Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2010

Fiction: Amor Vincit Omnia by K. J. Parker

Usually, the problem was getting the witnesses to talk.

...He just walked down the street looking at buildings and they caught fire. No, he didn’t do anything, like wave his arms about or stuff like that, he just, I don’t know, looked at them ...

This time, the problem was getting them to shut up.

...Stared at this old guy and his head just sort of crumpled, you know, like a piece of paper when you screw it into a ball? Just stared at him, sort of annoyed, really, like the guy had trodden on his foot, and then his head just…

As he listened, the observer made notes; Usque Ad Peric; Unam Sanc (twice); ?Mundus Verg ??variant. He also nodded his head and made vague noises of sympathy and regret, and tried not to let his distaste show. But the smell bothered him; burnt flesh, which unfortunately smells just a bit like roasted meat (pork, actually), which was a nuisance because he’d missed lunch; burnt bone, which is just revolting. His moustache would smell of smoke for two days, no matter how carefully he washed it. He stopped to query a point; when he made the old woman vanish, was there a brief glow of light, or—? No? No, that’s fine. And he jotted down; Choris Anthrop, but no light; ?Strachylides?

The witness was still talking, but he’d closed his eyes; and then Thraso from the mill came up behind him and shot him in the back, and nothing happened, and then he turned around real slow and he pointed at Thraso, and Thraso just—

He frowned, stopped the witness with a raised hand. “He didn’t know—”

“What?”

“He didn’t know he was there. This man—” Always hopeless at names. “The miller. He didn’t know the miller was there.”

  “No, Thraso crept up on him real quiet. Shot him in the back at ten paces. Arrow should’ve gone right through him and out the other side. And then he turned round, like I just said, and—”

“You’re sure about that. He didn’t hear him, or look round.”

“He was busy,” the witness said. “He was making Cartusia’s head come off, just by looking at it. And that’s when Thraso—”   

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

The witness carried on talking about stuff that clearly mattered to him, but which didn’t really add anything. He tuned out the voice, and tried to write the word, but it was surprisingly difficult to make himself do it. Eventually, when he succeeded, it came out scrawled and barely legible, as though he’d written it with his left hand;

Lorica?

“Unam Sanctam,” the Precentor said (and Gennasius was leaning back in his chair, hands folded on belly, his I’ve-got-better-things-to-do pose) “is, of course, commonly used by the untrained, since the verbal formula is indefinite and, indeed, often varies from adept to adept. Usque ad Periculum, by the same token, is frequently encountered in these cases, for much the same reason. They are, of course, basic intuitive expressions of frustration and rage, strong emotions which—”

“It says here,” Poteidanius interrupted, “he also did Mundus Verg. That’s not verbal-indefinite.”

The Precentor glanced down at the notes on the table in front of him. “You’ll note,” he said, “that our observer was of the opinion that a variant was used, not Mundus Vergens itself. The variants, of which Licinianus lists twenty-six, include some forms which have been recorded as indefinite. The same would seem to apply to Choris Anthropou.”

“Quite,” said the very old man at the end, whose name he could never remember. “Strachylides’ eight variants, three of which have been recorded as occurring spontaneously.” So there, he thought, as Poteidanius shrugged ungraciously. “I remember a case back in ‘Fifty-Six. Chap was a striker in a blacksmith’s shop, didn’t know a single word of Parol. But he could do five variants of Choris in the vernacular.”

“Our observer,” the Precentor said, “specifically asked if there was an aureola, and the witness was quite adamant.”

“The third variant,” Gennasius said. “Suggests an untrained of more than usual capacity, or else a man with a really deep-seated grudge. I still don’t see why you had to drag us all out here. Surely your department can deal with this sort of thing without a full enclave.”

He took a deep breath, but it didn’t help. “If you’d care to look at paragraph four of the report,” he said, trying to keep his voice level and reasonably pleasant, “you’ll see that—”

“Oh, that.” Gennasius was shaking his head in that singularly irritating way. “Another suspected instance of Lorica. If I had half an angel for every time some graduate observer’s thought he’s found an untrained who’s cracked Lorica—”

“I have interviewed the observer myself,” the Precentor said—trying to do gravitas, but it just came out pompous. “He is an intelligent young man with considerable field experience,” he went on, “not the kind to imagine the impossible or to jump to far-fetched conclusions on the basis of inadequate evidence. Gentlemen, I would ask you to put aside your quite reasonable scepticism for one moment and simply look at the evidence with an open mind. If this really is Lorica—”

“It doesn’t exist.” Gennasius snapped out the words with a degree of passion the Precentor wouldn’t have believed him capable of. “It’s a legend. A fairy tale. There are some things that simply aren’t possible. Lorica’s one of them.”

There was a short, rather painful silence. Raw emotion, like raw chicken, upset elderly gentlemen of regular habits. Then the Preceptor said gently, “Ninety-nine out of a hundred human beings would say exactly the same thing about magic.” He allowed himself to dwell on the word, because Gennasius hated it so. “And of course, they would be right.  There is no such thing as magic. Instead, there is a branch of natural philosophy of which we are adepts and the rest of the world is blissfully ignorant. Gentlemen, think about it, please. It may well not be Lorica. But if it is, if there’s the slightest chance it could be, we have to do something about it. Now.

#

“I’m sorry,” the young man said. “I’ve never heard of it.”

The Precentor smiled. “Of course you haven’t.” He half-filled two of his notoriously small glasses with wine and handed one to the young man, who took it as if the stem was red-hot. “For one thing, it doesn’t exist.”

The young man looked at him unhappily. “Ah,” he said.

“At least,” the Precentor went on, “we believe it doesn’t exist. We hope like hell it doesn’t exist. If it does—” He produced a synthetic shudder of horror that actually became a real one.

The young man put his glass down carefully on the table. “Is it some kind of weapon?”

The Precentor couldn’t help smiling. “Quite the reverse,” he said. “That’s the whole point. Lorica’s completely harmless, you might say. It’s a defence.”

“Ah.”

“A total defence.” The Preceptor paused and watched. He’d chosen young Framea for his intelligence and perceptiveness. This could be a test for him.

He passed. “A total defence,” he said. “Against everything? All known forms?”

The Preceptor nodded slowly. “All known forms. And physical weapons too. And fire, water, death by suffocation and falling from a great height. Possibly some diseases too, we don’t know.”

“That would be—” Framea frowned, and the Preceptor imagined a great swelling cloud of implications filling the young man’s mind. He didn’t envy him that. “That could be bad,” he said.

“Extremely. An individual we couldn’t harm or kill; therefore outside our control. Even if he was a mediocre adept with limited power, knowledge of the basic offensive forms together with absolute invulnerability, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Even if his intentions were benign to begin with, the mere possession of such power would inevitably turn him into a monster. Hence,” he added gently, “our concern.”

“But I still don’t quite—” Framea looked at him, reminding him vaguely of a sheep. “If it doesn’t exist—”

“Ah.” The Preceptor held up a hand. “That’s the question, isn’t it? All we know is that it could exist. Blemmyes, a hundred and seventy years ago, proved that it could exist; his reasoning and his mathematics have been rigorously examined and found to be perfect. There is a potential for such a form. Of course, nobody has yet been able to produce it—”

“You mean people have tried?”

The Preceptor nodded slowly. “Unofficially, you might say, but yes. Well, you can imagine, the temptation would be irresistible. Some of the finest minds—But, thankfully, none of them succeeded. Several of them, indeed, wrote papers outlining their researches, basically arguing that if they couldn’t do it, nobody could—flawed logic, you’ll agree, but when you’re dealing with men of such exceptional vanity—”

“I think I see,” Framea interrupted. “Trained adepts have tried, using proper scientific method, and they’ve all failed. But an untrained—”

“Exactly.” The Preceptor was relieved; he’d been right about the boy after all. “An untrained might well succeed where an adept would fail, because the untrained often possess a degree of intuitive power that tends to atrophy during the course of formal education. An untrained might be able to do it, simply because he doesn’t know it’s impossible.”

Framea nodded eagerly. “And an untrained, by definition—”

“Quite. Unstable, probably mentally disturbed by the power inside him which he doesn’t understand or know how to control; if not already malignant by nature, he would rapidly become so. And with Lorica—Really, it doesn’t bear thinking about.”

There was a long pause. Then Framea said, “And you want me to—”

#

Framea hadn’t been cold for as long as he could remember. It was always warm in the Studium; warm, unpleasantly warm or downright hot, depending on who’d been nagging the Magister ad Necessariis most recently. Old men feel the cold, and the adepts of the Studium didn’t have to worry about the cost of fuel.

He pulled his coat up round his ears and quickened his pace. He hadn’t been out in the dark for a long time, either. It didn’t frighten him (“an adept of the Studium fears nothing, because he hs nothing to fear”; first term, first day, first lecture) but it made him feel uncomfortable. As did the task that lay ahead of him.

You will, of course, have to seduce a woman—

Well, fine. And the rest of the day’s your own. He winced as he recalled his reaction.

(“I see,” he’d said, after a moment of complete silence. “I don’t know how.”

“Oh, it’s quite straightforward. So I’m told.”

“Is there, um, a book I could—?”

“Several.”)

More than several, in fact; from Flaminian’s Art of Seduction, three hundred years old, eight thousand lines of impeccable hexametric verse, to Bonosius Brunellus’ On the Seduction of Women, three hundred pages with notes and appendices, entirely drawn from the works of earlier authors. The librarian had given him a not-you-as-well look when he’d asked for them, and they’d been no help at all. He’d asked Porphyrius, the only adept in the Studium who might possibly have had first-hand experience of such things, but he’d just laughed like a drain and walked away.

Lorica, he reminded himself.

The inn was, in fact, just another farmhouse, where the farmer’s wife sold beer and cider in her kitchen, and you could pay a half-turner and sleep in the hayloft; not the sort of inn where you could rely on finding a prostitute at any hour of the day or night. In fact, he doubted very much whether they had prostitutes out here in the sticks. Probably, it was one of those areas of activity like brewing or laundry; you only got specialist professionals in the towns. Still, it couldn’t hurt to ask.

“You what?” the woman demanded.

He repeated the question. It was unambiguous and politely phrased. The woman scowled at him and walked away.

He took his mug of beer, which he had no intention of drinking, and sat down in a corner of the room. Everybody had turned to look at him when he came in, and again when he asked the question, but they’d lost interest. He stretched out his legs under the table, closed his eyes and tried to think.

(“You will, of course, have to seduce a woman,” the Preceptor had said. “To use as a source.”

The second statement was infinitely more shocking than the first. “That’s illegal,” he said.

“Yes, well.” The Preceptor had frowned at him. “I hereby authorise you to use all means necessary. I suppose you’ll want that in writing.”

“Yes, please. Also,” he’d added, “I don’t know how.”)

He reached into his pocket and took out the book. It was only just light enough for reading, even with Bia Kai Kratos to enhance his eyesight. He wondered if anybody had ever read a book in this room before and decided no, almost certainly not. He tried to concentrate on the analysis of the necessary forms, which were difficult, abstruse and in some cases downright bizarre; not all that different from the exercises he’d read about in Flaminian and Brunellus, come to that. The thought that he was going to have to perform both the forms and the other stuff simultaneously  made him feel quite ill.

“Excuse me.”

He looked up and saw a woman. At first he guessed shew as about thirty-five, but she seemed to get younger as he looked at her. She was very pale, almost milk white, with mouse-coloured hair that seemed to drip off her head, like a leak in the roof. He wondered what she wanted.

“You were asking,” she about. “About—”

Oh, he thought. “Yes, that’s right.”

She looked at him with a combination of hope and distaste. The latter he felt he deserved. “How much?” she said.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “What do you think?”

He didn’t need to use Fortis Adiuvat to know what was going on in her mind. Think of a number and double it. “A thaler,” she said.

Almost certainly way over the odds, but the Studium was paying. “Sure,” he said quickly. “Now, or—?”

“Now,” she said.

He reached in his coat pocket. The cellarer had issued him with money, along with spare clothes, stout walking boots and a waterproof hood. It had been so long since he’d had any dealings with the stuff that he didn’t recognise the coins. But he seemed to recall that thalers were big silver things, and all he’d been given was small gold ones. “Here,” he said, pressing a coin into her hand. It felt warm, soft, slightly clammy. “That’s fine.”

She stared at the coin and said nothing. “Now?” he said. She nodded.

Outside, it was raining hard. It wasn’t far across the yard to the barn, but far enough for them both to get soaking wet. He couldn’t face that, not on top of everything else, so he executed Scutum in coelis under his breath and hoped she wouldn’t notice. As they climbed the ladder to the hayloft, something scuttled. He hoped she wasn’t one of those people who had an irrational fear of mice, like he did.

“Use a general Laetitia,” the Preceptor had said. It was the only specific piece of advice he’d given him. He tried it; the form to fill another person with unspeakable joy. He hadn’t done it very often.

Either it worked, or he had a latent and unexpected talent for what Brunellus insisted on calling the subtleties of the bedchamber. His own impression of the activities involved was decidedly ambiguous. Predominant was the stress involved in doing two demanding and unfamiliar things at the same time. There was anxiety (though he calmed down a bit when he realised that the yelling and whimpering didn’t mean she was in excruciating pain; bizarrely, the opposite). Guilt; partly because what he was doing was illegal—he had the Preceptor’s written exemption, but it was still a crime; partly because he knew what would happen to the poor girl, who’d never done him any harm. Other than that, it was really just a blend of several different strains of acute embarrassment. The thought that people did that sort of thing for fun was simply bewildering.

#

In the morning he went to the village where it had happened. Sixteen dead, according to the report; four still comatose with shock and fear. He stopped at the forge and asked for directions.

The smith looked at him. “You’re not from—”

“No,” he said. “I’m from the city. I represent the Studium. It’s about the incident.”

It was the word they used when they had to talk to the public. He hated saying it; incident. Only stupid people used words like that.

The smith didn’t say anything. He lifted his hand and pointed up the street. Framea followed the line, and saw a larger than average building at the end, white, with a sun-in-glory painted over the door. Which he could have found perfectly well for himself, had he bothered to look, and then the whole village wouldn’t have known he was here.

Fortunately, the Brother was at home when he knocked on the door. A short man, with a round face, quite young but thin on top, tiny hands like a girl. According to the report, this little fat man had walked out of his house into the street after the perpetrator had killed sixteen people, and had tried to arrest him—And the perpetrator had turned and walked away.

“My name is Framea,” he said. “I’m from the Studium.”

The Brother stared at him for a moment, then stood aside to let him in through the door. He had to duck to keep from banging his head.

“I told the other man—”

“Yes, I’ve read the report,” Framea cut him off. “But I need to confirm a few details. May I sit down?”

The Brother nodded weakly, as though Death had stopped by to borrow a cup of flour. “I told him everything I saw,” he said. “I don’t think there was anything—”

Framea got a smile from somewhere. “I’m sure that’s right,” he said. “But you know how it is. Important facts can get mangled in transmission. And the man who interviewed you was a general field officer, not a Fellow. He may have misunderstood, or failed to grasp the full significance of a vital detail. I’m sure you understand.”

He went over it all again. Thrasea the miller had shot the perpetrator in the back with a crossbow, at close range, ten paces, but the arrow—No, he hadn’t simply missed, you couldn’t miss at that range. Well, you could, but not Thrasea, he’d won the spoon at shoot-the-popinjay the year before last, he was a good shot. And besides, the arrow had just stopped

Technical details? For the report. Well, it was a hunting bow, you needed a windlass to draw it, you couldn’t just span it with your hands. Well, it’s possible, the man could have been wearing something under his coat, a mailshirt or a brigandine; but at that range the arrow would most likely have gone straight through, one of those things’ll shoot clean through an oak door at point-blank range. Besides, if the man had been hot, even if he was wearing armour and it turned the arrow, he’d have moved; jerked like he’d been kicked by a horse, at that distance. And the arrowshaft would’ve splintered, or at the very least the tip would’ve snapped off or gotten bent. No; he’d picked up the arrow himself later that day, and it was good as new.

“And then he turned round and—”

“Yes, thank you,” Framea said quickly. “That part of the account isn’t in issue.” He swallowed discreetly and went on; “Did you see any marks on the man? Scratches, bruises, anything like that?”

No, there wasn’t a mark on him anywhere that the Brother could see, not that he’d expected to, since nobody had gotten closer to him than Thraso did. Cuts and scratches from flying debris, from when he made the houses fall down; no, nothing like that. There was stuff flying in the air, bits of tile and rafter, great slabs of brick and mortar, but none of them hit the man. Yes, he was right up close. No, he didn’t make any warding-off gestures or anything like that. Too busy killing people. Didn’t really seem interested in the effects of what he was doing, if Framea got his drift.

“And you’re absolutely sure you’d never seen this man before.”

“Quite sure. And the same goes for everybody else in the village. A complete stranger.”

Framea nodded. “Don’t suppose you get many of those.”

“Carters,” the Brother said, “pedlars occasionally, though they never come back. People here aren’t very well off, you see. We don’t tend to buy anything from outside.”

“Can you think of anybody who’d have a grudge against the people here?” Framea asked. “Any feuds, or anything like that?”

The Brother looked blank, like he hadn’t heard the word before.

“Inheritance disputes? Scandals? Anybody run off with someone else’s wife lately?”

The Brother assured him that things like that simply didn’t happen there. Framea thought of the girl, the previous night. She was probably a part-timer, like the smith and the wheelwright and the man who made coffins. Simply not enough business to justify going full time.

“There was one thing,” the Brother said, as Framea stooped under the lintel on his way out. “But I’m sure it was just me imagining things.”

“Well?”

“I don’t know. “ The Brother pulled a sad, indecisive face. “When I was looking at him, in the street, it’s like he was sort of hard to see; you know, when you’re looking at someone with the sun behind them? And at the time, I guess I must’ve thought that’s what it was, only it didn’t register, if you know what I mean.”

“You noticed it without realising.”

The Brother nodded. “But then later, thinking about it, I realised it couldn’t have been that, because it was mid-morning, and I was looking down the street at him, I mean looking from my end, which is due east. So the sun was behind me, not him.”

Framea blinked. Yes, he thought, it was just you imagining things. Or, just possibly, a really powerful Ignis in favellum; except why would anybody enchant himself to glow bright blue in broad daylight?

“Thank you,” he said to the Brother. “You’ve been most helpful.”

#

Your only viable approach will be to provoke him into attacking you.

Framea stopped at the crack in the wall where the fresh-waterspring trickled through. He’d seen women standing here, filling their jugs and bowls painfully slowly. It was the only clean water in the village. He knelt down and cupped his hands, then drank. It tasted of iron, and something nasty he couldn’t quite place.

If it was such a poor village, how come Thrasea the miller could afford a good hunting bow? He shook his head. Urban thinking. He’d probably built it himself; carved the stock, traded flour with the smith for the steel bow. He could almost picture him in his mind—patiently, an hour each evening in the barn, by the light of a bulrush taper soaked in mutton-fat. People in the villages often used sharp flints for planing wood, because steel tools were luxuries. Or you might borrow a plane from the wheelwright, if he owed you a favour—

Motive. What motive would an untrained need? He tried to imagine what it must be like, to carry the gift inside you and not know what it was. You’d probably believe you were mad, because you knew they things you were able to do were impossible (but you’d seen them happen, but they were impossible, but you’d seen them) You wouldn’t dare tell anyone else. But there’d be the times when you got angry (you’d have a shorter temper than most people, because of the stress you’d be under all thetime) and you found you’d done something without realising. Something bad, inevitably. Your victim would tell people, in whispers; they wouldn’t quite believe it, but they wouldn’t quite disbelieve it either. You’d get a reputation. People would be nervous around you. Not much chance of a job, if you needed one, not much chance of help from your neighbours if something went wrong. It’d be a miracle if an untrained reached adulthood without being a complete mess.

He filled another handful and drank it. The taste was stronger, if anything. Iron and—

He stood up. Provoke a fight, the Precentor had said. Well, indeed. Easy peasy.

(But an untrained would know, wouldn’t he? He’d feel the presence of another gift, he’d be drawn here. Would he dare come back to the village, where he’d be instantly recognised? It would all depend on exactly what he could do. Besides Lorica, of course. But untrained were always an unknown quantity. There were cases on record of untrained who could do seventh-degree translocations, but not a simple light or heat form. There was no way of knowing. Damn.)

#

He spent the rest of the day slouching round the village, trying to be conspicuous, something he’d spent his life avoiding. The idea was that news spreads like wildfire in small, remote rural communities, and he wanted everybody for miles around to know that there was a man from the Studium in the village, asking questions about the massacre. But the village chose that day to be empty, practically deserted; if anybody saw him , he didn’t see them. It did cross his mind that it was deserted precisely because he was there. As darkness closed in, he began to feel rather desperate; he really didn’t want to have to stay here any longer than was absolutely necessary. He went back to the spring-mouth, scrambled up onto a cart that someone and left there for some reason, and looked all around. Nobody in sight. Then he took a deep breath and shouted; “I AM FRAMEA OF THE STUDIUM! SURRENDER OR FIGHT ME TO THE DEATH!” Then he got down, feeling more ridiculous than he’d ever felt in his whole life.

#

He hadn’t actually said anything about that night, but she was there waiting for him when he got back to the inn; standing alone, in the corner of the room. The five or six men sitting drinking acted as though she was invisible. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t necessary; once was usually reckoned to be sufficient to form the connection. She looked up at him. Presumably, it was just about the money.

He nodded, and she left the room; as she did so, the men stopped talking, and there was dead silence for a while, as though they were at a religious service, or remembering the war dead on Victory Day. He’d thought about sitting down for a while and drinking a mug of the disgusting beer, but he decided against it.  A man could catch his death of cold from a silence like that.

The subtleties of the hayloft, he thought, as he crossed the yard. The ground was still wet from yesterday’s rain, and his muddy foot slipped on the bottom rung of the ladder. She was waiting for him, lying on her back, fully clothed. She looked as though she was waiting for the attentions of a surgeon, not a lover. Never again, he promised himself.

This time, he cast a number of specific Laetitias as well as a general one. It was easier now that he knew what a woman’s reproductive organs actually looked like (he’d seen drawings in a book, of course, but you couldn’t get a real idea from a drawing. Besides, the illustrations in Coelius’ Anatomy looked more like a sketch-map of a battlefield than anything to do with the human body). The results were quite embarrassingly effective, and he was worried the people in the inn might hear, and assume the poor woman was being murdered.

She fell asleep quite quickly afterwards. He lay on his back with his eyes closed, wishing more than anything that he was back in his warm chambers at the Studium, where he could wash properly and be alone. She snored. He realised he didn’t know her name; though, to be fair, there was no compelling evidence to suggest she even had one.

Also, he wanted to wake her up and apologise. But of course she was better off not knowing.

#

If he’d been asleep, he was woken up by a soft white light filling the hayloft. He opened his eyes. It was as bright as day, lighter than lamplight, even the glare of a thousand candles in the Great Hall of the Studium at the Commemoration feast.

The light came from a man. He was standing at the entrance to the hayloft, where a beam ran across, separating the loft from the rest of the barn; he guessed it was used as the fulcrum for a rope, for hoisting up heavy weights. The man was leaning on his folded arms against the bar. It was impossible to make out his face, blindingly backlit. He was tall and slightly built.

“Hello,” he said.

Framea sat up. “Hello.”

“You wanted to see me.”

Him. Framea felt terrified, for a moment or so. Then the fear stabilised; it didn’t go away, but it settled down. It was something he could draw on. Maybe that’s what courage is, he speculated later.

“You’re Framea, right? The wizard.”

Framea was pleased he’d said that. It triggered an automatic, well-practiced reponse. “We aren’t wizards,” he heard himself say. “There’s no such thing. I’m a student of natural philosophy. A scientist.”

“What’s the difference?”

The man, he noticed, spoke with no accent; none at all. Also, his voice was strangely familiar. That’s because it’s inside my head, Framea realised. And the man isn’t really there, this is a third-level translocation. But he wasn’t sure about that. The light, for one thing.

“Are you here in this room?” he asked.

The man laughed. “You know,” he said, “that’s a bloody good question. I’m not sure, to be honest with you. Like, I can feel this wooden beam I’m resting on. But I definitely didn’t leave the—where I’m staying. So I must still be there, mustn’t I? Or can I be in two places at once?”

A ninth-level translocation. Under other circumstances, Framea would be on his knees, begging to be let in on the secret of how you did that. “Technically, no,” he replied, his lecturer’s voice, because it made him feel in control. Like hell he was; but the man didn’t need to know that. “But there’s a form we call Stans in duobus partibus which—theoretically—allows a person to be in two different places simultaneously. That’s to say, his physical body. His mind—”

“Yes?” Eager.

“Opinions differ,” Framea said. “Some maintain that the mind is present in both bodies. Others hold that it exists in another House entirely, and is therefore present in neither body.”

“House,” the man repeated. “You’ve lost me.”

Framea shivered. “No doubt,” he replied. “You would have to have studied for two years at the Studium to be in a position to understand the concept.”

“That’s what I wanted to see you about,” the man said. “No, stay exactly where you are, or I’ll kill her.”

Her, Framea noted. “I’m sorry,” he said. “A touch of cramp. Let me sit up so we can talk in a civilized manner.”

“No.” Maybe just a touch of apprehension in the voice, leading to a feather of hostility? “You can stay right there, or I’ll burst her head. You know I can do it.”

“I can, of course, protect her,” Framea lied. “And I don’t think we have anything to discuss. I have to inform you that you are under arrest.”

The man laughed, just as if Framea had told the funniest joke ever. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll try and bear that in mind. Now, tell me about this Studium place of yours.”

She was still fast asleep, breathing slow and deep. He could smell her spit where it had dried around his mouth. “I don’t see that it’s anything to do with you,” he said.

“Come off it. You know I’m one of you lot. I want to come and be educated properly. That’s what you’re there for, isn’t it?”

Framea winced. “Out of the question,” he said. “For one thing, you’re much too old. More to the point, you’ve committed a number of brutal murders. You should be aware that I’m authorised to use—”

“No, that’s not right.” A statement, not a question, or even an objection. “I’ve never done your lot any harm. Our lot,” he amended. “I’m just like you. I’m not like them at all.”

“They were human beings,” Framea said. “You killed them. That is not acceptable.”

“But we’re not human, are we?” The man was explaining to him, as if to a small child. “We’re better. I mean, wizards, we can do anything we like. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?”

Framea didn’t answer. Far too much conversation already; he knew it was discouraged, since any interaction with a malignant could only serve to weaken one’s position. The trouble was, he was on the defensive. Lorica…

“Well?”

“You will surrender now,” Framea said, “or I shall have no option but to use force.”

“Screw you, then,” the man said, and he lashed out. It was Mundus vergens in a raw, inelegant variant, but backed up with enormous power. Framea barely held it with Scutum and a third-level translocation. Fortunately the man had fogotten about his threat to kill the girl, or else he’d never meant it. Framea replied tentatively with Hasta maiestatis, more as a test of the man’s defences than anything else. The form stopped dead and washed back at him; he got out of the way of the backlash just in time with a fourth-level dissociation into the third House.

Lorica, he thought, and then; why me?

“Are you still there?” he heard the man ask. “Hello?”

Framea paused to consider the tactical options. If, as he suspected, the man was present only by way of a ninth-level translocation, the safest course would be to break the form and force him back into his other body, wherever the hell that was. He could manage that, he was fairly sure; but it would mean draining the source, because of the backlash, and how would he ever find him again? He wasn’t here to protect himself, he was here to bring the malignant in, or kill him. In which case—

Oh well, he thought.

He concentrated all his mind on the sleeping girl. He imagined shoving his hand down her throat, grabbing her heart and ripping it out. On the count of three, he told himself; one, two, three.

He pulled, felt all of her strength flow into him, and immediately struck out with Fulmine. He put everything into it, all of her and all of him. It soaked into Lorica like water into sand, not even any backlash.

“Did you just do something?” the man asked curiously.

Framea felt empty. He had no strength left. By any normal standards he’d completely overdone the Fulmine—if he’d missed the target and overshot, they’d have to send to the City for cartographers to redraw all the maps—and the man was asking, did you just do something? It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be happening. Lorica; which didn’t exist.

The girl grunted in her sleep and turned over.

“This is pointless,” the man said. “You can’t hurt me, I can’t hurt you, the hell with it. Don’t come after me anymore, or I’ll kill the village.”

The light suddenly went out.

#

He spent the rest of the night crouched over the girl’s body, watching her breathe.

#

She woke up just after dawn. As soon as she opened her eyes, he asked her, “Are you all right?”

She nodded. “Why?What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” He hesitated. “Did you have nightmares?”

She frowned. “I think so. But I always forget my dreams. Why?”

He wanted to say, because I very nearly killed you, and I want to know if you remember any of it, because if you do, I’ll have to erase your mind. He wanted to explain, at the very least. Dear God, he wanted to apologise. But he knew that would be to make him feel better. It would be self-indulgence, and they’d warned him about that on his second day as a student.

“Here,” he said, and gave her two of the gold coins. She stared at them, and then at him. She was terrified.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Well, you know. But that’s all.”

She went away, to wherever it was she went to. He pulled his clothes on, climbed down from the loft, crossed the yard and tried to wash in the rain-barrel. He felt disgusting (but that was probably just more self-indulgence; weren’t there savages who washed by rolling in mud, then waiting till it caked dry and peeling it off, leaving their skins clean? Is that me, he wondered, and decided not to pursue that line of thought.) Then he crossed the yard and went into the kitchen, where the farmer’s wife served him salted porridge and green beer with a face you could have sharpened knives on.

I could go home, he thought. I’ve failed, clearly this untrained is far too strong for me. If I stay here, the most likely outcome is that I’ll be killed, the untrained will slaughter the innocent people here, and then they’ll have to send someone else to sort out the mess. Somebody competent. Well, they might as well do that now. Out of my league. There’ll be a certain amount of humiliation, and it won’t do my career a lot of good, but at least I won’t be dead. And they’ll understand. After all, it really is Lorica. In fact, I’ll probably get a mention in a book, as the man who proved Lorica existed.

And what about the girl, he asked himself, but of course he knew the answer to that. The reason why using another human being as a source was illegal was because of the risk of damaging them. In eighty-six cases out of a hundred, there was significant harm to the mind, the memory or both. In seventy-four cases studied by Sthenelaus and Arcadianus for their report to the Ninety-First Ecumenical, forty-one ex-sources killed themselves within five years of having been used. A further twelve died insane. Only eight were found to have emerged from the experience unscathed, and six of them were found to have latent abilities, which enabled them to repair the damage to some extent. There were further, worse effects when the source was female, as was usually the case, given that sexual intercourse was the simplest and most reliable means of forming the connection. Use of sources had been forbidden by the Sixty-Third Ecumenical, and the prohibition had subsequently been restated by the Seventy-Ninth and the Ninety-First, and by a series of orders in enclave; the discretion to ignore the prohibition, vested in an officer of Precentor rank or above, had only been granted by the Hundred and Seventh as an emergency measure during the Pacatian crisis. The intention had been to repeal the discretion as soon as the crisis was over, but presumably the repeal was still tied up in committee somewhere.

I’m not a hero, he told himself. None of us are, we’re natural philosophers. Scientists. We shouldn’t have to do this sort of thing, except there’s nobody else to do it.

He went back to the hayloft, took his paper and portable inkwell out of his coat pocket, and wrote a report for the Precentor. As soon as the ink was dry, he burnt it, sending it into the fifth House. Thanks to intercameral distortion, the reply arrived a few minutes later.

Proceed as you think fit. You have full discretion. This matter must be resolved before you leave. Use any means necessary. Regret we cannot send further operatives at this time.

My mistake, he thought. I can’t go home after all.

#

So he spent the day hanging around the village again, not doing anything much, pretending not to notice the overtly hostile stares of the villagers, the few of them who ventured into the street while he was there. He couldn’t help being just a little angry at the injustice of it. Fairly soon, he assumed, he’d be giving his life for these people, and here they were scowling at him.

Giving, wasting; there’d be no point, since the untrained had Lorica and therefore couldn’t be beaten.

The point struck him while he was sitting on the front step of some house, after a failed attempt to buy food. Such was the feeling against him that even a whole gold coin hadn’t been enough to secure a loaf of bread. He’d been reduced to conjuring half-ripe apples off a tree in a walled orchard, when nobody was looking. As he bit into an apple and pulled a face, he remembered something the malignant had said.

You can’t hurt me, I can’t hurt you, the hell with it.

Factually inaccurate; but the malignant believed it—He let the apple fall from his hand, too preoccupied to maintain his grip on it. The untrained malignant believed that, if he could do Lorica, so could everyone else; he assumed it was perfectly normal, part of every adept’s arsenal.

And why not? Perfectly reasonable assumption to make, in the circumstances. Something so fundamentally, incomparably useful—naturally, you’d think that it was basic stuff, the kind of thing you were taught at the same time as joined-up writing and the five-times table.

In which case—

#

It appeared to have worked the last time, so he did it again.

“I AM FRAMEA OF THE STUDIUM!” he roared, to an audience of three dogs, two small boys and an old woman who took absolutely no notice. “SURRENDER OR FIGHT ME! TONIGHT!” Then he scrambled down off the cart, turning his ankle over in the process, and hobbled back to the inn.

The farmer’s wife was in the kitchen, cutting up pork for sausages. “What’s that stuff all the people round here drink?” he asked.

She looked at him. “Beer,” she said.

“Is it fit for human consumption?”

“Well, we drink it.”

“That’s not an answer. Never mind, the hell with it. Get me some. Lots.”

You got used to it, after a while. At the Studium, wine was drunk four times a year (Commemoration, Ascension, Long Commons and the Election Dinner); two small glasses of exquisite ruby-red vintage wine from the best cellar in the City. Framea had never liked the stuff. He thought it tasted of vinegar and dust. The beer tasted of decay and the death of small rodents, but after a while it did things to his perception of the passage of time that no form had yet been able to accomplish. He slept through the afternoon and woke up in his chair in the kitchen just as it was starting to get dark. He had a headache, which he quickly disposed of with Salus cortis. He didn’t feel hungry, even though he hadn’t eaten all day.

He hauled himself to his feet, wincing as his turned-over ankle protested under his weight. An injury like that would be a death sentence if he’d been facing a conventional battle, with swords or fists. He limped across the yard, and the farm workers stared at him as he passed them. There were two young men in the barn, cutting hay in the loft with a big knife-blade, like a saw.

“Get out,” he said. They left quickly.

He lay down on the hay, his hands linked behind his head.. I do this for the people, he told himself. I do this so that there won’t be another massacre like the last one. Then, because he didn’t want what could well be his last meditation to be spoiled by such a flagrant lie, he amended it to; we do this for the people, for the reason stated. I do this because I was told to. I do this because if I refused a direct order from my superior, I’d be demoted from the Studium to a teaching post in the provinces. Hell of a reason for killing and dying.

I do this because of Lorica. Simple as that.

He considered the paradox of Lorica; the ultimate, intolerable weapon that hurt nobody, the absolute defence that could save the life of every adept who ever walked or strayed into harm’s way. He couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of it. Half the cities in the Confederation forbade their citizens to own weapons; it never seemed to make any difference to the murder rate, but you could see a sort of logic to it. But no city anywhere banned the ownership of armour. Most of the scholars in the Studium spent at least some of their time developing weapon-grade forms, new ways of killing, wounding, forms directly or indirectly ancillary to such activities—all to be used only against the enemies of order and stability, of course, except that somehow the enemy always found out about them, which was why the Studium needed to develop even better weapons. Lorica, on the other hand, was pure anathema. The Studium didn’t want to find Lorica and then try and keep it to itself; it was realistic enough to know that that wouldn’t be possible. Most of all, they wanted it not to exist. If it did exist, they wanted it destroyed, without trace. Why? Because all government, all authority, no matter how civilised, enlightened, liberal, well-intentioned, ultimately depends on the use of force. If a man exists who is immune to force, even if he’s the most blameless anchorite living on top of a column in the middle of the desert, he is beyond government, beyond authority, and cannot be controlled; and that would be intolerable. Imagine a rebel who stood in front of the entire army, invulnerable, untouchable, gently forgiving each spear-cast and arrow-shot while preaching his doctrine of fundamental change. It would mean the end of the world.

And I, he thought, am here because of Lorica because I’m expendable. Let’s not lose sight of that along the way.

#

She came when it was dark outside. He’d hoped she wouldn’t, but he couldn’t help feeling a rush of joy when she climbed up the ladder and sat down beside him. It was too dark to see, so he had no way of knowing what, if any, signs of damage she was showing. He put his hand in his pocket, closed his fingers around all the remaining coins, and held it out to her.

“I don’t want any more money,” she said.

“I don’t care what you want,” he replied. “Take it, lie down and go to sleep.”

She didn’t move; didn’t reach out her hand for the coins. He grabbed her left arm, prised the fingers apart and tipped the coins into it. “Please,” he said. “It’ll make me feel better.”

(It didn’t, though. It wasn’t his money.)

She withdrew her hand, and he had no way of knowing if she pocketed the coins or dropped them into the hay. “You just want me to go to sleep,” she said.

“Yes.”

He felt her lie down, making a slight disturbance in the hay. He applied a light Suavi dormiente, and soon her breathing became slow and regular. He closed his eyes and went through the plan, for the hundredth time. The more he thought about it, the more problems, defects, disasters waiting to happen leapt out at him. It wasn’t going to work, and any moment now the untrained would be here, and he’d have to fight—

He came in light, as before; it occurred to wonder how he did that, but of course he couldn’t very well ask. He appeared where he’d been the first time, leaning against the cross-rafter, his face just as impossible to make out.

“I thought we’d been through all this,” he said. “There’s no point, is there?”

This time, though, his voice was different; accented (a City voice, but overlaid with the local flat vowels and ground-off consonants; so maybe he’d been one of the children evacuated in the War, who hadn’t gone back again afterwards); more or less educated, so at least he’d been to school, even if it was just a few terms with a Brother. It wasn’t much, but at least he knew something about him now. And he was here; not a ninth-level translocation, but an appearance in person, unified body and whole mind together in this place. Thank you, he thought.

“On the contrary,” he replied. “We have to settle this.”

“Why?”

That was a really good question, and he had no answer. “You might be able to hide,” he said, “for a little while. But if you ever use your power again, we’ll be able to trace you. We can kill you in your sleep if you’d rather. But I assumed you’d prefer to do the honourable thing.”

The untrained laughed. “Can’t say I’m bothered one way or the other,” he said. “Sure, I’d like to join up, be a proper wizard, but you said I can’t, so that’s that. Don’t see why I should want to play by your rules, in that case.”

Framea could smell something. It took him back thirty years, to before he came to the City and joined the Studium; to when he’d lived with his mother in a small house, more of a shack, out back of the tannery. He could smell brains, which the tanners used to cure hides.

“You work in a tannery,” he said.

“If you’re reading my mind you’re not very good at it,” the man replied. “Six months since I left there. Five months and twenty-seven days since it burned down,” he added. “Anyway, what’s that got to do with anything?”

“Fight me,” Framea said. “If you dare.”

“If I think I’m hard enough, you mean?” The man laughed. “That’s what they used to say at that place. Regretted it, later. But there’s no point. We can’t hurt each other. You know that.”

Framea took a deep breath. “The defence you’re referring to is called Lorica,” he said.

“Fascinating.”

“Take it down,” Framea said. “I’ll do the same. Then we can fight and really mean it. It’s the way we do it.”

He didn’t dare breathe until the man replied, “Is that right?”

“Yes. Think about it. How do you suppose anything ever gets sorted out?”

Another pause. Then the man said, “How’ll I know you’ve taken yours down?”

Framea muttered Ignis ex favellis, making his skin glow blue. “I’ve lit mine up, same as yours. When the lights go out, we’ll both know the other one’s taken down Lorica. Then we can put an end to this, once and for all.” He waited a heartbeat, then added, “I’m taking mine down now. Don’t disappoint me. I’m paying you a compliment.”

He ended Ignis. Another heartbeat, and the white glow at the far end of the loft went out. With his mind’s arm, he reached down into the girl’s heart and took everything, at the same time as he ripped every last scrap out of himself, and launched it all in Ruans in defectum.

The form went through. The smallest fraction of time that he could perceive passed, and no counterstroke came. No backlash. With the last shreds of his strength, he moved into the second House.

As usual, it was light and cool there. Today it was a meadow, with a river in the distance, sheep in the pasture on the far bank. He looked round and saw the man, lying on his face, burned practically to charcoal. He ran across, lifted his head by his charred, crumbling hair and whispered in his ear, “Can you hear me?”

The reply was inside his own head. Yes.

“This is the second House,” he said. “This is another place, not the place where you used to live. In that place, your body has been disintegrated. I used Ruans. There’s nothing left for anyone to bury. You’re dead.”

I understand.

“I’m holding you here by Ensis spiritus. The second House is outside time, but it takes a huge amount of effort just to be here. In a moment I’ll have to let you go, and then you’ll just disappear, drain away. It won’t hurt. Do you understand?”

Yes.

“Show me Lorica.”

But you know

“No. I don’t know Lorica. Nobody does.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Nobody living. Show it to me. You’re the only one who ever found it. Show it to me now.”

The body was charred embers, it was ash, it was falling apart. Any moment now, the thing inside it would leak out into the air and be gone for good. Framea used Virtus et clementia, which was illegal, but who the hell would ever know?

He saw Lorica.

He wanted to laugh. It was absurdly simple, though it would take considerable strength of mind and talent; still, easier and more straightforward than some forms he’d learnt before his voice broke. It was nothing more than a wide dispersal through at least twenty different Houses, combined with a third-level dislocation. The weapon (or the form, or the collapsing wall or the falling tree) killed you in one House, or twelve, or nineteen; but there you were, safe and sound, also in the twentieth House, and a fraction of a second later, back you came, as though nothing had happened. All there was to it. Less skill and technique required than conjuring up a bunch of flowers.

The voice sighed in his head. A gentle breeze blew away the last of the ash. Framea felt the bitter cold that meant he’d stayed out too long and needed to get back. He slipped out of the second House just in time, and as soon as he got back he passed out.

#

Someone was shaking him. He opened his eyes and grunted,

“Are you all right?” The girl was leaning over him, looking worried. “You wouldn’t wake up. I was afraid something had happened.”

You could say that, he thought. Something did happen. “I’m fine,” he said. “I had a bit too much to drink earlier, that’s all. I’m going now,” he added. “Thanks for everything.”

He stood up. His ankle still hurt, and for some reason he couldn’t be bothered to fix it with Salus or any of the other simple curative forms.

“Are you a wizard?” she asked.

He turned to face her. She looked all right, as far as he could tell, but in many cases there was a delay before the first symptoms manifested. “Me? God, no. Whatever gave you that idea?”

He walked away before she could say anything else.

“And was it,” the Precentor said delicately, “the problem we discussed?”

Framea looked straight at him, as if taking aim. “No,” he said. “I got that completely wrong. It was just an unusually powerful Scutum.”

The Precentor’s face didn’t change. “That’s just as well,” he said. “I was concerned, when I received your letter.”

“Yes. I’m sorry about that.” Behind the Precentor’s head he could just make out the golden wings of the Invincible Sun, the centrepiece of the elaborate fresco on the far wall. Had the Precentor deliberately arranged the chairs in his study so that, viewed from the visitor’s seat, his head was framed by those glorious wings, imparting the subconscious impression of a halo? Wouldn’t put it past him, Framea decided. “I guess I panicked, the first time I fought him. I’m new at this sort of thing, after all.”

“You did exceedingly well,” the Precentor said. “We’re all very pleased with how you handled the matter. I myself am particularly gratified, since you were chosen on my personal recommendation.”

Not long ago, that particular fragment of information would have filled him with terror and joy. “It was quite easy,” he said, “once I’d figured it out. A simple translocation, change the angle, broke his guard.” He licked his lips, which had gone dry, and added, “Needless to say, I regret having had to use lethal force. But he was very strong. I didn’t want to take chances.”

The Precentor smiled. “You did what had to be done. Now, will you join me in a glass of wine? I believe this qualifies as a special occasion.”

#

Three weeks later, Framea was awarded the White Star, for exceptional diligence in the pursuit of duty, elevated to the Order of Distinguished Merit, and promoted to the vacant chaplaincy of the Clerestory, a valuable sinecure that would allow him plenty of time for his researches. He moved offices, from the third to the fifth floor, with a view over the moat, and was allocated new private chambers, in the Old Building, with his own sitting room and bath.

Nine months later, he wrote a private letter to the Brother of the village. He wrote back to say that the village whore (the Brother’s choice of words) had recently given birth. The child was horribly deformed; blind, with stubs for arms and legs, and a monstrously elongated head. It had proved impossible to tell whether it was a boy or a girl. Fortuitously, given its sad condition, it had only lived a matter of hours. After its death, the woman hanged herself, presumably for shame.

Father Framea (as he is now) teaches one class a week at the Studium; fifth year, advanced class.  He occasionally presents papers and monographs, which are universally well received. His most recent paper, in which he proves conclusively that the so-called Lorica form does not and cannot exist, is under consideration for the prestigious Headless Lance award.

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