The older man smiled at him, gently and agreeably. “Undoubtedly a very worthy objective, sire. But before I can undertake to give you assistance in such a project, there are one or two other matters that I must see to for my master.”
“Oh. I see,” Hissarlik said vaguely. He did not seem to be paying complete attention. His head turned away and his eyes kept straying toward the house, where certain windows on the second floor seemed likely to be those of the entranced family sorceress, next to those of the beautiful blond physician. “And what would those matters be?”
Patiently Chilperic reiterated the story of how sincerely his own dread master, Wood, wished and pined to possess the Sword of Vengeance. Once that goal had been attained, then certainly the mighty Wood would be ready to reward his friend Hissarlik even more generously than by sending a healer provided of course that in the meantime Hissarlik had been of help in recovering the Sword.
Chilperic lowered his voice slightly when he imparted the next bit of information, which was that Wood might even have in mind something like the offer of a real partnership.
The Tyrant, now sitting at ease in a worn-out garden chair, under a leafless tree at one end of his neglected garden, scratched his head. “Well, that’s all very fine, of course. If I had possession of the Sword, or anything else your master wants, I’d gladly give it to him. I hope he knows that. But the truth is I don’t have Farslayer, nor do I know where it is. You don’t believe I have it, do you?”
“Of course not, sire. You don’t have possession of the Sword now. If you did you would already be attacking the Malolo.”
Chilperic paused momentarily. “But I do have an idea as to where it might be found. And how, with some help you can provide, we might be able to recover it.”
“Is that so?” Hissarlik still sounded cautious rather than eager. “What sort of help do you need?”
Chilperic explained briefly about his discovery, this very day, of the dead riding-beast, and his idea that the Sword might be lying at the bottom of the Tungri somewhere in that vicinity. “The water runs quite swiftly there, and I suppose that it is deep. But a creature capable of living and moving easily underwater ought not to have too much trouble in examining the bottom.”
“Yes.” Chilperic pressed on: “Unless I’m mistaken, you Senones folk are able to call upon the local mermaids for service when you wish, though technically the creatures are supposed to be under the lordship of those fools across the river. Their grip on all their vassals, including even the fishgirls, is evidently weakening.”
“Yes, we can call upon mermaids if we wish.” But Hissarlik did not seem to be immediately pleased by the idea of doing so. “If you mean by magic, it was Aunt Meg who generally handled that sort of thing, of course, when she was well.” Then he brightened. “What about your demon? Couldn’t it conduct a search even more swiftly and surely?”
Now it was Chilperic’s turn to be less than enchanted by a suggestion. “The demon has many other tasks to accomplish.”
“I suppose it must have,” the Tyrant agreed somewhat doubtfully.
“Tell me, my friend. Is there something you don’t like about the idea of using mermaids?”
“Well, the truth is that those creatures do tend to be somewhat unreliable. They’re totally lazy, of course. They can be forced magically to do some things, such as coming when they are called though it’s not always certain that they even do that. And there’s no way to force them to obey perfectly when sent out on a mission. Actually they’re a pretty rebellious lot, and all in all more trouble than they’re worth, though we do manage to sell one once in a while.”
Chilperic frowned in thought. “How long have there been mermaids in the river here? I was told their condition was the result of a spell inflicted on some villages by a Senones magician many years ago, in the course of the feud.”
“Yes, that’s correct.” The Tyrant went on to explain that the ancestral magician, whom he claimed as his own great-grandfather, had been still in the process of perfecting the spell when he died. Great-grandfather’s ultimate goal had been to develop some similar curse that might be used directly against the vile Malolo leaders, but their magical defenses had remained too strong.
“And no one since his time has devised a way to lift the spell, or to expand and perfect it as he sought to do?”
“Aunt Meg, as I say, was-is-our best magician. She’s really the one you ought to talk to, as soon as she’s able.” Judging from his confident tone, the Tyrant had great faith in the healer Wood had sent him. “But no, friend Chilperic, as far as I know, no one on our side in modern times has been much interested in using the mermaid spell. I have the idea that somehow it’s impractical. I suppose the Malolo leaders really haven’t cared that much about it, either. It actually doesn’t affect enough of their people to do them any harm. Having a few mermaids about is interesting, and sometimes such creatures command big prices as slaves or oddities. Sometimes the Malolo sell one, sometimes we do.”
“Yes. Now that I come to think of it, I did once hear a rumor that Cosmo, the Malolo who disappeared on the night of the big fight, was tinkering around with the curse, though I don’t know why.”
“It would have been Cosmo’s mount that I found dead today. I think that he was carrying the Sword.”
“Yes, that’s what you were saying. And I have to admit Cosmo may have been the best magician on either side in modern times. But I doubt that he got anywhere trying to revoke the curse, either. People still see mermaids.”
“Indeed. Where, if I may ask, did you hear this rumor about Cosmo’s working on the mermaid curse?”
The Tyrant shrugged. “One hears things sometimes among the servants.” It was obvious that Hissarlik was really not much interested in the subject.
Chilperic stood for a little time in silent thought. He was increasingly intrigued by the fact that this magician,
Cosmo, was the same man who had so cravenly or so wisely-terminated the Sword-throwing fight by absconding with the Sword. But Chilperic made no comment on that fact now.
“So, what about the mermaids?” he asked at last. “With your permission, my friend, I would like to have some of them searching the bottom of the river for the Sword as soon as possible.”
“Very well. We can go down to the river and call some of them up for you.” The Tyrant drummed with his fingers on the arms of the old chair, making no move to get up. “Boats go out to their island more or less regularly. Usually someone in the clan here takes them some food every day or two. We should take food, too. It might work better than such magic as we have available.”
“Food?” Chilperic had thought of mermaids as being somehow completely self-supporting.
“Well, as I understand it, having spent their childhood ashore in villages, sleeping under roofs, and eating in most cases from some kind of plates, even when they grow tails they remain reluctant to bite raw fish and chew on snails they’ve just grubbed up out of the mud. At the same time, since they can’t get about on land, cooking and housekeeping in the traditional ways present them with certain difficulties.”
“Yes. Now that I think about it, I suppose they would.”
“So, in return for some real food, or at least for certain things that pass for real food in the villages, the fishgirls provide us with a few pearls. Or other valuables if they find any. It’s a sporadic kind of barter, that happens when both parties have an urge to trade. No really considerable wealth is involved.”
“I see. How many mermaids do you suppose will show up when you summon them?”
Hissarlik shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we’ll get a dozen if we’re lucky. As I said, there’s a minor control spell that will summon them, or at last those who are within range, to attend us at the water’s edge. It’s related to the spell we use to call up mermaids when we want to sell or rent them out to visiting magicians, or to traveling shows. We rent them, usually. The creatures seldom live beyond the age of thirty, so there’s no great bargain for a purchaser in buying one. When we have them at the shore we can give them orders, and bribe them with food. But as I warned you earlier, the magic for obedience is unreliable, and the orders we give them are seldom or never carried out just as we would wish. So, you see, the curse has never been of much value in a military way.”