinary about a woman levitating above their heads. They fell back open-mouthed, staring up at Impervia as if she were some new celestial object, a sweat-gleaming chunk of dark matter suspended in the night.

"Ahem. Gentlemen?"

The Steel Caryatid stepped from a doorway five paces down the street. She was pale in the lamplight, the sort of Nordic blonde who looks three-quarters albino...and like many a sorceress, she wore nothing but a skin-tight crimson body sheath. If that sounds seductive, you're too eager to be seduced. The Caryatid was a big-hipped woman of forty, broad, round and motherly; ninety per cent the kind of mother who bakes the best cookies in the neighborhood, and ten per cent the kind who has to be locked in the attic and fed bouillon through a straw.

All the sorcerers I'd known had been that way: a little bit crazy. Or a lot. Maybe it was impossible to learn the craft unless you were slightly divorced from reality; or maybe the things sorcerers did were enough to make a sane person unbalanced. Incantations. Rituals. Attunements. I didn't believe that sorcery was truly supernatural—like psionics, sorcery only started working after the League of Peoples paid their visit to Earth, so "magic" was another type of high-tech in disguise—but even though I knew there had to be a scientific explanation, sorcery and its practitioners could be bone-chillingly creepy.

"Now that my friend is out of reach," the Caryatid told the fishermen, "it's time to say good night. And here's something to light you to bed."

She pulled a match from her sleeve and struck a light on the wall beside her. (The Caryatid possessed an inexhaustible supply of matches; I could almost believe a new box materialized in her pocket whenever an old box ran out.) The match flame flickered in the breeze of the laneway, but after a moment it stabilized.

"Do you like fire?" the Caryatid asked, as if she were speaking to children at storytime. "I don't mean the things fire can do. Do you like fire itself? The look of it. The feel of it." She swept her finger lazily through the flame, just fast enough to avoid getting burned.

None of the fishermen seemed to realize the match was lasting longer than it should. In fact, the men might have been so stupefied at seeing Impervia float overhead, their brains weren't questioning anything.

"I like fire," the Caryatid said. "I've always liked it. Some children talk to their dolls; when I was young, I talked to the hearth. It worried my parents...but fortunately, one of my school teachers realized that wasn't a problem, it was a gift. Something to remember: the right teacher can make such a difference."

Far from burning out, the match flame had begun to grow—roughly the size of a big candle now. Off down the street, Sir Pelinor knocked the broadsword from the Divian's hand and kicked the weapon down a storm sewer drain. "Listen to the lady," Pelinor told the alien.

"Fire loves those who love it back," the Caryatid said. "It's very warm-hearted." She smiled. I usually liked her smile—it was the comfortable sort of smile you might get from a dowdy maiden aunt—but when the Caryatid had a flame in her hand, her smile could send prickles up my spine.

She swept her finger through the matchlight again. The flame curled like a cat responding to a caress. "Fire is a wild animal—not tame, but willing to befriend those who approach it the right way." One by one, she stuck her fingers into the flame and held them there for a full second; one by one, she removed each finger to show a dab of fire on the fingertip. She smiled girlishly at the fishermen. "They tickle," she said, wiggling the tiny flames. "They're furry."

Several fishermen whispered phrases Impervia would class as ignorant and rude. The words sounded more scared than angry.

"Would you like to meet my friends?" the Caryatid asked. Without waiting for an answer, she bent to the ground and lowered her burning hand as if she were setting down a pet mouse. Each of the flames hopped off a finger and onto the pavement—five small points of light. "Go say hello to the nice men," the Caryatid said.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then all five flames bounced into the air, coming down a pace closer to the fishermen. The Divian squealed and bolted. Pelinor stepped aside and waved good-bye as the alien sped past.

The flames leapt again, another pace closer. Each dot of fire was no bigger than a candle, but the fishermen staggered back, their eyes wide. Three more of them broke from the pack and dashed into the night.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," the Caryatid said. "My friends just want to meet you." The flames took another jump.

That was enough for the remaining fishermen. Clambering over each other, howling in fear, they took to their heels and thundered off down the street...all but one. Nathan, sprawled on the pavement, possibly unable to stand because of Impervia's stomp to his foot, screamed one last obscenity and drew a gun from his sleeve.

It was only a tiny pistol, some modern steelsmith's copy of an OldTech Derringer; half those things blew up in their owners' faces within the first ten shots. Still, this was no time for taking chances—Pelinor was way down the street, Myoko had to concentrate on keeping Impervia in the air, and the Caryatid's little flame friends were still several jumps from the fallen fisherman.

Gibbering with terror, Nathan lifted the gun and took shaky aim at the Caryatid.

Making it my turn to act.

My name is Philemon Abu Dhubhai—Doctor Dhubhai, thanks to my Ph.D. in mathematical physics. I shan't describe myself except to say I was thirty-five at the time and much too inclined to gloomy introspection. Amongst our band of tavern-teddies, Impervia had muscles, Pelinor had a sword, Myoko had brainpower, the Caryatid had sorcery, and I...I had a bulging money-purse. My family was stinking rich; even though I'd put an entire ocean between me and my relatives, they still sent regular pouches of gold so I'd never have to besmirch the Dhubhai name by darning my own socks. Therefore when my friends and I visited the drinking establishments of Simka, I always bought the first round of drinks, tipped the barmaid, and paid for broken windows. My role in bar fights wasn't as glamorous as my companions', but it still came in handy. When all else failed, I could throw money at the problem.

So I heaved my change-purse at the fisherman's head. It was a big heavy purse, filled with several kilos of coins; I'd used it as a bludgeon more than once. It hit Nathan's face like a blackjack to the nose. The man's hand went limp and the gun clattered to the cobblestones.

I picked up my purse and gave it a fond little squeeze. As usual, the purse was utterly undamaged. It was made from some rubbery black material no one had ever been able to identify—not even back in college, when a chemist friend tried to analyze it. The best he could tell me was, "Airtight, watertight, impervious to all electromagnetic radiation: probably extraterrestrial in origin"...which didn't come as a surprise. I'd inherited the purse from my grandmother, who'd received it herself from the Spark Lords. Rumor said the Sparks got a lot of inexplicable trinkets from aliens in the upper echelons of the League of Peoples. For all I knew, the lining of my purse contained billions of fancy nano-devices for curing cancer, breaking the speed of light, and brewing a good cup of coffee. But if such devices existed, I had no idea how to activate them; so I used this wonder from beyond the stars for holding my spare change.

(Welcome to our modern world! Where OldTech computers serve as footstools, and the rusted remains of jumbo jets get converted to beer-halls and brothels.)

As I stuffed the purse back into my pocket, I checked that Fisherman Nathan was still breathing. He was. A trickle of blood seeped out of one nostril, but nothing too alarming. I arranged his unconscious body in the classic Recovery Position, designed to make sure drunks don't choke on their own vomit when they're sleeping off a bender.

"Thanks, Phil," the Caryatid said, coming up behind me. Her five tiny flames flickered excitedly, bouncing in a circle around Nathan's fallen pistol. "Now, now," she told them, "leave that nasty thing alone." She knelt on the pavement and held out her arms to the little fires. "Come here, darlings."

All five flames bounded back to her with the enthusiasm of four-year-olds who want a treat. They leapt into the Caryatid's hands, then bounced up higher, brushed past her face with happy little kisses, and vanished into her hair. The sight made me queasy—I once set my hair on fire in a university chem-lab and still had nightmares about it. But no fire would be so presumptuous as to singe the Caryatid.

"That woman is spooky," Myoko whispered to me.

I rolled my eyes. "Says the person who is holding up Impervia by willpower alone."

"Sorry. Forgot."

Myoko let Impervia drift feet first to the ground.

"Thank you, Myoko," Impervia said, adjusting her clothes with casual briskness...or at least attempting to. I couldn't help noticing the good sister winced as she moved; the fishermen had been too drunk to land any truly solid kicks, but there are inevitable cumulative effects of being used as a human soccer ball. Still, Impervia's voice was strong as she told the rest of us, "I found that most invigorating."

"The levitation or the fighting?" I asked.

"Are you suggesting I enjoy fighting?"

"I know better," I answered—and I did know better than to suggest Impervia enjoyed fighting...especially to Impervia's face. "It just seems odd," I said, "how often fights arise in a quiet little town like Simka."

"The Lord provides for his children," Impervia said. "Our Heavenly Father knows my skills would get rusty if they didn't receive constant polishing."

Without another word, she slapped open the door of the tavern and went back inside. As she passed the bar, the tapman handed her a cup of tea. "Longer than usual tonight," he said.

The holy sister sniffed with righteous indignation.

For more, pick up Trapped, available at book stores throughout North America.