A Novel of Ethshar

The Spell of the Black DaggerThe Spell of the Black Dagger
The Spell of the Black DaggerThe Spell of the Black Dagger

The Spell of the Black Dagger was the sixth Ethshar novel published.

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Cover of the Wildside edition

Tabaea the Thief thought she had learned how to make an important wizard's tool, an enchanted dagger called an athame. She made a slight mistake in performing the spell, however, and the resulting black dagger was something else entirely -- something that she thought she could use to become Empress of Ethshar...

The Spell of the Black Dagger

A Legend of Ethshar

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Part One: Thief

Chapter One


The house was magnificent, its dozen gables high and ornate, the cornerposts elaborately carved and painted, the many panes of the broad windows neatly beveled and arranged in intricate patterns. Some of the window glass was colored, but most was clear and of the highest quality; through the crystalline casements Tabaea could see only tightly-drawn curtains and drapes--draperies of velvet and silk and other fine fabrics, no simple cotton shades or wooden shutters here.

The house faced onto both Grand Street and Wizard Street, its front door at the corner, angled to face northeast into the intersection. Small shrines were carved into the stone archway on either side of this door, each shrine equipped with both a fountain and an eternal flame. The substance of the door itself was unidentifiable under its thick coat of glossy black enamel, but it was bound and trimmed with polished brass, with gleaming bolt-heads forming a complex spiral pattern.

Despite its prominent location, there were no shop windows, no signboards--it was obviously a residence, rather than a business. Curious, that anyone would build so fine a house here in the Grandgate district, Tabaea thought--and worthy of further investigation. She had walked past it many times, of course, but had never paid much attention before.

She admired the shrines, then wandered on down Grand Street as if she were just another ordinary young citizen out for a late stroll on a summer evening, or perhaps an apprentice returning from an errand. She paused at the back corner of the house and glanced back, as if trying to remember something; what she was actually doing, however, was studying the street, seeing whether anyone was watching her.

She could see about a dozen people scattered along the four long blocks between herself and Grandgate Market, but none of them seemed to be looking in her direction, or paying any attention to her. No one was leaning out any of the windows or shop doors. The market itself was crowded, but at this distance that hardly mattered; even in the bright torchlight, the people there were little more than faceless blobs. None of them would be able to identify her later.

Thus reassured, she turned and ducked into the narrow alley behind the great house.

Grand Street was reasonably well lit, thanks to the torches and lanterns illuminating the various shops and taverns, but there were no torches in the alley, and no light came from either the house on her left or the shuttered teahouse on her right.

That meant that the only light in the alley came from the cold and distant gleam of the stars overhead, and the firelight of Grand Street behind her. Such limited illumination was not enough; the alley appeared utterly black.

She hesitated, hoping her eyes would adjust, but the longer she lingered this close to Grand Street, the more likely, even with the teahouse closed, that she would be spotted and questioned. She crept forward into the darkness, moving by feel, as if blind.

The wall of the house felt solid and smooth and unbroken, and as she advanced into the darkness she began to worry that she might have made a mistake. There might not be any entrance back here.

She set her jaw. The whole point of an alley, she reminded herself, was to let people in the back of a house. And even if this particular alley wasn't here to let people into the back of the big corner house, there must be windows--houses need ventilation, and the larger the house the more windows it would need.

Of course, her pessimistic side reminded her, those windows needn't be within reach of the ground, especially for a girl her size.

Maybe she should have planned this out more carefully, she thought, taken a look at the house by daylight, maybe found out whose house it was, instead of just yielding to a whim like this.

But she was here now, and it would be cowardly to turn back.

All the same, she thought, if she didn't find an entrance soon she might do best to just head home and try again another day.

Then, finally, her hand struck a doorframe, and a smile crept unseen across her face.

She stood and waited, and at last her vision began to adjust. Yes, it was a door, though she could just barely make out the outline and could see no details at all. She tried the handle.

It was locked, naturally.

She grinned, drew her belt knife, and fished the lockpick from her hair. The darkness didn't matter for this; picking a lock was all done by feel anyway. This was her chance to put her lessons with old Cluros, and all her practice at home, to the test.

Five minutes later she had the door open and had slipped carefully inside, moving as quietly as she could. The lock had been a simple one; only inexperience, the weight of the bolt, and Tabaea's natural caution had kept her from springing it within seconds. Whoever owned this house had not wasted money on fancy locks and bars.

That was not necessarily a good thing, of course; sometimes a simple lock meant other precautions had been taken--spells, guards, any number of possibilities existed.

Tabaea saw no sign of any of them. Of course, she wasn't at all sure what to look for to spot protective spells; nobody had taught her any of that yet. Still, she didn't see anything unusual.

In truth, she didn't see much of anything at all. The mudroom behind the door was even darker than the alley. She felt her way across the little room, almost tripping over a boot-scraper, and found an inner door.

That was unlocked, and the chamber beyond just as dark as the mudroom. Reluctantly, Tabaea decided it was time to risk a little light.

She had tinder and flint and steel in her pouch, but it was dark and she was wary of making too much sound--the house might be deserted, or it might not. It took several tries before she had a good steady light.

When she had the tinder burning she looked around by its flickering light for something more permanent, and spotted a candle by the alley door. She lit that, then blew out the tinder and tucked it away.

Candle in hand, she looked around the mudroom.

As one might expect, there was nothing of any interest. Half a dozen assorted pairs of boots were ranged against one wall, below a line of hooks, about half of which held cloaks or jackets; at the other end of the room three heavy wooden chests took up most of the available space, but a quick glance in each showed that they held only the scarves, gloves, and other appurtenances that one might expect.

She was not disappointed; this was just the mudroom, and there was plenty more house to explore. Besides, there were plenty of people in Ethshar of the Sands who couldn't afford gloves and scarves and coats--it wasn't as if the winters here were long or cold, as they were said to be in Sardiron or the other Ethshars. A house so rich in winter wear would surely be rich in more marketable goods, as well.

Cautiously, moving as stealthily as she could, Tabaea opened the interior door and peered through, candle in hand.

A smile spread across her face as she saw what lay beyond. This was more like it.

The next room was a dining salon, and the light of her candle sparkled from brass and gold and crystal and fine polished woods. Catlike and silent, she slipped around the door and into the room.

The table was heavy and dark, gleaming almost black in the candlelight, its edges carved with intertwined serpents and the corners with songbirds, wings spread; above it hung an ornate brass and crystal chandelier. The six surrounding chairs were of the same dark wood, carved with serpents and eagles, seats and backs upholstered in wine velvet.

Cherrywood cabinets stood against every wall, and the image of Tabaea's candle was reflected back at her by a hundred panes of leaded glass set in the cabinet doors. Behind the glass panels glittered cut crystal goblets and fine bone china.

Something moved in the corner of her vision, and for a moment Tabaea froze. Then she realized that the movement came from inside one of the cabinets. Warily, she crept closer, and peered through the glass of the cabinet door.

The cabinet held an elaborate silver tea service, and the teapot was moving, walking about on three long, birdlike legs. Tiny metal toes tapped gently on the shelf as it strolled. Then, as Tabaea watched, it sank down, folding its legs beneath it, and settled into motionlessness.

Tabaea smiled and tugged at the empty sack under her belt, but did not yet remove it from concealment. A magic animated teapot was a very pretty prize indeed; such things cost a fortune. Unfortunately, since they were so rare and expensive, and each was a unique piece, they were almost impossible to fence.

The crystal would be worth plenty--but this was merely the beginning. There was plenty more of the house yet to explore.

Three other doors opened into the dining salon, one on each side. For no particular reason, Tabaea chose the door on the left, heading more or less toward the front of the house--as much as this curiously-angled corner house had a front, at any rate.

This brought her into a parlor or drawing room, just as dark and deserted as the dining salon; the fireplace was empty even of ash, the windows at the far end shuttered and heavily curtained. Chairs and settees stood here and there; a potted palm was waving in the breeze.

Except, Tabaea realized, there was no breeze. She froze again, watching.

The palm continued to wave, swaying steadily back and forth; Tabaea noticed that it seemed to be fanning a particular armchair.

Well, of course--it was fanning the armchair! More magic, clearly; a little something to help stay cool on a hot summer day, that was all. Another wizard- or sorcerer-created domestic amenity, like the teapot.

Whoever owned this house was clearly very, very rich, to own two such animated household objects, both devoted to ordinary tasks. Tabaea lifted her candle and looked around again.

Something on the mantlepiece was staring at her.

She stared back for a second, startled, and then realized it was probably a small idol of some sort. It was vaguely humanoid, vaguely froglike, roughly the size of a small cat, greenish brown, with great big pointed ears. She crept toward it for a closer look--maybe it had jewels or gold on it somewhere.

It squealed, bounded to its feet, sprang to the floor and ran off, squeaking noises that might have been words.

Tabaea almost yelped in surprise, then caught herself and looked around guiltily.

That was how Telleth the Housebreaker had gotten himself caught, flogged, and exiled from the city last year, she remembered; he had dropped a statuette on his foot and sworn at it, and someone asleep upstairs had heard and awoken and come to investigate, with a sword in hand. She knew better than that.

Well, she had caught herself, she hadn't made a sound beyond a sort of strangled gasp. Now, if only that weird little creature didn't raise the alarm...

What was that thing, anyway? She frowned.

It must be some sort of magical creature, she decided. Tabaea glanced at the waving palm. Well, this house had more than its share of magic, certainly.

She wouldn't mind having a little magic. Like every child in Ethshar, she'd dreamt sometimes of becoming a wizard or warlock, wearing fancy robes, having people step out of her way in the streets.

It hadn't happened, of course.

Maybe someday, if she got rich enough, she would buy herself magical things, the way whoever owned this house had.

She decided to take a look at the next room, and stepped through an arch into a broad hallway, panelled in dark rich woods. Stairs led to the upper floors--the house was an ostentatious three stories in all, though she suspected the uppermost might be a mere attic--but she was not yet ready to ascend; if anyone was home, he or she was most likely asleep upstairs, and poking around up there was best left until last.

As she stood at the foot of the stairs a door to her right caught her eye; it was half-closed, where the others were all either wide open or tightly shut. That was intriguing; shading the candle with her other hand, she crept over and peered in.

The dining salon and the parlor and the hallway were spacious and elegant, richly furnished, uncluttered and, so far as she could see by candlelight, spotlessly clean; the room behind the half-closed door was the utter opposite. It was large enough, but it was jammed to overflowing with books, papers, boxes, jars, bottles, and paraphernalia of every kind. The walls were almost completely hidden by shelves and drawers and pinned-up charts. Spills and stains, old and new, adorned the floor and various other surfaces.

Somebody's workroom, clearly--this would be where the household accounts were kept, and all the little things that go into running whatever business the house's owner was in. Those jars were probably old preserves, spare pins, and other such things.

There was sawdust, or some other powder, on the floor, she noticed, and tiny web-toed footprints making a beeline through it. That was probably where that creature had gone when she startled it. She raised the candle higher, to see if the little beast might be lurking somewhere amid the clutter.

For the first time she noticed what hung from the ceiling, and paused to stare at it in wonder.

Why would someone have a dried bat hanging in his workroom?

She looked a bit more closely at the contents of the room, and saw an assortment of bones on one shelf, from tiny little bits that could have been from a mouse or shrew up to what was surely the jawbone of a good-sized dragon. A large jar nearby, she now saw, held not pickles or preserves, but mummified spiders the size of her hand. The red stuff that she had taken for jellies and jams was an assortment of blood--she could read the labels. The biggest jar was dragon's blood, the next one was virgin's blood...

She shuddered in sudden realization. No wonder this place had that magical teapot, and the waving palm, and the little web-toed creature.

She was in a wizard's house.

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Origins

Around 1990, the Ethshar series had been rolling along for a few volumes and doing fairly well. I was planning a big ambitious project that eventually turned into the Worlds of Shadowtrilogy, but I didn't want to abandon Ethshar, by any means.

The way the Ethshar series worked was this: I would send the editor, Lester del Rey, brief outlines of a few novels I wanted to write in the series, and he would pick the one he liked best, and I would write it next.

However, I had one I really, really wanted to write -- Taking Flight -- that Lester kept not picking.

Furthermore, Lester had gotten very slow at getting around to making decisions -- he was an old man, not very good at delegating work, and gradually declining ever since his wife, Judy-Lynn, had died in 1986. This had gotten to the point where he was taking more than a year to read a simple three-page outline.

I saw this as an opportunity, and started writing Taking Flight, thinking I might present him with a fait accompli. In fact, I did present him with it -- a complete novel, ready to publish.

However, it seemed politic to present him with a proposal for another one at the same time, and one more to his liking, since I knew he didn't think much of Taking Flight. (Lester was not one to change his mind about anything.)

So I looked through the stack of unused ideas to see what I could come up with.

After a decade of writing for him, I knew Lester's tastes pretty well. He liked big, splashy novels -- stories with scope, in the publishing phrase then current. He kept wanting to see bigger, longer Ethshar stories, wherein I didn't just deal with one little person finding himself a comfortable life (my own preferred theme), but with grand sweeping vistas, with life and death and magic. (This was why he hated Taking Flight. It's small.)

So I needed something big and messy.

Long before, I'd come up with the idea for the Black Dagger itself -- it's a mildly clever variation on your standard parasitic sword, like Elric's Stormbringer or one of Steven Brust's Morganti daggers, and I've no idea how I came up with it, but I'd included a very brief mention of it in an earlier proposal, and Lester had liked it. So that was my starting point, and that gave me the entire opening of the story, showing how Tabaea acquired the dagger.

The next step... well, I'd noticed that all the previous Ethshar novels involved a lot of travel, so I decided I wanted to keep this one entirely in a single city. I chose Ethshar of the Sands because I'd used it the least of the three Ethshars.

So we have a major character, a McGuffin, a setting. I needed an antagonist. To use the dagger effectively Tabaea needed to kill people; that meant committing murder. So who would investigate murders?

And there was Sarai, and everything was in place. I merely had to make sure matters got sufficiently out of hand to create the big sweeping story Lester wanted.

Which was easy. So I had my outline, Lester bought it, and I wrote it.

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Publishing History

The Spell of the Black Dagger was first published July 1993 by Del Rey Books, ISBN 0-345-37712-5, with cover art by Neal McPheeters.

It was reissued in trade paperback May 2001 by Wildside Press, ISBN 1-58715-360-2, with cover art by Dalmazio Frau , priced at $16.95, and including the short story "The Guardswoman" as a bonus feature in the back.

The Wildside ebook was released November 2010.

AST published a Russian edition in 1998, ISBN 5-237-01029-6, under the title Zaklyatiye Chernovo Kinzhala (Заклятие Черного Кинжала), translated by G.B. Kosov, with the original U.S. cover art.

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