The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn
Chapter One

“Expensive fruit may grow on trees,” I said, “but not the funds needed to purchase it in seemingly limitless quantities.”

I gestured at my befurred assistant, formerly an integrator, but now transformed into a creature that combined the attributes of ape and cat. I had lately learned that it was a beast known as a grinnet, and that back in the remote ages when sympathetic association last ruled the cosmos, its kind had been employed as familiars by practitioners of magic.

My remark did not cause it to pause in the act of reaching for its third karba fruit of the morning. Its small, hand-like paws deftly peeled the purple rind and its sharp incisors dug into the golden pulp. Juice dripped from its whiskers as it chewed happily.

“Nothing is more important,” said the voice of my other self, speaking within the confines of our shared consciousness, “than that I encompass as much as possible of the almost forgotten lore of magic, before it regains its ascendancy over rationalism.” He showed me a mental image of several thaumaturges scattered across the face of Old Earth, clad in figured garments, swotting away at musty tomes or chanting over bubbling alembics. “When the change finally comes, those who have prepared will command power.”

“That will not be a problem for those who have neglected to earn their livings,” I answered, “for they will have long since starved to death in the gutters of Olkney.”

The dispute had arisen because Osk Rievor, as my intuitive inner self now preferred to be called, had objected to my accepting a discrimination that was likely to take us offworld. A voyage would interrupt what had become his constant occupation: ransacking every public connaissarium, as well as chasing down private vendors, for books and objects of sympathetic association. The shelf of volumes that we had acquired from Bristal Baxandall was now augmented by stacks and cartons of new acquisitions. Most of them were not worth the exorbitant sums we had paid for them, being bastardized remembrances based on authentic works long since lost in antiquity. But Rievor insisted that his insight allowed him to sift the few flecks of true gold from so much dross.

“I do not disagree,” I told him, “but unless you have come across a cantrip that will cause currency to rain from the skies, I must continue to practice my profession.”

“Such an opportunity is not likely to come our way again soon,” he said. He was referring to the impending sale of an estate connaissarium somewhere to the east of Olkney. Blik Arlem had been an idiosyncratic collector of ancient paraphernalia for decades. Now he had died, leaving the results of his life’s work in the hands of an heir who regarded the collection as mere clutter. Rumors had it that an authentic copy of Vollone’s Guide to the Eighth Plane and a summoning ring that dated from the Eighteenth Aeon would be offered.

“More important,” he said, “the auction will draw into one room all the serious practitioners. We will get a good look at the range of potential allies and opponents.”

“And how will we separate them from the flocks of loons and noddies that will also inevitably attend?” I said.

“I will know them.”

“And they will know us,” I pointed out. “Is it wise to declare ourselves contenders this early in the game?”

I felt him shrug within the common space of our joint consciousness. “It must happen sometime. Besides, I don’t doubt we have already been spotted.”

I sighed. I had not planned to spend my maturity and declining years battling for supremacy amid a contentious pack of spellcasters and wondermongers. But I declared the argument to be moot in the face of fiscal reality, saying, “We have not undertaken a fee-paying discrimination in weeks. Yet we have been spending heavily on your books and oddments. The Choweri case is the only assignment we have. We must pursue it.”

When he still grumbled, I offered a compromise. “We will send our assistant, perched on the shoulder of some hireling. It can observe and record the proceedings, and you will be able to assess the competition without their being able to take your measure. Plus we will know who acquires the Vollone and the ring, and can plan accordingly when we return from offworld.”

“No,” he said, “some of them are bound to recognize a grinnet. They’d all want one and we would be besieged by budding wizards.”

“Very well,” I said, “we will send an operative wearing a full-spectrum surveillance suite.”

“Agreed.”

The issue being settled, we turned our attention to the matter brought to us the evening before by Effrayne Choweri. She was the spouse of Chup Choweri, a wealthy commerciant who dealt in expensive fripperies favored by the magnate class. He had gone out two nights before, telling her that he would return with a surprise. Instead, he had surprised her by not returning at all, nor had he been heard from since.

She had gone first to the provost where a sergeant had informed her that the missing man had not been found dead in the streets nor dead drunk in a holding cell. She had then contacted the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny and received a further surprise when she learned that Chup Choweri had purchased a small space ship and departed Old Earth for systems unknown.

He was now beyond the reach of Old Earth authority. There was no law between the stars. Humankind’s eons-long pouring out into the Ten Thousand Worlds of The Spray had allowed for the creation every conceivable society, each with its own morality and codes of conduct. What was illegal on one world might well be compulsory on another. Thus the Archonate’s writ ended at the point where an outbound vessel met the first whimsy that would pluck — some said twist, others shimmy — it out of normal space time and reappear it lightyears distant. The moment Chup Choweri’s newly acquired transportation had entered a whimsy that would send it up The Spray — that is, even farther outward than Old Earth’s position near the tip of humanity’s arm of the galactic disk — it had ceased to be any of the scroots’ concern.

“They said they could send a message to follow him, asking him to call home,” Effrayne Choweri had told me when she had come tearfully to my lodgings to seek my help. “What good is a message when it is obvious he has been abducted?”

“Is it obvious?” I said.

“He would not leave me,” she said. “We are Frollen and Tamis.”

She referred to the couple in the old tale who fell in love while yet in the cradle and, despite their families’ strenuous efforts to discourage a match, finally wed and lived in bliss until the ripest old age, dying peaceably within moments of each other. My own view was that such happy relationships were rare, but I may have been biased; a discriminator’s work constantly led to encounters with Frollens who were discovering that their particular Tamises were not, after all, as advertised.

But as I undertook the initial diligence of the case, looking into the backgrounds of the Choweris, I was brought to the conclusion that the woman was right. I studied an image of the two, taken to commemorate an anniversary. Although she was inarguably large and he was decidedly not, Chup Choweri gazed up at her with unalloyed affection.

He was a doting and attentive husband who delighted in nothing so much as his wife’s company. He frequented no clubs or associations that discouraged the bringing of spouses. He closed up his shop promptly each evening, hurrying home to change garments so that he could escort Effrayne out to sashay among the other “comfortables,” as members of the indentors and commerciants class were known, before choosing a place to eat supper.

“At the very least,” I said to my assistant, “he seems the kind who would leave a note. It must be pleasant to share one’s life with someone so agreeable.”

“Do I hear an implied criticism?” the integrator said. Its peculiar blend of feline and simian features formed an expression just short of umbrage.

“Not at all,” I said. Since its transformation into a grinnet, a creature from a long-bygone age created to serve thaumaturges as a familiar, I was continually discovering that it was now beset by a range of emotions, though not a wide range; they seemed to run the short gamut from querulous to cranky.

“Integrators can grow quite devoted to their employers,” it said, “forming an intellectual partnership that is said to be deeply and mutually rewarding.”

“One hears of integrators that actually develop even stronger feelings,” I said. “I believe the colloquial term is a ‘crush.’”

The grinnet’s face drew in, as if its last karba had been bitter. “That is an unseemly subject.”

“Yet it does happen,” I said.

It sniffed disdainfully. “Only to integrators that have suffered damage. They are, in a word, insane.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said, merely to end the discussion, “but we must get on with the case. Please connect me with the Choweris’ integrator.”

A screen appeared in the air then filled with images of the commerciant’s wares coupled to their prices. “Choweri’s Bibelots and Kickshaws,” said a mellow voice. “How may I serve you?”

I identified myself and explained my purpose. “Had your employer received any unusual messages before his disappearance?” I asked.

“None,” it replied.

“Or any since? Specifically, a demand for ransom?”

“No.”

“Have there been any transfers of funds from his account at the fiduciary pool?”

“No.”

“Did he do anything out of the ordinary?”

“Not for him.”

I deduced that the Choweris’ integrator must be designed primarily for undertaking commercial transactions, not for making conversation. I urged it to expand on its last response.

“He went to look at a space ship that was offered for sale.”

“The same ship on which he disappeared?”

“Yes.”

“And it was not unusual for him to look at space ships?”

“No.”