Mason helped Patience from the carriage. The livery stable smelled awful. Evidently, there was no effort spent in keeping the place clean. But the directions from the hostler were clear enough. It was only a short walk down the street to Rangoth’s place. The matron exited the coach last, and the quintet stumbled along the rutted street. They stopped at a door between two shuttered windows. Mason read aloud the faded lettering on it. “Wizard for Hire. Reasonable rates. Inquire within.” He gave the door a gentle tap. Immediately, it swung open. Mason blinked at a young woman standing there. He noticed she was taller than he. Even though her eyes sagged with fatigue, she still managed to pull a little smile onto her face. He was surprised to find her quite pretty, though her particular beauty was hard to define. “Sorry,” he said. “I am looking for Rangoth, the wizard. I am Lord Mason. My sisters and I are here for a presentation of performing imps.” “This is the place,” Sylvia answered with some animation. “You’re early, but no matter. Come in, and I’ll summon the master.” As she hurried away, Mason smiled as he thought about her attitude. She was probably trapped into a life of service with no real future prospects. Yet, she still managed a lively and cheerful air for the sake of impressing a paying customer. Not so unlike himself, he realized suddenly. For the queen, he, too, smiled and praised her understanding of art and music when she made pronouncements such as ‘I liked that. I liked that a lot.’ Without the royal patronage, he would be out on the street, no better off than the serving wench he had just met. He glanced around the room. It spanned the entire width of the one-story structure that was lit dimly by the twinkle of candlelight from tall, floor-mounted holders. Four small chairs faced a larger, high-backed one standing deeper within. “Is no one else coming?” Mason asked. “A special showing for you,” the servant called back. “But if you like what you see, please tell others. We can accommodate up to a dozen.” She looked back at him. “My name is Sylvia. And if you would like a refreshment, wait just a moment.” “I know little of wizardry, but wouldn’t eating and drinking interfere with Rangoth’s concentration?” “He does not wrestle with djinns any longer,” Sylvia said as she reentered carrying the handle of a large skillet horizontally. “And imps are easy.” The sauce in the frying pan sizzled and popped. Mason breathed deeply and inhaled an enticing aroma. He had heard that the food of the streets was more interesting than the sugar-laden fare of the court, and now he was sure of it. “What exactly...” Mason began. “Fried grasshoppers,” Sylvia said. “Because of the summer rain, they are exceptionally big this year. Three in a serving, and for only...” “An additional charge?” Mason asked. “Not interested.” It was always like this. Everyone thought that if you were a lord, the coins in your pocket came from a bottomless pit. He and his sisters took their seats. The matron said nothing and remained standing behind. Sylvia sat the skillet on the floor. “It does get a bit hot in here with the windows closed. We keep it that way so non-payers can’t peek inside. And if you would like something, then now is the best time...” “I don’t see any imps yet,” Patience said. “I’m hot already,” Althea said. “This is boring.” As if on cue, the door in the rear reopened, and Rangoth lumbered into the room. With an unsteady hand, he settled into the high-backed chair. “Welcome,” he said in a reedy voice. “Prepare to be amazed.” He looked at each of the sisters for a moment, then smiled. “Demons live in a realm different from our own. If it were not for the flame conduit, we could never interact.” He squinted at the three girls. “Haven’t you ever been at a campfire at night and looked into the flickering flames? Been fascinated by them, intrigued by what might lie beyond?” Rangoth dithered for a moment and then rushed on. “What you experience when that happens is a demon beckoning to you, asking you to bring it forth.” “We are not infants,” Althea said. “We know all this. Get on with the show.” Rangoth ignored the comment. “Each type of demon communicates with its own unique type of fire,” he said. “The material one burns determines...” “Jump to the imps,” Sylvia whispered. She stooped to pick up a pile of sticks lying next to Rangoth’s chair. Rangoth hesitated. “The mightiest of demons we call djinns, and ...” “The imps,” Sylvia said a little louder. Rangoth stopped speaking. Even in the dimness, Mason could see the wizard had become confused. Well, what did one expect for only a few brandels? “Imps are the ones we will...” Sylvia said at full voice. “Ah, yes. Imps are the ones we will call forth today.” Rangoth got back on track. “Assistant, light the oleander fire.” “Yes, Master.” Sylvia piled the sticks into a conical tent, lit a match, and thrust it into the small structure. Almost instantly, the little branches caught fire, filling the air with an oily, pungent odor. Sylvia waved a fan to scoot the toxic air away. “Come forth, little ones. I command you.” Rangoth stared into the flame. Nothing happened for a dozen heartbeats. Then, in a blink, more than a score of tiny lights appeared in the room. To Mason, they looked like a swarm of mosquitoes. No, bigger than that. One could make out details. Tiny squashed heads with bulging eyes over stick-figure bodies. Behind each was the flicker of rapidly vibrating wings, that filled the air with an annoying hum. And they were glowing, somehow. More like... “Fireflies!” Patience said. “Larger than normal to be sure, but we see those all the time. They are not imps.” “You’re not witnessing mindless insects,” Rangoth said. “Instead, these are intelligent beings. Imps. Watch.” The swarm swirled to Patience’s face, and she almost instantly yelled. “Ouch! My nose just got pinched.” “Yes, fireflies can’t do that,” Rangoth said. “What you see dancing and swooping before you are nosetweakers.” “Teehee. Teehee,” a chorus of high-pitched voices filled the air. The imps darted to Althea, and she frantically tried to bat the little demons away. For a few moments, she was successful. But eventually, she yelled “Ouch” even louder than had her sister. Lalage remained silent when it was her turn, and after an even longer time, the swarm gave up and hovered unmoving in front of her. “You’re no fun at all,” the imp chorus complained. Mason squirmed in his seat. His own presentations to the queen were much more sophisticated. “Silence,” Rangoth commanded. “You are the ones who must submit to my will.” The cacophony immediately ceased. “That’s better. We have guests here, and you must perform. Show them you understand basic arithmetic. How much is two plus four?” The buzzing resumed, and then grew louder and louder. “It is quite simple, idiots,” one imp squeaked. “You can count each number on the fingers of one hand.” “No, lamebrain,” shrilled another. “Two groups of four. That’s eight altogether.” “Both of you are as crazy as a gallop of gremlins,” shouted a third. “Listen to me.” “Flowerbreath, you couldn’t fight your way out of a bag made of fishnet.” “Oh, yeah? Where did you get that idea? Your mother must have been human.” “Come on, guys. Settle down. Let’s solve this like we always do. Majority rules. The right answer gets the most votes.” Well, it was a farce, maybe, Mason decided. But certainly nothing for the queen. The buzzing subdued but did not quite go away. Then six of the little lights aligned themselves in a vertical row. A second column joined alongside the first, followed by a third and fourth. Finally, a last row slanted across them all. “Ta da!” the imps sang, fluttering in place. No one else in the room spoke. The silence dragged on. “Well, come on guys,” the imps said. “This is the place where you give us thundering applause.” “Ah, I don’t think five is correct,” Patience said. “Ooooh, a tough audience. Well, we don’t have to put up with any more of this abuse.” In a flash, all the lights winked out. The air was clear. Sylvia looked at Rangoth. “Master,” she whispered. “You forgot to maintain control again.” “That’s it?” Althea asked. “That’s all we are going to see? Brother Mason, how much did you pay for this?” “They are nosetweaker imps,” Sylvia jumped in, “not mighty djinns. They are dominated and have been trained. Didn’t you see?” “Can you control any other types?” Mason asked. “Ones perhaps a bit more... impressive.” “Other types,” Rangoth shook from his inattention. “There was a time...” “Yes, there are lots of other types,” Sylvia looked directly at Mason. “But they are not appropriate for this young an audience. Hair-jumblers who snarl your curls while you are sleeping. Razor dullers who dull the blades you use to shave your legs.” She took a deep breath and continued. “Armpit gluers, panty switchers, and ah, orifice crawlers.” “Brother Mason, we’ve seen enough,” Patience said. “Let’s go back to the castle and get ready for the evening show. The one you told us about.” Mason realized this outing was a bust. He rose and reached into his purse to pay. “How much again?” he asked. “Half a brandel each,” Sylvia said. “For five, that is two and a half.” “Two and a half? There are only four of us.” “I count five,” Sylvia said and pointed to the matron. She took a deep breath. “And, of course, a gratuity would be greatly appreciated. Three brandels is a good round number.” Mason grimaced. It was as he had expected. He fingered out the coins, deciding how many to hand over. As he did, the door behind him slammed open against the front wall with a loud bang.