(reading time: 46 minutes)
Dove looked through her notes while she waited for him. They weren’t physical notes of course. She’d been experimenting with compressing the lectures down to single paragraphs in her mind, trying to get the information as dense as possible to save memory space, which, much like using a computer, simplified her magical efforts. The one she’d created from the introductory Evil Eye Era lesson felt expertly compacted:
Magic is the psychic power of secrecy, threatened by transparency. In its early days even the people using it did not understand its nature. The first system was the evil eye, by which spells were cast with intense unblinking stares at their targets coupled with focused thought and emotion. It flourished for hundreds of years until its collapse in 1899, when a combination of exploding population, scientific advancement, and superstition regarding the evil eye specifically made it too common of knowledge. After it ceased working it took more than two decades, and a notable worldwide war, before a new method took root. Thus we have the snap system, powered by concise incantation words and kinetic catalyst sounds.
She looked up. It was Saturday, so several of the tents were free for the students to use for study, socializing, private tutoring that some had already purchased with the professors, or project partner meetings. Banana Tent was empty except for her, everything dyed a cloying yellow. They had agreed over text to meet at noon, and he was already three minutes late. This country doesn’t want to run on time. Everybody thinks they’re too important to stick to the schedule. It’ll have its own tardiness timezone that nobody will remember right.
She decided she would wait a full ten minutes before giving up and leaving. There was the option of a reminder text, but part of her didn’t want him showing up. As abrasive as Phillipa had been, she had kept to her word so far, and her bulldozing didn’t seem so bad in the face of actual socializing efforts.
It was numbing to realize she was bad at making friends, that for all the laughing and gasping people in the audience hadn’t actually been companions. She could charm the socks off of any of them, pulling their wallets out of her hat without ever having been close to their pockets. These items she could magically analyze, revealing their secrets to her, allowing her to tailor the performance to their desires.
That was just a show. Magic was fair and fine and good to her, because she used it to spark imagination and hope. Mixing it with mortar and building a country felt like a betrayal. She got away from that line of thought with another efficient note entry, this time on the subject of alteration, her intended major.
Alteration is the most effort-intensive magic, as it changes physical states outside of the body. As such it is the greatest danger to secrecy, and intense care must be taken to prevent it from being directly observed or disguise it as another process. At its most powerful alteration can even allow you to push open a door that is pull only. It can give you a second last sip of a canteen when stranded in the desert. Take care that it doesn’t make you think you can change everything. Most things are what they are.
“Sorry I’m late,” her partner said as he dropped into a desk across from her, making a circle in the sand as he turned it. His heavy backpack settled beside him, a vintage virtual pet hanging from a short chain on one of its zippers. He used it to open the bag, quickly pulling out piles of folders and small gadgets she didn’t recognize, looking something like computer chips made from the contents of an office waste basket.
“It’s fine,” she said tersely. I guess the Moneyed can have silly names. Nothing stopped magicians from wearing casual clothes, but his upbringing was clear from the moment she sensed an aura of centrality, an instinct that all his missteps deserved to be forgiven because too much rode on his success.
He was the same age as her, slight in build, with a haircut more suited to someone half his age in a nineties sitcom. At least he would have been well cast, as it was hard not to feel disarmed by the sparkle in his eye and his spry smile. He had a naturally busy look, like his various trains of thought were pets running around in his head, constantly tugging off their leashes and climbing over gates.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw my assigned partner was the princess,” he chuckled.
“I’d rather not dwell on that. Can we just do the project stuff?”
“Yeah, of course, no problem,” he said, scrambling to find a certain paper. “Everyone’s probably always on your case about it. Anyway… uhh… We have to write summaries of each other’s proposals so… what are you doing?”
Dove gently removed her hat. Ponder instinctively reached to take it, but she had no intent of handing it over to the unclean hands of a money grubber. She held it close. He coughed as he retracted and looked away.
“This is my family’s hat,” she explained, staring into its black depths, much darker than nature would’ve allowed. “It’s been in the magic game for a long time. I’m going to pull something out of it for my final project, but I don’t know exactly what yet. Maybe something I’m not expecting to pull out… or something from the past that another owner of the hat pulled out.”
“So I guess you’re doing an alteration major.” She offered a slight false smile as answer, but he didn’t take it as badly as she wanted. There was a flare of frustration, and without thinking, partly because her thinking cap wasn’t on, she reached into the hat and demonstrated her skills, pulling out Ponder’s biggest device. It had been on the desk moments before, but with nobody looking at it she was free to displace the object.
“Is this your project?” she asked derisively, turning it over in her hand. Its body was made of two pieces of sandwiched cardboard, black logos from random delivery companies still visible on them. Between the pieces were columns barely as thick as her fingertips, made from paper clips, staples, scraps of colorful plastic that might have been part of a cheap ruler, and lead from a mechanical pencil.
“Uhh, be careful,” he urged, but he didn’t try to take it back. “That’s just a prototype. And yes, it is going to be my project.”
“A prototype of what?”
“I got the idea from single-board computers that fit in your pocket, the kind people use for small robots and monitoring research. I wanted to do the same thing, but for magic instead of computing.”
“I don’t get it.” His expression sank, but bounced back so quickly she almost dropped his prototype.
“Well you instill spells into its various modules, that’s my major, instilling, and then the computer runs them like programs, performing them actively rather than passively having their qualities. Like, you know how you can instill a specific coin so that it always lands on tails?”
“Yeah of course. It will stay that way until a non-wielder gets suspicious of it or until the person that cast the spell retracts the background magic that kept the effect going.”
“Right, but what if, using that device,” he pointed at his own creation, his eyes alive as if he wanted to gift it to her right then and there, “you could turn the tails-always effect on and off on a whim, even without being a wielder.”
“Like a magic television remote?”
“Yes! But more than that too. If I pack the modules densely enough you could have an entire kit of magic, and it would always work even in situations where you couldn’t concentrate and perform magic properly. No incantations or thoughts required, just the push of a key or the twist of… one of these little thingies right here.” He leaned over the desk and tapped the tip of a bent paperclip poking through the cardboard.
Dove set her hat back in its proper place. It’s impressive but it’s a terrible idea. He should know what a terrible idea it is before he sells it to somebody in tech and magic bursts like the dot-com bubble. She handed the computer back to him.
“That thing is going to be dangerous.” The last word wounded him, and it finally stuck, but her sympathy ran thin even against the shimmering onslaught of his excitable distracted ferret eyes. “If it works the way you think it will a non-wielder could use it.”
“That’s… well that’s kind of actually the point,” he admitted, looking around to see if Banana Tent had suddenly been invaded by corporate spies out to monetize his charitable genius. “Somebody can put all their magic into one of these and give it to somebody who doesn’t have magic and doesn’t know about it. We can spread the gift without spreading the knowledge, instead of just keeping it all to ourselves. Obviously I have to improve the appearance, but once it looks like something they might buy in an electronics store they’ll think it’s just that.”
“You want people to buy them!? What, like it’s just the latest phone?”
“No, that’s not what I meant.” He was struggling now, as if interrogated by several government officials. Technically just one. “In order for one of these to work a wielder has to run nearly all of their magic through it constantly, leaving only the BC for themselves. They couldn’t really be mass produced… and the wielder could take back their magic at any time, leaving it an empty husk.”
“It just sounds like you skipped Professor Wedge’s secrecy class.”
“Don’t you ever feel… selfish? Like, we could make people’s lives better but we don’t because we’re too scared of losing our power. The possibility of collapse is an excellent excuse, but it is just an excuse.”
“Do I feel selfish?” Dove repeated. “No. I already share my magic with the people. They see it on stage. It gives them wonder. It gives them hope. I can see why you might feel selfish, since you’re Moneyed. You could just give all your money away. It would be way easier than building a new kind of computer. What’s the family fortune anyway? Something you never think about, like billiards chalk? It’s usually one of those.”
“Clothespins,” he admitted. “And it’s not really my money. It’s my family’s money. I’m not planning on taking over the business. But, yeah I do use it. I like nice clothes, fancy food, big houses… but I also think everybody deserves those things.”
“You can either have it and be a bad person or not have it and have a chance of being a good person. Collapsing magic isn’t going to help anybody. You’ll just have given an ordinary person a useless box of promises. Magic beans they spent the cow on.”
“That’s what my parents think,” he told her, though she had no idea why he was being so open. “They’ve been worried since I was little, calling me an exposer… This is just a project though. It’s just to see if it actually works. I promise that’s all.”
“He… totally… promises,” she pretended to write on the papers in front of her. A phone started vibrating; Ponder pulled it out of his pocket.
“Crap. I have to take this. I’ll be back in two minutes, I totally promise.” She stared, withholding acknowledgment of the jab. “You know, now that you’re a princess, people are going to throw money at you. You can try to dodge it, but then you look down and you’re wearing a gold watch and your shoes cost as much as a small boat.” He scurried out of the tent as he started talking to the other person on the line.
Some nerve on him. Still, there was a spike of panic moving down her throat. What if the Startling Théards never took the stage again? Were the king and queen already out buying new wardrobes? She had used the sauna three days in a row now.
Something below her chirped, somewhere between a cricket and a waffle maker indicating it had attained golden brown. Dove leaned down and saw his virtual pet again, tiny lights racing around its little screen. Curious, she took it off the clip for a closer examination.
Encased in a baby blue plastic eggshell, it had just the screen and three buttons, the left and right ones arrow shaped. At one point it had a brand name, but Ponder had scratched it off. It chirped again, sound mostly matching up with the pixelated beast on screen, which looked a little like a frog with wings.
“Are you hungry?” she whispered. She pushed the middle button, causing a drumstick to descend from the top of the screen on a string. The little creature swallowed it whole, swinging back and forth on the line. When it dropped its stomach was cartoonishly full; it immediately settled into a nap where Zs rose lazily from its head. Her slight amusement at the sight of it faded quickly, morphing into regret. Ponder definitely seemed like a fool, but he was the fool she was stuck with for the semester, and there wasn’t much reason to antagonize him so early.
He’d even criticized his own people. She could, at the very least, work with that, enough to fill out a couple worksheets once a week. The desk was still covered in partial prototypes of his project, so she grabbed one in her free hand and looked it over. She was a princess, and he was one of her subjects, so she tried to see the good in him, the things she was duty bound to protect, even if those who created the duty didn’t care.
“He’s… inventive,” she told his virtual pet. One of its little eyes opened, a single black pixel staring back. The first one came easily, surprisingly so. “He’s honest.” She looked over her shoulder to make sure he was nowhere near, checking slightly beyond with magic. “He takes risks for what he believes in.” She saw his face in her mind’s eye, perfectly, even without using a spell to take a mental photograph. “He’s cute. In a ‘guinea pig that accidentally did a back flip as it fell off a table’ kind of way.”
The pet rolled over, apparently finished listening. Dove was also tired of hearing herself force fawning. If they could be friends they would be friends of convenience, like with Phillipa, connections forged because of their reliability, since almost none of her peers could be trusted to approach her with clear intentions.
She returned the pet to its clip and focused on the other item, which looked like it was about one third of the full prototype. Give it a try. There were plenty of papers sitting out to experiment on, so Dove decided she would change the text on one of them to the first page of Beowulf. That was simple enough, as long as the page was face down, allowing any people present to assume it had always had the old English tale printed on it.
“Chaytee,” she whispered, clicking her tongue. She focused the magic into the cardboard device rather than the page. If it worked the way he described she could instill the spell into it, feel the magic as active, point it at the target page, twist the tiny metal lever, and then it would be altered.
When she tapped the lever’s tip the entire thing collapsed into its constituent pieces, washers cut from gum wrappers rolling away. If magic didn’t have to be subtle it probably would have exploded into flame. Dove’s enhanced perception picked up Ponder’s returning footsteps.
“Shoot, shoot, shoot!” she hissed. With no idea how the pieces fit together all she could think to do was sweep everything into her hat and vanish it, placing it back on her head just as he stepped back into Banana Tent.
“Sorry about that,” he apologized as he took his seat once more. “Where were we?” He scanned the desk, but there were so many other versions of his work that he didn’t seem to notice one missing.
“We were totally getting off on the right foot,” she offered, throwing in a smile. Ponder returned it. His virtual pet chirped again. His eyes darted away for a moment. By the time they were back he looked happier than ever.
“Chapstick, cherry flavor. Loose pop rocks, nearly a rainbow of them. A voucher for… oh my! Those are… adult services. I shouldn’t mention them to little children like you, hoohoo no.” Watermelon Tent’s dark green color didn’t do any favors to Professor Lasse Hoskonen, an ebullient and round Swedish fellow with a thick but slick orange beard. He was very open with his students about this fact, telling them he had already requested a transfer to a brighter tent that would dye his warm energy a more flattering color. He was nearly finished with his lecture for the day.
“Those are the pocket contents of the CEO of the Spun Sugar candy company,” he said as he opened his eyes and looked around at the three or four students who were mentally present. “Pocket sight takes far less magic than observing someone’s whole person, and can thus be cast much further and allow for more people to be monitored simultaneously. From the objects in their pocket you can deduce their situation as well as probe the object’s history passively.” A distant bell rang, actually the sound of a bell over a PA system. “Any questions?”
“Professor?” someone in the front row said, hand shooting up. Several of the students came out of their shells at the sound of her voice, Dove among them. Who is she again? Moneyed… oh. She’s wearing an invisible name tag. I guess she wants every wielder to know her name. Yes Martel.
“Yes Yes?” Professor Hoskonen tittered at his own jest. “Hoohoo.”
“Is the government of Cay Royal using lateral sight on the students?” the popular girl asked pointedly. The details came back to Dove, and ones she never knew were blatantly displayed in Yes’s aura, like she saw herself as an acacia and everyone else as giraffes that needed to graze on her personal information for sustenance.
“Do you mean to monitor your behavior?” She nodded. “Not to my knowledge. We want you all to have your privacy here. I believe there’s something in your enrollment agreement that says we can’t peek into your heads or your activities outside class hours. You know I’m being a good boy hoohoo! Don’t have to worry about me peeking! Now, that was all the time we had and the things we had to see. Goodbye! I will foresee you next week, eh? Hoohoo!”
Outside Watermelon Tent the sun attacked Dove, forcing her to pull the brim of her hat lower. People bumped her shoulders as they moved between classes. They would’ve kicked irritating sand into her socks, but she only let that happen once before putting up a barrier, like an anklet, that forced each grain touching it to happen to fall elsewhere. Someone came up beside her.
“Did your sisters tell you?” Dove flinched. It wasn’t Phillipa as she assumed, but the voice she’d just heard. Yes Martel was right there, dark hair and eyes staring intensely, lips as red as she assumed the interior of a more thematic Watermelon Tent would’ve been. All of a sudden she got a sense of where the girl put most of her magical energy, into an intense and intimidating cone of social pressure around her face, like the mask of a plague doctor.
“Tell me what?” Dove asked, feeling like there was a double-barreled shotgun of shame aimed at her cerebellum.
“The party?” Yes’s tone suggested Dove was weeks behind on fixing a safety code violation. “It’s a go now that Professor Meatball just confirmed the staff isn’t watching us.”
“I’m super sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Dove flinched again. The word ‘super’ had been practically pulled out of her, sounding alien. Yes’s face was a tractor beam for obedience. She rolled her eyes, momentarily aiming the cone elsewhere and giving Dove a chance to recover.
“Okay, they didn’t tell you, I get it. I want this country to be real just as much as you princess. Real country needs real school needs real students, and we’re not real unless we throw an unsanctioned party.”
“I get it… unsanctioned how?”
“We’re sneaking out into the tent city tonight, the parts right next to the beach. There might still be some cool stuff left behind from Thryve. I want all the princesses to be there, and I’ve got two out of three already.”
Maybe don’t go to a party with someone who calls a heavy Swedish person a meatball. Despite what the little voice in her hat said, there was the thought that the professor could’ve at least dressed a little better. Used to cold climates, he showed up every day in a tank top, sandals, and a broiled sunburn he could’ve easily prevented.
Yes snapped her fingers, somehow opening her eyes even wider, demanding an answer. She was clearly very clever, as a snap in the magical community could easily be a threat, enough to get a royal guard leaping between the two of them to take a spell to the gut and save the princess, but she still had the plausible deniability of trying to get Dove’s attention.
“What time?” the princess asked. There might’ve been an easy way out of it. Yes told her nine at night. “Sorry, but I’ve got a meeting with my project partner.” It was technically set for eight, and they didn’t tend to go a full hour, but it was the only lifeline she felt would stand up to Yes’s scrutinizing cone. Dove started walking, but she couldn’t get away that easily.
“This is misbehavior,” Yes argued, sidling by her at the same speed. “Skipping that meeting means you’re just doing it well. That’ll actually help us.”
“Look, I know this doesn’t make sense because I’m the princess, but I never asked to be in this position, and I don’t really want to be. I want to focus on learning.”
“You can learn just as much from us as you can from the professors. Every family has different magic traditions. We can share the ones that weren’t added to the curriculum.”
“I’m su… sorry, but the answer is…” The cone focused in a precision effort; Dove practically felt it on her tongue like the beam of a magnifying glass. “…no.” Yes’s magic backed off. Dove suddenly felt able to breathe much deeper, but it was only a moment’s respite. Her phone vibrated in her pocket. She checked the fresh text message.
(1 new message) Partner: Hey Dove. Listen, I was wondering… do you maybe want to do something after our meeting tonight?
(2 new messages) Partner: I mean like watch a movie or something. I’ve got a fun headcanon cut of the original Godzilla. If you don’t like monster movies the first one is actually an anti-war movie so it’s cool.
(3 new messages) Partner: Or we could just work on our projects together. I’m happy to let you pull anything of mine out of your hat.
(4 new messages) Partner: Oh god that last part sounded weird, sorry. I just mean I’m happy to be your guinea pig 🙂
“Oh my god,” Dove muttered, feeling her face flush even through the beating sun. She didn’t think there was any possibility that Ponder had used the phrase ‘guinea pig’ coincidentally.
A memory avalanche overtook her. That was what she called him, in addition to cute, when he stepped out of their first meeting weeks ago. She had playfully addressed his virtual pet. Which had eyes and qualities of life. Which was all that was required to make an object a familiar, capable of watching and listening and reporting back to you. He had heard. He thought she liked him. But she didn’t. But she did a little because he was harmless. And why exactly had she listed him in her phone as ‘partner’ rather than ‘Ponder’?
“Where are you guys meeting?” Dove asked Yes to stop the emotional landslide.
“By the closed restaurant.”
“Alright. I’m in.” Yes didn’t thank her or say goodbye, offering only a smile and a flick of her hair, practically a switchblade opening, as she pranced away. The young magician had the feeling she’d just reaffirmed something in her peer’s head. Everybody eventually said yes to Yes.
Needing to recover from the brief social interaction, Dove stepped out of the foot traffic to a nook between the tents. She took off her hat and reached inside, wetting her fingers, which she then flicked on her cheeks to help cool them down. When its brim blocked the sun once more she saw two figures through a tent wall.
“Seethroo.” The color faded to transparent. It was Professor Hoskonen and security chief Hunter. The latter was handing over a blank sheet of paper. Just like Professor Quixote got. What are those for? She still had no clue, but it had to be serious. The Swedish professor wasn’t smiling, a first as far as Dove knew.
The abandoned restaurant had not been absorbed into Cay Royal’s infrastructure yet. It was little more than a shack with lots of sturdy tables and their giant umbrellas surrounding it. In life its specialty had been seafood sandwiches on pillowy bread, but like a car factory forced to make ventilators during a pandemic, it had been retooled over the course of a day to do nothing but distribute terrible boxed snacks to the flooding guests of the Thryve Festival.
The owners never received compensation for the ordered food or the damage to their property, and were shuttered before the last duped influencer even chartered their way off the island. Now its only purpose was to provide cover for the students that gathered there at dusk. Dove was one of the first, to justify blowing off her meeting with Ponder. Surely he wouldn’t be there, since he tried to arrange a date for the same time.
Her sisters hadn’t arrived yet, nor Phillipa, so she had nobody to divert Yes’s attention aside from Wondrous Douglas. His goofy soul proved to be a blessing, as he was already making enough of a fool of himself that Yes was busy analyzing him, deciding if it was a mistake to give him an invite.
“Hey what do you guys think they served all the dumb people that came to this thing?” Douglas asked them, picking up an abandoned foam container.
“My family knows the Jordans,” Yes said. “Normally they’re very buttoned down, but Hewie was a screw-up since he was our age. He tried to use magic to cut corners on everything with this festival. I’m sure he tasted whatever it was, didn’t realize he was subconsciously improving the flavor with magic, and told somebody to ship out five hundred pounds of it.”
“Let’s find out,” Douglas said. He licked his finger, popping it out of his mouth like he was about to check the direction of the wind, and dragged it across the bottom of the foam clam shell. Dove wasn’t familiar with the spell, but it looked like a combination of sensory extension and hindsight. By applying saliva to a surface that used to hold food, he could taste what had been there.
“Oh man,” he laughed as he winced, “that is so gross. It’s like American cheese sitting on a picnic table all day, like, drooping between the boards. I can taste the wasp footsteps.” He smacked his lips, apparently a connoisseur of cheap food. “This was a salad, but with a big square of cheese just plopped on top. Lol.”
“Don’t go licking everything you find on the ground,” Yes warned with a grimace. “Hewie cursed this place.”
“Are you serious?” Dove asked, a vital question. Curses most certainly existed, and were one of the few forms of magic that could survive beyond the death of the wielder, or the loss of their powers. They drew negative emotional energy from everyone around them, fueling their continued existence.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” Yes theorized, “but he was here on the beach when he lost his powers. This whole place is kind of a crater, the site of a mini-collapse of magic. I think that’s kind of a curse.”
“He just wanted to be famous,” Douglas said wistfully, letting a breeze take the container from his hand. “Which everybody wants.”
“It helps to deserve it,” Yes argued. “Hewie was a clown, and he’s taking his whole family down with him. If we tried to start a country and Thryve had never happened somebody from the Jordans would be running for president. My mom’s only running because she doesn’t have to worry about competing with them.”
“Your Mom is running for Cay Royal president?” Dove repeated. “When’s the election?” A win for the Martels might mean the princess had to spend a lot more time under the first daughter’s gaze. I’d rather sleep under a spotlight.
“They haven’t picked a date yet,” Yes said. “It’s not like anybody around here thinks they need to show up on time anyway.” Despite her impatience, it didn’t take long for the tables to be swarmed by their classmates, most of them accompanying Razzle and Dazzle, who looked like they’d just come from an even more exclusive pre-party.
Dove again noticed how little she knew of the Moneyed community. She already knew the stage names of every Mystic present, from Tickled Truce to London the Gasp. She even knew the signature tricks of those two, tickling the audience in their seats and belching flames of different colors one right after the other.
The only way to tell who was who was by whether or not she knew their names. Everyone was in swimwear or beach casual. Some of them had henna tattoos, most likely applied at the pre-party given that Razzle had a circlet inked on her forehead to separate her from her twin. Most of the designs depicted animals and were positioned between the shoulders.
“Okay I see a lot of you have familiars already,” Yes shouted, after magically limiting her voice to just the area around the restaurant. The group quieted. “I brought extras for anybody who wants one.” She reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a pile of temporary tattoos, mostly tropical birds.
Dove walked over and grabbed one. It wasn’t easy to get it on her back alone, but she didn’t want anyone paying attention to the fact that she hadn’t bothered to prepare. She wetted her hand once more from her hat’s aquifer and pressed the design against her skin. When she peeled it off and whispered faytoo she had a vigilant blue macaw watching her back.
They all knew without saying. The tattoos were to help them relax around each other. Let the painted eyes do the spying so they could focus on fun, fun that Yes thoroughly explained. She wanted to lead them to the VIP area, the only place in the tent city where the promised luxury bungalows were actually provided. The idea was that they could put their hindsight lessons to use and see how exactly everything went wrong.
“So you two didn’t tell me about either party?” Dove asked her sisters as they all walked deeper into the tents.
“We thought you knew,” Dazzle said with a shrug. “Turns out people tell princesses everything.” Dove had a decent comeback, but the procession stopped. Some boy she didn’t know, with a few absurd cowlicks, was put up on the shoulders of someone quite tall to address them all.
“Heads up guys,” he declared, “I think it’s going to rain. I’m running wepree on max.” That magic word was short for ‘weather prediction’. The bad hair makes sense now; those bits sticking out are probably antennae to extend wind sensing. It was just a polite warning, as precipitation was not much of a hindrance when you could make all the drops magically miss you or dry off in a matter of seconds.
Dove examined the clouds for herself. The dimness of approaching night had obscured it, but they did indeed look dark and roiling. The prospect of hurricanes had crossed her mind weeks ago, with the small island being right in the path of many tropical storms in recent decades, but such a large magical presence counteracted the danger. Each one of them could affect the weather very slightly, and with so many they could perhaps even divert the eye of any storm.
“So have you picked anybody out yet?” Phillipa asked, appearing at Dove’s side from somewhere in the huddle. She was in just a bikini, but the chill in the air couldn’t put goosebumps on her skin no matter how hard it tried.
“What? Is somebody going to assassinate me?” the magician half-joked.
“Princess!” By now she knew Phillipa only called her that when pointing out her naivete. “This is a college beach party full of stage performers and spoiled brats. Everybody’s going to hook up at some point tonight.”
“Oh, right.” Dove couldn’t think of anything she cared less about at the moment, not even her dry Evil Eye Era essay that was due Monday. “I came out here to get away from that stuff.”
“Wait what? Are you already dating somebody?” Dove could practically hear the note pad flip open and the pen click inside her friend’s head.
“No. Ponder asked me out over text, and now I’m kind of avoiding him.”
“The heir to Laird Clothespins and the princess of Cay Royal…” Phillipa said, staring out at the imaginary flag of the country they would rule as king and queen. “No, I don’t see it. You guys don’t have couple energy.”
“He thought he overheard me, like, practice flirting with him. It was just a mistake, not one I want to talk about though. Who did you pick out of this assortment?”
“Nobody yet,” she said, scanning the other heads. “Flira.” She cast a psychic net of flirtatious energy. Three different people turned to look at her, flashing smiles. “I’ve got options. My heart already belongs to Abel, but I can probably loan out my lips for the night.”
“Actually his name is Professor Quixote. I don’t know how old he is, but it’s definitely older than you.”
“He doesn’t even like being a professor,” Phillipa dismissed, skipping over Dove’s other point entirely.
The rain started, but it was just a drizzle; the bungalows offered plenty of protection. There were only three of them and they were little more than frames and roofs with some folding furniture in the sand out front. There had been walls at one point, but they were either reclaimed or already decayed to nothing.
Every small item that was left was branded with the Thryve festival logo, mostly mugs and towels. They all felt a fluctuation in magic, but only in the leftmost bungalow, so the group quickly divided, with those interested in watching the Thryve festival implode staying and those more interested in the student body moving over to the other two. Even if there was someone who caught her eye, Dove felt an ethereal obligation to stay and see the event that led to her becoming royalty. It was the bloody history of the whole empire, played out as it was with some trust fund oaf and his wad of connections.
“Alright, how should we do this?” Yes said, but to herself despite all eleven people in the bungalow listening intently. “Some things definitely went down right-” she stopped in the middle of a room, pointing at the floor, “-here. Everybody spread out on the sides, make a square. Chop chop.” She clapped in their faces and they all obeyed.
Dove noted that it felt good to do so, like taking off a rain-drenched hat. Yes’s aura made it a relief to follow her. She could probably convince the king and queen-madame to adopt her and make her the new princess.
The magician took note of the others present. Phillipa was there, foregoing any lip-lending presumably to gain more valuable information about the country she was gaming. Wondrous Douglas too, showing a surprising amount of thought in his expression. The rest were Moneyed, several resting their chins in their hands, magic focused in their eyes like big mounted binoculars.
Only one among them was known to her: Lorelei Quince. She was a sights major, and had made herself something of a bother lately, jumping out in front of people randomly and declaring her experiments successful. Apparently her project involved predicting where people would show up and at what time, hardly impressive in Dove’s eyes when everyone was operating on a schedule. She also seemed to ambush the princesses a little too much.
It was easy to see why she would be interested. Dove watched as the slim girl tied up her blonde hair so she could focus more intensely on the middle of the room. Yes suggested the exact combination of spells for everyone to use simultaneously. Together the power would be boosted, and the results could be shared by all of them psychically. It would be like watching a play, their own bodies determining the boundaries of the stage.
“Reecree. Mishay. Hewjo,” they said simultaneously, casting with twelve snaps. The first spell sought to recreate an event that had happened there, the second allowed them all to witness it the same way, and the third targeted anything that happened there involving the festival’s founder and chief con artist, Hewie Jordan.
They got a bite from the river of time, and it was a big one. Dove couldn’t look away without damaging the process, but she saw the days move in reverse with her peripheral vision. Light, dark, light, dark, white, blue, white, blue. The walls were replaced or grew back. International police flitted in and out, walking backwards.
The process slowed on a sweltering day, Dove and the others able to feel the heat and the distinct lack of a breeze through the wide open windows. There were crushed steely cans of flavored seltzer everywhere, and even though it was enough for a party they had been consumed by a single man who was pacing back and forth in sandals, smartphones glued to each of his ears.
That has to be him; it couldn’t possibly be anybody else in the history of the world. The little voice in her hat was right. She’d never seen someone who looked so like all the insults about them that ended with spitting on the ground.
His tan, while appearing real to the layperson because of its magical origin, was an unpleasant shade of faded inner orange rind to the eyes of wielders. His black stubble suggested he used a shaving spell every few hours, but never well enough to appear clean shaven. His vapid smile was magically glued on so he would appear jovial even while sweating bullets or taking them to the chest. His enhanced muscle definition didn’t matter in the face of the baby fat that had run wild throughout his whole body, giving him big cheeks and a round stomach that poked out of every shirt. He was equal parts frat boy and pool toy, sloshing with unearned confidence and covered in defensive floppy spines of cheer.
“Hewie?” A head poked in through an open window, someone half dead from heat exhaustion thanks to their business attire. He swiveled to look at them, but didn’t lower either of his phones. “The bottled water shipment never arrived. We’ve got people passing out. I think,” they wiped their forehead, “I’m one of them.”
“You got merch water bottles right?” he asked in return, grating voice like someone trying to play a harmonica with a mouth full of lasagna.
“Yeah, but they’re empty!”
“Well fill’em up.”
“There are no taps on the beach! I’ll have to go all the way into town, and I’d need like a truck or something.”
“No just fill them with seawater.”
“People can’t drink seawater Hewie! A hundred of them are saying they’re going to sue us already.”
“I can take the salt out of it.”
“Hewie magic baby.” He winked. The students of Cay Royal College booed intensely at that. Who did he think he was? Using so much magic to run every aspect of a music festival was already the most egregious sin, but to use the actual word ‘magic’ with a non-wielder was unforgivable. Throwing in the wink was like shooting somebody. The lead role in that particular play didn’t respond to their jeers.
A few more heads came and went, in various states of panic, laying out bullet points the students had heard on the news much later: the tents were blowing away, there were bugs in the mattresses, the booze they’d provided to substitute for musical entertainment that wasn’t there was running low, the investors were calling and making threats, accusing Hewie of ‘hypnotizing’ them…
Since that geographic recollection happened as the festival was falling apart, the students knew Hewie still had about three weeks before he was arrested. That was public information. What they didn’t know was what the exact moment when his magical generator blew would look like. Perhaps any second. They watched with morbid curiosity, having never seen someone do it before.
Dove thought he looked close to popping, but also like he never would. With each new piece of bad news he paced faster, sweated another bucket, but never stopped moving, never broke down. She was sure it was all that Moneyed upbringing that gave him such energy. Even in prison, even without his magic, he was probably exactly the same, incapable of learning a lesson thanks to the perpetual motion machine his parents bought him to replace his heart.
She was sure he was convincing his fellow criminals that he could secure contraband, that he had connections with the guards, that he deserved to sit at the cool prisoners’ table. Like a polluting factory, he was the one kind of machine that seemed to never shut off no matter how much those stuck with it pleaded for it to happen.
Someone new arrived before his magic bubble burst, and they used the screen door instead of the window. He was a little taller and older than Hewie, thinner too, but they had similar eyes and noses. He wore a swimming suit and a tee shirt, but he wore them like a mannequin might, wrinkle-free, fitted, never having touched a grain of sand or dollop of sunscreen. Through the time separating them Dove was still able to sense his aura, the overall focus of his spells. He didn’t want the world to touch him. He was laminated in magic.
“That’s his brother Custus,” Yes told those who didn’t know.
“Can’t talk, I’m on hold with the airlines,” Hewie told his sibling.
“You need to hang up and come with me,” Custus told him. “Bea has the chopper and she’s a few minutes out. She can have us airborne before this thing gets any worse.”
“What? No dude. I’m trying to get the music airborne. Once they get here everything will start rolling smoothly.”
“Hewie! This is over! Mom and Dad had your back, I had it, but you pushed too hard. You can’t just will fame and success into existence. We need to bail, now. Thryve is already trending.”
“Really?” Hewie grinned like someone who had snuck away without paying for an extra scoop of ice cream. “What are they saying?”
“That Thryve doesn’t exist!” Custus barked. “They’re saying all the bands pulled out. Every last one.”
“I’m pulling them back in,” Hewie claimed, shaking the phones like maracas. “The Distorters and Sticky Bike Helmet are on planes right now. They’ll be on stage in less than five hours.”
“Those bands are on planes… heading to Cay Royal?”
“Right now they’re going to Milwaukee and San Diego, but once I connect to the airline systems I’ll reroute them here. Once they land they’ll look at all their beautiful fans and have no choice but to perform. It would be bad PR not to.”
“Christ Hewie! You’re not on hold with the airlines, you’re literally holding them. Tell me those are private planes. Tell me they’re tiny.” He started chasing his brother around the furniture, Hewie bouncing as he tiptoed in circles.
“747s baby! More people for the party! It’s all just growing pains Custard.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“You’ll see. Next year will be even better.”
“Hewie get your fat head off those phones or I’ll-” Both devices exploded. The shock should’ve sent him to the ground, but the spell he was using to balance as he fled around the couch lingered, keeping him teetering on his feet even as blood poured from his ears. It failed just as Custus reached him, caught him, and lugged his body over to the couch.
He was clearly still alive as he stared at the ceiling, unblinking, but even from the future the students sensed how he felt. It was less of an explosion and more a decompression, like a submarine crushed by pressure. To him it was like being a toddler again, his adult sensibilities scattered all over the floor in wet chunks, the only thing certain the inability to reassemble them.
“Oh man, I can’t watch this,” one of the Moneyed students said, breaking away from the memory and leaving the bungalow. The strength of the recreation faded.
“We already know the ending,” Lorelei added. “Hewie gets arrested at the Jordan estate in like a month for a bajillion counts of fraud, and none of the magical geniuses his family hires can overcome the trial or the sentence. Cut to now, we’re building a school in his crater. The end. Fade to black. let’s go find some hope; this is a party right?”
The others broke away one by one, turning the Jordan brothers into little more than shadows, the Thryve logos on their clothes the only things they still prominently displayed. Dove and Yes stayed in the longest, each waiting for the other to break away, but the contest was ended when Wondrous Douglas wandered straight through the shadows and made them dissipate. Only then did they notice that the party was over.
The rain had intensified during the temporal dive, so much so that everyone was clustered under the bungalow awnings. Those who had been partying in the more traditional sense stared at them from across the gap between the small rickety buildings as the obscuring drops fell thick and dangerous like rivulets of molten metal. Thunder rampaged through the clouds, making them feel like roaches hiding under the floorboards as human feet stomped above.
“Dove?” It was Dazzle, reaching out with telepathy.
“I’m here,” she answered her sister. “Are you guys okay over there?”
“Some perv was watching us. A lot of us felt it. Look southeast, past that tent with the red flag. Really look.” Dove followed the instructions, magically filtering out the rain, looking through layers of tent, and adding brightness. Even with those spells layered it was still difficult to make out, but there was something. Inside a tent. A glow. Its aura was hazy, and probe as she did she couldn’t determine if the light source was magical or just a battery powered lantern.
They weren’t the only ones discussing the presence. Slowly all their heads turned in that direction, few actual words prompting it. As they united they put up a barrier of complementary and compounding spells meant to prevent spying, but they sensed that it was completely ineffective.
“Wait, what the hell?” somebody uttered, finally breaking the silence.
“Who are they?” Voices chaotically flung questions and accusations. “How are they doing that? What do they want? Are we in trouble?”
“If that was a professor they would just come over here,” Yes shouted over everyone, trying to reign in her gathering. “Nobody is supposed to be out here. Come on.” She angrily stepped down into the sand, letting the rain flatten her hair and darken her clothes. When nobody followed she whipped around. Her eyes like tractor beams practically made the front lines trip into the sand, the rest spilling out just after.
The other bungalows followed her lead; before they knew it they were all speeding up, running toward the mysterious glow, wet sand unable to suck the momentum out of their footfalls thanks to quick enchanting.
It’s about time somebody’s scheme was revealed. She could barely hear her little voice over the rain pattering atop it. Holding her hat in place as she ran, Dove weaved between the tents rapidly. It wasn’t as rapid as Wondrous Douglas, who barreled through them instead, cloth walls letting him through as if they were just clothes hung out to dry.
As they drew closer there was an overwhelming sense that they would need their numbers. Like a slime mold, many independent creatures working as one, they had to envelop this threat before it could start cutting them down. Instinctively they feared it. Nothing that fit inside a small tent should have been able to block and pierce their collective efforts.
Lightning crackled. A bolt was hurled at them, fusing the sand into a spiny length of glass, looking like a tuft of crystallized weeds. It was hurled, of that they were certain, even though it came from the sky rather than the tent. Some paused, but others were in a magical frenzy meant to prevent such momentary indecision.
Directing a lightning strike was incredible magic. It took an existing storm, and the wielder couldn’t give any indication they actually intended it to strike where it did, lest they immediately be hailed as a smiting wizard and risk collapse.
The entity in the tent didn’t care, and it wasn’t done. It threw a few more, scattering them. The wind and rain blew sideways, hitting them like punches. Tents broke loose and tumbled end over end. Dove even saw one’s flap swallow a student and keep rolling, pushing them out of the struggle altogether. This was an orchestra, a calculated cacophony, each act within the storm just believable enough as a possible outcome of raging wind, rain, and debris.
The princess was close, but the wind took her hat despite her best efforts to glue it to her head. It was the only crown she actually cared for; reclaiming it diverted all of her attention. She chased it through the downpour, urging the wind to change direction, but her spells did nothing.
It was Phillipa who came to the rescue, leaping with her powerful legs and snatching it away from the cruel storm. Dove caught up and they hunkered down together, pushing against the wind, sinking into the sand like a retreating tide pulling furrows around a rock.
All they could do was watch, send tiny packets of magical support, as a few students reached the final feet. Lorelei was at the front, hand reaching out toward the glowing tent’s zipper. Dove thought she should be exempted from having to do her final project; she had more than proven her foresight abilities in the last thirty seconds by avoiding every hazard.
The tent ripped open preemptively, spraying its contents into the winds. Its occupant was now definitely a person, as no spirit or embodied curse would need all of the scattering items: granola bar wrappers, water bottles, paper towels, batteries, chargers, a stapler, tape, and a swarm of loose papers. One sheet struck Lorelei and was glued over her wet face. She stumbled back as the clouds descended and ate the tent.
The accompanying sound could barely be called thunder. It was the sky cracking with all the force of a tectonic plate. Hearing it felt to Dove like having her temples crushed between two high speed ceramic roof tiles. Everything went dark.
Get up, her little voice told her. Whoever they are can do anything they want right now. Get up. Eventually she did, and was among the first, but there was blood in her ear that made her list to one side. Phillipa, long armored against assaults and injuries, was able to help her away.
The rain died down quickly, but didn’t stop. Handheld spotlights bounced up and down, four of them, closing in. The students were too dazed to do anything other than make them flicker, but those efforts just helped the light carriers pinpoint their location.
“Oh, my hero,” Phillipa uttered as they came around the last overturned tent with its broken legs in the air like a car-tossed deer carcass. It was Professor Quixote, looking very out of place without his usual silky smoke cloud. He was accompanied by Security Chief Hunter, Professor Chigumbura, and Professor El-Jehwell.
“What happened?” Chief Hunter asked them collectively. Razzle was the first to speak, cursing like a sailor immediately following a contentious breakup. She told them there was a bastard of a wielder who brought a few tropical storms down on that exact spot, as if they were all mixed together and piped through a pastry bag. She pointed into the darkness, which Dove guessed was the direction the mysterious glowing tent had tumbled after the clouds devoured it. Professor El-Jehwell’s luminous eyes pulsed, the beam of her spotlight growing longer and more intense, but there was nothing to see but wrecked beach.
“One of you get the princesses out of here,” Chief Hunter barked at them. Professor Chigumbura was Dove’s adviser, so he was the one to come and claim her from Phillipa. She let it happen, resisting only for a moment when she realized her hat wasn’t on her head. Phillipa placed it there. “What were you damn kids doing out here? You’re in trouble.”
“That was the whole point numb nuts!” Yes screamed at him, kicking the soaked sand.