It was the end of the day, so Sanders closed the computer, ladeled out two bowls of mulch, and entered Fletcher's office. They usually ended the day over mulch, chatting and planning the next day.
But Fletcher was pouring over a notebook, and Sanders noticed an amulet hanging in the window, a thing the size of a coin or large button, with concentric circles of white, blue, and black: a charm against scrying. So something private was going on. "Sorry," he said, and started to back.
"No, no," said Fletcher, waving him in. "Come in. I want your views, too. This is about my little theory that the sagittae do a bit of wish-granting."
Intrigued, Sanders put the bowls on top of the filing cabinet. They were both built—remodeled—for standing more than sitting, but sat far too much anyway, and so usually ate standing. Fletcher joined him and dropped the notebook between the bowls.
"Alain and I have been going over all the recruits of the last several years, trying to judge if there's been any wish-work in their transformations." Sanders saw the notebook held paragraphs, each headed by a familiar name. "We're each going over all of them, rating them Probable, Possible, and No, then comparing notes."
"How about the current lot?" Sanders asked.
"All of mine are at least Possible:
"Look at Wardley. Comes in looking skeletal, staggering along with an inhaler, then turns into a one-ton draft beast and is absolutely tickled about it."
"I'm still not sure he doesn't have superpowers," said Sanders. "Chinning himself all the way off the ground. And he was so worried about the climbing net, but when it came to it, up he goes like a cat. Well, like a bear. Decent agility, certainly, but the ease with which he went up..." He shook his head in wonder. "You don't fling a ton of horseflesh around like that. 'Horsepower,' indeed!"
"His mate Brice is another," Fletcher said, pointing to the next paragraph. "I've ranked him Probable, though Alain only gives him a Possible. Old cavalry family, adored big brother Ed already changed, gung-ho for the transformation, and he comes out extra horsey: a mane coming in down his spine, ear fur, oval pupils. His fingernails are rather hooflike. He's been growing his beard out, and you can see the horse whiskers coming through. I heard Wardley tease him gently about being too chevalin. He laughed and said, 'You're just envious.'"
"Why does Alain rate him at Possible instead of Probable?"
"I think he'd change his mind if he met Danny and saw how pleased he is to be chevalin. But he points out that being chevalin is just something that sometimes happens. He puts more weight on the charmed archery knack Danny's developing. He may be right."
"The Joy Boys," said Sanders. "That's my private label for them. They're best friends, and I think the common factor is they are both simply happy to be here. No reservations."
"I think it helps," said Fletcher, "that Horsepower is six years older and a good big-brother stand-in. In any case, yes, Joy Boys. Wonderful to see."
Sanders tapped on the next paragraph. "Fells. Now, I'd have ranked him a Probable. After all, he came in with an explicit wish, just like Wardley, and got it. Severe clinical depression after his wife's death, in and out of institutions, and now— He's a sober chap, but not noticeably gloomy. I see him laugh and smile with the others. It could all be a brave front, but I've no reason to think so. But you only have him as a Possible."
"That's because he may have achieved his wish himself, without extra magic, just through good management and good luck. Shake up your nervous system, give yourself a lot of new things to think about and, even more, feel about, and put a fourteen-year plan in front of yourself. It might very well break a severe depression in the natural course, especially if you're still working all your mental disciplines, whatdoyoucallit, cognitive therapy."
"I see your point, sir, but it all seemed to work so quickly. If I hadn't been told his story, I'd never have guessed it."
"Well, maybe you're right. Timing is certainly important. Here's a plainer Possible: Weldon. Comes to us in reaction to a broken heart, turns chevalin, though not so much as Brice. But, as Alain says, being chevalin could always just happen, and it's only scuttlebutt that chevalin blokes have a stallion-like lack of monogamy."
Sanders nodded. "No more than Possible. He hasn't shown any interest in either species or either sex."
"Darneley's a Possible..."
"Why is Darneley even a Possible, sir?" asked Sanders. "What was his wish?"
"How would you describe his personality?"
"Hm. That's not easy. Intelligent and educated, certainly. Very obviously."
"Is he a show-off? Is he shy?"
"No. Neither. Very candid and open."
"He didn't used to be."
"Yes, I remember. Painfully shy. Often mute, often gnomic, and blushed when he said anything. Opened up to you about his insecurities. Then he seemed to get better. But that was two months in and more. Rather delayed for a granted wish. And you yourself had a hand in it."
Fletcher nodded. "That's why he's just a Possible. But that's still quick for a total personality renovation."
Now Sanders nodded. "A fresh-starter. A psychological one. Rather radical method." He gestured down at his own equine body and Fletcher's.
"He was one of those who felt he was no good at being human."
Sanders snorted. "I can't say that subscribing to Acta Kerdeana, New Scientist, arXiv.org, and the Exploratory Geometry forum on Nor'Net is very equine."
"I invite you to argue with him about it over a beer down at the Bow and Sabre. Please take notes. Now there's Carlin. A Possible."
"Because we strongly suspect he's on the run from something and he's a very good runner."
"Right. And, as we've gotten to know him, we find he's something of a dandy, a dressy fellow back when he could dress, and he came out a paint."
"That would be two wishes."
"Well, maybe one is a wish and the other is luck. Or maybe there's room for two wishes if they're little ones. Or maybe I'm seeing pictures in the clouds."
Sanders stared out the window, past the evil-eye charm. "Last year, there were Darcy and Donovan. Best friends who turned into brothers, at least in terms of horse genetics. Remarkable."
"Yes. I have them down as Probables. Footnoted. Alain was impressed."
"I should think so. Corliss is a poacher born and means to go back to it—said so. And he's dappled. Natural camo."
"A Possible. Also, he's very agile, but he might have been agile to start with." Fletcher turned over a page. "Then there's Littlejohn: desperately needs to be truthful to his wife and now can't successfully lie."
"Mm. Be careful what you wish for. He also desperately wants to guard her and is excellent at archery, marksmanship, and martial arts. Of course, he trained like hell."
"She once asked me if she could be enchanted to be equally truthful to him. I recommended a careful oath. Complicated couple. I'd love to get them at a table with Darneley, stand back, and, as I said, take notes. He's a Possible. It could all be down to personal psychology."
"Not much wish-work about poor old Vimont," Sanders reflected.
"I have him down as a No," Fletcher said. "Though I couldn't help noticing that, despite being kept on a short rein by his classmates and yours truly, he continues to be very successful with the ladies. Exudes a kind of macho cuddliness, I'm told, and an appealing helplessness due to being a dimwit."
"Being rich and titled helps."
"How far back does this go?"
"Ah! Well, that's what we're really looking into. Is the effect real, and if so, when did it start? Or has it always been there?"
"I've thought about your idea for some time, of course, sir. There was Defarley, or Dufrey or something, a few years back. Started at five foot two. I fully expected him to come out a pony but he looked like a thoroughbred. Seven five or six. He was delighted."
"Dufresne. His was the first case to attract my attention. I've got him down as a Probable. The year before that there was Anders. A serious psychological fresh-starter."
"By St. Martin, yes! He insisted he was no longer the same person. I'm not sure he thought he was still a person at all, though he never quite said that in my hearing. Not quite crazy enough to commit, and of course we're not in the business of turning men away. Went through all the paperwork to have his name changed to 'Destrier.' What's become of him, sir? Do you know?"
"I did keep track of him for some time. Last I knew, he had dropped all connections to his life as man-simple and was fairly happy, though thought a bit odd, as Destrier, on station out on the Yggdrasil Reach, Ft. Ratatosk I think. I have him down as a Possible, though. It's all very dramatic but it might just be psychology. It's not like we attract normal men."
Fletcher turned a page again and stared at the next entry. "Then there's Johniston. Horsiest man-horse ever. Ears furry inside and out and can he ever wiggle 'em. Very hoofy fingernails. Eyes not only slot-pupiled but solid brown—miniature horse eyes, though he didn't lose his color vision. He did lose all interest in women. Mane as long as your finger and bristly, just like a Prezwalkski's horse. In fact, he is simply a Prezwalski's centaur, as to coloring and build. Even his hair and beard changed from lank brown to bristly black. He even likes mulch. Alain is right, saying that being chevalin can just happen, but this... Delighted about all of it, which is why I count it as a Probable. Uses the nickname 'Prez.' He's now both Master of Horse and a vet out at Hod-Amon."
"I assume he was passionate about horses before?"
"Oh, yes. Old cavalry family, again. Lots of relatives in both DC and SC. Rather like Brice, only more focused on the horses themselves rather than on having adventures with horses.
"And there are plenty of others," Fletcher said, flipping the pages of the notebook.
"What have you found, sir? You and Captain Alain?"
Fletcher glanced at the amulet in the window. "Alain and I could be skirting the edge of something political. And, of course, magical. You already know enough to make guesses. You might not want me to go on. In fact, you might wish I'd kept my mouth shut all along, about wishes." He paused.
Sanders renewed the curl on his left mustache, braced his legs, then leaned back into resting stance, folding his arms across his chest. He gazed into space. There was silence for five minutes. For part of it, Fletcher scratched amendations in his notebook.
"This is about Blackholt," said Sanders. "If there's something unadvertised in the spell, it has to come from him or be slipping past him. And I don't believe in the slipping past. And Blackholt is a friend and, so far as you can tell—and you can tell very well—a loyal king's man. But you have your own loyalty to the king. So you don't want to get Blackholt in trouble, but neither do you want to let him get away with anything."
"You are a very clear-headed fellow, Liam."
Sanders, palomino fair, blushed faintly at the use of his given name. The mustaches lifted in a smile. "Thank you, sir. I've often reflected on Blackholt and this wish factor. But this is the first time the word 'politics' has come up. I had assumed the wish factor was always there, but Blackholt never said anything because of the business with the Royal Patent."
Fletcher opened his mouth, closed it, then asked, "Liam, shall I go on?"
"Oh, yes. Yessir, please. That's what I was really thinking about, these last few minutes."
"Very well. No, the wish factor has not always been there. I'm preparing my final draft, a report for Alain. It surveys how often and how certainly transformations include the wish factor. Alain is preparing his version, based on the same data. We'll send to each other and compare. But what we've found, we already know, is that the wish factor has been growing for some years, and if you go back far enough, it fades away into supposition and guesswork."
"How far back?" asked Sanders.
Fletcher flipped through his notes. "There's a three-year period. Somewhere in there, the wish factor shows up. But it's well after Blackholt came to work here, when his father retired, and after Jean-Marc and Genvieve came." These were Dr. Blackholt's nephew and niece, his apprentices.
"A simple and charitable interpretation is that he's trying to improve the spell. Certainly, no one I even suspect of having wish factor in their transformation has been unhappy about that suspected result. Even where the wish looks ill-advised." He flipped through the notebook. "Remember de Françia?"
Sorrow puckered Sanders's brow. "I should say I do. Poor devil. You think he got a wish granted?"
"Looking back, yes. I liked him, for all the grief his bronco tricks gave us. There was no meanness about him. So I researched his life a bit, preparing his eulogy."
"That must have been a tricky bit of writing."
Fletcher gave a sad smile. "It was, rather. Before, he was a pale, flabby little milquetoast. Then he changes into a big, rangy paint."
"And hyperactive, even for us."
"Blackholt kept muttering about ADHD. Or ADD as it was then. And looking guilty, maybe."
"You could see it coming," Sanders sighed. "Drunk and disorderly. Fighting in barracks. Violating the wine ban. Conduct unbecoming. Was the father who flogged him in public the same one who shot him in the end?"
"No, the flogger was Bradley, the smith. The shooter was Clarent. Only sentenced to probation to show us—show the DC—that we're not under much protection from that kind of thing. Bradley and his whole family showed up at the funeral in black armbands. As did Clarent's daughter. A month later, she was off to London, then Clarent and the rest of the family moved to Lyon a month after that."
"Was it really as fast as that? And you think de Françia wanted to be an utter bronco like that?"
"I put him down as a Possible. But, oh, he reveled! He may have been a more injudicious version of Darneley, hating his old personality and wanting a re-write. Fortunately for Darneley, he wants to emulate Chiron, not a Lapith-snatcher."
"If the wish gave him ADHD," Sanders mused, "(and if there was a wish at work), that would be creating a physical flaw. But," he said stoutly, "we've never seen any other physical flaws in the transformation." Sanders spoke with personal feeling. He himself was a case like Wardley: he had transformed to save his life. He had had leaky heart valves, rapidly worsening. A sagitta from Blackholt's father had left him with two hearts, both flawless.
"We don't know that it was ADHD," Fletcher answered. "The transformation always gives us plenty of energy and libido. I think de Françia wanted exactly that, got an extra-generous serving, and unwisely leaned into it."
Sanders sighed deeply, from all lungs, long and windy. "There must be some reason you don't just ask Blackholt," he continued. "That Royal Patent?"
"Yes, I think so. I tried. I've discussed the idea with him– Well, that's not accurate. I've mentioned the idea in front of him. Most recently when we were discussing Wardley's transformation. 'There's another one for my wish-granting theory,' I said. And he grunted and smiled and changed the subject. That's what has always happened. But he leaves research notes lying around on the same thing—he thinks Brice being chevalin is probably wish-granting. And he's the one that told you that Darcy and Donovan had turned into brothers. Volunteered the information. So I think he wants to talk about it, but can't or daren't.
"It makes sense. That patent is his family's most valuable possession. He's very likely under a strict oath not to endanger their intellectual property."
"You can't tell by Receptance?" Sanders asked.
"No." Fletcher jerked a thumb at the amulet in the window. "He wears one of those around his neck all the time, like a lot of serious oathbearers, exactly to keep passing Receptants like me from picking up clues.
"Nor should I try too hard. The family is a national resource. I have no business doing things that could make him trip over his oath. I have no idea what the penalty would be, but if it impairs or disables his magery, I'd have crippled the nation's sagitta production. Stopped it altogether, if Genvieve and Jean-Marc can't go it alone."
"I suppose they're as mum as him," Sanders said.
Fletcher nodded. "I suppose. I haven't tried. They're almost certainly under the same oath, if there's an oath. He's my friend, dammit, and my own personal physician into the bargain. Yours, too. I shouldn't be pestering his family any more than him. His secrets are family secrets and government secrets, and both put limits to my prying."
Fletcher had left the filing cabinet and was now clopping around his desk, gesturing in frustration. The office was roomy, but not after you put two creatures like him and Sanders in it.
"On the other hand, I owe it to, well, everybody to scout out the possible danger and make sure the right people know. Wishes aren't sweet, twinkly things you get from birthday candles and the first star you see tonight, after all. Deliberate wishes are dangerous, and unintended ones are worse. Even the monde-mineur knows that. We're just lucky that no one's fondest wish was to shed their conscience or something like that. As it is, look at de Françia."
Sanders paced over to the window, partly to get out of the way, and stared at the little amulet. "I'm flattered that I'm one of the 'right people' who should know. Do you think the pips should know about your theory? They're the ones being pushed into wishing blind."
Fletcher came over to stand next to him. "Excellent point. But against it:
"We don't know for certain that there is any wish-work going on. I feel sure something is going on, but this wish-granting may only be one side of it. Maybe it's a side-effect of making the pips healthier or tougher or more magic-prone or something.
"And there's an excellent chance that this should stay secret. If Blackholt wanted it known by all, if he were constrained only by a twist of his oath that he regrets, he could hint even more broadly than he has."
"But," objected Sanders, "he seems to want you to know."
"Me, yes, and Alain. But he knows us. We may not be physicians, but we're therapists, in fact if not in writ, and so professional secret-keepers. He knows we'll be discreet."
"And am I a professional secret keeper? I'm just your assistant."
"'Just'!" Fletcher snorted. "If I didn't know your discretion, would I have left this office door open through all those intensely personal interviews with pips? I trust you, man and beast. You needn't fish for compliments."
"(Thank you, sir.)" Whispered through a flaming red face. "But why would he want even you to know? Um, us."
"Maybe he simply realizes we are bound to notice and he's taking us into his confidence as plainly as he can. Maybe exactly so we won't be caught off guard."
Fletcher shrugged. "A lab accident."
"Well, that's uncommonly comforting, I must say!" Sanders snarked. "Have you considered simply telling him you know what he's doing and he should stop it?"
"But I don't know what he's doing, I don't know that he should stop it, and I have no authority to tell him to stop it."
"Then bring it to the attention of the Marshal General. If we're lucky, he already knows."
Fletcher looked miserable. "Liam, this is Blackholt. Maurice. Who nursed you through two bouts of colic and me through five. Six. Whom we trust to give us a vasectomy every year. Who plays gin with you at least once a month. Who cried when Bouton's foal died. Whom I had to basically kidnap to keep him from calling out Giroud over Darmanin. Who spent a week unhexing Vincent."
Sanders looked increasingly downcast as this recital went on.
"His father changed you. His great-uncle changed me. I can't rat him out to FitzSimmons. He trusts me. And I trust him. His intentions. I know he isn't doing anything malicious. Yes, it looks alarming, worrying, but he's the expert and we're not."
"Then why are you and Alain bothering to track this wish-work at all?" Sanders asked, subdued.
Fletcher waved his arms and reared a bit as he turned from the window. "Because it's alarming and worrying! And ... as I said ..." It was Fletcher's turn to become subdued. "... he rather seems to want me to know something about this. So if FitzSimmons should know, I trust Blackholt to have told him already."
Sanders shifted his weight uneasily. "I– It– You find hints that Blackholt is doing something strange. You hint to him that you know. He hints back that he's happy with that. So you trust him to go on doing it, because you trust him overall. This– This is quite an airy tissue of hints and trust you have here, sir."
"Yes. Being half man and half horse is child's play compared to being half friend and half spy."
"At least the subject of the spying appears to welcome it."
"Something to be grateful for, certainly. If it makes you feel better, I have noticed that, whatever he's doing, he seems to be going very carefully. These are, so to speak, little wishes."
Sanders snorted. "If you can call the extra thousand pounds of Wardley 'little.'"
Fletcher smiled. "I mean they're small variations on the basic spell. Never mind if you deeply wish not to be transformed, you are going to be. Never mind if you really need money, that's nothing to do with the spell. Now, past that, if you want to be especially tall, strong, fast, we can accommodate you."
"It's the mental ones I worry about."
"Well, yes. Destrier worked out, more or less, but he might not have, and he brings up the spectre of some fellow who is deeply annoyed by his guilty conscience and would very much like to shuck it and be a psychopath. But the mental wishes are only Possibles.
"And even Destrier is happy about it. They're all happy. Wardley loves being that big. There's no suspected wish that the wisher regrets. Take away all the suspected wishes and the only irregularities left are cases of being chevalin, which isn't Blackholt's doing. These tweaks are all benign. Even for de Françia, I'd argue. It wasn't Blackholt that shot him."
"And– And– I said I'd trust Blackholt to tell FitzSimmons what he's working on. I think he has. In fact, I think it's the other way around: FitzSimmons told him what to work on. Or even that Prince Hugh told his great-uncle what to work on, and the Blackholts have been obediently working on it for three generations, getting on for four. And I have a guess as to what Blackholt is working on."
Sanders gave his commanding officer a stare that said If you don't tell me quickly, I will start shaking you.
"What's the sorest spot in our whole organization?"
This was classroom technique. Sanders didn't like having it used on himself, but Fletcher had sportingly given him the clue. "The transformation spell itself. We don't understand it. We just copied it."
"Right! Can you see a family of mages being content with such a situation? Or a government? Learning to copy was just the first step. They have been trying to analyze and reverse-engineer that spell since 1943, and only now are they making progress visible to the likes of us.
"Wouldn't it be great to control the spell? To shake off the wine ban? To make bull and stag centaurs? To be able to wear human seemings that didn't shred in moments? To cure grave illness by transformation reliably instead of just by luck? To have women be able to use the spell?"
Sanders's eyes were wide. "That... would change all the rules. Especially those last two."
Fletcher nodded. "Now you see where it would get political."
Sanders nodded back. "And not just mortal politics." He pointed at the arrow mounted on a plaque under Fletcher's graduation picture. "That has something in it supplied by fays or jinn or something wilder. Exactly what and who they are is one of the Blackholts' patent secrets. How would this supplier react to a surge in demand? They have quietly had us by the tail for generations. Now things might get noisy. They might start pulling our tails."
Fletcher grinned. "Quite so. I never thought of that. I knew I wanted your views!"
"And we might go looking for another supplier," Sanders went on, "if that's possible. Unless we—that is, the Blackholts—did already, decades ago."
Fletcher nodded vigorously and scribbled in his notebook. Clearly, this was going to Alain. Then he sat his hindquarters down and stared out the window. "Speaking of magical politics," he said, and pointed at the button hanging in the window, a gesture that unsettled Sanders, "I've been considering Blackholt's super-human supplier from another angle. Do you know much about the mechanics of wishes?"
"I looked into it a bit after you voiced your theory," Sanders admitted. "I can't say I got very far."
"But you know there are basically two kinds. The simple kind is pulling in a favor, based on an oath. You contact the wish-founder and state your desires. With the other kind, the wish-founder doesn't show up. Instead, the wish is heard and granted by a copy or print or echo, something like a partial astral body, of the wish-founder. You needn't see or hear anything except the results.
"This clearly isn't either. Because no one states a wish, or even realizes there's a wish available. But I think there must be a mind-print involved anyway. Look at how smart the spell is. It hunts up what it deems is a suitable horse genome for you, then uses as much as necessary to remodel you. In the process, it gets in your brain, not just with new motor and sensory nerves, but to give you an instant education in horse body language and knock your emotions and reflexes in a distinctively equine direction." It was always fun to watch the new lads rear or shy at a surprise, then look surprised all over again at their own actions.
"Mm. Well, sir, I've heard mages say it's a mistake to think of magic in engineering terms, all step-by-step. Should we really think of the spell as a genetic engineer and five kinds of surgeon, all in one?"
Fletcher shrugged. "Probably not. But it's some kind of clever. Looked at that way, the Blackholts haven't been adjusting it or tampering with it. They've been persuading it or coercing it. Time after time, arrow after arrow, transformed man after transformed man, as they make each sagitta, they ... negotiate ... with the mind-print, with a fresh copy each time. They've got to the point where the spell rummages around inside a fellow and not only asks, 'What kind of centaur should I make you?' but 'What kind of centaur would you like to be?'"
Sanders looked down at himself, at the great golden body that had been conjured by an earlier instance of that hypothetical mind-print. "Very accommodating," he murmurred.
Fletcher smiled again, more sharply. "Sorry you were changed before the wishes came along?"
"Oh, no sir. I got to live, after all. That was my big wish. And look at me! Middle-aged but still running rings around the pips. Decades still ahead of me, barring accident. No, I can't think of any tweaks I want to my transformation. You, sir?"
Fletcher shook his head, laid down the notebook, then stretched his arms and switched his tail, a quick celebration of his body. "I could give Wardley or Brice a run for feeling lucky. But the accommodation is arranged by Blackholt. Maybe out of the goodness of his heart, maybe as a side-effect, maybe some of both.
"Maybe he isn't really dealing with a mind-print—What do I know? I'm no mage—but whether it's a mind-print or something else, the possibility has got me thinking: whatever it is, he gets it from a mind, and he's fiddling with it. What does that mind think? Does it know? Does it care? And more fundamentally, who is it? Everyone has wondered for years—except the Blackholts, and maybe even them. But now the question starts to dig spurs in."
Sanders looked at the button hanging in the window and wondered how much scrying it could really keep out. "So, sir, once you and Captain Alain have your report sorted out, what are you going to do?"
"Give a copy to Blackholt. He should know what we're thinking. Maybe he'll even be able to give us some kind of hinty reassurance in return. But if he can't be straightforward, we can. Because we trust him."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2018