The Puzzlebark Inn did a brisker business than you would expect for an inn with no sign and no door. Catering, as it did, to sorcerers, wizards, and other magic users, the lack of both advertising and point of ingress was no deterrent to custom. In fact, it served to preserve the safety and exclusivity of the clientele.
There were many rooms in the Puzzlebark Inn, though how many was a subject of speculation. There was a dining room with a magic harp for quiet enjoyment and a dining room without one for lively debate. There was a library for study and meeting rooms for conclaves and a feast hall that couldn’t be found unless the proper deposit had been paid. There was even a bar for boasting and carousing and meeting other wizards.
But the heart of the Puzzlebark Inn was the taproom. The taproom was for reminiscence. This was not enforced by either the owner or the guests. It just seemed to be an effect of the room.
The night was a warm spring night and only the western hearth was lit, washing the room with deep blue flickers. The tap, hanging firmly in midair in the center of the room, had been liberally employed throughout the evening and tales of past magic were well underway. Old sea magic had been explored for awhile, but, as often happened when the denizens of the taproom were of the older sort, the subject had turned to the shortcomings of past apprentices.
"The sloppy ones can be watched," a balding court mage named Durstan stated firmly. "It's the angry, vengeful sort that are dangerous. Why, I had a South Sloper, once, who became convinced that I was jealous and trying to poison him. Before I knew it he'd turned my cook into wood. My Cook!"
"Piffle." An ore dowser named Roswyn flipped a graying braid over her shoulder. "Angry apprentices are dead easy to handle. Slap a mood geas on them or pop them into the Labyrinth of Mind. Then if they don't learn to control their emotions, they can't do magic. The sloppy ones are always doing something so slightly wrong that you don't notice until it's too late."
"At least they are usually more of a danger to themselves than to others, Ros."
"Only if they live in a cave on a mountain. Even then, watch for innocents caught in avalanches.
I had an apprentice named Opal, once. Auspicious name for cave work, you'd think. But, no. Things were always going wrong about her. We were crawling through an old 'tween hole one day and disturbed a troll. I got out the copper blade smart enough and she knew to scramble for the jar of salt.
But when she opened it, the salt was one solid mass stuck in the jar and no good at all for tossing on troll wounds. She'd not fastened the jar lid tight enough and the salt had pulled moisture out of the cave air and locked itself up. The troll kept healing and coming at us and healing and coming at us. It was clear that we would both be troll food as soon as my arm tired.
Fortunately, before that happened, she lost control of her torch. I assume she hadn't soaked it in lime and lichen long enough. Suddenly it was a real, burning flame instead of seaflame, like in the hearth, yonder. With all the sulfur in it, it nearly took her eyebrows off when it went.
She dropped it, of course. But I only had to curse her a little to get her to cauterizing troll with it. Once the troll was burning well, I doused the torch. She yipped about the dark for a bit before she remembered why it had to go. We crawled back to the surface in the dark with troll soot in our lungs. I hope none of you ever gets a lungful of burning troll in a confined space."
"For the benefit of us light-lovers, Ros, why did the torch have to go?"
"Why, the phlogiston, man! Living beings and true flames both release phlogiston into the air. When the air gets saturated with it, then the flame or being smothers. Caves are enclosed and can't release phlogiston into the wider air with any rapidity. It's easy to smother yourself in a cave."
"What did you do with your girl?"
"Not a thing. She was silent and chastened the whole way home. Concentrated on her work better than I'd ever seen. I thought maybe this had been the shock she needed. But, no.
She quietly packed our gear and quietly hiked home. She quietly stowed all the equipment and quietly cleaned herself up. Fixing dinner that night she didn't drop a dish or add a salt measure of pepper or any of the small missteps she usually made. She quietly ate and quietly tidied after. Then she went to her room and quietly packed all her things. Nothing I said could convince her to stay.
What did you do with your South Sloper?"
"Shifted the spell onto him, of course. As I explained to him at the time, if I could have been sure of lifting the spell properly, I would have done so and let the incident drop. Fits of temper and all that. But wood to flesh is trickier than flesh to wood. There are simply more kinds of flesh than of wood. Fiddly to get the typing done properly and deadly to miss. Better to do a reverse curse with full correspondence. I also explained that, while talented apprentices are easy to find, good cooks willing to work for a mage are not.
I told him that if the cook died or left me, I'd shift him back."
"As if the cook won't outlive you!"
"Ah! Fixed that with the Mayor. If I die, then our wooden boy goes up for auction to any magic user willing to turn him back. In fact, he's in the Mayor's office as we speak, just in case."
"Why would anyone pay for the opportunity to cast wood to flesh?" Roswyn was puzzled.
"Not wood to flesh, it would be another reverse with full. Much easier than wood to flesh. Any good hedger could do it."
"As a means of execution, of course. There aren't many Princes in my section of the Worldshore, at least not many worth mentioning. But we have a lot of Mayors and Constables and so forth who have occasional need of a showy execution. A retransfer of the curse would leave a body for permanent display and preserve the hope, for any followers or relatives of the deceased, that the focus of their interest might be revived at a later time.
There may be any number of political reasons why such an execution would be handy. Yes, the resale could be quite profitable under the right circumstances. My cook is willing to take the resale value as his inheritance."
"Bah! Sometimes I don't see how you court mages can stomach it."
Durstan chuckled over his mug of red beer. "You slog through muck and dark and breathe the occasional burning or salting troll and you ask how I can stomach a little social maneuvering! Honestly Roswyn, I sometimes wonder if you. . ."
It was not a large sound that stopped Durstan's speech, that, indeed, halted all conversation in the taproom. It was merely the shifting of the blankets tucked about the shoulders of the eldest mage in the room. But though the sound was small, it was unexpected, for the eldest mage seldom moved or spoke. And since magic users habitually attend to the unexpected, when the eldest spoke, the entire room was already listening.
He spoke in a soft, lifeless voice, and cleared his throat several times at the beginning. "I never had any trouble with either sloppy or angry apprentices." he intoned.
"But beware an apprentice with an uncontrollable sense of humor. Especially beware the apprentice who cannot forgo the opportunity to form that perversion of speech known as a pun. Puns and spells do not mix.
Ignore the affability and charm of the aspirant. Inveterate punsters are invariably affable and charming. It is a defense they adopt to prevent them from being bludgeoned to death. Ignore their nimbleness of mind. Sadly, a certain nimbleness of mind is required for punning. But once a person's mental agility has been harnessed to such an engine of perversion, it cannot easily be unhitched. No. Avoid the apprentice with an uncontrollable sense of humor."
Here the eldest mage seemed to be content to mumble himself back into quiet. But the curiosity of the taproom had been aroused. Standing folk gathered about the eldest and seated folk leaned in. A general murmur of interest sounded and faded. When that was insufficient, Durstan spoke.
"Venerable one. Pardon my curiosity, but can you give us an example? Can you speak of a time when spells and puns brought disaster?”
"I can easily name an embarrassing incident. But the true disaster is painful to relate. Durstan, have you ever been called upon to form a nimbus of light about a princeling setting forth to parade before his people? You will understand how seriously they take it and how angry they become when the spell is ill cast.
The particular prince in this incident was a preening example of his kind. He decided that not only he, but also his horse should glow. He spouted some rot about symbology and loyalty. If the horse could glow by association with his greatness, then the peasants and merchants and petty nobles must flock to greatness by association or . . . some such.
It was a suitable spell for this apprentice, whose name I will not speak. In light of his unfortunate tendencies, I required him to write out the amended version of the spell he would cast. It contained an unfortunate repeating phrase: '. . .and the horse you ride", an obvious allusion to the common curse. But the prince would never hear the words as the magic would distort them, and it was a mild enough aberration.
Unfortunately, when he actually recited the spell, he could not prevent himself from punning. The change in pronunciation was slight enough that I did not notice it. I was merely surprised when the horse failed to glow. The apprentice looked appalled and ran, which was the proper course when things went badly about this prince. So I thought nothing of it. I stayed to apologize and almost lost my head."
You see, I only knew that the horse wasn't glowing. I didn't know that other things were. During the parade, several well known ladies of the evening were noticed to be glowing in the nooks where they watched the parade. Once it was noticed, it was chuckled at. The prince had made such a fuss about his horse not glowing that many courtiers understood the switch that had been made. And they only glowed if the prince was nearby. It was a good bit of gossip.
Unfortunately, that gossip had spread by the time the main festivities started. At the ball that night, any young lady who had both mated with the prince and accepted a gift from him glowed if she was in the same room. Dabbling in street merchandise was worthy of a chuckle, but collecting the favors of the daughters and wives of his sworn men was an entirely different matter. To say nothing of the state those women got into when they discovered they were part of such a crowd.
The prince had to call his guard to clear the party. He needed his army to hold the manor in the weeks that followed. Eventually, an advisor got to him and he married a princess from one of the northern isles. There was a great deal of publicity given to the magical backing that their vows of fidelity were to be given. If he had gotten his hands on me while he lived, he would have attempted to execute me."
"How dreadful!" Duran was appalled, though appreciative snickers peppered the room. "And you consider that to be merely an embarrassment? Pray what would you consider to be dire if that was not?"
"As many Princes as there are in the Worldshore’s main reach, and as short as each one’s reach is? No, it was only an embarrassment for me. I popped somewhere safe. I left the punster to find his own way which, unfortunately, he did."
The eldest emitted a sigh like a slowly deflating buffoon's bladder. Everyone leaned in again, encouragingly. Another dry sound wheezed from the eldest. Upon repetition it was discovered to be a chuckle.
"And I made a few coins from the situation. Finder's fees. I spread the word to other mages that there might be those attending the wedding who would be interested in an expert opinion on the strength and validity of the magic performed. Likely every fifth attendee at the solemn occasion was there as a consultant. Very remunerative.
Now I suppose you want to hear about the disaster. It's a painful thing to remember, let alone to relate."
Durstan found the eldest's glass and filled it from the tap. Everyone waited patiently as the eldest fumbled a few small sips of support.
"I had decided that the southern isles would be the safest place for us for awhile. And the southern isles means boating. As you know, all the southern isles are small, most supporting less than a dozen inhabitants. To do any sort of business at all requires a boat or boats. The sort of magic most in demand is the sort that deals with boats: bits of wind to puff your sail one way without pulling all the other boats along, woodwarp to seal cracks, lightness to increase cargoes, that sort of thing.
After his difficulty, my jolly apprentice had been chastened for awhile, rather like Roswyn's Opal, and he was affable enough to easily attract customers. All was well until the Pizan fleet arrived. The Pizans come from a land beyond the Worldshore, where most of the land is surrounded by other land. But they had come to trade and had been generous enough with their goods to find great welcome. The south islanders invited them to sail their seas freely, giving them maps to guide their deep-keeled ships away from shallow waters. They also hired us to bless the ships of the fleet.
Blessing a boat or a ship is a simple enough thing. It does little more than bring the craft a bit of extra luck, which might be handy for strangers with deep-keeled boats tootling around islands, but which would be impossible to measure. No one would ever know if the spell failed, you see. So it was a guaranteed success. Blessings are complicated, though, with much naming of boatly parts. My unfortunate apprentice had been spending time drinking with islanders and knew well all the parts. Unfortunately, he had also learned all of the local phrases of color and his infirmity was still with him, though hiding.
Still, the disaster might have passed us by, had not one of his drinking companions gone aboard the main ship of the fleet. There we were, on our little boat, floating among the ships and there he was, watching us. . . listening to us . . . an audience for my apprentice's perversion. Again, I was unaware of the danger.
And I was not as familiar, either with the names of the parts of boats or with the local insults. I did not notice as my apprentice's chanting of hulls and masts and spars and rigging, of booms and gaffs and jibs, slipped sideways somewhat. I did, however, notice with sinking heart, as his friend slapped his thigh and doubled over with laughter. I glared, but did not dare interrupt. Then I heard him add a cantrip. As a final jibe at his laughing companion, he recited an untying spell, meant, I am sure, for his friend’s pant string.
But it was recited too close to the other, mangled spell. With horror I watched as each and every connection in the fleet disconnected. Board parted from board and rope parted from sail. The cargo of the Pizan fleet plunged through the separating pieces of their ruined ships. I fled immediately, teleporting to safety. He was too stunned to move, and was taken captive, though he bartered his way to freedom quickly enough. From that day to this I have avoided humorous apprentices."
Magic users are a cunning and subtle lot. So the horrified hush that fell over the taproom had nothing to do with thoughts of maritime economic setbacks. For every wizard and witch could piece the rest of the story together quickly enough. The name that the eldest had refused to speak was known to them all; was, indeed, know to all the peoples of the Worldshore: Narnemvar the Great, the mage who discovered the shipblast spell upon which the peace and safety of the Worldshore now depended.
Heads nodded about the taproom as all there agreed with the thing that the eldest had left unsaid. The apprentice who surpassed his master so completely that his name became a part of history while his master’s name crumbled slowly to dust - - that was the apprentice to be avoided. That was the worst apprentice of all.