Let me tell you about an illusion called the thimblerig. It’s not a spell: it’s a piece of con artistry done on fairgrounds. A group of men pretend to have a gambling game going, and they entice others to part with money by moving around thimbles with a pea supposedly hidden under one. In truth, of course, there is no game. The pea is not under a thimble, it is in the sleeve of the man pushing about the thimbles. The men are important, because they convince you that a game is in progress. The patter is important because it distracts you while the trick is done. When you are finally presented with a choice of thimble, the trick is already over.
During Wizard’s War, magical illusionists do this to. When an illusionist attacks you, then the trick’s already over. What you are seeing is just him asking you to convince yourself. That’s vital, because your Parma Magica may protect you from a created dragon, but it can’t protect you from your own pride, or anger. If he sends an illusionary dragon after you, don’t charge after him. When you do, the odds are you’ll fall into a disguised pit. You get to see him when he wants to be seen.
The day before the duel I went to the infirmary, and spoke with an old Verditius magus who was a patient there. His name was Callidus. I’d heard of him before. His reputation was that of a cranky, old misanthrope, who loathed few things more than other Verditus magi. He seemed frail when I saw him. He had a long neck and a forward thrust of his head that reminded me strongly of a bird. “Sit down please, Mirarius.” he said and then triggered a little Circle spell that hid our words from outsiders. He did this by tapping a small ring on a charm bracelet. Like most of his tribe, he was heavily adorned with bejeweled casting tools.
“I hear that the War Council has asked you to duel Incendia immediately.”
“Word travels quickly in the camp, I see. Yes, they have. House Flambeau insists.”
“Perhaps your criticism of their strategy was unwise?
“Unwise, yes.” I answered in a tone which made clear that I thought it accurate, regardless of advisability.
He laughed: a slight, panting thing. “May I offer you a bargain?”
“You may offer. I may refuse.” I answered, almost without thinking about the words.
“Certainly. I should like to offer you the rental of my talisman, for a single day, at the cost of one silver penny, paid in advance.”
That stopped me for a moment. “That’s generous. Why, please?” It is important to be polite to Verditius magi. Lack of civility draws out the anger in so many of them.
“If it is a rental there is some argument that it remains my property and so, if you fall, it cannot be looted from your corpse.”
“Why a penny?”
“Why not a penny? You Mycetians generally carry money, don’t you?”
“A little, yes.”
“A strange trait which will now prove its usefulness. A silver penny if you will, and you may borrow, for a day, my staff.”
I thought about it.
“An excellent deal.” I handed him a penny. “So, what can your staff do?”
“It allows flight. It has a version of the coach nail projection you are reputed to find so useful. It can carry objects at a distance. It can throw up protective sheets of metal. It has other features which I will not disclose.”
“Excellent! Thank you, honoured one, this will be most useful. Why do you dislike Incendia so much?”
“Oh, I don’t dislike her. She’s been far more polite to me than most people.”
“You have discerned my reason?”
“Yes, old one. Is there peace between us?”
“Have you affronted me?”
“Well, I was given a place higher than you on the list.”
He cackled. “I would have died in the queue. At least this way, I am still interested. I am still affecting events.”
“That you are. Thank you again. May I have the triggering actions?”
“They are as you might imagine, since you have already wielded an item from one of my apprentices. You thrust toward an object to fling an item at it, wave the tip at an object and command it to move to manipulate at a distance, tap the base on the ground to fly, and drag it across the ground to create a wall of iron.”
“Drag the tip or the base?”
“Sleep well, honored one.” I said.
He looked at me suspiciously. “I shall be angry if you attempt to deduce the other effects. ”
“I shall give my oath on the Code that I will not attempt to find them, if you so wish.”
“How do you already know my triggers?” he demanded.
“I don’t. Let the battle demonstrate it to you. You will be able to view the staff, I assume, through an arcane connection?”
“Then, let my actions be my proof. I am about to practice juts outside the Aegis with your staff. Do you object?”
“Yes, I do. There are too many people. They will learn how the effects are triggered.”
“I hesitate to fly out too far. A rogue Flambeau might kill me with impunity.”
“Not impunity. Not unless they destroy my staff, and they will find that difficult.”
“Very well. I will train on a distant hill. Thank you again. I will literally be victorious or die trying.”
He smiled, a tight, pained smile. “Thank you, young man. Thank you for letting me be the one to meddle with destiny, perhaps for the last time.”
I left and trained on a distant hill. When I got back, I had lunch with my father and siblings. Scipia gave me the news I needed.
“After you left, she went to the kitchen and sat by the fire for half an hour.”
I motioned “And?” with me head. My mouth was full of lettuce.
“She was talking to the fire.”
I smiled. She told me that smiling with my cheeks full made me look like a squirrel.
“No. She wasn’t talking to the fire. She was talking to the smoke.”
“My son.” said Toxophilus “you seem ridiculously pleased by this news. What is its significance?”
“Well, I need to think through all of the angles, but I think it means I can win. Let me tell you about an illusion. It’s called the thimblerig…”