O!

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“A soul?” The shopkeeper was a small, wiry man, with eyes the color of warm caramel. “I’m afraid not, ma’am. Not really in our line, you see.” He glanced at something under the counter before him, and called to the back room, “Rion, could you come out for a moment?”

“Your sign says ‘Sundries’,” said his client. A sleek, glossy brunette beneath the hood, her voluminous cloak did little to hide exaggerated curves.

“Busy,” came a moan from the back room.

“I believe our sign says ‘O!’, which is the name of the store. But the placard in the window does say ‘sundries’. That is, after all, what we sell. Great and powerful sundries, if I may say.” He beamed proudly. “I could sell you stoles, for example, made from the finest cirrus clouds. I have one in a nice loamy color that would set off that fair skin.”

“I don’t—”

“Or,” he continued smoothly, “I could sell you shoals. There are some good ones off the coast of Letsha.” He gestured vaguely west.

“Why would I need shoals? I said souls.

“Did you?” He cocked his head. “I could sell a couple of skulls, which might once have held a fine soul. Or,” he rushed as she tried to interrupt, “a few skåls in fine bronze, designed by northern artisans to hold the finest ale. Perhaps,” he held up a finger to forestall another interjection, “even some skirls of pipers to make music to drink the ale by. But no souls. I could,” he smiled, “sell you moles—beauty spots, you might call them, though your beauty needs no help.” She sighed as he concluded. “So, as you see, we do indeed sell sundries, just not the kind you want.”

“But I need a soul.” Her voice was higher pitched now, on the edge of strident.

“I don’t see why, ma’am. Most people are given a fine one at birth, and they’re remarkably difficult to lose. Attached, you see.” He turned his head. “Rion!”

A gasp from the back room: “Not  . . .  just  . . .  now.”

“I need one.”

“Surely you don’t need two souls? Even as  . . .  vivid a woman as yourself would hardly need two. And then there’s the problem of where to keep it. Your very attractive skull, you see, already has one. Where to put the other? In the ribcage? Lungs and heart are in the way. In the belly? Not for so trim a woman as yourself. In the bosom?” He smiled appreciatively. “There, madam might have room. But surely the space is used to best advantage already?”

“Listen, you little pipsqueak!” Her voice had definitely crossed the border to strident. “I need a soul. Can you sell me one or not?”

“Oh, most assuredly not, ma’am. For one thing, our trade is in much more exotic items. For another, there’s no demand. While we do occasionally receive a query about them, no one really needs an extra soul. Leaving aside golems.” He leaned forward “No supply of souls, either. Despite what the stories say, you can’t really lose yours. Shrink it, yes. Crack it, mutilate it, shave pieces off it, yes. Lose it completely, no. There’s always some little bit that grows back.”

“Believe me, mine is  . . . ” Her green eyes lit. “Wait! What was that you said, about shaving pieces off? Where can I get some of those?”

“Not really—”

“In your line, I know. Drop the patter, fool. Where can I get one?”

He sighed in his turn. “Well . . . ” He looked below the counter, turned fully toward the back room. “Rion!” He faced his client again. “So hard to get a good apprentice these days. If this one doesn’t shape up soon . . . ” He nodded toward the door. “If you really must have such a thing  . . .  though what you would do with a fragment of someone else’s soul I don’t know  . . .  you might try down at Malvento’s. Just a few doors down that way.” He pointed right. “Can’t miss it; you’ll see the shrunken heads out front. They might have something for you. I’ve never,” he shuddered, “been inside, myself.”

A hard green gaze held his eye for a long, cold moment, and then it and its author turned and glided to the door, a near circle with a vertical rail tangent to the left-hand edge.

“Other side,” he called, as the woman fumbled with gleaming brass at the rightmost periphery of the circle. “That’s the hinge.” The would-be customer was still for a moment, then glided just as smoothly to the other side and pulled the door in. She stepped over the curved sill, and tried to slam the door, only for the latch to click softly into place. “Quality hardware,” said the storekeeper smugly, “and other sundries.” He puffed out his chest. ” RION!

“Yes boss?” a large young man stooped under the curtain from the back room. “Sorry, got a little caught up back there.” The young man’s face was oddly pale for one with such dark brown skin.

“Well, it’s too late now,” the shopkeeper said, turning. “Honestly, Rion, you must at least try. This was a classic case of a difficult customer, and I wanted you to see how I handled her. Now she’s gone. How will you learn if you don’t watch?”

“Sorry, boss.” The apprentice looked down at the floor. “I’ll just go back, then.” He turned to go.

“Wait,” the shopkeeper ordered. “You look a little peaked. How’s the inventory going? Surely it shouldn’t take this long.”

“The  . . .  um,  . . .  the uh,  . . .  the inventory! Of course. Fine. Just fine. No problem. Almost done.”

“You sure? Some of those grimoires in the back can be a little heavy. Shouldn’t be a problem for a big boy like you!” He slapped the young man on the waist, that being as high as he could reach. “Long as you don’t open them, of course.”

“Of course,” the apprentice muttered.

“In any case, I’m sorry you missed this client. She wanted to buy a soul. A soul.” The other gaped. “Can you believe it? A soul. Any fool knows you can’t buy a soul. Where would it come from?” He looked at his apprentice for a response. “Eh? They don’t grow on trees, you know.”

“Don’t . . . ” the apprentice swallowed. “Don’t people sell them?”

The shopkeeper snorted. “Sell them. As if you could.” He shook his head as the young man gaped. “Sure, every now and then some fool tries, makes a deal with some demon or other. They’ll crush your soul; make you feel like it’s gone. Maybe scar it, cut off a slice or two. But they can’t actually take it from you, just like they can’t fulfill the promises they make. Even if they take a piece of soul, it will grow back, in time.”

“They can’t? They do?”

“Oh sure, given the right conditions. If you made such a foolish deal, you’d still be in thrall to the demon, of course. Still damned to eternal torture, etc. But with your soul attached.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Off you go then.”

Rion scurried away, bending his head to pass under the doorway and past the curtain. He emerged into a maze of shelves and boxes, and turned immediately to the left, where the shelves grew bowed with dusty volumes. He raced down the narrow passage, heedless of fragile and costly items as he zigged and zagged through the storeroom.

He emerged at last into a small open space. Tall candles flickered, illuminating complex, angular diagrams on the floor. In the center of one, a horrid shape of fangs and bristles and horns oozed murk into a pool of darkness steaming around its base.

“Back at last,” it hummed. “Took your time, but no harm done.” A handful of fangs rearranged into a grimace. “Knew you were too wise a man to pass up a deal like this.” A finger of murk protruded past the first chalk line, where the demon had been rubbing with one wide hoof. “Once in a lifetime chance to gain the skills of a master trader.”

Shivering, Rion stepped cautiously into the center of the other diagram, knelt. His shaky hand picked up the chalk, skittered it across the break in the outer line. Then sifted yellow powder for the middle line. And with a sharp knife, the blood for the inner circle. It dripped slowly, the drops puddling in a not very straight line until they merged with the other pools, now almost dry.

He turned to face the demon. “Sorry,” he said, scanning the dank tome before him, “deal’s off.” He spoke the words of ritual, made the mystic passes, pulled off a fingernail, and, after a moment of intense agony, burnt it. At every step, the demon grew more frantic, throwing itself against the thin spot in the diagram around it. Just as it broke through the inner circle, it began to shrink and waver, and before its murk had washed away the second barrier it vanished entirely, leaving behind only a fading echo of anger. In the storeroom, the hulking apprentice clamped a shaking hand around his bleeding finger. “No souls,” he said with a shudder of relief. “Not in our line,” he mumbled, and fainted.

At the front of the store, the dying sun sent shadows looming against the window. A heavy hand crashed against the door. The shopkeeper straightened and put the cloth back on a crystal globe under the counter. Reaching into his cloak’s deep pockets, one hand snugged an expensive ‘Demon-Safe’ charm back into its box, and the other powered down a top of the line Exorcisor.

“Other side,” he called out, just as the door swung in to reveal a diminutive green-clothed figure.

“I’ve lost me rainbow,” it said. “What’ve you got?”

end article

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B. Morris Allen

About B. Morris Allen

B. Morris Allen writes the occasional speculative fiction story from a base on the green and rainy Oregon coast.