What She Wants
A Talis Steelyard Tale by Jim Webster
It has to be said that Milda Whorl has been described to me, with feeling, as ‘a determined young lady.’ She certainly was decisive, knew what she wanted, and made determined efforts to acquire it. Thus, for example, her name was mentioned in hushed tones amongst those who work in the superior clothing emporia of our great city. If Milda showed an interest in a dress, then everybody knew that they had better have it in her size, or have a skilled seamstress to hand to ensure that it could rapidly be made to fit. On the other hand, the owners of said emporia were willing to admit that Milda was always ready to pay. In this she differed from many young ladies who seemed happy to run up a bill which they intended to pay off when their father was cheerfully tipsy. Alternatively others seem to have written their father off in this regard, and intended to pay off their outstanding debts when they acquired a new, and hopefully besotted, husband. Indeed I know some ladies who have managed to pay off their dressmaker when they paid for their confinement with their first child. Still as any dressmaker will tell you, it is not unknown for one of their number to turn up at the reading of the will in the vague hope that the deceased has included them as a residuary legatee.
The problem with Milda was that she had no sense of proportion. So when she decided that Marcus Daltun should pay court to her, she was most put out when he didn’t. Now in Marcus’s defence, I don’t think he was courting anybody else at the time. Indeed from memory he was never less than civil to Milda, but from her point of view he was civil in a disappointingly companionable manner. Now I know other young ladies who have run into this sort of issue. They regard it as an obstacle to be surmounted. They will use various techniques (often referred to as feminine wiles), which include everything from genteel hints through to getting your friends to pin him against a wall by his ears and ask what is wrong with him. Milda seems to have eschewed these more conventional approaches.
I suppose that the problem with asking friends for assistance is that it would hint to them that she wasn’t omnicompetent. Instead she turned to Old Mother Zenodi. In a more rural setting Zenodi would doubtless be a witch, but in Port Naain, she shunned herbal medicines for fortune telling, minor cursings and dubious invocations. When Milda came to see her, Zenodi laid out her cards and peered into the future. After suitable contemplation of the infinite the old woman announced, “Somebody is being stolen away from you.” Immediately Milda demanded to be told how she could prevent this. Now had Zenodi been a witch she could doubtless have produced a perfectly efficacious love philtre. But as it was she lacked familiarity with that area of thaumaturgy, and tentatively suggested she could try a minor cursing. The idea was that she would inflict upon Marcus some minor ailment. Milda could then visit and be the cheerful companion who would in some minor way assist in nursing. Thus and so Marcus would fall in love with her. After some thought Milda agreed, paid over the requisite sum and made her way home.
The following afternoon she called, bearing flowers, to see Marcus at the house where he lived with his sister. Milda was a little put out when Marcus’s sister, Helina, explained that Marcus was at work and had left the house that morning perfectly well. Milda muttered something about having been misinformed and made her retreat. Once she was out of sight she foisted her flowers on an elderly lady who sold them on for the price of a bottle of Urlan plum brandy. Milda then descended upon Old Mother Zenodi and vented her displeasure. The older woman was somewhat put out and explained that curses and maledictions are not an exact science. This didn’t mollify Milda who demanded, “That something must be done.” So Zenodi took more money off her and promised to inflict a further curse.
That night, Marcus leapt from his bed and rushed to the privy, his guts wracked and roiling. Unfortunately he missed his footing, slipped, and twisted his ankle. Helina came to his rescue and eventually got him back into bed next to a conveniently placed commode. She then returned to her own room and contemplated the coincidence that Milda had arrived some hours previously and had obviously been put out to discover that Marcus wasn’t ill. So next afternoon when Milda again arrived to visit the invalid, Helina refused her admittance, claiming doctors’ orders and that the patient must not be disturbed.
Now some who tell this story have stressed the fact that Helina was a minor priestess of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Chastity. Thus, they hint, she is fey and can sense things those less spiritually aware might miss. Others who have recounted the story to me merely point out that Helina was Marcus’s younger sister. Younger sisters have a long history of striving to stymie their brother’s romances.
Milda left, barely attempted to hide her annoyance. She made her way forthwith to see Zenodi. This time she could hardly blame the old woman for the failure of the scheme, but instead wanted something done about Helina. At this point Zenodi pointed out that this was really beyond her powers. As much as it pained her to admit it, Helina, as even a unimportant priestess, was reasonably well shielded against such minor maledictions. Either than, or like those who teach small children, Helina had developed a high level of immunity to most things by the simple process of exposure to them all.
Still, Zenodi wasn’t without ideas. She suggested that Milda seek a consultation with a colleague of hers. Indeed she promised to have the colleague present next afternoon at the same time. Milda had to be content with that. Meanwhile Zenodi contacted Vile Adolfan. In his case, his first name was a happy coincidence, describing as it did his personal predilections perfectly. She explained the case, stressed that Milda didn’t seem to mind paying over the odds for things, and Vile Adolfan promised to give his mind to the matter. So next afternoon he was present at the consultation.
He gave Milda a long lecture on the nature of conjured demons, the difficulties a demonologist had to work under, and a somewhat complex explanation of power to invocation ratios and the dangers inherent in sending an underpowered demon to do a job of work. Frankly I only got the explanation third hand, and by that time it was doubtless garbled, but I cannot claim to have understood it. He also explained that you would need a demon of a certain minimum power to either snatch Helina to get her out of the way, or to snatch Marcus away from Helina, to bring him to Milda.
Now Milda, whilst somewhat focused, was no fool. She felt that Marcus, being dropped at her feet by a demon she apparently controlled, might well be distinctly cold towards her. But she suggested an alternative. Could she attack the demon and ‘rescue’ Marcus? Here again Vile Adolfan launched into another explanation. He said it was possible, but basically, whilst to have a demon capable of snatching Marcus in the presence of Helina set a certain minimum power, having one Milda could then defeat set a certain maximum power. He was worried that the gap between these two power levels was very tight. Indeed, thinking aloud, he wasn’t sure whether he knew more than a couple of demons who might be suitable. Finally it was agreed, Vile Adolfan would summon and bind a demon which would track down Marcus, carry him to Milda, who would then drive the demon off using an enchanted item.
After some thought it was decided Adolfan would cast a minor glamour on her parasol so that it would glow in the presence of a hostile opponent. Whilst Milda had hoped for a magic sword, it was pointed out to her that if she was seen to be carrying a sword it might hint at some preparation on her part. The presence of a parasol was far more easily explained. So it was agreed, Milda would be in the Sinecurists’ Park at an hour after midnight, and the demon would deliver Marcus and then be driven off. That evening was a difficult one in the household of Marcus and Helina. The casting of powerful magics can lead to foreshadowings and other such side effects. Obviously a competent and powerful mage can damp these things down, but unfortunately the Vile Adolfan was neither. Where the competent are brisk, their magics taut, and their use of power economical, Adolfan waffled and made up wastage by over-sacrificing. Apparently his colleagues in malevolence used to sneer that he took two virgins more than anybody else to get the same result.
So as Marcus sat huddled by the fire in his room, wrapped up against the unseasonable cold, his teeth were chattering. Helina breezed in from the garden to see him. She was wearing only a light summer’s dress, with a wrap suitable for the evening and immediately detected an unnatural chill. She sat with him for half an hour, pondering the strange shadows moving in the darker corners of the room. Eventually she decided something must be done. The chittering and moaning, just on the edge of her hearing, convinced her that something fell was coming their way. She decided that the best thing to do was to get Marcus to the Temple of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Chastity. She sent out for a sedan chair, bundled Marcus into it, and with her staff grasped firmly in both hands, she escorted her small party to the temple.
To be honest, it was not a good journey. At one point they were spontaneously drenched with blood. At another, a headless form seemed to saunter across the road ahead of them. The chairmen were for abandoning the chair and fleeing. Helina pointed out that they might be able to outrun their fears but they would not be able to outrun her. Not only that but she also explained, in reasonable tones, that they were heading for safety. Eventually they reached the temple, and when she pounded on the doors with her staff, the porter finally awoke and let them in.
It seems it was barely a moment too soon. There was an eldritch screech and a dark shape dropped down on them as they stood in the courtyard. With the chairmen helping Marcus they fled into the porter’s lodge and Helina barred the door. The demon, or whatever it was pounded on the door but the creature’s presence finally activated the temple’s innate defences.
It appears that when you build a temple, there are prayers and petitions woven into the very fabric of the building. Now, under attack, the temple, metaphorically at least, struck back. Incantations millennia old uncoiled and lashed out at the malevolence they somehow sensed. Elderly prophets awoke to find themselves sitting bolt upright in bed already chanting psalms of protection. Two young priests and a priestesses of the peripatetic order were awakened by their staffs keening loudly. White lightening broke through the black fire the demon was deploying against the door guarded against him by Helina. The creature raged and distracted, turned upon its tormentors but in vain, they hurled it back time and time again until finally, battered and bruised it retreated. It had a rendezvous with Milda.
Meanwhile Milda was learning the hard way the reason why young ladies of good breeding did not loiter at midnight in the Sinecurists’ Park. She had already laid out one would-be assailant with her glowing parasol. This had broken under the power of the blow and so she now clutched his club in one hand and his dagger in the other. It seems he had been confused by her glowing parasol and had inadvertently let his guard down. The next potential attacker had noticed his predecessor lying bound and gagged, and had eyed up the hard eyed fury who stood ready to take him on. He smiled vaguely in her direction and left.
But now Milda sensed the approach of the demon. There was a foul stench, and somehow the shadows grew darker. The creature manifested near her, separated from her only by the ornamental fountain. As it moved towards her she studied it careful, and raised both her bludgeon and dagger. It stopped, swaying slightly and glared at her. Seen from the demon’s point of view you can understand the fiend’s uncertainty. It was battered, drained of energy from the fight it had just escaped from, and was leaking reality from a score of untreated wounds. As it pondered its next move, Milda, realising it hadn’t brought Marcus, lost her temper. For the last week she had been paying out good money to incompetents and all that she had got for it was a few nocturnal experiences she’d prefer never to have. Angry now she strode towards the demon, the club ready. The demon noticed the stricken mugger and came to an instant decision. It lunged, grabbed the unconscious individual and faded back into whatever unreality it had come from. Milda, her anger the only thing that was keeping her warm, glowered at where it had stood as if defying it to return. Then she turned and made her way home.
Two days later, suffering from a severe cold, she lay in bed feeling miserable and, secure in the fact there were no witnesses, sorry for herself. Much to her surprise her maid came in bearing a bouquet, a basket of fruit and a charming letter from Marcus asking after her health and wondering whether she would feel up to him visiting her at some point. What Helina thought of this has not been recorded.