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CHAPTER VIII.
A Commercial Philosophy Elaborated. The Wizard Demurs. An Interview With a Subordinate of the Law. The Sheriff's Return. The Unsatisfactory Results Therefrom. The Wizard Seeks Counsel!

The next morning, with Shelyid in tow, the wizard set out for the depot of the GGNESWC& etc., desiring, before making further plans, to assure himself that the coach to Prygg would depart on schedule the following day. Arriving at the depot, he made his way to the ticket vendor's window. No sooner had the wizard identified himself than the ticket vendor exclaimed: "So! You chose to surrender yourself, did you?"


"I beg your pardon?" queried the mage.


"Sirrah, it has been brought to my attention that you were among the passengers who arrived in the last coach from Goimr."


"Indeed so."


"It has also been brought to my attention that the aforementioned coach was robbed whilst you were aboard."


"Indeed so—a scabrous event!" The light of understanding dawned in the wizard's eye. "Ah, good sir, it pleases me no end to see the concern with which your company views its customers' woes. An excellent policy, this, to offer recompense to those of your passengers who have suffered indignities while enjoying the hospitality of your firm! Know, my good man, that you are fortunate indeed to find yourself employed by so progressive a—"


"You suffer from a gross misapprehension. It is not you, but we, who are the injured party in this affair, and thus the recipients of restitution."


"I beg your pardon?"


"As a passenger on a vehicle owned and operated by the Great Grotum etc., etc., & etc., you are liable for any damage (physical, financial, mental, moral, emotional, spiritual, natural, supernatural, or immaterial) inflicted upon said vehicle and its contents (animate or inanimate, sentient or senseless) and, by extension, upon the Great Grotum etc., etc., & etc." As the wizard stared on, in a rare speechless moment, the ticket vendor picked up a scroll and began droning:


"For permitting a coach of the GGNESWC& etc. to be robbed, you are hereby fined one hundred and fifty ducats.


"For allowing—"


"Preposterous!" cried the mage, his wits returned. Gesticulating wildly, the thaumaturge thrust his face at the ticket vendor.


"This is absurd! Utterly absurd! You have lost your corporate senses! I am in no fashion responsible for your miserable coach!"


"That statement is not merely incorrect," sniffed the ticket vendor, "it is positively grotesque. You are, in fact, legally responsible in this matter, having made of your own free will a contract to that effect with the Great Grotum etc., etc., & etc."


"Art mad! I made no such contract—I merely purchased a ticket!"


"I see. Obviously you are ignorant of the fact that the moment one consummates any transaction with any subsidiary of the Consortium, one automatically agrees—at that very instant—to the full provisions of the Consortium Cosmological Contract."


"I was not informed of any such provision!"


"To be sure. This point, however, is hardly germane." The ticket vendor resumed his reading of the scroll.


"For allowing a messenger of the GGNESWC& etc. to be interrupted in the performance of his duties, you are hereby fined seventy-five ducats.


"For allowing a servant of the Lord to be slandered and his piety subjected to denigration, you are fined fifty ducats.


"For allowing a belted knight of the realm to have his manhood and noble reputation subjected to gross indignities, you are fined sixty ducats.


"For allowing a female passenger on a vehicle operated by the GGNESWC& etc. to be seduced by a non-paying individual, you are fined forty ducats, per seduction—a total of two hundred ducats.


"For allowing other passengers on the GGNESWC& etc. to be robbed, you are fined thirty-five ducats per passenger—a total of two hundred and ten ducats.


"For—"


"I protest! Why should I be held responsible for other passengers? Why should they not be held responsible for their own mishaps—and mine, for that matter?"


"They have," replied the ticket vendor, "and have been fined accordingly. I might add that two of the passengers, Il Conde de la Manteca and his wife La Contessa—ridiculous titles!—refused to pay the fines, and have accordingly been incarcerated."


"But she's a nice lady!" cried Shelyid.


The ticket vendor sniffed. "Finally, you are fined fifty ducats for allowing yourself to be robbed while traveling on a vehicle operated by the GGNESWC& etc." He laid down the scroll and stared stonily at the mage, palm outstretched. "The total fine amounts to seven hundred and ninety-five ducats, payable in the legal tender of the region, which, in this instance, is the Consortium Ducat."


"I refuse!" bellowed the wizard, beside himself with fury. "O monstrous! O monstrous!"


"Sir," stated the ticket vendor in a voice devoid of inflection or discernible tone, "am I to understand that you are calling into question the philosophy and commercial weltanschauung of the GGNESWC& etc., a subsidiary—"


"A pox on your philosophy, sirrah! I shall take this arrant thievery to the law!"


And so saying, the mage strode forth into the street, casting his eyes about for the location of the forces of law and order. Almost immediately, his attention caught by faint wails of agony, he spotted nearby a large gray building built of heavy stone, windows barred, steps blood-stained.


"The Hall of Justice!" he cried, and hastened thence. "Come, Shelyid," he spoke over his shoulder. "You are shortly to witness the manner in which base curs of low degree are called to order!"


Entering the building, Zulkeh saw to his left an old wooden door, upon whose peeling surface was crudely lettered the words: Sheriff's Office. He strode within, there to espy a man before him, seated at a large and much-carved desk, belly overhanging belt, booted feet propped up, visage totally obscured by an enormous hat slanted sharply forward.


"Are you the Sheriff?" demanded Zulkeh. The man behind the desk looked up. Faded blue eyes peered at the mage from a face whose every feature was masked by a complex maze of wrinkles, crow's-feet, creases, and the like. A luxurious mustache adorned his upper lip.


"That I am," drawled this worthy. "Sheriff Pike." Then, in a tone which belied the words: "At your service."


"Excellent!" spoke Zulkeh. "I have a complaint which I wish to register with the Law."


The Sheriff spat with unerring accuracy into a nearby spittoon. He sighed wearily.


"All right, all right," he grumbled. "What is it?"


"An abomination! An insolent offense! An outrageous calumny!"


Pike grimaced, or so, at least, one could interpret the heavings of his mustache. "I assumed that. Why else would anyone complain to the Sheriff? Which abomination? What offense? Whose calumny? These are the questions that need to be answered before modern police investigation can get off the ground."


Zulkeh brought himself under control. "I wish to register a complaint against the Consortium. These scoundrels, these—"


"Shove it."


"I beg your pardon?"


"I said 'shove it'!" bellowed the Sheriff fiercely. "I haven't got the time or energy to be bothered by lunatics who want to file a complaint against the Consortium."


Zulkeh gazed coldly at the agent of the Law. "I now perceive the truth. You have been suborned by the Consortium."


Pike's face turned beet-red with outrage.


"Why, damn your insolence!" he roared. "I am a sworn servant of the Law doing my duty! This office as well as the jail which appertains to it is a bona fide subsidiary of the Consortium and I am carrying out my responsibilities as a faithful employee of the firm!"


Zulkeh was silent for a moment. "The law in the Caravanserai, do I understand you to say, is owned outright by the Consortium?"


"Lock, stock, and barrel," stated the Sheriff. "Quite a profitable concern, too," he added with some pride.


"Clearly, then," spoke the wizard, "I can expect no justice from these quarters."


"Ruled out right from the start," agreed the Sheriff.


"I must then seek redress elsewhere," mused Zulkeh. "The rot has sunk deeper than I had perceived." He glared at the Sheriff. "Where may I find an attorney-at-law?"


"A what?"


"A lawyer!"


"Oh." The Sheriff shook his head slowly. "Couldn't tell you. There isn't any need for a lawyer in this town. You can say what you like about big city police efficiency, but in my opinion we've brought the science of criminology in this little town to a state of perfection that would be envied in Ozar itself. If anybody has a complaint against the Consortium, they're automatically wrong. If anybody has a complaint against anybody else," he yawned, "who gives a shit?"


The Sheriff rubbed his belly, apparently in an effort to stimulate thought. "You might try the hotel down the street," he suggested. "All sorts of riffraff traveling through the Caravanserai can be found there."


With no further word, Zulkeh stormed out of the Sheriff's office, Shelyid's little legs scurrying to keep pace. Down the street, the mage espied a ramshackle building bearing a much-abused sign on which only the letters onthly rat s could still be seen. In but a trice, the agitated sorcerer arrived at the hotel and strode within.


Peering about the Stygian gloom of the lobby, the wizard saw, arranged in a manner which defied all geometry and logic, a multitude of couches and divans. These items of furniture ranged, in their degree of corrosion and disrepair, from shabby and soiled to filthy beyond belief and downright dangerous. Despite their, at best, disreputable appearance, each of the couches was occupied by an individual, none of whom, judging from their slouches, seemed to find any great joy in life.


Across the lobby, Zulkeh made out a jury-rigged little counter which he took to be the reception desk. Seated behind the desk, in a posture which matched the decor, was a sallow-faced individual whose thinning gray hair was adorned by a little cap bearing the letters esk lerk. Advancing upon this fellow, the mage questioned the desk clerk as to the possibility that an attorney-at-law could be found among the hotel's current clientele.


The desk clerk, alas, proved to be an ignorant, slothful, and insolent wight. Ignorant, in that he claimed no knowledge of any characteristic of any of the hotel's residents beyond the adequacy of their purse. Slothful, in that he proclaimed an utter lack of interest in correcting this appalling state of ignorance. Insolent, in that he responded to the mage's vigorous insistence that he do so with a series of exclamations the which ranged from uncouth to downright scurrilous.


No doubt the surly fellow would have been smitten by the mage's wizardrous fury at that point, had not one of the individuals lounging on a nearby divan spoken up. Croaked up, it might be better to say:


"There's a lawyer in the saloon," rasped he, in what seemed to be his last breath.


"Gee," whispered Shelyid, "I thought he was dead." And, indeed, the fellow expired that very moment.


The urgency of his task overriding his urge to chasten the desk clerk, the irate thaumaturge immediately stalked to the saloon adjoining the lobby, guided by the sign appended over the swinging doors: needless to say, aloon.


Thence did the mage take himself, entering a low-ceilinged room whose atmosphere was most vilely polluted by smoke and the miasma of sundry alcoholic distillations.


"I need an attorney!" he spoke into the murky gloom.


A long-torsoed individual, thin as a rail, perked up at a table in the far corner. "I am here!" he cried, rising to greet the wizard.


"Mustelid's the name, solicitor's the trade." The whiskers beneath his long and pointed nose quivered with the scent of fee.


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Framed