“Without belief,” Archbishop Simon explained to me in a mixture of Saxon-English and Much Later Latin, via several steps of translation and clarification, “there is no such thing as magic.” He paused to brush a bit of breakfast from his sacerdotal robes before he continued. He either didn’t notice or ignored the rest of the stains.
“That explains a lot,” I thought to myself, though I didn’t say it out loud. He was a nice old guy and he’d taken us in, given us a floor to sleep on, and fed us dinner the night before and breakfast in the morning. He was trying in his own way to explain what was incomprehensible to me. I could at least try to be courteous.
Nevy and her mother were both sitting in on my first lesson in magic, because the archbishop was a renowned teacher of magical theory. You can always learn something new from listening to an expert, even if he’s just touching on the basics. I reminded myself that I believed in Nevy, whom I instinctively trusted not to lie to me, so I needed to suspend my disbelief in magic.
“Each of us exists as part of a whole,” Simon continued. “We aren’t alone in this world. We aren’t islands. Everything is connected to everything else. If you sit on a bench you are connected with it. If your feet are on the ground you are connected with the earth. If you take a breath, you are connected with the air. This is so?”
I agreed that it was, cautiously taking the baby steps along with him.
“If you think about your mother, are you connected to her?”
“Lightly,” I told him. “She’s dead now.”
“Still, she was alive before. My own mother is long dead. I still think about her, sometimes I even talk to her. Your mother gave birth to you. At one point she was the most important person on earth to you. The connection was very real, wasn’t it?”
I had to admit he was correct, whether I knew where the explanation was going or not. My mother was a nut. I knew it, and even she admitted to it occasionally. She had been my nut.
“The same applies to friends and acquaintances and to pets. Nevianne called you here from a far distant realm, so far away that you aren’t sure where you are. You have the name, and you have the singular talent of slipping from reality realm to reality realm. Already you are connected, breathing our air, standing on our earth, and acquainted with quite a few of our people. And you’re connected with four horses, and with the animals you killed for food.”
“True,” I agreed.
“You influenced the horses when you drove them. Leofgif influenced you when she taught you to drive. You influenced Nannakussi when you defeated him. You influenced the women and children of his tribe when you made them widows and orphans. Influence is not magic. But magic is influence.”
“That’s basic logic,” I agreed. Whether I accepted the existence of magic or not, A was all of B, but B was not all of A.
“Good, good, good! You’d be surprised at how many people can’t see the simple distinction. So now we come to the cat.”
“The cat?” I asked. I didn’t know where he came from, or how we came to him.
“You build a box,” Archbishop Simon told me, causing a bell to ring in the back of my mind. “You put the cat in the box and nail it shut, nice and tight. What will happen when you put the box under your bed for the night?”
I didn’t tell him it was impossible, since we were sleeping on the floor. “You don’t know until you open the box,” I answered. “He may run out of air and smother. He may have just enough air to survive the night. He may be in a coma because there’s not quite enough air. So he may be alive or dead or neither.”
“Precisely,” he agreed.
He’d invented Schrödinger’s cat, less a single atom. Nevy gave me a flattering look at my answer. I liked it when she was proud of me. It’s funny how that works.
“If you have the talent for it,” he continued, “you influence the outcome of the cat’s night under the bed. Some people have no talent for magic, just as some people have no talent for games or for mathematics or rhetoric. Conversely, there are people who are very talented. Some witches and wizards are powerful, some aren’t, and some are weak. The strength of your disbelief says you are potentially very powerful. When most people disbelieve, their opinions don’t matter. You suppress magic for half a mile in every direction. You see?”
Assuming magic existed in the first place, and I had potential, that made sense. “So how would I influence the cat?” I asked.
“What would you expect when you opened the box?”
“It would depend on the size of the cat and the size of the box, I guess,” I responded after a bit of thought. “Maybe the temperature and the humidity.”
Archbishop Simon beamed at me, showing all the teeth in his head. I tried not to look. “It would depend on your expectation. With the cat in the box, you must expect some condition, one way or another or the other. Period. Given your power, if you expect the cat to be dead, he will be. If you expect him to be alive, he will be.”
“What if I don’t have an opinion? If I’m just curious?”
“Then he will be one or the other or the other. But usually you’ll have an opinion, even if slight. Your will is what will determine the outcome for the cat.”
“How did your servant know to gather his men and come to attack your coven?” he demanded abruptly.
“I have no idea,” I replied honestly. Nannakussi had told us. It didn’t seem really believable.
“But what did he tell you?”
“That Palégos awakened him and gave him his marching orders,” Nevy supplied, making a face at me.
“While the wizard was safe in his secret lair many miles away and Nannakussi was asleep in his longhouse next to his wife and daughter,” agreed the archbishop. “Can you think of another way for Palégos to call up his minion?”
“No,” I admitted. I couldn’t even think of that way. They hadn’t invented the telephone here, at least not yet.
Why should they, if they could project visions?
“Yet Nannakussi is now your servant, through Conqueror’s Right. He owes you truth in all things. As your servus, to tell you a lie risks death for himself and his family. As dominus you have that right. And he is a Lenape, who are an upright people, honest to a fault. So how do you believe he was alerted? Can you think of any other explanation?”
“No,” I admitted once again. I felt like I was starting to repeat myself.
“Blædswith warned you of their coming, and of their intent. How did she do that?”
“Once again, no idea.”
“And you believed her, without doubt?”
That was precisely what happened. I had believed Blæda, no doubt in my mind. I still wasn’t sure why.
“Nevianne called you here from your realm, which you say is far away, yet close at hand. Is there any other logical explanation for how you got here?”
“No,” I acknowledged.
“So,” he said. “You have proof. Can you still disbelieve?”
“It’s hard to believe,” I told him. “But it’s also hard to disbelieve.” I was reaching the point where disbelief was harder than belief.
“Is your mind open?”
“I believe it is,” I responded, unhappily. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” quoth a certain S. Holmes.
“Chulëntët, child,” Archbishop Simon asked, shifting dialects, “would you light the fire in the brazier? It will soon be time for lunch.”
Our little treasure went to the brazier, stood on a stool, and took it down. She put some wood chips into it, a bit of incense to make it smell good, and a couple substantial chunks of oak – not logs, but pieces about four inches on a side. I watched as the little girl waved her hand over it, said something that barely fit in her mouth, and it caught up.
Just like that: No flint, no steel, no sulfur matches, no gunpowder.
“That’s impossible!” my mind told me.
The fire went out.
Chulëntët gave me what can only be described as a four-year-old’s dirty look. “Dominus Asmo-gee!” she hollered reproachfully. Nevy poked me in the ribs. Nannakussi was looking surprised because nobody had bothered to tell him his kid could do that. The father is always the last to know. The one just before the husband, anyway.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, ashamed of myself. Obviously it wasn’t impossible by the Holmes standard, merely unlikely.
The fire flared back up. Chulëntët closed the brazier, got back on her stool, and hung it by its chain. Then she came and hugged me. “Genamel (thank you), dominus Asmo-gee!” she smiled.
How could I ever have doubted that little angel for an instant? “Happy to help, sweetheart,” I told her.
Unlikely. Not impossible.
“Teach me how to do that,” I asked Simon.
“I can’t teach you all at this moment,” he told me. “Or were you referring only to starting fires?”
“How much can I learn and how quickly?” I asked.
“Divination, incantations, sorcery, and maybe necromancy and transformation,” Nevianne suggested. “Astrology, alchemy, and spirit mediation aren’t of immediate use, are they? He is only going to do battle with a wizard!”
“But if the wizard possesseth the skills and he doth not, my child…”
“Then he hath other skills ye wizard hath not,” she dismissed. My girl had a lot of faith in me, justified or not.
“Transformation falls under sorcery,” he told her, in the tone of a professor to a colleague.
“What’s transformation?” I asked.
“Changing yourself or someone else or something else into another thing,” he told me. “Very difficult to learn, and it takes a lot of energy.”
“But it hath its rewards,” cackled Helen.
“I’ll tell you another time,” Nevianne told me at my look.
“Divination,” the archbishop told me, ignoring the interplay, “is foretelling the future. Some people have a talent for it, and others do not. Some have only the talent for it, but that is common. Lots of people have talents that lie in only a single branch of magic. Those who can master more than one field are relatively rare. So don’t feel badly if you can’t do everything. Concentrate on the talents you have.”
“I’ll do that,” I agreed. Still, I thought that if Nevy and Chulëntët could start a fire with a wave of a hand, I should be able to do it.
It took me a day and a half to finally get the trick of it. I felt like such a dope!
There is energy all around us, the archbishop taught me. In fact, he strongly suspected that all of matter consisted of different forms of energy, all the way down to the atomic level. A Greek (they’re always Greeks, aren’t they?) named Democritus had come up with the original theory of the atom. He was a rival of Aristotle, and Aristotle was both more famous and had a different theory, so Aristotle’s theory was taken as gospel for several hundred years. However, during the reign of Emperor Basil II, Kyrios of Smyrna disproved Aristotle’s theory that all substances were made up of the four classical elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. In the process he also developed something resembling the scientific method — “all experiments should have reproducible results” – and began codifying the study of magic.
End of lesson. How do I set fire to things?
Next lesson: It takes belief in one’s power, will, and talent. If you have the talent, and if you believe you can do it, then you can project your will enough to actually do it. If you’re a magical dud, consider taking cooking lessons, or buying a horse and wagon and starting a taxi service. But I had the talent; the archbishop had told me so, Nevy had told me so, her Mom and her best friend had told me so. I was pretty sure I had the belief in myself. If a four-year-old could do it, then I could, right? That left the power of will.
I thrashed around all day, trying, watching Chulëntët show me how to do it over and over. Nevy told me, very helpfully, that Our Treasure had picked it up with about five minutes of coaching, but not to worry about that; children’s minds are more direct than grownups. That was fine, but our Little Bird was starting to look like she didn’t believe in me. Mom didn’t look too impressed either.
We had supper and Nevy and I went out for a walk. We didn’t stay out long because the neighborhood wasn’t what you’d call great. The block had a good supply of hookers. Most of them either had way too many miles on them, the remainder were homely as posts in a fence. I definitely had the best-looking babe for at least several blocks around.
Nevy had never seen such a thing as a red light district in her rural crossroads hamlet. She walked so close to me we sometimes stepped on each other’s feet. Every other house had a sign that said “Ad Sorores” (“To the Sisters”) or some variation on the theme, with a number indicating how many sisters waited to attend to a man’s (or woman’s) carnal wants. But when one of the ponces decided that maybe I wasn’t all that big and tough, Nevy was the one who snapped a fireball at him and set him running. We went back to the second-floor basilica, said good night to all, and curled up together for the night. We barely even messed around. We were in church, after all.