De Magia 19: The Curse of Being Good Enough

There is never enough time to do everything right.

It is said of the great artists that they never truly finish their work, that they merely reach the point at which they are comfortable with abandoning them. So too is it with mages and our craft. There is no such thing as the spell which is fully realized, the ritual which is complete. There is only the spell or crystal upon which we have decided to spend no more time.

Of course, in this modern era of wage-labor, it is almost certain that it is not the mage making this decision. Little upsets the professional theurge as a spell which contains within it some flaw or error. Knowing that a spell is not yet ready for wider casting would stop the typical spellcrafter from even considering release into the public. However, we know the power of one obstinate mage in the face of a coin-hungry charter seeking a new scroll to sell, or a new crystal to grow. “It doesn’t work” may delay its release for a week or two. “It doesn’t work well” stops no-one.

If one is forced to spend any time working for a charter to earn one’s daily bread and tea, one quickly becomes used to this fact of life. Just as the projects on which one works are no longer wholly of one’s own decision, so too is the schedule on which those projects are released. If the day comes when a spell is to be cast, then the mage had best be ready to cast it, regardless of how incomplete or premature it may be. Whatever the consequences are of that lack of polish, as long as no-one of import dies upon its completion, the ritual must proceed.

Knowing this, it becomes far too easy for the typical mage to become obsessed with making projects as complete as possible. Late hours may become commonplace, as more and more time becomes devoted to the task. Dietary habits may simplify as meals become reduced to what one can eat in one hand while tracing glyphs with the other. The afflicted may begin avoiding others for fear of distraction, and necessary interactions may become unpleasantly abrupt. The need to find some sense of completion with an endless task can literally drive some mad with frustration.

Of course, it is worth noting that it need not be a spell which causes this particular affliction. The truly passionate artist, regardless of endeavor, may suffer similar afflictions when working under pressure. The painter with a canvas, the composer with a music staff, and the exchequer with a ledger may all suffer fits of frustration when trying to bring a creative work to a state of “finished enough.”

My ears might not have been actually steaming when I stepped into the small kitchenette, but they certainly felt as though they were. My stomach rumbled, but all that I could find in the pantry was a small stash of hard rolls. Grabbing one and holding it in clenched teeth, I took to the teapot like a charwoman possessed, muttering around my mouthful of bread. The streaks of tea refused to come clean after several minutes of frantic scrubbing, so I rinsed it thoroughly and tossed in a handful of fresh leaves to steep.

“I’m glad I found you.” Miles’ voice came from behind me, unnaturally loud in the otherwise quiet hall. Only the crackling of the hearth fire and the rumbling of the water in the pot could be heard otherwise. “I thought you might be deliberately avoiding me.”

I started to mumble an answer, but then realized I still had the bread between my teeth. “What makes you say that?” I sighed, wondering if it would be worth spending the effort to boil the kettle faster, just to be able to return to my desk sooner.

My overseer chuckled humorlessly. “You’ve missed the last two messages I wrote to your autopen; is it out of ink, perchance?”

“That must be it,” I said quickly. “I’ll check on that as soon as I’m back to my desk.”

I fell silent, staring impatiently at the kettle, hoping that would be that, but soon after, Miles cleared his throat behind me. “Working late?” he asked unnecessarily. “How is Hypatia’s replacement coming along?”

I sighed loudly into the otherwise-still kitchenette. “What should I tell you? I’ve been so busy trying to teach Theodore that I’ve barely had time to trace glyph on crystal. There are only so many hours in the day, Miles, and there is only one of me.”

Miles laughed dryly again at that. “A fact both unfortunate and comforting. So, let’s talk about Theodore instead; how is his training coming along?”

“I’ve seen newborn puppies learn new tricks in less time,” I grumbled. “Every gesture that does other than he expects is the crystal, or the complexity of the ritual, or the phase of the moon, or anything but his own imprecision!”

“Well, he’s not used to making so many mistakes.” I could hear Miles shrug without looking at him. “At least he’s gifted. To hear his uncle tell it, he’s at the top of his class.”

“I pity his classmates,” I snapped. “And how dependent are his grades on his uncle’s endowment?”

“Carissa….” Miles sighed, and then his hand was on my shoulder. “You’re very perceptive, but that’s not always a good thing. Tell me, though, is he at least learning?”

I threw my hands up in frustration, but then nodded. “Slowly, yes, though he’s fighting me at every turn.”

“Good!” Miles chirped. “I need you to finish out his lessons, and quickly. Find some aspect of the ritual he can handle and let’s see how he does.”

That made me turn around. “What? Miles, he’s nowhere near competent to cast without supervision!”

My overseer folded his arms across his chest and regarded me with his weary smile. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you sounded concerned about him.”

That caught me up short and I drew myself upright. “I’m concerned about my reputation,” I retorted. “Any apprentice seeking a master would look at his progress and judge me unfit to teach cantrips, much less journeymen.”

Miles shrugged again. “Well, what you’ve done will have to do. Ariston and Councillor Franciscus have come to an agreement on our mercenary-mages. Our new help arrives on Monday.”

I blinked at that. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Miles chuckled as the teakettle began to whistle. “You missed the last two meetings I scheduled to let you know.”