Friday, August 26, 2005

The Art of the Shepherd-King

This is just a story that came to mind, inspired as it was by recent events. It has no bearing on real life, as if anyone should be foolish enough to think that. If it sounds suspiciously like something you know or hear of, it is no more than a coincidence.

The thunder of hoofbeats announced the early morning arrival of the four-horse express postal carriage direct from the frontier. Not unusually, the carriage was laden with mail and other goods. A bit more unusually, the carriage also bore a passenger. It meant that his business was very urgent indeed.

The carriage made an unscheduled stop at a stately capitol building and the passenger alit. His uniform marked him as a minor officer of the Azure Kingdom. The manner in which he wore it, which was to say, somewhat sloppily, marked him as a field operative. The officer jogged up the stairs of the headquarters, pausing just once to return the salutes of the guards.

Inside the bowels of the headquarters he navigated the maze of cubicles abuzz with activity, heading straight for the office of the High Lord of Strategic Relations. There was no secretary about, so the officer cleared his throat and rapped gently to catch the attention of the High Lord, who was contemplating a sheaf of papers on his desk.

"Ah, Lieutenant Gerald," High Lord Wilson said, looking up from his paperwork. "It's good that you've come. I trust you're familiar with the particulars? I was just reviewing the communication from this Baron Frederick."

"Yes, Lord Wilson," the Lieutenant said. "Only, there wasn't much to go on, really. His claims are fantastic, to be sure. And in fact it sounds too good to be true."

"Indeed," Lord Wilson said. "But if it's true, it could just be the weapon we need to break the stranglehold that the Kingdom of the Red Moon has on common magic. As you are the Azure Kingdom's recognized local expert on Red Moon's rival, the Society of the Free Onyx, I've called for you to look into the matter."

"I'm still doubtful, Lord Wilson," Lieutenant Gerald said, speaking freely. "Baron Frederick's claims sound suspiciously like the Vintner's Art within the Free Onyx Magic system. And though, the Vintner's Art works well enough with the simpler spells of Red Moon's Fenestral magics, it isn't perfect, you know."

"You'll have a chance to see for yourself, Lieutenant," the High Lord said avuncularly. "I have arranged for an appointment with Baron Frederick and his band of conjurers. He is expecting you. Here is his address."

Lieutenant Gerald received the scrap of paper, saluted the High Lord, and headed for the streets of the metropolis.

The Baron Frederick had christened his band the Celestial Locutors, claiming that they had been chosen to speak up to the heavens. The young lieutenant shrugged at such blatant self-promotion; he had encountered far too many false prophets in his time. That he was now travelling in the rougher parts of the city only served to confirm his suspicions. But of course, he could not refuse the High Lord's request, and so now he stood before an old building, neatly arrayed but one which had seen better days.

The lieutenant wondered at his own standing. He had been a veteran of the Doubtcome Wars, leading several guerilla campaigns for the Azure Kingdom. The Azure Kingdom, long entrenched in Heavy Metal Magic, found it hard to cope with the nimbler magics from Kingdom of the Red Moon and the Kingdom of the Sun. Thus his familiarity with the terrain and the new magics made him a valuable operative. But wars eventually end, and he struggled to define his new role in the new stalemate of high magic of Heavy Metal and the common Fenestral Magic. That was why he opted for an assignment in the frontier. And now, this assignment, which he felt was a complete waste of time.

He sought directions from the guard and was led to one of the rooms upon which bore the seal of the Celestial Locutors.

A tall stern gentleman introduced himself to the lieutenant as Baron Frederick. The Baron, it turned out, was from the northern regions. He appeared to want to impress on the young lieutenant his elevated stature. In that region, people from the North were usually held in high regard. The lieutenant took it all in politely.

"High Lord Wilson sent you?" the baron said, eyeing the lieutenant and looking none too impressed.
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant said. "To evaluate your new magic. It's standard procedure in the Azure Kingdom. I must warn you, though, that it can be a long process, the Azure Kingdom being what it is. I'll probably be the first of many scholars you'll have to speak with."

Baron Frederick harrumphed and shook his head. "Don't you realize, boy, that the Shepherd-King's Art of the Celestial Locutors will change the face of magic? Why, even now the minions of the Red Moon tremble at the possibility! The Oracles are keen on the project, don't you know? So too with the Band of the Owlet Packers!"

"Please, sir, may I see this Shepherd-King's Art?" said the young lieutenant. "That's really all I came here to do."

"My Chief Conjurer Henry is delayed," Baron Frederick said. "When he comes, the wonders of the Shepherd-King's Art shall be made clear!"

"Yes, sir, but it sounds so much like the Vintner's Art." Lieutenant Gerald said. "I was wondering...."

"Vintner's Art, nothing!" the baron said indignantly. "The Shepherd-King's Art can take any spell written for Red Moon's Fenestral Magic and cast it perfectly! Matched with Free Onyx Magic, it shall liberate the ignorant mass of humanity currently enslaved by Fenestral Magic!"

"I'll believe it when I see it," said the lieutenant, standing his ground.

Gritting his teeth, Baron Frederick led the lieutenant to a scrying glass polished according to the rules of Free Onyx Magic. He produced a scroll with scribbled writing from his sleeve and began to chant the incantations, which he did so haltingly.

"Ah, I think that's pronounced 'com-MEN-sum', sir," the lieutenant said helpfully.

"Don't interrupt," said the baron irritably.

The designs on the scrying glass looked impressive enough to the lieutenant, though he knew that underneath, it still operated on the principles of Free Onyx Magic. The baron cast some simple spells, written according to the rules of Fenestral Magic and which ordinarily would be incompatible with Free Onyx Magic. And the spells worked. Yet there was something to the Baron's ledgerdemain that made the whole casting very familiar and instantly recognizable.

"There," the Baron said proudly. "Now do you believe?"

"Sir," Lieutenant Gerald said politely, "I do believe that all you've done is use the Vintner's Art. I wished to see the Shepherd-King's Art."

"Well!" said the Baron indignantly. "The Shepherd-King's Art is a complex piece of magic, you know. It takes many resources. Yes, many. We haven't completed it yet. I just used the Vintner's Art to demonstrate to you how the Shepherd-King's Art would work its enchantments. But believe me, the Shepherd-King's Art will be much more impressive."

"Baron Frederick," said Lieutenant Gerald, reigning in his temper. "The Azure Kingdom cannot commit any resources to the Celestial Locutors unless you can ably demonstrate the workings of your said magic."

Lieutenant Gerald continued to explain why the Celestial Locutors could not expect any support from the Azure Kingdom unless they had some semblance of readiness for the Shepherd-King's Art. Baron Frederick's tack was to alternated between promises of great things and the threats of the other kingdoms' access to the Celestial Locutor's magic arts. Lieutenant Gerald firmly held his ground.
At that point, Chief Conjurer Henry chose to make his timely appearance. Baron Frederick signalled to Henry, who produced a series of scrolls marked with boxes and lines.

"We are showing you the inner workings of the Shepherd-King's Art," said the Chief Conjurer conspiratorially. "Here, as you can see, the Shepherd-King's Art will take the bits of magic from Fenestrae and translate them into Free Onyx." Henry rambled on, but all Lieutenant Gerald could see were boxes.

"We have shown this to a High Magister of the Green University," said Baron Frederick, "and he was very impressed with it. He commended us on all our good work. He agrees that this will change the future of magic as we know it."

"Be that as it may, Baron," said Lieutenant Gerald, "the Azure Kingdom cannot work with blueprints. I know we might be missing out on a magnificent opportunity, as you say, but it still stands: we need to see the Shepherd-King's Art at work before we commit to anything.

"Furthermore, I see several obstacles to your proposal. The Kingdom of the Red Moon controls Fenestral Magic, adding new spells each season. How do you propose to keep track of these secret spells? Any one of these could break Shepherd-King's Art."

"Gnomes," said Baron Frederick plainly. "We shall have a lot of gnomes studying Fenestral Magic. These gnomes will translate the news spells as they appear."

"And are you not worried that the Kingdom of the Red Moon will dispatch their lawyers?" said the lieutenant, shuddering.

"Not at all. We are well within our rights."

Seeing that there was nothing further to be gained from the discussion, Lieutenant Gerald took his leave. "Unfortunately, Baron Frederick, there is nothing at the moment. Perhaps, in six months' time, when you have the Shepherd-King's Art ready, we can resume discussions. Good day."

Lieutenant Gerald was hard at work on a formal report for High Lord Wilson when the said High Lord came to his desk. "Well?" said the High Lord. "What transpired with the Celestial Locutors?"

Lieutenant Gerald gestured with a thumbs-down and made a raspberry. It was unbecoming of an officer of the Azure Kingdom, but it was the only way to describe how he felt. "They don't have working magic," he said, "all they have is a promise. And the charlatans had the temerity to disparage the Vintner's Art when that was what they used to demonstrate their so-called Shepherd-King's Art."

High Lord Wilson shrugged. "I'll take your word for it," he said. Just then, a messenger arrived, bearing a note for the High Lord. "Ah, a message from Baron Frederick."

"What does he say?" asked the Lieutenant.

The High Lord read the note. "He says he's sorely disappointed with your lack of understanding of the Shepherd-King's Art. And would I please send a real expert." The High Lord guffawed. "I shall take that under advisement. Pay him no mind, Gerald, we'll keep them at arm's length, like we always do."

Lieutenant Gerald handed his completed report to the High Lord. "Thank you very much, sir, and if you need me, I shall be at the frontier."

"Very good, Lieutenant. Carry on."

Just then, Lord Victor of the Azure Kingdom's Institute of Magic came bustling in. "Ah, High Lord Wilson, just the man I was looking for. Have you received this magnificent bit of news from Baron Frederick of the Celestial Locutors? I think it just may be the bit of magic we need to break the stalemate with Red Moon...."

Lieutenant Gerald slunk away, making good his escape from the bureaucratic insanity of the lords and the deceit of barons.

What if, he wondered, he just left all this behind and started a small apothecary in the frontier. Such musings filled his mind on the long trip back.


  1. One of the cool things about a geek girlfriend is that she's quite fond the word "defenestration", and thus ends up laughing throughout the entire story. ;)

  2. *laugh*
    I will definitely link to this ;)

  3. It's a very complex setting, one that tends to fight with the story for the reader's attention. The names are curious, if anything.

    I'll be darned, however, if this just isn't a way to get your message across. I hear you, and agree.

    Personally, I like the word "defenestration" myself. :)

  4. Inspired indeed. Although some of the names are straight-forward, I did not make the Azure connection until the university came into play. The lawyer bit was a little out of place. If it was me I would replace it with something more medieval sounding, like counselors, scribe enforcers or scroll devourers. :D

    Anyway, an excellent show of story telling. I hope you wont mind me posting this at the mandrivausers board. This should give some of them something to do with their free time. Hehehehe.


  5. Thanks, all, for your kind comments.

    To My Girlfriend(tm): thanks, I knew you'd have a good laugh. Yay, defenestration!

    C: Thanks for the link.

    S: Yeah, I was sort of thinking the same thing as I was writing it. But I'll let the editor's scissors take care of that.

    A: Thanks for the comment. "Factor" was a word that came to mind, but I suppose any advanced society would always have lawyers. Shudder! Thanks for pointing this out to other folks.