De Magia 16: Past Imperfect

Contrary to popular wisdom, it is quite possible to do everything right and to still suffer defeat.

Eventually, if one remains in the profession of magic long enough, one will be asked to solve a problem beyond one’s means. Rarely is this any fault of one’s own; most mages are all too aware of the limits, not only of magic, but of their own grasp of it. It is, in fact, quite common to expand one’s knowledge by identifying that one has no idea how to craft a particular spell, finding some ritual that bears some similarity to the problem, producing a voluminous pile of half-written scrolls which almost but do not quite solve the matter at hand, and finally stumbling into the answer by accident. Often these blunders take place after a bout of inspiration, which usually comes at one of the most inopportune times. This is a normal progression of events, and may usually be taken as a sign that one is dealing with matters which are of an appropriate level of difficulty.

Unfortunately, for every mage, there exists a set of problems which are beyond one’s ability to solve. The reasons for this are myriad and complex. A spell may require more focus than one’s crystals could provide. A runic arrangement may need more positional complexity than one can discern. A ritual may require more fine control of one’s gestures than one can reasonably perform. An incantation may require more subtle pronunciation than one’s lips and tongue may articulate. A truly ambitious effort may simply cost more in time—and more often, in coin—than one’s superiors are willing to afford. A truly audacious request may actually lie outside the capacity of magic as it is presently understood. Again, these are rarely limits of the mage, and often results of the circumstances in which one finds oneself.

What matters in the end is not whether one solves every problem, but how one handles having not done so. Staring into the heart of an intractable problem gives one an opportunity to express one’s deeper feelings on the nature of adversity, the lengths to which one will strive before abandoning one’s vision, and the tolerance one has for being denied an increase in one’s wages for the third year running. One may rail against the unfairness of the cosmos. One may try to deny one’s failure, and concoct ever-more-elaborate justifications for one’s seeming lack of success. Perhaps, if one possesses the patience of an archwizard, one might even be able to see the test for what it is, accept one’s own shortcomings, and move forward with a measure of quiet dignity and grace.

Sadly, no amount of quiet dignity and grace on the part of the mage is proof against the wrath of a councilor in possession of an unsolved problem. It need not matter whether one has been asked to deliver a star from the sky or to count the grains of sand on a beach; it matters only that a request has been made and not fulfilled. The balance of power between merchant and mage has ever been uneven, and what merchant has never put a thumb on the scale? With charlatans and fools promising ever-greater impossibilities, and dragons and their servants seeking ever-expanding hoards, eventually one will be asked for a miracle and offered a pittance in return. When this happens, only the wisest will realize that “can’t” is short for “cannot,” as opposed to “do not wish to try.” The rest often seek to prove their ignorance by punishing those who would dare remind them that magic does, in fact, rely on rules.

The woman sitting opposite me in Miles’ office had the wary look of one who had been subject to that particular response in the past. Her casual posture in the chair suggested ease and preparedness, but she kept her arms crossed defensively over her chest, and her eyes stayed half-lidded above a faint smile, like a bird watching a hungry cat. Despite breezing through the questions I had asked her, she still seemed ready to run at a moment’s notice. I thought at first it might have been Theodore’s efforts to stare without doing so openly putting her on edge, but she seemed no more uneasy when he did so without reservation. However, the second time I saw her tense as Miles went to shuffle the pages of her curriculum that I made the connection.

Miles lifted the sheaves and squared them against his desk, the pages rapping loudly in the cramped room. “So, Miss Sitakis—”

“Amber, please,” the woman responded quickly. “‘Miss Sitakis’ makes me think my old archival mentor is watching over me.”

Miles chuckled wearily in response. “Amber, of course. So, Amber, you certainly seem to have the qualifications we requested. Your references, in particular, speak highly of your magosophical prowess. I see archival, spellcraft, grovetending, enchantment, aetherics….” His voice wandered at that point, trailing off into a fresh shuffling of parchments, which earned him a pained look. “There’s almost an embarrassment of talent here. Certainly Miss Deursis seems taken with you.”

“I’m impressed with her talents,” I said hastily, hoping that the fast recovery would help distract from any color in my cheeks. The truth was that I was more than merely taken with her skills. She wore her auburn hair long, but she’d pulled it back into a tail and tied it with a length of bright turquoise ribbon. Over her professional robes, she wore a silk stole of the same color, embroidered along its length in abstract black patterns, as if someone had sought to produce an artist’s rendition of magical glyphs in the moments before their activation. Meanwhile, beneath her robes, it was difficult even for me not to notice her figure, and Theodore had been making little secret of his awareness of it for the last half an hour.

“She’s got a lot of talent to admire,” Councilor Franciscus’ nephew quipped in reply. I met Amber’s gaze, then gave a faint nod in the boy’s direction, but before I could roll my eyes in sympathy, Theodore said. “What I want to know is why she hasn’t lasted a year at any charter in the last three.”

Miles nodded in agreement. “I’d like to know the same. A touch of wanderlust, perhaps? Do the rigors of charter rules weigh heavily after a time?”

Amber froze, and briefly she seemed to visibly weigh making a dash for the door before she drew in a deep breath and sighed. “No, and it’s a fair question,” she murmured, her eyes locked with mine as she spoke. “Three years ago, I worked for a branch of the Physics’ Guild doing general sagework, helping them track patients, potions, reagents, what-have-you. One of the senior merchants at the charter for which I was working came to me and asked me for a quick bit of wizardry to show off the sorts of archival wizardry we’d designed as a charter, some divinations and esoterica regarding chirurgeons practicing in Belltown. I believe his exact words were, ‘if you spend more than fifteen minutes on it, you’ve probably worked too hard.’ I knew he’d been going to a lot of faires and markets showing off our handiwork, so I obliged him with a quarter-hour of work as I was leaving for the evening. I didn’t bother to check my accuracy or precision with the results; it was purely a demonstration, for impressing other merchants. That’s what he requested; that’s what I produced.

She sighed and gripped the arms of her chair as if to keep herself from running. “Three weeks later, I found out he’d entered that trifle in a royal competition to try to secure a contract with the Grand Council… and we’d come in dead-last. The judges openly mocked our efforts. My efforts. That merchant came to work the day after the results were posted at the council hall and demanded my head on a platter. My overseer knew it was my life or his, so he gave up. I was lucky to escape with my skin.” Her green eyes burned into mine. “I wasn’t able to find work in Belltown afterwards; I think he did his best to poison the waters ahead of me. Since then I’ve traveled to find work, but mercenary-labor is all I’ve been able to find, and never for long. Ariston is an old friend of my mentor in archival. I called him when I came to Wyvernbight, hoping a fresh city would give me better chances.”

My heart sank; that was the sort of death-knell that I’d always feared would hit my career. So far, I’d managed to stay one charter ahead of such bad blood, but seeing the damage it had done, writ plainly across her face, made my chest feel uncomfortably tight. Miles and Theodore looked at each other in awkward silence, unsure how to respond to such a naked plea for assistance. Finally, with a loud cough, I did the job for them both. “I think we’re satisfied, aren’t we, Miles?”

“Me?” My superior’s head snapped in my direction; he seemed genuinely startled. “Oh, yes. That’s everything I think we needed to hear. Thank you for your time, Miss Sitakis. I’m sure Ariston will be in touch.”