Magician's Throne -- Free short story

*Again, these are known in my conference (the diner, at Baen's bar) as Blue Plate Specials.  This one was published years ago in -- of all things! -- a pagan magazine.  It is a bit of fluff, spun off one Saturday morning when I had nothing better to do.  Yes, it coulda/shoulda be much longer and more involved.  Heck, it could be a novel.  But it isn't.  Just a nice pasttime.  I'm actually finishing up a short story, having got away from the novels just long enough to do this.  Maybe I can even get in some house cleaning before they drag me back, but don't bet on it.  Oh, and if I need to say this, this is fiction, the magical/mythical system is part of the world-building and do not in any way represent my beliefs.  (Yes, it should go without saying.)*

Magician's Throne
by

Sarah A. Hoyt

"Please," Nierne said.  "Please, Dolina.  I need your help."

His green eyes gazed earnestly into mine as his mobileface set into an intent pleading expression.

I wasn't having any.  I'd fallen for Nierne's green eyes, his straight, freckled nose, the mane of his wild red hair and beard, and his too-cute-for-words Scottish accent time and time again, and it always ended up the same way.

It always came to me doing work that I didn't want to do and pulling Nierne's fat out of the fire.  While Nierne thanked me, smiled his happiest smile and rode off into the sunset of some alternate reality, not to be heard from until he needed me again.

I tried to pull my shoulder away from the grasp of his large hand and walk away, but he stepped back just as quickly as he could, keeping his hand on my shoulder, and he said, "Dolina, come now, lass...."

Behind him shone the broad windows, the sparkling plate glass of The Magician's Throne coffee shop and espresso bar.  The sign hanging beside it, showed a man in a pointy hat sitting on a toilet.  Most people thought it was a fun, whimsical touch.

Most people didn't know that the Magician's Throne happened to be the gateway between Earth prime and all the lost worlds.  Lost to the commons, of course.

The magicians had never actually lost a world, gods forbid.  All of the worlds were tagged and itemized, classified and annotated somewhere -- somewhere in the cavernous bowels of Magic Central, on the second floor of The Magician's Throne.

It's no use wondering.  I know that the coffee shop didn't appear to have a second story.  Actually, it had fifty five, but they extended into other dimensions and I really couldn't attempt to explain it to anyone who hadn't at least passed his third magical degree.

Which was as far as I'd ever got, before they'd assigned me to Earth and let me more or less go on with the life that had been interrupted at twelve when some talent spot earmarked me as mage material.

Nierne, who'd been my colleague in those far off days of training, had gone beyond the third degree.  How far beyond, I didn't know, nor could I hazard.

"Look, Dolina, I'll do anything you want me to.  Promise.  I'll recommend you for advanced study."  He jogged backward in front of me while I advanced, trying to ignore him.  "Anything."

To recommend me to advanced study -- to have that power -- Nierne had to be at least a tenth degree.  Which, in itself, made me wonder what the hell he needed with poor little untrained me.

And I didn't want advanced study.  I rather liked Earth prime -- not my world of origin.  And I rather liked the United States of America in the early twenty first century.  And I rather liked the little craft shop, not two doors down from The Magician's Throne, that served me as cover and plausible source of income.

Unfortunately, I thought as I looked up at Nierne's bright green eyes, the color and depth of a well-cut emerald, I rather liked Nierne, too.

"Fine," I said.  "I help you, and you marry me."

Dismay painted itself on Nierne's oval face and he opened his mouth and made a sound that -- were it not for the fact that Nierne would never do something so stereotypical, could be transcribed as "Och."  And then with deep consternation, "Och, lass, you don't mean it."

I didn't, of course.  I'd known Nierne in his student days, after all, when we kept no secrets from each other, and when the entire apprenticeship class had lived in cramped enough quarters that everyone knew what everyone else was up to.  What Nierne had been up to rarely involved females.

Not unusual for male magicians, really.  Made for some very lonely nights for the occasional female mage.

But I still liked Nierne.  Not that way, but I liked him.  Oh, if things had been different I'd probably have eloped with him to some distant world and we'd have raised a passel of magician brats.

But it hadn't been another way and I'd figured it out early enough that I'd never even entertained a passing fantasy for Nierne's green eyes, his broad shoulders, his narrow waist, and his sweet promise-you-the-world smile.

I laughed and patted him on the shoulder.

"Ah," he said, still looking a little nervous.  "I thought you were joking.... Sure, and a fine joke.  You had me going...."  He shook his head.  "But I need your help.  I really, really do."

As he spoke, he pulled me into the Magician's Throne.

Inevitably, the place attracted commons as much as magicians.  This particular room attracted only commons from Earth, who couldn't see, much less penetrate beyond the door at the back to the rooms that fronted onto other worlds.  Most of those rooms weren't coffee houses -- although all mages are caffeine addicts.  Most were taverns, ordinaries, ale houses, things more common in those other worlds to which its doors opened.

But magicians could and did filter from those other rooms to the Earth room for their fix.  So, as soon as I entered The Magician's Throne, I heard the babble of a hundred languages, spoken at the top of many voices, earnestly.

There was the lang-d'oc French of Earth Tertia, extinct on Earth for centuries.  And the fast, clipped and clanking sound of what Phoenician had become in the world where Hannibal won the fight and Rome -- far from being an empire -- died while an agricultural backwater.

Dark haired magicians, and blond magicians, tall magicians and short magicians, of both genders and all preferences, hunched over their coffee cups, their tall late glasses, their frothy cappuccinos, and drank with the eagerness of a junky who's found his fix.

The funny thing was all these magicians were careful enough, before they entered the Earth room, to ensure that they wore what Nierne had been wearing out on the street -- jeans, non-descript T-shirt.  The leather jacket and the letters that screamed in pink across Nierne's grey shirt -- Magicians Do It Enchantingly -- were optional.  Also, most pairs of jeans didn't look like Nierne's -- through which you could have counted his pores, if you looked close enough.

Most magicians passed for twentieth century earth prime denizens without an ounce of magic.

The Earth prime denizens without an ounce of magic, though, those who wandered into the cafe unawares and didn't find anything odd with the place, except the large conglomeration of foreigners it seemed to attract, those commons were anything but normal-looking.

Perhaps because of the name and the image, the place attracted a crowd of the sort of deluded fools who thought they'd have done much better in the Middle Ages.

They wore tunics and tights and those funny little boots that end at the ankle and would be no good at all against real medieval muck -- like the one in the world into which I'd been born -- and weren't much good for anything else, except to look good.  And the women, more often than not, wore veils and things and came in two sizes: the extremely large and the tooth-pick slender.  Nothing in between.

Not that I was complaining.  It left more -- rare enough -- male magician attention to those of us who had medium-sized figures.  Terribly needed, what with the great scarcity of male magicians who'd actually notice.

Nierne pushed through, shoulder first, into the babbling crowd, squeezing past -- I thought -- unusually high concentrations of chattering college males in tight pants, when he might very easily have taken less crowded paths.

But what was I to do, right?  I had to follow him.

So I followed him all the way to a vacant little coffee table, perched on a high metal pedestal, the end of which looked exactly like a chicken leg, with three clawed toes.

Someone had once told me that it was supposed to be a dragon claw.  But whoever had cast this in metal obviously had avoided the sight of a real dragon by whatever means.  Probably by being born on Earth Prime.

If they'd ever had to fight a dragon off their sheep, in the wild steppes of Earth Decima, where I'd been born and raised and -- my luck, being the youngest girl in a large family -- been made to watch the sheep.... If they'd ever had to do it, I say, they would have had better things to do with their time than to make table pedestals in the shape of a dragon claw.  And if they absolutely felt a need to do that, they would have made the dragon claw look like a claw, not like the foot of a sickly chicken.

But Nierne didn't spare even a look at the chicken leg, nor did he look at the nice, polished white table top -- its grey whorls and cracks good for scrying.  He just pulled one of the tall little metal chairs, whose tiny vinyl seat was, inevitably, too small to accommodate anyone's butt, and held it until I sat down.

Trust Nierne to be chivalrous.  Not that he had much choice on that.  The Scotland in Earth Sextus in which he'd been born was still stuck in the age when men wore metal visors and women wore chastity belts.  At least the better kind of men and women, that is.

How such a social climate had produced free-spirited, easy-going Nierne, I'd never been able to understand.

And I wasn't about to be given an explanation of that.

He pulled a chair for himself, and perched on it, managing to look strangely debonair, strangely at ease in this perch designed.... maybe for parrots, but not for humans.

He looked all around, sighed, and waved his hand.

A tall glass of foaming cappuccino materialized in front of him, and a tiny, white cup of espresso in front of me.

"Nierne!" I said.

"What?" He raised his eyebrows, saw me looking at the coffees and smiled.  "Just a little bit of magic.  Nothing much.  Really.  I just transported it from behind the counter.  Couldn't wait.  Gods, woman."  He took a pull of his cappuccino.  "You'd think I'd broken one of the fifteen covenants or something."

Technically he had, since one of the covenants specified that a magician should not visibly use magic in a world in which it was unknown, forbidden or disbelieved.

But arguing with Nierne always proved the least rewarding of hobbies.

He took another pull of his cappuccino, and looked like he was about to be catapulted into nirvana, or ascend to some mythical heaven all in one piece. 

"You don't know how much I craved this," he said.  "Or how lucky you are to be assigned to a world where they have coffee.  It's the lucky lass you are."

"Yes, and, no doubt, the bonny lass too," I said, impatiently.  I never knew how much of Nierne's Scots was a put on and how much come by naturally.  Honestly, I knew precious little about Nierne's world, except for a mercifully brief visit years ago in our student days, when Nierne had got me to take his fat out of the fire with his step father, the Laird of a small domain amid hard-scrabble mountains.  All I'd gathered from it was that this particular alternate of Scotland remained stuck in the fourteenth century and never mind that the calendar said the twentieth, or that their dynastic history was pretty damn close to that of Earth prime, so that Scotland hadn't been an independent country for more centuries than it took to count.

I'd also gathered that Nierne was at least as well acquainted with sheep as I was.  And liked them about as much.

"Come, Nierne, what do you need me to do this time."

"You wound me," he said, and his eyes looked indeed, wounded, sad and shocked in one.  "What makes you think I need you to do anything?"

If his world hadn't actively encouraged, promoted and searched for magic potential, Nierne could have been an actor.  And, I suspected, would have liked it immensely.

"The fact that you asked me for help."

"Not to do something," he said, his cadences doleful, slow, full of injured innocence.  "Just to listen to me.  Listen to an old friend, och, and what does that cost you?"

"If you say och once more it will cost you a beaning with this here wee espresso cup," I said.

He smiled.  "You wouldn't."

I sighed.  I supposed I wouldn't.  Besides, to get the cup to make a dent on Nierne's thick skull it would take a magic spell and there was that covenant thing to worry about.

"It's the high king," he said.  "The true king, don't you know."

I didn't know.  I'd heard rumors of the high king, and stories about the king -- also called the true king -- but I didn't know.  Third degrees didn't, after all.  We were the peons of the magic world, good for the occasional simple curing spell and the odd bit of thief catching, and the not-so-common world saving.  But we couldn't -- not really -- be entrusted with the truths about the universe.

After all, what could one of us want with the fundamental truths?  What would we do with them?  Where would we put them?  And, considering most of us lived on restricted means, how could we get someone to dust them regularly?

"Dolina," Nierne called.  "You're not attending now."

"I don't know who the true king is," I said, looking up at Nierne's devilish green eyes.  "I really don't.  I don't know who he is, nor what he is, nor what he's supposed to do."

Nierne laughed softly, finished his cappuccino and licked foam off his lips.  "No one does, lass.  You're in good company there.  You see, when I passed my twelfth degree exams--"

"You what?"  I asked.  He didn't look like he was joking.

He blinked.  "Don't interrupt.  It's rude.  I was saying, when I passed the twelfth degree, the people upstairs called me aside, didn't they, and they didn't assign me to a world, as I'd been assigned before, like you are, to assist stranded magicians and what not.  Instead of assigning me, they said my job was to go looking for the true king."

"They asked you to look for the philosopher's stone, too, I imagine."

He looked puzzled.  "Did someone take it?  I thought it was still in the fifth floor."  He gestured to the invisible floors above the cafe.  "Under a stasis field as it has been ever since mad Roland turned himself to gold playing with it."

I stared at him, openmouthed.

"What?  You didn't know that?"  He arched a perfect, blond-red eyebrow.  "Were you being facetious?  I thought even third degrees knew about the philosopher's stone."  He sighed.  "I take it to mean you think no one can find the true king.  What do you know about the true king again?"

"Nothing," I said.  "Or a little less.  I know that every human civilization, in every analog world has bits and pieces of legends about a true king that restores the land, and makes everything right again.  But I don't know what the truth behind those legends is."

Nierne opened his hands in the ancient look-mah-no-weapons gesture known and accepted in every world.  He lowered his voice as he spoke, and I noticed him waving his hand just slightly, to drop an invisible privacy force shield around the table.  Blowing those covenants sky high again.  "It's true that there was a true king once.  And he was a powerful magician.  Probably the most powerful magician ever.  He was... well, it doesn't matter.  You don't need the details, anyway, but he was killed.  By magical means.  At the moment he was killed, the Earth lost its moorings.  It was as if -- think about it - the Earth were a book, with all the pages held together and the king were the binding that holds those pages together.  When he died, the pages went flying loose.  Hence the two hundred and fifty three worlds."

I nodded.  As good an explanation as any and much more plausible than the theology lessons I had endured under my teachers back home.

Nierne said, "It's true.  And, you see, he had descendants, the king did.  But none of them was of the right line to be a true king."

"Beg your pardon?" I asked, now truly confused.  "You're going to say they weren't legitimate?  Like the universe cares?"

Nierne shrugged.  "No.  They were legitimate enough, but they were born of concubines and wives that weren't from magical lines.  So none of the king's sons or daughters could inherit the throne.  They tried, all of them, all their analogous counterparts in all the worlds that the original primordial earth had split into.  But they didn't have the true touch of royalty, and none of them ever again managed to occupy the high Throne, or stop the further splitting off of worlds.  Which is how we got the five hundred and fifty two secondary worlds."

"And...." He obviously believed this, but what there was about this to get his staff in a twist I couldn't fully understand.  After all, what could be so urgent about an old legend?

"And the only chance of the worlds stopping splitting off, the only chance of the world, ever, becoming whole again -- even if it never becomes one -- and healthy and right, was for the magical lines to crossbreed again by accident and produce the high king.  We've been waiting for centuries."  He pointed upwards.  "Well, they have." 

Nierne looked away from me, perhaps uncomfortable with the skeptical glare I could feel blazing out of my eyes.  He stared intently at the table top.  "They detected the high king last year.  I mean, they detected him as having already been born.  The true king.  Doesn't mean that he's an infant, but only that he was recently found.  And the center wants me to find him."

"At which point you immediately proceeded to kill two thousand infants between the ages of zero and two, of course," I said.

"Beg your pardon?" Nierne looked at me as if he thought I had taken leave of my senses.

Which I probably had.

I sighed.  "Never mind, local mythology.  Tell me--"

I never went any further.  Someone had come into the cafe.  A common.  A narrow-hipped common, clad all in black leather so tight that you could have read Braille through it.

All of which was fine, and much to be approved of, since the leather clad body happened to be definitely male, and since the aforementioned male wore his hair long, in loose dark ringlets and had the face of an angel, were it not for the conspicuous golden ring protruding out of his left nostril.

What wasn't fine was the gun that this apparition in leather carried, and pointed at everyone in turn.  "Nobody move," he yelled, his voice just grave enough to have shed adolescent shrillness, but not by much.  "Nobody move.  Cover me.  Hide me.  The police--"

Question: what happens when you scare a room full of magicians, most of whom probably come from analogs where guns are magically charged and can do much worse things to you than pierce you with metal bits?

Answer: the hell of several worlds breaks loose.  And that covenant about magic in non-believing worlds gets flung so far out of the window that you don't see it zip past.

Magicians stood up.  Magicians held their hands, staffs and cappuccino cups aloft.  Fireballs flew here and there and in no particular direction.  One went so close to my face that I could feel its singeing heat and doubted I still had a left eyebrow.

Some idiot in the middle of the room turned himself into something halfway between a gryphon and a dragon.

Commons screamed and magicians incanted, a burly policeman opened the door and -- in the middle of all this -- our tight-leather-clad villain jumped and yelled and for a moment it looked like he would fire the gun but then -- proving that he had even fewer brains than it looked like -- dropped it on the floor and ran like a scared rabbit towards the inner door of the cafe.  The door he shouldn't be able to see.

"Hey," Nierne yelled, as the kid opened the door.  He stood up and added, "Hey," as the kid ran through.

Nierne was running through, dodging fireballs and fallen coffee tables.

Do what?  I followed him, of course.  My life had taught me there was only one thing more dangerous than getting involved in Nierne's messes.

And that was, of course, not getting involved.

Past the door, I found myself in a greasy little tavern, thick with floor rushes, and the smell of cheap ale.  Men leaned on tables and dispirited bawds circulated between them, but Nierne gave neither bawds nor men even a glance, as he pursued the dark-clad young man.

I galloped after them, glad that I was wearing jeans and not the hampering long skirts the women in the tavern appeared to be wearing.

We ran right out, right into the clear night punctuated with stars, a night that had never been disturbed by the sound of a motor and stars that had never encountered competition from light pollution.

A dispirited backwater of a world, of those still subjected to episodic plague outbreaks.  There were hundreds of them and I had no idea which one this was.

In the night outside, the boy stopped, shocked, surprised.

For just a moment, it looked like we had caught him.

But then Nierne closed in, running fast.

And the boy took to his heels again.

Not exactly surprising, of course.  I mean, if I saw Nierne run up to me in a dark night, with red hair flying in the wind and all, I'd probably run, too.

The terrain was hilly, covered with low scrub brush and splatted here and there with slippery stuff that was probably animal dung.

Nierne ran up steep hills and down slopes like the natural-born mountain goat he was.

I ran slower, no longer used to this type of exercise.

Our prey, on the other hand, ran by tumbles and trips, up and down the mountain, managing to keep ahead of Nierne just by sheer terror.

I put on a burst of speed and managed to catch up to Nierne.

He was muttering under his breath, what sounded like "fock, fock, fock," but was actually his attempt at a good, old fashioned four letter swear word.

"Nierne," I yelled, out of breath, as we ran up a slope, the young man we pursued no more than a flash of dark leather just ahead of us.  "Nierne.  Stop.  If you stop chasing he might stop."

"No," Nierne yelled.  "No.  Can't you see?  He's going to the holy of holies, the damn boy."

This took whatever breath I had away.

The holy of holies, the full integration of what in Earth-prime is Stonehenge -- at best a skeleton of the full structure -- existed on only one Earth -- my Earth.  And it was said to be all that remained from the palace of the true king.

I said, "fuck," pronouncing it properly just for the sake of teaching Nierne a lesson, and followed the Scottish mountain goat down yet another slope, closer and closer to our hysterically frightened victim.

This close, I could see it, the vast clearing with scrub brush, on a flat piece of land -- it was said the hills and hillocks around it had been caused by the disturbances on the death of the true king.   In the center of it, stones stood, supporting other stones, the whole shining as though plated with silver in the soft moonlight.

And it was spinning.  Spinning very softly, spinning very gently, like a merry-go-round set not to scare the little kiddies.

"It's spinning," I said, belaboring the obvious.

"Of course," Nierne said.

I didn't ask him why it was of course, because the young man had stopped just short of the spinning circle and shied back, like a horse that senses an abattoir.

But Nierne shook his head.  "Go on, boy.  Go on, damn it.  It's your destiny.  It's been calling you."

The boy turned around, looked at Nierne, looked at me, where I stood, two steps behind Nierne.  "Who are you two?" he asked.  "And where am I?"

"You're at the holy of holies, boy.  The palace of the true king.  Go in.  Your fate has called you here....  I was afraid.... but see, it's spinning, trying to find its center.  It's reacting to your presence.  Go in.  Inside, you'll find a sword on a stone.  Pull it out.  It is yours.  It's been waiting for you for centuries."

A groan attempted to climb through my throat, and I said, "Merlin.  Nierne, you're Merlin."

Nierne looked puzzled and the boy stared at me.

"Like in the movie?" the boy asked.  He looked at Nierne suspiciously.  "You're not going to turn me to a fish, are you?"

"It doesn't matter," I told him.  I couldn't really allow Nierne to answer that one.  "Nierne, you can't do this.  You can't let him there.  True king or not, he's a juvenile delinquent.  He came in with a gun--"

"I stole the gun from the policeman, I did," the young man said.  "I stole the gun because I'd... well, sometimes I throw fire, like without meaning to, and I threw fire, and he came after me, so I pulled the gun out of his hands and I ran. What was that place, that coffee house place?"

Nierne was looking smug.  He gave me this <em>see, I told you so,</em> look and grinned.  "It's the gate between worlds, boy.  It's the gate between worlds.  You were called to it, just like you were called here.  And once you go in and claim the sword, you'll know it all.  All of it, and what you must do."

The boy nodded as if this made perfect sense, and turned to go.  I screamed, "Wait," just before he entered.

He turned around.

"Your name is Arthur, isn't it?"

He looked puzzled and nodded really slow.  "My dad called me Artie, only he died when I was small."

I sighed.  "Then go.  I suppose it's inevitable."  Who was I, to prevent the well laid plans of the universe?  Heck, for all I knew the original Arthur had also been a small-time hoodlum.  Most teenage magicians were.  Only some, like Nierne, had ever aspired to being big time hoodlums.

The young man in black leather walked through the circle in the stones, seemingly unbothered by the spin.

Suddenly, a light came on within the circle, a light revealing a sword embedded in stone.

Arthur walked up to it, tugged on the handle.

It came up easily in his hand.

He lifted it above his hand, a big sword as long as him, and it shone with a light like the heart of the universe.

As it shone on my face, I felt a strange sort of peace.  I'd never felt as much peace, as much certainty of it all turning out all right.

"It's going to be fine, isn't it?" I asked.  The circle had stopped spinning.

Bathed in the white light, even Nierne's impish face looked angelic, his green eyes reflecting the light.  "Yes.  It's going to be fine.  I don't know if the worlds will unify or not, but they'll each be whole.  They'll each be healed."  He spoke in a hushed tone.

The calm lasted about ten seconds, and then Nierne cleared his throat.  "Of course, I lied to him, in a way.  He won't know everything.  Just the history, but he won't know how to control his magic.  He'll need someone to teach him that."  He looked significantly at me.

I liked Earth prime, I liked the United States, I liked my little craft shop.  "You could do it," I said.  "The true king is your project."

Arthur lowered the sword very slowly.  It still shone and by its light I could see that he looked truly angelic, transfigured, his eyes serious, full of the wisdom of the centuries, his whole face at peace.

"Och," Nierne said.  "And would you entrust him to me?  Look at him.  Like a dream walking.  How could I keep from corrupting the young?"

I gave him a sidelong glance.  "You can't corrupt anyone who doesn't want to be corrupted.  You wouldn't.  And my guess is that he's over eighteen."

Nierne grinned and waved his hands.  "Oh, yes, but I have.... things to do.  Calculations on what will happen to the worlds and all.  Now.  I'm...."  He cleared his throat.  "A twelfth degree.  Now you... if you do a good job on this, I'll bet you you're assured of being allowed to continue your studies."

As I said, I like Nierne.  But sometimes I'm not sure why.  Give him a hand.  End up holding the bag.

*I posted this earlier at According To Hoyt, my blog.*

posted by Sarah on 03.05.11 at 09:39 PM










Comments

Don't know about a novel - but that world would make a nice base for further short stories...

Kathy Kinsley   ·  March 7, 2011 12:45 PM

Kathy

It hasn't happened in the... 12? years since I wrote it. Doesn't mean it won't. Actually the only way I could see it as a setting would be for YA, say at highschool level. But as Kate's husband pointed today these days if it's not sparkly vamp romance you don't get a look in at that level YA. (Well, that or serious, depressing and no fun at all "literature".)

Sarah   ·  March 7, 2011 10:02 PM

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