Two easy reasons exist why a mage might opt for mercenary labor: no charter can afford them, or no charter will have them.
Almost every mage dreams at least once of becoming the former, a wizard of such stature that dragons themselves will seek their council. These celebrities of epistemic magosophy are so sought-after that they can afford not to tether their fortunes to any one charter, trading on their power and reputation to travel the empire and the globe, following the most interesting rituals, the most fascinating problems. Theirs is a life of glamour and wonder, staying as long as the challenge stays interesting, and then vanishing with the wind off to whatever new engagement tickles their fancy, knowing that they will never lack for work, income, or adventure.
Equally, most mages fear becoming the former, the mage who cannot remain consistently employed. Perhaps one lacks the capacity to retain instruction for more than three days. Possibly one has a complete inability to account for any of one’s time. It might be that one has an unfortunate habit of telling one’s superiors ugly truths about their charter that other wage-laborers have the sense—or instruction—not to discuss. Truth be told, it could be that one has been the unfortunate witness to one too many interdraconic battles; those who live through one usually consider themselves lucky, but more than that seem to mark one as cursed. Whatever the cause, though, once one carries that mark of the temporary laborer, one rarely escapes it.
Unfortunately for the discerning charter wishing only to hire the best, it can be difficult to tell one from the other. One would think that any qualified soothsayer would be able to tell the bravura from the braggadocio, and in fact one could, were most charters in the habit of hiring such people. However, given the degree to which most councilors rely on some measure of uncertainty, distraction, and confusion about what exactly has been promised to whom, few diviners find work in such capacity. So, in order to sort the wheat from the chaff, most charters do what they do with any problem facing technical expertise: find someone who does it better than they could and pay them to do it.
This would seem an equitable arrangement, as all of these notions superficially. However, this iceberg of a decision has some hidden costs which rarely show on the balance sheet. Ostensibly, one would pay someone else to do the job of finding qualified applicants for a position because one either cannot be bothered to do so oneself, or simply cannot do so. However, just as there are people that will claim to be qualified but who are anything but, so too are there charters which say they are capable, which are in fact… not. Since we have no reason not to do so, we say safely assume that at least some of those charters bill themselves as being able to tell flowers from fertilizer in matters magical, and thus we are back at the original dilemma: how does one who is inclined to pay someone else to identify quality know who to hire?
Sadly, the answer seems to be, “the one that charges the most and thus gives the appearance of quality.” At least, that was the impression that the elderly gentleman sitting in Miles’ office gave me. He wore an uncomfortable mixture of robes and slacks, trying to appear both scholarly and mercantile and failing at either. The top of his head was bare, but he’d grown his greying hair at the sides long to compensate for the natural tonsure of age. He shifted constantly in his seat, visibly uncomfortable, and as I entered the room, he turned and favored me with the sort of smile that suggested a very special secret that one must never, ever share with Mother or the local constabulary. “Oh, good,” he wheezed. “I’m parched. I take it sweet and hot, like—”
“Carissa, this is Mr. Hallas,” Miles said as I reflexively stepped backwards. “He’s here from Personal Wisdom.”
The elderly gentleman visibly caught himself, then rose and held out his hand. “Please, call me Ariston.” He punctuated his introduction with a cough.
He had a firm grip, and his fingers were warm and clammy; I had to fight down the urge to wipe my hand on my robes when he finally let go. “I hear you’re in need of sa little help,” he said with a long, uncomfortable smile.
“No, I’m doing quite well,” I replied coolly, focusing my gaze on Miles. “My unrequited apprentice is having some challenges, maybe, but—”
“Oh, yes,” Ariston interrupted. “How is little Theo doing? I hear he’s near the top of his class at his academy!”
My stomach clenched at the diminuative. “Little Theo?”
Mr. Hallas nodded. “Franciscus’ nephew. I hear you’re the little lady who’s been tutoring him.”
Miles held up a hand to forestall my outburst. “Mr. Hallas is an old friend of Councilor Franciscus.”
“Old Francis!” The old man shouted with an unsettling grin. “He and I go way back, all the way to Imperial Aetheric and Weave, back before the Great Council scattered Campana’s clutch to the winds. I remember, I actually hired him to run meshwork for the artificers to enchant!”
“I… see,” I replied slowly, narrowing my gaze at my overseer. Miles only shrugged in response, ducking his head back into his shoulders. “It would be nice to have some assistance, yes,” I said around clenched teeth. “Most of my assignments have gone to my colleagues, but I’m still so busy helping Theodore that I barely have the time to work on this assignment I’ve been given from Ajanax.”
Ariston’s eyes widened. “Ajanax? Seriously?”
I smiled. “It’s all quite complicated. I’m supposed to be designing a great circle, from scratch. I’ve components of other rituals from which to work, of course, but—”
“Well, I’m sure we can find you somebody to work on that,” Mr. Hallas interrupted, giving my shoulder an avuncular pat. “Personal Wisdom’s got people lined up who can grow crystals, tend groves, lay meshwork and chase ghosts. I’m sure we can find someone to help weave your circle, once you’ve decided what color you want!”
I drew in a sharp breath and let it out in a sigh. “No,” I said slowly. “I need help tending Theodore while I get back to my spellcraft.”
Ariston smiled gently. “Oh, I’m sure, I’m sure. Don’t worry; once we’re done, your name will be all over it. Personal Wisdom’s not here to steal the credit, just to make sure the work gets completed.”
I caught Miles out of the corner of my eye, making a finger-across-the-throat gesture. I nodded in response. “No, Ariston, you don’t understand. I need you to help me find someone to keep an eye on Gannis the younger while I get one with my work. I do have my master’s certificate in metamagic.” I pushed back my sleeves. “Would you care to witness my defense?”
Mr. Hallas and I exchanged stares in stifling silence, until he turned back to Miles and coughed again. “Well, I think I’ve got what I needed to start looking for some suitable candidates for your needs. Thank you for your time!” He shook my overseer’s hand, then did his best to refute my existence as he left the room.
I rounded on my overseer as soon as the door was closed. “That unctuous eel! If I’d rained frogs on his head, it would have been a kindness.”
Miles sighed. “Carissa, I know he’s a bit archaic in his views, but Personal Wisdom has access to a broad pool of esoteric talent and Mr. Hallas himself knows hundreds of people. If you’re looking to stifle your future, alienating him is a good place to start. Not to mention he’s a friend of your councilor.”
I scowled in return. “That still doesn’t mean I have to suffer his chauvinism.”
“No,” my superior agreed, “but if you want the best chance of getting the help you actually need, instead of what you deserve, you should tolerate his eccentricities as a product of his day. Now, tell me how Hypatia’s replacement isn’t coming and how Theodore’s training doesn’t proceed, so that I can go justify the coin that Ariston’s asked for his services.”