10 – Unintended consequences

After the four recovered from the little shock, Miranda sat back down in front of the kids.

“All three of you, promise me not to say anything to anyone about this. Do you understand?” They all nodded. “I will tell Master Sparrows – he has my full trust – and Master Nantee – he will need to train Mr. Dustwater. But, nobody else needs to know for now.” They nodded again. Miranda sighed.

“I’m sorry…”, Spear said, looking down at the table and appearing deflated. The schoolmaster raised an eyebrow.

“You’re sorry for completing the impossible task of impressing me in just a week?”

The boy looked up at her in confusion.

“I guess I have to say it in clear terms. You have passed your test – not in three months, but in just a little more than a week. You have accomplished things that nobody could have ever imagined anyone might accomplish. I’m excited and looking forward to what you might accomplish in the future. All of my resources, and all of the resources of my school are at your disposal so that you may grow and continue to impress me and everyone else in the world.” One of her huge smiles spread on her face again. Spear’s eyes grew wide, and the two other kids were also quite taken aback.

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Spear was back in his room; he was not sure how to deal with his confusing, contradictory emotions. Of course, Miranda’s words made him happy, and he was excited to be able to stay permanently in the school and become a wizard; but he was also anxious, and convinced he’d fail and disappoint everybody; he felt the pressure of the schoolmaster’s expectations. He also didn’t know what to make of his magic sense – it was somehow different from everybody else’s and he had no idea if it was a good or a bad thing. The fact that everything happened so quickly – it was just a while ago that he was hiding in Jeneth’s cabin – didn’t help at all.

Miranda had told him that she’d ask the head secretary to set up a schedule for him to have personal lessons with her and with Master Nantee; other than that, he’d be free to choose which classes to attend and what to study; she encouraged him to widen his knowledge, but told him that so long as he’d keep improving, he’d be free to do whatever he wants. She also said that he should take the time to explore the city like he wanted – Silvia was very excited about this idea and promised him that she’d be his guide on the next fourthday. They had then all said goodbye.

After a while, feeling overwhelmed, Spear went to the library and finished reading the Barry Hotter book; Claude had to come find him and drag him to the refectory for dinner.

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The next morning, Spear went to see Miss Goodsmith first thing after breakfast. He noted down his schedule for private lessons from the schoolmaster: one hour on firstday on the seventh hour; one on thirdday on the fourth hour; and two on seventhday starting on the twelfth hour. She told him that Master Nantee would see him right away to discuss his schedule, so the boy thanked her and went to the teacher’s office.

“Ah, Spear of Dustwater…”, he said as the boy entered the room. “We’ve met a few times but I have never properly introduced myself. My name is John Nantee and I teach all about healing in this school; or, as your schoolmaster would like me to say, mastery of life. It is my understanding that your situation is very peculiar, therefore regular attendance of my – and others’ – classes would not be the best approach here.”

He continued: “First, if I understand correctly, you’re not specifically aiming to become a healer; such great aptitude for both branches of magic is unheard of, so the usual structure of classes here is not adequate. Additionally, your… special ability… makes it very critical that you learn at least enough to not cause disasters.” He said the latter with a very serious look on his face. “Therefore, what I propose is this: first, I would like time to observe your ability, and for you to practice sensing life; for that, I would like you to come to my clinic as often as possible in the following weeks. I spend my time there every afternoon on firstday, secondday, sixthday and seventhday. We’ll decide everything else after that.”

“I… don’t know what a ‘clinic’ is…”, Spear said, feeling very self-conscious. John laughed.

“Not something you would encounter in a village, indeed. Allow me to explain. It is simply a place where healers treat people with diseases or wounds or whatnot. Mine is a little special: normally, healing is very expensive; but, since my main purpose is to teach students to become healers, in my clinic anyone can be treated for free – so long as they are willing to be treated by a student. The poorer citizens of the city get a chance at a service they couldn’t get anywhere else, and my students get priceless experience.” The boy nodded, finally understanding. “I imagine Miss Grommer can show you where to find it; I hope to see you there tomorrow afternoon.” Spear nodded again; the teacher went back to some papers on his desk, and the boy bowed and left.

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On sixthday, Spear met Silvia at lunch and then they walked together to the clinic. It wasn’t far from the school, and the building was much less impressive than the others the boy had seen so far. He was surprised by the number of people waiting for treatment.

“We noticed that people are less careful, knowing that they can be healed for free, and therefore they get hurt much more often…”, Silvia explained to him. Spear frowned. “In fact, it seems that the number of fatal accidents has increased, if only a little bit, since the clinic opened a few years ago…”, she continued, frowning too.

“Ah, there you are.”, Master Nantee said as he saw the boy. “You should observe everything we do here today, and use your magic sense as much as possible; just don’t get in the way of the healers. I will ask you questions, and answer any that you have, whenever I have some time.” Spear nodded.

He spent the afternoon doing as asked – he observed all sorts of people with all sorts of ailments coming to get help from students, and occasionally from Master Nantee himself (who used the opportunity to teach). Silvia really seemed to be in her element here, doing everything she could to help. Spear used his magic sense to see what was happening; it seemed to him that diseases and wounds were like stains on the magic of the body. As promised, the teacher sometimes asked him questions, mostly about what he felt, and what he could tell about people waiting to be seen; he also explained to him, when he asked, that some of the “stains” Spear was sensing were beneficial effects rather than ailments. Most of the ability of a healer was in recognizing them.

They walked back to the school at dinnertime.

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That night, in his room, Spear kept thinking about what Silvia said about people being less careful and getting hurt more. He couldn’t understand why people would behave that way; were they not afraid of pain? Was it a mistake to offer healing for free? The whole thing bothered him to no end and he felt that he couldn’t rest until he had found a solution – but he also had no idea what a solution looked like. He had never encountered problems like this in his books.

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The next day, Spear studied in the morning, and went to the clinic again in the afternoon. He was starting to recognize some of the ailments people had. He left around the eleventh hour to go to the magic sense room for his lesson with the schoolmaster.

When she arrived, he had to ask about the problem with the clinic, as it was still bothering him.

“Ah… that’s what we call ‘unintended consequences’.” Spear frowned, and she continued: “Allow me to digress a bit. At this point, I could ask you to predict how long a spinning top will spin for: if you have seen it a number of times, and can feel its angular momentum well enough, you can feel at which rate it’s slowing down, and determine how much time until it stops. Let’s try it: I’m going to spin two tops and you tell me your prediction about which one will stop first.” She took two tops and spun them; Spear studied them for a few moments, then indicated the one on the left. Miranda nodded, but still waited until they stopped, and indeed the one on the left stopped first. Then she spun them again, and after some hesitation Spear pointed to the one on the right. The one on the left suddenly stopped, Spear frowned and looked at Miranda who smiled at him.

“Why was your prediction incorrect?”, she asked.

“You stopped it with magic!”, he said, still frowning.

“Indeed.” He frowned some more. “Your understanding of the system you were observing was incomplete: you did not account for me. Now, think about a situation where your intention is to help someone; if your understanding of the situation is not complete, then you can’t really predict the outcome of your actions; it may be that you end up hurting them instead of helping them. For one to predict the effects of Master Nantee’s clinic on the city, one needs to understand the whole city, or even the entire world. That usually is impossible – therefore a good idea, like a free clinic, may have unexpected results, because you didn’t really understand people and everything that is going on in Redoaks city.”

After a pause, she continued: “I must say that I spent quite some time thinking about this particular case. My conclusion is this: the free clinic is still a good thing, and it’s not what is directly causing people to change their behavior; rather, it is enabling it. The cause is something else – I suspect an environment where they have to give their all just to survive.”

Spear was deep in thought. The schoolmaster is right! The clinic is only one of the factors! If we can find the others, maybe we can reduce the number of accidents without changing anything about the clinic!

“We still have our lesson to get to…”, Miranda interrupted him. He was startled and immediately felt embarrassed.

She asked him to do increasingly difficult exercises for his magic sense – trying to sense some subtle property of objects rather than the most prominent one like he had done so far; in particular, he needed to learn to sense the position of objects – how far away they were from him etcetera – since at this point he had no idea where an object was if he couldn’t see it. Towards the end of the two hours lesson, she also told him that he needed to start practicing actually using magic; for example, stopping the pendulum, or making it swing without touching it. She explained that if his magic sense was like “reading” numbers for him, then using magic was like “writing” them instead – replacing the current velocity of the pendulum’s weight with a new one. He was very excited to start experimenting with this!

He spent the two hours he had before dinnertime doing just that – it was frustrating because he wasn’t really sure how to do it exactly. Right before the end though, he thought he had changed the velocity of the pendulum a bit; he went to the refectory practically jumping up and down from excitement.

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Spear spent the following days between studying, practicing and observing in the clinic. He was getting a better idea of what all the noise he was sensing was about: things like the position of objects, their mass and its distribution, the materials they were made of, their temperatures, the forces on them, all sorts of vibrations… not to mention the air itself! He realized why studying physics was so important: he had a long way to go even to just understand half of all that. He thought that one day, all that noise would start to make sense to him, and the most exciting part was that he might even be able to control it!

So far he had only been able to affect the pendulum a little bit – but every time he did, he jumped up and down from excitement. I’m doing magic! I’m doing magic!

When Miranda saw that he was making progress, she told him there was one rule he had to follow at all times, with no exceptions: “Don’t mess with what you don’t understand!”

“It’s lucky that we already discussed unintended consequences. You must understand how hard it is to predict the consequences of some action; only in specific cases can you be confident that your actions won’t lead to disaster. Don’t ever try something you are not sure about; if you want to experiment with something, ask me first, or at least ask someone else with more experience first. In doubt, don’t use magic. I can’t stress this enough: in doubt, don’t use magic. This is so important that a little demonstration is required.”

She led him to a room on the first floor that opened to a staircase; the stairs went pretty deep underground, and they led to what looked like a long tunnel that had clearly been created with magic. The walls looked like to be made of smooth metal; he could barely see the end of the tunnel. In front of them there was a table, with a bunch of metal balls similar to the weights of the pendulums he was practicing with.

“Now, let’s say that I decided to mess with the velocity of this little weight here, not unlike you are doing in the practice room…” The ball suddenly shot towards the end of the tunnel, and there was a loud, deafening noise. After a few moments, she led him to the end of the tunnel: there were metal shards everywhere and the spot where the ball had hit the wall was still red hot. Spear looked at the destruction wide eyed.

“This is what might happen when you practice with the pendulum in the magic sense room. Please, understand what it is that you are doing before you do it. Too much velocity means disaster. If you’re not sure about something, ask me first. In doubt, don’t use magic.

The boy, still wide eyed, nodded.

Spear of Aiste by Gabriele Santilli is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
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