Aser, Danner, and Margot the Troll find a really excellent tavern -- but it has a nasty secret, and not just that a certain bartender has a thing for trolls...
As usual, my clan-relative Dan Ur-Jennan found the best tavern in Anchovy Bay, one with great beer, live music (albeit a harmonica player), and ceiling fans run by some kind of clockwork. The place was called 'Early Risers', bragging that many customers were still there at First Light, at which point the tavern offered the complimentary service of waking the clientele up and throwing them out in the street doused with a bucket of water.
Margot the Troll finished her second pitcher of beer (which isn't odd, she can consume about five pitchers to my two mugs) and belched discreetly (which is a remarkable talent for a troll) while tapping the bar top with one long claw. One of the bartenders pulled another pitcher of beer from the tap and put it by her elbow. "On the house," he said, leaning on the bar to stare meaningfully into Margot's eyes, even though he had to tilt his neck back to look up at her. Margot's orange eyes glittered, like she was actually considering something.
"Hey!" blurted Danner, oblivious to the romance of the moment. "I have a question. How the hell do you keep your beer so cold?"
Danner was right -- there was no ice house out back. "A cellar," I guessed, "and it's so deep it's packed with ice year round."
"Nah, we got an ifrit," said the bartender, not taking his eyes off Margot.
"You mean an afrit," said Danner, arching her eyebrows like she really knew something.
"Ifrit," said the bartender, scribbling a note on a napkin and pushing it towards Margot. "The ifrit draws the heat out of the cold-room, the cold-room draws the heat out of the beer, the beer draws the heat out of the patrons."
"And the money," I added.
"Aser, why don't you and Danner shut up for a while and drink your good cold beer?" Margot said, stuffing the napkin into her red leather halter top.
"Waitaminnit," Danner said to the barkeep, "what draws the heat off the afrit?"
The bartender pointed toward the overhead fans that kept the tavern cool. "The ifrit fuels the steam engine that drives the fans. Totally modern. The boss put a lot of gold into the system, but we've got the highest profits of any tavern in town."
Danner frowned. "You have this afrit locked up in a bunker somewhere?"
"Nah, it's in the back room," said the bartender, who was taking the liberty of running his fingers across the embossed brass of Margot's wristbands. "Boss likes to be able to view his investment."
"I'd like to view his investment, myself," Danner said. She nudged me with one foot. "Hey, Aser, think what the folks back in the clan forests would say when we told them we saw a real live iff-frit."
I looked past her and caught Margot's eye. She nodded to me, and said to the bartender, "These folks don't get out of the woods very often. Want to show us what an iff-frit looks like?" She arched her eyebrows at him and gave him a little suggestive wink.
"Anything for you," said the bartender, motioning us to the door at the far left end of the bar. As he led us through, he gestured. "There's the cold room with the beer, see how the pipe has frost at that end? And that runs into the boiler room, there."
In front of us was a door with a large yellow triangular painting on it that said "Danger! High heat!" From this room a metal shaft emerged with a gear on the end, turning to meet the teeth of more gears, which turned shafts that led out to the bar, and presumably, to the fans.
The bartender used the excuse of leaning forward to open the door to put his arm around Margot's waist. We peered into the hot room, noses wrinkling with the smell of scorched metal.
There in the dark glowed an incredibly thick glass vessel with brass pipes that led from the cold room and on the opposite side, to a boiler which hissed and creaked ominously, and whose fittings dripped dirty oil. Inside the glass vessel, a scorched shape writhed and jittered.
Danner pulled the door shut with a gasp. "That's-ts-ts really an afrit," she stuttered, her teeth chattering, "and it's trying to escape! We gotta get out of here!"
Turning to the bartender, I asked, "How'd your boss get the fire-djinn in the glass jar?"
The bartender put both hands in the air beside his ears. "Hey, the boss made a deal with some wizard to get the ifrit. That's all I know, except that the beer's cold and the fans run."
"Who was the wizard, do you know that?" Danner asked.
"Fallmound of Something-or-other."
With a deep intake of breath, Danner asked tensely, "Was it Fellmount of Verdansward?" At the bartender's enthusiastic nod, she continued, "What kind of warranty did he give?"
"Three years unconditional. Prorated after that until five years, but it's been six years and we haven't had a single problem." The bartender smiled again at Margot, who bumped him gently with her hip.
Danner strode out the door to the bar, picked up her mug and drained it in a few desperate gulps. She shook her head as if to clear it, and vaulted to the bar, shouting, "Hey! There's a problem with the power supply and this bar could blow to hell and gone any minute! If I were you, I'd leave now!" She was immediately pelted with shouted insults and pieces of bread and french fries from the patrons, who had no intention of leaving.
We put some coin on the counter to pay for our drinks, and headed for the swinging doors. "That rat bastard Fellmount," Danner ranted. "All he does is rake in the cash! He doesn't care what the long-term effect will be. If he wouldn't guarantee his work for more than three years, this place could be in ashes ten minutes from now if the spell that's imprisoning the afrit fails. Afrits are just plain old mean from the core out. They don't escape for freedom, they escape for revenge, and they're not picky about who gets fried."
I couldn't believe Fellmount let these people buy a system fueled by a fire-djinn knowing full well that in a few years, the afrit would break out and burn the place to the ground. Well, yes, perhaps I could because he agreed to curse our clan for a mere 800 gold pieces about a year ago, for no other reason than monetary gain. But it's all just a symptom of a general decline in business practices.
The planned obsolescence thing really depresses me some days. There are some craftsmen who are so confident of their ability to produce a product that they can say with pride, "This is the last crossbow you'll need. They won't get any better." Or a smithy who says, "If this plow blade cracks, bring it back and I'll replace it."
But all too often the things people use are expected to fail in a certain time period, and with the convenience of a lower price, you get the table of chance loaded in the favor of the seller, who says, basically, "I think I can guarantee my work for (six months, two years, five years)," whatever is convenient, all the while knowing that the butter-churn's bands are going to fail within four years because the metal bands used to secure the slats of the vessel are going to corrode, or that the fibers of your work-clothes are bound to disintegrate within 13 months because the carding and spinning operations to make their fabric were skimped upon. "In the mean time, I get more money from more buyers because I've made cheaper goods that are cheaper to sell."
The woodsmith's family has decided to move closer to one of the seaport towns to capitalize on his favorite kind of work, building seaworthy cabinetry for shipwrights. But rather than set out a substantial amount of gold for the wagonmaker's well-oiled vehicle and two trained light draft animals as a matching team to pull it, the woodsmith visits one of the big cart lots with a lot of little flags around it and fifty identical wagons parked in rows, all painted with glossy paint and waxed to outshine the stars. And on one side of the lot is a used cart-horse lot with animals tethered to lines of rope, each one with a price chalked on the rump.
The wagonmaker's rig would have cost the woodsmith 15 gold coins and with minimum maintenance, lasted until his sons' sons were ready to set up their own shops; but with the moving costs, the cart lot's price of five gold seems a whole lot more sensible ... right up until they get two desmesnes closer to the ocean and a wheel falls off, damaging the axle and spooking the bargain-basement horse on that side, who shies and breaks the tongue of the cart off near the base of it. The two year warranty isn't honored except by the dealer, and the poor woodsmith becomes a bit poorer as he pays for repair of the damage, a cost equal to what he paid for the cart. Or he can dump the whole rig as garbage, and hit the nearest cheap cart lot for a whole new one ...
I would bet that digging a cellar deep enough to hold ice and beer kegs would have cost the owner of Early Risers a pretty penny. And Fellmount would have seen that, too, and offered his immoral solution for a slightly cheaper price, not bothering to inform the customer that afrits always take horrible fiery revenge when caged and used.
"See you two later," rumbled Margot, flipping her hood up over her mohawk hair and disappearing into a dark alley.
"She's not taking this seriously, Aser," Danner said, shaking her head.
"I bet she meets her bartender buddy far from the tavern," I defended. "Margot is not dumb." I pondered her departure. "But often surprising. And so are you. I thought you would have done some magic to keep the afrit safe and sound."
She shook her head. "Djinns aren't just powerful, they're incredibly malicious if they've been crossed. I don't know enough about magic to even talk to them without being turned to bacon. I have to talk to Cloudraft about this. Come with me, will you? I need you to keep me from shooting my mouth off like I usually do."
"What do you want?" shouted Cloudraft the Great when he answered the door.
Without apology or preamble, Danner said, "The Early Risers Tavern has an afrit they're using as a refrigeration unit and power for a steam engine."
"That's preposterous!" the wizard sputtered, "Are they insane? Do they have any idea the creature could lay waste to this town at any moment?"
"I told them, but they didn't believe me," said Danner, humbly, very much the wizard's former apprentice.
"That's because you are a carousing, irresponsible, ill-spoken, traitorous wastrel!"
I reached with my staff and tapped him on the arm. "Is that why she's coming to you for help?"
In reply, he threw open the door and began to rummage in an overstuffed chair for his wand. "I suggest you make your way out of this town as soon as possible. I intend to do so immediately." He found the black stick that enabled his wizardry and tapped himself, making formal dark blue wizard robes appear upon his person in place of the hotel robe and boxer shorts. "I shall need my hat," he said to Danner, who held the garment hostage, tied in a leather bag against her boot.
He stopped and gaped at her. "Even without my hat, I could turn you into a tick."
"Tick away, Cloudy," Danner said, crossing her arms in defiance, "and before this town burns, I will be burrowed into the dirt, along with your rude and lecherous hat, and you can walk your sorry sorehead ass to wherever you plan on going."
Along with having been Cloudraft's unwilling apprentice, Danner and Cloudraft had been quite besotted with each other -- right up until she ripped his hat off his head so that he could not magically transport himself back into the mess we were all fleeing -- a death-threat by none other than Fellmount of Verdansward, himself. (Well, used to be from Verdansward, that is. He'd taken over Cloudraft's old digs for the ocean vistas and a power consolidation with a murdering Lady and her standing army. I'm telling you, referring to Fellmount as a 'rat bastard' was almost a compliment beside what we knew of him.)
"You're the only one we know who has the power to bargain effectively with a djinn," I lied. Fellmount did, but I wouldn't trust him as far as I could see with my head up an elephant's butt. "Or keep the afrit imprisoned. The thing is trying to escape even as we speak, and the spell that contains it is three years out of warranty. Will you just let these people die?"
Cloudraft turned his back on us and cursed heatedly to himself in whispers. Danner's eyes widened in admiration. A few deep breaths later, the wizard pushed past us out the door. "What are you waiting for?" he demanded as we trotted to keep up with his long strides.
We led him to the alley behind Early Risers and paused by their back door. Running his left hand through his silvery hair, Cloudraft turned to Danner. "I must have my hat back."
"No," Danner said grumpily. "If I give you your hat, you'll just teleport yourself off somewhere and leave us to fry."
Cloudraft puffed up like a toad. "I would not!"
"Promise me you won't leave us," Danner said stubbornly. "Say it."
"I promise I won't leave you," he said, rolling his eyes up disgustedly. "Now give me my hat so that my power is fully accessible."
"All right," Danner growled, "but remember your promise." She untied a leather pouch from where it had been strapped to her boot, and out of the pouch pulled a wrinkled, rolled conical hat. "Looks like the hat needs some exercise."
Muttering angrily, Cloudraft rapped the hat twice with his wand. "Straighten up," he told it. The hat shivered, and then unwrinkled itself, bottom to top. The wizard put it on his head. "Ahhh," he sighed. "Now let's find this afrit." He held out his left hand to Danner, who took it, and they both disappeared into purple mist, which faded from view in two seconds.
"You stinking slime-ogres!" I told the empty air, and leaned against the door to try to hear what was going on. Suddenly the door opened, and I fell forward, saved from falling to the floor by Danner's grip on my hood. I straightened up and slapped her hands away.
"Shhh!" she said. "We need protective gear." She pulled me forward so that Cloudraft could tap us both on the head. Immediately I was weighed down by a welder's hood, mask, and gear.
Cloudraft the Great squared his shoulders, adopted a regal bearing, and entered the boiler room where the afrit was contained.
In the glowing mists and smokes of the glass jar, the form of the afrit stilled, and then threw itself against the vessel's side nearest Cloudraft. A loud, buzzing voice said:
"O Wizard, the Power of Sorcery
Emanates from within thee!
Free me from this imprisonment
And whatever thou wish, thou shall have!
Free me and I will anoint thee
With all the blessings of Man!"
I lifted up a corner of my hood and hissed, "Don't let him take that payment! One of the Blessings of Man is Death!"
"He's an asshole, but he's not stupid, Aser," Danner said, rapping me on the helmet with her staff.
"I thank thee, O Djinn, yet I ask thee,
Would thou be free from thy service?
Have the long years worn thy nerves out
Making thee long for thy freedom?
Now are thou willing to bargain
To free thyself from this glass jar?" Cloudraft chanted, swaying.
"I would rather spend six thousand eons
Eating lettuce and bean sprouts and yogurt
Turkey sausage and fat-free mayonnaise
Than spend another minute in here.
This servitude is so poisonous to me
Sipping beer fumes and heating steams!
Were I free I would bestow upon thee
Wishes to make thy gray head spin
Wealth to build an IRA in
Or the secret desire of thy heart!
Tell me what thou have most wanted
And for freedom, I'll give thee thy wish!"
Cloudraft paused, and in the reddish light, seemed to consider the afrit's suggestion. He turned to Danner and me. "The afrit wants a bargain, and I don't have one to offer. There's nothing I desire that I want an outside source to provide."
"Give it a choice, to go back to the Realm of Loss or to revisit the sorcerer who imprisoned it. Then it either has what freedom it had before this, or it returns for revenge to its captor -- who obviously has the power to control it."
"Aser, just when I think you're completely worthless, you come up with some clever idea. Thank you," said Cloudraft.
Asshole, I thought, but I held my tongue as he spoke again to the afrit.
"Between the dark desert and Muspellheim
Lie many long leagues of existence.
Return to thy long home between worlds
Or return to the one who has jailed thee.
Address the wrongs done by thy wrong-doer
And get thee the hell out of town."
I considered that last line, and wondered if Danner hadn't had more influence on him than he admitted.
"Thou have a firm deal O Wizard
With wisdom abiding in coat-sleeves!
Release me and I will fly elsewhere
Seeking the miscreant who conjured me
To set fire to his undergarments
And set ablaze his favorite chair!"
Cloudraft framed the afrit in two raised hands, chanting something under his breath. The glowing jar went dark, though the hissing fittings continued to radiate great heat. All three of us ducked out the doors to the alley.
"Now, see how efficient that was? Only the wrongdoing is punished, not another innocent harmed, no one who wasn't involved is put in harm's way." Cloudraft was highly mollified and nearly strutting with pride.
Danner and I had turned to one another to slap our right hands (still clad in welder's gloves) together in celebration.
Then Danner said, "What the hell is that on your shoe?" and as Cloudraft bent to look in the dim light of the alley, she snatched the hat off his head and whipped out her dagger and held it to the hat menacingly. "Just in case you thought that episode freed you, too."