Chapter I: The Dinner for Fantastical Creatures
I'M ONE OF THE ONLY humans invited to the weekly Dinner for Fantastical Creatures, which takes place every Thursday night at the mansion of the illustrious eccentric, Miss Nasturtium Maw. She comes from “old money”, meaning two things: 1) her family's as rich as Caesar, and probably has been since the time her ancient ancestors hobnobbed with the Emperor himself, and 2) since she is so rich, she can do whatever she wants without anybody making too much of a fuss! Since childhood, Miss Maw has believed in the existence of so-called “fantastical creatures”, ones that are only seen in storybooks—or so the rest of the world says. The fact of the matter is that these creatures really do exist, and they are not so strange or frightening as some might believe.
For example, take Elves. They're portrayed as tiny little beings that cobble shoes or craft toys up at the North Pole to distribute every Christmastime. Or, as is the case in some legends, they are tall, ethereal beings with wondrous powers, incredible beauty, and the gift of immortality. In real life, that's not true. Indeed, most Elves are tall and slender, and many of them are also gifted in the ways of the Old Art—that is to say, magic. However, they are not ethereal—they're as flesh-and-blood as you and me, although with markedly pointed ears! They are also nowhere near immortal. They do live longer than the average human, but not too much longer. My grandfather by adoption, Septimus, is seventy years old right now. Had he been an Elf, he would only be forty! This allows Elves more foresight into the ways of the world, and a longer time to enjoy it. We “quicklings”, as most Elves fondly call humans, live too fast and die too soon. That's our lot...
The Dwarves are the exact opposite. As the Elves call us humans “quicklings” because of our brief lifespan, they call Dwarves “elderlings” because of their lengthy one. A fifty-year-old Dwarf is still a toddler, and is not a full-grown adult until he or she reaches two hundred. Dwarven men have massive beards down to their toes, and the women sculpt their long hair into magnificent braids. The finer the coiffure or beard, the richer the Dwarf is, and among them there are contests to see which are the finest. The losers become the winners' servants, and that's that! Once a Dwarf male has risen to the top of his occupation and has seen his children grown, it is traditional for him to retire, enter the cavernous deeps, and there breathe his last in respect to the Stone from whence he came. The women stay with us surface-folk, acting as wise counsel to Dwarves who are still growing up. They always lie about their age to humans, so as not to scare us or make us scoff.
A Dwarf can live four hundred years. Grandfather says he knew one who was that plus eighty...!
The Ogres are monstrous in size, but contrary to popular belief, they are not monsters. Most of them are quite intelligent, if not exactly talkative. Even though they communicate largely through grunts, laughter, and sighs, it's very easy to tell what kind of mood an Ogre's in or what he or she might be thinking about (food)! They have an incredibly high rate of digestion and expend more energy per minute than any one of us, and so Ogres rarely live past the age of twenty. If they wish to live with humans, coming out of the forests and down from the mountaintops where they most commonly reside, Ogres are commonly employed as day laborers, circus strongmen, and quarrymen. The more refined Ogres become the servants of the wealthy, such as Miss Maw. She has a butler named Adolphus, who hates the long name he's been given and answers to “Dolf”. His Ogre name is unpronounceable to the rest of us, being a series of guttural grunts and snarls. We here at the Dinner have adopted no pet nickname for him, out of both fear and respect.
At this particular Dinner for Fantastical Creatures, there were six of us: one Elf, two Dwarves, two humans, and one Ogre, Dolf. It was going to be an interesting evening, as it almost always was...
“We have new guests tonight,” Miss Maw announced, smiling brightly. “Bagaht and Acantha Davrum, two young Dwarven newlyweds, are here with us.” She glanced toward them, and the rest of us did as well. “Why don't we all introduce ourselves? I am Nasturtium Maw, your hostess.”
The Elven lady to my right then spoke. “My name is Luriel, and I'm an Elf. My last name is entirely too long, and would take sixty seconds to pronounce.” All of us smiled nervously, feeling awkward.
Meekly, I said, “I'm Perdante Maxim, adopted granddaughter of Septimus Maxim, Watchmaker.”
Knowing nods came from around the table. Everybody recognized his name, except for the Dwarves, who were new to this place and this town. “He rescued me from the orphanage.”
Miss Maw frowned. “Oh, do be charitable, and do tell them your real name.”
“Penny.” I bowed my head, despising it. It was too short, too common—a nearly-worthless coin.
“And from which orphanage did you come?” she intoned. “From where did he adopt you?”
“The Mencken Home for Orphaned Children.” In order to get out from under the pointed stare of our hostess, I continued, “Mr. Mencken was very kind to take me in when my parents passed on.”
“Oh, how sad...” The female dwarf, Acantha, gazed at me with understanding eyes. Her husband, Bagaht, placed his hand upon hers and nodded somberly. That lessened the pain of it somehow.
I thought that Miss Maw would be satisfied with that truthful-yet-brief explanation, but she was not. She gave a snort at the name I preferred. “Perdante. Hmph! You are no more lost than a stray cat who has finally found her way to a good home and a bowl of milk. You have been found, my dear, and it is time for you to discard that ridiculous nickname.” She coughed into her napkin.
Luriel, seeking to lighten things up, turned to the Ogre butler, Adolphus. “Is dinner ready yet?”
“Uh-huh.” He nodded and turned toward the other guests, noticing that the Dwarven pair was new. Smiling and pointing to himself, he announced, “Dolf!”, bowing at the waist afterwards.
“So polite! All right, then. Go on. We're having roasted Cornish hen tonight,” said Miss Maw.
My mouth watered. That was one of my favorites...
“Excuse me,” said Bagaht, clearing his throat, “but if this is a 'Dinner for Fantastical Creatures' such as ourselves, as was printed on the invitation, then why has Miss Perdante been invited?” He wanted to say this human—I could tell by the look in his eyes—but he dared not say it out loud.
Miss Maw beamed. “Oh, but she is a fantastical creature! Penny can do marvelous things with time—speed it up or slow it down, on the right occasion—and that's why I've always invited her here!”
The Dwarf raised a skeptical, bushy eyebrow, and I asked him: “What time is it now?”
“It's six o'clock,” he answered, glancing at his large gold pocket-watch with a practiced eye.
“I'll show you. In two minutes, I will have quickened time enough so your watch will read ten past six. Ten minutes will have actually passed, and yet it will seem like two to you. I swear it, sir!”
Bagaht gave a light snort of disbelief. Nevertheless, he clicked a button on his timepiece, and I relaxed, closed my eyes, and counted seconds. One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three... When precisely two minutes had gone by, he clicked the button again and stared, dumbfounded:
“Ten past six!” He couldn't believe it, and I watched his face turn red. “My watch is broken, or—!”
“No, it's not.” His wife, Acantha, gestured to Miss Maw's grandfather clock in the corner. It also displayed the amazingly-correct time: 6:10. Yet, by my count, only two minutes had passed...
Once the Dwarf saw this, his face blanched from red to white. “What sort of sorceress are you?” he thundered. “There are witches and wizards who practice the Old Art and kill people. You—”
“We're not witches, exactly,” Luriel replied, sounding offended. “We simply use what we know.”
“Let's be civilized,” interjected Miss Maw. “Penny is no sorceress, and she does not practice the Old Art. Magic is utterly foreign to her. She is simply a Vremenist: one who has the gift of being intertwined, bound with Time. This talent comes naturally to her, and she means no harm by it.”
This seemed to calm Bagaht down, but only a little. “Come, now. It must be some sort of magic...”
“I agree,” Acantha said. “Could you tell us where you learned that wondrous spell, Perdante?”
I shook my head. “I was born with it, and that's the honest truth. There are only two of us Vremenists in the world: myself and my grandfather, Septimus Maxim. It was only by chance that he came to adopt me, and yet something tells me divine intervention had a hand in it...”
The rest of the guests, looking rather uncomfortable, started glancing around. Where was Dolf?
He suddenly came out of the kitchen, smiling brightly. “Dinner served!” he said, his eyes agleam.
All of us were rather relieved to switch our thoughts to food instead of—well, what was magic and what was not! The Cornish hens on each of our plates smelled delicious, and they were served with a side of fresh salad greens and cranberries. Roasted garlic potatoes completed the meal, and if I knew Miss Maw, she'd had Dolf concoct one of his spectacularly scrumptious desserts! As we chewed and chomped and clinked our silverware, I couldn't help but wonder why our hostess wasn't eating much of anything. Perhaps she wasn't hungry, or perhaps she was simply acting like a proper lady of our time: take small bites, and the smaller the better! Be dainty and delicate.
Not me. I wasn't a proper lady at all, and I dove into my entree and side dishes with relish!
“So,” I said to Bagaht and Acantha once my initial and overwhelming desire to eat had lessened a bit, “you two are newlyweds, and Dwarves besides? 'People of the Stone,' as you call yourselves?”
“Aye,” smiled Bagaht, looking pleased. “I can see you've done your research, or at least listened to all the tales about us that you might have heard as a child. We are indeed the 'People of the Stone', because that's where we come from. We're all born in the cavernous deeps, and when the time comes for me to retire and leave the surface world, that's where I'll go to die.” He coughed hard. “Not that my time's—coming soon, of course,” he added quickly. “I won't abandon Acantha.”
“You're sweet,” replied his wife, casting an adoring glance his way.
“Well, it's true, my heart. I love you more than anything in the world, even silver and gold.”
Luriel, sitting next to me, took a tiny bite of her salad greens. “Silver and gold? Are you miners?”
Bagaht and Acantha let out huge guffaws, which made their bellies shake. “Heavens, no! Most of us have moved on to the financial trades—banking, accounting, and commerce—and leave all the digging to our kin who have stronger backs and weaker minds. Some of us have even become engineers. We build the newfangled gadgets you see nowadays—batteries, vacuum cleaners, typewriters, and even that novel piano that plays by itself! I'm a banker's assistant myself, but I hold a great deal of respect for these 'New Scientists', or 'technologists', as they're often called.”
“And what about magic?” asked Luriel. “Do you hold any respect for the Old Art?”
“Magic? Bah! The old ways are dying out, and your Art along with it,” Bagaht replied. “Technology will soon replace it, and you Elves would do well to start learning about what makes things tick.”
“Oh, be kind,” Acantha warned him, gazing at Luriel apologetically. “What my husband means to say is that in these modern times, there aren't many left who practice the Old Art, Elves or not.”
“Maybe we should stop calling it the 'Old Art' and rename it 'the Art',” Luriel suggested with a wry smile. “That's what I would do. Of course, the High Circle of Magi would have to approve it first.”
I turned my head. “Is that like a council?”
“The highest council there is. We practitioners of the Old Art submit ourselves to the governance and guidance of the High Circle, for without them, there would be no true law amongst us. Those who do not practice magic are unprepared to handle those who do. When Artists go astray, as we call ourselves, our fellow magi are the only ones who can apprehend us and bring us to justice.”
A sudden shiver ran down my spine. “Has—has that happened very often, Luriel?”
“Not as often as you might think. If an Artist breaks the law, meaning the law of this land, using magic, then the High Circle sends representatives to find him or her and present the culprit to the Mages' Court. If found guilty, that Artist is sentenced to lose his or her powers and then be turned over to the civil authorities, or else die. Executions are something we rarely perform, however.”
“Magic is a dangerous thing,” said Acantha, “and so it's good that you have such protections.”
“It's a wicked thing,” countered Bagaht, “and it's no wonder you witches were hunted years ago.”
“Now, now...” Miss Maw, our hostess, appeared rather worried. “Dolf is bringing our dessert...”
It's funny how food can turn even the most hard-headed adversaries into allies when it appears!