De Magia 18: That Which is Required

Before one can solve any problem, one must first know the problem exists.

Magic is powerful. It can be used to do many things. With time and resources, a mage can divine the weather, heal the sick, and cross vast distances in the blink of an eye. With the right inspiration, a gifted enough practitioner—or a large-enough collection of semi-talented amateurs—can seemingly work miracles, bending the laws of reality to suit one’s very whim. This is why mages are in such demand, and why the best-trained among us can command such heavy coin.

For all that magic can accomplish, however, one must remember that it has no will of its own. Magic is a tool, as capable of reason or volition as a hammer or an exchequer on vacation. At its most basic, magic is a set of interactions between elements and the seemingly infinite, intricate rules that govern those connections. It is not a person, not even a spirit, and much though one may curse magic for all that it does wrong, in the end one has only one’s use of magic to blame, not magic itself. Magic performs as it is cast, not as the caster desires.

It is this frustrating gap between intent and result that forms the heart of a great many arguments between councilors and mages. As I have mentioned before, the nature of the mage tends towards maximum specificity for the sake of accuracy, and the nature of the councilor tends towards minimum specificity for the sake of flexibility. These two desires cannot both be met, of course, but it is at this juncture that the incompatibility becomes unavoidable. Magic, being a tool for solving problems, can only do what one tells it to do, which is not necessarily what one actually desires.

Since those who weave great spells for coin can ill afford to ask why they do what they do, it would naturally fall to the councilors who pay their wages to determine what spells must be cast and why. However, as has already been explained, few in that field care to let themselves be pinned to such minutiae, fearing costly reprisals. Thus, it falls to an entirely different branch of most charters, the hawkers and heralds, to perform that function. To them falls the unenviable job of divining, by whatever means possible, what people want, and how much they’ll pay for it.

In what should serve as a rare moment of confession, I admit to never entirely being comfortable with these gadflies. At best, they forever strike me as overeager churchmen, probing people into revealing their hidden secrets, their desires and dislikes. At worst, they act as mesmerists writ large, creating desire where none existed before and preying on the collective foibles of humanity in an effort to squeeze a few more coin out of an otherwise jaded populace. Though, having said all of this, I cannot deny that, without them, it is entirely likely that even the most well-funded academy or council would be unlikely to pay the coin that Epistemic Esoterica demands for their spells. I may be a purist in many regards, but even I know not to bite the hand that feeds me. At least, not hard enough to get slapped down for it.

Rather, when I felt the need to voice my dislike of the profession, I stayed within the socially acceptable bounds of well-trod disputes. “I still don’t see why your job justifies such extravagance,” I said as I stabbed a finger accusingly towards the oversized crystal sitting on the herald’s desk. “I could’ve had three grown and blessed in runics for the cost of your one.”

Jason Galette, the herald from Barbara’s last convocation, didn’t bother to turn his head. “And you’d have gotten everything you paid for.” His voice was almost entirely flat, suggesting neither contempt nor interest.

Internally, I grumbled; I was unused to that particular barb going unanswered. “You’re not even using a standard ritual set; I suspect you’re the only lot in the whole of the charter that claims to need such specialized craft.”

“No, we’re just the only ones that get them,” he riposted evenly. “But you don’t really care about that; you’re here for how.”

I blinked and straightened. “I beg your pardon? How… what?”

The herald turned away from his screen and adjusted his glasses. “That’s what I’d like to know.” The corners of his mouth turned up in the faintest of grins.

I stared, confounded, for several seconds, trying to regain my verbal footing. “I’m afraid you’ve lost me entirely. What is how?”

Then Jason finally smiled, his eyes twinkling. “No, what is what. How is how. Are you lost yet?”

“I did just say I was, yes,” I snapped. “Look, are you going to explain to me what you’re talking about, or are you just going to confuse me?”

“That depends,” he replied as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Are you going to tell me why you’re here, or are you just going to insult the tools of my trade?”

Having been called out so explicitly, it seemed time to get to business. “I’ve just spoken with Faxon about his illusions, and before I give him any response one way or the other, I thought I should come and get some guidance from you, to see which way the winds are blowing.”

Jason nodded and turned in his chair, then gestured at the screen. A few flicks of his wrists later, he motioned to the flat polished facet of his crystal. “Gusts from the north, with rain in the later afternoon, if you trust Wyvernbight Academy’s weathersages.” That faint grin broadened on his face.

I sighed audibly. “With the project. Hypatia’s replacement. I’m here to find out what’s been determined about what people expect to see.”

“Oh, right, right,” Jason said as he sat forward once more, turning back to his work. “You mean, with how.”

“With… what?” I was determined not to let the herald lose me again.

“How. Halo of Wisdom.” He gestured wildly at his crystal, florid sweeps of his arms and exaggerated twists of his wrists that seemed far too flamboyant to be practical. Images flickered within its depths, and then a singular one seemed to rise and dominate the view: three sets of diamonds of varying lengths, arranged in concentric rings. It looked like a lamprey bite. “All the world’s knowledge represented as a nimbus, a radiant aura about the one who uses it.”

Throughout his speech, his voice retained its flat affect that drained all the life from his speech. I cringed, reflexively, and shook my head. “It sounds dreadful.”

Jason shrugged. “Councilor Maxima invented it herself. Well, she and a number of others came out of a small room with the words on their lips, though none was willing to take the credit.” He paused, then added, “They’re all too modest by half.”

Given his delivery, I was completely unable to tell if he was joking or serious. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “So, how does this… halo… fit with Faxon’s designs?” I quickly detailed the illusionist’s workings, adding how unnerved the simulacrum made me felt.

The herald considered, then shrugged. “Tell him to put a glory around her head and she should be fine.”

I frowned. “That wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”

“Of course it wasn’t.” Jason shrugged. “She sounds young, cheerful, enthusiastic, and sexually disinhibited. That’s hardly representative of women in magic.”

“Exactly!” I proclaimed. “It’s exploitative and brutish. Why couldn’t he cast her to be more like Hypatia, more like—” I cut myself off sharply, realizing that if I completed the sentence as I’d intented, I’d be inviting comparison that I didn’t want. He’d said nothing that could be directly construed as an insult, but left me a sword and plenty of room to leap upon it.

“More like… what?” The herald asked too innocently, his grin suddenly breaking out onto his face. “I’m curious, really.”

“I’ll tell Faxon your suggestions,” I grumbled, trying to keep my glare in check. “In the meantime, your emblem looks like a lamprey bite; take that under advisement when it’s time to review it.”