Sylvia placed one finger on the spoon swirling around in the clay coffee mug to make it stop. She could see that the food stains were still visible on the tunic in the nearby washtub.
She rose from stooping over and stretched her back. The little aches and pains had become more persistent of late, and that had her worried. She was not all that old; in her late twenties. But the life of a do-everything servant was in no way like the pampered existence of the women living on top of the hill.
Looking down into the water in the tub, she saw a clear reflection. Midnight-black hair, wide-set blue eyes under long lashes, a button of a nose over a mouth too wide for her narrow face. She was possibly average, she told herself. Not a head-turner, but surely one of the craftsmen along the street would eventually notice - if only they would summons enough courage to visit the home of a wizard. She straightened and stretched because it felt good, but then immediately slumped. Yeah, she would be noticeable to a brave man who stood seven feet maybe. Why was she so damn tall?
“Where is my robe?” A raspy voice thundered through the curtains leading to the front room. “The one with the logos that shows clearly that I am a wizard.”
“It’s not ready yet,” Sylvia yelled back. She resumed twirling the spoon, and the water in the washtub resumed sloshing in response. 'Like produces like.', she thought. So much easier than wrestling with the full load in the tub. “You have to put on a fresh undertunic as well. The other one is too smelly.”
“They will be too distracted by the imps to notice,” the wizard, Rangoth, said as he limped into the scullery. He was short and thin with loose flesh hanging like empty hammocks from seldom used arms. The skin on his pockmarked face looked like old leather that had outlived its use.
Through rheumy eyes, he scanned the room. “Thaumaturgy!” he spat, pointing at the clay mug.
“You know I do not care for the exercise of any of the other crafts here. They detract from my performances.”
Sylvia sighed. “We have been over this many times, Master. The days in which all the five arts were shrouded in secrecy have long since passed. Now, even children can cast a spell or two.” She waved her hand over the pile of dirty clothes still to be washed. “And without a few simple aids, a lone person such as myself cannot cater to all your needs.”
“Aids? Wizardry is not a sling around a broken arm. It takes strength of will, a fundamental belief in oneself.”
“Yes, yes,” Sylvia sighed again. “Wizardry is the most elegant craft of them all. Far better than mastery of alchemy, magic, or even sorcery. All four of the others are inferior arts.”
“The most elegant here in Procolon,” Rangoth began repeating the patter he made Sylvia suffer through daily. “The most elegant in Procolon, Ethidor, and the other kingdoms to the south.”
“And Arcadia across the great ocean,” Sylvia chimed in. “Everywhere on Murdina, wizardry is best. I remember, Master. I really do.”
“To be a great wizard, desire alone is not enough,” Rangoth continued.
“No, as you always say, most important is a belief in oneself.”
“Ah, the days of yore,” Rangoth continued with a far-away look in his eyes. “Did I tell you of the time I summoned up not only one but two lightning djinns at the same time? One is a challenge for anyone, of course. But two, each determined to dominate my will rather than the other way around. Remarkable! The first was the stronger. He ...”
“Yes, yes. Many times, Master, you have told me. Wizardry is best, and you are the best of wizards. Now, please go back and study the notes I have transcribed for you on how your presentation is to proceed. The one this afternoon could be important. A performance for no less than one of the more prominent nobles on the hill. We don’t want the same thing to happen as the last time you faltered.”
Rangoth mumbled something incoherent and shuffled back out of the scullery. Sylvia stared at the pile of clothing still to be washed, contemplating what to do next. She wrung out the garments and put them into a drying basket before throwing in another load of soiled clothes. It shouldn’t matter, but to be sure, she emptied the mug and refilled it again from the tub.
“Once together, always together,” she said to herself. “The Principle of Contagion.” Finally, she voiced the simple charm that activated the spell.
Then she sat back down and twirled the spoon in the refreshed mug again. The water in the washtub swirled and swished in synchrony. Sylvia smiled with satisfaction. “Like produces like,” she said as the washing resumed. “The Principle of Sympathy.” Thaumaturgy was not daunting like wizardry. It was so easy.
Sometime later, Sylvia slumped into the scullery chair. Rangoth had his clean robe, and the rest of the washing was finished but there was still so much more to do. Ironing the better robe and changing the bed linens. Sweeping the cobwebs out of the ceiling corners in all the rooms. And then, after the performance, preparing an evening meal.
There were scant prospects for things to get better. She had been in Rangoth’s service for almost a decade. At first, she had felt fortunate. For an orphan with only a talent for play-acting, it was a welcome alternative to a life on the street. A live-in servant to a master wizard, no less. One with a reputation for keeping his hands to himself.
But there was a reason Rangoth lived on an out of the way street. He was no longer employable at any of the great houses that ruled the land. Far too soon, his mental abilities had begun to falter. He could no longer summon demons of great power. Nor even control lesser ones to perform useful tasks. Each year, he sank deeper into dotage, able to control only the most simple of imps. There were fewer and fewer performances. And lower prices to attract more customers. What was happening could not go on much longer.
That is why I wrote the letter, Sylvia tried to convince herself. I had to try, right? It was rumored that in one of the southern kingdoms there was another wizard, one who was unique. Like Sylvia herself, she was a woman!
All five of the magical crafts were performed almost universally by men. Indeed, all society was male-dominated. But with a female wizard, a fairly young one at that, Sylvia thought she would be a perfect match as a servant. And who knew. Rather than a mere lackey, she might be able to learn some of the craft of wizardry ...
There was a tap on the door.
The lord! Was he already here? She hadn’t time to do a final thorough check on all the props. The small branches of wood that would be burned. The incense holder with the aroma the imps liked so much ...
The tapping became more insistent. She brushed away the dust from her dress, straightened her hair, put a big smile on her face, and marched to the door.
“You are early, Milord, but this is perfectly ...”
Sylvia stopped abruptly. There was no noble standing there. A gnome-like man with smelly clothes squinted up at her with a crooked grin. A third of his teeth were missing, and those remaining were twisted and stained. A foul odor rose from him like that of week-old garbage.
“Are you the one called Sylvia?” he asked.
“What do you want? I’m busy. Not interested in buying any hair-jumbler imp repellant today.”
“If you are, then I have a letter for you. I have brought it all the way from Brythia in the south.”
The little man squinted at the envelope, grimy with dirt and stains.
“From someone named ‘Phoebe’, it looks like. Are you interested or not?”
Phoebe! Sylvia brought her fist to her mouth to prevent herself from shouting. Phoebe, the female wizard! She had answered! Against all odds, she had answered the letter. Maybe there would be a way out of all this for her.
“Give it to me!” Sylvia reached out to snag the envelope.
“Not so fast. I had to travel many leagues and suffer outrageous hardships to get this to you.”
“Didn’t the wizard pay you for the transport? That is what I did to send my letter to her.”
“Well, yes, but you see I have expenses that must be met and ...”
“I have no more money of my own,” Sylvia said.
The little man slowly examined Sylvia from head to toe. He had to crane his neck to see her hair. “Payment in kind would be acceptable.” He leered. “I am a reasonable man. Even a quick one would do.”
“No, no quicky.” she scowled. “Nothing like that. How much are we talking about here?”
“Only one gold brandel. A bargain at half the price.” The little man paused a moment and then smiled. “See what I did there? Think about it. I said ‘A bargain at half the price.’ Usually, the patter goes like ‘A bargain at twice the price.’ No one ever catches on. The joke sails right by them.”
“Half a brandel it is,” Sylvia blurted. She was surprised at the words that had flown out of her mouth. But this was justified. The trap she was in would never end. Finally, there was a path to a better life.
The little man shuffled from foot to foot. “That was only a small joke. My clients chuckle at it when I explain to them what happened.”
Sylvia scowled. “Half a brandel and that is all.” She felt conflicted about the honesty of what she was doing, but at the moment, the lure of freedom was too strong. Freed from more years of drudgery yet to come. “Make up your mind now, and be off with you.”
Sylvia stared at the little man, unblinking. She lost track of time. But after what felt like an eon, he spoke again.
“All right, all right. Half a brandel it is. Can you give it to me in small change?”
Sylvia did not hesitate. She opened the coin pouch hanging from a peg on the wall and extracted the payment. Quickly, the exchange was made. For a moment, she clutched the letter to her chest.
“Are they here yet?” Rangoth lumbered into the presentation room. “I thought I heard someone at the door.”
Sylvia thrust the letter down the front of her smock. Damn the law that said women could not have pockets. She looked at Rangoth smiling at her, and her thoughts tumbled.
Rangoth. The aging wizard. He had been so very easy to get along with. No innuendos, no leering hints. Forgetful, of course, but never a cross word. If she left, what was going to happen to him? He was incapable of handling finances any more. And even if that was figured out somehow, in the long run, there would be no one to take care of him after she was gone. To keep track of things. Cook the meals, do the washing, make sure he was ready for the next presentation.
The next presentation! Sylvia ran to the window in the west and squinted at the sun. As near as she could estimate, it would be soon. In less than an hour, what was his name... Yes. Royal Impresario Lord Mason would be arriving with his three little sisters for their first glimpse at cavorting imps.