Authors: John DeChancie
This book is dedicated to Ann Cecil, Barb Carlson, Kevin, Charlene, and Sasha Riley, Glenn Chambers, Mary Tabasko, Deborah Ayres, Don Cox, Erin Kelly, Jim Lutton, Matt Urick, Jeff Nartic, Janet Staples, Nancy Janda, Lara VanWinkle, Don Turner, Randy Hoffman and all the members of the Pittsburgh Area Realtime Scientifiction Enthusiasts’ Club, affectionately known as PARSEC.
"Fairy fair, Fairy fair, wish thou me well;
'Gainst evil witcheries weave me a spell!"
— Nora Archibald Smith (1859-1934)
Our Story Begins
Once upon a time, in a great enchanted castle far, far away, there lived two apprentice magicians, Thorsby and Fetchen by name.
They liked to party.
Drinking and wenching were their chief avocations, magic being merely something they had to do to earn their keep. Mediocre sorcerers, they were quite adept at procrastination. In fact, at the craft of inventing excuses to take longer than was necessary to accomplish their appointed tasks, and in the fine art of goldbricking in general, they were past masters.
And they were continually being called on the carpet for it.
Thorsby looked up from his gin rummy hand. “Sorry, Spellmaster. What was it you said?"
“Stand to attention!"
Thorsby and Fetchen shot to their feet. Cards fluttered to the oaken floor.
Spellmaster Grosmond clasped his hands behind his back and paced back and forth in front of them, dressing them up and down with dark, close-set hawk's-eyes. He didn't like what he saw.
He stopped before Thorsby, bringing his nose to within an inch of the apprentice's.
“Were you or were you not supposed to look after the ventilation spell in the east wing of the keep?"
“I was, sir."
“And did you?"
“I ... I'm afraid I haven't got to it quite yet, sir."
“Not quite yet. I see. And might I ask when you'll be troubling yourself?"
“Uh, immediately, sir. I was just going to get to it after break."
“Ah, you're on break, are you?"
“Both of you?"
“Yes, sir,” Fetchen confirmed.
“Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't you two been on break all morning?"
“No, sir!” they piped.
“I swear I walked past this ready room just after breakfast and saw the two of you fiddling with pasteboard, just as now."
“Sir, couldn't have been us,” Thorsby suggested.
“I suppose not. My mistake."
Stroking his gray beard, Grosmond sidestepped to Fetchen.
“Am I again mistaken or did I see a report about flies in the Queen's Dining Hall on this morning's task sheet?"
“You did, sir."
“And did you, Master Fetchen, as Pest-Remover-on-Watch, go to the Queen's Dining Hall and find flies?"
“Yes, sir. Swarms of them. How they got there is anyone's guess."
“I could venture one. They came through a nearby outdoor portal, caught the scent of food, and went directly thence. Sound plausible to you?"
“Rather plausible at that, sir."
“So let me ask you this, Master Fetchen. Why are there still swarms of flies—nay, a blizzard of them, buzzing madly about—in the Queen's Dining Hall?"
“Sir, they didn't respond to the usual fly-shooing spell."
“Oh, they didn't?"
“No, sir. These appear not to be your ordinary run of fly."
“Not your ordinary run of fly. I see, I see. And when the fly-shooing enchantment didn't work, what did you do?"
“Well, nothing for the moment, Spellmaster, except to seek out Journeyman Quesnor and solicit advice."
“And what advice did Journeyman Quesnor have for you?"
“None, sir. I couldn't find him."
“'And,’ sir? Well, I didn't quite know what to do then, sir."
“Oh, you didn't?"
“Uh ... no, sir."
“I see. So you did nothing, and the king's Guests had no breakfast this morning."
“Well, there was nothing I could have done about it, sir."
“Nothing. And here you sit, playing gin."
“Uh ... well, sir. You see, it's like this—"
"Shut that jabbering hole of yours!"
Grosmond continued pacing, his long black robes sweeping the crumb-littered floor.
“This place is a sty,” he grumbled. “Did it ever occur to any one of you apprentices to take a whisk broom—? Ah, never mind."
He whirled on the two of them.
“Mark my words. I've had my eye on the twain of you. You're alike, two peas in a pod. Whenever trouble arises, somehow you two turn up at the bottom of it."
Thorsby said, “Sir, you really oughtn't—"
Grosmond folded his arms and tapped his right toe. “I've had enough of your lollygagging and a bellyful of your endlessly inventive excuses. You two will either shape up or be sacked from the apprentice program."
Fetchen piped, “You may rest assured we'll do the former, sir!"
“Oh, may I? I'm not at all sure. Well, we'll see. Meanwhile, I'm taking you off regular day shift and putting you on special detail."
Thorsby ventured, “May I ask, Spellmaster, what special detail?"
“You may. Recently an ancient storage room was discovered in the cellar of the King's Tower. Hadn't been entered in years. No dust spell, or the one that'd been laid on long ago had fizzled. Consequently, the place is a mess. Have you heard of this?"
“Uh, yes, sir,” Fetchen said. “They say there's many a curious artifact down there."
“Yes, possibly quite a number of historical value, once the Chamberlain can get in there to sort things out. But he can't until the place is cleaned up."
“A dust-vanishing spell will do the trick, sir,” Thorsby offered. “We can do those right well, sir."
“No vanishing spells!” Grosmond warned. “You might magick something of value into oblivion. No, lads. Elbow grease will be your philtre, a broom your only talisman."
“Really, sir,” Fetchen protested weakly.
Grosmond drew menacingly close to him. “Do I hear an objection?"
Fetchen swallowed. “None, Spellmaster Grosmond."
Grosmond smiled sweetly. “I thought not."
He turned and began walking out of the ready room.
“Get down there now, and be quick about it!” he growled over his shoulder.
“Yes, sir!” the two chorused.
When Grosmond's footsteps faded, Thorsby called out, “Ready—salute!"
Thumbs came up sharply to meet noses.
“The old fart's losing it. He really didn't remember it was us this morning."
“And mostly every morning,” Thorsby guffawed. He yawned and looked at the clock. “Lunchtime, almost."
“Let's get down there and start,” Fetchen said. “Or Grosmond'll roast our arses. We'll stop by the kitchen and pick up grub."
“Capital idea. And a bottle of something, too."
They sauntered out of the room, leaving their gin hands to decorate the floorboards.
“Trent? Wake up, dear."
He opened his eyes to a bright blue sky. The sun was low; it was late afternoon. A soft salt breeze blew in from the ocean.
Sheila, his wife, was bending over him, hand on his shoulder. “You were moaning. Having a bad dream?"
He sat up on the chaise longue. Before him lay the aquamarine expanse of the hotel swimming pool, placid in the declining tropical sun. The shadows of palm trees crossed its deep end.
He rubbed his eyes, then yawned.
“Are you okay?” she asked him.
“Yeah, sure. Just a dream."
“Don't quite remember. Weird ... just weird."
He looked at Sheila. She was tall, red-haired and beautiful, and he loved every inch of her. He surveyed her up and down, as if for the first time. She was quite fetching, especially in this colorful, delightfully translucent silk frock.
“Our guests are going to arrive any minute,” she said.
“Guests?” He had a sense that he'd been away for some time. The dream...
“Our cocktail party for Incarnadine's birthday? He didn't want a fuss made, so we're throwing him a little shindig by the pool. Remember?"
“Oh. Yeah. Sure, sure. Is Inky here yet?"
“Not yet,” Sheila said, turning. “But here's Gene and Linda."
“Yo, dudes!” Gene called. “And dudesses."
“Hello!” Sheila went to greet the first of her guests.
Trent yawned again. “Man, I gotta stop eating those submarine sandwiches so late at night."
He shucked his terrycloth shirt and walked to the deep end of the pool. Mounting the diving board, he walked to its far extremity and bounced up and down a few times, then took a few steps back. After a moment's mental preparation, he took three even strides, jumped, and dove, his body straight and true, his trajectory a perfect arch. He cut the surface cleanly, with minimum splashing, like a thrown spear.
The cool chlorinated water washed the sleep from him. He stayed submerged, relishing the hushed drone of underwater sounds and exploring the pool's bubbling blue-green depths.
Not much down here. Bare concrete below; a drain. He gave some thought to going snorkeling soon, or at least taking the glass-bottomed tour boat out to explore the local marine life, plentiful in this world of mostly ocean. He had always had a passing interest in marine biology.
Then again ... to hell with it.
Of late he had found it increasingly difficult to work up enthusiasm for much of anything. Maybe it was his job. He ran Club Sheila, which in any other world would have entailed bossing the staff, booking blocks of rooms and function space for tours and conventions, keeping the books, placating irate guests, and performing the hundreds of other duties that the job of running a major resort would require. But this world was different. The hotel, the pool, the cabanas, even most of the guests, were phantasms. Magical constructs conjured out of the occult ether by his wife, a powerful sorceress. The place really needed no looking after. How it all worked was beyond him. He himself—a magician of no mean talents—had never worked conjuring magic on such a scale.
Yet, here it was. Club Sheila. SheilaWorld. Real, down to its inscribed ashtrays and custom matchbooks; real unto the satin sheets and the tiny complimentary bars of beauty soap in the hotel's luxurious marble bathrooms.
Real down to the very swimming pool in which he was running out of breath. He angled toward the surface.
He broke water to the sound of laughter and clinking glasses. The staff had set up tables and a portable bar at the other end of the pool. A few more guests had arrived. Trent did a slow dog paddle to the edge of the pool.
“What are you drinking?” Cleve Dalton asked Lord Peter Thaxton.
“Something called a Samoan Fogcutter."
“Sounds potent. What's in it?"
“Rum and a hodgepodge of sweet stuff.” Lord Peter wrinkled his nose. “Don't like drinks with little umbrellas and things in them."
“This is good."
“That? What is it?"
“Mai Tai. Rum, grenadine, and a bunch of juices."
“Heavy on the rum today, eh? Well, I'll have one of these and then switch to Scots whisky neat."
More guests arrived, and more exotic drinks were made and handed out. Food lay heaped on a nearby table, the theme Polynesian: pineapple and roast pig and fire-baked fish and steamed seafood and tropical fruit in dozens of dishes.
“What kind of drink is that?” Linda asked Melanie McDaniel. “Looks strange."
“A Blue Lagoon,” freckle-faced Melanie told her. “I asked for something really different, and I got something blue."
“What's in it?"
“I don't know."
The bartender—a thin young man who looked a bit like a young Elisha Cooke, Jr.—said, “Blue curaçao, ma'am, along with Triple Sec, vodka, and pineapple juice."
“Tastes pretty good,” Melanie said after taking a sip.