Cang rubs his chin. “I seek an object of beauty, to share with the fairer sex. Jewelery, perhaps,” he says.
“There is an exquisite piece upon the wall, there,” the wizard replies, gesturing vaguely with her elbow.
Cang follows her movement to a shiny, geometric object, composed entirely of intersecting planes. It seems to hum and glow from its place of pride upon the wall. He swallows. “And you are certain I may avail myself of this, and share it with my lady love?”
“Don’t touch that, Cang,” Shyan says.
“But she said I could have it.”
“We’ve already asked enough of the kindly wizard,” she says. “Can’t you feel the weight of the bar in your ruck?”
“Well, yes,” Cang says. “But that was payment for liberated chemicals. Here, I seek something beautiful for Cangette.”
Shyan rolls her eyes.
“Wizard good. Small boons for village folk.” Abia sighs, and for a long moment, listens to the sounds of Fassn’s dental work. “Witch bad,” she continues. “Curse crops, cause drought. Village folk burn.” She watches Shyan closely. Shyan meets her gaze, then sweeps her eyes to encompass Abia’s loose, shimmery robes, her piled, braided hair.
“So?” Shyan says.
“So,” Abia replies.
Shyan grins, turns her attention to Ulxurix working in Fassn’s mouth. Behind her, Cang studies some glittery trinkets on her shelves, his fingers subtly waggling as though anxious to grab something, anything.
“Careful what you choose there, dearie,” says Ulxurix, without looking away from her labour. “Souvenirs make the best magic.”
“Why should I lie to a creature who dwells in a lighthouse? Observe her quivering tattoos. This is the work of a witch,” Cang says plainly, his nose up.
Ulxurix replies, ostensibly to Cang, though her gaze remains fixed on Abia. “But witches are awful folks, working charms and hexes. Old Ulxurix would never do so.”
“What about that spark we saw? And you turned soup into gold,” Shyan says.
“The work of wizardry, nothing more.”
The gang turns to Abia — even Fassn, who loses a tool or two from his jaw, which clatter to the floor.
Abia feels the weight of expectation settling upon her as her friends await her verdict.
“Not witch,” Abia says slowly. “Wizard.”
A palpable relief sweeps over Ulxurix. “See?” she says, and returns to Fassn’s dental work. “Your gums look rather healthy. Do you floss?”
“Nope!” comes Fassn’s cheerful reply.
Shyan moves over to Abia, careful to keep her attention on the scene before them. She says in a low voice, “What’s the difference between a wizard and a witch, anyway?”
The object in Cang’s hands grows hot. By degrees, it quickly shoots up until his skin sizzles and cooks. He lets out a yelp and whips his hands back, letting the glowing thing from Ulxurix’s desk topple to the floor. When it hits the ground, its internal glow flickers, fades away.
“Looking for a souvenir, dearie?” asks Ulxurix, cutting the stunned silence that’s fallen over the room. The wizard’s tattoos shift and swirl. “Something to remember old Ulxurix by?”
Cang wheels on her, his best market-day grin straining on his face. “Of course mum! Not often one has the opportunity to visit the Gabjeoš lighthouse, and its famous witch.”
At this, Ulxurix fumes. Her tattoos shift quickly in hue, from a pale blue to a steaming crimson. “Witch?” she saays. “I am no witch. Am I, Abianarin?”
Abia looks between her and Cang, but says nothing.
Fassn, his mouth still full of dental implements, says, “No witch! Cang, say she’s not a witch!”
“Obviously,” says the wizard Ulxurix. “Books are for tasting! But first, be a good boy and stay still.
“Deal,” says Fassn.
Abia opens Muthugran’s Runes with great trepidation. The heavy pages seem to resist her efforts, and only after a brief struggle is she able to glimpse within the book. The pages are the colour of clotted cream, the text a vibrant ochre that, she shudders to think, could once have been blood.
She’s surprised to find ledger lines and stroke diagrams, perfectly legible thanks to Ulxurix’s enchantment. The text and illustrations defined several rudimentary runes and magical squiggles. Abia finds herself tracing the shapes in the air with her forefinger.
Suddenly, an alarm blares. It’s a shrieking mechanical bird, on a perch of brass. It thrusts its long metal neck at Cang. All eyes follow it to him, where he is frozen mid-pace, with a crystalline object from Ulxurix’s writing desk in his hands.
Cang blinks, opens his mouth, closes it. He clears his throat, and begins, “Well, you see, the thing is…”
“Can’t read it,” Abia says. Everyone turns to her; even Fassn lifts his head to gape. “All symbols and swirls,” she adds.
“Nonsense!” says the wizard, leaving Fassn’s side. Slim tools jut from his lips like farming gear standing up in firm soil. Ulxurix pushes the book closer to Abia, then traces her forefinger over the largest shapes on its cover. At the tip, sparks fizz and crack, leaving a thin trail of smoke. As she traces, the wizard vocalizes phonemes for Abia, slowly working out their sounds aloud.
Abia worked her lips to follow along, the sound growing more and more resonant, the questioning looks from her compatriots receding further into a vague haze.
When the wizard had traced all of the shapes on the book’s cover, and the lighthouse smelled of fried sage, Abia came back to herself. She let her eyes run over the shapes, which now had an undeniable phonetic association.
“What is it, Abia?” Shyan asks.
“Muthugran’s Runes,” Abia says. “Edition one. In original Isi.”
Fassn perks up again. “Can I taste it?”
“Can I taste it?” Fassn asks, the sounds mangled by his wide-open mouth and the tools jutting from it.
“I’m afraid not, dear,” says the wizard.
“But I love tasting things,” he replies.
“I know,” she says, patting his hand in a patronizing, reassuring way. “I fear that bubbling goo is not for mortal lips.”
“I’m not mortal,” Fassn says. “I have wings, see?” He flaps the fragments of scapular.
“Very nice,” says the wizard, in a humouring tone. Cang rolls his eyes.
Abia moves slowly, though Ulxurix is not looking directly at her. She examines the bookshelf, squints at their spines. In an elaborately-decorated typeface, they declaim their contents in a language she doesn’t recognize. The volume given her by the wizard sits heavy in her hands. She replaces it on the shelf, but the wizard’s voice again arrests her. Though Ulxurix hunches over Fassn’s mouth, peering deeply into it and making tiny moves with her tools, she says, “What’s the matter, dear? Refusing a gift from an old lady?”