The Magic Quill No. 172: Sadie's Wine Flight
Contest winner: Linda Carrig
Sadie muttered something highly uncomplimentary about the ring of Count Matthias as she climbed another steep street in Lisbon. Her head was fuzzy from drinking too much wine, an occupational hazard of searching every wine cellar in the city for signs of a genie. People would expect a body to join them in a bottle or two, or half a dozen, when a body shows an interest in what their cellar holds, she grumbled to herself. It's all a body can do to stay upright. And now a body's lost in these bloody streets!
She had started in the obvious places: the haunts of wizards and witches. There was a stop on the Santa Justa Lift, the city's famous outdoor elevator, that only revealed itself to those who had placed a sickle on the tongue of a particular gargoyle on the eaves of a particular building (which could only be reached by broom), and on that floor was a dark, smoky room full of sad Fado music, strong wine, and slow-burning vendettas. It was the only time Sadie had ever seen a centaur dancing with a vampire. She felt lucky to have gotten out of there alive, even disregarding the fact that she had tipsily botched an accio genie charm and brought a whole rack of priceless wine bottles crashing down.
Then there was the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, where she knew of several squibs who had taken holy orders. Their private stash, at the bottom of a brackish cistern, had forced her to use up the last of the gillyweed she had nicked during her last burglary spree in Diagon Alley. It turned out all the squib brothers had hidden down there were a few dozen of butterbeer, the goody-goodies.
She had asked the Statue of João I in the Praça do Comércio whether it had heard about a genie hereabouts, reasoning that since the good king was known as "John of Happy Memory," then he should certainly remember something as happy as a drunk genie. But the king, who in life had only spoken English to his wife Philippa of Lancaster, spent their entire interview waggling his eyebrows and blowing kisses at Sadie. Any information he might have given her had, understandably, flown right out of her mind.
The ghosts in the Torre de Belém were no help; they were insane. In desperation, she had even asked a sea turtle at the Oceanário - reasoning that it must have been around long enough to hear something - but either Potter & Granger's English-Parseltongue Lexicon didn't cover testudian dialects, or Sadie needed a lot more practice. The most intelligible remark the turtle had made was: "When is turtle soup not a mockery?"
Since then, she had spent most hours of the last week, day and night, sampling the wares of wine merchants and insinuating herself into the cellars of bars, restaurants, and ordinary homes. It was a wonder that she could still walk.
So here she was, lost in the Bairro Alto, and unsure where to search next. She paused to catch her breath in a small square where a fountain stood at the parting of five steep, winding ways. She was debating whether to try a Point Me spell when she spotted half a dozen blind men making their way toward her, down one of the adjacent streets. They walked in pairs, shoulder to shoulder, nearly filling the narrow alley. Their eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, but Sadie could tell they were blind because of the sightless way they all stared ahead and slightly upward, as if craning their heads to catch the echo of their walking-sticks tapping on the cobbles before them.
Sadie leaned against the fountain. She decided that watching the blind men pass would make for a welcome distraction from her frustrating and fruitless search. As she leaned against the fountain with a headachy sigh, the blind men suddenly raised their walking sticks and rushed at her.
"Hi, wait a... what are you...?" As their sticks pummeled her, Sadie found it difficult to finish her thought. "I beg your... Will you just...?"
The men pulled black velvet sacks out of their pockets. One of them poked her in the eye before managing to tug his sack over her head. Sadie fought and struggled, but with all six men hanging on her she couldn't get a hand free to pull the hood off her head. In pitch darkness, she could do nothing to fight off the men who were now pulling cloth bags over her bunched fists.
Sadie tried to scream for help, but the bag muffled her voice completely. Completely! She yelled louder, but all she could hear was the tap of the blind men's sticks on the ground. Her world was pitch dark. She stumbled, tried to catch herself, was hauled upright by the strong arms of the blind men who were already marching her - where? She could not tell what direction they were going. Uphill... that could be any of two or three streets... Then a gentle curve to the right... Left... Uphill some more... Steps downward, more stumbling...
Sadie tried to grab the arm or shoulder or neck nearest to her, but somehow the bags on her hand prevented her from being able to feel where anyone was. Her only contact with reality outside her personal envelope of darkness was the strain in her leg muscles, the echoing sound of blind men's canes tapping on cobbled streets, and their grip on her arms below the shoulders.
Suddenly the trip eneded. Sadie felt herself being shoved backward, off-balance. She fought it, afraid to take a bruising fall, but suddenly found herself perched on a firm but comfortable chair. Some type of blanket was thrown over her legs. Then the grip on her arms loosened. She was released.
Sadie instantly tried to stand up, but her hands could not seem to find the arms of her chair. Her legs had no power to push her up. She pawed around in the darkness, trying to free her face from its mask, but she couldn't find that either.
"For all love, before she panics," snapped a harsh, gravelly, yet unmistakably feminine voice.
The hood was pulled off her head. She found herself in a small sitting room, its sunlight dimmed by the wild profusion of vines and flowers that filled the windows. An oil lamp flickered dimly on a wall sconce behind the figure sitting opposite her, leaving the details of the lady's features in shadow. Their chairs were situated at opposite ends of a long oval table set with a sugar bowl, a cream jug, and two demitasses of strong coffee. Sadie realized only now, as the scent of flowers, greens, coffee, burning oil, and upholstery flooded her nostrils, that the hood had also cut off her sense of smell. What sort of magic were these black cloth sacks?
To the right of the table was a low settee. To the left was a bar stocked with bottles that Sadie, with her increasingly aching head, wanted to know nothing about. She caught a few glimpses of striped wallpaper and a doorway leading to four steps upward and unknown realms beyond. The room was warm and humid. Sadie wondered how anyone could stand to drink coffee in it.
"Your espresso will get cold," said the shadowy woman.
"That's just how I like it," Sadie said.
"You look like you could use it, though. Trust me, I've felt the same way after many a night in the Bairro Alto. This is the best medicine for it."
"I'm more of a believer in hair-of-the-dog," Sadie said.
"Though I wouldn't recommend it," said the lady, "that too can be arranged."
"No thanks. Er - how will I drink this if I can't use my hands?"
"It's all a question of will, my dear." As Sadie watched, the demitasse at the far end of the table lifted itself into the air and glided gracefully to the lady's lips. It then tipped its contents into her mouth, a little at a time.
"Most refreshing," said the lady as her empty cup returned itself to the table. "Sugar? One or two?"
"Six, please," said Sadie.
Operating of itself, a dainty spoon shoveled six heaps of sugar into Sadie's cup, then stirred.
"No, thanks. It's terribly hard on my complexion." Sadie shook her head so that the veil that always covered the lower half of her face waved back and forth.
"Drink up, then," the lady urged.
Sadie considered it. As she did so, the demitasse hovered toward her. Even as well-versed in magic as she was, Sadie was a bit shaken by this. What if it spilled? She hated being scalded...
"Don't worry," said the lady. "The spell guards against spillage."
A moment later Sadie was regretting the amount of sugar she had requested, as the thick, gluey liquid oozed down her throat. She finished the drink with a grimace of disgust.
"Good?" asked the lady.
"Never had better," said Sadie, trying not to gag.
"Would you like another?"
"No, thanks. I'm trying to cut down."
"To business, then," the lady said, her charming manner suddenly becoming brisk. "My eyes on the city tell me that you have been sampling a great many wine cellars in the last week."
"Have I?" asked Sadie. "I didn't realize. I suppose I've been too soused to tell."
"I always find it suspicious when a witch or wizard takes such an interest in the fruit of the vine," said the lady. "Most of our kind prefer potions that spark and fizzle and smoke, after all. And of course there's the Fado bar where all the magical down-and-outs end up."
"I've been there," said Sadie.
"They do let all kinds in," the lady sniffed.
"Do you always get suspicious when an overseas witch goes on a bender?"
"Only when they ask certain people certain questions," said the lady. "And you, my dear, have been asking everywhere."
"Everywhere but here," said Sadie. "But while we're on the subject..."
"Don't," the lady warned. "Please don't ask me. I can't lie to you. And I would rather not have to tell the truth."
"If you wanted to avoid being asked," said Sadie, "you should never have brought me here."
"I have an alternate offer for you to consider," said the lady.
Sadie shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I can't consider it. I'm only interested in..."
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't," Sadie said desperately. "There's a geis on me, a magical obligation that I have to fulfill. It compels me to seek..."
"Stop a moment. I have already guessed what you're after. If you name it, I will be compelled to reveal where it is. But we both know that the person who laid this geis on you must never possess what he has sent you to obtain."
"This is true," Sadie admitted.
"But what I can give you will put a stop to his plans. He will become harmless. And you, by extension, will be freed from your geis."
Sadie sighed. "I wish it were that easy. But you see, I'm a gifted burglar. Magrically gifted, if you'll take my point. What I can't get openly, I will take by other means. Now that I know that you know what I know, and that you probably have what I need, it's only a matter of time before I take it from you."
"But that's where you're mistaken, dear," said the lady. "Bundled up as you are, you won't be breaking and entering anywhere, or pilfering anything from anyone. I have a gift for you to deliver to our mutual friend."
"I would rather bring him..."
"Please! Don't make me use the hood again. I want to be able to answer your legitimate questions, but once the hood goes on our conversation will become very one-sided. Now, our friend has a problem, a problem that - forgive me if I don't say how I came by this information - started with a bottle of wine."
Sadie nodded. "Several casks, actually."
"Long-maturing wine with special, magical properties."
"It makes a body live backward in time," Sadie clarified.
"Yes." The lady wrung a handkerchief between her gloved hands. "And so many unforeseeable problems started there."
"I'll say," said Sadie.
"Unforeseeable," the lady said, "but not incurable."
Sadie's jaw dropped.
"You've found a cure?"
"...found a cure. Quite."
"What is it? Some daft type of lemon that turns rum punch into..."
"No, nothing like that." The lady reached up and tugged an invisible cord. An invisible bell jingled somewhere above their heads.
Moments later, one of the blind men came in, tapping his cane with one hand, and carrying a small package in the other. He set it down on the table and left the room without a word.
Sadie leaned forward as far as her dead-weight legs allowed. The package looked similar to a hatbox covered in striped, satiny paper and tied up with a velvet ribbon. There were holes poked in it. A moment without the sound of the servant's tapping cane confirmed what Sadie thought she had heard as the package entered the room. It mewed.
"Is there a kitten in there?"
The lady shrugged. "Maybe."
"Maybe? I'm sure I just heard it mew!"
"How sure are you?"
Sadie listened, shook her head, then listened some more. "Fifty percent certain, I guess."
"That should be about right," said the lady.
Sadie felt her headache coming back. "Enough kidding around! Is there a cat in that box or not?"
"I don't know," said the lady.
"But it's your, er, gift... or cure, thingy..."
"All I can tell you about it," said the lady, "is that it's a Waveform Collapser. Have you ever heard of Humdinger's Kneazle?"
Sadie wracked her brains. After a minute she said, "No, can't say I have."
"Oswald Humdinger was a paraphysicist--"
"Coo! Like Algy Swerve?"
The lady tilted her head thoughtfully, then said, "I'm sure I wouldn't know. All I can say is that Professor Humdinger invented this little device to repair damage caused by time travel. This was before the International Convention on Chronomancy officially banned meddling with things like time-turners and such, though I'm told your country's Ministry was a bit slow to dispose of its stockpile. Essentially, the Waveform Collapser is a sort of bomb that explodes temporal paradoxes and causality loops, and otherwise heals injuries to the tissue of space-time. In theory, all you have to do is give this pretty little box to our friend. When he opens it..."
"Kaboom," Sadie said soberly.
In the awkward silence that followed, Sadie wondered if another cup of espresso would help her swallow the dry lump in her throat.
"I suppose so," said the lady. "You might want to stand back a bit."
"A bit," Sadie repeated numbly.
"Say, a couple of miles."
Suddenly Sadie's body blazed with a flush of hot anger. "I'm sure he'll be overjoyed to open it," she snarled, "after I hand it to him and dive out the window in one smooth movement."
"I can't think of anyone more qualified to make this work," said the lady. "Use your skills."
Sadie tried to beat her thighs with both fists, but her cloth-sack-covered hands missed their target. "What makes you say that? How do you know so much about him, and me, and the rest of it, when I don't know anything about you?"
The lady looked away, showing Sadie the silhouette of a striking profile. After a pensive pause she said, "Tell him the gift is from Ironica. He will understand."
Before Sadie could bark out an angry retort, darkness descended over her - the scentless, voiceless darkness of the black hood. She helplessly mouthed a curse while the firm hands of the lady's blind servants hoisted her to her feet and propelled her up a short flight of stairs...
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #174 +++
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