- Author : Sarah Pinsker
- Narrator : Dave Robison
- Host : Setsu Uzume
- Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
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Originally published by Lightspeed and a 2019 Hugo Finalist for Best Short Story.
The Court Magician
By Sarah Pinsker
The Boy Who Will Become Court Magician
The boy who will become court magician this time is not a cruel child. Not like the last one, or the one before her. He never stole money from Blind Carel’s cup, or thrashed a smaller child for sweets, or kicked a dog. This boy is a market rat, which sets him apart from the last several, all from highborn or merchant families. This isn’t about lineage, or even talent.
He watches the street magicians every day, with a hunger in his eyes that says he knows he could do what they do. He contemplates the tawdry illusions of the market square with more intensity than most, until he is marked for us by his own curiosity. Even then, even when he wanders booth to booth and corner to corner every day for a month, begging to learn, we don’t take him.
At our behest, the Great Gretta takes him under her tutelage. She demonstrates the first sleight of hand. If he’s disappointed to learn that her tricks aren’t magic at all, he hides it well. When he returns to her the next day, it is clear he has practiced through the night. His eyes are marked by dark circles, his step lags, but he can do the trick she taught him, can do it as smoothly as she can, though admittedly she is not as Great as she once was.
He learns all her tricks, then begins to develop his own. He’s a smart child. Understands intuitively that the trick is not enough. That the illusion is in what is said and what isn’t said, the patter, the posture, the distractions with which he draws the mark’s attention from what he is actually doing. He gives himself a name for the first time, a magician’s name, because he sees how that, too, is part of the act.
When he leaves Gretta to set out on his own, the only space granted to him is near the abattoir, a corner that had long gone unclaimed. Gretta’s crowd follows him, despite the stench and screams. Most of his routine is composed of street illusions, but there is one that seems impossible. He calls it the Sleeper’s Lament. It takes me five weeks to figure out what he is doing in the trick; that’s when we are sure he is the one.
“Would you like to learn real magic?” I send a palace guard to ask my question, dressed in her own clothes rather than her livery.
The boy snorts. “There’s no such thing.”
He has unraveled every illusion of every magician in the marketplace. None of them will speak with him because of it. He’s been beaten twice on his way to his newly rented room, and robbed neither time. He’s right to be suspicious.
She leans over and whispers the key to the boy’s own trick in his ear, as I bade her do. As she bends, she lets my old diary fall from her pocket, revealing a glimpse of a trick he has never seen before: the Gilded Hand. He hands it back to her, and she thanks him for its safe return.
By now he’s practiced at hiding his emotions, but I know what’s at war within him. He doesn’t believe my promise of real magic, but the Gilded Hand has already captivated him. He’s already working it out as he pockets the coins that have accumulated in his dusty cap, places the cap upon his head, and follows her out of the marketplace.
“The palace?” he asks as we all near the servants’ gate. “I thought you were from the Guild.”
I whisper to my emissary, and she repeats my words. “The Guild is for magicians who feel the need to compete with each other. The Palace trains magicians who feel compelled to compete against themselves.”
It’s perhaps the truest thing I’ll ever tell him. He sees only the guard.
The Young Man Who Will Become Court Magician
Alone except for the visits of his new tutor, he masters the complex illusions he is shown. He builds the Gilded Hand in our workshop, from only the glimpse I had let him see, then an entire Gilded Man of his own devising. Still tricks.
“I was promised real magic,” he complains.
“You didn’t believe in it,” his tutor says.
“Show me something that seems like real magic, then.”
When he utters those words, when he proves his hunger again, he is rewarded. His hands are bound in the Unbreakable Knot, and he is left to unbind them. His tutor demonstrates the Breath of Flowers, the Freestanding Bridge. He practices those until he figures out the illusions underpinning them.
“More trickery,” he says. “Is magic only a trick I haven’t figured out yet?”
He has to ask seven times. That is the rule. Only when he has asked for the seventh time. Only then is he told: if he is taught the true word, he has no choice but this path. He will likely not return to the streets, nor make a life in the theaters, entertaining the gentle-born. Does he want this?
Others have walked away at this point. They choose the stage, the street, the accolades they will get for performing tricks that are slightly more than tricks. This young man is hungry. The power is more valuable to him than the money or the fame. He stays.
“There is a word,” his tutor tells him. “A word that you have the control to utter. It makes problems disappear.”
“The Regent’s problems. There is also a price, which you will pay personally.”
“May I ask what it is?”
He pauses, considers. Others have refused at this point. He does not.
What is the difference between a court magician and a street or stage magician? A court magician is a person who makes problems disappear. That is what he is taught.
There is no way to utter the word in practice. I leave it for him on paper, tell him it is his alone to use now. Remind him again there is a cost. He studies the word for long hours, then tears the page into strips and eats them.
On the day he agrees to wield the word, the Regent touches scepter to shoulder, and personally shows him to his new chambers.
“All of this is yours now,” the Regent says. The Regent’s words are careful, but the young court magician doesn’t understand why. His new chambers are nicer than any place he has ever been. Later, when he sees how the Regent lives, he will understand that his own rooms are not opulent by the standards of those born to luxury, but at this moment, as he touches velvet for the first time, and silk; as he lays his head on his first pillow, atop a feather bed; he thinks for a moment that he is lucky.
He is not.
The Young Man Who Is Court Magician
The first time he says the word, he loses a finger. The smallest finger of his left hand. ‘Loses’ because it is there, and then it is not. No blood, no pain. Sleight of hand. His attention had been on the word he was uttering, on the intention behind it, and the problem the Regent had asked him to erase. The problem, as relayed to him: a woman had taken to chanting names from beyond the castle wall, close enough to be heard through the Regent’s window. The Court Magician concentrates only on erasing the chanting from existence, concentrates on silence, on an absence of litany. He closes his eyes and utters the word.
When he looks at his left hand again, he is surprised to see it has three fingers and a thumb, and smooth skin where the smallest finger should have been, as if it had never existed.
He marches down to the subterranean room where he’d learned his craft. The tutors are no longer there, so he asks his questions to the walls.
“Is this to be the cost every time? Is this what you meant? I only have so many fingers.”
I don’t answer.
He returns to his chambers disconcerted, perplexed. He replays the moment again and again in his mind, unsure if he had made a mistake in his magic, or even if it worked. He doesn’t sleep that night, running the fingers of his right hand again and again over his left.
The Regent is pleased. The court magician has done his job well.
“The chanting has stopped?” the court magician asks, right hand touching left. He instinctively knows not to tell the Regent the price he paid.
“Our sleep was not disturbed last night.”
“The woman is gone?”
The Regent shrugs. “The problem is gone.”
The young man mulls this over when he returns to his own chambers. As I said, he had not been a cruel child. He is stricken now, unsure of whether his magic has silenced the woman, or erased her entirely.
While he had tricks to puzzle over, he didn’t notice his isolation, but now he does.
“Who was the woman beyond the wall?” he asks the fleeing chambermaid.
“What were the names she recited?” he asks the guards at the servants’ gate, who do not answer. When he tries to walk past them, they let him. He makes it only a few feet before he turns around again of his own accord.
He roams the palace and its grounds. Discovers hidden passageways, apothecaries, libraries. He spends hours pulling books from shelves, but finds nothing to explain his own situation.
He discovers a kitchen. “Am I a prisoner, then?”
The cooks and sculleries stare at him stone-faced until he backs out of the room.
He sits alone in his chambers. Wonders, as all court magicians do after their first act of true magic, if he should run away. I watch him closely as he goes through this motion. I’ve seen it before. He paces, talks to himself, weeps into his silk pillow. Is this his life now? Is it so wrong to want this? Is the cost worth it? What happened to the woman?
And then, as most do, he decides to stay. He likes the silk pillow, the regular meals. The woman was a nuisance. It was her fault for disturbing the Regent. She brought it on herself. In this way, he unburdens himself enough to sleep.
The Man Who is Court Magician
By the time he has been at court for ten years, the court magician has lost three fingers, two toes, eight teeth, his favorite shoes, all memories of his mother except the knowledge she existed, his cat, and his household maid. He understands now why nobody in the kitchen would utter a word when he approached them.
The fingers are in some ways the worst part. Without them he struggles to do the sleight of hand tricks that pass the time, and to wield the tools that allow him to create new illusions for his own amusement. He tries not to think about the household maid, Tria, with whom he had fallen in love. She had known better than to speak with him, and he had thought she would be safe from him if he didn’t advance on her. He was mistaken; the mere fact that he valued her was enough. After that, he left his rooms when the maids came, and turned his face to the corner when his meals were brought. The pages who summon him to the Regent’s court make their announcements from behind his closed door, and are gone by the time he opens it.
He considers himself lucky, still, in a way. The Regent is rarely frivolous. Months pass between the Regent’s requests. Years, sometimes. A difficult statute, a rebellious province, a potential usurper, all disappeared before they can cause problems. There have been no wars in his lifetime; he tells himself his body bears the cost of peace so others are spared. For a while this serves to console him.
The size of the problem varies, but the word is the same. The size of the problem varies, but the cost does not correspond. The cost is always someone or something important to the magician, a gap in his life that only he knows about. He recites them, sometimes, the things he has lost. A litany.
He begins to resent the Regent. Why sacrifice himself for the sake of a person who would not do the same for him, who never remarks on the changes in his appearance? The resentment itself is a curse. There is no risk of the Regent disappearing. That is not the price. That is not how this magic works.
He takes a new tactic. He loves. He walks through his chambers flooding himself with love for objects he never cared for before, hoping they’ll be taken instead of his fingers. “How I adore this chair,” he tells himself. “This is the finest chair I have ever sat in. Its cushion is the perfect shape.”
Or “How have I never noticed this portrait before? The woman in this portrait is surely the greatest beauty I have ever seen. And how fine an artist, to capture her likeness.”
His reasoning is good, but this is a double-edged sword. He convinces himself of his love for the chair. When it disappears, he feels he will never have a proper place to sit again. When the portrait disappears, he weeps for three losses: the portrait, the woman, and the artist, though he doesn’t know who they are, or if they are yet living.
He thinks he may be going mad.
And yet, he appears in the Regent’s court when called. He listens to the description of the Regent’s latest vexation. He runs his tongue over the places his teeth had been, a new ritual to join the older ones. Touches the absences on his left hand with the absence on his right. Looks around his chambers to catalogue the items that remain. Utters the word, the cursed word, the word that is more powerful than any other, more demanding, more cruel. He keeps his eyes open, trying as always, to see the sleight of hand behind the power.
More than anything, he wants to understand how this works, to make it less than magic. He craves that moment where the trick behind the thing is revealed to him, where it can be stripped of power and made ordinary.
He blinks, only a blink, but when he opens his eyes, his field of vision is altered. He has lost his right eye. The mirror shows a smoothness where it had been, no socket. As if it never existed. He doesn’t weep.
He tries to love the Regent as hard as he can. As hard as he loved his chair, his maid, his eye, his teeth, his fingers, his toes, the memories he knows he has lost. He draws pictures of the Regent, masturbates over them, sends love letters that I intercept. The magic isn’t fooled.
All of this has happened before. I watch his familiar descent. The fingers, the toes, the hand, the arm, all unnecessary to his duty, though he does weep when he can no longer perform a simple card trick. He loses the memory of how the trick is performed before the last fingers.
His hearing is still acute. No matter what else he loses, the magic will never take his ability to hear the Regent’s problem. It will never take his tongue, which he needs to utter the word, or the remaining teeth necessary to the utterance. If someone were to tell him these things, it would not be a reassurance.
For this one, the breaking point is not a person. Not some maid he has fixated upon, not the memory of a childhood love, nor the sleights of hand. For this one, the breaking point is the day he utters the word to disappear another woman calling up from beyond the wall.
“The names!” The regent says. “How am I supposed to sleep when she’s reciting names under my window?”
“Is it the same woman from years ago?” the magician asks. If she can return, perhaps the word is misdirection after all. If she can find her voice again, perhaps nothing is lost for good.
“How should I know? It’s a woman with a list and a grievance.”
The magician tests his mouth, his remaining arm, with its two fingers and thumb. He loses nothing, he thinks, but when he goes to bed that night he realizes his pillow is gone.
It’s a little thing. He could request another pillow in the morning, but somehow this matters. He feels sorry for himself. If he thinks about the people he has disappeared — the women outside the wall, the first woman, the entire population of the northeastern mountain province — he would collapse into dust.
I can tell he’s done before he can. I’m watching him, as always, and I know, as I’ve known before. He cries himself out on his bed.
“Why?” he asks this time. He has always asked “how?” before.
Then, because I know he will never utter the word again, I speak to him directly for the first time. I whisper to him the secret: that it is powered by the unquenched desire to know what powers it, at whatever the cost. Only these children, these hungry youths, can wield it, and we wield them, for the brief time they allow us. This one longer than most. His desire to lay things bare was exceptional, even if he stopped short of where I did. I, no more than a whisper in a willing ear.
I wait to see what he will do: return to the marketplace to join Blind Carel and Gretta and the other, lesser magicians, the ones we pay to alert us when a new child lingers to watch; ask to stay and teach his successor, as his tutor did. He doesn’t consider those options, and I remember again that I had once been struck by his lack of cruelty.
He leaves through the servants’ gate, taking nothing with him. I listen for weeks for him to take up the mourners’ litany, as some have done before him, but I should have known that wouldn’t be his path either; his list of names is too short. If I had to guess, I would say he went looking for the things he lost, the things he banished, the pieces of himself he’d chipped off in service of someone else’s problems; the place to which teeth and fingers and problems and provinces and maids and mourners and pillows all disappear.
There was a trick, he thinks. There is always a trick.
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