Sample Chapter From:
Magical Certainty, Volume Two: In Which What Goes Up Doesn’t Necessarily Come Down…
Doctor Aldebrand, clad in an elegant single-breasted tuxedo with satin facings, strode up the aisle with Eugenie’s hand in his. She was wearing her wedding dress, but of course, for Eugenie “wedding dress” didn’t describe a white gown with a lace veil and a long flowing train. Neither did it refer to the alternative bridal creation of fine grey lace over white silk in a tea-length flapper cut that she might in moments of feminine indulgence fantasize about. No, Eugenie’s “wedding dress” was simply the dress she wore to other people’s weddings. It was the fanciest thing she owned, which she had to admit, didn’t say much—just a thin wool jumper dress over black stockings and a long sleeved t-shirt with loose cuffs. They weren’t at a wedding at all; the aisle wasn’t festooned with white flowers nor was the aisle in a church, but rather between the red velvet seats of an opera house—the Teatro alla Scalla in Milan no less.
Thankfully, her attire wasn’t out of place. Eugenie was even a little overdressed compared to the crowd in general, many of whom seemed to have come to the theater straight from work. It was Aldebrand, the narrow stick of a man who barely filled his tuxedo, that stood out. Add to his misplaced and ill-fitting attire: his obvious look of disappointment with what had, in Eugenie’s opinion, been an excellent staging of Handel’s Rinaldo; the brash manner in which he forced his way through the crowd dragging Eugenie along by the wrist in his narrow wake; and his constant, though inaudible grumblings; and you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that he was causing a stir.
Resigned to their hurried exit, Eugenie twisted her neck around to get one final look at the stunning architecture of the theater. They’d very nearly been late for the performance, and at their arrival she’d had only a moment to admire the brilliant chandelier, the intricately patterned ceiling, and the towering rows of gilded private boxes before the lights had fallen. Now she was attempting to soak in as much of it as she could while being hauled through the thick crowd of patrons. Soon though, it was all gone—and they were in a narrow, though elegant hallway, then into the lobby, then to the coat check, and, before she had a chance to catch her breath, Aldebrand was shoving her into the arms of the navy corduroy blazer he’d given her and, like a flash, they were out in the street. Once free from the theater, though, the Doctor slackened his pace to a leisurely stroll across the paving stones of Milan.
“Doctor, what’s the matter?” she asked.
He turned back to look at the opera house, grimaced, and continued on. “It didn’t work,” he grumbled.
“What didn’t work? I thought the opera was lovely—exhilarating, really.”
He nodded his thin head very quickly. “Objectively I’m sure it was. Subjectively, however…” Aldebrand grunted his frustration. “Over four hundred years of operatic history and I still don’t like it!” Eugenie looked up at this confession in surprise.
“But you wanted to go,” she said. “It was your idea to go to the opera.”
“Yes, of course. I needed to check.”
She tilted her head: “To check if you like opera?”
“Exactly! Yet, I continue to hate it! I just hate it. I love a good ballet; I’m wild about the orchestra. Theater I adore—even musical theater. Opera? Turns my stomach and has since the first. When you renewed me, and I saw what ring you’d picked for me, I thought: “Great, if a little bit of him wears off on me, maybe this time I can appreciate a nice opera.” But no!”
“Why would the ring influence that?” she asked, her eyes flitting down to the brass ring on his finger. It cast an Illusion, altering his appearance, and in the past he’d called it an “Illusion-Plus,” but hadn’t been forthcoming on the details.
Aldebrand rolled his eyes as they turned down the next narrow street. It was night, and without her magic socks, she shivered in the cool damp air. “The brass rings pick up a bit of their imprinter’s personality—I’ve told you this.”
“Yes, Doctor,” she agreed. “But are tastes and personality really the same thing? I mean…”
He cut her off, tapping the ring with his thumb and saying: “This fellow loved the opera. He was a percussionist with the Paris Opera actually. That’s how I originally spotted him. With every new renewal I go to the opera to see if my opinion of the form has improved, and it was on one such occasion that I noticed this gangly fellow at the timpani while I struggled to sit through the premier of La Traviata.”
“Wait. The actual premier?” Eugenie asked, but he ignored this and continued.
“I mean, how could you not notice him? You have to understand that back then 6’5” was a giant, and to see him in the orchestra pit towering over the timpani, handling the mallets with his long artistic hands…” Aldebrand held up those same hands, admiring the thin pale fingers.
“Doctor, it’s a little off putting to hear you talk about the person who used to… be you. Why is it so important that you like opera?” she asked, shifting her tone as she slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow. Their disparity in height made this comically awkward and, as she released herself, he touched her shoulder affectionately.
“Opera,” he explained, “is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. The hours, and attention, and genius that has been devoted to it through the centuries compels it to be nothing less. When humans devote themselves to anything for so long a time, they cannot help but achieve excellence. My personal distaste for the form divorces me from any potential enjoyment more effectively that the cruelest state censor ever could. And I had such hopes this time…” he complained, shoving his hands into his pockets.
Eugenie looked up at him and smiled. “You’re really quite sweet to—”
“Shut up!” he snapped, suddenly distracted. The Doctor had abruptly stopped walking, and she spun around to see him staring at a blank wall.
Milan was gorgeous, even more so now that night had fallen. The pale lamplight caught the fine mist in the air and reflected luminously off the slick pavement. It was May, and the earthy moist air was filled with the scent of spring blossoms blooming in window boxes all around them. They were standing in one of the city’s innumerable winding streets where each house abutted the next, and where each facade was a work of art worthy of a museum, yet the section of wall that had so caught Aldebrand’s attention seemed completely plain—just stones stacked on stones.
“What’s…” she began to ask.
“It’s not moving. Good,” he whispered to himself. Aldebrand then turned quickly to the next door on the street—that which belonged to the simple stone wall. He raised up his hand to knock, but Eugenie stopped him.
“Doctor, wait! You can’t just bang on their door at this hour. Look at the windows: all the lights are out. They’re probably in bed.”
Aldebrand stepped back and looked up at the darkened windows on the second floor, then nodded. “You’re right. Probably more polite to break in. Get the lock-picks from your pocket.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she protested, but even before she’d finished saying this, Aldebrand had stooped down next to her and was fiddling with the magic button on the side of her coat, first turning it, then reaching into the side pocket in search of her lock-picks. Frustrated, he demanded:
“Have you reorganized these pockets?”
Eugenie sighed, and tugged the jacket away. “Let me find them,” Eugenie said. She was still getting the hang of this jacket—how you turned the button on the right-hand pocket like a dial to access other magical pockets of space through the same innocuous-looking hip pocket aperture. While she searched, she asked: “Would you like to tell me why we’re breaking into these nice people’s house?”
Aldebrand frowned. “You don’t know that they’re nice people. For all you know they could run a puppy mill, or cheat on their taxes.”
“They have a magic item.” He looked back at the wall, seeming to stare through it. “It looks like a tea cup.”
“You can see it through the wall?” she asked as she handed him the small leather case of lock-picks.
He took the picks and nodded, explaining awkwardly. “Only sort of, but, yes. I can’t see through anything though—well, what I mean to say is that I can’t see everything through anything.” Bending his knobby knees with an audible popping noise, he squatted down to face the lock dead-on as he worked with the tiny picks. Eugenie looked nervously up and down the street, positioning her body to block him from view. “What I mean to say is that, yes, I can look through any material, but only in order to see magic—it’s kind of a hazy aura thing, and is obscured by passing through solid objects. To spot it through a wall like this, the magic has to be quite powerful.” The lock clicked, and Aldebrand stood and turned the knob. He smiled at her proudly, and handed her the loose picks that she might slip them back in the case.
Aldebrand opened the door and stepped inside, disappearing into the darkened kitchen, leaving Eugenie alone on the street to follow him in on her tip-toes. The last time she’d trespassed somewhere was in an abandoned tobacco factory when she was thirteen, and she’d felt so guilty and scared about it that she’d broken down crying in front of her friends. The room she now entered was rather plain: a simple kitchen with a large wooden table, appliances dating back to the fifties or sixties, brass pots and pans hanging on a rack, and antique crockery lining the selves of a china cabinet on the opposite side of the room. It all felt ominous and sinister to her—not because there was anything wrong with the room, but because she shouldn’t have been there. Her gaze passed a black and white wedding photo hanging on the wall and she guessed by this and the faint “old people smell” that the owners were most likely in their twilight years. She was the only thing wrong with this room, she and the Aldebrand.
“We should go,” she whispered.
“We can’t just leave a magic whatsit with them. It could be dangerous.”
“Why would these people have a magic item?” she asked quietly.
Loudly the Doctor responded: “Why are you whispering?”
“To not wake them up,” she growled.
“Good idea,” he said, then repeated it in a whisper, adding: “You’re really being very considerate seeing how you’ve never even met these people before.”
Looking guiltily at the open front door, Eugenie replied: “It’s not about consideration. Aren’t you worried about getting caught? What if we get arrested? I don’t even have my passport with me.”
Aldebrand grunted a derisive laugh as he opened the door of a small cupboard mounted on the wall. She’d once seen him convince an on-duty police constable to hand over his sidearm—talking his way out of a B&E might be a little harder for him, but she doubted it. Realizing this, she relaxed and moved to join him in front of the open cupboard. It was full of baking supplies: icing bags and food coloring, baking soda and baking powder, brass cookie cutters and a flour sifter with a bent handle.
Aldebrand raised his hand and pointed his long, thin index finger at a small blue antique tea cup, stuffed with paper packets of quick-rise yeast.
“The cup?” she asked.
He nodded as he picked it up, and tipped out the packets. It looked incredibly old and plain—the kind of family heirloom that was more of a hand-me-down than a treasured inheritance. It had no real value; it was the kind of thing you’d never give a second thought. The woman who lived here had most likely always kept her yeast in this cup simply because the cup was good for nothing else, but too old to throw away.
Aldebrand brought the cup down level with his stomach and held it carefully with both hands. After a moment, he said: “Quite sad. Hardly the first though.”
He shut the cupboard, and walked out of the room, then out into the street. Eugenie quickly followed him through the front door. She drew it shut, but bit her lip as she realized she was unable to lock it behind her and she looked to him for guidance.
He was already striding down the narrow street in the same direction they’d been heading before. Leaving the door, she rushed after him. “I don’t understand. Did you make that cup? How did it end up here?”
He shook his head as she caught up to him. “No, it’s not one of mine.”
“I don’t understand then. How did those people get it? I mean, you’re the only human with magic, right?”
“Yes, of course, but…” He stopped walking and turned to look at her. “Haven’t I explained all of this?”
Eugenie sighed. This question was a near-constant refrain with him. This new Doctor Aldebrand, though still rather condescending, was dramatically more forthcoming with information about magic than Colonel Aldebrand had ever been, yet he remained stubbornly unaware of his previous iteration’s reticence no matter how many times Eugenie explained it. Doctor Aldebrand simply refused to believe that Colonel Aldebrand had failed to fill her in on many of, what he called, “the basics,” and his annoyance at now needing to take the time to educate her grew more apparent with each lesson.
“The Colonel never explained any of this,” she said. “I know that you can make magical items, and I know that you store what you’ve made in the barn, but…”
“No, no, no,” he said. “The barn isn’t full of things I’ve made. I mean, yes, some of my inventions are mixed in there, but most of those things were accidental creations like this cup.”
“Accidentally created by who?” she asked.
Aldebrand raised his eyebrows. “Lots of different people of course. Hmm! I see you know nothing. Well, I know at least that I’ve explained how all humans have the natural ability to use magic, but that it’s being stolen from them moment by moment, like a tub with its plug out.”
Eugenie nodded. “We have the capacity to hold water, but it just drains away.”
“Well, different people are born with different types of magic, and those types remain a part of them regardless of whether their abilities are being taken—like different shapes of bath tubs—no that’s taking the analogy too far. Walking down this street, or now, as we turn and see this square full of what appear to be teenaged ne’er-do-wells loitering by the fountain, I can tell you that each young tough would have a different kind of magic. One might be a Enchanter like myself, while another might be a Teleporter, or a Illusionist.”
“Okay,” Eugenie said, nodding. She’d deduced for herself that there were different types of magic by reading the titles on the books she was binding in the library, but this was the first time she’d considered that the kind of magic you had wasn’t a choice—but a inborn trait. “So how many types of magic are there? And what are the different kinds?”
He shook his head at her. “That’s not important right now… Thirteen, maybe.”
“Okay, well what type am I?” she rounded in front of him and playfully twirled.
But Aldebrand shook his head. “I can’t tell. Your magic is being stolen, so there’s nothing for me to see. Besides, the only way to tell would be for you to use your magic—I can’t tell by looking. But none of that matters. Is it this way?” he asked, motioning with the cup in his hand to one of the side streets. The doorway he’d created that afternoon had opened, not opposite to the Opera House as he’d planned, but at the end of a random alleyway a few blocks across the city. He’d explained then that his memory of Milan’s layout was less accurate than he’d supposed, but that there’d been no time to make a new door. They’d just hopped in a taxi which had taken them to the theatre. Until now, Eugenie had assumed that the Doctor knew the way back to the portal.
“Are we lost?” she asked.
Aldebrand shrugged and kept walking. “Only a little. I know we’re still in Milan. Never mind—the cup! Yes, I was explaining about the cup. So, some of the people on this planet would—if they had their magic—they would be Enchanters like I am. An Enchanter can do a little bit of all kinds of magic, but where our real talent lies is in transferring magic into things—Enchanting something. Under a very particular set of circumstances, a regular non-magic human can transfer all the magic they would ever have generated into a single item. It’s called Imbuing, not Enchanting. That’s how this cup was made—it was Imbued. That’s how most of the things in the barn were made.”
Eugenie thought about this for a moment, as The Doctor spun on his heel a few times peering at the various streets and alleys that led off of the square. Finally she asked: “What are the special circumstances?”
Aldebrand scratched his head, tousling his shaggy hair before answering. “They’re always different, but there are patterns. With the cup, for instance, well…” he paused, and stopped turning. Eugenie looked up at him: his broad, expressive mouth was pursed and his dark eyes were low. “When I’m holding an item like this I can see the moment it was created. The situation around an Imbued item’s creation leaves a kind of imprint in the magic. Do you mind?” He offered her the cup.
Cautiously, Eugenie asked. “Mind what?”
“I can show you how it was made.”
Eugenie nodded, and took the cup in both hands, cradling it. Aldebrand wrapped his hands around hers, and her vision became a sudden confusion of two separate images: here where she was standing in Milan and somewhere else. It wasn’t like one photograph faded into another—this was in three dimensions—there was a confusion of depth. Eugenie, suddenly dizzy, almost stumbled and Aldebrand tightened his hands around hers, steadying her.
“It’s better if you shut your eyes.”
She did as he said, and the city square disappeared leaving only the second image. There was no colour except a monochromatic electric blue. She saw the hazy shape of a child, a young boy wrapped in blankets laying on a small bed by a hearth. The image shifted, and she realized she was seeing through another person’s point of view. The arms that reached out in front of her weren’t her own. They were wearing a thick, heavy dress, with tight cuffs. The hands were reaching for a nearby table where a kettle rested, and next to it sat that same cup that Eugenie now held. The hands poured the tea, and Eugenie tried to look around the room, but she found that, no matter how Eugenie turned her head, she could only see what the owner of hands was looking at—or had once looked at, for it was obvious that these images had been recorded some time in the past. She thought she recognized the room—it was the kitchen they’d just broken into, but a large hearth was where the china cabinet had been, the appliances were all gone, and everything she saw—the kettle, the clothes, the candlelight—spoke of a different century.
When the tea was poured, the hands lifted the cup, and it came near to Eugenie’s face. She sniffed it, but smelled nothing.
“I can’t smell it,” Eugenie said. “I can’t smell the tea.”
“Broth, I would guess,” the Doctor grunted, “but of course you can’t.” The vision continued: the woman’s hands carried the broth to the child in the bed. They reached down and touched his sweating forehead. Though there was no colour to see but blue, Eugenie could tell that the boy was pale, and that there were dark circles under his eyes. One of the hands gently lifted his head, while the other brought the broth to his lips. The cup suddenly glowed brightly—blindingly like lightbulb coming on in a dark room, and there, the vision ended.
Eugenie opened her eyes.
“Was the boy alright?” she asked.
Aldebrand took the cup back from her. “Yes,” he said sadly. “I’m quite sure that he was. It’s impossible to know what was making him ill from the vision, small pox or cholera perhaps, but whatever it was, this cup would cure it—that’s its magic.”
“The cup can heal people?”
Aldebrand nodded. “Yes. But only that of particular illness, and only for a few patients. Healing magic is very draining, more so with fatal illnesses. Eventually the magic powering it would drain, and it would just be a cup.”
Aldebrand started walking again, not to anywhere in particular, it seemed, just out of his distraction.
“If the boy lived, if he was alright,” Eugenie asked, taking her place back beside him, “then why do you seem so sad?”
“Because his mother wasn’t—the woman in the vision. I say mother, but she might have been a sister or an aunt. I have dozens of these cups in the barn. A child falls ill, their mother or sister or aunt—fathers, brothers, and uncles too—they happen to be an Enchanter, and, while nursing their beloved charge, they think to themselves—they will it to be that if the child could only just be well, they would give anything—not just their own lives, but everything they might ever do. And with that wish, it is made so.”
He continued: “Magic isn’t subject to time in the same way as normal matter. Your magic is being stolen from you right now, but you’re still generating magic, and you will continue to generate magic in the future. When Imbuing, a human Enchanter draws on all the potential magic they’ll ever generate and pours it all into a single moment, creating a cup to heal a sick child for instance. With that act, all of their potential futures collapse like an observed quantum waveform.”
“You said that the mother wasn’t alright?” Eugenie asked.
“No. She would have died shortly after.”
He rubbed the back of his neck and hung his head. “Because she had sacrificed her future,” he said. “Without a potential future, a kind of causal vacuum is created and the universe rushes in to fill it. Within a day or so she would have died: heart failure maybe, or the same illness that had threatened the child—perhaps an accident of some kind.”
“That’s terrible.” Eugenie said.
Aldebrand nodded. “It is sad, but even if she knew the consequences, I think she would have made the same choice. Her sacrifice, it’s one any parent would gladly make, but only the occasional Enchanter has the chance. As I said, I have dozens of such cups.”
They walked on, aimlessly now as Aldebrand, lost in thought, seemed to have forgotten that he was navigating. Eugenie, though she was reluctant to break in on this thought, finally asked: “And you collect these Imbued items? And that’s what’s in the barn?”
Aldebrand looked down at her, almost surprised to find that she was still with him. “Yes. It’s not just cups, or healing magic, or… It can be anything. Any time an Enchanter is willing to sacrifice everything for some particular outcome an Imbued item can be created. Over the years these things have piled up. While I’m out in the world I see their magic and I collect the items—or sometimes I’ll hear of an object and will need to go out and find it. With this cup, I doubt anyone has ever had any notion that it was special—it just looks like a regular cup. Its healing abilities, if they’ve ever been used since, would have been attributed to the Doctor, or luck, or prayer. But I would guess that it hasn’t been used to heal even once since that first time. Some other items are more obvious in their usage and can be quite dangerous. Your wounding pistol for instance, the gun that will never kill its target? It caused significant havoc in the hands of hands of a reckless bank robber when its power was discovered. I’m sure you can imagine.” He stopped and looked around.
“Dammit,” he said, changing his tone completely. “I’m totally lost. I’ll just make a new door. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Eugenie blinked, and she too brightened. “Yes, I’m very excited about it.”
“That’s good, I suppose. Have you chosen what to do yet?” Aldebrand handed her the cup, then fished around in his pocket, pulling out his keychain.
“I think I have,” Eugenie said.
“Well, we’ll see how it goes.” He was removing one of the keys from the ring, and as he did, Eugenie noticed that it was a blank like you’d see on a display at a key-cutters—there were no ridges or valleys. He pressed the key between his palms and shut his eyes. As though creating a magical portal was an everyday thing—which for him it was—he continued chatting with her: “I want to warn you that it probably won’t work out like you hope. I’ve told you that I’ve never had any luck.”
Eugenie nodded as he opened his palms and lifted up the magically-cut key. “I know,” she agreed. “But I think the Conspiracy is important and we should keep on with it.”
Aldebrand chuckled, shook his head, and stepped towards the nearest wall with the key before him. The blue oak door appeared there and he slipped the key into the lock, and swung the door open for her. “Well, all I can say is “good luck.””