De Magia 17: That Which Is Desired

The spell that is never cast is not the solution to any problem.

One might be surprised to discover that this concept meets with great resistance in magosophy, and among spellcrafters in general. Surely, it is said, the question of whether or not a particular spell may address a given need remains wholly separate from whether or not it is used to do so. It matters not, for example, that an autopen is a proper tool of divination, or that a fireball is a wasteful means of boiling water for tea. How one wishes to address one’s needs, claim the nay-sayers, is less the issue than that one’s needs have been addressed. At the end of the day, it matters that all problems have been solved, not that they have been solved well.

This is all well and good, and even your humble author must confess to having crafted the rare ungainly cantrip to cast around larger issues that either time or money—or both—prevented her from actually fixing. That said, however, just because one could use these tools is in no way indicative of whether or not they should. The fireball will boil water, yes, but likely one’s porcelain teapot as well, among all the other costs. The autopen can, in fact, be used as a crude divination tool, but then, so too could a dartboard or a set of dice, and using any of these would produce similar results. To claim that how one solves a problem is irrelevant is to argue that the chisel is as good as the axe when trying to split wood. Both tools will solve the task, but ask any lumberjack which he’d prefer.

Thus, it is, I think, a fair statement to say that in all but the most esoteric of cases, how one solves a problem plays a part in whether one can be said to do so. The spell which is laborious to cast will be overlooked in favor of the one which is simple. The one which requires mummy dust and yellow diamond powder will be supplanted by the one which can be cast with coarser components. The ritual which requires the caster to be fluent in three languages and double-jointed will be unfavorably compared to the one which can be recited in the vernacular by the mildly overweight. When considering whether or not one has actually solved a problem, one must first ask whether anyone will actually use the solution one has proposed.

To be sure, no perfect solution exists to any problem of sufficient magnitude. The spell which takes the least time to cast will take the most expensive reagents. The circle which relies on the simplest components places the highest demand on the caster. The easiest ritual to execute takes the longest. Of course these are oversimplifications, but again, in general, one must decide when crafting a spell how one wishes to define “efficient” or “elegant.” The constraints of magic are such that attempting to be all things to all people will almost certainly result in a spell that no-one will want, a strong second-best that excels at nothing.

Of course, the real world being what it is, the number of ways in which one may construe elegance and efficiency holds no limit. Among ritual mages, “requiring the least knowledge of how magic actually works” is quite popular, as can be seen in the rapid spread of spells catering to the uninitiated. Among the glyph-bound, “requiring the least coin” seems to serve as the countervailing position, which would explain why the runic and ritual realms remain so divided. Neither of these positions is wrong, but nor can they both be true at the same time. On the one hand, the one who wishes to spend as little as possible is obligated to understand what one is doing. On the other, the one who wishes to delve as little possible into magic while still reaping its benefits had best be prepared to pay others for the privilege.

When Faxon contacted me about the needs of his illusions, I fully expected to have to confront him on that exact division. As it was explained to me, my job as the archwizard for Hypatia’s replacement consisted of designing the great spells that would power the archives while providing whatever illusions Faxon crafted with the information the ritual’s users requested. I anticipated having to argue for strict interpretations of requests, for limiting his simulacrum to understanding only the spoken word, to perhaps even limiting the scope of responses to a few choice phrases. I had steeled myself to demand that he reject as much as he could, in order to save as much power as I could for the arduous task of sifting through libraries of information for a few relevant results.

I did not expect to find myself face-to-translucent-face with the image of a buxom nymph whose diaphanous white toga struggled to give modesty to the generous figure beneath. Her eyes were wide and celestial violet, and an earnest smile sat upon her face that suggested it would be her pleasure to do anything I requested. She stood with her arms clasping a thick book to her breast, looking about expectantly, as if eagerly awaiting someone to tell her what to do. Despite her long, silvery-white hair, she looked to be no more than sixteen.

“Her name is Sophia,” the illusionist crooned, drawing out her name into three distinct syllables, rolling the vowels around with his tongue. He stroked his beard with one hand as he watched her shift her weight from one side to the other, peer about intently, then return to her initial position. “What do you think?”

I resisted the instinct to tell him explicitly. “She seems a bit… young, doesn’t she?”

“She’s a goddess,” Faxon countered with a petulant frown. “She’s supposed to look young. She’s really ancient, as old as wisdom itself.” I opened my mouth to challenge that theory, but the illusionist continued in a rush, his eyes alight. “Go on, Carissa. Say hello.”

That made me frown, but I turned to the illusory nymph and cleared my throat. “Hello, Sophia,” I said as quietly as I could, hoping the spell couldn’t hear me.

Sadly, my luck held fast; Sophia turned to me and bounced up and down on her toes, which had the expected results on the rest of her. “Hel-lo, Carissa!” she squealed in a girlish soprano. “I’m so glad to meet you!” She hugged the book to her chest, which emphasized her already-generous figure, but then suddenly, the image snapped back to eager anticipation, peering around Faxon’s office as if I had disappeared.

The illusionist gestured towards his creation, then towards the deep blue crystal sitting on his desk. “I’m afraid that’s the only word she knows yet, but I wanted to show you that much. What do you think?” he asked again, grinning like an expectant parent.

I drew in a deep breath and held it for a moment while I considered just how to tell him that I wouldn’t grace his nymph with my boot, much less my approval. “I think she’s a bit young, especially compared to Hypatia,” I finally managed to say. “I’m not sure Epistemic is ready for such a radical change.”

Faxon waved away my critique with a brush of his hand. “Oh, nonsense. Do you know who our primary clients are? Librarians and sages, almost to a man, and I do mean ‘man.’ If Ajanax wants people to replace Hypatia, then he’s going to have to offer them a reason to want to do so, and another middle-aged librarian, even one as attractive as she, simply won’t do. Sophia needs to be the prettiest creation in the Empire if we want people to want her around.”

For some unfathomable reason, his justifications sounded hollow to me, but it was clear just what the illusionist considered most important. “There’s simply no way to make someone so attractive look lifelike, Faxon,” I countered. “We’d be spending more time on animating her than we would on ensuring she fulfilled her purpose. Is that any way to set up a ritual?”

“Is there any other?” the older mage riposted. His eyes went to Sophia, then back to me. “If Ajanax wants to ask people to give up the ease and convenience of a spell cast on-location, then we’d better be prepared to devote most of our efforts towards making the newest incarnation as charming and lifelike as possible.” He scowled at me as if daring me to challenge him. “If we only aim for ‘as attractive as Hypatia,’ then we’re going to lose to our own prior efforts given the innate loss of speed and reliability due to remote casting.”

I tried to keep my eyes on Faxon, but the way Sophia shifted and moved kept drawing my eyes. “Let’s see what Mr. Gallette says about selling Hypatia’s replacement before we ask where to devote our efforts,” I said. Then I added to myself, And the heavens help us all if the herald agrees.