The Magic Quill #106: Tea With Il Comte

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winners: TWZRD, Linda Carrig and rory86

Harvey was lifting the steaming beaker of Essence of Merlin to his lips when the doorbell rang, playing the chorus of Hebrew slaves from Nabucco in full harmony.

“Blast,” Harvey muttered. “Who could be calling at this hour? From Italy, no less?”

He set the beaker down and went out of his study, crossed the enormous front hall of his penthouse apartment, and opened the door. The carillon music stopped instantly.

“May I help you?” Harvey asked the well-dressed, shiny-haired man standing outside. He took care to seem polite but cold.

“I should like to speak with the gentleman of the house,” said the visitor, with a faint trace of an accent.

“I am he,” said Harvey. “But I regret that this is not a convenient time for me to entertain guests.”

“Oh, it won’t take long,” said the visitor, marveling slightly that a man of Harvey’s position would answer his own door. “I only wish to pull your nose; then I shall inconvenience you no further.”

Harvey stifled a sigh. “If an affair of honor is what you’re after, I beg you to come in, Signore…”

“Maledicto,” said Il Comte, handing his cape to a house-elf who trailed him into the apartment. He looked around at the entrance hall with one eyebrow cocked in a jaded fashion. “Ombra here is my second. And yours?”

Harvey snapped his fingers and Dinty crept out from behind a cockatrice-foot umbrella stand.

“The Hildebrand rules?” Harvey asked mildly.

“If you please,” said Il Comte. “Our seconds will negotiate the time and place of our engagement.”

“Actually, if it’s all right with you,” said Harvey, “perhaps we could have the duel here and now. I was just on the point of setting out on a long trip, and I fear that if we wait, you may never be satisfied.”

Il Comte cast another chilly gaze around the hall, then nodded.

“Wands at twenty paces, then,” said Harvey.

The two wizards stood back to back at the center of the hall, then walked in opposite directions, ten paces each. There was little more than an armspan to spare at each end.

“On three,” said Dinty, fidgeting slightly.

“Three!” screamed Ombra, following it up with a fiendish snicker while the two wizards cast simultaneous disarming spells. Both wands jerked out of their owners’ hands and ended up jammed into a crystal chandelier that hovered, unsupported, above the center of the hall.

“How annoying,” said Il Comte.

“Not very sporting, that elf of yours,” Harvey grumbled.

“I find that you weren’t unprepared for it,” Il Comte returned. “What shall we do now?”

“I suppose we should have tea while our seconds get on with the duel,” said Harvey.

Ombra blanched. Dinty grinned, rubbing his knuckles.

“All right, then,” said Il Comte. “Though I should prefer an espresso.”

“Done. Let’s just duck into the library and let the elves carry on,” Harvey suggested, and Il Comte followed him through a doorway into a very cluttered and lived-in room full of books and magical paraphernalia. It also had a table where a tea tray was already sitting, with cups and saucers, spoons, milk jug, sugar bowl, and steaming pot of tea, a plate of sandwiches, a plate of cakes, and a tiny cup of espresso so strong that the flowers in the nearby glass flute were leaning emphatically in the other direction. The two men sat down amiably and began to eat and drink as greedily as good breeding permitted.

“Excellent,” said Il Comte, not only because the espresso tasted good, but also because the cup always seemed to be as full and as hot as when he first picked it up.

“I do my best to please,” said Harvey, as the two house-elves danced past the open door, pulling savagely on each other’s ears. “By the way, I am dying of curiosity. How did I offend you?”

“By meddling in my private affairs,” said Il Comte lightly. “You know, that business with the clowns and their accomplices.”

“Ah, well. I imagine that men in our position have so many affairs, as you say, that it would be remarkable if they never crossed each other.”

“Just so,” said Il Comte, hardly reacting at the series of crashes that accompanied the whoosh of large pieces of furniture flying past the hall door.

“So how goes the evil-doing business?” Harvey asked courteously.

“It grows boring, frankly,” said Il Comte. “After so many years of crushing the same people underfoot, I begin to feel as though nothing I do, however monstrous, even gets their attention. I begin to feel as one who needs new victims.”

“There, there,” said Harvey, mentally filing this information under Il Comte’s constant need to be noticed and admired – or at least, feared. “Have you ever considered moving?”

“To another city or country?” Il Comte came as close to snorting as gentility allowed. “In today’s world, one finds that things are the same everywhere. Now if only one could move to another era…I say, are you all right?”

Harvey patted his chin with a silk napkin, coughed wetly, and said “All right” in a hoarse voice. Meanwhile, Ombra scuttled past the door, ducking under the blows of a wooden spoon that hovered about his head and shoulders, attacking him of its own accord. The next moment a crock smashed somewhere out of sight, and Dinty uttered a dismayed cry.

Fortunately, the combined distractions were enough to move Il Comte off the subject of time control. “And how is your business?” he asked with perfect solicitude.

“Quite absorbing,” said Harvey. “If I had any more to do, I would be meeting myself coming and going.”

At the picture this created in his mind, Il Comte’s eyes took on a dreamly look. “I should like that, I think.”

They paused to sip their drinks, contemplating a little dance that Dinty was doing in the hall outside, while a coarse brush scrubbed him into a prodigious lather of deep-cleansing suds.

“I can’t help but admire your house-elf’s cleaning spells,” Harvey remarked.

“Yes, he’s very efficient,” Il Comte replied immodestly. “But you see, he has such a large house to manage….”

“I perfectly understand,” said Harvey.

Over the next few moments, the hall was filled with a bewildering series of popping sounds as the two house-elves vanished and reappeared again and again, trying to outmaneuver each other. With a triumphant cry, Dinty yanked Ombra’s tea-towel off and ran for it, waving the tea-towel like a triumphal banner while his outraged foe pursued him, using a calling-card tray as temporary cover.

“That’ll be for the laundry,” Harvey observed.

“Then it seems the affair is concluded,” said Il Comte, “in your favor. In which case, I will bid you good day. Do not show me out, I beg you.”

Il Comte took one last fortifying sip of espresso, then stood calmly, brushed some invisible crumbs off his robe, and then whipped out his concealed wand and pointed it at Harvey.

“I can’t begin to express how disappointed this makes me,” Harvey said reproachfully.

Il Comte answered with a hollow laugh. “You yourself called me an evil-doer. Evil is as evil does. I can’t go around playing fair. No one would know whether or when to fear me.”

“I don’t fear you in the slightest,” said Harvey, folding his hands in his lap and sitting back comfortably in his leather armchair.

“The more fool thou,” Il Comte returned.

“On the contrary,” said the other Harvey from over Il Comte’s shoulder. Then, as Il Comte began to turn toward him, he hit him over the head with a round of cheese.

“I say,” said the first Harvey, dismayed to see the cheese broken in pieces and slimed with Il Comte’s hair oil. “I was going to take that cheese on my trip. Couldn’t you have used something less useful, like this bronze thing that Sadie gave us for our last birthday?”

“Daumier’s Le Confident?” said the other Harvey. “We will have returned it to its rightful owner by the time we take the Essence. Unless you change your mind – it’s really up to you from here. I’ll be getting on now—oh, and by the way, don’t drink the Essence until Christmas. Take care of ourself now.” And with that, the second Harvey disapparated.

The seated Harvey sighed, nudged Il Comte with his toe, and waited while the sounds of struggle in the hall died down, confident that Dinty would bring in a very subdued Ombra before long.

“Delays, delays,” he muttered peevishly, and picked up a thin sandwich.

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