A Merchant’s Luck
by Michael R. Meyerhofer
|part 1 of 7|
Castor pulled off his pompous silk cap and tried to wipe his brow, but the cap was already soaked with moisture, and all he succeeded in doing was squeezing some of his own sweat down his bald head and into his eyes. He swore and used the back of his hand instead.
It was not an unusually hot day for summer in the Halfrealms, but Castor was no fan of physical exertion, even if that exertion simply meant holding himself upright in his own magically floating chair.
“Gods, Hess! How much farther is it?”
Castor’s bodyguard, a Satyr warrior-woman whose tolerance for her employer was threadbare at best, snorted in derision. “This was your idea, Castor! If it were up to me, we would have just stayed put in Rayne!”
Despite his foul mood, Castor found himself concealing a smile. “What, and deprive Duke Meddo’s men of my brushes?”
Aesho Hess gave him a withering glance. “Brushes are for hair. Not for teeth.”
You might not say that if you could smell your own breath, Castor thought, but kept this to himself. “Aren’t you supposed to speak to me with more respect?” he said instead.
Hess said, “You pay me for my sword-arm, Castor. Not my courtesy.”
Castor smiled openly. “True.”
“Anyway,” his Satyr bodyguard said after a moment, “we’re not far. Xozaria is only three or four days now, although this path still takes us far too close to Nelophi for my liking.” She cast a baleful glance at the dark, twisted forest that bordered the south side of worn road.
Castor yawned and tried to stretch as well as his chair allowed. “I told you, don’t worry. Xozaria has a peace treaty with the Dusk Elves. The roads are safe.”
Hess narrowed her violet eyes, one hand brushing her sword-hilt. “So says Meddo, you mean.”
Castor nodded. “Sure. But he has no reason to lie. He wants these brushes!” He gestured at the fully-loaded wagons behind them. “Besides, business was turning in Rayne. I think we’d sold about as much there as we’re ever going to.”
Hess turned and gave him a slight, sardonic smile. “Especially if the Merchants’ Guild discovers just why your brushes are so good at what they do!”
Castor’s eyes widened. “Lower your voice!” He glanced over his shoulder and over the high back of his floating chair, but the wagon guards were too far away to hear. “The last thing I need is you ruining my business — or getting me killed, for that matter!”
Hess snorted again but said nothing.
Castor forced himself to relax. He knew the way was long, and allowing himself to become tense would only quicken his blood and make him sweat harder. He closed his eyes, thinking of ice and cool wine. When this failed to comfort him, he thought about his own success.
Castor’s Miraculous Mouthbrushes were the wonder of all the lands. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone flocked to buy one. Scholars hailed his invention as the greatest feat of sorcery the Halfrealms ever produced. Never mind the floating castles of the Knaves’ Guild or those jewel-scaled dragons of the east, migrating in blinding flights over the waves of the Violet Sea. Forget those sorcerers boasting how they can raise golems out of mud and (when absolutely necessary) the tangerine excrement of kobolds. Castor’s brushes put all of these to shame.
Only two people knew the truth: Castor’s brushes were not magic at all. What actually made his brushes so adept at dissolving the rot from teeth was soaking the horsehair bristles in the clear, putrid bile of the Halfrealms’ most detested creatures, a race held in even lower regard than the Dusk Elves, namely Goblins.
Castor smiled. Had the Halfrealms’ nobility in particular known that they were cleaning their own mouths with the bile of Goblins, a race synonymous with filth and disease, they would have had Castor’s head on a platter. But his secret was safe. Castor knew that despite the occasional irksome remark, Aesho Hess was probably the most loyal bodyguard in all the Halfrealms. And Castor certainly wasn’t about to breathe a word of his secret.
The Wytch Guild is already trying night and day to figure it out, he thought. For years, irked by Castor’s success, the Wytch Guild had tried to use their impressive magic to create mouthbrushes of their own. These efforts had resulted in nothing but notorious and wholly embarrassing failures. But they were looking in the wrong place.
Castor himself had gotten the idea to soak his brushes in Goblin bile only after listening to an old wives’ tale in the east, about peasants who used Goblin bile to clean their dirty crockery. But of course, the pompous sorcerers of the Wytch Guild would never lower themselves to taking an old wives’ tale seriously!
Castor laughed to himself. He heard Hess ask, “Should I even ask what you find so amusing?” Castor opened his eyes. He gave his bodyguard an appraising glance. Despite having known her for years, from time to time, her appearance still left him speechless.
Hess herself seemed more than a little self-conscious of her own equine hindquarters. The armor Hess wore from the waist down — greaves, cuisses, an ankle-length skirt of chain mail — seemed meant less for protection than to conceal her Satyr nature. But from the waist up, Aesho wore almost nothing.
While most female Satyrs wore no clothes at all, Hess had reluctantly agreed to a small measure of modesty, and graced her womanly, sun-bronzed torso with a tight hauberk that ended at her midriff. Castor wondered sometimes if Hess appreciated the stares she received, if for no other reason than they drew attention away from the very back-bent, horse-haired legs she walked on.
Of course, Castor thought, even if she went topless, she couldn’t do anything about the horns!
Unlike the thick, protruding ram horns of male Satyrs, Aesho’s horns extended like delicate, Elfish cursive behind her long, tapered ears. There were many — especially among the Wytch Guild — who called Satyrs abominations, just one step away from the bestial, malodorous Centaurs. But Castor found her rather striking; that is, now that he’d grown accustomed to the horns complimenting her fine features, violet eyes, and the russet braids hanging well past her sword-belt.
Castor knew she longed to pay a sorcerer to reshape her body, make her entirely human; but that was impossible. Legend had it that long ago, a race whose name had passed into memory had been cursed by the gods, transformed into Satyrs. The Satyrs were an old race — one of the oldest in all the Halfrealms, steeped in tradition — and they held a deep belief that to defy a curse from the gods was to bring about one’s own death.
A lot of superstitious nonsense, if you ask me! Castor thought.
Aesho Hess caught him staring. “I wish you’d stop that,” she grumbled. “I’m paid to keep you from dying, not to be gawked at.”
“Sorry,” Castor answered, blushing. “It’s your own fault, you know. If you weren’t so scared of heights, we could be in Xozaria by now.”
Hess curled her lip. “If you want to trust your precious skull to a Roc’s tail feathers, go right ahead! Me, I’m keeping my feet on the ground where they belong.” She stamped one hoof and snorted derisively.
Castor concealed a grin. There were very few things in the Halfrealms that his bodyguard feared, but heights was one of them. “Fine, Faun,” he said, resorting to his pet name for her in an effort to calm her nerves. “Just to be safe, can you smell any Dusk Elves nearby?”
Copyright © 2009 by Michael R. Meyerhofer