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Advice From Pigeons
Within the next half hour, Warren Oldham thought, he would either be successful or dismembered. At the thought, all the worries that had romped through his mind ever since he opened his eyes that morning froze or dove for cover, and Warren stood up taller. He felt his bones balancing on each other and the muscles that held them in place, the nerves that sent messages to them with pinpoint accuracy, the brain that generated the messages, the mind that thought them up, the soul that determined what the mind would come up with, what defined him as Warren and nobody else. Warren had called up a demon every weekday morning for almost twenty-eight years, and every time he did the preparatory inventory he felt this satisfaction and confidence. It was a sign of having chosen the right career.
He shut his eyes for a moment, swaying backwards and forwards a little, and thought that anyone who looked at him would have seen a stout pink-and-white man with a little tonsure and a large mustache—a man with no worries.
“Well?” James Kalin said.
“Ready,” Warren answered, opening his eyes, and took a half-step forward toward the golden chain inside the pentarium.
“Too far!” James warned, from his left.
“Not far enough,” Russell Cinea said, from his right.
Warren concluded that he was just right. He raised his voice in the first syllables of the summoning charm, and the rest of the Demonology Department joined in.
“Inquiring spirit,” they intoned. “Adventurer in the arcane realms, Lord of Darkness, seeker of knowledge, hear us! Teach us!”
Warren was invoking his colleagues as much as the demons with these epithets, and he mentally divided them into those who knew this and those who didn’t. The senior faculty nearest him—Russell Cinea, James Kalin, the herbalist Anders Regan and Cham Ligalla the exorcist—knew it. Their powers, more subtle and self-aware than their colleagues’, made the foundation of the circle of magic beginning to fill the pentarium.
The pentarium at the Royal Academy of the Arcane Arts and Sciences lay belowground in a cavern under the Magic Building, dug into the ley-line itself and humming with power. A circular room, plated with gold and almost featureless except for the door and the safety switch in the wall behind Warren, it shone with a pale yellow light. The thirteen magicians of the Demonology Department stood outside a gold safety chain that stretched, knee-height, between five gold posts set a meter in from the chamber’s edge. Within the chain lay the pentacle itself, drawn in blood.
Warren stood at the side furthest from the pentarium door, where he could look across at the junior faculty who stood by it. That was the only perk of heading the Demonology Department. He got to stand furthest from the door, so if anything went wrong the demon would have more time to dismember him. That was how one got out of heading the department, Warren had said, but it wasn’t true. Only two administrators had left that way.
The demonologists wore blue paper smocks, belted with gold chains from which hung the Academy’s ward and other protective charms, and all had gold chains around their necks. Warren’s chain was a gift from his wife Lilian and his mother Bosie, made of square medallions so heavy they needed a counterweight at the back of his neck. James Kalin wore a thinner necklace, decorated with gold roses. Some of the roses had fallen off, leaving unsightly lumps of solder, but it was a gift from Kalin’s daughter and he wore it nevertheless. Cinea, a bachelor, wore the standard chain available from any lab supplies catalog.
When they began the second verse of the charm, Warren always took what might be a last look at his colleagues. They stood in a lopsided circle and a row of reflected magicians stood behind them, with their backs to the circle as if they were uninterested in their fellows.
“Spirit of knowledge, enlighten us,” they chanted, flattering the demons and themselves. “Join our discourse. We open our minds to your wisdom; we invite you.”
This was Theodora Whin’s language, and her magic glowed warmer with every word. Even though she had pulled back to lean casually against the wall, and Warren could only see her nail-bitten hand reaching around the curve of the circle, her power stretched across the room as if she were willing to define the entire project, if invited to.
The same language enraged Linus Ukadnian, the geomancer who towered over the other side of the circle. Linus was the only person wearing anything around his neck except a gold chain; he had on a bow tie, but he was so fierce that nobody dared smile at it. The next clauses were more to his taste. “Sages of the nether realm,” he chanted, as if every word were a reproach to his colleagues. “Seekers after truth, hear us!” Linus and Teddy between them sent an arc of clashing magics right across the pentarium, and their colleagues’ powers—cold and warm, crisp and relaxed—filled in the chinks around it.
The junior demonologists in front of the door kept up the chant without adding much of their own personalities to it. Neil Torecki spoke with the most energy, his red curls bobbing. He cheated every few minutes, reading from crib notes written on his arm. Isaac Graham’s face was screwed up as he concentrated on remembering the spell. And Hiram Rho, the natural philosopher standing right in front of the door, odd man out at this, his first conjuration—Rho was a mess.
Rho was in his twenties, a little, wiry, tree-climbing sort of man, with blond hair that stood out horizontally over his ears and pale blue eyes. His hands were small and filthy. His expression was sour. His stance was belligerent. What would happen, Warren wondered, if Rho were so grubby as to not make skin contact with the colleagues holding his hands? He looked the kind to be wearing a broken chain, mended with old twist ties… Warren shivered, imagining the circle broken and his faculty disemboweled. ‘How did this happen?’ the dean would ask. ‘Did you know the man was incompetent? Did you suspect it?’
He felt himself go cold and then a comforting thought burst on him like sunlight. He was the one furthest from the door. He’d be the one disemboweled, not the one answering questions. Warren gave a sigh of relief and noticed that he was even colder, shivering harder, and the other magicians were all looking to him. They all felt the cauld grue that meant a demon stood among them, lured into the pentarium by the summoning charm.
Warren stepped forward another half-pace and raised his voice in the final verse of the incantation, the others chiming in at each word, and he felt his magicians come back from wherever they had been. All their attention was on him and on the words they were speaking, words about themselves and how much they wanted to meet and talk with one of the most powerful arcane creatures. With every word, Warren felt pleasure and anticipation rise warm through his whole body and out into the circle, his magic meeting, clashing and harmonizing with his colleagues’ until they formed one thing greater and more complex than any one of them, something any self-respecting demon must investigate. Red smoke began to rise in the inner pentacle, whirling like a distracted tornado, and its cold hit against the circle as if it were feeling for places it could pry apart, and finding none.
Rho had no opinion about the words of the invocation. His sour look was based more on seeing that Neil Torecki had written the charm on his arm, instead of wasting time memorizing it. Not that Rho wanted to do anything so unprofessional—it was bad enough working at this second-rate institution, without lowering his standards to meet theirs—but the fact that Neil had a trick and had not shared it confirmed Rho’s opinions about the other faculty. About humans in general.
Hiram Rho, natural philosopher and misanthrope, discovered he could understand birds at the age of eight, while watching the neighbor’s pigeons. The neighbor came home two days later, and had squab for dinner.
By ten, Rho could hear all the creatures in the barnyard. He ate his own severest critic, picking her out of the crowd around the chicken coop, and after that they watched their tongues around him, but the gift had already gone too far. From sunrise to sunset Rho heard the clamor of wild birds and beasts, from sundown to dawn the arguments of frogs and crickets. When the cries of insects his father poisoned in the fields started drowning out his own family, Rho bolted.
The first bad things that happened to Rho on the streets of Kasidora were his own fault, for listening to the first people he met. The rest were his own fault for not listening to any other people. They were the sort of things animals couldn’t warn him about. The tips he picked up on the street did keep him out of some kinds of trouble, though—the kinds of trouble alley cats wanted to avoid, the kinds that involved being shut up and bathed, fed nice food, being flea-combed and having their balls cut off. The kinds that kept them away from casual sex and violence.
Rho lived eight months on the streets of Kasidora without taking advice from a single human being, until he heard a human speaking cat. By that time he had combined street urchin hygiene with alley cat manners. His mentor was later to say that Rho’s true talent lay in making the worst of whatever was offered. Certainly, he had never been able to make understanding animals into any kind of communication. The cats ignored his attempts to sound out their language. So he had listened to the person who could speak with cats. He had followed through alleys, farther and farther from his familiar lairs each time, finally up to an old house by the gates of the university where a plate of scraps sat just inside the open door. The cat-speaker, Baristes, watched in the window, letting strays make their way into the warm rooms in their own time.
In the dark house, Rho learned to speak cat and pigeon. He learned about wine and fabric and the manners of the gentry, but none of it struck home. No more capable of luxury than an alley cat and treated as a curio rather than a servant, Rho learned to endure civilization but not to construct it, and when he transferred from Baristes’ mansion to the college barracks he relapsed into squalor as easily as any of the other boys. By then, though, Rho could talk to the animals. He knew his talent was called natural philosophy, and was shared by few. He knew that human rule and human reasoning were arbitrary, designed by people who didn’t believe that other creatures truly existed, and that natural philosophers were no more beholden to their own species than to any other.
Small wonder that Warren looked at Rho with carefully concealed dismay and sought his wife’s sympathy. Knowledgeable as the Mages of Osyth were, as acquainted as they were with interview protocols, with courtly Kasidora and with the oversweet image of natural philosophy, they could not have guessed that the young man who had acquitted himself so respectably in seminars and job interviews would revert to a filthy, hostile scavenger as soon as he was established at the Royal Academy.
The cauld grue swept through the pentarium and Rho, who had been half-lost in thoughts of how unsatisfactory his colleagues were, jumped. Those same colleagues were all that stood between him and the demon materializing in the pentacle. Rho hoped he had been wrong about them.
Far above the pentarium, sunrise lit the Magic Building, a white castle set on the middle of the ley-line that cut across the northern corner of the Osyth Plateau. It shone on the squat Wizardry Building at the east end of the ley-line, on the Sorcery Complex and hospital between Magic and Wizardry, and on the Alchemy Building sitting in the middle of the isolated triangle of land north of the ley-line.
The sun shone on the city of Osyth, that had spread from the southern edge of the plateau up toward the Academy as far as it dared and then had built a high wall to keep the magic out. That wall and the ley-line bounded a no-man’s-land containing Academy administrators, faculty housing, and maintenance workshops. Just behind the wall lay the slums of Osyth. The tall buildings and elegant apartments that Warren had helped build during his wizarding years, before he joined the Magic faculty, rose from the center of the city. Factories and businesses lay to the south, near the cliffs down which pollution could be dumped into the magic-filled canyons below.
At the north edge of the industrial belt, bordering on the classy residential part of the city, stood the large respectable businesses: banks, hotels, and office buildings. On the tallest of these buildings, best warded against malignant strays from north and south, a sign in golden letters glinted back toward the nine o’clock sun. It read ‘Salvation Insurance.’ Inside this building, Lilian Oldham had just entered her cubicle and opened her e-mail.
Lilian Oldham had grown to resemble her husband over thirty-five years of marriage. Rounded and cheerful, she shared his pink-and-white coloring, though she had hair in bountiful foamy white curls. Like many people who worked in insurance, Lilian maintained a sunny manner. Whatever happened, her smile assured the viewer that Salvation would save its clients. This manner had been ingrained into her years ago when she sold insurance, and her shift into the scrying department had not entirely erased it. This morning, however, the cheerful smile was not in evidence. Lilian looked at her computer screen with a suspicious expression and a feeling that she might be growing tired of bad luck, even though she had made a living from it for over forty years.
Bad luck. Jinxing it. Letting the gods hear how much a person wanted to keep out of the briar patch…the more someone bet on something, the less likely it was to happen. The more likely the misfortune, the higher the premium had to be to fool bad luck into taking it away. In order to set rates, Salvation Insurance hired professional scryers like Lilian to find out just how likely a misfortune was. Her specialty was life insurance.
The computer’s screen showed an on-line application for life insurance, a standard document. Lilian turned on her printer and got herself a cup of coffee while it rattled. Some of the scryers used direct download attachments, specialized soft drives that let the computer copy these data from the forms right onto the tarot cards or bones the scryer preferred. Some were even experimenting with virtual scrying, using computerized images of the cards, but Lilian thought that was going too far. Magic was physical, not just a matter of information in bits and bytes.
She tore the printed application off and ripped it into strips, which she put into the soft green bag that held her scrying bones. The bones were from the only blood sacrifice Lilian had ever made, in her senior year at the Academy; the bag a crooked oblong, its velvet trim sewn on with clumsy stitches. Lilian rubbed her thumb across the velvet and smiled. This had been her daughter Joan’s first handwork and she liked to think it added something to the augury, some element of loving care, some understanding of what a family and its well-being meant. She rolled the bag between her hands, losing herself in the feel of it and of the papers and bones rustling inside, and then opened it wide and poured them out in a tangle on the mouse pad.
The bones were light and dry, the color of yellowed ivory, covered over with a scrimshaw of scratches. Some lay trapped in the curls of paper, others bounced aside as if they would take wing again and fly. The longest bone, the tibiotarsus, lay wrapped around with paper strips, as usual in Lilian’s cases; the life bone of someone who had a good reason to apply for insurance. When she’d begun with Salvation, doing group policies, she’d seen life bones fall free of the paperwork, but it had been a long time since she last dealt with anything so simple. Now all her cases fell out as a snarl of worry and fear, the papers obscuring the markings on the long bone. The paper coils caught up over half the bones, tying them into a tangle.
Lilian teased the mass apart with a delicate stylus, the position of each bone appearing on the computer screen as she marked it, until only a pattern of notations remained to indicate illness, genetic weaknesses, accident and folly ahead. The computer was silent as it did its work, transmitting the scratch of figures to the mainframe for analysis, and Lilian looked at what it couldn’t transmit. The strips of paper with the man’s wife’s name, his children’s ages, wrapped around the fragile bones as if to keep them safe.
The next three applications were easier, their results more cheerful. Then came one that needed re-reading, and re-reading again, though it had looked like a standard application; there was no life to the bones or papers, as if she were scrying for someone already dead, and the next two files were no better. Lilian typed in an e-mail.
Another three dead accounts, she wrote to the other scryers, informally. What’s going on?
No idea, came an answer. They’re all Academy accounts, though. We have two.
“Damn!” Lilian said, hastily deleting the last message. Some people had no idea of what should and shouldn’t be sent over the Salvation network. Still, she rechecked the three dead applications. They were from the Academy, and now Lilian recognized at least one of the names. It was the new man, the one Warren complained about at night. Rho.
Warren’s first sentence had caught the spirit’s attention. It chose a position a little to the right of him in the circle, hovering nearest to Patsy Hoth, who studied incubi, and Linus Ukadnian. It was attracted by their fierceness, but unwilling to approach Susan Teale’s more benign aura between them. Warren saw Patsy Hoth’s face through the smoke, framed by golden curls and with a look of controlled irritation on her features as she spoke to the cloud and told it a few truths about itself.
“How shall we speak to you?” she challenged the cloud. “As an individual? Hardly, for an individual exists in itself, rather than being defined by those around it.”
The cloud hovered, listening, and Linus confirmed Patsy’s words with enough arrogance to convince even a demon. “Spirit, penetrated by all around it, is defined only by those points at which its neighbors choose to stop,” he chanted. “A being without boundaries is no more than a construction of the stronger beings around it. Matter, alone, exists as itself; matter alone creates its own boundaries.”
The cloud retreated a little from this uninvited commentary, but only a little. As fast as the smoke darted, side to side, the magicians were faster. Each line they chanted, each argument, was a new piece of the reasoning that trapped the demon within the pentacle. Each followed from the previous assumptions and the spirit, having paused long enough to admit itself intrigued by those assumptions, was now led by logic into a solid form, a truthful habit, that were alien to it. James Kalin, Russell Cinea, and Teddy Whin wrote these charms of discourse, in consult with a group of theoretical demonologists across three continents, but it was a touchy business. Theoretical magicians got carried away. They were likely to refute one another just for the practice, and a charm would only hold until the demons learned how to refute it. They were always listening.
Warren could hear the magicians by the door reciting the charm of discourse in a steady drone that kept the demon away from them and left it darting between the more experienced magicians. A demon always began by exploring the powers it resembled, fought its way back and forth through the mesh of the magicians’ interests and ambitions, and then seized on the neutral powers as a possible escape. It would make its final incorporeal charge toward Warren or Cham Ligalla; this was another reason for placing the senior magicians at the inner end of the room, to draw the near-solid demon away from the door.
The smoke gathered itself together, changing from red to gray. Warren felt its power like the one clear thing in the confusion of the circle. He began the last part of the charm, the words about the meaning of embodiment, and the smoke swarmed toward him as if it rode up a path of his and Cham’s attention. Her voice and his, her power and his, met, and where they met, the smoke stood irresolute while the circle of magicians told it about what an individual—a solid individual—was. It curdled in on itself, roiled and solidified, and its pressure against the circle began to fade as it accepted their reasoning and became the solid creature they had invoked. Warren stopped chanting, took a breath, and had the leisure to realize success. Another morning’s work was done, and nobody had been disemboweled.
The demon stood solid now, a hulking gray figure with three legs. It balanced on two, waggling the third at the magicians by the door, and then leaned over to suck its own toes while, on the other side, it broke foul wind into Warren’s face. The echo filled the room.
“By the logic of your nature I charge you,” Warren said. “Make your name known to us.”
The demon snarled and spit in frustration, but could find no way to deny the logic of its nature as laid out in the charm. For as long as it remembered to believe the arguments it had just heard, it would speak the truth.
“Nezumia,” it finally muttered in a rasping voice as gray as its hide, and Warren saw his magicians’ faces light up.
A major demon indeed! A malign power, one of the greatest of the demon lords of Osyth. They almost capered, these magicians who for months in the first semester had been too few to trap any but minor spirits in their pentacle, and Nezumia spun around to look at all of them with loathing. So fast it spun that it lofted itself into the air, and lunged toward the door with a shriek. But the wall of words held, and although the demon frightened those before it, it could do them no harm. Warren cast the last charm, one that set the room as it was against any eddies in the ley-line, and the magicians let go of each others’ hands. They had to take themselves and their magic out for the setting-charm to establish itself. The circle dissociated and mages trailed out into the shower room, male and female together. The room was filled with high-fives and bodies capering among the steam, laughter and cries of triumph…but when Warren looked for Rho, the newest magician had disappeared.
“He’s probably glad to get out of here,” Neil Torecki said, and shook water out of his red hair like a dog. “The big N gave him a scare with that last lunge! I thought he’d break my hand, he held on so tight. Good instinct, that. I like a guy who holds to the circle.”
Yes,” Warren said. “That’s good to hear.” He leaned back into the hot water, feeling it beat down on his bare scalp, and laughed. They had done it again, all these magicians he worried and stewed about, sometimes admired and other times hated. All their disagreements had been set aside for one half-hour, and the very force of their desire had called a major demon to speak with them for four hours, five, maybe ten—until it forgot to believe the arguments it had just heard, or stopped wanting to be a creature of reason. All the problems of the day to come seemed far away in another man’s future.
Rho laughed at himself, stopping on the third-floor landing to pant. Why had he run? Up three flights from the pentarium, now halfway to his tower lab, and already out of breath! More from elation than from exercise, gasping with laughter instead of exhaustion—his heart still racing, shaking his whole chest, his legs full of a trembling that said ‘run!’ Rho bent double on the stairs and gasped and shook. His blue paper gown rustled like leaves in a windstorm.
The way it had jerked and hit the side of the charm, like a shark in a net, the monster! The way he’d felt it pressing up against his words, the logic he’d been afraid he wouldn’t understand or take seriously enough to hold against a demon, and then when it had come at him, that scream! And he’d held so tight, he’d remembered not to break the circle, it had been like steering into a skid or exhaling when he came up from a dive. He’d known it was asinine, if he didn’t run he’d be killed, and he’d still held on!
“Yes!” Rho said and slapped the wall, high-fiving the stones. No more being looked down on by magicians who had bound their own demons. No more being just the little man who talked with animals. He, Rho, had trapped a demon! He’d done it! He hadn’t fouled it up, and already the feeling was slipping away and out of his mind, he was losing how gray and foul and big and loud it had been—the smell of it, the rot dripping out of those vile teeth, its breath. He shut his eyes, trying to call it back.
We’ll do it again tomorrow! he thought, with a thrill. Every morning, as long as they had enough demonologists on campus and a charm that would work, the magicians of Osyth would trap a demon for the day. It was their duty, to pay the International Demonological Association for maintaining the pentarium. Magicians from all over the world would come in today to study Nezumia, and Rho had helped trap it! Every article they wrote would list him in the acknowledgments, because he had done the dangerous work. He ran up the last three flights thinking he’d attend his next conference as a full-fledged demonologist, a master of the trade, and it wasn’t until he got to the tower door that he realized his clothing was still down in the pentarium shower room.
Theodora Whin used the open showers rather than the private booths, and scrubbed herself more carefully than anyone else in the room. She rubbed shampoo through her brown curls and used herbal-scented soap to chase away the last smells of bittersmoke and demon. Before drying off, she spread a scented oil over her body and let it trap the clean moisture in her skin, and then she put on the most beautiful silk underwear in the entire department. Teddy Whin did not consider it a problem that her colleagues knew what she looked like naked, or that they knew she wore outstanding silk underwear. She was setting a good example in both categories.
“There was another sexist assumption in your third precept,” she told Russell Cinea. She had found that Russell was less superior and confident when he was unclothed. “Your imagery was positively phallic. No wonder all our demons manifest as male.”
“That’s all very well in theory,” Russell answered in a peevish tone. “The fact is, if we use your language none of us believe the charm enough to make it work. You have to use the metaphors people were brought up with.”
“We could use a different set of the metaphors they were brought up with,” James Kalin put in. He sat on the bench near Russell, stretching out his legs and wiggling his toes to dry them. James did not use towels. He believed in taking his time in the morning, and this was another reason that the three theorists had many of their discussions in the shower room. “There’s no reason to avoid metaphors of solidarity and unity. Especially solidarity.”
“Those are usually as sexist as Russell’s discourse,” Teddy said.
“But at least they’re not classist.”
“Who cares what ‘-ist’ they’re not, if they’re not convincing? If your pet causes were convincing, they wouldn’t be pet causes. They’d be part of the dominant culture, and I’d be using them,” Russell Cinea said. He had put on his clothes and with them, his assurance. “When you have a major demon in the circle it is not the time to try reforming society. Besides, you can’t say my charms are classist! The demons aren’t manifesting as effete aristocrats.”
“Yes they are,” James Kalin said. “They’re sure of their inborn superiority. There’s no bigger snob than a demon. But do they have to be that way, or have we assumed it into existence?”
“Get dressed,” Teddy told him. “Gird up your loins to fight the good fight. We have a conference call from Selanto in ten minutes—my office.”
“Fine, I’ll meet you there,” James said. “No incense this time, please.”
Teddy and Russell went out of the shower room together. They were actually good friends, and by the time they reached the second floor their argument had been replaced by a discussion of the coffee shops in town and the latest movies.
Warren’s computer screen glowed at him and he glowed back at it as he added Nezumia’s name to the International Demonological Association’s database. When he hit save, computers all over the world changed their displays. Magicians from Kasidora to Selanto, from Sio to Macoma, were looking at what he had entered. They were checking the demon’s name against their grants or research proposals, trying to decide whether it merited the cost of an instantaneous visit to Osyth, and typing their answers back in the form of e-mails to the department secretary. There would be a flurry of requests for a demon like this one, more than Osyth could fill, for Nezumia was too powerful a demon for any single magician to bind. It was for things like this that the Royal Academy operated the pentarium—for things like this, and the added pleasure of knowing that none of them were bound to the demon. To work with the malign powers without becoming malignant themselves, Warren thought happily as he stared at the screen. That was the real accomplishment. That was what had turned just another construction job into a life’s calling, and it had been Russell’s idea, he admitted freely. Russell was the brains behind it all.
If not for Russell, Warren Oldham would never have thought of becoming a magician. He had been successful as a wizard, a specialist in basements and foundations, places from which a person could not fall. Heights made him nervous. Besides, the arcana were found under Osyth, deep in the ley-line, and sometimes wondrous things came up into Warren’s basements…maybe he had been interested in magic, even back then. But not in the College of Magic. Not in Demonology, where every faculty member kept a stable of bound demons, full of hate and murder. Definitely not Demonology. Warren would never have set foot in the building if he hadn’t been sent there by the Wizardry Department as a matter of professional courtesy, to help fix the pentarium.
Everyone had known why the pentarium had a great hole in it. Everyone had shaken their heads over the latest fatal incident in Demonology, and the way the Academy let those idiots and their demons tear up the facilities. Warren couldn’t have agreed more when he saw that beautiful golden room desecrated and felt the remnants of conflict filling it like a bad smell. “What a shame,” he had said, shaking his head, and a light voice had answered him from behind in an arrogant Selanto accent.
“It’s not a shame, it’s a scandal!” That had been Russell Cinea, as tall and slender as he was today, but with butter-yellow hair back then. He had been new to the department, a reformer full of grand talk who never seemed to doubt himself. Demonologists should stop fighting one another, Russell said. They should forget the old ways, the competition over who could bind the most powerful demons, and work together like—like wizards! They should move out of the department and into the city of Osyth. Vampires, ghouls and incubi roamed the city, just on the other side of the ley-line, and where was Demonology? Here, fighting over prestige and ruining their own building in the process. While wizards built the skyscrapers of the new city and sorcerers cured its businessmen of their ailments, magicians sulked in their castle as if the very existence of a mundane world insulted them. “Which it should,” Russell said. “Someone may have bound a hundred demons, but if he doesn’t do anything worth doing with them, to the mundanes he’s just another shabby, useless old man who smells. Whose fault is that?”
Russell was a language magician, with the gift of making other people accept his dreams, but Warren had never minded that. Perhaps he had wanted a dream too badly to worry about its provenance—and he had never regretted it. Except that it only seemed real, any more, when he was actually in the pentarium. When he stepped out into the department, the dream started to wisp away at the edges; when he stopped being busy, he could see it disappearing. The thought made Warren uneasy. He sat up in his chair and looked at the computer screen again, but someone knocked on his door.
“C’mon in!” Warren yelled, and a thin young woman with dark hair and an Academy sweatshirt stuck her head in.
“Nezumia, hey!” she said happily. “Did you get me a spot with it?”
“Oh, hi, Marcie. You’ve got a choice,” said Warren. “I booked from eleven till one for the grad students. Don’t let anyone tell you they have those hours.” The magicians weren’t all above snatching students’ time with an important demon, especially magicians from some of the schools where students were still treated as servants.
“All right!” Marcie said, grinning. “D’you want to see what I got from Nograptus last week? I added what it told me into the model and it looks like there’s a whole branch of the ley-line we never knew about. So I thought I’d go down to geomancy and see what Linus can tell me about the rock formations in that region.”
“That sounds good,” Warren said, making his way across the lab to her computer. A three-dimensional model of the ley-line sprawled across it, with the Osyth Plateau an insignificant blip on top. Every time Warren saw this, it thrilled him. The size of it: the depth of power he lived on top of, like a flea on a rhinoceros. “What did Nograptus tell you about the inhabitants?” he asked, and his student looked surprised.
“I didn’t ask,” she said. “Sorry. I was just working on the map.”
“Of course,” Warren said. “I ought to have talked to it myself.”
“Do you have time with Nezumia?”
“Not today. I have meetings all afternoon.”
“Well, write down what you want to know and I’ll ask it for you.”
“That’d be nice,” Warren said. “Only after you get what you need for the thesis, though. And give Tom and Lisa a call, will you? This ought to just about finish off their work.” He sat on a lab stool and began to make out a list. He imagined himself sinking into the ley-line, passing through layers inhabited by different spirits. What did a demon see as it came from the netherworld to the ley-line’s surface in Osyth? Who did it pass on the way, and what were their lives like, these subterranean arcana? He worked for about ten minutes, trying to pick the best questions to ask the demon, and for that time he was completely happy. He hardly heard the phone ring.
“It’s the dean,” Marcie said, holding her hand over the receiver.
Warren sighed and pointed toward his office. He went back to his desk.
“Demonology, Warren Oldham here,” he said, picking up the phone.
“I know who you are, Warren,” the dean said. “I’ve got your signature all over these papers. Why are we paying to send someone to the Demonological Congress meetings in Selanto? He can’t be a Congress member without having bound a demon. You know that’s illegal here in Osyth.”
“It’s a joint meeting,” Warren said. “The Society for Veterinary Lechery and the Congress. Rho’s giving a paper on incubi in ducks.”
“He’s registered for both meetings,” the dean said.
“He’s still a student member at the Congress. This is his last chance to present there. You didn’t think I’d hire someone with a demon, did you?”
“I don’t know,” the dean said. “You bitched enough about how hard it was to find anyone. Well, I’ll sign this, but I’m not sure how much I like sending brand-new faculty to scope out the competition. He hasn’t been on campus a month, and we’re sending him off to talk with headhunters from Selanto and Kasidora?”
“Oh, I think we’ll stand up pretty well against anything Rho sees in Selanto,” Warren said, leaning back in his chair with a prosperous feeling. “We called up Nezumia this morning. That’s pretty impressive for his first day in the pentarium.”
“Is it? That’s good,” the dean said, in tones of incomprehension, and Warren felt his triumph shrink.
He said the nothings that ended a conversation, looked at his calendar and the list of meetings on it, and sighed. Trying to explain a triumph to an administrator… Well, he thought, I acted the same way when he told me about that educational grant. Nobody cares about anything except their own work.
At sunset, the white castle of Magic stood up against the sky. Skylight reflected off cross-shaped arrowslits on the first three floors and larger windows above. Lab lights were on inside some of the lower rooms, but the only well-lighted windows were high in the west tower. A scraping sound came down through the crystal evening as one of these windows swung open; a figure leaned out and a flight of pigeons startled and wheeled around the tower, cutouts against the golden sky.
“You’ve got a view and a half up here, I’ll give you that,” said a trifling voice from within the room.
Rho thought Neil Torecki said more obvious things than anyone so young should have thought of. Clichés belonged to grannies, Rho thought, and so he did not answer Neil’s remark.
He pulled his head back in, leaving the window open, and a draft followed him. “Where d’you want this box?” Neil went on, shaking his hair out of his eyes.
“In the other room,” Rho said. “It’s just clothes and such.”
“You have clothes? I thought all you owned was that robe.” Neil’s voice retreated behind the wall that bisected the tower, shutting away Rho’s living quarters from his workroom.
While Rho didn’t much care for this remark, he had to admit it was justified. He was not a dandy. His major garment was a black magician’s robe, worn with disregard for its septic condition. The robe was torn, stained, and buttoned askew over a soiled denim work shirt.
Neil came back out, apparently undisturbed at receiving no answer. “I think that’s all of it,” he said cheerfully, dusting his hands. “This’ll be a cozy spot, once you’re settled in. Where’s your lab going to be?”
“The floor below,” Rho said, shutting the window, “as soon as we get the linoleum taken up.”
“Stone floors are hard on your feet,” Neil said, another remark to which Rho had no reply. He put a chair onto its legs and sat on it, looking around the room with an air of possession.
Rho felt a foreboding that, if encouraged, Neil would make the place one of his haunts.
“I’ll work in here until my lab is ready,” he said. “I still have a lot to do for my paper at the Demonology Congress, and my plane leaves tomorrow morning.”
Neil grinned, ignoring the hint. “Y’got any beer?” he asked. “I’m amazed the dean’s letting you go to that. Warren must’ve pulled big strings for you.”
“I’m just a student member,” Rho said crossly, pulling two beers out of his tiny refrigerator. “Everybody acts as if just looking at the Congress means I’ve bound a demon. You can be a student member without having one. Besides, they have a big award for best thesis. I sent in my abstract before I even heard of this job.”
“Yeah? Well, we could use someone in with that group,” Neil said, following his own line of thought. “I don’t think the IDA can afford to be at odds with the Congress.”
“Why are they, anyway?”
“Why aren’t they! Don’t get Warren started on it. First the International Demonological Association set up as competition to the Congress, with all sorts of ethics rules patterned after the Mystic Guild of Alchemists, that kept a lot of the Congress demonologists from joining. Then they outlawed demon-binding here in Osyth—and don’t think Warren wasn’t a big part of that. That meant no Congress members could work here. Then he led the push to blacklist Congress freelancers from using our pentarium. Warren won’t have anything to do with the Congress. He thinks it’s mediaeval.”
“Well, look at their journal—there’s more in there about who gets to command a demon than about what we can do for the field by commanding them. And they don’t step in the way the IDA does to regulate disputes. They’re working out of the old model, when the strongest magician killed off the others.”
Neil seemed more pleased with this than alarmed by it, although Rho guessed he would rank as one of ‘the others’ in any such battle. But Neil had nothing for another mage to covet, since nobody held title to the demons he worked with. The methods here, he let Rho know, were hygienic and hands-off in the extreme, and therefore probably limited in ways the mediaeval mages of Selanto, who called up demons with spit and blood and sometimes even slept with them, were not. Selanto mages had links with the underworld that Warren Oldham, in his clean lab coat, couldn’t even guess at. Or perhaps he could, and that was why he stayed away from them.
“So, what do they say about us over in Kasidora?” Neil asked.
“Well,” Rho answered slowly, “it depends on who you talk to.”
He remembered any number of remarks best not repeated. ‘Starter school’ had been the kindest epithet his mentor, Baristes, had come up with. “But don’t stay too long,” he had warned Rho, “or nobody will ever take you seriously again.” This was doubtless the sort of thing Neil wanted to hear, as he sat looking at Rho with an eager face, but he wasn’t going to get his wish.
“There were a few people who went to school with Russell,” Rho said instead. “They thought he was good.”
“They ought to!” said Neil. “Did you hear how Russell was the first magician to graduate from Selanto without binding a demon?”
Rho had, but he put on an expression of interest so as to get the Osyth version.
“You know his thesis was all about what binding demons did to the magicians,” Neil told him happily, “so he didn’t want any part of it. But you had to bind one to get the degree. So instead of binding one, Russell invited all the demons in the department to his defense. I wish I’d been a fly on that wall—imagine a bunch of magicians in there with a hundred demons, and Russell the only person none of those demons wanted to tear apart.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m not in a hurry to bind one,” Rho said. “I don’t want to have to watch my back all the time.”
“Then why live here in the building? Nobody lives on campus anymore, except some of the guys over in Alchemy,” Neil said, looking around. Rho’s workroom wasn’t entirely messy, but it was on the way. It still had vacant spaces and unfilled shelves, piles of boxes and empty animal cages stacked in the corner by the sink. The worktable between its two windows was already covered with papers, owl pellets, spiral-shaped grouse droppings, and other detritus.
“I’ve always lived on campus,” Rho said defensively. “I can’t see why people bother keeping two places, especially if you work at night.”
“We like to pretend we have lives,” Neil sighed, and looked at his watch. “Speaking of which…” He got up, groaning. “Next time you move, have Russell invite some demons to help. How’re you getting to the airport tomorrow?”
“Warren’s driving me.”
“Probably wants to give you a last-minute warning,” Neil said, grinning. “They’ve got an agenda here, all right.”
“Everybody has an agenda,” Rho said with a worldly air. “Everybody human, at least.”
“That’s right,” Neil said. He stood up and stretched before sauntering to the door. “You don’t have to take our word for things. You can get advice from pigeons.”
Rho bristled, but the door was shutting before he could reply. He sat down and stared out the window, trying to remember Neil’s tone and figure out what it had meant. People! he thought. People were nothing but trouble.
Rho made no attempt to work on his overheads. He knew he could finish his paper for the Demonology Congress in Selanto in two hours, with time to spare before he caught his flight in the morning. It would take him longer to find clean clothing, to shave and wash and do all the other arbitrary things a conference required and which were really more important to other humans than the content of the paper. He reopened the window instead and slouched in his chair, looking out of it, until a pigeon flew in and sat on his shoulder.
“Warm feet,” the pigeon murmured, snuggling and rustling by his ear. “Grain on the ledges. Cat!”
“Wall, hardair,” Rho said. “Closed in.” The pigeon stretched itself tall and thin, shifting from foot to foot.
“Rap rap, peck, squeeze through,” it said. “Airwing. Slip on tiles.” Rho hunched his shoulder and shook it off. With a flurry of wings, it was gone.
“That’s the sort of advice you get from pigeons,” Rho said, to nobody in particular.
|© 2010 Patricia S. Bowne|