"When you have the upper hand, use it."
Coughing, the Pervect Ten turned to face me. I had to admit I felt a little sorry for them. I'd made the mistake of being at ground zero more than once when using flash powder, and the effect was lung-searing. I preferred to be well away by the time it deployed. Gleep came trotting over to me, expecting a pat on the head for a job well done. He got it.
"Who the hell is the tot?" the eldest demanded, waving her arms to clear the air.
"Watch who you're calling a tot!" the little one grumbled. "Yeah, who are you?"
"Greetings, ladies," I repeated, spreading my hands and floating higher in the air on a wisp of thought. "I am Skeeve the Magnificent."
"You?" the angry one declared. "You're going to be Skeeve the Grease Spot when I get through with you!"
I threw a finger toward Bunny, who turned Bytina to face me. My face, magnified about sixty times, appeared on the wall of the chamber, and my voice echoed out of the computer on the desk.
"Halt!" I shouted. The very volume caused them to stop in their tracks.
"I serve the Wuhses, and they have empowered me to deal with you. So deal you shall!"
"I'll tear him apart," the heavy-browed one snarled.
"Me first," snarled the one in the leather skirt. They all started moving towards me, claws out.
"Don't!" I shouted, as they made towards me. "Look at the walls around you. My dragon reset the wards so the flames are facing you. I know that Pervects are vulnerable to fire. Do not try to cross the threshold."
"That's our spell!" the robed one protested.
"Formation, ladies!" the eldest one ordered. "Let's wipe this snotty little brat out of existence."
They all joined hands and closed their eyes. I braced myself. I had watched them send a crowd of a thousand Wuhses each back to their individual homes with a single spell. They were the most powerful magikal force I had ever encountered. If they could break through my preparations I was finished. I waited ... waited ... waited ... then ...
Each of them opened one eye and peered at the others.
"Someone is not concentrating!" the eldest chided them.
"Yes, we are," the elegant one complained. "Something's wrong!"
The leather-skirted Pervect pointed at me. "He ... he's dispelling our magik! All of it!"
"How could he?" the one in the bustier said. "He's a Klahd."
"A Klahd who knows one more trick than you," I replied, loftily. "That's all that it takes, really. While you were bumbling around in my obfuscation spell..."
"You mean choking on your flash powder, sonny," the elder interrupted me. "We may be impressed by your tenacity, but we've seen the sleight-of-hand tricks before." "Fine," I shrugged. "I don't mind if you see the mechanism of my trap now that you 're inside it. The anti-magik shell comes from the jail on Scamaroni. You can't blip out of there, because neither spells nor magik items work inside it."
They gawked at me. The skirt-suited one recovered her wits first. "It was your voice we heard that night. You were there!"
"Uh-huh," I acknowledged, pleased that they were finally starting to catch on.
"What do you want?"
"I want you to cease your unfair control over the Wuhses. They are tired of living under your yoke and having you rob them blind and make them work for you as slaves to make you rich. They want you to pack up and leave, and stop draining their treasury. Otherwise, you can stay here. We'll even shove food through the barriers for you, but won't take them down unless you meet certain conditions."
The one in the coverall gawked openly at me. "Making us rich? You've got the wrong slaves here, pal. We can't even collect our fee!"
It was my turn to goggle. "What fee?"
The elegant one groaned, as if I was too stupid to live. "These fools hired us to work for them. They brought us in as financial managers. Our assignment was to straighten out the kingdom's cash flow problems. These moronic Wuhses have been undercutting our efforts at every turn. Did they tell you that? Did they tell you that we've managed to get them out of debt and keep them out of debt, but only by scaring them into submission? That we were able to stay on top of their out of control spending up until the last three weeks, when someone has gotten in our way every time we were going to get ahead."
"We've been here over two years," the littlest one moaned. "If they'd just cooperated we would have finished with our contract and been on our way in six months. That's what it was supposed to take." "Don't talk to him," their magician complained. "He's just here to cheat us and throw us out."
"No, I'm not," I goggled, honestly appalled. "Tell me about it."
"Not under these circumstances," the eldest one told me firmly. "We don't deal under siege."
I lowered myself to the ground and headed toward the door.
"No, Master Skeeve," Zol called to me. "Don't go to their level. Maintain your advantage."
But I was through listening to his advice. What the Per-vect Ten said made sense. I had observed from the beginning that the Wuhses dealt in a sidelong and cowardly fashion, except Wensley.
Wensley! I reached into my pocket and drew out the globe. The little figure in it jumped up and down. "Stop! Stop! Stop!"
"How do I release him?" I asked, holding up the sphere.
"Just release the wards," the robed Pervect gestured.
With my mind I opened a little door in the side of the glass ball. Suddenly, Wensley was beside me. I steadied him as he staggered, then he rushed toward the Pervects. I ran after him through the blinding flash of light.
"Hey, stop!" I shouted.
But I was too late. Wensley threw himself on his knees in front of the eldest Pervect.
"Dear lady," he pleaded, "I most humbly apologize."
"What is this?" I demanded. "Wensley, what are you doing?"
He looked up at me. "I had no idea how hard we were making it for them. We are not used to having anyone give us direct orders. Let us say that... we didn't take it well."
"I'll say, sonny!" the elder declared. "You've driven us clean out of our minds with all of your nickling and ... you say you're sorry?"
"I am, truly," the Wuhs vowed. "I'll do anything I can to help make it right." "Well, for a start, you can tell your hired gun here to stop interfering in our business ventures!" the skirt-suited one insisted. She walked over and whacked me on the chest with the back of her hand. "We're doing all this for your benefit. You people have been making it almost impossible for us to live up to the terms of our agreement. We're businesswomen. We have a reputation across thirty different dimensions of being the Pervects to come to when you need something done right in the minimum possible time, and you're doing a hell of a job of undoing years of hard work in a matter of weeks."
"I'm really sorry about the misunderstanding," I informed them, rubbing the sore place with my fingertips. "I didn't realize until I saw one used that those Pervomatics really were food choppers. But if it's so straightforward, why were you concealing from the Wuhses what they were working on? It looked pretty suspicious."
"Because these sheep, in case you haven't noticed, have all the morals of jackdaws," the eldest sighed, sinking down into a chair. "They'll take anything and rationalize that it's okay as long as no one else knows they're taking it. But why didn't you come to us in the first place and just ask us what we're doing, instead of putting us out of business in two dimensions?"
I heard a contrite little noise behind me, but I ignored it. I had been wrong enough times on my own in my life that I didn't have to ruin a second reputation to make my explanation.
"I got some advice I didn't understand properly," I shrugged. "It's all my fault."
"Don't let him take the blame, dear Pervects," Zol put in from behind me. "He came to me, and I inadvertently gave him a wrong steer. Please forgive us all."
I glanced over my shoulder. The little gray man stood in the doorway flanked by Bunny and Tananda.
The skirt-suited one pointed a finger. "Aren't you Zol Icty?" The Kobold bowed. "I have that honor."
She smiled, showing four-inch long teeth, an expression which was repeated on the faces of all of the Pervect Ten. "We have all your books."
"I'm sorry about your workroom," I told them, as the female in the business suit broke out a keg of wine to toast the new spirit of cooperation. "I think the alteration may be permanent. You can't do magik in here any more."
"As long as the computer runs, who cares?" the little one declared. "I'm Caitlin, by the way. I've been checking the archives on you around the dimensions. You've got a pretty hot reputation, for a Klahd."
"Thanks, I think," I replied.
Tananda shifted impatiently. "Hey, handsome, are you going to let us in, or do we have to stand here and watch you drink in front of us?"
I had to transit through the brilliant flash of light twice, once to open the fire spell outward, and once to accompany the rest of my companions into the room.
"Tananda's one of my former partners," I introduced my associates. "Bunny's my administrative assistant."
The tallest Pervect eyed Bunny curiously. "Aren't you a beauty queen?"
"I was on one occasion," Bunny explained. "I'm really an accountant."
"You are?" Oshleen continued in astonishment.
I remembered her now. (For those of you who missed our previous encounter please see that fine volume Myth-Told Tales, available from your finer stockists.)
"So am I. What do you think about secured investment in growth industry?"
"Depends on the track record of the companies involved," my assistant replied, instantly falling into the se- cret language of finance. "Are we talking seasonal or year-round value?"
I instantly lost track of the thread of conversation. Money management was not my long suit.
Vergetta, the eldest, waved an admonitory finger at Gleep, who regarded her with utter innocence.
"He's not going to ... you know ... again, is he?"
"Oh, no," I assured her, mentally crossing my fingers. I exchanged glances with Gleep. I think I saw understanding in those round blue eyes that now was not the time to upset the delicate balance.
"Good. You I remember," she turned to Tananda. "You and a couple of big lugs were the ones who ruined our plan in the Bazaar."
"You bet we did," Tananda declared, holding her ground, "extortion's not welcome there."
Vergetta sighed. "It wasn't supposed to go that far. We were just offering services. You think it's easy, after spending a day arguing with creditors, to go and clean a dozen offices and shops? You think I like scrubbing toilets?"
"But, five gold coins a week?"
"Pervects always charge top coin for their services," Zol explained. "They believe they're worth it. You should have paid it."
"Too much," Tananda disagreed, shaking her head. "We did the right thing putting you out of business there."
Vergetta patted me on the arm. "You're right not to follow this little guy's advice, Sonny. But it was very clever, what you did to us. You could be a Pervect. You, too, Honey." She held out her wine glass to me for a refill.
"I'm in your debt," Wensley told her, leaping to get the carafe off the table and fill it for her. He hadn't left her side since he had been freed from the snow globe. "I'd like to help undo the mess I made."
Vergetta didn't hesitate. She frowned at him. "From what we've been able to find out about your hired gun here, this guy is Mr. Connected. We need to dump all the merchandise the two of you made impossible to sell."
"Me?" Wensley squeaked. "Why?"
"Because you hired him, Bubby. If he's got any advice to pass along, you have to ask for it."
Wensley turned beseeching eyes to me. "Will you, Master Skeeve?"
I felt guilty about my part in the enterprise, too, so I thought hard for a moment. "Why not the Bazaar?" I suggested.
"Why not?" Vergetta echoed. "Because your little Trollop friend there got us banned for life."
"And I'd have done it for longer, too," Tananda growled, her cat's eyes glowing. "You should have seen the black eye she gave me! And poor Chumley was sore for a week! Nobody beats up on my big brother but me!"
"Only two of you have been banned," I reminded them, thoughtfully. "Besides, you don't need to have a shop in the Bazaar to have your goods sold there. I know the Merchants' Association. If I put your exclusive contract out to bid they'll be undercutting one another in no time. The Deveels will love Pervomatics and ... and ..."
"Storyteller goggles," Monishone, the robed one, put in shyly. "My invention."
"That name's got to get changed," Paldine, the business-suited female, interjected briskly. "I'll come with you to handle the negotiations. When? We want to get some black ink back in the ledgers."
"As soon as we're done here," I assured her.
"We could have used that Bub Tube," Oshleen was saying passionately to Bunny. "We needed it. I hoped to use it to instill a little responsibility into these Wuhses. What do you do when everyone seems to agree, and when they don't they just sneak off and do what they want? Perverts are much more straightforward. We just tell someone what we want, and if they don't do it, we tear their heads off."
"Don't play dumb with me," Tenobia was telling a wide-eyed Gleep, who was gnawing on a table leg. "I was a dragon-tamer when I used to work for the circus. You guys are much more intelligent than you let anyone know."
Eavesdropping with interest, Zol took out his little notebook and began to tap away on his button board. It looked as though Coley had been restored to his original condition. He even had a new red metal band around his middle.
"Say," Caitlin perked up, noticing the device in his hands. "Isn't that an InfoDump Mark 16?"
"Yes, it is," Zol beamed. "His name is Coley." With pride, he put it into the littlest Pervect's hands and began to explain all its features. In turn, she showed him her computer. We were all getting along so well, we had forgotten about the object of our presence there.
Oshleen and Paldine put their heads together over a spreadsheet. The two of them compared notes with several of the others, all of whom seemed pleased. They brought the proposed figures to Vergetta.
"Very nice," she nodded. "What with our projected earnings we'll be able to buy out our contracts and go home in no time. Even the Wuhses will prosper, since they're doing the manufacture. I've been dying to throw out the line of tea towels for a year."
"We could be home in time for the spring fashion line," Oshleen sighed.
"But what about us?" Wensley asked.