Sunday, 16 June 2013

In Which Saeed Encounters A Masque In Jeopardy

Saeed was a young man who did not really look at the world in terms of security versus danger. Anyone outside of Saeed's life would have pointed out that by the time the young thief was old enough to appreciate security he was already living in a state of constant danger. This probably helped him to view dangerous situations with a cool and rational mind. To Saeed life was danger and vice versa. Not that he would say something so grandiose because only those people for whom life might not be danger would say them.

Saeed's phlegmatic attitude to sneaking around a cave network tracking a man in a dark cloak leading two muscular talking wolves carrying a pallet bearing a chest of dragon crystals was probably born of these life circumstances. Certainly Saeed did not resent Kalico for sending him on this mission, nor did he fear that he would be unable to return to the Patchwork Market with the intelligence that he had gained.

Did this make Saeed a hero? Or more of a fool? How large is the gap between these two states of being anyway? Saeed didn't bother himself too much with pontification on any of these topics. So you can if you want. In the meanwhile, however, Saeed continued to ease through the shadows following the man in the dark cloak and his consignment of mysterious Dragon Crystals.

After walking along a number of passageways, up various ramps carved into the rock and along winding extensive tunnel sections, Saeed decided that the party he was following were headed in roughly one direction and climbing upwards as they did so. They moved from the cold of the tunnels where they had arrived throughh the magic portal into an area that appeared to have more architecture.

They had not been walking too long before the man in the black cloak stopped outside a large wooden door. He opened the door with a key he retrieved from his belt and lead the wolves inside with the crystals. After a few minutes the man in the black cloak emerged alone, closed the door and locked it behind him. He continued on his way through the tunnel complex without the wolves or the dragon crystals.

Saeed had to make a split second decision, try to break into the cellar storage room to follow the crystals, or follow the man in the black cloak. He decided on the latter course of action because there was always a chance Saeed might be given the opportunity to steal the key from the man. Besides, Saeed knew the man had a wand that could open magic portals. Maybe he had just opened a portal back to Sorrowblade for the wolves inside that room.

What would Saeed do with a room full of dragon crystals? He didn't even know what dragon crystals were. The choice was really no choice. He must follow the man in the black cloak to find any further information on the situation.

The man soon came to a set of steps leading up out of the tunnel network. Saeed had to be careful now as the stairwell doubled back on itself every ten steps. Saeed could not allow himself to be seen but he didn't want to lose the man either. He had to stay two staircases behind and follow the footsteps.

At the top of the stairs there was a metal gate, the man unlocked it, passed through and locked it behind him. This was a disaster. Saeed had to stay out of sight one staircase down to evade detection. He heard the man lock the gate and walk away before he could hurry after. The gate was of the barred variety with three cross bars dividing the gate into fifteen narrow barred slits arranged in five colums of three gaps each.

Saeed could probably ease himself through, except for his head. His ears would probably cause a problem. He was sure he could best the slits eventually but what if he was discovered in the meanwhile? Saeed did not relish the thought of being captured. He would only come back here if he could not find another way out.

He returned down the stairwell to the bottom, where the cellar area was laid out. The passage stretched off for about three hundred paces in both directions. The way Saeed had come the passage terminated a ramp that curved away into the cave network, at the other in a blank wall. Doors were placed along the corridor at odd intervals. To the cave network end the doors were all blank stout wood. Towards the other end some had hatches at the height of an adult head.

Saeed recognised a prison cell when he saw one. He wondered if there were any prisoners down here. There was only one way to find out.

Saeed started with the cells at the far end of the passage and worked his way back towards the cell, knocking on each door as he went. After seven doors there had been no answer to his muted knocking. At the eighth he found what he had been looking for.

"Who's there?" came a voice.

"You are a prisoner of the man in the black cloak?" Saeed asked.

"Who are you?" the voice replied.

"My name is Saeed," Saeed said. "I am a thief from the streets of Old Araby. I have taken a vow to never again tell a lie and am seeking to reconcile the last untruth that crossed my lips with the spirit of my dead mother."

"Are you making some sort of a joke?" asked the voice. "Is this some sort of trap?"

"You are already in a trap my friend," Saeed replied. "Think seriously, would the man in the black cloak really try to play a trick on you concerning an honest thief addressing you through your cell door?"

"Cankerthorn is an odd duck, for certain," the voice responded. "Although he does not appear to have any whimsy about him. So, what are you doing here honest thief from a long vanished land?"

"This Cankerthorn," Saeed explained. "He is involved in business dealings with a certain knight at the Patchwork Market, I have been asked to find out the nature of these deals and report back to the Master of the Market."

"Sounds like the slimy toad who threw me in this room to die," the voice answered. "So why have you come here to disturb my long, silent captivity?"

"Cankerthorn has left this underground area via a staircase about two hundred paces hence. There is a locked gate at the head of the stairs and I am reluctant to attempt to bypass it without first assessing my options. You are my first option."

"What kind of an option is that, boy?" the voice asked. "I am no more than an old prisoner in a dank cell, lost and forgotten for centuries, in danger of coming undone at any moment and subliming into ether."

"Are you a djinn?" Saeed asked. He knew a little about beings of ether, djinn as they were called in Afsana.

"Ha, well, yes and no," the voice said. "I am of the primary order of sprite. I am a servant to my master, an agent of the great Wheel, as such my sub-species is actually referred to as a masque. Djinn are cousins of mine though."

"Well, as I understand it djinn have some power. Maybe we could assist one another. If I were to set you free, what could you do for me?"

"I do not think you will be able to set me free," the masque replied. "If you could then I would be able to return to my master's hands, he would be very grateful for my safe deliverance. I think this is a task that is too difficult for you."

"I am willing to try," Saeed said. "What is the harm."

"Ah, well, for that you will have to see my prison," the masque said. "Open the door to the cell, it is not locked. Have the utmost care as you do so, however, my life depends upon your stealth and dexterity."

Saeed smiled. "I flatter myself to believe that your health and well being could not be better entrusted to the stealth and dexterity of any other person," he said. "I shall open the door."

Taking heed of the masque's words Saeed carefully turned the handle of the door, lifting the latch and easing the door open on its heavy metal hinges. It complained and stuck a little but Saeed took care to open the door only as far as was necessary to slip inside.

Once he got into the cell, and his eyes adjusted to the gloomy interior of the chamber, Saeed understood the masque's concerns. A mirror was placed upon the floor of the cell and above it hung a sword suspended by a gossamer thread. Inside the body of the mirror Saeed could make out the sad face of the masque peering upwards at the sword hanging before it.

"Careful," the masque said. "The slightest disturbance and the thread may break, this isn't a mirror prison that can be opened by breaking the glass. In fact, if the glass is cracked I will be instantly constricted into the ether. It will take a great deal of magical energy to retrieve me then and, to be honest, I know of no magic worker that would ever bother."

"So how can I get you out?" Saeed asked, trying not to breathe in the direction of the sword.

"You need to turn the mirror upside down, that opens a portal into the tiny world inside the mirror. Do not try to pick up the mirror without first uncrewing it, it is held down. Do not attempt to pull down the sword, it is too heavy and has been enchanted to fall straight into the surface of the mirror at the slightest hint of interference."

"So I need to unscrew the mirror and slide it out from under the sword?" Saeed asked.

"You must remove all six screws that hold the mirror to the floor," the masque said. "Without the vibrations of the screws causing the sword to fall. It's an impossible task."

"Things that are tricky are not impossible," Saeed said. "That's why they call them tricky."

"I don't know," the masque said. "I think this is probably impossible."

"When I asked my mother," Saeed said, "what stopped the sorcerers from taking over Afsana and ruling the kingdoms of Araby with magic, she told me that magic was delicate and required a particular balance to work. Whenever an enchantment is cast there must always be some kind of an exception or loophole by which the enchantment may be undone. The powers that be do not permit the unchecked manipulation of magical forces."

"You talk of etheric philosophy with a sprite?" the masque complained. "I know this as well as anyone but I do not know the secret of Cankerthorn's enchantment."

"Maybe we do not need to," Saeed said. "I shall survey further the resources available and return with a solution."

"I'm glad you're so confident," the masque said, his lack of faith in Saeed showed through in every word.

Saeed didn't allow the misery to affect him. In Saeed's world you could either get something done or it was impossible, there was no sense in worrying about whether a task fell into one category or the other. He slipped out of the cell door again to make his way down the corridor, past the stairway and into the side of the passage lined with storage rooms rather than prison cells.

It didn't take him long to find an unlocked door. It appeared that the storage nearest the stairs was used to store the things that were most common. He found a maintenance room filled with mops, small towels, bottles of chemicals, rags, buckets and other ephemera associated with running a clean castle and dungeon. In here Saeed found a tool suitable for unscrewing the mirror from the floor. The only question was whether he could do all six without the sword falling and dispersing the masque.

Saeed did not think that he could specifically achieve this without some further assistance. So he continued to search the storage rooms. Four rooms further on he found an armory. He immediately took note when he saw that the items in the room all glowed with a soft blue-white light indicating that they were imbued with some sort of magic.

Saeed looked over a rack of buckler shields all of which shared the luminous property. Logically it did not seem that one would enchant a shield to weaken it. An idea began to form in Saeed's mind. Saeed took the screwdriver he had pulled out of the box in the maintenance room and tried to gouge or scuff the surface of one of the bucklers. The tip of the screwdriver could not even make the smallest scratch upon the shield's surface.

"I think that this will be an excellent solution," Saeed muttered under his breath, lifting the buckler from the rack.

He made his way back down the corridor to the masque's cell. He had to slide the buckler carefully through the door to rest against the wall before entering the room himself. As Saeed squeezed himself round the door he could hear the masque tutting and fretting to itself.

Once he was in Saeed crept forward to the edge of the mirror.

"I have a solution," he said to the masque in the hushed tone he had become used to when crouching near to the sword.

"What is it?" the masque asked, it did not sound happy but maybe there was an edge of hope in its voice.

"I have a magic buckler," Saeed explained. "It repels damage. I also have a screwdriver," he held up the tool so the masque could see it, "I will slide the magic buckler under the sword and attempt to unscrew the mirror. If the sword falls it will not strike the surface of the mirror. If you are not sure that this is adequate then I am afraid my only other option is to leave."

The masque thought this over for a moment, then it said:

"I have been trapped behind this glass for far too long, if I am dispersed then there is always some hope that a magician will pull me out of the ether one day. While I wait in here I have no such hope. Put the shield over my mirror and proceed with your plan."

Saeed did as he was told. He put the buckler carefully under the point of the sword before beginning to work out the screws that held the mirror down on the stone floor of the cell. He managed to unscrew four of the six without incident, the fifth he attempted turned out to have been caught on its thread. Swiftly he switched to the other remaining screw, undoing that one before returning to the one that had stuck.

He tried to bear down on the screw, pressing his weight onto the screwdriver head to give it more purchase. The screw slowly began to turn but as it did there was the merest vibration as part of the thread ground against the stone of the screwhole. The tiny quiver seemed to expand out through the stone walls of the cell and eventually reached the thread that suspended the sword over the buckler.

The blade of the sword sang the lightest, quietest high note you can imagine and then the thread snapped.

Saeed rolled back out of the way of the blade, hoping the buckler's magic would hold. It did hold, just but the point of the magic sword pierced the protective energy surrounding the shield resulting in a bright white flash as the magical energy dispelled. The sword fell to the floor, no longer a threat but the force of the magical discharge was sufficient to blow the shield into the air to spin above the mirror.

If the shield caught the glass the wrong way when it fell the glass would shatter. The sword had been enchanted to fall towards the mirror but the shield was not. Saeed leaped forward plucking the shield out of the air before it could strike the mirror's surface to land against the cell wall, breathing heavily, his heart hammering in his throat.

"So, have you finished?" came the voice of the masque.

Saeed nearly burst out laughing as the tension gripping his insides dispelled. He scrambled back to the last screw and quickly removed it.

"All done!" he announced. "Are you ready?"

"I can't believe that I am about to be freed," the masque rejoiced. "Please, quickly."

Saeed picked up the mirror and held it out in front of him. He flipped it round so that the surface was facing downwards. There was a feeling of movement from the bottom of the mirror and the masque dislodged itself from its prison.

The masque, that resembled a tiny goblin dressed in a fool's motley, jumped down onto the floor of the cell. It worked any kinks out of its muscles by doing a little jig.

"Oh yes!" it crowed. "Free! Free! Free at last! I can feel my powers returning." It turned to look up at Saeed as the young thief rested the mirror prison carefully against one wall. "I have been so long in that mirror that I will need a little time to rest and recharge," it said. "So I will leave you to receive appropriate thanks from my master. For my own part I can only assure you that you have rendered myself, and hence the forces of the wheel a great service on this day Saeed. I bid you farewell."

With that the little sprite reached up to fiddle with something behind his left ear. He unhooked something and pulled at the corner of his face. Saeed was amazed to see the spirit's face come away in his hand. The little sprite gripped at the freshly exposed edge and pulled his face right off.

Saeed didn't know by what mechanism a tiny little goblin in motley became the curled up figure of a tall, thin man dressed in a great coat, a tall hat proud upon his head, but the transformation happened. The man held a mask, moulded into the shape of the little sprite's face, in his left hand. This new figure filled the room with a great deal more presence than his servant.

Saeed did not know much about the nature of gods, or the difference between gods and powerful djinn, but he knew magical power when he saw it, ever since he had seen the shade of death standing over the body of his mother.

"Saeed ibn Abihi, an honour to make your direct acquaintance," the man in the tall hat said. He grinned a white and perfect grin that made Saeed want to go and pick a pocket, just to prove he could.

"You have the advantage of me, sir," Saeed said politely. "I am afraid that I do not know your name."

"Some days," the man in the tall hat said, "I can hardly remember my own name, so there's no shame in it escaping someone else. I must thank you for returning this little masque to me. Every one of my missing children is like a small shard of glass in my tender heart. Every one returned a blessed relief."

"I am happy to be of service, sir," Saeed said. "Your servant was of the opinion that you may wish to render me some assistance in return. If you could that would lighten the load on my heart, for I am far from home and a little lost."

"Indeed you are," the man in the tall hat said as if he knew every move that Saeed had ever made, and who was to say that he didn't? "So, where would you like to go? The souk?"

"Oh no, sir," Saeed said. "When I lost my mother in the souk it ceased to be my home. In truth I would like to be nowhere better than by her side again, so that I could apologise for the lie that I told her when she was alive."

"If I could send you straight there I would," the man in the tall hat said. "You have some more to do before that day comes."

"Then I should return to Kalico, the Master of the Patchwork Market," Saeed said. "It is for his sake that I have made my present journey and I have much to report to him."

"Kalico," the man in the tall hat said. "Like the Master of every Market I have had some occasion to cut a deal with that individual. He has a heart of stone but it burns in the centre like a furnace. I can take you back to the Master's Tower in the blink of an eye, if you're sure that's where you want to go."

"I made him a promise," Saeed said. "If I do not honour it then I will have gone against the vow I made to always be honest."

"I love a paradox!" the man in the tall hat crowed. "And you my little honest thief are one of life's golden nuggets in that regard. Now, I left a door round here somewhere. I tend to leave them wherever I go and Cankerthorn has certainly earned my attention in the past."

The man in the tall hat opened the door of the cell and, Saeed following along behind, walked down to the blank wall at the end of the passage. He reached out into the blank stone of the wall and undid a latch hidden, seemingly, inside the rock. He pulled open a wooden door that emerged from the dead end in a similar manner to the one in which a tiny goblin had turned into a thin man in a tall hat.

Saeed peered through the open doorway and was amazed to see Kalico, sat at his desk, his back to the door. The Master of the Market was mere feet away, working, oblivious to the man in the tall hat or Saeed.

"He won't hear you until you step through," the man explained. "It's the way my connecting doors work."

"Thank you, sir," Saeed said happily. "I am honoured to receive your assistance."

"Think nothing of it," the man in the tall hat replied. "If you were stuck here then how would it come that the weave would deliver you back to me at the appointed hour?"

"Am I to understand that we should meet again?" Saeed asked, choosing his words carefully.

Careful or not the man in the tall hat said nothing, just motioned for Saeed to step forward as the wide, white smile shone out of wide, thin-lipped mouth.

Saeed stepped forward without receiving an answer to his question, in the fullness of time he did meet with the man in the tall hat again, but that is a story for another time.


  1. Sorry about the absence of paragraph breaks everybody. Blogger having a funny five minutes by the look of things.

  2. Obviously, I meant when it went up. It's all fine now.