"There's nothing funny about a blank piece of parchment to a writer," the skinny little man told me, waving ink-stained fingers in the air. He thought for a moment and then amended himself. "Well, I suppose it could be funny if it happened to a writer you hated personally, or whose writing you hated enough to wish you'd never have to see another psuedo-Shakespearian stage play based on such dreck."
I chewed a small dandelion leaf until its tang was gone and then swallowed it. "I don't write things down very often," I admitted to him, "so I am rarely disturbed by empty pages. Nor do I sit through stage plays that stink."
"You're a shaman, you can get up and wander away from anything and people just think you must have a spirit calling you on the hotline or something. Nobody expects a shaman to grasp the nuances of theater productions or the importance of being an acceptable part of literary circles."
The fence-like hedge above us rattled a little in the spring breeze. "The leaves are laughing," I told him. "They say you have a question for me that you're nervous about asking."
He looked upwards nervously. "They do? You really can understand the talk of trees? Could you tell me what the trees think about Scribe Conrad Withebee's latest play, The Plummet and the Landing? Am I wrong in thinking that the man's a hopelessly incompetent writer and that he gains an audience simply because he bribes the Demesne Fair officials to grant him the first performance of the spring?" He waved a bit self-consciously at the hedge, and said, "Hello, Shrub! So nice to have met you!"
Clearing my throat, I examined the fingernails of my left hand. "Ahh, well, I could, I suppose, but I would have had to be there for the performance and listen for the leaves' talk. Leaves don't remember much from day to day, it's the roots that have the long memories -- but then all they think about is food.
"So tell me, what is the question you're reluctant to ask, but was so important that you're willing to crouch in the bushes to talk to a hedge shaman?"
He scratched at his hair by the edge of his cap. The spot of hair was stained a bluish-black by the drippings from the point of the plumed pen stuck through the band of the cap. Probably he was allergic to the berries or chemicals used for ink. "Eh," he muttered, "the leaves gave me away. I know that you shamans have power over the unseen spirits that roam the earth and so I was hoping to purchase from you a spell to enable me once again to write material that was truly funny. I must be able to command the Spirit of Humor to appear when necessary."
Spirit of Humor? Where did he hear about something as silly as that? "Who is your benefactor?" I asked, hoping he didn't write educational material for a living.
"Lord Gillrock," he replied.
"Don't you mean 'Lord Gallrock? I thought the Lord's name was 'Gallrock.'" "No, no, no, everybody screws that up. Lord Gallrock is a mean-spirited old coot in the next desmesne over to the East, I think. Our Lord Gillrock is just a distant relation. Or possibly a coincidence." He tutt-tutted and scratched at his hair some more. "Though we are close to the border, here."
After his inaccuracy about what shamans can do, I didn't really believe what he was saying. "Gillrock, Gallrock -- not much of a difference, is there?"
"Lord Gillrock," the man said loftily, sitting up straighter, "takes his grandfather's name, who founded the castle upon a mystical stone that revealed the perfect shape of a five-foot fish embedded in the rock. Gill Rock, the stone is called. And thus the family called itself 'Gillrock.'"
"I'd like to see this rock, myself. I've never seen a fish in a rock before."
"I don't think that the Shrine of the Fish is open to the public." He picked at the ragged stained cuticles of his fingers.
"When did shamans become 'Public?'. Didn't you just tell me that I have powers over the spirits that roam the earth?"
"That is what is said of shamans, yes, Ase Ur-Jennan. But not over Shrines."
I shifted a little to make sure that the cudgel behind my buttock was easily accessible. "You know my name."
He placed an index finger beside his right temple. "I've seen your face tattoo in an ancient text I am copying. The rendition of your face made you look more like a man, but I know you shamans are shape-shifters as well."
It was my turn to bend my head and scratch at my matted hair. I hid my expression as I tried to remember how long ago an Ur-Jennan named Ase was a male. Great-great-great-great generation? "Well, I'm Aser, all right. You got me there. And your name, in courteous return?"
"My name is Scribe Forley Hogginsworth, Shaman." He tilted his chin up arrogantly. "Though you might only have known me by my pen name, 'Farr Reachmon.' Will you sell me the spell I need, or must I find myself a different shaman?"
"Farr Reachmon. Didn't you write a play about an enchanted skunk who married the third daughter of the King of the Sunset Isles, and how society accepted him because of his rank, in spite of his rank scent?"
"Ah, you've heard of me!" Forley exclaimed, his chest swelling with pride.
I laughed. "Yeah, I saw your play over in Skuleflight Harbor, at a dinner theater at the Dock Cafe. It was an all-orc revue, and they were so funny they got standing ovations every time they performed. It was great. Let me shake your hand."
Above his feeble handshake, he asked, "Orcs? Skuleflight Harbor?"
"Do you have a problem with orcs in general (aside from the usual ones regarding murder and warfare) or is it something about Skuleflight Harbor?"
"I have never sold the rights to produce my work outside this demesne." His eyes strayed to the west. "I think I've been robbed."
Well, if that hadn't been an authorized run of Sunset Skunk, he certainly had been. "Maybe you've been robbed, but maybe you've been spared the cost of advertising," I suggested to him.
"What was the box-office take?" His eyes searched mine piercingly.
"I'm a shaman, not an accountant," I replied sternly. "Are you writing for art or for silver?"
"I'm hoping that I'm writing for gold, not silver," Forley puffed.
"Gold for humor? If you're writing humor, you should just be glad that you're alive and not adorning someone's pike with your head."
Forley scratched a handful of dirt and flung it down again. "The spell to make my work funny again -- will you sell it to me or not?"
I thought about telling him the truth, that shamans can hear the world of the spirit but have no power over it. But the innate call of my clan in my soul clamored to let him deceive himself. I sighed.
"What's your skill level for casting spells?"
"Well, yes, if you're going to cast a spell that I sell you, you have to have some skills at spellcasting or nothing's going to work." I paused. "And you will note that I offered this information up front rather than just taking your money."
His face, his shoulders, and his expression sagged. "Then I'm finished as Lord Gillrock's Assistant Jester's speechwriter. I might as well take up turnip farming."
"Now, just hold on. Maybe you can't cast a spell, but I can teach you a quasi-magical technique for the same price that may very well get the same results. What do you say?"
"How much?" he asked, looking suspiciously at me.
"Two gold. Non-lethal spells are two gold at your basic rates all over the desmesne, and you have to have at least an associate's degree in Casting. Go check. Quasi-magical technique-teaching is a bargain at the same price, and doesn't require a Skill beyond Hearing and Moving About." I pulled another dandelion leaf and began to chew it.
"What is 'quasi'?"
"It's a province in the Eastern Desert, known for its magic that doesn't require spells."
The writer thought about it for a minute, picking at his front teeth with his thumbnail. It was the crucial moment. Either he knew that there was no such province (indeed, the Eastern Desert did not divide into provinces at all) and was about to get up, walk away, and leave me to my late afternoon nap -- or he was ignorant and about to pay for his ignorance. I waited, watching him itch and fidget. "All right," he said, telling me everything I needed to know about him.
"But what if -- "
"No guarantees. You can either use the technique to your advantage, or you can't. I don't return fees because someone lacks the ability to make use of a spell or a technique." I figured he wouldn't have gold coinage on him -- comedians aren't usually rich -- and I would be off the hook.
He reached into the pouch on his belt, and rather quickly pulled out two shiny gold pieces. Scribe Forley didn't have to do much searching amongst his coins. I hadn't noticed before how heavily his wallet hung.
He handed me the two thick coins, each of which had the face of the Queen on one side, and a single eye on the other. I took them, and after drawing a pair of connected circles in the dirt, placed each coin in a circle. It was pure hokum, but if he thought there was some sort of magic involved, he'd be less likely to want them back.
"First of all, Scribe Forley, you have to get a grip on what is funny in the world about you. Of course there are news stories that you hear from the herald in the marketplace, and of course there are rumors that you hear in the marketplace, but also there are creatures and happenstances in the world that are almost always funny. You must look for these." I drew another circle in the dirt around the gold. "You will find them in odd places, and they will glow to your perceptions, but not the perceptions of the eye -- rather your mind will recognize the glow. Such moments are golden, enchanted through quasi-magic resonations with the gold you have paid."
Scribe Forley looked at me with both respect and confusion. Good.
"Now listen and allow the magic to sink in."
"Magic? I thought it was 'Quasi-Magic'?"
"Quasi-magic is still a kind of magic. Pay attention.
" Seagulls are funny," I told him earnestly. "Chickens are funny, mis-matched socks are funny, orcs in tu-tu's are funny. You must make a list of things that are funny in the world. Old women scratching themselves when they think no one can see them are funny. Platypuses who wear plaid are funny. Overseers who are stupid are funny, as long as you're not one of their employees."
He whipped a wad of cheap paper out of his back pocket, pulled the pen from his hat, and fished a tiny jar of ink from his jacket. Well, I guess he was a writer after all. He scribbled on the paper.
"Uncomfortable shoes. Ostriches. Hemorrhoids from too much salsa. Falling down stairs in the snow. Nostril hair," I told him. "You have to look around, and see what's there, and then see it again as what would make it funny."
"Slow down, I'm still at platypuses," he snarled, writing furiously.
I felt I was on a roll. "A snotty elf -- maybe named Chiernavan -- who unexpectedly falls in love with a juniper bush."
Forley stopped writing and sniggered into his sleeve. "And seeks the help of a wizard to cure the rashes he incurs thereby?"
"Oh, I saw Chiernavan as a 'she,'" I told him with complete honesty.
"Gillrock is gonna love this," said the scribbling scribe. "The wizard describes a salve that Chiernavan must rub on the itchy parts by the light of the crescent moon, only the wizard's apprentice overhears the advice and sells the information to the nearby village for extra pocket money ... "
"See!" I said. "Now you've got it! That's the kind of stuff that blows away regular magic spell results! You use the technique, and you have Humor as your slave."
"Shaman," he said, "I'll credit you as my inspiration when this play is produced."
"Please don't," I said. "The coin and the satisfaction of a quasi-technique passed on are reward enough."
He scuffled to his feet while replacing the paper into his pocket and the pen into his hat. "Good day, Shaman! Many thanks to you for your help!" He stopped before he stepped onto the dirt road, and turned to me again. "Here," he said. "Two gold were not enough."
I accepted the big silver coin he handed me. "Do it to it, Scribe," I said to him. "You are the funny man behind the Gill Rock."
He bowed to me, and set off northward on the track.
Smiling, I put the coins in my pocket, wrapped in leaves so they would not clink, and stood on the road and stretched. I headed northward, too, dragging my cloak behind me to wipe out my footprints.
Chiernavan would have no idea where the inspiration for the next legend about her came from, but I knew I was going to find Farr Reachmon's play amusing, no matter how well or badly it was written. Especially when it was his coinage that was going to provide me with theatre and travel money for the next season.
Getting gold from fools is funny, too.