Earth: Town of Simka, Feliss Province
One day before the spring equinox 2457 A.D.
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
“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 Mends 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 future…like 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 Volantes…you know him?”
We nodded. I had no direct acquaintance with the unfortunate Mr. Volantes, 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 résumé 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.”
“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.”
“If!” The head fisherman looked at the five of us, then emitted what would be called a Hearty Guffaw by anyone who didn’t disdain words like Hearty. And Guffaw. “These pantywaists,” the man said, “will fall down if I breathe on them.”
“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.