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PART XV
In Which the Mage Agrees, Though With Profound Misgivings, to the Proposal of the Witch and Her Vile Accomplices, Producing Those Results Which Reverberate About the World To This Very Day, Not the Least of These Being the Earliest Manifestation of The Horror Henceforth Known, To Friend and Foe Alike, As The Rebel.

CHAPTER XX.
A Notorious Council Convenes. A Wizard's Objections. A Theft Proposed. A Wizard's Objections. Motives Revealed. A Wizard's Objections. Particulars Explained. A Wizard's Objections. A Plot Set Afoot!

And so was convened the later-notorious First Magrite Council. The date: October 30, Year of the Jackal.


Presiding over the Council was the witch Magrit herself. Also present were: Zulkeh and his apprentice Shelyid; Greyboar the strangler and his agent Ignace; Wolfgang Laebmauntsforscynneweëld, the lunatic; and six lowlifes, these latter a disreputable crew known to friend and foe alike as Les Six.


The meeting began badly.


"Insufferable!" stormed the wizard Zulkeh. "By what bizarre logic are these—these proletarian jackanapes!—present at this council?"


Six wide grins split six lumpy faces.


"The mage is affronted in his mind!" exclaimed the first.


"Aghast, appalled and taken aback!" added the second.


"And rightly so!" cried the third.


" 'Tis a travesty to have present at such a learned gathering our lowly and loathsome like!" concurred the fourth.


"For are we not uneducated, untutored, unlettered and ignorant?" demanded the fifth.


"Rude, crude, lewd and uncouth, that's us!" boomed the sixth. This was apparently something in the way of a ruffianly toast, for the six scalawags raised their teacups in unison, pinkies politely extended like so many small logs, and slurped noisily.


Zulkeh's expostulation, even now gathering like a storm, was cut short by Magrit.


"Shut up, you old fart! And you! Yeah—you—Les Six! Quit baiting the wizard!" The six scoundrels looked aggrieved.


Magrit glared around the room. "I'm running this meeting, d'you all understand that? None of your clowning around, any of you!"


She settled her ample body back into her chair. Then spoke again:


"All right, here's the deal. There's something that needs to be carried out. It's a task which is almost impossible. But with the people we've got here in this room, I think it can be done. And if it can, each of us stands to gain in some way. What is it? Simple—I want to steal a Rap Sheet."


A collective gasp swept the room.


"A Rap Sheet!" exclaimed Ignace.


"But madame!" protested Zulkeh. "They're all in Ozar—all known ones, that is. Except, perhaps, for the two reputed to be in the possession, respectively, of the Kaysar of All The Kushrau and the King of the Sundjhab."


Magrit allowed the hubbub to quiet down before continuing.


"There are five Rap Sheets whose location is either known or surmised on good evidence, of the original six which Joe is supposed to have made for the cops at the beginning of time. As the wizard says, two of them are suspected to be in the hands of the Kushrau Kaysars and the Sundjhabi Kings. Although recent events cast some doubt on the latter," she mused. "Didn't seem to have done the King of the Sundjhab much good."


Greyboar coughed. "Perhaps my guru left it behind on his recent sojourn to New Sfinctr," he opined.


"His recent, abruptly-ended sojourn to New Sfinctr," stated Magrit, pointedly staring at the strangler. Greyboar coughed again.


"Baloney!" snorted Ignace. "That old fr—uh, wise man—didn't leave nothing behind. Take it from me—I was there! Luxuries like a sybarite's dream, his suite at the hotel—and him squawking about philosophy the whole time!"


Greyboar glared at his agent.


"What's this?" demanded Zulkeh. "Has some unfortunate accident befallen the King of the Sundjhab? I certainly hope not! A most eminent sage, His Highness—the preeminent expositor in our modern times of ethical entropism. Mind you, I myself do not share the King's belief in the moral supremacy of the second law of thermodynamics, yet still there is no question—"


"The King's dead," interrupted Magrit. "No accident either," she snorted, nodding at Greyboar, "unless you want to reckon him and his thumbs a genetic accident fallen on the unwitting human race."


Greyboar flushed. It took a moment for her meaning to penetrate to the mage's mind. Then did the sorcerer gasp, shock writ plain upon his face.


"What? Do I understand you to say that this—this assassin has throttled the King of Sundjhab?"


"And his heir, the Prince," said Magrit.


"That's why we're hiding out here in Prygg," complained Ignace. "It'd been okay if he'd just choked the King—the Prince hired us, and he'd have gotten the porkers off our back. But no!" he shrilled, "Mr. Philosophy Student here"—an accusing finger was leveled at Greyboar—"had to take exception to the Prince's—and I quote—'disrespect for philosophy' and go and squeeze his weasand for him, too! Not that the royal larva didn't deserve it, I'll admit, but still—talk about poor business practices!"


"He hired me to strangle my own guru," growled the strangler. "Imagine! What else was I to do?"


Zulkeh frowned. "Do I understand you to say, sirrah Greyboar, that you yourself are an acolyte of the—former—King of Sundjhab's teachings?"


"I certainly am!" boomed the strangler. "A novice, I admit—I'm still working on my Languor."


"Then why did you strangle him?" demanded the mage.


Greyboar grimaced. "Well, actually I wasn't a follower of my guru when I took on the job. The King—bless him—showed me the Way right at the last moment."


"Greyboar had what you might call a deathbed conversion," chipped in Ignace. "The King's deathbed, that is." He looked innocently away from Greyboar's fierce gaze.


"But still," protested Zulkeh, "the truth once known to you, why did you finish the choke?"


Greyboar looked offended. "I'd already taken the money for the job. Professional ethics, you know."


Zulkeh nodded his head. "Of course, of course. Professional ethics, of course. Yes, quite so!"


"May we get on with our business?" asked Magrit. "Or would you two rather turn this into a leisurely chat on the nature of ethics, morality, and whatnot neither of you knows squat about?"


Wizard and strangler glared at the witch, but fell silent.


"Anyway," continued Magrit, "as I was saying, of the five Rap Sheets known to exist, the other three—this is a certainty—are in the possession of the Imperial Republic of Ozar. Have been for some time, in fact. Helps explain the historic success of the Ozarine—"


"—in its rapacious gobbling up of the world," chimed in Les Six in unison.


"But what's not widely known," said Magrit, ignoring the interruption, "is that one of Ozarae's Rap Sheets has been brought right here to Prygg. Only a few days ago."


"The Ozarine have brought such a precious relic here to Grotum?" inquired the mage. "Whatever for?"


"Is he really that stupid?" demanded the first.


Before the usual round could begin—or the wizard do more than sputter—Magrit took command of the discussion again.


"Keep personalities out of it!" she snapped. "And he's not actually stupid, he just lives in the clouds, on his head, thinking the earth is vapor above." She forestalled Zulkeh's indignation with a sharp gesture.


"In answer to your question, Zulkeh, the Ozarine have brought it to Grotum to aid them in their commercial, industrial, financial and you-can-practically-name-it conquest of our sub-continent. And it will be a big help to them, too, let me tell you. The biggest problem the Ozarines have is suppressing the revolutionary movement of Grotum." She sneered. "That's not from lack of cooperation from the Groutch regimes, of course—in Prygg especially, which over the past two years has become an Ozarean satrapy in all but name. The upper classes in Pryggia today aren't but lackeys for their Ozarine masters."


"Never were much good at their best," stated the second.


"As sorry a lot of drones, churchmen and landlords as ever plagued a land," agreed the third.


"As rapacious as your Sfinctrian aristocrats, as incompetent as your Goimric nobility," concurred the fourth.


"Former worms, current tapeworms," added the fifth.


"Here's to the downfall of parasites!" cried the sixth. This was apparently something in the way of a rabble toast, for the six malcontents raised their teacups in unison, pinkies politely extended like so much firewood, and slurped noisily.


Magrit continued:


"The Rap Sheet rests in the care of the Ozarean sub-secretary to the third consul for agricultural affairs, one Rupert Inkman. He's also the Groutch chief of station for the Ozarean Senate's Commission to Repel Unbridled Disruption."


"A Crud!" exclaimed Greyboar.


"That he is," agreed the first.


"One of your greater Cruds, in fact," commented the second.


"The Butcher of the Rellenos," added the third.


"Reports direct to the Angel Jimmy Jesus himself," elaborated the fourth.


"He's also a subsidiary of the Consortium," embroidered the fifth. "One of their most profitable concerns."


Fortunately, the sixth's contribution—which should no doubt have led to another grotesque toast—was cut short by Zulkeh.


"One moment, madame! I wish to return to the beginning of your exposition. I fear my mind has been so distracted by the news of the sad death of the King of the Sundjhab and the appearance in Grotum of a Rap Sheet that I have let fall aside the chief point. Do I understand you to say that you wish my assistance in the theft of this Rap Sheet from its rightful owner? If so, you may rest assured that I will have no part in such a criminal—"


"Oh, shut up, you old fart! Since when is a Rap Sheet the rightful property of the Senate of Ozar? They stole all theirs from other empires, or took 'em by main force—you know that as well as I do! Cut plenty of throats in the process, too."


Zulkeh stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Well, as to that, I admit there is much to what you say. Still, the Rap Sheets have been in the possession of the Ozarine for some time now, and 'tis a well-known jurisprudential principle—well-buttressed by numerous ontological axioms—that possession is ninety-nine point astronomically large number of nines following the decimal parts of the law."


Now did a new party, hitherto silent, enter the discussion. Since his introduction, the lunatic Wolfgang had sat in a corner, in a special chair designed for his gargantuan frame. He had closely observed all of the participants, reserving, strange to say, the most careful scrutiny for the least significant member of the group—I speak, of course, of the dwarf Shelyid. This latter had squatted on the floor throughout the proceedings, sitting a pace back from the main circle, as was his proper place.


Now Wolfgang spoke, in a tenor voice which contrasted oddly with his size, addressing himself—astonishing to relate—to the apprentice.


"What do you think, lad?" he asked.


Shelyid frowned, stammered, glanced to his master.


"Well, it's not really my place to say. That's for the master to decide."


"Yes, yes, no doubt," spoke the giant cheerfully, "but I didn't ask you what you decided—I asked you what you thought."


Shelyid glanced again at his master. The wizard made a permissive gesture.


"Well," Shelyid said, his brow knotted with thought, "the master always explained that the Rap Sheets were made back in the beginning of time, back when the legends say Joe was froze up by the Old Geister." His face cleared. "I remember now! There was a little poem the master had me memorize—goes like this:


Joe made six Pink Slips for the bosses,
to keep the bad in line.
Then Joe made six Rap Sheets for the cops,
to keep track of worse ones.
Then Joe made six Switches for the priests,
to make the worser wail.
And finally Joe made one—"


Shelyid stopped abruptly, looking guiltily at the mage.


"I'm not supposed to say the last thing Joe made. But it's real awful! He made it for the Old Geister, and—well, I'm not supposed to say." The dwarf fell into a fearful silence.


"Excellent!" boomed Wolfgang. The lunatic gazed benignly at the wizard. "I'm pleased to see that you haven't neglected the boy's education, Zulkeh. Most commendable, teaching him the old gypsy song. Not many sorcerers today even know it themselves." The wizard nodded graciously.


"But what do you think, boy?" continued Wolfgang. "Now that you've recited the song—and, yes, we can skip the last part—not suitable in polite company, that's for sure!—what do you think? Who rightfully owns the Rap Sheets?"


"Oh!" cried Shelyid. "That's easy. They belong to Joe, just like all his other inventions. He's the one gave them to those other people, you know, the ones he invented in the first place—the cops and the bosses and the priests and the Old Geister." The dwarf paused, pondered a moment. "Well, I'm not actually sure the Old Geister's a people, but anyway, Joe just made them so that things would work right. But the cops and the priests and the bosses and the Old Geister—they played him a dirty trick! They froze him right up, like they shouldn't have done! So the way I see it, the Rap Sheets and all really still belong to Joe. Anybody else who has them just has them, well, sort of on loan, I guess you could say." The dwarf pondered a moment more. "Well, sort of more like a mugging kind of loan."


"Marvelous little chap!" exclaimed the first.


"No lawyer long with pedigree could have put it better," agreed the second.


"Ridiculous!" cried the third.


"No lawyer long with pedigree would have put it that way at all," snorted the fourth.


"Your lawyer long with pedigree would have explicated the situation with much the greater circumlocution and the use of fourteen orders of magnitude more the words," stated the fifth.


"And would have concluded, would your lawyer long with pedigree, that the items in dispute properly belonged with their present owners, what just coincidentally happen to be his meal ticket, and that this Joe fellow was no better than a criminal behind bars what's lost his rights," concluded the sixth.


"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Shelyid's opinion—which is, I will admit, deft in its dialectic though crude in its presentation—is beside the point. Joe doesn't exist, if he ever did, so wherein lies his right to property?"


No doubt this latest addition to the brew would have produced yet a further unending round of disputation, save for the intervention of the witch Magrit, who, crude termagant though she was, did possess—it cannot be denied—a talent for focusing the debate.


"Cut the crap!" she exclaimed. "Nobody but you, old fart, gives a screw about the Ozarine's so-called right to the Rap Sheet. The Senate of Ozar grabbed it by force and has used it ever since to suck the world's blood. And right now the leech is attached to Grotum itself. So we're going to take it for ourselves! You want my help in your problem, you pitch in—if you don't, there's the door! Get lost!" She stopped, breathing hoarsely, glaring at the mage.


Zulkeh hemmed and hawed for a few minutes more, but eventually he agreed as to how certain epistemological unclarities regarding the ownership of the Rap Sheet did, in all conscience, allow him to proceed as a participant in the exercise.


"But you have not yet explained, madame," he concluded, "why you want this Rap Sheet in the first place."


"That's simple!" replied Magrit. "I want it because it'll improve my foety. Wolfgang wants it stolen because he thinks the whole idea's crazy and so naturally he can't resist. Les Six over there need to get it out of the hands of the Cruds, who are getting a wee bit too close to figuring out their hobby—"


"Which is?" queried the mage.


"The abasement of Ozarine imperialism!" cried the first.


"The overthrow of the decrepit Groutch regimes and all their gangrenous cohorts!" added the second.


"The humbling of the haughty Ecclesiarchs!" hallooed the third.


"Justice for the poor and downtrodden!" came the fourth.


"The reunification of all the divided Groutch lands under the rule of a free people!" exclaimed the fifth.


"A nation once again!" boomed the sixth. This was apparently something in the way of a sansculottes toast, for the half dozen incendiaries rose to their feet as one man and slurped their tea noisily.


"Churlism!" cried Zulkeh. "Outright murkery! I will have no part in—"


"Oh, shut up, you old fart!" snarled Magrit. "They aren't churls—not proper ones, anyway, though Joe knows they're on good enough terms with murks all over Grotum. Just a band of happy lads pursuing an innocent enough hobby."


She cut short Zulkeh again. "And you didn't let me finish, windbag! I was just going to add that you want to get your hands on the Rap Sheet because it'll, like as not, tell you who your enemies are."


Zulkeh frowned. "I fail to follow your logic, madame. How can this Rap Sheet aid me in my quest? Oh, I admit, 'tis a puissant relic, a Rap Sheet, but still and all one of precise and limited powers. On this all tales and legends agree, that whosoever possesses a Rap Sheet will instantly know all evidence pertaining to felonious and subversive activities which is in the possession of any police agency anywhere within the range of the relic's powers, which range is reputed to be great but not universal. But how does this aid me? Surely, were my enemies known to the authorities, they would already have been apprehended and their identity and crimes made known to me by these selfsame authorities!"


"Is he really that stupid?" demanded the second.


"Like I said," growled Magrit, "he lives upside down. Zulkeh, how have you survived so long in this cold and cruel world? Enemies so powerful as yours are presumably great criminals, who have not yet been apprehended because the authorities are involved in some elaborate scheme to ferret out their grand design."


"Yes, yes," mused Zulkeh, "this is sensible."


"Unfortunately," continued Magrit, "you yourself are likely to be squashed in the course of this scheme's unfolding, should you take no steps of your own, for it is well known that your authorities in today's world care less than a fig about the fate of ordinary citizens."


"I am hardly an ordinary citizen!" protested Zulkeh. "But yes, yes, I see your point. Oft have I noted the parlous state of the contemporary temporal powers."


"And finally," concluded the witch, "do you really think that the authorities have the competence to foil this scheme—whatever it is—hatched by your unknown and potent enemies?"


"Certainly not!" exclaimed the mage.


"Well, then?" The witch peered at Zulkeh intently. "Are you in, or not? And can we proceed without these constant philosophical quibbles?"


Zulkeh considered, then nodded his head. "I am with you, madame."


Magrit now looked at Greyboar and Ignace.


"That leaves you two," she said. "We won't be able to steal the Rap Sheet without your help, for reasons that'll become clear in a minute. However, I'll admit there's no real reason for you to do it."


Greyboar scratched his chin. "Well, we do owe you a job."


"Not one like this!" cried Ignace. "Choke one of your rivals, sure. Throttle a customer what owes you money, sure. But this? Steal a Rap Sheet from the Cruds? Take on the whole damn Imperial Republic of Ozarae? Get mixed up in Joe business?"


"It's a bit much," agreed the witch. "And if you don't want to do it, I'll understand. I'm sure I can find some suitable little chore for you instead."


Greyboar cracked his knuckles. The windows rattled. "But you say you won't be able to steal the Rap Sheet without us?"


Magrit shrugged. "No, probably not. Les Six have already agreed to try to fill in for you, if you don't come in. But—well, they're solid lads, but they're not the world's greatest strangler."


Greyboar gazed at Ignace. "My agent makes all the business decisions," he said mildly.


All eyes turned to Ignace. After a second or so, the little agent looked away. His face grew red, his cheeks puffed out. For a full minute, while silence filled the room, Ignace subjected the various objects cluttered about to a fierce and glowering inspection.


Suddenly, he threw up his hands, exhaling mightily.


"All right! All right! We'll do it!"


For a split second, a strange expression crossed Magrit's face. For just that moment, the horrid harridan seemed—soft?


"Are you sure?" she asked. "I'll say it again, this is a lot more than the favor you owe me."


Ignace glared at her.


"It's got nothing to do with that, and you know it! Even if we didn't owe you a favor, we'd go along."


He now transferred his glare to the strangler.


Greyboar shrugged. "You know what chance she'll have, with the Cruds bringing a Rap Sheet to Grotum. There's never been much I could do for her, except that one time we got her out of the police station."


"And much thanks we got for it, too!" shrilled the agent. His face was now beet red.


Greyboar smiled ruefully. "Gwendolyn's always been hard to please." He looked at Magrit, nodding. "We're in."


"Good. Now let me get to the practicalities of the thing. You'll understand why I needed all of you to get the job done."


* * *


Then did the witch Magrit present to the assembled party the outlines of her scheme, the which your narrator will briefly summarize:


The Rap Sheet was kept in a small room, deep in the bowels of the Ozarine Embassy. This Embassy was no modest edifice, but an ancient castle, perched high on a crag overlooking the city of Prygg and its harbor. The sole entrance to the castle was a drawbridge and portcullis, guarded by a large company of soldiery.


Within the castle, the room wherein the Rap Sheet was kept was fiercely protected. Entry to the room required passing through, first, a guard room wherein rested at all times the elite of the Embassy's troops; second, yet another chamber in which dwelt some unknown horror; and finally, the Rap Sheet itself, which relic was guarded by bizarre glyphs and wards, the which could only be dispelled by great magic.


"You now see," concluded Magrit, "why we need all of you together. Greyboar can deal with the soldiers in the guardroom. Zulkeh can handle the magic guarding the Rap Sheet. And all of you together, let's hope, can handle whatever horror it is that dwells in the chamber between. Any questions?"


Greyboar spoke. "I see a couple of problems. First, the soldiers. The ones in the guardroom—what are we talking about here? A half dozen or so?"


Magrit nodded.


"That's a piece of cake. But how about the soldiers at the main gate? Must be a couple of hundred at least, if it's like every other Ozarine Embassy." Greyboar grimaced. "That's a wee much. And what about the drawbridge and the portcullis? Mind you, I've got a way with opening doors"—Ignace grinned—"but a whole drawbridge? I don't know." He flexed his enormous hands, gazed down at them. "I don't know."


"Our job, this," stated the first.


"You'll not be needing to worry about the main entrance," added the second.


"You'll be taking a different route," explained the third.


"Coming up from below," elaborated the fourth.


"Through the artist's tunnels," detailed the fifth.


"Paul Gauphin's tunnels," specified the sixth.


"Gauphin?" exclaimed Zulkeh. "He lives yet? I had thought the man dead!"


"No, he's still alive," said Magrit. "He just travels around so much to so many exotic and far-off lands that everybody always thinks he must have died. Actually, he's been back in Prygg for several years now. Keeps himself exclusively to the tunnels he's dug all over the city. Says it's primitive, inspires him."


"Known throughout Pryggia as the Underground Artist," added the first.


"But how can he help us?" asked Ignace.


The second coughed. "Well, it's a bit delicate, this, but you see Paul's—how I shall I put it?—well—"


"He's a lecher," interrupted the third.


"A profligate," added the fourth.


"A satyr," chipped in the fifth.


"A two-legged goat," concluded the sixth.


"The point is," explained the first, "that the Ozarine Ambassador's wife is a most attractive young lady—"


"As is the wife of the Consul," said the second.


"And the wife of the Chargé d'Affaires," added the third.


"And the wife of—"


"Stow it!" bellowed Magrit. "We don't need another of your laundry lists. The fact is, Zulkeh, that almost every Ozarine official anyone's ever met has a gorgeous teenage wife—barely pubescent, most of 'em—'cause they're all a lot of lechers. Would-be lechers, I should say. Big difference between them and Paul Gauphin is that he can keep it up."


"You should know!" piped up the salamander. A teacup went flying. The evil amphibian darted for a mousehole.


"A wallet!" yelled Magrit. Then, turning back to her audience:


"The point is, that the Underground Artist has dug tunnels into every bedchamber in the castle, including that of Rupert Inkman himself, the chief of station."


"Wherein lounges his girlfriend," explained the second.


"No Ozarine lass, but a Pryggian minx." This from the third.


"Fair in form and limb," commented the fourth.


"But foul in mind and spirit," countered the fifth.


"A rotten collaborator," stated the sixth, "providing comfort if not much aid to the Ozarine oppressor of the Groutch masses."


This last bid fair to start another round of canaille toasts, but Magrit intervened.


"Can we keep to the subject?" she demanded. "Anyway, that's how you'll get in—Paul'll lead you through his tunnels right into Inkman's bedroom, which abuts directly to the guardroom."


Greyboar coughed. "Still a bit of a problem here, Magrit. The girl's likely to be there, along with this Inkman fellow. We are doing the job at night, I assume?" Magrit nodded. "Well, then, they'll both be there. And while I certainly don't mind throttling a Crud, the girl—" He fell silent, then spoke again, in a stony voice. "I don't choke girls."


"It's true," confirmed Ignace. "It's a sticking point with him. A lot of business it's cost us, too," he groused.


"Who said anything about choking girls?" asked Magrit. "Or Rupert Inkman, for that matter. They'll both be gone. We're doing the job tomorrow tonight—during the wedding reception for the Princess Snuffy and the Honorable Anthwerp Freckenrizzle III."


"Scion of Ozar's fifth-wealthiest plutocrat!" exclaimed the first.


"Soon to be married to the youngest daughter of the King of Pryggia!" cried the second.


"It's the social event of the season!" proclaimed the third.


"Precisely," said Magrit. "Relax, Greyboar. I've timed this escapade so that just about everybody in the Embassy's going to be stinking drunk in the ballroom, all the way across the castle from where you're doing your business. Satisfied?"


"But will this Gauphin fellow agree to help us?" asked Ignace. "I mean, I don't see why he should. It's a bit risky for him, and I don't see where he gets anything out of it."


"Nonsense!" stated the fourth. "He'll gain the respect and admiration of the toiling poor of Pryggia, who'll certainly pass word of his deed through every hovel and garret of the city."


"Though, 'tis true, this respect and admiration won't translate into purchases of his paintings," commented the fifth.


"Which are priced beyond the reach of the common folk," elaborated the sixth.


"But whose displeasure, should he fail in his patriotic duty, will certainly be felt in the galleries and salons where his paintings are bought by the stinking rich," developed the first.


"The which salons and galleries will, every one of 'em, be picketed by the irate plebeian citizenry," predicted the second.


"Not to mention torched to the ground," foresaw the third.


"Gauphin's effigy burned in the public square," presaged the fourth.


"His name cursed by the masses," divined the fifth.


"Himself hunted like a dog through the—"


"Enough!" bellowed Magrit. "You've made the point. He'll help us. Now—any other questions? If not, let's—"


"A moment, madame," spoke Zulkeh. "I find myself distressed by an aspect of your plan."


"What's that?"


The wizard frowned. "As I understand it, the individuals now present who will actually participate in this enterprise consist solely of myself, my apprentice, Sirrah Greyboar and his agent. Am I correct?"


"Right on the mark," agreed Magrit.


Darker still grew the mage's frown. "Yet meseemeth that the individuals who stand most to gain from our adventure consist of yourself and these—these half-dozen disreputes here. At least, in a proximate sense."


"Right again," said Magrit.


Black as night was the sorcerer's frown. " 'Tis most unseemly, madame!—most unjust! Those who gain the most should not eschew the peril! Nay, fie on such witless notions! Did not the supreme philosophe Aristotle Sfondr—"


"Oh, shut up, you old fart!" roared Magrit. "I didn't say that we wouldn't be playing a role! We just won't be along on your part of the escapade. The four of you will need a diversion. Sure, and there'll be a wedding reception going on, and the booze'll be flowing like a river, but the Ozarine didn't get where it is by having stupid and careless officials. We've got to make sure that the attention of every single Ozarine and Pryggian muckymuck—not to mention their goons!—is riveted to the reception floor."


"We're going to crash the party!" hallooed Les Six in unison.


"I beg your pardon?" queried Zulkeh.


"You heard 'em," said Magrit, grinning widely. "Me and Les Six—and Wittgenstein, he's going to be the star of the show!—are going to attend the reception, representing, so to speak, the little people."


"Who've been most rudely excluded from the event," complained the sixth.


"For fear their gaucheries will disturb the tranquility of high society," explained the first.


"A fear well-founded!" cried the second.


"Indeed so!" agreed the third. "A most boorish lot, your unwashed toilers!"


"Not up on the finer points of etiquette, sad to say," contributed the fourth.


"Certain, in their crude ignorance, to behave improperly," elaborated the fifth.


"Here's to bad manners!" roared the sixth. This was apparently something in the way of a lowborn toast, for the six dregs of the earth raised their teacups in unison, pinkies politely extended like so many small cannons, and slurped noisily.


"I see," mused Zulkeh. His brow cleared. "A cunning stratagem, madame! For if there exist any on the face of the earth most suited to the task of turning a royal wedding reception into a shambles—a public scandal!—it is yourself and this canaille."


Magrit and Les Six nodded in acknowledgement of what was, actually, not a compliment. Then did Zulkeh's brow unclear, resuming its former furrowed darkness.


"And what of Sirrah Wolfgang, here? What is to be his part in the episode?" demanded the mage.


"Well, actually," responded Wolfgang, "I'm not playing any part in the affair—directly, that is to say."


"Then why are you here?" The wizard appeared most aggrieved.


"Well, to begin with, I'm the one who found out about the Rap Sheet. Just got here yesterday with the news. But that's a small thing. What's more important is the key role I play now." Here the giant exuded a vast smugness. "I'm the consultant, you see."


"I beg your pardon?"


"The consultant—the expert adviser." Then, seeing no comprehension on the wizard's face, the lunatic elaborated.


"You need expert advice on something like this, man! I mean, the whole idea's crazy—stealing a Rap Sheet from under the noses of the Cruds under cover of bashing a gala event! Who but a madwoman would come up with such a scheme? Who but madmen would agree to participate? And who then better to serve as your expert consultant," he concluded with pride, "than a demented bedlamite escaped from an insane asylum. At your service!"


Here Wolfgang rose and took a bow, then said: "And let me say—speaking from a lifetime of applying my twin powers of madness and amnesia—that in my capacity as expert consultant I approve wholeheartedly of the plan. It's crackbrained! Nutty as a walnut grove! Deranged beyond belief!"


He resumed his seat. "So it's bound to come off swimmingly."


The wizard did not seem entirely satisfied with this explanation. Indeed, to put it more accurately, Wolfgang's words appeared to reopen in his mind the entire question of participating in the exploit. But the witch Magrit was, as the gentle reader has perhaps already deduced, a fearsome bully, and she soon quelled the mage's incipient revolt. Then did she command the various persons present to retire for rest and refreshment, for the adventure ahead promised great exertions for all concerned.


The assembly dispersed, all going their separate ways. Yet, strangely enough, the lunatic Wolfgang arrested the dwarf as Shelyid was going out the door.


"A moment of your time, little one," said the giant.


Shelyid frowned, glanced at the back of his master, even now receding down the stairs.


"Oh, but, sir," apologized the gnome, "I can't talk now—I have to go get the master's sack from downstairs where we left it and—"


"Bother the sack!" interrupted the lunatic. "You'll have time enough. I just wanted to ask you—have you ever been on an adventure before?"


"Oh no, sir!" exclaimed Shelyid. "I'm just a dwarf, a miserable dwarf. I've never—" Shelyid paused, gulped. "Well, actually I'm real scared, although not as scared as I would have been a few weeks ago, maybe, but still—" He paused, gulped again, then said softly: "I just hope I don't let everybody else down."


"You'll do fine!" boomed Wolfgang. "Why, you've the makings of a daredevil, you do!"


"You think so?" asked Shelyid, not with any great conviction. "Uh, sir."


"Don't call me 'sir'—absurd, calling a certified psychotic a 'sir'! And yes, I know you'll take to adventuring like a fish to water. Just remember the two mottoes of all great crazy heroes."


"What're they?"


Wolfgang held up two fingers.


"One: Don't get even, go mad. Two: When the going gets tough, the tough go nuts."


"I'll try to remember. But I have to go!" And so saying, the dwarf scurried away.


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Framed