by G. R. Pellio
Oberon the Eighth, forty-second cousin (once removed) of Auberon (that Auberon), settled in to his nest in the warm darkness of the utility closet off the Universal Systems’ main lobby. Having fallen from grace some time ago, he had made his way, much reduced (once he’d stood tall and fine; now he hunched, veined and crackling as a fall leaf), away from whatever portal his uncle had tossed him through. Scurrying through meadows, sleeping in bogs and forests, then finally (what luck) to this tidy, warm spot with somewhere nearby (what greater luck) a door home (much to do before he could even think to return).
Summers passed. Winters, too, though he hardly could sense the difference in here. He marked seasons not as he once did (by weather), but by the wishes and favors he traded with the creatures who visited him. The passage of years he now marked with the more memorable wishes he’d granted, and (even better) the more memorable boons he’d extracted in exchange.
When he’d first arrived, a massive thing throwing off (almost) unending warmth hulked in the closet. (He’d later hear some servant call it a god-damned water heater on one of the occasions it stopped throwing off its (almost) unending warmth.) No trouble to find space for his nest (a web of small enchantments that hid him well), though. He’d been merely the size of a largish spider back then.
The first to find him shrieked in surprise and slammed the door shut upon seeing his tiny, grinning face. By scent, he knew the creature spent most of each day in the great, windowed room just beyond the door. He waited until the day the lobby-creature opened the door again. Again he smiled. Again it shrieked, though not so loud this time. And it remained there, at the threshold. He broadened his grin, gave a flirtatious waggle of his nose. The creature laughed. Oberon chuckled and danced.
Before, he’d have quailed in horror at the imagined indignity if anyone suggested he (HE!) could come so low (mumming and dancing for a slow-witted thing such as this). Several winters dodging the beaks of finches and summers picking himself loose from spider webs had blotted such proud thoughts from his mind. And this seemed a fairly tasty opportunity indeed. Worth a little mumming and dancing (after all, no one who mattered could see).
He came to a pretty bow. “What dost thy heart and whole body most desire?” Oberon asked, pushing into his voice some of the sunlight and nectar (meager gifts, but gifts nonetheless) he’d gathered up in his summers spent living rough.
“Hunh?” said the creature.
Oberon (who (before) had brokered more than one treaty on behalf of his forty-second cousin (once removed)) knew the value of diplomacy, and kept his face blank at this creature’s apparent idiocy.
“Wish,” he said with what he knew was an inviting smile. “I can grant you a wish.”
“Oh,” said the slow thing blinking before him. “I don’t have to catch you first?”
He knew to give a coy giggle. “No, no, charming thing,” he said. “Now. Let me hear your wish.”
The creature thought, scratching itself absently.
“Love,” it said, having reached a decision. “I want Ward McDonough to fall in love with me.”
Oberon considered. Then, his assessment (calculations) done, he pushed the wish to the creature standing before him. In return (for a price must always be paid) he tugged away the beauty it did not have now but would grow into (now would have grown into) in a decade. The creature flinched, but remained unaware of the price it had paid (would pay). And it would remain unaware the rest of its days, never knowing what might have been.
The door shut. He felt this dollop of beauty settle over him. It had been a good choice from the small assortment possibilities the creature had displayed, he thought. He smiled, curled up behind the tank, warm and happy. He would grow tall and beautiful (as he was before). He would return (and there would be no more before, just Oberon, tall and fine, and Uncle (who had laughed and cast him out) would get his due). He would be ready the next time the door opened.
Time passed. More creatures found him. Many, startled or afraid, slammed the door. But some did not flee. For the few in which he could see something useful, he offered a wish. He offered all those a boon and some did make a wish. When they did, he exacted his price.
In the long stretches in his nest near the god-damned water heater, he imagined himself pulling (with great skill) gifts rich to trade as wishes or (even better) gifts to make him (once again) tall and fine, or (best of all) gifts he could give (use on) Uncle.
But he’d little practice in the practicalities of wish granting before. (That was the bailiwick of lesser houses.) Many of the first few dozen boons took more from him than he managed to extract in return. But with a few hundred wishes he’d developed the knack to gauge a maximal exchange. That first creature had been a bit of luck. Her (for he’d learned to tell these creatures’ sexes) future beauty would have been uncommon fine (among her kind), and he’d used it to survive a long run of bad and mediocre bargains as he learned his people’s most well-known craft.
Many times he traded a bit of luck to anxious young creatures (wearing garb he’d later hear named “interview suit”) for the height they might have grown into as full adults. From the size of a spider to wren to house cat to fisher cat to panther and on, he increased in stature each time.
He granted love and wealth, jobs and houses, beauty and sex. Once he granted dimples. Several times he erased freckles. When he (finally) had the knack of it, he grew rapidly in size and beauty, snatching in exchange the possibilities there for him to take.
In time his corner behind the god-damned water heater (which once had seemed so spacious) became cramped and tight. But the portal home sang to him somewhere nearby (he was not big or fine enough (or ready enough) yet to step through). He still hunched and grinned too goblin-like to walk about openly without causing a stir (oh how far he’d fallen (been cast down) and how far he still had to claw back up). He couldn’t leave the god-damned water heater and its closet (and the nearby but undiscovered portal home) yet.
He nudged, and the last bit of rust in the tank gave way. The flood was impressive. Still small, he hid above what he’d heard called “the drop ceiling” as two servants hauled away the god-damned water heater and replaced it with something much more small and tidy (a tankless), leaving him what seemed a ballroom compared with his previous space.
In his delight, his powers seemed to increase (or perhaps it was that great wallop of luck he’d sucked from a fool who’d wished for power). Whatever the cause, his ability to sense and draw out what he most needed to reach his goal (for he’d not been sustained through all these indignities by a mere will to live) became like a razor crossed with a hawk. He could excise the full meat of the virtues he desired from each wish maker.
Some asked for health. Many asked for a job. One asked for enough money to feed his family, keep them warm and housed, in good clothes. From that sensible soul Oberon (sensing in the man nothing to directly help him return to glory at court) took his and his wife’s ability to choose when to have babies. In later years the man would talk to colleagues in the lobby (and Oberon could overhear) of rounds of IVF, then, when he and his wife were feeling too old and exhausted by their teenager, surprise triplets.
Only one wish Oberon would never grant. He only ever took that quality. The ones carrying it would come to him, intense, burning with shame and anger over injustices (real and imagined, tiny and great). He’d never grant what their heart and whole body desired. That he stored up for himself, granting instead their second-best wishes.
And so, he grew until he could look his interlocutors eye to eye, then found himself looking down at most of them from a comfortable height. He grew handsome and fine. This is right, he said to himself. This is almost as it should be. I am almost as I should be.
He grew even more in beauty and charm, until a point when, upon opening the door, no creature he startled could react with anything but a surprised smile and then stammer out some hopeful words—“oh, and you are…?” “fancy meeting you here!” “Uh, hi?”.
Restored to perhaps not his full knightly comeliness from before (but nonetheless quite handsome in compare to the awkward things who visited him), he determined to acquire the kit necessary to set out and hunt for more formidable quarry, more admirable gifts. Pickings had become slim (as he had heard said). The beings passing through the lobby now were familiar (“low turnover,” gloated some director of HR) and he’d excised all their useful possibilities.
Having so shifted his sights, he no longer carved out stature and magnificence from his targets, but wit and knowledge of this world, drive and focus.
Satisfied with himself at last, he waited, then granted a tall, fit man the boon of a director position two floors up. In exchange, Oberon took the man’s very fine interview suit.
A thought, and the card (small, white and smooth, fresh from the pocket of the very fine interview suit) rearranged its letters to spell his name.
Knowing better than to hunt openly where he made his nest, he set out for what he’d heard called so many times “the parking lot”. Selecting a fine, long, shining car, he popped the door and climbed in (finer, he thought, than any Uncle ever rode).
Thus began a few years of independent consulting. He’d learned the trade from a team of fellows in the crispest, richest garb he’d seen come through Universal Systems’ main lobby. (By turns they’d wished: one for sex, one for beautiful women, one for a bestselling novel, and one to come out of the closet with no harm to his professional life. All but the last were as easy to grant as sighing.)
When on engagements, he granted wishes, and, to his great delight, he granted health and long life to a woman of considerable magic (of which she was unaware). He excised it, slurped it into his being, licked his fingers in satisfaction as he watched her walk away.
From there on, he could make himself invisible, hear at great distances, make himself tiny as a field mouse, work small levitations and create small fires. At last he had the means to search for the portal (not ready to go back yet, but needing to know the way home to be ready to go). He began to sneak about the corridors of the building.
At first he explored in a lazy, meandering way (for he still had much glory to recover and much time between consulting engagements), and found himself bored by grey and beige walls, blue doors, mottled grey carpet. Then, sneaking through a new corridor (after some fool let the security door swing shut too slowly), he found a man in a little office who harbored a great burning coal of the gift his uncle deserved (its fire almost but not quite big enough). He granted the man an eight-point buck next season and took his gift.
(Now so near his objective) the hunt for the door became urgent. He lost interest in his consulting. He neglected his investments and lost half his fortune at the start of a recession (though he made back twice what he’d lost shorting a few banks several weeks later).
Once, he’d gotten a glimpse of what looked like a distant cousin. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he’d seen a bulky demon, inky blue with curving horns. Looking on him full, though, somehow his vision shifted and the demon wasn’t a demon any more, but one of these pinky brown creatures. Not a cousin after all (perhaps). Oberon turned on an invisible heel and hurried from the room (just in case).
After a binge of exploration, he memorized the place, top to bottom (but still he (HE!) could not find the door home). Often invisible, sometimes tiny, and always listening, he’d seen and heard the inner workings of the departments in this building. He diagnosed quarreling factions, inefficient workflows, apathetic teams, more. All the while, he avoided the warren of cubicles where he’d seen his (perhaps) cousin. Twice or thrice he’d found himself curiously queasy in a hallway, then realized he was close enough to that (perhaps) cousin to be discovered. He’d shrink, still invisible (though (still) a cousin might see him), and take a circuitous route back to his closet and the warm Tankless. The portal (yet undiscovered) called to him.
Uneasy still at the possibility of discovery, and having exhausted himself in his search for the door, he returned to consulting (why hurry to find the way home when he wasn’t quite prepared to go?).
His fortunes increased. He guided mergers and quality system adoptions, coached executives whose bosses tagged as struggling. These he found to be rich and easy prey for bargains. Win-win-win opportunities, he thought. The struggling executives got their wishes for success, the top bosses got their wishes for an employee who better fit their idea of a “good manager”, and he, of course, excised his dollops of virtue and none were the wiser.
One night he visited a client in a sprawling home (who knew these creatures could build beautiful (though vulgar) homes when their offices were so ugly?). Oberon gnashed his teeth on returning to his utility closet. But when he tried to gather up his nest (the safe hiding he’d woven into the fabric of the place), he found he didn’t have the necessary magic to move it. He was stuck (if he wished to remain undetected).
He meditated on the next step. What he’d been working toward all along. A leap back to his home of before. And his gift for his uncle.
Had he gotten distracted, amassing riches in this realm? If he were to look at it (really) yes. He’d assumed he’d need riches to buy passage. But he’d lost sight of finding the door, or whoever could open it. The portal home.
One knock, tapped lightly on his utility closet door brought him from his reverie. (He was sure he’d heard it, but was unsure if the knock had been made on purpose.) Just as he made up his mind that it had been someone grazing the door in passing, three more raps sounded, firm this time. He grinned, and stood. He’d not yet changed for bed. He still wore his fine navy gabardine with its velvety nap. He looked down and found his snowy shirt and periwinkle tie unwrinkled (one unforeseen benefit of outrageous luck being a knack to never wrinkle one’s clothes). Pleased with his raiment, he strode to the door and drew it open.
The woman on the other side gasped when she looked up at him, and Oberon nearly stumbled in a faint as he saw what she’d brought him.
He straightened himself, drew a breath, and: “What dost thy heart and whole body most desire?” Oberon asked.
“—,” she said (for, really, the wish was inconsequential and slipped his mind as soon as he heard it).
He gave it to her. In return, he excised the great treasure he’d seen, working sure and quick. Nonetheless, he quivered with disbelief, anticipation and great fear that he might let this jewel slip through his fingers as he drew it out whole.
Gleaming in a way he could see (and she could not), the righting of a great wrong (which would some time soon be done to this woman) slid (whole and entire) out of her body and into his.
“Thank you,” she said.
He smiled, and his eyes turned from brilliant blue to a green so deep it was nearly black.
He shut the door and this time Oberon did swoon. Finding himself on the floor, he lay still. He felt the slug of realigned probabilities curl itself through his being. It was glorious.
For a second time that night, he heard a knock on his door. It was well after close of business, but often those with a wish came to see him after the hour when bosses and nosy co-workers were gone home.
He considered. He had all he needed now. With the luck, the magic, and this new addition to his other collected virtues, whatever he might gain would just be extra. Still undecided, he stood up, graceful as the future in dance he’d stolen from an intern (who’d obediently followed her parents wishes to “just give corporate life a try”).
It was then that the door smashed in. His cousin followed, crushing him between door and wall. No longer camouflaged, the cousin (leaning hard against the door (and therefore trapping Oberon)), massed dark and blue as Oberon’s navy suit (still unwrinkled).
“Time to go, fey,” roared the cousin.
“Oh?” Oberon asked.
“Yes,” the cousin said, irritated. “Wait. Oberon? The Eighth?”
“Yes,” Oberon answered.
“Oh, you tiresome fuckwit,” the cousin said, rolling his eyes. “Why do I always have to deal with the nastiest of the second-rate cousins?”
“You said something about going?” Oberon asked.
“Yep,” his blue cousin said, panting through his nose (for he still held Oberon pinned to the wall with the steel door). “I’m sending you right back where you came from.”
“Fine,” Oberon said, grinning.
The portal stood in a nondescript conference room. It looked like another utility closet, tucked, unobtrusive, in a corner (the halfwitted designer of the building must have stumbled into this clever bit of illusion to have hidden the portal so well from him). Oberon’s inky cousin opened the door. The familiar flaming gate appeared.
Oberon grinned wider, to which the cousin said, “Oh fuck you. Get out of here. And I don’t want to know whatever it was you’ve been doing.”
The cousin shoved, and Oberon tumbled through. With only a twinge of regret, he thought of the other beautiful suits he left behind.
He somersaulted on the ground, breathing the crisp air of Tir-na-oge. He rolled to his feet and looked about, delighting to find himself in his uncle’s great hall, surrounded by his family. Grinning broadly, he spread his hands wide. His wealth of collected potentialities swam inside him. Now, here, in his homeland he and everyone around him could see how he glittered with his amassed graces. My virtues, he thought. He could feel his greatest one, the one he’d just won off the woman (to whom a great wrong would be done), turn in his belly.
“Dear one,” said his uncle. “You’ve come back to me.”
“Yes,” said Oberon.
The portal slammed shut.
His uncle stepped down off his dais. Closer, closer, Oberon thought. All I’ll need to do is touch him! Just a graze…
Uncle strode forward and grasped Oberon’s neck. Like a hawk stooping to its prey, Uncle kissed Oberon full on the mouth. No! No! Oberon tried to shriek, but instead through his open lips slipped his revenge. Like a trout it came in a silver-grey, glistening lump all at once. Tears streamed down his face as the rest of his stolen gifts slid up his gullet and into his uncle’s mouth. Oberon shrank. He withered. Smaller smaller smaller back to that little spider-like thing he’d been. Just like the last time his uncle had punished him.
The kiss ended, and Uncle held him up (pinched between pale finger and thumb) in front of all the family. They were laughing. All laughing. All beautiful and fine. All the things Oberon the Eighth knew he was not.
“What good work, little Eight,” chortled Uncle. “Those gifts were never yours. Thank you for bringing them all to me.”
The cousins and sisters and brothers and pets and friends laughed harder, their jewels sparkling. Oberon felt his tears run onto his tiny round belly, his tiny wrinkled privates (the fine suit with the velvety nap, snowy shirt and periwinkle tie all fallen away) where they sparkled, too.
“Please, little Oberon the Eighth,” Uncle said, “Do go on back and try again.”
With that, some beautiful little elf-child opened a door and Uncle chucked Oberon through. The music of his family’s laughter cut short when the elfling flung the door shut with a resounding bang.
About the Author
Reader, author, scifi and fantasy fan, woman in tech, feminist. Interests: work, leadership, engineering, human diversity, empathy, and their intersections.