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Caveat Venditor

     “What’s wrong with it?” Winn asked, looking anxious as I flipped through the Arcanum Obscurata. She was tapping her foot on the floor – a sort of nervous tick, I’ve noticed, that she tends to slip into when she’s feeling self-conscious about her work – and, as much as I love Winn, all that tap, tap, tapping was making it a bit hard for me to concentrate.

     “Nothing’s wrong with it,” I said, taking a moment to admire the line work in the interior illustrations.

     Winn sighed, and the tapping stopped.

     “Nothing’s wrong with it,” I said again, and closed the cover. “Which is precisely the problem.”

     “What do you mean?” Winn said. Now she was chewing on a nail – another bad habit of hers – and the foot tapping started up again, too.

     “I mean, nothing’s wrong with it. It’s perfect – too perfect. And that’s a problem. Thousand-year-old books don’t come out of the ground looking like this. They have scars, creases, dirt in the binding, water stains on the pages – heck, they have teeth marks.” 

     I tapped my finger on the Arcanum’s pristine leather cover. 

     “This book looks like somebody made it last week,” I said, and smirked. “Which, of course, somebody did.”

     Winn’s face darkened. 

     “I spent ages copying that, Ish,” she said, her tone close to pleading. “Ages, and ages. It’s perfect, right down to the smudges.”

     “I know,” I said. “And I couldn’t have done it better myself. It’s just going to need a little character, is all, before it can pass for the genuine article.”

     I reached beneath my counter, pulled out my bag of tricks, and, after selecting a bit of silver fleece and some fine-grain black sand, I started gently abrading the Arcanum’s cover, scratching away little bits of the gold-stamped title, and wearing some scars into the leather.

     “I don’t think I can watch this,” Winn said, looking away as I applied a little age to her masterwork. 

     “Well, you don’t have to,” I said, “I can take it from here.” 

     I paused briefly in my ministrations to fish out a coin purse from my cashbox, which I tossed to Winn. 

     “If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “just remember that, if I didn’t apply the finishing touches, that purse you’ve got there would be much, much lighter.”

     Winn didn’t exactly look happy as she counted her sovereigns, but her foot did stop tapping.

     “Do you want another?” she said, sounding almost hopeful. “It’ll go faster this time around, now that I’ve done one already.”

     I shook my head.

     “There’s a limit to how many one-of-a-kind treasures I can discover before it starts to raise questions,” I said. “And the limit is one.”

     Winn sighed.

     “Too bad,” she said. “I had fun with this one – even if I couldn’t understand half of it.”

     “Do you still have that Ramaran prayer scroll I gave you?” I said. “If so, I’ll take three more of those, as soon as I can get them.”

     Winn frowned, and sighed again. 

     “I hate prayer scrolls,” she said.


     She shrugged. 

     “No pictures.”

     I brushed sand off the Arcanum’s cover, and smiled.

     “They’re good money, though,” I said. “The hill folk always want prayer scrolls.”

     “Yeah,” Winn said. “I know. It’s just, well, copying scrolls, that’s a living.” She pointed at the Arcanum. “Something like that? That’s art.”

     “I know,” I said. “And you’re an artist.” I winked at her. “Keep at it, and you’ll get your chance. But, until then? I’ll take the prayer scrolls, please.”

     Winn sighed, and pocketed the coin purse.

     “I can have them in a week,” she said. 

     And I heard the bell above my door jingle as she left.

     Once Winn was gone, it was my turn to sigh, as I switched from the cover to the unbound sides of the pages, and started wearing away the gold edging. Winn was the most talented scribe in the whole damn city, and I knew I couldn’t keep her indefinitely. Even as hard as it is to get sponsored these days, talent usually wins out in the end. Sooner or later, one of the copying houses up on the hill was going to get wise to that fact that Winn was an artist, and, when that day came, I was going to be out one genuinely-gifted forger. 

     Still, I was rooting for Winn, even against my own self-interest. She deserved to be making wedding folios for the gold-collars, not forging prayer scrolls for me. 

     I mean, she really was that good.

     Before I had too long to reflect upon that impending disaster, though, I felt the pressure switch beneath my floor buzz. So I slipped the too-perfect Arcanum and my bag of tricks back beneath the counter, before the bell above my door jingled, and the woman came in.

     She was – well, she was strange. I’m sure there’s a better word for what she was than “strange,” but “strange” was the one I landed on, and I haven’t improved on it since. She had deep red hair that looked good on her, but which didn’t quite fit her face, and her eyes were too pale and too young. 

     More than that, though, there was something about the way she moved. You see, most people who come into my shop, they sort of hover, as they try to come to grips with my carefully-orchestrated chaos. The woman, however, walked straight across to the counter, making eye contact the whole way.

     “Can I help you with something?” I asked, even as I shifted my feet a bit to make sure that I was fully inside my aether barrier. 

     Now, in my experience, dissatisfied customers usually have a scripted preamble which they have rehearsed prior to coming, and which they launch into with commendable gusto as soon as they’re inside the store. But the woman apparently didn’t feel the need for any such opening remarks, because she simply placed a delicate silver locket on my counter.

     I picked up the locket and held it in the air, letting it spin for a moment on its silver chain. The midnight blue sapphire inset into the engraved lid caught and reflected the light.

     “Remarkable craftsmanship,” I said, even though I always feel a bit silly about praising my own work. “It suits you, too. Really picks up the color of your eyes.”

     The woman did not appear to find that funny. She snatched the locket back.

     “You sold this to an employee of mine?” she said. The way she phrased it, it was not so much a question, as an indictment.

     “I couldn’t say I did, one way or another,” I said, “without knowing who you’re referring to, and how he does or doesn’t relate to you. But, if you’re asking me if I sold it to someone? Then, yes, I did. And, since you seem to have it now, I’d say that your story checks out.”

     “You told him it was a locket of yesterdays,” the woman said. “It’s not. It’s a fake.”

     “No,” I said.

     “No, it isn’t a fake?”

     “No,” I said. “It isn’t.”

     “It isn’t a locket of yesterdays,” the woman said. 

     “I never said that it was,” I said. 

     I gestured for the woman to hand the locket back, which, with a look of mild distrust, she did.

     Holding the locket in my hand, I could feel the powerful enchantments inscribed into the silver.

     “This locket,” I said, watching it spin on its chain, “was in my display case, labelled ‘LOCKET – 50 SOVEREIGNS.’ The man I sold it to asked me what it was, and what I told him was – and, here, I quote verbatim – ‘It’s a silver locket. It’s very charming, isn’t it?’” I shrugged my shoulders. “Any conclusions which he drew beyond that were his own, and I can hardly be blamed for them.”

     “It’s still a fake,” the woman said.

     “No, it isn’t,” I said. “It is, in fact, a locket. It is, in fact, made of silver. It is, in fact, very charming – although, I’ll grant you, that last one is subjective.”

     “You lied by omission, then,” the woman said.

     “No,” I said, again, “I didn’t. That’s a point of principle of mine. I never misrepresent the merchandise. Every label in this store is true on its face, as is everything I say to my customers. If people choose to draw inferences beyond the information I provide? Well, that’s on them. Because everything I sell works as advertised.”

     “The locket hardly works.”

     “Sure it does,” I said. “It hangs around your neck, it looks nice, and you can put a picture inside it, be it a miniature painting, a shadow portrait, or even a small scarab. I have some very nice jade scarabs, by the way, if you’re interested,” I said, and gestured over at my display. “I carve them myself.”

     I slid the locket back across the counter.

     “Any complaints you have beyond that,” I said, “really ought to be addressed to the employee of yours who purchased the item in question. Not to me.” 

     The woman did not pick the locket up. Instead, her pale eyes kept staring hard into mine. I won’t lie – it was unnerving. 

     I would actually have felt better if she’d been screaming and shouting. That, I know how to deal with.

     “It’s enchanted,” the woman said.

     “Sure,” I said.

     “But the enchantment doesn’t do anything,” the woman said.

     “Well, strictly speaking,” I said, “it does do something. It’s just that the something that it does is nothing.”

     “It’s powerful,” the woman said. “Anyone with half a mind can sense that.”

     “Sure,” I said.

     “But it does nothing?”

     “Sure,” I said. “It just does nothing in a very powerful way.”

     “How?” the woman said, and, for the first time since she had entered my shop, the tone of her voice changed. It was less cold, now. Less clinical. More… well, I don’t really know. 

     Just strange, again, I guess. Or interested, maybe? But only in the same way that a mortician is interested in a corpse.

     “Imagine that you have two lodestones,” I said, “with opposite polarities. Apart, each one is powerful – capable of picking up an iron sword, even, if it’s a big enough lodestone. But, now, imagine that you put those two lodestones together. In the strictest possible sense, you’ve made something that’s twice as powerful. Except that, now, the lodestones won’t lift a sword. Hell, they won’t lift a pin. They lift each other, and, with respect to everything else, they do nothing.” I shrugged. “My enchantment works the same way. It’s not one enchantment, you see, but two. And they do everything to each other, so they end up doing nothing to everything else.”

     For a minute, the woman just eyed me with her strange, patchwork stare.

     “For a forger, you’re awfully open about your methods,” she said.

     “Look, I am not above obfuscation when I think that obfuscation will advance my interests,” I said. “But, unless I have grossly misjudged the subtext of our conversation, I get the distinct impression that, if you don’t like what I have to say, you’re going to kill me.” 

     For a moment, my thoughts flashed to the aether barrier around where I stood. But that was a spell designed to protect me from an irate gold-collar with a sword. Not from whoever the woman was – or whatever she was.

     “Anyway,” I said, “since I’m rather fond of living, and would like to continue to do so, I don’t see how being anything less than truthful with you is going to work to my advantage.”

     “And how sure are you that, even if I think you’re telling the truth, I won’t just kill you anyway?”

     “Less, now, than I was before you asked that question,” I said.

     For a second, then, the woman smiled, and it was worse than when she didn’t.

     “Combined,” she said, “the two components of your enchantment do nothing.” She tapped her finger on the locket. “If you were to disentangle the two halves, and to only cast one, what would it do?”

     I let out a low whistle.

     “No idea,” I said.

     “Don’t be facetious,” she said.

     “I’m not,” I said. “I honestly have no idea. This is all self-taught – it’s not like I looked it up in a book, or something. I’ve never tried to bifurcate the spell, and I have no desire to. And, even if I did try, and I somehow succeeded? I haven’t the foggiest idea what the result would be.” I shrugged. “Nothing good, that’s for sure, if I had to hazard a guess.”

     The woman arched an eyebrow.

     “And you’re not even the slightest bit curious to know?” she said.

     “No,” I said. “I am decidedly incurious. It’s a character fault of mine.” I slid the locket towards her. “If you’re determined to find out on your own, then far be it from me to tell you not to try. But, since I’m rather fond of reality being the way that it is? I’d just ask you to run your experiment someplace far away from here. Someplace far, far away, ideally.”

     At that, the woman just smiled, and slid the locket back across the counter to me.

     “What makes you think that I haven’t?” she said.

     As parting shots go, that one was just about perfect. It would have been a shame to spoil it. 

     So I didn’t.

     I waited until I heard the bell ring, and felt the pressure switch buzz.

     Then I took a card out from the drawer beneath my counter, wrote “LOCKET – 50 SOVEREIGNS” on it, and put the returned necklace back into the display case.

"Caveat Venditor" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

To learn more, and to read more Expanded Multiverse stories, please visit the Expanded Multiverse forum at No Goblins Allowed.

Ellia the Endbringer is an original character created by Tevish Szat for the Expanded Multiverse.

Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use. 

All works copyright their respective creators.

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