Confessions of the Magpie Wizard Book 5 (Chapters 28, 29 & 30)
My shoulder still ached as Bryndísar took us on a tour of the property.
“What was that about displays of affection having to stop?” I hissed at Heida as we brought up the rear. “Trying to shack up with me isn’t exactly subtle!”
She smirked at me. “I took care of your luggage for you, and you still found a way to complain about it.”
“I just can’t decide if you were trying to tease me or irritate him,” I said.
A kiss to the cheek was her only reply. I took that as a ‘both’. I swear, I’m going to find a way to get her alone. She owes me!
The farmhouse was within easy walking distance of three barns that looked more modern than anything else we’d seen in hours. Well, easy walking distance for those of us without canes. Our host slowed us down, which gave us more time to chat.
I commented on the newness of the barns that and Bryndísar laughed in response. “Gotta give our hooved children a warm space to sleep when they need it. I swear, my sheep live better than I do.”
“It sounds like a lovely life,” I said. “Wandering around grazing all day, a little affection now and then, and free rent.”
“Oh, there’s rent to pay all right. It’ll be mutton for dinner.”
Heida stuck out her tongue when Bryndísar turned back towards the closest, smallest barn. “I’m so sick of mutton. I was looking forward to never having it again.”
“It is a bit gamey, isn’t it?” I said.
“I know a nice recipe,” said Mariko, who was almost, but not quite, touching my other arm. “Usually I use lamb, but the idea should be the same.”
“Not really, but you’re welcome to try,” said Heida. “We haven’t had it any way but roasted or boiled in years.”
“What’re you three talking about?” asked Bryndísar.
“Just that it is so lovely out here,” said Mariko. “The air is so clean.”
“I’m glad somebody thinks so,” replied Bryndísar. “This one wanted out as soon as she could.”
“Pabbi, do we have to go into that?” groaned Heida.
They exchanged a few words in Icelandic before the older man sighed. “Alright, not in front of the others. Anyway, I hope you won’t mind helping out a little bit. We’re a bit shorthanded at the moment.”
“What happened?” asked Heida. “Did the boys in town raise their rates?”
“Yes, but that’s because they’re finally worth it. No, they’re busy bringing up twenty-five head of new sheep for us.”
“That’s a lot of new mouths to feed,” I said. “How did you come by them?”
“The League decided to shut down some poor man’s farm out west from here,” he replied.
“Brandur? It has to be, right?”
“Wait, how’d you know that, Skjor?”
I told the pertinent parts of our mission to Brandur’s farm. I decided to leave out the mysterious skeleton; there was nothing solid to report, after all.
“I guess it isn’t that big of an island,” said Bryndísar. “Even if there’s three times as many refugees and foreigners than Icelanders running around these days, we still travel in small circles.”
“I hope that poor man got a good price,” said Mariko. “Being forced out of his land like that is awful.”
Bryndísar flashed the Japanese woman a wry smile. “What, I should starve?” He cut off Mariko mid-protest. “Kidding, kidding; I don’t stiff anyone. Anyway, until the boys have checked out the herd for diseases and brought them home, it’s just us to care for the existing sheep.”
“Rather good timing we arrived when we did, then,” I said. For him, at least.
“Good timing indeed,” said Mariko. “Soren grew up on a farm. He even told us about his favorite sheep, Mackie. I am sure he will be a great help.”
Bryndísar stopped. “Wait, him?”
I gulped. I hadn’t expected my cock and bull story to come up again; it’s the problem of not really having my cover planned in advance. I’d written myself into a corner.
“No way in heck,” said Bryndísar. “Look at his hands, I bet they’re as soft as…” He gave them a squeeze, thankfully with his bad hand. “Hm, you do have some calluses after all. Sorry, you don’t seem the type.”
Because you’re more observant than I’d like. You know a nobledevil when you meet him; thank goodness a sword can make a callus as well as a pitchfork. “You’re half right. It was a small family plot back in England, sir. We had most of the land nationalized out from under us like Brandur, but we kept a couple of sheep. I’m afraid I don’t know much about a larger operation like this.”
“Again with the modesty,” said Heida, gesturing towards the nearest barn, much smaller than the rest. “Anyway, Pabbi, show ‘em your big surprise you always spring on people so we can go back. It’s cold out.”
“I don’t remember raising such a bitter child,” said Bryndísar.
“Trust me, you did; I was there.” The father and daughter both wore smiles that belied their harsh tones.
Bryndísar pulled the barn door open, and I saw what he’d meant about how his hooved children lived. The air that rushed by us was noticeably warmer than even the farmhouse had been. The space was divided up into five straw-lined paddocks on either side, with a space in the middle for feeding and water troughs.
Bryndísar cursed under his breath, and I quickly saw why. The barn had doors on both ends, and the back was wide open. “Viktor’s out again!”
“What’s a Viktor?” I asked. I dashed to the open barn door, which opened into an enclosed pasturage. My legs really needed to stop playing the hero, even if I was in the best position to fight off any danger. There are two noncombatants, and Heida might freeze up again.
The fencing seemed much higher than I’d seen elsewhere on the farm. It struck me as overkill for the rather stocky sheep running about.
The mystery was solved when I heard a familiar bleating noise. It started off deeper than any sheep on the Enemy’s green earth before ending on a higher, pinched note.
I’m told that mackies looks strange to human eyes, though that’s simply typical human ignorance speaking. In the other world that the Horde sprang from, horses had died out ages ago and been replaced by Macrauchenia infernus. They were everything to the orc tribes of old, and centuries of breeding under their care had given them a multitude of forms.
Imagine something rather like a camel, but without the hump. Then stretch out the nose into a shortish trunk, making them look like a tapir on stilts. This one bore a unique coloring, with a white body with black spots like an appaloosa horse, but with a rich, brown head and neck. Suddenly the fence didn’t seem like such overkill; the brute was built like a Clydesdale, and he could stretch his long neck over a fence that was level with my eyes. Back home, we’d call it a Motlhyder, and a purebred like this beast was worth a pound of gold.
Where the devil did he come from?
The creature had been snacking on haybale, but he swung his enormous head about to get a better look at me with its dark eyes. He flapped his short ears and flexed its trunk, which I knew was a sign of curiosity.
“Skjor, stop! I’m the only one Viktor tolerates!”
The ears flattened and he let out an irritated grunt. As if Bryndísar had reminded him, Viktor charged straight at me.
I didn’t have time to cast a spell. Just like out on Brandur’s farm, old habits kicked in. I straightened my back and stretched an open hand towards it. “Haltur!”
Thank Our Father Below the beast had been trained by a rider. Mackies bred for wool or milk wouldn’t have known the command.
Of course, it wasn’t easy for a ton of hooved mammal to stop, and Viktor skidded in the damp soil. He managed the feat, and I added a few ounces of gold to my price estimate. Viktor here was definitely trained well. Some devil must have been upset to lose him.
Viktor trotted up, wrapping his prehensile trunk around my head. He made the same pinched bleat as before, which was encouraging; he’d been happy to have a snack, and he was happy to see me. I wasn’t quite so overjoyed when he rested his head on my shoulder, but it was marginally better than being trampled. I’d heard that Motlhyders liked having their ears scratched, and Viktor proved to be no exception.
The mackie tensed up at the sound of the girls’ voices, but I got his attention by redoubling my efforts. “We’re all friends here.” I whispered a few words of Demonic in his ears, sweet little nothings about how good a boy he was, earning another joyful bleat.
“Well, I’ll be,” said Heida. “You sure you aren’t a demonkin? You seem to know how to charm this monster.”
“He might like you better if you didn’t call him a monster,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “They’re simply beasts of burden, like any other. Though, he is an awfully long way from home. Where the dev… dickens did he come from?”
“The Madagascar campaign,” said Bryndísar, finally catching up with us. “We beat back a Horde landing force, and they left behind a lot of interesting things.”
Mariko had edged closer; she was always oddly fearless for somebody who wouldn’t fight back. Viktor tensed up again, but allowed her to pet his cheek as long as I kept up my ministrations.
It struck me as strange that the idiotic ungulate wasn’t afraid of me because it could smell the devil in me. I’m not sure if I should feel embarrassed or flattered.
Heida held back, and I wasn’t sure if she was more worried about me or the mackie. “No seriously, how’d you know that word? That wasn’t a spell.”
“When the Horde captured me, they made me work in a mackie stable,” I said. “They were the smaller, sheep-sized ones, though; it made it easier to take a few lumps before I learned how to make them listen.”
I wasn’t sure that Heida entirely bought the story, but she kept quiet.
Bryndísar barked a laugh. “Where were you three years ago when I was trying to break him in?”
Hm, three years ago? Fighting goblin revolutionaries in Spain. “I wouldn’t have been any good back then; I hadn’t ever even seen a mackie before.”
“You keep saying mackie,” said Mariko. “Is that what the devils call a Macrauchenia?” She struggled a bit with the Greek name, and a self-deprecating smile split her face. “I think I may switch to mackie.”
“Certainly a lot easier to say, isn’t it?” I gave Viktor a gentle but firm shove to the chest. “Alright, that’s enough, there’s a good boy.” He followed me like a lost puppy, though I was able to get him back to eating by grabbing him a handful of hay from the bale. He plucked it right out of my grasp with his trunk. “That’s right, you need your lunch, you enormous thing.”
When I turned back towards the group, I was met with looks of complete shock from the Icelanders. “Am I missing something?”
“He doesn’t like anybody. What do you think the ungodly-high fence is for?” demanded Bryndísar. “When I say he tolerates me, I mean I can enter the pen without him attacking right away. He usually lets me clean up his messes and change the water.”
“He’s put three people in the hospital,” said Heida, still eying Viktor warily. She moved to put me between her and the mackie. “If he was a horse, he’d have been put down ages ago.”
“Benefit of being unique,” I said. “If you don’t mind me saying, I don’t know what you expected. Keeping him in this little barn all by his lonesome? It’d drive anybody mad, and they’re herd animals.”
“He didn’t used to be alone,” said Bryndísar. “I used to have a good half-dozen of them.”
I frowned. “Where’d they go?”
“Lost two to worms they caught from the sheep,” he said. “The other three got claimed by some research outfit in Cuba. Viktor’s too ornery, so they let him be my problem.”
“Poor thing,” said Mariko, echoing my own unworthy sentiments. “Wait, how did he get out before?”
“That trunk isn’t just for looks,” said Heida, shivering against my back, and not due to the cold. “He can open a gate by himself, and he keeps figuring out the doors. Pabbi, I thought you were getting new locks?”
“I did, right after you graduated the academy,” he said. “We’re lucky he escaped out the back this time.”
“Bryndísar, I’ll gladly take over for you with Viktor,” I said. “For as long as we’re here, I mean.”
I couldn’t think of the last time I was so excited about something that risked exposing me. I couldn’t help it, though. Viktor was a piece of home that wasn’t out to end me, which was a comfort in itself. Plus, he was the finest mackie I’d ever been close to. I’ll have to look into getting him a saddle. If I played my cards right, I could even end up being his owner. It’s not like the old man has any real use for him.
Suddenly, being exiled to the middle of nowhere didn’t quite seem so bad.
Bryndísar Family Farm , Iceland
Tuesday, October 25th, 2050
Honest labor. Ugh. It was enough to make a true son of the Horde break out in hives. Tending to Viktor, hauling hay bales for the sheep, it was all work for lesser beings.
At least, that’s what I tried to tell myself. A week in, though? I wasn’t… hating it as much as I’d expected. Ending the day with a dull ache in my muscles made me feel like I’d accomplished something. I’d even stopped sneezing when I got a good coating of dust from the dried hay.
Things were easier once the three farmhands had returned with the new sheep in tow. They were still isolated in a separate barn and enclosed pasture, and they’d become mine and Kowalski’s responsibility.
“You’ve got to let the new sheep get used to each other,” Bryndísar had explained. “They get acquainted by smell. We’ll let them out once a week or so has passed.”
That meant they’d strip the little enclosure to the soil right quick, so there was a lot of alfalfa and other feed to haul over. Was it drudgery? Yes, but I wasn’t entirely miserable. I credited it to the same biological trickery that made me eventually not hate my morning runs with Rose. I swear, the Enemy designed humans to love things they ought to have disdained. Good thing I’m only half-compromised. It gives me some perspective.
If I was satisfied, Kowalski was positively jubilant. I could see it in his expression, and he carried himself with a bit more confidence than I’d ever seen from him. He looked like a different man in the heavy work clothes.
“I’m telling you, Magpie, this is real living! No walls but the hills, fresh air, real food. Just you and God’s creation.”
I could also tell because he wouldn’t bloody well shut up about it. “I didn’t realize the man upstairs made haybales or barns,” I replied.
“Well… not directly, no,” he conceded.
“Then it’s just as artificial as that that apartment in Gunma,” I said flatly. “You simply like this artifice better.”
He frowned at me. “You’re a real cynic.”
“Never claimed I wasn’t,” I replied with a shrug. “As long as I’m dragging down the mood, how’s your roommate doing?” I pointed to the shadowy beast, perched in a watchful position at the other end of the enclosed paddock. Thankfully, the sheep were too stupid to perceive him as a threat.
Kowalski lit up, which was rare when the topic was Buddy. “Oh, he’s loving this! I mean, he keeps trying to bother the sheep, but he’s just having fun, y’know? He hasn’t tried to hurt anyone.”
Yet. “Excellent,” I said. “This is really your chance to master him. You know this has to end at some point; he has to be willing to listen when we’re somewhere enclosed. Like, oh say, an airplane.” I can’t always be there to secretly drug you.
“Y-yeah, you’re right.” With a grunt of effort, emptied a bucket of green feed I couldn’t identify into a trough. The hungry beasts descended on it in an instant. “Eat up, guys.”
“Looks like you two are working hard,” said Lilja. The brunette woman leaned on the wooden fence, smiling as she looked at the new herd. She said something I didn’t catch in Icelandic, but it sounded soothing.
“N-nope, it isn’t hard at all, we’re doing great,” rambled Kowalski. “We can do this all day!”
A dirty joke crossed my mind, but not my lips. I couldn’t be blamed, as enthusiastic as he always was when Heida’s sister came around.
Lilja chuckled at Kowalski’s outburst. “Then I guess you two brave guys don’t need any lunch.”
“If Kowalski insists, I’ll bravely eat his portion. It’s a sin to waste food, after all.” I’d felt like a bottomless pit since the real work started. Back at the school we’d had a few dedicated combat training days, but this work was like having those every day of the week.
“N-no, I can eat,” said Kowalski. “Wouldn’t want to ruin Magpie’s figure.”
I cocked my head at him. Was that Kowalski actually… joking? Huh. He really is relaxed for once.
We returned to the farmhouse, where Mariko had been hard at work, judging by the delightful scents filling the air. She looked every inch the housewife in her dress and apron. Her radiant smile as she leaned out of the kitchen made my heart skip a beat. “You three wash up. We are nearly ready.”
Really, the only person who didn’t seem happy with our working arrangements was Heida, who was already in the restroom. I wasn’t sure where she’d been all morning, but she seemed awfully clean to have been out with the animals.
“It’s like I never left,” she muttered to herself. “I just checked in with the Reykjavik office. Corpsman Olvirsson says they don’t have any leads yet, so we’re here ‘for the duration’.” She made a gagging sound as she brushed past us. “This stupid farm.”
“I’m sorry we’re such a burden,” said Lilja in a cool tone.
Heida flinched. “Oh, hi Lilja. I didn’t realize you were there.” She jabbed Kowalski in the arm. “This one’s too tall.”
“Let’s talk about it when the others aren’t around,” said Lilja with a decorum that made you forget she was the little sister.
Heida groaned and retreated back downstairs. I had a feeling I was going to hear about it later, too.
Oh well. For once, I wasn’t the one in trouble.
Lunch proved to be lavish; Mariko had apparently found an old American cookbook in the kitchen and was working through it in no particular order. I’d never had chicken and dumplings before, but I added it to the list of discoveries to take with me back to…
Japan, I supposed. I kept having to remind myself I wasn’t going back to Pandemonium. Something about the relatively primitive surroundings had me more homesick than normal. There was technology, but it wasn’t omnipresent like everywhere else I’d visited in the human realms. As much as I mocked Kowalski for mentioning the Enemy, he hadn’t been entirely wrong about our setting. It was a strange feeling, to feel at home and not all at once. I’m sure the Germans have a word for it, but alas, I only spoke French and an increasing amount of Japanese.
After we finished our meal and the civilians had cleared out, Heida shared Henrik’s report with everyone. “I don’t like this.”
“You were pretty clear about that earlier,” said Kowalski, earning a raised eyebrow from Bryndísar.
“Not that,” said Heida. “I’m always antsy about orders without an end date. You all know how fast the League works sometimes; they could declare us all clear tomorrow, or it could be six months from now.”
“That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world,” said Bryndísar. “It’s been wonderful having you back again.”
She pasted an empty smile on her face. “It’s been nice seeing you, too. I haven’t really been able to visit since you… since you got back from England.”
“I’m sure you would have if you could,” replied the older man. “I know how busy you are.” Heida flinched at the subtle rebuke, a clear sign of a guilty conscience.
“I am simply glad we can be of use to you,” said Mariko. “I know taking care of us was an unexpected burden.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “You’re all more than paying your way. Though…” He patted his belly. “We aren’t all working as hard as those young men there. My cardiologist might want words with you if you keep feeding me like that.”
“Ara,” said Mariko, unconsciously grabbing her bad hand. “I-I am sorry, that was inconsiderate of me. I will keep that in mind.”
“It was a joke,” snapped Heida. “Pabbi likes his humor dry.”
Mariko’s brow wrinkled. “But he means it. He used humor to soften the blow, but it is still a blow.”
“How much I mean it depends on if you leave tomorrow or next year,” replied the farmer. “Make what you like; I should be more active, anyway.”
“I don’t see what your doctor has to complain about,” I said, taking a chance. “You’ve lost so much weight already!”
The gamble paid off, and Bryndísar’s mirth was as great as Kowaksi and Mariko’s shock. “You aren’t much for sugarcoating, Skjor.”
“I find it wastes time,” I replied. “Speaking of, we’ve finished our chores for now. We should go run some defensive drills.”
Bryndísar raised his eyebrow. “You keep doing that every day. I think you can relax a little; there’s no way the demonkin know you’re out here.”
That isn’t what the drills are for, but no sense letting him know how dangerous Buddy is. “Don’t underestimate the Horde’s pawns. They aren’t the type to forgive and forget.”
Once we had left Bryndísar behind, Mariko came up alongside me. “I still think we should tell him about Brandur’s sheep.”
“No point in that,” I replied. “We never got anything solid from the lab reports.”
“Whose fault is that?” asked Heida pointedly.
“Huh? What does that mean?” asked Kowalski.
“Oh, she’s convinced that one of us contaminated the sheep,” I replied. “Which is nonsense, since how could any of us do that?”
Heida took the hint and dropped it. She flinched again as Lilja called for her in the distance. “I suppose later is now. Pray for me, Rafal.”
“Is it that bad?” asked Kowalski. “Lilja’s a sweet girl.”
“You’ll learn better if you keep following her around,” she said. “In fact…” She grabbed Kowalski by the arm and dragged him along. “Come along, she’ll hold back if you’re there. She seems to like you.”
“Sh-she does?” stammered Kowalski as he dropped all resistance.
“Why would she not?” asked Mariko.
“Don’t read too much into it,” said Heida. “She doesn’t get out much.”
Kowalski seemed slightly deflated, but he didn’t object strongly to a chance to hang out with Lilja.
“I still do not know what you see in her,” said Mariko, once she was sure we were out of earshot.
“I don’t imagine you would.” I couldn’t very well say she reminded me of the girls back home. “I wish you two could get along a little better; the Da… Good Lord knows how long we’re going to be stationed here.”
“I am not the problem,” she said with a pout. “She’s the one who wants to bicker all the time. I am willing to leave her alone.”
“I’ll have a talk with her.”
“No, wait. If you say something, she will know. I should not talk about her behind her back. It is not your fight.”
I shrugged. “Whatever seems best.” I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice, but I didn’t much care to listen to problems without being able to suggest solutions.
I was surprised by a brief wetness on my cheek. “She definitely wouldn’t care for that.”
“Did you?” she asked, smirking playfully.
“It’s… I keep telling you, we shouldn’t indulge. For your sake.”
“You are still too thoughtful. Thank you for helping me with lunch today. I did not even have to ask.”
“I only carried in a few dishes,” I said.
“It was helpful.” She looked down at her right hand, which was quivering enough just to see. “I wish you did not have to.”
“No sense dwelling on things we cannot change,” I said.
“My arm is all I can ever think about,” she said, taking a step back and clasping it tightly. “Do you remember Bryndísar said the first day we arrived? That there is nothing shameful about his injury? I cannot understand him.”
“There isn’t, though,” I said. “Remember what I said? You get lucky or you don’t on the battlefield. You do your best and it doesn’t always pay off. Except it did pay off for you, or did you forget that you saved those refugees in Taiwan?”
“Hiro and the others did that,” she said. “I only cast support magic.”
We had continued walking without much of a goal, and my feet had taken me back towards Viktor’s pen. I decided I might as well check in on him.
“Which brings me to something that I’ve wanted to talk with you about since the Starlight. If they attack again, I won’t be able to spare them.” Somebody told them my real damn name, and I can’t leave anybody alive who does. “This is a high class of wizard they’ve corrupted, and I can’t imagine they only got two. I’ll need my focus on fighting them; if you’re there, I might not be able to protect you.”
We came to the edges of the high fence, and Viktor trotted over for a bit of affection. His breath trailed behind him in the cold and steamed Mariko’s glasses when she reached up to scratch him.
“Perhaps,” she said.
“No perhaps,” I said. “I guarantee it. That fight was awfully close, even with Heida’s help.”
“I see how it is.” The seriousness of Mariko’s tone was undercut by Victor’s trunk playing with her braid. He seemed to have gotten over his human phobia, though I wasn’t sure what he was like when I wasn’t around. She took a step back to clean her glasses and get her hair back in order. Despite that, she went in for a second round. “That is what you see in her. She can fight, I cannot.”
“Between you and me, she only cast a single attack spell at the Starlight,” I said. “Poor thing froze at the start of the fight.” I still wasn’t entirely sure why. Just how useless were the Icelandic magic schools? “The difference is that she was not trying to convince me to spare them the whole time. Like I said, battles are not won by the most gallant or virtuous. It’s who is meaner and luckier, and seconds count.”
Mariko stopped stroking Viktor. “Soren, you are being gentler than most, but you are not going to talk me out of my beliefs.”
“I’m not trying to, exactly,” I said. “I’m more explaining why I will have to disregard them, and I do not want it to be a surprise.”
A memory flashed in my mind of the fight against Brother Redhawk at the Serving Wizards’ House. The girl had fallen ten feet and hurt her ankle. Hiro had only been able to stop the metal-skinned wizard by using the last of his magical strength to break his neck. She’d been horrified, begging for the for the man’s life until the end. She’d even tried to crawl over and save him, never mind that he’d been about to slay all of us.
I met her gaze, and her dark, melancholy eyes bore into me. She means it. Every human life is precious to her. I almost wish it was simply a pose to try and dodge the draft. I can out-cynical somebody. I can’t beat sincerity.
I had expected her to try and browbeat me, or possibly agree to my terms (One can dream). Maybe even burst into tears, since I was brushing aside her whole philosophy.
Embracing me was a surprise. “I think I can change your mind. At least, I can make you understand why I cannot budge.” She nodded towards the barn. “Can we go inside where it is a bit warmer?”
“There had to be an easier to way to get me alone,” I said with a smirk. We’d had to let Viktor in, since once he realized we were in the barn, he’d begun kicking the door. He was satisfied to sit in his pen, at least.
Mariko ignored my attempt at levity. “This is… Hold on.” She handed me the translator earpiece, and her lips went out of sync with her words. “I don’t want anything to be misunderstood. Magpie, you know many of my secrets, but this is one I have never said out loud. Please, no jokes. If I stop, I don’t know that I will be able to start again.”
I nodded solemnly. This wasn’t the time. “Please, do go on.”
I’m not sure how long she paced before gathering up her words. “One of my great grandfathers on my Father’s side was named Seiji. I never met him; he was born more than a hundred years ago, and my parents had me late. I always heard about him growing up, though. I knew he served during World War Two, but there were never any stories about that. All of his children and grandchildren could never find enough good things to say about him.”
“He sounds like a good man.” I didn’t have a grandfather on my demon side; most devil family trees didn’t extend that far back.
“It wasn’t just the family that loved Seiji, though. He was a volunteer fire fighter for a few years when my grandfather was a child. He was generous with his charity, and he ran a successful restaurant, which is why he could be so charitable. It’s still there in Tokyo; I’ll take you there sometime. One of my uncles runs it now.”
“I’d be delighted.” I didn’t see how this was relevant.
She let out a long, slow breath, which told me we were getting to the meat of the story. “When I was thirteen, one of his sons, my great uncle, passed away. The League wanted to build more refugee housing there, so we only had a month to put things in order. My aunt Aoi asked us to help go through his things, so we went over there for the weekend. Most of it was ordinary; some books, art, even a large Betamax collection we had no way to play.”
I nodded, pretending I had the foggiest idea what a Betamax was. To be fair, most humans my age wouldn’t know the word, either.
Mariko swallowed, clutching her hands in front of her. “I went into the attic to fetch another box, and my foot went through a rotten floorboard. When I pulled it out, though, I saw there was a journal hidden away in there, written by great-grandfather Seiji.” She swallowed again, and her voice came back in more of a quaver. “I started reading and… and…”
I stepped forward. “If it’s too much—”
“No, I need this,” she said, shaking her head. “He said it was his confessions, about his time in the war. He was there from the early stages of the war in China, and he helped with the… he served in Nanking.”
My eyes widened at that. The World Wars were one of the only parts of human history I truly knew well, and that was a name that had a special horror, even when discussing mankind’s greatest war before my people arrived. “Then he…”
She nodded, her words failing her. “You know. Good. I don’t think I could explain it. He was there for everything, Soren. The worst of it. The family always said he’d served in the South Pacific on a destroyer. I don’t know if he lied, or they did. Can you imagine having something like that in your history? To have the blood of an admitted monster in your veins?”
Oh, you sweet summer child. “I can. The British Empire didn’t exactly have a clean record. However, I don’t see what that has to do with you. You weren’t there, after all, any more than I was.”
“W-well, that isn’t all of it,” she said, her voice catching. “My magic chose that moment to come in. I’d had no idea I had magical potential until that moment; I’m the only wizard in the family. I wanted that book to disappear, and my affinity decided to do something about it.” She picked up a loose piece of straw, and it began flaking away. “It was out of control, and before I figured out how to stop, there were only a few shreds of the journal left.”
“I imagine the family was devastated to find out,” I said.
“Exactly why I didn’t tell them. About the book, or the magic. If they knew, they kept it from me. If they didn’t, it would destroy their vision of what they thought was a great man.”
“That can’t have been easy,” I said. “To carry around a secret like that.”
“I thought you might understand,” she said, smiling weakly. “Do you see, now? Why I won’t fight?”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” I said.
“Great-Grandpa Seiji was a w-war criminal,” she said, lifting her glasses so she could dab her eyes. It seemed that it was her turn to have some allergies. “If he had been caught, he might have been executed, and they would have said he deserved it.”
“He would have,” I said. “At least, by the laws of man.”
“You don’t see it,” she said disappointedly. She stepped forward and put a hand on her chest. “If they had, my whole family would never have been born. The city wouldn’t have had a volunteer fireman, and who would have donated to those charities?”
I took my own step forward. “Does that make up for it, though? If somebody does something so awful and never has to face justice, do a few minor acts of kindness make up for it?”
“I-I know your hands aren’t clean either.” Mariko put away her handkerchief. “Are you asking for Seiji or yourself?”
I hesitated too long. “Seiji.”
“If you say so,” she replied, smiling knowingly.
Observant women are always trouble.
“Anyway,” she said. “Who am I of all people to pass judgement? Who can really know what can be? The worst monsters can become pillars of their community. They can be beloved fathers and grandfathers. Seiji was told that the people he was fighting were subhuman, and when they say that about the demons and devils, all I can wonder is if we’re wrong, too.” She took my hand in hers; she was trembling like a scared rabbit. “A-and my power isn’t like Hiro’s strength or Kiyo’s invisibility. I can’t do anything constructive. All it does is tear things apart atom by atom. I could be as destructive as an army of Grandpa Seijis if I developed my magic.” She gulped again. “In the Tower, things were so desperate. There were times I wondered if I shouldn’t grab you and…” Another piece of straw vanished to illustrate her point.
It was my turn to gulp. “Well, I’m rather glad you didn’t.”
“Exactly!” Her declaration echoed in the barn, starling Viktor out of grooming himself with his trunk. She cleared her throat to compose herself. “Exactly. If I had, we’d have all died. You saved the day for us. Who knows what the people devils could become if we gave them the chance?”
I gulped again as she came closer to me. Mariko had always had a certain effect on me, but this was different. There was a physical nearness, but it was like her soul was bare to me. To a devil so used to secrets, it seemed more indecent than nudity. “Y-you know the average devil isn’t much like me, right?” Sadly.
“I don’t, actually,” she said, sounding almost giddy. I suppose she had just unloaded herself. “I’ve never met one. However, I figure if their kin can be redeemed, they might not be completely lost.”
Oh, she was a dangerous one, that I knew with the utmost certainty. Some traitorous part of my mind wanted to just out myself then, expose Malthus to her the way she’d exposed her great-grandfather. Things would be easier if somebody near me knew the full truth. Look how relieved she is right now, and her secret isn’t half as serious as mine.
I shook my head. No, absolutely not. It wouldn’t profit her any, and she might let things slip. Even if she had just proven she could keep a secret for nearly a decade…
A decade. Would I still be around in a decade? Where could I possibly go, with Fera and Girdan sending assassins after me? I had no way of fighting back; even the Wizard Corps wouldn’t be able to launch a raid on Pandemonium to end the threat. They would never stop, and eventually my luck would run out. If I were dating Mariko and they found out… Well, being blown up by the Beckers would be a clean and efficient death by comparison. You never let a devil know you care for something, because that will be the first thing they want to break.
“Th-then we shall have to agree to disagree,” I said, putting aside that warm feeling. Mariko doesn’t deserve the danger I bring with me. “I have seen them up close, and your sympathy is wasted.” She visibly deflated, and I couldn’t stand to leave it at that. “It’s a beautiful idea, though, and I won’t try to talk you out of it again. However, there’s a difference between catching a man years later and trying him, and encountering him in a brawl. If the enemy comes knocking, I will choose me, or you, or anybody else here. I can’t do it alone, though, and you’ll need to be ready to fight them.”
She puffed out her cheeks. “That sounds an awful lot like talking me out of it.”
“No, I’m simply asking for a compromise,” I replied. “You seem to have a low opinion of yourself, which is frankly insane.”
“There’s no second chances with my power,” she said. “I-I don’t want to have that weigh on me.”
There we go. There’s the underlying reason. “There’s no second chances with a sword to the neck; that’s rather the point. I wish we lived in a world where you didn’t have to make the choice and could live peacefully, but we no longer have that world. We need you and, push comes to shove, we'll need Bike Remover.”
“That is not the name of my affinity,” she insisted.
“Then name it yourself,” I said, giving my voice a playful lilt. Things were getting too intense there. “You’ve had plenty of time; you must really be fine with Bike Remover.”
“That would only be acknowledging it,” she said. “Giving it power.”
“Good; a woman who could forgive a demon should forgive herself for having a powerful talent!” Clearly she associated her magic with a traumatic moment, which finally explained how anybody who was (mostly) sane could possibly hate having magic. They assigned me to help Rose, Hiro, and Kowalski when there was another patient hiding under our noses. “What if Seiji had sat around, hiding his talents, or drunk himself silly to escape his guilt? He’d have been no good to anybody.”
Her brow furrowed. “I… I never thought of it that way.”
“To reverse the…” I very nearly said the Enemy’s teaching, which I didn’t care to explain. “To reverse a phrase, you focus on the speck in your own eye, but overlook the log in everyone else’s. The magic isn’t wicked, it’s a matter of how you use it. You’ve just always refused to develop it.”
“I vaporize matter. What could I possibly to that’s productive?”
“We’ll never know until we try! Think how fortunate you are compared to your friends. You never sleep cast, your magic doesn’t chase the sheep, and you don’t double umbrella sales whenever you’re in a foul mood. I suspect we can find some other applications if you’ll only try. First step, though? Let’s name the blasted thing!”
I was worried I’d gone too far, but she seemed to take my suggestions seriously. She bit her lip thoughtfully. “I’ll wait until we figure it out. Mimic can do more than copy spells now, so the name doesn’t quite fit anymore. I’ll name my affinity once we really know what I can really do.”
“I’ll hold you to that promise,” I said.
Mariko gave my hands a squeeze, and I think we both realized at the same moment how close we were to one another. We broke contact and stepped back, and I’m sure my face was as red as hers. It was me and her alone, and nobody would miss us for an hour…
I shook my head to clear it. “W-we should find the others.”
“Yes,” she said, switching back to English. “You saw how I used to bicker every day with Mr. Maki about my magic. Do you know what the difference is between you and him?”
I mimed his belly with my hands. “Twenty-five years and fifty kilograms?”
“You are awful sometimes,” she said.
I flashed her a sly smile. “I hardly see how that makes me different than him.”
“Stop it,” she said, letting out a restrained giggle despite herself. “The difference is that he ordered, but you listened.”
“I think he’d have understood about Seiji,” I replied.
She dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “I could not tell my own father and mother. I was not about to bare my conscience to a bully like him.”
“But you could tell me?”
“Of course,” she said. “I can trust you with anything.”
Despite the cold outside, her words filled me with a strange mix of warmth and shame. “If you say so, my dear.” If she won’t be sensible, that isn’t my fault.
Thank you for reading!
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Original Post: https://www.patreon.com/posts/magpie-wizard-5-63977424