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The Great Wizard, Cabbage

David Drake

Caulis—Cabbage—sat in the corner of the shop as Berenice, the bronzesmith’s widow, said, “I want you to magic them to death, Hesperus. I want you to melt the flesh off their bones! I want that faithless Tychos to scream for mercy, scream! And as for that slut Murmilla, well—”

Berenice went on at length as Cabbage listened, bug-eyed with astonishment. He’d heard angry women before—Ma had been pretty much furious all the twelve years of his life—but this was something special. He’d always thought the widow was one of the nicest people living here near the Viminal Gate, but it was hard to remember that now.

Personally Cabbage thought that Berenice was well shut of Tychos, a big fellow with strong arms and a black heart. Tychos knocked people around for no other reason than that they were in reach. As for Murmilla, well, she had a nasty tongue even when she was sober and that was no oftener than she could help.

Murmilla sure was pretty, though. And Tychos probably wasn’t looking for somebody to talk to.

Berenice paused to take another breath.

“Peace, my good woman,” Uncle Hesperus—the Wizard Hesperus—said. His voice was hoarse. He’d had a cold all the past week; they’d got rained on bad while they were hiking from Naples to Rome after Ma had died.

Even so, uncle made sure to pronounce the words clearly to show that he was educated. He’d explained that to Cabbage on the way to Rome: people could always tell real culture.

Hesperus raised his wand; maybe a little higher than he should have, because that showed where the moths had been at the armpit of his robe. Still, Berenice might not be able to see the holes from her angle, and anyway the light was bad. The shop was in a side-alley off Patrician Street. Even on a bright day things were pretty dim down here, and it had been looking like rain all this morning.

Hesperus stared at the wand and frowned. He told people that the wood was from a sacred oak in the Grove of Dodona. Cabbage thought that his uncle had trimmed it from a twig of the dead olive tree behind Ma’s house, but he guessed that he was remembering wrong. Cabbage was used to being told he was wrong about things.

Maybe because uncle was thinking about Ma too, he took her skull off the shelf and held it in his other hand. “Mistress Berenice, I know that you are a god-fearing woman. Therefore you will understand when I tell you that it would offend against the plans of the immortal gods if mere humans took action against Tychos and Murmilla.”

“What are you telling me?” Berenice said, though it’d seemed simple enough to Cabbage. He probably didn’t understand. “Are you saying you aren’t going to help me? Look, I been decent to you since you moved in, haven’t I? I even told Priscus the bailiff to trust you the first month’s rent because anyhow, he couldn’t find a tenant for this hole.”

“It’s not me, good lady,” Hesperus said, kind of waving the wand and Ma’s skull in front of him like he hoped the widow would look at them instead of him. Cabbage didn’t blame him. Boy, Berenice’d been mad before about Tychos and Murmilla, but she was looking now like she was about to catch fire. “It’s the gods, you see—”

“I see a lot of hooie!” Berenice said. “You been taking it in trade from Murmilla, is that it? You men, you’re all lying pigs!”

She reached out then like she was going to pinch uncle’s nose. He jumped back and the wicker basket caught him behind the knees. He sat down on it.

The basket was where uncle kept his books of magic. Book, really, but it honest to Isis was a written book. Cabbage couldn’t read anything, but uncle said this book was so magic that even he didn’t know what language it was wrote in.

“I give up!” Berenice said as she stomped out of the shop. She’d have banged the door, but there wasn’t one. Hesperus hung his older tunic in the doorway for a curtain at night. “There’s no justice and nobody to protect a poor widow!”

Cabbage watched her go. A long line of curses dribbled back through the door after her.

Berenice was a widow all right, but she was about as rich as anybody on this end of Patrician Street. As for justice, Cabbage didn’t know what that meant, but he was pretty sure that it was something he and uncle couldn’t afford. They couldn’t afford much of anything, if it came to that.

Hesperus stayed sitting for a bit, looking toward the doorway like he thought Berenice was going to come back in and really tear a strip off him this time. Cabbage kept where he was in the corner, because that seemed likely enough to him too.

After a little bit, he said, “You’re really smart, Uncle Hesperus.”

Hesperus got up carefully and put Ma’s skull back on the shelf. “What possible reason would you have for saying that, boy?” he said in a tired voice.

“Well, because you know what the gods are planning for Tychos and Murmilla,” Cabbage said. “I mean, if it was the emperor, that’s different, he’s important. But, they’re just a couple dried peas for all they give themselves airs. I’ll bet there’s not another magician in Rome who would’ve known what the gods had up for them.”

“Cabbage, child, you are very stupid,” Hesperus said. He sounded more weary than he had three days ago. That was after they’d walked to Rome and finally found this shop to rent. “I, however, am even more stupid, because I refuse to take money for a charm of evil purpose. Even though the charm would be a sham, just like everything else in my life.”

“I don’t understand, uncle,” Cabbage said, frowning.

“No, I don’t suppose you do, boy,” Hesperus said. “I don’t understand myself, so why should you?”

He sighed and said, “Light the lamp, Cabbage. Perhaps someone needing a love charm will notice the doorway. I suppose a real love charm could do as much harm as the curse Berenice wanted, but the intention is good . . . and anyway, I don’t need to worry about doing any real magic.”

“There isn’t much oil left, Uncle Hesperus,” Cabbage said, fetching the ladder from the narrow sleeping loft over the back end of the shop.

“I’m sure there isn’t much oil,” Hesperus said without looking up. “And then there’s the question of supper. But for now, light the lamp.”

Cabbage set the ladder against the sidewall where he could lean out and lift the lamp off the hook it hung from. He climbed three rungs and had just got his hands on the lamp when the ladder’s left stringer cracked. Everything came down. Cabbage pitched outward, the ladder bounced off the back wall where he’d kicked it, and the lamp dropped straight onto the stone floor.

The terracotta lamp shattered like you’d expect, as hard as the stone was. Cabbage slept on the floor since there wasn’t room for two in the loft, and he knew how hard it was.

“Oops,” Cabbage said, picking himself up. He’d landed on Hesperus, so he wasn’t badly banged up. “I slipped.”

“I noticed,” said Hesperus, getting up also. The right sleeve of his robe wasn’t attached any more, but he seemed to be in all-right shape himself.

He turned toward Cabbage. The light was so bad that Cabbage couldn’t tell much about his uncle’s expression, but it really didn’t seem like he had one; just blank like a chalk drawing.

“Cabbage,” uncle said quietly. “I am considering calling down lightnings from heaven to blast you to ash. That would be undutiful to the shades of my late sister, your mother, however. Instead, why don’t you see if you can get a lamp from Meiotes the Potter. A cracked one, or maybe one missing the spout? I’ll pay him as soon as a few coppers come in.”

“Yes, uncle,” Cabbage said. “I’m glad you didn’t blast me to ash.”

“I’m sure I will be glad some day too, Cabbage,” Uncle Hesperus said in that same dead voice. Cabbage scooted out of the shop, just in case he changed his mind.

As Cabbage stepped into the alley, a big lizard which must’ve been running down Patrician Street rounded the corner. It gripped the brickwork with its two right legs and sprang straight at Cabbage, hitting him in the chest. He went over backwards.

“Save me!” the lizard croaked. “He’s going to kill me!”

“Now, calm down,” Cabbage said, because it seemed like the right thing to say. He’d never talked to a lizard before. This one didn’t weigh a lot, but it must be as long as Cabbage’s five-foot height if you counted the tail it was whipping around. “Come inside and I’ll introduce you to my uncle. He’ll know what to do.”

Cabbage got up carefully. The lizard wouldn’t let go, but it wasn’t digging its claws in. He cradled it under the back legs so that it wouldn’t change its mind about what it ought to be doing with those claws.

“Uncle?” he said as he stepped down into the shop again. “This lizard says somebody’s trying to kill him.”

“What?” said Hesperus. “What in the names of all the gods have you done, Cabbage?”

“Her,” said the lizard. “They’re trying to kill her. My name’s Zoe.”

“Her name’s Zoe,” Cabbage repeated. He didn’t think he’d done anything, but he thought he ought to say something when uncle asked him a question.

“Whose name is Zoe?” said Hesperus. “And where did you get that lizard? It’s huge!”

“She’s pretty big, isn’t she?” Cabbage said. He’d never had anything to be proud about before. “She just came down the street. And told me her name was Zoe.”

“Look, I don’t mind mumming for Atlas,” the lizard said. Her breath smelled of onions. “I draw the line at having my throat cut to make his spell work, though!”

Somebody stepped into the doorway behind Cabbage and blocked most of the light from the alley. Cabbage turned and saw a tall man wearing a shiny black cape and holding a twisty ivory cane. He looked into the shop. Cabbage couldn’t see the stranger’s eyes, but he thought he felt them flick over him.

“There!” the stranger said. “You have my familiar. Return him to me at once.”

“Save me!” Zoe said, launching herself out of Cabbage’s arm. Her hind claws slashed like so many needles, but mostly she kicked off from the rope that served him for a belt and that held fine.

The lizard scrambled right up the back wall, heading for the sleeping loft even without the ladder. The stranger pointed his ivory cane—and it had quite a point, more like a spear than a usual cane, and shouted, “Anoch anoch katabreimo!

A blue spark popped from the tip of the ivory wand. The lizard froze and toppled back.

“Zoe!” Cabbage shouted. He tried to catch her as she fell, but his feet got tangled. At least he managed not to fall on top of her. He grabbed the lizard and stood up.

“You’re a real magician!” Hesperus said.

“I am Gaius Julius Atlas!” said the stranger. “I am the greatest wizard of all time!”

He reached over Cabbage’s shoulder with his left hand and took Zoe by the neck. Cabbage tried to hang on, but the stranger—Atlas—just kept pulling, and that wasn’t going to help Zoe.

“I brought this familiar from the Western Isles through my great power,” Atlas said. He sure had the business of sounding cultured down pat; Uncle Hesperus could take lessons from him. “It escaped a moment ago when I have particular need of it. You will have a silver piece for catching it for me.”

“Uncle, you can’t let him take Zoe!” Cabbage said.

Hesperus seized Cabbage by the shoulder with one hand and put the other over his mouth. “Hush, boy!” he hissed. “Of course Lord Atlas may take his own property!”

“She’s not property, she’s Zoe!” Cabbage said, but he was crying so hard that nobody could’ve understood even if uncle’s hand hadn’t been muffling him.

Cabbage stopped struggling. It was just one of those things that was going to happen, like Ma dying. It wasn’t right, it just was.

“Ah!” said Atlas. “I’ll take that skull I see behind you until I can replace mine with something more suitable. I had the skull of an ancient Pharaoh, which the animal broke when it escaped.”

“Not Ma?” Cabbage said through a gulp. It sure sounded like he meant Ma, though.

Hesperus pushed Cabbage to the side and stood as straight as the boy had ever seen him. “I’m sorry, Lord Atlas,” he squeaked. Culture had gone off somewhere far away, but uncle was trying his best. “The skull in question is that of my dear sister Portia, the mother of my apprentice. I cannot sell her to you.”

“You little worm,” Atlas said. “I wasn’t asking you to sell her, I was telling you that I’m taking her because I need her.”

Uncle Hesperus closed his eyes, but he didn’t move from where he stood in front of Ma. He said, “I’m sorry, your l-l-lord—”

“Or would you rather . . .” Atlas said, pointing his twisty ivory wand, “that I—”

“Not Ma!” Cabbage said and grabbed Atlas by the left wrist, the one holding Zoe. The magician shook his arm hard, but Cabbage didn’t come loose. He didn’t have much; Ma and Uncle Hesperus were everything he could think of, and it seemed he was about to lose both of them.

Atlas raised the wand high over his head and turned to bring it down on Cabbage. His right heel stepped into the spill of oil from the broken lamp. Both of his feet flew up in the air.

Atlas sat down hard with a clack! and a funny grunt. He mumbled something, but Cabbage couldn’t make out the words.

Cabbage let go of the wizard’s sleeve and got up slowly. Atlas was just sitting there. He looked awful mad. Zoe was moving around again, scratching herself with those big hind claws.

Uncle Hesperus opened his eyes a little bit at a time. “Ah . . . ?” he said. “Can I help you up, Lord Atlas?”

Atlas toppled over on his right side. He’d sat on his ivory wand when he came down, and there wasn’t but the handgrip at the blunt end showing outside his robe.

“Uh-oh,” said Cabbage.

“Merciful Isis!” said Hesperus, backing against the wall.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say,” Zoe said. She raised her hind leg and sprayed liquid green feces on the magician’s corpse.

“Oh, what will we do with the body?” Hesperus said, knotting his hands together.

“What do you have in the way of food here?” Zoe said, lifting her head on her long neck. Her tongue stuck out like she was tasting the air.

“Well, there’s a little lettuce left,” Cabbage said, lifting down the basket that served them for a pantry. “And a turnip, I guess, but it wasn’t much good even when we found it in the street.”

“Do you suppose we can hide him till the middle of the night and then sneak him out of town?” Hesperus said. “If he’s found in a ditch in the morning, nobody will think about us. Mistress Berenice has a cart we could . . . but no, not after the way she left here.”

He must be much talking to himself. He didn’t seem to hear Zoe talking, and he didn’t care what Cabbage thought. No reason he should, of course.

“Why don’t we just go to the Watch station at the gate and tell them?” Cabbage said. “We didn’t do anything wrong, did we?”

“No, Cabbage, we did not,” uncle said. “But Atlas was obviously a wealthy man—this robe is silk—so our chance of convincing the Praetor that his death was accidental is not very good. About the same as the chance of the Emperor appointing me Chief Priest, in fact.”

“Gosh!” Cabbage said.

“What is that animal doing?” Hesperus said, speaking louder than he had since Atlas came to their doorway.

Cabbage looked down. “I think she’s eating,” he said.

Zoe raised her head from the basket. “Rather, she has eaten,” she said. “I hope you’ll be able to do better in the future, but that will tide me over for the moment.”

“The turnip was bad, uncle,” Cabbage said. “And the lettuce wasn’t much better.”

“That’s quite true, Cabbage,” Hesperus said, “but they were also all we had. Well, perhaps they’ll give us a meal in prison before we’re thrown to the beasts. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think I want to be thrown to the beasts,” Cabbage said doubtfully. Then an earlier thought returned and he added, “Uncle? What will you want me to do when you’re Chief Priest?”

“Cabbage,” Hesperus said, looking at him like he was angry. “I know you’re young; twelve, aren’t you?”

“If you say so, uncle,” Cabbage said. “I’m not very good with numbers.”

“I think it’s very possible that you’ll grow up to be the stupidest man ever born,” Hesperus said. “Somebody has to be, and I think you’re in line for that status.”

“Ma used to say that too,” Cabbage said, nodding. “That’s why she got to calling me Cabbage. I had another name once, but I don’t remember it.”

Hesperus jerked back like somebody had slapped him in the face. Cabbage looked around to see if somebody was standing behind him, but there wasn’t. They’d have needed long arms, anyway.

“Yes, you do have another name,” uncle said faintly. “Your father named you Bion. You’re a lot like your father, from what I remember from my visits. He was very willing and goodhearted, but not . . . well, not a philosopher.”

“Ma always said he was real dumb,” Cabbage agreed. “I don’t remember him myself.”

Uncle cleared his throat. He turned his head a little to the side and said, “Would you like me to call you Bion, ah, Bion?”

Cabbage frowned. There seemed to be more to the question than he understood, but there usually was when people said things to him.

“Cabbage is fine,” he said at last. “I wouldn’t remember Bion, I guess. I’m used to Cabbage.”

“It doesn’t bother you to be called Cabbage?” Uncle said, looking at him again.

Cabbage smiled broadly. “I’m really dumb, Uncle Hesperus. Calling me Bion wouldn’t make me smarter.”

“You know,” said Zoe, “there are philosophers with a poorer grasp of basic truth than you just showed, boy. For now, though, don’t you think that you ought to get Atlas’s body out of sight? Just in case somebody does come in here. I suggest the loft.”

“Oh, right,” said Cabbage. “But he won’t fit in the loft unless we stretch him out.”

“What do you mean, Cabbage?” said Hesperus. “Oh, yes, Lord Atlas. I suppose between us we can lift him into the loft until the midwatch. Though how we’ll get him out of the city then I can’t imagine.”

The wand had pinned the middle of the wizard’s right thigh up through his chest. Cabbage knelt and pulled on the visible end. It didn’t move.

“Turn it boy, turn it,” Zoe said. “No, no—the other way. This narwhal had a left-hand thread.”

After a moment Hesperus bent to look closely at what Cabbage was doing. He had more than half the wand clear. There was some blood on the ivory. Cabbage tried to wipe it off on the robe.

“Oh, that’s very clever,” uncle said. “Turning it out, I mean.”

“Zoe told me,” Cabbage said. “You don’t hear her, I guess. Uncle, what’s a narwhal?”

“What?” said Hesperus. “What do you mean?”

“It’s a small whale that lives around the ice in the far north,” said Zoe. “Atlas claimed this was a unicorn horn, and I’m not sure he knew better. It’s not a horn, it’s a tooth, and there’s no such thing as a unicorn.”

“Thank you, Zoe,” Cabbage said, because it was polite. The tooth came free. He leaned it against the wall and pulled Atlas’s legs out to straighten them.

“Why are you talking to the lizard, Cabbage?” Hesperus said as he took Atlas’s legs. They half-slid, half-lifted the body to the back where the loft was.

The ladder would’ve been helpful if it hadn’t broken, but it would’ve been even better if Atlas hadn’t killed himself. Though this way he’d stopped saying he was going to take Ma’s skull.

“Well, she talks to me,” Cabbage said, puzzled again at why uncle didn’t see the obvious.

“I talk to him too,” said Zoe, “but all he hears is grunts. You’ve got the same brain as Aristotle had. You just use yours for different purposes than he did.”

Together Cabbage and his uncle shoved the wizard’s body onto the shelf. There wasn’t a bed curtain, but his black robe wouldn’t show up unless somebody was really looking for him. Or the light got better, Cabbage supposed, but that would mean the four floors above them disappeared or the similar building across the alley did.

“What did Aristotle do?” Cabbage asked.

“What?” said uncle.

“Never mind, boy,” Zoe said. “He couldn’t have talked with me either.”

Outside, probably on Patrician Street but loud enough to be heard in the shop, somebody said, “A tall man with a lizard and an ivory wand! Have you seen him?”

Cabbage didn’t recognize the voice, but it was Moschus the Beggar who said, “What’s it worth to you, good—urk! He went in there! Just now!”

The first two men through the shop doorway looked each so big that Cabbage thought they ought to stick in the opening. They didn’t, though, they moved as slick as gymnasts.

They wore swords, which was illegal in the city except for the Praetorian Guards; and they wore them openly, so they were Praetorians.

One of them said, “Master Tydeus, here’s the lizard!” He drew his sword and added, “Mithras, look how big the sucker is!”

“Don’t hurt Zoe!” Cabbage said. He picked up the lizard and fell on his butt. He’d slipped in the oil, just like Atlas had. He looked to see where the wand—the tooth—was, but it was leaning safely against the wall.

The man who came in behind the soldiers was thin and pretty; his hair was curled and he brought an odor of rose perfume with him into the shop. “Put that sword up, you idiot,” he said. “The beast is necessary for the sacrifice.”

Cabbage would have objected, but Zoe put a forepaw over his own mouth. “Don’t!” she said. “Tydeus needs me, but he doesn’t need you.”

“You,” said Tydeus, looking at Hesperus. His voice sounded like a snake was speaking. “You’re the magician?”

“Ah, yes,” uncle said. “Ah, yes, your lordship. Did your lordship want a love charm, possibly?”

“If you joke with me, you fool . . .” Tydeus said, never raising his voice, “then you will be carried to my master with two broken legs. Do you understand?”

“Ah,” said uncle. “Yes.”

“You were to meet us at the Viminal Gate, but instead the guards told me you had gone running down the street,” Tydeus said. “You will not run again. Do you understand that?”

“Oh!” said uncle. “You were looking for—”

He stopped, covering his mouth with both hands. He lowered them and said, “Yes, Lord Tydeus. I understand perfectly, Lord Tydeus. What would you like me to do, Lord Tydeus?”

“The coach is waiting at the gate,” Tydeus said. “Bring the tools you need, and get a move on. We’re late already.”

“That’s his wand,” said a soldier, picking up the narwhal tusk. “Say, it’s bloody!”

“Bring the wand,” Tydeus said. “I don’t want or need to know the details of how this person prepares his equipment.”

He looked down at Cabbage, still sitting on the floor. “This boy is your apprentice?” he said.

“My name’s Cabbage!” said Cabbage, because uncle’s mouth was opening and closing like a carp gulping air. “Zoe’s mine!”

“Well, you bring the lizard, then,” said Tydeus. “If she makes any trouble, we’ll break her legs—and cut your throat for being useless.”

“I’ll be quiet,” said Zoe. She clung to Cabbage’s shoulder as he got up. “But tell him that you need to feed me apples from the fruit-seller at the gate. And there was some rather good-looking celery in the next barrow.”

Cabbage followed Hesperus and the soldiers out of the shop. Tydeus was last, and behind them all in the sleeping loft was Gaius Julius Atlas. At least they didn’t have to worry about him anymore.

Tydeus’ vehicle was a mail coach with the leather curtains pulled down on the sides and back so that Cabbage and Hesperus couldn’t look out. Neither could Zoe, but that didn’t seem to bother her. She had pinned the last of the apples against the floor of the coach with a forepaw and was biting juicy chunks out of it.

Tydeus rode beside the driver on the front seat. The Praetorians who’d come to the shop with him were riding ahead on horses, and there were two more following behind the coach. It wouldn’t have done Cabbage much good to wriggle out the back, even if there’d been someplace to go if he had.

The iron tires ringing on the stone roadway made a lot of noise. Uncle looked numb. He hadn’t said a word since they got into the coach.

Zoe hadn’t spoken either, but that was because she was so busy eating. Now she swallowed the apple core, seeds and all, and scratched herself behind the earhole. Cocking her head toward Cabbage she said, “I was thinking of another stick of celery, but I guess I’ll wait for a while for that.”

Cabbage looked at the remainder of the bunch Tydeus had angrily bought before they boarded the coach. There wasn’t much left. He counted on his fingers: one, two, three stalks.

“Can I have one of your celeries, Zoe?” he asked. He wondered if uncle would want one, but Hesperus just sat with his head in his hands.

“Yes, boy,” Zoe said with a wave of a forepaw. “We will replenish our store shortly.”

Cabbage wasn’t so sure of that. Tydeus had been right peeved when Cabbage insisted that they get food for Zoe before they went off. Zoe had said to say that her blood would dry up if she didn’t have apples for the trip and Cabbage just passed that on.

Cabbage crunched the white end off the celery and chewed it thoroughly. He said, “How is it an apple keeps your blood from drying up, Zoe?”

“It doesn’t, but Tydeus couldn’t be sure of that,” the lizard said. “Atlas kept me in a cage since we left Africa. I heard him tell the messenger that he was bringing the sacrifice whose bodily fluids would be spilled to raise the dragon, but there’d be an extra charge. Well! I had my own opinion about that.”

Cabbage finished the celery. He really liked the leafy end, so he had left it for last.

Zoe spread the fingers of her right forepaw. The claws looked just as sharp as Cabbage remembered them being when the lizard kicked off from him.

“When the porter dropped the cage on the docks here in Rome,” she said, “he sprung one of the hinges. It took me a little while to get the other one loose, but when I did, I took off running.”

“Oh,” said Cabbage, wondering if he could ask for another stalk of celery. “I guess it was lucky that Tydeus found you. Uncle Hesperus wouldn’t be able to be able to feed you apples until somebody buys a love charm.”

“Umm,” said Zoe. “I think he’ll do better than that with you and me helping him. But we’ll deal with that later.”

The coach slowed. Cabbage heard one of the Praetorians ahead of them shouting something. He looked out the front past Tydeus and the driver. The coach went through a gateway and started down a boulevard.

There were trees and clipped bushes, and well back from the road Cabbage could see buildings. They were fancy ones, too, not sheds and farmhouses.

They turned a little semicircle and pulled up. Someone outside unlaced the back curtain.

Tydeus looked over his shoulder and said, “All right, get out of the coach. And make sure that lizard doesn’t get away. Don’t you even have a leash for it?”

“I won’t run away,” Zoe said.

“She won’t run,” said Cabbage. Now that he had Zoe for a friend, he felt happier than he remembered being. Zoe didn’t get mad at him the way Ma had, though he knew it was hard on her to have so stupid a son as Cabbage was.

He knew that, because Ma had said so at least once a day.

Cabbage let uncle get out first, then thought that maybe he should’ve gone ahead instead so that he could lend a hand. The guards watched with sneering expressions instead of helping.

“You get down and I’ll climb into your arms,” Zoe said. “It’ll look better if you carry me.”

Cabbage didn’t see why that was, but he climbed out of the coach and held his arms up. Zoe stepped onto his shoulder instead, then walked behind his head to the other shoulder too and curled her tail in front of him. She didn’t weigh very much, but she sure was long.

“Why, this is a palace!” Hesperus said as he looked around.

“Of course it’s a palace,” said Tydeus, who had come from the front of the coach. “We’re at Tivoli. Did you think we were going to slip you into his camp when he’s campaigning on the frontier?”

A group of men were waiting for them. One of them wore a toga, which Cabbage had only seen on statues before, and carried an ivory baton with gold knobs on the ends. He wasn’t the biggest or tallest, but he was the one the rest kept their eyes on just like dogs do the leader of their pack. Leaving the rest behind, that one walked over. He was maybe the same age as uncle, but he was better dressed and a lot better fed.

“This is the magician?” he said to Tydeus. He didn’t look happy. “My brother said he was a rich man already, which is why the price was so high.”

“Here’s his wand, sir,” said a Praetorian, holding out the narwhal tooth.

“Don’t give it to me!” the man said. He glared at uncle and added, “Take your wand, you fool.”

“Yes, your lordship,” uncle said. “At once, your lordship.”

“Who are you?” Cabbage said. It made him mad to see the fellow being so nasty to Uncle Hesperus. Uncle always tried, and any food they got he split with Cabbage.

The man looked at Cabbage with no expression in his eyes. He swung the baton like a hammer and hit Cabbage on the forehead.

Cabbage fell down. He saw Tydeus raise his sandal to stamp with the heel, but Zoe twisted and snapped at him. The sandal was crimson suede, very pretty to look at, but from the way Zoe’s teeth had gone through the apples, Cabbage figured Tydeus was lucky to have jumped back instead of stomping on Cabbage like he’d planned.

“He controls the lizard, sir,” Tydeus said, edging a little farther away. “It’s probably just as well to keep him around for now.”

“His name’s Laurentius,” said Zoe. “He’s one of the Praetorian Prefects. His brother’s the governor of Numidia, and he’s the one who hired Atlas.”

Cabbage got up. He dabbed at his forehead; he already had a lump, but there wasn’t any blood on his fingertips when he looked at them.

“Come along,” the prefect said to uncle. “The emperor is dining outside tonight. I’ve had a marquee set up in sight of the dining alcove with the items you said you’d need. The staff here is so large that nobody asks why anything is being done.”

“The emperor!” Cabbage said.

Tydeus reached under his cape and started to draw the long dagger whose sheath was sewn into the lining. His eyes were as sharp as a pair of needles trying to stick Cabbage to the ground.

The prefect touched Tydeus’s wrist—just touched, but it was like he’d hit him with a club. Tydeus jerked his hand away from the dagger and closed the front of the cape again. Neither of them said anything, but they were both looking at Cabbage. There wasn’t much to choose between the way they were looking at him, either.

“Boy, keep your mouth shut,” the prefect said softly.

Cabbage nodded. His throat was too dry to have said anything even if he’d wanted to.

Cabbage and Zoe followed Hesperus as he walked between the two civilians. Two Praetorians led and two more were at the back.

Cabbage raised a hand to squeeze the lizard on his shoulder. Being with her made him feel better, though he couldn’t say why. Well, he usually didn’t know why he felt things or why things happened.

“If matters don’t go our way . . .” Zoe said, “neither of us is going to survive the night. We’ll just have to see that they do go our way.”

Cabbage still didn’t say anything, but he squeezed Zoe’s bony hip again. Her skin was dry and sort of pebbled instead of being scaly. Her breath fluttered, like the way a dog pants.

There was sure lots of people at Tivoli. They must mostly be slaves, but they were all better dressed than most folks Cabbage had seen. Their clothes were clean and didn’t have rips or patches. You could spend all day watching the crowds on Patrician Street and not see anybody as well tricked out as any of these.

Most of them looked at Cabbage, but he figured they were really looking at Zoe. Nobody ever noticed him.

They did notice Hesperus though. Walking—stumbling—along between Tydeus and the prefect, he looked like a turd with a couple gold bracelets. Uncle was trying to hold the left sleeve onto his robe, but he wasn’t having much luck.

The prefect must’ve thought the same thing, because he scowled and said, “Tydeus, give him your—no, you can’t, you’ve got that cursed dagger . . .”

He snarled at a Praetorian, who unclasped his red cape and threw it over uncle’s shoulders. “There,” the prefect said. “I don’t want people asking me why I’m walking through the palace with a rag-picker.”

Tydeus snickered and said, “An unsuccessful rag-picker.”

“I don’t like them,” Cabbage muttered to Zoe.

She snorted. “Nor should you,” she said. “Nor Atlas either. But Atlas isn’t a problem where he is now, and the day’s still young.”

They walked down a flight of steps to a valley between two terraces. There was a reflecting pool in the middle, and at the other end was a half-dome sheltering an outdoor dining alcove. Cabbage couldn’t see much of the people reclining on the benches there, but there were a couple handsful of guards in armor on either side. They were big blond men with full beards, and they held their long swords in their hands.

Servants were carrying dishes to and from the alcove. There was just enough breeze from that direction that Cabbage caught a whiff of roast meat.

He still had two stalks of celery in his left hand. Part of him wanted to stuff them both in his mouth, but the rest of him knew that he might as well gobble a handful of grass for all the good celery would do for the rush of hunger that the smell of roast had given him.

Besides, they were really Zoe’s celeries.

There was a line of canopies set back from the other side of the canal; that was where the food was getting its final sauces and garnishes. “Umm . . . ,” said Zoe. “I could murder a stalk of that giant fennel. Well, perhaps another time.”

The prefect and the rest of them were going to the single marquee of red silk on the opposite end of the canal from the dining alcove. Under it was a rectangular table holding a basin and something covered by a napkin. The guards stood at the corners of the marquee, facing out.

The prefect and Tydeus motioned Hesperus inside with them. Cabbage came too, but he didn’t like this at all.

“All right,” the prefect said. “It’s time for you to earn your pay. Here is the basin, and here—”

He whipped the napkin off the other thing on the table. It was a marble bust.

“—is who you’ll raise the dragon to devour.”

Tydeus giggled. He said, “And maybe the dragon’ll swallow a couple of those snooty German guards while it’s at it, too. They could each have had a fortune if they’d just been willing to look the other way for a bit.”

The bust was of the Emperor Marcus.

Uncle Hesperus seemed stunned. Tydeus and the prefect stared at him.

Cabbage looked at uncle too, for that matter. The choice was to look at the bearded marble head, and that made him sort of queasy. The emperor, the real man himself, must be eating down at the other end of the pool.

“I’ll bet you never thought you’d be seeing the emperor in the flesh, did you, boy?” Zoe said. She was still on his shoulders, sticking her head out to the left side. Her body didn’t bend the way a snake’s did, but she was pretty flexible.

Cabbage shook his head. “I can’t see him now,” he said. “I guess he’s there, though.”

He kept his voice down, but the civilians could’ve heard him easy enough if they’d been interested. They weren’t.

“If your uncle doesn’t start calling out a spell and tapping the basin of water,” Zoe said, “Laurentius is going burst a blood vessel. Or he’ll tell Tydeus to open your uncle’s throat, which seems to me to be more likely.”

“Uncle, Zoe says you’re supposed to touch the water while you’re spelling,” Cabbage said. “Like you do at home, right?”

Uncle, Tydeus and the prefect all looked at Cabbage. The other two were angry—angry at Cabbage now, not just at uncle—but uncle said, “Right!”

He tried to tap the water, the way he’d have done a sand picture when he was making a charm for a customer. The narwhal tooth was a lot longer than the olive wand he was used to—or maybe of sacred oak—so instead the point jabbed into the table on the other side of the basin. The prefect didn’t look best pleased, and Tydeus reached under his cape again.

Hesperus was awake now, though. He used his left hand to slide the tusk back so he could short-grip it with his right. This time he rapped the basin. “Abracadabra!” he said.

Other than the water sloshing, nothing happened. “Zim zam whammie!” uncle said. He’d told Cabbage that he changed the words of the spell each time he did a charm, so if somebody came back when the first charm didn’t work, uncle could do him a fresh one.

The charms did work sometimes, or anyway the girls who’d come—it was almost always girls—were happy about the result.

“When are you going to let the lizard’s blood out?” the prefect said.

“How are you going to do it?” said Tydeus. “You don’t have a knife!”

“Don’t!” said Cabbage.

“I’m not going to use that t-technique,” uncle said. His voice went up as he spoke, and he looked like a bunny between a pair of snakes. That was true enough.

For a moment, nobody moved. Then uncle tried to tap the water again and dropped the narwhal tooth on the table instead. “Eenie meenie keenie!” he squeaked like he was trying to talk to bats.

“Cabbage,” Zoe said, “when I tell you, I want you to say ‘Lampsoure othikalak steseon,’ and strike the water.”

“This is ridiculous!” the prefect said. Moving faster than you’d guess for somebody so pudgy, he grabbed Zoe around the throat and swung her over the bust. “Tydeus!”

Cabbage jumped, catching Tydeus by the wrist as he brought the dagger out. With his left hand, Tydeus punched the boy in the head. Cabbage didn’t fall, but everything went fuzzy. He didn’t lose his grip on the knife wrist.

Zoe twisted her body up and sprayed green feces in the prefect’s face. The prefect shouted and slammed her hard onto the ground.

Tydeus hit Cabbage again. Now the boy couldn’t feel anything. He was seeing things in shades of gray, and they were all very far away. Tydeus had his dagger out and bent over Zoe.

The prefect snatched up the narwhal tooth. He can’t have been seeing clearly, though, because he stabbed Tydeus in the middle of the back.

Zoe squirmed under the table. “Now, Cabbage!” she said.

Cabbage said, “Lampsoure othikalak steseon!” He always tried to do what he was told, though he wasn’t good at understanding what people told him. He still had the remaining celeries in his left hand, so he slapped the basin with them.

The guards around the marquee were looking inside now—well, all but one of them—but they didn’t seem to know what to do any better than Cabbage did. Uncle was sitting on the ground where somebody’d knocked him. Cabbage hadn’t seen that happen, but thinking back he kinda remembered elbowing somebody when he jumped to grab Tydeus.

Tydeus kicked and flailed twice; then he went limp. The prefect was trying to pull the tusk out, but he wasn’t having any luck. He seemed to have stuck it all the way through Tydeus and on into the ground.

Cabbage didn’t like the prefect much, but he always tried to be helpful. He started to say, “It has a left-hand twist, sir.”

Before he could speak, he saw the water humping up in the pool, though. He still opened his mouth, but he just let his lower jaw hang. At first Cabbage thought something was coming out of the pool and it kinda was, but it was the water coming out—only shaped like a dragon. It had a big head and teeth, and it carried its heavy body on four flippers.

The dragon waddled toward the marquee. The pool behind it was empty, though a little water trickled through a pipe that entered midway for topping it off.

“Zoe?” Cabbage said. He hoped she knew what to do, because he sure didn’t.

The prefect looked up. There were people screaming all around, but the prefect made more noise than most of them. He let go of the narwhal tooth and started running away. The other guards ran too; the one who’d kept looking outward had taken off as soon as the dragon climbed out.

Zoe turned her head, watching the prefect as he stumbled toward the buildings farther up the valley. The dragon was gaining.

“I think we’ll just amble back the way we came,” Zoe said. “You don’t need to carry me now, but I think you’d better lead your uncle till he’s a little more himself.”

The dragon’s head dipped. The prefect screamed again. The long jaws closed on him and flipped him up in the air. Before he hit the ground, the dragon lost its shape and sloshed back to water. The flood drained down the slope toward the pool again.

“He wanted to use my bodily fluids for a spell?” Zoe said. “Well, he got his wish.”

“Come along, Uncle,” Cabbage said, helping Hesperus to his feet. “We’re leaving now.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to walk back to Rome,” Zoe said. She’d picked up the celeries that Cabbage had dropped and was crunching them. “It’s over twenty miles.”

“We’re used to walking,” said Cabbage as they started up the steps.

They had to go around a fellow who seemed to have fainted. He’d been carrying a wedge of bread. Cabbage plucked it away when a glance told him that despite all the people, nobody was interested in him and his companions.

“Those roasts sure smelled good,” Cabbage said sadly. He tore the bread in half to share with his uncle.

“I was feeling glad to be home,” Hesperus said as they turned in the mouth of their alley, “but then I remembered that, ah, I can’t go to bed yet.”

“Do you think that Sestius might have us use his wagon if we brought it right back?” Cabbage said.

Hesperus grunted.

“No, your uncle does not think that because a man lets you ride into town on his wagonload of crockery,” said Zoe, “that it means he will help you dispose of a dead body. And your uncle is quite right to be doubtful.”

It was pitch dark in the shop. “Nobody seems to have broken in while we were gone,” Hesperus said.

“How can you tell, uncle?” said Cabbage. The wagon ride had saved them a long walk, but Cabbage had helped the potter unload at his stall. The pots were awfully heavy.

“Your uncle is being ironic,” Zoe said. “He means there was nothing here to steal; which isn’t true, of course, but he doesn’t know that yet.”

“I wish somebody would have taken Atlas away,” uncle said. “This morning I thought that things were as bad as they could get, but that was obviously tempting fate. Where are we going to get a handcart tonight?”

“I’ll ask Mistress Berenice,” said Cabbage.

“She’ll never agree!” said Hesperus. “Don’t you remember how angry she was this morning? Just this morning!

They were both—all three, probably—really tired, and it seemed to have worn uncle’s temper short. When he got snappish, he reminded Cabbage of Ma.

“Nobody but Mistress Berenice has a handcart in the neighborhood, uncle,” Cabbage said reasonably. “We have to borrow hers unless we rent one, and we’d have to have money to do that.”

“I know, I know!” Hesperus said. “And we don’t have money!”

“Well, there’s the gold coins Atlas weighted the hem of his robe with,” Zoe said. “That leaves you with the problem of changing them into silver or bronze that you could actually spend around here, but it’s certainly a start.”

Cabbage walked to the sleeping loft and felt for the bottom of the magician’s black robe. It hadn’t been easy to see the body even by daylight—which was a good thing, what with Tydeus and the soldiers coming in like they did—but Cabbage remembered which direction the legs had been when they’d stuck him onto the shelf. Sure enough, there were round weights sewed into the hem.

“Uncle, do you have a knife or something?” Cabbage asked.

“What?” said Hesperus. Then in a breaking voice he said, “You don’t plan to butcher him? Oh, boy, have we fallen that low?”

“Never mind,” said Cabbage. His thumbnails were thick and as sharp as a dog’s claws. He got them into the seam and ripped it open with no trouble. He worked out two of the lumps and brought them to Hesperus.

“Zoe says these are gold,” Cabbage said, handing over the coins. “I can’t see when it’s so dark.”

“Cabbage, have you gone . . .” Hesperus said. He was probably going to say “crazy,” but the light flickering toward their doorway made him and Cabbage both look up.

The clerk from the bronze-goods shop came in with a lantern. Right behind him was the widow Berenice herself.

The lumps Cabbage had just put into uncle’s hand glinted. They were gold coins, all right. There were lots more coins—or anyway, round lumps—still in the hem, too.

Uncle jumped to his feet, looking around like he wanted a place to run to. There wasn’t one.

Cabbage was pretty calm. No matter how mad Berenice was, Cabbage had just seen a magical dragon sploshing toward them. The dragon was worse.

“Mistress?” uncle said.

“Oh, Master Hesperus, I don’t know how I could have doubted you!” Berenice said. “Can you ever forgive me?”

“I—forgive you?” uncle said.

“I hadn’t left you for an hour when I heard that Tychos had strangled Murmilla this morning,” Berenice said. “And he was still so drunk that the Watch found him sleeping beside the body. I shudder to think of the things I called you!”

“Ah,” said uncle.

Cabbage nodded. The things Berenice had been saying made him shudder too. She’d sounded like she meant them.

“I brought this—” she held out a brand-new lamp, brass but polished to shine like gold “—as a thank-you gift and an apology. I’ve been telling everyone how well you understand the will of the gods. I’m so glad you’ve come back. I was afraid that the neighborhood’s ingratitude had caused you to forsake us.”

“Ah,” said uncle again. He looked as woozy as he had when Cabbage accidentally clouted him while he was wrestling with Tydeus.

“Ask her to change the gold coins,” Zoe said. “Or at least one of them, so you can buy me something to eat.”

“Mistress Berenice?” Cabbage said. “Can you change some gold for us? Zoe and me are pretty hungry, and I’ll bet uncle is too.”

“Gold?” said Berenice. She looked at the coins in uncle’s hand and said, “Mother Isis! That is gold!”

“Ah, yes,” Hesperus said. “It, ah . . . a recent commission. I shouldn’t say more, you realize.”

“Oh, I . . . ,” said the widow, and now it was her tongue that stumbled over her thoughts. “I didn’t know—that is, I’m so glad that you’re doing well, Master Hesperus. So very well.”

She pursed her lips and got an expression that Cabbage had seen her wear when she was counting up the day’s takings. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “I believe I can change one of those.”

In a different tone, she then said, “I was wondering, Master Hesperus, if you had plans for dinner tonight yourself? I’ve been lonely since, well . . . since, you know.”

Since Tychos left, and that was just the day before yesterday, Cabbage thought. But he probably didn’t understand.

“Well, I would be pleased to dine with you, mistress,” uncle said. His stomach growled, just to show how true that was.

“And I wonder, master . . . ?” Berenice said, edging a little closer. “My friend Glycera is worried about her husband. He’s in the Alexandria trade, you see, and his ship should have been back weeks ago. Could you possibly help her? She’s quite well off. For material things, you know.”

Uncle looked doubtful. Zoe glanced up at Cabbage and said, “No problem at all. I’ll need a piece of his clothing and a basin of water, that’s all. But you’d better get paid in advance because the news may not be what the lady wants to hear.”

“We can handle it, uncle,” Cabbage said. “You can, I mean.”

“Ah!” said Hesperus, but it was a cheerful “Ah,” this time. “Yes, that can be arranged, I’m sure. Now, Cabbage, if you’ll come with us to Mistress Berenice’s shop, I’ll give you enough money to feed yourself and, ah, my familiar while the mistress and I are engaged.”

“I want radishes,” said Zoe as she waddled out of the shop at Cabbage’s side. “And some proper lettuce, hearts of lettuce.”

Ahead of them uncle was saying, “And may my apprentice borrow your hand-cart tonight, mistress? We have a delivery of sorts to make just outside the gate.”

David Drake needs no introduction in this volume.

At my request, he supplied this afterword to his story.

The first series written by David Drake (hereinafter “me” or “I”) involved a pair of 4th-century A.D. Romans, and Graeco-Roman history has provided settings for most of my SF and fantasy. In the spirit of explaining what “The Great Wizard, Cabbage” has to do with me, I could discuss the importance of Latin and classical history to my life both generally and specifically as part of my writing.

But I’ve said that elsewhere, so instead I’ll comment on the fact that Cabbage is a lighter story than much of what I write; that in fact Cabbage is funny. (Okay, it’s funny in an English sort of way, particularly if you’re a guy with a juvenile sense of humor. Which is most guys, at least in my circle of friends.)

There’s a lot of humor in all my fiction, but I think it’s fair to say that the people who are most likely to appreciate that humor have been in some pretty bad places. Black humor is a welcome companion in environments which you know are likely to kill or maim you and your buddies. I have a writing career because that experience is more widespread than civilians tend to think, but it’s not true of most people in the First World. (Thank goodness.)

I have written humorous stories, however. I collected these in All the Way to the Gallows. In doing so, I noticed to my surprise that almost all of my funny stories were set in somebody else’s universe. I didn’t (and don’t) know why that should be, but I decided that for the fantasy Mark wants for this volume I would do a funny story. (He also wants me to do a Hammer story. I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be funny.)

Two of my best stories (funny or otherwise) are “Airborne All the Way” and “A Very Offensive Weapon.” Weapon was based on a full background by Roger Zelazny, and the story is novella length. That’s much longer than I thought was suitable for this anthology.

All the background I had when I wrote Airborne, however, was a single card from the Magic: the Gathering™ pack. I therefore thought about Airborne and wondered how to get the same feel for the new story.

The first result of thinking about Airborne is that I switched the current story’s viewpoint from the hedge-wizard to his apprentice. Airborne’s viewpoint character was the leader of a squad of goblins. She was brighter than the goblins under her command, but that wasn’t a high bar: they were explicitly on an intellectual level with rocks. (They were brighter than most rocks.)

Something else I like about Airborne is that the goblins are all good-hearted. Sure, they’re pawns (they’re a balloon crew, so I can’t call them footsoldiers) in a magical war, but they don’t hate anybody. They’re just trying to do the best job possible with their limited mental resources. That was an important aspect when I characterized both the apprentice and his master.

The biggest difference between the two stories is that Airborne is set in a game universe which I didn’t describe or even understand (I’d never played Magic), whereas Cabbage is set in the Roman Empire of about 170 A.D. I know a fair amount about Rome and I wanted to get the setting right. It wasn’t necessary for the story, but it was darned well necessary for me. (Reread the first paragraph of this essay.)

But you know? I’m not sure that this is such a big difference after all. For Cabbage I used a map and a topography of Rome, a large reference work on the Tivoli site, and the trusty volume of classical spells and curses which had been at hand through the years in which I wrote the Isles series . . . but I remember reading 19th-century ballooning memoirs for Airborne, and also studying coal gasification (because 19th-century sport ballooning generally used lighting gas instead of the extremely expensive process of generating hydrogen by pouring concentrated acid over iron filings).

In any case, herewith a light and I hope funny fantasy. Now to work out the details of a Hammer story.


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