Even though we planned to apport most of the way to German Southwest Africa from France, we still had a lot of traveling to do before we got there. First we took a train to Washington, and because it was such a short trip and our schedule had changed so many times Pieter couldn’t make arrangements in time for us to use the Guild railcar. Next he tried to buy us an entire coach’s worth of seats, but that didn’t work out either because too many tickets had already been sold. Finally he gave up and sent me a personal note apologizing all over the place for the fact that I’d have to lie in the aisle of an ordinary second-class car.
But he needn’t have worried-- I rather enjoyed the experience. Yes, the aisle was rather cramped and they were forced to stop the train at a little station in Maryland when I had to use the facilities and just couldn’t wait. But once again ordinary Americans proved that they loved their Guild. I think every single passenger on the train found an excuse to pass through the car and half-climb around me, staring all the while. Even the first-class types-- local mill-owners and bankers and such-- who ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead in that part of the train suddenly found it imperative to squeeze past and get Kodiak fur all over their skirts and pants-legs. I exchanged pleasant greetings with dozens of folks, and one of the newsboys gave up most of a trip’s worth of profits to stand and read me the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer when we found out that there wasn’t enough room to set up my custom book stand and Guardian had to spend her time muttering spells over the “toys” she’d brought along.
Almost from the very first, I resented those toys-- they took up pretty much the same three to fours a day, every day, that she usually spent chatting and having fun with me. She didn’t even plan to personally care for me anymore-- I was going to do without brushing until we got off the train in Washington and boarded our ship to Europe. There, the navy planned to assign me a personal servant and stateroom of my own. I didn’t like being brushed by strangers. Not only did they usually do it wrong, but it made me feel helpless and animal-like in a way that I can’t quite explain and certainly isn’t at all rational. Perhaps it was that when Guardian groomed me I could be sure that it was being done by someone who saw me as a person, who’d known me before I Changed, while with anyone else I felt like they considered me a mere talking bear? In any event I had no right to expect to be groomed by a fully-qualified mage for the rest of my life-- that would’ve been like demanding to be brushed only by US Congressmen or higher. All the rest of my friends had been assigned personal assistants and even assistant assistants long since. Brushing and bathing and cooking for me was far below Guardian’s proper station and her time was much too valuable to be so wasted, even though she claimed she enjoyed the work. So, in yet another way, it was time for me to grow up.
The train deposited us at the Baltimore and Potomac station at Sixth and B Street NW, where the stationmaster insisted on personally showing us the spot where President Garfield had been shot in 1881. The reporters caught up with us there, naturally enough, and once again my nose was assaulted by the bitter, salty scent of far too much flash powder. I mean, couldn’t they all just share one negative? It’d surely save a lot of money! Then a covered dray wagon carried us the few blocks to the Navy Yard. Its driver was kind enough to take us far enough out of the way to peer at the Capitol Dome and the top of the Washington Monument en route. It might have been done merely out of courtesy, but I didn’t think so. Our teamster was the first lady mule-driver I’d ever met, and Guardian smiled extra-big at her. After all, female mages weren’t exactly common either, especially outside the American Guild.
USS Bancroft awaited us at the Navy Yard, and as promised Colonel James met us at the top of her gangway. “Glad to see you again,” he declared, smiling at us both. Then he gestured at his companion, a naval officer almost his own age. “This is Commander Davis, in command here. It’s proper to address him as Captain Davis.”
I smiled and nodded, then stood up on my hind legs and extended a paw for the captain to shake. “I’m honored to meet you, sir.”
Davis’s eyes nearly popped out of his head for a moment-- even the most courteous and well-prepared people are liable to react that way when I rear up over them. But my magical smile usually works wonders, and this time was no exception. “I… Ah… It’s a pleasure to meet you, Christopher.” He took my paw and shook it firmly, then turned to Guardian. “And you as well of course, ma’am.” He bowed just a fraction of an inch deeper than he really had to, then stood up straight again smiling. “I fear that this is a warship, not a luxury liner. On the other hand, Bancroft was originally designed as a training ship for the Academy. So even though the food and such may not be up to a gourmand’s standards, at least we have plenty of cabin space.” He turned to me. “We’ve spent the entire time since being recalled from the West Indies preparing what we hope will be comfortable quarters for a bear of your size.”
I looked down at the deck and magic-blushed. “Thank you very much. But I don’t need all that much space, really. At least not so long as I can walk around sometimes.”
Captain Davis smiled again. “You may have the run of the ship, so long as the weather’s good. An Atlantic storm is no joke, you see. But so long as everything’s calm, you can wander about all you wish. In fact, my crew is quite eager to meet a living hero.”
I felt myself blush again. “I didn’t do all that much, really.”
“The President disagrees,” Colonel James interjected. “He’s personally ordered us both to be very careful with you. You’re an important national asset, you see.”
I looked down at the deck again and Guardian frowned. The Guild labored endlessly to emphasize and re-emphasize the basic humanity and personhood of its familiars, and the policy benefitted both sides of the equation. It wasn’t healthy for anyone to pretend people were anything except valued, important individuals whose essential value derived from being who they were as opposed to what they were. Apparently the military hadn’t gotten the message yet.
“Anyway,” Captain Davis finally said, breaking the silence. “According to the Secretary of the Navy I’m to consider you both important government officials and treat you accordingly.” His smile slipped a bit. “On the one hand, this is my pleasure as well as my duty. On the other…” He looked at me again. “Christopher, we’ve done our best to be hospitable. But…”
I looked up and smiled again. “Let me guess. Never before in all its history has the US Navy transported a Kodiak bear anywhere, much less one who is also a VIP. So you don’t have any experience to go by.”
His face brightened. “Exactly! We’ve shipped some surprising things over the years, including an entire Ottoman nobleman’s household complete with harem all the way up to the Golden Horn. But never a sentient Kodiak bear.” He looked at Guardian. “We’ve stocked almost a ton of blueberries, cases of smoked fish… Even tea in large quantities. We’re told he likes that.”
“Excellent!” she replied, as I licked my chops in anticipation. “Christopher is merely being honest when he says that he really doesn’t require all that much in the way of special accommodation.” She reached out and scratched my ears. “He eats almost anything and never complains.”
“Our aim is to give him no cause, ma’am,” Davis declared. “But if something should arise, feel free to inform any of my officers. We’ll do everything possible to make it right.” Then he bowed again, first to me and then to Guardian. “Now, if you’ll forgive me my orders are to convey you two to France as rapidly as possible. And we can’t get underway until I repair to the bridge and give the necessary orders. So… If you’ll excuse me?”
I liked traveling by sea, I decided by the end of the third day of our passage. The weather was sunny and gloriously chilly— the way I like it best, despite all the cooling spells— and the wind brisk, fresh and invigorating. There was little for me to do except read and explore the ship, and I did both endlessly. Not that there weren’t difficulties. One of the things I wanted to see most was Bancroft’s engine room, but that proved impossible because I couldn’t fit through most of the belowdecks hatchways. So I had to settle for watching the smoke pouring from the stacks, feeling the rumble of the spinning propellor, and listening to the distant yet ever-present scraping of shovels as men labored their lives away tossing coal into the boilers. Steam was the most magical thing in the mundane world, so far as I was concerned— I liked locomotives too!— and I really felt bad about not being able to go below. It must’ve showed, because to help make up for it Captain Davis had the chief engineer go over the drawings with me and describe how everything worked as best he could without my actually seeing them. Every single officer took the time to explain their jobs to me, in fact, and every day at noon I was allowed to watch while the navigator used his sextant and did the math required to find the ship’s position. He was plenty surprised when on the third day I was able to perform the calculations myself; though he was a nice-enough man apparently he figured that just because I was a bear and a familiar I must not be especially bright.
The petty officers also showed me their jobs, and they were even more fun than the officers. I enjoyed watching them rope and splice and they even set the sails for a few hours on the second day out, despite the fact that Bancroft’s rigging was pretty much an emergency-use-only proposition these days. It was a wonder, the way they moved around like acrobats. Even the Fair had nothing to match them! “Watch them closely and remember well,” Captain Davis urged as I looked on with jaw agape. “The steam engine is certain to be the death of proper sail-handling, sooner or later. An entire way of life is passing away; what you’re seeing is almost all that’s left.” I nodded soberly. The spectacle was so entertaining that it was easy to forget that the Secretary of the Navy had probably ordered the whole thing as yet more one way to influence me to choose his service over the army.
The navy offered good food as well. Despite Mother’s fears— Kodiak bears were after all entirely terrestrial animals— I found that I wasn’t especially prone to seasickness. So I ate well. And drank well too; while the tea wasn’t quite as good as that offered at the Japanese Pavillon it was still sweet and plenty delicious. Captain Davis assigned a steward to cook full time for me, and all he did was get better and better at it as the days passed. His name was Joshua, and by the purest of good luck— the captain hadn’t known— he was second-cousin to my fellow-familiar and classmate Frederick. And how kind Joshua was to me! Every time I turned around there he was with hot tea, fresh berries, rich beef stew… At first I felt a little guilty at how hard he was working on my behalf, but when I suggested he slow down a little he took off his hat and promised me that this was the best assignment he’d ever had and the fact that I knew his relative had nothing to do with it. Still, all the negroes on the ship somehow found the time to personally introduce themselves before the voyage was over and promise that if they could ever do anything at all for me, ever, all I had to do was ask. It was one of the most touching things that ever happened to me.
Certainly the same wasn’t true of the marine assigned to keep my quarters clean and my fur brushed. Corporal Forsyth pretty much had to have been hand-picked for the job— the entire trip was in some ways little more than a prolonged recruitment drive, after all. So the captain could hardly have failed to give careful consideration to the subject of the individual who would interact with me more intimately than any other. To be fair, on the surface the corporal probably appeared an excellent choice. Forsyth was only a few months older than me— very young for a corporal— and already had a row and a half of medals pinned proudly across his chest. He was also from Seattle, just like me, and we shared happy memories of many of the same places. “I’m so pleased to meet you, sir,” he said when I arrived for the first time in the three cabins whose separating walls had been removed in order to offer me plenty of space. Everything he said and did thereafter seemed to indicate that he meant it, too. The corporal performed his duties flawlessly; indeed, he seemed almost telepathic in understanding when I needed help and when I preferred to do for myself. Forsyth was also surprisingly intelligent and well-informed for an enlisted man, especially such a young one. So much so, in fact, that Captain Davis had recommended that he be allowed to take the entrance exams at the Academy. Everything about him was perfect. Except…
“You lower your eyes when you set foot in a white man’s cabin, you piece of garbage!” he bawled when Joshua stepped into my cabin to deliver a bucket of hot tea for the very first time. “You’ll show your respect, by god, or I’ll sic the bos’n on you!” There was nothing Corporal Forsyth could possibly have done to alienate me any more, and after that there was no healing the breach. After all, he’d probably have had the same reaction to me had he known I was half “redskin”. The bos’n, I knew from my independent studies, was in essence the ship’s police officer. He was usually chosen more for sheer size and strength than a sense of justice. Many if not most of the breed enforced their will via brute force up to and including cracked skulls. I’d been a poor kid recently enough myself to understand that physical violence was often the way of things; with some people being the way they were it was hard to imagine how order could otherwise be kept under many circumstances. But still… What had poor Joshua done to deserve being threatened with a beating? Nothing at all that I could see, except failing to utterly abase himself and thereby inflate the corporal’s ego at the expense of his own. I almost asked Captain Davis to find someone else for me. Then I reminded myself that more likely than not Forsyth’s replacement would be just as intolerable as he was in terms of dealing with non-whites, and then not half as bright or capable on top of that. So I took my revenge by holding long happy discussions with Joshua several times during the voyage, all but ordering him to sit in an expensive leather visitor’s chair that I reckoned might’ve come from the captain’s own cabin and asked him lots of questions about his home life, his family, and how he’d come to learn to cook so well. Forsyth turned all sorts of interesting shades of purple— I’ve rarely had such a pleasant time getting to know someone as I did Joshua. Towards the end, I sometimes even asked Forsyth to run and get us snacks or something. Sure, it was petty. But somehow I felt certain that Geronimo would’ve smiled.
I also spent several very interesting hours lying at Guardian and Colonel James’s feet as they laid out the bones of the Guild’s new military program. The colonel came well-prepared; he proposed to militarize the Guild by restructuring it to parallel the functional groupings already worked out by the military. After all, why reinvent the wheel? For example, the Guild currently had a handful of mages who specialized in flight and apportation. They’d be placed in a group analogous to and under the direction of the army’s Service of Supply department, with the job of seeing to it that crucially important shipments and individuals made it wherever they needed to go. Those who manufactured charms— Mother’s people— would coordinate their efforts with the Department of Ordnance. Though currently most of her trinkets and fetishes were meant to do things like heal injuries, cure sicknesses and ward off termites, eventually she’d be making mostly weapons. Those who specialized in kinetic magic— lifting and moving heavy objects via magical force— would be formed into a group parallel to the Corps of Engineers.
“And so on and so forth,” Colonel James explained. “We’ve already mapped out the functions a military needs to perform via centuries of experience. All that needs to be done is to slide your people into the proper slots.”
I frowned from under the table. “Uh…”
“Yes, Christopher?” Guardian asked.
“I… Forgive me if I’m not understanding quite right. But… The navy isn’t organized exactly like the army, is it?”
“No,” the colonel replied. “Of course not. It can’t be, because the jobs it does and the environment it works in are so different.”
I nodded. “They’re so different that they each have their own separate Secretaries in the cabinet. Don’t they?”
“Yes,” the colonel acknowledged, turning red. “But…”
Then Guardian picked up where I’d left off. “And the President has promised us an entire Cabinet level department of our own, hasn’t he? Shaper is going to be the first Secretary of Magic, once Congress approves of all this. In fact, the Guild will be choosing the Secretary of Magic permanently, not the President. Are the army or navy allowed to choose their own secretaries?”
“That’s… I mean…” Colonel James spluttered a bit, then took a sip of coffee and calmed himself. “A military organization must be run by military professionals. Not civilians.”
I blinked and opened my mouth, but Guardian beat me to the punch. “Aren’t the Secretaries of War and of the Navy civilians? Just like Shaper?”
“Guardian here is a fire mage,” I pointed out. “While I’m not privy to the inner secrets myself, it’s pretty obvious that her expertise lies in magic related to combustion— both starting and stopping it. Her role on a battlefield would seem to be obvious; to throw fireballs. And yet… “ I gestured down towards the engine room with my right paw. “This ship is powered by a large fire, is it not? So is every other significant ship of war in the world today. Not only that, but so are the locomotives that move troops around and carry ammunition and rations everywhere they need to go. So… Should Guardian be considered a battlefield magician only? Or does she perhaps have a role in your Services of Supply Department as well? And… Perhaps the navy might want her to try making their fires burn extra hot, or their enemy’s not so well? Or, consider the mages you plan to assign to transport duties. I mean… Might you not want them to fly over enemy armies and report on them instead? More likely still, might you not want them to do one thing one day and something else the next?”
Guardian nodded and scratched my ears. “Chris is right. There will never be enough mages to go around, and the only person who can best decide who needs to go where is another mage. Or group of mages, more likely, all discussing the matter together at length.” Then she folded her arms. “I understand why you want us to organize ourselves the same way you do. On the surface, it’s the only reasonable thing to do. But it just won’t work, any more than running the army and navy the same way would.”
“For that matter,” I added, “the civilian world will still require certain magical services even in time of war. I mean… We can’t cut off the flow of civilian charms entirely, for example. People with bad hearts or bad lungs would die.”
Colonel James sighed aloud, then looked down at the reams of neatly typed paperwork the War Office had sent along for him to sell us on. “General Brubeck is going to hate this,” he muttered. “In essence, you’re suggesting an entirely new branch of the military for yourselves. It won’t play well in Washington.”
“That’s not for me to worry about,” Guardian replied, sipping her own coffee. “Militarizing the Guild wasn’t my idea in the first place, after all. Nor was making Shaper a Cabinet-level official.” She scratched my ears again. “Chris is a hundred percent right, upon reflection. Yes, we’ll need to reorganize ourselves and some of us will have to undergo a lot of new training. But… Only skilled magicians can make these decisions, just as only admirals can handle fleets and only generals can maneuver armies. Each is a fundamentally different expertise, and the fact that we’re having to learn war magic from scratch doesn’t alter the basic equation one iota. It’s not that we’re better than anyone else, or smarter or more privileged. It’s just that we happen to be experts— the only experts.” She rose from the table. “And that, Colonel, will I fear be that. I know that you planned to accomplish far more along these lines during this voyage, and in all honesty so did I. But sometimes it takes a little time and reflection to grasp the truth of things. So… Take this back to your General Brubeck. As the Guild representative appointed to these negotiations as well as a patriotic American concerned for the welfare of the nation, I’m officially stating that we require co-equal status with the other two existing armed forces in order to function properly. Unless, of course, you should choose to restructure the army as a mirror-image of our organization. Then, we might perhaps have more to discuss.” Then she turned and walked out, leaving me to ponderously wallow along behind her.
To say that Colonel James was angry would be an understatement. He didn’t throw a tantrum or shout or scream or do anything ungentlemanly. But where previously he’d been outgoing and friendly, for a time he avoided Guardian and I entirely. It was only on the last day of the voyage, with the coast of France actually in sight, that he strode up to me on the forward part of the weather deck, smiled, and bowed formally. “Good afternoon, Christopher. Looks like we’ll be making port soon.”
I looked up from my bucket of tea and smiled. Colonel James clearly wasn’t a bad man; he and I merely disagreed about something very important to us both. “Captain Davis says we’ll be tied up at a French naval pier in less than six hours. I can’t believe the trip is over already!”
The colonel nodded and turned to regard the distant coastline, hands clasped behind his back. “I’ve come to apologize,” he said slowly.”
My ears perked. “Sir,” I answered. “We have an honest disagreement, is all. I don’t see where you have anything to apologize for.”
His smile widened. “I fear that I must disagree. For example… I suppose that Guardian never informed you of the fact that I tried to exclude you from our little meeting about the restructuring?”
I blinked. “She never said a word about it.”
He nodded. “I felt that as a mere teenager you were clearly far too young and immature for such a high-level discussion, and probably therefore— though I never for a moment questioned your basic integrity!— a security risk to boot. You clearly proved me wrong with your intelligent contributions, and that’s what I’m apologizing for. Underestimating you.”
I smiled back. “I suppose it does seem a bit odd for a seventeen-year-old to be present at such a discussion, or at least it would in most of the world. But the Guild is different, you see. One of my classmates is almost six months younger than I am, and he’s at all the really important meetings. Not only that, his every word is given the deepest of consideration. You’ve met him, I think. Midnight, the cat.”
“I haven’t forgotten. When he first spoke up, well…” He smiled again, and for an instant his hand twitched as if he’d been about to scratch my ears. Then he yanked it back as if it were a yo-yo. “I spent a full year living among your kind, back in the day. And yet somehow I managed to forgot how fundamentally different life in the Guild is. It’s the damnedest thing. Even when you recruit what seem to be quite ordinary young people, they soon turn… Eccentric. Odd, even. Yet usually in the most wonderful of ways. It’s almost definitive— I can’t imagine a mage or familiar, even one stripped of his or her powers or returned to a fully-human form, ever fitting comfortably back into normal society again.” He sighed. “Christopher, I…”
I smiled again. “You can scratch my ears if you like, Colonel. I don’t let just anyone do it, no. But for you it’s okay. Anytime you like.”
He smiled, then reached down and did so. “Thank you,” he said when he was finished. “I’ve had the damnedest urge to do that since the moment I first met you. Anyway… Chris, you’re clearly an exceptional young man. Even among Guild members, you’re exceptional.” He shook his head. “You’re also right. It’s impossible to regiment and compartmentalize your kind into little bureaucratic empires without losing everything that’s best about you. Besides, as you both pointed out, there are far too few magical resources to go around.” He sighed. “We can’t afford the waste that would accompany the inevitable infighting.”
I nodded soberly. “I know that’s not the answer you sought, sir. I hope your General Brubeck isn’t too angry with you.”
He laughed. “General Brubeck is going to have an apoplectic fit, to be quite honest. He wanted to be the first-ever American General of Magic, you see. He’s even picked himself out a suite of offices and begun making promises about promotions and staff assignments to his friends.” His face went glum. “Because that’s just the sort of man he is, you see.” Then his back straightened. “But I doubt he’ll get his way, now that Guardian has taken the stand that she has.”
“And after you file your report supporting her?” I asked softly. “Then send copies to individuals other than Brubeck?”
“Ha!” he declared, slapping his knee. “It’ll mean my career, of course. Brubeck is a powerful man with many important friends, and never forgets those who cross him. And yet… Yes, my report is all written and ready to wire back home the moment I can get to the Consulate in Cherbourg. A copy will very privately land on the President’s desk; he and I once hunted together for two splendid weeks in Louisiana, though Brubeck doesn’t know it, and we rather hit it off. I can count on him to be discreet. And, also to do the right thing.” He looked at me appraisingly. “Christopher… May I be completely open with you?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Everything I know and all my political instincts— and I’ve served in Washington for a very long time!— lead me to believe that Theodore is going to do exactly as you and Guardian suggested. Not only is he a man of uncommonly good sense, but for some reason he’s the biggest supporter of your Guild I’ve ever met. There are even rumors that, well…” He looked at me searchingly, but Familiars are nothing if not poker-faced. All we have to do to render ourselves totally unreadable is disable our magical-expression charms for a carefully-chosen moment or two and our features are rendered totally inhuman. “Anyway, we’ve never had a president more trustful of the Guild. So…” He looked at me expectantly again. “By heavens, I don’t think you’ve figured it out yet, have you?”
I blinked and let my puzzlement show. “Figured out what yet?”
“Well… It’s widely supposed that you’re destined for a military career. A lot of very important people are sort of counting on it by now, in fact.”
I nodded. “And I’m pretty sure I’m going to do exactly that. But… No one seems to understand just how I can best be used yet. And I still haven’t decided what service to join.”
“Right,” he agreed. “But… If the Guild is made co-equal with the army and navy, then why should you have to choose either? There’s going to be a United States Magic Corps very soon now, if I’m reading the tarot cards properly. And not only that, you’re almost certainly going to be its very first professionally trained member.” He smiled and rested his hand on my head again. “Instead of joining an existing branch of service, you’re in essence going to found one. Set the rules, create the traditions… Someday your statue will stand at a United States Magic Academy, or my name isn’t Charles P. James!” His fingers wriggled, scratching my ears again. “And the more I get to know you, the more I get the strange feeling that this was somehow meant to be!”
While my long-term future might or might not’ve been written in the stars, it was pretty much a sure thing that I’d have to spend the next few days doing just about my least-favorite things in the world— cooling my heels and accomplishing little or nothing. Though we’d expected to be the last delegation to arrive, the Swedes had been delayed by the urgent need to repair a massive avalanche-warding spell gone wrong near an important mine, and probably wouldn’t arrive for days. Practically every nation in Europe and in some cases beyond sent at least a single mage; the French were pulling no punches in their efforts to embarrass the Germans. So to kill time the sorcerers invited each other to one formal dinner after another. For her part Guardian met important mages and made lifelong professional contacts; in other words, it was time well spent. But I was mostly just an awkward additional presence that didn’t quite fit in anywhere. Not only was I the only Familiar— and thus the only non-human that needed special plates and other treatment— anywhere in sight, I wasn’t Sworn and thus had no firm social standing at all. Mostly I was merely oohed and aahed over, which grew old in a hurry. There were Austrians, Italians, Danes, Russians… Even Lord Jurisprudence was there, though he was going by his more usual name since the big trial was over. Jurisprudence was one of the world’s leading kinetic mages when not acting as a Guild legal expert, I learned, and Guardian told me to call him Lord Impeller from now on. Supposedly he spent most of his time performing experiments that made very small things go very fast. He was kind but cold; a little aloof, even. But at least he smiled at me and didn’t treat me like a dumb piece of meat, the way most of the rest did.
I was also surprised to see a Japanese mage at some of the more elaborate dinners, though he spent almost all of his time sitting off in a corner by himself. His name was Baron Hone, and his specialty was edged weapon-charming. “Such skills are largely obsolete,” Healer explained to me one evening when he took mercy on me and we enjoyed a pleasant evening’s escape from the endless formalities and shop-talk between mages that ended instantly the moment I wandered into earshot. Cherbourg as a town wasn’t much and the area near the docks neither clean nor especially safe after dark. But the sea air was pleasant despite the filth, the full moon was shining bright, and few criminals anywhere were foolish enough to molest a fully-robed mage, much less one accompanied by, well… Me. “Like those of most Eastern mages. Their leaders repressed magic when it first re-emerged, considering it a threat to the existing social order. So it never developed properly. And now they’re not only playing catch-up, but must overcome our lead of a century or more. We called him in anyway, even though he can’t possibly be of much use. It’s political, you see. Japan and Russia are at war, and Japan is doing a lot better than anyone ever expected despite being so backwards for so long. Because of that, the bigwigs in Paris insisted we invite him along as well.”
I nodded. “Is that why I’ve never met an Asian mage before? Because they’re so far behind, I mean?”
Healer shook his head. “It’s a social thing, mostly. I mean… He’s one of the yellow peoples. Not all that important, you see. At least not in modern times. If the Japanese should by some miracle win, it’ll be the first time that an Asian nation has defeated a European one in… I don’t know how long, actually. Not that it’s very likely, despite their good start. I mean… The Russians may not be much, but at least they’re white and able to grasp modern technology.”
I nodded again. “No one ever seems to talk to him.”
“The Russians won’t, for obvious reasons. That’s just how things are done, Christopher. When the representatives of two nations at war meet in a neutral country, they’re expected to be coldly polite and interact as little as possible. But mostly… Asian mages aren’t normally invited on expeditions like this one. It just… Isn’t done. I mean, it’s not like they have anything particularly useful to contribute. And who wants to socialize with them?”
I didn’t answer, instead thinking back to the Japanese Pavillon at the Fair. It’d been Guardian and my’s favorite retreat, a place to just sit and relax for a little while in the middle of a long, busy day. The exhibit had been one of the most tranquil, beautiful places I’d ever been, rich in both vivvid color and subtle artistic interaction. And not once had they charged me for all the gallons of special, expensive tea I’d drunk. “Fire is one of our people’s greatest enemies,” they’d declared with a polite bow. “And we know well what both of you have done to frustrate its will. Eat, drink, and be our honored guests; speak no more of payment when you’ve already done so much for so many.”
Healer frowned, taking my silence for something else. “I’m sure Hone is highly skilled at what he does,” he said eventually. I meant no personal disrespect of the man. It’s just that… Super-sharp swords don’t matter all that much anymore. They’re… Irrelevant.”
“Perhaps he can adapt his skills to scalpels?” I asked. “Or even something like industrial shears?”
“I suppose it’s possible,” Shaper answered. “I’m hardly an expert in the field, after all. But I rather doubt it. In some cases magical abilities are less flexible than in others, for unobvious reasons.” He smiled. “Weapons, you see, are inherently important to people as a rule; it seems almost part of the human condition that this is so. They’re intuitive symbols so basic and primeval that they’re practically in a class of their own. Therefore, in a way they’re already inherently magical long before a mage so much as gets near them. Everyone can do magic, you see, at least a little. Potential mages just have a special knack, is all. And everyone does, every day, through their innermost feelings and desires. Every time one of your cowboys lovingly cleans his sixgun or uses it to practice his quickdraw, for example, he invests it a little more with his hopes and dreams and personal desires for strength and power. The same is true of swords, I’m sure. So, magicking them is an entirely different matter than bespelling industrial shears. First you have to study and account for the magic that’s already there, so that every single casting is different and the same spell can never be used twice. Each individual formulation can require years of intense study to develop.” He shook his head. “Weapons are terribly difficult things to charm. The very act of making them loads them down with vague, indistinct magical auras, and the more craftsmanship is involved the worse it gets. But even things like mass-produced rifles or cartridges are problematical. That’s why enchanted weapons are so rare; they’re not worth the effort anymore in the age of firearms.” He sighed. “And that’s also why once-respected mages like Baron Hone are finding themselves more and more without a profession with every passing week.”
I nodded. “That must be hard for him to accept.”
Healer shrugged. “It’s a personal tragedy for him, yes. But far worse for his nation, which seems to have backed the wrong magical horse.” He sighed. “I do feel a bit sorry for him too, I suppose. I mean… He’s very clean and polite. He even knows how to use his cutlery properly. Not at all what I expected from an Oriental.”
“Maybe I ought to meet him somewhere for tea,” I suggested. “I mean… I’m pretty bored too, and tea is probably an interest we have in common. Perhaps we could be bored together.”
“It can’t possibly hurt anything that I can see,” Healer acknowledged, after thinking it over for a moment. “Besides, it might be educational for you. I wish I’d been exposed to more foreigners when I grew up, to be honest. I can’t speak a single word of anything except French without having to use a spell. And even then, I’m told, I somehow manage to retain an accent.” He sighed. “And reading in English or German gives me a terrible headache.”
“I’ll look for a nice place tomorrow,” I decided. “Assuming Guardian approves, that is.”
“She will,” Healer predicted. “You’re growing up fast, Christopher, and are able to make more of your own decisions. She’s very proud of you, you know.” He laid his hand on my head. “And so, in my own small way, am I.”
In the end I almost didn’t write Baron Hone after all. Not only was he at least three times my age and probably more, the American Guild was a lot easier-going regarding sorcerer-Familiar relationships than most. In Europe, Familiars who attempted to socialize with their “betters” tended to get nowhere fast; even in Britain it was seen as improper or “uppity” for pretty much anyone to initiate contact with a high and mighty sorcerer. I had no idea whatsoever as to where the Japanese stood on the issue, but when I asked Guardian for advice she pointed out that teenagers can get away with social gaffes a fully-mature adult cannot. “Do you really want to meet him?” she asked rather bluntly.
“Yes,” I decided after a long moment’s hesitation. “I… Can’t quite explain it. But I enjoy getting to know people who… See life a little differently, I guess. Even when I don’t like them very much, I still enjoy the experience of meeting them.”
She nodded. “Then write him a note and I’ll deliver it myself. Like I said, you’re still a teenager and surely Hone is aware of the fact. At worst he’ll shake his head and consider it childish awkwardness. And at best…” She smiled. “They do make wonderful tea, don’t they?”
But Hone didn’t shrug it off. Instead I received an elegant reply in Japanese script so beautifully brushed on such fine paper that I kept it to frame and hang on my wall once we got back home. “Young Christopher,” the note read through my translation spells. “I would be deeply honored to share tea with you. While I most humbly regret that there are insufficient local facilities for a proper ceremony, and while I recognize that your own most noble physical sacrifices in the magical service of your fellow man create certain obstacles as well, perhaps it may prove possible to do proper service to both tradition and each other regardless. With your permission I shall send my apprentice Temper to pick you up at ten tomorrow morning. He will assist you in every possible way.”
“Assist me?” I asked Guardian after showing her the note. “I don’t need any help drinking tea. Just my usual bucket on the floor.”
She shrugged. “Beats me. I wouldn’t worry too much, though. Perhaps he thinks you’re even more handicapped than you actually are.” Then she smiled wearily. “I wish had the time to come along; he sent me a note too. But between all these constant dinners and the freshening-up spells on the charms…” She shook her head and sighed. “We’d better get this trip over with soon, Chris. Or I may drop in my tracks.”
Sure enough, next morning at ten sharp there came a knock on my door. Jean-Marie, my temporary groom and cook, answered for me. Though the navy had offered me the indefinite services of Corporal Forsyth— and had been most unpleasantly surprised at my firm rejection of the offer— I’d decided to try hiring local help here and there as needed for the rest of the trip. I was a big shaggy bear, after all, not a French poodle whose coat constantly required fussy attention. Being brushed was one of my fondest pleasures, and I certainly both looked and felt lot better afterwards. But grooming was hardly something I couldn’t live without for a few days here and there at need. In a pinch all Guardian really had to do for me in the morning was set out a bucket of water, install a new book in my reading-stand and arrange with the hotel kitchen to have five or ten human-sized meals delivered to my room at various times throughout the day. Even on her whirlwind schedule, that wasn’t too much to ask for a couple days at a time here and there.
“Oooh!” Jean whispered as she swung the door open, and in an instant I saw why. A young Japanese man in full traditional garb, from kimono to a funny mushroom-shaped hat stood in the hall, smiling nervously.
“Christopher?” he asked; I could tell by the way his lips moved that he’d butchered the pronunciation something awful, but the spell fixed it up just fine. It was a truly excellent one— he barely had an accent at all.
“Yes,” I replied with a smile. “And you must be Temper?”
He nodded, then bowed in the deep Oriental fashion. While I’d never seen Baron Hone do anything other than shake hands and Western dress so far, Temper wore an absolutely magnificent kimono. It was far more elaborately embroidered than anything anyone had worn at the Fair. His headgear was if anything even more alien, a bright-red mushroom-shaped thing that would’ve appeared utterly ridiculous on, say, an Austrian, but which somehow seemed dignified and proper— perhaps even inevitable— with the elaborate kimono. It signified that its wearer was a sorcerer, a person of great status in any culture. Where in Western tradition red was the color of the master and green that of the novice, in Japan the opposite was true.
Instinctively I started to bow back, then suppressed the vestigial human reflex and looked down for a moment instead. Quadruped bows look ridiculous and feel far too much like an outright cringe, so we four-legged types had recently developed a social-equivalent among ourselves. Had the new custom spread as far as Japan, I worried suddenly? Or was I being terribly offensive by accident?
Apparently it had, because Temper smiled again, then frankly stared at me. “Forgive me,” he finally said, deliberately looking away. “But you’re… I mean…”
I magic-grinned. “Kodiaks are naturally big. But yes, I’m even larger than most. A wildlife expert told me last summer that I may well end up the biggest there’s ever been. He suspects it’s the magic, but I think it’s just because I eat so much better than a real bear in the wild does.” Then I cocked my own head. “Your clothing is… Incredible.”
He blushed and looked down. “Perhaps I should’ve worn a business suit after all. Mr. Mori begged me to do so. But—“
“No!” I interrupted. “You misunderstand me. You… I mean…” I shook my head again. “That kimono is wonderful!”
He blinked and looked deep into my eyes. “It’s almost four hundred years old,” he said eventually. “Handed down in my family from eldest son to eldest son. It’s considered a great treasure.”
I looked down again in a mock-bow. “As well it should be.” Then I smiled again. “Perhaps I should explain. I was at the World’s Fair, and spent a lot of time at the Japanese Pavillon there. It was my favorite place. Or second-favorite to the Ferris Wheel, perhaps. That, I’ll admit, was pretty hard to beat.” I nodded at the tea bucket they’d given me, which Guardian had left out so I could bring it along if I wished.
His eyes widened a moment, then he bowed again. This time, the gesture seemed more sincere. “It’s a true pleasure to meet you, Christopher,” he said, as if he were beginning all over again. Then he picked up the bucket, examined it for a long moment, and then stood aside from the door. “Please, come with me. We have a considerable distance to travel, and there is much that needs be done.”
A huge, luxurious carriage was waiting by the curb when Temper and I emerged, and I blinked at it curiously in the sudden sunlight. Whose was it, I wondered? Most of the sorcerers were staying at the same hotel with Guardian and I, it being one of the few full-service places in town. Impetus had a notorious taste for high-living. Perhaps he was about to go out and about somewhere? Then I was shocked to the core when Temper went stepped to the door and, with his own hands, opened it for me. “It’s the largest coach in town available for hire,” he said, bowing again. “Please forgive me if it’s cramped.”
It was a bit cramped. So much so that Temper had to sit squished into a little corner and get Kodiak fur all over his wonderful kimono. But still… Despite my great size I was suddenly feeling very small inside. “Temper,” I said carefully. “I understand that Japan is a very poor country. When I wrote my note, I didn’t mean to… I mean, you and your master…”
“Ha!” he replied with a smile. “Yes, Japan is both small and poor, in purely material terms. Yet we are also both a very proud people and a culturally rich one.” He bowed from the neck. “Of all the luminaries of the magical world gathered here, you so far are the only one who has taken notice of us in any but the most cursory manner.” He gestured first at the coach, then the wide-eyed French peasants staring at us from the gutters as we rolled ponderously past. “We’re pleased to make your acquaintance, Christopher. Furthermore, we desire that our pleasure be no secret. Our only regret is that Guardian was unable to come as well.”
I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again. Temper was examining me closely now with an inscrutably Oriental smile on his lips, and I reminded myself that all across the world magical ability tended to be linked to both very high intelligence and creative ability. Being a bit on the bookish side myself, it was easy to forget that there were still plenty of people in the world at least as smart or even smarter than I was. Had I somehow stepped where I shouldn’t and become a pawn in a larger game I was still too young to understand? Or was I merely prone to imagining things after having the army and navy and even most of the nations of Europe try so hard to manipulate me for their own ends? Then I smiled back and forced myself to relax. Guardian had approved of all this, hadn’t she? She’d have come herself, she’d told me, if her schedule had allowed. So, even if I wasn’t merely imagining things, at least I wasn’t being a total fool. “I’ve read a few books about Japan,” I said finally. “So far mostly about Commodore Perry’s expedition.”
For an instant Temper’s face went hard and flat, then he was smiling again. “Ah,” he said eventually. “The Black Ships. I of course have read of them as well.” Then he turned towards the window and said no more until we arrived.
Instead of renting a room, Hone had chosen to stay with the Japanese counsel in Cherbourg, Mr. Mori. The consulate building was one of a row of identical, characterless two-story structures lining the grim streets near the waterfront, and Mr. Mori himself proved to be a small, dirty-looking man in a poorly-fitting Western-style suit and top hat who smoked especially foul cigarettes incessantly. “Hello, young Mr. Speiss!” he greeted me with outstretched hand and an overly-wide smile in barely decipherable singsong English. “It is the great honor to meet you! Please to be our guest and submit to our famous Japanese hospitality. Gee whiz!”
I sniffed furtively at Mori; he might appear rumpled and dirty, but he’d clearly bathed much more recently than had most of the Westerners I routinely dealt with. Certainly much more recently than had my temporary aide Jean-Marie back at the hotel! Then I reared up— extra-slowly so as to frighten the smallish man as little as possible— and extended my paw. “The honor is mine,” I replied, allowing my high-level and by his standard unobtainably expensive language spells to kick in and effortlessly offer me full mastery of his native tongue. No, he couldn’t speak English very well. And his command of idiom was well off-target. But then again, I reminded myself, he’d come by his English the old-fashioned way; through long, hard work. That was something I’d never had to do, and probably never would. Besides, his French was presumably much better; after all, it about had to be. “It’s my honor to be the guest of such a wonderful country,” I replied with a magic-smile.
His eyes bugged out a moment, as people’s always did the first time I stood all the way up for them, then he forced another smile and took my paw in both hands. “It is our honor.” Then he turned and gestured towards the building. “Baron Hone awaits you, Mr. Speiss. He’s been making his preparations since last night.” Then he frowned and half-bowed. “I hope that you… I mean, if things do not…” Then he looked helplessly at Temper, who’s eyes twinkled.
“Mr. Mori is a trained diplomat,” the apprentice explained. “He believes that this whole thing is a terrible idea, and that as an American teenager you not only will utterly fail to appreciate what you’re about to experience, but that if we undertake to entertain you at all we should wear frock coats and trousers and serve you Coca-Cola.” He frowned slightly, then picked up my Japanese tea bucket. Somehow, even though it was already one of my most beloved possessions the thing seemed cheap and gaudy when viewed next to Temper’s historic kimono. “You should know that my master gave the matter his full consideration, to the extent of consulting the home Guild. They consulted the augurs.” His face went unreadable again. “We are to treat you with the utmost traditional courtesy and respect, they instructed us. Though they didn’t inform us as to why, and I suspect have no idea themselves.”
The consulate’s inside was much nicer that its exterior. Beyond the very French double-doors it was lit with Edison bulbs, though of a different size and shape than I was used to and with dimmer filaments. There was also a very conventional western-style desk in the front room with a matching very French secretary seated primly behind it, but for the most part the rest of the first floor was decorated entirely in the Japanese fashion. Yes, the walls were plastered wood instead of paper and painted a pleasantly European shade of pastel green, and yes they were adorned with framed paintings and photographs in the usual manner. But the paintings were mostly depictions of an entirely different way of life, decorated with wonderful calligraphy. There were rice fields being harvested, engravings of Buddhist monks and shrines, photographs of modern steam warships attended to by veritable fleets of high-sterned and bamboo-masted sampans… It reminded me instantly of the Pavilion back in St. Louis. “This is very nice indeed,” I explained to Temper as I inched my way carefully around the room, trying my best neither to break anything delicate nor damage the fragile rice-mat flooring with my claws. “Your homeland must be a beautiful place.”
“We’re pleased that you think so,” he answered. “Perhaps you’ll visit someday. While I’ve not yet been to America, I very much hope to make the trip. In the meantime, I must say that France is very nice. Exotic, even. The Eiffel Tower especially is an absolute marvel; our land has nothing even remotely like it.” Then he pointed upstairs. “The ceremony will be held on the second floor. So… If you please?”
I looked at the staircase carefully, and inwardly winced. I’d forgotten to warn my hosts about my great weight, and they didn’t look particularly well built. Even worse, they creaked and groaned in terrible protest. But somehow I not only made it all the way to the top, but also managed the squeeze through the human-sized door into what Temper described as the “preparation room”. There he produced a basin and not only made a great show of washing his hands but even of changing his socks. This seemed doubly odd to me, since he’d left his shoes at the door. “It’s important to the ceremony that we be absolutely as clean and pure as possible,” he explained as he washed. “I’m aware that your… Physical differences, shall we call them?”
I smiled. “I’m a bear. A great big smelly one; which makes the fact especially hard to miss. And I’ve had a long time to get used to the idea by now. You don’t have to tiptoe around the subject.”
He smiled. “Thank you. That makes things much easier. Anyway… Both my master and I are fully aware that things are and must be different for you. I’ll gladly help you wash your paws or anything you like; I fear that I’m too ignorant even to know what assistance to offer. If you choose not to wash at all, no offense will be taken. As I said, allowances for circumstance are being made. Even the building itself is ill-designed for our purpose. The rooms are too large, the ceilings too high, and they interconnect improperly.”
I blinked again. “Forgive me, but I fear that I’m very ignorant of all this. When I wrote you I was sort of thinking that Baron Hone and I might meet somewhere for a cup or two of tea and a pleasant conversation. Yet you keep speaking of some sort of elaborate ceremony.”
Temper nodded. “I can see how there might well have been a misunderstanding. Something similar happened to my master and I when we attempted to visit the Notre Dame temple and, in our ignorance, gave great offense though we had no desire to do so.” His face reddened at the memory. “Mori has several bottles of Coca-Cola downstairs, if you prefer, and has purchased fresh ice. Again, no offense would be taken. My people remain largely unsophisticated in many ways, and are most painfully aware of it.”
I glanced nervously about the room. Several scrolls were prominently displayed here and there; clearly they weren’t part of the room’s normal furnishings. All of them featured more of the beautiful calligraphy the Japanese seemed so fond of, and they were clearly both old and delicate. “Harmony,” the nearest and largest one read, in front of a background of several long-legged waterfowl leaping gracefully into flight. The drawings were exquisitely simple, yet you could almost see the birds move! “Respect. Purity. Tranquility.” Instead of answering Temper’s question I pointed at the scroll with my right paw. “That’s beautiful,” I said.
He nodded. “It’s part of the mental and spiritual preparation. All of the scrolls are; they’re both a form of greeting and a message to the guests. This particular one is meant to remind us of the four values that a proper tea ceremony is supposed to embody.”
I thought about it a moment. Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. What could possibly be wrong with any of those? “I think those four beat even a nice cold Coke any day of the week,” I answered. Then I looked down in another mock-bow. “I’m deeply honored to have been asked here today.”
Temper smiled, bowed back, and dried his hands with the snowiest-white cloth I’d ever seen. Then he sat right in the middle of the floor; for the first time I noticed that there were no chairs or other western furnishings whatsoever anywhere about. “Excellent! Then let us study the other scrolls and meditate upon their meaning for while. When we’re fully prepared, we can begin the ceremony proper.”
The other scrolls were beautiful too, each in their own individual way. “It is better to conquer one’s self than to win a thousand battles,” one of them read. I found it particularly meaningful; this was very much a Guild-like sentiment, and I could easily imagine Shaper quoting it to an apprentice. Magic was a force of the living mind, the real-world manifestation of a disciplined focus of pure will interacting with certain usually-symbolic material elements in a manner not at all yet understood and at its core seemingly resistant to all scientific study. No one could become a mage without first mastering the art of self-discipline. Was I capable of self-denial and focus, I wondered? Would I ever learn if I had what it took to call myself a mage? My life would certainly be far easier as a Familiar. The same would be true if I remained as I was, nothing more than an unusually large bear and potent source of magical energy. I’d be rich and famous from now on regardless.
‘Easy’ was good, wasn’t it? Most people valued ‘easy’ more than anything else in the universe. Yet, why did my stomach turn at the very idea?
I didn’t realize how far my mind had wandered until suddenly I realized that Baron Hone was standing in the doorway, dressed in an even more elegant and elaborately-embroidered kimono than his apprentice’s, and with a bright green mushroom-cap on his head. He was staring at me from behind a gentle smile. “Greetings, Christopher,” he said, once he saw that I’d noticed him. His eyes moved to the words I’d been examining, then back to me.
“Your scrolls are beautiful,” I replied. “And the thoughts they contain perhaps more beautiful still.” I looked down in my mock-bow.
His smile widened. “Mori was wrong,” he said. “Your mind runs far deeper than Coca-Cola, despite your youth. As I knew would be the case from the moment I read your polite, respectful letter.”
I titled my head. “You’re doing me a great honor here. One that I fear I may never be able to properly repay.”
He shook his head and laughed. “Seasons turn and the world moves inevitably forward. Someday, it is almost certain, you shall rank high among your people just as I expect that someday my own apprentice will stand tall among our own. Once already your nation has played a critical role in our history, and it is to be expected that we shall continue to deeply influence each other for all the ages to come. So it is well that you should come to know each other— and that through you our nations should grow closer.”
I blinked and looked at Temper, who seemed equally surprised. So… Was he who I was really supposed to be getting to know?
Then Hone bowed again. “It is my most profound hope, Christopher, that someday you shall have the opportunity to experience the Way of Tea in all its proper majesty; I’m a true devotee of the art and thus doubly ashamed at the weak parody which is all I’m able to offer you here and now, my most esteemed guest.” He gestured at the room. “This should be a tranquil enclosure overlooking a carefully-tended garden. In the other room— which by rights ought to adjoin!— I should have a built-in hearth to work with. There should be fresh delicacies, of sorts sadly only available back home. And your own physical differences in and of themselves make strict adherence to tradition impossible. And yet…” He bowed again and gestured both of us out into the hall. “Please, honored guests. Come and share what little I have.”
The rest reminded me very much of the one or two times I’d been permitted to visit an active spellcasting laboratory. Temper indicated where I was to sit, then settled in close alongside me. We were served various delicacies according to what was clearly a very strict and stylized formula, broken only by Hone’s apologies that he had no better to offer. I’d never tasted any of them before, and most were superb. Meanwhile what was clearly a very precious and beloved gold and porcelain tea set sat out on carefully arranged display around a brightly polished brass charcoal brazier. My heavens, it was beautiful! The bowls were so thin I was afraid to so much as breathe on them. The brazier was almost glowing hot, its smoke being vented out a conveniently-placed window.
The Baron spoke less and less as the ceremony progressed; mostly he’d apologized for how everything had to be done all wrong, but apparently this part at least could be performed entirely to conform with tradition. With a series of sweeping gestures that again reminded me very much of spellcasting, Hone began preparing the tea itself. He reached and whisked and poured in what was clearly a long, memorized sequence of actions that dated back I couldn’t begin to guess how long. The whole thing was exotic and foreign in a very deep way; no Americans I could think of would devote themselves to so self-denyingly replicating every motion, every gesture of their ancestors. Temper ostentatiously showed me how to respond at every step; where I was unable to match his actions due to my physical limitations either he or Hone abandoned the ceremony long enough to help me along. Even the tea itself was magical somehow; it was a bright and rich leaf-green instead of the more usual brown, and served without any honey or sugar at all. I didn’t much care for the taste of the stuff, to be quite honest. But it was wonderfully fragrant, and so beautiful that I was almost sorry to drink it.
Then, all too soon, it was over. Hone departed from ritual long enough to bow, then I reared up and shook his hand, American-style, to thank him for his most gracious hospitality and an experience I’d recall for the rest of my life. “We’re a poor people,” Temper had told me when I’d first seen the huge, expensive coach he’d arrived in to pick me up. “But a culturally rich one.” How very true that was! I could see that even now I’d barely begun to plumb what must be truly enormous depths.
Then, with the utmost care I descended the frail staircase and said goodbye to Mori as well; he was still terribly worried that I’d somehow taken offense at it all. “Here!” he declared, offering me my already-washed tea bucket. Now it was full of ice and wasp-waisted bottles of Coke. Then he smiled hopefully. “You actually like Coca-Cola, no?”
I mock-bowed. “But of course,” I answered as generously as I could. “I’m an American after all, aren’t I?”
He laughed a single sharp syllable. “All Americans the same,” he declared, prejudices satisfactorily reinforced at long last. Finally, all was right with his world again. “Every last one of you, all alike. Gee whiz!”