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Tales of the Unanticipated 23 (2002): reprinted in Year's Best Fantasy #3, ed. David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. HarperCollins Eos.
When William Harrison Gracile came in to work at four-thirty in the afternoon looking as if he had aged twenty years overnight, his suit hanging loose on a wizened frame, his secretary wished him good day and went back to her typing. Gracile was offended. He had never been late to work before; he had never come in with a hair out of place. He deserved better from his secretary, he thought. She should make shocked noises, ask after his health, give unsought advice; she should stop him, as he went into his office. "I'm sorry," she should say, "I don't want to intrude, but ..."
"Oh, by the way," said his secretary, "a package came for you. I put it on your desk."
A package was exciting, even to someone of an age and station that begged for unsolicited, meaningless packages. This could be the one from someone who mattered, the one filled with treasure rather than with advertising information. Indeed, it was too small a box to contain flyers. The package was the size to hold jewelry, perhaps a tie tack with some charity's logo on it or a refrigerator magnet ... but it was wrapped in brown paper and addressed by hand in a clear, old-fashioned, feminine script. When Gracile opened it he found a sheet of paper wrapped around the box within.
"A thank-you for last night," was written on it in the same hand. "I'm sure you'll know what to do with it." The note was unsigned. Gracile opened the box and it was a tie tack, indeed; a silver tie tack, with a moonstone set in it. A muted rainbow swirled through the stone, restless and demanding. He looked the paper over for watermarks or clues and examined the box carefully, and then he leaned over the tie tack -- absurd, such caution for a tiny piece of silver -- and touched it with one finger. And if his secretary had been there, even she must have been perturbed to see her employer become in an instant twenty years younger, thirty pounds heavier. When Gracile turned to look out the window he saw his outline reflected over the Royal Academy's buildings and fall leaves, the outline of a man in his prime. He closed the box and put it in his pocket.
When William Harrison Gracile had joined the Royal Academy of the Arcane Arts and Sciences as Development Officer, he had insisted on an office overlooking the campus. He had told the president that an enchanter couldn't work without an eyrie. "What the eye doesn't see," Gracile had said, "the heart doesn't yearn after." And as yearning after things was his job, that had been argument enough.
When Gracile stood at the window with his back turned to the City and the suburbs behind it, he looked north into the past. Far to his left lay the undeveloped part of the ley-line, the river of magic that tumbled down a chasm at each end of the Osyth plateau and filled the valleys below with mists and wonder. Built squarely on the ley-line, to west and east of Gracile's gaze, the two great castles of the Academy -- Magic's fairy-tale palace and Wizardry's squat grey towers -- glared at one another with arrow-slit eyes, remembering the magewars of old. Outbuildings clustered around them, clambered up their walls, pushing to get near the line. Between the castles rose the gargantuan modern complex of Sorcery's towers and teaching hospital. The three schools lay in a narrow band along the line, piled high over its power, and beyond them Gracile could see the tops of trees and the tiniest bit of roof of the low Alchemy building.
When he looked across the quad to that reef of buildings, Gracile did not see the modern Academy and its staff. He saw the magicians of old, sallying forth down the ley-line with staff and pack. Wizards in their red gowns clustered around half-finished buildings, girders lifting into place at their command; black-clad sorcerers slipped past, their satchels full of nameless items ... it was easy for him to believe, then, that the Academy needed a new Wizardry Center. A field station for Celestial Mechanics. Six dozen dryad traps. New gold plating in the pentarium, and the moat around the Magic Building dredged. He could believe these things so much that his very longing for the perfect Academy would cast its spell over alumnae, donors, legislators. That was enchantment.
When it was dark, the window turned into a mirror. Gracile could check himself and do touch-ups, making sure his nose was as straight and his eyes as grey as they should be, that he was still the picture of a successful administrator in his early forties. He could spy on whoever was entering his office and know their names before he turned around. Even in June, it was dark enough by eight for him to see the Vice President for Finance come through the door and turn to close it. The VP Finance was a sturdy man, red-faced and white-haired, with a great beak of a nose. His reflection looked more solid than Gracile's own.
"Are you ready?" Gracile asked.
"No. Well, I am, but you're not. The Dean of Wizardry wants to see you before the meeting."
"No," said Gracile, in dismay. "Are you letting him talk to the trustees?"
"The only way I can keep him out of the trustees' meeting is to let him talk with you," said the VP Finance.
Gracile refocused his eyes and looked across campus at the Magic Building's towers. "The more I see of him, the less I want to get him a building," he said. "You know that."
"Don't get temperamental on me, Bill. You have to have all the arguments before you see the trustees. They have to be able to say you presented them with evidence. I can't have the Dean of Wizardry going around telling people you never heard the arguments in favor of this building, but you convinced the trustees anyway."
"Yeah, I'm only supposed to do that to donors," said Gracile. "Well, show him in. Get it over with."
The Dean of Wizardry was nothing like the red-robed powers of Gracile's fancy. Talking to him was like being eaten by a long slow snake, the kind that moved you down its throat with infinitesimal sideways motions of its jaws, so that your head was swallowed and dissolved while your feet still dangled outside. In less than ten minutes, Gracile had to convince the board of trustees that he could raise millions for the man's building project; yet with every word the Dean of Wizardry inflicted on him, Gracile's enthusiasm for the task dwindled. He looked out the window, therefore, and thought about how much he wanted the Dean of Wizardry to be quiet, to go away, to fall off the tower to a flat and silent death. He thought about how much he wanted to go home and sit under the tree in his back yard, drink a beer and read the evening paper. He fortified himself with these images, and when he finally left for the board meeting there was all about him the glamour of unfulfilled desire, the slightly haunted beauty that made people associate him with high and noble causes.
The trustees met in a warded boardroom. They wore personal wards as well, and these always amused Gracile. No ward was proof against enchantment, which drew its strength from human longings; and the trustees had plenty of these, after five hours of meetings.
"We agree, the old Wizardry Building is out of date," said the President of the Board. "But even if the wizards built it themselves, we can't commit the Academy to this kind of outlay for materials without a significant initial donation. Even a challenge grant would give us something to start with."
"A silent fund-raising campaign," said Gracile. "Then we can start a general drive in the fall."
"That soon? Do you have any donors in mind?"
"Always," smiled Gracile, a man who knew what he was doing. A man to be trusted. "Just say the word, and I can have a meeting with one before the week's out." How straightforward! Trust me, said Gracile's steady gaze, his businesslike gray suit. It was Gracile's job to make magic seem respectable, and he did it well. He looked just enough younger than the trustees to make them feel pleasantly superior, inclined to let the boy try his hand. Trust me, said his posture, his patience, his eager silence. Trust me, so I can go home and read my paper. So I can put my briefcase down in the hall, hang my coat up, take off my shoes and loosen my tie. Pour a beer into a tall cool glass and take that first sip, feel it foam across my tongue ...
"Ahh," said the president of the Board of Trustees, "I think that's reasonable, don't you?"
Buy the rest from Tales of the Unanticipated 23 (2002), Year's Best Fantasy #3, ed. David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, HarperCollins Eos, or Amazon
|© 2010 Patricia S. Bowne|