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May 22, 2010 / benrovik

“The Wizard That Wasn’t” Sample

Enjoy this sample of the first four chapters of The Wizard That Wasn’t! If you’d like to read the rest, pick up a copy for your Kindle on Amazon, or purchase a DRM-free copy from me for your Nook, tablet, or computer.  You can also listen to the entire book for free as an audiobook, available at Podiobooks.com or in the iTunes store.  Thanks! -Ben

The Wizard That Wasn’t

“These Petronauts are not just warriors in wondrous suits of armor.  They are not just tinkerers with marvelous machines.  They are agents of progress for our city, and our human race.

A head of state controls the destiny of his citizens and his nation, but someday, a single Petronaut with an idea may change the entire world.

When that idea emerges, the question that interests me is not where it will end.

The question that interests me is: where did it begin?”

 

Remarks on Petronaut Independence from Tess Murante Haberstorm

Queen of the City of Delia

854

 

Chapter One

The Black Disks

The soldier had half a spear sticking out of his arm.  It was extremely distracting.

“—my report to the Viscount,” he was saying, his face ashen and his long blond mustache heavy with sweat.  Horace Lundin nodded his head in a vigorous show of attentiveness, as his eyes stayed fixed on the piece of wood sticking out of the man’s arm.  The soldier pointed with his unimpaired hand to the smoking buildings in the distance as he spoke.   Lundin didn’t look, but even from this distance he could hear the clatter of horses’ hooves, the clash of swords, and a single strangled scream from time to time.

“We swept through the western homes with your masters; no sign of arcane symbols,” the blond man said.  “Which makes the lake house the likeliest site for the target.  I’m afraid getting there won’t be pretty.”

“Not pretty… much like the spear in your arm,” Lundin offered.  Aloud?  I hope that wasn’t aloud.  The soldier was looking up at the time, gritting his teeth against the pain, with no sign of having heard anything.  Thank the Spheres.

The man’s good arm gestured to the wide lake below, and the heavily forested island just east of its center.   “Between the water, the archers, the tree cover, can’t get there fast,” he said.  The soldier glanced up at Lundin. “Any tricks your masters can pull, now’s the time.  Can Petronauts walk on water yet?”

“Depends how far,” Lundin said, making a note.

The man shook his head, wonderingly.  “Glad you people are fighting on our side, that’s all I can say.  I’d hate to see mechanical knights like you on the other side of the battlefield.”

“‘Like me?’  Oh, I’m just a technician,” Lundin demurred.  “Nobody’s scared of me.”

The muscular, bleeding soldier raised an eyebrow at Lundin, but had the good grace not to point out how self-evident that was.  The Petronaut technician was fresh-faced, and trim enough, but ‘‘scary’’ was nowhere near the top of the list of adjectives the soldier would use to describe him.  Equine, maybe, the soldier thought.  The tech’s long face, bulging eyes, and gangly limbs reminded him of a horse who’d seen better days.

“At any rate,” he told Lundin, clearing his throat, “Unless you Petronauts decide to do it yourselves, the Army’s ready to storm that island.  We’re lashing rafts together now.  Tell the Viscount ninety minutes and we’ll be across the lake.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, sir,” he said, standing to a remarkable height and throwing a calm salute with his unskewered arm, “I need to have this removed.”

“Of course,” Lundin said when nothing else came to mind, flinging up a salute of his own.

As he hurried through the disciplined chaos of the Delian base camp, Horace Lundin involuntarily scratched his shoulder and tried hard not to imagine twelve centimeters of iron and wood embedded in there.  A soldier who could deliver a lucid report with that kind of injury, before seeing the master of physic?  Why would these miserable peasants even think of resisting an army of soldiers like that?

He looked over his shoulder, catching another glimpse of the green lake, its forested island, and the now-smoking homes along the waterside.  If those houses were less on fire, Lundin thought, Verrure township would be a wonderful place to live.  What about this bucolic scene had been so intolerable to the peasants?  Was paying taxes to the City of Delia so awful, given that Delian roads and markets were responsible for all that income they paid their five percent on?   And why, by the eight Spheres, would they think attacking their tax collectors would be the way to accomplish anything?  They had to have known that the Army would come riding out in force.  Third peasant village this year to make a fuss for us…

He shook the distracting thoughts out of his head and pressed on, thin legs carrying him at high speed.  There was a battle going on, and an urgent message to deliver.

The greatest of the red-and-black war pavilions was in view now, black-clad couriers coming and going like termites on a mound.  The banner of Viscount LaMontina flew from its apex, a rearing bull in silhouette.  All through the base camp, the muddy ground between tents was chewed to pieces by boots and hooves, with only a few defiant tufts of grass remaining.  Lundin sidestepped a burly woman with an armful of quivers as an armorer stuck his bald head out of a tent to bellow a final order after her.  A master of physic, in characteristic light blue, was moving towards the battlefield with grim purpose.  Her orderly followed at a snail’s pace, carrying a great basin with both hands and focusing all his attention on not spilling it.  A weathered sergeant-major in black and gold was overseeing a squad of grunting conscripts as they loaded a sledge with logs, ropes, and cakes of sticky daub; the materials for the rafts needed to storm the lake house.

This whole encampment had been erected only last night, and, given the way the campaign was progressing, it would be packed away victoriously within ten hours.  But, for now, the bustle of soldiers, servants, and supporters was a miniature boomtown with a single industry: war.  Lundin’s eye fell on (and quickly darted away from) a wooden cage catty-corner from the main pavilion, stuffed with a dozen grimy, bleeding farmers in various states of misery.  Business was good, he thought soberly.

Lundin felt uneasy in the camp.  His squad—the tiny Reconnaissance squad, with two Petronaut knights and two technicians playing squire to them—had not been assigned to an active battlefield like this in the three years he’d been serving the Delian crown.  There hadn’t been any wars to fight, nor any other perplexing little rebellions to put down.  Petronauts were outside any official chain of command, and generally had more dealings with the city guard than the Army.  But the Petronaut Board of Governors recognized that volunteering their members as support staff to the Delian Army on occasion was one of the best ways to ensure continued good relations with—and continued independence from—military command.  It was a fair trade, Lundin supposed; though working in the camp structure was confusing.  He’d been informed that LaMontina’s forces were considering him the equivalent of a ‘staff sergeant’ for the duration of the campaign, rather than think of him as a pure civilian.  Lundin was fifty percent sure that meant he outranked the corporal who’d just reported to him.  But who can keep all these silly titles straight?  He shook his head, grousing.  First priority, after he delivered the report, would be to get the squad’s Communicator up and running so he could talk directly to Sir Kelley, the senior Petronaut on the front lines.  None of this he-said/she-said chain of verbal reports and middlemen.  One of Lundin’s duties was to make sure communication stayed open between the ‘nauts and the command pavilion where the techs were stationed.  Talking to couriers and corporals was nice, and all, but it was time to start using the right tool for the job.

Lundin was preoccupied with his thoughts as he pulled open the brocaded flap to the Viscount’s pavilion.  He ducked his head to enter, nearly bumping the thin-faced captain trying to exit.  They both stopped short. Lundin waited for her to pass, and she expected him to plow forward; but when each saw the other hesitating, they started forward again simultaneously.  This time, Lundin’s muddy boot scraped the captain’s foot, leaving a brown streak on her dark armor.

“After you, please,” Lundin said, raising his hands and taking a huge, embarrassed step backwards.  The tent flap, which he was no longer holding, swung into the captain’s face.  He lunged forward to catch it, overreached, and stubbed his fingers on her heavy shoulder guards.

After scrabbling for a proper grip on the tent flap, the captain swept the heavy black-and-crimson fabric aside and stormed forward, her helmet askew.  Her blazing eyes judged him top to bottom in a single glance, and Lundin immediately felt ten centimeters shorter.  “Sorry, sir,” Lundin said weakly.

“If you people had a uniform, you’d be a disgrace to it,” she spat.  “Now salute your superior.”

Lundin saluted frantically.  The captain stormed away.  Lundin followed her with his eyes, holding the salute with a wavering hand.  When she was out of sight, he lowered his hand and very gingerly pulled the tent flap open, checking both directions before ducking inside.

A spherical oil lamp, suspended from the beams in the ceiling, cast orange light over the dozen men and women in the Viscount’s pavilion.  It was whale oil burning up there, and in the lanterns hanging closer to eye level.  The meager supply of petrolatum requisitioned for this simple campaign was needed for more important things than light, like operating the man-sized computing box in the corner.  Lundin was cheered up to see his fellow technician, Samanthi, in her usual sprawl at the base of the machine, unscrewing a defunct vacuum tube as the Abacus continued to whir and click.   A black-and-gold officer with a dark beard stood over her with his arms crossed, trying very hard not to look befuddled.  Lundin smirked at the sight.  The Petronauts might not have uniforms, he thought, but we’ve got toys nobody else even knows how to play with.

Lundin wrinkled his nose as a truly unique smell assailed his nostrils.  The wizard—Jelma?  Jilmat? he couldn’t remember—was hard at work on the other side of the pavilion.  ‘Work’ for a wizard, of course, involved drawing shapes on the floor in colored sand, kneeling inside your artwork, lighting some incense, chewing some suspicious mushrooms, and muttering to yourself for upwards of twelve hours.  Occasionally, you might wail, stomp your feet, or remove an article of clothing.  (Jellmap here was down to a filthy vest, tiny cloth shorts, and about six bracelets on each tanned, wiry arm.) A wizard’s real work began when, after half a day of spellcasting with no concrete result to show from it, you had to feed your clients enough manure to convince them you still deserved your ridiculous fee.  Fast talking: that was where the real magic was.

Lundin coughed from the incense, and frowned as he saw a series of four white disks hanging from the beams above the Viscount’s table; more wizardly décor, no doubt.  He didn’t give the wizard another glance as he walked to the commander.  Lundin understood perfectly well the need for ‘protective spells,’ since the peasants theoretically had some magic on their side in this campaign; but it was still damned hard to take the moaning Mr. Jailrat seriously.

“Mister Lundin, was it?”  Viscount LaMontina looked up from his maps as Lundin approached.  Half a dozen other serious officers stopped their strategizing to look at Lundin, and he had no trouble remembering to salute this time.  The Viscount gave him a prompt salute in reply, and Lundin settled back down.  LaMontina was a year or two younger than he, actually, though as far above Lundin in the social strata as Earth was from the eighth Sphere.  But something about LaMontina put Lundin at ease, more so than anyone else in the camp.  The man was broad-shouldered, a fine specimen of military stature, but with a babyish face and a smile that looked almost sheepish when it crept into view.  Right now, LaMontina had his brows furrowed in a serious, commanding fashion, and the protective body language of the older officers betrayed only a trace of indulgence.  Quashing this rebellion was his first independent campaign, an obvious test bestowed on him by the Regency Council back in Delia.  Everyone here—including Lundin—wanted the earnest young commander to succeed.

Lundin arranged himself into a facsimile of parade rest and put on a serious face.

“What news from the Petronaut detachment?”  LaMontina asked, his voice quiet and firm.

“Sirs Kelley and Mathias are doing well, Your Grace.  A wounded, uh, corporal from the detachment reported that the peasants have been completely routed in the west, and the lakeside homes are clear.”

“Did they find a pentacle?”  A balding commander with beaded grey mustaches interjected.

“No sign of enemy wizardry yet.”

All the officers murmured at that.  LaMontina’s face fell ever so slightly, behind the façade of command.  He tapped a finger meditatively on the rolled-out map, drumming on the green island in the center of the lake.  “As feared, then, their wizard must be here.”

“Preparations to storm the island will be redoubled,” an officer said, gesturing to a black-clad courier, who bowed curtly and slipped away.

“The corporal said they’d cross the lake in ninety minutes,” Lundin reported, eyes flicking from face to face.  Everyone looked so concerned; you’d think he’d just reported that the Army been routed, not the peasants.  So what that there was a single wizard still unaccounted for?  Were these hardened military men and women as superstitious as all that?

LaMontina traced a finger around the island on his map.  “A great deal can happen in ninety minutes,” he whispered.  “If only there was a way to make landfall sooner.”

Lundin wracked his brain, eager to offer help to the young commander.  An idea struck him. “Your Grace?  The Petronauts, Sirs Kelley and Mathias, might be able to thrust across the water before the rafts, depending on the distance and their ‘tum reserves,” Lundin offered. “Lead the charge, you know?”

“A kilometer from shoreline to this promontory,” LaMontina said, touching the northeastern edge of the island.

Lundin did some quick calculations in his head, and nodded.  “They’d have to return on the rafts, but could almost certainly make it across.”

As the implication of Lundin’s words sunk in, the murmuring silenced.  The Viscount stood, his officers giving him space as his wide eyes searched the technician’s face.  “A one-way trip into the teeth of the enemy’s defenses,” he said, “in advance of conventional support.  Would your masters consent to such an endeavor?”

Lundin looked back at the young commander.  “If you say it’s necessary, Your Grace, to neutralize that wizard in time,” he replied quietly, “I’m sure you only have to give the order.”

“Thrusting that far over the water?  Damned magical themselves, these Petronauts,” one of the officers said, shaking her head in amazement.

“What I wouldn’t give for a hundred like them,” the balding man agreed.

LaMontina chose his words with measured authority.  “I, for one, consider it a privilege to command these brave two, and their technicians.” he said, extending his ungloved hand across the table, a smile in his eyes.

He clasped Lundin’s hand firmly.   Lundin basked in the glow of his leaderly approval.

“You told him what?”  Samanthi hissed, minutes later, giving Lundin a shove.

Lundin folded his arms and leaned further back into the corner, away from the nearest black-and-gold officer.  “The truth,” he whispered defensively.  “Kelley and Mathias almost certainly have enough petrolatum to thrust across to the island.”

“‘Almost certainly?’’ So, you admit there’s a chance they run out of ‘tum halfway to the island and just plunge into the water in full combat gear.  What about the chance archers take them out as they thrust?  Or once they reach land with no fuel?  Or once they reach the lake house?  Or that they die at the hands of the deadly wizard?  Any of these probabilities interest you, Horace?  Why don’t we run ‘em through the Abacus?”

“You leave Abby out of this,” Lundin said, sulking.

“You leave me out of this,” she retorted, flicking his ear. He yelped.  “You’re delivering the good news to Sir Kelley,”  Samanthi said.

“I’d like to point out that you’re the senior tech.”

“Right.  And as the senior tech, I’m officially letting you take the fall for your own flaming screw-up,” Samanthi Elena said, pulling her sandy hair back from her round face.  She tied it back and turned to the purring Abacus.  “Consider it training.  Put those there,” she said to a courier arriving with the latest supply figures from the quartermaster.

The courier saluted and set the shallow crate, overflowing with tan cards, on the carpeted floor of the pavilion.  The tan cards were dotted with shorthand and symbols in regular patterns, quick reports from officers across the camp on everything from the quantity of blackpowder remaining to the current condition of all the horses.  Lundin grabbed a stack of cards and fed them into the waiting slot of the Congregator, a hissing machine with ferocious metallic prongs jutting upwards and outwards, like tusks.  A column of blank pink cards was affixed to the side of the machine, contained by thin glass walls.  The tan cards Lundin fed with lazy familiarity into the top had symbols designed for human eyes.  The Congregator would translate them into the language the Abacus understood best—sequences of open holes and closed spaces.  The needle-thin punching teeth hidden inside the Congregator would punch out pink card after pink card and spit them along the horizontal prongs, where Lundin would retrieve them.  The pink cards, brimming with the same data in a new, Abacus-friendly format, would be fed into the great machine.  And the techs could perform any number of operations on the newly encoded dataset.  Once the process was complete, Abby would tell the Army the state of their inventory faster than a team of clerks ever could.

On the other side of the Abacus, Samanthi grabbed a blank blue program card, several times larger than the tan data cards, and turned to the press.  Lundin shifted his weight, not eager to make the call to Sir Kelley.  “You know what?” he said instead.  “I’d love to see what Abby has to say about the odds of Kelley and Mathias taking out some drug-addled wizard.  What’s your wager?  98 percent success rate?  100 percent?  Margin of error of a big fat zero?”

“Don’t underestimate magicians,” Samanthi said, shifting the miniscule type on the press.

“They are as far under as I can estimate them.  I mean, Sam, look at the buffoon we’ve got here.  What’s his name, Jellmik?”

They briefly looked across the pavilion.  Through a cloud of incense, they could see the wizard hugging his dirty knees to his chest and rocking back and forth.  One of his bracelets was in his mouth.  The two technicians shook their heads.

“His name’s not Jellmik,” Samanthi said.

“What is it, then?”

“How should I know?  It’s hard to strike up a conversation with a guy who’s eating his own jewelry.”

“I just think,” Lundin said, grabbing his own pile of figures from the crate, “that if this hypothetical enemy wizard is anything like our man here, LaMontina has less than nothing to worry about.”

“Not hypothetical.  Field agents scouted this place out, and it’s documented that Verrure has a wizard, and she’s on the side of the rebellion.  And with the extra something she’s got, Horace, if she’s any good at all, she’s a real threat to the Viscount.”

Lundin made a face.  Yes, LaMontina had undergone a leech treatment before beginning the campaign.  Yes, traitorous conscripts had attacked the orderly on his way to dispose of the leeches, and had taken the bloodsuckers prisoner.  Yes, the traitors most likely fled to Verrure with the leeches.  So the wizard had a quantity of LaMontina’s blood, and it was only a few days old.  Even if you accepted conventional wisdom that magic was more likely to work if you had personal artifacts related to your subject, the chance some peasant wizard with a vial of half-digested blood could do any harm to Viscount LaMontina in his pavilion kilometers away was… miniscule?  Laughable?  Negligible?  Which word says it best?  Lundin considered.

“I don’t blame His Grace for taking it seriously,” he said, removing old tan cards from their slots on the other side of Abby, and replacing them from the crate of up-to-date cards.  The used cards he tossed into a silver bucket full of liquid—the Pickle—where they hissed and bubbled gently.  The cards would soften and disintegrate into pulp, ready to be reconstituted and pressed into blank, fresh cards as needed in the future.  “He wants this campaign to go perfectly.  But if Viscount LaMontina was really concerned  for his safety?  He wouldn’t be this close to the front line!”

“A commander staying twenty kilometers from the front, on his first independent campaign.  That’d look great to the Regents,” Samanthi said evenly from the press, setting the last peg in place.  She laid the blue card onto its plate and swung the type down, to the soft sound of fiber being punctured.  The press inscribed a series of operations on the punch card, notated in line after line of holes and closed spaces.  Each blue card had eighty lines, of which Abby’s reader could process seventy-two. The last eight helped identify each card so the techs had a prayer of keeping them in order.  A single misplaced card would throw off the entire program.  For the techs, it was the stuff of nightmares to have to shuffle through an entire stack of cards to find out which one was out of place.  So Samanthi was painstakingly careful as she swapped the new cards for the old ones. When she was done, Samanthi would get to pull a big, satisfying lever—the perks of being senior tech—and the program would execute.  Nine short minutes later, the computing box would print a comprehensive, to-the-minute report on the state of supply in LaMontina’s camp.

‘Abacus’ was a deliberately ironic name.  The Petronauts knew that this state-of-the-art machine was as far from an abacus as a six-pounder cannon was from a sharpened rock.

Samanthi looked at Lundin.  “His Grace is taking a calculated risk.  The danger here is real; small, but real; and he’s doing his job regardless, because he’s brave.  And you, junior technician, are not doing your job right now because you’re a gutless squab.  Now put the damn cards down, call Sir Kelley and tell him what a fun mission you volunteered us for.”

Lundin opened his mouth, then bit his lip. Samanthi was right, of course.  He had to call Sir Kelley now, just as surely as he should have kept his mouth shut when the risky idea had struck him.  It was just that LaMontina had needed help, and for once in this campaign he’d wanted to feel like he was really contributing a new idea, a new strategy to the discussion—

“Behold— the disks!  The disks!”

All eyes in the pavilion turned.  The wizard was on his feet, gnashing his teeth, with tears pouring from his eyes.  His voice was booming with rage and fear. One long finger was stretched as straight as a pike, pointing above the Viscount’s table to the wizardly white disks hanging from the beams—

Lundin blinked.  The white disks were turning black.

Like a fire nibbling at the edges of a sheet of paper, blackness was spreading from the outside in on each of the four disks.  LaMontina looked up at the dangling circles, his eyes darting from one to the next.  “Wizard!  What does this mean?”  he snapped.

“Peril, oh Graceful One!” the sorcerer wailed.  “A spell approaches.  Close your mind and make the Sign of Warding!”

After a brief hesitation, LaMontina curled his second and middle fingers into his palm and raised his hand to his chest in the half-remembered gesture everyone learned in childhood.  One of his officers  took him by the arm.

“Your Grace, we must remove you to safety now!”

“A courier horse has been waiting for this moment.  Ride fifteen kilometers distant and no magic can touch you.”

“No!”  bellowed the wizard, falling heavily to the ground as if his legs had been swept from under him.  He looked up, his face stained with the purple sand from his design, and raised two claw-like hands towards the Viscount.  Everyone stepped away from the man involuntarily.  “No time!  Graceful One, Man-Child, He of the Rearing Bull, your life now rests in my hands.  Room!  Room!”

In response to the wizard’s frantic gestures, and LaMontina’s confirmation, the officers stepped away.  Under the copper light of the whale-oil lamp, the Viscount stood alone behind his desk.  The four disks ringing him were no longer white, but halfway obscured by crawling threads of black.  Lundin stared at the transforming disks, mesmerized.  What’s the trick? How’s the wizard controlling his little decorations?

A rough hand on his shoulder shook him back to reality.  The balding commander in black-and-gold was pointing a finger in his face.  “Technician!  Are your masters in position?”

Two other officers were towering over him, with the urgent menace of strong men who feel helpless.  “I—”  he stumbled over his own tongue.  “I haven’t transmitted His Grace’s order yet.”

The officers swore.  “Get the Petronauts to that island this instant.  We need to find and kill this flaming wizard before the spell finishes.”

Lundin threw a salute so sharply he almost brained himself.  He staggered to the cluttered heap of Petronaut equipment and, with a mighty heave, lifted the Communicator out of its case.  Lundin set the boxy device roughly onto the crate of paperwork.  Two fluted tin speech trumpets stood up straight from the box like daffodils, and a curled crank near the base rose up like a squirrel’s tail.  Lundin grabbed the crank with both hands.  He began turning it as fast as he could, seeing the dial spark with power.  “Thirty seconds, at least, until you can make a transmission,”  Samanthi said, snapping her fingers as her mind whirled.  “I’ll get the booster antenna; this message needs to reach Kelley.”

Lundin just nodded as she began assembling the antenna, trying to concentrate on each turn of the crank.  But his eyes went back to the disks.  What was that blackness?

Across the room, the wizard screamed, and kicked his bare feet through each line of his diamond design.  Sand went flying in showers of black, crimson and purple.  He grabbed the sticks of burning incense and snapped them in two, and then in two again, seemingly unconscious of the smoldering fire pressing against his hands.  He flung the wooden shards to the ground and stripped off his vest.  Nearly naked now, he lay down on his back atop the splinters of incense and screeched, “Stay strong, Graceful One!”

Lundin glanced down at the dial as he cranked.  Ten more seconds.  He raised his head, and caught sight of Viscount LaMontina looking back at him.  Standing still with his hand raised awkwardly to his chest in the Sign of Warding, and his ornate black-and-crimson armor undented by battle, he looked like a statue.  His youthful face, though, was alive with emotion; confusion, regret, concern, and at this point, a trace of fear.  But then that sheepish smile Lundin had only seen once or twice before crept onto his face, almost as if to say he couldn’t believe himself to be the center of so much fuss.

“Mister Lundin,” the Viscount said, his voice quiet and calm.  Lundin swallowed and nodded. “Have you called the Petronauts?”

The dial was glowing dully; a passably full charge, at last.  He flicked the switch, snatched the telescoping stalk of the thinner trumpet and drew it upwards to his lips.  “Transmitting now, Your Grace,” he said.  Samanthi stabbed the base of the antenna into its socket on the side of the Communicator, and handed the conical, corded earpiece to Lundin.  He raised it to his ear, hearing only the grey, fuzzy sound of an incomplete connection.  Who knew how much time would pass before Sir Kelley would respond to the signal.

He took a deep breath, and looked back into LaMontina’s eyes.  Time stretched out.  “Don’t worry, Your Grace.  Help is on the way,” Lundin said in a quavering voice, his emotions surprising him.

The young nobleman shifted his shoulders and stood to his full, proud height, his eyes clear.  “I’m not worried,” he said in a soft voice that filled the entire pavilion.

And then, as four black disks came fluttering down from the ceiling, Viscount LaMontina burst into flames.


Chapter Two

The Motto

“It didn’t have to happen,”  Lundin said again.

The workshop was dim, with the clear white of a single frosted gaslight by the door shedding the only illumination.  The crowded shelves loomed over the two workbenches, their shadows casting long black blades onto the far wall.  A single carriage clopped by on the street below, outside the shuttered windows.  Lundin hadn’t touched his beer.

“And what’s that supposed to mean, Horace?”  Samanthi said.  She leaned back in her stool, pulling a loose thread out of her overalls with an impatient snap.  “How does saying that help anything now?”

“There was something else we could have done.”

“You could have called us earlier, there’s a thought,” Sir Mathias Mascarpone said, sipping his beer.  The hulking Petronaut drummed his fingers in sequence along his stein, making a sound like a galloping metal pony.  “Maybe we could have thrust over to the island alone, like you wanted, and gotten ourselves killed too.  That would have helped.”

“Maybe you would have found the wizard in time,” Lundin said.

Samanthi and Sir Mathias exchanged a look.  “Not possible, Horace,” he said, more kindly. “All those fighters, and all that ground to cover?  Even if you’d called us the instant you got to LaMontina’s pavilion, there’s no way we could have stopped the spell in time.”

“There was no way around this one,”  Samanthi said.  “Now will you just get drunk already so we can stop talking about this?”

“No way around it, huh?  Is that what Abby says?”

“Punch a few cards, Horace, by all means,” Samanthi said, her color rising.  “Play with the variables.  Design a hundred scenarios where the Viscount survives.  And then get over yourself, because this may have been your first time working a combat zone, but it won’t be your last.  And you need to get used to the idea that sometimes people die.”

“But how often do they die through magic?”  Lundin rose to his feet, unable to stay still.  “Sir Mathias, you’ve seen plenty of fights.  How often does a commander burn to death in his pavilion that far from the battlefield?”

“It’s a first for me,”  Mathias admitted, sipping his beer.

“Why doesn’t it happen in every battle?  There are plenty of people out there calling themselves wizards.  If magic is real—“

“You still don’t think magic is real?”  Samanthi said.  “Ask clan LaMontina right now if magic is real.”

“—which it is, obviously,” Lundin continued, “but then why does the battlefield need soldiers?  Horses?  Cannons?  Petronauts?  If a peasant witch can kill a guarded, Warded nobleman, why is war ever face-to-face?”

“Because magic fails,” Sir Kelley said from the doorway.

Sir Mathias hastily set down his beer as they turned to look at the senior Petronaut, just inside the doorway.  T. Kelley Malcolm, Esq., wasn’t much of a drinker; nor had he gotten familiar enough with his team in three years to let them know what his first initial stood for.  After the dressing down he had given Lundin for presuming to make tactical decisions in yesterday’s Verrure campaign, none of them expected Kelley to make an appearance at an informal gathering like this.  But there he was, austere as ever in his high-collared black jacket, its polished silver buttons shining like filaments. The white gaslight was harsh on his pockmarked face.

“You could add and subtract a million externals from what happened yesterday,” Kelley said, “and you’d get new results.  But you could also keep everything the same—have the same military strategy, Lundin’s same homicidal plan to send Petronauts to their deaths, his same inaction.  You could have the same two wizards attempt to cast the same spell and counterspell, and you know what would happen? In almost every case, nothing.”  His green eyes were hard. “Because that’s what magic does.  It fails.”

“Point of order, boss?”  Samanthi said in the brief silence that followed.  “Magic sort of succeeded yesterday.”

“One in a thousand odds.”

“But why?”  Lundin said.  “Sir Kelley, look, I’m with you that magic is usually only good for a laugh, but it’s a fact that yesterday magic killed a good man in a terrible way.”

“Yesterday was a fluke.”

“I don’t buy it,” Lundin said without thinking, thumping his palm against the workbench.  He caught sight of Kelley’s face tightening and hastily added, “Not to contradict you, Sir Kelley; and can I reiterate again how sincerely sorry I am for yesterday?”

“Yes,” Kelley said, narrowing his eyes.

“But do you know what I mean?  Any of you?”  Lundin gestured helplessly.  “Sir Mathias.  What’s the least reliable piece of gear on your suit?”

Mathias tilted his head, oily brown curls of hair spilling towards his shoulder.  “I’d say the fire douser,” he decided. “Thank the Spheres we set more fires than we fight, ‘cause that thing never works right in testing.”

“Great!  Exactly!  Let me think, what was wrong with it last time?  The nozzle kept getting clogged…”

“The spread was uneven, one of the hoses leaked, on and on and on.”

“But did we stop there? Petronauts like us?  Did we say ‘well, fire dousers just fail, so keep using it just as it is and maybe there’s a one-in-a-thousand chance you’ll be able to put out a fire someday?’”

“Do you like to hear yourself talk, Mr. Lundin?”  Sir Kelley said.

“Oh, the opposite,” Lundin said, his hands fluttering with nervous energy.  “But, so?  Is that what we say, when the douser or anything else acts up?”

“Spheres no,” Samanthi said, setting her empty beer down.  “When something’s misbehaving, we find the problem and we fix it.”

Ulraexi Pillok Mentatum Est,”  Sir Mathias said, reciting a Petronaut motto.  “The Mind is the Key to All Things.”

“Yes!”  Lundin’s eyes lit up with gratitude. “So what if we could fix… magic?”

There was silence.  The sound of a drunk throwing up in the alley across the street wafted through the shutters like an embarrassing smell.

“Get some rest, Mr. Lundin,” Kelley said, turning for the door.

“It must have rules, Sir Kelley!  Everything has rules.  If we could apply the Petronaut spirit of inquiry, of reason, of perseverance, to the study of magic, maybe—” Lundin’s voice caught in his throat. “Maybe no more good men would have to die from flukes.”

The evening air was warm and heavy in the workshop, and beads of sweat were visible on Lundin’s forehead.  Mathias laid a gentle hand on the smaller man’s shoulder.  Sir Kelley’s voice lashed out from across the room.

“You want to learn the rules of magic, Mr. Lundin?  You want to fix it?  You want to apply a spirit of order to the most atavistic, chaotic nonsense humanity has ever indulged in?”  Kelley’s green eyes were lit up with a cruel private joke.

Lundin swallowed.  “By your leave, Sir,” he said, bobbing up and down in what looked more like a curtsey than a bow.

Kelley was on the verge of laughter, but instead nodded once and turned smartly towards the door.  “Well then.  Mister Lundin, we shall meet outside your shameful hovel at first light. Be prepared to travel.  We are going to meet my grandfather.”

“He has a family?”  Samanthi murmured to the others.

Lundin blinked.  “I’m honored, Sir; but can I ask why we’re going to meet your grandfather?”

The Petronaut grinned tightly before slipping out the door and into the warm night.

“Because he’s a wizard.”


Chapter Three

A Mind Like An Ocean

“It’s just that I’ve never seen so many eyeballs,” Lundin said, gulping for air.  He had his hands on his knees, and tried to beat down the queasy lump in his throat with a series of shallow breaths.  “All in one place, I mean.”

“Sometimes you need eyeballs,” the old woman said evenly, her knitting needles clicking faintly against each other.  Archimedia’s face was lined with age, and her hair was white, but her hands looked unsettlingly smooth and youthful, flicking with agility back and forth as she fastened the strands of scarlet wool together.  Lundin gulped again at the unwelcome thought that, in addition to the glass jar of eyeballs, this married couple might have a crate of lovely female hands down in the cellar, ready to be swapped in as spares should the need arise.

Lundin tried not to look too hard at the shelves looming on all sides of the small room, laden with racks of incense, candles, jars of multicolored sand, and earthenware pots of who knew what.  But since the wizards had brought it out, he forced himself to crouch and look at the jar of eyeballs centered on the low octagonal table in the center of the floor.  There were the square-pupilled eyes of goats, the huge black eyes of cows, and the villainous slitted eyes of cats, suspended in heavy golden syrup.  His stomach was churning like a turbine, and he breathed through his mouth. The air made him cough.  Between the lingering aromas of burnt offerings in the hut, and the fishy, briny air from the Harborfront outside, each breath was like a ladleful of rancid soup.

“So… what do you do with the eyeballs?”  he said, concentrating very hard on  the blank pages of his scrollbook.

Tymon sighed, visibly impatient with the interview already.  Kelley’s grandfather—though the two men hadn’t exchanged more than a dozen words in the half hour Kelley and Lundin had been here, let alone displayed any outward familial feeling— was sitting on a pile of cushions with his legs crossed over each in an impossible manner.  Tymon was deeply tanned, with a shaved head and the thinnest eyebrows Lundin had ever seen on a man, plucked into high, sweeping curves.  Braids of coarse, colorful fabric hung around his neck and sank all the way down his bare chest (visible through the tight, dirty vest) to his navel.  The old man might have looked laughable, had it not been for his air of bottomless confidence and the piercing eyes his grandson had clearly inherited.

“The eyeballs are not always necessary,” Tymon said slowly and clearly, as if to a foreign child. “And when a spell calls for them, one never knows beforehand how they will be used.”

“But… if a spell calls for them, how can you not know how they’ll be used?”  Lundin’s stomach was settling down, but his head was pounding from too much breathing.  And from too much crazy, he thought uncharitably.  He tried to keep his demeanor reasonable.  “I mean, when a recipe calls for flour, you’re not going to use the flour to— to light the stove.  Right?”

“Don’t be closed to possibilities,” Archimedia said without looking up.

Lundin’s laugh trailed off, and he glanced over his shoulder at Sir Kelley, standing by the door with arms crossed over his chest.  The senior ‘naut was grinning like a coyote, loving every minute of this in his completely unhelpful way.

“A recipe is a wrong-headed analogy.  When I say a spell ‘calls’ for something, I mean exactly what I say,” Tymon said.  “The wizard is speaking to the Mobinoji throughout the spell—”

“Mobinoji; the spirits,” Lundin clarified, scuttling back through his notes.

“—and the Mobinoji call to him, offering suggestions in the moment as to best command the streams of power and keep hold of the spell.”

“So.  I’m sorry, where do the eyeballs come in?”

“Sometimes you need eyeballs!”  Tymon snapped.  He looked directly at Kelley for the first time since they’d arrived.  “This is pointless. Your servant’s mind is a pebble; small and inflexible.  Understanding magic takes a mind like an ocean; expansive, and mutable.”

“What did I tell you, Mr. Lundin?” Kelley said, his eyes dancing with pleasure.  “Magic takes a mind like an ocean; sloppy and full of weeds.  Ready to go?”

“A Petronaut cannot learn anything new.  The best his clockwork mind can hope to do is spin in circles until it rusts.  Good day.”  Tymon was standing now, and dismissed them over his shoulder in a flat voice.  Kelley lost no time heading for the door, his boots muffled against the dirt floor.

“Mr. Tymon!”

Lundin was standing too, his fingers clenched along the edge of his notes.  Slowly, the wizard turned his head to meet the technician’s eyes, cocking his head with just a trace of interest.  Now that he had the old man’s attention, Lundin didn’t know what to say, but he was sure if he let his emotions keep boiling something would come out through his mouth soon enough.

“I want to understand,” was what finally escaped the stew of wounded pride, frustration, and  curiosity in his belly.  “I want to learn,” Lundin said, discovering the words a few seconds after they emerged.

Tymon gazed at Lundin for a long moment.  Then either a breeze blew through the drafty hut, or the old wizard nodded gently.  “So I see.” Tymon cradled his hands in front of his tanned, flat belly.  “If my grandson can stand the sight of me a few minutes more, then, I shall explain it again.  With fewer details, perhaps, this time.”

“Whatever works,” Lundin said, stylus at the ready.

“The crucial point you must understand is that magic happens only by the grace of the Mobinoji.  We are vessels of their power.”

“Okay.”

“A wizard must do them due honor at the beginning of any spell; preparing the colored pentacles and designs that attract their attention; burning the sweet incense; making sure his or her own body is pure, unsullied by soaps and other modern travesties…”

“Soap and magic don’t mix?”

The question was so impossibly foolish that Tymon, a trace of hauteur creeping back into his face, refused to respond directly.  “Once these preparations are complete, the wizard commences the Invocation, the first portion of any spell.”

“‘The Invocation.’  So how do you do that?”

“A thousand and one ways,” Tymon said, a tapping finger betraying his impatience.  “Sometimes through chant.  Sometimes through dance.  Sometimes the Mobinoji  may call for a totem.  A statuette.  A stick.  A hand of earth.  Even, yes, an eyeball.  Each Invocation is utterly unique, and the wizard must be open to follow what the spell requires in the moment.”

Each Invocation is utterly unique, Lundin wrote, his heart sinking.  The more he talked to the wizard, the more he knew Kelley was right.  Magic was pure chaos.

“Although…”

Tymon looked over to Archimedia as she lowered her work.  Something in her tone made Lundin flip to a new page.  She spoke to her husband as if reminding him to empty the chamber pots: “The pingdu calabra is always spoken.”

“What’s that?”

Tymon waved a hand dismissively.  “Words of connection.  A prayer for access.  The, uh… details, details.  Archimedia, do not confuse him, his mind is skittish.”

“The words of the pingdu calabra are always spoken precisely in the Invocation, or the wizard will not bridge to the world of the Mobinoji.”  Archimedia said, swinging her clouded eyes over to Lundin.  “She can channel no power and the spell will never begin.  If that confuses you, I hope your mother is ashamed of herself.”

“No, no, that—I think that makes sense,” Lundin said.  He tossed a glance back to Sir Kelley, who was frowning with old-fashioned sourness now.  Lundin took that as a sign that he was finally hearing something worthwhile. “Ma’am, do you mean to say there’s something about casting a spell that’s constant every time?”

“Several things,” Archimedia nodded.

“But they are the least interesting part of the ritual.”

“These are Petronauts, husband.  They delight in the uninteresting.”

Tymon grimaced at his calm-faced wife.  He raised his hands to the ceiling, thoroughly roused now.  “To focus on what is constant, spell to spell, is to misunderstand the very nature of magic. Magic is about freedom; becoming one with the chaotic now; interpreting the wishes of the Mobinoji with passionate abandon in the moment.”

“And the constants keep you grounded in the middle of all that,” Lundin said, taking notes in earnest now.

“No!”  Tymon literally jabbed his finger into Lundin’s face, and the technician squeaked in pain.  Who does that?  Lundin thought, leaning back and rubbing the red tip of his nose.  “The constants chain us down!  To be expected to remember and return to them in the height of magical exhilaration is ridiculous.  Anti-magical.  Unless the spirits specifically call for them, I, for one, omit them in my casting.”

“And how often do your spells fail?”

As expected, the room got deathly quiet and Tymon’s eyes narrowed so hard he probably gave himself a migrane.  Lundin was sure he could have put the question more delicately, but his nose hurt so he didn’t feel like it.  He looked at the old wizard with an upturned face and waited for the man to get over himself and answer, one way or the other.

“Spells never fail,” Tymon finally said.  “But… sometimes spells succeed in different ways.”

“Ha!”  Sir Kelley barked, utterly shameless.  His grandfather ignored him.  Lundin cleared his throat.

“What does that mean, Mr. Tymon?”

“Say you cast a love spell. You invoke the spirits, you name the woman or man to be acted upon, you describe the petitioner who longs for their love, you follow the calls of the spirits for six, eight, ten hours.  At the end, maybe the subject falls in love with the petitioner.  Maybe the subject falls in love with the petitioner’s brother, or someone who resembles him.  Maybe the subject is overcome with self-love and retreats to a private room.  Maybe a thousand other quiet things happen between two people and you never know what is magic and what is passion and what is destiny.”

Tymon looked sidelong at Lundin.  “All these things belong to the Mobinoji,” he said. “A wizard appeals to the spirits with his whole heart when he casts a spell, and however they choose to respond, he accepts it.  Success?  Failure?  These are Petronaut words, and they have no place here.  A wizard honors the spirits the same—the same—no matter the result.”

The wizard was sincerely trying to explain now, and Lundin appreciated it; but it was beyond the technician’s power to avoid saying the question that was rising up from his gut like a ripe belch.

“Why?”

Archimedia raised a hand a few seconds later, and Tymon stopped swearing.  The old wizard stomped off behind a curtain of feathers and beads and was gone from view.  His wife set her wool-work down and folded her smooth hands in her lap.  “Why what, exactly?” she asked.

“Why would you be just as happy with failure?”  Lundin whispered.

“Who are we to decide what failure is?”

“Failure is when a blacksmith hires you to make the milkmaid fall for him, and apart from a naughty dream about anvils she has in the hayloft, nothing happens to her,” he said.  “Ask any blacksmith; that’s failure.”

“Help me understand, Petronaut.  What would you have us do?”  Archimedia asked, her white hair catching the light.  Lundin leaned in closer to her, desperate to make his case while her encouraging attitude lasted.

“Don’t settle so easily,” he said.  “I know magic works.  I saw it do something horrible, with my own eyes.  And I saw how a good wizard felt when his magic hadn’t been strong enough to stop it.”  The look on Jellmap’s face as LaMontina’s body was carried out of the tent had been unbearable.  There was a man who knew perfectly well what failure was.  “If it works, there’s got to be a mechanism for how it works.  And that means there’s a mechanism for how it fails, too.  That’s just how the world is!  Do you see?  There’s got to be a difference—a measurable, substantive difference— between a spell that completes and a spell that fizzles.”

“The only difference is the pleasure of the spirits.”

“Okay; so how do you cast spells that please them more?”

“One never knows.”

“Then one isn’t asking!”  Lundin slammed a palm down on the table impulsively, and the jar of of eyeballs tipped over and started rolling towards him.  His vision went black and somebody gave a little shriek.

Archimedia waited patiently, and Kelley not so patiently, until Lundin had taken enough deep breaths to be able to continue.  “Thousands of wizards cast spells every day across the six continents, right?  If we can figure out what’s constant between the spells that work, and the ones that don’t, we can start spreading the word!  Improving the process.  Increasing the success rate.  We can understand magic, not just practice it.  And wizards, their customers, and all the rest of us will benefit.”

“You like the idea of constants, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lundin admitted.  “That’s my world.  But if, like you said, there are certain words that have to be said in order for an invocation to work; then, for all the chaos and all the variables magic’s got, I think it might be your world too.”

Archimedia stood, slowly.  She was a small woman, and thin, like an upside-down broom with white straw for hair.  Her fingers played across a woven charm on the wall.  “Mr. Lundin,” she whispered, her eyes looking at something far away.  “If you can, in fact, understand magic… improve the process… increase the success rate… what, exactly, makes you think we will all benefit?”

Lundin and Sir Kelley looked at each other.  “I… I don’t understand, ma’am.  How could we not?”

There was a long, heavy stillness.  They watched as her too-young hands wrung against each other nervously.  “How, indeed?” she murmured finally, her milky eyes unfocused.

With a visible effort, she brought herself back to reality.  Archimedia clapped her hands once.  “I have something I must show you,” she said, reaching for a dusty book on the crowded shelves.


Chapter Four

The Wizard’s Path

Jilmaq was a mess.  The wizard was curled up on the floor, whimpering, at the foot of his moldy cot in the moldy back room of his moldy, mushroom-shaped hut outside the city walls.  His leathery face was streaked with tears, and his long black braid so caked with dirt and debris it would take a rake, not a comb, to straighten its tangles.  A jug of pungent, nameless hooch was tipped over on his square bedside table.  The alcoholic puddle it was creating on the dirt floor was probably the cleanest spot in the entire house.

The wizard was distraught, sniveling, one arm looped around the leg of his bed for stability.  But he was also listening.

“Do you think they blame you for LaMontina’s death?”

“I know it,” Jilmaq said shakily, not looking at the figure standing over him.  An expectant silence hung in the air.  Jilmaq clenched his fist around the wooden leg, growing angry.  “What more would you have me say?” he growled. “They blame me.  I failed.  Does it please you to hear it?”

“Does it please you to say it?” the other asked, softly.

The wizard shook his head, his brain thumping with drink and resentment.  “The nobles, the Regency Council, the hoi polloi— they do not understand the fickleness of the Mobinoji.  They know not the lengths to which I pushed my body and my mind that day.  They know nothing of magic.  All they know is that a bright young man was killed, and I did not save him.”

“And so you are punished,” the visitor said. “For matters beyond your control, you pay the price.”

“Justice,” Jilmaq said bitterly.  “They left me a roof over my head, at least; my life.”

“This is not your life, Jilmaq.”  The wizard raised his eyes at last.  He took a look around his grimy two-room hovel and his stomach lurched with disgust.  His visitor went on, in a sinewy whisper, “You deserve more than this.  To be relegated to eking out a hardscrabble life as witch doctor to the unwashed, outside the city?  You served the nobles of Delia for three dozen years.  It was your magic that let the barren LaMontina woman bear children again.”

“And it was my magic that let her nephew die, victim of a peasant witch.”

“Suffer, then,” the other said with sudden harshness.  “Wallow.  Drink.  Gore yourself on the scapegoat’s horns they gave you and bleed your life out in this stinking pit.”

Jilmaq was weeping openly.  His visitor watched him for a lingering moment, then shifted weight onto the other shiny black boot.

“Or,” the visitor said, lifting the word like a treat for a hound, a scrap of delicious fat just out of reach.

Jilmaq looked up, his sobs subsiding.  “Or?” His voice shuddered.

“Redeem yourself, in the eyes of men and spirits alike, by doing something truly exceptional.”

The dirty wizard wiped his nose.  “What?” he asked, hardly daring to believe his ears.  “For whom?”

“For those who remember their friends.”

There was a muffled clink on the earthen floor, and Jilmaq’s eyes widened.  A cluster of two-toned coins in gold and platinum lay at his feet; more money than a hundred peasants could have paid.  He couldn’t keep himself from scraping the coins up into his lap then and there, dirt embedding itself into his fingernails.

The other slowly lowered into a crouch, approaching Jilmaq’s eye level.  The wizard froze, staring into that face.  The visitor reached a pair of gloved hands deep into a black robe.  The hands emerged a moment later.  “As for the task itself, it’s really very simple,” that smooth voice said.

Jilmaq’s bloodshot eyes went wide.  Bound with ribbon at both ends, draped across the visitor’s upturned hands, was a shining braid of fawn-colored hair.

“For the last time, it’s fascinating.  Now will you shut up and lift?”

“I feel like an explorer,” Lundin grunted joyously, shifting his sweaty hands for purchase along the smooth corners of the apparatus and heaving upwards.  He was bent double with his knees locked and felt the agonizing pull as all the effort of the lift went directly to his lower back.  Samanthi staggered for balance on the other side, trying to even out her grip against Lundin’s over-zealous hoist.  “It’s just that magic has literally never had this kind of analysis before,” Lundin panted, shambling forwards with the bulky machine resting partly on his thighs.

“I’m sure that’s true,” Samanthi said through clenched teeth, glancing over her shoulder as she walked backwards, the cords in her arms taut from exertion.

“And it’s not chaos; not even close.  There’s a formula.  Like I told you, the Invocation starts—”

“Horace, watch your burning feet!”  Samanthi swore as the bulky generator wobbled towards her.  Lundin recovered from his stumble, kicking the pair of calipers aside.  The floor of the Petronaut warehouse was a minefield of discarded paperwork and loose widgets, as if the criss-crossing crush of busy, preoccupied techs and ‘nauts charging this way and that to prepare their gear wasn’t obstacle enough.

The city-state of Delia had eight squads of resident Petronauts; about ten dozen curious souls in total.  The happy quartet of Malcolm, Mascarpone, Elena and Lundin was the smallest squad by far.  Delia was a wonderful place to be a Petronaut, as the world went.  While Delian nobles could hire the master machinesmiths for contracted work, the meddling patronage that allowed wealthy dilettantes to dictate what they should research was forbidden by a royal decree two decades old.  Old Queen Tess had been a powerful advocate for the ‘nauts, arguing very convincingly to King Randolph that Delia was more likely to gain a technological edge over its neighbors by giving its researchers facilities, funding, and freedom, than by forcing them to kowtow to wealthy patrons for every coin, and waste time humoring their benefactors’ half-cocked ideas for this invention or that whirligig.  Twenty-one years later, Delia’s influence stretched far beyond its city walls to every corner of the Anthic Thrust, the long thin peninsula the city called home.  The success was thanks largely to the string of marvels that had emerged from Workshop Row, where ideas flowed freely between ‘nauts and private naturalists, merchants, dreamers and tinkerers.  When the widowed Queen herself passed three years ago, the thought of a more heavy-handed state gave the ‘nauts many sleepless nights. But the Regency Council, established to rule until Princess Naomi came of age, stayed faithful to Old Tess’s promises, and researchers stayed at nearly the same levels of funding and independence.

Which meant, on the few occasions when the Regents did make an official request for their services, the Petronaut community fell all over itself to be obliging.  Currently, the Council was tapping all of them to help provide security, logistical support, or (in the case of the Parade squad) entertainment for the royal feastday in two weeks.  The Princess would go through the First Ordeals only once, after all, and marking this important step on her road to adulthood with anything less than the full resources of the state was out of the question.  So tomorrow, the Council’s liaisons to the Petronauts, the earnest Baron and Baroness Quinish, would begin personal inspections of every piece of equipment to be employed for the feastday—a task made both easier and harder by the fact that neither of them had a clue what they were looking at.  The best tactic to take with the Honorable Quinishes, the Petronauts had found, was to make any broken or unreliable equipment as shiny as possible, so it received an automatic stamp of approval, and to make any important, sensitive equipment look dingy and grimy to deter clumsy white-gloved hands.  (Just because Petronauts spent more time with machines didn’t mean they couldn’t handle people, too.)

Lundin shifted the weight, his hands throbbing as they continued their crabwalk across the warehouse.  “What was I saying?” he asked.

“Nothing.  I was enjoying it,” Samanthi said.

“Oh—right!  So!  So the Invocation is the first part of any spell.  Real consistent. There’s this text, the pingdu calabra, that they always say.  A few pages of text, tops.   And it connects them to the spirit world.”

“How exciting for them.”

“Part two—now this is a much longer one—is called the Illustration, and it’s what you want the spell to do.  It’s where you say, you know, ‘this is a spell that makes a person fall in love,’ or—well, ‘this is a spell that makes a person burst into flames.’”

“By the living spheres, are you insane?”  Samanthi hissed, glaring at him.  “Don’t go throwing words like that around, magic man!  There are drums of petrolatum everywhere in this place!”

“Don’t worry,” Lundin said, his face red from the strain.  He really couldn’t feel his fingers anymore underneath the generator.  “No danger in talking about this stuff.  We aren’t speaking in Mabinanto—and, anyway, speaking one part of a spell without the other parts in the right order is a recipe for instant fizzle.”

They finally reached the wagon and, with a heave and a grunt, set the generator down in its place.  Once inspected, it would be palace-bound, like the rest of their gear.  Their little Reconnaissance squad had been assigned to assist the Palace Guard, making sure nothing unexpected came in or out of the royal wing while the Princess was undergoing the First Ordeals.  A plum assignment if there ever was one.  They’d be among the first Delians (outside of palace regulars, of course) to see the Princess in her newly grown-up state, with her hair cut back and dressed like a midling, not a girl.  It would be strange to see her without the long, fawn-colored hair that shone through all her childhood portraits.

Lundin and Samanthi caught their breath, leaning against the wagon bed.  He looked at her as she watched other teams’ gear go by with an appraising eye.  “Have you heard of Mabinanto before, then?”  Lundin asked.

“If it’s not a type of alcohol I’m not interested,” Samanthi said, absently.

Lundin smiled and raised his hands in a gracious gesture.  “You know, we could talk about this later, if you want,” he said.  He prided himself on his ability to read signals from other people.

“No, you know what?  Let’s hear it all at once.”  Samanthi drummed a little rat-a-tat on the wagon with her callused hands.  “If little Princess Naomi can take two weeks of Ordeals, I can listen to you blab about magic another few minutes.  Please tell me, Horace, what Mabinanto is.”

“It’s really okay, Sam.  I don’t want to bore you.”

“For fire’s sake—!  Just bore me already!”

“Mabinanto, then!  Language of wizards.  It’s, uh—it’s kind of like Old Harutian; big compound words; straightforward grammar, thankfully.”

“I didn’t think anything about magic was straightforward.”  Samanthi tilted her head towards him, leaning back against the wagon.

Lundin started talking with his hands more, the way he did whenever his energy levels started to build up.  Samanthi stifled a snort, grinning to herself as he responded.  “That’s what I’m saying, though!  I feel like everything we all think about magic—wizards included—is wrong.  Because when I looked through Archimedia’s… uh, Kelley’s step-grandmother… when I looked through her books, at the lines and lines of Mabinanto that supposedly make up a successful Illustration, you know what it looked like to me?”  He leaned in closer.  “Code.”

Samanthi frowned, scratching her jawline with a fingernail.  “‘Code.’  You mean, like our ‘code?’ Abby’s ‘code’? How is that possible?”

“I’ve gotta show you the book.”

“We’ve gotta retool the fuel lines in Kelley’s suit, is what we gotta do,” she said automatically, but for once she didn’t feel like leaping back into the workshop right away.

“Say a wizard is doing the Illustration for a spell that—that makes hair fall out.  You’ve got to see this language.  It’s full of conditionals, it’s full of loops…  ‘If the hair is coarse, respond this way; if the subject already has hair loss, discontinue at such and such point; hair on this body part should be treated this way, repeat until X occurs; and if the subject is being magically protected, go to ritualistic phrase 18…’:

“I don’t flaming believe this,” Samanthi said, guarded and marveling at the same time.

“Maybe I’m crazy.  Maybe I’m just…”  Lundin took a moment to sort out his words.  “Maybe, because I’m a tech, I only know how to see things in terms of what I know.  I’m sure there’s nuance I’m missing, no doubt of it.  But as I read the stuff, all I could think was, ‘this looks familiar.’”

A passing Bulwark ‘naut, her visor down and her suit’s heavy boots thunderous against the floor, looked down at them as she stomped by.  They were the only people standing still in the whole warehouse.  Samanthi crossed her arms.  “What happens next?”  she demanded fiercely.

“Next in the spell?  So, okay.  You invoke magical power; you speak exactly what you want to happen, and what you don’t want to happen; and then comes the Enunciation.  You name your target.”

“Just like that? ‘Horace Lundin,’ and I’m done?”

Lundin shrugged.  “This is the part I’m confused by.  It sounds like it should be one line, right?  But somehow the Enunciation phase still takes a wizard hours.  It’s almost as long as the Illustration, even in spells that succeed.”

“How can it take four hours to say somebody’s name?”

“Well, they say it again and again, and they’ll say the name in different ways, and play around with it…”

Samanthi snapped her fingers, her eyes wide.  “Remember that ratty little wizard who couldn’t save LaMontina?  He called the Viscount all sorts of stupid things… ‘Graceful One.’  ‘Man of the Rearing Bull.’  It was like he was trying new names on for size.”

Lundin put his arms on his hips, thinking back to that dark tent.  “Maybe he was still thinking in Mabinanto, or at least in that mindset.  So, in the Enunciation, wizards might not say just a person’s real name, but speak dozens or hundreds of permutations on it?  Different titles and identities the person might have?”

“But why?”

“No idea.  Absolutely none.  But what I do know is that here’s where having the personal artifacts comes into play.  The blood from the leeches, in the Viscount’s case.  There’s something about having that material on hand during the Enunciation that makes a wizard more connected to his target.  However it works, from all accounts, it really makes a difference.”

“Just ask LaMontina,” Samanthi said, scratching her jawline.  She looked at Lundin for a long time, her round face thoughtful and still.  Lundin flexed the fingers on his still-hurting hand and watched her back, unsure what to say.

Finally, she raised a fist to the height of her shoulder, and extended her index finger.  “First, a wizard speaks a rote Invocation,” she said, in a tone that was half statement and half question.  She extended another finger.  “Then she talks through an Illustration, which is just a long, spooky program that makes people’s hair fall out.”  Her thumb joined the other two.  “Finally, she speaks the name of her target until the spell works, and they call it an Enunciation.  It helps if there are leeches involved.

“You’re telling me that that’s magic?”

“That’s my theory.”  Lundin nodded.

She let that hang for a moment. “What’s your proof?”

“Well, nothing yet.  I’ll probably, uh, keep reading.  Interview wizards.  Observe them in action, see if it holds up.”

“Awfully soft, junior tech,” Samanthi murmured, her eyes narrowing.  She got the predatory look she developed any time she was facing an especially intricate problem.  “That’s a recipe for squishy data.  You’ll get a lot of confounding variables if you jump right into the real world with real wizards.”

“Sure, but it’s not like I can do magic in the lab.”

Samanthi nodded.  Suddenly, she was on the move.  “Walk with me,” she called out, without looking backwards.  Lundin trotted after her, startled.  She was already answering his question before he could get his mouth open.  “We’re going to see Dame Miri and those other showboating lightweights in the Parade squad, and we’re going to ransack their equipment.”

“What?  Why?”  Lundin frowned, trying to keep up.  “I’m not ransacking anybody without a good reason,” he said.

Ulraexi Pillok Mentatum Est, Horace.  The Mind is the Key to All Things; but the right tool for the job helps too.  And your job,” she said, stopping sharply and turning to him, her eyes flashing with that predatory zeal, “you strange, bumbling, brilliant savant of a man—”

Samanthi slapped him in the chest with a resounding thump, and grinned broadly. “Your job is to build me a wizard.”

“Ow,” Lundin said.

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