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The Mirror Merchant's Tales

Daniel Ausema's fiction and poetry have appeared and are forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Diabolical Plots, as well as previously in Daily Science Fiction. His high fantasy trilogy The Arcist Chronicles is published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy Spire City series. He lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rockies.

By law and tradition, everyone in the city of Malshennes carried a mirror at all times. The inhabitants of the city handed their fancy mirrors down from generation to generation. Frequent traders to the city would carry extras in their mule trains to re-use each time they returned. Visitors were required to purchase one from the merchants outside the city gate.
Mirror merchant Enjo didn't know the origin of the tradition, but he liked to sound wise to his customers as he charged them a premium to be allowed inside.
"The sky god gave us the rule," he might tell one group of travelers. "Each mirror is a piece of the sky, so in carrying it through the city, we remember the gifts of the gods that come to our city."
Or another time, "The tradition comes from the sea." Though Enjo has never seen the sea himself, living out here in a dry country. "As the sea reflects the blue above, we transport a sea of glass to this land of drought and tumbleweeds. Someday it will draw the goddess's eyes our way, and the sea will bless us with rain."
Stories of deities left him unsatisfied, so more often he invented the heroes of the past to entertain his customers.
"The hero Falla swore an oath to always watch behind her own back, and doing so saved the city from an attack by a mercenary army, hired by a corrupt councilman. We carry mirrors in her honor."
"The guardsman Torm once caught three thieves in a single night, using a mirror to peer around corners. Thieves in this city have had terrible luck ever since we all began carrying the mirrors."
"The first mirrors were gifts from a visiting ruler who carried them from his extensive mines. But while he was here, he disappeared into the mirrors, and we never learned where his land lay or how to bring him back. We keep the mirrors as a service to him and his retinue, so he can return someday, if he ever makes the attempt."
"When the rock formations marched against the city, the Wizard Whose Name is Forgotten crafted a gigantic mirror to shelter the entire city. The stones, made animate, laid siege to Malshennes for almost a year, and our ancestors lived on gathered sunlight. On the brightest day of the year, the sun grew so intense that it melted the mirrors, but before all was lost, a blinding flash petrified our attackers. You can see them out there still today. And these--these are the fragments of that mirror, cooled and hardened and still holding a touch of that wizard's power."
His customers thanked him for the stories, paid a handsome price, handled their cheap mirrors with reverent awe, and entered the city.
But words spoken over mirrors have a reciprocal power, and Enjo's stories reached into realms he knew nothing of, jealous realms that longed for the lands of deities and heroes and works of magical wonder.
Enjo began to see shadows within his mirrors, mists and movement out of the corner of his eye. Distracted, he stumbled over his stories, invented even wilder tales to cover his moments of distraction.
When voices rose from certain mirrors, he flipped the mirrors face downward. Visitors to the city shied away from his stand and bought mirrors from the other vendors. Enjo grew gaunt, though whether it was hunger because he was selling fewer mirrors or sleeplessness from the haunting of the voices in the mirrors, he couldn't say.
At first the mirror voices were unintelligible. They rose from the mirrored worlds within in vague syllables and unformed phonemes. In time, the sounds settled into words he could understand. They spoke of the sky god and the guardsman Torm, of the goddess of the sea and the hero Falla and wizards without names.
None of them real. Each of them merely his own inventions.
He stumbled away from his vendor table, dizzy and weak. Still the words sounded, over the other market sounds, over the distance that grew between him and his mirrors. The words reflected Enjo's stories back to him, calling on those imaginary beings to answer the mirrors' summoning.
A pair of travelers were climbing up the road toward the city. Enjo was hungry, desperate to sell something. Desperate to get rid of his mirrors entirely, if he could. He ran to the couple and said, "I have just the mirrors for you. Come to my stall, please."
His desperation no doubt showed through. A desperate seller was not a trustworthy one, but he couldn't disguise his straits. "Please. I have the exact mirrors you need, and for the two of you, cheap. Very cheap."
The two women exchanged a glance and let themselves be led over to Enjo's stall.
"These mirrors." Enjo ignored the voices within, talked over them as if they didn't exist. "These have been dedicated to the Heroes-to-Come. They are the masters of the mirror. Little is known of them. How many they are, their appearance, or how their powers will manifest."
He spoke the words directly over the two mirrors, and the glass clouded with his breath.
"So we insist on everyone carrying a mirror, so that when it's needed, the Heroes-to-Come will have their tools at hand. And when the beings within the mirrors attempt to rise, those heroes will wrest control from them. They will pull the beings from their home realms, defeat the threat they pose to ours, and confine them in new mirrors that have no escape."
The voices within grew quiet, stilled. The women shook their heads and kept their distance from him as if they feared his mad ravings would infect them. They crossed to a different vendor, but Enjo didn't care. He would perfect the story next time, and it would be his story, reflected downward into the reciprocal realms of the mirrors within.
And the voices would finally leave him alone.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021

Author Comments

One of the things I love about some of Lord Dunsany's stories is the sense of coming to an unknown city and learning its unique ways of life, interwoven with whatever the conflict or main storyline is. This is a story where I was trying to capture a sense of that same Dunsany mood.

- Daniel Ausema
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