Pashtin, a bailiff of the Wizards' Court, is sent to summon the reclusive wizard Tamskur to testify on behalf of another wizard. In trying to find Tamskur's home, and reach it safely, he meets a woman -- a mermaid -- who has serious accusations to make against Tamskur himself. Investigating Tamskur's crime and bringing him to justice will lead Pashtin on a journey that will change his life.
The novel is 63,000 words, not counting the glossary of proper names, afterword, etc.
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Here is the opening scene of The Bailiff and the Mermaid:
I’d been walking up the coast for a couple of hours, after leaving the last fishing village, when I saw the island. The particular island I was looking for, that is; the waters along here were thick with islands, little ones close in that were no more than big rocks, and bigger ones farther out that I could barely see on the horizon, but all uninhabited until now.
This one looked to be less than half a mile offshore, and had a large stone building on it. If that weren’t enough to tell me I’d found the right place, there were clear signs of magic, even to someone like me with no wizard sight. For one thing, I’d never seen anything that tall that wasn’t built with magic. And the sigils carved into the walls, each one probably thirty or forty feet high if I could make them out at this distance, were another little hint. A wizard obviously lived there, and from all I’d heard, he must be the man I was looking for.
Now that I’d found the place, I still had no idea how I was going to get out there. I’d offered generous sums to a number of the fishermen in the last village, if they would show me the island where the wizard lived and take me out to it in one of their boats. They wouldn’t hear of it. They said the reefs north of the village were dangerous even for small boats, in all but the calmest weather, and today wasn’t the calmest. And they all seemed chary, if not outright afraid, of the wizard.
“He’s not a bad sort if he’s left alone,” one of them had said, “but he does like to be left alone. You can try calling on him if you like, but you can’t pay me enough to risk annoying him.”
I knew he didn’t want visitors, and I knew why, though I didn’t then realize exactly how bad the problem had gotten. Apparently the address I’d first been given, a small fishing village about sixty miles south of here, wasn’t sparsely populated enough to suit him, and he’d left there four years ago; it had taken me weeks to trace him here. He wasn’t going to be happy to see me, and when I delivered my message he’d be furious. He couldn’t directly cast spells on me, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t hurt me indirectly. But if I gave up now and went home without delivering my message, I’d have no chance of promotion, at best, and I’d probably find myself looking for a new job.
So I sat down on a rock a little way above the high tide line, and looked out to the island, thinking. I opened my pack, took out the wine, cheese and bread I’d bought in Port Kurshimu and lunched while I thought.
Maybe I could go back to the last village and buy a boat outright. My money from the capital went a long way here. But I didn’t know how to steer a boat, and if those fishermen thought these waters would be dangerous for them, they’d be much more so for me, who’d never even seen the ocean until a few weeks ago.
Just then I noticed something moving out in the water; it was coming toward shore, and as it got closer I realized it was a person swimming. Then they raised their head above the water a little more and I saw it was a woman.
She’d evidently seen me, and she seemed to be hesitating before coming any closer; through modesty, I thought at first, though I could see her bare breasts bobbing in the water. I was surprised to see anyone swimming in such cold water; I wondered if she might have an enchantment on her to protect her from the cold. She could hardly be the wizard’s wife or daughter, though... I wondered uneasily if she might be the wizard himself, disguised.
“Good morning, ma’am,” I said. At that distance it was hard to be sure, but I thought she looked startled. “Is that the home of the wizard Tamskur?”
“It’s a wizard’s home, all right,” she said, and swam a little closer before pausing to speak again. Her voice was high, sweet and clear, and her accent and dialect were the same as I’d heard spoken in the last couple of fishing villages. “I don’t know his name, but I know he’s dangerous. You should go away.”
“I’m afraid I have business with him,” I said. “But if he’s so dangerous, why are you swimming here?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I keep coming back, every few months... so far he hasn’t done anything else to me, but I haven’t worked up the nerve to confront him, either. It’s not like I have anywhere in particular to go.” And before I could fully parse this mysterious speech, she added: “What’s your business with him?”
“I’m supposed to deliver a message to him.”
“It had better be a really important message. And I mean important to him, not just important to the person who sent you, or you’d be better off going back and telling them you couldn’t find him.”
“He may not like it, but I have to deliver it anyway. I’m Pashtin of Narrowgate, a bailiff of the Wizards' Court —”
At that she looked excited, and exclaimed: “Oh, are you here to arrest him? What did he get caught at?”
I was taken aback. “No, I’m not arresting him, not exactly. I’m just summoning him to testify in another wizard’s case —” But I was distracted when she swam a little closer, and lifted herself up onto a rock with her arms, and I saw, not what I’d thought she was concealing from modesty, but something else entirely.
“You’re a mermaid!”
“You didn’t notice before?” After a momentary startlement, she began to look frightened, and tensed as if to jump back into the sea. “Are you going to yell and throw things at me now that you know?”
“No, no, I’m just surprised. I’ve never seen a mermaid before, and I haven’t heard much about them.” In retrospect it seems obvious, a naked woman swimming in the ocean so far north, but I’d never heard much about mermaids, having lived in the capital, more than a hundred miles from the sea, all my life.
She smiled a little. “Finally somebody who’ll listen... So, you said you were summoning the wizard?”
“Yes. One of his old colleagues, from before he came out here and became a hermit, is accused of various crimes going back several decades, and his advocates want Tamskur to testify on his behalf.”
“So is there a chance he might be tangled up in his old friend’s crimes?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just here to deliver the summons.”
“So are you another wizard? Can you defeat his magic and drag him back to court with you if he doesn’t want to go?”
I laughed. “No, I’m no wizard — I’m a null.”
“What’s a null?”
I gave her the short version: “Magic doesn’t work on us.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh... so that might explain why... So he can’t put an enchantment on you if he’s annoyed at being disturbed.”
“I’ve never met a null, as far as I know. But I’ve only met one wizard, either.
“Both wizards and nulls are a lot more common than mermaids, at least in the places I’m familiar with. Are there a lot of mermaids along this coast?”
She shook her head. “They spend most of their time out at sea. I like the coast, but the people who live in the villages don’t like mermaids, so I end up swimming along deserted or near-deserted places like this a lot.”
It seemed odd that she said “they” rather than “we,” but I didn’t immediately pursue it. Instead, I said: “Well... as I said, I must deliver Tamskur this summons, but I’m not sure how I’ll get out to the island. I haven’t been able to hire anyone to take me out in their boat, and I can’t swim.”
I thought briefly about asking her to deliver it for me; she could swim out there, and the summons was supposed to be waterproof, though that was intended to protect it from rain rather than immersion in the ocean. But I didn’t know her well enough to trust her, and there were other reasons I needed to deliver it in person.
“Well, you could wait for him to come ashore, as he does once in a while. Or you could wait for low tide — I mean the low spring tide, the lowest tide of the month — and just walk out there. But you’d need to give him the message and walk back quickly before the water rises, or you’d be stuck there.”
“You said he sometimes comes ashore... have you been watching him?”
“What if I have?”
“Well, perhaps you know more about him than most people, then. What does he do when he come ashore?” The people in the village hadn’t said anything about that.
She shrugged. “I can’t follow him inland, of course. He flies over the waves, sets down on the beach, and walks away out of sight. He comes back hours later and his bag looks fuller. Then he returns to his island again, well before dawn.”
I could guess what he was doing.
“The times you saw him go ashore, were they on a new moon?”
“Yes; at least the last time was, and I think maybe the other time too.”
A lot of the herbs wizards used in their spells had to be gathered during a new moon.
“And what about other times? Does he stay in that house all the time, or come out and walk around his island sometimes?”
“He comes out to walk around often enough, but always at low tide, when I can’t swim very near. Listen, has nobody ever accused him of any crime?”
“Not that I’ve heard. Do you know of something he’s done wrong?”
“He did this to me!” she burst out, and turned her face away, as if ashamed.
“What did he do?” I asked. She mumbled something, and I said: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that... you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but —”
“He turned me into a mermaid.” She still wouldn’t look straight at me.
“Oh... how long ago was this?”
“Four years ago — when he first came here.”
I was shocked, and a little bit skeptical as well. “I’ve never heard of anyone making a transformation enchantment last that long, or anywhere near it — even powerful wizards need just the right astrological conditions to enchant someone for a whole month.”
“Maybe he’s more powerful than you’re used to. I just know what happened to me.”
“If it is a transformation enchantment... then maybe I can break it.”
“You said you weren’t a wizard, though?”
“I’m a null. Not only does magic not work on me, spells usually break, or get temporarily suspended, when I get too near them.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of you — I mean, people like you. We call them spellbreaker wizards, and the other ones, like the man on the island, spellcaster wizards.”
“Huh. Well, we’re not wizards, they’re completely different, but — anyway. There’s no guarantee; maybe you’ll turn into your old self when I touch you, and back into a mermaid when I let go. Or maybe it won’t do anything. But it can’t hurt.”
I was already starting to think of other possibilities, though; there were humans who went mad and thought they were someone or something else. One of the cases I’d seen tried involved a man who thought he was a centaur, and his relatives trying to get him declared incompetent so they could control his money. Maybe she was just a mermaid who thought she was — or used to be — human. It seemed more likely than a transformation spell lasting four years.
She swam in a little further toward shore, and dragged herself up onto the beach. “Let’s try it.” I knelt beside her and put out my hand; she took it. I’d half-expected her to be cold, like a fish, but she was if anything warmer than the average woman.
For a moment nothing happened. Then she clapped her free hand to her eyes; “I can’t see!” Her voice slurred, and she started thrashing her tail and flailing her arms. I let go and backed away.
She seemed to recover almost at once, looking up at me with a dazed expression.
“I don’t know what spell you’re under,” I said, “but I don’t think it’s safe for me to try to break it. It didn’t look like a transformation breaking, anyway.”
“I know what happened to me,” she insisted stubbornly. I chose my next words carefully.
“I’m not doubting you, I’m just... surprised, that’s all. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, not even after I arrived on the coast here and started asking people about Tamskur... have you told anyone else about this?”
It was hard to tell, with her face still wet from the sea, but I think I saw tears in her eyes. “They won’t listen! Whenever I come near the village, or one of their boats, they scream and bang pots together and cover their ears, and throw rocks at me or even harpoons. I was the same way, of course, back then... I remember the way we yelled and threw things at the mermaids when they swam near our boat, trying to charm us into jumping in and drowning. But I wasn’t trying to do that, I was just trying to tell them what happened to me! You’re the first person who’s ever listened.”
“Yes, I’m listening. Wait just a moment...” I got a book and pencil out of my pack, and sat on a rock just above the tide line where the paper wouldn’t get wet. Then I asked her: “Tell me exactly what he did to you — start before it happened, with how you met him and what passed between you. No, wait — begin by telling me your name, if you please.”
“I’m Shumar of Sishan.” (Sishan was the last village I’d passed through, just four or five miles south of here.) “I didn’t know he was a wizard — I hadn’t heard anything about him. I was out fishing one day, and I’d come up the coast to somewhere along there.” She pointed out beyond the reefs and little islands. “And then I saw that somebody was on that island, and he didn’t have a boat — I thought he might be stranded. So I put about and watched the island for a while. If he saw me, he wasn’t waving his arms and calling for help; but I was curious about what he was doing, so when it came to be high tide, and the reefs were safely covered, I hauled in to the island. When I got close enough I saw he was just sitting there, at the highest point on the island; there were a couple of wooden chests and he was leaning on one of them. I called out, asking who he was and offering to help; he didn’t answer right away, he just put his hands to his head and gave a moan. Well, I thought he might be faint from hunger, or sick from drinking seawater or eating bad mussels or something — he had the look of a landsman who wouldn’t know what was safe. So I pulled in as near as I could get. It was too rocky to run aground safely, but I anchored in shallow water and waded in toward him.
“Then he suddenly yelled ‘Stay away’ and waved one arm at me; I stopped and didn’t go any closer, but I didn’t get back in my boat yet either. I thought he might be delirious. I asked him, ‘Do you need help? Are you sick?’ And he started to say something, but then he screamed and clapped his hands to his ears, and I took another couple of steps toward him.
“Then I must have passed out when he cast the spell on me, because one moment I was walking across the island toward him, and the next I was in the water. I thrashed around in surprise, thinking I was drowning — I was never a very good swimmer before all this. Then I realized I wasn’t drowning, even though my lungs were full of water, and I managed to get my head above water again, and I got a look at myself, and at what was around me — I saw what he’d done to me,” (she gestured at her tail), “and I saw I was near the island, on the far side from where I’d anchored my boat. The wizard was on the shore there, but standing up, not sitting down like I’d seen him before, and he looked healthier. He was walking toward me, and he said: ‘I’m sorry, I’ll put you back the way you were in a little while. Just listen.’
Then he walked away from me, turned around and said something in some strange language. I thought he might be casting a spell, maybe to turn me back, and I swam in toward the island and grabbed hold of the rocks, so I wouldn’t drown if I lost my gills all of a sudden. But he just jabbered in that language for a minute and then turned back to me and said: ‘I’ll set up a spell to put you back, but you have to leave the island first — go away, half a mile or more, and once you’re back to your old self, go home and tell everyone not to bother the wizard on the island.’ And then he turned around and jabbered in that strange language again, and walked away from me toward the other end of the island, where I’d anchored my boat.
“Well, I was angry with him, and I wanted him to turn me back right there — I didn’t quite trust him to set up that spell the way he said. But I was afraid to get him mad, too, and I was afraid if I swam anywhere but straight toward shore, I’d turn back where I was too far out to swim to safety. So I swam right for the shore here, and once I got close in, I swam along toward home until I was sure I was half a mile away, and then a little further — and nothing happened. I swam further and further, until I was right near home, and I saw some people I knew. I tried to tell them what had happened, but they screamed and threw rocks and shells at me, and ran away inland.
“After a while I swam back to the island, to give the wizard a piece of my mind, and he apologized but he didn’t make much sense — he said something like ‘she drowned, and now I can’t put you back.’”
After this account I had some suspicion of what might have happened, but I wasn’t able to verify it until later. I told her, “I will report this to my superiors when I go home, whether with Tamskur or without him. I’m sure they will send someone to investigate, and to restore you; but when I talk to Tamskur and deliver my summons, I’ll try to persuade him to change you back, if he can, as that would reduce his punishment if he should be convicted of transforming you against your will.”
“Thank you!” she said.
“But for now... you said he comes ashore on the night of the new moon, and at the lowest tide of the month, I could walk out to the island?”
“And when will that low tide be?”
“Late morning, the day after the night of the new moon.”
“Right. Well, I’ll be back on the evening of the new moon, and perhaps I’ll see you then.”
“I’ll be here.”
Three of my other novels and my short fiction collection are also available from Smashwords in ePub format and from Amazon in Kindle format.
|Wine Can't be Pressed into Grapes||Smashwords||Amazon|
|When Wasps Make Honey||Smashwords||Amazon|
|A Notional Treason||Smashwords||Amazon|
|The Weight of Silence and Other Stories||Smashwords||Amazon|