It looked set to become even hotter by the afternoon, just when the job was becoming more fiddly and needed extra concentration. But the fair weather brought at least one advantage: dry air makes magic work better and fly farther. Moisture has a moderating effect on the mystical arts. No sorcerer worth their sparkle ever did productive work in the rain—which probably accounts for why getting showers to start was once considered easy, but getting them to stop was nearly impossible.
We hadn’t been able to afford a company car for years, so the three sorcerers, the beast, and I were packed into my rust-and-orange-but-mostly-rust Volkswagen for the short journey from Hereford to Dinmore. Lady Mawgon had insisted on sitting in the passenger seat because "that’s how it will be," which meant that Wizard Moobin and the well-proportioned Full Price were in the back seat, with the Quarkbeast sitting between the two of them and panting in the heat. I was driving, which might have been unusual anywhere but here in the Kingdom of Hereford, which was unique in the Ununited Kingdoms for having driving tests based on maturity, not age. That explained why I’d had a license since I was thirteen, while some were still failing to make the grade at forty. It was lucky I could. Sorcerers are easily distracted, and letting them drive is about as safe as waving around a chain saw at full throttle in a crowded nightclub.
We had lots to talk about—the job we were driving to, the weather, experimental spells, King Snodd’s sometimes eccentric ways. But we didn’t. Price, Moobin, and Mawgon, despite being our best sorcerers, didn’t really get along. It wasn’t anything personal; sorcerers are just like that—temperamental, and apt to break out into petulant posturing that takes time and energy to smooth over. My job of running Kazam Mystical Arts Management was less about spells and enchantments, diplomacy and bureaucracy, than about babysitting. Working with those versed in the Mystical Arts was sometimes like trying to knit with wet spaghetti: just when you thought you’d gotten somewhere, it all came to pieces in your hands. But I didn’t really mind. Were they frustrating? Frequently. Were they boring? Never.
"I do wish you wouldn’t do that," said Lady Mawgon in an aggrieved tone as she shot a disapproving glance at Full Price. He was changing from a human to a walrus and then back again in slow, measured transformations. The Quarkbeast was staring at him strangely, and with each transformation there wafted an unpleasant smell of fish around the small car. It was good the windows were open. To Lady Mawgon, who in better days had once been sorceress to royalty, transforming within potential view of the public was the mark of the hopelessly ill-bred.
"Groof, groof," said Full Price, trying to speak while a walrus, which is never satisfactory. "I’m just tuning up," he added in an indignant fashion, once de-walrussed or re-humaned, depending on which way you looked at it. "Don’t tell me you don’t need to."
Wizard Moobin and I looked at Lady Mawgon, eager to know how she was tuning up. Moobin had prepared for the job by tinkering with the print of the Hereford Daily Eyestrain. He had filled in the crossword in the twenty minutes since we’d left Kazam. Not unusual in itself, since the Eyestrain’s crossword is seldom hard, except that he had used printed letters from elsewhere on the page and dragged them across using the power of his mind alone. The crossword was now complete and more or less correct—but it left an article on Queen Mimosa’s patronage of the Troll War Widows Fund looking a little disjointed.
"I am not required to answer your question," replied Lady Mawgon haughtily, "and what’s more, I detest the term tuning up. It’s quazafucating and always has been."
"Using the old language makes us sound archaic and out of touch," replied Price.
"It makes us sound as we are meant to be," replied Lady Mawgon, "of a noble calling."
Of a once noble calling, thought Moobin, inadvertently broadcasting his subconscious on an alpha so low, even I could sense it.
Lady Mawgon swiveled in her seat to glare at him. "Keep your thoughts to yourself, young man."
Moobin thought something to her but in high alpha, so only she could hear it. I don’t know what he thought, but Lady Mawgon said, "Well!" and stared out the side window in an aggrieved fashion.
I sighed. This was my life.
Of the forty-five sorcerers, movers, soothsayers, shifters, weather-mongers, carpeteers, and other assorted mystical artisans at Kazam, most were fully retired due to infirmity, insanity, or damage to the vital index fingers, either through accident or rheumatoid arthritis. Of these forty-five, thirteen were potentially capable of working, but only nine had current licenses—two carpeteers, a pair of pre-cogs, and most important, five sorcerers legally empowered to carry out Acts of Enchantment. Lady Mawgon was certainly the crabbiest and probably the most skilled. As with everyone else at Kazam, her powers had faded dramatically over the past three decades or so, but unlike everyone else, she’d not really come to terms with it. In her defense, she’d had farther to fall than the rest of them, but this wasn’t really an excuse. The Sisters Karamazov could also claim once-royal patronage, and they were nice as apricot pie. Mad as a knapsack of onions, but pleasant nonetheless.
I might have felt sorrier for Mawgon if she weren’t so difficult all the time. Her intimidating manner made me feel small and ill at ease, and she rarely if ever missed an opportunity to put me in my place. Since Mr. Zambini’s disappearance, she’d gotten worse, not better.
"Quark," said the Quarkbeast.
"Did we really have to bring the beast?" Full Price asked me.
"It jumped in the car when I opened the door."
The Quarkbeast yawned, revealing several rows of razor-sharp fangs. Despite his placid nature, the beast’s ferocious appearance almost guaranteed that no one ever completely shrugged off the possibility that he might try to take a chunk out of them when they weren’t looking. If the Quarkbeast was aware of this, it didn’t show. Indeed, he might have been so unaware that he wondered why people always ran away screaming.
"I would be failing in my duty as acting manager of Kazam," I said, in an attempt to direct the sorcerers away from grumpiness and more in the direction of teamwork, "if I didn’t mention how important this job is. Mr. Zambini always said that Kazam needed to adapt to survive, and if we get this right, we could possibly tap a lucrative market that we badly need."
"Humph!" said Lady Mawgon.
"We all need to be in tune and ready to hit the ground running," I added. "I told Mr. Digby we’d all be finished by six this evening."
They didn’t argue. I think they knew the score well enough. In silent answer, Lady Mawgon snapped her fingers, and the Volkswagen’s gearbox, which up until that moment had been making an expensive-sounding rumbling noise, suddenly fell silent. If Mawgon could replace gearbox bushings while the engine was running, she was tuned enough for all of them.
I knocked on the door of a red-brick house at ...